Sunday, September 13, 2015

How We Write: Now Out from punctum books

by J J Cohen

Readers of this blog will be interested in the latest -- and perhaps speediest ever into print -- book from punctum. How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blank Page began here at ITM, with a superb guest post by Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Alexandra Gillespie. The piece resonated: as of today it has been read 8585 times. What's so refreshing about the post -- and the book that springs from its publication -- is a refusal to prescribe for others any method of accomplishing academic writing. Different modes are examined and their costs (especially emotional) are detailed without being judged. The volume reassures that many ways of getting writing done exist, that they will likely change over time, that none are perfect, that all adopt to embodied experience (crying infants are a running thread in the book; let's call it the Writing During Colic topos). What all the methods have in common is simple perseverance. There are no stories here of those who gave up, despite the toll writing takes. How We Write is diverse, bringing together scholars at various points in their careers. Many but certainly not all are medievalists -- but I don't think discipline really matters here. The methods described don't strike me as especially field specific. Suzanne did an incredible job of bringing How We Write together, and Chris Piuma ensured that the finished product would be a thing of beauty. It is.

My own contribution brings together two pivotal moments in my career: a period when I did not have quite so many demands on my time, because I had just stopped being an administrator (what a dent that put in my productivity); and a period a few years later when, even though I had finished being department chair and had had some fellowships that enabled me to complete my research for Stone, carving out the time to give the book the form, voice and argument it wanted was extremely difficult. I devised what I called a Writing Lockdown for fifty summer days. I did not by any means complete the shaping of the book during that time but the sustained focus it enabled assisted that goal immensely -- though at considerable cost. Re-reading my account now makes me realize how anxiety limns my writing, mostly as a productive spur rather than anything crippling. But I think I'd rather live without it. On a more personal note, I'm mentioning that affect because -- despite what some eminent colleagues say about how scholars ought to feel less and think more -- I actually believe cognition and affect to be inseparable. We are embodied creatures whose emotional lives are intimate to our writing and thoughts. That intimacy can often help us to understand distant times better. I also believe we don't talk about the difficult affective states enough, like depression or anxiety, in our work, or with our colleagues, or with our students. We can do better.

If you download a copy of How We Write, please make a donation to punctum books. Open access is not free. It is sustained in part by love (we are all donating our labor and time), but it is also sustained by the ability of those who enjoy its fruits to support the endeavor financially. Be generous! The world is better for having books like this within it.

II love that my daughter photobombed the picture I took of my study and ended up in the book)

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