Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Matthew Timothy Bradley.
I began graduate coursework at the Indiana University (not the University of Indiana!) Department of Anthropology in August of 2004. I learned an enormous amount about anthropology while I lived in Bloomington. The majority of that learning ended up taking place outside of anthropology courses. Because I was on IU’s anthropological linguistics track I actually took more courses from within the Department of Linguistics than from within the Department of Anthropology. I never once felt deprived of what I had come to the Midwest for, though. Two of my linguistic’s professors had done more fieldwork than 99% of cultural anthropologists you will meet, and any content I might have missed in the classroom was more than made up for by the time I spent hanging around at my advisor’s wonderful research institute.
Despite the fact that I kept learning more and more quickly during my time in Bloomington—maybe because of it, actually—I started struggling more and more to write. Writing has always been a slow and trying process for me. But as graduate school wore on and then afterwards, the relationship between understanding better and writing worse held true. A movie could be made about the special kind of frustration that is gaining ever more esoteric knowledge in conjunction with loosing the ability to express it. Such a film would be, to paraphrase my friend Jon Marcoux, of interest to tens of people. But I digress.
So between August of 2004 and November of 2012 I had resigned myself to a life of writing nothing longer than an e-mail. Then last November the editor of a website I frequent put out a call for new contributing writers. It so happened that the subject of the website—snowshoes—was possibly the only topic in the world that would have lead me to screw up enough courage to respond to the call. Since moving to the Northeast five years ago I have become so enamored of snowshoeing that I spend April–November impatient for winter in the way that most people spend December–March impatient for spring. So my response was based on the hope that the store of minutiae about la raquette à neige I had accumulated over the past half decade would allow me to produce a couple of 1,000 word pieces. And also upon the fact that I really needed money.
The editor took the two pitches that I did not yet know were called pitches I made to him, one about dressing for exertion in the cold and the other about caring for wood and babiche snowshoes. I had proposed those two because writing the pieces amounted to little more than reducing background knowledge floating around in my head to text. As I had hoped, writing that down was not so bad. I had never used WordPress before so there was a tiny bit of frustration futzing around with it, but even so, I was like, “Yay! It’s not all text! Photos count, too!”
After submitting those two pieces my editor sent me an e-mail to say that the next deadline was two weeks away and that he would enjoy receiving another pitch from me. I suggested a piece about snowshoe typology, which he again accepted.
Creating the piece proved a much more difficult task than did the first two. In fact, it took me quite a bit more time to put it together than did the other two combined. In the process I pared down the scope of the piece from snowshoe typology to snowshoe shape. I won’t go so far as to say that I produced a piece of technical writing, but I had to reduce longer and jargony into shorter and less jargony. A lot of notecards were involved and I felt like rocks were rolling around in my head a few times on my way to the finished piece, but I managed to get it out.
After finishing my first two pieces I had felt like I hadn’t done much at all except transcribe some things I already knew. But within a couple of days of finishing my third piece it was beginning to occur to me that I had not in fact been without the ability to write during the previous few years. I want to be clear that I didn’t have a sensation of writer’s block receding. Rather, I had the sensation of having stumbled upon a type of writing I didn’t know existed. I had some sense that my ability to produce the piece had something to do with its comparatively short length and lean scholarly apparatus as opposed to the writing I had been progressively bogging down in for the past decade. Just today, almost seven months later, I’ve encounter the term ‘short-form writing’ for the first time in Ryan and Kristina’s interview. Things can seem quite different after they have a name!
I still feel a little foolish that I felt miserable a lot for ten years of my life because I didn’t realize that there was more than one type of writing in the world. But I’ve been trying to make up for lost time since, including casting a wider net in my reading selections. More on that in my next post.