Anthropologists: Ready, Set, Write!

Anthropologists have always been writers. But we have not always paid attention to writing as craft or as practice, rather than as vehicle for communicating knowledge. While historically some anthropologists wrote well or across genres—Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Cara Deloria, Laura Bohannan, and Clifford Geertz immediately come to mind—the 1980s literary turn in anthropology brought us new collective energy and interest in not just writing, but in writing well.

Writing takes time. Writing well takes time and practice.

Today we officially launch the Savage Minds Writing Group. For ten weeks, writing group members will check-in every Friday to report on their accomplishments for that week. Every Monday, we will have a guest author writing for our Writers’ Workshop series from across the discipline of anthropology—in alphabetical order, Robin Bernstein, Sienna Craig, Zoe Crossland, Angela Garcia, Kristen Ghodsee, Kirin Narayan, Michael Ralph, Matt Sponheimer, Gina Athena Ulysse, and Bianca Williams.

Let’s get started. Let’s write.

Where are you? What do you have in front of you? At a nice table, with a view perhaps: I write this sitting at a table my friend made, looking out at the national forest. But sometimes I like to write outdoors or away from home. Where do you write best? How do you write best? Do you write on a computer or by hand or both? What sort of paper and pens do you need to take notes? What rituals do you incorporate into your writing process? Coffee, tea, water at the ready. Chocolate too. Music playing, white noise from a café, or silence. Know your writing needs and meet them. Change them when you need to. Recognize when you need to stop writing to think or to read more or to exercise or talk with a friend. Then get back to the writing, refreshed and ready.

Surround yourself with good writing. In graduate school, Val Daniel, himself a wonderfully-inspiring writer, taught me always to read outside of anthropology—fiction, poetry, non-fiction—and to be reading things that were well-written. Another professor advised having dedicated writing time each day. This includes time set aside for reading your words aloud as you edit, and for thinking through your arguments. A third told me always to have a handful of good ethnographies on my desk for inspiration.

We now have lots of writing on anthropologists writing that can provide inspiration (or perhaps provocation). Edited volumes such as Writing Culture or Women Writing Culture or Anthropology off the Shelf. Individual reflections on writing and anthropology such as Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart and Renato Rosaldo’s new, devastatingly poignant book The Day of Shelly’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief. And ‘How-To’ books such as The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography and Writing Archaeology. Durham University has an excellent online series “Writing on Writing” with essays by sociologists and anthropologists including Marilyn Strathern, Roy Wagner, Tim Ingold, and Anna Tsing and Paulla Ebron.

My favorite ‘How-About’ book on ethnographic writing is Kirin Narayan’s Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov. This gem of a book from one of our upcoming guest authors provides much-needed guidance, motivation, and encouragement. Five sections each deal with critical parts of current ethnography: Story and Theory, Place, Person, Voice, and Self. The book concludes with concrete, thoughtful, and usable suggestions for the writing process—getting started, moving forward, dealing with writer’s block, revising, and finishing—all designed to cultivate being alive in your writing.

Finally, what other resources might be useful? A good thesaurus. The Chicago Manual of Style. Advice from academic editors such as William Germano in his Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars Serious about Serious Books or Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Non-fiction—and Get it Published. I also like the writing prompts and advice in Natalie Goldberg’s writing guides (choose just about any of her many books), and just bought Verlyn Klinkenborg’s new book Several Short Sentences About Writing. Find your writing guides. Find your writing muses.

And if you’re sitting down to write and don’t quite know where to start, here is what Ann Stoler told me many years ago when I wasn’t sure how to begin writing my dissertation: start with a story that you know absolutely must be in the text. Start not in the beginning, but with the heart.

Here’s to writing. And here’s to writing well!

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

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