Summer Writing: Practice Community

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Lindsay Bell

In the middle of the teaching term, summer is the far away season where you imagine that all of your academic, and possibly creative, writing projects will get off the ground. It is an oasis over the desert horizon. When summer finally arrives, you realize the large, luscious lagoon you imagined is more like a puddle. Desperate, you dive in anyways. The reality of the academic summer is that we continue to have competing demands on our time. We rush off to the field. Our families have a heightened sense of entitlement to interact with us.  Kids aren’t in school. We are faced with duties left undone in the scramble to get through the term. Those of us who are junior, or precariously employed, are likely packing and moving (again).

According to every “how to” book on successful academic writing, waiting for big chunks of time to advance intellectual projects is ill-advised. Instead, consistent short bursts are the way to cultivate a long and successful publication record. Through various experiments, I found this to be true. Nevertheless, most of us stay committed to a substantial amount of summer writing. We have to. Savage Minds has been a supportive space for thinking and talking about anthropological writing. In this first guest post I want to open a conversation about summer writing and sketch out my plan for the coming month as guest blogger. 

During my PhD, I spent an enormous amount of time reading books on how to write dissertations. The best advice came from my supervisor. She said, “you learn to write a dissertation by writing a dissertation”. Touché. Although this phrasing makes me cringe, writing is a practice. Writers of various stripes advocate for a daily routine of some kind. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, popularized the term ‘morning pages’. This refers to three stream of consciousness pages written first thing every morning. Anthropologist and author Kirin Narayan gives similar advice. She writes daily, often describing a single event that stood out for her from the previous day. Sagely, she does this before the flood gates of email open. Humor essayist David Sedaris, whom I consider an almost-anthropologist of white American culture, has kept a diary since September 4th 1977. He has missed fewer than a handful of days in his chronicles of everyday life. Clearly daily writing has served many people well.

For some, a daily practice gets linked to a quota. Sometimes it is a time quota, a page quota or a word count. This can quickly lead you into challenge territory. Challenges are public (sometimes personal) commitments to specific a task over a period of time. For instance, Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo), a spin on NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), is a virtual goal setting and check in space for PhD students. Those satisfied by word counting may already know of the site 750 Words. This site gives you space to keep a running daily conversation and prompts you every day. It ‘analyzes’ your entry. Last week it seems I was often angry and extroverted. Have you tried such challenge structures? Are they simply stress inducing? Or do they help you?

Last summer, I became extremely curious about a growth in ‘challenge cultures’ more generally. I decided to make a challenge of writing about challenge culture for 30 days. Intuitively, I called that series #30daychallenged. It took me 196 days to complete the challenge. I’ll tell you more about my anthropological foray to the self-help arts, specifically what they might teach us about language, culture and cognition, another time. I am bringing up challenges because they wed writing practice to community, a second element of successful writing. Comments I got from friends and strangers while I was #30daychallenged shaped my thinking, led me to key literatures and connected me to people doing related work. It helped turn a curiosity into a veritable project.

When I agreed to blog for SM for July, I had this grand idea I would pre-write some very compelling pieces about very important topics and would become the anthropological equivalent of very Rich and Famous (e.g. not sharing a hotel room at the AAA). I had a vision of my writing style: it would be broody and bright a la Lauren Berlant with a dash of whimsy a la Ruth Behar. I was certainly not going to fall back on my trademark style which is the “Hot Messay”. These are the delusions conjured in the middle of the winter while teaching 3/3 on the snowiest campus in the United States. Now seeing the puddle for what it is, I must fall back on all of the advice I read about writing (often in lieu of writing) which is to write often and share ideas early. 

In the coming month, I am leveraging the exploratory nature of the blog genre to describe a recent ‘visual turn’ in all dimensions of my anthropological practice. Over the past year, art and design inflected ideas and methods seem to demand my attention. This includes aspects of my research methods and output, teaching strategies and ‘encounters’ with colleagues’ work. Be advised I am not a bonafide Visual Anthropologist. I sincerely appreciate  and admire this subfield and acknowledge the time and experience that goes into developing the expertise. I haven’t had a path that included this training. That said, I’ve had to grapple with art and design (often on its own terms) in ways I’d like to think/write about here. I do hope you’ll join me and share your summer writing/making projects and challenges. I thank you in advance for the space to practice in community.

I am a sociocultural/linguistic anthropologist interested in the place of indigenous life and arctic environments in (inter)national public culture. My primary research examines indigenous-state relations and everyday experiences of extractive development (diamonds and oil) in circumpolar North America. With artist/academic collaborators, Jesse C Jackson (UC Irvine) and Tori Foster (OCAD U), I am developing a set of moving and still images to tell the story of urban life north of the 60th parallel. This new work combines data visualization techniques with more standard anthropological methods. When not north of 60, I have the pleasure of teaching ethnographic writing by way of anthropology at SUNY, Oswego where I am an assistant professor. I am the editor of the Society for the Anthropology of North America's peer reviewed journal, North American Dialogue. You can find me on social media @drlibertybell