Phew. We did it. This week concludes the first ever Savage Minds Writing Group. Launched in January with seventy people expressing interest in joining in, our writing group was designed to provide community, inspiration, and a schedule or some sort of accountability in the writing process.
Writing is such a solo activity at times, yet one that requires the support and involvement of others. Imagination is key to this, imagining the people one is writing about, imagining readers, as are face-to-face conversations with friends and mentors as you write. I hoped an online writing group of anthropologists in many different places around the world might complement these relationships, and provide a sense of community of others engaged in similar processes, similar difficulties, similar joys in the writing. Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Matt Sponheimer as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Matt is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. He conducts research on the ecology of early hominins in Africa, among other topics including Neandertals and poetry. He is the author or co-author of numerous articles, including “The diet of Australopithecus sebida” in Nature 2012. Note: The title is from Jeffers’ Natural Music.)1
I’ve been thinking a lot about collaborative writing of late, and not the internecine conflict it sometimes engenders within U.S. anthropology departments. We are all certainly aware of subdisciplinary differences with regard to multi-authored manuscripts and the occasional contestation that occurs when credit for such undertakings must be meted out.2 No, I’m talking about something rather different, and I also hope much less charged. I’ve been gingerly contemplating the act of collaborative writing itself, both what it represents from a practical standpoint and as an intellectual exercise.
Nine weeks down, one week to go. The first ever Savage Minds Writing Group is winding down. Let’s check in now about our past week of writing, but also reflect on how our styles of writing are indebted to our mentors.
This week’s Writing Workshop post by Michael Ralph–Styles of Writing, Techniques of Mentorship: A Tribute to Michel-Rolph Trouillot–was heart-stirring in many ways. The process of becoming an anthropologist, a scholar, a writer, is one that involves so many people as mentors along the way. In the field, at your university, at large in the discipline.
So much of this piece resonated with me, and with others whom I’ve spoken with this past week:
On the physical constitution of the scholar,
on writing as re-thinking as well as re-deploying,
on the need for teachers.
Thank you, Michael Ralph, for this piece. And thank you to my mentors too. My thinking and my writing are indebted to them in ways I am still realizing.
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Michael Ralph as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Michael is Assistant Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, and Director of the Metropolitan Studies Program at NYU. He is the author of the entries on Commodity, Diaspora, and Hip hop in Social Text 100, and of the forthcoming University of Chicago Press book Forensics of Capital based on his research in Senegal.)
The idea of having your own writing style is an illusion. In fact, we learn to write by digesting the writers we love. We obsess over the elegant turns of phrase they appear to deliver effortlessly, and pore over our own drafts hoping to wrench beauty from passages that have been pummeled by angst and uncertainty. If we manage to enjoy success in writing (or really, in editing), it is generally because we have been well trained. At some point, someone made it her mission to instill in us a sense of conviction about the words we wield. We learned to appreciate the magic of authorship. But, it is easier to trace the blessed path to writerly righteousness in retrospect. Learning to write (which means learning to think and plan more carefully) can be a curious kind of training, in part because we don’t always know when it is happening. In reflecting upon my own training, I decided to dedicate this column to the person who initiated me into the anthropological guild, Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Continue reading
Eight weeks of writing. Where have these eight weeks taken you? Again, I note the awareness of writing that this writing group has provided for so many of us. A consciousness, a mindfulness of the process. And, dare I say a new enjoyment of the writing process? Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Robin Bernstein as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Robin is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. She works on how growth and development is shaped, both across generations and among species, in humans and nonhuman primates, and is currently conducting research in rural Gambia. Her recent publications include articles in the American Journal of Primatology and the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.)
As an anthropologist with a field site on another continent and a laboratory that needs a full-time technician to operate properly, I am dependent on continuous external funding to keep things going. There was a time when I resented this, and felt utterly exhausted and desperate in the context of the endless application-rejection cycles, waiting on the edge of my seat to find out whether I could continue my projects uninterrupted, keep my employees employed, and offer any resources to my students. Continue reading
It is Week 7, or, the Week I Forgot To Put Up the Check-in Post. Its been that sort of week. Here at Savage Minds, we migrated to our brand new site and in the process our comments feature got all buggy. So if you tried to comment in Week 6 and couldn’t, we’ll just start fresh today. How has your week been? Where are you in the writing? Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest blogger Zoë Crossland as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Zoë is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. She works in highland Madagascar and writes on semiotics, and archaeologies of death and the body. Her most recent publication is Ancestral Encounters in Highland Madagascar: Material Signs and Traces of the Dead ( Cambridge University Press, 2014).)
Like fiction, archaeology allows us to visit other worlds and to come back home again. So, it can be a useful exercise to juxtapose archaeological texts with historical novels, poems and other forms of writing. Just as a novelist does, a writer of archaeology has to attend carefully to the conventions that shape the stories we tell. The written past demands some kind of narrative coherence, a consistency in our compositional form, and in the internal logic of the world we bring into being. Like poets, we have to choose our words carefully. In this comparison we can identify the shared techniques used to evoke other worlds and to draw in the reader. We can also consider the narrative possibilities that are excluded from our archaeological writing, and ask what opportunities might be opened up by allowing different forms of voice and language. Continue reading
What is your process? How to get your creative juices flowing…and keep them flowing? This week’s Writers’ Workshop guest author Kristen Ghodsee gave us a sneak peek into her writing process in My Ten Steps for Writing a Book, confiding that she had not even been fully aware of it until she sat down to consciously think it out. After six weeks of purposeful writing as part of this writing group, what new practices have you added to your process? What is helping you get where you want to be in the writing?
Four more weeks to go, so this might also be a good time to not only check-in on last week, but also assess your goals for the remainder of the writing group, and also tune in on Monday for our next Writers’ Workshop post, this time from Zoe Crossland, professor of archaeology at Columbia University.
Finally, if you missed it, there is still time to add strength to your writing support network—create an Anthropology Zombie Apocalypse Team! I made mine yesterday and got Sam Beckett, Kurt Vonnegut, and Franz Boas. This week I’m going to see if I can’t channel some Kurt Vonnegut in my writing. This could be interesting….
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Kristen Ghodsee. Kristen is Director and the John S. Osterweis Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College. Her prize-winning books include: The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism and Postsocialism on the Black Sea (Duke University Press, 2005), Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press 2010), Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life After Communism (Duke University Press, 2011), and Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). Her fifth book, The Left Side of History, is forthcoming with Duke University Press in 2015. She blogs about ethnographic writing at Literary Ethnography.)
When Carole McGranahan asked me to blog for the Savage Minds writing group, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about. I’d recently finished my fifth book, and was in the early stages of a sixth manuscript, so it seemed like I should have something to say about how to get a big project done.
But I never realized I had a process until this morning. To get the creative juices flowing, I sketched out a flow chart of how I tackle a project from start to finish. The chart surprised me. My quirks and old habits turned out to be a defined system, one that I have implemented for each of my books without even knowing it.
And then there were five.
Five weeks, that is. We are half-way through our ten weeks of writing together. Phew! Are you still here with me? Our numbers are dwindling, and if you’re anything like me, these check-ins seem to be coming much too frequently! If you are someone who hasn’t checked in every week, do not despair or feel you can’t jump back in. Check in when you like, and if not, then at least keep writing.
What in your writing is worth telling? What stories need to be known by others? What commitments have you made to others, and have others made in sharing their stories with you? This week’s guest essay by Bianca Williams–Guard Your Heart and Your Purpose: Faithfully Writing Anthropology reflected on finding courage and faith in the writing. Acknowledge vulnerability. Discern purpose. Have faith. There are stakes involved in our writing as she so clearly reminded us…and herself. Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Bianca C. Williams as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Bianca is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, and holds a PhD in anthropology from Duke University. She is the author, with Tami Navarro and Attiya Ahmad, of the article “Sitting at the Kitchen Table: Fieldnotes from Women of Color in Anthropology,” and of the forthcoming Duke University Press book Exporting Happiness in which she examines how African American women use international travel and the Internet as tools for pursuing leisure, creating intimate relationships and friendships, and critiquing American racism, sexism, and ageism.)
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Proverbs 4:23
Like many others, the blank page can terrify me. Simply starting a new blog post, an essay, or a book chapter can have me tumbling into hours, days, or shame-filled weeks of procrastination. These are the times that resistance and fear triumph, and I feel myself falling into a moody mixture of anger, frustration, sadness, and general feelings of incompetence. Oh, and sometimes there is crying. However, once I find successful methods for dragging the words that are in my head onto the page, I then attempt to organize them in a way that makes sense, creates “new” knowledge, and contributes to multiple fields, ever aware that in some near future a committee will attempt to quantify my publication impact and decide whether they should grant me tenure. Surprisingly, for the past three weeks Writing and I have engaged in a truce—or I should say, she has decided to get off my back, give me some room to breathe, and allow the words that infiltrate my dreams and my meditation sessions to flow a bit easier onto the page. What is interesting is that this period of writing peace has resulted in a new issue: I keep getting my best writing ideas while I’m in the shower. Continue reading
An “exposed investment in someone else’s truth.” What an insightful, generous, weighty way to think about the responsibility of the anthropologist. These are Sienna Craig’s words from her essay On Unreliable Narrators. So much of what she wrote resonated for me. Thinking about how people try to reliably narrate an unreliable world. About the vulnerability of unreliability. Or the contagion properties of the unreliable, of how the category or label can move through a group, set in motion truths of a fiercely certain sort. And, of course, of the anthropologist as narrator, reliable or not? Continue reading
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest blogger Sienna R. Craig as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Sienna is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. In addition to her 2012 book Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine, she is also author of the lush ethnographic memoir Horses Like Lightning: A Story of Passage Through the Himalayas.)
The idea of a decision is a decision.
We build arguments around impermanence
But are not the sort of people to admit
—Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, from In the Absent Everyday
I have been thinking a lot about the idea of the “unreliable narrator” these days, and what it might mean for us ethnographers, careful raconteurs of others’ stories, intertwined as they are with our own. The idea of the unreliable narrator emerges in literature, theatre, and film as a tool of craft that plays with senses of credibility or believability, sometimes to trick the reader or the audience, other times to push the boundaries of a genre or challenge the cognitive strategies a reader might employ to make sense of the story she is being told. Although unreliable narrators may materialize through a third person frame, they are most commonly first person renderings. In the most facile sense, an unreliable narrator is biased, makes mistakes, lacks self-awareness, tells lies not of substance but of form. The device can also be used in a revelatory vein: to twist an expected ending, to demand that readers reconsider a point of view, to leave an audience wondering. Like our anthropological propensity to classify, literary theorists have done the same for the interlocutors of our imaginations. Types of unreliable narrators include the Madman, the Clown, and the Naif, to name a few. Others posit that the unreliable narrator as a device is best understood to fall along a spectrum of fallibility, beginning with the contours of trust and ending with specters of capriciousness (Olson 2003). This is the shape of a character as she defies the expectations of a reader, who then may well pass judgment on this scripted self. Continue reading
Week 3? How is that already possible? We have somehow collectively arrived at week three of our ten week writing group. One-third of the way through! We kicked off this week with writing insights from Kirin Narayan (“Ethnographic Writing with Kirin Narayan: An Interview”). Much of what she had to said coursed through my writing mind this week: on trying to merge what you have to write with what you want to write; on the theoretical and ethical importance of portraying people in their complexity; and her answer in its entirety to my question “Why ethnography?” She replied:
For the discipline of paying attention; for learning from others; for becoming more responsibly aware of inequalities; for better understanding the social forces causing suffering and how people might somehow yet find hope; and most generally, for being perpetually pulled beyond the limits of one’s own taken-for-granted world.
Amen. Continue reading