[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Sarah Besky as part of our Writer’s Workshop Series. Sarah is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the School of Natural Resources and Environment and a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan. Starting in Fall 2015, she will be Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Sarah specializes in the study of nature, capitalism, and labor in South Asia and the Himalayas. She is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in Darjeeling India (University of California Press, 2014) and other articles on social justice in agriculture and is currently working on a new book project on transparency, financialization, and tea auction reform in Northeast India.]
One of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits is a game show parody called “What’s the Best Way?” The premise is simple: a group of New Englanders jockey to give fast, accurate driving directions. Phil Hartman plays an old man with an airy Downeast Maine drawl; Adam Sandler an electrical contractor from Boston; and Glenn Close an upper-class Connecticut resident. The host, played by Kevin Nealon, asks questions about how to get from one place to another within New England. For example “Who’s got directions from Quincy, Maass to the Jahdan Mahsh department store in Bedford, New Hampshire?” Contestants buzz in, quiz show style, with their directions—directions which are loaded with quirky geographical references, including a “wicked huge Radio Shack” and a fahm that offers a chance to pick fresh Maine blueberries (“but only in the summah”).
I love this skit because it satirizes my own predilection as a native New Englander for giving overly detailed directions that orient the asker to the contours of the road, the colors and shapes of houses, and places that “yous-tah be there” (instead of supposedly conventional things like the number of traffic lights or street names).
But I also find this rather esoteric parody instructive for thinking about how to write place ethnographically. For many anthropologists, navigating fieldsites that are out-of-the way or otherwise marginalized, Phil Hartman’s character’s resigned answer to one directional challenge might ring a little true: Yah caahn’t get theyah from heeyah. Beyond writing about place, how can we use our writing to recall visual, material memories of getting from one place to another (or failing to do so)? Continue reading →
Years ago, when I started returning to Havana, the city where I was born, I had the good fortune to be welcomed into the home of Cuban poet, Dulce María Loynaz. By then she was in her nineties, frail as a sparrow, nearly blind, and at death’s doorstep, but enormously lucid.
Inspired by her meditative Poemas sin nombre (Poems With No Name), I had written a few poems of my own, and Dulce María had the largeness of heart to ask me to read them aloud to her in the grand salon of her dilapidated mansion. She nodded kindly after each poem and when I finished I thought to ask her, “What advice would you give a writer?” Continue reading →
This is my last post as a guest blogger for Savage Minds. I have enjoyed this experience of connecting with so many anthropologists. I want to thank the Savage Minds team for giving me this opportunity to discuss ethnographic writing, and to everyone who offered their thoughts and comments on my posts. Since this is my final contribution, I thought I would end on a personal note and share a short homage to typewriters.
As you may have noticed, many images of old typewriters accompanied my posts on writing this month. These photos are not culled from the Internet, but are pictures of my own growing collection of European manual typewriters, which I now use to write my fieldnotes and my first drafts. I am not a luddite, nor am I paranoid about the NSA reading my fieldnotes. And although I am old enough to have written many early college papers on a typewriter, my trusty Smith Corona was an electric model. I switched to a basic word processor, and eventually to a personal computer as soon as I could afford one. Writing on a manual typewriter is a newly acquired preference.
Over twenty years after I retired my electric Smith Corona, my partner surprised me with a vintage Skywriter as a birthday present. The Skywriter hails from the 1950s and was Smith Corona’s attempt at a portable machine that itinerant writers could use on airplanes. Last spring, I began writing research notes, letters, and first drafts of my work on that typewriter, mostly because I loved the clack of the keys, and the fact that email, social media, and the lures of the World Wide Web couldn’t distract me while I worked.
Many doctoral students fail to earn their PhDs because they never finish their dissertations. They complete their coursework, pass their qualifying exams, and do all of their research, but writing the thesis proves an insurmountable barrier. Why does the dissertation present such a challenge? Because students can’t push past the first chapter. Too many dissertators start with their introduction and find that they have nothing to say. Or they realize they have no idea what they are trying to introduce.
In Anne Lamott’s brilliant book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, the author advises all would be writers to embrace what she calls the “sh*tty first draft” (SFD). Decide what you’re going to write, and then write it straight through without stopping. If you need an article, spend some time thinking of an abstract that captures the essence of your argument and the data you have to substantiate it. You can take a few days to put together a really good abstract. Once you have it, use it as you introductory paragraph and start writing.
Keep putting words on the page until you reach what you think will be the end. Never go back and read what you have already written. This may seem difficult, but you can learn to let your thoughts flow. If you find yourself stuck at a section or in need of a particular fact or reference not at hand, leave placeholders in your text. Phrases like “insert quote here” or “discuss relevant studies here” litter my first drafts. If I need to stop working for the day, I always type the letters “XXX” in my electronic document. When I come back to the file, I open the document and search for the “XXX,” thus bypassing the text I’ve previously written.
Most students and scholars learn the disciplinary conventions regarding citation and never think about them again. But citation practices vary widely both between and within disciplines, and once you’re past the dissertation, you have far more flexibility in choosing your own citation style than you think. To be sure, academic journals have their own house styles for articles. The 2009 style guide for all journals of the American Anthropological Association states: “All references must be cited in author-date form; all author-date citations must be referenced,” and the guide provides detailed instructions for how to use the author-date format for e-mails, websites, brochures, and other eclectic materials.
But where did these conventions originate and how did they come to anthropology? The standard of in-text author-date citation derives from something called the “Harvard style,” which originated in the field of zoology. In 1881, the zoologist Edward Laurens Mark published an important paper on the garden slug wherein he included the first parenthetical author-date citation. This system spread out from zoology to other natural sciences where the author’s name and the date of the publication are the two most important pieces of information. Prior to Mark’s invention of the author-date referencing system, footnotes were sprinkled randomly throughout the text and signaled by asterisks and other printer’s marks. The author-date system streamlined citations and favored brevity and clarity.
So I’m staring at some fieldnotes and trying to sort out the best way to blend my theoretical analysis with my ethnographic data. Where to start? How to find the right balance? Once again, I decided to contact fellow ethnographers to gather insights about their writing processes. Sociologist Olga Shevchenko also struggles with what parts of her fieldnotes to include:
I almost never know in advance which parts of the field notes will go into the text, because it takes me some time, and a lot of writing, to figure out what it is exactly that I am going to argue! With interviews, it’s different. There are some turns of phrase that seem to leap off the page, and these are usually those that capture experience in a fresh or complex way. I also tend to notice when a turn of phase, or a metaphor emerges more than once. When I heard a third person compare their everyday life with living on a volcano, I knew it was going to be in the book in a major way. But it also got me thinking about what this metaphor accomplished, which sent me right back to the field notes. When I can’t find a place in the text for an evocative image or turn of phrase that I hear from a respondent, this causes me great torments!
Like Olga, I now spend a lot of time reading my fieldnotes and deciding what material I want to include before I figure out my core argument, a process sometimes called “grounded theory,” a way of incorporating theoretical insights that emerge organically from the fieldwork. I also search for great quotes or turns of phrase that capture something about the everyday experience of my informants.
Every ethnographer must find a balance between theory and data. Our fieldwork and our specific case studies render our work original, but this work fails to be scholarly if it lacks dialogue with larger theoretical concerns. When writing the dissertation the literature review section remains de rigueur, but most acquisitions editors demand that this section be exorcised from the eventual book manuscript. This means that the theoretical insights inspired by your participant observation must somehow be woven into the final text so as to elucidate your original ideas without burying the reader under an avalanche of information about what other scholars, studying other cases, have said before you.
The task of integrating theory proves difficult for even the most experienced ethnographers, and different scholars maintain varying opinions on its importance. In a 1999 article, anthropologist Ruth Behar argues that theory for theory’s sake undermines the potential vibrancy of ethnographic writing:
What I do find tiresome is the habit of using whatever theory happens to be fashionable…as a substitute for really engaging the tough questions posed by those whom we encounter on our journeys as ethnographers. When ethnographers working in far corners of the globe are all citing the same two pages from the work of the latest trendy theorist, without reflecting on the politics of how that theory travels, you can be sure they have killed the life in their ethnography.
Every article, book, or thesis begins with a first word, but getting started feels overwhelming. My worst prose derives from disorganized thinking and writing, and over the years I’ve experimented with different systems to help me get my projects off the ground. When I map out some incremental steps, my projects seem more manageable.
First I ask myself: what do I want (or need) to write? This helps determine the best format for my research results. In some cases the format was predetermined for me – when I was a doctoral student I had to produce a dissertation of a certain minimum length. When I write for a journal, they enforce specific word counts. These days, I have a bit more freedom, but I still struggle to determine if I have a book length argument or if my research is best presented as a series of articles.
Before I write the first sentence, I try to visualize the contours of my project. I once typed up outlines, but now I imagine less formal ways to physically manifest a project. At the outset, I spend hours examining my research, beginning to define the distinct sections or chapters. I need a concrete guide that will help me tackle the writing tasks necessary to get from the first to the last word of the project.
Academics are collectively responsible for the production of some of the most obtuse and impenetrable prose in the English language. Rhetorical fashions come and go, but the penchant for opacity has become a defining feature of contemporary scholarship.
We were sitting over the remains of dinner in a Village restaurant when the conversation turned to gender and women’s studies.
“I am an –ism person,” Temma Kaplan, Rutgers historian said to me. “I don’t do –ity.”
I gave her a knowing look.
“It used to be all –isms. Now everything is –ities,” she said.
“But you can’t get a job in women’s studies without working on an –ity.” I said, “–ities are the thing these days.”
She sighed and shrugged.
Academese is the secret code that some scholars use to signal that they are members of the club. It ensures that no one can really tell whether their ideas are brilliant, bad, or merely mediocre. This is especially useful when submitting an application to a multidisciplinary search or review committee. Since academics are so narrowly specialized these days, there are probably only a handful of people in the world who can judge whether a project is truly groundbreaking.
Learning to write like an academic is difficult. If you don’t want to rely solely on the University of Chicago’s academic sentence generator, you too can learn the subtle art of writing impenetrable prose. It takes time and practice, and not an insubstantial amount of creativity, to produce appropriately complex neologisms for otherwise basic concepts.
I am thrilled for the opportunity to write as a Savage Minds guest blogger for this first month of 2015. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to become a better writer, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months poring through style guides and manuals trying to learn the writer’s craft. This is not because I am writing my first book. Unfortunately, I am almost five books into my career, and only now do I feel compelled to improve my prose. As an ethnographer, I privileged the message over the medium.
I’ve taught ethnographies for thirteen years, and at the end of each semester, I survey student opinions of the required books on my syllabi. “Reading [this book] was like being forced to read Facebook’s terms and conditions for class,” a student wrote about one of the texts I assigned. The book in question suited the course subject, and contained field-changing theoretical insights. As a piece of scholarship, the book excelled, winning a major award from a large professional society. As a piece of writing, however, the book failed. My students judged the prose opaque, circular, jargon-laden, and gratuitously verbose. I agreed. I prepared a lecture on the core arguments, and spared my students the headaches induced by needless erudition.
University students, especially at the undergraduate level, despise inaccessible books that use language to obfuscate rather than clarify. I have purged many a smart ethnography from my syllabi after watching students struggle to extract the main arguments from a fog of impenetrable prose. Each year, I explore university press offerings to find well-written ethnographies. The continued production of un-teachable books amazes me.
I ask this because I find the oft-offered advice to “write what you know” both alarming and silencing. Isn’t ethnography at least partially about unknowability? If we acknowledge that textual recording is a form of fixing knowledge, how does one write what one doesn’t know? How can our writing play on the edge between knowing and not knowing, refusing to fix the unknown by writing it into existence? Exploring this playful and vexing tension in ethnographic writing is my current preoccupation.
Through writing, I accumulate more being since I am more than I was when I materialise the ephemeral.
I wear the traces of various Englishes, strung like so many iridescent pearls within the necklace of language adorning me. The lilting singsong of Anglo-Indian first granted me tongue, irrepressible, undaunted by the pristine elegance of Queen’s English. As I collided with the unabashed assertiveness of American idiom, I learned the discipline of anthropology. I discovered my place in the world from the antipodes, in encounter with the laconic, self-deprecating humour of New Zealand vernacular. A clamour of tongues finds expression through me to constitute the anthropologist I have become. Continue reading →
Fiction, for me, like ethnography, has always melded with a deep desire to understand and explain the world around me. As an eight-year old in Iran I wrote stories to either escape or explain the Revolution that had turned my country into an Islamic Republic and had turned my single identity as a dorageh, or two-veined Iranian, into half-American, half-Iranian, forcing me to either choose one identity or to stay in-between. Writing helped me to make sense of the in-between, to make sense of my new life while holding on to the one that was already becoming a dream — unreal.
The past was a place where “Bombs were flying through the air, the sky was ablaze, there was no night.” My American high school teacher read this opening of one of my stories and said, “Write what you know.” She smiled at me and told me to try again. I explained that I had seen bombs and that the sky was ablaze and night or not I couldn’t sleep for days as a child because I was so scared about what was happening in the streets. At least that’s how I remembered it. I came to see early on that we cannot fully replicate reality—even and especially in ethnography—in film, text or sound (the mediums I work in), nor is fiction purely a figment of its writer’s imagination. Was I writing fiction or ethnography and did the distinction really matter? Continue reading →
“How do we write anthropology in a way that does justice to the stories we tell?” It weighs on me, this question. There it is, staring at me from the introduction to this Writers’ Workshop series. It is the question that paralyzes me when I sit down to write. Sometimes it prevents me from even making it into the chair. How can I portray the complexities of the stories people have shared with me?
I have convinced myself that I am a better listener, a better researcher, than I am a writer. I have been cultivating this research persona since 2008, when I first visited my primary fieldsite, a UN camp for Congolese refugees. I have spent years listening and dutifully recording what I heard. Yes, I was an academic writer long before that first trip but now it feels different. I have never written a dissertation before. I have never had to distill so many personal and cultural details into a document that will do justice to the many stories I have collected. Continue reading →
Anthropologists are writers. We research, we teach, we write. However, our training is as anthropologists, not as writers. How then does the anthropologist become a writer? How do we move from functional, mechanical prose that communicates ideas and findings to writing as a craft? How do we write anthropology in a way that does justice to the stories we tell? Continue reading →