Week 3: Savage Minds Writing Group Check-In

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.


This week brought another gift to anthropologists writing in the form of a public conversation between Ruth Behar and Paul Stoller. On February 5, at the Graduate Center at CUNY in New York City, these two pathbreaking scholars discussed their own writing paths and careers, including writing in a range of genres well beyond the “Anthropologists Writing Fiction” title of the event. Take the time to listen to the video of their conversation either in its entirety or perhaps in short segments as you write; these are the sorts of insights and experiences that are in and of themselves writing prompts. Yet another way that listening can be an important part of the writing process.

Finally, this coming Monday we have our next Writers’ Workshop blog post from guest author Sienna Craig. Trust me that her essay on unreliable narrators is one you will not want to miss. For now, though, please do check in on how your writing went this week. Hope it was a good one.

Carole McGranahan

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.

22 thoughts on “Week 3: Savage Minds Writing Group Check-In

  1. This was the week where I finally started writing! New text along with more reading and organizing and thinking. My writing was prompted by sitting down and reading ten articles, four of which were excellent and really sparked my desire to get writing in response to what I had read. This is one of those moments I most enjoy about writing, the generative power of ideas that comes through reading another’s work, including the recognition of when something is coming together and the time is now to stop reading and thinking and move to writing. This particular article I’m working on–a chapter in the book I’m writing–needs to be complete in three weeks. So, Week Six, I’m looking at you.

  2. This week I was able to complete a first draft of a chapter that has been hanging over my head for months! I definitely credit committing to write every day as having helped me ( finally!!) finish the piece. So now on to the next writing goal!

  3. I have got much more in the swing of things this week and and been relatively productive on the writing front, very productive on the thinking front and am learning to put the reading aside until my narratives have written.
    Although still at the beginning stages of my chapter I have a good idea of where I want it to go and can see its first draft being complete by the end of the ten weeks (or actually before as its due to my supervisor by week 7!), which is great as that coincides with the end of my mat leave and a return to work that will seriously impact on my phd time.
    I’m really enjoying my first adventure into narrative write up of my own data and am feeling the pressure of representing the voices well in my text and plumping up the description with my attention to the sensory environment.
    Goal for next week: To have the two case narratives written up and to be well on the way to the analysis discussion (or 50% of the chapter).

  4. Hello Savage Minds Writing Group,

    After I submitted Chapter 3 and wrote my outline for Chapter 4 I have been reading and procrastinating the task of focussing on the sections rather spent time this week reading up on re-working on the outline. Past week has been not productive on writing front at all. I have written three paragraphs which are fragments , stream of consciousness…

    This week I plan to work on sections of Chapter 4 and at least be ready with a draft before I sign in next week and finish re-working on two piece/s which needs to be submitted. Slightly ambitious and I can see myself working during the weekend.

  5. Another week of energizing writing! I have been in the flow of writing on a daily basis for already some months, yet I notice that participating in this group makes me look at my texts afresh. Somehow, reading about others’ experiences seems to make me more sensitive to what it is that I manage to squeeze out on paper. It brought self-editing to a whole new level, so thank you!!

    The biggest struggle this week has been in finding a suitable narrative for my thesis chapter. I have brilliant data on forest management, but most of it was collected ‘off record’ or on the agreement that people would not be quoted. In fact, I believe that if I’m not very careful, my writing could seriously harm (the career of) others. And so I’m wrestling with the question of how to write good ethnography and come up with a solid argument, and yet do so in a responsible manner. I find it mind-boggling, and am on the verge of replacing my whole thesis with a fieldwork-inspired novel that I situate in an invented country…

  6. This week I envisioned my second chapter, in my head and on the page in note form–moving things around, figuring out what my stories were telling me, what I want to say with it. Yesterday I spent the day in seminar with the wonderful Lisa Rofel, who is speaking in our department this week, and she had some wonderful advice about writing, revising, and letting the analysis emerge. She also inspired me to find more people to exchange drafts with. Today I start actually writing this chapter out… easier when I think about how I care about the ideas and stories, yet still daunting.

  7. Hello! Kirin’s interview was definitely inspiring for me too – I have spent the last two days working on an article and rather than procrastinate by ‘finding more material to read’ or by worrying too much at the outset about how to frame or pitch the piece, I committed myself to writing the story I wanted to tell the way I wanted to tell it. I haven’t written much, but am feeling very positive about how things are going all the same. Didn’t make much progress on my preliminary paper this last week, but I have decided to worry here less about structure initially, and write out paragraphs and sections as I feel comfortable and have the time, which I can cobble together later. Like Rachel, I was very lucky to sit with Lisa Rofel yesterday and pick her brain about her own writing process, and she furnished even more unexpected tips and suggestions which I can see being very useful both now and in the future.

  8. As usual, I set my sights much higher than anything I could possibly complete for the week. The good news is that, even though I fell short of my goals, I still read and wrote much more than I have since before the holidays. I call this a success. Carole’s interview with Dr. Narayan was very helpful, and I made it a point to start reading more and also reading from different genres. This is already helping, particularly in terms of breaking out of “grant-speak.” I’m also thinking more specifically in terms of storytelling (again, inspired in large part by Kirin’s interview) and narrative arcs. I am currently doing fieldwork and am finding it helpful to engage specifically with these contacts while taking fieldnotes, charting people’s stories, and the like. In terms of my disability blog, I fell short of my goal of writing multiple posts (I suspected this would happen), but I’m happy to report that I made a detailed list of story ideas and began charting out a few tentative outlines. Otherwise, I will just say that it’s amazing how unexpected everyday events pull me away from reading. I need to cultivate the same type of discipline that I’m working on with exercise – make it routine, commit to it – but I continue to get distracted by fieldwork obligations (important!), snow days, grants, and such. I suspect this doesn’t change, but I’m going to try to be more mindful of working around these obstacles and keeping myself on track.

  9. This week was complicated for me. I started the week with a strong investigation into my theme for this week’s post (Kitsch and Culture – http://www.carnivorousblonde.com/2014/02/08/45-fortyfive/) and read a really fantastic essay on the theme which motivated and energized me. I was able to set the bones of my writing by the middle of the week then news of a tragic death in the family on Friday completely froze any impulse to write at all, until I sought solace in my writing and was able to reach my goal by Saturday evening (Tokyo time). Contemplation on the writing process as therapy and my blog as a way to reach out has been my focus today.

  10. Hello group! This was the first week I was able to work on writing every day, M-F. For me this is a major goal in itself because I find that when I sit down to write every day, the material stays in my mind throughout the week and I have more ideas about my research. I managed to slog through some new theoretical stuff and include it in an article revision. One thing I tried to battle against this week was the feeling that I have to exhaust every possible reading on a topic in order to be able to move forward and say anything about it in my own writing. For me I’ve found that perfectionism kills writing progress.

  11. This week’s writing output was the worst it has been in a while. But, the massive amounts of service and teaching that have haunted my weeks finally resolved, and I have identified many areas of weakness in the draft and started working on ways to resolve this. I also collected new data necessary for my primary writing project, and anticipate making progress this weekend. The main surprise has been the association between running time and writing time – more time spent running equates to faster writing and more connectivity between ideas – but running is the first thing sacrificed during weeks with high service expectations. I am going to be looking for ways to prioritize both running and writing next week.

  12. This week was the most difficult for me so far in this writing group. Inflected by sickness and sleep deprivation (my little one is enjoying waking up every two hours at night now because she is discovering so much about her body and mind, so says the infant milestone literature), I am starting to receive feedback on my dissertation draft and feeling no energy or brain power to begin addressing it. I did manage some light copy editing correction in my introduction, but conflicting advice on how to re-organize my introduction has paralyzed my ability to feel good and empowered about my work. “It’s a painful and mysterious alchemy to transform what one is supposed to write into what one wants to write,” wrote Dr. Narayan in this week’s essay, and am I ever feeling the pain and stumbling through the mystery at the moment. “Mostly, when I can think of my writing as sharing something I care about with someone I care about, that can help loosen a big freeze of self-doubt into a flow of words,” Dr. Narayan also wrote about conquering this certain kind of writer’s block. I shall try to remind myself that this is the kind of voice I need to listen to when I sit down to write in the week to come.

    Looking forward to Dr. Craig’s essay on Monday – really love her work on horses in Tibetan culture!

  13. This week I spent more time staring at text than writing it. I deleted, added, re-added, pressed a lot of buttons as I attempted to build up confidence to submit work and let go of it. Ah this process. 🙂

  14. This week wrote on Indian Cinema and Sexuality for a journal and now the process of editing, re-editing will take place..hope to finish it by this Friday. It works…Following this technique to teach my students also who are writing their M.A. dissertations under my guidance 🙂

  15. Congratulations on your accomplishments, everyone! Regardless of where we all are in the process, and whether the week unfolded as planned, the shared energy here is palpable. If you haven’t already read it, do take the time to sit with Sienna Craig’s essay for this week On Unreliable Narrators–lots of challenging and important food for thought /2014/02/10/on-unreliable-narrators/

    I also wanted to touch on the issue of danger in writing, in response to marlousvandenakker’s comments above. How do we write honestly while protecting those who have shared information with us? How to not get people into trouble? One way would be to share writing with the folks you’re writing about or others who know the situation well to make sure you have provided enough cover. See what they think. Other approaches could be to create narratives that are composites of several stories, or that play with chronology or other details. How do you stay true to the story while also being responsible to individuals and their lives and security? Such important questions and ones that go well beyond using pseudonyms or masking identifying details; you need to get to a different level of protection here, albeit one that remains true to the situation. Anyone else have ideas to share?

  16. And also a nod to running and writing: move your body and not just your mind. Running helps me write too, and yet, sometimes I have to remind myself that taking an hour away from writing to tend to the body (running, lifting, swimming, skiing, doing yoga, whatever it is you like to do) is just as important as an hour spent writing. It is not just time “not writing,” but time that makes writing possible, and is often a space hugely generative of new ideas or of solving writing problems. Run on!

  17. This past week was difficult in terms of getting words on the page for my manuscript, but it was GREAT for figuring out some analytical issues and finding a way forward. I also credit the writing group for prompting me to fill gaps with writing. One day I had a 20 minute break in between meetings. Instead of responding to emails and doing some organizational work, I took the 20 minutes to write. It felt good to use that tiny bit of time to write and reminded me that every little bit helps.

  18. Late check in! The past week was transitional–I finished the chapter I was working on early in the week, and then worked on switching gears to write the next one. My goal is to speed up the transition a bit…I lost a few days last week trying to get focused on the next chapter.

    Also, I agree that getting out and moving around is a big help for the writing process. Some people run, I like to go walk. Looking at rocks, coyote tracks, rutted roads and legions of plants while out walking helps cure me from laptop syndrome (ie way too much time starting at this screen). It’s funny…sometimes I resist but going out for 20 or 30 minutes is worth it. Really helps with ideas, and focus.

  19. A late post, it has been a strange week for me over the past weekdays, distanced from tapping the words out on a keyboard, but my mind immersed in the unfolding narrative, very content to linger there. I embraced that space of thought and words, without the imperative to get it written. And so the days of the week passed by. And then, during the weekend the dam burst! From mid-day Saturday through to dawn on Sunday, I wrote extensively, continuously, not a draft, but a polished piece that glowed, quietly, confidently, and it was done. So strange that here I am, attempting to carve out a daily niche for writing, 5 days of the week, perhaps even 7, yet the creative outpouring followed such a different path to what I intended. Gina’s sagely describes all the space in-between as also ‘writing space’ and as I took heed and relaxed into that space the creative juices flowed!

  20. Very late check in for me. I was flying solo with my toddler last week so didn’t get much writing done (in part because I didn’t get to the gym – I agree with the comments above about how much exercise helps the writing process). I did write a blog post and send off a book proposal but need to be much more disciplined about setting aside time to write every day. I’m enjoying the guest blog posts though, they’re very inspiring!

  21. Thanks Carole, for picking up on the topic. It’s probably something that we all struggle with in our writing, to a more or lesser degree. I remember that, when doing fieldwork, I often felt like some sort of detective, trying to find out things I wasn’t really supposed to know. Already then I had a sense of what was awaiting me in terms of writing it all up.

    I fully agree with you that responsible writing goes beyond simply replacing names with pseudonyms or masking identifying details. And in addition, it’s not always a very viable option. Thinking of my own work again, which came to include some highly visible and public figures, any hint as to how to situate certain statements or perspectives would make these people retraceable. I have considered excluding problematic data entirely but then again, it is precisely what makes the thesis tick.

    Difficult, difficult, difficult. An update on the battle will follow this Friday…

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