[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Ruth Behar as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Ruth is the Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. She is the author of numerous articles and books including Translated Woman: Crossing the Border With Esperanza’s Story (Beacon Press, 1993), The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart (Beacon Press, 1996), An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba (Rutgers University Press, 2007), Traveling Heavy: A Memoir In Between Journeys (Duke University Press, 2013), and is co-editor with Deborah Gordon of Women Writing Culture (University of California Press, 1995).]
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?”
I’ll always remember her answer. It came without a moment’s hesitation and could not have been more succinct: Lee más, escribe menos, “Read more, write less.”
That might seem like old-fashioned advice in our world today, where so many of us aspire to write more. But having pondered Dulce María’s words, I think I now understand the significance of what she was saying.
It comes down to this: you can only write as well as what you read.
But when we read, we need to do so as writers, assessing the myriad decisions another writer made to produce a text we loved or hated, or worst of all, that left us totally indifferent.
For those of us who want to write ethnography, the first thing we must do is read ethnographies not as receptacles of information, which is how we are taught to read in graduate school, but in a writerly way.
Read Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture to learn how she uses the poetic tools of metaphor and repetition, emphasizing a line quoted from one of her interlocutors, “Our cup is broken,” to evoke the loss and melancholy felt by Native Americans in the aftermath of conquest and colonization.
Read Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men to learn how to create a talking-at-the-kitchen-table-with-a-friend voice that immediately draws you in as a reader: “And now, I’m going to tell you why I decided to go to my native village first. I didn’t go back there so that folks could make admiration over me because I had been up North to college and come back with a diploma and a Chevrolet.”
Read Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques to learn how to employ self-deprecating irony in the very first line of your book: “Travel and travellers are two things I loathe—and yet here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions.”
Read José Limón’s Dancing with the Devil to learn how to use interior monologue and humor to interrogate the very notion of doing fieldwork: “Been doing it since junior high school in Corpus Christi, Texas, in the late fifties. But I’m not very good at it… Consolation: I’m not here to dance, really. I’m an anthropologist. Forget consolation: Maybe I won’t be any good at that either.”
In these classic texts, you know who is telling the story and why. There is a strong authorial presence, to the extent that the writers share their misgivings about their writing, bringing you into the intimacy of their thought process. Each has a voice, unmistakable and memorable, impossible to confuse with any other, just like you can tell the difference between Van Gogh and Salvador Dalí. Hard as this is to reconcile with anthropology’s strong commitment to cultures, communities, and collectives, the best writers of ethnography are unflinching individualists. They don’t write swappable lab reports. They cultivate their sentiments; they attempt to express not just what they think but what they feel.
But reading ethnography alone isn’t enough to make us better writers. Our genre is a latecomer to the literary tradition, so it is necessarily a blurred genre that borrows from many other forms of writing.
We need to read poetry to understand silences and pauses. To challenge the oppression of punctuation. To learn how to make words sing. To liberate ourselves from chunky paragraphs.
We need to read fiction to learn how to tell a story with conflict, drama, and suspense. To learn how to tell a story that leaves us breathless.
We need to read memoir to learn how to write meaningfully about our own experiences.
Children’s books should be on our shelves, to keep our souls full of wonder.
We can’t read everything, but choose a genre or a set of authors that you put on a pedestal and read with pure awe and write towards that vision of perfection.
But you are no doubt wondering: how to move from reading to writing?
Don’t start with the information you want to convey. Ask yourself first what emotion is driving you to write. Anguish? Outrage? Regret? Amazement? Sorrow? Gratitude? Or is it a complex mix of feelings? Begin by acknowledging the heart.
Then dive into all you know with your head, all the things you have carried back to your desk. An ethnographer creates an archive from scratch, drawing on notes, recordings, documents, photographs, videos, and these days, even emails and Facebook posts. We are the guardians of what we witnessed. But significant as our research is, we shouldn’t dismiss memories that surface later when we sit down to write, memories of things we didn’t think worthy of being in the archive.
Immerse yourself in your archive in whatever way works for you, whether it’s jogging while listening to your recorded interviews or creating a visual narrative by organizing your pictures to tell a story. And spend time thinking about what you left unsaid, so you understand what you put in the frame, what counted and didn’t count as knowledge to you.
Write from the specific to the general, choosing images, events, encounters from your archive. Linger, using all the tools that feel right—dialogue, interior monologue, description, metaphor, and sensual details. Also write about the things that didn’t make it into your archive and ask yourself why you left them out. Keep going in this way, illuminating lots of small moments, until you see the shape of the larger narrative emerge. Eventually, if you wish, you can incorporate conversations with scholars and writers who have come before you, doing what is known as “the review of the literature” and “theorizing.” But focus on telling the story only you can tell, the story that is your responsibility, your gift.
Every ethnographer reinvents the genre of ethnography when sitting down to write. Our genre will always be quirky because it comes about through the magic of a unique intersection in time and space between a set of people and a person who wants to tell their story. This moment of shared mortality is improvised and fleeting, and won’t ever be repeated. There is something so spiritual about ethnography. We try to honor, with accuracy and poetry, a fragment of what was revealed to us.
Keep in mind that uncertainty will haunt you during the whole process of writing. Even after numerous revisions, you will likely fail to live up to the ideal of what you hoped to be able to write. When you finish, admit to yourself it’s flawed, but feel blessed that you told a story that was yours alone to tell.
Always remember, if you get stuck, your teachers, other writers living and dead, are right next to you. Your beloved authors are ready to show you how they resolved a problem that is vexing you. Those authors you hated, they’ll help you too, teaching you through counterpoint what kind of writer you want to be. As for the authors you found forgettable, let them go gently into that good night. Keep learning and keep trying. Read more, write less, and you will write better.