Real Writing

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Daniel Goldstein as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Daniel is Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of three ethnographies and one edited collection, all published with Duke University Press. Most of his work has been on urban life and the politics of security in Latin America and, more recently, on the securitization of immigration in the United States. Daniel’s forthcoming book, Owners of the Sidewalk: Security and Survival in the Informal City, examines the intersections of insecurity and informality among market vendors in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Daniel’s work is characterized by a commitment to activist anthropology and a desire to influence thought outside the academy.]

Like many writers who have to sustain themselves with a paying job – in my case, and probably yours too, an academic job – I spend a lot of my time fretting about not having enough time to write. Many of my friends in the profession are the same way. We have to teach, we complain, which requires time to prepare, deliver, and grade our lessons, while managing students and their many needs. We serve on committees, attend faculty meetings, and hold office hours. We devote countless hours to reviewing the work of our peers – others who seem to find the time to write, which we must review at the cost of our own writing time.

As a result, I think, many of us don’t feel like writers. I know I don’t. Not a real writer, anyway. A real writer, in my mind, is someone whose principal vocation is writing. I picture someone like Honoré de Balzac, writing through the wee hours of the morning, fueled by endless cups of coffee; Joyce Carol Oates, author of more than 50 novels and countless other works of fiction and non-fiction; or Maya Angelou, who kept a small hotel room as a writing space, which she called “lonely, and…marvelous.”[1] These to me are real writers.

Meanwhile, I struggle along through my own daily routine, frustrated at not having enough time to write. I don’t feel like a real writer.

On further reflection, however, I am forced to reconsider this self-evaluation. If a writer, by definition, is someone who writes, then I – again, like many others in the academic profession – am a writer through and through. I write constantly, though I fail to appreciate what I do as real writing.

Curiously, much of my writing is joined to those very activities that appear to distract me from writing. Writing a lecture, for example, may not seem like writing – no one, after all, will ever read it. Plus, a lecture is typically written in outline form, on note cards, or even – shudder – as a PowerPoint slideshow. But an anthropology lecture delivered to a roomful of undergraduates is a particularly challenging form of writing. It has to convey facts and theories without oversimplifying while also engaging the mind and imagination of a drowsy, possibly hung-over adolescent. My technique for accomplishing this is humor: I try to write lectures that amuse and startle and even offend my students (McDonald’s hamburgers, Silly Putty, and penis sheaths all feature in my Day One lecture in Intro), to grab their attention and reel them in to the concepts. And yes, I use PowerPoint – it requires all my creativity as a writer to condense my message into brief and pithy takeaways that fit the 80-minute timeframe of the class session.

Peer reviewing also demands its own unique forms of writing. If done correctly, a review of a manuscript or grant proposal can contribute to both the advancement of anthropological knowledge and the career of a fellow academic. Done poorly, of course, reviewing can be destructive and devastating to those same things. Writing a peer review requires us to be critical without being nasty, to offer productive suggestions for how to improve a piece of work without being offended when our own work is not cited. Again, this calls on the writer to deploy all of her talents to advance the scholarship without eviscerating the scholar. Not easy work, but vitally important, and another form of writing that we don’t recognize as writing.

Even in my personal life, I am constantly writing. I have two sons, one a sophomore in college, the other a 16-year-old high school junior, neither of whom seems capable of verbal communication. But, remarkably, they are both quite willing to correspond with me via text. This is especially useful with Ben, who is away at college. We text several times a week – about his work, his friends, and our shared love of New England sports teams. Eli still lives at home, but only emerges from his cave for meals and disappears just as quickly afterward. But he, too, communicates by text. I may be downstairs and he upstairs, but we write back and forth to each other, sometimes about important topics (global climate change is very much on his mind). Though it typically occurs in short bursts and can be dictated rather than typed, texting is writing. Like the other forms of writing I’ve mentioned, texts can inspire, provoke, and deflate. They can forge relationships or destroy them with a word.

Ethnographic theater. Photo by Peter Quach.
Ethnographic theater. Photo by Peter Quach.

There are many other kinds of writing that form part of our daily lives as academics, anthropologists, and modern humans. With my graduate assistant and immigrant research collaborators, I recently wrote (and performed) a play (as shown in the above photo). I’ve written op-eds and letters to the editor. Many of us write like this. We tweet, we comment, and we blurb. We write fieldnotes and syllabi and blog entries and Writer’s Workshop contributions. We provide feedback on student papers and craft emails to colleagues and collaborators. Each of these is its own genre, with its own particular rules and styles. We have to master all of them.

While no one would equate a text message with an ethnographic text, recognizing both as real writing helps me feel better about things, as I go through my daily routine. Writers, they say, write; the best way to improve your writing is through a regular writing practice. Instead of feeling frustrated that I don’t have time to write, I now choose to regard all my work as writing, a daily practice alongside, or in advance of, writing other, deeper pieces. I still dream of writing a novel, and perhaps one day I will. But in the mean time I live the writing life, doing the work of a real writer, one text at a time.


[1] Currey, Mason. 2013. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. New York: Knopf. See also

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.

3 thoughts on “Real Writing

  1. I like your essay very much, Dan. As a former writing teacher and, now, as an editor, I’ve found that the biggest challenge is to remind people that they have an audience when they write and that the goal is to communicate. You do that in every type of writing you do: you inform, persuade, raise questions, amuse and even shock (penis sheaths?), never forgetting that you have an audience and something you want to achieve with that audience.

  2. Geertz once said…”I think of myself as a writer who happens to be doing my writing as an anthropologist.” Its better when you don’t have to submit to the authority of the State, the dictates of the Academy, or the demands of raising a family…tchau.

  3. What Neil says. A case in point, I returned to writing anthropology the year that my daughter turned thirteen and both my wife and I were comfortably employed, me at a Japanese ad agency and her at the translation business that now supports us. I miss teaching. I don’t miss committee meetings and other bureaucratic hassles. And the liminal position occupied by a self-supporting independent scholar situated between business and academia does just what Vic Turner said of liminality. You can see the masks, the monsters, and the people behind them and learn something from them all.

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