Thursday, July 9, 2020

Creating Context: Sociality vs Bad Feelings, part I.

I wrote in my last post about the writing process I used as I worked my way out of a nasty bout of writers’ block. Those individual techniques were very helpful to me, but equally important was the collective setting in which I did the work. In this post, I talk a little about the writing groups I was in, and the mutual writing support I was part of, with friends and colleagues while in graduate school. I then talk about some of the challenges I've had in maintaining a writing practice after finishing graduate school.

I wrote a great deal of my dissertation next to or across a table from several friends and people who I became friends with because we worked near each other that way. I can’t remember exactly how and when it started but I remember clearly asking another grad student friend something like “uhhhh are you working this week and if so can I come and work in your vicinity while you work, please?” By that point I was already part of a private workshop group with some other friends, and there were a lot of other workshops offering opportunities to get feedback on work and to read others’ work. I enjoyed the workshopping and got a great deal out of it, in terms of my own work. (For instance: at one point, my friend and colleague Joe Haker said to me something like “you often reference the part of Rediker’s Slave Ship book where he talks about the violence of abstraction and that’s because you think there are real social practices of abstraction that happen and which are violent.” It shaped my dissertation immensely and my book too.) I also benefited immensely from reading others’ work. I eventually figured out, though, that I lacked something in my writing life that I very much needed: some kind of writing support. I didn’t know what that lack was, I just felt scared and was procrastinating a lot and needed help to even start typing. That help was upstream, so to speak, from intellectual engagement with the content of my writing. I wasn’t sure what that help would look like but I hoped that maybe with another person nearby I would feel merely afraid, instead of feeling an immobilizing terror. It turns out I was right. Working near someone else turned the volume knob on my negative writing emotions down to a level where I could work.

Having figured out that I worked better near other people I set about asking fellow grad students to work alongside me. That eventually became a network of people who would keep each other posted and meet up to work. My role in helping that network come about is something I’m very proud of. After doing these work-near-each-other sessions a few times, I began to develop preferences for how to do them. I liked to meet somewhere and walk to a work site together. Say, meet near a coffee shop, walk around the block, then go in and grab a table. On the walk, my friends and I would often do a little bit of personal check-in and catching up, followed by a check-in about how our work was going and what we planned to do during this session. Then after we were seated we’d promise to only work on our writing – nothing else – and to admit it when we got off topic.

Co-working like this often led to some periodic conversations about work anxieties - “Can I interrupt you?” “Sure.” “I think someone else already wrote my dissertation!” “Oh no! Say more!” “Well, it’s 100 years earlier -“ “I see, so not exactly your dissertation?” “Okay, maybe not exactly, but still… oh and it’s in another country and it doesn’t talk about gender… maybe it’s just similar work…” “Can you say you’re building on or in dialog with it?” “Good point. Thank you.” - and logistical conversations - “if I’m going to defend next June when do I need a full draft by?” “First draft or revised draft?” “Oh shit, revise the draft?” “It’ll be okay, here let’s break it down on the back of a napkin. This is January, right?” “For one more week.” “How many chapters do you plan to have and what state are they in? Let’s figure out how many weeks each one can have.” In these conversations my friends and I figured out together how to navigate our projects and institutions better, and they were far less time consuming - we could think together in about ten minutes what would take 45 alone. They were also less nerve-wracking, so we transitioned back to writing more effectively afterward.

I will add that the University of Minnesota History Department had a robust and very well institutionalized workshop culture, that focused on constructive feedback that authors could actually use. I didn’t know this term at the time but I would now say it had a culture of developmental editing, pursued in an environment of deep mutual support. I also was lucky enough to be allowed to participate in the Business History Conference’s doctoral colloquium and the J. Willard Hurst Summer Institute in Legal History sponsored by the ASLH and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Legal Studies. In all of these institutional spaces and in the private workshop I was in with friends I was able to make and to deepen relationships of intellectual trust, so I felt more comfortable (or, to be totally honest, less uncomfortable) asking people to read my work and asking other questions like “how do you plan out a chapter? How do you organize your time in order to get writing done? Do you have thoughts on how to write a job letter?” 

I also saw a lot of work-in-progress. Seeing that work made me intellectually excited, and that excitement buoyed me a little when my own writing had me down, which was often. As I talked about in my last post, it has taken me a long time to stop judging my own drafts by the standards of published prose (honestly, not judging my drafts this way is still an ongoing project for me). Seeing work-in-progress helped with that. I also got pretty good at reading and commenting on work-in-progress (though as a lifelong midwesterner I feel a little arrogant saying this about myself), which has helped me in reviewing articles for journals and in responding to colleagues’ work since then. Commenting on work-in-progress meant that I got to be part of friends’ and colleagues’ work-in-progress more. Being in those relationships of mutual support with my smart friends about their excellent writing made me feel less like an impostor.

I will add that more recently I've found during the COVID-19 pandemic that reading work-in-progress has helped me to concentrate and to keep up my morale; I now think of my job as involving work with varying degrees of embeddedness within relationships. Work that is closely connected to relationships is easier to do in terms of both concentration and motivation, is less taxing, and is more restorative. Work that feels less embedded is the opposite on all counts.

After I finished graduate school I was lucky enough to land a postdoc at Indiana University Maurer School of Law's Center for Law, Society & Culture, which I started in the fall of 2015. My year there was full of rich conversation in work-in-progress workshopping at the Center and I went to workshops in the Department of History whenever I could. After a year at Indiana I lucked my way into Drake University, where I’ve been ever since, teaching in Law, Politics, and Society, an undergraduate legal studies program that draws heavily from the Law and Society tradition. I started at Drake as a VAP, teaching a 3/4 and being on the job market again. A tenure line at Drake opened, I applied and got the job - my luck held - which meant a transition to a 3/3 but with advising and service duties. Then there was life stuff: a couple moves, a third kid, buying a house, the house being somewhat old and a bit of a fixer-upper…

I like Drake, and my students and colleagues are very intellectually stimulating, but soon after I started I began to miss the frequency of work-in-progress workshopping and the degree of writing support I’d had at Minnesota and Indiana. The demands of the job and my life intensified my felt need for writing support, and my (relative lack of) writing life reflected that need. The infrequency of my writing also meant that my writing anxieties began to creep back up. These anxieties were compounded by worries about the need to eventually get tenure, plus a sense of intellectual loneliness as a now non-practicing writer with less opportunity to read work-in-progress. Writing anxiety also became its own source of anxiety as well: I sometimes fretted to myself “what if I get so anxious that I get writer’s block again?” Those bad feelings in turn made it harder to start writing on the rare occasions I found time to try. I once again found myself struggling with how to actually practice a life as a writer.

Eventually a pair of senior colleagues invited me to start joining them in co-writing sessions periodically, which helped a lot. These worked like the ones I did in graduate school and were tremendously helpful. It was also really fun to get to know my senior colleagues as scholars and writers specifically by talking with them about their work and their challenges in getting writing done.
The next milestone in my writing life came when I had a chance conversation with my Drake colleague En Li about our writing challenges. Professor Li was hired a year after me. As new faculty with young children we shared a lot of the same concerns and difficulties and need for a community of fellow writers. That conversation led to the two of us starting a writing group which we quickly set about trying to institutionalize. If I remember correctly it’s been going for three years and has become a key part of my life as a writer.

I’m going to break off here to keep the posts of somewhat manageable length. In my next post I’m going to talk about our writing group and how I organize my own writing life. As ever, thanks for reading.

- Nate Holdren