For me writing is like ... a halogen lamp. Once I turn it on, I'm in the pool of light it casts and I see things with a startling new clarity. Some of what I see, I don't like: the sharp edges of bias or prejudice, the moldiness of bad thinking, chipped paint of emotions, the broken furniture of ideas. Whatever I choose to bring into the lamp's glow is forever changed, whether that be a memory, a sense of who I am, how I feel about issues and/or people, tricky intellectual matters, or something I've read. Writing for me, in other words, is a means of understanding the world and my place in it in a more comprehensive way. When I better understand myself I better understand how my emotions, assumptions, and ignorances determine how and what I see. I can start to discern that to which I had otherwise remained blind. I think people in general see what they want or expect to see, but when I write I confront contradictions, either my own or those of others, and only then can I start to negotiate or work through those problems of false consciousness. See I'm starting to do it now, using big words to express big ideas, harnessing language so that I can examine my world. Here's another example of how this works for me:
My areas of expertise if you can call them that are Mary Shelley, her circle (father and mother primarily), and the Gothic romance form. I initiated study in these areas because I was hungry to see how these maverick writers used a popular tradition to explore a radical belief system. The more I work on Shelley, though, the more inescapable becomes a sense of her ambivalence about women's rights, about Empire, and about colonized peoples. So, my writing in this area has not served to reassure my assumptions or my original thoughts on the matter. Just the opposite, which is what makes it such an incredibly powerful tool when we give ourselves over to it. Writing does not always lead to self-reassurance.
Other types of writing I do on a daily basis include the following:
- commenting on student papers: I get enormous pleasure out of reading student work. It's not always easy, however, and can be very intellectually demanding in part because I have to know where a student is coming from, his/her subject area, in order to respond appropriately. I try not to grade more than 5 papers at a time because it absolutely tires me out. I like to be a reader who is "there" with the writer, and when I do that there's not much of me left over.
- responding to something I've read: I firmly believe that writing has to be given nourishment. These nutrients can come from many directions but for me reading what others think and write is essential to move my writing and ideas forward. I love to find wonderful quotes and write them on sticky pads around the house so I can contemplate them as I do the dishes or brush my teeth. When I am particularly intrigued by an idea or piece I write out formal response logs, usually in the form of an annotation in my Endnotes program. The response includes the quotations I thought were especially important and/or relevant, as well as my reactions. I have to admit, in my time drained life this is a special luxury. I'm looking around my office and see 5 books I need to annotate and I'm starting to flip out because school starts tomorrow and I need TIME to annotate effectively. Deep breath.
- syllabi and reading schedules: course design is a fascinating area. I can be creative but I have to be extremely clear on what I want and how I want it. That takes time and practice. I'm constantly revising and tweaking my syllabi because the first time I teach a class it's a draft and always needs adjustment.
- Email: I write a gazillion emails, some to close friends others to colleagues. Ironically, the letters to close friends are usually one or two line letters whereas the pieces I send off professionally are longer and more descriptive. I really want to start getting into old fashioned letter writing. There is something wonderfully affirming and satisfying about opening one's maibox and finding a thick envelope with a letter inside. The texture and weight of the stationary, the smell of the writer's pipe or perfume still lingering on the page: reading should be a sensory experience. Email just doesn't capture a person the way traditional correspondence used to ...
- Grants: I've not been terribly successful at this but am going to enter into the fray again this season. I have a wonderful digital humanities project that needs to be funded. There's a trick, a skill to successful grant writing and I'm just learning my way.
- Scholarship: Easily the most demanding and difficult and rewarding of my writing areas. Scholarship requires reading what other people think and theorize in your area, and that can be stimulating, baffling and affirming. Sometimes all at once.
Stuff I'd like to write or write about
- The family farm. It has been in my father's family since the early seventeenth century. It's located in Callaway, Virgina. We grow apples, peaches, nectarines, cattle, corn. The community around the farm is Brethren the original peace and love congregation. I would love to record my early memories of the farm and of the people who had such a profound affect on me.
- Going to Temple.
- My current spiritual quest: how being a mother has upped the ante in some ways. How my son is affirmation that life is good
- Working and growing up in daddy's veterinary hospital
- How Southern women can get away with calling their fathers "daddy" in public
- My brothers
- My father
- My mother and her sisters--so powerful to be with them around the dining room table.
- My novel. I'd like more time to pursue this cat and mouse game I have set up, to explore the character's inner lives and what they have to say.
- A biography of my grandmother, Lula. Noting the extraordinary in the ordinary: that's my goal.
- A poem to my mother. Not some maudlin crap but a real, gut-wrenching, honest poem that affects her in some profound way.
- descriptions of my son as he gets older, really detailed inch by inch portraits of his development.
- love songs to my husband. But not the mushy gushy icky kind. Married love is so much more profound than all that.
- A short story featuring my cat. Silly I know, but I think he has a lot to say about the world.
That's all for now. What kind of writing do you like to do? What is writing like for you? Like a pizza with lots of toppings, sometimes too thick and bready, other times to crisp? Like taking a shower: cleansing and something that the folks around you appreciate (smelly writing and b.o., now that would be an essay topic!)