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Self-Help for Writers

By Daniel Tubb, UNB Fredericton

Anthropologist, ethnographer, writer? What am I? I spent seven years as a grad student (two in coursework, two and a half in both fieldwork and writing) and two as a postdoc. Only lately have I begun to identify as a writer. When did this happen? In the morning, I think.

The sun began to peek above the sea. I felt the air caress my face, inhaled the salty twang, listened to the waves rumble on the beach, and let my fingers patter on the keyboard. I had left my hotel room to sit on the beach after a conference in the Caribbean. My mood was meditative as an elderly woman stretched in a yoga pose, and I practiced my morning writing calisthenics on my keyboard: a holdover from fieldwork. In the mornings, I wrote questions to follow up on, first drafts, reflections on process, and notes for myself. I used to think the words were most important, now I’m not so sure. Julia Cameron (The Miracle of Morning Pages, 2013) calls what I was doing morning pages: a practice of both ethnographer and self-help guru. Do I write that last part with a cringe of cynicism? Perhaps, but, might the writing be as important as the words written?

Should we think of ourselves as writers? Yes. Prosaically, because our careers depend on it: finishing the PhD; getting the tenure track or alt-academic job; keeping that job; and advancing our careers. At each step, publish or perish. Aspirationally, because writing is a craft which requires both skill and practice. Learning to write is a kind of enskillment.

My cynical self asks why academics write so much that nobody reads? Anthropologists are as guilty as anyone. Michael Taussig (The Corn Wolf, 2015) laments this ‘agribusiness writing.’ Might one explanation be our training is, in fact, in agribusiness writing? I trained as an anthropologist, academic, scholar, and researcher, but not as a writer. Graduate school involved gleaning big ideas from convoluted, sometimes serpentine and labyrinthine and even tortuous scholarly prose. I read far more about my field site and ethnographic theories and methods than I ever did about writing. I was trained to think, but never in something so prosaic as how to write. The only university course I took on composition was in Spanish. If we read accessible and readable ethnography, it was on the side. We read the high priests of writing culture, but rarely the Stephen Kings of writing culture.

I mean it. Despite this clumsy transition, we never read any Stephen King. This might be a shame, because the career of a fiction writer seems more the model for many an anthropology graduate student: underemployed precarious obscurity for most, with a good income for a few. I found Stephen King’s memoir (On Writing, 2002), with its descriptions of receiving hundreds of rejection slips while writing in a laundromat, comforting as my then failed job search grew into its third year. King’s daily writing inspired my own. His golden rule—keep reading—kept me, well, reading.

Is there one way to become a writer? Sure. To paraphrase Antony Johnston, a prolific graphic-novelist and writer: Write. How to write? Tautologically, do what works for you. How do you know what works for you? Try various techniques. I read the self-help for academic writers’ literature. Although my grad school self would have rolled his too-soon jaded eyes, here’s some of what I read.

For me, the Writing on Writing series started it all. Anna Tsing and Paulla Ebron reflect on the call and response rhythms of writing before dawn. Tsing references Dorothea Brande’s (Becoming a Writer, 1934) advice on developing a habit: “Write every day, first thing.” No time to write? Paul J. Silvia (How to Write a Lot, 2007) deconstructs every such excuse. Heavens, I logged my writing for a year. After all, Anthony Trollope famously woke, wrote for three hours, and then ran the British Postal service—he was nothing if not prolific. Wendy Belcher (Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, 2009) breaks down the Herculean task of preparing an article for publication: her workbook taught me how to revise. Deirdre McCloskey, the prolific, conservative economist, recommends William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (The Elements of Style, 1999); Robert Graves and Alan Hodge (The Reader Over Your Shoulder, 1979), who have delightfully quirky insights; Joseph M. Williams (Style, 2002), who advises writing with characters and actions, putting subjects and actions at the beginning of the sentences, and cutting down on nominalizations; and Richard A. Lanham (Revising Prose, 1987), who describes how to edit out long prepositional phrases. We all have our tick-words, which Bruce Ross-Larson (Edit Yourself, 1996) lists alongside alternatives. Roy Peter Clark (How to Write Short, 2014) casts brevity as positive; then shows how it is done.

On writing books, William Germano’s (From Dissertation to Book, 2013) meta-commentary on turning a dissertation into a book shows why a dissertation is your last piece as a student, how a book has a thread pulling everything forward, and how a dissertation is written defensively with an audience of five: your committee. A book has a wider audience. Eleanor Harman, Ian Montanges, Siobhan McMenemy, and Chris Bucci (The Thesis and the Book, 2008) edit a volume on the difference between the two genres. William Germano (Getting It Published, 2008) and Anthony Haynes (Writing Successful Academic Books, 2010) describe how to write a book, select a publisher, decide between a university and a commercial press, craft a prospectus, and write the damn thing.

Ethnography is not journalism, but Kirin Narayan (Alive in the Writing, 2012) gives practical ethnographic exercises drawn from creative non-fiction—her bibliography is a gold mine. In a workshop I attended on turning a dissertation into a book, the facilitator recommended Jack Hart’s (Storycraft, 2012), whose advice on structure, story, character, point of view, scenic writing, analysis, and digression gave me a new vocabulary; Ursula K. Le Guin’s (Steering the Craft, 2015) advice on rhythm and sound applies as much to fiction as ethnography; and Mary Karr (The Art of Memoir, 2015) opens memoir as another body of literature to learn from. Ethnographers don’t write fiction, but Renni Browne and Dave King (Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, 2004) are invaluable on editing, dialogue, and techniques to show, not tell.

Feeling anxious? You’re not alone. Writers writing on writing might help: Virgina Woolf (A Writer’s Diary, 1973); Lafcadio Hearn (“On Composition,” Life and Literature, 1920, p. 53), who describes re-reading notes and a technique of composition I mirrored, accidentally; and Rosa Luxembourg (The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, 2013), whose early letters are on writing. I’ve found video inspiring too: Alan MacFarlane has many, but his videos on academic creativity and on writing come to mind.

Reading about writing as a craft has been inspirational. Maybe my morning notes won’t lead me to craft the next Great Ethnography. However, in my own way I have been implementing Ray Bradbury’s advice, “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

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