Writing How I Know

I’ve been thinking a lot about Wordsworth’s sonnet “Nuns fret not” for the last three weeks, usually around 4:30 in the morning (4:38 to be exact). I’ve especially been thinking about “the weight of too much liberty” moment near the end of the poem. I’ve been thinking about weight and liberty in my writing lately—what it means to choose a specific kind of book project and what it could mean to let that go.IMG_7242

This moment is an interesting/unnerving chapter for me. It’s interesting (and exciting) because Written/Unwritten is taking me to places and into conversations that feel so meaningful to the work faculty of color want to do. I really couldn’t have asked for a better first year with it, and I think it will continue to do good working going forward. I know people will want to talk about it more, and I’ve figured out a good way for those conversations to be useful for faculty of color and people who really want to be their allies. But it’s also been unnerving. I’ve felt this (mostly) internal pressure to make sure it doesn’t eclipse my British lit. work. I love nineteenth-century literature, and writing a book about it actually feels quite timely to me as I see the U.S. in a very particular cultural crisis, especially as I follow the tensions between black women and white women who claim to be their allies. It feels to me that the tensions of women’s studies feminism has spilled into national discourse and debates at the same time that black artists are using the tropes unique to eighteenth and nineteenth-century culture to push back against racist structures.

It will sound impossibly earnest and quite yawpish (in the “Dead Poet’s Society” sense of the word), but I feel I MUST write this book, and I can’t wait to write it. I had a conversation about it a few weeks ago, and in the notes I took to prepare for the meeting the first thing I wrote was “I want to write a book that everyone wants to read.” I’ve never felt that way before. I didn’t even feel that way about Written/Unwritten. I did that book for black women and other faculty of color (not a strategy I’d recommend, by the way), and it’s been because of the grace and openness of a lot of people who saw a broader community for it that it’s being read so much beyond the original audience I imagined.

I feel this book differently and babble about it (that’s the only word for it) to my friends and colleagues when it comes to mind (pretty much all the time). When there’s no one else around, I talk to myself.

Then, in the middle of a long week in Texas, I had an invitation to write for a publication I admire and longingly read. I’d given a talk in Denton Wednesday and was sitting in a hotel room in El Paso on Thursday, putting the finishing touches on a conference paper while trying to revise the book proposal, when the invitation showed up. I knew pretty instantly what I wanted to write about but also was sad to realize I will always have to choose between two modes and, as I’ve come to understand, two audiences. The invitation didn’t come from an academic journal, and so I was almost tempted to put it on the back burner. Almost. I decided to fold it into my writing schedule even as it meant I was keeping up this tug-of-war about my voice and some “audience.”

This has me thinking more carefully about the discipline of writing and how academic writing disciplines me. By this I don’t mean the intellectual back -and-forth between peers asking one another good, if sometimes tough, questions about the work we do; I am talking about the discipline that demands a certain performance of an argument.

So in the middle of this process, in this prison I’ve embraced, I’ve been waking up at 4:38 in the morning, wondering about how I write and for whom.

I am a (fairly) disciplined writer. I have also been (fairly) disciplined.

The proposal I ended up with was a disciplined one, but when I was asked if the book in the proposal was the book I really wanted to write I was stunned by the ferocity of my ”no!” And surprised by how little I’d understood my own ambitions for this book. If you’ve met me, you know that lack of confidence is not something I seem to struggle with, but if you know me you know I don’t always trust that what I want to say or write a) actually needs to be said or written and b) that I’m the person to say or write it. This can be a good thing if it keeps me from being strident or glib. But it was getting in the way of my vision for this book.

So I went back to the drawing board. I mean that almost literally. I got out a piece of white paper and drew boxes and then arrows and phrases and then pulled prose out of that. I’m still doing that. It’s been harder to restructure the book, but I think that’s mostly because I’m in such a hurry to write it. I’ve also learned that the Written/Unwritten work is so outward facing that I really need the kind of internal, more quiet work of this book—reading archival notes, thinking about images, figuring out the textual habits of abolitionist writers. After a public talk on Written/Unwritten I really just need to sit in a café with a pencil and paper and notes.

What I thought I needed to work out is what it means to write for my discipline, and then, as I was scratching out notes about why Austen may have been wise not to write more explicitly about the slave trade, that writing 101 command “write what you know” came to me, and I wrote a note to myself: “write how you know.” What I should have written is “write how YOU know.”

It’s a pretty terrifying thought. A whole book writing how I want to write sounds lovely. I’m not even sure what this means or if this is what we all do, and it just feels important to me because my second book will be my first in some key ways. So I don’t know.

I know it’s unnerving.

I am a (fairly) disciplined writer. I have also been (fairly) disciplined.

So we’ll see. I spent the better part of two days just staring at a book cover and jotting down what it shook loose in my brain. I’ll start reading again soon, but I’ve been seeing what comes to me unprompted by the discipline. I’m curious to know what I’ll pull out of these last years of reading, teaching, and talking about British abolitionist lit. I’ve already let go of the disciplinary boundaries of “R”omanticism because they’re not really useful for the trajectory of this book. And I’m less interested in the chapter structures I was raised to emulate. I’m curious to spend time this week looking at the discipline proposal I originally wrote to see what is packed in there that might be buried under the performance of my arguments. I found “brief solace” in this performance, in this discipline proposal, and it is written in a way that I write, but it’s not necessarily written how I write. That’s the turn I’m planning to make.

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On Writing What Needs to be Written

I was asked to write an essay for The Atlantic reflecting on Jane Austen’s bicentennial, and I was so glad to do it. I have a complicated relationship with Austen, but I’ve made my peace with it, primarily because I read her with such great students. So, I’m happy with her and about how she’s been celebrated. What I’ve not been so happy about is the trajectory of my research agenda. I started two book projects at once—a collection that turned out to be Written/Unwritten and a book on the history of the novel. Written/Unwritten found a publisher first, but it also felt more urgent. When I finished it, I planned to turn back to the book on the history of the novel, but that work felt perfunctory, like a performance of what I thought I should write back when I was a graduate school.   I gave it a year, but I kept saying I was writing the book on the history of the novel but then giving conference papers on British abolitionist lit. My thought was that I’d write the book I was supposed to write and then write the book I wanted to write, one about abolitionist literature, genre, sugar, motherhood, amelioration, and sugar some more. I wanted to write about sugar bowls and gender and kept looking longingly at these tantalizing books on the subject.

“You have to write the book that wants to be written…”
–Madeline L’Engle

There’s no one thing to point to that ended up with me in an administrator’s office explaining that I wanted to use a research grant to look in different archives for different stories about England in the nineteenth century.  Seeing my students ask more questions than I have answers for in my abolitionist literature class is part of the reason.  I also know the energy it takes to get a book done, and it just didn’t seem like a good idea to take that on without totally invested in the project. It also feels like I can do more to make my research matter if I take up the questions I’ll explore in this book. They haven’t gone anywhere in centuries, and now seems like the right time when more and more people are seeing what a lot of black folks have always known about race, racism, and racial violence.

It’s scary. I was sitting in an archive in April, feeling slightly nauseous about the work ahead of me.  And I don’t want to be a person who quits a project half way through. I’m trusting that what people who know me well say about me is true—I’m not quick but I am very persistent. I’m also trusting that I’m a clearer writer and thinker now than I was when I planned the other book.

Of course, the moment I started working on the book proposal, all of the research I’ve been doing was relevant to this project but in a new way. And at least one of those former book chapters is on its way to being transformed into a journal article—where I suspect it will actually have more impact. Somewhere between the conference-length essay and the 9,000-word chapter draft is a stunning, erudite consideration of Mary Shelley, Felicia Hemans, Genre, and Byron. I’ll find it. People have been interested in seeing me write more things like this Emma piece in the Toast, and I’m working on that too. It’s hard in a different way, but it’s a good struggle, and I feel lucky to have people waiting to help me get it done.

This means I write more than I used to. I’ve spent most of the summer writing (that and walking off two years of stress and anxiety), reading, and putting together a research agenda that makes sense. I’m this close to finishing what will be first big journal article on British abolitionist lit, co-editing a cluster issue on abolitionist lit with Manu Chander (it’s gonna be GOOD), and balancing two different kinds of book proposals. So we’ll see. If you’re a praying person, pray for me. If you’re not and you see me in a café or bar writing, buy me a drink.

CFP: “Alterities and Abolitionist Forms: Genres of British Abolitionist Literature, 1790-1830”

abolition lit art

I’m so excited to be working with Manu Chander on a special journal issue.

Alterities and Abolitionist Forms: Genres of British Abolitionist Literature, 1790-1830

Essay length:                             7,000—8,000 words
Abstracts due:                           31 March 2017
Essays due:                                1 November 2017

The conversation about literature that circulated in response to Britain’s debates about the slave trade has moved beyond considering Equiano’s Interesting Narrative as the representative text of British abolitionist discourse.  Debbie Lee and Peter Kitson’s eight-volume Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period (1999) was followed by projects that not only upended considerations of the Romantic canon as a whole but also made clear how deeply ingrained questions of national identity and race were to the major figures of the period. Lee’s Slavery and the Romantic Imagination (2002), Paul Youngquist’s Race, Romanticism and the Atlantic (2013) and Evan Gottleib’s Global Romanticism (2014) along with others have prompted questions of alterity, national identity, and genre that underpin Romantic-era literature.

As part of the current critical discourse that takes up questions of alterity and globalism in the wake of newly discovered abolitionist texts and lines of inquiry, we seek essays for a special journal issue that invites contributors to engage collectively with “abolitionist forms”–literary genres and formal innovation, as well as cultural formations (societies, organizations, coteries, etc.), and diverse, non-verbal means of communicating about slavery and emancipation (material goods, visual texts).

Although we are open to essays that take up issues and ideas related to the texts, figures, and movements associated with the period, we are particularly interested in essays that take up the following questions,

  • Can we speak of abolition as genre—as a way of producing/marketing literature, a series of expectations, a discrete set of purposes, styles, forms that cross traditional generic boundaries?
  • In what ways did abolition inspire or require new forms of literary communication, or revisions of traditional generic categories?
  • Where do form and content intersect in abolitionist texts?
  • How did the cultural limits placed on white women writers shape their complicated investment in the abolitionist movement?
  • How did abolition contribute to the formation of social groups in which historically marginalized subjects were given voice?
  • To what extent can we speak of abolition in the singular and what are the limits of history that can be exposed/transcended by theory/literature?
  • How does the use of new technology to uncover/recover under examined sources and the proliferation of online archives shape discourses around raced bodies, particularly for novices?

Editors
Manu Samriti Chander is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers-Newark. His research interests include British Romanticism, colonialism and postcolonialism, and aesthetic theory. He is the author of Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century, forthcoming from Bucknell University Press, and the editor of Egbert Martin: Scriptology (Caribbean Press, 2014). He currently is developing a second book project, Art Fights: Aesthetic Controversy and the Lessons of Modernity, which pursues a cultural trajectory from poetic works of Wordsworth and Keats, to the novels of Mark Twain and Vladimir Nabokov, and the films of D.W. Griffith and Stanley Kubrick.

Patricia A. Matthew is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University. She focuses on the history of the novel, Romantic era-fiction and abolitionist literature, and diversity in higher education. She is writing a book about representations of the body and the discourse of disease and illness in Romantic-era fiction. She is the co-editor with Miriam Wallace of a special issue for Romantic Pedagogy Commons (“Novel Prospects: Teaching Romantic-Era Fiction”) and has published essays and reviews in Women’s Writing, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, and the Keats-Shelley Journal. She is the editor of Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and has published essays and books reviews on diversity in higher education in PMLA, The ADE Bulletin, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, The New Inquiry and The Atlantic.