On Rhetoric

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I write about a lot of different things on here. Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about concepts in rhetoric. I’ve been trying to make them meaningful to a broad audience, not just folks interested in writing. A greater knowledge of rhetoric can help you become more media literate, which I think is a good cause.

This post collects all my past pieces on rhetoric, and as I add more (spoiler alert, I’m writing about stasis right now), I’ll post them here, too. I’ll still include links at the beginning of each post, but I thought a directory post might be a useful way point for those wanting to find and read about specific topics.

Posts on The Rhetorical Situation

Posts on Rhetorical Appeals

Happy reading! Let me know what you think of the series in the comments! Is there a concept from rhetoric you’d like to see me tackle? Let me know and I’ll get a-writing!

All the Facts about All the “Facts”

This post is one of a series of posts about rhetoric. Other posts in this series give an overview of rhetoric, describe the rhetorical situation, and discuss ethos and pathos.

In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” as their International Word of the Year. They write, “Post-truth has gone from being a peripheral term to being a mainstay in political commentary, now often being used by major publications without the need for clarification or definition in their headlines,” and illustrate this with a (admittedly, sort of vague) graph showing the sharp rise of its use over the previous year (though there are no numbers on the Y-axis, so whether we’re talking dozens of uses or thousands, I guess we’ll never know).

Over the past decade, and with a rise in the prevalence of online news reporting, there has been more and more hand-wringing over the presentation of “facts” and “truth” by politicians and media outlets—with good cause, of course. The current sitting president of the United States has a particularly egregious reputation for spouting statements that are, shall we say, less-than-true. The fact-checking website Politifact has rated over 800 statements made by the President, finding only 14% of them “true” or “mostly true.”

Graph of Politifact scores on statements made by Donald Trump. True: 4%, 34 checks made. Mostly true: 10%, 83 checks made. Half true: 14%, 115 checks made. Mostly false: 20%, 167 checks made. False: 34%, 283 checks made. Pants on fire: 16%, 131 checks made.
I love that “Pants on Fire” is a category here.

So, what does it mean to live in a “post-truth world”? Oxford Dictionaries proposes this definition of “post-truth”:

Post-truth is an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

This definition, though, begs the question: what even is a fact?

Just the Facts, Ma’am

There are many definitions of fact, and I’m not just talking about alternative facts, either. There are subtle differences in the definitions of the word fact across the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and the Cambridge Dictionary. The definition most useful for our purposes here is the second entry in the Merriam-Webster definition:

a piece of information presented as having objective reality

Notice that this definition does not say, “a piece of information grounded in objective reality,” or “information based on objective reality”; it says, “a piece of information presented as having objective reality.

I like this definition because it reflects actual contemporary usage of the term fact. Claiming to have “the facts” is something both Democrats and Republicans (and other political parties) do. Calling on a fact is a powerful tool in persuasive communication, and not just in politics. Any argument based on something the author claims is a fact has a certain persuasive appeal to it.

A rhetorical appeal, that is.

Logos, The Housing Market, and Aquaman

Back in ye olde ancient Greece, appeals to facts, logic, or rationality were called appeals to logos. When people say things like, “It just makes sense,” or “It’s common sense,” or “It’s the rational thing to do,” those are all appeals to logos. If something is the rational thing to do, it’s obviously the best thing to do, right?

Well….

Two things. First of all, just because a person claims something is the “rational” thing to do, or claims something is a “fact,” doesn’t mean that thing is, in fact (haha), rational or a fact. One of my favorite examples of this comes from Youtuber Hbomberguy in his video about climate change. He critiques a claim from Ben Shapiro; Shapiro argues that even if water levels do rise enough to make living in low-lying coastal areas impossible, that the people who live in those places would just sell their home and move. Put that way, it seems rational, doesn’t it? You’re worried that your home might one day be underwater, so you should probably put it on the market and get the heck out of town, right?

But as Hbomberguy so eloquently says, “Sell their houses to who, Ben?! Fucking Aquaman?!” People will have to move, yes, but it’s the selling part that’s not as rational as Ben seems to think it is. Underwater real estate is not exactly a seller’s market.

The fact is (lol), anyone can call anything a fact. That doesn’t make it actually grounded in reality.

Second, what is rational to do in any given moment is actually highly debatable.

Marshmallows and Avocado Toast

One example of this contested nature of so-called rationality comes from psychology. In 1972, a psychologist at Stanford University named Walter Mischel began a study on patience in children. In this experiment, he sat a kid down at a table, put a marshmallow in front of them, and told them not to eat it until he returned. He said that if the kid waited, he would come back with another marshmallow. Then, he conducted follow up studies that linked the child’s ability to wait for the second marshmallow (their patience, or what he called “delayed self-gratification”) with measures of success in life—higher grades, higher SAT scores, etc.

This kind of talk around “delayed self-gratification” is often deployed against people who, for whatever reason, don’t do things like save for retirement, supposedly because of all those lattes and avocado toasts. According to this logic, it’s rational to save for retirement, or to buy a house, and if you millennials would just delay your self-gratification (i.e., stop buying lattes and avocado toast), your finances would be in a better position. It’s only logical. It’s common sense.

But is it?

In 2012, researchers Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri, and Richard N. Aslin published a variation on the traditional marshmallow experiment. In their version of the study, they created two conditions: a reliable condition and an unreliable condition. In both conditions, kids were initially given some well-worn art supplies, but told if they waited a bit, the researchers would bring back some better, newer art supplies. In the reliable condition, researchers left the room for two and half minutes and then actually came back with better supplies. In the unreliable condition, when the researchers returned, they told the kid they were sorry, but they couldn’t find the better art supplies, and asked if the kid could just use the ones they already had.

And then they did the original marshmallow task.

Which group of kids do you think were better able to wait for their second marshmallow?

If you guessed the kids in the reliable condition, you’re right. The researchers had already proven themselves to be reliable to the kids, so they were better able to wait than the kids to whom the researchers had proven their lack of reliability.

Given these two scenarios, which decision is a more rational decision, the decision to eat the marshmallow, or the decision to wait? Essentially, the researchers argue that both of those decisions are rational given their respective circumstances. If you don’t trust the researchers to come back with more marshmallows (a reasonable assumption given their previous behavior), it’s actually a more rational decision to go ahead and eat the marshmallow.

The Power of Logos

Appeals to logos are powerful. In a cultural climate that prizes rationality and common sense in the way that we do in the United States, it’s natural to want to appear rational, to do the rational thing. But appeals to logos are just like appeals to ethos and appeals to pathos in that they are tools of rhetoric that can operate both for us and against us. Hopefully being able to deconstruct them and find the underlying messages in the communication you encounter will help you in your own decision-making process.

But what if you want to use appeals to logos to construct your own persuasive communication? That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms, one I’ll hopefully get to next time.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed the post, please don’t hesitate to share on social and follow the blog! You can also support my work by “buying me a coffee” at ko-fi.com/claysad. My initial goal for money raised there will be to upgrade my WordPress subscription, a big step toward legitimacy and professionalism in the blogging world!

Three Things to Improve Your Professional Writing

This post is part of a series explaining basic principles of rhetoric as they apply to professional and public writing. Check out the first post and stay tuned for more posts on rhetoric!

When you sit down to write something for your job, what’s the first think you do? And don’t say panic.

If you’re like most people, you probably think about what it is you want to say. You might also think about the person or people you’re writing to, and why they should listen to you.

If you’re writing something short and simple, like an email reply, you might not spend a lot of time thinking about these things. On the other hand, if you’re writing something really big, like a grant proposal or a technical report, you probably think quite a bit about them.

In rhetoric, we talk about something called the rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation is made up of three main components:

  1. The author
  2. The audience
  3. The purpose

Sometimes we like to illustrate these components with a neat little triangle.

An image featuring an illustration of the rhetorical situation triangle diagram. A triangle's three corners are labeled "purpose," "author," and "audience."

Most likely, you’re already thinking about these things when you sit down to write. You’re thinking about who you’re writing to—that’s the audience. You’re thinking about why you’re writing, or what you want people to do after they see your message. That’s the purpose. And you may be thinking about why your audience should listen to you, the author.

If you’re not thinking about these things when you sit down to write, you should start! Thinking through each component more explicitly can help you be more effective in your writing.

Fix this Social Media Post with the Rhetorical Situation

Here’s a quick, short example:

Say your organization is hosting an online trivia event to raise money for a charity. You create this great social media post with all the details, and you plan to ask everyone in the organization to share it. Let’s think through this piece of writing. Who is the author? Who is the audience? What is the purpose? And do you think the document will succeed in achieving its purpose?

Text on decorative background. Text reads: "Charity Fundraiser. Zoom Trivia Night. Date: Saturday, June 27. Time: 6:00 pm. Location: Your Computer!

Okay, so, first of all: who is the author? In this case, it’s you, but only sort of. The event is hosted by your organization. Can you tell that by looking at this piece of communication? Not really. It might be a good idea to add an organizational logo to the image so that the author is easily recognizable. Especially if it’s a big, well-known organization, that’ll give the post a boost in credibility.

Second, who is the audience? Well, you want everyone in your organization to share it, so, potentially, it could have a very wide audience—the social media friends of everyone in your organization! But, really, is that actually your audience? Or is it a bit more specific than that? If the event is a charity fundraiser, you probably want people to attend the event who have some disposable income and are amenable to donating it to the fundraiser.

And speaking of donating, what is the purpose of this post? You want to let people know about this event, but more specifically than that, what is the action you want people to take after they read the post? You want them to actually participate! And eventually, hopefully, give to the fundraiser. But does the poster let people know how to attend the fundraising event?

No, it doesn’t, because it’s a fake example I engineered as a teaching tool. The big place this piece of communication fails is in the purpose. If you want people to actually attend the fundraiser after reading the post, just saying, “Your Computer!” is the location isn’t quite specific enough. You’d need to give a link to the Zoom meeting or to the online ticketing service you’re using or whatever so that people know how to participate.

Identify Your Purpose

Understanding your purpose when you sit down to write and communicating that purpose clearly to your audience are both crucial parts for successful communication. But how, exactly, do you do that?

Well, it’s tricky. Especially because documents can have more than one purpose. Take for example meeting minutes—those documents that get sent around after organizational meetings that explain, sometimes in excruciating detail, what was discussed at the meeting. What are the purposes of those minutes? Here are a few I came up with:

  1. To have a record of organizational activity. Sometimes organizations need to refer to these things later on.
  2. To let people who couldn’t attend the meeting know what happened. Folks who didn’t attend can read through them to know what decisions were made and what tasks may have been assigned to them at the meeting. And speaking of tasks….
  3. To remind attendees what they agreed to at the meeting. I used to work as an editorial assistant at an academic lab that developed curricular materials for engineering education classrooms. I regularly referenced the lab meeting minutes to remind myself of all of the projects that needed my attention each week.

One way to think through your purpose for a document is actually to begin by thinking through your audience(s). Once you’ve identified your audience(s)—the topic of another post—you can think through what you want each audience to do after they’ve read your work. That’s your purpose.

Next up: Audience

Next time, we’ll take a deeper dive into identifying your audience for a piece of communication. But for now, I want to hear from you! Have you ever come across a piece of communication that failed in it’s purpose like this example? What about one that misunderstood its audience? Feel free to share examples in the comments below!

Rhetoric is Not a Four-Letter Word

It’s literally an eight-letter word. But you know what I mean.

Politicians like to throw the word rhetoric around like it leaves a bad taste in their mouth. They pair it with adjectives like hateful, divisive, or violent. They use it to talk about why their opponents are wrong or bad.

These are not incorrect uses of the word rhetoric. But here’s the thing. Calling out someone else’s rhetoric is, in and of itself, an example of rhetoric.

Academics (and recovering academics, like myself) like to quibble about definitions of rhetoric. They’ve been writing about it pretty much since writing became a thing. Socrates didn’t care for it. Aristotle thought it was a core component of civic life.

But what is it?

Aristotle said that rhetoric was all about persuasion, but I think it’s more than that. Rhetoric is about the choices we make whenever we communicate, not just when we’re trying to be persuasive.

If you believe that, then you start to see rhetoric everywhere around you—and that’s a good thing. Learning more about rhetoric can help you become a better communicator. It can also make you a savvier consumer of contemporary media. It can help you see when you’re being manipulated, and it can help you identify fake news.

It’s also a great at removing warts! Just kidding.

Rhetoric 101

Hopefully by now, you’ve been persuaded by my rhetoric to keep reading and learn more about, well, rhetoric. There’s a lot to cover, so while I’ll give an overview of a few concepts in rhetoric in this post, it’s just the beginning of a whole series on rhetoric. I’ll do some deeper dives into particular topics, and I’ll dissect rhetoric as I come across it in the wild.

To start with, in this post, I’ll cover the rhetorical situation and rhetorical appeals.

The Rhetorical Situation

Any time you communicate, you find yourself in a rhetorical situation. A rhetorical situation consists of four main parts: an author (or speaker), an audience, a message, and a context. Let’s take this blog post as an example. I’m the author, you’re the audience, and you’re reading the message. The context is that I want to talk about rhetoric to people outside of academia.

Let’s take another example, though. Say you’re writing a cover letter for a job you want to apply for (incidentally, something I can help you with). You’re the author, and the message is the contents of your letter—the experiences you share to illustrate your qualifications for the job in question. But who’s the audience?

That’s actually a more complicated question than you might think. You’re probably trying to get it on your future boss’s desk, but before it makes it there, it makes a few other steps along the way. First, it might go through an ATS, or automated tracking system. ATSes skim application materials and use machine-learning algorithms to select a few candidates out of several hundred to be forwarded on to HR. Then, someone in HR will likely look at it, and then finally, your cover letter might make it all the way to your (hopefully) future boss. So, your audience is not just your future boss, but also the HR department. You could even consider the ATS to be part of the audience!

So there’s more to the rhetorical situation than meets the eye. I’ll talk more about each component of the rhetorical situation in future posts, so stay tuned!

Rhetorical Appeals

If we think about rhetoric as persuasion, then one problem we have to solve when communicating is how to persuade. Rhetorical appeals are tools for persuasion.

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle talks about three rhetorical appeals, using some Greek words to describe them. These Greek words have stuck around since his time, so I’ll use them here, too:

  • Logos: Appeals to logic
  • Pathos: Appeals to emotion
  • Ethos: Appeals to credibility

As examples, I’ll talk about some popular commercials that use each appeal. Analyzing commercials is a great way to hone your ability to spot rhetorical appeals, by the way. And getting better at spotting them helps you get better at using them yourself.

Logos. Verzion makes several appeals to logos in this commercial. They say switching to Verizon makes more sense than “settling” for less 4G coverage.

Pathos. Old Spice has been the king of comedic commercials for awhile. Here’s an example of an Old Spice commercial appealing to pathos, or emotion.

But joy isn’t the only emotion that can be appealed to. The SPCA used to have a commercial featuring sad animals set to Sarah MacLaughlan’s song “Angel.” To this day I can’t watch it; press play at your own risk.

Ethos. Trident uses two main appeals in this commercial. It’s a funny commercial, so they’re appealing to pathos, but the phrase “four out of five dentists recommend…” is actually an appeal to ethos, or credibility. Dentists know what’s good for your teeth, so if four out of five dentists recommend it, then it must be good!

Rhetoric is an Eight-Letter Word

To recap, rhetoric isn’t inherently a bad thing. It can certainly be used for causes we disagree with, but it can also be used for good. Have you ever donated to a cause you care about after seeing a post on social media about it? That’s rhetoric at work!

Rhetoric and communication exist to get things done in this world. If you want to get things done, stay tuned for more discussions of rhetoric!

The “Science” of Science Writing: Reader Expectations

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing. You can read the first post here if you’d like, but you can also just dive right in!

How do you determine if writing is good?

Depending on who you ask, the answer will be more or less nuanced–good writing is clear and concise; good writing is engaging or persuasive. Some would argue that writing can’t be good unless its content is based on sound ethical principals. Others might say that any writing is good as long as it gets its message across.

George Gopen and Judith Swan, in their piece The Science of Scientific Writing, foreground the audience as a determining factor in what makes a piece of writing good. This isn’t necessarily a new idea; audience-centered communication has been taught at least as far back as Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

But Gopen and Swan specifically talk about centering audience expectations. When an audience reads a sentence or a paragraph, what do they expect?

Gif of a short clip from the Monty Python sketch, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition." Three red-robed gentlemen burst into a modern-day living room, and a caption appears, saying "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"
False! No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Turns out, readers general expectations are pretty easy to predict. And understanding and meet those expectations are core components of Gopen and Swan’s idea of good writing.

Purple giraffes fly over the moon.

See what I mean? You’re probably thinking, “Wait, what about purple giraffes?” I threw completely new information–a new topic, even–at you completely out of the blue. I didn’t even lead into it with the question, “What happens when you don’t meet audience expectations” because I wanted the sentence to feel as out of place as possible.

It pulls you out of the text and might have made the paragraph after it a bit more difficult to read, even though the sentence “Purple giraffes fly over the moon” clocks in at about a fourth-grade reading level.

So what are audience expectations? And how do I meet them to help make my writing better?

We’ll get into that next time. And speaking of next time, here’s a list of all the posts in this series. As each piece comes out, I’ll edit in the links here, so bookmark this page or follow the blog if you want to stay up to date!

  • November 8: The “Science” of Good Writing
  • November 15: This post!
  • November 22: The Structure of Reader Expectations
  • November 29: What’s the Missing Piece?
  • December 6: Taking Action

Thanks for reading–see you next time!

The “Science” of Good Writing

I don’t know if you know this, but writing is hard. And writing good–ahem, writing well–is even harder.

Sometimes, though, writers hide behind the complexity of their subject matter to excuse–or even brag about–their bad writing. Writing in certain academic fields, like science or philosophy, has a reputation for being just completely incomprehensible. And some academics are proud of this. They preen about the difficulty of their work and say things like, “It’s not my fault other people can’t understand my brilliance.”

Okay, okay. I’ve never heard an academic say anything quite like that (I don’t think), but the attitude does exist.

But this attitude butts up against the attitudes of other scholars who think that a core part of academia’s mission is service to the public good. And if the public can’t read and engage with your work, then what are you even doing?

Sometimes, from deep within these debates, advice emerges on how to make your writing better–advice like George Gopen and Judith Swan’s The Science of Scientific Writing, originally published in the 1990 November-December issue of American Scientist.

This piece speaks directly to scientists, who are particularly known among academics for their nigh indecipherable prose. It’s not a listicle, but it ultimately breaks down several strategies for improving scientific writing that are actually backed by research from my field–because it’s co-written by someone from that field.

And it’s kind of great, but it’s also kind of long. And the examples are directly lifted from scientific papers that can be difficult get through for field outsiders like me. So I’m going to do a little mini-series of posts breaking down their recommendations one by one into bite-sized pieces that are slightly easier to digest.

Here’s a preview of coming attractions. As each piece comes out, I’ll edit in the links here, so bookmark this page or follow the blog if you want to stay up to date!

  • November 15: Reader Expectations
  • November 22: The Structure of Reader Expectations
  • November 29: What’s the Missing Piece?
  • December 6: Taking Action

Thanks for reading–and stay tuned!

Revise and Resubmit

It’s been a week, y’all.

I got two short story rejections two days in a row. One of those rejections wasn’t even emailed to me–I had to go to the online submission portal to check on the story, where I found that actually, it had been rejected two and a half months ago, two days after I’d submitted it. If I did get an email, it got eaten by my spam folder. So that was fun.

Rejections suck. I know all the platitudes–not every story is right for every journal, the market is super saturated, part of the trick is finding the right fit, persistence is key, et cetera. These platitudes abound in academia, too, where I spent the last decade of my life.

I could write a lot of words about how the platitudes work in academia, but I won’t, because I don’t want to put myself in too bad of a mood. But one thing that academia has that the short story fiction market doesn’t is built-in peer reviews.

In academia, when you submit an article for publication, the editor may reject it outright. But most often, the article gets sent out to two separate reviewers, who read and critique your work and provide a recommendation to the editor regarding the article’s potential for publication. These recommendations usually comprise four options: reject, revise and resubmit, accept with minor revisions, and accept.

When your work comes back with a revise and resubmit, you receive comments on your work from each reviewer, and in some cases, an additional set of comments from the editor synthesizing the reviewers’ concerns and making specific suggestions for where to focus your revision efforts.

You don’t get that with short story submissions.

If you’re lucky, you might get some feedback on your story, but I haven’t seen any yet. Then again, I haven’t been actively submitting my short fiction for very long.

I’m not saying that the academic peer review process is perfect. There are a number of reasons why it’s not, but I’m not going to go into them here. It’s just that I wish the fiction writing… world… had a better mechanism for giving and receiving constructive criticism of your work.

I know these mechanisms exist. There are sites like Scribophile, which I have used and like, for the most part. And there are people you can pay to provide feedback on your writing. Most of the writing coaches I’ve found, though, focus on critiquing book-length manuscripts and perfecting your query letters and pitches to editors. And they’re expensive.

As they should be. I know first-hand that providing quality, detailed, useful feedback on people’s writing is difficult, time-intensive labor. I’ve done it. I did it for ten years. On academic writing, but still.

However, paying for critique services is an investment I don’t currently have the finances to do. Especially when I’m writing on spec, as much of/most fiction writers do. Every story you put out into the world, every minute you spend writing and revising and submitting and resubmitting is a financial risk. When do you decide to throw in the towel on a particular story and start with something fresh?

So that’s why my current strategy amounts a bit more to receive rejection, immediately resubmit to next venue. Don’t revise, just keep submitting. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. And then get back to writing.

So this week, I received two story rejections, but I submitted three stories.

I resubmitted the two rejected stories at different venues, and then I ended up writing an entirely new piece based on a new journal I’d found that none of my current finished pieces fit. I needed something shorter, so I wrote something shorter. And submitted it.

And of course, I keep writing my fanfic and my serial fic over on Tapas.

And now I’m blogging.

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.

Just keep writing.

What if I could be a writer?

Sigh.

I’ve started this post twice already over the past year and change. I’ve been trying to write a post describing several major changes in my life, and I keep starting and not quite finishing.

There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that some of these changes come with some heavy (negative) emotional baggage that I both do and don’t want to air out in pubic, so I err on the side of caution.

But on the flip side, the tiny optimist that’s still living somewhere inside me sees these changes as an opportunity and wants to talk about them and actively work to keep making them happen.

But back on the other flip side, talking about these changes and trying to make them work for me (by talking about them here on the blog) leaves me feeling vulnerable. What if I talk about what I want to do, what I want my life to be, what if I try to make these changes happen, and then they just… don’t?

But enough vagueblogging.

Here’s the footnotes version:

  • I got my Ph.D in 2016.
  • Then I got a two-year postdoc.
  • Then I went on the (absolutely excruciating) job market again and received precisely zero job offers.
  • My husband got an offer for a postdoc in Luxembourg. He took it, and we moved.
  • I continued to work as an adjunct and an online tutor.
  • This summer, I lost one of the adjunct gigs for the time being, and the other didn’t offer any fall work. SO:
  • I am a quasi-ex-academic currently without any adjunct work.
  • I have picked up a few semi-steady freelance writing and consulting gigs.
  • But otherwise, I have a bit more “free time” than I used to, thanks to this “quasi-ex” status.
  • I have been using this “free time” to write. Quite a bit.

And I remember how much I love it. I used to write a lot. Pretty much from the time I could use a pencil, I wrote things, and if I wasn’t writing things, I was reading them and thinking about writing things. I wrote poems, stories–I even wrote an entire YA novel one summer while I was in college about gender-bending royalty, my twist on ye fairy tales of olde about how gender roles are bogus. After I graduated college and spent a year splitting my time between retail and tutoring, I turned to television and movie scripts. But still, I wrote a lot .

Until I entered grad school in 2009. Then I was still writing a lot, but it was all academic stuff. I don’t think I wrote any fiction from that fall 2009 until the first full summer of my postdoc, right before I was set to enter the job market for a second time. Then I wrote, like a few chapters of a mystery novel and then stopped again until, basically, this year (2019).

For reference, that’s roughly a decade with hardly any fiction writing. Sheesh.

Sometimes I get really mad at myself for not trying to keep writing fiction while in grad school, because think of how much I could have written. I’d probably be published by now, right? Except then I get mad at academia for being so utterly exhausting that I didn’t have the time or energy to write fiction. It’s not that I didn’t have any hobbies while in grad school, just that it took up so much B R A I N that writing fiction barely ever crossed my mind.

But now I’m back at it! In the less-than-a-year since we moved to Luxembourg, I’ve written almost 40,000 words of a mystery novel, roughly sketched out a setting for another, written and started a handful of original short fiction pieces, two of which are currently in review at lit magazines (one for the third time–fingers crossed), and written almost 20,000 words of fanfic that I’m slowly letting out into the world bit by bit.

What if I could do that thing I’ve wanted to do for, like most of my life, could actually happen? What if I could be a writer?

I mean, I am. Like I said, I’ve written close to 100,000 words of fiction in the past nine months, and that’s nothing to say of the freelance writing, editing, and consulting I’ve done for actual money or the homebrew D&D adventures I’ve written. I am a writer–I am one who writes.

But the real question, of course, the one I’ve dismissed basically since failing to get into an MFA program the first time I applied to grad schools (and graduating college into a recession), is whether I could use writing to pay the bills.

Right now, the answer is decidedly, no. But I also happen to be in a different place financially than I was back when I first pivoted away from professional fiction writing. My husband makes enough to pay most of our bills, and my online tutoring gig makes me enough to pay the rest–and only takes up about 20 hours a week.

So here I go, trying to figure out how to make writing pay the bills. Fingers crossed!

 

 

It always takes longer than it takes.

My spring break began today.

Well, technically, my institutions’ spring break starts on Monday, but my spring break began today. I’m taking a few extra days to visit my long distance partner, who will also be on spring break next week.

We’re both academics, which means we’ll spend a bit of time goofing off, but we’ll also still work several days of the “break.” Before I left, I spent some time thinking about what I could reasonably expect myself to accomplish while traveling. I took a look at the research & writing calendar I’d made up for myself mid-February… and laughed.

I’m nowhere near where I wanted to be, and I probably won’t accomplish much in the way of research over spring break. I have access to some of my data, but I work best with printed materials, and I wasn’t about to load a bunch of transcripts or journal articles into my already over-packed personal item (my trusty LL Bean backpack). So I’ll probably spend some time working on research while I’m here, but more than likely I’ll work on teaching–grading, giving feedback, planning upcoming classes and revamping courses for next fall. The research and writing will likely wait until the following week.

I’m disappointed, but I built in some extra time into the calendar because of something my dissertation director always told me–something her late husband always told her. “Writing always takes longer than it takes.” And if that isn’t the truest depiction of writing processes, I’ll eat my hat.

A Coping Mechanism

I have a problem.

I’m not good at confrontation. Actually, I’m terrible at it, but that’s a subject for another post.

I’m not good at confrontation, and it’s that point in the academic job market season where my colleagues keep asking me to update them on my search, perfectly well-meaning people who want nothing but the best for me and my career, and the angriest part of me wants to look them straight in the eyes and tell them I have no offers and no more prospects for an offer this year. With no smile. Part of me wants to watch them squirm. To watch them try to come up with some words of comfort. To watch them try decide if they’re going to ask me if I know what I’ll be doing next year or if that’s too delicate a question to ask. To watch them tell me to try again next year.

But as I said, I’m not good at confrontation, and it’s not their fault the market is crap, and I don’t really want to have this interaction with people, mostly. So far, I’ve used two strategies. With colleagues I don’t know as well, I’ve avoided the issue by telling people I’m still waiting to hear from some schools; with mentors and friends, I’ve told them what my plans are for next year (and there are plans), with assurances that I’m actually pretty excited about the unexpected turn things are taking. And I really am. These plans aren’t yet available for public broadcasting, so I’m not including them here. Don’t worry; I’ll be plenty insufferable about them later.

I think one of the cruelest parts of the job market is the emotional labor involved in telling other people I have no offers. As a friend (also on the market this year, also with no offers) said today, “Who haven’t I told yet that I’m a failure?”

I don’t blame people for asking. Hell, I want to know how everyone else is doing, too. And I sincerely hope they’re doing better than me. It’s just so exhausting to put a smile on your face and make reassurances to other people when you just want to scream just a tiny little bit.

Like I said, I actually am really excited about what’s in store for next year, but I’m also mad. I’m mad that academia over-relies on contingent labor; I’m mad that graduate programs both continue to pay their graduates a pittance and continue to accept and graduate students at the same rates despite an already-crap market getting even crappier. I’m mad that tenure-track faculty are being asked to do more and more labor with fewer and fewer resources and stagnating pay. I’m mad at the ways in which academia continues to reproduce whiteness while paying lip service towards diversity and the ways in which it continues to ask more of femme academics while also devaluing labor it considers feminine.

So yeah, I’m mad. And a tiny part of me wants to act on that anger by watching people squirm. But I won’t. I’m just going to blog about it. That’s what writing is for, right?