Ethnography is not a memoir. But, Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir is an inspiration for writers of ethnography. Memoir turns on writing about oneself, while the ethnographer should rarely be the central core of an ethnographic monograph. Karr’s gem of a book nevertheless shows how to develop a voice and thus avoid bugaboos common in academese. Her eleven tips for dealing with real people would help anyone thinking about ethical writing. The liberties to truth commonly taken by memoirists are thought provoking for those concerned with veracity. Reading voraciously is a hallmark of a great writer, which makes her reading list an inspiration. Karr has taught memoir writing for decades, and written two successful memoirs: (The Liars' Club: A Memoir, Lit: A Memoir (P.S.)).
I research economic and environmental anthropology and resource extraction in Colombia and New Brunswick. This is my personal blog.
I have a confession. When I write, I do it badly. What I have learned is how to edit. To revise and proofread. Now I let something sit for a week, or a year. I stare at my words and I make changes. Maybe I change it back. Then I undo that. When I commit words to screen, I do so by rewriting. It is anything but smooth. It was pleasant to read William Zinsser in On Writing Well who shares my opinion: “rewriting is the essence of writing.” I am surprised I did not come across Zinisser’s first-rate book before. Now, in its Seventh Edition, Zinisser wrote the book to complement Skunk and White’s handy guide.
Today, I have been struggling with writer’s block. Going from coffee shop to café and trying to start the next chapter in my dissertation. In writing this year, I am learning a craft. It complements the ethnographers’ art I learned in the field. In Colombia, I cultivated the art of fieldwork: taking part, talking to people, and writing about the experience. The hard part is ‘writing it up.’
Zinisser, like many other guides, tools, anthropologists, and writers offers directions to improve this craft.
Gruber and Merlin Mann discuss it in The Talk Show Episode 61.
Five in the morning, coffee and sleep on the brain. What to write? How to describe in words the feeling of fieldwork? Writing is what we do as anthropologists, but sometimes the words are hard to come by. This is my morning ritual, writing twenty pages. Academics are wordsmiths, we are writers. Our smithies are notebooks, pens and paper, and laptops. Most of my adult life I have been trying to write. To form a sense in words for others. Most of this, as a University student, sometimes as a newspaper editor, as a blogger, and increasingly as an anthropologist. We write about research, we write about the work of others.
Dawn is an hour away, my pen slowly doing the work of meaning making. Write early and write regularly is Anna Tsing's advice. A ritual I am trying to adopt. Write at five o'clock in the morning force yourself to put pen to paper. A procedure in which words flow freely some mornings and others, like today, the road is tortuous and tedious, my words irrelevant, and I fear ordinary. Plodding and anxious prose with little said between two periods.
What nobody told us is that when we start fieldwork we are becoming anthropologists, and we are becoming writers. Writers have to draft the text, and there are tools and tricks of the trade. Rhythms that ease the work. Prose is our life, our sweat, and our tears. Writing is what I learned to do in the field, and if no one taught us research methods, even less to write. The evening tradition of making sense of the morning, or the morning ritual of trying to combine words to make sense of experiences, rumours, practices and suspicions. Writing is what makes up the anthropology of sense making. The hermeneutic circle of life is the job of fieldwork. We are in fact novelist, albeit with constraints of truth, fact, and reality. Our writing is as challenging.
Last week I read Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer. There are three pieces of advice that resonate with me:
- Write early, and write every day. Write in the early-morning moments just after waking up. A moment of creativity. Cultivate this time, use it. First thing, every day. Pay attention to when those morning sessions are stronger, what did you do the night before? Do more of that.
- The rigorous mind. Cultivate the discipline to write early, but also set a time to write, a time that forces the creative side out. Brande says, "Set your self a time, say 12:30, and write for half an hour.” Come hell or high water, write.
- Do not read other people's work, do not talk about your writing, do not read the newspaper, do not watch movies, and do not go to the theatre. I suspect she would be appalled at blogs and Twitter as distractions as well, but her point is that writers thrive of an inner dialogue of our conversation with ourselves. The dialogue can be cultivated with mundane and repetitive tasks, but destroyed by words, read or heard.
The last piece of advice is the hardest to follow; and maybe the least helpful. I find myself reaching for the radio, for the internet, for a newspaper, for a cereal box. But, maybe there is a time to read, and a time to write.
In 1919, William Skunk, an English Professor at Cornell University, wrote The Elements of Style for use by students in his classes. One of his students was E. B. White, of Charlotte’s Web fame, who, almost thirty-eight years later, edited and expanded the little book into a grammatical gem. The books is a pithy and concise guide to good English prose; something than many graduate students struggling to write a Ph.D. thesis will find useful. It consists of rules to write by, admonitions on word choice—disinterested meaning impartial, uninterested meaning “no interested in”—, and advice on style. The twenty-two elementary rules of English usage clearly explain how to properly write. For example, how to distinguish between the uses and abuses of commas and apostrophes, colons and semicolons, and hyphens and dashes, or how to correctly join to clauses. The recommendation to always use the last comma in series, before the and, was refreshing; as was the rule on “’s” for most plurals, even “Charles’s toothache.”
More than composition though, Skunk and White lay down guidelines for editing. A list to post at eye-level on the wall. They are rules to expand my own editing tricks, i.e., “When in doubt, cut it out,” and to curtail my reflexive turn toward short sentences where sometimes a more relaxed approach to punctuation would be an improvement.
I disagree with the rule, “Choose a suitable design and stick to it,” because the approach is more or less the opposite of how I write. I find writing to be a long process of composition, revision, and reflection, and anytime I have adopted a ‘plan’ before I begin approach, I become stymied in the straitjacket I set for myself. Writing is never easy, and I have always found the process of revision even more time consuming than the process of composition. The Elements of Style provides laundry list of common errors in style and composition, things to watch out for, and advice on how to improve. As in most things, I am sure the trick to striving towards perfection is to practice.
Michael Ruhlman's cookbook is an epiphany for me. I have long been a bread baker and pie maker, skills infused in me by my mother, but I have rarely tried my hand at pastas, biscuits, cookies, pâte à choux and other baked goods. Ruhlman's short cookbook Ratio explores the continuum of these combinations of flour, water, and egg. Ratios are the key to doughs and batters. He uses the same logic in other sections on stocks, sausages, mayonnaise, vinaigrette, hollandaise sauces, custards, and desserts. The key to each is their mathematical ratio, the proportion of simple ingredients, and the way that specific flavours are in addition to these ratios. My epiphany was to see the connections between foods, and the realization that recipes are simply variations on these themes.
A culinary ratio is a fixed proportion of one ingredient or ingredients relative to another. These proportions form the backbone of the craft of cooking. When you know a culinary ratio, it is not like knowing a single recipe; it is instantly knowing a thousand. Here's the ratio for bread: 5 parts flour: 3 parts water.
Aimed at beginning cooks, the Ratio is, for me at least, full of techniques that I am not familiar with, and machinery that I do not own. Ruhlman stresses that this former point is important. Cooking is about ratios and about techniques. I understand the technique of bread making, but, not for many of the other recipes. I am now excited to return to a kitchen, with an oven and more than one electric burner, to put ratios to the test.