Writing through the pandemic with Ursula K. Le Guin

I spent the early reaches of the spring semester thinking a lot about academic writing. About pursuing an academic career out of a love of writing, and about how joyless academic writing can be. About academic writing reduced to a series of CV-enhancing products, and not as a valuable process in and of itself. Then a pandemic happened.

As cities locked down and universities transitioned effortlessly to virtual instruction/interaction, the online debates about productivity started. Isolation means productivity, Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined. Short-term productivity is a delusion, worry about securing your home. I sat at home, watching the debate unfurl. I stared at screens and Word docs about as I often as I normally would, but I got less writing done.

I can cope without a pandemic-induced productivity bump. I don’t expect to do my best work at the moment. I might not even advance my dissertation very much. But I would still like to write quite often. I like writing, and I find it grounding. Writing through a pandemic sounds to me less like something you do if you are coping well, and more like a way of coping well.

For writing guidance, I come back time and again to Ursula Le Guin. Perhaps this is because Le Guin can think like a social scientist, but she doesn’t write like one. I want inspiration from someone who takes a blank page and constructs an entire world out of it. Someone who approaches the blank page with a compulsion to create and imagine, instead of imposing the same one template on the page over and again.

In a 1988 interview, reprinted by Melville House, Le Guin sketched out her ideal writing schedule. In trying to write through this pandemic, I am taking cues from this schedule. It probably doesn’t hurt that Le Guin was a colossal introvert, so aside from Zoom meetings her ideal schedule looks quite workable during pandemic-induced isolation. Le Guin’s schedule is not my own ideal schedule, but has got me reflecting on how to build a writing habit that I might just be able to stick to. I have even annotated the original, with five reflections for writing through a pandemic…

One. Writing does not have to take up all your time. Le Guin scheduled as much time for preparing and eating food as for writing. More time for writing is not necessarily better time for writing.

Two. Five hours of writing is a long time. I am not sure that I can do anything very well for this long (I have been working on this section of this post for the past 1.25 hours, and I am flagging fast). I can, however, sometimes trick my brain by writing different things in different ways. Often that means switching from a screen to a pen and a page. Sometimes – not nearly often enough – it means switching from dissertation to reflection, or to fiction.

Three. Reading is not writing, but it helps. Reading widely is pretty essential for all good writers. It is also a great way for a self-doubting academic to pretend that they are writing, or preparing to write, without every committing words to a page. Good reading deserves time of its own, instead of being a prelude to something else. Set aside separate time for reading.

Four. Errands need time, and that time needs to be limited. Le Guin set aside two hours each days for correspondence and household stuff. Two whole hours, and only those two hours. If she’d had an email address in 1988, that probably would have meant two hours in which emails could be sent, and 22 whole hours in which they could not be.

Five. Know when you are stupid and enjoy it. I struggle with this part, and tend to tell myself that any hour of the day could be a good hour for writing. But not all hours are equal, as anyone who has seen me try to sit quietly but wakefully through a meeting or lecture right after lunch will probably know.

If you are one of the lucky ones that hasn’t seen your income decimated by the pandemic, don’t forget to support independent bookstores and publishers.

“Bird by Bird” is not about birds

This is my second year as a writing fellow at CUNY. Afforded a good deal of freedom in the role this year, I have been rooting around for helpful writing resources for students (and for myself). In the fall, several people recommended Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. One of these kind people bought me a copy of the book (get yourself a committee member who buys books for students).

When people recommend Bird by Bird, they often talk about the anecdote that gives the book its title. As a child, Lamott’s brother anguished over a school assignment in which he had to compile a book of birdlife. Lamott’s father (also a writer) provided the sage advice to proceed with the assignment bird by bird. Bird by Bird came recommended for precisely this takeaway message. Academic writing is less daunting when you break it down into small and steady tasks: paragraph by paragraph, bird by bird.

I started reading Bird by Bird during a day off, in the sunny window of a cafe in the Catskills. I started reading without a real sense of how far into it I would get, reminding myself that good academics don’t need to read every page or word.

Lamott has plenty of helpful advice about how to write bird by bird: how to break assignments down into smaller pieces; how to get words out before worrying about getting words right; how to sit down and write steadily at a desk, and how to keep writing when away from it. This is all, I suppose, what I went to the book for, and what I knew I would find there.

From early in the book, however, it struck me that Bird by Bird is not really about birds – not even metaphorical ones. Lamott’s most insistent piece of advice is that writing for the purpose of being published is never satisfying. To find some degree of contentment as a writer, you have to write for the sake of writing, and not for the sake of publishing.

The conversations that I have about academic writing are absolutely never about finding contentment. They are about efficiency, about how to write better for the purposes of finishing a thesis, or bagging a publication. They are about managing time, or managing notes and drafts. They are about the strict and unspoken conventions of academic genres: the course paper, the abstract, the journal article, the statement of interest. I suspect many of us get into academia because we like writing and reading – I certainly did. How long does that passion last, before we start to succumb to the publish or perish logic? Before the process of writing becomes something to get out of the way?

I started reading Bird by Bird out of an interest in being a more efficient writer. In getting more ideas down, and thus getting more publications up. Even my approach to reading the book shows how little we value writing (or reading) as more than a means to an end. I thought I would read what I could in a bit of free time. I figured I would extract some key messages and get onto more important reading. Cover to cover is not proper political science reading.

And yet, if we devalue the writing of our discipline – of our colleagues and mentors – to the point where the abstract, intro and (maybe) conclusion are all we have time for, then how could we ever come to value and esteem our own writing process? It is odd to realize just how little academia values one of the central practices of the vocation. We are trained and socialized into acting as though good writing is about getting published ,and good reading is about not giving too much time to those publications. From this perspective, it is hardly surprising that I rarely hear political scientists express a love of writing (or at least a love of writing political science).

This semester, I am thinking a lot about how to bring passion and contentment back into academic writing. To start with, I am celebrating rough drafts as the freest stage of writing. I am also trying to do as much low stakes writing as possible. The kind of writing that might be good in itself, and not good for what it becomes. I am reading slowly, sometimes cover to cover. The passion hasn’t exactly come flooding back, but that is hardly surprising. The academic conventions that leech the joy out of reading and writing are deeply set. They will not be easy to shift.

“Why aren’t you in Mexico?”

Back in September, I attended the Conflict Research Society annual conference in Brighton. CRS is one of my favorite conferences, and I have previously attended in Oxford and Birmingham. The Brighton conference was great, with the same warm and collaborative spirit as the previous meetings. But one awkward, and perhaps important, moment stays with me, and I think warrants reflection.

I shared my dissertation research as part of a panel on narrative and ideology. The room was full, and there were a lot of questions from the audience. One response took the form of a long series of barbed more-of-a-comment-than-a-question points, aimed at the discussant, another panelist, and me. Those comments culminated in a challenge directed to me: “Why aren’t you in Mexico?”

Although this is the type of comment that most presenters dread, I was fortunate to have an easy answer. “Thank you for your feedback, I am in fact just back from my fourth trip and tenth month of research in Mexico. Apologies for not spelling that out. Now moving right along…”

That is the easy answer, and perhaps the best that can be done with a rather lengthy comment during a rather short panel. Behind the question, however, was an important point. The commenter may have missed the mark with their question, but their expectation that I wasn’t spending time in Mexico highlighted a problem with my presentation. I had gone too technical with my analysis. I had tables and counts, but I was not telling a story. I wasn’t animating the numbers by showing what they looked like on the ground. I had made my research look like something that could be done from a distance.

The comment also left me wondering just how often I should be in Mexico. Another answer to the question would be that I wasn’t in Mexico because I was in Brighton, presenting at a conference, hobnobbing with other scholars that for the most part conduct research in one place, and discuss that research in another.

In this sense, the question should be an uncomfortable challenge for our whole way of doing academic work. Why weren’t any of us in our respective field sites? Because regardless of how deeply we embed during our research, our work is more structured by academic conventions than by the people and places that we research. We write into academic genres, we present our work in standard formats, to rooms of similarly socialized and educated researchers.

There is another uncomfortable answer back there too. Why wasn’t I in Mexico? Because funding at my institution comes with a lot of strings attached. Even those of us with decent funding packages are obliged to be in New York every semester, to teach or assist or just to confirm that we are indeed working. I managed to wrangle a semester in Mexico, but doing so involved a long struggle against the overlapping bureaucracies of CUNY.

At conferences, we present our research as though everything is a matter of intention, of making the best choices for doing the best research. We don’t say very much about the way our research is structured and shaped by the limitations – bureaucratic, disciplinary, conventional – of academia itself. We might benefit from spending more time in the field, but we definitely need to present our work to the right people. We might engage fluently with the culture and customs of our field sites, but we absolutely need to be fluent in the bureaucracy of funding institutions. We make a successful career based more on what we do in academic spaces, than on what we do in research spaces.

Why aren’t you in Mexico? A harsh question for someone of higher status to toss at a panel of students, but a useful one to carry with me. I will spend more time in Mexico, but not as much time as I would like. Rather than worry about how much time I spend there, however, I should be focusing more on bringing Mexico back with me. On doing justice to the lives and stories that I encounter in my research. On finding ways to make the field (whatever that is) less subservient to the ivory tower.

From cuaz to cuate: Training camps for organized crime

For years now – more or less the entire duration of my doctoral studies – I have been intrigued by the fact that some organized crime groups in Mexico operate training camps. In one form or another, I worked this in to most of my course papers. Once I was done with coursework and working on turning these papers into a journal article, the camps became a recurrent feature of the various articulations of my argument.

My intuition was that the camps represent a very different paradigm of organized crime, and that they are vital to understanding otherwise baffling displays of violence, such as the mass killing of unarmed migrants. The camps were first associated with the Zetas, a group that started out as a group of elite military defectors, and became notorious for using horrific violence. The camps suggested that these founding members of the Zetas didn’t only bring their counterinsurgency training with them, but they passed it on to further recruits. The tactics of war and state terror were being repurposed for crime in Mexico.

In reading up for the latest version of this argument, I found an interesting link between counterinsurgency during the Guatemalan civil war, and crime on the US-Mexico border. Reports have long circulated that the Zetas recruited soldiers from the Guatemala’s Kaibiles counterinsurgency force – which perpetrated some of the worst violence of the civil war and genocide – to fight and train in Mexico. Here was an odd little piece of evidence.

In Dan Slater’s Wolf Boys, a young Zeta recruit describes a training camp. He recalls that the boys in the camp were paired up with a cuas, which he takes to be a version of cuate, common slang in Mexico for mate or bro. The pair of cuates were responsible and accountable to each other; if one messed up, both could be punished.

Then, in Jean Franco’s Cruel Modernity, I found a description of counterinsurgency training in Guatemala. Trainees for the Kaibiles were paired up with a cuaz, which is an indigenous Mayan term for brother. The pair of brothers was responsible and accountable to each other; if one messed up, both could be punished.

The words kaibil and cuaz are examples of the appropriation of indigenous language and culture by the forces that repressed and exterminated Mayan people in Guatemala. The young Zeta recruit was unaware that the training procedures of his camp – down to the very names and terms used – were part of a long legacy of violent training that extends back to the counterinsurgency campaigns of the late twentieth century.

This discovery became a brief illustration in a manuscript that is now, finally, scheduled for publication before the end of the year. The argument made in the article is simple: that the elite counterinsurgency training provided to Latin American militaries by the U.S. facilitated state terror, and has now been repurposed by criminal groups that again terrorize vulnerable groups. Violence has long legacies, and people shaped into killers by these training programs cannot unlearn this vocation.

A narco-list of narco-fied narco-words

Last year, I assembled a database of narco-messages. Towards the end of this process, while I was poring over articles from a Guadalajara-based newspaper, I decided to keep track of the narco-fied terms that I came across. These articles were from the early years of the war on narco-trafficking (which started in December 2006), when it seemed like everything was being narco-fied.

Most of these narco-fications didn’t recur with any regularity; they were tested out, but didn’t become regular parlance. I kept track of the terms more for the range of terms than for their repetition. Narcomensaje or narco-message did, however, become a standard term, along with the closely related narcomanta (narco-blanket or narco-banner). There are a lot of forms that a message can take, but a narco-message has a characteristic form: mainly black text with some red letters or words for accent; orthographic errors and/or colloquial expressions; text printed on a portable, removable surface. This form helped settle the name, but the name also helped fix the form.

I kept this list out of sense of the absurdity of this trend of narco-fying the world, but this process also does work in the world. It changes perceptions and shapes understanding. Adding narco- to the front of words like this creates the idea of a totally separate narco-world; an underworld in which everything in the non-criminal world has its glamorous, dangerous, narco double. It inflates the threat of the “narco,” while at the same time setting it elsewhere.

In part, this list is absurd to me because there is no separate world; crime and all things narco are very much a part of this world. Crime is not the product of some different or distant underworld, it is the result of processes and practices taking place here and now, in the society that is our society, in the world that is our world.

  • Narco-agent
  • Narco-assassination
  • Narco-associate
  • Narco-band
  • Narco-bandit
  • Narco-blockade
  • Narco-bride
  • Narco-broker
  • Narco-campaign
  • Narco-canvas
  • Narco-cell
  • Narco-charge (as in toll or fee)
  • Narco-commando
  • Narco-connection
  • Narco-convoy
  • Narco-covering
  • Narco-crime
  • Narco-dialogue
  • Narco-dispatch
  • Narco-dispute
  • Narco-dollar
  • Narco-emissary
  • Narco-execution
  • Narco-government
  • Narco-grave
  • Narco-gunman
  • Narco-house
  • Narco-judge
  • Narco-junior
  • Narco-laboratory
  • Narco-message (another way of saying this; one way is not enough)
  • Narco-minstrel
  • Narco-official
  • Narco-pact
  • Narco-paramilitary
  • Narco-party
  • Narco-pilgrimmage
  • Narco-police
  • Narco-politics
  • Narco-postmodernity (because one prefix is never enough)
  • Narco-ranch
  • Narco-refuge
  • Narco-relative (as in familial relations)
  • Narco-shootout
  • Narco-shrapnel
  • Narco-star (like the star shape, yep)
  • Narco-summit
  • Narco-tailoring
  • Narco-text
  • Narco-video
  • Narco-war
  • Narco-warning
  • Narco-zone