“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.

Puzzling over a massacre

“There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

Kurt Vonnegut

For about three years now, I have been trying to find something intelligent to say about a massacre. I am not sure that I have made much progress, but I have just submitted my most recent attempt to a journal, so I guess we will find out soon (i.e. months from now).

The particular massacre that has been my preoccupation happened in San Fernando, Tamaulipas – in the northeast corner of Mexico, not far from the U.S. border. In 2010, the bodies of 72 undocumented migrants, most from Central America, were found in an abandoned building in San Fernando. The migrants had been abducted en masse and executed by the Zetas, apparently after being offered the chance to work for the criminal group.

I lived on the other side of Mexico at the time of this massacre, but even back then, I was trying to find some sense, some logic to the violence. I could find absolutely nothing intelligent to say; the killing boggled all of our notions of what was happening in Mexico, and what one could do to stay safe. The Zetas didn’t ask for ransoms from/for the victims. The migrants couldn’t offer much intel, and were not choice recruits for a group famed for its militaristic culture. Furthermore, when the massacre was discovered, it called down heat on the region, and on the group. There was simply no sense to the violence.

I left Mexico, moved to New York, and wrangled a place in a doctoral program. Some four years after the massacre, I started turning it over in my head again. The first draft of an analysis came out of a course on civil war – one of the best graduate courses I have taken. That draft looked almost exclusively at this one massacre. Almost all of that paper has since been revised out of existence, but there was an important kernel to it: if the killing made no sense from an external perspective, then I would have to look at internal group dynamics. The Zetas started out as members of elite military units in Mexico and Guatemala. The scale and brutality of the violence looked, more than anything, like some of the worst violence of counter-insurgency campaigns in the region.

My first attempts to see this work published brought one desk reject, and one rejection after peer review. I am still surprised that one of the three reviewers saw enough in that early attempt to believe that the paper was worth developing.

For the better part of two years I rethought and revised the paper. I probably workshopped it too many times. One incarnation saw me go too broad, trying to cobble together a very generalized theory of violence. Subsequent versions saw me re-narrowing the focus, until I had a paper that looked at the trend for the Zetas to use massacres and other indiscriminate violence. San Fernando still featured prominently, but with the intervening years I had learned of more massacres, more baffling violence attributed to the same group.

I changed my target journal twice more as I revised. Figuring out the right place to submit felt much harder than it probably should have. I guess there are no short cuts to familiarity with journals. It probably doesn’t help that I don’t quite pass for a conventional political scientist writing conventional political science. Once I found the right target journal fit, it seemed that it should have been obvious all along.

And now it is submitted, again. And I am in that weird moment when the thing that I have been turning over for so long is suddenly out of my hands. It is time to take up a new project, to fashion it into something, starting the work of years.