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Wild Writing

I cannot tame my writing. I create outline after outline, yet the words always leak out the edges and send out tendrils in new directions that raise more questions. I try to introduce a short anecdote to demonstrate what I am saying, but then that story starts talking a blue streak and leads into a whole other place, unexpected and organizationally confusing. And yet I cannot let go of these tangents. They reveal more and the unexpected places they take me unfold the world as a beautifully complex place.

Sigh.

But there must be structure. An argument. An overriding theoretical intervention. It cannot be implied, and some things must be spelled out. There must be a narrative.

So I try again. Cut and paste together another structure. Just focus on stitching the edges together. Think of it as breadcrumb trails, dropping in words where they are needed to lead the reader along the path. But this implied that I know the way, when in reality there are so many interesting junctions, and how do I decide which way to turn? Decide I must, for if not, the readers run wild and sometimes miss the most interesting vantage point. Sometimes it is necessary to say, “Look, look here!” Acknowledge the lovely side trails, but we cannot investigate these whole woods in a single day.

Trudge and tarry, trudge and tarry. This is one way to proceed along the trail. Rather than trudging, can I dance, or skip, or otherwise make my merry way? Maybe, perhaps at times. But if there is one thing I have learned from my years of long distance running is that the trudge has its virtues too. Trudges require endurance, and a willingness to push through some rather uncomfortable moments. This pace tends to be slower, but also opens up the vistas of a journey slowly, one solid step at at time. Trudging can also lead to wild places. In fact, a solid steady trudge is more likely to lead to those places worth going, and yet few may find on their breathless dancing way, for they grew weary long ago what with all the energy of skipping along. But the trudgers, they can tarry in places of dancer’s dreams.

Perhaps I need to balance between the slow march and the exuberant dance. Enjoy the exultation of surprising lines of flight, but remember to slow down and come back to the reassuring slow shuffle of prosaic prose. Because I am not on this journey alone. I carry other people’s stories. I am scouting paths along which others will follow. If my route is too rough or unexpected, my readers may get lost, and then what kind of guide am I?

Remember the best ride leaders. They create a route that leads to lovely and sometimes unexpected places. Long, arduous climbs are rewarded with secret caches of just-right sitting places with gorgeous views. On the way down, options are discussed, but ultimately the leader picks and takes us down descents suitable for the audience. The more adept can fly with glee, while others stumble gingerly, still learning. A good ending to rides can sometimes be the trickiest part. Too technical isn’t always good, since people may be tired and make dangerous mistakes. Nobody likes a boring road slog to get back to where they began, and going back over the hills again can be daunting. So finding the right cool-down flow back is key. Take the riders somewhere that keeps them on their toes in a relaxed, leisurely way. A way that allows for sure but easy breathing.

Now write…

Humanities Work Around on UC Humanities Forum

My recent blog post on the UC Humanities forum about the difficulties of facing the end of a journey.

Sharing Voice

Nobody every said writing ethnography would be easy. On the contrary, there are legions of articles, books, and chapters articulating the difficulties of this very pastime. It is a genre unto itself. Yet like so many circumstances, its difficulty cannot be fully appreciated until one is immersed in the process.

I’d like to think I take a relational approach to my research. I do not assume that those with whom I play and study need my expertise to properly elucidate what matters in their own lives. They are already actively theorizing their lives through practice in incredibly complex ways. Part of my work is to understand how this is happening and perhaps approach why. There is no question of whether or not I will get it “right,” since that would assume there is only one way to live and think about the activity of biking. However, as I tell my students, while there might not be many “right” and “wrong” answers in my classes, there are certainly better answers–or answers that produce more favorable consequences.

So I seek to balance their voices and stories with my own, for in the research process I undoubtedly became implicated in the active and embodied theorizing of this activity called mountain biking. This, in turn, must be put into dialogue with secondary literature and a general argument about the “point” of all this and why anyone should care. It’s easy to talk about, but difficult to find the word-order that does it best.

The way I craft these stories is its own theorizing. Word choice matters. Placement of quotations and embedding description. Show, don’t tell. Isn’t that the writing advice we always tell our students?

What fascinates me most about bicycling is their circulation as cultural phenomenon. This, combined with a fascination with how object and machines imprint themselves on our bodies, drives much of my own research. 

I also find that I think best in community. Being more of a dialoguer than an monologuer, the dissertation can be a challenging format, and the process a bit isolating. So, I have sought and happily found community with other researchers engaged in studies of bicycling cultures. What as until now been primarily an online interface will soon be an in-person encounter.

I am happy to announce the Bicicultures Roadshow: A Critical Bicycling Studies Tour de California. This event hopes to bring together some of the most engaging work being done in the many bicycling worlds that populate our roads, trails, shops, and various other time-spaces. Researchers, activists, and others interested in the social lives of bicycling are all invited to participate. See the website for more details, and please apply by February 10th. 

More thoughts and musings on this event surely coming down the road…

Being Bikes

It seems inevitable that as researchers, we sometimes become our projects. For quite some time now, I have felt as if I am biking. I do not mean this as a simple verb indicating that I am pedaling a two-wheeled machine. Rather, a fundamental part of how I am understood in much of my world revolves around the not-insignificant amounts of time I spend reading, writing, thinking, talking, using bikes. When my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances see something bike-related, they often send it my way. This is appreciated, and has helped me to grow my research archive significantly. When friends have a question about what bike to buy, how to fix a flat, or where to find trail rides, I’m their go-to.

Overall this is nice, and I enjoy my alliance to bicycling. But sometimes I want to resist. Because to quote the most famous doper of the moment, “It’s not about the bike.”

Similarly to many others, biking for me has always been about something other than a two-wheeled contraption. Biking is a tool, often a convivial one of the sort celebrated by Ivan Illich. On a daily basis, it gets me around town with minimal fuss. In the past, it has been a tool for exercise and exploration. When I came to Davis, it became a space to overcome my fear of basic mechanics and repair.  In my research, biking is a means through which to feel the traction between bodies, technology, and nature.

It’s not that I’m in love with biking, so much as I love what biking can do for me. It’s good to think with, be with, do with.

This was originally written as a talk for a panel, “Get your theories up and running with lively machines” at the 2009 Society for the Social Studies of Science. Three years later, the marathon continues…

I am curious about the endurance of academic writing.  I sought to transpose exertion interviewing, interviews done with athletes as they train, onto academics, specifically graduate students.  I found that athletes would respond differently to questions in the moments of physical exertion than they would at other times.  I wondered, would academics do the same?  And what would the moment of exertion look like?

Turns out the loneliness of the long distance runner is nothing to the loneliness of the academic writing.  Writing seems to be a very solitary activity for most graduate students I spoke with.  They sit at their chosen location and encounter the blinking cursor alone.  Some choose to make their solitary confinement explicit by cloistering themselves away in an office or bedroom.  Others choose cafes, but speak of the necessity to block out the sounds and bodies around them.  Only the Internet connects.  Email, blogs, facebook, and chats connected some writers to other bodies.  However, they often framed these other bodies as distraction rather than helps.

Despite the straining distraction of the Internet, online interaction still seemed the best model for applying exertion interviewing to academics.  Catch them while they’re at their most productive, and intra-rupt!

I asked them questions.  What are you doing right now?  Where are you?  How do you feel?  Are you comfortable/uncomfortable?  Does anything feel particularly good or bad?  Their response time said as much as the pure text of their answers, though I cannot say I understand the meaning exactly. I also interviewed some of these graduate students in person, out of work mode, at local coffee shops, where I work a lot.

It turns out we graduate students often do research and writing in quite painful ways.  Marge Simpson once chastised Bart for making fun of graduate students, saying, “They’re not bad people, they just made a terrible life choice.”  The Ph.D. comic strip makes the pains of graduate student life into its main source of humor.  But is this pain productive?  Is academic work like the old saying goes, “No pain, no gain”?

A little discomfort can be a good thing.  Some graduate students expressed a desire to feel slightly uncomfortable when they wrote.  It made them more present in the moment, and less likely to fall asleep.  David works in his office at a “really big desk” in a wooden chair, ornately carved made especially for UC Ph. D. alumnus in urology Dr. Blake, which David picked up at a garage sale for $20—detritus of a messy divorce.  He describes the chair as “comfortable enough.”  “I am sometimes temped to get a cushion, but kinda like that I get uncomfortable after sitting for awhile.”  His mahogany desktop digs into his elbows after a few hours of work, but he likes this mild pain, as it keeps him present.  He also describes the bodily soreness he gets from evening weightlifting sessions as a sensation that “keeps me present.”  For David, the sensation of embodiment made manifest through slight physical discomfort links him to a particular present, a space and time in which he must be productive.

Another graduate student, Katie, engages in bodily practices that for most would be characterized as sacrifice or self-abuse.  She describes herself as “absurdly organized—it’s a sickness really” and is happy to have found the “one industry that rewards it.”  Like an embodied version of the comic strip, she laughs as she describes the many ways her work habits have “wrecked her body.”  She refuses the sacrifice narrative, though, saying “It’s predicated on this idea that I and my body are distinct things.  You know, the body sacrificed for the sake of the intellectual mind, it’s so stupidly Cartesian, the idea that you have to sacrifice corporal or mental health.  They’re not distinct things and you don’t own them.”  Katie’s rejection of the liberal humanist body is deeply personal and embodied.  But it is also troubled.  Her eighty hour a week work schedule inflicts exhaustion and her body talks back.  Days come when she just cannot do a thing, physically or mentally, due to sheer exhaustion.  She requires her body to say “no” rather than negotiate with discourses and practices of health.  She says, “I love this more than I’ve ever loved anything or anyone.  I would rather die in my office at 35 than stop…”

For others, discomfort and pain was not a motivating factor.  Soreness came from studying, but they did not notice it until they moved.  For these graduate students, writing was often associated with immobility, and a disengagement with the body.  That which drew them back into the body—external distractions, fidgeting, uncomfortable chairs—was avoided.  Often students sought out “comfy chairs” for work.  These students often would not notice mounting soreness in their bodies until they moved.  They also located their pain in specific places, and often to specific behaviors.  Jacob tends to wrap his ankles around the legs of his chair, leading to pain in his legs when he unwraps them.  Dani feels pain in her neck attributed to hunching over the screen, and fears someday developing “the professor’s slouch.” Janet prefers to write reclining in bed, her computer resting on her chest.  This makes her neck hurt, but she enjoys it because sitting at a desk makes it feel “too much like work.”  In this position, she feels much less nervous and enjoys her work more, a sentiment that came through when we chatted as she reclined.

For Janet and others, certain embodied practice of academic work keep them sane.  Without a hint of a smile nor a modicum of exaggeration, David says, “I’m either disciplined or I’m crazy.” Janet acknowledges that she “needs a psychotherapist to change my habits, but I think (what I do now) is the best way.”  Julie and Katie channel compulsive work habits into high productivity and embrace the fact that they are wrecking their bodies.  It is the only way they know to survive.  To a greater or lesser degree, these are all ways we “do research” in the sense that Mol & Law talk about “doing diabetes.”  More than  text is made in this process—so also are bodies, spaces and objects.

So self-help becomes self-torture, and self-torture becomes self-help.  Sensation, even of pain, becomes a site of concentration.  A strain in the back tells you that you are alive.  A pain in the wrists keeps you in the present.  Therapy happens at the writing station, but the therapists are the keyboard, the pen and paper, the space, the lighting, the chair.  Sitting cross-legged makes a nervous student feel more stable.  Resting wrists on a hard surface makes writing more concrete.  Editing with a pen in hand grants more “control” and flexibility over the writing process.  So, too, the problems of writing, and the writing self, come to exist outside the skin.  Doris muses, “I just need to buy better lamps…maybe then I could read more, just pick up a book and read.”  Noisy conversations at the next table over distract.  Daniel is convinced that he cannot write without a cigarette. “I know it’s probably not true, but I’ll tell you, I’ll sit there for three or four hours and the magic won’t happen.  So I’ll run out and get a pack of cigarettes.”  And always, the next book will have the answer.  Jacob says he “checks out books compulsively,” and others spoke of the desire to have more time to read.

The limits of the body are leaky, and we make ourselves through objects and machines.  But it seems some forms of making the self might be “better” than others.  And how are we to know what is best?  We are confused, we are damaged, we are tortured.  Worst of all, we did it to ourselves.  We need help.

In theory and in practice, we have no idea where our bodies begin and end, nor how to heal them when they rupture.  Might writing be part of this process?  It seems the direction of writing to or from our bodies matters: obligation to or motivation from, which Joe will talk about more soon.  Coming to bodies, in the form of assignments, deadlines, and the like, writing can become an obligation for another.  Motivated writing lives more comfortably in the body, and perhaps leads to better embodied practices of writing.  Of course, in either case the relationships between the writing and the body craft physiological responses.  Hormones proliferate, muscles shorten, necks crook, wrists ache, stomachs paunch.  The bodies of graduate students I chat with are as damaged as the bodies of athletes I run with.  We refuse to take the time to care for our bodies.  We forget that the borders of ourselves and our writing are burst and the mess is all over our computer screen.

Perhaps the best self-help might come in minding our relationships better.  We can not only demonstrate care for our companion species, but also let our companion species care for us.  When Dani works, she sits on the floor and types at the coffee table.  While she does this, she also plays fetch, rhythmically throwing a ball for her hyperactive herding dog.  She is forced to leave the house, get away from her work, two to three times a day to walk the same dog, happily and unremittingly demanding her care—care for both dog and person.  David’s five-hour block of work time is dictated by another, his young daughter.  To care for her, he must care for himself through a regimented schedule and a discipline that allows for spontaneity.  Janet spend enormous amounts of time reading forums of what’s happening in her home city and gets nervous if she’s not doing this.  What seems like avoidance of writing might actually be care for connections, caring for others, both human and machine, as care for self.  Perhaps we can best craft our writing body by caring for others—both human and non-human.

I wonder if care for others can also help us to develop a different ethic around pain as well, where pain brings comfort.  When I run hard, a cramping pain seeps into my lower abdomen.  The day I learned to hug the pain, rather than fight it, I felt better and ran faster.  The pain did not dissipate, it simply became a part of me.  Studies of athletes reinforce my experience, indicating that athletes who acknowledge and work with their pain, rather than ignoring it or fighting it, do better and improve their performance.

Now, what would it mean for us, as STSers, to hug our pain?  What sort of communities of meaning-making might we foster to help mitigate the suffering of pain, to make pain more productive?  I admit I’m not quite sure, but I know it has to do with favorite pencils, lined notebook paper, laptops, scissors, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, children, partners, friends, colleagues, hormones, fingers, necks, backs, eyeglasses, word counts, clocks, chairs, coffee, whiskey, tea, beef jerky, popcorn, cheese, Modafanil, brooms, and whatever else makes writing a pleasure-pain, or pain-pleasure.

To read Joe Dumit’s perspective on STS and writing, see his paper on Sitzfleisch.

Please feel free to share your stories of writing pain and pleasure!

Places Go Stale

Moving is crucial to my writing process. Sometimes this is as simple as standing up and stretching. Sitting in the same place too long the body dulls. The mind wanders and fingertips flip back and forth between the writing screen and the Internet. This is a sign that stimulation is needed. The body-mind place is going stale.

This moment often feels sleepy too. This is when my eyelids get heavy and my brain gets foggy. And sometimes a nap does help.

Other times (such as today), I step outside. Stretch. Eat a banana.

Do not return to the same old stale!

I move from the couch to a table outside on the porch where I can feel the cool breezes. My mind gets sharper. My fingers feel a pulsing flow as if they cannot stand not clicking away one word. They practically shake with excitement.

Writing is always a bodily affair tied to place.

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