Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers. The series will be featured every other Wednesday.
Our featured writer this week is Professor Jennie E. Burnet. Dr. Burnet teaches in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Louisville, and her scholarship includes articles on war, gender, identity, and genocide in Rwanda.
Location: Louisville, Kentucky
Current project: Book about rescuers during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, peer-reviewed journal articles, book reviews, and the email never stops.
Currently reading: I’ve been reading my kids’ summer readings list so I’m most of the way through The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Next up on my Kindle are The Interestings: A Novel by Meg Wolitzer and A Tale for the Time Being: A Novel by Ruth Ozeki.
1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?
Virtually all of my writing is non-fiction, scholarly writing in socio-cultural anthropology, African studies, and women and gender studies. Over the past week, I’ve been working on a grant proposal and a public policy research report. I am currently working on several articles for peer-reviewed journals.
Jargon laden prose is still in fashion in my field, but I think that most useful ideas can be expressed in everyday language. My first book, Genocide Lives in Us: Women, Memory and Silence in Rwanda was published by a university press, but I tried to make it as accessible as possible. I did my best to write it so that an educated adult reader interested in Rwanda, genocide, or women could pick it up, read it, and hear these courageous women’s stories of survival. My next book, about people who risked their lives to save Tutsis during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, is percolating in the back of my mind. I finished the interviews for the project in May 2014. Soon I will begin outlining it and laying out the stories I will use to illustrate the key points. Truth be told, however, most of my day-to-day writing is email—professional correspondence, feedback to students, etc.
2. When/where/how do you write?
When, where, and how I write constantly changes. I’m a chronic procrastinator so I’m always finding new ways to trick myself into getting down to business. Lately, I’ve been doing most of my writing at my dining room table (I’m here right now!). Our dining room has large windows that let in a lot of indirect sunlight. Because the family eats dinner here every night, I’m forced to clear away my stuff daily so the space doesn’t become cluttered.
On days when I’m really stuck and not making progress, I’ll take a Gregg-lined steno pad and a pen to a coffeeshop, a public library, or other busy but quiet place. For some reason, writing with pen and paper seems less official so I can get a bunch of ideas on paper and worry about wrestling them into a logical progression or cohesive argument later. Paper and pen are my antidote for writer’s block.
In an ideal world, I write best first thing in the morning with my second cup of coffee. When I get started early, I don’t fall into my procrastination cycles. Unfortunately, life almost always gets in the way of this practice. At the moment, I’m trying to get into the habit of writing on my most pressing project when I first sit down to work. Beyond getting my behind in the seat, the key to success seems to be: Don’t open my email, Facebook, the newspaper, or any other electronic distraction.
3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces*?
Most often my writing necessities are my computer, good coffee, a chair I can sit up straight in, a clear work surface at the ergonomically correct height, and lots of indirect, natural light. Music distracts me too much, but background noise is OK. Occasionally, I need a change of scenery, a pen with fast flowing ink, and a steno pad.
4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?
Breaking the writing project down into very small tasks (outlining and making a list of every piece that needs to be done). With this strategy you can make progress everyday even if it’s only 10 minutes at a time. It also lowers the threshold to start and helps minimize procrastination. These strategies have resurrected my writing since I almost never have several, uninterrupted hours before me to write.
5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
I’ve gotten lots of amazing advice on writing over the years from mentors, colleagues, writing group members, and friends. It’s such great advice that I’ve integrated into my practice so thoroughly that I don’t remember who gave me which pieces.
Just keep writing—even when you’re certain it’s awful or makes no sense. I often give myself this advice in the voice of Ellen DeGeneres as Dory from Finding Nemo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Hkn-LSh7es.