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Give me a Mardi Gras Break!

Last week, after twenty-three months and one day of teaching remotely, I went back into a face to face classroom for the first time. Despite all the anxiety I have related to Covid, I enjoyed being with my students immensely. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful, lively, group of graduate students for the last two semesters, and doing the whole re-entry process with them has made its easier than it might have been. My first evening back to teaching was February 14, and somehow Valentine’s Day seems appropriate. Because, frankly, I do love teaching, talking about books and ideas, challenging students to use their brains in unfamiliar ways, and to learn how stretch as thinkers and writers. The last two sessions of my seminar, in fact, have been about writing as a craft of its own. We read Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing, some excerpts from William Zinsser’s dated but still valuable On Writing Well. I also threw in a little Anne Lamott because a) she’s funny and b) her advice in Bird by Bird remains invaluable, even for us nonfiction/historian types.

I’m not entirely sure what the students made of those readings. Some of them registered just the tiniest bit of resistance to taking advice from fiction writers. If they didn’t like it, I’ll surely hear about it in the course evals. But, even if some of them pan those sessions, there is an upside. That is, thinking about writing in this inspiring way (as opposed to considering it an obligation or something I MUST do) has made me feel tingly (in my brain) and surprisingly ebullient.

Those feelings of well-being and happiness are also probably related to the fact that it’s Carnival season. I still haven’t quite talked myself into scrambling down in the streets with my brethren in New Orleans this weekend (‘cause Covid), but this morning, when I selected my sequin-y silver tank top before coming into my office to work, I realized the Carnival spirit was sneaking up on me. For the uninitiated, Carnival is a season that stretches from Epiphany (on Jan. 6) through Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras). And, though the date varies with the Christian calendar, this year Fat Tuesday is March 1. That means people are ‘bout to throw down for many days at time – and not just in NOLA. Here in the Gret Stet of Looziana, in fact, most substantive things come to a halt on the days leading up to Mardi Gras. From Thursday night forward, everything gives way to a magnificent stetch of celebratory mayhem. Because I am a professor at Elleshu, this means that we get a Mardi Gras Break too.

Despite having some administrative work I have to stay on top of, I awoke this morning realizing that because of the Mardi Gras break I can take the next few mornings and devote them entirely to thinking about my own writing, and about what comes next.

Some of you will know that I have been casting around and probably fooling around a little too much trying to get some purchase on my next book project. Cruising for Conspirators has been out for just a touch over six months and, while reviews have been mostly good (more on that at a later date), I’ve got research for a couple of new projects well underway. Despite that fact, I can’t say that I’ve gotten as far as I would have liked in making a firm commitment to one of several projects over the other.

At any rate, I’ve also been reading Jami Attenberg’s amazing memoir, I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home. It might be not for everyone, but it definitely IS for you if you (aspire to) write, are a women of a certain age who has a body, a brain, and a mixed bag of experiences with life and people. Go buy this book if that even remotely describes you! I’m not even done and I’ve already decided it is irresistible. This morning, I shared the following passage about writing with my students in an email. Attenberg is reflecting on conversations she had with students about writing and whether she thought they were good enough to do it full time:

And how do you explain that nearly no one is good enough, it has to do with how much work you put in, your diligence, your persistence, some fortune, some luck. And I suppose it has to [do] with your willingness to imagine things that aren't there. They didn't need me to give them permission to live their dreams. No one had ever given me permission to live mine.

"The better questions to ask: What kind of stories should I be telling? What would I be willing to do to make it all work? What do I love about writing? What are the voices that need to be elevated from my world and from outside my world? What secrets of mine would I be willing to tell? What do I know already? What do I need to learn? Is that a ghost in the shadows or just another person slipping into the night?"

My own students may think I’m crazy for sharing such advice with them; but I think what I’m really trying to do is help them get loose enough to get their research and good ideas out of their wonderful brains and down on to the page.

At any rate, all this thinking about writing got me thinking about my own work, and Attenberg’s questions made me reconsider following up on a colleague’s advice about the next book project. Shortly after I had an op ed published on the 58th anniversary of JFK’s assassination ( one colleague wrote:

. . . . after reading your perfectly pitched Op-Ed, I come away thinking that you must now write a magisterial treatment of the assassination as an unending cultural phenomenon that says all kind of things about American identity. . . . I really do see today’s short piece as a sign that your strong voice could exploit this popular subject again. . .”

I am not going to identify my colleague, but I should explain, quickly, that I am blessed to have many wonderful, generous colleagues, some of whom routinely offer kudos and advice about writing and projects in progress; advice for which I am generally grateful. And, so, as I sit here feeling all bubbly writing about Carnival, while typing away in my silver-sequined tank top, I think my colleague might be right.

Because I spent a decade (and a little more) researching and writing C4C, I already know a lot about this topic; specifically about how the assassination has become “an unending cultural phenomenon that says all kinds of things about American identity.” I have also come to know a number of authors and members of the historical and contemporary community who write about, think about, research, try to solve, and, quite often, criticize those who disagree with them about the causes of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Those conversations remain lively ones and, like the assassination itself, continue to ebb and flow in the bloodstream of American letters and media of all types.

At any rate, I won’t be writing that book this morning. I’ll be finishing this blog post and then going back to the never ending task of getting my unruly Inbox under control. In doing this, I often have to remind myself that I am a person and not a vending machine doling out answers whenever someone pumps a quarter into the digital jukebox that jangles my nerves with its never-ending notifications. . . .

Mostly, I guess I wanted to let you know how I am, what I am thinking about work, and myself, and writing (and I have an extraordinarily difficult time disentangling those strands of my life one from the other).

So, by way of closing, I’ll share a cartoon that was given to me by a friend during graduate school.

J.B. Handelsman, "An Excellent Defense. Let's Give Her the Doctorate," New Yorker, Sept. 14, 1987

I don’t remember precisely what inspired him. But, at that point of my life, I really did kind of see myself this way – as a kind of feminist warrior taking on the academic establishment for whatever failings I judged some of its members to have (and some of which I had experienced).

Two decades later I have mellowed a great deal. Somewhere in those decades I also came to believe that I was conflict averse. What I have realized is that the truth is more complex. I AM still willing to give as good as I get, but only when the matter at hand is worth arguing over and the person with whom you are arguing is really worth your time.

Soon I’ll elaborate a bit on this last observation but, for now, thanks for reading. I hope y’all are well, that you can locate your wigs, crinolines, click-y boots, and your sequined tank tops, and that, if you are in Looziana (in person or in spirit) over the next few days you have a great time doing Carnival in whatever way works best for you. I take this phrase WAY out of context but, let me close by opining that Mardi Gras works, but only if you work it!

Much Love from Baton Rouge.

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