January 2013: Six on a Sunday morning and still middle-of-the-night dark in Seattle. I have pulled myself out of bed hours before sunrise and gone to shiver at my desk for the sake of an administrative task: I must make a list of my 2013 goals to share with Bruce Burgett, dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington-Bothell, where I am a third-year, tenure-track professor. I am particularly vexed by this assignment because I have been given only the weekend to prepare, and I am struggling with it because I am burned out.
My book, an ethnography of community-industry relations in a Louisiana refinery town called Refining Expertise, will be out soon, and—after years of early mornings spent scrambling to write a few pages before turning to class and committee work—there is nothing left for me to do. This leaves me at loose ends. Spending time on the book had become a comforting routine, and I miss it. But finishing the book has left me feeling spent, and although I’m still writing articles, nothing else has yet come to capture my attention, or affection.
The one thing I feel truly inspired to do, in the lonely dim of this Seattle winter, is write fiction. Fiction has long been an aspiration struggling to find a foothold in my everyday activities, and after years of trying to squeeze it in to exhausted evenings and weekends crammed with class prep, I have given over my precious early morning hours to writing a short story. I appease my guilt about neglecting “real” work by tackling a story that illustrates an important argument of my book: the people who live with oil refineries are ambivalent about both their industrial neighbors and their environmentalist champions. It will be the story of a refinery neighbor who can’t bear the pity of her well-meaning allies and snaps at a public event. It never happened, but having witnessed the intense and contradictory emotions that fuel community campaigns, I know that it could. And what if it did?
So far I’ve managed only a few flat character sketches and an unconvincing outline, but I’d still much rather be working on the story than conjuring up goals on demand. I know what my list of goals should say, of course, but the task of enumerating half-finished journal articles and grant application deadlines bores the words right out of me, and no list emerges.
Finally I decide that I’m just going to say it: my goal is to write fiction. It’s an interdisciplinary program. My tenure-making book is done. I might get away with it. But how am I going to say it?
One of the things that will take a chunk of my time in the coming year is the Think, Write, Publish program. I have been involved in CSPO’s NSF-sponsored project since 2010, when, as a Next Generation Policy Scholar, I spent six months struggling to write an article about my research while entirely missing the point of the program: to teach argument-oriented academics to tell stories. Once I finally got it, I was captivated by the possibilities: who could you reach with a narrative that you couldn’t with an argument? What could you say in a story that you couldn’t in a journal article? I wasn’t a total convert; I worried that my policy points would get lost in narrative, and when I tried to identify narrative-worth characters and scenes in my research, I found myself drawn to people whose backstory I could never know, and to answering not “what happened?” but “what if?” Still, I was hooked, and I agreed to be a mentor to the second class of fellows in the 2012-13 academic year.
I list these activities among the objectives that I will share with Bruce—continuing as a mentor for TWP and writing an essay about my role—as well as other aims that have emerged from the things I’m learning and connections I’m making in the program. As I do, I realize that all of my work with narrative, including my short story, serves one overarching goal: to share what I know with a broader audience than my academic work will ever reach. I write “investigate story-telling as a form of public scholarship” as a header for my objectives and send off the document, nervous about how it will be received, but pleased with what I’m setting out to do.
The next morning, I sit down with Bruce in his office, where floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are lined with cultural theory and literary criticism. I lead with my storytelling aims. He examines my list of objectives as I chatter on about narrative as a promising vehicle for public scholarship. When I am through, he has only two words for me.
“Makes sense,” he says. Writing fiction officially becomes part of my scholarly work.
July 2013: The sun now wakes me at an hour that no reasonable person could consider “morning,” and I pop out of bed to write—not fiction, which has fallen by the wayside as I have gotten excited about my new research project, but a proposal to the National Science Foundation for five years of funding under their Early Career Development Grant program. If I get the CAREER Award, perhaps the most prestigious grant available to an individual investigator in my field, I will have the resources to work with air-monitoring activists to better mobilize the large quantities of data they now have access to—something that I fantasize about in my TWP essay with Rachel Zurer, “Drowning in Data.”
As I sit in my sun-yellow office, writing manically throughout the long Seattle days, I struggle with managing the flow of information in the grant proposal. I have been taught to make the research question and the rationale for it unmistakable from the first paragraph, but my question comes from noticing changes in activist discourse over more than a decade. I write and re-write that all-important first paragraph to give the reader enough background to understand my question while at the same time not overwhelming them with detail before they get to the crux of what I hope to accomplish. Finally I achieve a draft that I think strikes a reasonable balance between background and brevity in the first paragraph. I send it off to Ben Cohen, a colleague who has been successful getting grants from the NSF in the past.
When we speak a few days later, Ben has lots of ideas about how I can improve my proposal. But he doesn’t comment on how I’ve managed the first paragraph; instead, he remarks on a story I started a couple pages in. That, he said, was where the proposal really got compelling. I should start with that.
His suggestion goes against everything I know about writing grant proposals, but Ben points out that, in addressing the NSF’s question about the “broader impacts” of my work, I said that I would write creative nonfiction articles as well as academic ones, citing the experience I’ve gained through TWP. Starting with my narrative, he argues, will further my case by demonstrating the story-telling abilities I’ve been cultivating.
I take his advice. The project description I submit to the NSF begins with the story of a 1994 accident at a California oil refinery and how air monitoring practices developed in its wake. I don’t expect my proposal to be successful—CAREER awards are notoriously hard to get—but I am pleased to have set myself an agenda for the next several years that includes everything I’ve always wanted to do … except write fiction.
November 2013: I sit in the office another dean, Donna Murasko, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University. Books are not a presence here; the office is sparse and executive. Dean Murasko explains to me that she has the final say on who is hired for the assistant professor position I am interviewing for, then asks me about my research. I describe the agenda laid out in my grant proposal. On my aspirations to write fiction, I remain silent. This is not a dean to whom they would make sense. And I really want this job—even though I might have to give up my storytelling ambitions. It is more research-focused than my current position, and near family and friends in an area that I consider home.
When I am offered the job, I know immediately I will accept. But I also intend to negotiate the offer. I write to the NSF to ask about the status of my grant proposal and am thrilled to be informed that they plan to fund my project. The award not only puts me in a stronger position to negotiate; it also creates a mandate for the publicly engaged research and creative nonfiction writing integral to the proposal. It is only fiction, it seems, that I will need to cut out of 2014’s professional goals.
November 2014: Six on a Sunday morning, and while it is not yet light, I can see the sky beginning to pink up from where I sit in the bedroom of my Center City apartment, cross-legged on my bed. Laptop in my lap, I am up early to keep a promise to myself: I will devote two evenings a week and 3 hours every Saturday and Sunday to writing fiction. Moving to Philadelphia has enabled my new resolve: this is where I have wanted to make my life, and now that I am able to do so, I must make the life that I want. As I contemplated what that meant for me, one stubborn desire kept reasserting myself: I want to be a novelist.
I have promised myself time to write before. But this time it is different: I am letting my writing commitment drive my schedule, refusing social engagements on writing nights, and, on Sundays, getting up before dawn to sneak in my three hours before I make the trek to a Delaware County suburb to share Sunday dinner with my oldest friend and her family.
As natural light begins to filter into the room, I immerse myself in the refinery town that I have created for my story, a town that is deeply familiar and about which I still have many questions. I pose those questions to myself; rewrite the places where my answers don’t match what my characters are doing. I puzzle over how to show what I know about this place, these people, through descriptions, dialogue, action. I am learning rapidly as I write, and I notice that I am drawing on things that I have learned from TWP: what makes a good scene, for example, how to choose details that enrich a story while keeping it moving—things that Lee Gutkind talks about in his workshops. I am also enjoying myself. My characters and their predicaments entertain me; when I spend time with them, I slough off the stresses of academia and feel more human.
I will need to catch my train soon, so I reread what I’ve written and see that somewhere in the middle I’ve started explaining the issues that feed the story. I hear Lee’s voice in my head: what is happening in this scene? I delete those lines and try again to communicate my ideas through action instead. The story improves.
Creating fiction writers was surely not an aim of TWP. To its funders, the program will do better to brag about my CAREER award, my work to bring narrative to undergraduate environmental studies classes, my plans to take a narrative approach to my next book and have it published by a mainstream press (something I now know how to do). But for me, this has been TWP’s real accomplishment: giving me the tools, the inspiration, and the mandate to write fiction that puts a human face on energy policy issues.