Storytelling

I’ve had little to blog. Work has been a constant stream of meetings, and complex and challenging, but uninspiring, tasks. I’m listening to Classical Music for Reading while doing this work. I’ve been wondering: where’s the story in that? This highlights a recent preoccupation of mine: the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are and what we do.

This year I am studying creative writing—a wonderful, yet daunting, experience but one that is solely mine and not in service to other people’s needs and wants. It is only week one but it is already priming me to notice how we craft stories.

I recently read Australian songwriter Clare Bowditch’s You Own Kind of Girl about her experience of overcoming debilitating anxiety. We have posted her mantra on the kitchen wall: Face, Accept, Float, Let time pass. Bowditch found this in Claire Weekes’ 1960s work Self Help for Your Nerves. (Books follow books: I am now reading Judith Hoare’s The Woman who Cracked the Anxiety Code).

Above all, Bowditch tells a good story. In a podcast with Wil Anderson about writing her book, Clare used the word story many times (and turned attention to Wil’s own stories, to his seeming discomfort).

I can’t say enough wonderful things about Clare. My daughter and I listened to her songs a lot during a tough year. ‘Your Own Kind of Girl’, ‘People Like Me’ and ‘You Make My Happy’ buoyed us. In response to an open call for correspondence, my daughter emailed Clare to tell her this, and received an affirming letter in return.

While writing this post, I was reminded of an example I used when teaching visual narratives many years ago. It was an extract from Robert Winston’s BBC series The Human Body which showed the life story of ‘Charlotte’ from birth to death. (Note to self: I must rewatch the Raging Teens episode). The series was made in 1998 (!) and I’ve been unable to find a good quality copy online. The scene I was thinking of was a statistical version of a life in fast forward—6 months on the loo, 2 weeks kissing, 28m of fingernails, eight years at work, 150 friends,  sex 2580 times, 12 years talking, and only 2 of her 8 great-grandchildren remember her name.

I’ve been thinking about the stories we tell in academic contexts, beyond what can be quantified. I have just started reading The Positioning and Making of Female Professors—some great stories in this edited collection.

I continue to reflect on Tamson Pietsch’s excellent blog post on rewriting her academic biography. She writes:

[My academic biography] says little about where I come from and the forces and belongings that fashioned me. It does not reveal my values, my obligations or my commitments, and it speaks in only the most minimal terms about where I live, why I do what I do, and how that is connected to the community in which I make my home.

She re-narrates her story, noting that it was an uncomfortable experience.

Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle illustrates a similar discomfort in ‘Academic career construction: personnel documents as personal documents‘. This journal article is a great read (and includes ‘don’t be driven by stories’ as advice given to early career academics). Ortiz-Vilarelle tells a story:

I felt discouraged by my department from applying for promotion to Full Professor because conventional advice about my publication gap of more than two years and the language of ‘continuous’ scholarly publication … I applied anyway … I had a choice to make. I could let the gap stand as a ‘trace,’ a story not told, and risk that at each level of review, it would somehow speak for itself … Or I could ‘get personal’ and explain the reasons for my gap … I included two lines, just two lines, that read: ‘Obstacles which have impacted the trajectory of my scholarship are two medically complicated pregnancies following tenure, one of which required leave time, and the care and passing of my terminally ill mother shortly after my promotion to Associate Professor. More recently, I required a medical leave in Spring 2017 for several necessary surgeries.’ That’s all. Not very elegant. Not much at all in terms of word count, but such a trace.

I haven’t yet condensed my story as well as those told above—regular readers will know this blog is itself a story in progress.

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This week

In a week with little time to write, a list is appealing. This structure is inspired by the weekly slow living email from Brooke McAlary at Slow Your Home. She ends each newsletter with a list of what she has been thinking about, doing, experiencing and enjoying over the past week. I am also inspired by Kate W from Books are my favourite and my best who posts regular ‘Bookish and not so bookish thoughts’ lists. I love the glimpse into quotidian lives offered by these bloggers.

This week I am:

Pondering feedback on a draft paper from my new writing group. The paper, co-authored with Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks, explores doctoral candidates and early career academics experiences of temporal anxiety in academic work and identity development. Having five people read your work in its early stages is invaluable.

Wearing layers. I have a newfound appreciation for scarves (including the treasure below, a gift Louise Kaktiņš picked up during her PhD travels). There’s something about ageing that increases sensitivity to a cold neck. The weather is cooling down in Sydney, with mornings as low as 10°. Don’t laugh, those of you in colder climes; we keep cold houses and offices here. The days are still sunny and in the mid 20s, so layers are crucial.

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Listening to the podcast By the Book on the recommendation of a colleague. I don’t read self-help books but listening to these two American women living by their rules is funny and insightful. An episode on the silly sounding Past Lives, Future Healing had reflections on the privilege of being conceived in a loving way. And Bored and Brilliant has an exercise on watching water boil.

Sitting in meetings, and wondering what a love letter to university committees might look like. I thought McSweeneys might have one, but most were too real to be funny. (Note I was thinking of ‘I am the woman who does all the committee work‘ not the assessment committee erotica).

Recommending this post-war street photography exhibition at the Museum of Sydney. The images are captivating and the stories haunting.

Anticipating The Cure Disintegration 30th anniversary performance at the Opera House. Probably my favourite album of all time. The performance will be livestreamed on YouTube. I will be near the front.

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Watching Killing Eve. And Doctor Who, and loving their complex and fun performances by women.

Realising uncomfortable truths about how and when I work. I am tracking my hours using the Timing app. I want to be slower.

Cooking cakes for the school fete. I use a recipe my mum has been making since the 60s. Once you’ve mastered the basic five ingredient recipe (to get a feel for the texture and cooking time) the variations are endless. It can be enjoyed with butter or yogurt as a topping. It freezes perfectly. Here’s the original recipe:

  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup mixed dried fruit
  • ½ to 1 cup raw sugar
  • 1 cup skim milk
  • 1 cup self-raising flour

Mix first four ingredients, stirring well and allow milk to soak in for about 10 minutes. Add flour and mix well. Place in a greased or lined loaf tin and cook in moderate oven for 45 minutes.

And here is what my mum says about it:

The idea of this recipe is to use leftovers, and to this basic mixture you can add a range of items. Many different dried or fresh fruits or other ingredients can be used to add to the mix. Use your imagination and see what you have left over in the fridge or cupboard: for example, dried or fresh berries, yogurt, glace fruit, banana, light sour cream, ricotta, mascarpone, spices (e.g. cinnamon), peeled and sliced Granny Smith apples, currants, chopped dates, walnuts, chopped dried apple, caraway seed, fruit medley, lemon and orange peel, grated carrot, sultanas, cooking chocolate, nuts – any combination you can think of. You can decorate the top of the cake with crystallised ginger if you wish. You will need to judge for yourself the consistency of the mix, and if it is too dry, add more milk. If it is too wet, add more flour. If it is too sweet, use less sugar.

Playing board games with the kids. Last week, in deference to an emerging reader, was Junior Scrabble. This week might be Junior Monopoly. Coming weeks will include Bird Bingo, Trouble, Sorry, or Cathedral.

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Intending to notice in my suburb and at the university more after reading this article from The Guardian: “What’s going on here that nobody particularly wants me to notice?” Find a neglected spot, walk down a new street, eat different food, talk to strangers, read a plaque. Head in the direction that seems quietest.

Reading several books at once. To my daughter, Bren MacDibble’s dystopia for young readers How to Bee. To my son, Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk. On my Kindle late at night: Martha Wells’ The Murderbot Diaries (something about an android that hates all humans and thinks scornful thoughts while helping them appeals to me).

In the evening, I’m reading Too Much Lip. Shortlisted for the Stella Prize (for Australian women writers), this novel by Goorie writer Melissa Lucashenko has sucked me in. Here’s a sentence from the blurb: “The avalanche of bullshit in the world would drown her if she let it; the least she could do was raise her voice in anger.”

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Learning  about Aboriginal history as part of cultural safety training at my university. The 1965 freedom ride is an inspiring example of academic activism.

Remembering the last thirteen years. It’s my daughter’s birthday this week.

Naughty

Lately the kids and I have been listening to the soundtrack to Matilda: the Musical, and we’ve been humming or singing one song more or less continuously: Naughty.

We’re told we have to do what we’re told but, surely,
sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.

Just because you find that life’s not fair,
it doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it
If you always take it on the chin and wear it,
nothing will change.

Even if you’re little, you can do a lot
You mustn’t let a little thing like ‘little’ stop you
If you sit around and let them get on top,
you might as well be saying you think that it’s okay

And that’s not right!

 

With this earworm playing, I’ve been thinking about Rosalind Gill’s “small-scale micro-negotiations of power in the academy” and Barbara Grant’s “slow tiny acts of resistance”.

There are some inspiring examples of this work in blogs:

Sara Ahmed’s blog was written alongside her book Living a Feminist Life, and continues beyond the publication of the book to undertake “diversity work, the ordinary and painstaking work of working on institutions so they are more accommodating”. This is the sort of blog you want to spend all day reading. Ahmed’s work with students on sexual harassment and sexual misconduct has been dogged and inspiring. Here is how she describes her work on complaint:

To become attuned to sexism, to begin to hear with a feminist ear how women are not heard, is to become out of tune with a world … A feminist ear picks up on the sounds that are blocked by the collective will not to hear. The sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusals to laugh at sexist jokes; the refusals to comply with unreasonable demands …

I learnt from this work: those who experience harassment come up against a wall of indifference. They have nowhere to go. Or if they do speak they are heard as complaining. The word complaint derives from plague, in a vulgar sense, to strike at the breast. A complaint: sick speech. Maybe she is heard as speaking from ill-will: not only as being ill, but as spreading infection, as making the whole body ill …

A feminist ear can be what we are for; we need more people to be involved in giving a hearing.

Ahmed resigned from her professorial position in protest against institutional responses to sexual harassment.

Sara Puotinen’s blog is inspired by Judith Butler’s preface to Gender Trouble, in which Butler writes: “trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.” Puotinen’s blog chronicles her commitment to making, being and staying in trouble as a teacher, researcher, child and parent.  This is another long-running blog that rewards immersive reading. She describes her work as “virtuous troublemaking”:

What is Troublemaking?

  • An approach to looking at and acting in the world
  • That pushes at the limits of our most sure ways of knowing.
  • A broad term
  • That encompasses a wide range of practices.
  • Involves thinking critically all the time
  • And the willingness to challenge the status quo.
  • A skill that must be cultivated and practiced
  • That is not only destructive but productive
  • And that involves asking questions and being curious.

Troublemaking is dangerous, creative, fun, virtuous and needed.

For new readers, a video summary helps navigate through years of posts that cover grieving her mother’s death from pancreatic cancer, her troubled positioning in the academy and reflections on pop culture.

I want to spend more time reading, and savouring, both Ahmed and Puotinen’s writings.

Meanwhile, I am still humming ‘Naughty’. The last lines give me pause: “Nobody else is gonna put it right for me/ Nobody but me is gonna change my story/ Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.” It’s not just the use of “gonna” (I’m kinda resigned to that) but the individualism of it.

Mischief is so much more fun and fulfilling when it is collective. Niki Harré, Barbara M. Grant, Kirsten Locke and Sean Sturm describe this in The university as infinite game:

In being a ‘woman who makes a fuss’ (even if you’re a man), you will need courage … You will need, somehow, to embrace struggle, at least some of the time. But also, seek to eschew antagonism and, instead, to foster compassion for our mutually frail humanity. More, express gratitude, hold out hope, be quick to find humour, cultivate indifference to convention and a willingness for insubordination.  And, above all, seek solidarity…

I love this for the positive, creative, and constructive impacts of ‘making a fuss’/ being naughty/ getting into trouble in the company of others.

Stay naughty, readers!

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