Tag Archives: Writing

Combatting Loneliness and Contemplating Unusual Activities in Paris

By Bryant Arnold

Even though I didn’t get to sight-see as I had intended yesterday, I made time in the evening to do a bit of personal writing – sharing a few memories about our travels in Italy.  As odd as it may sound, in the midst of my work-work-work mindset competing with my desire to escape from loneliness through fiction and movies, last night was a victory of sorts.  It was difficult to transition to my deserted Paris apartment after living with fellow graduate students and my husband for months.  Other than a few days in which the graduate apartment in Aix was empty, I have been surrounded by lively conversation in several languages and the excitement of making new friends, learning about their lives and research, and exploring new places together.

Too much time spent alone leaves me depressed, unproductive, and takes the wind out of my creative sails.  Usually in a form of self-defense against the creeping loneliness, I lose myself in stories, but last night, I chose a different route, one that I found much more fulfilling and productive. Instead of devouring a novel to pass the time and prolong the night before the next day arrived, I found satisfaction in reminiscing about happy times and memorable experiences with a loved one. I may be doing a lot of catching up on my personal blog in the next three weeks as a result of this experiment and hopefully creating enough memories in Paris that I will have more catching up to do when I return to Michigan in October.

To that end, I’ve found Muay Thai classes nearby (I know – not the normal thing to look for in Paris!) and anticipate starting my French course next week. Muay Thai is challenging enough in English; we’ll see if I can work up the courage to try it in French! I just need a doctor’s note to prove I healthy enough to participate. I’ve found a general practitioner close to my apartment, and if I can brave both the doctor’s office and my first class, I’m sure I’ll have some entertaining stories to share. There are also jazz clubs to check out in the evenings and strolls to be had through gardens, wandering through the catacombs, and a never-ending list of museums and monuments (the more normal, but no-less-interesting things to do in Paris). Hopefully, I can fit all of this in around classes and research during the day… And if not, there’s always next time!

Tonight I set out to find a health food store. Exiting the metro station, I had a good mental picture of where it was, but finding it ‘on the ground’ proved to be more difficult.  Usually I have a really good sense of direction and haven’t had any trouble finding things before, but as I walked past all the shops selling clothing and wares I could never afford, I didn’t see the street I needed to turn down. Before too long I found myself in the now-familiar St. Germain district. With a mental shrug, I revised my plan for the evening and braved another visit Cité Pharmacie (a story yet to be told about a previous visit to Paris) to pick up the juice I had intended to purchase at the health food store.

St. Germain des Près Church

Since I was close and saw people exiting St. Germain des Près Church, I figured it must be open and decided to stop in and take a few moments to pray and enjoy the sense of peace that pervades the oldest church in Paris. Parts of it date back to the sixth century! I also remembered reading that there was a fantastic bookstore tucked in near Les Deux Magots and decided to investigate.  La Hune has actually moved but was right across the street from the church and therefore easy to locate (and for those who are keen to visit, it is only open until 8pm, not midnight).  The bibliophile in me thoroughly enjoyed perusing the bookstacks, and my fingers literally itched to grab several new tomes as titles tickled my imagination. Reminding myself repeatedly that I had more than enough reading material to keep me busy for months, I managed to pass through the doors empty-handed.  Besides, three other bookstores are calling my name – two that specialize in books on Africa, and the third, a famous English-language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, which I browsed very quickly on a previous visit.

First Image: “Old Tree Watches Over Boy Reading at Night,” by Bryant Arnold. Published 4 February 2012. <> (25 September 2012)

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Posted by on September 25, 2012 in Self-Reflection, Writing


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On Academic and Other Writing

I had hoped to post this this weekend, but a back injury waylaid my plans.  Funnily enough, after I spent almost the entire day Saturday finishing my dissertation proposal, I wanted to write more afterward. I felt like writing for me. What flowed through my fingers was not a great work fiction or anything particularly interesting, but it was liberating to put the thoughts and emotions that accompanied this accomplishment into words. They’re probably not what one would expect. They are certainly not what I thought I would write, which is why it was important to take the time…

I just finished my dissertation proposal, which is an enormous relief on the one hand. There were many times I didn’t think I would ever be done. I began calling it the never-ending task. On the other, I must confess I’m disappointed and disillusioned. I had wanted to finish it so much sooner, and if I’m honest, I feel like it robbed me of the life I had wanted while in Aix. (I’m glad I get to come back for another month to finish research in August and hope to make up for lost time then.) I don’t know what I could have done differently this spring and summer, but I still can’t shake the feelings of disappointment and discouragement.

I know it’s not my best writing sample.  I wrote it because I had to, not because I wanted to, and that makes an enormous difference. The writing is functional; it conveys what it’s supposed to, but it’s lifeless, flat – exactly how I felt when writing it. The only joy I found in the process was when the pieces began to come together (and that was mostly because of my research, not actually working on the proposal). At least I find the actual research, digging through dusty old manuscripts more engaging. I am excited to truly begin to research now – not just finding the documents I think will be useful but actually analyzing them and determining how the puzzle pieces fit together. I’m also apprehensive that it may not live up to my hopes, and I worry that I will find writing my dissertation the same soul-sucking process that the proposal has been. For me, writing without passion is not writing at all, much like life. I love writing, and if I do not love what I’m doing, then even though I’m putting words on a page, it cannot be writing.

I need something that will inspire me again, something that reignites my passion. Right now, I am just a jaded grad student who finds academic writing quite meaningless.  All too often it seems to devolve into intellectuals arguing over things that matter very little in the grand scheme of life. The proposal did inspire one thing – an almost daily existential crisis. I want to do something meaningful with my life and with my writing, but I’m at a loss for how to do either at the moment.

I believe that the projects that will build on my dissertation have potential. The purpose of one study in particular is not just to understand the past, but also to make a difference for people in the present.  Studies that may produce tangible and positive outcomes for people in present now inspire me more than purely intellectual pursuits. I have always wanted my work to matter more than just to a few scholars,  but it seems imperative now. While I think this is a good goal to have, I feel like I’ve lost an important part of me, the part of me that was curious, questing, hungry to learn more, which drove me to reach for my full potential. Perhaps I just need the opportunity to discuss interesting ideas with like-minded people to be re-inspired and to rediscover the mental gymnastics I used to enjoy so much.

I had planned to start my academic blog months ago, but life intervened. Maybe that will begin to inspire the intellectual in me again. However, it needs to be more than just a space where I can process what I’m learning; I want it to spark a wider conversation. Academia, especially disciplines such as history, where so much of our work is done in isolation can be quite lonely. Hopefully, launching the other and meeting more researchers at the archives will alleviate some of that. I need other people to bounce ideas around to maintain enthusiasm for what I’m doing, but after this past year, it is very difficult to put myself out there in academic writing – probably another reason my academic prose falls stillborn on the page. I’ve crawled into a protective shell, and I’m finding it difficult to crawl back out.

One thing I know with certainty: I am a writer at heart. It has always been my preferred method of self-expression. If I can find my heart in academic writing again, I will become the scholar I wanted to be from the beginning.

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Short-Circuiting Lit Review Paralysis

I was going to entitle this post “Adventures in Eating” and share some of the raw food recipes I’ve been trying.  However, as I sat down to write, another idea presented itself and demanded attention.

Not that I haven’t been working and making productive use of my time all morning, but I am just now settling in to work on my main objective today: finishing a draft of my dissertation proposal.  I have to admit that I’m terrified.  There, I’ve said it. I’m sweating, and I know it’s not just the Provençal heat.  I simply have to merge the section on sources and methodology and finish my brief lit review, which I’ve been slowly working on when I have not been in the archives.  My committee is on board with my project.  All I have to do to complete the paperwork.  And yet, I’m completely stressed out about it. Why? Because I haven’t fully let go of the stress and anxiety I have come to associate with such writing.  It’s not quite as paralyzing as it was when I was preparing for my last comprehensive exams, so that is progress. Even though I know that it will become easier as I continue to write material that other academics will see and critique, it is still not enough to motivate me to begin putting sentences together. So what to do…?

Lunch! It’s lunch time… Perfect!  I need a little break between this morning’s activities to transition into proposal writing, to change gears, so to speak.  As a side note, I prepared the following “raw” dish and even attempted to eat mindfully for a few minutes. (Sliced cucumbers, baby carrots, red bell peppers, and avocado boats with cucumbers, red peppers and salsa.)

“Raw” Lunch

The problem was that I took those few minutes (to eat mindfully) after reading a GradHacker post, entitled “7 Ways to Survive a Lit Review” by Andrea Zellner (which, by the way, is fantastic!) Just reading, of course, meant that I wasn’t focusing on the sweet bell peppers or the crunchiness of the carrots.  The real problem, however, was the realization, once again, that so many of the suggestions were things I should have started doing several years ago but didn’t know then to do them or how to do them.  So by the time I arrived at my much-anticipated avocado boats, my mind had taken flight and was doing barrel rolls while I tried to figure out how in an afternoon (or even a couple of days) I could pull together everything I had learned over the past few years that is relevant to my research. Alas! I stared off into space, occasionally remembering that I should be focusing on the creamy texture of the avocado and the spiciness of the salsa. I tried to calm the rising panic that now sets in just before I begin a historiography (literature review). Have I read enough? Have I read the right sources? Can I make a good argument out of what I read and took notes on? (Related question: Can I find my notes since I haven’t migrated them all into Zotero yet, let alone into Nota Bene?) Will I be told that it’s not good enough?

The last question haunts me, but I shove it aside, remembering the feeling of accomplishment I experienced just this morning as I finished a draft cover letter for a position as a university history instructor.  For the first time, when I sent it to family for the initial review, I didn’t feel the urge to apologize that “it’s really rough” or something to that effect, nor did I worry about my writing style or the content. As a first draft, I know I will need to make some changes, but I also know that it is a good first draft, and that is saying something.

Writing is cathartic, at least this type of writing is.  It provides a way to release tension, to unburden myself in black and white. I feel at least marginally better now, so it’s time to “just do it” – to just write.  I inhale and exhale slowly a couple of times and take the plunge…

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Thirsting for Words

It’s getting late, but I feel like writing.  Writing about something, anything – maybe something profound, maybe a short story, maybe the beginning of a novel, or maybe, if I’m feeling very brave, something personal.  So here I sit with this desire and yet feel I have nothing of value to say.  Why is that?  I spend hours each week talking with and counseling friends based on my experiences, thinking about stories I would write if I had time, questions I would love to explore, but when it comes time to write, the motivation is there, but the words dry up, leaving me thirsty for a means to express myself but without any way to quench it.  Nevertheless, I write still.  And that is victory in and of itself.  In time, the words will come again and will flow as a stream slips gracefully over pebbles.  Until then, I will continue to try different paths to find that stream, trusting that one of them will lead me to it.  And until then, I will remain grateful for the desire – for that, too, is a victory.

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Posted by on May 8, 2012 in Writing


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“Writing Yoga” and Life


Life is not about “should.”  At least that is what I keep telling myself.  In my yoga practice this morning, the instructor reiterated that everyone’s bodies are different and that what works for one person may not work for another.  In pose after pose, he pointed out the various ways people performed it to work the muscles, ligaments, and joints the pose was meant to target. Each way was no more correct than any other.  When finding what works best for yourself, he reminded everyone, don’t think about what you think your body “should” be able to do.  That’s not what yoga is about.

Linking that idea to a post I read last night, entitled “Writing Yoga,” by Chris Stawski on, I began to consider how it might apply to my writing practice and to other areas of my life as well.  One of my friends used to say that we have to stop “shoulding” ourselves, meaning, that it is unproductive and often destructive to spend so much of our energy thinking about what we should be doing or how we should be living.  But how does one do this when this very statement is itself the very a paradox we are trying to avoid: we should stop fretting about what we should be and do.  It can become one more thing to mentally beat ourselves up over.  Nevertheless, it is good advice, particularly when applied to whatever area we struggle with the most in terms of comparing ourselves to others or to what we feel we should be or be doing.  For me, it is academic progress, measured in how many books and articles I’ve read, and how much I’ve written each day.  Of course, I “should” myself about other things too – eating and exercise tend to top the list. But I’ve found, like many others, that trying to guilt myself into doing what I know I ought to do tends to have the opposite effect.

So, tonight I decided to focus on what I was doing and doing only one task at a time, which is always difficult since I’ve been a multi-tasker for many years.  I can’t say I did this perfectly, but I am choosing to see all that I have accomplished rather than what I think I should have.  Instead of thinking about where colleagues are at in their own studies or where I feel I should be, I choose to honor where I actually am.  The same applies to my writing.  I can honestly say that I am happy with what I’ve done tonight.

There is always room for improvement, but that does not mean I have to bludgeon myself for not having already made those improvements. The yoga instructor this morning warned against trying to push your body too far too fast into a pose to reach the position you will eventually be able to be in.  By doing so, you will only hurt yourself, but if you are patient with your body and allow it to gradually relax into the pose, you will eventually achieve your goal.  Likewise, in life – How I can be today what I will be tomorrow? Isn’t it unreasonable to expect that I could be? How can I learn and grow and become better and more than I now am tomorrow if I do not take the time to learn the lessons of today? I know someone else has said something very similar, so I cannot take credit for the insight, but I will try to live into it.

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Posted by on January 19, 2012 in Self-Reflection, Writing


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The Art of Constructing Houses & Articles

I have finally recovered from both my cold and the American Historical Association Conference.  However, I still have much more to do on my article.  It seems that the more I work on it, the more I research, and the more I revise, it seems that there is even more to do!  I realize that no essay or book is ever actually complete.  At some point, though, one must call it finished, submit it, and move on.  I’m not there yet, but I am hoping that by this time tomorrow, I’m one step closer.  At the moment, the article resembles a house that has been stripped of its siding and gutted of all but the studs inside, a process with which I am intimately acquainted. All the pieces are scattered in groups of “like” materials around me as I consider what I am missing and determine the best way to reassemble everything.  A timeline of the etymology of particular words and ideas central to my argument, as well as a concept map created two nights ago have become incredibly helpful blueprints for restructuring the essay.  The next step will be to decide the best way to use the historical evidence I’ve gathered in conjunction with my linguistic analysis.  … a task I shall leave for tomorrow and the following day.

Relearning to find joy in this process has certainly been interesting and has had more peaks and valleys than the Appalachians.  I still haven’t discovered what mix of factors lead to distraction-free days, in which I am thoroughly immersed and engrossed in my work, and what combinations of events, thoughts, and decisions contribute to my “ADD” days when I cannot focus and want to do anything but work on articles and academic reading.  Today was a very productive day.  I finished both my individual abstract and the panel summary for the upcoming American Studies Association conference, organized all of the materials relating to the conference, finally cleared out the dozens of unread mail messages from the past two months, caught up on reading I’d set aside for a “later” time, and even made enough food for several healthy meals this week.  I’ve been energized and excited about my studies and feel very positive about the results of my efforts today.  The only difference between today and yesterday was that I got a good night’s sleep, thanks to allergies and the subsequent dose of Benadryl. I’m sure there is more to it than that, but in until I figure out what else helps, sleep and serotonin-boosting exercise are an obvious place to start.  I’ve also found that thirty minutes of devotions, meditation, prayer, and journaling to be a great way to start the day.  It clears my head and reminds me of the world outside my problems and anxieties.

Tomorrow I am returning to the Newberry as a “daily reader,” rather than a “visiting scholar.” While the difference might seem minor, it isn’t.  As a visiting scholar, I had access to a study carrel – my own little retreat, where I could keep both my own and Newberry sources, where I could hang maps I constantly referenced, and where I could settle in comfortably while I researched.  Since I’m short, I brought in a little foot rest to take the strain of my hamstrings and piled (my own) thick books on the chair so I was at the right height to type at the immovable wooden desk.  Alas, my position as a “visiting researcher” lasted only a semester.  Despite the hard, ill-fitting chairs and desks and restricted hours to which I return, I am grateful to be able to remain in Chicago for two more months, especially since I changed my dissertation topic earlier this fall after realizing the source-base didn’t exist for my original idea.  Thank goodness for the sweaters and wrap I received for Christmas.  Now, I just need to find a really good (and thick!) chair cushion. 🙂

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Posted by on January 10, 2012 in Research, Self-Reflection


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Finding confidence and inspiration at an academic conference

It’s after three in the morning, and I should probably be in bed, but I need to take a few minutes to revel in the small sense of victory I feel tonight.  Progress is always uneven, so despite some of my early posts, I have still struggled with self-doubt, lack of confidence, and the lethargy that results from both.  I have had many things on my to-do list for weeks but couldn’t bring myself to face them.  Instead, I have often found myself trying to drown out the nagging voice reminding me of those many tasks and the other incessant voice whispering that it wouldn’t matter how hard I worked, that I would still fail.

But today was different. Despite the busyness of attending panels at the American Historical Association conference and trying to to think through the fogginess of a head cold, I managed to focus on research and my article for eight hours today. It’s impossible to pin today’s motivation and sense of purpose on any one thing, but I’m sure that the conference has played a role in inspiring me to continue working on my own research.

I can’t measure the value of my productive time in how many pages I wrote or the number of sources I examined.  The mere fact that I worked for so long without the distraction of music, talk radio, simultaneous tasks, or even the desire for any of those things felt like an enormous accomplishment.  What is more, I enjoyed every minute of that time.  There is still much more work to do on the essay, but the pieces are there.  All that remains is to fit them together.  I say “all that remains” as if it is as simple as following a recipe to bake a cake, but that would be quite inaccurate. Writing history is more akin to putting a large puzzle together with a jumble of pieces, some that fit, some that belong to other puzzles, and some that are needed but missing. In addition to the usual challenges of historical writing, this is one of the most difficult stages of the writing process for me because I tend to be very impatient.  As I’ve mentioned before, I became so accustomed to the “one and done” drafts of high school and college papers that rewriting and revising frustrates me to no end.  While this process might always be tedious, hopefully it will become routine and therefore less daunting.

On a related note, I worked up the courage to ask a question following a panel of presentations by leading scholars in my field.  This probably doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but it felt like it to me.  After academic presentations, there is generally a time for questions, and these questions should either push the scholars to think more deeply about their own work or enhance the general discussion.  This requires a certain knowledge of the secondary literature, and some familiarity with related primary sources is often helpful.  I can’t speak for professors, but I know that most grad students sense that this is one more measure by which they are judged, and the impression is accurate.  Those who ask insightful and helpful questions acquire greater intellectual capital, which translates into greater facility in forming their own panels, finding people to read and comment on their own work, and better letters of recommendation.  Of course, these things don’t rely solely on one’s comments and questions at seminars and conferences, but they are important, nonetheless.  After being told several months ago that I should be seen and not heard, like a child rather than a colleague, it has been difficult to work up the gumption to participate in discussions as I used to, so I consider today’s brief comment and question to be another achievement and small step forward in my journey.


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