“Rantum Scoot” is an expression in old Nantucket dialect. When someone leaves home and takes an aimless walk and then returns – that’s a “rantum scoot,” or random walk. On an island, it seems inevitable that you will return. This pretty much describes the process on this particular island: we will discuss writing and research, and then return to doing precisely what we’ve been talking about. The writing process itself is a kind of circular journey. This is a collaborative blog – perhaps the term should be “clog.” I invite students who would like to describe different aspects of their own writing and research, as well as faculty, particularly those who teach writing, to contribute their own insights. I will moderate the conversation, making sure that the observations and insights stay within the bounds of our particular “scoot.” I am Hilton Obenzinger, Associate Director of Undergraduate Research Programs for Honors Writing, which means I work closely with individual students as they write their honors thesis projects at Stanford. I also host a series of conversations called “How I Write” with faculty and other advanced writers to talk about how they approach their tasks – and many of the insights that will appear on “Rantum Scoot” will be drawn from these conversations as well as from students, faculty and other writers. Come join us for a rantum scoot.

October 18, 2006

Paulla Ebron: Writing Performance, Writing Ethnography

On October 10 we had the first “How I Write” conversation of the new school year with Paulla Ebron, associate professor of cultural and social anthropology.

A delightful African American woman with a sly smile and twinkling eyes, Prof. Ebron shared all sorts of insights, particularly when it comes to writing ethnographic studies.

I’ll mention a few highlights of the talk — from memory. This may be a little telegraphic, but at least some interesting points should come through.

She first became interested in writing when she saw an ad on the back of a magazine for a correspondence course on writing when she was a little girl. She sent in the coupon, but since she was very young, they wrote back to wait until she grew up a bit.

Her book Performing Africa investigates the “griots” or “jolies” of the Gambia and Senegal regions of Western Africa. These people are stroytellers, historians, singers, songwriters, gossips, matchmakers, community leaders . . . In short, very powerful, dynamic people who are very concerned about their reputations and power. Consequently, she was very concerned about what they would think about what she was saying about them. She wrote, as she put it, with all of these people in her head, with their voices constantly in her ears. She felt watched — which made the writing a slow process. Writers who feel responsible to communities often feel this — especially ethnographers who intend to show their work to the communities they investigate. This could be tough, and it could even cause a writer to get paralyzed. Still, Prof. Ebron slugged through it, slowly working out each section.

When I mentioned that she wrote with style — her writing was vivid, her descriptions palpable, and there was often a narrative flow — she shared a secret: “I went to some creative writing workshops. ” Academic writers are not supposed to be “ creative, ” at least not in the sense that they are writing fiction. But ethnography calls for description and narrative and characters — many of the elements of fiction. So, the skills involved in “creative” writing are very much a part of what is supposed to be “social science. ” This was a great relief: finally, academic writing (or at least some of it) can involve style and grace.

I also mentioned that her ending or conclusion to Performing Africa seemed unusual. In the conclusion she outlined the book and described what she did, the sort of thing that’s often done in an introduction. She said she was just following the old injunction of “tell people what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell them what you’ve just said.”

Part of her creative writing bent was a practice that she’s engaged in over many years. She gets up in the morning and writes three or so pages of “Morning Writing.” This consists of anything that comes to mind, written by hand, sometimes illegible or garbled, other times caustic or angry or mournful — whatever. The point is that she clears her “system” every morning and she’s constantly putting herself in the writing mode. She has stacks of notebooks of these “Morning Writings.” She has them in storage. One of these days they may be useful for something — but for now they are useful for keeping her writing chops in shape.

Whenever Prof. Ebron writes a draft of an essay or book she does the first draft by hand. Like many others, she likes the way her writing (and thinking) slows down when hand-writing. But she also knows that when she sees it on the computer screen the text looks too perfect, too published-like, and that induces bouts of perfectionism. And, as we all know, perfectionism leads to paralysis.

When she does get stuck, she practices the cello. She’s just learning, so it’s much harder than writing. So, after hacking away at the strings for a while she returns to writing — and at that point it all seems much easier!

When she gets overwhelmed with many other writing assignments, such as writing letters of recommendations, and fears that she will abandon her own work, she sets an eggtimer for, say, 45 minutes to force herself to write — or even just to sit and stare at her manuscript — until the bell goes off. Bing! Time’s up, and she’s free to move on to the mundane things of life.

Hilton Obenzinger

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