Joanna: As a follow-up to my first post on writing routines, here are some posts that I've found useful.
"Writing Rituals" Debra Reed illuminates the mental process of ritual/routine. In her three-part construct (based on the research of anthropologists!), a writing ritual helps you to separate from other activities, transition to a distinctive mental state, and finally, reassimilate into ordinary life, hopefully refreshed by your step into another space. As she discusses, the "coffee shop" writing ritual works well for many because of its satisfying open-middle-close sequence: step into another (literal and figurative) space, work within the new space, step away at the end.
My thoughts? Being in a coffee shop alone is generally a once-a-week luxury for me, but is also one of my most effective tools. My kids are in a co-op on Tuesday mornings, and that has become my carefully guarded writing time. I have come to the point where I leave my grading for another time so that I can feel completely free to use the time creatively. I also try to find other spaces to do some of my less intensive/complex tasks, revising, checking bibliography, etc.
"Writing Around a Day Job" Tom Pollock's post here is infinitely practical, especially for those of us who are slotting in our writing times around an already full schedule. The importance of preplanning for your writing blocks, and carefully protecting your writing times are two of the biggest take-aways here. But I also like his emphasis on a holistic life. People are important. Be kind. Make room for relationships.
"How to Write While Managing a Full-Time Job: 5 Ways to Maximize Your Time" Here, as in Gertrude Stein's writing habits I alluded to in my last post, Chuck Sambuchino invokes the 30-minute principle: half an hour, for him, is equivalent to 300 words (a little more than a page of double-spaced, 12 pt. Times New Roman writing, for another equivalent). By organizing small, easily squanderable nuggets of time, you can reclaim time for writing. Those half-hours--and those pages--quickly add up.
One of the important reminders here is how much of our writing we do when we're not actually sitting down to write. Take a little notebook with you for those moments when you realize how to unpack a problem. Text yourself or a friend. Narrate a rambling message on your phone. Find some open spaces when you're not distracting your mind with other things. Turn off the screen and sit in the sunshine with a cup of tea. Talk to your friend about a new idea you've had. Then when you come back into your ritual space, bring those ideas with you.
I'll be back on another day with some more articles I've found helpful.
Joanna: This is something I’ve pondered lately, with my own work and as I’ve been coaching students. How do we set rhythms and patterns that help us with our writing? What do they look like? How do we adapt them to the realities of our lives?
In the life that we’ve chosen and love, each day is different for me. Some days are structured around college teaching, others are about teaching piano, and every day also has to be about teaching my own kids. Sometimes we throw other kids into the mix, respite foster care or playtime with friends’ kids. And church stuff. And investment of time into dear friends and family. How does writing fit into those patterns? How do I make some of my long-term goals a priority as I work through the shifting rhythm of my life?
While musing on this, I came across a compelling book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Here, Mason Currey briefly traces out the daily habits of authors, musicians, directors, actors and visual artists. The evidence is taken from memoirs, letters, biographies, and sometimes, personal correspondence with the author.
It was a weird and wild read. Writing in various stages of dress and undress. 19-hour work days. Drinking cups of sugar with a little coffee on top to melt it down. Snail companions.
It was also one where privilege often came out. You have someone to make your tea the exact temperature in the perfect cup at the precise minute each and every day alongside a pastry made by the hands of angels, while someone else comes and helps you do your daily handstands? And another person comes to cook you all your meals and do all your cleaning? I exaggerate. But just barely. This is not my life. And I imagine it’s not the life that most of us live.
However, hidden within the privilege and bizarre moments, were some great principles. For one, a lot of the book could be boiled down to two main paths to creativity:
A) chemical alteration (binge drinking and nicotine were among the top contenders, but don't forget about absinthe!), poor sleeping habits, and a shortened lifespan
B) regular routines, a strong work ethic, and some kind of work-life balance. Many built in reading time with their partner, playtime with their kids, time outside walking or gardening, and hosting weekly meal times for friends and colleagues.
Choose wisely, folks.
And probably the most encouraging moment in the book was finding out that Gertrude Stein never wrote for more than thirty minutes a day. Currey includes a quote from her autobiography, “If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day.” (Currey, 51)
There are days where I might only have a nugget of time and thinking about Stein reminds me that these bits and space of time can be used productively. I hope you find this as enormously encouraging as I do!
More in the next post on some practical advice I’ve found on rituals.
Joanna: A few weeks back, Tim and I went to the Society for American Music meeting in Boston. This society has been one of the most mentoring, supportive groups that we’ve encountered in academia. I think this comes in part both from the diversity of topics, as well as the diversity of backgrounds. It’s never been a society just for those on the traditional tenure-track. The variety of voices within the society, I believe, has made it stronger even with the shifts in American academia. But that's a topic for another time!
Tim presented on some of his Cold War music research. He talked about the weird and wacky songs from the early Cold War period about fallout shelters. The songs reflected many people’s attitudes in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that shelters made better party rooms than protective spaces from hydrogen bombs. Here’s an example of one of these songs:
At the business meeting, we were invited up to receive the Hampsong Education Fellowship in American Song for the book that we are coauthoring Atomic Tunes: The Cold War in American and British Popular Music.
We've been offered an advance contract from the good folks at Indiana University Press, who published Tim’s first book on British progressive rock band Jethro Tull.
We’re very excited about this fellowship, especially with our interest in writing for the general public, and more specifically with the work I’ve done in the past with the Voices Across Time project.
Years back, I worked on proofreading Voices Across Time lesson plans, and served as a summer student assistant for one of the NEH-sponsored conferences while working on my PhD at the University of Pittsburgh. Here I saw firsthand the power of musicology in the public sphere as a variety of speakers--musicologists, historians and performers--came in to mentor middle school and high school teachers as they learned how to use songs to teach American history in their classrooms. The vivid demonstrations and discussions shaped the way that I approach the classroom, and the way I think about audience when I'm writing. It's a joy to come full circle as we adapt materials from the book into lesson plans and other educational/public musicology resources.
With Facebook's "On This Day" reminders, I frequently look back to the days of writing my dissertation. Even without the newborn-to-toddler twin stages simultaneous with the process, it was a stressful and somewhat lonely time. I was separated from my academic community because of our move down south when I was five months pregnant.
The transition from graduate student to dissertation author is tough. You spend years planning your life around the pace of the academic semester, with the predictable rhythm of the term (beginning, midterm, final) and the structure of the course syllabi. Suddenly, you're thrown into a realm where the rhythm is new and irregular. You can't tap to the regular beat that's been set for you, you have to create the rhythm yourself through long-term planning and self-mentoring.
It's a hard transition for many students. When I'm coaching a student, I emphasize the process of breaking down the big project into manageable chunks. Micro-deadlines fold into larger ones. One of the books that I love for this is Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. Even though some of its discussion of process is dated, the basic principles are incredibly helpful. My biggest take-away was to divide my tasks up into small/medium/large and rote vs. creative tasks, and then use my small bits of time efficiently (oftentimes, the sweet spot when two babies were napping at the same time). Even if I didn't have space for large chunks of writing during a particular day, I could still attend to e-mails, annotate a bibliography entry, proofread a few pages, or make a list of needed interlibrary loans.
Currently, we have two students who are about to finish. Because of their particular circumstances, they had to move quickly through their academic projects. I worked with each of them to create an individualized work plan, looking realistically at their weekly commitments and breaking things down into weekly and monthly goals. They worked the plan, and now Tim is helping with the final editing (proofreading, footnotes/bibliography, format checks) as they move towards completion.
They did the work. But assisting with the transition is a joy-filled process.
A few years back, we were invited by Stanley Pelkey and Anthony Bushard to contribute to a new book on music in television and film, Anxiety Muted: American Film Music in A Suburban Age (Oxford University Press, 2013). Tim and I had collaborated on smaller projects, but this was the first time that we co-authored a large chapter. We had watched the 1960s psychedelic spy-show The Prisoner together a couple of times and were fascinated by the way that it wove music--diegetic (music coming from inside the scene itself) and non-diegetic (music that only the viewer hears)--around the twists and turns of its plot.
We were thrilled when we saw the other chapters in the book and honored that we were chosen to contribute. The chapters intersect so well that it has already been used as part of a class developed by Anthony Bushard.
And we found out from one of the authors this week that the book was given a detailed review by Jamuna Samuel in the latest edition (March 2016) of the Music Library Association’s journal Notes. Each chapter was meticulously overviewed. Here’s a bit from our part:
Joanna Smolko and Tim Smolko’s writing on British television spy series The Prisoner (1967–68) addresses the use of American music to trigger British and American political concerns of the time. Within the larger picture of the Cold War-era spy genre, The Prisoner’s music owes much to the “Bond formula” (p. 149). “In the larger cultural view,” they write, “it appears that within this British drama, America itself—as represented through music—is a potent symbol of rebellion, anarchy, and hope (p. 151).
Go read the review if you have chance. Or even better, read the book. The chapters provide a kaleidoscopic view of music’s role in television and film in the 1950s-1960s. Then watch The Prisoner. It will blow your mind.
Be seeing you.
This post is aimed at academic writers who want to reach a wider audience than those in their discipline, but I hope that any writer could benefit from this. By nature, some books are only for general readers and some are only for academics. But more often than one might think, a book can reach both crowds simultaneously.
For example, I write books and articles about popular music with an extensive bibliography, a detailed index, lots of footnotes, tables, diagrams, musical examples, and explanations of chord progressions, musical forms, and harmony. Yet, I keep musical examples short and easy to follow if I can, so they will make some sense to people who don’t read musical notation. I keep my discussions of music theory brief and to the point. I prefer endnotes to footnotes or in-text citations to make reading easier on the eyes. My objective is to present as much detailed research as I can to my readers, without alienating or boring them.
Why should an academic writer try to reach a general audience?
We’re spending some time in rural, western Pennsylvania. Where towns are named for coal companies. And families still live in company houses they bought when mining companies collapsed. And we drive by the old bar where Tim’s grandfather and his mining buddies burned the coal dust out of their lungs with hard liquor. And generations of these men have been lost to the dust and the drink and the smoke.
But the women live on. And they speak with loud, steel-strong, unapologetic voices. And the grandmothers make kolaczki the way their grandmothers made them. And stories are passed down like fables—the distant relative who lost his hand to a company scab while at a secret union meeting, the eccentric great-great-great uncle who lived in a cave in the old country. And the mountains loom large out of the fog-filled valleys.
And I married into this, and the history is now mine. And I teach Aunt Molly Jackson, and I teach Woody Guthrie, and I teach Pete Seeger, and I teach Bob Dylan, and even Bruce Springsteen in the light of this nearly mythic place.
As Tim wrote, we met in Pittsburgh. But let me dig a little farther back. Some of my fondest childhood memories were spending hours in our local library, and listening to music. As a small child, we had an old phonograph record and my aunt’s childhood record collection. I remember being entranced by the folk song collections we had, from Peter Paul and Mary singing “Puff the Magic Dragon” to our orange cassette tape of Disney’s favorite folk songs, to Mahalia Jackson singing on a 8-track in our rickety old car.
When I turned 13, my family’s present to me and my brother was a piano along with piano lessons. It opened up a new world to me. I tore through the lesson books, and soon was digging into the classics from Bach to Beethoven to Bartok. And then I wanted to generate my own music. After writing a piano piece dedicated to my best friend (Jennifer!), my piano teacher suggested that I find a composition teacher as well. It led me into pursuing a music major in college. As an undergraduate, I kept studying music, kept composing, and found a mentor who opened my eyes up to the world of musicology.
But in the meantime, I continued down the path of composition as I entered graduate school. I became obsessed with issues of musical borrowing, composers who would use other bits of music and weave them into their tapestry. How do the bits of familiar tunes play on our memories? How do they create new meanings? I tapped into this and incorporated folk songs and Sacred Harp hymns into my compositions.
When it was time to apply for a PhD program, I had to decide which path to take, composition or musicology. And I applied to both programs at different schools, and was accepted into both. I had to choose my path, and the choice was incredibly difficult. I found a program—the University of Pittsburgh—where I could major in one path, and minor in the other. And it was a beautiful fit, especially as it was a wonderful place to continue my study of American music.
And the path I chose? Musicology. It’s where my love for the written word—the hours I spent poring over books as a child—came back into play. I could create a career writing and reading and teaching about music, history, arts, culture and literature and how they all connect.
I loved my PhD program, and I fell madly in love with Pittsburgh itself, a vibrant city that has preserved its immigrant roots. I worked at the Center for American Music during the summers, bringing theory and practice together. It led into work with the Voices Across Time project, an initiative that showed me the great potential for public musicology. My work with the library’s archives of Stephen Foster materials led to multiple projects, including coediting a performance collection of his works. And I began a dissertation project that wove together the threads of what I loved—analysis, interviews with composers, musical borrowing, Sacred Harp hymns.
During this time, I met a man at our little church who had thousands of records neatly organized in stacks all across the floor of his apartment (alphabetically, by genre). I found out later that he had removed all of the doors of his apartment—except the front door and bathroom door—to make more room for his stacks. We began spending hours chatting about music, film, art, literature. He introduced me to Joni Mitchell, I introduced him to Pete Seeger, together we kindled a love for Bob Dylan.
Of course Tim needed to become a librarian! And of course we needed to blend our lives together! And of course we needed to get industrial shelving to house his record collection!
I never thought I would meet a person who meshed so well with who I was becoming. After three jolly years of marriage, we had a great convergence: I finished my program except my dissertation, Tim finished his library degree, we both went on the job market, and we found out that we were expecting twins. We were deeply rooted in Pittsburgh, but a staff job as a music cataloger opened up at the University of Georgia for Tim, and I was given a Mellon Fellowship to continue work on my dissertation, without having to teach. Much of this happened within a three week period! So we took the plunge and moved to Athens.
The next couple of years are a little blurry. Newborn twins and finishing a dissertation were a difficult combination. But it taught me time management and how to use the small pieces of time that I had effectively. After successfully defending my dissertation—with two toddlers in a pack-and-play in the hallway!—I was itching to do professional work. The opportunity came to work as a contributing editor for the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of American Music. This honed my writing and editing skills, and gave me a wonderful professional network as I came to know fellow musicologists working on the project.
My beloved piano teacher in Atlanta retired, and I took over her studio. I spent a couple of years commuting to Atlanta two days a week with kids in tow to teach twenty-odd lessons. And here—even though it was difficult—I came to realize just how much I loved teaching. When I had the chance to pilot music courses at a local technical college, I jumped on the chance, and that soon led to a chance to teach and develop classes at the University of Georgia. Both of my departments are supportive and have given me wonderful opportunities to create new classes and to work in innovative formats (face-to-face, hybrid, and online). This past summer, I designed a new course on Bob Dylan and American music, and have been commissioned to design a new course on Bruce Springsteen for this summer.
Throughout these twists and turns, my love of Sacred Harp music continues. Last year, through support of colleagues in the Athens Music Project, I helped to organize a public symposium on Sacred Harp music in Athens, and have conducted oral history interviews with local singers.
Once again, we’re deeply embedded in a local community. And we work to create a holistic life for ourselves. We write, we teach, we edit, we present papers, and we watch our kids fall in love with books and music.
I had a “non-traditional” entry into academia. I worked at a credit union throughout my twenties and early thirties as a single guy living in Pittsburgh. I had vast expanses of time and infinite resources to indulge my interests, and became an autodidact, a self-teacher. Sitting in coffeehouses, I read all of Shakespeare’s plays, several of Dickens’ novels, Moby Dick, The Divine Comedy, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, The Lord of the Rings, and others, but I must admit that I never made it to the end of Proust! I studied history, philosophy, and theology. I spent hours in Jerry’s Used Records amassing a collection of over 2000 classical, jazz, and rock records. I spent even more hours listening to all of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, mapping out every occurrence of over 100 leitmotifs. I assisted with the Sewickley Bachfest, a music festival produced by two dear friends. Before I took a three week trip to London, I spent months studying British history, the layout of the city, the subway and bus maps, the great architectural wonders, the best historical sites, and, of course, the best pubs. I wanted to learn French, so I began translating Edith Piaf songs into English (Google Translate didn’t exist back then). After two years, I had translated over 220 of them and, voila, I knew some French. I was, and still am, a Teaching Company junkie. I’ve watched dozens of lecture series, and almost all of Dr. Robert Greenberg’s lectures on classical music history, some of them multiple times. In short, I like to take on big projects...and complete them!
And then I met Joanna, who took me to the next level. While she was formalizing and finishing her dissertation, I realized she was formalizing and finishing my education. She had a plan, and what a good one it was: “Be a music librarian! Get a master’s degree!” “Eureka!,” I exclaimed, in Archimedean delight. After I completed my MLS from the University of Pittsburgh, Joanna heard from a music professor at the University of Georgia that an entry-level music cataloging position was opening at the Main Library. I applied and got the job. We moved down to Georgia, had twins, and suddenly, we were juggling parenthood and academia. It was difficult at first but each year got easier. Then we thought about me getting a music degree. I discovered that all my years of autodidactism turned out to be the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in music, so I was able to skip that and get a master’s degree in musicology. I wrote my thesis, then a few encyclopedia articles, then a chapter in a book, then some more encyclopedia articles, then another chapter in another book, and then (whew!) my own book. So here I am helping others achieve their academic dreams.
So my story of becoming a musicologist and author by the “non-traditional” path has two lessons. The first is simply to study what you love, rather than try to be “relevant” or anticipate what the “hot topics” will be. When I started collecting records of my favorite rock bands (the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Rush, Kansas, Steely Dan, U2, etc.) as a teenager, I didn’t realize it was also “research,” or that I was teaching myself something, or that it was something I’d be studying the rest of my life. I never imagined I’d actually write a book about rock music, interview one of my favorite musicians like Ian Anderson, meet him, and have him write the foreword for the book. The second lesson is to trust that what you are interested in, and write about, will intrigue other people. I thought my interests were of interest to me alone. To my great surprise, I’ve discovered that other people are intrigued by 45 minute rock songs, and will buy a book analyzing them in great detail! So write about what you love no matter how obscure or arcane, and trust that if you work hard and write well, what interests you will interest other people.
Joanna & Tim
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