What academia taught me about being a writer

I’ve been thinking about academic and non-academic writing, as I’ve done a good deal of both. My years in academia gave me some valuable lessons about writing that cross over into my fiction.

Grad school assigned readings: Don’t use pretentious, unnecessary language. In plenty of fields there are specific terms academics use that seem arcane to those outside the field. But there is no field, no matter how philosophical, where clarity of language won’t help people understand your point. Don’t use the big word when the small one is just as accurate. Never use a word of whose meaning you are unsure. The more complex your ideas, the simpler your sentence structure should be.

Working as an editor for a scholarly journal: Authors who can stick to a deadline are gold! And everyone’s prose can use some tightening up, even big names in the field. It’s not an insult to get copious notes from your editor. It’s a compliment, a sign of a thorough reading. Also your editor does not expect you to make every suggested change, just to consider the feedback and then make your own decisions. If you don’t make any changes, though, your editor will assume you didn’t do a thorough reading and may even, depending on your contract, rescind the offer to publish.

Giving feedback on student papers: When helping a writer revise, there’s no point in working on sentence-level polishing when there are glaring structural errors. The Craft of Research, by Booth, Colomb, and Williams (which I highly recommend for researchers at all levels) has an excellent chapter about this. Why fix a sentence up all nice if you’re going to have to cut it later? Do big structural edits first, then paragraph-level stuff, then sentence-level stuff. This has helped me a lot with my fiction. When I get irritated with a sentence that isn’t working I leave it be, knowing that I’ll come back to it in a future draft if that scene still exists. Not polishing too early saves me a lot of time and hassle.

Writing a dissertation: Finish the thing! Whatever the thing is. Just finish it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It will probably never feel finished to you. It is not your magnum opus or the end-all-be-all of your career. Once you finish your current project you’ll move on to some new project. It’s okay not to be happy with old work. Just make new work!

The tale of the mailbox

When searching our new address on the official US Postal Service website I discovered it does not exist. Several frantic phone calls to the local post office confirmed that there was no mailbox on the property. The previous owners must have used a PO box. So upon arriving, one of the first things to do was fill out a form to request a new rural route delivery, and to put up an approved mailbox at the appropriate height and distance from the road.

This didn’t seem too complicated until we realized the ground was frozen and would remain so until spring.

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Moving in

We’re here! In Vermont, in our new home. After three long days of driving in two separate vehicles with the cats crying at us about how we ruined their lives forever by sticking them in these little boxes.

It’s gorgeous. In the morning the sun comes up over a mountain, and the winter light filters through a tall stand of pines. You can hear the brook when you step out the front door.

There’s also a lot of work to be done. The house hasn’t been lived in for a bit and so, even though all the mechanicals are working properly (including the hot water, thank God) it needs a thorough deep cleaning. There are mouse nests to clear out and mouse poop to wash off nearly every flat surface. Lots of dusting, too, and sweeping, and going over all the cupboards and counters with a sanitizing solution.

The internet just got hooked up, and we have to buy a mailbox because this house doesn’t have one. After that the post office can start delivering our mail and we can order stuff online again.

It’s sort of like being in a hotel, because most of our belongings are still in transit. We only have the necessities we packed in the van and the car. And the house is still so empty and strange.

The House

This is the house in Vermont we’ve made an offer on. It has passed its home, water, and septic inspections and the only thing that remains is for us to pay the rest of the money, get our stuff packed, hook up utilities, shut off current utilities . . . well, there’s a lot of stuff still to do. But none of it is a potential dealbreaker, which is why I’m finally posting the baby pictures.

The exterior needs to be repainted, and the floors refinished. There’s some other work that needs to be done, but nothing a couple hardworking handy ladies can’t take care of. Yes, that’s a stream running beside the house. It’s a duplex and has two kitchens, lots of bedrooms. Lots of room for friends, so we hope everyone plans to come visit Vermont in the next couple years!

Back on the circuit

The convention circuit, that is.

Back when Ruth and I ran The Five Wits together, I was constantly on the road with the business. One year we did nine shows in a row, on subsequent weekends. These days, since online sales have picked up, we only do about one show a month. Slightly more in summer than in winter. While I worked at St. Gregory’s, I helped out with shows occasionally but wasn’t really part of the business any longer.

That’s changed now. I’m at Ikkicon in Austin this weekend, back in the swing of the very unique job that is selling stuff at anime, video game, and pop culture conventions. If it’s not a world you’ve experienced, well, let me tell you about it.

First, you spend several days packing your stuff into crates and bags, and then into the van. It fills every last inch of the van. The final moments of shoving in the personal luggage and car snacks are always an exercise in Tetris.

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Vermont, in comparison

I’ve lived in a lot of places. Let me count the states—Wisconsin, Michigan, Washington, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma. Almost Montana, though I don’t think I was ever officially a resident. That makes east, west, north, and south. So here’s how Vermont stacks up.

Snow: Lots! Skiing is a tourist industry here. And they sure do know how to do snow removal. A+. After living in a city where they mostly just wait for it to melt, it’s lovely to see so many plows out, intersections properly treated, and everyone driving sensibly in the snow.

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House Hunting

This is one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s also a lot of fun, but only in spurts between the stress.

It’s probably easier to look for a house when you live in the area. Ruth and I had to take a 24-hour drive to even get to Vermont from Oklahoma in the first place. We hit terrible lake effect snow in Buffalo and had an issue with the washer fluid freezing up. Not the most amazing start.

We had a total of around 18 properties lined up to look at, all over the state. Since the price point we’re looking at is low (it’s hard for self-employed people to qualify for traditional mortgages, so we’re going with what we’ve got in savings and retirement accounts) we knew a lot of the houses would be fixer-uppers. But we weren’t prepared for quite the level of issues that some of them had. When the mechanicals aren’t working, touring a house in the middle of winter can be . . . interesting. There was even one house we had to enter by unscrewing the plywood boarding up the door!

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Time to make a change

Whew. Where to begin?

This is the story of how I left academia to do something new. I think. Maybe I’ll end up teaching again, but I’m not counting on being able to find a job in my field any time soon. I have a Ph. D in dance, which is not exactly a high demand field. It took me two years of job hunting to find my first full-time professor position, at St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Halfway through my seventh year there, the school suddenly closed its doors. I’m taking that as a sign. I’m ready to go.

My wife Ruth and I started a business together in 2003. This was while I was in grad school. We sold her handmade pottery and my hand-sewn costumes, mostly cloaks and robes. Also jewelry, marbles, and other odds and ends as we found them. We called the business The Five Wits after a phrase from Shakespeare referring to the five kinds of intelligence—estimation, fantasy, memory, imagination, and mother wit. It seemed a good name for our eclectic goods. It didn’t make a lot of money but it let us travel around to renaissance fairs, anime conventions, and comic book shows to sell our stuff.
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