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another reading list

Megan Betz

After clawing my way through the comprehensive exam process & finally wrapping up my three conference presentations for the spring (more on that later, but I have some reflections on presenting with a baby on my personal blog), I'm turning my attention to feeding my creative self in preparation for the dissertation process. I have to draft my proposal and get myself going, and I'm still in a bit of an exam hangover. I'm behind. This isn't a new state of things for me. But this time, I'm handling it differently. 

I'm not scrambling to catch up. I'm just embracing it. I'm pacing myself for the marathon of projects that follow after this proposal, and part of that is turning my attention to reading that makes me truly inspired to write. As an undergraduate, I dedicated all of my elective course hours to creative writing and literature, particularly nonfiction. I was fortunate to have an incredible professor, Jill Christman, and I learned that good reading fueled good writing. The words seemed to take up physical space in my body until they forced my own writing to spill up and over and out of me. I'm trying to get back to that feeling--that the ideas are urgent and need to be given space, that I am excited to be working. This is all part of my new year's resolution to own my identity as a writer. With two publications to my name, I feel myself pulled into a world of academic writing that doesn't quite match the tone or audience I most enjoy. So, here is a reading list I'm working through to feed the other writer in me with the goal of creating a dissertation that speaks to a wider audience and has last value outside of the dark corners of a university library.

Big Magic from Elizabeth Gilbert is all about embracing the creative life, where creative is whatever nurture & fulfills you most. I need some encouragement as I work toward leaving behind the fear of being a writer, of claiming that title & putting in the work to actually earn it. Gilbert defines creativity as a chore & a mystery, and I love that. It's elusive, & it is work. It is an ongoing process, a constant choice. I'm focusing on making that choice each day, from giving myself time to bake cookies & blog, to making work hours truly productive by locking away social media & putting the damn words on the page. You have to write. the. words.

Operating Instructions from Anne Lamott was a perfect read for early motherhood, as she's working through her first year of this experience. It's also a look at how you can use humor & honesty to make immense emotion so touchable, relatable, & clear. Her tone is incredible. Her humor is perfectly timed without undercutting the emotional complexity of the situation she's facing. I need more from her, because it felt good to read this, to reconsider how emotion is used in my writing & reframe how I position myself in my dissertation research. Reading it made me realize it's time for me to pick up Bird by Bird, her book on craft. 

The Empathy Exams from Leslie Jamison is just straight-up engaging, captivating nonfiction. She's positioned squarely in the text. She used a device that pushes her narrative forward without feeling forced. She has an essay structure that still reads like a unified text. I have so much to learn here. How do I put research into an engaging, novel form? How do I position myself squarely in the text and prioritize reflexivity in a way that feels natural? How do I show empathy toward my subjects in a way that is based on my inability to understand fully? How do I give them space to feel things on their own & not simply in relation to my own feelings or experience? Big, big questions I'm asking myself while reading this.

Telling True Stories has been sitting on my bookshelf since I was in college. I'm finally getting back to it, & I feel like the book has been waiting for me to get to this point. This is more than craft. It's information-gathering, thinking about story, thinking about writing, & thinking about what stories are written for. Why do we gather this information? What are we doing with it? How are we putting it to work?

After five years of graduate school, I was reaching the point of full-on burnout. I felt like all of the creative energy in me had been drained by things I had to do for other projects or assignments. There was little space or time to just write & see what emerged, or to go out & play with new ways of collecting or arranging information. These books are recharging me, & I find myself itching to be out, to be writing, to be working. Hope you're having a similar feeling this spring. If books are doing it for you, I'd love to know what they are! If they aren't, maybe give one of these a try.