Archives: To Tell Things As They Ought to Be Told: III

Third in a series of posts (read I and II, if you haven’t yet), dating to early February, 2018.  

Everything Now.
So. What does it mean that I have many stories to tell? What does that really mean?
I am one of those intuitive organizers, which is a euphemism for “I’m messy, but have good recall.” Spider webs can look messy, too, but the spider knows, when something alights upon the silk, what should be done–whether the web should expand, be repaired, or perhaps there is something to be digested. I had thought perhaps making a list of Topics I Can Write On would be in order, but as I write this, what I realize is that what I should make is not so much a list, but a roadmap. Memory-mapping or mind-mapping is a thing I’ve done a few times, and I always felt the exercise would be a great one for research. There are stories that are single episodes, stories that are single episodes linked to a greater arc, and stories that may fall like chapters in a book. There are stories that will be revisited and retold, and in returning I may–I will–find new things to see.

There are short and long-term goals to all of this. Writing these notes on Facebook is a stopgap. I do want to do a proper planning process for all of this, but at the same time we’re in the midst of the Olympics, which is one of those larger arcs for me with some individual stories. I can’t ignore that kind of inspiration, right when I am feeling that rush of creativity. But–let’s put it this way–I’m good at planning, but I suck at dreaming. I have been pragmatic for so long–which had the positive effect that I have built a space for creativity and prioritized it in my life–but as a sideline, not a vocation. I am in no position to quit my job, nor do I particularly want to, but what I do want to begin doing is to look on spending time on telling historical stories that is not tied to a deadline or requirement, other than my own. That means building in time on a regular basis to do just what I am doing now. That means starting a blog, first. In time, perhaps podcasts. Perhaps, someday, a collection of my writings, perhaps even speaking gigs to talk about this, or consultancy. That’s a lot of perhaps.

It means having a plan. A long-term plan, with no clear goal at this point than to explore and do more, but a plan nonetheless. I’m a project manager, so easy, right? Well, not so fast. That’s what’s been holding me back for a little while. I don’t have a clear goal, and all my training says “you have to have the goal in mind before you can break down the tasks into deliverables with timelines.”

OK, then. My goal is “be a historian on my terms. Write on my terms. Speak on my terms. Never stop learning.” The last part is what powers the first three parts. It’s what I’ve been doing since I was a kid.

Here, I will tell a story of my own. I’ve been telling people for years why I didn’t go on into academia. There are a lot of true things about what I’ve told people–that I didn’t feel motivated to go into the dog and pony show required to chase tenure, that I did not want to live at a poverty level as a sessional or adjuct in the meantime, perhaps uprooting myself each year to chase new positions, and that the call of a “regular job” with a decent salary doing work that was decently satisfying was too strong. Yes. All of those things. But if I look at it more closely, there were signs even while I was working on my doctorate that I was realizing that the dream of being “a professor” was not really what I thought it would be. Teaching–absolutely. But the research? The research into a tiny, specialized period of history–to become an expert in minutiae? I could do it. I did do it, and decently well. But it was a slog. In Myers-Briggs terms, I am an N rather than an S–a big-picture thinker, rather than detail-oriented. I can do the details, but I can’t do them for their sake only, and I find no joy there.

I had spent a good year and a half stalled out in the middle of my doctoral work–not coincidentally, while I was teaching–making no progress at all. It was not really what I wanted to do. I wanted to ignite passion, to make people feel and understand, to see that big picture. That’s not exactly what doing a critical edition of a 13th century Latin theological text is meant to accomplish. So when I received my PhD in 1999, I graduated feeling fundamentally unsure of myself, of my worthiness as a scholar and historian. As a teacher? I knew I had some skill there, and I truly enjoyed it. But to get to the teaching–at least, if I was going to have any job security and a decent salary–I was going to have to break my back doing “important research”, which wasn’t teaching and which, despite having a PhD, I felt little passion for or great competence in.

So, I just didn’t go there. I tried, weakly, for a few months. At the same time, my husband and I had stuffed our worldly goods and three cats into a van and moved in with my parents, taking over the upstairs portion of my childhood home. My dad was sleeping on the couch in the family room where my mother, bedridden from Alzheimers and a fractured leg, was now confined to a hospital bed. I had moved down ostensibly to be with her, but she didn’t even recognize me any more. A good future academic would have been continuing her research, applying for jobs, going to conferences. I was exhausted. I put together a CV, the expected recommendation letters. I thought about other related careers. I got one interview as a Latin teacher for a private school, and another for an editor position with the Medieval Academy, but didn’t get either position. So I worked temp jobs. And…I made a little money from writing for the Millennium Edition CD of the World Book Encyclopedia (something I’d nearly forgotten about, until now). And then, one of those temp jobs offered me a full time position, exceeding the salary offered by the couple of jobs I’d interviewed for by about 20%. I suddenly saw a future that required using my brain and analysis skills that could work for me. I would have to abandon the academic path, but in truth I had already strayed some time ago and was hacking through the jungle, looking for another path.

Within a couple of years, I had convinced myself that other than the fact that it taught me project management skills and great critical thinking chops, that doctorate hanging on the wall was little more than a decoration.

I have not defined myself as someone with a PhD for a very long time. It is one fact out of many, and really no longer has much meaning for my current life, other than as a memory of that enthusiastic graduate of Ohio State, in love with history, and wanting to devote her life’s work to it. I remember her. She was cool. She used to paint shirts with Egyptian hieroglyphs or a coin of the ruler Theoderic the Great, because those things brought her joy and were a way of telling the stories that moved her.

So, is this plan finally “doing something with my doctorate”?


I am doing something with me. About me. For me.

Photo from the Arcade Fire concert last fall, from the song “Everything Now.”

Every inch of sky’s got a star
Every inch of skin’s got a scar
I guess that you’ve got everything now
Every inch of space in your head
Is filled up with the things that you read
I guess you’ve got everything now
And every film that you’ve ever seen
Fills the spaces up in your dreams
That reminds me

(Everything now Everything now)

Every inch of road’s got a sign
And every boy uses the same line
I pledge allegiance to everything now
Every song that I’ve ever heard
Is playing at the same time, it’s absurd
And it reminds me, we’ve got everything now
We turn the speakers up till they break
‘Cause every time you smile it’s a fake!
Stop pretending, you’ve got Everything Now

I need it (Everything now!)
I want it (Everything now!)
I can’t live without (Everything now!)…
Postscript, January 23, 2019.
The process continues.  I have realized that telling stories has a much larger scope than I had expected, and that not all of them have to be strictly about history.  My appetites are rather larger than that.

Everything now….indeed.