Note: Links to books are affiliate links to Bookshop.org. If you purchase books through these links, I’ll make a small commission, which helps me keep Drafting the Past going. Thanks for supporting our guests and the podcast!
For this episode of Drafting the Past, I interviewed Dr. Victoria Wolcott, professor of history at the University of Buffalo. Dr. Wolcott is the author of three books: Remaking Respectability: African-American Women in Interwar Detroit; Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America; and her most recent, Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement, which we talk about more in this episode. She is also the author of numerous academic articles and essays published everywhere from the Washington Post to Buzzfeed. We talked about finding and processing source materials, finding a writing routine that suits you, and why you might still want to publish academic articles, even if your books are focusing on broader audiences.
MENTIONED IN THE SHOW:
- Find Victoria Wolcott on Twitter, @VWidgeon
- Scrivener, which Victoria doesn’t like, but some people do
- Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird
- Victoria’s piece on Christian Cooper, the Central Park birder, for the New York Daily News
- Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents
- Jacob Dorman, The Princess and the Prophet and Chosen People
- Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams
- Judith Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming
TRANSCRIPT (EDITED VERSION COMING SOON)
Victoria Wolcott 0:01
I like to suggest, you know, gathering up a ton of different pieces of advice and then seeing what works for you because it is a pretty individual thing. And the last thing certainly a PhD student needs is to feel guilty about, you know, not using Pomodoro or not writing first thing in the morning. And that’s not gonna be helpful.
Kate Carpenter 0:20
This is another episode of Drafting the Past, and I am your host, Kate Carpenter. In each episode, I interview a guest about the process and craft of writing history. In this episode, I spoke with Dr. Victoria Wolcott, Professor of History at the University of Buffalo.
Victoria Wolcott 0:35
Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.
Kate Carpenter 0:37
Dr. Wolcott is the author of three books: Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit; Race Riots and Rollercoasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America; and her most recent book, Living in the Future: Utopianism and the Long Civil Rights Movement. We talk a lot more about that in this episode. She is also the author of numerous academic articles and essays published everywhere from the Washington Post to BuzzFeed. We talked about finding and processing source materials, finding a writing routine that suits you, and why you might still want to publish academic articles, even if your books are focusing on broader audiences.
Victoria Wolcott 1:19
I think I started off in a very kind of typical academic writer academic career, my first book was based on my dissertation, got my PhD at the University of Michigan, and I did not have, you know, expectations at that point that my work would be read more widely, necessarily. I was pretty focused on you know, landing that first tenure track job and kind of building up my research portfolio. But I did sort of start to expand my focus with my second and now my third books, thinking more about a broader public audience. So one of the things I’ve done in the last, I would say, five to seven years, is to write shorter public pieces for you know, different outlets like Made by History, Washington Post, History News Network, The Conversation, partly because my last book was related to kind of questions of segregation and race that were very, very much sort of of the moment. So I did start doing more of that public writing, and thinking a little bit more about how my work could translate to a broader audience.
Kate Carpenter 2:25
Well, I want to start just with the basics, if you don’t mind. When and where do you do your writing?
Victoria Wolcott 2:29
This answer is probably going to be similar to other folks because COVID changed things. So when I was finishing this book, it was during, you know, the lockdown. So some of my preferences were interrupted by that. But basically, I do most of my writing in my home office, which I share with my husband, who is also a historian. His name is Eric Seeman. So we share an office, we’ve done that since graduate school, so it’s been a long time, although we often have alternating schedules. So sometimes, you know, we’re alone in the office, that was not true doing COVID-19 however, we were stuck in here. So generally, that’s what I do, I draft in my office. But when I get stuck, which is fairly frequently or when I need to brainstorm, I print out pages, hard copies of a chapter or a section of a chapter or just like a notebook. And then I go to the cafe with a red pen, no laptop, just the hard copy the red pen, the you know, big mug of coffee or tea on the table, the background noise, and I find that to be enormously effective, particularly for like the first round of revisions, you know, printing out a very, very rough draft of a chapter just really helps me kind of think through how to get the words on the paper. That’s the where. In terms of the kinds of tools I use, and the how, I have kind of played with and even you know, purchased some software like Scrivener and not used it. So, I mean, I know people who love Scrivener, absolutely love it, find it invaluable. It has a steep learning curve, and I got impatient. So I have basically used the same method all throughout my three books, certainly in my other writing, which is just plain old Microsoft Word documents, organized into folders. And so I have a lot of folders, I’ve got a lot of documents. And I do that even with my citation. I don’t use citation software, I just have a Word document with a you know, bibliography essentially that I cut and paste into my footnotes. And because I’ve been doing that for so long, it works. You know, it’s totally fine. I completely approve of those tools. But it turned out they weren’t for me. I do sometimes use you know, little tricks for for doing things like shutting off the internet, or, you know, setting a timer, the Pomodoro technique, that kind of thing. If I’m really in the midst of writing, I will do that stuff. And I do find that just it just helps with distraction, it helps with focus. So that’s definitely, that’s definitely part of my process as well.
Kate Carpenter 4:58
How do you then organize your sources, what’s your workflow for, for organizing sources and then converting them into writing?
Victoria Wolcott 5:05
So that’s something that’s changed dramatically over time. And I can talk more about that. These days, I just did my first archive trip in a couple of years, which was so exciting to be back in the archives. So these days, right, you have your phone, or whatever device and you’re either use a scanner app, or you, you know, take photographs, and you’re just blazing through these documents. And then you have all these images. And and I actually find that fairly challenging. But basically, what I will be doing with those images I took you know, two weeks ago, is processing them, which means going through them, and taking notes, making sure you know what, while I’m doing the archival research, I’m organizing everything into folders, and being really careful about all of that, to make sure I can keep track of it. Because, you know, if especially if you take photos, they can get all mixed up together. So taking notes on those primary sources as archival sources. So I will have basically for each chapter, a document of primary source notes, and then a document that I call book notes, which could be articles too, which is on secondary sources, and then I’ll have a document, which will be a fairly detailed outline, all those will be open on my computer. And then ideally, I can then start writing, but I do find that the process of of taking all those images, and then processing them, thinking about them, you know, marinating in them is really time consuming. And and has you know, is it something that’s really changed since I was certainly a graduate student.
Kate Carpenter 6:32
You mentioned revision a little bit earlier. What is your revision process like? Where do you start your revision process? You know, is it something you do as you go along?
Victoria Wolcott 6:42
Yeah, well, I’m definitely a fan of the, you can make your rough draft as rough as you need to just get it on the you know, get it on the paper or get it on the computer. So I often have very, very rough initial drafts that I do do that printing out and initial revision. My first reader is actually my husband, and I’m his first reader. So it’s useful to have a historian in the house. And he does a, you know, history, he does early colonial, early modern history. So it’s far enough away from my own work, that we’re good readers for each other. So that’s, he’s my initial reader. And so I will take his comments, do another set of revisions, and then share it with either a writing group, or maybe, you know, some maybe just you know, somebody a kind of peer reviewer. So it’s it’s, you know, goes through multiple, multiple revisions. I’m usually although I do write pretty rough drafts, I’m usually quite careful to like complete the footnotes while I’m writing because I do find like going back and filling in the footnotes later, can just be the death knell. That’s something that that I’m pretty careful about with that, with that first draft.
Kate Carpenter 7:45
I’d like to talk a little bit specifically about your new book Living in the Future, because you mentioned to me ahead of this interview that one of the things that was a challenge with this book is that there’s no sort of one archive, you are weaving together a lot of different sources and a lot of different stories. How did you approach that sort of research?
Victoria Wolcott 8:04
So this was, it was a really fun project. But it is challenging. Like if you have a if you’re tracing a particular organization, or a particular set of historical actors across time, it’s usually fairly apparent where those archives are, what kinds of sources you need. And so this was a much more kind of broad project where the organizing principle was around really a set of ideas and practices, rather than individual people. But I did have some initial historical actors I, that kind of was my entrance into the project. And these were a group of radical pacifists in the late 30s, early 1940s, who I ran across when researching my previous book, Race Riots and Rollercoasters, which is about recreational segregation. And there was these activists who were like living in ashrams and these little intentional communities, using nonviolent direct action, and doing desegregation work well before that was being done as any part of as part of a mass civil rights movement. And so they were kind of my entrance point. So what I did is I tried to immerse myself into their world. That meant essentially reading what they read. And if you’re working on social movement history, or you know, in lots of different or certainly intellectual history, it often your sources often come with a reading list, because when they have these meetings, or they have a newsletter, or this is certainly true for women’s clubs, Black women’s clubs, and white women’s clubs, or there’s a reading list that goes along with it, Black Panther Party. So I read there, I read what they were reading, I read the kind of interpretations of Gandhi. I read certainly utopian novels, I read a lot of Upton Sinclair and Huxley and works like that. And then I paid attention also to their correspondence. You know who this is this is more archival, but who were they writing to? What were they excited about? What was their trajectory? And then that pointed me to these other spaces and institutions and movements that became, you know, inter woven in the book. So it was really a process of kind of immersing myself in their world, and getting a sense of what their world was like and what their influences were. And then following those breadcrumbs following those trails, and then I was able to organize these different chapters.
Kate Carpenter 10:21
How did you keep? Or maybe you didn’t, but how did you keep from going too far into like a rabbit hole?
Victoria Wolcott 10:27
That was very difficult. Any any one of the chapters that I wrote could have been easily a monograph, right. So I had to be disciplined in the writing. And I think doing some of the public writing has helped me kind of rein in my verbiage a bit, and not necessarily feel I need to follow every detail. So for example, with social movement history, one of the things I’ve never been particularly interested in is personality conflicts and disputes within movements. I just don’t find them interesting. And so so you can read, you know, histories where every debate, you know, every faction, sectarian argument, is on the page. And so I sort of avoided that, right, I was really thinking about what was the influence of their work? How did that influence the long civil rights movement, you know, even into the late 20th century? What was the significance of their thinking and their practices and their ideas, rather than the intricacies of their kind of internal debate? But it took discipline and, obviously editing and revision to, to kind of pull back and try to stay focused.
Kate Carpenter 11:32
Do you have any techniques that you sort of consciously apply for deciding what stays in? And what gets left out?
Victoria Wolcott 11:38
The classic technique is, is how does it serve my argument? And obviously, I certainly applied that. I wanted to be focused on particularly African American experiences in these in these communities and practices. So that was a way to kind of narrow it down. So just you know, one short example, I, you know, I wrote about Brookwood Labor College, which was a workers education school, again, could easily be a monograph. It’s actually half of a chapter. But I when I was in the archives, I focused on what was happening with the Black students, who were they they included people like Pauli Murray and Ella Baker, what were their experiences with the school, what kinds of workshops and things was the school doing related to race? And so I was not spending a lot of time talking about the garment workers or the coal miners or other groups who were also, you know, part of this world. So that that definitely helped kind of narrow down my focus, and just sort of thinking about what the influence was on on the broader movement
Kate Carpenter 12:36
Across your three books, has your approach to writing as a craft changed?
Victoria Wolcott 12:40
I think it has, you know, as I mentioned before, the process of research has changed dramatically. So when I was, you know, researching my first book, you know, when I was a graduate student, I spent months in the archives, and I was doing the processing of those sources, as I was researching. And now you know, it’s these, these quick dives few days here and there when I can do it, into the archives. And so even just the process of archival research, and then processing that research has really, really changed how I structure the writing. I am less interested, in the book projects, in doing a lot of historiographical debate than I was earlier in my career. I do that more in scholarly articles, which I kind of edit off of the book, which leaves more room in the book for narrative, for description that will hopefully bring readers into the world that I am, you know, reporting on essentially. So I am more concerned about a public audience, about writing books that have if they’re not necessarily they’re not trade books, right, but they have some crossover appeal. And so that does mean editing, focusing, making them as lively as I possibly can. And though I’m very proud of my first book, that was not you know, that was not nearly to the same extent, on top of my mind.
Kate Carpenter 14:05
To see those changes in action, I asked Victoria to talk me through her research and writing process for the first paragraphs from the second chapter of her most recent book, Living in the Future. Here are those paragraphs:
Kate Carpenter 14:19
“In the blistering hot Mississippi Delta during the depths of the Great Depression, displaced Black and white sharecroppers toiled shoulder to shoulder in the fields of a cooperative farm. Their children played together on a nearby swing set and ran across the open fields. White college students from the North did small jobs on the farm and joined in nightly discussions at the community center. A health clinic, a rarity in rural Mississippi, treated the surrounding Black community suffering from chronic illness. And visiting dignitaries wrote long letters home extolling the virtues of cooperative living and labor interracialism. This was the Delta Cooperative Farm. An experiment in utopian socialism in the depths of the Great Depression, it became a model for successful organizing in the Deep South. In 1936 racial and economic turmoil upended the southern social order. The exploitative sharecropping system crumbled under the weight of New Deal agricultural policy and decimated crop prices. Landowners threw Black and white sharecroppers off their land and refused to share government payments with them. The sharecroppers fought back, creating the socialist Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) in Arkansas and the communist Alabama Sharecroppers Union. In response, southern sheriffs, with the support of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other white supremacist groups, arrested union members, beat them mercilessly, and terrorized their families. In 1936 the white Protestant missionary Sherwood Eddy traveled to Arkansas to investigate racial violence against displaced Black and white STFU members. The local sheriff promptly arrested him. In a local jail cell, Eddy heard the sharecroppers’ stories of brutality and the abject poverty suffered by the dozens of families evicted from their farms. With the backing of Reinhold Neihbur and other prominent intellectuals and activists, Eddy purchased land in rural Mississippi and transported twenty- four families to a new interracial community. The Delta Cooperative, which later expanded to a second farm, became a model producers’ and consumers’ cooperative.”
Victoria Wolcott 16:28
Yes, so this is a great example of revision. I had, the book was done. And I think I did this, even after the first round of readers reports. So the book was done. But I was unhappy with the way the chapters started, they just kind of plenty, you know, there was a transition from the previous chapter. But they sort of plunged you right into the analysis right of, of whatever the chapter subject was. So I came up with this, I was like, this has to be livelier. I mean, this has to be more interesting. So I came up with this idea of starting each chapter with a description, a kind of immersive description of what it might be like to be in this space, in this particular time. So in the case of of the paragraphs that you’re talking about, this is a chapter about the Delta Providence Farms in Mississippi. So my opening here was to kind of imagine this, this space as a sort of oasis in the deep Delta south, which was, you know, completely fraught with violence, with deep poverty, with lack of health care. And here was a space where African Americans and whites, displaced sharecroppers, but also activists and others who were going through the community work were working together, shoulder to shoulder, doing this agricultural work. And I have to say, I’ve never done agricultural history or rural history before, or really southern history, for the most part. So this chapter was a challenge, particularly a challenge to write, thinking about, you know, learning about how the cooperative system works in an agricultural system. So that was, that’s the idea is that I do it for each chapter, I try to just short, you know, it’s a short paragraph, maybe five or six sentences. So the reader can sort of imagine herself or himself in this particular world. And then I go into sort of a quick, almost like a summary just to kind of, you know, why is this important, right? Which is sort of the second part of this section, that it’s important, because it’s not just an isolated, cooperative experiment. But it’s, you know, something that was influential for activists around not just the country, but the world, that it was supported by people like, you know, Eleanor Roosevelt, leading intellectuals at the time. And I mentioned the white college students, because I see it also as a predecessor of what would happen in the 1960s, with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. So I’m basically trying to, so it’s setting the scene, trying to immerse the reader and then trying to very succinctly suggest the significance, which I then in the chapter, hopefully, will be able to unravel at greater length. So that’s, that’s what I tried to do with with actually all the chapters. But that was, that was a later revision that was, you know, quite late in the game.
Kate Carpenter 19:16
What kinds of sources did you pull the sort of sensory details you needed in order to immerse the reader into this opening?
Victoria Wolcott 19:24
I mean, I think the things that were most helpful with that were correspondence, for example, you know, folks from the North, who went down to Mississippi would write about their experiences there. They talk about the heat. I’m from Buffalo, New York. So the idea of being in Mississippi in the summer is just like, sort of overwhelming. They talk about the heat they talk about, they talk about the tensions, they talk about the fear, they talk about the violence. So those kinds of, I do, I mean, I did have some access to some diaries and things as well. But correspondence, also, you know, the Black press covers, you know, all the stuff that I’m talking about in great detail. So anybody who does African American history in the 19th and 20th century knows that the Black press is just an invaluable, invaluable resource, incredibly important. Much of it’s now digitized, but not all of it. I was just looking at microfilm yesterday of the Baltimore Afro American because that was not digitized. So that too, is incredibly powerful. Some of the more well known figures, somebody like Sherwood Eddy, who helped found the Delta Cooperative Farm, wrote memoirs too, right, so they wrote their own autobiographies and memoirs, kind of reflecting back, so so all those sources helped me kind of set the scene. And then it’s just, you know, it’s a matter of layering, right, you’re working with this materials for years, you’re revisiting them as you revise them. So I think it’s actually useful that I wrote those little vignettes at the very, very end, because I had had, you know, eight years or something marinating with this stuff. And I probably wouldn’t have been ready to do that earlier on.
Kate Carpenter 21:03
The other thing that you do that you mentioned a little bit that I am so impressed by, in these opening paragraphs of this chapter is that you’ve woven in so much historical context, but in a way that feels light, that as a reader, you keep moving even though there’s a massive amount of content really here. Is that a challenge for you? Or is that something that after spending that much time comes out sort of easily?
Victoria Wolcott 21:25
Oh, it’s a challenge. I mean, and it’s something I’ve gotten better at over time. So that’s the that’s where the craft comes in. And again, I’ve mentioned this before, but I do think the public writing has helped me when you only have 800 words, or 1000 words, for a blog post, or an op ed or something, where you need to get across to an audience that’s not academic necessarily, what the significance of you know, the father divine movement, or whatever it is I’m talking about, is really, in a really kind of short way that’s still relatively lively. I think that’s been really good training. I’ve been trying to encourage my PhD students, in particular, to try their hand at that kind of writing, because I think it’s really good training for not just reaching a broader audience, but just for tighter, but more lively writing.
Kate Carpenter 22:15
Do you approach those pieces differently? I mean, is it a different process?
Victoria Wolcott 22:19
Yeah, I mean, it is, I mean, they have a, they have to have a contemporary hook. I sometimes it’s really sad, because I, you know, it’s like you’re waiting for something to happen that, oh, I can, I can write that op ed about, you know, the I did one about the African American man in Central Park, who was the birdwatcher, the white woman called the police on him, that so that was a perfect moment for me to talk about public spaces, parks, the ways in which Black bodies are considered to be somehow foreign in those spaces, what the history of that was. So there has to be that hook, that contemporary hook. So that’s, you know, that’s clearly different, I don’t feel that same necessity necessarily, and other kinds of writing that I do, those pieces are also heavily edited. You know, if you, if you submit to Made by History, I mean, some are more than others. But like, Made by History, or The Conversation, you’re gonna have an editor, line by line, changing things, and then you’re gonna see the final product, and it has a completely different title, you know, and they’ve done some other things, and you’re like, Okay, so there, you have to, you have to just let go of your ego, right? If you’re going to do that kind of writing, or at least, at least turn your ego down a certain amount, if you’re gonna, if you’re gonna actually try to do that, that sort of work. So that’s, that’s also very different.
Kate Carpenter 23:32
Have you learned things about your own writing process, from getting that sort of feedback from editors?
Victoria Wolcott 23:36
I think I have, I mean, I think it’s, you know, again, the hook, you know, learning how to do a hook, learning how to kind of tie that back up at the end of a piece, not not hiding the lead somewhere in the middle. All of that writing short sentences, trying to make them again, as it sort of is so that maybe the reader can identify right with the historical subjects that you’re writing about, in a way, have empathy or sympathy for them. I think all of that has been has been helpful.
Kate Carpenter 24:07
You mentioned earlier that you had also written some academic articles on similar or related subjects to Living in the Future. Could you talk a little bit about how you balance these different types of writing on a related subject?
Victoria Wolcott 24:21
So I actually I’m somebody I mean, I know senior scholars who, like basically don’t publish in journals are rarely published in academic journals anymore. I actually find it to be really helpful. And I find it to be helpful because it can actually free you up with the monograph, to not be so historiographical, right? But so for this book, so I’ve generally done like two articles with each book. And then I have a few other pieces, you know, in between. So it serves a few functions. So for this book, there was a historiographical argument I wanted to make about the early work of the Congress of Racial Equality. It was a pretty specific, but I thought important, intervention. And so I wrote a whole article with all of that evidence, like so much evidence, lots of historiography, long, long footnotes. And so that’s out there in the world. And so I didn’t feel like I had to do that in the book. I could, I could still tell the story. I could do the narrative. I can, you know, do all of that. But I didn’t have to, you know, hit the reader over a hammer again, again, by saying, Look, other historians have ignored this, and look what I found. Look what I found. I did that in an article. So that was really helpful. I also wrote an article about a young black woman organizer, labor organizer named Floria Pinkney. There’s no archive on her. So I was taking all these fragments of information and kind of pulling them together. And I did that because I really wanted to do a deep dive on her life that I would not have any room for in the book. But the other offshoot of that article, this was from the Journal of African American History, is as I’m writing it, and I’m getting the reader’s reports, you know, and some of them are really harsh. And I’m like, you know, this term inter racialism. It’s just too clunky. It’s too capacious, interracial work, organizing, activism, living is very different in different kinds of spaces. So I came up with these three different categories of labor interracialism, liberal interracialism and utopian interracialism, while working on the revisions for that article, because I had to be more precise, it’s like, you know, I was getting pushed back, and and it forced me. So it actually helped me develop a core argument in the book. So it was really, really useful that way. I think also, it can be useful if you’re in the very beginning of a project to try to write an article, just to see is this an article or a book. So I did that, for my last book on recreation, I wrote an article for the Journal of American History about a specific race riot. And in the revisions for that, you know, figured out that there was a book, there was a big book project, it was a bigger story. So I actually think it can be generative and helpful, I think some people might feel, and obviously everybody’s different. But some people might feel, I should just focus on the monograph, the scholarly articles are a waste of time. And maybe that’s true for some folks. And certainly, if you’re on a tenure clock, and you’re desperate to get that book out, then by all means just focus on the monograph. But I think, actually, intellectually, and in terms of wanting to make an intervention historiographically, but not necessarily wanting to do that in the book as much, it can be enormously helpful.
Kate Carpenter 27:34
Is it hard to switch between those modes of writing for you?
Victoria Wolcott 27:37
I mean, yes, and certainly, the whole readers’ reports and revision process for scholarly articles is, it’s really hard. I mean, it’s really difficult. You know, if you’re, if you’re trying to publish in the very, very top journals, you’re getting, like between six or 10, I mean it’s like a crazy number of readers’ reports, there’s usually a second round, but even for journals that are slightly less top tier, you’re still getting a lot of input. And then the often the journal editor will be giving you input as well. So and that can be a real struggle. I mean you talk about ego, that can be a real struggle. Those revisions and rejections, I’ve certainly had articles rejected as well. So I do feel like some of my writerly voice gets lost in the kind of washing machine going back over back over back over. So I think that the scholarly articles have a more academic voice, they have to respond to all these criticisms that you’re getting from everywhere. And and yeah, so they’re not, they’re not going to be quite as hooky, or lively, as I hope the books are.
Kate Carpenter 28:44
How has your experience as a writer influenced the way you talk about and teach writing?
Victoria Wolcott 28:49
So I have lots of advice about writing that I give to my students, I think that the project of writing a dissertation is so difficult. It is such a, it’s such a challenging period in a PhD student’s life, that period when you’re ABD and you know, you’re off on your own. So I do do a lot of mentoring and, and, and just talking to students about, they often just really appreciate it when you say it’s difficult. Like even even just that sentence like this is really difficult. It’s difficult for us, you know, it’s difficult for faculty, this is not an easy thing, just that that recognition can be a bit of a relief. And then I sort of try to talk them through all the various tips that I’ve sort of garnered over the years, but also, you know, in terms of like graduate seminars, having shorter assignments where they are, for example, one of my options this semester, and this is just the US core class, is a popular cultural analysis. So they have some for short assignments have a few different options. One is to write like an op ed, but they could take a piece of popular culture, and then use the book that we’re reading that week or set of articles or whatever it is to analyze it. And that’s just really good practice. It’s taking the primary source, and it’s using a secondary source to kind of bring it to life and to analyze it. So kind of breaking those down, those pieces down. And then if they’re writing an MA thesis, or the dissertation, kind of putting those pieces puzzle pieces together,
Kate Carpenter 30:21
What kinds of writing advice do you find yourself repeating frequently?
Victoria Wolcott 30:25
The writing advice that I most frequently give probably is “Bird by Bird,” which any lover of writing craft will recognize, as the Anne Lamott advice, right? The advice basically, is to break things down into very small pieces. I mean, whether you’re a full professor or a graduate student, the task of writing, you know, a full, full length, you know, dissertation or monograph is completely overwhelming. So the smaller pieces, you can break it down into the better that takes organization and planning. But it’s organization and planning that pays off really well. I think it’s also really good advice, if you are, for example, somebody who has to do a lot of service or has a very heavy teaching load, or for graduate students a very heavy TA load, or maybe you’re adjuncting, so you only have a certain amount of time. And it is good to revisit the project as often as you can, ideally, so if you have something that only takes 45 minutes or an hour, and you can kind of slot it into your day, that will add up really, really quickly. So the Bird by Bird is probably my number one writing advice. I do suggest things like using apps to turn off your internet or using the Pomodoro technique. But I also think it’s important to realize that people have different styles. And it shouldn’t be too, you know, the idea that everybody’s going to wake up at five in the morning, and write for two hours before their kids get up. Right? There are people, I know people who do that. And they’re just marvelous people. But that’s not going to be everybody’s style. Some people, some people write really well late at night, I never been able to, but other people do. I do think for most people, it’s good to look at the project almost every day or every work day. But some people take one day a week, and just do a completely deep dive, and they just set everything else aside. And if that’s effective for you, then I think that’s, that works. So I like to suggest, you know, gathering up a ton of different pieces of advice and then seeing what works for you. Because it is a pretty individual thing. And the last thing certainly a PhD student needs is to feel guilty about, you know, not using Pomodoro or not writing first thing in the morning. And that’s not going to be helpful.
Kate Carpenter 32:37
I’ll turn this question around on you now and ask, is there any particularly influential writing advice that you’ve received?
Victoria Wolcott 32:43
You know, I certainly have my mentors who stay with me. Elsa Barkley Brown is one who really talked to me a lot about respecting the historical actors whose lives I was writing about. Not being too judgmental, not being too critical, not putting my own values on the past. And that is not full objectivity, but just having a certain level of respect for the historical actors in the social context in which they live. So So Elsa’s advice around that was really important when I was, for example, revising the dissertation for my first book, which is about African American women in Detroit, Remaking Respectability. Her voice in my head, was definitely influential in organizing that. The idea of, of immersing yourself in your historical actors’ lives, like reading everything that they read, getting a sense of their context, that was definitely something that Robin Kelley, who was also one of my mentors at University of Michigan, instilled in me as well, as well as David Scobey, who was an urban historian. And he was, when I started to work on Detroit, he said, read everything about Detroit, just read everything. It could be about the 18th century, could be about today, just like know the city inside out. And that will help you, you know, set a context so that those those my dissertation advisors, you know, still their heads or their voices are still in my head.
Kate Carpenter 34:14
Who do you read for inspiration? Are there historians who you look to or other writers?
Victoria Wolcott 34:20
As somebody who studies utopia, it’s probably not a surprise that I read a lot of science fiction and speculative fiction. That’s my genre that I go to for leisure, but also for ideas. And I just find it really, really interesting and there’s been just a lot of amazing work. But I just reread Octavia Butler, who’s maybe my favorite science fiction writer. I just reread her series about the parable. There’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, these two amazing books that present both a dystopia, which has Donald Trump-like president involved in it. It’s very applicable in many ways to our current dystopia, but also has a utopian element to it, this kind of creation of a new society, through, you know, through this sort of new religion. So Octavia Butler has been enormously influential actually, in making me think about, about these types of intentional communities, about new religions like the father divine movement, which I write about, as well as other forms of science fiction writing and speculative fiction. In terms of historians, I mentioned Robin Kelley before, Robin D. G. Kelley, who I was, you know, very grateful that I got a chance to work with him a bit when I was a graduate student. But he in terms of African American history is probably my favorite historian, particularly his book, Freedom Dreams, which has been really, really influential to me as well. Somebody more recently, who I’ve just really admired is a historian of religion, particularly Black religion, Jacob Dorman is his name. He’s written two books, the Chosen People, which is about Black Israelites, this really, really fascinating book, and then a more recent book called The Princess and the Prophet, which I absolutely love. This is about Moorish Muslims in America. The Princess and the Prophet also reads like a detective story. It’s really it’s like, he uncovers this world, this religious world, which for outsiders seems very mysterious. And he kind of sets that book up like a detective story. Who are these individuals? What are their influences, there’s a whole couple of chapters where like, the mafia gets involved. And it’s, it’s just a great read. But also, Dorman is so respectful of these new religious movements, of the historical actors that he’s writing about, of their motivations. He isn’t dismissive, he doesn’t make fun of them, you know, he’s, he’s just such a good historian of religion. And I’ve really, really benefited from reading his work. I would say, also, Judith Weisenfeld, also an excellent historian of religion. So because for this book, I was writing a lot about religion. And I wrote a fair amount about religion in my first book, but it’s not an area that I’ve been trained in. So I’ve had to kind of learn to learn on the fly.
Kate Carpenter 37:09
Before our interview, you also mentioned that you had founded a writing workshop. Could you tell me a little bit more about this?
Victoria Wolcott 37:15
Well, I mean, I think I think I know that the act of writing, including academic writing, is very isolating. It’s something that we do ourselves alone, most of the research we do is is, you know, a solitary thing. And then the writing itself is fairly solitary. You know, I wanted to create a writing group within my institution. I have been involved over the years off and on with a really great group in western New York called RUSH, which is Rochester U.S. Historians, which is in Rochester, where I actually used to teach. And so that’s been, so I did, actually, I’ve workshopped chapters in that group, and there’s wonderful people there. But it’s sometimes hard to get out there, you know, and I wanted something that was just at my institution that would nurture and mentor, particularly women academics across disciplines. So I do feel, you know, as I’m getting later in my career, that mentorship is a big part of my job. So that was part of part of the goal of this. And it’s still it’s only I think we’re about a year in at this point. But it’s been really fun, and also supportive and useful. So it includes women who are assistant professors all the way up to full professors, and multiple disciplines. So in that group, I’m reading music theory, I’m reading about dance history, I’m reading about Jewish Studies, right, all sorts of disciplines. So that’s really just useful. And we also have a rule that we’ll read anything. So the last time we met, somebody brought in their promotion materials, for coming up for tenure, particularly the research statement. And we just pored over that thing. And just like gave her all sorts of ideas about revisions and about goals. She is in a department where she’s sort of the first person to come up for tenure in her discipline, essentially. We’ve read book reviews, drafts of book reviews, so we’ll like literally read everything. It does not have to be a chapter or an article, although we’ll read those as well. And then we do a lot of cheerleading of each other as well, you know, oh, I got a bad readers’ report. You know, we’ll hear some ways to respond, etc. So I would just recommend to people to either look for a group like this, it’s not that hard to form it yourself, though. I mean, just you know, ask a few friends.
Kate Carpenter 39:22
Is there anything you’d like to talk about about writing that I have not asked you about?
Victoria Wolcott 39:26
I think one of the things that’s really important is to read a lot and to read widely. I have absolutely no ounce of embarrassment about the amount of speculative and science fiction that I read. I think it’s enormously helpful. I read lots of other kinds of literary fiction as well. And then across historical genres, I love in the summer to read completely out of my field, you know, about, I don’t know, medieval Europe or you know, or African history or some sort of adjacent area just to read good historical writing. So that’s, that’s a huge piece of advice. And to recognize, again, as I said before that writing can be difficult. But it is also very rewarding. I mean, knowing that people are reading what you’ve written, and getting knowledge out of it is very, very rewarding.
Kate Carpenter 40:12
Is there anything you’re working on now that you’re willing to chat about?
Victoria Wolcott 40:15
Well, I do have a new book project, which I did go to the archives for, which I’m thinking is going to be a micro history. That is, you know, when you take somebody, an individual or a particular moment in time, and you use it to contextualize a whole period. And this is a Black female activist, Eroseanna Robinson was her name, who’s actually appeared in my last two books, as a kind of bit player sort of, but I’ve always wanted to do more with her remarkable life. She does not have an archive. So I’ve, I’m, you know, this project is about again, pulling together pieces here, pieces there, correspondence, etc, whatever I can find about her. But she was an athlete, as well as a pacifist and a civil rights activist. So she combined her athleticism with her work in activism in ways that I think people will find really interesting. And this is, you know, a Cold War, this would be also a way to talk about the Cold War, and the Cold War context for activism. So that’s my idea for the next book project. So we’ll see how it goes. I am thinking about writing an article first, to see to see if it’s really a book.
Kate Carpenter 41:19
Fantastic. It sounds great. Dr. Victoria Wolcott, thank you so much for your time and for being willing to share more about your writing process with me. I really enjoyed this conversation.
Victoria Wolcott 41:29
I’ve enjoyed it, too. Thank you so much.
Kate Carpenter 41:30
Thanks again to Victoria Wolcott, for joining me on this episode of Drafting the Past. And thanks to you for listening and sharing the show with your friends. If you’d like to buy books you’ve heard about on the show, you can check out the Drafting the Past shop on bookshop.org. A portion of all the sales from there helped to keep the show going. Until next time, happy writing!
Join the discussion