Reflections on the JHI Writing Workshop

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on Mon, 10/26/2020 - 13:13
Robyn Autry

Robyn Autry is JHI’s 2020-21 Visiting Public Humanities Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Wesleyan University. She is an interpretive sociologist with broad interests in cultural practices associated with black identity, memory and violence, and representation.

Her current book project Selfishly Black, considers how we personally experience and make sense of collective phenomena like racism and colorism. In addition to her public writing, she has given several public talks and is experimenting with others forms of public engagement such as storytelling events.

Robyn participated in the first JHI Writing Workshop and shares her experiences ahead of our call for the 2020-21 Workshops. If you'd like to participate in our virtual workshop, apply now for Public Writing: An Introduction.

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I learned about the week-long JHI writing workshop the same year I decided to pivot my writing toward more general audiences. As much writing as we all do as academics, I knew that writing for general audiences would require me to take the craft of writing far more seriously. I hadn’t taken a writing course since I was an undergraduate, so I jumped at the opportunity to think more about voice and style, and learn about a very different world of pitching, editing, and agents. To sit among a community of scholars who were also eager to learn how to hone their skills and reorient their work in this way was just so inspiring and supportive.

Our instructors—Catherine Taylor and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich—were the best aspects the workshop. They skillfully played off each other’s strengths as they led us through a deep dive into our work. They challenged us to unpack our own work, to isolate and rewrite sentences and characters from different perspectives, and to offer meaningful commentary about each other’s writing. They had us reading and writing for hours every day, and it couldn’t have been more of a pleasure! The selection of readings—from Vivian Gornick to Teju Cole—were spot on in terms of providing instruction and illustration.

One of the most powerful writing exercises I remember was when we were asked to read through our work and circle all of the material objects that were helping to prop up and propel the narrative. We were then asked to zoom in on one of those objects and describe its physical properties more fully and colorfully and consider how it might actually serve as a symbol for the broader theme or question of the work.

It was a wonderfully exhausting experience! It was like my brain synapses were working overtime as I was learning so much every day, from discussions about our readings to exercises. They had us take apart our work and then rearrange it and put it back together again. It helped me be less committed to the first version of anything I wrote, and more open to the possibilities that through a different sort of revision process—one that was more creative and generative, not only grammar and clarity—I might get closer to what I was actually thinking or feeling. I thought I was writing about my hair, but it turns out I was writing about my mother!

We met for at least five hours each day. I walked to campus taking in the sights, since this was my first time visiting Toronto. That quiet morning walk from downtown to campus allowed me to settle in for the day ahead, as much as the return walk helped me process all that I had learned. Walking the city was an essential element of that week for me.

I have taken several writing classes and attended workshops since my first one at the JHI. They’ve all been useful, but none come close to what I learned from Alexandria, Catherine, and my fellow students. It’s not just that the essay I workshopped is so much better for the experience, but I left a better writer and more confident than ever that I could translate my social analysis into nonacademic pieces that people would want to read.