Jodi Byrd’s book The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism was published last fall by the University of Minnesota Press. Today Byrd, an assistant professor of American Indian Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offers insightful advice for junior scholars revising their dissertations and illustrates the importance of writing and voice as a decolonial project.
By Jodi Byrd
Let’s be honest and upfront. For junior faculty, and especially for those of us in American Indian and Indigenous Studies, one of the most difficult challenges we face in the juggling of teaching and service commitments is how to prioritize our own writing and research. And yet, that is one of the most significant things we can do as scholars and it demands a large amount of flexibility, persistence, and no small number of obsessive-compulsive habits. Because—and this is another truth of academic writing—almost anything is preferable to overcoming that initial hurdle of staring once more into the yawning chasm of a bright, blank computer screen. Anything.
There is lots of advice out there on how to be a successful and prolific writer. Set aside time—minutes to hours—and set goals. Today I will write for fifteen minutes no matter what, even if I have to delete every other expletive on the way to that one sentence for the day. Once you fulfill that goal, you’re done until the next session and the reward is already built in with the sense of accomplishment for having finally sat down to write. Or, as other advice suggests, you might try stopping mid-sentence at the end of the session to Hansel and Gretel your way to a completed sentence, paragraph, page, article, chapter, and book. Have habits and create rituals. Wear your favorite sweatshirt, pour yourself a glass of water, listen to the same playlist over and over and over to condition your mind into the grooves of putting words on the page. Whatever it takes to enter the zone and stay there. It is, after all and as the conventional wisdom implies, a matter of priority and application.
I have tried almost every one of these suggestions at various stages as I stared down deadlines and writer’s block and just sheer exhaustion and boredom. And they work. To a point. For me, though, writing isn’t about the tricks and the rewards so much as it is about carving out stretches of time—usually in the early, early morning—to procrastinate, stare, scream, and finally, yes, write. My method, if you could call it that, is to beg and steal as much time as possible from the edges of other duties and shape it into workable hours. It sometimes means writing binges over the weekends and into breaks. I’m a writer that likes expanses of time.
Once you’ve found the time to draft and compose, the next hurdle is grappling with feedback and revisions. As academics, we often form writing circles and by the necessity of peer and blind review, not to mention copyediting, we are inundated with advice, expectations, and sometimes, deeply critical assessments of our work. It is all about the long game and staying in it, regardless of setbacks or the sheer daunting task of having to rewrite yet again an introduction to finally get it right. It’s about holding true to your own vision and learning to evaluate the feedback you receive. Sometimes it’s a matter of trying to read beyond the comments to figure out what the reader was really flagging in the work and then assessing the best way to revise the argument to maintain the coherency of your own idea. Words and grammar matter within Indigenous studies; language and structure affect meaning. Within the context of ongoing colonialism that reproduces itself discursively as well as militarily and juridically, how we write and argue our ideas is fundamentally a decolonial project that necessarily plays out in the words we choose and the sentences we write. How we shape the worlds of our arguments is worth all the time we can give it.