Choosing a topic

Every writer has a unique way of arriving at their subject matter. For me, American Athena was something of a surprise. There were more than a few raised eyebrows when I announced to friends and colleagues in January 2015 that I was embarking on a history of Midwestern women in the nineteenth century because it was so unlike anything I had ever done before. Today’s post is intended to give some background on how this project came to be and hopefully provide some insight for writers out there who are, as we say, “between projects.”

After publishing my first book in 2013, I needed some time to think carefully about what was next and thought it best to dabble in a variety of subjects by channeling energies into a few articles. I’ve worked on a few book chapters so far, and there are files of documents on rural civil defense just waiting for my attention. But I also knew I wanted to “get something” out of all my work with the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives. It had been a labor of love for five years, a kind of side project that eventually took over all my creative energies. Initially, I envisioned a book about the “social history” of archives at small institutions. I floated this idea past several publishers and all were encouraging, but none were enthusiastic. At that point, a writer has two choices: you can either say, “This a good idea, but they just don’t get it,” or “You know, they don’t think this will sell. Maybe I change my focus, and that’s okay. ” Making that decision requires a writer to think critically about what type of writer they want to be and the audiences they want to interact with. It isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be terribly painful either. In January 2015, I took two precious days before the semester began for a personal retreat (I’ll blog more about that process later. It was glorious). During that time, I focused on the aforementioned questions and concluded that American Athena works for me on a number of levels.

First, that I have a passion for women’s history goes without saying. To study women’s lives, especially those that have gone undocumented, is simply part of who I am. Archives are wonderful and writing the social history of archives would have been fun, but women’s history speaks to my soul. The best advice I’ve ever received is simply, “Be Yourself.” It never fails.

Second, for those who want to publish, concerns about marketability are front and center. Several of the publishers I spoke with expressed concerns that my initial project was too narrow. They were right about that. Members of the archival community were incredibly supportive of the idea (and I thank them for that), but it really wasn’t suited for broader audiences. American Athena, if carefully contextualized, will draw in those with an interest in the histories of American women’s, the Midwest, rural America, education, social movements, and more. It is, without a doubt, quite marketable.

Third, American Athena is a project that plays to my strengths as a historian of American women AND keeps me in touch with the labor of love that is the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives. Though I’ve never purported to be an archivist, I did my best to play the role as I advocated for renovating the new space. I managed the collections with the aim of inviting other scholars to use them, while keeping the Archives a healthy distance from my own research. That was a poor strategy and I ended up exhausted trying to do too much. American Athena allows me to interact with the materials I worked so hard to protect, but in a way that allows me to be the historian I love to be.

Finally, I can easily integrate American Athena with my teaching load and my family responsibilities. I am on sabbatical during the 2015-2016 year, which means I don’t have any teaching responsibilities. Once I am back to teaching the fall of 2016, I like the idea of being able to pop over to the archives when there’s just an hour or so to spare between classes. And I’m not especially interested in leaving my family for extended periods. That’s a long-standing rule of mine. While writing my dissertation, I only used archives where I could find reliable babysitting. Now that the kids are a little older, I want a project that not only keeps me nearby but that might even hold their interest. My daughter is in fourth grade and it seems like a good time to include her in a little research. In Spring 2016, a fellowship with the New England Regional Consortium will allow me to spend eight weeks conducting research in a variety of institutions, but that’s about my limit. I actually had to turn down an incredible opportunity that would have taken me to Massachusetts for an entire semester. It was a tough choice, but being a mom is also an important part of who I am. And I’m okay with all of that.

Finding a topic on which to write is a decision with lots of layers, but acknowledging and working with those layers is an exciting process.

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