You Are What You Read

For our final contribution to the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 4-8), editor Natalie Fingerhut discusses the importance of compassion and how this forms the foundation of our soon-to-launch imprint, New Jewish Press. 

By Natalie Fingerhut

A little personal story: I spent my 20s working at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University here in Toronto and teaching English at the Centre for Victims of Torture. Through a newcomer service, I helped an Iranian family adapt to their new life in Canada.

In my 40s, when the Syrian refugee crisis reached Canadian Jewish ears, I was busy with work, my kids, and I felt that it was other people’s turn to help out.

At the time, I had just finished Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe under Hitler and Stalin. Through that reading, I discovered the Soviet Jewish journalist, Vasily Grossman, on whom Snyder relies as a primary source. It was this paragraph taken from Grossman’s report, The Hell of Treblinka, about his 1944 visit to the remains of the Treblinka death camp that changed the course of my behavior:

“The SS men subjected the group of rebels from the Warsaw ghetto to especially vicious torture. They picked the women and children and took them not to the gas chambers but to the cremation ovens. They forced the mothers half crazed with terror to lead their children between the red hot bars on which thousands of dead bodies writhed and squirmed twisting and turning as though alive. This spectacle was enough to rob the strongest man of his reason, but the Germans knew that its effect would be a thousand times more terrible on a mother who was frantically trying to shield the eyes of her children from the ghastly sight while they shrieked in terror, “Mama, Mama…what are they going to do to us…will they burn us?” 

For a brief moment, I was that mother with my hand over my daughter’s eyes. It was only by an accident of birth that I was not. And it is only by an accident of birth that you were not.

The next morning I had a call into our synagogue’s private sponsorship group and asked them to put me to work. We wound up sponsoring a set of Syrian grandparents, parents, and a grandson now safe in Toronto.

Such is the power of words.

Such is the power of compassion.

Compassion, as well as empathy, critical thinking, and attentive hearing form the moral foundation on which our new imprint at the University of Toronto Press, New Jewish Press, rests. Our two new titles for Spring 2020 include The A–Z of Intermarriage by intermarried rabbi Denise Handlarski and The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate by renowned freedom of speech and human rights advocate Kenneth S. Stern. These two books epitomize the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam – the repairing of the world – by offering their expertise on complex issues facing twenty-first-century Jewry.

Rabbi Denise Handlarski tells us that we may not like that our children marry out of faith but that we need to hear them out and respect their decisions. Ultimately, all marriages are intermarriages and there is so much good that comes out of mixing different cultures. Less Oy and More Joy!!!

Kenneth S. Stern tells us that we may not like when pro-Israel speakers talk on our university or college campuses, but we cannot ban them. We cannot retreat to safe spaces. We cannot disrupt them. Instead, we use rational and reasonable thinking – skills that we have learned in our higher education institutions – and we listen to each other as human beings.

As an editor, I believe in – and am proof of – the influential power of books. My goal with the books I acquire for New Jewish Press is to inspire Jewish, Jew-ish, and not-Jewish to read, think, and act with compassion.

***

To round out a successful University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

University of Washington Press
Blog: https://uwpressblog.com/
Twitter: @UWAPress

Columbia University Press
Blog: cupblog.org
Twitter: @ColumbiaUP

University of Illinois Press
Blog: http://www.press.uillinois.edu/wordpress/how-the-transformations-series-invites-us-to-practice-compassion-university-press-week-blog-tour/
Twitter: @IllinoisPress

Penn State University Press
Blog: https://pennstateuniversitypress.tumblr.com/
Twitter: @PSUPress

University of South Carolina Press
Blog: facebook.com/USC.Press
Twitter: @uscpress

University of Nebraska Press
Blog: https://unpblog.com/category/jewish-publication-society/
Twitter: @UnivNebPress
Twitter: @JewishPub

Bucknell University Press
Blog: upress.blogs.bucknell.edu
Twitter: @BucknellUPress

Beacon Press
Blog: http://www.beaconbroadside.com
Twitter: @beaconpressbks
Twitter: @WitnessToGTMO

How to Build Community

In today’s contribution to the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 4-8), our Awards and Events Coordinator, Vannessa Barnier, talks about her role at UTP and in the Toronto poetry community – and why participating in community building is both rewarding and beneficial.


By Vannessa Barnier

Writing is a singular activity, which allows for isolation. This is especially true for those working and writing within academic institutions: outside of seminars, there are not many opportunities to engage with peers or other academics. Lectures – though everyone shares space – are often spent alone, attended alone, dismissed alone, to go off to work… alone. The nature of this work – writing, researching, reading – involves primarily isolated activities.

Being an events coordinator, both at University of Toronto Press and within the Toronto poetry community, I think a lot about how to facilitate growth and comradery, and the situations and physical spaces necessary for these things to transpire. In my experience, building community is easiest when folks are exposed to and understand how they can benefit from participating. Whether you’re dealing with professors or poets, these benefits include both inspiration and output.

Communities make competition possible, which can, in turn, inspire output. When you’re aware of what others in your field are doing, you are inspired to keep up to date, to challenge ideas, and to improve your own work. In addition, being part of a community includes shared deadlines, which help to encourage output. Publishing and conference deadlines force writers to work towards a goal and to produce material they otherwise would not be so driven to complete. When considering what it means to be part of a community, deadlines in this case are a perceived benefit.

In my role at UTP, I coordinate all of the events that the press attends, including exhibiting at conferences. Academic conferences are meeting places of shared, specific interests. They allow for people with hyper-specific interests to come together to discuss, disagree, and grow. These connections and conversations are integral to knowledge sharing and allow for ideas to be workshopped, new perspectives to be added, and arguments to be challenged. It is only through this process that disciplines can be strengthened. Things do not exist in silos, and when they do, they are not productive, current, or valuable.

These ideas extend to all communities, including creative writing communities. In Toronto especially, there is a lively poetry community, with regular events and outings. It is through community that there is such productive growth, both collectively and individually. With submission deadlines to journals, poetry readings, and writing groups, folks are held accountable to their writing, motivated to produce new material, and inspired to explore new ideas. There is both praise and confidence, in the form of verbal affirmations and monetary encouragement. Through book or chapbook purchases, awards and grants, or GoFundMe campaigns, writers are supported and encouraged in ways that isolation does not allow for.

All this is to say that participating in community building is nothing but beneficial. Joining and contributing to communities – academic or otherwise – is a very powerful, exciting decision. To build community is to be open and desiring of more, from yourself and your work. To be open to community requires presence, passion, and the desire to share ideas and to provide platforms for others to grow.

***

To continue on Day Four of the University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

Columbia University Press
Blog: https://www.cupblog.org/
Twitter: @ColumbiaUP

Temple University Press
Blog: https://templepress.wordpress.com/
Twitter: @TempleUnivPress

University of Michigan Press
Blog: https://blog.press.umich.edu/
Twitter: @UofMPress

Syracuse University Press
Blog: https://syracusepress.wordpress.com/
Twitter: @SUPress

GeorgetownUniversity Press
Twitter: @GUPress

University Press of Kansas
Blog: http://universitypressblog.dept.ku.edu/
Twitter: @Kansas_press

University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books
Blog: https://unpblog.com/category/potomac-books/
Twitter: @UnivNebPress; @PotomacBooks

Athabasca University Press
Blog: http://www.aupressblog.ca/
Twitter: @au_press

John Hopkins University Press
Blog: https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog
Twitter: @jhupress

PrincetonUniversity Press
Blog: https://press.princeton.edu/ideas
Twitter: @PrincetonUPress

MIT University Press
Blog: https://mitpress.mit.edu/blog
Twitter: @mitpress

University of Toronto Press Journals
Blog: http://blog.utpjournals.com
Twitter: @utpjournals

Vanderbelt University Press
Blog: https://my.vanderbilt.edu/universitypress/
Twitter: @vanderbiltup

University of North Carolina Press
Blog: https://uncpressblog.com/
Twitter: @uncpressblog

 

How to Be an Environmental Steward

In today’s contribution to the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 4-8), our Publisher’s Representative, Alex Keys, shares some advice on how to be an environmental steward – drawing from what he has learned in his role at UTP and in particular from the new edition of Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice by Peter J. Stoett.

By Alex Keys

There have been some interesting shifts in the public conversation about environmental issues over the past few years, especially about climate change. Worldwide climate marches have seen staggering attendance this past year, Greta Thunberg has appeared as an unflinching champion of climate action, and the UN IPCC report has given the international community a firm (if daunting) ten year deadline to completely re-organize the global economy around clean energy. Canada’s recent federal election saw every major party propose a plan to address climate change, and although the Conservative plan was rightly chided for having no teeth, even that party couldn’t ignore the issue altogether. All of this is encouraging.

At the same time, I think climate change has become a slightly taboo water-cooler conversation even among those of us who believe it is a real, man-made threat. When I was growing up, my liberal family and friends talked about global warming a lot, with a righteousness fueled by the complete denialism coming from the other side. The news seemed to give both science and propaganda an equal hearing, and it felt like our big challenge was convincing everybody that the problem was real. Lately, even Republicans in the U.S. Senate don’t go smugly waving snowballs to prove that global warming is a hoax – instead, they just put all the blame on China and change the subject. They don’t want to think about it, but then again neither do most of us. The scale of the problem is so vast, the possible outcomes so depressing, and our current collective efforts so unequal to the task at hand, that it just isn’t a very pleasant thing to talk or think about. This is a big part of our problem.

Peter J. Stoett, in his second edition of Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice (2019), notes in his foreword that anxious uncertainty is a major theme he seeks to address. We know, he says, that “we are slowly, by a billion cuts, diminishing the future opportunities of the next generation. We realize that some of the more pressing environmental problems, on a local and global scale, are literally out of our control.” We are losing faith in the model of eternal economic growth and the promise of technology to solve all our problems. Yet our governments seem to have little to show in the way of a plan.

I think that, on an individual level, we find other release valves for this mounting mental pressure. We just can’t go about our daily lives thinking about the melting ice-caps all the time. If we really believed we were in an emergency, at a deep, personal level, we would stop going to work and stock up on food and bottled water instead. In my role as a publisher’s rep, I recently spoke to a professor who teaches about the environment, and I asked her if her students are too anxious to face the material. She told me they aren’t – they mostly believe technology will solve all the problems.

This is not how to be an environmental steward. Sitting on your hands and hoping for a problem to be fixed isn’t much better than denying a problem exists at all. But I’m no pessimist, and neither is Peter J. Stoett. He takes comfort in the “tremendous amount of work being done by diplomats, scientists, activists, and bureaucrats” to put together a global response. They are educated on the problem, they have ideas for solutions, and they are motivated to overcome political divisions to realize them. Stoett’s book focuses on ecopolitics, “at the intersection of ecology and politics at various levels,” and on global governance, specifically multilateral agreements between states. Climate change is only one of his case studies: he also discusses biodiversity reduction, deforestation, the ocean crisis, freshwater scarcity, and other alarming topics. He agrees with many observers that these dire circumstances require big societal changes, though he emphasizes that “whatever forms of governance follow the recognition of crisis, justice must be a primal animating factor in our collective response if we expect adaptive institutions to carry a legitimacy and prove sustainable.” It’s a great point, and the animating idea behind proposals like the American “Green New Deal,” which would package emissions-reductions with a jobs guarantee and other progressive measures. We seem to be in the middle of a global backslide into authoritarianism, and liberal democracies will need to deal with the environment and severe social inequality at the same time if they want to preserve themselves.

Multilateral agreements between states tend to feel very abstract and far from our control. What, then, should we do as individuals? Can’t we each focus on doing our part to reduce our own individual footprint?

I just don’t think that’s the right thing for us to focus on. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with driving less and riding your bike more, or cutting down your consumption of meat (the most dramatic change you can make to reduce your personal footprint). But ever since I was a kid, we’ve had an Earth Day every year and turned off the lights for a few hours. We’ve replaced most incandescent bulbs, we’ve recycled and composted, and gosh-darn it we’ve even gotten rid of plastic straws. Lo and behold, the oceans are still full of plastic and the planet is still steadily warming. Trees are still being cut down and burned at a greater rate than we are planting them. These individual lifestyle adjustments are like planning five minutes of work a day on a 500 page manuscript due next week. At a certain point, you have to realize you won’t make your deadline.

A good environmental steward takes care to reduce her own waste, protect local ecologies, and raise awareness of bad practices. All of that is good, and we should all do our individual part. But at our point in history, in the early stages of our climate emergency and our mass extinction event, individual action is insufficient. Reorganizing the economy is a collective task; indeed, a global one. I suspect that our focus on individual lifestyle changes for the past few decades has acted as a relief valve for our fear and anger, forces that could have powered the engine of a popular movement to confront these problems in a meaningful way. But it isn’t too late.

Peter J. Stoett makes a case for “restrained optimism” about the potential of global governance – political coordination of various forms at the global level – to address our ecological crises. The great and terrible thing about politics is that it is made out of people; scared, lazy, sometimes courageous, sometimes unrelenting. If any of us want to do our individual part, it must be to help push society in the right direction. Environmental stewardship means:

1. Voting. Make climate change and plastic pollution ballot box issues, and write your MP when the election is over to make sure they know you care about them.

2. Giving your time, your money, your energy, or anything you can to an activist group. Go to marches, get mad, and stay mad.

3. Being courageous in the face of change.

We have ten years to organize a global response. This is not a technological problem or a problem of limited resources – we live in the wealthiest and most advanced societies in human history. This problem is political, and we must take it seriously as such. We should feel no little burst of self-satisfaction from putting a clean clamshell in a blue bin until all the ecological alarms stop blaring.

***

To continue on Day Three of the University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

University of Pittsburgh Press
Blog: https://upittpress.org/university-press-week-2019-four-ways-to-be-a-better-environmental-steward/
Twitter: @UPittPress

Duke University Press
Blog: https://dukeupress.wordpress.com/2019/11/06/university-press-week-how-to-be-an-environmental-steward
Twitter: @DukePress

Columbia University Press
Blog: https://www.cupblog.org/
Twitter: @ColumbiaUP

University of California Press
Blog: https://www.ucpress.edu/blog/
Twitter: @ucpress

Yale University Press
Blog: http://blog.yalebooks.com/
Twitter: @yalepress

University of South Carolina Press
Blog: facebook.com/USC.Press
Twitter: @uscpress

Bucknell University Press
Blog: upress.blogs.bucknell.edu
Twitter: @BucknellUPress

Oregon State University Press
Blog: http://osupress.oregonstate.edu/blog

University Press of Mississippi
Blog: https://www.upress.state.ms.us/News
Twitter: @upmiss

University of Minnesota Press
Blog: uminnpressblog.com
Twitter: @UMinnPress

Harvard University Press
Blog: https://harvardpress.typepad.com/hup_publicity/
Twitter: @harvard_Press

Thinking about Thinking: Kenneth S. Stern and How to Be a Better (Global) Citizen

In this lead-off contribution to the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 4-8), Anna Maria Del Col, Marketing Manager, Humanities, shares an excerpt from The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate by Kenneth S. Stern. When considering today’s theme of “How to Be a Better (Global) Citizen,” Stern’s book offers valuable advice.

By Anna Maria Del Col

There are a lot of great things about working in publishing – and in particular, academic publishing. Every day, we get to shape and share ideas, work closely with language, learn new things from leading experts in a wide range of disciplines, and hopefully contribute to making the world a slightly smarter and better place. But once in a while, in the normal course of our work, we come across a particular author or book project that can entirely change the way we see the world, and how we try to behave in the world.

For me, the most recent author to have this kind of impact is Kenneth S. Stern, whose book project, The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, is set to launch our New Jewish Press imprint in Spring 2020. Stern, who has dedicated his life to fighting antisemitism and defending human rights, and who currently works as the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, should inspire us all to become better global citizens.

I think everyone must go through phases where the media cycle becomes unbearable – the conflicts around the world seem unsolvable, the hatred seems endless, and rational thought seems to have completely disappeared. I was entering one of those phases when we signed Kenneth S. Stern and starting planning for the publication of The Conflict over the Conflict. To learn more about the project I began to read the prologue – and I would like to share an excerpt from that prologue here. Even though his project is focused on the Israel/Palestine debate, and how it plays out on North American college and university campuses, there is a real wisdom to everything that Stern says. He offers a model for how to think rationally about any kind of conflict. His lifetime of dealing with the topic of hatred is inspiring, and makes it clear that disengaging is not a solution.

I cannot think of a better book project to share with the world to help kick off University Press Week 2019. The theme this year is “Read. Think. Act.” Reading The Conflict over the Conflict will make you think about how you think, and it will force you to act for good and to act rationally. It is exactly the book the world needs right now.

Note: This excerpt is taken from the unedited manuscript. It has not been copy edited, typeset, or proofed and footnotes have been removed. Advance page proofs will be available soon. You can contact our publicist, Chris Reed, for more information about advance proofs for media purposes.

***

Excerpt from The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate

By Kenneth S. Stern

PROLOGUE

From the 1970s until a lawsuit shut it down in 2001, the Aryan Nations – perhaps America’s most significant neo-Nazi group at the time – had a compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, not far from Spokane, Washington. It was a Hitler-worshipping, Holocaust-denying, racist and violent enterprise, and some of its members were bent on using guns and bombs to promote white supremacy.

The group “The Order” was founded by Aryan Nations members. It robbed banks to support a white supremacist revolution. In 1984 it assassinated one particularly hated Jew, Denver talk radio host Alan Berg, who had enjoyed needling white supremacists on his program.

Randy Weaver, who lived in nearby Ruby Ridge, Idaho, socialized with other white supremacists at the Aryan Nations compound. In 1992 federal agents tried to arrest him on an outstanding warrant, and during an armed standoff U.S. Marshal Bill Degan was killed, along with Weaver’s wife and son.

Buford Furrow was another Aryan Nations member. He walked into a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles in 1999, firing at least 70 rounds from a semi-automatic weapon. He wounded five people, including three children. Then he shot and killed a Filipino-American postal worker.

To the human rights and Jewish communities in the Inland Northwest, the Aryan Nations and the hatred it inspired in others was a direct and constant danger. A Jewish woman bought Chanukah giftwrap and discovered razor blades inside. When Temple Beth Shalom (Spokane’s main synagogue) remodeled, its classrooms were placed in an inner courtyard, protected with bullet-proof windows. Some members of the congregation came to services armed. Black law students at Gonzaga University received threatening racist letters, and some left. Bombs were planted at a Planned Parenthood office and the Spokesman Review newspaper. A pipe bomb went off in the home of Coeur D’Alene Idaho parish priest Bill Wassmuth (with him in it). Luckily, he wasn’t injured.

Activists in the region organized and pushed back. In 2001 the compound was closed, after Aryan Nations guards shot up a car passing by their property, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with local attorney Norm Gissel, filed suit. The area is now vacant. But the leaders in the community remain concerned about the potential for racist violence to disrupt their lives. Ten years after the compound closed, a white supremacist put a radio-controlled bomb in a backpack along the route of Spokane’s Martin Luther King Day march. Many children were among the marchers, and no doubt some would have been maimed or killed if the bomb had exploded. It was filled with small fishing weights, covered in an anticoagulant found in rat poison. Fortunately, the device was discovered and deactivated.

These days the potential for new recruits is obvious. Confederate flag stickers or license plate holders are on the occasional vehicle. White supremacist posters have been found on lampposts in downtown Spokane.

The region is small enough that most of the veterans of the struggle against the Aryan Nations and its legacy know each other. Many come from the Jewish community, and from the local peace and justice groups, particularly the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS). They know that they need to work together to be effective. But for eight years, they didn’t speak to one another. In fact, they frequently refused to be part of coalitions with the other, or even in the same room.

What would cause them to be at each other’s throats, despite the threats from virulent racists who frequently were armed or had plans for murder, were endangering their children and might be living across the street?

The problem – some might say an abstract problem – was over 6,700 miles away.

Israel.

***

What is it about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that makes people nuts? In 2018 pro-Palestinian students disrupted a UCLA program on “indigeneity.” A protestor stormed on stage and ripped down the Armenian flag, apparently not willing to have it displayed near an Israeli one. Instead of listening to the panelists, or waiting to ask hard questions, the disrupters shouted “We don’t want two states; we want ’48” and “One, two, three, four, open up that prison door, five, six, seven, eight, Israel is a terrorist state.” Also in 2018, Israel passed its “Nation-State” law, making it easier to discriminate against non-Jews while downgrading the status of Arabic. A Palestinian student at Stanford University reacted with threats against his classmates, promising to “physically fight” Zionists; four hours later he amended his post to say he’d “intellectually” fight them.

Within the Jewish community, while Israel can be a uniting issue, it is also a great divider. As Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a co-founder of Open Hillel, has observed, Jewish students from all types and levels of observance can come together easily at a college Hillel (the mainstream Jewish organization on many campuses) for a meal after different services. Breaking bread with people who disagree about Israel, she says, is much more difficult, if not impossible. Jews who are pro-Palestinian sometimes say supporters of Israel are racists; pro-Israel Jews sometimes call Jewish pro-Palestinian activists traitors.

I observed a similar phenomenon to the one Sandalow-Ash described during my nearly 25 years on staff at the American Jewish Committee (one of the two large Jewish “defense agencies”). I had Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and secular colleagues, as well as others like me who were atheist. No one felt less part of the AJC family because of how, or if, they observed the Jewish religion. I was never asked if I was going to High Holiday services.

But there was tremendous pressure on all staff (including non-Jewish staff) to attend the annual Salute to Israel Parade on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. There were multiple memos, the tone and content of which suggested it would hurt one’s career not to show up, even though the parade was on Sunday, a day off.

The organized Jewish community is particularly concerned about how Israel is portrayed on campus, for two reasons. First, tomorrow’s leaders are today’s undergraduates, and if being pro-Israel is part of your faith, you don’t want future professors, journalists, and lawmakers to view Israel poorly. Second, you worry that Jewish students who care about Israel deeply and hear vile things about it will feel as disturbed as if someone had said something hateful about Jews. While, as we will see, there have been deeply disquieting incidents, pro-Israel activists claim that the college campus is a hotbed of antisemitism, which it is not.

Meanwhile pro-Palestinian campus activists say these Jewish groups are using legislative and other means to suppress their First Amendment right to express pro-Palestinian political views. These claims and counterclaims, about who is trying to silence whom over Israel on campus, are taking place in an environment where many would sacrifice free speech to “protect” students from ideas they might find disagreeable.

This book is not a catalogue of every bad act by either side in the campus wars over Israel and Palestine. Rather, it is a call to action. The complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should make it an ideal subject to teach critical thinking and how to have difficult discussions. Instead, it is being used as a toxin that threatens the entire academic enterprise. How did we get here? What can be done?

***

To continue on Day One of the University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

University of Virginia Press
Blog: https://www.upress.virginia.edu/blog
Twitter: @uvapress

University of Wisconsin Press
Blog: https://uwpress.wisc.edu/blog/
Twitter: @UWiscPress

University Press of Florida
Blog: https://floridapress.blog/
Twitter: @floridapress

University of Minnesota Press
Blog: https://uminnpressblog.com/
Twitter: @UMinnPress

University of Nebraska Press
Blog: http://unpblog.com
Twitter: @UnivNebPress

Vanderbilt University Press
Blog: https://my.vanderbilt.edu/universitypress
Twitter: @vanderbiltup

University of North Carolina Press
Blog: https://uncpressblog.com/
Twitter: @uncpressblog

Georgetown University Press
Twitter: @GUpress

Purdue University Press
Twitter: @purduepress

My Odd Case of Writer’s Block, Or, How I Spent Six Months Writing One Paragraph

Sharing the Past is an unprecedentedly detailed account of the intertwining discourses of Canadian history and creative literature. In this post, author of the book J.A. Weingarten discusses his own personal experience with writer’s block, and why it took him the best part of six months to complete his book.


By J.A Weingarten

By Fall 2016, I had finished nearly all of the writing for my recently released book, Sharing the Past. One thing remained: I had to complete a paragraph that I’d been agonizing over for nearly six months. It was a deceptively simple statement: I needed only to admit to my reader that I didn’t know everything. Let me explain.

The primary point of Sharing the Past is to show that creative writers – freer and typically more willing than academics to write experimental and deeply personal histories – have found the means to write histories that are (as I say in the book) both “intellectual” (based on factual events and sources) and “felt” (made emotionally powerful by the sharing of intimate, often familial, connections to those events). David Zieroth writes about his grandfather’s experience in Canadian internment camps, Louise Halfe writes about the devastation wrought by residential schools on her family, and Andrew Suknaski writes about the struggle his family faced as it joined the massive waves of Eastern European immigrants during the early twentieth century. The stories are big and small: focused on large historical events, but seen through the affective lens of a familial experience. Many readers have connected to these “big and small” histories in ways that they have not connected to the scholarship of conventional historians focused on “big picture” stories (e.g. tales of the political elite, memorable policy, large-scale events). I make that distinction with greater care and context in my book, but, for now, let that basic contrast suffice.

One thing many of the writers in my book have in common is that their personal approach to history compels them to acknowledge, in one way or another, that their histories are, by virtue of their subjectivity, open to corrections and/or expansions. “My family’s story,” these writers often seem to say, “is just one of many possible perspectives on history.” In other words, no one can really claim to know everything about the past. It is brave to write as passionately as creative writers do about history and then to acknowledge, simultaneously, one’s limited ability to write the past fully and accurately. There are, I say throughout the book, so many ways to tell a story, and each author I discuss acknowledges that plurality of approaches.

So here was my conundrum in Fall 2016. I was writing a scholarly history of history infused with my own feelings and beliefs, and so it became clear that I was trapping myself in a corner: I was praising authors in my study for their candid admissions that their knowledge about history has limits, but I was not sharing with my reader that same humility. The issue became more complicated as I began to write about experiences far removed from my own: I was writing about leading Canadian authors of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s like Margaret Atwood and Lorna Crozier and about Indigenous authors publishing since the 1980s like Louise Halfe and Joan Crate. The broader the reach of my book (eras, cultures, figures, et cetera), the more I felt it was necessary to say something about my own limits as a scholar. I began to feel hypocritical because of my omission. Every one of my authors happily celebrated that they could not know everything about the past … why was it so hard for me to write a paragraph that said something so obviously true of my own historical writing? Of course I don’t know everything! Of course my book is open to correction! Of course more could be said than I say! So why couldn’t I just say that?

The cover of Peter Steven’s Family Feelings & Other Poems makes an implied connection between photography and family.

It took me six months to find the words. And during those six months, I thought incessantly about my odd case of writer’s block. I gradually found some clarity … partly by rereading the poetry on which my study focuses and partly by reading eye-opening scholarship that unpacks questions about different systems of knowledge in and outside of Canada (I was especially influenced, for instance, by Deanna Reder and Linda Morra’s Learn, Teach, Challenge).

Here is what I realized by Fall 2016: as a young scholar I felt I needed, at all times, to wear a veil of certainty. Whether I put that pressure on myself or whether it was put on me by others (or both) I do not know. I have always been a bit of a perfectionist (flashback: my first day of kindergarten, trying desperately to cut a perfect circle, and looking angrily, crying and disappointed, at the splintery oval I’d cut out of construction paper). Having the answers – as many of them as possible – seemed important during my time as a student, both before and during grad school. It was my own failing that I came to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that having answers was the key to earning respect for my writing. Perhaps that was something deep-seated that had grown unchecked over the years, fed by the uncertainty, stress, and confusion of pursuing a grad degree.

The end result was, in my early 30s and finishing my first book, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of claiming expertise and then admitting, in the same breath, that I was fully capable of being wrong. That admission became something over which I obsessed. The time I shared with that one paragraph was no longer just about finishing my book; it was about taking a step forward as a writer, professor, friend, son, husband – now a father – and all-around human being.

Those six months spent writing one paragraph changed my relationship to my book. They changed my relationship to my knowledge and self. I look back at the process of writing Sharing the Past and, as proud as I am of the book, I think of it now as a learning process for me. Not a crowning achievement, but the process through which I learned (with the help of poets, novelists, and scholars) to speak more honestly about my writing and learning. That paragraph entered the text without anyone ever realizing (minus those reading this blog) how much time went into it or how significant it was for me to write it. It surreptitiously snuck in line, joining the row of paragraphs ahead and behind it, the way I used to bud into the movie theatre line as a kid. It blends in unnoticed. Just another example of many things I wrote and will write.

The paragraph, for those interested, has been reproduced below:

“When I began this book about ten years ago, it had not occurred to me – at least not with the same force it now does – that every scholar, including myself, has limits to and gaps in their knowledge. I draw attention to this point because Indigenous scholars have often outlined the danger of holding firmly onto knowledge without questioning or recognizing one’s own position. While writing this book, a colleague had advised me to emphasize my expertise over my openness to correction, but I felt then – as I do now – that such an addition would be disingenuous in a study so concerned with the value and limits of individual knowledge. Intelligence, like compassion, is not achieved through assertions, but rather by making a genuine effort to reach a deeper understanding of a time, place, or perspective. While it may be necessary in a scholarly study to assert expertise, it seems equally important to acknowledge that a persistent problem in settler-authored studies is the deployment of uncontested, imperialistic interpretations. It would be irresponsible to pretend that I, as a third-generation Canadian and as a scholar entrenched in settler traditions of language and literature, could fully step back from those personal and academic positions. Hence, my discussion here – informed by years of research, interviews, and thought – will still surely invite expansion and possibly correction. Those outcomes seem to me ideal, because my critical efforts in this chapter, and in this book, are determined encouragements of further conversations, not assertions of rigid conclusions.” (Sharing the Past, page 205)


J.A. Weingarten is a professor in the School of Language and Liberal Studies at Fanshawe College.