sarahpessin@sarahpessin.com

Eisenbaum on writing

Pam Eisenbaum

Pamela Eisenbaum is professor of Biblical studies and Christian origins at Iliff, and is associate faculty of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver. One of four Jewish New Testament scholars teaching in Christian theological schools, she is the author of The Jewish Heroes of Christian History: Hebrews 11 in Literary Context, Invitations to Romans, and most recently, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle. She has published many essays on the Bible, ancient Judaism and the origins of Christianity, and is an active member of the Society of Biblical Literature.

A passion for working with ancient manuscripts has increasingly informed her research. Professor Eisenbaum has experience working with the Dead Sea Scrolls and spent time at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin studying the oldest surviving manuscript of Paul’s Letters (dated c. 200 C.E.). She appeared in the ABC documentary, “Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness.”

  • What kinds of writing do you write?
    • I primarily write scholarly books, articles, and manuscripts for public presentations.  I am someone who has the ability to make complicated ideas accessible to non-academic readers, so I am often invited to write entries for reference works, annotations for historical sources, and to give public presentations to general audiences.  For oral presentations, I often write out what I plan to say, and then use the manuscript to make the presentation, though I practice what I have written for oral delivery, so I am not reading the manuscript, but using it to speak to the audience.  Oral presentation is very different from writing for publication; thus I almost never publish the talks I give. 
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  • What’s one of your favorite things you’ve written, and why?
    • I am most proud of an article I wrote called “Having Been Born of Woman: Jesus, Jews, and Genealogy in Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” which was published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, which is the flagship journal in my field and very competitive.  But that is not the reason I am proud of it.  I consider it a well-argued, well-researched, and particularly innovative reading of Paul’s most famous letter.  Ironically, it is one of my least cited pieces!  Nevertheless, it remains one of my favorites.
  • What’s something you wrestle with in your writing process?
    • I think I have a talent for writing well, but I struggle a lot with the writing process.  Writing takes intense focus, discipline, and diligence.  I am easily distracted, have lots of other responsibilities, and am a slow worker, so I have not been as productive I would like.
  • How would you describe your writing process?
    • In terms of scholarly writing designed for publication, I begin by reading a lot; some colleagues would say too much.  But reading is always my first step. I feel like I never know enough, even if I’m writing on something for which I am considered the expert.  Reading for me includes taking notes and making entries in a bibliographic database; these days, that’s Zotero.  I try to write my notes in Evernote, so they are searchable.  But there are times when I write by hand in a notebook.  I also write notes about what I’m thinking along the way.  My second step is to write an outline, which functions more as a sketch, though I assign target word-counts for each item. At some point, I force myself to stop reading and begin writing—that’s step three.  If I find my writing devoid of substance or I’m stymied by an inability to articulate what I want to say, I realize my thinking about the topic is still too fuzzy, so I return to my notes, and often find I have already given expression to the central idea, which I then use as the seed that helps me grow the writing into what I want. Step four: Once I draft something, or substantial subsection of something, I rewrite it, usually multiple times.  After I’ve done some fine tuning, and assuming the deadline isn’t too pressing, I give it to a colleague to read and comment. Subsequent to their comments, I rewrite one or two more times.  Crafting a really good piece of writing is as important to me as the ideas I want to communicate. 
  • “Hardware” tell-all; for example: Microsoft Word or Google Docs or paper forever? Legal pads or note cards or backs of envelopes? Pencils or pens? No. 2s or mechanical? Bics or Montblancs? Etc.!
    1. I almost always use Microsoft Word to compose. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best writing software, but over the years I’ve set it up to function as I need it.  For example, I have installed special alphabets I must have for academic writing, and I have integrated Word with Zotero.  I sometimes enjoy using pen and paper.  If I do that, I use a favorite fountain pen.  It makes the experience more enjoyable and the writing seem more meaningful.
  • A standout feature of your actual desk or virtual desktop that you rather like?
    • My work desk is usually too messy for me to write – I need a clean space.  That usually means the dining room table or on a lap-desk in the living room.
  • 3 adjectives that describe that ‘writerly feeling’ when you’re in the zone?
    • Excited, hyper-focused, confident
  • 3 adjectives that describe that ‘not so writerly feeling’ when you’re hitting a wall?
    • Fuzzy-headed, inarticulate, dejected
  • What’s your top piece of writing advice for grad students embarking on their dissertations?

I have two top pieces of advice: 1) If you don’t feel confident in your thesis at the start, that’s okay.  Afterall, it’s intellectually honest to proceed as if you don’t already know your results without having done significant research and thinking.  But you must have a well-articulated, manageably-sized, tangible question or problem that you believe needs an answer, and that you have the necessary skills to pursue the research required–whether that’s reading, statistical modeling, qualitative analysis, whatever it is.  2) Expect to rewrite (possibly a lot) what you write in light of your readers’ comments.  Take their comments seriously. Have a complete first draft six months before you plan to graduate, so you have time for rewriting.  Completing a dissertation always takes longer than you think it will. 

Favorite books on writing:

  • Ann Lamott, Bird by Bird
  • Stephen Pinker, The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st century. 
  • William Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style.  Many think it’s outdated, but I cherish my copy and still consult it.  If you want to know whether you need a semi-colon or a comma, it’s the author of Charlotte’s Web who will tell you, with clarity and humor.