sarahpessin@sarahpessin.com

Reshotko on writing

Naomi Reshotko

Naomi Reshotko is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Denver who works in ancient philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, and moral psychology. She has interests in perception, universals as the objects of scientific study, social constructions, and happiness, and she explores the nature of social constructions like race, gender, disability, and invasive species with an eye toward differentiating them into kinds in a way that might be helpful to those who study them in disciplines other than philosophy. She is also a certified yoga teacher.

  • What kinds of writing do you write?

I am a professor and professors must write a lot of different kinds of things.  If I didn’t find it easy to begin and enjoyable to write every single kind of writing required of me, it would be hard to thrive in this profession.  I consider myself lucky that I happen to be someone who loves writing and never has trouble getting started when I have an empty screen or page in front of me.

Every year I write scholarly articles and for the last 25 years I have always been at work on some scholarly book or other. I also write reviews of scholarly books in my area. I have — very rarely– written something short about philosophy for a more popular audience.  I create a significant number of handouts for my classes. I referee articles for publication, and that involves writing a report on the article in question.

Every academic year, I write numerous letters of recommendation for students who are applying to graduate school and professional school, or who are applying for jobs.  I have also written letters for PhD students who are applying for academic jobs.  I frequently write letters recommending colleagues for funding opportunities.

In service to the University, I serve on committees and am required to pen reports and detailed (and diplomatic) emails.  I write letters making the case for colleagues’ tenure and promotion (whether as part of a departmental committee or as part of our college level committee).  I also write detailed reports as an outside reviewer for tenure and promotion cases at other universities.

Still, I am driven to write for fun as well!  I have email correspondences with old friends and sometimes I worry that I enjoy the part where I write to them more than the part where I get a letter in return.  I have thought about taking a course in fiction writing and have tried my hand at some very short creative pieces just to see what happens.  What happens confirms that I should take a course.

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  • What’s one of your favorite things you’ve written, and why?
    • I live in the moment enough that my favorite thing is usually whatever I’ve just finished writing.  When I look back on something that’s already published or sent, I usually have two simultaneous reactions to the same piece: 1) I can’t believe I was so smart back then, how did I figure this all out and explain it so well?  I’m sure glad I don’t have to do it again, 2) Oh dear, there are some parts I wish I could change a little.
  • What’s something you wrestle with in your writing process?
    • It’s easy for me to get started, but the organization comes later and requires many reiterations—even many total makeovers–before both my adjudicators and I are satisfied.  I think I’ve written a lot of high quality and interesting things, but to date, all of my best work has only become as good as it is after some blind reviewer helped me see what I was really writing about.
  • How would you describe your writing process?
    • I don’t think my process is self-reflective enough for me to describe. But I can say this, at least about my scholarly writing.  It’s important to note that I am in philosophy, because while what I am about to say is essential to my process, I don’t know that it will work for those in other disciplines:  I don’t look at any secondary literature until I have a draft of my own ideas and thesis.  I do two kinds of scholarly writing, although I often combine them in my published work: I interpret and react to the philosophical ideas in another philosopher’s text (usually Plato’s) and I develop what I think is an original idea of my own. My foundational philosophical ideas are—while defensible—unusual enough that I worry very little about accidentally duplicating the ideas of others. Mostly, I find it difficult to read and understand the secondary literature until I have some clarity about my own view.  I often change—and always refine—my ideas as a result reading the writing of others.  But, I need to figure things out from first principles. I will also say that I enjoy editing and improving what I have already drafted.
  • “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. My planned writing happens in Word on a pc.  But I try never to be caught anywhere without paper and a writing instrument.  I need to do a lot of spontaneous writing at the moment when I have an idea, otherwise I ruminate a lot trying to get it figured out and remember it and that drives me (and others around me) crazy.  I am NOT someone who carries a laptop everywhere I go or dictates my ideas to myself on my phone.  I had to use voice activated software for a while and I disliked it enormously.  I think through my hands!
  • A standout feature of your actual desk or virtual desktop that you rather like?
    • I was a very early adopter of the stand-up desk (I had one before I had a cellphone) because sitting (for any reason) is difficult for me.  But part of my writing ethos is that I can write anytime and anywhere.  I have written papers in airports, on planes, on my lap on numerous people’s couches. I worry when a young academic tells me they rented a cabin in the woods for the weekend so they can focus on their proposal/paper/etc.  If you need to do something like that to get yourself to write, then I worry you will not be happy in a profession that requires a lot of writing.
  • 3 adjectives that describe that ‘writerly feeling’ when you’re in the zone?
    • Alive, Agile, Deliberative
  • 3 adjectives that describe that ‘not so writerly feeling’ when you’re hitting a wall?
    • Uncomfortable, Heavy, Stiffomething else!), clunky, dull
  • What is your Writing Animal Guide (whatever that means to you!) and why?
    • Cats are agile and adept.  They seem to be able to pull whatever they need to do out of their entire beings and do it fully without any advance planning or notice and they execute it perfectly.  So I will choose a cat even if that seems a bit ordinary.
  • What’s your top piece of writing advice for grad students embarking on their dissertations?
    • Cultivate comfort in writing.  Get rid of all of the ‘rules’ and just write.  Then be meticulous about editing so that it looks like you followed the rules from the outset.  Start all over again, often.  Writing is like pancakes: the second attempt always comes out better than first.

[My collagic nod to Naomi is coming soon!]