This month’s podcast features an interview with the incredible Cynthia Enloe, a feminist writer, theorist, and professor at Clark University, Massachusetts. We talked about the best writing advice she’s ever gotten, how to start writing something that will be meaningful and interesting, and how to combat imposter syndrome when it comes to your writing.
Annika Erickson-Pearson: Hello, dear listeners, and welcome to the September 2018 episode of the Women in Foreign Policy podcast. My name is Annika and I am one of your hosts for this monthly exploration of the brilliant work of, you guessed it, women in foreign policy. Each month we bring you conversations and thoughts around specific themes in the field. This month we are exploring authors in foreign policy.
Instead of our typical episode exploring the voices of many women, today we are focusing in on one. And friends, it’s a big one. We are thrilled to share a conversation between my co-host, Ashley, and Cynthia Enloe.
Cynthia Enloe is a Research Professor in the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment, affiliations with Women’s and Gender Studies and Political Science, all at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. She’s a prolific author and thinker in foreign policy, penning 15 books. Yep. That’s 15 books. If you haven’t heard or read Cynthia, you’re going to want to stick around.
I could go on for ages, but that’s enough from me… without further ado, Cynthia Enloe.
Cynthia Enloe: Hi Ashley. My name is Cynthia Enloe. I’m so glad to be talking with you. I’m a professor at Clark University, up here in Massachusetts. I write and give lectures and teach, and I work especially on the gendering of militarism. That’s probably the most consistent thing I’ve done over numbers of years, but I also have a wider lens and look at how women, men, masculinities, and femininities shape not only foreign policy, but how various countries experience foreign policy.
Ashley Pratt: Great. So that’s a really nice encapsulation of your decades-long career. I’m sure you’ve been asked to do that so many times you’ve perfected that pitch…
Cynthia: Never! Because you’re always changing your idea of what you’re doing, you know?
Ashley: Yeah, that’s fair. So this month’s theme is about authors and the variety of ways that people work in foreign policy, especially in publishing. So we wanted to ask you some process-centric questions, as well as some broader theoretical questions. To begin, what is writing like for you? What does your writing process look like, either getting the idea to start a book and getting that rolling, or once you are writing a book, what does that look like for you?
Cynthia: Well, it’s funny. I was just thinking about that because I’m about to do a talk in Britain, in Wales. I usually speak only from notes. If you’ve ever seen me on YouTube, I don’t like to just read lectures. I like to stand up and engage with the audience, so I just have a few scattered notes -- I’ve thought about them a lot, but I try not to read them. But this talk that I have to do in November in Wales actually they’ve asked if I would both create an article that they could print, and give the talk. They probably presumed it would be the same thing, but I never read -- I don’t like that lack of interaction with the audience. So I now am starting to write what will be the written version of this talk.
I love openings. I’m interested in other people’s openings. I love people who can write a good first sentence, a good first paragraph. I always think the first paragraph should be really short. Sometimes for me it’s one word, sometimes it’s one sentence. Occasionally it’s two sentences. And so for this upcoming paper/talk for Wales, I’ve just gotten my opening. Though when I’ve got my opening it doesn’t mean I’ve got the whole article worked out in my head, because you never know where you’re going to go, you really don’t. But I have found a tone. And I know what I want the reader to immediately be surprised at.
So, I’ll just give you a hint. Agatha Christie as a young twenty-two year-old worked as a World War I nurse. Not on the front lines in France, but in her hometown in England. And this sounds so ghastly, but one of her first jobs was to take amputated legs and arms from British soldiers who had been operated on upstairs down to hospital furnace. It’s just ghastly. When you think about Agatha Christie, you never think ‘ghastly’. You think ‘clever’, ‘entertaining’, ‘holds your interest and you never figure out who did it until the end because she’s so clever’. People only know the photograph of her in her older middle age where she looks quite dowdy, really. And that’s true of a lot of famous women, we only have their photographs taken in the later years. Just think of the photographs you’ve seen of Susan B. Anthony, the suffragist. What did they look like when they were engaging in those early experiences? Since we don’t visualize them in the 20’s, we don’t wonder how those early wartime experiences affect their later outlook on life.
So for me, the opening is what engages the reader. You don’t want to write something that’s boring to you! I knew a bit about Agatha Christie -- I’m actually pretty interested in her -- but I thought she only learned about poison, something that runs through all of her mysteries, later. And people who have studied her work describe her as having served as a pharmacist’s assistant in World War I, and she was, it was her second job. But her first job during the war was working with these really gruesome surgical operations on severely wounded soldiers coming back from the front.
So the second thing about writing… I think about writing a lot, by the way, because I’m a teacher. And you, and probably all of your listeners, can probably remember when you were a student, and which things that you were assigned to read held your interest. And I think they have to look good on the page. A lot of very experienced readers and comfortable readers (readers reading in their own first language, as well as readers who learned to read early on) can take on long paragraphs. But that’s not true of most readers. I know it sounds weird, but I think of white space. I like readers to be able to pause, to be able to read a three sentence paragraph and then to stop and think, “Huh, do I agree with that? Is that where this is going?” White space allows a reader to pause and to think their own thoughts.
I’ve looked over my earlier work to my current work, and I think my paragraphs have gotten shorter. And I think it’s partly because we are now, all of us and not just “young people” -- I hate that condescension -- on our smartphones all the time. We’re reading text messages all the time. People really read a lot, but they don’t read long Jane Austen paragraphs as much as they once did. I don’t think it’s dumbing down, I think it’s: make sure you don’t stuff even two thoughts in the same paragraph. Make sure that you don’t hide your second thought in the midst of having just introduced your first thought. Every distinct thought deserves its own paragraph, because when you are a reader you breathe between the author’s thoughts. Or you should!
And I definitely think about the last paragraph. One of the things I really try to avoid is a last paragraph that’s ho hum, or that has lost all its energy. And that’s oftentimes what last paragraphs are like. They are, “I’ve run out of steam and want to go out for a cappuccino. Oh my god I’ve got to say something at the end... Okay.” And it’s a sort of wrapping up. But the wrapping up is oftentimes done in a way that is listless. It doesn’t have any edge to it. Whereas I want a last paragraph that has energy, and pushes me (and hopefully anyone who happens to read my stuff) forward. Either because it’s got a puzzle at the end, a challenge at the end, a risk at the end… something that says, “Okay, you’ve just finished this bit of reading, of writing. Now what?”
So every part of anything one writes has to have its own particular energy. And one has to always think of diverse readers, and not think that oneself is the model of the reader.
Ashley: I think that’s really important. And something that we’ve been trying to focus on as we’ve been building this podcast. We’ve only actually been producing a podcast for a few months now, and something we really took to heart when we first started was the idea that not everyone who is listening is like us. So it’s really heartening to hear you say that in terms of your writing as well.
Cynthia: Yeah, I think writing is in conversation with diverse readers. I’m always surprised at who ends up reading some of my stuff; you can’t imagine everybody. But you can certainly imagine two people, different kinds of people, some of whom are reading it on the metro, some are reading on the Tube, some are reading it as they’re looking at a thousand other things and multi-tasking, and some are reading it in their third language.
Ashley: So as you talk about your writing process and the way you are thinking about the page, is there anyone that you read or have looked to and thought, “That’s someone who I want to emulate. That’s someone who has an influence on my writing”? Do you have anyone like that?
Cynthia: I have a lot of different kinds of writers that I read. I’m a New York Times addict. I was going to say a long-time reader, but it’s a little more intense than that. All sections: the arts section, the science section, the sports sections, the opinions, and especially the news articles. And I always look at the reporter’s name. If it’s Maggie Haberman, who covers the White House for the Times, I know I’m reading Maggie Haberman. If it’s Eric Schmitt, who covers the Department of Defense, I know I’m reading Eric Schmitt. I try to realize I’m reading an actual journalist. I appreciate really good journalism.
What I don’t like is flippancy. I’m not a dour person, but I don’t like people who are just too clever for words, or who take for granted that the reader of the news article already knows what you’re writing about.
I also read The New Yorker, and I’ve read it since I was in high school, thanks to my parents. That was during the golden era of magazines, and I sometimes now try to think back and list all of the magazines my parents subscribed to and which day of the week they’d come. The New Yorker has very good writers. Rebecca Mead, who covers culture. David Remnick, who covers, particularly, Russian affairs and is now the editor-in-chief. I read a lot of New Yorker writers. And I think as a group, probably The New York Times writers and The New Yorker writers are different and their styles are different, but they have probably over time influenced me the most.
I also read a lot of books. I read a lot of books by people for whom it’s their first book, people writing for other academics. I’m also a reviewer so I read a lot of things in draft form. And I try to encourage writers who don’t already do it to include real people’s voices, which are totally missing in foreign policy articles -- you would never know that there are humans on the planet. So I read a lot of things in other people’s drafts and try to encourage them to not only think better in terms of the research that they are doing, but also to write better.
For example, recently, I read What the Eyes Don’t See, by the fabulous researcher and pediatrician in Flint, Michigan who first collected the very systematic, scientific health data on lead in the Flint’s city water due to the (really, criminal) negligence of public officials locally and at the state level. Her name is Mona Hanna-Attisha. Her book is so good. I want everyone to read this book. It’s writing about how the scientific method can make one publicly responsible and politically persuasive. How do you do science so that people who do not want to hear you -- they do not want to hear that the Flint water has been so neglected in its management that it is poisoning Flint children, mainly African-American children, with high levels of lead -- how do you do scientific research so that the people who don’t want to hear you will have to be persuaded? And that the people, mostly African-American families in Flint, who knew something was wrong with the water, will understand your research and be confirmed and validated when before they were dismissed as “hysterical.”
And her writing is so good because she mixes her Iraqi family’s own story of courage, their own story of making it in different cultures, with her own experience of being a public health scientistic cum pediatrician. What the Eyes Don’t See by Mona Hanna-Attisha. If I could require a book for everyone’s reading and conversation -- you know how cities read books now? -- that’s the one I’d suggest.
Ashley: Everything about that sounds so necessary right now. Especially since we live in an atmosphere where the very idea of a fact is something that we can put up for debate, the instruction in the way to make your facts more concretely understandable is crucial. I’m going to go get that book this afternoon.
Cynthia: Absolutely. And it has enormous implications for people trying to do foreign policy journalism, foreign policy advocacy, and foreign policy making because it’s about credibility. It’s about persuasion. It’s about responsibility. It’s about accountability. So if you think of the debates over ‘has the Assad regime in Syria used chemical weapons’, and think about who (mostly the Russian government) dismisses that… how do you do research on the ground to back up what seems at first glance to be credible evidence?
The other foreign policy scene right now where there is that question about truth, is the Saudi use of American weapons to bomb civilians in Yemen. Designing research so that it is deemed credible also has foreign policy implications for the whole debate about attacking, challenging, or rolling back climate change. So What the Eyes Don’t See is a book for people involved in foreign policy as well as public health.
Ashley: I think you’re completely right. It might behoove us in the social sciences to put more emphasis on that rigor, and that outward-facing perspective. One would say, “I’m not going to just share this paper with my fellow academics. If I want impactful research, then I need to be able to share it convincingly with anyone on the street.” Academia gets accused of being an ivory tower a lot and that probably contributes to it quite a bit.
Cynthia: When you think about how important it was in the question “did the Saddam Hussein regime have nuclear weapons?”, and how the Swedish-led inspection team’s findings were dismissed, it’s not just a matter of hammering home an argument, it’s about collecting data. And one of the things that Mona Hanna-Attisha shows is that you’ve got do it right. Which means you have to work collaboratively. You’ve got to take the step that’s going to take you another four days, even when you don’t want to take four days because it feels so urgent. So it’s also not about patience in the sense of a relaxed attitude towards the collection of credible information. It’s urgent patience. Impatient patience.
Ashley: I like the idea that we have to distinguish how we’re sitting and waiting, and why we’re sitting and waiting. So something that I’ve wondered, and this may be a personal question, something that maybe more women will struggle with when they are sitting down to write a book, is: how do you know that your voice is valuable? How do you know that what you have to contribute is something that’s going to add to the canon? And how do you do you argue back against all the voices in your head of people telling you that what you’ve got to say is something that’s already been said?
Cynthia: A couple of things. The first is that humility is always good. So, don’t ever give up humility. You’re trying to say something, not because you or I are so wise, but because what we have found is so valuable. Which is really a sense of, “I’ve got to write this because hearing how women who work in Jordan as domestic workers are experiencing migration, and the loss of their passports (which are held by their employers) is so important.” And that’s really a different way to approach to being a writer. You don’t have to constantly say to yourself, “I know I’m important. I know my voice is an important voice. I know that I’m smarter than other people.” That really can paralyze you. You might be smarter than most people, but the way to get into writing an op-ed piece, a letter to the newspaper, giving a podcast, writing a blog, or writing something longer like a book, is to think “People have to know this. They have to know what it was like being a Bangladeshi garment worker when the Rana Plaza collapsed.” That’s not me saying, “I’m so wise.” That’s saying, “Who else is listening to these Bangladeshi women garment workers? I have to make their voices heard.” And that’s a very different fuel to writing.
It’s not “I have something important to say.” It’s “I have found something that people need to know.”
Ashley: And so, following on, once you’re in a phase where you are showing your draft to someone, be it an editor or a friend, how do you determine what is valid and constructive criticism, and what is just creative differences or criticism in bad faith?
Cynthia: Well, there’s always that. Sometimes the person you give the draft to just doesn’t get it. This is particularly disheartening. If it’s a friend, you can say, “Did I not make that clear? That’s not why I am writing this book. That’s not what I want readers to get.” And then your good friend will say, “Oh gosh, you haven’t really made that clear. You led me down a path where I started assuming this book was about X. I had no idea this book was really about L.” So that’s a great conversation to have with a good friend reader.
With a lot of books, especially, but also with articles, the editor you first send it to sends it out to blind reviewers. I’ve done a lot of blind reviewing, and I’m on several journal boards where we talk about the politics of blind reviewing. And we’ve tried really hard to get our own act in shape so that we write our reviews so that they are encouraging. That doesn’t mean you write a review saying, “This is the best article ever. Let’s publish it as is.” But rather, whatever response you have to the written material you’ve received, you give it in a way that the author doesn’t lose heart. So there’s a politics to being a good reviewer. And we, on a number of journals, talk about the politics of being a fair, respectful, but also encouraging reviewer.
You the author don’t choose your reviewers, and editors are constantly looking for reviewers. I can’t tell you how hard it is to be an editor and constantly look for reviewers. And sometimes the reviewer is just the wrong one, meaning the reviewer has never thought about this, for instance, doesn’t like ethnographies, or can’t stand the qualitative character of your writing, whatever it is. And then when you see that, you can talk to your editor about it. (Omit: And) One of the questions to think about immediately is, “Didn’t I make it clear?”
So to take the reviewers’ criticism and realize, “Oh my gosh, I assumed that. I shouldn’t have assumed that. I should have really spelled it out. Here’s what I’m up to. Here is why my findings are credible. Even though I’m using alternative methodology, here’s why my findings are reliable.” Think to yourself: I just have to be a lot more explicit than I realized I had to be, or I have to be a lot more up front than I’ve realized about the pitfalls of doing this kind of work in the way I’ve done it.”
For example, you might tell your readers: I’ve been in a refugee camp. I was always under surveillance when I did these interviews. That is questionable, because the person being interviewed is always aware that they are being watched. Even though I found out some really interesting things, I’ve got to let you, the reader, know that this was a risk. Read what I have written, consequently, with a couple of grains of salt.
So being honest, being explicit, really taking seriously the criticisms when they require you to be more upfront is good. But don’t be disheartened.
The hardest thing about being a teacher is making comments on students’ papers. I can’t tell you -- all of us who teach say it’s the most exhausting thing we do as teachers. One of the most discouraging moments is when you hand back the papers, with all of your efforts in the margins of trying to be useful and helpful, and you see the student -- who could be of any age, by the way -- you see the person who is receiving your comments grimace, fold the paper up, and put it as deep in their knapsack as they can so they will never ever have to look at your handwriting again. It’s just painful for the person who has done that marginal writing.
So here’s what I started to do in class, and it made me a better commenter. I said, “Take out a piece of paper. Put in your own handwriting at the top, ‘Strategies for my Future Writing’.” And this is now going to be, for the student, their own strategic reminders to themselves. The teacher will never see it. So in your own words, as a student, you sit there (and I’d literally close the classroom door), and say, “Everyone’s going to, for 15 minutes, translate any comments I made, including ‘be sure to keep doing this,’ into your own handwriting as your own strategic point-by-point to-do list. And then you never have to look at my handwriting again.” Now it’s just in the form of notes to self: Be sure and always cite this. Be sure to always to do X. And thereafter the students are only looking at their own notes to self, which is much less painful.
Ashley: So I guess following up on that, when you have your own notes to self, when you have that advice that you have transcribed from other people in your life, what does that look like for you? What are the notes that you have taken over the course of decades writing?
Cynthia: Yes, and decades of being reviewed! Mine is: “Do not make sweeping statements.” It’s very tempting. It makes you sound like a wise person, but find a way to make more specific conclusions, say, or more analytical arguments that are specific and interesting without being sweeping. Sweeping generalizations are (1) much harder for the reader or listener to act on, and (2) they are open to a critical reviewer saying “Who can trust this person? This is clearly not true in Myanmar. It may be true in Sweden, but not in Myanmar.” So it doesn’t mean that one can’t make generalizations, but they’ve got to be very carefully specified in what they are saying. I think that’s one of the most important things.
The other one is: “Be sure to triple check your sources.” You triple check your sources not to provide yourself with armor. A lot of people think that footnotes and citations and sources are a kind of bulletproof armor: “I’ll armor myself with these and then nobody can discredit me.” They aren’t. You are specific and careful about your sources so that the reader who becomes really interested in the poisoning of children in Flint can follow up on it. So you do sources that energize your readers, not to protect yourself.
Ashley: I really like thinking about it that way. Especially if you grow up writing in academia, it’s always sourcing to avoid plagiarizing. You cite your sources so that it’s not an ethics violation. But thinking about it as a way to give your reader a tool to develop the knowledge you present is so much more useful in terms of not just motivating you to do it, but actually making it meaningful
Cynthia: And keeping you connected with your readers, not just your reviewers.
Ashley: That’s a good point. So as a last question, I know that when you spend a lot of time reading and writing and spend any time on the Internet, you see all of these lists of writing advice. I am wondering if you have any piece of advice that really ticks you off, and you wish that people would quit telling young writers to do.
Cynthia: I don’t know. Two common things are said, and both of them really have authentic weight, but they have to be heard carefully. The first is the common advice: “Write what you know about.” Well, that’s really important, especially for fiction writers. But it’s also true that one has to stretch oneself, and write what you’ve learned about, but was new to you and still feels rather uncomfortable to you when you are writing about it. Bring the reader along with you, and sometimes if you can, give a first-person confession of how uncomfortable this made you, or how confusing it was because you had never been in a remote village before. Or you never really understood the politics of men’s and women’s divisions of labor around an agricultural effort, and so you were really uncomfortable and really confused. And so you stretch yourself into an area you don’t know about, but you’re honest about how you made wrong assumptions, and about how you had to learn to unmake those assumptions. And for readers, it brings them along too! So they don’t think you always knew this and they the reader are just stupid, (Omit: like) implying your arrogant surprise, “Didn’t you know this about the growing of apricots in Afghanistan?” So that’s one thing. Write what you’ve learned about, and give the reader a sense that you, too, are a learner. That’s very encouraging.
The second common bit of advice is: “Write in your own voice.” Most of us have several voices. And I think “Write in your own voice” doesn’t take into account that you or I the writer are just not the most important person in something we write. I just am not. I hopefully am the carrier of information and insight that I have gained, but it’s almost always from other people. I really am wary of this notion that to write authentically, one has to put oneself as the author in the center. I think we can be candid where it’s useful, in the notes or text, or you can use the first person which is oftentimes good. But as the author, certainly in foreign policy impact, making, revisions, and errors, I am just not the most important person here.
Ashley: I think writing, since it is so solitary an activity can often lead to forgetting exactly what kind of relationship you have with the people who will be interacting with the writing. So decentering yourself is really crucial.
Cynthia: Yes, it doesn’t mean that you never write in the first person. It doesn’t mean that you don’t spell out in the notes or prefaces… For that reason, I find that reading prefaces of books is one of the most important things a new, would-be writer can do. Read authors’ prefaces. And look at all the people they thank. Writing, sitting at the computer or with a yellow notepad may make you feel like only you are holding the pen or only your fingers are touching the keyboard, but in fact, look at all of the people it took to write this. I also wouldn’t over-do the image of the “writer as the solitary hero.”
Ashley: Thank you so much for your time. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you! You have so much advice and wisdom, it’s fantastic!
Cynthia: It’s just plain old experience. Onward we go, right?
Annika: Right. Wow. What a conversation. It’s me, Annika, again. I just want to say another huge thank you to Cynthia for sharing her time and talent with us. If you want more Cynthia, remember that she’s written 15 books for you to dive into. We hope you enjoy!
Women in Foreign Policy is on Twitter @womeninFP. If you are looking to connect with myself or Ashley, we’re also both on twitter at @Ashley_e_Pratt and @annikaep.
We would love to know what you think of the episodes. Are there women you’d like to suggest we do an interview with? We’d love to hear from you. Are you a woman working in foreign policy that thinks your job or your research is super interesting? We probably do too! We’d love to speak to you about it.
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See you next month! Bye!
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