How I Write

Thompson Writing Program’s Director of Outreach Jennifer Ahern-Dodson talks with working writers across disciplines about their writing lives. What does it look like when they sit down to write? How do they overcome writing obstacles? When do they find the most joy in their work? Invited guests discuss a range of topics, including cultivating creativity, balancing writing research/teaching/mentoring/ administrative commitments, and the role of peer review and institutional support for their work.

We are all writers. This series aims to build a scholarly writing community and to provide opportunities for us to learn from each other.

Guests for How I Write Included These Writers:

The Versatile Scholar: Writing Beyond the Academy


How can research in the humanities and social sciences make a difference, both inside and outside the university?  How can PhD students use their skills and experience to write for different audiences?  Jacqueline Looney, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Programs and Associate Vice Provost for Academic Diversity,  Ed Balleisen, Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, and Eladio Bobadilla, PhD candidate in history discuss their writing lives, the challenges and opportunities of writing outside the academy, and why writing matters.

Global Health, Writing and Humanities: A conversation with Kelley Swain, artist-in-residence for the Health Humanities Lab at Duke University

Medical education in the US has increasingly found the humanities relevant to training more effective and empathetic doctors.  Narrative medicine and creative writing expand physicians’ writing skills and invite them to explore the humanity in their practice. Is there a similar value for introducing the humanities to Global Health? Kelley Swain, award-winning writer/poet and contributing writer to the Lancet, talks about her work at the crossroads of poetry and science.

scranton_roy-264x264Roy Scranton is the author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of Civilization and co-editor of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. He is a journalist, fiction writer, and US Army veteran of the Iraq war whose work includes critiques of the “trauma hero” in military fiction; the intersection of culture, conflict, and climate change; and his own military-focused fiction.

148814_provstlec008Sally Kornbluth (Pharmacology and Cancer Biology) was appointed Duke University Provost on July 1, 2014. As the university’s chief academic officer, Kornbluth leads Duke’s schools and institutes, as well as admissions, financial aid, libraries, information technology and other facets of the university’s academic life. Her writing life includes not only disciplinary research, but also developing university documents such as the Duke Strategic Plan. Provost Kornbluth shares how her discipline shapes her writing life as an administrator and the joys and challenges of writing in a new context.

Deondra RoseDeondra Rose is an Assistant Professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Her current book project  examines the role that landmark higher education programs like the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the Higher Education Act of 1965, and Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments have played in shaping American women’s progress in the mid-twentieth century.

Moniqudufoure Dufour (Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech) directs the medicine and society minor, has directed the University Writing Program, and was a faculty development consultant at VT’s Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Dr. Dufour’s research focuses on the history of the book, medical humanities, and literature.

Teaching Students as Writers. Don’t lie about how good writing gets written. Don’t pretend that you know more than you do. What makes me a good writer is 1. I write. 2. I‘ve gotten better at grappling with how frustrating writing can be.


Beverly McIver (Art History and Visual Studies) recently joined Duke’s Art, Art history & Visual Studies department as the Esbenshade Professor of the Practice in Studio Arts. She is the recipient of numerous grants and awards, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Anonymous Was a Woman Foundation Fellowship, and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award. Her paintings are in corporate and museum collections around the country including the permanent collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Listening to My Inner VoiceI just listen to it. I trust it. It’s gonna make a better painting. It’s gonna make a better decision in the classroom. It’s gonna tell me what to say to a student that’s struggling, but resisting. . . I just learned that every time that I yield to it, it’s the right voice and the right decision.

Finding the Time and Space for Creativity. Over the last twenty years, I’ve sorta set my life up so that every other aspect of my life evolves around my practice in the studio. . . my peak time to be in the studio is 4-11 at night, and so those hours are open. They have to be open. . .  And I also try to go away. . . to put myself in a different space.

neuschel 3Kristen Neuschel (History) directs the Thompson Writing Program. Most of her published research has focused on aspects of aristocratic life in France. In her work, she makes use of letters, household accounts, muster rolls, inventories of clothing, jewels, furniture and, most recently, weapons from 15th- and 16th-century noblemen and women. In recent years, she has branched out into writing essays, fiction and memoir to reflect on lives in the past with more creative license than conventional scholarship allows and to share those explorations with broader audiences.

On Finding Readers for Your Work. Going into any reading relationship, don’t go in looking for the, ‘Oh it’s good.’ What you really want is to take yourself seriously enough as a writer to think you don’t need the ‘Oh, it’s good.’ What you need is, ‘This doesn’t work as well. This works really well. Maybe you could do this or do this. . . ‘

lauriepattonLaurie Patton (Religion) has lectured widely on interfaith issues, religion, and public life, and consulted with White House offices on faith-based initiatives as well as on civic engagement. She recently became president of Middlebury College.

Overcoming Writing Blocks. My roommate and I were both feeling bad, and we had to write something.We decided the only way we were going to change was to change our persona. . . I went and got a motorcycle outfit. Leather pants, leather vest, leather boots. Everything black.

The Role of a Mentor. My teacher said, “This is more important than anything you will ever do at this college. Just write. That’s all you do. Just write.”

juliereynoldsJulie Reynolds (Biology) has an active research program focused on pedagogies that promote science literacy, particularly Writing-to-Learn strategies. Her current Writing-to-Learn research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Making Time for Writing. It is very easy in our very busy lives to get sucked in to filling your whole day with things that are really urgent for other people, but that are not important in terms of your career. . . The bottom line is I schedule in my day, my prime time when I am most productive,  time for my writing. 

Collaborating with Others. I already know what I think. I find that when I collaborate with other people it pushes me to think about my topic in a different way. I really love the creative, emergent aspect of the writing. 

Aaron Sachs (History) maintains a focus on nature and culture: he wanders through parks, cemeteries, and wilderness areas, stares at landscape paintings and photographs, and re-reads Thoreau, all in an effort to figure out how ideas about nature have changed over time and how those changes have mattered in the western world. Dr. Sachs serves as the faculty sponsor of a radical underground organization at Cornell called Historians Are Writers, which brings together graduate students who believe that academic writing can be moving on a deeply human level.

Learning the Artful Choice of Words.  The emphasis is always on the research, the scholarship, the contribution to the literature, the argument. And we never stop and say, ok, how exactly do you construct an argument? An argument is just made of sentences which is just made of words. So isn’t it important that we learn the artful choice of words the way that fiction writers do? 

The Relationship between Writing and Teaching. I feel that writing is the most important part of my teaching, no matter what subject I’m teaching.

The Importance of Writing Consistently. There are summers. There are semesters where you’re on leave. There are breaks. . . but it’s usually not like that. If I can grab 20 minutes and just be playing with words for 20 minutes in the morning, that makes my day.

Robert Thbobthompsonompson (Psychology and Neuroscience) has served as head of the division of medical psychology, director of the undergraduate program in human development, Dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, and Vice Povost for Undergraduate Education. Dr. Thompson’s most recent publications include Changing the Conversation about Higher Education (2013) and Beyond Reason and Tolerance: The Purpose and Practice of Higher Education (2014).

Responding to Student Writing. They’ve . . . demonstrated for me the power of revision. And, often for myself, when things don’t go right, it’s because I don’t have clarity thinking about what it is I want to say. So this whole idea of working through, thinking through, to change until you actually have something important to say, I see that in the students’ writing, but also then see it as a takeaway. When I’m struggling it’s because I . . . don’t know what I think, and I need to keep working on it and the writing makes the thinking visible. 

Finding Balance in the Scholarly Writing Life. As my responsibilities changed, the way in which I balanced would have to change. One size didn’t fit all. And being able to be flexible enough to do that I think is actually important. In a sense, for me it was always having some time that was mine, that was carved out. I would protect it as much as I could.

Ann Marie Rasmussen, professor of Germanic languages and literature, joined the Duke faculty in 1988. She envisioned and implemented Ann Marie Rasmussenthe Carolina-Duke Graduate Program in German Studies, which was successfully launched August 2009. Awarded the Dean’s Excellence in Mentoring Award, Rasmussen collaborates actively with graduate student scholars and helps them envision and develop their own scholarly writing lives. Rasmussen is now the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker Memorial Chair of German Literary Studies at the University of Waterloo Canada.