Lectures

Writing Life No. 1: An interview with Rachel Prentice

This article is part of the series:
Figure 1: Rachel’s writing space with friend Jasper (2007-2019)
(Photograph by Rachel Prentice)

Rachel E. Prentice is a no muss, no fuss anthropologist of medicine, technology, and the body and currently an associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. What follows is a shortened and edited compilation of her prompted musings on writing ethnographic, academic texts, but to say these thoughts are the result of two, two-hour interviews would be misleading. Our conversation about writing began when I attended a workshop co-led by Prentice at a chateau outside of Maastricht during a particularly sunny week in July 2018 (the Netherlands at its most charming). There it became apparent that she is engaged in ongoing reflections on writing.

Although Prentice changed her clothes from plain t-shirts in July to simple sweaters in December, she did not adjust her demeanor to the weather. Her posture projects calm, and she speaks without haste, evoking the same slowness and vividness in her speech that characterizes her monograph: Bodies in Formation: An Ethnography of Anatomy and Surgery Education,[i] which explores the capacity of digital simulations to recall the visceral human body and train the sensory and affectual competencies of surgeons. In her current project, Prentice brings her fascination with the sensory and affectual into the realm of animal studies.

Andrea Wojcik (AW): In the writing workshop in Maastricht you mentioned that you give your students a metaphor to help guide their writing, which is the slalom course, but you didn’t say this was your own metaphor for writing.

Rachel Prentice (RP): I don’t know that I use a metaphor particularly. I do diagrams. I was a newspaper reporter for a number of years before I was an academic, so for me what matters is to nail down the beginning—including the argument. That doesn’t mean I always start right at the beginning, especially the more I work, but I have to know it. Once I have the beginning, then everything seems to flow from there, although not without its own complications.

AW: What kind of diagrams do you make?

RP: The more that I can capture and see what I’m doing on one page, if I can find a way to capture connections, the easier it is for me to work. It usually looks like lots of little bits of text and some lines that connect them in different ways.

AW: Is that something you do on paper?

RP: It has to be on paper. I know there are people who diagram on an iPad or something. I don’t.

AW: What does your ideal writing environment look like?

RP: I’m coming to a place where I like to have a big screen computer. This is going to sound dumb. At one point, I had an IKEA desk. It was not one of those chintzy things you put on trestles, but it was screwed into the legs, and it was big. That was a fantastic place to write. I had a big computer on it, and there was still space to spread out the papers and diagrams, but the reality is that I’m often at home or in a coffee shop with my laptop. There are whole papers I’ve written on my laptop. I think on the way to the Netherlands I did a reasonable, small amount of writing in the entirely insane Toronto airport. You have to just roll with stuff. It’s this anti-ritualistic idea of writing: we just do what we have to, when we can, and however we have to.

AW: A lot of the advice that I’ve gotten is to make a ritual.

RP: There are certain kinds of rituals that are really useful—setting a particular time of day so that, at a certain point, you’re letting your body do the work of saying: “Bing! Bing! Bing! It’s 9:00am. I have to do some writing.” Even making yourself a cup of tea—those kind of things that set the tone. The key with the ritual is not to let it become a rigid excuse not to write because some condition of perfect rituality wasn’t met. For example, I have to sit down at my desk once a day, and the minute that happens then I’m going to work for twenty minutes to two hours to four hours or whatever. If I were to worry about the exact time of day that I would sit down, it wouldn’t happen.

AW: What has carried over from your newspaper reporting into your academic writing?

RP: The beauty of working on a daily newspaper is that you basically have to write about anything, anywhere, anytime, anyone. Everybody specializes over time, but you have to be a bit of a generalist, and you have to do it with no sleep. You have to do it on election night. You have to expect your editor is going to call the next morning, and you are often writing in a busy newsroom where there is a ton of stuff going on around you. What you develop over time, by just writing lots and lots and lots of words, is the ability to have the words that are in your head end up being the words on paper. This isn’t to say a lot of academics haven’t experienced this. When you’re an undergrad, as I recall from undergrad, you have the idea of what you want to write; it’s going to come out however it comes out, but your control over the words is not the same as what happens when you have to write for years on deadline. A good example is a 200-word abstract. I think of a 200-word abstract as something you spend 10 minutes on, and then you move on. I’ve seen academics agonize about their 200-word abstract. It doesn’t matter that much. There are ways in which you don’t sweat stuff as much, which doesn’t mean that writing academic chapters and articles isn’t difficult, but it becomes difficult because you’re working out the ideas, not because you are wrestling as much with the words. Those two things go together, so that’s not a clean distinction, but my sense is that once I hash through the ideas, there’s a lot of refinement, but the words are not the issue.

AW: Isn’t there a danger to relying on a deadline? For example, as a PhD candidate the deadline could be four years away.

RP: The deadline matters and helps all of us, but I think this comes back to the whole idea that writing is a craft. It’s embodied skill. When you’ve been in the trenches for years on end writing daily on deadline, sometimes thousands of words, your knowledge of your material changes. For example, one of the things that makes me nuts is reviewing a paper for a journal, and the paper is full of dropped words and typos and grammatical mistakes. It’s not like we don’t all drop a word once in a while, but when it’s that sloppy, it says that the person is doing one of two things: one is not paying attention to craft and two is expecting that somebody else is going to pick up after them. If your goal is to create clean copy, then you’ve probably thought through what you are doing, and you are probably paying attention to the craft aspect of it. Sloppy submissions make me look twice as hard for sloppiness in the argument, and I don’t think I’m unique in that.

AW: So there is a relationship between clean writing and good writing?

RP: Think about it like a tailor, like a maker of high-end suits. That person is paying attention to how carefully he or she cuts and sews the cloth, whether the stitches are neat, and whether the whole thing holds together and is symmetrical. All those pieces form part of the finished product. The same thing is true of writing. One of the things I did as a reporter was learn our style guide. Once the style guide is ingrained, you don’t have to think about it anymore. You don’t have to ask yourself what the rule for X, Y, Z is. You just know. Sometimes you have to look it up of course. It reminds me of a story a surgeon told me. She said there are operations she did so often she could do them blindfolded, but there were others she performed fairly rarely, and she would look things up in her anatomy atlas to make sure she understood the innervation and everything. It wasn’t that she was looking as a beginning student would look; she was really looking for some very specific things. The same thing is true of writing. If you know the rules for the things you do a lot, it speeds you up. It lets you work with the ideas rather than wrestling with: is there an apostrophe here or not? That’s just distracting.

AW: How did you learn your style guide?

RP: It’s useful to read it once, and it’s useful to be a grammar geek. If you read the John McPhee pieces in the book that was part of that workshop, he’s a grammar nerd. There’s the stuff you use all the time, but there’s also a fascination with the mechanics of the language. McPhee tells the story of an arcane debate over the possessive of the Army Corps of Engineers is C-O-R-P-S-apostrophe-S [Corps’s], which sounds like corpses, or just S-apostrophe [Corps’]. [ii] It’s funny, but it’s also a sign that you’re somebody who is paying attention, not just to whether the punctuation is right, but to how it sounds when you read it. So you learn the style guide. You look stuff up a little obsessively. It’s helpful to peek through it or question when somebody does something weird once in a while so that you just absorb the style guide over time. It’s not like you could memorize it and get a lot out of it. It has to be working with you all the time.

AW: Do you think about what your pieces will sound like?

RP: That goes back to what I was talking about where the space between what you hear in your head and what you write in the paper gets closer. I will once in a while read something out loud, especially if I’m wrestling with it, but often what I hear is what I write. It’s not like I don’t write clunky sentences. The question is how to come back and rewrite, and it’s important to think about the purpose of the publication and who is the audience. I could never, for example, write like Donna Haraway—I just don’t have it in me—but I respect what she’s doing; it’s her particular kind of craft.[iii] I was in grad school, and I was helping a faculty member work on a reprinted edition of an early book. I realized that the writing in her early book was very good, but sometimes you want the writing to slow the reader down. Sometimes you need somebody to slow down and work through the ideas a little bit rather than breezing over the whole thing, as a lot of us tend to do. Somebody like Haraway is going to write to immerse you deeply into the ideas. What matters is to modulate. When do you want somebody moving easily through? When do you want them paying attention to the words as if it’s poetry? When do you want them to really dwell in the ideas? I can’t say that I’ve mastered that, but I think occasionally I get it. Ultimately the goal would be to craft sentences that you know how you want them to be heard, and you have some anticipation of where they are going to be heard to begin with. 

AW: What drew you to medicine? And is there anything particular to writing about medicine?

RP: In a way, my entry into medicine was backwards because I didn’t come at it initially from the perspective of wanting to write about medicine so much as wanting to write about digital models, and then I realized, ultimately, that digital models were both less sophisticated and less interesting than I wanted them to be, and I was more interested in the sensory aspects of the things that were being modelled: How can you simulate the feel of it, the smell of it, the visceral parts of it? That interest in the senses is one of the things that carries across into this new project, which isn’t explicitly about medicine. One of the things I’m finding now that I’m doing work on animals is that there’s not a lot of room for speculative work or for broad theoretical departures in great ethnographies about medicine. I really believe to do ethnography of medicine right, you have to stay close to the people, and that’s a good thing because it is often about suffering, death, and birth—very difficult, sometimes joyous, moments of human existence. Whereas with the animal literature, you have this space where, fundamentally, we don’t actually know what they’re thinking. We have some clues, but that creates a space that allows for more creative thinking about indeterminate phenomena. Great ethnographies of medicine are fantastically good—I think of some of Margaret Lock’s work—because they stay very, very close to the object of interest.[iv] I’m happy that I started with medicine because it forces you to stick close to the ground.

AW: What is the value of staying close to the people? It seems like you are saying the creative space is somewhere else.

RP: To give you an example, I don’t know if you know Sharon Kaufman’s book: And a Time to Die.[v] She’s doing this very careful, very close ethnography of end of life decision making, and the power of an ethnographer in that moment to catch the words: the doctor said this; the family understood this; the doctor tried this; the patient did this; the miscommunication happened here and then again here and here and here. What she creates is a picture: these are the most compassionate, highly-trained doctors; these are high-tech medical circumstances; these are not people dying alone, and the imminence of their death is not in question, and these decisions never go well. What she is able to do by being there with this almost microscopic view of every interaction that happens in that moment is unpack that, despite everybody’s best intentions, this goes poorly—for everybody. That closeness, the attention to detail, is itself an art form that nobody—no other discipline—can capture. Being grounded is not uncreative, but it’s the creativity of the sonnet form, where the constraints are such that something has to emerge from within those constraints. The value of that kind of watching and listening and being with is incalculable because nobody else is doing it. It’s in being able to pick apart those details, and to do that five or six times over, such that the picture you get is a picture of the real world—some version of the real world. It’s never quite the real world, but that’s a longer conversation. 

Figure 2: Photo taken atop pillows in at home office/guest room/winter sanctuary for plants/laundry facilities
(Photograph by Andrea Wojcik)

Andrea Wojcik is a PhD candidate in the European Research Council funded project “Making Clinical Sense” at Maastricht University, the Netherlands (funded under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program [grant agreement No 678390]). She situates herself between medical anthropology and science and technology studies. Her research focuses on the use of educational technologies in training medical students’ to touch and feel.

Rachel Prentice is an anthropologist of medicine, technology, and the body in the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University. She has written about anatomy and surgery education, including the rise of simulators, in Bodies in Formation (2012). Her current project examines biomechanics and sensory learning in equine and human movement.


References

[i] Prentice, Rachel. Bodies in Formation: An Ethnography of Anatomy and Surgery Education. (Duke University Press, 2013).

[ii] McPhee, John. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2017), 171-72.

[iii] Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. (New York: Routledge, 1991); Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan_Meets_Oncomouse: Feminism and Technoscience. (New York: Routledge, 1998).

[iv] Lock, Margaret M. Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

[v] Kaufman, Sharon R. And a Time to Die: How American Hospitals Shape the End of Life. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005.


About the series

Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.

Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery.  The spirit of the contributions is collaborative — an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.

The first installment of this series is composed of 8 interviews, published weekly. We openly invite further contributions to the series to appear in 2021. Please contact series editors Anna Harris (a.harris@maastrichtuniversity.nl) or Denielle Elliott (dae@yorku.ca) to express interest. You may already have someone in mind to interview or be interviewed by, but we can also make recommendations.


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