Lectures

Writing Life No. 3: An interview with Janelle Taylor

This article is part of the series:
Figure 1: Janelle’s chair, with writing and knitting projects underway

The conversation began on a summer day in a 13th Century chateau, with a moat, on the outskirts of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Janelle Taylor was leading a writing workshop with Jeremy Greene and Rachel Prentice, as part of a larger event for the ERC-funded project Making Clinical Sense.

Janelle Taylor is an anthropologist who, until recently worked as a Professor at the University of Washington and has now taken her up a new post at the University of Toronto. She has written on an array of topics in medical anthropology including ultrasonography, simulated patients, end-of-life care, cultural competence and dementia. Her books include The Public Life of the Fetal Sonogram: Technology, Consumption, and the Politics of Reproduction and Consuming Motherhood. One of Janelle’s most cited works is her piece on the “culture of no culture” in medicine and she has written provocative articles on the nature of bumbling in contemporary anthropology and evocative articles on her mother’s life.

On the last day of the writing workshop in Maastricht Janelle, an avid knitter, shared with the group her metaphor for her writing process: knitting socks, in particular, “the heel turn”. For non-knitters, this is a particularly tricky part of sock knitting, requiring various techniques and modifications to fit the specificities of the foot. Intrigued, Anna Harris, an anthropologist leading the Making Clinical Sense project (and an avid knitter herself), asked if she could speak further to Janelle about knitting and writing for Writing Life. Anna scheduled the interview for several months later, via online video.

Janelle appeared onscreen early one summer morning her time, leaning forward from a cosy couch, colourful stacks of yarn and high bookshelves behind her. The connection was good. Unlike Anna’s house, where a toddler had just returned wildly from day care, Janelle’s house was quiet. This domestic calm, however, was on the cusp of disruption. At the end of that month, Janelle and her husband were moving out of their Seattle home of 20 years, to new academic posts in Toronto. Despite boxes to be packed, and a public holiday to enjoy, Janelle made time to speak warmly and generously, about writing, knitting and the precarious settings for making academic work today.

ANNA HARRIS (AH): Last time we met, you described writing as related to knitting. I wonder if you could recount your writing metaphor?

JANELLE TAYLOR (JT): So I always have a writing life, and I always have a knitting life and there are these two different waves of productivity and creativity going on.  When I am writing I am still knitting some, and sometimes when I am knitting I am not writing that much, but you know – I think there is something good about being always in the mode of making things. It helps you approach your writing in a craftsman-like way where you are engaged in making stuff. I guess I think of [writing] as being a lot like knitting in the sense that there is the idea you have about the project you are going make, and then there is the material. And the material imposes its own quirks and limitations. You may run out of yarn before you were quite done and then you have to figure out what to do. Or it may not be stretchy enough and then you’ve got to adapt, or your gauge is too small. There is this back and forth between your intention and the limitations or the capacities of the material. Ethnographic writing is like that too because, the materials you have to work with will both enable and constrain what you are able to do in terms of what you are going to say, what kind of argument you’re going make. Another similarity is that projects happen in different ways – this is true for knitting, it is also true for writing, for me at least. Sometimes I start with a grand idea of what I am going to do, and then I set about it systematically, I buy the yarn all at once, and I sit down to do it — but often it is more like I just fall in love with a skein of yarn, I don’t know exactly what I am going do with it, it’s just really cool and I need that, I am going to keep it and I will find a use for it eventually. Ethnographically, I feel like it is the same thing. You can write your research application where you set out your grand ideas about all that you are going study and how you are going collect your data, and I have done that — but I have also just sometimes felt that, “I don’t know exactly what I am supposed to make of this,” but I just write something down because I think “ah, this is really interesting and I’ll figure out later what to do with it.” So I feel like there is another similarity there.

AH: Is that what happened with your recent essay for Somatosphere? Which is a beautiful piece to read.

JT: Oh, thank you. Yes well that one was what as a knitter you would call a “stash-busting” exercise, meaning that I made it using bits that I had collected. So there was this image, this note, and the thing about shells, and that Jeanette Winterson quote — all of these things I had collected and I just thought that they should somehow hang together. I had tried and failed to make an argument that really would stand up, that would put them together. When the invitation came to contribute to the Somatosphere series I thought maybe I can do something different, maybe I can write like the way you play dominos. Do you ever play dominos? In dominos, you place each piece so that the edge matches with the edge of the piece already laid down. I thought it would be interesting to try that in writing, so that you put something next to something else where you can see a reason why those two edges go together, and then the next thing has to connect to another edge in a way that makes sense there. But it’s a different kind of way of bringing things together, they don’t necessarily add up to an argument. I am not explaining this really well but that was what I was trying to do.

AH: I was very interested when you described the similarities of knitting and writing as a making process. Making can be very positive and constructive but can also be very frustrating. Do you find writing easy?

JT: Yes and no. Writing contains two main ingredients which are: writing and avoiding writing. [laughing] Avoiding writing I find very stressful and upsetting, oppressive, and I spend a lot of time doing it. And actually writing, when I finally manage to get past avoiding writing and I am actually just doing it, I can get into a very craftslike mode: ‘put this here, and tweak that, and try this instead, and move it around’. That can be enjoyable. So my self-improvement goal is to reduce the proportion of time spent avoiding writing relative to the time spent writing. Because I think actually, when I get over avoiding it and actually get into doing it, I can get into a kind of zen space of the pleasure of making something, it’s absorption.

AH: What is your process of revising a piece?

JT: I love it that you think I have a process! One answer is that I revise a lot in the process of writing. Usually I start out with something that is just a mess. I am not a big outline maker. I also don’t make gauge swatches. I mean, I know you are supposed to do it. I know. And I have wasted so much of my life redoing things because I didn’t want to take the five minutes that would take to do that initial preparatory work, but whatever, I just don’t do it. And I don’t usually start with outlines in writing either. So in the piece that I wrote for Somatosphere, the word shell piece, I talked about beachcombing. That is kind of actually how I approach the early phases of writing. I start with just a collection of stuff, quotes from interviews, quotes from articles, a sentence here and there that I have written, I pull them together and then rearrange and fuss and try to write stuff that will connect them and figure out how they should go together. So I start with this collection of stuff often and then try to massage it into some kind of unity and there is a lot of rewriting at the level of sentences, paragraphs, just to figure out what it is I mean, what do I think, what am I trying to say and how can I make it clear. As I’m floundering around I’ll also talk about what I’m working on with my husband, Michael Rosenthal, and maybe a few other people. There aren’t many people I would ask to read something at that really messy stage, other than my writing group friends Priti Ramamurthy and Lynn Thomas, they somehow always seem to be able to help me see how a piece could come together. After all that, by the time I get to something that I would really call a draft, it is usually pretty polished.

AH: Do you also write with others?

JT: Yes.

AH: How do you find that?

JT: I have written a few things with other anthropologists, but mostly it’s been through my participation in research teams headed by medical folks. I really enjoy those teams. In the US, and I think it’s different in Europe and in other places, but in the US, cultural anthropologists tend to be very solo in our practice. And I think it is more fun to work with a group, at least when it is a good group. We each come with different knowledge bases and most of the other members of these research teams are immersed much more in the health services world, so it’s an opportunity for me to see what I can add to that that can be helpful from anthropology. Writing with other people also adds a social pressure that sometimes (though unfortunately not always!) helps circumvent my tendency to procrastinate and avoid writing.

AH: I think people who read Somatosphere would be interested in that kind of collaborative process with healthcare professionals, and I am also very interested in it myself. I wondered if you could talk a bit more about how you offer your contribution as an anthropologist?

JT: The writing comes out of conversations, and the conversations are important. And often in those conversations the things that I feel like I have to contribute, is a sense of how similar issues may arise around topics other than the one we are specifically focusing on. One of my collaborators who I have really enjoyed working with is a nephrologist, Ann O’Hare. She is an incredible researcher and just a wonderfully open-minded, thoughtful person, and she and I have found it really interesting to think together about how some of the issues that come up around dialysis, nephrology etc. are similar to issues that come up around other conditions, infertility treatment for example. In anthropology, we tend to organise panels and so forth more around concepts than around topics. At an anthropology conference you don’t often have a panel about this organ system or about that disease, instead it will often tend to be about a conceptual idea that brings together people doing very different kinds of projects around particular health conditions, particular practitioners or particular parts of the world. This conceptually comparative dimension is quite different from how most research conversations happen in health services, and it gives us a different way of making connections, it is partly this difference that puts me and other anthropologists who participate in these teams in a position to make contributions that people find interesting and surprising. I feel like there is also another contribution that I often end up making, which is pushing to make systems part of the conversation. There is a pressure, which I think makes a lot of sense in medical research, always to come up with an answer to the so-what question. Like, “so what are we supposed to do?” And often, as an anthropologist, what you have to contribute is to show that, “well, it’s really complicated.” And those two things aren’t reducible to each other. But actually, each one benefits the other, right? It’s good for folks who are feeling the pressure to always act and do, to also recognise the complications — and it’s good for us in reflecting on the complications, to recognise the need to act in the world. What often ends up happening is that I contribute thoughts on how the complications come from division of labour, or the bureaucracy of the clinic, or other systems-level-things. It is easier though to recommend actions at the level of individual practitioners, it’s harder to recommend actions on systems-level-changes, but that usually needs to be part of the picture and that is where I usually end up saying ‘no, but what about this ….’.

AH: And then it almost becomes somewhat of an intervention in itself, the co-writing together and that kind of crafting that argument together.

JT: I mean you know, you shouldn’t be on an article if you haven’t contributed something, and so I hope that my contributions have made a difference for the articles that result. I don’t know, I find myself moving more and more in the direction of these kind of projects because it’s fun and interesting, I am all involved in it now.

AH: What are you excited about writing at the moment?

JT: Well, I am hopefully approaching the end of a project that I have been working on looking at medical research records. It’s a totally different thing methodologically, there is no interviewing, there is nothing that involves working with living people. It’s all just looking at existing data: medical records data and medical research study data about people with dementia. It is a mixed-methods project, so we are doing lots of qualitative analysis and believe it or not I have also been learning quantitative data analysis. I have been doing all the stuff I never did before and I am enjoying it. But the thing that I love is that we have these documents that are composed of text taken straight from the medical records. It feels to me like the whole world of medical records is a treasure trove that’s been barely touched by anthropologists … I mean it has lots of limitations, but it also allows you to see and explore certain questions that would be difficult to gather any information about through other means. So I am kind of into that right now.

AH: When you were talking about writing your word shell piece for Somatosphere, you also described how fiction became part of your material. What’s your relationship between fiction and your writing?

JT: I read a lot of fiction. Again, I feel like it’s important to retain. Like, knitting is important to me among other reasons because I want to have pleasure in making stuff – I do believe it helps me take pleasure in writing articles, if I in general take pleasure in making other stuff too. I feel like the same is true for reading and for writing. You know, sometimes I think “oh I would be much more with it if I were reading everything that every scholar is writing that could be considered relevant,” but — I just want to read what I want to read. I like to read stuff that is beautiful and interesting. I feel like it’s a part of my life where I resist being disciplined. I have a general idea that if there is some joy in the writing process, then that might translate into pleasure in the reading of the work too, certainly I hope that is true.

AH: I love what you are saying about reclaiming joyful elements of our work. I wondered if you felt like, that there are things in contemporary universities which threaten the ability to revel in this joy?

JT: It’s all well and good to talk about the pleasures of writing etc. but that requires a certain level of security. I feel like graduate training in general is still organised primarily around the goal of training people to be professors, to be scholars, when the reality is there aren’t very many of those positions available at the end anymore. So what I think we need to do and haven’t really done all that well is to figure out how best to adapt the training of scholars to the reality of the world that they are working in. I encourage my students to take care of themselves and to explore opportunities, including ones that they might find out about through other people, other than their academic advisors. I just basically want them to be thinking about how they can find work that is meaningful, that uses their skills, that will sustain them in the world and I don’t always know what that is. One of the things that makes me happy is that my students have their own writing group, that they support each other. They did this, I didn’t tell them to do it, but I know that’s going help them in lots of ways that we their professors can’t. You can’t always predict which people, which connections, which networks are going to be helpful. So it’s good to build lots of sustaining relationships, and that will serve you well whatever happens.

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Figure 2: Anna’s attic, previously for crafting and since COVID-19, also writing space

Anna Harris is an Associate Professor in the STS group at Maastricht University. She first worked as a doctor before learning anthropology and turning her ethnographic gaze back to the medical profession. She currently works with a team of anthropologists and historians on the European Research Council funded project “Making Clinical Sense” (funded under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program [grant agreement No 678390]). @mcs_study @pneumaticpost

Janelle S. Taylor is on faculty in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Her current research focuses on dementia and caregiving, and her current knitting focuses on multicolored items designed to use up leftover bits of yarn in her (large) stash. She tweets from @nelliesue and has written numerous articles in Somatosphere.


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 which will appear weekly in Somatosphere from early December. 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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