On a bright New Jersey-New York afternoon, Matthew Wolf-Meyer and I sat down over Zoom to discuss the theoretical commitments and materialities of writing. Matthew Wolf-Meyer is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University. His work focuses on health and illness in the United States, as well as on the entanglements of speculative fiction and anthropology. The conversation, interspersed with canine visitors, engaged multiple forms of weirdness: how authorial voices change, strange and exciting directions that projects take, and the imperative to write theory in a weird way.
Our conversation occurred through Zoom and has been edited for clarity.
Alexandra Vieux Frankel: The accessibility and clarity of your writing was consistently striking—especially given the complexities of the subject matters and materials that you’re working with. Reading through reviews of your work, Mairead Moloney used the word “elegant” when reviewing The Slumbering Masses: Sleep Medicine, and Modern American Life. This got me thinking about writing voice. How would you describe yours? How have you developed or come to it? What do you strive for in it?
Matthew Wolf-Meyer: This is one of those things that I’ve spent a lot of time working on, and I almost want to say a lot of time struggling with—I don’t know what the right language is. I try to embrace a voice that’s companionable. Theory for the World to Come may be the best example. I’ve described the experience of reading that book as like sitting in a bar with me for two hours and letting me talk—not anything I’d actually do. But as a writing goal, it was an attempt to write something friendly and accessible. It goes in weird directions, and I want to take you there with me. That is one of the things that has shaped a lot of my writing because the directions that I go are strange sometimes; I want to be a companion that is able to make the connections I make easy ones to follow. It’s a hard thing to do and I continue to work at it.
What I write about is tough from a theoretical perspective and from a content perspective. Being able to bring people through the content in ways that are safe—or generous or supportive—that’s important. At the same time, it’s also an attempt to be more public in my writing. I come out of a robust feminist science studies background and a training that was invested in critical race studies and standpoint theory. I want to make sure that I’m legible as an author and that I’m not some cold distant analytic voice that’s describing something that I have no attachment to; I’ve tried to develop an authorial voice that I hope people want to spend time with.
The weird thing is, over time, my writing voice has become more like my voice: the proximity of my authorial voice to my everyday speaking is more and more aligned. Maybe not my everyday speaking, but my teaching-speaking voice, where there’s some formality to it. It’s this attempt to make hard things easy to confront or to try and grasp. It’s a practice that takes a whole lot of careful deliberation.
AVF: I love the word companionable and the importance of an attachment to writing. I’m very curious about what this struggle to bring your teaching voice and authorial voice into closer proximity looks like.
MWM: I spend a lot of time rewriting my writing. One of the things that maybe we don’t talk enough about is the kind of material apparatus of writing. I’m still wedded to printing out stuff. That process for me is: I write something on the computer. I print it out. I sit with it with a colored pen and I mark it up. I sit down in front of the computer again with those marked documents and I rewrite it. In part this is because I try to iron out all of the anxiety and other aspects that are in academic writing, like boredom and distance.
I can see the anxiety, boredom, and distance better on the material page than on my screen. It’s really in word choice and sentence structure. Maybe those are uncool things to talk about, but they’re critical. It’s taken me years and a lot of encouragement from my editor to write shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs. Now he wants me to write shorter books, and I believe him because I think that kind of brevity carries a weight that sometimes we lose when we write overlong sentences and overlong paragraphs and overlong books. People get tired—at a sentence level and book level.
I’ve tried to craft a voice and structures of writing that, I hope, mean that readers want to spend more time with it—and I want to spend more time with it. Part of that is translational because some of what I do (methodologically and argumentatively) and engage with is really obtuse. Because my training was rooted in Barbara Christian’s “Race for Theory” and Catherine Lutz’s “The Gender of Theory” and “The Erasure of Women’s Writing in Anthropology,” I don’t want to write theory as kind of masculinist genre. If I’m going to write theory, it needs to be a little weirder than that. It has to be more accessible, and it has to engage with people beyond a bunch of dead white guys who are all from Europe. Those voices—Christian’s and Lutz’s—inform my practice all the time. It has really meant taking accessibility seriously, and that doesn’t need to mean writing easy stuff. I think it means writing stuff that you want to spend time with.
AVF: This is a good segue into what you count as writing. I often hear differing accounts of what constitutes writing, whether it’s only writing the draft itself or includes pre-writing and note taking. How do you understand writing?
MWM: One of the things that I’ve come to realize about myself and the way that I work is that I am constantly thinking about writing. It takes a variety of forms, but mostly it’s thinking about structure and the content that goes into that structure—not necessarily at the sentence or paragraph level, but more generally the evidence and argumentation. When I’m not in front of my computer, I’m working through some of that pre-writing. Nothing is written down. It’s just me working through it.
I routinely lie in bed at night thinking about full paragraphs. I’m a disordered sleeper, and I’m awake in the middle of the night for hours at a time, all the time. Every once in a while, I actually get out of bed and do that writing in the middle of the night. It’s either headspace or computer space. Writing is suffused in my everyday life. It’s like an ambient puzzle solving project. I guess other people do sudoku or crossword puzzles, and I spend a lot of time thinking about “how does this chapter structure itself?” That keeps me busy. I don’t do a lot of other writing on other media, although in my house and in my office you will find weird little notes of stuff that comes to me while I’m cooking.
I also have a work board. It’s pretty blank these days, but it usually hangs over my computer screen and it’s just keywords. I learned this from a professor who was reading my dissertation, Bruce Braun. He comes up with a list of words to use and a list of words not to use for any project. He got me to start doing it because I found that I would use terms that I wasn’t actually theoretically wedded to (like ”mind”). One of those writing companions for me is just vocabulary. As a result, you don’t see particular words in any of my writing and the word choices are shaped by those theoretical commitments. Usually as I get deeper into the structure of any project, that board starts to have actual outlines on it. How it all comes together in a writing project has been a weird realization for me—I guess that’s my word for this conversation: the weirdness of it all.
AVF: Would you share what words you frequently do or don’t use?
MWM: Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age is an attempt to have a monist theory of care. That’s the book’s motivating project. It’s working from a position where cognitive and neurological disabilities are taken as ways to reformulate what we count as personhood and subjectivity—and forms of care and relatedness. Because so much of the neuroscientific and psychiatric and psychological research is about “mind” and “cognition” and “thinking,” those were words that I ruled out. “Thinking” and “thought” don’t appear in the book at all. Even when I talk about our need to “rethink” something instead it’s “reconceptualize” (which has a Hume via Deleuze genealogy). I need this to be consistent for the politics of the project: if we need to move beyond thinking as the basis of personhood and subjectivity, then I need to move beyond “thinking” as a word in the book. Similarly, I don’t use “mind.” I just use “body” all the time. It’s because of commitments to theories of embodiment that say that mind is secondary to the body. It’s kind of implicitly anti-Cartesian. I don’t spend a lot of time spelling that stuff out in the book. When you get into any of these projects, they have a consistency to language that I don’t call a lot of attention to, but it creates its own world. There’s a vocabulary there that’s based in the project’s theoretical commitments.
AVF: What are some of your other writing companions?
MWM: I have a laptop and I have another computer that I play video games on at the same time. I’m listening to music all the time, usually with headphones but not always. It’s a very saturated experience. Probably like a lot of people, in my early 20s I spent a lot of time writing in coffee shops which I can no longer do—not just because of the pandemic, but because of the way my attention works. For me to focus on whatever I’m writing I need to have multiple sources of input. It looks pretty chaotic to a lot of people (including my partner—but she’s gotten used to it).
I don’t publicly talk about my writing situation—but now I guess I am here!—because it really does not look like what people imagine writing to look like. I’ve learned over time that if all I’m focusing on is the writing itself, it’s just really hard for me to do. But if I have these kinds of multiple inputs there is a way that writing becomes something that’s a little dissociated, and I’m able to write through stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do very easily. I’ve thought in the past that my books should also acknowledge the video games I was playing—and the music I was listening to while writing them.
One of the mantras that I had for Unraveling was—this is maybe a little music nerdy—”more AC/DC less King Crimson.” What I really tried to embrace is being punchy or more direct: clearer paragraphs and sentences, which is basically the AC/DC approach to rock songs. The Slumbering Masses has its King Crimson moments where paragraphs are too long, and the sentences are too long, and some of the ideas are a little obtuse. Every day that I was writing Unraveling,I started by listening to an AC/DC album. I can’t say I spent a lot of time listening to AC/DC in my life before that, but I was committed to that approach shaping that writing project. I’ve come to both like and not like a lot of AC/DC as a result. I had to get into the right space to do that kind of writing for Unraveling.
The other thing is Civilization, this video game that’s very slow rolling. It’s always on in the background, and it means that, at any point in writing, I cannot think about writing for a minute and focus on the game—and then come back to writing. Before I had this whole apparatus developed, I would leave my office to find distractions in other places. I’d spend a lot of time tidying up my desk. We could all spend more time tidying up, but once the apparatus was in place, I was like “Oh, this is the way that I write.”
That being said, one of the weird things about the pandemic I came to realize is that there are certain kinds of writing I only do on airplanes and in hotels. Especially hotel writing. Being in a hotel by myself at a conference leads me to work on stuff that I don’t normally work on—a book about peer review as a psychoanalytic process, which is based on all of the weird reviews I’ve received over the years (which is a story for another time). I realized this because I had little writing projects that I’d been working on whenever I went to conferences, and all of a sudden not going to conferences meant I wasn’t working on those projects anymore. I don’t know if it’s not being around family and work commitments or if it’s the experience of being in a hotel. It became really clear to me that I don’t write on my blog very often anymore. It was like the containment of time in hotels and airplanes led me to write contained writing pieces.
AVF: Shifting to your writing with science fiction and speculative fiction, I was struck by your observation that science fiction and social science are two sides of the same coin. I am thinking about Theory for a World to Come and about your blog post on worlding. What are some of your approaches to world-building in your anthropological writing?
MWM: On one level it’s like the vocabulary project. That’s also a kind of world building in that there is a way that all of my books are a world unto themselves. They have different structures but all of them try and flesh out their worlds.
So, for example, Unraveling is full of time travel. I don’t describe it as such in the book, but it’s the right term for it, methodologically, because it’s not a chronological history. As a reader, you’re constantly moving back and forth between the 1960s and the present and then back to the 1970s, and then the 1980s, and then the 2000s. The cases that it’s pulling together build a century or more of a history of neuroscience, but they do it in a nonsequential way. The Slumbering Masses is more of a centrifugal text in the sense that it starts in one place, and then it just spins out into all of these other places so that the reader is following sleep into all of these ordinary and not-so-ordinary contexts.
A lot of what you’re calling “world-building” is because of the weird combination of perspectives in everything I do, which is historical but it’s also contemporary and ethnographic. It always includes a lot of textual and media analysis and it just pulls me in all sorts of directions.
I just returned to working on a book manuscript called The Colony Within which is about excremental medicine. It tracks the use of microbiota to heal human bodies and one of the things that I had struggled with in that project was thinking that the world was too big—at some point in the not-too-distant past it had something like 12 planned chapters. It was really only recently that I was like “Okay well, what do I actually need in order to tell this story?” That led me to make a much smaller world. Now it has five chapters and seems writable.
AVF: Returning to the notion of containment, during the pandemic I’ve realized I have to become more intentional about creating bounded time. I wonder how that sense of time and writing has unfolded during the Covid-19 pandemic?
MWM: My partner and I—we refer to it as being “parent of record”—are either totally parenting or we’re not parenting at all. We split our days, and we’ve done it for a really long time where one of us has four hours of work in the morning and the other has four hours in the afternoon. Everybody sees one another at breakfast, lunchtime, and dinner. Because that had been the structure of how we had done things pre-pandemic we kept using it during the pandemic. It contains time for us in ways that we’re pretty comfortable with. But those containers are also shaped by our teaching schedules—so during the pandemic, it’s actually not that much writing time between remote schooling with the kids and teaching our own classes online.
Frankly, I’ve found writing during the pandemic to be nearly impossible—between remote schooling our kids and remote schooling my classes—and just dealing with everything else—there’s not been a lot of space to develop ideas and work on writing projects.
Over the last month, as we hit the year mark of the pandemic, I was noticing that I need to start writing again. Part of it is just the practice that I was talking about earlier. I need that kind of problem-solving experience in my life. I’ve been much more deliberate over the last month about writing. For me, that means writing in the middle of the night, and that comes with its own challenges. The need to have some kind of structure to write within is something that is very apparent to me as a therapeutic need.
The pandemic has also led me to do more collaborative work. We don’t write a lot with other people in cultural anthropology. Over the last year I’ve reached out to a lot of people, where I’ve said, “I can’t write a whole article, but I can write half of an article, and I think you’re the person to write the other half of this article.” It was fun and I realized, “This is how I bridge this moment where I can’t do all of this stuff by myself.” I need to move into these other (collaborative) spaces in order to make these conversations happen.
Alexandra Vieux Frankel is a PhD student in anthropology at York University, where she is pursuing research in medical anthropology and STS. Her work has appeared in Anthropology and Humanism, Anthropology News, and the Society of Cultural Anthropology’s Fieldsights.
Matthew Wolf-Meyer is the author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine and Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). His research focuses on the biology of everyday life, affective approaches to subjectivity, and posthuman bioethics. He’s a founding member of the Somatosphere editorial collaborative.
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, many 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.
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