Name: Kirsten Leng
What you Write: Histories of feminism, gender, and sexuality
Agent: Amanda Jain
Why BookEnds? I am thrilled to be working with an agency committed to diversity and inclusiveness, and whose modus operandi champions collaboration rather than competition.
Tell us a bit about your writing process. Where do you write, and how often?
I have a small IKEA desk, foraged from a tag sale, nestled in the corner of my dining room. Two line drawings of me with my kids hang above the desk, along with assorted handwritten notes of encouragement. I try to write every weekday in thirty-minute chunks—two at minimum. A friend recently told me that this 30-minute “chunking” is called the “Pomodoro Technique.” This discipline has actually made the writing process easier for me; it has helped make writing a practice, rather than something that can only happen when a bolt of inspiration strikes. Plus, as someone who finds it hard to sit still for any length of time, I appreciate the definitive time period allotted to writing, so I can get up and putter, stretch, eat, etc… in between “chunks.”
Where can readers find you on the web and social media?
On the web, I’m at kirstenleng.net, and on Twitter @KirstenLeng.
Do you have any writing rituals? (e.g. burning a candle if you’re having trouble getting started at the computer or writing longhand first if you’re feeling uninspired.)
I try to walk my dogs before I start writing each morning to clear my mind. Over the past few months, I started listening to the “Happiness Frequency” station on YouTube while working. When I’m stuck or just starting something new, I write longhand with colorful pens in lined notebooks, or draw conceptual maps on blank paper with markers. When I started on the tenure track, my chair told me that there are only two kinds of writing: bad writing and revising. I’ve embraced this wisdom and have used it as a kind of “pep talk” when I am feeling unmotivated. I am always grateful to get words down on the page.
What do you love about writing history?
The past is so complicated and surprising. So much of it remains unknown. I think a lot of people *think* they don’t like history because of the way they were taught it in school—lots of dates and names, with all of the life and drama drained out. Yet history is utterly fascinating: it helps us understand why things are the way they are, and also provides us with some sense of how things could have been if people and institutions had made different choices. On a human level, much like a novel, history invites us to extend ourselves empathically, to occupy other times and places, and other people’s lives, thoughts, and choices. When I write history, I try to depict the actors, events, ideas, and movements I’ve studied in all of their dynamism. To this end, I aim to share the unexpected, delightful, shocking, and oftentimes prescient information and artifacts I discover in the archives.
What is the hardest part about writing history?
Some of the most vexing questions I wrestle with include: How do I communicate the messy complexities I encounter in the archives? How do I create some semblance of narrative out of multilayered reality without flattening it?
One of the myths of historical writing is that historians are “merely” relaying historical facts as they unfolded; the truth is, historians are creating stories that support an interpretation of the past. All histories should be read as arguments.
Do you get inspiration from any TV shows or movies? If so, which ones?
Of all things, I gain inspiration from late night talk shows. They are so tightly crafted, and so attuned to the various audiences that will engage with them. I am particularly inspired by the more topical late-night shows, like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and Late Night with Seth Meyers, which manage to smuggle well-researched arguments about contemporary politics in the Trojan horse of humor. Watching how these shows sandwich the serious in the silly also helps me better understand how the feminists I study used humor as a vehicle for their ideology and political objectives.
If money were no object, what would be your dream writing location? Hands down, Hawaii. My partner and I visited O’ahu in November 2019 and fell in love with its natural beauty, cultures, history, and politics. I love water, and would love to write facing the ocean, gazing out onto the waves rhythmically rolling in and out, over and over.