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Member Spotlight: Bonnie Jean Morris

author Bonnie J. Morris smiling and flexing at the camera and an image of her book What's the Score?

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world? I’ve been writing since I was five, producing a portfolio of stories through elementary school; at age twelve I began keeping a journal (I’m now on volume number 200.) Born in 1961, growing up through the 1960s peace movement, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the lesbian and gay rights movement, it mattered to me to keep a record of what I saw and experienced. I took the obligation to describe my own era pretty seriously, but it’s also fun to look back through those earnest eighth-grade notebooks where I recorded the price of an “album” along with notes on the Watergate hearings. I can see that I was a historian at a very young age. I did value my notebook as an outlet, a confidante, a place to work through stress and sorrows, and I couldn’t understand why other kids didn’t write in journals too. Then, like the heroine in Harriet the Spy, I learned that some classmates resented or suspected my writing–was I writing about THEM?–and I was bullied, but because I was never without my journal I also made friends with like-minded girls. I found writing to be a tremendous therapeutic release, as well as a form of moral witnessing and radical change, but as I grew older I realized writing is a privilege of education. Literacy isn’t guaranteed. During the mid-1990s when the Taliban first banned girls’ education in Afghanistan, I tattooed my writing arm, keeping ink under my skin as a woman writer.

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer’s block? I rarely experience block. I’m driven. However, I have definitely found RENEWED energy and commitment through discovery of writers new to me: those who, like poet Judy Jordan, or graphic artist Alison Bechdel, make me want to be better at what I do. Judy Jordan’s work in particular made me “hear” language in a new way at a point when I felt I was distilling history in a limited style. My writing life has been impacted by a series of living muses, usually women friends whose activism or creative work inspires me. In one case I was in a moving vehicle on Pacific Coast Highway listening to music composed by an artist friend and found myself very moved. I wondered if I could or would ever write anything, a story or poem or longer work, that had the power to move a reader in the way my friend’s music moved me emotionally. I shifted my outlook to make time to write more “lyrically,” if you will. I developed a practice of aways working on two different writing projects at any given time, one more academic/scholarly in tone, the other more in the style of intimate storytelling (memoir, fiction, poetry.) This keeps me “fresh.” If bored or frustrated by one project, I turn to the other and flip my style, exercising my range. I have found that I also go back and revisit certain events–personal, historical, or both–and write about them anew from the gaze of an older, more distant writer.

What is your favorite time to write? Aha! For books, articles, and revision work, I am neither a morning writer or late-night writer: I dig writing in the middle of the day or early afternoon, corresponding to office hours on campus or the hours when I’d normally be giving a class lecture. I wonder if that is because at a certain point in my career as a history professor, I began to identify as much as a teacher/educator as I did as a writer, and I finally accepted that writing was WORK. Though I may write in other formats and at all hours, I tend to approach academic projects during “work hours.” But I’ll also write for a few hours, put it away and do something else, and re-read at the end of the day what I composed in the late morning. For my journal, in contrast, what matters is environment. I choose a view, a place, a background, sound, light, that enhance the physical pleasure of my hand moving fountain pen nib over paper. I’ll drag that journal into nightclubs, museums, atop the Great Wall and the Pyramids, jungles, Pride rallies–and thus the feeling of writing, or having a writing life, or my journal as companion/witness, is a part of every experience. Carrying it against my spine in an old backpack, I feel the ink of lived experiences seeping into my spinal fluid as life force. One time a girlfriend said “You write, and just come over when you’re done,” and I shrieked “It’s never DONE.”

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received and would like to impart to other writers? “A story only YOU can tell.” “Write what you know.” “The historical moment.” “Never go in to give a lecture without something written down.” These were some of the pieces of advice or direction I absorbed in grad school. The idea of claiming a perspective based on personal identity–that we are all narrative texts of our own lived realities–gave me freedom to assert a certain stance in writing, whether via a trained approach as a feminist historian or as an eyewitness to events. I also had a great suggestion in high school from a teacher who said “I liked what you said–I didn’t like the way you said it,” and that was my introduction to revision. I tell my own students, “Write the version YOU want. Then revise it for a reading audience. Take out the sarcasm, or, if need be, the conversational tone.” I learned that in my first serious history writing class at age 16.

What excites you most about being a writer in today’s age? Whew! I feel a TREMENDOUS responsibility, an almost sacred responsibility, to continue the unfinished revolution of writing women into history. I very definitely entered a Ph.D. program in women’s history with the goal of becoming a scribe to the tribe–the tribe being women’s communities. I wanted to write about the women’s music movement that was receiving no attention in the mainstream press; then, as now, it was because so many artists were lesbians. I also became interested in putting a spotlight on women in sports and in other areas neglected by mainstream historians. Now as the pendulum swing of politics brings back censorship, even the banning of books, I feel a particular impetus to write and archive so that future generations will know what women did. I am writing as fast as I can while many of my own role models are still alive, to pay homage to their insights and sacrifices, and I’m honored to be helping other women with their memoirs and papers. I feel considerable frustration that lesbian artists are being written out of history–I did a book called The Disappearing L that examined, among other things, how many women’s bookstores have disappeared, places that once sold the books other vendors would not carry. But I can direct my own students to this recent history of art and activism, and encourage them to do interviews and histories. I have a great deal of energy and thus say Yes to many work invitations: again, I’m driven–to remember. THANKS.

Bonnie J. Morris’s What’s the Score?: 25 Years of Teaching Women’s Sports History is out now with Red Lightning Books.