On Chewy Writing

Yesterday, I wrote about my pithy writing as a graduate student. Today, I’m discussing my shift from pithiness to chewiness.

But, slowly and gradually, as I studied more critical theories that challenged claims for clarity, common sense and singular narratives/reading and as I became more immersed in feminist challenges to theorizing in the academy as a Ph.D student at Emory University, my writing style began to shift. Or, at least my understanding of it did. My purpose in writing was no longer simply to clearly explain (or report/summarize) an author’s ideas, raise a few critical questions to those ideas and then tentatively provide my own proposals for future work. Instead, it was about crafting sentences that packed a punch, that pushed the reader to think and question and that required me (as the writer) to devote a lot of attention to processing and reflecting on the ideas and theories that I was writing about. My writing, although still direct and efficient, was becoming increasingly dense and packed with ideas, questions and provocations. It wasn’t just pithy, it was chewy too.


In 2001, I presented at the National Women’s Studies Conference in Minneapolis. Before attending the conference, my dad agreed to read it. My dad was always awesomely supportive of my academic work. Other than my committee, he might the only person that read my dissertation. When he returned it to me, he added the following post-it note: Winner of the 2001 Chewy Bagel Award


I loved that he posted that on my presentation! I can’t remember exactly what he said as an explanation for his award, but his idea that my work was “chewy” stuck with me. After earning my Ph.D and starting to teach and research at the University of Minnesota in 2006, I embraced my chewiness. I often told my students the story about my dad and talked about the importance of writing chewy papers. And, when we encountered a particularly challenging text (like one by Judith Butler or Jasbir Puar), I often opened our class discussion with, “Wow, that was a chewy bagel!”

Chewy writing is dense and requires that both the writer and the reader devote substantial time to thinking through the ideas, theories or experiences that are being written about.Unlike some pithy writing, which is aimed at getting to the point quickly and efficiently so that the reader can easily digest the ideas, chewy writing is aimed at encouraging (or forcing) the reader to stop and engage in slow and careful rumination (chewing) on ideas, words, and claims. Here is what Butler says in “What is Critique: An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue” about the need for chewiness and how it enables us to patiently and persistently think and reflect:

But here I would ask for your patience since it turns out that critique is a practice that requires a certain amount of patience in the same way that reading, according to Nietzsche, required that we act a bit more like cows than humans and learn the art of slow rumination (307).

A dense, chewy bagel cannot easily be consumed. It requires effort to be eaten. A chewy bagel text is the same way. It is not meant to be easily understood or digested. It demands that we devote some serious time and effort to engaging and processing the ideas that it presents.

For now, I’m a little stumped on how to connect this chewy conversation back to my continued love of pith. And I want to incorporate a discussion of the limits of dense, chewy writing (too time consuming, can turn us into annoying and exhausting over-thinkers, inaccessible) with J Butler’s discussions of difficult writing. I just posted notes from one of my class discussions about it on Undisciplined. I also am debating whether or not to bring in a discussion of the negative connotations of being “pithy”—too easily consumed, flattens complexity, is a buzzword for Bill O’Reilly and in the title of his upcoming book (ugh). 

UPDATE (January 11, 2013): Last night my sister texted me to let me know that it was not my dad who created the post-it note and put it on my presentation; it was my brother-in-law. After exchanging a few texts, we determined that my dad had declared the presentation “a chewy bagel,” and then, as a goof, my brother-in-law created the post-it note. I really appreciate that my sister regularly reads this blog and alerted me to my memory fail. Part of the reason that I’m doing my “giving an account” project is so other people who read my accounts can challenge, correct or contribute to my memories of past experiences and events. While the exact details (facts/Truth) of stories/memories aren’t as important to me as what they’ve come to mean, I still appreciate having a more accurate account of what really happened. It can help me to rethink my understanding of an event or to clarify my perspective.

For example, my sister’s correction is enabling me to reflect some more on my thoughts on being a chewy writer and receiving the chewy bagel award. I can’t remember what I was exactly feeling when my dad told me my presentation was a “chewy bagel.” I probably was a little annoyed. Was that all he said about it? It seems that calling it a chewy bagel could have been a way to dismiss discussing it. I might have also been a little frustrated and filled with resignation. Describing my work as chewy might have been his subtle way of admitting he didn’t understand it and so he was unable to engage with it. I was used to that.

Over the years, many people have been unable to understand my perspective and how I articulate it in my writing. Why? For a long time, I struggled with believing that it was all my fault. I just need to explain it better, I thought. But, as I discuss in my post on pithiness, being clear and direct has never been a problem for me. My teachers consistently praised me for my clarity, economy of words, and ability to zero in on the most important points of an argument. Now, I still accept responsibility when others don’t understand me, but I also recognize that their failure to understand could also be a resistance to my work and ideas. Maybe they don’t want to try to understand it because of the trouble it might cause to their ideas/ways of being or because the perspective that I have is so radically different from theirs? Maybe they don’t have time to understand what I’m writing because it’s too dense and demands that they stop and think (ruminate) for longer than they’d like?

But, since my memory seems to fail me so much, I can’t remember what my reaction to my dad was or the various reasons why he labeled my presentation “a chewy bagel.” I do believe that his feedback was intended to be useful and not dismissive. On a certain level, it doesn’t matter. I like writing chewy bagels. And I like embracing labels (like chewy) that others might interpret as negative or dismissive. My blog is about making trouble and my online identity is Undisciplined, after all.

On Pithiness

In the margins of a blue book exam on social theory and ethics, one of four qualifying exams I completed way back in 1998 for my masters in theological studies, my professor remarked favorably on my pithiness. I must admit, I had to look that word up. It was the first time I recall encountering it. When I found the definition, probably located in my trusty, beat-up Webster’s dictionary that I had used a lot in college, I was pleased.


Terse and concise? Yep, that’s how I write.

Up to that point, I had seen my economy of words and my ability to densely pack my prose with the key ideas as a liability; it often made it incredibly difficult to meet the minimum page requirements for final papers in my graduate classes. Other grad students bemoaned the maximum page requirement by complaining, “how am I supposed to fit my endless number of brilliant ideas into a mere 25 pages?!” But I feared the dreaded page minimum as I wondered, “how will I possibly manage to fill up 15 pages?!” (note: my doctoral dissertation was only about 165 pages).

My papers were successful and given positive feedback from professors, but I kept feeling as if I was failing as a grad student and an academic in training. How could everyone else write so much and me so little?

As I read these lines, my cynicism begins to surface: Perhaps my pithiness was a sign of failing as an academic? Brief and concise  (and clear) writing is often misread in the academy as a lack of intellectual rigor, where a longer paper = deeper thinking. Is there room to be a different sort of academic or intellectual?

So, when I read my professor’s positive description of my work as pithy, I was relieved. Being concise and brief was not necessarily a bad thing! This might seem like an obvious point, but if you’ve read much academic writing you know that brevity is unusual. 

Logical. Efficient. Precise.

As an academic-in-training, my writing style was very logical and highly analytical, perhaps boringly so. I remember a favorite professor at my college (Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN) frequently praised my analytical ability.


[Sara — Excellent work. I repeat, you take to this sort of analysis with such apparent ease that the work seems natural for you. Your writing is simple, succinct, properly unornamented and to the point.]

I also recall him remarking on one occasion, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but when I read your writing, I don’t feel like I’m reading a paper written by a woman.” Am I remembering that right? And what does it exactly mean? I’m not quite sure. What I do remember was that, in spite of his blind spots, he was a great teacher who introduced me to a lot of wonderful scholarship on religion, Cornel West and how to be a public intellectual. 

When I wrote a paper, I spent a lot of time figuring out the logic of my argument. I didn’t just write; I mapped out ideas and created endless index cards with my three (always three!) main points. I ruthlessly cut out extraneous information that did not fit with my thesis and goals for my paper. Logical. Efficient. Precise. Pithy.

My love of pith (and the magic number 3), which was cultivated as an undergrad in philosophy and religion courses, was furthered fostered in the many masters’ classes that I took with Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher. Borrowing from one of his professors at Harvard University, he required that we write our papers (2 twenty pagers + 1 twenty-five page final) using a three (!) part structure: 1. appreciation, 2. critique and 3. construction.


Of course, with my love of clear, logical writing and things-in-threes, I eagerly embraced his method. I continued to apply it to my writing for years, and when I started teaching, I used it for developing my courses. The logical progression from understanding to critiquing to applying seemed to work well as a model for learning over the course of a semester.

But, even as I continued to be pithy, I was being introduced to theories that challenged and questioned the value of clear and concise writing. In the first class that I took with GK Baker-Fletcher in the fall of 1996, Critical Theory and Deconstruction, I read Jacques Derrida for the first time. A semester later, in my Contemporary Feminist Theory course, I read Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler.

I became intrigued with writing styles that challenged readers and playfully unsettled ideas and theories. I wrote papers on disrupting readers, challenging common sense and safeguarding critical thinking. I argued that difficult writers were not merely aiming to piss off their readers. Instead, they were attempting to involve readers in the process of reading and interpreting. And, because their work was focused on making visible and disrupting the limits of language, they were attempting to demonstrate those limits through their own writing practices.

mybookDerridaI have to admit, though, I’m fairly convinced that pissing off the reader was an added benefit for the author. Just take a glance at Derrida’s smug look on the cover of this book that I read in the fall of 1996. He seems to be saying, “Ha! Ha! You will never understand what I write!” When discussing difficult writing styles in my queering theory, I would frequently reference this image. I don’t read Derrida’s pose/gaze as entirely or exclusively arrogant. It’s also seems playful in its excessive performance of the all-knowing professor/intellectual. 

There seemed to be a contradiction between my own pithy style and the confusing and disruptive style of Irigaray, who quoted key Western thinkers like Freud or Descartes and playfully inserted her own critical interjections directly into the quotations, and Butler, who peppered her prose with tons of questions and wrote epic, page-long paragraphs, loaded with complexity and implicit references to countless philosophers/thinkers. Even as I loved writing about these thinkers (especially Butler and Irigaray), I didn’t love writing like them. My style remained pithy and clear.

In my next installment (which is part of my intellectual history project over at Undisciplined), I will reflect on/process the shift in my writing from pithy to chewy. I think this shift is partly the result of the increasing influence of Butler and her difficult writing style. 


As I work on my project of giving an account (or, actually, accounts) of myself over at my other site, Undisciplined, I feel it’s important to warn readers of how I am untrustworthy as a narrator of my own life. I’m trying to think through how to express this and what it means to not be trustworthy. So, I decided to compose a few haikus about it. Have I mentioned how much I love composing haikus? Hooray for pithiness!


don’t trust what I write
in my stories; I don’t care
about facts that much

you should know I write
accounts that aim to question
and unsettle Truth

do not be alarmed
if my accounts seem suspect;
that’s done on purpose

Revisiting My Ethical Imperative

Last May, I wrote an entry about assholes, douche bags and bullshitters. I argued that perhaps, instead of, “be nice” or “be good,” our ethical imperative should be: don’t be an asshole. I intended to do more work on thinking through what this (might) mean. I even ambitiously titled the entry, part one. But I haven’t had the brain space or time to work on it since then. Now, after getting On Assholes: A Theory for Christmas and reading a recent article on The Chronicle of Higher Education—‘A’ is Asshole, I’ve decided that I must devote a little attention to it on this first morning of writing in 2013. Here’s what I tweeted a few minutes ago:

The lack of race analysis and/or discussion of the overlaps between having/using/ignoring privilege and being an asshole bother me and make me wonder if “not being an asshole” is a compelling-enough ethical imperative. Does it accurately and effectively convey our ethical need to not reproduce power structures and dominant hierarchies? When I finish (since I’ve barely started) the Asshole book I’m reading, I want to write about my questions and concerns.