On Promiscuous Writing

Crystal Baik

“Time”, Crystal Baik, 2021

During the first months of the pandemic, I was writing in fragments. Dazed by the isolation resulting from COVID-19, I began scribbling reminders to myself on post-its (“order hand sanitizer,” “call mom”), while my text messages to loved ones were a scattering of letters punctuated by exclamation marks and emojis (“r u OK?!!?😱”). With time collapsing onto itself, I attempted to create a semblance of temporal structure through a daily routine of writing, only to find that the best I could muster was a stitching of descriptors underlying my dissonant experiences of pandemic time. Time As Depression. Time As Not Knowing. Time As Zoom. Time Against Capitalism.

Now, almost a year into the pandemic and living in a place (Los Angeles) that remains a global epicenter of COVID-19—as of January 2021, one-third of Angelenos are estimated to have contracted the virus at some point in the past ten months— I realize that my habitual turn to fragments as crisis-induced writing is informed, in part, by my academic training. During graduate school and my first few years as a junior professor, senior scholars repeatedly told me to keep my nose on the writing grindstone: stay clear of the drama and just write. Write so you can keep your options open. Though left unspoken, “just write” in these contexts referred to legible forms of published writing geared toward job security and professional success: peer-reviewed academic articles and the single-author monograph. Having just received tenure in April 2020 after a five-year schedule of non-stop teaching, service, writing, and research, I found it difficult to shake off this baseline fear that, somehow, I was not writing enough. Existing within the interstice between “writing” and “not writing,” scribbling in fragments became a compromise for me: no matter what, I would be writing something, even if partial or incomplete. 

From GYOPO’s website

Despite this sinking feeling that I was not writing enough, I was, in fact, writing every day. Between March and December 2020, I created two new syllabi; wrote 70 letters of recommendation for students; peer-reviewed 10 manuscripts; wrote poetry; and finished a concept paper for a multisensory listening archive. As a member of several collectives and shared spaces, such as GYOPO, the Ending the Korean War CollectiveMigratory Times, and the A/P/A Public Voices: A Covid-19 Public Memory Project, I participated in weekly brainstorm sessions, statement-crafting sessions, program development sessions, and public syllabi meetings. The collective writing pursued across these spaces have culminated in critical and creative text that (re)imagines different ways of inhabiting this world.

I offer these still-forming thoughts to make space for the utter fatigue and guilt I still experience, post-tenure, in academia—though I am aware of how this plays into a neoliberal capitalist system that tells us we are not doing enough or not doing it the right way. But this cognitive disjuncture between “writing” and “not writing” points to something else: an insistence on proliferating the ways in which we conceive of and enact writing in academia. Too often, writing exists alongside yet is separated from “teaching,” “service,” and/or “creative work.” This is not to undermine the importance of the material labor undertaken in these institutionalized categories, but rather, to accentuate the problematic ways in which the academy hierarchically organizes these modes of work as somehow discrete, other than, or secondary to critical intellectual thought. Quite the contrary, those of us who teach know how difficult it is to author a truly imaginative syllabus that is eye-opening for students in its intellectual breadth and pedagogical intent. All of us know the amount of strategic focus it takes to craft strong letters of recommendation for our brilliant students within a neoliberal market where decent and secure jobs are few and far between. And for scholars creating for multiple audiences beyond academic circles, we know how much time, skill, and (re)training it takes to craft language so that it resonates with readers we were never taught to address in the first place.

Description of Crystal Baik’s Feminist Oral History Course

In engaging the multitudes of writing, I have been considering the potentialities offered through the praxis of promiscuous writing. Based on a feminist ethics of promiscuous care offered by the UK-based Care Collective in their manifesto—an ethics that is itself anchored in Douglas Crimp’s HIV/AIDS academic activist work[1]— promiscuous writing entails a sustained commitment to experimenting with and proliferating the ways in which we write and care for each other. Antithetical to an approach that is casual or indifferent, promiscuous writing foregrounds that our work is meaningful in reach and impact only when it is generous, pleasurable, experimental, relational, and multiple— in form, genre, and context. In this way, promiscuous writing encompasses article and book writing, storytelling, scriptwriting, teaching, syllabi writing, op-ed writing, collective protest writing, letter writing, translation work, and manifesto writing (among other genres and forms). Within an extractive academic context, promiscuous writing foregrounds that how, when, and what we write is intimately connected to job security, resources, and professional expectations dictated by our institutions and the positions we inhabit in the academy. In other words, writing never occurs in a social vacuum but is always sutured to our situated contexts and how each of us is (mis)read by others. I share this because much too often, the desire to expand, experiment with, and queer our writing repertoire is discouraged or even foreclosed, simply because certain forms of writing are illegible or unacceptable to dissertation committees, search committees, and other reviewers.  

To end, I circle back to the advice offered by senior scholars, all of whom I appreciate: just write. Given the existing structures we are entangled in, this practical advice makes a lot of sense to me. But every time I hear these words, they also gnaw at me because practicality tends to reproduce, rather than challenge, the status quo we are struggling with in the academy. Consequently, certain ways of knowing, creating, and writing continue to be ignored, dismissed, and erased. In response, I would encourage us to explicitly name, honor, and substantively acknowledge the manifold writing we are always doing in our institutions (for instance, by expanding how we account for writing in tenure files and job searches), while proliferating the undisciplined ways in which we write, create, and care for each other. 

Crystal Baik
Crystal Baik

Crystal Mun-hye Baik is a feminist memory worker who resides in Tongva territory (Los Angeles). She is the author of Reencounters: On the Korean War and Diasporic Memory Critique and is working on a creative nonfiction book paired with a reparative listening archive centered on Korean diasporic activisms, banishment, and repair. Currently, Crystal is an associate professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at UC Riverside.

[1] The Care Collective explicitly reference Douglas Crimps’ work on p. 34 in The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (New York: Verso, 2020).

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