The Doll Project

One thing I have a tough time remembering is how pointless it is to make either my intellectual or my creative interests conform to some idea of what everybody else thinks is smart, cool, worthwhile, funny, etc. etc. etc.  Still, I fall into that trap frequently.

Take my academic career, for example. Before I started my Ph. D., I loved contemporary literature. I visited bookstores like museums. I could tell you what new books had just been published and what else the authors of those books had written, and I could have done this for a variety of topics: science, history, and literature.  The irony is that once I started formally studying literature, I lost a lot of practical, real world knowledge. I specialized in nineteenth-century American literature, read almost everything by Hawthorne, by Poe, by Melville, and by the 19th-century equivalents of Stephen King that very few people have heard of. I read oodles of cultural history, of literary criticism. But I no longer could name a recently published book, unless it were titled something like Scarlet, Crimson, or Maroon: Identifying the Exact Hue of Hester’s Scarlet Letter or The Symbolic Meaning of the Elephant in American Literature, 1846-1848. 

But the nineteenth century never quite suited me. Or I didn’t suit it. I loved the literature, but I never felt comfortable inserting my voice into an already crowded “scholarly conversation,” as academics like to seductively call the body of critical work that pre-exists yours. In order to say one word about Hawthorne, I had to know what everyone else had already said about Hawthorne, and the amount of stuff already said about Hawthorne takes up bookshelves. It is not always (often?) enjoyable reading. was not always able to explain what my “contribution” to the conversation was and when asked for my thesis, I could often only say: “In this essay, I point out some really cool shit about this book that no one else has ever thought about and link it to some really cool shit that was happening in the time period.”

Then, I was kindly invited to edit a special issue for a journal edited by Gina Barreca and Margaret Mitchell–LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory–on a topic of my choosing. I wanted it to be “sexy” (yes, academics do consider certain topics sexy) and a topic that virtually no one had discussed. I’m not sure how I came up with evil children, but there it was. And suddenly I was at home. I had grown up on horror movies and horror books. I had a good sense of the topic already and learning more would be a blast. I was wearing comfortable jeans and a sweatshirt, intellectually speaking. This comfort and confidence not only showed up in the quality of my writing but also in the amount of writing I was able to produce on the topic. Plus, it’s freaking AWESOME to go to popular culture conferences and to mention some obscure horror film that most people have never even heard of (like Bloody Birthday, for example–heard of that winner?) and see people not only nodding in the audience, but nodding enthusiastically.

While I still see early American literature and history as essential to anything I have to say about contemporary American popular literature and culture, I have come to accept that the latter is the academic topic that completes me. It may make me less desirable on the job market, less likely to be considered a “real” scholar, but I know that I have a lot to say about my interests–from depictions of masculinity in Ghost Adventures, to apocalyptic culture, to antichrist films. And it seems that more people are interested in what I have to say about those topics than anything I ever wrote about Hawthorne.

I keep realizing that I would do best to “follow my heart,” as they say, in all things, not just love, but I’m a slow learner.  I have to continually ask myself if I am spending my time and energy doing something because I really want to or because I think that I should want to. (I’ve already talked about this in terms of athletic stuff.) It’s like a daily check-in: am I writing this blog because it puts me at peace or because I want approval? Am I going to yoga because I like it or because I want to seem more spiritual? Does teaching at NAU make me happy, or am I just afraid to try for what I really want? Do I really like rock-climbing, or do I just want to feel like a badass?

I have this battle even with something as far removed from my professional life as photography. I started doing photography because I wanted a hobby that didn’t require words. And, after moving to the West, I was visiting so many amazing and new places that I wanted to document everything. I started taking classes in hopes of becoming a landscape photographer. But then I started to realize that I cared less about the photography than I did about posting the photography to the world to prove that I Was Having Big Adventures and Therefore Was Still Cool. And then what really started to bother me was that I was starting to care more about the photographs of the landscapes than the landscapes themselves.

And I wasn’t that good at landscape photography anyway. I kept getting critiques that sounded very similar to the questions I had been asked as a nineteenth-century Americanist: what are you doing with the Grand Canyon that’s new? I still love taking pictures of the outdoors, but I’m not fool enough to believe that the world really needs another picture of Bryce Canyon at sunset from good ole Karen Renner. 

But I do have dreams of “going public” with my photography. However, there is only one really original thing I feel I have to offer, and it is . . . weird. What I really want to do is horror photography. I don’t mean anything sadistic or exploitative, like bludgeoned corpses or bleeding victims. Just creepy stuff, slightly disturbing stuff. I fought against the impulse for a while: took artful shots of apples, close-ups of sliced kiwis, black and white images of my cats’ footprints in the snow. All of these pictures have their place, and I’m sure I’ll post them eventually.

But what I’m most proud of right now–because it is, in the end, most “me”–is the doll project, as unfinished as it is. It started off as a final assignment in my Intro to Photography class–four images centered around a theme. I bought three cheap dolls and started taking pictures of them. Four hours and almost 400 images later, I realized I had found one of my Things. Here’s a few of the images from that first venture:

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Then I bought another doll and used it in a project for my Intermediate Photography class on low light and extended shutter speeds. Here’s two of those:

Since then, I’ve been cruising ebay and buying up more “subjects.” Here’s what I have to play with when I have some time:


I get a lot of strange looks when I show people these photographs. I also get a lot of implied questions about what good these photographs do in the world, meaning I should be taking pictures that bespeak the plight of the unfortunate or rally against injustice instead. That type of art definitely has its place, and I am grateful that there are people who do that type of meaningful work. I am not one of those people. If I tried to be, I would fail. And I would be unhappy.

Yet I believe in the end that if you get people to stop for one moment to look and see, if you take them outside of themselves for just a second, even if you just entertain them for a moment, give them a fleeting smile or shiver, you’re still doing something valuable. And the only way I know to do that is by trying to make something that I myself would like to look at.

9 thoughts on “The Doll Project

  1. Great post–I’d only say that, with your worrying about whether you actually like something or just do it for approval, I think its a mixture of both. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Since when did wanting a little approval from other people become such a bad thing? Humans are social creatures. Needing someone to approve is just another way of needing someone to show us that they care. You like what you like and some people will like you for it. That’s all that the bother amounts to.

    Badass is relative. Many people, including myself, can compare our lives to yours and proclaim your badasserie in the highest degree.

    And c’mon. Who needs the naysayers who insist that art must have a social purpose. This isn’t the 19th century anymore and Upton Sinclair is dull.

    Be wary of the cowlick triplets in the back row. It’s always the shy dolls that you have to watch out for.

    1. You’re right! Maybe needing a little approval ain’t so bad. But the social purpose naysayers still exist. Wait ’til I write about how the “self-portraits” were received. Of course, I probably told you already.

      Aren’t the kewpies so creepy? I can’t wait to photograph them.

  2. I’m glad I’m not the only person on earth who thinks about happiness so much–to me, that’s what this blog seems like it’s about–the idea that we’re always looking for an some sort of profession/activity that is more than just a job, it’s a lifestyle and passion.

    You’re classes really always inspired me to teach and learn what I’m interested in–I remember the first time we deviated from the Norton anthology in the modern american literature class, we read David Ives “Sure Thing.” I still keep my copy of it with me 3 years later because it was such a fun thing to bring in and share with the class. Between you allowing for such open prompts on the essay topics and then the enjoyable, quirky literature you brought in, I was inspired to start trying in college again. Learning had started to feel like a grind to me, especially after unsuccessfully attempting music as my major.

    I think it’s best to see it from an Aristotelian perspective–happiness (or, eudaimonia). The best activities that we preform as humans are the ones that in and of themselves lead to our happiness. I try to constantly ask myself throughout my day if the activity I’m in the midst of is something that makes me happy (i.e. does posting on Karen’s blog make me happy? does writing this make me happy?). If the answer is no and I can afford to, I move on to something that does make me happy.

    1. I remember your poetic responses to e. e. cummings and robert frost. ‘member that? do you still have those?

      Sometimes I have trouble “moving on.” I get stuck on trying to compete/impress/please. Can you always move on?

  3. It was Pound and Frost, and indeed I do–I remember beating that essay to death. It was one of the first essays I ever really wrote that I loved, though.

    You know, I think the idea of getting stuck on competition/impressing someone is something I struggle with every day. I hate to admit it but at 22 I’m still constantly thinking about how other’s perceive me because I’m concerned about who I am as a person. Regarding my poetry, I’m terrified about what others think of it. A poem, or any piece of literature, is only as important as the impact it makes. You could write the best, most brilliant thing in the world, but if nobody relates to it? Nothing.

    So, to answer your question–no, I don’t think I ever move on. If I don’t feel the audience breath on my shoulder, just behind me as I’m writing, then I become concerned that I’m being too self-indulgent.

    1. I remember your critical essay, but I was talking about the creative response in which I told you to imitate the styles of modern poets on the falling on a leaf. Remember? You did nail that essay, though.

      Well, at almost 40, I still worry about the same things. I don’t know if that’s comforting or ominous.

      Love the image of “audience breath on my shoulder.”

  4. Ah, you know what–I do remember that assignment now. You know, I don’t know if I have those anymore. It would be nice to take a look at them again.

    I’ll probably say that it’s both comforting and ominous you worry about those things still. I don’t hate that I’m concerned about what others think of me, but I do hate that I worry about it so much and so consistently. It’s good to be self-aware and use what others think of you to improve yourself, but then sometimes it’s easy to take it too far or it’s easy simply just to assume what they’re thinking about you when it might not be the case.

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