An interview with Sheila Liming
September 5, 2023
Although I’ve been following Sheila’s work for some time now, discovering her latest book was a revelation.
In Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time, she offers an extensively researched examination of how the world in which we now find ourselves living is one that is “increasingly hostile” to experiences of “connection, intimacy, and meaning.” “The conditions of this world,” she explains, “have been forming for decades in response to an intricate combination of pressures: the expansion of digital technologies and our increasing reliance on them; the growth of the private sector and accompanying diminishment of the public sphere; policies and social practices that champion individualism and make social connection more difficult; and an ethos of do-it-yourself ruggedness that has taken the place of shared support structures.”
That Sheila’s book has enjoyed so much success since its publication only underscores the necessity of her work in meeting the present moment. I’m delighted to be able to share in spreading the word through this interview.
Jana M. Perkins, Founder of Women of Letters
Sheila Liming is associate professor at Champlain College and the author, most recently, of Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time. Her writing has appeared in publications like The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, McSweeney’s, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Globe and Mail. She lives, works, and plays the bagpipes and the accordion in Burlington, Vermont.
How did your childhood shape your ideas about what work looked like and what was possible for you?
Sheila Liming: My parents both worked in offices and, in observing them, I intuited certain ideas about knowledge work.
From a very young age — about ten or so — I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know any writers and didn’t know much about what the real work of writing entailed. So I resisted my own dreams, or resisted the clear articulation of them, in favor of more concrete goals relating to education and degrees.
I went to college and I studied English and I wrote, all without thinking too much about what the next step would look like, in part because I couldn’t envision it and in part because I was afraid there wasn’t a next step. I continued that process of self-denial and self-obfuscation right up until I started publishing books, I think.
Fast-forward to today. How did the path to what you’re doing now unfold?
SL: It unfolded through educational attainment, first. I went to school; I discovered the subjects that I was best at and I focused on those subjects, but not to the exclusion of other interests or subject areas. I tried to keep an open mind all throughout that process and, fortunately, the schools that I attended allowed me to do that.
Along the way, of course, I was writing and trying to become a writer, but I viewed those activities as linked to a larger process of becoming a smarter, better educated, and more worldly person. For this reason, I became an academic before I became a writer, in the true sense; I settled into my work as an academic and as a teacher while still grappling for confidence as a writer.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
SL: Lots — primarily in the form of teachers. I think of mentors as people who offer encouragement, and I’ve benefitted from plenty of that. But I also think of mentors in terms of discipline and hard truths.
In addition to growing from encouragement, I’ve also been prodded into experiencing growth by those who were willing to call me on my bullshit, when necessary. Here I’m also talking about teachers — from the ones who caught me reading or not paying attention in class, to those who prompted me to distill my writing and prune the weeds of verbiage, to those who challenged my thinking or forced me to sharpen it.
How would you describe what you do to a general audience?
SL: I write and I teach writing. The writing that I do mostly consists of nonfiction, and it’s informed by my background as an academic and researcher but likewise by my desire to tell compelling stories in ways that feel fresh and authentic, and to communicate arguments and observation that grow from those stories. These strategies inform my teaching, too, but I don’t just teach nonfiction writing — I teach everything from literature seminars to writing workshops to publishing classes and software.
What was one of the first big aha moments of your career?
SL: It was a revelation to me when I realized that I could write like I wanted to write without asking for or seeking permission to do it.
After years of training as an academic, and after years spent writing like an academic (so much of which is based on the suppression of subjectivity and voice), it took time and courage for me to break free from some of those stylistic constraints. But once I started writing like I wanted to, and started succeeded in getting that writing published, I developed a stronger connection to the work that I was doing, including to my research subjects. Now it’s hard for me to imagine going about that work in any other way.
What task(s) do you start your day with?
SL: I’d love to say something glamorous like “yoga” or “journaling,” but the honest answer is email. I receive hundreds of emails every day and I prioritize getting through many of them early on in the day so I can clear up space for activities that require deeper concentration and thought. I also work very hard to be attentive to my students and I try to respond to their emails quickly, so those tasks come first for me.
Writing, of course, requires a lot of preparation and planning; you just don’t sit down and hit your stride right away, so I have to make sure that I’m setting aside time to prepare for whatever writing I want or need to do next. Tackling email first is one way to do that.
Outside of your work, what’s something you feel you’ve thought about a lot more deeply than most other people?
SL: I’m interested in what it means to serve as an audience for something or someone — to inhabit the role of the receiver. It’s an act that requires skill, knowledge, concentration, study, and, of course, attention — at least, it requires those things if it is to be done right. I think a lot about how we are losing our ability or willingness to serve as audiences for each other and thus, by extension, seeing our capacities for sympathy and understanding diminished as well.
In our drive to be seen as producers, I think we tend to forget that our products don’t matter if there is no one there on the other end to perceive or receive them. I reflect a lot, as a consequence, on my own capacities for reception and attention, and I continue to work at developing those capacities through committed engagement with art, literature, music, culture, ideas, skills, knowledge, etc.
Tell us about a time when you had to take a big risk in order to move forward. What did that experience teach you about how to navigate difficult circumstances?
SL: I took a big risk in accepting my current job and in leaving my previous post. And as with any big change, I spent the first year convinced that I had made the wrong decision.
My previous academic post felt safe, in certain ways, but also doomed in others; in the end, I opted to make a change and leave it for one that felt comparably less stable but also more invigorating and exciting. As a result, I am conscious of having crafted a less knowable and less certain future for myself, which remains terrifying. But I also love the work that I’m doing now and feel that my horizons have opened up, both professionally and creatively, as a result of taking that risk.
What book have you most often gifted to others?
SL: Tove Jansson’s Fair Play (1989). I am fairly obsessed with everything Jansson has ever written, and this slim little novella from late in her career is no exception. But what I love about this book, in particular, is how it portrays the thorniness of intimate relationships, especially when those relationships revolve around mutual artistic production. There is a constant push and pull, or ebb and flow, to the narrative: Jansson’s protagonists, who are both women and both artists, move towards and away from each other as they grapple with all that they are trying to accomplish in their lives and in their art.
It’s devastating and complicated and I have a habit of mailing copies of the book to friends with whom I’ve had longstanding artistic collaborations, especially when those collaborations have been fraught or tested at points. I do it as a way of inviting them to contemplate, along with me, the degree to which “There are empty spaces that must be respected — those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone,” as Jansson writes.
What advice would you give to someone who was just starting out in your field?
SL: Read. I think this is the number one skill area that many writers overlook. Writing is mostly reading and, until you get good at the latter, you will struggle to achieve success with the former.
When you think of women who have inspired or influenced you, who comes to mind?
SL: More than I can probably count or name. But the first ones who come to mind have been my teachers: my sixth grade teacher Patty Hansen, who was kind and patient and treated not just me and my writing but every student’s writing seriously; my eleventh grade English teacher Andy Barker, who called me on my bullshit and made me learn to diagram sentences; and in college, professors like Dr. Joanne Frye and Dr. Heather FitzGibbon, who jointly advised my undergraduate thesis and taught me that even academic writing is improved by authenticity and voice.
I’ve also learned a lot from the women artists I’ve interacted with, and that includes fellow musicians. My friend Anne Feeney, a brilliant songwriter and musician who passed away in 2020, taught me about bravery, camaraderie, and the work of being a “professional hell-raiser,” as she called it.
Where do you feel the most scarcity in your life? Where do you feel the most abundance?
SL: I feel the most scarcity in terms of time; I feel the most abundance in terms of people — the friends, colleagues, associates, readers, and writers to whom I am connected.
How do you show kindness to the people you care about?
SL: By paying attention. That can take the form of listening to them talk, of reading their writing, of letting them know when something makes me think of them, or of bearing witness to their successes and struggles.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
SL: One of kindness, fortitude, and abundance. That, and when I die and someone comes to clear out my house, I hope they acknowledge what an incredible collection of books and records I had.
Is there a project, initiative, or cause you’d like to highlight?
SL: There are a million, but I’ll just pick one: City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, PA.
I used to live down the block from this wonderful organization’s headquarters — they provide housing and support for exiled writers who come to the US fleeing persecution in their home countries. They also host readings and festivals, and they operate a bookstore.
Where can our readers find you?
We corresponded with Sheila over email in August. The text of our exchange has been edited for clarity.
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