A Family/History

“(Why did people back then always pose for pictures standing by a car?)” — Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

Among the family photos and papers I discovered after my father’s death was a small white envelope labelled in my grandfather’s hand in all capital letters: EARLY CADILLACS. Inside were a handful of photographs of several long sedans from various eras. They were parked on residential blocks in Chicago, and documented from several angles. These images had no people in them, but others in the archive included family members sitting on running boards of classic cars from the 1920s and two where…


Outside the Box

Thoughts on organizing research

courtesy of Ag Ku at pixabay.com

As I start a new project in family history one of the first challenges is logistical: how to organize and keep track of all the information I dredge up. Writers tend to have very complicated, very personal systems for that, but I haven’t worked on a long-term, long-form project since my 2003 biography of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. I’ve written essays and book reviews and started other projects, but mostly I taught what academics call 3–3 (three classes each semester) of first-year composition for eleven years. So I didn’t get a lot of writing done.

I’ve played with Zotero…


A family memoir in art and artifacts

1920s baby photos, after the flood

[This is what I’ve been writing recently: not about the business of technology, but pieces of family history (though I still write freelance case studies about technology in education).]

The making of meaning starts with evidence, the data points that stretch like beads along a thread of thinking. In this metaphor pieces of evidence are like shells on the beach: three-dimensional objects of various shapes and sizes and origins that one might look for actively or come across by accident. But evidence can also be abstract, like a memory or a sensation, an experience that becomes a poem for an…


Pierson studio portrait of the Countess of Castiglione (Paris, 1860s)

A few days ago Scott Korb, a teacher of college composition, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the “soul-crushing student essay.” Since I taught college composition at New York University for eleven years, I was interested in his assessment of the writing he received and found it all too familiar. His diatribe is ultimately sympathetic to his student-writers, who were taught in high school to write at an “appropriate and ‘objective’ distance from topics they often seem disinterested in.” …


One of our goals at Sense & Respond Press is to create a vital conversation across communities in business, technology, and innovation. Since these are fields traditionally dominated by white males it’s particularly important that we foster diversity at every level. That means paying special attention to recruiting authors from under-represented communities and reaching all kinds of readers. If publishing is about sharing voices then we need as broad a range as possible.

So at Lean Startup Week recently I attended as many of the diversity-related panels as I could. To their credit, since 2015 Lean Startup Company has committed…


When I taught first-year college composition I always told students that the writing they did for me would be useful and applicable anywhere. And I believed it. Clear, simple writing targeted to a specific audience and purpose is teachable and essential to communicating within and across different fields. One can argue about *how* to go about teaching that skill (and the field of composition studies does!) but the skill itself is indispensable. So I agreed with the curriculum that made expository writing a required course for all incoming freshmen at my university.

But I never saw my students again —…


Josh and Joey, BoS 2017

It had to happen sometime, so it was mid-September in wind-swept Boston, as the aftermath of Hurricane José hovered over the East Coast. I’m a literary scholar and a (now former) teacher of writing to art students. So I’m a newbie to the tech world as I start up Sense & Respond Press, a new series of books on digital transformation, with Josh Seiden and Jeff Gothelf. So I wore the white lanyard of the first-timer at the Business of Software conference. Digital transformation and personal transformation, get it?

Since my thing is literary analysis, here goes:

A three-day conference…


It’s turning me into a shrew. All around me there are women going crazy for Wonder Woman and I don’t get it. I’m out of it, again, when I wish I could celebrate too.

courtesy of allthingsclipart.com

I had my suspicions before I even saw the film on Sunday for Father’s Day. The word of mouth was so excited (“I heard it was so good!”), even though it seemed like just another action flick. And then it started breaking box office records and everyone was over the moon: “see! a woman director and a female superhero can make money too!” When the high-brow…


Editing is not proofreading. It’s not even revising.

I’ve had the discouraging impression over the last few journal articles I’ve read that writers don’t edit. The last few pieces I’ve seen have been too long, too choppy, too rambling…. Much has been said about the lack of substantive editing in publishing houses these days, but it seems as if that trend is spreading. I’ve had the good luck to work with engaged and exacting journal editors myself so I know that every writer, however experienced, needs the kind of editing that goes well beyond proofreading for grammar or fact-checking for errors.

In the…


Kara Walker’s Marvelous Sugar Baby

“In a matter like this, subtlety appeals to subtlety”

— Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)

Waiting on line for Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” there was plenty of time to think about sweets. Latino men pushed their carts of ice cream past the fidgeting crowd and people took breaks to fetch sweetened milky drinks. We stood on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where the Domino sugar factory occupies several blocks of gentrifying waterfront. It is about to be torn down. But first, Kara Walker has filled it with an art installation: a monumental…

Victoria Olsen

writer, editor, former academic: biography of Julia Margaret Cameron, essays and reviews, and marketing materials for tech companies. www.victoriaolsen.com

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