Archive for category Writing
One Word. Encapsulate the year 2011 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2012 for you? If you did Reverb10 then bonus points for also re-posting your 2011 word from last year along with how you feel about that in retrospect.
I am ashamed to admit that I couldn’t remember my word from last year. So I went back into my archive and read my first Reverb post. TIME, apparently, was on my mind last year and my hope for this year was to fill it with joy.
Well what is it they say about the best laid plans? Although there were great moments of joy this year, namely finishing my Ph.D. in May and the weeks of celebration that followed, experiencing the joy of that event was more difficult than I anticipated.
Finishing the dissertation left me in a pretty deep depression. It wasn’t what I expected at all – I thought that moment of triumph would carry me for a long, long time. But along with the relief I felt at finishing I also had a great deal of animosity about being done. I missed working on my dissertation and having something that consumed most of my waking thoughts. It was weird to wake up in the morning with my usual, “OMG what do I have to finish today?” and answer it with, “Nothing. It is done.”
I suppose the finality of that was something I should have anticipated, just as I should have anticipated how much looking for a new job would suck the life out of me. But burning deep inside of me is the bright light of an optimist, ever hoping for the best. I felt like something would break on the job front as I put out an endless stream of application letters for both full and part time jobs.
And slowly things did begin to break and opportunities I didn’t expect showed up and I ended up teaching an overload of classes for this semester (four schools, six classes, approximately 155 students). For most of the semester I felt like I was moving backwards, patch-working an adjunct schedule together like I did before I got into the Ph.D. program.
And then one new job showed up, one where I get to teach master’s students and my whole outlook changed. Finally, something new, exciting, different and permanent (for the most part) showed up in my life. I didn’t realize how stressful part time work would be this time, being older and in greater debt than I was when I first started teaching. That never knowing or only finding out a few weeks before the semester begins IF you have work the next term…. it’s painful. Some day I will write a scathing critique of higher education and how screwed up the adjunct system is. This is not that day.
So when I look back at this year the one word that comes to mind is transformation. This was a year filled with change, emotionally and physically (see posts on exercise for more about that). It is fitting, I think, for the months after finishing a big project to transform my life into something new and different. My plan for the spring is coming together in my head as well, with more time spent writing again. My fingers have been itching to write, a desire that was smothered by the depression around completing the dissertation. So I have high hopes for loosely keeping up with Reverb11 (no promises with such an overload of final papers to read in the next two weeks) and hoping this transformation brings me to a 2012 filled with joy. I worked on that this year, seems fitting to continue to work on it again until I can manage to manifest it for real.
Most of my life revolves around words. I have been fixated with words for years. I spend time researching word origins for fun, I write my own words, and I teach other people how to use words. It’s a good life – one that I enjoy most of the time.
I remember my first semester teaching. I had a student make an appointment to talk with me about her paper and the grade she got. I was apprehensive – I wasn’t sure what to expect really being my first class and everything. I knew she was a good student and I also knew her writing was falling short in some ways. She was assuming that the reader knew what she was trying to say.
So we sat under an old oak tree and she told me the classic line somewhere along the lines of why did I get this grade and I should have gotten an A. I gave her the chance to vent, to get out her frustrations which I suspected weren’t all from my class. And then I tired to tame the words in my head into a shape she would understand.
Basically, I said, you need to actually say what you’re thinking. You just told me you were thinking that Elisa Allen (from John Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums) felt trapped by the hills, the fog, and the fence that contain her flowers. In the paper, you just list those as parts of the setting of the story but don’t discuss how they relate back to her character. You need to put the words behind your thoughts and not assume your audience knows what you’re getting at.
I wasn’t sure in that moment if she understood what I was saying but she decided to rewrite and turn it back in. When she did, I saw marked improvement in her writing – she made her points clearly and I could understand what she was getting and and why. Her papers for the rest of the semester were all fleshed out like this and I could see where she was making the effort to put my words to work.
Variations of this conversation, in class and in one-on-one situations, colored the rest of my teaching. Only recently have I realized exactly how important that idea is not just in writing but every other aspect of life as well. Your partner, your mom, or your siblings, anyone else in your life that you love… none of them know what you’re thinking. Sometimes you just have to buck up and say it, as difficult as it might be to put words to the feelings. Don’t ever take for granted that the people around you know without you telling them.
And even so, when you are talking to each other, take the time to suss out what you’re actually saying as opposed to what you assume is being said. In the class I taught this spring, one of the concepts we constantly came back to is how we, as readers, impact what we read. You might think words are universal and indisputable but part of the power of words is the fact that meanings are often maleable, moving and shifting like the sun that breaks through the leaves on a summer’s day.
After my mom got sick, my brother and I started talking on the phone more often. I suppose this shouldn’t be news but since we didn’t grow up together we were never really close. He started telling me “Love ya, Sis” every time we ended a conversation. It’s amazing the impact those words can have. Yes, I have assumed that my brother loves me for most of my life, but finally hearing him say the words in such a blatant, honest display is more than a little overwhelming and it’s left me with more kindness in my heart than ever existed before.
Words take work. And risk. And it’s worth it in the end.
It’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to write some words for this space… I’ve been going kind of crazy keeping up with life even though it should have slowed down for me over the summer. Funny how things sometimes just work out differently than expected…..
But I’ve been thinking about this post for the last few days and my fingers wouldn’t stop itching this morning from the desire to write. And since it’s my birthday, I am giving myself permission to write and reflect.
As I look back over my life, I can pinpoint places where I made major changes, the crossroads where I picked the branches that have grown into my life. Some were BIG crossroads like moving to New York or leaving my ex-husband. Those are easy to see and observe the changes that have branched off from those moments. More powerfully still, I stand at a similar crossroads now… a BIG one and I know it. I am painfully aware that this decision will impact my life in a very powerful way and I’m slowly growing more comfortable with my thoughts about it.
I left the Bay Area in 1998, expecting that I would live in New York for a year, maybe two, and then head back home. I enjoyed my time there, made some of the best friends of my life (one I know, thankfully, reads this blog), but it was never home. I never settled. The mindset was too conservative, the winters had too much white stuff on the ground and I just never really felt at ease there.
From New York, I moved to my first hellmouth in the far reaches of Northern CA. I thought I was heading home then, when I left the east coast and headed to my home state. Little did I know that the milage of CA can bring you some very different, er, populations of people and ideas and, frankly, closed mindedness. I still wasn’t home.
Next was eastern WA and a classic college town. I was excited, knowing that college towns are famous independently owned restaurants and bookstores. And there were a couple but there were far more cheap pizza places and nasty beer on tap. Hellmouth #2 still wasn’t home.
The first time I called a place other than the Bay Area home was when I moved here, living in the suburbs of Portland, OR. The word tumbled out of my mouth without any real consideration. “I am headed home,” I said to a friend on the phone. He asked, “Oh to see your mom?” And that was when I knew something had changed. I experienced the same sensation a couple of weeks ago when I saw the lights of downtown Portland from I-5, returning home from a trip to see my mom. My heart swelled at that sight, and any thought I’d been having of a nation wide job search next year vaninished.
There is a predetermined path people who finish Ph.D.s are on, a set of “rules” so to speak about what you are supposed to do and when and where and why. It goes something like this….
You pour your heart and soul into a project that is judged by a group of people as to wether it is worthy enough to bestow the title of “doctor of philosophy” to you. While you are working on that project, you also need to be applying to jobs in your field, tenure track professorships anywhere in the country. It is expected that the first job you take will move you to some remote, land-grant university a hair removed from BFE and you will be thankful for said job.
I am pretty sure I’d do well on the job market. My dissertation is good material for an academic book, I have TONS of teaching experience, and great recommendations from the people I work with. If I put myself out there, I think something good would come along.
But I am unwilling to move to BFE. I don’t want to give up the life I’ve made for myself here.
Somehow, that makes me feel like a failure. Like I’m looking down that road and unwilling to force my foot to take the first step. And I realize that sounds kinda crazy, but when you’ve been in a situation where success is limited to one very specific, very limited outcome, well…. it’s difficult not to feel like I’m failing in some way.
So I decided, I needed to redefine success to something that makes sense for me. And that brings me back here to this blog, where I do writing that I enjoy and that makes me happy. I am happy here; I’d be happy, I think in a mosaic career that is part teaching and perhaps part time consulting and writing. Something where I can piece together all the components of life that I enjoy. It won’t be easy – not by any stretch of the imagination – but I think I’m up to it, especially since my recent health crisis has motivated me into a much more healthy and active lifestyle.
My only fear, one that dissipates whenever I think about my reaction to seeing the Portland skyline, is that I’ll still feel like I’ve missed out on something making this choice but then I remind myself that perception might dictate that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, but things are looking pretty green from right here.
Today has been a good day. It’s been a day of connections.
I had coffee this morning with a former boss actually, one of those rare experiences where Facebook actually brought me closer to someone pretty damn awesome. We’ve chatted over email, comparing notes about life and struggles and changes. We’ve talked on the phone. But we hadn’t actually seen each other in 16 years.
That’s a long time.
Last night I had been thinking about where I was then – 1995 – just about to start classes at UCSC. Fresh faced and oh-so-naive. John was my “boss” at a local radio station where I was a news intern for the summer. It was a great job – I got to write some quips that he would read on the air the next day and hang out at a radio station. One of my best friends was working there at the time so I got to see him as well.
It was the perfect job for me at the time.
But I moved to Santa Cruz, and got lost in my university experience. Not a bad thing – just the way things go sometimes.
I didn’t reconnect with John until he friended a friend on Facebook (the same one from that same radio station). At first it was just one of those I-kinda-know-this-person connections. Nothing serious. Then he started a blog and I’m not ashamed to say his blog was part of the inspiration for me starting this one.
It’s fitting that we both love words and that’s really what connected us from the beginning. He teaches now and he gets it and that’s awesome. I knew seeing him today would be great.
But I didn’t expect it to have an awesome outcome.
I decided after I dropped him off at his symposium, that I would run a couple of errands up on campus. I needed to return my graduation regalia by tomorrow and empty the last box out of my office. I’ve had my office packed up for weeks and was dragging my feet about finishing, not yet ready to leave my university behind in such a final way.
As I was walking to the bookstore, I ran into one of my profs, one of my all time favorites, actually, and she asked me what I was doing about jobs, etc. I told her how I was struggling and that with budget cuts even finding part time jobs was difficult.
I won’t go into the details but let’s just say . . . . it was a very good conversation and some good connections were made right there.
Had any moment of my day gone any differently . . . had I not met John for coffee or headed to campus to return my robes . . . had I not parked in metered parking so I could get my last box from my office . . . this connection wouldn’t have been made.
So I guess the moral of the story would be never underestimate how the words you use connect you to the people in your life. You never know where the awesome might be found.
I had an interesting revelation last night when I was thinking about this blog. I realized I never keep drafts here. I pretty much write and publish just what is on my mind. I set out an amount of time (often in conjunction with Silent Writers or other online writing groups like Reverb10) and I just get out what’s batting around in my head.
And that single thought was amazingly liberating.
As an academic, I scrutinize every word I produce, considering the political impact of phrasing and word choices. I carefully construct my critiques of other people’s work so that I demonstrate my knowledge on the subject, and how my work contributes to an already ongoing conversation. I often worry. Sometimes, I fret.
The whole process is bothersome.
Especially considering the end result is considered by an incredibly small group of people. Matt Might demonstrated this concept with a stunningly accurate visual representation here. His main idea, though, was to help Ph.D. students keep their heads as they work on their projects. This is an important point, and one that helped me put the whole thing in perspective as I finished.
But what I’m thinking about now is all those little dots, all those arrows that push on the boundary of what we know. Who is paying attention to all those arrows?
Chances are the only people paying attention are people with arrows of their own.
I’m not saying this like it’s a bad thing – it’s the way the academy works. Do I think it’s time for a change? Yes, absolutely and I think the change is coming. It’s slow but it’s coming along.
But for now, I am going to focus on the writing I do in this space, where I can “think out loud to myself” and consider all the crazy ideas that pop into my head on a semi-daily basis.
The Indeterminable Weight of the Blank Page
Staring at the blank page I wonder
Where to begin
The whiteness of it confuses me
So I start to identify colors
Blue shadows slink like clouds
Red flecks of lint like birds float
My thoughts roam with them
Past the edge of the page and out the window
Landing on a boulder littered with white spirals of moss
A small bird, a yellow finch lands on the boulder
And plucks my red linty thought up like a cracker
Swallows it whole and flies away
I stumble from my chair, determined to follow
Knowing the single thought
That flew away under another’s control
Was the one I needed to mark the white with black
The letters when strung together create the magic I have always loved
Tripping over my pink fuzzy slippers –
I knew they’d be the death of me
When I plucked them from the mass of red Christmas boxes
A little bit of luxury for the writer
As she sits arguing with the tabula rasa –
“Give me that back!” I yell out the window
And the bird winks from a distance
Smiling like the Cheshire cat
All-knowing and aware of the chaos created
By a simple snack
So I start over
Turn my attention back to the page
No longer blank as these words cascade down it