Saturday, October 24, 2015

How I Want to Write

I’m going to skip the normal “It’s been so long since I was here”/”I promise to be here more frequently” beginnings that my previous two posts started with. I’m not even going to go back and edit that sentence to not end with a preposition (or that one to not contain a split infinitive). Because I’m trying something new, you see. Something where this blog is the place where I can take a break from being super hard on myself about…well, about living up to other people’s expectations. Or maybe that’s not what I mean. What I think I mean is, this is writing for me. Not for my excellent committee, not for fellowship applications, not for submitting an article, just for me to work through my process of writing for all those other circumstances.

As may be apparent from the above paragraph, I’ve been feeling a little stuck and overwhelmed recently. I have a complete draft of Chapter One, which I have to keep reminding myself is an impressive feat and a Big Deal about which I should feel proud, and am about 60% (yes, I did just make that number up – what’re you gonna do about it?) through a draft of Chapter Two. I unfortunately got a bit blocked in my progress on Chapter Two at the beginning of the month, while working furiously on fellowship applications and traveling to Toronto for an amazing time at the BABEL conference, the latter of which left me exhilarated but not specifically about my chapter, and both of which left me exhausted. Earlier this week, I went through the last milestone my program offers before filing and graduation: the First Chapter Meeting. The meeting is designed to be an opportunity for your committee members (primarily the non-chair members, as, at this point, your chair has already offered you a great deal of feedback) to give you their thoughts and feedback on the current version of your first chapter. Mine was, as I expected from my amazing committee members (I really couldn’t ask for a more supportive, thoughtful, insightful committee, and I’m not just saying that because they might read this), incredibly helpful. And yet, my brain’s reaction to all of their good advice (flesh this out more, maybe move that somewhere else, think about incorporating this idea, you should read that author) was to say, loudly, and, I can only imagine, while stomping its foot and pouting, “No!” That’s not to say that my brain didn’t like their advice. My brain was well aware of how sound their advice was. But something in my brain decided that no more dissertation work, whether creation of new work, or, more importantly, revision of extant work, was going to happen this week. And so here I am on the blog, taking a dissertation break, and also trying to figure out why it is that my brain is so resistant to doing dissertation work – especially revision – right now.

Happily, while my brain has been throwing a dissertation tantrum, I’ve had the treat in the past two weeks of reading one of Punctum Books’ newest publications: How We Write, edited by Suzanne Conklin Akbari. This little book that has been keeping me such good company on the bus recently is a collection of short essays, by graduate students, early-career professors, and established academics, about the actual (not ideal) process by which they write. One of the primary gratifying aspects of reading the book has been to see that, of course, I am not the only person who does not write according to some ideal schedule. In fact, the book was re-assuring in reminding me that virtually no-one does. While we all may have those wonderful days in which we sit down exactly when we said we were going to, and sit, distraction-free, until the number of words/pages/sentences/thoughts we’ve promised ourselves are done, the other types of days are far more common. And that’s alright, because the writing still gets done, even if it’s in five-minute bursts in between office hours and section, or in notes scribbled down after a particularly thoughtful shower, or in six-hour jags where you lock yourself in your office long after everyone else has left campus. I’m still not entirely sure how I could accurately describe the way I write. I do have some rituals that help – an apartment to myself, a good jazz or classical playlist on the speakers, a scented candle, and a cup of tea tend to do the trick – but I’m also perfectly able to write productively without those. But the primary thing I know about the way I write right now, and what I want to not be the case, is that I am, and always have been, extremely resistant to the entire revision process.

I do not like going back over my work. Never have. In elementary school, my mom fought hard to remind me just to take five minutes to check my answers on tests before handing them in. She eventually won that battle, but the same process for writing is much worse for me. Several of the authors in How We Write discussed a process of throwing words, not even formed into complete sentences, into a document or onto the page, and then laboriously cutting, trimming, and arranging. That’s not me. Each sentence is carefully thought out before I begin typing, constructed exactly the way I want it. I’ve been told that my authorial voice is strong – people who know me can very clearly identify me as the author of most things I write, from Facebook posts to conference papers – and I’ve always embraced that as a compliment. I like the fact that my writing stands out as mine – it makes me feel like a beloved author, that someone someday could say to their friend, student, or colleague, “Wow, your writing really reminds me of Rachel L-E’s!” Which is all why I hate going back and changing it, especially at someone else’s suggestion. Where has my voice gone, then? I ask myself. For instance, I can basically guarantee you that I will finish “drafting” this blog post, put it down for a bit, then read through it once for typos, grammar errors, or any egregiously awkward sentences, and then post it. That will be it. For me, re-structuring work I have done, excising parts, re-arranging ideas, makes me feel physically uncomfortable, like I’m itching all over. But I know I need to get better at it.

So I think I’ll end this blog post there – with the thought that, at least for today, the main part of my answer to today’s title – How I Want to Write – is that I want to get better at revising. I want to be able to return to my work, and to be able to see it as something I can still change, not something sacred and complete and untouchable, minus a few proofreading changes here and there. Any advice on that would be more than welcome in the comments. I’ll try to get a post up in the next week or so about the panic over “I’ll never have read enough!,” and ‘til then, I’ll be thinking about revising – hopefully, no calamine lotion required.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

New Year, New Scholar?

Hello, blog-land! It's been just over a year, but I'm back - and hopefully this time more frequently. I'm at a much more advanced stage in my progress towards the degree now (more on that below), and I'd like to think that that fact will lead to my having more to share on this blog.

Despite at times feeling like a bit of a stagnant year, 2013 actually offered me a great deal of milestones in my academic career. I presented at my first conference, giving a paper on Antonio, melancholy, and masochism in The Merchant of Venice at UCSB's Early Modern Center conference in February. The universe played a nasty trick on me and killed my hard-drive (containing the latest version of the paper) four days before the conference, but luckily the good folks at Best Buy were able to retrieve my paper for me and stop my panic attack, so I got to give the paper, in the comfort of my home university, to quite a bit of, let me exaggerate a bit, acclaim. In fact, as a result of a conversation about my paper, I began a rapport with Irwin Appel of UCSB's Theater and Dance Department, and as a result was fortunate enough to work with him as dramaturg on his production of Macbeth late last summer; we're continuing to work together this term, as I am also doing dramaturgy for his upcoming production of Bill Cain's Equivocation in the spring. As regular readers of my blog may remember (are there really any of you other than my grandfather, though? I love you, Poppy!) I wrote once about the sacrifice I made in giving up participating in theater to pursue my English PhD. Fortunately, dramaturgy has turned out to be a truly wonderful way of marrying my two interests!

This past year also offered me the wonderful opportunity to present at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan. For those of you not in the know, Kalamazoo is basically a four-day long summer camp for medievalists. Thousands of scholars, hundreds of papers, countless happy hours, and one fabulous dance party make for a truly incredible experience (complete with sleeping on uncomfortable dorm beds!) that I feel so lucky to have participated in the first time that I applied.

By the end of 2013, I had also made great stride in my dissertation - or at least it felt that way when I finally began typing the first sentences of my prospectus. I still have quite a ways to go - finish a good draft of my prospectus, have my committee sign off on it, submit it for official approval, prepare for and take my second exam - before I can advance to candidacy hopefully in late May or early June, but the fact that, as of yesterday I had almost nine pages of written dissertation work, whereas until December I had none, feels like incredible progress to me, and makes me feel, almost more than completing my first term back in 2010 did, like I'm finally a real graduate student, and no longer some poser or pretender.

Finally, I was delighted to end 2013 with the news that I've been nominated for the Academic Senate Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award. This means that I have some work to do assembling letters of recommendation from professors and students I've worked with, along with writing a statement of my teaching philosophy, but it feels like work that I'm very lucky to have to do. At the end of everything, as much as I love my research, and as happy as I am to be essentially fulfilling my childhood dream of getting paid to read for a living, the real reason I'm doing this - being in grad school, writing my dissertation, getting my PhD, is so that I can be a professor, be a teacher, be someone who shapes minds and gets students excited about learning. The fact that I've already been successful enough at that for a student to nominate me felt like the perfect end to what, in retrospect, was an extremely productive year.

As I said, I hope to be more of a presence on this blog in the upcoming months (I know, I know, I've said that before). I intend to keep the blog updated on my progress towards the degree, and also to start talking about the content of my project itself. For now, though, let me wish everyone a happy 2014, and leave you with my (working) title: "The Wound that Makes Whole: Bleeding and Intersubjectivity in Late Medieval Romance."

Monday, December 31, 2012

Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon

I’ve been absent from this blog for far too long now, and while a great deal of the reason for that can be blamed on the busy-ness of this past quarter, the explanation for the past month or so of blog absence lies more in the realm of academic self-contemplation and consideration. Part of the focus of the past quarter has been on developing the ideas and committee for my dissertation. (It appears that part of that has, in fact, been getting used to talking about my “dissertation,” which is such a scary word that, until a few months ago, I primarily referred to it as my “project.”) While a later post will start to get into the nitty-gritties of my topic, and what I’m interested in spending the next few years of my life researching, in this one I want to talk mostly about where I’ll be taking this blog in the future, and how, actually, it will start to relate more directly to my academic endeavors.

This blog started out as a bit of an adult re-imagining of the LiveJournal my friends and I used so earnestly and often in high school – a way to communicate to those both near and far my monthly (or, as was more often the case, tri-annual) pontifications on life as a grad student, as a 20-something, as a single woman, in the 21st century. And while I don’t regret or find any of my older posts to be without value, it’s time now for me to turn this blog into an extension of, and support for, my academic research. Inspired by the blogs of other members of the community, in particular of some of my grad student colleagues at UCSB, I want to start using this space to talk about things I read in the process of my research, ideas I’m thinking of working into my writing, conferences I attend, and other topics that are much more germane to my studies than going to see the Glee concert movie. (OK, so maybe I fibbed a little about not regretting any of my previous posts.) I hope that, by taking the blog in this direction, I can help clarify my own thoughts for myself, as well as communicate them to and open up discussion with others in the academic scene. I hope my readers (especially if there are any of you other than my parents and my grandfather) will enjoy my more scholarly reflections.

That all being said, I will not be sharing with you all the list of books I read for pleasure this year (in part, I must confess, because the list is embarrassingly short, thanks to the vast amounts of reading I did for my MA exam in June). However, I will share with you this story: this winter break, I did something I’d never done before, and I think that it, along with the new direction of the blog, reflects a – somewhat frightening – maturation on my part: I started reading an academic book for no reason other than I thought it would be interesting and, at least in part, pertinent to my research. The book is Helen Cooper’s Shakespeare and the Medieval World, and while I’m still less than a third of the way in, I’m finding it quite interesting and thought-provoking. I hope to return to it in a later post, but for now, let’s just marvel at the fact that I’m now one of those people – the people who read scholarly texts for fun.

With that, my dear readers, I leave you for 2012. Have a happy new year, and I’ll see you in 2013!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lifestyle Choices - No Regrets

Today, I am the poster child (woman?) for the Crazy Cat Lady stereotype.  I came home from the gym this evening, and proceeded to sit in front of the TV watching a Law and Order: SVU marathon while consuming a dinner consisting entirely of snack food, rather than a meal (God bless you, Trader Joe’s).  That was shortly followed by almost two hours spent watching 30 Rock and working on crossword puzzles, which was immediately followed by some minutes in which I entertained myself greatly by shining a red light around the floor (and walls, and door) of my apartment and watching my cats try to catch it.  And this was all done while wearing unbelievably comfortable yoga pants and a tank top with a hole in it.  So yeah, this whole evening was a Crazy Cat Lady evening.

And I have no regrets about it.  This is the life I love with every little bit of my soul.  Do I dislike going out?  Not at all: last weekend I spent two nights on the town with friends, and loved it.  Do I take no pride in my appearance?  Hell no: did I not mention this all started after coming home from the gym?  Am I accepting a lazy life of singleness?  Not in the slightest: do you have any idea how much more fun playing with the laser cat toy would be if I had a boyfriend or girlfriend here with me?  (I’m only slightly kidding.)  My point, though, is not that I’m settling for some inferior lifestyle; it’s that this lifestyle is in no way inferior, and I have every right in the world to enjoy it.

I have the right to enjoy it because it’s my summer vacation.  I have the right to enjoy it because I have a Master’s degree.  (Yes, I did spend those six months I’ve been absent from the blog doing something productive.)  I have the right to enjoy it because why have cats if you’re not going to savor at least some moments of Crazy Cat Lady-dom?  But mostly, I have the right to enjoy it because this lifestyle – this Crazy Cat Lady who also happens to look pretty good (and almost entirely cat-hair free!) when she hits the town lifestyle – is what I want.  No regrets.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

What Rachel Read in 2011

As I did last year, I present you with a list of what I read (outside of school-related reading, that is) this past year.  This year was a little less impressive, books- and pages-wise, than last year, due to school work, but I still managed to break my goal of 10,000 pages.  To help with my commentary this year, I kept a running journal of notes on everything I finished as I finished it.

The Professional, Robert Parker (315 pp.).  Robert Parker is an old favorite mystery author whose books my whole family likes to pass around on vacations, as they tend to be entertaining, quick reads.  This was one of his later ones, and I felt like it had too many plot lines and no clear climax.  I’d like to go back to his older stuff, and read some of the earliest Spenser novels.

Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer (288 pp.).  I put this on my notorious “list” a few years back.  (This “list” is the list I keep of books I see in stores that I want to read, but ration myself one at a time.  I created the list about six years ago, and it continues to grow much faster than it shrinks.  Maybe I’ll reach the end someday, maybe not.  But it’s a fun way to treat myself to something that caught my eye a few years back.)  Because I put in on the list back at the beginning, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, so I was a little surprised by the magical realism feel, but I loved it.  I have notes from just after finishing it that curiously read, “Haunting.  Beautiful.  But not hauntingly beautiful.”

The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, and Song of Susannah, Stephen King (300, 463, 590, 672, 931, and 544 pp., respectively).  Just about a year ago my friend very nearly insisted that I read Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.  I’m now about a third of the way into the seventh and final novel, and I’m so glad I read it.  King is such a master story-crafter.  The whole series is sort of his magnum opus, and as a Science Fiction/Fantasy fan, it’s so refreshing to read some that’s not only got a great plot but also reads like well-written literature in parts.  Terrifically scary, as well, but I think that’s a given with King.

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (576 pp.).  Again, from my notes just after reading: “Too body-oriented?  One of the more depressing things – yet also one of the best-written – I’ve read in a while.  Can I like any of the characters?”

The Knife of Dreams and The Gathering Storm, Robert Jordan (839 and 766 pp., respectively).  I have the bulk of my notes on this series from my reading summary post from last year.  These two read much more easily than all the ones I read last year, in part because all of the plots that the middle books in the series spent time building up are finally unraveling.  It’s exciting to know that there are only two more books (one yet to be published) yet to read in the series.

Wren Journeymage, Sherwood Smith (191 pp.).  This was another LibraryThing early reviewers book (as was the infamous Book I Stopped Reading from last year), so I’ll re-post here my review from the Library Thing site: “This was a very nice, simple read that I think many YA readers would enjoy. I was able to understand most of the plot despite not having read the first three books in the series, and I found the characters well-rounded and pleasant. A bit simplistic (especially the final chapter), but I think YA fiction has to really be extraordinary to escape that, which this, while fun enough, isn't.”

The Road, Cormac McCarthy (304 pp.).  I try not to swear on this blog (although most who know me in person know that I have a vocabulary like a sailor on leave), but this book calls for it: Damn.  (OK, it probably called for something stronger, but I’d like to keep this space relatively polite.)  This was a terrifying, bleak, depressing-as-all-hell book.  I found it to be very well-written (except for the end, which I think was extremely anti-climactic), but wow, was it hard to read.

The Solace of Leaving Early, Haven Kimmel (288 pp.).  Another entry from the list.  More religious than I anticipated, but very skillfully and beautifully done.  Kept me questioning the characters the whole time, but loving them just the same.  Very raw book emotionally, but quite wonderful.

‘Salem’s Lot, Stephen King (427 pp.).  The same friend who’s been keeping me in King all year proposed that I interrupt my reading of the Dark Tower series with this classic vampire story this summer, and I loved it.  So creepy.  So wonderful.  Enhanced my already existent fear of ghost towns.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs (348 pp.).  This was such a delight – one of the few books I’ve actually let myself buy as soon as I see it at the bookstore.  Technically a YA book, but written (and illustrated with some fantastically creepy vintage photographs) well enough to be enjoyed by an adult.  I enjoyed how well-constructed the fantasy world was, and was especially satisfied by the somewhat-unexpected ending.

The Fool’s Girl, Celia Rees (297 pp.).  This was the other book I let myself buy at first sight this year.  It was another YA novel, this one about what happens for the characters in Illyria after Twelfth Night ends.  It was actually more engaging than I expected from the summary or the first few pages.  There were a few key issues strangely ignored – y’know, like the fact that the heroine’s love interest is her cousin – but on the whole, a very good book.

Tortall and Other Lands, Tamora Pierce (379 pp.).  Oh, how I loves my Tammy.  I’ve been reading Tamora Pierce books since I was eleven.  I have an entire shelf on my desk at my mom’s house devoted to all of her books.  I’ve aged out of them very slightly, but I still love her, and loved most of this collection of short stories.  The longer stories were excellent, but I thought some of the shorter ones were totally too short to be satisfying.

The Door to December, Dean Koontz (518 pp.).  Loaned by a friend for some fun thriller reading.  I figured out the twist fairly early on, but it was still highly entertaining and gripping.  Fun read.

The Liminal People, Ayize Jama-Everett (205).  This was one of the most interesting and surprising books I’ve read in a long while.  Jama-Everett (who just so happens to have been my high school counselor!) has constructed an X-Men-esque world of people with super-powers, like the protagonist Taggert, who exist in a constant power struggle among each other.  While there were some character inconsistencies (at some moments, Taggert is purely impulsive and violent, and at others, prone to over-thinking things), I was thoroughly engrossed by the world and mythos created.  This was the first book I’ve read in a long while to which I’d really like to see a sequel – I want to know what happens in this world next!

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick (525 pp.).  This was absolutely beautiful, both in its magnificent illustrations, which make up a large portion of the book, and its storytelling.  It actually brought me to tears, which is unusual for a book, especially a YA book, to do.  The movie was beautiful, too, but not as much as the book.  Really wonderful celebration of the visual imagination.

An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears (725 pp.).  Which brings us to the last book I finished this year.  It took me a long time to read it (primarily because of The Quarter That Tried to Eat Me), which made negotiating the multiple narrators a little but difficult, but it was worth it.  Pears did some really interesting things with the use of multiple and conflicting narrators to explore the idea of unreliable narration.  Also a very fun plot.

Ok, so 22 books and 10,489 pages.  It’s not as impressive as last year, but it’s pretty darn good.  I’ve got a good line-up for 2012 (which I can’t believe starts in a paltry seven and some hours!), assuming I can actually get some time to read anything other than what I have to read for my quals! Ha!  Anyway, Happy New Year (and happy reading!) to you and yours!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Quarter That Tried to Eat Me

When I was younger, my dad used to tell me bedtime stories every night.  I didn’t get traditional bedtime stories about Goldilocks or Snow White, though.  No, I got bedtime stories with titles like, “The Banana That Ate San Francisco,” or “The Orange That Ate Chicago.”  I bring this up because the reason I’ve been absent from this blog for four freakin’ months is that this past quarter was The Quarter That Tried to Eat Rachel.

Why was this The Quarter That Tried to Eat Me?  Well, for one thing, I was taking three seminars, rather than the more typical workload of two.  To be fair, I was auditing one of them, but all that really meant practically was that I didn’t write a paper for that course, even though I still did all the reading.  Another way in which this quarter tried to eat me was via my really bright idea to take Old French.  Now, as you can probably tell from the title of my blog and my little bio on the side, I’m a medievalist.  That is, I study medieval English literature.  I can read Middle English (that’s the variety of English that Chaucer wrote in, for example) with only a glossary needed.  I took Old English – which is an entirely different language from Modern English – last year, and had a relatively easy time with it.  Old French, for fluent speakers of Modern French, is not as hard as Old English, but harder than Middle English is for fluent speakers of Modern English.  Which sounded great, until I realized that two quarters of learning how to read Modern French, while a good enough background to make the class possible, was little enough to make it the hardest I’ve had to work in a long while.  I don’t think I’ve felt the kind of relief I felt when I walked out of that final in one piece since I learned that I got into grad school.  The third factor contributing to my near demise at the teeth of this quarter was the fact that it was the first quarter that I was working as a TA, or a teaching assistant.

Now, to clarify: yes, being a TA is a lot of time and work.  There’s keeping up with your students’ reading, lesson planning, and grading, not to mention time spent holding office hours and responding to student e-mails.  That being said, being a TA is my favorite.thing.ever.  I love explaining something a student didn’t understand before, and seeing the moment when it “clicks.”  I love being in front of a classroom and getting the students to engage.  I love listening to some of the ideas the students bring up in discussion or in their papers.  All quarter long, I found that I could be having a really crappy day, but after two hours of leading discussion section, my mood would be drastically improved.  I maintain that this is actually why the quarter, despite its many valiant and toothy attempts, was ultimately unsuccessful at devouring me.

The next two quarters are looming somewhat ominously, if slightly less busy schedule-wise than last quarter, but it’s good to know now that I can survive the process.  My first qualifying exams are in June, and I have somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000-50,000 pages to read for those.  I’ll try to break up the hours upon hours of reading, reading, taking notes, and then reading some more with some short-ish blog posts.  I hope you’re all enjoying the holiday season!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Not On Stage

I took myself to see the Glee movie this afternoon.  I’ll start by owning to the fact that I am a complete and total geek.  I went by myself to see a 3D movie of a live concert of a TV show that, just by itself, easily qualifies me for serious geek status.  That’s not the point of this post, though.  The movie interspersed footage of the concert with stories of or brief interviews or clips of fans of the show, primarily teenagers positively affected by the show, which I thought was very sweet.  One particular person, shown for only a short moment, however, was the one who I really related to. 

I’ll pause here to explain a few things about the show – only enough to make this story make sense for those who’ve never seen it.  First of all, one of the central characters of the show is Rachel Berry.  Rachel is, above all else, a performer, and intends to let nothing get in her way of fulfilling her dream and becoming a star on Broadway.  Second of all, this past season, there was a special episode titled “Born This Way” that focused on the students dealing with and embracing those aspects of themselves that they’ve wrestled with, or been unhappy about.  The final musical number, using the eponymous Lady Gaga song, had all the choir members (and their teacher) wearing white t-shirts emblazoned with a word or phrase naming that something that they struggle with.  Unsurprisingly, many of the fans pictured in the movie were wearing similar shirts.  Some of them wore shirts identical to those in the show – “Likes Boys” was particularly popular, although I think it loses most, if not all, of its significance, when it’s worn by a girl, not a teenage boy, as it was on the show; but I digress – but a few were original, and the one that caught my eye and attention was one that read “Not On Stage.”  The wearer was given a few seconds on screen; “In high school, I wanted to be just like Rachel Berry,” she said, “but I’ve now joined the Marines, so I’m not on stage.”  She then saluted the camera, and that was that.

What was unspoken, or at least un-shown in the film, was the thought that, while the Marines might be exactly where she wants to be, not being on stage was a sacrifice she had to make to get there, and, while no-one has to worry about my joining the Marines or any branch of the military in this lifetime, I know exactly how she feels.