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Posts Tagged ‘narrative’

Missed Turn

I woke up on Sunday convinced that I have no words left. That I had nothing to say, and perhaps, I was done as a writer. That I had already written my best essays. That I had no good sentences left in me. I was out of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages. I was done.

Sundays are rarely writing days for me. Weekends are family time, so I let my partner and kids distract me from the angst chasing me. They are always my favorite distractions.

On Monday morning, my alarm on my watch buzzed me at 4:45. There was a plane to catch to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I had been invited to Elizabethtown College, where my friend Richard teaches, to give a reading at Bowers Writers House. My reading was from an essay on Dozier School and my hometown, one of the most personal essays I’ve ever written. (A story that is still unfolding and that I am chasing as hard as I can.) The day before I was to be a visiting writer, I was convinced that I might no longer be able to write. The irony was not lost on me. My angst was fitting, and truth be told, somewhat expected. My writing life can be narrated as story of doubt, angst, and anxiety. I keep trying to tell another story, but this is the narrative that continues to emerge.

As I pulled out of my drive way, I probed this fresh (and melodramatic) concern about writing. Out of the neighborhood, take a left, pass construction and new development, take a right, drive past big churches and small churches, other neighborhoods, stop at red lights, and take a right onto I10 to get the airport. The interstate snaked in front of me, but the darkness of the early morning meant I could only see what the headlights made visible.

Why, I thought, did I feel like I had nothing left to say? Was I not nourishing my creativity? Were there no more stories for me to tell? Was I actually running out of words? This seemed improbable, impossible even. Of course, there are still things I want to write. At any given moment, there’s a revolving set of essays stored in my head, on to-do lists and post-it notes, and in my journals and planner. Perhaps, what I really meant was that there are topics on which I have nothing left to say. Topics that no longer interest me. This could account for some of my fatalism, but not for all of it.

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Fairy Tales

Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved fairy tales. Her skin was freckled and unevenly tanned. Her legs always had bruises because she was easily distracted and clumsy. Her hair was not golden like the sun, but that shade of blonde-almost-brown that the adults around her described as dirty or dishwater blonde. When she started squinting at things far in the distance, she had to get glasses. She was a reader with her nose perpetually stuck in a book. She was a daydreamer who imagined different possible worlds than the one she inhabited. Worlds, in which parents didn’t divorce, fathers loved their children unconditionally, people were kinder, she was a princess, and anything was possible with magic.

She imagined a world of enchantment and predictable narratives. She called on these worlds when life around her became too much. If she was being unflinchingly honest with herself, she would have to admit that she was more comfortable inside her head than out. Her imaginings followed certain storylines, the characters were reliable and trustworthy, and evil never triumphed over good. The real world made little sense. People, adults and other children, were mercurial and unpredictable. There were no clear storylines to follow, no patterns that made engaging with others easy or manageable. Kindness quickly transformed into cruelty with little warning. Some days, reality was too much to decipher, so instead of playing with her friends on the playground, she would turn inward to the safe confines of her imagination and create her own fairy tales. Princes rescued princesses. Evil witches were defeated. And often, the heroine would figure out how to save herself. All while, she swung higher and higher on the swing. Her body tethered by reality and gravity, but her mind was gloriously free.

Moreover, fantasy offered up endless happy endings. Real life, on the other hand, had few happy endings. And when the endings were happy, the happiness was conditional and fleeting. Happiness never tried to linger. She often wondered why.

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Cold Takes: A Sort of Manifesto

I am over the hot take. You know what I’m talking about: the type of takes that offer a quick and often dirty view of an event, a moment, or a person. They moralize. They require little reporting. And most distressingly, they like to pretend that one’s opinion can stand in for analysis (That’s a tall glass of nope). It is a take so hot that it scorches our brains with its ineptitude and shallowness. In our saturated 24/7 media culture, hot takes dominate. Outlets seek to have the first piece up, and the quickest opinion somehow emerges as the only one necessary. Writers react rather than pause. Provocative opinions prevail. Pundits stake their claims, no matter how cynical, silly, or stupid. Everyone wants to be the first one to say something, anything really, before the news cycle moves on. The story of the moment appears and disappears as all the takes on it.

In the rush and the heat, I fear we all lose. Yes, experts, journalists, and analysts can respond in fast and smart ways. Quick commentary does not equal bad commentary, but it can be. It often is. Hot takes feel sloppy and contrived. (Hot take appears too closely related to one of my favorite descriptors, the hot mess). They lack the information we gain as an event unfolds. They cling to tired narratives of how the world works. They plug stories into well-worn cliches whether the stories belong there or not. They offer judgment, but are often light on facts. They don’t dig deep enough. They don’t question the rush, but feed it. People clamor to have a say, but no one wants to listen. Days later, italicized corrections appear at the bottom of the page. Facts emerge as rumors. Apologies are issued. But, who’s paying attention by then? (more…)

I Look Like A Professor

I don’t look like a professor, or so I’ve been told in my almost 13 years in, or adjacent to, academia. Usually, that message is sent indirectly: a casual comment in the hall, a smirk, or a nicer-than-nice question regarding my hair, clothes, or tattoos. Other times, the message is direct and clear.

At conferences, for example, faculty members and graduate students express equal amounts of disbelief and surprise that someone who looks like me managed to write the book they just read. Senior scholars, and on occasion deans, ask me what I’m studying — even though I finished my Ph.D. in 2008. With confused looks on their faces, my students double-check to make sure that I am the professor, not the teaching assistant. More disturbingly, I’ve seen members of search committees look openly puzzled that I — the body seated in front of them — could possibly be the qualified applicant that they selected for an interview.

In my previous department, when I arrived to interview for a lecturer gig, the secretary assumed I was a student and told me pointedly that the chair was too busy to see me without an appointment. I smiled and tried to explain that I was there for an interview. It took a few minutes to convince her that I was actually a job candidate. As I left the interview, I overheard her telling a faculty member that I didn’t look old enough to have a Ph.D.

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To Muse

To muse is to consider something thoughtfully.

A muse is a person, usually a woman, who is the source of inspiration.

In May of 2013, I hastily decided that I need a new name for my blog, something that would signal the break I was taking from academia. I wanted a name that evoked transition and open endings. I settled on “In Progress” because it suggested that I was a “work in a progress” without a clear end. It also reminded me of blaring television announcements that we would be joining the program in progress. I hated these as a kid because I would miss the beloved beginnings of favorite television shows for some urgent announcement. The action started in the middle. In progress adeptly summed up how I felt. Transition whether I wanted it or not. A brief hiatus that dumped me in the middle of my life ill-equipped to handle what was next.

My blog was a lifeline in those early days of transitioning out of academia into anything else. My anguish in the posts about my grace period still feels raw and real, though I’ve long recovered from much of the hurt and confusion. I’m in progress, I would say aloud, to calm my anxiety about what would happen next. I didn’t know what kind of work I wanted to become. I just knew that I was transforming from one vision of self to another.

In those early moments, the focus on transition was a balm. I tried (and failed) to embrace uncertainty. As the last two years have gone by, transition as a theme chafed rather than healed. I found myself blogging less and less while wondering about the utility of this space for my writing and my life. I picked up more and more paid writing, so blogging felt like a distraction with no real goal. What did I have to say about my progress? What was I working toward? Who the hell was I going to be? (more…)