Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

Friday, March 17, 2017


Yesterday, Facebook reminded me that eight years ago, the University of Oregon declined my proposal.
Which reminded me that eight years ago I was in the throes of a mild existential crisis. Before the four programs I applied to that year declined, I had never experienced that much rejection. It was quite a reversal from the experience of my senior year in high school when all five of the schools to which I applied accepted me and offered me money. 

The following year, my successful application to the program from which I earned my PhD in 2015, was a humbling lesson in How Things Work. Never before had I really understood the maxim that who you know is more important than what you know. It was absolutely my network connections that   pushed my submission to the top of the stack of applications from other eminently qualified people. 

In the last couple of years the realities of the academic job market have brought this experience of rejection back to my life. It's not unusual for job seekers in the humanities to submit upwards of 70 dossiers, each customized to the recipient institution, for 1-2 interviews and maybe 0-1 job offers each year.

I am, however, responding to rejection differently.

In her blog post "Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year" Kim Liao talks about flipping the way we regard the rejection slip. It is not evidence of unworthiness, but rather evidence of bravery. Evidence of the audacity to take a chance.

It's also evidence of productivity. In order to put oneself out there, a writer or an academic has to be producing the work to put in the envelope (read: e-mail attachment) in the first place. Aiming for one acceptance would mean slaving over a single document long beyond the point at which real improvement ceases to happen. Accepting the inevitability of, and *gasp* even celebrating, rejection means sending things out as soon as they are polished enough. And sometimes rejection comes with the advice needed to improve to the next level.

I'm not the same sort of writer that Liao is, and 100 rejections a year is beyond the scope of what I need to be aiming for as a writer of scholarly journal articles. But if I add up all the ways I want to be putting myself out there in the next year, I should be able to garner a healthy number of rejections from academic journals and presses, job postings, fellowships and grants, and potential friends and partners. I think I'll aim for 40.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

on the way

I haven't written to you in a while, and I've missed you.

It's not that I've had nothing to say. I have so much to say--too much, perhaps--and I've lost my voice.

That's not true. I know exactly where my voice is. It's stopped up in a jam of ideas right behind my sternum, and sometimes it aches. Sometimes I open my mouth to sing and there is no air. I've held my fingers over the keyboard in front of this blank screen countless times.

That's also not true. More often, I think about writing, and the picture of the blank screen in my mind's eye is so daunting that I don't even open this program. My fingers don't even get the chance.

I have an article to finish and a sermon to write from scratch by the end of the month, though. Something has to move. Something has to ease past the aching jam of ideas.

So, let me tell you about my commute.

Twice a week, I sit down on a train for a short ride into the District. Always, there is something in my hands--usually knitting, occasionally prayer beads. The metro in this city is not beautiful, and I don't need to pay attention in order to get where I'm going.

But between my start and my stop, the yellow line briefly emerges from below to cross the Potomac. Even though I know it is coming, the burst of light always grabs my attention. My fingers stop moving. I look up: trees...fence...bridges...river...monuments:

If, as Steven Prothero writes in The American Bible, the Declaration and the Constitution are, among other documents, the scripture of our civic religion, these monuments are our temple. These places where we go to remember our collective greatness and mourn our collective flaws help to maintain American community. 

And I get to visit them as often as I want. In fact, twice a day, two days a week, I see them as a matter of course. 

The view is always brief. If the train is packed, I may see only river, or only the heads and shoulders of other commuters. Nonetheless, that brief moment before the yellow line descends is a moment of wonder, a brief stillness in the mind while the body is in motion. 

There's something else to say, something about the river, but that idea remains stuck.

Let's hope that this idea has eased the jam, and I will write to you further anon.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

a glimpse of rest

I had the privilege of hearing a great sermon about the importance of taking a sabbath this evening. Mark talked about how the moments of rest are an integral part of the creative process: In Genesis, the seventh day is one of the days of creation, not an extra day after a six-day creation was complete. In music, it is the rests that shape the phrases and create beauty rather than cacophony.

In the breakneck pace of twenty-first century American life, and especially the diffused nature of academic work, it's sometimes hard to imagine what sabbath rest looks like. For me, it looks like this:

dissertation shelfie
That, dear readers, is all the books and articles related to my dissertation on the shelf, which really only happens on sabbath.

Most days, they look more like this:

piles like this populate floor near my desk
Over the course of the working week, the piles around my desk multiply and grow precariously taller.

When I'm done working on Saturday, I save and close my working dissertation file and minimize the browser window with related websites. My teaching materials find their way into my backpack, and the sea of books and articles surrounding my desk return to their shelves.

And then I rest.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

the framing is the hardest part *

This is my rock and shell collection, and I love it.**

I love it so much, I brought it with me all the way from Rambling Farmhouse in the car, in the bottom of a round laundry basket, with only soft things packed on top.

I am happy just to look at them. Occasionally, I turn some over or bring new things to the top.

Some of these rocks and shells have been with me since childhood when I gathered them on Long Island's south shore. Some have crossed oceans in my backpack from Lake Baikal, from Paris, from São Paolo. Some have been gifts from other people's travels.

My grandmother thinks a rock collection is ridiculous. She has lots of reasons: they all look pretty much the same when they're dry, they don't say where they're from, there are too many for me  to remember acquiring each of them.

And she's right. The origins of most of these are now a mystery, and the overwhelming colors are greys and tans.

She's also wrong. In the aggregate, my rocks and shells are my travels. They are pieces of my world, the places I've visited and the places I've lived, and it doesn't matter that I can't tell you their individual origins.

They are beautiful to me just as they are because when I look at this basket, I see the world as I have known it.

My choice to keep these rocks and shells piled on top of each other in a basket on a shelf, however, means that other people, like my grandmother, see just a pile of random rocks and shells gathering dust.

Sometimes I think about framing some or all of the collection. Like this:

Photo Credit:
And then I start thinking about all the decisions: how to group them, how to organize each group, what kind of frames, glass or no glass, how to mount them, permanently or not, where to hang the frames. And the basket of no decisions starts to look better and better, and I just...don't.

In a fit of pique this week I realized that my dissertation is exactly like my rock and shell collection.

I have gathered 138 pages (double-spaced! Times New Roman! 12 pt font!) of beautiful ideas. Ideas about the role of narrative in society. Ideas about why we tell some stories and not others. Ideas about how narrative changes. Ideas about faith and science and fairy tales.

Ideas with very little connection to one another.

They're not quite as random as my basket of rocks and shells, of course, because they're loosely grouped into chapters by topic. And truly, the grouping and the ordering makes sense in my head.

It's articulating the connections and guiding the reader through my thought process that I'm struggling with.

Putting the ideas on paper is not enough. Unless I can polish these gems and frame them beautifully, my work is just a pile of dusty rocks that are only valuable to me.


* Bonus points if the title made you hum.
** Did you know that rocks are my first love? When I was little my parents used to take me for walks on the beach because it was close and it was free. Most days we all came home barefoot because I had filled our shoes and socks with rocks and shells.
When the crew working on water and sewer lines under our street found out I loved rocks, they started bringing me the most interesting ones at the end of the day. When we moved, my dad refused to put the (many! heavy!) rocks on the truck, and I wailed because he was making me leave my friends behind. (In my dad's defense, some of the rocks from the workers were quite large.)

Monday, August 3, 2015

be the tortoise, not the hare

I measure my life in tally marks these days.

At the end of each 25-minute pomodoro of dissertation,  I make a tally mark on a piece of paper on my desk. Then I reset the timer and get up from the desk for 5 minutes of not-writing.

I'm at the stage of the dissertation process where I can feel it starting to gather energy as we roll down a steep hill. It's tempting to embrace the heady momentum and stay at the keyboard for hours at a stretch.

That way lies madness, though. Taking my hands off the breaks and my feet off the pedals and giving myself over wholly to the writing means forgetting to cook or even buy groceries. It means forgetting to make important phone calls and pay bills. After a few days, I have no brain for words and no energy for thinking and the life outside of my desk is in shambles. I've done that before, and I always hate myself for it.

So, now I aim for six poms a day, every day but Sunday. Most days, I make it to six tally marks by mid afternoon and then come back to the desk for two more poms (and two more tally marks!) in the evening.

Making myself stop feels like a bizarre kind of discipline.

I can attest that it is a fruitful discipline, though. The document on my computer is growing longer and more complex. The rest time away from the keyboard often leads to connections among chapters and solutions to knotty problem spots.

This is a mountain stage, not a sprint.

And the tortoise wins.