I hope you all had a festive Memorial Day weekend! Now that summer has begun, I thought I would share with you my reading list for the next three months or so. Summer in Houston tends to last 5 or 6 months, depending on your luck. I feel like I had a head start on my beach reading but fear not—I still have plenty to get me through vacations.
10. Set the spell check on your word processor to American or British English
-or/our, -ize/ise … The list of spelling differences between American and British English is enough to fill a style manual. Do us a favor and make sure your spell check dictionary is consistent with the publisher’s specifications.
9. Use only one space between sentences
We’re not typing with typewriters anymore. You only need one space between sentences. Trust me. Use the find and replace function to change all two spaces to one space.
8. Include all relevant citation information
I can’t do my job if I can’t find the page numbers for your quotes or if I can’t find the book because you listed the wrong author, title, edition, or publication year. Please give me all the information you have and let me be the judge if I need it or not. Chances are, I need it.
7. Know the difference between “which” and “that”
If you don’t know the difference, see Strunk and White: “That is the defining, or restrictive pronoun, which the nondefining, or nonrestrictive” (rule 59). See also rule 3: “Nonrestrictive relative clauses are parenthetic, as are similar clauses introduced by conjunctions indicating time or place. Commas are therefore needed. A nonrestrictive clause is one that does not serve to identify or define the antecedent noun.” And if you’re writing fiction, you should be working to get rid of all “that”s anyway.
6. Get yourself a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA Manual of Style
I know that you were traumetized by this stuff in high school, but it’s kind of a big deal. You can usually find versions online, but go ahead and get a hard copy, or use the copy in your local library. And speaking of style manuals, you have a copy of S&W’s “The Elements of Style” already, don’t you?
Meet them. We’re all busy people. Learn time management.
4. Use the dash, en-dash, and em-dash correctly
Dashes are used in compound words. En dashes (so called because they have the same width as the letter n) are used between number ranges. They look like this: p. 96–110 and the can be created by either holding option down while typing a dash, or by holding Alt down and typing 0150. Em dashes—so called because they have the same width as the letter m—are used in sentences to set off clauses and look like this. You can create an em dash by holding shift and option down while typing a dash, or by holding Alt down and typing 0151.
3. Not only, but also
“Not only” sets up a parallel construction, which must be followed by its logical conclusion, “but also.”
2. Keep verb tenses straight
If you begin a sentence in the present tense, make sure the rest of the sentence follows in present tense. And while we’re on verbs, know the difference between present, past, perfect, and imperfect. I shouldn’t need to remind you about the use of active versus passive voice.
1. Remember that we’re not perfect.
Re-read all of the documents we give you to catch any mistakes we might have missed. We have at least four sets of eyes in-house looking at a document before we move on to production, but we still miss things with regularity. If you know grammar and punctuation rules yourself, there is a better chance that the mistake that makes it to press won’t be in your article.
What a wet blanket yesterday’s post was. I feel like I’m that guy who shows up right before everyone is about to get smashed at a party and hands all the designated drivers a Dr Pepper. You know he’s right, but dang does he know how to kill a buzz.
New reader Teddi writes:
I am currently a Senior in college majoring in Literature and Sociology and my ultimate goal is to get my PHD (probably in literature). If you have a chance, I would love to hear more about your experience. What university are you at and why did you choose it? I am going to begin applying in the fall so I could use all the help I can get.
To apply or not to apply … Ah, the mysterious world of graduate school applications. A land filled with mystery and excitement, hope and opportunity. I’m glad you asked this question, because it’s a Big One. But before reading on, I must caution you that any advice you read is based on my own personal experience and yours might be different.
A quick Google search of grad school applications is likely to turn up any number of articles describing in graphic detail the Horror and Despair of English PhD studies, the Death of the University, the Death of Tenure, the Death of the Job Market … I think you get my point. I would be lying if I said that all of these articles were exaggerating and that everything is really sunshine and roses and if you love to read you will succeed and be happy and free. Damn the man, save the Empire! and all that. The truth is, there’s something to these reports. The job market is abysmal. Graduate programs do pump out more students than the market can handle. The 8th-year (or 9th, or 10th) student is not a myth. Still, the first lesson we learn as grad students is to Critique Everything, and thus you cannot believe everything you read on the Internet.
I’m not sure if you wanted to know all about the Bad Parts of grad school applications. If you’re going to commit the next 5-10 years of your life to getting a PhD, it does help to understand what you’re getting yourself into. If you really want to apply to graduate school, I suggest reading the English Literature Jobs wiki, select articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and articles in the PMLA, which will probably be in your local school library. If you can handle what you read, you’re now ready to move onto the next step.
Decide for yourself WHY you want to get your PhD in English. There is no one right answer, and your answer will likely be comprised of multiple parts. Is it because you want to answer a burning question about a particular period, theory, or author? Do you like to write or teach and see yourself performing this function in an academic setting? Only you can answer this for yourself. Now comes the second part: can you still do [insert answer] with a different degree, such as an MA or MFA? I personally never stopped to ask myself this second question. For me, it was PhD or bust. I applied during my senior year of undergrad, and it wasn’t until the rejections started rolling in that I realized that I had a lot more work to do and a lot more soul-searching to perform.
Yes, you read that correctly. I was rejected several times on my path to the Ivory Tower. I still get told No on a monthly if not weekly basis. A PhD is about pushing yourself to your limits, and then going a bit further. It’s not for nothing that the degree gets compared to a marathon. It’s Hard. Real Hard. It’s not always fun. You have to decide how far emotionally, intellectually (and yes, physically–many of my friends now have eye/back problems from reading too much) you want to go to reach your goals.
It may seem like I’ve spent a lot of space writing about all the “extra” stuff and not getting down to the specifics. I would argue that this pre-application moment is an excellent time to answer the Hard Questions, because you may not have time or energy to ask them when you are neck-high in Derrida and want to jump off the library spires. If you have the answers to the earlier questions before you start, it will make the process easier. Or at least bearable.
If you still want to get your PhD in English (and by all means, I encourage you to apply if you still want to. I’m a card-carrying member of the Disney generation, and I firmly believe you should Follow Your Heart), then study carefully the application pages of your ideal schools. For universities in the US, you will need to take the GRE and maybe also the GRE subject exam. You will need good grades on your undergrad transcript and a kick-a** writing sample and personal statement. You will also need letters of recommendation from professors you had during your undergrad. Typically, professors will only write letters if you received an A in their course. This is a great time to ask them for their advice for applications. Their advice trumps mine. Listen to them. You will also need to pay an application fee, which back in the day ranged from $70-$120 for each school to which I applied.
I recommend making a spreadsheet with various information regarding schools. Do they require a foreign language? Do they require an MA before the PhD? Is it a public or private school? What are the requirements to reach candidacy? What stipend support do they provide? Again, don’t be an idiot like me and assume that all PhD programs are roughly equivalent. They’re not. If you’re a Romanticist or Victorianist, choosing a school like Indiana is great because they have a strong faculty in these departments. Just know that every other Romanticist or Victorianist will also be applying to that school for the very same reason and the applicant pool will be more competitive.
And speaking of competition, do you like it? Even a little bit? Cause, baby, you got it. Michigan accepted less than 1% of its applicants the year I applied. Other schools might be up to 5%. Yeah, it’s a scary, scary world out there. In answer to your question about how I chose Rice: I got in. That’s about it.
But the crazy, wonderful (dare I say, serendipitous) thing about Rice is that it is the perfect fit for me. My parents live nearby, Husband was able to find a job in Houston, and I love my advisers. You can’t be more lucky than that in my book.
If you’re skimming this post, here’s the TL;DR message: Research, research, research. And work on that skin. You’re going to want it to be leather by the time you get here.
Here’s a video of a sneezing panda:
An underlying current to these poems is a discussion of what it means to be different. For some speakers, the difference is being a mutant. Jackson tells familiar narratives but with a twist. “Iron Man’s Intervention, Starring the Avengers” describes the frustration of being out of the superhero suit. The speaker describes how
A man at Starbucks shoved
me during morning rush
I stumbled over chairs,
fell. With my suit–
my marvelous iron prison–
I could pop his head with a flick
of one finger. But without it,
I’m just a man lost in the city.
In other poems, the difference is skin color. The boys in “In a Conversation about Superheroes” compare notes about their favorites:
They groan when I said Storm.
She’s boring because she’s only
black. Although she has
white hair, blue eyes,
taller than a lightpost
and can control the weather,
they know I’ve picked her
for her skin alone.
The speaker’s sly, understanding, yet bitter response to their reaction speaks volumes about our contemporary conceptions about race.
The underlying narrative to these poems is a story about Stuart, a boy the narrator knew growing up, who later joined a gang and commits suicide. Jackson brilliantly layers his poems so that the comic book heroes of one poem become a representation of reality in the next, before they slip back onto the page in the third. Consider “The Family Solid,” “The Dilemma of Lois Lane,” and “Bleed.” An “S” branded into a young man’s arm becomes the “S” of Superman, who pretends he can bleed for Lois, which moves to an image written in blood on the back of a yearbook photo negative. Feelings of strangeness, indeed.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the lust-infused poem “Listening to Plath in Poetics.” Maybe I was drawn to this poem because I have a thing for Plath, and maybe that’s why Jackson chooses this setting. Desire drips across the page as a man contemplates the fleshy gap between a girl’s shirt and her pants: “And I would feed you a lie, / one of the little ones–the kind that turns / strangers to lovers, that turns words to poems.”
I highly recommend this collection for poetry and non-poetry readers alike.
Last summer I decided it was time to stop twiddling my thumbs and get to the point. I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember but I never had the courage to admit to myself (let alone to other people) that this is what I really want to do. I went to graduate school to be around other people like me (i.e., book nerds) and to learn to write like a professor. I’ve made great progress since my first semester—I went from struggling to produce one 20-page paper in an academic year to struggling to produce three 20-page papers in a semester. As I stared down a year of editing past papers and preparing to write a 300-page manuscript, I decided enough was enough. I want to be Published.
Well, I still want to be Published. I’ve spent the last year tinkering on the Lady Byron paper, building a blog and following (I love you guys!!!), and working on a new manuscript. I now have 80K words in a novel that is ever-growing, and Lady Byron needs a few more spins in the rinse cycle before heading out into that Brave New World of Peer Review. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished this past year, but there’s more I want to achieve. Ambition, I has it.
In the spirit of “Same Thing, More Better,” I’m going to keep writing. I’m going to produce more of it and make sure it’s of better quality than the last. And in the spirit of my favorite writing rule “Read a lot and write a lot,” I’m going to make sure I do lots of both.
This leads me to the topic of today’s post. Marcel Proust’s epic tome In Search of Lost Time is “one of the most entertaining reading experiences in any language and arguably the finest novel of the twentieth century.” Says so right here on the cover of my Penguin edition of Lydia Davis’s new translation of “Swann’s Way.” Word on the street says if you want to be a Great Writer, you gotta read Proust. So this summer, once finals are over and the shoes are kicked off, I’m going to be dipping my toes in Proust.
Now that I know the whos, and whats of the publishing industry, I want to know the wherefores and hows. Why do I keep writing? How do I improve my writing? Wherefore art I a Writer? (any Shakespearean peeps want to help me with the syntax of that last one?) I’m not going to pretend that reading Proust will make me a better person, help me write my prospectus, or even improve my writing. But it’s a challenge and one that I look forward to facing.
Anyone care to join me for the ride?
Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines
I don’t know anyone who has achieved some degree of success who hasn’t experienced Impostor Syndrome at least once. It’s particularly rampant in graduate students. In case you’re wondering what I’m talking about, Impostor Syndrome is the name given to that feeling you experience when you wonder if that big publication or grant or raise was awarded based on merit … or by fooling the people around you into thinking you’re smart.
It’s not real, of course. It’s simply a heightened sense of paranoia that occurs when you’re around other highly skilled people. You can feel completely normal, competent and well-qualified for your job. Except when you’re looking over your shoulder at the next normal, competent and well-qualified person standing in line behind you.
A healthy dose of paranoia keeps you on your toes. It keeps you striving to do the next best thing, to reach higher and achieve more. It’s what makes the Ivory Tower go round. But when you start discounting your success because you “really don’t deserve it” or “it was just luck,” then you know you’ve got Impostor Syndrome.
I think the best solution to combatting Impostor Syndrome is through positive self-talk. After all, there’s humility and then there’s humility. I’m not suggesting that you go around with your chest puffed out—we already have enough of those people, don’t you think? It wouldn’t do us any harm, however, to praise ourselves for our successes more often, to ourselves or with our family and friends. We authors and academics have so many people/organizations/things telling us no that it can feel like a fluke when someone/thing finally says yes.
Stand up, author-friends! Throw back your shoulders and lift up your chin! Take pride in your achievements—you deserve them.
Edited to add: Happy Cinco de Mayo!