From the frequency (or lack thereof) of blog posts I publish, you may think that I’ve forgotten about the blog or that my heart really isn’t in it or I’m too lazy to make time to write.
This isn’t true. I think about my blog all the time.
I compose entire posts in my head on my way to campus. When something interesting or poignant or hilarious happens, I think that would make a great blog post. Sometimes I even write entire posts, only to save them in draft form to be published at some magical future date. And that time never comes.
Why is this? How did I go from I Am Writer, Read My Words to, well, silence?
In Tillie Olsen’s book, Silences, she describes lots of different types of silence. One: the absence of books written by women in the canon (keep in mind Silences was originally published in 1978). Another: long gaps in a single writer’s literary production. Olsen examines the conditions for these gaps: fear of criticism, inability to make time to write, political silencing.
How, then, can I account for my own silences, at least on the blog?
The biggest factor, I think, is that I don’t have a job. To be more accurate, I currently have four jobs (student, writer, editor, and administrative junkie), but none of them pay very well (or at all) and none are sustainable. In a few months/years, I will have to go out on the job market and find a career, something with maybe a retirement plan and insurance. No matter what type of job I find, I’m terrified that the blog will become a liability, not an asset, despite reassurances to the contrary.
You can’t measure, rank, or quantify the usefulness of a blog. You can’t measure, rank, or quantify any of the things I do, really, but somehow the blog has come to stand as that thing that makes me feel like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole. Nobody else I know IRL who isn’t already established has a blog, so there’s no one I can really talk to who can say how a blog fits into their larger professional vision, if there is such a thing. There’s also no one to tell me to relax and do what I want, because the only information I hear are the horror stories of trying to find a job.
And so, I’ve become the ultimate censor of my work. Is this interesting? What am I trying to say, exactly? Do I really want to publish this? How will this read if someone finds it in five years?
In addition, the readership of my blog has increased in an inverse relationship to the number of posts I write. People are coming up to me at events and saying, “I read your blog!” This produces all sorts of weird associations in my head. For the past few years, I’ve joked to Husband that I want to be famous. Except I’m only half-joking. I really do want to be famous, not necessarily in a Bloggess sort of way, but famous in a way that people will want to read my work and take me sort of seriously.
But now that people are finally reading my work, instead of rejoicing (“Yay I’m famous!”), I’m terrified. Who are these people and why do they care what I say? Don’t they know I’m making most of this up as I go along?
And aside from the usual Impostor Syndrome symptoms, there’s also the fear that Someone Important will read my work, become offended, and I will get in very real trouble. You see, in March I was elected to be the Graduate Student Association president at Rice. It’s a very cool title with very annoying responsibilities. For the past six months, I have been working on planning and executing events for Rice’s Centennial celebration. Most of it has been fun, if working 12 hour days every day for four months can be fun. It has also put me into contact with a lot of 1%-ers in ways that make me feel like I need a shower afterwards. I have seen the underbelly of higher education, and I don’t like it.
I have a lot of opinions about these sort of things. But I don’t want to write about that because I can’t. I benefit from a lot of the things I don’t like. And I like working in administration, and you don’t get a job in administration by biting the hand that feeds you. Still, in this political climate, it has put me in the odd position of smiling-and-nodding when I really want to be shoving a picket sign in someone’s face.
I am silent because there are things that can’t be said, at least by me. I’m silent because I’m scared. I’m silent because I’m tired, to be frank. I can’t be silent anymore—but I don’t know how I’m going to fix it, at least not right away.
I’m here. I’m still reading your blogs. I’m always on Twitter. If I haven’t written in a while, it’s only because I can’t figure out how to say what I want to say yet. In the meantime, keep writing, my friends. Always keep writing.
Last month, I went to see George Clooney (yes, 2-time People Sexiest Man Alive George Clooney) speak at Wortham for the Brilliant Lectures Series. The brother of a friend of mine (D) founded the lecture series, whose mission is to “educate, inspire, and increase public awareness in our community.” Fortunately for us, D was unable to attend that night, and so Husband and I got to go with his wife, A, and his mom.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the evening. Since it is Houston in the summer (summer in Houston begins in April, sometimes May if we’re lucky), Husband and I headed out the door wearing jeans and a button-down shirt—Texas formal. Then just as we were getting into our car, A called and said that we should “dress nice.” So in we ran, tugging on khakis and skirts to make ourselves more presentable. And thank goodness we did. When we arrived, there were so many ladies in ball gowns. Full on, 1% glamour happening. Just when you thought it was safe to stop teasing your hair, the Houston gentry have proven otherwise.
We settled into our box seats (knowing the organizer has its advantages) and people watched until Clooney took the stage.
A few years ago I watched the Inside the Actors Studio, hosted by James Lipton, featuring Clooney, and I expected the Lecture Series to take roughly the same format. It will not surprise you to hear that he is as charismatic in person as he is on the screen.
Clooney reminded us that he first found fame when he was 33. He said he was in 13 pilots before ER, and that if ER had been scheduled for Friday and not Thursday, it was very likely that the show would have been #14. He demonstrated great humility and respect for his luck, and mentioned that his greatest regret would be not trying. If every lecture has a take-home lesson, for me, this was it. As creators of art, we never know when something will resonate with others. We want everything we make to generate the same excitement and passion we feel for our art, but it’s hard to guess which will be the tipping point. All we can do is keep striving and perfecting our methods, and eventually, we will achieve success in some form or another.
There were some questions about his movies—some Batman jokes were tossed around. At one point, Lynn Wyatt asked what he considered to be his greatest accomplishment, and Clooney responded, “my kids.” He was charming, gorgeous, and funny, naturally, but most of the conversation during the evening focused on his humanitarian work.
Celebrity causes have become a bit of a cliche, but Clooney responded with intelligence when asked about his work in the Sudan. He had recently been arrested for civil disobedience during a protest outside the Sudanese Embassy (on March 16), and he spoke candidly about his efforts to raise awareness. During the Q&A, a Darfur refugee spoke to him through a translator regarding her experience. Though she spoke too fast for us to understand her words, the energy and pain in her voice echoed in the silence of the room. Clooney gave an eloquent and responsible response, the most you can ask regarding a complicated issue raised in a public venue.
I feel like, as an academic, I should end this post by asking something about the nature of celebrity culture, but I won’t. At the end of the lecture, I truly was inspired to keep trying. To keep working on my writing, to keep working to make the world a better place. A little positivity goes a long way.
And now, silly picture found on interwebs:
Keep writing, my friends.
(post edited to add pics as per request!)
Monday night I met with my critique group. We are an odd bunch, gathered together by our mutual interest in writing. There are over a hundred people who have joined the group on MeetUp.com, but we have about 12 people show up each meeting on average. The size means that one rarely gets to submit their own work, but just attending the meetings has increased my productivity and awareness of the traps into which new writers frequently fall.
This week we critiqued three pieces as per our standard operating procedure. They were all strong pieces (which is not always the case, but we’re all learning here). One in particular stuck out from the rest: the opening three chapters of a spy thriller. There were somewhat obvious things that needed to be fixed (currency consistency being one) but overall the writer had a strong grasp of his genre. His piece was gripping and exciting in spite of the grammatical mistakes.
Several members of the group (including myself) noted the infrequent use of commas. It was so strange–frequently when a writer neglects to include commas, the work is a mess of run-on sentences. This one had fully constructed and poetic sentences … which tended to run together because the eye did not know where to stop. The writer shyly admitted he had not taken an English class since Freshman comp. We all found his writing was not hurt from his lack of grammatical education. He clearly listened to his inner voice as he was writing his novel, even if only on a subconscious level.
I think as writers we sometimes forget to trust our instincts. I for one can get bogged down in too much academic detail, worrying about things like gerunds and comma splices, to such an extent that I forget what I’m trying to do: construct meaning out of words and phrases. As a copy editor, things like extra spaces between words and punctuation marks get me on edge. The commas bugged me, but even as I penciled them in for the writer, I remarked to myself that this writer had natural talent, something all writers covet and envy in others.
I’m not suggesting that we throw our Strunk and White out the window–far from it. But I do think that sometimes we should take a step back and let our ears do the writing. If Monday’s meeting taught me anything, it was that first drafts are for capturing the language, tone, and voice of our story. Punctuation can come later.
Something really exciting happened to me this weekend.
I successfully made Greek yogurt for the first time. From scratch.
Let me back up and tell the story from the beginning. I’m kind of a wannabe hippie. No, I don’t eat organic and while I would love to be a vegetarian, I’m too much of a Texan to give up meat. But I do yoga. I have made my own clothes in the past and worn them out in public, I knit and crochet, and I try my hardest to cook crazy food from scratch. All while trying to wrap my head around poetic theory.
About a week ago, I got it into my head that I would make Greek yogurt. My mom had given me some cheesecloth from a cheese-making kit (and where she got that, I don’t remember) and I had a recipe clipped from a magazine. I headed over to Central Market (a fancy-pants grocery store that’s practically in my backyard—I’m addicted. You have no idea how much you get used to being within walking distance of food. This is a big deal in Houston where nothing is next to anything).
I bought 1 quart of milk and some starter yogurt (Fage, yum!). Price of Fage: $6.50 . Price of milk: $1.88. You can easily see the economic benefits of being a hippie.
I followed the directions: boil milk, wait for it to cool, then put 2 T of the starter (with live active cultures) mixed with a bit of the milk in the main pot of milk and stick the whole thing in the oven, unheated with the light on, overnight. Cultures will multiply. Then you dump the whole thing into a strainer lined with cheesecloth and stick it in the fridge. The whey will separate and you will be left with yummy Greek-style yogurt.
Yeah, didn’t work out.
It was such a disaster. No whey, just this runny mess that was not quite milk, not quite anything else. I had to dump the whole thing in the sink. I was so sad, I ate the rest of my starter yogurt to console myself.
Then a couple of days later, I decided to try it again. I did more research this time, and I found out temperature is key: the boiling milk has to be heated to 180 degrees, and then cooled to 115-120 degrees. Something something proteins, something something changes something. I don’t know, but the food chemistry of making yogurt is an important part of the process.
So I started over with these directions in mind. And what do you know? The whey separated out, the consistency of the final product tastes like yogurt (except not as bitter—a welcome change). And now I can share with you some life lessons you can apply to your writing!
1. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! or, Perseverance.
Don’t let weird, runny milk-yogurt stand in the way of achieving your goals! You can do it! Pick yourself up and do it again! and again if it doesn’t work out! Keep going! And if you do, you will be happily rewarded with a tasty treat.
2. Do your research.
Trust me. If you research things before you start, you will be rewarded with a tasty treat and not weird, runny milk-yogurt. And it will save you the heart-ache of dumping milk down the drain.
Keep writing, my friends.
Yesterday I attempted to perform my civic duty as a citizen of the United States. That is to say, I tried to vote. Little did I realize that in early voting, there are only a few select poll stations available, and that those polling stations are relatively far, far away.
It was a fairly nice day (not as nice as today, curse my luck for having to be at school) so I decided to walk to (what I thought) was the closest poll – a high school a few blocks from my apartment, or around 20 minutes walking distance. This is no great distance. I like to be outside and I like to exercise. Plus, if I walked instead of taking my car, I wouldn’t have to go to the gym, horror of all horrors.
This semester, the stars aligned and I only have to be on campus Tuesdays and Thursdays. I have used my “free time” to my advantage and have taken to walking to the grocery store, post office, and library whenever possible. During my walks I have rediscovered how the world looks different on foot. I’ve found shops that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. I’ve enjoyed not going to the gas station every week. I can’t say I’ve saved much money, but I feel good about myself.
All of these positive feelings and more swept over me during my walk. I thought about the joy I would have blogging about my experience, about calling my mom to brag about my good deed. That is until I reached the high school and there were no polling booths. No signs. No obvious indicator that it’s election season. I felt very creepy walking into the school in my walking shorts only to see dozens of high school girls in khaki pleated skirts. I turned around tout suite and walked home with my tail between my legs. I went home to discover that the nearest polling station is at least 3 miles away. Too far to comfortably (and safely) walk.
So much for my dreams of beginning a walking revolution in Houston, land of oil and Big Cars. Oh well. At least it gave me something to write about.
Yesterday my women/gender/sexualities class had the rare pleasure of speaking (via Skype) with Katherine Frank, author of G-Strings and Sympathy, an anthropological book that argues that men go to strip clubs for a complex set of reasons (which the book goes on to describe and analyze). I found the book to be incredibly readable – no easy feat for an academic book. You would be surprised at how many boring books are written about interesting topics.
Our class, like any good graduate seminar, had several concerns with the book. The full title, “G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire,” is problematic for any person who studies gender or sexuality. “Male Desire”? What is it and why do we care? Also, the book made little reference to “Sympathy” as such, so it seemed odd that Frank would choose that to label her study. Plus, the cover, which portrays a woman with money tucked into her garter, is … provocative, to say the least.
Frank’s candidly answered our questions. It turns out she didn’t choose the name or the cover; her publisher did. Why? To sell more books of course! I hadn’t thought that Duke Univ. Press even worried about such matters. Hyphenated titles and stiff covers are a regular with academic texts. Besides, they seem to be outside the realm of the market. They’re rarely sold in normal bookstores, and who can afford hardback university press books besides libraries anyway?
Frank referred to an instance where she published an article under a more exact and “correct” title, only to find it is rarely cited because nobody can find it. Take home lesson: listen to your editors, even if they seem to be way out in left field.
I personally loved Frank’s book. She includes three fictional interludes in between chapters of analysis and discussion. As a literature, not anthropology, student, I found these to be not only a reprieve from academic jargon but also as a unique way to convey knowledge. In our class discussion, Frank talked about her writing process. She said that whenever she has difficulty understanding a concept, she will write a story about it to gain a foothold in the subject. Frequently, this produces new knowledge and leads to further discoveries.
As a fiction writer who is in academia, I thought it was refreshing to listen to someone with similar concerns and interests as me. I should also note that her book was the one that inspired me to finish that short story I submitted about three weeks ago. Thanks Katherine Frank for a great discussion and input about academia, publishing, and more.