2009 has been a year of changes. I began it in the middle of Iowa cornfields, halfway through a one-year job as a librarian and very uncertain about what the future might hold. I had just finished the marathons of thesis defense and PhD application, one of which was taxing & rewarding and one of which was taxing & draining. As the second semester started, the snow piled up and every day I got more and more anxious about hearing whether or not I’d gotten in anywhere. I distracted myself with job applications (having put the possiblity of staying for an offered second year in jeopardy by applying to grad school) and Battlestar Galactica. Given that there were no good wine shops within 50 miles, surprisingly little alcohol was consumed during this period, although I did develop a taste for dirty martinis. Then, in February, the call came in and my wish officially came true. My future had an address. In June, we moved all our stuff there.

As the blog silence reflects, I’ve found it hard this year to live and write about it at the same time. It has been filled with moments I wanted to protect for long enough to understand them. And that waiting turned into… no blogging. I’m still not entirely sure that’s going to change, but I do miss it sometimes. Okay, often. But I don’t browse the internets the way I used to, and that means I’m just not coming across the same amount of potential blogging material…So, I guess I’m either going to have to readjust to blogging about my life in real time (which would mean a lot of solipsistic musings about grad school), or find a way to blog interestingly about things that are not related to my life… hmmm.

We’ll see! But for the time being, I’m counting 2009 as one of the good years, and hope 2010 is another one for all!


It’s been a quiet semester for this blog. Actually, a fairly quiet year. During the fall semester, I had some pretty compelling obligations pulling me away from blogging (finishing my MFA thesis and applying to PhD programs). I’ve had a fairly busy work schedule this semester, but certainly not as busy as some bloggers I know. I think, instead, I’ve been in a period of redirection, and for me, these are essentially private periods. I have trouble admitting to them, and they seem to turn out best when I don’t. Just as I didn’t tell my mother I was planning on applying to Interlochen for at least a year before I actually did so, my determination to apply to PhD programs took root during a summer of reading Sidonie Smith in the empty staff room over lunch. I need privacy and plenty of quiet to foster my own belief that my efforts might lead to something. I don’t know if this period is over for me, but I do feel like I want to talk about it.

In Feburary, I learned that I am about to have the opportunity to do what I’ve always felt scared to admit to myself that I wanted to do. I want to be worthy of it. How am I going to do this?

I’m 27. I spent the years between 15 and 20 trying to become as intense and artistic as I possibly could. I spent the years between 20 and 25 trying to get normal. Neither endeavor made me happy and both, eventually, tended to make me unhealthy, and that is why, over the course of the past two years, I have been thrust into a personal wilderness of trying to split the difference, or at least find the point upon which a life can balance. Specifically, my life.

I have not, so far, been successful at this on the work side of the balance. (Conversely, I’m thrilled with my personal and social life. But not fulfilled by it alone.) Between economic necessities and my own bad habits, I’ve become intellectually disengaged from most of what I spend time doing every day. Most of the time, I’m lucky if I can muster the discipline, energy, and focus to spend one hour at my writing desk. This is not nothing, but it’s not enough, either. I’ve become far too good at prioritizing the work I do (in my mind) to get by at the expense of the much more difficult work of getting better at what I say I actually want to do—write, read, and think.

What I’m going to have for the next six years (knock on wood) is the privilege of focus. I’m going to get paid for doing exactly what I want to do and in many ways be rewarded for being exactly who I want to be. At no other time in my life have I been able to say this. I don’t need to spend time making my façade of interest look authentic. I can come out and like what I like and want what I want.

The thing is, I’m finding out I need to do some excavation to recover what that might be.

There was a time when (or I was once a person who) I was intimately attuned to the weathers of my intellect. I read all the time, openly turning down invitations to be alone in my room with a book. It never occurred to me to read for basic ideas or nuggets of insight that I might drop into conversation. I read each word as if it mattered. If a writer asked a question, I made it my question. I had the naïve sense that anything in print had passed through a fine enough strainer of importance that I should take it seriously. I felt no qualms about dismissing entire realms of culture (television, popular music) and thinking myself superior for being out of step with my peers. During the summer after my sophomore year in high school, watching the French Open for hours every day, I told my dad: “I’m not watching television. I’m deconstructing the role of the intellectual.” In short, I was obnoxious.

As I think about returning to an unabashedly intellectual life, I’ve begun to notice the subtle ways in which I have pruned myself out of both the awkwardness and potential of this type of personality. I have stopped arrogantly inserting my oh-so-precious subject expertise into light conversation, but in some ways I’ve also stopped developing subject expertise. Now, I think too much about what other people are reading or how it might look that I want to spend time alone. I’ve gotten too good at blending in and too worried about doing the right thing, reading the right book, etc. When it comes to revealing or defending the depth of my own thinking on non-mainstream subjects, I have learned to shush myself. As a result, my thinking is often shallow. I want and need to change that. I know I am capable of it, and happier when I embrace that capability, but I also know I have gotten flabby in a lot of the mental and emotional muscles necessary to do it.

That one hour a day at my desk, the hour where I fend off my own doubts and the internalized criticisms—is that a model for the life I can have or an impossible ideal?

I think true success comes to people who find a way to make that hour into the center of their livelihoods—both intellectual and economic. Watching my friends from college, the biggest predictor of job success has not been planning around the job market but planning around innate interest. I don’t want to, and I don’t think it is even possible to, trust the machinery of a PhD program to accomplish this for me.

So, what can I do to build this life? Meditation? A stricter daily schedule? A reading plan? Be less apologetic about who I want to be? Less forgiving of my own laziness?

A stricter schedule—and some time spent working up to it, not just expecting myself to run marathons from the first day out—might be a big part of this, but I’m not sure the hour system is going to get me the results that I want. Something is missing from the equation when I block off my mind and my self into hours. I can spend X hours writing or reading, but spending X hours does nothing automatically to deepen my commitment to seeing poems through to completion (& submission for publication) or build an intellectual foundation upon which to one day write a dissertation.

And when I figure out what I’m doing offline, what will this blog sound like? Should I start using my real name and live with any consequences that come my way? Should I start blogging about what I’m reading in print more than what I’m reading on the Web (though surely the boundary between those two things grows more nebulous every day)?

Whether this is a sign that I am senselessly glorifying the passions of my teenage years or a sign he has something everlastingly meaningful to say, I find myself returning to Rilke. First, to his exhortation in Letters to a Young Poet that we must all try to live within our questions and not rush toward answers. And then to the poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” specifically its ending: “You must change your life.” I remember this line baffling me with its directness as much as the extended image preceding it baffled with its obsessive description of the male body. But, pressed by my high school Modern European Lit teacher to think about what it could mean, I started to see the contrast the closing line implicitly draws between each of our lives, with so many obvious potentials only half-realized, with the fullness of the life of this piece of stone. And then I agreed with it.

The halls are alive

May 16, 2009

With the sound of flat screen televisions and Target furniture being hauled out of rooms and into waiting Subarus, Priuses, and Jettas. School’s out, and this blog shall soon be back on–I’ve been chewing over a longish, “welcome back, self” post this past week. Plus, I’m soon moving on to Ann Arbor and the next sixish years of my life, and that is sure to bring out some of the angst that brings on blogging. So much to look forward to!

But, in the mean time, as a tribute to the students I’ve worked with over the past nine months through their ups, downs, and too late to ILLs, I’ll share my favorite of the short films at this year’s student film fest. If you thought it was pretty sweet to be on a boat, that just means… you’ve never been at Grinnell!

Okay, well, maybe you had to be here….

Just finished reading an interview w/ Elaine Showalter on her new book, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx in the Chronicle. I’m wondering if my utter bewilderment at this assessment is the result of a generation gap or a discipline gap–I don’t think you’d meet a lot of writers who would say that Stein is overrated and Plath underrated. I think I know more people who would at least think the reverse, and a few who would… well, let’s just be honest, they’d rather put a spoon down their throat than recommend Plath. I wouldn’t be one of those, but I’d also no longer put Plath in my personal Pantheon. Stein, on the other hand, I’ve grown more driven to read as I’ve grown older. Or perhaps just grown more pretentious. Showalter’s declaration that Stein is “just not readable” is one that I frequently made as a 20 year old stuck reading Tender Buttons in my spring semester Modernism course. That changed as my MFA workshops dragged me away from narrative as the only coherent way to write a poem. At the very least, a lot of my shift in admiration has come from wanting to hear from female writers who had decentered the daddy drama in favor of more cerebral projects that resulted in compelling, reflective intersections between being a writer and being a woman. Must think about this. But seriously, Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

Q. You say a literary history has to make judgments. Give us an example of whom you see as overrated, whom underrated?

Overrated: Gertrude Stein. She played an important role in the development of modernism, but she played it for men. And she is just not readable. She became viewed as a “sister”: That doesn’t sanctify her work. We can criticize it.

I look with a critical eye at contemporary poetry, too. There are a great many talented woman poets today, but I don’t think any of them measure up to a Sylvia Plath or Adrienne Rich. I don’t feel any male poets do either.

Underrated: In the 19th century, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her reputation got overwhelmed by the political debates over Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but you need to look at Stowe as a novelist. Dred is a powerful analysis of the possibilities of violence and insurrection.

In the 20th century, Jean Stafford has become known for her venomous attacks on the women’s movement in the 1970s. (I once got a really rabid letter from her denouncing my work.) But accounts of her frustrations, childhood anxieties, bewilderment over finding her own voice are worth reading. We also need to pay more attention to Shirley Jackson. She wore the public face of a best-selling novelist, wife of a distinguished literary critic, happy mom. But the private face of a “bad girl” — morbidly obese, alcoholic, agoraphobic — revealed in a series of her writings is compelling.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

I’m glad the NYT is covering this story about more colleges taking lack of financial need into account during the admissions processes this year. Students whose parents can foot the whole bill have a leg up at many places. Of course, at many places they already did, this year just a little more so. I can’t honestly say I know which is more cruel–rejecting students because there is not enough financial aid available for them to realistically attend, or accepting students when you can guess that your tuition is out of reach or a tremendous sacrifice. I’ve been down that latter road, and at the time it was pretty much heartbreaking. Fortunately for me, my parents were firm about the second mortgage they couldn’t take out, and I took a second look at my second choice, which had offered me generous funding. I got a great education and made wonderful friends.

While there are lots of good options for good students that don’t involve private school tuition, and the fact is the most college admissions stories can have a happy ending if you let them, I think it’s important to keep it in public view that students of the lower middle class or middle-middle class and students of the upper middle and upper classes have fundamentally different challenges when it comes to going to college. There are students who only have to get in, and there are students who have to get in and then get scholarships. This reality often manifests itself immediately after graduation as well. There are students who can go directly to graduate school with few worries about what will happen when their stipend just doesn’t stretch far enough for dental hygiene and students who don’t have that safety net. One group is encouraged to think about what’s possible and the other group is encouraged to think about what’s realistic. Now that educational loans are getting harder to get, the disparities are going to become even greater. We’re entering another period where it’s not even a question of whether or not you want to bet on yourself with the loans to go to the most prestigious school you get into, it’s simply going to be a question of how much cash you parents have on hand. Whole swaths of options are going to disappear for kids whose parents are not well off.

I know, I know–that’s life. Obviously, things can work out well or poorly for both kinds of student, and I haven’t even touched on the profoundly disabling effects for most students of a childhood in real poverty, but it’s important that the struggles of the real middle class not disappear, even when it looks like we are getting the same degrees and the same jobs. The barriers we face are real and long-lasting.

It’s pretty awesome you get to see a famous person live up to his reputation live, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone surpass his reputation. This past Sunday morning, I saw that. I saw Ira Glass address the 14th Conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries. I walked out of the Seattle convention center wanting to do two things. 1) finally buy my own iPod so that I can download every scrap of This American Life I can get my hands on and 2) not wait another minute to get on with the work of making stories.

The talk started with Glass in voiceover, from a darkened stage, reminding us that “for starters, you’ve got to understand, it’s radio,” the medium of the human voice. For a second, I was like, oh man, what a cop out. He pre-recorded it–but I realized that was perhaps the cynical side of me and held off on judgment. Ira Glass’s voice then told us about how, spending six months covering inner city gang kids for NPR earlier in his career, he’d always felt that he was a huge advantage over television journalists. If the first thing you saw was black lipstick and a cold gaze, you’d never listen to the words coming out of a 14 year old girl’s mouth as she described the moment when another girl pulled a gun on her and she understood what death meant and that she had to change her life. The voice then told us that he’d asked the conference organizers if he could do his whole talk in the dark, but they’d told him about a librarian that changed her ticket to a later departure at great expense when she found out he’d be there, so he’d better not. Phew!

When the lights came up, he wasn’t at a podium, he was sitting at a table, surrounded by a microphone, CD players, an audio mixing board, and copious notes. I thought this was mostly for effect, but he actually did the talk like a radio show, manually cuing and playing clips of interviews and music to illustrate his message—that human beings respond to stories above all else. If we can make a story that people want to know the end of, we can open their brains and sometimes their hearts. I believed this when he said it, not only because I am a writer, but because I, one of the most incorrigibly web-distracted people you will ever meet, listened to the whole talk without checking my email even one time, even though I had my laptop on my lap and free, fast wireless. I think his talk was a bit over an hour, but I couldn’t even tell you for sure because I was so absorbed it felt like about five minutes.

Naturally, then, this talk was delivered as a story, a story about how an episode of This American Life gets put together. To tell that story, Glass had to talk about how they got their ideas, how he had learned to write the kind of story he wanted to pay attention to, how a good story takes us so deeply into the real experience of another person that we don’t even realize we are learning something, and why stories are the glue of our collective life.

It’s impossible to concentrate the richness of Ira Glass talking about what he does best into a few bulleted notes, but here goes:

On getting ideas: you need lots of them, and you will need to kill lots of those. He held up two sheets of notes that were single-spaced lists of ideas for stories for one TAL show.

On narrative suspense: you can tell a good story about almost anything, but saying interesting things about interesting people is not a story. A story has stakes (I always forget this when I try to write narrative—bad poet habit). The train has to leave the station and we have to care where it is going. Example: the introductory story from Cringe. Listen to it. When it gets to the part about the guy getting down to walk like a crab, IG paused the tape and said “nobody is turning off the radio at this point,” and I had to agree—there is no way I would have let that story slip out of my life, I had to know what happened next.

On why anecdote is not enough: the train has to leave the station, something has to happen that has real stakes, but that doesn’t make a satisfying story. At some point, you have to link that story to the larger experience of human life. Anecdote has to be followed by reflection.

On surprises: both your anecdotes and your reflections have to get to some kind of surprise, or your story is old. Hopefully, a surprise that delights you by how true yet unexpected it feels.

On the relative uselessness of mainstream news coverage and much of public discourse: how did we as a culture come to think of boring writing as good writing (judging by how much of it we expect our leaders and reporters to do)? “I blame the topic sentence. We as a culture have to stop the topic sentence.”—IG
Topic sentences kill narrative—it works better when you start in the middle of a moment, where the story starts, not where you think it should end. (He made a special appeal to librarians to do their part to defeat the topic sentence, which I intend to do by starting my next library class session with a story about a kid who didn’t use interlibrary loan until a week before his term paper was due.)

On why stories teach us better than news: using the example of the story of Sam, an Iraq vet who joined the Muslim students association to combat his PTSD. We get into it because it’s a story about Tom, and telling that story eventually involves talking about what PTSD is. When traditional news covers PTSD, it packages it up with a topic sentence (“and now a story of one Iraq veteran overcoming PTSD”) and kills it. As IG put it: “I already know how I feel about PTSD. I’m against it.” Good stories get information past our auto-judger. We feel like we don’t already know about it if we don’t already know the story.

I really wish I could just pipe a video of his talk from my head to all of my writer friends. In lieu of that capability, I have tracked down scraps of things on the internets that begin to approximate what I heard:

A bootleg clip of the last 8 minutes of the talk that I saw in which Glass brings it all home by paraphrasing 1001 Arabian Nights—watch it while it’s still up.

A manifesto on radio journalism written for Transom.org– great bits here about finding stories that are interesting v. stories that you think should be interesting:

“But it’s the type of story you might hear on the radio. That’s why she was attracted to it. She didn’t think it was interesting, but she thought one was supposed to find it interesting. It was like the answer to a question on a test: What should your public radio story be about? This one had art, culture and someone from a minority group. It was a triple threat.”

Submission guidelines for This American Life—where they come out and say exactly what they are looking for in a story, and give a reader’s digest version of much of what these other links talk about

A piece on making radio stories on Current.org–This is a quote from the piece that is really funny and makes me really grateful that IG didn’t just talk about working for NPR or something he thought librarians would find interesting, but instead shared his craft:

When I was putting together this speech, I spent an absurd amount of time thinking about what to say to you and pulling tape cuts. And some of my staff members told me, “You’re crazy to spend so much time thinking about this. Anybody who’s coming to see you, all they really want to know is ‘dish’ about their favorite public radio personalities. Don’t bother with the tape and the music and the mixing board. Just get up there and what you should do is say things like, ‘Carl Kasell . . . boozer. Robert Siegel . . . has two wives. Garrison Keillor . . . has his own intern.'”

I, for one, am really glad he’s spent so much time thinking about this.

Yup, I feel lucky

March 10, 2009

For any of you keeping score, my PhD waiting game came to a close yesterday with this final tally: 6 no’s, 1 yes. And as I’ve said before, that works for me, that works just fine. I only needed one. Even better, that was an enthusiastic yes—they’ve guaranteed (for whatever it’s worth these days) six years of funding, three of which will be fellowship years without teaching duties.

That certainly takes any sting out of the other six skinny letters, but I’m hanging on to them. I’ve got them in my PhD application drawer, in between my statement of purpose drafts and subject GRE flashcards, in a folder I’ve mentally labeled “don’t get cocky.” I was one letter away from having to deal complete failure to gain admission. I’ve heard from a couple of my friends that their programs are accepting about a third of the number of applicants they’d normally accept, and that this is turning out to be a very difficult year to land a spot anywhere (it was never easy, and I am well aware that even in a more normal year I might not have ended up admitted to any of the places I applied to). I know myself well enough to know that this would not have been of any immediate consolation to me. I would have been depressed for quite a while. I eventually would have gotten over it, embraced my job as a librarian, and been glad that I at least tried, but I would not have been very mature about it right away. And I want to remember how close that was now that I am thinking about the next six years of my life and realizing that I am going to need to work harder than I ever thought possible and that the opportunity to do so is a kind of gift. When I’m getting skinny letters (or no letters at all) in six years from all one hundred jobs I’ve applied to in a market that will almost certainly be even worse than the one new PhDs are facing this year, I need to remember how badly I wanted just this opportunity, whatever comes of it. More than anything, I need to remember how far I have to go to become the scholar that I want to be.

And now to get started.