Speeches and Boston rain

Having attended a college that prides itself on communication programs and media arts, all the speeches from the graduate program commencement ceremony are on youtube. Emerson College streamed the whole ceremony live, which is great for people whose families are far flung. Tony Kushner (playwright and screenwriter) gave the address, and I would say it’s the best commencement address I’ve seen live. He was funny and he kept the focus of the speech away from his own work and centered on themes related to graduation and the future of we the graduating class. I did not feel like it was a 20 minute speech, and I admit I was surprised when I saw the time stamp on the youtube video.

The saddest part of graduation, for me, is that the reception afterwards was supposed to be outside. By the time we left the theater, rain poured down. Neither my parents nor I had remembered to bring umbrellas. I would have liked to say goodbye to the wonderful faculty members I had the pleasure of working with while at Emerson, but I didn’t want to wander through the rain only to discover no one bothered to stick around for the reception on Boston Common. No one I asked knew if they’d set up tents or not, and the invitations had said the reception would be held “weather permitting.” I did see my thesis advisor (Megan Marshall) briefly, and I wish I could have delayed a little to ask her how her new book is coming along. I enjoyed her book on the Peabody sisters and I’m quite looking forward to her book about Margaret Fuller. All of us graduate students were being herded out of the theater and into a plaza outside, which at least had an overhang to protect us somewhat from the rain. We stood in our graduation regalia texting or calling our families to let them know where we ended up, since no one had bothered to inform the guests that we’d all been sent outside.

Once I found my parents,  we wandered over to a nearby restaurant instead of getting soaked in a quest to find out if anyone had stayed for the outdoor reception. Our waitress happened to be an undergraduate at Emerson, still a year away from graduation. She immediately identified the purple and yellow lining of my master’s hood as Emerson’s colors and we chatted a little about the school. Someday she may be an editor I’ll work with. Delicious food and a chat with a fellow Emersonian served as a good ending to the day.

As I had hoped, attending graduation provided a good sense of closure to my experience at Emerson College. I’m happy I have my master’s hood for my graduation regalia, too. Someday I may need it if I choose to teach at a college or university. At present, teaching college students isn’t something I particularly want to do. My writing career is not yet advanced enough for me to have a hope of finding gigs that pay well, so for now I’m exploring other teaching options (and career options in general) that might pay all the bills.

The end is nigh

I had trouble deciding on a title for what I had nicknamed Sir Thesis of Doom, because everything is more ridiculous and giggle-provoking by adding “of Doom” to the end. I narrowed the choices down to two and then polled a few of the fantastic people who participate in National Novel Writing Month here in Boston. They all voted for the title I had been leaning towards, and so my thesis is now officially entitled “Paper Turtles.” Continue reading


I managed to complete the rough draft of my thesis more or less on schedule, which means I get a brief reprieve. It does mean I have to fully revise and to oranize my thesis by November 18th, but generally editing and revising goes a little bit faster. There are usually fewer surprises.

The next week should be a little bit more relaxed, which means I get to catch up on sleep. The prospect is exciting.

I’ve realized that I may potentially have time to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year, since the revised draft will be turned in November 18th. Chances of me completing the 50k are slim, but it may be fun to take a few noveling breaks while revising. I’m not sure when my thesis defense (they’ve stopped calling it a defense, but I can’t remember the new title) will be, but mostly likely the very beginning of December. I’ll see what happens.

Blogenning Theme of the Week: NaNoWriMo

If you walk into your favorite cafe in November and find an unusual number of people crowded around tables that seem too small and fragile for the number of laptops, hear the rapid tapping of keyboards, and see a couple people hunched over notebooks with inky fingers, you may have just stumbled upon National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) participants (hereafter referred to as Wrimos) holding a write-in. A second test of whether these people are Wrimos is to look for dark circles under their eyes, perhaps a bit of jittering from a few too many cups of coffee or cans of <insert name of energy drink of choice>, and a certain degree of deadline induced frustration. Wait for someone to shout out an “a-HA” when they figure out a crucial plot point and get to tap furiously at the keys again, listen for someone giggling like mad as they turn to their neighbor to share a particularly egregious typo that changes a character’s motivation from innocence to bizarre fetishest. Watch for the person who stops typing and stares at their screen with an expression of despair, and whose neighbor or perhaps friendly ML gives them a thought about how to move forward.

For me, NaNoWriMo is all about community. There’s something amazingly inspiring about having a group of people who share the same goal, all of them fighting to write a novel in a month. Support is something writers struggle to find in the early days, and while I have a writing community outside of that one month I appreciate the spirit of people gathered who just want to write. 

I participated in NaNoWriMo five times, from 2006-2010. I “won,” by which I mean reached 50,000 words in November, four out of those five times. The year I got perhaps 16k written was 2008, right after I moved to Boston. I only got to two write-ins that year, which may have as much to do with my loss as the fact I worked an exhausting retail job that paid very little and came with oddball hours while attending graduate school full time. Having the support of a community helps remind me why NaNoWriMo is fun and that I’m not the only one struggling with a half formed novel that sometimes tries to squirm into a different shape. Attending write-ins also helps remind me that I’m not the only one with numerous non-NaNoWriMo committments and deadlines in November. They remind me that failing to reach 50k isn’t synonymous with “losing.”

I’ll be sitting this year out, though I’ll likely try to attend some write-ins. November, for me, is Thesis Editing Month. Boston participants may find me hunched over my laptop with marked-up papers next to me, cursing at a recalcitrant draft. I fully recommend NaNoWriMo to anyone who wants to write a novel, especially to people who understand that winning is really about getting anything written at all. It doesn’t have to be the full 50k. It doesn’t even have to be 1k. The point is to write.

The Blogenning Theme of the Week: Writer’s block

For me, writer’s block is usually a product of stress and exhaustion. Usually it comes when I’ve taken on a lot of projects and haven’t had time to step back and look at the larger picture. With nonfiction I already know the whole story, and the question is how to tell it and which points are the most important. If I get lost it’s that I get lost in the logistics and my own doubts.

So how do I get past writer’s block? Generally I either switch to a different project for a few days and write less for a few days while feeding other parts of my psyche. I’ll take a few walks, go hang out with friends, spend extra time lost in a good book, or wander over to a museum. All are methods that work. Usually, if it’s a block rooted in logistics, a few days of shaking up the routine will dissolve the problem.

Blocks coming from my own doubts, however, are a lot more difficult to deal with. That’s when I have to take a few days where the most I write is a few paragraphs of notes and maybe a page of cathartic whinging. Usually I return to the place where I know writing is a craft and skill with which most people have to accrue lots of practice before the kinks are worked out. Sometimes it takes a lot longer and I have to wander farther away before I find my way back. Writing isn’t easy, and anyone who thinks it is either isn’t a writer or is one of the rare few who either has a direct line to the muse or who is lying through his or her teeth for the cool factor.

Writing can be a lonely process, so having other people who have struggled with the same things is always helpful. I’m fortunate to have so many people around me who get it. National Novel Writing Month is the best thing ever for connecting with other crazy people — I mean, writers.

Which reminds me, if I start flirting with the idea of participating in NaNoWriMo this year in any more time consuming sense than attending write-ins to work on my thesis, please talk some sense into me. It’s addictive, NaNoWriMo is, and this year I can’t afford to indulge my addiction.

Tea and spice

People who know me at all well know tea is essential to my well being. I do not exaggerate. Even when I decide I need to mostly cut caffeine out of my diet, as happens every so often when I want to detox, I will decaffeinate my tea and keep on drinking it. It isn’t the warmth and flavor alone that make it essential but also the memories wrapped up with it. I especially need tea when I’m working on computer drafts, a kind of Pavlovian reaction, as though tea is what will bridge the gap between where my creativity is more functional (handwritten drafts) and what I must do in order to turn in submissions (word processing).

In the fall, as the weather cools and the temperature in my apartment drops, I start to wrap my hands around the cup whenever I take a sip. It’s a kind of contentment I miss during the summer, the same way I miss curling up under a blanket when I’m reading at home or watching a movie.

Baking is one of my favorite stress relief activities, and one of my fall favorites is Scottish shortbread. It tastes great, but the flavor isn’t my favorite thing about it. The only way to mix it properly is with hands in the dough, using warmth to get the butter to combine with the flour. I will squish it over and over until it’s mixed, just enjoying the child-like sensations. The warming butter smells delicious, and once it’s finished baking it’s lovely to dip in a cup of tea. Chances are I’ll end up with more shortbread than I’ll want to eat this fall, which is one reason I love friends who will take the excess off my hands.

Every once in awhile there’s a summer day cool enough that I want oatmeal, and I always cook it with cinnamon and, if I’m feeling fancy, a pinch of cloves. This last summer that happened sometime early in August, and something about the rainy weather combined with having to have the AC on (more because of the humidity than the temperature outside) made my apartment feel like fall. Busting out the cinnamon and cloves for oatmeal that day left me looking forward to the kind of weather we’ve had the last few days.

Yesterday I walked a few miles getting errands done (partly for my plans of planningness), and I loved being able to wear long sleeves so much. I never got overheated, and I could look forward to a cup of decaf tea and curling up under a blanket at the end of the day. I’m a creature of very simple desires sometimes. Maybe a Friday night spent reading, studying a new language, and writing isn’t exciting, but it’s definitely satisfying now and then.

Blogenning Theme of the Week: Language

I’m in charge of this week’s Blogenning theme (cue evil laughter) and I figured I’d go with something I’ve been interested in and working on quite a bit. As topics go, “Language” is pretty open ended.

I’ve disliked my monolingual status for a very long time. It touches on a number of things that annoy me about Americanism. Every so often I run into people who complain about experiences abroad because not enough citizens of countries they visited spoke English. They seem utterly perplexed that people in a country named France would speak mostly French, or that people in Greece might speak mostly Greek. Geographically, the US is isolated, bordered by two countries. One speaks Spanish. The other speaks mostly English, with one French speaking region.

Unlike some nations, the US does not require students to learn a second language. The economy is global, and research shows that learning a second language makes it easier to pick up a third. If we started students learning a second language in elementary school, it would make it so much easier for learning more later. Not only is it easier to learn language as a child, it circumvents the problems middle school (when foreign language often begins to be taught) students face with the onset of puberty-caused self consciousness. I mean, elementary school kids can also be exceedingly shy, but on the whole they’re more likely to participate.

I tried to start studying French in… I think ninth grade, so my last year of junior high school. I didn’t go back for more French until I was nineteen, when I did manage to do more of the whole speaking out loud thing, but it was tough, and I really wasn’t interested enough. I did marginally better studying Japanese when I was, eh, sixteen or seventeen (time runs together after awhile) mainly because I watched a lot of anime at the time so I had a bit more familiarity with the language.

For years after my semi-disastrous attempts to study languages, I thought I’d failed because I didn’t have whatever it is that makes some people absorb foreign languages quickly. I also thought it would take way too much time to start learning, and that I would be better served focusing on other things.

Lies. I had already decided to start learning a second language this year when I realized that teaching abroad would be the right path for me. I did a bit of research into which do-it-at-home programs might work best for me, and then started in on it. Half an hour to an hour of practice with an audio program on my iPod isn’t much to ask of myself. Being a fairly confident adult, I’m even able to practice at work when I’m on break or when I cover an overnight shift.

The best part is that I’ve realized how much more functional some of the newer language programs are than the methodology of some in-person classes. I never learned numbers quite as readily through memorization, but the program I’m using throws a new number or three at me, out of order, in separate lessons so I learn the number and not where in the sequence it fits. So. Much. Better. It really isn’t just about memorization and repetition. Application of lessons learned is so important.

I played with the Rosetta Stone software when I tried to figure out which method appealed the most, but I went with Pimsleur in the end. My bone to pick with Rosetta is that it teaches reading at the same time as speaking, which I find makes it harder to pick up on pronunciation the first few go-arounds. I get tripped up by trying to sound words out, which is somewhere far south of useful considering the way language changes over time, as proven half the time when people unfamiliar with English names wander into my territory, going wait, is that really how Gloucester, Worcester, and Quincy are pronounced? Depending who I’m speaking with, I may decide to share the story of how our word “sheriff” came initially from “shire reeve,” which does eventually sound like sheriff if you repeat it quickly ten times. Pronunciation, like ruins of old cities, soften and wear down over time.

Pimsleur is neither perfect nor cheap, but I’m finding it helpful and more intuitive than classes I once took. I think this is a lesson I should remember when it comes time for me to teach.

Every once in awhile I stop and look at my life and realize how much more content I grow year by year. Crossing items off the list of “always wanted to do” and moving them over onto the list of “accomplishing/accomplished” is satisfying. It’s not a bucket list, per se, because I’m pretty sure I’m not going to care after I die. It’s a list of things I want to accomplish to make my day to day life happier, however many of them I have left (given my family’s longevity, that’s likely a good sixty some odd years, barring disaster or disease, and sixty years of discontent sounds, well, miserable and highly preventable).

Final semester, I am in you

My first meeting of the semester with my thesis chair took place on Thursday. Even though I felt woefully underprepared, I think I managed to come across both more coherent and less stressed out than I in fact was. The mile walk to campus is about the perfect length to clear my head before a meeting without tiring myself out. As I suspected, it seems like my advisor is good at this type of teaching, and she sent me home with a decent list of books and articles to look at to help me get a feel for what others have done with subjects I’m writing about.

In the end, even if I hate the final drafts of my thesis, I will have learned a ton during my time at Emerson, and I truly look forward to being able to ask my advisor a lot of questions about research projects. My thesis isn’t a research project, but the couple things I want to work right after I finish this up will be heavily research oriented. No matter how much I end up hating my thesis, I at least have projects I’m truly excited for ahead of me.

I’ve read statitistics before about the high percentage of MFA graduates who quit writing after they receive their diploma. Of the ones who don’t quit writing, maybe half are eventually published. I don’t think I’ll be among the set who quits wrting. I don’t think I have it in me to stop having ideas I want to play with.

The point for now is to not get too bogged down by stress and frustration.

Fall is my favorite season, and one that’s perfectly tailored to cut down on the aforementioned stress and frustration. Long walks in cool weather, beautiful New England fall colors, that crisp edge to the air… I’m looking forward to all the things I love about fall, stress or no stress. Maybe this year I’ll even carve a pumpkin for my favorite holiday of the year, good old Halloween.

Thesis, meet Plans of Planningness

I didn’t expect to write about adolescence quite so much for my thesis. They were not the most pleasant years, and I’ve avoided writing too much about it in the past because mostly I don’t like poking around dark musty corners of the hoarder’s attic that is my memory. Never can tell, in the dark, where the sharp things might be. It’s been kind of weird to finally attempt it, and I’ve tried to layer in some writing that’s a bit… fluffier, so that my thesis semester isn’t entirely unpleasant. My twenties have been kind of awesome and I’ve enjoyed growing into an adult, and life after twenty has provided plenty of random incidents worth writing about. Too bad most of the lighter stuff won’t make it into the thesis; it wouldn’t fit, tonally.

Applying to teach abroad may be a big factor in the somewhat unconscious choice to look backwards. I’m still trying to understand what, exactly, home means to me. Thinking about leaving Boston sometimes makes me hesitate about moving forward with my plans because it has become home. My apartment has become home. I’ve lived in the same place for three years now, and I was able to choose almost every detail in furnishing and decorating. It’s the first place that’s felt like it’s mine. Usually physical objects and physical locations aren’t something I become all that attached to, but I think what’s scary in this case is the possibility I will lose that feeling of home. I don’t know what I’ll come back to after my time abroad is over. Sometimes the coming upheaval seems exhilariting-scary, and sometimes it’s the kind of scary that makes me wonder if I’m making the right choice.

Living abroad has been a dream of mine since I was probably about fifteen, so the occasional doubt and fear is unlikely to sway me. It’s that same long lived aspect of the dream that makes me keep looking back at teenage me, remembering how anime and manga got me interested in drawing and life outside America. There’s an important difference between seeking new experiences as a form of escape and seeking new experiences for the sake of trying out a fresh perspective. Teenage me would have sought the former, but by the time I studied abroad in London at the age of 22 I understood the difference and sought the latter. That’s what made London such a great experience; I wanted to try new things, and I had matured to the point I knew problems can’t be escaped but must be dealt with instead.

At least I’ve found a few things worth salvaging from the dark and cluttered memory attic, recovered few more of the happy memories that had been packed away in mislabeled boxes. Chances are the future upheaval will end up creating more of the memories I want to keep in plain view than it’ll create of the attic kind. There’s never been a guarantee that I’d find a great job in Boston after I graduate, and there isn’t a guarantee I will find a job here when I return, so I guess I get to keep redefining the idea of home as I meander onward.