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.

Reprieve

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.

Applications and the impersonal

The hardest part about writing a personal statement for applications (teaching abroad) is knowing what other people will find interesting and relevant. Of course I find my life interesting and worthwhile or I would have veered off onto a different path in recent years, but people won’t want to read much about what brought me to this point. It’s not that different, in some ways, from deciding where a fiction story begins. Including too much backstory and context bores people to death, and it turns into that whole “show versus tell” thing we hear so much about in writing workshops.

Showing rather than telling is just as important in nonfiction, but a personal statement is too short to work in very many details. In the same way, by trying to keep things short, sometimes my blog posts are about as indicative of my crafting skills as notes (more like word sketches, if you will) I record in journals while sitting in noisy coffee shops, breathing in the steam from an Americano and not minding one bit that I’ll leave smelling like espresso.

I’m trying to outline the main points before I start a real draft. Maybe an outline will let me prescreen for relevance. It’s too easy to meander into memories of the London flat with what I nicknamed the “stove of death” in the kitchen because it was an old, pre-safety-features gas stove. I remember cigarette smoke from flatmates, I remember burnt toast that set off overly sensitive alarms and brought bored firemen whose first questions were often “alright, who burned food this time?” Birthday parties with Ouzo, gatherings in the kitchen with foods (pungent cheeses, Indian spices, again with the Ouzo) from my flatmates’ respective home countries, windows that did not have screens, smoky pubs, almost missing a flight to Norway, and fascination with how the mud uncovered by the Thames at low tide looked in sunlight.

There isn’t much relevance in that list of first memories which come to mind when I think about the semester in London, yet pieces of it also speak to what makes me adaptable and a good candidate to teach abroad. I adjusted to living with five strangers, none of whom were American or British. I liked learning about where they came from and talked a bit about what made my country of origin interesting. Traveling, albeit briefly, on the continent and in Norway made me want to travel more in non-English speaking countries. How much of that really speaks to what people hiring foreign teachers want to know about a candidate? They are my memories and I turn them over like Tarot cards, wondering what the images and words mean in the context of all the other images and words, watching for patterns forming.

If I’m going to look at memories as if they’re cards, then perhaps I should go for a five card spread. Pick the five most relevant things, then recast them as the personal statement equivalent of a five paragraph essay. I’ve always thought Tarot is a tool for understanding self. Predicting the future is impossible, about as impossible, I feel, as guessing what people reviewing applications will most want to know. Perhaps one card will show five people around a kitchen table in a London student flat, giving one another nicknames (me, the professor; Vanessa, the Queen of Everything; Yezad, malakas), even if the names never make it to the printed page and the only bit of summarized dialogue is me explaining English terms like “DJ”. Another card may show me as a little girl exploring vendor booths on Westford Common during one of the local festivals in my home town, either the one about strawberries or the one about apple blossoms, because traditions continue and there are good things to add to a cultural exchange.

Once I have my five cards translated into a statement, I’ll find friends to edit and call it good. Then I will send it out into the world and hope for the best.

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.

List of the Week: Things I did today while avoiding the news

There are days I’m glad all my TV comes from streaming sites such as Hulu and Netflix, as well as that I can easily choose what articles to click on. Today’s post is about things I’ve done instead of watching or reading ten-years-later coverage.

  1. Walked around my neighborhood a bit, reminding myself how pretty it is. My favorite tiny front garden is almost completely overgrown with flowers, half hiding the fish pond with the plastic alligator floating in the water.
  2. Learned about the hazards of drunken elk in Sweden courtesy of the BBC News website.
  3. Wrote for awhile to stave off the dreaded Sanity Eating Beasts who will devour me if I am neglectful of my thesis.
  4. Completed another lesson in an audiobook language course.
  5. Started to work on eating more mindfully again. My diet hasn’t been bad lately, but getting into healthier habits now means stress will have less impact on my immune system during cold and flu season (I hope). 
  6. Brought an art magazine at work since I knew Coworker Who Talks Lots would be filling in for my usual. coworker. Knowing I won’t get any meaningful work done leads to far less annoyance.
  7. The art magazine has renewed my desire to find time to paint again. Someday, inner artist. Promise.
  8. Read a couple articles on current politics linked to by friends on facebook and twitter.
  9. Called my parents mostly just to say hi and that all is well.
  10. Cleaned out my backpack, which led to me forgetting my wallet and walking a little extra in the gorgeous weather during my lunch break. File under “more reasons a five minute walking commute is the best thing ever.”

Thesis

On June 2nd, I will have lived in Boston and in the same apartment for three years. It feels a little odd to be only a thesis away from completing my MFA degree. I’m devoting my summer to getting a couple drafts done on it and will start working with my advisor in the fall.

Writing the damned thing is proving difficult and stressful already, but I expected as much after watching the Facebook updates and Twitter feeds of friends who completed the process in April and May.

For now, I’m making sure I take breaks to remember why I love the city and why I’ve also loved aspects of the Emerson program. Not everything about either place has been wonderful, but when I catch up with people I met at Emerson College I am reminded why we are a good community. As soon as it stops raining for long enough, I’m planning to take a nice long walk around the city and think more about the thesis while enjoying the things I love about Boston. It’s getting into farmer’s market season, and this is the time of year some of the parks are at their most pleasant. The rain gives me a lovely excuse to stay home and drink tea while upping my productivity, so I’m not bothered by the bad weather.