Archive for May, 2006

mark my words

May 29, 2006

At some point in the very near future, I’m going to write down all the connections in my head between writing, design, and architecture. I’ve sat in on so many conversations wherein the three disciplines/actions/passions collapse into the same set of verbs and meanings that it seems unfair not to talk aloud in a public forum.

Why can’t we all see our connections rather than our differences?

(My guess would be capitalism, but what the hell do I know.)

More on the conflations between building an essay and building a building tomorrow…

my brother…the writer??

May 24, 2006

Yesterday my brother sent my parents and me a newsy sort of email. It had been a while since he’d spoken on the phone to them or me, so he thought he’d update us together in print. He began the email with a description of the dinner he’d eaten the night before—a homemade Skyline Chili three-way. (NB: if you’re not from Cincinnati, a three-way is spaghetti, chili, and shredded cheddar cheese. It sounds gross, I know, but don’t knock it till you try it.)

So, in his email, he waxes poetic about this concoction, detailing cheese amounts and rationalizing his decision to use mini-shells instead of spaghetti. The mini-shell, he explains, was “strategically picked to be ‘cup shaped’ so as to hold the correct amount of chili within its starchy confines.”

What? Starchy confines? I mean, seriously! And the rest of the email is equally eloquent and fun to read. I forwarded it to my husband because I thought he’d get a kick out of it and when I asked him if he read it he said, “Yeah. And hey, I didn’t know your brother was such a good writer!”

Before I start to sound like a condescending older sister, let me explain a couple of things. If asked, I would guess my brother would tell you that he hates, HATES, English as a subject, and he might also tell you that he doesn’t particularly enjoy writing. If I had to speculate on the source of these feelings, I’d guess it was this terrible teacher he had in junior high (really, as a teacher’s kid, I rarely bash teachers, but this woman was truly awful). I believe she squelched any positive feelings he may have had about his own writing.

In high school, things went from bad to worse. I encouraged him to take classes from all of the English teachers I loved, only to find out that they made him hate English and writing even more. College writing classes did not help—in fact, I don’t think he took a writing-related course after he finished his first-year writing requirements.

After reading the email, I’ve been thinking about how things might have been (I know, I know, dangerous.) What if he hadn’t had that loathsome teacher in junior high? What if his high school writing teachers had dumped the boring research paper (complete with 3×5 notecards) and grammar drills for an autobiography assignment, or a journalistic-style profile of an object or event, or even a series of short essays on a subject of his choosing? What if he had taken an upper-level writing class in college? Fiction, perhaps, or maybe life narratives? Would he like English and writing more?

One things seems pretty clear to me: my brother enjoyed writing that email. I’d be willing to bet he took pleasure in choosing words and crafting sentences. The email reads as if the author liked to write. I know I enjoyed reading it.

My brother is by no means alone in his frustrations about English classes and writing classes. I’d say at least 50% of the students who enter my first-year writing classroom LOATHE writing class and see it as a necessary evil—the bitter pile of Brussels sprouts they have to eat before they can leave the table. So, now I’m wondering: What was missing in all of those classes he took? And why, oh, why do so many people see writing as a chore? As punishment rather than as a pleasurable activity? What are we writing teachers doing wrong? Is it because the courses are required? Is it the assignments? Do we teachers not do enough to incorporate the kinds of writing students want to do into our courses? I could go on…

therapy for writing for therapy

May 19, 2006

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend and her husband, both of whom, like me, are working on their dissertations. It wasn’t long before our conversation turned to writing–what were we working on? how was it coming? do we like our current work/chapter/section? etc., etc.

As is perhaps obvious, I’m a bit of a nerd about writing. I love thinking about it, reading about it, talking about it, writing about it. So at one point in the conversation I apologized for what I thought might be over-enthusiasm on my part. (Not everyone likes to talk about their own work as much as I like asking.) And my friend’s husband replied, “Are you kidding? It feels good to actually talk about it. It’s not like any of us has a healthy relationship with our writing!”

I almost fell out of my chair laughing. It’s so true!!

The next thing he said was true as well: “And there’s no one else we can talk to about it. It’s not like my mom understands or anything.”

But that part didn’t make me laugh as much.

I know that some would argue that writing is easy, that it’s just a matter of sitting down and doing it. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment.

While I wouldn’t go so far to say that writing (as work, as a job) is any harder than any other job, I do think there’s a measure of self-motivation that must be taken into consideration. I don’t have a “boss” looking over my shoulder, and no one is directly depending on me for one or another pages of work. That is to say, no one needs me to finish writing a section of my dissertation before he can finish his work. An architect must finish her drawings because the electrical engineer needs them, as does the structural engineer, the client, etc. But no one but me needs page 5 to be completed. Some days I could use a little pressure…

There’s also a measure of self-doubt that factors into writing. And a measure of shame (when the writing is not forthcoming, or when it’s bad, etc.) But I’ll save that for another day…

I know that everyone in my life supports my work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they understand the struggle. To be fair, I’m not sure I always understand their work or the efforts it entails, either.

Ironically, the same man who penned the “writer’s, quit complaining” article linked above used to have a column entitled “Mr. Blue” wherein he gave advice to other struggling writers. I guess that’s as close to therapy as we get…

Unless we write about it to get it out.

the limits of "self-control"

May 9, 2006

Before I began working as a TA (as part of my graduate school program) I had to take a teacher training course. Even though I had already taught while getting my master’s, the course was extremely useful. I especially appreciated the attention we gave to our own feelings about writing (our own and others’) and about teaching writing (our prior experiences teaching or being taught). We reflected on our own experiences as students of writing, we analyzed our writing processes, and we surfaced some of our frustrations about writing in general, all in an effort to develop ourselves as teachers and to help us help our students.

One of the assignments for that class asked us to “inventory” our feelings about our own writing process—what was effective, ineffective for us? What rituals did we practice? How did we go about revising? What kinds of writing did we enjoy doing, not enjoy? Etc., etc., etc. I distinctly remember one section of that piece. In it I vowed never to chastise myself for “procrastinating” because my inability to write (comfortably) on command was not (as had been subtly implied to me) because I was lazy, stupid, or slovenly, but instead because I needed time to envision the papers in my head first. When I write anything, I need to map it out, determine its structure, test and allow or reject particular forms and sources before I am ready to sit down to write. I promised myself then that I would always give myself plenty of time before writing in order to have that necessary thinking time, and that I wouldn’t expect myself to churn out writing like a machine or a robot.

I’m ABD now: I’ve finished my classes, passed my exams, submitted a successful prospectus of my dissertation, and am currently researching and writing a second chapter. Up until a week ago, I’d been satisfied with my writing process. I hadn’t let myself down, nor had I beat myself up.

I have a friend, also a graduate student, who insists that writers must get the words on the page, ready or not. She will struggle (her words) for an entire afternoon to craft one paragraph. She considers this “discipline.” I consider it unnecessary and counter-productive. In a recent collaborative writing session we had an argument—she wanted to compose word by word, I wanted to get the big idea sketched out and then circle back to fill in the gaps. It was awful. We’re both strong-willed, so things got a bit ugly. She wanted to get the work done that day, even though it wasn’t “due” for another four days. I suggested that we put the work down (at least for a day) and come back to it after some thought. I finally gave up and helped where I could. I left feeling inept. I also began doubting my writing process.

So I just caught myself, today, yelling at myself for not being able to write on command. I’ve been trying to compose a letter to a fellow teacher about a class of his that I visited. One copy will go to the teacher, another copy goes into an archive as a record of the kinds of teaching we’re doing at the university in 2006. It’s a tricky document: multiple audiences, multiple purposes. For the past hour I’ve been on a freakin’ hamster wheel. I get up from my computer, pace my apartment, berate myself for not writing, sit back down to the computer, try to write, force some words onto the page, read the absolute shit that I just produced, delete it, force more words out, delete them, stare out the window, and then get up from my computer again. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Anyone who tries to tell you that writers never struggle or that people who write for a living must be “naturally talented” are full of it. Writing is hard work, no matter how you do it. More importantly, any teacher (or friend!) who tells you there’s only one way to compose, by sitting down and cranking it out, is also full of it. Right now, I’m more angry at myself for internalizing my friend’s crazy idea of a writing process than I am for not being able to write. And so, with any luck, this rant has purged me of the demonic “disciplined” approach to writing and will reaffirm my commitment to thinking and designing in my usual fashion. Writing is not boot camp.

Yeah. So there.

And on a related note: Jeffery Eugenides’ Pulitzer-prize winning book Middlesex took him about nine years to write. Obviously he was not simply “cranking it out.” Obviously there are many kinds of discipline, and thinking and constructing take just as much (if not more) than merely putting words on a page.

So take that, too.

I eat too much; I drink too much; I want too much, too much

May 2, 2006

To suggest that we Americans live in a “consumer society” that overspends, overeats, overworks and overpollutes is to flog a truth so obvious it feels clichéd. You can’t skim a newspaper, open a web browser, or click on your television without hearing about the perils of our over-consumption. Our children will never know what a glacier is, and even if we don’t manage to destroy our earth, we’ll never take the time to see any of it. Besides, our kids will be too busy playing video games and eating Cheetos, which is fine with us—we need the newest blah, blah, blah and we’ll be at the mall with our credit cards in hand.

Put together, those clichés seem ridiculous, but we’ve all hear one iteration or another of such dire predictions. So why don’t we care?

***
When I got my first job out of grad school, I moved into a two-story apartment near downtown Columbus. At that point I had been a student so long that my possessions were very few. Sure, I had a futon, a rickety old papasan chair, and about a million well-worn books, but that was about it. Couple my new huge apartment with my new huge (compared to a TA stipend) salary and you get a vendor’s dream. I spent hours shopping and spending. Gone were the days of slipcovers—I bought a sofa. Gone were the days of ramen noodle dinners and grilled cheese eaten out of the same pan I’d used to make them—I hit Williams Sonoma for all my kitchen equipment and started splurging on goat cheese and kalamata olives. Gone were the nights of quiet reading with a glass of wine—I went to movies, saw bands perform, and sipped $10 cocktails. And, of course, I simply had to have all new clothes for work. Right? Yes, of course. Easton was my Mecca; I went there once a week, minimum.

One day I went to a natural foods store in Columbus for some fresh shitake mushrooms (for a fancy recipe, no doubt) and I saw this flyer: a quick guide to living a more simple life. The third suggestion hit me like a ton of bricks: Don’t use shopping as entertainment. Ouch.

***
A few weeks ago, I did go shopping with my mom. After performing a seasonal “purge” of my closet (giving to Goodwill everything I haven’t worn in two years), my wardrobe was in desperate need of some basics. So, I spent a fair amount of money on some new duds—money, I might point out, that I had saved up over the winter for this purpose. After the spree, I felt sick about how much I had purchased (even though, in truth, I needed the stuff). I felt wrong for buying so much and expressed concern that maybe I didn’t need some of it. I said as much later in a conversation with a woman of my acquaintance. She replied, “Oh, I love shopping. I love buying stuff. It makes me happy. It relieves stress for me. And if it feels good, then you should just go ahead and do it without guilt.”

You know when you have a difference of opinion that is so wide there is simply no way to bridge it with a response? Yeah, me too.

***
After my encounter with “the flyer” (which, by the way, lives on my fridge as a daily reminder), I took steps to change my lifestyle. I moved to a smaller, cheaper apartment; I quit buying shit just because I could afford it; I put myself on a “book-buying freeze,” denying myself any more books until I had read the ones I owned; I instituted the aforementioned seasonal closet purge; I stopped going out and started reading more; I pretty much quit shopping altogether; I started going to museums instead of movies. I’m still working on saying “no” to stressful commitments, but at least I’m trying.

However, even now when I consider how much of my time I spend engaged in consumption of one form or another, I feel a little sick. As a graduate student/teaching assistant, the vast majority of my job-related tasks demand that I consume something: student papers, e-mails from committees I’m on, class lectures, texts I read for teaching, texts I read for my dissertation, texts I read to “stay current,” e-mails from my students, journal articles, guest lectures by scholars in my field. On the way to and from school, I listen to NPR—I consume my news that way—or I listen to one of six CDs that I have in my car stereo at any one time, CDs which, of course, I buy. I eat (occasionally more than I should). I drink (also occasionally more than I should). I read books for pleasure. I watch Grey’s Anatomy and 24 on a weekly basis. I subscribe to Netflix.

It makes me feel full. I hate feeling full.

I sometimes envy my brother. He’s in construction. He goes out every day and builds houses. He uses his hands and PRODUCES something at work every day. He’s always hungry.

***
I want to read this book on consumerism. But then again, do I? I can’t imagine it will ease my mind.

***
For the past year or so, I’ve been on a knitting tear. Last spring I enrolled in a community knitting class through the University of Cincinnati’s Communiversity. Since then I’ve had at least one project on needles at any given time, often more. Right now I have two shawls, two bags, one scarf, one baby hat, one baby sweater, and one knit hat on needles (mind you, few of these items are for me; most notably not for me? the baby stuff.). I get itchy fingers sometimes just thinking about starting a new project.

Knitting has become increasingly popular in the past decade. Some say the trend is celebrity-driven; others believe knitting is part of a larger move toward crafting of all kinds (scrapbooking, sewing, quilting); still others point to the savvy marketing of yarn companies, who have increased production of fun, fast-knitting “novelty yarns” that bring instant satisfaction. I have my own beliefs.

***
Last February, I hosted a “Stitch and Bitch” (some knitting, some wine, some snacks, and lots of talking) at my apartment. We maybe did more drinking and talking than knitting, but it was still a sight to see—young women, knitting needles or crochet hooks in hand, participating in an activity we had been (as products of a feminist era) encouraged to shun as “matronly” and “old-fashioned.” As I looked around the room, I wondered how many of us were, for the first time that day, or even that week, making something, CREATING something, rather than simply consuming. We could have been at a bar or a restaurant, we could have been watching a movie, we could have been reading, or listening to music, or eating. But we weren’t. We were knitting.

***
I’m not saying that knitting is the panacea for all our consumption woes. Obviously, others would argue that we have a lot more to do. But for me, knitting eases stress, it stimulates my brain (patterns are like puzzles—there’s actually a lot of logic and theory involved in knitting), it forces me to sit still and focus on one thing (at least for a while), and, most importantly, it allows me to create something with my hands, to produce something meaningful and beautiful, and to share it with my friends and family.