Remembering New York City

Manhattan from afar

Manhattan from afar

*I just returned from a trip to New York City. I realized this essay had to come out and greet you, readers, because it was burning a hole in my soul. I wanted to share this story with you.*

“And I still don’t know how you separate where you are from what you write, or what you write from where you’ve been.” –Miranda Ward

When I read Miranda Ward’s VELA blog post, “On Not Writing (About Home)”, my mind drifted to the dissertation I finished over a year ago, a dissertation that was all about home and New York. I was born in New York, and left for Puerto Rico when I was six years old and my parents decided to return to the island.  I had no choice in where I was born. I could have been born anywhere, and I could be writing this essay about that place. But my birthplace is New York, and it changed everything. I’ve been trying to figure out my relationship to New York ever since we left for Puerto Rico—hence, the dissertation.

Ward points out how oftentimes home is not necessarily a physical place but built from memories. She says, “it [her home] was invented, and continues to be reinvented, by a process of remembering and misremembering.” Like Ward, my New York home was built out of memories, but they weren’t just my fuzzy memories: they were my parents’ memories, passed down to me while we lived in our quiet little country town in Puerto Rico. The irony that they had a New York to remember but I didn’t, and that irony was certainly not lost on me, even when I was very young.

My parents met in New York in the late seventies and got married in 1979. I opened my eyes in a hospital on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1981, and we lived in the Bronx until I was six and my sister was almost one. Because we left for Puerto Rico when I was so young, my memories are fragmented: the sound of Mr. Softee, the smell of the cold, the shake of the subway car when I went to work with my mother one day, the view of the Henry Hudson Parkway as we made our way into Manhattan from the Bronx to see my grandparents on 94th Street, the floorboards under my feet when I walked into my older brother and sister’s apartment.  However, these memories took a while to surface; it’s almost as if they remain in a fog until something triggers them to float above the grey haze.

Fall on 83rd Street

Fall on 83rd Street

My parents, my youngest sister, and I moved to Puerto Rico in the late 80s; my brother and oldest sister remained in New York with their mother. When I left New York with my parents I didn’t know I had to remember everything around me. My mom likes to remind me that when she told me we were leaving I decided I wanted to read more books in Spanish so I could learn the language. I was not aware that I had to stock up on memories before Moving Day. My parents, though, had a backlog of New York City moments to carry with them to the island. Those memories were so important to my parents’ emotional sustenance. Twenty years later, those memories still sustain them.

We left. Without fanfare or applause. There was probably applause when the plane landed at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, but I don’t remember it. We made it to this small town in Puerto Rico called Sabana Grande. My parents knew to remember New York. I didn’t.

If Colson Whitehead is right that “You start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it,” my New York was a room closed off to me, growing in the darkness. But I knew it was there, hiding behind the door. Was it in my bedroom closet? Was it in the first floor apartment? Was it in the shed in the backyard? Was the door in my kitchen? It seemed to move every time I found it, and I never could find the way to bust it open. “I’m here because I was born here and thus ruined for anywhere else,” Whitehead said about New York. Early on I could tell I was ruined, and I didn’t even understand why.

I left the city when I was a kid. I lived New York in the moment. Growing up in Puerto Rico, sometimes my parents were taken over by memories of their new York, and the stories would come pouring out. Sometimes it was a story about someone they knew in New York. Other times it was a reminder of what train to take where. Other times it was a flashback of a police case my dad undertook.  And sometimes it was in the shape of food. French toast. Bagels. Root beer. Things I would have taken for granted if I had lived in the States. On the island they transformed into little luxuries we needed in order to get by. And when I didn’t immediately recollect what they meant by Zabar’s or Westchester, they would say, don’t you remember, Liana? I hated the fact that sometimes I didn’t.

When I was in second grade I met an uprooted New Yorker like myself, and to this day she is one of my best friends. I learned a lot from her about the ruin New York can do to you, to paraphrase Whitehead. She was homesick for New York, and I tried to understand what made her hurt so much. We bonded over the fact that we both spoke English in a Spanish school and that we both dreamed about leaving the island someday.

Years later after my second grade encounter with my friend in Puerto Rico, I moved to Binghamton, New York for graduate school. Binghamton was as close as I could get to New York without actually living in the city (and I had funding for my master’s and part of my doctorate, so there was that too). I traveled as often as I could to New York City, taking advantage of the fact that New York was three and a half hours away, and that I still had family in The City.

I would visit my brother and my oldest sister, extended family members, friends. I would take trains, get lost below 14th Street, take pictures, and, eventually, avoid Times Square by instinct, like all good New Yorkers do. One winter I remember walking around Midtown, taking a deep breath and thinking, I remember that smell. Some days I would take the 2 train to 96th Street so I could walk by where my grandparents lived and remember what it was like to sit on the sidewalk outside of the building on late summer evenings. Later, after I met my husband, a native New Yorker living in Binghamton too, we would drive down to the city together and sometimes visit his family and friends. The sound of the 4 train running past his mother’s apartment building brought back memories of the Parkchester station, where my mom would catch the 6 train to work.

New York came back to me in bits and pieces when I would go there on vacation later in my life. And all of those visits brought back my fragmented New York.

Over the years, I held onto the memories because they seemed to be evidence of my urban roots, the genealogy I was supposed to guard safely in my brain. The memories reminded us my parents and me we came from the city, even when we lived in the country. While some Puerto Ricans born in New York try to trace their roots to Puerto Rico’s towns and countryside, I traced my roots to New York’s streets.

It wasn’t until I immersed myself in how others talked about New York City that I realized that my memories (and my parents’ memories) became an important part of my identity. That remembering New York wasn’t just something that happened, but that we actively remembered it a certain way. The memories were stories. Fictions of home. (Nonfictions of home?) To paraphrase Joan Didion, those memories were the stories my parents told themselves in order to live. Sometimes, I told myself those stories too.

What’s the story I tell myself now? I was born in New York. Lived there until I was six. Grew up in Puerto Rico, in the country. Dealt with lack of electricity and lack of running water and the quietest nights I’ve heard anywhere else except hotel rooms. Moved to San Juan for college because I yearned for the city life. Became an adult in San Juan. Made San Juan my own. Flew to Binghamton for graduate school. Met a different New York while I was there. Dated my husband and had my daughter there. Traveled halfway across the country to Kansas City, and then to Houston.

Union Square

Union Square

I have very clear memories of growing up in Puerto Rico, but my New York childhood is very vague, shadowy. It comes in flashes: a street corner, my old house, the sound of the subway, the taste of zeppolis. But I have new memories of New York: taking the subway with my husband, discovering the High Line with my daughter in a stroller, going to my mother in law’s church in Harlem, driving through lower Manhattan to get to Brooklyn to visit my aunt, going to an Italiant restaurant in Little Italy when i first met my sister-in-law. It’s a different New York, this New York I visit, and maybe the New York home I dream up lives on in my memories. After years of dreaming of New York, I realize that my home is in another place and another time. Its time has passed. New York is mine, yes, but not like that. Not like a typical New Yorker. I’m a different kind of New Yorker.

For me, these memories served as the foundation for my love for the city. This was the place my parents love, and my husband loves, and I love too–in a weird way because it was an idea, not a place, and when I started going there regularly, the place became real. I finally have my own New York to love.

 

On location

 

Friday Free Writing #4: Hiding Behind My Words (Or, Feeling Vulnerable When Writing)

I know this post is going up on Saturday, but I had a good excuse: I had a deadline for my first academic article for a traditional academic journal on Thursday, and my life was on pause until, say, yesterday afternoon. Hopefully this post resonates no matter what day of the week. 

"Child Hiding" by Flickr user Pink Sherbert Photography, CC-BY-2.0.

“Child Hiding” by Flickr user Pink Sherbert Photography, CC-BY-2.0.

For this Friday’s post I decided to go with something a little less mechanical, something a little more abstract: feeling vulnerable about your writing.

Some of you may think, “Oh please, vulnerable? Me? I’m a good writer. I’m a productive writer. I’m a confident writer. Why you gotta be so cliche, Liana?” It’s alright. You can keep on reading, even if just out of curiosity. Just make sure you have a back-up browser window open for when you need to pretend you’re reading something else. I’ll wait…

When it comes to writing, the word “vulnerable” means being open to attack or criticism. It also implies being on display. It doesn’t necessarily translate to feeling like a weak writer; rather, it translates to a fear of being seen, or being heard. Let’s think this through: some writers will feel nervous about sitting down to write…this is often called writer’s block. “I can’t write.” “I have ideas but I don’t want to put them down on paper.” “I just want it to be good when I put it down on the document.” This feeling may have its roots in different situations, but part of the fear of writing stems from the fact that ideas in our head seem fluid, open to revision, private. Ideas on a paper or on a screen? Now that feels permanent. Nevermind that you can backspace over that shit or that you can just write it and throw it out. Black words on a white paper? That feels permanent. Also, it feels like you’d have to own up to whatever ideas you wrote down instead of thinking about it as a form of communication, something that’s open to tweaking.

For academics, it’s even scarier: we are told that we must read every single thing out there about what we write, that we must know all of the arguments that ever existed on our subject. So the idea of sending something out that’s well-researched but that hasn’t uncovered every single seed of the subject freaks us out. Never mind that in this day and age, it’s difficult to try and completely canvass a subject. Never mind that we may feel differently about a subject five years from now. Other scholars look up your ideas, black words on paper, and put them down for posterity, their black words on their white paper.

For others, the vulnerability is heightened in this age of social media, where nothing is really hidden online. What if what I post on my blog today is not how I feel about the subject two years from now? Or two weeks from now? That shit’s online forever. And ever. And ever.

Writing, when seen from that point of view, can be scary as all get out. You share something that was private on a page where it is visible, even if not necessarily public. Words on a page or screen mean you can be subject to the perusal of others–and sometimes those “others” are the critical voices in our head. (Think about that the next time you have to read someone else’s writing, or when you have to grade them. It took a lot of guts to separate themselves from that text, decide you were trustworthy, and allow you to read that.)

But, how do you get to that point? How do you get to that point where you can be vulnerable, let your guard down, and write–furthermore, share?

Here are some tips for allowing yourself to write:

1) Hide your writing. I don’t mean this as “hide it in a safety box in a bank” or something. I mean, create a location where you can put ideas, thoughts, questions that you want to write about. Don’t think about what these ideas are for yet; just write and put them away. I always tell writers, no one has to read the first draft–better yet, no one has to read your first attempts at writing about a subject. Creating a space for test-driving can make you comfortable with writing about a subject. It could be sticky notes under a keyboard. It could be a folder in your desktop. It could be the Notes feature on your smartphone or tablet. It could be a notebook that you carry around with you. Whatever it is, make it yours.

2) Get used to writing-while-thinking. Writing goes hand in hand with thinking. Don’t just write when you’re ready to write (i.e., read all of the things and know what my argument is). Write when things come to mind. Take out your notebook and write it down. No one has to know. Or maybe you want to tell me and no one else; that’s cool. I’m just hanging out at my laptop anyway!

3) Get used to talking about your writing. I know, I know, but I just said that you can write and not show it to anyone. Yes, yes I did. But I didn’t say you couldn’t talk to people. So yes, go ahead and talk. That may mean a status update on Facebook, asking someone in class if you can bounce ideas off of them, chatting with a writing buddy, posting tweets…Find someone to talk to and talk your ideas out. It’ll help you get comfortable with sharing ideas in progress with others; also, two heads are always better than one. But…watch out who you share with. Sometimes those conversations backfire, especially if they assume you want sources, for example, and all you want to know is whether your ideas are making sense or not. Too much feedback can kill that vibe. Be clear: “I just want to know if I’m making sense.” Or, “I am working on something and I think it might be interesting to others. What do you think?”

4) Share your written ideas with someone else. The first step to overcoming the feeling of vulnerability is actually sharing the work-in-progress with someone. Maybe it’s a writing buddy, maybe it’s a total stranger on social media. But getting feedback early helps you revise before The Final Product is out there. And yes, this can apply to blog posts too.

5) Remember that finished products are almost never Finished Products. I struggled with my dissertation. You all know this. Part of how I got that huge manuscript done was that I realized a) it will never be “finished” b) there will always be something to add, something to read. I became comfortable with “good enough.” Now I cringe a little when someone asks me if they can see it, but I realize that it’s a snapshot of a point in time of my thinking and research on the topic of urban spaces and migrant communities. It’s the beginning of a bigger project. Same thing goes for blog posts. You can edit them. You can add an addendum to them. You can rewrite them. The notion that our words are set in stone is difficult to overcome (especially for academics who have come to see print as the end-all be-all of our research), but our texts are a little more malleable than we think.

Notice how in the points above I went from little steps to bigger steps. The major point here is to realize that writing is a social act, even if we do not always make our writing available immediately. It benefits from different readers at different times. If you step away from the idea that writing is a solitary endeavor that rests upon the shoulders of one sole writer who knows everything (that shit is scary, yo), you can allow yourself to think about ways to share your writing.

Writing: Help Wanted

“Writing” by Flickr user ^Missi^ under Creative Commons 2.0 License

My time as Graduate Writing Specialist is coming to an end in a few weeks, as I have mentioned in my Altac Chronicles. However, I am still committed to helping out the graduate students at my school. Even though the next two weeks are mostly dedicated to writing reports and leaving instructions to whoever replaces me, I still get requests for help.

This is also the time of the year where I get lots of requests from graduate students for me to read dissertations or theses. Don’t get me wrong, I would do it if I could. But I am not a personal Writing Consultant; I am a Programming Associate, and I have a lot of other responsibilities that I have to balance on a daily basis. I simply do not have the time to read a whole dissertation chapter, let alone a dissertation. But it breaks my heart to tell students I can’t help them; often times these are students who have been writing from afar, or who have only recently discovered the Writing Center, or who think that I, the Graduate Writing Specialist, am the person they were looking for all along: someone who can sit down and comb through every page and give them feedback.

At moments like that, when a student is weeks (or days!) away from their dissertation defense or from a major deadline, I send them our writing center’s list of Professional Editors, knowing full well that some of them cannot afford to hire an editor full time. Because they can’t afford an editor and because our services are free (and rightfully so) they wonder who in our office can read their whole dissertation chapter. But we work by appointments, and a consultant cannot read a chapter in one sitting–it’s something that none of us at the Writing Center can accomplish in one hour.

For this reason, last Thursday I inquired on Twitter and on my personal Facebook page about where graduate students and ex-graduate students found writing support. Advisors can’t do it all, even if they tell themselves they can (or they should), even if students don’t know any other option other than their advisor. So where do students go?

  • Many go about it alone. One even jokingly asked what this thing called “writing support” was. Funny and sad at the same time.
  • Others had a friend or peer who would do them the favor of reading their work. Some would exchange documents with a peer and pay them back by giving them feedback. This is a common system, but not sustainable when, say, one of the writers has a deadline coming up and they don’t have the time to offer feedback to their writer.
  • Ask for help online. The ones who suggested this were folks who I know are active on Twitter.
  • Advisors. These are the de facto sources of writing feedback, but are they necessarily a form of writing support? I’m not being facetious, but genuinely curious.
  • Writing groups. These are harder to come by because it’s more about fit than department, but in my experience they are very helpful!
  • Mentors. Another group who works from the goodness of their heart and who oftentimes offer support even if it is not in their job description.

My takeaway from this brief, informal survey of colleagues, friends, and family was that there are many sources of writing support,  but that there are still many who don’t know where to go to to find someone who will read long documents. I even heard from two people who mentioned that the writing centers they’ve interacted with have not been helpful. If the writing center is the place to have conversations about writing and writers cannot count on us, how can we better serve the graduate student population?

Finding My Niche

I’ve had graduate student writers on the mind lately, and writing in general. Since my last post, where I wondered out loud where my career is headed, I have been made full-time at my school, and now have a joint appointment at two different campuses. If I was in charge of programming for the graduate population at two campuses before, I am now splitting my time at two campuses, and providing services for three. I have almost double the number of students to think about, traditional and non-traditional, from arts and sciences and health professions. It seems a little scary…but so far it’s been exciting.

As a result, I have gone from thinking about the dissertation all the time to thinking about graduate student writing all the time, not just because of work but because I was, until last May, a graduate student myself. As someone who finished her dissertation long-distance and depended a lot on the support of fellow writers/dissertators/graduate students/mentors, I try to put myself in the shoes of every student who comes in and help them achieve their writing goals. It is not my role to get them to question whether they should be in graduate school or not, but to support them in their writing endeavors. If they want to talk academia, let’s talk. But if they want to talk writing, I’m happy to do so.

I’ve also been able to put to use a skill that I developed throughout graduate school. I am the queen of scheduling—and this is something a lot of graduate students and writers may not be good at. I have had several students come in and tell me “I want to finish my dissertation soon” and I have sat down and helped them figure out deadlines for their work. Sometimes those deadlines come as a surprise, and sometimes it helps them focus. My advisor was excellent with deadlines, and so I learned from her to push myself, even when I thought I might fail.I may not have liked those deadlines, but I wasn’t about to whine and ignore them. Deadlines have fueled my writing all throughout college, especially through graduate school. I think I have a knack for taking a big project and breaking it down into parts, and so I am happy to share that with students who come to visit my office.

Another thing is that I really enjoy writing. I had a moment where I fell out of love with writing because the dissertation made writing feel so unpleasant; the process was bringing out my biggest insecurities about myself as a writer and as an academic. I tried to rescue my love for writing by finding other creative outlets. Something I didn’t know about myself is that I enjoy talking to people about writing, and I love reading about writing and writers. Once upon a time I thought I was the last person who should be teaching writing (and my Instructor of Record for the first course where I taught writing exclusively will tell you I made that clear to her, hehe). But now it feels like second nature, and I think I have found my niche, or at least a niche I am comfortable in for now.

Anyway, all this to say I have been thinking a lot about graduate student writers and writing. I have a lot of ideas (Speakers! Writing groups! Workshops! One-on-one scheduling meetings!) and I’m glad I have the time and the place to explore them. A year ago I would not have thought I’d be here; heck, a year ago, I was new at this job and mentally transitioning from graduate student to staff. Until recently, I was still mourning my not being able to teach. But being able to dive into my job and not split my consciousness between the dissertation and work, I am excited.

Lastly, I’d love to hear/read from you: what writing support do you think graduate student/academic writers/writers in general need? What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked for you?

End of an Era (Or, Concluding My Dissertation)

Today I am defending my dissertation. Or I will have defended by the time you read this post.

When I first started this blog, I was looking for an outlet to keep the creative side of my brain sharp and to keep an archive of my thoughts on different issues. But it was also a way to stay sane while dissertating and while looking for a job. needed something that would make me happy and restore my faith in my writing abilities. I knew that, once upon a time, writing had made me happy. What, at that moment, felt like an academic chore in the shape of a Microsoft Word document that I had to open up day in and day out, had once upon a time made me happy. And so I started this blog.

Now, I am done. Almost. My committee decides today whether I have earned the moniker PhD.

In the meantime, I wanted to share with you the last few paragraphs of my dissertation. I have a personal connection to my study (which brings about its own complications). My dissertation topic is as much about my staking my scholastic territory as it is about understanding my affinity for New York City, a city I remembered in bits and pieces when I left for Puerto Rico, a city that comes alive from the vestige of my memory every time I fly into La Guardia or drive along I-87 and see the sign “Welcome to the Bronx.” I know New York as it is now, but there will always be Another New York that lives on in my mind. Lastly, my dissertation is an offering to The City. Will it ever be enough? I will continue writing until I find out.

Wish me luck.

***

Throughout my graduate school career, I have been reading, researching, thinking, and writing about New York City in different contexts. The more I learned about New York City, the more I could talk about its history and society at length, the less I would have to explain to people why I felt like a New Yorker deep inside—at least this is what I believed. Deep down, I felt insecure about my status as a New Yorker because, outside of my family, I lacked the recognition from others of my identity as a New Yorker. When I finally had the chance my last semester of coursework to write a paper about representations of cityscapes in rap, I found the opportunity to take my inner musings to a scholarly level. I immersed myself in how this inherently urban genre talked about cities and the connection between these rap artists and their urban neighborhoods. I found in rap and hip hop an articulation of how I felt about New York City, and I channeled that into my subsequent work.

Therefore, part of this study has been not only a way to understand how others make New York City a home but also a way for me to understand why I think of it as my home. When I started writing, I set out to focus only on the works I had chosen. Nevertheless, as I wrote this dissertation I noticed the boundaries between public and private, between academic and personal turn blurry; I realized later that it was through the personal that I was able to find my way into this topic, and that I could not ignore that.

However, throughout my dissertation research I have realized the different dimensions of home. I have learned to listen to what New York City meant to Willie Perdomo, Ann Petry, Frank Espada. I opened up my analysis to how African Americans and Puerto Ricans can struggle to claim this city. I realized that New York was not always kind. New York was not always willing. Not all migrants wanted to claim New York City nor needed to claim New York City. If anything, this study made it clear to me that New York City, like any other text, is complex and multidimensional. My idealization has made way for recognition.

I no longer argue with people who do not think I am a New Yorker. I no longer feel offended if they do not take me for a New Yorker. But I always smile when they say I have a New York accent. I carry New York with me. I can only hope that this dissertation will lay to rest if not questions about my cultural identity at least my love for [and commitment to] the city that was my first home.