- I half-read books as a grad student.
- I buy books and sometimes I don’t read them. I intend to read them! I just don’t get around to it.
- I find it hard to give up a book, so I just keep it close to me and then feel guilty that I haven’t finished it.
- I don’t remember the plot of The Catcher in the Rye, even though as a teenager I thought that was my favorite book.
- I read a lot more on my computer than I do in print.
- I read more articles than I do books. I should probably fix that, considering I want to start working on a book of essays soon.
- I was appointed as a teaching assistant to a Shakespeare class my first semester as a teaching assistant, and I had only read a handful of Shakespeare’s plays.
- I haven’t read Moby Dick. I have, however, read Don Quijote–both volumes, in Spanish. (Yup, there are TWO volumes.)
- I read several books at once, so when I finish a book it does not feel quite as exciting as it should.
- I find academic books very hard to read. I’m not even critiquing them; I’m just stating a fact. I can’t just pick one up and leaf through it. But I still buy them, thinking I’ll read them, someday.
I took a break because I didn’t want to blog. A couple of Mondays ago I woke up early to write, like I always do, and after a few attempts at starting a blog post I realized, “I really don’t want to write a blog post.” So I didn’t. I wanted to sit with my thoughts, not force anything.
To be honest, the little break came about because I received not one but two rejections in less than a work week’s time right around the date I published my last blog post. I know, rejections are par for the course in academia, in writing, in life. That doesn’t mean the rejections hurt any less. The rejections didn’t dampen my confidence in my abilities as a writer either; in my gut I know I have some good pieces in my repertoire. It just made me wonder about what I am doing as a writer. (Yes, it made me wonder what I am doing wrong, but I realized that might be the wrong question to ask when it comes to putting your writing out there.)
So I stayed away from blogging for a little bit. Somehow, I felt like blogging would be putting pressure on myself to produce when, really, I didn’t feel like it. Also, blogging was starting to feel like a job. Sure, I should treat blogging like a job if I want my writing to reach a broader audience, but I didn’t want to feel like I was always producing, always putting out without putting back in. I thought, no one is telling me when to blog. I’m the boss around here. So I stopped.
What did I realize during the past couple of weeks?
1) I’m trying to do too much at once. Pitching, blogging, looking up references for my writing advice posts, reading to stay current. I know, I know, I should be indefatigable when it comes to my craft; I need to commit to being a writer and hustle all the time if I one day want to publish my writing outside of the blog. Don’t stop the hustle! But I felt like I wasn’t taking the time to digest ideas, to read and think. The race to pitch each week and produce two blog posts each week on top of editing and prepping for class and teaching and all the other craziness I have in my life made me feel like I wasn’t enjoying writing any more. I became a business, man. Not to mention teaching and editing are my main gigs.
2) In the meantime, I felt like I lost sight of what was my thing. What am I good at? In the race to pitch and blog, I wasn’t developing my craft. I was just producing. Even now that I am trying to get back into writing, when I sit down to work I feel a little lost, like I have nothing to hold onto. It’s all foggy up in here.
3) I need to embrace my strong suits. There are some topics that suit me better because I have extensive knowledge about them. If those topics are academic-y, I need to find a way to make them attractive to others, but I also shouldn’t shy away from them. Also, I’m very good at writing the personal stuff. So, writing about my connection to something apparently is more effective than just writing a typical introduction. I’d been trying to step away from that because I thought that was too personal of an approach. Maybe I’ll write more personal essays from now on. My last post is certainly in that vein.
4) Maybe I’ll pitch more personal essays. Not sure who would want them. The subjects I want to talk about are not necessarily news-y, so that’s always tough to sell. A lot of the personal essays I read are on blogs. But if I pitch, I may pitch a personal essay because that seems to be my strong suit. It also seems to be the thing I want to write about.
5) I should use the blog to post works in progress. More writing, less talking about writing? Maybe. I enjoy doing the Friday Free Writing posts. But I need to write more for me. There may be less Friday Free Writing posts–or they’ll at least be less regular.
My plan the next few weeks? Nurture the writer inside me. Let her say what she wants to say, even if it’s not necessarily pitch material. Sometimes all we need to do is just write. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing.
*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.
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.
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.
The first season is always the hardest.
I’ve had three “first baseball seasons” with my husband. There was the first baseball season we dated, when he called games for the Binghamton Mets. I had no idea of what I was in for, or what it would be like to be separated from him for long periods of time, or what his gameday routine was like. It was a blank slate for us. He had always been wary of being in a relationship during baseball season because he knew it could be a grind, although academia can be a grind as well. He didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he started dating me, a PhD student who also taught writing. Me and my books and my grading and my conferences. But at least the academic calendar unfurled over ten months. Minor-league baseball is five intense months of traveling, call-ups, call-downs, losing streaks, and bus rides.
I will never forget that first game. The team started the season on the road, and that Thursday night was the home opener. I taught ENG 111 until 7:00 pm, and then drove straight to the ballpark to meet two friends of mine. I was in my teaching outfit: trousers, heels, cardigan, and coat. Yes, coat. We are talking, after all, about Upstate New York in early April. It’s still cold up there; also, the B-mets had several road games postponed that first week of the season because of snow. But no matter. I was eager to go to the game and see my boyfriend.Good thing I was eager, because that game was as long as I was tired. The game went into extra innings.
However, the dampness could not ameliorate my excitement. Finally, I’d get to see my boyfriend. I went to the concourse and waited for him by the press box elevator. My friends who had come to watch the game with me went home to their warm and comfy beds. Meanwhile, I waited. And waited. And waited. The concourse was almost empty when he finally came downstairs to take the box score to the club house and saw me there. He had forgotten to tell me to come upstairs after the game was over. He had to do the post-game show (What the heck is a post-game show? And why wasn’t I told? Sheesh), and here I was, freezing my coat off. When I saw him, I felt the glow of those who have been dating for only a few months. But that glow didn’t last long.
“Are we ready to go?”
“Oh, um, I have to do my game notes. I can’t leave yet. Wanna come upstairs and warm up?”
No. What I wanted to do was cry. But I didn’t tell him that. I had been there for almost five hours already. I might as well stick around for another hour. (Have I told you I’m a tad stubborn?). I stood in the owner’s box, met everyone who worked with him, stood by a food warmer and waited until my body had defrosted to sit down.
That season I learned a lot about the rhythm of baseball. But years later, when my boyfriend got a job covering the Kansas City Royals, I’d learn there was a whole other game being played at the major league level. The first season he worked for them we were separated (what we call the “hiatus”), but the second season we were back together and expecting a child. Imagine the craziness of a major league baseball season PLUS the roller coaster ride that is pregnancy.
My Season 1 of Royals baseball started with Spring Training, the part of pre-baseball that starts in February. I’m convinced Spring Training is just designed to make my life more complicated, but I’m sure it serves a purpose for the players. My boyfriend left me in mid-February that year, and I wouldn’t see him again until April, when I flew to Kansas City to spend my Easter holiday with him. In the meantime, I tried hard to keep it together: teaching, packing, watching what I ate, going to doctor appointments by myself. I’m certain my obstetrician thought the baby’s father was a deadbeat who had disappeared on me and that my sports stories were just fictions I told myself to get by. Occasionally I had a breakdown over the phone about how I didn’t want to be by myself over here. But I had health benefits through my school and a job. Moving to Kansas City in the middle of the school year was a stupid idea, on a practical level.
Mid-season. I gave birth. My boyfriend was there for this wonderful moment. Sadly, baseball called and he had to return to work two days after she was born. Gotta pay those bills, folks. My parents helped me pack a whole apartment in six weeks’ time while I slept little, struggled with breastfeeding (“It’s supposed to be so easy!” I would chide myself), went to the hospital for a serious case of mastitis, and broke a laptop along the way. I’m still not sure how I recuperated my sanity. But six weeks was the least amount of time I had to wait in order to travel to Kansas City. Week Seven I was on a plane with my dad and a newborn, headed to my new home. My new family had been separated long enough.
The toddler and I spent three seasons in Kansas City. Our family got into a groove. We made friends. We had our regular spots all figured out. I knew how to beat traffic–or at least make it less unpleasant. Even through my own career was full of surprises, it was nice to have a constant. Later, we got married in Kansas City. We did it during the off-season because I refused to get married during the season and because we got married on the anniversary of our first date–which was during the off season, fortunately. It seemed we were settled in, in some way. And then the Astros called.
My husband became part of the Astros staff this past February. Although I had several years of experience with the baseball life that had prepared me for this, him going back into the broadcast booth with another team was still like starting over. I had forgotten what it was like to be away from him for weeks at a time: while covering the Royals he never traveled with the team. Plus, having a toddler makes things a little more complicated. And did I mention I stayed behind in Kansas City while he went to Spring Training and started the season in Houston? Yup, there was also that.
Astros: Season 1 started with a three-month separation (I blogged about that earlier this year in a post about my job insecurities), where he relocated to Houston while I stayed behind in Kansas City to wrap up some projects I had started at work and leave at the end of the Spring Semester. Even though I had a staff position instead of a faculty position, it’s not easy to just pick up and leave a job mid-semester. I had flashbacks of that summer in Binghamton, what with the boxes and a kid hanging around, but at least this time I was getting more sleep. I think.
Eight months later, here we are. Season 1 is over. It’s only the beginning of our baseball lifestyle.
Featured image: ”Baseballs” by Flickr user Nicole Hernandez, CC-BY-2.0
I made it to #10!
Whoa, I’m a tad excited about this. I just realized I have written ten of these Friday Free Writing posts. I’m glad you, my dear readers, like them enough to keep reading and keep sharing. (Next Monday I’ll be posting about some ideas I have for the direction of the blog, so feel free to swing by then and chime in.)
Today I want to talk about something I focused on the first few weeks of my writing class. This is my first time teaching graduate students, although I have worked for a while now with graduate student writers, professionally and informally (via Twitter, Facebook, email). Part of the challenge is to make the class relevant to all while keeping in mind that there are different skill levels. This happens in first-year composition classes, but with graduate students we’re talking about people who will be writing professionally, at least in theory. In other words, writing is–at least for now!–a major component of their career.
I decided to start my class with exercises where they could learn how to approach an article from the angle of form. I wanted them to consider what an academic article in their field looked like by actually looking at articles. “Sound suuuuper innovative, Liana” I know, I know, but hear me out: I asked them to look at articles they enjoyed (and, academics out there, you know these articles exist, we just don’t admit it because a big chunk of academic articles are hard to read–YES, I SAID IT) and observe what made these articles so enjoyable in terms of form. Sure, it’s an interesting idea. Sure, it’s short. “We do love those short articles, Liana.” I do too. Sure, it tells a story. But if you sit down and read the article not just for the content but for how it’s written, you’ll end up learning a bunch about craft.
Here are some of the things I asked them to look for:
- How does the article start?
- How long is the introduction?
- How is it organized?
- How does it support its main idea?
- How does it use references?
- Where do the references go?
- Where does the main idea go?
- What did you notice about the sentences?
- How is this article different from other articles you’ve read?
- How is it similar to other articles you’ve read?
- What kind of verbs does it use?
- How does it use description?
- Did you ever feel lost?
- Did you ever feel like you wanted to stop reading? Why or why not?
- What patterns did you notice?
In other words, I encouraged them to question the heck out of that article. Honestly, I see that as the key to reading like a writer: don’t take the writing for granted. Think about what’s there and the choices the writer may have made to get there. The articles that read effortlessly? Guess what: they take a whole lot of work to read like that.
But then, what do you do with all of that information? Use it of course.
But how do I use it? Well, start by trying to imitate the patterns you see. This doesn’t mean plagiarize, folks! If this author starts with a quotation, try that. If this author does a good job of setting up the socio-cultural context to their analysis, look at how that was organized and try organizing your article that way. Don’t copy it. Just try to write in a similar way–and give it your own flair.
Lastly, Chuck Wendig sums it up nicely in a post titled “How to Read Like a Writer”:
Because that writer’s ability to make you forget you’re reading a book? That writer’s doing something super-fucking-awesome. Don’t you want to know what it is?
Hell yeah I do.
For the writing instructors: you might want to check out Mike Bunn’s free (free!) PDF of his chapter “How to Read Like a Writer.” Handy for class!
Dear readers, do you remember the last time you read and were aware of how that text was written? What did you notice? Share your knowledge in the comments or just tweet me: @literarychica
I am in love with this song from Neko Case’s latest album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You