Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Getting Revenge by Writing

The thing about being completely neurotic is that you obsess over everything, including the things that don't bother most people. (That's why I love Seinfeld. It's not really "a show about nothing". It's a show about their obsessions.) That can cause you to hold grudges that last for a long time.

For example, I am still angry at the Walgreens cashier that I bought M&Ms from back in high school. She made a crack about how I shouldn't eat too much candy because it was fattening. I'd bought candy from her before, and I guess she thought she was being "helpful". This was back when I was overweight and self-conscious about my appearance.  I knew the candy was fattening. Overweight people know that they shouldn't eat junk food, and they know that they're overweight. But sometimes they just can't help themselves, and it's humiliating when other people make them feel bad about it. I still remember how embarrassed, hurt, and angry I felt, and to this day I wish I had stood up to her...or at least called the manager over to file a complaint against her. So even though it's been more than a decade since that happened, I still cannot bring myself to forgive her.

I do try to forgive people, even though it's hard. But in fiction writing, however, I can be as vengeful and unforgiving as I want to be. That makes me sound cruel, but think about it. A lot of fiction writers write down the things they would never say in real life, or they let their characters do what the writers could/would never do. It's safer that way, and it can provide a sense of release as well. Rather than seek revenge in real life against the people that hurt you, you can do it through writing, as long as you heavily disguise those people, of course, as Anne Lamott advised in her book Bird by Bird. (Otherwise, they might seek revenge against you, by filing a lawsuit.)

For example, the other night, I noticed that the neighbor in the apartment one floor up and facing mine raised his blinds at around midnight. I didn't think anything of it until I went to bed at around twelve-thirty. Even though my blinds were closed, the light from my neighbor's apartment shone into mine. He must have used flood lights or 100-megawatt bulbs, because the light completely lit up my room. In my half-asleep state, I at first thought that a UFO had landed outside my window, and I was going to yell out my window, "Take my neighbors, not me! Feel free to dissect and study them, as long as you don't bring them back."

But then I looked out my window and realized that it was the light in my neighbor's apartment that made it seem like it was still broad daylight rather than the middle of the night. I tried to go back to sleep, but the light made it impossible. How long did the jerk leave his light on? All night. What time did I finally manage to fall asleep? Four A.M. What time did I have to get up to go to work? Seven A.M. On a scale of one to ten, how angry (and exhausted) was I? 999,765,037...and counting.

In fiction, I can get back at him by writing a horror story titled "Night of the Living Workaholic", where I turn into a zombie (which, actually, is what happens when I don't get enough sleep) and come into his apartment, where Zombie Me then proceeds to a) eat his brain or b) scare him into being polite and considerate, to the point that not only will he keep his blinds closed from now on, he'll be too afraid to leave his home and will keep peeking through his blinds for fear that Zombie Me will strike again (and I will, BWAHAHAHAHA!).

In real life, I bought a sleeping mask to cover my eyes. If he is inconsiderate enough to leave his blinds up and his lights on all night again, I will ask my landlord to say something to him, though I doubt it will make much difference.

More than once people have pushed me aside in their hurry to get on the train during my daily commute. In real life, all I can say is, "Hey, I was here FIRST, so BACK UP!" If I'm feeling more timid, then I'll just give them what I call the Death Glare and hope that they will cower in fear. (I also kind of wish that Zombie Me could be my bodyguard, because she would definitely scare them...or eat their brains.)

But in fiction, I can get back at them by writing a story about how after they cut in front of a line of people waiting for the train, they find themselves trapped on a train full of Justin Bieber's fans on their way to a concert.

What about you? Do you ever base your characters or storylines on people or situations that bothered you? Do you ever write in fiction what you wish would happen in real life? If you don't, how do you work out your emotions when someone makes you mad or hurts you? 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why I Keep Teaching

There has been more than one instance where I wanted to quit teaching. There was the day a student, who had been disrespectful to me for weeks, nearly drove me to tears in front of all my students. There was the time another student screamed at me (it got so bad that male instructors who were nearby tried to intervene to make him calm down) because I didn't give him the grade he thought he "deserved". There are also the days when I struggle with my dissertation and the less-than-positive feedback from my committee. I know that if I can't make it as a scholar, I cannot continue being a college teacher; professors are teachers AND scholars.

On days like those, I find myself thinking, Maybe I should quit. I'll drop out of graduate school, give up teaching, and pursue a different career, like professional wrestling. I also occasionally think, If I give up teaching, maybe then I can get a large tattoo that says, I eat scholars for breakfast.

But even after everything I've been through and even after all the sacrifices I've had to make, I still can't bring myself to quit. When I was on campus to teach the other day, I looked at the undergrads chatting with each other as they walked to class. I went into my classroom, looked at my students, and thought, This is where I want to be. This is still what I want.

Teaching is the one job I've ever had that I am truly good at (though I know I still have a lot to learn), and it's the one job that I can see myself doing until I get too old to work (other than writing, of course). (But I'm hoping that by the time I get old, they'll come up with some kind of "workaholic serum" that allows old workaholics to continue working, so that we don't have to - gasp! - retire. Because what would I do when I retire? Spend the rest of my life not working? NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! Why not just take chocolate away from me, while you're at it? Why not just make me move in with Joan and Melissa Rivers, too?)

The connections that I've made with some of my students are also why I don't want to quit teaching. When I taught high school students, several of them confided in me about how they were bullied by other students or showed me the poems and stories that they had written for fun, which they hadn't shown to anyone else. It touched me that they trusted me like that, and it made me try to do everything I could to help them.

A lot of college students are less open about their feelings than the younger students were, but some of them have confided in me about their dreams for their future. Several of them have come to me to talk about the books that we're studying, and they often bring up questions and issues that I hadn't even considered. They talk enthusiastically about the characters as if they're real people, which shows that the books have come to mean something to them. And that gives me a lot of satisfaction to know that I helped them to recognize the value of literature, and it also makes me proud that they developed their own insight.

Recently, a former graduate student sued her school because she received a C-plus in one of her classes. She demanded an apology from her professor and that her grade be changed to a B. She also demanded more than a million dollars, because she claimed that that low grade kept her from completing her degree; the money was what she would have earned from her career as a - wait for it - therapist.

Never mind that she had gotten free tuition because of her father's job as a professor at that school, and never mind that she got another graduate degree and found a job in a different field. She claimed that she had been discriminated against and graded unfairly. It apparently didn't even occur to her that her grade may have actually been based on her own work and her own mistakes.

When I heard about this lawsuit, it made me think of the students who have blamed me for their bad grades, though none of them have sued me, thank God. If this student won this lawsuit, it would have set a dangerous precedent; then any of my students could sue me for giving them grades that they didn't "deserve". Every time a student complains about his or her grade and blames it on me rather than his or her own mistakes (it doesn't happen to me that often, because not all the students are like this, but it happens), I lose a little faith in teaching; it makes me wonder whether these students see me as just a grade distributor or an educator.

The judge ruled against this student, and her grade remained a C-plus. When I heard that she lost, my first reaction was to march up and down the street singing Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" song.

I also wanted to thumb my nose at her and say, "Maybe next time you'll realize that you have to earn your grades! Ha!" I know I shouldn't take pleasure in other people's losses, but I couldn't help myself this time.

The judge's ruling made me think that maybe people do realize that educators' jobs are important, and that they really are qualified to make judgments on students' work. It made me see that for once, the educators won, which was refreshing after reading so many articles that blame the teachers (though I do acknowledge that there are teachers out there who shouldn't be teaching) for everything the students do wrong. Reading about the judge's ruling also came at a good time for me, because I recently read an article about a professional basketball player who was paid more for playing one game than I (or any other teacher, for that matter) would have earned in several years.


What about you? What keeps you from giving up on your work, whether it be your day job, your writing, or anything else that you're passionate about? 

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Vacation That's Just for Me

I recently made the decision to give up my upcoming spring break because of personal obligations. Without going into too much detail, the "obligations" aren't based on an emergency. But it was "expected" that I would help, and because of that, I will not get a spring vacation. And I can't help feeling just a little bit unhappy about it, especially because I am "expected" to sacrifice the little free time that I do have more often than not.

As a workaholic, I don't typically take vacations. Partly it's because despite the fact that I work multiple jobs, I can't afford to take a vacation because none of those jobs pay very well. Also it's because I like vacations as much as the Lohan family likes being out of the spotlight, or as much as certain celebrities like to wear outfits that don't just happen to "slip" whenever paparazzi are around (cough, cough).

When I do get a break from school, I don't spend the time relaxing. For me a "relaxing" day is getting a lot of things done, because how relaxed can I be when I go to sleep at night and think of all the things I didn't get done? I had this nightmare once where a tour guide was showing me around some weird place I'd never seen before and saying, "And in this life, no one EVER works! Isn't that great?" And I woke up thinking, Oh, NO! Did I just have a dream about what hell is like?

I'm all about multi-tasking. Even when I watch TV, I'm usually ironing my clothes, dusting my furniture, or writing a manifesto that's directed towards my neighbors and titled something like, "How to Be Less Annoying. Tip #1: If you're going to invite your dates over, at least put some music on first (but try not to blast it as you normally do, especially if it's the middle of the night). And also lower your shades. If you refuse to lower your shades, at least remember that it's really not necessary to dance around naked and sing bad love songs at the top of your lungs for the next two hours after your date leaves." (I'm not a peeping tom or one to eavesdrop, but some of my neighbors like to announce to the whole building how active their social lives are. That's why I have to keep my shades down.)

For example, during my last winter break, I spent part of the time visiting family. I spent the rest of the time doing research for my dissertation, cleaning out and reorganizing my apartment, working out at the gym, running errands, etc., etc. I did also take some time to do fun things, like fiction writing, going to the movies, and spending time with an old friend. But the point is that that time was mine, to do with as I liked. And it felt good.

If I did take a "real" vacation, though, I'd want it to be a writer's retreat. Fellow blogger Julie Dao, who writes the blog Silver Lining, recently wrote a post about solo writing retreats. I like the idea of being able to spend the whole day writing, because I've never been able to do that before. Rather than stay in Chicago and write, I'd like to go away somewhere (preferably somewhere that's far, far away from my neighbors) and just write all day, every day. Technically I'd still be working, but writing has always been a different kind of work as far as I'm concerned. For one thing, when I'm writing, I never end up pulling my hair out and saying, "Yes, you really do have to read the book in order to write a paper about it," or "The next time you ask me to write a recommendation letter for you, please give me more than two hours' notice before the deadline," or "Would you like to sign up for the store credit card that will make a lot of money for the store...er, that will save you a lot of money?" 

I think it'd be nice to go somewhere that's near the ocean or a lake, so that I could look out at the water when I write. I'd also like to go someplace that's quiet and peaceful, because then I'd actually be able to sleep through the whole night without waking up a bunch of times to scream, "KEEP IT DOWN, DEVIL'S SPAWN!" out my window.

It would also have to be a place with good coffee shops and restaurants nearby, because what kind of vacation is it if the food isn't good? And of course there would be someplace nice to take walks in, like a park or a beach, so that the long walks will make me feel less guilty about eating that good food.

And I'd want a room with a nice writing desk and space for the books I'll bring along. It would be wonderful if there were bookstores nearby so that I could buy more books; I've always felt happiest in bookstores.

But most of all, it would be nice to have a vacation where for once I'd get to write without thinking about all the other work that I have to do or without anyone else pressuring me to give up my free time (so that they can do what they want to do) and trying to make me feel guilty if I don't want to do it.

Someday, when I have more money (and more free time), I'm going to take that writing retreat. And I'm going to develop more of a backbone so that I can learn to say "no" when it's necessary, so that I won't always cave in to pressure and give up the limited free time that I have. I'm still willing to help others; I'm not completely selfish. But I think I've earned the right to take my own vacation, especially because I really do work hard. And I think I have the right to say no, at least once in a while.

What about you? Have you ever taken a writing retreat before? Other than a writing retreat, what else is your idea of a dream vacation?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Can You Write What You've Never Felt?

One of the most common writing tips I've heard was, "Write what you know." I guess that rules out writing about cooking, because when I think of "cooking", I think, "Open freezer, take food out of box, and put into oven." I also think, "Pick up phone and order pizza."

I also don't know anything about professional sports. When I think of the Superbowl, I think, "Yay! This is the one day of the year where I won't be tempted to wrestle anyone for getting the last doughnut at Starbucks, because everyone else will be at home watching TV!" or "Ah, the Superbowl. Yet another excuse for my neighbors to get drunk."

They say that writers can do research to learn more about the topics they're unfamiliar with. But if I have to watch the Superbowl (or any football game, for that matter), I might as well stop drinking coffee, take a day off, and just relax. And that would just be MADNESS, I tell you!

I've been struggling with my manuscript lately. I love reading chick lit, and I like writing it too. But at the heart of most chick lit novels is a love story. And that's a problem for me, because I've never been in love.

I know what it's like to like someone. I also know what it's like to lust after someone. (On the other hand, if the muscular guys at the gym stopped wearing tank tops, I probably wouldn't know what lust even means.) And looking back on my teenage years, I remember what it's like to be infatuated with someone, to the point that I wrote his name all over my notebooks, drew little hearts, and imagined dancing with him in a Backstreet Boys video (you roll your eyes at me now, but you KNOW what it feels like).

But it's difficult for me to describe my main character in love without using a bunch of cliches, like a pounding heart and sweaty hands. But my heart pounds and my hands get sweaty when I work out at the gym, or when I'm running away from the health foods store and in the direction of the candy store, or when I think of what the country will be like if Perez Hilton becomes President.

It's easy for me to write about how my main character feels when she's disappointed, ignored, or insulted by her dates, seeing as how all of those things have happened to me. But when I think of all the dates that I've been on in the past couple years, I can think of only one date where I actually had fun and genuinely liked the guy. (And even he didn't call.)

I could write about how I imagine it feels like, or how I've observed it from seeing other people in love. I could also write about someone like me: someone who has never been in love but wants to be.

Or maybe I could compare it to other things I love. I don't love wearing miniskirts, but I do love to make fun of the people who wear them when it's five degrees out.

I don't love it when some of my students make excuses about why they didn't do their homework (AGAIN!), but I do love it when their eyes light up about a story that we're reading in class.

I don't love my morning commute on the train because of rush hour, the fact that trains are often late, and the people who insist on cramming themselves into the train even when it's OBVIOUS that it's already too full and then yell at everyone to move back (which prompts me to yell, "MOVE BACK? HOW ABOUT YOU MOVE AWAY, TO THE SUBURBS?"). But I do love the Chicago-style pizza (Giordano's is the best!), sitting by the lake when it's warm out and watching the water move, and wearing the same black down coat (and three layers of clothing underneath) that everyone else wears during the winter, which makes me feel like a true Chicagoan.

Those kinds of love are different from romantic love, which makes romantic love all that much more difficult to describe. But I don't want to wait to finish my manuscript until after I fall in love, because what if that doesn't happen until after Perez Hilton becomes President?

So I'm going to keep trying to write about it. And I suppose I will keep learning more about cooking, too. It would be a lot easier to just buy a cookbook instead of a fire extinguisher.

What about you? Do you think it's possible to write a love story even if you've never been in love? Do you "write what you know", or do you do research for your stories?