Monday, January 26, 2015

Things I've Learned from Academia

1. How many academics does it take to screw in a light bulb? Zero. They'll spend the entire time over-analyzing the political/sociological/philosophical/literary significance of the light bulb, or they'll question whether the light bulb is perhaps symbolic of something else, like the oppression of [insert the name of any oppressed group here].

2. You'll know you've "made" it as an academic not only if you get tenure but also if you get your own office with a fancy nameplate attached to the door, rather than an note card taped to the door that lists your name and office hours, along with the note cards of the other instructors that you have to share the office with. If you get your own office, never again will you have to deal with other instructors who say stuff like, "Well,  need this desk from 2-5 today to meet with students," and "But need this desk to grade fifty papers, unless of course you want to disappoint fifty undergrads and grade them for me?"

3. Administrators do things like make budget cuts that negatively affect the professors, lecturers, and teaching assistants who would have to spend several years toiling away in the classroom to match the six-figure salary that several administrators get for one year's worth of work.

4. Your skills as a teacher, years of teaching experience, and hundreds of positive evaluations from the undergrads you've taught will never mean half as much to search committees or tenure committees as the scholarly books and articles that you are expected to write and that really only matter to other scholars.

5. If you pursue a graduate degree with any kind of liberal arts major, you may or may not end up with a five or six-figure student loan debt, years of experience as a retail salesperson/waiter/babysitter, and your own students who will earn thousands of dollars more than you long before you ever finish graduate school.

6. If you decide to pursue a career as an academic, then be prepared to have people constantly tell you that you work too hard/you look tired/you might want to cut down on your coffee intake at some point, because it's not normal for your face to twitch involuntarily like that.

7. In graduate school, many people form long-lasting friendships because they can relate to each other's experiences. Others will form long-lasting rivalries, where discussions will focus not on topics like "Who wore it best?" but "Who over-analyzed that poem/novel/critical theory best?" Fellow scholars will have discussions that revolve around their work, saying stuff like, "I presented my work at this conference, and everyone loved it so much that they gave me a standing ovation," or "My article was just published in that academic journal, and the editors loved it so much that they took a picture of themselves giving me a standing ovation and sent it to me. Want to see it?"

8. You will spend years writing a dissertation that should be at least 250-300 pages, depending on your program's requirements. The dissertation is basically a book that, if you are a department favorite and an intellectual superstar, could actually be published, but most dissertations will collect dust in the stacks of university libraries. It should have hundreds of footnotes and will probably only be read in its entirety by the five or six people on your committee, and by zero people outside of academia. You could ask family and friends to read the whole thing for you, but expect for them to suddenly have serious work commitments/illnesses that prevent them from reading footnotes/to move to places where it is illegal to read dissertations.

9. You will deal with professors who are kind and encouraging, other professors who will be quick to find fault with every single detail in your work, to the point that you will run with your arms outstretched to the nearest cafe so that you can drink your weight in coffee and stay awake long enough to write something that they won't find fault with, and other professors who won't have time for your work at all because they're too busy over-analyzing the political/sociological/philosophical/literary significance of things like light bulbs.

These are just some of the things that I've learned from my years of working in academia. What are some of the things that you've learned from your work environment?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Back to the 90s

If there's one fictional invention that I wish was real, it would have to be the time machine. The closest I can get to having one is by listening to certain songs from when I was growing up, because there are certain songs where all it takes is hearing one line or one chord; I'll close my eyes and I'll remember very clearly a certain person or event that I associate with that song, and I'll remember what it was like to be the age that I was when that song was popular.

For example, the Proclaimers' song (released in 1988, but it didn't become famous in the U.S. until 1993, when it was featured on the soundtrack for the film Benny and Joon) makes me feel like I'm twelve years old again every time I hear the song. Here's the video for it:

It makes me feel like I'm twelve again because in the summer of 1993, I went to camp, where I met a boy and got to go on my first "date." We went to one of the dances together that were hosted by the camp and which all the preteen campers fussed over, precisely because we were all obsessed over whether or not we were going to get dates. (Looking back on it now, it almost makes me feel like I was in a storyline for a YA novel.) That song by the Proclaimers was the most popular song at camp, and they must have played it several times during the dance.

The thing about THAT date, however, is that the boy I went to the dance with literally hid in a corner of the room where the dance was held for the first HOUR. Why? He was embarrassed because he was one of the only kids who was wearing dress pants instead of jeans. I didn't care about the clothes, especially because I don't think I was wearing jeans either; I think I wore some kind of dress instead. I just wanted to dance, but it was kind of hard to dance with a twelve-year-old boy when he's throwing a tantrum in a corner and his friends are trying to coax him out. When he finally emerged from the corner, his "dancing" made me think, "Hmm. Maybe I should follow in my Catholic school teachers' footsteps and become a nun."

Girl band TLC's single, "Creep," was a popular song in 1994 (when I was thirteen), and the band was one of my favorites when I was in high school. Their clothes remind me of the baggy outfits that were popular in the nineties, long before "jeggings" (I CURSE whoever invented those, and if I ever find the person or people who invented them, I'm going to chase them down, make them eat a doughnut and then force them to try to fit into just one pair of jeggings, hahahahaha!!!) was even a word.

My mother once glanced at the TV when I was watching the music video for the song (remember when MTV still played music videos, instead of reality shows about teen moms who spend a LOT more money on boob jobs, boyfriends, and bail money than on their own children? But I digress.). She saw the women of TLC and asked me, "Why can't YOU be thin like them?"

This was when I was about five foot one and 120 pounds.  By the time I graduated from high school four years later, I had gained a significant amount of weight, and I still cringe when I look at my graduation pictures. I've spent the last twenty years struggling with my weight, which has gone up and down, and I WISH I was still 120 pounds. That's why, by the time I was in my twenties, I finally joined a gym, cut WAY down on my sugar and salt intake, drank more water (and less soda), and tried to learn how to cook. I say tried because my cooking is so bad that the judges on Top Chef would probably just ban me from the kitchen altogether or perhaps weep with fury at my ineptitude.

The Backstreet Boys was my favorite boy band during the late 90s boy band craze. My favorite BSB song was "As Long as You Love Me," which was released in 1997, when I was sixteen. I liked boy bands like them because they were cute and their music was fun to dance to. I also liked them because their music was a refuge that I could escape to, if only temporarily: I could escape from the boys in real life, who ignored me unless they were making fun of me or unless they needed help with their homework (Word of advice to high school bullies: if you want the class nerd/brain to help you with your homework, then don't be mean to them, or at least don't be surprised by the kind of "help" you get as a result. But I digress.)

When I listened to the boy bands, I could also escape from the girls who talked on and on about the high school formal dances, most of which I didn't get to go to, since I usually didn't have a date, not even for prom junior or senior year. It was difficult to look at my friends' prom pictures, listen to them go on and on about what their boyfriends gave them for Valentine's Day, and be excluded from the double dates that they went on (I was excluded because I didn't have a boyfriend).

Every once in a while, a part of me regrets that I missed out on that part of the high school experience. But looking back on it now, I realize that while I may have not had the typical high school experiences, there was something about who I was (and who I still am) that was different from most of the other girls who did get to experience those things. I wanted a different life than the one that they wanted, though there wasn't anything wrong with what they wanted; I just wanted something different, because I was different.

I could go on, but there's not enough room in this blog post for all the songs that take me back in time. What about you? Which songs bring up memories for you from your childhood or teen years?

Monday, January 12, 2015

It's Not The Story, It's The Character

I once read a chick lit novel where the main character's primary love interest was someone I didn't like at all. He was rude to customer service employees (although I will admit, after an HOUR of being on hold, I have been tempted to go all Shakespeare on certain customer service employees and shriek, "A PLAGUE on your houses...AND your phone company!") He was obnoxious and never apologized for it, especially because he never seemed to realize that the way he treated people was wrong.

This guy was condescending and dismissive of the main character's interests, as well as her hometown. I'll be the first to complain about some of Chicago's flaws, such as the fact that it is only warm about 1% of the year, and the rest of the year people only communicate through chattering teeth and five layers of clothes. (You may think I'm exaggerating, but I heard someone say recently, "It's supposed to be warm next week! The temperature's going to be in the double digits!") But I will head-butt any outsider who criticizes my beloved hometown, especially if they criticize my favorite deep-dish pizza place (because that just ain't right).

The love interest never really redeemed himself in the novel either, which is one of the reasons that he and the main character break up and she ends up alone by the end (which is unusual compared to most of the chick lit books I've read, where the heroine usually drives off into the sunset with her true love).

However, the author apparently kept trying to convince the reader that this guy was worthy of the main character's love, because the protagonist recognized his flaws but loved him anyway. It's one thing to accept that the one you love isn't perfect (especially because Prince Charming doesn't actually exist, no matter what fairy tales say), but it's another thing altogether to let him treat you and other people like crap over and over again while you insist that deep down he really is a nice guy. And that's exactly what the main character did, which made me like HER a lot less, despite the fact that she was otherwise a lot more likable than her love interest.

That chick lit novel reminded me of one of my favorite TV shows, Blue Bloods (what can I say? I'll take a cop show over a "I'm going to hook up with every doctor, nurse, and patient I encounter (cough, cough, Grey's Anatomy) show" or "I'm only going to be happy with my true love for about two seconds before some horrible villain shows up and distracts us for the next ten episodes where we'll only have time to look longingly at each other/whine about how complicated our relationship is for a few moments per episode (cough, cough, Once Upon a Time). I like all the characters on Blue Bloods, except for one recurring character: the female cop, Eddie Janko. (I DON'T have a problem with the fact that she's a cop.)

She was apparently brought in as a love interest for one of the main characters, Jamie, and they did share a kiss in one episode, though they ended up dating other people. Yet the writers seem to keep implying that eventually they will get together. If THAT happens, I'll stop watching the show, because I REALLY don't like that character. Not only is Eddie too immature and obnoxious, but she and Jamie don't have the same chemistry that he had with his other love interests. They act more like best friends or brother and sister than lovers. Although I like the show otherwise, seeing Eddie and Jamie's scenes with "romantic tension" bothers me, because I think he should be with one of his previous girlfriends.

When I was working on one particular story, I created a love interest for my main character who on paper seemed perfect for her. But the more that I wrote about their relationship, the more dissatisfied and frustrated I became. I liked that love interest; I just didn't like him with my main character. It wasn't just that they weren't right for each other. It was that he wasn't right for the story, and he probably belongs in another one (which at least gives me an excuse to write another story for him).

I found myself making the same mistake that that author did, where I made the main character keep saying that she really did care for him and that he really was a good guy. But I realized that if I wasn't convinced, how could I convince any readers in the future?

So I took that character out of the story, and another guy who had been only a minor character in my first draft became one of my protagonist's love interests (in many chick lit novels I've read, the main character has at least two: the right guy she bickers with but is secretly attracted to and the not-so-right guy who sweeps her off her feet). The new love interest changed the story as a whole, and he changed it for the better. And I, as the writer, felt happier and more satisfied with the story and the characters.

What about you? Do you ever read a story or watch a show that you like but that has a character that you don't like at all? If so, why didn't you like that character, and if you created him/her, what did you do about it?

Monday, January 5, 2015

When I Have Writer's Block

1. I think of whatever's annoying me at the moment (as I stated on Twitter, my brain is basically one eternal Seinfeld marathon, because I obsess over everything), and then I write about it. For example, I've filled up more than one page about the people who blast music and videos from their cell phones in cafes, so that it gets to the point that I want to hurl headphones at them.

2. I take advantage of the free-admission days at museums like the Art Institute, where I look at my favorite pieces of art, like the Miniature Rooms and the Impressionists' paintings. I sit on a bench and stare up at the beautiful art, thinking about the artists at work in their studios and how they didn't give up until they created something beautiful. A trip to the museum is enough to make me take out my journal and start writing, so that I can keep writing until I write something that is (hopefully) beautiful.

3. I eavesdrop on people's conversations at cafes, on the subway, at bus stops, in the grocery store, or in the laundry room, and then I write down what they say so that I can practice writing dialogue (and maybe even create interesting characters partly based on the people I listen to). For example, my journal is filled with lines I've overheard, like, "I can't believe he liked more of her selfies than mine. I thought it meant something when he followed me on Instagram," or "No, you can't sit there. My friend is sitting there, and he has every right to keep sitting there. It doesn't MATTER if he finished drinking his coffee an hour ago." and "I can't believe I had to sit through that whole movie. There were hardly any scenes with boobs in them." (I swear I'm not making any of these lines up. Chicagoans are weird.)

4. I reread my favorite books, like A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway or Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. Reading a good book is like one of those rare days in Chicago where the weather is perfect and everyone stays outside to soak up every minute of it, because they know that it will be freezing cold or windy by the next day. Truly good books that make you think and feel things that no post on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook will EVER make you feel in the same way motivate me to get back to work on my own stories.

5. I buy a cheap ticket to a play at one of the tiny theaters in Chicago, where more often than not the actors are ten times more talented than many of the A-list celebrities starring on the big screen. Sometimes I'll see a play that I know little about and ends up making me angry, like the one that spewed a bunch of distorted, bigoted crap about Catholics and made me want to stand up in the audience and shriek, "You're all going to HELL, you HEATHENS!" (I didn't, though I definitely felt tempted.) Sometimes I'll watch a play that is almost as good as one of my favorite books or paintings, so that it makes me marvel at how people utilize the talents that they were given and created something original and amazing. Either way, after immersing myself in the playwrights' world for a couple hours, it makes me want to get back to my own world that I created in my writing.

What about you? What kinds of things do you do when you have writer's block? Is there anything about your hometown in particular that helps you deal with writer's block?

P.S. Have a safe and happy New Year!