On the eve of the shortest day of the year, I’d like to extend my sincerest wishes for a happy holiday (whatever you celebrate) and a healthy, prosperous new year. Personally, while I grew up celebrating Christmas, living in Sweden makes one acutely aware of daylight hours, for good and ill. Even with the now-ubiquitous extension of electricity to include outdoor as well as indoor lighting, there is a certain inevitable sobriety to a sun that doesn’t rise until 8:44 and sets as early as 2:48. (I can’t imagine how I’d fare up in Norrland!)
Truth be told, this is the first new year that I’m actively dreading. Sometimes I’ve been reluctant about the holiday–uncomfortable with the passing of time that the occasion so very obviously marks–and other times I’ve been excited. But this year I’m actively resisting 2017. I’ll mark all my usual traditions (cheap champagne and The Big Lebowski), and be grateful that I came out of 2016 (what a year!) relatively unscathed, but when the calendar rolls over there won’t be any relief, excitement, or anticipation. Just the grim realization that we have work to do.
But I won’t be a Debbie Downer; there is much to celebrate and remember.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Like many Americans, the results of the recent 2016 election left me feeling hopeless. I’m deliberately avoiding words like “stunned,” “shocked,” or “speechless,” as all of them would imply that I was somehow surprised by this turn of events. I was not. The moment of shock for me had been earlier in the year, when The Donald was crowned as the Republican party nominee. This was the depressing and inevitable triumph.
Language matters. That’s the lesson we can take away from this. Language matters and rhetoric matters. One of the significant issues surrounding The Donald’s ascent into power is the question of the so-called “alt-right,” the building populist movement built on the idea of white American (male) superiority. The AP’s official stance on the nomenclature is heartening.
Over the next four years, it will be imperative to be precise in our language, accurate in our descriptions, and mindful of our sources. The AP’s stance on the use of “alt-right” is a necessary tool in that tool kit. As John Daniszewski puts it,
We should not limit ourselves to letting such groups define themselves, and instead should report their actions, associations, history and positions to reveal their actual beliefs and philosophy, as well as how others see them.
Did you make it? Regardless of if you got to 50,000 words or not, if you wrote at all during National Novel Writing Month, then congratulations! You have X more words than you had at the beginning of the month, and that’s the really important thing. Maybe you even established a daily “butt in chair, hands on keyboard” habit—even better!
My goal for this year was to finish a round of revisions on the first draft I finished in NaNoWriMo 2014. After not touching the manuscript for months, I finished the remaining chapters in a week. (See what kind of magic an arbitrary deadline can work?) As far as NaNoWriMo was concerned, the rest of November was a combination of sitting on my laurels, writing some escapist nonsense for kicks and giggles, and working on the third round of revisions. (Writing really is revising.)
I’m at a point with this story where I don’t know up from down. If I let myself get distracted from the very practical aspects of putting scenes in order and making sure they all either advance the plot or develop a character, it’s an endless, terrifying void: is this project worth pursuing? does it make sense? will people like it?
All I can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other. One chapter after the next. I admit, it’s exhausting to not have a finished product after three years of (intermittent) labor. But I owe it to myself to finish this one, big thing. Just because I can. Do I need to publish it? No. Do I need anyone else to read it? Not really (except insofar as critiquing and editing is concerned!). I just need to prove to myself that I can put the time in to create something as sprawling and as weird and as complicated as this novel.
Those of you who crossed the November 30 finish line with me: take a rest. Take it easy. Be kind to yourself this December. See the friends you didn’t make time for, have a movie night with your spouse/child/pet, get back into running/yoga/meditation, cook a proper meal.
Speaking of meditation, allow me to share an analogy. This is, I believe, an old Rinzai Zen chestnut. It came to me by way of the priest at my zendo in the US, but I’m pretty sure he was quoting someone else.
Your mind is like a bird. And just like birds need to sit and rest in between long flights (even though some are capable of incredible journeys!), your mind also needs to rest in between states of focus. Otherwise you would lose touch with reality and burn out.
It’s originally an analogy about zazen, but it applies to anything you want to do well. We all just pushed through a mad 30-day flight over uncharted territory. It was exhilarating and terrifying and magical. But the bird needs to rest for a while, now, before the next mad dash.
And then, in January, we pick up our pens and sit down at our keyboards and begin again.
The good news is that I took a little under one week to finish all of the revisions I intended to space out over a month.
The bad news is that over the course of reworking it for a second time, I’ve stumbled upon yet more changes I want to make. They’re smaller than the changes I made in the first round, but they’re not insignificant. Though, I also realized I wanted to effectively double the length of the story, which is quite significant. But it has to be done for the sake of the story.
The worst news is that I haven’t been working on it at all since the election results. A lot of my focus and energy has had to go elsewhere over the last few days. My postmodern epistolary anti-bildungsroman can take a back burner for now.
Full disclosure: this blog post originally appeared, essentially in its entirety, on the Stockholm WriMos Blog. I’m reproducing it here because 1) I wrote it and 2) I still think it’s helpful.
I took a lot of writing workshops in college—par for the course when you’re a Creative Writing major. They were a tough slog, but everything was worth it for this one valuable insight:
First drafts are not the final product.
It sounds so banal, doesn’t it? So self-evident, so obvious. But the difference between what you scribble in that so-late-it’s-early madness and what gets finished (maybe even published!) isn’t just cosmetic. It is huge. Substantive. Significant. If you’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, you might recall that King touches on this. If you’re an aspiring writer and you haven’t read On Writing, you should, but for this blog post I’ve dug up something even better than King’s example. It illustrates the reality of this little truism better than I ever could.
Elizabeth Bishop and “One Art”
Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet during the middle of the last century. A few of her poems are bound to come up in the study of English writing and American poetry, in particular, her villanelle “One Art.” reproduced below:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Pretty stunning little poem, isn’t it? Every time I revisit it, it gets me.
How many drafts do you think it took Bishop to pen this? Certainly a few. But could you quantify it? I’ll let you take a moment to guess.
She wrote 16 drafts of this poem.
The truly fantastic thing is that, because she was so contemporary, we have a pretty good record of her stuff, including those drafts. All 16 are still around today (and are, I’m sure, part of some university’s fancy literary collection).
My writing professor photocopied selections from those drafts (images of the original, handwritten drafts!) and handed them out to us as part of her lesson on the importance of revisions. I forget whatever it was she said that day (sorry, professor!) but just seeing those changes and that personal struggle on the way to a finished product was lesson enough. Unfortunately, I failed to keep that handout. But the Internet has preserved their content, if not their original form. Go read them now. Even if you’re not a poet (I’m not). Even if you didn’t like the above poem. My point is not only to illustrate the difference in quality (that is, at the end of the day, subjective) but also the difference in form, in content, in voice.
If you don’t have time to read all of them, then at least read this first draft.
The Art of Losing Things
The thing to do is to begin by “mislaying”.
Mostly, one begins by “mislaying”:
keys, reading-glasses, fountain pens
– these are almost too easy to be mentioned,
and “mislaying” means that they usually turn up
in the most obvious place, although when one
is making progress, the places grow more unlikely
– This is by way of introduction.
I really want to introduce myself – I am such a
fantastic lly good at losing things
I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences.
You may find it hard to believe, but I have actually lost
I mean lost, and forever two whole houses,
one a very big one. A third house, also big, is
at present, I think, “mislaid” – but
Maybe it’s lost too. I won’t know for sure for some time.
I have lost one long (crossed out) peninsula and one island.
I have lost – it can never be has never been found –
a small-sized town on that same island.
I’ve lost smaller bits of geography, like
a splendid beach, and a good-sized bay.
Two whole cities, two of the
world’s biggest cities (two of the most beautiful
although that’s beside the point)
A piece of one continent –
and one entire continent. All gone, gone forever and ever.
One might think this would have prepared me
for losing one averaged-sized not especially——— exceptionally
beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person
(except for blue eyes) (only the eyes were exceptionally beautiful and
But it doesn’t seem to have, at all … the hands looked intelligent)
the fine hands,
a good piece of one continent
and another continent – the whole damned thing!
He who loseth his life, etc… – but he who
loses his love – never, no never never never again –
The difference between the two is something to be marveled at. Not only for the difference between the first and final drafts, but also for the fact that Bishop had the dedication to work these scant few lines over 16 times until she found what she was looking for.
What’s Ernest Hemingway got to do with it?
This quote gets around a lot, especially during NaNoWriMo, but it bears repeating:
The first draft of anything is shit.
This doesn’t mean that all first drafts (including this one) are automatically mind-breakingly awful. (I would not deign to call a Poet Laureate’s first draft “shit”; that smacks of hubris.) Some certainly are mind-breakingly awful; some are quite good. Chances are yours will fall somewhere in between. But, with rare exception, you will think what you have written is shit. And it is your own judgment call on your work that matters the most, at the end of the day. If you are perfectly content with the first thing that comes out when you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, you are a sparkling rare unicorn but also probably have no need for motivation or inspiration or pep to sit down and write. Why are you even reading this?
But if you are not that sparkling rare unicorn who loves everything they write on the first go, then you need to embrace the possibility of your first draft being shit, because at least some of it will be. It is not a pretty truth and it can absolutely get overlooked in all the hype and run-up to NaNo. “Nothing is perfect in a first draft,” they say. True. But that’s a euphemistic spin on this cold, hard truth:
Some, if not all, of your first draft will definitely be terrible.
Not just “not perfect.” Not just “not that good.” Some of it will be awful.
Say it a few times until it sinks in. Look in a mirror if you have to. Channel your inner Elsa and let it go.
You need to have that Zen experience of realizing that you will write shit, the first draft of anything can and probably will be shit, otherwise your dreaded Inner Editor will come out and stop you from adding new words to the paper. If you cannot make peace with that fact, you are going to have a tough time—not only with NaNo, but with writing anything. Ever. For some reason, people seem to be able to apply this lesson to any other skill (drawing, learning a musical instrument, building things) but when it comes to writing people refuse to believe it. Maybe it’s because writing is a skill we study more in school than art or singing or carpentry?
Now, this got pretty bleak, and the point of this was to be a pep talk, wasn’t it? Here is the silver lining of this “it’s all going to be awful” philosophy:
It is one of the most potent cures for Writer’s Block known to WriMos.
Having that Zen moment and giving yourself permission to write shit, through some weird alchemy, turns into giving yourself permission to write. For real. Even if you just do NaNo for fun and have no aspirations to publish or revise or edit or even read what you wrote ever again. Permission to write shit is the big gun you need when a deadline isn’t enough. (For many people, a deadline becomes that path to Zen mastery, but sometimes it’s the other way around.)
It is also an essential part of the revisions process, but more on that in another post.
My first draft? Is definitely going to be terrible. It is going to be cringe-worthy and awkward and there will be moments when I will want to delete the whole thing out of shame. It’s in those moments when I recall Elizabeth Bishop and Ernest Hemingway and press on. I am, after all, in good company.
And so are you.
Here’s to writing shit! We will all do it, and we will all be better for it.
November is almost here, and that means that writers around the world are getting ready for National Novel Writing Month. The tradition is so well-established by now that I’ll just leave a link to the official homepage here so you can read about it yourself if you haven’t heard of it, to avoid needlessly preaching to the choir. (Or is that preaching to the converted? I can never decide which version of that expression I like better.)
My own history with NaNoWriMo (as it’s colloquially known) is a rocky one, even though I’ve participated in, and “won,” most years since 2008 (exceptions are 2010 and 2012). My very first NaNo draft is lost forever, even though I distinctly remember emailing it to myself. One of my “winners” still isn’t a complete first draft. Last year’s project was just revising 2014’s draft. I’m not sure how I’m going to handle this year, as I’m juggling studying, editing work, tutoring, and helping run Stockholm NaNoWriMo’s events. A couple of options have crossed my mind:
1. Continue revising 2014’s NaNo into something I can shop around to publishers, literary agents, and/or developmental editors.
2. Rework/rewrite another old NaNo, just for fun.
3. Binge-write blog posts.
4. Jump head-first into Naomi Goldberg’s notebook practice.
5. Tackle an entirely new idea.
I’m not sure what I’ll be doing yet. I do know that you’ll find me at Stockholm NaNoWriMo‘s events if you want to come by and say hello. I also know that if you decide to join NaNoWriMo and want another pair of eyes for your project, I’m here. (With some caveats.) I do know that I’ll be sharing my thoughts and feelings here, periodically, along with some advice.
Join me, won’t you? Let me know what you’re writing in the comments or on Twitter!
11I moved to Sweden to be with JV, my long-term, long-distance partner. (The agonization I have over that particular word choice [“partner”] is worth another blog post, but not today.) He’s fluent in English and Swedish, and something like conversant in Dutch and Japanese. We mostly use English together, and we talk a lot about words.
The other day the topic of 2001: A Space Odyssey came up. I forget why, or whether we were speaking English or Swedish, but he mentioned the Swedish title: 2001 – Ett rymdäventyr.
“‘Ett rymdäventyr’? That’s kind of a crummy translation. It’s not a space adventure. That’s like some Buck Rogers stuff. You couldn’t just use ‘odyssey’ in Swedish?” I thought it over for a second and hazarded a guess. “Odysseyen?”
“I don’t know. The original Odyssey is an adventure, after all.”
“Yeah, but it’s also serious? Dramatic? Epic? An adventure isn’t necessarily those things. When we call something an odyssey in English, it’s usually something epic, or at least long.”
“I guess so. Huh.”
I looked it up just now, and if Swedish Wikipedia is anything to go by, it seems that the movie is indeed called 2001 – Ett rymdäventyr, but Clarke’s novel is 2001 – En rymdodyssé.
Do you think there’s a difference between “adventure” and “odyssey”? How is 2001: A Space Odyssey translated in your native language? Is it like Swedish, where there’s more than one translation?
This week and next I’ll be in the US for my little brother’s wedding! Some blog posts and Tweets are scheduled in my absence, but (obviously) I won’t be getting any work done. I’ll see you on the flip side!
I’ve always been interested in foreign languages — my electives in high school were essentially all the music and foreign language classes I could fit in my schedule — so it’s not surprising that I would fall into teaching as a career.
I’ve made oblique references to studying Russian and Swedish elsewhere; I’ve also studied, in increasing order of fluency, Korean, German, and French. If you peek at my DuoLingo profile, you can see that I’ve also dipped my toes into Turkish. (It’s been a while with that one; I wouldn’t claim any kind of proficiency or knowledge.) While I’m just plain interested in languages, I think it’s important for language teachers to keep up their own language studies throughout their careers.
1. You can understand your students better.
If nothing else, when you have a better understanding of your students’ mother tongue, you can better understand where there might be L1 interference or confusion. My Korean students and friends, for example, often would use the verb “play” in a manner that, while not technically wrong, sounded odd, especially coming from someone older than 10. (“How was your weekend?” “It was good, I played with some friends.”) If I didn’t know any better, I would just be confused or annoyed by this persistent pattern in Korean English. But it’s an idiosyncrasy that’s a lot easier to understand because I know (a little bit) about Korean.
As it turns out, in Korean you can use the verb “to play” for everything from schoolyard games to company dinners (놀다) to just shooting the shit in the park, whereas in English we quickly outgrow it unless it’s in the context of a sport or a musical instrument. I hope that, if I taught my teenage Korean students nothing else, I got them to start using “hang out with” instead of “play with” when talking about their weekends.
2. You can remember what it’s like to be a student.
After a few years of pedagogical training and work, it can be really easy to fall prey to teacher hubris. Being a beginner again helps foster a sense of empathy with your students and their own struggles.
3. You can learn to be a better teacher.
This one is a little tricky if you’re not actually taking a class, but you can probably still be inspired by a good textbook or workbook. While there is plenty of EFL material written by plenty of highly qualified EFL experts, English isn’t the only language out there. The more you can branch out into other languages, the greater pool of inspiration you have to draw from. Maybe the worksheet you did for French is the perfect thing to adapt to your direct object lesson next week, and so on.
4. Your students can feel more comfortable with you.
Many argue for the immersive “target language only” philosophy; this is the approach I was taught when I did my CELTA. While I agree that the immersive (or faux-immersive) environment can be exactly the challenging situation that a lot of students need, and that it sometimes is the best practical situation (e.g. a class of international students who don’t all share the same mother tongue), I don’t think it’s always entirely appropriate. Some students are shy, or not quite confident in the target language–sometimes just knowing that they can ask a clarifying question or use a word in their mother tongue is the Dumbo’s feather that they need to take productive learning risks. The more languages you know at least a little bit about, the more students you can reach.
So I study languages for all of these reasons, but also just because it’s something I’m interested in. I’m not the most diligent student, I’ll admit, but I still make an effort. I’ll get into my own study habits and schedule in another post. But for now, I’ll leave things here.
Does anyone like talking on the phone these days? It doesn’t seem like it.
I contributed more than my fair share to the phone bill as a teenager, thanks to summer camp friends who lived a few area codes over. I never stressed over making those calls, or having to exchange brief niceties with a parent or sibling, or leaving a message on the answering machine.
But something about the phone changed, and I don’t know what it was. Maybe the introduction of the cell phone–now people can be anywhere when you call them. That seems trivial and unrelated until you think about all of the new ambient noise that includes. Before, if you called someone’s landline, they would actually have to be home to take the call. Even the loudest family, I think, isn’t as loud or as sound distorting as traffic or crowds. Also, it might be my imagination, but the sound quality on a cell phone is a little (or a lot, depending on your reception) worse than a landline. Ambient noise + iffy quality + the never-ending problems with poor reception = a lot of “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
Maybe it was growing up. By college I connected with friends via the Internet instead of the phone. The phone was now either for chores or for tedium: booking appointments, telemarketers, calling into work sick, etc. Phone calls meant I was getting called in to cover on my day off or something equally unpleasant.
Whatever the reason(s), by adulthood I had a proper aversion to using the phone. Anxiety, even, would not be far off the mark. Even as an introvert, my friends and social connections are important to me; much as I love my hidey-hole, once in a while I need some company to share it with. I love hosting parties and lecturing people about my niche interest. (Do you want to know about caves? The subjunctive mood? Greek mythology? I’m your woman.) This enthusiasm surprises people sometimes, and they wrongly assume I’m an extrovert. Nope nope nope. Outside of a controlled scenario that includes boundaries and scripts, I’m a mess. Surprise interactions with new people are stressful, not exhilarating. And “surprise interactions with new people” pretty much defines telephone calls.
Now I’m a freelancer. People need to be able to get in touch with me, so I include my phone number in all of my advertisements. This means I have to be open to random phone calls at any point during the day. Not only that, but phone calls from strangers and unknown numbers–calls that, as a student, I could afford to screen. Especially since an unknown number usually meant some kind of marketing scheme or other. Not anymore. Now that unknown number might help me pay the bills or have dinner. (Or it might be the tax office, which is not nearly as profitable but nonetheless important.) Someone once said that you should do one thing every day that scares you. For me, it’s answering my phone. (Hah, if only I were getting daily calls from new customers!)
Of course, with the advent of cell phones came texting. A godsend. A text message isn’t instantaneous–it’s only as fast as you can text–which is sometimes an issue, but it has the advantage of permanence. If you give me directions over the phone, I’ll have to scramble to write them down or ask you to repeat them a few times to make sure I won’t get lost. If you text me, I can just open up the message and access that information anytime I want. I can take all the time I need to formulate my response without seeming rude or inattentive.
Fortunately, most other people seem to be in the same boat as me. Whether it’s because of the tension in my tone, or because of their own personal preferences, a new customer almost immediately switches to text messages after the initial phone call. Is it because more and more people have developed an aversion to phone calls? Is it because we’re all immigrants struggling with a shared foreign language? Have I lucked out and attracted a client base with a similar temperament to mine?