Dear Susan, May 1989 Edition

“It is the opinion of this committee that you have failed these comprehensive exams.” Okay, so right now, the pronouncement of the faculty in your small doctoral program feels like the worst thing anyone has ever said to you. It seems like the end of your dreams for a career in academia. But you need to listen to that other voice in your head, that one that keeps saying, “Wait–but I’m good at this. In all those seminar discussions, I had smart ideas and was able to make great connections.”

That’s the same voice that wondered why some of your colleagues were so dismissive of undergraduates, and said rude things about anything that wasn’t High Art. (“You’re going to a football game? Why?”) It’s the same horse sense that made you skeptical of a lot of the poststructural theory you’ve been reading, because it doesn’t seem grounded in the lived experience of the people you know.

That’s a smart voice, Susan. And it t turns out, this was not the right program for you. Looking back, you can see why they admitted you, and really, it was an amazing learning experience. You got to study theory with a really smart lesbian-feminist Marxist scholar–sure, she was scary as hell, but you learned so much. In a few years, you’ll find a new program, and realize how much you absorbed from this first go-round.

Not only did you learn all that theory and history, but you also learned not to take grad school so freaking seriously, and to recognize when others were getting too wrapped up in the grades and the competition. That experience will do you a world of good. No, everything won’t go perfectly, but you’ll get through it all, and you’ll learn you were right: you are a good teacher. You were meant to work with college students.


Dear Susan, 1981 Edition

Dear Susan,

You’ve finished high school and you’re about to start college–good for you! You’re attending a top-notch liberal arts school, and that’s because you worked hard. No, not always consistently or effectively, but hard. You’re smart and creative, and you deserve this.

Now, things are going to get a little weird next year. You’re going to feel uncomfortable about some of your choices, but you know what? That’s normal. You’re 18, for chrissake. Ease up a bit. You’re going to stick your foot in your mouth, you’re going to feel awkward at social events, and it’s all okay.

Many years from now, you’ll figure out that you’re not nearly as outgoing as you thought you were, which is a big reason you feel uncomfortable at those events. Just because you feel extroverted in class doesn’t mean you’re going to feel that way at a party. It’ll take you a long time to figure all that out, but trust me. It’s okay. Nobody thinks you’re a total freak.

And you may think no one notices you at all, sometimes, but in fact, people do remember you fondly. They’ll remember you as smart and politically engaged. No, you’re no longer one of the smartest kids in the room, but that’s because you earned a spot at a Really Smart College. These folks challenge you, and eventually you’ll find that that’s the best work environment possible.

Oh, and you’ll work out that whole heterosexuality thing, too. Just not quite the way you’re hoping to.

Dear Susan: The Preface

My therapist and I were talking the other day about my tendency toward hypercritical self-talk. You know, the kind of speech in which one berates oneself for all sorts of failures, from missed deadlines to weight gain to oversleeping. I’m pretty hard on myself, as any of my friends will affirm. This kind of chatter gets nastier the more my usual chronic depression deepens. That is, the worse the depression, the meaner the comments.

Then I remembered reading this piece from NPR by Laura Starechinski, in which she discusses research on self-talk, including a study led by Ethan Koss that looked at how we talk to ourselves–specifically, what pronouns we use. Starechinski notes that this study found that folks who talked to themselves as if they were talking to a friend tended to sound “more rational, and less emotional — perhaps because they were able to get some distance from themselves.”

So, I thought perhaps I’d give that a try. In the entries that follow, I’ll be addressing myself in a series of letters, to see if I can step outside of the negative spiral, and be a little kinder and gentler.

Whether this will then carry over into what goes on inside my head in moments of crisis, well, we’ll see.

Citation, Affect, and Smart Friends

I realized after posting the other day that I had alluded to Amy Robillard’s 2010 JAC essay “Anticipating Nostalgia, Securing Annabelle.” It’s not surprising that this essay has stayed with me–Amy has that way. [Attention students: this is one of the only times you ever get to refer to an author by her first name–when she used to have an office down a basement hallway from you, and the two of you would shout back and forth and complain and laugh until you cried.] That is, Amy has a way of embedding an complex idea within a set of narratives, circling around the not-quite-sayable until somehow it makes sense, and stays with you for a very long time.

It’s the idea of anticipatory nostalgia that Amy explains so beautifully in that essay, drawing on a range of other really smart people’s writing:

Anticipatory nostalgia, however, functions differently [than nostalgia] because its primary aim is to control future memory. Preoccupied with the future, anticipatory nostalgia forces us to notice the particularity and the contingency of this moment. Whereas anticipatory grief is a defensive attempt to prepare oneself for the inevitable, anticipatory nostalgia is a feeling of dis-ease in the moment, a desire to stop time and continue to feel what one feels right now. (806)

Anticipatory celebration was my way of thinking about the ways that social media taps into certain tendencies of mine that can work against mindfulness, against living in the present moment, against getting things done. And I’m sure there are smart folks who have conceptualized this more thoughtfully and carefully than my quick blog entry, but for now, having written this down, is enough.

Enough to remind me to stay in the moment, to breathe, to trust in the work.

And to be thankful I have such smart friends who write such good things that stay with me for so long. The advanced writing students I’ve assigned Amy’s essay to (and I always show some of Amy’s Facebook photos of her and the dogs when I introduce the essay) say that they’re amazed by her ability to weave together these different ideas, to weave narrative and theory, to use all of the tools in the writer’s toolbox in the service of something scholarly. They find it inspiring, even when they can’t fully understand all of the ideas.

And like me, perhaps they’ll come back to the essay again later, as those ideas germinate and take root.

Authorship and Keurig Repair

Yesterday evening, as I sipped my cocktail and followed the suggestions posted by other Keurig owners on some discussion board or another, I noticed myself looking forward to posting my success on Facebook.

That sentence is worth unpacking:

1. Attempting home repair of a device with dozens of teeny tiny components should probably not be attempted, but since it’s out of warranty, and I don’t want to drop another $150 on a new one, I may as well try.

2. Yes, I realize the Keurig is a profoundly wasteful consumer device that produces inferior coffee. I am, however, not a morning person. Which is to say, I more than once attempted to operate my small espresso maker at 6am with various parts not reinstalled, leading to messes and near-injuries from steam.

3. If one is going to attempt such a repair, one should probably do it completely and totally sober. Of course, having a drink may have provided the courage needed to attempt said repair. Vodka as tautology.

4. My tendency toward anticipatory celebration has gone digital.

The last is why I’m writing this blog post. Because I spend a great deal of my time alone–especially in the summer months–and because I tend to spend a lot of time in my head–as my wife will tell you–my reflective tendencies have also gone digital. But that’s another rumination for another day.

Today, I want to talk about anticipatory celebration. I’d like to blame this on social media, but my habit long predates the interwebz. I remember as a child starting some project–say, practicing free throws on the playground or writing a story–and immediately imagining the scene in which others congratulate me on my success, where I talk about my work and how I accomplished my goals.

I imagine lots of successful people do this, of course. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to project a good result, provided one actually focuses on the process by which one will achieve that goal. That means simultaneously keeping an eye on the proverbial prize while working on getting there, continuously reassessing the long-term goal as well as the short-term strategies.

Instead, those of us prone to perfectionism become fixated on the vision, on that moment of achievement, and any impediments along the way become land mines rather than stumbling blocks. And that vision is less about how we’ll feel about our accomplishments than it is about the praise we’ll receive from others.

Perhaps I could blame this on talk shows–on watching Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore as a child, listening to folks at the peak of celebrity discuss how they got there. I wanted to tell my story, like that, whatever that story was. So I invented that moment, while I was dribbling the basketball, and once I missed a few shots, that vision would fade, and I’d grow bored, and I’d move on to the next activity.

Or maybe it’s just my brain chemistry. I’ve only recently begun treatment for ADHD, because like many women, the early signs were dismissed as daydreaming and foolishness, rather than a different way of thinking. And all of the “just do it” advice failed to stick, since it wasn’t accompanied by any concrete strategies for maintaining my attention or working through challenges.

And then again, maybe it really is a character flaw, a moral failing. If I’d been born on a North Dakota farm, like some of my forebears, I’d just have had to buck up and survive, right? I would probably have been the kid who drifted off while milking the cow, to be yelled at time and again to get her head out of the clouds. But perhaps I would have learned some self-discipline.

So, what does this have to do with Authorship? I’m working on the syllabus for my senior seminar on authorship in the digital era, and I was thinking about self-narration, and the urge to tell everyone what we’re doing and what we’ve accomplished. In a sense, this is fundamental to writing, to sharing a story–me on Merv Griffin’s couch next to Totie Fields. Facebook and Twitter and other social media outlets give us a space to do this now, immediately.

And so I report that, in fact, I have yet to get the damn Keurig to work, though I have yet to work my way through all of the suggestions provided in that forum I found. I may end up with a machine in pieces, in which case I’ll have a very different story to tell, one in which I’m less the hero and more the buffoon. More of a short-lived character in a Terry Pratchett novel. Or a red-shirted Star Trek crewmember.

I understand that humility is good for the soul.

Put your body in a place.

I gave my Writing from Cultural Experience class this prompt the other day, after reading them Lynn Kilpatrick’s  “Your Body is an Essay.”  She credits fellow writer Nicole Walker with the idea, and builds on it, in that marvelous way of essaying, to connect writing and embodiment and so much more.
Our class read some interesting stuff on embodiment earlier in the semester–Sidonie Smith’s “Performativity, Autobiographical Practice, Resistance” and an excerpt from Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodies (I’ve always found her definition of bodies the most useful and intelligent articulation of that conglomeration of the material and psychic and cultural that we are). It was pretty dense reading for juniors and seniors, but even skirting some of those Big Questions is worth the effort–the essaying.
So, when Lynn shared her essay the other day, I knew our class had to read it, in part because they’re writing an extended essay now, pulling together  threads of identity and culture, and I’d assigned the first two chapters from Tell It Slant, a wonderful introduction to writing creative nonfiction. Authors Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola encourage writers to focus on scene, to put us somewhere, someplace with them.
And we did: we wrote for nearly 10 minutes, just putting our bodies in places. I shouldn’t be surprised that my body placed itself back at Western Washington University, where I first met Lynn and Brenda and Suzanne. (In fact, I read creative nonfiction in a graduate seminar with Suzanne, which significantly shaped my understanding of narrative and memoir.)
It’s also not surprising that my place was at the front of a class, since that’s where I was at the moment I was freewriting. Or that my body wanted to be in a place where I felt confident again, considering the struggle I’ve had of late with all of the non-teaching demands that undercut my sense of Expertness.
But here it is.

Put your body in a place.
I am
Standing in front of a class
I’m standing in front of a classroom, only I’ve just discovered that I’m not teaching in that room, that day. In fact, it’s my very first day as an official teacher, a real instructor, in the employ of Western Washington University. And after a few weeks of preparation and training, I’m about to start my first quarter. I’ve got my roster, and my plan for the day—except.
I messed up and misread the schedule. We are to alternate classrooms, between computer lab and regular classroom, with another instructor who teaches at the same time. And I thought I was teaching in the lab on the first day. But I’m not. And now, I have to get to the other room, and punt on my class plan, because I planned everything for teaching in the computer lab.
So, I arrive, breathing hard, a few minutes later, my heart beating a mile a minute, at the classroom where I’m actually scheduled. 24 bodies are already in seats, 24 first year students, all 18 years old and fresh faced and pretty much all white. And it’s 1997 and they’re waiting for me to be The Teacher.
And, despite everything being confused a few minutes earlier, I am. I’m the teacher. I feel somehow at home, at the front of that class. Even when I have to cope with a student who freaks out over the writing prompt we’re doing on the first day, as a way of double-checking placement, to see how students do in terms of producing a bit of text over a short period of time, I’m still the teacher. I’m still okay.
And I’m home.


On a year in which I lost much, gained much, and took on far too much

This past year, 2013, kicked my ass. And my first instinct is to say that I have no right to complain. Others had it much, much harder. Yes, my two older sisters and I continue to grieve the sudden, unexpected loss of our father, last Memorial Day Weekend. Yes, I’m stressed by that and work pressures and my distinctly uncooperative brain.

But when she called to tell me that Dad had died–to which my response was, “You’re kidding, right?”–my eldest sister was just a few days away from surgery, as she prepared to battle breast cancer for the second time, a battle that would entail grueling months of chemotherapy.

As Jeanice will be the first to tell you, we were raised not to wallow, which sometimes means we’re not especially good at admitting when we’re really hurting. We come from good Scandinavian American stock, where a common refrain is “Could be worse,” in response to any sort of calamity. (Author and illustrator James Stevenson apparently came from similar stock–just imagine a working class version of the Grandpa in his book Could Be Worse, and you’ll have a glimpse of our Dad.)

So, I look at my sisters–Jeanice, who continues to heal and get her life back, and Candy, who as the one who still lives near our childhood home and has been relatively healthy this year, has shouldered much of the burden of handling our father’s estate–and think, “You’ve been lucky, Susan. You’ve got nothing to complain about.” I’ve got a satisfying job that pays pretty well, a wonderful wife, a lovely home. I’ve got supportive family and friends, health insurance, and a great therapist.

But I also live with chronic anxiety and depression, which has always made intellectual work a particular challenge, and in the wake of my father’s death, made it even harder to find my way along the tenure path. That spiral of shame and denial spins ever more wildly when faced with Big Writing Projects. And it’s hard to explain sometimes what’s going on inside the chemical soup of my mind, when it’s tilting wildly off course.

I know that I have succeeded before, and I have failed before, and that I have survived and celebrated both.

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