What’s in a Name?

Every six months, I go through this cycle where I wonder if I’m a sham.

I’ve identified myself as a “writer” for most of my (young) adult life, but I frequently find myself in a self-loathing moment where I wonder, “If I don’t write, can I call myself a writer?”

That niggling assertion frequently gets countered with: “Well, that’s a silly question to ask. It’s not that you don’t write; it’s that you don’t write for YOU. You write comments on students’ papers, you write hundreds of e-mails, and hundreds more notes. You write text messages and you write to-do lists. You’re writing!”

This is the logic I take with my teaching, too. I try to empower students and help them to believe that they ARE writers even if they major in biology and chemistry and animal science. I suppose at the heart of it, I like to say that all of us can identify as writers as long as we make the commit to thinking about our writing and being mindful of what we write, how we write, where we write, and why we write.

A question I find myself drawn to in my studies is, “how do we gain the awareness of our writing practice necessary to understand both the affordances and constraints of that practice?” The question to naturally follow this might be, “Well, what does it matter? Why should we be aware of the affordances and constraints of writing practice?”

I’d say the answer is simple: to ensure that we’re smart producers of content. What I’m afraid of is the knowledge that so much of my current writing practice in the digital age occurs in a place where content is endless. I write in a (virtual) institution that swallows up knowledge as quickly as possible, just gobbles it up. So, how do I remain aware of this institution that shapes the way I write without becoming completely paralyzed by it? I don’t want to produce content that doesn’t DO or SAY anything, but I also don’t want to be voiceless.

So, how does one get past these competing desires to be identified and to have a voice, but also to be mindful of the fact that it is very difficult to assert one’s voice in a room of chatter? I don’t yet have the answer to this, but maybe the answer doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s still about speaking just loudly enough to create a small tremor of sound in the ceaseless murmur.

A Hazy Shade of Summer

In elementary school, I used to create binders for each class I took. I slipped hand-drawn covers into the plastic pockets at the front of each: “MATH!!” swirled in purple glitter or “HISTORY!!” emblazoned with heart stickers and rainbows. The start of the school year was always an occasion for promise, a moment where classes were nothing but organizational shells, binders for which the glittering hopes of learning could be tucked neatly into a backpack.

I maintain this desire to compartmentalize, to draw neatly the lines between the different “subjects” in my life. If I could, I think I still would create these binders, but I am not sure I would have any idea how to organize them.”UC Online Educational Project!!” I may have scrawled on one, but is that where I’d also place my readings on multimodal pedagogy? And what about my notes on new media theory and cybernetics and intellectual labor? Do these all go in the same place in my mind? Should they? And in what ways do I continue to divide them or link them into some larger project?

This is the question looming for me as I make my way into my second year of graduate school. I’m eager for a project, bouncing between early reading for my preliminary examinations (which I’m trying to view as membership into the biggest, baddest book club imaginable), tinkering away at my supplemental job of editing college personal statements (a task that, after reading and editing over 2,000 essays in three years feels relatively breezy and – dare I say it? – fun), and course planning for my teaching in the fall. This niggling desire to organize, to get everything in place, to build the pieces of something larger remains unfulfilled; in short, in this transition, I’m having trouble settling down.

And I think I’ve got to be OK with this unsettled feeling (perhaps a lesson for surviving my 20s, too?). The first stage of a project, after all, isn’t always pulling out the compartmentalized pieces; it’s about floating through big ideas, about seeing strands of things, noticing them, and simply setting them aside, not yet writing them in permanent marker (see how far I can take this extended metaphor – or is it a conceit?).

Besides, shouldn’t this noncommittal part be the fun part? The low pressure part? The part appropriate for a slow summer ending where I refuse to give up sundresses even when the need to shrug on a sweater becomes increasingly clear?

While I may not be able to anticipate the things I will learn this year in new, neat compartments, what I can anticipate (with great eagerness!) is the opportunity to simply experience, to practice mindfulness, and to keep figuring out where I want to be. This is a luxurious thing, indeed.

Goodbye Until Tomorrow

http://explodingdog.com/title/holdontightanddontletgo.html

Endings discomfit me.

The recognition that I will likely never return to a particular place again tends to evoke within me this slight surge of panic, this almost instinctual desire to reclaim my ownership over that place (or at least reclaim my control to be in that place whenever I want to be there). In other words, I hate to see doors close, opportunities disappear, and – well – moments lost.

So, here I am at the end of this summer internship. I am  debating whether to say “goodbye” to the ocean or to simply leave our relationship open-ended, as if to fool myself into thinking that maybe – just maybe – this space will remain within a brief drive over the freeway in the future. It’s cool, ocean. We can still be friends.

More significantly than ending my (brief) stay in a new city is, of course, ending my foray into this alternate Jenae reality, this life in the cube. I’ll admit that I did not reach as much closure as I would have liked at the end of this experience. I had somehow hoped that this internship would convince me one way or the other about whether I truly belong to academia or to industry. Alas, I still have a lot of questions about both of these spaces and about how I could contribute best to either one of them. These are things I probably should have figured out two years ago when I graduated from college. Alas, these are things I couldn’t have figured out two years ago when I graduated from college.

This blog may have looked like a lot of complaining over the past six weeks (and I’ll admit that I did not often feel as though the work or the environment was “right” for me), but I’ve come to grow more accustomed to the routines of the past few weeks. I’ve come to find ways to make the work day meaningful for me (even if that meaning was not necessarily derived from accomplishing work tasks themselves). The truth of the matter is that I could imagine surviving in a world outside of academia and being OK with it. Were I to enter a space outside of education, I would need to find a place where I truly felt at home, a space with a mission and a cause about which I felt strongly. For if I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that I truly have to invest emotionally in my work in order to feel that that I am contributing in a valuable and useful way.

Granted, that perspective is perhaps problematic; most people do not have the great fortune to “do what they love.” It’s one of those “echo boomer” adages, the assumption that every individual has this special mission and that, no matter what, each individual can accomplish that mission if she simply works hard enough. The fact of the matter is that I’m not special. I’m someone who’s pretty smart with a pretty organized brain who happens to have developed a few skills over time.

That said, at the end of this experience I am significantly more open to the understanding that I could find what I love in spaces that I least expect. Right now, that space is a writing classroom. But it could be somewhere else in the future and I’m willing not only to accept that, but to embrace it.

As a friend advised me recently, I would like to remain an “opportunist.” I would like to see the liminal moment that is graduate school remain this luxurious opportunity for exploration, not only the kind that emerges from sustained study, but from simply saying “yes” to whatever arises around me. I have the great benefit of flexibility upon my return to Davis; my days are relatively unstructured (aside from, you know, class and whatever. No big deal), and I can keep doing what I have been: keeping my eyes open, remaining mindful of my strengths, and acknowledging my weaknesses.

One of my favorite professors at UCLA once advised me to write two words on a sticky note above my desk: “Let Go.” The sticky note upon which I originally wrote those two words is long gone, but it’s perhaps worth recreating, if nothing else than to accept the closing of doors, the inevitable passing of moments.

Image Source: Exploding Dog

Dear Diary

I have always been somewhat of a sporadic “diary writer.” Family and friends used to gift me with blank notebooks when they learned that I enjoyed writing, yet I would only write a few entries here and there in each new blank book I received. For whatever reason, I was not compelled to write to myself, unmotivated to write down my thoughts simply for me.

I’ve only begun thinking about journals and journaling again as I’m reading Anita Loos’ novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the class that I’m TAing this quarter. And yes, I, too, did not realize that the Marilyn Monroe film was actually based upon a novel!

The novel, as it turns out, is written is written in a simple epistolary form as “the illuminating diary of a professional lady.” Lorelei, our purported “authoress,” claims she’s a woman with “brains,” but she has no patience for books and little interest in the world outside of commerce. She feigns interest in art, but immediately demands a shopping trip after an exhausting day at the museum.

In any case, the novel is a wry satire of materialist American culture, but I think what struck me most was the fact that a novel like this one would not entirely be relevant with a modern rewriting. Sure, there are abundant stories and films about gold-digging, attractive women like Lorelei, but it seems to me that the “book as diary” has become outmoded.

After all, who keeps a diary anymore when blogs are such a prevalent part of our cultural consciousness?

Of course, at its core, there is one distinct difference between a diary and a blog: one is private while the other is public. However, it seems that many blog writers are unafraid to compose private thoughts in a public space and, indeed, seem to receive a lot of positive reinforcement and feedback to do so via comments and post sharing.

Of course, it is wise as a blog writer to gauge what’s appropriate to share in a public space (and what would protect our identity and whatnot), but I know that when I write personal thoughts online, there’s something that feels remarkably accepting about it. When I write here, for example, I don’t fear judgment even though I know that someone other than me is going to read this entry.

Interestingly enough, when I wrote privately, I am perhaps more self-conscious of my writing than I am now, for when I write to only myself, I am aware that my own judging self may return to those words years later and wonder why I was so foolish/selfish. I think there was a part of me that was sometimes afraid of facing my innermost thoughts; devoting them to paper made them real.

For better or for worse, writing in a public space has liberated me from some of these anxieties. Of course, I’m not necessarily writing my “inner-most” thoughts here, but I am getting some thoughts on paper, making that effort to express myself in some tangible way. After all, as Lorelei writes, “a girl with brains ought to do something else with them besides think.” It may be frightening to commit any thoughts to writing, especially ones that are personal, but I think an online space has made that process easier, perhaps because of the very fact that it is public and that I am aware of a readership that (in theory) cares a little bit about what I might say.