Wednesday, March 30, 2011

RTW: Obsessive obsessive reading

Well! Books of childhood obsession? One would think YAHighway KNEW I was coming off of my gigantic degree exams and would be more than happy to get to rejoin Road Trip Wednesdays with this question. NICE.

I'm going to read "childhood" as "pre-junior high," which is probably good, since seventh grade is when I made the then-precocious, now I imagine also kind of snobby, decision to tear through banned books, and banned books only, for a year. Yeah, I was that kid... sorry, everyone I went to school with. Sorry.

This was my first-grade obsession. It wasn't the story so much, as the fact that we were paired up as a class with sixth-grade "reading buddies," and after mine brought in magazines for the first couple weeks, I came back with this, and read to HIM.

I saw it then as a badge of honor. My precocious snobbery started early. I probably should have been more concerned (if not then, at least in later years, looking back on it) at my sixth-grader's low level of interest in reading, if not in reading itself. But at least it gave me confidence.

(And I did have plenty of friends. I think I am usually okay at keeping my ego to myself.)

Ah, Fog Magic. My school librarian MAILED this to me as a gift when I switched to a fancy-pants, no-grading, alternative elementary school on the other side of town in the middle of second grade. The story is nice, from what I remember, but it was the fact that the sweet old librarian at Southridge thought of me and wanted to give me a book as a personal gift that really made an impact. Because DANG, even at age eight I relished the friendship of adults over peers.

Now things get muddled, in terms of chronology. I only spent a year and half at the hippie school before being mooned by high schoolers and returning to Southridge. I'm pretty sure those two things aren't related, but all the same. My reading habits at Woods are kind of murky – a lot of Nancy Drew, I'm sure, as I read like 150 of those, and had to find the time sometime. There was also some book with stone in the title, alternating POV chapters, that I was briefly obsessed with, but only because my mother read a few chapters and forbade me from reading it. So I hid it in my room. But I don't think it was very good.

In any case, at some point mid-childhood, my dad gave me Podkayne of Mars, an old, battered, cover-falling-off copy that I fell in love with. I had completely forgotten about it until this RTW topic, so now I am SO EXCITED to go and re-read it. I didn't hit my Hitchhiker's obsession until about age fourteen, but I have no doubt that this sowed the seeds for love of absurd sci-fi to come.

Fifth grade was a watershed year, obsession-wise. I found Jane Yolen's Here There Be Unicorns, and there was no turning back. I was serious about writing (insofar as a fifth-grader can be so) at that point, and I wrote a lovely unicorn short story that, the moment I finished it, I realized was tantamount to plagiarism. I was MORTIFIED.

But I still loved unicorns.

Also that year, I fell into the gaping, warm maw that is the Redwall series.

Now this was obsession. I ate those books like honeyed scones with meadowcream. And then I went onto the treacle-slow monster that was the internet at the time, found a REDWALL RECIPE SITE, printed off more than I could handle, and actually tried my hand at recreating the gorgeous foods from the books. This is my first solo-kitchen memory, and also the one that made my mom despair over my future cooking capabilities, as I tried to bake some kind of honey oat cake that was literally:

Flour + Oats + Honey --> spooned directly onto a cookie sheet and baked.

I would like to note that since then, I have (kind of) apprenticed under a real patissiere IN FRANCE, and can make my own damn mille feuille and choux from scratch. So. YEAH.

(mmm, looking at those recipes is making me ridiculously nostalgic…)

On the serious side, I did also develop a real thing for Blitzcat, about a little black cat in WWII-era Britain, surviving against all odds. I can't name what exactly was so compelling, but I really loved this, and its core images have stuck with me – so much so that I bought this Russian novel, Путь Мури, when I was studying abroad, just because it sounded sort of similar. I haven't gotten past chapter one. My Russian isn't that fancy, and they just keep yammering on about philosophers. SO, maybe not like Blitzcat after all.

Sixth grade: I finally hit my stride, balancing Breezy and Fun with Important and Literary.

I borrowed Mythology 101 from my uncle's shelves, and kind of maybe kept it forever. I haven't read it in many, many years, but I felt SO COOL reading about a college kid having fantastic adventures. I don't know what the deal is about "New Adult" or whatever, but it should be more popular than it is. I mean, if QUESTAR FANTASY can find a winner...

In what was probably leading up to my Banned Books Decree of Seventh Grade, I read some real heavy hitters that year, too (The Jungle, The Yearling, etc.), with the standout being A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Another one I haven't read in years, but now am anxious to return to.

But the two books that really stand out in the tail end of my childhood reading experience, in terms of obsession, are The Mists of Avalon, and The Princess Bride.

The former, man alive, was I not old enough to be reading. That is the kind of book a twelve-year old reads to feel hardcore, but can't ever appreciate or understand fully. It's like reading Gone With the Wind that early – sure, fine, you are an AMAZING READER. But that doesn't make it appropriate, or you the right or most receptive audience (I'm glaring at you, haughty ivy-league girls from my Russia program…). All the same, the mere experience was important.

The Princess Bride, though… oh dear. That was it. That made me want to write. That made me want to BE. No, that sounds maudlin. I quit the hippie school long enough before that to think things like that. But I do see TPB as a turning point in my reading/writing/thinking career. I saw the importance of story, and composition, and execution, and humor. Oh, it was just EVERYTHING. And I adored it. And have read it enough times since then that my copy is falling apart, much like my dad's old Podkayne of Mars. So here's to you, William Goldman. And you, Buttercup, and you, Wesley, and you, Fezzick. AND YOU, INIGO MONTOYA.

I wouldn't be the same without you.

So I'm sure that many of these are not uncommon in everyone else's pasts, but I am interested to see if ANYONE else read Fog Magic or Mythology 101, or even Cricket and the Crackerbox Kid. Or if anyone else had disastrous Redwall-recipe kitchen experiences. 

Thanks, YAHighway, for another fun week!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dueling monkeys? (a collision of creative and academic writing)

In the past several years, I have become an academic cynic. I think the higher education model in use today is archaic, self-important, and unwieldy. In a world whose societies and economies have undergone change after change after change, academia has clung to the same basic framework and expectations it started with a handful of centuries ago, and it just isn't sustainable.

Yes, I'm finishing a Master's program. I hear the clanging of hypocrisy. To be fair, two years ago, this was my best option for income and health care. I don't think anyone will convince you that expertise in Russian Literature is really a necessary skill-set for the wide, wide world.

Anyway, to offset my growing resentment of the culture I have surrounded myself with, I started reading the Chronicle of Higher Education. I try to read news sites daily anyway, and I do like the idea of higher education, so I figured this was probably a good olive branch to offer to the abstract Lords of Academe that could care less about my opinion of them.

Again, anyway.

A political scientist from Duke published a writing article earlier in the week entitled "How to Write Less Badly" (under the category Do Your Job Better, no less). Easy bet I read it.

It was... good. It was good! But it was also so familiar. It's the kind of advice that floats around writing classes, around blogs, around twitter, around critique groups. You really should read the article for the elucidation of these tips, which are to the point and useful, but in short:

1. Writing is an exercise.
2. Set goals based on output, not input.
3. Find a voice; don't just "get published." (and and AND note the proper use of a semicolon, in a concise, perfectly lucid title sentence. So okay, yeah, there ARE things about academe that I do appreciate; i.e., snobby proper punctuation.)
4. Give yourself time.
5. Everyone's unwritten work is brilliant.
6. Pick a puzzle.
7. Write, then squeeze other things in.
8. Not all of your thoughts are profound.
9. Your most profound thoughts are often wrong.
10. Edit your work, over and over. (which includes the necessity of second readers/critiquers)

Familiar, right? I have just never seen it in the academic context, and that makes all the difference. Because, as much as I understand all of this innately, it still takes effort and the occasional consternation to apply it successfully to any of my WIPs – especially the second half of the list; points 8 and 9 are my very favorite, and also, the most difficult to lock down. Darlings? Darlings?

But here's the thing (and also, here is where I end up sounding like a jerk admitting it): I'm really a very skilled academic writer. I don't stress over it; I hardly even think about it. I just sit down and I do it. It's a set of conventions, a collection of expected terms and theories and modes of thought, of phrasing and arguing. It's a convention I TOTALLY GET. And so I just write it.

I am proud of what I write, on some level, but on another – I just don't really care. I see little point in contributing to human knowledge on the topics I write on for my classes, or even for my own research. I am interested in Siberia's construction of a national identity through literature that is separate from Russian identity, but ultimately, I really believe that the important thing being established by my education is my education. My brain is becoming faster, smarter, more likely to make more complicated connections. I feel more useful to greater society because I believe education makes me a better thinker, and – therefore – a better doer. I am a better writer of fiction because of of my higher ed experience, but more because I think better ALL THE TIME, in response to any piece of information from anywhere.

The difference is that I DON'T CARE. With academic writing, I am detached and a little wry, and I accept that I am working within conventions. This lets me have complete faith in myself, and I get the work done that much faster, and that much better for it.

So seeing common writing tips in a new context, one in which I don't really need to be reminded of said tips, really illumines the ways in which they can be even more useful in my personal writing. And that is both helpful, and humbling.

Amazing that a political scientist got me to see it; maybe academe isn't horribly useless quite yet.

Although, if we re-introduced duels...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tested and found KLASS*

Well, at least that is what I am assuming. My harshest critic "thoroughly enjoyed" reading my thesis exam, and I figure, if you can get a historian of the Soviet experience of WWII and survival-economy black market structures – who writes her class tests with a punitive eye (her phrasing) – to thoroughly enjoy an exam response, you're pretty much set.

So now I just have a thesis to go. And piles of grading. But spring term has yet to start, so I am going to revel in pretend freedom for one more day. *revelrevelrevelrevel*

Thus far, my reveling has consisted of returning two dozen Russianish books to the school library, taking out two dozen fun books out from the public library, making and eating a reduced (size, not taste) recipe of Muddy Buddies, and looking like a loon laughing out loud to the WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON audiobook while walking around Eugene. Happily, the key to that last thing is that I am in Eugene: there are far, far crazier people on any given sidewalk than I ever could be.

Also, I have been creaking back into my WIPs. For all the flurry of ideas that stormed in my brain over the last two+ weeks of forced hiatus, I am not finding my return to be easy. I love what I have, but I'm kind of annoyed that I actually have to work to move anything forward. WORK IS SO OVERRATED.

So instead of anything pithy to say about writing, I want to give you all this:

This started as a joke in an email to my ridiculously hipster friend going to grad school in Malmö (these feather extensions are EVERYWHERE in Eugene, and we can't be the only ones), but once I saw these videos, it became worryingly less silly.

I mean, this is SILLY:

But all the blatant silliness somehow kind of... works?

What if I get feather extensions, you guys? I'm a little worried this might maybe happen. Even though it absolutely, absolutely should not.

... or should it?

GAH. BacktowritingWIP.

Also, enjoy Russian slang:

*as defined by my favorite fingertip dictionary, Multitran:

 класс! сущ. в начало
  Майкрософт Wow!
  сл. stunningthe nertzthe nutskick ass

(but I will not go a step further and try to figure out what "the nertz" means. WE ALL NEED SOME MYSTERY.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

A placeholder for the dark weeks

With both the end of the regular school term and my comprehensive literature exam in less than two weeks, I am going (and have been) social networking dark, but in the absence, I leave you with this short(ish) TED talk on the future of learning, which answers the question: if, in an age of a knowledge surplus, schools are no longer the place students have to go to find said knowledge, what is the purpose of going?

The idea of allowing students to make mistakes is far-reaching, and incredibly important in the writing process: it is what the first draft (or second or third) is for. You do it once to find out how things work; you do it again to make those things work well.

So with that, see you in a couple weeks.


Intense Debate Comments