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Actress Harriet Walter’s wise words on line-learning

IMG_2483I’ve been reading Harriet Walter’s lovely book, Other People’s Shoes: Thoughts on Acting, and came across this fantastic description about what happens when you move beyond shallowly knowing your lines.  Adding this one to the commonplace book, for sure.  And it’s good enough that I thought I’d leave it here as evidence that I have not completely given up on this whole blogging scheme.  (Plus, Walter’s words are definitely good motivation to learn my lines colder than cold for this next go ’round…)

“If lines are shallowly learned, they can easily flit away.  If they are absorbed in a tranquil, unhurried state and sucked deep down with the breath, they will become part of your interior landscape.  Breath accesses the emotions.  It is like a channel which can be choked or kept open.  Keep the channel open each night and things will happen to you, shift inside you.  If things are shifting in you, you stand a chance of shifting the audience.”  

(Other People’s Shoes, p. 82)

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‘Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life’ and the Inevitable Melancholy of Rootedness

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B.J. sketched a melancholic me in Luke’s diner.

“Are we fundamentally melancholy people?” I ask my husband on the kitchen floor, after our six-hour binge of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.

“Yes, I’ve always thought that.”

“How do melancholy people deal with the world?”

Not the kind of conversation you’d expect after, of all things, a Gilmore Girls binge, but this is where we found ourselves last night: sitting on the kitchen floor, eating leftovers, drinking wine, and trying to process why a Gilmore Girls binge could throw us into a joint existential crisis.

Why the kitchen floor, you ask?  The proximity to the fridge, of course, in true Gilmore fashion.

[What follows contains some spoilers, so be wary.  But, purist that I am, I’m not so brazen as to betray the final four words…]

* * *

Like other “gillies,” I have been counting down the days to the Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls, which premiered on November 25th.  My excitement was so palpable that B.J. couldn’t help but join in, watching most of the six-hour miniseries by my side.  It was a binge if ever there was one, something I’ve never really done and don’t plan on doing ever (ever) again.  But I suppose it’s unsurprising that my first, true Netflix-binge was with Gilmore Girls, a show I remember watching from start to finish throughout high school and college.  In fact, I have a distinct memory of watching the series finale with my college roommate.  I can even recall our final remarks about that last scene:

“Well, I guess that’s it,” my roommate said after the credits.

“Huh.  I guess it is.  (Pause.)  I like Barack Obama.”  I replied, referencing Rory Gilmore’s post-college job as a reporter on Obama’s campaign trail, and then I went back to reading.

That’s all we had to say.

Despite my lackluster assessment of the show’s conclusion, I felt great sadness over the end of this series.  At the time of the finale, I was a southern transplant living in a very big (and cold) city.  For me, the comfort of Stars Hollow was its insistence on rootedness, something I knew I was missing as a vagabond college student.  This was a town where people were known and respected for the role each played in making Stars Hollow a home.  Even people like Kirk.

Later in college, I learned that a philosophy (even a theology) of “placedness” offered some explanation for why Stars Hollow was so attractive to me.  For instance, listen to Wendell Berry’s words on the meaning of community in The Long-Legged House (1969), his very first collection of essays:

A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves. (The Long-Legged House, p. 71)

The grand appeal of Stars Hollow for fans of Gilmore Girls was that this town was enough—enough for our characters to explore what felt like the full range of human emotion even within a carefully defined space.  In this way, Sherman-Palladino’s universe is similar to Jane Austen’s, one that finds incredible drama among a few country families.

Like all of Austen’s novels, though, that “final” season I watched in my freshman dorm ended in much the way you would expect. (Spoiler Warning.) Rory graduated from Yale, turned down a marriage proposal, and found a job that required her to move away.  Likewise, Lorelai finally connected with Luke after a few tumultuous seasons, which included a case of Zima, a broken off engagement, a plot-smashing surprise daughter, and one very large tent.  Despite the fact that the Palladino’s were no longer involved in the writing process, the writers who took over the show ended things as neatly as possible.  Even without an obligatory marriage at the end, it still smacked of the neatness of a marriage plot.

After more than a few years of studying and teaching literature, I now realize that this (initial) ending followed the rules of comedy in a classical sense.  Order is restored at the story’s conclusion, but only after a long and winding deferral.  Since Gilmore Girls occupied the genre of “feel-good TV” for so long, it makes sense that this was our ending.  So long as the WB-turned-CW marketed the show in this particular way, it was always going to have a “comic” ending.

But it strikes me that Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino never wanted the show to occupy this feel-good genre.  After watching A Year in the Life, I’m suddenly curious as to whether or not this is a comedy at all.

Certainly, the show possesses the amorphous qualities of “dramedy,” our modern term for tragicomedy.  Tragicomedy, though, still requires a final restoration of order, since its basic structure demands that tragic circumstances ultimately give way to comedy.  To demonstrate this, consider how, when we watch a dramedy, we take comfort that a dramatic cliffhanger will always be resolved when a new season begins.  We continue to watch because the genre itself demands restorative satisfaction.  As narrative structures go, comedy and tragicomedy are remarkably safe.

Yet, in A Year in the Life, order is never really restored in Stars Hollow, especially when we learn the coveted “final four words” that Sherman-Palladino planned (and kept secret) since the show’s inception. Truthfully, those final four-words are ultimately disruptive.  (Don’t worry, I won’t tell you what they are!) They defy the usual conclusion of comedy or tragicomedy, and instead remind us that there is no such thing as a “neat” narrative of life.  Instead of ending in marriage, A Year in the Life ends with “marriage, and…” In doing so, it abruptly rejects the marriage plot, and, perhaps more importantly, it rejects the neatness of a story that adheres to the politics of satisfaction.

For all of its quirk and whimsy, viewers must also confront that Stars Hollow is an occasionally melancholy world.  The revival’s brief subplot of “Stars Hollow: The Musical,” announces this melancholy profoundly in its campy chronicle of (in Taylor Doose’s mind) the town’s inevitable downfall.  And whereas the original series had something of a painterly veneer over its characters and even its cinematography, the Netflix revival can’t hide the fact that these actors have aged (although they try: i.e., Scott Patterson’s hair).

Let me be clear: this is not a criticism.  I’m glad that we return to a beloved town that seems to be occupied by real human beings who, wonder of wonders, actually age.  Even Stars Hollow, the snow globe town itself, is prone to human frailty, as it should be.  Throughout A Year in the Life, Lorelai references her anxiety about her own “mortality,” a point underscored by the looming presence of Richard Gilmore’s death (a role originally played by the now-deceased Edward Hermann).  Despite her profound placedness and her rooted sense of identity in Stars Hollow, nothing can protect her from the passage of time.  Indeed, nothing (other than a well-preserved Warner Brothers lot) can protect the town itself from the passage of time.

Which brings me back to me and my husband’s melancholic conversation on the kitchen floor.

* * *

B.J. and I recently moved—by virtue of professional necessity and a good dose of curiosity—to an actual Stars Hollow, where I took an Assistant Professor job at a small college surrounded by veritable small-town glory.  We bought a historic home two blocks from campus in one direction and two blocks from the town square in the other.  Ever since watching my own college professors walk back and forth from their homes to campus, I longed to live in a town where I could feel a palpable sense of Wendell Berry’s placedness.  There seemed to be incredible personal returns on such a choice, as well as poetic ones.  As a Romantic, I wanted those returns.  I wanted to claim a place for myself.

Placedness is not the same as nostalgia, although they are easily confused.  (My great fear for A Year in the Life is that it will be evaluated by its adherence to nostalgic standards.)  Placedness is a commitment to a location, one that accompanies a commitment to the community that resides in that location.  Seamus Heaney beautifully articulates the poetic power of placedness in his poem “Antaeus” when he says “my elevation, my fall.”  As soon as the demigod Antaeus no longer has his feet planted on the earth, he loses his incredible strength.  Likewise, when Heaney attempts to write from a position beyond his local environs, the poetry loses its impact.

There is power in place, but a commitment to place must be accompanied by vulnerability.  A friend from Waco, our last home, once described the city (also a college town) as a town full of “leavers.”  He considered himself a “stayer.”  In the midst of our new move, we are confronting the reality that we are now on track to being stayers, too.  It’s scary to be a stayer.

With rootedness, we are vulnerable to the melancholy that comes with watching things change from a single vantage point.  We feel that we become static figures, despite the fact that our minds tell us (rightfully) that we are dynamic creatures.  To choose placedness, like Lorelai Gilmore, is to open oneself up to the possibility of disappointment.  Things will change.  People will move on.  Nothing is ever fully preservable.

With incredible irony, Rory announces in A Year in the Life that “this is my time to be rootless,” while standing in her childhood bedroom, a space completely unchanged since 2007.  It’s ironic, but it’s also a little melancholic.  Rory can’t recognize her own fundamental placedness, and, when others do, she rejects them.  Throughout the “Summer” installment, when people shout, “Welcome back, Rory,” she replies, “I’m not back!”

But she is back.  And the revival ends with a sense that she will be back for a good long while.

* * *

This morning, B.J. and I drove thirty minutes to another (bigger) town in order to deposit a check, since the bank we use doesn’t have a branch in our town.  During the drive, we talked about how to deal with this new danger we saw in small town living: the inevitable melancholy of rootedness.

“I think you have to be like Jess,” B.J. argued.

Jess Mariano, the infamous “second boyfriend” of Rory Gilmore, was a disruptive force in the early seasons of Gilmore Girls.  He dethroned Dean, the first boyfriend, and generally frustrated Lorelai’s attempts to keep Rory on the straight-and-narrow.

But what’s wonderful about this character is that, even in the original seven seasons, he turned out to be a really good guy.  His disruptions revealed the prejudices of the town and of Lorelai herself.  He forced Rory to confront her own individuality once she set out for college, and he ultimately calls her out when she leaves Yale for a season, challenging her to return to her true self.

In the car today, we decided that Jess is a “disruptive conservationist.”  While he disrupts his world, he is also a conservationist at heart.  He’s the character who loves books so much he eventually writes one and works for a small press—that’s a conservationist.  Jess found an unlikely home in Stars Hollow, and an even more unlikely family with Luke.   And so its no surprise that he has a soft spot for the town.  It’s also no surprise that, in A Year in the Life, he is the one who prompts Rory to do the ultimate work of conservation: writing a memoir.

The disruptive conservationist isn’t afraid to assert his identity within a sometimes static town, but he’s also not afraid to preserve its better qualities.  And, to boot, he has a keen sense of what those better qualities are.  To be “like Jess” in a Stars Hollow town is to love the old and the occasionally static without conflating one’s identity with those two things.

Nowhere is this posture summed up better than in the “Fall” installment, when Jess tears the wifi port out of the Luke’s Diner storage closet and tosses the console to Luke, thereby restoring the diner to its tech-resistant beginnings.  It’s a disruptive act, but also a restorative one.

“Merry Christmas,” he says as he leaves.

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“Sad tales are best for winter” (or a Texas summer): ‘The Winter’s Tale’ opens this week in ATX.

If you happen to be local to Central Texas, come out and enjoy some free Shakespeare-in-the-Park with Something for Nothing Theater Company’s production of The Winter’s Tale. (If you’re curious, I’m playing Hermione, Time, and Mopsa in this 12-actor cast.)  The show opens this Thursday, June 9th at 8:00pm.  Admission is first come, first served.

I’ve loved working on this production (one of my favorite Shakespeare plays) in the glow of post-PhD life.  And the philosophy of Something for Nothing really resonates with my own preferences for experiencing Shakespeare: don’t rely so much on the bells and whistles (or, more commonly, glitter) and let the language itself be the special effect.  The company stages its Shakespeare productions with minimal set, costumes, and general theatrical flair.  In fact, the actors sit onstage and watch the play when they aren’t physically in the scene.  It’s lovely, and it warms this here Bardolator’s heart.

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‘Primavera, or The Quiverfull Play’ gets its first staged reading at Baylor Theatre

I’ve spent the past two years (in between all that dissertation writing) working on Primavera, or The Quiverfull Play, and on May 4, 2016, it will receive its first staged reading at Baylor Theatre.  The play is about a wedding weekend in a “quiverfull,” fundamentalist Christian community.  Loosely inspired by Botticelli’s painting of the same name, the story is told in part through characters’ dreams, as well as a chorus of The Three Graces.  My good friend, Lisa Denman, will direct.

Come out and support new work for the stage! 

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Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’ (2015), my first-year writing class, and the necessity of the artist’s day job

Last semester, I taught one of the most fantastic courses of my teaching career so far.  The class was a Freshman Academic Seminar on “Writing and the Creative Life,” a course plan I’ve been brooding over for nearly two years, but only recently had the chance to teach.  My course question was pretty open-ended: “What does it mean to live the creative life?”  This is something I’ve asked myself for years, especially when I was in the thick of PhD work and felt like the artistic parts of myself were consistently relegated to the sidelines.

I wasn’t really sure how my first-year students would feel about a course question like this, especially since the primary skill we’d be using to explore creativity was writing.  My argument for the class was that all ventures could be creative ventures, but I wanted to give them space to discern what the creative life might look like for them as individuals.  We had some great conversations, and I’d say the reading list was serviceable.  While they loved Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, they pushed back on nearly all the other texts.  Even Ken Robinson’s popular The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, about which they were initially psyched, turned out to be frustrating for them in the long run.

01-big-magic-book-reviewNow that I’m rethinking the class for future semesters, I’m contemplating including Elizabeth Gilbert’s new bestseller, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (2015).  This book has had a lot of hype.  So much so, in fact, that I was skeptical about even picking it up.  I know Gilbert mostly from her popular TED Talk on “the creative spark,” a video I show nearly every semester in my writing classes, so my biggest fear was that the book would only be a slightly expanded version of the talk.  (Alas, is this not the challenge of all TED Talk book deals?)

In a nutshell, Big Magic is Gilbert’s creativity manifesto.  And I think my students would have loved it.  Truly, I think this book could have drastically reshaped the trajectory of the class.

I won’t summarize the book for you (you can find overviews all over the Internet by this point), but there were a few standout moments that I wish I’d had the chance to read with my freshmen.  For instance, one of my favorite sections from Big Magic was Gilbert’s discussion of the “day job.”  In our class, we talked a lot about the marriage between professional sustainability and living richly (one of my own big philosophies for higher ed), but what we didn’t discuss was how these two goals might actually exist in different spheres.  In other words, you might not make a living from your vision of living richly, and that’s OK.

Gilbert does a fine job of debunking the myth that our financial sustenance must come from our art if we want to call ourselves “true artists.”  I would argue that this is one of the most compelling take-aways of Big Magic, particularly because the idea of a day job is so decidedly un-magical.  The desire to have all of your financial support come from your art is a powerful longing, but Gilbert points out that it also places incredible strain on the art itself:

I’ve always felt like this is so cruel to your work—to demand a regular paycheck from it, as if creativity were a government job, or a trust fund.  Look, if you can manage to live comfortably off your inspiration forever, that’s fantastic.  That’s everyone’s dream, right?  But don’t let that dream turn into a nightmare.  Financial demands can put so much pressure on the delicacies and vagaries of inspiration.  You must be smart about providing for yourself.  To claim that you are too creative to think about financial questions is to infantilize yourself—and I beg you not to infantilize yourself, because it’s demeaning to your soul.  (While it’s lovely to be childlike in your pursuit of creativity, in other words, it’s dangerous to be childish.)  (Gilbert 153)

Gilbert also makes the point that we should be proud of our day jobs, and that financial stability can be romantic in its own way.

There’s no dishonor in having a job.  What is dishonorable is scaring away your creativity by demanding that it pay for your entire existence.  This is why, whenever anyone tells me they’re quitting their day job in order to write a novel, my palms get a little sweaty.  This is why, when anyone tells me that their plan for getting out of debt is to sell their first screenplay, I’m like, Yikes.  (Gilbert 155)

While my students and I talked about the concept of having “enough” to be financially sustainable, we didn’t spend much time on the reality that you may not always (or ever) have your dream job.  I had a lot of aspiring creative writers in this class, too, and so I wish we’d spent more time discussing the logistics of working a non-writing related day-job (barista, waitress, insurance representative, etc.) in order to support your creative work.

Obviously, this way of thinking bucks up against the primary way many parents rationalize paying for their child’s education: a ticket to a well-paying job.  I think financial sustainability is a necessary goal for any adult, especially if they have just entered their twenties, but college is more than that.  A good liberal arts education can give you invaluable tools for understanding your potential as a citizen of the world.  The cultural narrative of, “Oh, yes, my daughter has a creative writing degree, but she works at Starbucks,” terrifies parents (and students).  But this seems like a condition of our collective concerns about reputation and cultural clout, not about “success” in its purest sense.

Back to Big Magic, my only critique of Gilbert’s discussion of the “day job” is that she doesn’t take the opportunity to imagine how a “day job” (an unfortunately diminutive term) might actually have a mutually reciprocal relationship with one’s creativity, beyond just keeping the lights on.   If artists can find something redemptive and useful about the day job, then it can stop being cast as a necessary evil.

After all, what’s the use of living creatively if you can use it to reimagine your circumstances?

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Lessons Learned from Ellen Terry’s ‘Four Lectures on Shakespeare’ (1932)

Ellen Terry as Beatrice. Photographs by Albert Sterner (1863-1946). Image is in the Public Domain in the US.

Ellen Terry as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Photographs by Albert Sterner (1863-1946). Image is in the Public Domain in the US.

Sometimes actors have a pitiful time talking about their work.  Not so with the early twentieth-century actress Ellen Terry.  Her little book, Four Lectures on Shakespeare (originally published in 1932), reveals the mind of an actor who thought deeply about her experiences with Shakespeare, to the point where many of her insights could easily provoke the envy of a dissertating PhD student.  (Guilty.)

The editor of Four Lectures, Christopher St John (who is actually a woman), hoped that this little volume would give Terry a touch of immortality, but the hard truth of rare books is that you need resourceful acolytes for immortality (e.g., the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio).   And it’s surprisingly difficult to be remembered as an actor, since so much of what one does is confined to the transient boundaries of the stage.  Unfortunately for Terry’s posterity, this lovely book is probably only housed in university libraries, not your Barnes and Noble.  Even a quick Amazon search turns up practically nothing.

It seems that the unavailability of this book is endemic to a pattern in our collective memory of Ellen Terry.  In a 2012 article for The Guardian that considers Terry’s Four Lectures, Lynn Truss explains that one of dominant struggles of Ellen Terry’s career was her admirers’ fixation on her presentation, a fixation that created a “painterly” veneer over Western culture’s memory of her.  Referencing an essay by Virginia Woolf on Terry, Truss writes:

Woolf was right.  Actors leave only picture postcards behind them, and Terry left more picture postcards than most. The trouble is that in her own time it was already her fate to be defined more or less exclusively in painterly terms. She certainly loved art, of course; her aesthetic effect was not accidental. She had been married at 16 to the painter GF Watts; the father of her children was the architect-designer Edward Godwin; she had a brilliant sense of colour and costume. When Oscar Wilde saw her at the Lyceum as Lady Macbeth in 1888 (in the costume immortalised by John Singer Sargent’s portrait at Tate Britain), he wrote that Lady M evidently patronised local industries for the clothes of her husband and servants, “but she takes care to do all her own shopping in Byzantium”.

But the text of these lectures reveals that Terry did indeed attempt to leave behind more than “picture postcards.”  The four lectures cover children in Shakespeare, letters in the plays, the “pathetic” woman, and the “triumphant” woman.   Aside from her insights, one cannot help but notice how well these lectures transcribe to the page.  If Christopher St John was faithful in her transcription of the lectures from Terry’s notes, then the text shows that Terry knew how to ease an audience into an argument and how to keep them listening.  (Many an academic could take a cue or two from Terry’s easy-to-follow lectures.)

Interestingly, quite a lot of what Terry has to say supports playing the “least likely interpretation” (a phrase I learned recently from a book on auditioning).  In her essay on “The Triumphant Woman,” she notes the tendency to play Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing with an air of bitterness.  But Terry suggests that the text of Much Ado offers a softer and more mirthful vision of Beatrice:

‘By my troth a pleasant-spirited lady,’ says Don Pedro.  The actress who impersonates Beatrice should remember that testimonial.  Beatrice’s repartee in her encounters with Benedick can easily be made to sound malicious and vulgar.  It should be spoken as the lightest raillery, with mirth in the voice, and charm in the manner. (Terry, pp. 83-84)

In Terry’s opinion, “wit” is what Beatrice loves the most.  She even references Hero’s remark that “[Beatrice’s] wit / Values itself so highly that to her / All matter else seems weak.”  And Terry makes the important distinction that wit is something quite different from disdain.  How often, for example, do we see actors play Beatrice from Much Ado and Katherine from Taming of the Shrew in much the same way?  (Full of spit and fire!)  Terry is right; these small nuances make all the difference.

She offers a similar observation about Desdemona in “The Pathetic Woman”:

The part of Desdemona gives an actress far more difficult problems to solve.  I know no character in Shakespeare which has suffered from so much misconception.  The general idea seems to be that Desdemona is a ninny, a pathetic figure chiefly because she is half-baked.  It is certainly the idea of those who think an actress of the dolly type, a pretty young thing with a vapid innocent expression, is well suited to the part.  I shall perhaps surprise you by telling you that a great tragic actress, with a strong personality and a strong method, is far better suited to it, for Desdemona is strong, not weak.  (pp. 128-9)

Terry goes on to point out how “unconventional” Desdemona truly is.  She elopes with a foreigner without her father’s permission, describes her marriage in nun-like terms (a “consecration”), is enchanted by Othello’s stories, speaks freely with her husband (to the point of exacerbating Othello’s suspicions of adultery planted by Iago), and doesn’t perceive that something is wrong with Othello until he literally assaults her.  As Terry writes, “she is not a simpleton, but a saint” (131).

The implicit argument of this little book is that actors have an incredible ability to be good close-readers (maybe even the best), so long as they know how to pay attention.  That’s all close-reading really is, anyway: paying attention.  And Terry takes it a step further, too, implying that attending to the text with all your faculties is not the final end.  When she delivers Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech, for instance, she plainly tells the audience,

“I have done.  I want you to go away with those words in your ears, and to try and make them a living force in your hearts” (122).

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One of the most thoughtful books I’ve (ever) read on auditioning: Donna Soto-Morettini’s ‘Mastering the Audition’

Several weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a friend about what it’s like to start auditioning again after taking a long break from stage acting.  In my case, the break was necessary if I wanted to keep up with my PhD program.  After all, coursework, prelims, and that pesky dissertation are, well, time-consuming.  But now that my schedule is more open, I’m steadily easing back into auditioning with equal parts excitement and total trepidation.

Overall, going on auditions again has actually been fun so far (i.e. no major embarrassments to report, as of yet), but I confided to my friend that I was surprised at how easily I’d forgotten the consistent disappointment that comes with going on audition after audition.  Just like with academic writing, your rejections massively outweigh your acceptances.  This is just the way it is.  In fact, the rational voice in my head hasn’t wasted any time reminding me to “just get over it and move on” in light of my past few auditions.  Acting is hard.  Auditioning is harder.

What’s funny is that all of these realities don’t change the fact that I now approach the process of acting through the lens of my research-oriented graduate training, something I never expected to happen.  If I’m sensing a problem in the work that I’m doing, or if I don’t feel like I know enough about a play I’m auditioning for, then I do the graduate student thing of going to the library and immediately checking out all the books I can find on the subject.

(A PhD does not a good actor make, but access to a world-class research library doesn’t hurt.)

photoI found myself doing quite a bit of library-going recently with auditioning.  Since I’ve read books on the subject before (a long, long time ago), I was a little nervous that everything I would find in the library would be a recitation of the same old principles: don’t take it personally, be prepared, dress appropriately, relax, be professional, speak up, don’t look the auditors in the eye, etc.

All of those things are important, and I’m not kidding myself that some people are probably well served to be reminded of them, but, this time around, I wanted to find advice that was more substantial.  I was hoping to find a resource that would help me mentally (and emotionally) reframe the whole audition process.  Most importantly, I wanted something that would offer real, pragmatic advice that went several steps beyond what you find in a typical Internet search.  (Try googling “audition tips” and then prepare to have your common sense slightly insulted.)

After some digging, what I finally found was Donna Soto-Morettini’s Mastering the Audition: How to Perform Under Pressure (Methuen Drama, 2012).  What I appreciated the most about this book was that the author took real steps to not only articulate how irrational the auditioning process can be, but also to give performers a real sense of what they can control.  In other words, the elusive “it factor” is probably out of an actor’s control, but things like mastery, risk-taking, and self-confidence are all within her reach.  These big picture ideals, to me, seem essential to a “philosophy of auditioning” that goes beyond in-the-moment tips and tricks.

In my opinion, Soto-Morettini’s book spends its core energy on those first two traits, mastery and risk-taking, although the issue of self-confidence is definitely in the background.  One of the most helpful refrains related to risk-taking was the call to enact the “least likely interpretation” in audition settings. This habit is something that you have to cultivate constantly, not just when you walk into the audition room.  Risk-taking, then, becomes a personal creativity issue instead of an audition “trick.”  She is careful, too, to remind the reader that the “least likely interpretation” still has to jive with the truth of the text and the character.  You should never conflate “least likely” with “total opposite.”

And for mastery, she even offers sample plans at the end of the book for creating a personalized schedule of improvement.  As in, “if I have 10 hours to spare each week, how many hours will I give to vocal work, physicality, cold reading, or enlarging my repertoire?”  I’ve only met a handful of actors (who also happen to be really good) who have a tangible plan for artistic development.  Soto-Morettini’s implicit argument on this topic is that all actors should approach their work this way if they want to reaffirm acting’s status as a craft, both to themselves and to their artistic colleagues.

Her undergirding claims about how a performer respects her craft carry through to the end of the book.  This was one of my favorite paragraphs, just a few pages from the conclusion:

Perhaps the closest I can come to describing people who have that “it” factor lies in one common element—whatever the material they are performing—which is that they understand that all great performance is based on a passionate and honestly felt need to communicate something.  It isn’t about demonstrating a great voice, it isn’t about demonstrating that you can cry on cue.  It isn’t about hitting your high C faultlessly, and it isn’t about doing a flawless triple pirouette.  It’s all about understanding why the crying, the high C or the pirouette must happen, must be executed with skill, just at that point, in order to truly communicate the piece.  That’s what mastery is all about: good artistic taste and judgement, the powerful employment of skill in the aid of communicating something, and in making us see the world in a new, perhaps unexpected way. (Mastering the Audition, 225-26)

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Soto-Morettini’s follow up book, Mastering the Shakespeare Audition: A Quick Guide to Performance Success, is forthcoming with Bloomsbury press (release date: August 25, 2016).

 

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Shakespearean actor training and my literature classroom

One of my more recent research interests is how acting theory relates to the training of Shakespearean (or, more generally, “classical”) actors.  There’s a great deal to be said about how different methods—and, yes, I use that word very, very carefully—affect how an actor approaches a classical text, especially since different styles can result in vastly different performances.

Book Cover for Speaking the Speech

Cover of Giles Block’s Speaking the Speech, which features an image of Timothy Walker as Malvolio in a 2002 Globe production of Twelfth Night. Click the book cover for the Amazon listing.

As I’ve been wading through the sources available in our library, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the books directly related to “Shakespearean actor training” are text-focused, and one of my favorites I’ve encountered is Giles Block’s Speaking the Speech: An Actor’s Guide to Shakespeare.  Published in 2013, Block’s guidebook serves as a summation of his practices for text direction, based on his work as “Master of the Words” at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

This semester, I taught Twelfth Night in my British literature survey course, a class which attempts to cover Beowulf to Virginia Woolf and beyond.  Even though my students are in a general education literature class (not an acting class!), I discovered that so many of Block’s claims in Speaking the Speech were invaluable for equipping my students (and myself) to speak more intelligibly about the Shakespearean text, not just the play’s characters, themes, and conflicts.

Because of time constraints (after all, I have to teach nearly all of British literary history), I could only spend a few days on Twelfth Night, but several things I learned from Speaking the Speech stuck with me as I prepared for class:

  1.  Block claims that Shakespeare’s blank verse is “the sound of sincerity.”  I’m used to explaining to students how iambs (dee dum dee dum dee dum) mirror our own commonest speech patterns, and I’ve also made an effort to incorporate Stephen Greenblatt’s claim about blank verse in Will in the World, which asserts that this is how early moderns imagined humans would sound if they were “greater than they are.”  But I had never heard of blank verse being designated as a “sincere” meter.  As Block points out, this designation has interesting implications for characters like “honest Iago,” who sounds honest by way of his verse but is actually deceitful.
  2. Take a “top-off” breath before each new line.  I love to have students read aloud in my classroom, and I think that Block’s idea of giving readers permission to breathe before a new line (rather than holding one’s breath in order to read through a moment of enjambment or just to finish a sentence) is actually really freeing.  This focus on the breath also causes you to reflect on the significance of why certain content is held within the boundaries of a single line, which leads to Block’s claim that….
  3. “End-stopped verse is the sound of confidence.”  Block offers a counterpoint to this by noting that “[r]agged form captures the sound of emotional disturbance.”  To ask students to articulate why a particular line’s presentation might mirror the “sound of” an emotion can be incredibly helpful for talking about the relationship between form and content.
  4. Divide a speech into “thought units.”  Most thought units, according to Block, can be contained within a grammatical sentence.  I returned to the idea of thought units quite a lot while discussing Twelfth Night‘s “patience on a monument” speech with my students.  Viola/Cesario focuses on layering images in this speech (especially when she describes her grieving “sister”), and mentally dividing it into thought units can help make her rhetorical goals clear.
  5. Prose is more complicated than we usually think.  It’s easy to only discuss prose as a vehicle for comedic or lower-class characters, but Block makes some really interesting claims about the function of prose, such as, “Prose is a language that says one thing to hide another.”  I had never considered prose as a mode of concealment, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider just how many of Rosalind’s speeches to Orlando in the Forest of Arden are in prose; she is in hiding, and perhaps her language is designed to echo that condition.

There’s so much good stuff in Speaking the Speech, too much to discuss here, and I have a feeling I’ll keep returning to it in the coming semesters.  With only a few days to talk about Shakespeare in my survey class this year, I wasn’t able to incorporate everything from Block that I wanted.  NeverthelessI think what I appreciated the most about Block’s book was its emphasis on the idea that Shakespeare really does give us everything we need to speak his words effectively.  The catch, of course, is that we have to know what signposts we’re looking for, and a guidebook like Block’s can put us on just the right wavelength.

 

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A (moderately geeky) annotated bibliography on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespearean “Translation” Project

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1889, by John Singer Sargent. (I can't help but wonder what Ellen Terry would think of "updating" Shakespeare. Don't think she would approve...)

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1889, by John Singer Sargent. (I can’t help but wonder what Ellen Terry would think of “updating” Shakespeare. Don’t think she would approve…) Image is in the Public Domain.

Here’s a geeky confession: I love a good, sturdy annotated bibliography.

So, while following the news about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “translation” project (which commissioned 36 playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English by December 2018), I’ve been collecting what I think are some of the best web pieces on OSF’s decision.  In general, the responses have been wide-ranging, from celebratory to downright degrading.

The major rift is concentrated around the sacrosanctity of Shakespeare’s language.  Are we treating Shakespearean language too much like holy writ, to the extent that we’ve lost touch with the pragmatic concerns it raises (i.e., understandability)?  If so, what’s the harm in carefully updating some of the text for modern audiences?  Do we do away with all allusions and punchlines that fall deaf on twenty-first-century ears?  Is it even fun to see a Shakespeare production when you don’t understand half of what’s being said?

Here’s the best of what I’ve found so far, including OSF’s own statements about the project:

List of Playwrights and Dramaturgs for Play on! (via Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

Despite the criticisms OSF has faced for this project, this webpage (which features images of the playwrights and dramaturgs assigned to each play) confirms OSF’s commitment to featuring female and minority voices in the theatre world.  Seeing the range of artists commissioned to create this new body of work could very well restore your faith in American professional theatre’s priorities.

Frequently Asked Questions for Play on! (via Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

What’s great about this FAQ page is that it does an excellent job of laying out the real limitations OSF wants its playwrights to observe.  For one thing, OSF states that these plays will not be extracted from their historical setting, which means we won’t be hearing any references to Facebook in the new translations.  This page also points out that the playwrights are welcome to leave the text alone if they so desire, and it stresses that the primary goal is to wipe out archaisms in the language.

“Op-ed: ‘Translating’ Shakespeare to modern English is not a literary travesty,” by Martine Kei Green-Rogers” (via The Salt Lake Tribune)

Green-Rogers makes the point that this project is an educational opportunity, and she builds her case for Play on! on the grounds that she and her playwright (Green-Rogers is the dramaturg assigned to the play) are involving their whole academic department in the project.  As a collaborative effort, Play on! is somewhat redeemed by the process work involved in a high quality modern translation of a Shakespeare play.

“Op-ed: Why We’re Translating Shakespeare,” by Bill Rauch, the Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (via American Theatre). 

In this piece, the Artistic Director of OSF defends his company’s decision to translate Shakespeare.  In response to critics who claim that this project is attempting to “replace” Shakespeare’s plays, Rauch emphasizes that these new translations could never replace the Bard’s originals.  He reaffirms OSF’s commitment to performing Shakespeare’s plays, and he states that Play on! is primarily interested in creating a “new body of work” that can act as an aid to academics and theatre practitioners.  He does, however, note that one or more of the new translations will likely be produced at OSF in the future.

“A Facelift for Shakespeare,” by John H. McWhorter (via The Wall Street Journal)

This op-ed by the linguist John McWhorter offers several examples of words that have a different meaning now than they did in Shakespeare’s age, and his examples aim to demonstrate just how frequently these words turn up.  Evidently, the actor-author Ben Crystal has argued that only 10% of Shakespeare’s words are relatively unintelligible to most audiences, but McWhorter notes that “every tenth word” is actually quite a lot.

“Shakespeare in Modern English?” by James Shapiro (via The New York Times) 

In this op-ed, Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, reminds us that the language is meant to be the special effect, and it likely does not need as much doctoring as we think.  Shapiro shifts the blame away from the text and onto directors and actors who often don’t understand the text well enough themselves.  He also makes a good point that, when one watches a Shakespeare play, you really don’t need to catch every single word in order to be deeply affected by a performance.

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It seems like the most daring aspect of Play on! is not necessarily the desire to “translate” Shakespeare.  This has been done before, perhaps most popularly in the last 15 years by Spark Notes’ No Fear Shakespeare editions, a series now owned by Barnes and Noble.  No Fear, much like the OSF’s proposed project, puts the original text side-by-side with a tight modern translation.  The translation itself is pretty clearly “plain English,” but I’d argue that it’s moderately careful only to adjust language/allusion that truly is indecipherable for a modern audience.  For the most part, imagery and general wording are kept intact, although the verse is always lost.  As far as I can tell, OSF wants its playwrights to try to keep the verse present in the translations, and this directive is one of the biggest differences between OSF’s project and previous companion editions.

Ultimately, the presence of recent predecessors like No Fear Shakespeare means that that OSF’s desire to create companion resources is not a new idea, even though Bill Rauch, the Artistic Director of OSF, states specifically that this is “not No Fear Shakespeare.”  Instead, the new idea seems to be (eventually) to perform the modern translations.  And this is where things get heated.  After all, if Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed, whereas the No Fear editions are merely reading guides, what percentage of “updating/translating” makes the play still belong to Shakespeare?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in all my post-fall-semester free time, and I’m finding that the issue provokes two very different responses in me.   On the one hand, I’m wondering how a contemporary playwright like Sarah Ruhl or Anne Washburn would feel about having their plays “updated” and “translated” in 400 years, especially since these two playwrights are so intentional about word choice and how the language is arranged on the page.  Even with several centuries gone, it still strikes me as an intrusion on the work itself.  Yes, OSF has stated repeatedly that these new versions are not meant to replace Shakespeare’s originals; and yet the desire to “translate” them in the first place suggests that the works are not sustainable in their present state, that they’re only valuable as artifacts.

It’s sad for an artist when their art becomes artifact, even (I imagine) if they’re long dead.

My other response—a positive one—is probably grounded in my identity as a teacher.  Just imagine how incredible this project could be as an assignment in a Shakespeare course.  For the sake of manageability, you (the teacher) would only assign a scene for students to “translate,” but you would give them the same instructions that OSF has given to their playwrights: only change what must be changed for the sake of understandability, and do everything you can to maintain the verse when it’s present in the original.  With these kinds of instructions, I have a feeling the finished product would reveal to students just how much they already understand in Shakespeare’s language.

And this is what you want as a literature teacher (and probably what OSF wants, too): to point people back to their own rich capabilities as theatre-goers and English speakers, and to tear down the mental barriers that make us feel small when faced with the Bard.

So often with Shakespeare, we underestimate ourselves by default.  Perhaps one of OSF’s (quite noble) underlining goals is to build us back up again, despite however we may feel about “translating” Shakespeare.

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“And I, forsooth, in love!”: Love’s Labour’s Lost (The Musical) and the Fun of Pop-Rock Translation

A few weeks ago, I got to see our theatre department’s really wonderful production of Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Musical, a pop-rock show updating one of Shakespeare’s most quizzical romantic comedies. Composers and librettists rarely attempt a direct musical adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s plays, especially while using the original text for all the spoken dialogue.   But collaborators Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers do just that with their 2013 production of Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Musical, mixing the original Shakespearean verse with a pop-rock score.   (In truth, musical theatre is no stranger to the Shakespeare inspired show. Consider this list from Playbill, which goes so far as to include The Lion King as a loose adaptation of Hamlet—Timon and Pumba are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I suppose?)

The musical, which premiered in July 2013 during The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series, follows the basic story of Love’s Labour’s Lost, but sets the show at a college reunion hosted by a resort. Now that the performance rights for the show are available through Music Theatre International (MTI), you can probably expect to see this show pop up in upcoming theatre seasons. In so many ways, it’s the perfect show for college-age, pop-voice performers: the music is catchy, the comedy is quirky, and no single cast member is set up to steal the show.

Album Art for the Original Cast Recording of "Love's Labour's Lost."  (Fair Use)

Album Art for the Original Cast Recording of “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” (Fair Use)

Most musicals use songs to move the plot forward or to let a single character soliloquize about the inner-workings of his or her mind. What’s interesting about this show is that the music itself seems more interested in reading between the lines of the Shakespearean text—a kind of Shakespearean midrash. The effect is sort of fascinating, especially if you happen to know the story of Love’s Labour’s Lost already. One moment, you are listening to the players speak Shakespeare’s own lines to one another; the next, the modern lyrics in the songs act as interpretations of the verse itself, reading between the lines for a contemporary audience.

(This act of translation, coincidentally, is relevant to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s decision to commission “updated” versions of Shakespeare’s plays, but that’s fodder for another post.)

This “musical translation” happens all throughout the show, and the fact that the setting is a “five year college reunion” (do these exist?) makes all the anxieties of young romance, fleeting affections, and the practical uses of scholarship seem all the more urgent. These are the most pressing themes in Shakespeare’s original Love’s Labour’s Lost; to see those anxieties acted out by post-college twenty-somethings in our own century illuminates the play’s resilience. And you know what?  The catchy tunes really make that message stick.

I loved how this played out in the cynical Berowne’s conversion moment, in which he decides to forego his sardonic grumbling and pursue Rosaline wholeheartedly. The original text reads this way:

BEROWNE: And I, forsooth, in love! I, that have been love’s whip,
A very beadle to a humorous sigh,
A critic, nay, a night-watch constable,
A domineering pedant o’er the boy,
Than whom no mortal so magnificent!
This wimpled, whining, purblind, wayward boy,
This Signor Junior, giant dwarf, Dan Cupid,
Regent of love-rhymes, lord of folded arms,
Th’anointed sovereign of sighs and groans,
Liege of all loiterers and malcontents,
Dread prince of plackets, king of codpieces,
Sole imperator and great general
Of trotting partitors—O my little heart! (3.1.169-81)

Here Berowne says what he has been (a shameless critic of love who domineers over Cupid himself), and then, in the midst of his coarse jibes at the “wimpled, whining, purblind boy” (i.e., Cupid), he slowly realizes that maybe he identifies more with Cupid than he ever thought possible (“O my little heart!”). He finds himself in love. Now he, too, is “th’anointed sovereign of sighs and groans.” And, at this point, all his cynicism melts away when faced with the prospect of falling gloriously in love.

Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Musical gets this moment right, I think. In the song “Change of Heart,” Berowne goes a step further than simply lamenting his cynicism like he does in the original play; instead, he muses on where that cynicism came from in the first place.

Am I man or just an also-ran with a good degree?
Am I man or just an infantilized boy in an expensive t-shirt?
When I began to think I was better than Armado and his cliché love songs,
No, I would never sigh or swoon, or ever be a lovelorn fool,
I am too aware of irony, that’s what we learn in school,
But now I see the life I try to buttress with that learning,
There’s a trophy wife and a soul-killing job all to justify your earnings,
What I really learned in college to care too much what people say,
To use my words to mock or hide behind and never give myself away,
But I look at her and I wonder why we try to live sequestered,
Did I think my heart would listen to my mind and be un-pestered by love.

He locates his cynicism in his education, in his college experience, and in the “soul-killing” life that purportedly waits for him once he finally grows up.   Despite this, he seems to recognize that his education was never meant to paralyze his feelings, even though that’s the effect it seemed to have. The irony, of course, is that his education is what allows him to reflect on “what he really learned in college,” to the extent that he can acknowledge “why we try to live sequestered” within our own little bubbles of cynicism. His education gives him the ability to articulate a rich cycle of self-knowledge: from happy ignorance, to dark disillusionment, and finally to mature appreciation of delight. (Oh, how I love this, Shakespeare geek that I am.)

Of course, this is a contemporary musical, so Friedman and Timbers take some massive liberties with the characters themselves, especially women like Rosaline and Jaquenetta. Amazingly, Armado and Moth are pretty intact in terms of their comedic presence—Armado is a foreign-exchange student turned nightclub singer and Moth is his trusty, keytar-playing and cat-loving assistant. I’ll admit, though, I don’t get Moth’s “I Love Cats” song in the musical, and yet it actually fits with the original Moth’s role as a sarcastic little imp who sings nonsense songs just for kicks.

You’ll be happy to know, too, that Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Musical maintains Armado’s final lines, which take on a whole new meaning in the post-college context of this show: “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.” Real life is hard after the safe and youthful joys of college. “You that way, we this way.”

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If you’re curious about the show and want to know more, there is some excellent footage here.

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“A good actor is a man who represents the sediment…”

The early twentieth-century actor Ellen Terry said that the best actors have “that little something extra.”  As simple as that statement is, it does a spot-on job of describing what it’s like to watch a truly wonderful actor perform.  There’s a little something that sets them apart, and everyone seems to notice it.

Ellen Terry at age sixteen. (Public Domain)

Ellen Terry at age sixteen. (Public Domain)

Perhaps as part of my mental strategy for combatting Texas summer heat, I’ve been revisiting Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow, which tells the story of a Turkish poet named Ka who visits the troubled city of Kars after his exile.  Ka finds himself in the company of a professional actor, Sunay, during a peak moment in the city’s political turmoil, and as they walk together in the snow, Sunay offers his own theory on what makes someone a good actor:

A good actor,” said Sunay in a light theatrical tone, “is a man who represents the sediment, the unexplored and unexplained powers that have drifted down through the centuries; he takes the lessons he has gleaned and hides them deep inside him; his self-mastery is awesome; never does he bare his heart; no one may know how powerful he is until he strides onto the stage.  All his life, he travels down unfamiliar roads to perform at the most out-of-the-way theaters in the most godforsaken towns, and everywhere he goes he searches for a voice that will grant him genuine freedom.  If he is so fortunate as to find that voice, he must embrace it fearlessly and follow the path to the end.” (Pamuk 202)

Admittedly, this is a rather romantic (and even a little ascetic) musing on the work of the actor.  I think most actors would agree that there must be some awareness of the business of making art, and that the times where acting truly is romantic are scattered amidst the work of making a living.  But what I like about Pamuk’s meditation here is that it casts the actor as a seeker: “everywhere he goes he searches for a voice will grant him genuine freedom.”  The posture of seeking seems to redeem some of the everyday trials of the acting life.  Yet the meaning of that “genuine freedom” is a little ambiguous—does he mean a final sense of authenticity?  or identification?  or is it as simple as a sense of being unleashed? I’m not sure I have an answer to that, but I know this passage stands out to me by virtue of how seriously it takes the actor’s work.  I thought I’d share it here.

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Flannery O’Connor and the necessity of “the soul” in literature.

Detail of

Detail of “A king enthroned, speaking to a peacock” (Flannery O Connor was famous for keeping peacocks), from a 15th century medieval manuscript. Getty Museum. 

I read Flannery O’Connor’s novel The Violent Bear it Away (1960) for the first time this summer, and I’ve been enjoying paging through some of her nonfiction—especially pieces that address the work of the writer.  The excerpt below is from her essay, “Novelist and Believer” (1963), published only a few years after the novel.   I’m usually wary of artists who claim to create “Christian art” (or even attempt to define it), but O’Connor’s argument here is compelling, and I think her contention makes sense even beyond the opinion of “believers.”   She claims that witnessing the drama of the soul (which we might call either the progression towards salvation or loss) is what consumers of art naturally crave.  As an answer to that craving, the “serious writer” (or, by proxy, probably any artist) “has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point.”  She continues,

Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not.  Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself.  The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is  the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, a total experience of human nature at any time.  For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul.  Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama.

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I found selections from “Novelist and Believer” in Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings, (Orbis Books, 2003), edited by Robert Ellsberg.

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On watching live animals in plays.

Several years ago, I tutored a group of football players who were trying to write a performance review of the musical Gypsy.  The only thing they could remember enjoying about the play was the appearance of a live black sheep halfway through the show.  (As much as I try to wrack my brain, I cannot for the life of me remember why a black sheep has a role in Gypsy… was it a goat?  a lamb?)

A Sheep; Unknown; Crete, Greece; 1510 - 1520; Pen and red lead and iron gall inks, watercolors, tempera colors, and gold paint on paper bound between wood boards covered with probably original brown calf; Leaf: 21.7 x 15.6 cm (8 9/16 x 6 1/8 in.); Ms. Ludwig XV 2, fol. 12

Detail of an early sixteenth-century sketch of a sheep from Crete, Greece.  Unknown artist.  Click the sheep for a full, detailed record from the Getty Museum.

“I loved that little sheep,” one of them said.

“That sheep was amazing,” said another. “Did you see its blue bow?”

Why do audiences giggle with pleasure when they see a living animal—a dog, a horse, a pig—in a play?  Do we love it because the animal, who has no real capacity for “pretending,” is entirely out of place on a stage full of pretenders?  Or is it delightful to us simply because animals are delightful?

Those football players fixated on the most real thing they saw in the play, the thing that could do nothing except be there—living, playing, munching on sheep food.  In cases like this, the actors have serious competition.  The presence of a living, non-human animal in a play heightens the artifice of everything around it, especially the humans.

Maybe live animals should be left out of plays more often than they are.  Maybe we would do better to have a human play the dog (or sheep, or pig, whatever the case may be), like Nana the St. Bernard in the musical Peter Pan.  The actor playing Nana really does steal the show.  (And, yes, I write this with full knowledge that the play Sylvia has just been revived on Broadway, in which a young woman plays a dog without any sort of “dog costume.”)

It’s hard to compete with a little black sheep in a blue bow.

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The theatrical side of the “personal uniform”

Marlene Dietrich in a white suit.  (Click image for Creative Commons attribution.)

Marlene Dietrich in a white suit. A men’s suit and top hat would become her trademarks, especially when she performed in cabarets at the end of her career.  (Click image for Creative Commons attribution.)

There are so many compelling arguments for the “personal uniform”—a conscious choice to wear (either approximately or exactly) the same thing every day.  Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of “the uniform” is that it lets you impersonate something iconic. And if you do it long enough, you, too, could become iconic.

I once had a friend in high school who wore a T-shirt, our drama club track jacket, and Chuck Taylors every single day.  And he seemed very happy.   I, on the other hand, obsessed about what I wore each morning before high school, rarely ending up at school in an outfit I liked.  This is a feeling I’d hoped being a grown-up would eradicate, but that hasn’t happened yet.  Even now, I spend too much time rifling through my closet each morning, and often I still end up at work regretting my choices.  This is part of why the personal uniform is so appealing to me, at least on the surface.  The decision fatigue would (ideally) go away for good.

But the thing that attracts me the most to the personal uniform is its “performance” potential.  I don’t mean performance in an inauthentic sense, but in the playful, “remember me” sense.  In her essay on “the uniform” for J. Crew (linked below), Alice Gregory claims that wearing the same thing everyday “asserts your status as a protagonist.”  The choice to practice this kind of striking continuity in your personal appearance makes you—as a character—seem concrete and continuous, a claim that makes a lot of sense to me as a literature teacher.  Gregory offers as examples the main characters of children’s picture books: Eloise, Babar, the Little Prince, Max, Madeleine, etc.  After all, who would these characters be without their signature outfits?

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like there are many grown-up “uniforms” left to go around.  For women’s clothing, the choices almost seem slimmer, but I think that’s because of the longstanding reliability of the men’s suit.  (Women have never quite had something as resilient as the suit.)  For both men and women, though, the choices for a uniform appear increasingly limited, maybe even “already done” or “over done.”  All black.  White on black.  White on black with a single accent color.  A suit.  Khakis and a black shirt.  A white v-neck, jeans, and a leather jacket.  Neutral clothes and black fedora.  Black turtleneck and jeans.  Etc. 

From a theatrical perspective, the fact that personal uniforms themselves seem limited is likely their greatest strength.  Those pairings above have the foundation of something iconic, mostly by way of their simplicity.  But they only become “iconic” once the wearer commits.  They have visual potential on which a wearer can capitalize, which is the same thought a costume designer might have when thinking through a fictional character’s clothes.  (Gregory even goes so far as to call it a Platonic choice, as in, you’ve found just the right packaging that makes you feel transcendent.)

It seems, too, that adopting the perspective of a costumer makes you think long and hard about what clothing truly reflects your personality, your identity, and your character.  If you were a character in a play (playing the role of “yourself,” of course), what would you be wearing?   Maybe the answer to this question is what’s so captivating to me about the uniform concept.  It forces you to visualize how people will remember you and gives you a very (very) small bit of control.

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A few thoughtful pieces on the personal uniform:

Alice Gregory, “Alice Gregory on Finding a Uniform” (via J. Crew blog).  This may be one of the most compelling cases for the uniform I’ve read.  Like the passage I quoted above (“A uniform asserts your status as a protagonist”), the essay as a whole makes a graceful argument for the ways in which a uniform can help you “impersonate” maturity, the hope being that eventually you won’t have to fake it anymore.

Matilda Kahl, “Why I Wear the Exact Same Thing to Work Every Day” (via Harper’s BAZAAR).  Perhaps one of the most shared articles on the uniform, at least among readers of women’s magazines.  This is a personal uniform origin story, told from the perspective of a creative director at an advertising firm.  (I think I like her uniform the best.)

Anne Bogel, “Simplicity, Productivity, and the Personal Uniform” (via Modern Mrs. Darcy).  A great overview of the uniform concept that suggests some reasons why women might have a harder time developing one compared to men (again, the suit).  This essay also underscores Alice Gregory’s point that executing a personal uniform can appear like the product of several years of fashion taste-building (even if it isn’t).  There’s that performativity once more.

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For the love of actors and iambic pentameter: Some thoughts on Ian McKellen’s ‘Acting Shakespeare’

I love to watch actors have their own passionate geek-outs about playing Shakespeare, so Sir Ian McKellen’s filmed one-man-show from the early 1980’s, Acting Shakespeare (Dir. Kirk Browning), has been on my to-watch list for a long time.  With only a velvet high-backed chair, a small box that serves as both occasional stool or table, and a magenta copy of The Complete Works, McKellen offers his actorly tribute to William Shakespeare.  This tribute includes bits and pieces of McKellen’s personal acting history, interspersed with some of Shakespeare’s greatest speeches.

It is pure, Shakespeare geek-out triumph, and I loved it.

Although Acting Shakespeare is a shameless-but-delightful showcase of McKellen’s knack for the language of Renaissance drama (cue Magneto voice), the production still makes a good argument about the Bard: that, as far as we can tell from his plays, Shakespeare had a deep respect for honest and thoughtful actors.  It’s easy to forget that Shakespeare was a player before he was a playwright, and he very likely kept up with the playing until the end of his London career.  I like to imagine (and I know I’m not alone on this) that one of the reasons he was so good at writing language for the stage was because he knew what it felt like to perform himself.

Production poster for

Production poster for “Acting Shakespeare” (Fair Use)

I read a theory once (I think it may have been in Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, but I can’t find the reference now) that claimed the Elizabethans imagined iambic pentameter as the way language would sound if human beings were greater than they actually are.  You get that feeling when you watch Ian McKellen recite speeches from Henry V, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet.  It’s not just his presence as an actor that makes you notice this shift towards greatness—the language itself is the special effect.

Watching this reminded me of how great it can feel to have some Shakespeare tucked away in your brain.  While studying for prelims, I filed away bits and pieces of all the plays on my reading list, digging for “thesis lines,” greatest hits, and (admittedly/shamelessly) party tricks.  But the greatest part of that process was the triumphant feeling of having something beautiful to say, whenever you needed to say it.  Not that I was slinging around iambic pentameter whenever the opportunity presented itself.  But I did do a lot of poetry recitations to myself, alone, in the car on the way to work.  With geeky ambition, I learned the soliloquies of roles I may never (or may…?) get to play, just for the sake of learning them.  (When I saw our university’s production of Twelfth Night this week, I even caught myself reciting Viola and Olivia’s lines in my head, feeling the mental jolt whenever a line was dropped or changed.)

There’s wild and strange power in memorized lines, and I think Shakespeare respected that power.  He gave it to his actors freely and confidently by offering them language that “makes humans seem greater than they actually are”—this is what McKellen’s show highlights best.

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[IN OTHER NEWS: Today is the last day of classes for the school year, which is simply tremendous.  I celebrated by turning in chapter #1 of my dissertation, so general feelings of triumph are currently abounding in the Bailey Parker household.   I will now go read magazines and finish Parks and Recreation until it’s time to start chapter #2.  Happy May Day!]

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“A labor huge, exceeding far my might”: on finishing my doctoral exams and beginning Lent

Growing up in the Baptist tradition, the churches my family attended did not formally observe Lent.  This 40-day season leading up to Easter was a rite reserved for my Catholic and Methodist friends, and I felt properly jealous that they were invited to participate in what seemed to be a very “grown-up” Christian ritual and I was not.  It is rather “grown-up,” isn’t it?  The dusty images of Lent seem foreign in a normally cheerful children’s Sunday school room.  And I never felt like adults took me seriously when, as a preteen, I would announce whatever it was I planned to give up for Lent.  Looking back, I can’t tell whether my impulse to participate in Lent was achievement based (as in, “let me show you what I’m capable of”) or based in a desire to participate in an old, possibly wondrous ritual.  (It was probably a combination of both.)

This year, Lent has arrived on the heels of one of the most significant landmarks of my professional life: completing and passing my doctoral exams.  On four separate days in late January and early February, I did my best to prove that I was capable (and worthy) of calling myself a scholar, with only my brain and a little computer screen as witnesses.  My exams took place in a high-ceilinged room, where the walls are lined with bookshelves protected by locked glass cases.  There’s so much irony in that space itself, as if it’s attempting to allegorize your challenge: tell us all you know about good books, while all the books themselves are locked away—within your sight, but out of reach.  I poured out all I had into the white-screened, digital offering plate.  And I passed.  It’s finished.

Another room filled with books: “The Leeds Library,” by Michael D. Beckwith. Click Image for Source.

But now Ash Wednesday is here, and it’s taken me by absolute surprise.  I’ve just finished a season of self-denial (studying in every spare moment, neglecting caring for myself, and pushing aside relationships in pursuit of “just getting through exams”), and now I am immediately entering into another season of conscious preparation.  Richard Rohr describes the Lenten season as a liturgical marker of the “wondrous loop,” or the cycle we experience between feeling that our lives are worthwhile and feeling that they are meaningless:

There are two moments that matter.  One is when you know that your one and only life is absolutely valuable and alive.  The other is when you know your life, as presently lived, is entirely pointless and empty.  You need both of them to keep you going in the right direction.  Lent is about both.  The first such moment gives you energy and joy by connecting you with your ultimate Source and Ground.  The second gives you limits and boundaries, and a proper humility, so you keep seeking the Source and Ground and not just your small self. (Rohr, Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent)

In Book II of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the narrator describes the challenge of chronicling all the history of Britain’s monarchs with only his “frail pen” in this way: “a labor huge, exceeding far my might.”  The poet does, in fact, accomplish his “labor huge,” though.  This is how I’ve felt about my doctoral exams, that they are a huge labor far beyond my actual capabilities; and yet I’ve done it and done it successfully.  I felt so powerful and intelligent after my exams were over.  The hard thing was conquered, and the “winning” gave me confidence similar to what Rohr describes above: “your one and only life is absolutely valuable and alive.”  Now, I know that passing PhD exams does not give my life value, but I won’t deny the fact that it made me feel triumphant and worthy of calling myself a scholar.  I felt affirmed in my vocation as an academic; after all, I had passed the test.

As the triumph subsides, however, and I confront the next daunting task of writing a meaningful dissertation, I am humbled.  I’m feeling that “proper humility” that Rohr describes as the low point of the wondrous loop.  Even though this one “labor huge” is finished, there has to be a moment of reorientation that makes me aware of my limits.  As Rohr writes, this humbling quality of the wondrous loop directs your attention back to “the Source and Ground and not just your small self.”  My small self may have passed exams, but fixating on the human power of my small self won’t sustain me.

I’m mature enough to understand that Lent is not only about giving up something, but I am simple enough to realize that this is not at all a bad starting place.  This may sound a little abstract, but, this Lent, I want to give up my refrain of self-congratulation.  I want to silence the voice in my head that keeps telling me, over and over again, how my triumph in passing exams is an excuse to be irresponsible with my time and my resources.  I am certainly not against celebrating, but when the “winning” becomes an excuse for over-spending, slacking on my responsibilities at home, neglecting relationships, and not caring for my students, then something is truly amiss.  Lent may be the perfect time to level things out.

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Reading (Very) Old Books for Fun

Workshop of Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian, illuminator (Flemish, active about 1475 - 1515) Saint Jerome Reading, about 1510 - 1520, Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment Leaf: 23.2 x 16.7 cm (9 1/8 x 6 9/16 in.) Justification: 10.9 x 7.4 cm (4 5/16 x 2 15/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig IX 18, fol. 223v

Workshop of Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian, illuminator (Flemish, active about 1475 – 1515) Detail of “Saint Jerome Reading,” about 1510 – 1520, Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It’s fascinating to see what literature gets recommended on popular book blogs these days: new creative non-fiction, pop-lit sensations, memoir, fantasy series, and Pulitzer winners included.  These kinds of resources are wonderful for me because they keep me up-to-date on all the contemporary fiction I miss when my mind is (happily) lodged somewhere in the English Renaissance. But as someone whose job requires that she keep most of her reading life between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, I suppose I’m a little surprised that (very) old books rarely end up on these reading lists.  In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything recommended that has an imprint earlier than Jane Austen.

I understand why this is.   There are so many important books published each year, and looking backwards to old, dusty books written before the nineteenth-century seems silly when we consider the massive book-output confronting us.  There will always be something new to read.  We even tend to think of these old works (like those of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, the Beowulf poet, Homer, Virgil, Dante, and company) as history texts, books that are meant to give us insight into another time period but not necessarily to entertain us.  We may even feel wary of venerating them too much; after all, where are all the women writers?   Would we be more interested in these books if, as Virginia Woolf speculates in A Room of One’s Own, Shakespeare had an equally talented sister?  The problem of women writers aside, this general distaste is too bad, since the main object of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (as told by the Host in the General Prologue) is to “delight and instruct.”

I believe it’s possible to deeply enjoy (not just “appreciate”) the classics that come before Jane Austen—and “before Austen” seems to be where that invisible line exists.  I promise I’m not just touting this claim as an English teacher.  I am convinced that literature—all great literature, from any time period—can compel us to live richly and teach us what it means to be human.  This compulsion is what keeps authors like Chaucer and Shakespeare in our canon, but our distance from them makes us modern readers skeptical of whether or not those texts are worthwhile for us to read.  In the film Liberal Arts, for example, the protagonist Jesse’s reply to 19-year-old Zibby’s confession that she hated Chaucer is that “you’re not supposed to like him.”  I think lots of people share Jesse’s sentiment, but I would argue that a huge shift takes place in your reading life when you move beyond appreciating the classics (a pretty ambivalent posture, I’d say) to actually enjoying them.

There are a few tricks that make very old books more manageable, especially if you’re not used to reading texts written earlier than the Victorian era (think Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Hardy, or Eliot).  Since I’ve been getting ready to teach a British literature survey course in the fall, I keep returning to the idea that I cannot just advocate “why” we read great literature; I have to first articulate “how” we go about reading it, something I absolutely take for granted.  (I wanted to get these ideas down in writing, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I do a little teacher-brainstorming in this longer post.)

If you already read very old books for fun, good for you, comrade; you are in good company.  But if you don’t, maybe these ideas will be helpful to you.

Court workshop of Duke Ludwig I of Liegnitz and Brieg, illuminator (Polish, 1364 - 1398) Saint Hedwig Listening to a Reading; Saint Hedwig Praying, 1353, Tempera colors, colored washes, and ink on parchment Leaf: 34.1 x 24.8 cm (13 7/16 x 9 3/4 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig XI 7, fol. 46

Detail of “Saint Hedwig Listening to a Reading,” 1353, Tempera colors, colored washes, and ink on parchmentThe J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Before you even consider picking up a very old book for fun, ask yourself: What is my real reason for reading this book?  Reading something like The Canterbury Tales just “so you can say you did it” will not sustain you through the reading process.  This is why I’m skeptical of reading plans that claim they will help you tackle all the books of the Bible or all the plays of Shakespeare in a year.  That kind of approach strikes me more as arbitrary consumption, not a healthy reading life.  Instead of strict reading schedules, you will be better off with a meaningful query that you stick to while reading your book of choice: i.e., Why does every single college English professor assign this book?  What can this old book, written in a completely different world from my own, say to me today?  Someone I deeply respect recommended this book—why would they suggest it?  What can this book teach me about what it means to live to good life?

A medieval illumination of Saint John the Evangelist from the J. Paul Getty Museum.

A medieval illumination of Saint John the Evangelist from the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Remember that although books are books, they are cultural objects, too.  Books reflect the cultures that produced them, and it’s vital to remember that the text you are enjoying was not written in a vacuum.  This means that the value systems and social norms of the time period are usually inscribed upon the text.  You can’t read Austen, for example, without acknowledging the social milieu of courtship in the Regency period.  The same goes for Beowulf—what makes someone a hero in the Anglo-Saxon world, a culture persistently at the mercy of barbaric invasion?  It doesn’t take much to bring yourself up to speed on the historical context.  To wit, a little googling or a peek into the book’s introductory matter can make a huge difference.  The idea here is to remember that you don’t have to read a book blindly—it’s OK to do a little homework first.

Don’t just “pick something.”  When you take a college literature course, you have the great benefit of using the syllabus to hand pick all the fabulous imaginative literature you can read.  But when you’re beyond the age of getting syllabi each semester, you need to step out and find suggestions elsewhere.  People too easily forget the invaluable resource we have in public librarians.  If librarians don’t have a recommendation for a very old book on the tip of their own tongues, then they know someone who does.  They can also help you tremendously if you ask a specific question that gives them something to go off of, like, “I’ve always wanted to read a Greek epic—where should I start?” or “The myths surrounding King Arthur and Camelot are really interesting to me—what’s the best book to begin with for someone who rarely reads medieval literature?”  Do not say: “I want to read an old book.  Any ideas?”  They will probably be gracious anyway, but you won’t come out of the experience with a satisfying book choice.  (Obviously, there is always the Internet if you’re looking for a good recommendation.  But I guarantee you’ll have more fun meeting your local librarian.)

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Unknown maker, French, daguerreotypist. “Woman Reading to a Girl,” about 1845. Daguerreotype. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

One more thought on this one: if you live nearby a university library, don’t be afraid to seek out the help of “subject librarians.”  Librarians are advocates of the education of the world, and they will be delighted to have you come in off the street and say, “I don’t go here, but I’m looking for an expert opinion on _____ kind of literature.  Could I chat briefly with the literature subject librarian for some suggestions?”  Because you aren’t a student, you probably won’t be able to check out a book from that library, but you will be able to get it from your local branch.  Never underestimate the reality that anyone in the US can read any book they want if they just make use of their library.

Good editions make all the difference.  You can never go wrong with Penguin, Oxford, Cambridge, or Norton.  And reading is always a better experience if you have clean type-face, sturdy paper, flexible binding, good notes, and a thorough introduction written by a scholar in the field.  Extra points if the edition includes the original frontispiece of the book (i.e. It’s comforting to see that First Folio page in an edition of Shakespeare).  It may sound like I’m being a little too particular here, perhaps even a tad snobbish.  “But what about the fun of finding an old Dover Thrift Macbeth on the side of the road?” you may ask.  I hear you, and I love old paperback classics just as much as the next bibliophile, yet I would argue that they facilitate a different kind of reading experience—one that gets its momentum from the thrill of finding an “artifact” and not a text.

Novels are still a “new thing” in our universe.  If you push your reading life further back in time, the literature you’re going to encounter is mostly poetry and drama. The “novel,” as we understand it today, is a reasonably modern convention.  The most recognizable ones to us appear in the eighteenth-century, although there are certainly some earlier iterations (even as far back as the Renaissance) that look like novels but don’t contain the same formal conventions we’re used to (like chapters or a linear narrative).  Once you can accept that you won’t find anything that has the same reading experience as Dickens in the sixteenth-century, you can begin to enjoy those works for what they are.  You may also need to adjust your ideas of chapter-book reading to something that divides its time between play acts or poetry cantos—nearly all texts have moments of rest built into them, and, because you’re a human with a human’s attention span, you’ll naturally detect those breaks.

Chaucer_Troilus_frontispiece

The “Troilus Frontispiece.” Public Domain.

In the grand scheme of our literary history, private reading is still a new thing, too.  I think this takes people by surprise.  Because we live in a culture that begins advocating private reading as soon as we know our letters, we forget that reading used to be public, oral, sociable, and frequently reserved for the wealthy.  In our century, this takes a little imaginative work: when you sit down to read Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, the text will begin to come alive for you if you imagine it coming to you like it would to the spectators in this medieval frontispiece (called the “Troilus Frontispiece” by scholars).  Everyone is sitting around listening to a story-teller (notice there is no book) recount the love perils of Troilus and Criseyde—some are into it, others are not.  If a text was meant to be performed aloud, then that fundamentally changes how we read it.  (How much more fun is it, after all, to imagine Beowulf being read aloud in a raucous mead hall?)

Unless you have some experience with Middle English, go for editions with modern spelling.  When you go looking for Malory or Chaucer in your library, open up the text first to see if it’s written in a prose (or sometimes verse) translation.  “Middle English,” which is our linguistic bridge between Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and Modern English, will look familiar to you, but you’ll just experience a whirlwind of confusion if you jump into the Middle English right from the start.  You’ve probably seen it before if you read The Canterbury Tales in high school: “Whan that aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of march hath perced to the roote.”  Reading in the Middle English is something that people work up to, so don’t be afraid to read a translation first.  Now, when you are ready for Middle English, I say go for it.  Listen to recordings of people reading it in ME on YouTube, try to read it aloud yourself so you can get some sense of the meter, and get your hands on an edition (like The Riverside Chaucer) that glosses the vocabulary as you read.

[Young scholar reading a scroll][Delle antichità di Ercolano] ,Engraving ,c. 1757-1792

“Young scholar reading a scroll” [Delle antichità di Ercolano] Engraving, c. 1757-1792

Know the location of the nearest Oxford English Dictionary (or get acquainted with the OED online).  When you read a very old book, your everyday dictionary won’t be enough.  You need a dictionary that tells you not just what a word means today, but what that word meant in the time period of your chosen book.  Words have baggage, and thoughtful reading means taking into account how that baggage changes the meaning of the text.  (And looking up words in the OED is serious fun.)

Finally, don’t throw your hands up in frustration when you find you are lost.  All readers of very old books, even those of us who do this for a living, have moments (probably more than we would admit) where a portion of a book just isn’t making sense to us.  If something is wildly unclear to you, don’t lose yourself reading the same passage over and over.  Push through.  Look for help.  Ask for a second opinion.  If all else fails, remind yourself that you are not “cheating” if you use Spark Notes for its original purpose: a concise supplement to the text.  This moment of frustration is more easily averted, too, if you are reading the book in community: with a friend, with a book club, or while auditing a college class.  No author wants his or her readers to be lost—take comfort in the fact that the author really is on your side, even if he or she is rooting for you from centuries away.

Happy reading!

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My Advent (and Epiphany) Reading List

In about a week, I will be finished plowing through all of the primary texts for my doctoral exams (!!), so I am already making plans for how I’ll recharge my reading life.  My first stop is an Advent/Epiphany reading list to carry me through the holiday break—after all, catching up on reading with Christmas lights and music in the background is one of the best parts about this time of year.  Now that I think about it, it’s a little ridiculous that my first impulse after finishing the longest reading list of my life is to make yet another reading list.  But do it I will.  Many of the books here are re-reads, but others are new-to-me.  Most are fixated on renewal, mutability, and the unending circularity of the seasons; some are just fun and beautiful.  This list is also pretty novel-lite to make room for poetry and a touch of non-fiction.  Gosh, I love poetry at Christmas.

9781616364786Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent by Richard Rohr.  I’ve been reading these daily Advent meditations every December for the past few years.  Now, I’ve never managed to read every single one of them over the course of the month, but I’m always grateful for this little book during the first week of the season (when my sense of intentionality is still very high).  Rohr argues that Advent is a call to consciousness, with the understanding that there are risks to a heightened sense of awareness—you notice pain, horrors, and tragedy more vividly.  I wouldn’t classify this book as a feel-good Advent read (Rohr is direct and challenging), but there’s something satisfying about reading an Advent devotional that pushes beyond the warm and fuzzy feelings of Christmas.

51dJepYPakLThe Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon.  Honestly, I don’t know anything about this new-to-me book, but a friend read an excerpt aloud at a dinner party nearly two years ago and I’ve been wanting to read it since.  Written by an Episcopalian priest who also happens to be a chef, Capon writes about the joy of old-fashioned cooking in a world where “prepackaged dinner” is king.  The Amazon description tells me he writes about “festal” and “ferial” cooking.  I don’t know what that means yet, but I’ll let you know when I find out.

ACH002430515.1307522619.580x580Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the Anonymous Pearl Poet.  My feelings at the end of Sir Gawain are about the same as my feelings at 5pm on Christmas Day: like Sir Gawain, I feel a little ambivalent and often unchanged after Christmas, even though I know I’ve experienced some remarkable shift.  I think Sir Gawain feels the same way when he returns to King Arthur’s court: the other knights praise him because he survived the Green Knight’s test (which, if you’re not up on your Medieval literature, is a beheading), but Gawain doesn’t seem to think he’s transformed at all.  Gawain thinks he failed the test.  Although this literary connection might be a stretch, I would bet that the Christmas season has this Gawain-like effect on most people.  We know that this is a transformative season, but we’re never sure how we ourselves are undergoing change.  Also, if you haven’t read this Medieval poem since high school, you may have forgotten that Gawain is actually a “Christmas story,” set during the feasting celebrations of Christmastide and Epiphany.  (The edition linked above is a translation into Modern English.)

9780393976144_p0_v1_s260x420Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  This novel begins with a beautiful Christmas scene of girls dreaming up what they’d love to anticipate at Christmas, and it’s just perfect.  I pick it up almost every year about this time, if only to meditate over the warm image of sisters sitting by the fire, imagining perfect gifts for Marmee.  I usually don’t stress myself out about finishing this novel every Christmas; it’s more like visiting briefly with an old friend in meaningful little spots of time.  What’s funny is that one thing I love about this book is picturing how odd Louisa May Alcott must have felt writing it. She was the daughter of one of the most influential Transcendentalist thinkers of her time, Bronson Alcott, and was on friendly terms with none other than Emerson and Thoreau. She had a deep understanding of women’s rights long before American women would ever get the vote, her writings had appeared in several respectable publications by her thirties, and her publisher asked her, of all things, to write “a girls’ book”?  In her journal, she writes, “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”

11686The Ninety-Third Name of God: Poems by Anya Krugovoy Silver.  Anya Silver was one of my English professors in college, and her 2010 collection of poems is by-far one of my favorite poetry books for this time of year.  I like how this collection fixates on recurring, whimsical-yet-tangible images that you can trace throughout the book: milkweed, cats, skirts, icons in windows, and tumors included.  The reason I think this book is so suited to Advent is its return to themes of anticipation (of both death and new life) and the nature of unexpected thin places like hospital operating rooms—and her poems are just plain lovely.  (My favorites are “French Toast” and “Lessons and Carols.”)  She also has a new collection out that’s on my Christmas wish list: I Watched You Disappear: Poems (2014)

41C4Y2X1SNLThe Complete Poems by Anne Sexton.  Christmas, in all of its joyfulness and wonder, is also very messy thanks to the fact that the whole concept of incarnation is messy.  I think that Sexton, troubled though she was by her own demons, understood the wild discomfort of divinity incarnate, a theme which occasionally turns up in her poetry.  Also, if you’ve ever wondered what people mean when they say “confessional poetry,” then Sexton is a great place to start.  (I really like this edition linked above, mainly because of the excellent introduction by Maxine Kumin.)

all_the_money_book_picAll the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Wealth by Laura Vanderkam.  Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think really reshaped how I think about my time, and I’m guessing that All the Money in the World will have a similar effect on how I view our financial resources.  I have always been a spender—I love new, beautiful things just as much as anyone.  And when I get busy (which is always), I don’t pay very close attention to where we funnel most of our money.  When I wake up on Christmas morning, I want to be different somehow, and I think that one of the biggest differences I hope for is a more thoughtful approach to our finances.

416J5WKv4qL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Twelfth Night, Or What You Will by William Shakespeare.  During the Twelve Days of Christmas, we will be visiting with family and traveling, so there will be very little time for reading.  But what’s so great about those twelve days following Christmas is that you get to linger on the wonder of the season while waiting for the big revelation at epiphany.  Even though Twelfth Night is primarily a joyful comedy of love deferred, it’s also a story about life bursting through the darkness of grief.  Of course, it’s great that the lovers find their way to one another in the play’s revelation scene, but what’s even better is the pure joy that accompanies the reunion of twins Sebastian and Viola: their grand epiphany at the end of the play conquers death.

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Fair use rationale under US Copyright Law: these low resolution book cover images accompany commentary that directly addresses the texts and editions pictured.

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November miscellanies: a young lady’s entrance into the world, ‘Liberal Arts,’ and Christmas highlight lists

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The winter garden,” by Humphry Repton architecture and landscape designs, 1807-1813. Pencil, ink, and watercolor on paper. (J. Paul Getty Museum)

I feel like every November is the same for teachers across universe: students have colds, bugs, or allergies that incapacitate them (and make you cling to your hand sanitizer like a totem); final papers have looming due dates; students visibly crave Christmas break long before Thanksgiving; and everyone seems like they could use just a bit more rest.  Teaching on a university academic calendar makes the Christmas holiday seem much more imminent than secondary school, too, since finals begin barely a week after Thanksgiving Day.   My students and I will meet a mere four times before finals week begins—that timing feels too fast (it always does).  So, like all the other teachers in the cosmos, my November was its usual haze, but I’m happily slouching towards Advent.

Reading.

Evelina: or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World by Frances Burney.  This late eighteenth-century novel was on one of my prelim lists: an epistolary, novel-of-manners at its best, but, I’m sorry to say, not my cup of tea.  There’s a lot to be said about the deceptiveness of this type of novel’s form (a collection of letters, which makes the author more of an “editor”).  For one thing, the fact that we’re reading letters adds an element of realism to the story, something the early novelists valued.  On an even deeper level, the epistolary novel invites this question: At what point do we forget we’re reading a letter?  This is one of Evelina‘s greatest strengths—there are times when a long letter stops feeling like a letter, and we allow ourselves to get immersed in the narrative.  Yet we’re always shocked out that revery when the present letter ends.  It’s a strange reading experience, definitely not what we’re used to with most contemporary literary fiction; in fact, it’s not even what we’re used to with Austen’s novels, which celebrate the strangely omniscient, attached-to-some-more-than-others narrator.  It’s not difficult to see this novel’s value, but it’s a completely different animal from something like, say,  Wuthering Heights.

Some other exciting reading material from November.  BJ brought home this used set of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary.  Oh, how wonderful to have an OED of one's own!

Some other exciting reading material from November: BJ brought home this used set of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Oh, how wonderful to have an OED of one’s own!

Even amidst all of my prelim exam texts (I finished off 15 works this month alone!), I did manage to read the first book in the Outlander series (by Diana Gabaldon), a mash-up of historical fiction, fantasy, and romance (which I was not expecting).  This was a really entertaining read, but I think I’ll skip out on finishing the series.  I can understand why people get so excited about the Outlander books: the heroine (a trained military nurse who served in WWII) has compelling skills that allow her to meet vital needs within an eighteenth-century setting, thus making it seem like it doesn’t take much to fit in with another century’s culture (and as a woman, at that).  Some of the world-building details are a little confusing to me, though.  (i.e., She touched that stone and now she’s in a different century?)  Maybe those sorts of details get worked out later on.

Even though I enjoyed it, I’m not sure what to make of Outlander.  But I will say this: I once had a creative writing teacher who lamented that, too often, we are romanced by previous historical periods, to the extent that we act as if the best times have already passed.  “But we are always improving and always reforming, even when it may not feel that way,” she said.  “How could we not look forward to the future?”  I think about this writing teacher’s words whenever I encounter escapist historical fiction—are we pining for an old order that wasn’t much of an order at all?  That’s the thought I kept returning to while reading this book.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk.  I have been tackling at least one piece of contemporary literary fiction in this wild prelim season (which has kept me squarely within the fourteenth through nineteenth-century range), and it’s taken me months to make progress on this novel.  Originally, I started on this book by Orhan Pamuk because I thought it might give me insight into Turkish culture, something I became interested in after doing English lessons with a few Turkish couples this summer.  But it offered so much more than merely a window to another culture.  Set in a secluded Turkish city, the novel follows a poet named Ka through encounters with extreme religious conservatism in a snowy winter landscape. For Western readers, this novel does a fairly good job of introducing the basics of the headscarf debate in contemporary Islamic communities, something few Westerners consider when they think of contemporary Islam.  It would be easiest to categorize this as a political novel, but Pamuk’s subject matter often resists such a stark categorization.  For me, this book is about the poet’s work.  It ultimately argues that being a poet requires a posture of openness, and that poetry itself cannot help but arise from its circumstances.

Watching.

Liberal_Arts_FilmPoster

Film poster for “Liberal Arts,” originally distributed by IFC Films. *

Liberal Arts, written and directed by Josh Radnor.  I came across this film randomly on Netflix, a site which always surprises me with how many great independent films it has in its library.  Like Jesse, the film’s protagonist (played by Radnor, of How I Met Your Mother fame), I understand the urge to be nostalgic about a liberal arts education.  Jesse, age 35, returns to his alma mater to speak at a beloved professor’s retirement party, and, in the midst of his overbearing nostalgia, gets involved with a sophomore drama major named Zibby, age 19 (Elizabeth Olsen).  The romance between the two characters is interesting, mainly because we can understand why Jesse is so captivated by Zibby even when, as viewers, we can perceive all of the ways in which she still needs to mature.  I won’t give away the ending (it’s not what you’d expect), but I will say that this film shows the power of what a liberal arts education can do for a human being: it makes you skeptical of pleasure for the sake of pleasure, it teaches you to articulate the movements of your conscience, and it encourages you to empathize deeply and serve others even when your attentions to those in need don’t make complete sense.  Also, keep your eyes open for Zac Efron’s ethereal performance as “Nat,” a spirit guide only a true liberal arts graduate could dream up.

Christmas Highlight Lists. 

I have to admit, I am a very quiet reader of other blogs.  I almost never comment, but I have a few sites that I follow faithfully because I think they show the fullness of what a blog can be as a evolving text.  (There is a whole conversation we could have about blogs as rhetorical spaces and the interpretive communities they cultivate, but I’m not going to go there!)  What I love about this time of year, though, is that the blogs I follow pretty consistently set an example for an intentional Advent season.  They make Christmas lists of “highlights” that they want to prioritize throughout the season, and they are straight-forward about the traditions they aren’t interested in pursuing.  Following their lead, I have three things I’d absolutely put on my Christmas highlight list, so I’m going to jot them down here for safe keeping:

Alas, the only downside to final assignments is that they must be graded.  This is a pretty grading scene I captured during one of Waco's most blustery winter days so far.

This is a pretty grading scene I captured during one of Waco’s most blustery winter days so far.

The English 1302 Departmental Final.  This is an odd thing to add to my Christmas bucket list, I know, since it’s more of a professional obligation than a holiday event; but, for some reason, I’ve come to associate this exam period (which almost always falls at the end of finals week) with Advent.  This is usually my final goodbye to my students: they hand me their blue books after writing their essays in a giant lecture hall, they give me a smile and a merry Christmas, and then they’re off.  Some of these students are ones I’ll never see again; some will come back for other classes or for visits later on.  Mostly, this is my last goodbye.  What I love the most is watching them walk away from the exam with peace: finals are usually done, their cars are packed up, and they are headed home.   This idea of watching them walk on to the next big thing is why it’s on my bucket list.  I don’t want to take that last farewell for granted.

Getting dressed up with all the bells and whistles of the season to attend our department’s annual graduate student Christmas party.  In nearly five years of living here in Texas, this is one of my favorite holiday traditions—my favorite literary people, raucous carol singing, and late-night dancing makes for the perfect celebration of the end of finals and the start of a true rest period.  What I value the most about this particular party is its embrace of extravagance, even when the party itself is for (and thrown by) a collection of reasonably money-strained graduate students.  But while this party is at the top of my list, it’s not the only one we’ll attend this season.  I love going to Christmas parties, and, truthfully, that means all the Christmas parties.  We’ll even host one for a our small group (of mostly college students) during finals week, so I’d say say we’re absolutely getting our fill of Christmas party cheer.

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Yes, it is held up by old books and a large stump.

A Christmas Tree.  Since we’ll be with BJ’s family on Christmas Eve and the week after, our Christmas tree sits lonely during the height of the season.  But I love to have it set up on the night of Thanksgiving and following.  Our tree is little this year, but I’ve tried to make is especially bookish to make up for its lack of size.  In the past, we’ve shelled out a hefty amount of money for a sizable tree, but I’m not really in the mood for unnecessary spending this year.   In fact, this is going to be our only big decoration this year.  We rarely put out twinkle lights, we don’t own a door wreath, and I’d rather not stage any Elf on the Shelf shenanigans.  This Christmas, I want to keep things simple (and admittedly budget-friendly) so that we can go into the new year with an element of peace.

Mementos.

I love souvenirs from loved one’s vacations: this is one of the best I’ve received yet, brought home from BJ’s trip to San Diego for a religion conference.  Yes, it’s Shakespearean lip balm set.  It’s perfect.

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“To thine own lips be true!”

Today’s miscellanies post is linked up with Leigh Kramer’s monthly “What I’m Into” series.

* Fair use rationale under US Copyright Law: this low resolution image accompanies commentary that directly addresses the film itself; its use does not compromise the integrity of the image or the film which it promotes.

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‘Wuthering Heights’ and the Limits of Living Intensely

When I started writing this post a few weeks ago, I was spending the day finishing up Wuthering Heights for one of my prelim exams.  This wasn’t my first time slogging through the moors between Thrushcross Grange and the Heights, but the story felt different from my first reading; so different, in fact, that I’ve been puzzling over how much a book’s influence over you can change in just a few years.  Some texts have a perennial, positive influence on their readers.  Jane Eyre does this for me, and so does Chaim Potok’s The Chosen.  But Wuthering Heights felt like a completely different novel this time around.  As afraid as I am to admit this, there’s something terrifying about allowing these characters—especially the wildly intense Cathy and Heathcliff—to influence you.

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I have nothing against living intensely.  In fact, I agree with writer Elizabeth Drew’s sentiments when she claims, “The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.”  To live intensely is to feel all the feelings and notice all the rhythms of death and rebirth that make up a thoughtful life on this planet.  This is the same thing Sir Philip Sidney says in the sixteenth-century when, in the Defense of Poesy, he argues that literature makes virtue so beautiful that we can’t help but be moved to virtue ourselves.  Living intensely is a rich, powerful goal.  But if I were to teach Wuthering Heights tomorrow, I couldn’t help but frame the discussion around these sorts of questions: What are the limits of living intensely?  At what point does our intensity cross the line?

A friend of mine in college used to love to tell the story of how much she hated Wuthering Heights when she read it in high school.  “I don’t want to read a book about awful people,” she would say.  “Don’t you think the whole relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is selfish and deranged?  How is this even considered ‘great literature’?”  I didn’t want to tell her that I thought her complaint (i.e. compelling characters are often the most deranged) was the whole point of why the novel has remained so important in the canon of English literature, but I understood her point.  Our romantic leads in the novel are awful and selfish—they live so intensely that they block out the whole world for the sake of reveling in their own strange fantasies, and they don’t seem too concerned with what they destroy in their wake.

Cathy’s famous admission of love for Heathcliff (which she confides to her housekeeper, Ellen) smacks of the intensity my friend criticized:

“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and, if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger.  I should not seem a part of it.  My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods.  Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees—my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath—a source of little visible delight, but necessary.  Nelly, I am Heathcliff—he’s always, always in my mind—not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself—but as my own being…” (Wuthering Heights 73, Oxford World’s Classics Edition)

My friend would say that Cathy’s problem is her inability to view her love for Heathcliff in practical terms.  I bet she would call her (with good reason) excessively melodramatic.  And that Cathy is.  But I’m not sure the message of the novel is that intensity is bad.  I wonder, actually, if the message is that intensity is enviable, especially when things go well.  After all, Wuthering Heights invites the suspicion that Cathy and Heathcliff’s intensity would only flourish if they could comfortably and happily marry.  We envy their attachment, even though the novel makes the relationship fail.  (Or does it?  That’s another question…)

The frame narrative of the novel—those ongoing conversations between Ellen Dean and Mr. Lockwood that essentially tell the story—only makes the intensity seem more exaggerated.  Ellen and Lockwood are paragons of moderation and carefulness; they are anything but reckless, and they certainly aren’t “intense.”  But when I finished up re-reading this novel a few weeks ago, I remembered that no one really wants to grow up to be Ellen.  She’s virtuous, yes, but not necessarily exciting.  And Mr. Lockwood is hardly an in-demand gentleman caller.  Intensity is attractive for most readers of Wuthering Heights, and, even though things go poorly for Cathy and Heathcliff, their intensity is still an enviable quality of their love for each other.

So, here are a few mid-week English teacher questions for you: What are the limits of living intensely?  How much is too much, especially in an excessively dramatic novel like Wuthering Heights?

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A [Workspace] of One’s Own: in which my students teach me about creative spaces

One of the basic essay types we teach in our first-year composition program is “explaining.” Deceptively simple, the goal of this unit is to show that explaining the what, why, and how of a thing in a meaningful way takes grace and care.  It’s so easy to brush aside this essay type as rudimentary—after all, explanation is one of the first things we demand as children (Why this?  Why that?).  But this semester I wanted to add a greater sense of purpose my explaining unit.  I wanted to make this essay more meaningful, more useful to the students.

So, since we’re talking about creativity in my writing class, we spent a few days this unit discussing “creative spaces,” and I assigned an essay prompt in which students explain their “ideal creative workspace,” whatever that may be.  As a class, we asked, What is it about pubs and coffee shops and libraries that throw all of our creative energy into motion?  What exactly makes a space conducive to creativity?  Their ideas were fantastic: some creative spaces allow you to move in and out of isolation and community, some have ready access to caffeine and chocolate, and most have comfortable places to land for a few hours.  One student described creative spaces as those in which you can witness something beautiful.  (I am the luckiest teacher in the world, by the way.)

As for myself, I’m fascinated by the material culture of creative spaces—all the little knick-knacks and physical ephemera that fill up a space.  I like flair on my walls and colorful pens in my jars. Like Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail, I’d take a bouquet of school supplies over roses any old day.  When I finally got a room of my own as a college student, I let the flowers, icons, mini statues, and literary posters take over.  You would’ve thought my dorm was occupied by a grandmotherly artist, not a twenty-something English major.  My home office nowadays is not so different, I’m afraid:

My idea of wall art: the text of "Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey" tacked around the Three Graces inside a yard sale picture frame.

My idea of wall art: the text of “Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey” tacked around the Three Graces, all  inside a yard sale picture frame.

I expected my students would write about their dorm rooms or the library, but I was a little unprepared for how much they ran with this prompt.  Honestly, I don’t miss the days of sharing a room with another 19-year-old—no privacy, very little quiet, and certainly not the kind of space I would deem “creative.”  My students, though, really redeemed the dorm room as a creative space, much to my surprise.  Their workspaces were sometimes carefully constructed within the tight quarters of a three-person room, they referenced talismans (like a beloved stuffed animal, a particular family photo, or a “writing hat” a la Jo March) that inspired them, and they waxed poetic about lighting and colors and shapes—all in dorm rooms, or, in some cases, dining halls or library study rooms.  One student even claimed “riding on his longboard” as a genuinely creative space.

They also gave me pictures.  I asked for 4-5 images interwoven throughout the text, and I was so impressed by the care with which they approached this part of the prompt.  I received some images filled to the brim with pink (a particularly color-coordinated dorm room, it seems), a photo of our campus at sunrise, styled images of frappuccinos amidst a backdrop of library stacks, and adorable stuffed animals in dark, Bat Cave alcoves.  They didn’t shy away from showing me bits and pieces of their personalities—these, after all, are the kinds of details that make any explanation that much more vibrant.  (I’m so proud of them.)

Reading their essays inspired me to be more thoughtful about my own creative workspace—i.e. why does this old sunroom-turned-office work so well for me?  And so, because they asked, I’m sharing some hallmarks of my favorite creative space, images and all:

A little corner office in all its glory.  I love that the desk is flanked by windows.

A little corner office in all its glory. I love that the desk is flanked by windows.

I found this Romeo and Juliet art print in my grandmother's basement, and I've vowed that it will hang in my first "real" office when the PhD is done.

I found this Romeo and Juliet art print in my grandmother’s basement, and I’ve vowed that it will hang in my first “real” office when the PhD is done.

My "tea station": Keurig, tea pot, tea, and a chalkboard that hasn't quite found its home yet.  Now that I look at this more closely, it looks like I should be posting the daily tea specials on the board...

My “tea station”: Keurig, tea pot, tea, and a chalkboard that hasn’t quite found its home yet. 

And, of course, my workspace wouldn't be complete without Sweet William keeping watch.

And, of course, my workspace wouldn’t be complete without Sweet William keeping watch.

(If you are of the teacher-sort, too, and you’re curious about the prompt, here is what I used: “Explaining Your Ideal Creative Workspace“)

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September miscellanies: time logs, “midwife speaking,” and the Prince of Denmark

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Camille Pissarro (French, 1830 – 1903) Houses at Bougival (Autumn), 1870, Oil on canvas Unframed: 88.9 x 116.2 cm (35 x 45 3/4 in.) Framed: 110.5 x 138.1 x 9.8 cm (43 1/2 x 54 3/8 x 3 7/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

We have experienced exactly one day of autumn between the first of September and the start of October: it was a mid-sixties Saturday morning, chilly enough to wear a chunky jacket to the farmer’s market and yet still comfortable enough to spend all day outside.  Nothing has matched this Eden-day since.  Autumn in Texas is filled with these sorts of false starts, but I’ve come to love how our state eases into the colder months—my front porch is covered with blossoming flower pots right now, the peach trees are full and heavily loaded, and I won’t even need to wear socks until the middle of December.  This nineteenth-century, harvest-happy painting of a French farm town in autumn has “Texas” written all over it: mostly green growth, mostly blue skies, and no one knows it’s autumn unless you say so.

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“For books are not absolutely dead things”:  September reading…

Nearly all of my reading life in September was given over to tackling prelim lists.  The goal right now is to get through 10-12 works on my prelim lists each month leading up to the big exam.  (And don’t worry, I don’t plan on writing about all those dusty texts here.)  Technically, a “work” can range from a complete book of poems to a single play to a triple-decker Victorian novel, so some items on my list go much faster than others.  If you don’t know much about the structure of humanities PhD programs, passing preliminary exams is the gateway to the dissertation.  For English Literature, the exams are structured around different reading lists (there are 50+ works on all my lists combined) and they culminate in a two-week period where you “sit for” the written tests—these are intense 90-minute to three hour exam periods.  I have to pass these exams in order to move to the next stage.  (No pressure, right?)  When I say this process out loud, is sounds a little mortifying, but I have to say that this is my favorite part of the doctorate so far.  After all, reading and thinking about literature for my job has always been the goal.  This is what I’ve been working toward.  This is the place I’ve longed to be.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. Even though my primary area is Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama, I’m taking a 90-minute exam in Victorian Women Writers; so, this month, I got to visit with dear Jane, an old fictional friend of the best sort.  Favorite things learned from this re-reading: (1) sometimes people are rude for no good reason, (2) relationships can become disastrously idolatrous and the best cure is distance, and (3) you only need a few good friends.

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, by Laura Vanderkam.  I read this book this summer, but I’ve been revisiting it this month (and Laura Vanderkam’s blog) as a source of time management inspiration.  This strikes me as the kind of book that should be required reading at the start of a PhD program, maybe even at the beginning of anyone’s professional life.  The biggest reason is this: I so appreciate how Vanderkam emphasizes reclaiming spots of time we would normally brush aside.  The concept of a “time log” lets us confront all the small spaces in-between, and makes us wonder where those swatches go once the day ends.  I’ve only managed to complete a full time log for one or two weeks, but that practice alone helped me realize the rhythms of my days.  In fact, it’s a lot like a close-reading exercise for your schedule: you check for patterns, trends, lulls, heightened moments, and cadences, all of which are elements of reading a literary text with care.

Sarah Bernhardt tries her hand at Hamlet.  This image is in the public domain.

Sarah Bernhardt tries her hand at Hamlet.  By Lafayette Photo, London [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Alright, I never really intended to write much about my prelim reading in this space, but I had a beautiful moment with Hamlet this month that I can’t help but acknowledge. On one of my days off from teaching, the morning got away from me thanks to meetings, and so I came home discouraged about the possibility of getting much studying done. After slowly setting up my workspace and opening my Riverside Shakespeare, I came upon notes and annotations from over six years ago scribbled about the text.

There was something fantastic about sitting with my old notes and highlights, thinking over what it was like to encounter these lines as a searching 20-year old who was afraid to admit her desire to become an English professor. Reading and mastering (well, “mastering” is a strong word…) these great texts have given me so much confidence—becoming a professor is big stuff, and knowing the “big works” intimately makes that task seem so much more accomplishable.  (I’ve linked my favorite Hamlet edition above—for those of you who aren’t Bard fans, maybe give him a try with a sturdier edition, something with higher quality footnotes?  Editions really make a difference when you’re reading Shakespeare; the free Kindle ones just don’t do the trick.)

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On the Telly (British Edition)…

Call the Midwife—specifically series four, which is now available on Netflix.  Despite my sometimes-ignorance of the wonder of BBC television series, Call the Midwife did not escape me.  I’ve slowly watched this series as it’s been added to Netflix, and I’ve just finished off series four.  Although I will always be a faithful fan of this show, it seems like Nurse Lee’s progression from bringing life into the world as a midwife to helping patients die gracefully was abrupt. There is something truly poetic about the vocational shift from midwife to hospice nurse, but that turn needed a more substantial source.  (And, no, I don’t think the tragic death of her boyfriend was enough to justify such a reversal.)

Also, there were two sub-narratives of this fourth series that acted as strange foils to one another: Sister Bernadette/Shelagh and Chummy.  After trying to settle in as a full-time wife and mother, Chummy finally realized that an active pursuit like midwifery was essential for her to live the good life.  But Shelagh seemed to be flailing about trying to figure out how to spend her time: cooking puddings for Dr. Turner and Timothy, saving dying choir clubs, relentlessly pursuing adoption even though Dr. Turner still had some problems to work out, etc.  The nuns kept hinting that they were understaffed—I was waiting for Shelagh to re-enter the world of Nonnatus House as a married midwife, but that never happened.  Alas, it’s too bad this show is over.

Sherlock—all series.  Again, BJ and I are both late to this BBC show, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t feel triumphant as soon as we immersed ourselves in it.  I’m convinced that Sherlock is a love song to friendship, and it’s a reminder that the best friendships arise from a shared pursuit or challenge.  I highly recommend watching it with subtitles, though—it lets you see how much of what the characters say is just plain indiscernible with all their fast-talking, under-their-breaths commentary.

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Mementos…

A Planner of My Own.  Because of the people I’ve worked for and with over the past few years, I’ve come to rely almost entirely on my Microsoft Outlook calendar—people send me “invitations” to meetings, I dutifully accept, and then it appears in my calendar.  I do almost nothing and it is wonderful.  But this month I started to feel like I had too many post-it notes sticking to my brain, and they were starting to fall off.  Even with my dependable Outlook calendar on my computer, I was missing the tactile, paper-loving calendar-keeping experience.  So I bought very pretty, bookish planner and am satisfied: photo Today’s post is linked up with Leigh Kramer’s “What I’m Into” series.

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‘Morning Pages’ and my writing classroom

“What are morning pages? Put simply, the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness: ‘Oh, god, another morning. I have nothing to say. I need to wash the curtains. Did I get my laundry yesterday? Blah, blah, blah…’ They might also, more ingloriously, be called brain drain, since that is one of their main functions.

There is no wrong way to do morning pages.  These daily morning meanderings are not meant to be art.  Or even writing.  I stress that point to reassure the non writers working with this book.  Writing is simply one of the tools.  Pages are meant to be, simply, the act of moving the hand across the page and writing down whatever comes to mind.  Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included.” (The Artist’s Way, Cameron 10)

This description of “morning pages” is from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path Toward Higher Creativity, one of the texts I’ve been thinking about using in a course on “Writing and Creativity.”  I didn’t realize this when I first started researching books on creativity, but there are swarms of texts out in book-land about being a more creative person, especially in the “how-to” genre.  Some of these guides take the shape of workbooks, where the reader journals through the different ideas and exercises; others bill themselves as a self-led “course”—this is where I found Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  A few of the books feel like effusive spiritual manifestos.  (I’ll admit that Cameron’s book definitely reads like one of these as well.)

When I first learned about “morning pages,” three daily pages of stream-of-consciousness longhand each morning, I mostly felt a happy sense of recognition as a writing teacher.  Disorganized, ungrammatical, brain-dump free-writing is a welcome part of most composition classes.  It’s a great focusing tool, especially right before a group discussion.  I use it now in my freshman courses, and I’m willing to bet I’ll use it in upper-level classes when the time comes.  But when I read The Artist’s Way this summer, I liked how ritualistic Cameron made it sound, an air of seriousness I’ve never been able to communicate when I introduce “free-writing” to students.  The kind of morning writing Cameron describes—scratched out before the morning coffee has had time to cool down—has a sacred quality to it.  Cameron herself boasts of the fact that she’s barely missed a day of completing her morning pages in several years of committing to it.

I will say this about The Artist’s Way: her conviction is absolutely compelling—it’s probably one of the reasons the book has become so popular over the past decade.

But it also feels deeply personal, and so very developed from her own particular vision of creative work, that I wonder if students would be receptive to it.  I’m not sure I would ever “assign” morning pages—that seems to work against everything they stand for.  My fears about even bringing up morning pages in class, or assigning the book that advocates them, are a little complicated:  Cameron writes with such conviction that this practice is one of the most essential tools toward unlocking our creative potential.  She’s so convicted, in fact, that I worry this kind of “creativity dogma” would only make students bristle.  In other words, I’m worried that presenting popular creative practices from the mouths of fairly good rhetoricians will make my students question their ability to come up with good practices themselves.

[Interior View with Man Seated at Writing Desk][La Hypnerotomachia di Poliphilo : cioè pvgna d'amore in sogno, dov'egli mostra, che tvtte le cose hvmane non sono altro che sogno, and doue narra molt'altre cose degne di cognitione] ,Colonna, Francesco, d. 1527 Feliciano, Felice, 1433-1479 ,Woodcut ,[1545] ,Woodcut, c. 1499. The book is unpaginated; the plate is located on page 438, and it is the 164th plate in sequence, counted from the book's frontispiece.,

Someone busy doing his morning pages:  “Interior View with Man Seated at Writing Desk,”  Colonna, Francesco, d. 1527 Feliciano, Felice, 1433-1479, Woodcut [1545].   From the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Open Content Program.

As a writing teacher, though, I do love her description of “the Censor,” the nagging refrain in our minds that tells us we are merely impostors masquerading as thoughtful human beings:

“The morning pages are the primary tool of creative recovery. As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly. Even if we look like functioning artists to the world, we feel we never do enough and what we do isn’t right. We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. The Censor says wonderful things like: ‘You call that writing? What a joke. You can’t even punctuate. If you haven’t done it by now you never will. You can’t even spell. What makes you think you can be creative?’ And on and on.” (Cameron 11)

Now, I don’t necessarily agree that our Censor only lives in the left side of the brain—that claim strikes me as a bias against people who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as “creative.”  That’s exactly the myth I want to bust with this course plan, so I don’t want to endorse it.  But she does make a good point about how our first instinct is often to criticize ourselves and our ideas.  I like the thought of “morning pages” barreling through the fog of negativity and self-criticism.  If there’s anything this practice gets right, it’s that it acknowledges the frightful existence of a Censor and makes a tangible game plan for beating it down.

One of the biggest things I’ve struggled with while brainstorming this course is how personal the cultivation of creative practices can be.  If I ask students to write morning pages and then report back, have I broken that option for them as a creative tool in the future, simply because I asked them to do it for class?  Does sanctioning a creative practice within the confines of a college classroom somehow diminish the potential these exercises have for students?  Am I killing creativity by trying to make a class about it?  (Oh, gosh, let’s hope not—but it’s a thought that’s definitely crossed my mind.)

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The dutiful doppelgängers

Two dutiful doppelgängers:  “Female twins with picture frame,” a photograph from the NewYork World’s Fair 1939-40 records.  New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

“We especially prefer Bach,” the louder twin said while we offered introductions on our first day.

The quiet twin, the one who shared my name, nodded and straightened her cardigan.

In my memory, they have perfect childish faces, like sweet female Cupids in matching sweater sets. Their hair (same length, same style) has the texture of pre-Raphaelite maidens: long and thick and crenelated. They arrived at our college together, always together, to study violin and evidently to stroll along the campus sidewalks side-by-side in all their glorified sameness. Even the timbre of their voices was matching.  And they rarely spoke with contractions—too casual, those nasty contractions.

They weren’t the first pair of identical twins I’d ever met, but they were the first to prove to me that ethereal twin magic exists.  It was as if a fairy tale book opened up and these two twins meekly emerged wearing denim jumpers and carrying their lutes to university.  This kind of magic, as far as I know, only turns up in safe havens for the unexpected, like charismatic churches or small liberal arts schools nestled in cherry blossom groves.  And M and C, the magical-musical twins, were treasured among the safe hills of our college.  Since I last saw them strolling among the groves, I have never met two souls more connected in all things—married or otherwise.

These girls didn’t fit the grand twin narratives I have since learned from literature, like Cal and Aron in East of Eden or even Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night. Instead of being faithful foils, they were dutiful doppelgängers, ever committed to mirroring one another as closely as possible. They were each other’s best copy; each choice, each outfit, and each outing was an exercise in careful preservation.

To love a sibling so dearly you preserve her through daily imitation—this is what I see when I picture the ethereal twins.  Perhaps they are more like Viola and Sebastian than I first believed.

I always felt startled by their imitation of one another.  This meant that most encounters I shared with this magical pair were weirdly uncomfortable—never for them, but for me.  Why?  An astute psychologist might diagnose me as too sensitive to their lifestyle, or even envious of their mirroring as if it were a kind of out-of-body self-revelation. Because I am relentless in my own quest for identity, the identical twin’s ability to see an apparition of herself in the shape of a womb sister is understandably attractive.   We love to inspect how we appear to the world, but mirrors in the washroom never quite tell us enough.  For the sake of investigating how we look to the rest of humanity, we glare at photographs of ourselves when our eyes are averted from the camera.  So this is what it feels like not to look ourselves in the eye, we think.  We scrutinize the lines of our face from the side and the crinkles in the back of our hair that we missed with the flat iron.  And we forget what we look like day after day—or is this just me?

But this isn’t so for identical embryos like the ethereal twins.  They will never forget what they look like.  I do envy that.  I envy it enough, anyways, to stare shamelessly at twins’ faces when they speak to one another, as if I’ll catch a glimpse of what it means to see a phantom of your own best copy.

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During the first week of this school semester, I saw a new pair of twin sisters walking on campus—perfectly matched, mirror images of one another.  They surprised me.  Unlike the ethereal twins from my college memories, who often wore the trappings of their conservative Evangelical upbringing, these two twins were wildly stylish in their animal printed, headband bedazzled, messenger bag toting flair.

But they drew the same wandering eyes from strangers.  Their mere presence walking down the sidewalk attracted attention.  Stylish as they were, they still bravely carried a bit of the twin magic with them.  And I smiled wide at the strange magic—the weird envy—as I passed them by.

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A weekly place at the table

Since we are still building our dream dining room table, I had to improvise for our most recent small group.  (This quaint fabrication is made of every spare table in our house.)

Since we are still building our dream dining room table, I had to improvise for our most recent small group. (This quaint fabrication is made of every spare table in our house and is ridiculously unstable.)

In the childhood church that launched my spiritual journey, the refrain I always heard was “service.”  More times than I can remember, leaders queried, “How are you serving the church?  Are you actively involved in a serving team?  Are you connected?  Let’s get you connected.”  If there was a badge for Christian Service, it might involve clocking so many hours with the children’s ministry that the time commitment is comparable to a part-time job.  It would also involve a weekly liturgy of “Yes.  Sign me up.  See you Sunday.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with service to the church.  If members feel called to serve, then they should be able to, no matter how many hours they wish to offer up.  This particular church thrived on Sunday mornings thanks to the dedicated work of volunteers, and, though I may gripe, I’m proud of the work I did during those important years of spiritual formation: I’ve worked in nurseries galore, sung in all the praise bands, cleaned, chaperoned, and even crafted for Christ.

But when we moved to Texas, I found incredible peace in simply going to church rather than serving the church.  For the first time, pastors told me that it was enough just to come and participate, a concept that felt wild to me at the time—maybe even a little sacrilegious.  The discovery of an authentic practice of Sabbath was mind-blowing.  In fact, my discovery of Sabbath was long overdue.

Eventually, B. J. volunteered us to host a small group, something I long resisted because we were tiny apartment-dwellers.  I relented when we finally had a house of our own, although I still felt a tinge of reluctance.  Looking back, I’m shocked by how much I inwardly dreaded Sunday nights, our group’s meeting time: we have to host all these people again?  They’re coming back every week?  We weren’t technically “leaders,” just “hosts,” a categorization that should have made me feel more relaxed.  But the pressure of feeding and connecting with mostly undergraduates every week was tiring, despite the fact that my own work day revolves around college students.  I struggled to get the hang of it.

I became even more frustrated when we would block off the evening for small group time, tidy up the house, prepare dinner, and then no one would come.  This is what you get when you have college students—they are exuberant, fascinating, and utterly undependable.

Even though I knew all this, the empty table and overflowing platters still made me feel ready to quit.

One of the beautiful things I’m grateful for in my marriage to B. J., though, is that he doesn’t let me quit so easily.  My tendency is to give up as soon as I realize my lack of success, but B. J. always pushes me to keep at it.  “This is what small group work is like,” he said.  “You have to be vulnerable enough to set the table, even when you’re doubtful people will come.  And you have to keep inviting them when they don’t show up for the fortieth time.”

So that’s what we did.  We kept setting the table, preparing the food, and sending the e-mails.  We let ourselves be sad when no one came and repeatedly allowed ourselves to feel all the painful emotions of a wasted, uneaten meal.

And after two hard years of reluctant but consistent open doors and set tables, something changed.  We almost didn’t notice the shift.  I wish I could pinpoint what happened (did we do something different? did everyone just become more dependable?), but I can’t.  The growing pains were finished somehow, and suddenly we found ourselves parents to a weekly small group that wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  My earliest memory of the turn didn’t even occur during group time—it happened at night while I was falling asleep, long after everyone had gone home for the evening.  In the darkness, I caught myself mentally planning a feast for the next week’s meeting.  “Something fancy,” I strategized.  “A meal they can’t get anywhere else right now: slow smoked brisket, mashed potatoes, homemade rolls, perfected sweet tea…”

I dreamed mindlessly for a bit about the feast, and then it hit me.  For the first time in the life of our small group, I wasn’t scheming the most efficient, cost-effective, quickest meal to whip up (i.e. frozen lasagna, delivery pizza, sloppy joes, etc.).  I was planning a true feast, a whole-hearted, celebratory meal in honor of the people who’d come to constitute our little community within the Church.  These people were always worth celebrating, for sure, but my impulses magically aligned with the ideal for a moment and I understood the gravity of our weekly gathering: it was always meant to be a kind of feast.

Now to come full circle:  I started out on the note of “service,” and that’s where I’ll end.  Caring for a small group is the slowest, messiest, and most consistently disappointing service I’ve ever done for the Church.  It is unglamorous.  People join eagerly and move on silently.  And it is occasionally mortifying, especially when people visit once and then never return thanks (you suppose) to your own un-coolness.  Yet I think it may be some of the most important work I’ve ever done in service of Christian community—to make a place at the table every single week, even when it’s likely no one will come.

But thank God when they do.

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August miscellanies: Medieval prayer books, “nun fiction,” and forgotten feather pens

Probably my favorite memory from August was sitting at the Waffle House counter with my mom.

Probably my favorite memory from August was sitting at a Georgia Waffle House counter with my mom.  We took a very quick trip to our old hometown for a wedding and managed to eat at Waffle House twice.

August is an unusual month for anyone who lives by the rule of the school year.  Since it straddles the summer and the start of classes, it tends to feel too much in-between, not enough of a month unto itself.  When work begins again midway through, it’s like the month ends with jarring, anxiety-inducing abruptness.

But this August was a different bird.  Since my only responsibilities are teaching my classes and preparing for prelims, I didn’t experience the usual “student anxiety” that accompanies the start of school.  No textbooks to buy, no syllabi to read closely, and no schedules to rearrange to accommodate seminars.  My student days, at least in the formal sense, are through.  (It has been glorious so far.)

Below are some August miscellanies: books, trinkets, moments, and ideas I found delightful in the first month of (almost) fall.

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Illuminations in Medieval prayer books:

I’m not sure there’s anything like this in the contemporary church, or at least not in mainstream Christian publishing.  But in the Medieval period (roughly the 5th to the 15th century), devotional books were utterly forgettable unless they were filled with beautiful “illuminations”—usually micro-paintings and etches of Biblical scenes or characters.  Today, I would guess that the most well-known illuminated text from this period is the Book of Kells, an 8th century Latin Gospel book.  (Maybe you’ve heard of the animated film The Secret of Kells?  This is the same book.)

I love gazing at illuminations because it’s impossible to look at them mindlessly.  An invitation to pondering, they show how much beauty can fill the tiniest, most unexpected places—like inside the cavern of a letter G.  I wish we had modern prayer books filled up with illuminations.  (Maybe we do and I just haven’t discovered them yet.)  Here are a few favorites from the Dresden Prayer Book:

Master of the Dresden Prayer Book or workshop, illuminator (Flemish, active about 1480 - 1515)
Initial G: Mary Magdalene, about 1480 - 1485 ?, Tempera colors and gold on parchment
Leaf: 20.5 x 14.8 cm (8 1/16 x 5 13/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 23, fol. 204

A peaceful Mary Magdalene sitting in the middle of the letter G   (Master of the Dresden Prayer Book or workshop, illuminator;  
Initial G: Mary Magdalene, about 1480 – 1485 ?, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 23, fol. 204)

Master of the Dresden Prayer Book or workshop, illuminator (Flemish, active about 1480 - 1515)
Initial G: Saint George and the Dragon, about 1480 - 1485 ?, Tempera colors and gold on parchment
Leaf: 20.5 x 14.8 cm (8 1/16 x 5 13/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 23, fol. 200

Saint George, the Patron Saint of England, kills the dragon  (Master of the Dresden Prayer Book or workshop, illuminator, 
Initial G: Saint George and the Dragon, about 1480 – 1485 ?, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 23, fol. 200)

Master of the Dresden Prayer Book or workshop, illuminator (Flemish, active about 1480 - 1515)
The Visitation, about 1480 - 1485 ?, Tempera colors and gold on parchment
Leaf: 20.5 x 14.8 cm (8 1/16 x 5 13/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 23, fol. 71v

This last one is my absolute favorite—the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth with the most beautiful floral details in the frame (Master of the Dresden Prayer Book or workshop, illuminator, 
The Visitation, about 1480 – 1485 ?, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 23, fol. 71v)

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Much loved books from August:

Persuasion, by Jane Austen. This isn’t my first Persuasion rodeo. It could very well be my tenth.  I picked it up while waiting to meet with a student in early August and promptly gushed through it once more. This is some of Austen’s best psychological drama, rife with the romantic intensity of the smallest gestures between Anne and Captain Wentworth. (Also, I’m convinced that the edition linked above is the highest quality there is: includes sturdy introductory material and Persuasion‘s alternate ending.)

In this House of Brede, by Rumer Godden.  I checked out this book a long time ago, and, since I use a university library, I just clicked “renew” a dozen times until I’d kept it for nearly a year.  If you use a local library, this behavior is not encouraged—academics keep library books for unreasonable amounts of time.  I point out how long it sat on my nightstand to emphasize how surprised I was by the sudden need to binge read it; it was engrossing.

This book revolves around nearly ten years in the life of a female Benedictine monastery in the UK.  Although Godden tethers the central narrative to Philippa Talbot, later Dame Philippa, the book is really about all the women at Brede Abbey pursuing vocations as Benedictines.  When a friend asked me what it was about, I replied, “It’s about nuns and all their nun business,” which is absolutely true.  But what is most surprising about the book is its underlying arguments: (1) a monastery may be enclosed in principle, but that doesn’t mean its inhabitants are cut off from the wide, wide world; and (2) we cannot escape our gifts, even when we seek total subjection to a religious rule—our gifts and talents are meant to be used.  “Nun fiction” at its best.

Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way, by Shauna Niequist.  A friend recommended Niequist’s books a long time ago, so when I saw Bittersweet on sale for 99 cents on Kindle, I nabbed it.  This was a really wonderful book to read amidst all my dense prelim literature—it’s quality, wandering micro-memoir.  The refrain I enjoyed the most in Bittersweet was Niequist’s love of deep friendship.  There were very few chapters that didn’t include a vignette of her fostering a friendship or yearning for it.  While reading Bittersweet, you get the strong sense that she sees the delineations of her life’s story by friends held dear in each season.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver.  I’m about halfway through this memoir of Kingsolver’s family’s year of eating locally and from their farm.  It’s having the intended rhetorical effect on us: our global food economy is rife with corruption and the only way to take complete charge of what goes into our bodies is to meet, face-to-face, the people who grow our food.  So we’re trying to make changes immediately.  (See?  Intended rhetorical effect at work.)  Kingsolver is a gifted storyteller, so her memoir (written partly with her daughter Camille and husband Steven) has all the energy of a well-crafted narrative drama, even while the subject is her family’s day-to-day food culture.

The old copy of Persuasion I picked up had annotations from my 20-year-old self.  Notice all the stars and swirls around Anne's first words...I love Anne Elliot.

The old copy of Persuasion I picked up had annotations from my 20-year-old self.  Notice all the stars and swirls around Anne’s first words…I love Anne Elliot.

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A little slap-bang, but acceptable.

A little slap-bang, but acceptable.

More neighborhood strolls and (questionably constructed) standing desks:

I read a really troubling article this month about academics sitting down for so many hours a day that they cause their bodies to be subject to all sorts of preventable illnesses.  Evidently, sitting too much at work can cause you to work yourself into an early grave.  Properly terrified, I constructed my own standing desk out of some of my prelim reading.  I also resolved to go for more walks around our neighborhood.  We’re so lucky to live where we do—a tiny block lodged between an elementary school and a church, with regal historic homes on every corner.  There’s no excuse not to explore this neighborhood more.

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Memento—a long forgotten red feather pen:

One day this month I was digging around the teaching assistant office looking for a plug—and I found this incredible red feather pen (a souvenir from the Tower of London gift shop, says the label) lodged behind a filing cabinet.  It was one of those magical, secret discoveries where you see a tiny hint of something out of place, and you imagine it’s something spectacular; then you look closer, only to see that your first wondrous instinct was right.

The forgotten feather pen with the office landscape in the background.

The forgotten feather pen with the office landscape in the background.

Today’s post is linked up with Leigh Kramer’s “What I’m Into” monthly series.  I love browsing through all this digital common-placing—very Early Modern. 🙂

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“You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous”: on finishing my PhD coursework

“You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous,” says Seamus Heaney at the end of his poem “Station Island.”

This is how I’m feeling right now: finished with my doctoral coursework, I am dangerous and unleashed, as if transitioning out of a long and difficult fast. There are no more grades, no more marked up syllabi with all my semester deadlines meticulously mapped out, no more looming seminar papers, and no more evenings on the horizon where I’ll stay on campus until long past dark.  The “labor large, exceeding far my might” is done—four years of constant graduate coursework finally finished.  (The labor large isn’t completely finished, of course; there are still prelims and a dissertation, but I’m summoning up all my energy to celebrate this little finish right now.)

I was lucky to have a few weeks this summer to be still and process what those four years of graduate work have taught me—other than, you know, a general working knowledge of literature written in English.  I have this great sense that the work has changed me in ways I will struggle to articulate for years to come, and it’s been difficult to put those feelings into words.  I am a writing-processer, though, so I’ve attempted to distill this four-year-long pilgrimage into the top things I learned about the literary life thus far.  Not comprehensive, by any means, but it’s a good start.

Speed is depressing; steadiness is uplifting.  At the beginning of my MA, and even into the start of my PhD, I felt the need for speed.  I wanted to be the first to finish my courses, my language requirements, and my examinations, for no other reason than the mistaken belief that speed was good.  Speed can be helpful under certain circumstances (i.e. trying to read all 500 pages of Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia in one week—not that I would know), but mostly it’s depressing.  Intense periods of speed and productivity are nearly always followed by listless, frothy-minded days of anti-productivity.  Steadiness, however, reorients your mind to a natural rhythm of thoughtfulness.  I learned this over the summer when I had time to read some Shakespeare works on my prelims list slowly: one act a day is the perfect amount of time to let Shakespeare simmer, something I’ll have to remember for teaching.

Enjoying a subject is not dependent upon excelling in a subject.  I wish I could find more creative ways to emphasize this to my over-achieving students, but I really sympathize—I’ve lived in the over-achieving mindset much longer than they have.  The thing is, getting on in graduate school has shown me that you can absolutely enjoy a subject without getting perfect marks.  I especially feel this way about all my Anglo-Saxon coursework, something I’ve confided to my Medievalist friends.  I’ve struggled to imprint all the particulars of the AS grammar system onto my brain, but that doesn’t much affect how much I love reading and talking about the literature.  Slow and laborious translator that I am, I’m still a proud advocate of Old English fandom.

Reading books takes time.  I admit, this is obvious.  But can we consider for a moment how “strategic” reading has become in literature classes, from high school on?  There is an entire online industry grounded in plot summaries and pithy critical analyses of literature, an industry that makes its money on no one having time to actually read the book.  But the popularity of these websites only proves a truth about the literary life: books can take a long time to read.  They are supposed to last a while, and that’s okay.   I have done my fair share of “strategic” reading, and never once has a book from that pool truly impacted me—impact always takes time.

It is possible to forget how to pray.  I was hesitant to include this, but I think it’s the truth.  When I came up from my coursework fog, I made a few attempts at focused prayer and was amazed to see how unnatural it felt.  My hyper-individualistic, Protestant upbringing always encouraged original prayer (as in, speaking extemporaneously to God), but these days I need ancient structure.  I need old prayers that put the right words in my mouth and form me slowly through spiritual osmosis.  I’ve quoted this prayer by Aquinas here before, but I’ve been returning to it so much recently I’ve got to quote it again:

Creator of all things, true source of light and wisdom, lofty origin of all being, graciously let a ray of your brilliance penetrate into the darkness of my understanding and take from me the double darkness in which I have been born, an obscurity of both sin and ignorance.

Give me a sharp sense of understanding, a retentive memory, and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.

Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations, and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm.

Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and help in completion; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I am in charge of my education from now on. I’m assuming my friends from high school and college who didn’t choose to spend a decade in higher education have already realized this, but it’s strangely new to me.  I am in charge of my learning.  I pick what goes into my brain.  I choose the time periods and genres of my written work.  I am my own best teacher.  Maybe this last one has always been true, but for some reason I now feel that I’ve earned the right to run my educational show.

There’s probably much, much more to add to this list.  But this is where I am right now: fasted from years of living by the academic rule of others, light-headed at the prospect of a new season, and dangerously ready to finally break out on my own.

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On finally embracing the flair

When I’m in a new environment—any environment—I am usually hyper aware of how I fit in with the little ecosystem that surrounds me.   This is definitely a sign of my Enneagram 3 personality hard at work.  I try not to disrupt the established norms, I play by the rules, and keep my eyes open for all the nuanced and unspoken social cues.  Every little world, after all, has its own unspoken norms.

Our teaching assistant office is a great example of this “little world made cunningly”—a group office with shared desks, computers, and towering shelves.  It’s a scene of transience if ever there was one, what with its perpetually shifting inhabitants and its yearly fall renewal.  Both a place of work and a home for daily community, its always-in-flux conditions have left the “design” component of the room a tad drab.

And so, little chameleon that I am, I’ve always adapted to the drab, embraced the drab, and (I’m really ashamed of this one) contributed to the drab.

But no more.  I am entering my fourth year teaching in the department, and, since I’m looking at three more years of work to become “Dr. Bailey Parker,” it’s time to nest.  I’m putting down my decorative roots.  The drab is done, finally exiled from my little hutch in the office.

In my own private spaces, I announce my occupation with little trinkets and images—photographs, baubles, tea mugs, pretty books, and flowers.  I love a space littered with icons, windows to something grand and distant.  This has always been the case in my workspace at home, but I’ve kept the flair to a careful minimum in the shared office.  Not everyone loves the flair, I supposed.

A touch of flair from my office at home.

A touch of flair from my office at home.

I supposed wrong—my friends and colleagues are mostly unaffected by my flair.  (It’s not like I’m decorating everyone else’s desks with cut-outs of Guinevere, fairy dust, or illustrations from The Faerie Queene; I have healthy boundaries.)  There’s nothing wrong with occupying a space that’s yours, even when it’s on display for all to see.  I’m convinced of this when I remember how much I loved visiting professors’ offices in college that were completely bedazzled with literary paraphernalia—as if the decorative work we miss out on by not having a set classroom distills to fill up our offices.  I’ll admit, my great regret of not teaching high school is that there’s no classroom to decorate; the office will have to do.

At the start of this new school year, I’m resolving to embrace the icons, the trinkets, and the flair with gusto and pride.  So watch out, dear officemates; the flair grows.

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The book that taught me to be an artist: ‘The Art Spirit’ by Robert Henri

I once took a design class as a college freshman—which seems like an age ago—that’s been turning up in my mind lately.  The class focused on training our eyes to see the composition of the surrounding world so that we could reproduce meaningful visual compositions ourselves.  As with a lot of memories of my undergraduate classes, I tend to feel a tinge of regret when I look back and recognize how little I allowed some of these classes to influence me.  I probably just wasn’t prepared for them to affect me deeply, but that doesn’t change the fact that those opportunities in those particular moments in time are now gone.  I think all teachers mourn for the long lost classes they didn’t fully appreciate as students.

But there’s a vestige of this design class that has stuck with me.  Our only assigned text was Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit (originally published in 1923), a collection of writings, letters, and sayings on art (arranged a bit like a commonplace book, actually) by the early twentieth-century painter, Robert Henri.  Although his paintings are perhaps not as well known as other great artists like Picasso, Van Gogh, or Bonnard, his writings about art are absolutely unmatchable.  (Henri was most well known for portraits—you can do a quick Google image search to get a sense of how much his portraits value capturing individuality.)

BJP_3380What’s odd is that I don’t remember discussing the book at all in class—we spent most of our class time analyzing images, creating our own compositions, and getting feedback from the rest of the class.  I do (vaguely) remember being told on the first day by the professor, “This is the most important book there is on what it means to be an artist.  You will read this book.”  But there weren’t any assignments about it, no quizzes or essays, nothing to keep us accountable for reading it.  Now that I’m a teacher, I wonder if that was the point: the students who would let themselves be influenced by the book would find it in time, even, I suppose, long after the class was done.

He was right, though: I did read this book.  And it taught me how to be an artist.

For instance, the opening lines of Henri’s little book don’t waste any time in explaining what “art” truly is: “Art when really understood is the province of every human being.  It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well.  It is not an outside, extra thing.”  In other words, to be an artist is to appreciate the value of doing your work well (whatever that work may be).  Of course, he complicates his vision of the artistic life as the book moves along, but this initial definition guides the rest of his musings on art.

One of my favorite observations he makes about painting has refreshed my own approach to academic writing, something that can feel very, very far from the process of painting:

To start with a deep impression, the best, the most interesting, the deepest you can have of the model; to preserve this vision throughout the work; to see nothing else; to admit of no digression from it; choosing only from the model the signs of it; will lead to an organic work.  Every element in the picture will be constructive, constructive of an idea, expressive of an emotion.  Every factor in the painting will have beauty because in its place in the organization it is doing its living part.  It will be living line, living form, living color. (Henri 20-21)

When I read this passage, I feel convicted that any literature article I sit down to write has to begin with that “deep impression.”  If it starts with anything else, then my motives for writing the piece are likely out of place.  As I move through the writing process, loyalty to that deep impression—the “most interesting” impression, “the deepest you can have”—keeps the writing focused on the larger goal of sharing the impression truthfully with another.

Ultimately, for Henri, the “art spirit” is a force that reorients humankind to acknowledge and appreciate how the arts connect us with something bigger than ourselves:

There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual—become clairvoyant.  We reach then into reality.  Such are the moments of our greatest happiness.  Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.

It is in the nature of all people to have these experiences; but in our time and under the conditions of our lives, it is only a rare few who are able to continue in the experience and find expression for it.  (Henri 44-45)

* * *

Next spring, I’m teaching a class on “Writing and Creativity,” and The Art Spirit keeps creeping back into my mind whenever I daydream about how I’ll organize the course.  How can I help those students ask the right questions about what it means to live the creative life?  And, even though most of them will have signed up for this themed course by choice, how much will they already believe in the value of calling oneself an artist?

Regardless of how things shape up with this class I’m planning (maybe I should follow my old professor’s lead and assign Henri as a textbook!),  re-reading The Art Spirit this summer feels like a reunion with an old friend whom I used to take for granted, but who now commands all my attention.

I love how the summer months encourage those kinds of sweet reunions.

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Thanks to my husband for taking some pictures of Henri’s little book!