The Little Bastard of Self-Criticism, or Use Your Words for Good, yo.

Photo from my 18th century French Lit text, where I learned I hate Rousseau.

I am still a little insecure about my blog. I don’t know how to do the tech parts well, and I have a little bastard voice still that says blogs, (really just mine, of course) are self-aggrandizing and vain. But I keep writing anyway. I don’t seem to be able to stop.

Last week’s I felt was a risk—I’m still fumbling around with a new platform, still out of my groove from taking a holiday break. And it was an ok idea (though not original), that all stories are palimpsests, but I’m not sure I did it justice…. Yeah, the little bastard voice is strong this month.

But the day after I posted it, a colleague approached me—made an effort, went out of her way—to talk about it and tell me she enjoyed it. It was all the difference to me on a cold, cranky morning, and it reminded me how much it matters that we tell people what we appreciate about them.

I try to do this. I try to remember to thank people for their efforts, try to point out what’s awesome about individuals, but I know I’ve missed lots of opportunities over the years. I’m happy to say I caught one recently, though. In the wake of the Very Bad News of 650 foreign language programs being cut from university curricula in the last several years, I panicked and looked up my alma mater to see if the French major still existed.

Not only does it still exist (though pared down, certainly), one of my favorite professors is still teaching there twenty-five years later. So I tracked down his email and wrote him a letter thanking him. He taught me French literature and culture. But even more importantly, he taught me how to learn languages, a skill which I have put to good use over the years. He also modeled honest, emotional, and aesthetic reactions to literature. From this… from this I have made a career.

He didn’t remember me. I didn’t care. I put some positivity out in to the universe, and some came back to me almost immediately.

So the Little Bastard of Self-Criticism got overshadowed by the Bigger, Stronger Voice of Gratitude this week. I probably need to do some work to turn my big, grateful voice inward, not just outward, in the near future. But today it was enough to notice that the little bastard is little, and the better voice is big as I conceive of them. That’s something to build on.

Remember to tell your people they’re awesome, y’all. We are fragile, all of us, and it helps to hear it. It helps even more, though, to say it.

Reading · Teaching

Every Story is a Palimpsest

Spring semester classes started today for those who have a Tuesday/Thursday schedule. This semester I am teaching classical and medieval mythology and postmodern novels—quite a spread in time, if not culture. Ovid’s Metamorphoses takes up a little over half of the myth class, and the postmodern author I’m teaching is Italo Calvino, so there’s overlap in Italy, albeit 2000 years apart.

I often take some time to impress upon the myth students how valuable it will be to have learned these stories. I show them how the same motifs and characters keep getting reused through the centuries, how some of the stories even inform our language, as in the case of the myth of Narcissus giving us ‘narcissicism’ and the Hercules myth leaving the metaphor of a ‘Herculean effort.’

Today as I was teasing that idea out, we discussed the need for some familiarity in our stories. No one wants to read the same thing over and over, but no one wants everything about a story to feel new either.  So even stories that are set in wildly inventive places use character types and plot lines that we’re familiar with. We need a foothold or an entry point. If it’s all new—new setting, new character types, new plot elements, new structure—we can’t make sense of it. We say it’s too weird. It’s stupid, or that most damning of student responses: it’s boring.

But if you give us something familiar—a reluctant hero, say—in a new context—let’s say the futuristic world of the Matrix movies—then there’s enough for us to follow along with.

This strikes me as a Cosmic Truth related to “It’s all connected.” And it’s one I think is most succinctly captured by Alberto Manguel in his recent book, Packing My Library.  He writes, “Every story is a palimpsest…” (80). And he’s absolutely right.

A palimpsest in its strictest sense is a piece of paper or vellum that has had something written on it that has been erased, so something new can be written over it. In the Middle Ages it was very common, because vellum was so expensive to produce, that scribes would scrape off the top layer of skin and with it the original text, so they could use it again. In later times, you can imagine erasing from paper and getting the same effect. What matters here is that some of the old text remains, kind of a ghost in the background, still visible under the new text.

Manguel’s use of it is metaphoric, of course, but no less vivid. Every story we tell has ghosts of other stories behind it. Sometimes that ghost is the plot, like a new rendering of the King Arthur tales or the Trojan War or a biblical story. Sometimes it’s a character type, like Neo’s reluctant hero archetype in the Matrix example. Sometimes it’s structural, like the frame narrative structure (of stories within stories) of the Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales or Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.

As I begin another semester with three new groups of students, watching them pick through the pages of the past, introducing them to characters they already know but didn’t realize how old they were, I think this might be my favorite part of the term. It’s a type scene too, of course—the Hero on the Frontier: where you stop and take stock and think about what’s about to happen, planning the best approach and reveling in the anticipation.

When I get older and my filters drop, I’ll probably start saying the things I always think: ”Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” Turn the page. Read this story again. You already know it, but now we’ll look closer, go deeper.  Let’s just hope I stop before getting to the part where we close the wall up with our English dead.

Living · Writing

Resolutions 2019: A Writer’s Blocks

I couldn’t think of what to write about this week.

This is a case for steady writing. It works. I took two weeks off because two Mondays in a row were Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and I felt justified, but then I took a third week off just because. I’ll say I was planning on migrating my blog, and that’s true, but it’s also true I was just letting myself slip out of the groove.

I did move the blog. It feels like a good time—New Year’s and all. A time of changes, new directions, new endeavors. But I didn’t write. I just did detail work like going through all my old blog links and making sure they connected here. And now it’s been three weeks… and a day, since I’m moving also from Mondays to Tuesdays. And I have nothing to say.

I do have a wonderful family, who are trying to help me, though. Rob saw my box of Santa figurines waiting to be moved to the garage when the rain stops, and suggested I write about why we have such stupid Santas. (He misread “Int’l Santas” as Int 7 Santas, which in the Dungeons and Dragons world means your Santas have a score of 7 out of 20 in Intelligence). 

My daughter offered up the weirdness of language as a topic, still proud of catching her dad in a raucous pun trap last night. We’ve been taking advantage of the rainy weather to make chili, and while she crushed up saltines in hers, she asked if it weren’t cannibalism. “Not unless you’re a salty cracker,” her dad retorted, then he hung his head and groaned.

But the weirdness of language demands volumes, as does the clever pun-potential of my kooky family. So maybe I just need to tackle the problem head on and generate some topics. I often write about something that happened during the week on my blog, so what has happened of note?

We started a new year, and that always makes me want to make resolutions. Nietzsche regarded resolutions as a criterion for differentiating humans from animals. The idea that we could make a promise to do or be something in the future, make plans and stick to them or not, projecting an abstract view of ourselves in the new, resolved guise, was fundamentally human for him. I know it’s two weeks late, but it’s still January, so I’ll make some resolutions.

I will write more. Blogs, yes, but also fiction and also an article on Beowulf that I should have written years ago. If I boast that we wield words (and I do in my bio, which I reread for the first time in two years—oy), then I’d better do some darned wielding or welding or wending or something.

I will read more. I’m starting to feel like I don’t read as much for pleasure as I used to, and given my newish obsession with non-fiction, particularly non-fiction about reading, I feel like I need to sit and roll around in a novel, but I haven’t really, not even over the longest winter break I’ve had in sixteen years. So yeah—read more.

I will shake up my teaching. I’ve started on that, so will keep moving forward. Semesters are a different pace from quarters, and require some new approaches, so I’m thinking up new assignments, new ways to break up class periods, and new ways to get people involved and engaged.

I think I’ll keep a grateful log. The current state of American politics and policy has me regularly grim-faced, so I will remind myself that as I work to improve things, I should notice many things are still right as rain.

In fact, that reflective impulse is where I’ll stop tonight.  I always think of Janus at the new year, the Roman god of beginnings, transitions, passages, and transformations. He’s two-faced, with one face looking forward, but one also looking backward, reflecting, seeing where we came from and where we’re going at the same time. That seems admirable to me. Not that I want two sets of eyes, but that I  aim not to lose sight of what I’ve learned as I move forward. What I’ve learned tonight is that a steady writing habit makes it easier to write.  I knew this. But I just re-learned it. C’est la vie.

Good luck out there. And may you live up to some of your resolutions, forgive yourself for the ones that slip, and always roll higher than a 7 for intelligence.


New Year, New Blog

It’s the same blog, really. I just moved platforms. (Thanks, Kate!)

I’m still writing about reading and teaching and writing and how they intersect with my family and my world. I’m still collecting and reflecting and creating stories, but I hope they are easier for you to navigate here.

I will be moving days, too. Now this will be a Tuesday blog, for purely boring, practical reasons. And I won’t post for real until this coming Tuesday; I’m taking a real break after that long, first semester, and I hope it will help me to come back to life in lots of areas–back to school, back to writing, back to life after our laughable but lovable Southern California winter.

See you soon.

Cuvelier, 1856