blogging

Adventures in Taglines

When I started this blog, it was not supposed to be about #postac. I was going to write about writing, all the time. I was going to say profound things. I was going to share my keen insights into the writing process. I was, if nothing else, going to write about the things I was thinking about to try and make sense of them. I had the vague idea that I should have some sort of web presence to point to when people asked about my writing.

That’s what I was doing when I wrote Of Dreams. It was my third post on the blog. It’s still responsible for my highest traffic day. I just re-read the post. It’s raw, and probably the most open I ever was about how much quitting higher education had wrecked me. It was not self-consciously #postac, because I didn’t even know what #postac was. I found out quickly enough. I left academia at roughly the same time Rebecca Schuman was carving out Thesis Hatement and venting her spleen (usually constructively!) on pan kisses kafka.

I was fumbling through on my own with far less attention. I kept writing about writing, but I kept writing #postac stuff, too. It got me traffic. I cared about it. I wanted to document my journey in solidarity with all the people I knew were going through similar struggles. When I went and read other people’s postac writing, I felt less alone. I changed the tagline on the blog to “The Adventures of a Post-ac Writer.” That was back in 2013.

Last week, I went through and checked my links, shuffled a few things around in my sidebar. The virtual housecleaning was necessary—some of the links were broken. Pan kisses kafka is on indefinite hiatus while Dr. Schuman gets her memoir out, continues to write for Slate, and does the whole “parent” thing. Some of the postac sites that had featured my work don’t exist anymore.

I wondered, almost two years ago, whether you can ever really stop being a postac. I wasn’t sure you could, any more than you can stop being from where you grew up. We carry our pasts with us, always.

That doesn’t mean we have to write about them.

I just finished my second year as a full-time classroom teacher. It’s been three years since I was even nominally on the higher-ed job market. I’m much more concerned about preparing my students for college than I am with the preparations necessary to teach college. Really, I wrapped all of my big thoughts into the 4,000 word essay I wrote for “How to Leave Academia.” I still have little ones, and there are occasions where my past and my present overlap in hopefully interesting ways. I’m still going to write about those here. It has felt increasingly wrong to keep the “Adventures of a Post-ac Writer” tagline, though, no matter what it might do for SEO.

My PhD hasn’t expired. I’m still #withaphd. The #withaphd hashtag is great, because it helps erode the “you are your degree” mentality that is so prevalent among academics (and exiting academics). I’m still a writer. But I’m not really a “post-ac writer” anymore. I haven’t been for a while. I’m a writer and teacher who happens to have a PhD.

So, new tagline: Adventures in Wordwork. That label more accurately gets at the mix of writing, reading, and teaching that occupy my time these days, that occupy this blog. Let’s see how it works out.

(P.S. If you are looking for my writings about postac, There’s an annotated list accessible from the menu at the top of the page.)

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Something Funny

I want to write something funny, something longer than a tweet.

The first novels that I tried to write, back around third grade, were rather shameless and childlike takeoffs on things like Piers Anthony’s Xanth books. (Yes, I was completely oblivious to the innuendo in those books.) I read lots of Robert Asprin, the Myth and Phule’s Company books. Hell, even in high school most of what I wrote was funny, or tried to be and settled for clever. (Or worse.)

That went away, I think, around the time I started writing Serious Poetry. I was, as my students might say, “in my feelings.” I was in love with what I imagined to be profound as only a seventeen year old can be. Yes, there were self-indulgent love poems about crushes I didn’t know what to do with. (No, I’m not posting them.) A lot of the poems I wrote, though, were about the nature of reality, about girls who smoked flowers and rode to improbable places on desk chairs. Some of them were okay. By the end of college, I wasn’t writing many of those. My honors project was a long poem about stories and telling them and chasing them. It was super-serious and I meant every word of it. I still like it.

Meanwhile, I was turning from Anthony and Asprin to R.A. Salvatore (true confessions!) and Tad Williams and various kitchen-sink epics. I had a few fleeting projects along those lines. More importantly, those kinds of fantasy stories were the ones I was reading when I was writing for Imperial Secrets. Hallas and Leor and Dzalin were all serious characters who had various reasons to save, break, or re-make their respective chunks of the world.

By the end of college, I’d turned even further to Brust and Gaiman and Wolfe and Zelazny. Good writers, all. Funny moments in all (even in Wolfe, where they’re always a surprise), but the stories were never hangers for jokes like so many of the books I read when I was a kid.  I “knew” what I wanted to write: thoughtful, clever stories leavened with intermittent one liners. I wanted to put all the thoughtfulness that eventually led me to graduate school behind fantasy stories. (The degree to which it had to go behind the story is another post.) There was not a single whimsical thing in the process.

My kids will both, immediately, tell you that I am the silliest person in the family. They’re not wrong. I pretend all sorts of ridiculous things all the time. The kids are nine and approaching seven and I’m silly enough to make them roll their eyes like teenagers. (My daughter’s head start on that count is frightening.) My students will tell you that I’m funny and weird (and a lot of other things, I expect). Growing up, conversations in my family often revolved clever comebacks (and bad puns). The humor may be pretty dark, but…

…what I’m getting at, or trying to get at, is that it oughtn’t be a stretch for me to write something funny. It is, though. Part of that is the issue of acting versus reacting. One-liners and retorts bounce off of what was said to prompt them; they don’t appear out of nothing. Part of it, too, is that I have spent so much time treating writing as Serious Business. Writing Me is Serious Me, with big thoughts and careful language. Writing has been a way to prove that I’m smart. On the nonfiction side, it’s frequently didactic: here, let me help you understand this thing. (Look, it’s no coincidence that I’ve spent most of my adult life as a teacher of one sort or another.) On the fiction side, most of the stories I want to tell are not particularly funny.

Writing humor is challenging, though. Writing jokes is challenging. Even writing satire—which comes most easily to me—is challenging. It is just as much a skill as being able to explain Bourdieu to your uncle or complex-compound sentences to a disinterested high school freshman. Just as it takes more than speaking well to write well, it takes more than being funny to write funny things. Timing functions so much differently, for one. I know people who can make the stupidest knock-knock joke hilarious because they get the beats just right. Making those beats work in writing takes work, especially when you know that your readers will hear it not in your voice, but in their own inner voice.

How do you get better at things? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. (My alma mater has a science building named Carnegie Hall; it was a running joke that music students would go practice there just to say they’d played in Carnegie Hall.) Luckily or unluckily for you, my practice space is this blog.

I want to practice, too, because for all the progress humanity has made, there are a lot of bleak things going on. We could all, I think, use something funny…and I don’t do cat videos.

Twelve and Two and Two

A dozen years of marriage, two years in Texas, and—in another week or so—two years of Walking Ledges. You’ll never believe what happens next!

Actually, if you’ve been following along for any length of time, you probably will: posts on writing and teaching sprinkled with increasingly occasional #postac commentary. Come November I’ll be attempting NaNo again, and probably writing about that. I aim to keep work from devouring the blog the way it did last year. (A shorter commute will help with that, I hope.) At some point there will be something about the availability of Ghosts of the Old City.

In this blog’s first year, I wrote 77 posts. Many of them were about my breakup with academia, about the ways that I dealt with the emotional fallout of quitting and the loneliness of relocating. The second year of the blog has featured half as many posts—my first year of teaching devoured my writing energy, even when it wasn’t devouring my time. Those posts, though, have been…positive. It’s not as if every day has been a happy one. February was rough, and I had some particularly down weeks in the summer when I was spitballing scenarios in which I didn’t get a teaching job for the coming year. Overall, though, life has been good.

Good or bad, life is continuous. The important moments seldom pay attention to the calendar. The less discrete the steps are in a process, the more arbitrary the divisions between them. An 89 is just as far from 87 as it is from 91, but we assign a different letter to the 91 because we have to draw the line somewhere. Anniversaries—of moves, of institutions, of weddings and first dates and birth—are arbitrary markers in a continuous process.

I’m not sure whether that makes them more or less important. On the one hand, my blog is little different at 105 weeks from what it was at 102. On the other, it is much different from what it was at 50 weeks. I still write. I am (somewhat) better adjusted to Texas than I was when we moved. I still think my spouse is one of the best people on the planet. Dividing the time into chunks doesn’t change things.

That anniversaries are arbitrary does not mean they are meaningless. (Language is also arbitrary!) They give us an excuse to reflect. Even artificial divisions are thresholds. Sure, we build the doorways ourselves based on such flimsy things as rotational and revolutionary intervals. When we stand in a doorway, we’re between things—it’s a liminal moment. (I got kind of obsessed with liminal moments after analyzing characters in doorways in Hawthorne.) We can see where we came from and where we’re going, even if we know that the tomorrow will not be so different from yesterday.

So. Twelve and two and two. We count the years, we look forward and we look back. To those of you who are here—whether since the beginning or since yesterday or reading this a week after I type it, thank you. I’m glad you’re here.

…So I Built It

So here I am trying to build something. Thanks for coming. I hope I do my job well enough to draw you back.” —The end of my first post

That was 77 posts and most of a year ago. I had sketched out some ideas for a blog in one of my moleskines (I think using a fountain pen, even). I jumped into producing content before I’d really designed the blog, setting it up using a grey and orange color scheme that unintentionally mimicked Steve Brust’s Dream Cafe. I intended that the blog be “something about writing.” A few weeks later, I published Of Dreams, Carrots, and Towers, which was picked up by Minnesota Public Radio’s Higher Ed blog. Suddenly I was a #postac blogger, too.

The last year has been a snake eating its own tail. The kids went off to school today—their first day in the new school. I am at home at my improvised standing desk, unemployed. At this time last year, I was busy hurling my resume at anything writing related. I wasn’t sure I’d get any of the jobs I applied for, but I didn’t despair. (That came later.) This year, I’m coming off three weeks of Not Getting Hired as a teacher. I had a few interviews—some went well, one went so poorly that I withdrew from consideration. There’s still a chance I’ll get a full time position for this school year (enrollment numbers continue to wiggle, and teaching positions with them), but there’s also a chance that I will be stuck as a substitute teacher for the foreseeable future. On the plus side, I don’t owe my program more money until I’m hired. On the minus side, substitute teaching isn’t the most remunerative endeavour.

If the snake has been gnawing its tail, it has also grown: I am happier than I was a year ago. Most days, I’m over my breakup with academia. Many days, I feel like a writer. I have not fallen in love with Texas, but I am learning to tolerate it, to appreciate that I can get decent avocados year round. I get to see one of my nephews and most of my in-laws on a regular basis. I can swap date nights with my sister-in-law. I haven’t managed to play ultimate year-round yet, but I know it’s possible to do without ever having to decide whether cleats or tennis shoes are better for the day’s snow and ice mix. (Next summer I don’t expect to be training for a new career and moving into a new house, which should help get me on the field.)

I would really like for something to go according to plan. The shine has come off the optimism of June. It was baffled optimism even at the time, but as little as two weeks ago I really felt that everything was going to work out and I’d be able to busy myself with day to day troubles and worry less about my personal trajectory. There is a hell of a lot going on in the world that needs to change. It’s hard to work on that when you’re swallowed in a job…but it’s also hard to work on that when you’re busy with the algebra of pay checks and due dates.

In the meantime, I am trying to take advantage of the quiet house to write. I have fewer than 10,000 words to go to complete my first draft of Ghosts of the Old City. I’d like to write them soon enough that I can make a pass through the draft in September, spend October planning the sequel, and then try to repeat last year’s National Novel Writing Month win. I still have the secret project that was supposed to launch in July and didn’t (because moving). There are many things to write.

As for Walking Ledges? It’s one of those things. I’ll continue to be up front about the challenge and opportunities I encounter as a #postac and as a writer. I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate my reading goals into the blog—more on that later this week. I may occasionally write about music. (I’ve only got a friggin’ PhD in it. No reason to schweigen about it.) I should have some cool announcements in the next six months.

In the meantime…that last line of my first post works well as the last line of this one. Thank you for reading, whether you got here from a #postac-tagged tweet, Freshly Pressed, or through a Google search for “who was the composer who was way too good.” (Really happened!) Thank you to my handful of commenters. Thank you for the clicks on the like button at the bottom of my posts. Thanks for the retweets and shares. I hope I can keep doing my job well enough to draw you back.

The Tangled Webs We Leave: Identity and #Postac

One of my first posts here at Walking Ledges was about the emotional toll of quitting the Academy. That post was responsible for a significant (and wholly unexpected) spike in traffic when it was featured on Minnesota Public Radio’s higher education blog. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. My blog wasn’t even a month old, and it was supposed to be about writing. “Of Carrots…” was an attempt to explain where I’d been rather than where I was. I wrote it mostly for myself, never intending to make it the “face” of my blog. (I was also annoyed that MPR excerpted the most anguished part of the post while ignoring the hopeful notes that came later.)

The thing is, my most popular posts have been, at least tangentially, about life as a post-academic. Even the post that won me my Freshly Pressed badge compared NaNoWriMo to doing a dissertation. More recently, I’ve gotten traffic on posts about the awkward need to go back to school even with a PhD in hand and about the enduring pull (suck?) of university teaching. That’s not what Walking Ledges is “supposed” to be about. Here, I’m not just another post-ac having a rough go of it. I’m a writer.

Except, you know, I’m also just another post-ac having a rough go of it.

That’s part of who I am right now, a story that’s as worth telling as that of my fictional characters running through my made-up city constructed of magic letters. Whether there’s a privilege divide among post-acs or not, there’s clear interest in the stories of making do. We fumble around on our job hunts and wrestle with our expectations. Sometimes we stare listlessly at the walls, others we apply frantically for “reach” jobs and hope that the odds will somehow favor us (just like we did when we were inside!).

So much of being a post-ac hinges on identity. Graduate school is a hermetic world of codes and rituals. Leather elbow pads and pipe-smoking in the faculty lounge might be bygones, but that doesn’t mean that we no longer have ideas about what “professorial” means. Exploitative or not, grad school is an apprenticeship. It is as much turning you into something as training you to do something.

That doesn’t go away…or it hasn’t gone away for me. I haven’t thought of myself as an academic for the better part of a year (even though I presented a paper at AMS back in November). Despite that, I still think about academia more often than I’d like. I tell stories about my substitute teaching in much the same way people complain about traffic or the weather. They’re ephemeral. I’ve only recently incorporated being a writer into my dinner party small talk. Nothing has really eclipsed post-ac as the superstructure of my identity.

Mostly, that’s okay. My recent dive back into the #postac blogosphere has been a reminder of just how messy these transitions are. There are things to be angry about. There are things to be depressed about. There are things to be confused about. The nice bit about being outside? We can dial back our self-censorship about that stuff.  We do not have to maintain our immaculate professional images.

In other words, we can let our identities be a little wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. Or, more accurately, we can acknowledge that they already are. I’m a writer. I’m a post-ac. I am, at the moment, a substitute teacher spending spring break with his kids. We love the metaphor of the caterpillar turning into the butterfly, but only entomologists talk about the gooey biology that goes on inside the chrysalis. (I have a feeling I might end up more moth than butterfly.) Getting out of academia is gooey. It is “messy” in ways more personal than the situations those of us in humanities threw that word at. Some people might manage a clean break with their academic identity. I haven’t. Maybe you haven’t either.

You’re welcome here regardless.

Stories+Tells=???

A story is like the wind: it comes from a far off place, and you feel it.
—proverb of the Kalahari Bushmen (one I first heard from Terry Tempest Williams)

What makes a story? I spent a lot of time as an undergrad trying to answer that question. I read epic poems, novels, myths…I probably should have spent some quality time with Joseph Campbell, but he was so much in the air that I was satisfied with the commonplaces. I read Bakhtin. I tried hard to learn from the “mistakes” of others—mostly the authors we read (and sometimes picked to pieces) in my literature seminars. I worried about how to tell stories right, rather than how to tell stories well. I felt a constant tension between what I knew about reading critically and what I knew about writing.

That tension is especially obvious in my honors project, The Storyteller, for narrator and orchestra. Musically, the piece has all the flaws one could ask of a first orchestral work: it’s over-written, full of bits that muddy the overall sound and make it occasionally impossible to hear the narrator. After hearing the orchestra read-through, it was obvious that I needed to dramatically strip down the score to fit it more smoothly with the text. That text, though? It has some great moments. It also has moments that make me cringe—bits of faux-beatnik and occasional flings with exoticism. I started with the idea of re-parsing epic poems. Now, we’d call it a mashup, but this was the early Aughts and YouTube didn’t exist yet. (One of the earliest images, for example, was Beowulf’s Grendel emerging from the Trojan Horse.) The poem ended up being about storytelling itself, about the anxiety of influence and how hard it felt to tell stories that hadn’t already been told. In my notes and brainstorming, there’s a constant back and forth between the academicism of my references and my desire to write from the gut.

I’m dealing with some of the same questions here: how do I balance commentary and storytelling? I have to remind myself of John Cage’s words: “Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.” In terms of storytelling, writing a blog can be like “writing” a TV reality show. So many of the things that happen every day aren’t that interesting to me, never mind to you. Some interesting things that happen still don’t fit here. This has become particularly true as a few of my posts—notably Of Dreams…—have been distributed around the internet by others. That’s cool. On the other hand, it’s forced me to consider my audience in ways that I hadn’t when planning this blog. How do I keep the analysis out of the creation?

And what makes a story for me, now? I think that the Kalahari proverb is probably the best answer I know. To keep you coming back—and, more importantly, to keep me coming back—I need to write things that we feel. This story, the story of Walking Ledges, isn’t out of its prologue yet. There is so much more to do and to write and to figure out. It is the story of leaving academia, but also the story of a 33 year-old taking a chance on a 16 year-old’s dreams. It’s the story of me letting myself dive back into the world of stories, to think again about how we write and read, how we tell. “Tell” is so much more vital than “write” or “say.” It’s a declaration, but also something that’s not entirely under one’s own control. A tell at the poker table is the unintentional betrayal of a secret. Good stories are the same way. They hint at secrets, tell us more than their plots and words do. I hope that the tells here will be worthwhile for all of us.

I could have picked a few different lines from The Storyteller to close with, but this is one from the middle of the piece that I particularly like:

“Tell the wind. Tell games. Tell journeys. Tell motion and tell the future. Never tell emptiness.”

You can find my honors project in the Macalester College library in St. Paul, Minnesota (http://macalester.worldcat.org/title/storyteller/oclc/52113087).
I’ve added the complete poetic text to the new “Works” page.