Category Archives: Essays

How To Talk To Someone After A Tragedy

Each day we wake up to news of a fresh tragedy: attacks are occurring regularly across the globe in what seems like the bloodiest, most heartbreaking summer I can ever remember.  Mourning has become almost the default setting as one demographic after another experiences a traumatic, deadly event.

Two of those traumatic events have hit a little too close to home for me recently.  On June 28, a bomb and gun attack by militants occurred at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, the main airport where I have flown in and out of dozens of times in the past few years while living in Istanbul, and where my family had flown through recently to visit me in Turkey.  41 people were killed and over 200 injured.  Watching the news come in while sitting in my apartment in Istanbul, just across the city, ripped my heart open.  I couldn’t bring myself to watch the videos, other than a brief one of people running through the terminals, and I still haven’t watched them.  I don’t plan to.  It’s too much for me.  Ataturk Airport isn’t an abstract, far-away place; it’s somewhere that has been an important locale, both physically and symbolically, since I first started coming to Istanbul in 2013; it’s part of my home, my heart, the center of a city I love deeply.

Then, on July 15, there was an attempted military coup in Turkey.  I had flown to the US to visit my parents the day before and I watched the coup unfold on social media for hours before it hit the media.  No one was absolutely certain what was going on, just that there were soldiers and tanks in the streets, the police had been disarmed in the airports, the bridges that connected the two sides of the city had been shut down, and rumors of gunshots in the neighborhoods near the bridges.  My husband’s plane from an out-of-country work trip landed in the airport less than an hour after the coup had begun.  His phone battery was dead and I couldn’t get hold of him.  All I could do was send him messages and frantically scroll through the news, waiting for a response.

My husband was, and is, safe and the coup raged through the night but had failed by morning, leaving around 300 people dead.  Everything has more or less gone back to normal, even as the country is feeling its way forward post-coup.  But the experience of not being able to get in touch with my husband during the coup left me severely shaken.  It took me days to emerge from the fog that came along with a too-close-for-comfort brush with one of those traumatic events that other people read about on the news but never have a reason to connect to personally.  For me, it was extremely personal.

In the days following the coup attempt, I had many friends and acquaintances, some of whom I hadn’t talked to in years, reach out to make sure we were okay and show their sympathy, and I truly appreciated the support.  But I also had to deal with people trying to engage me in conversations about the coup that made me feel worse about it rather than better.  And it made me think– with all the tragedy going on in the world these days, it’s worth it to think about how you’re talking to those who have been affected.  I can’t speak for others, but for me, these are guidelines I wish people had stuck to when talking to me after the coup.

1. Don’t treat it like a news item

Seriously.  Don’t bring it up casually in conversation and discuss it as if you’re talking about a new Wal-Mart opening or who was nominated for some political position or other.  Let me reiterate: to people who have experienced the event, it is not political, it is personal.

About a week after the Ataturk Airport bombing, we were in Prague and joined a walking historical tour.  In our group was a middle-aged American guy from New Hampshire, and when we said where we were from, his immediate reaction was, “Istanbul?  You guys just had a bombing there!” in an almost chipper way.  Yes, Mr. Socks-With-Sandals, we did have a bombing there; no, we do not want to casually discuss it with you.  If you are not going to show at least a tiny bit of sympathy and support, don’t bring it up.

2. Don’t ask us to explain the complex political context of the event

A big disclaimer for this one: I mean, don’t ask us to do this right after the event.  A lot of people have been asking me questions about Turkey’s political history and that is fine; I am happy to answer them…. now.  I wasn’t ready to for the first few days after the coup.  I was stressed out and grieving and heartbroken and feeling way too fragile to have a political discussion about it all.  The coup happened on a Friday and it wasn’t until the following Wednesday that I started feeling the least bit human again.

So if you know someone who has experienced something like this and have a lot of questions, you can ask, just give them some time to process.  And that time might be different for everyone.  Read their cues.  If they act distressed when you ask, or if they seem to be avoiding the topic, let it drop.

3. If you DO engage us in conversation, ask genuine questions rather than trying to get information that will support your own preconceived ideas of what happened

I cannot tell you how infuriating it is when people approach me to “talk” about things that have happened in Turkey, and most recently the coup, and then argue with me about them because they have already decided they know everything about Turkey that there is to know, based on a handful of articles they’ve read on CNN or whatever.  These are mostly people who have decided that Turkey is a Muslim country, and therefore it is like every other Muslim country around it.  (Super quick socio-political lesson: Turkey was founded as a secular democracy that gave women the right to vote before the US did.  It isn’t an Arab country and they don’t speak Arabic there, and the majority of Muslims in Turkey belong to a different denomination than most of the countries around it.  Also, Iran isn’t an Arab country and they don’t speak Arabic there either.  Saying that Turkey and Iraq are basically the same– which someone did to me, twice, in the immediate days following the coup– is like saying Mexico and the US are the same, because hey, we’re right beside each other and are both Christian-majority, ignoring the vast historical and linguistic differences and the fact that Mexico is Catholic-majority and the US is Protestant-majority.)

Look: I have lived there for two years.  I live it day in and day out, and am surrounded by Turks all the time.  I am decently well-versed in Turkish history and politics, and I can almost guarantee that I know more about European and Middle Eastern politics than you do anyway.  You can try to argue with me if you want, but you won’t win… unless I decide that I am too tired to deal with your condescending ass, which is what has been happening more often than not lately.  If this is your attitude, just give us both the gift of staying away from me and keeping to the comments sections of online articles, where you can shout into the echo chamber as much as you wish, which is all you really want anyway.

4. Don’t expect us to be able to concentrate or care about other things for a while

Again, for those first few days after the coup, I was having trouble concentrating on… pretty much anything.  I was spacing out in the middle of conversations, and particularly was having a hard time caring about minute details that other people were talking about.  It’s not personal, I promise.  But when I was still very worried about my husband’s safety and the future of the country we call home, I just couldn’t think about anything else for a while.

5.  But do get in touch and express support

Really.  Having people check in on us and show their (unbiased) love, sympathy, and support meant a lot.  Being apart from my husband during that time and having to just watch and deal with it on my own from almost 9,000 miles away was really difficult, and having that support did make me feel better and less like I was dealing with it alone.

 

When talking about this with a friend of mine who is from Aleppo, Syria, her response was, “Yes, I always tell people that they’re talking about politics, but I’m talking about my life.”  That pretty much sums it up.  I would like to believe that the world will become a less traumatic, less sad place soon, but if the past few weeks are any indication, I’m not sure that will happen.  In the meantime, the least we can do is all try to be a little more aware when speaking to each other about how our words are affecting people who are already hurting.

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Getting It Done: Prioritizing Your Writing

Back in December, after years of publishing short stories, I finally buckled down and started working on a novel; now, in early May, I am close to having the first draft finished.  I’ve been able to do this in large part because I have Tuesdays off this semester, which has allowed me to devote one whole day per week to my writing.

However, when I first learned I’d have Tuesdays off, I pictured using that time for all these great things.  I would do yoga and go running and sit in cafes and read for fun; I could get brunch with friends and get all the cleaning done so I didn’t have to worry about it over the weekends.  One whole day off would be plenty of time for all that, right?

Wrong.  Each Tuesday I write all day, taking very small breaks to try to turbo-clean the essentials– a quick vacuum here, a quick bathroom wipe-down there– with the goal of finishing one chapter each day I have off.  I’ve done yoga once this semester, I think, and my social life has basically disappeared.  There are many friends I owe phone calls and emails, and while I would love to grab brunch with busy friends on a Tuesday, I’m not willing to give up my writing time, because this is the only time I get, and this is how it has to be if I want to get this novel done.

The truth is, you can always find things to do other than writing.  The house always needs to be cleaned, there are always friends you can catch up with, errands to be run, appointments to go to.  Writing is almost always seen as non-essential, superfluous– definitely by non-writers, and often we have a hard time even convincing ourselves that we deserve to take the time out of our busy lives to work on it.  If we don’t prioritize our writing and aggressively guard those hours, no one else will for us.  I’ve seen a meme going around social media for years now, basically saying that between your sanity, happy/healthy kids, and a clean home, a mother can pick two.  I feel similarly about working on my novel right now: with a limited number of days and hours in each week, I have enough time to work my full-time job, spend time with my husband, and write.  That’s it.  If I were to include other things, like socializing or extra-curriculars like book clubs or workout groups– things I would very much enjoy if I had more time– then something else would have to give.

I’m especially dedicated to it right now because I know this kind of opportunity doesn’t come along often.  As a teacher, my schedule is unpredictable from semester to semester, and it’s not often you get free time like this, so I have to take advantage of it while I can.  And writing a novel is something that can easily take years, or hang around unfinished for a lifetime, because everything else gets in the way.  I’m thirty years old and married, and as I think about my future and what that might entail, I have this very strong feeling that now is the time to really tackle it.  Like a lot of women writers, I get nervous about how having kids might affect my writing, and I worry that if I don’t do it now, I never will and being a novelist is a dream that will float around, sad and unfulfilled, for the rest of my life.  (Elif Shafak does an incredible analysis of how motherhood can affect writing in her memoir Black Milk.  I highly recommend it.)

Years ago, I remember listening to my advisor from grad school, an accomplished novelist, speak at a conference.  She said that when her kids were young, she would get in her car, drive to the end of the road, and just park and write in the quiet car, and threaten her family to leave her alone for a set amount of time.  She had to physically remove herself from the house because otherwise there would be constant interruptions– because that’s life in general, and especially so if you have small kids– even though she never went far.  Tuesdays are my car parked at the end of the road.  I feel guilty for not keeping in better contact with friends these past few months.  I feel guilty that my apartment isn’t cleaner, or that I’m not out running errands or overall being a better, more put-together adult.

But on the other hand, I have a rough draft of a novel almost complete– the one thing I have wanted and dreamed about since I was a kid– and that feels more amazing than words can express.  Me and Tuesdays, we’re getting it done, together.

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Tuesday writing session on the balcony.

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11 Indispensable Resources for Writers and Writing Teachers

Like most writers, I split my time (albeit unevenly) between writing, editing, and teaching.  Here is a list of websites that have proven to be incredibly valuable resources over the years in all three areas.

1- Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab)

Let’s start with the basics.  Purdue University has an absolutely fantastic Online Writing Lab, free for everyone to use, where you can find the answer to almost any question about writing– whether it be about grammar, structure, style, how to cite sources, or anything else.  I used to put the link to this site on my syllabi at the beginning of the academic year and link to it on my class websites so my students would know to use it, and I’ve often used it myself when I can’t quite remember something like where the commas go in MLA citations.

2- UNC Writing Center Handouts

Can’t find what you’re looking for on the Purdue OWL?  Search the long list of handouts available on the University of Chapel Hill’s Writing Center website.  Both sites also have PDFs available to download and print to use in class.

3- Duotrope

Interested in publishing your own writing?  Duotrope.com is an exhaustive database of places where you can submit your work, everything ranging from the typical poetry and literary short stories to novellas, flash fiction, fan fiction, genre fiction, and everything in-between.  You can search for specific criteria (for example: journals that pay, are both print and online, and that publish vampire story flash fiction) and the database gives a brief description, run down of important information like pay and publishing schedule, how quickly the editors respond, and provide a link that takes you directly to the outside pages.  It is a pay site, but if you submit a lot, it’s worth the money.

4- Newpages

Newpages.com provides reviews of literary magazines (including specific issues and authors– I was reviewed on there years ago(!), and also mentioned briefly in one of their press releases) and has a long list of literary magazines that accept submissions.  Unfortunately you can’t search the list the same way you can with the Duotrope database so it involves a lot more time, energy, and clicking around, but it is free.

5- AWP

Everyone of course knows about the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) yearly conference, but if you don’t regularly check out their website, you should.  (And if you don’t know about the conference, look into that too!  Incredibly useful panels and a good excuse to hang out with your writer friends for a few days.)  They have videos and podcasts and craft essays and interviews and job listings, among other things.  Some of the content is only available to those who have paid for membership, but a lot of it is available for free.

6- List of Writing Residencies, et al.

Post-mfa.tumblr.com is a good resource in general, and this list of writing residencies and writing conferences is especially useful.  It is not an exhaustive list and some of the information may be outdated, but it’s a good place to start if you’re interested in applying for residencies and a little lost about how it’s all done.

7- Show Me the $$$!: Literary Magazines That Pay

This post on the Review Review site gives a run-down of which literary magazines pay their writers, what they typically publish, and about how much they pay.  We all know that the days of making a living from publishing our writing in literary magazines is long gone, but it’s still nice to know we have options and may even make a little pocket change.

8- Who Pays Writers?

If you write more general-interest stuff (as opposed to literary), this is a list of magazines, both print and online, that pay for things like personal essays, reported pieces, interviews, etc.  Again it provides brief information about the magazines, what the pitching and editing process was like, and about how much they pay.

9- EFA Editorial/Writing Rates

Are you working– or interested in working– as a freelance editor, writer, proofreader, fact-checker, transcriber, ghostwriter, translator, or anything else involving words?  And if so, are you having a hard time figuring out what to charge for your time?  This is a fantastic list of what to charge per hour, depending on the specific service you’re providing, from the Editorial Freelancers Association.  The list was updated as of July 2015, so the rates are fairly current.

10- Pricing 101: How to Price Yourself as a Freelancer

Would you rather charge your clients per project, rather than per hour?  This post on Careerfoundry.com is a good tutorial on the benefits of project-based pricing and how to start.

11- Social Security Website Database of Baby Names

Okay, this one is a little different than the other resources on this list, but it’s still useful, I promise.  The Social Security website has a database of the top 200 baby names (both male and female) for every decade since the 1880s.  If you are a fiction writer who is struggling to think up names for your characters, you can usually find something that works if you click around long enough.  And if not… hey, it’s still interesting to look at.  (Fun fact: Flossie climbed from #198 in 1880s to #151 in the 1890s, then fell to #164 in the 1900s before disappearing in the 1910s.  Poor Flossie.)

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Spain, Hemingway, and the reader’s imagination

I spent last week making my way down the coast of Spain with my husband on a belated honeymoon.  We started in Barcelona, took a train to Valencia, rented a car and drove to Granada, and then spent one night in Malaga before flying back to Istanbul.

It was my first time visiting Spain and as we traveled around, I was surprised to realize just how much of my concept of the country came from reading Hemingway.  Everywhere we went, the scenery reminded me of his writings: as we ambled down Travessera de Dalt towards Parc Guell and I glimpsed low shrub-dotted mountains in the distance, I was in “Hills Like White Elephants”; drinking cava in a cafe, I became the old man in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”; seeing the bull fighting arena in Valencia, I suddenly was transported into The Sun Also Rises, and driving through rural, craggy landscape of Andalusia made me remember the bus full Spanish peasants in the same novel, squirting wine into their mouths from leather skeins.

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Driving through Andalusia

This is probably not much of a fair association.  The associations aren’t necessarily even true, at least not directly– I don’t remember what the man was drinking in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” but it probably wasn’t cava, and I’m pretty sure the Spanish peasants in The Sun Also Rises were Basque, not Andalusian.  I’m also sure that there are many other writers who have written fiction set in Spain as well as, or better than, Hemingway.  (If he’s had this much of an impact on what I imagined Spain was like, I can only guess what will happen if I go to Paris.)

But, I started reading Hemingway for the first time in my early twenties, right when I was becoming more independent (and loving the feeling of doing so) and really catching the travel bug.  And despite all the controversy surrounding Hemingway, his writing really stuck to me and latched onto my imagination, and directly fed my burgeoning and ravenous travel bug.  In other words, it bolstered the part of my soul that was the neediest at the time and that has since become one of the more important parts of who I am.

I think my interest in seeing the world directly comes from reading so much as a child.  I still remember reading versions of the Arabian Tales as a kid and dreaming about Aladdin’s palaces, reading The Secret Garden and wishing I could see it in person, and so on and so forth with dozens of other stories that took place in various locales that were far away from my rural Virginia home.  (Although I’ll be honest: my current desire to see London comes from BBC shows, not books.)  The connection of those two loves– of reading, and of wanting to experience the world– continued into my teens and my adult years, and now, almost to my own surprise, I’m actually living all those things I daydreamed so long ago, or at least versions of them.  It’s a wonderful, addictive feeling.

Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.

-Isabelle Eberhardt, The Nomad

 

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Linked by Scars: Beloved‘s Sethe and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao‘s Beli

On the surface, any similarities between the novels Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz seem very superficial.  Both are novels about Black families in America, but that’s about where the similarities seemingly end.  Beloved, published in 1987, tells the story of a group of ex-slaves living in post-civil war Ohio; Oscar Wao, published in 2007, tells the story of a nerdy Dominican teen’s search for love.  And the main character of Beloved, Sethe, who would do anything for those around her, seems to have little in common with Beli, Oscar’s mother, who is most often seen screaming and cursing at her kids.

However, the more you dig beneath the obvious plotlines, you notice the two novels actually do have a lot in common.  Both books reach deep into the family histories: Beloved into Sethe’s experience in and escape from slavery and Oscar Wao into Beli’s experience in and escape from the Dominican Republic under the dictatorial Trujillo regime.  Both explore how those pasts influence the women’s relationships with their children.  In fact, mother/child relationships are a very large theme in both books– both Sethe and Beli were nurtured by mother figures who were not their biological mothers, and the novels explore those relationships, too.  Both Sethe and Beli lose children that they very much loved and are left to mourn afterwards.

The thing that leapt out at me, though, that made me really link these two characters in my head is that both Sethe and Beli bear physical scars from their past on their backs– expansive, knotted scars, Sethe’s from being whipped as punishment for telling her owner how she had been abused by the overseers and Beli’s from getting hot oil thrown on her as punishment when she told her cruel foster family that she was going to go to school instead of work.  In both cases, the scars serve as a physical reminder of extremely painful pasts.

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Sethe and Beli are complicated figures.  Sethe seems less complicated, at least at first– she is a bit of an outcast in her town, but she seems steadfast and giving and caring.  Then, we find out why she’s an outcast: she killed her own 2-year-old daughter by cutting her throat when they were found by slave catchers.  Sethe explains to another character that she was trying to kill her children “to put them somewhere safe” before they could be taken back to slavery.

Beli, as an adult and as a mother, never seems steadfast, giving, or caring.  She has a contentious relationship with her daughter and a manipulative one with her son, and has no problem yelling or cursing at them.  It’s obvious that she’s a terrible mother.  Even when she is dying of cancer, it’s hard to sympathize with her.

These characters’ pasts, exemplified by their scars, open a door to understanding them.  It is incredibly hard to move past the knowledge that a character has murdered her own daughter, but we are also invited back into her history to maybe understand why before we pass total judgment– to relive the horrors of slavery that Sethe endured, things so terrible that even death seems like a more humane option for her children.  With Beli, reliving her past lets us see her transformation from sweet and slightly sassy child and teenager into someone who is thrown around relentlessly, heartbroken and physically assaulted repeatedly by people and things entirely outside of her control, even as her adoptive mother tries desperately to protect her.  We learn that life under a dictatorship involves very little self-determination.  Is it any wonder that someone who was beaten down so thoroughly, time and time again, grows into a callous person?  Although Oscar is the main character, it was Beli’s story that I was most interested in and invested in as I read.

There is probably an entire school of literary criticism devoted to analyzing scars as physical manifestations of characters’ emotional wounds, but it’s been awhile since I’ve been in school and I can’t remember any others off the top of my head.  However, one thing that struck me as I considered these two characters: Sethe’s scar is described time and time again as a chokecherry tree, and Beli’s as an inconsolable sea.  Both images give the impression of something beautiful, something wild but quiet that exists almost separate of the women that carry them; something that you might stumble upon while out for a misty morning nature walk.  Do these women wear their scars, or do their scars wear them?  It’s obvious that they’ve been shaped by their experiences, and it’s obvious that, given the systems and circumstances they were born into, there was no other way for it to happen.  For all of Sethe’s caring generosity, for all of Beli’s seeming cruel lack of maternal instinct, it’s that sad sense of inevitability draws these two women together.

 

 

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6 Things I Wish My Students Understood

I realized recently that I’m currently in my fifth year of classroom teaching.  It doesn’t feel like that long, but maybe that’s because of how much moving around I’ve done: I started teaching at a big state university, switched to teaching at a small, nontraditional high school, and am currently in my first semester of teaching at a private university in Istanbul.  I’ve taught everything from creative writing to academic writing and remedial writing, and both American and world literature.  I’ve never had the same teaching schedule two years in a row.

Regardless of where I’m teaching or who I’m teaching, I notice a lot of similarities between the students.  Below are five things I wish all of my students understood.

1: The syllabus is more than just a list of rules and a schedule; it’s a blueprint for how to get a good grade in the class.

Students tend to zone out on the first day of class when the teacher/professor is going over the syllabus.  It might be because it’s boring, or it might just be that they figure they’ll worry about it later, when work is actually due.  However, if you care about doing well in the class, paying attention to how the teacher explains the syllabus will make things much easier.  We are EXPLICITLY TELLING YOU WHAT TO DO FOR A GOOD GRADE.  Not to mention that we get sick of answering the same questions over and over during the semester.

No, really. It's ALL on the syllabus.

No, really. It’s ALL on the syllabus.

2: Coming to class will make the assignments easier.

Students often seem really committed to the idea that they will only attend as much class as necessarily to not fail, and then are confused as to why they don’t know how to complete a project or answer questions on a test.  The point of assignments is not to randomly torture you; it’s to prove you know the material.  The material that we explicitly go over, and that I spend a lot of time explaining, in class.  Maybe you are one of those people who can magically understand everything from reading the book, and if so, congratulations, but you’re in the minority.  Additionally, I often give direct rubrics and outlines for the information that will be covered that you only get if you come to class.  It’s worth your time, I promise.

3: Related, the point of the class is to learn something.

The point of the class (ostensibly) is not to get a grade or a credit on your transcript– it’s to learn information and/or skills that will help you in life/your career/etc.  Again, skipping class as often as possible and then begging the professor to pass you anyway or trying to find other ways around actually doing the work doesn’t fulfill the actual purpose of getting an education.  I was definitely guilty of this as a student at times, specifically in classes that I wasn’t all that interested, and I think it’s a reminder that we could all use every now and then.

4: If you are a good, responsible student, I will be more understanding if you need a favor.

Shit happens.  People’s grandmothers do die (although probably not at quite the rate that students would seem to suggest when there is a big project coming up), printers do malfunction, we all get sick sometimes, we go through bad break-ups that leave us comatose for a week or two, so on and so forth.  However, if you never come to class or turn your work in on time and then you tell me your stoner roommates used your term paper to light a bonfire for their s’mores right before class, whether or not it’s true, I probably will not give you an extension.  If, on the other hand, you come to class, do your work and do it well, and participate, I will be MUCH more understanding if a situation arises where you need extra time or extra help.  I think this goes for pretty much every professor.

5: We are human too.

We all know that teachers make mistakes– in fact, students often are completely delighted to point it out when it happens.  However, know that we have bad days, too.  There are times we haven’t gotten enough sleep, or have headaches, or are worried about something that’s happening outside of work and distracting us.  We usually teach anyway, but there are times we are not at the top of our game.  I’ve been fighting off a cold and just this morning I taught my class with a major case of the sniffles, barely able to breathe and feeling like crap– and I went through the material quickly and let them go early.  No one wants a stuffed-up, sneezing professor (and everyone DOES want to get out early on a Friday).  So be patient with us on the days when we might be a little slower or a little less polished than normal.

6: I truly enjoy teaching, or I wouldn’t be doing it.

Yes, really.  There are times I’m tired.  There are times I’m irritated (again, it’s on the damn syllabus!).  But I really enjoy being in the classroom and working with students or else I would have found a different career by now.  No one stays in this job unless they love it, and here I am, five years later.

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On Leaving Public Education, Lifestyle Changes, and Writer’s Block

I made a big life decision in December of 2013.  I decided to go part-time at my soul-sucking teaching job– a job where I was working 80-90 hours every single week and had developed stomach issues and hair loss from stress and still was never able to keep on top of my work.  It was a job where I loved what I was doing and I loved my students, but one that I knew I couldn’t keep doing.  I also knew that making the decision to go part-time was my first step in leaving the public education system.  It was a painful decision, but necessary.

So I gave up half my classes and worked part-time that summer, too.  In late August of 2014 I moved to Istanbul, Turkey, where my soon-to-be husband had gotten a job offer.  I will (hopefully, if everything goes okay with my work visa) start working here this coming September, again teaching full-time, but with a much lighter load than what I was juggling in the US.

In the meantime, I’ve gone from being a constantly-overworked-and-stressed-out teacher to basically a stay-at-home partner.  It’s been an odd transition, one I’ve struggled with at times.  Of course, not being stressed out all the time is wonderful; having time to devote to hobbies and a social life is amazing.  Even so, it took some getting used to.  In the beginning, particularly, some days would stretch out in front of me and I’d have no idea how to fill them.  It didn’t help that the first few months I was in Istanbul were very rainy, making me feel trapped in the apartment at times and isolated in a new culture.  But eventually I hit my stride and finally I was able to truly enjoy the freedom of not working.  I signed up for Turkish classes, read for pleasure, and ended up with a social calendar that is more active than it has been since perhaps I was in college.  I can tell you this: the life of an easy, breezy expat is a world away from being a high school teacher in North Carolina.

This time off has also allowed me to get back to my first love, writing.

I decided to quit public teaching for my mental and physical health, but being able to work on my own writing again has been an amazing side benefit to leaving the system.  Before graduate school and throughout the two years of my MFA program, I was steadily producing work and slowly but regularly getting things published in literary journals, typically at the pace of two publications per year for several years.

That all screeched to a halt while I was teaching.  I didn’t have time to sit down and breathe, much less write, and because I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t submitting to journals and therefore wasn’t publishing.  The slow-but-promising trajectory of my writing was completely derailed by my schedule.  I tried to write during the summer, but I worked during summers because I needed the money, and prepared for classes in the coming year; more than anything, perhaps, I found it very difficult to switch off my teacher brain and switch on my writing brain.  To put it bluntly, I was just plain not productive writing-wise during those years, and I missed it.

When I went part-time, one of the main things I knew I wanted to do was attack my writing again.  I’ve been slowly working on a book manuscript for about four years, with 2+ of those years being total stagnation while teaching, and I’ve picked that back up.  And it’s been a productive year; I’ve reached around 40,000 usable words in the manuscript and have a plan for the rest of it, and, to my utter delight, I’ve had seven new pieces accepted for publication, five of them from the book manuscript I’m working on.  (The other two were an unrelated short story and my first creative nonfiction piece.)

A cafe writing day in Kadıköy.

A cafe writing day in Kadıköy.

Still, I struggle with thinking that I should be accomplishing more with this year off.  Being able to take a year off from working is a privilege that most people don’t have, including most writers, and who knows when I will ever get the privilege again.  I am writing a lot, but not as much as I could be; I tell myself I’m going to write every day, but miss that goal by a long shot.  Often, it will come to me in spurts, when I’ll spend a day furiously writing and then take an embarrassing amount of time before writing again.  During those off times, I try, but I just can’t get the words to come.

My friend and former colleague Laura Giovanelli wrote an article for The Washington Post recently about what it’s like to be a writing teacher who is struggling with writer’s block herself.  Laura brings up several good points about the complications of juggling your own writing projects with your teaching and how that might compromise your authority to guide your students.  However, her descriptions of the struggle with writer’s block hit even closer for me: how it should be so easy to just sit down and write, but it isn’t; how you have ideas and characters and the words should come, but they don’t sometimes.  How writers try every little trick, from getting household chores out of the way to changes of scenery to hunting down the perfect tea, in order to write, and how often it doesn’t work (but sometimes does).

Many of my Facebook friends are writers and it’s a common theme to see us discussing all the things we do instead of writing.  Of course, everything gets in the way: big things like jobs and kids, and little things like sinks of dirty dishes and laundry that needs to be folded.  The trade-off is when successes are jubilantly shared as well, when new published work gets posted, when novels are pronounced finished, when new book contracts are signed.

Because this is the truth: Writing seriously– as a lifelong passion, as a hopeful career, as something you truly invest yourself in– is a long game, a marathon rather than a sprint.  There is no way getting around it.  We all try to get around it, and some writers are much more gifted than others at sitting down and just doing the damn thing.  I think of writers like Stephen King and John Grisham, for instance, and wonder how the heck they do it– I am awed at and envious of their output.  But a lot of us aren’t, including myself.  I tend to be a slow, recursive writer who tinkers forever with each paragraph as I go.  (I remember one particular Saturday years ago where I spent eight hours writing and re-writing the same paragraph, only to delete it at the end of the day.)  I try different tricks; this year, I’ve been telling myself that I just have to sit down and write 500 words, just 500 words, even if they’re 500 crappy words, and that’s worked as well as anything.  It has produced a lot of crappy 500 words and a couple of questionable first drafts, but just as often I end up writing two or three times what I sat down to write, and I can always go back and revise those crappy first drafts.

Even with my new approach of “just get it on the page and worry about quality later,” I’m not writing as quickly as I’d like; I have a feeling that I’ll never write as quickly as I’d like, or as quickly as I think I should be.  However, while staring down writer’s block and finding a way around all those distractions and obstacles is an important part of the writing process, I think patience is an important part, too.  Not giving up even if you’re just writing a little bit here and there is just as important tricking yourself into producing mass quantities of words: it’s looking at the summit of a mountain and thinking I will get there, knowing that it will be a slow and careful-footed climb rather than a race to the top.  Both approaches have merit and each writer has to decide the best balance for themself.

And on that note, I should probably wrap up this blog post and get back to the half-finished short story I have open on my computer.  (Maybe after I finish this load of laundry, and grocery shop, and do yoga, and…)

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Hello (Belatedly) From Istanbul!

After two and a half years of writing faithfully in this blog, I moved abroad and stopped writing just when things got interesting.

At the end of August, I moved to Istanbul, Turkey with my then-boyfriend/now-fiance.  We spent about a month crashing with generous friends and family members on the European side of the city before settling into our apartment on the Asian side, where we’ve been since.

What is there to really say about moving to a new country?

It was a difficult transition.  Even as someone who is decently well-traveled, even as someone who likes new cultures and languages, I quickly figured out that living somewhere was completely different than visiting– for instance, you don’t (usually) have to try to communicate with delivery men and repairmen when you travel, or doctors, or try to find your way to remote neighborhoods where no one speaks your language for job interviews.  The learning curve is steep.  If I’m being honest,  it took me a solid two months to start getting over the culture shock and overwhelmed feeling.  But then it got easier, as it always does, even when moving within the same country.  (It took me MUCH longer than two months to adjust when I moved from Boston to North Carolina.)  Seven months in, living here feels completely normal.

Istanbul is beautiful and huge (about twice the population of NYC!) and chaotic and historic and cultural.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still get excited traveling back and forth between Europe and Asia on the ferry.  I live in an artsy, friendly neighborhood surrounded by water, and I walk beside the water Bosphorus almost every day.  I can see Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia, and the Blue Mosque from my neighborhood.

The historical peninsula on the European side of Istanbul, as viewed from my neighborhood.

The historical peninsula on the European side of Istanbul, as viewed from my neighborhood.

I’m taking Turkish classes, and my “survival Turkish” has gotten pretty decent; I can shop, ask for and give directions, make small (very small) talk, and create/understand simple sentences.  However, Turkish is very different from any other language I’ve studied and it’s challenging.  The vowels in Turkish are particularly difficult for me– they have four extra vowels that we don’t have in English, and I can’t really hear the difference between them or pronounce them correctly, which often completely changes the meaning of a word.  Example: sık (no dot over the i) is a setting on our washing machine and means “dense” or “thick”… but if you put the dot over the i, it changes to a vulgar slang word for penis… and they sound the exact same to me!  I’m trying to train my ear and practice speaking as much as possible in the hopes that one day my Turkish will be conversational, but I know it will take awhile.  In the meantime, I’m doing my best.  I make mistakes often but can usually get my point across eventually.  (Although there was one memorable cab ride where I kept mixing up the words for “go straight”, düz, and “stop”, dur.  That poor, poor confused cab driver…)

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Also, there’s this.

Hmm, what else?  I mostly drink black tea instead of coffee now, since most places don’t have filtered coffee or espresso drinks and the ones that do are… somewhat lacking in quality.  Still, I’ve found a few places that have decent cappuccinos and patronize them a couple of times a week.  I miss the diversity of food in the US (Mexican food! Thai! Indian! Sushi!) but love the food here, especially Turkish breakfast.

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This is the “breakfast plate for two” at one of our favorite breakfast places in our neighborhood.

I feel lucky in that I’ve found it fairly easy to make friends here, in large part because there are a lot of women like me (foreigners living in Istanbul) who are also creating their social circles from scratch, so I’ve met wonderful people from all over the world as well as Turks.  I’ve noticed that, without even meaning to, being in an international community has changed how I communicate: I don’t use as many idiomatic phrases; I say I’m from America, not the US or the States like I probably would when talking to another American; I say I went to university, not college.  That kind of thing.  Having such a diverse group of friends and hearing their experiences has been wonderful for gaining a deeper understand of the world.

I think one of the reasons I put off writing this blog post for so long is because there is no easy way to explain what the experience is really like, especially when you’re still in the process of understanding where you are.  I’ve done some traveling inside Turkey since I moved and the places I’ve seen have been beautiful and interesting; it’s easy to fall in love with such a country, even if it’s difficult to explain to outsiders what the country and culture are actually like in a way that does them justice.  If I’ve learned anything since being here, it’s that (like anywhere else) there is not one monolithic Turkish culture and that the country is often full of complicated traditions and contradictions.  On a much smaller, more personal level, life in Istanbul is crazy and sometimes difficult (the traffic, in particular, is awful), but it’s always interesting and these past seven months have been an incredible learning experience, one that I’m looking forward to continuing.

On the roof of the Grand Bazaar.

On the roof of the Grand Bazaar.

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Literary Currents: June

After two years of updating this place pretty regularly (once a month, on average), I’ve completely fallen off the wagon these past few months.  Excuses abound– a lot of my energy is going towards planning my future these days as well as wrapping up spring semester at the school where I teach, among other things– but, in order to catch up, I’m going to try something new that might become a regular feature.  I’ve seen “Currents” lists on other blogs, and I think using that as a round-up for all things literary in a given month is a great idea.

 

Current Fiction: Beloved by Toni Morrison

Those of you who have ever heard me talk books know that Song of Solomon is one of my all-time favorites, but the last time I read Beloved— I was 19, I think– I didn’t have much historical or contextual information to go with it, or a knowledge of African-American literature in general.  I’m only a few chapters into it this time and I can already tell that it’s going to be a completely different reading experience than the first time around.

Current Nonfiction: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I just finished this book and recommend you go out and buy it immediately.  It’s amazing.  As much as I love fiction, I also love character-driven, well-structured journalistic nonfiction (think Jon Krakauer) and this book is exceedingly well done.  Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at Johns Hopkins and whose cells were taken without her knowledge and then used for scientific research.  That story itself is interesting– the cells went on to become extremely important in developing vaccines and cancer drugs, among other things– but it also tells her family’s history and the impact that her cells and the medical research done on them had on her family, which raises a host of questions about research ethics.  I couldn’t put it down.

Current Literary Link: Book Food Comes To Life

Photographing Literature’s Famous Food Scenes via NPR.  Photographer Dinah Fried took scenes from well-known books involving food and carefully and artistically recreated them.  The pictures are beautiful.

Alice's tea party in Wonderland

Alice’s tea party in Wonderland

 

Current Literary Controversy: Should Colleges Include Trigger Warnings On Books?

Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm via The New York Times.  I found this article debating whether or not colleges should be required to put trigger warnings on books with potentially sensitive or traumatic content and thought it was interesting.  I’ve posted it on facebook and sent it around to the other English teachers at my school, and it’s engendered a lot of good debate with strong support for both sides.  It’s a topic worth thinking about.

Current Author Essay: Junot Diaz Talks MFA , Writing, And Race

MFA vs. POC by Junot Diaz via The New Yorker.  I am a HUGE fan of Diaz’s and his straightforward critique of MFA programs’ lack of writers of color is beautifully written and poignant (much like everything else he writes).

Current Literary Event: Bad Writing Salon

A friend of mine recently hosted the second Bad Writing Salon, a night where a bunch of us get together and read nonsensical stories, cliched poetry, and snarky high school essays from our younger years.  It’s the kind of evening where your abs and cheeks hurt from laughing so much.  Bonus: Although I didn’t read it (opting instead to read a poem I wrote in high school, since it was shorter), I found the following short story, complete with embarrassing 5th-grade picture, while I was digging through old files at my parents’ house.

That hair.  Those glasses.  A tye-dyed coconut alien?  Oy.

That hair. Those glasses. A tye-dyed coconut alien? Oy.

Current Poem/Homage: “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou

Like many, I was saddened by the news of Maya Angelou’s death last week.  I appreciated the honesty, openness, and strength in her writing, and one of my oldest memories of being affected by a poem can be attributed to her.  I was 14, one of the youngest students in my high school creative writing class, and another student performed “Phenomenal Woman”.  I don’t remember why, now– it must have been part of some assignment.  And I can’t remember that student’s name, just that she was older than me and had curly red hair.  I do, however, remember her performance.  It was slow, it was sassy, and it was spot-on.  I had never heard the poem before and immediately fell in love, and I’ve gone back to those words time and time again whenever I’ve needed to remind myself that beauty is as much about attitude and how you carry yourself as anything else.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Phenomenal Woman, indeed.

Phenomenal Woman, indeed.

 

 

 

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