October 28, 2010

I Want you to Hit me as Hard as you Can

Since Austen has been so high on my mind lately, the world has become a hazy rose-hued place of beauty and sensationalism coupled with the grayish-pink normality of daily life.  Things taste of earl grey and smell of violetwater.  I resist the urge to say “Oh my!” and fan myself daintily with a glove-clad hand.  The practice of reading novels is something I must think twice about before engaging in lest I become one of those women who thinks too much and thereby shall never land a husband.

Apparently, I am not alone.  Over this past weekend, this video was brought to my attention.

First and foremost, let me articulate how hilarious I find it.  The following analysis comes not from any lacking in my sense of humor, but rather an over-exaggeration of my sensibilities as a reader of Austen.  Honestly, if I wasn’t wading hip-deep in Austen criticism currently, I probably would have laughed the entire thing away and failed to put a second thought to it.  It is, truly, a funny piece of work.

That disclaimer out of the way, as a theorist I can’t help but note that Lizzie Bennet is likely miscast in her role of Tyler Durden.  Lizzie is most certainly the most famous of Austen’s women and for good reason.  She has a staring role in Austen’s most well read novel.  She has a bright, intelligent, strong personality that a modern audience absolutely connects to.  She is smart, beautiful, and gets the ultimate tall-dark-brooding-handsome-rich man in the end.  If I was stuck in some bizarre and world-altering literary cataclysm and had to choose one of Austen’s women to live as, it would be Lizzie Bennet.  Her story is relatable, desirable, and utterly romantic.

However, one of Lizzie’s most important characteristics is that, despite her brilliance and wittiness, she never outwardly performs any action of social impropriety.  Her barbs are measured, counted, and always reserved for the correct place at the correct time.  There is no unhealthy oppression in Lizzie (that is all left to her father, poor soul).  She says what she wants and needs to, but only does so at moments in which she knows she can get away with it.  Most importantly, Lizzie’s careful application of tact ensures that even her rebellion attracts the most desirable suitor.  Darcy is drawn to Lizzie precisely because of her rebellious streak.  This streak, thereby, goes to re-enforce social norms and the institution of male power within the novel despite its assertion of female agency in the acquisition of that power.

There is undeniably another woman, however, who would be more appropriately cast in this role.  To me, Marianne Dashwood is a much more likely candidate for the institution of such an organization as depicted in this little vignette.  Marianne famously is of a passionate and over-brimming heart, and acts precisely as she feels when she feels it.  She is unable to succumb to the boundaries of social propriety, and though her mind is sharp she cannot tame it to the demands of a society woman.  She, it seems, would instigate such fights.  She would lead the other women into the same lack of restraint that she exhibits throughout the course of her novel.

That being said, Fanny is the perfect candidate for the role of unnamed-Edward-Norton-narrator.  Quite, reserved, constantly told that she is inadequate, unable to stand up for herself, insistently put down by the book’s higher-socially-ranked characters, if anyone required a means of blowing off repressed anger it would be Fanny.  More importantly, the weak and measly push-over that Fanny is is the text-book definition of “beware of the quiet type”.  It would be of no surprise to me that Fanny should imagine herself an alternate person which, once donned, would allow her to act out.  More importantly, Marianne Dashwood would fill that persona swimmingly; wild, romantic, carefree, unbounded; the perfect fantasy for the mousy Fanny to enact in her attempt at conquering her own meekness.

….and perhaps it’s just because my most recent paper is on Northanger Abbey, but where is Catherine Morland?  Don’t satirical Gothic heroines get to beat people up too?

In any case, this certainly inspires further thought.  In recent years, Austen’s works have provided the muse for a series of adaptations which has brought them center-stage in the eyes of the reading masses.  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the first (and perhaps most famous) of these.  It is hard to say whether these appropriations should be grouped into literary fan fiction, or legitimate attempts to make these texts speak to a modern audience.  Having done no lengthy study upon them, it is a difficult distinction for me to make.  I suppose it begs us to first answer the question of how far one can go from an original text while still maintaining its integrity.  Do the zombies make this book another book, or should it still be shelved with its predecessor?  Are we talking about one thing, or two things?  Where does something go from “classical” to “absurd”? 

Rather than proposing any immediate answer to these questions, I’d rather pull a Professor move and allow them to ruminate in your minds.  As per usual, thoughts upon them are always welcome…. Especially if accompanied by beer.

October 25, 2010

The Birth of a Paper

After a whirlwind weekend of just-enough-could-have-been-too-much, I am back and banging out the work like nobody’s business.

This past weekend was the NEPCA 2010 conference at which I finally gave the ill-fated vampire paper (ill-fated due to its previous fledgling attempts at coming into the world which involved a volcano thwarting my conference-going experience).  The paper was well received and despite feeling slightly out-classed by the insane lunch-time ballroom of awesome in which we were wined and dined, I managed to keep things together and deliver a pretty solid presentation. 

Now that I’m back in New Jersey, I’ve hit the ground running this week.  I have a pile of grading, the Austen midterm looming, and PhD applications to roll out.  If I emerge from this month with my sanity, I will count myself lucky.

I’ve had several people ask about my drafting process for a paper.  How do you go from concept to product, what steps do you take, and how does this all come together?  As I’m currently in the throes of such a process, there’s no time like the present to take you through this.  Thanks to my handy dandy iPhone, it will be a multi-media presentation.

So, here it is.  Papers like a pro in five easy, simple, arduous and time-consuming, hellish, easy-to-follow steps.

Step One: Research

Honestly, it’s a toss-up whether step one is research or paper conception.  Sometimes I have an idea and know just what I want to write about.  Sometimes it’s a little more amorphous.  Either way, early in the process I hit the stacks.  This is good old Dana library:

Don’t let her measly exterior fool you.  She may be small, but she be fierce… and she has mad ILL connections, yo.  I order books and articles which I then take back to my lair (sometimes after bashing them over the head and dragging them).

This is my reading corner/bookshelf.  Please ignore the mess, eccentric genius at work.

As I have previously mentioned, I compile my research into a word document.  Single-spaced, times new roman, size twelve font.  All the citations I need and all the quotes I may or may not want go into this document.  When the single-spaced document is the approximate length of my double-spaced paper, I know it’s time to move on.

Step Two: “Pile it up”

I’m a kinesthetic learner.  This does not mesh well with English lit.  Since I am so tactile, I really have to be able to touch the way my argument is shaped before I make it.  In order to contend with this, I have developed the following tactic.

I print out my word document and cut up the research into little bits.  I label each bit with a number corresponding to the citation where it came from.  Then I literally pile the bits into “concepts”.  I put the things that feel like they go together in their own piles.  I label the piles with post-its and take notes on my thoughts/ideas as they occur to me.  The entire process looks like this:

It does take a great deal of space, so I usually use my floor rather than any civilized table.  Sitting on the ground with my research arrayed around me makes it feel more visceral, more real, a rush and tumult of ideas and notions right there at my fingertips.  Writing papers this way means literally getting down and dirty with the text.

I re-arrange the piles to correspond with how the argument will lay out.  Basically, my floor becomes a soundboard for the paper.  By the time I’m done with this, I’m usually pretty burnt out so it’s time for step three…

Step Three: A Shower

No, really, I leave my research in piles on the floor, and go take a shower.  It gives me time to clear my head, it helps me put my thoughts in order, and for whatever reason I always have my best ideas in the shower.

This step is sometimes repeated if I get stuck against a brick wall.  Something about hot water and nice-smelling soap just makes my brain work better.  You can tell how much trouble a paper is giving me by how nice I smell.

….no pictures for this one, sorry.

Step Four: Preliminary Vomit Draft

Once thoroughly clean, I make a pot of tea and prepare for the long haul.  This is my least favorite step in the drafting process.  I pre-format my headers and footers, I insert a place-marker for my title (usually “better title to follow”), and I make myself write.  Usually this is little more than me inserting quotes in an order which makes sense to me with nominal input from my own thinking.  This input is no more than a sentence here or there as to what my argument is, where it’s going, etc. 

Generally, this draft is awful.  The important thing about it is that it exists.  It gets me past the blank-screen-blinking-cursor-of-doom, and it gets me really mulling through my paper.  Most importantly, it gets me to my favorite part of the entire process…

Step Five: Drafting

There is nothing more satisfying to me than a good red-penning.  Nothing.  The rush of crossing things out.  The flourish of adding new writing.  The excitement of shifting paragraphs.

Contemporary pedagogical theory says that we, as writing teachers, should never red-pen our students’ work.  We should keep our markings on their papers to a minimum, and probably in pencil rather than anything else.  But it’s so niggling to know that something is wrong and you can’t just fix it… so upsetting to have this inkling that a swoosh of ink would make it just fine…

But with my own work, I can tell myself I’m wrong as much as I want without harming my ego!

More importantly, this is where the real writing takes place.  This is where my ideas are honed, crafted, added, revisited, and overall made smart.  In general, it takes me six to eight drafts to produce a solid ten to twenty page paper.  The progression of the drafts is as such:

Draft One: vomit draft, nobody look, let’s pretend this never happened.

Draft Two: this will never be done on time, why can’t I write anything, god I’m an awful human being and can’t formulate a smart thought to save my life.

Draft Three: this… wasn’t as bad as I had thought.  I mean, it still needs work, but it’s got some potential.  This may just be pretty good when it’s all done…

Draft Four: I say some pretty smart things in here.  Not sure I’m ready to turn it in, but I’d consider letting someone I trust maybe have a look at this…

Draft Five: Not bad, not bad if I do say so myself.  Gotta double-check for typos.

Draft Six: Oh bloody hell, this part doesn’t belong at all, why did I let myself write a paragraph that has nothing to do with anything and…. Well maybe I’ll just take it out.

Draft Seven: I think this is done.  I hope this is done.  Typo on page seven.  Gotta re-print.

Draft Eight: Okay, putting this on the prof’s desk whether it’s done or not.  I can’t stand to look at this anymore.  …maybe if I just add this bit of criticism it’ll be perfect and… no.  We’re turning it in.

Of course, no writing is ever finished.  I could draft until the world burns doomsday.  Like starting a piece, “finishing” is sometimes just a matter of “put the paper down and step away from the keyboard”. 

In any case, the Austen paper is currently hovering above draft three.  I’m not sure if it’ll make it to eight on time…. But right now, I’m feeling pretty accomplished.

October 19, 2010

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Hamlet

I have been blessed with the good fortune to be given random assignments around the theatre directly corresponding to my random array of talents.  This month’s random assignment was as fight director for our first show of the year, Magic Time, which opens tomorrow and runs through the weekend.

The show is about a summer stock company doing a production of Hamlet.  The actors are undergrads with no previous fight or martial arts experience.  They barely knew what a sword was before being handed over to my loving claws.  Over the course of a month, I managed to teach them enough about stage combat to get through my choreographed fight safely.

I don’t have a lot to say about the experience other than I love the theatre, I love swords, and I love when those two loves intersect.  Acting as a mentor for young actors is always a privilege and an honor.  I’ve been where they are.  They come to rehearsal with problems and I know exactly what they’re talking about.  They’re struggling with big life things; why couldn’t I be happy with a normal job, what am I going to do when I graduate college, what the hell is Hamlet trying to say?  There is nothing more satisfying than having answers to (or at least thoughts about) these questions.

I love teaching theatre and I hope I get to do it for the rest of my life. 

With that in mind, here’s a look at how the fight progressed.  I didn’t start videoing them until there was really something to tape, so the initial blunders and foibles have gone unrecorded.  Trust me, that’s likely for the best.

You can hear the pneumatic stapler going in the background as well as my commentary.  At this point, the boys were still working on remembering their moves more than anything.  There is little to no acting involved and everything you see is pure mechanics.  As a point of reference, I would say that such level of performance is typical for a week out from the show.

It did panic the director though.  After a series of frantic text messages, I convinced him that muscle memory would kick in if the boys put some serious effort into rehearsal.

Not to say “I told him so”, but here they are at their first dress (Monday night).

The fight is about ten times more polished, though the speed is a little fast.  You can barely see the swords so, while it feels like it flows, the audience is left wondering “what the heck just happened?”  As an actor unschooled in the art of stabbing things, this speed feels AWESOME.  It feels real, visceral, adrenaline-filled.  However, it’s very difficult for an outside observer to follow.  Unfortunately, going much slower than this could put them back to half speed (as above).  The trick is to slow things down enough that the audience can follow the fight, but keep them fast enough that it doesn’t look halting.  It is a tough balance to achieve, though it does get easier with experience.  Unfortunately, that was exactly what my boys lacked.

You can see that they have slown it down a bit which really works in their favor.  They’ve hit prime “fight time” in this one.  Also note how well they’re taking my notes and, when they do take them how much better they look.  Little tweaks, things like getting the stance right, breathing, dropping your center, make all the difference in a fight.  They make the fight safer, and make it look more polished and professional.  Note especially the head butt sequence.  This will come into play in a moment.

Here they are doing it again tonight after my having given them notes and with some dramatic music which does not really belong there but the sound guy was having fun.

The speed is good, their stances are good, they are remembering to breathe (which I know because they are making vocalizations).  You can tell where they are really concentrating because they go silent, but if they remember to breathe that issue will be alleviated.  The head butt sequence, even though they only adjusted it by about three inches, looks worlds better.  You can hear me note it on the video. 

They’re going to look great when the show opens tomorrow.  I couldn’t be more proud of them.

….and nobody’s gotten stabbed yet!

October 18, 2010

Deer in the Headlights

Do you ever get to a certain point where you have so much on your plate that you are frozen?  So much to do, limited time in which to do it, and yet the thought of the entire situation stresses you out so much that you just can’t do anything?  Like a deer in the headlights, frozen where you stand, unable to move, unable to think, simply able to worry about all the things that you aren’t doing because you’re expending your mental energy not doing them.

Yea, I hit that point tonight.

It’s not that anything in my life right now is bad or unexciting, it is just that there is so bloody much of it.  It’s spilling over and making me remiss in my blogging.  I am working on so much at once that my mind is too scattered to put together a coherent though much less a coherent blog post.

As a result, I’m writing a list.  I find that list-making helps me get my thoughts together, and, since I haven’t come up with much else to blog about, you’re going to get to read my list.  Here is a list of everything that I need to accomplish this month in the order in which these things occur to me.  Enjoy.

1)    1) Finish the Austen midterm.  This is due October 31st by 9PM, though my professor is merciful and may give me an extension.  It will likely wind up being a 20 page paper rather than a 10 page paper as I am currently 6 pages in and not nearly halfway through everything I want to say.  Hopefully I can have a working draft cranked out by the end of the week so I can start muddling through the editing process.  There will be more blogging on my drafting process, complete with pictures, just not tonight.

2)     2)  Ensure actors don’t stab each other during Magic Time this weekend.  This is going fairly well mostly due to the fact that said actors worked their butts off while I was gone over the weekend after I put the fear of god into them via text message.  Fight looks pretty solid as of tonight, which is a good thing as tomorrow is their final dress.  Still a few tweaks, but those are easy.  Considering that as I was leaving my driveway on Friday there was frantic texting between me and the director concerning the integrity of the fight and the actors’ ability to perform it properly, this is VERY good.  Director thought it might need cuts due to actor misperformance, I assured director that this was the proper flow of things and that after working it until their fingers bled muscle memory would kick in and they’d look great.  Guess who was right?  All I can say is:  phew.

3)     3) Keep up on class reading.  Reading for class is like treading water in the ocean: just when you’re on top of the game, a wave comes by to bury you again.  It never ends.  After a year of this, I thought I was used to the break-neck pace of Graduate English programs and everything that came with them.  What I learned this semester is “used to it” does not mean “unphased by it”.  I’m no longer a fresh-faced newb, but all that means is that I’m more jaded and less likely to let things escape through the cracks of composure.  Can’t let those who are actually fresh-faced newbs know how hard it still is even after practice.

4)      4) PhD aps.  Oh god PhD aps.  My personal statement is a wreck and THAT needs fixing pronto.  I hate writing personal statements.  It’s the net that’s supposed to catch everything the rest of the application let fall.  It’s your last ditch effort to impress the program.  It’s the piece of the ap that programs value the highest.  It’s a boatload of pressure.  “Say something smart and witty that will make us like you and simultaneously explain your previous experience, training and academic work as well as this writing sample… in two pages or less”.  Can someone just…. Do this for me?  It’s not that I don’t like to talk about myself, I’m arrogant enough that the premise of this appeals to my need for self-validation, but this is way too much.  What if they don’t like my tone?  What if I accidentally offend them? What if I forget to say something I really should have said?   What if they just hate people named “Danielle”? 

5)      5) Get the conference paper ready to go.  I don’t even want to talk about this. 

6)      6) Prep for cert at the studio.  I’m up for a raise and a boost in ballroom-dancerly-power in the form of a certification.  This happens in early November and involves a three hour test with fifty seven million dance moves from nine different dances (both lead and follow) as well as technical questions about alignment, footwork, and teaching techniques.  I love to dance, for the most part my body knows how to do it, but being asked questions about the process is intimidating.  Memorizing alignments sucks, thinking about footwork makes my head hurt, and my teaching techniques are probably nothing like what the text book tells me to do.  In short: stressful.  It’s like the Spanish Inquisition of Ballroom…. Without the comfy chair.

7)      7) In-Class presentations.  In my absolutely astounding amount of foresight, I managed to sign up for two out of three of my semesterly-required-in-class-presentations during the window of time in which I have the most other things going on.  I’m giving one Wednesday and one next Tuesday.  Next semester, I’m checking my damned calendar before I sign up for these things.  I am less concerned about the Wednesday presentation as it’s on a secondary source article.  The presentation next Tuesday is on Coleridge and involves outside research and crazy prep.  I love Coleridge, but I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if I know more about him than Joe-literati-shmoe.  Better learn fast.  All I can say is I dug my own grave on this one.

8)      8) Due in for another stack of grading.  I’m hoping they’re as epic as the last papers… though perhaps with a little more forethought put into them.  This may just be my comic relief/escape for a while… don’t have time to see a funny de-stressing movie?  Grade some undergrad papers.  It’s kinda the same thing….. really, have I stooped this low?

9)     9)  Finals.  Everyone keeps asking about final paper topics; students, professors, my mom….  I wish I could plug my ears and sing loudly and tunelessly every time the subject is brought up.  I can’t think about finals until my midterms are done, it’s a Cosmic Truth.  Besides which, I simply have no idea.  None.  No clue.  Dunno.  Come back later, brain busy, can’t work it out now.

….I need someone to buy me a nice bottle of wine and give me a backrub.  Or maybe a beer and a hug.

October 11, 2010

Cat Got Your Pen

I have a problem.

I’m a chronic over-achiever.

At first glance, this may not seem like such a bad deal.  It means work gets done, it means good grades, it means new and interesting projects, it means that people I deal with in professional capacities like me, I could go on.  But if one pauses to examine the true implications of my condition, one will realize that it is bittersweet.  It also means that I over-commit, that I obsess, and the grand culmination of this is that I stress out and have no time off to deal with this stress.

October’s a rough month for me due to the sheer amount of over-achieving I have done and need to do now that I’m locked in to everybody else’s schedules. 

High in my mind is a paper I am writing for my Austen class.  It’s my midterm paper: standard ten-page length; standard graduate school expectations of style, revision and forethought; and overall standard mid-semester demands.

Last year I had set a rule for myself.  The way I research is I comb through articles and books and copy relevant information/citations into a word document.  Once I have enough research in a single-spaced word document to be the page equivalent of a double-spaced paper, I stop and start the writing process.  So for this paper (by all rights) once I have ten single-spaced pages of research, it’s time to get writing.

I’m up to fourteen.  I just put in a bunch of ILL requests for articles and books and picked up two new books I have yet to crack.  I also haven’t gone back to the text for some much-needed primary source material… on top of that, I’m looking at this stack of research and still asking myself what my argument is. 

This could mean one of three things: 1) I started researching at idea A and through a steady stream of evolution am now hovering above idea J.  2) This topic is WAY too broad for a ten-page paper and I need to narrow things down a bit.  3) I’m really interested in the topic and thereby want to write a much more thorough exchange of scholarship than the assignment calls for.

Either way, I’m clearly not ready to start writing yet.

The professor has been amazingly understanding about things.  He’s offered me an extension, and an option to turn the ten-page paper to a twenty-page paper and call it my final so that at the end of the semester I just have to write a ten-page midterm.  While that thought may seem like added stress, somehow it’s comforting to know that I don’t have to shove the ideas milling about in my mind into a length that doesn’t suit them.

Part of my problem now is that I’m stuck on an idea.  When I’m stuck on an idea, I like to take hold of it with my teeth and shake it until it’s dead.  I research the royal hell out of it.  In an ideal world, I would leave no avenue of scholarship left unturned before I started writing.

This is problematic for many reasons; not the least of which being that I’m writing a midterm, not a dissertation.  This is ten pages, not a book.  Often, I find myself writing on obscure topics (Shakespeare and Vampires anyone?).  What this means is that I can treat the scholarship in such a fashion.  Since my ideas are a little off the beaten path, I am able to shake loose most of the previous thought on or surrounding them.  Now, however, I’m facing a different beast.

I don’t know it’s weaknesses, I don’t know what it’s afraid of, hell I’m having trouble ascertaining its native habitat. 

Here’s the good news: I’m not the only one.  This problem of research, revision and re-working has plagued writers and scholars since the dawn of cuneiform.  As I left my professor’s office today, he had some parting words of wisdom.  “At some point,” He said, “You just have to start writing.  You’re never going to be able to know everything about anything.  Give up the thought that you can.  Just cut your losses, have faith in what you’ve done, and write.”

I couldn’t help but flash to Sonnet 1 of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella

…I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Of turning others leaves, to see if thence would flow,
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burned brain,
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.” (6-14)

Sometimes, the ideas from research are too much pressure.  In his book The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom spawned the notion entitled same.  This idea states that when the (specifically male) author sits down to write, he feels the pressuring presence of all other authors which came before him hovering behind his chair.  How can he possibly write anything new or inspiring with these dead guys breathing down his neck?  Anything he could put to paper has been done before.  And it’s been done better.

Sidney’s poem and Bloom’s insistence perhaps partially explain my pen-tied-ness, but I’m unsure whether that’s the entire problem.  None of the research indicates that anyone has previously written a paper like mine before, they’ve simply commented on similar ideas and notions.  I’m also not facing a lack of invention, but rather an over-abundance of it.  I want more, more background, more validation, more citations to say that yes I do know what I’m talking about.

But maybe it’s time to give up the goat.  Aunt Bessie ain’t gonna lose the farm if the professor doesn’t quite buy my argument.  If I argue it well enough, he probably won’t even dock my grade since I tried so hard. 

So really, what is it, what am I waiting for besides all those ILL requests to come through….

Fool.  Look in thy heart and write.  

October 8, 2010

A Confession

I have a confession to make.

I wasn’t going to say anything about it, especially in so public a forum as this, but it’s been eating away at me.  I’ve been living with this secret weighing upon me day after day and I just don’t think I can bear it any longer.  I hope none of you will think the less of me for it, but I simply cannot remain silent anymore.

I am having an affair.

A steamy, torrid, passionate affair right under the nose of the man who I am eternally bound to.  I have secret trysts in the library after lectures.  I leave my apartment constantly peering over my shoulder for fear that My Man won’t buy the lame excuse of “lunch with the girls” again.  I creep into my armchair with my sordid companion knowing that someday my Beloved will look out from his perch on my bookshelf and see, his vision suddenly cleared.  Those little “homework sessions” weren’t so innocent.  The time I spent thumbing through pages was perhaps a bit too tender, too enthralled, too loving.  The hours of research weren’t just for class, they were for something more, something dangerous, something that perhaps could be a huge detriment to our relationship. 

I’m cheating on Shakespeare with Jane Austen.

At first it was innocent.  That class reading wasn’t going to do itself.  I had to spend quality time with Jane, my syllabus (Lord High Ruler of my life), demanded it.  But then, somewhere midway through Northanger Abbey, it changed.  No longer was I just doing class reading.  No longer was I taking notes to keep myself awake.  I began to enjoy her company.  I was enraptured, captivated by her wit and charm.  Mesmerized by the research prospects and the impact it could have on my greater sphere of work.  I became a woman possessed, slave to the wiles of another author.

I deluded myself for a long time.  It’s easy to do.  “It’s okay to think whatever I want to think, it’s just a crush, it’s natural.”  “Everyone has urges to stray, the important part is that they don’t follow them.  Fidelity is achieved by action, not thought.”  “It’s just one cuddle session, it doesn’t mean anything.  I bet Will has them with other girls all the time.”  “We’re like SISTERS, we can totally spend time together!”

I didn’t realize how serious things had become until I picked up Pride and Prejudice.  I opened the novel, breathe bated.  I eagerly anticipated that infamous opening line.  Those words that were just so funny, so re-assuring, so much like home that I wondered why it had taken me so long to return to one of my favorite books.  I prepared, primped, projected… and then… they were there.  In front of me.  “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  I smiled and felt Her bubble up from the pages to embrace me and I fell into that embrace contented, comforted, keen.

There was no doubt about it.  This was going to be a serious problem.

It’s not like you can’t love two people at once, right?  Juliet herself says it, “My bounty is as boundlesse as the Sea,/My Loue as deepe, the more I giue to thee/The more I haue, for both are Infinite…” (Romeo and Juliet, 934-936).  Love doesn’t run out.  It’s not like I’m taking anything away from Shakespeare by loving Austen.  He can’t miss me that much, there are so many other scholars still talking about him… I’m sure he’s barely noticed that I’m gone.  And besides, I’ll be back.  This is just for a semester… just for this one class… or maybe a year if I wind up conferencing with my paper… or maybe two or three if it gets published….

Oh god.  I’m going to have to tell him.  That’s all there is to it.  It’s been going on too long, I’m sure he sees that something is wrong, I just hope he realizes that it’s me and not him.  And that, once this is all over, I’ll be back to him.  He has my intellectual attention now and forever and nobody can take his place in my heart.  Not even a women who wrote such funny prose about some amazing characters and whose works offer a plethora of opportunities for…

No.  Stop.  I’m telling Will.  And I’ll do something nice for him.  Maybe pay him some homage by lecturing the kids at fight call this weekend about the bad Hamlet quartos…

October 6, 2010

Talk Nerdy To Me

Feminism is a topic that comes up a lot at Rutgers.  Our department was a pioneer in feminist criticism, many of the professors are feminist critics, and we house a thriving concentration in women/gender studies which ensures that many of the students are feminist critics as well. 

For me, feminism and feminist criticism is hard to talk about.  Mostly because I’m still unsure where I stand on the matter.  I used to think of myself as above the argument; so they’re women, who write stuff, why is everyone making such a big deal of it?  Then I realized that I was a part of the argument, I just struggled fruitlessly against it.  There are innate topics of discussion regarding women and literature, women in literature, and women talking about literature I just didn’t want to talk about them.  I slowly came to wonder why that was.  Though I’ve made some progress in answering this question for myself, it’s not enough that I can truly articulate fully my ideas on it.  Suffice to say that I tend to play every side of the field when women come up in classroom conversation.  This is mostly because I hate when a roomful of smart people agree on something… though I will admit that I like to see them twitch when I suggest that a biological imperative began the tradition of woman as home-maker and perhaps that tradition warrants some respect as a valid way to live one’s life.

In any case, we were discussing Wollstonecraft in Romantics last night and one of the girls made a comment to the following effect, “In Wollstonecraft’s time, men had to tell women they were beautiful because it was the only socially acceptable way to validate them”.

Well isn’t that just a mouthful?

I could hear my personal demons whispering behind my shoulders.  They had somehow picked the lock on their well-chained closet and, given strength by the aforementioned suggestion, had returned to haunt me.

I flashed back to a conversation I had had with an ex of mine.  He took great pride in the fact that all of his friends, upon meeting me, would clap him on the back and say “good job”.  Having recalled said meetings I realized that “meet” was a relative term.  We were ships in the night with nothing more than a handshake and a hello.  These people didn’t know me.  They had only seen me.  Their complements weren’t because of my ability to recite sonnets at whim, my wit as a conversationalist, my fabulous writing talents or my impeccable modesty, they were simply based upon a superficial visual appraisal.  His friends thought I was pretty and, thereby, a catch.  And that made him happy.

Whoa.  WHOA.  As much as I like to dress up, play with makeup, wear heels and look nice, as much as I like to play arm candy for any given evening at the theatre, as much as I joke that I’d happily be a trophy wife for the right millionaire, something about the situation did not sit well with me.  I couldn’t blame his friends, they were boys and well, boys will be boys.  But I did expect something more from him.  Some modicum of respect for not just how my hair looked, but what it hid.  Some nod towards how capable I am.  Some witty addition from him to the effect of “yea, and she can parse a sentence too!”

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that he didn’t acknowledge and respect my capabilities, it was just that he didn’t think it was important to complement them.  He would send me papers to edit, he would ask my opinion on poetry, but he wouldn’t tell his friends that I graduated NYU with Latin Honors.

This, I have found, is not an uncommon occurrence.  Complements given to women still run in the vein of visual appreciation rather than intellectual satisfaction.  We are much more likely to hear (and, in turn, say) “I love your outfit!” than “I love your prose!”.  Somehow, society expects this of us.  Especially as a woman, there is pressure to wear pretty dresses and heels so that some man can tell me I look nice when I’d much rather hear about how insightful I am.

A very dear friend of mine is currently teaching Freshman Comp at Rutgers.  When one of her friends found out that she had received the position, said friend’s immediate reaction was “You’re going to be the hottest professor ever!”.  My friend the professor explained to me the sour taste this left in her mouth.  Rather than complementing her capabilities as a teacher, her writing, or her thoughtfulness, it was instead all about how she looked. 

I’m not saying there’s no place for such things.  Every woman wants to hear that she’s pretty once in a while.  But those are snacks, unsubstantial and unsustaining.  They are as superficially pleasing as they are insightful. 

Moreover, “beauty” is an aesthetic judgment and ultimately random.  I can’t control my genetics.  I didn’t choose the way I look.  Maybe I chose how I augment these looks with clothing, shoes, makeup, accessories – but that is nominal.  Clothes don’t make the girl.  My mind?  That is something I work at.  Every day, every hour, I work hard to be smart.  I’d much rather hear about how that work has paid off than how some proteins randomly aligned themselves before I even had consciousness to care about it.

In short: tell the academic, big-brained woman in your life that she’s pretty sometimes, but if you really want to tell her something that will make her happy, tell her she’s smart.  Dote on the size of her medulla, not the amount of time she put in at the salon.  Paddle in her prose, not her choice in dresses that evening.  Most importantly, don’t just tell her that she’s a genius, tell her why you think she’s a genius.  It shows her that you actually care enough to look deeper than her skin.