Rules For Writing the First Draft

While working on my thesis proposal a couple weeks ago, I jotted down some notes to myself about the process of writing a first draft. Four quick reminders to make what seemed like an overwhelming process manageable.

It was my first time back in the academic-writing saddle after nearly a year away. This feels like the Most Important thing I have written up to this point in grad school, as it is the foundation for the thesis I will be working on for the next seven months. But it’s also just another paper. Just a word after a word after a word.

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Here’s what I came up with, my Rules For Writing the First Draft Of the Thing:

  1. Don’t edit as you go. Don’t reread what you wrote yesterday. Keep moving ahead.
  2. If you can’t think/focus at a higher level today, do something less complex. Make the bibliography. Fix the formatting.
  3. Ideas all clogged up in your head? The way seems unclear? Map it out, draw paths between ideas. Make it visual.
  4. Call in backup. Study examples. Take notes. Keep records months before you start writing and lean on them now.

Austin Kleon recently shared his own advice for first drafts, headlined with “It doesn’t matter if it’s good right now. It just needs to exist.” My Rules helped my proposal exist. I suppose I’ll pull them out again in a couple months when I start drafting my thesis and see how they hold up over time.

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Reading Series: A History of Walking

When they were here in February, my parents and I visited the Couvent des Jacobins. My favorite part of the convent is the cloisters—a secluded garden in the open space between the church and the other buildings. Signs in this area explained that the cloisters served as a place of meditation, a place to walk in silence in the midst of a busy city.

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These signs called to mind Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking. She writes of the various meanings walking has had over the years and around the world. On walking as meditation, Solnit writes “Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world” (29).

Walking is a way to know the world.

Solnit also writes about walking as an act of claiming possession of space, making city space public instead of private.

…through [walking] the citizen knows his or her city and fellow citizens and truly inhabits the city rather than a small privatized part thereof (176).

Suburbs have made many American cities unwalkable, therefore making participating in citizenship increasingly difficult and making our daily lives increasingly disembodied. We rely on cars to transport us, social media to connect us to our neighbors, and gyms to keep our bodies in shape. These technologies “make it less necessary to go out into the world and thus accommodate retreat from rather than resistance to the deterioration of public space and social conditions” (253).

Public space is crucial to democracy.

Few remember that ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble’ is listed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution….when public spaces are eliminated,…the individual has ceased to be a citizen capable of experiencing and acting in common with fellow citizens. Citizenship is predicated on the sense of having something in common with strangers, just as democracy is built upon trust in strangers (217-218).

I feel fortunate to be living in a walkable city in France this year and to get to experience the communal aspects of it. With the rising popularity of marches and protests in the United States, I think the design and walkability of cities will be gaining more attention.

When was the last time you walked through your city or even your neighborhood? If it has been a while (and you are able), take a walk today.

To consider earth holy is to connect the lowest and most material to the most high and ethereal…(49).

 

Place Making

Someone told me I was brave for coming to France. At the time, I laughed at being labeled “brave.” I didn’t feel brave moving to a European country in a time when the powers of the internet can connect me to friends and family, translate and navigate for me, and send me entertainment at a moment’s notice.

But a few weeks into my time in France, I realized I didn’t feel brave in that moment because I didn’t fully understand the gravity of what I was doing. If I had known what I was getting into before I came, I never would have signed up for this year abroad.

Moving to a new country where I knew absolutely no one and starting a new teaching job was terrifying. I’m proud of my past self for being brave enough to jump in. Even after six months, I still get overwhelmed at the enormity of the foreignness.

I’m reading through Ready or Not: Leaning into Life in Our Twenties by Drew Moser and Jess Fankhouser. They address this issue of fears we have about the places we inhabit, writing,

It’s important to honestly consider and name the fears regarding your various places.

I fear a lot of things here.

I fear not being able to communicate.

I fear being made to feel ashamed because I don’t know the language.

I fear getting kicked out of the house I’m living in.

I fear getting stranded at a train station hours away from home.

I fear performing poorly at my job.

I fear getting laughed at by my students.

 

Somedays I’m afraid to leave the house.

Somedays I’m afraid to leave my room.

 

What should I do once I’ve named these fears? Drew and Jess suggest

Be present in [your] places and keep showing up. Be active participants rather than just passive consumers….To be faithfully present in our places is, in a sense, an act of place making. Place making wards off the temptation to always view the next place as better.

Place making in a place that I know I’m going to leave in a matter of months can be tough.

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In his book, In the ShelterPádraig Ó Tuama writes,

Learn from the things that are already in the place where you wish you were not.

I’m trying to simply be in this place that scares me in so many ways; to learn from it and get to know it—there is so much to learn. To both let it wash over me and to rise up to meet it. To let my timid heart make friends and glory in the early coming of spring. To make a little life here for the short time I have left.

Placemaking; making peace with the place that is full of fear.

 

 

(Ready or Not is coming out on April 3. Like the subtitle says, it’s about living life well in your twenties. If you’re a twentysomething or you love a twentysomething, think about preordering this book. It’s an excellent guide to navigating this pivotal decade.)

 

The Crone

I’m looking forward to getting older.

I have a complicated relationship to age and perception. During my senior year of high school, I had a very hard time coming to terms with the fact that I would be graduating and moving off to a college of my choice and majoring in a field that would presumably set me on course for a career—aka the rest of my life. I felt way too young to be making choices that would affect the rest of my life. It was overwhelming.

And in some ways, I still feel like that terrified 18-year-old; I still feel too young for the responsibilities and decisions I am faced with. But I remind myself that I have six more years under my belt now then I did then. Knowing I have those years of experience makes me feel more capable, confident. I have learned and grown; I have tried and made mistakes.

So I look forward to growing even older and having more years’ experiences to learn from. Of course, examples of strong, smart, experienced women in the media help me realize that as a woman, aging doesn’t have to mean becoming obsolete.

One of the most striking images of this wise older woman who I aspire to be is Tala, the grandmother in Moana. Most of the village dismisses her as a slightly eccentric old lady who deserves respect, but who does not need to be taken seriously. Moana, however, turns to her for wisdom and advice when her father dismisses her gut-desire to explore the ocean. Tala instructs Moana to pay attention to both the guidance of her parents and the pull of her heart toward the ocean.

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I think Tala represent the archetype of the crone. Paige at Wholesome Handbook writes about the archetype, saying:

Her knowledge is untaught and unsanctioned, sprung wholly from the depths of her experience, and this, of course, makes her dangerous. She instinctively knows the truth of all things. She threatens the status quo. She makes people uncomfortable…. She is the secret-keeper and the wisdom-bearer.

Tala certainly makes people uncomfortable. But she has wisdom that is deep and experiential.

Another example of this wise woman is found in Professor Minerva McGonagall in the final Harry Potter novel. (spoilers ahead) When Voldemort and the Death Eaters descend upon Hogwarts, McGonagall steps up and takes charge without hesitation. She knows exactly what to do to protect the students and defend the school. She has prepared for this moment. When I began reading this series in middle school or high school, I thought Professor McGonagall was a nuisance, just another teacher trying to make Harry’s life at Hogwarts difficult. Now I understand that far from being an antagonist, she plays a significant role in guiding and nurturing Harry.

We equate age with uselessness and weakness. But in fact, the crone is the most potently powerful of the archetypes, the matriarch, the wise grandmother, the queen. She’s beholden to none, unattached and free.

With Tala and Minerva as examples of the woman I can become, growing older is a privilege, not a liability

 

(Moana artwork from Jin Kim)

Favorite Fiction of 2017

I’m back with my favorite fiction reads from last year.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz The first three entries on this list are all books that I heard a lot of buzz about before reading. Miraculously, they all lived up to the hype! This first one is a coming of age story whose protagonists are two Mexican-American boys. I sometimes have a hard time relating to young male protagonists, but I quickly recognized myself in the uneasiness Ari and Dante feel in starting new friendships while also trying to grow into their teenage selves. I am also familiar with the existential questions and ponderings that populate the minds of these two characters—questions that seemed so important when I was their age. Aristotle and Dante is a lovely exploration of family, masculinity, identity, grief, and growing up.

The Sun is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon This is one of the most moving love stories I’ve ever read. From first glance, the characters should never even befriend each other. Natasha loves rationality and science; Daniel is an idealistic poet-type. She’s an immigrant from Jamaica whose family is getting deported. He’s Korean-American. They get on each other’s nerves, but they have an irresistible connection. The writing in this novel is crisp. It’s a complex story—weaving histories and minor characters’ plots into Natasha and Daniel’s central narrative. There are actually quite a few fun overlaps between this novel and Aristotle and Dante: two main characters who form an unlikely friendship, themes of family and identity, and “the universe” playing an important role in the plot. If you like contemporary YA, I highly recommend both of these books.

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Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein I was hesitant to read this duology (and took a nine month break between the two) because I’m wary of World War II novels. However, these two landed on my favorites list because the characters draw you in in such an endearing, heartbreaking way. The friendships between Queenie and Maddie in the first book and between Maddie and Rose in the second book are luminous. Wein finds a way to weave in poetry (literal and figurative) to offset the horrors of war and concentration camps. These two stories are terribly sad but so terribly good.

Uprooted, Naomi Novik Forests are an integral part of my childhood’s imaginative landscape, and I every so often I feel a visceral pull back toward that imagery. Thanks to a Twitter recommendation, I think I’ve discovered a new favorite magical forest story. The world of the novel is populated by satisfyingly terrifying tree monsters and a dark force that looms deep within the forest. When the main character, Agnieszka, becomes an apprentice to the local wizard she cannot seem to harness his structure-driven sort of magic. Instead, she stumbles upon a book full of handwritten spells that feel familiar and comfortable as she works them out. She describes this magic as using her senses to feel her way through a forest.

It’s like—it’s gleaning in the woods….You have to pick your way through the thickets and the trees, and it’s different every time.

Uprooted is full of wonderful themes of the power of friendship, respect for the natural world, overthrowing power structures, and connection to place. The references to Eastern European folklore also made this fantasy deep and rich. I hope to delve into more of Novik’s stories soon.

Favorite Non-Fiction of 2017

I didn’t get a chance to write about all of my favorite books as I read them this year, so instead, I thought I’d do an end-of-the-year wrap-up. Be on the lookout for my fiction favorites, which I should be posting in a week or two!

March: Book Three, John Robert Lewis I read this book while on my social justice-focused spring break trip to Memphis, Tennessee. I already wrote some thoughts about this book after that trip, so I’ll just briefly repeat myself: if you want to learn about the civil rights movement but feel overwhelmed by the breadth of the subject, this graphic novel series is a good place to start. By focusing on Representative John Robert Lewis’s life, readers enter into an engaging, maddening, and moving history of our country.

Black Boy, Richard Wright This book surprised me. I read it for my thesis research, and it makes such a compelling argument for the importance of access to education and to stories that it quickly gained a place on my favorites list. It does all this while being, primarily, a memoir of Wright’s childhood in the South in the early 1900s. He uses his own experience to demonstrate the role the written word can play in human flourishing.

I wanted a life in which there was a constant oneness of feeling with others, in which the basic emotions of life were shared, in which common memory formed a common past, in which collective hope reflected a national future. But I knew that no such thing was possible in my environment. The only ways in which I felt that my feelings could go outward without fear of rude rebuff or searing reprisal was in writing or reading, and to me they were ways of living.

When We Were on Fire, Addie Zierman This memoir is about the on-fire faith we can feel as adolescents and the way this faith can fail us and leave us empty. It’s about the search for something truer—more complicated and more nourishing. It is also about relationships: how your first love can burn hot and, like that first faith, leave you barren when it is extinguished. It is about depression and finding a way through it; it is about making a home and a family in this hard world. So much of Addie’s story echoes my own. While reading this, I was broken and made new. It is full of so much truth and so much encouragement.

…maybe this is the way you move on. You find the small slivers of light, and you hunker down in them. You hole up in the still warmth of this kind of beauty and you wait, knowing that the beams will get wider and wider every day. Knowing that one day, you will wake into the full power of the sun, and you will finally be warm.

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Felicity, Mary Oliver This book showed up in my favorite poets post a few months back. I mentioned then that her poems often take the natural and the spiritual as their subject, but nestled in this collection is also a delightful bunch of love poems. Coming from a woman in her 80s, I am inclined to trust what these poems have to say about love. They speak of love that is tender and kind, joyful and true. Here is a poem from Felicity called “Everything That Was Broken”

Everything that was broken has
forgotten its broknness. I live
now in a sky-house, through every
window the sun. Also your presence.
Our touching, our stories. Earthy
and holy both. How can this be, but
it is. Every day has something in
it whose name is Forever.

What were some of your favorite books of the year?

 

Nature as classroom and teacher

“In the years before the Civil War, nature emerged in Transcendentalist thought as the ideal environment for moral, cultural, and intellectual development.” —Abigial A. Van Slyck, Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture

I have always felt a closeness to the natural world. This comes, I think, from a childhood spent on the prairies of Nebraska where my ancestors lived from and with the land. While my path through graduate school draws me indoors in front of a computer for hours a week, I still try to listen to my soul’s pull toward nature, for healing and growth. When I went home this summer and worked in the hayfields, I felt, viscerally, that it is good to do work that leaves you dirty and sore and tired. It is good to do work that connects you to the messy particularity of a place.

One thing I did not expect about living in a new country was the need to learn a new seasonal rhythm. Cold weather came slowly this fall, leading me to believe that time was also passing more slowly. November, though it arrived right on time, surprised me. Its brilliant warm afternoons whispered of late summer.

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The different pace of seasons here in France does not feel like a betrayal. Rather, I am thankful for it. It helps ground me in the reality of this new place.

I want new practices to further my connection with the specificities of nature in this country. Gabriel Popkin suggests the practice of learning to identify the trees you see around you every day. “It’s…a way to start paying attention,” Popkin writes.

“For me, learning about trees is more about seeing, and knowing. It’s about not being a stranger in my own country.

And it’s about not letting the built environment make me too tame. When you engage with a tree, you momentarily leave the human-created world.”

As the trees lose their leaves, I think it’s time I pick up an interest in them.

What I Learned (About Myself) While Traveling Alone

At the end of October, I went on a week-long trip to Italy. For the first half of the trip, I met up with a friend and explored the east coast. Then I went off on my own to Florence for the final four days. Here are three things I learned about myself in that time.

  1. I like taking it slow. Wandering through a neighborhood is often more fulfilling to me than blazing through museum after museum. Sure, maybe I miss out on seeing one of the most famous sculptures in the western world, but in exchange, I get a few hours of contentment discovering quirky street art and architecture, tasting local treats, and stepping into shops that don’t make it onto most tourist maps. The slow work of walking and seeing fills me up.IMG_8209Also in the taking-it-slow vein, I allowed myself the freedom and pleasure of going to bed early during this trip. Thanks to daylight saving time, the sun set around 5pm every day, and the dark and the cold made wandering around a strange city by myself a little less fun. Instead of putting myself in uncomfortable situations for the sake of experiencing as much of Florence as absolutely possible, I let myself off the hook and decided 8pm was an acceptable time to settle down with a book for the night.
  2. A little bit of planning in the food realm goes a long way. This could be said about many categories (restaurants, museums, transportation, etc), but on this trip, I was particularly aware of how nice it was to have a list of pre-vetted restaurants at the ready. A couple hours of research at home saved me the agony of walking around a strange city, hungry and indecisive. Food is one of my favorite cultural experiences when traveling, so I want to make every meal count. I ended up eating some amazing meals in Florence. See below for my culinary recommendations.  
  3. I am good company. While planning this trip, I was reluctant to spend so many days alone. I am so glad I took the risk, though, because never once did I get tired of being with myself. There were a few times when I wished I had a friend along to share the delicious experience with or for some assistance in deciding between two plans of action, but otherwise, I was perfectly satisfied with my own companionship. I cherished the ability to move at my own pace, to nerd out at an old library for longer than most people would deem necessary, to eat when I was hungry, to sit in a garden and read and people-watch while the sun sank below the horizon. For days I was alone my own thoughts. At the beginning of this trip, that prospect terrified me, but by the end, I had made friends with my mind. _MG_3629Since moving to France, I’ve eaten at a restaurant alone for the first time, took a solo day trip for the first time, and now I’ve done a multi-day trip by myself. I feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride in the independence I am growing into here. There are still things that intimidate me, including the fear of loneliness, but I am learning how capable I am to handle them.

 

Emily-Approved Florence Restaurants

  • La Prosciuterria: I had the most divine sandwich with thinly sliced cured beef, big chunks of cheese, fresh tomatoes, salt, and olive oil on a flat bread. It was my first taste of Florence and set the tone for an excellent visit.
  • Le Volpi e l’Uva: This is a wine bar where you can order small dishes as well. I had a glass of white wine and a piece of bread with melted cheese, fresh tomatoes, and olives.
  • Tamerò Pizzeria: A hip pizza place. There is a pasta place with the same name that I didn’t get a chance to try but looked really good. I got a pizza with ham and mushrooms.
  • Fuori Porta: I was determined to get some pasta in my belly before leaving Italy! At Fuori Porta I had pici (thick round noodles) with wild boar ragù. Paired with a glass of chianti classico, this was one of my favorite meals.

 

Reading Series: Favorite Poets

I was laying in bed two nights ago trying to decide what to write about this week. I knew I wanted to talk about reading in some form, but I couldn’t decide which book to focus on. I’ve read some really wonderful titles over the last few months, but it doesn’t feel like the right time to write about any of them just now. I watched this video a few weeks ago, and it got me thinking about which poets I would recommend. So I landed on this: a short list of my favorite poets—specifically poets whose poems I prefer to read (which is to say I’m not including spoken-word poets on this list, and maybe they’ll get their own list in the future). So without further ado, here are my favorite poets to read.

Margaret Atwood: I’ve written about Margaret Atwood before on this blog, but my, oh, my do I love her. I first came across her work on Tumblr; this line, specifically, is what I first read of Atwood: “Hearts are said to pound:
 this is to be expected, the heart’s 
regular struggle against being drowned.” I squirreled away those lines until I needed to write a paper in my Critical Approaches to Literature class—one of the hardest classes I took in college—and I dug through my scraps of poetry and chose Atwood. That began my deep dive into her poetry.

One of my favorite poems by Atwood is called “The Settlers.”

They dug us down

into the solid granite

where our bones grew flesh again,

came up trees and

grass.

Now horses graze

inside this fence of ribs, and

 

children run, with green

smiles, (not knowing

where) across

the fields of our open hands.

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Mary Oliver: I was first introduced to Mary Oliver by my resident director at Taylor University; she sent me a note with a couple of Mary Oliver quotes after we had a talk about faith and doubt. Later on in college, I was assigned Mary Oliver books for various writing classes. Most recently, I went to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris and was overwhelmed and overjoyed by their huge selection of books. The poetry section on the second floor drew me in, and I found this lovely copy of Felicity. I’ve been soaking up the poems in this collection little by little. Her poetry is beautifully restorative and contemplative. It balances the miraculous mundane of the natural world with the untouchable ether of the spiritual realm.

Here’s the beginning of a beautiful piece titled “I Wake Close to Morning”

Why do people keep asking to see

God’s identity papers

when the darkness opening into morning

is more than enough?

Nayyirah Waheed: A couple of years ago, Nayyirah Waheed’s poetry was all over social media, with dozens of people posting photos of her minimalist poetry. The craze seems to have died down recently, and I think that’s a shame. I read her collection salt. last year and thought it was phenomenal and important. I wrote a paper for one of my graduate classes in which I used Waheed’s salt. to complement the assigned reading, Dark Matters by Simone Browne. Waheed writes about race, colonization, gender, and cultural appropriation in a way that is personal and direct. If you want to learn more about any of these topics from the perspective of a black woman, I highly suggest this collection.

black women breathe flowers, too.

just because

we are taught to grow them in the lining of our

quiet (our grandmothers secret).

does not mean

we do not swelter with wild tenderness.

we soft swim.

we petal.

we scent limbs.

love.

we just have been too long a garden for sharp

and deadly teeth.

so we

have

grown

ourselves

into

greenhouses.

 

—greenhouses

Do you have a favorite poet or poem? Share it below!

Politics and Empathy

I spent this weekend crying over Puerto Rico.

Yesterday morning I woke up to the news of the shooting in Las Vegas and so many dead.

I don’t like to get political online—not because I don’t have political opinions, but because I don’t want to take the heat for having opinions that others disagree with. I’m also wary of having lasting evidence of my younger self’s beliefs on the internet. I want to give myself space to change my mind. And that is so privileged of me.

But if it’s political of me to cry over people dying, sign me up. I’ll cry a dozen political rivers a week.

Politics are complicated; I know that. Every policy I try to engage with—whether concerning relief efforts or the citizenship status of unincorporated US territories or gun control or health care—is more complex and nuanced and tangled up than I can understand. Every politician has done things they should be ashamed to have in bold type on the front page of a newspaper (we all have, I think). It’s so complicated, and I can’t see a clear way through this mess.

But.

I do understand this: My heart moves towards those whose homes are filled with water and ripped from the earth. My heart pulls towards those who are not able to evacuate, for whatever reason. My heart aches for those shot dead by one heartless man and for families of those victims; for the concert-goers who survived but will live with the trauma of that night forever.

And when my heart moves like this, the politics fall away. The laws and policies are unimportant in the strong light of this compassion and empathy. Political affiliation means so little in times like this. Compassion and empathy—the ability to see people and connect with their visceral humanity instead of standing behind issues and laws—those are my motivators today.

If you read this post as too political, so be it. Our government and politicians, as representatives of the people, do have a lot to answer for. And if it’s radical (or even, heaven forbid, liberal) to be lead by empathy and compassion, that’s a label I’m willing to bear.

And here’s my call to action: donate money or time to a cause your heart pulls you toward. Give to hurricane relief funds. Give to earthquake relief funds. Donate blood. Call your senators to talk about issues that are important to you. Donate to shelters in your hometown. Do something.

Here are some links to make it easier for you:

www.convoyofhope.org/donate/

act.moveon.org/donate/hurricane-maria