Monday, August 15, 2011

A Toast to New Beginnings

Between completing my graduate degree and becoming a professor, I spent over nine years working outside academe. (I frequently marvel at how fortuitous my life has been, despite whatever little hiccups and frustrations I might have along the way.) Working as a technical writer, I regularly found that the coming of Fall brought a poignant nostalgia for the ebb and flow of the academic year. It was a longing for the level of excitement conveyed in that now-cliche Staples ad with the Christmas song.

Except that the parent in the ad is thrilled that the kids are going back, while the kids are miserable. Attribute that thrill to the student, and you have me in grad school.

Yes, I was a nerd, and I'm proud of it. Starting a new semester was truly exciting. It wasn't about getting past another hurdle. It was about new opportunities to learn and explore, new chances to develop my skills and broaden my horizons. Remember what it's like when you're in a new relationship? The mystery? The excitement? The awe? The tentative (or maybe not so tentative) exploration? It's like that.

As much as I had opportunities to broaden my horizons in industry, I still find that the delineation of semesters and academic years has a strong psychological effect on me. As the daylight gets shorter, it gets harder for me to get out of bed in the morning...but the promise of the New (new experiences, new students, new ideas) is remarkably motivating and exciting.  (As is the opportunity to catch up with some former students and follow their progress...the opportunity to follow up on projects begun in previous's not ALL about the new. I'm not obsessed with shiny newness for the sake of shiny newness.  Honest.) 

So how does this relate to writing? (Yes, I have all the focus of a Simpsons episode, starting with one thing and ending somewhere else entirely.)

Well, I do get jazzed by totally new story ideas, with as much excitement and energy as the beginnign of a new school year. I'm easily wooed by how attractive and exciting they are. And I am totally guilty of getting sidetracked by such pretties. Sometimes (when I'm lucky), all I need to do is jot down a few ideas and sentences in a new doc and save it for later.  Other times, I have to wrestle that idea to the ground over a few thousand words at least...very distracting. (Could this be why I haven't yet completed a single manuscript? Hmmm.)  Fortunately, Dave White, author of the e-book WITNESS TO DEATH, has a recent--and helpful--guest post at Chuck Wendig's Terrible Minds blog exactly about how to handle distracting new ideas: "New Ideas Are Like Shiny Jewels."**
(**Warning: adult language. And that warning covers the entire Terrible Minds blog. Just in case that matters to you.)

So...what am I saying today?
  • Well, one, even if you aren't in academia, new beginnings abound.  New jobs, new friends, new endeavors, and, yes, new story ideas.  Celebrate them.  Don't miss out on the excitement, don't try to block out the nervousness...celebrate the moment. It will inevitably pass (which is not a necessarily a bad thing...but it's worth being aware of how fleeting "new" is).
  • Two, be adventurous. No, I don't mean go climb Mt. Everest or quit your day job to explore the Amazon. But consider the last time you tried something new. This past summer, I took an African Dance class, just for the chance to try something new...and it was awesome. As the instructor explained, African dances sometimes require your muscles to move in unfamiliar ways; the rhythms and movements and cultural background all awakened my senses anew.
  • is my "Toast to New Beginnings":
Celebrate the new, even as you cherish the old.

Embrace the unknown, even as you cling to the familiar.

Seek out life, even unto death.


  1. Precie, could you talk about your experience as a technical writer? I'm currently in graduate school (MA) and have been toying with the idea of going into that field. Would you recommend it?

    Like you, I love school. I love the mental stimulation. I love talking about Big Ideas. This year my big, scary new item is my thesis. Didn't have to write one in undergrad, so a project this large--for me at least--is more than a little terrifying.

    Happy to hear that you're bursting at the seems with story ideas.

  2. Hi Precie! I got your twitter but had trouble replying. I'm not on twitter much. contact me at tamingthetiger at gmail com and we'll chat! Thanks, Bets

  3. Cat--Ooh, I'll make that the subject of my next blog post...probably Friday or Monday. Would I recommend technical writing as a career? My short answer is and enthusiastic Yes, But.. So I'll expand on that soon. In the meantime, what is your specialization so far? What are you thinking of doing your thesis on?

    Betsy--Hi! I will email you in the next few days. Thanks for tracking me down to reply!

  4. Thanks, Precie! I would appreciate it.

    It's complicated. I honestly don't feel "specialized," though I'm definitely a modernist. My B.A. was in another field, and my focus was on Japanese literature in translation. I decided to do the English M.A. as a stepping stone for Comparative Literature, but I've decided I'm not cut out for the academe. Plus, if the job market's bad for English PhDs, it's worse for Comp Lit. Oddly enough, I think my English M.A.'s going to be more marketable than my interdepartmental B.A., since I won't have to explain it. Technical writer could lead to translation work, which also interests me. And, unfortunately, like most things that interest me, literary translation doesn't pay.

    The thesis is still in its infancy... or perhaps not even through gestation. I'm interested in Levinas and the mitigation of suffering through the face-to-face relationship, generally, and have been circling using O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Of course, this has nothing to do with the proposal I wrote up back in March, so who knows if it's any good. It certainly doesn't feel academic enough.

    I meet with my adviser in a week after having been set loose over the summer. Terrified.

  5. Very inspirational! Also, would love to learn more about the African dance.