My focus lately has been everywhere besides this blog, despite the fact that I have “re-branded” my website and social media presence from Roof Beam Reader to He Writes Words. It’s been a slow and confusing transition, though, which might explain why I’ve been silent/distant. That said, I do want to dip my toes back in and share a little bit about what’s been going on lately.
As of this moment, Goodreads tells me that I am “5 books ahead of schedule” in my annual reading challenge, which is pretty impressive because I usually play catch-up during the summer months. I guess I’ll probably end up going beyond my goal of 52 books this year. In the month of May, specifically, I managed to read a total of six books. I’ve been way behind on reviewing, as the desire to write formal reviews has pretty much evaporated at this point. I’m not sure why (maybe because I’m focused on other things.) Some notes on what I’ve read, though:
Timothy Liu’s Burnt Offerings, a collection of poetry by a gay Asian man, was interesting and mostly wonderful. There were a few poems that moved me deeply and many that provided food for thought. In fact, I’ve been inspired to read more poetry because of it (even picking up Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, which I will use to help me refresh before teaching poetry in one of my literature courses this fall). Speaking of poetry, I also read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I’ve never read any Rilke, and that might have been to my detriment in this case. While the letters to this aspiring poet were interesting, and the supplementary biographical material about Rilke’s life revealing, I was nevertheless mostly disinterested because I wasn’t interested in Rilke in the first place. I went into this one thinking it was more of an “on writing” type of book, so it didn’t do for me what I hoped it would. Still, there were plenty of nuggets for writers, especially about expectations and the personal nature of writing, as when he comments, “he could not bear to publish the things he really cared for and put forth only the least personal.” That’s something I’m struggling with a lot right now.
The Rilke was one book from my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, and another that I finished this month is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. This one is considered the father, or uncle (?), of the dystopian literary genre, having inspired the likes of Orwell and Huxley. I can definitely understand why people think so highly of it, especially because it was written in the 1920s, pre-dystopia craze. Some of its direct influences are Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World; as a story, I don’t think it quite succeeds as those two do, however, even though Orwell seems to think more highly of the Zamyatin than he did of Brave New World. Sorry, Orwell, but I disagree! That said, the study of the battle between individualism and collectivism, the self versus the community, are really fascinatingly explored, and my favorite element is probably the antagonist-state’s attack on the imagination. Imagine living in a world where the capacity for any creative and original thought is eliminated.
I also read Philippe Besson’s Lie With Me and Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Neither of these quite lived up to my expectations, either, which makes me think I’ve either become a much more discriminating reader, lately, or I just have not been in the mood to read and have been somehow forcing myself through it. Besson’s Lie With Me is a French novel about a gay man who meets the son of his former lover and begins to reflect on his youth. The writing is beautiful but the story itself is rather sparse, and its ending is disappointing and expected. One fun surprise about it, though, was learning that it is translated by Molly Ringwald! As an ’80s kid, I couldn’t help but be thrilled by that. Man’s Search for Meaning was simply not what I thought it would be. I was expecting some kind of philosophical tome, which of course it is, but it’s really two books, the first of which is a recounting of Frankl’s life in a Jewish concentration camp during World War II. The second part is about his psychological theory of logotherapy, which is a kind of optimism, or accepting that everything that happens can be a learning opportunity and an opportunity for growth–not necessarily that it is meant to be, but that one can find the good in anything and, if finding the good, will discover that his attitude determines his happiness, even in the worst of times.
I did read one book this month that absolutely blew me away, which was Shaun David Hutchinson’s new memoir, Brave Face. I have to admit to being equal parts disturbed and jealous, because this book is in so many ways the book I would like to write or have written. We share so many experiences and opinions, which is perhaps not that strange considering we are near the same age and had a similar upbringing (though in different parts of the country.) There are some very specific experiences in his life that I, too, experienced in an almost startlingly similar way. It was strange to feel so connected to another person’s life story, especially considering how painful much of that journey was for him. It tapped into a part of me that I keep very much to myself, and it was cathartic in a way. Brave Face is an important piece in the LGBTQ+ literary puzzle, and especially as non-fiction targeting young adult audiences, which is not a substantial genre right now. I was first almost angry at how good this memoir is, but having sit with it for a while, I find that what it really did for me was to inspire me to plot my own story, and for that I’m grateful. I’m also so proud of Hutchinson for finding the courage to write this important and beautiful book.
I’ve been telling myself every single day that I would start posting more regularly here on the blog and that I would get started with this book I want to write (or essays? Or whatever?) I’ve been getting exactly that far, though: waking up and telling myself, “Okay, it’s going to happen!” Oops. On the bright side, I have been journaling regularly through my 100 Days of Journaling project. I reached day 89 today and have written 220 pages (1 1/2 journals) of, well, whatever it is. Most of the daily entries are devoted to my “brain dumping” whatever comes out. A couple of important and helpful things have come up, though, including a personal breakthrough on something I’ve been conflicted about for many, many years, as well as a clear chapter outline for the memoir I want to write. (At the moment I’m thinking of it as memoir, anyway, but I keep debating on whether I want to fictionalize it instead. See the Rilke quote above!) The practice itself has been really helpful, so I’m proud of myself for doing it every day, and for nearly 100 days already. When I finish this first 100-days, I plan to move on to another activity called the “Q&A For Writers” project, where instead of considering a writing prompt every day, I consider a question.
May also saw the end of the spring semester. I’ve been teaching for 7 years and find that the spring semester is always, always the most difficult semester. I think this is because, in the fall term, everyone is returning refreshed from summer, there are a lot of new students with fresh and positive attitudes and excitement, and the semester is even one week shorter (because spring break technically adds* a week to the spring semester.) This was by far my best spring semester, ever, though. While classes never go perfectly, I had some really strong sections this term and some really thoughtful, motivated, interesting students to work with. I couldn’t help everybody, I never can, but I do think I reached some students, and that’s always enough. They taught me a whole lot, too, about a variety of subjects, but also about certain things in my methods that I want to reassess. I always struggle with this profession because it demands so much without providing as much (financially) in return, but these other personally rewarding experiences and moments are usually more than enough to make up for the economic struggles. I can’t imagine another career that would be as rewarding to me in this way.
I was supposed to be teaching two classes this summer, but both have been canceled. It’s our lowest enrollment in nearly two decades, apparently, and I’m wondering if this is the experience at other institutions as well? There seems to be little explanation for it, especially considering the rather consistent growth we have seen year-over-year for quite some time. Anyhow, I’ll miss teaching and I’ll definitely be missing the salary (that’s a big OUCH), but at the same time, this is the first summer I’ll have “free” (minus lesson planning and course designing/prepping for the fall) since I started teaching 7 years ago. I think I need to be grateful for this opportunity, too, and it might be rewarding in its own way, not to mention refreshing. I hope to use the bonus time to work on my own writing and see if I can draft something (or most of something) by start of fall term. Wouldn’t that be nice?
quotes, excerpts and reviews
You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. Octavia E. Butler
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