Guest Post, Leslie Standridge, A Year in Review: Navigating Oneself After Graduation

Leslie Standridge headshot photo“Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” – Gabriel García Márquez

In about two months, I will have been graduated from college for a full year. Really, a year is not a terribly long amount of time. So why does this feel so monumental?

For me, graduation was but a momentary emotional catharsis that lasted long enough for me to feel somewhat relieved until my panic set in. Of course, I worried about the things most graduates do, like finances and the job market and whether or not it was a good idea to get two Liberal Arts degrees in this economy. However, the majority of my distress came from not knowing what my next step was or, really, who I was outside of being a student.

For seventeen years, my identity was wrapped up in being a student. Throughout junior high and high school, I was an honors/AP kid—I spent every waking hour at school or at home doing school work. When I graduated high school, I dove headfirst in college because I knew it was what I was supposed to do, and I believe it’s what I wanted to do too. Throughout undergrad, I felt like the natural next step for me was graduate school. Yet, as I was reviewing universities and degree programs, I came to the realization that I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do outside of going to school.

I weighed my options. I could see myself doing a variety of things, and yet, I felt no pull towards any particular direction. This isn’t to say that I was lacking in passion or motivation, but that, when it came down to it, I was so unsure of what was the right path to take. Pursuing one direction would mean sacrificing another, and I wasn’t ready to do that, even after four whole years of undergrad.  So, feeling like a failure, I decided to put off graduate school indefinitely and set a goal to “find myself” first. Sounds simple, right?

The unfortunate truth is that finding yourself is nowhere near easy. Identity itself is complicated. We all have a general sense of who we are, but how much do we really know about ourselves outside of a certain context? Where does identity begin and end? Can you really just leave one identity and enter another?

The answer to the latter question, I think, is no. But maybe the problem here is that we are expected to do just that. Maybe the reason that me and many, many others feel so lost after graduation is that we’re expected to walk off the stage and into our new selves. There’s so much pressure on millennials to be self-assured and immediately successful as soon as they grab that faux diploma. Yet, that pressure won’t facilitate any meaningful growth.

This pressure can make us lose sight of who we are and what we truly want. School is all consuming, and once it’s over, it really does feel as if we are left with no real identity and maybe, if you are like me, no plan for the future. However, a year into this madness, I feel as if that’s more of a blessing than a curse.

Discovering who you are and what you want isn’t a glowy, carefree experience—it’s grueling. There’s so much you have to learn through trial and error, through making decisions that turn out to be mistakes and by making mistakes that turn out to be great decisions. It’s not a particularly fast process, either, but it is rewarding. Since graduation, I’ve moved into my own apartment, started a new job as an automotive copywriter, adopted a second dog and discovered a multitude of interests and disinterests. All of these things, as mundane as they can sometimes be, have contributed to me developing a better sense of self.

So whether you are newly graduated, or it’s just over the horizon, and you are feeling lost and frustrated, know that you aren’t alone. It’s perfectly normal to feel off kilter for a while. However, you now have so much time—so, so, so much time—to figure it all out.

 

Guest Post, Sudha Balagopal: How Parallel Lines Meet

draw-the-line-1159036All aspiring writers have heard these two pieces of advice that some consider inane, others gospel: write what you know and write the book you want to read.

What if the two are parallel lines that cannot meet?

Let me explain. Although we spoke a different language at home, the medium of my education in India was English and stayed that way throughout school and college–part of the legacy the British left behind.

My first memory of reading is from a text book called The Radiant Reader. The words tap a rhythm in my brain even today: “Sing Mother Sing, Can Mother Sing, Pat Sing to Mother, Mother Sing to Pat.” From there, our readings evolved, as we grew older, to include stories like Jerome K. Jerome’s Uncle Podger Hangs a Picture.

In life outside school we didn’t often come across names like Pat, Jerome or Podger.

By third and fourth grade I’d expanded my pleasure reading, salivating over descriptions of chocolate eclairs in Enid Blyton’s books. I experienced the adventures of the Five Find-Outers with Fatty (politically incorrect these days, Fatty’s name was shortened from Frederick Algernon Trotteville) and Mr. Goon.

I’d never laid eyes on a chocolate eclair. Nor did the inhabitants of my books look anything like my neighbors who wore sarees and salwar kameezes and ate gulab jamuns instead of scones.

Somewhere along my reading journey, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys appeared on the bookshelf, introducing me to a world different from the British one I’d known so far. Their American adventures were fun to read, but mostly, they ignited envy. The teenaged Nancy Drew drove a car (a car!), solved mysteries and had a boyfriend. Few women I knew drove. If a family owned an automobile, most likely a hired driver or the father of the house drove it.

At school, I absorbed Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and Shakespeare. In my final year I pored over the text book Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, only to fall in love with the gentle, reliable Gabriel Oak.

During summer break, I cowered in my bed while Bronte’s Jane Eyre suffered. I devoured books by Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse which made for an interesting amalgam of mysteries and humor. I wept when Beth died in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which presented a different America from the one I’d read in the Nancy Drew series.

Our English curriculum included few Indians writing in English. My Calcutta school introduced me to the luminous Rabindranath Tagore. His evergreen short story, Cabuliwallah, in which a father and young daughter share a close relationship, also explores the unexpected yet tender connection between people of different social classes—the vendor from Kabul and little Mini. Later, in college, I discovered the unpretentious but humorous and memorable literature of R. K. Narayan, nominated several times for the Nobel prize.

Fast forward decades and I am now a writer. Words emerge from the deep well of consciousness and they must be that way to be authentic. My work might paint a world that’s not familiar to those in the western world. My first collection, There are Seven Notes, thematically links stories against the landscape of Indian classical music.

Thus, the conundrum. How do I bridge the gap between that which I know and that which I read today, have read in the past and will continue to read?

One day, when I read To Kill a Mockingbird for perhaps the tenth time in my life, my brain went “ting.” It didn’t matter that the author and I inhabited different worlds. The book touched me and it remained with me. Harper Lee may have written about places she knows, about issues specific to the American South, about race and color and justice, but she also torched a deep truth within me, tapped into what I too know, what I too am familiar with. Blending her truth with mine. What is wrong, is wrong. Justice knows no boundaries.

Neither do human relationships. Scout and her father, Atticus Finch had a special bond. Scout also had another connection, the reclusive Boo Radley.  On the opposite side of the globe, Tagore describes a similar tender kinship between Mini and her father, and between Mini and the man from Kabul.

I pay obeisance to Harper Lee. She made parallel lines meet. That’s how little Mini in Tagore’s Cabuliwallah and Scout Finch in Harper Lees’s To Kill a Mockingbird occupy the same corner in my heart.

Writing, then, is not about geography or the color of the characters’ hair or eyes, about the snow or the heat, about chocolate eclairs or gulab jamuns. Those make up the scaffolding for something larger. It’s about universal truths. That’s what I love to read. That’s what I’d like to know more about.

That’s what I want to explore in my writing.

Guest Post, Jason Olsen: Questions I Can Answer

A couple of nights ago, I met someone who, upon learning a bit about me, asked me what type of poetry and fiction I wrote. This was a lovely and well-meaning person and I know she wasn’t trying to pin me into a corner with impossible to answer questions, but she kind of did.  These “what do you write” questions are brutal. I suppose if I primarily wrote rhyming poems about ducks (which would, of course, require restraint when thinking of words that rhyme with “duck”) or coming of age in the Old West stories, this question would be easy. But I’m not really writing in a single genre and, while my individual stories and poems feel connected, it’s likely due more to voice than anything thematic, and it’s not going to make much sense to someone expecting a simple answer if I say I’m a “voice-driven” writer. I’m not entirely sure that explains much, anyway?

So, what kind of poem and stories do I write? Am I surreal? Am I funny? Am I the same writer story-to-story or poem-to-poem? How do I answer this without sounding pretentious (and making references to things my well-meaning questioner likely wouldn’t know well) or being a jerk (“I transcend categories!” might make me sound a bit like an ass)? So, when faced with this challenging question, I did the smart thing—I avoided it all together. I never answered her. I changed the subject to something more approachable, a specific story I was working on, and lead the conversation there.

Sure, I felt slightly guilty about this, but the moment passed and the discussion wasn’t bad but it made me think about something key about me as writer. I love talking about my writing but I’m not always entirely sure how to talk about my writing. How do I answer questions about my writing when so much comes from a combination of inspiration (which, aside from the occasional cool story of how a piece came to be, is usually dull) and craft (which is often not interesting to someone not as deeply involved in the life)?

I started thinking of questions I could answer—questions that I could tackle and sound (hopefully) approachable and still interesting as I answered them. Instead of dwelling on the difficult, I have accumulated a handful of questions I could conceivably answer. So, if you run into me at a dinner party, here’s some help. Of course, if you read everything below (which I hope you do), you might be bored by eventual answers.

Why are you a writer?

I had a bad toothache once. I guess more to the point, I had several bad toothaches.

This has nothing to do with the connection of tooth pain to the soul or anything like that. It’s much more literal. I had just graduated with my BA from UNLV and I was working at a pharmacy while I tried to figure out what to do next. I assumed I’d go to grad school and, considering my BA was in English and I was interested in literature, I figured I’d go for my Masters in literary study, probably focusing on British Romanticism.

And then, toothaches. I needed root canals all over the place. The insurance I was getting through my own job wasn’t worth much and I learned that I could remain fully covered on my mom’s insurance if I took six credits a semester. So, even though I was finished with my degree, I decided to reenroll at the college just for the insurance. Even paying for the classes was going to be cheaper than what my dentist needed to do to me, so it would work out.

Those few semesters rocked. I took whatever fit my work schedule and seemed interesting. I wasn’t limited by requirements or anything else. I took a class on the films of Jean Renoir because why the hell not. I took grad level classes. I took creative writing workshops.

More specifically, I took a poetry workshop. It was with a poet visiting the college for the semester—Martin Corless-Smith—and, while I was a bit out of my league compared to the admitted MFA students in the class with me, I held my own and loved every second. My writing grew and evolved and my passion for this stuff grew and evolved. I read contemporary poetry and I hadn’t done much of that. Most of what I had written before this class were imitations of what I was studying in my literature classes. So I was writing bad imitations of Tennyson. This class showed me I could read the stuff that was contemporary and vital. I started writing bad imitations of James Tate. This was more comfortable. I saw more of myself in these poems and I liked it.

But I assumed this was just an interest and my career (or what I was vaguely envisioning as a career) would require an MA in literature. I had a conference with Martin where he gave me a long list of poets and writers he wanted me to read (and that list would prove to be full of eventual first loves) and, when I told him I wanted to study lit, he told me no, I should get my MFA and wrote down a list of grad schools. I was at a point in my life where I needed someone to lead me in the direction I needed to head. And, thanks to my teeth problems, I found someone able to give me that push.

How do you stay focused enough to write everyday?

I don’t. Not usually, anyway. If I’m working on a project that’s got me really excited, I’ll work more often, but most of the time, I’ll work more sporadically, often in bursts. I’ve got a lot of papers to grade, a garden, a two-year old, and on and on. It’s hard to maintain that and write everyday.

Now some writers will shame me for saying this. Maybe they are right. Some writers spend a set amount of time each day to write and use that time no matter what. This is wonderful and I wish I could do it. This isn’t because I’m not focused, necessarily—it’s mostly because I simply can’t.

So I do what works for me. I binge write. I’ll spend time where I can get it and I write then. If I’m excited about something I’m working on, it’s easier to find the time. If I’m not, I don’t press it. Even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. I’m coming up with ideas and characters and if something clicks, that’s as good as any formal time at my desk. For me, I find the opportunities to write, but I don’t force them into my schedule, at least not usually. But that’s just me—different writers need to do what fits for them and I find the loose moments and cram them with words. As I always advise writers, figure out what works and don’t base everything on what another writer does, just use those other writers for hints on what might work.

Where do you get your ideas?

I get my ideas from everywhere. I think about people I’ve known or seen and write about them. I observe the world around me and write about that. I read news articles and watch TV. I’m sitting in a hotel lobby as I write this and I just watched a guy in pajamas shove four candy bars in his pockets while he complained about a toilet. That’s got potential, right? I write about my wife and hide the specifics just enough to not get myself in trouble (at least, not too much trouble). With fiction, it starts with character. With a poem, it starts with the thread of a thought. It’s all out there in the world waiting—we just have to have our eyes open widely enough to find it.

How do you end things?

Before the reader is completely ready.