Amateur birdwatching: or, walking meditation

It’s been difficult to maintain stamina on the writing project I mentioned in my last post. I tried for maybe the first week of spring break, as schools and businesses and restaurants shuttered around me, and as I learned for the first time how to be afraid of the people I saw on my walks instead of neighborly.

At first I tried to keep up my usual route through the hilly beauty of Fort Tryon Park, with its stunning heather garden blooms and Hudson River vistas, but too many other people had the same idea. So now I take most of my walks early in the morning, before most people roll out of bed, through an out-of-the-way waterfront park. (It used to be an illegal dumping ground into the Harlem River, before a non-profit conservancy founded by Bette Midler completely rejuvenated the space.)

I have come very quickly to love this park–for the quiet and the space, for the way the tides change the landscape, and for all the varieties of birds that call it home. I don’t think of myself as a “birdwatcher” in any active way, but I also saw and could name over fifteen different species of birds there this morning, from the homely house sparrow on up to a stunning yellow-shafted northern flicker (one of the only ones on my list that I had to look up).

I took this video of a part of my walk today. Take a walk with me? Listen to the birds. They are beautiful, whether or not you know their names.

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Nuns fret not?

If you know me, you know that textile crafts like knitting, sewing, embroidering, mending, etc. have increasingly become an important part of my life in the last decade. As practices, they feel deeply connected to a number of layers of my identity (as a woman, as a writer, as a person with radical visions for a better future); they’ve come to provide many of the guiding metaphors for how I understand the world; and because I figure out what I think and feel by writing about it, I’ve begun to write about this–slowly, and in small pieces–which I am sort-of-but-not-quite thinking about as the writerly equivalent of quilt blocks (or at other times as patches, appliques, and samplers). Who knows when the quilt will be completed, but I’m hoping to occasionally share a small “block” while still in draft form. Here’s one.

The link between the etymology of “fabric” (from Latin for making) and of “fiction” (from Latin for fashioned or formed – i.e. made) leads me to think about generations of women writers whose “women’s work” was the working of embroidery on fabric in those moments of polite company when the working of words on a page would have been inappropriate. How was Austen’s embroidery, I wonder, and how to understand the line of inheritance from her “little bit…of ivory” to J. K. Rowling’s napkins scrawled with the early details of Hogwarts?

Wordsworth tells us in a sonnet, that form of balance and constraint, that “nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow rooms,” but how would he know? The nuns’ constraint is a metaphor for him. Wordsworth sourced poems from experience and from his sister’s diary entries and did not know the confinement he depicts – instead, he wandered independent and untethered as a cloud, safe to drift above a vast landscape and observe both the world and his imagination as endlessly traversable spaces.

Meanwhile it seems not surprising that women quilt their stories small piece by small piece, in stolen hours, or these days if they are lucky in carefully demarcated and hard-won pockets of personal space. Slowly the scraps and fragments of time reclaimed from a too-full, too-responsible life gain their own substance and purpose. Out of necessity, a precise and controlled beauty, hinting at wildness if only the time might encourage. How did housework inflect how much Dorothy Wordsworth could journal? What about knowing that William would read it?

I know Sappho’s poems did not start out as fragments. But so many of her children’s do.

The Goddess of No

A little bit of context

Since September, I’ve been working as a writing mentor with Girls Write Now. I meet about once a week with my mentee, we make it to an afternoon workshop every month, and soon, we’ll both be published in the Girls Write Now 2019 Anthology. (They publish one every year.)

I think of myself as a novelist (when I’m feeling confident enough to think of myself as a writer at all), and so I balked at the 400-word limit for mentor submissions to the anthology. What in the world could I do in 400 words that I would actually feel good about other people reading?

I had been reading a lot of intensely good stories in the fairytale vein, both full-length novels (Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver; Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale) and short stories (Leigh Bardugo’s The Language of Thorns). I had also just started creating a Dungeons and Dragons character for my very first D&D game. And so, I found myself drawing on not just the fairytale’s typical compression, but also on the richly figurative language of these particular writers, to tell what might be, maybe, if you squint, part of my D&D character’s backstory.

Here it is, if you’d like to read it.

The Goddess of No

In the foothills of the Y—– range, where the river gushes wild in the spring thaws, there lived a weaver, his wife, and their three daughters. The eldest was beautiful; the youngest was kind-hearted; and the middle daughter was neither. Her name was Mara, and although she could by the age of ten pick out a pattern in cloth and thread to rival her mother’s work, her demeanor was abrupt and angular as the lines of her face. In her youth, Mara’s parents worked hard to wean her from this unbecoming habit of speaking her mind. But it was as though a voice spoke in Mara’s head, saying, You do not have to be the person they want you to be–and so, for a while at least, Mara was not.

Time unspooled like a bolt of fine linen, and Mara found the voice crowded aside by the chatter of women in the workshop, and the assessing glances that spoke derision or disappointment in the face of each small defiance.

But, as the strands of a braid strengthen each other with every cross and turn, so did the voice grow stronger even as Mara denied it, until there came the day when the cord stretched so long and strong that it became a weapon she could use.

“It is time you had a husband,” said her mother.

“I know a dyer in the city,” said her father.

“He will not mind an older bride,” said her mother.

“It will be good for business,” said her father.

And as they wove their argument together, Mara saw it was nothing but a net, to keep her bound to the service of others. She remembered the voice, though she could not quite hear it, and she wondered what her life might become if she could find the strength to hear it once again.

Mara frowned, tilted her head to one side, and said simply, “No.”

Some time later, Mara paused on the road out of town. She knelt on the hard ground at the edge of the river, closed her eyes, and clasped her hands before her. “Thank you,” she whispered. Her voice threaded clear and strong amidst the sound of the rushing waters.

Meanwhile

There’s been a long period of radio silence here, mostly because I’ve been strongly invested in other things! A couple of those include:

Reading in Community annotation assignmentParticipating in Columbia’s Innovative Teaching Summer InstituteI specifically used this institute as an opportunity to develop a collaborative annotation exercise that would get students to slow down and read carefully, but also to think about how the community they read with affects the ways in which they read. I didn’t end up implementing the exact assignment I designed, but you can see the basic outline of that assignment plan in this poster I created to explain the assignment to others.

Participating in the MLA Connected Academics Proseminar: Along with other humanities graduate students in the NY-metro area, I have been learning about career paths beyond the tenure track for PhD students, particularly ones that would allow us to do the work of advocating for humanities education in places beyond the university. My own focus has centered on the many places that humanities teaching happens other than the college classroom.

Academic conferences: I gave a paper at CSECS in October 2017 and was interviewed beforehand about my paper on digressive style and cosmopolitanism in Tristram Shandy; you can read the interview here.

Imagining plots of independence for 18th-c women

Some brief thoughtwriting on a subject near and dear to my heart (and also my dissertation):

I’m really, really annoyed that narrative theory tends to be all about desire in a way that assumes all experience of desire is erotic. When you read enough of the novels that I read, it becomes pretty clear that the desire of a woman like Clarissa, or Cecilia, is specifically NOT erotic: it is the desire, if anything, to be independent of erotic ties, because for most women in the eighteenth century, erotic relationships require female dependence — subjection, subordination.

Narrative theories rarely take the eighteenth century novel as their starting point, possibly because the nineteenth century novel is less messy, less strange, more predictable along essentially Freudian lines (cf. Peter Brooks’ Reading for the Plot, which regularly invokes or conjures the spirit of Tristram Shandy, but only by way of Balzac). In nineteenth century British novels, the plot of male independence and the marriage plot essentially get to be the same plot: man makes his way in the world, is rewarded with a wife (this is also true of Tom Jones in the eighteenth century, though I think the male bildungsroman is still weirdly an outlier generically during the period…). So it’s easy to suggest that the erotic charge of desire that generates the marriage plot is also present in the plot of vocation or ambition or whatever it is that makes the man enough money to be allowed to marry.

But back to the eighteenth century female-centered novel: the plot of female independence does exist in some earlier novels (especially thinking of Defoe here, possibly Haywood as well), but it’s almost inversely related to the marriage plot: in order to retain independence, eighteenth century women need to not marry (or in the case of Roxana and Moll Flanders, to not care too much about their marriages or the children those marriages produce — to engage in marriage only with an eye to gain, and with minimal affective work). By the time we get to Clarissa, it seems like female independence isn’t possible anymore, at least not for a woman of Clarissa’s station: the most terrible thing about that whole novel for me continues to be Clarissa’s inability to pursue her dream of living single alongside her female best friend. The problem of female independence outside of marriage is part of the larger discourse of the period, frequently visible in the lament that no Protestant institution can serve the function of a nunnery, providing a community for women who cannot — or will not — marry. The closest institution to a Protestant nunnery that eighteenth century Britain manages to devise is the Magdalen House!

Things change, of course. Just look at the difference between women who refuse to marry their parents’ choice of husband in Clarissa and, say, Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s novels suggest that she’s living in a world where a woman might conceivably choose marriage as a way of choosing independence, and actually get it. But this also seems to require the right to refuse a bad match and have that refusal accepted (both by the suitor and by one’s parents) — a right notoriously lacking in Clarissa.

Fiction’s unsafe spaces

I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make people better people and the world a better world and whether it’s responsible or reasonable to expect fiction to do that since long before I ended up in grad school. But now that I’m working to make a life out of working through fiction, this desire for it to be of use is both weightier and something of which I am far more critical. Especially in a country where FACTS, PURE FACTS about gun violence and homophobia and religious intolerance and racism (and sexism and rape culture and all these other threats to the safety of me and many I hold dear) don’t seem to be enough — what can fiction do? Why devote so much time and energy to the fiction of the past, when it so often bears the hallmarks of failings that have dogged us into our precarious present?

I still don’t think I have a satisfactory answer. But at least I have a place to start from.

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine wrote an article in defense of the view that universities need to provide safe spaces — to become safe spaces — for their students. The argument itself wasn’t groundbreaking to me; in fact it seems painfully obvious. But in the midst of reading it, this sentence practically jumped up and slapped me in the face: “The truth is, universities have always been a safe space – but they’ve been a safe space for straight white men.”

As a straight white cis woman, the university has regularly been a pretty safe space for me, too — but so many places aren’t (the sidewalk, the subway, unmoderated internet comments, to name a few) so it had somehow never crossed my mind that these people who clamor against “safe spaces” have never honestly experienced the kind of constant “danger” of living as an other in an actual or virtual public.

But this sudden realization created in me a kind of despair. How can we make people who have never felt unsafe understand the importance of safety?

Here, I think, fiction can help by making people uncomfortable. It isn’t a perfect solution — discomfort is all too easy to ignore, when it doesn’t escalate — but it’s a start. It’s why half of my dissertation is about novels that make me feel deeply and painfully uncomfortable, and (at least a little bit) about how and why they do this. It’s why I’m committed not only to writing about but to teaching novels like Clarissa, for example — a novel which made a white male Ivy League undergraduate ask, in clear discomfort, “Is this what the patriarchy feels like?”

When I first started seriously reading Frances Burney, it was hard to get past my own deeply-felt discomfort with the situations her heroines find themselves in. I find the experience of reading a novel like Cecilia or Camilla or The Wanderer to be an experience of constant cringe, and I feel like copies of them should come with discount coupons for massages or spa treatments so you have a way to decompress after you’re done. Burney writes unflinchingly and evocatively about what life as a woman feels like, and in doing so I am willing to bet she has given more than one straight white cis man at least a tiny bit of insight into what it feels like not to be safe — and thus maybe a better appreciation for safety, and an understanding that for so many, it is not a given.

Of course, we still need books that can be safe spaces, too — and we will always need ways of reading that transform the unsafe or merely indifferent texts of a straight white male cultural hegemony into something capable of sustaining us. (I am thinking here and always of Eve Sedgwick who writes about the power and necessity of what she calls “reparative reading,”  one of “the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture–even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.”) I know I construct a reparative vision of the university and its capacities every single day and try my best to extract sustenance from it on behalf of those it was not built to support or sustain.

How exactly does fictional discomfort translate to action? Ask me again when I’m older. All I’ve got now is that I hope that it can, because it’s one of the few tools I know how to work with, and I can’t quite bear to believe it’s worth nothing.

The feeling of novel-reading; or, keeping time with novels

It feels at this point nearly impossible to create a structure for the introduction to my dissertation that isn’t simply a chronology of my encounters with the texts and theories that would bring this project alive for me. Since my early work on the project, I’ve been intrigued by Adam Smith’s repeated use, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, of the phrase “keeping time” to metaphorically designate the process of sympathy. I’ve been trying to argue throughout the dissertation’s disparate chapters that the feeling of novel-reading depends, not just on some idea of “sympathy” simplified as “character identification,” but on some larger alchemical transformation of time spent under the influence of a narrative into feelings about/beyond that narrative. If the dissertation doesn’t manage to prove the truth of this argument for the eighteenth-century novel, it’s always already shown me the truth of it within my own intellectual development.

When I teach first-year writing, I explain to my students that while their arguments need to be stated in their clearest forms at the beginning of the paper, they might not find out what the argument is until the end, and then it’s their job to go back and fill it in — because their temporal experience of essay-writing will never be as organized and orderly as their instructors will expect their experience of essay-reading to be. But right now, just briefly, I want to indulge in the kind of chronology of thought that will eventually be subsumed beneath the polished argumentation of introductory prose, because this work takes time and the time that it takes (and the unexpected trajectories that organize that time) matters.

sometime in 1999, or maybe early 2000: I discover Harry Potter. I finish reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and realize that I am going to have to wait for the next one. Thus begins my still-ongoing experience of serial fiction, and the power of a form that depends on making you wait and speculate in the interim about what will happen next.

sometime during the 2004-05 school year: I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. It’s assigned for my sophomore English class, and I am skeptical, because last year we read Emma and I really didn’t understand what all the Jane Austen fuss was about. But no one has spoiled the story for me and when Darcy proposes halfway through the novel I am deeply and compellingly surprised. (It creates a flashbulb memory — I can still see the way the desks were arranged in my World History teacher’s classroom, where I had just finished a test early and pulled out the novel to occupy the rest of the class period.)

Fall 2007: My first semester at UC Berkeley. I choose between potential English department survey classes on the basis that Pride and Prejudice appears on one professor’s syllabus and not the other’s. I find myself thrown headlong into the eighteenth century as a result; an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy novels, and deeply sensitive to dismissive attitudes toward “genre fiction,” I take heart in my new-found knowledge that The Novel writ large was disreputable for its first century, give-or-take, and that didn’t stop anyone from reading it. I learn about sensibility — I discover that Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments long before The Wealth of Nations, even though we never had to know that in AP Euro, and I read excerpts from The Man of Feeling — and I write my final paper about Elizabeth’s laughter as a revolutionary force in Pride and Prejudice.

Spring 2009: I almost become a Miltonist. It doesn’t stick, but I still have “When I discover how my light is spent” memorized, and I still think long and hard about what it means to serve by standing and waiting.

sometime during the 2009-10 school year: I read Frances Burney’s Evelina for the first time while studying for a year at Queen Mary, University of London. I know Austen read Burney growing up and I can tell, at least I think I can, what she liked about her, yet there is something about Burney that seems so uncomfortable, the opposite of Austen’s deeply competent prose.

Fall 2010: Frantically and desperately applying to graduate school while simultaneously deeply skeptical of the object constructed by my untrained mind as “theory” (and dreading that there is no room for me in grad school if I don’t learn how to “do theory” with the rest of them), I read Georges Poulet’s “Phenomenology of Reading” in my senior honors thesis seminar. One of my classmates dubs it “Phenomenology of Cuddling,” half dismissive, half in awe of the unapologetically emotional tone of something we’ve been asked to take seriously as scholarship.

Fall 2011: In my first semester of graduate school, I am introduced to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Paranoid and Reparative Reading.” Immediately, in my gut, I know what reparative reading is and how it works and how much it matters to my understanding of the ethical weight of this profession — and I despair that it may be something I can never manage in my own critical prose, only in personal reflection.

Spring 2012: In my second semester of graduate school, I am simultaneously enrolled in two classes that will literally change my life. In one, we spend the entire semester reading nothing but Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and I come to understand all over again — in a way I sort of haven’t since the final Harry Potter book was published! — the intense impact of a lengthy process of reading undertaken in community. I also understand, in a way I’d been eminently privileged NOT to fully understand before, the intense precarity of living in a female body in my own time and place — to say nothing of Richardson’s. “Is this what patriarchy feels like?” an earnest male student in the class asks of the opening section of the novel, and I think, yes, actually, yes. I start thinking critically about how it is that a novel can make me understand privilege and power and the historical extent of systems of oppression by first making me feel them, deep within my gut. The other class is called “Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Novel Theories,” and it is here I am introduced to Diderot’s Eloge de Richardson, and get a necessary reminder that “fandom” is not a feeling that the twentieth century invented.

Summer 2013: I read Burney’s Cecilia and wonder at how uncomfortable Evelina made me that first time, because nothing but Cecilia can rival Clarissa for being deeply uncomfortable to read. (I will revise my Burney Awkward Discomfort Scale again when I read The Wanderer, and yet again when, listening to an audiobook of Camilla, I actually need to pause and stop for a day or two when things get particularly terrible.)

Academic conferences and the rhythms of intellectual sociability

I want to write more about ASECS in the next week or so, but this bit feels like it bears saying sooner rather than later.

At the Women’s Caucus roundtable on Rethinking the Academic Conference, Lauren Holt made us do a mini “praxis session” as a group, where we had to freewrite as a way of thinking over a couple of question and then share our answers with a couple people sitting next to us. Her questions, as far as I can reconstruct them from my notes, were:

  1. When was the last time you had a real intellectual breakthrough moment, and what were you doing when it happened?
  2. When was the last time you witnessed someone else have a real intellectual breakthrough moment, and what were you doing when it happened?

It pretty quickly became clear to me that my answer to both these questions was, “in one-on-one conversation” — whether with a friend, a partner, a student, a professor, it is in deeply-committed one-on-one conversation that I have had basically all of my own breakthrough moments, and all of my experiences of witnessing someone else have one. But I was intrigued by Susan Lanser’s answer to question #1. While her contribution on the roundtable was itself primarily about conversation and intellectual sociability, she admitted that her last real breakthrough moment happened when she was alone sitting in front of a computer.

My answer to question #1 is different today than it was on Saturday, because this morning I finally figured out what I’m arguing in the final chapter of my dissertation and how it’s related to the other chapters. This breakthrough — like Sue’s — happened while I was sitting staring at my computer screen. But I don’t think that this negates the importance of larger scales of intellectual sociability in fostering what may on the surface look like solitary discovery. I couldn’t have had the breakthrough without ASECS, even though the breakthrough itself isn’t directly related to any new information I learned at the conference, or any specific conversations I had there — I didn’t present on this chapter and I mostly avoided thinking about it because I did not look forward to going home to grapple with it further! And I also couldn’t have cemented this breakthrough without my partner’s willingness to listen as I sketched out verbally the new chapter outline I’d just decided on, fleshing out my own ideas as I talked in what was not a very mutual “conversation” (I did all the talking!) but which nonetheless played a real role in pinning down the often-flighty “aha!” moment.

There is something important, then, at least to me, about the rhythms of academic sociability fostered by conferences, but also by our more directly pedagogical forms — by weekly class meetings, or monthly reading group discussions. I need the intensity of focused, heightened sociability that something like a conference (or a once-a-week seminar meeting) provides, because of the ways it stimulates and feeds that kind of intellectual energy that allows me to think through my own work, and provides a space for encountering other people’s ideas. But I also need the lulls to refocus and reconfigure, to harness energetic engagement into the diligent work of honing a single argument. The repetitions of these forms of sociability seem key (and not just because my paper at ASECS was mostly about narrative rhythms!). In the end, it’s the controlled oscillation between communal and solitary thinking that I find the most generative of “breakthrough.”

Metaphors, parables, and the academic life

I realize this is a controversial choice, but one of my favorite books of all time is A. S. Byatt’s Possession. I stumbled across it in a used bookstore near Russell Square in London, in March 2010. I was in the third year of my BA and spending the entire year studying abroad at Queen Mary University of London. I’d been somewhat sheltered from “theory” and even criticism as a freshman and sophomore at UC Berkeley–I knew vaguely that it existed, in a number of guises (I had by then encountered psychoanalytic theory, feminist theory, Russian formalism, structuralism and post-structuralism and maybe even deconstruction)–but in a European context, I was suddenly very much expected to do outside research for my final papers and thus started reading scholarship haphazardly but with great earnestness and found myself smack dab in the middle of a long tradition I didn’t really know how to sort or make sense of. It’s not the ideal introduction to theory, and I still kick myself a little for not taking the chance when I returned to Berkeley to take a real “Intro to Literary Theory” class, because I still feel like my own theoretical grounding is a bit of a mishmash. But anyway–one reason I care so much about Possession is that it helped me to articulate both the possibilities and the pitfalls of theory even before I really understood what it was. Here’s Roland Mitchell, one of the novel’s protagonists, thinking about what he sees as the problem with the governing metaphors of the academic discourses within which he works:

“Do you ever have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world? I mean of course everything connects and connects — all the time — and I suppose one studies — I study — literature because all these connections seem both endlessly exciting and then in some sense dangerously powerful — as though we held a clue to the true nature of things?”

It wasn’t until my first semester of grad school that I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch and came fully to understand the problem of expecting any single theory to be the “key to all mythologies.” Insofar as a theory is a “strong theory” (as Eve Sedgwick would put it), it runs exactly the risk of eating up the world and spitting it out in its image, not really producing knew knowledge but reformulating the already known in a shape that the theory can understand. And some things probably necessarily go missing as a result. (Middlemarch taught me this, too: “a man’s mind must be continually expanding and shrinking between the whole human horizon and the horizon of an object-glass,” but neither view is complete in and of itself, and they cannot coexist.) This isn’t anything new: metaphors and strong theories work by feeding on similarities and tabling or repressing differences or disagreements. And it’s not always a bad thing–as long as we understand that these metaphors are incomplete.

Paying attention, fighting distraction

One of the themes of the Richardson chapter is attention. Richardson wants readers who will pay attention, not just to his novel, but to the state of their own souls–readers with foresight enough to understand it may soon be too late to repent, but also readers who understand that paying attention is one of the most difficult but most important kinds of work that a novel-reader (or a Christian) can do.

It’s a bit of a commonplace that we live in an age of distraction and soundbites. When Twitter was still a big thing, it was all about how people can’t digest more than 140 characters at a time these days; now with the rise of Instagram and (horror of horrors) Snapchat, the need for words has been done away with and pictures speak for themselves. “Our young people aren’t reading books anymore!” I’m skeptical of this, as I tend to be of all commonplaces, especially the kind that boil down to “the younger generation’s media consumption differs wildly from mine in ways I don’t understand, so it must be wrong.” (And not just because marathoning an entire season of a TV show on Netflix takes a kind of attention, too–though that’s perhaps an argument for another day.) But as I grapple with this chapter and find myself increasingly seeking distractions (like blog post writing, perhaps?), I keep coming back to the real difficulty of paying attention, especially to a 1500-page novel (or a multi-year academic writing project like a dissertation).

It seems appropriate that we speak colloquially about having to “pay attention”–attention is something that has costs! There is a whole economy of attention, built around who does and doesn’t have the energy, time, or sufficiently peaceful environment that allows for attention to be “spent.” Some things are easier to attend to than others, but I also know attention wavers based on a number of factors (time of day, physical and emotional wellbeing, time of last full meal, hours of sleep last night) that even I, in a position of great privilege, can’t always control or predict. It seems at times like a miracle that real people, ordinary everyday eighteenth-century people, read Clarissa over and over again! But then I think about how little time it took me to get through three seasons of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and it gives me at least a little perspective. And perhaps even a better handle on what “attention” means. It’s one thing to have the focus that allows you to read hundreds of pages (or write hundreds of words) in one sitting. But another component of attentiveness–definitely present for Richardson!–has to do with how the work follows you even into the distractions of your day-to-day, how you’re thinking about it and mulling it over even when it isn’t before your eyes. It’s imperative to pay attention when you’re reading Clarissa, but it’s also important that sometimes you think about it as a distraction from something else you’re supposed to be doing.