A Poem a Day Keeps the Writer’s Block at Bay

wore your poems like a scar

For the first time since I graduated university, I’ve been writing poetry. For fun.

It was much easier when I was in university, taking several poetry classes and being surrounded by ideas and inspiration. Funny how, when you’re up to your eyeballs reading, analysing and dissecting poetry, it just flows out of you all the time. You carry a pen around with you in order to record the stray ribbons of language and art flitting in and out of your head. Your lecture notes start to turn into a blank verse poem, inspired by one of the professor’s tangents.

These post-grad days with the jobby job and the completely unstructured days, it can be like drawing water from a stone. A line of a poem will surface on a walk; whilst driving to work; in the middle of slinging a latte, and evaporates like mist when you try to remember it later. Frustration ensues.

This is why, as part of my “Write More” New Year’s Resolution, I’ve been writing a poem a day since the first of January. No matter what drivel results from the translation between head and paper, I write it down. Some of the poems are weak and others are okay, but the point of the exercise is to just do it and work at it, since writing is a craft like any other and a muscle that needs to be flexed.

Sometimes I have this romantic misconception about being a Writer; that it’s all elegantly crafted sentences and word choices that shine like jewels. That it’s sitting with your pen and paper scribbling bits of genius or your fingers flying like birds at the keyboard. True, it can be quite nice to have talent but it can be bloody hard work, which is what has been keeping me from writing for a long time. It’s tearing out your hair sometimes; doodling in the margins; checking Facebook for the umpeenth time; staring at that blinking cursor on your Word Processor as if it contains life’s answers; writing down whatever comes into your head even if you hate the crap out of it.

Musicians take time to tune their instruments before performing; they spend many a laborious hour shut up in their studios, repeating scales, working through the squeaks and flat notes before playing a beautiful piece of music. And so writers must also get over their egos and self-imposed blocks and continue tapping away or scratching drivel, just to keep that creative muscle strong.

I’m hoping that, at the end of my Poem-a-Day experiment, I’ll have some solid ideas and pieces to work with, and then I’ll start sending them out to poetry anthologies or writing programs. Or maybe I’ll start doing that sooner. In the meantime, I’m in a Writing Circle currently but would like to expand to other writing groups, open mic poetry readings, or writing support groups, either online or otherwise. Does anyone know of anything cool?

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Oh, The Places You’ll Go (Maybe … Someday)!

standing at the crossroads

 

Upon meeting me for the first time, this lovely, elegant South African lady looked me in the eyes as she shook my hand and said with utmost confidence, “You’re going places. You’re going to go so far.”  

Of course, as an intern at a news show, a summer student at the local newspaper, and a soon-to-be editorial intern at a national magazine, I had stars in my eyes. I was a recent English grad smugly proving my professors and cynical classmates wrong by landing so many wicked gigs so soon after commencement, laughing in the faces of those who said drearily, “Good luck finding a journalism job in this economy!” and “Have fun being a greeter at Walmart with your English BA!”  

There was no limit to what I could do. The world was my oyster, baby, and I was riding high on the waves of rapid success. Clickety-clacking down Queen Street East in my heels and new duds to the editorial internship with the other well-dressed and terribly important nine-to-fivers, I remembered what the sagely South African lady said and believed every word. I remember having a Mary Tyler Moore moment with my head held high as the chiming bells of Church Street ushered me into my latest adventure. You might just make it after all …  

so what now?

 

 Funny how things change, how nothing has gone according to plan, how the life you imagined for yourself is nothing like the one you’re living. It gets a little hard to believe you’re going places when the place you’re in, at 25, is back with your parents and you’ll go far when you’re back at the job you had before university. You can’t help but wince thinking of all the money and sanity it cost to obtain a degree and further yourself when you’re back at Square One.  

Make no mistake: I’m eternally grateful to my parents for welcoming me back in the nest while I figure stuff out and the coffee shop gig certainly isn’t dreadful and frankly, pays more than an industry internship or a freelance journalism career when you have less than 5 years of experience. And health and dental is nothing to sneeze at (pun intended). But what about all of those dreams that once seemed so attainable?  

I know I blog about this subject a lot — being an educated twentysomething and trying to make it in this economy — but right now it’s a little difficult to be romantic about a potential career when you keep hitting brick walls, and I’m beginning to wonder if my university degree is enough. Right now, my BA is doing little else than trailing behind my name in my e-mail signature and sitting in a folder on my bookshelf. Also, to be completely honest with you, the more jobs in journalism that I don’t get and the more self-aware I become, the more I’m starting to rethink the whole journalism thing in general …  

There. I said it.  

I just don’t think I have a journalist’s personality. I always knew I wanted to be a writer in some capacity and was led to believe a journalism job would put food on the table. Well, maybe if you’re successful at it … and have the personality for it (my friend, who’s a photojournalist for The Montreal Gazette, says the job is 80% personality). I think there’s a pretty good possibility that I’m too passive, borderline phone-phobic, non-competitive and laid-back for such a cut-throat position. And my “get-up-and-go” usually clocks out around 4 p.m., EST. Not ideal for a deadline-driven profession.  

Long story short, I’m looking into alternative careers (which may mean more education … sigh) and trying not to feel like a fool for not having everything sorted out already. Perhaps, over time, dreams change. Those of us without the Grown-Up Career and/or a spouse and children and the white picket fence could be failures by the standards of earlier generations … or we could simply be carving the best path we can in this economy and with our expendable university degrees.  

failure is always bigger in your own eyes ...

 

 So what do we do, us Millenials with lots of schooling and little to show for it but financial debt and dampened dreams? Those of us who were once promised adventure and gleaming futures but are now marooned on the island of uncertainty (and bad metaphors, apparently)? Some of us flit from thing to thing like dizzy butterflies, flaking off at the first sign of commitment, while others throw away their dreams with both resentment and nostalgia, like dusty childhood toys.  

So we continue to write soul-baring blogs, and let meaningful music become the soundtrack and backdrop of our lives. Like Zach Braff in Garden State, we measure our lives by good music and photographic moments, a cinematic romanticization of disappointment, ennui and despair as we look upward. We envy the flight of monarchs.

Smelling the Roses

photo courtesy of www.fffound.com

I’ve become inspired by another blogger, http://aerussell.wordpress.com, to make a Summer Resolution.

My goal is to be a little less in touch with my clingy, high-maintenance buddies, OCD and GAD and be a little more Zen.  Chilled.  Cool as a cucumber.  Whatever you want to call it.  (For some reason, I keep getting this mental image of a tall, frosted class filled to the brim with iced green tea, slices of cucumbers floating on top.  Tasty).

Although these fair-weatherfriends are much tamer than they have been before and are by no means uncontrollable, they’re still annoying enough to keep me from enjoying life as much as I could.  I’d like to be able to think about every little thing that gives me joy and pleasure, rather than obsess over every little invisible germ and speck of dirt.  I’d like to have a mind that focuses on the love and happiness I have in my life, rather than worry about the future and think of every possible worst-case scenario.  This summer seems to be the perfect time to give OCD and GAD the boot.  One of my New Year’s Resolutions at the beginning of 2009 was to be Less Stressed and I think I am.  Well, I can say that now that I’m done with the stress of school. 

Someone older and wiser, someone who understood my background and “cultural baggage,” as he called it, told me that the most stressful time in your life is during university.  As if exams, reports, essays, and presentations weren’t enough, you’re also dealing with real life issues (whomever said that university isn’t the “real world” is sadly mistaken). For me, there were a few part-time jobs, transitioning from one university to another, the deaths of three grandparents, leaving the nest and then coming back, a nasty ED which has since been effectively kicked, boyfriends and breakups and that whole Finding Yourself Thing which is such a cliche, but a profound one.  Now that I’m out of it, now that I’m officially not a student anymore and officially a working journalist (holy crap that felt good to write!), I’m definitely not as ulcerous and knotted up with stress, anxiety, and worry as I was last December, when it was at its worst.  It helps to be able to spend the day writing and working and coming home to unwind and not having to worry about writing a 15-page research paper and reading ten chapters from 5 different books.  And then some literary theory.  Just for fun.

Of course, being a true worry-wart, you will always always always find something to worry about because you feel like you’re being irresponsible if you’re not worrying.  I’m so Dutch it hurts. 

I’ve noticed, after completing a 40-hour work week and then getting caught up in the whirlwind of officially graduating from university, that the time I have to myself is few and far between, which is a tough thing for someone like me.  There is a part of me that loves a little busyness, a little excitement, a little disruption to my routine.  But that part of me is small in comparison to the part of me that lives for the Me Time; quiet, introspective thought, getting lost in music or books or the way the sunlight peaks through the curtains in mini-slices, sitting in a comfy chair and writing pleasurably, sipping yummy tea, playing with my dog . . . I’d really prefer it if this Me Time, which I know will only get smaller as I get older and do adult things, wasn’t so consumed with obsession or worry. 

It would just be nice, God.  Just a little FYI for you. 

As I promised my boyfriend, I wrote down a list of all the things that were worrying me, from big things like paying off student loans to small things like needing a new pair of shoes.  Then I folded it up and put it in a notebook to forget about until tomorrow night, when I give myself one hour or two of Tackle Time, during which I will try to come up with rational, feasible solutions to the things I can control, and leave to God the things that I can’t. 

For the rest of the night, I’m eating an entire cantaloupe just cuz, drinking a glass of limeade, reading some of the new book I bought at the used bookstore, browsing some blogs I love, and pretending that everything is going to be okay.

Because I guess it really is.

Goodbye, university. Hello, working world?

photo courtesy of www.ffffound.com

photo courtesy of http://www.ffffound.com

“Don’t you (forget about me)” by Simple Minds plays while Alison walks across a football field with her fist held high in the air.  Credits roll.

The chapter of my life called “Alison Gets an Education” has finally closed. 

4.5 years, 2 universities, 5 all-nighters, 1.5 million tonnes of coffee, tea, and Booster Juice, 100 essays, 50 exams, 10 inspiring professors, 80 other English majors that have annoyed me, 2,000 books/essays/articles/poems read, 2 on-campus jobs, 5 on-campus volunteer jobs, 9,000 crushes, 1000s of dollars spent, and 1 degree.

And now I’m dealing with the fallout.  I was looking forward to this moment more than a kid waits for Christmas morning, and now that it’s here I’m a mixed bag emotions.  And, it seems, all of my education can’t seem to help me produce interesting metaphors.

Maybe I’ll feel more closure when I throw my graduation cap into the June air.

Class Notes: March 31, 2009

photo courtesy of: www.weheartit.com

photo courtesy of: http://www.weheartit.com

In my Virginia Woolf class today, my professor asked us to share our thoughts about graduating with English degrees and how the program could improve, and I basically used the question as a platform to be brutally honest–how a lot of us who aren’t going into teaching feel lost and aren’t sure what to do with our degrees.  For the first time this year, a professor gave me some encouragement and things to think about.

Here are some of his comments that I wrote down around a doodle of a clopping and rosy-cheeked giraffe, and my attempt to draw Mrs. Dalloway and an abstract painting:

  • People with Humanities degrees outperform people with Business degrees (OH SNAP!)
  • The salvation of women is friendship with other women (which is pretty much the thesis for my final paper!)
  • Life is long
  • It all doesn’t have to happen in the next 2 years . . .
  • Professors are people who didn’t have the guts to quit school

All so comforting.  For the very first time, a professor wasn’t bemoaning the current economy and “how hard it will be to find a job these days with just a BA.”  Just some good, solid advice.  I’ll cheers to that.

He also gave us the assignment for Thursday to imagine we met Virginia Woolf at Starbucks, where she would be smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and staring down her nose at us.  If we could ask her 3 things, what would we ask?  If we could tell her just one thing, what would we tell her?

Here’s what I would ask her:

  1. Have you read or watched The Hours?  (Assuming she’s been ambling around the modern day for awhile)  What did you think of it and Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of you?
  2. You clearly take the craft of writing very seriously, as is evident in the painstaking details in your writer’s diaries.  So, how do you feel when people call you a “stream-of-conscious” writer?  Do you feel it reduces and disqualifies your very calculated and well-thought out writing style?
  3. People say you were a lesbian, or a bisexual who engaged in lesbian affairs.  What do you think of these labels and our culture’s obsession with your sexuality?

And this is what I would tell her.  If I could stay composed and not bawl my eyes out in front of her, that would be perfect:

Dearest Virginia:

Thank you for everything.  But mostly, thanks for Mrs. Dalloway.  I know it’s a cliche and everything, but you changed my life.  Your writing has inspired me and I have deeply fallen in love with it . . . and you.  The things you were unashamed to write about have encouraged me and given me strength in my own secrets and inner struggles.  You have tremendous courage, and I love you for it. 

Love,

me.

MLA Versus CP

The conflict of my fourth year in university, the conflict of many student journalists, involves two rivaling writing styles competing for equal time in my brain.

Let the games begin . . .

In one corner is heavy-weight champion and long-time favourite among liberal arts and humanities majors: MLA (Modern Language Association).  MLA competes in the same division as Chicago and APA (American Psychological Association) and has been the reigning style since my first sloppy papers about “I Have a Dream” and beatniks when I was in high school.  It was MLA who harnessed my wild, form-resistant writing style and pinned it under the crushing weight of indented paragraphs, in-text citations and meticulous Works Cited pages.  MLA has long demanded the tried-and-boring Times New Roman font but has allowed the writer a little more lee-way by including Calibri, Cambria, and Book Antiqua as it’s go-to fonts.

MLA may be old, tiresome, and as stringent as a German Frau, but it has become so ingrained in my head that everything I write for school somehow ends up in MLA style.  “Punctuation inside the parentheses.”  This is MLA’s battle cry and it sits in a corner of my brain’s ring, smiling smugly in double-spaced glory, with a  Works Cited page waiting in the wings with a bucket of cold water. 

I have one month left of using my little writing champion, and I’ll feel a little nostalgic when it’s all over.

 

In the other corner is a brave, promising newcomer: CP (Canadian Press style).  I’ve only been using CP since last May when I started working at the paper, and I still haven’t quite gotten the hang of it.  Unfortunately, other university papers and community papers such as The St. Catharines Standard and The Hamilton Spectator DO NOT seem to use our trusty friend CP all that much;  it pains my heart to see an article with “orphans” and “widows” and improper placements of quotations.  If a quote is within the sentence “the punctuation mark goes OUTSIDE the parentheses”.  However, if the quote stands on its own, it is totally different.  “The punctuation mark goes INSIDE the parentheses.” 

With the help of CP, I’ve learned that per cent is two words and that numbers up to nine are spelled, but numbers over 10 are written numerically.  If you’re listing things: journalism, writing and CP, there is no comma between the second last and last thing (while with MLA, you can comma where you wanna).  CP is small but mighty, and is just waiting to knock MLA out of its place.

These two competitors have been duking it out in my brain for the past year, with MLA usually coming out on top.  As I transition from university student journalist to just journalist, I’ll probably have more time to spend on my writing, so who’s going to be the prizefighter, my #1 champion of writing? . . .

. . . I’ve got my money on CP.  Literally.

Windows and Doors

Well, yesterday I got that fated envelope in the mail.

My future has been decided.

As it turns out, I did not get accepted into Ryerson’s Masters of Journalism program. 

I was, and am, very disappointed, but I’m trying really hard to not consider it a personal failure.  Apparently it’s a very competitive program to get into, so if someone with 1 year journalistic experience and an 81% average can’t get it, then it must be very competitive indeed.

I suppose it was a little silly and naive to “put all my eggs in one basket,” so to speak, but I was fairly confident that I’d get in, especially because of the great letter of recommendation my writing/rhetoric professor wrote for me, and with a complete portfolio that I technically didn’t even need to apply for the program.  But maybe it just wasn’t the right time.  Maybe, as the old cliche goes, when God closes a door, He opens a window.

Beyond the disappointment, however, I do feel a little relieved now that I know what the final decision was.  I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and here’s why I’m not completely broken down over this:

  1. There’s no rule that says you have to get your Masters right after your undergraduate years.  I can always apply next year, or the year after, or when I’m 30 or 45 or 60.
  2. Truth be told, this year was burning me out.  Working at the paper plus a full course load was draining the life out of me.  In a way, part of me kind of didn’t want to get into the program because frankly, I’m sick of school!
  3. I need a break.
  4. There’s no rule that says you need an MJ to be a journalist, either.  Despite the fact that media jobs are hard to come by these days, I’m confident that there’s something out there for me.  If not immediately, then not too far down the road.
  5. I’m already in the hole with student loans.  Not too badly, but enough to make me uncomfortable.  Two more years of school would have only made my debt deeper.  If I had gotten into the program, I would have moved to Toronto (which is something I’m planning to do anyway in the fall) and I probably would have had to find a part-time job or two just to make ends meet, pay off my debt, and continue to pay for tuition.  I just can’t afford that right now.
  6. I feel like I have the freedom to explore a little bit more now.  I could go here, I could go there, I could do this, I could do that.  Nothing is definite.  Career Services is going to be my new best friend.
  7. I feel like there’s a little piece of me that I’ve been stifling for the past few years, since I started getting good marks and becoming intoxicated by the promise of “success,” whatever the heck that means.  The part of me that is free-spirited, colourful, childlike and endlessly creative.  I hate the fact that I haven’t written a decent poem or creative piece in over a year.  Those things used to spill out of me and I barely had the time to write all of my ideas down.  Now it’s like drawing water from a stone.  I want to awaken that side of me again, because it’s a huge part of who I am and I miss it.  All of this endless study and homework and sacrificing my social life has cost me valuable friendships and a lot of fun times.  I want to let my hair down a little bit more and untie the tight plait that I’ve somehow become. 

We shall see what we shall see.  For now I’m looking out the windows, hoping for one of them to crack open.