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Fresh Start

31 Aug

work station

 

There’s little I love more than a fresh start. Wiping the slate clean and starting over with renewed motivation and a clear outlook. That’s why I’ve always loved the beginning of a new school year.

The smell of summer changing into fall, the warm, humid days slowly growing shorter and cooler, the sound of referee whistles and marching bands, the rise and fall of cicada music signaling it’s time to get back to work.

Even as a little girl, I loved stepping into the building on the first day of school: new locker, new teacher, new subjects to conquer with the hope and optimism of an empty year yet to be filled, sprawled out before me like a book yet to be written. There’s just something about walking into a classroom, backpack full of new notebooks and gel pens full of ink, that make me feel powerful; like this year is the year I can accomplish anything.

I’ll admit, that feeling of unbridled enthusiasm diminished after about two weeks as the work piled up and the motivation wore off, but I always looked forward to those first few days. Those first impressions with new professors and class periods with exciting projects and the prospect of interesting new books to read.

I no longer  run on an academic schedule, so it’s weird to feel the summer drawing to a close and not be pulling out fresh notebooks and 18th century novels to kick off another school year. I get nostalgic just thinking about syllabus day.

Since I no longer have a fresh start conveniently built into my year with the cycle of academic semesters, I guess  I’ll just have to create my own new beginning. I took the summer off from writing and blogging, but now it’s time to begin again. Fresh.FA5A8285a

In my measly attempt to make excuses, it’s not like I wasn’t doing anything this summer. I got married in June (no big deal), went on a honeymoon to San Francisco (amazing!), and the rest of the summer…well…I’ve just been too busy having fun to do much of anything else (city league volleyball, c-league, silver-bracket champs!).

But even after one of the best summers of my life, I’m still ready for the change of seasons and the signal that it’s time to get back to work. With fresh goals and renewed motivation, I look out the window on this perfect end-of-summer day and tell myself: “This is the year I can accomplish anything.”

Photo Credit: Aleksi Tappura

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Light vs. Dark, Fantasy vs. Reality in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

26 Mar

Haruki Murakami’s 1997 novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, might as well be called The Book of Symbols. Of course, you could say that about most important literature, but symbolism seems especially prominent in this lengthy, twisting, surreal novel.wind_up_bird_chronicle

There’s the cat, the well, the mark on the cheek, the baseball bat, the red vinyl hat, light, ducks, water, the Thieving Magpie, the wind-up bird (of course) …the list of potential symbols could go on for pages.

Wells

Because it’s so jam packed with themes and symbolism, one could write a dissertation on Wind-Up Bird and still have more to say, which is why, for in this short blog post, I’ll focus on the wells.

  • Why is Mr. Okada so drawn to the bottom of the well in his neighborhood after he hears Lieutenant Mamiya’s story?
  • Why does the light cause Mamiya to have such a visceral reaction–an experience which will make it impossible for him to connect with people afterward?
  • What does it mean that the well is suddenly filled with water and nearly kills Toru at the end of the novel?
  • Is the world he visits when he’s in the well real or just in his mind?
  • Is there even a distinction between the real and made up in this novel? Is there in life?

Murakami uses wells to emphasize light and dark, both literally and as states of mind. The light Lieutenant Mamiya experiences in his well is both glorious and devastating. Maymia describes the effect of the sudden intense light:

“I had a marvelous sense of oneness, an overwhelming sense of unity. Yes, that was it: the true meaning of life resided in that light that lasted for however many seconds it was, and I felt I ought to die right then and there” (166).

He concludes though that once he was out of the well, “whatever heavenly grace I may have enjoyed until that moment was lost forever” (167).

Once he’s out of the darkness, Lieutenant Mamiya can no longer experience the intense contrast of the light and dark in the well; nor can he grasp the sense of oneness and unity he felt in the light. He’s never able to love anyone and no one ever loves him.There’s much more unity, it seems, in a moment of light in the dark than among people in an irredeemable world.

Light doesn’t seem to hold the same significance for Toru’s well experiences, but darkness is essential:

“the darkness inside and out began to blend, and I began to move outside of my self, the container that held me. / As always” (445).

When he can isolate himself in the utter depth and darkness of his well, Toru escapes his physical self and travels to another world where his wife, Kimiko, is just a voice and he’s accused of beating his brother-in-law to death. (I’m not even going to attempt to touch that inner world of Toru’s mind. I’m sure someone could do a kick-ass psychoanalytic reading of this text, but that person is not me.)

But the darkness itself, even before Toru escapes to the inner world, seems significant. Where Lieutenant Mamiya’s life is destroyed and enlightened by whatever he encounters in the light, Toru seems to thrive by purposefully cutting himself off in the dark, going as far as to maneuver a lid on top of the well so he can experience complete solitude, silence, and darkness. In that realm of complete solitude, and only in the darkness of the well, can Toru escape.

Perhaps we can only see clearly and find who we are when we’re at the bottom of a well.

Truth and Fiction
With Toru’s escapades in the well, Murakami calls into question a clear cut distinction between fact and fiction and, ultimately questions, what is truth? What really happens in the novel and what just part of his imagination? And, the bigger question, does it matter?

In one of the novel’s best passages, in my opinion, Murakami illuminates the question of fact vs. fiction by discussing the nature of storytelling, specifically the young, mute Cinnamon’s recounting of his grandfather’s story based on the mosaic of stories he’d heard from his mother over the years.

“He inherited from his mother’s stories the fundamental style he used, unaltered, in his own stories, namely, the assumption that fact may not be truth, and truth may not be factual. The question of which parts of the story were factual and which parts were not was probably not a very important one for Cinnamon. The important question for Cinnamon was not what his grandfather did but what his grandfather might have done. He learned the answer to this question as soon as he succeeded in telling the story” (525).

Cinnamon inherited the fundamentals of the story–his grandfather’s character, the time and place of events, the tone and sentiment toward the events and characters–but it’s not important for him to know what actually happened to his grandfather. He uses the story to construct who his grandfather was–and is–to him.

What Constructs a Life?

Based on the analysis of the well and the questions it raises about the line between fact and fiction, I couldn’t help but recall Sandy Friedman’s Notes on the Unlived Life. Our lives aren’t only shaped by the things that do happen, they’re also shaped by the things that don’t happen, or the things that might have happened.

So when we contemplate who we are as human beings and individuals–I mean who we really are, not just our names and home towns–is that line separating reality and fantasy really as concrete as we once thought?

Why I Blog

31 Oct

After reading Emily J.’s recent blog post, Why I Spoil Books,  I decided to explore why I blog and what I hope to do with Living Literarily.

As an academic, I’d always loved the idea of starting a blog. Well, I suppose I should say I was a student more than an academic (I just completed my MA in literature). Anyway, as someone entrenched in the jargon, structure, and grading system of the academic world, I thought blogging could be my escape: a way out of the land of proof and evidence and into the realm of opinion and imagination: a place to share my thoughts about books without the looming constraints of a grade sheet.

Well, like so many goals in life, I thought starting a blog was a great idea, but I never got around to actually doing it. For years I’d toyed around with the idea, playing with themes and titles, exploring topics I would write about someday. But it wasn’t until this summer when I started a marketing internship and writing for a company blog that I got the real kick I needed to start my own project. I was using WordPress at work, so I thought “how hard can it be to start from scratch and create my own WordPress site?”

The initial answer was, “not too bad.” I registered for WordPress, experimented with several themes and layouts, spent hours toying with blog names and started several (still unfinished) drafts. In fact, I’m sure I spent way too much time with these [easier] tasks and did just about everything Jon Morrow says will make me just another mediocre blogger nobody gives a crap about.

excited

Excited I started a blog!

But despite my beginner mistakes, I did it! I started my own literary blog! I found an escape from academia! I created a space to write, and think, and share, and discuss literature and how it affects my life and how I think it affects the world.

Oh, what grand ideas I have…

And that’s when the real work started. Oh yeah, I actually have to write compelling posts on here. I have to create something that might have some general interest to the public. I have to release my writing to the masses. This isn’t just dropping a hard copy draft in my professor’s mailbox. This is letting go, releasing my writing to anyone who may stumble across it. What I didn’t anticipate when I started a blog is, all of this creating and writing and releasing and letting go is terrifying.

And then I did something that changed the life trajectory I had mapped out for myself…

I left academia half way through the summer.

In fact, I decided at the last minute–only weeks before I was about to start my first year as a doctoral candidate–that I needed some time away. At the time, the decision was mainly financial. I was newly engaged and my fiancé was beginning his second year of medical school. Two students trying to start a life together with a fear of debt (ingrained in us by our financially conservative parents) and the hope of starting a family someday doesn’t paint the most promising picture of comfort and financial stability. So I decided to keep my job as a content marketer and think about going back to school later.

That was about two months ago and I’m happy with my decision. I like that I get to clock out at the end of the day, unlike the ever-present guilt of never working hard enough as a grad student. I like that I feel my work is concretely contributing to my company’s goals. I like my coworkers and feeling part of a community. There are many things I like about my new job and many things I didn’t like about academia.

…But I miss studying literature.

And that’s where Living Literarily comes in. It gives me a space to study and think about and write about what I love, even though I’ve chosen to pursue another career at this time. And though, I’ll admit, it’s hard to find time to write and read as much as I’d like with a full-time job, I love that I don’t have to give it up. In a strange way, this blog made it possible not to choose. I can pursue my love of literature in a real way while maintaining a stable career. Now I get to have both.

So there’s some irony for you: I started a literary blog so I could escape the formality of my university literature classes and I continue to blog so I can keep literature in my life now that I’m outside the ivory tower.

Finally, the third reason I blog is to have an audience. Now, I know this sounds vain, but let me explain…I started a public blog instead of writing in my journal because I believe there is value in bringing in outside opinions. I don’t want my thoughts stored up in my head or in some bubble that no one will ever read. I publish each post with the sincere hope that feedback will follow. I hope for critique and debate. I hope to improve my writing and thinking in ways that would be impossible without a public forum. I hope to gain insights and ideas from other blogs as well as build a sort of virtual community.

So despite its terrifyingness, this is my chance to connect and create with the freedom of being outside the walls of the university, but with the responsibility of someone who sees the power of literature and wants to convey even a fraction of it.

To Summarize

I blog for three reasons:

  1. To voice my thoughts about the power of literature, language, and creativity in a more casual space: a space where I can insert my own voice and opinions.
  2. To keep literature and writing part of my everyday life, even though it’s no longer my career path.
  3. To engage in conversation with other literature lovers and see why others value creativity; to spark conversation about literature, language, and other tangential topics.

What about you? Why do you push through? Why do you blog?

Match Day: an outsider’s journey through residency

30 Sep

One Day and One Dramatic Year in the Lives of Three New Doctors

Match Day 2

“We looked at the dean. We looked at the envelope. Stephanie turned to me. “Do you want to be the one to open it?” she asked.

Someone called time.”

I didn’t used to read nonfiction. I figured I got enough through the news and magazine articles.  When I went to a library or bookstore to choose a book for pleasure, I was drawn to the classic literature or even the fantasy stories over the shelves of nonfiction hardbacks staring back at me. I guess I’m just a sucker for a good story. Or maybe it’s my own prejudice, assuming nonfiction is boring and tedious. Whatever my past excuses, Brian Eule’s book Match Day made me a convert.

As stated in the book’s subtitle, Match Day is about “one day and one dramatic year in the lives of three new doctors.” More specifically, it chronicles the journey of the days leading up to match day–the infamous day in March when every fourth-year medical student in the US finds out where he or she has been placed for residency–and moves into details about the new doctors’ experiences as interns and first-year residents.

Why it works

Aside from its catchy writing and clever mix between the history of medicine, the state of medical schools today, and personal anecdotes, I was especially drawn to Match Day because of the author’s point of view.  Brian Eule is not a doctor nor a medical student, but writes the book as an observer. He experienced the turbulence of the medical life through his wife, Stephanie, the surgical resident in the book. I connected so well with Eule’s words because my fiancé, Sam, is a second year medical student, or M2, as they call it. Eule conducted interviews, observed Stephanie’s trials, and chronicled his own hardships as the lonely significant other of a resident working 80 hours/week; something I fear I’ll be able to relate to all to well in the coming years.

Honestly, I only read the book in the first place because Sam checked it out from the library and recommended it. But as soon as I started reading I couldn’t get enough. I was dying to hear about the relationships so severely strained because of lack of time, energy, or physical distance forced upon them as a result of an unfortunate residency match. I hungrily flipped through the pages, imagining myself in Brian’s position, knowing that his situation in the book is my future as the spouse of a medical resident.

future doc

Sam, the future doc.

Since Sam is still a couple years behind where Eule’s story begins, the book gave me a glimpse into the future. Eule’s note in the back of the book makes the story all the more powerful.

“This is a work of narrative nonfiction. All of the characters in this book are real…there are no composite characters.”

These things really happened. These are real people. This is Sam’s life. This is my future. This is nonfiction.

Whatever my past excuse for disregarding nonfiction, I will no longer shy away from the rows of books written from real life experience or beautiful portrayals of real-life events. My fear that I would miss out on a good story proved irrational. Match Day revealed how sometimes our real lives make the best stories.

simple divider

So, now I’m on a quest to make up for lost time. I realize the potential of a well researched, well written nonfiction text and I’m anxious to experience more.

Bill_Bryson_Short_History_of_Nearly_Everything_abridged_compact_discs

Sam is currently reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly EverythingI can’t wait until he’s done so I can get started.

Because I’m so new to this genre, I know little about the theories and discussion surrounding nonfiction. Please share in the comments section what you know and love about nonfiction. And give some recommendations too!

On Originality

19 Jul

“Your idea isn’t new. Pick an idea; at least 50 other people have thought of it. Get over your stunning brilliance and realize that execution matters more.”

~Mark Fletcher, Founder of Bloglines.com

I recently met the creator of Perpetually Chic, the wonderfully fashionable lifestyle blog from which I copied this feature image. While speaking casually with her at a backyard cook-out where we met randomly, I was amazed to learn that, in addition to being a cool person, she also posts on her blog daily and uses only original photography. I was not only amazed, I was inspired. She must be so creative, so original. I wanted that same pure originality for my own blog.

But as I thought more about the concept of originality and what it means to be creative, I realized that creativity doesn’t emerge out of thin air. I tried to think of something completely original to say about literature or how it affects my life and I couldn’t come up with one thing. It hit me that creativity isn’t necessarily about coming up with something no one’s ever said before. It’s about connecting the dots of our disparate life experiences; it’s about connection more than spontaneous generation.

So connecting creative sources and linking them to form something new and personal can be original and creative too. For example, I look at the original photos on Perpetually Chic, gain creative inspiration, and use that inspiration to connect to other thoughts, images, or ideas that inspire me, in effect, forming a creative circuit.

In the words of Maria Popova: “Creativity, after all, is a combinatorial force”

And so I admit, this blog has been done before. Literary blogs are nothing new. But there’s a reason people keep coming back to this idea. We want to explore the role creativity plays in our lives. We want to look for a deeper meaning–an alternative to American culture’s mantra that money and prestige equal successful living.

To live a creative life, I search for connections and inspiration in whatever I do. This sort of creativity necessitates learning from what’s come before me and adding my own perspective or voice.

As I document my thoughts about art and books and make connections to their larger significance in the world, I hope you have a reaction. Whether it’s positive or negative, I hope what I say causes you to react in some way. Because, then, even if what I write isn’t earth shattering, it will continue the creative circuit. And this circuit can challenge us, in new and exciting ways, to come together and connect.

“If you don’t feel a little uncomfortable, you’re just not going fast enough.”

~Mario Andrett

Here are some blogs that have inspired me to make connections and challenge myself in new and uncomfortable ways:
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