Reflections

Stop Saying That Good Writers Are Born

Image result for self-defeatismI strongly dislike the debate over whether a good writer is born or made. It fosters a defeatist mentality. Why do we feel the need to ask this question in the first place?

I particularly dislike this debate because it’s so hard to evaluate. Who do we consider a “good” writer? Because this debate often comes up in writing circles, my assumption is that a good writer has been published and has won a few literary awards. But are all successful writers good writers on an aesthetic level? Are all unpublished writers bad writers? Do all good writers get published?

I can name many authors who have written New York Times bestsellers but who would probably not get As from their English teachers. But their books are published and have been optioned for movies. Isn’t that the dream for many writers? There are equally as many writers with MFA degrees that have never published a single book. Are they bad writers?

To statistically determine whether good authors (however defined) are born or made, we could conduct a large-scale study on the childhood interests of such authors. Maybe all of them were prodigious writers at a very young age. But I doubt it. Time and time again, we hear stories about critically acclaimed authors who took up writing late in life. My favorite children’s author Roald Dahl was ridiculed by his teachers and told that he would never amount to anything.

And yet, so many people feel the need to say that writers either “have it” or they don’t. What’s the point? If success is defined by publication or prize, then an unpublished writer always has the potential to be published. An unpublished writer could become a published writer whose story sets the tone for how other unpublished writers see their own work.

There’s no point in asking yourself whether a good writer is born or made. No matter who the writer, writing requires discipline and practice. Unless you are on your deathbed, you – the unpublished, unrecognized writer – could become a published, recognized author. But only if you write and finish a project.

Let’s stop promoting the defeatist belief that artists are born, not made. In Academia, we use the term “impostor syndrome” to refer to that false belief that you do not belong in a graduate program or the professoriate. Impostor syndrome is particularly sinister when it is cultivated in us by our friends and mentors. Stop allowing other people to define success for you or to limit your potential. Stop self-sabotaging your own career or hobby. Work on improving your craft.

Clarke, Susanna, Fantasy/Sci-Fi

Review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Image result for jonathan strange and mr norrellAlthough I had planned to finish Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for Bout of Books 24, I only finished it a couple of days ago. It is a massive book – clocking in at anywhere between 750 and 1000 pages, depending on the edition. I couldn’t lay it on my lap without crushing my legs into oblivion. After reading the first half in hardback, I finally caved in and borrowed an electronic copy through my library’s Overdrive.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a historical fantasy set in England during the Napoleanic Wars. The eponymous Mr. Norrell is the only practical magician in the country, even though there are hundreds of theoretical magicians who research the history of magic. Theoretical magicians cannot perform a single spell. In 1806, two members of The Learned Society of York Magicians ask why practical magic is no longer encouraged by the society. After much bickering, the leaders agree to write to Mr. Norrell to ask him to attend the next meeting. But the only practical magician in England has no patience for theoretical magicians and their ridicule of “true” magic. The Learned Society of York Magicians must agree to disband if Mr. Norrell proves that he can perform magic. When the statues of the York Cathedral suddenly begin to speak one winter day, the Society members are forced to concede defeat.

Thus begins the public career of Mr. Norrell, a clever but narcissistic magician. He starts his own journal of magic and offers his services to the king. One of his closest friends is a Cabinet member, Sir Walter Pole. Pole is engaged to a woman who is deathly sick, although her mother refuses to acknowledge her infirmity. When Emma Wintertowne –  the fiancée – dies before the marriage day, Mr. Norrell offers to raise her from the dead. But to do so, Mr. Norrell has to summon a mischievous fairy.

Image result for jonathan strange and mr norrell illustrations
Illustrations by Portia Rosenberg

The second half of the book mostly follows Mr. Norrell’s student Jonathan Strange, an equally arrogant and accomplished magician. He and Norrell do not see eye to eye on anything. Strange is a devoted follower of the Raven King – a magician who established his kingdom in Northern England and trained a number of prominent magicians during the middle ages. Mr. Norrell, on the other hand, thinks that nothing good can come of fairies. He’d know.

But if they can’t get along, how will Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell address the evil that the gentleman with the thistle-down hair has been brewing in England?

Despite its length and copious footnotes, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a page-turner. I was impressed by the accuracy of Clarke’s imitation of 19th-century English prose. At numerous points in the novel, I thought I was reading a Victorian novel. Yet, Clarke subverts in significant ways the clichés of gothic fantasy.

It is also  the perfect book for readers who enjoy fantasy about the history of magic. Susanna Clarke has invented an entire history of magic to accompany her novel. There are numerous, lengthy footnotes that accompany the narrative. Because I love research, I did not skip a single footnote. I found that they added to my reading experience. Nevertheless, I don’t think you will miss much if you choose to skip them.

Although there were a few scenes that could have been edited out, I was sucked in by the novel’s spooky atmosphere. This is the perfect book to read in fall or winter. The gentleman with the thistle-down hair is a morally-complex character, despite the damage that he wreaks in the lives of the magicians’ friends and family members. More than once, I sympathized with his diagnosis of Mr. Norrell’s enterprise.

It may be a bit old-fashioned of me to say that I prefer fantasy about magicians, wizards, and the history of magic. The fantasy genre is breaking new grounds and abandoning its “wizard’s apprentice” origins. But I am a sucker for those fantasies. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was a very satisfying novel, and I look forward to reading more by Susanna Clarke.

Augustine, Religious

Master/Slave Language in Augustine’s Confessions (Trans. Sarah Ruden)

Image result for sarah ruden confessionsI just tweeted my initial impression of Sarah Ruden’s 2017 translation of Augustine’s Confessions. Thanks to Spooler for making the unrolling of my thread possible. I hope to write more in-depth blog posts about this translation at a later date.

Full Post

Currently reading and loving Sarah Ruden’s recent (2017) translation of Augustine’s Confessions. Her decision to translate dominus as Master rather than Lord is most appropriate for 2 reasons. 1) Augustine’s contemporaries associated dominus w/ the head of a household and slaves. 2) Augustine considers the relationship between God and humanity as a relationship between a Master and a slave. It is this slavery that Augustine believes leads to true freedom. Humans are either slaves of sin or they are slaves to God. There’s no in-between. This is Pauline.

Of course, master/slave language is very off-putting today. Augustine owned slaves, while we rightly condemn slavery. Furthermore, most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as slaves to God. We want to have free choice.

Now, I’m not going to get into Augustine’s teachings on the human will (it’s complicated), but suffice it to say that Augustine does not believe post-Adamic humans have libertarian free will (a will free from all determination). God’s role in human salvation – and conversely, original sin’s role in human damnation – leaves little room for personal autonomy. According to Augustine, conversion entails the exchange of one master for another.

Tl;dr : Sarah Ruden’s translation of dominus as Master and servus as slave perfectly captures Augustine’s theology of salvation.

Because Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey appeared in the same year, Ruden’s translation was overlooked by literary critics. Her translation has received virtually no buzz. That’s too bad. Ruden’s translation is excellent, and everyone should read it!

Reflections

Why I’m Such a Slow Writer

Related imageI don’t often talk about my writing struggles on here. I might share goals or writing advice, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing my faults publicly. I resist being vulnerable because I am terrified of being perceived as a complainer – perhaps because my emotions were often ridiculed and dismissed as a child. Nevertheless, I want to share my failures with you because I know that failure is necessary for growth. So here goes.

Yesterday, I submitted my final term paper for the Fall 2018 semester after having worked on it for over three weeks! Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You think I have a problem with procrastination. Nope. I wrote consistently over the three-week period. Many days I worked for 2-3 hours. Nevertheless, it took me three weeks to write a 20-page term paper.

My major problem is that I revise as I write. I am doing it right now. It’s so hard for me to resist the urge to correct clumsy, disorganized prose. I worry that I’m missing transitions or entire paragraphs.

For this paper, I made serious structural edits every 3-5 pages. Then I wrote a few more pages. Then I made even more changes. One day I spent almost two hours writing two sentences. Another day, I spent over three hours changing the order of paragraphs and rewriting topic sentences.

This needs to stop!

I need to be okay with writing multiple drafts. I must resist the urge to write a perfect first draft. In fact, I’ve noticed that my writing is more, not less, clumsy when I agonize over each and every sentence. Paragraphs don’t flow as well.

A more organized and detailed outline would certainly help, but perfectionism is what’s really holding me back.

There are some reasons for this. I’ve never been a “creative”. There was a time when I thought I might like to write fiction, but my writing is very plain and straightforward. I hated creative writing assignments. I couldn’t even write a decent essay in high school. It also doesn’t help that writing is shrouded in myth. Many writers claim that you are either born a writer or you’re not.

Although my writing has improved greatly over the past three years, I know that I will never be a wordsmith. And I’m honestly okay with that. I just want to get my point across. I care about academic writing because I want to communicate my findings with the scholarly community. But at my current writing rate, it will take me a decade to write a dissertation.

My goal in 2019 is to accept that my first draft will be atrocious.

Read-A-Thon

Bout of Books 24 (Jan 7-13)

 Bout of Books 24In an effort to be more involved in the blogging community, I will be participating in Bout of Books 24. This is a week-long reading event that starts on Monday, January 7 and ends on Sunday, January 13.

My goal for this readathon is to finish Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This 782-page behemoth follows two magicians: Mr. Norrell and his student Jonathan Strange.

Image result for jonathan strange book

I am deeply enjoying this book so far. Fantasies that revolve around wizards and the history of magic are my favorite. And Clarke is so good at imitating 19th-century prose that I have thought more than once that I was reading something by Dickens. If I finish this work by the 13th, I will be very pleased with myself.

If I manage to finish that before Sunday, I will begin What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte.

Image result for what you are getting wrong about appalachia

Having lived in Kentucky for 6 years, I am interested in learning more about Appalachia and the people who live there. When Hillbilly Elegy came out, I was excited to read it. Unfortunately, J. D. Vance blames the poor for their problems and sympathizes uncritically with Trump supporters. No thank you! Catte’s book promises to challenge Vance’s most controversial claims and to give a short, but realistic portrait of one of the poorest regions in the United States.

These are my plans for Bout of Books 24. What are your plans?

___________________

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda Shofner and Kelly Rubidoux Apple. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, January 7th and runs through Sunday, January 13th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 24 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. – From the Bout of Books team

Reflections

2019 Writing, Language, and Blogging Goals

Closeup Photo of Journal Book and Pencils

First of all, Merry Christmas to everyone celebrating!!

happy new year christmas GIF

Now, on to my 2019 goals:

I usually review the goals that I set for myself the previous year, but I’m not going to do that this year because I didn’t achieve any of them. Nevertheless, I did work toward some of my university-related goals, so I am generally pleased with my progress.

Language and Writing Goals

  1. Let’s start with the most ambitious one. I would like to have a manuscript ready for submission by the end of 2019. Thankfully, I have picked a topic that my advisor agrees is worth turning into an article.
  2. In 2018, I relearned elementary Latin and began reading classical and medieval texts. My goal in 2019 is to read a Latin work (classical or neo-Latin) from start to finish. The length is irrelevant. I just want to have a text under my belt. I read about 50 pages of Neil Klim’s Underground Travels by Ludvig Holberg last summer, but I probably won’t be able to finish it in 2019 because it’s a fairly lengthy work. My biggest weakness is vocabulary. I look up nearly every word in the dictionary. This needs to stop. I’m sure I will be able to read more quickly if I spend time everyday memorizing vocab.
  3. Write for an hour at 7 am every morning. I’m finally going to implement Joli Jensen’s advice in Write No Matter What. Not everyone is a morning person, but I work better in the morning. This is also the best time for me to write, based on my schedule.

Blogging Goals

I’m pretty sure I write the same goals year after year. Will 2019 be the year? We’ll see. I am only setting myself two goals this year.

  1. Post once a week. The only reason why I do not posting regularly is because I don’t write my posts in advance. Instead, I try to do everything all at once. Successful bloggers plan their posts in advance.
  2. Successfully complete a Classics Spin book. To be honest, the 50-book Classics Club challenge no longer interests me because I already have a massive PhD reading list to get to in the next year-and-a-half. But I love the community and what it stands for. I have lost touch with most of the bloggers I knew in the early days of my blog. I am hoping that the Classics Spin challenge will encourage me to interact more with the community.
Miscellaneous

Top 10 Favorite Books of 2018

This is my definitive Top Ten list for 2018. The books are in order, with #1 being my favorite book of 2018.

1. Le Rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black) by Stendhal

Image result for le rouge et le noir couverture

Julien Sorel is a character you either love or hate. I found his turbulent desires very relatable. He has become one of my favorite protagonists in fiction. The colors mentioned in the title symbolize the identities that Julien find the most attractive: soldier (red) and priest (black). Unfortunately, Julien doesn’t have what it takes to be a “great” man, so he turns to love as a means to social mobility. Julien’s messy romance with Mme de Rênal and his quest for greatness double as a social satire on post-Restoration France. If you like Balzac’s Father Goriot, you should definitely give The Red and the Black a try.

2. The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker

Image result for the half drowned king

The #2 spot goes to the first book in a historical fiction trilogy (The Golden Wolf Saga). The second book (The Sea Queen) came out this past August, and the last book will probably be released next year. The Half-Drowned King is set in 9th-century Norway and follows a brother and a sister in search of justice and honor. Ragnvald Eysteinsson and his sister Svanhild are growing up with their stepfather Olaf, who has taken the throne of Ragnvald’s father. At the start of the novel, Ragnvald is attacked by a shipmate named Solvi, whose father Ragnvald suspects has formed an alliance with Olaf. Now, Ragnvald wants revenge and a chance to win the throne from Olaf. This series has everything: a rich world, beautiful writing, compelling women, morally-complex characters, and great action scenes. If you like A Game of Thrones, I expect you will love this series. I have never been able to get past the first episode of A Game of Thrones (because I thought it was quite sexist), but I sped through the first two books of Hartsuyker’s trilogy. Leave it to a woman to write female characters well.

3. Réparer les vivants (Repair the Living, or The Heart) by Maylis de Kerangal

Image result for reparer les vivants

Repair the Living is about a heart transplant. Simon Limbres, an avid surfer, dies in a car accident at the start of the novel. But his death is nothing like in the movies. His heart is still beating although his brain has stopped functioning. When Simon’s mother sees her son in the hospital, she thinks that he will soon revive from his coma. But he won’t. Simon is clinically dead. Modern medicine insists that the brain, not the heart, is the true locus of life. In France, unlike in the United States, a person is automatically considered an organ donor unless they officially opt out. Thus, Doctors Pierre Révol and Thomas Rémige have already identified Simon as an organ donor before they even meet with his surviving relatives. Repair the Living offers a kaleidoscopic perspective on life, death, grief, and, of course, the heart.

4. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Image result for the power of habit

I already knew I would like this book when I first heard about it on Booktube. Self-help is not usually a genre I reach for, but I am a huge believer in habit. I have broken some major habits in my life, but forming new habits has been much more challenging. I resist discipline because it takes too much effort. Duhigg demystifies habit through a number of case studies. It’s amazing how many things we do on a daily basis that are nothing more than ingrained habits. Understanding habit formation is particularly important today businesses (such as grocery stores) exploit research on human behavior to sell more product. They know, for example, that customers turn habitually to the right when they enter a store. Some organizations use this information more constructively. Starbucks trains its employees to adopt good habits so that they can be self-motivated and disciplined workers. And of course, there’s Alcoholics Anonymous; the 12-step program has helped thousands of people break habits of addiction. This is a fascinating book with implications for every aspect of business and life.

5. Les Lettres persanes (The Persian Letters) by Montesquieu

Image result for les lettres persanes montesquieu

This 1721 epistolary novel tells the story of two fictional travelers, Usbek and Rica, who leave Persia in search of enlightenment. Usbek is the older of the two, with five wives and a household of slaves. He is critical of the justice system in Persia, but he doesn’t necessarily find France to be any better. Usbek makes some incisive remarks about French society. But unlike other travel narratives and social satires of the 18th century, The Persian Letters is filled with morally-complex characters. Usbek and Rica are not merely observers and commentators, but social actors as well.

6. The Unseen World by Liz Moore

Image result for the unseen world

The hype is well-deserved. The Unseen World by Liz Moore manages to be both thought-provoking and exhilarating – a combination scarcely found in fiction. Ada is a child prodigy whose father, David, heads a computer science lab. He has always been somewhat of an outsider, but in recent months he has started to forget things. Once, he goes missing an entire day. David had been diagnosed years ago with early-onset Alzheimer’s, but he had never told his daughter. Now that David can no longer care for himself, he must be admitted to a nursing home. But who is David? Ada meets a man at the nursing home who claims that her father isn’t who he claims to be. Unfortunately, David’s memory has so deteriorated that she can’t simply ask him to learn the truth. Instead, she has to decode a message her father left her on a floppy disk. I read this 452-page book in two days!

7. La Place (The Place) by Annie Ernaux

Image result for la place annie ernaux

This autobiography is more like a series of reflections about Annie Ernaux’s upbringing in a working-class French family. The death of Ernaux’s father at the start of the work elicits a series of reflections about social class and writing. She insists on writing about her father in plain, straightforward language, rather than the flowery style we are so accustomed to encountering in memoirs. Unlike the author’s father, who quit school early in order to work for his father and later owned his own grocery, Annie went to college, obtained her CAPES de lettres (Le certificat d’aptitude au professorat de l’enseignement du second degré), and became a teacher and writer. La Place gives the reader an insight into why Ernaux prefers a “flat” writing style over the “literary”.

8. The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien

Image result for the children of hurin

Every year it seems, the Tolkien estate publishes another of the author’s unfinished writings. Some are interesting, while others are a waste of time. The Children of Húrin is one of Tolkien’s most complete posthumous writings, and definitely the most engaging. I want this book to become a movie or a mini-series so badly. The world-building and character development are impressive. It is also the most psychological and the most violent of Tolkien’s works. Early in the history of Middle-Earth, the evil Morgoth escapes establishes a fortress in the North and from there, encourages a war between elves. At the start of the novel, Túrin’s father Húrin is captured by Morgoth during the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. Consequently, Túrin is adopted by King Thingol of Doriath, an elf. But Túrin makes some unpleasant choices, which alienates him from the elves. The Children of Húrin is about the consequences of these choices on his family and friends.

9. Le Traité sur la tolérance (The Treatise on Tolerance) by Voltaire

Image result for voltaire treatise on tolerance

Thankfully, I don’t know anyone who supports the execution of religious dissidents, but well into the 18th century, people were tortured and killed for refusing to submit to the national religion. Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance is a plea for religious tolerance on the occasion of the death of Jean Calas, an Huguenot executed on spurious grounds. This essay is particularly relevant today, in an age of increasing intolerance. Voltaire was clearly up-to-date with the Biblical scholarship of his day.

10. Native Son by Richard Wright

Image result for native son richard wright

I am not entirely sure how I feel about Native Son. On the one hand, I flew through this work and was compelled by Bigger Thomas’s story. On the other hand, I felt like the novel was dismissive of the suffering of the female characters. But I have to include this work on the list because I was moved by the story and the author’s insights on race and class. Native Son is about the role systemic racism played in the lives of black men growing up in the Jim Crow era. But it’s message remains relevant today. Racism in the American criminal justice system is just as present today as it was before 1965. Except for the last 25 pages, this book was a page-turner. It honestly read like a thriller. The prose was also magnificent. Consequently, I look forward to reading Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, in the near future.