Writing Daily in November

Writing Daily in November | Year 2

Pen on Notepad PaperAt the start of 2018, I said that I would not be blogging everyday in November, as I did last year. Daily blogging is more challenging than daily writing because posts are public. However, after much consideration, I’ve decided to take up this challenge again. As I’ve written before, I am a huge believer in the importance of developing a writing habit while in graduate school.

Unlike NaNoWriMo participants who will be writing over 1,667 words a day, I will be writing only 500 words a day. No one wants to read thirty 1,667-word posts! I certainly don’t have the time to write that much on the side while also working on end-of-term papers (due in early December).

Let me know if there are particular topics related to books and/or Academia that you would like me to write about in November. Coming up with ideas is the hardest part of this challenge. But this year, I plan to outline my posts days in advance so that I am not wracking my brain for ideas at 11:40 pm.

I received quite a lot of positive feedback for my daily posts last November, so I am hopeful that you will once again enjoy my content.

Adventure, Goldman, William

Review of The Princess Bride

Image result for the princess bride bookThe film adaptation of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride is a cult classic. But not many fans of the movie have read the book. Although this review will be spoiler-free, my intended audience is people familiar with the movie.

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I am always the last person to see a film. Less than a year ago, one of my best friends encouraged me to give The Princess Bride a try. Despite my dislike for fictional romance, I finally gave in and rented the movie from Amazon. I am the most movie-ignorant person I know.

To be honest, I wasn’t very impressed by the film. I enjoyed the outlandish characters and the parody on courtly romance, but nothing stood out to me as particularly noteworthy. Whenever I am disappointed by a hyped work, I convince myself that I’m missing something: Fans are seeing something that I’m just not seeing. But before re-watching the film, I thought to read William Goldman’s book. I have been inspired in the past to re-watch a movie because of the book (ex. The Lord of the Rings movies).

The first thing that struck me about the book was the frame narrative. The preface establishes the story as an abridgment of a larger European satire of the same name. A fictional William Goldman recounts his childhood love for S. Morgenstern’s book. His father read it to him for the first time while he was recovering from Pneumonia. But William was concerned that his son Billy would find the many asides and descriptions boring. William, himself, had always felt that those sections of Morgenstern’s book were unnecessary to the plot. Hence, the frame narrator’s decision to produce an abridgment of The Princess Bride. Multiple times in the story, our fictional William Goldman intervenes to tell the reader how he has edited the original work and the reasons for his edits. The frame narrative is much more prominent in the book than in the movie. I prefer the book’s metatextual elements for the questions they raise about the purpose of storytelling.

I was also surprised by William Goldman’s fictional persona. He is not a very likable character. William is the quintessential racist,misogynistic white male author. He is self-absorbed, dislikes his wife, and is absent from his son’s life. At first, the casual racism and misogyny were quite off-putting, but I am now convinced that the real William Goldman very consciously included those elements in order to parody aspects of the literary industry. The real author does not have a son, and his wife is not a psychiatrist.

The Princess Bride is the perfect book to read when sick. It is fast-paced and laugh-out-loud funny. Westley’s bad-ass persona is even more apparent in the book than the movie. He leaves Buttercup as a lowly farm boy, but develops some insane fighting skills in no time. Vizzini, Fezzik, and Inigo have the most interesting backstories. I recall not being able to keep the characters straight in the movie. Thankfully, they are more distinct in the book. Not once did I feel that the narrator’s interjections or character backstories undermined the general action of the story.

And yes, Inigo does give his famous line – about a dozen times.

There’s something quite Rabelaisian about the novel. I was surprised and entertained by the outrageous violence and occasional vulgarity in the novel. The narrator presents The Princess Bride as a story for children, but it is clearly written for adults. I’ve never laughed so hard while reading about torture!

I will certainly be rewatching the film adaptation in the near future. I will be paying close attention to how the film follows or modifies the book because William Goldman also wrote the screenplay for the movie. The next time I’m sick or unable to sleep, I will pick up A Princess Bride. It’s the perfect escapist read.

Miscellaneous

PhD Advice: Assess Your Priorities

Related imageDon’t feel guilty about having side projects or side interests. They may be more important than your main work.

Although I am taking three classes this semester, I value the most the casual Latin reading group that meets every Friday afternoon. The reading group encourages me to practice translating neo-Latin texts, such as Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris. The three courses are informative and enjoyable, but I find the Latin group to be the most intellectually rewarding and the most necessary for my field. A medievalist must know Latin.

In the U.S., PhD students have 2-3 years of coursework before starting work on their dissertation. It is so easy to ignore your intellectual and professional needs when you are in the process of fulfilling course requirements.

Of course, not every course is unrelated to your interests. The courses I’ve taken have introduced me to important texts and scholars in the Medieval/Renaissance discipline. I have had to write a lot. This post is not intended as a dismissal of coursework (I think it is very important), but as a reminder to evaluate how your courses influence your personal goals. Furthermore, there is no shame in valuing certain intellectual pursuits over others. Even though the Latin reading group is entirely optional, I take it very seriously because I want to improve my language skills.

Don’t neglect your assignments and responsibilities, but do prioritize the things that are most important (at the moment) to your professional goals. Learn a new language, practice creating a website, take a coding course in the summer, write for popular sites. Your future employer will not care what courses you took but what skills you acquired.

Don’t feel guilty for knowing what you want and working toward it. As long as you are fulfilling your teaching/research responsibilities and putting a reasonable amount of effort into your coursework, you shouldn’t feel bad for having a hierarchy of priorities.

My main priority this semester is learning Latin.

Miscellaneous, Science

What a book on wolves taught me about passion

For the next fifteen years, the farthest Rick ever ventured from the park was an occasional trip to the nearest movie theater, seventy-five miles away in Cody. He never missed another day watching wolves.

If he did skip a day, who knew what he might miss? The celebrated primate researcher Jane Goodall didn’t even have a college degree when she was assigned to watch chimpanzees in Tanzania, Rick liked to remind people, yet she was the first to record them using twigs as tools for fishing termites out of the ground, a discovery that upended the conventional understanding of primate intelligence. She had been in the field for months, much longer than any other observer, before she witnessed that startling behavior. And yet if you had approached her the day before she made that discovery and asked her if a chimp was smart enough to use a tool to get what it wanted, she would have said no.

It was all about showing up.

Image result for american wolf nate blakesleeIn many ways, Rick McIntyre is the focus of Nate Blakeslee’s most recent book on Yellowstone wolves, American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West. McIntyre, a National Park Service employee, voluntarily spent tens of thousands of hours following wolf packs in Yellowstone National Park. He witnessed the impact of U.S. Fish and Wildlife policies on wolf conservation. McIntyre’s favorite was O-Six, an alpha female with a knack for leadership. Of all the wolves chronicled in American Wolf, O-Six receives the most attention.

Unlike his colleagues, McIntyre was not a trained biologist. He just had an enormous passion for wolves. Blakeslee does a great job communicating McIntyre’s passion to the reader. Even when he was working in the Visitor’s Center near the Old Faithful geyser and far from wolf territory, McIntyre still made time to check up on his packs. Every morning, before work, he would drive 1.5 hrs. to and from the Lamar Valley. Soon, word went around that McIntyre was the “wolf-man”, even though he was not officially in charge of wolf conservation at the park. Visitors joined him in his daily routine.

Passion is very underrated in business and life. Yet, passionate people are some of the most successful precisely because they go above and beyond expectations in what they do. Passionate people have the internal motivation to push through setbacks and failures. McIntyre and his wolf-watching friends drove through the heaviest of snow storms in order to keep up with their favorite wolves. When the wolves were removed from the Endangered Species list in Wyoming, McIntyre’s passion inspired policy makers to reconsider anti-wolf legislation. Although he was never directly involved in politics, McIntyre inspired park visitors to care about the recently-introduced Yellowstone wolves.

American Wolf re-confirmed my belief in the importance of passion. It is, as McIntyre told a group of visitors, all about “showing up”. This doesn’t mean that a passionate person never works a day in her life. Even if you love what you do, work is still work. McIntyre’s wolf observations were not always “fun”. I’m sure most sightings were pretty mundane. But he knew that the only way to keep up with the packs was to show up regularly.

Finally, passion is contagious. A person who has passion for something will naturally spread that passion to others.

Many businesses and schools focus on competence and talent. They want to know about your educational background and work history. All of these things are certainly important. But nothing trumps passion. Even if you are not in a career that you enjoy, never abandon the activities that you are passionate about. If you have passion, others will care and you will see results.

Miscellaneous

Discovering Poetry | Teachers Open Doors (Part 1)

When I was in 8th grade, I had two experiences that have been pivotal in my intellectual development.

I will share one with you today.

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The summer before the first day of class, my future 8th grade English teacher assigned a poetry anthology. It was an easy assignment. We were asked to select twenty poems relating to a topic of our choice. I selected my topic, “Animals”, easily because I have always loved learning about the natural world. Unfortunately, I was not a fan of poetry. The only poems I enjoyed were those found in children’s novels. Because of my obsession with Roald Dahl, I was quite familiar with his poems. Thankfully, Dahl had written a few poems about animals. My favorite to-date is “The Pig”. I later used it in my audition for the middle school play.

While I was curating my anthology, I discovered poems that I enjoyed but are not critically acclaimed. I couldn’t care less about meter or style. I was only looking for entertainment. If an animal poem was funny, I selected it for my anthology. Soon, I widened my reading to include non-animal-related children’s poems.

I was obsessed. Not only did I read and reread my favorite poems, I also memorized them. During the first month of class, I recited these “silly” poems before my teacher. “You are Old, Father William” from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “The Pig” from Roald Dahl’s short story collection Kiss Kiss, “Anabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, and some poem about the Easter bunny by Dean Koontz (yes, him!).

If it weren’t for children’s poetry I would never have discovered “fine” literature (poetry AND prose). I started to pay attention to words and the ways they disclose or conceal meaning.

The most successful teachers are those who can instill a passion for learning in their students. As you will discover next week, I was a weak language student for most of my childhood. I couldn’t analyze a book for beans, and my vocabulary was quite limited. Although I read a lot, my analytical essays were nothing but summaries of the work at hand. But Mr. Korvne’s simple assignment invited me to explore poetry at my own pace and on my own terms.

He also introduced me to imagery, but more on that later…

Literary Fiction, Wright, Richard

Review of Native Son

Image result for native son richard wrightOnly two pages into Native Son, I knew that I would love this book. The lush prose and dynamic dialogue sucked me in.

Published in 1940, Native Son by Richard Wright follows Bigger Thomas from the poverty-stricken Black Belt of Chicago’s South Side to the Cook County courthouse where he awaits his sentence for the killing of a white woman named Mary Dalton. The Daltons are an upper middle class white family who hire Bigger as a chauffeur because of their pity for African Americans. Bigger has a history of delinquency. At the start of the novel, he organizes a bank robbery with his friends. But despite his background, or maybe because of it, Mr. Dalton hires Bigger to drive Mary to the university. Unfortunately, Mary is not interested in school. Instead, she introduces Bigger to her Communist boyfriend Jan. Mary and Jan even invite Bigger to eat with them at a restaurant in the Black Belt. But as Bigger drives Mary home alone, he begins to feel uncomfortable in her presence. That very night, Bigger commits the fateful crime at the center of Native Son.

The death of Mary Dalton is only the first of many crimes Bigger commits during his escape. Bigger Thomas is a true-to-life criminal. Most novels I’ve read that address racial injustice center on an unjustly-accused, innocent black character. But Bigger is highly unlikeable. Even when it is clear that race played a central role in shaping Bigger’s character, Wright does not attempt to exonerate Bigger from guilt. Instead, he interrogates the nature of this guilt, exposing the myriad ways in which White America contributed to the creation of Bigger Thomas.

Native Son is a classic of African American fiction. Its analysis of racism in the criminal justice system is as relevant as ever. The last fourth of the book is, admittedly, a bit preachy, but Wright’s novel doubles as a manifesto. I expected the preachiness. My only criticism has to do with the novel’s treatment of women – particularly black women. There is a black woman in the novel who does not receive the attention she deserves. While I understand that the story is told from Bigger’s perspective, I cannot excuse the way Wright handled Bessie’s story. Her story was almost made out to be less important than Bigger’s. Considering the circumstances, I find that unacceptable. Consequently, I gave the book 4.5 instead of 5 stars.

If you’ve read Native Son, let me know what you thought.

Reflections

PhD Reflections/Tips After Year 1

Row of Books in Shelf

I recently completed my first year of a PhD in French. There are two major reasons why I have decided to post the following reflections/tips.

First, I believe that it is healthy to reflect periodically on one’s progress when undergoing a long-term project.

Second, my reflections may help current and prospective graduate students who come across my blog.

Reflections/Tips

Now on to the reflections. I have made a list of 10 PhD-related things that I have discovered about myself and about graduate school in the past year. All tips are inspired by personal experience:

1) Being a PhD student is very much like being a wannabe actor who has recently moved to Los Angeles, California. The odds of “making it” are slim but thousands of us try every year. PhD students and newbie actors are in their industries for one single reason: they love what they do.

2) Constructive criticism is so valuable. Most professors (across institutions) do not grade term papers, so take seriously any constructive feedback you receive. Constructive criticism from a professor who has taken the time to read and mark up a paper should be received with gratitude.

3) On the flip-side, nonconstructive criticism is not only demotivating but also utterly useless. Try to ignore anyone who criticizes you or your work without telling you how you can improve. They are not worth your time or mental energy. They don’t care about your success.

4) Make friends with the other PhD students in your program. Support each other. You are all in this together.

5) If you have been following my blog in the past year, you will be familiar with the following advice: Academic writing IS your job. This is especially true if you are in the humanities or the social sciences. Start thinking of yourself as a writer because you are one.

6) You are an apprentice learning a craft, not an artist trying to harness a Muse. In popular imagination, the image of an apprentice evokes practice and determination. The image of an artist, on the other hand, evokes a born genius who effortlessly produces one masterpiece after another while sipping a latte at Starbucks. The apprentice takes concrete steps to improve her craft. She knows that a poorly-constructed table is not a reflection on her character, and that practice means progress. For more on this, check out Joli Jensen’s excellent book Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics (I also made a video about it here).

7) Participate regularly in activities that take you outside of the academic bubble. You need frequent reminder that there is a world outside of academia and that this world can be just as fulfilling as the one in academia.

8) Mental health matters.

9) Attend local conferences in your field even if you are not presenting. You will learn a lot and meet other academics.

10) When a family member asks you what you study, try to explain. The act of trying to explain what you do to someone outside of academia will teach you a lot about yourself and the importance of your work for wider society. What you study matters, so share it.