This November, the Career Center is holding several internship-oriented events. The first sessions to kick off the month takes place November 7- head over to the Non-Profit Fair to learn about volunteering and/or to the Intro to Internships to learn the difference between for credit and non-credit internships. Dash up your resume and online profiles by having a professional photo of you taken for your website; services will be available every Thursday from 3pm-4pm. There will also be two sessions for those of you interested in law school. Please visit the Career Service’s Focus on Internships page to see their full list of available internships and events.
A guest post by senior Kate Stringer, who interned at Cargill Communications last summer.
“Let it fester.”
This is one of many nuggets of wisdom I retained from Dr. Orr’s Literary Studies course (English 225) freshman year. He was talking about revising. Our class lesson boiled down to this: Write your paper and then give it some time to fester. After all, trying to revise a paper written five minutes prior will do little besides revealing the occasional grammar error. Let it sit for a least a day – you want to come back and see boils with puss oozing out the sides. Then you’ll know what to change.
I loved this advice. After all, writing is hard; therefore it’s expected first drafts of anything will be messy. So why not treat revising as a necessary component of the writing process?
Outside the English classroom, I was frustrated to learn this frame of mind is not always held, especially in the fast-paced realm of online publishing. My internship at Cargill Communications this summer as well as my job at The Beacon have taught me that long-term revising isn’t always possible. The online world demands instant information, and the news source that gets it out first, whether or not it’s accurate, is rewarded by page views, advertising dollars, and higher rankings on Google’s news feed. Journalists are assigned several stories per day and expected to hand them in ASAW (as soon as written). Not “as soon as written and festered and revised.” No, it’s as soon as the last period mark has been placed on the last word of the last concluding sentence. Published.
A disclaimer: I’m not the ideal English major when it comes to revising papers. I’ve started many a paper the night before with nothing but a bar of chocolate and caffeinated tea to keep my thoughts in a semi-coherent state. And in these situations my revising process has been nothing more than a glance at grammar and a prayer that my professors can’t tell.
However, when I do have the opportunity to revise, I notice drastic differences in my paper and in my learning: I witness my chaotic mass of Times New Roman black shapes transform into a coherent argument. I see my thesis and my “so what” develop and make sense. I understand Charlotte Bronte’s decision to make the concluding paragraphs of Villette the worst ending in the history of literature (Lie. I will never understand why you did that, Bronte). But when I’m on deadline for a blog post for my internship or a breaking news article for The Beacon, I don’t have time to make sense of my writing. I just write as fast as possible and hope the final product makes sense to someone.
I’ve only experienced a taste of deadline madness at Cargill Communications and The Beacon. A few blog posts I’ve written have been news that needed immediate publishing; however, most have been a 24-48 hour production cycle. At The Beacon, the majority of my articles have had several days to fester before both my editors and I transformed them for publication. But as I look at my future—the world of sprint-writing—I start to wonder if my writing, or anyone’s writing, is good enough for instantaneous publication. Do good journalists just happen to get everything right the first time? Or do journalists pick up the newspaper and read their rushed articles and wish they had some antiseptic to clean up the festering ooze?
The online world has made it acceptable for readers to demand instantaneous information. But what effect does this have on both the writer and the reader? Are we missing something by forcing writers to submit their first drafts as final drafts?
Maybe more important to me is this question: do journalists find they have time to enjoy their craft? Or are they so rushed through writing that it becomes a chore? I am excited and hopeful about my future in journalism but simultaneously fearful. Can I keep up, and if I can, will the constant sprinting still be as rewarding as the longer run?
A quick post introducing new and old books for Halloween by junior English major Hannah Wilkes.
With Halloween just around the corner what better time to sit down and read a spooky short story or novel? Here are some great books, from both the past and present, to get you into the Halloween spirit! Chances are you’ve heard of most of them before, but it’s always nice to sit down with a familiar book and enjoy the Halloween season.
If upon a midnight dreary you find yourself pondering over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, these books might be for you. Iconic characters like Dracula, Ichabod Crane, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will help you get into the Halloween spirit.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe
Here are some more modern classics that are sure to make you frightened. These books have everything from zombies to serial killers and are perfect to read on Halloween.
The Shining by Stephan King
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
After Her by Joyce Maynard
World War Z by Max Brooks
There is no better time than Halloween, when we often reminisce about our childhood excitement for the holiday, to re-read our favorite childhood books. While they may not be that scary, these titles are definitely fun to read. Check out Bony Legs, an adaptation of the Baba Yaga folktale about a witch who lives in a house built on chicken legs.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Bony Legs by Joanna Cole
It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown by Charles M. Schulz
The Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine
A review on Ernest Hemingway’s hamburger recipe by Dorian Pacheco.
Earlier this fall, I came across an article in the Paris Review about a hamburger recipe by Ernest Hemingway. The author of the article, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, had recreated the hamburger herself. I knew I had to do the same.
Fall break had just begun as I made preparations to cook Hemingway’s burgers in the comfort of my own home. I looked over the ingredients over and over: dry red or white wine, garlic, green onions, and a plethora of spices that I had never heard of or even used before. My first problem was finding Spice Island’s Beau Monde seasoning, so I set about recreating it using a recipe I found online. I also made my own version of Spice Island’s Mei-Yen powder. According to Tan, the company discontinued this product several years ago, but gave her the recipe: 9 parts salt, 9 parts sugar, and 2 parts MSG. I omitted the MSG because I don’t like food additives.
As soon as I finished blending my spices, I began to prepare the beef. The dry ingredients went in first. I massaged the spices in carefully, trying to produce an even mixture throughout the meat. Next, I added the capers and liquid ingredients. Once everything was in the bowl, I wondered how the beef could possibly soak up so much liquid (more wine than anything). I went along anyway. Much to my surprise, the meat absorbed the wine after a minute of kneading. After I let mixture marinate, I set out forming inch-thick patties and dropping them in a hot frying pan. The patties sizzled quietly, giving off a “heady scent of charred beef tinged with sage, garlic and celery seed.” The minutes passed slowly as I paced in front of the stove, eagerly waiting.
Finally! They finished, and I dropped the patties onto toasted hamburger buns. Neither Hemingway nor Tan seemed to have added any condiments to their burger, so I decided not to either. I brought the burgers to the dining table and sat down. “Are you ready?” I asked my dad. We exchanged a quick glance before we each took a bite out of our burgers. A moment of silence ensued before we began to eat quickly, letting out small remarks like “wow” and “mmm.”
The burger was juicy and the flavors were complex. I did not regret leaving it plain, because condiments would have contaminated the intensity of the meat. It was perfect the way it was. Inspired by Hemingway, my dad paired his meal with glass of cold beer. After finishing the meal all too quickly, I leaned back in my chair. The California sun was seeping in through the cracks in the curtains, and the smell of spices lingered in my kitchen. Damn, that was a good burger.
The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is seeking interns for their new exhibit, The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes. Interns are also sought after in Early Childhood Education, the Physics Lab, and the Chemistry Lab. Although these internships are unpaid, they count for school credit and serve as a way to gain a unique experience that also looks great on your resume. Majors in science, literature, history, communications, or education are extremely sought after. As an intern, you will have to assist with maintenance halls, labs, and visitor interaction. The internship lasts three months and you’ll have to work at least 4-8 hours per week.
Qualifications for the internship are:
· Basic knowledge and interest in science.
· Strong communication and customer service skills.
· Able to present science process and content in an engaging way to a broad age range.
· Must present a professional personal appearance.
· Dependable, punctual, and willing to commit to a schedule.
· Self-directed and willing to take initiative.
· Able to stand for extended periods of time.
To apply, submit a cover letter, resume, and an internship application on OMSI’s website. Send your application to email@example.com; you can also contact Carol at 503-797-4693 if you have any questions.
See the schedule below for times:
Physics has an opening on Thursday afternoon (1:30 – 5:30)
Sherlock Holmes has openings on Thursday (9:30 – 1:30, 1:30 – 5:30 or all day) and Saturday, (9:30 – 1:30, 1:30 – 5:30 or all day)
Chemistry has openings on Sunday morning, (9:30 – 1:30), Tuesday morning (9:30 – 1:30) and Wednesday afternoon (1:30 – 5:30)
Early Childhood Education has an opening on Wednesday afternoon (1:30 – 5:30)
A quick overview of jobs for English majors and businesses that hire them in word clouds by Kate Stringer.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an English major must be in want of a teaching certificate or a lifelong career as a Starbucks barista.
Haven’t heard that one before.
Yes, English majors are often given the coveted title of most useless major, as well as the skeptical eye of every relative, friend, and stranger with the audacity to ask the over-used question: “So, what are you going to do with your life?”
And while everyone insists that the only possible profession an English major can desire is a teaching job, there are actually limitless career opportunities for college graduates with an unmatched ability to critically think, read, and write.
Here’s a compilation of the Career Center’s list, “What Can I Do With My Major?” Visit their site for the full list of fields, businesses, and strategies for applying any major to your dream job.
The word cloud on the left displays jobs for English majors, and the word cloud on the right displays businesses that hire them.
Hello, all! My name is Dorian Pacheco and I’m the new intern that has been updating the English blog this fall. You’ve seen quite a few posts from me so far, so I thought you should know a little more about me.
I’m a freshman English major from Los Angeles, California. Life on the Bluff has been a blur so far, with orientation and adjusting to dorm life and college classes. I decided to come to UP after having fallen in love with the city and campus on a visit earlier this spring. I’m half Mexican, half Taiwanese and my favorite colors are burgundy and cream. My favorite book is Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.
I’m thinking about declaring a second major in Philosophy because I’m gearing towards law school, but I’m not exactly sure what I want to do yet. I’m thinking about being an attorney, consultant, or literature professor.
I’m really excited to be working on the blog, and am looking forward to becoming more involved at UP. Hope you all enjoy the blog so far!
When most UP students start to look for an internship, they focus on organizations nearby, or perhaps as far afield as downtown Portland. But senior English major Hannah Robinson moved all the way to New York City for her publishing internship last summer. Here’s her story, and some suggestions she offers for others seeking similar such positions.
As I hugged a mug of tea for moral support and pressed ‘send’ on thirty resumes last February, I had no idea that my dreams of a summer publishing internship were about to become a reality. The day I got an email inviting me to interview I literally jumped for joy, and four days later when HarperCollins Publishers officially offered me an internship I ran around for twenty minutes doing a victory dance. When June rolled around I packed my bags and got on a plane bound for New York City and ten phenomenal weeks as an editorial intern.
I spent the summer learning a new city and a new industry, making contacts and getting an insider perspective on what trade editorial is really like. For me, this internship was a sort of trial run; I knew I wanted to be an editor and this was the perfect opportunity to test out the responsibilities I would eventually be taking on. Warning: what everyone always says about publishing is true: it’s hard work and long hours for little (or in my case no) pay. But you know what else? When you love books the way most college students love hitting the snooze button then publishing is the place to be.
I could not be more thankful to the welcoming, intelligent and inspiring people at HarperCollins for their inspiring examples and for sharing their wisdom. I’m hoping to pay a little of that wisdom forward and share some tips with you all based on my own experience.
Whether you’re already spiffing up that resume or still just testing the waters, here are five things you can do to get a taste of the industry from right here on the Bluff and get the most out of your internship experience:
#1: Read omnivorously
And just when you thought you didn’t have another second left in the day, right? Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), the best thing you can do if you want to be in publishing is read. Realistically, nobody has time to read every book on the market, but you can make the most of the books you do read. Seek out a variety of fiction and non-fiction, read contemporary books (sorry Ms. Austen), and don’t just read the genres you like. From day one of my internship I worked with not just with literary novels, but thrillers, women’s fiction, non-fiction on every topic from basketball to Jerusalem, and even some YA crossover. You learn fast, but I wished many times that I were better versed in something besides my favorite novels.
#2: Keep a book journal
You can do this however you like, the key is to make yourself critically evaluate the books you read on a regular basis. One of my main tasks as an intern was to evaluate submissions. For each manuscript I wrote a reader report for the editor, and you can do this for any book to get practice. What I learned over time is that the most important part of any review is the comparison titles. Basically, publishing thinks about books in terms of other books. Doing this allows editors to see how a book will be received, project how well it might sell, and ultimately plays a big role in whether a manuscript gets acquired or not. This is also why being well-read in a variety of genres is so useful! To get yourself started, pretend you’re talking to a friend and that you can only describe a book by referencing another author, title, or series. What would you say?
#3: Do your homework
Reading and evaluating books is critical, but knowing the finished product isn’t the whole story. The publishing industry is constantly changing and it pays to keep on top of stories like the Penguin/Random House merger or the DOJ case with Apple. There are fantastic websites out there, most of which will send
you daily updates so it’s easy to keep abreast of new happenings and important changes in the industry. Even if you only have time to scroll through the headlines, it’s worth a look. Some of my favorites are PublishingTrendsetter and GalleyCat, though PublishersWeekly and the NYT Book Review are gold standard for the latest buzz (and conveniently available through the UP Library).
#4: Be enthusiastic
This tip is especially important once you’ve started working. It’s so easy to get mired in doing a good job that you lose track of why you wanted the internship in the first place. It never hurts to remind yourself on a Wednesday morning when you just gave yourself another paper cut from the 68th envelope you’ve sealed already and it’s not even ten o’clock yet that a) you actually wanted to be there and more importantly b) why you wanted to be there. Mary Poppins is spot on about that spoonful of sugar, and if you can harness your enthusiasm, the experience is so much more rewarding.
Do you like something you’re doing? Say so! Did someone mention a manuscript in the weekly meeting that piqued your interest? Ask them if you could take a gander. I had more than my share of embarrassing nerd moments, but you know what? Some of my best conversations were direct results of those instances where I showed my genuine interest and passion.
#5: Find a mentor
I can tell you from personal experience that having a mentor is the single best thing you can do for yourself. As your office go-to your mentor answers those unceasing questions (mine patiently explained everything from the NYC area code to the nuts and bolts of acquiring a book), but they give you projects, walk you through new processes and can even act advocate for you with others in the company. How do you spot a potential mentor? Go with your gut. Picking someone who has time to talk to you and who has similar job responsibilities is a good place to start (read: don’t look too far up the ladder!), but if someone makes themselves available, is easy to talk to and obviously doesn’t mind talking to you, reach out to him.
What are your thoughts? What advice do you have from your own internship experiences? I’d love to hear your stories, questions, and thoughts so feel free to comment below or send me an email.
In the meantime, good luck and happy reading!
Attention all Pilots! The Narrative 30 Below Contest is offering up to $1500 and is open to all artists including writers, photographers, filmmakers, and performers. Ten finalists will be given $100 prizes aside from those winning first, second, or third places. All entries are eligible for the Narrative Prize as well as a feature on 30 Below’s story or poem of the week. Information and guidelines are available on their website.
For writers: this year, Whole Terrain is offering undergraduate writers a chance to have their work published and win $500 with the New Terrain Award. Whole Terrain is Antioch University’s journal of environmental practice; this year’s theme is “Metamorphosis.” Submissions are being accepted now. Details can be found on their website.
In English 317, the course that trains Writing Assistants to work in the Writing Center, one of the assignments is to write a “literacy narrative.” Because these can provide such refreshing insights into the meandering ways in which we become our English major selves, Dr. Larson has shared two of them with us this term. Here’s how he explains the assignment and introduces two models, for your reading pleasure:
One of the first things I try to do in English Courses is to get students to take ownership of their identity as a “writer.” Most of us imagine that noun as referring to a published professional, when in actuality it evokes an activity we do daily. Several decades of reading and writing have already contributed to your own path toward literacy. Recently, students in English 317 (Composition Theory & Practice) wrote literacy narratives, a genre that challenges people to reflect on how they became writers, while offering something for their fellow writers to recognize in themselves. The following, by Athena Lathos and Megan Lester, provide two strong examples of this exercise in recognition. -Dr. Larson
The Stories and the Lamp by Athena Lathos
For me, literacy began with The Tale of Peter Rabbit. When I was a baby, entirely captivated by the gifts of sensory perception, I would listen attentively to my parents as they told me his story and follow along by tracing his image on a small patterned blanket. In this simple way, Beatrix Potter’s small book does not only compose my first memories of a good story, but also my first memories of life.
Before my parents began reading to me, they would turn a table lamp on to see the pages. These are the first recollections I have of my childhood: the sound of those stories and the light of that lamp. It cast the softest, most reassuring glow over my first bedroom. The combination of these auditory stimuli and mental pictures produced in me a feeling that I have never forgotten: the feeling that books are a kind of magic.
Perhaps it was that soothing bedtime tradition that moved me to seek out books on my own accord. My parents have told me that at three years old, I spent hours just turning the pages of books before I even had the capacity to read. I would pull them in large numbers off of the shelves and arrange them in stacks around me as I sat with legs crossed on the living room carpet. Then, I would then open each one and touch the words on the pages one by one. It wasn’t the pictures that interested me, they said. It was the black lines they pointed to every night before I slept. Even at that age, I seemed to know that those words held more information than the pictures ever could. It was this magic of the story that I wanted to access myself.
In this way, my love for the physicality and substance of the book developed early, and with time I began pulling not just my own picture books off the shelves but my parents’ books, too. Of course, battered copies of Wheelock’s Latin and The DSM IV, both of which are always lying around our house somewhere, had no significance to me at three years old; and yet, I would meticulously trace the verb conjugations and lists of symptoms, making up my own explanations for them as I went along.
Perhaps because of these early lessons, I learned to read when I was just four years old. By the time I entered kindergarten, I was well beyond my peers in terms of literacy skills. And yet, since that time to this day it has been difficult for me to accept those beginnings as successful because of how lonely they made me.
Enthralled as I was with reading and growing through the sentences I read, I never seemed to fit in with my classmates. I wasn’t motivated to play games in the playground or sports in the field; I was simply interested in different things. As a result, I was very quickly and somewhat permanently ostracized by my schoolmates and left alone with my perspective. While the other kids ate lunch on the red plastic tables outside, I would sit on the railing in the corner of the play yard and eat my lunch. Most every day, I would read while I ate.
Over the years, the red plastic tables became house parties, the railing, the library or the inside of my car. I never considered myself better than anyone, only occupied with different things. Many books helped me navigate my confusion, most notably A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Franny and Zooey, The Awakening, and The Bell Jar.
As a 14-year-old, I had many assumptions about good writing that I now know to be largely flawed. For the most part, I only knew of great literature what my naïve Google searches of “100 Best Pieces of Great Literature” could tell me, and I perceived only flowery, antiquated language as features of legitimate form. At the time, I didn’t understand how striking and beautiful contemporary literature could be.
It was at this time that I began to write poetry. It was the era of rhyming and Keats’ Endymion. My own writings were pseudo-eloquent mimicries of Keats’ work and the verses of many others. They were lofty and dry, dripping with lengthy and unnecessary adjectives. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time talking about rain. I think that I was so attached to this style because I associated propriety and tradition with my own maturity. In any case, looking back at these poems today I am nothing short of horrified.
When I was a freshman, I was chosen by the City Council of my hometown to be the first Youth Poet Laureate in the Bay Area. I was honored, and worked very hard to introduce poetry to people my age in town. Unfortunately, the program was somewhat of a failure; I could not seem to get anyone interested in what had become one of the most important aspects of my life. Now, I see things with a different eye. I know that if I was not so caught up in the elegant rhyming of 19th century British poets, I might have been able to tap into the highly dynamic young writing community that I see active today. Unfortunately, I was completely debilitated by that unwavering commitment to “proper” tradition in my reading and writing, and it took my experience with the program to see what meaningful composition could really be.
This transition regarding my relationship to writing was the epoch of Mexico City Blues – a piece that held all the answers to me at 16. Living right outside of San Francisco, my friends and I always had some contact with the scattered legacies of various Beat writers. Sometimes on Saturdays, we would take BART into the city and run upstairs at City Lights hoping to catch a glimpse of Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the old rocking chair or grumbling behind a bookshelf. We had always cared about him and the writings of his contemporaries in some form or another, but what developed in me during this time was more of a passion than a care. It was a belief that only this kind of writing was legitimate because it had raw honesty and substance and, most importantly, it had energy.
In the case of Mexico City Blues in particular, which I indeed read as a high-school exchange student in Mexico City, it was the form almost more than the content that inspired me. It was Kerouac’s assertion that he wanted to be remembered as a jazz poet above anything else. This claim, and the structure of the choruses as they sounded throughout the piece, was so innovative that it led me to consider a series of questions that began changing my whole approach to writing: What are the limitations of words? Can words be music? Can genres cross and mingle? How can that magic I perceived as a child be further possessed and repossessed, adjusted to our adult problems and sensibilities, without becoming something overly intellectual or devoid of emotion, something too aloof to be accessed by people who can benefit from it?
I considered these questions for years, and when I looked hard enough, I found the color and life of Mexico City Blues in other writers’ voices as well. Langston Hughes’ jazz poems were among these powerful bodies of work. It was in my search for the vibrant and unpretentious nature of these pieces that I found the answer to what makes both good writing and literature. The answer, to me, is sincerity.
An understanding of sincerity brought forth a new era in my relationship with literacy, and that time of my life can only be branded with Pablo Neruda’s Explico Algunas Cosas. It is through Neruda that I discovered why authenticity is both the purpose and the benefit of great literature. His poems are so real that they are almost tactile. They are his odes to “common things.” They find the simple in the expansive and the expansive in the simple. To the ear, they are rhythmic, to the eyes, beautiful. Of course, linguists will tell you, particularly in the case of Spanish-speaking poets like Neruda, that words always have meanings lost in translation, nuances that cannot be accessed in terms of other languages. And of course, this is often true. In the language of my ancestors, for example, there are four Greek words for love all with different connotations. In Spanish too, there are words like añoranza. Translated best to English, this word means “yearning”; and yet, it is a word we do not have. It is a highly melancholic desire for a past that is too far gone to access; it is a word of pure emotion.
It seems in these conversations that English invariably gets labeled the most stagnant and disabled of all foreign tongues. And yet, in the context of my new discovery, I found through Neruda that a writer need only be sincere and the limitations of any given language are transcended. When my mind is tired, for example, I read Neruda in English and it is stunning. When I am feeling fresh and vibrant, primed for the work of a translator, so too, is his work beautiful in the original Spanish. The sea is still the sea, a “shining, magnetic abyss,” a forest is still the stuff of dreams, and a pile of clothes still a lingering question of metaphysics simply because he has chosen such sincere words that they hold irrevocable and enduring meaning.
By this, I mean that it does not matter if a work is written in the style of a classic Victorian novel or with the formless musicality of a jazz poem. As long as the writer is true in his or her portrayal of human beings’ relation to one other and their environments, the structure and style of the piece aren’t vastly important. Genres and generalizations mean nothing to truly good writing. When the words are strong enough, honest enough, even simple enough, it is only the beauty of the work that has enduring influence — not its adherence to some subset of creeds and characteristics.
This was a lesson I learned over the course of many years. Now that I have discovered what valuable writing is, I no longer affix my relationship with literacy to specific writers and works that both express and shape my consciousness. My tastes are now are vast and eclectic. I love Haruki Murakami’s strange examinations of inner life and Japanese culture, Jennifer Egan’s careful exposition of aging punk rockers; I love Whitman, Woolf, Aristotle, and Hemingway; Morrison, Borges, McCarthy, and Dickinson. Indeed, these writers have been my teachers as I develop as a reader and writer, but it is their sincere approach to uncovering the human condition that instructs me on what it is to really write something worth reading.
In this way, the connective influence of honest, often simple words has become something powerful to me. While it is certainly something that my two-year-old self would label “magical,” it would suffice to say that truly effective, sincere writing is much less a kind of magic than a genuine agent of comfort and change.
Leaving Literacy by Megan Lester
In the month of April, year 2013, three very important events took place in my life, which was based in Salzburg, Austria at the time. I read my first David Foster Wallace essay, began Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus The Goddess, and left my teenage years forever. Little did I know that upon turning twenty literacy would be one of my foremost concerns—and not global literacy, but my own—and not becoming more literate, but less. My hopeless effort to discard literateness did not begin in Salzburg. It began when language was forced upon me as a helpless diploid named Tyler, or Amy, or Megan…
In grade school, I remember my father reading The Wall Street Journal every morning, my mother devouring novels after work, and staring at my bookshelf, memorizing how to spell ‘encyclopedia.’ I learned to read and write like any other kid my age, first with the ABC’s, then tracing giant letters on paper. It never occurred to me that I could not learn English. No one ever asked me if I wanted to be literate. The first steps of learning to read and write were entirely taken for me.
I consciously took the next step in literacy. In fourth grade my teacher Mrs. Cole encouraged me to write poetry, and I began reading and writing constantly. It is unclear if I discovered my love of writing with Mrs. Cole’s guidance, or if I fabricated interest because I loved Mrs. Cole. Regardless, I know that having a mentor greatly influenced my reading and writing. This mentorship would be repeated throughout my education.
In high school, Abbie Lentz, my AP Language teacher, took it upon herself to convert me to Christianity and read prolific amounts of literature. She was temporarily successful in both endeavors. We would meet for coffee weekly and talk for hours about Christian dogma or Steinbeck. Under her guidance I read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Betty Friedan, C.S. Lewis, and The Bible. Together we read Jane Eyre, Les Miserables, Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, Grapes of Wrath, Madame Bovary, The Jungle, and countless other classics. We would write back and forth in green notebooks, which expanded my vocabulary, helped me develop style, and let me become comfortable having my writing read. Having someone I respected and loved encouraging me to read, write, and analyze literature made me pursue literacy like never before.
Freshman year of college meant leaving my hometown, my family, my mentor and my religion. I declared as an English major, showing my forced-literacy from childhood had evolved into a full-fledged monster. Cara Hersh’s Renaissance Literature class consumed me. I could not believe all there was to learn: writing can emulate movements, a stanza can commend and criticize, a semicolon can say more than words. What is this madness!?
Literacy seemed, happily, to be my path in life. I went off to Austria with a copy of my newly favorite author, Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day. I traveled around with Mrs. Dalloway, and immersed myself in The Waves. Then April hit. I turned twenty while turning the pages of The Alphabet vs. The Goddess, and I was horrified. Leonard Shlain traced the rise in non-hieroglyphic alphabets with the demise of Goddess-worship through Mesopotamia. It went further, still. The rise in patriarchal cultures correlated perfectly with growing literacy rates. As societies began writing and reading, fertility idols were smashed. As transcription grew more and more common, a monotheistic, male deity took shape, and women were pushed into lower and lower castes. Shlain, a neurologist, hypothesized that literacy made one left-brain dominant, and the left-brain was masculine.
Was literacy to blame for my sex’s sad social standing? Were women stoned in Iran, brides immolated in India, and girls trafficked in Saigon because of literacy? What was I pursuing? Are rhetorical questions perhaps a little melodramatic?
Around this time I read David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water.” The speech is brilliant, and touches on a lot of aphoristic points. One that resonated was ‘question your assumptions.’ I realized that I had never conceived of a life without language. I had been indoctrinated into literacy just as I had accepted, thoughtlessly, the blue sky, and wearing underwear.
With Shlain and Wallace echoing in my head, I decided to silence them, and myself by disregarding literacy. No more literature, no more writing, no more Tolstoy. I would reclaim my unadulterated brain, and relearn how to think sans sentences. I would stimulate my right-brain with images and emotions. Abandoning literacy would be the ultimate poetic gesture, a comprehensive dismantlement of the patriarchy, a step in intentionally becoming who I needed to be.
I did not shake my literacy. It is impossible. I sat for hours on a train to Munich, begging my brain to stop narrating what my eyes saw. I lamented every figure written on a sign that I automatically read from left to right, that became sounds, that became words, that took on meaning instantly. I tried to think in pictures, to reason with color, but the process was directly short-cutted to words.
My left brain became the bane of my existence. Why did I have to analyze everything and delineate the world into pieces? My right-brain felt so weak, things did not appear to me holistically. I looked for tips and tricks to silence synapses firing in my analytical hemisphere. While scouring the internet, I came across a speech by a neurologist, Jill Bolte Taylor, in which she described the experience of a left-brain stroke. Dr. Taylor, suffered a massive stroke on the left side of her brain. While this inhibited her from calling for help, or even speaking coherently, she saw the world as never before. I stewed with envy as Dr. Taylor described a right-brain world, one in which everything is connected; pixels make hairs on arms which blend into the atmosphere until all is one great existence. The stroke made Dr. Taylor deeply spiritual, and it saddled her with 8 years of recovery.
It was evident that I could not become illiterate. It was apparent that I was not going to have a massive stroke. It was also clear that I was deeply unhappy without a book. April ended, and it was time to come back to literacy and America, humbled, and broke—a modern-day prodigal son.
My break with literacy meant I had to make a conscious effort in rejoining the literate world. It started with Paulo Coehlo, and Anita Diamant– short, contemporary, enjoyable, tales. I went further with Ethan Frome, and was formally back in the club by Lolita. Nabakov challenged me; he made me laugh and he made me sick. New ideas were presented, the status quo questioned. I pursued my literacy like never before: independently and cautiously.
My break from literacy helped me evaluate the nature of writing. Here’s what I’ve come up with. Mentorship is vital for a deep connection with a text. Reading is often a solitary endeavor, but when approached as a collaborative project, a new dimension is given to the texts. Still, to reach a higher echelon of literacy, one must have an independent relationship with reading and writing. Writing, at some point, must be shared. That giddy, nervous, ego-centric feeling as someone’s eyes read your words must be felt again and again until it subsides. Literacy, though perhaps once an instrument for devaluing women, is a powerful and beautiful art that should now be used as an instrument for equality.