Thursday, June 16, 2011

Distractions and Focus

Fluffernutter by Sky Sloderbeck
A Google search of writing advice returns over 300,000,000 results. Of these results, many of the samples offer the following tidbit of information: Write what you know. Some people, like Marg Gilks, says that the phrase "write what you know" is misleading. Early in her article, she states that writing what you know "builds walls in the writer's mind, imposing artificial limitations bred of uncertainty. How many writers, hearing those four words, have despaired?"

I know I have despaired. The funny thing is, my problem isn't because I don't feel that I have lived an exciting enough life to draw on that for my writing. I have had so many experiences, that if I wrote an autobiography from my teenage years up until now, no one would believe it was true. Not only that, but my experiences are SO varied, that I would certainly get flack from publishers for not having focused writing even though it would be my experiences, and not the writing, that were unfocused.

The good news is that if I am writing fiction, this means I have a wealth of varied experiences to draw from to create realism in my writing. The bad news is that if I am writing fiction, this means I have a wealth of varied experiences to draw from to create realism in my writing. You see the dilemma, yes?

If you were to look in my writing journal, you would see pages of 5-6 line story ideas. Pages. Each idea stems from one of two things: (1) a story I want to read which has not yet been written, or (2) things I have come across in my wild journey that I would like to expand into a story. The problem is where to focus so that I can actually (finally) get a complete story out on paper.

It seems as if every time I settle down with a single plan, something happens in my life to veer me off course and steer me towards a different story. I was going to write a novel that revolved around dragons as a challenge that was given to me, but I set that aside (after some good progress) and began a vampire story that I have wanted to tell for years.  Then I set that aside to explore two different stories that would fall under literary fiction and not fantasy and would be at home in any Women's Studies course. Now I have set those aside to write a young adult fantasy novel that was prompted by a rather ridiculous conversation I had yesterday.

Writing what you know sure sounds easy -- until the things you know keep jostling for your attention. How do you keep focused enough to get one of those ideas fleshed out without letting other, just as worthy, ideas get you off track?

I think I have a solution to my dilemma, and (among other things) that is a self-imposed deadline, but how do others do it? I would love to hear how you fight distractions, especially distractions that are not in the form of games or web surfing, but are in the form of other equally fascinating stories dancing in your head and urging you to write them.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Five Steps to Home Happiness

Switch It Up by Sky Sloderbeck
People I have known have had different types of priorities and these priorities directly affect their level of home happiness. Some people need an immaculate home to feel content and happy at home. Some people believe that they need that immaculate home, when in reality keeping up on household duties is only a source of stress for them. Some people need a full schedule of activities inside and outside of the home to achieve a level of happiness that directly brings down their level of stress. Some people think that they need this full schedule, but keeping up with journal writing, entertaining guests, being a part of a sports league, and having their children enrolled in numerous extracurricular activities is only causing more stress in their lives.

For a large part of my adult life, I have struggled with priorities.  Every person's priorities are different, as I tried to illustrate above, so reading something (such as this article) is not a one-size-fits-all solution to happiness in the home. What an article such as this CAN do is to offer others insight into how I achieve "home happiness" and maybe offer something that others can take away and use in their own pursuit of home happiness.
  1. Don't clean (incessantly). I don't let garbage pile to the ceiling or in any way let my home get to the point that child services or the CDC would be worried about the state of my living space, but neither do I worry about making the bed every day, doing dishes every day, vacuuming every day, or putting away accumulated junk in spaces such as the living room every day. I am horrified at the thought of someone "just stopping by" to visit me; the feeling that my house must be perfect is so ingrained in me, that I will probably never shake this paranoia of unannounced visitors. That paranoia aside though, I have learned that it's really okay to not have a perfect house, and the less time I spend on cleaning is more time I have to be happy. Eventually, I will have maid service who will handle the nitpicky stuff like vacuuming and dusting, and then the other stuff won't seem so annoying.

  2. Don't do yard work. While I am in college, my income level is at the point where the government considers me below poverty level. My education is more important than my pocketbook, so this classification does not bother me in the least. It does mean that I have to be creative about how to make ends meet and to not spend money frivolously.  But there is something I spend $20 every two weeks on that, while others might find it frivolous, I find it a necessity to keeping me sane and happy: yard service. Yes, I am below poverty level, yet I pay someone to come cut my grass (a luxury usually associated with those of greater means). This makes me so happy that the cost (which is itself very small) is worth it.

  3. Don't cook (every single day). I value healthy meals, I really do. Grilled chicken and fresh green beans are my idea of a great meal. There is one problem: I hate to cook. Hate it. So how do you eat healthy while feed yourself and your family, and do this when you hate to cook? Well, the ideal solution would be to hire a personal chef, but seeing as how a personal chef would cost a bit more than the $20 I spend every two weeks for a yard person, that is one (more) luxury I can't have now. So how do I solve this dilemma? Like cleaning, cooking is a necessary evil; it is something I must do whether I like it or not. But like cleaning, I only do it when necessary.  I am not beyond grabbing McDonald's or going to sit down at Bob Evans if the budget permits. So yeah, I don't have a perfectly clean house or perfectly cooked meals, but I'm okay with this and not having to cook or clean every single day makes me happy.

  4. Work on my passions. I love writing. I love photography. I don't have time to "chase the light" as much as I'd like. I get writer's block or distracted like a dog spotting a squirrel far too often to write as consistently as I'd like. Even though I don't do these things as much as I'd like, I DO do them enough that I am a happier person for them. And while my son is gone on his 4-6 week trip to Georgia, I suspect that there will be a LOT less housekeeping and cooking and a LOT more "working on my passions."

  5. Goof off. I play World of Warcraft. I also play in Second Life (though, I don't play much in SL now, unfortunately). I read lots of fiction. I use StumbleUpon far more than is necessary. I tickle my son to hear him laugh. I speak in goofy voices, again, to make him laugh. I cut out paper snowflakes and make tents out of kitchen chairs and sheets, all with my son. I act like a kid, I laugh, I have fun, and I don't worry that I left the plate on the table next to me after finishing lunch.
I am not Suzy Homemaker and never will be. I don't want to be. My idea of a perfect home life is not having dinners cooked from scratch and on the table by 6pm every night. My idea of a perfect home life is not cleaning and dusting every day and yelling at my son to stop climbing on the furniture or fuss at him for eating a snack in the living room. My idea of a perfect home life is not being a literal soccer mom and having those home and garden sales "parties." My idea of a perfect home is not about being "perfect."

I want maid service and a personal chef, things that even a middle class American can easily have. Yes, I've been pricing them. I can get one maid service to come to my home every two weeks to do the nitpicky stuff I don't want to do for about $50 every two weeks.  I can get a personal chef to cook me and my son a month's worth of dinners for $400. I want to keep my lawn service. I don't want to cart my son around to an extracurricular activity five days a week. I want to be able to pursue my passions and maybe even get a paycheck from those passions one day. I want to be able to goof off to keep my mind young, reflexes sharp, and smile lines on my face.

You can never get back the time you lose with loved ones.  You can never get back time you lose with yourself. So why waste that time on things that are not important? Will my son be a better person if I make him do pee wee football and baseball (when he's already stated that he really doesn't want to do them)? I doubt it. Will I be a better person if I have a floor so clean you can eat off of it? No, and what's the point anyhow? I have plates, you just might have to wash one first.

I am sitting here on the couch with a laptop on my lap and glancing up from this article I'm writing to look around me from time to time. What I see is a stack of clothing on the floor, ready to be sorted and folded so they can be packed for my son's trip.  What I see is a suitcase and backpack piled on the floor near the clothes. What I see is a dusty television, a carpet that needs to be steam cleaned, a plate left over from my lunch, and an empty soda can from the same. What I see are four kitchen chairs -- in my living room -- and a sheet on the floor between them from where my son and I played at making a tent. What I see is a happy five year-old on the Internet searching for "Sid, The Science Kid" -- all by himself. What I see is slight chaos, and in that chaos is immeasurable happiness.

Note: I am an A-type personality with ADHD. Having a messy house really does a number on my being able to concentrate when writing and makes me all itchy and twitchy. I feel calmer and more able to focus when the house is immaculate, but the act of cleaning or of being anal-retentive about keeping it clean is a constant source of stress for me. Of all the tips above, the housecleaning one is the most controversial for me and the hardest for me to live wholly by -- which is why you can find me at 4am cleaning the house like a mad woman from time to time. For the most part, I squish down that control-freak part of me when it comes to the house and just remind myself, "Whether the house is immaculate or not is not important, the time you spend with your son is what is important."  That helps. That helps so much.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Poem: Asunder

Eyes are Windows by Sky Sloderbeck

Pain tears through, ripping apart joy
Selfishness and immaturity demand payment

That payment is the rending of two souls.
Ich habe Angst.

"I'll miss you so much" echoes over and over
It draws hot, salty tears and incapacitates
But a sociopath has no conscience to care.
Du hast Schadenfreude.

Days until my death are counted down
Fünf, vier, drei, zwei, eins
A piece of me is taken.
Ich bin nicht vollständig.

Remain strong, put on an actor's mask
Hope that the careless surgery
Does not scar him as it does me.
Bleib sicher, meiner süßer.

The surgeon does not care who he hurts
As long as he gets to wield the knife
And revel in his self-centered desires.
Die Klinge ist scharf.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Flash Fiction: This Night

I was honored to read this story at the annual Oxford Writing Festival at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio on March 26, 2012.

Alone is Not Lonely - Digital Calligraphy by Sky Sloderbeck

This Night

Inspired by the song “This Night” by Black Lab.

The rain was heavy, but without an accompanying wind, it fell straight down in sheets. Thick drops drummed on the worn leather of his duster and cowboy hat. The sound was loud, but not loud enough to drown out his labored breathing. His head bowed in sorrow and the gun dangled from his lanky fingers, only a whisper of a breeze away from falling from his hand.

The body lay twenty paces from him in a pool of water that was rapidly turning red. He did not have to look to know that there was no longer life in it. His aim had been true and when the bullet is silver, there is no coming back.

A flash of lightning brightened the sky in an accusatory manner. Reflections in the water at his feet revealed the nearby church that loomed over him and the angel perched on the steeple who had been the sole witness to the horror performed in its presence. The gun dropped from his hand and he fell numbly to his knees with a pained gasp.

The ghosts of some of those he had ended under her tutelage haunted him on that lonely street: He had silenced Michael’s infectious laugh; he had dimmed Denise’s sparkling eyes; he had proven Richard’s endearing optimism false; and he had halted Tessa’s sharp intellect. Every victim had a name. Every victim had a face.  Every victim had a personality. Every victim had been his.

He raised his head slowly, woodenly, and blinked away the raindrops that filled his eyes.  The body was changing now, as he knew it would. He had known for weeks that the end would be like this, and she had never even suspected. The kills were for her, all of them, especially this last one. He had pulled the trigger to free her from her own madness, more than to free him from her.

Crawling on hands and knees to her, he knelt reverently at her side.  He brushed her long blonde hair, dyed dark by the rain and the night, from her face and bent down to kiss her forehead. She was naked now, but he didn’t cover her; he knew that she wouldn’t have wanted that. She was glorious in her half-wolf, half-female form, and more glorious in her human form, even in death.

She had made him who he was. She had delivered him to the coven so that he could be reborn to the night. “We will be the Adam and Eve of our races,” she had proclaimed.  The truth was that they had both become Cain, killing their brothers, human or otherwise. He succumbed to her madness, reveling in the bloodshed and in pleasing her. She was his Lady Macbeth, his Pandora, his Lilith. She was his drug; her offered blood made him even more drunk on her.

There were things he had done, things he regretted. He blamed her when his conscience became too much to bear. As she stood apart from him in the street, he knew that to end the killing, he had to kill the one he loved. As the rain poured down he wept for them both, and she came to him with a smile on her wolfish face.

He pulled the trigger.

She was dead and her heart was now as his. It was not beating. It was still.  But only he lived on.

The scent of her blood stirred that familiar hunger in him, but he ignored it. He remained there, cradling her head in his hands and mourning her as the skies wept and the angel witnessed.

Perhaps now, he could find peace.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Writing Prompt: I'll never let go, Jack

From's The Daily Post entry from 3 May 2011 titled "Change the end of any famous story, true or fiction":
Change the end of any famous story, true or fiction. Perhaps Darth Vader isn’t Luke’s father. Or maybe Nixon was never elected president. Pick any story, true or fiction, from the real world or a book or movie, and change the last few pages or moments of the story.
Think about an ending that has always bothered you or you thought could have been better. Now is your chance to fix it.

James Cameron's Titanic

The Sinking of the Titanic by Aidan Sloderbeck
This scene has always bothered me, not only because the "never let go" line is cheesy, but because she actually does let him go (to sink into the ocean in that dramatic way), and that is quite hypocritical.  Well, I decided to fix this scene. Enjoy.    

The water was frigid, but they had both made it to the surface. Jack tugged on Rose's life vest, yelling over the din of the scared and the dying, "Just keep swimming!" As they swam, they passed those who drowned, but had risen back to the surface of the midnight ocean by the bulky white life vests they wore. Jack spotted a large, ornately carved mahogany board in the water ahead of them, likely the headboard from a bed in a first-class cabin, and he steered her towards it, feeling a ray of hope for their survival.

Jack guided his charge, weighed down by her ornate gown and graced with lips that were blue from the icy cold of the unforgiving sea, on to the board. It bobbed precariously, threatening to toss her back into the water, but with Jack's help Rose was finally safe on the board and out of the murderously cold water. As he attempted to follow her up on the makeshift raft, the board teetered and suddenly gave way, rising up in the air from the added weight and dumping them both back unceremoniously into the water.

Panicked, Jack again frantically pushed Rose on the board before swimming around to the head of it and gripping her hands. "You'll be alright now," he uttered in a gasping breath.

One of the crewmen who had went down with the boat was nearby, and he started to blow his whistle, piercing the sound of the distraught passengers. Jack and Rose watched him, shivering, until Jack murmured, "The boat's coming back for us, Rose. Hold on just a little bit longer." He nodded at her, attempting to remain optimistic, even as he felt that the boats would not return, or at least not return in time to save the others in the water, including himself.

Jack knew that if he remained in the water much longer, hypothermia would kill him, but he knew that as long as Rose remained out of the water, she had a better chance to survive the cold until the boats returned. His first thought was one of resignation and even contentment, knowing that the woman he loved would be safe; this thought alone was one that nearly took the will the fight for his own life from him, but something inside of him flared as the clamoring din began to soften as Death claimed victim after victim. Jack decided to fight.

Kissing Rose's hands, he pried himself loose from her, determined to use the last bit of strength he had left to save himself. He shushed her, quieting her frantic whispers to stay with her as he promised to return, and then swam over to where the dead bobbed on the water. With a quiet growl of a war cry, he managed to rip lose the first vest, securing it to himself as he watched its former occupant slip under the water's surface. He then removed another vest, and another, until he had six vests in total. He laced them all together and towed them back to the pseudo-raft, fighting the stinging, needle-like pain of the water and his body's constant demands for rest.  He could not rest now, or he would certainly die.

When he reached the raft, he clung to it, holding it steady as he instructed Rose, "Rose, I need you to turn carefully. I know you're cold and tired, but you have to do this for me." He took her hands, swimming around the edge of the board with the vests floating out behind him like a white tail and getting her situated on the board so there would be enough room for them both.

"Now, when I climb up, the board may try to flip again, Rose.  I need you to lean into the part that is rising and try to use your weight to keep it down."

Rose was so cold, her teeth chattered loudly as she stuttered, "Y-y-yes," and then the braced herself for Jack's attempt.  He shoved the six life vests under the end of the board opposite Rose to buoy it and then moved towards the middle of the board.  He glanced at her and nodded, ready to start his attempt, and then pulled himself from the water.  The board rocked precariously, but with Rose's weight at one end and the vests holding up the board at the other, he was able to pull himself from the bitterly cold grasp of the ocean.

He spent the next few minutes gently guiding them both back to Rose's original position on the board, pressed tightly together to share what warmth they both had left. The vests which were still under the board helped keep them out of the water, and their bodies pressed together helped offer comfort.
Jack hugged Rose tightly to him and murmured in her ear, "We'll make it through this, Rose. Never let go of that."

Her blue lips met his in a shivering kiss and she whispered, "I'll never let go, Jack."  As if to prove this, she tightened her arms around him, clinging to him.

Later, both Jack and Rose were rescued. Rose found the Heart of the Ocean in her pocket. They sold it and lived like a king and queen - but without any fear of an untimely beheading - until they both died old and happy together.

The End

Exercise: Now it's your turn! Share your creation in the comments.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Accidental Academia

The following is a short story I wrote recently based on an interview I had with an English Lit professor at my college.  Turning the essay (that the assignment required) into a fictional short story was a huge risk, but one that turned out much better than I could have imagined. My hope is that this story can give others insight into the possible emotional and personal challenges that face those on the path towards a future in academia. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Tatiana by Sky Sloderbeck

Accidental Academia

The Intervention

The artificial light from the computer monitor cast a blue hue on the face of the woman hunched before it; her fingers traveled swiftly over the keys, the light tapping sounds muffled by the sound of the shower in the nearby bathroom. Every few seconds, she would snicker quietly to herself as she thought about the possible reactions her roommate might have to her news. Susan has been wasting herself since finishing high school. Wasting herself, working as a waitress and at other odd jobs for three years when she could have been in college, she thought to herself, She needs this, this... intervention.

“Intervention,” she chuckled. “Kind of an apt term.”


The voice surprised her; she’d not realized that the shower was no longer running and the subject of her intervention had just entered the room. She managed to keep herself from startling at the voice; instead of turning to her roommate, she hunched herself down even more over the computer keyboard. She was certain that there would be a look of guilt on her face, or a look of satisfaction, or both. “I was just talking to myself,” Christine murmured.

“You’re always doing that. I swear college is making you crazy.” Susan laughed quietly as scrubbed her hair with the towel, blithely unaware that her future was about to change.

The immediate response was a soft snort of displeasure and a sharp clack of a nail against a keyboard key. As Susan went about her mundane morning routine, Christine stared at the computer screen, excited to broach this subject with her friend, but at the same time, wondering exactly how to bring it up. After all, you just don’t start the day with Hey! How’d you sleep? Oh, by the way, you’re going to college. She wasn’t Susan’s mom, after all, but she loved her friend and knew that this was something she really needed to be doing.

After a few more moments of silence, she turned and watched Susan with the hint of a grin on her face. Susan, perhaps feeling the steady gaze, glanced up to see Christine looking at her with that look. She knew that look and a slender eyebrow arched. “You just did something bad and got away with it.”
“Well, you can say that.” It was hard for Christine to keep a straight face, or a closed mouth, and she smiled widely. “Remember when I said I would fill out the FAFSA for you and you agreed that if you got enough money, you’d go to college?”

Susan had gone back to getting ready for work, but at that question turned back to her friend and chuckled. “Yes, I remember. I told you it was no use.”

Pushing away from the computer desk, the wheels of the chair endeavoring vainly to cut through the thick pile of carpet, Christine screwed a frown onto her face and adopted a defeated look. “I know. Well, I got the results back and with the EFC you have, it looks like you have no choice…”

“But to keep doing what I’m doing,” she said. “I know.  The idea of college sounds great; you talk about it all the time, but really, it’s not for me. I’m okay with that. I’d never planned to go anyway.” Susan wasn’t defeatist in her tone, just matter-of-fact. After all, college had never been on her list of things to do after high school; she just wanted to experience life.

Christine recovered from the interruption as if Susan had never even spoken. “… no choice but to pick a school. Your EFC qualifies you for maximum assistance. Your schooling’s going to be paid for.”

“I told you s… what?” She had went back to dressing, but with an incredulous look on her face and bent over mid-motion to tie her shoe, she was suddenly frozen in place, trying to decide if she’d heard Christine correctly.

“You’re going to college!” Christine launched out of the chair and bounced over to Susan, grabbing her hands and pulling up upright. “You’re going to college!” She repeated as she forced Susan to dance around the room with her.

Susan, with a shocked look on her face, celebrated with her friend, but inside, she was still trying to process the news. Me? In college?
The Epiphany

     She shoved the books away from her in a huff and then glared at them as if they had been purposefully trying to confuse her. “I’m going to be a Marine Biologist,” she said reproachfully to the indifferent texts. Unfortunately, she could not deny the fact that the books that she had so callously pushed aside were dear to her: early American women authors, British women authors, critical essays, and biographies of female writers. These were the books she devoured when not cramming for the next big science exam; these were the subjects of the classes that she took “for fun.” She thought she had it all planned out, but now she was only confused again.

She sighed and stood up, casting a last, longing glance at the books before pacing the room. Her thoughts were awash in conjecture: Do I just stick with it? I’ve been back and forth between jobs; I can’t do this with my education. I really love English lit. Maybe I should switch? But two years knocking out classes and preparing for my Marine Biology major… wouldn’t I be wasting that if I switched majors now?

She turned her back on the books and looked at a framed photograph of a sun-bleached brunette with a smiling, tanned face, standing against the backdrop of a cerulean ocean. She remembered the day that picture was taken, so sure that this would be her life after college; a life filled with the sun and the sea. It was this moment that a strand of hair fell in her face, tickling her as if to distract her from the romance of the image, and, after she pushed it aside in aggravation, she looked back at the picture and noticed something that in the year since the picture was taken, she had missed: Her smile did not touch her eyes.

The picture held her riveted as a realization washed over her, simultaneously filling her with the joy and fear that comes with a revelation, and there was still doubt, as she had nothing in her childhood to foreshadow this growing passion; she was never read to and she was never a reader. She turned back to the English literature books on the table and then reached down to touch one of the well-worn covers. She did not need a mirror to see that the smile growing on her lips was also touching her eyes, and she did not need a lovingly pushy roommate to say what her heart already felt. She grabbed her backpack from the chair and headed purposefully out the door; she had received her epiphany, and it was time to switch majors.

The Reality

     “Hermeneutics: The study of interpretation theory; can be either the art of interpretation, or the theory and practice of interpretation. Oh, well that’s a big help,” she mumbled as she rubbed her temples. As she looked again at the word she had circled it in the literary theory text, the dictionary on her lap began to slide towards the floor; she snatched it back into place and looked at the clock. This was her second all-nighter of the week and was quickly becoming par-for-the course.

“Hermeneutics: The practice of coming up with the longest possible words you can in order to sound smart.” Her study partner wearily laughed at her own joke as Susan rolled her eyes at the woman, but both of them knew that the humor was necessary to keep them both sane.

“I never realized that getting my MA would be so much more difficult than getting my BA,” Susan mused.
“Yeah, they work us hard. As much as I hate to admit it, though, it’s going to be worth it. You’ll see.”
Susan never really got over her study partner’s name: Scarlett. With her friend’s soft, Southern accent and gentle, Southern charm, she could almost imagine the optimistic blond woman saying, “After all… tomorrow is another day.” Scarlett’s presence was soothing, and one Susan welcomed.  Susan never realized how hard graduate school would be: the overwhelming amount of work that she had to complete, the all-nighters that she had to pull, and the new language (of academia) that she had to learn. She smiled in response to Scarlett and went back to studying, using her dictionary to look up the unfamiliar words she’d circled in the text.

They worked in silence for a while, enjoying the support and encouragement they got from each other just by studying together. As the night wore on, she felt an angry growling in her stomach. She tried to avoid it, but it kept her so distracted that she found herself reading the same paragraph repeatedly and yet never comprehending it. Finally, she gave into the siren cry for food. “I’m going to make myself something to eat. Did you want anything?”

Scarlett shook her head and mumbled an apologetic, “No, thank you.”

Susan put her books aside and headed into the kitchen, opening and closing cabinets and peering into the refrigerator. She always thought it was amusing that people would open up the refrigerator repeatedly in the same visit to the kitchen, as if they expected something new to magically appear, and now she was doing the same thing.  Finally, she decided on what she knew she’d have to eat in the first place, ramen; ramen was the staple of college graduates across the country, she was sure of it. It was hard not always having the money or time for dinners out with friends, even with the reduced tuition and teaching assistantships, but Scarlett’s words echoed in her mind, “It’s going to be worth it. You’ll see.”

Upon silencing the angry rumblings in her stomach, she was able to focus on her work. Even after being subjected to the rigorous program, watching days blur together, and trying to figure out how to balance it all, she never lost her love of literature and she never doubted her decision to study English Literature. She and Scarlett would make it through this semester and the next and the one after that; more immediately, the stress of today would be gone tomorrow. After all… tomorrow was another day.

The Homestretch

     As she shouldered her backpack, she was struck with a sense of finality; this was the first day of her last year of grad school. If all went as planned, her dissertation would be completed and she would be defending it in a few short months. Her eyes traveled to a photograph framed and hung on the wall, the last picture of her and her mother together. Her mother had come to be her cheerleading section at a conference where she was presenting a paper and the picture was precious to her; not only was it their last photo together before her mother had died a few months later, it was the first picture Susan had of herself presenting something pertaining to her degree. She wiped at the moisture that had dampened her cheek, murmured, “I love you, mom,” and headed out the door to class.

She had taken a lot of time off between her different college ventures: first the three years between high school and college, nearly three more between getting her Bachelor’s at the University of Cincinnati and beginning the Master’s program at Miami University, and then another two before going back to Miami to pursue her PhD. The break she had taken this last year near the end of her journey in the graduate program had been the most difficult; it was not a period that she used to do odd jobs or work in her field, rather it was a period to mourn.  Now, though, it was time to finish what she had started; it was time to get her PhD.
“And then, after I had done all of the participant testing and compiled the results, he had me help on the paper itself. And you know what? He never even credited me for anything!” The nameless man’s complaints reached her ears as she walked past him on her way across the quad to the class she was teaching. Susan looked at Nalah, a student in the MA program for English Lit who had come to the United States from Jerusalem. Both women rolled their eyes.

“I think we are lucky,” Nalah said, “Our professors are wonderful.”

Susan nodded in agreement, “Yeah. They’ve been great in making sure we don’t take on too much.”

“They are very supportive, too. I hope I can be as helpful and supportive when I start teaching.”

“We’re already teaching, Nalah,” Susan grinned at the other woman and then nudged her with her shoulder, “And you are very supportive. I’ve heard your students talk about you. They love you.”

Nalah beamed, but her cheeks reddened at the compliment, “Yours love you too, you know.”

“I hope so.” Susan inwardly smiled, though.  She was surprised how much she had come to enjoy teaching.  She had always been shy and the thought of teaching a class terrified her. Her first two years of teaching while in the program were two years that she could safely say she hated, but she had to admit that she learned a lot from the experience. Once she realized that she didn’t have to know everything and could learn along with the students, it made teaching much more rewarding and enjoyable.

The women walked in companionable silence to the building their respective classes were in and as they got closer, Susan realized that the same nervousness that had always plagued her when teaching a new class was present, but there also was excitement. Six years ago, she was unable to imagine herself teaching, but today she was eager to share with her students what she had learned and what she was still learning.

“Have you been thinking of what you would like to do after you get your PhD?” Nalah’s soft voice intruded on her thoughts as they ascended the stairs and headed into the building.

“I want to teach. I heard there may be an opening soon for a Visiting Assistant Professor here.”

“I thought Miami did not hire their own graduates?” The door slammed shut behind them and Nalah stopped in the hall, shrugging her heavy backpack up more securely onto her shoulder.

“I can’t get a permanent position here, no, but they will hire their own graduates for temporary positions.” This was a reality Susan had been struggling with for some time.  One of her close friends had finished her graduate program in English Literature and had applied to over 200 schools only to get a job at one teaching English composition, rather than the literature that she had studied and trained for. She continued, “I know competition for the job will be fierce, but if I can get it, it will be great experience and I will be able to work in my field while I look for something permanent.”

Nalah nodded, “I still have many years left. I hope there are more opportunities by then.”

Susan didn’t want to discourage her colleague, but the fact was the need for English Literature professors fluctuated. There were no guarantees that there would be work for Nalah or even herself after they finished school. The best they could do was to excel in grad school and make sure that any jobs they took while getting their degree or after obtaining it didn’t leave gaps in their resumes; it would be much harder to get a job as an English Lit professor if either of them fell out of the academia loop for too long.

She smiled at Nalah, “Don’t worry about that now. Just keep up the amazing work you’re doing and you’ll get the job you want eventually.”

Nalah’s face took on a serious air and she asked cautiously, “Susan, would you do anything differently if you could?”

The question was one she had asked herself many times, and it felt good to be able to share what she’d learned with someone who was new to the graduate program. After a brief pause to collect her thoughts, she said, “I would have been honest with myself about my passions, and I wouldn’t have taken so many long breaks between high school, college, and grad school. But honestly, Nalah, I have no regrets.”

Nalah looked relieved; she had often questioned some of her own decisions, but to hear that someone else had as well, and yet was about to get her PhD, was heartening. “Can I ask one more question, Susan?”
Susan glanced at the clock then back at Nalah, “Sure.”

“Was there ever a time you hated grad school?”

People often report that their lives flash before their eyes when they are about to die; their heartaches and triumphs are laid bare before them as they take that last breath. Susan imagined that it was much like this moment. Nalah’s simple question stirred up a flurry of memories and emotions that twisted through her like a cyclone: the confusion that assailed her before she switched degrees as an undergrad, the practical poverty of a grad student’s financial condition, the sleepless nights, the stress of the comprehensive tests, the fear of teaching, the endless research and writing for her dissertation. When the winds died down and the dust settled, she provided Nalah with the most truthful response possible: “I loved every minute of it.”
Then she smiled a smile that went all the way to her eyes.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sonnet 38 + Xtranormal + YouTube = Fun

Sonnet 38 by the Bard as read by a computerize teddy bear.

Made using the Xtranormal Movie Maker tool offered through YouTube. Easy and fun!