Tag Archives: Elizabeth Syson

I’m Moving!

I’m really excited about my new blog! I’m no longer updating this one, so please head on over to elizabethsyson.wordpress.com and hit that lovely “follow” button to keep hearing about my adventures.
I’ve got a countdown until my departure for Rwanda, and I hope you’ll come along as I join the Peace Corps and dive into teaching English!


Inkwell Poetry

I’ve taken to journaling with pen and ink.

I’m not talking a BIC stick; I’m talking wooden shaft, removable nibs, and a cute little inkwell with Jane Austen’s profile on it. (Okay, I admit it, I bought it in a gift shop.)

One morning, partly out of guilt for having used the set so rarely after buying it, I settled with my journal and my pen and ink, and somehow I fell in love with the medium.

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It’s slow. It’s unforgiving. It’s demanding. My usual hurried scrawl is impossible, but no matter how careful I am, my painstaking letters come out wobbly and uneven.

All things considered, I should hate it.

Yet, somehow, it soothes me. It slows me down, lets me think and breathe in between words. The rhythmic pauses to dip my nib in the inkwell force method and movement into what used to be an urgent, rushed process. Finding the precise angle best suited to my nib, like finding the precise angle best suited to my thoughts, takes practice and patience.

I love today’s culture: retro is in, and following fads is out (an irony that can twist your brain into knots if you think about it too long). You can wear anything you want and be in style. New home decor is as easy (and cheap!) as picking up broken windows or discarded bottles while yard sale shopping.

And record players are popular once more, as evidenced by the gleaming Crosley turntable on the coffee table across from me.

In an era when you can fit weeks’ worth of music on a pocket-sized device, why are people returning to a device as inconvenient and limited as a record player? It’s huge. It’s heavy. You have to flip the record over every fifteen minutes or so, and you can only listen to one album at a time—none of the “shuffle all” freedom of, say, an iPod.

So why, I asked myself as I set Simon and Garfunkel spinning, would I rather switch on a record player?

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For the same reason I like to dip a pen in an inkwell: for the authenticity. For the intentionality. For the beauty of the flaws—the fuzzy high notes or spreading ink blotches, the click of the needle when you set it down and the scratch of metal against paper as the ink becomes something new.

I love the inkwell because I dip into it and draw out words that flow to the page in a beautiful, organic way that never occurs when I force thoughts out of the cheap, plastic tube of a ballpoint. I love it because I feel the words forming, sense the effort and time they deserve rather than cramming them out as quickly as my brain can conjure them. Because even more than the words on the page, the process becomes poetry in its own right.

Because when I’ve finished and my wobbly letters straggle like weary soldiers across the page, I know I’ve given away a part of my soul—and then my soul feels not less, but more.


That Time I Shaved My Head

My father jokes endlessly about his lack of hair, so when I texted him this photo a week ago, the caption was obvious: “Look, daddy—we’re twins!”

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Last year, everyone on campus knew me by sight as “that girl with dreadlocks.” I guess now I’m “that bald girl.” It’s surprising how much of your identity is wrapped up in your hair. Surprising how you don’t notice till it’s gone.

Before the clippers hit my head, it seemed like a grand adventure—I would do something different and discover whether or not anyone can really look like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta. But as a friend guided the vibrating clippers across my head in that first irrevocable pass, I squinched my eyes shut and squeaked, “What if I have an ugly head?”

A year ago, I bribed my housemates with cookies to help comb my hair into dreadlocks. When they said, “What if we ruin your hair?” I replied that I would cut it off. “It’s hair,” I reminded them. “It comes back.”

A week ago, when I bribed a friend with tea to shave my hair off, I realised I had no backup plan.

I found out how much I hide behind my hair.

When I dreadlocked it, I discovered the dubious joys of a hairstyle that people feel free to mention. Like a dog or a baby, somehow dreadlocks open you up to the scrutiny and criticism of strangers. People passing in Starbucks or on the sidewalk would ask how long I’d had locks or how hard they were to maintain. They’d ask to touch them.

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And humans weren’t the only fascinated ones.

Now, as I ran a hand over my newly-shorn scalp, I saw my face in the mirror. My eyes, my nose, my mouth. My sort of sticky-outy ears. Nothing to soften them. Just my face.

I couldn’t maintain eye contact with the stranger in the mirror.

The freedom to comment on my dreadlocks didn’t extend to my shaved head. Even friends looked and then looked away. Strangers avoided meeting my eyes.

Last year, everyone asked why I locked my hair; last week, nobody asked why I shaved my head.

I haven’t sorted out reasons. I’m still processing how I feel about the uncomfortable glances and the squirming refusals of some friends to feel my scalp when other friends say, “Touch her head!” I have guesses but no answers as to why my head is somehow different from my hair.

What I do know is that having no hair is scary.

Those first few days, I wore the kind of makeup I usually reserve for fancy-shmancy events. I’ve been choosing my clothes and jewellery with extreme care. It’s taken me a week (and a quarter inch of fuzzy new hair) to get comfortable enough with my own face to let it stand on its own without brushing on bronzer and adding sparkly shadows around my eyes. It turns out I know my hair better than I know my face—I’m surprised every time I see my own features in a mirror or a window.

I won’t be shaving my head clean every week or anything like that, but having a chance to get to know myself without something that I’ve literally and figuratively hidden behind for most of my life…I think it’s a valuable experience. In some odd, undefinable way, I think I’m better for having tried this.

But I can’t lie—I’m looking forward to having hair again.


On Handling Criticism

I like to think I handle criticism fairly well. I don’t, but I like to think I do.

I got spoiled this summer, working for fantastic people who constantly praised my work. I was pretty pleased with myself.

Until this week.

A publishing house for which I did a part-time internship in the spring offered to keep sending me manuscripts this summer, so I’ve spent evenings and weekends making comments and changes, doing my best to be professional. (And by “my best,” I mean I tried to sound nice, but I have a hard time sounding professional, because professional always sounds so harsh. But I tried.)

I sent it in and asked for feedback—because it’s a learning experience, right?

He replied, very politely, that I made too many comments and should remember that this author is an award winning, published writer… and though he didn’t say it, the overall impression was, “You’re an intern with little experience; who are you to criticise your betters?”

I closed my laptop and made several cups of Earl Grey. Then I spent three days in a horrible funk, binge-watching TV, reading YA novels, and avoiding my email.

See—told you I don’t handle criticism well.

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The whole time, this shadow loomed—the knowledge that at some point, I had to respond.

Finally, I wrote a long letter detailing the whole thing to a friend, and as I wrote, I realised a few things.

This man, a professional with years of experience, took the time to send feedback that I requested. He did so politely (I know it doesn’t sound like it, but remember, I told you my impression; his actual wording was courteous and ended on a “I’m sure with practise you’ll get very good at this” note). He gave me something to work with and learn from.

But most importantly, it’s his publishing house, not mine. He has the right to ask for whatever kind of edits he wants, and I have no right to criticise that. I’m doing a job for him, and I can’t force him to want the job done my way.

And the truth is, he’s right: I’m young. I have limited experience. I agreed to this internship claiming I want to learn—so I must be willing to take criticism, to make mistakes and learn how to fix them rather than pouting when they’re pointed out.

I want to make something clear here: I still don’t think my edits were wrong; the problems I pointed out are all valid concerns.

But the issue is not whether I’m right. No matter how right I may be, when I’m working for someone else, the highest priority is what they want. Besides—do I really care that much? Maybe I’m just being stubborn because I’m embarrassed and it’s easier to say, “You’re wrong” than, “I’m sorry; I’ll try to improve.”

Though criticism is never fun, it’s teaching me about flexibility and humility. Oh yeah—and about editing.

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Love is Blindness (or is it?)

I didn’t come to New York City expecting to fall in love. I’m a country girl through and through; I like dirt roads under my bare feet and brilliant stars above mountain ranges’ evening silhouettes. But as I near the end, I realise I’ve come to love the endless kaleidoscope, the constant change and yet sameness of the people on the streets, the subways running like (broken) clockwork, the engines and sirens sweeping the streets day and night.

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I binge-watched Daredevil this weekend, and out of the muddled hours of flashing guns, impressive ninja moves, and dramatically-whispered conversations, one line stuck in my mind:

Growing to love something is simply forgetting, slowly, what you dislike about it.

Wow. What a hit-and-miss theory of love. If you happen to stop noticing the bad things, that’s love, and if you happen to keep noticing them—sorry, not for you. It sounds pretty, but this version of love removes all intentionality and turns love into partial blindness. I would argue that love is a choice, not to forget what you dislike, but to emphasise what you like—to acknowledge the imperfections but focus on the perfections.

Loving a city is a little like loving a person. You begin as strangers, every corner and angle a surprise, and you slowly explore, growing more and more familiar until you don’t have to ask directions or read signs. You know what you can say and do and when you should go home and close the door. And as your acquaintance continues, you have the choice: will you focus on that bag of rotting rubbish on the corner, or will you look past it and see the windows glistening like jewels in the sun? It isn’t a matter of chance—it’s not sitting around hoping you’ll notice something positive before you see the negative—it’s a matter of choice, of looking for the positive and keeping your eyes on the good when the bad crowds in.

I’ve come to love New York, not because I’ve stopped noticing the dirty streets and jam-packed subways, but because in the midst of those I notice rooftops gleaming under the setting sun and ancient elms rustling in hot afternoon breezes.

You can’t love on condition; “I’ll love you when your faults stop bothering me” is not love. You have to love unconditionally, the dirty with the clean, the broken parts with the whole. You don’t love someone by not seeing what’s ugly; you love by choosing to look past to what’s beautiful.


Internships: What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Do

Summer hit me like a belly-flop from the high dive this year. I interviewed for my internship eight days before I flew home from school. I got the “Congratulations! You got the job!” call two days before I flew home. I found an apartment and ordered a plane ticket a week before I flew to New York, and I had one day to make sure I knew which train to get on before I started.

I was scared to death. I had no idea what to expect. I considered quitting before I started

The end of summer is hitting me a little less like a belly-flop and a little more like a cannonball—still insane impact and a lot of mess, but much less pain.

I’m glad I didn’t quit, because I had a fantastic summer. It flew by. Working an internship is the difference between practicing a stroke on dry land and trying it in water; you’re submerged in the experience, and I discovered that I love being submerged in publishing. I also like to think I learned a thing or two about what you should and should not do in an internship.

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1. Do: Take your work seriously.
This sounds really “duh,” I know, but it’s tempting to think, “I’m just an intern. I’m temporary. It won’t matter.” But it will. An internship is one of the easiest ways to get a job out of college. Probably half the people I met or worked for this summer had been hired after interning. Even if you don’t plan to go back and work for the company, the work you do is only temporary for you. Any given task and its ramifications may only last till the end of summer for me, but for the supervisor I turn it in to, for the production department who have to work with it, for the book it winds up affecting in the end—even for the consumers who read that book—my work is long-term. It carries permanent weight.

2. Don’t: Take yourself seriously.
People will respect you for the work you do, but they’ll like you for how you make them feel. Be friendly. Chat with people, smile, laugh, listen. Try to see other people’s perspectives and don’t get too hung up on yourself. Remember that you’re an intern, not a full-time employee—meet your deadlines, but take advantage of the flexibility offered, make friends with people who can teach you things, accept that you will fail and that the easiest way to deal with that is with honesty, good humour, and humility. Apologise. Fix the problem. Laugh at yourself. You’ll go far.

3. Do: Show your enthusiasm.
In a world full of stressed people running on the hamster wheel of corporate life, nothing stands out more than someone who genuinely enjoys being there. I’m not saying to pretend to love something you hate, but even the worst job has its perks. I’m fortunate enough to have found an internship I absolutely loved (nearly) every minute of; you might not be—but still keep an eye out for the things you enjoy. Look for the aspects that you gravitate toward and let your supervisors know you enjoy them. Tell people which tasks you could do all day or what about your work is meaningful to you. Your supervisor isn’t there just to hand out work, and he or she will be gratified to hear that you love the idea of helping create a better product for the consumer or that you get excited about brainstorming creative ways to market. Plus your enthusiasm differentiates you from the hundreds of other interns who will be looking for a job soon.

4. Don’t: Say no.
Don’t say no to anything. Get invited to a meeting that seems unrelated to your job? Go anyway. Learn about whatever they’re discussing. I’ve been to sales meetings and question-and-answer sessions for an office move that I won’t be here for. I’ve listened to global executives discuss budgets and artists discuss cover designs. Vital to my particular job? Absolutely not—but they gave me a more complete picture of how the company works, what the different people do, how various departments interact. I’ve done spreadsheets, made phone calls, and scanned cheque request forms. Related in any way to writing or copyediting? Absolutely not—but being willing to do anything makes your supervisors like you and lets you see what other people’s jobs entail, again giving you a more holistic view of the company. The point of an internship is not to make money or to simply survive it—it’s to learn, so don’t ever say no to any opportunity to learn anything.

5. Do: Ask questions.
“Ask questions” is a common piece of advice that people don’t follow much. Don’t just ask questions when you need information in order to complete a task; ask questions about everything. Ask what part your small piece of work plays in the bigger picture. Find out who a job came from and where it’s going. Find out what that guy in the cubical down the hall does and how it relates to what you’re doing. Email people and ask for informational interviews—they’ll be happy to do them, and you’ll learn about jobs you never knew existed or insider secrets of how or where to apply if you want to get to a certain position, and you’ll meet someone who might become a valuable contact in getting to an interview. If nothing else, you might make a friend.

6. Don’t: Just float.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the options, the uncertainties, and your growing recognition of how little you really know about your chosen field. Feeling so at sea, it can be easy to just bob around, taking whatever opportunities you get but setting no definite goals. Don’t just float. Pick a goal and work toward it. Remember that goals can change; that’s okay—but pick a milestone or you’ll never get anywhere. Even if you’re taking whatever job you can get without being picky, set yourself goals. Decide what you want to learn or what job you want to transition into. Don’t let yourself float aimlessly when you could be getting somewhere.

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Beyond all that, enjoy yourself. An internship is a fantastic opportunity to try a career out and see how you feel about it. If you discover you hate your chosen path, search for the humour in it. If you discover you love it, savour every moment. The important thing to remember is that it’s a temporary adventure, so appreciate it before it ends.


Vulnerability: in which I get published

This is a quick note, my darlings, to tell you that this month I have a piece published in Hippocampus Magazine.

I know I should be over the moon excited, but the truth is I feel extremely small and vulnerable now. It’s very personal, this piece, written out of the emotions that have sifted to the top of several years’ worth of murky feelings. I don’t want to write a treatise on the piece; I hope it speaks for itself. But I do want to admit that I’ve never wanted less to share a piece of my writing—yet, at the same time, this piece feels important, and I find I can’t not share it.

So if you like, go see the sliver of my soul that I handed off to the world. Perhaps it’s a sliver that we all share.


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