Tag Archives: writing

I Should Not Have an Education: or, Why I’m Moving to Rwanda

Quick announcement: I’m moving! Well, not in real life—not yet, anyway—but online. Follow me at elizabethsyson.wordpress.com to keep updated. All my content will be both here and there until the official move, but starting in August, this blog will no longer be active.


What would you think if I didn’t apply to grad school, I texted my mother, and instead moved to Africa to teach English?

I got her answer almost immediately: Can I call you?

To be fair, she handled the whole situation better than a lot of parents might have, and over the next several hours, I laid out my reasoning behind discarding applications to a handful of top-notch universities and banking on a long-shot application to the Peace Corps.

My main reason: I should not have an education.

Education is an interesting thing, when you sit down to think about it. For centuries, only the wealthy or religious were educated, and the working classes were kept in their place largely by a lack of education. In some times and places, it simply wasn’t available. In others, it was illegal—consider the way white Southerners kept black slaves under control by limiting their education. Today, we consider education a necessity, but millions of children worldwide either can’t go to school or have to drop out before finishing.

Analfabetismo2013unesco

According to UNESCO, 61 million primary school-age children were not enrolled in school in 2010. Of these children, 47% were never expected to enter school, 26% attended school but left, and the remaining 27% are expected to attend school in the future.
(DoSomething.org)

I say that I should not have had an education, and maybe that sounds odd. After all, I’m a white American living above the poverty line. I learned to read and write before kindergarten and maintained high grades from beginning to end of my education, and I never once questioned whether I would go to college (though, as I later learned, my parents did).

But the truth is, I’m only in my position because a lot of people made a lot of sacrifices. I succeeded in high school because my mother devoted time and energy to homeschool six children when the public school system failed us. My parents managed a tight budget to buy me books on my birthdays. I attended a fantastic college mostly on scholarships and work-study, and I studied abroad thanks to generous gifts from family and friends.

“In developing, low-income countries, every additional year of education can increase a person’s future income by an average of 10%.”
(DoSomething.org)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/overseas-development-institute/2577909266/in/photolist-4VNsBu-8HVPCM-5SVQV1-nDu143-fzviyT-9W1vid-9SCSqn-a6EB2f-7VmTTi-ptXje-5yn99M-omJjSi-aiCeyy-8ntqHo-9LQWFw-4eVLyf-6ccQXV-fPTHeV-4eRN4n-miR75-4eVLxs-5rkbrw-4eRN3v-5G4HBz-9Xh8kF-9v2KdX-9v5KgN-efdcc9-9SFKsW-2UXZzH-zc9oU-C4aBt-ai57Xe-9SCSEg-88FiwB-9SFKGS-9SFKm9-9SCSwV-9SCSPR-9SCSMP-9SCSBF-9SCSGF-9SCSz8-9SFKqA-zYJWH-3q8BFc-7yXa4L-9rju35-9Kztfc-cXp2NS

Don’t get me wrong—I worked hard for my education—but I started from a position of privilege, and it was the sacrifices and gifts of other people that put me there. And suddenly, a year ago, wading through grad school applications, I stopped and asked myself, “Why?”

Why go to grad school? Why spent that much more money—someone else’s money, of course—to spend another two years revelling in a writing-centred world of my own? Why go on to a career, to make money to pay for a flat so I could live in a city with a job where I could make money to pay for a flat to…? That day, staring at the bright pictures of classrooms and successful grad students, I thought, What a waste.

Not that education is a waste of money. I think education is one of the most valuable things we have—the chance to broaden our worlds, learn new skills, open up opportunities. But taking an education I’d been essentially given and using it merely to make myself a lucrative life? It sounded thoroughly selfish.

“53% of the world’s out-of-school children are girls and 2/3 of the illiterate people in the world are women.”
(DoSomething.org)

Literature cracked the world open for me. It gave me a place to hide, new thoughts to think, unexpected people to love. It taught me to understand and communicate with diverse groups of people, to consider every perspective, to grieve for every pain. Practically, communication skills make me more likely to get and keep a good job. Literacy gives me the chance to learn outside a formal educational structure, and writing gives me an effective self-therapy option when anxiety strikes.

And, faced with the option to spend two more years either enjoying my education or sharing it, I couldn’t fathom choosing the former.

This leads me to my official announcement: in September, I fly to Kigali, Rwanda to spend the next two years teaching high school English.

I’m thrilled. I’m terrified. I’d love to answer your questions, and I hope you’ll stick around and let me virtually take you with me on this journey.

rwanda-697792_1280


*This is a scary announcement because the Peace Corps gives volunteers no guarantee that they won’t be cut from the programme before arrival. My status as a volunteer could change between now and September, although obviously I don’t anticipate that happening.


On Spending Time

time

There should be a Writers Anonymous club: “Hi, I’m Elizabeth, and it’s been three weeks since I handed someone a half-baked draft for feedback.”

See, I suffer from something I like to call Supportive Audience Deficiency (SAD). I get SAD when I spend hours crafting beautiful words, flowing sentences, and snappy dialogue and have nobody to assure me it’s all worthwhile. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’ve misdiagnosed myself—maybe instead of SAD I’ve got egocentrism problems. I’ve had the argument with myself before:

“I just want someone to reassure me that I’m not wasting my life.”

“You mean you want someone to compliment you.”

“No, I mean if this isn’t going to work out, I want someone to tell me now, before I waste my life on it.”

Wouldn’t life be easier if everything came with a clear designation? “This will take five hours a week and be vital in the long run,” or “This will take seven hours a week and be enjoyable, though you may regret it from time to time.”

Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. For years, my best alternative has been to hand someone a draft and judge by positive or negative feedback whether it’s worth the hours I might spend revising it.

And now I’m realising that I’ve gone about this all wrong. Life isn’t a budget to be balanced. Art isn’t a carefully calculated investment risk.

So I’m turning my back on the worrying and the second-guessing and the needing to know the outcome before I invest in the process. I’m doing what I love right now and letting the long run take care of itself. Instead of letting SAD symptoms dampen my enthusiasm, I’m enjoying the moments as they pass, living my life as it happens instead of waiting for the future.

Maybe the piece I’ve spent years on will never be read—so what? I enjoyed the process. I wrote for myself, not for some hypothetical audience years down the road. As I wrote, I learned self-discipline. I got to know myself better, faced dark parts of my own nature, confronted big questions, and did not surface with all the big answers. I let my imagination run wild and I lived in a new world created entirely at the crossroads of language and ideas. All of this may never be measurably relevant to my career, but it is immeasurably relevant to my being.

The most meaningful things in life may never give quantifiable returns on my time and effort, but perhaps that makes them more valuable, not less. I am shaped by the interests I pursue, the people I encounter, the ideas I entertain. I am formed by minuscule everyday experiences, not by some intangible ledger counting my time down to a bottom line. Every moment, I am growing and becoming. The most significant return on my time is not measured by what I do, what opportunities I have, or where I end up, but by who I am.

And for that, I need no supportive audience. I know the answer without asking—it is always worth my while to be.


Blank Page Phobia

Photo cred: Flickr user Matt Roberts

If there’s a trope in the writer world more cliche than “It was a dark and stormy night…” it’s the terror of the blank page.

We all face it—the emptiness like a white-out blizzard that might swallow us and numb us until the terror turns to frozen death—the fear we try not to acknowledge, hiding behind funny writer jokes and declarations of how much we adore creating worlds out of graphemes.

I face it when I sit down to the first daunting word of an assignment and when I open a document for a new story. I face it two paragraphs in, when the rest of the page stretches like the wilderness at the crumbled end of an abandoned sidewalk. I face it when I open a new blog post like this one and wonder yet again if I have anything to write that’s worth posting.

The world is full of shouting voices. The internet is a veritable sea of people waving their arms and shouting, “Over here! Hey! I’m right here!” and “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” And somewhere, in the midst of that, in a world where 6.7 million people blog on blogging sites alone and and somewhere between 600 thousand and a million books are published each year in just the US—somewhere, buried in the noise and the chaos, each of us hopes to be heard.

Photo cred: Flickr user steve

That blank-page-phobia isn’t really about coming up with the right words. It isn’t “What if I have nothing to say?”

It’s “What if nobody cares?”

Our greatest fear isn’t of being silent, but of being silenced.

We fear obscurity. We fear redundancy. We fear the “so what?” factor—that the words we feel to be so intimately a part of us will be met with apathy if we open them to the world.

We are portrayed time and again as a selfish culture—all of us, whether as a country or as a generation—but the truth is that we don’t shout for attention because we’re narcissists. We shout because we’re desperately lonely. In a world where all of us plead for attention, most of our voices mingle into unintelligible noise.

As writers, we’re told to churn out material constantly. The most oft-repeated advice I’ve heard is, “Write every day.” Write because practice makes perfect. Write because the more pieces you put out, the more likely one or two of them will float to the top of the pile and gain notice.

Write. Write. Write.

And I stare at the blank page and tell myself to write, and a small voice inside me whispers, “But what if nobody reads it?”

So today, I give you and me permission not to write.

To set the blank page aside and listen to one or two of the other voices screaming into the void. Today, let’s take the time to let some other lonely soul know that their voice is heard—that their words are not white noise—that the confessions of their heart are not redundant, not worthless.

And then, when we’ve done that, I give you and me permission to write.

To craft sentences and select words and make typos and finish—or not finish. To publish—or to not publish. I give us permission to write because we are writers and because the craft itself is a worthwhile endeavour. And I give us permission to love our writing even if nobody else reads it, to set our words aside if they do not contribute to the clamour of voices—or to lay our souls before the world, knowing that the act itself is meaningful, no matter the result.

Because none of us is silent. None of us is obscure. None of us is redundant. No matter how many voices drown us out, each of us matters.

Photo cred: Flickr user Amy Palko


Remembering Why I Write

“Sometimes I think I should quit writing and do something simple, like neurosurgery.”

I give this answer from time to time when people ask about my writing or when I’m faced with a insurmountable writers block. Sometimes I say “rocket science” or “quantum physics” instead of “neurosurgery,” but the gist remains the same.

It gets a laugh out of people. More importantly, it deflects attention and saves me from admitting I feel inadequate.

sitting

This never happened before I became a writing major. Back in high school, I remember constant excitement as I switched between drafts, writing whatever caught my fancy at any given moment. I could ramble for hours about my ideas, and I proudly finished draft after draft and filed them away for revisions. Publishing hovered in the future somewhere, waiting for the day I had edited something to my satisfaction and found an agent, or whatever it was you had to do to get published. I didn’t know. I was happy and confident.

Now I’m a writing major. Professors expound on the near impossibility of getting published and preach the importance of racking up bylines—any bylines, in any genre—because nobody will take an unpublished author seriously. My files are stuffed with scrapped drafts, “need five more revisions” novels, and short stories with long rejection notes.

My files are also filled with publications—but not as many as I’ve learnt to need. More people read my writing now than ever before in my life, but I’m less content than ever before. I’ve been taught I need more, always more. And someone else always has more impressive numbers or more exciting bylines than I do.

This week, a couple people wrote to tell me they appreciated my writing, and suddenly I saw my life in perspective. I don’t write for faceless numbers. I write for people—people I care about.

I write because words are a gift I want to pass on. Because other writers gave voice to my own fears and dreams. Because if I can touch one person’s life in even the minutest way—if I can bring about a single smile or let a single person know they’re significant—I’ve accomplished my purpose.

14089978785_d7e132bcb2_o

Writing isn’t about getting published or developing a fan base. It’s not about being the best or having the most bylines. Writing is about loving words and sharing ideas, working out impossible dreams and inspiring conversation. My writing is an extension of me, not the other way around, and that’s a vital difference. I define my work. My work does not define me.

I write for the joy of the language.

So this post is for the artists who crave recognition: someone sees you. Even if it’s one person, you serve a purpose. Your efforts are valuable if you inspire a single new thought, even if the new thought is your own.

It’s for the writers who face rejection slips: your words matter. Remember why you write.

Don’t write for a byline. Write for the joy of the language.

 


Why Writing Is Like Yoga

“Remind me why we’re doing this?” I grunted. I was upside-down, one leg flung high enough in the air to hurt muscles I didn’t know I had, most of my weight pressing against my shaky arms.

“It’s good for us,” my friend gasped beside me.

And then, as I tried to count my breaths and come out of the position without collapsing onto my face, I thought, It’s just like writing.

TheFaulknerPortable

I imagine flattering activewear and graceful poses—as if, after one session of yoga, I’ll suddenly find myself hiking mountains, drinking lattes on beaches, and playing acoustic guitar. Like yoga, writing seems fun—exciting, even. I dream of cozy blankets and poetic lines—as if, after one rough draft, I’ll suddenly find myself autographing novels, reading in an idyllic personal library, and giving TV interviews.

But my muscles ache, my joints pop, my body stinks; after the third chaturanga, I consider quitting. Like yoga, writing is not romantic. My imagination falters, my motivation wanes, my vocabulary disappears; after the third paragraph, I consider quitting.

Both seem simple. How hard can it be to balance on one foot? How hard can it be to string one word after another? And yet it is hard—nearly impossible, sometimes. Every inch is agony; every verb is torture. Breath after breath drags by, the beating of my heart counting the time from eager beginning to final resignation.

Pain, exhaustion, disillusionment… but I wouldn’t trade a moment of it.

Because, like yoga, writing is worth it. It forces you into uncomfortable positions, shows you irrefutably your own limits, demands dedication and strength you didn’t know you had. It slows you down, teaches you the infinitesimal eternity of every breath, the impossible vitality of every comma. Up close, you see that every moment of life is movement—always rising or falling, straining or relaxing. Nothing is stationary; even the most perfect point of balance is motion, a hundred tiny muscles pulling furiously to maintain the position.

Every ending is a beginning, a cycle of constant change: A handful of letters repeated in endlessly shifting patterns to form meaning. A handful of motions repeated in endlessly shifting positions to form yoga.

Like yoga, writing will never be easy. Each time, I conquer one difficulty and discover another. The difficulty is what makes it worth pursuing over and over again. Each time, I come with a different motivation—a pain I’m desperate to ease, a challenge I’m eager to overcome. Each time, I wonder whether I really can do this—and each time, I finish spent, amazed to discover that yes, I can.

Yoga


#Readwomen: Why December Is Women Writers Only

photo-1445311429009-0b7e0cff714a

A tumblr post started it. One unassuming sentence: “Would anyone be willing to join me in my journey to read only female authors during the month of December?”

It seemed like a good thing, something to make me a more intelligent reader, an aware being in an oblivious crowd. I browsed my unread books, picking out female names on spines and covers. I made a list of five books to begin with.

And, on 30 November, I read the entirety of Neverwhere.

When people asked about the rush, I said, “Because Neil Gaiman is not a woman, and tomorrow is December.” I explained about reading only women authors—eagerly, then uncomfortably, because when people asked why, I had no answer.

There were feminist answers—Gender equality! 

There were selfish answers—People like socially aware people!

There were buzzword answers—Intentionality!

…but they all felt wrong. As I perused my bookshelves, I found myself thinking, “Oh, that’s by a man? I never noticed,” or, “I don’t know if that’s a guy name or a girl name.” And then, finally, “…does it even matter?”

photo-1422480415834-d7d30118ea06

And then I decided that it does.

Not because I’m outraged over discrimination; not because I want to even out the field by throwing fangirl points toward women; not because I own a lot of male authors—but because I had no idea which authors I own.

Each book is a manifestation of its writer. The wise things Gandalf said are really wise things Tolkien said. Anne’s imagination was Montgomery’s. Books are the expression of a writer’s identity—their memories, their desires, their philosophies. Knowing who wrote a book is integral to a deeper understanding.

Of course, you can love a book without knowing the author, but you miss a whole world of meaning.You miss that Jane Austen wrote as a woman in a time when women weren’t supposed to write, or that Patricia Park wrote Re Jane from her own multicultural experience, or that Stephen King wrote his most successful novels from within the grip of depression and addiction.

This isn’t to say that every writer’s demographic is central to the meaning of every book. There are a hundred differences between us, and a hundred unifying details, and each of use is more than a single descriptor. More than a gender or a nationality or a skin colour. We’re individuals, and every tiny difference that makes a person unique—all of those form a writer.

So today I started in on Cheryl Strayed’s Wilda memoir, a personal journey, an introspection of exquisite, poetic rawness—a perfect beginning to my quest to understand the authors I read. And for the rest of the month, I’ll be reading only women authors, with the knowledge that they are women, and that in some way, to a greater or lesser degree, in a way I can and yet cannot understand, that identity undergirds every word on every page.

photo-1421338443272-0dde2463976a


3 Reasons You Should Do NaNoWriMo

It’s November–the month of crunchy leaves, cold wind, the first snowflakes, and…rough drafted novels?

photo-1446102892025-3900145fd2a7

Yes, my word-loving friends, National Novel Writing Month is upon us again. All across my social media, the familiar abbreviation is cropping up, usually accompanied by expressions of excitement and terror. Word counts are appearing in people’s Tweets and statuses, and frenzied writers are placing desperate calls to friends for plot help.

NaNo, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is essentially a challenge: write a 50,000-word novel in a month.

Now, I get that not everyone is interested in a writing-related career. But if you have even the slightest interest in writing, I encourage you to dive into the NaNo challenge with the rest of us, and here’s why.

  1. Support
    I’ve taken part in critique circles, editing groups, and submission calls, and these result in critiques, edits, and rejections (and, of course, sometimes, acceptance–which is always accompanied by critiques and edits). A writer needs thick skin; we pour our hearts into original creations and then bear the pain of seeing all our creations’ flaws pointed out… but not during NaNo! This month is not about perfection or critiques. This month is about kicking out word after word after word, pressing through writers’ block, overcoming lapses in creativity, doing anything it takes to reach that goal. The result of NaNo is not, in anyone’s case, a perfect novel. It’s the worst rough draft you’ve ever written, which is exciting because, in the end, you’ve written it. All of us know that our novels will be utter rubbish when we finish. We know each other’s novels will be utter rubbish. So we celebrate the rough drafts. We celebrate every word we force from our imaginations, through our nerves, out our fingers onto the screen. We celebrate the plot holes and the bad twists and the cliches and the filler words and the improbable endings. We celebrate the process.
  2. Community
    Writing is by nature a solitary pursuit, and many writers are by nature solitary people. NaNo gives us a chance to join together in our solitude. I sit on my couch alone with my cup of coffee and my word count of, most likely, a thousand words fewer than I need for the day, but I’m not really alone. I’m in the company of hundreds of thousands of writers around the world. Each of us has a different reason for doing this. Stubbornness, maybe, or love of a challenge. Desire to prove wrong everyone who said we couldn’t, or desperation to finish something big. Certainty that our words matter. No matter our reasons, our goal is the same, and in that shared goal, we find a community that surprises me every year with its strength, warmth, and openness. My first year, I met a fantastic writer from South Africa. My second, I discovered another girl on my floor was also a writer. I could keep going and going; every year, I find some new aspect of this huge, nebulous community of creative souls. We’re always changing, always growing, always welcoming.
  3. Success
    Here’s the thing that put me off NaNo for a couple consecutive years: we talk about winning. People who hit their 50k words call themselves NaNo winners, which is way cool if you hit your 50k. But what if you freeze up? What if you scramble those last few hours and at 11:59pm on the last day of November, you’re staring at 45k, or 35k, or 25k? What if you aren’t a winner? The idea of “winning” NaNo is a fundamental misunderstanding of the point. The point is to throw yourself into something and work at it even when it’s hard. The point is to write every day, even when you don’t want to, even when writer’s block is taunting you. The point is to end November having created something out of nothing. There is nothing magic about the number 50,000, but there is something magic about the grit and determination it takes to shut off distractions and ignore the mocking voices in your head long enough to write. The NaNo website says, “Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.” It’s not for “anyone who can write 50,000 words in a month” or “anyone who won’t fall short of the challenge”–it’s for anyone with the guts to sit down and write when it seems impossible. And if you end short of the deadline, you didn’t lose. If you end with any words more than you would’ve written otherwise, you succeed.

Maybe you’re glancing at this post out of the corner of your eye while you type and you’ve already hit a few thousand words. Maybe you’re curled up and your fingers are trembling at the idea of starting a monumental project. But no matter what position you’re in, if you have a plot in your head, if you have a character rattling the bars of your imagination, if you have anything inside you that perks up at the idea of writing… write! This month is for you.

photo-1444201716572-c60ec66d0494


%d bloggers like this: