Time Passes

Time passes, and usually we change and grow as it does, but sometimes we don’t.

A couple of weeks ago, Facebook served me up a memory in the form of a post I’d made on that day in 2013.

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Here’s what I thought: My 2013 self sounds like an asshole.

Here’s what I also thought: It’s been just five years, but it felt like a lifetime had passed.

Here’s what I remember about my time working at an elementary school: every day I felt like I wasn’t using the skills I was supposed to be using—I wasn’t using any of the skills or tools I’d learned during the two-year graduate program I’d entered directly after college. Every day I felt acutely that I had never been trained for the work that I was doing—and that no one was going to hire me for the skills I’d acquired in school. Some days I resented the fact that I’d had to cobble together several part-time jobs to make ends meet. Most days I loved that I was being paid to have second graders holler “Teacher Hillary!” across the playground to get my attention so I could capture for Facebook or the school website whatever cool project they were doing. The days when I cleaned a cut or calmed a kid down, some part of me was aware that I was accessing the part of my personality that is drawn to caring for others. And the days when I managed to write a few words after work, to piece together a paragraph even, I marveled at the possibilities my future might hold.

So there were these disparate parts of me that knew I was learning an enormous amount, that knew the benefit of getting any kind of humanities degree—and, in fact, the thing that sets humanities degrees apart from the hard sciences, or more technical fields—was that those skills were transferrable. I was trained to read and research, to ask good questions, to empathize and to interrogate my assumptions, to understand how nonprofits work, and to value the past, whatever form it took (like meeting minutes!) so that it could inform future work.

But a significant part of me was mad. Mad that I’d graduated from an excellent school but had done so at time when the job market was basically nonexistent. Mad that I’d gotten a degree and then moved to a city where everyone applying for my job were basically equally qualified. Mad that I had innumerable but apparently useless skills. Mad that I couldn’t figure my way out. And mad that I had the audacity to be mad. I mean, I didn’t have the job I thought I wanted, but I had A job, with supportive bosses, and I had been in worse pickles.

Fast forward five years: I have spent nearly three years in a job in my field—in fact, both my fields—and now I’ve embarked again on a different kind of career path, away from my training but, in a different way, in the service of it. This new job will, I hope, make a difference in this newly charged political climate, will do some real good—though the recent school shootings have made me acutely aware, again, of just how important a school administration job is. And while this new job is not in the museum field, it’s not lost on me that my responsibilities include teaching small organizations how to use social media—which is exactly what my very first paid museum gig comprised.

So when Facebook offered me this memory from five years ago, I cringed: I like to think that I’ve changed in that short shift in time, that I’ve grown more humble, less angry, more generous with the time and talents I do have and less sensitive to what I don’t have. But in other ways I know I haven’t changed: I still love days that involve great variety, I still want to help people, and I still use my museum studies skills every single day.

Blog Hop, or: Why I Listen to Carter Burwell’s True Grit on Repeat

Okay, so, a while ago this blog hop was going around, and going around. The extraordinary Sara Rauch tagged me; check out her blog. You may also be interested in reading the blog posts of fellow Pacific University grads Killian Czuba, Maisha Z. Johnson, and Kate Sheeran — these women and their work inspire me to make my work mean something in the world. (Next up: David Smith will wow you with words about his historical fiction.)

What am I working on?

Right now I’m working on several projects: a paper for the Harry Potter Conference at Chestnut Hill College; the edits for an article about history and fiction for The Writer’s Chronicle (I may have told everyone this already; it’s only because I have to repeat it in order to convince myself that it is true); and, oh, yeah, a novel about grief. And grandparents. And Illinois. And Carl Sandburg. And Abraham Lincoln. (No, it’s not historical fiction.)

What I’m really working on is figuring out the best way to make sure my butt gets in the chair and my head stays on the story, instead of mesmerized by whatever stupid thing is happening on the Internet. I’m extremely lucky to have a very supportive community; everyone from my partner to my boss asks me if I’m writing. At the moment I’m having a very intense experience with my protagonist, which feels like such a gift and also a good excuse to beg off too many non-writing commitments. I’m learning to say, “I have to hang out with Elizabeth,” and, luckily, people seem to understand. Or, at least, not ask too many questions.

How is my work different than others in its genre?

One way to answer this question is to offer a quote from Virginia Woolf, who wrote in Jacob’s Room, “They say the sky is the same everywhere. Travellers, the shipwrecked, exiles, and the dying take comfort from the thought, and no doubt if you are of the mystical tendency, consolation and even explanation shower down from the unbroken surface.” I don’t really think the sky is the same everywhere, but I do take comfort in the idea that a writer’s job is to observe what everyone sees and to translate those observations, that experience, into something meaningful. I’m finding a lot of inspiration in the works of other Midwestern writers, but I think my work is different in part because of my training as a historian and in part because I am a young person who has always been fascinated by the lives of older people. And my work is different from other work in the literary fiction of the Midwest simply because I’m a unique human being with a unique relationship with the Midwest: I grew up in Illinois and went to school in Minnesota, and the longer I live in Philadelphia, the more I want to sound like a Wisconsinite.

My novel is also different because it tells the story of a farm from the perspectives of a grandmother and her granddaughter. If you know of any other stories like this, please let me know. I’d love to read them!

Why do I write what I do?

As a historian I want to put a novel in a context, to explore cause and effect, to line up evidence, but as a novelist I’m interested in the human element of the longue duree. I write about the Midwest not only because it’s in my bones but also because I don’t always understand it, even when I jump to defend it against snooty East Coasters who sniff about “The Middle.” And I tend to write about the relationships among women because I believe that women’s voices need to be heard.

How does my writing process work?

I make lists: lists of things I need to do for the novel, lists of journals I want to read, lists of books I need to find, lists of ideas for the blog or for other publications, lists of things to buy at the grocery store, lists of things to do before or after or during my time at my writing desk.

One of the things I learned during grad school that it’s important to write what I find interesting, to explore the moments I find compelling, to not worry about where those scenes will fit in to the larger work. (Thanks, Mary Helen Stefaniak.) Sometimes this involves sitting in front of my computer and sometimes it involves daydreaming while on a run or deep imagining on the deck of our tree house. I try to take my protagonist and antagonist with me wherever I go, to ask myself how they would respond to an annoying Philadelphia driver or a rambunctious child or the smell of October leaves. (This is also a good coping mechanism for dealing with Philadelphia drivers and rambunctious children.)

My writing process also involves a lot of time in the kitchen. I’ve written before about the ways in which I work out plot or character through cooking. Ideally, I try to work and then take a break to cook, to let the ideas simmer on the back burner while the pies are in the oven (you know, to really hit that metaphor home…).

But perhaps more than anything, listening to Carter Burwell’s soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ film “True Grit” usually gets me to a deadline, or at least to the place where I can say, “Yes, I’ve done enough for now.” (You can read about Burwell’s process here. He writes, “[Mattie’s] pieties derive from her knowledge of the Bible, and her courage is really a Presbyterian self-righteousness, wedded to a passion for balancing accounts.” This is not really unlike my own writing process, I guess.) The whole soundtrack is about forty-five minutes long—long enough to get into the piece I’m trying to work on, but not long enough that I can’t sit still until the very last strains of Iris Dement’s haunting “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” I’ve tried an egg timer and the two-hour spurts during blood glucose curves on my cat, but “True Grit” seems to do the trick. Plus the cadence of that soundtrack, the mood of it, is just what I need in order to be able to listen to my own work. (Check out Sharon Harrigan’s interview with Jack Driscoll, who elegantly discusses the relationship between music and his own process.) In any case, now I’ve got myself trained. “The Wicked Flee”: GO.

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