This Week in Delgadia: The Toast, Swann’s Way, and Buffy Trivia

This past week marked the start of chilly mornings, which made me equal parts happy and distressed by how much time has already elapsed since graduation. But: Job interviews and writing tests have been are things that are happening, freelance things (about Angela Lansbury!) are also happening, and I even got scooped on a story last week which seems like a sign that I’m onto something with this writing thing. Overall, I’m still waiting for the next chapter to start, and eager to find the job that will take me there.

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In the meantime, I’ve been spoiled by all of the good books that I didn’t have time to read while I was still in school. Nearly a year after I started, I finally finished reading Swann’s Way. It’s an understatement to say that the book is lovely, just like it’s probably cliche to praise the dreamy rhythm of Proust’s endlessly stacked clauses. I feel pretentious even admitting that I read it, even though most of it was for a modern lit class last fall semester. But for real: The plot is spellbinding, Proust has a lot of interesting things to say about art and the senses, and it’s one of the best explorations of memory ever committed to paper (or Kindle, if that’s your thing). Be warned, though, that Proust probes the fact that love has a tendency to make people very sad.

I’m still working through Consider the Lobster (a collection of David Foster Wallace’s essays), currently midway through the uncut version of his report on John McCain’s presidential campaign against W. in 2000, a version of which appeared in Rolling Stone. After spending most of the summer reading fiction, it’s refreshing to read nonfiction that pushes the boundaries of the form with DFW’s iconic use of footnotes, charts, and other interruptions.

I also visited Barnes and Noble today for the first time in ages, and after months of weeding through disorganized used book stores I have to admit that it was refreshing to find the books I was looking for in predictable places, clean and in stock. I bought Hunter S. Thompson’s book about Hell’s Angels and The Crying of Lot 49 and then put myself on a strict diet that will hopefully prevent me from OD-ing on white male authors.

Trivia of the week: I revisited The Elected while working on a cover letter this week, which naturally got me onto an internet tangent that ended on a Buffy the Vampire Slayer wiki. Did you know that Blake Sennett (lead guitarist, Rilo Kiley; lead vocalist, The Elected) played warlock Michael Czajak in that episode where Buffy’s mom goes into PTA-nightmare-mode trying to stamp out witchcraft in Sunnydale? Me either, but it’s true nonetheless:

Blake Sennett was one of the first musicians I saw perform a live show, with Rilo Kiley while they were touring with Coldplay. I was 13 years old and sitting next to my dad, and I remember being mortified by the way he introduced the band: “Hey there, all you sons of bitches!” The curse words were electric, and at the time I was terrified that my father would know I thought so.

Internet gems: This wild longform story about a girl who pretended she was in high school for over a decadeThis beautiful old Dear Sugar letter about jealousy, which every unemployed person should be politely asked to read. Ann Friedman’s take on Kim Davis. What actually happened when Liberty University felt the Bern. Why reading online is different. Scottish illustrator extraordinaire Anna Doherty, who is a friend of one of my old roommates and almost certainly doesn’t remember meeting me, just launched a bookshop and I want to buy every adorable-yet-decidedly-off-kilter thing in it. Kyle MacLachlan’s use of puns and this emoticon —> ; – ) make his Twitter officially the best on the internet. Did you know that standard shipping from Top Shop is free?

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I took this photo back in the beginning of August, near the end of our interview after a leisurely brunch at Can Can, on Cary Street. Moments after this was taken, my hands were covered in red clay.

And finally, I wrote some new things! I’m thrilled to be on The Toast for the first time this week, and many thanks go out to Malena Magnolia for giving a lovely interview and just generally making damn good art. I also wrote about snack guilt and was surprised by how many people ended up reading it.

Dreams

After a lifetime of sleeping mostly in blackness like a dark TV screen, I decided last year that I wanted my mind to be active during the night. I had read that opening your mind to dreams would bring them on in a rush of color and light, and I wanted my brain to feel that activity, that animation, that could refresh my creative life. In the moments before sleep overcame me, I welcomed dreams with a mental whisper that gave them permission to light up my mind.

The sleeping kind of dreaming has been a dark experience at times, with images flashing deep in my brain all night long. Some mornings I wake up exhausted from talking to people, some of whom I know and others who are inventions of my tired mind. I pay visits to old dreamscapes, confounding mazes of rooms and scenarios that exist in a world of their own. One night, after listening to radio stories of police brutality, the dreams turned graphic, violent. Another night, while dreaming lucidly, I cleaned out my dream refrigerator and cooked for my friends. But my brain felt alive in a way that it hasn’t in years. My sense of self grew more cohesive, intentional, focused. I slept more deeply, entangled in those dreams, and fell asleep more quickly as they provided a solid place to land while falling asleep.

But there’s been the waking kind of dreaming, too, while scrolling through apartments on Craigslist. I stare at maps of Charlottesville, zooming in on purple dots and redecorating empty rooms in my mind. I envision the shared office space that I may need to rent, or create. I make note of storytelling classes I want to take and interviews I want to conduct to balance the solitude that comes with a writing life. I wonder what gym I will join and hope that I won’t end up paying what some friends call a “fat tax” – an unused gym membership that thins a bank account while a body remains unexercised. I sit quietly, thinking of what it would be like to live in a house that doesn’t let winter gusts in through thin windows, far away from the shouts and smashes of drunken herds of college students roaming after nightfall. I dream of what it will feel like to hold my written, edited, printed, and bound thesis, and what it will be like to cringe next year while flipping through this early attempt at scholarship. I hope that I will cringe. I want my writing to get better.

The nonstop cycle of reading and writing has started to give me brain fog, too. By the end of a long day, I choke out questions and answers while E and I cook dinner. My head feels fuzzy from the strain of too many ideas. Was it Don Delillo who wrote a novel about 9/11, or did he create a database disguised as a novel, and is that what we interface with? Are Clay Shirky and John Unsworth friends or sworn enemies? And how many times do I need to study OHCO before remembering what the acronym stands for? (It stands for Ordered Hierarchy of Content Objects. I just looked it up again.)

My thesis led me straight into the weeds, where my scattered brain struggled to put ideas together. Scraps of information gleaned from haphazard research confused and frazzled me. I’m on the brink of my revision phase, and time is slipping away. Last weekend, I sat down and read everything I’ve written, embarrassed but also relieved to find a few good pearls among the refuse. I wrote a new outline, a focused plan of attack to tame the unruly information that has piled up in Word documents. I’ve got new editors who have helped me to flesh out and frame some of my smaller ideas in articles that will be published soon (you’ll be able to find them on my “Clips” page once links are available).

Somehow, in the midst of all the chaos, I’ve scraped out some time to inhale stories that are becoming lifelines for me. Going to the gym means listening to The American Life for an hour, each lap on the track a little penance for the pleasure of hearing a true story, well-told. I’ve been reading articles on David Carr’s syllabus and eagerly gobbling Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s mini-series “Love in the Time of Bae.” The Manifestation-Station has broken my heart again and again. Copies of The Atlantic have piled up on my bookshelf, and I greedily dream of sprawling in the sand near my grandparents’ beach house in the aftermath of graduation, seeing what the world has been up to while I have been sucked through the whirlpool of job searching and class taking.

I wonder about my waking and sleeping dreams, about how mundane and peculiar they are, and about the cliche tossed at high schoolers and soon-to-be college grads on disposable greeting cards each year. “Follow your dreams,” they instruct us. “Follow your heart.” But how, when dreams and hearts are constantly in flux, and more often than not fixed temporarily on things that, under examination, are weird and confounding?

But then I remind myself that life feels fuller, richer, and more satisfying than ever before now that these dreams have settled in to stay. Weird, confounding, exciting, and strange, they are glimpses into all the things I didn’t know I wanted to examine. They keep me reading, writing, and searching for more.

Planning my chapters

Last week, I met with my thesis advisor in her office in Bryan Hall. I sat in the same chair I had occupied during my second year, when I offered some vague and jumbled interests that eventually evolved into my current thesis project. This time, I was prepared with a list of proposed chapters and topics scrawled in my Moleskin notebook. It was vaguely surreal, as if everything else that had happened in the interim to refine my thoughts was edited away, leaving the two office visits baldly next to each other with all of the intervening work sheared away.

I started writing one of the smaller sections of my thesis last week, and although I’m in theory focused on contextualizing Gish Jen’s The Love Wife in a whirlwind of what I hope will be delicately chosen high and low culture representations of families, in actuality I’m thinking about chapters these days. Not my thesis chapters, but the idea of chapters broadly.

We apply this word as a way of reading our own lives, usually in reverse but sometimes as a way of marking a transition. Graduations; moving houses; changing jobs; these all represent the closing of old chapters and the page-turn into something new. The poignant, tense moment happens at the summit of that turning page, when the next batch of episodes are just ahead but can’t yet be glimpsed. None of this is revelatory; it’s just a cliche we lean on out of convenience.

One of my classes this semester is exploring exactly this – our tendency to frame our lives in the vocabulary of literature. But as much as I deeply love literature, every once in a while, I can’t help but wonder what the hours I spend dissecting stories in class are really worth. (If I never hear the phrases “interiority” and “the human condition” again, it will be too soon.) I’m starting to think that my English major isn’t really about literature at all – at least, not at its core. Instead, I think we crave fictional narratives because we’re uncertain of how to tell ourselves the stories of our own lives. We’re searching for frames, for modes, for moments when an author really nails just how awkward it can be when someone doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say or how you inexplicably distraught you were when you ran into a childhood friend and everything felt weird. If we already knew how to do this, why would we read? And in our search, why would we read the memoirs of people who have already cracked this code when we could read the fictional works of authors who are testing ideas and, like us, in the process of working these things out?

With the semester underway, I’ve traded my summer internship, with its long days and free weekends, in for the elaborate juggling of too many thoughts. These systems are in constant gestation; whether it’s my thesis, social media strategy for Literally, Darling, job hunting, my classes, or my creative writing, there are always thoughts evolving, being abandoned, and occasionally being scribbled down to fight against forgetfulness. I’m finding it difficult to shuffle between these different piles of information and for the first time in my life, I’m getting serious about taking notes, just to keep my various cycles of ideas from being totally derailed or mixed up with each other as I leave things on the back burner.

Thinking of this time as a chapter doesn’t offer me any useful way of framing my experience. Although I might be living out my “college chapter” in a  general sense, no one’s life offers the neat thematic consistencies that robust writing can present. (If you accept that “college” is a relatively weak theme.) The subsections of my life – interdisciplinary classes, mundane tasks, creative work – are chaotic in combination and often irrelevant to each other. Different periods of life certainly offer thematic patterns, emotional resonances, and evolving plots, but before life can truly be thought of in readable chapters, so many experiences are filtered out and scrapped, lost to forgetfulness completely, with other experiences singled out as doing the useful work of explaining. The chronology of how our emotions work is at best erratic.

Now that I’m actually planning and starting to research chapters of a synthesis of literary critique and historical narrative, I’m thinking about nonfiction writing more deeply. Under closer examination, neat labels have a habit of breaking down rather quickly. The real work of writing is to work your way down through that devolution, stop, and build something back up again by sorting through the pieces you have cast around you.

The real irony here, and the thought behind this post’s title, is that I am simultaneously planning literal chapters that I will spend this year executing while preparing to close what many people would call a chapter of my life. As thematically complicated and research-driven as my literal chapters will be, they are so tiny and insignificant compared to what lies ahead. My plans for post-grad life are simultaneously specific and vague, a mess of contradictions and short term goals that will hopefully leave me open minded when considering jobs and cities but focused enough to actually obtain something. People have a tendency to build thesis projects up into grand encounters with unprecedented stress, but it’s small potatoes compared to what’s going on in some of the other thoughts that are silently baking in my unconscious while I scan Jen’s pages for pop culture references.

Only later, after time and forgetfulness have done some of the work for me, can I look back on this time with the ending in mind, deconstruct it, stop, and build it back up again, one word at a time.

My (Edited) Year in Review

At the end of December, I read Dave Barry’s year in review, just like I always do. This year, I actually confirmed one of my 2013 resolutions – I had promised myself to be more informed on current events, and sure enough, this was the first year that I had followed the news consistently enough to remember all of Barry’s references from the headlines.

2013 was a difficult year for many people in my life, and to be honest, it wasn’t the easiest year for me, either. But at the same time, nothing was traumatic and I spent New Year’s Eve thinking about how much happier I was on December 31, 2013, compared to December 31, 2012. Meanwhile, NPR published a story that captured my imagination in a way that few stories do (and hey, the technique was thought up by a UVa professor). According to researchers, editing your own life stories can empower you to create happier endings.

This is the impulse that drives me to remember 2013 as a year of successes, potentially at the risk of ignoring half of my life’s events. I started to wonder, what if I wrote my 2013 year in review as failures, only to revise it to include my successes? What would that look like?

Well, I’m sure you guessed that I went ahead and figured that out. It would look like this:

January was a busy month, full of commitments to clubs and classes. Rush took over essentially the entire month; from Spirit Days to Bid Week, I began the semester already behind in several classes because my time was eaten up by the hours that I fulfilled responsibilities to my sorority.

February brought the first wave of papers, and by March my spring break was completely taken over by the reading that had piled up during course of the semester. There’s nothing more relaxing than sitting in bed with a pile of assigned reading…except that actually, there are a lot of things that are more relaxing than homework. I actually quit my retail job so that I’d have time to catch up on reading. I was buried alive.

In April, I learned that the local NPR job I had applied for not only did not hire anyone, but also determined that I was unqualified. Ouch! It was also the month that I had six papers due in the span of one week (among them some hefty page requirements). Despairing, I questioned whether I could handle taking on a dissertation.

In May, I moved into Hell House, where the previous tenants cut our power before they were supposed to and the window of my urine-smelling room was sealed with styrofoam. From May through June, I worked 7 days/week without any days off, averaging somewhere between 40 and 50 hours and gradually losing my mind. July wore on me, particularly as rent, utilities, and the down payment on a trip gouged into my earnings.

August was a hectic month of moving back to Leesburg from Charlottesville, only to turn around and move to Scotland a few weeks later. The Virgin Atlantic flight was cramped and complete with a screaming baby and a miscreant who kicked my chair for five hours straight.

In September, I was broken up with over text message.

October brought my parents to Scotland, but I had two papers due the weekend that they visited, so I spent half of the time frantically writing in my room instead of seeing them. In November, the New York Times billed me $35 that I didn’t intend to spend. December almost ended in calamity when the grant proposal I had spent months crafting was mistakenly sent to trash instead of the selection committee.

It’s a pretty crummy story, isn’t it? It’s full of inconveniences, stress, and disappointment. The sting of some of these incidents is still painful, and I leave them behind me with relief.

But there’s an entirely different, wonderful version of events that I’d prefer to remember:

After rush in January, I met my little at a frat party. If you know me personally, you’ll realize what a miracle that is because A) I generally never attend frat parties and B) even if I do, it’s almost impossible to talk to people. Alex and I spent some time chatting on the stairs, only to later realize how weird it was that we were hanging out away from the party as well as how perfectly our interests aligned.

In February I fulfilled a longtime dream of seeing Jeff Mangum in concert, and even better, we got there early enough to lean on the stage. In March, I carried out a successful Reading Series for the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society – essentially, I arranged three literary discussions with UVa professors for probationary members to attend. They all went more smoothly than I had expected, and I met some interesting professors through the process. April was an exciting month, as I learned that I was accepted to my second major (American Studies), my English concentration (Modern Literature and Culture), and my study abroad program at St. Andrews. In May, I planned my first trip abroad by booking a tour of the Scottish Highlands with my best friend.

June meant starting the job that had been created for me after the NPR debacle – it was a research assistant position that allowed me to listen to hours of fascinating interviews with black leaders every week. In July, I really hit my stride in my second job, a retail position with the best coworkers I’ve ever had. Throughout the summer, I grew closer to friends who were also in Charlottesville – most thrillingly when my friend Nora and I met Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National.

In August, I moved to Scotland for my semester abroad, and my perspective on the world changed forever. I explored the cold, rocky Outer Hebrides and swam in the peat-black, bone-chilling waters of Loch Ness. In September, I saw London for the first time, searching for Banksy murals and being sucked under the city in the Tube. My parents visited me for two wonderful weekends, and we visited Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, which remains my favorite audio tour of all time. I even convinced my folks to try haggis.

October brought new opportunities for travel. I visited Dublin for three fantastic days. My first story was published on Literally, Darling and received over 3,500 hits the first weekend it was posted, which led to another development in November, when LD’s editor-in-chief asked me to join the staff. I accepted.

In December, I turned 21 on a day when I woke up in Berlin, spent the morning in Dresden, and ended the day with pints of Pilsner in Prague, all in the company of my best friend. It was then that I realized that I’m occasionally the luckiest gal on Earth. Finally, I flew home and spent winter break among family and friends.

Although both versions are true, I like this second version much better. After writing the first, I felt anxious and defeated, burdened by the weight of my failures. After writing the second, I felt buoyed and capable of anything.

The real story of 2013 lies in their combination and how my failures dragged me down or drove me forward, as well as how my successes landed me where I am today, in the early moments of 2014. They work on my perspective together, inextricable from one another, no matter how capable I am of Eternal Sunshine-ing one half or the other out of my immediate memory.

What story of 2013 do you tell yourself?

What can we publish?

Over the weekend, I experienced an unexpected loss. In between then and now, I’ve wondered what I can say about it on this blog. It feels wrong to publish another ordinary, upbeat post without acknowledging the fact that a big part of my life has suddenly changed. But because I’m not the only one affected by this change, it would be inappropriate to expose any specific details.

We’re all aware of our online presence at all times. To the people who haven’t seen me in years (most of my Facebook friends) and the people who have never met me (most of my WordPress followers), my online presence IS my identity. To the people who know me most intimately, my online presence is only one persona. To me, it’s right that my in-person and my online personas should be separate. The real-world me needs to have something that online me can’t.

But blogging – and writing in general – blurs that line significantly. A writer I spoke to this summer told me that the best writers are the ones who expose themselves. “Keep a journal,” he advised me. “The more you share with readers, the more interested they’ll be.” I don’t want to expose my own pettiness or embarrassing moments any more than you do, but the difference between us is that you’ll be more fascinated by me if you feel like you know something that should be secret.

David Sedaris, one of my favorite authors, tackles this subject in many of his essays, most of which are memoirs focused on his family members. In Sedaris’ essay “Repeat After Me,” he says of his sister Lisa:

She’s afraid to tell me anything important, knowing that I’ll only turn around and write about it.

In another essay, “Etiquette Lesson,” Sedaris describes his sister Tiffany’s habit of pretending to open a jar to disguise the fact that she is on the toilet while talking on the phone. (If you don’t catch my meaning, just listen to the essay.) It doesn’t get much worse than that, right?

It’s not like Sedaris’ siblings particularly want this attention, but over the years, they’ve accepted it. If I manage to make a career out of writing, I imagine that people will view me with the same expectation that Sedaris’ siblings carry. Writers harvest stories from life that happens around them; it’s a fact.

But what happens when your own story becomes intertwined with someone else’s? Whose story is it then? And when and where can you tell it? Or maybe you should only tell parts of it – the unobjectionable parts, the parts that are general knowledge.

In an essay that I’ve referenced before, Andrew Bird tackles this problem:

I’m getting the urge to write about something that’s happening right now that’s too personal and painful to discuss in this forum. But then why is it O.K. to put it in a song? Why is the song safe? Is it safe? And I realize that I might be staying away from this subject because of this essay and that makes me want to scrap it. But here it is as it’s beginning to exist. There’s no telling how it will turn out.

What happened last week falls into this category. It’s a story that can’t be told here or now, but it’s one that’s going to continue to shape me, and that will come through in the way I think and write and live. I’m particularly interested in the fact that Bird distinguishes between forms of expression. There’s something about a song’s use of poetic lyrics and evocative instrumental moments that leaves room and admits to not knowing everything. It’s harder to be ambiguous in an essay without losing the reader completely. An essay craves concrete definition, something I can’t give while I come to terms with this event.

I’m working on a research grant application for a project that I hope to pursue next summer. The subject is sensitive and focused on fractured familial relationships between real people, so I’ve been preparing by reviewing the ethical standards that my university uses to gauge the appropriateness of using  human subjects in research. Meanwhile, St. Andrews’ matriculation paperwork defined freedom of speech as a right that “is not absolute.” Factors such as national security and public safety limit free speech: “The interplay between such competing rights creates boundaries and limitations on what can be said and the manner of expression.”

Similarly, sometimes there are stories that can hurt, hinder, expose. We all know some piece of information that, if revealed in the right moment to the wrong people, could injure someone infinitely. Shaping a narrative gives the writer power to include and omit at will. Not everything needs to be put down in black words on white paper; some stories keep living and breathing and changing and growing outside of any page. They can’t be contained. Some stories are meant to be told in whispers or novels or poems or songs or phone calls. Not everything should be a nonfiction essay.

Before this past weekend, I felt that what I had been writing here was somewhat valuable – as a collection of observations or a reflection on my growing awareness of the world or just as practice at writing and being read. It wasn’t until I considered the possibility of writing about something that was actually vitally important to me that I realized how simple and benign my subjects have been. Bigger, more difficult stories loom in my future. But for today, this forum remains wrong for the plot twist I’m unexpectedly living. For now, this is the story about why I’m not telling the story of what I just lost.