german shepherds & me: an addendum

I dreamt last night that I was walking (or biking?) down a residential road and a German Shepherd bolted out from behind a house up ahead of me. That was it. The dream ended as my heart flipped.

My dreams about German Shepherds used to be more frequent. In fact, I think part of my dream was a kind of metadream where I reflected on how I seldom dream about shepherds anymore.

I don’t have a great history with these dogs. I wrote about that history and my efforts to overcome my resulting PTSD in the essay, Fear Circuitry, published in Blue Mesa Review. I can’t link directly to the article–only to the issue of the journal–so if you’d like to read it, click on the link then go to page 39 of the journal (issue 33) using the search box on the top right of the page.

One essay can only hold so much drama, and so Fear Circuitry by necessity omits a major episode in my life experiences with the foreboding Alsatian. Consider this an addendum, something I woke up thinking about this morning after last night’s flash dream.

When I was in elementary school we lived on a serene little country road in Connecticut that was surrounded by cow fields and filled with friendly neighbors. I spent my days after school running through the woods or playing stick ball in the street with a gaggle of other kids. But every idyllic scene must also have it’s dark side, right? Ours was Pepper: the neighbor’s oversized German Shepherd. His owner said he was part wolf, and even my parents believed him.

Pepper spent most of his days tied to a chain in his back yard, barking menacingly at us when we passed. As far as I know, he never actually bit anyone, but maybe that was simply because we took such pains to avoid him. Nobody ever went in his house or yard. When he occasionally got loose, we all scattered from our ball game and climbed the nearest tree.

One day, I ran into Pepper by myself. I’d been caring for the neighbor’s outdoor cats while they were away. One of the cats was still a kitten, so I’d kept it in our garage overnight to protect it from Hurricane Belle, a storm that passed by the Connecticut shore that year. The storm had frightened me, so when I walked with the kitten through the debris of leaves and scattered branches that morning, I felt as if we’d survived something. I held the tiny fur ball under my chin as I walked, feeling it purr against my neck.

Then Pepper appeared from behind his house, unchained. He stopped when he saw me, his head and ears up in a curious way. He knew I had that cat. When he approached, pressing against me with his head just higher than my elbow, I twisted away, holding the kitten up by my ear; it’s splayed claws digging into my neck and shoulder.

As an adult who’s had years to think about it, I know I should have held onto the kitten and perhaps knocked on a neighbor’s door for help. But as a kid who had to make a flash decision, I could only imagine some horrifying tug of war, so I turned and tossed the kitten away toward a tree, hoping I could give it a head start.

The kitten actually made it to the huge maple in Pepper’s front yard, and there was a moment when I even thought it would make it. I could hear its little claws scrabbling on the bark as it started up. But Pepper was too fast and too tall. He plucked the kitten off the tree and shook it while growling ferociously. The kitten screeched for its life. By then, my own screams had beckoned the neighbors, including Pepper’s owner, who shot out his front door and retrieved the kitten from his dog.

It was too late, of course. The kitten lived for a few more hours before the decision was made to put it to sleep. I sobbed into my mother’s arms when she told me.

Forty years later, I randomly woke up thinking about this event.

Except I know why I dreamt about a German Shepherd last night. I rode my bike in the countryside yesterday. The ways this reignites old fears is detailed in Fear Circuitry. I’m much better than I was when I wrote that essay, and I ride often now without incident, but the fear is still there. I’m fascinated by these moments when it pokes it’s head up to remind me of the murky soup that swims just beneath our consciousness, waiting to stand up and be noticed should the occasion present itself.

a writer

It turns out I went to graduate school to become a writer. It’s so obvious now. I had this fantasy when I was a teenager of living in an RV and driving around the country writing novels and poetry. I discounted the fact I can’t make up a story to save my life. And I ignored the fact I’d read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie  and found it God-awful boring. I think I thought more would happen out on the road.

Regardless, I knew I was drawn to this this life of thinking and writing and moving.

After earning my bachelor’s degree in business marketing (imagining this to be the more creative of the business majors after I was dissuaded from an English degree by folks who portended I would never get a job), I took a job in a telecom company. It was a good job: upward mobility, steep learning curve, good boss, decent pay. So why did I feel like I was walking through mud everyday on my way to work?  The monotony. I thought it would kill me.

So I quit and went back to school for a master’s in English with the vague hope it would change my life into something more purposeful and interesting.

It turns out it changed my life in ways I never anticipated – nor did I notice them when they were happening. I forgot about the RV, the novels I didn’t know how to write, the joy of putting pen to paper. These aspirations were all supplanted by the idea I should become a professor. If I’d succeeded in landing a tenure-track job, I’m sure my life would have turned out fine. I certainly loved the books, the teaching, and the conversations. But since the whole pursuit ended up being a wild goose chase, it also feels like a distraction.

It took nearly a decade after leaving academe for me to figure this out. This is partly because I was also so busy with raising a family and working as a tutor. I believed in the tutoring work deeply and knew that I made a significant difference in the lives of my students. But I also knew it wouldn’t hold me forever.

After my kids grew out of elementary school, I found time to think beyond the tutoring. That’s when I started this blog. That’s when I really had to do the soul searching that postacs must do to figure out what to do with their lives once they’ve given academe the boot. I just did it many years later than most.

It took a year of suffering through the questions of: What is my purpose? Where have my choices led me? Where do I want to take things from here? It was a midlife crisis on steroids, given the extra confusion of: Why did I get that Ph.D.?

I had so many interests and aspirations swirling around in my head. I had to whittle things down and ask myself, what is the first priority–the number one thing I wanted from my new career.

Then the image of the RV came back to me and I realized: freedom. I also remembered my old aspiration to be a writer. No longer a teenager, I could see through the romanticized notion of driving around in a truck with my dog to more illuminating kernels of self-awareness:

It wasn’t just the work that had driven me mad at my telecom job. It was the confinement. I realized I wanted to be my own boss. I didn’t want to be trapped in a building. I needed to be outside. I had to be creative.

These realizations went a long way toward clarifying my goals. I would try to work from home as a freelance writer/editor. I could do my creative projects on the side. I wrote about the culmination of this decision two years ago in the post: the perfect job: life after academe.

Over the course of the years since, I’ve gradually replaced tutoring clients with writing/editing clients. It turned out I needed that Ph.D. after all (and the tutoring experience too). I write for organizations that produce scholarly information in special education and health. I couldn’t do the work without my experience as a scholar.

No, I don’t get to edit amazing novels by famous authors. I don’t get to spend my days writing poetry in the shade of a friendly tree. But almost no one gets to do those things. And I’m lucky that I believe in the missions of the nonprofits I work for. And I never grow tired of the puzzle that is a new writing assignment: lining the words up in the right order, with the right rhythm & nuance.

I also get to work in my pajamas, get up from my computer and jog around the house like a fool when my Fitbit says I’ve been sitting too long, manage my time so I can ride my bike in the middle of the day, graze in my kitchen at will. I’ve also finished what I hope is the final version of my memoir. And now that I think of it, I do get to work in the shade of a tree–I often move my laptop into the backyard where I sit on our deck and work under the monstrous pine that towers over our house. I only wish it wouldn’t drop needles onto my keyboard where they slip under the keys and threaten to short circuit my livelihood.

All of that and I get paid well too.

It was about a year ago that the balance of my profession tipped definitively away from tutoring toward writing. For many of us, our careers are journeys. Mine has certainly had a number of twists and turns. It was so strange and gratifying the first time someone asked me what I did for a living and I said, “I’m a writer.”

Why didn’t I think of it sooner?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

prologue

I’ve been actively querying agents, sharing bits of my memoir in this or that required format, so I thought it appropriate to share something here. This is the Prologue. It’s short – just a page. This is something of the end of the story, but it ended up being the beginning of the book thanks to the advice of peers in my writing group.

Thanks for reading!

PROLOGUE

Apostasy: the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief

May 2006

I fidgeted at my office desk where I sat alone, waiting out the final moments of a twelve-year career in academe. Soon, I’d head to class where I’d administer the semester’s final exam. All day I’d felt unwell in a vague way. Pain in my back or my chest, I couldn’t tell. An antsy feeling in my belly as if I drank too much caffeine. It took hours for me to recognize the obvious: it was anxiety.

Exhausted by a tenure-track job search that had come to feel like an exercise in futility, I’d decided to “retire.” Giving up this way of life felt like giving up faith or family. The decision is still the most difficult of my life.

Feeling last rights were in order, I slid the piece of paper with my name on it out of the label holder on the file cabinet drawer next to me. I’d torn this misshapen scrap off a piece of notebook paper and threaded it into the slot with great anticipation two years prior. Now I dropped it into the trash. That made it official—my sendoff nothing more than a hum from the communal printer. The next semester, some other part-timer would sit in my wobbly chair and claim the file drawer as their own.

At 7:10 pm, I grabbed my bag and made my way down four flights of stairs. At the exit, I saw rain pounding the sidewalk outside. Perfect, I thought. I opened my umbrella and marched out into the storm.

nine years and counting

Next May, it will have been 10 years since I last stood in front of a room full of college students to share my thoughts about books. In July 2006, a few months after I taught my last class, I published a short piece about quitting academe in The Chronicle of Higher Education called Not Slinking Away. I saw the piece as the end of a memoir I was writing about my experience as an adjunct professor of English. I couldn’t yet see it was actually the beginning. Since then, I have made a version of that article into the Prologue of my book.

That July nine years go, I imagined I would take a year to shape and polish my many notes and journal entries into a well-crafted memoir. I planned to begin querying agents in the summer of 2007.

That I might still be fiddling with an unpublished draft nine years later never occurred to me. And a good thing too–because I can see now it was the idea of the book, the idea of sharing my story in the near term, that carried me through those first years. After investing ten years on an academic career that didn’t pan out, I would have had no patience with idea it would take another ten to write a book about that failure.

But now that I’m almost on the other side of that decade, I’m glad. Coincidentally, as I’ve been thinking about how time and reflection have improved my narrative, a story appeared in the New York Times about memoir: Should There Be a Minimum Age for Writing a Memoir? Oddly, the title focuses on the age of the writer rather than the distance from the events. I think the question the writers grapple with isn’t how old you are, but whether you’ve had time to reflect on what you’re writing about.

So what’s enough time?

The answer depends on the purpose of the writing. A friend of mine wrote a memoir of early grief called Rare Bird, about the loss of her 12-year-old son in a drowning accident. She published the book just a few years after her son’s death. And she did a beautiful job. I’m sure her telling of these events will change over the coming years, but her point in writing the book so soon was to tell the raw story of how she saw her experiences in the moment–before the years had a chance to pass. And it works. It works because parents have a desire to know how a mother or father survives, day by day, during those first terrible years of loss. We are terrified by the idea of it, and yet we cannot fathom it. Rare Bird works because it draws back the curtain for us, letting us see what our worst fear looks like without slipping into hopelessness on one hand, but without the amelioration of time on the other.

My book, on yet another hand, was not working in its original form–the one written in the immediacy of my post-academic moment. One of the authors of the New York Times articles says, “I believe we tell our stories when we need to tell them.” I agree. But not every story is ready to be heard in the moment when it needed to be told. Mine was one of those. And it has taken some excellent readers in the past two years to show me that.

Unlike Rare Bird, my story needed time to soften its corners, the way wind and water will wear away the jagged edges of a mountainside. In the art of complaining: an adjunct’s dilemma, I wrote on this blog about my struggle to tell an angry story without alienating readers with an angry narrator. I didn’t know how to make my narrator likable without taking the bite out of my story. I think the condition of adjuncting (working part-time as a professor for a quarter of the pay tenure-track professors make with no job security, little or no benefits, and little or no opportunity for improvement) is one that promotes bitterness. I thought readers should see how my job changed me into a spiteful person I hadn’t been before. But how to be spiteful and sympathetic too?

The answer, I discovered, was in this blog. Over the past two years, many readers have offered words of encouragement about my book, telling me they couldn’t wait for it to come out. Reading those comments I felt sure my blog readers would be disappointed with the book, but I couldn’t figure out why. Eventually, I realized it was because of the difference between the person who writes this blog and the person who wrote the memoir. While readers might like me here, I understood they would not like me there.

Because my narrator had no distance.

My narrator hadn’t learned anything yet.

It’s not that I suddenly have all the answers about why crappy things happen to us. It’s just that I no longer feel as angry as I did in 2006. So in the last year, I’ve converted my memoir into the past tense and told my story with this current voice, the one softened by ten years of wind and rain. The experience has been transformative, for me and for the book.

Of course it’s not done (are you tired of hearing me say that?) but it is close – at least in this latest iteration. So while I’m glad I didn’t know it would take so long to finish this book when I started it in 2006, I’m glad it did. Since then, public awareness about the condition of adjuncts and the problem of contingent labor at colleges and universities has grown. Adjuncts have banded together online, students have become more aware of their professors’ working conditions, and articles like this one and this one have made it into the main stream news.

I hope with that changed landscape and my changed perspective, this story I’ve needed to tell for a decade is ready to be heard.

Now if I could just finish it already!

 

 

 

academic twitter

Yesterday, I saw someone had tweeted “I love academic twitter!” This got me thinking about the various twitter communities we belong to, and the way we can reinvent ourselves in them—or play different roles in them—as much as they play different roles for us.

I have two twitter accounts. One is my @professornever account which I’ve used to connect with other academics, postacs, and writers. The other is my @smallhousedeb account. I’ve hardly used it in the last year (so I’m sure my followers are dropping like flies), but the account follows twitter liberals from the UniteBlue movement, leftist news organizations, and people interested in locavorianism (I guess that’s a word now), yoga, meditation, cycling, and other stuff I think is cool.

My @smallhousedeb (SHD) account is a very different animal than my @professornever (PN) account. The former is full of people networking and socializing around politics and personal interests. There is a lot of reciprocity, humor and snark. The latter is full of people who are connected by profession. There is a palpable self-consciousness on academic twitter. You can feel the weight of administrators, colleagues, and students listening in. How ironic since tenure is supposed to set you free!

As a result of this professional stiffness, there are a lot of conventions on SHD that don’t appear to exist on PN, primarily around the idea of reciprocity: #FF (Follow Friday), where people recommend other accounts to follow on Fridays. Tweets that say: TYFF (Thank you for follow), TY for RT (thank you for retweet), TY for fave. There is also an imperative that you RT what you fave. Oftentimes, these niceties generate more conversation around a given topic—and in their small way cultivate a sense of community and belonging.

The biggest difference between my PN and my SHD accounts, however, is the FollowBack (FB). In my SHD world, the objective is to network, share ideas with like minds and build up your account. If someone follows you, you FB. If you don’t, they unfollow you—and they use tracking software like JustUnfollow to find you! Those exempt from the expected FB include institutions, journalists, and celebrities.

The FB happens much less often in my PN world.

My first day on PN, I searched for humanities academics and followed about 30 that appeared to have similar interests to mine. I have to admit, I was excited just reading their profiles: people studying American literature, childhood, cultural studies—all things that had been dear to my academic self. The one thing that’s still hard about postac life is losing that community of like-minded intellectuals. Maybe I could connect with these people and talk about books! Then I went off to tutor for the day. When I got back, I logged onto PN, eager to see the activity on my account.

Two people had followed me back.

So I learned quickly that it is much harder to get FBs on PN. I’m sure there are a number of reasons, but I imagine at least one must be competitive spillover from academic culture in general. My experience in academe was that everybody wants to be a thought-leader, not a follower. In my heady academic days, that included me. And what easier place to see a manifestation of your thought-leaderness than by watching your follower-count sky-rocket on twitter—especially if your following-count is low. But if all academics on twitter want to be followed without following back, then…you get the picture.

Of course, I could be wrong about all that and the problem was just that no one wanted to follow me!

And to be clear, lots of friendly interesting affiliated and unaffiliated academics have ended up following me. And I appreciate that! But I don’t know that I’d call the community I’m in “academic twitter.”

But it is definitely something different from SHD. In writing this, I realize how much more buttoned up I am on PN than I ever was on SHD. No snark. Not a lot of politics. No convivial TY for RT messages. And a lot less humor. That sounds god-awful boring.

But it’s not. It’s as if I have two rooms I can walk into, depending on my mood and what I feel like talking about. And while the PN account sounds like less fun than SHD, it’s the one I’ve spent most of my time on in the past year or so.

What I ended up finding through PN, which I never anticipated, was a community of adjuncts and scholars still fighting the good fight over adjunct labor—with many making the decision to leave. I started PN (the blog and the twitter account) expecting to talk about literature while throwing a few plugs in about my memoir, but I’ve ended up talking about my status as a long-time post-ac—a term I didn’t even know existed before I started the PN blog.

This has been a huge value to me even though the fact I left academe so long ago makes me somewhat of an outsider for this crowd too. But I have been grateful to be privy to the experiences of others who have decided to leave their academic lives because I never had that shared experience when I left. Without social media, I lost touch with my old grad school friends—I only know of two who got jobs. Our isolation from one another bred shame and silence. Watching the events of #NAWD over twitter yesterday showed how social media can generate the opposite of that. Which was pretty darn cool to see.

So I guess I’d qualify that tweet I saw the other day (can’t remember who said it!**). I don’t know that I can say I love “academic twitter” so much as I love twitter in general—for its power to bring people together, and for its versatility.

I just wish it wasn’t so addicting!

(If you want to read about my initial twitter addiction, here’s a silly post from several years ago called twitter haze about how twitter took over my life when I first joined. I’m (usually) much more under control about it now!

**It was Jennifer Polk from @fromPhDtoLife. And of course she loves it – she is always so positive about everything – and she’s great with a FB too!

save your darlings!

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

Faulkner said it. All writers know it. But can we do it? My academic self struggled more with the cutting than my creative self does. During grad school, it seemed each turn of phrase contained the key to my future: another brilliant conclusion, another bit of evidence to prove my scholarly worthiness, another before-unseen truth my readers might discuss over the elongated table in our English department conference room. I couldn’t quite get over how deliciously clever I was.

During those days, I couldn’t kill anything at all, let alone my darlings. So instead of deleting the extraneous turns of phrase, I cut and pasted them into a file labeled “scraps.” And then I saved them.

For what?

For all time.

Every seminar paper, dissertation chapter, and journal article had a “scraps” file. Each time revisions required I sheer a darling from its roots, I tucked it away for “later.” Over the years, the collection grew—like a pile of broken china dolls stashed in an attic trunk, waiting for the day I’d come to my senses and realize the truth: these babies had a rightful place in the world of necessary all along.

When I first began making scraps files, I actually believed I would find a later use for all those extra words. I promised myself I’d be back to collect them, even labeling paragraphs in bold so I could find content more easily when the need arose.

These days, I don’t feel anywhere near as attached to my writing as I did in academe. But my habit persists. I save most major cuts, despite the fact that in all the years of writing, I have never gone back–have never once opened a scraps file intending to do anything but dump more darlings in.

It turns out, even if you can’t kill your darlings, you can kill your love for them.

And that’s the key.

So if you too have trouble letting go, don’t. Save yourself the internal debate over whether a given string of words should die. Instead of killing those babies, stick them alone in a room with the promise you’ll return. Then leave them there until you can’t remember why they mattered so much.

If you never feel compelled to go back for them, you’ll know you did the right thing.

“Indispensable but Invisible”: a new study on contingent faculty at GMU

Check out this important new study on contingent faculty at George Mason University. I got my M.A. at GMU and worked there as an adjunct after getting my Ph.D. years ago, so for me, this reads like it came right out of my memoir: too many hours, too little pay, no opportunity for recognition or advancement etc. etc. etc. If you’ve ever been an adjunct, you know the routine, but we need more studies like this to move us past the anecdotal.

I was also pleased to see “Pay Equity between contingent and tenure track faculty of similar rank” as the first recommended action for GMU, among other important things related to benefits and job security.

I’m tempted to keep writing/summarizing but really, you should go to the horse’s mouth:

Indispensable but Invisible: A Report on the Working Climate of Non-Tenure Track Faculty at George Mason University

Thanks to the authors:
Marisa Allison
Randy Lynn
Victoria Hoverman
Doctoral Students
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
George Mason University