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.

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 swirls just beneath our consciousness, waiting to stand up and be noticed should the occasion present itself.

just finish it already!

Good god. I am someone who wrote a dissertation in three years with an infant in one hand, a toddler underfoot, and no childcare. I even had a teaching job for one year of it. How is it I can do that, yet take eight years (and counting) to write a memoir about that very same experience?

What is taking so long?

Once upon a time, this was a fun project. I saw it as a way for me to process the experience of leaving academe while also exposing the plight of adjuncts to the general population at a time when few people were writing about it.

Since then, talk has exploded around the problem of exploitative university hiring practices and the trek-to-nowhere that has become the humanities phd. There is no more need for an exposé. That’s actually OK because the project changed over time anyway. It grew into something bigger, an accounting of graduate school life as a whole: the experience of being a student, teaching, and writing a dissertation while contending with a reading disability and raising a family. And then giving it all up.

Great. But still, why isn’t it done?

To be fair, I haven’t been writing for eight solid years. This book has always been a spare time thing. Something I did when the duties of parenting, tutoring and grant writing didn’t call–which was almost never. I know I left it untouched for at least one full year of that time.

Technically speaking, I finished the first draft after about two years. I spent time after that sending book proposals to academic presses. I had this idea that some cash-poor university press would welcome the opportunity to publish a book people might actually buy and read. But they didn’t. With no simultaneous submissions and a minimum six month turnaround, I clicked off about two years just waiting around for rejections. Then I spent another year querying agents. One even asked to see the manuscript. But, alas…

THEN, in 2012 I got myself into a writing group. Before that, the book had been peripheral to my busy life. I didn’t give much thought to the fairly obvious fact that, unless you are a genius, you can’t get to the final version of a book by yourself: you need readers, editors, critics.

After years of simply reading my own book over and over again, I finally started getting useful feedback and making real revisions. I have since rewritten the entire thing twice over, and I cringe to think of the version I sent to that agent a few years back.

This is where I’m supposed to tell you, “And now…it’s finished! Voila!”

Except it’s not. I still have a few big decisions to make about structure and cuts, and my writing group still has to finish it (which will help me make those big decisions – I hope). So I plod on. I have to admit, I’ve begun to feel like I did during the final year of dissertating: like my life is on hold until I can unburden myself of this project that overshadows everything else, especially  other writing projects. I want to write magazine articles and blog posts. I want to start my next nonfiction book. I want to be free of this thing that has hung over me for eight years!

Instead, here I am–writing a blog post about the process of writing a memoir about the process of writing a dissertation. Ridiculous.

I need to just finish it already!

the art of complaining: an adjunct’s dilemma

I am a terrible complainer.

But I should clarify.

I rock when I’m ranting around the house about my kids’ messy rooms, fraudulent insurance companies or environmental desecration. But the complaints of an adjunct? This is a different and more difficult thing to do. If you hope to persuade your audience of an injustice that you have personally suffered, you’ll be better off if you can make them trust you, empathize with you…like you. Otherwise, they just might blame you.

Before starting my memoir in 2004, I read Ghosts in the Classroom, a collection of essays about adjuncting published in 2001. I thought it was an important book, giving voice to a subject that, at the time, was shrouded in silence.

Still, taken together, the essays wore me out. I didn’t doubt the stories of hardship and loss. I empathized with the writers, and I wanted the message to get out, but despite that, I found the barrage of negative experiences overwhelming. I knew better than to blame the writers for their predicaments, but I wondered, would readers outside the academy be so generous?

How do you tell a miserable story without making your reader miserable? Without inviting blame?

I saw this as the challenge of my memoir–a problem I set out to avoid from the beginning. To do so, I decided I would tell the story of the whole person, not just the adjunct. I would pack the hard knot of my adjunct misery in a box padded with personal and palatable things like motherhood, marriage and my passion for graduate school.

By making myself real, I would illuminate the university’s exploitative labor practices without sounding like a whiner.

While I’m confessing silly little fantasies, I should admit I also told myself that I would keep a positive face while adjuncting–that I would view it as a temporary situation to be observed and commented upon, but not internalized.

You know where this is going.

I didn’t get through the opening paragraphs before face-planting on each of those ambitions.

The thing is, I couldn’t see it. Over the years, the writing and editing of this book has occurred in isolation, in the narrow spaces that opened between tutoring, parenting and grant writing. That changed when I got into a writing group this past year.

And the crux of the feedback is: I’m a lowdown dirty rotten complainer. A griper. A whiner to the Nth degree.

How the heck did that happen?

These are my long-held first paragraphs, the ones I just cut. I wrote them in my communal office during my first day on the adjunct-job nine long years ago:

“Here I sit, in my office. My first teaching gig since the Ph.D. and I can’t silence the voice in my head: “don’t be cynical, don’t be cynical, don’t be cynical.” Rather than come across as bitter and negative, I feel compelled to wow people with my resilience. How deep did I dig to find that wellspring of optimism? Impressive, isn’t it, how I can make good from the bad; how I am professionally and personally gratified by the essence of teaching, how I can rise above the pettiness of my employment status? But a coffee stain lies splattered in a sheet down the wall next to my desk. It’s brownish, amorphous and large. Maybe it’s not coffee? I note other, darker droplets that resemble blood. Not blood, I’m sure, but even so, when I look at them, I feel a thickness in my throat. Revolted, I turn away, but they lure me back like a crumpled car on the side of a highway.

I could clean the stain off the wall—obviously. But I think of this as more of an experiment than a job—I’m not really employed here, am I? I fathom myself an observer—an anthropologist of sort—curious about this culture of part-time work that has grown like unwelcome algae in the Petri dish of academia. My research questions: how long will that stain remain on the wall? Do the custodians ever come in here? Will an over-zealous co-worker scrub it off in the enthusiasm of his or her first day? Or will it just fade away like the occupants of this office?

My eye follows the brown trail down below my table and the voice in my head makes way for bitter words like irony, hypocrisy, exploitation…cynicism. And there it is. What a goddamned disappointment that is.”

The crazy thing is that I was surprised when my writers’ group asked me why I was so bitter on the first day.

“Bitter?” I said. “Which part was bitter?” I thought I’d started off like a firecracker.

Then I reread it through their eyes and it looked quite different to me. Way more negative than I ever intended.

I had a few days of crisis after this revelation. Workshopping a memoir is a funny thing because critique of the writing can so easily feel like critique of the writer. We’re not talking about made up characters here. We’re talking about a real person with real feelings, and as the case may have it, real bitterness.

Was I just a negative and miserable old curmudgeon, dissing my work before I gave it a chance? And was this my persona in general? Complaining about my kids’ slovenliness? The dog smell in the carpet? Fracking? The Tea Party? The botched roll-out of Healthcare.gov? Was it all just me?

Time to take a step back.

I separated myself from the critique, but in saving myself, I couldn’t save the writing, which on closer inspection had enough whine coming out off it to make my dog howl.

I considered the advice of my writing group. They wanted to remove all of my lovely and bitter turns of phrase, all of my biting criticisms, all of my damning judgments. Things like: “I knew the university would treat me badly. What I didn’t know, was that I would begin to treat it badly.” I had cherished that line. (And how clever for me to figure out a way to share it with you here).

While I saw their points, I felt frustrated by my original question: How do you tell a story like this without alienating the reader? I could feel my neck getting hot as we discussed it around our computers because some of this felt like the old totalitarian pressures of grad school that dictated we take everything with a smile. No one said it out loud but as a graduate student I knew: never let them see you sweat. No doubt this pressure lay at the root of my feeling that I should “wow people with my resilience” as an adjunct.

I had to remind myself that my writing group didn’t want to silence the story, they just wanted me to tell it in a way that didn’t make readers hate me.

I needed to complain and be likable at the same time.

Part of the problem is my personality. I don’t have flair. One of the “characters” in my book answered almost every one of our adjunct dilemmas with a laugh and a flippant “fuck that!” which only made me like her more. Why couldn’t I be brazen and shocking and charming?

Instead, I’m so…serious? reserved?

Whatever it is, I can’t change that shock-value complaints don’t work for me. I’ll never be that person who makes you laugh with the F-word, so I have to find another way. As I floundered around, one member of my writing group said, “get rid of all the value judgments! Just tell your story and let the reader decide.”

That is some brilliant advice.

Readers don’t want to be told how to feel about something, they want to be inspired to draw their own conclusions.

So I’m back at the drawing board. So far, I’ve excised all of the opinions, ruminations and condemnations from the first quarter of the book. I cut everything from that opening section but the story of the coffee stain, which I rewrote.

I feel liberated, like I’m uncovering something shiny from under a heavy pile of dead leaves.

How ironic that after years of teaching my students to “show don’t tell,” I’m finally figuring out how to do it myself.