Saturday, October 21, 2017

A Little Every Day

Today I hit the illustrious milestone of a 100-day streak on Duolingo. While this number is slightly misleading, as I did use the “streak-freeze” option to save me on a few particularly busy days, for the most part I’ve used the app every day for the past 100 days.

I started using the app again this summer in order to brush up on my French in preparation for volunteering on a bilingual camp in Belgium. I’ve been learning French practically all my life, so the app was simply a way to refresh what I already knew.

After I got my French up to speed, though, I decided to switch tack and try learning some Spanish. I was, somewhat embarrassingly, rather nervous about trying a new language. Other than French, I’d never tried learning a new language, and I didn’t (don’t!) consider myself particularly good at languages. I knew Duolingo was good for refreshing a language, but I doubted it would be good for learning.

Fast-forward several months, and Duolingo now claims that I’m 37% fluent in Spanish. I highly doubt that’s true, but I can confidently state that I have some Spanish skill, whereas two months ago I had absolutely none. I know some basic verbs (tengo, quiero), some helpful food vocabulary (pescado, ensalada), and I’m starting to get a feel for sentence structure. I would definitely still struggle in a proper conversation with a Spanish speaker, but I’d be able to order dinner in a restaurant without an English menu.

While I’m still a long ways away from fluency in Spanish, it is really exciting to go from nothing to basic proficiency in just two months, especially considering I spent only ten minutes a day working through two quick lessons. I never sat down with a thick textbook and poured through lists of conjugations. All I did was take a few minutes every day that I probably would have wasted on facebook anyways and instead open up the Duolingo app.

It amazes me just how much we can accomplish by just dedicating a few minutes every day. How taking five minutes before bed every night for journaling has filled a dozen volumes over a few years. How 100 days on duolingo grants me basic proficiency in a whole new language. How writing for an hour every evening results in a 119,000-word novel in two months.

As I prepare for NaNoWriMo again this November, it really helps to see how far I’ve managed to get in Duolingo with just a few minutes a day. Writing a novel, like learning a language, is a mammoth task, and it’s so encouraging to be reminded of how much we can do by just keeping at it every day. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

On First Drafts, Editing, and the Real Work of Writing

“The first draft of anything is shit.”
--- Ernest Hemingway

A lecturer at St. Andrews has this quote hanging on her office door, as if challenging all the complacent undergraduates waiting in the hallway. I always found it vaguely encouraging, as much as anything by Hemingway could be encouraging. Maybe the chapter draft I just sent to my supervisor wasn’t all that great, but that’s fine. It’s a draft. It’ll get better.

I’ve never minded the idea of writing a bad first draft. I love things like NaNo, where you just write without worrying if it’s any good. I’m not a perfectionist, and the process of actually getting words down on paper has always been relatively easy for me.

But I’ve never been good at actually doing anything with those words. I’ve written five novels, and none of them have ever made it past a first draft. I’ve never actually polished anything until it was as good as I could make it.

With four of these novels, I know I made the right choice to move on. The first one was essentially a Tolkien fan-fic. The second was a mystery with plot holes as wide as the Northumberland Strait. The third was an international thriller with even larger plot holes and a rather dubious treatment of terrorism. The fourth was a YA dystopian, written just before Divergent was published and unfortunately left unfinished before the dystopian bubble burst. I learned so much from writing each of these novels, but none of them were worth polishing.

And then, after a six-year hiatus, NaNo 2016 produced my fifth novel, a futuristic retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard II. I wrote 119,053 words in 68 days, and then returned to real life (or, y’know, writing a PhD.)

The difficulty with this novel is that, nearly a year later, I still think it’s good. I still love the characters. I love the story. I even love the writing (some of the time…). For the first time, there are no major flaws.

But that’s the problem. For the first time, I have no choice but to actual return to my novel and edit it. I can’t just stick it in a drawer and write a new novel. I’ve got to actually edit this one.

That’s certainly not going to be easy. As much as I love it, I know the story has significant issues. The world needs to be more developed. The themes need to be more subtle. The emotional arc needs to be polished. Relationships between characters need to be clarified. Certain scenes should be added, others cut.

I’ve written five novels. I know how to hammer out a story in a few weeks. But I have no clue how to polish it. On a practical level, I literally don’t know how to begin.

But also, on an emotional level, I’m scared to start editing. Because once I start to polish my novel, then I’ll really know if it’s any good. Then I’ll know if I’m actually any good.

If Hemingway was right, if the first draft of anything is shit, then that means that the real work of writing isn’t in getting words down on paper. It’s not writing 119,053 words in 68 days. If Hemingway was right, then the real work of writing comes in taking those rubbish words and making them shine. And that’s something I’ve never done.

There’s a strange sort of comfort in not trying. The world is full of people who think they could write a novel, and they’ll keep saying that until they try and fail. I think I can edit a book, and get an agent, and a publisher… and I’ll be able to keep thinking that until I try and fail.

I don’t really think I’ll fail, not ultimately. I believe that with enough hard work, I’ll eventually produce something good enough to be published. But I can’t say that I’m not scared of all the rejection that’s undoubtedly going to come. The books I’ll try to edit only to find they’re really not good enough. The agents who’ll send form rejection emails. The publishers who pass. The readers who write bad reviews.

Right now I can call myself a writer and not have to face any of that failure. Except, to keep calling myself a writer, I need to keep moving forward. I need to move beyond what I’m comfortable with and start doing what scares me.

I need to start turning my gargantuan first draft into something worth reading.

Let’s see how this goes. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Day 600: Almost Home

Boarding passes for the flight home after my year abroad. 

Day 600

If my calculations are correct, today is my 600th day in the UK. Well, since I've travelled a bit, I should say my 600th day in Europe (though perhaps not for long... *insert mandatory Brexit joke here*)

At any rate, it's the 600th day since I left Canada. 600 days since I stood in the Halifax airport, surrounded by my bags, and said goodbye to my country. 

It's actually quite a fitting time for this milestone to occur. Firstly, two days ago was the two-year anniversary of the day I discovered I was coming to St. Andrews for the PhD. And, more immediately, I'm now just two days away from heading back to Canada. 

Back with my family for my 22nd birthday

For a variety of reasons, I haven't been back to Canada since starting the PhD. But this summer I'm going back twice-- first to Ontario, where I did my undergrad and masters, and then (in August) to PEI, where my family grew up.

I'm really excited to go back. There are a lot of people I can't wait to see, and I've started to get invited to facebook events at my old Uni that I can actually go to, and, of course, I'm very ready to get my hands on a Tim Hortons ice cap. 

But there are also a few things I'm apprehensive about. I've never been to Canada as a visitor before. I've never been there not as a resident. I have no idea what it'll feel like to just be passing through, now that I don't live there anymore.

I'm worried about it feeling foreign. I pulled out my Canadian money from my stash of random currencies, sorting it out amidst piles of euros, American dollars, and Polish zloty and Romanian lei, and the Canadian money felt just that strange. After the weight of British pound coins, the 'loonie' just felt thin. 

St. Andrews friends at Starlight Ball

I'm worried about saying the wrong things. About accidentally asking where the toilet is, not the bathroom. About complementing someone on their jumper, not their sweater. I'm worried about sounding pretentious because I say 'trousers' and put the stress on the wrong syllable of Renaissance. 

But there's a positive side to the fact that, for a month, I'll be a tourist in my own country. For the first time in my life, I'll be able to see and appreciate what's uniquely Canadian. Having spent 602 days in the UK, I'll be able to enjoy Canadian culture that much more, since I won't be taking it for granted.

I've come back to Canada after a long absence before, of course. Almost three years ago, now, I flew back to Canada after a full year abroad. I remember how weird it felt to stand in the airport, surrounded by people speaking in Canadian accents. I remember trying to walk to my university the next morning, only to take two hours because everything in Canada is so ridiculously spread out.

Cast photo for Utopia Limited, this year's Gilbert and Sullivan show.

I remember hating these things. Reverse culture shock is hard. I missed Scotland. I missed British accents and narrow Scottish alleys and proper Yorkshire tea and decent public transit and having my friends all within walking distance. There were so many things I missed, it was hard to appreciate anything about Canada. 

This time, since I'm only there for a month, I'm ready to love Canada. I'm ready to enjoy how everyone has the same accent. I'm ready to revel in the vast space.

I'm so ready for this chance to realize just how great a country Canada is. I'm ready to see my country with new eyes. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

A Year Past Rejection

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love now is mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
 -- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

A year ago today, I posted this picture and quote after walking around my subdivision at twilight in a bit of a daze. The previous Friday, I rode the bus to uni nearly crying because nothing seemed to be working out. By the following Wednesday, I had a full scholarship to write my PhD at the university of my dreams.

It’s been a year now, and within the next few days I’ll be submitting my thesis outline and first chapter for review by the department. It’s been an amazing year, full of plays, concerts, travel, church events, friends, and (occasionally) academic work. The year hasn’t been everything I expected, but, in many ways, it’s been so much better.
Now more than ever, though, I’m glad this PhD position didn’t fall into my lap. I’m so thankful for those months last year where I felt rejected, and alone, and a failure.

Writing a PhD is hard work. The hours are long, the expectations are high, and the paperwork is never-ending.

What’s most difficult about the PhD, though, isn’t the work itself—it’s finding the motivation to actually do the work. It’s putting in the hours at the office when people tell you, “You’re just a first year; you don’t need to work so hard.” It’s managing to care about some entertainment that Queen Elizabeth saw in 1575 when it seems like everyone else’s project is so much more interesting and relevant. It’s keeping a smile on your face when your supervisor is disappointed and you feel you can never be a real academic.

Basically, doing a PhD is about managing your imperfections in a system that expects constant perfection.

For me, as a Christian, doing my PhD is about daily acknowledging that I’m not doing this on my own strength. I’m so flawed, so inadequate, but God has given me an amazing opportunity and He will guide me through it.

That’s why I’m glad my PhD applications weren’t a glorious string of acceptances. Because now I know that I’m not here because of my intelligence, or my academic excellence, or my copious extracurriculars.

Facing rejection before starting my PhD taught me that I am very much not perfect, but neither do I have to be. And now, whether my friends are complimenting me on a theatrical performance or my supervisor is tearing my chapter to shreds, I have absolute confidence that I am valuable not because I can somehow achieve perfection, but because He strengthens me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Day 100: Semester One

Taking advantage of a rare opportunity to have a snowball fight!
Day 100. It’s somewhat fitting that this milestone should fall on my last day in St. Andrews this year. Far too early tomorrow I’ll catch a bus, and then a train, and then another train, and another, and another, and finally drive with my great Aunt and Uncle to their house just south of Nottingham.

I’m really looking forward to a proper British Christmas. I love mulled wine and mince pies and carol services with beautiful descants and bell-ringing and Christmas pudding and Christmas specials on the telly and nice chocolates and queuing in M&S for the Christmas turkey and being excessively confused at Christingles. Yes, I’ll miss spending the holidays with my immediate family, but there’s something really special about British Christmas traditions.

Mandatory cathedral shot
Still, I’m sad the semester is over. The past 100 days have truly been wonderful, if tiring and stressful and confusing at times. I’ve made some amazing new friends, have attended and hosted so many wonderful get-togethers, and also managed to write 11,000 (reasonably) intelligent words.

The fact that I’m 1/9th of the way through my three-year PhD is a little scary. Although I had quite a satisfactory meeting with my supervisors last week and I’ve produced half a chapter and an annotated bibliography and a three-page outline of the thesis, I can’t help but feel that time is going to catch up to me far too soon.

All in all, though, I love the PhD. I love the fact that I get paid to live in a town I adore with people so dear to me and my “job” is to go sit in a cozy office and read and write about a subject I find fascinating. I really can’t imagine anything better.
My squad.

I’m working on being more grateful for everything God has given me. More than anything, I want to grow in a deep-rooted joy that isn’t dependant on circumstances, even though those might be great at the moment. I’m so happy right now, but I don’t want to lose that joy when my supervisor tells me my work isn’t up to par, or I have a falling out with a friend, or I can’t get a job after I graduate.

It’s been a semester of growth, both academically and personally. I’ve come face-to-face with so many of my weaknesses and built up some of my strengths. I’m so grateful for the people God has placed in my life this year, from my brilliant office-mates in the English department to the keen freshers at church to the loyal friends I can call at any time of day and know they’ll be there for me. Adjusting back into life in St. Andrews hasn’t always been easy, but these people have all made it so, so worthwhile.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Day 46- A Year Later

Receiving an inordinately expensive piece of paper
A year ago today, I convocated at Western with a Bachelor’s degree in English literature. The next day, I submitted my SSHRC application—a 25-page document for a scholarship worth up to $105,000.

Today, I should be crossing the stage with the other members of my cohort to receive my Master of Arts Degree from Western. Instead, I’m sitting in a flat in Scotland, working towards my PhD at the University of St. Andrews, courtesy of a SSHRC scholarship and generous funding from the university.

It’s been a wild ride. I’ve read thousands of pages, written 45,000 words, cried at rejections and jumped with joy at the acceptances that meant everything. The Masters year wasn’t always fun. Nothing about it was easy. But it was so, so worth it.

To be corny and cliché, it was the people that made my Master’s experience enjoyable. I owe so much to everyone I interacted with that year: the family I lived with who were there for me through the string of rejections, the professors who helped me with proposals or wrote references or just listened when I needed to rant about the stresses of grad school, and, most of all, the wonderful MA and PhD students who made classes so enjoyable.

I might not miss the long nights struggling to finish marking, or the mornings waking up at five to read 90 pages of Freud before class, or the 12 hour days writing three papers in a week, but I definitely miss Wednesday evenings at the grad club and Friday mornings grumbling about the uselessness of bibliography class and afternoons in the “bunker” chatting about everything from the definition of “English” literature to the meaning of marriage to Victorian mummy unwrappings.

Final day with the MA cohort
I wish I could be there to convocate with everyone this morning. I’m so proud of everyone who made it through the year, as well as those who had the courage to drop out when they realized that the program wasn’t for them. I’m so thankful for the intellectual discussions and the Doctor Who evenings, for people who love both Shakespeare and David Tennant.

To everyone convocating today, I wish you all the best. Whether you’re heading on to a PhD or running away from academia as fast as you can, know that I’m thinking about you and praying for you.

Enjoy your thirty seconds on the stage this morning—I might be in Scotland, but I’ll definitely be there in spirit… and possibly lurking the video livestream… J

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Art of Losing

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
So many things seem filled with the intent
To be lost that their loss is no disaster…

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
Some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

-- Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”

I’ve never been good at leaving things behind. People, places, pieces of paper with hastily scribbled story notes, ugly plastic Gandalf statues with long-faded sentimental value… Pushing stuff out of my life has never been easy for me.

I don't think they'll all fit in my suitcase...
For that reason, I’m very thankful to have over a month at home on PEI to sort through my boxes of stuff and choose what comes to Scotland, what stays behind in semi-permanent storage, and what heads off to the local thrift store or garbage dump. Some of the choices are easy. Many aren’t. It’s a time-consuming process, and I’m glad I haven’t had to rush myself at all.

I’ve discovered that giving something away isn’t nearly as hard as throwing it out. It’s not the thing itself I’m attached to, but the idea of the thing being valuable. I’d give you my favourite dress if I knew you’d appreciate it more than I do (for the record, you won’t, so don’t bother asking). During the decluttering process, nothing makes me happier than giving stuff away to a good home: my kettle to my brother’s new apartment, my jewellery to an adorable six year old, my seldom-worn dresses to a good friend. It’s so easy to part with something when I know the new owner will use it more than I did.

Uhaul truck for taking my stuff (and Nana's old couches)
back from Ontario
Giving something to a thrift shop is harder. Yes, I’m happy to support a charity, but by the very nature of thrift shops, everything I donate will be sold for a fraction of what it’s worth. I don’t mind too much if they sell an old sweater for a dollar or two, but what about the hand-woven Romanian purse that they price like a cheap Wal-Mart knockoff? Or the expensive Perplexus game I only played a few times? Or the authentic Royal Shakespeare Company poster from David Tennant’s Richard II? There’s no way a thrift store would price these anywhere near their real value.

Thinking about the thrift store issue made me realize that my difficulty with giving stuff up isn’t just part of my sentimental nature—it’s also related to my somewhat excessive drive to save money. None of the objects I just listed have any practical value to me anymore. Anything the thrift store gets for them is a gain. Yet, because I (or someone else, in the case of gifts) paid good money for these objects, I feel like throwing them out or underselling them is wasting money.

I grew up in a money saving household. “Upcycling” wasn’t really a term back then, but we did it anyways: toilet paper rolls became beanie baby castles, old (hopefully sanitized) toothbrushes became sink scrubbers, threadbare sheets were woven into rugs… Before throwing anything out, you thought carefully about whether it could be used to make something else, and the answer was often yes.

Turning my collection of seaglass into a necklace
It was, in many ways, a great way to grow up. We saved a lot of stuff from going to the dump and we saved a lot of money. The downside is that it’s hard to break the habit when throwing things out becomes essential. Getting rid of something and saying, “I’ll buy a new one if necessary” is foreign to me.

I need to practice letting go (cue Disney music). Sentimental attachment hasn’t been as much of a problem this time; I’ve managed to throw out a lot of stuff that no longer means anything to me. Now, I need to tackle my money-saving heart. I need to convince myself that being frugal doesn’t mean being a packrat, that when something has no practical value in my life I should let it go without obsessing over its value in dollars and cents. I need to stop worrying about wasting money and start allowing my life to be a little clearer.

 It’s time to lighten my suitcase and flood the thrift store.