Decade

The curriculum for the English communication course I taught this semester emphasized regular reflection. After each major assignment, the students had to write about their writing and editing process. The reflections were low-stakes assignments worth only 5 points each, and they were meant to help the students learn the nebulous, elusive concept of progress and continual growth. In a way, the main takeaway of the class was the idea that communication is not just a product, but a process.

As a writer, I know the benefits and enjoy the act of reflecting, perhaps too much. I’ve been journaling since 2009, have been blogging for the majority of this decade, and in some way I feel vindicated when pedagogy texts tout the benefits of such practices. When I explain to my students why these reflections matter, I hope my enthusiasm is contagious (though I know that that’s not exactly always the case).

But the way my students are taught to reflect is not the way I reflect. Their way is better. The reflection prompts give a list of questions that serve as starters. They are told to be specific, to quote directly from their assignments, to provide evidence of their thinking. When I reflect, my sentences are often vague, describe a series of events rather than demonstrate metacognition, and I’m not reflecting on anything in particular, just writing about my day in order to satisfy my craving to put ink on a page.

As I write this blog post, my desk has a copy of The New Yorker open to an essay I want to analyze in preparation for teaching rhetorical analysis to my students next semester. My winter break plans include doing the major assignments that are required of my students so that I’m familiar with the work and questions they may have. The main textbook I’ll be teaching from, Everything’s An Argument, outlines skills I need a refresher on. There’s a reflection prompt after each assignment, which I will also complete so that I can remember the challenges and joys of writing a rhetorical analysis of a David Sedaris essay.

But I have yet to figure out a way to reflect so specifically on everything—on all of life, on this decade.

In the final essay I had workshopped in a Nonfiction class I took this semester, I wrote about the journaling habit I started during my senior year of high school, ten years ago. My areas of concern felt sprawling when I was seventeen, though I imagine that they were actually very tightly circumscribed to immediate topics: friendship drama, the college application process, and whatever pop music sensation I was a fan of at the time.

I say that I imagine what my concerns were at the start of the decade because I don’t yet know; I haven’t really revisited that first notebook. Ever since I started journaling, I have left the last page blank, reserved for ten years after the completion of that notebook. My first ten-year “anniversary” is coming up on January 5th, 2020.

In a way, the 2010’s have been a decade of gathering material, and the next decade will comprise regular reflections where I’ll be confronting concrete evidence of my thinking and learning and living.

I’m not sure what to expect. When I think about the moments that feel personally monumental in the past ten years, I may find them unconsciously (or consciously) minimized in my journals. Or I may find a fixation that I don’t remember, or misremembered. I will feel embarrassed at times, and will definitely feel an occasional frisson of shame at some of my past actions.

The final reflection prompt my students had to answer this past semester had, essentially, three parts: look at who you were at the start of the semester, summarize how you have changed to reach your present moment, and create a plan for continuing your progress in the future. A good reflection has all three parts, and I often find difficulty in balancing all three. I linger in the past (sometimes too much), and I’m happy to meditate on who I am in the present. But who do I want to be? What shame do I want to eliminate, or minimize if I can’t erase it entirely? How do I want to be better than who I am today?

Because that’s the only thing I know for certain about the past, my present, or future: I just want to be better.

Breaks and beginnings

Even-numbered years, for me, tend to be split in two. In 2014 I graduated from college; the first half of that year was characterized by my being a full-time student, and the second half of the year by my being a full-time employee. In 2016 I switched jobs from that first full-time job to a new one more in line with my passions and interests. And in 2018, I left that job to return to school and start my time at an MFA program.

Maybe it’s the nature of even numbers, cleanly bisected, that lends them to before-and-afters. Maybe it’s my pattern-seeking brain finding recurring themes in the even-numbered years (elections, Olympics, decades, etc.). Or maybe it’s the timing of my birth; born in the first half of an even-numbered year, my graduation milestones typically happen in even-numbered years, splitting them between one education level and another (with an interminable summer in between).

Whatever the reason, it’s the split years that have felt the most satisfactory, in a way. I feel like I’ve changed the most in these even-numbered years (before-and-afters, of course) that I’ve started to develop some nervous anticipation around odd-numbered years. On some level, I’ve already unconsciously decided that 2019 couldn’t possibly be as good for me as 2018 was, so I’ll save my energy for 2020.

Then again: 2011 was the year I got together with my partner (with whom I’m still in a relationship); 2013 I studied abroad and took my first creative writing class; 2015 I did my first NaNoWriMo; and 2017 I started pursuing creative writing and publishing again in earnest. If even-numbered years are characterized by before-and-afters, odd-numbered years are characterized by beginnings.

I can only speculate what beginnings are in store for me in 2019. One of my projects this winter break is to plant the seeds for summer vacation as much as possible. Apply for summer writing workshops, fit in as much travel as I can, and save money in the meantime for these pursuits. But the thing about beginnings, for me, is that they happen somewhat suddenly. I can never really plan for what next desire will derail me onto a whole new track.

Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to it in the new year.

Notes from the bottomless pit

  • I have not blogged in a while, but not for want of inspiration. There is no shortage of things to write about, of news to comment on. But much of it has been overwhelmingly discouraging. I find myself wanting more than ever to isolate myself in the escape of fiction.
  • Whatever I expected out of Donald Trump’s administration did not make it easier to stomach these past few weeks.
  • I no longer want to write about writing or read about writing—these topics seem inadequate now, feel like relics of an idyllic time when we could worry about things like craft and style and publishing.(And yet—)
  • I have been diving deep into Scribophile, and I worry that I might be using the site as an escape rather than as a serious attempt at improving my writing. I have been critiquing some interesting work, have put my own writing up for scrutiny, and have been taking seriously the feedback I have been giving and receiving. But sometimes I feel like I’m not engaging with the world at large, just putting off the inevitable.
  • Where do I start? I feel as though I have hit the ground running, but what exactly am I running toward? (Something better than this is the hope.)
  • To continue living as I had before is oppressively inadequate. And yet to face the future feels equally impossible.
  • “A word after a word / after a word is power.” I have been repeating this idea in my mind whenever I put my pen to paper or my fingers to my keyboard. And yet I find it harder than ever to believe it to be true.
  • I wake up. I go for a run. It is warm for the winter season in New York. I go to work. There is so much work to be done.

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From the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., 21 January 2017.

Dozens

Here’s something from memory lane: I’m currently listening to Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” from the soundtrack of The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement on loop.

The movie and song came out in 2004. I was twelve years old. Now, it’s 2016 and I’m twenty-four.

What a wild ride.

It has been twelve years since I first listened to “Breakaway,” but I remember how quickly I integrated that song into my personal canon. Like every preteen at the time, the song painted a romantic picture of leaving home, of exploring the world, of growing up and doing Big Things. The repeated plays fueled my daydreams of living an exciting life in a place that wasn’t my hometown.

For all intents and purposes, I’ve achieved that dream, and have been living it for the past six years.

When I sit and think about 2016 in particular, I am surprised by just how much has happened. On a personal level, these twelve months were packed. I made a commitment to my health, and, holiday season aside, I exercised regularly. I came out to my parents as bisexual and polyamorous in June. I changed jobs in July (something I kept referring to it as my “Big Life Change”). I won this year’s NaNoWriMo events (both Camp NaNoWriMos and the November NaNoWriMo).

My younger self would have thought these were meager accomplishments, but to me right now, they feel colossal. Right now, I’m closer to living my “ideal” life than I ever have been before. And maybe it’s different than what I dreamed up as a twelve year old, but it’s still good.

But outside of the things I’ve accomplished for myself, the world turned. We lost iconic figures who made indelible marks on human history and culture. Politicians seemed to constantly give us cause for despair, from Duterte in the Philippines to Trump in the U.S. And throughout, there was a steady thread of injustice that plagued vulnerable people.

I can already see that 2017 will be a challenging year, and not just because I will do my usual thing and force myself out of my comfort zone. The Trump administration looks more and more like a disaster every day. What we thought were mere specters of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types of bigotry have turned out to be warm bodies, alive and kicking. We have so much work to do.

What will we say in twelve years about 2016 and all that happened after?

So here’s my (cheesy, but true) 2017 motto: “Take a risk / take a chance / make a change / and breakaway.”

This post was inspired by this week’s Discover Challenge: Retrospective. Check out a few more responses below.