Discussion | Stagnation & Slumps

WordPress reliably informs me that my last review (The Alloy of Law as it happens) was published a whole 51 days ago. That’s practically two whole months. Since that point I’ve published 12 posts which isn’t terrible, but it isn’t brilliant by any stretch of the imagination. As I look back, however, I realise that very few of these posts have actually been a sustained discussion of anything I’ve read. There are bits and pieces of reviews and comments on things I’m in the midst of reading, but nothing sustained.

The truth is I cannot accurately say I’m in a reading slump because I have read a good deal more books since that last review (10 books to be precise), I just haven’t particularly had the enthusiasm to review said books. I don’t have the excuse of being busy because I only work part-time and, as it happens, I have slow periods at work in which I can (and do) blog. Now, given the amount of time and books I’ve consumed, I ought to have more frequent reviews? The lack of them suggests a problem… it’s not a stretch that one might think perhaps these books weren’t very good. But the truth is quite the contrary; I’ve read some amazing things lately (some more literary than others) but, for some reason, I just haven’t been able to formulate my thoughts into reviews or discussion posts.

You may have noticed lately the majority of posts I’ve published have been weekly memes and to be honest relying on these for posts feels like a little bit of a cop-out to me. I hasten to add that weekly memes are by no means lesser than reviews or discussion posts, it’s just that I know that I personally complete weekly memes with less care and attention than I would pay to other posts. There’s an element of the autopilot or mechanical posting to it. Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone and I’m really not trying to suggest everyone is quite as lazy as me when it comes to filling out such weekly themes! It’s just that weekly memes appeal to the lazy side of me because they provide an existing jumping-off point, so I don’t have to think about that initial reason to write a post. It makes posting a lot quicker and a lot more mechanical. When it comes down to it, I personally feel like I’m not really contributing much with my own answers to these weekly themes, even if I do adore doing them. Because of this, I feel like the quality of these posts isn’t quite where I’d like it to be… and I’m not quite happy with my blog as it is, or indeed as it has been for a while now.

(This entire thing also feeds into my incessant anxiety about my own personal lack of originality or voice in my writing – an ongoing running sore that we won’t probe any more right now!)

The long and short of all this self-indulgent reflection is that I’ve come to a conclusion: it’s about time I stopped stagnating and actually did something about the fact I’m not happy with my blog as it is at the moment…

I am going to stop obsessing over participating in weekly memes, for one. I’m still going to participate, of course, because the themes of Top 5 Wednesday, Top Ten Tuesdays, Book Travelling Thursdays etc. are always wonderful, but I’m not going to beat myself up about it if I miss a week, which is actually what I do now even though you might not realise that through the relative silence on this blog.

I am going to focus more on the quality of what I publish rather than the quantity. Of course I would like to be more regular with my posts on this blog, but I would much rather be happy about what I put out there than post every other day out of necessity. Which leads me to the next (and main) point of this rambling post…

I am going to try to be more thoughtful in my posts. Part of my problem when it comes to writing a post is always my innate lack of confidence that makes me think ‘well what more am I actually saying that others before haven’t said? Am I actually contributing anything by throwing this post into the ether that is the internet?’. As far as I can see it, the only thing I do have, really, is a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English Literature… for what that’s worth (little in the wider world but, personally, quite a lot!). So I’d like to approach my blog more like I used to approach my seminar preparation and essays – with thought and attention and care. I want to be able to immediately identity a point, a purpose, to any given post, rather than just what was clearly me thinking ‘oh balls, I haven’t updated in three days, what day is it? Friday? Perfect, I’ll just quickly shove a Friday Reads onto my blog’. (And yes, that has been my thought process at times!)

If you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity you may have witnessed similar grand pledges or posts in the past. Every so often I have a sudden crisis of confidence where I vow to be better, to write better, to create content etc. etc. It’s all rather tiring to hear, I know, but here’s to me saying it again. Hopefully this will be the last time I need to make such a pledge because this time I’m going to actually schedule/plan out posts for the future. Jesus, whilst we’re making grand plans let’s kid ourselves that I might even dig out that abandoned bullet journal to help with scheduling my life into more productive days!

Hopefully this time something will stick.


 

Monday 8th June | 22:30

I’ve been wanting to do something similar for a few weeks now but put it off because I thought that I don’t have the artistic skills or creative knack or way with words to do this quite as much aesthetic justice as I would like to. But you know what? Fuck it. You heard that right, yes. Sometimes it helps to remind myself what blogs are for (away from the people that are actually professional bloggers) – self-indulgent outpourings of whatever happened to be going on in a person’s mind at that moment.

So here’s what I’d like to talk about and bear with me –

Recently I had something of a… I don’t want to say emotional break down because it was not a break down in any serious sense of that phrase… but something, for a moment, in my brain snapped and I spent last Tuesday night wallowing in an entire pit of self-indulgent misery and pity. Because I am a person who has defined herself through, and been defined by, academics. And whenever I can’t “get” something, or I find I can’t focus, or I can’t come up with anything remotely intelligent to say, I have a mild internal crisis.

Because what am I if not an academic after all? What am I if not someone who can form vaguely coherent and eloquent sentences that express some sort of vaguely intelligent argument regarding a piece of literature? Well, Tuesday me decided that I was nothing. Literally worthless. And once your brain gets caught up in that thought process it is extremely hard to pull it back. Trying to combat its powerful effect by saying ‘no but I got into to university’ ‘no but I got a first, I must be doing something right’ and ‘I deserve to be here and saying these things’ does not work. It might in hindsight; I might be able to look back now with clarity and suggest these weapons against the ever-present cloud of self-doubt. But in the moment, on Tuesday? Not even close to it.

It helps to be kind to yourself. To focus on not what you haven’t done yet but what you have done. Don’t think about what you think you can’t do, focus on what you can, and if that currently unknown thing seems important to you then you can try to learn but it takes time and it takes work. Do not diminish every single thing you have accomplished and learnt over the years just because you find that, on one already exhausted evening, you can’t instantaneously wrap your head around a 500 year-old play you thought you knew inside out.

That’s what I’m thinking. I’m going to try to convert that second-person addressed paragraph above and listen to it. I’m going to try not to berate myself about what I can’t do and what I’m not, I’m going to try to be kinder to myself and focus on what I have done, what I can do, and what I am.

 

Discussion: University & Competitive Learning Environments

Once again, Emma read something flippantly on her Facebook and then ended up spiralling off into a moment or two of self-absorbed musings and reminiscences. Feel free to ignore this, eventually I’ll write something light and cheerful about books again!

A couple of introductory remarks so as not to alarm anyone. Firstly, I have categorically not experienced depression or eating disorders of any kind and the article I’m about to mention simply popped up on my Facebook feed and hit home in a really weird way that I couldn’t fathom. Because this girl’s experience was not mine, I’ve had a relatively easy ride through university thus far, so why oh why did it strike a chord? I just couldn’t fathom it until I started thinking over my own experiences with Cambridge University applications and my own relationship with academic competition now I’m at university in Lancaster.  This is the article I refer to, it’s worth a read, I think.

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Discussion: “I felt like my voice wasn’t worth hearing”

“For myself, for a long time… maybe I felt inauthentic or something, I felt like my voice wasn’t worth hearing, and I think everyone’s voice is worth hearing. So if you’ve got something to say, say it from the rooftops.” (Tom Hiddleston)

We live in an age of instant communication. An age of relative freedom of speech (obviously there are many caveats to this but, in theory, yes). An age where if you feel like you have something to say, sign up to Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, WordPress, YouTube, and many other social media and blogging sites and then use these resources for your own purposes. If you want to use them to reblog cat pictures, that’s fine, if you want to use them to try to raise awareness of social inequality in your hometown, that’s fine too, encouraged even. So, in the age of the Internet, of Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook, everyone can theoretically have a voice. (Presuming you’re literate and have an internet connection, that is.) Of course, this is open to abuse. I’ve never seen such vitriol until I innocently perused some hashtags on Twitter or the YouTube comment section. People can hide behind a screen and say things they wouldn’t even dream of saying to someone’s face.

And yet, when everyone can (theoretically) have access to a medium in which to voice their opinion, there are always limitations. And not all of those are necessarily circumstantial or cultural. No, I would argue a lot of these limitations are self-inflicted and self-regulated and it is in this light that I’d like to consider that wonderfully articulate quote a little further. The opinion I quoted above encapsulates so many of my anxieties so succinctly. The awful, practically constant sensation in the pit of my stomach that nothing I am saying is worthwhile. I’m not aiming for something revolutionary, I’m just aiming to not be regurgitating the same trite phrases and opinions that have come before me. And yet, and yet, I find myself agreeing with the opinions of others to the point that I sometimes wonder if, in actual fact, I’m too scared to hold a contrary opinion, to speak out, to say ‘no actually, in my opinion, I’m not sure what you’re saying is the most important thing about this text’.

I had an interesting chat with a professor of mine last week. After a lovely lovely trip to Lancaster Castle for a peek into the dungeons where it’s believed those tried of witchcraft there in 1612 were held (an oddly unsettling and humbling experience if I’m allowed a moment to be soppy), I mentioned to her about a common theme in the feedback I receive on my essays – to have a clearer argument and be more confident about it when presenting it, instead of leaning so heavily on existing secondary material. Now, I work from the text first and foremost. I do not work from critical theory and use that as a lens through which to view a text. To me that allows for too much potential for imposing a theory on a text that might not necessarily be the best fit. But that’s just me, that’s just how I work, I look at the language of the primary text and work out from there. In the process of this expanding from the text I, naturally, look at what other critics have said. And here comes the trouble-

-When you work on, and adore, that old bard himself, Mr William Shakespeare, there seems to be very little that hasn’t been said. That is to say, whenever I read a play and go ‘ooh! idea!’ and have a nice light-bulb moment, it only takes a quick Google Scholar search to realise that, in fact, this is not an original thought by a long way and in fact there is a whole area of scholarship on it already! That’s daunting and, when it happens on multiple occasions, it’s a little disheartening. You begin to feel like just one voice drowning in the sea of much more educated and much more intelligent individuals. Why on earth would anyone listen to me when they could listen to Stephen Greenblatt or Terry Eagleton or Gail Kern Paster? No wonder so many people suffer from the anxiety of thinking that their voice is worthless, they are inauthentic, their voice is not worthy enough to shout loud and proud from the rooftops.

And yet, if all of those people had limited and in fact silence their voice at the point at which that anxiety gripped them, none of their works would ever have been written – something I definitely need to remember when the self-doubt becomes paralysing.

The quote on which I began this post offers a solution that appears much too simplistic. Oh if only, if only it were that easy, and we had our opinions validated by someone yelling back from a neighbouring rooftop ‘tell me more!’. But I think I had a moment of this. The moment when I was stood chatting to my professor in the middle of Lancaster’s shopping centre about needing to work on some strategies for talking back to critics and building confidence to do so. I said to her that I’d received the same feedback ‘have a stronger and surer argument’ throughout my undergraduate career, and that I wasn’t surprised that I was still receiving the same feedback. And she said to me ‘no, I think you’ve changed since last year, I’ve noticed you’ve developed so much and you don’t even realise but you have’. I was taken aback. I don’t think she’ll ever really know how such a simple comment could reassure me so much.

So, alright, maybe I won’t be rushing up the steps of Bowland Tower to scream my voice from that particular rooftop any time soon but, maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to feel closer to being someone worthy of studying an MA, to having a voice, to being able to weigh in with my opinion on Richard III because it’s my opinion and because that’s worthwhile. So that quote above seems to be a simple solution but it’s not a switch you can suddenly flick down so that you feel an overwhelming rush of validation and authenticity. It’s a slow change, an ongoing process that you have to work at and be prepared to listen to, and consider, the voices of others – but you also shouldn’t be afraid to use your own if you have something to say.

 


 

(NB: A slightly self-indulgent post today, I hope no one minds. It’s something that eats away at me quite a bit if it wasn’t blindingly obvious from what I just wrote above, and so I have to vent about it a lot to try to talk myself round to believing it. I wrote a similar thing here a little while ago about worth, self-doubt, and how it affects writing, but I feel as though my thoughts have become clearer since then.

Oh and I apologise for the blatant Tom Hiddleston quote – actually one of the reasons I like him, and his work, is because he comes across as a thoughtful individual and is about 1000% more articulate and eloquent than I could ever be. Sometimes he just gets it right, and yes, in my opinion, his voice is worth hearing.)

University Woes: Essays, Procrastination, Worth

I have 2 x 5,000 word module essays to complete. At this very moment I have 3245 words of one, and precisely 0 of the other. I am enjoying a good bit of Taylor Swift at full volume – along with dramatic singing and interpretive dance moves obviously – and a nice cup of coffee. I have YouTube, Facebook, and Tumblr tabs open. I’m signed into AIM. All of these things are bad, very very bad, and yet I will never learn. I will never learn the skill of being able to complete shut myself off from everything and everyone distracting in order to get down to some proper hard graft. I just can’t do it.

So instead I come on WordPress to whine about it, yes.

I don’t know what it is about essay writing but past experience dictates I really will never learn better working habits. And as these module essays are 2 out of only 5 extended written pieces I will write for my MA (along with a portfolio of research  methodology activities but let’s not go there), there aren’t many opportunities left to actually learn from this and adjust my behaviour. Many a time I have tried to get to the bottom of this procrastinating.

Is it pure laziness? It’s something I’ve considered. If left to my own devices I can be horrifically lazy. Things will get done… eventually, if one day I had a sudden burst of DO ALL THE THINGS style energy in which I whacked out 1000 words in one sitting and then crashed again. But waiting around for this sudden burst of productivity is a dangerous trap I fall into. If I just am not ‘feeling it’ on a particular day, I will say, for the sake of my own sanity, take a step back and come back to it when you are in the right mind-set. This is good, probably, for the sake of mental health. But for the sake of actually completing a degree? Not so much.

So what is it? I honestly think it’s partly down to fear. It’s fear that as your fingers start flying over those computer keys, you realise that you don’t have a point to argue in your essay. You might have found a text extremely interesting and want to talk about it to people but, ultimately, your opinion is much the same as other people’s and therefore you don’t have anything worthwhile to contribute. Someone else has already said it. Your voice, ultimately, is worthless.

And falling into this mind set is horrible and debilitating and I honestly believe it contributes to my own attitude about essay writing. I’m not hedging here I truly believe it’s a factor in this procrastination – because the longer you put off actually getting down to writing your supposed-to-be-brilliant essay, the longer you put off the realisation that your entire opinion is just a bit ‘meh’.

It’s silly, I know, because I am firmly a member of the ‘everyone’s voice is worthwhile’ club. Everyone brings a slightly different life story to a text, a different set of experiences, a different set of favourite books and films and music, a different set of personal priorities, different political and ideological influences, everyone reads a text in their own way. Sure, you may agree with the mainstream on a lot of it, but your reading experience will (I promise) be, even if only ever-so-slightly , different to the next person’s. I know this, I believe this, I am a big proponent of the EVERYONE HAS A VOICE PLEASE USE IT mindset… and yet… and yet… why can’t I count myself in this number?

In the end, something’s gotta give and I usually do, come hell or high water, write something substantial. It may be caffeine-fuelled and arguably sloppy with an unhealthy dose of self-doubt latent in argument, but I will hand in something resembling an essay. It happens. And I’m hereby promising myself that it will happen this time around too. I’ve just got to somehow try to be kind to myself and say ‘Emma, your voice is worth something, don’t think it isn’t. Take your own advice, use your voice!’.

But, as ever, giving advice is a lot easier than truly taking it.

What is it good for?

I think I’ve finally realised why I have such a hard time when it comes to certain essays – right now the essay titles for the International Relations side of the politics course are leaving something to be desired, in my opinion. I don’t get it. I just don’t get IR. I mean, sure I get the theories well enough to give a general overview but when it comes to trying to predict what a certain state will do based on structural realist theories or Marxist perspectives, I’m partly lost. I think I understand it enough to bullshit to a layman that I know about it, but not enough to write 2000 words on it to fool a seminar tutor into thinking I get the theories.

I feel shit at the moment. And the reason? Because I can’t handle not getting something, not knowing. Being bad at something is hard for me. And it’s not because I arrogantly think I’m amazing and intelligent, no, believe me, I have self-esteem issues when it comes to my own knowledge. It’s because I’m nothing else but academic and if I don’t have good academic grades, good understanding of a subject then I am nothing as a person. I don’t have hobbies. I don’t have talents. Thus far in my life, I’ve been… ‘Emma, the clever one’ so when I don’t get something it’s really hard for me to handle that fact. Because without that understanding, what am I?

Sure I can sketch a person’s likeness well (if I have a model and an hour of silence), but I haven’t practiced it in years so I’ll undoubtedly be rusty. Sure I indulge in a little forum roleplay sometimes (the kind where you create characters and then write for them), but it’s hardly considered a talent. Sure I read and adore stories but that’s just a sideline, it’s hardly something that I (realistically) could call a hobby or talent since most people see it as a passive activity (if you read properly it isn’t). Sure, I can speak Spanish but as my self-confidence is zero I’d never feel good enough to strike up a conversation with a Spaniard whilst on holiday. Oh and I can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t play an instrument, can’t play sports very well (I have terrible coordination). I’m just… I don’t know… the one who’s good at essay writing (or the one who used to be good at academic work).

So when I’m not, when I feel as though I don’t know anything or haven’t grasped the material that’s been taught for this feeling of inadequacy and do something about it. *sigh* I’m having a bad day I reckon.

 

(PS- I can only apologise for the whiny, self-indulgent nature of this post. Like I said, bad day, and I need to let it out even if I know it’s not interesting for anyone to read, I need to write this out for me.)

A reason to feel like an ignorant human being?

A reason to feel like an ignorant human being? Hmm well I know nothing of world history. There, I’ve said it. I can just about tell you about World War I and II (the reason I dropped History after Year 9 because I simply couldn’t take another lesson about Adolf Hitler), the Industrial Revolution, castles and the Battle of Hastings to name some thrilling secondary-school curriculum topics. In primary school we delved momentarily into the Victorians, Henry VIII and Ancient Greece and Rome… so I could cobble together some vague statement about Greek myths and legends probably. I’ve done a bit of Spanish history amongst A Level Spanish lessons so I could tell you about oppression during Franco’s dictatorship, the falled coup of Tejero and such. But, overall, my historical knowledge is pretty shocking. I’d say most of my historical knowledge has come from A Level Politics lessons (Thatcher and the Falklands, Vietnam War etc.) which is ironic when I consider what has prompted me to feel like an ignorant human being – my politics seminars.

Occassionally during such seminars we’ll momentarily delve into, what feels like to me, an obscure bit of European history. Turns out it’s not obscure but, as it didn’t fall under the remit of either World War lesson plans, I wasn’t taught it. I’m sorry, I know World War I and II was extremely influential and, please don’t mistake me, I’m not shitting on anything to do with the World Wars, I find the literature of the period (and literature about the period) really intriguing and emotional. I suppose this is why it is on the curriculum but I do think it’s damaging to students to place so much emphasis on it. You create a generation of students whose historical general knowledge consists of solely that; they’re blinkered, in a way. For me, it means I’ve reached the age of 19 with an astounding level of ignorance – seriously I feel stupid.

And it feels as though it’s too late really for me to ‘catch up’ and even if I did wish to catch up what could I do, read ‘The New Penguin History of the World’? Probably. But look at it, it’s hundreds of pages long and, frankly, it’s not a priority when I have reading to do for my actual university subjects. But I somehow feel as though I need to read it to help improve my general historical… awareness I suppose. Because I would probably find things like Spanish culture lectures more bearable if I could visualise a certain period in Spanish history against what was happening elsewhere in Europe or in the rest of the World. And I wouldn’t feel so pig ignorant when a politics seminar leader asks us about, bloody hell I don’t know, the French Revolution.

I suppose I just needed to let this out, knowing it has made me a bit irritated at/sick of myself as of late.

Edit: As proof of the ever-growing awesome of Hank and John Green (vlogbrothers on YouTube, if you don’t know them, shame on you), I feel the World History series on their new Crashcourse channel might just help me with my horrendously bad history knowledge. Thank you John Green, seriously.