Figs and Hedgehogs

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

– The Bell Jar

Ever since I read The Bell Jar in college, this passage has haunted me. It haunts me because I am greedy and ambitious and picky about what I imagine my life will turn out to be. I used to have a list of alternative careers that I would pursue if I had more one life to live, but in order to keep the figs from wrinkling up at my indecision, I decided to choose just one and pursue it with all my might. I shut all the other options out because I was certain that I wanted to be a hedgehog and not a fox (a la Archilochus). I wanted to be the best at one big thing, rather than know many things. I didn’t want to be a jack-of-all-trades, a master of none.

But I am also greedy. And even as I hold the fruit that is already in my hands, I mourn the loss of all the other possibilities life could have held for me. I could have been a travel photographer. I could have been a screenwriter. I could have been an art gallery curator or a hot-shot editor for The New Yorker. But I was afraid. Afraid of picking the wrong path. Afraid of failing. “I wanted each and every one of them,” but somehow I felt that “choosing one meant losing all the rest.” And I think the indecision comes from the fear of choosing wrong, the fear that you can’t see where this narrative arc will lead you.

This is not to say that academia was a safe choice or a second choice. In fact, of all the figs, I probably picked the most ridiculously difficult one to attain (especially given current trends, i.e. the odds of securing a tenure-track job are at ~8% and dropping nationwide and the academy has begun responding by accepting fewer PhD students each year). And this is also not to say that I regret it or that I feel as if I’ve picked wrong. But to some degree, I feel like, in my fear that indecision and wavering would cause me to freeze up and stagnate, I failed to give myself the space to play around with different options and to explore what was really possible.

I chose the path that I am currently on my senior year in high school. And the truth is, I’ve been afraid to look back and reassess that decision, to open myself up to the entire fig tree again and say, “pick again.” More and more though, I think I see the necessity of facing that uncertainty and diving into new territory. In doing so, I think this will be more of a recalibration than a complete overhaul, an adjustment of sorts. But I want to give myself the option of pursuing other things, smashing unconnected topics and fields together, and seeing what will become of it all.

I want to allow myself to not plan because there’s no way I can possibly know where things will lead. I just want to be passionate about the things that I love and not worry just yet about how it will all fit together. And somehow, I think this will open doors that I didn’t know existed and – hopefully – lead to a happier me in the end. I think it’s time to stop doing what “makes sense” and just do what gets me excited in the morning.

This is all a very convoluted way of saying that the way I do my scholarship is about to change dramatically (starting with my oral exam lists) and I hope you (and my graduate program) will bear with me long enough to see exactly why this is the best move for me.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

– Steve Jobs

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Some laughs and an update.

Courtesy of xkcd.

Courtesy of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Two literature references in a row from my two favorite nerdy web-comics. I think this is a good sign that November is going to be an awesome month.

In other news, you can now sign up for the class I’m teaching in Spring semester. It’s been a crazy busy semester and I haven’t really had a chance to blog about my teaching experiences so far, but I will say that I really love it and it’s honestly the best part of my week. My students are adorable and they warm my heart so very much. It also helps that they’re pretty darn smart. :]

Growing Up 101

Confession: I am a young’un. It just became legal for me to buy alcohol four months ago. I became a first-time car owner at the beginning of this month (it may take years before I can successfully parallel park). The apartment that I live in is the first real lease I’ve ever signed. I’ve never gotten a real monthly paycheck and I’ve never paid taxes. I have just recently mastered getting gas and buying groceries alone (which isn’t quite the same as walking with your roommates into Westwood to get some bread and milk). This is my first time living completely on my own. And I am so so far away from home. In terms of work and life experience, I am a baby compared to the actual adults in the program, many of whom have taught before and several of whom are married. Oddly enough, I’m not very worried about the school aspect of things. I just don’t feel up-to-speed on how to be a grown-up.

Hopefully I’ll get the hang of things soon enough, but whenever I feel young and intimidated, I plan to remind myself of this quote:

“I began by acting like the person I wanted to be, and eventually I became that person.” — Cary Grant

I may be one of the youngest kids in the incoming class, but I’m going to prove that I can run with the big dogs. 🙂

Dear Brain,

I know you are probably already pretty tired from moving your life across the country, starting grad school, and having to deal with all the new pressures of adult life. Not much is required of you just yet, but somehow you feel just a little on edge. You wonder if you will like it in this strange new town and try to fathom how the next five years will pan out. You try to stay calm and act as if you are cool, collected, and confident, but the truth is you are kind of maybe just a little sort of scared sh-tless.

So I thought I’d give you a pep talk and remind you to chill out. To quote the great (albeit eccentric) Bear Grylls, “Keeping morale up is the key to survival.” For Bear Grylls, this means making a nice warm fire and catching (and roasting) some poor critter. For you, this might mean drinking in the gorgeous view of the “Harry Potter room” in Alderman library or seeking out super tasty (and cheap!) seafood in downtown Charlottesville. Indeed, sometimes all it takes is a nice hearty meal to clear away the frustrations of a particularly grueling day. Whatever ritual you develop, find the sparkle in each day and just keep trekking onward. Grad school may be daunting, but as long as you stay positive (you and I both know that is when you are most productive), things will go along swimmingly.

Grad school is going to be puddle-wonderful. You’ll see.

Sincerely,

Tummy

Office Hour Daydreams

A little more than a year ago, I was at office hours with my 10C (English lit, 1832 to present) professor. I had gone to look over my final exam and our conversation went something like this (the important part that I wish to highlight anyways):

Professor X: “So who was your TA?”

Me: “Oh, I had R—”

Professor X: “R—? That’s wonderful. R— is such a clever girl.

This may seem like a very silly mundane conversation to remember and recount, but I think about this short exchange every so often because it is something that I want a professor of mine to say about me one day. A clever girl is smart and witty and dedicated and full of potential. A clever girl is going to go places. A clever girl is going to be amazing  and wow people everywhere she goes.

Some day, when my name comes up in conversation, I want a professor to say, “If anyone can make it, it’s Sophia.” Some day, I want to be a clever girl too.

Some Snow Would Be Nice

I’ve known for about a month now, but this week I finally made a commitment and accepted a fellowship offer from the University of Virginia! This means that I will be moving across the country to Charlottesville, VA in the fall (East Coast, here I come!) and embarking on an excitingly exhausting English nerdfest. In the spirit of things, I’d like to present my list of:

TEN THINGS I LIKE ABOUT U(VA)

1. The official incorporated name for UVA is “The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.” What a mouthful! (But also kind of awesome.)

2. This year, Forbes named UVA as one of the World’s Most Beautiful College Campuses. The town of Charlottesville has also been consistently ranked as one of the best places to live in the US.

3. Started by Thomas Jefferson (the only US President to found an institution of higher learning), UVA stands on land purchased by James Monroe. James Madison was also a Rector of the University. The three presidents’ homes are all located near the University. Definitely on my list of places to go see! I hear July 4th at Monticello is amazing.

4. Tina Fey (’92) and Katie Couric (’79) graduated from UVA! Georgia O’Keeffe and Edgar Allan Poe also attended UVA (although Poe had to drop out after his first year because he lost his tuition money to gambling). UVA was also home to William Faulkner who donated a huge portion of his writing/collection to the Alderman library upon his death.

5. Every year in March, Charlottesville hosts the Virginia Festival of the Book.

6. UVA is the only university to be designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (together with Monticello).

7. Just as UVA likes to call itself the University, it also uses the definite article for various campus locations: the Grounds, the Lawn, the Rotunda, and the Range, in addition to the Corner on University Avenue.

8. The University is home to a number of secret societies, who leave signs of their existence around campus.

9. UVA has an Honor System where students “make a commitment not to lie, cheat, or steal.”  Established with the purpose of creating a community of trust, the honor code allows faculty to give timed take-home exams and students to purchase books on campus by giving his or her word to pay. Very cool.

10. Charlottesville gets an average of 24 inches of snow each year! And 44 inches of rainfall! *super excited* I love it when things fall from the sky. :]

Of course it doesn’t hurt that UVA has a top-ranked English PhD program.  I can’t wait to become a Cavalier!

I am uber uber excited about going to grad school at UVA and hope that you will continue to follow Sophialiteraria as I embark on this next chapter of my life. Thanks for all your support throughout this process, guys!

(All facts without linked citations come from the Wikipedia page.)

In Place of a Real Post

So.. I didn’t just fall into the Mississippi and disappear. The rest of spring break has just been super busy, but I have a word document full of notes and I hope to retroactively blog the conference after I get back to LA on Sunday. It’ll be like I didn’t ditch my blogging duties for a week… :] I also promise to blog much more often and regularly now that I apparently have a readership of sorts and have loads more time that thesis research used to take up. I have a vision for what I want Sophialiteraria to become by the end of this year so look forward to exciting things to come!

Six Months Later…

Wow, so I haven’t posted here in a long while. It’s been a hectic few months since I last posted.

Back in May, I presented my 199 research project on collaborative authorship at my first academic conference, the 2009 Westwind/Aleph Conference for Undergraduate Research & Writing. I stayed up the entire night before perfecting my speech and was assigned to moderate for the morning session. All the presenters in my session, “Texts and Contexts,” were seniors presenting their honors thesis papers. It was nerve-wrecking, scary, and exhilarating all at the same time. Hearing each presenter’s research and talking about my own, I felt like I had finally joined the kind of intellectual discourse that I had read about, envied, and desired. And I knew that this was the kind of community that I wanted to be a part of for the rest of my life. I ended up winning a Dean’s Prize for my presentation. Afterwards, exhausted, I collapsed on my bed and slept the next 16 hours away.

The next morning, I woke up feeling tired, sore, and feverish. My lymph nodes were swollen and my throat felt scratchy. It was eighth week of Spring quarter, I was taking a 22-unit course load, and somehow, I had the bad luck of developing mononucleosis. The good news was that I only had a fairly minor case; after two weeks of nothing but sleeping, eating, and dragging my butt to lecture when I could muster up the energy, I was well enough to finish out the quarter, turning in final papers and taking my finals. However, my energy level (and more importantly, my motivation for work) took awhile to get back to normal.

I had originally planned on studying hard for the GRE Literature in English test and working on my senior thesis over the summer. I also wanted to get a head-start on the graduate school applications that were due in December. My parents, however, recognized that I was burnt out so when I moved back home for the summer, they really pushed me to get my health back to par. Over the next two months, I went running, hiking, backpacking, and camping. We took a week-long trip to Alaska, conquered our first “fourteener” (14,000 ft above sea level) – White Mountain Peak, and backpacked Mt. Whitney. I also got to hike my first class II mountain, Mt. Dana in Yosemite. I spent a great deal of my summer in the wilderness, rediscovering my love for nature and adventure. While I love the cultural opportunities that LA provides, sometimes I miss the Henry David Thoreau part of me that looks for the poetry in Nature and delights in walks by “Walden pond.”

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In September, I moved into the apartments right off-campus with my two roommates from last year and we’ve been having a lot of fun cooking and going on midnight grocery runs to Ralph’s. My boyfriend and his friends live next door so we do a lot of spontaneous potlucks where each person cooks one dish and we roll the boys’ dining table down the hall to our apartment so we can all eat together. (For example, last night’s barbeque chicken! Yum.)

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In other news, I’ve resumed my ushering duties with UCLALive, went to a Snow Patrol/Plain White T’s concert at the Wiltern, and made a visit to the Clark Library with Sigma Tau Delta. Academically, I finally started Latin 1 this quarter (yay) and just took my GRE Lit yesterday morning! Now that I’m halfway through Fall quarter and in the middle of application season, I figured I’ve neglected my blog enough. I don’t usually talk about my personal life on this blog (that’s not what it’s for), but applying for graduate school, deciding that its right for you and showing an admissions committee that you belong at X university, is a deeply personal process. And I’ve been thinking it might be worthwhile to share this experience with you, dear reader.

So prepare to hear a lot more about statements of purpose and nervous anxieties, apartment life and secret nerdy dreams about meeting Slavoj Zizek. I also plan to post a GRE guide (general and literature) for those of you looking to take the test within the next year so check back soon!

Burn the House Down

davidsedarisOn Wednesday, I ushered for a talk given by David Sedaris (author of Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and most recently When You are Engulfed in Flames) in which he detailed his hilarious personal experiences, primarily in France and Australia. Unfortunately I missed quite a bit of the show because it was a full house (the ushers were dismissed later than usual and my friend and I had to leave the show early in order to get a good spot in line for the book signing afterwards). However, Sedaris was outrageously funny yet also insightful during the part of the talk that I was able to see.

A memorable moment for me was when Sedaris talked about stove tops as a metaphor for life. He recalled a conversation with a friend in which the friend tells him that each person has four burners on their stove top: Family, Friends, Work, and Health. In order to be successful, a person will usually have to turn off one burner. The really successful turn off two. For Sedaris, those two burners were Health and Family. 

Since that night, I have been thinking a lot about my stove burners. What will I have to give up in order to achieve my goals? Although I continue to hope, I don’t really believe in having it all. There are too many examples to the contrary. So I guess the question becomes an impossible one: “What can I learn to live without?” Maybe the smartest people are the ones who answer, “Success,” but I don’t know many people who would actually go through with cutting that ambition out of their lives. I know that I tend to ignore Health until I get sick. Friends and Family also flicker occasionally when life gets too hectic. I worry that one day I’ll turn around and realise that I have nothing but Work to keep me warm at night.

The best humor tells us something true about ourselves. Even through the laughter, we learn to ask questions previously unthought of and start to think about our lives in more meaningful ways.

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 Which stove burner have you neglected lately?