HELLO, readers of Smart Women Write! I am delighted to be a part of this amazing team of writers and excited to share pieces of my life and work that may feel relevant to, or generate some productive dissonance with, your own.
A quick backstory for my first-ever post: As a lover of French and newcomer to Nashville, I began frequenting the Department of French & Italian at Vanderbilt University nearly 7 years ago. After a few conversations with professors and an audited course, I ended up joining the program as a fully-funded graduate student with a stipend to teach and research French literature. I started graduate school in August 2012 and 5 mind-blowing (and, at times, soul-crushing) years later came out on the other end with a PhD in French Studies and a graduate certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies. (You can read more about me here.)
There were many high adrenaline moments of fiery passion while I was crafting ideas and pouring my thoughts into notebooks and Word docs for the dissertation. But don’t let that smiling face to the right deceive you. There were also enormous amounts of anxiety and self-doubt. Imposter syndrome (the feeling that you aren’t up to snuff and everyone else is) often invades the graduate student psyche, and I found that writing about that emotional experience helped to alleviate, or at least observe, those negative feelings.
And so, while I like brainy, theoretical, research writing, this is not the only type of writing I do. In whatever journal I’ve chosen for the season (Shinola, Moleskine, etc.), I put pen to paper to analyze my dreams, recurring thoughts, emotions, relationships, record dinner and gift ideas, you name it. This type of writing has become a therapeutic activity for me, which was particularly useful while dissertating. It reminds me that my versatile voice and mood need not always be confined to academic style.
But also, reading about other peoples’ experiences on personal blogs or in places like Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Ed gave me the life-saving reassurance that I was not alone in having those intense emotions. This is one reason why I wanted to become a part of the fabulous SWW team. To pay it forward.
After I defended my dissertation in August 2017, I was fortunate enough to be invited to lecture in my department at Vanderbilt for a year. Lecturing over the past year has given me more experience in teaching and time to do research, but it has also meant putting in a lot of extra time applying for jobs and exploring career options. As I reread Tanya’s post on “The Long Twinge of Grief of the Left-Behind,” I absolutely identify with the experience of spending uncountable hours creating job documents, searching department websites, creating courses that will perfectly complement their current offerings, and occasionally obsessing over the wiki pages. Alas, navigating the job market has threatened the return of some of those unhealthy emotions fostered by working at a break-neck pace during grad school.
As might already be obvious, graduate school and the job search can be harsh lessons in self-care (or lack thereof). One of the most valuable pieces of advice I got during my 5 years as a graduate student came up in a meeting with an advisor at Vanderbilt’s Student Center for Wellbeing, where I was part of a graduate student writing group. This advisor reminded me that my mind could not roll across the stage on its own on commencement day. If I wanted to succeed–and survive–I had to care for the undetachable mind and body in order to cross that stage as a whole person.
While I tried to heed that advice as often as I could, it still felt that I too often had to sacrifice personal care in order to meet my goals. Which is why after the dissertation was over, I decided that I would majorly change my work pace and invest more time in the things that made me happy and brought me mental clarity. And these practices have better prepared me to take on new challenges (i.e., securing a real salary!). In the past 8 months, I have spent much more time doing yoga, meditating, cooking, baking, taking trips with my partner, and leisure reading LIKE IT’S GOING OUT OF STYLE. I had almost forgotten how much I loved to read for pleasure. I am officially back to my pre-grad-school-jostling between three or four books at once. My favorite author wrote that every great writer is first a great reader. I buy it. As you can see in the image below, my love for plunging into a good narrative has left hardly any room for even a cup of coffee on the side table that stands by my well-worn reading chair.
In 1965, Simone de Beauvoir (if you’re not yet acquainted, Beauvoir is a major figure in 20th-century French feminism) wrote a little-known essay titled “Que peut la littérature?” (“What can literature do?”). In it, she states that reading is an act that unveils the world. This act exposes the reader to another’s truth, which, for a moment, becomes your own without ceasing to be “other.” Good literature lets us step into someone else’s shoes.
For me, reading serves as self-care for a number of reasons. It reminds me that I am not alone and part of a vast network of life, which is both humbling and inspiring. It allows me to get lost in someone else’s story and to put my own in perspective. It also gives me hope and energy because time and time again I encounter stories that challenge my own ideologies surrounding societal constructs like sex, marriage, friendship, gender, race, success, and death. (Those really good, challenging stories are the ones that make me want to write.) And in moments of self-pity or narcissism, it often reminds me of all the suffering in the world and forces me to realize that my life just really isn’t that bad; and that a job is a job, and if I don’t end up with the absolutely-perfect-best-ever position, I will be just fine.
Currently, I am reading La Cheffe, roman d’une cuisinière by Marie Ndiaye, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, and Living in the Face of Death: The Tibetan Tradition, translated, edited and introduced by Glenn H. Mullin…because contemplating what feels like the next major step in your life can send you into an existential tailspin.
It seems that in both my academic and personal leisure reading, I lean heavily toward women writers. So that you can find out a little more about my inclinations, and perhaps to share some reading suggestions and inspire some self-care efforts in you, I’m providing a list of titles that I have loved over the last 8 months and why:
- Difficult Women AND Hunger by Roxane Gay. Everything Gay writes is gold. I was reading her memoir, Hunger, at the stroke of midnight when I transitioned into 2018. Every one of her short stories in Difficult Women holds a captivating plot about complex, strong female figures. I dare you not to read them in one sitting.
- Commonwealth by Anne Patchett. Of course I was drawn to this novel. It’s about the relationship between writing, the ownership of stories, and complicated (family and romantic) relationships, and Patchett does a seamless job of weaving together the relationships of 2 families over 5 decades.
- A Pig in Provence by Georgeanne Brennan. You may come to know through my future blog entries that I am a serious foodie, which is why I loved this book. Through sensual prose, Brennan recounts her years living in Provence and organizes her chapters by ingredients, which end in recipes that she whipped up while living in the French countryside. I’m taking a trip to France this summer and Brennan has me salivating already.
- Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón. I am also a lover of poetry, especially when it hits close to home. This poet is an ex-New Yorker who writes about her new roots in Kentucky. I, too, am from Kentucky and have started a house project there (more on that later, perhaps).
- The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat. I mentioned the mortality-obsessed existential tailspin, right? I was first introduced to Danticat in graduate school and have long admired her penchant for the pen. (I recently got to meet her in person–one of the advantages of working at a university is that you sometimes get to meet your literary idols!) This work weaves together personal accounts of death (with a lot of focus on the members of her family affected by the earthquake in Haiti, her place of birth, and family members’ deaths related to their immigrant status in the US) with other authors’ writings on “the final story” and only made me fall in love with her more.
- Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. Both a novel and poem, this type of poetic prose is my favorite way to have my mind blown. My beloved French author, Hélène Cixous, on whom my dissertation focuses, is incredibly poetic and often weaves mythological references into her writing. Cixous’s Medusa serves as a red thread in my dissertation, and Carson’s book examines the mythological figure, Geryon, aka Medusa’s grandson, in a modern light through first-person narrative. And so, this book and I were made for one another.
- Night thoughts by Sarah Arvio. Another collection of poetry, which was an obvious buy for me given its psychoanalytic approach. This poet crafts pieces based on her dreams, and it is through her writing and work with her psychoanalyst that she uncovers repressed trauma from her childhood (which she explains in the second half of this work).
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. This was a very empowering read for me. I consider myself an introvert and through Cain’s deep research and approachable prose, she shows the value of this (undervalued) personality type.
- La Chanson Douce by Leïla Slimani. This novel by Franco-Moroccan author, Slimani, has gotten major attention in France (it won the Prix Goncourt) and was almost immediately translated into English (The Perfect Nanny published with Penguin Books). Based on a true story, Slimani’s work speaks to the potentially fatal complications of being a woman “who wants it all” and suffers from her desire to be a wife and mother and also have lofty career aspirations while living at a break-neck pace in a big city…and much more. Notably, Slimani is the first Moroccan woman to receive this literary prize (and first woman to be pregnant at acceptance).
- You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson. Robinson is a comedian and podcaster at 2 Dope Queens. This one both made me laugh out loud and (re)consider the systemic racism that black people face on a daily basis. Given her black feminist stance, the author also discusses the extra dose of sexism to which black women are subject. I admire Robinson for achieving such balance in this piece. And to top it off, this book gave me a much-needed lesson in contemporary pop culture after ducking out of the world for several months to finish the diss!
Over the summer, I plan to continue reading furiously and also pick up the pace on a few writing projects. In my future posts, you can look forward to more pieces on self-care, how reading inspires my writing, mentors and role models in and outside of academia, international travel, and the unfolding of my experience on the academic job market.
Cheers to the journey ahead!