To begin with, a bit of advice…

always, always, no matter what, label the date on the back of your photographs if the developer doesn’t do so for you, because someday your parents will be celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary and you, as the daughter who has always been a little photo crazy, will decide it’s a good idea to make them a scrapbook as a gift, one photo a year for 35 years, and you will discover not only did YOU not date your own photos, nobody else in your family did either, and you will be stuck with these huge piles of photographs, spending endless amounts of time trying to decide if your brother was 4 or 5 in this photo, if your mom had long or short hair in 1980, being grateful every time a birthday cake shows up in a picture so you can count the candles on it and figure out the year, and then you’ll wish you’d just purchased the damned Waterford vase in the first place.

What are you doing this morning?

It’s an everything in between kind of day for as I attempt to get back on track with blogging after one of THOSE weeks at work.  You know what I mean, just, one of THOSE weeks.   Maybe someday I’ll post about ghostwriting for other people, I don’t know.  I think if I do I’ll probably just sound whiny.  So enough about that.  It might work on my post about memoir, which I’m still writing in my head.

This time of year, I miss school.  It’s like muscle memory or something. Oppressive, humid Augusts I will forever associate with returning to school, with fresh, unstained syllabi, new pens and pencils, the stacks and stacks of novels that make up an English major’s existence, the promise of long walks around campus with tall cups of coffee.  I always thought I’d pursue a Ph.D. and now its strange to me that I haven’t yet.  Of course, I still have time to make that decision, I guess – I padded my MFA coursework with a tremendous amount of literature courses that would probably count for something. Some of my instructors at Pittsburgh encouraged me to continue with a Ph.D.  but by the time I finished my MFA I’d had enough school for the time, just wanted the freedom to read what I wanted to read and write what I wanted to write.  When I did think about a doctorate, I thought I’d compare British Literature from before the Hardwicke Marriage Act to the literature written 5-10 years after.  I wonder if that’s been done to death?   I’ve told S. that if I can’t have children,  something I’ll know in the next couple of years, I’d go back for a Ph.D.  For some odd reason I’ve completely separated the two desires.  Like, a Ph.D. could substitute for progeny.  Like babies could substitute for books.  One of the reasons I didn’t apply for Ph.D. work is I’ve heard over and over again that you have to want a Ph.D. more than you want anything else in the whole world, the long hours, poor pay and unlikely chance at getting a position when complete mean you really can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.    And I do, after all, have a terminal degree, I could adjunct right now if I wanted to.  If I just start publishing, the academy will be open to me on my own terms.  So, there.  I’ve just thought through it.  A little less talk, a little more writing…

I’ve recently had a series of short stories in mind to write.  I used to swear I’d never be able to write short stories but these stories have simply come to me, presented themselves as facts, as things that I simply MUST write, and really, I don’t have any choice in the matter.  I’ve started them, just enough to sketch them out so I remember them, and have now taken to reading some short stories since really, I have no idea what short stories are supposed to DO.   I know there’s a short story reading project happening in the litblogging community but since I’m proverbially a day late and a dollar short, I missed the beginning.  I dug out one of my short story collections and so far I’ve read Raymond Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From” and Susan Sontag’s “The Way We Live Now,” in addition to KJ Steven’s “Grasshoppers.”  And it seems to me in all of these short stories the narrators act as witness bearers – they are there in order to witness the ordeal, or relationship, or whatever, of the other characters.  In Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From” (and can I just say I can’t believe this is truly one of the best short stories of the century!) the narrator is in rehab, a history of reckless behavior, infidelity, etc. behind him (Yes, we all know, it’s very very hard to be a man in this world. I get it.) Anyway, Carver’s narrator functions to tell his story while relaying the a story of his  friend, J.P.  We learn about J.P. falling in love with his wife, becoming a chimney sweep, fathering children, drinking more and more, alienating his family, abusing his wife, etc.  While J.P. shares his history with the narrator on the front porch of the rehab center, the narrator also recalls his own history of heavy drinking and infidelity, and his particular hatred for his girlfriend’s son.  On visiting day, J.P.’s wife comes to visit him and while the narrator obviously doesn’t have a visitor of his own, he plays around with the idea of calling his wife, or his girlfriend, or somebody.  And I only read this story once, but I think  its a little  about the potential for redemption.  But the point I’m trying to make is, it seems to me, and feel free to argue, that it is through WITNESSING JP and his wife that the narrator’s character changes.

In Susan Sontag’s “The Way We Live Now,” which has always been one of my favorite short stories, the central character is stricken with AIDS, and the story is equally about the way his friends react to his illness, as it is about him.   I could go on and on about the brilliane of this short story but time is getting short and I need to proof an essay, so again my point is the central character seems to fuel the action, but the narration is bearing witness to the events, instead of telling the story from the main character’s point of view.

In KJ’s short story, a young child out catching grasshoppers for a fishing trip with her father witnesses the suicide of her neighbor. Oh, there’s so much more to this story – the fact that she’s near the neighbor’s house when she she’s been warned not to, her difficulty in catching the grasshoppers, all this SYMBOLISM which KJ will say isn’t there so I’ll stop writing about it for now. But again, the character is bearing witness.

I’m confused, I guess, as to how short stories should function.  Admittedly, I’ve never paid that much attention to them because I never thought I’d be capable (or frankly, have the desire) to write them, and now I find myself with a whole darn collection of them in my head and really, no idea how they are supposed to function as literature.  My dad, my go-to man for literature questions, said it’s fine if the character’s change in short stories, but the actual point is to reveal something about character.  So I need to do a lot more short story reading, so if you have any recommended favorites, I would appreciate it.

Thank God, the audience breathes, that this blogger isn’t pursuing a Ph.D. – she doesn’t even understand the ART of the short story! 

In conclusion, bloglily ( is participating in compiling a list of the 100 best poems every written, and I’ve decided to do so as well – one poem a post for, well, probably 200 days since I tend to blog every other day.  So, first, my favorite poem ever, by William Butler Yeats:

hen You are Old
WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep  
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,  
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look  
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;  
How many loved your moments of glad grace,          5
And loved your beauty with love false or true;  
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,  
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.  
And bending down beside the glowing bars,  
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled   10
And paced upon the mountains overhead,  
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

I mean, can you even breath right now?  You’ll be seeing a lot of Yeats over the next 200 days from me.  He moves me to believe in greatness, and hope, and the grace of language.  He comforts me when I feel most alone – he’s one of the poets I’ve always thought of as a friend.  Which trust me, I know, makes absolutely no sense, but there you have it!

This entry was posted in Everything In Between, On the Nightstand, Top 100 Poems. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to To begin with, a bit of advice…

  1. Make Tea Not War says:

    I had a baby mid PhD and I did manage to finish in the end. I submitted my dissertation in April and I’m at last starting to feel like I’m recovering physically and emotionally. So it is possible to do the two at the same time but really not fun. It was quite a big strain on my husband, at least in the final stages, and I was an absolutely neglectful friend which I now quite regret.

    The other thing is a PhD is a very specific form of academic writing and I spent a lot of jumping through hoops to make it conform to the PhD conventions which I found rather sterile- really in retrospect I might have actually have preferred to have writen a book.

  2. bloglily says:

    Let me say first that I love Yeats and yes, that poem leaves me breathless. Thank you so much for posting it; a little oasis of loveliness.

    Your questions about short stories are very interesting. I remember being told once that if there is a continuum of literary expression in which poetry is at one end and epic novels are at the other, the short story is closer to the poem than the novel. The idea, I suppose, is that the short story is more compressed, relies more on images to express meaning, and maybe makes one point, rather than a series of them. (I’m not sure about that last thing, typing it it seemed wrong.) For a long time, I found short stories unsatisfying. Thinking of them as being more like poems made that easier. I do like Joyce (maybe because the stories are a bit longer), and some Carver is quite moving. I joined that short story group on kate’s blog, but haven’t begun the story yet either. I don’t think there have been any posts yet — maybe you should read it and we can head over there to ask people to talk about what a short story does.

    Still, I have the feeling you are well on your way to figuring it out — sounds like today’s your day to do that.

    xxoo, BL

  3. Emily says:

    You and I must be living parallel lives. I’ve always felt the same way about short stories and have never been a huge fan of reading them, let alone writing them. Then, suddenly, I was hit about 8 months ago with the NEED to write ghost stories. They just seemed to pop up in my head out of nowhere, and now I’ve been exploring other types of short stories.

    I’m not, as I say, a big reader of the short story, but I recommend anything by Wallace Stegner.

  4. Make Tea – Thanks for sharing your ph.d experience – what you write about conforming to particular standards reminds me exactly why I want to remain out in the ‘real’ world for a little bit longer. A friend of mine actually defended her thesis when she was 9 months pregnant…she said she’ll never be sure if the profs just eventually took pity on her or not.

    Bloglily – I’m looking forward to reading more Carver. I do know he’s considered today’s master short story reader…I just didn’t particularly enjoy the one I read. I think it’s a good idea to make our way over to Kate’s blog for some short story discussion – I definately need some help with this.

    Emily – parallel lives, you say? I can’t imagine anyone I’d rather share that with :-). And I think it’s nice when stories just pop up and demand to be written…it takes a lot of the waffling out of the equation, you know? My short stories are simply there, demanding notice. Not a thing I can do about it. Thanks for the Stegner suggestion…I’ve heard a lot about him, so I think I’ll check him out of the library!

  5. litlove says:

    Hi Courtney! Like Ms Make Tea I had my baby a month after I began my PhD and my feeling is that one or the other is nice but both together are a nightmare. They’ re both acts of creativity, but biology, I found played havoc with artistic creativity. I mean, you make the best of these things, but it was completely exhausting.

    Short stories are interesting as I, too, have never felt any urge to write one, and don’t think I could. For that reason I’m really looking forward to Kate’s short story group as I’d like to understand more about how they work. Like bloglily, I don’t think it’s begun yet (the 8th August, I think) and so there’s still time to read the story (it took me an hour or so, no more). In the meantime I look forward to hearing more about the short stories you are writing – sounds exciting!

  6. Litlove,
    I think I’ll make my way over to Kate’s site today and see what’s happening. I’ll at least listen to the conversation, even if I don’t partake in it myself immediately. And thanks for sharing your thoughts on motherhood and pursuing a Ph.D. I think it’s the time of year more than anything…I feel like I should be returning to school, you know? But ideally I’d like to return as an instructor with a long line of publications in about 11 years…and I need to remember that plan and just find some discipline in all this heat to buckle down and work on my own.

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