For some reason, it’s very satisfying to see the weather forecast graphic superimposed on my shirt. My personal triumph was not falling off the chair, which was tall and capricious.
I don’t know why I applied to graduate school. Where did the idea come from? I have a vague memory of being encouraged by one of my college professors, but the particulars of the conversation have dissolved over time. Maybe there was no conversation, and I simply dreamed the whole thing. I attended a small college in rural British Columbia, where ‘grad school’ wasn’t a frequent topic. I think I was one of the only students on campus who actually used the interlibrary loan system. This may be an exaggeration, but the librarians were always surprised when I filled out request forms. I was painfully shy, but for some reason, I enjoyed giving presentations. When I stood in front of the room, I could feel myself growing more assured. Had any of these students approached me in the hallway, I would have struggled to make small talk with them, to smile and nod at the appropriate moments and ask suitable questions. But now that they were all looking at me as a group, I found that I had no trouble speaking. In fact, I was so full of energy that I could barely contain myself. This, I imagined, was what it felt like to be a professor. I wanted in.
Applying to graduate school felt like one of my first real decisions. I went to college because my parents told me to. I took a job at a grocery store because I needed money, and my friends—all of whom already had jobs—were starting to look at me rather suspiciously. I went on dates because I was expected to. All of this seemed like what humans did. Graduate school was illogical. I knew that it would cost a lot, that it would take a long time, and there was no guarantee that I’d emerge with anything close to a job. It was an absurd leap of faith. I had never really gambled on anything before. I hated surprises. That’s why I still can’t figure out why I decided to apply. The move was entirely out of character for me. I don’t remember filling out any of the forms, which makes me wonder if some alternate personality did it for me.
My first graduate seminar focused on the gothic novel. I felt entirely out-classed by the other students. They had attended well-known schools, and some of them even had teaching experience. I was reading high theory for the first time, and I couldn’t make any sense of it. When someone mentioned Foucault, I thought they were talking about a place. I remember writing a despondent email to a friend back home: Everyone here is hyper-ironic. They talk about bands that I’ve never heard of. I don’t understand them. I received a B+ on my first essay, which seemed okay, until someone told me that a B+ was a failing grade in this program. I had to meet with the grad chair to discuss my underwhelming progress. He asked me why I hadn’t offered to revise the paper. I didn’t know that we could. He smiled kindly, and gave me some advice. Memory is so selective. I could describe the décor of his office in detail, and tell you precisely what his voice sounded like, the charcoal shade of his blazer, the books on the shelf behind him—but I can’t remember what he told me.
After that, I began to ask questions. As I’d suspected before, grad school was illogical. Nobody issued helpful instructions. Everything had a double meaning, and rules, like texts, were subject to interpretation. The most terrifying thing about grad school is that you can do anything. You can write an essay on cartoons, or marginalia. You can be actively social, or stay at home, reading and eating soup. You can attend expensive conferences, or spend all of your time at the pub, getting wasted and obsessing over a footnote. You can graduate with a near-perfect ignorance of any literature written before the twentieth century. College has guidelines, prerequisites, and course counselling. Grad school is more of a choose-your-own-adventure novel with surprisingly high stakes. What’s comforting is that nobody else really knows what they’re doing, either. Imposter syndrome feels like your problem, until you realize that everyone is thinking the same thing.
These anxious years were quite remarkable. I learned how to teach. I learned how to drink. These two practices informed each other. We shared horror stories about teaching, and vented our academic frustrations over endless pitchers. We marked as a community. The smallest victory deserved a celebration, and often, we’d find ourselves at parties whose origins were obscure. Someone had defended something—that’s all we knew. It was always exciting when a professor threw a party, because the boundaries would crumble ever-so-slightly, and you’d realized that they were far from untouchable. Like you, they were surprisingly fragile, funny, and prone to accident. I remember one party in particular, hosted by a writer. I ended up in his basement, trying to put the moves on someone who told me: I usually prefer bigger guys. The rejection didn’t sting, because I was having such a good night. We walked upstairs, and saw two writers lying on their backs, gently kicking each other. This is a foot war, one of them said. Then they both dissolved into laughter.
Grad school nudged me into trying new things. I went on a lot of dates—not because I felt the obligation to be social, but because I could tell my friends about them later. Most of us were single, or in volatile relationships that changed every month. We went out every other night, in spite of looming deadlines. I learned how to dance. I stumbled back to the Skytrain station, burning my mouth on pizza. I dressed as a French maid for Halloween (one picture survives). I got lost in Stanley Park, but eventually found my way home. I ate sticky noodles that you had to cut with scissors, and pink steamed taro buns, and octopus. I had incredible conversations in every conceivable space: theatres, raw galleries, bookstores, unfinished basements, patios lit by Christmas lights, shared offices that smelled of coffee, the backseats of cars, bathroom floors, the hinge of the accordion bus (while holding on to both sides). I read until my brain hurt, until I could barely see. I fell into theoretical rabbit-holes, but the perplexity was often enjoyable. I learned how to take criticism, and how to read beyond my own experience. I discovered the joy of footnotes, and the power of indices.
None of this would have happened if I’d decided not to gamble. Much of the current conversation about grad school attempts to deconstruct the various myths attached to it. Professors are told to actively discourage students from applying. The reality is that there are too many grad students and too few tenure-track jobs. The chances of getting a position are slim, and even if you are one of the lucky few, the job isn’t going to accord with your fantasy. Departments are increasingly being forced to run on shoe-string budgets. Teaching loads are rising, and academic positions are being cut while administrative positions are increasing tenfold. It’s becoming more difficult to offer a range of courses, and disciplines such as philosophy and medieval studies—whose use-value can’t easily be calculated—are struggling to survive. Disciplines that interrogate, that ask hard questions, that encourage speculation, are being financially strangled in the hopes that they will stop arguing. In such a hostile climate, grad school may seem like a ridiculous luxury.
But the truth is that we need M.A. students more than ever, because they are the creative thinkers, the writers and activists and artists and general shit-disturbers. Grad school may seem counter-productive, but what it affords you is time and community: two things that any creative person needs in order to grow, practice, and teach others. The chance of landing a tenure-track job isn’t particularly high, but neither is the chance of becoming a successful writer, or dancer, or director. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. What’s really counter-productive is thinking of an M.A. degree as if it were a casino chip that you can cash in for a job. The time that you spend thinking, talking, drinking, falling down, pushing yourself—that’s what grad school can offer you. Not a key to a job, but foundation for critical thought, curiosity, creativity. It can actually change your life. It most certainly changed mine.
As the fox says to the little prince: C’est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante. You need to give yourself time. Like anyone who wants to become a writer or an actor, you should walk into this with your eyes open, realizing that you can’t glimpse the ending. There’s nothing romantic about living on noodles and watching all of your friends apply for mortgages. But the time that you spend in grad school can be transformative. The people that you meet could become life-long friends. And learning how to read carefully, to think critically, to argue, interrogate, and raise hell—these are transferable skills. You can use them anywhere. Poems resist easy answers, and for that reason, we need to pay attention to them. Borges remembers wandering through the streets with his fellow students, drunk on the sound of Anglo-Saxon fricatives. Words old and new demand our respect, and our time. Like desire, they’re a gamble. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you reach out. You might get slapped, or kissed, or ignored. Anything’s possible in that attenuated moment, when you decide to do the thing that scares you the most.
In 1997, while channel-surfing, I came across an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A blonde girl in a leopard-print jacket was fighting a robot. The situation struck me as ridiculous, and I went in search of something more reasonable, like Star Trek: Voyager. The same thing happened years later, when I first came upon an episode of Farscape. I saw a man wearing goggles and a cape, smeared with some kind of alien jelly, and thought: this is way too silly. Both shows venture into ridiculous territory, which is part of their charm. In 1998, I remember talking briefly with a classmate about the show. I still hadn’t seen a whole episode, but she was describing how a character gets turned into a rat. We were studying Metamorphoses, and had grown accustomed to character transformations, but this brought me up short. ”Really?” I asked. ”A rat?” My friend nodded. ”They even talk about getting her a little wheel to play on.”
I wouldn’t think about Buffy again for a while, in spite of the fact that several of my friends were hooked on the show. DVD sets weren’t as common at this time, and if you didn’t manage to tape an episode, there was no way to re-watch it. Although the program had a dedicated fan-base, it never achieved the influence of something like Friends. It wasn’t until 2001 that I found myself engaged in a real conversation about the show. I was at a bar in Vancouver, and the drag show had just ended. We sat in a circle of chairs around the stage, drinking under dim light. A friend began talking about the episode which had just aired (“Seeing Red.”) He told me that I absolutely had to see it. ”You’ll love it. There’s magic, and lesbians, and–honestly, you’ll love it.”
At the time, I was sharing an apartment in a tenement building with two roommates. Giant spiders would crawl through a hole in the corner of the front door, providing a source of entertainment for my cat. I was living in a new city for the first time, and the loneliness was overpowering. I needed a distraction, so I bought Season One of Buffy. I watched all twelve episodes in a day. The pilot wasn’t amazing, but by the time I got to “The Witch,” I was hooked. The Scooby Gang seemed more real than my bedroom, with its brutalist futon and doll furniture from Zellers. I took the cash I’d put aside for groceries and used it to buy Season Two, which I viewed in a swoon of ecstasy while eating noodles. By the time Season Seven began, I was living with the friend who’d recommended Buffy in the first place. We watched the season premiere in reverential silence.
“Grave” was the episode that made me want to write about the show. The dialogue between Willow and Xander was so raw and beautiful. Both characters had already been through so much, yet they could still surprise each other. I wrote an essay over the Christmas holiday, and submitted it to Slayage. The essay would eventually become Blood Relations, a book I published in 2005. At the time, scholarship on Buffy was still developing, and very few people took it seriously. Fellow grad-students would often laugh, or stare at me in confusion, when I told them what I was working on. I originally intended to write my dissertation on the show. I suggested this to my supervisor with some measure of trepidation, since I only knew of one other person who’d done this, in a different discipline. I was surprised when he said: ”Go for it.” In the end, I wrote something different, but his initial support was invaluable.
I’m not sure why I haven’t taught Buffy until now. I think I needed a long break from the text that had consumed me for years. I offered a directed reading on the show a few years ago, but because it was a bounded project with a highly motivated student, I didn’t feel the need to jump back into the series. It wasn’t until last semester that I thought about delivering a standard course. As I sat down to re-watch Season One, I was worried that I’d hate it. Instead, I found it charming and delightful, just as I had before. There’s enormous potential in those first few episodes. The show continues to thrill and move me, even when I know exactly what’s going to happen.
I can’t say for certain what makes Buffy so interesting, or even if it deserves the amount of critical attention that it’s received from academics and fans alike. I do know that Joss Whedon is a masterful storyteller and director. None of his characters are truly safe, and for that reason, they all matter. He finds comedy in the darkest of moments, and is willing to confront pain and death in a way that shocks us, because it is bare and close enough to touch. The show gives us magic, only to reveal how terrible it can be. A lie told in Season Two is completely forgotten, until it resurfaces in Season Seven. A climactic battle with a cyborg is followed by a sumptuous dream about pillow-forts, Greek characters, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. One episode changes the credit-sequence in order to show the effect of a spell, while another tells a story in complete silence.
I hope my students are engaged by the show. It occurs to me that certain images from 1997 may require further explanation: a card catalogue, a dial-up modem, a diskette. The episode “I Robot, You Jane”–the first one that I ever saw–is visibly paranoid about technology that seems ancient today. If Smartphones had existed then, Moloch probably would have conquered the world.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about that nebula called “genre fiction.” This category (what Buffy Summers might call an “uber-genre”), created by publishers, includes everything from the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the dystopian fantasy novels of George R.R. Martin. ”Genre” is supposed to define a type of literature, but in this case, it’s come to define “anything that is not realist fiction.” In much the same way that whiteness escapes classification, realist fiction escapes genre. In a bookstore, novels are classified on the basis of their content. Fantasy, science-fiction, and romance novels have their own section. But what about the rest, simply called “literature?” Margaret Atwood has defined herself as a writer of speculative fiction, but her novels are shelved in the literature section. Philip Pullman has strenuously avoided being categorized as a writer of fantasy, but that’s where you’ll find his work.
More than half of my creative writing students tend to write genre fiction of some kind. They’re interested in magic, or technology, or suspense, or narratives for young people. Many of them read exclusively within a single genre, such as the high fantasy novel, or the forensic thriller, and I spend much of my time trying to broaden their focus. They resist, just as I would have resisted similar efforts when I was in my late-teens and reading fantasy fiction almost exclusively. Writers like what they like, and have trained themselves to both emulate and critique the work of other writers who do what they do (or what they’d like to do). They often feel as if they don’t have time to experience new works, especially when those works are outside of their comfort zone. I understand when people complain that “genre fiction” is taking over, because I’ve seen this myself. Vampires, werewolves, fairies, and serial killers have become enduring popular archetypes. It’s possible that there are now more books about vampires, werewolves, fairies, and serial killers, than there are books about virtually anything else. I can see why this makes academics nervous.
What rankles me, though, is the criticism that “genre fiction” as a whole (as if it were possible to reduce myth, speculation, and suspense to a single category) is poorly-written. I hear this frequently, and not just from people who don’t like genre fiction, but also from people who love it. There’s the sense that popular literature is kind of awful, but we read it, because there’s a pleasure to be had in something that doesn’t challenge us. Writers whose work crosses into the literature category are often given double-edged compliments about how they’ve transcended the constraints of a particular genre. Critics celebrate the novels of J.K. Rowling because of their wide appeal–i.e., even adults read them–and this largely ignores the tradition of thoughtful children’s literature that has always been consumed by adults. The Song of Ice and Fire, by Martin, is often praised for its avoidance of stereotypes. What makes it such a great series, in the opinion of certain critics, is how it deconstructs the conventions of fantasy. In essence: even if you hate fantasy as a genre, you’ll like this, because it’s closer to being realist fiction (with dragons…and shape-shifting). This ignores the long tradition of fantasy writing that doesn’t revolve around a princess in need of saving, or which still finds ways to subvert that age-old plot. A dozen writers come to mind whose fantasy is just as gritty, unflinching, and critical of stereotypes, while still presenting the uncanny, or the marvelous.
I can’t imagine saying: you know, I just hate literature, because it all sucks. I read one novel with an unrealistic plot, and now, I avoid books altogether. The reality is that, in the literature section–as well as in the “genre” section–there are great books, unremarkable books, and terrible books. Yes, there are too many books about vampires, werewolves, serial killers, and fairies. There are also too many books about people finding themselves, meet-cute romances, family strife, coming-of-age, war, betrayal, loss of innocence, death, grief, transformation, and redemption. Some of these stories are amazing, some mediocre, and some genuinely awful. We tend to follow the same literary tracks, and if those tracks belong to a werewolf rather than a cute twenty-something couple, what’s the difference, so long as the story moves us?
Certainly, publishers are paying far more attention to fantasy and young-adult genres than they used to. These have become powerful markets, and young-adult literature is now dominated by fantasy fiction: my boyfriend’s a werewolf, my boyfriend’s a fallen angel, my boyfriend’s an incubus…supernatural angst has become incredibly popular with teen and ‘tween readers. The same rule of averages applies to these novels: there are the good, the meh, and the ugly. If you reject supernatural teen fiction out of hand, you’ll miss a lot of great stories. If you reject high fantasy because of its supposed devotion to stereotypes (and what writing doesn’t employ stereotypes of some kind?), you’ll miss plenty of evocative, challenging, and feminist work.
Patton Oswalt recently observed that web series have come to closely resemble network television: there are standout shows, passable shows, and cringe-worthy shows. Eventually, networks are going to have to cooperate with independent directors and producers, instead of dictating conventions, because technology is making it easier to tell new stories. As a creative writer, the best diet is to read widely, in multiple genres, both classical and contemporary. Detective fiction has a lot to teach about tension, just as fantasy can reveal the marvelous spaces in which the “real” world collides with myth. Young-adult literature knows a great deal about wonder and pain, and also reminds us that the division between child/adult is often a flimsy one (and that children and adults tend to love the same kinds of stories, just differently packaged).
The better question for emerging writers who love genre fiction, then, isn’t “why would you want to write about a fairy serial killer,” but rather, “what makes your fairy serial killer different from the rest?”
* image (c) Clyde Caldwell
Pile of Bones, the first volume in the Parallel Parks Series, is now available for preorder
I was talking with a colleague recently about LGBT-representation on television. The Advocate has announced that queer visibility is at an all-time high in 2012, with shows such as Glee, Modern Family, and The New Normal acting as lightning-rods for controversy. I can remember in 1998, when a summary of Will and Grace first appeared in the “new fall shows” issue of TV Guide. I mentioned it to my mother, and we both agreed that it probably wouldn’t succeed, given the recent demise of Ellen as a sitcom. The last season of that show had been painful to watch, as it shifted from a Friends-style comedy to an issue-driven narrative about Ellen’s coming-out. Various episodes did attempt to break down queer stereotypes, and a few were just imaginative exercises (I’m thinking of the episode when the world turns gay, and heterosexuals become a minority). The problem was that these last episodes just weren’t funny. They were necessary, and path-breaking in their way, but the show lost that bubbly, neurotic humor that had made it popular with viewers in the first place.
Will and Grace had a certain edge to it in 1998, when the creators obviously didn’t know if the program would survive for a second season. Jack McFarland’s character was an out-and-proud gay man who stole every scene, narrating his sexual encounters in a way that never failed to make Will profoundly uncomfortable. One episode actually centered around Will calling Jack a “fag” in public, and this was treated with a unique combination of humor and political outrage on Jack’s part (I love when he quips to Will that “a rolling fag gathers no moss.”) But as the show grew in popularity, Jack became more of a living performance-piece and less of a relatable character. Will continued to have the least amount of sex possible, and Jack’s escapades were always discussed after-the-fact. The show was roundly praised for its commitment to “breaking down stereotypes,” but even the suggestion of physical intimacy on Will’s part was treated as a “very special episode,” and Jack couldn’t enter a room without a song-and-dance number.
The state of queer television in 2012 is uneven. Two wildly popular and acclaimed shows—Glee and Modern Family—boast a number of queer characters. On Glee, the queer and questioning characters practically outnumber the straight ones. But the frame of the high school narrative also forces this show to trade in visible stereotypes: the jock, the cheerleader, the over-achiever, the gay kid who loves show-tunes. In one episode, Kurt mentions that he has “all the sex appeal of a baby penguin,” and this is prophetic, because his relationship with Blaine depends on an almost complete lack of sexual chemistry. Their courtship is delightful, but once they’re actually together, the show proceeds to overwhelm them with story-arcs (bullying, coming out, bi-curiosity, alcohol, blended families) which all serve to distract them from the fact that they’re actually young people in love. The infamous “sex episode” garnered a lot of hysterical criticism, but all it really showed was two couples—one gay, the other straight—engaged in consensual cuddling.
Modern Family tries to make Cam and Mitchell an interesting couple, but the fact remains that their storylines are often the least engaging on the show. Lilly goes to her first dance recital! Cam refuses to clean the house! There’s something weirdly archaic about their side of the family, as if they’ve been frozen in an episode of I Love Lucy. Cam’s dramatic flair is played for laughs, rather than simply being a part of who he is. I watch him, and know—without a doubt—that this is a straight man playing an exaggerated version of a femme gay man, instead of a gay man who happens to be femme. In spite of everyone supposedly being comfortable with their relationship, the two characters rarely touch. Cam is sentimental, but not sexy, and Mitchell has no interest in anything other than his job. They also live in a world without lesbians or trans folk, while Gloria and Mannie represent the only people of color on the show. Gloria’s grasp of the English language is the butt of many jokes, when in fact, she speaks English fluently, while her family-members don’t speak a word of Spanish.
The two most recent entries are The New Normal and Partners (I’ll be astonished if the latter survives for a season). The New Normal focuses on a white gay couple who want to adopt a baby. This desire emerges when one of them sees a baby while shopping at Barney’s, and realizes that this is the one accessory he doesn’t yet possess. The show seems intent on offending virtually everyone—gay, straight, Latino/a, African-American, Asian-American, Republican, Democrat—by popularizing a character who constantly engages in racist and homophobic invectives. As critics have pointed out, the grandmother (played by gay-rights advocate Ellen Barkin) is not an adaptation of Archie Bunker, because her politics don’t serve to ostracize her in any way. In fact, she emerges as a standout character, likeable and fun, who needs to be ‘educated’ in the most pedantic way possible by those around her. The New Normal suffers from the same problem that Ellen did in 1998—it’s just not that funny. The episodes tend to be patronizing, and the lines are so heavily scripted that the actors can barely deliver them. All I can say about Partners is that it’s one long gay joke, set to a relentless laugh-track. The only likeable character is a male nurse, who reminds me of Butchie from “Steps” (a Kids in the Hall sketch that was ahead of its time).
I’m left with a lot of questions. What happened to shows like Queer As Folk and The L-Word? Why are gay characters only allowed to have sex on HBO and Showtime? Where are the bears, gay geeks, lesbians, and trans folk? A few programs, like The LA Complex and Political Animals, have potential, but North-American TV continues to lag behind its European counterpart (Spanish programs, such as Aqui no hay quien viva and Fisica o quimica, managed to portray sexy and realistic queer relationships within two restrictive frameworks: the “zany neighbors” comedy and the high-school drama). Canada’s Degrassi had more queer sparks than Glee.
The reality seems to be that North-American viewers are ready to tolerate queer people on television, but aren’t ready for same-sex romance and intimacy. That comfort level is never going to appear, because gay sex makes straight people uncomfortable. Yet Queer As Folk, in spite of its uneven track record (i.e., no people of color seemed to live in Pittsburgh) was a hit with both gay and straight audiences. It feels like queer representation was less visible, but more interesting, during the period in which QAF, The L-Word, and Six Feet Under flourished. At this point, I’d rather have a few shows with fascinating (and sexually-active) queer characters, than a pile of shows meant to demonstrate that queer is “the new normal.” Queer has never been normal—that’s why it’s called queer. That’s the point. I don’t want to watch a bunch of gay people trying to act normal. I want to watch gay people who acknowledge the fact that their desire makes them different, as it has for thousands for years. Winning civil rights doesn’t mean that we want to emulate straight people. It means that we want legal protection for our relationships, and the price of that shouldn’t be cultural conformity.
I’ve been thinking lately about the pressures of being a teacher. Before entering the tenure-track system, I worked as a part-time instructor (both in Canada and the United States) and as a teaching assistant. I had about eight years of training under my belt, and figured that the transition to teaching full-time wouldn’t be so bad. I was quite wrong about this. Luckily, I received two great pieces of advice from a colleague, and although I didn’t fully understand what she meant at the time, I think I’m starting to figure it out. 1) You can’t do this job perfectly, so be prepared to let yourself off the hook when you make mistakes. 2) You can’t expect your students to think like you, because—in all likelihood—you were an unusual student. The purpose of teaching isn’t to make students think like you, but rather, to offer them a range of possibilities that will stretch their imaginations and challenge their convictions.
Many instructors are perfectionists. We work for years to develop an extremely specific area of research, and the purpose of our dissertation is to show that we understand this area from top to bottom. Even the footnotes have to be perfect. I was always the kid who possessed obscure knowledge about weird topics. Ask me about dragons, I wanted to say. Ask me about igneous rocks. Ask me about medieval fortifications. For many of us, this process of collecting knowledge began early. I would drift in and out of conversations, barely listening, until someone mentioned one of my special interests. Then—boom—I was lecturing, describing, drawing diagrams, tracing etymologies. My brain was full of lesson-plans. I couldn’t do long division to save my life, or describe the working parts of a car, but I could go on all night about psychoanalysis, Celtic mythology, or the Dragonlance books. My little masteries were bizarre and didn’t hold much real-world utility, but they were mine, and I loved them.
Professors are not expected to be masters of their chosen subjects. Perhaps, during the last decade of their career, we imagine that they know the field inside-and-out. But young, brash scholars will always emerge to challenge their work. You simply can’t know everything—but, for some reason, we keep trying to. It takes a lot of work just to stay a few steps ahead of your students. You can read day and night, but you’re going to make mistakes. I still remember when I mixed up Jerusalem with Constantinople while talking about the crusades in a medieval literature class. It was 2002, but I recall exactly how it felt to be corrected by a student. He wasn’t smarmy about it. Nobody snickered. But I felt deep shame, as if I’d just been caught in a terrible lie. Imposter syndrome kicked in with a vengeance, and I began to ask myself what I was doing here, what qualified an idiot like me to be teaching these students, many of whom were only a few years younger than myself.
Over time, though, I’ve learned to let myself off the hook. Many of my colleagues have the same fears, the same powerful insecurities. We think that everyone else is doing it perfectly, but they aren’t. Why is it so difficult for us to grasp the same lesson that children learn on Sesame Street? People make mistakes—it’s the only way to learn and move forward. Now, when I begin a semester, I think: you will mess up. It’s unavoidable. Aiming for perfection gives you kidney stones. But if you leave yourself room to make mistakes, it suddenly becomes easier to breathe.
The second piece of advice, like the first, is one that I still have to work on understanding. You are not your students. This applies to both professors and graduate teaching-assistants, for whom the divide between teacher/student can seem all the more blurry. Academia involves a lot of writing, research, and conferencing, but ultimately, it’s about students. Our job is to explain complex, sometimes hopelessly obscure things to a room full of people who have never heard of x before. Some of these students will be engaged and write smart essays that challenge our own understanding of the topic. Some will be intimidated. Some will be bored. Some will cut class and hand in shoddy work. Some will want attention. Some will cheat. Some will infuriate you. Some will make you doubt that you know anything at all. Some will make you uncomfortable. Some will try to be your friend. Some will dislike you immediately, for no reason that you can fathom. Some will criticize you. Some will fall asleep in the front row. Some will ignore their own potential. Some will refuse to learn anything. A few will become professors, and may remember you fondly, or with ire.
What my colleague meant—I think—is that you cannot expect all of your students, or even 10% of them, to act like you did in college. It’s okay to be frustrated when a student hands in sub-par work, or neglects to show up. But it’s not okay to start talking about students as if they were a herd of trouble-makers who all act the same way. It isn’t too difficult for me to remember how I felt when I was 19 or 20, but as I get older, this imaginative leap is going to take a lot more effort. All I can really do is give students my empathy and my support, while still pushing them to do their best work. If a few of them—if one of them, even—happens to be interested in Anglo-Saxon poetry, or Byzantine architecture, that’s great. But I have to recognize that most of them are going to struggle with centuries-old material, that they’re more likely to dismiss it than to embrace it. I can make it as sexy as possible, but there’s no sense in losing sleep over the fact that some of them simply don’t care.
Even as an adult, I feel a blush of shame when someone corrects me, or when I fail visibly at something that I thought I’d mastered. My impulse is to shout you’re wrong, then run in the opposite direction, or to close my eyes and pretend that I can teleport away from this suddenly fraught situation. I need my little masteries. It’s not exactly a vice, because it pretty much secured me a full-time job. But I’ve learned to recognize that my brain isn’t a super hero. Learning languages has really helped me in this regard, because it’s astonishing how wrong you can be when you’re trying to say something. It’s often said that teachers make terrible students, because we tend to argue in favor of our own understanding, our own convictions. I think I’m getting better at making mistakes, though. I’ve practically mastered it.
I’m currently re-reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon’s novel about a teen on the autism spectrum who decides to investigate the death of his neighbor’s dog. It’s often lauded as a must-read text for parents with kids on the spectrum, in spite of the fact that autism is never mentioned by any of the characters. Given how much contemporary literature on autism chooses to emphasize the “struggle” of parents, what I love most about Haddon’s book is its distinct lack of emphasis on adult characters. Christopher Boone spends most of his time struggling with adults who are hostile, unpredictable, and selfish. His logic unnerves them, even as it exposes their own flawed motivations. Critics have noted that a strength of the book is its complete unwillingness to name autism, which makes Christopher a more accessible character.
I wouldn’t call this a strength. In fact, it reminds me of how everyone involved with the film Brokeback Mountain avoided the word gay, instead calling it a “star-crossed romance.” Christopher has traits that are commonly associated with autism, but this doesn’t make him universal. The idea that the majority of kids on the spectrum will recognize themselves in Christopher is wrong, because every kid is different. A diagnosis of autism doesn’t mean that you’re obsessed with prime numbers, or that you can’t stand to be touched. These symptoms do appear, but they can be extremely varied. Many people on the spectrum are terrible with numbers, but have a sharp affinity for words. Many have sensory issues, but these don’t necessarily revolve around touch. The majority of kids on the spectrum aren’t math savants, in spite of the way that popular culture has enshrined this uncommon peculiarity.
That said, I find myself easily reliving my childhood through Christopher. Had I been born 10 years later, I probably would have been diagnosed with some type of autism-spectrum disorder. Asperger’s was still a relatively uncommon diagnosis at the time, since autism was associated with a complete lack of verbal skills. As a child, I had no problem finding the right word, but the act of communication itself could be extraordinarily difficult for me. Silence was my default. Like Christopher, I had issues with touching, noises, crowds, textures, eye contact, and sarcasm. Even today, it’s my habit to take people at their word. If I don’t know a person very well, I’ll easily miss a sarcastic tone or facial expression, and simply assume that what they’re saying is true (I once believed that Lionel Ritchie was in my friend’s bathroom, signing autographs). Over time, I picked up some of the more obvious social cues, but many of them still elude me. I laugh when I’m not supposed to, and fail to express emotion when I should. That doesn’t mean I’m not feeling it—my face simply doesn’t express it.
Textbook definitions of Asperger’s and autism-spectrum disorders are shockingly inaccurate, even after decades of research. The idea that people on the spectrum “lack empathy” proves that the majority of psychiatrists don’t actually understand what empathy is. We aren’t born with this. Children don’t naturally empathize with each other. They learn this skill over time. Kids on the spectrum may have a more difficult time learning this, because they’re engrossed in their own thoughts. Their minds run hot, to the point where it may feel as if others must simply know what they’re thinking, in the same way that a radio turned to maximum volume would be audible to everyone nearby. As an adult (and I use that term loosely), I still have the tendency to begin conversations in the middle, as if whatever I’ve been thinking about for the last 24 hours will be plainly understood. The rules of conversation often confuse me. I never quite know when it’s my turn to talk, or how I should respond to rhetorical statements. I’ve learned that most people don’t want to talk for hours about Roman sanitation, Firefly, or the Spanish subjunctive mood, so I try to avoid going on about my special interests.
The benefit of working in academia—and of being a writer—is that both of these professions are full of quirky people. My weirdness goes undetected, because nearly everyone I know is the type of person who hates parties but loves archives. I have noticed, though, a certain defensiveness towards the mention of autism in this environment. More than once, someone has told me that “you don’t have autism, you’re just an academic.” Sometimes, though, “quirkiness” is no longer an accurate description of one’s behavior. John Elder Robison describes a sliding scale that goes from “nerd” to “autistic,” with various spots in-between.
People with Asperger’s are generally called “high-functioning,” but there are days when I feel practically non-functional. Some people on the spectrum have so many environmental sensitivities that they can barely leave the house, while others have to deal with a mild-to-moderate constellation of annoyances, ever-present but manageable. When I’m in public, I often want to scream, cover my earls, curl into a ball, or hit something. It takes a lot of willpower to avoid doing any of these things, which is why visiting a crowded grocery store leaves me feeling exhausted. Some people on the spectrum can’t control their anxiety. Mine is a pit-bull whose leash I’ve barely got a grip on. He always gets loose eventually, and all I can do is try to keep him away from populated areas. The anxiety stems from too much sensory input, or from anticipating a stressful situation that I can’t control. When I’m tired, sick, or worried, my social phobias kick into high gear. Then I have to come down by doing something familiar, like reading poetry aloud, conjugating new verbs, or watching documentaries.
More characters on the spectrum are emerging in popular culture, but the trend is still to represent them as hopelessly baffled: isn’t it cute how they don’t get social cues? Haddon’s work remains path-breaking, even if Christopher does represent a small fraction of autistic kids. Hopefully we’ll see more engaging characters with real emotional lives. Criminal profilers and math savants make for interesting television, but I’d like to see an aspie who works at CostCo, or a high-school geek, or an adult struggling with relationships and responsibilities. Maybe then I’ll feel better about my perfectly average IQ score, my inability to read a map, and my love of 80s cinema.
My creative writing course in the fall involves a bit of Latin, and I’m unreasonably excited to discuss this with the students. I don’t know how favorably they’ll respond to it, but I imagine that—as writers—they’ll at least be interested in the prospect of learning new words. The course focuses on world-building, and Latin has always had a peculiar relationship with literatures of fantasy and speculative fiction. If you’ve read the Potter books or watched a few episodes of Buffy, then you’ll have already heard some words and pidgin phrases in Latin. It’s the language of spell-casting. This relationship suggests that the words are incredibly remote, that they possess a kind of cryptic magic, when in fact, they form the grammatical spine of at least seven living languages. French and Spanish make a lot more sense if you have even a passing familiarity with the rules of Latin. Unless you live in the Vatican, though, you don’t really have the chance to hear it being spoken. This poverty of oral Latin, its inaccessibility, makes it seem like a dead language to us, but if anything, the remains of Latin are what make communication in the western world possible.
Latin and I have had a tricky relationship in the past. When I was completing my M.A., I decided to challenge the Latin exam by studying for it independently. This was a dumb idea. I read Wheelock’s Latin text from cover to cover, and tried my hand at translating Cicero, but I wasn’t able to grasp how the case system actually worked. My translations were literal and horrifying. I retained a fair bit of vocabulary, but the difference between puer and puero was beyond me (this still affects my love life). Although I understood, in theory, how the declension of nouns worked, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. My real problem was that I had no experience with the trials of conjugation. By this time, I’d managed to forget my French lessons, and I assumed that all languages must act like English in some way. If I liked the way that a word sounded, I could remember it, but that was the extent of my ‘technique’ for language acquisition. It wasn’t until I began studying Spanish that I realized the brutal necessity of memorizing verb charts. There’s no way to explain why a country is feminine, or why the verb estar—which signals impermanence—is used when talking about a dead person. Isn’t death permanent? Exceptions can rarely be explained, and we simply have to memorize them.
Latin’s complexity is devious. English verbs require conjugation, which fixes them in time and space. A native speaker doesn’t think of herself as conjugating, necessarily, but anyone learning the language will need to memorize tenses: present, imperfect, simple past, and future, as well as compound tenses like past perfect and future anterior. Latin has all of these, as well as the subjunctive mood which signals a theoretical statement, a doubt, something uncertain or unresolved. Romance languages retain the subjunctive, while in English, it’s signalled entirely by modifiers such as hope, doubt, maybe, even if, provided that, and the like. What makes Latin difficult is that, in addition to all of this conjugating, the nouns also change depending on their relationship and function. Although Latin does have prepositions, most words like in, to, with, by, for, on, over, through, are encoded within the suffix of each noun. Amicus means friend, or the friend. Amici suggests possession: of the friend, or the friend’s. Amico, the tricky ablative tense, suggests a non-proximal (but not necessarily distant) relationship: by/with the friend, or from the friend. The ablative and indirect object cases have exactly the same –o ending for this group of nouns, which means that you have to cycle through various possibilities while reading until the most logical one emerges.
The case system allows Latin to be both incredibly specific—which is why it’s the language of law—and curiously subjective. Poetry, in particular, is difficult to translate when every noun has five possibilities (six, if you count the vocative tense, oh muse), and the ‘logical’ translation may not in fact accord with the sound of the poem. Writers like Ovid and Horace use robust metaphors that are no longer familiar to us. Their work can be difficult to access, because whenever an obscure rite or myth appears, you have to haul out your books and figure out what’s being referenced. Some phrases can’t be translated, because the activity that they refer to has simply vanished from cultural memory. This is frustrating, but also kind of lovely, because the contemporary reader—two thousand years removed from the material—gets to explore the edges of an unknowable concept, an aporia that could mean anything.
Catullus and Martial tend to be our gateways into Roman life. Martial is fussy and elitist, but his depictions of city life remain startling in their detail. Catullus writes with the immediacy of a beat poet. Instead of referencing complex mythologies, he complains about spoiled love, lack of sex, the shit-eating grin of a rival. Tell me all about the sex you’ve been having, he exhorts one friend. Come over, and I’ll shower your eyelids in kisses, he coos to another. Unlike Martial, he admits the possibility that, someday, his pages may be used to wrap fish. I discovered Catullus in college, and I can still remember looking around me nervously as I read his poems, wondering—could writing this dirty, this scandalous, possibly be available to anyone? His pejorative metaphors were spectacularly insulting, far worse than anything I could ever think of.
I hope that, if anything, my students will at least grow fond of some new words, and enjoy the act of pronouncing them. Starting with curse words will probably help.
It’s been about a year since I ended the OSI series. Although the fifth book only came out this summer, I’d more or less completed the manuscript a year ago. The final chapters were written in Spain, in a hotel room whose air-conditioning saved my life on several occasions. It was a weird experience in many ways. I’d write in the middle of the night, pausing to visit the convenience-store on Gran Via which sold cream-filled cookies and orange fanta. Writing away from home can really focus you, because there aren’t as many social distractions, but it can also remind you of how solitary the process it. I fell into the groove of reading a few chapters from a very long history book, writing a scene, then going for a walk through Chueca at night. Madrid is an exuberant city, and I was often inspired by overheard conversations. I’d begun the series in Vancouver, an incredibly familiar city, and it seemed peculiar but somehow necessary to end it while staying in place where nobody knew me.
When I finished the first draft of Night Child, I was 27 and on the verge of completing my doctorate. When I think about that book now, it is bound up in the anxiety of moving to New York. A Flash of Hex was much darker, in part because the time that I spent in New York was not what I’d call a pleasure. It was educational, and gave me the opportunity to meet some amazing people, but the city itself was not easy to call home. Some cities, I learned, don’t particularly want you to visit them. That was an important lesson. By the time I’d begun work on Inhuman Resources, I’d already moved to Montreal, a city that was just as educational without needing to charge $2000 a month in rent. I can now see the difference between these two books. One is a dark thriller, from beginning to end, with moments of familial connection. The other is lighter, more romantic, with less of an emphasis on technical details. I was trying to respond to some criticism about the previous books being too heavy on forensic data. At first, I fought writing the romantic scenes, because I was more interested in that obscure data. But over time, I came to appreciate writing about desire. Part of that, I think, had to do with the realization that I couldn’t just write cryptically for myself. I needed to make the writing accessible, which was possible to do without sacrificing the detail.
When I published Night Child, I wasn’t confident that the series would last. That’s why the acknowledgments in that book are so effusive. I feared that there might not be a Book 2, that this–what I’d dreamed of since I was 11–might be my only chance to tell a story. First novels tend to be well-crafted, because we might have 10 or 20 years to work on them before an agent or editor takes notice. You could theoretically spend your whole life writing a first novel. Night Child began as a light urban fantasy about a witch and her roommate (there was no Derrick), but gradually became a forensic thriller about paranormal investigation. In the first draft, Lucian was a vampire, but my agent (wisely) told me that vampires had just about reached literary saturation (this was 2007, and it was widely agreed that Twilight would be the final nail in the coffin). So he became a necromancer instead, which forced me to explore how he might access magic, how his powers might relate to those of Tess and Derrick. A lot of this emerged randomly. Sometimes, being told not to do something is exactly what you need to figure out a much more interesting story.
My goal with the OSI series was to explore the life of an ‘average’ (in her world) detective with a colorful extended family. Some characters, who were only supposed to appear briefly, decided to stick around until the end. I didn’t kill as many of my darlings as I should have. Bleeding Out was supposed to tie up everything in some kind of epic register, but ultimately, it turned into a different book–a compact story told in the first-person. I had two more novels planned in the series, but Book 5 seemed like a natural stopping point. The characters still loom in my mind, although they’ve had to make room for the new series, which has an equally large cast. Sometimes, they’ll talk to each other across the lines. Derrick will tell Roldan a secret, or Tess will give Babieca the stinkeye. Once you’ve created those people, they never actually leave your head.
I’m excited to continue working on this new series, but more than once, I’ve found myself writing further dialogue between Tess and Derrick, a snippet of some scene that will never be. They were my touchstones for five years, my eyes and ears. It’s hard to no longer spend time with them, and sometimes I even feel a vague sense of guilt while writing about these new characters. You did nothing wrong. It was a difficult decision, but I had to move on. I love you, and that won’t change.
I could always write OSI fanfic. Hmm…that might be just meta enough to work.