The great English transition

Paper


I didn’t start out as an English major.

Wanting to follow in my dad’s footsteps, I started college planning to go into journalism — be a reporter, work at a newspaper, become as intrepid and adventurous as he is. I spent my first year in community college wading through the prerequisites before transferring to the University of Maryland in the fall of 2004, where I learned I’d have to apply to the College of Journalism.

And then I kind of panicked.

When I imagined my lofty journalistic goals, they had nothing to do with . . . well . . . real journalism. In my daydreams, I imagined myself typing self-righteously on a keyboard in a busy newsroom, covering some explosive local news event. I saw myself at the end: polished, professional, well-respected. I visualized all the sparkly, exciting parts without any sense of reality. I never thought about the hard work. I didn’t think about muddling through the middle, working hard to rise to the top.

Isn’t that how it always goes?

Between my sophomore and junior years of college, I actually interned for our local newspaper’s community section. I answered phone calls and emails, tried my hand at laying out pages and wrote a few features on local folks doing good in Southern Maryland. I’ll never forget seeing my name in print for the first time: the extreme thrill, the pride and awe. I still remember my first article on a local theatre director and his immense collection of costumes. I remember my lead, too.

By the time I started schlepping up to College Park every day that fall, I was a little burnt out on the newsroom. I love to write, of course — I’ve always loved to write — but I had an immediate, sinking suspicion that reporting wasn’t going to be my bag. I bonded more with the copy editors and editors themselves: those who craft their own sentences from time to time, yes, but mostly tinker with others’ words.

I like tinkering.

But reporting? I’m not a reporter. I lack the edge, the finesse, the dedication of a real journalist. Between my summer at the local paper and the following year’s internship at a D.C. daily, I accepted something I might have known all along: I’m better behind the scenes. My favorite week at the Examiner came when I left the Washington office to proofread pages in Virginia. I’m just better at tinkering.

My journey into the wide world of English came when I was finally honest about that. Though I was nervous to tell my dad I wasn’t planning to get into the newspaper biz, my parents were very supportive as I changed my plan. The same sunny afternoon I called with my idea about switching to a Bachelor of Arts, I marched over to the English building and declared a new major. It was the first time I felt really excited — and not anxious — about the future. I never looked back.

That was the first of many “adult” decisions I made in school: these little transitions that put me on a different path than the one I’d first started marching down. It was a scary moment to veer off a course I felt had been laid for a long time, but I’m proud of having made the decision — especially because it was the right one for me.

Of course, ironically, I did still go into journalism . . . though not as a reporter. I was hired as an assistant editor in 2007 and have spent all of my young career here. In 2009, I was tapped to write a local personal column that has evolved into more than I could have ever expected — and despite veering into English rather than journalism, I’m still living the dream I had as a kid: writing. Writing for a living.

So life takes us where we need to be, I’d say.


Linking up with Blogtember today on a time my life took a turn.


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In celebration of the English major

In college, I started out as a wide-eyed freshman interested in journalism. As the daughter of a sportswriter, I understood the concept of a deadline before I knew the alphabet. My dad is a hard-nosed reporter who turned his penchant for getting the facts into his latest gig: writing a celebrated sports column in Washington, D.C.

I’m a columnist, too — albeit on a much smaller scale. It happened sort of by accident — and not because I’d gone through the J School at the University of Maryland, alma mater of both my father and sister.

No, friends, I was that rare breed of mocked college students everywhere: the English major. Tell someone you’re studying literature and the response is almost always one of two options:

A) Are you going to be a teacher?
B) Oh, so what are you going to do with that?

I didn’t necessarily plan on working for a newspaper, though that’s the world in which I’d grown up and understood better than other fields. I’ve been writing since I was a kid and had completed my first “novel” — 100-some typed pages, all in Courier font — by fifth grade. By the time I enrolled in college, I figured journalism was the route I was born to take . . . though I quickly realized I’m not made of the same stuff as Dad and Kate.

English seemed a natural path. A lifelong reader and devoted supporter of the written word, my English degree was a natural extension of my desire to be as nerdy and bookish as possible. There’s scarcely a plot you could describe that wouldn’t find me blurting out authors’ names and titles, and I love nothing more than trying to connect an author to his or her most famous work. I’m a book geek through and through, even taking a job at Borders during my senior year of college.

English majors go into a variety of fields, it’s true. Some of our teachers. Some become actors. Some are writers, or accountants, or vice presidents of marketing. As English is a broad major that exposes you to many wonderful concepts, ideas and backgrounds, it’s versatile — and can take you anywhere.

In English programs, we’re taught to be analytical, intelligent and serious. We study the words of others for hidden meanings — and then translate those meanings into comprehensible concepts. We read the works of Shakespeare, Austen and Bronte and make them applicable for today’s world. And in some cases, we begin to craft our own masterpieces. With my concentration in creative writing (poetry), I learned to take criticism and defy others’ low expectations.

Now I’m fortunate to be able to write and edit for a living — both skills enhanced by my time in an English program. And though my professors may or may not have scoffed at my alleged “talents,” I can smile the broad grin of a woman who is far from a failure. Even if they told me I suck.

Other people turned out pretty awesome, too. From a recent edition of Shelf Awareness:

Question: What literary quality do Jon Hamm, Alan Alda, Maureen Dowd, Jodie Foster, Tommy Lee Jones, Stephen King, Paul Newman, Joan Rivers, Sting, Helen Thomas, Barbara Walters, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Wolfe, Bob Woodward and Renée Zellweger have in common?

Answer: They were all once college English majors.”

So PSA for parents with children considering a major in “the arts”: we’re not all lunatics. And you won’t have to worry about us starving to death or taking up permanent residence on your couch . . . the kids will be all right.

the atlantic ocean makes a comeback

pen_journalLike cleaning out an attic, basement or bedroom, cleaning out the files on my flash drive is a daunting task! It’s impossible to tell what I’ll find on there: old novels, started then discarded; random photos I’ve culled into “collections” over the years; bits of story ideas, some developed; favorite quotes; graphics I’ve made for others, and for myself.

The most surprising thing I’ve found lately is a collection of poetry created in my senior year of college. During my final semester in the creative writing program, we were asked to compile our favorite works by poets both popular and unknown. I had a crazy time trying to narrow it down to less than twenty, but I did succeed — and I put them all in one Word document, making sure I had the fonts and spacing exactly similar for each one! That’s my editor OCD kicking in again.

Since printing out those poems and putting them in a folder two and a half years ago, I’d completely forgotten about my project — which I called “atlantic ocean.” I wasn’t into using capital letters then — including in my own name! — and I’d forgotten how different and serious I was! I guess that’s a byproduct of sitting around, writing poetry all day. Poets aren’t typically heel-clicking, cackling and ecstatic people. In fact, a lot of sallow-faced, beret-wearing scribblers come to mind! (For the record, I look terrible in hats — no beret for me.)

So who made the cut and was featured in Megan’s “atlantic ocean: an anthology”? Folks like Robert Frost , Billy Collins and Charles Simic, of course, but also outstanding writers like Li-Young Lee , Kim Addonizio and Galway Kinnell.

Poetry was once such an enormous part of my life, I would actually find myself “translating” life into poetry as I went about my daily nonsense! As I strolled across campus, sat down to have lunch or tapped a pen restlessly against a desk, I would try to pick out pieces of everyday living that made me question what I was or where I was going. Or just to look at something simple — something mundane — and examine it with fresh, open eyes. Since finishing my time in the English department and departing for the “real world,” my life-to-poetry translator device has been switched off like a basement light. I wonder how much of that was a conscious decision on my part and how much was merely life becoming, for a time, less interesting and less beautiful.

I wrote my first poem in two years this weekend and, though it’s certainly nothing to matte and frame, I’m proud of it. I’m proud that, for the first time in a long time, I parted my lips with something to say. Something that was real — something just for me. And finding this anthology buried in my files has only made the moment that much sweeter!

As fall is settling down into the crevices of every sidewalk, back yard and shopping mall, my life, too, is beginning again.

And I can’t talk about poetry without sharing poetry, so here are a few of my favorites from “atlantic ocean”:



Eating Together
by Li-Young Lee

In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.



Love Poem
by Linda Pastan

I want to write you
a love poem as headlong
as our creek
after thaw
when we stand
on its dangerous
banks and watch it carry
with it every twig
every dry leaf and branch
in its path
every scruple
when we see it
so swollen
with runoff
that even as we watch
we must grab
each other
and step back
we must grab each
other or
get our shoes
soaked we must
grab each other

Hoodie love

Happy New Year! I hope everyone managed to get some rest last night, didn’t find themselves in any sort of trouble and woke up today ready to tackle a fresh year of new challenges. Or… you just had a good time! You know, whichever.

terps_hoodieI’m off today and plan to spend most of it cleaning up around the house, going back through all of my great Christmas gifts and pondering when to take down all of the decorations. And I’m going shopping, too. Some of these gift cards are burning a hole in my pocket… and I could really use some new casual clothes. Since I became one of the legions of women sauntering around in “business casual” clothes a year and a half ago, I’ve been stocking up on dark separates, slacks and boots ever since. The problem there? I’m managed to completely overlook my “evening wear.” I wear silky tops and heels all day long, and when I get home I just want to throw on something and be comfortable. This usually results in that most dreaded of all pieces of apparel post-college: the hoodie.

In my pink Maryland hoodie... and being beat up by my dog

In my pink Maryland hoodie... and being beat up by my dog

Let’s be honest: hoodies are great. In the fall, walk around any university campus in the country and you’ll be assaulted by the fleecy goodness of school pride. The first crisp day in which you can wear your school sweatshirt is a very happy day — and college freshmen everywhere make purchasing their school’s hoodie one of their first orders of business. And what’s not to like? They’re warm, they’re comfortable, they allow you to express your collegiate pride or joy about a band or remind you of a great vacation you took. On our way to Europe in May 2007, my sister was freezing during a lay-over in North Carolina. What did she buy on our way to Italy and England? A North Carolina hoodie! With flip-flop decals! So now when she wears that N.C. sweatshirt, I think of Europe. See? Memories!

But I’ve been told by friends — and, well, Stacy and Clinton on TLC’s “What Not To Wear” — that the modern woman can’t survive on hoodie apparel alone. I would never go out for a family function or an evening out or some sort of “sophisticated” gathering in one of my many UMD hoodies, but the fact is that when I get home at the end of the day, that’s the first thing I’m pulling on. Usually with pajama pants, no less.

No, I’ve got to class it up a bit. I have a few gift cards, some free time and the will to make a positive change in my appearance this year — and I’m going to put it all to good use at Kohl’s, I suspect. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even get really crazy and cut my hair — or try to lose some weight. Anything is possible!