Hey you. Yes, you. Person reading this blog post. You like reading-- you’re on a literary blog after all, so I think this is a fair assumption. So here is my question: when is the last time that you read a book that you chose to read? When was the last time you read because you enjoy reading, and not because you were assigned to read something for class?
I used to spend the majority of my free time reading. Even in high school, I was often found with my nose in a book. I’d read in between classes, before I went to bed, and sometimes (sorry Mom) at dinner. Reading was my primary hobby.
And then, as I’m sure many of you can relate to, I came to college and my course load increased exponentially. It’s the most grating irony of pursuing an English major: you chose the major because you enjoy reading, but then you have to do so much reading for class that you don’t enjoy reading anymore.
You always think that you’ll find time, right? You think that one weekend, maybe, you won’t have a paper deadline or a midterm to study for, and then, maybe, you’ll fall back into reading. You’ll pick up one of the novels you packed to bring to school that’s been gathering dust on your desk and you’ll read the whole thing through right then and there. But that magical weekend never comes and you’re left disappointed.
This summer I started carrying a novel in my backpack again. I set a challenge for myself, to start, just for a week: any time I wanted to reach for my phone to waste time, I’d reach for the book instead. Suddenly, I realized there were tons of moments in my day that I could read a page or two. I could squeeze a chapter in if I was 10 minutes early for work. I would read on the train on my way home. I looked forward to reading, and suddenly my “To Read” pile was shrinking in a way it hadn’t for years.
That’s not to say there isn’t good fiction to be found online-- there absolutely is! But I found that when I opened my phone, that wasn’t often where my fingers were taking me. I’d wind up mindlessly reading whatever articles happened to be on my Facebook feed and (for the most part) being sorely disappointed with their contents. I guess that’s what happens when you let an algorithm make your reading list. Choosing what I was going to read, getting to select the things that I enjoyed, that was the real difference for me. Reading stopped being work and started being an escape again.
So, if you miss reading, this is the advice I would give to you: read in the moments between. Carry a book around or bookmark your favorite poetry site. You may not have an hour to read, but you do have a minute.
Written by Megan G.
One of the things that elicits shock from people is when I inform them of my antipathy towards Ernest Hemingway. Okay. Look. I get that Hemingway is one of the kings of the literary world. That's all well and good. He’s just not my guy. I don’t like the way that Hemingway condenses. I don't like the way his writing feels or speaks at me. I respect his craft - every word is there as a direct line between the reader and the events of the text. It's a very effective strategy. Still, golly gee, do I feel like his work talks past me, or maybe so directly to me it unnerves me. One of the two - either way, he's not my cup of tea. I prefer coffee.
That being said, in two different conversations this past weekend, I've had to explain some very good writing advice that Hemingway once gave. Though it grates on my nerves when people tell me to write like Hemingway would, I do hold one piece of his advice among my little box of writing tips. It's about motivation.
While you can read the full quote (and some more good ones) from this article, the best part boils down to this:
“The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop.”
In other words, never finish a day of writing at the end of one section and leave your future self to deal with a blank page or chapter title. Instead, either stop writing a few paragraphs from the end, or start the next section. That way, the next day, you can come back and jump into it right where you left off. You'll be excited to write down the words that have been sitting in your head for a while, and then it'll be easy to keep going. This strategy is helpful for any type of writing. I usually use it for my longer-form fiction, but it can be true for personal essays, short stories, or even academic essays.
Other writers and writer-supporters have given great advice as to how to battle with writer’s block (see the tasteful images linked below). It's all pretty good advice. You're bound to find something in there that works for you. But I think this Hemingway axiom actually points to a longer-term solution instead of just a motivational pep talk or coping strategy. Typical Hemingway, getting the job done in fewer words, right? Nip writer’s block in the bud by giving tomorrow’s you a point to jump into. Instead of looking for ways to break down the wall that writer’s block represents, don’t let the wall grow at all.
Written by Erika S.
Ekphrastic poetry has come to be defined as poems written about works of art; however, in ancient Greece, the term ekphrasis was applied to the skill of describing a thing with vivid detail. One of the earliest examples of ekphrasis can be found in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, in which the speaker elaborately describes the shield of Achilles in nearly 150 poetic lines:
And first Hephaestus makes a great and massive shield,
blazoning well-wrought emblems all across its surface,
And he forged on the shield two noble cities filled
with mortal men. With weddings and wedding feasts in one
And he forged the Ocean River’s mighty power girdling
round the outmost rim of the welded indestructible shield.
(The Iliad, Book 18, lines 558–707)
In addition to the descriptions of a work of art, an ekphrastic poem usually includes an exploration of how the speaker is impacted by his or her experience with the work. This week, I encourage you to test out this fun poetry form!
To get you started, here’s some of my favorite paintings I studied in my Art History class this semester.
Written by Ellie M.
This will be the last R2 blog post of the spring semester, as classes are now over for the 2016-2017 school year. We'll have more blog posts after the summer. Thank you for reading! We've loved sharing our thoughts with you.
Yesterday before the rains came, my friend studied first the darkening sky, then me.
“If we time it right, we can walk to Skyspace and get caught in the rain.”
“Let me get my shoes,” I said.
We walked, got poured on, sat in Skyspace for a while, talking about the way the water ran off the roof and about the respect we have for people who not only know what they like but also do it; we talked about why introspection does not inherently indicate a humanities major and why sometimes “low-class” art is the stuff that sticks with you; we talked about going home and not going home and birds.
It got me thinking about how fast-paced my life has become - every conversation serves a purpose, now, where I'm either searching for information or trying to make someone laugh, but there's that lovely forgotten in-between space where rainy days and late-night chats reside, driven not out of a need to vent but a mess of ideas and words that have stuck themselves in your head and need to come out.
There is an art to these conversations, much like there is an art to storytelling. Words become images. Thoughts form of their own accord, just like stories take on lives of their own. These conversations are hard to put down. They're self-propelling and wandering, both passionate and impassioning. The good ones leave you thinking long, long after the words have been said.
Communication in college trenches tends so frequently to be a one-sided affair. Here is what I think. This is why I'm right. But there is so much beauty in discovering what collaboration can produce, in equalizing the listening and the responding.
Conversations are a lot like stories. If you let them happen to you and ascribe value to them the way we carry a story's moral or quotable moments with us, you'll recognize the narrative, the catharsis, the conscious escape that we find in books. It's all there in the everyday, in the sparkling opportunities we have to make the mundane something extraordinary, something unusual, something important. This is important. Listen, but only until you must speak.
And now, you must speak.
Written by Kristen H.
One of my favorite things about writing and literature in general is that it’s always a description of the world in all its crazy complexities. Sure, you could be reading about hobbits and dragons, or journeying through intense space caves, or trying to sort out the thoughts of an unreliable-narrator-slash-serial-killer-maybe, but no matter where you are, you’re being constantly bombarded and confronted with these subconscious little blips of humanity. That’s why it becomes something of a social responsibility of a writer to make sure they’re actually describing humanity – in all its messed-up glory, you could say, or in a way that’s just right. Plus, Hollywood has been calling for a more representative sampling of the world, and literature can do that, too.
I find my writing enhanced with every single class I take; the magic of education (especially humanities education, sorry at my STEM-y friends) lies in the ways it really unpacks the things we take for granted all the time. I write near-exclusively in worlds that aren’t this one (yeah, that means fantasy). With every political science class I take, I think more critically about the social structures at work. With every English class, I’m thinking about what people can read through the words I choose, and the intricacies and implications of how my writing will read against the social and cultural map we’re up against. Sometimes, I feel like I’ll never get enough of the knowledge of this world to make a perfect equivalency in the pages of a book.
And yeah, because none of us do. In fact, research doesn’t need to be some complicated thing. I don’t – as a friend of mine explained to me recently – need to take a full-blown seminar on immigration just to write about an immigrant. But, I do need to think about what I’m writing, and I need to know the realities of what’s out there. And that’s where the rest of my recommendations come in: there are a whole scope of blogs and websites in the world that are explicitly designed to give you those quick research tips, those actualities and stereotype-busters that will make you a better, well-researched writer.
So, here you go – do research fast!!! with these quick and easy links:
Most of these are unapologetically Tumblr blogs, because I take my writing tips in small doses while trying to fall asleep and wake up.
Research is a really weird thing. It can be sparked by inspiration just from visiting a museum, it can be applied from a semester of a research project, or it can plop down from above thanks to a simple interview or visit to a webpage. And it makes a big difference in how you’ll feel in your own work. So, when the writer’s block hits or you just want to procrastinate some school work, maybe turn your attention to the research ahead of you, and see what happens.
Written by Erika S.
Finding my voice has proven to be the most difficult part about being a writer. Since I started writing a few years ago, I have been tormented with the unreasonable fear that I sound like whoever I am reading at the moment. And often when I write, I experience the chiasmatic sensation of exhilaration and plagiarism: it excites me to be intensely engaged with a text and to recognize work being done on the syntactical level; however, I tend to feel like a fraud, a literary pirate…and an unsuccessful one at that…when I catch myself using a particular author’s style or lexicon (Confession: I have cribbed my punctuation habits from an amalgamation of Pynchon and Faulkner—hence the ellipses…dashes…semi-colons…all working to protract tiresome digressions.) Anyway, it always takes some time to sort through these contrary feelings. I tell myself that everyone learns by reading those who come before them. I try to ease my anxieties about literary piracy by calling transgressions ‘references’ or ‘allusions.’ But the self-doubt and self-consciousness remains, and I find myself delaying projects in order to more fully develop my own distinct style. I think that the paralysis induced by self-doubt comes from a fear of observation. Whatever I may tell myself about learning from mistakes, my ego always finds a way to make its voice heard; so rather than venturing out on my own—to make mistakes and hopefully discover something about my writing along the way—I use my favorite author’s as blueprints for style, imagery and diction. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with this, I feel as if it has hampered my ability to sit down at my computer and write on a regular basis.
I think that this sensation taps into something commonly experienced by those of us who write. On one hand there are the constant confrontations with failure and the subsequent fear of ineptitude. And this is made worse by the fact that we are not the arbiters of our work; rather, our work, an extension of ourselves, stands bare and defenseless against the criticisms of a detached audience. And what worse criticism could be leveled than banality or pedantry? I don’t know about you, but it terrifies me to think that I may be received as unoriginal. Which is why I have committed myself to a new exercise that will hopefully develop confidence in my voice independent from those who influence me. But first, I would like to demonstrate how engaging with an author can re-shape prose.
I’m currently working on my capstone essay about the process of myth-making in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, particularly how the narrators construct representations of black and female subjectivities that ensure subordination. I am using a theoretical framework, as laid out in Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, to discuss overlaying systems (culture, race, gender, sexuality, law) and the multilateral exertion of power in the Postbellum South. The idea has proven to be sufficiently difficult to untangle without worrying about how the two authors, Faulkner and Foucault, have influenced my writing style. Both authors craft long, winding sentences that operate by circumlocution rather than strict definition. What I mean is that they dance around what they are trying to say; they surround their desired concept rather than trying to pin it down with a needle. This style does not work well in a form that requires concision. Nevertheless, I find myself preyed upon by paronomastic predilections, my love for language and alliteration, and the unwinding beauty of thoughts scrolled down screen—a stream of syllogisms in need syntactically for structure that mediates and facilitates the care and complexity manifest in its discursive elements—like the ramifications of warbling wistaria vine twice-bloomed in breezes still of summer and reaching not only for the underlaid lattice but by trace scent as well…miasmal-distillant: an effluvium moving as if a shadow, nearly unobservable, but essential for the auditur to truly know what lay before them.
Lately I have written a lot of sentences like that one…and they typically take so long to craft that I lose whatever momentum had propelled me to the keyboard in the first place. What’s worse, I lost my train of thought while working on that just now…so forgive me if the rest of this blog post goes to shit. Anyway, while that sentence explains how syntax and imagery can enliven whatever you are trying to say, it defeats itself on the surface by applying the very strategy that it touts. It requires to be unwound, and the influence of Faulkner and Foucault’s writing styles have had a negative impact in this scenario. Repeatedly, these types of mistakes remind me that I have yet to establish an independent voice. I lack confidence in my own prose that should act to resist the impulse to imitate other authors. So to remedy this, I have purchased a cloth-bound notebook (this way I can slip it between books on my bookshelf and not fear someone cracking it open.) I have promised myself to write in it every day for the next month, at which point I will assess the viability of this technique in establishing my own voice. I have given myself a few ground rules to make sure that I avoid some of the pitfalls that I noted above:
For me, disconnection is paramount in this exercise. I cannot try to do this on my computer because I will violate every rule stated above. These rules intend to promote continuity of thought and discourse, which I believe to be fundamental in mapping out thought-processes and idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, should you want to adopt this idea, adaptation is obviously permitted. I work best in the mornings, so I use that time to my advantage. Others may prefer to work late at night. I prefer sleep. Finally, one last point about finding an independent voice: influence from other writers will be and should be apparent. I don’t want to be misunderstood as thinking that a writer’s voice must exist in a vacuum. Community and communication exist before, and are essential to independent expression. It would be foolish to believe that a truly singular voice could exist in language—a system that operates by reference. My own qualm comes from too heavy a reliance on certain authors’ style, but I will gladly use my best Faulkner impression when the mode seems appropriate. I just don’t want to spend my life as a writer chasing ghosts.
Written by Caleb S.
Ciao from Rome! I’ve been in Italy for about three months now, and seeing Kristen’s post last week about children’s literature got me thinking about how much the books I read growing up have embellished my study abroad experience.
I, too, was one of those middle schoolers who spent her summer days surrounded by piles of books at the library, devouring as many novels as I possibly could. High school summers were spent the same way - though then it was usually reading in front of the pool instead of the library - and though I no longer have time to be the voracious reader I once was, I still try to spend my winter breaks curled up with good books as much as I can. I read so much because I love it, but I never could have imagined how much those books I read for fun would contribute to my travels abroad.
I’ve found that in Europe, where the history is so prevalent and so engrained in each city, you really are at a disadvantage if you aren’t already well-versed in a city’s culture when you travel there. More and more I find myself hearkening back to books I read to help me recall the history; interestingly enough, some of the novels that have provided me with the most background when I’ve been traveling are just random historical fiction books I read as a middle schooler.
In Berlin, Escape to West Berlin, a novel I read back in 4th grade, was my first ever introduction to the tragedy surrounding the Berlin Wall, and I recounted many of the scenes in the book as we walked through Checkpoint Charlie, East Side Gallery, and the Topography of Terror on the trip. Copenhagen has me recounting Number the Stars, a book I read over and over in 3rd grade, which opened my eyes to the Nazi regime and, on a lighter note, gave me an overwhelming desire to visit the Tivoli Gardens one day. Reading The Diary of Anne Frank at a young age, also in 3rd grade, made my walk through the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam incredibly moving. The classic fantasy novel The Thief Lord has made me all the more excited to walk through the magical canals on my upcoming trip to Venice.
There are so many books I’ve read later in life - adult historical fiction or non-fiction books - that have also made a significant contribution to my understanding of the history in each new city to which I travel, but for some reason those children’s novels are so ingrained in my mind that it is those books that truly make my sightseeing all the more rewarding. Thus, I highly encourage anyone traveling or studying abroad to revisit those historical fiction books you loved as a child before you go! You can read all the guide books in the world, but I can say from experience that nothing beats the excitement of visiting a country or a tourist spot you’ve been reading about since you were a child.
Written by Bailey T.
Over Spring Break, my friend and I set ourselves a reading challenge: to complete all 1,079 pages of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest within the 10 days of academic rest. She finished it all in a week and I just finished it three days ago. Regardless of my technical failure, finishing the book at all felt like a win, and I would highly recommend it.
The book is a collection of vignettes concerning an interconnected group of Bostonians in an alternative near-future, in which the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have joined to become the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). The novel is in part narrated by Hal Incandenza, a 17 year-old tennis prodigy and student. His sections expose the intense pressure of the competitive tennis environment and reveal the peculiarities of the Incandenza family. Other sections of the book focus on various characters in recovery at a nearby halfway house. There is also a persistent subplot concerning a group of Canadian separatists who carry out their terror plots using wheelchairs. Part family drama, part dystopian fiction, and part absurdity, Infinite Jest is entirely unique. It is deeply complex, but wholly entertaining.
A benefit of the book’s length and complexity is that just by sheer probability, it is likely to hit on something that appeals to you. Topics that are covered range from depression, to tennis, to addiction, to U.S.-Canada relations. There will be sections that you will think are just plain weird, but there will be other sections that will really speak to you. There’s really something in here for everybody.
However, as a person who likes to “get” books, this one was a real challenge. It is not the kind of book that allows you to read it once and put it away. It’s impossible to catch everything on the first read.
Falling down some Google rabbit holes helped clarify things a little. There are dedicated groups of “Jesters” who have invested a lot of time into trying to make sense of it. Some people publish different theories about the implications of the book’s ending. Other people have tried to categorize the information in the book to try to find patterns. There are maps marking the different locations in the book, and glossaries that list every appearance of every character and image. People have written graduate theses on this novel. If anyone tells you they totally understand this book, they’re probably lying to you.
On a personal note, this self-imposed challenge really reminded me of why I started to love books. I missed the feeling of reading like a kid, reading late at night under the covers, the way that books created entire worlds in my head. I even missed the way that reading took work because I might not know what some of the words meant. I didn’t understand everything, and there was no pressure to understand anything. I just read, and I liked the characters that I liked, and certain things appealed to me, and occasionally I stumbled on a sentence, but I really loved it.
I think a lot of times reading critically becomes a single-minded search for the correct, smart take-away. You need to finish the book, only to turn around and reduce the experience to its agreed-upon themes. Postmodern novels are great because no one fully understands them. Criticism has not yet condensed into the kind of neatly-packaged bullet points that suit a high school English class. There is no “right” thing to take away from the book. If you take away anything at all, you’ve succeeded. And believe me, you will take something away from this one.
I would highly recommend the book if you're looking to read something really different or looking for something to push your limits. You don't have to read the whole thing in a week (although it is humanly possible, if that appeals to you). And when you finish, regardless of when that is, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Written by Megan G.
This weekend, I attended Baker College’s production of The Comedy of Errors. BakerShake, as it’s known, has been a Rice University tradition since 1970. The actors prepare a Shakespeare play for 6 weeks and present it in Baker’s elegant commons (seen below). The Comedy of Errors was the first comedy they had performed in a while, and I was excited to see it. I don’t know much about theatre, but I wrote down my rudimentary thoughts here.
The play was overall really fun for me to watch. The acting was well done, and many of the cast members had a gift for comedy. A highlight for me was the actor who played Dr. Pinch, who was hilarious. More specifically to BakerShake, I think that Baker was a really special place to perform Shakespeare. The commons set the tone perfectly for the show. The stage (or rather, section of ground with audience members on couches on both sides), had the intimate appeal of dinner theatre without the cheesiness. Furthermore, the cast members, since they didn’t have a backstage, sat around the stage, reacting to what was happening while in character. This added to the vibe of the play, which was that Shakespeare does not need to be taken seriously. We felt free to laugh loudly, react to things that happened, and interact with the cast. The characters sat on audience members’ laps, tossed us props, and even took an audience member’s ringing phone and improvised an impressive couplet about technology on the spot.
I really enjoyed my first BakerShake, and am considering participating next year. Be sure to be on the lookout for BakerShake when it returns next spring!
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Ezra Pound, 1885 - 1972
Fall semester of my freshman year, I decided to get my feet wet in the English department by taking and introductory course on the rise of Modernism. One day we spent the better part of fifty minutes discussing Ezra Pound's In A Station of the Metro, shown above.
After class, I met my mom for lunch. She saw my print-out of the poem, a page on which the tiny body of the piece itself was dwarfed by my notes and scribbles, and she was curious. I recited the poem for her and she became confused.
“That’s it?” She asked, disliking it immediately, “The whole thing?”
I said yes and she could hardly believe it. She had many questions. Did we really spend the whole class discussing the poem? Was there something wrong with the poet? Why would anyone care so much about something so small? We spent the entire lunch talking about those three lines and what they might mean. I could hash out all the arguments I had to offer about the weight the poem’s diminished length, about Modernism and Pound’s role in establishing the school of Imagism, but none of those things could bring my mom to peace with it.
It might be worth mentioning that my mother is a petroleum engineer who loves romance novels but has never developed a fondness for poetry. She didn’t care about the historical significance of the piece and I didn’t try to justify it. Our joint analysis of the poem isn’t something I would want to put in an essay for any of my English classes, and yet every time someone asks me why I care so much about what I study here, I want to point them towards Pound and In a Station of the Metro.
This life is full of moments that linger and echo in strange ways. The conceptual entanglement of perception and meaning suggested by twenty words written a century ago can resonate throughout the narrative of your life indefinitely without resolution, or pass through you in an instant. My mom and I spent that afternoon going back and forth about the poem, and she took great pleasure in going home and sharing it with the rest of the family, most of whom are fellow poetry skeptics. She brought it up for weeks after our lunch, and still mentions it often when I visit home. I credit Pound with igniting a contrary passion for poetry in her that I doubt any other piece could have sparked. And after all this time and discussion, I still don't know if I like the poem itself, and neither does she. But my mother called me a few days ago and asked if I remembered the name of ‘that crazy little poem’, and I knew I wanted to write about it, to express a little gratitude and appreciation for the bizarre and beautiful literary forms that make my life stranger, richer, and better by existing in it.
So if any of you have stubborn mothers or relatives who claim to dislike poetry, maybe have them read In a Station of the Metro. See what they have to say.
Written by Cara B.
R2: The Rice Review
Rice University's undergraduate literary magazine. Here you can find event updates, monthly writing contest winners, and opinions by the R2 staff on what's new, interesting, or subject to discussion in the literary and arts world.