"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Small talk and big ideas in the literature department

The first week of classes is over, and it's the weekend, and I just feel like one giant OOF. That was exhausting. I didn't even do that much this week aside from talk to a lot of people and read a lot of words.

It was mostly the talking that made it so tiring. I find it quite difficult to make small talk, and judging from my conversations this week, I believe 90% of other people do as well. Maybe there's a select few charismatic people and natural politicians who, when they arrive at a cocktail party or a drinks reception, spread their wings gleefully and launch into an easy stream of greetings and polite smiles, people who always have one sleeve stuffed with interested questions and the other with chuckle- or thought-inducing anecdotes. But the rest of us, it seems, must slog awkwardly through the too-long pauses and the I-don't-know-where-to-look moments.

My personal response in those situations is to pull out various phrases or observations I've made a million times before. For example, if you ever mention Tanzania to me, you will undoubtedly get the response: "I've heard it's very beautiful there." I don't know anything else about Tanzania, and in the terrifying situation of small talk, I can never summon the energy to ask a question or learn something new. There's two things about meeting new people. 1st, they all ask you the same questions, and 2nd, they haven't heard your stale answer before. So I can mostly get away with my scripted responses, but it still feels kind of, well, stale. I don't like it.

One thing I have been asked a lot this week is why I chose to come study at this particular school in this particular country - usually this is a reaction to my having said I'm from California. Most of the people I've met would love to do the reverse of what I've done, and travel from their homes to California, where the sun is always warm and the people are always chill. For a while, I floundered with the Why-are-you-here? question and all of its variations - Why are you studying literature? Why are you doing a master's degree? What do you hope to get out of this year?

Combined with this slightly intimidating questioning at the hands of students and professors and people I sit next to on the bus, I've been feeling a little cowed by my fellow students of literature. When we introduced ourselves in class, they all seemed to have an "interest," that is, a special area of literature or line of inquiry that fascinates them. In other words, they have the seeds of specialized academic careers, whether or not they choose to cultivate them.

I on the other hand, am here to study literature. I'm not here to indulge my special interest in representations of madness and antique science or treatments of body and space in modernist writing. I like books and I love writing and I want to read more books and learn to be a better writer. But it sounds a little silly to sit in a classroom full of graduate literature students and announce that I like books.

It also, I often feel, sounds silly to announce that I'm a writer. I guess I sort of assumed that everyone in the room must harbor the same aspirations to write and that to set myself apart as a writer would be presumptuous, especially since I'm not a very prolific one. But then I started really thinking about what my focus is. If person X is reading books in a search for a brilliant representation of madness, what am I searching for?

I believe I'm searching for clues on how to write and how to live. When I like something and underline it in a book, it's either because I want to be able to recreate that in my own writing or because it resonates with something I've felt or experienced or know to be true. In other words, I do have an angle when I read, just not a theoretical one. I have likes and dislikes, but I only really know how to talk about them in terms of the mechanics of writing or the effect on the reader.

So now I know why I'm here. I'm here to learn a new vocabulary and become a more versatile reader, to get the historical and social and theoretical context and add another dimension to my experience of books. And that in turn so that I can be a better writer, editor, critic.

Too bad now I finally have an answer, the cocktail parties are all almost over.

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