From the transfer kid

“December 2014. It’s the best you’ll be able to do. I’m sorry.” I was sitting in my appointment with my temporary advisor on “Transfer Student” day during 2011 Summer Welcome. There was a thin partition between me and another student, and I could hear the calculator adding up her credit hours, finalizing her verdict of “victory lap” or “four years, just under the wire.” Having come from a small private school on the west coast to a campus of nearly 35,000, I was already feeling like the kid at the reject lunch table.This approach to group together common outcasts was meant to make me feel at ease, but it seemed to me a tactic of extreme “othering.”

And now this. A semester behind, “the best I could do.” It was half a victory lap. A 200-meter dash. Honestly, I had been expecting worse, having come from a university on a quarter system, from which virtually none of my credits applied to a degree at the Missouri School of Journalism. But the advisor’s words reflected a negative note, as if I should have done better, as if the extra 200 meters meant the difference between a successful gold metal future and sweeping the discarded popcorn kernels in the stands.

Like any unrealistically driven writer-type, I set out to prove her wrong. I’d convinced myself that going to school in Seattle for a year had been the right choice, that there was nothing wrong with graduating late. I had grown rather fond of my December graduation date, somehow picturing a long dramatic exit across the quad, my diploma tucked under my arm, snowflakes lightly kissing my cheeks as I bid adieu to Francis and his prominent copper sniffer. A small part of me still felt like the “transfer kid,” used to figuring things out alone.

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I hate myself for not being able to come up with another film to reference being happily sequestered in a winter wonderland.

I hadn’t thought about that day and that advisor until recently, when talk of graduation became prevalent around RJI and Lee Hills Hall. Last Tuesday, in my Advanced Writing class, my professor, Mary Kay Blakely, reminded us that this would be her last lecture before retiring. My friend Claire attempted to sooth the somber mood by saying, ‘But it’s like we’re all retiring with you, MK. We’re all graduating.” I shifted in my seat, remembering my “graduation sentence” on “Transfer” day in 2011. Somewhere during this school year, I had become dependent on the people in and beyond that classroom at Mizzou. Suddenly I imagined my graceful, snowy exit to be a lot colder and lonelier, with a few stumbles through the icy columns.

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This image from The French Lieutenant’s Woman evokes every feeling of loneliness ever.

A few minutes later, MK asked if we had any last questions for her, any last wishes for nuggets of wisdom before she left the world of academia for a life of what we all assumed would be no less than total bad-assness. I managed to ask a question about how to balance my writer and editor selves, who are equally competitive and stubbornly opposed about the necessity of a properly placed comma.

MK answered my question with what I’m sure was brilliant wisdom; when I begin my job search in a few months, I know I’ll wish I had listened closer. But in that moment, a single tear made its way out of my eye. I have no idea why this happens, and it sounds so melodramatic, but it’s always the one tear that starts it all. I reached for my pen and notepad, pretending to take notes, hoping MK wouldn’t notice my shoulders slightly bobbing as the other eye began to follow suit. A few days before, my aunt had shared an NPR video of a 6-year-old boy’s advice to a terrified soon-to-be college grad that harkened back to the “My Favorite Things” approach from The Sound of Music. Except it was cuter and involved more food. He says, “When the scared feeling comes into you, the scared is scared of all things you like. So, when I was scared of monsters I thought of juice. And some meringues and a cookie—a chocolate chip cookie.” Then he says he’s hungry for cookies and pizza and red sauce. Naturally.

While I was scribbling and trying to avoid watery eye contact with MK, I took some advice from this brilliant 6-year-old and wrote down all the things I like and the people I will miss:

  • With Beth Steffens: Meeting Tom Hanks and stuffing our faces with Shake Shack in New York, Skyping from my London flat, making unidentifiable noises in the J-School
  • Nearly getting mauled by crazy royal baby fans at Buckingham Palace with Jennifer Liu
  • With Kari Paul: Staying up until 3 a.m. reading and writing cover letters and eating hot Cheetos. Being ashamed of said hot Cheetos. Buying them again anyway. Knowing she won’t judge about the hot Cheetos or anything ever.
  • Seeing Sapna Khatri, Elle Hoffman, Hannah Schmidt or any of my other London crew on a day when I most need to say a British word or two
  • With Kylee Mattoon: Being unable to open a bottle of wine for a solid 20 minutes. Crying. Contemplating breaking bottle of wine. Screaming with laughter when victorious.
  • Shoving aside to-do lists to make dinner and enjoy the company of a kitten with Shelby Feistner
  • Kaldi’s grammar sessions with Caroline Michler
  • Spontaneously joining Shelby Muff and Kristi Luther for a midnight birthday celebration
  • Hugs from Claire Landsbaum on a random Tuesday
  • MK’s lectures, MK’s stories
  • With Lauren Hill: driving six hours to Bloomington, Indiana, almost throwing up while anxiously awaiting meeting Meryl Streep, musical nights joined by Tori Meador and Mary Elgin
  • Googling cheap flights to anywhere but here, eating pasta imported from Italy and doing general old lady nonsense with Chelsea Bengier
  • Knowing any of these people are in my life

 

After I made this list, not only did I prove that “scared is scared of all the things you like,” but that my transfer advisor had been right. Three and-a-half years was the best I could do at Mizzou. And I’m not sure it could get any better. Here’s to one more semester and a snowy, happy exit. 

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Because every snow scene should look like this one from Meet Me in St. Louis.

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The perpetual “we”

It’s standard protocol; we’re used to it now. The car pulls up to the airport or the bus terminal or the train station. We sit there for a while and avoid eye contact. We contemplate crying if we’re not already. We wonder how long it will be after we part that the tears will start or how many people will be around when it happens (this mostly applies to me and my tear ducts’ apparent requirement of an audience to perform properly). We are professionals at “parting is such sweet sorrow,” and yet this well-honed skill has not aided in the process.

I met Jessica on the first night of my freshman year of college. I had just moved 2,000 miles from home in an attempt to escape the grief that followed my mentor and friend’s suicide. I had friends at home who loved and cared for me, or the little damaged pieces of me, and that was more than I could have hoped when I started high school. But now, after a year of funerals and  “let me know what I can dos,” I just wanted to hold fast to the assumption I’d made in middle school that in college, one didn’t have to make friends.

When I was 13, I subscribed to the idea that I now know most everyone had in some capacity—that I wasn’t normal enough to have a posse of friends who thought I was just the coolest. I didn’t have enough of the charismatic, sparkly energy that so many of my female peers seemed to possess. This is so John Hughes ’80s cliche, but I have a distinct memory of sitting at a lunch table in seventh grade in total angst. I was quiet and never a bother, so I was could easily slip in anywhere but never talked. As I recall on this occasion, I was trying desperately to drum up some idea of pre-teen conversational fodder, and thinking, “When I’m in college, I don’t have to try to make friends. I can just  go to class and do my homework and graduate and talk to absolutely no one. It will be great.”

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This is the photo I use to prove how much different one looks at 22 than 18. Babies.

But on my first night of college, there was Jessica, sitting next to me on the bus on the annual freshmen trip to Fred Meyer. A blond, energetic high school cheerleader, she had that familiar sparkly energy and as we crossed the Ballard Bridge she turned to me, bouncing,  and said, “Hilary! We’re in the city! Look at us. We’re city girls now!” We.  We’d only just met an hour before and we were already a “we.” That was the night I threw out my seventh grade wish. I had a friend in college—a peppy, charismatic friend who wanted to talk to quiet, bookish me.

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Our shenanigans are never complete without the third member of our third floor Moyer Hall trio, Marisa, who always adds a little spunk to a photo…

Jess and I talked again later that night, when I posted for some unknown, completely nerdy reason that I was “sleepless in Seattle.” I guess you have to say it once, right? She responded, “Me too! I’m in the lounge. Come talk to me!” I told her everything I promised I would leave at home in Missouri—how my teacher had killed himself, how pissed I still was. How no one understood why I would go to Seattle for school and how I was tired of trying to explain it. How I didn’t know if I could. The spunky girl from the bus suddenly understood her seat partner as someone who came to college as a bunch of broken little bits, and she listened to me anyway. We talked into the early morning, and we’ve kept up the conversation ever since.

Maybe I was right in seventh grade. I didn’t have to make “friends” in college, not the kind who surrounded me in the cafeteria, at least. The kind of friend I made in Jessica was someone who helped me figure out where all the little bits could fit back together or if maybe some of them are better left discarded. She’s the kind of friend that the phrase “I’m transferring back home,” doesn’t apply to because you don’t ever really leave a friend like that.

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Discovery Park is one our our favorite places to visit when I come “home” to Seattle. A trip there is never complete without a proper photo sesh.

When I was 5 and my parents and I first moved from St. Louis, my grandmother starting singing a song to me over and over: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold…” She sang it to sort of pacify me in my first period of real change in life, but it remains a constant for me with each goodbye I encounter.

Just as it has in the past three years, the car pulls up to the curb at the airport, and we avoid eye contact. We contemplate crying and I know I will as soon as I hit security. This time, the wait will be longer. We’ll have to exercise our “be seeing you” muscles for the next 27 months, after Jess leaves for Nicaragua and the Peace Corps.

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In those moments when I don’t have the strength, this photo on my dresser always gets me through. Both Jess and Marisa have shown me the kind of love and support I needed during my college journey.

We’re still in the car and neither of us move. I look over at Jess and think about the last four years. I think about this trip and all the ones before it. I think about how each time, I leave with new insight from my friend. Three days ago, she looked at me during lunch and said in a casual tone, “So, do you think you’ll stop worrying after graduation?”

Jess always knows how to make her point without saying so directly. She’s bossy in the best way; she accesses my thoughts without  having to poke and prod her way in.

Finally, we get out of the car and participate in the traditional hug. We go through the steps of the goodbyes, but we both know this time is different. We know when we see each other again, our “we” will have changed dimensions. We will be older, 24. I will have graduated, and she will have been for more than three years. The college stage of our friendship will have ended.

“Will you write about us?” Jess says, as she gives me a final squeeze.

“Of course,” I say. I’d already started this blog post in my head.

I turn, “ripping off the Band-Aid”—the clichéd comparison I’d used to describe this particular departure—and walk toward my terminal. The pacifying tune starts in my head.

“The circle’s round; it never ends…”

“See you, Jess!”

“See you!”

“That’s how long you’re going to be my friend.”

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For the girls

I want to talk about something I noticed a few weeks ago when Sam Freedman visited the journalism school. I would have written about this last week, as it was more timely with his visit, but last week I was too busy ranting about my writing process.

 It’s not something that was necessarily his fault, but it is something that I notice every time I hear a man speak about long-form journalism. For the first five minutes of his talk, Freedman mentioned only men when he talked about other writers he admired. He later threw in some names of women whose work he admired as some of the best longform he’s ever read, but men mostly dominated the conversation.

The reason why I’m not pointing to this observation as a fault of Freedman’s is that it’s not his fault. The man is simply reflecting his own industry. There are not enough women longform journalists. This is something that Joanna Diemkewitz and Kaylan Ralph, two 2013 Missouri journalism grads have tried to solve in the first year of their longform magazine, The Riveter, which features long-form stories by women.  

There are no other publications like this, and I think it’s an important part of the movement that women’s work is published and read.

This weekend I spoke with Julie Zeilinger, a junior sociology student at Barnard. Julie started a blog her sophomore year of high school called “The F Bomb” and published a book a few years later called “A Little F’d Up why feminism isn’t a dirty word.” Julie’s rubbed shoulders with the likes of Barnard alumna Anna Quindlen and says she has learned from the women who came before her about the importance of stories told by women for women.

She told me she thinks websites that vet news stories for women, like Women’s eNews, are setting a great example for journalism. The more prevalent women’s voices become in the industry, the more they will show up in longform journalism.

Julie also mentioned Anna’s encouragement for the new generation of feminists, remarking that this is not a trend she usually sees in older feminists who tend to get an “ego” about the apathy they see in the generation following theirs.

This mentorship might be the key to creating a journalism industry saturated with women’s voices. Anything will help. 

My discarded class project

I read one of my other classmate’s blogs today. She took a picture of our class activity from Friday, when we charted out our writing processes in magic marker and posted them on the wall. She’d posted her photo of her sketch, drawn with a blueberry-scented marker. The sketch  had clouds and squares and squiggly lines with text outlining her step-by-step writing process.

I had drawn a similar photo with an orange-scented marker and had also take a photo. But I deleted it from my phone. Why? Because it ticked me off. I sat down to write today, and like all dedicated writers, flipped through my photos on my phone for the first five minutes of focused writing time.  When I came across that orange diagram, I was supremely pissed off at myself.

 My diagram, in mad orange, read “ Step one” Passion: find an idea I like based on things I am interested in and read a lot  about.” OK. That’s fine. Makes sense.

Then it started to get depressing. “Step two: Confusion: But… how do I write it? ”Step three: Panic: deadline is when?” “Step four: Meltdown: I don’t know what I’m doing!”

 Reviewing this sketch didn’t exactly serve as encouragement. Although it was honest, and it helped me to understand that panic is often part of my writing process, I didn’t want it on my phone. I didn’t want to think about it. Because finally, I’m at the point in my writing process labeled “recovery,” followed by typing and more typing. Click, clack, caffeine. 

Refrigerator counseling

I don’t really know what to blog about this week. So, that is going to be the topic of my blog post: what to do when the well is dry but you’re staring at a deadline and you can hear it swiftly whooshing by.

 I’ve been dealing with this thing lately where I write the story in my head and then never quite get to the of being seated with my fingers making clacking sounds on the keyboard.  Sometimes, there’s less clacking and more napping. The more napping, the more anxious I become about said looming deadline, and the more I question if I’m cut out for this field. After consulting my therapists, Ben and Jerry, and my psychiatrist, Dove Caramel Milk Chocolate (she’s sensitive about her complicated name), I decide it might be a good idea to start typing something.

 At this point, I’ve built the story up in my head to be this looming, massive worry and I don’t know what to do with it. Seeing that Ben, Jerry and Dove Chocolate are no longer available resources, I usually consult other writers for some advice by Googling “procrastination advice”. I am aware that reading also constitutes not doing what I’m supposed to being doing, but at least it isn’t worth any calories.

I’ve come across several articles that are actually quite helpful; they are from other nerdy journos like me, who generally care about their work but are plagued by its workload.  Jennifer Blanchard, a writing coach from New York, compiled a list of articles written by other procrastinators about why procrastinating is not fun and how to avoid it.

They are titled things like, “10 Ways of Thinking that Lead to Procrastination” and “Things Procrastinations Fear.” Try deadlines.  And editors.

As a disclaimer, I wasn’t always a procrastinator. I’m usually not. And when I say procrastinate, I mean I’m not following my previous standards of getting things done. I like to be ahead of a deadline by at least two days, but since I’ve started working on stories that affect me emotionally and personally, I don’t know what to do with them. And thus begins the cycle of visiting my counselors in my fridge. I’m OK when I have to write about art events and concerts or even a light fender bender, but when it comes to a tumultuous, heart-wrenching story, I’m paralyzed. The only problem is this is what I want to do with my life, and I can’t afford a lifetime supply of Ben and Jerry’s services.

 

 

 

 

The Way to OK

This is going to be a blog post about adventure. It’s a blog post about going off the beaten path and finding something beautiful and having a lot of deep thoughts about it afterward. Wow. Original. Enlightening.  Whatever. I’m doing this.

Last night my friend Jessica and I went to McBaine, Mo to find “Big Tree.” As a mid-Missouri native, I’ve never had much interest in taking part in typical tourist activities such as finding a large tree and taking photographs next to it. For a while, this used to be a result of living in Seattle for a year, where mountains and water are only minutes away.

My snobbish Northwest-girl notions were squelched as soon as we pulled up to the tree. I wasn’t even sure we were in the right season anymore. The leaves were still spring green, and were specked with bits of blue from the 5:00 sky. We took our obligatory photos and listened to some girls perched on a nearby SUV discuss the popularity of the Kardashians and which one of the sisters they thought would have a body weight issue next.

Jessica found a Missouri green stink bug, named him Burt and accidently decapitated him when he tried to suction his slimy body to her hand. Devastated by the loss, we got back in my dusty burgundy 1998 Toyota Camry and headed for Eagle Bluffs. My dad had told us that we could find some real Missouri beauty there. Sure, Dad. But I packed my Washingtonian friend up, plugged in some Joni Mitchell and took off down the gravel road to the Eagle Bluffs Conservation area. We travelled for about 15 minutes and stopped by one of the ponds, just as the sun was setting. Jess decided to take “edgy” photos of me by the water and claimed I looked “so hipster.” She also claimed that one of the pools labeled “pool 8” is where they would drop the bodies in an Alfred Hitchcock horror flick.

We laughed as loud as we wanted and we kicked the gravel dust around us to the clouds swirl around our figures as we danced in the dusk fog. This all sounds so poetic and ideal, but it was. It really was.

Last Friday in class, we talked about writer’s block and how it affects each of us differently. For me, the writer’s block comes when I let my environment concave and unsettle me. I’ve felt like that for a long time. It’s always one of those moments when someone asks, “Are you ok?” and I answer “yeah,” but that’s not what I want to say.

 Last night, I went on a trip to the middle of nowhere with my best friend. We kicked the dust around and found bugs and took edgy photos by small conservation ponds. And I was OK. 

To go, to be, to love, to hate: the life of a verb in my life

When we learned that the theme for last Tuesday’s class was verbs, I almost sprinted out of the classroom and made a clean break out of Lee Hills Hall for the day. Verbs had been on my mind for the past two weeks in magazine editing, and I was not pleased at the thought of discussing them any further. “Thanks but no thanks, Jeanne,” I thought the moment after my intermediate writing instructor announced the days’ activities.

Once she caught the eye-rolls and throat clearings, my professor announced that we would not be doing anything even close to parsing or diagramming verbs, as she knew we had been doing in our editing class. We were going to play a game. Whoever could come up with the best verbs the fastest won a prize.

Intrigued but still skeptical, I pulled out my blue lined notepad and began scribbling down every verb that came to mind. Not surprisingly, the first that came to mind brought about images of pain; I had just been thinking about parsing verbs, after all.

As the class period progressed, I began to realize how much I truly love verbs. We just had a little falling out for a few weeks when they decided to be difficult little traitors glaring at me from lines and lines of text.

Verbs are what take stories from mediocre to fantastic. An example of this is a story I read this weekend in Esquire called the Flight from Dallas. In it, the writer, Chris Jones, tells the story of the five hours following John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, specifically the flight on Air Force One.

This was the first time since class on Wednesday that I notice how verbs propel (isn’t that a good one, Jeanne?) a story to excellence. I was so excited I took a pink highlighter to the story and coated every shining verb with a layer of neon approval. My highlighter practically went in a frenzy of color when I found this sentence: “Other passengers have spent the entire flight with their foreheads cupped in their hands, disappearing into the universe, invaded only by the occasional sob from elsewhere in the cabin and the chugging of typewriters.”

“Chugging of typewriters”? Oh, I have so much love for that compound sentence composed of a dependent clause that is proceeded by another dependent clause and an independent clause. Ah, there you are again, magazine editing.