Saturday, April 24, 2010

In Which the Freak-Out of the Last Post Has Subsided

"It was an uncertain spring."

As I opened up Virginia Woolf's The Years yesterday, deciding to read rather than to pack or to grade, and when I read that sentence, I knew that the decision to read, to read carefully and with pen in hand, and to read this particular book, rather than to do all of those other things that I "must" do, was the right one.

The Years is a novel that I last read with care when I was an undergraduate working on my senior honors thesis. That was an uncertain spring. I was anticipating graduate school, and I didn't really know what that would be like or would come next for me in a broader sense. I was 21 years old, and the future stretched out before me like blank and uncharted territory. It was exciting, and it was terrifying. I saw change coming, but I had no idea what that change would look like or who I would become on the other side of it.

It's 14 years later, and it is another uncertain spring. Yes, there are some things in my life that are much more certain, now. With tenure comes certainty - at least about one's professional life. It's easy to forget when one is bound by that kind of certainty that change is still possible, and that when change is on the horizon, however bound by certainty one is in a particular part of one's life, it is still both exhilarating and scary.

The Years is a novel that's all about change - sweeping historical change, changeable weather, changes in relationships. It is a novel that refuses its reader comfort - every time someone almost says something really important, the narrative cuts away. It is a novel of gaps and of missing pieces. It refuses the reader easy pleasures. On the other hand, it's also a novel that is in many respects incredibly comforting in terms of how it works at the level of character development and exposition. It is a novel that for me evokes the presence of the past, even as it is a novel about how change happens in fits and starts, separating us from the past.

As I read throughout yesterday afternoon and into last night, I found myself marveling at the book's beauty, and also about how perfect a book it was for me to dive into at this particular moment. It's funny: I remember feeling the same way at 21, though for entirely different reasons. One of the things that has been somewhat challenging is reading the book with my annotations from that first careful reading (many fewer annotations, thank god, than I'm making now), annotations that remind me of how naive and undeveloped I still was then as a reader. But, if I'm being more generous, those annotations also remind me of how bright and fresh I was then, and that is kind of nice, too - like getting to see my student-self, and getting to think about the things that I would want to force my student-self to think about, knowing now what I didn't know then, which is sort of awesome. Since I will teach this novel for the first time next year, when I return from sabbatical, I think this is also a really valuable exercise, as my old marginalia gives me a map for thinking about how my students may encounter the novel when they read it for the first time.

Returning to this novel also reminded me of a detail of my intellectual and professional history that I haven't thought about in any sort of comprehensive way in a very long time. In the June of 1996, at the encouragement of my honors thesis adviser, I gave my first ever conference presentation, which just so happened to focus on this novel. In the weeks leading up to the conference, I was terrified. I mean, I had only just finished undergrad. I was terrified that I wasn't qualified to talk about literature in front of "real professors," terrified that all of the things that I had to say were stupid only I was too stupid to know how stupid they were, terrified that what I would present just wouldn't be good enough. Terrified that I was sort of a slacker and a lazy scholar and that in giving the presentation that I would be found out as just those things. Sound familiar? Um, yeah, I may be 14 years older and a tenured professor with a Ph.D. who has published a freaking book, but apparently I'm still the same person.

It's also worth noting that it was in that June of 1996 that I met VSIG for the first time, and he was interested and kind and totally didn't act like he thought I was a fraud, and since that first meeting, he's been a mentor and a friend.

It's also worth noting that the entire reason I thought to return to this book at all is because another mentor - one of the people whom I admire most in my field and who has been a huge help to me professionally with absolutely nothing in it for her - suggested that I do so when I started talking to her about my ideas for the Next Book at an MLA party this year. In other words, I'm not coming from out of left field with the ideas that I've got, and I'm not some novice who has no business having the ideas that she has. I'm on the right track.

And rereading yesterday, I found everything I needed right there in the book. I think I was so freaked out a couple of days ago partly because I was afraid that I wouldn't find what I needed - not only in terms of scholarship, but also just in terms of.... I don't know. Emotionally. That I wouldn't find the book that I remembered, or that I wouldn't find the self - my self - that I needed to find. I don't know if that makes sense, but that's the best way I know to try to articulate it. Because here's the thing: as much as I think that work reading is different from other kinds of reading, and while I think that has to be the case in order to move beyond initial reactions into deep and careful analysis, I also believe that unless I find the self that I need to find in the work stuff, that an intrinsic spark goes missing from anything I might ultimately write. It's the difference, if we want to think about it in undergraduate terms, between writing the obvious paper that will secure you a B+, with a minimum of mental stretching, and writing the risky paper that has the potential to get you an A+, even though attempting that will kick your ass and may end up not working out as planned. It's the difference between writing something that allows you to jump through a hoop and writing something about which you really care, about which you really believe you need to communicate to other people.

In that way for me, scholarship and teaching are linked. In both areas, what's exciting to me is the prospect that the way I see a work of literature has the potential to shape how other people see it. If I don't care - on a personal level - the work just feels empty and pointless - whether we're talking about scholarly work or work in the classroom.

But so anyway, I'm feeling a lot better. I'm feeling like even if that conference paper doesn't end up being as polished and tight as I'd like, that it will have substance. I'm feeling confident.

On a final note, you may notice that I'm not being as vague as usual about research stuff in this post. I think that this is in part about the transition into sabbatical - I mean, if I'm not going to write about research in a non-vague way over the next 9 months, what am I going to write about? 'Cause I know you all don't want to just read annoying whining to-do lists, though I'm sure there will be some of those, too.... - but I also think.... I don't know. It just feels like the right thing for right now.


Ann said...

Great story. I like your comments about being afraid it wouldn't be the novel you remember reading first 14 years ago. There are some books we return to at different points in our lives in part because they're great, but also because they remind us of the selves we were when we read them the first (or the latest) time.

And I'm glad too that you're not so freaked out!

PhysioProf said...

That was some seriously deep philosophical shit.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

That's really a great lesson: that sometimes the inspiration comes when we decide not to push.

And I'm also still on "tenure at 35." Holy wow, woman. I barely had my Ph.D. by then. You kinda rock, you know?