5 Things A Graduated English Major Doesn’t Want To Hear

Even five years after graduating with my English degree, I still describe myself as an “English major.” Do non-English majors do that? or do they all switch from “art major,” “accounting major,” or “biology major” to artist, accountant, and biologist? Maybe it’s because the English major can go so many different directions. Writer, teacher, editor, lawyer, journalist … the list goes on. So if you want to connect with other former English majors, you need to describe yourself as an English major.

Whatever the reason, I still think of myself as an English major. And apparently, people I meet do as well. New acquaintances, and even people I’ve known for a while, make certain assumptions when they hear I’m a writer and my degree is in English. With those assumptions comes a few predictable questions and comments that I’m sure other graduated English majors are all too familiar with as well.

“Can you edit my __?”

I need to preface this section by telling all the friends who I have edited things for, “No, I’m not mad at you.” I’m perfectly happy to look over the new about page for your blog or proof-read your extremely important email. What I’m talking about is the larger editing projects.

I am a professional writer. That’s how I make money. Just because I like writing doesn’t mean I can do it for free all the time. If someone wants me to read every post on their blog before it goes live, or proof-read their new e-book, or edit a story or novel, we need to talk about compensating my time. Maybe we trade critiques, or you use your website to market my e-book, or maybe it’s a per-post editing fee.

You wouldn’t ask your friend who’s a dentist to clean your teeth for free, or your friend who runs a farm to give away their produce because you’re buddies, or an accountant to do your taxes in their spare time. Ask us for an occasional favor, but don’t put your English major friend in the uncomfortable position of explaining they don’t work for free.

“I’ll probably write a book one day”

Yes, tell me how you’ll just pop out a book some day when you have a little extra time. Go ahead and imply writing is easy or something anyone can do if they cared to bother. I dare you. Because the next person who catches me in a bad mood when they say this is going to get a lecture on how much work it actually involves to draft, edit and re-edit a manuscript, then find good beta readers, edit again, and finally decide it’s ready to publish. And then if they haven’t run off yet they’ll get to hear about how the publishing industry actually works.

“I know you’re judging my grammar”

In-person, on Facebook, here in the comments section …. people are constantly apologizing for their grammar, spelling, or sentence structure. (Strangely enough, it’s not usually the people whose comments are actually hard to read.)

I do think people should make an effort to use good grammar, especially in something they publish, and I am a word nerd. But I don’t just sit around judging and resenting my friends for not proof-reading their Facebook message dozens of times before having the audacity to send it. Am I really such a scary grammar Nazi that you feel the need to make jokes about your terrible writing before communicating with me? That just seems weird.

“How do you spell __/What does __ mean?”

I love words. But I’m not a walking dictionary. This question feels good when I know the answer, but when I don’t it’s usually followed up by some variation of, “So what’s your English degree good for?” *facepalm* Apparently I have failed in my life calling. Here, why don’t I Google  the answer for you using a mobile device like the one you’re currently holding in your hand?

“I hate writing/English/reading”

… and we have nothing in common. I spent four years of my life reading and writing things in the English language, and most graduated English majors are still doing that at least to a certain extent. But the main reason I don’t like hearing this comment is because it instantly shuts-down avenues of connection. I don’t care so much about the fact that you don’t enjoy these things. What I care about is that you’re basically telling me not to talk about my career because you didn’t like that subject in school.

Nobody likes to be told their passions have no value. Regardless of what your conversation partner majored in or does for a living, it’s generally not a good idea to tell them you hate it. Much better to say something like, “Wow, that’s cool. I have no talent for it. Can you tell me more about why you enjoy it so much?” Now we’re having a conversation.

Bonus: “Are you making any money?”

Or any related questions including “Do you still live with your parents?” or “Do you have a real yet job?” That’s just not any of your business, especially from new acquaintances. I’ll tell you about my living situation and finances if and when I want.

My fellow English majors, what are your other pre- or post-graduation pet peeves? Any questions or comments you’re tired of hearing?

Why do we care about old writings?

A few years ago when I was in college, one of my professors organized a small group of interested students and took us up to the Cleveland art museum. The purpose of our visit, a touring exhibit of religious artifacts from medieval Europe, was interesting, but that wasn’t what lured me there. It was the museum’s permanent collection of illuminated manuscripts.

These manuscripts date from the Middle Ages. Every page was carefully copied by hand, and they didn’t just stop there. Illuminating a manuscript with (real) gold, silver, and bright colors in illustrations and elaborate first letters turned them into works of art. The sort of books you took the time to create like this were held in high value (many are religious texts).

Why care about old writings? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

photo of Cleveland’s “The Glory of the Painted Page” collection

It’s no secret I love books. But most of the books on my shelves are, in the strictest sense, disposable and replaceable. They were impersonally mass-printed in a factory. Any meaning that particular copy has is unique to me. But for the handwritten manuscripts each copy is unique. They’re irreplaceable. And they were created with love.

That’s also true of the ancient writings I saw yesterday. The Ancient Hebrew Scroll Project is one of only 2 or 3 complete sets of the Tanakh (Old Testament), and it’s the only one you’ll ever have a chance to see. It tours in public and there’s never any admission fee. The oldest scroll is a 600 year old Torah. Others are around 250 years old, with the exception of some scrolls too rare to obtain old copies (those are newly commissioned). Several survived the Holocaust, including a Haftorah that was bayoneted six times by Nazis.

Why care about old writings? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

The beginning of Psalm 119 on a scroll written in 2009. Notice you can see the lines are written in sets of 8, each starting with the same Hebrew letter (that’s why it’s divided alphabetically in your English Bibles; because of the type of poem/song it is)

Every single Bible scroll, the new and the old, was created the same way. Two Levites stand holding a completed scroll open before a scribe. The scribe reads one word aloud, then writes it using a pen made from a turkey feather dipped in ink made from gall nuts, gum-Arabic, and ash. He does this for every single word with the exception of the YHWH name of God. For this word, he will not speak it aloud and before writing it he washes his hands and takes up a pen only used to write the Name.

Once the scroll is finished, the scribe counts every letter to make sure it adds up to the correct number for that scroll. If it passes that test, he gives it to another scribe for re-counting, spell-checking, and format inspection. If that scribe gives it the go-ahead, it’s given to another scribe. Only after two scribes double-check the first scribe’s work is the scroll kosher.

Why care about old writings? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Latter (aka “Minor”) Prophets. Scroll written the late 17th Century

“So what?” some people ask. Who cares about hand-writing things like this in the age of computers? And yet this is how the Bible was preserved intact and unchanged for thousands of years. It’s the only way any writing from pre-1440 got passed down to us. There’s something about the process itself that lends meaning to the books and scrolls created with such careful attention.

New, fast, and disposable isn’t always better. There’s value in taking time to pour love and great care into something that will last. That’s one of the lessons the old writings teach us. They give us a chance to stop and ponder what we value. Something preserved in this way has to matter or it’s not worth taking the time.

Why care about old writings? (or, On Torah Scrolls and Illuminated Manuscripts) | marissabaker.wordpress.com

If there were no computers or printing presses any more, which writings would you value highly enough to copy by hand letter by letter so nothing was lost?

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Maybe The Telephone Isn’t An Enemy

Some of you might think that title is strange, but my fellow introverts will understand. The hours of mental preparation that go into making a two minute phone call. The sense of dread when the phone rings and you aren’t ready to talk with someone. The pressure of sounding engaged and alert while thinking fast enough to avoid awkward silences. Most of us view the telephone in much the same way the Dowager Countess of Grantham does.

some thoughts for introverts. Click to read article, "Maybe The Telephone Isn't An Enemy" | marissabaker.wordpress.comBut I had a truly enjoyable phone conversation with a friend this weekend, and I realized this wasn’t an isolated incident. When he asked for my number my first instinct was panic, then I realized there wasn’t any reason to. I talk with my sister on the phone for hours almost every day. I chat with my dance team when we’re coordinating practice times. I enjoy the unexpected call from my cousin or a select group of friends. Chatting on the phone really isn’t all that scary.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I am in many ways a stereotypical introvert in regards to the telephone. We don’t have caller ID on the landline and the calls are rarely for me, so I refuse to answer when it rings unless I recognize the voice and want to talk with them now. My cell phone is set so it doesn’t even ring unless the number is in my contacts list and, in general, I much prefer written communication. There are times, however, when telephones are a preferable method of communication. Continue reading

Books That Tell Truth Through Lies

As I was going through blog posts in my inbox yesterday,  I noticed two of my fellow bloggers were writing about reading recommendations and lists. Juni Desireé was posting about the top 10 books on her reading list for this year, and Socratic MBTI offered three quick recommendations for “enriching” books to read. In the past, I’ve shared a couple lists of my own, including my favorite fantasy books, but that was way back in 2013 (I’ve been blogging that long!?!). Sounds like it’s time for another recommended books post! Fiction That Tells The Truth

Books That Tell A Truth Through Lies | marissabaker.wordpress.com

I’m taking the title of this post from one of my favorite ideas — that even though “fiction” is defined as imaginary or untrue it is, in fact, a vehicle for telling the truth.

“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” ― Tim O’Brien

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” ― Albert Camus

“A fiction writer weaves a fabric of lies in hopes of revealing deeper human truths.” ― Wally Lamb

That’s my favorite kind of fiction. Any good story can teach you something true about yourself or other people, but truly great stories are going to get at a “deeper human truth” than is often isn’t possible in any other form. Child-labor laws would have passed in Britain without Dickens, but would it have happened as quickly if people hadn’t read Oliver Twist? Would the phrase “Catch-22” have entered our vocabulary if Joseph Heller wrote an essay instead of a novel?

Many books exist to share truths or make us think about something we’d otherwise overlook. One of the more famous is 1984 by George Orwell, which I’ve never actually finished reading (I know, I know — I’ll go hide in the corner now). Many others teach us truths seemingly by accident while telling a story. Here are just a few examples :

*note: there will be spoilers for all these books.

The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien insisted his The Lord of the Rings trilogy was not allegorical or inspired by his personal life, but I think we can at least say that his faith (Catholic) and his history (serving in both World Wars) influenced his writings. It’s a classic battle of good verses evil that set the stage for every epic fantasy adventure written since.

Just in case you’ve escaped reading or watching LOTR, the formerly-vanquished dark lord Sauron has come back into power in Middle Earth and is attempting to regain control of a magic ring that will let him subdue all lands and people under his power.  Though there are great warriors involved in the fight, the final victory hinges on two little hobbits from the middle of nowhere who hiked a very, very long way to destroy the ring.

By taking us outside of our own world, Tolkien shares universal truths about what makes a real friendship, the sacrifices required to do the right thing, and the importance of resisting evil even when it seems hopeless. One of the truths that hits me the hardest when reading or watching Lord of the Rings is how helpless we are to resist evil on our own. Frodo was incredibly strong on an emotional and psychological level and he carried the ring longer than any other character could have, but he still couldn’t make it up to Mount Doom by himself. Sam carried him the rest of the way and Frodo still wouldn’t have destroyed the ring if Gollum hadn’t fought him for it and carried it into the fires when he fell. Even heroes are susceptible to evil’s pull and they can’t overcome alone.

Mockingjay

I’ve read the whole Hunger Games book series and just watched Mockingjay Part II this past weekend. Suzanne Collins grew up learning about military history from her father — a Vietnam veteran and history professor. She didn’t go the history professor route herself, though, instead majoring in theater and telecommunications, then earning a master’s degree in dramatic writing.

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay all take a good, hard look at what the article linked above describes as “necessary and unnecessary wars.” They quote Collins saying, “If we introduce kids to these ideas earlier, we could get a dialogue about war going earlier and possibly it would lead to more solutions.” In this case, the writer approached her storytelling hoping to convey truths about and get a dialogue started on ideas relate to war.

My mother, brother and I were talking yesterday about how Mockingjay is a story that sticks with you. It’s not something you can just read/watch and move on from. This is largely owing to what is probably Collins’ least popular authorial choice — killing Finnick Odair. In the book I actually read right over his death the first time and then had to go back and figure out what happens to him. His death isn’t the driving force in a major plot point (like Prim’s death) and he doesn’t have a dying scene all of his own (like Rue does in the first book). He just dies senselessly and tragically while the action moves on without him. And that’s the point. In real life, death doesn’t always make sense or serve a specific purpose.

Ender’s Game

This book could have so easily been nothing more than a story about a futuristic society that trains children to kill aliens. But Ender’s Game was written by Orson Scott Card (one of my all-time favorite writers) and there’s much more to it than that. The real story isn’t about the alien threat — it’s about human nature.

Ender’s Game wrestles with the question of how far it’s “okay” to go when you’re at war, and it does so from the perspective of a child who’s been immersed in a militaristic system for the bulk of his formative years. Just in case the military training isn’t enough to make him comfortable with genocide, though, he’s taught the entire thing is a game — that none of the aliens will actually die if he wins.

As the story unwinds, we’re forced to confront ideas that can spill over into our own world. How violent can games become before they start affecting reality? When, if ever, are large-scale preemptive strikes an acceptable form of self-defense? What is an adult’s responsibility toward children?

Somewhat less obvious is the question of an individual’s responsibility within society. Ender was raised from a young age to think of the Buggers (this name was changed to Formics in later Enderverse writings) as enemies you must destroy at all costs. He should have been thoroughly brainwashed into believing this, and yet learning he’d succeeded in wiping out his enemy in real life rather than just in-game nearly destroyed him. He devoted the rest of his life to making others understand the Hive Queen’s perspective and trying to set things right by bringing back the Formics species. Perhaps that’s the real take-away truth from Ender’s Game — there are at least two sides (and often more) to every story and it’s not always easy to see who’s right.

Your Turn: What are some of the truths you’ve discovered in and through fiction?

Not Wanting To Write

It’s about 4:30 in the afternoon Sunday as I write this. Usually by this time I’m either proof-reading a completed post for Monday or wrapping-up my work on a finished idea. What’s worse, I don’t even I care that haven’t written a post yet. I mean, I’d probably care tomorrow when I wake up and realize I failed all of you readers, but at this point I’ve had too little sleep and too much Netflix to function as my normal self.

Well, perhaps not entirely. At least I’m writing about not wanting to write. It’s a start. I’ve been writing professionally long enough to know you can’t just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike if you want to get a blog post, article, story or book written. People who do that aren’t writers.

Not Wanting To Write | marissabaker.wordpress.com

photo credit: “Content writer” by Ritesh Nayak, CC BY-SA via Flickr

If you aren’t a writer you can get away with not writing when you don’t want to. Hobbies and pastimes are voluntary. But when writing is what you do you don’t just stop. In fact, if you’re doing things right, most of the time it feels like you can’t stop writing. For writers, not-writing should feel stranger than writing.

There’s a myth out there that writing is easy (“Oh, so you’re a writer? That’s cool. I might write a novel in my spare time some day”). It’s not. Yes, there will be days when the words flow out and you’re convinced what you’re writing is pure genius and you just know these words have the power to touch people’s souls. But mostly you have to sit down everyday with your pen or your laptop or your typewriter and make the words move from brain to fingers.

 

Struggling to write is perfectly okay just so long as you don’t give up. I suppose it’s that way with most things, actually. Anything worth doing is going to be hard at some point. What’s important is that we don’t stop, at least not for long. By all means take a break, eat a little chocolate and watch some anime (my sister hooked me on Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood), but don’t stay there.

It’s about 7:30 in the afternoon as I finish writing this. Look at that — we’ve got a finished blog post, even with the distractions of searching for quotes about writing and playing Star Trek Online. And you know what? I think I just might keep writing. My short story collection needs one more story, and there’s a character named Taline just waiting to be discovered …