Archives for category: PhD

Fresh on the heels of listening to the recording of “You’re Already Good Enough: How Embracing Imperfection and Cultivating Confidence Frees You to Influence and Lead,” I’m putting together an expressive arts project for homeless youth. As I work, I’m thinking, “That’s what these kids need to hear: ‘You’re already good enough!’” Then I pause. While I suspect this is, in fact true, is there anyone who can’t benefit from a bit of reassurance?

I know I need it. Lots. Most of the time, I have some in stock. I just reach into my mental pantry and grab a jar of Hey, I got this. Or a whiff of the idea does the trick. I glimpse evidence that some part of my life is OK and get the needed boost. This is why I love having a clean kitchen and a stocked fridge. It reminds me that whatever chaos is going on, I’ve got decent prospects for survival.

[photo of B Morton]

Dr. Beatrice Morton, mother of three grown children, earned her doctorate at the University of Utah in 1968, when she was in her Fifties.

As a creative writing teacher, a lot of what I do is help people manage fear. Putting your ideas out there for the world to see (or ignore) can be terrifying. I coach my students to reduce the unknown by reading and research. To outwit their inner critics by breaking projects into bite-sized chunks. To nurture their momentum by celebrating small victories like hitting a word count or completing a session. I remind them as often as necessary that if they do these things consistently over time, their work inevitably improves. As a writer, this mental practice runs alongside and through my writing practice. I rely on it daily, whether I’m working on a short story, a grant proposal, or (ahem) a blog post.

Yet there are times when I’m too freaked out by the enormity of the gap between me and a goal to apply my own advice, like when I started studying for my doctoral qualifying exams. The written component I was fine with. I’m a writer. I have a decent idea of how to make written things happen. The three-hour oral component that I had to pass first was another story. Have you ever seen that Food Network show, Chopped? In my department, oral exams consist of committee members taking turns giving you questions, each of which is like a basket of mystery ingredients that may not go together. Your job is to whip up a cohesive, tasty answer that includes the basket items while your judges look on and, well, judge. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel at least some passing discomfort at the prospect of undergoing this rite of passage, but I couldn’t have been more nervous if you’d told me I’d be giving birth to twin Buicks.

My husband, a lovely and encouraging partner, tried to convince me I was already good enough to pass my oral exams. He meant that I already had whatever skills and knowledge the occasion required. I told him (strenuously) that I wasn’t good enough. In a sense, I was right: I was still preparing when we had this exchange. I wasn’t merely nervous: I really wasn’t ready. But in the sense meant by the panelists in the “You’re Already Good Enough” event, I was: the need to build my oral exam skills and master some content wasn’t a reflection of my worth past, present, or future. It was just a stretch along a path I could choose to keep climbing if I wanted to reach a particular destination.

This time in my academic life required me to truly, deeply understand, accept and embrace the distinction. I was good enough—regardless of the outcome of the test. I don’t mean this acceptance was perfect or complete. On a good day, I was maybe 84% sure my worth as a human had little to do with that exam, with the remainder varying between suspecting that it did and ignoring the question altogether. But it was sufficient to let me see how even my mental outlook could be just one more subject in which I could, with knowledge and effort, improve.

This took extra, ongoing labor, which included adapting some exercises from a sports psychology book to my academic goals, then doing them almost daily. This was not my idea of fun. My idea of fun is watching Chopped with my nine-year-old, who makes hilarious and astute observations. But I thought of this like doing reps at the gym so I can run farther without hurting myself. While I wasn’t transformed from a neurotic basket case into a serene professional academic, I was settled enough to do my job: read, review, remember (repeat daily for numerous weeks). On the fateful day, I performed with at least enough poise and wit to convince my committee to let me through to the next challenge.

Would I love to have had an effortless self-assurance in facing those exams? You betcha. But my confidence for that particular challenge had to be cooked from scratch. The goal was important enough to me to invest that effort and not to worry that the cool kids in my department didn’t have to go to such lengths. It was worth accepting the radical notion that imperfect me was perfectly good enough to take the next step I needed toward my academic dream.

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Making art while making a living & a life is, I’ve found, trickier at some times than others. Whatever parts of me need to come together to make writing a good story possible require an ever-changing blend of opposing forces: generosity, fury, patience, diligence, sloth–you name it. Becoming an artist, for me, is as much a matter of mastering myself as it is understanding craft and delving into my material.

image_of_CentennialValley

Sometimes you do need to give creativity a big, clear space to roam. This is Centennial Valley, MT.

I’ve been working on a new group of short stories for a collection that I’ll submit as my dissertation at the University of Utah. One of the new stories, “The Whiskeyjack,” recently won first place in the Utah Arts & Museums Original Writing Competition’s Short Story category. (Thank you, Jon Billman, for selecting my entry!) While that story was a long time coming from the initial idea to the execution, it was mainly built during the one-hour personal writing sessions I engage in before my day job.

Trial and much, much error has shown me that one hour of the cream of the day–for me, the very top layer of coffee-enhanced optimism and quiet alertness I experience before I have to talk to people–usually trumps multiple hours at any other time of the day when it comes to creative (imaginative, expressive) writing. I get more done and the quality of the work seems better.

Yet I have to be honest with you: limiting personal writing time to only one hour a day ever would be like attempting yoga in a phone booth (remember those?). I also take the occasional weekend day when instead of haranguing my kids to clean their rooms or battling the beast-mountain of laundry that perpetually hulks on a table downstairs, I put on headphones and slog away while my lovely husband takes the kids to a movie or something.

And then once in beautiful while, I get away for a couple of days and see what happens when I make a story my whole business for good long string of hours. A couple of years ago, my friend Heidi (amazing poet!) and I took off to the desert for two days. We holed up in a bed and breakfast, wrote and hiked, and otherwise were away from our kids and jobs and everything else.

One of the poems Heidi worked on during our retreat has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize! You can watch her talk about form and her book, Self Portrait as Betty Page here.

Last summer, instead of writing a blog post, I was part of an artist’s colony. With 15 other writers and visual artists, I spent nine days (!) in Centennial Valley, Montana, where cell service and Internet is just rumor and bear spray is something people actually carry. I worked on “The Whiskeyjack” there, and two other stories I know will be in the collection, plus something that may or may not become an essay. By the end of my stay I was really, really ready to go home–see my guys, drink my preferred brand of coffee, NOT THINK ABOUT MY WRITING ALL DAY–but having all that time uninterrupted by ordinary responsibilities was essential for allowing me to sense the shape and weight and possibilities of the work. To see where I needed to get braver, go deeper.

Since returning, I’ve been galloping along with the mostly happy busy-ness of making a living and making a life. Making art is back in its one-hour square on my schedule, with a notable exception: after learning about the prize, I found myself facing the half-built lump of a new story and thinking, I’ll never write another good story again, will I?

Never mind that the point of writing, for me, isn’t to win prizes or even to publish. That’s a desired outcome, but it’s not why I do it. Never mind that I have seen the power of brute force in accomplishing goals: ass in chair for x hours = more & better writing. I found I just couldn’t stomach the thought of bellying up to the computer first thing in the morning. What was happening to me?

My calendar held the clue. Work had heated up. I had two business trips and several high stakes deadlines packed into about three weeks. Maybe the prize had nothing to do with my reluctance to write. Maybe the pendulum was swinging and my inner sea needed to roll in the direction of making a living for a little while.

So I took a break from stories. I drank my coffee while watching TV and planning my work projects instead of facing off with another story. I told myself I’d take a month off from morning writing, but after about thirteen days, I found myself itching to get back to this (stupid, truculent) story I’ve been working on (struggling with). So here I am again, coffee beside me, file open, the scene I wrote yesterday looking not too bad.

Not too bad at all.

There’s a lot to hate about reality TV. Even if you avoid the shows that feature alliances and gossip, the declarations “Go big or go home” and “Failure is not an option” seem as central to the genre as the premise that these are real people doing real things. Setting aside the role of constructed events, failure is an option. Saying otherwise doesn’t guarantee success. And spouting clichés during breakaway spots doesn’t infuse a ritual challenge with drama—it just makes you sound like somewhere behind the scenes, a producer is saying, “You sound too wishy-washy. Can you say, ‘I’ll crush these losers’? No? How about ‘go big or go home’?”

Despite my dislike for reality TV in general, a couple of years ago, I got hooked on Food Network’s Chopped. At first, I was just looking to watch something relaxing that wouldn’t require a channel change each time a young kid walked through the livingroom. Then I noticed similarities between my life as a grad student and the chefs on the show.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the premise. Each episode begins with four chefs and “chops” one chef per course—appetizer, entrée, dessert—to get a winner. Every round is strictly timed and starts with the contestants opening a picnic basket of mismatched ingredients. Then they cook a dish that includes these Mystery Ingredients and whatever they need from a well-stocked pantry. The Mystery items can lead to some amazing innovations (gummy worms melted down and acidified with balsamic vinegar for a vinaigrette) and some horrible-sounding failures.

Like comprehensive exams, the challenges require the chefs to come prepared to improvise. From what I’ve gathered from watching more episodes of this show than I should admit, those who emerge as Chopped Champions generally arrive having internalized such a range of recipes, techniques, and ingredients (some very esoteric) that they can swiftly unite the random ingredients in pleasing arrangements. Some of the chefs say they prepare by practicing various recipes beforehand; others have traveled extensively or apprenticed themselves to many different master chefs. Whatever they do, they often need to treat at least one Mystery Ingredient as a substitute for a standard ingredient in a familiar recipe.

Another feature of the show that seems relevant as I prep for my qualifying exams is the critique the panel of judges deliver after tasting each chef’s food. The judges often disagree about the merits of the dishes, but they rally around three criteria which are more or less consistently understood:

Taste. It’s arbitrary and conventional, so you should try to understand your judges’ palettes. In one episode, a Chopped chef zealously stuck to her health-conscious cooking style. Had she watched the show before, she would likely have understood that the judges tend toward the “full fat, full flavor” principle. They axed her in round one. Making sure I’m aware of and able to account for my committee member’s perspectives while authoritatively representing my own might be challenging at points, but that’s part of the job, I think.

Creativity. The Chopped judges like being surprised as long as the thread of innovation isn’t pulled to snapping. If a chef calls a squid ink and corn chip dessert French Toast, then the judges will expect it to resemble traditional French Toast*. But if they serve just plain old French Toast, then they get a shrug. This may be more relevant to my field (Literature) than others, but the advice I’ve received from a committee member to “be interesting” as I demonstrate how I’ve engaged with these texts seems relevant here—but, I caution myself, this exam is not the occasion on which I want “interesting” to edge into “incomprehensibly eccentric.”

Presentation. Although no one ever seems to win Chopped because they led the pack in visually engaging plates, this element is sometimes used as a tie-breaker. It’s also used to weed out chefs who simply can’t get their food composed and delivered on time. There’s a lot of latitude given for the chef who manages to get all the required ingredients on the plate in perhaps a less-than-stellar way versus the chef with the pretty plate that lacks Mystery Basket ingredients. From this, I’m thinking—hoping—that even if I don’t answer every exam question as gracefully as I’d like, I’ll still pass to the next round as long as I show I understand my field of inquiry.

I notice other affinities between my position as a Humanities grad student and the chefs. One is that the majority of them appear to have chosen their field out of a genuine love for the alchemy of their work and the good things it makes possible. I keep returning my own love because–to pull another phrase from the Reality TV lexicon–that’s what matters at the end of the day.

Though I want that $10k too.

*Incidentally, far too many chefs on Chopped appear to think French Toast is an acceptable dessert item. It’s not. Even when you call it pain perdu.

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