​You know you’re in Peace Corps Rwanda when…

This experience is challenging me and changing me in ways I never expected,and I try hard to share those metamorphic experiences with you, but ​I don’t have something important to say all the time. Sometimes all I can do is look at where I am and who I’ve become and laugh. 

This is a list I’ve been adding to since PST. If you’re in the Peace Corps, especially here or somewhere similar, you may see yourself in these items. If you’re not, you can probably get a more realistic picture of my life from this than from any of my thoughtful posts.

Without further ado, you know you’re in Peace Corps Rwanda when…

  • You have strong feelings about the best types of pit latrine
  • You have a stockpile of paper bags because you know market vendors will charge you for a bag
  • You get really excited about balanced meals

  • You fear schisto but will probably swim in a lake at some point during your service
  • You have no qualms about someone sitting on your lap on the twege
  • Your fantasies include ice, berries, varieties of cheese, and cold milk that won’t give you TB
  • You can’t remember the last time you left the house in shorts and you feel marginally indecent in a sleeveless shirt
  •  “I’m so glad I’m not on a bus” is a sentiment you feel frequently
  • You no longer assume that a library will actually have books in it
  • You assume everything will start an hour or so behind schedule 
  • You have a favourite method of lighting your charcoal stove and are suspicious of any other way—bonus points if that method is not “bury a candle in it”
  • You’ve accepted that at some point in your service you will be on a bus with someone else’s vomit on you
  • You own multiple igitenge clothing items, probably in Western styles that no self-respecting Rwandan would actually make out of igitenge
  • You know all the best places for American food in Kigali
  • You’re semi-seriously hoping for a mild medical emergency so you can see South Africa on PC’s dime
  • Your excuse about why you’re not married/don’t have kids yet is so automatic you could answer personal questions in your sleep
  • You’ve found sneaky ways to get alcohol into your house without your neighbours noticing that you drink
  • You can discuss diarrhoea like a champ
  • You understand my village is exceptional when I say, “I’ve seen at least ten dogs,” and you know it’s really spectacular when I add, “And nobody throws rocks at them”

  • You either love or hate foods like isombe, ibitoki, and ubugari
  • You have the malaria symptoms memorised
  • You know that 7000 is exorbitant for a single burger, but you’re still willing to pay for it every time you go to Bourbon
  • You no longer equate free WiFi with functional service
  • You consider any trip under an hour to be “not bad,” especially if it doesn’t involve tweges
  • You don’t even question the presence of that 23-year-old in your Senior 4 English class
  • You skip work if it’s raining 
  • And you acknowledge your muzungu-ness any time you do have to walk through the rain
  • You’ve almost forgotten the existence of fridges
  • You know that every PCV falls into one of two categories: those who wear their giant PC-issue moto helmet and those who don’t
  • “Subiramo?” (“Repeat?”) is a staple of your vocabulary
  • You look at any rice sack as a potential teaching aid
  • You know that no event is complete without Fanta

Feel free to add in the comments if you think of more I’m missing! 

Why? 

​Kubera iki?

Why?

Lately I’ve had some discouraging days. I’ve looked at other volunteers’ work and felt insufficient beside their accomplishments. I’ve looked at the tasks ahead of me and felt incompetent to complete them. I’ve looked at the students before me and felt incapable of teaching them. 

I’ve had to sit myself down and remind myself of the reasons I’m here—and, more importantly, of the reasons not to be here. I had to hold up a lot of expectations and desires, consider them, and then throw them out.

So without further ado, here are some reasons not to join the Peace Corps:

  • You want to save the world

Joining the Peace Corps sounds so heroic. It carries a connotation of sacrifices made for the good of others. It’s used in movies whenever a character needs a generic Good Thing in their past. It seems like a way to really make a difference. And honestly the stats showing PC’s impact on the world are impressive. But you won’t see those numbers. You’ll be inside the situation, one person facing billions, and the problems even just in your village will be too numerous and expansive for you to tackle on their entirety, never mind fixing the whole world’s issues. You can give important-sounding labels to your work—developing capacity maybe, or spreading literacy, or increasing gender equality—but really much of your service will come down to the everyday tedium of small, unheroic tasks done well. Cleaning your floor, or talking to a neighbour, or going to the bank, or getting to work on time. Don’t get me wrong: you will make a difference. But you will not save the world. 

Here’s what my world looks like at the moment. Observe that I have not saved it.
  • You need immediate affirmation in your job

If you need someone to tell you you’re doing things right as soon as you do them, this is not the job for you. While there are plenty of short-term accomplishments, PC jobs work toward long-term improvement. You may only see your triumphs in retrospect. You may feel like a failure in the moment. You may go a long time without anyone telling you you’re doing well, and you have to keep working, keep watching for the tiny successes that tell you you’re getting there, and keep trusting that one day you’ll look back and see that something you did somewhere along the line made some kind of a difference. 

  •  You need to feel competent

It doesn’t matter how much training you have in the sector you work in, getting thrown into a brand new culture and a brand new way of doing things and a brand new language will leave you feeling out of your depth. If, like a lot of PCVs, you have training related to your sector but not directly in the job you’re doing, it’s even worse. And even if you feel competent in your specific job, you’re likely to feel incompetent in a hundred other ways. Trying to start secondary projects. Trying to hold simple conversations. Trying to buy food. Some days I feel incompetent just walking next door. 

  • You can’t stand discomfort

PCVs joke about “Posh Core,” but it doesn’t matter if you got lucky and have running water, or electricity, or a real toilet—you will still be uncomfortable. You will be uncomfortable talking to strangers in a new language, or bargaining in the market, or refusing to hand out money on the streets. You will be uncomfortable on your mattress on the floor the first night, and in the latrine the first time you get food poisoning, and in your job on the first day when you don’t know the people and you don’t know the routine and you don’t know the work. You’ll be uncomfortable on busses, you’ll be uncomfortable interviewing local officials, you’ll be uncomfortable attending religious services or social functions. Every time you get comfortable, you’ll be pushed on to something else hard or scary or awkward. Peace Corps is a lot of things—rewarding, interesting, challenging—but comfortable is not one of them.

Also uncomfortable: having children stare in the window while I teach.
  • You don’t want to work outside your career path

It doesn’t matter if you specifically trained for the job you’re doing in PC, you’ll be doing something outside your career path. Trained as a teacher? Great. You’re set for your primary assignment, but you’ll probably also write grants for a new basketball court or have to study up on microfinance to help local women for your secondary project. Peace Corps isn’t a normal nine-to-five where you have a set job description and you do the thing you’re told to do and then go home. Your job description in PC is to do whatever your village needs, and to learn how to do it if you don’t know already.

  • You want to live a private life

There’s nothing private about PCV life. Everyone knows you’re a foreigner. People discuss you and stare at you and ask you invasive questions and watch you to see how you handle life. I’ve had people in awe because I knew how much to pay for a twege ride that I take every few weeks. I’ve had people ask me if the reason I’m single is that I don’t have “a functional body.” People in the street comment on my wardrobe and talk about me whether or not they know I can understand them, and when I brought home my puppy, ten different people appeared to see it, marvel that I want an animal, and ask me to describe her diet in detail. 

  • You want to do something you already know how to do

You don’t know how to be a PCV. It doesn’t matter what your previous training or experience is, because every site, every job, every service is different. There will be things you didn’t anticipate and things you have no idea how to handle. You’ll get really good at shouting out for answers from other PCVs or begging your neighbours for help. You’ll learn to improvise, to be flexible, to make it up as you go along, to take criticism, and to recognise indirect feedback from the people around you. You will spend enormous amounts of time doing things you’re not sure how to do, and you’ll discover you can do them.  

  • You want all-or-nothing results

I already said you can’t save the world. But life isn’t an all-or-nothing proposal. You can’t save the world. But you can make a tiny corner of it a tiny bit better for a tiny number of people. For the one student who really takes off, or for the one woman who learns how to keep her new baby healthy, or for the one group that benefits from your secondary project. If you join the Peace Corps, you won’t end poverty. You won’t singlehandedly educate a nation. You won’t change an economy in two years. But you will open up opportunities for a few kids. You will bring awareness of different cultures to people in your village and to people back home. You will be privileged to see incredible instances of hard work and determination and compassion and teamwork winning out over circumstances. And you will find that it’s an exchange—that for everything you give, the people around you give back in ways you never expected.

These kids excited about books despite being totally unable to understand them is one of those tiny ways I’m moving forward. Maybe someday these kids will be able to sit down with a book, read it, understand it, and enjoy it.

So yeah, sometimes I’m discouraged. Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing anything important. But the truth is I’m not here to do something important. I’m here to do a lot of little things well and to trust that some of those little things will make a difference. 

Q&A

​Thanks to everyone who sent in questions! I’m excited to tell you more about my life here. 

Who are your best friends? 

It actually took me quite a while, and sometimes I thought I would spend two years feeling very alone—but partway through training I found my place with three friends: 

  • Colin, who constantly makes us laugh and is surprisingly quick to listen to other people’s opinions
  • Claire, who knows more philosophy and literature than the rest of us and constantly forces us to think hard and re-evaluate our ideas
  • Emily, who has all the practical knowledge under the sun and encourages all of us. 

We laughingly call our group Safety Dance and are planning a family reunion sometime in the next month or two.

The four of us take family photos whenever big things happen, such as this one at host family farewell.

What are you reading? 
I’ve been trying to keep it varied:

I’m slowly working my way through St Augustine’s Confessions and Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. I just finished Beloved by Toni Morrison and Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and I’m halfway through Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller. 

(I also didn’t sleep for two straight days because I was reading Luminosity and Radiance, a Twilight reimagining along the lines of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Don’t judge; just go read it.) 

What do you wish you had known before travelling overseas? 

I’ve done quite a bit of travelling before, but I’ve mostly been to European countries where there’s never a question of whether or not my bank cards will work or what conveniences I can find. Here I’ve been told that my bank cards will probably not work—meaning I have to work out alternative ways to access my bank account if I want to, say, hike Kilimanjaro (I want to) or see the gorillas (I want to)—and while I was told my internet would be sketchy at best, I really didn’t have a good grasp on what that would mean or how many aspects of my life would be affected by that lack.

What’s been the hardest adjustment you’ve had to make? How are you overcoming it? 

Socialising! Relationships are a cornerstone of Rwandan culture. Greeting people is significant—to refuse to greet someone implies that they don’t exist for you—and Rwandans love to visit and be visited. 

And I am an introvert with social anxiety. If I’m not careful, trying to meet the standard of being friendly to everyone leaves me exhausted, both physically and emotionally. 

Overcoming this is mostly about pacing myself. Instead of trying to greet every person on the street, I limit myself to people I know, people who greet me first, and old women and children, unless I’m feeling particularly energetic and friendly. I only force myself to leave the house once a day. It’s also growing easier as I get to know more people in my village; I now have several friends with whom I feel comfortable almost all the time, so I can socialize with them and not feel like I need to sleep for a week when I get home.

(A close second is constantly having to defend being single and the principle that it’s okay to be single/to want to be single. In this culture, there’s no word for “woman” separate from “wife.” You’re either a girl or a wife. It’s emotionally and mentally more tiring than I expected to constantly tell people that I’m not married, that I don’t particularly want to be married at the moment, that I don’t plan to marry the first Rwandan man who asks me, that I might never get married.)

How can I send you mail? 

I’m glad you asked! Check out this page, which has my mailing address and some advice about the best ways to send things. Some volunteers have had problems with missing mail, but so far all of my things have arrived in good shape in a more or less timely manner.

Are there restrictions on what I can send? 
I’m sure there are. You should check with USPS if you’re not sure about something, since I don’t have the rules memorised, but here are a few things I do know: 

  • You’re not supposed to send liquids
  • You’re not supposed to send money
  • Packages take a long time so anything perishable will stink by the time I get it 🙂 


Do you feel your training prepared you for site? 

Yes and no. I don’t think anything could have fully prepared me for the experience of standing alone in my own house with no furniture, matches, or charcoal, knowing nobody, in a place I had never so much as visited. At the same time, here I am, two months later, beginning to feel really at home in my village. I haven’t starved and I have made friends. I could not have survived here without the training I was given on both a cultural and a practical level. And while I think my language was (and still is) hugely lacking, there’s also only so much you can learn of a complex new language in just three months. There are some practical concerns that I wish had been addressed during training, but it where explicit information was missing from training, I gained cultural and language skills and a flexible attitude that make it possible for me to now solve problems as they come up. 

I should also add that other PCVs and PC staff have been available to answer all my questions and my neighbours and coworkers have gone above and beyond to help me out of any jams I’ve gotten into. 

Do you have time to draw? 

Sometimes. I haven’t drawn much since coming here in part because I’ve had a lot of other things taking up my creative energy (such as lesson planning with no resources!) and in part because I couldn’t bring my favourite medium—my collection of coloured inkwells—with me. 

Here’s a quick doodle I did during a training session—I walked home behind these three women one night. Also I can’t get my phone to rotate the picture, so you’ll have to rotate your heads. Sorry.  

How have you adjusted to using different currency? 
Having no frame of reference for what was expensive of cheap was really difficult at first. The conversion rate hovers around 1USD to 850RWF (Rwandan francs), so the prices don’t look even slightly similar to American prices. During PST I started viewing all prices in relation to an average meal at my favourite cheap restaurant, which helped. Now I have a much clearer sense of what prices are expensive in relation to each other and to my income—and to the average Rwandan’s income—and I usually don’t even think about it.

What has been the hardest thing you’ve had to experience so far?

The level of poverty. Abject poverty is the norm here, not the exception. It’s hard having children dressed in literal rags visit me and tell me they don’t go to school because their parents can’t afford to buy them a uniform, or having a child walk several hours to go door to door through my village asking for work because he’s hungry. “Eliminate poverty” is the first answer my students give to almost any critical thinking question I pose. It’s incredibly difficult to live among these people knowing that even my meager income is higher than theirs and that I can’t do much for that aspect of their lives. 

What new food have you liked?  
I like a lot of food here, but my biggest surprises have been igikoma—porridge—and ubugari—a gelatinous “bread” made of cassava flour. In both cases, seeing the texture made me expect to be stifling a gag reflex, but igikoma became my favourite snack during PST and ubugari has a mild, woody flavour that makes it a great base for sopping up sauces.

What have you learned about yourself, and the individuals you’ve met, during your time there so far? 

About myself: 

I am a lot less patient and flexible than I thought! Being here has pushed me to limits I didn’t know I had. I’ve gotten angry about miscommunications and I’ve given way to frustration with coworkers, friends, and supervisors. I constantly have to check myself and my reactions.

About the individuals I’ve met: 

The thing that has been constantly impressed on me is that they’re just that: individuals. Culture can predict a lot about how someone will react, what they’ll say, etc.—especially in a place like Rwanda that’s small and mostly homogenous in a way the US isn’t—but people here are just as unique and individual as anyone else. Control-freak me wants to be able to predict and navigate all social situations by understanding culture, but that’s not how it works. It’s simple and profound, but the truth is that these people, just like all other people, are not their culture; they’re themselves. 


Feel free to keep sending me questions via Facebook, comments, or direct messages! I’ll collect them and keep answering until they run out.

In America… 

​“Mur’Amerika…”

“In America…”

Sometimes we PCVs say to each other things like, “Do you remember in America when we had hot water?” or, “Do you remember in America how berries existed?” It’s partly us missing the conveniences, culture, and cuisine, and partly reminding each other that we’re in a place we never really thought we would be.

We’re so immersed in life here that sometimes we have to sit back and make ourselves consciously notice all the things that are unique to this place, all the details of our settings and experiences that tangibly mark our adventure here as patently different from where we were before.

I could write you a blow-by-blow description of my daily life, but perhaps you will have a better holistic understanding of my situation if I tell you about the things that have happened in the past few weeks that would not happen in America.

In America, opening conversations with strangers would not include the following questions: 

  • “How old are you?” (followed directly by “You’re just a child!”)
  • “Are you married?” (followed directly by “Why not?” or 
  • “When will you get married?”) 
  • “Do you still have both parents?”

In America, my white skin would not cause ripples of whispers and hisses and whistles and shouts, and nobody would immediately assume that I speak French. I would not be hugged by random toddlers in the street, mothers would not point me out to their children, and babies would not burst into terrified tears at the sight of me. 

In America, I would not walk into the third day of school and hear that the administration still has not made an academic calendar or official timetable. I would not try to find the curriculum for my classes three days after beginning teaching, and I would not have the subjects I teach changed a week into the schoolyear.
In America I would not walk home for lunch surrounded by fifty or so unsupervised three- to ten-year-olds.

In America, I would not see a man carrying three stools on his head, and if I did, I would not cross the road to ask if they were for sale. He would not then tell me a price higher than the going rate, and I would not then counter with a lower price. He would not unbind the chairs and have me sit in each of them right there on the side of the road. I would not then walk home carrying a chair.

In America, I would not consider taking a bus to the nearest large city just to get internet, and I would not hoard my non-burnable rubbish to carry to that city—the nearest place with receptacles for waste disposal.
In America, I would not wake to roosters cackling, cows bellowing, and goats shrieking in the streets, nor to the distinctive sound of magpies fighting for prime perches on my roof.

In America, I would not stay home from work because it was raining.

In America, I would not walk to an open-air market several times a week for basic groceries, and I would not carry those groceries home in a backpack.

In America, I would not coax charcoal into flame in order to cook. I would not pay close attention to my protein intake, and I would not eat cabbage in nearly every meal. I would not—along with about a dozen other PCVs—nearly burst into tears at the sight of homemade chocolate-chip cookies.

In America, I would not feel obliged to introduce visiting friends to all of my neighbours, and little old ladies in the market would not feel obliged to inform those friends that I am “muzungu wacyu”—“our foreigner.”
In America, a shopkeeper would not send me home with goods I have not paid for, saying, “You’ll come back tomorrow.”

In America, children would not show up at school on a Saturday armed with machetes and hoes and proceed to cut down all the coffee trees and dig a volleyball court out of the hill behind the nursery building, and in America, I would not join them if they did.

In America, a stranger would not meet me in the street, ask if I live alone, and then appear in the evening to visit with me because “it is not good to be alone.”
In America, my neighbour would not give me beans and milk purely because she has them and I do not. My neighbour would not check on me every few nights to ask if I’m doing alright, and she would not teach the neighbourhood my name. My boss would not consider it his duty to make sure that I “live well” in my neighbourhood.

When I stop to think about it, there’s very little of my life here that would happen in America. Some of it is hard. Some of it is so easy I almost don’t notice it. Sometimes the culture here feels like a puzzle I’ll never fit into, and sometimes it takes my breath away with its kindness and welcome.

The important thing isn’t what would be happening if I were in America right now; it’s that I’m not. I’m here, in Rwanda, living this life with these people, and I love it.

Oh Brother (or: 8 reasons I’m grateful to my brothers)

You may have guessed from my kind of bossy, kind of control-freak-y attitude that I’m an oldest child. What you may not have guessed is that my younger siblings include four brothers, all of whom now tower over me. Today, in belated honour of my youngest brother turning sixteen (!!!), here’s a list of things for which I’m grateful to those li’l stinkers. If you have brothers, you can probably relate.

1.  Teaching me to punch…
If you’re going to hit someone, do it right; none of this weak-wristed, limp-knuckled sissy stuff. Lucky for me, I had four growing guys around to ridicule me into learning proper form.

http://giphy.com/gifs/cheezburger-ouch-rtIN7H0tUPJ6g
by GIPHY

2.  …and to take a punch
If you’re going to throw a punch, you’d better be prepared to take one. Fortunately there was no end of surprise tackles, slug-bug games, and rough fights during our formative years. Thanks, guys.

3.  Pushing me past my limits
Whether it was climbing to the highest branch of the mango tree, playing 24-hour Halo binges, or taking the dog for a run, my brothers have always pushed me. I lost the “I’m the oldest” edge pretty early on, and while I might think I’m dying, those boys have made me go farther, faster, and harder than I ever would have without them.

http://giphy.com/gifs/love-pixer-37sp7iloH2CqY
by GIPHY

4.  Calling me out
I’m a forceful personality, and let’s face it—most people hate confrontation. Here’s to my brothers for listening to my perspectives and still telling me when I’m wrong.

5.  Pretending I’m tall
They’re all about six feet tall. I’m short. They very nicely pretend I’m tall even though they tower over me—in fact, just this morning one of them pretended to think I’m 5’6″, which is simultaneously ridiculous and very sweet.

shortpeople

6.  Letting me tag along
There was a time when I was the big kid and they tried to follow me everywhere, and I made life miserable for them by doing things like tying them to trees and leaving them there or locking them inside so they couldn’t follow me. Now they’re the big kids, and they let me tag along on their adventures to the shooting range, their college campus, or boys-only(ish) poker night in the living room.

7.  Calling me cool
Let’s face it—nobody is cool 100% of the time, and it’s not really cool to think your siblings are cool, and yet these boys not only let me do stuff with them but also, apparently, tell their friends that I’m cool. One of my brothers is even friends with me on tumblr, so you know it’s a real thing. Me and my fragile ego thank you, kiddos.

http://giphy.com/gifs/Uc3MMBWaipta8
by GIPHY

8.  Protecting me
Whether it’s shooting the guy behind me in Halo (because, honestly, I am video-game-incompetent), loaning me a sweatshirt when it’s cold, or physically helping me scramble to the top of a boulder, my brothers are always there. We don’t talk about it, because it’s cheesy, but they demonstrate it all the time. There’s nothing quite so reassuring as knowing with certainty that no matter what trouble I get into, those four young men have my back.

  • In short, my brothers are the best. I love them.

Advice: What I Wish I’d Been Told As A Freshman

Did your family ever have one of those gag gifts that made interminable rounds? Maybe it was an ugly knickknack passed on every year to some new relative who didn’t want it and who would chuck it in a closet until next year provided an opportunity to dump it on someone else. In my family it was an old musical on VHS that bounced back and forth between my brother and my dad for years.

I’ve realised that there’s another gag gift we give without warning: advice. I don’t mean to diminish the value of wise words spoken with care, but a quick review of advice you’ve received should show you that while some advice is thoughtfully given, much of it is slapped about with a dash of cliche and all the serious forethought of a late-night ice cream binge.

College students in particular are singled out for the well-meant but ill-considered gift of unsought advice; we’re young, we’re at a potentially difficult stage of life, and we’re leaping into new experiences and challenges without much idea of what they’ll entail. The words of wisdom I’ve received over the past four or five years could fill several books, ranging from the profound to the laughable.

The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.
—Oscar Wilde

And yet, really, good advice is one of the most valuable things we can give each other. Words well thought through and given in love can be as meaningful as slapdash adages can be useless.

So, in the spirit of one of my favourite Oscar Wilde quotes, here it is: the advice I wish I’d been given when I started university.

Don’t do things for the resume.

Trust me, assuming you have a job and some involvement on campus or in the community, your resume will be full by graduation. By signing up for anything and everything that looks good on a resume, you leave yourself no time to pursue things that really matter to you. Almost any activity can build your resume in some way, whether it’s by developing career skills, demonstrating responsible activism, showing your leadership, or simply proving you finish what you start. The difference, though, is that when you get asked about a line on your resume that you took simply to look good, you can only spout a list of typical job skills. But when you get asked about an activity you chased after because you’re passionate about after-school programs, or international relationships, or whatever it is—you could talk for days about all the ways you were challenged and changed. Your passion comes out in your voice, and you stand out. Don’t do things for the resume. Do things because you care about them.

You don’t have to know everyone.

I come from a small school in a small town. Everyone knows everyone. I came to college thinking it would be the same—that I should know everyone’s name. That somehow I was a good person if I knew everyone and a selfish person if I didn’t. Focus on others, I’ve been taught. Care about the people around you. Important attitudes, of course, but impractical when you take “the people around you” to mean every single person with whom you interact. I wish someone had told me to differentiate between common courtesy and real friendship, that someone had reminded me that while I should smile and hold doors and say “thank you,” I could forego learning thousands of people’s names and instead focus my energies on cultivating close friendships with the handful of people near me. If you’re the kind of person who wants to know a hundred people, of course, go meet them. But with a limited amount of time, chances are you won’t have know every person around. That’s fine. Be nice to strangers and save your time and emotions for the few people with whom you’ll develop lasting, meaningful relationships.

Some classes will be bad.

College is an opportunity. Whether you’re working hard and scrounging pennies to make it financially viable or riding it out on your parents’ generosity, you’ve got an opportunity that not everyone is offered, and you should make the most of that. Don’t throw away chances to learn merely because you dislike a teacher or don’t care for the subject. At the same time, recognise that some classes are there to be passed and then forgotten. Maybe it’s the freshman orientation class filled with cliche life skills, or maybe it’s that Spanish class that, it turns out, replicates the one you took in high school. Not every class is well planned, and not every professor is good at teaching. Let the bad classes heighten your appreciation for the good ones. Sit through lectures and do your homework, because sometimes in life we do things we don’t want to, because that’s part of being an adult. Appreciate any brilliant moments in the semester, check the requirement off your catalogue list, and move on. It’s okay to dislike classes as long as it doesn’t keep you from learning when there is something useful to pick up.

In the interest of being fair to all the loving relatives and friends who gave me college advice, I have to admit a lot of it was useful. A lot of it came at just the right moment to encourage me or change my perspective. But we all have lessons we learn the hard way. You’ll make mistakes no matter what, but maybe you can avoid the ones I made.

My campus is prettier than your campus. #tayloru #autumnleaves #cantgetovertrees

A post shared by Elizabeth Syson (@ejsyson) on

3 Reasons You Should Do NaNoWriMo

It’s November–the month of crunchy leaves, cold wind, the first snowflakes, and…rough drafted novels?

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Yes, my word-loving friends, National Novel Writing Month is upon us again. All across my social media, the familiar abbreviation is cropping up, usually accompanied by expressions of excitement and terror. Word counts are appearing in people’s Tweets and statuses, and frenzied writers are placing desperate calls to friends for plot help.

NaNo, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is essentially a challenge: write a 50,000-word novel in a month.

Now, I get that not everyone is interested in a writing-related career. But if you have even the slightest interest in writing, I encourage you to dive into the NaNo challenge with the rest of us, and here’s why.

  1. Support
    I’ve taken part in critique circles, editing groups, and submission calls, and these result in critiques, edits, and rejections (and, of course, sometimes, acceptance–which is always accompanied by critiques and edits). A writer needs thick skin; we pour our hearts into original creations and then bear the pain of seeing all our creations’ flaws pointed out… but not during NaNo! This month is not about perfection or critiques. This month is about kicking out word after word after word, pressing through writers’ block, overcoming lapses in creativity, doing anything it takes to reach that goal. The result of NaNo is not, in anyone’s case, a perfect novel. It’s the worst rough draft you’ve ever written, which is exciting because, in the end, you’ve written it. All of us know that our novels will be utter rubbish when we finish. We know each other’s novels will be utter rubbish. So we celebrate the rough drafts. We celebrate every word we force from our imaginations, through our nerves, out our fingers onto the screen. We celebrate the plot holes and the bad twists and the cliches and the filler words and the improbable endings. We celebrate the process.
  2. Community
    Writing is by nature a solitary pursuit, and many writers are by nature solitary people. NaNo gives us a chance to join together in our solitude. I sit on my couch alone with my cup of coffee and my word count of, most likely, a thousand words fewer than I need for the day, but I’m not really alone. I’m in the company of hundreds of thousands of writers around the world. Each of us has a different reason for doing this. Stubbornness, maybe, or love of a challenge. Desire to prove wrong everyone who said we couldn’t, or desperation to finish something big. Certainty that our words matter. No matter our reasons, our goal is the same, and in that shared goal, we find a community that surprises me every year with its strength, warmth, and openness. My first year, I met a fantastic writer from South Africa. My second, I discovered another girl on my floor was also a writer. I could keep going and going; every year, I find some new aspect of this huge, nebulous community of creative souls. We’re always changing, always growing, always welcoming.
  3. Success
    Here’s the thing that put me off NaNo for a couple consecutive years: we talk about winning. People who hit their 50k words call themselves NaNo winners, which is way cool if you hit your 50k. But what if you freeze up? What if you scramble those last few hours and at 11:59pm on the last day of November, you’re staring at 45k, or 35k, or 25k? What if you aren’t a winner? The idea of “winning” NaNo is a fundamental misunderstanding of the point. The point is to throw yourself into something and work at it even when it’s hard. The point is to write every day, even when you don’t want to, even when writer’s block is taunting you. The point is to end November having created something out of nothing. There is nothing magic about the number 50,000, but there is something magic about the grit and determination it takes to shut off distractions and ignore the mocking voices in your head long enough to write. The NaNo website says, “Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.” It’s not for “anyone who can write 50,000 words in a month” or “anyone who won’t fall short of the challenge”–it’s for anyone with the guts to sit down and write when it seems impossible. And if you end short of the deadline, you didn’t lose. If you end with any words more than you would’ve written otherwise, you succeed.

Maybe you’re glancing at this post out of the corner of your eye while you type and you’ve already hit a few thousand words. Maybe you’re curled up and your fingers are trembling at the idea of starting a monumental project. But no matter what position you’re in, if you have a plot in your head, if you have a character rattling the bars of your imagination, if you have anything inside you that perks up at the idea of writing… write! This month is for you.

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6 Things I Tell Myself Daily

Last Monday morning, I walked into the Flatiron Building twenty minutes early (because my nerves woke me before my alarm), wearing four-inch heels (for confidence), trying desperately for a smile on my face despite my trembling insides. This Monday morning, I walked into 41 Madison on time, wearing flats, pausing to smile at the security man on my way to the lift.

I had no idea what to expect when I accepted this internship. Now, with one week’s experience in New York City, I feel qualified to share a few things I’ve taken to telling myself daily.

  1. Wear flats on the subway.
    FeetHeels are fantastic. I love my four-inch spikes. But rush hour means you’re liable to stand for forty minutes, and even if you don’t, you’re going to push your way through crowds in doorways, up stairways, and along walkways. You don’t want to do that in heels. Plus, if you make a spontaneous outing (or get lost and walk twenty a few extra blocks), you want comfy shoes. Give yourself a break. Keep a pair of flats in your bag.
  2. Smile.
    If you’re nervous, smile; it tricks your brain into releasing happy chemicals, and you’ll feel better. If you’re not nervous, smile; people like you better when you smile. It brightens everyone’s day a little. Don’t be the grouchy person who ruins the morning for someone else. Engage those muscles. Put a sparkle in your eye.
  3. Step out. Literally.
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    I knew maybe two people in the entirety of New York City when I got here. But now I know more than two, because I told myself, “Self, your coworkers are your community this summer. Don’t be a recluse.” So when the editors I work for invited me out for a spontaneous Broadway show, I stepped out and had a fantastic evening and made friends. We chatted. We laughed. They made sure I got on the right train home. When they invited me to a department happy hour and trivia night, I stepped out, even though crowds and party games aren’t my thing. I shook hands and learned names. I laughed and drank and offered wrong answers, and I made friends. Doing stuff that scares you is good. If nothing else, you’ll have a great story.
  4. Do the details right the first time.
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    No, I don’t love scouring websites for professors’ contact info to solicit textbook reviews. I don’t love checking every citation against the original source so we don’t get sued for reprinting a graph. But any job comes with perks and downsides, and if you want the fun stuff (yes, I’m geeking out about copyediting psych textbooks!), you have to do the not-so-fun stuff. Do it well. Realise the little details you work on in your cubicle in the headachy last few minutes of work are little details that matters in creating the big picture. Maybe nobody sees your little detail specifically, but they’ll see if you do it wrong. Take pride in your work, even if it’s scanning last year’s check requests for five solid hours (yes, I did that).
  5. If you don’t know, ask.
    Nobody expects you to remember every name the first day. Nobody expects you to know the secret of working the finicky scanner keyboard, opening those reports, or memorising the last year’s ISBNs. They’ll help you. They’ll tell you their tips and tricks, walk you through the process, tell you how to find the answers. Humility goes a lot further than fumbling attempts to do it alone. Just ask.
  6. Enjoy the scenery.
    SceneryI’m in the city that supposedly never sleeps. (Spoiler alert: people sleep in New York.) Here, amidst the express trains and honking taxis, I’m learning to slow down. No matter how impatient you are, you can’t make the subway go faster. Instead of worrying, smile at the kid trying to climb to the top of the pole. Marvel at the diversity of language around you. Read; you can’t be responsible, because cell phone service dies on the subway, so let yourself relax. Stop rushing to get there—to graduate, to find a job, to get promoted. Stop. Look around. See where you’re at and appreciate it. Stop thinking about the doors this will open, because where you go doesn’t matter if you don’t know where you are. I’m trying to stop watching the clock and appreciate that I get to sit in the office of a well-known publishing company and work on books that will influence students across the world. That I get to learn while I work. That I love my work. That I even have work. I have so much to be thankful for; why rush?

I remind myself of these things daily, moment by moment, because I still feel nervous when I step off the train and can’t remember which exit to take. I still eye the dragging minute hand on the clock and consider pitching textbooks out the window when I come across yet another table that might need copyright permissions. I tell myself these things because I have an opportunity that not many people have, and if I end this summer with only a fatter resume and four practicum credits on my college transcript, it’s nobody’s fault but my own.

So tomorrow morning, no matter how my nerves feel, no matter what’s waiting, I will walk into 41 Madison on time, wearing flats and a smile.

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5 Rules (because it’s social media, not personal media)

I hate self promotion.

My version of self promotion is, “Hey, um…so…I did this thing…It’s kinda cool—I mean, I think it’s kinda cool, y’know, but you might not…but if you wanted…maybe…you could sorta…take a look at it some time? If you want? I mean, no pressure. I’ll just…leave it here…in case you want to see it…”

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Unfortunately, I’ve been informed that my version of self promotion is not effective. And that if I intend to ever publish anything novel-y, I need to get on top of this whole platform-building thing.

So this week I did something supremely scary: I made a Twitter. And a Facebook page.

I struggle with social media. I hardcore judge certain types of posts—the whiney ones, the cryptic ones, the grammatically challenged ones. At the same time, I know my natural tendency is to use social media for venting frustration or posting photos I later can’t remember the purpose of.

So, in order to avoid being That Person, I’ve made myself five rules.

1. No fishing allowed.
If you can’t tell what I’m talking about by reading my post, I’m doing it wrong. If I’m hoping for a slew of “But you’re beautiful!” or “Oh no! What’s wrong?!” comments, I’m doing it wrong. Posting is about giving, not getting. Giving entertainment. Giving insight. Giving information. It’s not bait to catch personal affirmation or snag extra attention.

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2. No complaining…unless it’s funny.
Hard truth: nobody cares about your lack of sleep, grouchy boss, or bruised knee. But if you phrase your complaint in words that make them laugh, they’re okay with you whining a little.

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For example, I sometimes always complain about the weather.

 3. Beware the “share” button.
When you like stuff, your name shows up in a list of people who like that stuff. No big deal. When you share it, it shows up on your feed forever. I remind myself to think before I click. If it’s an opinion, I want to be willing to stand behind it, to explain why I feel it’s both valid and worth sharing with the world. If it’s humour, I want to be okay with my diverse group of friends and family knowing that I think it’s funny–meaning I have to consider whether it’s offensive, hurtful, or unnecessarily crass.

4. Please don’t feed the animals.
You can watch them fight to the death in the comment boxes, but don’t get involved. You will say angry things you regret. You will look like an idiot. You will offend someone. This isn’t to say I never stand up for what I believe, but I choose my battles, and I don’t jump into petty arguments.

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5. If you wouldn’t do it in person…
Social interactions work because we follow some basic rules of courtesy. Social media interactions should be the same. If I wouldn’t do it in person, I don’t do it online. Would I smack you upside the head? No? Then I shouldn’t send that crushing comment. If it’s still social, it still demands respect.

Am I saying I do everything right? Absolutely not.

Am I saying you should follow all my rules? Absolutely not.

Am I suggesting you think about making up your own rules? …maybe, yeah.

See, here’s the thing about social media: yes, it’s my profile. It’s my page. It’s my blog. But that doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want, however I want, whenever I want.

It’s called social media, not personal media, and that means I take a moment to think before I hit that button.

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