Be Calm (or, How to Cope in the Peace Corps: 24 tips from an introvert)

Humura.

Be calm.

Have I mentioned Peace Corps is the hardest thing I’ve ever done?

It’s isolating and exhausting—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Half the time it’s incredibly rewarding, and half the time it feels thoroughly futile, and on top of everything, you can’t buy a pint of ice cream when you have a bad night. After over a year of this, I think I’ve become something of a pro at coping.

From one anxious, introverted PCV to you, here 25 things I’ve found essential:

  1. Keep some clothes that make you feel most like yourself, even if you can only wear them inside your house. In any country with rules about your wardrobe, Peace Corps comes with some identity disconnect, days where you feel like you’ve dressed up as someone else for so long that you can’t remember who you are underneath. Give yourself a break sometimes. I keep a handful of tanktops, short dresses, and leggings on hand. (And honestly half the time I walk around my house in my underwear.)
  2. Exercise regularly, even if it’s only a few minutes a day, even if you hate it while you’re doing it. Exercise really does release chemicals that help regulate your emotions and make you feel better, even if you don’t feel them at the time. Plus, with the total change of diet and lifestyle, Peace Corps makes a lot of people’s bodies change in ways they may or may not like. Exercise gives you control over your own body.
  3. Figure out the easiest ways to eat a balanced meal at site. It’s no walk in the park trying to get a balanced meal; I’ve never paid so much attention to my protein intake or craved vegetables so often before in my life. Figure out not only what’s easy to get at site but what takes the least effort to make. Get into routines with your food. Keep yourself nourished.
  4. Stay in touch with people who refresh you. Pay attention to which people don’t drain you when you talk to them, which people make you feel heard and supported and encouraged. Talk to those people.
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  5. Take lots of photos, even if you don’t share them, and look back on them from time to time. It’s fun to look back on where you’ve been. It’s encouraging to see how far you’ve come, to remember the good days and to see that the bad days ended. Plus you’ll want to look back on these in the future, when you’re back in the world of delivery pizza and fast internet.
  6. Keep lots of water bottles full of potable water so staying hydrated isn’t a chore. Dehydration is sneaky, and it ruins all sorts of things about your life, from your energy to your mood to your health, and there’s nothing worse than having to haul water and wait for your filter before you can quench your thirst.
  7. Write down the small successes. Record the moments that make you feel good, the small events that make you glad you came here, the little things that feel like you’re not failing. Keep that list where you can read it sometimes to remind yourself that you’ve done things right and made progress.
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  8. Play music in your house, and have impromptu dance parties by yourself. Trust me. It makes you feel better. You may look ridiculous (I do; my cat has told me so many times), but a few minutes of spinning and bouncing and swaying will get your heart rate up and put a smile on your face, even if it’s just because you’re laughing at your silly self.
  9. Keep your kindle charged and loaded. You never know when you’ll need a book, whether it’s during an unexpected wait because scheduling doesn’t exist in your host culture (hey there, Rwanda), on an lazy weekend afternoon, or while your rice is boiling.
  10. Figure out the things that make you feel most like yourself and make space for them in your life. For me that includes keeping a few physical books on hand, making time for lingering over coffee in the mornings, and keeping in touch with writers groups whenever my internet works.
  11. Figure out what you can control. Maybe it’s your diet, maybe it’s your hobbies, maybe it’s your bedtime. For me it’s my workouts and writing events like NaNoWriMo. Even if it seems insignificant, it’s something to hold onto when it feels like everything in your life is spinning into chaos.
  12. Stock up on toilet paper, pepto bismol, and ibuprofen. Trust me. You do not want to be stuck at home with endless diarrhoea using notebook paper because you can’t walk into town for toilet paper.
  13. Keep snacks on hand for emergency coddling on bad days. Hoard your care package goodies—I keep an “emergency American food” trunk in my kitchen—and pick up treats for yourself when you visit a town. Save them for the days when you need a little extra love.
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  14. Keep a makeshift clothesline easy to set up indoors for rainy laundry days. It’s bad enough having to run out in the rain to collect your month’s worth of laundry off the line without having to leave it all in a sopping pile while you try to figure out where/how to hang an indoor clothesline.
  15. Always round off a list of complaints with one good thing. Don’t pretend everything is fine when it’s not; air your grievances and acknowledge your frustrations, but don’t end there. Force yourself to find something good that happened during the day, the one thing that went right or at least wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Even if all you come up with is, “I don’t have malaria,” that’s something. (I’ve had those days. They’re real.)
  16. Make some physical spaces yours. The corner seat in the local tea shop, that one walk with the pretty views, the living room of that neighbour you really like—wherever it is that you feel comfortable, make yourself a little home.
  17. Sleep in sometimes. Or I guess if you’re not a night owl like me you could go to bed early sometimes. Or do both. Sometimes I go to bed by sunset because lying down sounds nice. Give your body and mind a break. Rest.
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  18. Journal. You don’t have to write sweeping paragraphs, but write something. Dump your anxious thoughts when your mind is spinning at night. Bullet point the ideas that feel strongest or the details that seem most important. Write lists of events or aspirations or moments that made you laugh. Skim your old entries sometimes; see where you were and how far you’ve come.
  19. Make your living space as comfortable as possible. Shell out for the nicer couch cushions, buy some soft blankets, keep the milk and sugar for your coffee within reach of your armchair. Protip: it is worth it to buy a slightly more expensive lightbulb that will actually brighten your whole house. So many things in your life will be uncomfortable in Peace Corps. You have to make your own happy places.
  20. Take self-care days. Do whatever it is that replenishes your spirit. For me, it’s staying in my PJs and refusing to answer my door. Maybe for you it’s travelling to the nearest town to have a meal that you didn’t have to prepare for yourself while squatting on the ground. Whatever it is, give yourself a break. Don’t check your email, don’t work on projects, don’t worry. You can tackle your M&E and your action plans and your problems tomorrow.
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  21. Always know what you’re looking forward to. Whether it’s an international vacation or just some down time on the weekend, you should always have something on the horizon, some rest stop where you can get your breath, have a drink, and do some self-assessment before you dive back into the turmoil of life.
  22. Keep flashlights and headlamps all over your house. There’s nothing worse than losing power in the evening and not being able to find your flashlight. I’m speaking from experience here. I’ve given up at five in the evening multiple times because I couldn’t figure out where I’d stashed my flashlight.
  23. Define ‘successful’ your way. Let yourself be unhappy sometimes. You’re not a failure if you don’t love your site, your counterparts, or your job every single day. Decide what you want success to look like and work toward that. Never mind what everyone else is doing or what the VRF says. If you are at your site, getting out of bed, walking out your door, making an effort to do your job, you’re a good PCV.
  24. Tell yourself, just one more. And then one more. Take one step at a time, one word at a time, one breath at a time. You don’t have to do your whole day, project, or service at once. Right now you just have to take one more breath. And then another.

 

 

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Hakuna Matata, or: how to do Zanzibar on a Peace Corps budget

Hakuna matata!

No problem!

Apparently this phrase is more than just a catchy song from The Lion King. I just got back from a much-needed vacation in Zanzibar with a couple friends, and we were surrounded by friendly Tanzanians unironically saying “Hakuna matata!” every time we turned around.

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The thing is that we actually had a lot of problems on that trip.

First off, have you ever tried to plan an international holiday while living without internet? We had to make expensive trips into town specifically to do things like researching things to do, booking a place to stay, and buying plane tickets.

Next, we spent several hours wandering the winding streets of Stone Town trying and failing to find our AirBnB, despite the best efforts of Google Maps and a lot of asking strangers for help. (Turns out there are a million places called some variation of “Stone Town Zanzibar Hotel” and ours didn’t have a sign.)

One of us immediately developed some kind of infection from a seemingly innocuous bug bite, which turned into a painfully swollen ankle and foot and orders from Peace Corps Tanzania’s doctor not to put it in the ocean—so much for our plans of spending a solid week at the beach!

The booking website for the boating outing we wanted to do had some internal glitches that resulted in several days of customer service emails to get our booking straight, and, on top of that, it turns out our phones got terrible (or no) reception everywhere in Stone Town, leaving us reliant on restaurants far out of our price range—the only places we could find good WiFi.

We were harassed everywhere we went—honestly, I have never before in my life experienced such constant, intense, intentional harassment in my life. (Shoutout to Rwandan culture for, it turns out, being much more respectful than anything we encountered in Zanzibar.) None of the tourist blogs prepared us for this (hey, anyone planning to go to Zanzibar—if you’re white and a woman, heads up for lots of catcalling).

But that constant phrase—hakuna matata—turned out to be pretty true, once we averaged all our experiences. For every problem we ran into, there was someone (or, often, multiple someones) helping us out of it. By the end of two days, we were so overwhelmed by the number of people who had put themselves out to make our lives a little easier that we began keeping a running list of daily shoutouts.

So here you go: here’s the summary, complete with what we hated (so you don’t go do that) and what we loved (so you can go do that), and daily shoutouts to the people who made our holiday great.

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Day 1:

A frenzy of picking up necessary documentation (passports, WHO cards) and changing money into Tanzanian shillings.

You might want to know: you will need to show your WHO card (proving you have a yellow-fever shot) when you get to Tanzania, and you need 100USD for a tourist visa. These things are important to remember especially if, like us, you’re going to be flying from one in the morning and landing after a mostly sleepless night.

Shoutout to: Sarah, another Peace Corps Rwanda volunteer, who was already calling a taxi for herself and did all the talking to arrange for the taxi to come back and pick us up and drive us to the airport in the middle of the night.

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Day 2:

Navigating customs through a fog of exhaustion, finding a taxi, buying SIM cards, finding the ferry, navigating more customs, walking for several hours without finding our hotel… We never did find our hotel, but we found a place to wait and we finally got hold of AirBnB customer service, who managed to get hold of the host, who sent the receptionist to find us and lead us to the correct place—it turns out the place is a block down and across the street from where Google thinks it should be based on GPS coordinates. After all that, we finally set down our bags, did some touristy wandering, and had dinner at Lukmaan’s, a place the internet had recommended and which, it turned out, was within a couple minute’s walk of our hotel.

You might want to know: waiting for the ferry felt a lot like a hellish daymare (possibly due in part to exhaustion?) and we decided the extra money required to buy VIP tickets and wait for the ferry in air conditioned comfort was definitely worth it; also you have to go through a second customs queue in Zanzibar.

Shoutout to: Adam, our taxi driver extraordinaire who not only charged us what we later discovered to be a fair rate (30USD, not the cheapest but definitely not the most expensive) from the airport to the ferry company and then, voluntarily and without asking for extra pay, walked us to the ferry office to help buy our tickets and then walked us to a phone store and did all the talking to help us get our SIM cards sorted out. (If you need a taxi in Dar es Salaam, give him a call at +255 713 671 642.)
Also shoutout to the waitresses in Zanzibar Coffee House, who taught us some Swahili, chatted with us, and let us move all our baggage from table to table for several hours while two of us at a time went out to try to find our hotel.

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Day 3:

We went back to Zanzibar Coffee for breakfast, since we liked them so much—something that became a habit during our week in Stone Town; we never found a breakfast place we liked better in terms of either the food or the prices. Then we spent hours wandering the streets, poking through art shops and curio shops. We also splashed our way down the beachfront and had drinks at the Travellers Cafe while watching the sunset—we went back to Travellers Cafe several times in the evening, despite their staff being fairly unfriendly, because the location and the cider were both nice. And, of course, we (I, anyway) spent lots of time pausing to look at/chirp at/coo at all the cats that secretly own the town.

You might want to know: the shops get cheaper and cheaper as you get farther from the fancy, touristy parts of town near the beachfront hotels. Most shopkeepers are willing to haggle over prices, and you should assume they’re quoting you half again or even double the real price when you ask how much something costs. Don’t be afraid to tell them you want to pay a very low amount and then work your way up to what feels like a comfortable price range—also, ask prices in different shops to get a feel for how much people in general are selling for. Lots of shops sell exactly the same products.

Shoutout to: the owner of a local art shop (whose name I did not get, unfortunately) who voluntarily walked us around his street and taught us interesting history about the local art and the fancy doorframes, despite our having told him we couldn’t buy anything from his shop.
Also to the guy at Shebby’s (near the Catholic church) who was the only one during our whole trip to give us the correct price for spices on our first asking him.

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Day 4:

We did more wandering, took the most unimpressive walking tour of our lives (note for next time: get a recommendation of a guide beforehand?), swam, walked the beaches, tried local street food that we don’t have in Rwanda, and had dinner at Forodhani Gardens. In the evening, it becomes a food market filled with vendors, fresh seafood, and tourists. This came highly recommended from every tourist blog we read, but we were extremely underwhelmed. We get enough brochette in Rwanda that we weren’t excited by the opportunity to try different kinds of brochette, and there wasn’t much else on offer besides shawarma—which was delicious, but didn’t make up for the lack of variety after the glowing blog reviews we’d read. In addition, we were sold a coconut that tasted rancid and were harassed and catcalled beyond our ability to handle diplomatically. Overall we came away with the impression that Forodhani caters to tourists who don’t know any better than to pay too much for street food and to accept harassment as a compliment.

You might want to know: Stone Town is by far the cheapest place to stay in Zanzibar. It’s possible to make day trips to other parts of the island from there by taxi or by public buses/dala-dala, but we mostly didn’t. While people talked up the pristine white beaches in the north and east, we were perfectly content with the beaches in Stone Town, which had the benefit of being nearly empty during the day. Shade is hard to come by after noon, since the beaches face west, but you can find shady nooks near hotel stairways. But find someone to watch your belongings, since “beach boys” often pass by looking to steal unattended stuff.

Shoutout to: the lady who sold us street food and patiently taught us the names and contents of unfamiliar foods without making us feel stupid.
Also to Samson, the security guard at Serena, who was super nice, offered to watch our stuff while we swam, and let us sit on the hotel veranda despite our being wet and clearly outclassed by all the actual hotel patrons.

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Day 5:

We got up early with the purpose of hitting the beaches while there was still some shade and spent hours swimming and reading on the sand. We all got much more sunburnt than we had hoped, but it was a successful morning nevertheless. In the afternoon, we toured the Old Dispensary, which the internet had told us was the most beautiful building in Stone Town. We decided we agreed with the internet. We also spent a long time admiring paintings in the Conservation Centre and walked along the walls of the Old Fort.

You might want to know: the Conservation Centre features art that is different from the touristy paintings that are the same in every shop. According to literature we saw there, it’s run by a group that works with local youth and artists to preserve culture. It also had signs suggesting they have live music every week (we meant to go to that and didn’t, so no review, but it looked hopeful).

Shoutout to: the white man carrying a baby on the beach who was walking by, saw some local men stopping to harass us, paused to watch pointedly until the local guys went away, and then moved on up the beach—thanks for using your position as a white male to make us feel safe.
Also shoutout to the guide at the Old Dispensary, who walked around with us, answered our questions, and took lots of photos of us when we asked him to.

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Day 6:

We had booked a trip through Safari Blue, so we got up early, had instant coffee in our room, and headed out to meet the shuttle, which took us to Fumba, where the tour began. We spent a wonderful day with a handful of other tourists (only a handful, which was great) out on a traditional boat, a dhow. We enjoyed snorkelling, lots of snacks, a delicious lunch on an island where we saw and climbed massive baobab trees, and dolphin watching.

You might want to know: I know I previously said we had trouble with booking, but the customer service was quick and friendly and extremely effective, and the shuttle was very cheap. We loved everything about the trip and thought it was a low price for great quality. Definitely do this.

Shoutout to: our hotel’s cleaning ladies, who cleaned our entire room in under ten minutes when we told them we needed to be somewhere soon and were taking the room key with us.
Also shoutout to the waiter at Lukmaan’s who initially gave us the wrong takeaway order but replaced it immediately without charging us for the (more expensive) correct order.

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Day 7:

We knew we all had specific souvenirs we wanted and also that we wanted to get the best prices possible for them, so we set out with a list and walked through just about every shop in Stone Town. After that, we had lunch at Sforno, a great place we went back to several times for their delicious pizza, ice cream, and shakes, and went swimming.

Shoutout to: the woodworker at Zanzibar Crafts Garden who happily taught us how to say teacher/teachers (walimu/mwalimu) in Swahili and was genuinely interested in our being teachers from Rwanda, despite our not buying anything from him.
Also shoutout to the salesman across from our hotel, who gave us an incredible opening price on trousers with no haggling
Also shoutout Amour Aziz at Zanzibar Souvenir Shop in Hamamni Street who quoted us a fair price from the outset, did not harass us, spoke great English, had a business card, and eventually gave us a discount on what we purchased (give him a call at +255 24 223 0930 or +255 777 432 612 if you’re looking for Zanzibar boxes).

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Day 8:

The internet told us to go to Jozani Forest and see the monkeys, so we did. This involved a bus to someplace and then a dala-dala to the forest. The bus was okay. The dala-dala was a once-in-a-lifetime experience in that we all hope never to experience it a second time. It was exactly the sort of colourful African experience we all thought we were signing up for when we moved here: a brightly-painted truck with a covered bed packed full of men and women and children and bags and, of course, us. We couldn’t so much as shift our feet or shoulders thanks to being packed in so tight. We moved down the road incredibly slowly, stopping for a solid ten or more minutes at one point to have a load of lumber put onto the top of the truck, and the ride lasted an aeon or more, in our estimation. Still, we’re glad to have tried it once. The forest was a much better experience. We had a great guide who walked us beneath creaking mahogany trees, and we saw lots and lots of red colobus monkeys. They’re used to people and at times came so close we could have touched them (we didn’t, because you’re not supposed to). We particularly liked watching the babies playing—mostly running, jumping, and knocking each other off branches.

You might want to know: the internet told us Jozani had no entrance fee and that the guides were paid on a tip basis. This, it turns out, is not true (anymore? Maybe it used to be?). We paid 10USD apiece to enter (which is cheap if you’re getting your paycheck in USD but fairly expensive when you’re being paid in RWF). We thought it was worth it, but we were not expecting it.

Shoutout to: our guide, who drove us back to Stone Town himself when we asked him to help us find a taxi.
Also to the ladies at Al Jabry restaurant, who were nice to us and served us really delicious food. Definitely go there and buy their rice.

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Day 9:

On our last full day in Stone Town, we decided to buy cheap street food and spend our money on expensive drinks. We went swimming and then bought overpriced (but delicious) coffee at Serena and drank it while reading books. We bought our last-minute souvenirs and had drinks on the rooftop at Africa House Hotel.

You might want to know: Africa House Hotel was our least favourite place in Zanzibar. We did not think the view made up for the atmosphere, which was boring, loud, and overpriced. We recommend you watch the sunset over the ocean from Travellers Cafe or one of the expensive beachfront hotels, which are at least quiet and comfortable.

Shoutout to: the woodworker at Zanzibar Craft Garden—yes, the same one—who gave us a key chain even though he said he couldn’t make the box we wanted.
Also to the woodworkers in Hamamni Street who, instead of harassing us, showed us how they make the brass decorations on the boxes.
Also to the Indian saleswoman near the touristy parts of town who gave us her personal incense and incense holder because we bought incense from her and she didn’t sell holders for it.
Also to the Indian antiques salesman who sold us a brass Aladdin lamp at half his original price (which was, honestly, a fair price to start with) and made a minimum profit off it and actually tried to convince his son, who had originally bought it, to sell it at cost, and also showed us how to polish it.
Also shoutout to the man we stopped in the street to ask directions, who was interrupted in his vague directions by a woman, who gave us very exact, precise directions—he let her interrupt him and then actually said, “Excellent,” and affirmed her, which is something we see as a rarity in general and especially in East Africa.

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Day 10:

We had to catch a noon ferry, so we didn’t do much in town besides have breakfast one last time at Zanzibar Coffee. Then we made our way through customs, took the ferry back to Dar es Salaam, had lunch at a little Indian place, and waited for our taxi at a great coffee shop called Impresso Espresso. Then it was back through customs, airplanes, airports, and taxis until we were back to familiar ground in Kigali.

Shoutout to: all the employees at our hotel who went out of their way to make our stay comfortable and help answer our questions about Stone Town.
Also to the lady running Impresso Espresso in Dar es Salaam, who did not judge us for trudging into her coffee shop laden with bags, crashing in a corner, and staying there for several hours.
Also, again, to our taxi driver, Adam, who came to pick us up, helped us decide what time we needed him to come in order to get to the airport on time, and actually got us there early despite massive traffic jams.

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So the tl;dr version: We loved Zanzibar. We had problems with it. Stuff went wrong. Stuff annoyed us. Stuff drove us crazy. But we got to take a break from being Peace Corps Volunteers, take a break from being teachers, take a break from having to try to speak a second language. We swam in the ocean and saw really cool fish and said hello to monkeys. We ate some great food and saw some cute cats and made some really nice, if very temporary, friends. And in the end, hakuna matata!

Internships: What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Do

Summer hit me like a belly-flop from the high dive this year. I interviewed for my internship eight days before I flew home from school. I got the “Congratulations! You got the job!” call two days before I flew home. I found an apartment and ordered a plane ticket a week before I flew to New York, and I had one day to make sure I knew which train to get on before I started.

I was scared to death. I had no idea what to expect. I considered quitting before I started

The end of summer is hitting me a little less like a belly-flop and a little more like a cannonball—still insane impact and a lot of mess, but much less pain.

I’m glad I didn’t quit, because I had a fantastic summer. It flew by. Working an internship is the difference between practicing a stroke on dry land and trying it in water; you’re submerged in the experience, and I discovered that I love being submerged in publishing. I also like to think I learned a thing or two about what you should and should not do in an internship.

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1. Do: Take your work seriously.
This sounds really “duh,” I know, but it’s tempting to think, “I’m just an intern. I’m temporary. It won’t matter.” But it will. An internship is one of the easiest ways to get a job out of college. Probably half the people I met or worked for this summer had been hired after interning. Even if you don’t plan to go back and work for the company, the work you do is only temporary for you. Any given task and its ramifications may only last till the end of summer for me, but for the supervisor I turn it in to, for the production department who have to work with it, for the book it winds up affecting in the end—even for the consumers who read that book—my work is long-term. It carries permanent weight.

2. Don’t: Take yourself seriously.
People will respect you for the work you do, but they’ll like you for how you make them feel. Be friendly. Chat with people, smile, laugh, listen. Try to see other people’s perspectives and don’t get too hung up on yourself. Remember that you’re an intern, not a full-time employee—meet your deadlines, but take advantage of the flexibility offered, make friends with people who can teach you things, accept that you will fail and that the easiest way to deal with that is with honesty, good humour, and humility. Apologise. Fix the problem. Laugh at yourself. You’ll go far.

3. Do: Show your enthusiasm.
In a world full of stressed people running on the hamster wheel of corporate life, nothing stands out more than someone who genuinely enjoys being there. I’m not saying to pretend to love something you hate, but even the worst job has its perks. I’m fortunate enough to have found an internship I absolutely loved (nearly) every minute of; you might not be—but still keep an eye out for the things you enjoy. Look for the aspects that you gravitate toward and let your supervisors know you enjoy them. Tell people which tasks you could do all day or what about your work is meaningful to you. Your supervisor isn’t there just to hand out work, and he or she will be gratified to hear that you love the idea of helping create a better product for the consumer or that you get excited about brainstorming creative ways to market. Plus your enthusiasm differentiates you from the hundreds of other interns who will be looking for a job soon.

4. Don’t: Say no.
Don’t say no to anything. Get invited to a meeting that seems unrelated to your job? Go anyway. Learn about whatever they’re discussing. I’ve been to sales meetings and question-and-answer sessions for an office move that I won’t be here for. I’ve listened to global executives discuss budgets and artists discuss cover designs. Vital to my particular job? Absolutely not—but they gave me a more complete picture of how the company works, what the different people do, how various departments interact. I’ve done spreadsheets, made phone calls, and scanned cheque request forms. Related in any way to writing or copyediting? Absolutely not—but being willing to do anything makes your supervisors like you and lets you see what other people’s jobs entail, again giving you a more holistic view of the company. The point of an internship is not to make money or to simply survive it—it’s to learn, so don’t ever say no to any opportunity to learn anything.

5. Do: Ask questions.
“Ask questions” is a common piece of advice that people don’t follow much. Don’t just ask questions when you need information in order to complete a task; ask questions about everything. Ask what part your small piece of work plays in the bigger picture. Find out who a job came from and where it’s going. Find out what that guy in the cubical down the hall does and how it relates to what you’re doing. Email people and ask for informational interviews—they’ll be happy to do them, and you’ll learn about jobs you never knew existed or insider secrets of how or where to apply if you want to get to a certain position, and you’ll meet someone who might become a valuable contact in getting to an interview. If nothing else, you might make a friend.

6. Don’t: Just float.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the options, the uncertainties, and your growing recognition of how little you really know about your chosen field. Feeling so at sea, it can be easy to just bob around, taking whatever opportunities you get but setting no definite goals. Don’t just float. Pick a goal and work toward it. Remember that goals can change; that’s okay—but pick a milestone or you’ll never get anywhere. Even if you’re taking whatever job you can get without being picky, set yourself goals. Decide what you want to learn or what job you want to transition into. Don’t let yourself float aimlessly when you could be getting somewhere.

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Beyond all that, enjoy yourself. An internship is a fantastic opportunity to try a career out and see how you feel about it. If you discover you hate your chosen path, search for the humour in it. If you discover you love it, savour every moment. The important thing to remember is that it’s a temporary adventure, so appreciate it before it ends.

How to Make Writers Hate You (in 3 easy steps)

During high school, I realised I should not be a teacher.

For one thing, my mind jumps from step one to step three in most subjects, making any sort of linear teaching a struggle.
For another, I lack patience–I like finding a few different ways to explain a thing, but once I’ve used those few different ways, if you still don’t get it, I prefer to give up rather than find one more way.

Also, I dislike mornings, rules, and rooms full of people–especially air-conditioned rooms full of people.

Despite these considerations, I am a consultant in my university’s writing centre–a position requiring me to work with students of varying skill level on pieces ranging from personal creative works to 40-page research papers on topics I didn’t know existed.

I’m also in several classes this semester that involve editing and critiquing. After getting back a few pieces scarred over with the kind of editing that we try to avoid in the writing centre, I feel more or less adequately experienced to expound on some things that will make writers despise you as an editor.

1.  Make arbitrary changes.
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     Imagine ordering a burger, extra pickles, no cheese. You probably ordered that for a reason. Maybe you love pickles and have a dairy allergy. Maybe you just don’t like cheese. Now imagine the server brings you something you didn’t order. Best case scenario, the burger has the normal amount of pickles and a big slice of cheese. Worst case scenario, the thing on your plate isn’t even a burger–you take a big bite, expecting a juicy burger, extra pickles, no cheese–and you taste a fish sandwich complete with relish and tartar sauce. And the server points out that there’s even extra relish–which is sort of like extra pickles–and there’s no cheese, which is, after all, what you asked for.
     “But this isn’t what I ordered!” you say.
     “No, but it’s better,” the server explains.
     Then the server bills you for improving your order.
     Making arbitrary changes to someone else’s writing is like bringing someone the wrong sandwich at a restaurant. No matter how much better you think the thing is, it’s not what the author asked for.
     This doesn’t mean don’t make changes. It means suggest changes. If the change you’re suggesting isn’t mechanical–“you forgot a comma here” or “this is grammatically incorrect”–instead of just scratching out the author’s words and inking in your version of better phrasing or, heaven forbid, a completely different (but better!) plot, make a suggestion. Say, “I’m confused here. Could you clarify? Perhaps you could…” If you feel really strongly about your change, write it in–but make sure you still write it in as a suggestion, and give your reasoning, because if the author is anything like me, he or she is unlikely to just take your suggestion–but explaining your reasoning ensures that the author can come up with a fix for the problem you see.

2.  Expect the author to make every change you suggest.

chameleon

     Imagine ordering another burger. You know every burger place is different, so before finalising your order, you ask the server’s advice. You fancy your burgers with extra pickles and no cheese–does the server think this particular burger would taste better that way, or should you consider trying it with cheese? Which sauce does the server suggest to best complement the signature burger flavour at this establishment? Does the server think the burgers here are any good, or should you scrap the burger idea entirely and try a fish sandwich instead?
The server makes a lot of suggestions, explains that the cheese here is a particularly delicious variety chosen specifically for these burgers, and the standard serving of pickles on burgers here is much larger than the standard serving in other burger joints. However, the truth is that the fish sandwiches in this restaurant are much better than the burgers.
At this point, you decide the server is a truly useful individual, and you consider your options carefully. Although you acknowledge that the server’s experience leads to astute observations on the quality of the food, you do not care for fish and would still like a burger–however, thanks to the server’s suggestions, you agree to try the burger without extra pickles and with the cheese. As long as the server brings you the burger (with normal pickles and cheese) you will be grateful for the server’s advice. However, if the server then calls you a nincompoop for not ordering the recommended fish sandwich, you may become irate. If the server follows that insult by referring to your mother as a hamster and your father as having smelt of elderberries, you will probably file a complaint and refuse to visit this restaurant in the future.

     As an editor, you are free to make as many suggestions and recommendations as you would like, and you have the option of making them lightly and vaguely or strongly and specifically. As long as you are useful and polite, the author will probably be quite grateful for your assistance. However, if you try to force the author to take your suggestions, or if you follow up your recommendations by insinuating that the author is a writer on the level of your parakeet if he or she does not adhere to your advice, the author will be extremely annoyed and offended and may retaliate by suggesting that you are an editor on the level of a baboon and refusing to use your services ever again.
     The author may do this in a public way, causing other writers to avoid your services.
     Unless you’re the one publishing the piece, you don’t have a right to expect your advice to be followed explicitly.

3.  Insult the piece.

penguinslap

     Imagine you truly love burgers, especially with extra pickles and no cheese. Upon entering yet another restaurant, you order your beloved favourite: a burger with extra pickles and no cheese. The server proceeds to recommend a burger without extra pickles and with cheese, goes so far as to suggest that you switch your order entirely to a fish sandwich, and then leaves off menu suggestions entirely and expresses the opinion that your burger choice displays insipid ignorance and the poorest of perceptive skills. In fact, this audacious server even suggests that with such an egregious lack of taste in food choice, you ought not to be eating at all.
You are mildly surprised at the number of servers who favour fish sandwiches over burgers, but this feeling is secondary to one of offence and outrage. Your taste in burgers is the result of years of dedicated burger tasting, and you never make your food choices lightly. Both wounded and furious, you tear the menu in half and storm out of the restaurant.

     When editing, you can say almost anything you want about a piece, as long as you say it in the form of a helpful suggestion. No matter how tempted you are to scribble, “STOP BORING ME TO DEATH I NEED MY BRAIN CELLS FUNCTIONAL!” across entire paragraphs of drivel, you have a responsibility to write criticism only in the context of constructive suggestions. Instead of offensive phrases, try, “This section is a little slow. Some specific action might help.” or “This part is a bit heavy. Could we get some dialogue to break it up?” Not only is this less likely to bring down upon you the wrath of a writer scorned, like whose fury hell hath no–but it also involves actually doing your job, which is to help make a piece better, not simply to haemorrhage red ink over its 12-point Times New Roman bones.
     No matter how bad a piece is, you have to remember that you’re communicating with another human being with feelings and a strong attachment to this piece–an attachment rather analogous to that of a mother grizzly bear to her cubs. Be honest. Be tactful. Be useful.

Here’s the thing: if you’re the one ordering the burger, you order your burger for you. If you want extra pickles–great. If you want to smother the thing in horseradish–great. Nobody else has to like it if you like it. Don’t be surprised if all your dinner guests refuse to eat your special wasabi and anchovy burger, but don’t let that stop you eating it yourself.

If you’re the one serving the burger, unless you have to serve it to more than just the person who ordered it, you have to serve what they ordered. Make suggestions all you want, but in the end, the customer is always right. Even when the customer wants extra pickles or whatever else.

There’s a weird balance to editing. You have to realise that you’ve been entrusted with something precious–something created out of another human being’s experiences, interpretations, hopes, and writer’s cramp. You have an opportunity to comment on it, help smooth the rough edges away, offer insights, share your own experience. That’s a pretty awesome opportunity, actually. It’s not quite like being a writer or a reader. You’re not just communicating; you’re helping someone else communicate.

If you think about it, you’re being offered a little piece of a writer’s soul. So recognise its individuality, respect its uniqueness, and, as your mother always told you, return it in better condition than you received it.

How to Write Like Jazz

I found myself sitting in a chapel full of jazz musicians, listening to professionals wail away on stage, feeling inadequate and out of place.

I play flute, but this year my schedule cut out the wind ensemble’s rehearsal hour; in a bid to keep playing something, I learned saxophone over the summer and since then, I’ve muddled along with reeds and odd fingerings and jazz rhythms I never imagined before, and somehow nobody’s figured out that I’m really not good enough for a university jazz band.

This weekend the group attended the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. As I listened to musicians answering questions and handing out jazz advice, I realised, Wow. Jazz is just like writing. You start with an idea and you get going, and when you’re done, the result might sound nothing like the original, but you never lose the heart of it. It takes all kinds of timbres and rhythms to make music, and it also takes silence. It takes courage and inspiration and hours upon hours of hard work.

So today, let me tell you how to write like jazz.

charlie parker

Don’t count the hours–but remember that part-time work earns part-time pay.
People will tell you formulas for becoming better. Write 1,000 words a day. Write an hour a day. Write. Just write. Whether it’s a hundred words a day or a hundred thousand, just write. Stop fixating on the number, on the amount, on the total. Focus on the words. Focus on what you have to say, and just write. At the end of the day, you get out what you put in. A hundred well-written words a day may serve you better in the long run than a thousand haphazard cliches.

Decide what’s wealth to you.
Everything in life pays, but not everything pays in dollars and cents. Writing probably won’t make you a millionaire, but it pays back in other ways, and let’s be honest–which of us started writing because we honestly thought it would make us rich? We all know the broke-and-living-on-Ramen-in-an-attic stereotype.  But writing gives you intangible wealth. It makes you part of a history as old as humanity, forces you to explore yourself and the world around you, teaches you to find beauty in the mundane and intricacy in the simple. And as one musician pointed out, work hard enough and long enough at an art, and the chance to meet someone you admire–to interact on equal ground–is wealth.

Everyone has a gig, and nobody’s gig is certain.
Musicians get a gig here, a gig there; some pay well, some don’t. Writing is the same; we publish here and there, and sometimes we get paid, and sometimes we get unpaid exposure, and sometimes all we get is experience. But the most prestigious job in the world is just another gig, and no matter how well it pays, it ends at some point–sometimes sooner than expected. Put your best into each one. Relax, quit worrying, and take life one gig at a time.

ella

Empathise.
In jazz, you’re usually not playing the same note as anyone else. You might not even be playing the same rhythm–but the whole thing has to come together. All those individual notes and rhythms, all the varied thoughts, all of it has to blend into a unified piece of music. You have to think about how you fit in with the other people playing and the people listening. Writing’s the same. Your words are unique, but if you want anyone to read them, you have to both stand out and blend in; you have to know where your writing fits in with other writers’ work and how it relates to your readers.

Don’t give up if you don’t sound like the masters.
The masters sound like the masters because they spent hours upon hours upon years upon years practising. Guess what? They didn’t sound like the masters, either, to start with. You have to sound like you, and then you practise and practise, and once you finish practising, you probably still won’t sound like the masters. You’ll still sound like you–but a better you. The world would be boring if you sounded like them anyway. Imagine if the whole world tried to write like Dickens, or Hemmingway, or Vonnegut.

Monk

Appreciate what you do.
Sometimes we get so bogged down in “I need to practise” that we forget that what we do is pretty amazing. One of the musicians at the festival said, “How many other people in the world can pick this thing up and make music on it consistently, on command, at nine in the morning?” Who but writers can spin entire worlds out of nothing, create characters so real we fall in love with them, or tease at emotions so universal and subtle that we hardly realise we have them? Ella Fitzgerald said, “God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing.” We get to write, guys. We get to do something that most people only dream of. If working at it starts to suck the joy out of the process, stop. Take a break. Breathe. Read something beautiful and remember why you write what you write. And then remember: it’s a privilege.

Fear is okay.
Everyone’s afraid. I’m afraid.You’re afraid. Our parents are afraid. Professionals are afraid. Being afraid is nothing to be ashamed of, but letting fear keep you back–that’s a different story. Everything worthwhile is hard, and everything you are about is scary. Admit that, accept that, then get off your tush and get at it.

Something else I learned about jazz and writing this weekend: the reason we make music is the same reason we write. It’s a love affair with a medium that moves us so deeply we can’t understand it, can’t overcome it, can’t walk away from it. It’s not about perfection or success; it’s about feeling.

louis_armstrong

**A note: most of the things I learned here were said or implied by Ralph Lalama, Sean Jones, or Dennis Mackrel; I regret to say I did not take notes on who specifically said what.