Playlists

The emotional peaks and valleys of this semester have been uncommonly extreme. On the one hand, I have taken another, exciting step towards achieving my goal of writing creative non-fiction for wider audiences. The wonderful people at The Hairpin published an essay that I wrote about 90’s roller rinks, nostalgia, and teenage sexual awakening (You can check it out here: http://thehairpin.com/2014/04/fantasy-on-wheels-my-roller-rink-sexual-awakening). This in and of itself was a tremendous honor, not to mention a thrill; I love The Hairpin and very much believe in their goal of promoting woman-centered writing. Then, at the end of the same week, as I absent-mindedly perused my Twitter feed, I found that The Paris Review had highlighted the piece. Talk about a compliment – I very nearly vomited in appreciation (Is there such a thing as glee-vomiting? One of these days I might make it so – unwillingly, mind you). And in the meantime, people have shared such wonderful memories with me. The gift economy of writing is both so enriching and fulfilling. I want to spend my life swapping stories and ideas with people through every available venue, and I am committed to doing exactly that.

And yet, it has been in other ways a very humbling and frustrating semester. Not everything has gone as I would have hoped–not even close–and I have had to grapple with several disappointments. Such is life. In the midst of one rough patch, I was feeling particularly in need of a little sonic morale boost. So with the help of some friends, I compiled a “graduate student empowerment” playlist. It is available on Spotify, and because I had so much wonderful input from other folks, I feel quite comfortable saying that the playlist kicks ass. Whether or not you are a graduate student, I highly recommend that you give it a listen (you can blame me for all of the Robyn).

A couple of weeks after making this playlist, I read a wonderful essay by Buzzfeed writer Summer Anne Burton, entitled “The Fine Art of Mixtape Seduction” (http://www.buzzfeed.com/summeranne/crush-mixtapes). Mind you, I am no slick fox, so I have never performed my own seductions via mixtape – or via any other means, for that matter. I have always loved a good music mix, though. And in middle school, high school, and college, I made a number of them for my friends. In high school, my mixtapes always included track listings with detailed rationales for each of my selections. The rationale was always a mélange of autobiography, pseudo-philosophical musing, and “isn’t this song just, like, the best?!” Moreover, the process of compiling the mixtape’s content was itself a craft. One could not record the songs willy-nilly; order was crucial. Putting “Both Hands” (with the orchestral accompaniment, of course) after “Bullets With Butterfly Wings” would have been a grave mixtape transgression, as would including too many songs by the same artist. Any music snob worth her salt knows that she must represent her taste as both refined and varied.

I have always turned to music for emotional sustenance, and this semester, with its many ups and downs, has certainly been no exception. Between putting together the Graduate Student Empowerment mix and reading Burton’s fantastic piece, I have also been reminiscing about my music mixing days and the track listings that probably took me as long to compose as any English paper. I thought, for the heck of it, that I might revisit this exercise and put together a “mix” of the first ten songs that came to mind – ones strongly tied to specific memories. Lately my students and I have been thinking a great deal about biographies and memoirs–we just finished Audre Lorde’s Zami–and so we have had many conversations about how we remember and revise our histories, not to mention the associations that provoke or accompany memories. Often the memories that cling most tenaciously or perpetually resurface cannot be arranged into a cohesive narrative. So, what I am saying is that seventeen-year-old Rachel would probably sneer at this playlist. But I will ignore her pretentiousness and sally forth.

1. “Time Ago” by Black Lab: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kI_Y4hgsXYY

When I first heard this song, I was eleven years old, sitting underneath the window in my bedroom with my portable CD player in front of me. Immediately after, I concluded that it was the sexiest song I had ever heard. I had recognized “sexy” as an adjective since I was maybe nine. As an eleven year old awash in a complex web of new feelings, I all of a sudden realized that certain things, certain people, were sexy to me. Still, I could not quite articulate what that meant. I looked primarily to music and movies to cultivate my understanding of the term, and so I learned the following: 1. Having sex outside was sexy. 2. Having sex in a car was also sexy, especially if said car did not belong to you (ah, Titanic, the dreamscapes you inspired). Black Lab wooed me with the lyrics “All by ourselves we made love under the sleeping, moonless night,” because, as you will observe, they refer to bumping uglies in the outdoors (possibly on the hood of a car!), and THAT is sexy. But I was also a sucker for any song that articulated a man’s pained and nostalgic longing for a woman. I wanted to be that woman for somebody and was fearful that I never would be. And so, each time the local DJ fulfilled my wish and played this hyperbolically earnest one hit wonder, I would imagine it as the soundtrack to my first tryst with whoever I fancied that term.

2. “I Would Do Anything For Love” by Meatloaf: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOikQWAL8qc

One night, during our sophomore year, plagued by too many English papers, midterms, and theatre rehearsals, my friend Kellyn and I–roommates at the time–determined that there was only one way to mitigate our collective stress. We sought out Meatloaf in Kellyn’s iTunes library, turned the volume up as high as our RA would permit, and treated the rest of the floor to our vocal stylings. We stood defiantly, if precariously, on our wobbly desk chairs, hairbrushes clutched in our hands (microphones, you see). Within a few minutes, our neighbor Sarah LeCates rushed in to join us (we shared a hairbrush). While we were both quite friendly with Sarah, we were not close friends. But we shared a fleeting intimacy that night, even if our impromptu karaoke did not significantly change the nature of our friendship. The next year, Sarah left campus to study abroad in Senegal. Before returning to the States, she fell ill and died shortly thereafter. My sadness, while profound, could not be the same as the sorrow felt by those close to her – and, being a warm, vibrant person, she had many dear friends. But I never hear a note of this song without thinking of her.

3. “Jackie’s Strength” by Tori Amos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7WET8khBc4 

If I were a Tori Amos song, I would be “Jackie’s Strength” – at least according to the Buzzfeed quizmeisters. Apparently this has something to do with my penchant for the dramatic, so clearly their algorithm failed. Truly, though, I could not help but feel a bit of pleasure with my result. This song became my lullaby in eighth grade, its ethereal chorus engulfing me, forming what felt like a protective shell around my vulnerable, insecurities-riddled body. At school it would often play in my head, materializing into armor just beneath my skin and guarding me against the harsh social climate of my middle school. And it was there when I could not be brave – when I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling, wishing that I could be anyone or anything but what I was.

4. “I Will” by The Beatles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rx_APcTyIUg

At the reception following my first wedding, two of my ex-husband’s relatives sang this song, accompanied by another one of his relatives on guitar. It was a beautiful tribute to what I thought at the time would be a long marriage. For a couple of years following our divorce, I could not listen to this song without pangs of guilt and an acute sense of shame. Hell, sometimes I would listen to it as a form of self-punishment. Now the song conjures a fraught mix of associations: Paul, my ex-husband, the family of which I was once a part, my second wedding, steadily approaching on June 7. I can accept the joy with the pain now – and that is all I can do. I do not expect that this is an association that will ever weaken.

5. “Shake it Out” by Florence + the Machine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbN0nX61rIs

Oh Florence, you Pre-Raphaelite goddess. You do you, always.

No word play will make my connection to this song less hokey, but the associations are significant to me. I listened to this song as I walked from Paul’s house on my way to the bus stop one morning (and then many mornings, afternoons, and evenings after that). We had been dating for several months, but I was still licking my wounds from the previous, hellish year, when I both married and separated. Unsurprisingly I was particularly affected by the lyrics, “…it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back, so shake him off.”  I wish I could say that Florence’s wisdom healed me on the spot. Of course it didn’t, though it did make it into many a Facebook status message. Yet it reminded me that I had a right to be in love with Paul and to embrace all of the accompanying feelings. I am pretty sure that I sent him a stupidly cheesy text message before the song ended.

6. “Jumper” by Third Eye Blind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lObgLdtXYpU

“Rachel, I wanna listen to the song where he goes ‘Yiyiyiyiyow,'” said my youngest sister, then in pre-school, many, many times.

I readily obliged, for reasons she did not know.

7. “The Freshman” by The Verve Pipe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1umEXpGHc0E

I spent over four years desperately in love with a guy who did not love me. He and his friends, all freshly-minted high school graduates, had formed a band years ago and were spending the summer before college playing coffee house gigs. Those gigs were the place to be that summer, and I, a rising junior who did not yet have her license, frantically sought out a ride to each one. When my job as a grocery market cashier prevented attendance, I felt deeply bereft. My crush’s band would often cover this song – and well, I might add. Perhaps it was the explicit connection to high school, the song’s hyper-solemnity, or some combination of the two, I don’t know. But this song, more than all of the others on their set list, reminded me that my crush, the frontman, was moving on to the greener pastures of collegiate life. And no matter what Wet Seal halter top I wore to his shows, he would not return my affection the way I wanted him to.

8. “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcNo07Xp8aQ

Throwing punches alone in my apartment, attempting to channel everything I imagine Robyn to be, I would dance until I broke a sweat. Desolate and guilty, this song fortified the backbone that enabled me to leave my marriage.

9. “Stand Inside Your Love” by Smashing Pumpkins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nm4xv3firw

A Pumpkins devotee since age ten, I could not wait to share every last one of their songs with Paul. Predictably enough, we began with “Tonight, Tonight” (I probably join the population of a small country when I say that this is one of my favorite songs). After the preliminaries, I thought I would woo my beau with one of their more traditional love songs. Barely thirty seconds in, Paul nervously caught my attention–I was, of course, in raptures–and said, “Umm, could we maybe turn this off?” Believe it or not, not everybody enjoys Billy Corgan’s voice (I know, right?). In fact, some find it downright intolerable. Much to my horror, I learned that night that Paul is one of these people. I briefly reconsidered our relationship, but thought that one offense, however grave, was not sufficient reason to call it off.

10. “Portions for Foxes” by Rilo Kiley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtNV3pOqcjI

Writing this blog post has made me aware of my apparent affinity for red-headed ladies who sing. And each time I hear this song–or any that they played at their show, really–I can only dwell on the exquisiteness of Jenny Lewis and just how badly I want to braid her silky hair.

Your guess is as good as mine as to how these songs would sound played in succession. I’m curious to see for myself. And because I decided to write about the first ten songs/memories that occurred to me, it is interesting now to think of the bands and songs that did not make it onto the playlist. For instance, the absence of Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and The National feels conspicuous. Surely I have memories that I associate with them, and I know the image-conscious bones in my body tingled as I realized that those bands would not make the (albeit self-imposed) cut. But this was an experiment rather than an attempt to establish myself as the keenest of music aficionados. Seventeen-year-old Rachel will just have to eat that.

The BWD

It really pisses me off that I am capable of writing this blog post right now.

Why? Because I spent the better part of today staring at Scrivener, attempting to eke out one, maybe two paragraphs of my dissertation. And after much gnashing of teeth, En Vogue singles, and superfluous hydration, I was indeed able to wring out a few sentences. I’m not going to venture a guess at the word count because that would just depress me – and, besides, I suspect that much of what I produced today will, at some point, be deleted. I am not being self-deprecating — well, not entirely. Today was a Bad Writing Day (BWD, henceforth), one of those days when producing words felt like traveling through a birth canal lined with sandpaper. And when one is caught in a BWD, it can be difficult to claw one’s way into the greener pastures of the Good Writing Day (GWD, henceforth). For example: On a GWD, music helps me to maintain a rhythm as I think, write, and revise. Today it distracted me and induced YouTube cravings. Another example: On a GWD, I might pause to reread what I have already written for inspiration. Today I was this close to deleting all thirty-five pages of Rachel’s Disparate Thoughts on the Jerkface Narrator of Vanity Fair (Thackeray’s full name to be included in the actual chapter title).

So here I sit — writing, because it feels good to produce words, but simultaneously angry because these are not the words I want to produce right now. One of the reasons I decided to begin blogging was because I thought it might somehow be academically productive to stretch my non-academic writing muscles. Perhaps that will prove to be the case. But I also firmly believe in writers’ solidarity, and, for me, part of what marks that solidarity is the willingness to say when writing has not gone well – when one has had been caught in the sticky mire of a BWD.

Performing competence–even when it is very much a performance–is something that any professional must do. (As a Professional Student, I assume I can generalize here because it seems a safe generalization to make.) If I did not think that I could survive a day in academia without dissolving into tears, then I would hopefully choose another profession. But for genuine collegiality in any field, I believe that people must be willing to share their experiences of incompetence, too. We have to be willing to admit when we have been blindsided by a BWD, or even trapped in a cycle of the nasty buggers. We are professionals, but we are humans first. Our work typically feels more pleasurable and rewarding when we speak about its progress–or lack thereof–with candor.

To be clear, I do not believe that everyone, everywhere, should publicly announce, “I really sucked today!” every time s/he feels that has been the case. However, I do think we form stronger communities when we can admit vulnerability. I have always known that I could never exist in a profession where I was denied such a community, one with open-hearted support and honest intimacy. And I–along with everyone who has ever had to write a single paragraph–know all too well the isolating, desperate feeling of so-called writer’s block. As far as I am concerned, there can never be too many balms for that feeling, whatever forms they may take.

After I gave up dissertation writing for the day, I exchanged a few messages with a friend who is further along in her writing. “Tell me I am supposed to feel like an idiot,” I pleaded with her. A few hours later, I realize that we are not “supposed” to feel like anything – we simply do or we don’t. But I have discussed dissertation writing with enough seasoned veterans to know that BWDs, and all the feelings of shame, despair, and isolation that accompany them, are by no means rare among our population. I will not let today hold me back–nor will I let any future BWDs prevent me from pursuing the work I love so dearly. But I will openly claim this day, just in case anyone now, or in the future, could benefit from the sense of solidarity that comes from shared, frustrating experiences.

Today was a Bad Writing Day. My ideas felt stale. My writing felt forced. And while a BWD does not necessarily mean “bad” writing, what I wrote today might not make the final cut. But I have to write through the BWDs to reach the GWDs. Those days will be there too – it just might take a few hundred crappy words to reach them.