A Person Who Happens to Be Blind

I have been living in Italy for a little more than five months now. I am blind. And at this point, I’m going to ignore the State Department blogging guidelines with impunity because i need to say this.


Cue deep high-speed radio voiceover: this is not an official Department of State website and the views and opinions expressed herein are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.


So: Italy is a terrible country to live in if you’re blind.


Okay, I’m sure it’s not the worst in the world by any means, but compared to the United States, compared to what I am used to and what I expected when I left college, it’s been pretty rough.


At this point, I need to back up to give a bit more context.


I was born with aniridia glaucoma. By the time I was one year old, I’d had twelve eye operations, and then two more when I was five. I had some vision in both eyes—light and shadows and color, but not enough to read print or navigate without a white cane or guide dog. For all intents and purposes, I was blind, and last year, I became blinder when the pressure skyrocketed and my retina detached in my right eye. The pain was so unbearable I had to have it removed. It was horrifying to open my eye onto complete blackness—even more horrifying when my brain started trying to compensate for the black, sometimes filling it with what it knew to be there, sometimes presenting me with thoroughly distracting swirls of light and color. But once I got used to it, my life didn’t change all that much. Yes, I am suddenly more left-handed than right when it comes to things I use my vision for, and yes, I like to sit in the middle or on the right of gatherings watching television so the black doesn’t get in the way, and yes, the Jameyanne the One-Eyed jokes are always fabulous. But my vision had been deteriorating in that eye in the weeks before it was removed, so by the time I had the surgery, most of what I was losing was the pain. And who needs that anyway?


But this is the sort of attitude I have had all my life. Yes, I’m blind. Big deal. It’s not going to stop me from biking or drawing or playing clarinet or swimming or going to school or teaching in Italy or whatever it is I want to do. And woe to you if you tell me I can’t or try to stop me.


It’s something I was taught when I was very young, something most blind children are taught. I am not a blind girl or a blind student or a blind friend or a blind teacher or a blind writer or a blind person. I am just a girl, a student, a friend, a teacher, a writer, a person, who happens to be blind.


All my life, I have resisted being labeled as “blind”. Because “blind,” when applied as a label like that, usually means “can’t.” And “can’t” is not part of my vocabulary.


All my life, I have learned the skills I need to be independent, and when I went to college, I felt as if I had achieved that. I had teachers who asked what they could do to help me before I told them what I needed, teachers who saw me as they would see any other student. I had friends who told me where we were sitting in the dining hall before I asked—even developed a system of banging on the table so I could find them—friends who sometimes argued over who would get to describe a movie or television show to me, friends who never questioned me when I said I was going to play Humans Versus Zombies with them or participate in the Kenyon Hunger Games (I rocked at both, by the way). The fact that I was blind barely ever came up. Best of all, I didn’t feel blind, not even during those months where my eye was exploding and I turned the lights off instead of on when I entered rooms. Okay, maybe a little bit then, but not for the same reasons.


And then I came to Italy last October, and all my dreams and ideas of what it meant to live independently and what I thought I could do were given a thorough pounding. I met, for the first time in my life and from almost all sides, the attitude that because I was blind, I couldn’t, shouldn’t, had no business, even, living so far from home by myself, working, taking the bus, walking to the grocery store. There’s a cultural attitude here that if you’re blind, or have any disability really, you stay at home and let your family take care of you. My volunteer project—to help teach children at the school for the blind in Assisi some basic independent living skills, like pouring water without spilling or tying your own shoes or putting toothpaste on the toothbrush without making a mess—was shot down almost immediately by the director of the school, because, and I quote, “They can’t do that.” My backup plan to work with blind kids at local elementary schools also failed because apparently there are no blind children at local public elementary schools. Even my most basic goals , like going to the store independently or cooking by myself, didn’t work out as I had planned. Since traffic laws are only suggestions here, and therefore sidewalks are synonymous with parking lots or sometimes even highways, there’s no safe way for me to walk to a supermarket, even though there are several within walking distance of my apartment. And since I need to use a lighter to light my stove, and let’s face it, I have terrible aim, I can’t cook by myself either. So, for the first time in a very long time, I felt blind.


This was very difficult for me. It was like my neighbors’ attitude was seeping under my skin, to my very bones, making me feel like somehow I had failed. It took a long time for me to realize that even though I’m not as independent as I would have liked, I’m still more independent than I have been my whole life. I’ve taken one more step towards independence after college, not the giant leap that I envisioned myself taking, but still a step. And I’ve done more than that.


Somewhere between eliciting a round of applause for cutting up my own chicken at a dinner for the International Lions Club and being denied access to the tower of Pisa, I realized that I am representing blind people to Italians who may not have any direct experience with someone who is blind. I have been showing them that a person who is blind can do things on their own. And I’ve noticed a difference in the reactions I get around town. People say hello to me as I pass in the street. They ask me how I do things. Sometimes, they even admit that they didn’t think someone with a disability could do any of the things I’ve done, but I’ve changed their minds.


It’s only been in the last couple months that I’ve noticed this change, and when I noticed it, I realized something else. Ever since I left high school, I have resisted being “blind.” I didn’t even know I was doing it, because I was so happy, but to give an example, if someone suggested I write about being blind, I resisted. I said it was because I wrote fiction, not nonfiction, but I didn’t even want to write about a fictional blind character. I didn’t want to be defined as “that girl who writes about blind people because she’s blind.” And this extended to everything else I did and said and thought.


But I am blind. It doesn’t have to define me—in fact, I’ve made it fairly clear that it doesn’t—but I can’t change it either, and I wouldn’t want to if I could. And who better to represent people who are blind, whether in literature or in real life, than a person who is blind herself? Who better to represent me than me?


How to Move a Mountain

Yesterday I attended the midyear meeting for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistants in Rome. This was a huge source of anxiety for me, because not only is Rome a gigantic, chaotic, and frankly terrifying city, but I didn’t know how to talk about what I have accomplished this year. Because I didn’t feel like I had accomplished much of anything: I felt like I’d been moving from one struggle to another and the best that could be said was that I had not been killed by a crazy driver or simply turned around and gone home. No friends my own age. My volunteer project dead in the water. Problems with classes I didn’t know how to teach and teachers who were being unhelpful. How, I asked myself, could I talk about successes when I felt like all I had done was fail? And how could I even express the difficulties I was having when I was sure that the other English Teaching Assistants were doing great?


So I came to Rome with this feeling of imminent doom. This was something I just had to get through. Then I just have to get through the next four months, and then I can get out of this country where problems are just a fact of life and there’s no point doing anything to solve them and where a young blind girl shouldn’t need to and has no business trying to live independently so far from home.


And then I had a fantastic day.


Part of it was that we’re officially past the midway point. Now I can say I’m more than halfway through, which is great, because saying “well, I’m halfway there,” automatically brought on the horrifying thought, “Oh God, I’m only halfway there!” And I’m not going to lie: having a shower that stayed warm for more than five consecutive minutes was a big help.


But hot showers aside, there were some bigger reasons that contributed to it being such a good day.


For one thing, it turns out that the other English Teaching Assistants are having the same difficulties as me, and it was wonderful to rant about all the things we’ve struggled with and haven’t talked about. It was heartening to discuss how much we miss home and our friends and feeling like we knew what the heck we were doing with our lives and salty food. And it was inspiring to plan how we were going to get through the last months of our year in Italy. To know that I am not the only one who feels this way, to know that I am not actually alone, was amazing.


And I was able to realize that I haven’t just survived these months in Italy. I have, in fact, been successful. I have students who respect me, who are interested in what I am teaching, so much so that they are asking for topics. My own Italian skills have increased tremendously. I am navigating a foreign country—an extremely ablest foreign country—independently. And I am succeeding. I’m not dead, right? And maybe I don’t have friends my own age in Assisi, but I have to remember that I had an incredible four years at college and that this year was bound to be hard wherever I was. This weekend, we talked a lot about re-evaluating our ideas of what social success is, and if I look at where I am now versus where I was in October, I have succeeded. People say hello to me as I pass in the streets. People ask me how I do things instead of saying I can’t or shouldn’t or, worse, applauding when I do (but more on all that later).


Another thing that helped a lot was being reminded of why I have always been so interested in Italy. We took a tour of the U.S. Embassy, and like everything else in Italy, the complex has an incredible history. The land was owned by a friend of Julius Caesar, then some art-collecting cardinals, then Queen Margherita (she of the pizza), then the Confederation of Fascist Farmers, all before it was given to America as part of Italy’s war reparations after World War II. All of this history is layered right on top of itself: there’s an ancient Roman aqueduct (which Mopsy made a point of drinking from) next to a statue of a young Venus next to a fascist plaque—the modern on top of the rococo on top of the baroque on top of the romantic on top of the ancient, and plenty more layers I don’t know the names for in between. We visited the ambassador’s office and saw the largest Murano glass chandelier in the world, and while the ambassador told us he finds the office a bit too grand for day to day work, it is easy to imagine Queen Margherita holding balls and musical nights there (which gives me a new novel idea).


But I’m getting off topic. It’s this layered history, not just in the architecture but also in the culture, that was what drew me to Italy in the first place. It was the thing that made living in Italy the dream. Yes, there was a time when living in Italy was my dream. How much I wish I could go back to that time.


I made that comment this weekend. I said I wanted to build a time machine and go back to 2014 Jameyanne and tell her not to do this. I wanted to tell her that it’s too hard, that it’s not worth it, that she’s going to be miserable and lonely and scared out of her mind, that she’s going to want to go home more than anything else in the world . And then I stopped and thought about that. If I had a time machine, is that really what I would do? Has this experience, as hard as it has been, really not been worth it?


Yes, it’s been hard. Yes, there have been times when I have been miserable and lonely and scared out of my mind. There have been many times when all I wanted is to give up and to go home. But I wouldn’t tell 2014 Jameyanne not to do it. Partly because, I was 2014 Jameyanne once, and I know that she wouldn’t listen to anyone telling her not to do something. After all, she was still the Jameyanne who stuck out a semester of incredible pain because her right eye was exploding and there was no way she was missing a month of school for a little thing like having her eye removed. And even if I told her this would be worse than that, she wouldn’t listen. But I wouldn’t even say that.


If I could, I would tell 2014 Jameyanne that it will be hard, that it will not be fun, that she won’t have friends her own age, that for the first time since high school, she will feel blind, that she will be scared, that she will be more homesick than she has ever been in her life. But I will tell her that this will be worth it. Because she will learn so much about what is important to her, what she loves, and what she can do. She will be taken apart and when she’s put back together, all her pieces will be in different places, and she will have to search for the strength to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. But she will find that strength, and she will keep moving, and she will, in the end, succeed. This experience will be worth it. It’s a cliché, but 2014 Jameyanne will grow in ways that she can’t possibly understand, and since she can’t understand it anyway, maybe, if I had a time machine, I wouldn’t go back and I wouldn’t say anything. I would just let her experience this year for what it’s been.


Last week, I taught a lesson on Dr. Seuss, and I read Oh, The Places You Will Go to my kids. It was the first time I’d read the book since I graduated from high school, and I’ve been picking at it all week, the way I might pick at a hangnail:


I’m afraid some times you’ll play lonely games too.

Games you can’t win ’cause you’ll play against you,

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance

you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.

There are some, down the road between hither and yon,

that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on. (37-39)


But if all the bad bits and sad bits are true, who says the good bits can’t happen too?


Sorry, couldn’t resist.


So this is what I want to say to 2015 Jameyanne, the Jameyanne who is going to stride confidently into the last four months of her Fulbright year in Italy and then beyond: Remember this moment. Maybe this year has not been what I expected or dreamed. But it is still what I make it. I have grown and changed and learned so much about myself in these last five months, and who knows how that will continue over the next four months, if I am open to it. Maybe this is not the adventure I wanted, but it has nevertheless been an adventure, and perhaps it is also a staging ground for more adventures that I can’t imagine yet.


Remember this, 2015 Jameyanne. When things get hard, as I’m sure they will, remember this moment. You are traveling back to Assisi. You are listening to “Hakuna Matata.” No, scratch that, wrong message. You are listening to “Go the Distance.” You feel confident. You have new lessons to teach. New lessons to learn. New places to explore. New flavors of juice to try. Seriously, don’t forget the juice.


And kid, you will move mountains. Whatever those mountains may be. Maybe not here. Maybe not now. But they’re waiting for you, and here and now is where you build the strength, the courage, and the will that you’ll need to face them.

So… I Just Ate a Pigeon

My mother’s family is Italian, and I grew up thinking I was eating traditional Italian food: lots of vegetables, pasta rather than rice, lots of fish, garlic in everything, fruit rather than sweets for dessert. So I came to Italy feeling like I had a good sense of what to expect, and I was wrong. Not entirely wrong—the olive oil is to die for, there is lots of pasta and vegetables, plenty of fruit—but there’s a lot that I didn’t expect. And since I gave a whole lesson on American food to my students, who were fascinated by pancakes and brownies, I figured it was only fair for me to talk a bit about my experiences with Italian food.


Bread: Bread isn’t something that you eat on its own like in America. Most of the time, bread is almost used as a spoon to scoop up other food. This means that the bread is unsalted and, by itself, not all that tasty. That being said, the bruschetta is fabulous—the bread grilled over an open fire and drizzled with olive oil and salt or tomatoes or garlic powder (I want to try making it with roasted garlic instead).


Meat: Perhaps it’s because my Italian relatives were from southern Italy, so they ate more fish, or perhaps it’s just because my family doesn’t eat that much red meat in general, but I was very surprised by the amount of red meat people eat here. And all kinds of red meat. There’s lamb and beef and veal and ham, of course, but my landlady got me to try a sauce made from pig’s ear, and she’s insisting that before I leave, I have to try horse. I was not brave enough to try chicken liver or tripe—they just smelled too awful for me to dare. I did try rabbit, though, and it was pretty good. And, as my title suggests, I ate pigeon as well.


Salty and sweet: I don’t tend to put a lot of salt on my food in general, but the almost complete lack of salt surprised me. I asked about it, and my landlady said that salt hides other tastes, which is true, if you put too much salt. But even when you buy crackers in the supermarket, you have to make sure you buy the salted ones, and even the salted ones have barely any salt at all. I’ve definitely started dreaming about salty snacks. On the other hand, there’s a lot of sweet food. A lot of people eat cake for breakfast, and when they say snack, they usually mean cookies. Croissants—called cornetti in Italian—are usually filled with chocolate or honey or some sort of jam. At one point, I bought a glass of orange juice at a café and the waitress asked if I wanted to add sugar to it, which, not going to lie, I found a little bit horrifying.


Fruit: It’s fabulous, of course. All fresh and local. When you buy a bag of clementines, they still have stems and leaves on them. And the fruit juice is great too. I’ve been having fun experimenting with all the different flavors that I’ve never seen in the U.S. So far, I’m a big fan of blueberry and frutti di bosca—wild berry—and pineapple. I also enjoyed a juice called esotica—which was like mango and papaya and kiwi and passion fruit. Strawberry juice was a bit too sweet for me, and apple kiwi tasted like a green apple Jolly Rancher. But I liked apple banana, and I have a bottle of peach lime that I’m curious to try.


Pizza: Because what post about Italian food would be complete without talking about pizza? It’s great. The crust is thin to nonexistent. Usually, if you order a veggie pizza of some variety, there isn’t any sauce at all, just crust, some cheese, and the vegetables. Personally, I’m a big fan of the onion pizza, which is crust and olive oil and a ton of caramelized onions. I also really like pizza marinara, which is just tomato sauce and basil, which you wouldn’t think would be that good, but the sauce is so flavorful it’s great.


There’s more I could say. Pine nut gelato and chocolate pasta and salty cake. Chicken with orange sauce, sautéed chick peas and fava beans drizzled with olive oil, artichokes with lemon and capers. Truffles. All of the truffles. Walnut pasta sauce. Fried apples with cinnamon and honey and orange slices soaked in olive oil with a little bit of salt.


Yes, I had different expectations when I arrived, and I’m sure my experience isn’t indicative of Italy as a whole, just this region. Perhaps, if I traveled to southern Italy, I would find the food of my childhood. Or I would find something entirely new . I’ve tried so many foods I never dreamed of, and yes, I’ve avoided some foods that I just didn’t think I could stomach. But I did eat a pigeon. And I’m sure I’ll try much more before I go home.

New Year: New Goals

Actually, they’re mostly the same goals.


In 2014, I graduated from college. I was third runner-up for the Dell Award, and my first story was published. I finished drafts of two novels. I was awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship, and I traveled to Assisi and began my year in Italy. I applied to creative writing masters of fine arts programs for next year.


But now, 2014 is over, and 2015 is upon us.


This year, my goals are simple:


  1. By the time I return from Italy at the end of June, one of those aforementioned novels will be edited and ready to start submitting:

At this point, I’ve got three novels on my computer in varying states of desperately-needing-revision. So I’m going to revise. I’m going back to the small child magician novel, which I set aside before my senior year of college in order to work on my honors novel. I will definitely have this novel in submittable condition by June, possibly sooner at the rate I’m going. Maybe I’ll even get back to the honors novel too. But one thing at a time.


2.  I will keep this website updated on a semi-regular basis:

Really. I swear. It’s going to happen. I made myself a calendar of posts, and I always stick to my calendars.


3. I will actually use my Twitter account and tweet on a semiregular basis:

Last year it was Facebook. This year it’s Twitter.


4. I will continue writing and submitting short stories:

Pretty self-explanitory. I’m already doing it. So my goal is to continue doing it.


5.  I will make some decisions about what I want to do with my life:

I’ve had some experiences in the last few months that have changed my ideas about this. I’m not sure I want to get a doctorate in comparative literature anymore. I’m not even sure that being a fulltime writer is the best decision for me, even though it’s been my dream since I was little. Not that I wouldn’t be able to be productive, but I’m very close to being a full-time writer now, because I only teach in the mornings, and I feel like if all I was doing was writing, I might go insane. This doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep writing, because of course I do. And this also doesn’t mean that I don’t want to get an MFA in creative writing. I still want to do that, for myself and for my writing. But I need to make some decisions about what I want to do after that.


I have two other goals that are worth mentioning:


  1. To be accepted into an MFA program.


2.  To have another story published.


These are both obvious, based on what I already said. These goals are also out of my control. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take steps to accomplish them.


So here I come, 2015!

Christmas in Italy

I know. I’m a month late with this post, but it’s still January, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

The city of Gubbio, Italy, lit up on its mountain like a giant Christmas tree

This year, I spent Christmas in Italy. My family came to visit me for the holidays, but they didn’t arrive until a few days after Christmas, so I got to experience a traditional Italian Christmas with my landlady and landlord.


I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but it actually wasn’t that different from Christmas in America. I’m more familiar with the Christmas traditions of southern Italy, thanks to my mother’s family, than I am with the Umbrian Christmas traditions. There were no twelve fishes on Christmas Eve in Assisi, and there was much more red meat than my family would normally eat for Christmas in America. In America, we probably wouldn’t pop champagne and eat panettone—a Christmas cake with nuts and candied fruit—on the basilica steps immediately after midnight Mass either. Here in Italy, there really are twelve days of Christmas, and America only has one Santa Clause.


After Christmas, I went to Rome to meet my family, and we traveled around Rome, Florence, and Pisa for a week. And everywhere we went, the Christmas festivities continued. We saw crèche sets not only in every church and piazza but also in many store windows. We saw one that was made entirely of pasta, and another in the basilica in Pisa that included a looping audio track of a baby crying, Mary humming, a rooster calling, and cattle lowing. Restaurants continued to serve Christmas specials, and people continued to wish each other “Buon Natale“—Merry Christmas. New Years in Florence demonstrated more of the Italians’ festive spirit, as people set off fireworks in the streets all night and well into the next day.


At the end of our trip, we returned to Assisi, where we rounded off the twelve days of Christmas with a fabulous Christmas concert and the celebration of Epiphany on January 6. Italians celebrate Epiphany like a second Christmas with a big meal and La Befana—the Epiphany witch—who comes down the chimney and fills children’s stockings with candy if they were good and coal if they were bad. La Befana is basically a second Santa Clause, because Italian children also hang stockings for Papà Natale on Christmas Eve.


We celebrated Epiphany by visiting Gubbio, a small town on the top of a mountain about an hour from Assisi. Gubbio is called the Christmas town, because it has the world’s largest Christmas tree. Actually, Gubbio is the world’s largest Christmas tree, because it’s the whole mountain that is decorated to look like a Christmas tree. We spent the day exploring the town, walking up and down the steep, narrow streets. When it began to get dark, we drove down the mountain and then stopped to watch the largest Christmas tree in the world light up in the perfect finale to a beautiful Christmas.

Welcome to Italy!

It’s difficult to believe, but two months ago, I arrived in Italy to begin my nine months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Which means, among other things, that a blog post is long overdue.


I’m not going to pretend that the last two months have been easy, and I’m certainly not going to say that it’s been what I dreamed it would be or even what I expected it would be. Honestly, these have been some of the hardest months of my life, and that includes the two months I spent in excruciating pain last year because my eye was exploding. Why has it been so hard? Well, for one thing, this is my first year living on my own as an adult, and for another thing, I’m in a foreign country, and culture shock is a very real and very upsetting thing. I have never been this homesick in my life. I’ve had days where, after school, I curled up with a sad book or movie to give myself an excuse to cry, but I’ve also had days where I’ve had a lot of fun, and as the time is passing and I’m becoming more accustomed to living here, the fun days are outnumbering the stressful days.


So far, I have seen the best and the worst of Italy. Within my first two weeks here, I was hit by a car (I was on the sidewalk), and my mother and aunt were mugged. But none of us were hurt—just scared—and we also had some wonderful experiences before they left , and I have had some wonderful experiences since then. Some of my favorite have included meals with my teachers and my landlady and my mom’s cousin in Rome (seems like the way to enjoy the real Italian cuisine is to do it in an Italian home), my trip up to the fort at the top of Assisi with one of the teachers I’m working with, playing my clarinet for my landlady’s choir, and the festival for the Virgin Mary this past weekend (which included fireworks set to music and new, interesting street food!). And of course, I am loving teaching English and speaking Italian. I can practically feel my Italian skills growing with leaps and bounds every day, and every time a student asks me a question about America or asks me to elaborate on something we discussed in class, I just get really excited.


I want to share one particular story that I think really illustrates what things have been like here:


On a Saturday night towards the end of October, I was sitting out in the courtyard in front of my apartment, desperately trying to get my internet to work so I could skype with my friends in America. It was a pretty warm evening. I didn’t even have a coat on. It was already dark, and there was no traffic on my street, so it was pretty quiet. And then, just when I was about to give up and go back inside because the stupid internet just wasn’t working anywhere, I heard singing. I stood up, listening. At first, I thought it was coming from someone’s radio or television, but it sounded too clear for that. It was many male voices—a choir complete with harmonies—but it was too far away to distinguish words or even much of a melody. I stood there with my computer and listened, and I finally decided that I was pretty sure the singing was coming from the basilica, which is about a fifteen minute walk from my apartment. The night was so clear and quiet that it carried all the way to my street. Later, when I told this story to my landlady, I learned that it was the weekly candle-lit procession of the monks, but then, standing there in the dark, feeling confused and frustrated and pretty miserable, and then suddenly hearing this singing that seemed almost other-worldly from that distance, all I could think of was the story of why the lower part of Assisi is called Santa Maria degli Angeli—Saint Mary of the Angels: Because Saint Francis heard the angels singing.


Moving here hasn’t been easy (it has certainly been a much bigger adjustment than I ever anticipated), but I think the more comfortable I get, the more fun I will have. For every time I take the wrong bus or momentarily panic at the sudden movement of a car up onto the sidewalk, I also round the corner to find two cellists playing Pachabel’s Canon, or I’m invited to Sunday lunch with someone’s family and have a great time, or one of my students tells me they really enjoyed my lesson on American geography and one day they want to visit some of the national parks I described. And I remember why I dreamed of coming here and remind myself that even if it isn’t totally great now, it will be.

Packing for a Story

In the introduction to Theodora Goss’s short story collection, In the Forest of Forgetting, Terri Windling quotes Goss’s discussion of literature as a series of countries and border crossings:


As a student studying literature, I was told there were borders indeed: national (English, American, colonial), temporal (Romantic, Victorian, Modern), generic (fantastic, realistic). Some countries (the novel) you could travel to readily. The drinking water was safe, no immunizations were required. For some countries (the gothic), there was a travel advisory. The hotels were not up to standard; the trains would not run on time. Some countries (the romance) one did not visit except as an anthropologist, to observe the strange behavior of its inhabitants. And there were border guards (although they were called professors), to examine your travel papers as carefully as a man in an olive uniform with a red star on the cap. They could not stop you from crossing the border, but they would tell you what had been left out of your luggage, what was superfluous. Why the journey was a terrible idea in the first place. (Goss XII-XIII)


BTW  I’m only partway through In the Forest of Forgetting but so far it’s shaping up to be excellent.


I was struck by this quote not only because it is beautiful, inciteful, and witty, but also because this past week I was packing my luggage for a year abroad and at the same time having some literary border-crossing troubles of my own.


I recently wrote a short story that I worked really hard on and loved to pieces. (Note: Loving your own first drafts to pieces is usually not such a good idea. I do not recommend.) So, having completed this story, I asked some friends for critiques, and I was told that this was not a short story. This story was a novel, trying—and failing—to be a short story. Now, had I listened to the people I’d originally discussed this idea with—they thought it would work better as a novel too—I wouldn’t have landed myself in this predicament. But I’ve had too many short stories turn into novels that I still haven’t written yet, and I loved this idea. I wanted to write a short story, too, so I did, and now I had feedback I didn’t want to hear.


But of course, I did hear it, and since it jived with feedback I’d already received, I thought that I better at least consider it. And the more I considered it, the happier I became with the idea of this story as a novel. I could really explore the world, the characters and their motivations, the plot. I could dive into it in a way I really couldn’t do successfully in a short story. In a novel, I could keep all the intertwined plot lines I already had, whereas if I insisted on writing a short story, in order for it to really work I would have to dissect the plot lines and only focus on one, maybe one and a half. All of this seemed like strong reasons to make this short story a novel, so I set the draft I had aside and added it to my beist of unwritten novel ideas with only a little regret. The only problem was, I also had all these ideas for related short stories, and before I knew it, they had turned into novels too, and I was out of short story ideas.


Clearly, there is a lesson here that I understand in principle but still haven’t really learned: Short stories are not simply shorter novels. Short stories and novels are very different beasts.


Which brings me back to my thoughts on literature as countries and my struggles with packing. As I was packing this weekend—deciding what to bring and what to leave behind, what was necessary, what I would like to have, and what I could do without—I realized that in a way, planning a project is similar to packing for a trip. If you’re going away for a weekend or an overnight, you’re going to pack less than if you’re going away for a week or a month or a year. Similarly, if you’re writing a piece of flash fiction or a short story, you don’t need—and shouldn’t have—as much plot, as many characters, and as much information in general as you would include if you were writing a novel. When you’re packing for a year abroad, you’re not just bringing clothes and a swim suit and a few toiletries. You’re bringing clothes, some toiletries to start you out (but you’re planning to get more when you’re over there), your electronic devices like a computer or an iPod (though maybe you’ve left your phone behind), lots of books, and anything that is personally important to you (though not necessarily of much use). When you’re planning a novel, you need characters and plot and lots of room for those characters to develop, and don’t forget all that backstory that has gotten your characters to this point. A novel can have multiple plot lines and subplots and character arcs, but a short story can really only have a few characters, one plot and one character arc, and limited backstory. You can’t pack a novel into a short story, just like you can’t pack for a year when you’re really only going away for a week.


It sounds ridiculously obvious when I say it like that, but as I said, it’s a lesson that I feel I understand in principle but am only just beginning to really learn in that way that will make my writing better. I started out writing novels (bad ones, it’s true, but novels nonetheless). So I naturally think big, and it’s an effort for me to pare something down to the size of a short story, but effort or not, I still love it. And if packing for Italy has taught me nothing else, it has taught me that some suitcases just aren’t built to hold certain things, and you can’t always fit everything you want into the bag, and you can’t force it. You can sacrifice the thing you want to bring, or you can pay the price of bringing a larger bag, but whatever choice you make, if the story is important enough for you to write it, you’ll find the bag that fits best so you can have the trip of a lifetime.


Now, back to packing! Next stop Italy!

New Years Resolutions Take 2

Back in January, I wrote a post about my New Year’s resolutions, and now, at the beginning of September, I thought it might be a good idea to check in on how I’ve done, celebrate some successes, and renew the ones that could use some renewing.


1.  Post on Facebook Every Day:


To be entirely honest, I haven’t posted on Facebook every single day this year, but I do almost every day, and I have gotten myself into the habit of actually using Facebook like a normal person, which was the goal underlying the “post every day” bit. So I declare this resolution a success.


2.  Reach 200 rejection letters or get published, whichever comes first:


I’m not going to say exactly how many rejections I have because I don’t want to share and no one really wants to know that, but in all likelihood, I will reach 200 by the end of the calendar year.


On the other hand, I have made 200 a moot point. After 137 rejections, my story “The Year of Salted Skies” was named the third runner-up for the 2014 Dell Award, and after 150 rejections, my story “The Collector” was accepted for publication at Cast of Wonders! And it was published .




3.  Blog semi-regularly:




About that…


I could make all sorts of excuses for why I haven’t blogged—finishing my thesis and taking my honors exams, applying to graduate schools, waiting to hear from said graduate schools and from the Fulbright, graduating, preparing for a year in Italy, expanding the World War II Italy novella into a full length novel, all that important stuff. But I am not going to bemoan or attempt to excuse my lack of blogging activity. Instead, I am going to renew this resolution. 2014 is not over yet, and the new school year is about to begin. This year I will be teaching instead of learning, and this is strange and a little scary to me. Also Italy, which is awesome and must be blogged about. So I will make a new school year’s resolution to blog more. Please pester me if I don’t.


But, lack of blogging aside, I have to say, this has been the year! I graduated from college! I got a Fulbright scholarship to teach in Assisi, Italy! And I got published! And if I did all that—and kept my Facebook resolution—then I will get better at blogging.


And once I get better at blogging, maybe I’ll figure out this thing called Twitter.

New Years Resolutions

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post for the last couple of weeks.


Who am I kidding? I’ve been meaning to blog for the last six months, but senior year was getting underway, I was writing my thesis, generally doing fun things, and I had to have my right eye removed.  Yeah, that happened.  It basically exploded.  But that’s an entirely different story.  More on that later.  I promise.


So I finished first semester, finished a draft of my thesis (that’s the World War II Italy novella), had surgery and recovered from said surgery, and then I made a New Years resolution to resurrect this blog and try to blog on a semi-regular basis.  I maybe set an alarm to go off on my phone once a week to remind me.


The reason I’ve been struggling with this post in particular is that I keep going back and forth about what tone I want to take, and the truth is, it’s not just about this blog post.


See, blogging is only one of my New Years resolutions.  Actually going on Facebook and not just creepily lurking is another, and I’m doing pretty well with that.  But the big one is that by the end of 2014, I will have received 200 rejection letters.


Don’t get me wrong: I do not want 200 rejection letters.  If I get published before I reach 200, that’s great! Never mind! Mission accomplished!


The point is, over the past several months, I’ve been feeling pretty down about writing and submitting new stories.  I mean, there’s only so many times you can hear that it’s so close, but no thank you, before you start to wonder.  I’m watching my friends get published, and I’m glad for them—I really am. But I’m also hearing that everyone admires me so much for trying, but really, I’d rather be admired for succeeding.  So I set a goal that I will have 200 rejections by the end of the year in order to force myself to write more and submit and keep trying, because if I stop trying because I feel like I’m failing, I will definitely have failed.


So I’m sitting here, and I want to say “this is the year!” I want to say this is the year that things are going to happen.  I’m going to graduate, and I’m going to get a Fulbright and go to Italy or I’m going to get into graduate school.  I’m going to get published this year, or win a competition, or maybe even get into Clarion.  I’m going to read Lord of the Rings for the first time!


That’s what I want to say.


But at the same time, I’m sitting here, and I’m thinking about what my father has said about some of my brother’s musician friends: “You keep going up and up and up, but at some point, everybody stops.  Everybody hits a peak, and they don’t go any higher than that.”


And I can’t help wondering, what if I’ve hit my peak? All my life, I’ve succeeded at whatever I set my mind to, but what if this is it? What if I don’t get the Fulbright or get into graduate school? What if I can’t get a job? What if I don’t ever get published and can’t succeed at writing? What then?


The truth is, in a little less than four months, I’m going to graduate and leave Kenyon, and I have no idea what I’m doing after that.  I don’t even know what I want to do after that.


And that is terrifying.


And I’m not sure I know how to handle it.


All I can do is write about it, because right now, writing is just about the only thing I’m positive I can do.


Maybe I feel like this because it’s 12:30 in the morning and I just read a friend’s story about a girl who feels like a failure after graduation.  Maybe I’m feeling like this because in less than two weeks, I’m going to hear whether I’ve moved onto the next level in the Fulbright application.  Maybe it’s because I’ve never not had a plan.  Probably, it’s a little of everything.


This is one of those things that I’m not totally sure I want to put out there on the internet, but I also think it’s something that needs to be said.  Sometimes, we don’t know what we’re doing.  Sometimes, the world just seems really big, and we’re really small, and somehow, we have to move through it without getting lost, and sometimes, we have no idea how to do that.  Sometimes, optimistic gusto is just stupid, and we need to admit that we’re afraid.


And at the end of the day, even though I don’t know where I’m going, I still have to move forward.  Eventually, I know I’ll end up where I’m supposed to be.  Or at least I’ll end up somewhere.


And until then, I’m going to put one foot in front of the other, do my homework, have fun with my friends, enjoy my last semester at Kenyon.  I’m going to go to Midnight Breakfast and try a smoothy from the KAC.  I’m going to finish revising my thesis.  I’m going to read Lord of the Rings and watch the original Star Wars trilogy for the first time.  I’m going to write stories and submit them.  I’m going to go on Facebook, and I’m going to blog.  I’m going to play Pokemon on the big screen in the science quad.


I’m going to take things one day at a time, and I’m going to see what happens.  Something will, and who knows? Maybe 2014 will be the year.

Too Dark to Read

Groucho Marx once said that “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” And that’s what I want this blog to be about: how the creation and absorption of literature impacts my life.  In other words, I’m blogging about reading, writing, and occasionally the warm fuzzies of having a dog.


I am blind, but that’s not what I’m writing about.  It’s just a fact.  I’m me.  I’m blind.  Moving on.


I’m not blogging about it in general, but the fact that I’m blind does lend itself well to the title of this post, because the fact is, for me, it’s never too dark to read.  When I was little, when my brothers and I had early bedtimes and our parents turned out the lights, my older brother always complained that I could still read in the dark.  In fact, sometimes I would read so late that I would fall asleep with the book still lying open across my chest, and I would wake up some time after my parents had put it on my night table to find my fingers still moving across the sheets, reading a story even in my dreams.


Now, I’m going into my senior year at Kenyon College, where I’m studying English, creative writing, and Italian.  I read every book I can get my hands on, and I write young adult fantasy and literary fiction.  I love language.  It never fails to fascinate me how one word plus another word plus another word and on and on for hundreds of thousands of words can create a story that can make me laugh until my ribs ache or cry until my ears pop.  I hope to write a story like that one day too, and since my career after college is going to have something to do with literature, I feel like I should get some practice talking about it in a public way.


But this isn’t about literature in the scholarly sense of the word, not really.  This is about stories, and what stories can do for all of us.  For me, my favorite books are like old friends who are always there, whatever is going on in my life, and there’s nothing like the joy of discovery that comes with a new book.  And writing a story is just the same, a journey of discovery and emotion.  Stories of all kinds have gotten me through the hardest times in my life, so I guess what I’m really blogging about is how, even if you’re inside a dog, it is never too dark to read.