Getting an advance readers copy (ARC) of a book invariably involves knowing someone and a promise to write a review of the book. You might know someone at the publisher, or have a friend who knows someone. At any rate you know someone who knows you have an interest in the genre or subject matter, and that you could provide a review. Yes, I am dorky enough that I love the way getting an ARC makes me feel like an insider. With this ARC, I have the additional privilege of knowing the author. Having met Katie Rose Guest Pryal in graduate school, not only have I had the privilege of calling her a friend, I have known her during many of the events in this book.
For the first time, knowing the author whose ARC I’m reading, considering her a friend, made writing this review difficult. I finished The Freelance Academic, a couple of weeks ago. Sure, some of my delay posting stems from scheduling. Mostly, however, the delay comes from how much I want you all to read this book. As I struggled to develop my thoughts about why I want everyone to read this book and what I could say without giving too much away, I decided the best way to get started was with transparency. Yes, my friend wrote this book and I am about to write a very positive review about it; however, what I need for you to fully understand is that those two things are not dependent upon one another.
In Brittney Cooper’s book Eloquent Rage, she describes a home-girl intervention, as an instance when a friend firmly, but lovingly calls us on some bullshit and educates us in a way that makes us better. Cooper tells the story of a friend from her undergraduate days, who called her on her dismissal of feminism and got her to engage with bell hooks. Cooper’s engagement with hooks and feminism is clearly a defining moment for her. Cooper’s friend’s willingness to stand up to and educate her came at just the right time to shape Cooper’s thinking and career. The home-girl intervention isn’t always what we want to hear, but it is what we need to hear. It requires a friend brave enough to be blunt with us.
In The Freelance Academic, Guest Pryal steps up to do the same work for readers. There are many blog posts, websites, articles, and books out there about the state of the academic job market, reasons to leave academia, how to find work outside of academia, and a lot of what has been dubbed “quit lit” about how individual people have navigated this transition. Understandably, many of these narratives illustrate the problem with academia which has caused the person to leave, then describe the fulfilling and rewarding life leaving academia allowed the person to build. Skimming the messy, difficult time between leaving academia and getting to that fulfilling and rewarding life is understandable because those periods are often so personal, so influenced by the details of our lives that authors can be forgiven for not sharing what they may not realize could be helpful to others.
Drawing on personal experience and biography, The Freelance Academic fills in this gap. Using the details of her own story, Guest Pryal offers valuable insight and practical advice on how she has built a freelance career outside of the academy. The result is something special. By acknowledging the details of her story that enabled her to follow this path, Guest Pryal opens the door for readers to flexibly engage with her advice. For those in situations similar to her own, The Freelance Academic becomes great guide for building a freelance career. For those of us still working in academia or in different situations, The Freelance Academic still provides an amazing amount of value. It is, in the best sense, a home-girl intervention. Guest Pryal unflinchingly calls out and lays bare the conditions in which we work, and then she educates us, provides us with new way to think about the way we work and who and what we are working for. There isn’t much more I can say without spoilers. Whether you are currently in academia, considering leaving, or have just left, The Freelance Academic comes at just the right time to re-frame how you think about your work and the path you want to take.
While I thought it would be the book I closed out 2018 with, Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendships by Kayleen Schaefer ended up being the first book I finished of 2019. The book’s primary message that our romantic relationships do not make up the only love story of our lives isn’t one I mind carrying into 2019. Tending to my friendships is often an intention I set and re-set for myself.
When I first started reading it, I made a list of all the women I wanted to send copies to for Christmas. Ultimately, though I am glad I didn’t follow through with that plan. At the end of this book I started with such enthusiasm, I was underwhelmed. My enthusiasm for the book stemmed from the way it seemed written for me.
Circumstances being what they are, I am a straight, single, professional, white woman whose primary form of emotional support comes from her friends, which is exactly what Shaefer describes in this book. Ouiser is my emergency contact in all things. Dr. Lawyer was my person during my most recent medical adventure. I rely on Amié Volée for help with Les Animaux and her family always makes sure I have a place to go for the holidays. I could go on and on about how Dr. Revolution, Dr. Phoenix, The Banshee, and others have been just as integral in my life and form my collection of people. At the beginning of the book it felt great to read someone recognizing the importance of these friendships. I wanted to send everyone copies to show them a reflection of our relationships.
The recognition of the importance womens’ friendships can play in our lives was refreshing, but I wish Shaefer had spend more time examining the ramifications. In this extended passage she quotes and summarized Briallen Hopper, who says she is:
“not ashamed to admit that my friends are my world. They are responsible for most of my everyday joy, fun, and will to live.” [Hopper] goes on to explain that, despite, this, it can be terrifying to make friendship your main support system. The relationship is “chronically underrated and legally nonexistent.”
I wanted more of discussion about how the women who value and create these friendships work to change these ideas. To be fair Schaefer does provide examples of women listing friends as emergency contacts or beneficiaries on insurance policies. As I read though, I was longing for a more sociological discussion of the consequences of this behavior.
As I mentioned above, Schaefer’s book primarily describes and discusses the friendships of straight, single, professional, white women, which is part of what made me enjoy this book. It is nice to feel seen and represented. While Schaefer attempts to address women of color and other differences by describing positive media portrayals of these friendships, her discussion of them remains shallow. This is a comment an early Amazon reviewer made and I do think she attempted to address it in the final work. However, because it is her own story and friendships serve to illustrate many of her points, the work never feels as inclusive as it attempts to be.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It provided me with an important mirror at just the right time in my life by reminding me that, while it may not look like a Hallmark movie or the relationship in a paranormal romance book, I do have an incredible love story in my life. My friendships are deep, abiding, and essential to my joy. In the end though, I also wanted a little more analysis and discussion.
One of my biggest problems with academia is that breaks are so rarely breaks. Even for those who do not have administrative work to contend with, the break so sorely needed to recover from the previous semester is too often spent preparing for the upcoming semester. Winter break is particularly problematic in this way. Anytime stolen to relax and recover from the exhaustion of the semester is tainted by the knowledge that I should be prepping and planning for the new semester.
This year at the beginning of this break I was forced into a little down time by scheduling an outpatient surgery just after I turned in final grades. Dr. Lawyer came down the night before to take care of me on the day of surgery. We had a lovely evening talking and she reminded me of some advice I gave her this summer. She’d suffered heat stroke and was dealing with recovering from this brain injury. We visited shortly after her injury and as we walked around town and she apologized for her weakness and disorientation. She had felt up to walking around when we left her house, but now she felt weak and unsure of herself. Having dealt with my own brain injury, I told her to stop apologizing and to stop being so hard on herself for not recovering faster.
I explained a significant aspect of my own recovery that was hard to see, but helped me learn to be kind to myself about many aspects of my life post-stroke. The brain is very malleable. After an injury it accepts the new situation as normal and begins to chart its new pathways. I remember that, once I had been transferred to my rehab floor, I felt completely normal, like I should be fine. Yes. Some things took longer than normal and things had changed, but essentially I felt ready to get back to my old life. Coming home from the hospital I could look back and see, “Oh, right, I was not normal. I needed that time in the hospital to recover.” Again felt “back to normal.” I didn’t feel like I needed the two months off before the next semester; and I certainly felt ready to return to teaching in January. I made it through that semester, feeling fine and going about my business. Yet once I continued to actually recover, I could see that I hadn’t been fully back to normal.
I explained to Dr. Lawyer, “You are going to feel recovered. You are going to feel like you should be, or are, back to normal. But then, in a few months or a year, you are going to reach another point in recovery where you can look back and say, “Oh, I thought I was recovered, but I wasn’t.” This is important to hold onto, especially for those of us who tend to push too hard and take on too much, because it is so easy to start to berate ourselves for slowing down, to push ourselves too hard too fast to recover and be done with it. To move on. Though I couldn’t articulate it exactly in the moment, my point for Dr. Lawyer was that recovery from her brain injury would be ongoing.
When she reminded me of this conversation, I was a little surprised. I’d forgotten I told her about that. As I close out this year and look back at where I was this time last year, I’ve been reminded how it isn’t just physical recoveries that are incremental and ongoing. At this time last year, and I am pretty sure at various points over the last couple of years, I thought I was done. I’d recovered and moved on from my marriage. I was my new self. Yet, each time I look back, I realize I have recovered more. Realize that I should have been kinder to myself along the way, because I wasn’t done. I was still healing and needed to take it slow.
As I move into the new year, I know I will lose sight of this again. I will push myself and I will get frustrated when I feel like I am not making the progress I think I should. I haven’t settled on my conditions for the year, but my word for the upcoming year is foundation. As I work to establish and strengthen the base of my relationships, my finances, my health, my self, it is good to remember that this recovery is ongoing.
Recently, one of my favorite writer’s tweeted about reading Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger for an upcoming column she is writing. At the time, I was in the middle of Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. I suggested we should compare notes. Traister’s book is next on my list of books to read this year, but since I currently have three other books in progress, in will definitely be 2019 before I get to it.
Just before the conclusion of her book Chemaly advocates for a type of anger competency to replace the idea of anger management. She gives suggestions for how to be aware of our anger and to manage it. Number seven in her list of suggestions “Cultivate Communities and Accountability” struck me. The section opens, “Anger can feel very isolating, but, in fact, it is an emotion that demands communication and conversation. It also finds strength in community.” While the section goes on to discuss protest communities, I found myself thinking of a different community. This year in articles, essays, columns, and whole books, I have been immersed in discussions of women’s anger.
Though I could probably trace this to other texts, the first piece on anger to really stand out and shape my thought was Lyz Lenz’s essay “All the Angry Women” in Roxane Gay’s collection Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. Describing the Bible study group she leads each week, Lenz says she meets each week with angry women and describes the sessions as a type of group therapy. A place where the women can come and hold their anger in community. Lenz identifies the way for so many women, myself included, “anger is always reserved for someone else.” Someone else always has a greater right to be angry and, therefore, I should not. It echoes the theme of the whole collection — the way the fact that someone else has experienced worse can make us feel like we do not have the right to hurt, or feel anger, or to demand justice.
In what has been the most personally revelatory passage I read all year, Lenz writes: “Anger is the privilege of the truly broken, and yet, I’ve never met a woman who was broken enough that she allowed herself to be angry.” I read this passage at a time when my counselor was trying to get me to express my anger about my marriage. Yes. My marriage broke me. Yes. My marriage gave me many reasons to be angry. But, no … I was never broken enough to allow myself that anger. I still can’t or don’t. More and more I notice that I really only allow myself anger for others, never myself.
Chemaly tells us we need community and accountability to improve our anger competency. Lenz describes the communities of angry women in her weekly Bible study. Brittney Cooper’s book Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, which I also read this year, addresses anger as well, but the primary focus is the other theme dominating my reading this year — women’s friendships. As Lenz’s writing provides the cornerstone of my reading of women’s anger, Cooper is the cornerstone of friendships for me. Filled with cultural insight and commentary, her book is a love story, an ode to her friendships. Maybe not everyone has read the book this way, but the message is there throughout: our friends intervene when we need to be set straight; they hold us up when we stumble; they champion us as we fight; and they celebrate our successes.
One of the final books I will read this year is Kaylee Shaefer’s Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship. The connection isn’t fully formed, but I am struck by how these themes anger, community, and friendship enveloped this year. Perhaps, the idea I’m reaching for is that circling behind it all in subtitles and inferences is the idea of power. Individually we each hold power, but when bound together into communities, bound together by our anger for others and ourselves, that power multiplies. Power energizes and it buoys. Our friendships generate it and our anger focuses and wields it. Perhaps that is is why at the end of a year of reading about women’s anger, I feel so hopeful.
If you are at all familiar with the musical Carousel, please forgive me for putting that song in your head. If you aren’t the linked video is a special peak into musicals circa 1956. Watch it, if you can. Also, take comfort in the fact that, due to a bit part in our high school production of said show, it is going to take me at least a week to get it out of my own brain. In my last entry, I inadvertently set forth a challenge that the rest of June would have to work to live up to the first day. Apparently, the challenge was accepted in all the best ways!
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Look, too often the days that are often supposed to be significant end up being not. Yesterday though .. yesterday was the First of June. Maybe not a national holiday, maybe not even the official first day of summer, but it was the first of the month and, man, the rest of June will have some living up to do!
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Explaining my absence is probably the first order of business. As I mentioned before the end of spring semester is its own beast. Like the end of any other term it is hectic and stressful, but there is some additional dark magic at work in academy during the month of April. Every demand on your time, report to write, email to send, meeting to attend adds some kind of exponential weight and stress. Additionally this year as I trudged through April, I suddenly felt the significance of everything that has happened to me in the last two years. In many ways the stress, my mood, and my general exhaustion mirrored the way I felt as I finished my dissertation and approached graduation.
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Though I have been trying to post at least once a week, and this week has been slightly eventful, I haven’t had time to parse exactly what I want to say about it. There are some movie reviews floating around my head, personal revelations y’all probably don’t need to hear, and even local news events, the only thing there doesn’t seem to be is coherent thought and time to write about it all. This week instead of my ramblings, I will give you good writing … someone else’s.
Since December I have been on a poetry binge. In the last few months I have read four poetry collections and any others I come across. Here is one of my recent favorites from Anne Boyer’s collection Garments Against Women.
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In A Field Guide to Getting Lost Rebecca Solnit discusses the captivity narratives of the early American colonizers Cabeza de Vaca, Mary Jemison, and others. She is concerned with the captives who adapted, who created and stayed in the homes and lives they made inside these new cultures. She talks about the psychological and cultural metamorphoses that these transitions required. And, she discusses the way we perform these metamorphoses all the time. We grow, we change, without necessarily noticing.
“Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar, if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment.”
This slow and incremental, every day change she calls a psychological metamorphosis. The captives she describes as having to go through a cultural metamorphoses, which she describes as “something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life.” The caterpillar doesn’t just magically reform into a butterfly, its body must first disintegrate, decay to feed the emerging creature. Solnit says “We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of the metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming.” In this book about getting lost, about losing oneself, I see Solnit’s point about the total transformation necessary to adapt so wholly to a new culture that you can’t return to your old one.
My desks always start out neat, organized, a clear space to work. As that work progresses the piles of things in progress develop, bills to pay, tax documents to be filed, books to be referenced or read, mementos pile up. The pink beanie baby bear a secret admirer gave me before I left my Haggen’s job. The stuffed lamb a dear friend gave me to keep me company during my hospital stay. Pictures I discovered going through my memory shoe boxes. These days three selves stare back at me from those pictures; and I am all of them and none of them.
A card the friend made for me, “The Three Faces of Brandy Brown (Seductress, Seductee, Seduced).” Two of the pictures cannibalized, probably by the ex-DH for one of his last minute birthday projects where sentimentality was supposed to make up for the lack of forethought. The picture of me, the Seductress, the only one remaining. Me hugging a good friend, chin to my shoulder, grinning, looking at the camera as if I’m daring it to try capturing all of me. The moment I thought I had emerged, newly formed, newly named, newly married and ready to unfurl my painted wings.
The photo-booth roll of Ouiser and I on a conference trip to San Francisco: our sunglasses on, laughing, having such a good time. I can’t remember if this would have been before or after our encounter with the Bushman, the street performer, or the one footed pigeon I named Percy. That was a very full day. In the third picture down we are both have our sunglasses up and are captured mid-laugh, and I honestly don’t know that there is a happier picture of me anywhere. This is the moment before, before the decay. Before grad school began the deconstruction and reformation of herself. Before the stroke. Before the unraveling.
Finally, the oldest. The snap shot of me at nine, though even then I looked old for my age, standing up from a picnic table, looking back over my shoulder as my Grandma Nina looks at me. My hair pulled tightly into a pony tail. My bangs the perfect length. I don’t remember the event or where the picture is taken, nothing seems familiar. I remember the shorts set I am wearing being one of my favorites, and that this was probably one of the last times I was able to wear it before outgrowing it. I know I kept the picture partly because of the amazing tan I have. I spend all of my Western Washington high school summers chasing this tan.
Judging from the timing, this picture was probably taken at some kind of going away event before we moved west. Maybe that explains my expression, the sadness in my eyes, though I don’t think that is it exactly. That girl has no idea where she will end up, no idea how far away from that tiny northern Minnesota town she will travel literally and figuratively. All that girl has ever known is growing up in a trailer, then a cabin, finally a house in town, parents who scraped by, aunts, uncles, and cousins babysitting, hotdishes to make meals stretch(tuna noodle, spam, and wild rice), and never really fitting in. Always being too much, too strong willed, too imaginative, too independent, too talkative, too smart. She doesn’t know that this is beginning of a period of decay and withdrawal. She doesn’t know this is where her family changes. This is where she will say goodbye to grandparents, where Aunts, uncles, and cousins will become strangers, where her home will become an awkward place, an outgrown garment.
However, it is also where she will learn to move, to grow, to re-build that family wherever she is at. It is where being too much, too strong willed, too imaginative, too independent, too talkative, too smart are the things that will sustain her. They are the things that will get her out of that west coast version of the Minnesota town. The things that will make her a reader, teach her how to make friends, and help her survive this move and all the rest. Every way that she didn’t fit will help her survive her marriage and divorce, help her earn her Ph.D., and give her the courage to face every new thing: illness, job, town, house. She may have outgrown that northern Minnesota life, but with every metamorphosis she steps further into the life that does fit. A life in which she is no longer too much and always enough.
A consistent theme throughout my post-divorce writing is the joy, revelation, and tension between the past and the present. The granola post probably captures the idea, and the joy of it, most clearly. The tension and the revelation are, I think, more diffuse. In my experience, they sneak up on me; the moments of the most joy and revelation in the present made more so by their inevitable contrast to the past. Moving through this past weekend, chronicling it with pictures that deliberately avoid faces, recovering from the bouts of laughter that left me breathless, I planned a joyful, celebratory post about the impromptu first party in my home, about old friendships, about bringing together old and new friends. Perhaps this post is still that, there is still joy and celebration, but all of that now exists in the contrast.
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