In Defense of English Majors

graduation 2000
Receiving my English degree

I keep thinking I need to update, but then I sit for a long time, staring at a blank page. Between work, grad school, and general adult responsibilities, I’m in a permanent state of exhaustion. That makes it rather hard to be creative when I sit down to write, but here goes.

Twenty plus years ago or so, I wrote poetry. I don’t think I was particularly good at it. But I wrote it anyway. I dabbled in playwriting, too. I wasn’t good at that either. Short stories? Meh.

I also made an attempt at a novel and gave that up. I still have it somewhere on my hard drive, and it might be fun (or horrifying) to read it. I expect a glass of wine or two will be mandatory.

I think most writers do that, don’t they? They experiment until they find what works.

Nonfiction ended up being my jam, specifically the personal essay. The travel essay, in particular. But I don’t travel much anymore, which is a sad state of affairs.

Maybe I always knew nonfiction was my true genre, somewhere deep down. I started out in undergrad as a journalism major. I wanted to tell stories – true stories. I think I majored in journalism for about a year, but I ended up changing to creative writing. I got this idea in my head that as a journalist, you would have to hound people frequently to get a story. And that’s not always true, which I know now. But at the time, that’s what I thought. And I didn’t have an assertive bone in my body, so I figured that wasn’t going to work.

Well, creative writing didn’t work either. I enjoyed the classes, but I think I had too much of a thin skin at the time to really handle the peer reviews. One poetry instructor strongly discouraged me from becoming a poet.

I don’t remember when I changed my major to English. It might have been shortly after I transferred to Ohio State from Bowling Green State University. Because I took some creative writing classes at OSU, too. But in the last two years of undergrad, I was immersed in literature, and creative writing took a backseat.

Of course, I heard the jokes about majoring in English. “Embrace a life of poverty.” “It’s a useless degree unless you become a teacher.” Blah blah blah. Twenty years later, not much has changed there.

Yes, STEM is the thing now. But there is still a place for English majors, too. Critical thinking seems to be in a sad decline these days. English majors? We have those skills. (Humanities in general, I hasten to add.) Writing? Editing? English majors are likely to have those skills, too. (I’m not saying all do. Trust me. I’ve seen that firsthand.)

And contrary to popular belief, not all English majors end up being teachers. That seems to be the obvious career path, and everyone assumed that’s what I would do. (And to my teacher friends, you guys are rock stars! I appreciate you!) Well, I actually hated teaching, to be honest. It took two years as a graduate teaching assistant to figure that out. So, no academic life for me.

So, back to writing and editing. You *can* make a career of that, and I have. Sadly, journalists seem to be disrespected a lot these days and there have been massive layoffs at newspapers. Editors don’t get much love either, it seems, as they are often the first to go if there are staffing cuts. (Why yes, I have noticed a sharp uptick in errors in print and online publications in recent years.)

But there is always marketing. And there will always be a need for marketers. And English majors are a great fit for this career, though you can come into marketing from any background. (Storytelling makes great marketing, and English majors know stories.)

I’m currently in the Buckeye Pen Pals program, an Ohio State-sponsored initiative that pairs a current OSU student with an alum. The pairing is based on major and the student’s career plans.

While I wasn’t paired with a student this year (more alumni were signed up than students), I am still in touch with my pen pal from last year. She’s an English major who is considering a career in professional writing. I know she’s concerned about her career prospects after she graduates. That’s understandable. I just don’t know how much of that is tied into being an English major – a lot, I suspect.

So, while an English degree is not the path to riches, it still has value. It does open doors.

Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:

The Washington Post: The world’s top economists just made the case for why we still need English majors

Business Insider: People said majoring in English was a waste of time and money — but here are five ways I use it in my everyday life

Evolution

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I’ve been keeping some form of a journal or diary since elementary school. It all started with a little diary that locked with a key – perfect for writing third grade secrets. As I got older, I would use spiral-bound notebooks or the nice journals you buy at Barnes & Noble. (I often got them as gifts because it seems an obvious thing to give to a person who likes to write.) As I got older and carpal tunnel set in, I posted on Live Journal instead. The primary difference, aside from the medium, is that I no longer wrote for myself. I had an audience.

I still try to hand write in a journal on occasion, though it often causes a carpal tunnel flare-up. And my handwriting is much worse than it used to be.

For years, I kept every diary/journal I wrote in. A few years back, I looked at my very first one. I believe I was eight or nine when I got it. As you might imagine, it contained no deep thoughts – just a brief summary of my day and escapades with friends I can no longer remember. My entire world was home, school, church, and Girl Scouts, more or less. I didn’t feel the diary was worth keeping.

Recently, I pulled the remaining journals out of a storage container to arrange them on a new shelf. I thought it might be time to revisit them. I haven’t read most of them since I filled out their pages.

Last Saturday, I started reading through the journal I kept from 1991-1993, covering most of my junior year up through a few weeks after my high school graduation. I cringed in mortification at much of it. I had a certain obsession with an unrequited crush. Days alternated between the best day ever or the worst day of my life. My world seemed to be ending at every bad thing that happened. I clearly only saw the world in black and white. And I was so unrealistic about romantic love, clearly falling for the fantasy you only see in fairy tales and Disney movies. (And cheap romance novels, too, but I wouldn’t have known a thing about that at the time.)

So much teenage angst. I was embarrassed at myself after reading my journal, but I also had to forgive myself. What did I know of life from age 16 to 18? Hell, I’m almost 44 now and I still don’t understand anything about life.

I destroyed the notebook. It was spiral bound with pink-lined paper. It had bright pastel geometric designs on the cover. Very ‘90s. It was easy enough to rip out the pages and run them through the shredder. The thought of it outliving me and anyone finding it and reading it – it’s unthinkable.

I’m glad I read it, though. As cringeworthy as it was, it reminds me that I’ve come a long way from that awkward teenager. I have a much thicker skin, for a start. I have the strength and experience to handle adversity. I have more realistic expectations about the way life is – the way love is.

My life certainly didn’t turn out the way I thought it would at that age, but I’m so very glad it didn’t. I’ve had more adventure in my life than I ever dreamed possible.

And now I have other journals to read. The next one picked up where my last one left off in the summer of 1993 and finished up just before I started classes at Ohio State in 1997. That will, no doubt, cover a lot, as I attended community college, dropped out to go to travel agent school, failed as a travel agent, then went back to college (Bowling Green State University).

I may have more to say about this topic after reading that. It’s interesting to look at the evolution of my life.

Columbus State Writers Conference

I attended a writers conference last Saturday at Columbus State Community College. It’s a free annual event. It doesn’t compare to the Antioch Writers’ Workshop I attended last summer (which, sadly, was the last AWW workshop – RIP), but I felt it was worth my time. And, as I said, it’s free.

The first session I attended was Susan A.C. Hogan’s “Writing Across the Landscape: A Workshop on Writing About Place.” As a former professional travel writer, I was curious about this session. She asked us to do a free write about our favorite place. Honestly, it was more difficult than I anticipated because no “favorite place” came to mind. So, I started to write about being home and, more specifically, my garden. Then I suddenly got a very vivid memory of watching the sun rise over Crater Lake. I ended up writing about that instead.

That is a beautiful memory. My husband and I were spending the night at Crater Lake Lodge in 2011. We were on a road trip from Seattle to Fairfield, California. He was still asleep, but I was awake early, so I crept out of our room and made my way down to the lobby with a book. I was going to read in front of the fire. But first, I found a spot on the porch and watched the sun rise over the lake.

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Afterwards, I sat in front of the fireplace in perfect peace and contentment, sipping coffee and reading a book. It was a highlight of the trip for me, and my husband slept through it all.

The second session I attended was Casanova T.L. Green’s “It Shall Spring Forth: Making Your Writing Revelatory.” It focuses on moving past personal barriers (trauma and bias) and creative barriers to produce impactful work. We didn’t do any free writing in this session. I suppose that’s a good thing. If you have a lot to unpack, it’s probably not a good idea to start unpacking it in a 50-minute session.

And believe me, I have a lot to unpack. I have written a little already about the emotional abuse I endured growing up (and well into my adulthood until I decided I needed to take control and put an end to it). There is a lot more I can write about that if I ever take the time to sit down and focus and unpack everything.

But what’s at the forefront of my mind now is the disastrous end to an otherwise successful two years I had in graduate school. Were it not for that, I would have a master’s degree. It’s something I need to write about. It’s been 16 years, and I’ve buried all my trauma and resentment from that time. I’ve made several attempts to start writing about it and haven’t been able to break through whatever barrier is holding me back. But I actually came to a revelation a couple days ago doing my morning free write – a habit I’m trying to get into. It’s something I never thought about before. And I think that lifted the barrier to writing about it. It’s just a matter of taking the time to sit down and write the story. I’m no longer ashamed of my failure. We all fail. It’s how you rise above it that matters.

The final session was Susan Flatt’s “How to Tip Toe Around Our Internal Editor.” Confession time: I am horrible at turning off my internal editor while I write. I edit as I go, which pretty much everyone says not to do. But I can’t help myself. I tried just this past week to free write for 10 minutes every day without correcting typos or any other mistakes, and the red squiggles that highlighted my mistakes were so distracting, I could think of little else. This was an interesting session, but I’m not really sure it helped me tell my internal editor to back off while I write. Old habits die hard, I suppose.

I think the sessions could be a bit longer, but otherwise, it’s a good event. I am hoping to go again next year.

I am a writer

(Hat tip: How to Say “I’m a Writer” and Mean It)

“Her name will appear on books someday.”

That’s what my sixth grade Language Arts teacher said at an awards ceremony with school faculty, staff, parents, and other students present. She was presenting me with a special award. I was a star pupil.

I suppose it was the moment I realized I was meant to be a writer. Before, I wrote without thinking much about it. She noticed my knack for it and felt the need to encourage it.

However, I never really lived up to her statement that my name would be on books. It has, but not in the way she meant. I’ve been quoted in a couple books: Once as a book reviewer (a snippet of my book review was printed on the author’s next novel) and another in a book about being child-free by choice.

As an author, no. My name has never been on a book and may never be.

But I am a writer.

Writers come in many forms. It always amazes me how nearly everyone, upon hearing I’m a writer, assumes I write books. As if that’s the only thing writers write.

No.

There are poets. There are essayists. Short story writers. Playwrights. Screenwriters. Bloggers. Copywriters. Journalists. Novelists. The list goes on. And I’m some of these things.

Don’t get me wrong, any of the writers listed above can publish books. But people who don’t know me generally assume I’m a novelist, as if writer = novelist. And that’s just not true.

I started a novel once. It was at some point when we lived in Germany. I think I managed to get about 60 pages into it, and then I realized I bit off more than I could chew. Things went off the rails and I gave up, overwhelmed.

I rarely think of that unfinished novel now, but I still have it on my hard drive. I am unwilling to let go of it entirely. As long as it stays there, there is possibility.

After Grandma died, I found a printout of the first chapter among her belongings. She was so excited when I told her I was writing a novel. My only regret is that I never finished it for her to read. If I ever do finish it, I am dedicating it to her. I can at least do that.

My writing journey has evolved a lot over the years. I used to read and write a lot of poetry. I don’t, now. I wrote a play or two when I was an undergraduate. I don’t think I was particularly good at it, but I was experimenting. I’ve written a few short stories here and there. But I don’t think I hit my stride until I discovered journalism, blogging, and copywriting. Those genres are where I seem to excel. I’ve made my career out of them.

Travel writing became my main focus when I lived in Germany. First, it was blogging – I kept a Blogger site detailing my travels for family and friends who were interested. Then my blog got noticed by a few people who wanted me to write travel guides and articles for various websites. I started getting paid to write about my travels. Sometimes I traveled just to write about it because an editor was interested in a particular place.

After I moved back to the US, I couldn’t keep up with the travel writing quite as much. I did a little here and there when we lived in Seattle and again in Maryland. But the focus shifted.

I started writing about education and careers – things like how to become a medical transcriptionist or how to improve your sixth grader’s vocabulary. Not the most creative stuff, but it was steady work. Then I got a steady gig writing short blog posts for various law offices – again, not super creative. I also had a brief stint transcribing letters to Congress. This entailed listening to phone surveys with constituents and typing up the messages they wished to convey to their senators and representatives.

I had better assignments than that. I’ve written for The Seattle Times (the jobs section) a couple times. That’s one of the giant feathers in my cap. So, too, is the assignment I got writing facility descriptions for recreation.gov (which still exist on the site at the time I write this). I also had an article published in Stars and Stripes European edition in my early days as a professional writer. Years later, I still got emails from people who found it helpful. (It was a piece about pottery shopping in Nove, Italy – a popular trip for military spouses.)

A lot of the things I have written in my career seem rather insignificant, but over time, they have added to a rather large body of work. And I’ve proven to myself that I’m versatile. I can write with authority on a broad range of topics. (Mad research skills – thanks, Liberal Arts degree!)

This has led me to where I am now – in the marketing department of an MRO (maintenance, repair and operations) distributor. I write and edit product copy. I write and edit blog posts. I write short and long pieces – some more journalistic, others more marketing. I try to be creative when possible, though tools, parts, and shop supplies aren’t the most inspiring topics.

And so, this blog. This is my creative space. When inspiration strikes, this is where I go. And I never know where inspiration will strike. Or when. I often don’t have the mental energy to write after doing it all day for work.

Yet, I’m a writer. I may not be a disciplined writer when it comes to what I write outside of work. But I write. Every day.

Will my name appear on books someday? I guess only time will tell.

You’re Invited

As we turned into the parking lot near One Observatory Circle, the butterflies in my stomach began fluttering faster and harder. I saw the shuttle that would drive us to the Vice President’s Residence, but before we could board, we had to be cleared by a Secret Service Agent. Once we were seated on the bus, another Secret Service Agent checked our names against her attendance list.

In moments, the bus departed. A short time later, it pulled up in front of a mansion festooned with wreaths in every window.

VP house

Another security check, and then we got into the line that snaked across the wrap-around porch. Christmas music played over the speakers. Hot cider and hot chocolate stations were set up so we could enjoy drinks while we waited.

We inched closer and closer to the room where the Vice President of the United States and his wife stood, posing with every person who visited that day. Before I knew it, we were at the front of the line. I could see Joe and Jill Biden warmly greeting the couple who had been in line just in front of us. My heart was pounding.

“Please don’t let me say or do something stupid. Please.” I’m not sure if I said that out loud or only with my inner voice.

The couple with the Bidens were ushered out. My husband and I stepped into the room. Mrs. Biden embraced my husband. The Vice President’s face lit up with recognition upon seeing him – my husband had been a member of his flight crew for nearly four years.

“Hey, buddy!” He said to my husband as he slipped his arm across my shoulders. He looked me in the eye. “Thank you for coming.”

The Vice President is thanking ME for coming? As if this was an invitation I would decline!

It was the most surreal moment of my life, but I think I managed to actually speak coherently. “Thank you for inviting me,” I think I said.

We crowded in for a photo. The photographer didn’t even warn us. Click, flash, done.

Biden

The Vice President thanked us again and that was that. We were ushered into the main part of the house, where a holiday reception was already in full swing.

Themed Christmas trees stood in every room. Hungry guests were lined up at the elegant breakfast buffet. Servers weaved through the throngs of people, carrying trays of orange juice and mimosas.

Breakfast

We ate and mingled and drank. Mimosas for me. I apparently had enough to make one waiter decide to come to me first thing after he replenished his tray. Mimosas at the Vice President’s Residence, though. You only live once.

But the thing about mimosas – they spill. In this case, all over the Vice President’s hardwood floor.

Oops.

July 16

I feel guilty about this, but July 16 passed this year without me remembering it as the anniversary of Grandpa’s death. I think that’s the first time that has ever happened.

Nineteen years.

***

I was studying in Bath, England that summer, my senior year at Ohio State. It was the most exciting thing to ever happen to me up to that point. Grandpa had been to London once, and I couldn’t wait to share my experience with him. He was so excited when I got accepted into the program.

The year before, he had a stroke. At least, that’s what we thought at the time. In hindsight, we now believe it was a brain tumor. The stroke diagnosis was the beginning of his decline. He was hospitalized only a few weeks before my scheduled departure date (from a fall, if I remember), and I was apprehensive about going. I didn’t want to miss a once in a lifetime opportunity, but what if something happened while I was gone?

Life is full of risks.

Mom and Grandma urged me to go. My staying wasn’t going to make a difference, and Grandpa wouldn’t want me to give up this chance for his sake. So, off to England I went – the first time I had ever been outside the U.S.

It was the best summer of my life to date. And also the worst.

Despite the day trips, classes, and pub crawls that filled my days, I made frequent calls home. Grandma and Grandpa both seemed in good spirits. Nothing seemed amiss until just a week or so after my arrival in England. That’s when Grandpa was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

Four days later, he died.

It’s strange, but I don’t remember the conversation that I’m sure I must have had with my mom after his diagnosis. I remember knowing that things were bad, but I held out hope that we had time and I would see him again when I got back. I’m not sure the concept of terminal really registered.

My world came crashing down on a Friday afternoon. I went to the computer lab to check my email and ran out of the room in tears a few minutes later. I remember the message that upset me so much:

“Your grandpa took a turn for the worse and we don’t expect him to make it through the weekend.”

This isn’t news you want to receive in any fashion, let alone in email, but it was a bit difficult for family to reach me by phone.

When something tragic happens, you have these odd moments that stand out in perfect clarity within the fog of grief. I vividly remember a dove flying low in front of me as I ran out of the computer lab. In fact, I had to stop suddenly to avoid colliding with it. Let me be clear that it was a dove, not a pigeon (of which there are plenty in Bath).

My only thought was getting to a phone. Calling overseas with a prepaid calling card was tedious at best under normal circumstances. This time, it was excruciating. But after pressing what felt like a million numbers, my grandparents’ line was ringing.

One of my cousins answered. She told me that just about everyone was at the nursing home, and she gave me her stepdad’s cellphone number because he was with Grandpa. I had to go through the process all over again. But I finally got him on the line and he handed the phone to my mom.

“Sweetie,” she said, “he just passed away about 10 minutes ago.”

At first, I was numb. I announced the news very calmly to the girls who shared my floor in the dorm.  They escorted me to our kitchen, where they immediately sat me down at the table and started making tea. (How very British.) Another classmate informed our advisor, who began making phone calls to other faculty.

A lot of details in the immediate aftermath are murky now and were probably so even then with the emotional state I was in. None of what was happening felt real.

Another moment of clarity happened that evening when a few of my classmates insisted that I walk into town with them to Starbucks. The weather was lovely – so out of harmony with my emotions. We grabbed a table outside to sip our drinks. At that moment, church bells began to chime the hour.

“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” one of my classmates said.

The dam finally broke.

***

In case you’re wondering, I made it back to England after the funeral to finish out the program. Grandpa would have wanted that.

The Accidental Gardener

We closed on our house two years ago today, and with the house came a decent-sized vegetable garden. It was all a bit intimidating. I had only been a homeowner once before and never got around to doing much in the way of gardening. Throughout Lance’s military career, we lived in a lot of rental homes. I had container plants – mostly flowers. Two years ago, before we moved, I grew grape tomatoes and mini eggplant in containers, but that was about it. I didn’t even have a lot of experience with houseplants.

Could I do this?

I mean, you can lay sod over a garden, I suppose, if you didn’t want to make that kind of commitment. However, our garden plot is enclosed by a wall made of brick and wrought-iron fencing (the previous homeowner was a professional landscaper). Removing it would be somewhat difficult and require a lot of work.

So, I was resigned to learn how to garden, even though I wasn’t sure how interested I was in it.

We moved in early in August, when it was too late to do anything about the garden. But it did give me some gifts in those first few months. The previous owners had neglected it for some time, and it was essentially a compost heap with various tomato plants and zucchini running amok. Some of the zucchini was monstrous, several weeks past the time it should have been picked. A lot of the tomatoes rotted on the vine, but I harvested what I could. We had purple and yellow onions. Sunflowers stood tall and cheerful along one side. We had a raspberry bush in one corner. I ended up with gourds as well, which decorated the fireplace in the fall. And then there was another plant in another corner that friends later identified as asparagus.

When the garden was done for the season, Lance pulled up the asparagus (or so he thought) and tilled everything over. The raspberry bush was severely pruned back, ready for next spring. During the colder months, my stepdad and I made plans for what we would plant and where.

April 2017: Ready to plant!

bare canvas

Spring came early the following year. I noticed a tall, thick asparagus shoot before we even planted anything. We yanked that out and planted strawberries, 12 tomato plants, carrots, two blueberry bushes, two more raspberry bushes, and onions. Given how fertile the soil was from all the compost the previous year, everything did just fine with very little help from me. I watered and weeded. I did my best to manage pests (damn Japanese beetles!).

The strawberry plants, still young, spread out but yielded little fruit. Asparagus continued to shoot up through the soil within the strawberry plants. The raspberry bushes filled out nicely but didn’t provide as many berries as I’d hoped.  I got a few blueberries, but those need a few years to really get going.

The tomatoes, though. Good God.

Remember I said 12 tomato plants? That’s about 10 too many. The plants grew as tall as me and merged into one giant plant.

Exhibit A:

killer tomatoes

I spent the summer making and freezing tomato soup and sauce. My stepdad canned some – a task, I admit, that I have no desire to undertake. I took endless boxes of tomatoes to work to give away. (One friend, who probably took more tomatoes than anyone, gave me some walleye that her husband caught. I consider that a fair trade.)

The onions did great and the carrots did, too. But 2017 will always be the year of the killer tomatoes.

It was a relief when the garden was done for the year.

The cold season came again, and it was time to plan this year’s garden. Obviously, we were keeping the strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. However, I insisted on zucchini and fewer tomato plants. I talked my stepdad down to six this year (still too many) because he wanted to do more canning. I wanted carrots and onions again, too.

Spring came late, and planting took place several weeks later than the year before. That didn’t matter. The soil is still fertile, and in early June, I had an abundance of strawberries. Then the strawberries stopped for several weeks, but they just started coming back again. The damn asparagus is still coming up, one spear at a time. The zucchini is out of control (and I bought three plants – the minimum amount). The raspberries did not do well and I think the blueberries are dead. And something keeps eating my tomatoes before I can pick them, so I don’t have as many as I should. I sprinkled animal repellent around the garden today, so let’s see if that helps.

The carrots have been in the ground much longer than they are supposed to be, but I picked one about a week ago – puny. I don’t have high hopes for them this year. The onions and garlic are doing great.

After two years of tending this garden, I’m learning a few things.

For starters, a weed-free garden is utterly impossible, which clashes with my perfectionist tendencies. I do the best I can, but the important thing is that I’m able to grow food. I have to let the idea of a perfect, pristine garden go. Besides, pulling weeds can be a great stress reliever. There is something deeply satisfying about digging in the soil with my CobraHead tool and ripping them out by the root.

Try a tomato other than Better Boy. Not that Better Boy isn’t delicious, but a little variety never killed anyone, and Better Boy has been the tomato of choice these past two years.

Allow more spacing between plants.

Plant more carrots.

There is a limit to how much zucchini I can tolerate. I have zucchini bread in the freezer and I’ve eaten more zoodles than I care to think about it. I also have a gallon-sized bag of diced zucchini in the freezer to throw into soups this winter. And I’ve given away more zucchini than I’ve actually used.

Finally, I love gardening. It’s a lot of hard work, yes, but it is so very rewarding to be able to go a few steps out your back door and pick things that you can eat. You know exactly where it came from and what’s been done (or not done) to it (all organic for me).

In the winter, you can pull some homemade sauce out of your freezer or add a jar of home-canned tomatoes to your chili, and it gives you that fresh summer taste to help make those cold, short days more bearable. Knowing that you grew that yourself – well, for me, at least, I get a true sense of accomplishment from that.

Plus, it’s fun to share your bounty with friends and family.

I take a lot of pride in what I’ve done in just a couple of years. I may have had my reservations at first about having this garden to care for, but now I’m so grateful for it. If we bought a house that didn’t already come with a garden, I’m not sure I’d be doing this. And I would never know what I was missing.