Looking ahead

Hi all,

It’s been a few months since I last checked in. I’ve finished my Spring term and am now onto Summer – which means attending a couple very interesting lecture series and working on my dissertation (AH!). As I procrastinate, I’d love to share a few updates about the upcoming months.

First of all – England! While Birkbeck never opened up for in-person classes, I’m planning a trip to the U.K. so I can go work on my dissertation in a new setting and hopefully meet a few of my vaccinated classmates. I’ve mainly been focused on school throughout this MA, but I know the international aspect of the RMJ fellowship is really special, and I want to be able to benefit from that as a writer and a person. I can’t wait to share updates as my plans solidify.

In other exciting news, I’ve just accepted a science journalism fellowship at an oncology publication in DC – the job will start in September, right after my MA ends. I’m absolutely thrilled. I’ve been trying to figure out how to blend my writing and science backgrounds, and this job feels like a step in the right direction. (And without RMJ, I wouldn’t be here.)

Most importantly, I’ll be a ‘fellow’ for a second time!

Until the next post,

Alice

Writer’s craft and talking cats

I once had a writing professor tell me that writer’s block is a myth. Feeling stuck, and needing to constantly re-draft, are natural parts of the writing process, not some kind of anomaly. The more I think about writer’s craft, the more I agree.

This semester has, so far, been all about the writing process. In the fall, I was absorbing; reading multiple books a week, digesting critical material, writing source-heavy pieces. And now, I’m producing. My classes are less structured, more about workshopping and experimenting than about responding to critical material. While I do miss having lengthy, challenging reading lists for my classes, I’m learning a lot from this more freeform approach. My ‘homework’ is just to write. And that’s hard.

Over the last few months, I’ve been challenging myself to write as much as I can every day. At first, my fingers felt stuck – I was so concerned with the quality of my writing, how it might be perceived by others, that I couldn’t relax. But I’ve been learning how important it is to just write, no matter how bad the writing is. Some days, my writing stagnates; other days, it flows freely. Some of my ideas stick, some of them don’t. That’s just how it works.

In this spirit of free writing, I’ve been allowing myself to experiment with genre. I’ve always considered myself a nonfiction writer because I love memoir and journalism and creative-critical writing, but I’ve realized there’s a lot to be gained from the intersection of nonfiction and fiction. For my assignments this term, I’m playing with fictional elements. Sometimes, autofictional writing actually feels ‘truthier’ than the strictly nonfiction stuff. Working in a looser genre allows me to draw out emotional significance without feeling tethered to a specific timeline or sequence of events. A year ago, I never would have guessed that I’d be seriously invested in a story about a talking cat, but here I am.

My writing is evolving, and this makes me feel so grateful for the RMJ fellowship – I have the time and money to experiment. I’m not just learning how to write, but how to think like a writer, deeply and fluidly. Hopefully I can carry this mindset with me, no matter what I do next.

Virtual start, round 2!

Happy New Year, RMJ community! I apologize (should I say apologise, now that I’m a UK student?) for not posting much last Fall. I’m excited to share now what a fantastic online experience I’ve been having. The semester was a wonderful whirlwind interrupted by a positive Covid-19 test, and I’m looking forward to doing it all over again this semester, minus the frustrating post-viral fatigue.

About halfway through last semester, I realized, wow, this is what I want to be doing. For years, I’ve been mentally bargaining with myself, trying to figure out ways to combine my engineering and writing backgrounds; but having this chance to just lean into the writing, no strings attached, has been liberating. I came into the semester with a heavy dose of impostor syndrome, but now I feel right at home with my classmates. This program just feels – right!

What I love is the combination of creative and critical writing. I’ve never been much of a fantasy or fiction writer (though I did experiment with autofiction this November, and I kind of liked it). I also enjoy pushing the constraints of more traditional critical essay-writing. In college, I found myself drawn to narrative journalism and creative nonfiction, and I’ve been leaning into those genres heavily throughout the MA program (programme, ha). I’ve been practicing the smooth combination of creative and critical; fragmentation; and connecting critical sources that might not seem obviously related. I love this challenge – I think it appeals to my logical side – and I know I want to pursue it more after the MA ends.

And the reading! I probably spent more time during the first semester reading than writing, and I think that was a good thing. My frame of reference is expanding exponentially. I’m just gaining more language, and I’m finding it easier to start articulating things that have always felt problematic, but that I maybe haven’t had the critical background to dig into.

More generally, I think being in this writing MA is a relief because I no longer feel emotionally or philosophically at odds with what I’m doing. I loved studying BME in that I got to explore a range of disciplines (and it was challenging, so I’m proud of that degree). But because I am someone who likes to think very big-picture, aka what is the meaning of this, I struggle with engineering. In other words, I’d rather be thinking about cultural attitudes towards technology that about the minutae of a blueprint or design plan (not that these things aren’t both valuable – I think it takes all types). I also have some issues with engineering culture. There’s an aggressive apoliticism – through I realize that’s changing – as if being immersed in such difficult work excuses willful blindness, even though engineering is inevitably implicated in every system demanding critique. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know I’ve been gaining so much clarity looking in at engineering from the outside. I think I want to stay here.

I look forward to continuing this next semester. I’ll be all online, again, but hopefully in the summer there will be some in-person events so I’ll get to travel for a short while. I don’t feel super comfortable traveling until there’s something non-virtual to go to; and of course, I’d like to wait until more people are vaccinated. In the meantime, I’m loving my Ann Arbor apartment with my roommate and our two cats. Things could be a lot worse.

I feel so lucky to be having this experience, even if it looks different than RMJ fellowships of years past. I’m brainstorming ways to continue my writing post-graduation. Looking forward to making another post once the semester has gotten off the ground …

Alice

A virtual beginning

Today I participated in the first discussion session for my MA in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of London, Birkbeck — from my apartment in Ann Arbor.

Finding out my program would be starting virtually was disappointing, of course, though I did feel some slight relief at not having to make a massive transition during a global pandemic. Mostly, the switch to a virtual format has made me appreciate the content of my program. Without the promise of exploring London and taking weekend trips around Europe, I’ve had to recognize what this fellowship means to me academically and professionally, not just experientially.

The answer: a lot. I’ve known for a few years that while I enjoy math and science, and value the analytical skills I cultivated during my studies in Biomedical Engineering, I don’t want to be an engineer. I also know that I love to write and read, especially because of the critical, holistic thinking these pursuits demand. I use writing to engage with the world in a way that feels relevant and contemporary. Aside from this, I have almost no clue what I’d like to do professionally. That’s what this year is for — to immerse myself in my writing, and hopefully gain some clarity along the way.

I’m grateful to have this quiet apartment in Ann Arbor, a lovely roommate, and plenty of time and space — both mental and physical — to focus on the content of my program. To be clear, I do hope to make it to London next year, but until then, the best I can do is engage meaningfully with my classmates, professors, and course material. My first class bodes well for the rest of the semester. The discussion seemed to translate well to an online format; my classmates are intimidatingly smart, and our conversation today was rich and exciting. I also started forging some virtual connections-slash-friendships with other students. I’m committed to being as involved in my MA program as possible, even if it is online for now.

The silver lining here is that when I finally make it to London, I’ll have a strong appreciation for the value of being an RMJ fellow. Beyond the glamor of traveling to another country, the fellowship carves out a space for deep personal and professional reflection.

I look forward to posting another update on my first, virtual semester. Until then, cheers.

— Alice

Hitting my stride!

Every time I sit down to write an update, I’m always baffled by how quickly time has passed in the time since the last one. Term 1 finished at Goldsmiths a few weeks ago which was marked by two large analytic papers and a creative portfolio submission. I ended up front-loading much of my work before the term break started (at Goldsmiths, the term doesn’t end when holiday break starts, but a few weeks after we got back) because two of my friends from Umich, John and Angel, came to visit me and do some sight seeing. Although I do love all the friends I have so far here, it was really refreshing to see some familiar faces not over Face-Time. And come to think about it, it was really silly of me to think that I would have a hard time making friends when I moved out here – it came almost faster than getting used to the difference in timezones.

We originally planned for Paris, Prague, then Budapest, but couldn’t get into Paris because of the protests. We opted for Berlin instead which ended up being the unanimous favourite (see, I am now spelling ‘favourite’ like the English now, and using single quotes!) among us. We were not even close to running out of things to do in Berlin even though we were there for four days – Parliament building, Berlin Wall, multiple walking tours, Jewish Cemetery and museum, museum island, etc, etc. It was also a perfect time of year to come (right around Christmas), and so there was much festivity in the air!

Since I’ve been back and started the new term I’ve picked up drawing classes at the Sunny Art Centre in Holborn. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, but I felt I have grown into a ceiling due to my technical skills. At Sunny, they first had me drawing still life’s of geometric shapes, then organic shapes, and I will be working on the human figure soon. I find that my poetry has gotten stronger too due to these drawing courses – if I can hone my observational eye through these drawing classes, then I’m sure it sheds off in some way for my observational eye in writing.

I’m definitely seeing a lot more of London now that I’ve been here for over a quarter of a year. I think that the first few months I was trying to find my routine and was quite honestly a little overwhelmed by it all, that is, the city, the move, and the culture change. Now however, I feel like the routine is to not have one, and I was naive to think I would find one in my short stay here. Last week I saw Crete music, a Kurdish band, went to the Tate Modern at night (‘Tate Late’s) and a poetry reading, and I know that a week like that can’t happen again. Every week should look different, and that is definitely a concept I’m not used to having gone to University and working in engineering co-ops. I’m beginning to think spontaneity is something you can practice and good at, maybe it isn’t so inherent after all.

Ciao for now!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving day, my phone was of course buzzing away with notifications from my family back home…and I had to wait until Friday to look at them. I just couldn’t stand to look at the pictures and videos of the turkey, the gravy, my aunt’s famous mac & cheese – it was all too triggering to look at in real-time. I suddenly realized that this would be the first year I didn’t do Thanksgiving with my family (and maybe the first year I wouldn’t do Thanksgiving at all). It was surreal to go grocery shopping the last week and see nothing’s changed – no pumpkin or pecan pies out, no cold turkeys chilled and ready for the taking. Sometimes you never notice what you’ve been doing your whole life until you’re finally in a situation where you can’t do it anymore.

Luckily, I’m one of 4 Americans in my MA (out of 33 students), and luckily Julia had the incentive to host a Friendsgiving dinner this last Saturday. Some Friendsgivings I’ve been too are this way or that, but no, this Friendsgivings was the real deal: charcuterie was out, turkey, stuffing, (one of the other American’s brought their grandma’s sweet potato and pecan recipe), brie, the whole 9 yards! What’s even better was that more than half the people at the table weren’t Americans, and were experiencing Thanksgiving for the first time themselves. That was something else for me. Me, at a table away from my family for the first time, them, partaking in this weird (and controversial) American holiday. A night of firsts.

At the end of the dinner, Julia had this idea to go around and say what we were thankful for. I personally thought everyone was going to take it as a joke and say sarcastically what they were thankful for (as is typical of a Friendsgiving), but no, everyone exposed a bit of themselves for context, and then explained why they were actual thankful for something.

Phillip is Dutch but grew up in the States, and his parent’s never really knew how to celebrate Thanksgiving, so it was always just time off to see family and relax during the holidays. It’s been years since he celebrated it since moving back to Europe, and he was thankful for the simple act of that dinner.

Francisca just moved to London from the MA by means of Portugal, and having studied American Studies at uni, she was thankful that she was doing Thanksgiving for the first time, and that tonight looked just like the movies.

Oliver grew up in London was thankful for his best friend that is his younger brother, his mom, and the ability that he has the privilege to write poetry without having to worry about his next meal, or the clothes on his back.

And so on , and so on.

My MA director emailed me a few weeks ago to ask how I was getting on with the course, and if I needed any additional resources (being an international student). She explained that moving to a different country is hard, and she was just making sure that I was finding friends and I was getting around London alright.

At first when I read the email, my ego pushed it aside, of course I’m ok! I’m in London! I’ve made friends! I emailed her back saying thank you for checking up, I appreciate it, and if I need anything I’ll let you know. It took a few weeks after her email to realize that my ego was just doing a lot of pretending for me. That no matter what city, or however many friends I’ve made so far, that moving to a different place, a different culture, away from the turkeys and pecan pies of back home doesn’t have to be hard, but it’s ignorant to think that it’s easy.

I said I was thankful for the opportunity I had to be here and grow, and for everyone back home and here in London that has made moving here not so intense.

FRIENDSGIVING. Julia (left), Oliver (middle left), Francisca (middle right), me!

(Hiya!) from London

Many things are left unsure for my time in London: the people I will meet, the events I will go to, the poems I will write. After being here for two months however, I have come to realize that one thing is certain, and that is these last 10 months are going to fly by. Adults always warn that older age makes you experience life faster. Now add a factor for traveling to a different country, another one for having a great time, and another one just for a contingency factor. Too much has happened in the last two months, and I feel like the whiplash of it all is starting to settle in.

I have class once a week (Wednesdays) that runs all day. This may sound quite lax, but actually I’m finding myself working on literature for most hours of my week. The weird part about it is it doesn’t really feel like work. I typically read until I get sick of reading, write until I get sick of writing, then do something around in London when I get sick of both. The time I’m spending in London has been split between typical tourist stuff, and specific events that local Londonites go to. The former has included Buckingham Palace (I paid a little extra to go inside as well as see the Queen’s gallery, I wish I had pictures but they don’t allow it), Westminster Abbey, St. Andrews Cathedral, etc. For the latter this included attending an all day mono-printing workshop where I was able to make about 12 prints to bring home, as well as a few Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) talks and panels. There is actually the Palestinian Film Festival happening for the second half of this month which I am quite excited for. I’m also taking Arabic classes online through the Nassra Arabic Method which is a London based online program.

I am notorious for not taking many pictures (to my mother’s chagrin), but now that the whiplash of moving in is all over, I can try to remember to snap some pics for my mother and this journal! Ciao!

Essay season

Hello, everybody! It’s Charlie writing from Glasgow.

Having been here for nearly two months, I have started to finally settle in. School has become very busy but nevertheless extremely interesting. As a War Studies student, I have so far given presentations and written papers regarding topics like the Battle of Agincourt and the Battle of Yorktown, Human Security, Carl von Clausewitz, and, most recently, the Battle of Algiers. The vast differences between my studies here and my undergraduate degree have challenged me but I am finding myself to more often than not enjoy the reading, writing, and presenting.

Outside of class and studying, I have made time to explore Glasgow, meet people, and do some travelling around Scotland. Due to my love for the outdoors, I have been getting quite involved in climbing and mountaineering in the highlands. In addition, in a few weeks, once school is less busy, I am planning to go to Dublin to meet up with a few close friends.

The Roger M. Jones fellowship is proving to be one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The opportunity to be here and challenge myself to pursue a degree in the humanities is extraordinary and although I, at times, miss the States and family and friends, there is no place I would rather be.

Pictured here a couple of my friends during a recent trip we took to The Aonach Eagach–a ridge line traverse in the highlands. It was my first experience using crampons and an ice axe and it was only slightly terrifying.

Starting Off, Today

I was sitting here in the Detroit Ft. Wayne airport waiting for some way to start this archive. First impressions aren’t everything, but they might as well be. 

The Gods didn’t strike me with anything. The inside of my brain felt like a forest the day after it rains — even if there was a spark all the wood around was wet. I knew this all too well: frozen by stillness hunched over a blank page. A man then walked past, knocking over my coffee with his carry-on. I didn’t even look at him in the eye as he turned around to stand over me as I picked up the pulsating coffee gurgling onto the argyle carpet. Only then did I set to my computer with haste. I wish I would’ve thanked that man.

When I look back at college, I see it in flashes, naturally. A flash of me discovering the fellowship the end of my sophomore year. A flash to writing the personal statements on my mother’s couch. A flash from the interview in front of the board members. Receiving the acceptance email. Here I am. 

This is the memory warp of the “Roger M. Jones Fellowship” in my brain. If I am to access the “Edmond” warp, it will start with the sleepover we had in seventh-grade. Then going out to homecoming together, trekking the smokey mountains for 11 days, and so on, and so on. 

These flashes are what I’ve held onto, what my brain thinks are the family photo album or the box of money under the mattress to grab from episodes in my life. Today, though, I’m trying to focus on the tomorrows in between: A yeast-less conversation waiting for a bus with Edmond in the middle of January, or holding hands with my mom at the beach in Holland. I’m annoyed that I had to make up these last two scenarios. 

And yet in anticipation for my time in London, I was wishing away all of the tomorrows between from when I got accepted, to sitting at an airport waiting for my flight with half of a coffee.

During the last dinner I had with my mom last night, she told me in excitement over her plate of brown rice and fried cauliflower, “And tomorrow you’ll be having kids!”

How many ways are there to measure a tomorrow? And are these flashes of my life the dawns of “life” tomorrows? If this is my yard stick, then my year in London is one of these self-defined “days” in my life. I have made a day in my life with this opportunity. Maybe this is what a life is, living standard celestial days and tomorrows until an event, or a year, maybe even a decade of something, somewhere or someone is big enough to make a “day” in your life.

And so now I am thinking of tomorrow outside of planetary contexts, outside of a rotation of the earth. I am also thinking about what I can do to make more “days” in my life.

And I also thinking about how tomorrow I will be on a plane back to the states, with whatever it is I learned out here. 

Glasgow Uni

Hello everyone. This is my first post as one of this year’s Roger M. Jones Fellows. My name is Charlie Velis and I did my undergrad in Mechanical Engineering. I am now at the University of Glasgow in Scotland for a program in War Studies. Our classes begin tomorrow and although I am nervous, I am beyond excited!

The study of war and global conflict has always interested me and I feel very fortunate to now be studying it at this level. I look forward to sharing more about me, and this program, as this year progresses but in the meantime, here’s a photo of myself on a brilliant hike about 45 minutes north of Glasgow.