Sunday, September 25, 2016

Anxiety, Depression, and Literature: Studying Abroad in England

It was another sunny morning in Italy. The sky was blue, and the day was full of potential. Or rather really annoying questions from people attempting small talk. Here is a legitimate conversation I had right after church:

“So, how’s the dissertation going?”

I looked the guy dead in the eyes. “I want to set it on fire.”

“So, it’s going well.”

Try small talk, and I’ll give crazy answers like this. I’ve even come up with sassy answers to what I plan on doing after graduation: join the circus as a unicyclist/trapeze artist, get married on the moon, and conquer the world. On second thought, I may just throw my graduation cap instead. (Do graduate students get the same caps?)


Last September, my dad and I loaded up his car with my stuff and drove all the way from Italy to England. Yes, that’s right. My life is pretty crazy. Last March I got accepted to the University of Nottingham to study for an MA in English Literature. I like books so much, I decided to go beyond the four-year degree and tackle an accelerated one-year program in a foreign country.

After all the stress of filling out all the paperwork to get my visa (which every international student hates, by the way), my dad helped me move into my flat in England. My room was perfectly located right across the street from Lidl and not even a block from Jubilee Campus where I’d go for plenty of walks. I lived all the way on the top floor (yay, exercise!) with a great view of the street where I could people and bird watch.

Wearing my borrowed fencing kit.
The pen may be mightier than the
sword, but beware the sword!
I bought a bike, which I used to go to classes (usually beating the campus bus by five minutes) and explore the city and the parks. I especially enjoyed going for walks along the lakes and bike rides along the canal and the River Trent. I even joined the fencing society at school because I always wanted to learn how to sword fight.

I was super excited to attend a university in England, even though I knew it would be difficult. But I was also scared. I had so many questions. What would the classes be like? How hard is the grading system? What if I failed?

In all, the classes weren’t that different from my undergraduate back in the States, except they were two hours long and only once a week. In the end, my schedule was pretty empty. I spent most of my time cramming in as much reading as I could, planning my reading schedule, and panicking because I thought I wasn’t reading enough. It took me a while to realize that all the external reading not assigned every week was recommended not required, but I still tried to read as much as possible.

So far, I haven’t failed. I haven’t gotten spectacular grades, but English professors grade a LOT harder than the Americans. They still use a one-hundred-point system, but a 50 is a pass, 60 a merit, and 70 a distinction. Woah, what? So far, I’ve done alright. I’m still waiting on results for my dissertation, my final project which is the equivalent of a master’s thesis in the States.

I also attended a Vineyard church where I joined a small group. Aside from my classes where I spoke to practically nobody, I saw people twice a week: once at church on Sundays and once during small group on Thursdays. Even for an introvert, it was rough not talking to people on a daily basis. I was lonely, and I missed the community I had back at Evangel University where I could just wander down the hall and chat with the girls on my floor.

I didn’t know any of my classmates. How do you start a conversation with somebody during class? After class? Before? And what on earth do you talk about?

I had a couple of friends in my small group, but most of them were busy with their own schedules—work and school and such. I felt like I could be myself around them, but I didn’t get to know anybody very well.  

In England, I felt like I had nobody.

And it wasn’t all from a complete lack of trying. It may have been cultural. It may have been that particular year in my life because I was so focused on coursework. It may have been any number of things.

Halfway through my second semester, I overstrained my Achilles tendon while fencing, and suddenly found I couldn’t walk without pain. Thankfully, I could still bike, but I stopped taking walks, which I did for study breaks. Instead I spent most of my time in my room reading. And reading. And reading. Around the same, a couple of my friends stopped coming to small group.

I never felt so alone.

On a weekly basis, I broke down in my room crying. The smallest things would set me off—a conversation with a professor, crossing the street at the wrong time, a small, insignificant thought, a books I read. I started calling my parents nearly on a daily basis, feeling broken. Weak.  

I hated myself for it.

I prayed a lot, but I didn’t feel like God was speaking to me. Last year, he told me I’d go to grad school, and I did. This year, I had no work. No direction. People kept asking me what I planned to do after graduation when I didn’t know.

The only passage of Scripture that really spoke to me was II Corinthians 8-12, “Three times I [Paul] pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Like Paul, I was weak, am still weak. I begged God to take away the pain, the loneliness, the insecurity. He gave me this verse instead. I’m still learning its implications.

After my ankle healed and I came home for Easter Break, I was finally able to relax around my family a bit. I also had my first appointment with a psychologist, where we talked about my struggles, anxiety and depression. I wanted to do everything and nothing for fear that it would all go wrong. What a combination.

After speaking with a psychologist and my family, I went back to England to finish up my essays and start my dissertation. Gradually, my mood began to improve. I cried less. I started singing in my flat again, probably driving my flat mates crazy. I found listening to K-Love helpful, particularly Matthew West’s “Grace Wins”:


I wanted to travel places and do things with my life. I even got to hang out with some of my friends from small group more often, which only made it harder to say goodbye when I came home for the summer.

Now that I’ve turned in my dissertation (no, I didn’t actually set it on fire), I still don’t have much direction in my life. In July, my friend Faith visited for a month, but now that she’s gone, I’m lonely once again. But at least I have my family.

I’m not the same person who went to Nottingham a year ago. I’m a little older, a little more experienced, a little more broken. But that’s okay. 

When I say I just want to be normal, I don’t mean I want to be like everybody else. I just want to be myself. Whoever that is now, I’m not sure. But I’m still finding out.

Life is a discovery process.

One of the many view of the weather from my flat,
featuring one of the local crows, who I named Fidget and Speck.
I could have had it worse, and I still have bad days when I just lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling wanting to do nothing. But those days are few and far between. Every day, I’m discovering how to appreciate the sunshine and the rain, the melancholy songs and the joyful ones, the tragic stories and the happy endings, the good days and the bad days.

And that’s okay too, because that’s life.


***

Similar Posts: Do what YOU Enjoy and 7 Steps to Keep Writing When You Feel Like Giving Up

Let’s chat. How do you deal with bad days and insecurities? Were there ever days when you felt like giving up? What inspired you to keep going?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Controversy in Fiction: Censorship

Welcome back to my five-part series, Controversy in Fiction. Today, I’ll be writing on a similar issue to last week’s post: Censorship. Unlike Banned Books, however, Censorship allows for certain books but contains many restrictions all the same.

Disclaimer: This post may contain controversial opinions that are not necessarily the same as those of readers. However, despite the subject of this post, it contains no profanity. I like to keep my posts appropriate for any age audience.


If you haven’t gathered already, I was raised in a conservative, Christian family. So swear words simply weren’t allowed in our house. To this day, my exclamations consist of mild words from drat to goodness and insults from knucklehead to idiot. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t come across profanity in other ways, especially in movies.

My first shocking encounter with a book peppered with swear words was Eleanor and Park. I was so taken aback by the amount of cussing within the first five pages, that I had a difficult time enjoying the rest of the book. Paper Towns had a similar feel with its amount of profanity, but was less startling by that point.

But young adult books like the ones mentioned above, are not the only books to contain profanity. I don’t read too many adult books, my preferred genres ranging from YA to children’s books. But every now and then, I’ll pick one up, or I’ll decide on a classic. And I’ve found that fiction within the last one-hundred years, includes more and more profanity. It’s not just in some classics or popular books, either. Even some Christian fiction I’ve read contains the occasional swear word.

So, what’s the big deal? And how much swearing is too much? Should it be allowed at all in fiction?

Censorship is often a means of controlling language for an audience. Like book banning, it may have good intentions, but other times, it could harm fiction. For instance, if somebody were to take out every offensive word in Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, it might just be easier to ban the book. It might be easier to remove the word “the” from the dictionary than to childproof some books.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like profanity. I won’t even use it. But I’m not entirely for censorship either. Instead of crossing out major sections of books or limiting accessibility to certain books, discretion should be used when selecting them. Here are just a few of my basic principles for both readers choosing a book and writers writing a book.   


Know Your Audience

Just like ratings on movies, such as PG-13, if you’re in the kid’s section of the library, you probably won’t find any swear words. Most parents would frown upon hearing such language coming out of their child’s mouth. (Anything resembling a swear word meant I had to have my mouth washed out with soap as a kid.)

As a rule for my own writing, I don’t write anything I don’t want my little sister reading. Or if I’m going to read a piece aloud in front of an audience of one or twelve, there will be no profanity.

That’s not to say that all new adult or adult books should contain profanity. Goodness, no! But adults typically have more maturity and understand the weight, meaning, and power of words. Maturity I write as I sit at my desk that is guarded by a plush green dragon.


Know Your Characters

Every character is different, and some tend to be more dramatic than others. Some might even be verbally explicit. Often times, a character’s personality is reflected in the way he or she speaks, and the way people speak isn’t always nice.

In my novel Breaking a Thief, my protagonist Lorne was raised as a thief, so picking up swear words was natural for her. But because the story was a young adult novel, I substituted actual profanity for mentions of its use. It’s probably the only instance where I strove to tell, not show. In fact, when I sent the novel off to my editor, she suggested that I cut back on some of present mentions of cursing in consideration of my audience.

Another character to consider is the narrator. In my latest short story series, I have two narrators with different storytelling styles. Rhona speaks in a sophisticated manner, so whenever other characters swear, she just mentions a curse. Ellard, on the other hand, comes from a more rural background and tends to explain things exactly as he hears and sees them.

When reading about characters, it’s often important to consider their background before criticizing their personalities or speech.


Know Your Story

A light-hearted book about baking or romance will not necessarily contain instances of profanity, but a book about the struggles of cancer or war might.

Sometimes darker stories call for darker themes and darker language. That isn’t necessarily to say that we have to like all of the language or the scenes, but such things often reflect the depravity of our cruel, real world. Words aren’t always meant to be liked, but they are meant to tell stories and truths.


***


Literary References: Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, John Green’s Paper Towns, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Let’s chat. What’s your stance on book censorship? Is there a limit to how much profanity you will tolerate in a book?