Follow blogger Emily Coppella as she begins the second-year of her undergraduate degree in English.
November 20, 2017
Starting the Year in the Company of the Scotiabank Giller Prize Finalists
I feel a little guilty sitting down to write this blog post. After all, I’m more than halfway through first semester and I haven’t contributed to the blog at all yet in my second year. I’m not going to make excuses. Sometimes the best way to begin writing is simply sitting down and writing, even if that means staring at the expanse of white, barren land I like to call An Empty Word Document. Sometimes I even write the first phrase that pops into my head, just so that it ceases being so white and so empty. But then I thought “Student Debt” wouldn’t make a very interesting, or inspirational, blog post.
One of the reasons I’ve neglected my blogging duties has to do with the opportunities I’ve received recently to attend some amazing events. I’ve been grateful enough to attend these events this year. (Because hey, frosh is only one part of university!) There’s one event I recently attended that’s at the forefront of my mind: “Between the Pages: An Evening with the Scotiabank Giller Prize Finalists.” It was held here in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada. Having been invited by my first-year English professor, my best friend and I were excited to attend an event known as the “Oscars of the Book World.”
Hosted by the distinguished Canadian journalist and television personality Johanna Schneller, the event brought together the current Giller Prize finalists in a conversation about their nominated books. We sat down in a beautiful theatre, accompanied by live music and so many publishing professionals as to make me dizzy. The event began with a video montage that collated speeches from previous Giller winners. The video was a moving testimony not only to the strength of the Canadian literary world, but also to the recent passing away of the Giller founder, Jack Rabinovitch. Mr. Rabinovitch’s philanthropy and commitment to nurturing Canadian books will not be forgotten.
All of the shortlisted nominees, Rachel Cusk, Ed O’Loughlin, Michael Redhill, and Michelle Winters were there with the exception of Eden Robinson. An empty chair was placed on stage that held a portrait of a journalist who was imprisoned simply for speaking out. This chair was dedicated to people all over the world who are punished for using the power of language. I found this commemoration extremely heart-wrenching, and have been conscious of how grateful I am to be able to speak (and write) my own mind without fear of persecution.
Johanna Schneller began the discussion with an important question, “Are we defined by the worst things that we do?” After alluding to the challenges our world is facing today, the authors chose to explore the question rather than provide a definitive answer. I began to see a continuum of written language, as well as the contexts that have stretched across this continuum. I was able to appreciate the history of the Giller Prize (founded in 1994), as well as all the books that have influenced me as a young adult. After exploring a number of historical movements in my Theory and Criticism of English Literature class this year, I wonder about the future, and how I will feel when this year suddenly becomes “history.”
While many questions addressed the nominated books, the writers were also asked about their personal lives and, specifically, about their childhoods. While Cusk couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t writing, O’Loughlin grew up attempting to conceal his love of literature, never taking any writing classes and living in fear of people’s judgement. These reminiscences intoxicated me the most. Far too often I catch myself idolizing authors, seeing them as borderline otherworldly. Sometimes I can’t even picture their lives outside of the iconic frames of reference that I associate with them. I see J.K Rowling never leaving the coffee shop in which she began writing Harry Potter. I envision Susanna Moodie at her desk, writing “Roughing It in the Bush” without ever actually going out into the bush. This discussion about the authors’ beginnings as ordinary people wanting to write pulled me back to reality. It is their own lives that allow them to create life on the page.
The authors also offered some important insights into the craft of writing. O’Loughlin relies on a different tool kit each time he writes, freeing himself from any limitations and attempting to arrive at a certain “colour” by the last page. Cusk, on the other hand, plans her writing from start to finish, viewing it as a performance that needs to have a clear vision. While I can appreciate both writing methodologies, it was the combination of Winters’ and Cusk’s final remarks that I felt most drawn to. Winters said that she writes when she’s angry, often writing to create change in the world. Cusk added that she writes to tell the truth. These two ideas of truth and change struck me as integral to my own writing. So often do I find my poetry, my fiction, and even my academic essays attempting to grasp at these ideas. It’s been the common denominator every time I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
While this evening allowed me to experience the works of selected Canadian authors for this year’s Giller prize, it also made me think of next year, and the year after that. I wonder not only where I will be, but where the world will be. I hope history gives us many pages of rich stories to tell.
April 10, 2017
Teaching Myself How to Get Through First Year
It’s the last month of the school year. I never thought I would be able to say those words. I want to shout them. Although my end of the year countdown has been ticking down since Christmas, it’s only now starting to feel real.
One thing I’ve noticed about nearing the end of the year is that everyone seems to be getting a little loopy. We’re signing leases for next year’s houses, tying up the ends of essays and making exam notes with the very last pen we found lying in the bottom of our bags. Or maybe I’m just speaking for myself…
It feels like Spring exams have approached a little differently than the Christmas ones. I suppose it’s because Spring exams are the final final exams and I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel (no, literally, Carleton’s tunnels are getting brighter ever since Daylight Savings). I am slowly getting over the instinct to take the tunnels everywhere. Anything above 0 degrees feels like picnic weather, and I’m trying to embrace the sunlight. This ties into my greatest advice for first-years living in residence: get outside! You can take your laptop to Bridgehead in the Glebe, or stroll around Rideau. One of my favourite quick trips to get away from campus and residence is taking the O-Train right from campus to Greenboro. I usually grab a green tea latte and walk around Chapters and Michaels (I like to pretend I’m crafty enough to go there).
I think it’s important to state how insane my year was thanks to my stay in residence. It sounds dramatic, but it’s true. Being away from home is an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. I realize living in residence isn’t possible for everyone, but if it’s available to you, I highly recommend it. You’ll meet crazy roommates and create a ton of amazing memories to last a lifetime.
Having to pack a suitcase to go home after these last eight months feels strange. Sometimes I forget that a typical dinner time back home is not at 9 o’clock at night (thanks, late night Carleton Dining). From this experience, I have learned how to live with roommates, share a bathroom with another person, who isn’t my sister (and yes, it’s easier when it’s not your sibling!), and now appreciate a night of “YouTubing” after a busy day more than ever. Also, paying for laundry machines and looking at my student loan has made the value of money even clearer. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve been reminded that family time is most precious to me.
Understanding all of this, I feel like I’ve made the most of my final month in residence. This March I was able to experience Censorship Awareness Week at the MacOdrum Library. I also volunteered to read an excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and given the current political climate, I felt like it had a great impact. Moreover, my friends and I attended our very first Slam Poetry Session organized by the Carleton Dead Poet’s Society. We dusted crumbs of free banana bread from our laps as we marveled at the talent before us. Finally, I attended a Panel Discussion on International Women’s Day, and learned more, as a feminist, about the importance of intersectionality.
So, although my favourite part about the last year has been the amazing events and residence experiences I’ve had, my academic experience has been crucial too. If I could go back and tell myself one thing before I even looked at my first syllabus, it would be to ‘relax.’ It’s easy to get caught up in deadlines and readings, but just trust in yourself that you will come out alive. This isn’t high school anymore, most of the things you do just have to get done (to the best of your ability, of course, haha.) Of course, retaining my scholarship for next year has been a big incentive, but I realized my mental health is far more valuable than any grade.
In fact, the most challenging class I had (and the class where I received one paper with the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten in my life), turned out to be the class I am most thankful that I took. I just finished my last lecture in it last night, and my professor shared some things that really resonated with me. He said that no matter what you do, be awesome at it. If you don’t have a particular skill, find out how to get it, and work on it. He told us his entire course was designed so that we could teach ourselves. So no matter how many lectures you attend or grade point averages you receive, university becomes invaluable when you realize you’re ultimately teaching yourself.
Okay, so maybe there are a few more things I’d tell myself if I had a time machine. I would tell myself to pack more tea bags. I would also transfer all my work from my laptop to a USB more often (my laptop almost failed on me and I almost lost an 8-page essay.) Oh, and I wouldn’t worry about the freshmen fifteen because guess what? It happened. And I really love that it did.
As I sit beside a pile of exam notes, I have a strong feeling this will be my last post for the school year. I’ll be lightly reviewing, probably hitting the gym (I love the Kickboxing class here) and de-stressing in preparation for summer. Trust me, this experience of a concluding school year feels entirely different from when I was in high school. I have four months off, and strangely enough; I’m excited for it to start all over again in September. I just might need that time machine towards the end of August…another month or so off wouldn’t hurt.
March 2, 2017
Flying into (out of) February
February seems like one of those transitional months. The craziness of Christmas slips out of our memories as we prepare to awaken ourselves from our winter slumber. February has been accented with just enough assignments to drive me crazy, and just enough valuable lessons to keep me sane. As I crawled my way out of my first semester at university, I decided to step confidently into the second. Already, one month has peeled by.
One of the most exciting moments over the last few weeks has been embarking on a search for a place to live for the next school year. I had a tower of bookmarked rental websites that I would carefully examine in between classes. My twin sister arranged viewings like it was her full-time job, and I got to explore streets of Ottawa I had only seen through the bus window on my way to the Rideau Centre.
I contemplated the idea of monthly payments, and of simply being able to say, “come over to my place.” Mostly, I imagined waking up, walking to the kitchen in my bare feet and making myself my own breakfast. Of course, Carleton’s cafeteria is remarkable, but the romantic image of carefully following my new cookbooks to make myself a morning meal made me giddy with excitement. I even started getting excited about being able to truly clean a kitchen again (or was that just the mid-term hysteria setting in?)
As the search for a place to live continued, I had the amazing opportunity to attend Carleton’s 32nd annual Munro Beattie Lecture. This event was established in 1985 to honor the first Chair of the English Department. On a crisp Thursday night, after a long Sociology lecture, I slid into Azrieli Theatre next to one of my new, university friends. The speaker was Fifteen Dogs author and Giller-prize winner, André Alexis.
I learned through Alexis’ obsession with storytelling, that he discovered personal experience doesn’t always translate into a great story. The art of storytelling is influenced by real life – but with the help of the imagination. He described this as “dream-like,” the ability to pleasure and provoke the reader through story. I realized that authenticity is only one part of it, the imaginative is what a great story is wrapped up in.
Alexis spoke of a Fifteen Dogs character who happened to be a poetry-writing canine. During a question and answer period he explained that this dog didn’t just write poetry, he represented the arts, the social sciences, the imagination. Alexis explained that the arts can transform the horrifying into the bearable, possibly even into the loveable. This is the value of the human imagination, and what we all hope to press into pages as writers.
I had seen Jane Urquhart speak about her book A Number of Things (a creative account of Canada’s history through objects) earlier this year. Once again, I was not disappointed by the experience of hearing an author read his/her work and respond to the questions of their readers. When prompted, Alexis explained his greatest piece of advice for aspiring writers. He told us just to write. He said that after all, no one cares if you write or if you stop, the only person holding you back is yourself. The essential part of being a writer is simply writing.
This is what motivated me to finish this blog post. Of course, I was inspired by seeing another month fly by, and by having the amazing opportunity to contribute to Carleton, but Alexis helped me realize writing takes inspiration, imagination, and simply, just writing.
January 10, 2017
New Year Revelation
Aside from waking up to too many Christmas chocolate wrappers strewn across the living room floor, I also arose asking myself the most common New Year’s Day question: “What should my resolutions be for the new year?”
Apart from my persistent dreams of meeting Margaret Atwood or John Green, a chaos of possible goals swirled in my head. I thought about many potential objectives, but none of them felt quite right. Like visions of sugar-plums, I tasted each of them before coming to the conclusion that they were all stale.
That’s one of the things about New Years; it is viewed as an afterthought to Christmas. It’s not until the clock strikes midnight do we begin to think about what we can give up for the next year.
As I embarked on the first day of 2017, I realized there was absolutely nothing I wanted to give up. Although I might benefit from letting go of my nail-picking habit, this type of resolution seemed laughable in the grand scheme of things. I don’t trivialize these types of smaller scale personal goals, but wasn’t there something more awe-inspiring where I could set my sights?
2017, Back at School
All things considered, returning to school after Christmas break was not as hard as I expected. I mean, I’m already halfway through my first year! In only a few short months I would be celebrating my birthday, coming home for reading week, and then preparing for the chocolate-induced coma we know as Easter. Concentrating on these glimpses of the future distracted me from my lack of a New Year’s resolution. The thought of establishing New Year’s goals for myself had officially turned from stale to rotten.
I began to wonder if my desire to dream up some great goal was unattainable for the moment, or even worse — impossible. I didn’t want to settle for anything less than ‘spectacular,’ so I continued hoping a single moment would shed some light on a perfect resolution.
The week passed, and here’s the truth — my monumental resolution never came. Surprisingly, I’m feeling okay about it. I’ve come to terms with the fact that my hunger for a ‘big dream’ was quelled by the realization that small resolutions are not necessarily inferior.
Too often I have equated momentous occasions with success. Too often I have forgotten to congratulate myself on completing a challenging essay before swan-divining into the next one (albeit, not that gracefully.)
As I pondered all of this, one of my high school social justice club quotes loomed over me: “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies” – Mother Teresa.
As strange as it sounds, Mother Teresa and the gym helped me realize where I went wrong with my New Year resolution. I saw people lifting 20-pound dumbbells as I struggled to keep up with my 12-pound ones, I comprehended where I was mistaken. If I walked over and tried to curl those 20-pound weights, I would inevitably fail, but if I took my time to work my way up to that weight, it was a realistic goal. Possibly months of repetitions and sets would be required for me even to curl that dumbbell once, but it could be done. Success usually isn’t immediate, not even after that magical ball drops on New Year’s Eve.
I used to see January 1st as a reset button — a way to transform into something else. In contrast, my 2017 New Year resolution was more of a revelation. I’m not meant to change but grow. New Year’s is not merely the recognition of a new year, but an addition of another 365 days to the many awesome ones we’ve already had.
Here’s a better truth: Anything can be awe-inspiring.
December 12, 2016
Don’t Get Me Wrong…
I had always considered myself a shy person, but not in a self-deprecating way.
“Emily is so shy, I wish she would contribute more in class,” was a remark regularly conveyed to my parents when they spoke with my high school teachers.
I accepted the label of being a “shy person” nonchalantly, but recently, I decided that it was time for a change.
When I received my acceptance to Carleton’s Department of English, I told myself that I was going to make an effort to be a little less timid. I aspired to stand out and get involved as an undergraduate English student.
Don’t get me wrong; I was in various clubs and organizations in high school, but it wasn’t until I had decided on my major that I realized how passionately I wanted to be an outspoken contributor to the world of English.
As cliché as it sounds, I just wasn’t sure what to expect out of university as I arrived on campus for Frosh. During that week, I found myself surrounded by people galloping all around with their skin painted purple. As I listened to the loud, inconsistent repetition of air horns going off in the distance, I couldn’t imagine that, by the end of that week, I’d be “a university student.” Although it was fun and easy to feel overwhelmed in these moments, I was relieved that things quickly managed to work themselves out.
In the first week of classes, I realized that Carleton was the place for me, and as a writer, I was immediately inspired.
Not only was I introduced to the various Departmental clubs such as the English Literature Society and InWords, but I was surrounded by a whole team of people who would rather read the book than watch the movie.
Without even realizing it, my first week of classes flew by, and the idea that I was struggling with – the conception of myself as an actual “university student” began to seem plausible. I wasn’t just attending lectures and dragging myself to the cafeteria; I was visiting the English Department and surfing the internet for writing submissions.
This was the experience that I had been craving while I was a shy high school student, so I quickly achieved a lot of personal ‘firsts.’ For example, I secured a writing role as a contributor to Spoon University, an online platform that combined my two favourite things – eating and writing. I was fortunate enough to attend a Writer’s Festival event with my English professor who never let a class pass without enlightening me in some way. I went to my very first protest. I slipped away from the confines of my dorm room to study in the English Department lounge, which offers a view you won’t get anywhere else on campus.
Somewhere between exchanging daily stories in the Fresh Food Court with my roommate, and waking up engulfed in my weekly readings, I’ve come to a realization. As my professor would remind me, it may be something of a “Joycean Epiphany,” (who knew that James Joyce would jump out of my readings and into my reality so unexpectedly?) The realization is this: I am not the shy girl I had once believed I was. Or more specifically, I am, but I am not only her. I am an assortment of many things; a round character, not a flat one. I am the dynamic, not the static protagonist of my own story. I guess this is my way of mirroring Thoreau who “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
It has only been three months since I arrived in Ottawa and I’ve realized that I brought more highlighter markers than I’ll ever need. It has only been three months since I experienced firsthand what it feels like to really, really miss my mom.
And it has only been three months, and I can’t wait for more.