Scholar, writer, editor

Category: Archived (Page 4 of 8)

To Break the (Writing) Rules, You Must First Master Them

This piece was originally published on 28 August 2018 at the CRCLC blog.


Michelle Anya Anjirbag is a first year PhD student at the Children’s Literature Research Centre at the University of Cambridge researching fairy tale adaptations, especially those done by Disney. This life choice follows a stint in journalism — among other careers involving professional writing. Her prose, as noted in the photos (with permission from her supervisor) can still sometimes use a bit of work.

Maybe I’ve appropriated the above title from the Audemars Piguet trademark, but Pablo Picasso also said something similar — “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Both statements apply to the art and craft of writing, and perhaps especially academic writing, something I was reminded of through rounds of feedback as I really started to sink my teeth into the upgrade report.

While it is easy to become preoccupied with the research process, training to be an academic is not only about learning to do the research, but also about learning how to disseminate that research in a way that is approachable for and understandable by people who don’t necessarily share our direct areas of expertise. While it is absolutely overwhelming to swallow the criticism of something we are all trained to think of ourselves as experts in by nature of reaching higher education, if there is anything I learned from various professional writing jobs, it is that there is always a way to get better at what we do.

I remember the first time that a professor held me accountable for my writing. I had skated through high school and more than half of my undergraduate degree confident that I could just do what I wanted, write what I wanted and that it was good enough. It was my creative license to communicate my thoughts in my way. And then I was holding my first assignment from a nature writing class with a large “D” on the back page and red ink scrawled everywhere. The note accompanying the grade? “This is lazy and sloppy. You can do better”. It stung. It was right. I made a point of continuing to take that professor’s courses because I was pushed to improve my writing whether in analytical papers or expository writing assignments. It was far from the last time that someone critiqued my writing, but looking back I can recognize that about ten years ago I had a choice in how I could react to criticism. And to be frank, if I hadn’t been willing to learn then, to learn how to better evaluate my own writing and my habitual mistakes and my weaknesses, I probably wouldn’t be here at Cambridge today.

Image for post
This sort of thing feels really, really good to read when it happens…

That course was far from the last time that someone red-penned my work. From the student newspaper to the last newspaper I worked at before Cambridge, to essays I get commissioned to write now, and open submissions, there is always an editor. There is always feedback. I remember being on a voting results deadline with an editor literally leaning over me and copy editing as I was writing by hand. I remember having opinion columns cut in half because I had managed to argue both sides of the point in a span of 800 words without realizing it. I have had work shredded. The trick was remembering it was never personal — it was my job to be clear, to write a certain way, to address certain audiences at certain times, and good editors were there to hold me to account.

Good supervisors and advisors can and do fill the role of that good editor. Their feedback is not only about how the research is being conducted and where else one might explore in terms of concepts, but also about how the writing is. From comments about too-long sentences to advice that one should maybe break up the text with different headings, to when and how technical and subject specific language is used correctly and necessarily, these are notes that make the PhD better, and teach us how to write for yet another different audience effectively. And to be honest, in every writing community I’ve belonged to, taking courses or attending workshops and retreats to better one’s writing — even from people with multiple books out or who frequently publish in top-tier journals and magazines — is normal. With this in mind, there is no reason why academic criticism specifically about one’s writing should rankle.

Image for post
….but it doesn’t mean there isn’t more to learn.

So, what do we do, when we see those hours of work reduced to red comments across the pages? How do we create the space to process this, and be able to take it as feedback on our work, not on ourselves? Personally, I read it, and I walk away from it. I let myself have my moment of processing if I need it. And then I sit back down at the computer with a separate notebook and make a list of what is being flagged as needing improvement in my writing. I track and see where I am actually processing the edits and getting control of my prose, and where I might actually need to ask for some more help. For example, currently, my challenge is working on my paragraphing; I’ve spent so much time writing for newspapers and different media outlets that I lost touch with how to write complex things in a way that they are communicated simply and yet retain their complexity. Best moment? Having a paragraph recently flagged as exactly what my supervisor was looking for in terms of control.

Writing is hard; writing well comes from striving to constantly improve, especially when the notes that will allow us to do that are freely given in the context of the pursuit of higher education. So, from one professional writer’s perspective, the red pen and comments are not a bad thing or something to fear, but merely, another opportunity for growth.

Adapting the Nonvisual: Beyond the Text in “A Wrinkle in Time”

This piece was originally published on 7 August 2018 at the CRCLC blog.


Michelle Anya Anjirbag is a first year PhD student at the CRCLC with an interest in adaptations of fairy tales and folklore. Her current project is on depictions of diversity in post-1989 Disney films. You can also find her elsewhere on WordPressTwitter, and Instagram.

Adaptations and transmediations (a work translated into a different medium) spark conversations, connections between different versions or iterations of the same thing, and evoke memories of previous experiences with a particular narrative. Part of the beauty and the challenge of reading or viewing works in adaptation and/or transmediation is that the reader or viewer is challenged to reconcile those differences as part of the process of engagement. I think this is especially true when considering adaptations that translate narratives that are largely internalized and driven by a character’s emotional response to their surroundings — such as Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 A Wrinkle in Time — to a much more visual medium, in this case, Hope Larson’s 2012 graphic narrative adaptation (yes, there are also several screen adaptations, but this piece will not focus on those, primarily). But as we found when our summer reading group considered Larson’s text, before even considering the result of the adaptation process, this is a novel that requires some context.

Shaggy, curly hair. Glasses. Always feeling a little bit wrong. Meg Murry was my introduction to a science fiction heroine, and one of the first times I remember seeing myself in the pages of a book, at a time when a character reflecting my internal state was the best hope I had for some sort of representation (and let’s be honest, that hasn’t actually changed all that much). And so, I read her story over and over again. I don’t think I would have grown into the child I was, and the human I became beyond childhood without Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and yet, I still hesitate to define it neatly as a book for children.

Everyone has what they think is the most beautiful book ever written, and for me, it remains “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. I’m really enjoying Hope Larson’s graphic adaptation — it’s making today’s train journey fly by, if not tesser. #phdlife #cambridge #bookfeet #fortheloveofthepage #awrinkleintime #bookstagram #adaptation #graphicnovel

It hovers, like its protagonists, on many cusps. It can be — and has been — considered and interpreted both too openly and in too absolutist ways. It belongs to the deeply religious, the lightly spiritual, the cynic, and the reader looking for something a little different in both fantasy and science fiction, among others. L’Engle writes as though she knew exactly what she wanted readers to know and think after reading, and yet, I’ve never had the same conversation twice with anyone about this book ­ — and our reading group raised many questions about what this book is meant to be, meant to do, and who it is or isn’t for. It has kept me company through my life, and I have had many different relationships with it at different times in my life. The one thing I have never thought, though, is that it could have been done differently. This is why, I think, I have been wholly surprised by the ways in which successful adaptations of this novel have been achieved across various media.

Translating from a narrative constructed through language to a narrative constructed through image, even when words still accompany it, reveals details about how the artist (and the publisher, or producer, or any financial backer) sees the world and believes is possible to be believed by an audience. Even when considering fantasy or science fiction narratives rooted in “real” spaces, the audience knows that this is not the “same” world that they themselves exist in. It is constructed by someone; things are added, things are left out. For someone working on depictions of diversity, construction of imagined spaces becomes a map to hegemonic structures. Thus, I find assumptions — of what people should look like, of who is automatically granted different kinds of access, of what would seem “normal” or “recognizable” — interesting.

Because I am more interested in that construction — especially in how different iterations construct the same things and either disrupt or compound bias about what becomes normative, my reaction to Larson’s adaptation was mixed. On the one hand, certain things were spot on for me — Aunt Beast could have been pulled from my seven-year-old imagination, the beginning was wonderfully atmospheric, Mrs. Whatsit’s first appearance was perfect, and there was some beautiful illustrative mirroring between the bruise on Meg’s face and the Darkness they were fighting. As a whole, I took the same emotional journey I usually do reading the novel which means I sobbed on a too-hot train to London in early July. But on the other hand, when I stepped back to consider the visuals, I did wonder if Larson had missed something important — and that was the spirit of experimentation and boundary bending that defined not only the novel but its place as an American children’s classic.

101/100 “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. Many years ago, when the world was too scary and I needed somewhere to hide and make sense of things I could not, a teacher gave me this book, she said, to teach me about the source of hope. Today, years later and many experiences later, I see the world differently. I read this book and this author differently. But still, as the back cover shuts, I’m left with the ghost of hope reaching out from between the lines. And sometimes that’s all we can strive to hold on to. #bookfeet #fortheloveofthepage #100bookchallenge #100books

From genre-bending to a female protagonist, to blending American liberal religiosity with fantasy and sci-fi, to not fitting the parameters of a neatly defined target audience, A Wrinkle in Time broke a lot of the rules of publishing in the 1960s. I had hoped to see more of that come out of a graphic adaptation, and this is where I felt disappointed. Larson clings, to me, to the Cold War context that informed L’Engle, especially in the depiction of Camazotz. The images pick up on the anxieties that the idea of imposed uniformity posed to the themes of exceptionalism and individualism that were not only a part of L’Engle’s time, but were woven through her novel. And while I appreciate that this might have been done to somehow stay “true” to the narrative, I do wonder if this was the strongest visual approach in 2012.

In comparison, I know that there were mixed reviews to the depictions of Camazotz in the 2018 film adaptation by Ava Duvernay as a beach party, seen as a vast departure from the atmosphere of Camazotz as written. However, I think that by shifting the visualization to something that reflects the current zeitgeist and cultural anxieties about individual engagement and letting something larger make the decisions so that “we” can “just enjoy,” was a calculated risk that ultimately helped to re-contextualize the narrative for a new audience that would not have grown up with an awareness of L’Engle’s cultural anxieties, but can draw connections from something similar in their own cultural context. Additionally, as one member of the summer reading group noted, the color palette was very soothing. This is something I couldn’t reconcile with the fact that Meg’s journey is so emotionally charged. She’s angry, she misses her father, she literally filters her world through that kind of a pain, and I think that the muted visuals downplayed Meg’s reactions which are so important in the novel.

How great is it that I eat to write about the books I love? (Link in bio) It really is one of those books that I buy to recreate my sense of home in different places — I do wonder at the end of my life when I manage to collect my life in a single place, how many multiples of how many books will be found. #fortheloveofthepage #bookstagram #oldfavorite #childrensliterature #growingupwithbooks

Criticisms aside, I would return to something I said above — this graphic narrative transmediation brought me back to all the times I’ve read it before, and all the times its touched some nerve. It made me pause, and think about different parts of the narrative the might not have stood out to me in previous readings. I really like being made to think, and reconsider my own previous habits of thinking about the things and the books and the narratives that I love and that I’ve grown up with. What I like most of all, is that considering this text in this form has given me a new avenue by which to appreciate something with nostalgia, but also as an academic who is looking forward to the day she has time to do some serious writing on this novel, and its more visual interpretations.

Roaming like a Roman: Some thoughts from off the wall

This piece was originally published on 27 July 2018 at the CRCLC blog.


Catherine Olver and Michelle Anya Anjirbag are both doing PhDs at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge (CRCLC). Catherine, a second year, is looking at depictions of the five senses in fantasy for young adults through an ecocritical lens. Michelle, a first year, is looking at depictions of diversity in Disney’s fairy tale adaptations. They think at roughly three miles an hour, but tend to talk faster.

From July 9 through July 17, members of the CRCLC traveled to and walked Hadrian’s Wall from Newburn to Carlisle before returning to Cambridge. Though it only took nine days total, this walking seminar and trip along the wall has been on both our minds for several months now. 72 miles and many conversations later, we interviewed each other about the experience while taking the trip home (a decidedly simultaneously shorter and longer journey when done by train, with fewer stinging nettles and broody cows).

Children’s Literature are off the wall! #hadrianschildren#hadrianswall #childrensliterature #yalit#universityofcambridge #cambridge#CRCLC #lookatthoseviews #landscape#countryside #countrysummer #romanwall

MAA: Catherine, you were the one who persuaded me to do this. Why did you want to walk Hadrian’s Wall?

Image for post
Fichier SVG, résolution de 1 000 × 1 300 pixels, taille : 1,03 Mio)

CO: For me, the wall is a monument to human relationships with nature. It marks the Romans’ determination to protect the land and people they had conquered and ‘civilised’ from the resiliently ‘barbaric’ and wild tribes in the North. On a map, it’s obvious that the planners picked a narrow section of Britain and, in true Roman fashion, drew the straightest line they could (as they did with its short-lived sibling the Antonine Wall, started twenty years later in 142 AD, which stretched from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde). But when we started walking, it became apparent just how much the builders adjusted Hadrian’s wall in response to natural features of the landscape and climate — zig-zagging to incorporate the natural defences of crags or adding tiled roofs to the milecastles so the sentries didn’t get too grumpy keeping watch in the rain. Treading a cross-section of the country helps you understand in an embodied way (not just from a geography lesson) the different affordances these landscapes offer: the rivers that enabled the bustling cities of Newcastle and Carlisle, the farmland that continues to supply them, and the beautiful windy Pennines (nicknamed the backbone of England) to climb across for two days in the middle. It’s a mysterious and magical place up there, and it lives up to its representation in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series (1995–2016), which made me determined to experience the mystery of the Wall firsthand.

And after a brief lunch stop, they continued westward through the end of the Walltown Crags and into the Walltown Quarry #hadrianschildren #hadrianswall #childrensliterature #yalit #universityofcambridge #cambridge#CRCLC #landscape #romanwall #countryside #countrysummer #childrensbooks #kidlit #walkingseminar #countryviews

CO: What did you find mysterious and magical about the Wall?

MAA: I think what struck me most — and this may be the influence of reading both Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways while walking — was the idea of the wall as a border but also a liminal space in the landscape. Through every terrain we walked it was possible to read the stories and folklore and legends about Britain that have persisted, about dragons in the hills, or doorways to other worlds tucked into hills and fences and the wall itself. Like in Stardust, people on both sides of the wall have told stories of what might be happening on the other side. This remains true in contemporary fantasy literature, as in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books mentioned above. Walls, gaps, and mounds have also been a part of the fabric of the many intertwined bits of British history and folklore, both on local and national scales through different periods of conquest, national mythologising, and folklore revivalism. Additionally, the wall acted as a time portal, something real and tangible and of contemporary experience, but also inextricably connected to an age gone by that is itself committed to both history and legends, which I have worked with in the format of adaptation and appropriation, not only as a children’s literature scholar, but prior as a medievalist and folklorist.

Through the door and off to fairyland… #hadrianschildren #hadrianswall #walkingseminar #crclc #tinydoor #universityofcambridge #childrensliterature #yalit

MAA: Speaking of books, you read The Eagle of the Ninth before walking the wall, because it was an example of the wall being used in specifically children’s literature. Did it make you feel more Roman?

CO: Yes, it did. The 1954 children’s classic by Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my mother’s favourites, so it has always been on the shelf, and it was nice to finally read it because of my own interest in literature grounded in actual-world geography. Sutcliff’s story is about a son who follows his father’s footsteps through the wilds of Britannia chasing a lost Roman aquila (the eagle standard carried by each legion of the Roman army) and in the process comes to feel at home in Britain. Our own standard, Irving the Flying Hedgehog, came dangerously close to mimicking the plot when he lost his wings. Fortunately they hadn’t been stolen and swept down a stream, but the march did for several days involve a side quest to find more glue. It was worth it. Irving garnered much admiration from fellow walkers and proved a practical and morale-raising walking stick for Vera (a.k.a. Claudia, due to her blister-induced limp). Carrying him proudly as we joined forces with several groups of school children certainly helped me feel like a Roman. The experience confirmed for me how fiction can enrich our engagement with place, because relevant scenes from the novel animated the landscape as I walked through it.

O captain, my captain, lead us over the wall! #hadrianschildren #hadrianswall #walkingseminar #CRCLC #universityofcambridge #cambridge #kidlit #childrensliterature #childrensbooks #yalit #romanwall

CO: I had fun teaching the children about aquilae, but mainly we were learning from one another. What would you say you learned from our seven days of walking seminar?

MAA: I learned a lot about stories and storytelling, which was sure to happen walking with people who teach and write in different ways. Rachel’s seminar on how landscape evokes legend helped me to think about the ways I might consider emplacement when it is deconstructed in a global media-scape, especially considering postcolonial constructs, as seen in Moana (2016). I also learned that you never know when certain random-feeling skills that may have been acquired in another life are going to become very useful, from first aid to orienteering, so to me it was very much an argument in favour of learning everything and being flexible, and truly, adventurous, in one’s acquisition of knowledge. On that note, and in a very practical-academic sense, I’ve learned that I need to be better about changing my academic routine even when I’m not able to be physically away from my work space. Especially when the time came to organise things, or teach my own seminar at the end of a day, I was made very aware of how much mental fatigue I’ve become used to ignoring, and it suddenly wasn’t possible to ignore it when compounded with the physical fatigue. So that was a very useful piece of knowledge and awareness that came out of this walking seminar for me.

No stony faces today! #hadrianschildren #hadrianswall #kidlit #YAlit #childrensliterature #CRCLC #universityofcambridge #phd #walkingseminar #cambridge #childrensbooks #romanwall

MAA: What about you, did this experience teach you anything unexpected?

CO: It was fascinating to see how places along the route mythologised their local histories through the embodied media of food and drink, both for the tourists and to create a sense of identity for the community. We saw this most through the names of inns where we stopped at the end of each day, and through their offerings. After spending last term thinking about taste it wouldn’t have been forgivable to pass up the opportunity to sample local beers along the route: from The Tyneside Brown through the Northumbrian Gold and Sycamore Gap (at the Twice Brewed Inn in the town of Once Brewed) to the Belted Will, named after Lord William Howard (1563–1640) who — after a degree at the University of Cambridge, obviously — lived at nearby Naworth Castle and restored order in the area, and later appeared in Robert Scott’s ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’ (1805). However, the prize for most interesting taste experience goes to the Hadrian’s Wall gin, infused with pimento, chamomile, coriander, bay leaves, garden mint and other botanicals favoured by the Romans. Historians of the senses work hard to dispel the assumption that the past smelled bad; this was certainly a different kind of aroma, but it was wonderful.

The start of the seminar? An experiment in smell and taste led by @the_wordwoods #hadrianschildren

CO: On the subject of how we think about the past, what will you remember about this trip?

MAA: I am going to remember the people we did this with, because they were a big part of why I wanted to have this experience in the first place. We get so used to seeing people in certain settings with certain rules, but the disruption of settings and rules led to learning a lot about different people and how they see and imagine the world, but also opportunities to feel comfortable sharing unfinished thoughts and unfinished work in a less formal setting. I found our last writing exercise before leaving Carlisle incredibly pertinent to this experience. It was interesting to see how when writing the same landscape from both an omniscient narrator’s and a character’s viewpoint, my experience as a journalist made me more comfortable with the narrator’s view, while your poetry writing made the embodied character’s experience more natural for you. I’m also going to remember a lot of what I saw and heard — cattle, sheep, learning what a stinging nettle was the hard way, and the spiny beauty of thistles in the green against a grey foggy morning.

A beautiful lake and quarry just past Milecastle 42, one of the largest we’ve seen so far #hadrianschildren #hadrianswall #childrensliterature #yalit #universityofcambridge #cambridge #CRCLC #landscape #romanwall #countryside #countrysummer #childrensbooks #kidlit #walkingseminar #lakedays

For more on the seminars and writing experience, don’t forget to read Nic and Vera’s post on the trip, Escaping the Desk: Reflections on a Walking Seminar along Hadrian’s Wall.

To check out more photos from our adventures, search #hadrianschildren on both Facebook and Instagram.

« Older posts Newer posts »