“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Monday, October 4, 2010

How to Get That Elusive Academic Job 5—space: it shouldn't be the final frontier

Good ikebana only works when there's lots of SPACE. You don't have time to join all the dots, dot all the i's and cross all the t's in your letter or at interview--you have to start TRUSTING that the space will invite the reader to do that.

Wolfgang Iser, the reader-response theorist, has a great idea that the experience of reading a text is sort of a moving blank. Good realists (the novelistic sort of realism I mean) are very good at exploiting this blank to achieve detail by getting the READER to do the work. Jane Austen is a consummate pro.

So: no walls of words. No thickets of quotation marks. After you've drafted your letter, try to see how much you can CUT and still say the same thing. Then try saying it even more straightforwardly. In particular, there's no need to overdo the Heaven aspect. We need a big bang of color. This gets diluted the more bangs you have.

Earth needs to be crunchy underfoot. Lots of implied detail. Don't just say “Well, I use philosophy and history”—talk SPECIFIC. You will have the space to do this if you let your ikebana breathe.

The ideal job letter starts with a brilliant light. Then we realize that this brilliant light is actually sunlight, shafts of it, pouring through trees onto a thick bed of pine needles. Soft dusty resin floats in the sun shafts, invitingly. The smell of pine and sap rises from the forest floor. A twig snaps underfoot.

Then up comes a squirrel with a single nut—he holds it out to you as if to offer it. Curious, you bend down to inspect it. What could it be?

(Our squirrel's nut is the Child. The squirrel needs to give NO explanation as to the origin of the nut—it came from a bloody tree for Christ's sake! He leaves that up to YOU, the reader...)

A job letter, an interview—even a writing sample—have FAR LESS to do with intellect and FAR MORE to do with aesthetics than you think.

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