Brontë and Bechdel and Books, OH MY

Ah…post conference relief! The First Annual Undergraduate English Conference happened yesterday. I made a wreck of myself in advance of giving my paper, and of course, it all went pretty well. I don’t know why I get so wound up – at 48 I ought to be over that kind of worry. But apparently, I’m not. I’ll probably always get nervous standing and speaking in front of people, even if most of them are younger (or much younger) than I am. So yes, my hands shook a bit, but my voice held steady. Good enough, right?

The intro to my paper. That swirl at the end of the paragraph is my visual reminder to look up at the audience - not sure I pulled that off. The filled-in O's came later, a form of contained doodling

Our Brontë panel discussion was great. I didn’t know how I’d handle questions from the audience, but between all of us, I dare say we did a fine job. Afterwards, one of the professors in the audience came up to us and said something like, “That’s just what you want at an English conference – a spirited discussion!”

Inside the brochure, with a listing of the panelists. I should have taken a clean copy. Again with the doodles...

While listening to the other students giving their papers, it occurred to me that we rarely have this opportunity to hear (or read, for that matter) our classmates’ work. Even in an online class, formal papers are often submitted directly to the instructor rather than posted to the discussion forum for all to see. I liked hearing all the panelists’ different approaches and writing styles as much as their essay topics. The flip of that is also true: there’s something to be said for the affirmation you get from sharing work with others that usually only gets read by your teacher. (Sure, I sound calm and philosophical now. Where was this composure two days ago?)

The highlight of the day was the keynote speaker, Alison Bechdel. UMA has hosted other author events but I rarely get the chance to attend. The last ferry leaves at 4:30, so a late afternoon event for everyone else means an overnight stay for me. But it was worth it.

Now here’s someone who doesn’t seem to get nervous in front of a crowd. Despite having a wardrobe malfunction in the spectacles department, she maintained her poise. She switched eyeglasses, then took them off, then arranged them at an angle on her face and carried on. There’s a lesson there.

She did a slide show along with her talk – makes sense that a cartoonist would bring the visuals. She showed us how a cartoon comes together, all the way from laying out the panels in Adobe Illustrator to working out text placement to penciling in the artwork to applying the ink. We got to see some photo mock-ups of herself that she used to create drawings, so she could get the angles and perspective right. It’s extremely detailed work. As she said, “Just do that a thousand or fifteen hundred times and you’ve got a book.”

I loved Fun Home, which, in extreme shorthand, is “about her father.” Alison is working on another memoir now, this one “about her mother.” But what I love is that her work is really about her: her place in her family, her moment in history, her identity as a lesbian, her process as a cartoonist. It’s all reflective and reflexive, but not self-centered. She’s looking outside of herself as a way in, or maybe she looks within to interpret the world around her. Anyway, it’s fabulous and I’m a new convert.

Alison Bechdel signing


I didn’t take pictures during her talk. I was in the front row and figured that would be distracting. But I took the liberty during her signing. I bought her newest book, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, and she signed that.

And I brought along Fun Home, and she signed that…and drew a quick little self-portrait…and added an impromptu personal notation – “click click click” – let’s just call that an inside joke. Or that’s what I’m going to call it :) I had my moment of connection with the famous author/cartoonist and I went away pretty well pleased.

Alison Bechdel signing my books

signing - glasses off

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2 Responses to Brontë and Bechdel and Books, OH MY

  1. Rob Kellerman says:

    You were splendid, Colleen — a great paper, a great session, and a great conference. Alison Bechdel was just icing on the cake!

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