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Writing about Writing: A Literary Experiment

Ivelina Yonova

The most frustrating thing that I can experience in academic aspect is the blank page of the paper that I have to turn in tomorrow and I have no clue what so ever on what I am going to write. You, people out there who identify yourselves as ¡°humanities-persons¡± probably have no clue what I am talking about - it might compare to how you would feel if you find yourself tomorrow taking the final exam of a three-hundred level physics class. I would actually say that it is even worse, because what stares back at you from that blank paper is your own emptiness and inability to put your thoughts in words... And it is extremely scary to be facing that, believe me. A strategy to tackle the situation: what impressed me the most about the text I am going to be writing about? The feedback - it hardly works but it is at least something. You start writing about a random thing that actually interests you just to fill that blank page. You write a page that you know is crap... You leave it and come back after half an hour. When you read it you probably get terrified... You change it slightly to have any structured-like appearance and address a topic. then you leave again for a while... and so on you go for quite a while at least finally you shape that page into something that represents the initial structure of a paper that you know has a very precise purpose and road to follow toward revealing an idea. But there is a lot more to that:

....Let me tell you something about myself. I am obsessive compulsive. Even if it is four in the morning and I have not slept for two days, I will make sure that all my crayons are in the right place arranged in the right order. My clothes are arranged in specific order according to color and type and every article has its own hanger. I dust my room every three-four days. Clean at least once a week and mop my floor. I get frustrated when somebody touches my things. In the basis of all of that, I believe, lies the orderly manner my brain works in: everything is specifically arranged and structured and ALWAYS follows a logical pattern. Humans are pattern making creatures, but in my case I am not only that - I am OBSESSED with patterns and organization. The purpose of this lyrical deviation? This obsession of mine is a key characteristic of writing... I have never in my life written a paper that does not have a logical structure. And there you go: my problem with papers.... truth is that I cannot write a paper unless I know exactly what I am going to say, how I am going to say it, and how it is going to come out. Thus, for me, the most difficult part of the writing process is organizing my and structuring my train of thought.

(I have to point out that throughout my education before I came to college I have been taught to write in a very distinctive manner from what is generally accepted throughout Europe and America. Bulgarian papers have the same basic structure but an absolutely different purpose. What happens is, you are given a specific question about a text/s. You have to have read literary critics about those texts and KNOW what the interpretation of the key points of the text IS. Then you use these to adapt them to the question you are given. First you write a introduction /usually for each text studied there is a fair number of developed introductions that can be easily modified to adapt to any topic, and all you do is memorize them.../, then write thesis, which is in essence the short answer of the question in which you touch upon all key points that you are going to discuss, followed by the body of your paper that follows the exact order of your thesis, but is only an elaboration of it, and finally you write a conclusion which closes up the topic. The point of these papers, as you may have noticed, is to show that you have read and learned the critical analyses and it has nothing to do with teaching you to develop you literary thinking /maybe that is why I lack any/. Now, you would think that I was amazingly good at these papers. Well, funny thing is I was NOT. I hated proving a point that I did not believe in so it never worked out for me.)

Once I have a clear ¡°vision¡± for my paper, however, it all goes downhill and is done for a minimal amount of time. What I am saying is that the writing itself does not bother me (although I frequently find myself struggling with putting my thoughts in words, but that is a whole new case which I will gently pass over); it is the fact that I cannot start writing about something detached just off the top of my head without having a very specific idea where I am going with it that bothers me.

Another huge problem that I experience is formulating my thesis statement. The issues, as I see them, behind this problem are two. First of all, a thesis in the beginning of the paper totally shatters the logical flow of the argument... Why would you want to tell your reader what your paper is? First, it absolutely kills all the surprise elements and second you tell them what you are going to tell them but it is only too succinct to actually make meaning of your idea... I completely lose the pint of the thesis... and the second issue that I was talking about is repetitiveness: what your paper will look like is: intro, thesis, an elaborate variation of the thesis, restatement of thesis... I would like to believe that my reader would be intelligent enough to understand me from the first time and would not need the other two. Hopefully. (A random association: feeding baby birds - the mother collects the food, chews it up and the puts it into the little birds¡¯ mouths. /it is supposed to be a very direct analogy/)

Another problem that I have when writing papers that goes back to repetitiveness - working with the text. I have been thought /going back to the ¡°Bulgarian¡± way of writing papers/ that whenever you use a quotation you have to explain and analyze it in depth. Usually when you want to make a point using the text you do not put a random, obscure quotation, but rather one that clearly demonstrates or clarifies what you are talking about. There is no need for an explanation. Furthermore, most of the times, quotations that do fit in with your writing are extremely difficult to find. I feel it is much more appropriate to just briefly summarize the text reference and show the point I am making than ¡°stick in¡± a quote, then explain it, and finally make meaning of it. This, of course is not always true because occasionally there is this point when you HAVE to use the exact particular wording of the text or otherwise it just looks bare. yet, those are rare...or at least for me...

Last, but not least, something that I feel is a rather universal problem: conclusions. Need I say that when you are so deeply involved with what you are writing it is extremely different to detach yourself and make an adequate, NON REPETATIVE summation and pithy /complicated and elaborately sounding words are a MUST in a ¡°good¡± paper according to my Bulgarian literature teachers/ analysis of all you have already written. It does not really work.

(Now you can see why it takes me half an hour to write a ten page lab report and days to write a three page paper...)

I wanted to relate all I was just talking about and go back to all the work that I have done for this class and tell you the individual stories:

Paper 1: the Clash between Creationists and Evolutionists

The initiation of the topic of the paper was the in class discussion of the topic evolution vs. religion which was very interesting and challenging for me/ I am atheist and very science oriented and I believe that everything has a logical scientific explanation/ . I set out to prove what I believed in and yet was willing to compromise and actually consider and seriously evaluate the contrary idea.

The paper was very easy to start because I began with a personal aspect, providing a ground for why is this topic relevant to me. The next thing I did was organize my ideas, which was very easy, provided I knew what I wanted to say and what points I had to discuss. The major idea was to show that religion cannot be used to explain the origin of earth, life, and humanity. At the same time I wanted to stay as detached and objective as possible. Thus, I started by agreeing that evolutionary ideas are only very good theories, yet only theories for now. Then I started my first attack on religion - I point out that it has no proof so there is no ground for considering it any ¡°truer¡± that any other theory, including evolution. After that, however I point out the difference between the two, which underlined and was the fundament for my conclusion - religion affected, society as well and not only the scientific world. And then I strike: I say that religion is not a valid theory for the scientific purpose, but because it has such a huge effect on other parts of our lives we cannot discard it for that would raise the need of reevaluation the moral basis of our society. Very clear and organized. One problem only - the thesis.

Or actually the lack of it... I tried to formulate one and I can see now that I failed completely. The paragraph:

Ernst Mayr¡¯s book "What Evolution Is" is hardly a novel and definitely couldn¡¯t be read as one. It is simply a text book about the theory of evolution. Before I read a number of articles on the topic and heard other people¡¯s opinions I never believed that any reasonable man could even think that evolutionary theory was wrong. That new perspective has made me think hard over a few issues around the battle between creationism and evolution.

is not even close to what the thesis of this paper should be. I seem to be trying to point out that contrary to what I believe, a lot of people consider evolution to be just a made up story. It does not even suggest what I am going to talk about or what my conclusion on the theme will be. It definitely seems to be more fit for an introduction. I can understand why that would happen - I did not want to give in the end. Every paper is a story - and just like every story, once you have the end, who needs the bulk? And that is how I set out to write a thesis and ended up with a second introduction paragraph.

Paper 2: Nietzsche, Hobbes and the Evolutionary Theory

Reading Dennett was difficult and slow. I kept falling asleep after reading half a page. When I read the chapter sixteen I definitely was interested because I knew a little about both philosophers and their theories and I couldn¡¯t instantaneously fit them in the picture Dennett was drawing. Furthermore, because I could not concentrate on Dennett¡¯s reasoning I missed the point he was trying to make in the chapter at all. I was interested in reading both philosophers so I decided it would be nice if I could research them and then point out how Dennett is manipulating his readers.

Again like the first paper I use personal experience to introduce the topic of the paper and show its relevance. The introduction is simple and flows very nicely to the thesis: at first I thought Dennett was inappropriately referring to Nietzsche and Hobbes but after I did my research I discovered that he actually uses them to pint out a logical path to the idea that evolution is more than a theory. Then I explain what my points of confusion with both references are, what I found when I read the actual works of Hobbes and Nietzsche, and finally to what conclusion arrived. Then I ask the question: ¡°how do those two ¡°just so stories¡± fit into Dennett¡¯s frame?¡± And I set off to make the connection that I saw between both philosophers and Dennett¡¯s book. And finally I conclude reaffirming what I found out and then suggesting a possible explanation for what caused my confusion and misunderstanding. I actually love this paper! It is so brilliantly ORGANIZED...

What is not seen, however, is how much work actually went into it. I wrote the paper for less than three hours. Before I started it, though, I spent four days reading Nietzsche and Hobbes and trying to see the connection between the texts and Dennett¡¯s story. Again - writing is hard until you know what you are going to say.....

Paper 3: The American Immigrant Experience and Middlesex

Writing this paper was the greatest struggle I have ever experienced... I believe this was because I enjoyed Middlesex so much. Unlike the other books we read this semester, Jeffrey Eugenides¡¯ novel was very engaging and pleasant to read. It was so rich with social and individual issues and yet seemed to be very openly discussing the issues that it was impossible to choose a topic that I felt wasn¡¯t self explanatory. That is why I decided to talk about evolution of characters in the novel. I started by analyzing all the main characters, wrote three pages worth of analysis and important quotations and then tried to make sense of it, find a connection, pattern or anything that could turn this into a coherent paper. No good. After a week of reading and thinking about it I just gave up. Then after reading Paul Grobstein¡¯s essay on the forum about fundamentalism vs. relativism I decided to write about the trans-national issue in the novel - about coming to America from a different background and experiencing the cultural shock.

That was even more difficult because I had myself experienced it a few months ago and it was still a painful and emotional subject for me. (I would not expect anybody to actually understand what this is unless you have experienced it and I do not want to talk about it yet because I am still bitter about a lot of issues so I am going to leave this hanging in the air) I wrote numerous drafts of this paper which turned out to be mainly my critique and analysis of American society and the ways I experienced the different aspects of the cultural shock and how I dealt / am still dealing with them. I had about ten different paragraphs that were hardly connected to each other - just free writing.

I kept writing and I got to the point where I was trying to explain the basis of the cultural shock. I introduced the issue talking about the image of America in international people¡¯s eyes. As soon as I wrote that first sentence I could see the paper in my head. I knew I was going to explain both images and talk about how the novel represents them. From then on it was an hour and a half of writing.

The final paper begins with the general introduction of the two images and a brief note about what the novel is about and how that connects to my topic. Then I just discuss the various aspects of the two images, the cultural shock and relate my experience to the presentation Eugenides gives in Middlesex. The paper is barely structured in comparison to the first and second papers. But the important part in this paper was discussing different issues and actually consolidating them. So, instead of looking for specific organization/structure the focus is on the connections between the different issues. I conclude with a brief, but rather broad, overview of the novel and what I expected to see in terms of the problem I am discussing, namely intercultural transition and the image of the United States.

Paper 4: Writing about Writing : A Literary Experiment

It is strange and challenging talking about this paper in the very paper... how it all started? During one of the nights that I was working on my third paper I had a fist of frustration with my self and my writing abilities/inabilities. I sat down and wrote a page of the top of my head (what is now the first paragraph of this paper) and without reading it a second time I just saved it and left it for two weeks. Last night read it twice and then just started writing about my experience of writing without having ANY goal or structure in mind. I kept writing and decided that it will be interesting if I kept writing like that. Of course, I couldn¡¯t help and a structure emerged. I had a broad introduction, then listed the problems that I encountered in the writing process, and finally referred to the papers that I had written to trace the manifestations of my struggles. The purpose of this paper is not to make a specific point or proof. It is supposed to be a review of my writing; it is supposed to be a fun paper to read. It is supposed to defy all that I have been thought to do when writing and be just... creative...

The last word...

This is the last humanitarian paper that I will ever write in my life. I tried to have fun while doing it and I definitely succeeded. I hope you have fun reading it, too. And as I already pointed out earlier on, I struggle with conclusions, and this one is exceptionally impossible to come up with.... so all I am going to say is that despite all the sleepless nights and frustration, I actually enjoyed thinking through and writing the papers that I wrote for class, and especially this one.

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