Trying hard as an act of faith

by Eva Dunsky, Writing Fellow ’17

I thought I had expressed myself clearly.  I was proud of the paper and proud of my insights on Borges—as such, I expected a grade commensurate with my efforts and pride. I received a 4/10 scrawled in tiny block print at the bottom of an exam booklet riddled with red ink.  I adjusted my expectations.

I consider myself fluent in Spanish.  So when I signed up for a literature course in Barcelona, I wasn’t too worried.  Though Spanish is obviously not my first language, I didn’t think it would be a problem.  For the first exam, I did all the reading and reviewed briefly the night before—well, actually two nights before, as the night before was Carnaval, a sort of Spanish Mardis-Gras that is best spent drinking Cava on the beach.  I felt that I had done the requisite amount of preparation—the same amount I would have done at Barnard.

I came to the exam with the course texts under my arm.  I took the test, and was happy with my insights.  So when I got it back, I was, to say the least, underwhelmed.  I took it to my advisor who smiled knowingly, winked at me, and asked if I had studied.

“Yes! Of course I studied,” I replied indignantly.  

“Maybe devote some more time to review for the next exam.  Feel free to ask me for help.”

I left with a queasy feeling in my stomach that I was quick to recognize as failure.  I felt ashamed, homesick, and overall in over my head.  Walking through the narrow streets of Barcelona, I thought back to one of the first students I had in the Writing Fellows program—an nonnative english speaker, and a first-year who was extremely reluctant to meet with me.  In fact, getting her to send me her availability was like pulling teeth.  When I did get her to come see me, she was always a bit distant to the point of being rude—when I asked her about her classes (never about her grades), she responded somewhat combatively that her grades were passing and besides, she didn’t even care about her humanities classes.

I remember wondering what her problem was.  Was it something I did? Did she resent having to meet with me? Why did she always tell me that she hadn’t worked hard on the assignment and thus didn’t care about the grade if she knew that would rub me the wrong way?

Two years after fellowing this student, walking through Barcelona and wallowing in my own failure, it hit me: trying is scary.  Especially because trying is not a safeguard against failing.  Staring down the barrel of my next exam, I felt fearful.  What if I try really hard, and still fail? What if it’s not enough? Wouldn’t it be easier to not try, or to claim not to have tried, and then explain away the bad grade through my own lack of effort rather than my lack of ability?

Being a second language student is acutely terrifying.  Jhumpa Lahiri says it best in her book In Other Words—writing in a second language means following the same heavily treaded paths in order to express a thought.  It’s a restriction of freedom.  It’s scary and unpleasant but might lead to personal growth and revelation, as is the moral of this essay.

I walked away from my abroad experience with an immense appreciate for second language students.  I struggled in a one semester class with a professor who was sympathetic to my situation—I couldn’t imagine spending four years at Barnard (a writing intensive school) amongst mostly native speakers.

If you’re a second language student, know that I support you and admire you greatly. Know that you have an ally in the Writing Center.  And if you have a second, drop by for my weekly hour—I’d love to hear what you’re working on. 

Writing Through Thick and Thin

As the semester nears its end I find myself returning to a method of planning for the fifth time in my college career. Realizing that this is the end, and work becomes inescapable, I discard my planner and place a blank sheet of paper on the table in front of me. I write out everything I must do before my flight departs at six am on the twenty-first, the date and time at which it must be done, and a star if it will take more than four hours to complete. This is when time begins to feel like an enemy. I text my father, requesting a pep talk, and he texts back a few hours later: “Home stretch. Stay on it.” Is the end of the semester a race? Should you cross the finish line emotionally out of breath, brain filling with lactic acid?

When the weight of time feels like my rival, I crave to exist in an ancient Celtic idea: thin places. It’s the belief that there are some places, for some people, where the barriers thin between the physical world and the metaphysical one. Here, time can collapse inwards, reality subverts, and, most importantly, you are uncovered. You feel the hold of time and reality reduced and you must face the space, and perhaps yourself, as if you are watching from the other side. The idea of thin places rears itself anonymously in culture—perhaps most famously by C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia, and most recently in Netflix’s Stranger Things—but, as an Irish American woman, with a love of Celtic knots and drinking songs, I’ve experienced it in my own life. For me, thin places arise, in vastness and repetition: on a long dock, staring off into the foggy Øresund with a dear friend by my side; sitting in the passenger seat as my mother navigates through the snow-cleared highways hidden in the miles of the Deschutes forest; alone, wandering through the miles of literature in Powell’s books, of my home city.

I stare at the sheet of paper. I stand up, stretch my neck, then sit back down. I stare at the paper again, wishing for more blank space and fewer stars; for a body of water shrouded in mist and a disassociation from this burden of time.

Why We Write Heroes

by Geneva Hutcheson, Writing Fellow ’17

In the plethora of articles on the anti-hero, few seem to acknowledge that the anti-hero, despite his/her questionable means and motives, is essentially good, and beyond that, still a hero. And, on some level, we know this.

Critics praise the anti-hero for being human and relatable, for screwing up. But, unlike most screw-ups (which we all are at some point or another), the anti-hero ultimately makes the selfless decision — and, because the anti-hero must atone for greater sins than his magnanimous counterpart — goes beyond being selflessness, and becomes self-sacrificing.

One could argue, and I often find myself doing so, that we write heroes because we want to believe that humans are intrinsically good: that the bad boy will clean up his act, that the deadbeat father will come home, that the distant mother will realize her failures. Films and novels with truly unlikable heroes fail. No one wants to read about the schmuck who continues to be a schmuck — even in our fictional serial killers we seek remorse, and, when they fail to show it, we label them psychopaths. So, I do not believe we can blame the necessity of relatability for our inhumanly benevolent characters.

When we are shown characters, especially of the sitcom or romance novel variety, who seamlessly succeed in, if not solving their faults, producing the proper emotional reactions, we begin to view our own failures of the heart and mind as uniquely person faults. Perhaps the true reason we seldom write wicked, remorseless protagonists, is because they are more difficult to write.

In writing the darker sides of human nature, one must reflect, without blotting out the parts that bring guilt and sadness, on one’s own weakness.

Anxiety

by Geneva Hutcheson, Writing Fellow ’17

There is the moment of three am panic that arises when you has been sitting in Butler for far too long — three coffees deep, no reasonable excuse to stand up from the computer — when suddenly the cogs in your brain begin to turn, your fingers type without much cognitive processing and a paper is produced.

This anxiety is undeniably addictive. I often find myself saying, “Oh, it will get done; it always does.” And, in the Writer’s Process course, I was surprised, when our Professor acknowledged this panicked — if not procrastination fueled — method, as a valid writing process.

But, what happens when the cogs fail to turn? When you sit at your computer and three turns to four turns to five? When you find yourself drafting an email to the professor: “I find myself unable to write… Could I please have an extension… I’ve drafted and underlined… I’ve emailed the librarian…” and then finally, “I cannot write.”

This breaking point where no matter how many hours you dedicate to sitting in front of the computer with Facebook blocked and your phone silenced, where no matter how clear your outline is, you cannot form sentences, words maybe — something about juxtaposition — but definitely not phrases, is quit simply terrifying.

What do we do here. Yes, we call our mothers and cry. We may sit outside Butler and pick up chain smoking. We may even consider dropping out and becoming an organic farmer — and why don’t we. No, writing is a worthwhile endeavor. I believe, at least for me, this anxiety comes from the fear of judgement. You are here, and you believe, perhaps with some justification, that something is expected from you.

This thing expected from you becomes more abstract the more it is pressed upon. No, it cannot be beautiful language; that has been disproven by every tight-lipped professor red-lining through your self-indulgent use of adjectives. For a moment you may entertain that you are expected to be brilliant! You — a young Thoreau — must come up with something great! This too is a lie. That is too much to expect.

Writing is, in its truest form, communication. Write simply and write well (you can see above that I have failed). When I am not sure where to start I start with a quote. Rather than expecting something great from myself I expect something great from the author or the data. Be Hermes not Zeus (You see here that I’ve failed again.)

Is calling something a thing a thing?

by Skyler Samuelson, Writing Fellow ’17

Check out this interesting New York Times Opinion piece. Alexander Stern muses on the popularity of the phrase “…a thing.” (“Is that actually a thing?” “When did that become a thing?”) In offering different takes on the linguistic phenomena, his idea that the modern world is closing the gap between reality and satire intrigued me most. As Stern writes, “The absurd excess of things has reached a point where the ironic detachment needed to cope with them is increasingly built into the things themselves, their marketing and the language we use to talk about them. The designator “a thing” is thus almost always tinged with ironic detachment. It puts the thing at arm’s length. You can hardly say “a thing” without a wary glint in your eye. The volume, particularity, and inanity of the phenomena effectively force us to take up this detachment. The complaint that the young are jaded or ironic is misplaced; it’s the conditions that are this way.”

Food for thought: is this a thing?

On Abstract Thought and Feeling Dissuaded

by Geneva Hutcheson, Writing Fellow ’17

I am often impressed by those who think in the abstract rather than concrete. As someone who can only think in the concrete, in language, and, even more specifically, in English, I sometimes feel trapped by words. It will be as though I feel an emotion or conclusion, but when I begin to prod at that feeling, it slips away. It’s like Pandora’s box, and I begin thinking, “No, not that. That is too big a concept; I will have to do something about it later.”

In the back of my head, cold water spills down like some hundreds of half-opened thoughts too big for me to finish, and they remain; under the cold water, they freeze. Sometimes these thoughts come back to me in pieces. I remember last week, walking under the bridge connecting EC to main campus, it occurred to me… something about Ancient Greeks and time (perhaps whether they thought they had magic, or whether, like us, they imagined someone before them had magic and they lost it—although probably not that, as it was something I could not research the answer to). I remember feeling that thought was too big for the linguistic confines of my mind, and then I shut it down. Even after shutting it down, that thought haunted me. It tasted like hope, and in closing myself off from it, I kept myself from feeling something good. Often these thoughts are personal: I may begin to realize there is something off in my life, and then, when that sensation begins, I learn to hold the two things in my head at once, and I close the thought. I tell myself that language is no space for gray area—words are clearly delineated. Meaning can be found, and seldom is the connotation positive and negative.

So, when a friend said that she, an abstract thinker, is frustrated when she can draw a form to show what she means but cannot write or say it, her words took me aback. I assumed that abstraction is freedom. That if only I could escape words, those rotten things, then I would be free to comprehend my emotions, but with comprehension comes a barrier. If you truly understand your own sentiment, if you fearlessly open the box of complex and contrary emotions, of ideas that deserve form but are not concrete, you become isolated. Communication is difficult (that is why Writing and Speaking Fellows exist), but communication of concepts requiring abstraction is even more difficult.

So. How does one communicate ideas that exist beyond language? Perhaps I, a concrete thinker, am not best to attack this problem as I often shy away from the grayer parts of thought. But for the sake of those thoughts I previously discarded, I will consider the problem.

It is true, yes, language has limits. It is the game of language: to find its bends and breaks, to see the gaps between words, the spaces we have not yet reached. So I propose not disentangling the abstract thought—but prodding it like you would a painting (figuratively, of course), or music, or a poem you do not yet understand. Apply a word to that abstract thought. How does that word fit, what does it hide, where does it fail, how can you qualify its failures, and how can you highlight its successes?

Now apply another word to fit between that word and the abstract meaning still hidden. Think of it as a piecemeal process. For me, I quit when I grow frustrated with the words in my head, worse when I must hold all the inadequacies of those words in my head as well. Write those words and their inadequacies down. Write down what works—and what doesn’t.

If you cannot find the words to express the thing, then write down what that thing is not. Perhaps, like music, the meaning will finally arise in the negative spaces.