.journal 2002.12.20


I can’t even take compliments well

Now listening to: Tori Amos, Strange Little Girls
Now reading: Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems
Now playing: Final Fantasy IX (Playstation)

Well, my third full-time semester at UT is in the books, and I’m on vacation until 2003.01.13. Normally I don’t like talking too much about my courses, but I’ve had something on my mind for most of this past week and I need to get it down in the .journal, I just need to.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a Creative Writing major, with a minor in Business Administration. This past summer I took the basic Creative Writing course (where I wrote “The Fun I Have at Parties” and “Something Better” among other things), in preparation for the workshops I’ll have to take in the coming semesters. This past semester, though, I decided not to workshop, so I could get some of my other English, Business and core requirements out of the way. In retrospect I probably should have taken a workshop, but the semester was still fun. (UT students, I can’t recommend Dr. Bopp’s courses enough!)

But of course, Creative Writing majors don’t get exempted from the other English courses, so one of the classes I took this past semester was ENGL-3790: Critical Approaches to Literature. It’s pretty much the “gateway” course: all English majors, no matter their concentration, have to take it. This was the first course I took where most of my fellow classmates were English majors, and it’s the highest-level course I’ve taken yet. And it was easy to tell by looking at the students in the course: these weren’t the braindead get-a-C-and-I’m-fine classes-are-what-you-go-to-between-keggers slackers I’m used to seeing walking around campus. These people wanted an education, not just a diploma. For most of the course, I felt out of my league in class discussions, and intimidated by the knowledge some of the other students demonstrated.

The professor teaching Crit-Lit this year was Dr. Sara Lundquist. I hadn’t heard too much about Dr. Lundquist before the course, but when I spoke with her in her office a couple of weeks into the semester, I felt more at ease about the course. Her area of specialty is 20th century American poetry, and while she’s not quite the Plath fanatic I am, we had a number of good discussions throughout the semester, even if I felt more at ease talking to her in her office than in class. As I told her, next to the Spectrum office, the English Department is probably the one place on campus I feel most at home.

I didn’t speak too much with other students in the course, although there were a few who really interested me. The general impression I got about Dr. Lundquist’s grading was that she was tough, but fair. Unfortunately, my impression is a little bit different. Yes, I got A’s on all my papers again, okay? After I got my first major paper back from Dr. Lundquist, I remarked that I was starting to think that I could actually do this whole English thing. And that was scaring me.

The big, big paper for the course was due last week. Earlier this week, after I was done with another final, I visited Dr. Lundquist in her office to get the paper back. As usual, I flipped to the back right away to check the grade, but then after I left her office, I went back to read her comments in full. Even with as depressed as I’ve been recently, this still put a silly-ass grin on my face:

Sean —

I know you consider yourself a creative writer first, but you certainly have superb critical skills.

Your paper is a demonstration of what a poet (sensitive to language, to nuance, to tone) can bring to critical writing. Wonderful.

Hope to see you again in one of my classes!

It’s a good thing I didn’t read those comments while I was in Dr. Lundquist’s office, because I wouldn’t have had any clue how to respond. In a way, I still don’t know how to respond.

There’s still part of me that wants to say that Dr. Lundquist really is an easy grader, and the other students in the class were mistaken. Part of me wants to think that maybe she gave me favourable treatment because of the talks we had out of class. Part of me wants to think that there’s some sort of curve, or something like that. And yeah, in the end I know that none of those things are true, but I still want to think they are.

I mean, I do consider myself a creative writer first and foremost. The first critical school we studied in the course was formalism, and I remember reading about how formalist critics will write down a paraphrase of a poem they’re working on, then reject their paraphrase and try to figure out why the poet’s version is better. And I was like, “Nuh-uh! I wanna do better than the poet!”

When it comes to my paper-writing skills, I know I do a good job. I took ENGL-2010: Advanced Composition in the previous semester, even though it wasn’t a requirement (I just wanted to make sure my previous English instructor wasn’t soft on me), and it turned out to be a terrific boon to me because it focused on persuasive writing. The text we used, Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, wasn’t even meant for English students; its primary audience is debaters. I don’t know why the course isn’t required for English majors, because it strengthened my paper-writing skills enormously.

With that said, I don’t know what could have prepared me for the papers we had to do in Crit-Lit. We read a number of critical articles for class, and with the exception of one narrative-style article from Adrienne Rich, most of them were hopelessly over my head. Even the one article we read about Sylvia Plath, I was just, “Uh … okay. Sure.” So when we had to start crafting those articles ourselves, I thought I was going to be a fish out of water.

First of all, I found it hard to find any kind of overarching structure to the articles we were reading. I knew I wasn’t going to be facing the old five-paragraph opening-explanation times 3-closing structure they pound into your head in the lower level English courses (and Advanced Composition helped me to explore other styles), but a lot of the articles, to my eye, just seemed to wander all over the place. As I tried to write my papers, I found my own writing wandering as well, without a cohesive path. The thing is, I laid things out as logically as I could, and in the end I think the structure of my papers mimicked the articles I was reading fairly well.

It also bothered me that I was acting as a critic. Like I said, I am a creator, not a critic. Dr. Lundquist once said in class that we were going to use the schools of literary criticism to “dissect” poetry, and after a couple of poems I remarked that it was more like we were vivisecting poetry. I’m not going to say that I don’t read Plath, or Dickinson, or anyone, without doing some deconstruction of the poem to see how I could use the same techniques in my own poetry. But there’s deconstruction, and then there’s critical deconstruction. Dr. Lundquist’s favourite rejoinder to my concern in this area was the old T.S. Eliot line, “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.” And, as usual, she’s right.

But apart from what I was doing to these poems, I was having to use the language of literary critics, and believe me, when you make your living on English Language and Literature, you demonstrate your skills at every possible opportunity. The prose in the articles I read was so thick I felt like I needed a knife and fork just to get through it all. Personally, my approach to writing, whether creative work or academic papers, is to keep things as simple and accessible as possible. I tried to keep things as simple as the limitations of the paper would allow, but in the end I was typing stuff, looking back at it the next day and trying to figure out what I was saying. If I couldn’t figure my own writing out, how could I expect Dr. Lundquist to?

In the end, though, I guess I was writing quite well. Dr. Lundquist said something to me about how good my critical writing skills were when I was last in her office, and I told her that maybe if the creative writing stuff didn’t work out, I could try making a career out of researching Sylvia Plath. (And I was only half-joking; all the biographical research I’ve done of her this semester really has me wondering about doing just that.) I don’t know if that would satisfy my creative drive, but there’s my creative drive and then there’s putting food on my table, so maybe holding onto the Plath thing as a fallback position would be a good idea.

I don’t know. I don’t normally share my papers with outsiders, but I think this is one case where I’d like feedback from others. Here’s the paper Dr. Lundquist wrote those wonderful comments on: “The ‘Edge’ of Sylvia Plath’s Life.” [Edit: Although I originally posted the paper in question on the Website, I have since removed it out of fear of it getting on online paper mills. E-mail me if you want a copy.] If you don’t have a copy of Sylvia Plath’s “Edge”, go buy her Collected Poems. Yes, I’ve seen the poem online before, but I won’t tell you where out of fear of pissing the Plath estate off, and besides, you need Plath in your life. Yes you do.

But now that I’ve just thrown the paper out like that for you all to read, I know that people are going to accuse me of just looking for validation from my readers. And you know what? They’re right. I’m just so used to being the target of everyone’s criticism, and the butt of everyone’s jokes, that when people do start complimenting me or praising me, I have to wonder what their ulterior motive is. I have a hard enough time telling myself I’m any good, what makes me think that others would say I’m good without having some sneaky reason for doing it?

I’ve taken five English courses at UT now, and I’ve had different instructors for each course. All five of them, at one point or another, have made a point of mentioning to me how great a writer I am. And I still don’t believe it most of the time. Once in a while I do think I can do this stuff, particularly after comments like the ones I printed at the start of this article, but usually I just think I’m going along doing my thing, and I don’t think there’s anything particularly remarkable about what I do.

There are really two components at work here. The first is that I have been the target of others’ abuse frequently in my life, and that does make you question everyone’s actions, even the people you love and trust. But there’s also a lot of self-esteem problems cropping up here. Particularly since I took over Spectrum, I keep having these situations occur where I have to stop and ask myself, “Am I good enough to be doing this?” And usually the answer is no, but I keep doing it anyway out of a sense of duty, or because it fills another need in my life, or maybe just because I’m too stupid to know any better.

There was a time in my life where I could just let those problems slide, shelve them until I got done with what I was doing. Times have changed, though. Now I’m getting into the more advanced of my undergraduate courses, now I’m in charge of Spectrum, now I’m getting closer and closer to the day where I’ll finally be on my own, making my own living, and not depending on my family for financial and emotional support. Now I’ve got to deal with these problems, so I can get them under control before they mess me up in a situation where I won’t have other people to catch me when I fall.

So in addition to taking a writing workshop and another literature class next semester, I’ll also be seeing a counselor. I’ve had enough problems bothering me the past few months as it is, but if I’m reacting with this much trepidation to Dr. Lundquist’s compliments, there is something much more wrong with me than I had originally thought. I may be getting good grades in my courses, but when it comes to life as a whole, I don’t think I could say I’m passing right now. Hopefully I can get that rectified sooner rather than later, because as quickly as this vacation is going to pass, I know that I’ll be done with college before I know it as well, and I’ll need to have the skills to cope with these problems of mine.

Everyone take care and be well. I’ll see you around.

— Sean

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