On Cheese, Henry James, and Learning How to Write (Part One)

***Warning:  This blog post is very long-winded.  If you are a hungry college student and the cheese part grabbed your attention, then I am sorry to say that all cheese-related thoughts are limited to the first bit.  Thank you. *** 

For me, learning to write can sort of be tracked by a downward spiral in ideology.  What I mean is that I used to think that writing was the best thing since sliced cheese, and sliced cheese is AWESOME, since it cuts down on a good two steps when making grilled cheese:

1. actually slicing the cheese, and

2. realizing with a sinking feeling that once again you’ve sliced too much and are, once again, going to consume enough cheese to give a horse indigestion.  Good thing my stomach is still young and naively forgiving of the things I put in it.

Anyway, I used to think writing was great.  No – noble, even.  It was the best thing you could do with your life, because who needs a social life when your immortal words would be passed down from generation to adoring generation?  I had dreams of grandeur.  I obsessed over thesauruses the way some girls obsess over eye makeup (sorry if that sounds bitter – I still haven’t got the hang of poking my eye with pillowed sticks).  In elementary school, I wrote in the margins of my math worksheets.  In middle school I wrote great Diatribes Against Society in secret scraps of paper.  In high school, I doodled song lyrics incessantly on essay tests.

In my first year of college, resolved to hold the title of Proper Writer someday, I bought my first writing notebook, a five-subject, spiral-bound Mead.  And that simple decision was the seed of a very large change.  You see, consolidating my writing made it:

1. less easily lost and and therefore

2. more easily re-read.

And upon this closer examination, my writing turned out to be a warped version of Lord Byron – sad, bad, and painful to know that I wrote it.  Nevertheless, I remained fresh and rosy-eyed.  I told myself all I wanted was discipline, revision and to read more books.  After all, I was living the dream.  I was at one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation and I was reading Milton by my second semester freshman year.  There was hope for me yet.

And the hope seemed boundless.  The more I read, the more I wanted to be a writer.  I particularly idolized the Modernists.  To write social commentary as deftly as Henry James, to do away with entire lists of literary traditions at the sweep of a pen like Stein, to break the heart as nonsensically as Djuna Barnes.  That, surely, was what I was meant to do.  And I was going to do it.

But there came a point when romanticizing writing got in the way of actually writing.  This point came quickly.  After all, I was at one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation.  To hack it, I needed to be able to write, and write well.  But I was too swept up in language.  I wrote galloping papers that had sentences three lines long.  I wrote breathless papers that threatened to bring on hyperventilation in its unfortunate readers.  In short, I had forgotten the first rule of writing: its goal is communication.

Funnily enough, it took me tutoring children in how to write a paragraph to remind me of this fact, and the fact that Modernism is dead.

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