As we start this semester, hesitantly tip-toeing towards that elephant in the room–this giant project that looms ahead of us–my main preoccupation right now is that I have no good ideas.
Maybe it’s not that big of an elephant: it’s only one project, and it’s only one semester. I’ll most likely work on many more projects in my life, and I’ll hopefully complete at least a few more semesters in grad school. This shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Finding the perfect, all-encompassing, meaningful project topic shouldn’t be that big of a deal. And yet here I am, worried that this is my last project and my last semester and therefore my last chance. I am worried that I won’t be able to move past myself and make something that matters.
I have a questionable habit of only writing pieces about thoughts I’ve encountered in my own life, often ideas I’ve been grappling with for years. In my writing, I rarely explore the world outside of my own head. Take, for example, the basic questions behind my three favorites of the essays I’ve written recently:
1) Does being named Hannah threaten my own individuality and worth as a person?
2) Is my voice too small to make a difference in the world?
and 3) Why do I feel these things about my body, and is it possible to turn these feelings into something that is important to my identity, rather than something to be ashamed of?
Notice, here, that these are all questions about me written in the first person, and that they share an answer: to write a narrative essay about my own experiences. Yeah, I’ve tried to expand these essays to audiences beyond myself, but my output historically has come down to one M.O.: I write stories about myself in the hopes that they are relatable to people like me.
Maybe this isn’t my last semester ever, and maybe this isn’t my last project ever, but it seems naive to waste the chance this Capstone class is offering me–the chance to invest a lot of time and a lot of thought and a lot of resources into building something bigger than I ever have before–wandering in circles around my own mental preoccupations.
I want to write about something bigger than me, but I am stuck living my life in my own mind and thus don’t know how. What to do, then? Not sure, so it’s convenient that this assignment comes with it’s own proposed answer (thanks, Twyla).
I haven’t really thought much about the concept of rituals before. I’m not especially religious, and I think the two–a lack of religion and the active practicing of rituals–have always falsely seemed mutually exclusive to me. I was glad to learn yesterday that they are not: while ritualism implies a spiritual intention, it doesn’t necessitate it. And, regardless of whether turning an action into a ritual requires imbuing it with spirituality, spirituality could exist for me separately from religious practice, if I wanted it to.
While I hadn’t yet thought about ritual in solving my writing problem, I had thought about searching for a solution in the act of reading. I had my writing problem as I went in to winter break last month, and so, finally free of deadlines and expectations, I intentionally sat down to read. I thought maybe others’ thoughts would remind me there’s a world past my own. Sure, maybe it’s a little questionable to think I’d find a Capstone topic in someone else’s prose, but I think I was more looking for inspiration than for specific ideas, or for a reminder that people outside of myself care about people outside of themselves. I was looking for examples of what people do to act on this caring outside of themselves, because while I think I have the caring, I don’t have any idea what to do with it.
So, on a search for thoughts, I read the 2017 volume of The Best American Essays, a collection of nonfiction that is published annually under Mariner Books’ The Best American Series. Maybe this wasn’t super far outside of my usual M.O.; all my above questions lead to attempts at a similar genre as was housed in this book, did they not?
I’m a little over a third of the way into this book, and so far my favorite essay has been Leslie Jamison’s introduction to the collection (each year, the series’ main editor Robert Atwan brings in a guest editor, and Jamison was the 2017 pick). In her introduction, she talks a lot about the 2017 presidential inauguration, and what place essays have in the political climate: Can they be political, or are they too literary and creative to have that certain necessary political credibility? In a world and a country that’s a little fucked right now, is there a place for creative writing, or do we need to funnel all our writing efforts towards other genres that more obviously foster change (journalism, etc)? Can essays–in this case, ruminations on outward things that have lived and developed within the author’s mind in the context of their own experiences–really be societally meaningful enough to be worth writing?
Jamison writes, “The essay has always courted a reputation as a solipsistic genre; a mind fondling itself on the page.” Yes, see: this is my worry. My writing is too self-centered, too self-indulgent, because it is inherently driven and inspired by me.
She continues, “But to me the defining trait of the essay is the situation and problem of encounter… The essay inherently stages an encounter between an ‘I’ and the world in which that ‘I’ resides; just as politics is a way of examining the relationship between an ‘I’ and whatever communities she finds herself a part of.” So, yes, essays can’t ignore the “I” perspective of their authors, but there can be an useful comparison between that “I” and the rest of the world.
Jamison goes on for another few pages, continually building my confidence that there’s something meaningful in the genre I love to write, despite “the limits of it’s own vision.” So, maybe in my reading I found not inspiration for a capstone topic, but permission to continue writing in the way that is most meaningful to me, because that I feel that importance means that I can translate that meaning to my audience. Not a complete solution, but a start.
So maybe reading should be my ritual, an attempt to finding inspiration in others’ words, minds, ideas. I think if I actively search out examples of something that matters to someone other than me, I will be reminded of the things that I care about, too, and will find my topic that way. I’m going to try to read for 15 minutes at the beginning of sitting down to write, before I put a word on the page.
That’s it then: reading is my ritual. I’ve done it before, though, thoughtlessly–without that spiritual intention I think (thought?) rituals needed. Does something I’ve always done become an official “ritual” just because I said so? I think not.
I think it takes this: a reminder that while I’ve read casually and free of intention before, I don’t do it now. I’ll renew that intention, make reading a ritualistic requirement for inspiration rather than a superfluous past-time, and see where that gets me.
Thanks for baring with me through these many, many words. I’ve definitely fallen directly into the trap I warned myself of above, the trap of “wandering in circles around my own mental preoccupations.” But, now I have a way to try to get myself out of it, or else a voice in the form of Jamison that says it’s okay for me not to.