The Mulan Complex

via mediagirl

No, I don’t have a complex that makes me a compulsive rebel, or a complex that makes me lie in order to defend my family, or a complex that makes me save my country from invading Huns, or a complex that makes hunky war heroes fall in love with me. But I am uncomfortable with my reflection.

Reflection. I wish I could say I love that word, and I mostly do. In its passive form. I love the way the redwoods, their reflections interrupted by floating islands of weeds, are mirrored on the stock pond at the local country club. I love the calm patience in my mother’s reflection while she does my hair when I am at home. I love how my friends and I chuckle and shake our heads at our middle school selves during our reflections on old times.

But there are few things that make me uncomfortable the way active reflection can. My reflection becomes an object of criticism and correction when my concealer brush is in my hand. Team reviews after group projects are always an opportunity to reflect on the performances of my teammates and myself and provide a report on our shortcomings. Active reflection inevitably leads to criticism in some form, even if it is constructive, positive, or helpful.

All it takes is a little bit of context and the word “reflection” becomes an unwieldy beast I am most certain I am unable to conquer. Reflection becomes a long, drawn-out struggle with periodic breaks to complain on Twitter and console myself with chocolate. At one point during a peer review assignment for an engineering project, I realized I would rather sing Honky Tonk Badonkadonk in front of the entirety of Cru (the student ministry I’m a part of on campus). This peer review should have been incredibly easy, especially because my team was a well-oiled machine and I had nothing but good things to say about such amazing teammates. But even positive, constructive criticism makes me squirm.

Criticism in any form elicits in me an immediate defensive response. Criticism is a red flag that something could have been done differently and better, and should have been done differently in order to have been better. As a perfectionist, it takes a Herculean effort to get me to admit that I’ve made a mistake or that I could have done something better on the first try. Usually this dramatic overgeneralization applies more to my personal life than to my academic life. But I still have a hard time with my shortcomings when it comes to academics. I refuse to start a problem set until I know I can solve every part of every question; I simply cannot start typing until I know where I want to go with the piece I’m writing.

My defensive response to criticism, and therefore reflection, made me appreciate a young author Roy Peter Clark describes in his book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. The young author accepts each critique from his writer’s group with an open mind, eager to improve. The evaluation focuses on his flaws, but not in a derogatory fashion. The flaws in his writing become his focus points for improvement.

It’s no secret that the Minor in Writing places as much importance on reflection as it does actually writing. Reflection is built into every project prompt, every blog post, every class discussion. I know that by the time I complete this program, I’ll still be just as uncomfortable with my shortcomings and flaws. But my hope is that I’ll be more comfortable with reflection and that my response to my reflection mirrors the eagerness of Clark’s young author.

Writing on Writing on Writing

I like to think of a chord as three notes, although I suppose in most sophisticated musical pieces a chord consists of at least three notes, but let’s not kill the metaphor before it’s even begun, deal? When the chord is played, each note compliments and provides both structure and context for its companions. These notes don’t even have to be played at the same time, but can overlap and blend with the lingering tones of their predecessors to form the chord, in the baroque style. While they are not companions in the most literal sense of the word, George Orwell, Joan Didion, and Andrew Sullivan are all members of the writing community who have written about writing. As such, I’ll consider them companions in the metawriting sense of the word. Their companionship in subject matter allows each piece to give context to the other two pieces and allows for each theme to build on those present elsewhere. Each of these three pieces strikes chords of varying strength and resonance with me as I read them, and in order to continue my metaphor I’ll make note of the strongest and most resonant parts of each piece.

I really appreciate Orwell’s strong sense of self-awareness. His assertion that four influences (“sheer egoism, …aesthetic enthusiasm, …historical impulse,” and “political purpose”) balance to motivate every writer, combined with his straightforward assessment of his ego’s disproportionate weight in this balance, give Orwell’s writing a frank honesty that I enjoy. I found Orwell’s melodramatic description of his childhood frustrating, although using the term melodramatic feels a little condescending. Part of me is unwilling to admit the extent to which I identify with Orwell’s description of a lonely childhood and uses the term to distance myself from this identification. I am no stranger to long afternoons spent with imaginary friends (usually dogs, preferably Dalmatians, inspired by none other than Dodie Smith), but that time of life was extremely unsatisfying and I do not remember most of it fondly. (Nor do I enjoy being reminded of the discomfort of that period.) However, I do appreciate Orwell’s reminder that our entire lives, both the exciting and uncomfortable parts, affect the balance between each of these purposes in our motivation to write.

Having read Didion’s piece before, I know what to look for and enjoy once more her descriptions of traveling through California while studying at UC Berkeley. No matter what a piece may be about, if it involves my home state (specifically, the San Francisco Bay Area) it will elicit an emotional response that overwhelms anything other emotions I may have regarding the subject matter or author’s style. Although I am not normally a fan of Didion’s style, I consider it somewhat distracted, I grasp hungrily at each detail of her memories in California. Even though the “rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light” are rather dark, they represent a piece of the place I call home. To a homesick college student, any news of home is always welcome. On a less emotional note, I also appreciated Didion’s willingness to prioritize what she finds important in the world around her. Rather than learning what is expected of her (Milton’s “Paradise Lost”) it is comforting how she takes note of the physical details of the world around her (the butter on the train, the lights of the bevatron).

I find each of the previous notes struck by Orwell and Didion resolve into a chord with the addition of Sullivan’s defense of blogging. Once again, the emotional appeal of the piece intrigues me and prompts internal reflection. I am encouraged by Sullivan’s defense of the importance of emotion’s influence on a blogger’s attitude: “You have to express yourself now, while your emotions roil, while your temper flares, while your humor lasts.” I am not used to including my emotional inclinations in my writing, and appreciate the encouragement to do so here. The “richness of personality” present in a blog builds a writing community unique to the technological era. I am looking forward to becoming a member of such an online community over the course of this semester, and am excited about taking the first step to do so. I find Sullivan’s analogy between jazz’s relationship to classical music and blogging’s relationship to traditional writing encouraging. In the same way that jazz tips its hat to classical while finding a new way to express an old idea, I am encouraged to see blogging as a way to develop my skills as a writer. In the same way that jazz augments the musical community, blogging enhances the writing community; although it is sometimes more difficult than pulling eyeteeth, this is what I am inspired to do.