Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Species of Writing

I wrote a lot of essays over the long weekend. College essays. School essays. Essays upon essays. I don't think I've done so much non-personally-motivated writing in ages. So I began to think about the differences between various types of writing.

To be more precise: I'm doing my thinking now, as I type, because isn't that what an essay is for? Thinking something through?

Here I go.


The kind of writing with which I am most familiar, having done hundreds of thousands of words of it over the years, is prose fiction written for one's own enjoyment. Storytelling. Plot, characters, dialogue, you control what happens in a world you've created. This kind of writing has a big spectrum. Some stories I absolutely could not write if I did not know that no one would see it. On the other hand, I've had some fruitful collaborations in which another person and I crafted a story together - not quite line by line, but scene by scene, at the least.

A related beast is poetry writing. Goss said somewhere that her ability to write poetry is a personal barometer, which I took to mean that you need a certain level of personal equilibrium to write a poem. Equilibrium is the wrong word. But I was thinking, this week, about how some people are the opposite of poetry: how some people, it would be impossible to write a poem while in the same room as them.

Over the weekend I made a note to myself:
If you are going to write a poem, the first thing to do is to lock the door.

The second thing is to shut off any way anyone can contact you. Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.

You have to go away. You have to retreat into a place where no one can follow you, where no one can see you. Where you can wander in your own mind, where you can pull up tiles and floorboards and break things and maybe even break down.

You need to build a safe place.

You need a place where you can retreat, a place where no one else can go, a place where anyone else who stepped foot across the threshold would instantly die. You need solitude. You need a good view of the sky, and you need a hot drink and lots of paper and any sort of writing utensil at all, and you need to breathe.

I'm starting to understand what Rilke said, why he put such a huge emphasis on solitude in the production of a poem. How else can they happen? Poems are like electrons. If you look at them they start doing different things than if you didn't.


A different animal altogether is academic essay writing. I have experience with this species as well, having gone through twelve joyous (ha) years of the school system. I've been to one extreme: the regimentation and mind-numbingness of the Jane Schaffer paragraph. As I move to higher level English classes, the chains start to come off.

Surprisingly, I find that the list of essay-writing pointers I came up with in freshman year is still applicable. I would like to expand on the first point, though: "Don't be afraid to transplant sentences." More like don't be afraid to gut your essay completely and shift things around at every level, moving entire groups of paragraphs up or down according to the most logical flow of ideas.

Unfortunately, something else that hasn't changed since freshman year is that I have to spend massive amounts of time with an essay, working with it, getting to know its components, before I can smash into shape something coherent. Some people can come up with brilliance at midnight the night before a paper is due - I can't. I do fine in in-class timed essays, even on the AP test last year (3 essays in 2 hours), but that's within a limited frame. I can either sprint without preparation or climb a mountain.

Question I used as a scalpel this round of essays: "What are you really trying to say?"


A fourth species: the college essay. The personal essay that is supposed to persuade someone that you'll be a good fit at their school.

My parents have been trying to pressure me into getting a college counselor to work with me on my essays. I really don't want one. It feels cheap, somehow, to spend money helping someone...brand me. I could rationalize it: they're not doing sleazy advertising tricks, they're just helping you present your best face to universities. But my gut doesn't like it.

Actually writing the essays isn't the "hard" part, per se. My school counselor said it would be weird since most kids aren't used to writing with themselves as the subject, but I introspect constantly (self-absorbed, remember?), I write about myself on here and in journals and in rants that never, ever will see the light of day. So I know about myself pretty well, though I am sure I am overlooking some weaknesses and strengths.

The hard part about college essays is that the part of me that goes "but is this what they want to see?" will not shut up. I mean, all colleges say they want well-rounded human beings, and the idealistic part of me says that they really do want to see what each person comes up with, how each person individually interprets the prompt. But that one mercenary part that agrees with my parents...it is loathsome.

Then I wonder if I'm shooting myself in the foot with my obstinate independent streak. My independent state of mind (I'm not actually independent, I'm a bratty teenager living at home who has never held a real job) has made me a worse person than I could be otherwise, at times: I don't ask for help unless I know the person I'm asking won't laugh at me, I don't ask questions in class, I get irrationally enraged when people disobey me, I start out school years with the attitude that the teacher has to prove him/herself worthy of my respect. (See what I mean about my self-absorption, that I know all this about myself?) What if this refusal to get professional assistance is another case of such?

This species causes almost as many "oh my goodness I'm a worthless hack" moments as poetry does.


So I did something subconsciously. I structured this post as a five-paragraph essay. I wonder why? There's something comforting about such a modular approach - something easy, like list posts. But easy can quickly turn into facile.

Why not pull out another stock structure, then? Compare/contrast. Poetry is like prose fiction except at a shorter wavelength; academic writing is the least personal of the four; college essays are the one in which the writer is most obviously present, though someone could very well argue that, say, a poem reveals the "inner core" of the writer better than anything.

I would be unforgivably trite were I to end with a deep quote. So I'm going to end with music instead:

English Folk Song Suite - Ralph Vaughan Williams

I. March - "Seventeen Come Sunday" - 0:00
II. Intermezzo - "My Bonny Boy" - 3:21
III. March - "Folk Songs from Somerset" - 6:40

A lot of English marches/suites for military band (brass + woodwinds) have the same format, with a brisk first movement, a slow intermezzo in compound time, and a fast ending song. I will discuss standard forms in marches in a post on their own, because there's a lot of technical terminology - dogfight, trio, etc. Consider this a preview. And enjoy the music.

Good night, friend.

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