Wednesday, June 19, 2013

no agenda but to tell the truth: the story of my paper

Writing "Surmounted, Comprehended, Possessed" was a three-week project, serving as a capstone of sorts for my collegiate career.

One of my favorite aspects was the initial pitch. I was pleased that Dr. Burton found this framework to be useful enough to encourage everyone in the class to sell their story. My ideas were not yet in thesis form, but I was enthusiastic about the material, and I got a lot of feedback at this stage in the game from both classmates and writing friends.

Writing five types of claims was a good way to narrow my scope as well as broaden my interest (funny how that works, huh?). My final thesis finally made an appearance two weeks ago; if I had to sum it up in one sentence, it would be this:

Authors, by creating fictional worlds, rewrite our experience of real spaces: this act of (re-)creation mirrors the act of writing itself.

I was excited to use the lens of Wallace Stegner's writing to prove my point. I had been planning on saving Crossing to Safety for my plane ride to Madison (ten days!); but it didn't last the night. I borrowed the concept of the hungry reader for my paper from Larry Morgan.

Now came outlining and brainstorming time. I always make a quote bank, and defending why I care helped me defend not just the value of Recapitulation, but to flesh out my ideas on how reading physically changes the brain.

My central conceit came from making a sketch of Wallace Stegner's quote about Salt Lake City—just as Dr. Burton is somewhat obsessed with Moby-Dick, I find deep metaphorical meaning in the layout of my hometown—and the chief counterargument I had to address was found in my personal learning in "Does Great Literature Make Us Better?" This made my argument feel more timely and essential.

The turning point in actually drafting the paper came a week ago in searching for a good title. This gave me the three-part structure I was searching for (reader as observer, author as builder, literature changes us). I was able to quickly make notes from all this previously culled information. The central body of the paper came together well, and I used previously-written material in the introduction.

My spirit animal.
It was at this point that the social-learning component got serious. I had been getting comments from trusty members of Team Nonfiction throughout, and my writer friends were mostly interested in discussing the counterargument, so I had Hilary "Slam Poet" Packham read my draft in person. I am so glad I chose someone who could give me a fresh take on the essay: she was the single most-helpful critic, and I hope I was able to give her some Grammar Goddess (LOL) pointers of my own. She was articulate in telling me what was working, and what wasn't.

I also had my grandma read a hard copy. She can spot a dangling preposition like a hawk, having worked as a secretary for over fifty years. She was always able to tell me when I needed to clarify and put things in laywoman's terms, as she has little familiarity with either the author or neuroscience.

The least helpful aspect of my social learning was running it by my boyfriend. Not only did the "assignment" keep getting put off, I started to feel less like a girlfriend and more like a nag. His points were vague, far too late to be of any real use, and made me had a full-blown nervous breakdown. Having him critique my work made me feel like he was criticizing me, and clearly I am too deeply neurotic to take it. The only thing I got out of it was the moving of some paragraphs. In the future, I will definitely keep the romantic and professional spheres strictly separate!

Due to my own personal Charity "Where's Your Ambition, What Are You Doing in Life?!" Lang moment, the conclusion was hard-won, but I am satisfied with it, nonetheless. Here it is:

Through the unfolding sagas of Bruce Mason and Larry Morgan, we not only come to a greater understanding of their characters and of Wallace Stegner, we come to understand ourselves. Mirror neurons light up not just when we experience something, but when we imagine experiencing it. As adolescents and young adults, many readers have their first encounters with the powerful realities of sex, love, and death within the pages of a book. Both author and reader can experience catharsis through edification and consumption.Though reading may not be inherently virtuous or character-building, it does, biologically, demand sustained attention, imagination, and critical thinking. That legere—the sifting, choosing, collecting, judging—is ultimately up to us. As readers surmounting the great bowl valley of life, would we ultimately have it any other way?


  1. I read your paper and it was great! As I read I remembered a comment you made on one of my posts, "I read the Bible mostly for its literary qualities (basically, I approach scripture a lot like I do novels)."

    I hope after you have done this research and wrote this paper you will read the scriptures differently as "literature as nourishment," since "ideas are not merely ephemeral; the books we read shape our very neuronal structure."

    Even more importantly, "the hungry reader’s body is physically changed by the act of reading." Then yes I would say that “Great Literature Makes Us Better” All the more reason to read the scriptures so that it can "shape our bodies...and shape our souls?"

    Your paper also puts further credence on the power of the words used because isn't that what is shaping our souls--the words? Thanks for putting forth a good paper that I enjoyed discussing!

  2. You're such an incredible writer. I loved your essay. You made me care about an author and his body of work, despite the fact that--prior to reading your piece--I couldn't have cared less about him.

    1. Thank you so much. High praise, coming from you!