Wednesday, February 13, 2008

English Majors Anonymous

For the past year or more, when people ask me how my writing is going, or what I'm working on, I preface my response with variations of "I'm a recovering English major..."

I still suffer from the strains of EMS - English Major Syndrome.

I stumbled on an interview with Janet Riehl, who says of her creative writing: "I had to overcome my English Major Syndrome. There are a lot of us former English majors out there, you know, suffering, and we should probably form a group, because our writing will never be good enough until we recover."

Truer words were never spoken.

I spent five years of my life reading assigned texts and analyzing the language, the structure, the symbolism, the rhythm and more of everything from Anglo-Saxon poems to the Romantics to modern Southern Literature. And in between those analytical classes I tried to further my creativity, participating in fiction and playwriting courses that would earn me credits in my writing minor. But, even in those courses, analysis of a number of writings was required.

And what happened after I graduated with my English degree and tried to turn my mind back toward the world and characters I'd neglected for five years?

They scattered to the winds under my scrutinizing eye.

Every time I sat down to work on a new or unfinished short story, my mind would regurgitate the questions inspired by my courses:

What does the author's use of color denote in this passage?

What is the significance of the starling in this story?

What does (or will) the reader take away from this story?

Are there parallels between the events in this story and our current events?

Etc, etc, etc.

Needless to say my writing-libido shriveled up (and my Inner Critic--sadist that he is--cackled at my impotence).

Analysis is good, in measured doses and where appropriate.

It's certainly not appropriate before pen has even been put to paper or before a story has reached its draft conclusion--shitty thought it may be.

I'm having to retrain myself to look at the worlds in my head, not through the eyes of an English major, pen poised like a scalpel ready to slice through vellum and expose the bone and blood of a tale, but through the eyes of a dreamer, a writer. Through the eyes of my characters.

I graduated in May of 2006 and I've been limping my way along since then.

It's a slow healing.

My mind has spawned numerous ideas since graduation and I've worked most of them onto paper and they're now in various stages of completion, but still I find myself tangled up in the technicalities, the analysis and I have to step away for a time so I can come back to the story with a fresh mind. (This is not great for productivity...)

I hit a milestone in November, however, when I put the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair (or bed, or living room floor) and pounded out a 53,000 word NaNoWriMo novel.

It was my first time winning NaNo and my first completed project (outside of Academia) in several years.

Since NaNo was not about quality but quantity, it gave me the "excuse" to sit down and tell a story, straight through. I could tell myself: it's OK that your grammar sucks, and your sentence structure isn't right on, and you have enough comma splices to send your 1010 professor into a comma coma. And it's OK that your characters aren't as developed as you think they should be--some of them as tangible as smoke--and that your plot has holes the size of a Buick, and your dialogue sounds like it's from a Debutante ball in one minute and like a return to Deliverance the next.

It's OK. Because it's not about perfection. It's about writing. It's about telling the story.

And only when the story is told can you go back and improve those details that will enrich it and make it palatable.

To do otherwise kills the creative drive.

And this is what I've kept telling myself. Writing is about writing. It's not about publishing, or authorship, fame or fortune. It's about telling a story. Enjoying yourself. Having fun with your imagination. Seeing where your mind can take your for a moment, an hour, a day. All things I used to excel at before I entered college.

I'm still gimpy, but I think my pen is starting to lose some of its scalpel-edge and my Inner Critic is fighting the rope bonds placed on him by one of my more aggressive Muses.

I've begun the process of a general reading and note taking on my NaNo novel and after the first read through will start the chunking and editing.

My short stories--crammed in file cabinets and on flash drives--wait patiently and not so patiently in the wings, each vying for attention.

And, I think, that if I can sit down for a week or two, with the same mindset I had in November. That the story is the thing, I just might be able to get a piece or two drafted and edited by the time I celebrate my two year anniversary of receiving my English degree.


Katie @ Chicken Noodle Gravy said...

Amen. I'm a recovering English major myself. For me, it's been since 2005. I still struggle with what you mentioned here from time to time. Scrutinizing my words and myself more than actually producing anything. But I've (mostly) recovered from that part of the syndrome.

Now if I could only make myself start reading like a non-English major again. I read so much in college that I haven't felt like I could read for pleasure in years. Don't get me wrong...I've read...but now I look into every word, analyze every character and color and word choice. Ugh.

Great post! Thanks so much for linking up.

chaoticallyyours said...

I find I'm always *mostly* recovered. At this point, I'm honestly not sure it's ever going to truly go away. So, I just have to figure out how to push through the scrutiny.

And I hear you on the reading thing. I still read quite a bit, but not nearly as much as I did pre-college. I think some of my classes in college helped me learn to slow down and absorb books as opposed to just devouring them.

But when I devoured, I was able to read a lot more books in a year. I do miss that.

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