Reflecting on my English Major

I wrote this paper as part of my English Capstone Experience, which I enjoyed immensely.

If you’re attending Lawrence and thinking about an English Major, you might find it interesting. I’m proud of the voice and style.

It’s also something I want to reference in my next post, so I figured I’d put it online first so I can link to it.

Despite the overwhelming urge, I haven’t edited this since it’s original inception on the date stated.

Erty Seidel

English Capstone Experience

Three years ago, I wandered on to Lawrence campus as a lonely, confused freshman who had decided to study English and Computer Science. I had enjoyed writing in high school, achieving various accolades, and so I thought that it might be a good, creative, worldly major to offset the hard quantitative world of computers. In fact, I had already completed a 50,000 word “novel” during National Novel Writing Month, so I thought I was pretty cool.

Well, I am soon leaving the Lawrence campus as a not-quite-so lonely, not-quite-so confused senior. I have somehow made it through ten terms of English and Computer Science, and stand now on the precipice of graduation, with a solid foundation in the two subjects, and a foreboding sense about exactly how much I don’t know about them.

Which is a lot, but that’s okay.

Earlier this year I was pleasantly surprised – no, shocked! – to learn that Advanced Creative Writing can be taken as a capstone course. I was resigned to taking another course about analysis of texts, which I have never been keen for, yet have found myself quite practiced at. My goal as a freshman in the Lawrence English department was to take Creative Writing: Fiction, and then Adv. Creative Writing: Fiction, and do only as much mucking about with Shakespeare and Milton and Dickens as was required of me. My schedule had so far blasted my dreams of taking the lesser class, so learning that I could switch into the Adv. version was as though the god of Lawrence had descended, kissed me on the cheek, and said, “you know what, you’re alright.”

I digress. What I mean to say is that the Adv. Creative Writing course is the capstone of my English and Computer Science experience at Lawrence, mainly because it was the one goddamn course I’ve wanted to take in the department. I didn’t dislike my other courses, and some of them (Modern Drama, for example, which I’m sure I’ll extoll the virtues of in a page or so) were downright mind-expanding. But it was really the creative outlet that writing allows that I’ve been seeking.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The first English class I took here was Literary Analysis. If I recall correctly, we spent a lot of our time studying Virginia Woolf, whom I had already studied for some time – my best paper from high school was a treatise on Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway written in the style of Woolf. Yet it was nonetheless a fun course. Bowles taught it, so we had a distinctly feminist slant (again, which I was used to from high school), and I enjoyed the reading. My favorite reading from that course, actually, was a play called “The Pillowman”. I turned in a paper on the play, done in the style of the author, which I am particularly proud of. I liked it because it was contemporary, it was dark and new and deep.

I should mention that writing papers in imitation of an author’s style is, I think, one of my strengths. For this paper, I have chosen to write in my own voice.

Forward! To a Survey of Postcolonial Literature, with Professor Kohr. A fine class, although particularly difficult. Heart of Darkness was exciting at times, and dull at others, and I pulled from it a sense of narrators – the story is told by the author about a man telling a story to his shipmates who may or may not be asleep – which resonated with me for the first time. That was important for my writing, since it’s essential for any author to understand unreliability in storytellers.

Major British Writers, with Bowles again – more Woolf. Major American Writers with Barrett; Transcendentalism et al. How I got through high school without having read Thoreau and Dickinson is a mystery to me, but I didn’t find them particularly interesting. I think if I had taken Modern Drama first thing freshman year, this all would have made a lot more sense. Alas.

The English Novel was my next stop. My most vivid memory from that class is mixing up “Pamela Andrews” – the protagonist of the novel, with “Pamela Anderson” – who is decidedly NOT Pamela Andrews. The shame still haunts me to this day. Someday I will work that into a story and it will be hilarious.

I also learned in that class about character development versus plot development. I saw how the novel was a big step toward contemporary writing, where the psychology of the characters becomes the focus – change in a person over time – and development of plot beyond just conflict between protagonist and antagonist. I had seen these novelistic traits before, but this was the first class that had ever really caused them to resonate with me.

Renaissance Drama was, with no offense to Bond, probably the most boring class I took here. Honestly – he did his best and always brought energy to class, but I had no desire to learn the material. My girlfriend of six years had just moved to California (she’s back now!) so my morale was a bit low at the time.

Spring term of sophomore year I took 18th century literature with Barnes, which was probably the most sex-laden class I have ever attended. We read 18th century pornographic novels as the repertoire, and it was… exciting? I certainly gained knowledge of how to write a sex scene, if that ever comes up in my writing career.

Mm, yes.

Junior year, that is to say, last year, I took only one English course. Modern Drama, with Prof. Dintenfass.

Dintenfass is old, wise, crotchety, and was probably crafted out of Zeus’ left over lightning. On the very first day, he asked us where the word “Drama” comes from. Woosh! Off we were on a magical journey through the ancient Greek theater. Swoop! We were given – for the first time in my career here – a solid overview and timeline that encompassed the authors that we were going to learn about in class.

Dintenfass was the kind of guy who was not afraid to lecture on English material. One of the main points of modernism is that there are infinite ways to interpret something, so he would give us some of the more accepted ideas, while allowing us to figure out others on our own. He would tell us what people thought about things – especially what he thought about things – but acknowledged that sometimes we would be more right than the Ph.Ds. That class, for the first time in my career here, felt not like a book club, but like a good old-fashioned class that taught me not only what the canon was of the time, but also what people thought about it.

And in my spare time, I looked up Dintenfass on the internet. “Writers Write,” had been his motto when he had been teaching Creative Writing here at Lawrence. (This was, as well, a time when he was allowed to chain-smoke through each lecture.) Everyone says that the trick to writing is writing, but I realized then that the trick to any craft is to practice it. Not just, “Practice makes perfect,” but really a sense of understanding that the only way to get good at something is to work at it, which is something that Creative Writing requires. There is no secret formula except hard work and dedication to the craft. This expands even into my studies of Computer Science – the only way I am going to succeed in that field is to practice computer science.

Dintenfass’ class was the first one where we took Modernism, killed it, and pinned it into a cardboard box with its wings displayed so that we could try to figure out what it is. We dissected what it meant as a movement and as a genre, using the plays of the era as the magnifying lens through which to do so. Almost every class session changed my mind on some subject, and expanded my view of the world. It goes without saying that I wrote him a glowing end-of-term review.

Finally I arrived, quivering with excitement, on the doorstop of Adv. Creative Writing. A class that pulls from all prior experience, English, Computer Science. Life. My writing is informed by my attention to the world and nothing else. I have begun to attend to my voice – the one that high school teachers tell you that you haven’t found yet – and make it my own. The class was incredibly useful in showing me what worked and what didn’t. What flowed and what crashed.

I have yet to take Shakespeare with Bond in the Spring, so my English career here is not at The End, but it is nearing The End, which is in itself something quite literary and profound. For me, Adv. Creative Writing is that End, since it represents my goal – to take a course in Creative Writing at Lawrence and gain instruction of how to do that elusive thing that all writers do, which is to write, and write a lot, and someday hope to begin writing well. Reading helps, too. I cannot discount the books that – at the time – I had to trudge through to achieve a grade. Without them – even Eliot’s Middlemarch – I would not have the solid foundation of language, vocabulary, structure, and ideas from which to construct my own prose.

–Erty Seidel

(From the 2170 to Boston)

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