As I’m working, or more accurately–struggling–through my essay, I want to take a moment to reflect on my project. I’m having particularly hard time writing this essay, and I’m not entirely sure why that is. I’ve read all of the texts more than once, annotated, accumulated notes, outlined, revised, returned to the texts, and started many, many drafts, and for weeks I’ve been struggling with what most people would consider “writers block.” I think over the past several months, and especially in the last 6 weeks, I’ve started writing my essay, made it about 3 pages in, and realized that I’m either rambling or going about the essay the wrong way, or that I’m not talking about what I need to talk about–so I start over. I’ve done this countless times. Each time I re-read the texts, check my notes, take more notes, and try to make a more complete outline–but I’m still struggling to get my thoughts on the page. I’ve tried writing in different mediums. I’ve tried writing in MS word, the blog, in a notepad application, by hand in a notebook, on a whiteboard; I’ve even tried writing the entire essay as a powerpoint–with no success. In the past few days I managed to break through this stagnation and make some (relatively) decent progress on my essay, but I also recognize the necessity of being honest with myself: my essay isn’t going to be the epitome of undergraduate scholarship like I hoped and planned. It won’t even be the best essay I’ve written in college. But this realization yields a somewhat encouraging irony: my interest in this project stemmed from a desire to contemplate the modes of resisting the neoliberal drive to a “perfectible future”–that is, I came into this project hoping to gain insight into such questions as how we humans can understand experiences of pain and imperfection as part of the human experience, and in what ways we can (re)visit these experiences that neither make light nor accept these issues, but instead help us better understand how we can engage with these problems. This is one of many questions I’ve been thinking about as I approach my work. In my essay, this question plays a role in my examination of history and the ways we can reconsider the individual’s place in cultural memory. The irony then, is that the idea of the “perfectible future” is a point of skepticism in my essay, and I’m having a seriously difficult time producing not even a perfect essay, but simply what I consider an acceptable essay–so at this point, I’m focusing on the process of the project rather than the product. I’ve accepted that the final product isn’t going to be what I wanted it to be–I’m okay with that. I’ll do the best I can do with it now and return to it with a fresh mind after spending some time away with it. But at this moment, I want to spend some time reflecting on the process–what I learned, what challenged me, what changed me–because although the product is not yet going to be what I want it to be (and may not be for some time), I still got a lot out of this experience.
One of the biggest challenges I faced in this project, and I’m only now realizing how difficult it has been, is that Victor LaValle, the author of the novel I’m primarily working with, has yet to receive any sort of peer-reviewed critical treatment. This is not a complaint–throughout my entire project I’ve seen this as an opporunity to be one of the first (if not the first) to publish on LaValle, whose work I find both beautiful and important. But the lack of scholarship has proven quite difficult, not least (and again, this is not a complaint, but an observation) because our English department rightly emphasizes the They Say, I Say approach of “entering the conversation.” There are, of course, always other ways of joining the conversation–theory, locating the work within the criticism of similar texts, etc.–but that doesn’t change the fact that almost all of my thoughts about The Devil in Silver came out of my own head. Especially in a project that I’ve been thinking about every single day for months, I definitely struggled when it came to moving past simply recognizing that my ideas could be wrong, and actually being presented with contradictory information.
Consequently, this project taught me the value of distance; that is, the way removing oneself from a situation allows you to view it more critically–with fresh eyes and fresh ideas. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the luxury of distance yet in this project, but I’m realizing now how frequently I come to understand the true value and intricacies of something I learned in class only when I’m bumming around over summer months later. And I think now I’m fully realizing this idea of distance because some of the ideas I’ve been centering on in my project–ideas that I was really excited about and contemplated for months–are starting to feel disjointed, simple, and irrelevant now that I’m trying (and failing) to write about them. In the long term, this isn’t much of a problem; as I said earlier, I’ll do the best I can with what I have for now, and revisit the project after I’ve had some distance from it. What is hard to accept, however, is that in this current moment, with just over a week left until finals are done, I feel like I’m stuck with a few ideas that just aren’t working, that I’m in too deep with, and that I just have to deal with.
In terms of a learning experience this is actually a pretty good one–and it’s the reason I’m writing this post. I think too often we get caught up in the finished product of a project that 1) we don’t realize how difficult it can actually be to achieve what we’re working towards and 2) as I’ve already said, we devalue the process. I’m realizing now that when I started this project I thought it would be some almost magical opportunity to put all of my attention into one great finished product. Why I thought this project would be different than any other class, I don’t know. Why I thought that while doing this project I wouldn’t have the responsibilities that come with having a full course-load, being a full time student-athlete, working two jobs, and belonging to various student organizations–I don’t know. And although the product of this project isn’t going to be what I expected or wanted at the end of the semester, the process was great to me.
One of my greatest takeaways from this experience is how the texts changed the way I read. It’s not necessarily that I learned new ways of reading; rather, I really fine-tuned some approaches to reading and became much more attentive to the intricacies of a text–the way its put together, the way it manipulates readers. Not only did the variation in genre and subject matter make me a much more careful and astute reader, but these texts–and certainly with helpful advice from Professor McCoy–taught me to be better at contemplating the performativity of a text; or in other words, I’ve learned to allow myself to be cognizantly manipulated by a text with the understanding that the text will engender certain forms of understanding not necessarily by what it says, or how it says it, but by how the parts of the text come together to interact with the space between the reader and the text itself–the realm of interpretation. If I’m being unclear, I hope this example may help. Perhaps my favorite live-action movie of the year, Arrival, thematically engages with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis–the idea that language determines perception. And I won’t spoil the movie, but beyond its thematic engagement with this idea, the movie performs the very themes it discusses in the way it reveals information to the audience through temporal dislocations. The effect is that the movie suggests that film itself is a universal language, one which if we all “spoke,” would allow us to experience reality differently. This level of performativity–the way a text manipulates the way a reader or audience is thinking–is definitely something I am more receptive of because of this project–and this has caused me to reconsider many of the texts I’ve read in my time at Geneseo, with what I consider insightful results.
I have two final exams on Monday, but I’m hoping to have a good section of my essay posted by Tuesday. I know I say this every time I post, and just about every time I struggle to achieve my goal. But I’m hoping the pressure of the semester coming to an end will help me write this essay.