Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Reflections Of An English Major

Some coast through college as though it is just a current tugging them along to graduation and then spitting them out into the "real world."

Others endure college because it is a practical guide for skills they can later use to make money, but they are not interested in wasting their time with studying anything impractical in that venue.

But there are also some who really use college as a time for personal growth. While this is not mutually exclusive from the first two categories, I do believe it deserves its own category anyway.

Someone who takes her English major seriously cannot possibly escape college without reaching a sort of self-knowledge she did not have before. Part of studying literature is studying yourself. A true English major gains an awareness of what she is doing. There is a certain kind of carefulness with which she learns to approach texts and, as an extension of that, the rest of the world.

Not all books are literature. The thing is, many people separate "popular fiction" with "high art literature." But literature is not synonymous with "high art." The way I like to understand it, though this is not my own idea, what makes something literature is its ability to be both good writing and exist on the same plane as its reader. There is not the book that is somehow on a pedestal higher than the reader, but rather the reader is able to take the book and see herself in its writing. That should not be confused with seeing herself in the characters. A real piece of literature is one that lasts through time and exists as its own entity, not dependent on a time period or a piece of background knowledge. You don't have to know anything about the author, about the time period, about the subject matter other than what is written in the book. It is writing that can speak to readers a hundred years ago, today, and a hundred years from now.

As my teacher put it: "It becomes literature the moment you enter the picture."

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a post about calling myself a writer. The crux of the post is that I find it somewhat absurd to go around calling myself a writer when I don't have any spectacular piece of writing to prove I deserve such an identity:

...by speaking the words I am a writer, I am effectively giving myself the title of, well, Writer, and I guess I just feel rather pretentious doing so. Because I'm not really a writer. I have nothing to show for being a writer. Its more like I fancy myself a writer.

But is the identity of "writer" really reserved for those who churn out bestsellers every year? Or is there some other way to be a writer? Is that kind of activity really writing?

I think that true writing requires a kind of consciousness of what you are doing, regardless of whether you get anything published or not. It's not like once you publish something, you are hereafter known as a writer. You can publish twenty books a year and not be truly writing. Or you can publish nothing but spend your energy really concentrating on what you are writing, how you write, and the fact that you are writing at all. Thinking about whether or not you are a true writer is indicative of a certain kind of attention that all true writers require.

After spending so much time and effort on doing this kind of work - four years of it, in fact - it's weird to feel like you are now walking away. Moving on. Enriched, perhaps, but somehow...leaving something behind. I don't even know what it is that I'm leaving behind, but it definitely feels like something.

It's weird to feel like I could have put so much more effort into my major, that I could have grown even more, that I could have achieved so much more. There's so much I was exposed to that I didn't properly soak in. And I know, you're not supposed to live in the past. You have to move forward. And I know you don't stop learning once you leave college.

But that doesn't mean it's hard to feel like I'm graduating a major that I did not take full advantage of.

The world may say that an English major is impractical. It may insist that English majors are wasting their time, ruining the economy, getting a BA in the Useless Members of Society club, and not gaining any real skills that matter outside of book clubs.

All that may be as true or not true as you decide.

But English majors also spend their time gaining an understanding of themselves and of other people. And the more they understand and work on themselves, the more they can understand and have an effect on the world.

I believe there's a R' Salanter quote about that. :)

That is the gift four years of studying literature and writing brings. So, no matter how useless my skills might be upon leaving college, I will never regret having been an English major. No other concentration could have given me a richer education.

It's just odd to think that the struggle in this environment is now over, yet I am not finished growing. I have a better understanding of what makes good writing, but can I do it? Can I take on the mantle of being my own teacher? Or will I slip into the routine of "real life" the way most people do and wake up thirty years from now wondering when I'll have time to start reading, thinking, and writing again the way I did back in my good ol' college days? How do I know I have the strength and determination to take control of my life instead of letting life's pressures and expectations take control of me?

1 comment:

Ezzie said...

We ran into a friend of Serach's yesterday at the pizza store. When talking about what she's going for, she said how she's an English major, and while she doesn't yet know what she's doing with it, it "lets her do so many things". Attitude is a lot.

Good luck. :)