I wrote this right before I entered college, and holy shit.
So I’m in this program at my higher education institution called Thematic Option (which is colloquially known amongst those within the program as “Traumatic Option” because of the amount of work involved). It’s generally considered a more reading and writing intensive GE curriculum, which is true depending on what kind of person you are… whatever that means.
Our first assignment going into the program was to write a three-page “intellectual autobiography.” Now, I’m working on a final sacred text project for my last TO course, and guess what I dug up in my computer drive.
You guessed it.
Eerily enough, I’m using “On Keeping A Notebook” in my STP.
…jesus, I used to underline all of my book titles.
The easiest way to establish a pretentious presence, I learned as a young child, was to run around in the world carrying large books. I remember striding up into the adult—as in more mentally mature—section of my local library, to read To Kill A Mockingbird, when the other kids were crowded in the beanbag-strewn kids section reading Babysitter’s Club and the like.
I remember being called out by my 7th grade French teacher, because I was reading It instead of paying attention in class; I also remember that she forwent any sort of discipline because, as she said approvingly, “That’s a fantastic read.”
Shogun? Gravity’s Rainbow? Catch-22? Read them all, and lapped up the appropriate attention for my efforts.
That does not mean, however, that I understood all, or even any, of what I was so rapidly consuming. In fact, I didn’t even try. All through elementary and middle school, I wrote with the same ferocity that I used for reading. I would write ten, twenty pages a day of rambling nonsense, just as I would guzzle up whole books in single sittings. My eyes devoured words at a blistering rate, and I spat an equal quantity of words right back out.
Over time, I developed a competent, but wheezing, prose: the words all aligned eventually, but if anyone were to actually read what I wrote out loud, he or she would be strapped for breath the entire time.
Nowadays, I still read with a brutality that most people would find unfathomable: not just novels and New Yorker articles and the various other acceptable forms of “high-brow” writing, but also fashion blogs, restaurant menus, the copy on advertisements and product labels. I even read the English subtitles for impeccably understandable American films.
But there is one crucial difference between the completely unsubtle pretender of my youth and the person I am now: I don’t read for show. I read to steal.
The difference came about in my junior year English class. The years before that, my teachers had let me slide under the radar: I didn’t give them any grief in class, I didn’t give my classmates any grief, and I could generally be counted on to give correct-sounding explanations to the class.
It was with this mentality that I sat down to write my first junior year English essay.
44%. Sure, my teacher had curved the grades so I had actually received an 80, but the truth was, there was a giant 4/9 on my paper. I stared at the paper for a long time, completely perplexed. Flip, read the comments on the back: “You missed the point.” But, I had written everything so beautifully! How about my glorious opening extended metaph-
“You missed the point.”
Those words seared themselves into my mind, but I didn’t understand what my teacher meant until she handed out our first assignment: read and notate Joan Didion’s “On Keeping A Notebook”.
As a devoted speed-reader, I was annoyed by the prospect of notation, and every time I stopped reading to scribble down some arbitrary comment on Didion’s writing or references, I pouted or sighed or generally acted a fool.
That was, until I noticed something: I actually saw and felt the crinkle of crêpe-de-Chine in Didion’s writing, just as I smelled the heady scent of summer as she waxed about her youth. The more I slowed down my reading, and reread passages over in my head, or even out loud, the stronger the words resonated within me.
Didion was not writing just for writing’s sake: she was conveying the delicate nature between a writer and her notebook, between her memory and herself. She got the point, had nailed it in her first sentence and kept the reader pinned to it the entire time.
I would like to say that at this point, my reading and writing styles changed in some great fundamental way. Of course, they didn’t. But after reading that essay, I had a running thought on my mind: how was I going to get that style? What adorable creature would I have to sacrifice on what altar to achieve such glorious, concise, prose?
The answer: I read. My teacher bombarded her students with literature and theory: Bacon, Woolf, Jefferson, Beauvoir, the Bible, the Koran, Fitzgerald, Miller. I read it all, and this time, I savored the texts for what they were: great reservoirs of writing technique.
I didn’t have to like everything I read, but I actually read, and made efforts to understand what was being written. I took the stylistic and structural parts I liked from all the things I could now remember reading, and stitched those rough ideas together in my own prose. Slowly, I began to competently write with precise goals in mind: this is how I want the reader to feel and/or understand, and this is how I’m going to make it so.
This account is fairly barebones for something that is supposed to be my “intellectual autobiography”, but the hand-on-the-Bible truth is that I had no idea what “intellectual” really meant until that wringer of an English class.
For a long time, the word had a mysterious, vaguely defined aura: that of crimson bathrobes, swirling glasses of cognac, and accents of an indiscernible nature.
I spent most of my youth chasing after that word, running madcap through mazes of thick volumes and over-my-head language. Words became blurs, sentences became bullets that ripped through pages; style and articulation buckled against the speed of my quest for intellect. I read to gain nothing; I wrote to convey nothing.
This nothingness had permeated my style of writing, and I had either been too lazy or too distracted to recognize it for what it was.
When I finally found my intellectual base, it wasn’t buried in esoteric novels or spiels of SAT vocabulary: it was in the pace in which I chose to ingest any information, and in the care I took in crafting my own voice. No longer can I verbally vomit half-digested philosophy, or disregard the endearingly persuasive print for glossy-paged adverts. I have a point to make, and I could use all the help in the world to make it.
(Image: Writing a letter by Yusuke Nakamura – probably my favorite modern artist)