On Gap and Writing
to the Marianas Trench
Montgomery Q Stewart, Fall ‘15
When we, the first seven Gappers, came together to create our zine of collected essays, we decided on titling it "Ramble On". In keeping with tradition, in the next few paragraphs, I'm promising to ramble on and on and on, while keeping to some kind of loose narrative structure, and overall theme.
Well, it's been three years since that fateful Gap semester, and my life has taken on new shape and form, in ways both professional and personal. But who am I? And how did I get here? To answer these: I'm Monty, hi; and, through lots of hard work and soul-searching. Because the time is right for reflection--you can sniff it in the air--I feel that I might share some of the things I've learnt. My topic for writing this time? Well that's exactly it: writing.
Humans, I'm afraid, are not unique. We tend to cycle similar topics to similar ends infinitely. Take for instance: me. I am a writer--I tend to say that out of habit. Lots of people want to write, and that's the first problem--published author or no, you are either writing or you aren't, and regardless, I think that you should self identify as a writer. Language is important, it's everything. Entire civilizations have been built around it.
Because language is so powerful, it can sometimes stand in the way and confuse you. Take for instance, the following statement, "How do I learn to write?"
The Language Trap
It was the first semester of my sophomore year at [redacted] College. There was this woman in my Latin class who had gone through the entire process of becoming a Creative Writing major, only to come back and pick another major, then change halfway through and pick another once more. (I don't mean to judge her, in fact, I think that her story is merely indicative of most peoples' experience of the collegiate world). When I spoke to her about all of this, I was stunned and amazed to discover an awful pattern that I had predicted from when I had taken the introductory Creative Writing class myself. It seemed to me that these classes were nothing of substance, leaving you with more writers block then you started, turning one into a worse writer than they were before.
I don't believe that writing can be taught in schools exactly. Ermm... which is to say that it can and it can't. I once wrote a story based upon a trip that I took to see the solar eclipse, and this is how I described one of the characters:
"It was there that I met up with sweet Sita, a pocket-sized Hindi girl, with an attitude that made her three-feet taller, and a penchant for mispronouncing words that I adored more than my hatred of the English language."
Sita has two defining attributes, she's real short, and she doesn't speak perfect English. One of my favorite things to do with words, ahem, the English language, is to tease people into responding in typical ways. Some reactions to the above statement include: "Hatred is too harsh. Try 'dislike'?" and "I hope that's not the case". Well, it's true. I don't like English, and I especially don't like the way that it's taught.
Nature's Green Muses
Let's remove ourselves from the backdrop of the city, and the crowded footsteps of college students. We're in the woods now, with the smell of fresh pine and raindrops permeating our being; we're on a farm, watching fleecy sheep and seedy goats trot by, just beyond the mist, where you can only just see them; we're on a raft in the middle of a crystal clear lake, where Shantanu met Ganga; We're on the top of a high-up mountain; we're in these places all at once, and yet we're nowhere at all, because we are indeed, very small. Was that corny? It doesn't have to be, I kind of liked it. Is it cornier than liking a girl for the way she pronounces the word crush? (That is, "croosh").
These things might seem pointless to you, especially if you live in the city, like me. And you might think that it's pandering for people who like the wilderness, which it isn't. Wild woods and streams are grand, but so is the Parthenon, and the Roman aqueducts, and Newgrange. It just so happens to be that the woods are where I truly learned to write.
The Perfect CW Course
At this point in time, I am a junior in college. I have taken two creative writing courses, a course in advanced exposition, and two levels of English composition. It is my opinion that the writing lessons that were taught during my Gap at Glen Brook semester were the best that I had ever experienced. It wasn't merely that we studied beside the backdrop of nature. There was an emphasis, not only on writing form, which is immensely important, but also on self-expression. Because we were only seven, our teachers worked together with us on perfecting our own very unique styles. There were some who wrote fantastic prose, others free-flowing philosophical musings. There was someone who spoke with passion about music, and another yet who liked psychedelic, gonzo-style fiction (that was me).
I believe perhaps that one cannot teach creativity. Creativity is inherent in the individual--yet I also feel that someone who isn't creative in the traditional Gaiman or L. Carrol sense probably has a unique creativity that is their own. Regardless of one's writing talents or imagination-acumen, if you create space for someone to work on their ideas, and provide them with inspiration, they might truly succeed as a writer. If this were the case everywhere, then perhaps someone like the student I met, who had come back to [redacted] College time and time again in search of wisdom, would have a greater sense of... well... I wanted to say "how to write well" but I think that what I also mean is "how to write as herself, from herself".
Apotropaic v. Sympathetic
So I was a creative writing major for the first two semesters of college, before switching to classics, which is essentially a degree in ancient Greco-Roman culture. In the classics department, one of the things we talk about is forms of apotropaic and sympathetic magic. Sympathetic magic has to do with praying to a specific god to gain their boon. Because Demeter is the goddess of the harvest, you might pray to her to make the crops grow. Apotropaic magic is a bit like reverse psychology in a sense. Artemis is regarded as the goddess of childbirth, even though she is a virgin. You pray to her when you're pregnant so that you don't end up childless, like her. By not being an English or writing major, I am doing something kind of similar (though it's not a perfect parable).
Remember what I said before? You are either writing or you aren't. You don't need to be in a writing class in order to write. In fact, there are majors, just like classics, that are writing and literature intensive. I haven't stopped writing since I began going to college in 2016.
The Apotropaic Method
Okay, so then if I'm not taking English courses, how do I improve as a writer? Well, for starters, I think that you should be reading constantly. It isn't plagiarism to see what's been done, especially in terms of form. I chose classics specifically so that I could be fed a constant stream of literature. I mentioned before that I don't like English (the language, I love English literature, are you crazy?) Learn a different language. I've been learning Latin and Ancient Greek (and I want to learn Sanskrit). These languages will actually change the way that you think. It's hard to explain, but each language is conceptualized differently. Latin has a case system, meaning that the ending of a noun or verb changes it's function in a sentence, whereas in English, it's all about word-order. For instance, Puella is girl as the subject of a sentence, and Puellam is girl as the direct object. You know what the girl is doing in any given sentence based on which of the six cases she is in, and so you could feasibly put the words in any order you want, thereby giving you the freedom to put the emphases of your sentence wherever. (More on this another time, maybe). At any rate, learning a new language will not only stretch your brain, but actually make your English better by the sheer act of learning to translate properly. I wound up learning more about English from Latin than from advanced exposition.
Creativity as a Means of Making the Grade
The number one thing that I recommend is to treat every assignment in school like it's a creative writing assignment. You might think that doing this will fail you out of the class, but believe it or not, professors want to see you engaged in what they're teaching, and this actually shows them just that. So pay attention in whatever class you take, be it American history, philosophy, or what-have-you, and use this as an opportunity to write something cool that demonstrates your ability to read, comprehend, and show off what you know in an interesting format. This has given me an A+ in classics, art history, and music history. In classics, I wrote a story using my knowledge of Homer's Odyssey, and invented a female protagonist through which I could speak in-depth about sexism in the ancient world. For Art History, I wrote a paper on Dutch still life painting where I went crazy, using my classical knowledge to make inferences the likes of which no one has probably thought to consider. For Music History, I used an experience from my own life, where I went to a piano concert with a girl that I had a croosh on, and used my feelings for her to help me describe the music.
There are some stipulations for this technique. Like for instance, I asked permission before I wrote the classics paper as a short story. Also, if you do a poor job, you might risk an even lower grade. This kind of thing happened to me when I tried to submit a short story to a nature magazine. I know exactly why it wasn't published, it sucked. If I had done what I am doing now, by writing in a reflective essay format instead of a short story, I might've done better. Use your best judgement in every situation.
Dreams Down The River,
Into the Mouth of Demomorpheus
These are the crazy things that I have come up with, from gap year to junior year. You might try out what I've learned and see if it works for you. That would be sweet! Otherwise, I have to leave you on a bit of a sad note, as I feel that my writing is currently suffering, and there are still some things that I have yet to figure out.
My current obstacles are the affects of the English classes that I've already taken and my own pretentiousness. English seems to have wired my brain to write in a very specific way, which isn't the way that I cultivated up at Gap. They have made me better at things like grammar, and noticing sentence fragments, but if this is a thing that you are having trouble with, you might just look up the solution online. It's very easy to ask Google how to use a semi-colon. As for pretentiousness, well, maybe you can tell. It took me a few tries at this essay to banish half of it, and I think that half of it still remains. Perhaps it's a city thing. I have to rework my own style of writing, and if you are reading this and feel inspired, you should do so to! Find your zen!
All the best to fellow students of the world! Monty