My students are in the middle of writing research papers. They are all making great progress as they try to produce a major piece of writing. I have been reminded throughout their writing struggles and development of my own writing progression.
Someone once said about writing: “You don't have to be great to get started, but you have to get started to be great.” My first serious start at writing was in my first tumultuous year at University, and it was definitely not a great start.
The class was on the Middle Ages in Europe. The professor was about to retire (I think he lived through the Middle Ages in fact) and was going through the motions until he would escape down to Florida. If I had to choose a word to describe the lectures, it would be ‘wearisome’. I love History, but this professor was extinguishing that love the same way a spot of flatulence would derail a first date.
When I signed up for the course, I expected exciting lectures on the bubonic plague, battles, knights, the inquisition and great architecture. Instead we learned about other things – things that were boring, things that would not stick in my mind, and things that caused me to be attacked by sleepiness during every lecture.
A large part of the course mark was based on the end of term paper. This was a large research paper on a book that the professor had chosen. I’m sure that you can guess what kind of a book this professor chose. It was not the type of book that kept you up till three in the morning because you just could not put it down. It was the opposite. Just looking at the front cover drove me into hibernation. If I ever become an insomniac, this book will be put on my night table.
The book was about a fine fellow named Bishop Rimbert and about how he wrote an even more exciting book on Anscar. What? Never hear of him? What a surprise! I tried reading the book, but it was tough. It was like walking through deep, thick mud where the earth is trying to suck you down, step by step. Panic began to swell as the realization dawned on me that I would have to write something about this book – preferably something intelligent.
I started writing. Every word was a struggle. I felt like I was chipping each word off of a giant rock with a dull pickax. How was I supposed to write 2000 words on Bishop Rimbert? As the hours passed, the word count slowly rose – it was like a never ending PBS telethon (We need just 20 more callers!) For those who have done a lot of writing, you know that writing can be an extreme struggle at times – especially when you are dealing with subject matter which makes counting fluffies in the carpet more exciting.
Writing in many ways is like child birth (members of the opposite sex don’t seem to appreciate or understand this analogy for some odd reason – especially considering they are the ones that go through it!). The writer labours to get the paper from his brain to the computer screen. It is an intense struggle – there are tears and extreme pain (albeit mental). Then – the moment of joy – the paper is delivered out of the printer! The proud student carefully and proudly picks up the paper and cradles her in his arms.
The paper was finally done (delivered). There was just one final thing that had to be done. I needed a title for the cover page. This often overlooked element of the paper is critical. The title gives the reader the first impression of what the paper will be like. Because my paper needed a little help, I knew this paper would need a real zinger for a title. I needed something that was equal parts salacious, tantalising, mysterious, insightful, profound, and original.
I came up with the stunning title “Bishop Rimbert”.
I handed my baby, I mean the paper, to the professor at the beginning of class the next week. He glanced at it and put it on the growing pile of papers. He didn’t seem exactly bowled over by my title.
Three weeks later, the professor announced that he and his teaching assistants (his personal minions) had marked all of the papers and that after class they would be handed out. I had trouble paying attention to the lecture because of the anticipation of getting my first paper back (and because counting the few remaining hairs on his head proved to be more exciting).
The lecture finally ended – much in the same way a tortoise finishes a race. He announced that the teaching assistants would be handing out the essays. He gave out the instructions: “People with the last names that start with A-H stand at the back entrance to receive your papers. Those with the last names I-R stand by the podium and S-Z to middle aisle.”
I went to the middle aisle and waited for the TA to start calling out names. The tall TA, who bore a striking resemblance to Ichabod Crane, began reading the names as eager hands reached for their papers. My hand began to twitch with excitement in anticipation of seeing my first paper graded. They would start piling on the scholarships after reading this paper. The names began “Esther Sallsworth, Jonathan Seer, Veerpal Singh.” Then something strange happened. He called out “Bishop Rimbert.”
He repeated himself louder.
The beleaguered TA cleared his throat in frustration – obviously annoyed at these first year students.
“I guess Bishop Rimbert is not here!” We, the pesky first year students who surrounded him, looked at each other with confusion. We were all thinking the same thing: “Was this guy serious?” We had all written a paper on Bishop Rimbert, and he had probably just spent the last three weekends marking them.
It was when he was putting Bishop Rimbert’s paper to the side when a thought came to me. Wasn’t ‘Bishop Rimbert’ my brilliant title? Maybe he had read that off instead of my name which was located in the corner.
I cleared my throat. I was very timid in those days, but I managed to get his attention.
“Is there a name in the bottom corner of that paper?” I said meekly.
The TA looked at the paper. A strange look came over his face. We all watched in silence as his face went from light pink to a dark crimson. It was like watching a Tahitian sunset.
We then heard him start to mutter to himself. “Stupid! So stupid! Of course his name is not Bishop Rimbert! Stupid!”
“Greg Slingerland” he finally sputtered. I stepped forward uneasily – my face was almost as purple as his. I was embarrassed for him, and embarrassed at how bad my title was. I knew then, that there was little hope for my paper.
I snatched the paper from his hands and bolted for the door. As I walked through the door, I could still hear him muttering “Stupid!”
The paper was a disaster, but it was a good learning experience. I learned that I should do exactly the opposite with everything for my next paper.
I still have my ‘Bishop Rimbert’ paper. In fact I’ve kept all of my University papers (aka babies). Every time I am in need of a good laugh/cry I turn back to my first year papers. My first essays were not great, but looking back, they were great starts and great tries. I am enjoying (and a little envious) seeing my students take that first leap into the wild world of writing.