Building a Grad School Paper From the Outsides In
My mind doesn’t function like most people’s. It’s likely that certain undiagnosed learning disabilities trip me up. One thing’s for sure–at times, they’ve laid me out flat in my academic life.
Despite being a “good student,” I was always handicapped when it came to writing papers. At St. Aloysius Grammar School, I truly adored the intricacies of diagramming sentences. Alas, those skills didn’t instill any confidence in myself as a writer. At Newark Academy, where I spent three glorious high school years, I can recall the faculty tooling me in the art of the precis, topic and supporting sentences. Regrettably, none of that helped me build writing muscle and stamina.
At one point, Dr. Penner, the chairman of Newark Academy’s English department, ordered me to just tackle the stack of papers I owed him and to not come back until I did. I remember sitting in the driver’s seat of my sister’s eggshell blue VW Bug in the school parking lot during a study period, trying to figure out how to start. I couldn’t even put a sentence together with any sort of ease.
Similar scenes haunted me at Mount Holyoke. Dargan Jones, my freshman English professor, sat me in the kitchen of her College Street apartment with a cup of black coffee and a stack of books and told me to get started. I had never drank coffee in my life. Downing the cup of bitter hot liquid was heaven compared to cranking out ideas on E.M.Forster’s A Room With a View.
By the time I was a senior in college I had a mission: Learn how to write. I enrolled in Anne Boutelle’s Introduction to Writing class. All I can remember about those autumn lessons was Boutelle’s thick Scottish brogue, her pronunciation of the work “book,” and her careening pregnant belly. For some reason I made progress in my battle with the written word that fall.
I had also taken refuge under the wing of another kindly soul in the Mount Holyoke English department. Elaine Smith was around my parents’ age. She never judged me for my inability to put pen to paper in any meaningful manner. (I doubt any of my other teachers ever judged me either, but with Elaine I was able to appear utterly naked in my lack of skill.)
I hope Elaine had some idea of the profound gift she gave me– a fledgling confidence in the ability to string words together and express the jumbled thoughts in my brain.
I think of Elaine and all the writing teachers (and editors) I’ve had since, all of whom have helped me and have published my work. Over time, they’ve almost made it seem as if I was just like anybody else– able to do it.
Today I’m working on a paper for grad. school. I still feel that hiccup of doubt when I sit down. The ancient, almost primordial lack of confidence causes me to approach the task in an almost ritualistic manner.
I pull out the exemplars. I copy the formatting of the title page, inserting the headers and page numbers in the Word document.
Weeks later, I assemble the photos that will constitute the appendix of my paper, and I start inserting them in the document. I’m building the paper like I would a sandwich, from the outside in: title page and appendix. It’s almost humiliating to admit, but I study the structure of the exemplars: Introduction, sections one, two and three. Conclusion.
While not painless, I realize that the process of writing the paper will not kill me. It’s taken forty years, but I’m beginning to get the hang of it.
Do things which you assume others regard as easy trip you up? What are those things?