Originally published by The Drexel Publishing Group in 2014’s The 33rd Anthology as 1st place prize winner of Drexel University’s First Year Writing Award.
For the sake of my research question (Why do I enjoy composing hundred-thousand-word-novels, but detest the thought of writing thousand-word-academic-essays?) I decided to blend the two into one. My project 2 composition provides an academic message as intended by the academic essay, however it is articulated in the form of a short story, a form of creative writing that also relates to novel writing.
Truthfully, planning didn’t help my project as much as I’d hoped it would. Due to the nature of this project being exploratory, I couldn’t clearly predict the end result even by planning. I didn’t know my ending, and therefore had no control over its length. I wrote until I found an okay place to end. In a way, it doesn’t ever have to end, because the exploratory process doesn’t have to have an ending or a definite answer. But for the sake of this project, I stopped at the point when my fictional character could begin to take another step in her own exploration of writing, and I believe that is okay. Some stories don’t have to end.
Some moments in life passed by too quickly, and some moments labored on too slowly. In the end, it all balanced out. But Dr. Roe’s class was the one thing that threw my life off balance. Each second was an hour. Each minute felt like an eternity—sixty eternities until my freedom.
Dr. Roe had this book he loved to teach from—a collection of essays and academic journal excerpts from supposedly the best college writers in the nation. Every day it was the same meaningless praises for people I’d never met, whose writing I don’t even enjoy.
“How do you infuse pathos into physics?” Dr. Roe once asked regarding an article on fundamental physics that no one in the class understood.
“The exigence is very clear in this paragraph. Notice how the author drew upon his ethos as a fellow doctor to explain to his audience the difficulties of electro-magnetism!”
Truthfully, it was lovely seeing a man express such passion. But after the first two days of class, I’d begun to zone out. Instead of paying attention to what Dr. Roe was saying at the front of the classroom, I’d allow my mind to wander. A natural inclination of my brain was to make up stories when I was bored. Really, there was nothing else to do in that class—nothing that wouldn’t blatantly announce to the teacher that: “No, I am not listening to a word you’re saying.”
I’d look upon Roe’s genuinely-made totem pole in the back corner of the room and invent a story of him wearing something similar to Indiana Jones, engaged in some sort of ritual with aboriginals. The eagle, bear, and wolf heads on the pole were all twisted into snarls, and they were angled directly at me. It was hard not to look at them and invent a story to cure the boredom.
Twenty minutes through the class, I would have milked the totem pole for all of its potential stories, and moved onto the jade dragon statue sitting alone on Dr. Roe’s barren bookshelf. As Dr. Roe preached on about some amazing essay regarding L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a political parable, I would imagine the dragon coming to life and burning down the entire school. Fire. We’d be engulfed in vermillion, and by God it would be a beautiful death.
“Emma,” Dr. Roe croaked from the front of the classroom.
Panic struck in. I could see myself, looking like a deer in front of headlights, staring back wide-eyed. “Yes?” I uttered.
Dr. Roe ran his hands through his hair—dark brown flecked with gray. He had to be no more than forty years old at most, but the pinstriped pants and the faded cardigan that hung off his body like he was a hat stand made him look a decade older.
“Emma,” he sighed again, shaking his head and tidying up the papers scattered about the front desk. “Class is over.”
“Oh.” I glanced up at the clock. Nine-thirty, it read. “Sorry,” I muttered, packing up the blank notebook and pencil I had back into my bag.
“Class ended ten minutes ago,” my old teacher said as I began making my way through the labyrinth of desks to the door. “I would have informed you sooner, but frankly I’d forgotten you were here at all.”
“Thank you,” I replied, unable to hide a scowl from showing on my face.
“Wait a minute, please.”
I stopped and turned around. “Yes, sir?” When he wasn’t preaching about the brilliance of academic nobodies from places I’d never even heard of, Dr. Roe’s voice was rather mellow and nice. It could lull a child to sleep.
He held up a set of papers, neatly stapled, black ink marked all over with red pen, a fat grade written and circled in the top corner. 90. Our assignment was to argue over which would be better for our district’s education—school uniforms, or no school uniform. I went with school uniforms just because everyone else chose no uniform. For something so pointless, a 90 was good enough for me. “Your midterm, Emma.”
“I’d like to ask you something, if you don’t mind.”
I said, “I am actually late for my Creative Writing class.”
He nodded, a small smile dancing upon his lips as if my tardiness had been by his design. “Yes, creative writing, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Do you know why I gave you a 90 instead of a 100? I greatly enjoyed your essay—very persuasive!”
To amuse him, I flipped through the four double-spaced pages and concluded, “I’m guessing it’s for grammatical errors?”
I stayed quiet, lips pursed, one eyebrow raised in expectance of an answer. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t understand,” I said when he refused to relinquish one.
“No exigence,” he answered at last.
Sadly, it took me a minute to recall what exigence meant.
“Why did you write this paper?” he asked. “What is your purpose?”
“Because I assigned it to you, and you must do it for a grade, correct?”
I nodded. Internally, I cursed myself for being so stupid. I could have just lied and given him some satisfying answer. “Honestly,” I confessed, “I don’t really care about school uniforms.”
“You’d rather argue for no uniforms?”
“No. I’d rather not argue at all. What is the point in making us write these essays? They’re all the same anyway. There are two sides split among thirty kids. We all wound up repeating each other in different ways.”
Dr. Roe tilted his head to the side, his gray eyes glazed over with a faraway look while he seemed to be studying me. “Every person has their way of writing, Emma. That unique style is even visible in academic writing, and what you wrote here is in fact considered academic.” His voice grew louder when he noticed my accidental eye-roll. “I understand you enjoy writing contemporary fiction,” he said. “Prof. Geralds told me so.”
I nodded again. “I like novels,” I answered.
The question shocked me. “They are stories, and stories are interesting.”
“Why?” he asked again.
“Um, I like books…?”
He smiled, shook his head, and queried, “Tell me about books, Emma. Why do you like books so much?”
It was an awkward question to hear from an English teacher. I expected him to understand without the need for words, but I answered him regardless. “The voices of generations past,” I began slowly, raw truth spilling from my lips, “of people who have already died and disappeared in their no invisible graves—we can still hear them, even talk to them in books. A million secret confessions, all recorded in between those pages. Books can be our friends. They can even show us the world. And the characters don’t stay as fiction to us—not to me at least. They live in me, and others like me. They become people we remember—people who actually make us laugh, and cry, and scream because of how stupid they can be—”
Dr. Roe’s face cracked into a wide, goofy grin. I stopped talking when I saw it, unhinged by the strange sight. In all the time I’ve had him as a teacher, I’d never seen him smile that wide before. I guess he did understand.
“Why can’t you display such exigence in your writing for class?” he asked me.
Feeling a little more comfortable now, I replied, “I don’t care for the topics you give us.”
“Is there a way that you can find a little exigence for my assignments?”
I frowned, trying to think of a polite way to say “no.”
Dr. Roe clapped his hands together in realization. “Tell you what,” he said, shuffling through papers in his backpack. “There is a contest coming up in which I will play a large part in judging. I’d like you to enter it. Find your exigence for academic papers.”
“But Dr. Roe, I can’t write academic—”
“It’s a portfolio. It asks for more than academic writing,” he said, handing me a bent packet.
I straightened the paper and placed it along with my midterm into my backpack, eager to get away from Dr. Roe before he strategized anymore excuses for me to write pointless essays.
“Thank you,” I told him, working up quite an honest and grateful smile before I fled from his classroom and my world moved in normal time again.
Prof. Geralds’s Creative Writing class was located in a far off section of my high school, an added wing on the building’s left side. The desks and chairs were brand new and the walls and windows were spotless. I stared at those white walls while writing. It was easier to see imaginary figures move upon them. It was easier to write and focus in that room as opposed to Dr. Roe’s room where everywhere I turned, there was already a pre-established story.
Everyone was quiet. All twelve students of that class were busy typing up stories and poems. A few of us were writing by hand—the sound of pen scratching against paper a comfort to our ears, as were the clicking of the keyboard keys.
I’d halted progress on my novel to do research, scouring through Wikipedia pages for information about mythology behind the names of stars and constellations. Calypso. Atlas. Daphne. Cassandra. So many stars, so many stories.
But before long, I stopped reading about stars no matter how much I enjoyed it. I was seventeen—I couldn’t explain everything about myself just yet.
Beneath the school laptop, I noticed part of my English midterm sticking out, as well as a corner of the packet Dr. Roe had given me. It was all because of curiosity that I actually started reading the bent packet, flipping through the rough pages, noticing a coffee stain from page four onward.
In the very back of the packet were the guidelines that I needed:
Morrison Debut Contest
Required Pieces: Poem (No more than 50 lines)
Short Story (3,000 to 8,000 words)
Personal Essay/Memoir (500 to 3,000 words)
Academic Article (1,000 to 3,000 words)
Of the four, I had three of the categories ready to edit and turn in. My eyes narrowed upon the words, “Academic Article.” It was an unwanted stain upon the paper, uglier than the light brown, broken circle coffee stain.
“You’re planning on entering the Morrison Debut Contest?” Prof. Geralds asked.
I looked up, my eyes meeting the broad-shouldered man that towered in height over ninety-percent of the population. “Yeah, Dr. Roe said I should enter.”
Prof. Geralds nodded in agreement. “I brought the idea up to him. He didn’t seem too keen on it at first, but we think with your writing abilities, you’d be able to get your name out there.”
“Get my name out?”
“You want to write novels, don’t you?”
I nodded many times. “Yes, get a book published.”
“Literary agents will be more likely to notice you if they see your name attached to a writing award, especially one as prestigious as the Morrison. Have you heard of the Morrison Debut Award for novels?”
“Of course. Last year, Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley won.”
“Think of how much help it would be to win this little writing contest here.”
“But I can’t write academically,” I sighed, pointing to the ugly stain of letters at the very bottom of the last page. “I don’t even know what can be considered an academic essay!”
He smiled apologetically. “Would you like me to give you a prompt?”
I shook my head. “No because I may not understand it and then it’ll lack exigence.”
Prof. Geralds left me alone to write for the rest of class, but instead of writing, I kept staring at the white wall. I didn’t know what to write about to pass as an, “Academic Article.”
When I wrote fiction, I could see the characters. I saw them rise up out of the page. They become real people to me, and they move. Real people move by themselves. I was not the puppet master pulling the strings, but simply a spectator who recorded everything down. The characters enacted their own story, and it was fun watching them—it was like watching TV.
But academic articles were entirely different. There were no characters. No people, and they didn’t move. In academic articles, there were only words—letters and spaces. I couldn’t imagine them as easily.
By the time Creative Writing ended, I was hungry, frustrated, and ready to eat my feelings at lunch. But as I was heading to the cafeteria, I passed by Dr. Roe’s empty classroom. The door was partway open, but the room was dark. From the corner of my eye as I passed slowly, I could see the milky glow of the computer screen in the back corner. Dr. Roe sat behind his desk, a halo of white light surrounding him as he studied his laptop screen.
In the spur of the moment, I entered the room. I knocked once on the door while standing at the threshold. The doctor looked up and beckoned me inside, neither smiling nor frowning.
“Questions?” he said calmly.
“Plenty,” I nodded. “How do I write an academic article?”
It took a moment, but a smile flittered across his face at last. That one was of amusement. “So you’re going to participate in the contest?”
“Yes, because Prof. Geralds said that it would help with my dream of getting published.”
“But not the exigence I need to write an academic article, especially one that will help me win the contest.”
Dr. Roe sat back, crossing his legs and placing his hands on his knees. “So why do you dislike academic writing so much?”
I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at how much he sounded like a therapist just then. “I don’t get it.”
“What I read is really pointless to me. No offense, since the class I have to read the most academic articles in is your class.” Dr. Roe shook his head side to side, showing that he took no umbrage. “Yes, I like writing, but I don’t care how sentences and paragraphs are formed,” I said, addressing the endless essays he made us read on grammar. “And then those scientific ones—as kind and loving as Jane Goodall is, I don’t care about her study of chimpanzees. I don’t care about that physics paper you made us read last week. In fact, I don’t even understand basic physics…”
“So your problem with academic writing may be the jargon,” he said. “Often times, authors of academic writing use in-group jargons in their writing. Their audience is often like-minded individuals or people from the same field of study as them. These people understand the jargons. For a general audience, you shouldn’t use any in-group jargons” (Driscoll).
I shook my head. “No, no. It’s not the jargons. These days, you can just look up those words on the internet if you really try.”
“So why don’t you try? Reading and writing academically requires effort, Emma. You have to interact with it. In one article about reading rhetorically, Karen Rosenberg stated that, ‘The final key to reading smarter, not harder is to make it social.’ Making it social doesn’t necessarily mean you go around with a bombastic attitude and talk empty words about it. Making it social means interacting with it—look up the words you don’t know, write your own reaction if you will, or just grab a pen and underline the parts you like. Do you do that?”
“I do, actually. As lazy as I am, I actually do that. Otherwise, I would have never gotten through those quizzes you gave us.”
Dr. Roe sat back, a soft laugh escaping his breath. He nodded then said, “Right, decent scores on the weekly quizzes. So this is tough. Why do you enjoy novel writing, but detest academic writing? It’s weird, right? You sit and churn out—how many—a hundred thousand words for novels? Yet it’s so difficult to write just one thousand words for a little essay.”
“I actually like novels. I can see it happening in my head. But I can’t see the things written in the essays in my head. They’re just abstract thoughts with no connections, nor relevance to me.”
The distant gaze returned to his eyes, and we spent a long while in thoughtful silence.
My stomach was growling. I didn’t know what time it was, but I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to learn how to write an academic article, one that was good enough to stand a chance for a contest prize. I needed my name attached to that contest, because it seemed there was no easier route to getting a novel published than that. (And even so, it wasn’t at all easy.)
After what felt like an eternity, Dr. Roe was the first to speak again. “I believe I’ve made a mistake assigning you such boring articles to read. Tell me, are there any books you don’t like?”
I had to think about it for a moment. “I don’t like romance much. You know, the ones you find in the back corner, guilty-pleasure sections of bookstores.”
“So there are books you typically don’t enjoy. Logically, there are also academic articles that you don’t enjoy. I made a mistake assigning all the wrong genres to you.”
“I seriously doubt that’s the reason—”
“There are many genres to academic writing, did you know that? People can write academically about anything that interests them.”
“They just have to put in sources and citations, right?”
“Well, not exactly. That’s just so we give credit where credit is due” (Maddalena).
“So what is it then?”
“You just don’t enjoy the things you’ve been asked to write academically about. If I asked you to create for me a novel about a whiny teenager with an irrational need to get a boyfriend, but not allow you to put any humor into it, would that be an enjoyable thing to write?”
“Not really…?” I thought of Twilight. I couldn’t help it. Dr. Roe was describing Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, one of the few books I actually disliked.
“Exactly. It’s the same logic as those who don’t like to read. They just haven’t found the right book. You haven’t found the right article, that’s why you don’t like reading it, and in turn you are horrified of writing one.
“What you need is to read an academic article about something you actually like. And don’t look at me like that,” he smiled the moment I raised a skeptical eyebrow. “There has to be something that interests you. It’s not impossible you know. As a teenager, you’re familiar with the young adult author, John Green, right?”
“I love his books,” I nodded.
“Have you read Looking for Alaska?”
“Of course! It was his first, my first from him, and my favorite.”
“If you recall, at the end of Looking for Alaska, our main character Pudge writes an essay for his history class about religion and the perspective on life and death. That essay, Emma, was Pudge’s academic article. I told you, it could be about anything.
“John Green incorporated an academic piece of writing into a work of fiction. That is like working one of Stephen King’s famous quotes backwards. The quote, ‘Fiction is the truth inside the lie,’ do you know it?”
“No,” I said shyly. I never knew Dr. Roe memorized quotes. He was beginning to look more and more like a fellow book-lover, not a distant someone.
“Fiction is essentially a well-crafted lie, Emma. But facts gathered from academic sources help mold them into something that can be considered an askew reality. You do research for you novels, of course. You have to!”
“I do, actually.”
“Those are sources—sources and citations.”
For the first time, I liked listening to him talk. At last I could understand the passion he had. I knew he possessed passion before, but it was a stranger to me. This passion, however, this one I understood. I understood the love and admiration for books and stories. The love of fiction. I understood it well, and that was our even ground.
“I want you to enter this contest, because I’d like to see you publish a novel someday as well,” Dr. Roe said. “You love books. I know that as a fact. I want you to write an academic article on books. The rest is up to you, and that’s all the help I can give you.” He paused and smiled again. “Well, I could help you a little more by reading your academic essay. I want sources and everything. Then I will give you feedback, and we’ll work on from there.”
I was a little apprehensive when I asked, “Do I have to write a whole essay in one night?”
“Of course not! Start small. Give me an introduction. I want to see exigence, and a good argument. Maybe an outline, a thesis statement, you know the drill.”
I sighed. “Why are you helping me so much?”
Dr. Roe shrugged. “I am a teacher. It’s my job.” He bit his lip then added, “And because I’m bored. We need a new generation of writers. Why not help facilitate it?”
That night I spent scouring through Google page after Google page, searching for something academic about books that I could actually write about. Even after all the motivation and the long talk, academic writing was still an unfavorable thought.
It took hours typing in names of classics, hoping to find some interesting article that I could use as a source.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
After an hour went by, I typed in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. On the eighth link I clicked, my eyes finally lit up upon reading Henry M. Littlefield’s article, “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.”
There it was, an article about my favorite childhood story, relating it to something adults would actually care about! Dr. Roe mentioned it in class. It had to qualify as academic…
The rest of the night I spent reading over the twelve-page parable, and was pleasantly surprised at the level of understanding I had for everything Littlefield wrote about. The era of L. Frank Baum’s lifespan was easily found after a Google search, and it was actually interesting to read about the author of, in my opinion, one of the greatest pieces of children’s literature. All of Littlefield’s references to the story was something I could actually interpret since I had the book lying on my bookshelf, and my mind could recall the story rather clearly. It was weird, reading the article, finding myself halfway agreeing with his argument. It was just weird overall, reading an academic piece of writing and actually understanding it.
It was the jargons, perhaps.
Or just the preference. I preferred this, over some random article about physics with words I couldn’t even pronounce.
I slept very little that night, because I spent it drafting an outline and starting on a rough introduction. Still, I didn’t know how sources were supposed to look properly, but I supposed Dr. Roe could help me. He’s actually helped me so much already…believe it or not. That boring old drone had passion and interest.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Lyman Frank Baum had been a beloved children’s fairy tale since its creation—and no one really knew why. It could be the glorious childhood nostalgia it instilled as readers follow the odyssey of Dorothy through the wonderful Land of Oz. Or it could have been the personal relation of the narrative to a different yet at the same time relatively similar life during one of America’s most changing and active periods. Either way, Baum had successfully written a story that appealed to both children and adults alike. And in his creation, he’d created a world where all kinds of meanings and symbolism could be inferred—so fictitious that with the right wording, anything could be taken out of it. Henry M. Littlefield, for example, had pronounced the work of fiction as a parable on the political situation during Baum’s era, which included works with the Populist Party, the free silver campaign, and the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan, as well as America’s attitude towards the concerns and prosperity of western expansion. While many would stand to disagree with Littlefield’s claim that Baum’s fairy tale was a parable, it is inarguable that since the publication of Littlefield’s article, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was no longer an innocent fairy tale (Parker, 1994).” David B. Parker argued that Baum was simply searching for meaning in what was a man’s simple pursuit in crafting an entertaining children’s tale. And as time wound on, the argument of whether The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a parable or not remains. In response to the ever-existing question, Littlefield may have over-exaggerated the political relevance of this children’s fairy tale, and Parker under-exaggerated. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz does possess political influences, but is not strictly a political story disguised as fiction—in fact it is simply a story written by a definite dreamer, with inspiration drawn from his existing reality, incorporating details that may be intentionally/unintentionally symbolic, with influences born from the Progressive Era, and carrying a self-prophetic air for the coming future.
It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
I handed the introduction, crudely scrawled on three sheets of notebook paper into Dr. Roe the next day. At the end of class, he returned the paper to me with no red markings, just a quick message scrawled in the back: See me during free period; good start.
Driscoll, Dana L. “Appropriate Language.” Purdue OWL: Using Appropriate Language. N.p., n.d.
Web. 15 Nov. 2013. <https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/608/01/>.
Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton Children’s, 2005. Print.
Littlefield, Henry M. “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism.” American Quarterly 16 (1964):
Maddalena, Kate McKinney. “I need you to say ‘I.’” Writing Spaces 1 (2010)
Parker, David B. “Oz Populism Theory.” Oz Populism Theory. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2013.
Rosenberg, Karen. “Reading Games: Strategies for Reading Scholarly Sources.” Writing
Spaces 2 (2011)