By Alex Troy
It’s time… to write… a… paper.
When our tutor tells us we have to produce six pages on The Nicomachean Ethics my anxiety spikes. After more than thirty years, can I do this? Can I write an academic paper with, you know, footnotes and coherent sentences and a thesis that might actually be interesting? Talking in class is one thing; many times people speak in roundabout and cryptic ways. The tutor usually performs real time (and face-saving) editing: “Oh, Mr. X is asking this, which is a good segue to…” Writing is less forgiving. The language that I’ve grown accustomed to at work won’t be suitable. You can’t do Aristotle with PowerPoint, business buzzwords, bullet points. (“Aristotle was first mover in the self-help market.”)
Long dormant memories return of late nights swilling Coke and dabbing Wite-Out over glaring typos. Are the paper writing reflexes still inside me? I answer the question like a Johnnie, using the philosopher’s tools of analogy and metaphor. Writing a paper is like riding a bike, or like finding your Master combination lock from middle school decades later. Without conscious thought your fingers turn the dial right, left, right and—presto—the lock opens. If paper writing is like lock opening, the knowledge sits in the fingers, and once they are poised over the keyboard the argument will just flow.
This… does… not… happen.
What about riding a bike, which they say is like driving a stick shift and, yeah, that other activity one never forgets? I can testify that you do forget how to use the stick. Please; I’m talking about driving a car. Once, on a family vacation in Barcelona, I picked up the van we were going to use for the next leg of the trip. It was supposed to be an automatic, but because of some confusion it turned out to be a stick shift. The truth is you do forget, completely. I kept stalling out as clouds of black smoke poured out from under the hood.
With my analogies punctured panic returns. I cannot remember what “op cit.” stands for, and “ibid” sounds like a genie from Scheherazade. “Ibid, give me six tightly reasoned pages on The Ethics, pleasingly formatted and full of footnotes.”
Worrying about footnotes is misplaced when you don’t have an opening sentence. A great opener is the ornament that beautifies a virtuous essay. (ibid, Nicomachean Ethics—I think.) I sit and think, sit and think, facing a blank laptop screen that mirrors my own blankness. What to say?
I sit down with The Ethics, leaf through its heavily annotated pages, and reread those now inscrutable margin notes. I wrote that? Slowly, slowly, a light goes on. (When you write a paper, avoid clichés like the plague.) The Ethics begins to come together. But this doesn’t make writing easier. To the contrary, the feeling of getting the book triggers an imaginary dialogue with my tutor.
Me: I get The Ethics. The purpose of your assignment has been fulfilled, so do I still have to write the paper?
Me: You know what Socrates says about writing—it’s bad for the memory. Now that the form of the argument exists in my mind can’t we skip putting its pale reflection into words?
So I grit my teeth, swill caffeinated tea and pound out the prose. And the paper finally comes into being, late at night and after much pain, like most newborns. And having birthed it, I love it despite its flaws.
There are some things that, once learned, are never forgotten. Writing… a… paper… is not one of them.
I enjoy reading your posts. As someone who finds the idea of attending the Graduate Institute appealing, your posts allow me to experience St. John’s vicariously.
Dear X98473, thank you for you kind words. If you can, please come join us at the Graduate Institute; the real thing is better than experiencing it vicariously. Unlike bike riding and paper writing you’ll never forget your time at St. John’s.
I hope to someday convince my wife to move across the country (we live in Everett, Washington) so that I can talk about great ideas / books with others. My fear is that if I were able to discuss great ideas / books on a regular basis with others that I might actually dislike the experience of it as much as I like the idea of it.
Should you come to St. John’s it’s much more likely that you’ll exceed your expectations than fail to meet them. The enthusiasm and insights of your classmates (and of the course the of authors you will read) make for an unmatchable experience.
But, if for some reason it doesn’t work out Annapolis is a lovely city with lots to do and see. So your downside is cushioned.
I wish you luck.