Once there was a little girl who became entranced by the words captured in the pages of books. Thin books, thick books, books of fantasy and mystery, she loved them all. The world appeared wider from her house, from the bricks of school, and from an illness that always seemed to linger. The little girl’s name was Natasha, and I am her.
Since about the second grade, I devoured books. Before then, I enjoyed making up my own version of the illustrations that ran across the pages of the small preschool and kindergarten bookcases. I would fold over a stack of white sheets of paper and doodle inside, creating my own story with crude imitations of words. My penmanship was not the best, but I was young and new to wielding a pen. Once I understood reading, though, it took over. Reading became my escape as I would be stuck at home with illness after illness that no one ever understood. Trapped in bed, I had nothing but books and the TV to entertain me. The TV hurt my eyes and was way too loud when I had headaches, so I would find solace in the paper of novels and short stories. Books soon became my friends as I traveled to places and met people that kept the loneliness at bay and exercised my mind when my body could not.
As I grew older, I read more and more. Whenever I would adventure to the library, I would depart with giant stacks of books that darn near towered over me. I could build forts around myself made purely of words. Everywhere I went, a book accompanied me. I cannot tell you how many times I have slept with a book under my pillow. Though my health was always shaky and books continued to be my escape and comfort, they taught me to appreciate more than that. Because of what authors wrote, I learned about people’s different life experiences, like how it feels to live during World War II, to live with a family of seven, or only see the world but never hear the bustle of life. Every story offers something unique, an understanding of emotion and humanity, and a definition of culture. Even fantasy, where people master magic and defend kingdoms, has something important to tell: princesses can learn to fight their own battles; a witch became bitter and evil because of how she was treated. Though the stories may not appear to be drastic or making a declarative statement, I assure you, if you look closer, something can be gleaned from it. Each word sticks to you and empowers you to go out and seek more. If a story does not leave you with a trailing emotion or a brief moment of sadness it has ended, what was the point?
Because of this adoration for words, for the love of stories that made me wish they never ended, and a connection to stories I would never otherwise know, there was no question to what I wanted to study in college. The label of budding English major practically clung to me since middle school. Family may wish that I chose something in the sciences, but English has been my pursuit since I learned the shape of words.
The number one challenge as an English major comes down to defending my decision for what I study. Are there jobs in that field? Will pay ever reach a stable point or will I become the stereotypical starving artist? Well, dear family, plenty of jobs exist. The English field actually applies to a variety of different jobs, and all over the world employers demand people who can communicate verbally and in writing. As soon as I declared I would pursue an English degree, everyone had an opinion. I ignored them.
Another challenge appeared right away in my first year of college. I survived many AP classes in high school, including AP English Language and AP English Literature, so I entered college with sophomore standing. High school taught me how to write a specific way and shoved definitions of writing devices down my throat long before college. When I started taking sophomore level classes my freshman year, however, I learned that some things I learned were wrong. According to my high school, you had to adhere to the strict five paragraph format—introduction, three body paragraphs,and a conclusion—and declare your thesis in the first paragraph. No more and no less. You could not start your introduction with a quote, and you had to include a bunch of introductory fluff that accented your paper. Another misguided aspect was listing the three points to be discussed in your body paragraphs but not going in depth about them. All of this was wrong or misleading. Write with however many paragraphs it takes to reach your conclusion. Just make sure that it all has a point. Thankfully, the English faculty took pity on me and quickly corrected my writing. My sincerest thanks for your patience.
As I attended St. Norbert college, the professors exemplified obvious passion for the subjects they taught. They stressed the importance of understanding literature as a reflection of society, ourselves, and life holistically. No matter how hard a writer tries, their life experiences will be woven into their works. No avoiding that. Yet, this subconscious inclusion allows people to study a culture by its writers, no matter their genre. What the story includes can provide a clue to the current state of society during the construction of the piece. We can understand people from the way they see the world, the insights they perceive, and what they endured. Stories also allow readers to witness the versatility of humanity. True stories, realistic fiction, and imagined worlds of people surviving tragedies and dystopian societies demonstrate that no matter the struggle, people do continue to prosper. People teeter between shades of gray instead of the cliché good versus evil. It is okay to not be perfect all the time.
Besides the portrayals and reflections on humanity that literature plays with, it also schools us inemotion. Much of society flinches from overt moments of feeling. We tell young kids to brush off tears and keep a stiff lip, but many novels question and bash that. Emotions are part of what makes us human. Instead of suppressing our natural inclinations of sensitivity and sentiment, we would be better off learning how to deal with them rather than allowing them to turn into something toxic. Narratives like this are also present in stories about suppressing gender and racial identity. By rejecting people’s tales and experiences, we lose what they offer to the human imagination and dismiss a culture, which is despicable and unfortunate to do.
I learned the basics of literary theories in high school, but in college, they were better explained and practiced. In English 305, the course taught me how to thoroughly study a novel through the analyses of a close reading, feminist criticism, psychoanalytical lens, new historical criticism, reader response lens, and summary and evaluation. Because of my classes at St. Norbert college, I am less intimidated by these theories. I have gained deeper critical thinking that spans more than just how the stylistic choices enhance pieces. I understand how a work fits with its time period, how the bigger ideas come into being, and how every little detail can enhance or break a work. From Dr. MacDiarmid’s classes on Fiction Workshop and Advanced Writing, we discussed how to improve our creative writing. I always enjoyed writing short stories, but taking these workshops and seminars on writing helped strengthen my writing by forcing me to experiment in ways I had not before. A lot of my work featured similar voices of loner children milling about. Through Dr. MacDiarmid’s prompting, I experimented with voices and tried something different than a slipstream type of fantasy. I now know how to hone different voices and play with different styles that I otherwise overlooked.
I also acquired the important ability to revise. I rarely revised in high school, but now I power through a couple revisions of papers. In general, my strongest skill as a student is time management. I ran four organizations, worked four jobs, and had an internship on top of that. With the organizations, I had to make time for volunteering and other social engagements while keeping up with my family. I accomplished all of this while staying on the Dean’s list.
For my creative writing, my overarching strength lies in calling on emotion. Both creative pieces I have selected from Fiction Workshop and Advanced Writing Seminar use detailed descriptions of emotion to provide realism and a scenario that people can relate to. People have admitted to me that my stories have made them cry. They enjoyed it despite the tears though! I am fond of using realistic scenarios that interweave magic or horror, like the slipstream genre. My piece called “A Dance With Death” shows this, but another one of my pieces not present in this portfolio called “Paper Warnings” takes a boring setting like a silent library and transforms it into something supernatural. With such settings, it demonstrates that even the most mundane area can be fantastic with the right perspective. I presented “Paper Warnings” at the 2018 Sigma Tau Delta Convention. I have also presented and received two honorable mentions for my writing. In Spring 2016, I received an honorable mention at the SNC Literary Awards for a short story called “Under the Dark,” and at the 2017 Sigma Tau Delta Convention, I presented and received an honorable mention for my piece titled “Seeing Through Touch.”
Some of my best memories come from my experiences at the Sigma Tau Delta Conventions with my fellow English majors. Road tripping with your peers bonds you like nothing else. That is what is so special about English: every class becomes connected. We do not normally sit in lecture taking notes from a PowerPoint while never knowing who occupies space behind us. Instead, we engage each other in class by facing each other in a circle so we know Johnny Jay attends class. Maybe he speaks little, but at least we know he still attends St. Norbert. All the professors care and are open to conversations after class that delve further into topics not reached during the lecture time slot. I have chatted with just about every professor after class or during their office hours about inside and outside class topics. No one has shot down ideas. Another important part of English is we are open for criticism but do not go into a peer review looking to destroy someone’s confidence. Every writing workshop I have attended remained civil, constructive, and polite. Not a single person stated, “This sucks.” When I have visited professors in their offices with short stories or essays that I wanted their feedback on, I never worried they were going to dash my spirits. I may have been a little intimidated as their pens moved, but I knew in the end every little ink spot would help.
I wish more diverse English classes were offered. Granted, English 150 is important and all with how many students have to take it, but it seems to take up the majority of the accessible classes. I loved Scifi and Fantasy as well as Fairytales. If English could provide more classes on other authors or special topics of specific genres, like drama, horror, and mystery, that would be beneficial. Some of these are covered in a lower 150 class, but it would be great to have upper level offerings. Another helpful course would be writing for specific modes of media (though this may be more along the lines of Communication Media Studies) and other experimental writing that might not make its way into Fiction Workshop.
I better grasp how to interpret literature and how to construct my own stories. People appear more real to me than they ever have before. I have grown as a person throughout my time at St. Norbert College and will treasure my memories. Thank you for all the opportunities of growth and professional development.