If You Are Feeling Overwhelemed By Writing.

March 9, 2009 at 8:47 pm Leave a comment

Here are some tips if you are feeling overwhelmed with your writing.

1. By now you should have some focused topic / issue / problem you want to write about concerning a piece of literature. If you are having difficulty narrowing down your topic, please e-mail me what you are interested to write about, and I assure you I can help you.

2. As I have advocated, spend some time looking over the piece of literature on which you are writing. If it is Sir Gawain or The Canterbury Tales,  you want to find a few spots (maybe even one) on which you will focus your efforts. Find one, two, three (maybe four) passages, spots, events in the text that you can focus on. Use this spot or spots to quote in your paper, and curl your interpretation around them.

3. By focusing on an issue, problem, event, character, etc. you can expand your interpretation instead of being overwhelemed by material. For instance, suppose you were interested in the nature of SYMBOL in Sir Gawain, and you narrowed down your interest to a few moments in the text where Gawain does not recognize the symbolic significance of things around him. You could expand / digress on the nature of symbolic langauge / significance in our world today, and the dangers of ignoring or misinterpreting symbolism.

I’ll give you an example. I always write my own essays at the same time that you all are writing your essays–it’s my way of trying to stay on the same page with you all. Last week I wrote a five page essay on Sir Gawain’s symbolic ignorance–how he does not recognize the greenery around the Baron’s Castle that suddenly appears after he prays, and how he does not recognize the similarity of the game of exchange in the castle to the beheading game. After interpreting the consequences of symbolic ignorance, and how it tests the reader (in the funtion of dramatic irony) to perceive the world symbolically, I digressed on a contemporary example. Bankers and financiers in the past few months who have been blind to the symbolic nature of their actions. They were so surprised at the outrage of Americans when they bought private jets, or used TARP money to redecorate their offices, etc. It showed a lack of symbolic perception on their part, and I argued how such symbolic gestures today carry a great deal of weight in a manner not too disimilar to the symbolic nature of the world around Gawain.

Bottom line: by narrowing your focus, you give yourself room (breathing room) to expand in other areas in your paper.

4. When you are writing about a large piece, like Gawain, or the Canterbury Tales, it can become easy to start writing plot summary. We feel it incumbent upon ourselves to tell the professor what happens in a piece. We also feel like we’re proving that we’ve read and understood something if we write plot summary. The last thing a professor wants to read in a paper is plot summary. Seriously. Unless the assignment is to give a book report, plot summary is no good.

If you find yourself writing more than half a page of plot summary–giving a blow by blow of action–become self-conscious. Recognize that, for some reason, you are evading interpretation. Usually it is because you are encountering writer’s block, or you have hit a wall in where to go.

A handy way to get out of plot summary is to turn the plot summary you have written into interpretation. I’ll give an example using Gawain and the topic of symbolic language / ignorance again. Plot summary would be something like, “Gawain rides Gringolet in search of the Green Chapel. He encounters great hardship and bad weather along the way. At one point a blizzard stops him in his path and he nearly freezes to death. As he is dying, Gawain prays to Mother Mary to deliver him from death. After he prays, he discovers, to his surprise, that a castle has suddenly appeared, surrounded by greenery. He approaches the castle, and as he does so, the gatekeeper welcomes him warmly. He lowers the drawbridge, and Gawain enters the castle where the Baron greets him warmly, and he is hailed by everyone as a great and famous knight.”

Now, obviously this is plot summary, and you can find it anywhere–Cliff Notes, Spark Notes, the introduction in your own book. It does not lead to any interpretation. BUT, you could step back, and say to yourself, how can I turn this into analysis in the context of my argument? Here is what you might try to do, rewriting the plot summary to turn it into plot analysis.

“On Gawain’s perilous journey to find the Green Chapel, the many hardships he faces challenge him to understand the world on a symbolic level. Unfortunately, after Gawain prays to Mother Mary for deliverance, he fails to make the connection between the Green Knight and the evidently magical way in which a castle appears surrounded by that familiar color green. Additionally, Gawain fails to notice how warmly the inhabitants of the castle greet him despite the fact that he is dressed in full armor and bearing weapons. It should be clear to Gawain that his welcome is both unusual, and in a great contrast to the way in which the Green Knight was greeted at Camelot.”

Notice how instead of just giving a blow by blow of the action in the poem, I used the action and events to develop my argument.

5. If you do not feel like tackling a large piece, like Sir Gawain, and would like to write about something more focused, write a paper on one of the sonnets. A sonnet has a built-in focus because of its size and structure. As I lectured online, the poet explores within a focused and cosy space a metaphor in each sonnet that he develops from beginning in line one to line fourteen. By choosing to write about a sonnet, you could interpret how the poet develops a metaphor, how he uses language and imagery to develop and change the metaphor, what situation / issue the metaphor signifies, and you can expand on the issue that the poem explores.

The sonnet, I think, is a wonderful place in which to explore how to write an interpretive paper in English. In all the sonnets I assigned the poets use figurative language to the max. They are highly keen on creating metaphors, and using images and words to drive that metaphor toward an end. Also, each sonnet is like a little story, in a sense. A sonnet has an opening, usually the first four or so lines in which the metaphor/issue/problem/etc is introduced, the middle of the sonnet takes the metaphor into the “muddle” of the issue, and the last lines, usually a final couplet, brings it to a conclusion, one that is often surprising, or gives a “plot twist,” so to speak, to the subject matter, or affirms the feeling the poet raises.

For instance, in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, his famous “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Shakespeare develops the metaphor of the summer in comparison to his lover. He even opens the sonnet asking how he will compare her to the summer. You could explore how the metaphor / image of “summer” develops in the sonnet. How his lover is always superior to the summer. And then how the comparisons become too hyperbolic: the poet claims that his lover outlasts the summer, that she and her beauty is immortal, in effect. But, of course, this is impossible. You would notice, however, that he changes the summer from a season to something else when he says 3/4 of way into the sonnet, “But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” Obviously, summer comes to mean something more metaphysical and spiritual. Then, in the last few lines comes the “plot twist.” He is able to immortalize his lover with the poem itself. The eternal summer becomes poetry. He turns his lover into poetry.

So you could take one sonnet and interpret the complex ways in which the poet uses language, words and figurative language to “pain a picture” of concepts he tries to express. It is a nice and focused way to hone your skills as an iterpreter.



Entry filed under: British Literature, Writing Strategies.

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