The scene: 121st and Amsterdam. The sun just past its height in the sky. The wind blowing leaves from the small sidewalk trees, the ground still wet from a recent rainfall. The sounds are typical of the city: car horns, distant sirens, a far-off bass beat. A red tour bus drives past, the top level decked in tourists wearing plastic rain ponchos; the guide can be heard telling them about the history of Columbia University, that this is its third location. Three taxis follow. Pan over the inscription on the building: School of Social Work.
Cut to the stacks. I’m holding a piece of paper. It lists titles and call numbers. The first one starts with a B. I proceed to the second stack. Fast forward as I move up and down the stacks, collecting an ever-larger pile of books. Come back to real time. I set the pile down by a computer and check some subject lines again to make sure I don’t miss anything. Sure enough, many more promising titles pop up. I write them down. Cut. The pile has doubled in size. I begin the process of whittling them down, opening each and glancing through to see if it’s actually relevant. Cut. Three books have been discarded. I pick up the pile and take it to the circulation desk. There’s a woman in front of me trying to find something on reserve. She’s taking a really long time. My arms are going to fall off. It turns out the book she needs is in another library, and she leaves. The girl behind the desk apologizes. I drop the books on the counter. When she’s done checking them out, I spend several minutes trying to stuff them all into my bag. The last one goes in, though the bag won’t close. I exit the main doors.
Talking head shot: Me. That was the third paper I had to do for this class. I’d hoped writing it would be a perfected process that I had arrived at through writing the first two. But it definitely wasn’t. It was actually more like going over the edge of a cliff. All the bad habits and the guilty pleasures that made the first two papers difficult manifested themselves more than ever in this third and greatest paper. There was just so much potential for taking the topic anywhere I wanted. I guess I took it everywhere I wanted.
New scene: small classroom at El Dorado Community College. The desks are filled with college students, both right out of high school and much older. The professor announces the guest speaker Mas Hatano, a victim of the Japanese concentration camps during World War II. An old, white-haired man begins to tell his tale. At the back of the classroom, an eight-year-old girl sits with her legs dangling from the chair, an open Lisa Frank notebook in front of her, her pencil at the ready. Narration: When I was little, my mom used to take me out of school on occasion to come to her history classes at the local college. Sometimes it was for guest speakers like Japanese internment camp survivor Mas Hatano, or feminist historian Sally Roesch Wagner; sometimes it was simply for her lectures, when they were particularly interesting. I reveled in taking notes on the various discourses, and prided myself on remembering what I’d learned. I was particularly happy when I knew something that the rest of the class didn’t, like that the “Three Sisters” of the Iroquois was the tribe’s term for their sacred trio of staple crops—corn, beans, and squash.
The girl has filled up a page with notes, and turns it over. Cut to the Central Library in Sacramento. The same girl, perhaps a year older, has covered a table on the third floor with books on coral reefs. She sits in the chair and pours over a particularly large and colorful book. Others open to reveal pictures and descriptions of clown fish, anemones, the bleaching phenomenon, and small sharks. Her notebook, upgraded now to a red Five-Star, is open to a page half-filled with notes. Narration continues: While other children avoided homework, preferring to play outside or, when we reached the fourth grade, to listen to the Spice Girls and read Nickelodeon magazine, I expanded my homework time, even creating assignments of my own. I loved researching and writing up reports, whether it was on marine biology or paleontology or the Big Bang. I would create PowerPoint presentations to showcase what I had learned and share it with my family. Not that my papers and presentations were amazing pieces of polished research; in fact, they were quite simplistic and generally included as many colorful pictures as possible. But the fact was that I truly loved learning. I loved, and still love, being able to explore the reaches of modern knowledge and expand my own horizons through research and reading.
Scene shift: a four-year-old girl, clearly the younger version of the earlier girl, stands near a sunny preschool playground with two other girls.
Girl 1: What would you wish for if you found a genie?
Girl 2: I’d wish I was a princess. Then I’d wish for all the ice cream in the world. Then I’d wish for more wishes!
Girl 1: What would you wish for?
Me: I would wish I knew everything.
Narration: Then came high school.
Scene shift: a high school classroom. Fluorescent lighting, window blinds shut, linoleum floor, synthetic desks filled with sleepy sixteen-year-olds. The white board reads, “Welcome to the SAT I.” The proctor pulls out a stopwatch. “You have 25 minutes to write your essay. Begin.”
Narration: My days of long, spontaneous research projects ended when I no longer had time for them. High school meant hours of assigned homework every day, as well as hours of “to-do”s that were not homework, such as practicing for orchestra, preparing for Mock Trial, or dealing with college applications. As time allowed only for learning what was being taught in class, the luxury of intellectual exploration disappeared. Even when writing papers, we focused not on preparing a body of research but on being able to write a reasonably coherent piece in a restricted period of time.
New Scene: 412 Pupin. No windows, only blackboards, the sounds of construction in the background. Eleven Columbia freshmen, several wearing sweatshirts bearing the name of their new alma mater, sit in a semicircle of black desks. The professor announces the first free write: it’s about graffiti. Scene fades into a view of Skagway, Alaska, a cruise ship just pulling into the harbor at sunrise. The village traces the curve of the water going off toward a large river; mountains covered in evergreens stretch up on all sides, their peaks capped with snow. An eagle passes over the many small fishing boats docked for the night. Zoom in on the cliff face by the cruise ship—it’s covered in graffiti. Scene fades back. I start to write.
Talking head shot: Me. What was going through my head when we did that first free write? Something along the lines of, “Wow! Here I had expected this class to just be tedious work, but it’s actually like creative writing! This is so cool! I’m actually going to enjoy this!” When the real assignments started, the research-loving child within me was awakened. I think I had forgotten just how much there was to learn that wasn’t taught in the classroom. Unfortunately, I was a little out of control. So many doors had been opened that I couldn’t resist trying to walk through all of them—whether that meant trying to fit in an analysis of every president’s use of public and hidden transcripts since Teddy Roosevelt in a paper on the 2004 Kerry-Bush election or wanting to discuss all the details of women’s roles in and attitudes toward society from World War II through the modern feminist movement, not to mention an analysis of the dichotomy of the treasured and admired and the reviled and feared in Othello, in a paper on the vilification of women in the 1950s; or [laughs] attempting to fit an analysis of all of modern alternative medicine techniques, a dissection of the medical-industrial complex, a discussion of the spiritual basis for the effectiveness of meditation, a chronicle of the evolution of spiritual healing practices, and an evaluation of plausible links between transcendent abilities and quantum physics, into a single research paper. Yeah, I know.
Scene shift: still 412 Pupin. The same students look decidedly more worn; they now sport winter coats and boots. The professor explains that they are to discuss their individual writing processes with their partner —what works, what doesn’t work, what the constant trends are. Cut to close-up, Sara and me.
Sara: And I pretty much always write my papers the night before they’re due. It’s like I can’t possibly start before that. I’m not really sure why. I mean, some people do that and they’re okay with it because it works for them. But it just makes me so stressed out, you know?
Me: I guess mine’s pretty similar. I definitely can’t write anything prior to the night before either. I think part of it might be perfectionism, you know, like if I wait until the last minute then it’ll be okay if I don’t do really well because, hey, I did it at the last minute. But if I start early, then I have to do well because I have plenty of time. I think another part of it is just my indecision. When we have these broad topics, and especially since we can choose whatever we’re interested in, I always find myself choosing something I’m very interested in, which makes it nearly impossible to choose just which tiny aspect of that I’ll turn into a paper, until the night-before pressure kicks in. As for my writing process once I start the paper … I guess it’s pretty similar to what it was before we started having to do all those timed essays in high school. Yeah, it’s just like what you said, “I don’t write drafts; I write papers.” Somehow, when I know the work I’m doing is supposed to turn into a nice, organized paper, I just can’t write exploratorily. Whether I have a written outline or just one in my head, the things I write next have to come in a logical sequence or it doesn’t even occur to me to write them. By the time I’m two-thirds through, the little editor in me is preparing to link everything back to the beginning, tie up loose ends, and conclude.
New scene: Milstein reading room, Butler Library. The clock reads 4:00 a.m. A few students, their coffees in front of them, are still up working. One sleeps in an armchair with his sweatshirt hood pulled over his face. Zoom in on my desk, spread with books on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and faith-based healing. A stack of highlighted articles are strewn about on the left of an open Gateway notebook computer. I check a quotation, and continue writing.
Narration: What I found in doing revisions of my first two papers, and in essentially rewriting my research paper, was that more information did not mean a better paper. Not only was it difficult to tie everything together, but some of the supplementary discussions detracted from my main argument. In the midst of a Butler all-nighter, I finally achieved the ability to cast aside what wasn’t needed and narrow my focus. Perhaps it was just because I was tired and couldn’t care anymore about all the extra things that had seemed so interesting, or perhaps I had truly mastered a skill; either way, it worked.
New scene: I’m hiking in the mountains above Lake Tahoe, California. The sky is cloudless, the sun hasn’t yet quite reached its zenith. No cars can be heard, only the crunch of gravel under my hiking boots, a creek off in the distance, and birds amidst the pine and fir trees that shade the path. I reach a fork with four options. Signs indicate various lakes and reservoirs to be found in each direction.
Narration: When I began this college writing class, I discovered a world of endless opportunities. I could learn about anything, write about anything, and analyze in ways that high school had never allowed. The vast library stacks from 114th to 171st were mine for the conquering. But over the course of the semester, I had to learn something that had never been a problem when I was a little girl making PowerPoint presentations. I had to learn to prioritize—to pick an argument and write what was applicable—nothing more, nothing less. I found that while my well-sourced dissertations on everything under the sun might be interesting to me, the only way to write a good paper—one that is effective and worth reading—is to be focused. There may yet be time in my life to write about everything that interests me, just not in one paper.
Cue inspirational pop song. Looking at the four options, I choose the path second from the right, and press on. Slowly zoom out.