In response to a recent post on this blog, a friend writes, in FB Messenger:
I’ve been reading the New York Writers Workshop MFA writing guide which tries to take the place of a 30-40,000 dollar MFA program and there’s lots of focus on essay and article idea generation. I’m curious, Do these other articles you quote from form the seed of the idea for the essay or do you use them to bolster your essay or is it, as I suspect, somewhere in between?
Good question. To quote Star-Lord, it’s a “bit o’ both!” One is fertilized by the other. One is the seed, the other the shit.
The seed itself comes from I-know-not-whence, and here one must acknowledge the gods.
Is the seed simple existence? Is it the numenous? Is it years of prior study bursting out of the earth like dragons’ teeth? Adam Frank, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester, describes just such an experience in his essay, “Of Coffee, Equations and the Scientific Sacred,” where he receives a visitation from the Abstract Deity of Differential Equations on the trembling surface of a cup of coffee and lapses–how could he not?–into the passive tense: “There it was, laid out with exquisite perfection, right in front of me…Now it was real. Now it was ‘true’. Suddenly the abstractions were alive for me. The mathematics was made manifest in motion. It was one of the most beautiful things I had seen or ever would see.”
And here’s Emerson: “God screens us evermore from premature ideas. Our eyes are holden that we cannot see things that stare us in the face, until the hour arrives when the mind is ripened; then we behold them, and the time when we saw them not is like a dream.”
One such hour arrived, for me, in a maximum security prison, when the ideas of Michel Foucault, whose explications of the horrors of institutional control and repressive discourse–and which meant nothing to me in graduate school–were suddenly made manifest on the bodies of living men. “When the student is ready,” we are told, “the master appears,” but nobody ever said it always has to be beautiful.
An encounter with an extant manifestation of an intimate idea at once justifies to the mind the legitimacy of that idea and prompts its further expression. “The world,” writes Emerson,
this shadow of the soul, or other me, lies wide around. Its attractions are the keys which unlock my thoughts and make me acquainted with myself. I launch eagerly into this resounding tumult. I grasp the hands of those next me, and take my place in the ring to suffer and to work, taught by an instinct that so shall the dumb abyss be vocal with speech.
It is those shadows that our students must be encouraged to seek out. They have been explicitly told never to use “I” in a paper, have been made to believe that their own interests and discourses are not college material, and have been silenced by endless drumbeats of proper citation and punitive accusations of plagiarism. We need to say to them, like Derek Walcott, in his poem, “Love After Love,”
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
Now, start writing.