“We are going to begin from the very beginning… it’s a very good place to start…” Lady HP went all Sound of Music on me n’sh… Essay Basics… for Idiots.

Leads from the last blog on becoming a writer: A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

Deconstruction & Destruction of Descartes and Essays – The New Essay

Frans Hals - Portret van René Descartes
Frans Hals – Portret van René Descartes

Lady Holmes-Peters and I began working on my writing not by deconstructing what I had written on Descartes, but by obliterating it.  I guess I might have mentioned Descartes before, but despite the subject being daunting, it really wasn’t important to the reason I was given an F on the essay.   Descartes is a person whose ideas require a high degree of clarity in order for another writer to explore his thoughts.

By the time Lady HP and I met the next day I had come to terms with my skill deficit – my writing was bad.  I had gained a determination in the previous 24 hours that I would solve my writing problems.  My intention in the essay was to demonstrate that Descartes’ thinking, which anchored much of modern philosophical and scientific thought, was at its core, flawed.  The night before I had read my paper tens of times.  I knew what I wanted to say.  Try as I did, I wasn’t able to get  anything on paper that in the light of day would convince anyone I might be right for disagreeing with the ‘great thinker.’  ‘I think therefore, I am,’ – something so simple needs to be deconstructed simply.

I thought I knew, what I know now I didn't...
I thought I knew, what I know now I didn’t…

Lady HP and I met in a small room tucked in one of the upstairs corners of the high school.  I never knew about the room before but once I had been shown it, it was quickly annexed as my unofficial office.  In hindsight, both Lady HP and my friend the Vice Principal, Larry Yakimovitch, agreed they should never have shown it to me – and certainly never given me a key to it.

I would have happily taken an F in exchange for my new office, however, learning how to write, getting the average of the two grades and getting an office – that deal was sweet.

The room had cupboards on the bottom of all the wall space and open shelves that ran up to the ceiling.  At sometime in its previous incarnation, ie. before it became my office, it was a storage room for textbooks.  After the first week of classes, however, most of the books having been handed out, the room was virtually empty except for the large table in the middle of it.  The few teachers who knew about it, used it from time to time, when they didn’t want the constant interruptions of working in their classrooms.  It was covered in a putrid high gloss beige-grey paint that could have been a Nancy Regan dress – but sadly it was the color in my new office.  On the brighter side, it had two huge windows at the far end that drew your eyes away from the hideous color and compensated somewhat for the color.

I sat down counter corner to Lady HP.  In all honesty I was looking forward to learning what I was doing wrong – I was determined to triumph over my weaknesses.  I won’t confuse the reader here with what I actually wrote.  That wouldn’t be fair – since I would like people to keep reading my blog – and since everyone has been so supportive .  You might consider it cruel and unusual punishment to make you read what I wrote then.

Instead, I will endeavor to explain how I was told to construct essays.  A construction that put As back on my papers.

And so we began…

“Perran, what is it that you want to tell people about Descartes?”

“Well, I guess the primary, the most important… er, uhm, idea is that the idea of that it – his ideas – were like a starting point, were used as a…”

“Wow,” she smiled, “that is almost exactly what you wrote verbatim,” she laughed (I didn’t).  I think you are having trouble telling me because you are still thinking about it in terms of the paper you wrote.  Forget about that paper.  Just tell me what you want to say about Descartes, ‘I think, therefore I am?’”

I stumbled and wished that already knew what I was doing.

I think, therefore... ?  Whoa, back up... Descartes
I think, therefore… ? Whoa, back up… Descartes

“Perran, there is nothing you can salvage about that paper, so forget about it.  We are beginning from scratch.  You will discover writing an essay is a fairly easy thing when you start from a simple outline.

When she said, ‘outline’ my mind started to wander – it also started to close.  Well, it had taken all of 30 seconds to discourage me.  In the eighth grade I had taken a class on researching and writing as one of my class options – and although I aced the class – I learned to hate outlines.  They horrified me then and they continued to that day to horrify me.  From then on, I avoid them at all costs.  In the class, I had to write out inexplicably long outlines with all variations of Roman numerals (some of which I never knew existed) to construct the details in order as they lent varying degrees of strength to an argument.

The rules seemed straightforward but were actually quite cumbersome to a creative mind and I can honestly say I never liked them.  There were rules for what constituted major points and minor points.  You couldn’t have a first without a second – to this day I still don’t understand why that is so.  Why can’t you just make one good point and move on?  It boggled my mind, but then when I complained, I was told that it was ‘the method’ and to get on with it.

I am not going to write all the details for the reader here.  All I want to do is get across the idea of why I rejected the system for making outlines and why I avoid it like the plague after I learned it.  In the next weeks I will lay out how Lady HP actually taught me in a pragmatic way to achieve a more street smart simplified way to write an essay.  (In the next weeks you will also learn where I believe the ideas of Descartes are flawed).  The structure I give you here is what I learned in that research and writing class in its shortest form:

The Argument (being proposed):

Note:  For some reason you can’t have a point without a second point, points need to go from weakest to strongest etc, etc.  Or simply one supporting point for a main point… rules, rules, rules…

1) First Point Supporting

a) Supporting point, point (but, again, if there are only two or more)

i) Supporting

ii) Supporting

aa) Supporting detail

bb) Supporting detail – and so on and so on.

b) and so on…

2) Second Supporting Point

a) Supporting

i) Supporting detail

ii) Supporting detail

b) Supporting

3) Third point – the last point is usually saved to make the strongest argument

a) Supporting

b) Supporting

B)   Conclusion

In reality this system is designed so that it can go one forever and ever and in the academic world I am almost certain it does – and perhaps, on occasion, for good reasons (I also buy lottery tickets, despite the odds).  Some of these outlines, I am sure are blue print size if  not entirely panoramic.  (I am not OCD about this kind of stuff- but someone I love dearly is, … and some of you have met her… so it must serve some purpose).

In fairness, what this method does do quite effectively, is come up with a list of rules and regulations that make it easy for uncreative types to kill all the fun and spontaneity of the writing process.

I rejected this rigidity and in retrospect for the wrong reasons… nonetheless, reject it I did.  That was probably the beginning of my problems as a writer.  I should have rejected it for the right reason – ie. finding a system that worked for me.

Lady HP had seen my eyes glaze over; she knew she was losing me as my thoughts wondered back to my eighth grade outline-making nightmare.  We were only there for less than five minutes and I was lost in trepidation.

And so, she had already lost me…

“Perran, what’s wrong?  What just happened?”

He doesn't think, therefore he must not exist... Really Descartes

He doesn't think, therefore he must not exist... Really Descartes???

So I explained to her what you just read.  The whole idea of writing had been misrepresented to me as preparation for a research paper with strict rules and regulations.  She understood.

“Well, I have no intention of showing you anything but the easiest, simplest, most pragmatic way for writing an essay.  It’s a doddle.  You will see.  It is nothing like what you just described and I promise you, if you listen and practice what I say, even you… even you… can make Descartes understandable to virtually anyone.”

Now things were going to get interesting…

Picture of the baby by Spanish photographer: Miriam Robledo


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Filed under English, Getting Published, Novels, Writing

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