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Friday, October 22, 2010

Which Comes First?


Last week, I got an interesting question about writing big papers and coming up with the argument.  The question was:
"Is it more like an argument that you will prove or disprove by reading the books? I don't know how I can make such any statement without reading the books and finding out how authors are approaching a topic..."  ~Kerryn Angell
This question got me thinking about the chicken-egg dilemma that often accompanies academic papers.  The problem is this: most papers we write in high school, college and even graduate school are artificial.  The parameters of the paper force us to look at only a limited number of works and construct an argument from there, ignoring the rest of the canon.  Not only that, oftentimes professors require us to get a stamp of approval on our "thesis statement" before we've even read the books!

The reason professors and colleges often use this method is because of a simple, yet powerful constraint: time.  Students just don't have the time to go on a hunting expedition to craft a scholarly paper so the teachers narrow the task down for us.  They limit the number of books we discuss in the paper, they check our thesis statements before we start, they make sure we're headed in the right direction.  They do all of this because they want students to focus on learning to write the paper, and not waste hours of time hunting down a thesis through piles of books.

In DIY MFA things are a bit different.  We have the freedom to make mistakes, beat our head against the wall and have a few false starts.  When I wrote my literature thesis for the MFA, I didn't tell the professor but I read at least ten books that fit the thesis.  We were only allowed to choose four, so I chose the ones that best illustrated my point and saved the rest of the books for later.  Someday I will go back to that literature thesis, rewrite it to encompass all the books I want to include.  But that is a project for a later time.

My point is, that when you're writing or planning the "Big Paper" for DIY MFA, you have the freedom to explore the literature first.  Read a lot.  Think a lot.  Then make up your mind about what you want to say about the literature.  The goal here isn't to write a mind-blowing paper (though that would be awesome).  Rather, the point is to build a strong relationship with reading and to see how books fit together, relate to each other.

In this aspect of DIY MFA it's OK to be a detective.  In fact, that's probably a good thing.  And who knows, maybe as you sleuth out your argument and look for connections between books, you might just find a few of these.

3 comments:

Jen Daiker said...

I loved this post!!! I of course love the chick so I'll say it came first, but for the purpose of the post I think you really laid everything out on the table! Loved it :)

darksculptures said...

Ditto what Jen said! I love this approach as well. Thanks, Kerryn, for the awesome question that lead to this nugget of enlightenment.

Kerryn Angell said...

Thanks for answering my question in so much detail! I guess this is one of the benefits of doing the DIY MFA.

I recently read Sophie Kinsella's Twenties Girl and absolutely flew through the novel. I've been the same with her other stand alone books and the first Shopaholic novel. I began wondering what it is about her books that grips me so and another Big Paper idea hit me. I now have a theory that she has life conflict and story conflict woven throughout the novel.

In a DIY MFA I like the concept that you start out a Big Paper with a theory or hypothesis that you will either prove or disprove with the books you choose to read. This way I think you can still limit the amount of reading so the Big Paper is produced in a reasonable timeframe whilst still analysis, leaning and sharing the results.

Now each time I read a book that I love I have the beginnings of a Big Paper. :)

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