Last week, I met with my thesis advisor in her office in Bryan Hall. I sat in the same chair I had occupied during my second year, when I offered some vague and jumbled interests that eventually evolved into my current thesis project. This time, I was prepared with a list of proposed chapters and topics scrawled in my Moleskin notebook. It was vaguely surreal, as if everything else that had happened in the interim to refine my thoughts was edited away, leaving the two office visits baldly next to each other with all of the intervening work sheared away.
I started writing one of the smaller sections of my thesis last week, and although I’m in theory focused on contextualizing Gish Jen’s The Love Wife in a whirlwind of what I hope will be delicately chosen high and low culture representations of families, in actuality I’m thinking about chapters these days. Not my thesis chapters, but the idea of chapters broadly.
We apply this word as a way of reading our own lives, usually in reverse but sometimes as a way of marking a transition. Graduations; moving houses; changing jobs; these all represent the closing of old chapters and the page-turn into something new. The poignant, tense moment happens at the summit of that turning page, when the next batch of episodes are just ahead but can’t yet be glimpsed. None of this is revelatory; it’s just a cliche we lean on out of convenience.
One of my classes this semester is exploring exactly this – our tendency to frame our lives in the vocabulary of literature. But as much as I deeply love literature, every once in a while, I can’t help but wonder what the hours I spend dissecting stories in class are really worth. (If I never hear the phrases “interiority” and “the human condition” again, it will be too soon.) I’m starting to think that my English major isn’t really about literature at all – at least, not at its core. Instead, I think we crave fictional narratives because we’re uncertain of how to tell ourselves the stories of our own lives. We’re searching for frames, for modes, for moments when an author really nails just how awkward it can be when someone doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say or how you inexplicably distraught you were when you ran into a childhood friend and everything felt weird. If we already knew how to do this, why would we read? And in our search, why would we read the memoirs of people who have already cracked this code when we could read the fictional works of authors who are testing ideas and, like us, in the process of working these things out?
With the semester underway, I’ve traded my summer internship, with its long days and free weekends, in for the elaborate juggling of too many thoughts. These systems are in constant gestation; whether it’s my thesis, social media strategy for Literally, Darling, job hunting, my classes, or my creative writing, there are always thoughts evolving, being abandoned, and occasionally being scribbled down to fight against forgetfulness. I’m finding it difficult to shuffle between these different piles of information and for the first time in my life, I’m getting serious about taking notes, just to keep my various cycles of ideas from being totally derailed or mixed up with each other as I leave things on the back burner.
Thinking of this time as a chapter doesn’t offer me any useful way of framing my experience. Although I might be living out my “college chapter” in a general sense, no one’s life offers the neat thematic consistencies that robust writing can present. (If you accept that “college” is a relatively weak theme.) The subsections of my life – interdisciplinary classes, mundane tasks, creative work – are chaotic in combination and often irrelevant to each other. Different periods of life certainly offer thematic patterns, emotional resonances, and evolving plots, but before life can truly be thought of in readable chapters, so many experiences are filtered out and scrapped, lost to forgetfulness completely, with other experiences singled out as doing the useful work of explaining. The chronology of how our emotions work is at best erratic.
Now that I’m actually planning and starting to research chapters of a synthesis of literary critique and historical narrative, I’m thinking about nonfiction writing more deeply. Under closer examination, neat labels have a habit of breaking down rather quickly. The real work of writing is to work your way down through that devolution, stop, and build something back up again by sorting through the pieces you have cast around you.
The real irony here, and the thought behind this post’s title, is that I am simultaneously planning literal chapters that I will spend this year executing while preparing to close what many people would call a chapter of my life. As thematically complicated and research-driven as my literal chapters will be, they are so tiny and insignificant compared to what lies ahead. My plans for post-grad life are simultaneously specific and vague, a mess of contradictions and short term goals that will hopefully leave me open minded when considering jobs and cities but focused enough to actually obtain something. People have a tendency to build thesis projects up into grand encounters with unprecedented stress, but it’s small potatoes compared to what’s going on in some of the other thoughts that are silently baking in my unconscious while I scan Jen’s pages for pop culture references.
Only later, after time and forgetfulness have done some of the work for me, can I look back on this time with the ending in mind, deconstruct it, stop, and build it back up again, one word at a time.