“One Story”


Writing, for me, is a story of stories.  Just like no single experience has shaped me as a person, no single influence has shaped me as a writer.  I’ve encountered many influences.  There is a story to tell about each one, but if we’re talking simply, there is only one story.

High school reading and writing was a blur of school paper articles, novels, MLA-formatted papers, red-ink grammar corrections, and a Lord of the Flies paperback annotated to put the Half-blood Prince’s Advanced Potion-Making to shame.  1984 highlighted till bleeding, after-school-hours in journalism, and trying not to stutter while reciting Desdemona’s lines.  A rare, throwback-to-kindergarten book report here, an open letter there, timed essays, SAT writing tests, Strunk, White, Frost, and finally… Stop.  Pause, and…

“Open Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature like a Professor to page 185,” my English teacher Mrs. Farmer told us senior year.

We purchased many books as honors English students at El Toro High School.  This one, Holy Grail of literary counsel, was a purchase worth more than all the tatty paperbacks I bought put together.  Reading Mrs. Farmer’s selected chapters of How to Read Literature Like a Professor stands as a frozen moment in my writing experience, because it was the moment when answers were given, when connections clicked.

For all the literature I read in high school, I always knew the answers.  I always made the right connections.  I had a knack for literary analysis.  So when Mrs. Sheridan would ask us, “What religious figure does Simon remind you of in Lord of the Flies?”  I’d raise my hand, clear my throat (for dramatic effect), and answer, “Jesus.”

For all the papers I wrote in high school, I (pretty much) always knew the answers.  I always made the right connections.  I had a knack for writing according to each English teacher’s preferences.  So when Mr. Shields gave us an essay prompt that seemed too open-ended, I’d take a philosophical tone and apply big questions to something as focused as a passage in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

You can see that I must have established a fairly large literary ego by the time Mrs. Farmer had us first open How to Read Literature like a Professor.  The section we read titled, “One Story” put my proud ego to its rightful place: on its knees.

When asked if she knew as a child that she wanted to be a writer, Toni Morrison answered, “No.  I wanted to be a reader.”

I learned how to read and write simultaneously when I was younger, but I know that I was first a reader before I ever became a writer.  The stories I read, from No, David! to I am David, collected in me to create the writer I’ve come to be.

Words are taken in when I read, and the same words are spewed out when I write.  If you look at my writing closely, you’ll surely see the same sentence structures, patterns, and even themes from works I’ve read before.

This is intertextuality is what Foster talks about in How to Read Literature Like a Professor.  In a sense, every writer is a plagiarist. “Pure originality is impossible,” he says.  My essay on Ken Kesey’s Randle McMurphy as a Christ figure? It’s been said before.  My compare-and-contrast on the hubris of Oedipus and Othello? It’s been said before.  And every one of my English teachers who ever rolled his or her eyes at an essay repeating the previous student’s knew it.  They just never told me.

High egos trail every honors English student who graduates from high school.  Add an editor’s position on the school newspaper, a 4.03 weighted GPA, and acceptance to a prestigious private school and it’s impossible to refrain from self-glorification in every following assignment you write.  The very words you use might reflect the pompous student you were when you thought your knowledge of the symbolism in Animal Farm set you above the “regular” students who were still, undeniably, “cooler” than you.

Forgetting that my book-smarts compensated for my social anxiety and insecurity in high school, I read Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor with humility.

“There’s only one story,” read the bolded words on the bottom of page 185.  The chapter goes on to say that this story–told by every story in existence–is the human story.  It’s a story about us that’s “not about anything.  It’s about everything,” says Foster.

The reason why every movie, play, or novel seems to follow the same plot line of exposition to conflict to climax to denouement is because “Every Trip is a Quest” (Chapter 1).  We’ve seen the storyline of The Notebook before because, “When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare” (Chapter 6).  Piggy from Lord of the Flies, Tiresias from The Odyssey, and Neo from The Matrix have vision problems because “He’s Blind for a Reason, You Know” (Chapter 22).

Every work written draws from and interacts with past works.  That means everything I write draws from and interacts with what I’ve read and written in the past.  You might call it plagiarism.  I call it familiarity.  I’m not in creative writing, but the stories I tell don’t materialize out of thin air.  They’re echoes of past stories.  They collect into one story: my own.

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It takes humility to admit that your words are not your own, and that you are not as original as you think you are.   Whatever sarcastic humor I think I have came from Vice Magazine.  Going all natural, writing words that automatically come to mind employs Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous method.  Visually-stimulating adjectives listed to describe trivial objects are just the Gabriel García Márquez talking in me.

But the reason I knew Simon reflected Jesus in Lord of the Flies was because I heard a familiar story of self-sacrifice in Sunday school.  I knew there was a philosophical answer to why Jim and Huck travelled down the Mississippi because I’ve asked myself philosophical questions about the journeys I travel, too.

As Foster says, it’s a comfort to recognize characters, symbols, archetypes, or patterns in the things we read.  They are familiar and relatable.  Their resonance sounds deep in our collective subconscious.  I will never feel so proud to believe myself a genius, but I’m comforted to know there are words and ideas from geniuses before me to build and guide my own.

Humbling as reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor was for me, I look back and feel confident that the answers and connections I seek through reading and writing lie in the stories I already know. Inevitably, I know they will be revealed through the story I tell.



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