On taking it.

I’ve been working on a big paper for a while now, my senior thesis for philosophy. Those words are an understatement. Substitute ‘big’ with ‘time-consuming, confusing, frustrating, and important’ and substitute ‘a while’ with ‘three months’, and you’ll have a better idea. It’s not the be-all and end-all of papers. People write dissertations all the time. It’s not the hardest thing people have ever done, but good grief. It’s hard enough. And it’s lonely because it’s hard to bring people in on concepts you barely understand that are complex and basically in another language.

I’ve been wading through the philosophers I chose to write about and questioning whether or not I’m capable of writing anything of value on them. So many deep sighs. So little understanding. I didn’t get a single thing out of that entire chapter. I have to read it again. And again. And again. Okay, now I think I understand the basic premise. Implications? No idea. Probably aren’t any. I didn’t know it was possible for something to be so abstract.

I sent it to a classmate for peer review. That helped. My peer had questions, and he pointed out some spots where things in my paper made sense.Writing was never meant to be a solitary process. Sure, you may write in your closet, but coming up with a quality product needs other people.

I talked it over with another student… for about an hour. That helped. She had questions. I had a few more answers than I’d had during peer review.

I thought I had an epiphany. I think I sort of did. I wrote more. I edited what I’d written. Gosh, this is like sending my messy room to someone. But I sent it to my professor anyways.

He saw where I was going and helped me come up with an outline. *Deep sigh of relief* The light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter.

Then, as I was about to take my paper and leave his office, he said, “You’ve done good work on this.”

Was that good work? It was work, I think. It took work. It must be good work if the product is a little bit good. Maybe it shows the work. This brought relief, too. Maybe I won’t disappoint all my professors!

I sent the paper to my friend who is also a writing advisor and asked her to point out any parts where it didn’t make sense. You need some sort of initiation to these kinds of papers–not that it’s too smart for anyone, you just have to have some sort of exposure to the language to be able to follow the philosophical arguments. It’s foreign lingo.

When she responded, she told me she was impressed, that I was intelligent.

I’d like to think so. But there was a voice in the back on my mind when she told me that that said, “It’s not that you’re smart. It’s that the language is fancy. It’s that she hasn’t had time to read this kind of stuff because she’s in freaking nursing school. She’s just being nice. You have such nice friends.”

I often think that voice tells the truth. (Well, it’s right that I do have nice friends, and she’s one of the best.) The voice feels like it’s keeping me humble. It’s keeping me on earth, where if I let myself think I was intelligent, I might get a head too big to fit my graduation cap on. (and now it’s too late to get a different size. Not good. This could be disastrous)

But that’s not humility, is it?  Humility doesn’t require that I downgrade myself or deny what others have said in efforts to build me up. Humility asks that I think of myself less, that I look for ways to build other people up, and that I accept the praise offered me when it is given with grace.

I’m just going to take it.

I’m going to accept what she said, file it away in that file of things people have said about me, and decide if it’s true later. Maybe it will be true some days and in some cases and not in others. I’m going to accept that my professor says I did good work, to file that away in the file of tasks that others have affirmed and keep trying to live up to the affirmation.

This seems like a healthier response. Also, it’s finals time, so let’s face it, genuine affirmation is always a lovely thing. And when I can accept it, I bet it’ll be easier to give.

How to write a paper

Sometimes you want to do a good job on a paper because it’s for your favorite professor, and it’s the first paper of the semester. So, when you get the prompt for the first essay, you

STEP 1: Have a small panic attack. It’s not a long paper, and the prompt is straightforward. There is nothing here that would logically induce such a response. But since you already feel the pressure, you just have a small breakdown. Then you

STEP 2: Get over it. And you

STEP 3: Start re-reading the dense animal rights and utilitarianism articles needed to write the paper adequately. You underline things and make small guttural noises of agreement and disapproval in the back of your throat when appropriate. And you write things in the margins like buzzwords and just because it’s absurd doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about it. Then you

STEP 4: Go over all your notes from the articles and start to formulate a thesis. Write it in plain English, nothing fancy. Write it in a way that when you go back later to start actually writing the body of the paper, you’ll see things that make sense. Then you

STEP 5: Write out some sentences that are jam-packed with content. It doesn’t matter if they’re run-ons or if the ideas in the sentences need unpacking. As long as you can unpack them later, feel free to leave the sentence incoherent and jumbly.

STEP 6: Eat a calzone and take a little break. Actually, do that a few times throughout the process. Don’t do it all in one sitting. Drink some water, call your sister, and then

STEP 7: Start typing out the ideas from your notes, starting with your thesis (that will change later when we revise… don’t worry, it’s supposed to). Follow that up by unpacking all those ideas you jumbled out on the paper. Keep going until you get it all out. Then

STEP 8: Formulate a conclusion based on everything you’ve just written. Go back and read through your brilliant material  to get an idea of what the heck you just wrote about. Believe me, it’s harder than you think to remember it all once you’ve spewed it out in typing mode. Conclude, then

STEP 9: Revisit your thesis. Hello, old friend. We missed you while we were drawing conclusions down there. Oh boy, we didn’t actually talk about this in our essay. Did we need to? Oh, we didn’t? Well, what did we actually talk about? Oh. Let’s put that in our thesis. Once your thesis is actually about what your paper is about, then

STEP 10: Have a revision party! Invite the grammar rules and George Orwell’s rules for writing to the party. Visit every line and spread the cheer of making them clearer and more active. It’s your last hurrah before turning in this draft, so make it a good one.

And that, dear friends, is how papers come to be.

Grace for the paper.

I hate writing first drafts for a paper.  Even if I have a clear idea of what I want to say and a general structure that I want the document to take, the initial cranking out of the paragraphs is intensely painful.


This is another one of those times where I realize how insanely ridiculous I am.

I spent a good portion of yesterday mapping out my paper (and by mapping, I mean literally… there’s a great app for macs that helps you mind map) and dreading the writing.  In fact, I dreaded it all through lunch and Comm Theory.  Then I went back to my room, procrastinated a little bit, mapped a little more, and dreaded it all through choir. Then I dreaded it all through dinner.  And I dreaded it all through my shift.

This is a significant portion of my day spent dreading.  It wasn’t the most restful day – which is ironic since my paper was about ambition – which, I’m sure, you an imagine.

Picture my surprise when I got home at 9:30, started writing my paper around 10:03, and was all done by 10:58.

It’s just another reminder that God cares about the things that weigh me down. There was a great amount of grace in that paper-writing process.  (It’s not even a bad first draft, which is what my professor says he expects.)  And because God carries those burdens with me and infuses grace into the situations that come with them, I don’t need to be weighed down.

Are you getting sick of reading about how I keep forgetting that?  Come ON, Ashley.  You’ve talked about this 800 million times.  I think you just need to get the point now and learn something else.

You’re probably right.

I’ll get there.