Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Classics

What I really learned from my classical education

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Last week, while discussing Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, I wrote: “This isn’t an unstructured novel by any means, but the structure is paratactic rather than periodic—the plot doesn’t advance so much as proceed inexorably from one bloody set piece to the next.” I chose the terms “paratactic” and “periodic” without thinking, but the more I look at this sentence, the more amused I feel at the return of these particular words. They are, in fact, fossils from my classical education, in which I spent a ridiculous amount of class time dividing authors into one of these two camps. (For those who spent their time in college in more useful ways, “periodic” is a style of prose, typified by Cicero, in which the meaning of a thought depends on the structure of the entire sentence, and often isn’t clear until the very last word, while “paratactic” refers to a style in which relatively short, separate ideas are starkly connected like links in a chain.) And this represents only one example of how my thinking has been shaped by the education I received—although not always in the way I expected at the time.

When I entered college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to concentrate in, but I knew that I wanted to be a writer. On my application, I wrote “English” as my expected major, but over the course of my freshman year, I cycled variously, and with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness, between psychology, the history of science, and even, briefly, engineering. (I nixed the latter after realizing that if I were really serious about engineering, I should have gone to the college just down the road.) I arrived at Classics for several reasons: 1) I knew that I wanted to learn Latin and Greek, but quickly realized that since I was starting from scratch, I couldn’t just study them as electives. 2) My college had the most prestigious Department of Classics in the country, so if nothing else, I’d be studying with the best. 3) I’d just read a book by the classicists Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath lamenting the decline of classical education, and I’m a sucker for a lost cause. 4) Most of all, I wanted a major that would give me the kind of broadly generalist education I thought I needed as a writer, and a field that required at least a superficial grounding in grammar, linguistics, rhetoric, history, art, literature, religion, archaeology, and other subjects seemed to fit the bill.

Well, now it’s more than ten years since I graduated, which seems like a good time to take stock of what I really learned from the experience. If I’d hoped to emerge with a permanent knowledge of Greek and Latin, that unfortunately wasn’t the case: it took a long time to ramp up to the point where I was at all competent in these languages, and although there was a period of about six months when I could capably sight-read Euripides, it didn’t last long. (I’m secretly convinced that I could probably regain a lot of these skills if I sat down and tried it, but I haven’t yet put this to the test.) I read a lot of great literature, but aside from Homer, Plato, Antigone, the Gospels, and possibly Virgil, their lasting impact hasn’t been as significant as that of other writers I’ve read before and since. While I still believe strongly in the importance of classical education, I’m no longer as dogmatic about this as I used to be—and it certainly didn’t help to realize that Victor Davis Hanson is basically a crazy neoconservative. Classics is undoubtedly the key to understanding much of the literature that followed, but for most of us, reading these works in good translations is probably more than sufficient. And as Harold Bloom likes to point out, even the greatest literature isn’t likely to turn us into better citizens.

Yet if I had the chance to go back and try again, I do exactly the same thing. Classics is in my blood, in ways I’ve internalized so completely that the effects are often invisible. The most important college class I ever took, at least in terms of how it affected my subsequent life, was a single course in introductory Latin prose composition, in which I hacked my way ineptly through Bradley’s Arnold and laboriously composed short paragraphs in a dead language. I was never much of a Latinist, but the experience indelibly shaped my style as a writer, to the point where it sometimes seems too proper—I’ve had to work hard to restore the informality and roughness that fiction sometimes requires. It gave me a permanent distrust of semicolons. And it provided me with a critical vocabulary and toolbox that I use to evaluate everything I write. When I’m working on a short story or a chapter in a novel, I’m never consciously taking classical examples into account, but they’ve quietly enforced many of my feelings about narrative clarity, transparency, and elegance. Would I have come to the same conclusions anyway? Probably—but I couldn’t have implemented them nearly as well. Classics wasn’t an end in itself, but an essential starting point. And even as I’ve largely left it behind, I’m grateful that I had a chance to begin there.

Written by nevalalee

October 23, 2012 at 9:59 am

“Accurate, but unsystematic”: a writer’s education

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What does a writer need to know? If you’re a novelist, the answer is: almost everything. One of the most daunting things about writing a novel is the amount of information it needs to contain, at least in order to meet the standards of contemporary realism—architectural details, descriptions of weather and clothing, mundane details about jobs and lifestyles that the writer will rarely know firsthand, and just the names of countless things, both unusual and commonplace. And all of this is merely background noise compared to the difficult work of constructing believable characters and relationships, not to mention the education and experience required to write clear, accessible, descriptive prose.

So how is a writer supposed to learn all this? Certainly not by going to class. It’s acquired, rather, by writing a lot, which is to say endlessly, and by engaging the world for years through the peculiar lens of fiction, in which everything is potential material, and experiences accrue in the form of words and ideas rather than merely piling up over time. It’s also acquired by talking to a wide variety of people, reading good books, and especially by exposing oneself to as many different kinds of art as possible. And as writers love to point out, none of this can be easily taught. A writer’s mind is always going to be a product of countless misguided experiments, to the point where one wonders if it might be easier, as Mamet suggests, just to skip school altogether and head straight for the starving artist stage.

And yet it’s also true that the best, most convenient place for getting much of this necessary experience is a university town. Cardinal Newman said it best:

You cannot have the best of every kind of knowledge everywhere; you must go to some great city or emporium for it…It is the place to which a thousand schools make contributions; in which the intellect may safely range and speculate, sure to find its equal in some antagonist activity, and its judge in the tribunal of truth.

Which is to say that not every writer needs to go to college, but that he or she probably needs to go near a college.

When I think about my own education, I’m reminded of the phrase that Watson used to describe Holmes’s knowledge of anatomy: “Accurate, but unsystematic.” I went to a good school, but had trouble deciding on a major, and ended up in Classics largely because it promised to give me a little of everything—art, history, literature, philosophy, linguistics, poetics, philology, archaeology, comparative religion, all built on the foundations of two difficult languages. Looking back, I’m not quite sure what it gave me, aside from a Latinate regard for grammar that hasn’t always been to my advantage. And partly as a result of my own personality, I’ve ended knowing something about a lot of things, but nothing in depth.

And yet I don’t think I’d change any of my educational choices—unless it were to make them less systematic. In college, I met a lot of interesting people, cultivated habits of thought that have served me fairly well, and made some productive mistakes. And it’s the mistakes that have been the most fruitful. I think there’s something to be said for screwing up repeatedly in your twenties, and if anything, I was too careful. Part of me wishes I’d started writing seriously right after college, rather than looking for a real job. If that were the case, I might still be sleeping on an air mattress in Queens, but I’d probably be a better writer than I am now. As Proust points out, it’s hard to acquire wisdom without making mistakes. And in the end, in order to be really useful, a writer’s education needs to be a bit of a mess.

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2011 at 9:04 am

MFA, NYC, and the Classics

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On Friday, Slate published a long article, which originally appeared in N+1, about the dueling literary cultures of New York City and the typical MFA graduate program. The article is a bit of a slog—the author, Chad Harbach, while clearly talented and smart, veers uncertainly between jargon words like “normative” and precious coinages like “unself-consciousness”—but it’s hard not to grant one of its underlying points: that it’s now possible for a writer to make a comfortable living, primarily as a teacher, by appealing to a tiny slice of academic readers, and that this approach is, if anything, easier, safer, and more of a sure thing than the writing of “commercial” fiction, even as it manages to portray itself as the more honest and authentic way of life.

Now, I don’t have an MFA. And I’m the author of what is intended, frankly, as a big mainstream novel. (Whether it succeeds or not is another matter entirely.) But I do know what Harbach means when he notes that MFA programs are becoming “increasingly preprofessorial”—that is, a credential on the way to a teaching job, rather than preparation for a life as a working writer. It’s a trajectory that seems very similar to that of the Classics, which is something I know about firsthand.

There was a time, or so some would like to believe, when a classical education was seen as an essential part of one’s training for the larger world: it was taken for granted that our lawyers, doctors, and politicians should know some Latin and Greek. These days, though, such departments seem primarily interested in training future professors of Classics. And, perhaps as a direct result, there are fewer and fewer Classics majors every year. (In my graduating class, there were something like fourteen, out of a student body of sixteen hundred.)

The same thing, I think, is likely to happen to MFA departments, if they continue along the track that Harbach describes. If author/professors continue to produce short stories exclusively for one another, interest in literary fiction will gradually die, no matter how many anthologies continue to “disseminate, perpetuate, and replenish” the canon. Like the Classics, university writing programs will remain a comfortable career option for a lucky few, but enrollment will inevitably decline, along with the sense of urgency and risk that all good fiction requires.

The major difference between an MFA and a Classics degree, of course, is that the former is much easier. That, too, is likely to change, especially if, as Harbach tentatively predicts, the MFA comes to focus more on the novel, rather than the short story, and continues to put its primary emphasis on literary theory. After all, with only so many tenured professorships available, there has to be some way to thin out the crowd. And if you don’t believe me, just look at the Classics. If you want to restrict a field to the professorial class, such an approach certainly works. It works only all too well.

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Posted in Publishing, Writing

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