“The old, boring, and complex novels caused writing the essay to be more miserable.”

As night closes down on the next-to-last day of what has been a difficult year, this statement by one of my students seems peculiarly apt.

I use “peculiarly” here in its lovely sense of “distinctively, particularly, uniquely,” not in its (now) more common sense of “oddly” or “weirdly.” But maybe that sense is just as good.

I knew what my student meant, of course: writing the essay was hard because the books it was about were hard (old, boring, and complex). But perhaps because I keep assuring my students that everything is interesting to the person willing to be interested, he is reluctant to take responsibility for either the boredom or the misery. Instead, he blames the novels.

There they come, those old things, waddling into his room to cause his writing to be miserable. They settle themselves in his chair and on the edge of his desk and proceed to bore him. They may have complicated personalities, but the complications are not interesting either; they are merely complicated.  And oh MY! but they are old.

Now, he’s not laying the blame for writing’s misery exclusively on them; evidently the writing was already miserable before they arrived to make it worse. We can’t be sure that the essay itself was miserable, but we do know the writing was. And we can be sure that once those old, boring, and complex novels showed up the writing was even more miserable.

Did he have anything to do with any of this? Evidently not. The sentence doesn’t even make clear that he was doing the writing—it seems simply to exist, independent of any agent. And the miserable-ness was visited upon the writing by those books. Perhaps my student was merely an observer, sympathetic or, more likely, bored himself.

I can offer a reason for the writing’s misery: my tired, bored, and lazy-minded student. He characterizes the readings in a way that has, alas, become familiar to me. I have been told, repeatedly, in essays that “Shakespeare is boring.” I have also been told that “Shakespeare is stupid.” The person, mind you, not necessarily the plays or poems. Readers all over the world during the course of some four centuries have been interested enough to keep the stuff in print, and even to support repeated productions of those boring and complex plays; but some of my students have not been deceived: BORING. STUPID. It is a way to avoid blaming oneself for failure to understand the material or care about the characters and their dilemmas: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in myself, but in the texts, that I am failing the course. After reading Angela Carter’s wonderful short story “Erl King,” which is not only a compelling coming-of-age story that uses the erl-king archetype brilliantly but also a gorgeous demonstration of the flexibility and joyfulness of the English vocabulary, several of my students complained that “She had no right to use all those hard words.” No right. That story certainly would qualify as “complex” and therefore “boring.”

The biggest reason why writing the essay was miserable, though, was that the student did not enter the sentences, or the thoughts, or the spirit at all. The source of the misery was impersonal toil at a meaningless chore. Even a young, lively, simple short story would cause misery for such writing.

When I’m working on a piece of writing and it begins to go well, I can feel that pleasure as a physical experience as well as an intellectual one. My hands reach eagerly for the keys, my fingers begin to fly, there is actually a thrill in my forearms. My mind leaps forward; I lean in. I forget time.

I grieve that this will never happen for my student. Writing the essay will always be miserable, because he doesn’t want to get involved. Blame it on those old, boring, and complex novels.

Ah well. We can always hope the New Year will bring something we’ve never seen before, something wonderful. That’s my wish…

Oh my. Old and complex. Bound to be boring. He LOOKS boring, doesn't he? (Only to the superficial glance…)

Oh my. Old and complex. Bound to be boring. He LOOKS boring, doesn’t he? (Only to the superficial glance…)

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

10 responses to ““The old, boring, and complex novels caused writing the essay to be more miserable.”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    May I ask the titles of a few of these old, boring novels?
    Phil is reading “The Last Chronicle of Barset” for the first time,
    as his bedtime reading. The joyous chuckles emerging from him
    defy the age of this old, old book. Old? Why it’s only 19th century.
    It’s modern. And we take a deep, appreciative breath of air coming
    up from the stacks.

    • RAB

      I didn’t note which “novels” he was referring to. He might actually not have meant novels at all, since genre terms seem mysterious to so many of my students despite assiduous attempts at clarification by me and I’m sure by prior instructors. I have many students who refer to everything as a “story,” whether it be history, short fiction, long fiction, or poetry. Strange universe, where fact and fiction are interchangeable.

  • Susan P

    Maybe they should read Annie Dillard. On second thought, she is probably boring as well.

    I love that feeling of a piece of writing launching.

    • RAB

      I have a funny feeling just about everything many of us love would strike today’s students as “boring,” if not “complex.” And few of them would recognize that writerly joy. Are we the last of our kind? Geeze, hope not!

      • Susan P

        My three grown children “caught” the joy from me. I read aloud to them. I seldom explained any thing including unknown words or meanings. My grandchildren love to be read to as well.

        I started all of them writing when they arrived at second grade. They had to write a journal entry several times a week. Two of the three have made it a lifetime project.

        I hate to think what the Common Core is going to do to those students.

  • Tiffany J.

    I love writing essays, but I’m a weirdo.

  • yearstricken

    With a lot more pictures, some zombies, and one or two vampires, Shakespeare could be interesting. 🙂

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