For all of you out there who are facing a final term paper or class report before being able to escape from the halls of academia this spring, I would like to share this essay, which very well describes the fashion in which I prepare this column three times a week. The author is unknown.
How to write a College Paper 1. Sit in a straight, comfortable chair in a well-lighted place with plenty of freshly sharpened pencils. 2. Read over the assignment carefully, to make certain you understand it. 3. Walk down to the vending machines and buy some coffee to help you concentrate. 4. Stop off at the third floor, on the way back and visit with your friend from class. If your friend hasn't started the paper yet either, you can both walk to McDonalds and buy a hamburger to help you concentrate. If your friend shows you his paper, typed, double-spaced, and bound in one of those irritating see-thru plastic folders, drop him. 5. When you get back to your room, sit in a straight, comfortable chair in a clean, well-lighted place with plenty of freshly sharpened pencils. 6. Read over the assignment again to make absolutely certain you understand it. 7. You know, you haven't written to that kid you met at camp since fourth grade. You'd better write that letter now and get it out of the way so you can concentrate. 8. Go look at your teeth in the bathroom mirror. 9. Listen to one of your favorite CDs and that's it, I mean it, as soon as it's over you are going to start that paper. 10. Rearrange all of your CDs into alphabetical order. 11. Phone your friend on the third floor and ask if he's started writing yet. Exchange remarks about your teacher, the course, the university, and the world at large. 12. Sit in a straight, comfortable chair in a clean, well-lighted place with plenty of freshly sharpened pencils. 13. Read over the assignment again; roll the words across your tongue; savor its special flavor. 14. Check the newspaper listings to make sure you aren't missing something truly worthwhile on TV. NOTE: When you have a paper due in less than 12 hours, anything on TV from Masterpiece Theater to Sgt. Preston of the Yukon is truly worthwhile, with these exceptions: a) Pro Bowler's Tour b) any movie starring Don Ameche. 15. Catch the last hour of Soul Brother of Kung Fu on channel 26. 16. Phone your friend on the third floor to see if he was watching. Discuss the finer points of the plot. 17. Go look at your tongue in the bathroom mirror. 18. Look through your roommate's book of pictures from home. Ask who everyone is. 19. Sit down and do some serious thinking about your plans for the future. 20. Open your door and check to see if there are any mysterious trench-coated strangers lurking in the hall. 21. Sit in a straight, comfortable chair in a clean, well-lighted place with plenty of freshly sharpened pencils. 22. Read over the assignment one more time, just for the thrill of it. 23. Scoot your chair across the room to the window and watch the sunrise. 24. Lie face down on the floor and moan. 25. Punch the wall and break something. 26. Check your email.
27. 5 a.m., start writing. Done at 5:17 a.m. 28. Complain to everyone that you didn't get any sleep because you had to write that stupid paper.
Not only is this a cute, and I'm afraid all too accurate assessment of the writing process, I enjoyed this piece because that signature repeated line reminded me of an old favorite, Ernest Hemingway's short story "A Clean, Well Lighted Place."
A coincidence? Maybe. Hemingway would no doubt have had a guffaw over the list, then insist that additions be made for distractions such as drinking a Jack Rose, picking a fight, and wooing a beautiful Cuban chica.
Maybe, before you start writing that paper, you should check out Hemingway's story, one of the most masterful of its genre, for inspiration.
As I recall, his "clean, well lighted place" is a late night cafe, where a deaf old man - a World War I veteran - goes to drink brandy and escape the darkness and loneliness. He is a drunk, but a polite and elegant one. It is revealed that he had tried to hang himself days before. A young waiter is quick to judge and insult him, wanting the old man to leave so he can go home earlier, while an older one defends him, perhaps foreseeing his own fate. The old man cannot hear either, but does hear - the guns and bombs of a long-ago battlefield.
James Joyce - also well worth checking out - said that Hemingway "reduced the veil between literature and life" in the story. Experts still argue over the interpretation and symbolism, as experts do, missing the beauty of writing and storytelling, which is the point.
You may not do well turning in class papers that defy interpretation, but then again, satisfying a professor isn't all there is to life.
The real trick isn't finding a well-lighted place to write, it's finding a well-lighted place within yourself.