Why on earth are you learning Ancient Greek?
When I started taking classical Greek in the fall of my first year in college, even when I finished the beginners courses in the spring, I never imagined that it would mean so much to me. I'm now at the end of my second year of Greek and I cannot imagine my life without it. Learning the letters, being able to read Sappho in the original form, being able to impress my friends by reciting phrases - all of that is fun, but what's really made all the difference in my academic life was not the language at all. It was the process of learning it. Greek requires the mastering of an entirely different alphabet, an entirely different grammar, and an entirely different history than learning English as a child did, and even, I might argue, than any other modern romance language. It was terrifying and challenging and had me pulling my hair out most nights as I tried to master the verb forms. It was all of that and yet I stuck with it, partly out of fear of learning yet another language to fulfill my school's requirements, partly out of stubbornness and a finish-what-you-started attitude, and however small a part it might have been, love of learning it. The eureka moments were worth the late night before. I was getting it, I was making progress, and while my grades weren't so friendly, I felt good about it. I was doing something that was challenging and complex and I was getting it. I fell in love with the process - figuring out a tricky word, remembering a sneaky verb form, getting a complex translation. It was all adding up. From that feeling of success, I fell in love with the languages, with all those tricky turns that I had hated so much before, with those strange words, with those poetic lines. Learning Greek might not be that useful on the surface to my literary career or my ambitions to become a professor, but it was useful in making me a better student and a more devoted learner, and that has really made all the difference in my academic career.
How does one become a strong writer?
Writing is a lot like riding a bike to me. Not everyone gets it first try, not everyone enjoys it, not everyone deems it worthy of learning. There are a lot of moving parts involved, a lot of balance, and lose but loyal adherence to a few rules. From the start line, it looks hard, nearly impossible - how can I ever learn to balance opinion with research, how can I ever figure out how to keep myself from tumbling over in a pile of metal and skinned knees? - and most will give up before they even try. But just like that parent or sibling that offered to hold the back of the bike for you while you practiced, then stealthily let go so you were riding the bike all on your own, you need someone to support you, guide you, and ultimately, let you teach yourself to write. And like a bike, practice makes perfect. No one hops on a bike able to pop wheelies just by sheer will of it. You need to learn the basics, then you can get fancy and pull impressive tricks. Writing is never a one-person show, and you need someone to support you and show you the way so before you know it you can do it all on your own. And once you learn, it will be very hard to unlearn. Like the bike, writing can become like second nature to you, easy to dust off after some time away. Practicing patience with yourself and the craft and getting support from someone who knows how to do it will make all the difference.
How can the literary theory of structuralism be helpful in literary study?
There is this idea of a ‘common text’ that everyone is supposed to read. For example, everyone studying English literature should have read Shakespeare. Every Irish citizen should have read Joyce. Every American should have read The Great Gatsby. Every Christian should have read the Bible. Every this should have read this text, because if you haven’t then you are a fake, an uneducated whatever, because this text is central to the experience of that group. Often, people try to apply this more generally, making impossibly long lists for books that everyone should read, because of this idea of one common human experience or nature. But these lists rarely align. There are hundreds of lists available for those who wish to be SUPER well-read, or if you self-identify as a nerd, or if you only take reading advice from librarians, or if you want to cover your classics bases, and those are just the ones I’ve personally saved in my bookmarks. Millions of lists come up with a quick Google search, and even outside the public arena, I’ve never attended a class at ASC where I’ve previously read the material, which means there are even more deemed “Must-Reads” by our professors, because otherwise they wouldn’t be teaching classes on them. It would be utterly impossible to read every book on every list. You would die first, and that would insult a great category of lists that insist you must read all their picks before you die. I’ve only recently come into this thought. At first I was disheartened, thinking of all that great literature I would miss out on or not get around to before I was dead and, possibly, quite unable to read. And then, I thought about Structuralism. If we adhere to the core argument of Structuralism, we accept that literature is finite, and everything is only a mere repetition of the core story. So that means, I haven’t missed anything. In fact, I’ve probably read it all. Perhaps not in so many words, not in Dickens voice, or the Mesopotamian myth voice, or the voices that don’t yet exist. But I know the structure. So when someone starts talking about a Shakespeare play I haven’t read, I only need to think of the adaptations I’ve seen before, or read before. I’ve got the important bits. I don’t have it in Shakespeare’s particular words, but I do have it in the in 1999 film, 10 Things I Hate about You, which was loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew, so I get the point, I get the structure. I’m safe. To me though, this only eliminates the dreadfully impossible task of reading everything. The task that remains is to read what I can, understand the differences, and learn the individual voices. And that is a task I will take on with great enthusiasm and joy.