Sunday, July 10, 2011

Oft' I Wonder

College degrees. Are they worth the hype? In 2007 I enrolled in college with a focus on obtaining a degree. My major remained unclaimed simply because college was new territory for me. Really, who begins college at age fifty-three? Me, that's who. Without a plan in place I attended "Registration Day" at the main campus with the objective of enrolling in classes based on whatever my adviser printed out based on a Liberal Arts degree (because that's where one begins when running screaming from math and science).

Registration experts sat at tables in a huge hall. One by one they helped students fill out a schedule. As one table cleared, a registrar would crook hers or his finger and wave in another student, similar to standing in line at TJMaxx minus the talking checkouts. My turn arrived and I was waved in by an older woman. She was pleasant and to my advantage, a former head of the English Department. She said to me, "What have you done lately?" I answered, "Before my eye-explosion I wrote three novels." In front of her was my pseudo-schedule, a list of recommended subjects based on my high school transcript. She gazed down at it and quickly scribbled a line through whatever English course listed on the printout. As she scribbled she said, "Oh, no, no. This isn't the subject for you. I'm putting you in the Honors English program."

Like I knew the difference. I shrugged and said, "Okay." She then asked how much of a course load I thought I could handle (keep in mind, I was fifty-three and over thirty years out of high school). I replied, "Maybe two or three a week?" And she added Art History to my schedule. "Let's start you off slow," she said. "Super!" said I.

Five years later and still without a degree, I have successfully completed nineteen credits, twelve of those in Honors English. I write, therefore I crammed as many writing courses as I could handle into my schedule, and have never seen my writing skills improve as greatly except for when I experienced a professional edit from this very awesome editor extraordinaire, Erica Orloff (a/k/a Author Extraordinaire).

While taking college credit courses, I also maintained writing in my work-in-progress, a project that's taking nearly five years to finish (note "eye explosion" and "enrolling in college" - those things were time sucks). All in all, I kept at the craft, one for college credits and the other for improving my skills on my own time (as difficult as it was during "eye explosion").

Another Fall semester is approaching and I enrolled in one final Honors English course, only to drop the course before starting. Thoughts of "And I need this why?" kept rolling around in my sub-conscious, sending subliminal messages for me to take one more look at "WHY?" again. Thus I set out on a path to wonder and ponder as to the necessity of a degree in Liberal Arts/English Literature. I have the utmost respect for degrees, especially in the Arts. And I strongly feel this about degrees: Once obtained no one can take them away. Plus, for the many it looks good on a resume. "They" say that these days one can't get a decent paying job without some form of degree.

I'm beyond hanging out with the workforce. I have no plans on seeking employment in the "real world." My career focus is finishing my work-in-progress with a later focus on seeing it to fruition, a/k/a publication. The question that begs asking and taps at my skull often is do I really need a degree in order to accomplish my writing goals?

Perhaps what I need to consider is the audience for whom I write. Am I trying to appeal to the Literary Fiction crowd? No, and if so I'd need the Bachelors and also the Masters in Fine Arts (most likely). And lately I've considered the "genre" in which I write. Still haven't determined precisely what it is, but I have narrowed it down, feeling my work can be considered "dramedy," a cross between a funny and serious storyline.

Do I need a degree to be funny and serious? Will said degree make an editor/agent view me in a more serious light? Do I care? Frankly, I've read many books by those with degrees in English, and many by authors with MFA's. Some were fabulous; some were "meh." Yet, my most favorite of books was written by an author with a degree in Comparative Religion. Go figure.

Earlier I mentioned the improvement in my writing skills resultant of taking Honors English and receiving an edit from Editor/Author Extraordinaire. The latter has been a mentor; with her I feel as if I was completing an internship in writing just by visiting her blog. My relationship with her has blossomed beyond the mentoring stage. (Knowing her is like having a personal guardian angel/philosopher/genius.) Through her I feel as if I'm obtaining CWE (Continuing Writing Education) credits necessary to maintain my writing edge, which works better than college for me. And she possesses a degree in English, is a literary editor and at one time in her life, a literary agent. So it goes, she backs up her profession with the necessary and appropriate credentials. (Plus, her books kick some major butt.)

All said, at this juncture in my life, I have already honed my "natural" talent (as some have called it) by completing the aforementioned Honors English and mentoring/interning via Editor/Author extraordinaire. I continued improving my skills, writing daily even if it isn't in my work-in-progress. I practice the craft regularly. I have no desire to be a critic, editor, agent or English teacher. I just want to write it, finish it, publish it. The THREE ITS. I feel it's unnecessary to return for a "degree" if my goal-focus is on seeing my work-in-progress or one of my other manuscripts to fruition. I'm FIFTY-FRIGGIN'-SEVEN! Seriously, time to carpe diem it up, right?

I honor and respect those who've pounded their way to a Bachelors and MFA. But personally I feel that a degree in the Arts isn't always a necessity for everyone. This writer-extraordinaire will succeed without the sheepskin, pretty as one might look on my wall. With the notion that writing is something I cannot quit, it proves to me that I'm on the correct and very focused path.

Degree or not to degree? What dost thou think?

Monday, July 4, 2011

No Paine, No Gain: A July Fourth Tribute to Thomas Paine, America's First Gifted Writer

The following is an abridged version of an essay I wrote for college credits. Any and all cites have been removed. Do your own damn research, suckers.

And without further adieu, I give you...

No Paine, No Gain

Thomas Paine’s reputation preceded him. His father was a corseter in Thetford, England, Paine’s birthplace. After flunking out of school at age twelve, young Thomas apprenticed with his father, but failed at that, too. If a twentieth century man, Thomas Paine might be known as a “loser.” Thus, Paine was a corset maker’s disappointment. While still residing in England and making his way as an excise tax officer, young Thomas, at the tender age of nineteen, crossed paths with Benjamin Franklin, who brought him to Philadelphia, where he set out on the journalistic path. The rest, as they say, is history. Paine became a prolific essayist, and author of The Crisis and Common Sense.

The relevance of The Crisis is rooted in Paine’s Common Sense. The essay was the equivalent of modern day “grass roots” movement in that its circulation reached many, and the body of it penetrated the fence-sitters who waffled between loyalty to, or independence from, England. It helped them embrace the reality of the situation. Perhaps its language seemed powerful, but the power belongs to the writer. Paine worded the essay simplistically; it “spoke to the common people.”

In Common Sense, Paine reminded the colonists that monarchy equals tyranny; that although England’s form of government appeared to include checks and balances, it didn’t include input by the people. So to comment on Paine’s The Crisis, it’s prudent to consider Paine’s meaning as conveyed to the colonists in Common Sense. The pamphlet “nudged” the people into considering what they had to gain through independence from England.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” accurately depicts the inner struggle of the colonists in that they had much to consider. During the salutary neglect, colonies formed their own government and enjoyed the autonomy, yet when England reminded itself of their moneymaker across the pond, they reasserted their authority in the form of taxation. England unilaterally levied taxes on the colonists without warning. This left a bad taste in the colonists’ mouths. When the idea of separation from England spread, it created more inner turmoil. How could young America expect to defeat a country with the most powerful military in the world? What if they broke away from England only to be swallowed up by Spain or France? Some still had familial ties back in England; others felt an economic strain, particularly in the southern colonies where people actually stuck to England’s mercantilism.

There was much to consider. Would it be worth it? Paine said, “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” This served a reminder that they’ve slay the dragon previously, and survived to fight another. “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly,” meaning that accepting defeat without a struggle is a worthless endeavor. The colonists had already spread their independent wings and managed to endure to fight another. They already had proven their mettle in previous battles, having fought and captured British forts in New York, Virginia and Canada, as well as at Concord when they forced the British to retreat, and Bunker Hill, which encouraged more colonists to join the fight. Colonial women took a stand, boycotting tea drinking and the wearing of British goods, utilizing homespun cloth. Those boycotts instilled self-sufficiency; they proved that the colonists could, and would, stand on their own.

The colonists knew that what they accomplished was worth fighting to maintain. Although initially, the Continental Congress sought “a peaceful resolution” by exhibiting to George III, via the “Olive Branch Petition,” that they meant to remain loyal to the crown. However, the King’s opinion remained steadfast, that the colonists were subordinates. Parliament acted, formally declaring the colonies “in open rebellion.” England blockaded American ports, seized American ships and cargo, inadvertently leaving the colonists with little choice but to revolt.

Gen. George Washington ordered his officers to read The Crisis to their troops on the night of December 25, 1776. Under fierce weather conditions, troops stood armed and ill clothed while listening to Paine’s essay. I imagine sounds of coughing and feet stomping while clouds of frigid breaths filled the air. The essay, read in its entirety, was meant to inspire troop morale, perhaps in the sense of Bob Hope Christmas Shows of modern times. On December 26, 1776 the Continental Army went on to defeat both the British and Hessian troops, Paine’s essay purportedly written on the back of a drumhead.

At the time Washington’s job security was in question. Troop morale dwindled. The defeat at Trenton wasn’t considered a significant win, but in the end Washington continued in charge of the troops, and the Continental Army morale reinvigorated.

The power of Paine’s pen proved strong and vibrant.

Paine is my Revolutionary War hero, a man who never saw battle but proved beyond words the power of the pen.