I remember when my dad first suggested that I major in English. I was a freshman, about two weeks into my classes here at The University, and I had just finished telling him about how much I was enjoying my creative writing class. What I was also telling him was that more than anything, I wasn’t enjoying most of my other classes, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in.
Within the same breath I’d say something like, “Yeah I have calc homework, but I don’t want to do it…” and “well, I still think a major in Econ would be good because…”
“Well, what about an English major?” was the reply from the other end of my phone.
I immediately scoffed and dismissed the idea. There were a number of reasons for my reticence: societal stigmas toward humanities majors, the idea that a major has to be catered toward an exact career after college (what was I supposed to do with an English major, write a book?), but more than anything I was convinced that I didn’t enjoy English class. Specifically, I was convinced I didn’t enjoy writing. At least not the structured, confined writing that I associated with my prior English classes.
It’s weird for me to think back to high school, where we were taught the magic of “CEA,” otherwise known as “claim, evidence, analysis.” In a paper written in the CEA format, each paragraph must have the CEA requirements fulfilled. It is a formulaic approach to writing the essay. One that’s simple, and one that works.
A CEA Paragraph goes something like this:
Claim: Toontown is an anti-capitalist allegory
Evidence: Your goal as a toon is to join forces with other friends and defeat the “Cogs.” A popular phrase all over Toontown is “Toons of the world unite!”
Analysis: The name “Cog” is given by the toons as a derisive insult. Perhaps it indicates the fact that these “Cogs” are cogs in the capitalist machine, rich cogs profiting off of the poor. If the cogs inside are destroyed, your toon is rewarded. This holds similarities to workers “seizing the means of production” as introduced in Marx’s communist manifesto. Thus, we can assume that ToonTown is an anti-capitalist, and potentially even a pro-socialist, allegory.
It’s not that the structure of a CEA paragraph is wrong — any person who writes an essay must have, to some extent, a claim, evidence and analysis throughout. The way in which it is taught, though, is that you either follow the CEA format or you’re punished with poor grades.
What if we were taught the CEA format in high school, but still encouraged to explore more personal forms of essay writing? We could even move beyond essays and write poetry, short stories and other forms of creative writing more often. It was only in my freshman year creative writing course that I realized you can control how you use paragraphs, or punctuation, or even whether you decide to use words that exist or not. There are rules when writing, but the beauty of any language is that all of these rules can be broken, and in doing so you are given creative license.
We must realize that writing and language are not set by finite possibilities, but rather that there are an infinite number of combinations and meanings we can create while writing. Instead of teaching students about the constraints of what they can’t do, allow us to test the limits of what is possible. We might even find that more people want to read, and more people want to write.
Two years have passed, and I’m now a happily declared English major. When I think about what changed my mind, what stands out is that I realized writing isn’t something rigid or structure-based. There are no formulas or equations that can help you write the perfect essay. Writing, I finally discovered, is more of an art-form than it is a science. It’s a personal form of self expression with rules that are to be followed and broken, much like drawing or painting or composing. I actually went through a short, failed phase of trying to write music through FL Studio (I made one song that sounded like it was straight out of the Kazoo Kid commercial). While I quickly realized that composing music isn’t one of my strengths, I also realized that writing music isn’t that all dissimilar to writing essays, stories or poetry. There are different keys, time signatures and other rules that are generally followed. But it is often through the breaking and manipulating of these rules that each artist finds their own distinct sound.
Writing should be creative, writing should be expressive, but most importantly, writing should be fun. Let’s teach it that way.
Daily Arts Contributor Peter Hummer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.