As part of the end of the bachelor program, we were required to take a capstone course where we were supposed to demonstrate the culmination of our learned experience. Because my major was English, one part of the course was to write a 15 page essay on one of the novels we were required to read that semester. I remember the initial conversation quite vividly.
“This essay is to be pithy, concise. An in depth analysis of the work…”
As I sat there, I wondered what that word meant. It was used with emphasis. Surely it was important but, all I could think about was the pith of an orange. You know… the bitter portion that is the most unpleasant part of any citrus fruit, the portion that was cut away from the flesh of the fruit when segmenting it for a salad, the portion that is thrown away with the protective rind. It just didn’t fit. How could an essay be bitter? Something that is cut and thrown away?
Merriam-Webster defines “pithy” as: having substance or point.
The topic of the course was detective fiction. We started with the beginning, Edgar Allan Poe, then to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We read Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler before moving onto more contemporary authors. I was particularly drawn to a contemporary novel set in Medieval England where the protagonist (main character) was a female doctor who was summoned to solve a series of abductions and murders. I don’t know how many times I read Mistress in the Art of Death while writing this essay. My copy lost it’s dust jacket, has so many passages underlined and highlighted, so many post-it’s marking important passages, dogeared pages… If I ever felt the desire to read it again I would be thrust back into the analytical mode that characterized the type of reading I had become accustomed to over the years.
2007-2008 were defining years for me. Brakes failing, my mother in-law and father in-law were in an off-roading accident that broke Jack’s step-mother’s back. In November of the same year, my aunt was involved in a head on collision, which she didn’t survive. After quite a long time being sober, I found out that my dad was drinking again. I was questioning the status of my parent’s relationship. In December, my grandmother died from colon cancer. In January, the family dog died. In April, crippled from pain and the constant need for relief, Jack’s step-mother had a massive heart attack one week before her 50th birthday. Up until April, I was able to hold it together, but like a horse carrying too much for too long, April’s event and subsequent fallout with people considered family finally melted my resolve and left me frantic from the lack of stability I had been experiencing. Anxiety for the unraveling of the family I had been accustomed to, anxiety for needing to be able to complete by degree on time, anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to live up to the expectations I had set for myself. I was plagued with all of this whenever I worked on the essay. The essay suffered as I suffered.
That pithy essay was never really finished. I think it was mostly due to my lack of experience with the topic, but at the time, I blamed it on what was going on in my personal life. I had started to investigate how the main character could never be considered a conventional hero due to the sex/gender system of Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle; how the defining characteristics of heroism were considered male and male only. Not only was the female protagonist thrust into the male role of hero which she could never fulfill because of a genetic sex determinant behavior gender system (oh, that’s a mouthful), she was also stuck in a time period where women were not part of the historic narrative, and, if they were, it was certainly not in the positive. It was a really good thought I never was really able to carry out. My own journey was wrought with pain. I, like the protagonist, got lost and was not able to find resolution in the male dominated hero sequence. I could not be the hero of my own tale.
I hardly passed that class, and I don’t feel as if I deserved the grade I got; the work I turned in was unfinished. That essay came to represent everything that was bitter with the death of my mother in-law. Had I taken the initiative to look up the meaning, I may have had a chance to salvage that wreck of an essay. Who knows?
It has been five years since all of that. I’ve been toying with the idea of looking at that essay again and see what can be done with it. I think I’m ready.