college life, psychology, writing

on success & selfishness

The past few weeks have been incredible, in a less-than-adequate word–I’ll explain the details in this post–but all the great things that have come may way lately have also made me think a lot about the nature of success and intelligence in general. What I mean by this is something I became more aware of after reading (and listening to) a lot of David Foster Wallace: the inherent selfishness of, well, everybody. And yeah, really I’m just talking about myself here, but I’m talking about my selfishness, so there’s some irony for you.

I guess I should start with the good stuff I’m referring to. I turned in my midterm paper for English 10 almost exactly one month ago. It was on House of Leaves; I talked about how Danielewski uses metafiction in the book to create a unique kind of horror, one in which there is no “monster at the end of the book,” and I used an episode of Supernatural (specifically “The Monster at the End of This Book”–perfect title, right?) as a counterexample. I absolutely love House of Leaves and was happy with my essay, even if by the end I’d edited too much to read it from an outside perspective. I was hoping for–and expecting, honestly–at least a low A, because I’d gotten As on all the other assignments in the class and I know I’m a reasonably good writer.

What actually happened (metaphorically) broke my brain into little pieces and left it (metaphorically) trembling on the floor in (very, very literal) shock–but, you know, in a good way. I’m sitting in class the week before we are to get our papers back, waiting for the lecture to begin, when a woman calls my name. When I look up, I see my professor walking toward me. This is Rita Raley, who, by the way, I have idolized all quarter for her amazing lectures, and yes, she is actually addressing me, and looking at me, and telling me that if I want to she would really like to speak with me in her office about my midterm paper, because it was one of the essays chosen to be reviewed by the English Board and it was very good.

I don’t remember what I said exactly; I just know it had a few thank yous in it and lots of smiling. Yeah, of course I want to go to your goddamn office hours! Something like that. At that point, without even having gone to see her, I’d already had a phenomenal day. I remember biking back to my dorm, freezing my ass off in the wind but unable to stop smiling. She’d only asked to talk to one other girl aside from me, and it happened to be my closest friend from the class. The whole situation was surreal.

When the day of her office hours finally rolled around, I still had no clue what to expect. I’d gotten sick over the intervening week, so I was mostly hoping that whatever she had to say would make me feel less shitty. Of course, reality blew any preconceptions I had out of the water. I was absolutely astounded. There are more metaphors, but none of them really capture the feeling of validation, so I’ll just describe what happened and hope it’s enough.

As I said before, the entire UCSB English Board read my essay; they have to check to make sure the class is up to UC standards and a bunch of essays are chosen. Raley told me that the whole board–including herself–had been certain my paper was written by a grad or at least an upper division student. She’d managed to salvage a copy that one of her colleagues wrote on and showed me that the only revisions anyone had proposed were the little stylistic tweaks usually made before publication. She was amazed that I was just a freshman and had such well-developed writing and analysis skills. At one point she even went so far as to say that my five-page paper had been more stimulating and original to her than an entire book of essays on House of Leaves she’d read recently; she reads a lot of material on the novel and it’s unusual for something to feel so “refreshing.” She was incredibly relieved when I told her that yes, I am an English major, and proceeded to give me tons of great advice, saying that I should try to get into honors seminars and upper division courses as soon as possible.

And that’s not even the best part. Apparently she knows Mark Z. Danielewski personally, and she said she’d send him the best essay on his book from her class. It has been about a month, so I’m pretty sure the author of the book I wrote about read my essay on his book. Mark Z. Danielewki himself. It’s just insanity.

The rest of the visit was basically me thanking her, telling her how surprised I was, and explaining that no, I’ve never taken any writing classes or anything, I just love writing and do it a lot. We also talked about books for a while, and she suggested that I read Never Let Me Go, which was already on my list, so I’m hoping to get to that soon.

That one thirty minute period left me grinning randomly for literally weeks afterward. I still smile when I think about it. People have told me that I write well before, but that was the first time it came from such a distinguished source. I feel like my decision to be an English major actually makes sense now. Hell, it made sense before, but I feel like I truly belong in the major now; English professors here think it’s something I’m good (maybe even great) at. And just to further bolster my elation, one of my poems was accepted to a tiny online magazine soon after. I’m officially published in two places.

So that’s the success I’ve experienced recently. Now, the selfishness. This is something that has become increasingly relevant for me lately, and it’s an ugly truth that I’ve ignored before. David Foster Wallace addressed it head on in his essay This Is Water: he said that education, particularly college education, is meant to teach students empathy, the ability to see beyond our own perception, because according to all solid evidence, you are–and in my case, I am–“the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” Being able to understand and respect other points of view is one of the main reasons we need the liberal arts; we aren’t naturally inclined to think of others as equal to ourselves. We only know our own brain, our own way of thinking.

Succeeding, I think, only increases this intrinsic self-centeredness; it’s sadly easy for me to mistakenly equate success with intelligence. In the weeks after meeting with Professor Raley, I was shocked to realize I’d been assuming myself to be smarter than strangers. It’s ridiculous and very ugly thinking, but it’s the truth. Even in a university environment, I often forget to remember that there are tons of incredibly intelligent people around me. That people who aren’t in college aren’t necessarily any less intelligent, either. It reminds me of cultural relativism, though I suppose intellectual relativism would be a more accurate term here.

Because of this, I’ve been trying to be more aware of what I think about others while acknowledging that I’m a reasonably smart person and a good writer. Hell, a very good writer. I can be great at something if I want to, but there are billions more people in the world and none of them matter (or think) any less.

It makes me sad to know I had to remind myself of that fact. I’m going to do my best to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. And, I think it goes without saying, I’m going to write my ass off. Pardon my French.

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