My Life Off the Post Road: Essays

At home, when term ends, most college students come home with a terrible cold and lots of laundry to recuperate, relax, and recharge.

Here, when term ends, at least for the MA candidates at the Shakespeare Institute, the work begins in earnest. Although I completed several projects during the term, none of them counted toward my grade. Nor did my perfect class attendance or what I hope were vaguely intelligent and relevant contributions to class discussions. All that matters, grade-wise at least, are the three 4,000-word research/analytical papers that I must submit by January 11. Four days after the spring term begins. It all boils down to that.

I am reluctantly taking a New Year’s Day break to pen this (no reveling last night for me), and to verify that the sun, sky, and River Avon swans are still there. This is by far the most demanding and most difficult thing I’ve ever done, besides giving birth to two beautiful boys, but that was an entirely different type of labor. I remind myself, in my darkest moments, that this was voluntary, and that no matter how deep my misery, I love it. It’s Shakespeare, after all.

Photos by Diane Lowman

I am writing papers on:

  • The Role of Music in Early Modern Drama, and specifically in Much Ado About Nothing
  • The Role of “Foul Papers” (authorial rough drafts) in Shakespearean Textual Studies and Criticism
  • Family Honour and Father/Daughter Relationships in Patriarchal Renaissance England, and specifically in Titus Andronicus, Much Ado About Nothing, and Romeo and Juliet

I was terrified that essay writing would not come back like the proverbial bicycle riding, given the years between my undergrad degree and me. But fortunately, I have had some graduate school in the many intervening years, and I do write essays (albeit creative nonfiction), and we did have a very thorough course on Research Skills at the start of the program.

I found I fell into a very structured (surprise!) rhythm, which included outlining the thesis and argument, spending about four days gathering research material, and another four drafting each essay. Then they require massaging, trimming, and tightening (as do I). The 4,000-word limit is not so much a suggestion as a very bold line in the sand. Finally, I prepare citations and a bibliography in pristine MLA style. I would rather lose points on stupidity than misplaced italics and semicolons.

The scramble to complete the research before the library closed for a full 10 days for the holidays (I guess other people had holidays?) was frantic and physically uncomfortable. As a research library, some sources are available on line, fewer to check out, and the vast majority must be used like in the olden days: finding and flipping through actual books and making copious notes. So when the library boiler broke, we sat freezing like Dickensian orphans while our parent, the University of Birmingham, took six days to fix it.

Where, I wondered, is Gault when you need them? At home, protests against inhuman working conditions would have occurred, lawsuits for emotional distress would have been filed, and helicopter parents would have whirled in to demand action from the Provosts as they draped their progeny in extra North Face fleece. Here, we plugged in a few very ineffectual space heaters and donned thermal tights, leg warmers, and fingerless gloves underneath lap blankets.

I took a brief Christmas break, and a briefer one last night, but have been largely planted on my couch, at my table, or at Caffe Nero, the RSC Riverside Café, or Boston Tea Party. I am peripatetic and need frequent changes of scenery and just the right amount of ambient noise to work efficiently.

I am tired and my brain is fried and my shoulders are on auto-hunch and my wrists and forearms have a weird and not nice tingling most of the time. I have a vague sense that what I’m writing is Dickensian gruel in a language that I’m sure I’ve made up but equally sure isn’t English. I have not exercised meditated or yoga-ed since I can remember. Thank goodness I don’t have a car, because at least I have to walk anywhere I want to go. It forces me outside to have a peek at the aforementioned and elusive sun. I am decidedly not taking the advice I very smugly and urgently gave my own children in college about balance, blah, blah, blah.

Except the one about “just give it your best effort.” I want to write the best essays I can. I am here because I want to be here, and it is a privilege to study with some of the most brilliant Shakespearean scholars on the planet. I do not want to disappoint them or myself.

But also, I can feel deep down in my body that I’m reaching a physical and mental limit, so I will sign off for now and get back to tidying up the loose ends so I can push “submit” on the Turn-It-In system soon. Because on January 8, it starts all over again.


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