Step One

Stephanie Taylor-Johnson

by Stephanie Taylor-Johnson

Wikipedia’s “List of Popular Music Genres” page currently contains eighteen sub-sections. The majority of these sub-sections contain a plethora of clickable links that lead you off into the intricate worlds of goregrind, kiwi rock, protopunk, plena, Nintendocore , trop rock, afrobeat, and electro-clash. I could go on forever. There’s even a style called Frenchcore that I keep giggling at (described as existing of “fast and dark beats mostly without a melody.” Oh yeah, and “it doesn’t have to be made in France though”); however, there’s a point here buried somewhere in the epitome of user-friendly encyclopedia-editing that the internet has to offer.

Within this updated report of a tradition thousands and thousands of years old, there is a connection with human language waiting to clearly be made. There is a manipulation of language present in this space that not only represents the fluidity of the medium, but the sheer passion that we have had for hearing, feeling, and making music since before any of us can remember. A search on good old Black Sabbath returns the obvious genres of rock and heavy metal, but go deeper and you’ll find doom metal, which in itself is broken down into the categories of epic doom, stoner doom, sludge doom, funeral doom, drone doom, death doom and black doom. Something for everyone in that list, there is.

On the often infamous Wikipedia, where we are allowed to edit and pump our individualisms out into the world as the Internet graciously grants us license to do, there lies a monster of lessons about genre and our expectations of anything around us classified by it. The more we attempt to break down what started as good ol’ rock n’ roll into alternative rock, classic rock, pop rock, garage rock, glam rock and emo rock, the more we beg for a specific word to just exactly define our style, the way that we see it and feel it. The more we beg, the more we criticize those who oppose us or the genre that often comes fully-equipped with a load of stigmas: dyed hair, makeup on men, flower children, flannel, cocaine, intolerance, too much clothing (or a lack thereof), bare feet and primal beats and stories to be told. Perhaps we so desperately dig through the dictionary to try and separate our genres from the rest of the pack, but alas, three mouse clicks on odd names will still lead us back to a solemn page labeled “Metal.”

But hey, at least we tried. And we used language to do so. Wikipedia even comes back to remind us in their own article on musical genres that “many people have a great aversion to genres differing widely from that which they prefer.” I’ve often tried in my years on Earth so far to not be like these “musicists.” It’s difficult, though, trudging through musical genres and all the trends of clothing and speech that spring forth as a result of them into secondary schools around the world. Can’t like this; need to like that; have to think this way about that – it’s exhausting.

Being a Literature major is something akin to that. Everywhere you tread there’s going to be a label waiting. Without the dyed hair and apathetic attitude, though.

Wait. No. I take that back.

Even if I had an insanely huge drill, I honestly hope that I couldn’t dig to the center of a world made of language and literature. It has always seemed to me like academics has been there furnishing me with bigger drills, desperately trying to get me there quicker and more formulaically, while I’m very content just to sit on a rocky ledge somewhere in the earth’s mantle and enjoy what I’m seeing around me to the fullest extent. The journey to making my interpretation and understanding of what I read delightfully subjective begins with my own confidence and exploration. Somewhat similar to the reason why I listen to hip-hop and heavy metal, reggae and bebop, I’ve got to find simply what affects me and dwell in it for a while, basking in the glory of full understanding of something that someone else has put out there in the world for me to interpret and expand upon.

Now, I am not placing myself in some category above all other readers in history. I have been and still am a victim of preconceived notions about language in all of its forms. I’m guilty of spewing out textbook language on paper in order to get an A, but I’ve reached a point where that doesn’t thrill me. I’ve reached a point where I can get the A’s anyway. Now I’m frustrated that it was the textbook language that got me the A in the first place. But it’s all language, isn’t it? All I’m doing is showing I can use it effectively. So let go of my hand and let me cross the street now that I’ve read Plato and Catcher in the Rye for the tenth time.

With all the recognizing that goes on in the world of literature, it can be rough trying to not get lost in simple, monotone explanations of theme, intention, symbolism and more stuff that Freud would have loved to hear. Perhaps the best solution is to find ourselves in each of these bits of language. At least I know that’s what I have to do. I now know that I have to force myself to find my own meaning in what I am assigned to read.

I suppose it is the understanding of “basics” and literary “oldies” that is the important part, and I’m practically regurgitating T.S. Eliot without even realizing it here. The best parts of literature and language are where we see our influences honored. So here, I honor you Mr. Eliot, because you are one of my greatest inspirations. You said once that we have a “tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else…we dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors…but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”

So I’ve got to honor all those who stood up (or sat down) and said something with their writing, and know that whatever I have read by them courses through my veins and comes out in the form of my own language. The greatest gift to them I could give would be their influence coming out without myself even recognizing it. Although, some critic or reader who would wander through my writing later on would be able to clearly point out said moment of asserted immortality and recognize it, saying I was trying to mirror Kerouacian spontaneity or echo…well…Mr. Eliot himself. Then the magic is lost.

So what’s there to do for a passionate literature major these days, or any days for that matter? Where do you go and what do you say in order to stay alive in a world where we have to label, to pinpoint a theme and idea, and understand why a certain work was written as an essay, a poem, full-length novel, or even a leaflet?  I seem at this point to be asking more questions than answers. So, in the attempt to feel as if I have some sense of self-exploration and determination to traverse new literary territories and cross the freezing Delaware with my head held triumphantly up, I’ve got to sort some things out.

Every year, I attempt more and more to let myself be completely at the will of what I read. I let it control me, move and shake me for the entire time I read it, and then I come back out to decipher everything outside that moment of swimming around in language. I don’t want anything to interrupt that swim, and I want to make it as essentially mine as humanly possible. Therefore, I’ve got to set forth a list of ways that I cannot any longer be a victim of preconceived notions, of labels, of my own expectations (perhaps prescribed by someone else) of a text, and still show passionately that they affect me. So without any further ado, I present:

My Never-Fail Plan for Allowing Myself to Find Meaning in Texts Without Being Bound by the Limits of Societal, Academic, or Personal Expectations About Genre.  

I should probably work on that title. After all, it probably now gives off the impression that the remainder of this paper will be a simple list with some humor involved, something easier than the paragraph format of the introductory part of this essay because I’m getting lazy.

With that being said, the first step for me in this plan is to live my own theory, to let go of expectation in my own writing. For too long I have suffered the slings and arrows of convention in my academic and personal writing because of fear. When I actually sit down and consider where that fear stems from, I laugh and realize that it only comes from more language. There is a fear of stepping away from format and embracing freedom and stream of consciousness as a creative tool because of how I was trained for years to write as a student with direct quotation and support, slapped on the wrist for saying “I think” and “I believe” most of the time. But, years passed and I found that the only enemy we have to fear in language is language itself. The only way we can combat the medium is with more of our own opinions through the written word, like Romantic era writers like Keats taking aim at the rationality of the Enlightenment.

I shudder to think that this fear is so ingrained in me that it would affect my own personal writing. And fear of what, for that matter? Is it a bad grade or more criticism? It affected me to the point where I practically pulled my hair out writing papers for Literary Theory and Criticism courses in college. In fact, I wrote an essay once that began and circled around a statement about not being able to write said paper. It specifically took that freedom to simply write without format to break me out of the fear of not fitting the expectations of an upper-level academic paper. It took the very thing that frightened me to come to a revelation of how much I was being affected by the expectations and preconceived notions and genre that we’ve created for ourselves as it trickles down (or perhaps begins) in our schools and universities.

But forget it now! I am free! Why? Because when I hold myself within those boundaries of genre and label, especially within the category of “essay” or the even scarier “academic essay,” I will always be let down because some part will fail to fit in with someone else’s expectations. So why not at least go down with the ship?

However, I am still incomplete without that reader to deem me worthy or not, to criticize, to praise, or to honor as Eliot reminded us. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Why Write? poses the theory of the completion of the process of writing with the reader to lay his opinion on a certain organization of language, whether it is positive, negative, or in between. “When the words form under his pen, the author doubtless sees them, but he does not see them as the reader does, since he knows them before writing them down.”

Unfortunately it is all us readers of this work (and we are all readers at one point or another) who form these limitations of genre that I am so desperately trying to be liberated from. As thoughtful beings, we mostly do not let go of what we see written, but form an opinion on it, place it into a category and label it with a large sign somewhere in the depths of Barnes and Noble. But if we must read in order to make creative and purposeful language meaningful, then are we obligated to form an opinion? Are we obligated to find meaning in everything and to categorize so that we can have some way of explaining this sometimes art-form to others?

Under the thumb of Sartre’s logic, genre can be seen as somewhat of an obligation. It is us who have completed that duo of “perception and creation” and done something with the whole perception business. After all, we the readers have created the genres that divide us, and are often battling against them for coming back and biting us with confinement. So, perhaps I am not so free from genre and labeling as I had originally thought I could be. I am the one helping to create it with my interaction in the writing process. I know that I can never be free of opinion and the separation of “good” and “bad” in my brain.

What if I can instead turn away from the college-student attitude of rebellion and come to respect genre as reflection of human thought and the connection between ourselves and our ancestors with the power of language? I think I might be able to do that. It seems like the mature option, accepting that a practice of labeling literature exists instead of hiding from it. For within it, I can have my own opinion. I can find myself in a work and swim around in it, delighted, just as a mentioned before. If I come to accept that I am the completion of the writing process, then I am fully involved and obligated to do honor to a work by having a unique opinion about it. For if these writers put something out into the universe for us to read and contemplate, the only thing we can do is let us affect us the way any other uncontrollable force would, and we must revel in it, even if it hits us like an oncoming train.

So, okay, I’m back to being okay with genre existing in the first place, so long as I can be an active and passionate member of the nebulous opinion committee.

***

When I was in high school and made to read a number of well-known texts, I began to feel averse to the forced nature of academic English classes. Sometimes it got me in trouble, and that has carried over a bit to my college courses. As much as I liked to think of this as my little rebellion against an education where I would rather be reading and interpreting what I wanted and when I wanted, I am thankful for it, and it took actually writing this paper for me to realize how much my experiences were connected to genre and expectations about a text.

My 11th grade English teacher adored The Grapes of Wrath so much that she made sure to preface the unit with a lengthy and impassioned speech about how and why it was her favorite novel. So, being the impressionable sixteen-year-old “writer” that I was, I was thrilled to be reading such a widely critically acclaimed novel that my teacher adored. I was expecting the best from Mr. Steinbeck, a book to blow me away, one that I would remember reading and inspiring me, so lengthy aesthetically that it must be amazing.

Instead, what I got was what I still consider a too-long, repetitive novel with themes and imagery that made me say over and over again that “OKAY! I get it! There’s family, inhumanity, blah blah blah, repeating in imagery and symbol and word for nearly 500 pages.” I really don’t know how I managed the “A” I got. What I do know is that a few years later, in my second semester literature course in college, Steinbeck’s other huge novel, East of Eden showed up on my syllabus and I cringed.

Surprisingly, I rose above my eyes rolling and read the thing. It ended up being one of my favorite novels I’ve ever read. It still had the same “Steinbeck-y” repetition, things said in six-hundred-or-so pages that could have been emphasized in a novel half the size, incredible California landscapes that hit close to home, and passionately human characters. And to think I almost didn’t read the thing. But the point I’m trying to get around here is that I still hold the firm belief that if my 11th grade English teacher would have shut her mouth and let us completely form our own opinion of the novel before she pressured hers on us, my whole outlook on Steinbeck might have been changed. In both instances I completed Steinbeck’s writing process in a style Sartre would recognize, but the later experience proved so much more fulfilling and free.

I should note that this wasn’t my good-hearted teacher’s fault. I hadn’t nearly formed the literary maturity yet to let go of preconceived notions and just enjoy the novel as a piece of art that’s been loved by millions. Fortunately, I did choose to read my second Steinbeck novel, but there have been far too many other assigned readings that I have shunned after a few sentences, with the defense that “if it doesn’t interest me, I shouldn’t have to read it or connect to it.”

So, here’s my pledge to really not be a victim of preconceived notions. I ignore genre, introduction and impassioned cries of premature literary love from my professors and hold off my opinions until I have fully completed the writing process. If I don’t dive in and find life in what I read then so be it. I walk away, but at least I gave it a chance. Perhaps then I don’t even deserve to participate in the process of defining genres and labels.

I’ve come a long way from my exclamation that “I am free!”

Truthfully, this entire paper has been an experiment in defying preconceived notions about writing. In multiple college-level assignments, I tried to add structure, tried to practice what I preach to the students I now work with and tried to sort things out in my head a bit. None of that has really worked or produced anything of substance. What does work is lighting a candle, throwing on Johnny Cash on vinyl, turning off my computer and reading some old sci-fi compilation paperbacks from a used book store. And there I find genre all around me, enveloping me. And then I’m really ready, only when I’ve walked away and seen what genre look like in other places. And I find that I don’t ever reject it. I love it. I love it so long as I can control it sometimes. It’s the times when it tries to control me that I have to rise up and proclaim my power over the labels that we all love so dearly. I guess the best place to be is one where you can find yourself in those things society has prescribed for you. I mean, I dig society sometimes, as much as I like to gripe about it.

My plan for when I’m some sort of instructor of literature or English someday has always been to assign something on the first day of class that is due on the very last day of class. Among all the bits of required reading from whatever governs me in a future probably not filled with flying cars but still filled with bureaucracy, I want to assign a project that is left completely up to the student. They choose one work of language. It can be fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, in a foreign language, out of this world, dark, sticky, intriguing, boring – I honestly don’t care, so long as it provides some substance to them. They work with it all semester. They have time to read it thoroughly, to love it and to form and change opinions about it. They get to do everything with it that I’ve wanted to do with certain books that I’ve only been given a week to tear through because I’ve for some reason got to read ten novels in a semester. They find whatever they want with it, take it everywhere, mark it up, and make it theirs. They complete what the author has given them by working with it and cherishing it for themselves.

I believe very fully in this achievable world that I imagine.

Create, read, and pass on. It is a beautiful act between free individuals.

I like the sound of that almost as much as a good Frenchcore album.

 

Works Cited

Eliot, T.S.  “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. Richter, David H. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2006. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Why Write.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. Richter, David H. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2006. Print.

 

Stephanie Taylor-Johnson
Stephanie Taylor-Johnson

In addition to working as a Writing Consultant for MiraCosta College, Stephanie Taylor-Johnson currently holds a BA in Literature and Writing Studies and is planning on pursuing an MA in Literature or Linguistics. Between degrees, she has been focusing on reading whatever the hell she wants, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns, learning how to cook a decent meal or three, and playing a healthy amount of open world RPGs. She happily lives near the beach with two rambunctious cats and a mustachioed, beer-making husband.

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