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Michael Barsanti's How To Be Original

How To Be Original
Michael Barsanti


The best papers you can write for this class are ones that bring something new to our understanding of the works we are reading and watching. The best papers will try to teach us something we didn't already know, or will try to point out something we might have missed after only one or two readings. You may protest: "But smart critics have been writing about [insert text here] since long before I was born, and besides, we've been beating [insert text here] to death in class discussion for a week. There's no way I can say anything new or interesting about [insert text here]." These statements are wrong and unacceptably lame for at least the following two reasons. First, you're writing for a community that is, for the most part, new to these texts. There are lots of things your classmates do not know about them. Second, you come at these works with a unique set of experiences and interests--those interests will lead you to notice things in the texts that no one else will. The trick is to identify those things and to develop them into an essay. I've written down some brief thoughts on how to recognize and put to work original thoughts. Practice and prosper.

1. Listen to the Texts. Many people make the mistake of thinking that disliking something means they don't have to pay attention to it. You have to pay attention to a text in order to say anything original about it. If a text or a film angers or bores you, become a connoisseur of anger and boredom. Develop a skill for expressing your hostility through an accurate and detailed critique, instead of a blunt and crude one. It's easier to pay attention to works you like, but it can be harder to keep at a good observing distance from them. In either case, keep in mind that just about everything you notice in these works is the product of a choice made by an artist and can be analyzed.

2. Pay Attention to Your Reactions As I've said before, most good papers start with a hunch, not a fully realized thesis. Most good papers start with... "I'm not sure why this is important, but it seemed strange to me that [fill in the blank]." It is imperative that you track down this hunch and write about it. While you are in pursuit of this strange thing that interests you, you may start to feel that you are B.S.'ing. This is perfectly normal and nothing to be worried about. Original thinking and B.S. are much more alike than you'd believe.

3. Think Small and Specific. Focus on the details and let the big issues take care of themselves. Writing about trees in The Piano is more likely to generate something original than writing about true love in The Princess Bride.

4. Be Patient. Don't expect to have something brilliant to say the instant you sit down at a computer. You need to take time to think, to plan, and most importantly, to write. Nothing generates ideas better than writing. A related rule: don't wait for a brilliant idea to come before you start to write. The ideas won't come, or if they do, they won't work after the first few paragraphs. Your thesis will change as your paper develops-- let it, and let the paper change again along with it. Do not assume that you will start with a master vision that will execute itself perfectly on paper and emerge fully intact 750 words later.

5. Develop an Intolerance for the Uninteresting and Insincere. Learn to recognize the moments where you don't mean what you say, but are saying it anyway just to complete the structure of your argument. Remember that what bores you is even less interesting to your reader.