A Refuge from Chaos by Camille St. Regis
Most people find it surprising to learn that my favorite type of writing is academic, especially because I am an artist. Academic writing, to me, is no less artistic than poetry or fiction. What I love about it most is that it challenges one to find ways to be creative within a somewhat more rigid structure or formula than one finds in other types of writing. Just as a painter is limited to the canvas, color combinations allowed by the color palette, and quality of brush, a writer of academic discourse is frequently limited to a page count, a pre-selected topic, and certain expectations on behalf of the intended audience, such as adhering to grammatical rules and writing in a formal tone. Though these limitations allocate a smaller space for creativity to unfold, they offer us a chance to challenge ourselves as writers. My affinity for such challenges is not the only reason I prefer academic writing. Truthfully, this conviction was not what attracted me to academic writing in the first place; by way of being the antithesis of everything academic writing represents, the way I was raised left me seeking order and direction as a refuge from the chaos and confusion that was my home life.
My childhood was not very structured. By way of explanation, my parents are both artists. My mother is overflowing with artistic passions and talents: she is a painter, a writer, a singer, an actress, and a lover of foreign literature and film. My father, on the other hand, is a musician who dabbles in everything: composition, instrumentals, vocals, etc., as well as a website designer. They are not only artists by vocation—my parents are artists in every sense, particularly in how they see the world around them.
The subject of war has always fascinated my mother. I never understood why she would stay up late with my brother watching movies set on the battlefields of major world wars. When I was ten, she allowed us to watch Saving Private Ryan, one of the bloodiest and most unsettling movies I have ever seen to this day. I could not discern what she got out of these movies, or out of the subject of war itself; the very thought of war always left me feeling pessimistic about human nature. There must have been something more to it than the mainstream appeal of violence. But what? My mother loved beautiful and delicate things; she loved fields of fragile flowers, the view of the sea from the slowly crumbling bluffs, the innocence of children. How could she see anything of merit in war? I did not have an answer to this question that night. I only climbed the stairs and into bed after it was over, after my mother had stroked my hair and said goodnight in her airy, gentle voice, and tried to push the images out of my head so I could sleep.
Growing up in the shadow of my parents’ vibrant artistic personas left me craving direction at times. My mother was of the belief that everything trumped household chores and routine: if I was too melancholy to do the dishes, or if I simply felt like reading or drawing instead, on the rare occasions I was asked to do them, she would excuse me from the kitchen. Not only did our house not make use of child labor—as my brother did even less helping around the house than I did—it was a household in which conflicting religious views created an atmosphere of chaos and anarchy.
My mother converted to Judaism when I was twelve, and I remember her asking my brother and me if we wanted to convert too, since it was easier for children. As it was, my brother was baptized Roman Catholic, and I Lutheran, so we were already theologically opposed on some level, at least in theory. Both of us refused to deny that a man on a cross died for our sins, especially because our father would have probably resorted to violence to reclaim the spirituality of his children that he felt my mother also sought to claim in the divorce. Nevertheless, my mother continued on her religious journey, undaunted, and she began to keep kosher, in a house where two children with no personal investment in this doctrine resided. While my mother attempted to establish herself as a pious Jewish woman, with a new husband of the same faith to match, my brother and I were breaking all the rules she held herself to—eating meat with cheese, or a calf with the milk of its mother, and bringing food back to the house that sometimes contained pork. It was not as if my brother and I wished to undermine our mother; we just refused to adhere to the new rules, and our mother never said anything about it. She merely shared with us the aspects of Judaism that were more palatable for us: eight presents every Chanukah and twisty-bread on Fridays. She kept the hard parts to herself: fasting before the New Year, sitting through services, and adhering to a strict diet.
To add to this divide within my mother’s household, my father was Roman Catholic, and anti-Semitic until my late teens. When my brother and I went to our father’s, we were exposed to completely different religious traditions. Because our father had custody of us only two weekends a month, we were like outsiders to our own faith. Consequently, we were not good Catholics; we slept in too late on Sundays, arriving over a half hour late to mass, and we never took communion. Most of the time I slept in church, once the singing had stopped and the priest began to speak. For me, the most difficult thing about identifying with the Catholic faith was that, according to my father, it preaches that all Jews are going to hell. “She’s a Jew. She’s going to hell,” my father said when my mother first converted.
After years of being shuffled between religiously opposed households, I forsook organized religion all together. I decided that I would not harbor the conviction that my father had blazoned all throughout my early childhood. I would not accept that my mother was destined for excruciating pain in a fiery pit. That is, unless the fiery pit was coming from inside her, and was actually her burning need to shepherd the flocks of stories in her head to the promised land of paper.
The same burning need fuels my writing endeavors, but as I am a student, I have learned that I must write regardless of how motivated and impassioned I feel at any particular time. Deadlines tame the artist in me in such a way that my parents never sought to or could. Just as religion was falling out of my favor, the edicts of my teachers came to mean everything to me, in part because they provided me with that which I could not find elsewhere in my life: order, consistency, direction, and boundaries. At home, a place that changed every few years with all of the moving around my brother and I did with my mother as our primary caretaker, there was dizzying, unassailable freedom: the freedom to do almost whatever, whenever we liked. If I wanted to have dessert for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, no one would stop me. If I wanted to cover myself in blue marker, I was free to do that too. My mother never discouraged my artistic impulses, and she never held me to any routines. My father was a tad more ambitious. He attempted to herd us into church every Sunday, and it was not until years of showing up at least thirty minutes late to Our Lady of Grace before I told him I did not want to attend mass anymore. For one thing, I was a Lutheran forced to go to a Catholic church, and for another thing, I was gradually approaching the day that I declared myself an atheist, with the conviction that nobody would ever spend eternity at the mercy of flames for confusing the identity of the messiah.
With religious anarchy and the absence of a grounding routine at the various places I called home, I loved that at school I was presented with a clear vision of what was expected, enforced with a system of grades to measure my success or, alternatively, my failure. I came to thrive as a student and a writer, and the praise I received continued virtually uninterrupted until I entered college. Though freshman year presented its challenges, the 100 and 200 level courses I took did not demand much more of me than is demanded of high school students in terms of writing assignments, especially because I took AP courses. The class that I would say epitomized college-level writing was Wilderness in Literature. Our first major assignment was an in-class midterm for which we had to write an essay based on the books we had read: On the Road and The Last of the Mohicans. I thought to myself, “This should be painless,” and felt the familiar heat rush to my face as my head filled with ideas for my paper. I left class that day after handing my professor what I felt was one of the best essays I had ever written under such time constraints.
I was sorely mistaken. A few weeks later, Dr. M handed our papers back after a long speech about how we had failed to rise to the occasion, and the instant my eyes landed on the mark “82,” I felt as if I had been nailed to the wall to serve as an example of failure so that others might work harder to avoid my fate; all of my nerves were screaming in pain. After reading my paper again and the teacher’s comments, I still could not see what I had done wrong. I made an appointment to see her, after filling a sheet with possible reasons why my paper had not struck the right chord. As it turned out, this was unnecessary. Dr. M’s sole comment and criticism was, “So what?”
My paper did not answer this question, she insisted. But what I did not understand was how she could ask this of us when it did not appear on the prompt she handed us. The prompt consisted of two vague sentences. There were no specific directions to follow and no stated purpose for my words to fulfill. Suddenly I felt the familiar disorienting effect of too much freedom. I was floating alone on a proverbial sea without any idea as to which direction would carry me to shore, and in this case, there were consequences for not making it back to land, consequences that I found almost as terrifying as being preyed upon by sharks. In my own private melodrama, I pictured myself walking around with a Scarlet Letter sewn onto my shirt, one that said “B,” not “A.”
“So what?” echoed in my head for days, and I answered it the same way each time, drowning out the reverberations: “You can ‘so what’ anything. So what about the readings you assigned? Why should I read them?” I asked rhetorically, in an imagined conversation with my professor. Nevertheless, I aspired to live up to her vague, phantom demands. I was haunted by this notion that perhaps nothing really mattered, that anything could be dismissed as uninteresting, or unworthy of attention. After all, one man’s religion is another’s one-way ticket to hell. The freedom to say what I wanted was a liability; I had more room to make mistakes now. But I also had more room to soar, to rise to the occasion. My wings were unbound; I was free to become a true writer, not just a student responding to a prompt.
Though the implications of this freedom are profound, I still feared it. School was supposed to be my safe haven from the chaos of my home life, but now it was beginning to resemble it. I always pictured school and home life as polar opposites: one represented order, the other chaos. Now I found that I had to stop running from the chaos, from my fear of nearly unchecked freedom, and find the balance between what little structure and direction the prompt offered and the opportunity to blaze my own trail. Balance. But I had lived my whole life in extremes. There was no intermediate world where they met, until my teacher asked “So what?”
I had the freedom to answer that question. But how would I do it?
Weeks later, I had a conversation with my mom about war, prompted by her purchase of VHS tapes on the Civil War. “How can you watch that stuff?” I asked, finally verbalizing my confusion. She answered as an artist; she told me that what she loved about war was not the surface—not the violence, but the way it intensifies human emotion, the way men who fight together develop nearly unbreakable bonds. They went into war as strangers to each other, but came out brothers. She found this inspiring, even in such a dismal context, even though in the larger sense, war is about nations tearing each other apart. What surprised me most about her answer was that she had made me care for a brief moment about a topic that did not typically interest me. She saw a beauty in war that was delicate in the sense that bombs, bullets, and opposing wills posed a constant threat; this beauty was the love that two soldiers who fought together shared.
She had answered that question for me, and she did it by revealing her unique perspective to me, not by merely regurgitating Civil War history. Maybe if I had offered Dr. M more than just evidence of my having read the books she assigned, she would have been similarly drawn to my paper. There was an extra step I needed to take: I needed to look deeper, past the surface of these novels, and trust myself to construct an original argument, and in order to trust myself I needed to allow myself greater freedom to think and to write. My papers could no longer subsist solely on ideas that teachers provided or endorsed, or on previous interpretations offered by scholars and experts on the subject at hand.
With this fresh insight, I went to work on my research paper, an assignment that strayed from my idea of academic writing: there was no topic; I had to decide what I wanted to write about. In the end, I wrote four “drafts,” starting over on a new word document each time, agonized for hours about what to write, and worked into the early hours of the morning, determined to get it right. In the end, I wrote a sixteen-page paper, a paper twice as long as it needed to be. When Dr. M returned it, she showered me with praise and my head hit the desk in shock after seeing “97” at the top of my essay. All of my hard work had more than paid off.
“So what now?” I thought. Now, I write papers in which my own perspective—my own ideas—takes center stage. Thanks to Dr. M’s high standards, I have learned to trust myself as an authority. I can handle the freedom of an open-ended writing assignment. I trust myself to fly between the burning rays of the sun, and the cool surface of the ocean without catching fire, or drowning; I trust myself to soar between extremes.
Camille St. Regis will graduate this spring with a degree in English Literature from Salisbury University in Maryland. This piece emerged from an assignment for her writing center class in which students were asked to explore their writing identity, or what has shaped them into the writers they are today. Camille says, “When I discovered the parallels between open-ended college writing assignments and the chaos, confusion, and freedom that characterized my home life, I faced my most difficult academic challenge to date. It is this challenge—this seemingly insurmountable obstacle—that constitutes the focus of my essay.”