Herewith a delightfully subversive essay on, well, writing essays and the perils of taking life too seriously by the peripatetic English writer Garry Craig Powell who currently lives and teaches in Arkansas. Today marks the publication of Powell’s new novel-in-stories Stoning the Devil which harks back to the time the author lived in the United Arab Emirates. Of this book Naomi Shihab Nye has written: “Garry Craig Powell has an astonishing ability to create characters with swift and haunting power. His intricately linked stories travel to the dark side of human behaviour without losing essential tenderness or desire for meaning and connection. They are unpredictable and wild. Is this book upsetting? Will it make some people mad? Possibly. But you will not be able to put it down.” (See also the author’s blog, also called Stoning the Devil, also about his experiences in the Middle East — the current post is entitled “Sex in the Middle East.”)
“How to Write an Essay” speaks of an even earlier time in the author’s life, before he launched himself on his world travels, when he was a student at Cambridge University studying history. At Cambridge students learned by writing essays for tutors, essay after essay; it was essay-writing boot camp. But sometimes, as Powell discovered, the great lessons happen beyond the classroom, in bed, for example.
During my second year at Cambridge, where I was reading History, I had a good deal of trouble with my essays. The problem lay not so much with style—indeed, I was considered something of a stylist, and was even held up as an example to other students—as with content. I either had so many ideas that I got tangled in them and lost my way, or I had none at all. “Not seeing the wood for the trees” was a frequent comment from my supervisor.
At Cambridge it is not lectures (optional) or seminars (nearly non-existent) which are the basic units of instruction, but supervisions, weekly meetings of one or two undergraduates with a don or research student to discuss an essay set the previous week. Because it ensures individual attention, it’s a superb system if you have a sensitive, congenial supervisor. But most supervisors at Cambridge in the seventies, however brilliant in their research, were hopeless teachers, and mine was no exception. A doctoral student of twenty-five going on forty, a bluestocking—she actually wore them!—with a face that always looked pinched with cold, and elocution so clipped her words cut your ears, each week she gave Jepson and me our essay title and a reading list comprising some twenty books and ten journal articles. I would actually attempt to read most of them, ending up with scores of pages of notes, a miasma of muddled information, which usually engendered a stolid, suet-stuffed essay: thick on facts, thin on ideas. Lower-second standard. (Equivalent to a C, perhaps.) I didn’t much mind: I was content to wander among medieval buildings every day, and spend my afternoons on the river. However, our bony, knife-nosed supervisor was not satisfied with me. “You could do better,” she told me irritably, “if you applied yourself. Must you really waste so much time rowing?” And Roland Jepson, who resembled a thirteenth-century saint with his long, curly golden hair and beard, was as uninspired as I, and fared no better. So each week we sat red-faced in the chilly front parlour of our liege lady, who harangued us with the annoyance of a Henry II berating mediocre counsellors, or ridiculed our efforts with the contempt of a Matilda for her cuckold husband, Stephen. (She admired the strong Henry, despised the weak Stephen. Must have become a Thatcher supporter in the eighties.) And we took it like bondmen, heads bowed, silent. Back to the library, eight hours a day. Waste of time.
Towards the end of the Lent term, however, after nothing but lower seconds (at least I was consistent), a disaster befell my work schedule. My girlfriend came to visit from my home town, and stayed five days. Now Audrey was not the brightest girl I’d known, though she had several times read a book (the same one, The Lord of the Rings, over and over), but on the other hand she was sweet and coy and looked like a wood-nymph from a canvas by Burne-Jones or Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Sylph-like figure, long, dark, coiling tresses: just the sort of creature I liked. Furthermore, although I went home every weekend, in the mid-seventies you still had to keep up the fiction with girls’ parents that their offspring were as innocent as babes in arms, so we rarely had the luxury of a rendezvous in a bed. (How delightfully exact is the French: it means “surrender yourself”.) And finally, I was twenty, Audrey eighteen. Given such premises, you don’t have to be a professor of logic to reach the ineluctable conclusion: we spent the entire five days in bed. To hell with libraries, lectures, books (The Exchequer in the Reign of Henry II); to hell with sightseeing; to Hades with essays. We did get up on occasion, I seem to remember, to eat an infamous meal in Hall—cold mashed potato, cabbage, microscopic meat-balls, the usual—and once we went to a Rowing Club cocktail party, where Audrey, a well-behaved bank clerk, was shocked to discover that the upper-class’s idea of fun was to dress in very expensive clothes and hurl pints of beer at each other. But on the whole the conclusions of the professors of logic are incontestable. The only history I was concerned with was the one we were making between the sheets.
Nevertheless, the time was drawing near, I knew, when I would have to pay for my sins. Audrey was leaving on Tuesday evening; my supervision was Friday afternoon. That meant my essay had to be in by Thursday lunchtime. So I had exactly a day and a half to do a week’s work. A day to scour a score of maliciously learned tomes, to devour a dozen articles of deliberately turgid, tedious prose. Half a day to write the essay itself. An impossible task. Couldn’t be done.
I didn’t even try. The day after Audrey’s departure I rose late, as sated as Byron’s Don Juan after his idyll with Haidee on her island, and strolled contentedly to the hideous university library (not for nothing was it designed by the chap responsible for Battersea Power Station), where I set myself the modest task of reading a single book and a single article. What were they about? What was the title of that epic essay? I fancy that it was on the Vikings, but surely it couldn’t have been, as I was taking Medieval English History during the Michaelmas and Lent terms. Probably, after my glorious five days of lust, I was simply feeling like a proud Viking for once, rather than the downtrodden serfs I usually identified with. Anyway, Thursday morning I wrote the essay, in three hours flat, instead of my usual eight or ten. Six pages in lieu of the standard twelve or fifteen. What did it matter? My marks couldn’t sink much lower. I could get a third; I doubted if even Queen Matilda was mean enough to give me a fail.
Friday, then. Jepson and I cycled together from Selwyn, my beloved Victorian Gothic college, across the city to the icy chambers in which our grim judge awaited us. As usual there was no smile, no small talk, no offer of a cup of something. After all, we were historians. We’d learned from Stephen’s mistakes with his barons in the twelfth century: don’t prevaricate, be decisive. We’d learned from Henry’s experiences with his Exchequer. Efficiency, that was the thing. Straight to business.
“Mr. Powell,” began my stern mistress, and I flinched in anticipation of her imminent scorn, “I am at a loss. I am utterly mystified. What on earth have you been doing since we last met? Your essay bears no comparison with your previous efforts. It’s clear and concise. You come straight to the point. It is the most brilliantly written piece I have read all year, and I’m giving it a first. All I can say is this: whatever you’ve been doing this week, keep it up.”
As you may imagine, I did my level best to follow the lady’s advice.
— Garry Craig Powell
Garry Craig Powell‘s novel-in-stories, Stoning the Devil has just been published by Skylight Press. Powell is an Englishman who lived for long periods in Portugal and the United Arab Emirates, and shorter ones in Spain and Poland. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Writing at the University of Central Arkansas in the USA. For more information, visit his website where you can also find his blog about life in the Persian Gulf.