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The scribbling of the damned

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, November 18, 2008

When I pulled out a notebook in Russian class the other day, I happened to open it, accidentally, from the back. As I flipped through it backwards to get out of the random notes and reach the pages most relevant to Russian, an Irish classmate, Faith, happened to glance over.

“Okay.” She said. “I just saw the word hell there, in really big letters, right next to a black scribble.”

“Oh…” My cheeks went hot. I’d taken the notes in question at the International Students’ You’d-Better-Turn-In-Your-Final-Essays-On-Time-Or-Else Meeting. “Um, I’m a compulsive doodler.”

“Me, too.” Faith said. “Only I draw girls. I like drawing them with really big skirts.”

Actually, I do as well. I just tend to scribble over them afterward. But right I needed to clarify a more pressing matter with Faith.

“And that was a note telling myself to get the hell on with my papers.”

Of course by then all ten members of the class were listening, so everyone laughed. One person said, “Wow, what a nice thing to write to yourself.”

And yes, I suppose, in the great crunch of finals season, we can probably find less abrasive means of self-motivation.

But be honest. There’s no way I’m the only student in the world of university culture who’s beginning to feel, as the last of the fall semester slips by, that they’re heading straight to hell, in really big letters, next to a black scribble.

You may have read, in previous Observers, about the slightly misnamed National Novel Writing Month. If not, then the basic premise is that a bunch of us wannabe fiction writers from around the world get together on a relevant message board and spend several weeks commiserating about subplots that grow out of nowhere and characters who hook up with each other without our permission. In the midst of all this, each of us are striving, or at least attempting to strive, to finish a 50,000 world novel within the month of November.

I am only an attempter. My “novel” is very far behind, in terms of both length and plot, though I’ve written a significant amount (14,000 words, and the focal character has still not put in her appearance). The project is, at the moment, my most time consuming extracurricular, and I can’t even make it consume time productively.

Meanwhile the end of the term creeps up. The remaining weeks on the syllabi are few. Starbucks is playing Christmas music (though, here in Dublin, not advertising peppermint mochas). And yet the “NaNoWriMo” crunch, and the paper and final crunch, remains.

You feel it, too. You have your winter weight training, your thrice a week 7 a.m. shifts at North Dining Hall, and your constant rehearsals that leave strains of “Hallelujah” circling around in your head all through Microbiology. And, too, you have your three papers due the Monday after Thanksgiving, the first of five sections of your Arcane Economics in Japanese final scheduled for the first week of December, and half a textbook’s worth of B/C Calc to catch up on before zero hour. Oh, and yeah. There’s that thesis outline to start thinking about, too.

Each day of this may be a struggle: there may be constant pressure from all sides, and a distinct feeling that you may never escape it all, never leave your desk or the dish line, never step off the bus on a snowy evening, see the family car idling at the curb, and scratch your dog’s ears as you are welcomed back into a house scented with pine and hot chocolate. You may feel as though that unwritten 20-page Philosophy of Lost Civilizations research paper may be forever hanging over your head like a black scribble, just as I feel that I’ll never manage a scholarly essay on The Exorcist in time to flee to England, gather with my family, and enjoy unwisely large quantities of the Christmas Cake my aunt and I baked last week.

Hell, in really big letters? Almost.

The funny thing is, though, the capacity we all have to survive. Of course, unless you’re very creative, a Works Cited page can’t kill you, and neither can the paper attached to it. Everything on earth is finite, including our own stress.

We are, and always have been, stronger than the things that pressure us now. We will remember that, and remain active and productive. We will study, write, sing, lift our way through these next few weeks. We will do what we can for stress relief, make the best of every difficulty, and enjoy what happiness comes our way in the meantime. We will not be burnt out, so to speak, nor scribbled over, by “Hell.”

We will remember exactly what “hell” is, and find a Faith to keep it in perspective for us.

Mine makes second-year Russian a lot more fun.

Katherine Khorey is an English major and Russian minor spending her junior year abroad at Trinity College, Dublin. Had she been at Notre Dame this year, however, she would have totally gone to Andrew Miller’s showing of My Fair Lady, and is now singing show tunes from across the ocean.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.