What the Ancient Poetics of Enigma can still do

Curtis Gruenler, Professor of English, Hope College



I admire writers who boil down to a (relatively) brief essay the arguments they have elsewhere explored in long books. This is my attempt to capture the gist of my new book, “Piers Plowman” and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology.

What kind of truth do we seek in literature? Readers of literature are looking for many things. In a post-truth era, it is getting harder even to count truth among them. But the question of literary truth has always been difficult. The oldest answer in Western letters hangs on the term enigma.


In the golden age of Greece (fifth century BCE), before terms like symbol and allegory had come into literary studies, ainigma identified what the language of the poems associated with Orpheus and Homer have in common with Delphic oracles. Ainigma is often translated “riddle,” but Greek had another term, griphos, for verbal puzzles that involve mere puns and tricks with letters—and that mostly lose interest once they are solved. The riddle of the Sphinx, by contrast, merits being called an ainigma: “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet at dusk?” This complex metaphor not only challenges ingenuity but opens contemplation of human life, all the more so in the light of the story of its famous solver, Oedipus.

The point of a griphos riddle is the contest, something ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed as after-dinner entertainment. An ainigma, on the other hand, aims at a shared insight into something mysterious—what we still hope will happen in literature classrooms or after attending a good play or movie. The difference is important enough that Latin borrowed its word aenigma from Greek and English borrowed it from Latin, so that riddle and enigma still mark a distinction within the core idea of verbal puzzles (though in medieval usage, the native Germanic word redel encompassed the whole territory). Enigma remains an essential term for writing that projects a surplus of meaning and elicits the kind of interpretive attention that distinguishes what we value as literature.

The uses of the term enigma in classical, medieval, and modern literary culture suggest recognition of a mode or style, the enigmatic, that I find it helpful to define over against what I call the didactic and the esoteric. Didactic texts, which make up most of what is ever published, have an agenda, whatever literary means they use, to impart a settled message or reinforce an established view. Esoteric texts, on the other hand, aim to exclude all but an elite from privileged knowledge. Both tend to draw a line between insiders and outsiders, whereas the enigmatic mode invites readers into never-ending contemplation that grows from new interpretive voices while still being centered on a reality that transcends articulation.

Enigma reached modern English by three intertwined paths that each inform what the enigmatic mode can be. As the most common Latin word for a riddle, it implies a playfulness different from the serious intentions of didactic instruction or of withholding esoteric secrets. In the teaching of literary arts (what the ancients called grammar and rhetoric), enigma was defined as a deliberately obscure allegory, something between openness and hiddenness, between transparency and opacity.

What might be the purpose of such playful difficulty? While older authors rarely ask this question outright, they often suggest a process of reading that leads to gradual growth both in understanding and in desire for what is understood. This kind of understanding is not simply owned by insiders and lacked by outsiders, as with the didactic and esoteric. Rather, enigmatic reading is open to beginners yet always finds more and more to be understood. That such reading is possible and valid, without dissolving into endless deferral of anything that could be called truth, depends on a sense of reality as mystery, one still captured by “enigma” and supported by its third line of inheritance, along with riddles and rhetoric: theology.

Augustine of Hippo, in his influential treatise On the Trinity, quotes one verse of the Bible more often than any other: “We see now through a mirror in an enigma, then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). More familiar as the source of the idiom “though a glass darkly” from the King James Bible, this sole instance of ainigma in the New Testament captures both the limits of human knowledge of the divine and the value of contemplating its obscure reflections, the way one would play at possible answers to a good riddle. Noting that nothing is more enigmatic to us than ourselves, Augustine probes the experience of consciousness in order to find vestiges of the persons of the Trinity. Ultimately he finds the participation of the human mind in the incarnate Word, as the second person of the Trinity is called at the beginning of John’s Gospel, to be the most mysterious enigma and the one that grounds the possibility of truthful contemplation.

Since the rest of Creation was also seen, especially in the Middle Ages, to participate in and manifest the divine, all of nature and history are full of enigmas. Monastic practices of reading and meditation took the Bible as the key to reading the book of nature as well as the action of God in history down to their own time and in the end. Medieval encyclopedias and devotional works exemplify the same approach, as seen in frequent titles that include the Latin word for mirror, speculum. A Christian view of the world as enigmatic became literature in the marvelous Latin riddles of St. Aldhelm (recently published in a brilliant translation by A. M. Juster) and the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book.

Further, the uses of enigma for playful entry into mysteries both divine and human offered a rationale for other efforts to stretch the resources of poetic language. No text has pursued the potential of the enigmatic to represent depths both divine and human—both vertical and horizontal, so to speak—more successfully than Dante’s Divine Comedy. For the legacy of the enigmatic in English literature, however, equally important is William Langland’s Piers Plowman.

Deservedly overshadowed by his younger fourteenth-century contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer, Langland has been increasingly recognized for audacious experiments in what Middle English poetry could do. If Chaucer is the father of English literature, Langland has a good claim to being its grandfather. And, as one might imagine with a grandfather who spent decades writing and revising different versions of what became an obscurely allegorical poem of around 7,000 lines made up of several dreams and dreams within dreams, he is very much an enigma. Scholars often call his poem enigmatic, in a loose sense, in order to suggest what makes its difficulty worth reading. It is enigmatic, in a medieval sense, on every level, from lines that use schoolroom riddle tricks to its overall ambitions as a theological vision. At his best, Langland pioneered English poetry that could evoke mystery, not merely as a puzzle to be solved nor as mystification, but as what, increasingly in the modern period, we have come to seek in literature.

In Langland’s time, what pushed writing toward either the didactic or the esoteric instead of the enigmatic was primarily the massive influence of the medieval church. His visions often remix the doctrine that filled volumes of catechetical verse. He also satirizes the growing seductions of academic elitism. In the end, he seems to have lost confidence that the institutional church could foster the kind of inner conversion and peaceful, inclusive community that Christianity calls for. Piers Plowman finally envisions an extra-institutional remnant gathered around the scriptures and the sacraments, engaged together in an endless, figurative pilgrimage, which could also be served by the kind of poetry its author was trying to write.

Though Langland has been claimed since the sixteenth century as a proto-Protestant, the national churches born of the Reformation remained just as prone to the abuses of authority he critiques, and the religious climate became even less friendly to a poetics of enigma. Entrenched doctrinal controversy is no better for the enigmatic than institutional hegemony. As common culture became increasingly secular, this became the place for play with enigmatic modes, now directed more to the horizontal, human dimension. Such a shift could be seen already between the theological visions of Piers Plowman and the human comedy of The Canterbury Tales (or between Dante’s Divine Comedy and Boccaccio’s Decameron).

The story of the enigmatic in modern literature is more complex and yet to be told. It becomes in part an alternative to neoclassicism, since classical rhetoric preferred the elegant and clear over the obscure and difficult. Thus the enigmatic is an element of the metaphysical style of John Donne over against the classicism of Ben Jonson. Similarly, it is part of the Romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge in response to the neo-classical standards of the eighteenth century. Yet it goes deeper. The mysteries of individuals and their places in history, whether or not seen as infinitely meaningful because of their divine author, are what interest enigmatic human authors. When religious discourse does not favor the kind of play needed to cultivate such a view of reality, literature becomes more necessary as a supplement or alternative, a view seen in Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, or the New Critics.

Since the New Critics, however, literary studies have been dominated by the hermeneutics of suspicion, a phrase coined by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur to capture a posture especially identified with Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. As necessary as it is to read for subtexts and unconscious agendas, Ricouer’s point is that this can only take us so far (an argument recently reasserted by Rita Felski and others). Suspicious reading needs to be balanced by a more affirming, imaginative, and empathetic stance, a dynamic captured in Ricoeur’s aphorism, “To explain more is to understand better.” Teachers and students of literature and other arts who seek to keep suspicion from stealing the show, or at least the ways we talk about it, can find valuable resources, and a helpful word, in the ancient poetics and hermeneutics of enigma.

The didactic and the esoteric modes each serve ideology and power, which is mostly what the hermeneutics of suspicion are suspicious of. Suspicious critique that finds an agenda behind everything often takes the further, deconstructive step of showing that this agenda is an arbitrary construct that does not bear scrutiny but dissolves into self-contradiction. Critique tends to set itself up as a privileged, esoteric discourse that renders everything else either didactic or esoteric. One way or the other, the hermeneutics of suspicion risks excluding the possibility of the enigmatic.

Yet “enigmatic” remains a member of what seems a dwindling species: an almost unreserved term of approbation for ambitious literary or other artistic works. It has survived the loss of theological consensus that nurtured a sacramental approach to the world. It gained strength in opposition to revivals of classical decorum. And it seems to be weathering the rise of suspicious critique in the humanities, as well as the accompanying ascendance of science as the language of truth.

But how can we still talk about the enigmatic? One answer is by recovering its vertical dimension. One of the fruits of suspicion in the humanities is suspicion of suspicion: not so much suspicion turned on itself, perhaps, but mutual suspicion among different schools of critique (Marxian, deconstructive, psychoanalytic, Foucauldian…), so that eclecticism and radical pluralism open the way again for theological perspectives. The history of the enigmatic suggests that a rich affirmation of horizontal, human meaning may depend on an equally rich vertical reference.

At the same time, however, the Christian understanding of the enigmatic is fully incarnational, in the sense that it affirms the accommodation of divine truth to the conditions of human embodiment. It also reckons with human finitude and fallibility. Enigmatic language reminds us of the limitations of all attempts to articulate what transcends scientific reduction. What these limitations withhold behind the curtain of mystery, however, they also give by opening the entire theater of creation and history as moments of potential revelation. In the authors such as Dante and Langland who fully embraced a poetics of enigma, this path brought suspicion of precisely those authorities that claimed to be sacred. It looked for truth rather in the victimized and outcast. In this respect, the critical movements focused on the political margins—feminism, post-colonialism, race and ethnic studies, queer theory, disability studies, even ecocriticism—can find in the enigmatic an alternate genealogy. In the road beyond oneself to the other, there are no shortcuts, either vertical or horizontal.

Just as a riddle both conceals and reveals, the enigmatic invites a posture that combines both suspicion and advocacy. It welcomes new and strange voices into a play of reading whose truth is additive and symphonic, known by the complex harmonies and expanding communion that emerge.

The Vienna Experience

By Emily Martin ’17

Austria—home of an iconic singing family, towering snow-covered Alps, and Vienna, a sparkling gem of art, music, and architecture, and my heart’s new resting place.  Cheesy, I know.  But also true.  This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to study in Vienna for 3 weeks as part of the 65th annual Vienna Summer School, and I discovered that although I am neither a patron of the arts nor a musician or historian, Vienna will always hold hostage a huge piece of my heart.  It’s a strange feeling—I’ve traveled extensively within the U.S. and no city has ever captivated me the way Vienna did.  I can’t say what exactly it is about the city—could be the glittering Statsoper filled with women in ball gowns and men in tuxedos.  Could be the gardens of Schӧnbrunn palace filled with sweet-scented roses and whisperings of the Hapsburgs who roamed there in centuries past.  Could be the Kantnerstrasse filled with bustling people and a veritable Tower-of-Babel array of languages.  Could be none of these things, or all of them.  I remember being unreasonably excited about a telephone booth when we first arrived—my very jet-lagged roommate was not amused by my “I’ve never seen one in real life!”  Whatever it is, Vienna has that intangible “thing” that has been ensnaring Hope students and non-Hope students alike for decades, and I am its latest victim.  But what a captivity—our first and only weekend actually in the city, we had the chance to see Anatevka, or Fiddler on the Roof, and the Sound of Music—one on Saturday night and one on Sunday night.  The Sound of Music is my favorite musical—my family watches it together every Christmas—and to see it performed in Austria was unbelievable.  My journal entry for that day says, “I don’t even know what to write—I just pray I will always remember this.”  I think I felt that way about every day in Vienna because every day brought a crazy slew of new experiences.  Every day was a new adventure.  From Vienna, my housemates and I went to Slovakia and then Greece and France and England and the Netherlands and Germany and Switzerland and Italy.  We stayed in hostels, living out of our backpacks like typical college travelers.  Before beginning this trip, I didn’t realize how much I would learn—about myself, about life, and about the world.  Every country—every city even—was so new and so different, with so much to explore and discover.  From the Parthenon in Athens to the black sand in Santorini to the rain in London and the windmills in Amsterdam—the world is so big and it is so full of crazy adventures just waiting to be had.  I’ve always been restless, never content to stay very long in one place—always following the jet trails crisscrossing the sky and keeping my eyes fixed on the horizon.  But after this trip, I know that’s who I am—a wanderer, an adventurer, always looking for life’s next.  It’s both a gift and a flaw.  Often, I find that I forget to live in the here and now.  I’m always searching for what’s right around the corner instead of focusing on and appreciating the present.  It’s something I work on every day.  But, conversely, it also means I don’t wait around for life to come to me.  As I write this from Holland State Park, looking out over Lake Michigan, I find myself wishing I was back on the black sands of Greece admiring the beauty of the Aegean Sea.  But it’s only for a minute . . . I know I’m not finished.  Life—the greatest adventure of all—is just beginning.

New School Year and Other New Stuff!

Welcome to the 2016-2017 school year! We’ve just finished our first week of classes and whew! What a whirlwind of awesomeness.

We have lots of nifty things coming up this year such as . . . drumroll please . . . a new Office Manager!

So as we transition to a new year, we might miss a week or two of blog posts, but don’t fear. We’ll be back on track before you know it.

How We Tell Stories Matters

By Duffy Lampen ’17

Humanity has been telling stories for thousands of years. From cave paintings to theatrical performances, people have developed nuanced ways of conveying information. In the 21st century one of the most common modes of storytelling is through the novel, often hinging on the story-telling capabilities of a first-person narrator. Contemporary literature has experienced a flourish of creativity surrounding narrative styles pertaining to the role of unreliable narration as a tool for storytelling. The uncertainty this genre of narration creates affects both the style and plot of the novel while also opening up avenues for political and social expression. Aaron Cully Drake’s first novel Do You Think This is Strange? and Nicole Krauss’s novel The History of Love utilize this trend, including narrators who are youthfully naïve, intellectually disabled, or bordering senility.

One major function of unreliable narration is to create new ways that readers interact with stories through plot. Drake’s protagonist, Freddy, slowly remembers his mother’s death and the truth surrounding her last hours. Since Freddy has repressed this major incident throughout the novel, the plot propels via the reader’s and Freddy’s simultaneous unearthing of the mystery. Krauss similarly uses the unreliable narration in her books, implementing two first-person narrators, Alma Singer and Leo Gursky. Again, these characters give the audience knowledge piece-by-piece, yet it is always under suspect. Gursky, an elderly Polish man, is sliding towards senility. All his remarks and conclusions as a narration, therefore, are dubious and color the reader’s interpretation of the plot. The most grandiose example of this is when the reader discovers that Bruno, Gursky’s longtime friend present throughout the novel, has actually been dead for over 50 years.

Unreliable narrators also recreate the style of storytelling in books through creative aestheticism. Krauss uses Gursky’s moments of senility to construct aesthetically pleasing passages of confusion in sections of the book. For example,  the book ends with Gursky sitting next to young Alma, unable to discern whether she is a stranger or his childhood love. Similarly, 15-year-old Alma’s unreliable narration, spurred from her naiveté and youth, engenders plot changes while also creating aesthetic pleasures for readers. As a young mind, Alma narrates her story through the usage of lists, enumerating her thoughts in an easy-to-follow format. This uncommon mode of script initially shocks the reader out of the common trends of prose writing.

A third and more abstract use of this trend is to help audiences empathize and understand the inner workings of unique identity groups such as individuals with intellectual disabilities. Drake’s novel is one of several novels written in the last 15 years that uses a narrator with an intellectual disability. Many of these authors consciously advocate for this identity group, equipped with personal experiences to create realistic depictions. For instance, Drake’s daughter is on the autistic spectrum. Without defining these narrators by their disabilities, authors such as Drake integrate examples of how intellectual disabilities may manifest themselves, illustrating the unique perspective that these people possess. Drake simultaneously implements humor into this informative process by showing how certain individuals with intellectual disabilities have trouble understanding idioms or figurative language. Freddy describes his complex desire to be alone yet also be accepted in a way that teaches readers certain paradoxes that result from not only his disability but from society’s rejection and exclusion of him. Creative usage of first-person narration opens a door for authors to explain difficult ideas such as complex embodiment theory—the belief that disability is constructed through both medical and social influences.

The recent experimentation revolving around unreliable narration has enabled writers to interact with the written word in entirely new ways. This trend not only questions how people can tell stories, but it reinforces the power of narrative as a tool for bringing awareness to marginalized groups. Only time will tell what other effects this tool will precipitate.

Time to Write

By: Julie Oosterink ’13


50 is the maximum number of books a student can check out from Van Wylen Library. I know this because I hit that number on more than one occasion during my time at Hope. As a student of English and history, I always juggled a few research papers or projects and found more than enough texts to help me.

I did not always juggle gracefully, and I hardly ever appeared graceful while balancing a stack of books, a coffee mug, and my oversized backpack.

During my first semester at Hope, I could hardly navigate my way through the library. I remember writing a research paper about the psychology of happiness and I could not figure out how to use the online catalogue. I just stared at the computer and started crying, stubbornly refusing to ask for help. This was a beautifully ironic moment which I could not appreciate until an awesome student reference assistant swooped in to help me.

Long story short: we found the books, I stopped crying, and I fell in love with the library.

However, I soon discovered that the number of books checked out or articles read did not automatically add up to a perfect research paper. In the end, I needed time to write.

I thought I would have this time in college.

During that first year, I gave myself time–time to walk to JP’s, time to run into a friend, time to check out not-going-to-happen-in-your-life dates, time to migrate to Lemonjellos aka Ljs (Have we made a decision on this yet?), and time to end the evening back at Van Wylen, ordering some more coffee from the Cup and Chaucer while inserting a cheery “busy, busy, busy” toast to fellow dedicated students in place of small talk.

I wasn’t procrastinating, right?

I had my highlighters, pencils, post-it notes, and Norton Anthologies all aligned next to my chocolate-raspberry muffin and coffee mug.

I had print-outs of articles that I had read at least once.

I made a nice outline on a napkin that nearly connected to a thesis statement.

I did not have a single sentence written for my research paper.

I wish I could say this was a single incident in which I failed the paper and learned that one should never ever ever ever procrastinate. Alas, I have always been more of a Hamlet than a Laertes.

By the next semester, I was able to apply for a job working at the reference desk. I wanted to help other students find the resources they needed, and selfishly, I wanted to be paid for hanging out at my favorite building on campus.

Surely, more time in the library would make me a better reader, writer, and student. Right?

Indeed, working at the reference desk improved my research skills and affirmed my love of helping others pursue their academic passions . . . or simply their desires to pass freshman level English. It did not, however, solve my predicament with time.

What did help me was the advice of one of my writing professors, Heather Sellers. She encouraged her students to be “good moms” by timing ourselves whenever we wrote. A generous, “good” mom will give a 5-minute warning before the kids have to pack up their toys or come inside for dinner. For writing, this would help us not get stuck on the first line of a poem, waiting for inspiration to strike while wasting an afternoon away. Writing thrives on immediacy. Writers need time, but unlimited time sometimes becomes a vacuum to creative productivity.

I fostered my “good mom” habits and discovered that limiting my time on writing opened up more opportunities for enjoying Visiting Writers’ Series events, marathon reading sessions of The Hobbit, or any number of other opportunities the English Department presented, like decorating Christmas cookies. Yum!

I could even make time for a second job at the David J. Klooster Center for Excellence in Writing. Then, I was able to help other students work through the wonderfully frustrating and satisfying struggle of researching and producing papers.

Each semester working at the library continued to affirm my passion for helping students write and my passion for becoming a teacher. I loved meeting students from every area of study and helping them find the resources they needed. I enjoyed learning a little bit myself as I searched with students to find out more about global politics, geology, dance, nursing, and literature, too. Then, I could see where their ideas progressed as they wrote outlines and drafts for the writing center.

It was in the library that I truly appreciated Hope College as a liberal arts institution. The flow of students and professors researching, writing, and sharing ideas with one another inspired me to also read, write, and share ideas. It inspired me to conduct research in Washington, D.C. with Dr. Jeanne Petit, study in Vienna for a May term with Dr. Stephen Hemenway, and it shaped me to become the person I am today. What helped me most about my experience at Hope College was not one class or one professor, or even one fascinating book. It was the culmination of all the parts of the liberal arts education which helped me discover the kind of teacher I want to be.
I am so thankful for the time Hope gave me, so I can teach my students how to make the most of their dreams in all the time they have.

Novels: How I Discovered I was on the Right Career Path

By Lauren Marchany ’17

Majoring in English allows for a wide variety of career choices. My goal is to be an editor for a publishing house. The class that I found has been the most helpful to reaching this goal is Creative Writing: Novels with Dr. Elizabeth Trembley.

When registration rolled around near the end of fall semester of my junior year, I allowed my best friend to convince me to take Novels with her in the spring. I had wanted to take the class, but I wasn’t sure if I could survive it.

Novels is definitely one of the hardest classes I have taken at Hope. The goal of the class is to study the structure of a novel and then to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. At the end of the class students write a synopsis of their novel and complete a submission packet – as if they were going to submit their book to an agent or a publisher.

Walking out of the first day of class I felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information that had been thrown at me. It was at this point that the enormity of the task of having to write a novel hit me. I seriously contemplated dropping the class.

However, I decided to look at the class as a challenge. I had never written anything close to a novel, so why not stick it out and see where I end up? The first couple of weeks were easier than I had expected and I began to relax into the class. In hindsight this was a mistake.

At the end of January we began to prepare for the actual novel writing. At this point in the class I began to panic; I had no idea what I wanted to write about and it seemed like everyone else in the class had a semi-concrete idea for their novels.

During the month of February I continually struggled with meeting my daily word count quota and I again contemplated dropping the class. The writing section of the class really helped me appreciate how much work went into creating a novel. February challenged my perspective on my own writing. My entire life I had people telling me that I was a great writer, and then I walked into Novels and had to reevaluate my writing ability. I started to question if I actually had any talent and whether I should be a Creative Writing major because it seemed that every one of my classmates’ novels had stunning plots and were well thought out. I felt like I was just word-vomiting on the page and that my novel did not have any kind of direction. I felt inadequate as a writer and I struggled with this thought all through the writing of my novel.

By some miracle from the universe I had a 50,000 word novel at the end of February. When we got printed copies of our books, I was in complete awe. I couldn’t believe that I had actually written something that took up 173 pages. It was such a great feeling to know that I had overcome my challenges and survived the month.

The next step was to edit the first couple of chapters of our novels and to create a synopsis and query letter. This section of the class was by far my favorite and helped me to solidify my decision to go into editing. I had such a great time helping my classmates improve their novels through workshops and peer edits. Editing my peers’ packets left me with a feeling of accomplishment because I knew that I was helping them to create the worlds they envisioned in their heads. I felt useful and like I was helping to make a difference, even if the novel never got published.

At the end of the class I was thankful that I hadn’t left the class when the work became difficult. Novels helped me to truly realize that going into editing is the right career path for me. I encourage every English major to take a class that might daunt them. The results could be surprising.

Faculty Writing Camp Reflections

By Regan Postma-Montaño

This past June I joined eight other faculty (including Marla Lunderberg and Kendra Parker from the English Department) for my first ever Faculty Writing Camp. Much like the time spent at Northern Michigan summer camps during my youth, this camp offered me the blessings of community and growth, along with good snacks and walks in nature, and yes, a few tears.


Each day the other campers and I met in the teaching lab on the second floor of VanWylen Library. Mornings began with a “Writing Camp GPS” goal sheet and a tip from Barb Mezeske, our wise and encouraging coach. Mid-day we took a break for a lunch in the Cup and Chaucer Café and for free time, which for me meant walks around campus or downtown. Afternoons we continued writing and ended our session with a reflection on our progress and where to start the next day. In total, we wrote 30 hours in one week. I was thrilled with the tangible successes of the camp: a performance review accepted for publication and a scholarly article submitted for review. I also am thankful for the ways I grew as a writer during the camp. I share three personal takeaways:

1. To write well, I need movement between time alone and time in community. My good ideas and precise wordsmithing come in solitude while my momentum (especially when tired or stuck) comes in community. Barb and my fellow campers provided much to this end. I also found myself encouraged by library staff and student workers who often asked about my project. I hope to cultivate this balance of solitude and community in the upcoming semester as I continue writing.

2. To write well, I need to let go more quickly. I have the tendency to hold onto my writing, wanting my work to be perfect and thinking it is never “good enough.” Barb encouraged me to submit my work quickly — that same day or the very next week. I found this quicker pace freeing.

3. To write well, I need to write from my reality and the reality of the world today. I initially thought I could simply cut down my 50-page dissertation chapter to a 20-page article. As I began the process, I realized the world had changed. To accurately arrive at the article’s intended outcome I needed to rewrite from my current location. Although this proved to be more work, I feel proud of the relevance of my writing.


Much like the camps of my youth, the respite from daily life, the lengthy open periods of time, and the intense focus on a particular task led directly to my growth. Along the way, I learned that my work, which is professional in nature, emerges more quickly and beautifully when I pay attention to the personal meaning it provides.

Thank you Barb, Kendra, Marla, Berta, and everyone else who made my first Faculty Writing Camp a great adventure. I look forward to next year!

You Say Goodbye I Say Hello

By Sarah Baar, ’04

I first arrived on Hope’s campus in 2001 as a student. I remember standing in line in front of Dykstra Hall with my roommate, waiting to get checked in and get our keys. A bee buzzed around us in the late summer heat and humidity and I worried it would get stuck in my frizzy hair and make a home with us for the year in Dykstra 345.

Fast-forward seven years and I once again arrived at Hope, this time as an employee, the newly-named Office Manager for the English department. I wouldn’t start working with the History department for a few years still, and I thrilled in my shiny new office–a big step up from my cubicle in my previous job. I took a picture of the nameplate outside the office with my name on it.

Now, fifteen years after my first introduction to Hope, I’ve resigned my position as Office Manager to say hello to a new, unknown adventure.

No doubt I will miss many things about working at Hope. But most of all I’ll miss the people. My faculty have been nothing short of amazing. And the students? The students! Geesh, I could fall over from the greatness of our students. It’s been an honor to get to know you, folks. Love you all very much.

Why English 113 Is a Must

By: Trevor Sooy, ‘19

Most students coming to Hope College are required to take a semester of English. Like me, they may have thought, “I thought this was the time to study what I’m interested in and get as far away from writing lengthy papers on material that means next to nothing for me.”

This thought turned out to be quite the opposite, as taking English 113 allowed me to fully understand how to utilize the VanWylen Library, learn how to navigate through their databases, and most importantly, learn to write successful college-level papers.

With the VanWylen Library having four floors and a basement containing a plethora of books, articles, and journals, incoming students may find themselves confused and discouraged in finding the material they need to write a paper for a certain class. Every English 113 class has multiple library information sessions that show students how to use their website to find the appropriate and necessary books needed to find what type of document one may need. Another great resource that students learn how to use is the Klooster Center for Excellence In Writing. This department of the library helps students with writing projects of all kinds, and you can learn much more about the Center here.

Yet another tricky thing in college is trying to navigate through databases. Without proper instructions on how to do so efficiently and effectively, this can be a headache. Hope College allows its students to have access to a myriad of databases. Again, in every English 113 class, they teach the benefits one can have by using this resource. At the end of the semester these skills are then put into action by writing a research paper.

Every professor has high expectations for their student’s papers and projects. But English 113 is designed to help you succeed. There are various workshops throughout the semester such as sentence style, word choice, revising, and properly citing. These concepts may sound mundane and repetitive, but these aspects of writing are crucial to understand.

Hope College is fortunate enough to have a wide range of English 113 classes that cover an array of topics. There is not an English class alike. Students are able to choose what sounds interesting to them, whether that be spirituality, American presidency, and even Jurassic Park. While the core of all of these classes all teach students about the things mentioned previously, they all have their own overarching theme.

English 113 allows students to clearly understand the writing resources available on campus, lets you explore different writing techniques, and makes sure every student is comfortable writing college-level papers. All of these things are beneficial in the short and long run. So, despite the initial dread that you may have felt about have to take another English class, it will help in many other areas of college writing and researching.

Writing In Community

By Leigh Clouse, ’13

IMG_0167As a writer, there is often nothing more terrifying than sharing my work with others. Whether I’m in a formal class workshop or in a relaxed setting with fellow writer friends, my anxiety always finds a way to tag along for the ride. The critique process has a way of making me feel exposed, so exposed that I want to sink through the floor when I hear someone say that the main character in my story seems one-dimensional or that the ending that I worked on for eons comes off as trite. Having to critique another’s piece can be daunting too. There’s an internal pressure to be insightful, and I struggle at times to articulate why I think something is or isn’t working. On more than occasion I have thrown out lame comments that make me wince when I think about them hours later.

As nerve-wracking as being part of a writing community can be, I have learned over the years, as a creative writing major at Hope and as part of a MFA cohort at Boston University, how vital it is in both bettering my work and forming a network of people who challenge me.

To ward off bouts of shame-spiraling, I try to keep in mind the benefits of workshopping, one of the most essential being that there are more minds than just my own at my disposal. When I am at my wits’ end because my plot has evaporated into the ether, it’s a comfort to have the resources of others’ imaginations to come up with potential solutions for the problematic.

Once I’ve been working on a piece for a while things tend to become muddled, and it can be difficult to put my finger on what doesn’t feel right. It’s good to have people who aren’t also trapped in the mire of my self-doubt. And while I may not want to act on every suggestion I receive, I am comforted by having pages of notes about possible next steps after a critique session.

Being in different writing groups has also improved my ability not only to constructively critique another’s work but also to be a better critic of my own. Once I get past the thought of workshop as something to dread, it becomes an opportunity to immerse myself in different ways of thinking. While it may not seem I have anything more to go on than a feeling when it comes to someone’s story at first, often hearing another’s opinion causes me to make sense of my own.

Workshopping becomes a team sport rather than an individual event. And by helping others hone their writing, certain truths about my own can be revealed if I’m open to it. I may find that another writer’s language is clearer and livelier than mine, encouraging me to declutter my pieces of ungainly metaphors, which wrap their sea monster tentacles around the vessel that is my story. Making these types of observations keeps me mindful about what I am trying to achieve and how I want to get there.

Most importantly, I believe being in community is the best way to stay humble and striving as a writer.

It’s a system of checks and balances on the ego. While I would be dishonest if I didn’t say I enjoy having workshops where I feel like I’ve won all the gold stars, the story a hit, I don’t learn as much from them as the ones that are, in my mind, total train wrecks. When done right, critiques move writers toward development and growth. Though it might be humiliating, a “bad” workshop pushes me to rally and be resilient when facing rejection—something that happens to writers on a regular basis. Though I’d rather isolate myself and wallow after these experiences, my writing communities have always been there to bolster my confidence.

As a Hope professor once said, we need our fellow writers to be both our cheerleaders and coaches. We are there to help each other get up when we stumble and then to move on. So in those moments I feel exposed when workshopping, I try to remember all the good that can come from it. Anxiety, be gone.