Comps Conversation

25 January 2021
By Gray Harrison
comps convo

This week, our three editors met via Zoom to talk about how comps is going for each of us. In the interview, we talk about how to structure a crime podcast, the Modernist poet H.D., the process of making dialogue for a character, and more! We hope this interview can provide a sense of relief to fellow seniors who may feel like they are going through the comps struggle alone, or perhaps provide some interesting insights on the academic process. Read below!

Gray: Could we all start by giving a short description of our projects? I am doing a creative comps. It’s a novella about two siblings whose mom dies, and so it’s about how they each deal with that in very different ways, and how they reconcile with each other. I think there are a lot of influences, but Virginia Woolf is a big one in terms of the style of writing. It’s set in a small rural New England town, so there’s a lot of imagery and focus on setting. 

Amanda: How long is that going to be?

Gray: Sixty pages maximum. I think it will probably end up being around there because I haven’t even gotten much into the plot and it’s already thirteen pages long. So, I need to figure out how to narrow things down and just focus on the important stuff. 

Amanda: That sounds so cool! 

Gray: Thank you! What about you, Lena?

Lena: I’m doing a research paper. Very broadly, it’s about the representation of Jewishness and antisemitism during the Modernist movement, and I’m looking in particular at Trilogy by H.D., which is this long WWII era poem. I’m looking at how the formulation of the Jewish female figure in Trilogy is really working to, instead of “other” Jewish figures in the text (which was happening in a lot of contemporary literary work of the time), it’s working to bring that figure to the center of the text. 

Gray: What about you, Amanda?

Amanda: I’m doing a project comps. I guess the story is that in sophomore year, I took Murder with Pierre, which is one of the 100-level English classes. We read a lot of detective fiction and things like that, but for the final project he was like, “Just do something related to murder and make it good” in a very Pierre fashion. And since I work in the Carleton archives, I wondered if there had ever been a murder or a murderer related to Carleton, and it turns out there is a guy who graduated in 1933 who became a doctor and a serial killer who killed his patient. It’s a project comps because it’s a hybrid of historical research on him, journalism, and English. So, I’m basically writing three episodes of a crime podcast about him, and then the English-y part of it is that I’m doing a narrative theory side paper where I talk about the decisions I made in the podcast, like how I ordered things and how much of a voice I wanted to have as the narrator. 

Gray: Is the final product going to be available anywhere for people to listen?

Amanda: Yeah, so I decided in my proposal that it was just going to be a transcript at the end of my comps, but next term I am going to do an independent study with Pierre and get it recorded. I didn’t think I would get it approved if I said there was going to be audio, because I didn’t have any audio recording experience. I wanted to play it safe, but I think that there’s no way that I’m not going to put it together once I’ve done it, so I’m thinking that in the spring maybe I’ll underload and do that as a third class or something.

Gray: I’m wondering, what has your process been the last few weeks? How have you been making progress and what stage are you in now? I can go first. I had a pretty loose idea of where my story was going in the fall. None of the writing sample I submitted in my proposal is going to be included in what I am working on now. I think I was mostly just trying to figure out who my characters were then. But then I talked with Greg, my advisor, and one of the points he made was that I was very focused on the internal experiences of the characters, but not thinking about plot very much, and that I needed to rework it to have something driving it forwards more. So, I thought about that a lot over winter break, and I would go on walks to think. I would think up dialogue and then record it sometimes while I was walking; I’d imagine the character talking and then be like, “I have to get this down,” and then I would go back to my computer and work on it a bit. But yeah, I have this really long document where I have random scenes and dialogue, and then I have my official, more polished working document that Greg has access to. I will take out random parts from the long document and piece them together gradually into the story, so it’s kind of a messy and not very straightforward process for me. But I talked with Greg this week, and I think I’m going in the right direction. I know what’s going to happen and the character development, it’s just a matter of getting it all down. That’s where I’m at. 

Lena: Yeah, that makes sense to me, even though our projects are obviously very different. I think in the fall, when I was writing my proposal, I really knew, “this is what I want to be reading and this is what I want to be talking about,” and I had my thesis and my question. And especially because it’s partially based on a paper I wrote in Modernism, the class, which I think Gray was in, I knew all that. Then over break I was reading more about H.D. herself and reading her other stuff. I read this super long book full of criticism about her to get a better sense of what other people have been saying about H.D. and how she’s read by critics, especially since that has changed a lot. People used to view her as this silly little female poet that didn’t know how to do anything, but people have really shifted in their view of what it means to be political in her writing. And now, it’s cool that I feel like I’m returning to where I started, and I’m going back to my original ideas, but with these different layers of other criticism involved. I just turned in ten pages for Nancy, my advisor, and we set up another deadline for myself this upcoming Saturday, because otherwise I would probably never write anything, since the next deadline is just a full draft. I feel like there are a lot of pieces to my argument that are really very connected, but I’m not very sure what order they go in or what weight each should carry. I feel like the ten pages I submitted were a bunch of different random things that weren’t necessarily the core of the paper. Yeah, I feel what you’re saying Gray, about piecing it together and figuring out the logic of it. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m writing an English paper. I think I’m playing this weird game of logic in my head to try and understand how these ideas are connected. 

Gray: I am often wondering how my project qualifies as literature. I know it does, but the literary aspect of it is hard to see when I’m so “in it.” What about you, Amanda?

Amanda: I definitely feel that on the structural side. Over break, I was finishing off the research, because I did a lot of the research on this guy my sophomore year, so I had to re-familiarize myself with what I wrote. Then I also wanted to take it a step further, so I started looking at newspaper articles about the case from the town where he was caught in Michigan and trying to find a lot of public records, like his prisoner index card and his autopsy record. I was kind of being an investigative journalist, which is kind of fun. So I got a lot of those details pinned down about his case and some of the ambiguities that I didn’t really understand. The newspaper articles helped me understand the details of the case. He was convicted of manslaughter and died in jail, so there were some things that I didn’t know. Then I did an interview with journalists that Pierre connected me with to get a better idea of how the storytelling process works for them. And then, for the first deadline, I put together a draft of one episode. I think I like it, but I’m having very similar issues with the structural formatting. I feel like I could almost put things in any order, but especially with a crime podcast, you have to build the suspense and the big mic drop moments. Pierre told me to make a list of all the mic drop moments in the story and space them out throughout the episode. It’s been hard for me to think about how to structure things because I haven’t taken any creative writing classes at Carleton, and I think every single academic essay I’ve written has roughly followed the same format, and so I feel like I’m doing something kind of out of my comfort zone. Gray, you probably feel the same. And Lena, even though yours is an academic paper, having it be so much longer, it must be hard to know where to put things. 

Lena: Yeah, I was just talking to my advisor about this. What I had written so far was really just me putting things on paper and not really thinking that I needed to be writing for an audience that might not know anything about Trilogy or H.D. I’m definitely thinking so much more now about how to layer this and make it understandable in a narrative way, which is weird since it is an academic paper, which I’ve obviously written a lot of.

Amanda: You can’t keep your evidence paragraph going on forever and ever. You just have so much more space to fill.

Gray: Definitely. We kind of touched on this, but are there any specific challenges or things that you didn’t foresee originally that have come up? For me, the original idea I had has really morphed and turned into something new. I think comps felt like a far-off thing for a really long time and didn’t feel like something tangible, and now I’m in it, and it’s different than I expected. There’s so much hype about it at Carleton, and it’s not as stressful on a day-to-day basis, I’m finding, but it also feels so big. I don’t know… It’s confusing me. It’s not really how I imagined it would be. And I think also, with the deadline being in the middle of the term, in some ways that’s really good, because we don’t have a ton of pressure at the end of the term to finish something. We’re just editing and making it polished, but that also puts a lot more pressure on the first half of the term. 

Lena: Yeah. I think, for the most part, it’s just been the advice that professors have continued to give me, which I initially sort of discounted – that it’s a really fast process, and it’s really quick, and you don’t have very much time, or that thirty pages isn’t that many pages. To both of those things I was just like, “this is months on end, and thirty pages is a lot of pages,” but now, at this point, I’m suddenly realizing how true both of those things are. They’re very true. And I think, also, I’m realizing the gravity of it. The other day I had a moment where I was thinking about the weight of what I’m saying, especially talking about how antisemitic or not-antisemitic the writer is and whether this is a radical text or not. I don’t want to be arguing something that isn’t true just because it fits better with my proposed thesis. So I think that’s definitely there in a way I didn’t expect. 

Amanda: I think for me, the hardest part has probably just been the off-and-on-ness of it. It’s really hard to work on it every day or even every other day. I feel like it consumes my mind for a full day, or maybe up to a week, and then I don’t touch it for days. It’s so off and on, and I don’t know how confident I am about being done by the middle of the term. 

Gray: Do you see your comps at all relating to ideas you have or areas you want to work in after Carleton? Or is it entirely just a Carleton thing that won’t have relevance after? For me, I have been interested in creative writing my whole life, and I really like it, but I think this year I’ve been realizing that it’s not super practical or easy to just “become a writer.” There’s not a clear-cut path for that, and so I think there’s a lot of trial and error and other phases I’m going to go through. If I’m ever going to become a writer, it’s going to take a lot of time, and I don’t think writing fiction is going to be the first thing I do after college. But, I am looking for jobs that have a writing element to them, and especially jobs where there is more creative freedom. I’m interested in arts journalism, music, education… so, we’ll see. 

Amanda: I’m really interested in journalism too. I don’t know if I want to do pure journalism. I applied to a graduate journalism school, but it’s not their pure journalism degree– it’s kind of a hybrid of journalism and marketing and communications, so it’s got a bit of a business aspect to it and a bit of a journalism aspect to it. So, in that way, yes, my comps is related, because I am pursuing a journalism degree, or I want to, and my comps is teaching me a lot about research and also how to communicate effectively for the greatest impact on /listeners/viewers/readers. I don’t think that crime would be my focus ever. This project is really interesting, and it kind of fell in my lap, but I don’t usually listen to crime podcasts, and I also don’t have a huge interest in them on a personal level. It’s kind of weird, because I’m making one, but I don’t think I would go into the realm of investigative crime journalism. How about you, Lena?

Lena: I’m not really sure what I want to do. I think in some ways it’s related to different aspects of what I want to do in the future. But for me, I think it’s very much a reflection of things I was interested in at Carleton and things I’ve thought a lot about while here. Today I was just thinking about how relevant my comps is to me and how I feel like I’m really putting myself into the paper in a very personal way, so I think it’s perhaps more related to being a reflection on how I have been growing as a person and less directly related to my future work. 

Gray: That’s a really good point. My comps is a very personal thing, and it represents a very personal journey with writing, and all the ideas in it are from the books I’ve read. It’s definitely a culmination of my Carleton life, so I relate to that, for sure. 

Amanda: Lena, do you have an interest in poetry, or is that just what you chose? Why poetry for your subject matter?

Lena: I definitely am really interested in poetry. I enjoy writing poetry and have spent a lot of time reading poetry at Carleton, but I think maybe more what spoke to me about Trilogy was this representation of Jewishness in the text, which was something I really grabbed onto because that is something I have been trying to figure out over the course of my life and have not always seen. I grew up in a really small rural town in North Carolina where I knew, like, two Jews. So that is something that is really formative in my life. And the other thing that is a huge part of this text is understanding the identification of the “other,” or the understanding of binaries, division, and racial “otherness” and deconstructing those boundaries, which is another aspect of the text I was interested in. So, I suppose the subject matter really drew me into this work.

Amanda: It’s cool to hear about what you guys are doing. I hope that we can have some sort of in-person comps symposium in the spring, maybe outside!

Lena: I wonder if other years it’s easier to talk to other people about their comps or talk to other professors because I feel as if I’m paving this path that has never been paved by anyone else, which is obviously not the case, and I wish I could’ve had more direction from other students who have gone through this, or get a sense of where I am at in relation to everyone else. 

Gray: I know. If it was a regular year, I would be in Laird, and then after my class I could just stop by my advisor’s office and talk, and now you really have to reach out and plan a time to meet and make a Zoom link. It’s much more formal, and you can’t have chill, random encounters with English department people, which feels very isolating. 

Lena: Yeah, I think it’s maybe less that we’re all working on solitary projects… well, maybe it is that. I wonder what the colloquium experience is like, because it’s a team. It doesn’t bother me because I’m working on this project alone, but maybe more so because I don’t know what this process is usually like.

Amanda: Yes, Colloquium was my second choice, and I’m glad I’m doing what I’m doing, but I think the social element of that would’ve been really nice. 

Gray: Definitely. Well, thank you both so much. I really appreciate this conversation!

Good luck, compsing seniors, as we continue on! We can make it.