What I Learned About Writing from My Favorite Protagonist

Tristan DeWitt, Writing Consultant

I can’t say that writing is always enjoyable for me. Sometimes I even hate it.  I’ve spent countless hours sitting in front of a blank word document having no clue what to say – regretting the choices I have made that led me to writing another paper. I know it sounds dramatic (and I don’t by any means actually hate writing) but sometimes I feel so overwhelmed thinking about my audience and if they will find it good enough, that I don’t even want to complete the assignment at all.

In this situation, it helps me when I think about one of my favorite protagonist in literature, Mary Beton, from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Throughout the book, Mary finds herself denied the opportunity to partake in much of the academic culture of the university. In a search for answers to her experiences, Mary finds that little literature is written with attention to the actual experiences of women, both by male and female writers. Woolf herself concludes the novel by telling women that they need is a room of their own in which to write.

I believe that Mary’s experience highlights something about writing that many of us within the university community take for granted. When given an assignment that we don’t really want to do, we see it as something that is being forced upon us. I am guilty of this as well, but thinking of Mary makes me realize how remarkable each opportunity to write actually is. Not everywhere are we given the chance to write what we think and have an audience that will listen.

Even in our least favorite assignment we have the privilege to evaluate our thoughts and make something our own. We no longer need a room of our own to write. Within the university, we have a unique opportunity where we are expected to share our experiences and insights, be it with a text or with research.

Working in the Writing Center, people sometimes think that words or ideas just come to me naturally, since writing is what I like to do. However, the truth is that rarely do words just come to me. There is always revising, editing, and what seems to be an unending amount of time spent on rewriting just one sentence. Even when I get frustrated with an assignment, I have to remind myself that this is my work and that only I can say what I am thinking – which makes the laborious process of writing worth it to me.

Mary’s experience applies to us all. We all have had the moment when we question our thoughts or experiences. Next time you find yourself in this situation, where you feel frustrated with an assignment, I challenge you to see writing as the unique opportunity that it is. Not everywhere in life will you be asked what you think, so take this opportunity in college to own your writing.

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Beholden and Held By The Power of Words

Rose Dyar, Writing Consultant

“Carry our stories carefully
Wrap them in soft red cloth
and place them against your
heart.” -Yolanda Chávez Leyva

Here at the Writing Center, we deal in the study of words and stories. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how to explain why I think that’s so special, how to explain the link I see between words and justice, and how I honored I am to work with writers as they make meaning.

So here goes a humble attempt to begin such an explanation.
I believe that the study of words (e.g. literature, poetry, rhetoric) is critical to the ongoing formation of the whole human person. A bold claim, I know, but let me elaborate. This endeavor has the potential to infuse beauty and feeling and empathy into a world that actively attempts to numb us to our own humanity. And because of that, it has the radical potential to change hearts and minds. I mean radical change in two ways.

First, the etymological term. To change something radically means to change it at its root. The study of words grants us the gift of insight, or the ability to see inside of thing, to see the systems and structures that manifest themselves into parts of our daily lives, which then make their way into the stories that we read. When we know what we’re looking at, we know how to ask questions about it. Studying words and studying writing, then, gives context to social and political conditions that engender joy and suffering in our lives.

Second, I speak of words and radical change in terms of impact. We often use the word radical in order to describe major change, of the shifting of norms. And radical change necessitates action on its behalf. Which brings me to my next point. The study of words allows us to disrupt the laws of physics, to become alchemists, to remove ourselves from the center of our own axes and ask what it might take to imagine life otherwise. Empathy and understanding are byproducts of encountering stories. Empathy and understanding create conditions for change to happen.

But here is what the study of words cannot do: move on its own or by itself. Words alone do not have the arms or legs or beating hearts to use in order to advocate for change. If it is to be involved with any sort of moving, those who study the impact of words and writing must embody its movement. If we are moved by a text, we must move to make a difference. The study of words for me, then, must be paired with the willingness to act, or write, for change.

Writing and reading allow us to cross borders. We transcend from the moved to the mover and enter into a space of our own making when we do it. We are, all of us, in the wilderness. We are, all of us, voices crying out wanting to be heard from the thickets of that wilderness. We are, all of us, beholden and held by the power of words. For me, the study of words necessarily asks of me the courage to speak and write ideas and identities into existence, into being. We carry stories with us. We carry them tenderly, we carry them fiercely, and we tell them purposefully.

I believe that we tell stories, to ourselves and to each other, in order to understand what it means to be human, and it how it is that we can come to be fully human together. I believe that each story that is told is, in some part, an act of revelation. I believe that at every turn, stories are verbalized negotiations of power. I believe that we are all of us telling stories all the time, every day. Each story uncovers, even if just a sliver more, how the human experience is lived and breathed and understood in one moment, in one context, by one storyteller.

What a gift it is to encounter these stories, to study these words, to work with writers as they make sense of the stories inside of them.

Writing to Listen

Michelle Buntain, Writing Consultant

You’ve been staring at a blank page for a while now, willing the words to come. You’ve read over the prompt twice, three times, four times. The coffee is helping you stay energized, but all the coffee in the world won’t get this paper written. Neither will procrastinating

You know this; and yet, despite all your concentration and force of will, the words will not come. Before long, that familiar feeling begins to set in: panic.
Many people associate writing with a certain level of anxiety. We usually write for an audience who is going to judge us in one way or another – the paper you’re writing for class; the job application you’re working on; the text to a potential love interest. Writing forces us to put our inner lives out on display, and that can be incredibly intimidating.

As students and as scholars, we use our internal resources on a daily basis. Writing requires us to generate not just thoughts, not just sentences, but full, comprehensive, cohesive ideas. On top of that, we don’t even get to choose what we write about; in the academic world, we are almost always writing according to someone else’s stipulations. Nearly every day, somebody expects something from you, and you must deliver.

But focusing too much on what others are thinking is the most counterproductive thing for someone in an academic setting to do.

If we are obsessing over what is expected of us, it becomes nearly impossible to stay in touch with our own insights. Trying to balance what we really think with what we are “supposed” to think is a losing man’s game.

So, here is my challenge to all the frustrated writers out there: ask yourself, when was the last time you sat down to write without worrying about who was going to read your work? If you can’t remember, do yourself a favor: take a breath, take a seat, and just start writing. Don’t think too much. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t edit; don’t erase. No one else has to see it. There doesn’t have to be a purpose – no assignment, no thesis, no one to impress. Just write until you can’t write any more.

Maybe you wrote about something important; maybe you didn’t. Maybe you just ended up making a to-do list — it doesn’t matter. The point is to acknowledge yourself, to listen to what you have to say. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in listening to others that we forget to listen to ourselves. But if we don’t listen to ourselves, why should anybody else?

Every now and then, allow yourself the courtesy that you show others: don’t think, don’t judge. Just listen.

Writing in Retrograde

Kendyl Harmeling, Writing Consultant

I remember sitting outside my old apartment with my best friend, smoking in the heat wave that broke Connecticut at the end of this past July, and talking about how the world felt like it was topsy-turvy.  We laughed about how Mercury was in retrograde, and how every little detail of being alive felt only slightly off-kilter, how our lives were noticeably ever just different.

Like we were still us, but not the us we had once so recently been. In the week leading up to my move, we sat outside our old apartment-home every night like that. Hazy and confused. We cried. Mostly, we laughed. Sometimes, we yelled at our neighbor for never having baked us the broccoli quiche he promised to. The night before I left, my friends and I went to the dive bar I had worked at that entire year, and sang, badly, our favorite classic rock karaoke songs.

But, “you-know-what-they-say about the young…” I woke up the next afternoon and was alone. My room full of everything I ever owned, packed, and pristinely kept. My dad had already left for work. I left a note on the counter that I was moving 816 miles in a few minutes, and I loved him so much. I drove first to New Haven to pick up my mom for our drive west, and then I left Connecticut. I would like to reach out my hand… I may see-you…and tellllll you to run!

I’ve lived here in Louisville for a month now. Over a month. Spent nights at friends’ houses, found the bars I like, coffee shops, bookstores. I’ve found all the things here that I thought made my life back home a home. A life. I thought it was in the minute, the things I did during the day, that comfort came, but I just feel vacationed.

It’s made me wonder about the qualities of home which transcend distance, the parts of who I am that were just parts of my old environment, and most of all, how uprooting myself from the only place I’ve ever called home has felt like more to me than just a “moving forward” but also feels very really like a “leaving behind.” No one told me that the bore weight of leaving someplace doesn’t lighten, quickly at least.
I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet this summer, in that other life I lead. His writing inspired and terrified. In it, Rilke writes about the importance of observational poetry, how being tragically human and trying to understand the profound are incongruent pursuits. How humans really can’t understand the profound, how we’re sentenced to living only in the momentary, the lovely, and the ugly. It’s in the making poetic these things that poetry can attempt to transform meaning from nothing into profundity.

Since moving here and trying to find that settlement of home in a thin crusted, forced routine, I write a poem every day. I started this practice the third night after my mom left and I was suddenly aware that I was alone, 816 miles from everything I love. The poems aren’t all good. Most of them, actually, are real bad. But they’re little homes, each one. The beginning observation of this new place, where I live and am, in fact, not vacationing. Rilke was right whenever he wrote that, that we can learn how to live just from looking around. Here are some observations that have helped me ground myself in this, a new home:

I sleep next to a street lamp, near the corner of Saint Catherine and Preston where that woman sits on a bench with her cat. It’s a yellow light.
I’m waiting for a crack of thunder again.
I’m waiting for tiredness to set in and put me to sleep.
I’m waiting for my body to stop moving and for that great unknowable to quiet.
It feels like the air here is static with wait, a pause, a moment before exhale.
Out my window is unrushed, cattle traffic and the eager unrest for the arrival of that great big thing…
I had a dream last night that the world would end in one searing-hot, pink instant.
Immediate and satisfying.
Unlike the visible end of the crumbled rock wall across from my apartment.
The one keeping the giant oak tree from cracking through the sidewalk we seldom use.
That end took time.
It’s the sort of decay which weathers into material.
The patient kind.
My someday bright-stop is restless.
Waiting for the oak fall, the sidewalk end, and my momentary to begin.

In my 18th century poetry class, my professor said, “Well… I suppose it never really feels like anything comes to a conclusion.” I know she was talking about Defoe’s lack of chapter division in Moll Flanders, but the fluidity of story reaches me, here, in Louisville, Kentucky. I am the same person, only further from home. But, maybe closer than I think.

Converting Anxiety to Enthusiasm in Community Writing

Haley Salo, Writing Consultant

Sharing writing can be challenging, especially when you’re joining an established community like a writing center or creative writing group.

It can be difficult to navigate the established norms and find just the right niche for your writing. Yet, every writer in the community has gone through those same experiences. It’s also okay to shop around a bit. Each writing community is unique, and some may be more or less accessible than others.

When I was a teenager, I started looking for an online, forum based, play-by-post fantasy role playing game (we’ll just call it an RPG). I wanted a place to create my own characters and explore their lives with the characters of other writers. Much to my dismay, some of the communities had hundreds of members, book-length lore files, and thousand-word posts. You could even be kicked from the community for being inactive for a week or two. Nope! Too scary. I ended up joining a very low-key forum, specifically picked for its small community and short posts.

I didn’t say very much at first. I would sign in, post, and leave for the day. That was about all of the social writing interaction I could handle; I did not, in any way, want to be around when the other members read my post. But guess what: no one complained. The stories continued on their merry way. I did not, in fact, derail the writing community.

Encouraged by this turn of events, I started talking to the other members through the forum’s chat box. The chat box took the stress out of socializing because it was so informal. There was no sense of finality when hitting the submit button like there was with a regular post. It also humanized the other members; they stopped being their characters and became themselves, and gradually they became friends, too.

At this point, the RPG really became fun. The social relationships improved the stories we were writing. We got to discuss where we wanted the stories to go and how we were going to get them there. Or, we complained when our characters refused to cooperate. We also started to recognize each other’s writing styles and got to watch as everyone’s writing naturally improved. We never set out to become better writers, though. It happened naturally, through time, practice, and experimentation.

I’d like to say that this experience made it easy to join new communities later on, but it didn’t. However, that didn’t stop me from going through the process again. I continue to make friends and learn through all of the writing communities I’m part of. There will always be some degree of anxiety when entering a new group, and that’s okay. Just try to keep in mind that writing communities tend to be very open and welcoming; we all have the same anxieties and reservations.

Scribbling Memories and Preserving Through Writing

Kayla Sweeney, Writing Consultant

She has not forgotten my face or name. The corners of her mouth crease the same smile when I enter the room, brown wells becoming warm half-crescents over her nose. I still get a familiar, tight embrace—she hugs just like my mom does—and questions about the small and big details of my life. We sit together in her square, yellow room. She in her recliner by the window. It overlooks the nursing home garden, the purple flowers overlaying the corners of the frame. I sit on her twin bed, the scent of childhood raising from her quilted blanket. To me, it is a smell of cornbread in an iron skillet, her indoor heater, and summer grass. I hold her wrinkled hand and we talk.

She sometimes asks me the same questions three, maybe five times. I answer each time like it is the first, because for her it is.

She is still the same Granny, but knots form in me when I think of the years to come.

Years to come.
I think and dream about them when I am small and walk with my hand in hers. We walk down a gravel road and the brush of overgrown weeds hangs over the jagged edges. Trees canopy the sky. Crickets fill the space around us with their song.

Can you tell it again?

And she does. Maybe three, maybe five times, in our short walk. It is the story of Little Orphan Annie. We sit on the porch of an abandoned house at the end of the street. She whispers and the goblins will get you if you don’t watch out. I giggle at my favorite part of the poem.

She whispers other poems and sings songs, ones embedded in her mind, and when I begin to scrawl my own, she puts me on the phone with her preacher so he can hear them.

I didn’t think too much about it then. But now, I think of poetry as a cord between us. My love for it grew more in her forest-enclosed home.

And now, when my family and I go to the church service at her nursing home, her voice belts out with the rest of the crowd. All voices seem to know the songs. Those that embody the voices have walked longer paths than I can stretch or measure. The same voices have gasped at the sight of war, called to children to come for dinner, spoken with eloquence to a class of students—have felt what I can’t pen. Some, I know, can’t remember the face of father, mother, sister, brother. But hymns, songs, words hide somewhere in them, beyond dementia and nursing home walls.

Words paint memory, hiding it more deeply in us and helping us understand it better. Senses attach us to scenes and pictures of the past. Smell is said to be the strongest one.
But words cross the zones between senses, so we can read the smell of Tennessee taffy in humid summer, or write color, or pen ear-piercing screams in the dark.
And so, sometimes we write not as entertainers, magicians mixing the right turn of phrases to tickle ears; sometimes, we do not write to inform the masses of truths or controversy.

We sometimes write to remember. To cling to that which runs through our mind and in our skin, but might not always be there. To pass on what is dear. We read, write, and declare to preserve.

36 or 37 filled journals sit in a closet in my hometown. They are filled with prayers, and poems, and rants about middle school friendships and college crushes. They are like therapy, or my google-translate for emotions, letting me empty all of the unprocessed mess from my brain, and transforming it into a jumbled representation of. . .something. That which is messy, but easier to understand than before.

But I hope these stacks of scribbles and angst to be more than that. To one day, hold a child in my lap and tell her stories with an old, torn journal, or for that same child to bring one to me when I am graying and my own memory is fading. To look at the scribbles and even for a brief moment, to remember what was.

Poetry with Rules: Finding Creativity in Restraints

Ashley Bittner, Writing Consultant

Hello! Welcome to the writing center blog. I’m Ash, and today, I’m going to talk about writing poetry.

I am something of a formalist as a poet. I dislike writing free verse, and all of my poems are meticulously constructed. This is not, however, a commentary on the quality of free verse poetry. I am no Robert Frost to scorn free verse as playing tennis with the net down. No, I dislike writing free verse not because it is bad, but because I am bad at it.

The blank page, to me, is a yawning void that I have no words to fill. There is no muse inspiring me with images to paint with letters, there is no quiet artistic voice in me whispering the secrets of beauty. My poetic inspiration, inexorably, comes from having rules. If I am given none to work within, I will give them to myself, either by requiring rhymes, meters, or syllabic restraints. When I know the rules within which I must work, it engages me to find creative ways to fill those restraints and stretch them out. Working within them, I have been forced to learn subtleties of poetry.

Let us take enjambment. Academically, I knew that enjambment meant ‘the continuation of a sentence beyond the line.’ Perhaps a professor could have explained that it also serves to place special emphasis on the last word in one line or the first word in the next, or to create a doubled meaning. Knowing these things intellectually, however, was nothing to feeling the practice of them in my first sestina.

The sestina form forgoes rhyme or meter. Instead, it is a six (plus one!) stanza poem of six lines each (except that plus one), where the same six words are repeated in each stanza. They always sit at the end of the line, and they change which line they sit at the end of over the course of the poem. It creates a unique and cyclical rhythm to a poem, with words sometimes repeated quickly and other times languidly distant, and a spoken sestina often carries a dreamy way about it from that curious pattern.

To try and write each line as self-contained would require making a poem functionally formed of 36 short sentences, which is at best awkward and at worst comic. Instead, a sestina demands considerable enjambment, and the repetition makes words want for re-interpretation. Words with more than one definition, or that can serve as noun or verb both, make for powerful additions, and weave the lines together.

I’ll admit freely, my first sestina was terrible. It was about a firing squad, and I exploited the six stanza structure to talk about the five men firing and the one being fired at. It was not terribly elegant and it was certainly not beautiful, but by the time I had finished it, I understood the meaning of enjambment. If we end a line on a weak or meaningless word (a ‘the’ or an ‘an’ or a ‘such’) the reader can flow through and only take one reading from it. If we end a line on a word that carries implications (‘blossomed’ or ‘flew’ or ‘saw’), that word is briefly embedded in the reader, and then we can either build-upon or subvert that embedded word with the subsequent line.

Of course, explaining this is an irony. I have already expressed that I learned by doing, and so explaining is not helpful. Instead, I encourage everyone who writes poetry to grind through at least one sestina or two as a challenge to the self. It will be frustrating, but it will also be rewarding. If you’re quite irate at me for making you write one after finishing, you can bring it by the writing center and make me read it as a punishment. If that’s the price I have to pay for spreading a bit more poetry into the world, I pay it gladly.

I don’t write sestinas anymore. Lesson learned and all that. While I have a sprawling list of these strict forms of classic poetry, in truth I rarely use them as they stand. I borrow pieces of their rules and bend them together when I’m facing the blank page, I give myself restraints to make my game exciting. I have the net down, as Frost might say, but on my court I have added an extra ball, a playful dog, and a large rotating fan.

Serve!