Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers. The series will be featured every other Wednesday.
Our featured writer this week is Dr. Michèle Foster. At the University of Louisville, Dr. Foster serves as Henry Heuser Jr. Endowed Chair for Urban Education Partnerships and Professor in the School of Education.
Getting to know me.
I grew up on the East Coast, attended a private academy for girls that offered a classical education and had a French-English bilingual program, so in addition to English, I am fluent in French. Later as an adult, I learned Haitian. I’ve worked in education for many years and at varying levels of the educational spectrum, in the Boston Public Schools before desegregation, in METCO, the oldest voluntary urban-suburban desegregation program in the US and at Roxbury Community College, a predominantly African American community college, where I was a writing instructor. I’ve been a faculty member at several universities including: University of Massachusetts-Boston, University of Pennsylvania, University of California-Davis, Claremont Graduate School, University of Missouri-Kansas City and now at the University of Louisville where I serve as the Henry Heuser Jr. Endowed Chair for Urban Education Partnerships and Professor.
This semester I am teaching Writing for Publication, a graduate level writing course I’ve taught for more than 15 years. Although I am new to the university I am eager to bring my wide range of educational experience to the CEHD and the University by offering courses that I have taught previously, including: African American English in Society and Schools, The Social, Historical and Cultural Contexts of African American Education, Anthropology of Education, and Ethnographic Methods.
At the moment, I am trying to get my own new research project, Grit and his cousin mindset: What role do after-school and summer programs play in promoting social and emotional learning? off of the ground which entails producing a literature review, writing research grants, developing various protocols and interview guides, and working through the IRB requirements in order to get approval. I am also serving as an evaluator for the work of the African Diaspora Project, a multi-faceted project. The current work for this project includes tweaking the African Diaspora Course (ADC) Advanced Placement Course Syllabus that has been submitted for approval to the College Board and helping the course designers come with an evaluation plan for the pilot testing that will begin in 2 school districts in fall 2017. And if everything goes according to the plan, the ADC Advanced Placement Course will be offered at a couple of JCPS High Schools. At the beginning of February, in response to a special call, I submitted a jointly authored manuscript for consideration.
When it comes to reading, I’m an omnivore. I read the New York Times, Washington Post and the National Public Radio offerings every day. I read the Chronicle of Higher Education. I also try to keep with a number of journals in my fields. Because I serve as a reviewer for several journals, I read a number of manuscripts that have been submitted for publication; last semester I read 5. This semester, I am reading a lot of manuscript drafts, some for the Writing for Publication Class and some for junior colleagues who are struggling with making the transition, from writing like graduate students to writing like full-fledged academics. Occasionally, I will read something that is not directly related–fiction or non-fiction—but later may become tangentially related to some academic project. It’s rare that I don’t find something useful for thinking about my academic work in almost everything I read. I also read lots of email and text messages and interesting pieces I find on Twitter.
What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?
As an academic, I write journal articles–empirical, conceptual, and literature reviews– book chapters, books reviews, proposals for funding, which serve to advance my own career. I also write reviews of manuscripts submitted to the journals for which I serve as a referee, tenure and promotion reviews, and detailed assessments of several junior colleagues’ work to help them work through issues with their manuscripts, all to help develop the next generation of scholars and academics.
When it comes to less formal writing, I write email messages and text messages. I also write lots of letters and cards and send them by snail mail to surprise friends and colleagues who rarely receive handwritten letters. I write lots of lists—grocery, reminders, appointments—and get great satisfaction from crossing off things as I complete them.
When/where/how do you write?
I can write almost anywhere, at the house, in the office, a coffee shop, the library, on a plane, a hotel. When I am at the house I have to twist my own arm to write and not be distracted by all of the chores that seem to call for my attention only when I am trying to write. Others reading this will understand. When I was a novice writer, I had convinced myself that I could only write in certain locations, but I’ve learned that is not true, but the kind of writing or rather the phases of writing I do might vary according to the location. In different contexts, I do different writing tasks. Some environments are more conducive to creating or drafting a piece, others more suitable for revising, editing or sorting out a vexing problem in something I’m writing. But I can always manage do tackle some writing task in whatever context.
The sound of my writing is a critical factor. I believe that’s because being a member of the broader African American discourse community has made me exceptionally attuned to the way my writing sounds. Because of this, I spend lots of time rewriting and revising my writing so that it sounds like me. Every once in while someone, who has read my prose before they’ve met me, hears me speak and tells me how much I sound like my writing. When this happens, I am delighted because I know I’ve accomplished one of my goals.
What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?
Nothing in particular. I can write on a computer although it took me some time to learn to do so. When I began graduate school, computers were not in fashion, so I would write my first draft on legal pads and then type the draft into an electric typewriter. As a beginning writer, I was convinced that I could never write a first draft using an electric typewriter because I felt that my brain and hand were and had to be connected for the thoughts to get on the page. By the time, I was writing my dissertation, computers had come into fashion and though writing software programs were rudimentary, I wrote my dissertation on an Apple 2E using a writing program that could only accommodate 12 page files and linked them together in a 200+ page document. Over time, I learned to write first drafts directly on the computer and now find this easier because over time, my Catholic school penmanship has deteriorated, so that I often cannot read my own writing.
What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?
I tell students and junior colleagues to put aside some time each day to write. It’s like getting started and continuing an exercise program. When beginning to exercise, it’s difficult to get motivated and exercise each and it’s easy to put it off on any given day. But the trick is to get started and do it. Once into the routine it’s something you need to do—writing and exercise. And it gets easier. Of course, it’s difficult getting started again once exercise and writing have been aside for a period. But once one has gotten into exercise and writing shape, it’s easier for the body and mind to snap back more quickly after a break. The other piece of advice I give students is that all one needs to write is a page a day. If one can write a page a day, something I believe is possible for almost everyone and one takes 65 days off from writing a year, the total number of pages compiled will be 300. This will yield many articles and/or a book. Who, I ask can’t muster 1 page a day. On the 1 page a day regime/diet depending on your point of view, one can often alternate between composing and revising. When I am on this plan, I spend one day composing several pages. The next day, I go through what I wrote the previous day and am able to trim down several pages to at least one good one. I also recommend the online tool, the Writer’s Diet, as a personal self-help tool to help turn flabby writing into fit prose. I’ve got lots of other advice to offer as well, but I’ll stop now because I don’t want to give away all of my secrets.
What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
Keep writing, get regular feedback on your writing, read and respond to the comments you’ve received no matter harsh they might seem because they can help you improve your writing. Don’t take the comments personally. Use them to improve your writing. Find writing that you admire, study it carefully, try to figure out what strategies and devices the author is using, and try them out yourself. Keep writing until you find your groove and your voice. Remember the words of Miles Davis, a famous jazz musician who said “You have to play a long time to play like yourself.”