UofL Writing Center

Who We Are and What We Do

Idea Journaling

Mary-Kate Smith, Consultant

In the book Boy: Tales of Childhood, author Roald Dahl describes his practice of jotting down thoughts in a small idea journal. When looking for a new narrative, Dahl would consult his own undeveloped musings. From these brief notes taken years earlier, Dahl Mary-Kate Smithdeveloped a number of beloved stories including Fantastic Mr. Fox and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Since reading Boy, I have kept an idea journal similar to Dahl’s. Though my notes focus on coursework rather than on creative writing, Dahl’s practice has been very useful to me. Whenever I am asked to writing an essay, a conference paper, a proposal, or even I blog post, I consult my idea notes hoping for a spark of inspiration. Looking at previous, spontaneously incepted ideas often helps me to eliminate writer’s block in a way forcing new ideas does not. Thus far, I have chosen all of my graduate school seminar paper topics in this manner. Often, brainstorming with others helps writers to develop ideas. When outside insight is not available, however, an idea journal can offer the needed intellectual spark.

Not every journal needs to follow a paper and pen method, though fancy stationary probably can’t hurt. I often write thoughts into the “Ideas” note on my MacBook. Post-it notes, smart phone self-texts, newspaper marginalia, and napkin memos are all viable options. Notes can be as short as a single word and as long as a paragraph, though mine tend to stay closer to the one-word end of the spectrum. Overall, if writers make an effort to collect and record ideas, no mater how seemingly ridiculous, they prepare themselves to develop these ideas and others in the future.

Advertisements

Finding the Strategies, and Confidence, to be Stronger Writers

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

If you’ve ever heard someone from the University Writing Center talk about what we do here you’ve likely heard them say that our goal is to do more than help a writer simply “fix” a current draft. We also want to provide ideas and strategies to help that person become a stronger writer in the future. Some of these suggestions are nuts and boltsdscn2185 suggestions about organization or revision or grammar and usage. Yet we also believe that writing well involves more than just mastering a set of skills. The writing processes we use, as well as how confident and motivated we feel to work on a piece of writing, can be crucial to how successfully any writer navigates new writing challenges.

Talk to many university students – or, quite frankly, most people in the culture – and you will hear people say things such as “I just can’t write,” or “I’m not a born writer.” After years of unproductively harsh criticism, rather than constructive instruction, they have internalized a belief that there is some kind of hidden magic to being a good writer, and that they don’t have it. The truth is, that writing well takes time, practice, failure, revision, advice, and is an ongoing, life-long learning process for all of us. There are simply no “born writers.”

In recent research of mine, I have been focusing on what makes people feel anxious about, or confident in, their reading and writing abilities at a given moment. Put more simply, what makes a person feel literate at one time and not another. Many factors facilitate or obstruct such a feeling of agency for people. A new technology can make writing suddenly much easier, or can make previously simple actions complicated and confusing. A teacher’s response to a writing assignment can be dismissive and discouraging, or offer encouraging suggestions for revision that make a writer feel that success is possible.

Culture, material conditions, language, and many other factors shape all writers’ perceptions of agency. All of these external influences result in experiences, emotions, and memories that also shape such perceptions. My research on how these factors influence student writers took place in part at the UofL University Writing Center as well as with students in the United Kingdom and Kazakhstan, (the book is titled Literacy 9781138667112Practices and Perceptions of Agency: Composing Identities). In this research, I drew on research in psychology and neuroscience, as well as other fields, to understand how writers’ sense of confidence could vary dramatically from one context to another and how that affected their abilities to write successfully. A student could write well in one course, and struggle in a new course, even in the same major, when facing a new genre. Another student could excel at writing at work, but not at school. Each experience creates a different emotional memory that will influence how that student both thinks and feels about a similar writing situation the next time it comes up. Research in psychology on emotion, memory, and motivation, illustrates how important the kinds of response we provide as writing consultants and teachers is to the ways in which students approach their writing.

At the University Writing Center, we have incorporated some of the ideas from this research into the ways we work with writers. We are developing strategies that help writers approach revision, even substantial revision that will require a great deal of work, with more confidence in their abilities to do such difficult work, and more internal motivation to complete the work. One key part of this approach is helping writers understand that their struggles and anxieties are not unique to them, but typical of all writers, from first-year students to famous novelists. We sometimes take the time to talk about how learning anything is first a struggle, but one that they can work through. Writing is not an innate gift, but a learned activity that gets better with practice. That knowledge alone, research has shown, can result in significant changes in how willing student writers may be to put in the hours and effort to improve their work. We both give students strategies for improving as well as talk to them about how, like all writers, they have strengths, challenges, and the abilities to keep learning.

My research is just one example of the ongoing research about writing and the teaching of writing that takes place at the University Writing Center. We are, as our mission statement points out, “committed to being part of ongoing scholarly conversations about the teaching of writing.” You can see this research reflected in work that Cassandra Book, our Associate Director, did on our Virtual Writing Center, or by the publications and graduate student projects that you can find listed on our website, or the conferences at which our staff present each year. An essential part of being a research university is the idea that we should use our research to contribute to knowledge in our field and enhance the educational experiences of our students. We’re looking forward to the start of the spring semester and to helping all writers find the strategies, and confidence, that will offer them the chance to express their ideas as clearly and creatively as possible.

The Writing Center Diaries: Dispelling Myths About Journaling

Rachel Knowles, Consultant

I’ve recently been (re)obsessing over The Vampire Diaries, a book series that inspired a television show about a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire. As indicated by its title, the series is centered on narrations by the main characters’ diary entries, which Rachelnaturally feature their tumultuous love lives and frequent brushes with death.

Fictitious as they may be, these characters seem to have plenty to write about within this false reality, and their diaries, compelling enough to make any “Bestseller List,” have helped fuel romantic notions of what I have long believed a journal should be: dramatic in content, flawless in grammatical structure and, of course, held together by an expensive lavender cover – but more importantly, a journal must be routinely attended to by a dedicated writer.

I have always jealously admired the “habitual writer,” the person able to effortlessly record the juiciest tidbits of their daily lives and musings. I tend to imagine that these rare beings keep a leather-bound journal at their bedside, easily accessible for a late-night scribble. Or perhaps they carry a little black book in their pocket to write down their thoughts as they appear. They’re probably also cat people that enjoy gin and travel. By their very nature, they must have such interesting lives – can I really say the same?

For the longest time, I shied away from keeping a journal, unwilling to face my mundane existence and afraid to ruin the clean white pages with my unedited nonsense. But I’ve made an effort to rid myself of these damaging assumptions; that is, I’ve come to a new understanding about journals, thanks to recent conversations with a few of my Writing Center colleagues.

Journals don’t have to be biographies. They don’t have to consist of poems, or lyrics, or stories. They can hold the truth or be full of lies. They are whatever you want (or need) them to be, and their purpose can change at any time – and that’s the true beauty of it. So it shouldn’t matter if I make a spelling mistake or draw an ugly flower in the margins when I get writer’s block: I love writing, so why shouldn’t I write? In other words, who am I to get in my own way?

One of the best pieces of advice I received from a professor was that if you want to journal, do so in a plain, ugly notebook so that you won’t worry about how “good” its entries are. If you can get out of the mindset that you are “ruining” a pretty book, then you remove the temptation to tear out its pages and “start over” or give up. Just like the journal itself, not everything you write has to be a masterpiece, and the moment you realize that, you are free to explore the endless possibilities.

How I Write: Sam McClellan

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.

Sam McClellanAbout Sam McClellan

I am the Social Sciences Teaching & Faculty Outreach Librarian and an Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville’s Ekstrom Library. My job encompasses helping faculty, students, and other patrons with their research, whether one-on-one or in a classroom setting. My research focuses on information literacy as well as librarians’ experiences with stereotypes about the profession.

Location: Louisville, KY

Current project: I’m currently working on a manuscript for publication with UofL Sociology Professor James Beggan on the strategies reference librarians use to enhance their approachability to help patrons use the library more effectively. This is in the editing stages. To transition into another project for eventual publication, I’m starting to read through and code some transcripts of interviews conducted by myself and a couple of my colleagues, focusing on library instruction assessment.

Currently reading: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

I work on peer-reviewed articles and conference proposals, both of which are usually geared towards practicing reference and instruction librarians.

2. When/where/how do you write?

To answer the question up front without too much detail, I start writing first thing in the morning, at my kitchen table at home, free from the distractions that comes with being in an office (e.g. e-mail, bothering my co-workers about random questions I have).

As a reference and instruction librarian, most of my time is taken up by doing the day-to-day aspects of my job. However, I find it difficult to write in the random hours between teaching and research appointments, so I usually block off half-days or entire days on my calendar when time permits so that I can work from home. My writing very much revolves around the times of year that I can take off those days here and there, though I realize that’s a luxury and that those days are fewer and further between than in my first few years as a librarian. This is something that will likely require to adapt my writing practice in the future, but in the meantime, I’m sticking to the 4-8 hour at my kitchen table, because it works!

3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?

I am a professional distractionista, so my space needs to have low sensory input – quiet, ambient music and no cell phone. I mentioned earlier that I write at my kitchen table because it’s desk-like and gets me in the mindset that I’m there to work and get some words on the page.

4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

In terms of getting started, just start. It can be jumbled and not your best work, but seeing even a few sentences on the page is such a confidence-booster. You can always go back and fix it later, and it at least gets the idea of what you’re trying to write on the page.

When it comes to revision, especially the nitty-gritty stages where you’re starting to feel like you’re just about done, I try to break it up so that the page number doesn’t intimidate me. What I do is give every paragraph or few paragraphs a temporary heading that explains what those next few paragraphs are about. From there, I see if the headings I wrote down tell the story I want to, and then making sure the content falls in line with its heading. With that approach, I can take it roughly one page at a time. This usually entails a little more work up front, but it makes longer papers a lot more manageable and a lot less daunting.

5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

I know I’ve bothered many of my colleagues about their writing advice (thank you!), but I don’t think I can remember any one individual piece of advice. I do like to assume I’ve utilized it all and integrated it into my writing practice, because on most days, it seems to be easier than it was several years ago, so I’m hoping it was something along the lines of “ignore your e-mail, turn off your cell phone, and start writing.”

Do you know someone who would be great for How I Write? Send us your recommendations!

Silencing Self-Doubt

Taryn Hall, Consultant

As I write this, I am about seven hours away from giving a presentation for which I have been preparing for around a month. The research is done, the paper is written, yet I find myself doubting that my hard work has resulted in something worth presenting. If I’m not careful, I end up struggling with this same sense of self-doubt about many of my writing assignments. Usually, when I give in to the temptation to doubt myself, it devolves quickly into something which prevents me from being productive: Is this idea Tarynworth researching and writing about? Am I qualified to make such an argument? Am I bringing anything new to the academic conversation?

Feeling like an imposter in academia is often at the back of my mind when I am writing. And I know, from my work in the University Writing Center, that I am far from being the only one who feels this way. In fact, I’m sure most of us have experienced this at one time or another. We’re confronted with a new genre of writing, or with a particularly challenging prompt, and we respond by overthinking to the point of doubting ourselves. At its worst, I’ve seen this become something which stops the writing process in its tracks. Writers come to us feeling anxious or overwhelmed; they express doubt that they can pull off the assignment, and they say things like “I’m a terrible writer.”

Of course, as tutors and peers to the writers with whom we work, we know that they aren’t bad writers. That indeed, each writer who comes to us is approaching writing with a unique perspective and an individual voice worth adding to the conversations ongoing in their respective fields or majors. My goal as consultant is to help writers alleviate these anxieties and to silence the self-doubt of academic authorship. As Nicole discusses in her recent blog post, learning to locate one’s voice in academia can be challenging; we have to overcome our sense of not belonging in order to feel like members of the academic community.

This is a task which feels like something that we’re always in the process of doing. For a while, as I got close to finishing undergrad, I felt like I was finally starting to find my niche and had this whole writing thing figured out. And then I got to grad school, where I was the newest member of a whole new conversation. Back to square one. While this causes some level of anxiety when I approach new writing tasks, I also find that my newbie status helps me feel more engaged with actively learning new genres and new techniques. It’s okay to not have the conventions of graduate writing down pat, just as it was okay when I was in English 101 to not have the conventions of college writing mastered.

While I find some level of self-doubt instructive, as it encourages me to learn and to overcome, I have to beware of that anxiety becoming crippling. This is why I recommend to writers who express having similar feelings of doubt or insecurity a proactive approach to their anxiety. If you know that an upcoming paper is going to cause you to feel those feelings of self-doubt, talk to someone early in the writing process. Sometimes, the most beneficial thing you can do is just express your writing fears. The UWC can help you get off on the right foot before you ever have to commit pen to paper or fingers to keys.

This is a strategy which has been essential to my own writing successes. I say this as someone who has returned to writing this blog post after having given the presentation I mentioned earlier. The sense of relief is palpable—I’m much less fidgety now—and I know that working with other consultants at the UWC on this assignment was essential to my writing process, and ultimately, to the success of the paper. They helped me focus, to figure out what was important, and to locate myself within the conversation I was attempting to enter.

While I’m sure that the next new genre I approach will make me briefly feel like an imposter, trying to skirt the defenses of academia while the Mission: Impossible theme song plays somewhere in the distance, I also feel comfortable in my ability to respond appropriately to my self-doubt, and to seek help when I get stalled. As this semester begins to draw rapidly to its close, I hope that members of our university-wide community of writers can find similar solace. If you have a paper, presentation, application, or other writing project coming up which has taken up an uncomfortable residence in your mind, we’re here to help.

How I Write: Ian Stansel

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.

Ian StanselIan Stansel is the author of the novel The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) and the short story collection Everybody’s Irish (FiveChapters, 2013), a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous venues such as PloughsharesSalon,JoylandThe Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the University of Houston. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville. He lives in Kentucky with his wife, the writer Sarah Strickley, and their two daughters.

Current project: A new story collection and a screenplay

Currently reading: The Deadlands by Ben Percy and a large number of stories by my students

1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

I write short stories, novels, screenplays, essays, and the occasional poem.

2. When/where/how do you write?

The joke of course is this: a person is lying on their couch, head on a pillow, eyes closed, unmoving. Someone enters the room and says, What are you doing? And the person responds, Writing. Ha ha. But see, there’s a good bit of truth to it. I say with a straight face that there are few moments in my life when I am not writing. I go to bed working out stories, and I’m back at it soon after waking. I’m thinking about a scenario or a character while I’m making my kids’ lunches. I’m working out a plot problem while driving to campus. At some point in a writing career, it’s just hard to turn it off. Or at least it is for me.

But practically speaking, I try to write—like, actually typing words—every day. Try. That doesn’t always work out, but I can say I write at least a little most days. And I’ve learned to be pretty good at writing anywhere. I can write while my daughters are watching Curious George just a few feet away. I can write in my office on campus while students chat outside my door. It’s something one has to learn to do, otherwise the words just don’t get strung together.

But on a good day I don’t have too many other pressing matters and I can spend a good four or five hours working. On those days I am home alone. I start with my laptop at the dining room table (I do have a desk but it is barely noticeable under a mountain of books and papers). I stay there until my back hurts from the chair, and then I bring my laptop to the couch, and work there until the battery gets low, at which point I move back to the table and uncomfortable chair. The dining room is also good because it doubles as our home library, so if I need a book it is usually within reach.

3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?

I often have music specific to whatever project I’m working on. The last couple of projects have been soundtracked by country music (mainly from the 60s and 70s…the best decades for country music). But in general I write to instrumental music. A lot of ambient and minimalist stuff: Eric Satie, Brian Eno, Hauschka. Music that borders on classical, but is too weird to be firmly in that category.

Other than that, I don’t need much. For screenplays I use the software program Final Draft, which helps a lot. But I’ve done script work without it, so it isn’t a necessity.

4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

Just start writing. You don’t know what the perfect first sentence is because you don’t know what the story is because you haven’t finished a draft yet. So don’t sweat it too much. Just start writing. You can change it later. You will change it later, most likely. If it’s a story, write scenes with a few characters, and don’t leave the scene until something interesting has happened. If you are writing a poem, write concretely. Don’t go abstract. If you are writing a play or a screenplay, establish the conflict quickly. But regardless, just start writing. And when you have a draft done and you’ve set it aside for a bit and gotten some perspective, revise without mercy.

5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

I don’t know if anyone has ever actually said it to me, but it has been said by someone to someone that you should write the story you want to read. I like that as a motivator. Write the story you’d want to read, not because you wrote it, but because there is some part of you wanting badly for it to exist.

Do you know someone who would be great for How I Write? Send us your recommendations!

College: What Your Guidance Counselor Didn’t Tell You

Mitzi Phelan, Consultant

I’m watching the professor’s mouth move. I’m nodding and smiling at appropriate times. My body language is positioned as engaged and interested. I nod appropriately as my classmates ask interesting questions relevant to the topic. My body is here, but my mind is not. So, you ask, where is my mind? At the moment, it is furiously engaged in Mitzischeduling. Somehow, this is the last week of October. I have a 12 page conference paper and presentation due Wednesday night. The good news: I have a stack of superb scholarly journals related to my subject matter. I also have a stack of 8 books checked out from the library that will lend a wealth of intellect to the research I am working on. The bad news: I have only read one of the journals and none of the books. So somehow I am going to need to synthesize all of that material into that conference paper in a very short amount of time. This is only one of the three papers that I need to make serious progress on before this semester ends in a few short weeks. So, am I mentally engaged in this class right now? No. I’m not. Do I want to be? Yes, absolutely. The information being discussed is vital to my chosen field. Also, college is expensive. It is costing me not only financially but time-wise as well. I miss evenings of going home and just hanging out with my family without a pending assignment looming over me. It is frustrating at times to find myself and my life dictated by due dates and deadlines. So what, you may ask, does this have to do with you? If you have never had an experience like the one described or felt the pressure of college closing in, then nothing. If you have, then everything.

College is challenging, and not just in the clichéd way people have always talked about. It takes commitment and dedication to be academically successful. But if we are completely honest, commitment and dedication is not drawn from an endless supply inside us. It usually is funneled from another place. Therefore, a high GPA usually means that some other area in a student’s life had to go on the back burner. The area that loses attention is different for everyone; for some it’s their social life that suffers, for others it’s leisure time, perhaps sleep. Many times the areas being sacrificed are not even an conscious decision by the student, they are just “getting things done.” But, at some point, this deficient area will make itself known.

My area made itself known when I realized that I had taken too much on and was overwhelmed with deadlines. The moment I described above was any eye-opener for me. I had to take a breath and self-evaluate. I became aware that I was frustrated with the lack of time I had with my family so I was procrastinating getting started on assignments. This led into a cycle of more frustration and more deficiencies in other areas of my life as I was overworking myself to stay successful academically.

If you are finding yourself falling into the these cycles of frustration that tend to happen at this point of the semester, I have some pointers that might can help. First, just breath. You’re going to be fine. Second, prioritize: what is the most important thing you need to be working on right now? Identify it and start chipping away at it. Instead of waiting till the night before a paper is due, start four days before it’s due and write a fourth of the assignment every night. Also, use resources; if you are having trouble starting an assignment, email your ideas to your professor. If they don’t like your ideas, they’ll tell you. Then you’ll know what NOT to write about. I encourage you to visit the Writing Center too. It is surprising how often just talking out an assignment with someone can make it come together so much more easily. Lastly, make peace with the fact that you aren’t going to “get” everything. There are going to be lectures that your mind spaces out on and there are going to be reading assignments that you just can’t get your head around. The funny thing about college is, it’s not until about the time you are nearing graduation that you realize that everyone is struggling as much, if not more, than you.

I leave you with the words of one of the writers I worked with last week: “Be kind to yourself.”

Brent’s Spooky and Scary Tips to Make Writing Not So Spooky and Scary

Brent Coughenour, Consultant

I pulled up to the red light, slowly, and my brakes squeaked more than usual due to the thin layer of rainwater still on the ground from today’s shower. It was late, and Brianna and I were belting out Prince’s “When Doves Cry” as it played in my car’s stereo; actually, it was probably Prince’s fault that neither of us noticed the man approaching my passenger-side Brentdoor, his eyes set on her. She turned and met his gaze before I did, and I felt the car shake when she jumped. Brianna yelped, and I looked over just as the man bent down to get a closer look into the car. He was bearded—a misshapen and half-shaved beard, but a beard nonetheless—and wore a dark pair of coveralls like some sort of blue collar worker would. He spoke to us—at us—but we couldn’t hear what he was saying; it almost looked like he were lip-syncing the Prince song, which was still playing as I had been too shocked to turn it off: “maybe I’m just like my father, too bold.”

“He’s trying to get in,” Brianna said, her voice soft and breathless, her eyes never breaking away from the man.

I shook my head and tried to remain calm. “No. He’ll go away.” I looked up to the light and silently pleaded for it to turn green.

Almost on cue, the man broke eye contact with Brianna and slipped back from the car. She sighed with relief, but I kept my eyes on him. Although he backed up from the window slightly, he came again to the car and slithered towards the rear passenger door.

As he reached his hand out to the door handle, I couldn’t remember if I had locked the doors….

 

Real life is scary. The above anecdote actually happened to me, and, although it’s not likely that my severed head would have ended up on that dude’s mantel, it scared me nonetheless. Still, I have an outlet that I can channel my fear, my insecurities, my thoughts, and my (unwanted?) opinions through: the written word. Writing is also scary, but it doesn’t have to be.

It often feels like writing is an impossible task—any kind of writing, not just academic. In the past I’ve read Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing,” Stephen King’s It, Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, and Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me and thought to myself: wow Brent, you’re never going to be as good a writer as these Kings and Queens, why are you even trying? But Past Brent missed the point. It isn’t possible to write like Stephen King. I am not Stephen King, I’m Brent, and I should write like Brent, finding my own voice and narrative direction, and, although I can try my hardest to emulate my favorite writers, I have to write what I can and stay true to myself. That sounds like a cheesy line from a John Hughes film, but it’s true. The greatest advice I ever received was from my undergraduate creative writing professor Dr. Rebbecca Brown: “write about what you don’t know about what you know.” Trust me, it isn’t as convoluted as it sounds.

The second best advice I ever received was from almost everyone else who has taught me the art of writing: “just write, darn it.” This is the tip that I typically apply to my own academic writing, and it’s also one that I typically prescribe to writers that enter the University Writing Center looking for help. Academic writing is daunting; in our position as college students, it can be easy to think that everything must be a certain way and everything must sound exactly the same. Although there is some truth to this, it’s not a myth that I subscribe to and it isn’t one that I follow. The fear of not fulfilling the requirements, or not writing as well as everyone else, is one that can absolutely cripple the motivation, the drive, and the desire to write something. Fears like this create the dreaded and infuriatingly capitalized Writer’s Block, and derail the entire process. My advice? Write and write and write. If you’ve been given a specific prompt and perhaps aren’t too familiar or comfortable with the assignment, write out what you can and get your thoughts, opinions, and knowledge down on paper. If you’re able to choose your own paper topic, lucky you! Pick something that interests you, like something in your own academic field, and tackle it head-on. Go until you can’t go anymore, and then bring it to the Writing Center and ask specifically for Nicole Dugan to help you out (because she’s a better writer than I am).

Writing is scary, man. I picked the above four works of literature to use as examples because, in their own special way, they terrify me. Whether I’m reading about Ted Bundy or the death of a child, I respond when it’s something that frightens me and puts me wholly out of my element, and I’ve found that I write better when something is challenging me as well. I’ll leave you with two more things to keep in mind. One, reading and writing go hand in hand. If you want to be a strong writer, be it academic writing or creative writing, you’ve got to keep reading. Find something you find interesting, or an author you enjoy, and read whatever you can find. And lastly, as good a writer as you are now or will become, realize that we’ll never be as good as future Nobel Laureates 2 Chainz and Kanye West because we didn’t write “Birthday Song,” which I’ll paraphrase below: when I die, bury me inside the Writing Center.

When to Walk Away: Taking a Break in the Process

Reid Elsea, Consultant

You have finished your fourth cup (pot) of coffee. It is probably late at night (early in the morning by now), and the paper is due in a few hours. This, as we all know, is not the ideal way to write a paper, and we tell ourselves every time (promise ourselves), this will be the last time.

The pressure of the “now or never” situation helps me overcome a writer’s block, Reidbecause I have a deadline to meet. However, when I begin a project with plenty of time to brainstorm, outline, draft, and revise, I often find it more difficult to start. I think this is a common problem that leads many of us to wait until the last minute to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard). As Tim pointed out in his earlier blog post, sometimes the best approach is to just write. Good, bad, or ugly. I find this to be a helpful strategy in my own writing, but it brings with it another block. Just like before, I am caffeinated far beyond the suggested daily limit, and staring at my writing. Often I will like what I have written, but I will have no idea where to go next, how to conclude, or where to begin making it into a final draft. I find this type of writer’s block as frustrating and difficult as the process of getting started.

One technique I have found works best for me in this situation (when time allows) is to save the document, close my computer, and walk away. Sometimes I don’t walk far, just to the couch to put on some Netflix and zone out. Other times I walk right out the door and don’t stop for a bit. I’ll walk around the block or to the park nearby. What is important, for me, is to not be looking at my writing in this time. This is a time I welcome distraction. Whether it is TV, a walk, music, or calling a friend on the phone to have a chat, I find disengaging from the writing for a time helps me to refocus on what it is I am doing. I am sure we have all started a paper with one idea, and then ended with a very different one. This isn’t a problem, but rather it is a discovery. The final idea likely does not reflect your original thesis; however, it may be the case (as it often is in my writing) that it takes me a while to get where I want to go.

This is the perfect opportunity to walk away. While it is cliché, I often find the ideas I was in search of in the shower. This is not always the case, but, like any other kind of “walking away,” you are looking for something where it is not (another time honored cliché). What is important is not the location, but the mindset. And so, I will leave you with the words of Marcus Aurelius on getting away in one’s own self: “So keep getting away from it all— like that. Renew yourself” (Meditations 37).

 

Work Cited

Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, 2003.

“Learning to Dwell” or Locating Yourself in Academia

Nicole Dugan, Consultant

I tend to dwell, most often in a 7th grade memory in which I dramatically fell in the lunchroom and watched the contents of my tray fly up into the air before landing on top of me. I can feel the heat rising to my face and hear the guffaws of my friends, the slow clap that built as I picked myself up. It’s been over ten years since this happened, but my Nicolebrain likes to periodically revisit this moment. This seems to be the sort of mental dwelling most of us do, and we are usually trying to escape that memory rather than relive it a hundred times. Embarrassing memories from 7th grade are not the most pleasant places to dwell, and we don’t think of them as useful. However, dwelling can be productive if placed in the right context.

Dwelling as I illustrate above, cognitively dwelling or ruminating, is most often perceived as negative. Our brains run down paths that we seemingly cannot control, but the act of dwelling can be a positive and useful tool in the writing process. In terms of creative writing, the people, moments, ideas, places that repeatedly pull our attention can become inspiration for stories and poetry if we’re willing to put it down on the page. In one of our previous posts, Tim talked about having the “willingness to embrace the discomfort of labor” in order to persevere through the challenges of writing and creativity. Writing is indeed a labor, regardless of how long one has practiced it. Yet, from an outsider’s perspective, many writers seem to glide through a process that is so intimidating and uncomfortable to most of us.

Cognitive dwelling is not only a momentary jaunt down memory lane, but also a potential kind of residence. In Geographies of Writing, Nedra Reynolds explores the ways that space and spatial practices interact with the process of writing, and she spends a chapter on “learning to dwell.” Those that seem to have the upper hand in navigating the writing process appear this way because they “know where the bullies hang out and where the best curry is” (Reynolds 163). They have, as Reynolds would say, inhabited writing long enough to time the best routes and avoid traffic. The realm of academic writing can be a scary place, and this is often because we are surrounded by people who have lived there much longer than we have. When I moved to Louisville at the beginning of August, I had to find my new favorite place for greasy breakfast food (still haven’t found it) and which Kroger I like best (the one on New Cut Rd.) before I felt like I actually lived here. Entering academic conversations requires writers to have this same kind of insider knowledge, and “dwelling doesn’t happen when people feel excluded or that they don’t belong” (Reynolds 163). Deciding what to write about, finding resources, putting together an outline, and writing the first draft is like navigating a city where you don’t know which roads are one-ways or where you can pull a U-turn. However, Reynolds would argue something else: The writer of a text is an “owner or dweller,” while readers are “visitors or transients” (166). You, as the writer, are creating a map for the people who are reading your paper or personal essay; whether the reader gets lost or successfully finds the destination is completely in your control. This means you get to decide the rules, even if you’re fulfilling an assignment.

Dwelling begins before you create the physical text, even before the research. An idea sparks, and you spend the next few hours, days, or weeks, depending on the project’s timeline, turning it over in your head. Will it work for the assignment? Is it researchable? Is it even a good idea? I do my best writing when I can take something I’m already passionate about and turn it into a project. In a way, I take parts of the places I already dwell in and put them into an academic context. Like Beau discusses in his post, your hobbies or the music and television shows you like can help you feel more comfortable with writing. Even better, you can pull down the perceived barrier between those things you love and your academic writing. We often separate our lives, feeling like the different places and communities we inhabit are in boxes rather than a cohesive map of our identities. If we want to become successful inhabitants of academia, allowing the parts of our identities that are seemingly incompatible with academia gives us a way in, a chance “to orient [ourselves] when in an unfamiliar place” (Reynolds 168).

We all dwell, on those embarrassing memories, the television show we binged this past weekend, or a looming deadline. In order to dwell in the manner of inhabiting a space, we have to locate ourselves within the bigger picture or place ourselves in that picture. It’s not always a matter of “finding” your voice in your writing, but allowing the voice you’ve always had to make space in the work you’re doing in the classroom.

 

Works Cited

Reynolds, Nedra. “Learning to Dwell: Inhabiting Spaces and Discourses.” Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. UP Southern Illinois, 2004, pp.139-177.

Post Navigation