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Archive for the month “September, 2017”

Creative by Choice: Persevering through Doubts and Droughts

Tim Phelps, Consultant

Perhaps nothing can be as daunting to a writer as an empty screen or a blank piece of Tim Phelpspaper.  It taunts you.  It knows you can’t do it.  It erases every budding idea you have and replaces it with indecision.  It’s the ultimate bully–the one who manifests your fears with more efficiency than Pennywise the Dancing Clown.  You’ve lost any ability to be rational at this point.  You know you’ve faced this demon before and made it through, but you’ve convinced yourself you won’t be able to do it again.  This will be the end of you.  This will be the first time you’ve failed to turn in a paper, or—even worse—you’ll end up stringing together an essay of words so incoherent that everyone will finally find out you’re just an imposter.

That worst-case scenario never comes to fruition, of course, but it sure feels like it will sometimes.  We find a way to get through it, and the world keeps turning.

I’ve come to believe that the roots of this struggle are based in creativity.  More specifically, our doubt-ridden self-image about our creative talents.  If we have convinced ourselves that we are not creative, then it makes sense that we’d have difficulty designing that eye-catcher the beginning of our paper deserves.  It makes sense that we would look at polished or published writing and be unable to picture ourselves producing it—when the words feel so good, it’s more appropriate to call it a “creation” instead of a text.  Writing like that must have been fashioned by someone who won the creative gene lottery, we might think.  This creativity is not limited to fiction writing or poetry; its presence is just as ubiquitous in well-written academic work as well—we feel the sting of its absence when we can’t come up with a compelling thesis statement or find incontrovertible evidence in our research.  Even pallet-wood projects on Pinterest and sugar-cookie decorating on Instagram haunt our creative confidence.  How can I possibly create if I’m not creative?

It’s important to recognize that all writers have faced that empty-page paralysis at one point or another.  It’s even more important to recognize, however, that practiced writers have found strategies for dealing with times like these. We’ve accepted it as a part of the process, and have found solutions that work for us.  Some writers make a pointed effort to temporarily abandon the writing for a little while, refocusing their brains on something unrelated until they feel ready to give it another try.  Some find solitude, others seek out company.  If writers are constantly finding themselves in this struggle, they might ask if they are trying the same ineffective strategies over and over.  If so, I encourage them to try doing something different and see how that works.

The longer I write, the more I’m comfortable that I’ve found an effective strategy for me.  If I just start writing something, even if it’s horrible, it will eventually evolve into a final product.  I’m not always satisfied with what I write, but these are first drafts we’re talking about here.  They’re allowed to be horrible.

I will admit that it’s more complicated than just getting words on the page.  Word production does not automatically create a well-written paper.  Strategies may get you started, but what use is that if none of it has that unique, creative zing?  It boils down to either accepting that certain lucky people are born with a creative gene, or accepting that creativity, like having any other skill, takes practice and hard work to develop.  Subscribing to the former absolves the writer from any responsibility.  But the latter makes the writer accountable for improving, which is a scary prospect.  If creativity is indeed a product of practice and effort, then that includes a heavy implication of failure.  For writers, the fear of failure is often what keeps the page blank to begin with.

However, I’m convinced it is a struggle worth fighting for.  Once writers accept that it will take work, they can focus on combining strategies with perseverance.  It’s the confidence (whether real or faked) that the words will eventually come to you, and a willingness to embrace the discomfort of labor.  It takes patience, comfort with failure, and a commitment to pushing through the block.  It’s not a problem limited to non-professional writers.  In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King compares writing not to “creative fluttering,” but to blue-collar labor such as plumbing and driving long-haul trucks (153).  (I know that this is my second King reference of the post; I offer no apologies.)  Common metaphors we use to describe this kind of toil are just as pitiless as you might expect: “putting your nose to the grindstone” and going “off to the grind.”  Both examples express this undertaking as a prolonged and drudging effort.  Even video gamers, when faced with challenging goals that require lots of time, effort, and perseverance, call the act “grinding.”  The origin of using “grind” in these metaphors is a reflection of two inventions of production: a vertical, spinning stone for knife sharpening, and the giant stone wheels used to pulverize grain into flour in watermills.  These examples represent the unforgiving nature of this approach, and in all fairness, sometimes the grind is tedious and exhausting.  But the metaphors also represent a connection between writing and the efforts of other disciplines.  These commonalities highlight a stark truth: those who find success usually have to work very hard for it.  Creativity therefore, and its subsequent creation, are choices.

This all means that, when faced with a writing block, the best way of fighting through it is committing to fighting through it.  The writing that looks easy for other people is less likely a product of a lucky birth and more likely the result of a practiced skill.  That practice means that once you have a merely acceptable idea of what to write, you keep grinding until you create something you’re proud of.  It won’t come easy.  It will be frustrating.  Failure is a real possibility.  But just like anything that is challenging, you will be rewarded when you work for it.

Works cited:

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Hodder, 2012.

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Writing as a Medium

Mary-Kate Smith, Consultant

Writing as a Medium

Too often, people view themselves as poor writers based on the understanding that there is a correct and an incorrect way to write. However, writing is a versatile medium used to convey a diverse array of ideas. And as with other media, the tools and techniques used depend on the intent of the message. There is no clear correct or incorrect method of writing. There are simply conventions and the choice of how to work within, around or without them.

Writing as ArtMary-Kate Smith

The conventions surrounding artistic painting, like those of artistic writing, have evolved throughout decades and throughout centuries. In Vincent Van Gogh’s day, the artist was considered a mad man and a failure. His thick vibrant brush strokes were unconventional. Now an average of 1.5 million people visit the Amsterdam museum, named in his honor, each year. Similarly, the poet Emily Dickinson was a recluse who published fewer than a dozen of her nearly 2,000 poems during her lifetime. Her use of slant rhyme and varied capitalization were eccentric and unusual for her time. Her poetry now has international acclaim and has been translated into French, Spanish, Russian and a number of other languages.

Poetry, like painting, develops continuously. Writers of today rarely use the Shakespearian sonnets as a mode of communication. Likewise, modern day artists, such as Banksy, often create pieces as illegal street art rather than as works commissioned by royal patrons. Writing, like art, has conventions that adapt and evolve overtime. Often, these evolutions in convention occur through the creation of art and writing that exists outside the realms of the previous conventions. Boundaries change as boundaries are pushed.

Writing as Utilitarian

Just as every paintbrush holder is not a Picasso, not every penman is a poet. Writing has pragmatic and utilitarian purposes. Police reports, prescriptions and postal codes are all written in formulaic, objective fashions on a daily basis. The same spray-paint can used by graffiti artists to adorn a boxcar can be used by a little league football coach to reline a field. Comparably, the same words can appear in a legal paper, a sales receipt, a children’s book and a text message. Paint is the medium of both the Mona Lisa and kitchen walls. Written word is the medium of the New York Times and grocery lists alike.

Writing in Academia

Rarely, when a writer says they are bad at writing do they find themselves incapable of sending an email, jotting down class notes or creating a shopping list. Often, instead, these writers see themselves as incompetent within the sphere of academic writing. At times, the conventions of scholarly research and writing are daunting. However, if writers work to express ideas clearly as the primary target, the seeming “rules of writing” can offer structural support rather than insurmountable obstacles. Remembering the purpose is often more beneficial that remembering the practices. The more people write, the more control they gain over language. The more writers make mistakes, the more they can learn. The mindset that writing is a tool rather than a task can make all the difference in getting a writer started.

Good Enough is a Shot in the Dark or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Revision.

Christopher Stuck, Assistant Director of the Virtual Writing Center

Every once in a while, I stumble upon an article Christopher Stuckabout writing that really sparks with my own experience and struggles in getting words on the page and then turning them into something worthwhile. A lot of my writing time is spent worrying about that first reader and how they will react. As such, I struggle with getting the first draft out, caught up in making it finished on the first go. From teaching here at the University of Louisville and at the University of South Carolina before that, plus working with writers in the University Writing Center, I know I’m not alone in this thought process.

We know it’s bad for us to get into the editing while we’re writing. We know nothing is finished on the first try. But we don’t want to show that we don’t quite have it down right to start, either because we don’t want to be embarrassed or because we don’t want to edit. Good enough isn’t good enough, but we want it to be.

Last week, the University Writing Center posted a link to “The Book He Wasn’t Supposed to Write,” an article published in The Atlantic, to our Facebook page and Twitter feed. Written by author and journalist Thomas E. Ricks, the article details his hidden struggles in writing his latest book and the dismay he felt in the editing process.

He worked on the book for three years and when he finally submitted it to his editor, his editor hated it. Ricks says “Partly, I was crushed. But even more, I was puzzled. How could I have been so off in my perception of my manuscript?” Ricks’s book wasn’t a true first draft, but this was the first time he had sent it out for reading. He was sure of the way he had written the manuscript, but “What [Ricks] had sent [his editor] was exactly the book he had told [Ricks] not to write.” Ricks rethought and revised the book heavily, transforming what he already had, the work he had already done, and added a lot of things he had initially discarded. Through revision, it fell into place, and he ended up with a much better book, even in his own opinion.

Ricks concludes his article, “Most art has a public face—music is played, paintings are displayed, plays are enacted, movies are filmed and often watched by groups. Books tend to be more private, from one person’s act of writing to another’s act of reading. Most mysterious of all is the hidden middle stage, the offstage act of editing. Yet sometimes it can make all the difference.” For me, this is much like the work we do here, as students and academics. Even with an audience in mind, whether it’s an editor, a professor, or a specific group of people out there in the world, there feels like mystery in the writing process. No matter how many times we go through it, no matter how practiced and sure of ourselves we get, the private acts of writing and revising tend to stay private.

Even the few of us who truly love to write fret and worry and make writing hard for ourselves. Rethinking and revising your work after getting the raw materials down on the page in a rough or first draft can counteract some of the mystery, making the whole process easier. Be willing to cut, scrap, rethink, reshape, rearrange, and rewrite. It may seem like more writing, but it’s easier writing.

Find that trusted friend or trusted professor and have them help you by reading and commenting on your work (most of us are willing) or come to the University Writing Center and work on it with us (all of us are willing). But most of all, trust yourself to get words on the page and shape it up later. Learn to stop worrying and love the revision.

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