UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “October, 2017”

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.

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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.

How I Write: Lara Kelland

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.

Lara Kelland received her PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2012, and joined the history department at the University of Louisville in 2013. Her teaching, research, and community-based work are the intersection of U. S. and comparative Lara Kellandhistory, public history practices, and digital history methods.

Location: Louisville

Current project: Digital History project on the 1950 nationalist uprising in Puerto Rico

Currently reading: Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

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

Of late? Book revisions, blog posts, exhibit text, grant applications, and working towards a new monograph project on Puerto Rico

2. When/where/how do you write?

It depends. Sometimes at my campus office desk, sometimes at a standing desk at home, when the weather is particularly friendly, an Adirondack chair on my front stoop has been especially productive of late.

Lara Kelland Workspace

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

Information organization strategies are important, so I couldn’t live without google drive or dropbox for research files and cloud storage for documents. Tea is important, even though I’m a coffee fiend most mornings. Music is a vital component too. In most cases, jazz is my writing soundtrack choice, with proclivities towards Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Oscar Peterson. The improvisational tendencies in jazz get my creative juices flowing. When I first read this question, somehow I imagined that “snacks” were on the list. So, I guess, snacks are also recommended.

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

JUST DO IT. Sometimes I start writing while I’m on my daily walk to campus. I use the notes tool on my iphone and I outline my ideas or even sometimes start writing prose.

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

Also? JUST DO IT. I believe the preceptor with whom I worked on my master’s thesis said something like: Barf on the page. You will clean it up later. (pardon the crass wording, but it’s a very effective metaphor, I find)

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

Keaton’s Adventures in Letter Writing

Keaton Price, Consultant

Every August in elementary school, my teachers would send out giant envelopes filled with information about the upcoming school year. Most importantly, these parcels contained the list of students who would be in my homeroom. Even though I knew I would not receive my school’s mailing until the 4th or 5th, on August 1st, I would excitedly wait for the mailman to arrive with any deliveries. Every day our mail would show up, and not wanting to seem like a crazy child who had been peering out her bedroom window obsessively since 8 a.m., I would wait until the mailman drove off to go search our mailbox. Normally, my much-anticipated envelope would take a few days to Keatonarrive; however, when it did finally make it to my house, I would excitedly tear open the parcel and eagerly scan all of the pages for my homeroom details. The wait was over, and I could stop stalking the mailman.

Today, in a world of texts and emails, all of which I am instantly notified about and receive electronically, I started to think about the last time I had received a physical letter in the mail that was meant solely for me. Of course, I get bills (unfortunately) and random advertisements; however, the only written, personalized correspondences I receive are “thank you” notes. Even those are pretty rare, though. I therefore decided to start writing more personalized letters, an activity that has undoubtedly declined in the wake of technological advancements.

To start my project, I chose to write to my friend who goes to school up at Notre Dame. Although we communicate every day through texts, snapchats, or messages on Facebook, I thought it would be nice to write him a physical letter. Since part of what makes receiving a letter so fun is the tactile aspect of getting an envelope and letter that one can hold and keep, I therefore started my adventure by picking out the perfect set of stationary at Carmichael’s Bookstore. As a notoriously indecisive person with a warped sense of time, I spent way too long searching for the perfect notecard and, once I selected one, barely made it to work on time. (PSA: Powerwalking from your car in 80 degree weather is not fun. However, I was quite impressed that I made it to work with four minutes to spare, so I will be entering the 2020 Olympics in Toyko as a highly ranked power-walker.)

Ok back to letter writing… In my actual note, I wanted my handwriting to be perfect, and I knew that if I had a bunch of scratched out words, I would not be satisfied. I therefore wrote out a draft of my note on another piece of paper first before transferring my ideas to the actual letter. While I was most certainly just overthinking things, I began to wonder during this drafting process about the authenticity of moving my ideas from my notebook to the notecard. If, for instance, in my draft I told my friend that I was writing my letter from UofL’s University Writing Center but then ended up copying my ideas onto the physical letter while at home, was I lying in my note? I was no longer at the Writing Center, so could I honestly tell my friend that I was writing from that location? While this moral predicament is ultimately absurd because in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter where I wrote my draft or letter, it is still an interesting question to ponder and makes me feel sort of philosophical.

Once I’d finished transcribing the letter, I then set about addressing the envelope. Although this sort of writing is standardized by the postal service, in addressing my letter by hand, I continued to add a personal touch to the note. By writing out the address and the entirety of the letter, my friend could see that I had physically taken the time to craft each word. This personalization gave this letter an authenticity and sincerity that is rarely found in emails or texts.

With my letter finished and envelope addressed, I then found a stamp and dropped my sealed note in the nearest mailbox. The fun with letter writing doesn’t end here though! Since my friend has no idea I am sending him a letter, I cannot wait to see how surprised he will be when he receives his note!

Hobbies make writing fun and reading never hurts either

Beau Kilpatrick, Consultant

I have heard many horror stories about students who have trouble writing, starting a project, finishing a paper,Beau and even coming up with an idea to run with.

Through my own experiences, I have found that writing in my free time about something that truly interest me really helps. My passion is journalism. So, I use some of my free time to write stories about U of L sports. I will passionately watch a game then write a story about the strengths, weaknesses, and special plays of the game. This type of pleasure writing is totally stress free and helps when it comes to academic writing.

When the semester begins to get hectic with the overwhelming demands of our professors and longer assignments, it’s nice to know that writing these papers does not need to be a worrisome encounter. When you find that one thing in life that truly brings you joy and erases the stress of daily life, then write about it. You will be amazed at how much more prepared you are to tackle the mounting page counts when you have enjoyed the practice you have accomplished at home.

When I sit down to write one of my articles, I have my notes from the game beside me and I highlight the impressive plays, highest stats, and the ambiance of the team’s atmosphere. This is no different than using your own notes that you have gathered from sources in preparation for your academic paper. This is how I draw my outline for a draft. I then take the not-so-important notes and assign them under a highlighted term. There, the outline is finished and I can begin writing my prose between the gaps to connect my ideas.

Do you see how this same strategy can be used in academic writing?

This is why it is important to identify your passion and write about your experiences on the subject. Your writing, and the methods you take, can translate to better preparedness when it comes to your academic writing for a class. So, create a webpage and talk about the concerts you go to, discuss the latest fashion or music trends, create a bar review that explains who has the best drinks for cheap; use your imagination.

Writing should be fun. And it will be, but only if you find what is fun for you.

The next tip that I can offer is to read. Read a little bit of everything. The more you read, the better your writing will become because whether you realize it or not, your writing will acclimate itself to the level of reading you are at. Your vocabulary will improve, your ideas will become deeper, and your writing will flow out of your imagination much more fluidly.

Due to my thesis project as an undergrad, and the ridiculous amount of hours that I spent with the material, I have found certain tones in my writing that can only be attributed to the author of my research. I am not saying that is a bad thing but it does show how reading influences our writing.

So, in short, find that joyous passion of yours and thrive in that moment. Take notes and write about every adventure you embark upon; you will find it very rewarding. And learn to enjoy reading. You will be surprised at how it will strengthen your writing beyond belief.

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