UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “November, 2017”

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!

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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.”

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