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“Camaraderie and Great Ideas”: Reflections on the 2018 Dissertation Writing Retreat

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

Last week I attended the University of Louisville’s commencement ceremony for doctoral students. As I looked through the program I noted the names of eleven of the graduates who had previously attended one of our University Writing Center Dissertation Writing Retreats. Several of them came up to me afterward to tell me again how valuable they found the experience of the writing retreat and the significant difference it made to them in their progress toward their degrees. As we talked about the jobs they were moving on to and their plans for future scholarship, it was gratifying to think that we had played some useful role in their graduate education.

This past week we once again were host to 14 Ph.D. students who participated in our spring Dissertation Writing Retreat. This is the seventh year we have held a week-long writing retreat in May during which the participants spending their days writing and having daily individual writing consultations with members of the Writing Center staff. Writing at the 2018 Dissertation Writing RetreatEvery day we also have small-group discussions about various issues of dissertation writing (Ways to Structure Chapters, Strategies for Self-Editing, How to Revise Work for Other Purposes, and How to Approach Literature Reviews). We also keep everyone well-fed throughout the week with snacks and lunch.

The writers who participated in this year’s retreat represented eight different disciplines at the University: Education, Engineering, Nursing, Rhetoric and Composition, Pan-African Studies, Pharmacology, Psychology, and Social Work. The best way to get a sense of the experience of the retreat and its impact on the writers who took part, however, is to hear from the participants and consultants themselves.

WRITERS

2018 Dissertation Writing Retreat: LunchTammi Alvey Thomas, Social Work. By far a fantastic experience! I would recommend this for anyone writing their dissertation. The staff at the Writing Center are extremely helpful and great to work with. Don’t miss out on this opportunity!  I left the retreat much more organized, focused and energized.

Imelda Wright, Nursing. I had the privilege of attending the Dissertation Writing Retreat in May 2018. It was well structured with plenty of space for the occupants to write at their own pace without interruption. There was adequate support and structure throughout the day to help with specific questions. In addition, a personal writing consultant was assigned to each participant daily to assist with content, technique, and overall structure of writing.

Overall, the retreat was terrific. It was enriching and productive to be in a space surrounded by like-minded people with similar goals to each other. There was a cohesive sense of camaraderie and great ideas were shared. In addition, I loved that lunch and snacks were provided; this allowed and encouraged participants to remain in the general vicinity during the day.

CONSULTANTS

Edward English, Ph.D. Student in Rhetoric and Composition and Incoming Assistant Director of the University Writing Center. This year’s dissertation writing retreat was energizing and helpful for me on a number of levels. I’ve just finished the first year of my PhD in English Composition and Rhetoric and when the Spring semester ended, my mind and body craved anything unrelated to school. I immediately took solace in long naps and hours of Netflix, in addition to enjoying trips like visiting the Red River Gorge and having one too many mint juleps at a very odd rainy Derby.

After a couple weeks of this leisure, however, I needed something manageable to get me back into the momentum of productivity. The dissertation writing retreat ended up being a wonderful balance of summer fun meets academic growth.

Interestingly, though I was the consultant, offering assistance to two awesome Experimental Psych. PhDs, I felt like I was the one who learned so much. Not having even started my own dissertation, reading through others’ work helped familiarize me with the types of challenges and rewards I can likely expect when I start running this academic marathon. What’s more, my two consultees were eager to absorb whatever questions or constructive criticism I had to offer—giving this Comp. 1 & 2 writing instructor a powerful (and much needed) inflation to his teacher ego and the satisfaction of feeling like he was truly helpful. I’m looking forward to being a consultant again next year, and am thankful that I’ll have this dissertation writing retreat available to me when I’ll need guidance and instruction on how to work through my own piece.

Dissertation Writing Retreat 2018 - Consultation 2018 Dissertation Writing Retreat - Consultation

Layne Gordon, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center and Ph.D. Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. Having helped facilitate the Dissertation Writing Retreat in 2016 and 2017, I came into this week knowing that I could look forward to the excitement and energy that’s created when a group of writers come together. Each year, it’s so motivating to see people enjoy the shared experience of using writing to work through their ideas and scholarly identities. What starts on Monday as a gathering of individuals, each immersed in their own projects and challenges, ends on Friday as an interdisciplinary community of writers. What I noticed this time around, though, was how productive this interdisciplinarity can be–and, selfishly, how helpful it was for me as someone who is also working on my dissertation. Both of the writers I worked with this week were genuinely interested in hearing about my dissertation progress and offered feedback and resources that were so helpful. I walked away from each consultation feeling supported and valued by the writers I was working with, even though we were in different disciplines with different methods, theories, and goals. I was really reminded this week of what reciprocity looks and feels like, and how much we (writers) all have in common when we are approaching challenging–and rewarding–writing projects.

Jessica Newman, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center and Ph.D. Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. I’ve had the pleasure of helping to facilitate the Dissertation Writing Retreat both this year and last year. This year, as before, I was impressed with the writers as individuals (their commitment to sit down at 8 am each morning and write, and then continue to write) and as a community (supporting and learning from each other). But now that I am further in my own dissertation, the Retreat took on an even deeper resonance, and I appreciated the opportunity to myself take part—during group discussions, lunch and consultations—in the exchange of suggestions, ideas, commiseration and support. This sharing ranged from reviews of data analysis2018 Dissertation Writing Retreat - Consultation software to tips on how to use the vocabulary of your field to the often strong emotions evoked by writing those pesky lit reviews. I look forward to seeing the support, accountability and productivity from the Dissertation Writing Retreat continue in the Writing Center weekly Faculty and Graduate Student Writing Groups this summer and this fall.

Caitlin Ray, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing and Ph.D. Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. As a consultant for the Dissertation Writing Retreat, I found that, in addition to helping writers, I personally got a lot out of the week. I was reminded of the power of talking about writing, working as a community of writers, and the importance of sharing research in an interdisciplinary context. My favorite parts of the week were the moments at lunch, or during workshops, when we got to chat about our research. Even when we were tired (or hungry) I still saw our eyes light up when talking about our research, and how often we found commonalities between research interests or methodology questions even when our fields were quite different from one another. I think that sometimes the frustration and daily grind of dissertation writing makes us forget that our research projects are really cool, and have the potential to make real impact on the world.

Rachel Rodriguez, Ph.D. Student in Rhetoric and Composition and Incoming Assistant Director of the University Writing Center. This week I had the opportunity to work with two writers from my own program, and our shared base of disciplinary knowledge helped us fast-forward into conversations about how knowledge is made and who “counts” as knowledge producers in the contexts of their research. Since both writers were focusing on the organization of their data chapters, we spent time playing with various options, envisioning how each schema might impact their overall message. I found myself getting really absorbed in the work they are doing, and our collective excitement made for a fun atmosphere where ideas could build off of each other as the week progressed. Getting a glimpse into both of their writing processes as well as strategies for goal-setting was personally rewarding, reminding me how attuned we are to our own way of writing, but how much we can learn by talking about how we write with others.

THANKS FOR ALL WHO MADE THIS POSSIBLE

It is important to acknowledge the people who did the hard work of organizing the Retreat – Cassie Book, our Associate Director, and Robin Blackett, our Administrative Assistant, and Assistant Directors Layne Gordon, Jessica Newman, Caitlin Ray, and Christopher Stuck as well as the other fantastic consultants (themselves Ph.D. students) who worked with the writers: Edward English, Rachel Rodriguez, and Rick Wysocki. And thanks to Dean Beth Boehm, of the School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies, for again sponsoring and supporting the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

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Writing Genres that Are New to You

Caitlin Ray, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

As the Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing, I work with a lot of graduate students on a variety of writing projects. Many of the writers who see me are writing a new genre, whether that be a personal statement, a long-form seminar paper, or a grant proposal. Despite the wide array of genres I see, I often give very similar advice to Caitlin Raywriters. I also think that these strategies would be effective for writers of all experience levels—from a first year undergraduate in their first college class, to a PhD student working on their dissertation.

The genres I am talking about, though, are not just the weird ones that we might only come across if we are in higher education (literature reviews, for example, are not a genre common outside the walls of the university). This could also be something as simple as an email. For example, we may take it for granted that everyone can write an effective email. However, we all know that some emails are more successful than others. To move our own email writing practices to those exemplary ones, we may look at what others are doing (What do I look for when I receive an email? What do I respond to?) and then we emulate that. We also have a ton of practice writing emails, so we can learn quickly in the variety of drafts we create what is effective and what isn’t. The same principles can be applied to all writing.

The following strategies are ones I encourage writers to use when they are unfamiliar with a genre they are bringing to me. These are strategies I would encourage everyone to employ to master any genre that comes your way:

  1. Examine the assignment. This may seem like a given, but many people read assignment descriptions uncritically. Additionally, assignment prompts or questions can be extremely detailed or very vague. Let’s take a look at an example I see quite often. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) asks for a personal statement when applicants submit materials for medical residency. This prompt is simply, “Use the space provided to explain why you want to go to medical school,” and allows 5,300 characters. This is as vague as it gets. However, you can still tell several things. The readers clearly value brevity (you are limited to about a page and a half), and you are crafting an argument (why do you want to go to medical school?) Embedded in this question is the need for evidence. How does the reader believe what you are telling them? The context is also specific: why do you want to go to medical school? What is medical school to you, and what will you get out of it? How does it meet your goals? Suddenly, you can see lots of questions to answer that were simply implied in the prompt itself.
  2. Find examples. This is something I recommend to all levels of writers. It is very difficult to write an abstract, a literature review, or a personal statement, without knowing what successful ones look like. Once you get in the habit, you will automatically begin reading like a writer and will notice successful examples of writing everywhere you go. One piece of advice I have gotten as I move into writing my own dissertation, for example, is to seek out other dissertations (they are usually publically available). Further, find dissertations that were chaired by the same chair of your own committee. Finding examples can help you figure out what the unwritten expectations of certain genres may be.
  3. Ask an expert. “Expert” could mean an expert in the content area you are writing in, or an expert in writing itself. I often suggest that people writing very discipline-specific writing (like, maybe a review article for a journal) talk with their advisor or other trusted professors and get feedback. Those folks are great resources to talk about methods and field-specific questions that the University Writing Center may not have knowledge about. Then, you can also seek out a writing expert (like the consultants in the University Writing Center) so that you clarify your ideas and translate them into an effective piece of writing.
  4. Ask a peer. This is something I wish I had learned much earlier in college. You are surrounded by great resources in your classes and your major, or even down the hall in the dorms. The people in your classes are future professionals, and may even be your colleagues later on. Get together with someone, or a few people, and exchange writing! One of the best things I have found in graduate school myself is finding a few trusted people that I can send my “shitty first drafts” to without judgment (see Ann Lamott’s excellent essay “Shitty First Drafts”).
  5. Often, when faced with a daunting writing task that we don’t quite know how to tackle, we can easily get in our heads. That “editor” voice (which I imagine as my 7th grade English teacher for some reason) is one of the biggest reasons we get writer’s block. The biggest antidote to being stuck before even beginning the writing task is to simply freewrite everything that you know or think you know about a topic. Just write, and worry about the genre conventions later. Many times we figure out how to do something by doing it (See Reid’s “Getting Going” blog for more useful tips to get started!).
  6. The best way to learn a new genre is to simply keep writing in that genre until you are comfortable. Back to my original example of email writing, the more emails we send, the faster and more comfortable we are in composing them. While perhaps obvious, the reason for this is because we spend so much time writing emails and thus get a ton of practice. This is true for any piece of writing. You might take a really long time writing your first abstract, for example, but a few years later of practicing that skill and you will be able to write effective abstracts more quickly. See more strategies for practicing and developing writing habits in Isaac’s “Getting Started with Genre” or Michael’s “Can Someone Hold My Hair While I Word Vomit?”

Lastly, I think the biggest hurdle when faced with new genres is the uncertainty it causes in us. We think “I don’t know this…should I know this? Does everyone know this but me?” This connects to the most insidious experience of higher education—imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is the idea that everyone knows what they are doing and are very successful at that work, and that you are merely “faking” it. However, everyone experiences imposter syndrome, and one of the biggest ways to combat this feeling is talking about your experiences and the writing process more. Tackling a new genre can be intimidating and stressful, but hopefully these strategies can help you be successful, no matter the writing task before you!

Getting Going

Reid Elsea, consultant

The weather is not the only sign that spring is finally (kinda) here. The schedule at the University Writing Center is booked solid most days, and the pressure of the “final paper” is nearly palpable. First off, you got this! Secondly, I thought it might be helpful Reidfor all of us if I use this the blog to offer some advice on getting through the crucible of finals.

The first step, and one of the hardest (especially for me) steps, is getting started. One useful strategy for getting into to the process is setting aside time for purposeful writing. In her article on writing your first research paper, Elena Kallestinova suggests to “choose from 1- to 2-hour blocks in your daily work schedule and consider them as non-cancellable appointments” (182). For me, the best time to do this is in the morning. Its important to try out a few different times in order to figure out what works best for your personal schedule. Another way to do this is to make University Writing Center appointments. You can use these as personal deadlines for papers, which can help your time management. Having a set schedule, one that works for you, does not only help you to avoid the dreaded “all-nighter,” but it can also make the writing process more enjoyable, which helps to improve your writing as a whole.

Now that you have your time scheduled, you have found a place that feels good to be and write in, its time to start. The first step is often outlining. Kallestinova notes, “This outline will be similar to a template for your paper. Initially, the outline will form a structure for your paper; it will help you generate ideas and formulate hypotheses” (182). The outline described here is different from the traditional idea of an outline. Often we think of the outline as just a plan for the paper. This outlining is more active. It allows you a space to brainstorm and take notes. One way I like to do this is through “double-entry note taking.” While this sounds like some complex method, it is just the process of taking notes with a couple extra pens. The way this takes shape for me is I use three pens (three different colors): one for page numbers and quotes, one for why these are significant or how I plan to use them, and finally one for questions I have or tangential ideas. Some of the time these notes make their way directly into my writing.

So, you have all your outlining and note taking done, your writing schedule (rather than a chore) has become comfortable, and so now it is time to get that paper written. At this point, I sometimes find myself not feeling ready. I have pages and pages of notes, I have written and rewritten my outlines, but nevertheless I just cannot get the words on the page. Typically, I have the feeling that I just haven’t read enough, or that I still need to read, or find, that one (more) perfect source. It is important to remember all the work you have done up to this point. You have put in the time and are ready to write that paper. The process of research and writing research papers is an act of joining the “scholarly discussion.” As the writer, you become a voice in the conversation that you have been listening to (in research) and forming your ideas about. Your goal is to make your voice heard in the conversation, not to end it. This means that, at a point, you have to realize that your paper will not be perfect, or answer every question. You are helping a conversation continue, contributing new and exciting ideas, and providing fertile spaces for others to respond to your ideas and questions.

PS: You can do it!

Kallestinova, Elena D. “How to Write Your First Research Paper.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, vol. 84, 2011, pp. 181-190.

On the Road to Writing, It’s Okay to Stop and Ask for Directions

Mitzi Phelan, consultant

Have you experienced getting into your car, and while driving to a familiar destination you start thinking about all the things you need to do, or even just start daydreaming? Suddenly, you snap back to the present and realize you are at your intended location but Mitzihave no recollection of the actual drive. It’s amazing how we can become so familiar with the way we do something that we can actually can execute the activity on autopilot. Our brains are amazing objects that can run millions of processes at once. While one “system” is working through our schedule, another is thinking about summer vacation, and yet another is executing turns down familiar streets (hopefully one is watching for pedestrians). When the path we are navigating is so familiar to us, we can easily “switch off” and let the brain make all the decisions in default mode. But, if we are checked out of the process, are we really getting the best experience?

I gave the above example as a way to talk about the process of writing. By the time you have reached the level in academia where you would be interested in reading this blogpost, you have most likely been asked to do a lot of writing. Often, we are given a writing task and, just like driving, we set our brain to autopilot, or “writing mode,” and let come what may. We see our end destination (our “completed writing task”), hop in our mental smart cars, activate cruise control, and are on our way. The problem with this is that we only have one way of getting to the destination programmed into our mental maps. When we only allow for only one way of doing things, we ultimately produce the same type of writing, just with different topics. This doesn’t only apply to class papers–we can fall into the same rut with our creative writing as well.

To be completely honest, in the busy world of academia, writing on autopilot is convenient. It always gets us safely to our destination and conserves our valuable brain energy for the thousands of other demands that come on a daily basis. However, it does not help us develop into better writers. To produce better work, we have to mentally show up for the process. We have to switch off the autopilot and challenge ourselves to consider that there are valuable alternative routes to getting to our final destinations. Understand, however, that the goal in switching off autopilot and taking control of the wheel is not necessarily to get to the destination more quickly, although that may happen, but rather to truly immerse yourself in the writing process and gain insight to tools that you may be missing out on.

If you are like me, my cruise control looks like this: I get an idea for a paper, lock on to it with a death grip, think about it until the night before its due, word vomit on the paper, and then spend the wee hours of the morning its due making revisions. This process works for me and I am comfortable with it; however, I have realized that I am cheating myself out of being a better writer by not exploring other processes. Recently I have been trying to add practices that other writers use into my repertoire. I started with reverse outlining, now I’m committing myself to writing down my favorite thesis and then writing two more possible theses that either invert or challenge the original as a way to enhance my critical thinking of the topic. This has been immensely beneficial and has positively affected my writing skills.

If you feel like your writing has become stale, or that you are not meeting your full potential as a writer, I challenge you to see if you are still in the driver’s seat. Consider pulling out your old writing guidebooks and going back to the basics. Look to other writers for inspiration. Take time to go through the process. You’ll be amazed at how much of the beautiful scenery you have been missing.

How I Write: Katherine Massoth

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.

Katherine Massoth is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History. She received her PhD and Master’s from the University of Iowa and Bachelor’s degrees from the Katherine MassothUniversity of California at Irvine. Her research specialty is the history of women and gender in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. As a historian of the Americas, she teaches history courses on women and gender, borderlands, the American West, and chicanx/latinx studies. Her most recent publication analyzes how women’s cookbooks became a borderland for defining the appropriate type of “Mexican” food that could be incorporated into U.S. appetite – “‘Mexican Cookery that belongs to the United States’: Evolving Boundaries of Whiteness in New Mexican Kitchens,” in the edited volume Food Across Borders, Rutgers University Press, 2017.

Location: Louisville, Kentucky

Current project: I am currently revising my doctoral dissertation into a book manuscript. I am writing a history of women’s domestic and private lives in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, specifically Arizona and New Mexico. The project reconstructs how women, across ethnic groups, reacted to the transition from Mexican to U.S. control after the U.S. colonized the region in 1848. I am trying to retell the larger political history of the transition of power by focusing on women’s lives, such as their cooking, housekeeping and childrearing. I argue that these daily activities tell us more about the larger political process because we see how women were (or were not) affected.

Currently reading: Karen Roybal’s Archives of Dispossession: Recovering the Testimonios of Mexican American Herederas, 1848–1960 and Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing. I am also reading Julian Lim’s Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands to review for an academic journal.

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

I write non-fiction/history. I am currently focusing on revising, which I am slowly learning is a completely different type of writing than putting words down. It is more than proofreading or reorganizing. Revising a dissertation to a book manuscript is a process they do not teach in graduate school and is completely daunting because there are no advisers hovering or demanding words. It also means taking a piece of work that I thought was complete and reworking the piece not from a blank slate but from 350 pages. I spend most of my writing time on thinking and less on writing. Right now, I am focusing on how to restructure my narrative, condense sections, cut dissertation jargon, and tell a cohesive and engaging history. I am also trying to find my voice. While writing my dissertation, my voice got lost because I had to follow the strict dissertation guidelines and provide background and theory to establish my study. Now that I have defended the value of this history, I can focus on telling it in my own style.

2. When/where/how do you write?

My writing location depends on where I am in the process. If I am revising or brainstorming, I tend I write in coffee shops with the ambient noise of people shuffling about. If I am putting fresh words down, I typically need to be alone in the library or my office. Most of my writing takes place in the afternoon, evening, or even late at night. I have never been a morning writer. I have to get all my tasks done before I can write. Otherwise, I am distracted. I write on my computer but I outline in a spiral notebook and take notes on hardcopies of my writing. I typically print out what I have written and make notes on the paper then I take it to the computer.

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

I need my writing uniform – leggings and a baggy sweater and shawl. My headphones are an absolute necessity because I listen to my “writing music” playlist of some tunes that I am so familiar with that they become ambient noise in the background. I wrote my entire dissertation listening to Sylvan Esso and Bon Iver on a loop. I also need my water Massoth Writing Spacebottle, coffee, computer, research and archival files, and notes. I have a set of erasable colored pens, one black pen, and a pencil that I always have. Each writing implement has a different purpose in my process. I also need time. I never developed the ability to write in short intervals. If I do not have at least 2 hours for writing, then I cannot sit down and do it. I like to dedicate large chunks of time to the process so I do not feel harried.

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

I am a tactile person – I have to touch things to process fully everything. When I find it difficult to revise, cut words or repetition, or reorder sections, I print out the document or paragraph. Then I cut each sentence apart or cut each paragraph apart. I lay out the pieces on the floor and just start piecing everything together like a puzzle. This works for cutting sentences because if when I am done I find one sentence lying to the side, then I know it was not necessary. This is especially useful for finding where I repeat myself. If I am reworking a larger section, I often find that once I take the paragraphs out of the full document the structure completely changes. I often suggest this to students who have a difficult time revising because it takes the pressure of a word document off. It also works because it does not feel permanent.

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

Make writing an appointment in your calendar just like a doctor’s appointment or meeting, and stick to it. Do not schedule anything during that time and if people ask for that time, say you have an appointment. During that appointment, set a maximum of three goals to achieve. If you achieve all three, then great, and if you achieve only one, then you know what you are working on next time. Then when your appointment is done, make your three goals for the next session so you know where you are starting.

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Write About Something Weird

Beau Kilpatrick, consultant

As a consultant at the University Writing Center, I have noticed a trend among many writers, including myself. The trend is that writers tend to struggle more with writing when there is a lack of connection between the individual and the content.Beau

Allow me to explain. We have all had moments when we are writing an essay for a class where the interest level is nearly nonexistent. Perhaps this has happened to you when you were a member of the class because it fulfilled a requirement, the class isn’t what you thought it was going to be, or you just simply lost interest about halfway through. This is a dangerous place to be when midterm essays quickly approach.

My own experiences with writing have been very gratifying. I have always practiced the philosophy that you have to understand your identity as a writer. For example, I know that I am argumentative by nature and I enjoy exposing the weirdness of a text. Also, if you trudge through boring topics long enough, you’re bound to stumble upon something interesting; but you have to keep your eyes open.

When a writer finds out how to make a topic interesting, that’s when the writing becomes much easier. It’s always easier to write about the things we enjoy or that interests us. For me, I enjoy exploring the abstract or grotesque in a text.

The best thing that I found to do in these situations is to make a connection, no matter how vague it may be, and channel your writing through that commonality. For instance, if you happen to find yourself dreading an essay for a Shakespeare class, try to find the one thing that is most interesting to you about the content that you’re working with. If you realize that a man wearing tights with a ruffled shirt is the most interesting facet of a Shakespeare play, then find a way to channel your thoughts through that frame of reference. Perhaps this will inspire you to write about Victorian fashion, gender roles at the Globe Theatre, or costume design and functionality during the theatrical fight scenes of Hamlet. This is just one example of how you can usually find some way to bend a boring topic into an interesting one.

The first step that I take when examining a text is to find contradictions and paradoxes. Once I have found the weak spot in the armor, I know where to attack. The next step is to figure out how to confront the text/author respectfully. Attacking a weakness makes writing easier and more exciting, but you must do so with class. Also, finding a good amount of sources will help in figuring out the right approach. Next, highlighting key passages of a secondary source, and annotating it, will make the writing much easier because you can essentially use your summary of the source in your paper. Once you have all of these things ready to go, it’s time to outline. I like to state the contradiction at the top of my outline and make a list of different ways to approach my target. Finally, I expand on all these points and find ways to link them together into a cohesive essay.

To sum it all up, find something weirdly fascinating about the text, relate it to your own interest, and explore the obscure. Don’t forget to create an outline with all of the odd topics you want to explore.

 

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” (Hunter S. Thompson).

A (Sort of) Defense of Procrastination

Isaac Marvel, consultant

For those of us in school, midterms are around the corner, or here in full force—the easygoing start of the semester, though it seemed so busy at the time, now feels like an almost forgotten dream. For me at least, this means a constant, looming presence of too Isaacmany papers, presentations, bibliographies, and so forth. Psychologically speaking, this kind of nonstop stress can be almost unbearable. So, I deal with it the same way everyone else does: just trying not to think about it. And for some reason, nothing feels as good to put off as writing. I may not be in the majority here, but I never really minded studying a bit for tests, or practicing presentations. But writing, satisfying as it may be, is a different kind of mentally exhausting. It requires all of this creativity and self-awareness, so I can never just auto-pilot my way through it. So, I procrastinate.

I’ve been avoiding the P-word, as its use has almost become cliché in college circles. There’s a reason for that: pretty much everyone does it. Is that a problem? I’m not sure. Organizational psychologist Dr. Piers Steel discusses here the primary criticism of procrastination: you’re lying to yourself. We tell ourselves that we need that adrenaline rush to get work done, or that we’re perfectionists and just don’t want to start before we know what we’re doing. And yeah, that’s a problem. So, Dr. Steel offers a partial solution: open communication about our motivations for procrastinating. If you’re putting off writing because you’re not sure you can write such a difficult paper, or even because you just despise writing, start by being honest about that.

In fact, I would go a step further than Dr. Steel, and say that sometimes procrastinating is the right call. So much of the time I, and I believe others as well, feel like you’re supposed to be in a constant state of productivity, or else you’re just wasting time. Then I feel guilty about not doing anything, so my mental health begins to suffer, and lo and behold, nothing gets done. It’s very much a self-perpetuating cycle, and writers understand this better than anyone. There are constant deadlines for us to meet, true. But maybe if we just told ourselves that, hey, maybe it’s okay to not be doing something every second of our life, then that could lead to a state of mind that can be honest with itself about why we wanted to procrastinate so badly in the first place. If I can’t find a way to take care of myself emotionally, I usually make life infinitely more difficult for myself. So, sometimes I just need to take some time for myself. Accepting that without guilt is a struggle, but I think reaching that level of acceptance is necessary if we’re going to learn how to manage our time.

How I Write: Kristi Maxwell

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.

Kristi MaxwellKristi Maxwell is an Assistant Professor of English and a mentor in the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program. She’s the author of six books of poetry, including Realm Sixty-fourHush Sessions, and Bright and Hurtless, forthcoming from Ahsahta Press in Sept.

Location: Schnitzelburg, Louisville

Current project: A book of poems, an article about end-words in poetry, and a book chapter about eating animals at Disney World

Currently reading: Amy Lawless’ Broadax, Robert Sheppard’s The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, and Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book

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

Poems, poetry scholarship, marginalia, texts, emails

2. When/where/how do you write?

I prefer to write in bed or reclined on my couch. My mind feels brightest when I’m lying in bed, “trying” to fall asleep, so I often start pieces or solve a writing problem late at night or early in the morning. I’ve been writing a lot of poems on my iPhone lately, in Notes: I like how it’s helping me engage the poetic line in a fresh way. When I’m working on an essay, I like to use Post-its so I can map the piece out on a wall to visualize it better, see connections, and figure out organization.

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

It’s not a necessity, but I do prefer to write with a Pilot Precise V5 Roller Ball Pen in an Apica CD-11 notebooks. I like quiet spaces with natural light or lamplight—no music, no fluorescent lights.

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

Reading always jumpstarts my thinking and writing, so I recommend opening a book and putting eye to word.

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

Don’t treat your writing as precious—be willing to revise radically, let go of things that aren’t working, or experiment. It can help to name documents  “draft 1,” “draft 2,” “draft 3,” so you know you can always return to an earlier version.

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A Thin Line Between Love and [Redacted]

Brent Coughenour, consultant

Someone once told me—it could’ve been my very wise mother—that every song we heard on the radio was about love, or something like it. This was around the time that the songs “Cry Me A River,” Justin Timberlake singing sardonically about his lost love Brentwith Britney Spears, and “Everytime,” Spears’ response to Timberlake, were all over the air waves. Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” appeared prominently in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird, a film very much about the love between a mother and her daughter, creating this circle of overlapping Items-of-Popular-Culture-About-Love. Love (or lost love) figures so prominently in our day-to-day intake of pop culture that, when you really sit and think about it, it’s a little odd that we dedicate an entire holiday to it like it’s some kind of prominent mythical deity. Valentine’s Day, which falls in 2018 on a Wednesday—this Wednesday!—is so ubiquitous to American culture that it isn’t surprising to us when parades of red and pink, often accompanied with an uncomfortable amount of hearts, invade our department store aisles pretty much the day after Christmas. This year, I’ve taken some time to reflect about the pervasive nature of love and I ask myself the question: what do we talk about when we talk about love? (A shameless reference, sorry.)

Even if we avoid using that terrifying word “love with a capital L,” it’s hard to avoid feeling, especially when we sit down to write. An oft-repeated mantra in creative writing is “write about what you know.” This can certainly be limiting, and there are numerous variations on the prompt, but it can be particularly helpful to do this when you’re stuck on something. American short story writer Raymond Carver did this often: he was an alcoholic who had been divorced, so he wrote characters who were alcoholic and who had been divorced. This is what Carver knew in his life, but it is also what he loved, as he wrote about often in autobiographical essays. Carver stayed so strictly within these realistic guidelines that he set for himself because he could write about them, and write about them well. This leads into something that I tell writers in any kind of brainstorming that we work on in the Writing Center: if you have been given freedom to write about whatever you want then that’s awesome, you can write about what you know! And more often than not, something that the writers know is something that they love, at least in a roundabout sort of way—and it’s fun to write when filled with love!

Even if they don’t love a topic, though, writers can probably write strongly about something that lies on the other end of the spectrum. The emotion on the other end—which is equally powerful but shall remain unnamed here because, c’mon, this is a Valentine’s Day-themed blog post—can also elicit some pretty strong emotions, which can lead to some powerful writing. True crime authors do this often; it’s not likely they love the often horrific things they’re writing about, but these stories bring from them such a wide array of wicked emotions that give them the urge and the drive to write about something and keep writing. Going even further I’d wager to say that, in many cases, the emotion of love and the emotion of [redacted] are conflated with one another. Carver was probably not too happy that he was a divorced alcoholic, and in fact may have really not liked this fact about himself, but it made him who he was and it eventually led him to the life that he loved for himself where he could write feely (and probably drink, too) with his second wife. Greta Gerwig has spoken about not being so happy with the relationship she had with her mother when she was a teenager, yet undoubtedly love was there too, and that relationship was the genesis of Lady Bird which has now yielded her two Oscar nominations (and you should see that film, because it’s wonderful). If a writer is writing an argumentative essay in the Writing Center, I’ll often tell them that it’s great to write about something that really irritates them—it’s fun to write when filled with anger!

Loving something you write about can be important, but it’s also important to love the writing process. These two things ideally go hand in hand, and I personally find it difficult to do one without the other. Love is a peculiar emotion—it’s overused and trite, unique and effervescent, and sometimes true love can only be directed at furry critters like the two cats staring at me while I write this. Still, love or something like it (like [redacted emotion]) is an incredibly strong feeling, and one that can elicit some really skillful writing. This Valentine’s Day take in the love that you receive from others, but, if you’re feeling [redacted emotion], that’s okay too. Be like Raymond Carver and write about both feelings, because they go hand-in-hand and both are vital to a healthy love of writing. But don’t be an alcoholic. Consider that your Valentine’s Day Public Service Announcement.

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.

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