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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.

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

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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.

The Writing Center Diaries: Dispelling Myths About Journaling

Rachel Knowles, Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

“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!

Getting Started with Genre

Isaac Marvel, Consultant

Back in the 70’s Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier were working together on Marathon Man, which is a pretty intense, thriller type of film. Before the filming of a Isaacscene in which his character had apparently been kept awake for 72 hours, Hoffman decided that he too would stay up for three days, the idea being that this would help him get into the mind of his character—Hoffman was quite the method actor. Upon hearing this and witnessing Hoffman’s exhausted state, Olivier confronted him and asked “My dear boy… Have you tried acting?”

As Mary-Kate mentioned in “Writing as a Medium,” writing is not necessarily this art that requires this Hoffmanesque kind of inspiration. You needn’t spend days mentally fortifying yourself and getting into the head of your audience. Olivier’s implication of how acting operates is a much more effective example of the writing process—it’s a craft that one learns over time, with practice.

Therefore, this leads to the big question: “If writing is a craft, how can I improve my craftsmanship?” The first step is, essentially, just start writing! As Tim discussed in his blog post last week, creativity is a grind: “The best way of fighting through it is committing to fighting through it.” Wearing yourself out yearning for inspiration will likely only result in nothing being written, possibly serving even as a justification for procrastination. To go back to the example of Hoffman and Olivier, yes, Dustin Hoffman is a world-renowned actor, but so is Laurence Olivier, and he managed this without staying up for days at a time!

On the other hand, ensuring that your writing is effective is also vital—“just starting to write” may be the first step, but it isn’t the only step. After all, there’s no point in writing if you end up throwing away all of your drafts. Thus, one’s mentality is key: you need to be keeping your audience in mind as you write. Similarly, one trick that can make this process easier for you is learning the genre expected of you. Simply stated, expectations are going to vary wildly depending on what genre you’re working with—are you working on a research paper, a novel, or a tweet? Learn the conventions of that style and you’ll find yourself writing like a pro in no time.

So how, you might ask, can one go about learning said conventions? Honestly, my first step would usually be Google; you’ll find innumerable examples of what to do and what not to do. Possibly too many examples, in fact—it can be difficult to sort through and figure out which sources are credible and which should be disregarded. At that point, I would recommend coming to the University Writing Center, as our consultants have a wide range of backgrounds in different genres, and the odds are very, very good that we’ll be able to help. Alternatively, if you’re working on a school assignment, odds are that you can ask your professor about examples and about what’s expected of you. Regardless of what you choose, or what you’re working on, learning your genre is key to successful writing.

Creative by Choice: Persevering through Doubts and Droughts

Tim Phelps, Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works cited:

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

Writing as a Medium

Mary-Kate Smith, Consultant

Writing as a Medium

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

Writing as ArtMary-Kate Smith

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

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

Writing as Utilitarian

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

Writing in Academia

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

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