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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.

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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.”

Brent’s Spooky and Scary Tips to Make Writing Not So Spooky and Scary

Brent Coughenour, Consultant

I pulled up to the red light, slowly, and my brakes squeaked more than usual due to the thin layer of rainwater still on the ground from today’s shower. It was late, and Brianna and I were belting out Prince’s “When Doves Cry” as it played in my car’s stereo; actually, it was probably Prince’s fault that neither of us noticed the man approaching my passenger-side Brentdoor, his eyes set on her. She turned and met his gaze before I did, and I felt the car shake when she jumped. Brianna yelped, and I looked over just as the man bent down to get a closer look into the car. He was bearded—a misshapen and half-shaved beard, but a beard nonetheless—and wore a dark pair of coveralls like some sort of blue collar worker would. He spoke to us—at us—but we couldn’t hear what he was saying; it almost looked like he were lip-syncing the Prince song, which was still playing as I had been too shocked to turn it off: “maybe I’m just like my father, too bold.”

“He’s trying to get in,” Brianna said, her voice soft and breathless, her eyes never breaking away from the man.

I shook my head and tried to remain calm. “No. He’ll go away.” I looked up to the light and silently pleaded for it to turn green.

Almost on cue, the man broke eye contact with Brianna and slipped back from the car. She sighed with relief, but I kept my eyes on him. Although he backed up from the window slightly, he came again to the car and slithered towards the rear passenger door.

As he reached his hand out to the door handle, I couldn’t remember if I had locked the doors….

 

Real life is scary. The above anecdote actually happened to me, and, although it’s not likely that my severed head would have ended up on that dude’s mantel, it scared me nonetheless. Still, I have an outlet that I can channel my fear, my insecurities, my thoughts, and my (unwanted?) opinions through: the written word. Writing is also scary, but it doesn’t have to be.

It often feels like writing is an impossible task—any kind of writing, not just academic. In the past I’ve read Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing,” Stephen King’s It, Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, and Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me and thought to myself: wow Brent, you’re never going to be as good a writer as these Kings and Queens, why are you even trying? But Past Brent missed the point. It isn’t possible to write like Stephen King. I am not Stephen King, I’m Brent, and I should write like Brent, finding my own voice and narrative direction, and, although I can try my hardest to emulate my favorite writers, I have to write what I can and stay true to myself. That sounds like a cheesy line from a John Hughes film, but it’s true. The greatest advice I ever received was from my undergraduate creative writing professor Dr. Rebbecca Brown: “write about what you don’t know about what you know.” Trust me, it isn’t as convoluted as it sounds.

The second best advice I ever received was from almost everyone else who has taught me the art of writing: “just write, darn it.” This is the tip that I typically apply to my own academic writing, and it’s also one that I typically prescribe to writers that enter the University Writing Center looking for help. Academic writing is daunting; in our position as college students, it can be easy to think that everything must be a certain way and everything must sound exactly the same. Although there is some truth to this, it’s not a myth that I subscribe to and it isn’t one that I follow. The fear of not fulfilling the requirements, or not writing as well as everyone else, is one that can absolutely cripple the motivation, the drive, and the desire to write something. Fears like this create the dreaded and infuriatingly capitalized Writer’s Block, and derail the entire process. My advice? Write and write and write. If you’ve been given a specific prompt and perhaps aren’t too familiar or comfortable with the assignment, write out what you can and get your thoughts, opinions, and knowledge down on paper. If you’re able to choose your own paper topic, lucky you! Pick something that interests you, like something in your own academic field, and tackle it head-on. Go until you can’t go anymore, and then bring it to the Writing Center and ask specifically for Nicole Dugan to help you out (because she’s a better writer than I am).

Writing is scary, man. I picked the above four works of literature to use as examples because, in their own special way, they terrify me. Whether I’m reading about Ted Bundy or the death of a child, I respond when it’s something that frightens me and puts me wholly out of my element, and I’ve found that I write better when something is challenging me as well. I’ll leave you with two more things to keep in mind. One, reading and writing go hand in hand. If you want to be a strong writer, be it academic writing or creative writing, you’ve got to keep reading. Find something you find interesting, or an author you enjoy, and read whatever you can find. And lastly, as good a writer as you are now or will become, realize that we’ll never be as good as future Nobel Laureates 2 Chainz and Kanye West because we didn’t write “Birthday Song,” which I’ll paraphrase below: when I die, bury me inside the Writing Center.

When to Walk Away: Taking a Break in the Process

Reid Elsea, Consultant

You have finished your fourth cup (pot) of coffee. It is probably late at night (early in the morning by now), and the paper is due in a few hours. This, as we all know, is not the ideal way to write a paper, and we tell ourselves every time (promise ourselves), this will be the last time.

The pressure of the “now or never” situation helps me overcome a writer’s block, Reidbecause I have a deadline to meet. However, when I begin a project with plenty of time to brainstorm, outline, draft, and revise, I often find it more difficult to start. I think this is a common problem that leads many of us to wait until the last minute to put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard). As Tim pointed out in his earlier blog post, sometimes the best approach is to just write. Good, bad, or ugly. I find this to be a helpful strategy in my own writing, but it brings with it another block. Just like before, I am caffeinated far beyond the suggested daily limit, and staring at my writing. Often I will like what I have written, but I will have no idea where to go next, how to conclude, or where to begin making it into a final draft. I find this type of writer’s block as frustrating and difficult as the process of getting started.

One technique I have found works best for me in this situation (when time allows) is to save the document, close my computer, and walk away. Sometimes I don’t walk far, just to the couch to put on some Netflix and zone out. Other times I walk right out the door and don’t stop for a bit. I’ll walk around the block or to the park nearby. What is important, for me, is to not be looking at my writing in this time. This is a time I welcome distraction. Whether it is TV, a walk, music, or calling a friend on the phone to have a chat, I find disengaging from the writing for a time helps me to refocus on what it is I am doing. I am sure we have all started a paper with one idea, and then ended with a very different one. This isn’t a problem, but rather it is a discovery. The final idea likely does not reflect your original thesis; however, it may be the case (as it often is in my writing) that it takes me a while to get where I want to go.

This is the perfect opportunity to walk away. While it is cliché, I often find the ideas I was in search of in the shower. This is not always the case, but, like any other kind of “walking away,” you are looking for something where it is not (another time honored cliché). What is important is not the location, but the mindset. And so, I will leave you with the words of Marcus Aurelius on getting away in one’s own self: “So keep getting away from it all— like that. Renew yourself” (Meditations 37).

 

Work Cited

Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, 2003.

“Learning to Dwell” or Locating Yourself in Academia

Nicole Dugan, Consultant

I tend to dwell, most often in a 7th grade memory in which I dramatically fell in the lunchroom and watched the contents of my tray fly up into the air before landing on top of me. I can feel the heat rising to my face and hear the guffaws of my friends, the slow clap that built as I picked myself up. It’s been over ten years since this happened, but my Nicolebrain likes to periodically revisit this moment. This seems to be the sort of mental dwelling most of us do, and we are usually trying to escape that memory rather than relive it a hundred times. Embarrassing memories from 7th grade are not the most pleasant places to dwell, and we don’t think of them as useful. However, dwelling can be productive if placed in the right context.

Dwelling as I illustrate above, cognitively dwelling or ruminating, is most often perceived as negative. Our brains run down paths that we seemingly cannot control, but the act of dwelling can be a positive and useful tool in the writing process. In terms of creative writing, the people, moments, ideas, places that repeatedly pull our attention can become inspiration for stories and poetry if we’re willing to put it down on the page. In one of our previous posts, Tim talked about having the “willingness to embrace the discomfort of labor” in order to persevere through the challenges of writing and creativity. Writing is indeed a labor, regardless of how long one has practiced it. Yet, from an outsider’s perspective, many writers seem to glide through a process that is so intimidating and uncomfortable to most of us.

Cognitive dwelling is not only a momentary jaunt down memory lane, but also a potential kind of residence. In Geographies of Writing, Nedra Reynolds explores the ways that space and spatial practices interact with the process of writing, and she spends a chapter on “learning to dwell.” Those that seem to have the upper hand in navigating the writing process appear this way because they “know where the bullies hang out and where the best curry is” (Reynolds 163). They have, as Reynolds would say, inhabited writing long enough to time the best routes and avoid traffic. The realm of academic writing can be a scary place, and this is often because we are surrounded by people who have lived there much longer than we have. When I moved to Louisville at the beginning of August, I had to find my new favorite place for greasy breakfast food (still haven’t found it) and which Kroger I like best (the one on New Cut Rd.) before I felt like I actually lived here. Entering academic conversations requires writers to have this same kind of insider knowledge, and “dwelling doesn’t happen when people feel excluded or that they don’t belong” (Reynolds 163). Deciding what to write about, finding resources, putting together an outline, and writing the first draft is like navigating a city where you don’t know which roads are one-ways or where you can pull a U-turn. However, Reynolds would argue something else: The writer of a text is an “owner or dweller,” while readers are “visitors or transients” (166). You, as the writer, are creating a map for the people who are reading your paper or personal essay; whether the reader gets lost or successfully finds the destination is completely in your control. This means you get to decide the rules, even if you’re fulfilling an assignment.

Dwelling begins before you create the physical text, even before the research. An idea sparks, and you spend the next few hours, days, or weeks, depending on the project’s timeline, turning it over in your head. Will it work for the assignment? Is it researchable? Is it even a good idea? I do my best writing when I can take something I’m already passionate about and turn it into a project. In a way, I take parts of the places I already dwell in and put them into an academic context. Like Beau discusses in his post, your hobbies or the music and television shows you like can help you feel more comfortable with writing. Even better, you can pull down the perceived barrier between those things you love and your academic writing. We often separate our lives, feeling like the different places and communities we inhabit are in boxes rather than a cohesive map of our identities. If we want to become successful inhabitants of academia, allowing the parts of our identities that are seemingly incompatible with academia gives us a way in, a chance “to orient [ourselves] when in an unfamiliar place” (Reynolds 168).

We all dwell, on those embarrassing memories, the television show we binged this past weekend, or a looming deadline. In order to dwell in the manner of inhabiting a space, we have to locate ourselves within the bigger picture or place ourselves in that picture. It’s not always a matter of “finding” your voice in your writing, but allowing the voice you’ve always had to make space in the work you’re doing in the classroom.

 

Works Cited

Reynolds, Nedra. “Learning to Dwell: Inhabiting Spaces and Discourses.” Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. UP Southern Illinois, 2004, pp.139-177.

Keaton’s Adventures in Letter Writing

Keaton Price, Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hobbies make writing fun and reading never hurts either

Beau Kilpatrick, Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Christopher Stuck, Assistant Director of the Virtual Writing Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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