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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.

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All Pathos All the Time: In Pursuit of Credibility in a Post-Truth World

Taryn Hall, consultant

Last week in the University Writing Center, I had the pleasure to work with a writer on a paper which I’ve been thinking a lot about since. The paper was considering the role of education in the post-truth era, a term which I’ve heard before, but hadn’t fully Tarynconsidered the gravity of its meaning. Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year, post-truth refers generally to the idea that facts have become less significant in the public opinion—and in policy making—than political appeals to emotion (Wang). It’s a pretty postmodern idea, right? Objectivity (and reality, maybe) seems to mean little in terms of our relationship to what we stand for as voters and what we look for in our elected officials. This consultation took place on the morning after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and like many of us, I felt the weight of that event like I have many times before. The empty emotional appeals, rather than actionable plans, that I was seeing on social media from politicians and citizens alike perhaps made me sensitive to the conversation I had with the writer, but I left the consultation really thinking about the idea of the post-truth world and our place within it.

The tendrils of post-truth have seeped into further corners of our consciousness than solely the ways in which we connect with politics, however. That emotional appeals are given greater weight than truth is often evident in the work we do as writers and thinkers. Here at UofL, we’ve reached a point in our semester where many of our English 101 and 102 classes are working on either annotated bibliographies or rhetorical analyses. When I work with these students in the UWC, I often find that these assignments are their first experiences delving into secondary sources or examining the rhetorical moves of authors. While I’m sure that professors do an excellent job of preparing students to look beyond the emotional appeals in pursuit of the ethos of their source authors, I still occasionally find myself reading drafts which are predicated on the emotional response a piece elicited from them. Maybe a student didn’t trust the validity of a source because it was arguing for something that they personally don’t believe in, or they have chosen a news article which came from a definitely-not-credible corner of the internet because the emotional appeals made it easier to connect to and thus write about. It’s challenging, though rewarding, to help students learn what it means to find appropriate sources for academic work, but I think my job as a tutor working during this post-truth era is larger. I want to help writers develop their own authorial ethos.

Ethos, in academic writing, is generally used in reference to the credibility of the author: Who are they? How do their credentials affect the authenticity of their argument? As one of Aristotle’s appeals, ethos is an essential concept for those who are working on a rhetorical analysis. Most students learn to interpret the ethos of the authors of their sources, yet sometimes it seems like we don’t teach students to consider their own ethos as they write. You establish your credibility by citing sources, of course, but there’s more to it than that. As Tim noted in his blog post a couple of weeks ago, we are always engaged in manipulation in writing; you couldn’t persuade anyone if you weren’t, yet we have a responsibility to use that manipulation ethically. We do this by privileging facts over blatant or underhanded emotional appeals and by vetting our sources consistently and appropriately. Ultimately, it seems that our duty as learners—and citizens—is to help make this post-truth world a little more truthful.

Work Cited

Wang, Amy B. “‘Post-truth’ Named 2016 Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries.” Washington Post, 16 Nov. 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/16/post-truth-named-2016-word-of-the-year-by-oxford-dictionaries/?utm_term=.4d3811168f02.

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.

Giving Voice to Dirty Words

Tim Phelps, Consultant

In 1991, an era still rampant with fears and misinformation about HIV and AIDS, the hip-hop group Salt-n-Pepa released a song called “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which celebratedTim Phelps safe and responsible sex through healthy and honest communication.  The song found success, not only for its catchy beat, but for its unashamed use of the word “sex” itself—the message being that the only useful way of handling the subject was to talk about it clearly and openly.  “Let’s Talk About Sex” argued that the first step in tackling a difficult subject was to not be afraid to say its name.

In that frame of mind, we should consider another word that can also bring up difficult conversation, one that is sometimes considered a dirty word.  It’s a word that really deserves a fair chance, and one that we can’t ignore if we are going to improve our writing.

Let’s talk about manipulation.

Yes, I’m about to argue that manipulation can be a good thing.  I know, I know.  The word has a pretty tough connotation to overcome from the start—it automatically brings about all the negative experiences we’ve had with bosses, parents, friends, and significant others.  If we hear a description of someone being called “manipulative,” we automatically know we don’t want to be around that person.

But if we can distance the word from its negative associations for a moment, we’ll see that almost everything we do is manipulation.  Looking at the professor while you’re really thinking about what to have for lunch?  Using certain words around your friends that you wouldn’t use around your grandma?  Wearing nice clothes, or putting on makeup, or fixing your hair before you go out in public (even though your three-days-dirty pajama pants would be super comfortable while sitting in class)?  These are all manipulative, and we are doing this all the time.  What I hope you’re beginning to understand is that manipulation is not automatically negative.  Plenty of our day-to-day lives are filled with us manipulating each other, and most of the time, we wouldn’t be able to say it’s exactly bad.  While there are certainly nefarious and selfish uses of manipulation, it all boils down to how it’s used.

Manipulation is crucial for quality writing.  If we can’t find ways of manipulating our various audiences, then we simply won’t be effective with our arguments.  We usually talk about manipulation in high school or college English classes using nicer words such as ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos, but rarely recognize these persuasive appeals for what they really are.  Writers who can expertly deliver what the reader needs to hear at that certain moment can convince others of almost anything.  To write well is to have control over your message, and to have power over your audience.

As I’ve said before, this shouldn’t imply an automatic negative connotation.  Sure, I could potentially use that power and control for my own selfish needs.  Or, consider the alternative: I could use that power and control to fight for what’s right in the world, to help people up when they are down, to support the emotional, physical, and financial goals of those I care for.

In order to do that, in order to have even a chance at that positive power, we have to be willing to consider our writing from our audience’s viewpoint—ideally, a viewpoint that does not agree with us.  By taking this approach, we can start to see where our efficiency breaks down, where changing the organization of logic makes it easier to follow, where adding an emotional appeal might make it easier for that audience to agree.  As you practice more and more, you’ll find individual words that could make all the difference between success and failure.  This becomes just as true for writing that isn’t even (technically) an argument.  If I’m reading fiction or a poem, I still need convincing that what I’m reading is worth my time.

None of these skills are easy as a writer, but we can begin by not being afraid to admit that effective writing is really just effective manipulation.  Salt-n-Pepa manipulated a new generation positively by giving voice to a word that plenty of households considered a dirty topic at the time.  Once we reach the same step of awareness with manipulation, we can experiment with ways of making our manipulation stronger, and by extension, our writing more powerful.

“Words with Friends” and Other Ways to Write Outside the Classroom

Keaton Price, Consultant

I’ve recently started playing the game “Words with Friends” with one of my coworkers and I’m obsessed. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the game, this app can be added to your phone and allows you to play a form of electronic Scrabble with Keatonwhomever you like. You can play with a stranger or one of your close friends, but be prepared to become addicted to this game of strategy. I’ve spent many nights playing until 1 am, a feat that is exhilarating in the moment but I ultimately regret when I have to be up early in the morning…

Not only has this game taught me many new words (who knew “qi” will not only get you at least 11 points on “Words with Friends” but also refers to “the circulating life force whose existence and properties are the basis of much Chinese philosophy and medicine”), but it has also made me start to think about the many forms of writing that people use outside of academia. Writing isn’t just something that you do in school. As Rachel discussed in her blog post, some people use journals or diaries to keep track of events in their lives. Beau too commented on his passion for journalism and how he continues to explore this area of writing outside the classroom by writing articles on sporting events at UofL. I play “Words with Friends” and not only have built up my vocabulary but also use this “academic” game as an excuse to avoid doing homework.

I feel like having a space outside of academia to do some writing is quite beneficial. Writing can be a healthy way to explore your passions or try and make sense of the world around you. It seems like a lot of the time people only associate writing negatively with school assignments, but there are so many other avenues that can allow you to see writing as a fun activity. And technology has only added more spaces for people to explore their writing abilities. Now people create blogs where they detail their hobbies and others use Twitter or Facebook posts to contribute to conversations that concern their areas of interest. The list goes on and on. Ultimately, writing shouldn’t be seen as a burdensome task that you only do when your schoolwork requires it of you. There are so many ways that make writing fun and introduce you to new ideas or, in my case, words that you never considered before.

Idea Journaling

Mary-Kate Smith, Consultant

In the book Boy: Tales of Childhood, author Roald Dahl describes his practice of jotting down thoughts in a small idea journal. When looking for a new narrative, Dahl would consult his own undeveloped musings. From these brief notes taken years earlier, Dahl Mary-Kate Smithdeveloped a number of beloved stories including Fantastic Mr. Fox and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Since reading Boy, I have kept an idea journal similar to Dahl’s. Though my notes focus on coursework rather than on creative writing, Dahl’s practice has been very useful to me. Whenever I am asked to writing an essay, a conference paper, a proposal, or even I blog post, I consult my idea notes hoping for a spark of inspiration. Looking at previous, spontaneously incepted ideas often helps me to eliminate writer’s block in a way forcing new ideas does not. Thus far, I have chosen all of my graduate school seminar paper topics in this manner. Often, brainstorming with others helps writers to develop ideas. When outside insight is not available, however, an idea journal can offer the needed intellectual spark.

Not every journal needs to follow a paper and pen method, though fancy stationary probably can’t hurt. I often write thoughts into the “Ideas” note on my MacBook. Post-it notes, smart phone self-texts, newspaper marginalia, and napkin memos are all viable options. Notes can be as short as a single word and as long as a paragraph, though mine tend to stay closer to the one-word end of the spectrum. Overall, if writers make an effort to collect and record ideas, no mater how seemingly ridiculous, they prepare themselves to develop these ideas and others in the future.

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.

How I Write: Sam McClellan

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers.

Sam McClellanAbout Sam McClellan

I am the Social Sciences Teaching & Faculty Outreach Librarian and an Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville’s Ekstrom Library. My job encompasses helping faculty, students, and other patrons with their research, whether one-on-one or in a classroom setting. My research focuses on information literacy as well as librarians’ experiences with stereotypes about the profession.

Location: Louisville, KY

Current project: I’m currently working on a manuscript for publication with UofL Sociology Professor James Beggan on the strategies reference librarians use to enhance their approachability to help patrons use the library more effectively. This is in the editing stages. To transition into another project for eventual publication, I’m starting to read through and code some transcripts of interviews conducted by myself and a couple of my colleagues, focusing on library instruction assessment.

Currently reading: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

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

I work on peer-reviewed articles and conference proposals, both of which are usually geared towards practicing reference and instruction librarians.

2. When/where/how do you write?

To answer the question up front without too much detail, I start writing first thing in the morning, at my kitchen table at home, free from the distractions that comes with being in an office (e.g. e-mail, bothering my co-workers about random questions I have).

As a reference and instruction librarian, most of my time is taken up by doing the day-to-day aspects of my job. However, I find it difficult to write in the random hours between teaching and research appointments, so I usually block off half-days or entire days on my calendar when time permits so that I can work from home. My writing very much revolves around the times of year that I can take off those days here and there, though I realize that’s a luxury and that those days are fewer and further between than in my first few years as a librarian. This is something that will likely require to adapt my writing practice in the future, but in the meantime, I’m sticking to the 4-8 hour at my kitchen table, because it works!

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

I am a professional distractionista, so my space needs to have low sensory input – quiet, ambient music and no cell phone. I mentioned earlier that I write at my kitchen table because it’s desk-like and gets me in the mindset that I’m there to work and get some words on the page.

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

In terms of getting started, just start. It can be jumbled and not your best work, but seeing even a few sentences on the page is such a confidence-booster. You can always go back and fix it later, and it at least gets the idea of what you’re trying to write on the page.

When it comes to revision, especially the nitty-gritty stages where you’re starting to feel like you’re just about done, I try to break it up so that the page number doesn’t intimidate me. What I do is give every paragraph or few paragraphs a temporary heading that explains what those next few paragraphs are about. From there, I see if the headings I wrote down tell the story I want to, and then making sure the content falls in line with its heading. With that approach, I can take it roughly one page at a time. This usually entails a little more work up front, but it makes longer papers a lot more manageable and a lot less daunting.

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

I know I’ve bothered many of my colleagues about their writing advice (thank you!), but I don’t think I can remember any one individual piece of advice. I do like to assume I’ve utilized it all and integrated it into my writing practice, because on most days, it seems to be easier than it was several years ago, so I’m hoping it was something along the lines of “ignore your e-mail, turn off your cell phone, and start writing.”

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Silencing Self-Doubt

Taryn Hall, Consultant

As I write this, I am about seven hours away from giving a presentation for which I have been preparing for around a month. The research is done, the paper is written, yet I find myself doubting that my hard work has resulted in something worth presenting. If I’m not careful, I end up struggling with this same sense of self-doubt about many of my writing assignments. Usually, when I give in to the temptation to doubt myself, it devolves quickly into something which prevents me from being productive: Is this idea Tarynworth researching and writing about? Am I qualified to make such an argument? Am I bringing anything new to the academic conversation?

Feeling like an imposter in academia is often at the back of my mind when I am writing. And I know, from my work in the University Writing Center, that I am far from being the only one who feels this way. In fact, I’m sure most of us have experienced this at one time or another. We’re confronted with a new genre of writing, or with a particularly challenging prompt, and we respond by overthinking to the point of doubting ourselves. At its worst, I’ve seen this become something which stops the writing process in its tracks. Writers come to us feeling anxious or overwhelmed; they express doubt that they can pull off the assignment, and they say things like “I’m a terrible writer.”

Of course, as tutors and peers to the writers with whom we work, we know that they aren’t bad writers. That indeed, each writer who comes to us is approaching writing with a unique perspective and an individual voice worth adding to the conversations ongoing in their respective fields or majors. My goal as consultant is to help writers alleviate these anxieties and to silence the self-doubt of academic authorship. As Nicole discusses in her recent blog post, learning to locate one’s voice in academia can be challenging; we have to overcome our sense of not belonging in order to feel like members of the academic community.

This is a task which feels like something that we’re always in the process of doing. For a while, as I got close to finishing undergrad, I felt like I was finally starting to find my niche and had this whole writing thing figured out. And then I got to grad school, where I was the newest member of a whole new conversation. Back to square one. While this causes some level of anxiety when I approach new writing tasks, I also find that my newbie status helps me feel more engaged with actively learning new genres and new techniques. It’s okay to not have the conventions of graduate writing down pat, just as it was okay when I was in English 101 to not have the conventions of college writing mastered.

While I find some level of self-doubt instructive, as it encourages me to learn and to overcome, I have to beware of that anxiety becoming crippling. This is why I recommend to writers who express having similar feelings of doubt or insecurity a proactive approach to their anxiety. If you know that an upcoming paper is going to cause you to feel those feelings of self-doubt, talk to someone early in the writing process. Sometimes, the most beneficial thing you can do is just express your writing fears. The UWC can help you get off on the right foot before you ever have to commit pen to paper or fingers to keys.

This is a strategy which has been essential to my own writing successes. I say this as someone who has returned to writing this blog post after having given the presentation I mentioned earlier. The sense of relief is palpable—I’m much less fidgety now—and I know that working with other consultants at the UWC on this assignment was essential to my writing process, and ultimately, to the success of the paper. They helped me focus, to figure out what was important, and to locate myself within the conversation I was attempting to enter.

While I’m sure that the next new genre I approach will make me briefly feel like an imposter, trying to skirt the defenses of academia while the Mission: Impossible theme song plays somewhere in the distance, I also feel comfortable in my ability to respond appropriately to my self-doubt, and to seek help when I get stalled. As this semester begins to draw rapidly to its close, I hope that members of our university-wide community of writers can find similar solace. If you have a paper, presentation, application, or other writing project coming up which has taken up an uncomfortable residence in your mind, we’re here to help.

How I Write: Ian Stansel

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers.

Ian StanselIan Stansel is the author of the novel The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) and the short story collection Everybody’s Irish (FiveChapters, 2013), a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous venues such as PloughsharesSalon,JoylandThe Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the University of Houston. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville. He lives in Kentucky with his wife, the writer Sarah Strickley, and their two daughters.

Current project: A new story collection and a screenplay

Currently reading: The Deadlands by Ben Percy and a large number of stories by my students

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

I write short stories, novels, screenplays, essays, and the occasional poem.

2. When/where/how do you write?

The joke of course is this: a person is lying on their couch, head on a pillow, eyes closed, unmoving. Someone enters the room and says, What are you doing? And the person responds, Writing. Ha ha. But see, there’s a good bit of truth to it. I say with a straight face that there are few moments in my life when I am not writing. I go to bed working out stories, and I’m back at it soon after waking. I’m thinking about a scenario or a character while I’m making my kids’ lunches. I’m working out a plot problem while driving to campus. At some point in a writing career, it’s just hard to turn it off. Or at least it is for me.

But practically speaking, I try to write—like, actually typing words—every day. Try. That doesn’t always work out, but I can say I write at least a little most days. And I’ve learned to be pretty good at writing anywhere. I can write while my daughters are watching Curious George just a few feet away. I can write in my office on campus while students chat outside my door. It’s something one has to learn to do, otherwise the words just don’t get strung together.

But on a good day I don’t have too many other pressing matters and I can spend a good four or five hours working. On those days I am home alone. I start with my laptop at the dining room table (I do have a desk but it is barely noticeable under a mountain of books and papers). I stay there until my back hurts from the chair, and then I bring my laptop to the couch, and work there until the battery gets low, at which point I move back to the table and uncomfortable chair. The dining room is also good because it doubles as our home library, so if I need a book it is usually within reach.

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

I often have music specific to whatever project I’m working on. The last couple of projects have been soundtracked by country music (mainly from the 60s and 70s…the best decades for country music). But in general I write to instrumental music. A lot of ambient and minimalist stuff: Eric Satie, Brian Eno, Hauschka. Music that borders on classical, but is too weird to be firmly in that category.

Other than that, I don’t need much. For screenplays I use the software program Final Draft, which helps a lot. But I’ve done script work without it, so it isn’t a necessity.

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

Just start writing. You don’t know what the perfect first sentence is because you don’t know what the story is because you haven’t finished a draft yet. So don’t sweat it too much. Just start writing. You can change it later. You will change it later, most likely. If it’s a story, write scenes with a few characters, and don’t leave the scene until something interesting has happened. If you are writing a poem, write concretely. Don’t go abstract. If you are writing a play or a screenplay, establish the conflict quickly. But regardless, just start writing. And when you have a draft done and you’ve set it aside for a bit and gotten some perspective, revise without mercy.

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

I don’t know if anyone has ever actually said it to me, but it has been said by someone to someone that you should write the story you want to read. I like that as a motivator. Write the story you’d want to read, not because you wrote it, but because there is some part of you wanting badly for it to exist.

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