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A Conversation with Recent MFA Graduate Martin Jennings About the Low-Residency MFA Experience

kevin-bKevin Bailey, Consultant

Have you ever considered pursuing a graduate-level degree in creative writing?  If so, you’ve perhaps heard of MFA programs (Master of Fine Arts in Writing).  An MFA in Creative Writing is a terminal degree (i.e. the furthest one can go in the field).  There are two main styles of MFA programs: high- and low-residency.  Despite this, information sessions on MFA programs tend to focus mostly, if not entirely, on the more traditional, high-residency programs.  I interviewed recent Spalding MFA graduate and writer Martin Jennings in order to get some insight into the less-frequently-discussed low-residency MFA experience and, thereby, open up new opportunities to creative writers seeking graduate study.   As a side note, writers can also achieve a terminal degree in creative writing by completing a PhD.  The following interview, however, is specifically about the MFA process with a special focus on low-residency schools.  Bear in mind that not all low-residency MFA programs are the same.

 

First off, why don’t you let us know what the difference is between a low-residency MFA program, like the one you recently attended at Spalding, and a high-residency program?

Sure.  There are some key differences.  The main one is that while you’re in a low-residency program, you do not stay on campus for two years and live in that area, as you would in a high-residency.   For low-residency, you do most of your work from home, while staying in touch with your professors and regularly turning in packets of new and revised work.  During the residency period, you have your lectures and workshops the same as you would at a high-residency program, except it occurs over a ten-day span, so it’s very intensive.

Early on into your MFA program, I remember you telling me that Spalding had helped you develop your own voice as a writer.  Do you still feel that way, and if so can you explain that in a little more depth?

Yes, I do still feel that Spalding helped develop my voice.  They were very encouraging in my low-residency MFA.   The instructors were particularly interested in seeing students experiment and try out different styles, themes, and perspectives in their stories.  And I was lucky enough to have had mentors who were very knowledgeable and able to point out new (to me) writers and books.  One writer whose work I was introduced to was Nicholson Baker.  He was recommended to me in my last semester at Spalding.  I remember thinking, “How haven’t I heard of him before?”  I saw my own voice, though much less refined, in his writing.  My mentors were very perceptive and able to take what I had written, show me my strengths about my particular style, and also instruct me about things I could do better, so as to make my work more cohesive.

Were there any other changes that occurred in your writing style/lifestyle while getting your MFA?

Yes, there were quite a few changes on both fronts.  As far as my writing style goes, I did a fair bit of experimenting with different types of stories and different narrators, subject matter, varying lengths (including a lot of flash fiction and longer stories) – just to get a feel for how you go about writing each type, what the differences were with each, and what they had in common.  I found myself somewhat favoring the smaller, more concise stories.

And as far as the lifestyle changes go, since I was responsible for turning in 35 to 50 pages of work each month, comprised of both new and revised work, I had to find a new way to incorporate writing into my everyday life.  And this was in addition to working a full time job and managing other responsibilities.  So writing became more a part of everyday life.

How did the low-residency program work for you in ways that a high-residency program might not have?  By contrast, is there anything offered by a high-residency program you feel you may have missed out on?

The volume of work that I produced in my low-residency program, based on what I hear from people who have done the high-residency, was much greater.  You get more specialized attention on your writing in a low-res program, and you’re producing so much material, you get into the habit of writing on a regular basis.  Spalding did offer experience in academic writing, but that was not the main focus – rather the creative writing work was.   I think you could say that low-residency MFA programs are designed for people who want to become better writers, as opposed to people who want to have careers in the teaching or in the academic world.  Generally speaking, high-residency programs seem to have greater teaching experience options – there seems to be more opportunity for it.  This can provide you with job experience.  There were workshops in low-residency that focused on creative writing pedagogy, but again, this was not the primary focus of the program.  And I would be remiss not to point out that low-residency programs are generally not as well funded, which means you often have to take out loans or pay out of pocket.  And it isn’t cheap!

What were some preconceptions you had about getting an MFA that didn’t pan out?

That I would graduate with sort of a collection of short stories that were ready to be published as such.  That by the time I finished – after two years – surely I would have enough pieces to flesh out a full collection and achieve great critical and financial success.  This wasn’t the case.  I did graduate with a lot of strong pieces that have gone on to be published, but it is a much more intense and lengthy process than you imagine going in.

I also had a fear that I would come out with cookie-cutter pieces of writing after having been exposed to a specific program and set way of doing things.  Fortunately, that didn’t come through at all, and I was allowed to experiment and find my own style of telling stories.

Finally, any cautionary words/suggestions for writers considering a low-residency MFA?

I do have some.  I would caution writers to make sure that what they want out of their program is to become a better writer, not to secure a set of marketable job skills.  The low-res program will teach you to be a better writer, and while it may offer some positive job-related skills, producing better writers is the primary goal of a low-residency program.  The focus is always on the writing, not on securing you a job.

Martin Jennings graduated from Spalding in the Fall of 2015.  His work has been featured in multiple publications since his graduation, most recently his story “Bodies of Water” in Sick Lit Magazine and “Hammer Space” in Under the Bed Magazine.  Martin writes, works, and lives in Louisville.

 

Creative Writers Welcome

Cassie Book, Associate Director 

Since we moved to the first floor of Ekstrom Library last October, we’ve hosted an open house/art exhibition, an evening of bad love poetry, a dissertation writing retreat, and graduate student and faculty writing groups. This academic year, our first complete one in our new space, we intend to continue growing our list of events and activities! For instance, during first-year orientation, we opened our doors for Kickback in the Stacks. Students dropped by to take a break from the controlled chaos in the library to play Story Cubes or Hangman. We like Kickback because it gives us the opportunity to talk to writers without the (often) added stress of a deadline or impending project. We also got a chance to plug some of our upcoming events and activities. When talking with students, I discovered that many were excited to hear that we’re starting a Creative Writing Group.

Tuesday, August 30 kicks off our new Creative Writing Group, led by Jessica Newman, an Assistant Director of the Writing Center. Though we’ve hosted graduate student and faculty writing groups before, a Creative Writing Group is a new adventure for us. We envision a diverse group of students, faculty, and staff meeting monthly to share writing, give and receive feedback, exchange ups and downs, and, of course, have fun. Anyone in the UofL community who enjoys creative writing is welcome—amount experience or investment doesn’t matter. At the kickoff on Tuesday, Jessica will facilitate discussions about writing, a few collaborative writing activities—poe-e-tree and prose—and ask for feedback about what participants want to get out of the Creative Writing Group. If you’re interested in creative writing, join us on Tuesday!

What: Creative Writing Group Kick Off
When: Tuesday, August 30, 5:00-7:00 p.m.
Where: University Writing Center, First Floor, Ekstrom Library
Who: UofL students, faculty, and staff are welcome

Questions? Contact Jessica Newman or call the Writing Center at 502-852-2173

 

Creating and Sustaining a Culture of Writing

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

Someone once told me that any time you move it takes six months to learn how to live in a new place. After we moved into our new space on the first floor of Ekstrom Library last

DSCN3876

University Writing Center on the first floor of Ekstrom Library

October, it did taken us a while to figure out how the furniture worked best, get some art on the walls, and buy some new plants. Now, however, as we get ready to start the 2016-17 academic year, we are settled in and excited about the opportunities that our new surroundings offer us.

We plan to take advantage of our new space with a number of new and expanded programs and events in the coming year:

Creative Writing Groups: We are starting new creative writing groups for anyone in the UofL community interested in working on creative writing projects. The groups will meet once a month on a Tuesday during the fall semester allowing people to explore creative writing in a safe, open, and encouraging environment. Meetings will be times when people can will write, investigate issues of craft, read and respond to writing, and have fun. Any member of the UofL community is welcome – undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff. We welcome any genre of writing and any level of creative writing experience—all you need is an interest in creative writing. For more details and the schedule of meetings, see our website.

Graduate Student Writing Groups and Faculty Writing Groups: We are going to continue with our writing groups for graduate students and for faculty. These groups will provide time for writing followed by discussions of writing concerns and issues. More details and schedules for the graduate student group and the faculty group can be found on our website

Writing Center Events: We’re going to have a number of events in our new space this fall,

open mic

“Bad Love Poetry” Open Mic Night from Feb. 2016

from participation in the National Day of Writing on Oct. 2o, to a Finals’ Week Write-In to support getting final papers finished, to an open mic night on Halloween for scary stories and poems. See our Events page on our website for more details.

In addition to our Writing Center events, we also have some other new initiatives we are excited about.

New Undergraduate Tutoring Class : We have had approved a new course for undergraduates and MA students interested in learning more about teaching writing and then potentially doing internships in community literacy settings. The course, English 508 – Literacy Tutoring Across Contexts and Cultures will be offered in 2017-18. Students who take the course can then take part in tutoring internships in the community with organizations such as Family Scholar House and the Louisville Free Public Library. 

Community Literacy Projects: We are also going to continue, and expand, our ongoing writing workshops and writing consultations at Family Scholar House. We view this partnerships as one of the key parts of our efforts to provide more writing consultation services to the larger Louisville community.

Of course, it isn’t only what is new here that is exciting. One of the most exciting things that will happen this fall is what happens here every semester. Day after day writers from across the university will bring their drafts and their questions about their writing to the Picture1University Writing Center and engage in thoughtful conversations with our consultants about how to make that work as strong as it can be.  We have an excellent incoming staff of consultants who will be doing what we do best: helping writers improve the projects they are working on today, as well helping them become stronger writers in the future. On our exit surveys, more than 90 percent of respondents agree or strongly agree that their University Writing Center appointments both help them with their immediate writing concerns and that what they learn in appointments will help them with other writing projects.

We will also continue to offer our successful Dissertation Writing Retreat, our Graduate Student Writing Workshops, workshops on writing issues for classes and student organizations at UofL, and our consultations on the Health Sciences Campus.

The mission statement for the University Writing Center says that we believe writing is an “indispensable part of the intellectual life of the university.” We stand behind this belief and it is central to what we do. But, as the new semester begins, I think the events and programs we will offer in the year ahead will allow us to add to our mission the goal of creating and sustaining a culture of writing of all kinds, on campus and in our community.

Please see our updated website for more information and resources, as well as for information about how to make your appointment for a writing consultation.

Good luck with the new academic year and I hope to see you in the University Writing Center.

 

Much to Celebrate as the Writing Center Year Comes to a Close

Bronwyn T. Williams

Director, University Writing Center

When we get to the end of an academic year, we always feel there is a lot to be proud of at the University Writing Center. We can look back over a year in which we’ve worked with members of every college in the university, on both campuses, ranging from first-year students to faculty. If you can imagine a day where, in the course of three hours you might work with writers on an English 101 paper, an engineering dissertation, DSCN2410 - Copyand a business plan assignment – and be able to help all three writers with their projects – you can understand the talent and flexibility of our consultants. By the end of the academic year we will have had more than 5,000 visits to the University Writing Center. The consultants here do great, great work, every day. We may be a bit tired by the end of the spring semester, but we enjoy the work and feel as if we’ve worked hard to help develop better writing and better writers at UofL.

I want to take a moment to thank the writers who came to us to work on their writing and also all the faculty and staff who supported our work by recommending us to their students.

We will be open during the summer, starting May 11, from 9-4 every weekday. Meanwhile, take a look at our website and we hope to see you soon.

Other Reasons to Celebrate

In addition to our daily work of teaching of writing through one-on-one consultations, there are other events and activities that we organize, and other plans we are making. It’s worth taking a moment to point to some of the accomplishments, and to talk about what they are going to allow us to do in the future.

New Writing Center Projects:

Our Move to the First Floor of the Library: During the summer, as part of the renovation of the first floor of Ekstrom Library, the University Writing Center will be moving from the third floor down to the first. This new location will make us much more visible (and easier to find) and allow us to create new programs and initiatives that will help us develop and sustain a culture of writing in the University. To see a video about the move, see this previous blog post.

WCOnline Scheduling Software: We are finishing the first year of using our new scheduling software and we’ve found it has been a significant improvement in making it easier for students to make their own appointments online. The software has also made our online, Virtual Writing Center Appointments more effective. To make an appointment, follow this link to our website.

Faculty Writing Groups: This year we organized our first faculty writing groups, one in science/engineering/mathematics and one in humanities/social sciences. These groups have gone very well and we plan to keep them going next year. If you’re interested in taking part, contact the Writing Center.

The Growth of Ongoing Writing Center Projects:

Writing Center Website: We expanded parts of our website, such as our Common Writing Situations – which are our responses to frequently asked questions about undergraduate DSCN2359and graduate writing – and our handouts on everything from strategies for revision, to writing better introductions and conclusions, to issues of grammar and style. We have also added resources for faculty who want to develop their approaches to teaching writing.

Writing Center Social Media: We continued to communicate our ideas about writing and the teaching of writing through our presence on Twitter and Facebook as well as our blog.

Dissertation Writing Retreats: Our Dissertation Writing Retreats remain popular and we are having the pleasure of seeing 90 percent of the students who attend the retreats complete their dissertations.

Workshops: Our Writing Center staff conducted a broad range of writing workshops in both courses and for student organizations on issues such as revision, writing a literature review, citation styles, and resume writing.

Writing Center Staff Achievements

The University Writing Center, in addition to its teaching mission, is also an active site of scholarship about the teaching of writing. Staff from the Writing Center were engaged in a number of scholarly projects during the past year in rhetoric and composition, literature, and creative writing.

Mariah Douglas – Internship at Louisville Magazine with 11 published pieces.

Joanna Englert – Published poems in the Miracle Monocle and the Kentucky Poetry Festival and presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture

University Writing Center Staff - 2014-15

University Writing Center
Staff – 2014-15

Harley Ferris – Co-editor and writer of KairosCast for the journal Kairos. Presented at Computers and Writing. Forthcoming publication in Computers and Composition Online.

Taylor Gathof – Presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture

Meghan Hancock – Presented at National Conference on Peer Tutors and Writing/International Writing Center Association Conference; the Conference on College Composition and Communication; and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference

Kristin Hatten – Presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture; Internship with Commonwealth Center for the Humanities.

Jamila Kareem – Presented at ACES Symposium; Conference on College Composition and Communication; Forthcoming chapter in the collection: The Good Life and the Greater Good in a Global Context

Tara Lawson – Presented at Southeastern Writing Center Association

Ashley Ludewig – Presented at the Watson Conference on Rhetoric and Composition; The Western States Rhetoric and Literacy Conference; and the Research Network Forum at the Conference on College Composition and Communication

Amy Nichols – Presented at Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Haley Petcher – Presented at Southeastern Writing Center Association Conference

Bobby Rich – Published poems in Hobart Magazine and the Kentucky Poetry Festival; Internship/Poetry Editor of Miracle Monocle

Adam Robinson – Council of Writing Program Administrators Conference

Chris Scheidler – Presented at Southeastern Writing Center Association Conference; Association of Professional and Technical Writers Undergraduate Conference, Computers and Writing, and Conference on Community Writing

Stephanie Weaver – Watson Conference on Rhetoric and Composition; Conference on College Composition and Communication

Jessica Winck – Co-authored publication in Kairos. Presented at National Council of Teachers of English Conference; Council of Writing Program Administrators Conference.

 

Volunteering: An Important Way to Share Your Literacy Skills

Michelle Day, Consultant

MichelleA few months ago I finally decided to pursue volunteering with the Center for Women and Families (CWF), something I’d thought about for years but for various (good and bad) reasons had never gotten around to doing.

To my very pleasant surprise (and sort of by accident), I connected with two CWF staff members who invited me to become part of a reading/writing group they’re starting with some people who are receiving services from the Center. I’m beyond thrilled and humbled to have the opportunity to use the English skills I’m learning to work toward a cause I care very much about—ending intimate partner violence and sexual assault and supporting those who have experienced it.

But now, it’s got me thinking. My last blog post on June 17 was about improving personal statements in preparation for grad school applications. To be sure, I spend a lot of time talking to students about how they can improve their writing in pursuit of further education or a job, an obviously valuable task. Yet I can’t really remember ever advising students about how they can use their writing (or other literacy-related) skills for volunteer work, which is often easier to find and obtain than employment or graduate school admission.

There are many reasons people seek out volunteer work. For me, it was a combination of things. As a Christian, I believe making sacrifices for the good of others is one of the most important things Jesus did and taught others to do. My role at the CWF will also allow me to practice writing/teaching differently than I do at the Writing Center or in the classroom. Plus, it’s a nice way to bring balance to an often-hectic schedule of mostly work/school activities.

Other volunteers might have similar spiritual/moral or practical reasons. Some people might volunteer because the issue they’re involved in has personally affected them or because they want to connect with people who have similar values. Other people find volunteer work in general rewarding or feel a personal moral obligation to help others. Still more volunteers want to learn new skills or do some professional networking.

Whatever the motivation beyond the impulse to serve, people who are skilled in literacy-related practices can find ways to use those skills to satisfy the volunteer impulse in their local communities. Here are a few literacy-related opportunities you can check out around Louisville:

The Center for Women and Families offers services to (male and female) survivors of intimate partner abuse or sexual violence. You can volunteer to be an English tutor and help individuals practice their English speaking, listening, and writing skills.

  • The Backside Learning Center at Churchill Downs seeks to provide education, life skill resources, and community to its works. Volunteers can teach or tutor in a variety of subjects, including English skills.
  • Portland Promise Center is a faith-based community development center in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood. It offers opportunities for
    volunteers to tutor kids.
  • Brooklawn Child and Family Services — a residential, therapeutic treatment center for youth with behaviorial/emotional issues — also has opportunities for volunteers to tutor in a variety of subjects, including English.
  • Kentucky Refugee Ministries is the Kentucky state refugee resettlement office at which volunteers can tutor in English/ESL.

You can find other similar volunteer opportunities by searching on websites like Metro United Way or Volunteer Match.

Write, Talk, Repeat: Reflecting on the Benefits of Our Second Dissertation Writing Retreat

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

Last week our former Assistant Director Barrie Olson wrote about the anticipation and promise of participating in our second Dissertation Writing Retreat (DWR). After a long, restful weekend and some reflection, it seems that the DWR delivered on nearly all its promises. Like Barrie, I participated in the retreat as a consultant, but as a dissertation writer myself, I found it helpful on multiple fronts. The biggest benefit of participating in the retreat, though, was being able to work with other graduate students both inside and outside of my field. The Dissertation Writing Retreat may be all about writing, and involve a good deal of writing, but talking about the writing helps to solidify the meaning of all that work, especially with those who aren’t familiar with the work.

Since I’m at the early stages of the dissertation process, my direct experiences may be somewhat limited. Nevertheless, between working with many different dissertation writers over the years and my own experiences, it seems that articulating the dissertation succinctly is one of the biggest challenges. In my own graduate program, we’re often advised to develop multiple versions of our answer to the question, “What is your dissertation/project about?”: ranging from an “elevator” version to a 15-20 minute version. Condensing an approximately 200 page project into a brief description isn’t all that easy when your brain is filled to the brim—maybe over the brim—with theories, research, examples, and other data that is “essential” to understanding your project. And, believe me, it all seems essential when it’s your project.

Working with two different students from drastically different disciplines (one in the Humanities and one in the hard sciences), I found that the feedback that they most often needed through the week was to write what they were explaining to me in sessions. That seems so easy, doesn’t it? All writers know it really isn’t as easy as it sounds. You often need someone else to spot the gap in your writing and tell you where you aren’t explaining something. It isn’t always about missing information though. Maybe your verbal description of your project really emphasizes a particular aspect or connection in your project, but you only have one sentence or a paragraph in 30 pages about that aspect. A good listener and reader can help you find those disconnections between what you’re saying about your writing and what’s actually happening in your writing.

Ashly_Version_3What’s really inspiring for someone like me is that those conversations are not just helpful for the writer. Having these conversations with two DWR participants helped me realize why I was having such difficulty drafting the introduction to my own dissertation. I’ve been writing pages and pages leading up to the point that I always begin with when I talk to people about my project. When I realized this during the retreat, I thought to myself, “Well, duh. That’s the problem.” Reaching that “duh” moment isn’t always easy though, and I’m sure that it won’t be the last one I have before this whole dissertation is written.

Fortunately, for all twelve participants in this year’s Dissertation Writing Retreat, these kinds of conversations were not limited to the one-on-one consultations we had each afternoon. Each day around lunch time, we also offered short workshops about the dissertation process, including writing the literature review, managing time and production, working with committee members, and developing support networks. In addition to hearing from some of the writing consultants, we also benefited from the insight of Dr. Stephen Schneider and Dr. Beth Boehm. The participants found the workshops especially helpful because they offered the opportunity to ask questions about the dissertation process generally but also to receive project-specific feedback from those who were currently working on their dissertation and those who had already completed one.

With all this praise in mind, it seems a little suspicious that I would claim that the retreat delivered on almost all its promises. Based on this post and the feedback from our participants, what could possibly have been missing? Technically, you’re right; it wasn’t missing anything it promised. Yet, as ambitious scholars we’ll always want more of a good thing. More time to write, more time to work with others on our writing and on our projects. More free food. We are still students after all. Thankfully, many of our participants said they would return to visit the Writing Center to work on their projects. And hopefully, we will all be inspired to create these kinds of supportive writing groups beyond the structure of the Writing Center.

That’s our dream, and this year was one more successful shot at achieving it.

Another Year, Another Dissertation Writing Retreat

Barrie Olson, Dissertation Writing Retreat Consultant

Around this time last year, I wrote a post discussing both the success of the Writing Center’s first ever Dissertation Writing Retreat and the way that it helped me to re-envision writing center work. This year, as another Dissertation Writing Retreat is about to get underway, I find myself thinking about it in yet another new light because this year I’ll not only be a tutor but also a dissertation writer. In fact, I am writing this post as a well-deserved break after writing the first 1,800 words of my own dissertation.  Yes, that’s right—1,800 hard-earned, mulled over, highly scrutinized words. Words that came after doing a classroom ethnography over the course of the spring semester, after transcribing over 27 hours of classroom discussions and interviews, after reading through thousands of pages of student papers and homework assignments. Honestly, in the grand scheme of everything I’ve read and looked at just to prepare for those 1,800 words, 1,800 suddenly feels pretty small and insignificant. The mounds of data—transcript notes, papers, and memos—makes me feel like this dissertation might never be written. Where do I start? How do I begin? Then again, in the face of those questions, 1,800 words suddenly feels like the accomplishment of the century.

barrie_with_camelBut why the paragraph on my 1,800-word writing breakthrough? Because those 1,800 words have helped me to gain an even greater appreciation for the Dissertation Writing Retreat. Whereas last year I approached the dissertation knowing only what I’d heard from people who’d done it—that it was hard, that it was frustrating, that when it was over you couldn’t believe you were holding it in your hands—this year I feel like I get it a little bit more. I get why having several hours a day of uninterrupted time to write, surrounded by other people engaged in the same writing task, would be so helpful. I get why having someone else available to look at your 1,800 words that seem to make no sense and every sense at the same time would be valuable. Last year I understood the success of the Dissertation Writing Retreat as a tutor. This year, I am beginning to understand it better as a writer.

Admittedly, I am at the very early stages of dissertation writing. I know that I still have a great deal to learn about writing a dissertation—but that is what is so remarkable about the retreat. For a week, I will be surrounded by people at various stages, some just beginning like me, and others getting ready for the final signatures of their committee members. Each of these writers will have valuable strategies to share with me. What do they do when the data seems insurmountable? How do they overcome writer’s block? Obviously everyone is different and what works for one person may not work for somebody else, but exposure to varying strategies never hurts and too often, writing a dissertation feels like a solitary endeavor. The retreat makes it communal. Sure, I will have several hours of silence each day to type away to the sound of other people typing away. But I remember from last year the workshops, the quick snack breaks, extended lunch periods—all times when I can talk to other people about what they are doing and how they are doing it.

And while this is something I often do already (I am, after all, a writing center junkie who understands the value of frequent input on my writing), for the first time since I began my own research project, I’ll have people outside my field to converse with. I’ll gain valuable exposure to other ways of approaching research and writing, other ways of considering data and results. If my time in the writing center has taught me anything, it is that this kind of exposure is invaluable. I cannot predict the ways that this kind of exposure will broaden and even complicate my own thinking. I can only predict that it most certainly will. There is great power in moments like this, when methodologies and approaches collide. In my field, Rhetoric and Composition, some of our greatest breakthroughs have been the result of these moments—moments when we have “borrowed” methods from other fields, or applied outside theoretical frames and values to our own ideas. What better place to be exposed to that possibility then at the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

So it goes without saying that I’m excited for this next week. I hope to write, and write, and write some more. I hope to build, and change, and add to my 1,800 words. But I also hope to change my thinking, expand my strategies, and learn more about myself as a writer through the writing of my fellow dissertation retreaters. Who knows, it might even be fun…

Silencing the Dissertation Demons

Jennifer Marciniak – Assistant Director of the Virtual Writing Center

JenniferMAs a PhD candidate I have a lot of demons. For the majority of my doctoral career they have been there. They come to me in the form of voices –professors, colleagues, family members, even people who have no idea what it takes to undergo such a momentous task as a doctorate. Usually these voices are picking away at the back of my brain reminding me: “Only a week left before the rough draft is due, what the hell are you doing watching another episode of The Walking Dead when you have nothing for your lit review!?”  These voices started popping up during the initial two years of coursework. These annoying, lizard-tongued declarations always found me during that final push before the final papers were due. And they were loud. Overbearing. And, sometimes, overwhelming.

Even so, those seminar class demons do not hold a candle to those presently lording over my dissertation. As I begin this foray into the prospectus, which is the proposal or introduction to the dissertation, these demons are much nastier, and seemingly much less controllable. I say this because a dissertation is nothing like a seminar paper. You are not bound by (significant) deadlines like in a seminar class. Therefore, it can be much more difficult for people like me who need structure to hold themselves accountable. These demons are not harping on about deadlines. That’s small potatoes. These voices are a lot more destructive and vicious, creeping around in your psyche as you battle writer’s block saying, “You have no idea what you are doing. What are you even doing in this program? You are a complete failure.” And I can tell you from experience – and the blank pages that should be my prospectus – that it is hard to listen to this rhetoric and not start believing it.

So, I started looking for help. What I found is that I am not alone with dealing with these demons. I knew that to a certain extent, though.  I am part of a cohort of seven doctoral candidates dealing with the same issues, but it’s nice to see it in writing that you are not a complete botch on the academic landscape (like my demons tell me every day). The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill has resources for dissertation writers like me who need some consolation during this mammoth undertaking. One of the most beneficial resources they offer is a handout called “Silencing Your Inner Critic.” The information provided was a bit shocking – it was like they had a microphone inside my head and were recording the demon voices as they ridiculed me mercilessly. I think many writers going through a similar situation would benefit from an understanding voice, so I thought I would share this self-help resource here. It starts out with questions and bulleted “critic” voices. While UNC-Chapel Hill uses “critic,” I changed it to “demon,” as I thought it more appropriate for the way I hear them in my head:

What is your demon’s greatest fear?

  • That you’ll sound dumb
  • That you’ll disappoint a mentor
  • That you are an academic impostor
  • That you are not enough of a genius
  • That you won’t get a job
  • That you’re missing something within yourself (you aren’t talented enough)
  • That you’re missing something in the research (you didn’t find the famous article)
  • That you’re not worthy to make your claim
  • That your idea isn’t significant enough

When does your demon speak most often?

  • While you are writing
  • Before you sit down to write
  • After you’ve drafted something
  • While you are doing things unrelated to your project
  • Anytime, anywhere

Whose voice does your demon resemble?

  • A parent
  • A teacher
  • A smarty pants

I originally put an asterisk (*) by the bullet points that I hear most often from my demons, but realized afterward that I put an asterisk after every single one of them. So I deleted them. My demons pop up to tell me how much I suck as a doctoral student pretty much all the time. When I am washing dishes, cleaning out the closets, folding laundry. I am constantly thinking about writing, but also constantly battling reasons why I can’t sit down and do it. Because of whom my demon voices resemble, I am shell-shocked into silence because of the fear of sounding dumb, disappointing people, and basically being inadequate. But what now? UNC- Chapel Hill does not leave you hanging. They provide do-it-yourself questions to help you battle these demons:

  • Where might constructive criticism help you in the writing process?  Who might you consult for constructive criticism and when might you schedule that consultation?
  • In what other situations does your demon speak up?  How do you respond to your demon in those instances and move forward?
  • What might you say back to your demon when he/she pipes up?

While I will not divulge what I say to my demons (it’s inappropriate for a public forum), I think there is definitely something to be said for consulting someone outside of your committee for assistance. Many university writing centers offer dissertation workshops, or “boot camps,” that aim to get participants on a schedule. The overall goal is to jump start the dissertation and get the participant writing while providing simultaneous feedback. Some workshops are designed for those who are just starting the dissertation, while others are for those who are finishing up and need support with chapter revisions. Other workshops are designed to assist participants throughout an entire semester, sometimes two semesters, providing a more rigid schedule, as well as communal feedback.

The University of Louisville Writing Center held its first dissertation writing “retreat” in May 2012. I was one of the writing center consultants working with participants finishing their dissertations. For five days I worked with two doctoral candidates on chapter revisions. It was exhausting work, but at the end of the week there was significant progress. And, reportedly, a silencing of the participants’ own demon voices.  Since the retreat was so successful, The University of Louisville Writing Center will offer its second dissertation writing retreat in May 2013. The retreat, which caters to students from all disciplines, allows students to write, revise, and rework their dissertation chapters during the course of each day. Participants also have the benefit of one-on-one help with a writing center tutor as well as group activities with other participants. Those interested in participating in the workshop must have an approved dissertation proposal or prospectus, completed (or nearly completed) the data material gathering process, the approval of their dissertation advisor, and the commitment to writing each of the five days of the retreat. Applications for the retreat must include a copy of the proposal or prospectus, a one-page cover letter indicating why the retreat will be beneficial, and a letter of support from a faculty advisor. Deadline for applications is April 1, 2013.

For more helpful (and encouraging) tips from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Writing Center like “Silencing Your Inner Critic,” visit their website.

What I Learned about Writing a Dissertation through the Retreat

Laura Detmering

I would like to begin this post by echoing what Barrie says in her post. Like Barrie, I have worked as an Assistant Director in U of L’s Writing Center since the fall of 2010, and I am sad to leave this space for many reasons, most of which is the community of people who have supported me as I work on my own dissertation. This community includes not only the incredible staff of the Writing Center, but also the various individuals I have worked with as a consultant, all of whom have taught me a great deal about writing. It has been a pleasure to be a part of this Writing Center, and I could not choose a better way to end my experience as an Assistant Director than by working at the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

Every day last week, I watched a group of ten dedicated Ph.D. candidates enter the Writing Center, select a table or other writing space and write for several hours, taking few breaks and simply committing to the process. Participating in this retreat taught me a lot about writing a dissertation, and it also reinforced much of what I already knew. First, and probably most obvious, the retreat reminded me that no two people approach the process in the same way, so it is important to measure your success only against yourself and not others. For one person, success might be drafting a solid paragraph in a day, whereas for another, success might mean drafting four to six pages in a day. Of course, no one can write an entire dissertation in a week, and, fortunately, no one tried. Instead, each individual participating in the retreat set realistic, achievable goals, and I think most people met them (and I met my own goals, sitting in my office, writing while the participants were writing).

Probably the most important thing I learned during the retreat, though, is the importance of having a community of people to write your dissertation alongside. This community can be fairly diverse. For instance, I consulted with a Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering and a Ph.D. candidate in the Humanities. Because both of these individuals are in different fields from one another and from me, much of our time was spent discussing their individual projects, with each of them explaining to one another and to me what kind of research they are doing, how dissertations are constructed in their fields, and how they as writers were approaching the process. On Thursday, I led a workshop on overcoming obstacles to writing a dissertation, and as a group, everyone participating in the retreat discussed some obstacles that were arising and how to approach them. One of the suggestions I made at that time, which I personally have found beneficial in writing my own dissertation, is to try to explain your project to a person outside your field of study. By doing this, we are forced to think very carefully about what we are trying to do and how best to articulate our ideas to others. Thus, this community of people to write your dissertation alongside does not necessarily have to be just other Ph.D. candidates, but it can include anyone in your life—a parent, a child, a spouse, a sibling, a friend, etc.

For me, personally, watching a group of ten people sit and write or discuss their dissertations for eight hours a day pushed me to work on my own dissertation. Having a community of people who are also writing dissertations to meet with and discuss your work is also beneficial, then. I would encourage anyone who is writing a dissertation or a thesis or really any piece of writing to develop a similar community, a group of people who make you feel accountable to them, as well as to yourself. Seeing other people writing (and struggling) along with you is powerful and motivating in a way that writing in isolation cannot be. Certainly, there are times when we have to find space by ourselves to write, and doing so has a value of its own, but having a community of people to engage with, even if that engagement is silent, while writing a dissertation, is important.

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