UofL Writing Center

Who We Are and What We Do

How We Write

October 20, 2016 was busier than usual for the University Writing Center. We celebrated the NCTE’s National Day on Writing and welcomed visitors on campus for the Watson Conference.

To build on our “How I Write” blog series, we asked visitors to respond to our “How I Write” questions on banner paper. They’re now displayed on the Writing Center’s glass walls. A few enthusiastic writers also responded to all five How I Write questions, so we’ll share those on the blog soon.

Participants in the Watson conference also stopped by for lunch yesterday. Many UofL English MA and PhD alumni are attending Watson, so they were eager to see our new space. We also met many faculty, staff, and graduate students just curious to see what the University Writing Center is like.

Thank you to everyone who helped out and participated– in person and online– with our #HowIWrite celebration!

Check out the day on our Storify! 

Writing Centers Look Back: A Focus on Methodologies and Institutional History

Cassie Book, Associate Director 

Last week I attended the annual International Writing Centers Association conference in Denver, Colorado. In 1983, the first ever conference for the organization was held in Denver (pro tip: it used to be the National Writing Centers Association). Fittingly, this year’s theme was “frontiers,” which allowed writing center scholars and practitioners a moment to consider connections to our past. Conference organizers, including conference chair John Nordlof, also asked participants to question new territories and critically reflect upon colonial, capitalist, racist ideologies that persist in writing centers and institutional spaces. As Shannon Carter has argued, writing centers are paradoxically caught between institutional priorities and our educational commitments to literacy.

Everyone experiences a conference individually— through sessions selected, dinner conversations, tweets (#iwca2016), and scribbled notes in the program’s margins. As I followed the crumbs of my own writing center interests, a theme emerged. I noticed the complexity in looking to the future when we’re in a field saturated with the richness of situated and lived experiences of teacher-scholar-practitioners. I saw this in both explicit critical reflections on research methodologies and implicit acknowledgements of the effects of local institutional histories on current and future practices.

More than last year, I noticed presenters thoroughly engaging with and reflecting on methodologies for creating knowledge in writing center studies. For instance, Holly Ryan’s survey results seem to indicate that a video demo compared to an in-person demo of a tutorial have equally positive effects on students’ intentions to visit the writing center. Yet, Ryan didn’t stop with results and implications. She encouraged the audience to both follow our intuitions and consider the limitations of survey research; she even provided examples from other disciplines. Steve Sherwood took a wider view in his reflection on scholarship and research trends. Though he was generally supportive of the current landscape, he admitted his unease with the current push toward valuing replicable, aggregable, data-driven (RAD) studies. Sherwood said he certainly sees the value, but wonders: what is lost? What happens to our practitioners’ knowledge? Building on the notion of questioning RAD, Rebecca Hallman proposed that qualitative writing center researchers, in order to account for local situations, cannot neatly or ethically replicate methods of past studies. Again, using the opportunity to “look back,” presenters turned a critically reflective lens onto their and the fields’ methodologies.

I also noticed the pull of the past in presentations focused on new initiatives. For instance, I presented with a panel analyzing writing centers’ move into learning commons. Both of my co-panelists, Mary Beth Simmons and Melissa Manchester, included how their institutional histories affected their current situation. I’m reminded that I too should more thoroughly consider institutional history as I research how UofL’s University Writing Center can best collaborate with our new neighbors in Ekstrom Library’s Learning Commons. In the digital realm, Megan Boeshart reminded her audience that digital technologies have institutional histories too—online tutoring must be developed and maintained within the affordances and constraints of available campus technology, student familiarity, and tutor expertise. If not, online tutoring, though available, might not be accessible. Finally, I noticed attention to graduate student consultants. Like UofL’s University Writing Center, many centers employ graduate students. However, as presenters such as Deanna Babcock, Molly Tetreault, Bradfield Dittrich, and Bridget Carlson argued, graduate student consultants bring with them their developing disciplinary identities, and varied goals for themselves as teachers and professionals. The writing center may or may not play a significant role in their teacherly identity. Yet, graduate student consultants are built into the very foundations of many writing centers, like UofL’s, and rightly so. My point is, when looking to the future, we must take into consideration our local institutional histories. I appreciated the presentations that attended to the messiness of their local situations.

For writing center scholars, writing centers are both our subjective daily lived experiences and an object of our scholarly attention. IWCA’s exercise in variations on “frontiers” has allowed me to see that writing centers studies may be in a formative space as we begin to question the strengths and weaknesses of methodologies, such as RAD, and look to how our local institutional histories affect current and future practices.

Works Cited

Carter, Shannon. “The Writing Center Paradox: Talk about Legitimacy and the Problem of Institutional Change.” College Composition and Communication 61.1 (2009): W133-W152. Print.

International Writing Centers Association Annual Conference, Denver, CO, October 2016. Conference program. 19 October 2016. Web. 

 

Reading, Thinking, and Writing Outside Your Discipline

Kelly Carty, Consultantkelly-c

It’s midterm season. Hurrah! The past couple of weeks and many weeks to come seem like an endless stream of dense readings, papers, problem sets, oral examinations, and/or death by multiple choice tests.

Take a moment. Step inside my blog post. Let me transport you back to a long lost time when you could read what you wanted and write incomplete sentences dotted with emojis. Let me tell you about reading, thinking, and writing outside your field of study.

Surprise! This time isn’t so long lost. If you are like me, you probably do quite a bit of reading and writing unrelated or tangentially related to your discipline even when you are busy.

What am I talking about? Well, regardless of how busy I am or how stressed I feel, I spend quite a lot of time reading, thinking, and writing on Facebook as I browse my newsfeed and write statues or comments in response. Also, as I am guessing is the case with many of you (and by you, I mean faculty, staff and students), I rarely read or write about my current fields of study (English literature and Writing Center pedagogy) on Facebook. Instead, I read and write about current events, music, my home life, and other seemingly random things. For example, the last things I read or wrote about on social media concerned:

The location of free food on UofL’s campus

Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature

The most recent presidential debate

Urban foraging

My cat

Beck’s Debra (this is actually related to one of my classes, but it has a convoluted explanation)

Moreover, in addition to reading and writing on Facebook, I spend time reading and writing on topics tangentially related to my fields of study in the non-social media cyber world. Actually, I often do more of this type of reading and writing when I am busy with school or work because it seems like a useful break. For example, when I was reading the Canterbury Tales as an undergraduate, I found this gem of a revision to the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Recently, when my younger brother was tasked with reading the Canterbury Tales, I sent him a link to this revision along with a little review. Over the past three weeks, as I wrote papers and read new plays for my Shakespeare class, I read Wikipedia pages on patriarchy, Aufheben, Gaius Marius, Husserl, Writing and Difference, Cleopatra, and the largest monoliths that have been found on Earth. I also wrote many exasperated notes to my boyfriend about how I didn’t (and still don’t) understand Hegel.

How are these adventures in reading and writing different than the reading and writing I do for my field of study?

I can choose what I want to read

Until I am fortunate enough to design my own courses, most of my academic readings will be carefully outlined on my professors’ syllabi. In my own world of social media and Internet wanderings, I can read whatever strikes my fancy. I can read about radical leftist organizations after watching a documentary on the Weathermen, 1,000 tweets classified under #debates when I want to know how the Twittersphere feels about Trump’s comments, or news articles about cutting edge science when I feel like I’m losing my knowledge of biology.

I can use unconventional punctuation and grammar

When I write for the world of academia, I am hyperaware of grammar and usage conventions. When I write on social media, I often intentionally break these conventions. For example, during the last presidential debate, I posted:

WHY IS LOCKER ROOM TALK AN EXCUSE

I realize this question should end with question mark and that only the first letter needs to be capitalized, but I wanted to convey an emotion and an opinion that a single capital letter and a question mark would dampen.

Moreover, I had the following conversation on Facebook chat with my brother:

Me:       Im gonna write about hegel

Eek

Bro:      “Dialectic, but now exactly in the Marxian sense

Just keep repeating that

Should be fine

Me:       Hahahahahah

Bro:      Works for trumps

There are many grammatical and usage errors in these messages. However, both my brother and I were able to convey our thoughts effectively and humorously to one another. Although it is likely that I would be able to convey the same ideas within the bounds of academic conventions, it is unlikely that I (or my brother) would be able to do it as quickly.

I can use slang and images to describe my thoughts

Furthermore, writing outside of my discipline allows me to use slang and images to convey my thoughts. When conveying my frustration over writing papers, I sent a message to my colleagues that read “Papers fj&2#8,@)@;/8 ugh.” When I was on a short road trip with lots of traffic and my dad asked me how the ride was going, I sent him this image of my cat:

kelly-carty-blog-pic-1

(I realize this isn’t writing, but it might as well be.)

How are these activities similar to the reading and writing I do for my field of study?

I process information through text and images

This point is both obvious and important. Whether I’m reading Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, a theoretical paper on semiotic squares, my mom’s Facebook posts, or text messages from a friend, I am asked to make meaning of text and images.

I emphasize main ideas

When I read articles for class or for my own academic research, my foremost concerns are the main ideas. I ask constantly ask myself, what is this author trying to say? How does the main idea of this article relate to what I am doing in class or what I am researching?

When I read tweets, Facebook posts, and news articles, I have the same concerns. What is this article’s main point about the most recent WikiLeaks update? How does #WomenWhoVoteTrump relate to electoral politics?

I am ultimately concerned about conveying meaning

When I write for the academic world, I want my readers to understand the ideas I am presenting. It would be useless if I turned in a paper that was utterly meaningless. In fact, when I write papers, I often read them to other people to make sure they correctly convey the thoughts I intend to convey.

When I write Facebook posts, tweets, and text messages, I focus on conveying meaning as well. As I have alluded to above, I often eschew conventional grammar and usage in non-academic writing to enhance my meaning.

My challenge to you is to think about the writing and reading you do outside of your field of study. How do those activities compare to the reading and writing you do within your field of study?

How I Write: Roman Yampolskiy, Professor of Computer Engineering and Computer Science

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insights 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.

Dr. Roman V. Yampolskiy is an associate professor in the department of Computer Engineering and Computer Science at the Speed School of Engineering. He is the founding and current director of the Cyber Security Lab and an author of many books including romanyampolskiyproArtificial Superintelligence: a Futuristic Approach. During his tenure at UofL, Dr. Yampolskiy has been recognized as: Distinguished Teaching ProfessorProfessor of the Year, Faculty Favorite, Top 4 Faculty, Leader in Engineering Education, Top 10 of Online College Professor of the Year, and Outstanding Early Career in Education award.  Dr. Yampolskiy’s main areas of interest are AI Safety, Artificial Intelligence, Behavioral Biometrics, Cybersecurity, Digital Forensics, Games, Genetic Algorithms, and Pattern Recognition. Dr. Yampolskiy is an author of over 100 publications including multiple journal articles and books.  Dr. Yampolskiy’s research has been featured 250+ times in numerous media reports in 22 languages.

Location: Louisville, KY

Current project:

Artificial Intelligence Safety

Currently reading:

Lots of research papers on AI Safety

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

I write research papers and sometimes books on Artificial Intelligence and Cybersecurity.

  1. When/where/how do you write?

In my office, during work hours and sometimes on planes as I travel a lot.

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

Standing desk, 3-monitor set-up, Endnote software for reference management, Spotify for music.

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

Start with an outline. Minimize revisions as most reviewers will not agree on changes anyway.

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

Write daily.

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

Beyond the Back Room: Traveling, Collaborating, and Expanding Tutoring Strategies at SWCA-KY

Brooke Parker, Consultantbrooke-p

Questions, Please!
If you’ve ever had an appointment at our writing center, you’ve most likely experienced something like this:  You walk through the center’s open glass door, check in at the front desk, and choose a work table to sit at. All the while waiting for your consultant to emerge from behind the (somewhat mysterious) back room door. And you might have some questions about that.

What exactly are we doing back there? Well, we do quite a few things. From reading your registration/assignments notes and writing about our own sessions to basking in the general glow of the truly interesting work each of you is doing, our time is spent thinking, writing, and ruminating on writers. And drinking coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

That’s probably what you expected all along, right? It makes sense that we spend most of our time preparing for and reflecting on the sessions we’re participating in. That’s what the back room is for. But, what are we doing beyond that room? How are we, as writing center consultants, expanding our experiences of tutoring, of writing from outside of the space we encounter and work in six days a week? Sometimes, our exodus from the back room covers quite a bit of mileage.

brooke-pic1
Roadtrippin’
Recently, several of us hopped in a Volvo and made the two hour trek down to the Southeastern Writing Center Association-Kentucky Conference at the Noel Studio of Eastern Kentucky University. We were eager to learn from what other universities are doing in their writing centers and, hopefully, to discover some new strategies to further help our writers here at UofL.

brooke-pic2
If this is a conversation where are all the people?
We arrived at EKU bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, parked in the designated area, put on our name tags, and walked into the Noel Studio. I think this was the first time any of us had visited this particular center or conference, but our reactions were pretty varied. Regardless, we were collectively surprised by the amount of participants, for better or worse. Two of our consultants, Carrie and Michael, touched on this in their responses.

Carrie: Honestly what struck me the most about the conference was the lack of participation from other schools. I think there were four schools? And like less than fifty people. It just makes me curious, writing centers strive to be places of collaboration and it’s sort of disheartening to see centers not engaging together. Of course, there are probably factors I’m not considering all the way, but I don’t think that takes away from my initial feeling.

Michael: What I liked most about this conference was its intimate, conversational nature.  I never really felt like the conference was lecture-oriented. Instead it encouraged audience participation and discussion in a way that was casual yet intimate.

While my initial reaction was similar to Carrie’s, I thought that the smaller size of the conference made it feel comfy, inviting those kinds of intimate conversations that Michael referred to and aiding in the collaborative activities the organizers had us in engage in.

Michael: As for the brain-dating activity, I found the balance of one-on-one conversation with individual tutors and with overall group discussion to be a valuable exercise.  Gaining different perspectives on how to tutor translingual writers was really helpful for me, personally, as I feel better equipped now to communicate more effectively with all kinds of writers.

In Michael’s case, the size of this conference really worked. But Carrie’s point hits on something I think writing center consultants feel drawn to do—to keep collaborating—and not just with writers and other tutors in our own centers, but with centers (and writers) across the state, across the field, across the curriculum. So, we ask ourselves, how can we continue to collaborate in new ways?

The mood within a writing center is – to some degree – determined by its layout.
The space of Noel Studio at EKU was incredibly beautiful and engaging: artwork hung on the walls, white boards lined the far left wall, chairs rolled and moved, and skylights beamed down sunshine. I think we all took multiple pictures of the space. Both Kevin and Melissa mentioned the effect of the layout on their experience at the conference.

Kevin: I think my biggest takeaway from the event was the setting of the conference. Seeing EKU’s writing center really revealed to me just how the physical layout of a writing center can affect the atmosphere within it.  With its brightly colored walls and windows, ample amount of art, and availability of different writing surfaces and utensils (markers, colored pencils), EKU’s writing center offered up an extremely inviting and fun vibe.  The space itself suggested that the activities facilitated by the writing center were fun and creative.

brooke-pic3
Let’s face it, the space was a piece of art in and of itself, but Melissa pointed out that for every up there is a down.

Melissa: The Noel Studio was like a playground for college students. However, while it seemed like a wonderful space for creativity, I could see myself getting easily distracted in there. They did have legos, ya know, so could you blame me?

The very deliberate construction of the Noel Studio pushed us to think about the space of the writing center in new ways. So, we also ask ourselves, how can we use or change our space to help facilitate writers’ processes even further?

By bridging language barriers, we have a gateway into an entirely new way of thinking.
The second presentation of the day dealt with translingual approaches, particularly literacy maps, in the composition classroom, but (as the presenters encouraged) could be adapted to apply to writing center strategies, as well. Our consultants were really drawn (pardon the pun) to these methods.


Michael: The two activities, the literacy map activity and brain-dating, really pushed conference attendees to consider how ELL students approach language and writing.  With the literacy map activity, specifically, I found that exploring the ways my own literacies have been shaped has helped me to understand better how different cultures and different experiences will yield different language-building practices.

Melissa: I never really viewed multilingualism as a deficit per se, but I don’t think I ever really took the time to recognize just how many different elements have influenced my English language development. These different “domains” that I have always taken for granted have provided me with a certain amount of privilege that I had never thought of before. I not only have the lingo, but the experiential knowledge to speak with authority about several aspects of American life. And while multilingual students may not have those same advantages, they certainly have their own when talking about their own expertise growing up in a foreign culture.

Both Michael and Melissa point out the really productive ways these literacy maps helped them explore their own literacy experiences and how they might also do the same for the ELL writers we work with at UofL. We are currently speaking with each other about how this activity might be applied in our center.

In the end, there’s a plethora of resources out there that could help foster the creative process.
After the presentations, the lunch, the brain-dating and collaborative activities were over, we packed ourselves back into the Volvo and began the journey back to Louisville. But the conference certainly hadn’t left us, even though we’d left it. The next two hours were spent talking about what we’d learned about ourselves as tutors, about the writers we work with, and what questions we should take back to the rest of our cohort. I think Carrie summed up the experience nicely, saying “Overall, the conference definitely made me aware of how centers should try to accommodate as many learning styles as possible.” It certainly had that effect on all of us.

A Summer in Europe: Writing Center Work in Poland and Beyond

Lance Gibson, UofL Sophomore

Lance Gibson is a UofL sophomore majoring in English and Mathematics with a minor in Linguistics. Lance has visited the University Writing Center as a writer and, was interested enough in Writing Center theory and practice to talk with a number of us here about how he might pursue his interests. We were impressed with his passion for Writing Center work and helped connect him with the director of the English Writing Improvement Center at the University of Lodz in Poland.  Lance was awarded an Etscorn International Summer Research Award that allowed him to work in Lodz and Germany for six weeks this past summer. We asked Lance to write about his experiences for our blog.

While en route to my first professional academic conference in Łόdź (/Woo-dj/), Poland, a city I couldn’t even pronounce, to learn about and present on writing center work that I frankly thought was above my pay grade, I couldn’t help but feel a little trepidation. After nearly 24 hours of traveling and narrowly escaping expulsion from a train during my first twenty minutes in Łόdź, I can’t say the initial tone was set very high.

Some months previous I had explored the option of going to Poland to teach in the

lance1

Lance (left) with Brandon Hardy, of Eastern Carolina University, at the European Writing Center Association Conference

University of Lodz’s English Writing Improvement Center (ERIC) as a summer educational experience. It was by complete luck that the European Writing Center Association (EWCA) conference just so happened to be taking place while I was there; I was even invited to submit a proposal. That was serendipity at its finest. But when I was faced with the daunting prospect of trying to meaningfully add to the conversation of writing professionals, it was intimidating. Yet I discovered that both the conference and Poland exceeded my initial expectations.

Poland has a unique and eclectic sense of culture. Having only been in the European Union since 2004, Poland has modernized in an extremely short period of time. This is shown in its architecture. While the Lodz city center shows Poland’s modern facets, the outskirts are traditional reflection of Poland’s former years under Soviet control. This juxtaposition of old and new became a major theme of my learning experience in both cultural and literary contexts.

When the EWCA conference rolled around, I found that it was an extremely accessible and easy way to get plugged into the important academic discussions on the practice of peer tutoring and writing pedagogy. All of this was put into context by interacting with a group of passionate and diverse individuals from Germany to China to Serbia. The very same juxtaposition of old and new practices in peer tutoring and writing pedagogy were seen at the conference, providing a perfect context for discussion on our overarching, shared goal of how to most effectively develop successful writers in schools, businesses, and the community.

At the core of this discussion were the myriad strategies writing centers from around the world use to address this goal. While some writing centers seek to develop foreign language proficiency in writing, others seek to negotiate mandatory writing courses to be offered in their universities, and others still, seek to empower tutors to make a difference among their peers.

One of the key differences in the practice of writing pedagogy is making the distinction between writing centers as either a place to learn writing vs. a space to practice writing. While many centers in the U.S. are used as a place to learn to write where students schedule appointments in advance to meet with a tutor, locations like the ERIC and the Vidadrina Schreibzentrum (German for writing center) in Frankfurt Oder, Germany are using an older drop-in style of tutoring. This drop-in style focuses more on making the writing center a comfortable space to write where tutors are available as needed to answer a question or give feedback.

ewca-peer-tutor-day

Peer tutors discuss writing pedagogy at the European Writing Center Association Conference

When we compare these European favored to styles to the practice of writing pedagogy in the U.S., we can see a few distinctions. Overall, writing centers in the U.S. are extremely popular and may sometimes serve undergraduate and graduate populations of thousands of students, whereas writing centers in Europe have less traffic, and therefore, focus on taking a more personal approach. For instance, while less than forty students per year use the ERIC, those same forty students are likely to work very closely with the ERIC on projects like theses and term papers. Is one method more effective than the other?

That’s a method of some intense debate. I believe that each writing center develops a system that accommodates the goals and needs of its users in order to best develop writing both inside the university and out in the community as well.

My overall experience from the EWCA conference is that there are a multitude of ways to approach writing pedagogy and peer tutoring. We, as writers and scholars, can best improve upon both our own personal writing and developing the writing of others by having an honest and open dialogue about these diverse methods, tweaking things in our own writing centers and styles of tutoring based on these practices, constantly find ways that both do and don’t work for us. This intellectual exchange is at the heart of scholarship and the pursuit of the art of successful writing. Ultimately, I hope to continue this discussion both at home and abroad, studying how we change individuals and communities through the powerful force of writing.

You Are Not a Unique Snowflake

katie-kKatie Kohls, Consultant

If you are interested at all with musical theatre and haven’t been living under a rock for the past year, you have probably heard of a little show called Hamilton. Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the music, lyrics, and book. This musical had taken the world by storm, and if it wasn’t about the Founding Fathers, many of the songs could be in the Top 40. Just go listen to “My Shot”, “Non-Stop”, or “Burn” and hear what I mean. The entire score is amazing. And Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, played Alexander Hamilton for the first year of its run on Broadway. And no role in the musical is limited by color or race; the Founding Fathers in Hamilton are as diverse as America today. Miranda is changing how we look at musicals, actors, and history.

Miranda also wrote the musical, In the Heights, and has composed the music for Disney’s new movie, Moana, to give a few of his other works. Basically, Miranda is a phenomenal person and writer, who has literally changed the world with his work. But on September 23, he reminded his Twitter followers that even writing geniuses have their rough patches.

Miranda’s Twitter is a place of beautiful positivity and updates on what he is doing with his time. His good morning and good night tweets are motivating and touching whether you know him or not. On September 23 though, he tweeted a ‘memory’ from three years’ prior (memories on social media remind you of popular posts that you posted on that day in previous years). This memory was a conversation Miranda had with his wife, Vanessa, about writing:

lmm-tweet

Miranda’s tweet says, “This conversation happened 3 years ago. Keep Writing. Get back to your piano” with a picture of the 2013 tweet which said:

Me: Sometimes the writing doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like it to.

Vanessa: I know.

Me: I have a hard time finding the balance between not beating myself up when it doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like it to, and not wasting time while I wait for it to happen.

Vanessa: Everyone has that problem all of the time.

Me: You mean these aren’t unique snowflake problems that happen to me because I am a unique snowflake?

Vanessa: No.

Me: Oh, good.

[End of Play.]

This tweet shows Miranda’s humor, but it also reminds us as writers and creative beings that we must keep going. Like Miranda said, the balance of not beating ourselves up and not wasting time is difficult. And we can take some small comfort in arguably one of the creative geniuses of our time has trouble writing sometimes. Who knew?!

But in all seriousness, we all struggle, but we all try to mask it. We don’t want to admit our weakness, and admit we just can’t sometimes. But if one of the greatest creative geniuses of our time is admitting that he struggles, shouldn’t we, the lowly uninfluential peasants, be okay with our struggles? I’m kidding about the peasants, but I am serious about being okay when we can’t write, can’t create. Our struggles to write aren’t because we are some special unique snowflakes with unique snowflake problems. I’m sorry, but in writing, you are not a unique snowflake but neither is Miranda.

So “What Comes Next?” Just because your problems are not unique, does not mean that your writing is not unique. So next time you are stuck or “Helpless” or have no clue how to begin again, “Take A Break” and “Wait For It” because you will “Blow Us All Away”. Soon your writing will be “Non-Stop”, and you should have confidence because “History Has Its Eyes On You”. And maybe you will make it to a point where some poor grad student fixes her writer’s block by incorporating your songs into her conclusion.

 

How I Write: Nicholas Siegel

nicholas-siegel-picNicholas Siegel is a fiction writer and freelance journalist from Louisville, KY who earned his MFA in Creative Writing at Spalding University. His fiction has appeared in Bird’s Thumb, Literally Stories, and Five on the Fifth. He currently works as the full time Content Editor for the Sullivan University System and is a lover of bourbon, coffee, music, and cats. You can see his work on his website:  nicholassiegel.squarespace.com.

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

I mainly write fiction—usually short stories, but I’m also working on a novel. That’s what I studied during my MFA, and it’s my favorite type of writing to do.

I’m also a freelance journalist for a few different local magazines and currently working as Content Editor at the Sullivan University System. It’s nice having the opportunity to do three types of writing that tap into some similar parts of the mind but are vastly different in execution.

When/where/how do you write?

For my fiction, I like to write at my desk at home. I have a small apartment on the second floor of a fourplex, so it’s nice to have my deck door open as I write. I also spend a lot of time doing work in coffee shops, because I enjoy being around other people, even though I’m not interacting with them. As someone who usually feels torn between introversion and extroversion, it’s the perfect compromise.

There really isn’t a specific writing time—just when I’m not at work or out with friends and family. As for how, I use a word processor called Scrivener on my Macbook. It’s been a big help for organization.

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

I like to write in Moleskine notebooks, probably because I have some deep-rooted pretension or insecurity and want to be validated as a writer. Really, though, if I have a notebook that’s on the pricier-side, I’m more inclined to take care of it.

And as I’ve mentioned, I love Scrivener. I don’t use half of the features, but the ones I do use are a huge help. It’s humbling to remind myself that someone like Vonnegut wrote his novels on a typewriter, or that Nabokov filed away scenes on notecards in shoeboxes, but if the technology exists to make my job more pleasurable, I’m going to use it.

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

Just start writing. Don’t worry so much about whether your first paragraph is exactly where you want to start. You can change that later. Try not to revise as you write. I’m guilty of this, and it slows me down a lot. Get a draft out, as bad as it is, and then go back through and change it.

I doubt I’m the only person to use this analogy, but I like to think of a story’s first draft as a block of stone. Revision is the process of hacking away at it to make a sculpture. You have to get something down to work with in the first place, and you aren’t going to write a sculpture on your first shot, no matter how good you are.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

The best advice I’ve been given about writing has been repeated by many people I admire: just write. We come up with all sorts of excuses not to—time, mood, etc. You can’t wait for the muse to strike, or else you’ll only be cranking out a few short poems a year if you’re lucky. When the muse is there, it helps, but it usually isn’t.

In the end, the only thing that separates a writer from anyone else is that a writer writes…a lot. It’s not about skill, or publications, or financial success. It’s just about practice.

New Places, New People: Working Across Differences in the Writing Center

emily-cEmily Cousins, Consultant

Like traveling, Writing Center work allows us to better understand our place in the world through encounters with difference, and to explore undiscovered terrain within ourselves.

As Writing Center consultants, our discussions tend to focus on how we can cultivate effective strategies to give writers the support they seek in improving their writing. We want writers to walk away from every appointment with more confidence and a better understanding of certain genre conventions or sentence-level features of academic writing. But what is often left out of the ongoing discourse among consultants is what we gain from writers. It is not just writers that are transformed by visits to the Writing Center – we are also being transformed by the writers we see on a daily basis.

The most obvious way in which we’re changing is that we’re constantly learning new things. We get to read papers from a wide range of disciplines, so we’re always processing new information, concepts, data, theories, and discipline-specific vocabulary. This is certainly one of my favorite aspects of Writing Center work. But what is even more fulfilling and transformative is meeting the writers themselves. The feeling I get when talking to different people about their writing is not unlike how I sometimes feel when going to new places.

We often think of travel as requiring flights or hours of driving, but we don’t always have to go far to find an unfamiliar culture in a new place – it could be the next city over, or a new restaurant down the street. I like traveling to unfamiliar places not so much for leisure, but because it’s often difficult and uncomfortable. If prior experience tells me anything, it’s that I seem to be happiest when I am outside of my comfort zone, challenging myself to experience new things.

In the Writing Center, we are always working across differences, in ways that are often challenging. No matter what the writer’s background, no one is going to think or write exactly the way you do. Every Writing Center session requires communicative acts to negotiate differences, and by doing so, we are rewarded with opportunities for reflection and growth.

For the past four years, I worked in a Writing Center at an international university in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and I often took advantage of weekends and holidays to hop on a rickshaw or bus to explore my surroundings. Over time, I’ve come to some realizations about what to expect while traveling, which I think can also apply to Writing Center work.

Expect a change of plans. My excursions taught me to embrace the art of playing it by ear; no amount of preparation could ever guarantee that a day would go exactly how I planned. Likewise, in Writing Center sessions, the less we assume about writers, the more we can allow sessions to take shape organically, arising from the writers’ own agendas. If we do go into a session with a plan in mind, it’s important to be open to revising that plan as we go.

Expect highs and lows. One time, I got on a bus anticipating a 2-hour journey, only to reach my destination 14 hours later. In some Writing Center sessions, we may not accomplish everything that we wanted to, and the writer may leave with unresolved concerns. We may anxiously mull over what we could have done better. On the flip side, just like there are days while traveling where everything seems to fall magically into place, some Writing Center appointments can feel pretty close to perfect. These moments give us the energy and resolve to keep trying our best day after day.

Expect miscommunication. Whenever we travel to a new place, whether it’s to a new part of town or a trip abroad, miscommunication is common. These encounters may be relatively inconsequential and quickly resolved, or may have more significant impacts. In Writing Center appointments, there is always the possibility of misunderstandings. We may interpret what writers tell us differently from what they intended, and vise versa. This might give rise to moments of tension or resistance. All instances of miscommunication are learning opportunities, and through reflection we can try to understand how and why they happened.

Expect to be humbled. Every place has a past. I felt history whenever I ate at road-side teashops in Chittagong, or when I walked down streets lined with old book stalls in Kolkata. Traveling takes me away from a self-centric frame of mind to one where I’m just a tiny piece of an ever-greater whole. Everyone who comes through the Writing Center has their own past. In brief encounters with writers from all walks of life, I find myself constantly humbled by the magnitude of what I do not know.

Expect to be changed. We are moved by landscapes, and inspired by rhythms of city-life. We never know how we’ll be changed; the only certainty is that we will change. As we play our part to support others in their journeys as writers, we can only expect that we will, in turn, be transformed. Sometimes writers will impact us in unexpected ways – writer to consultant, writer to writer, person to person.

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.

 

Post Navigation