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Creating a Culture of Writing: Looking Back at 2017-18 in the University Writing Center

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

All the signs point to the fact that the academic year is coming to a close. Writers are focused on finishing their final papers, faculty are focused on finishing their grading, even the puppies have returned to the Library to help people reduce their stress. Yet, even as everyone pushes to complete the final tasks of the semester, it’s important to take a moment to mark the accomplishments and events that took place in the University Writing Center during past year.

Our central accomplishment of the past year is the one that is simultaneously the most common, but one that is never routine or taken for granted.  Once again our consultants have worked, in individual appointments, with more than 5,000 students, faculty, and

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University Writing Center Staff, 2017-18

staff on writing projects ranging from literacy narratives to lab reports to dissertations to scholarship applications. Hour after hour, day after day, they have worked collaboratively with writers to help them with their concerns about the drafts in front of them, but also to help them become stronger, flexible, and more confident writers. The positive and productive work that takes place here, and the transformative effect it can have on writers, comes from the thoughtful and dedicated work of our staff. Yet I also want to thank all the writers who trusted us with their work and all the faculty who supported our work by recommending us to their students.

In addition to our ongoing work with writers at UofL, however, we also work to create and sustain a culture of writing on campus and in the community. Here are a few examples of what we done in the past year toward that goal.

Workshops, Writing Groups, and Dissertation Writing Retreats: We have reached more than 750 students at UofL through workshops about writing that took place both in and out of classroom settings. Our popular Creative Writing, LGBTQ+ and Faculty and Graduate Student Writing Groups continued to provide safe, supportive, and productive spaces for UofL writers. Also, in addition to our annual spring Dissertation Writing Retreat in May, we held our first Dissertation Writing Mini-Retreat in January. We will be continuing all of these groups and workshops, so be sure to check our our website for information and dates.

Writing Events: New writing-focused events this year included a faculty roundtable discussion about “Engaging Diverse Voices in Writing and Reading,” an open-mic night

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Our celebration of International Mother Language Day

for the Miracle Monocle Literary Magazine, and a reading in the Axton Creative Writing Reading Series. At the same time we once again held our Halloween Scary Stories Open Mic Night, participated in the Celebration of Student Writing and Kick Back in the Stacks, and celebrated International Mother Language Day.

 

Video Workshops on APA, MLA, and Using Sources Effectively: We revised our video workshops on APA and MLA Citation Styles and on Using Sources Effectively and avoiding plagiarism. These are available on the University Writing Center YouTube page and join our other extensive online resources of Handouts and Writing FAQs.

Writing Center Blog and Social Media: Our blog not only brought ideas about writing and writing center work to the UofL community, but also connected to writers, teachers, and tutors around the country, and our presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram continued to grow and connect with writers and writing scholars.

Community Writing: As we have written about several times on the blog this year, our community work with Family Scholar House and the Western Branch of the Louisville

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Our work at the Western Branch Library

Free Public Library continues to grow and evolved through a collaborative and participatory partnership involving these organizations, UofL students and faculty, and the University Writing Center staff. This work was recognized recently with the College of Arts and Sciences Community Service Award.

Thanks to the Best Writing Center Staff around: These accomplishments are the result of the tireless, creative, and thoughtful work of the staff of the University Writing Center. It is their inspired work that allows us to support UofL writers and create a culture of writing on campus and off. They also make this a fun place to work. Thanks go to Associate Director Cassandra Book, Assistant Directors, Layne Gordon, Jessica Newman, Christopher Stuck, and Caitlin Ray; consultants Brent Coughenour, Emily Cousins, Nicole Dugan, Reid Elsea, Taryn Hall, Beau Kilpatrick, Rachel Knowles, Isaac Marvel, Mitzi Phelan, Tim Phelps, Keaton Price, and Mary-Kate Smith, and student workers Brianna McIntyre, Jency Trejo, and Dhyani Vashi.

Farewell: Finally, we are marking the retirement this year of Robin Blackett from her job running the front desk – and so much more – of the University Writing Center. For more797d0bac-b9e7-4c00-9800-bd15814a225c than 12 years Robin has not only been the first person everyone meets when they come to an appointment, but she has personified the ethos of care and attention to student needs that we value here. Robin has greeted writers with warmth and professionalism, reassuring people who were often feeling upset and anxious, that they would be able get support for their writing at the University Writing Center. Robin has been integral to our success and growth over the years and, though we wish her well in new adventures, we will miss her dearly.


We will be open during the summer, starting May 7, from 9-4 every weekday. Meanwhile, take a look at our website and we hope to see you soon.

Writing Center Staff Achievements

The University Writing Center 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.

Cassandra Book, Associate Director of the University Writing Center, presented at the Southeastern Writing Center Association Conference (SWCA) and SWCA also awarded her the Gary Olsen Travel Award Scholarship. She also presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication. She also successfully defended her dissertation prospectus.

Layne Gordon, Assistant Director for the University Writing Center, presented at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference. She also successfully defended her dissertation prospectus.

Jessica Newman, Assistant Director for the University Writing Center, presented at the national Conference on Community Writing. She also had a piece, titled “Mariella,” published in the Miracle Monocle and won the Miracle Monocle Award for “Ambitious Student Writing.” She also successfully defended her dissertation prospectus.

Caitlin Ray, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing, published the article “On Your Feet!”: Addressing Ableism in Theatre of the Oppressed Facilitation.” in  the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Journal. She also presented at the 2017 Medical Rhetoric Symposium, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the Chicago Disability Studies Conference, and the Rhetorical Society of America Conference. She was also selected to be a Rare Disease Legislative Advocate and attended events in Washington, D.C. during the National Institute of Health during Rare Disease Week. She also successfully defended her dissertation prospectus.

Brent Coughenour had stories accepted for publication in The White Squirrel and the anthology Kentucky’s Emerging Writers. He also served as a graduate student intern for the Miracle Monocle literary magazine and began a creative writing podcast with fellow consultant Nicole Dugan. He will be the Assistant Director for the Creative Writing program next year as well as an English Graduate Organization Peer Mentor Coordinator.

Nicole Dugan served as a graduate student intern for the The Miracle Monocle literary magazine and began a creative writing podcast with fellow consultant Brent Coughenour. She will be an English Graduate Organization Peer Mentor Coordinator next year.

Reid Elsea presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture. Next year he will be the Morton Endowed Chair Research Assistant and the co-president of the English Graduate Organization.

Taryn Hall was accepted to present at the national Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference and will be an English Graduate Organization Peer Mentor Coordinator next year.

Beau Kilpatrick will be an English Graduate Organization Peer Mentor Coordinator next year.

Rachel Knowles will be a co-president of the English Graduate Organization next year.

Mitzi Phelan completed her MA with her Culminating Project, “The Beloved Black Body: Investigating Toni Morrison’s use of Biblical Rhetoric to Rewrite Christianity on the Black Body.”

Tim Phelps was awarded the Department of English Scholarship Award for Excellence in Creative Writing, and the Sara-Jean McDowell Award for Excellence in Fiction.

Keaton Price completed her MA with her Culminating Project, “Disguised Language in John Milton’s Paradise Lost“.

 

 

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College: What Your Guidance Counselor Didn’t Tell You

Mitzi Phelan, Consultant

I’m watching the professor’s mouth move. I’m nodding and smiling at appropriate times. My body language is positioned as engaged and interested. I nod appropriately as my classmates ask interesting questions relevant to the topic. My body is here, but my mind is not. So, you ask, where is my mind? At the moment, it is furiously engaged in Mitzischeduling. Somehow, this is the last week of October. I have a 12 page conference paper and presentation due Wednesday night. The good news: I have a stack of superb scholarly journals related to my subject matter. I also have a stack of 8 books checked out from the library that will lend a wealth of intellect to the research I am working on. The bad news: I have only read one of the journals and none of the books. So somehow I am going to need to synthesize all of that material into that conference paper in a very short amount of time. This is only one of the three papers that I need to make serious progress on before this semester ends in a few short weeks. So, am I mentally engaged in this class right now? No. I’m not. Do I want to be? Yes, absolutely. The information being discussed is vital to my chosen field. Also, college is expensive. It is costing me not only financially but time-wise as well. I miss evenings of going home and just hanging out with my family without a pending assignment looming over me. It is frustrating at times to find myself and my life dictated by due dates and deadlines. So what, you may ask, does this have to do with you? If you have never had an experience like the one described or felt the pressure of college closing in, then nothing. If you have, then everything.

College is challenging, and not just in the clichéd way people have always talked about. It takes commitment and dedication to be academically successful. But if we are completely honest, commitment and dedication is not drawn from an endless supply inside us. It usually is funneled from another place. Therefore, a high GPA usually means that some other area in a student’s life had to go on the back burner. The area that loses attention is different for everyone; for some it’s their social life that suffers, for others it’s leisure time, perhaps sleep. Many times the areas being sacrificed are not even an conscious decision by the student, they are just “getting things done.” But, at some point, this deficient area will make itself known.

My area made itself known when I realized that I had taken too much on and was overwhelmed with deadlines. The moment I described above was any eye-opener for me. I had to take a breath and self-evaluate. I became aware that I was frustrated with the lack of time I had with my family so I was procrastinating getting started on assignments. This led into a cycle of more frustration and more deficiencies in other areas of my life as I was overworking myself to stay successful academically.

If you are finding yourself falling into the these cycles of frustration that tend to happen at this point of the semester, I have some pointers that might can help. First, just breath. You’re going to be fine. Second, prioritize: what is the most important thing you need to be working on right now? Identify it and start chipping away at it. Instead of waiting till the night before a paper is due, start four days before it’s due and write a fourth of the assignment every night. Also, use resources; if you are having trouble starting an assignment, email your ideas to your professor. If they don’t like your ideas, they’ll tell you. Then you’ll know what NOT to write about. I encourage you to visit the Writing Center too. It is surprising how often just talking out an assignment with someone can make it come together so much more easily. Lastly, make peace with the fact that you aren’t going to “get” everything. There are going to be lectures that your mind spaces out on and there are going to be reading assignments that you just can’t get your head around. The funny thing about college is, it’s not until about the time you are nearing graduation that you realize that everyone is struggling as much, if not more, than you.

I leave you with the words of one of the writers I worked with last week: “Be kind to yourself.”

“Learning to Dwell” or Locating Yourself in Academia

Nicole Dugan, Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

 

Works Cited

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

Keaton’s Adventures in Letter Writing

Keaton Price, Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hobbies make writing fun and reading never hurts either

Beau Kilpatrick, Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Started with Genre

Isaac Marvel, Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

Creative by Choice: Persevering through Doubts and Droughts

Tim Phelps, Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works cited:

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

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

Christopher Stuck, Assistant Director of the Virtual Writing Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time, Talk, and Attention to the Individual Writer: How Learning Happens in the Writing Center

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

Every year I spend much of my August telling people about the University Writing Center. I go to a number of departmental and college orientations and resource fairs so I can offer an overview of our services. I tell people that we work with any member of the UofL community on any kind of writing at any point in the writing process. I talk about dscn2185our various writing groups, writing events, and the workshops and retreats we offer. And I describe, briefly, how we don’t edit papers for people, but work with them to discuss the strengths and weakness of a draft and come up with strategies for revision that will make the writer stronger yet.

Yet, I usually have only about 15 minutes to talk, at best, at these events, so I don’t get to explain much beyond that. There are any number of things I’d like to be able to say, but with the start of the new academic year, I want to take a moment to focus specifically on a few values and approaches that we have in the University Writing Center that both set us apart from other parts of the University and create distinctive learning experiences that keep people coming back to make appointments with us. These are all ideas we spent the day talking about at our start-of-the-year orientation this past Thursday.

People, Not Just Pages: We work with writers, not just on drafts. We’re not an editing service that marks up a draft with “corrections.” Instead, our focus is working with a writer to provide that person with suggestions and strategies that help the writer make the draft in question stronger, but also offer the writer ways to write more effectively in the future. We remember that we’re responding to a person, not just a set of pages. Such an approach also means that we work in dialogue with writers, listening to their concerns, offering suggestions, and emphasizing that the best learning comes from such cooperative and collaborative approaches.

Location, Location, Location: We can start with writers where they are. In a class full of students instructors have to make assumptions about what the students know and start from there. Being able to work with writers individually means we can find out what they know, what they want to learn, and adapt our responses accordingly. The reality is that no writer is always a strong or weak writer. Competence and confidence depend on the writer’s familiarity with the genre in question, whether you’re a first-year student or working on a doctoral dissertation. We tailor our teaching to the individual and the context.

Time Is On Our Side: Unlike conventional courses, we’re not bound by the limits of a 14-week semester. Our timeline for learning is up to the individual writer. Some writers make multiple appointments with us during a given writing project (writers can make up to three appointments per week). Some make regular, standing appointments each week was they work on a longer piece, like a dissertation or book. Others we see from time to time during their years at UofL. The point is, we can keep working with a writer over the course of college career and our approaches to teaching and learning can take the long view and not be truncated by the semester schedule. Such an approach, again, means we can focus on teaching the individual, not just fulfilling a course syllabus.

Learning, Not Grading: When we sit down with a writer, our focus in on helping that person write more effectively, not coming up with an evaluation of that writer that

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University Writing Center Staff, 2017-18

reduces it to a number or single letter. Taking this approach allows writers to be more honest about their struggles and more willing to explore a variety of approaches knowing that an approach that doesn’t work won’t result in a failing grade, but just having to try again. In the Writing Center the response of the reader is what matters, and in that way reflects more closely the reality of writing in daily, non-academic contexts. What’s more, research on motivation – and research on grading – overwhelming demonstrates that instrumental reward systems such as grades diminish both internal motivations and learning. We offer a learning environment that emphasizes individual learning, not group assessment, and that makes the learning and motivation that much stronger.

Writing Matters in the World: We’re committed to cultivating and sustaining a culture of writing on campus and in the community. Our writing groups (Graduate, Creative Writing, LGBTQ), our community work and workshops, and our events (Banned Books Week, Celebration of Student Writing, International Mother Language Day, among others) are all done with the goals of supporting the writing that people do, but also reminding people of the important work that writing does in their lives and in the world. Toward that end, we also value and emphasize the role of writing and literacy in advancing and advocating for equality and social justice.

Regardless of your political views, it’s hard to argue with the idea that these feel like tumultuous times. But, as my father once said, “Education is an optimist’s racket,” which means I can’t look at the new faces on campus and not feel hopeful. We are excited to  open our doors at the University Writing Center to begin another academic year and remain a positive force for UofL writers and their writing.

 

Writing is Contagious: The Dissertation Writing Retreat and Building a Community of Writers

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

It’s hard to shake the mythology of writing as a solitary activity. Over and over again, people talk about writing as something that geniuses do in inspired isolation. Yet our annual Dissertation Writing Retreat demonstrates each year what much of the research in the Rhetoric and Writing Studies shows, that successful writing is also very much a social practice. Sure, at some point a writer types out the words that convey individual thoughts. Before and after that moment, however, the power of community and

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Writing at the Dissertation Writing Retreat

individual relationships can be essential to a writer’s success. The powerful presence and influence of others is at the core of our approach to our Dissertation Writing Retreats, and why we think they have been so successful for the past six years. There are two ways, in particular, that the social aspects of writing come into play during the week.

 

Writing is Contagious

Sitting in a room full of people writing inspires people to write – and to keep writing. There is an energy and accountability that comes from committing to writing, and to staying in your chair and working through the obstacles you might bump into as you write. Every year people tell us how the energy and focus of working in a group of writers propels them forward with their dissertations. Many writers also find the sense of mutual accountability helps them be productive with their writing. In addition to the Dissertation Writing Retreat, we will be continuing to provide the opportunity for accountability with our weekly Graduate Student Writing Groups this summer (for more information click here).

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Small -Group Discussion on Structuring Dissertation Chapters

Another way we support community during the Dissertation Writing Retreat is through conversation. Every day we break for small-group discussions about various issues of dissertation writing (How to Interpret and Respond to Committee Comments, Ways to Structure Chapters, Strategies for Self-Editing, How to Approach Literature Reviews). These conversations not only help with issues about writing, but the chance to hear from other writers with similar concerns – and different suggestions – reminds all the writers that they are not alone and that all writers need support. Then we break for lunch and have time to relax and socialize – also a valuable part of the writing process.

Relationships and Motivation

The other social aspects of writing that are invaluable during the Dissertation Writing Retreat are the relationships that develop between the writers and the University Writing Center consultants with whom they work during the week. Each writer is paired with the same consultant and they meet each day to talk about drafts, writing processes, organization, or just be a sounding board for ideas and brainstorming. The research on

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Vasiliki working with Rachel

writing and on motivation (including my own) shows that supportive relationships that offer constructive criticism, but also respectful listening, provide writers with the strategies and motivation to move forward once the retreat is over. What’s more, the consultants also learn from the writers, and that reciprocity is one of our key values in the University Writing Center.

The Dissertation Writing Retreat, while a lot of work for us at the University Writing Center, is one of my favorite weeks of the week. I always leave inspired. But, rather than tell you more of my thoughts about it, here are some reflections from the writers and consultants who made the day possible.

Writers

Katie Adamchik, Sociology. This week was what I needed to boost my productivity. The retreat designated time and psychological accountability for me to focus on my dissertation. The workshops and consultations helped me organize my work and gave me strategies for moving through issues that come up along the way. I appreciated being surrounded by a community of people working toward a similar goal – we commiserated, supported, brainstormed, and celebrated together. I highly recommend this to all students!

Cortney Armstrong, Microbiology and Immunology. The Dissertation Writing Retreat has been an invaluable week for me. Coming from the health sciences campus, I thought I would feel like a fish out of water, however, I was pleasantly surprised with how comfortable I felt and how productive I was. No matter what field or discipline you are coming from, this retreat will be of great benefit for you! Not only was I productive on my dissertation (I completed a chapter this week!), but I was also productive in using the tips and skills I needed to plan for writing the remainder of the chapters for my dissertation. It was a wonderful week spent with a community of brilliant peers, all who are focused and pushing towards the same goal, finishing! I highly encourage all graduate students to apply for this retreat and come prepared to be astonished with how valuable it is and how much you will accomplish. I can’t thank the Writing Center enough for giving me this opportunity!

Lily Assgari, Psychological and Brain Sciences. My experience in the dissertation writing retreat was nothing short of amazing. It was incredibly helpful to sit in a room with the intention to write for hours a day with little to no distractions. Our community of writers supported and encouraged each other. We would discuss our issues and share

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Lily working with Jessie

our experiences daily. The accountability of having to talk about what I was had accomplished kept me motivated. The tool and tips that consultants suggest helped make a daunting process more manageable. While the week was definitely exhausting, the experience is well worth it. For the first time, I can honestly say that I am looking forward continuing to write. I would definitely recommend the dissertation writing retreat to any student that needs to write a dissertation.

Corey Boes, Social Work. My time spent at the Dissertation Writing Retreat was invaluable. I am in the very early stages of organizing and writing my dissertation and being able to learn different writing processes and strategies from my daily consultations and even from the other retreat goers was extremely helpful. The daily break out discussions were informative and helpful. They covered topics that were relevant both immediately and as I make progress through my project. I hope to be able to carry forward with the great writing momentum that I was able to gather through my time spent here this week.

Vasiliki Kosmidou, Entrepreneurship. I highly recommend the Dissertation Writing Retreat to everyone. It is very hard to summarize in a few sentences how valuable it has been for my dissertation progress. I came to the Retreat while still collecting my data, so I was able to use my time efficiently to write up my methods section and organize the overall structure of my chapters. Beyond the sense of accountability and community, I found extremely useful the small group discussions which gave me strategies for restructuring my dissertation for other purposes, such as conference presentations and journal submissions. I have also learned a lot from my writing consultant, who provided very useful feedback on my writing and resources that I could use beyond the writing of my dissertation. Lastly, as a graduate student, I always struggle during the academic year shifting my focus between research, teaching, writing my dissertation along with my other responsibilities. As a result, I certainly appreciated that the Retreat offered me not only an encouraging working environment, but also the luxury of writing for 8 hours every single day. By doing so, it has helped me build momentum and exceed my writing goals. Thank you for this wonderful experience!

Xiaohong Li, Bioinformatics and Biostatistics. Thank you so much for providing me and other students with such a great opportunity for writing our dissertation in the workshop. During the workshop, I can devote my time and concentrate on writing my dissertation. Working with the consultant in the workshop is also very helpful. I also enjoy chatting with or listening to other graduate students talking about their writing experiences in graduate school. Taken together, it is a wonderful experience and really speeds up the process for achieving my Ph.D. degree. I would like to recommend it to other Ph.D. students.

Keri Mathis, Rhetoric and Composition. The Dissertation Writing Retreat gave me the designated thinking and writing time that I needed to make significant progress on my dissertation. I especially appreciated the structure of the morning writing time, discussion groups, and afternoon consultations. I left each day knowing exactly what I needed to do for the next day’s writing and left the retreat with tips for how to sustain my productivity

Jeanelle Sears, Social Work. Participating in the Dissertation Writing Retreat provided me a cognitive and physical space of accountability that was so needed after months of stagnation. It also came at the perfect time, as my committee was expecting a draft of my early chapters in only a few weeks following this retreat. I came in on Monday morning with a ten-page conceptual paper and am leaving with more than 30 pages of drafted material and a solid outline for how the rest of the chapters will evolve. I appreciated not only the quiet time for independent writing, but also the camaraderie of fellow students and the writing center consultants. Both equally advanced my thinking about this project overall, and offered smaller strategies I can engage in for editing and organization, including leaving some things alone in the short-term. After all, the best dissertation is a done dissertation, and I have new energy to get mine over that finish line.

Jaime Thompson, Social Work. The Dissertation Writing Retreat at the U of L Writing Center has been refreshing and motivating. It is indeed a “retreat” as it allows you to purposefully withdraw from the hustle and bustle of your daily life to devote an entire week to writing and learning.  I highly recommend it to any Ph.D. student wanting to join a community and feel supported in the process of preparing your dissertation project, no matter what stage of the process you are in.

Consultants

Layne Gordon, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center and Ph.D. Student in Rhetoric and Composition. This week I was once again reminded of the power of talking through our ideas even as we’re struggling to form them. I think we still imagine the academic as someone who works in isolation–sitting in a room, at a computer, generating ideas that spring from her head alone. But this image ignores the fact that we need other people to talk to about our ideas and to encourage us when we’ve struck something good. This week, I learned every day from the writers I was working with because we shared so much as we were talking through their dissertation projects. For example, one of the writers I worked with this week came up with an excellent metaphor for her dissertation–nesting dolls. While talking about the scope of her work, she said it felt like she was starting with the baby: she had a very clear problem and research site in mind, but she had to find all the other contexts and conversations that surrounded that smaller, situated, local issue and describe those other contexts in her introductory chapter. I have found myself thinking about this metaphor all week, particularly as I have been working on my own dissertation prospectus. It has been so valuable to think about the conversations I am contributing to as nested. This metaphor encompasses so much about both the struggle and the excitement of creating a dissertation project, and it exemplifies just one of the many ways that my conversations with other writers this week have shaped how I’m thinking about my own work.

Rachel Gramer, (just completed) Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition. The Dissertation Writing Retreat has helped me think about how easy it is to internalize academic and dissertation writing practices (and rather quickly). So much of what I could offer as a tutor came from my recent dissertation writing experiences, which include but also transcend the immediate acts of writing words on screen or page. I was glad to share my experiences about the diss writing process, working with committee members, and the larger purpose of the dissertation in academia, in specific fields, and in graduate education. Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this week has been the privilege to create conditions for dissertation writers to feel heard and affirmed in their struggles and triumphs. It was such a pleasure to confirm for graduate student writers that yes, all writers make these mistakes; yes, all of us struggle with these issues; and yes, your writing is good, is clear, and is progressing. And yes, your ideas and contributions to your field are salient and needed–and writing your dissertation is the beginning of sharing your thoughts and findings with others, not The End.

Jamila Kareem, (just completed) Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition. This summer marks my second year at the Dissertation Writing Retreat. As a consultant this year, I found that working with Ph.D. students in Sociology and Social Work exposed me to ways to examine my own work through new theories and methodologies. When I completed the retreat as a participant, I learned the importance of conversing about my own work to understand how it appeared to others. This year, I relied on the importance of understanding others’ work so that our experiences—personal, professional, and scholarly—may help each other through the research and writing process as we all continue in this field of academia.

Jessica Newman, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing and Ph.D. Student in Rhetoric and Composition. As the assistant director for graduate student writing, I have spent much of the fall and spring semesters speaking with graduate students about their prospectuses and dissertations, but it was not until working at the dissertation writing retreat that I had the opportunity to truly see the writing process in action. Over the course of each day, the sounds shifted from the silence of 14 writers hard at work to the hum of the discussion groups to the noise of the writers at lunch, talking about dissertations and anything but, and then back to quiet as the day ended with writing and reflection. As a Ph.D. student in the early stages of her dissertation, I found it motivating and heartening to see this community form in just a few short days, to see writers sharing strategies and emotional support. I myself learned a lot that will help me as I move forward in the dissertation process.

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