Brent Coughenour, Consultant
I pulled up to the red light, slowly, and my brakes squeaked more than usual due to the thin layer of rainwater still on the ground from today’s shower. It was late, and Brianna and I were belting out Prince’s “When Doves Cry” as it played in my car’s stereo; actually, it was probably Prince’s fault that neither of us noticed the man approaching my passenger-side door, his eyes set on her. She turned and met his gaze before I did, and I felt the car shake when she jumped. Brianna yelped, and I looked over just as the man bent down to get a closer look into the car. He was bearded—a misshapen and half-shaved beard, but a beard nonetheless—and wore a dark pair of coveralls like some sort of blue collar worker would. He spoke to us—at us—but we couldn’t hear what he was saying; it almost looked like he were lip-syncing the Prince song, which was still playing as I had been too shocked to turn it off: “maybe I’m just like my father, too bold.”
“He’s trying to get in,” Brianna said, her voice soft and breathless, her eyes never breaking away from the man.
I shook my head and tried to remain calm. “No. He’ll go away.” I looked up to the light and silently pleaded for it to turn green.
Almost on cue, the man broke eye contact with Brianna and slipped back from the car. She sighed with relief, but I kept my eyes on him. Although he backed up from the window slightly, he came again to the car and slithered towards the rear passenger door.
As he reached his hand out to the door handle, I couldn’t remember if I had locked the doors….
Real life is scary. The above anecdote actually happened to me, and, although it’s not likely that my severed head would have ended up on that dude’s mantel, it scared me nonetheless. Still, I have an outlet that I can channel my fear, my insecurities, my thoughts, and my (unwanted?) opinions through: the written word. Writing is also scary, but it doesn’t have to be.
It often feels like writing is an impossible task—any kind of writing, not just academic. In the past I’ve read Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing,” Stephen King’s It, Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, and Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me and thought to myself: wow Brent, you’re never going to be as good a writer as these Kings and Queens, why are you even trying? But Past Brent missed the point. It isn’t possible to write like Stephen King. I am not Stephen King, I’m Brent, and I should write like Brent, finding my own voice and narrative direction, and, although I can try my hardest to emulate my favorite writers, I have to write what I can and stay true to myself. That sounds like a cheesy line from a John Hughes film, but it’s true. The greatest advice I ever received was from my undergraduate creative writing professor Dr. Rebbecca Brown: “write about what you don’t know about what you know.” Trust me, it isn’t as convoluted as it sounds.
The second best advice I ever received was from almost everyone else who has taught me the art of writing: “just write, darn it.” This is the tip that I typically apply to my own academic writing, and it’s also one that I typically prescribe to writers that enter the University Writing Center looking for help. Academic writing is daunting; in our position as college students, it can be easy to think that everything must be a certain way and everything must sound exactly the same. Although there is some truth to this, it’s not a myth that I subscribe to and it isn’t one that I follow. The fear of not fulfilling the requirements, or not writing as well as everyone else, is one that can absolutely cripple the motivation, the drive, and the desire to write something. Fears like this create the dreaded and infuriatingly capitalized Writer’s Block, and derail the entire process. My advice? Write and write and write. If you’ve been given a specific prompt and perhaps aren’t too familiar or comfortable with the assignment, write out what you can and get your thoughts, opinions, and knowledge down on paper. If you’re able to choose your own paper topic, lucky you! Pick something that interests you, like something in your own academic field, and tackle it head-on. Go until you can’t go anymore, and then bring it to the Writing Center and ask specifically for Nicole Dugan to help you out (because she’s a better writer than I am).
Writing is scary, man. I picked the above four works of literature to use as examples because, in their own special way, they terrify me. Whether I’m reading about Ted Bundy or the death of a child, I respond when it’s something that frightens me and puts me wholly out of my element, and I’ve found that I write better when something is challenging me as well. I’ll leave you with two more things to keep in mind. One, reading and writing go hand in hand. If you want to be a strong writer, be it academic writing or creative writing, you’ve got to keep reading. Find something you find interesting, or an author you enjoy, and read whatever you can find. And lastly, as good a writer as you are now or will become, realize that we’ll never be as good as future Nobel Laureates 2 Chainz and Kanye West because we didn’t write “Birthday Song,” which I’ll paraphrase below: when I die, bury me inside the Writing Center.