Category: Creative Writing

Poetry as a Form of Journaling for Inner Peace

Braydon Dungan, Writing Consultant

Journaling has become a common method for many individuals looking to begin a journey of healing and mindfulness. Journaling can be a great way to write down one’s thoughts as they come, removing any unwanted images that revolve around our mind and evicting them onto a sheet of paper. Something about taking the thoughts inside our head and placing them onto something tangible allows us to feel seen, to feel heard, to feel listened to.

Trauma can show itself in many forms and can arise from a variety of different circumstances. I know peers who experience trauma due to the death of a loved one, the effect of a poor mental health diagnosis, or the aftereffects of an abusive relationship. For me, I’ve struggled with speaking out about the trauma I’ve endured at the hands of those who wished to manipulate and abuse me. I’ve been conditioned to compartmentalize the abuse I’ve endured, and I’ve had to learn how to process the pain of the past in a way conducive to my own healing and mental health.

For some, journaling doesn’t have that helpful effect that it does on others. Journaling can seem difficult to maintain on a consistent basis, and it can often seem like an obstacle in a day already filled with plenty of challenges. In result, I’ve attempted to shift from journaling to writing poetry. Now, I don’t see myself as any sort of talented writer of poetry whatsoever; in fact, I’ve never really had much formal training in writing poetry at all. Still, I wanted to give it a shot due to my inadequacy at maintaining a consistent journaling schedule.

I’ve noticed that when I use poetry as a form of journaling, I’m able to ruminate and process the thoughts I have much more carefully than when I journal in a stream-of-consciousness manner. When I journal, I don’t really think about what I’m thinking… I simply recognize the thought in my head, transfer it to paper, and move onto the next thought.

With poetry, I force myself to visualize the words that swirl in my head, and I have to create abstract images and metaphors that relay the emotions I want to communicate to my intended audience. I don’t worry about poetry structure or rhythm; instead, I solely focus on the words, themselves, and the power each word brings to my page.

One of the most common manners I write poetry is directly towards an individual in my life. Sometimes, I write poetry about my family, and I allow myself to process and reflect on the love and positive emotions I have towards them. On the other hand, I also write about people who have pained me in the past, individuals who have taken it upon themselves to incur manipulation, deceit, and hate into my life.

I want to include a short poem I wrote in the middle of the night upon waking up from a trauma-induced nightmare:

my fear of drowning.

there were nights i used to wonder

if the void was worth the risk

of taking that first breath of water

i never wanted to feel it burn

like it did in the nightmares i had

of you with anybody else but me

I wasn’t sure how I could illustrate exactly how I felt. I didn’t want to write down what happened in my nightmare and force myself to relive it; instead, I just wanted to process what had happened, and one of the most effective ways to do this was by comparing my trauma to the painful act of drowning. I didn’t write this to wallow in my sorrows or to draw attention to myself; I wrote this for me, for healing, for the place I want to be, the place I strive to get to every day of my life.

Now, when I talk to those around me who struggle with their own trauma and mental health challenges, I encourage them to use poetry as journaling.

And now, I challenge you; take a moment, close your eyes, and allow whichever thoughts that naturally creep in to be recognized and not shoved away. Take five minutes and write yourself a quick poem; think of metaphors, images, senses. Don’t worry about rhyming or the structure of your poem—just write!

I can assure you that after writing your poem, you will feel more clearheaded than you did before. Let’s all take an opportunity out of our hectic, challenging days to ruminate on our thoughts and turn them into something beautiful, powerful, and tangible.

Healing Trauma Through Writing

Elizabeth Pope, Writing Consultant

Writing is academic, scholarly, and creative in genres of poetry, prose, fiction, or creative non-fiction. Writing is publishable, presentable at conferences, or shoved into a drawer never to look at again. As a woman and first year Ph.D. student with an M.A. in English Literature and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, I value the integrity of writing as an art form. At the same time, I honor writing as an inclusive act of expression that extends beyond degree, career, or publication. Writing held my hand through tough times, and it is this practice of writing as an act of healing that transcends art, craft, or accolade. Writing is primordial as hieroglyphics and essential as meditation. Writing is also a friend, prayer, and eternal question.  

On February 11, 2022, I began to write again for the first time since the pandemic began after graduating in the summer of 2020 with my M.F.A. and entering the chaos of new systems of public virtual schooling for my daughters, while my husband worked as an essential worker within Covid-units, Covid-tent construction, and Covid-vaccine construction as an electrical contractor within hospitals. In February, I began a recovery journey with my daughter after her spinal fusion, years of physical therapy with Norton Neuroscience and Spinal Rehabilitation Center, and preparatory surgery appointments at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. When her spinal curve entered a degree that was detrimental to her heart and lungs, during the height of the pandemic, we had to wait until she was of age for vaccines to proceed with the spinal fusion with the intention of limiting possible complications. I was not able to write through this time of preparing for her surgery. It was hard to comprehend her vulnerability, complexity of the surgery, and pain of her recovery. It was not until her time in the hospital that I was able to speak about the actual surgery, ask her team of doctors about anatomy, and specifics of what occurred during her spinal fusion. I began to write about the process of her immediate post-surgery in the hospital during times that she slept without interruption from nurses, pain teams, or doctors. During these quiet and dim moments in the hospital room, I wrote about uncertainties, reliefs from a successful surgery, anatomy of the spine (an aspect that I was unable to confront until post-surgery was successful), and the hardships of seeing someone that I love in immense pain.

What I wrote in the late hours of the hospital room was what I was unable to verbalize with doctors, nurses, family, and friends. I wrote about the relief that overshadowed lack of sleep, uncertainty of home recovery, and life after post-recovery. In a pandemic and post-pandemic world the hospital is a healing but isolating place. It provides a quiet introspection that is lonely if an outlet is not provided. Writing was the healing outlet for me as art therapy was a healing outlet for my daughter and other patients. I was not singular in writing as a method of connecting with presence of the tasks at hand, fears of the possibility of what might have gone wrong, what was going wrong, or as a way to connect to support systems who were unable to visit the hospital during the de-escalation of heightened Covid-19 concerns. CaringBridge is a media outlet that is provided to parents, guardians, and caregivers who have patients within hospital settings.  

There are nights you can see screens within patient’s rooms glowing from parents updating their CaringBridge accounts for friends, family, or their child’s friends—who are also support systems outside of the hospital. Time seems to evaporate inside rooms of a hospital. Days are nights and nights are days. Moments are fast paced or desolate when the child is resting. It is in those quiet moments that writing in a journal, social media outlet, text, email, or mode of connection like CaringBridge provides parents moments of reflection and expression after hours, days, weeks, months, or years of attempting to remain calm and collected through high-stress environments. The act of putting what is unspoken to paper allows the stress of an experience to transform from what is carried, or what is afraid to be said, into an acceptance that is tangible. Writing, in this way, is a reconciliation with traumas that are unrecognizable and carried through complicated and demanding situations. Writing in this way is also a reflection, retrospection, and method of measuring what is overcome.

Writing, in a recovery or hospital setting, allows for articulate and direct conversations with doctors, teams, and nurses. Writing allowed me to move past emotional responses of worry, frustration, and sadness to arrive at rationality that allowed for focus on immediate questions such as: if her pain management is not working what other option might be enacted immediately? Writing is an act of presence and hope that if the trauma is shared—even if it is an unrecognizable trauma—it is no longer a secret, fear to harbor, or shame to suppress. In this way writing is an act of healing.

I did not keep any of the writings from the surgery, in hospital, recovery, or homecare recovery. I erased it all. Her struggle to process her own traumatic event was not something that I wanted her to relive or that I wanted to relive. Although she is fully recovered and the surgery is a distant memory, there was a time when our inability to communicate shared fears and grief was stalled. After the experience and anticipation of the surgery, writing offered moments of connection to what was difficult, hopes of a better life for someone that I loved, and reflections of strengths that I witnessed in my child. I wrote to remember moments when she encountered specific obstacles with bravery, such as when she began to walk again downstairs (one step, two feet at a time) when she walked long distances outside of a wheelchair, and when she ran and slid into a homerun in her softball league this summer. I wrote to remind her that obstacles in life are inevitable, she overcame them once, so in the future she will overcome them again. I wanted to remember moments that she did not give up, overcame something hard, and moments that it was important to simply listen and not speak except into paper and ink.

Of Course I’m a Writer: How Feedback Helps Shape Writing Identity

Maddy Decker, Program Assistant, Senior

I always hesitate to call myself a writer despite having wanted to be one since elementary school. It feels like I’m pretending to be something that I’m not, but I am a writer. I write. It’s that simple. Sometimes I just need some help reminding myself of that.

This past summer, I attended a week-long workshop as part of completing the requirements for my Creative Writing MFA. I was excited for the opportunity to get back in a workshop, but a part of me dreaded going. Since my program is low-residency, I was nervous about meeting my classmates and professors face-to-face for the first time. Additionally, the last workshop I had participated in made me a little hesitant about putting my work back out there. I dragged my feet while preparing until I finally speed-wrote two new flash pieces to bring with me, stuffing them into my overcrowded backpack and trying to pretend they didn’t exist.

I arrived at Chateau Lesbian (my friend and her wife refuse to let me call their apartment anything else), rolled my suitcase into the guest room, and then immediately left for my first required event. I was joining the second week of the residency, while most people had also attended the first week. It seemed like everyone already knew each other, and while they were all kind and welcoming, I was still intimidated. How would we work together in class? Would they still seem so nice after we picked apart each other’s stories?

I arrived the next day and tried to stay calm, but my efforts were thwarted when I abruptly remembered that my piece was up first for workshop. I was overwhelmed with concern about how weird and rushed and personal my writing was, but it was time to confront my fears. When prompted, I began reading: “This is called The Salami Kids…”

Workshop. Was. AMAZING! My classmates were generous with their feedback, both praise and criticism, and I loved every minute of it. My pen begged for mercy as I scribbled down notes and ideas for revision. Suddenly, I could see how to take everything a little bit further and tighten up the loose ends. My piece became more than just a page of words I’d thrown together to meet the submission deadline: it had potential, and I wanted to keep working on it. I felt a thousand times better. I felt like a writer.

Working the front desk at the University Writing Center, I often hear from other people who insist that they are not writers. I hear things like “I’m not a writer” or “I’m just doing this for class.” When I hear this, I respond, “Of course you’re a writer. You’re writing in here!” This doesn’t always seem to make a difference, but it’s important to me that I say it anyway.

When you visit the Writing Center, you are a writer, no matter what kind of writing you are working on. This is why you will often hear us refer to you as “writers” rather than clients or students. We want to reinforce the idea that you are someone who writes, and that you are allowed to call yourself a writer. In fact, this is something that we cover at orientation at the beginning of the year, because one of our top priorities is helping you to gain confidence and agency in your writing and your identity as a writer.

I have a BA and an MA in English, and I’m halfway through my Creative Writing MFA. I’ve written countless papers and stories of my own, and I’ve helped with so many more during the three years that I worked as a writing consultant. My work has been published, and I’ve even received awards for a couple of my short stories. When I step back and look at it objectively, it seems obvious to me that I’m a writer, but I still regularly face the fear of using that word for myself.

I share this to show that even someone with years of writing experience is still scared of being a “writer.” This is something that I confront daily, both for myself and with the writers who visit my desk. There is no cure-all, but there are steps you can take to grow your confidence and foster your writing identity. One of the most beneficial things that you can do is share your work with others. This helps you to become more involved with your process, as well as to take ownership of your words. Also, it’s exciting! Thinking out loud in collaboration with feedback from others can be so generative, and you’ll come up with ideas you hadn’t thought of before.

Read your work to your friends, share it with a writing group, or visit one of our consultants at the University Writing Center! We welcome all UofL students, staff, and faculty, and we work with all kinds of writing, at any point in the writing process. I hope that you visit and that when your appointment is over, you leave thinking, Of course I’m a writer!

The Shape of Writing: Halloween and Writing Go Hand-in-Hand

Andrew Messer, Writing Consultant

There was a conversation I had with Dr. Bronwyn Williams, the director of our community of writing consultants, where he told me that all spy movies are literacy narratives. Well, that got me thinking, truly thinking—and this may very well have been the first time I had a truly deep thought in months, coming fresh off of summer break at the time—about what other stories are technically literacy narratives. Some other types of action movies, sure. Superheroes? It’s possible to make that argument. However, fate would grant me a serendipitous revelation just as it was time to write up a blog post of my own. What better day to talk about the literacy of horror movies than today, Halloween? And better yet, is there a more apt movie to talk about than John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)? I think not.

We find literacy in Carpenter’s film in a variety of ways, most notably in the question of why Michael Myers wears his signature mask. There are a myriad of answers, and one of them is that he is trying to hide. The movie begins with Michael hiding from his sister before he, well… you know what happens. Michael isn’t just hiding his face though: he is hiding his ability to be read. He withholds from both the viewer and the other characters of the film the ability to be read and understood. It takes great effort, strife, horror, as well as some sleuthing for the characters to finally track down Michael from his old home to the killings he gets up to throughout the film. It takes a great deal of intellectual and psychological literacy for the doctor to track Michael across Haddonfield to his showdown with Laurie Strode.

Now, you might be wondering—I know I sure was—what has this to do at all with writing or writing center work. Great question! All of these aspects of literacy shown in Halloween started to remind me of something oddly familiar—the writing process itself. Fellow horror buffs may recall, but in the script for Carpenter’s film, Myers is referred to as the Shape; I think this is an apt metaphor for beginning the writing process, for what is the beginning of a draft but a vague shape? The Shape of drafting can be many things: procrastination, intimidation, a confusing prompt or topic, or even something as scary as a new or unfamiliar genre. The Shape finds a way to haunt all of us when we start the drafting process, and it tries to turn us into Bob if we let it.

Starting a paper is much like the events of this film: scary and disjointed without a lot to keep the threads together. Sometimes the meaning and message remains masked, if you’ll excuse the pun. Sometimes it can be something you feel like running from, avoiding it until the last minute. Sometimes you must be Laurie Strode and—metaphorically, of course—stab at your paper wildly with a knitting needle until something comes out loosely approximating what you are trying to accomplish. Either way, the Shape must be confronted to move forward, and often that is done by looking back on what you have accomplished in the past. Relying on your knowledge and the skills in literacy and writing that you have developed over many years of being a thoughtful and insightful human being.

And insightful you are. You are a writer and a reader all-in-one, and just like Laurie you will figure out what the Shape is. Though you may not always unmask it in the end, and sometimes when you think you have finished a draft the Shape will haunt you still. Yet again, just like Laurie, you are not alone. If need be, let the Writing Center be your Loomis: let us help you uncover the Shape of your writing because there is no need to face it alone. Writing, much like surviving a slasher, is a collaborative process—oftentimes taking much more planning and effort to overcome than previously thought possible. But we are here, and we know the Shape just as you do.

This all makes it seem so horrifying, and perhaps this analogy might scare you away from ever writing again. However, dear reader, if you are anything like me, then you will understand that pit in your stomach when you start to write something new. The Shape looming oppressively near you, watching from the corner and remaining masked and hidden from view. Yet, you must remember to always carry the will of Laurie Strode inside you. Clutch tightly to that knitting needle, cower for a moment if you need to, but in the end we all must face the Shape, and more often than not, we win in the end.

Happy Halloween, and happy writing!

Halloween. Directed by John Carpenter, Compass International Pictures, 1978.

Put Your Heart in It: Creative Writing’s Place in an Academic Space

Liz Soule, Assistant director

After a two-year break from creative writing, I stumbled my way back into it through fan fiction this past March. Although I would never judge another writer for finding inspiration in fan works, I confess feeling a bit ashamed by my own admission. Halfway through a 2,000 word story exploring a deeply emotional conflict between two characters that were not my own creation, I started to wonder: shouldn’t my time be taken up by more intellectual pursuits? I could have been reading for a class or starting a paper. Wasn’t this a waste of precious time and mental energy?

Whether you’re writing that crossover fanfic you’ve had percolating in your brain for the past six months or even something more traditional, I am sure that you, too, have wondered where your creative writing endeavors fit in within the grand scheme of your academic journey. In an academic culture that focuses so intently on making the grade, it is hard to see the benefits of any pursuit that does not result in some kind of marked increase in your GPA.

But if writing pedagogy tells us anything, it is that writing processes extend far beyond the context of one assignment, genre, or even discipline. Academic writing and creative writing doubtlessly have a symbiotic relationship. But what does this look like? How can we rationalize our continued pursuit of creative writing?

Hoping to learn more about this, I spoke with two of my colleagues at the University Writing Center, Maddy Decker and Andrew Messer. Maddy serves as the senior program assistant in the University Writing Center, and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Eastern Kentucky University. She also leads the creative writing group! Andrew is a writing consultant, and is pursuing an MA in English at the University of Louisville. Both are prolific creative writers! In brief interviews, I asked them how creative writing and academic writing have interacted for them.

For Andrew, writing creatively has revealed new ways to express himself across the board. “Creative writing helped me find a voice,” he explained. That voice carries through to his academic assignments, allowing him room to creatively approach essays and apply his unique style to many different kinds of writing. He intentionally practices this, developing creative ways to complete assignments each time he gets one.

Similarly, Maddy describes creative writing as granting her “a little bit more flexibility.” Like Andrew, she doesn’t feel locked into a particular formula when it comes to academic writing. Rather, the perspective she’s gleaned through creative writing gives her “a different idea of what forms academic writing can take.” She also brings her own stylistic flare to her academic work through the use of heightened figurative language.

Likewise, the two have found that academic writing can influence their creative processes. Andrew’s experiences with writing academically, particularly in composition courses, made him become much more aware of the role of audience in any piece of writing. “I became a lot more aware of the external audience and now try to be cognizant that people are going to read it and they need to understand,” he said. When it comes to creative writing, this means making what is implicit more explicit.

Speaking on the influence of academic courses in her creative writing, Maddy said: “They feed each other a lot.” She has used the material from courses, such as a forensic anthropology course, to create new content. Some of her current projects stem from past courses she took during her undergraduate career.

Andrew and Maddy aren’t alone in feeling this way. For me, I have found that creative writing helps me gain momentum. I put aside my perfectionism to write silly stories about characters, and it remains suspended as I transition into other activities. Starting an assignment is always a struggle for me, but when I begin with creative writing, I feel like the words fly out of my fingers and onto the page. And, perhaps more importantly, my experiences with creative writing have taught me to be open to revision. I know that I can (and should) write, rewrite, and rewrite again.

In closing out our interviews, I asked both Andrew and Maddy to share any words of wisdom they had for maintaining creative writing endeavors while in school. After all, even if you know the benefits of writing creatively, it can be hard to make the space for it.

Andrew recommended taking literature courses, if possible, because “you’ve gotta read for those courses, so you’re still expanding your repertoire.” He also shared a nugget of wisdom from his creative writing professors: “If you wanna write, then read!”

Maddy insisted that writers make time for creative writing, even if it’s in small ways. She advocated for writing whatever comes to you. “Having that interest stay alive is the priority. Just make sure your heart is still in it,” she said.

I hope that you find validation in what we’ve shared here today. Know that if you’re ever in doubt of the place your creative writing has within your process or program, here at the University Writing Center, we are happy to help you build those connections and find your flow.

Interested in writing creatively? Join us at the Creative Writing Group, led by Maddy! Meetings are held in person in the University Writing Center (Ekstrom 132) from 5:30 – 7pm on the following Mondays:

October 10th

November 14th

December 5th

For more information, please email us at writing@louisville.edu or call us at 502-852-2173.

Positive Vibrations

Tobias Lee, PhD Candidate and Writing Consultant

One of the things I love about working in the University Writing Center is the exposure I get to so much fascinating and important work.  I’ve read about entrepreneurship among Rohingya refugees, the impact of sexual health on longevity, green building practices in sports venues, what Afrofuturism tells us about our history….  Pardon my childlike gushing, but it’s so cool!  This is why I love academia.  People are creating knowledge here!  Aaaand that leads me to what I’ve been writing about.  Yep, knowledge.

What, really, does it mean to create new knowledge?  What is knowledge?  Wait!  Don’t go away yet!  I promise, it’ll be interesting.  I won’t put you to sleep.  Well I might… but you’ve been needing to catch up on sleep, haven’t you?  Knowledge… well, let’s begin with a bromide: they say “knowledge is power.”  Get the knowledge, then you’ll have power.  Go to school, learn some stuff, and now you’re Captain America.  We all want to feel powerful.  Nobody’s angling to be powerless.  Well yes maybe but…  But let’s think this through a bit.  Power is the ability to do something, it’s potential.  You learn some stuff to empower yourself to do things.  But it won’t mean much if you don’t actually ever do.  So it’s the doing that matters.  You might “know” some things, but it’s what that does, it’s how that shapes your behavior and creates material effects in the world, that has any importance or value.  You might know what the capital of Georgia is or how to juggle five balls, but unless and until that brings you glory at your local pub quiz or impresses everybody at the party including that certain someone, it’s uh, purely academic.  It’s just information, neutral and inert, until its usage has material effects.  And the imperfect predictability of these results and the results of those results and of everything is what elevates knowledge over information.  

So maybe the phrase, “knowledge is power,” while pithy, doesn’t quite get us there.  A focus on material effects, on application, urges us toward a different understanding of knowledge.  I think Wanda Orlikowski (2002, 2006) gets it right when she talks about knowledge as practice.  Ah.  So it’s doing something.  It’s in the doing.  Knowing about car engines versus actually getting that car right there to run again.  Knowing physics versus actually getting someone to the moon.  

Orlikowski elaborates.  “Know-how” is a capability generated through action.  And this requires repeated actions.  These sustain the “know-how” while also, of course, adapting it, improving it, expanding it, in some way changing it.  So the idea that knowledge is some inert, stable thing or repository of things is an illusion.  It looks that way because we keep repeating it.  It’s a bit like how a movie looks real because our mind does that little trick of stitching all those individual images together into a fluid whole.  Except in this case the individual images are events, actions, each very similar yet slightly different from the last.  Or it’s like how an insect wing looks like it’s not moving but is actually flapping a zillion times a second.  Just remember that the wing itself is not stable either.  It’s also changing, growing, aging.  Did you know that trees vibrate?  Knowledge, then, is like a tree, always changing, or okay but really more accurately, knowledge, as practice, is change.  There is nor was there ever no stable thing that then changes slightly.  It’s always changing.  Indeed, this is how we know change, and recognizing change is how we mark time, and for that matter, space.  How you like them apples?  But let’s not bite off more than we can chew in one blog post…

What does this mean for knowing how to write?  That’s what you tuned in for, right?  I thought knowing how to write was, basically, you know, learning some vocabulary and nailing down the grammatical rules.  That would be nice.  Then it’d be a simple matter of collect all twelve!  Buy the Happy Meal, get the toy, put it on your shelf, repeat.  Trade them with your friends.  Trade them for money!  But surely thou didst know that language changeth over time and space.  Aye, ’tis ne’er so stable a thing as me lord thus willeth thou what okay nevermind.  No it doesn’t work that way.  The rules are mere conventions, and dig a little and you’ll find considerable disagreement about and variation even within those conventions.  Word meanings are always changing (read the etymology of your favorite word on the OED or spend five minutes browsing the Urban Dictionary), sustained through practice and but also thereby always changing.  This isn’t a movie, no nice tidy plots.  Knowing how to write, like all knowing, is an “ongoing social accomplishment, constituted and reconstituted in everyday practice” (Orlikowski, 2002, p252).  

So when you’re learning to write (or more accurately, when you’re writing), you’re participating in and contributing to the way things are (more accurately, appear to be) for a given context (or to be fancy, discourse community), such as your discipline.  An interesting little thought exercise, no?  It calls into question all sorts of things that we take for granted, and it’s massively inconvenient.  It gums up the works.  How do we know what’s right any more?  Goodness me.  But on the other hand and at the very least, it also means you should stop berating yourself, if indeed you were.  That whole impostor syndrome.  That anxiety.  That feeling of inferiority.  You can dial that back a bit.  You’re not “bad at writing” and they are not always and everywhere good at it.  You’re joining a community (such a nice-sounding word), and that community has a way of doing things.  They’re a bit anxious to keep it that way ’cause it seems to work, to produce some desirable results.  But it is nevertheless changing, a living thing, and it lives, in part, because of you.  


References

Orlikowski, W. (2002). Knowing in practice: Enacting a collective capability in distributed organizing. Organization Science, 13(3), 249-273.


Orlikowski, W. (2006). Material knowing: The scaffolding of human knowledgeability. European Journal of Information Systems, 15, 460-466.

Navigating Burnout

Eli Megibben, Writing Consultant

Hi, my name is Eli and I am burnt out. I hear my alarm go off in the morning and I say “no”. My loved ones ask me how much work I have to do before the end of the semester and I say, “I’m not comfortable answering that question right now”. As much as I want to lay down right this very minute and take a big fat nap for five or six or seven days, that’s not really an option right now. Instead, I have to write. I like writing. I’m good at writing. As a general rule, writing brings me joy. At this moment in my life, writing has become a chore. My joy from and talent for writing are still there, but I’m having a hard time sifting through the stress and exhaustion from a particularly rough semester (both academically and personally) to find them. As much as I don’t want to write today, but I have to. It’s nonnegotiable. In the spirit of this, I thought I’d take this blogging opportunity to share three ways I try to manage my own burn out and get writing done even when I don’t feel like it:

  1. Pace yourself with structured work time and break time.

 When I’m staring down the barrel of a very homework-y day, I organize my time in 20- or 30-minute chunks. 20-30 minutes of reading for class, 20-30 minutes of reading for fun. 20-30 minutes of writing an outline, 20-30 minutes doodling. 20-30 minutes of writing a blog post for the University Writing Center website, 20-30 minutes of taking a walk. Pacing myself and strictly limiting both my work and break time helps me keep my energy up for the day. Also notice that I didn’t say anything about “20-30 minutes on Facebook reading about that person from high school’s really messy breakup” or “20-30 minutes of looking up ‘how long until they finish cloning that Wooly Mammoth they found in Siberia last year?””. I know that once I start goofing off on the internet, then all of the nice discipline I’ve observed throughout the day will go out the window and suddenly four hours will have elapsed, and I’ll still be texting my friends screenshots of articles quoting arrogant biologists claiming that we shouldn’t try to bring back prehistoric mammals with the caption “can you believe this chump?’” And then I will wonder where my day has gone and why I haven’t gotten anything done. Maybe you’re better than me and know how to use the internet in moderation when tasked with something you don’t have the energy to do. Or maybe you and I are more alike than either of us want to admit.

2. Establish physical boundaries between you and your work

Ah, “boundaries”. My second-favorite “b-word”. I don’t know about you, but I love a good boundary. Whether its boundaries with work, friends, or even the cashier at CVS who felt compelled to tell me about what life was like leading up to her most recent colonoscopy, I use boundaries to protect my (waning) energy and (frail) emotions a lot these days. Unfortunately, this this current cultural moment doesn’t really support my affection for boundaries. And that pesky plague we’ve all been surviving for almost 25 months has made the issue worse. Possibly the most effective boundary I have with work is determining where I do my work. I let myself work on the computer or read wherever I’m comfortable –in my office, in my yard, at a coffee shop, even on the couch if that’s what I need that day— while also establishing a few spaces as “no work zones”. My bedroom is one of those places. By making my room a “rest only” area, it is easier for me to shift out of work mode and have more meaningful and effective rest. I know some folks don’t have the luxury of being able to spread out enough to make their entire bedroom a “no work zone”, and when I was in that position as an undergraduate, I made my bed the “no work zone”. Even in a cramped dorm room, I made these boundaries work by dropping $30 on trampoline chair that I could fold up and slide into a corner when not in use. Separating work spaces from break spaces is a trick I have employed since I was in high school and it has helped me to make the most out of my rest, even when I am not getting very much of it.

3. Let yourself be kind of a smart aleck

The other two tips are pretty general “navigate burnout” tips. This one is specifically for writing. Have you ever found yourself staring glassy-eyed at the blinking cursor of a blank Microsoft Word document wondering how the hell you are going to write a paper about an assigned reading that you absolutely despised? A reading that made your stomach spasm a little? A reading that made you question if learning how to read was even worth it? I know I’ve had plenty of those readings in my life as a student and they usually leave me with nothing nice to say. And in those cases, I let the bitterness out. I write the snarkiest intro paragraph I can muster. And by the time I have something vile written down, I’m not staring at a blank Word Document anymore and I’m able to proceed with the paper. Being a smart aleck during the preliminary writing stages doesn’t necessarily get you any closer to hitting your page count, but it will help you exorcise some of your frustration and can help you power through and get it done.

*Please note that your smart-aleck interludes should not be included in your final draft. Do not turn in something rude and unpleasant to your professor. It’s not cute and they are not paid enough to deal with that.


Burnout is a monster. It is also transient and won’t last forever. When I am at the very end of my rope, I like to remind myself (or, more often, let someone else remind me) that being in school is a blessing. An education is one of the few things in the world that nobody can take from you. It is an investment in yourself. This experience is stressful and overwhelming, and we are all so tired. And it’s manageable. Pace yourself, make you physical spaces work and rest-friendly, trust the process and don’t be afraid to indulge in some silliness along the way. Friendly reminder that you’re here for a reason, even if that reason isn’t clear yet. Read your readings, write your papers, and manage your burnout the best you can. I’m right there with you, and I’m rooting for you.

Taking Stock of Your Revisions

Derrick Neese, Writing Consultant

I have made chicken stock more times than I can count. Four times a week over the course of a fifteen-year culinary career really adds up. There is a large pot of stock simmering on my stove as I write this, a weekly ritual I cannot abandon despite trading my chef knife for a pen four years ago. And while I want to talk about a few generalizable revision tips today, I am reminded how all those years of cooking have informed my writing process, so let’s start by discussing the perfect batch of broth.

            I started making stock eighteen year ago. Back then, I aimed for excellence, mirroring my mentor’s movements, seeing how he chopped the culinary trinity of mirepoix—two parts onion, one part carrot, and one part celery—breathing in the aromatic cauldron of rosemary and thyme while I learned from the best. The six-hour repetition of producing liquid gold became my obsession, and by the hundredth pot I foolishly thought I had attained a mastery. After five hundred, I realized I was only scratching the surface. Like with any craft, there was a wealth of nuance and depth I’d never even considered. I began reevaluating details, trying to notice every modifiable aspect of the process. Was I roasting the bones too long or not long enough? Should I have blanched them? Why did I put the parsley in so early? I also started reading books by great chefs like Escoffier, Child, and Keller, taking in the identical elements of their methods and blending them with my own. Each subsequent attempt became a chance to learn and improve, with every minor modification written down. The herb infused pot bubbling in my kitchen is a result of those efforts. Is it the perfect batch? No. After all that effort, I learned perfection isn’t the point. Discovering my own process is what has mattered most.

            I started writing stories the week I turned thirty. While it was a tough transition at first, the more I wrote and revised, the more I realized those culinary lessons could translate to my writing. Just like with my stock, it was all about figuring out my own style. I found that I write my best stories in the morning, and that if I’m excited about an idea, the story tells itself. I trained my creativity by reading greats like Baldwin, Bradbury, and Vonnegut, taking the best ingredients from their styles and whisking them into my own. But most of all, like with the daily process of improvement I had picked up in the kitchen, I figured out how my writing ticked from the iterative act of revision.

            One of the biggest questions I get when consulting with creative writers in the UofL Writing Center is: How do I know if I’m going in the right direction? The only answer I’ve found, as simple as it sounds, is that we all learn best through thorough revision. And although every writer is different, here are some basic revision principles to help any writer find what works for them, my own culinary trinity of noticing, asking why, and putting it away.

            #1 Notice: A critical aspect of revision, from beginning to end, is noticing the choices we make and turning them into a list. I mean this in the simplest of terms: Read your draft and mark down any line and or that doesn’t feel quite right. Try rereading the piece faster and see what happens. Does the feeling go away? If it doesn’t, you have isolated a concern. The key to finding successful revision strategies comes from learning to notice the peculiar aspects of your own writing, turning those thoughts into a list, and adding to the list when you see something new. Sound simple? That’s because it is. The repetition of noticing is one of the most essential tools in a writer’s kit.

            # 2 Ask why: To make the best stock I could, I questioned every aspect of the process, from how large I cut my vegetables, down to what kind of strainer I used to obtain the final product. The same goes for my writing. Why did I start with a long sentence in the second paragraph of this blog? What’s with the whole ‘culinary trinity’ thing? Is it cheesy? Probably. With your newfound noticed list in hand, critically question your own process. Write those questions down as they appear and keep reading. Oftentimes, an answer will arrive unannounced moments later and resolve an entire paragraph of concerns. Even when you think you have found that magical solution, ask why and when and where. Never stop questioning, because the more you do, the more you will notice about your process, resulting in a deliberate approach.

            #3 Put it away. After reading a draft a dozen times, you might start feeling stuck. Put the piece away and let your thoughts simmer. I’ve struggled with individual scenes from a story for weeks, eventually tossing the draft aside in frustration, only to stew on the idea and find a fully cooked solution when I least expected it. You never know when an idea will appear, but it is vital to trust that it will. This also goes for unused scraps. If you notice a sentence or paragraph isn’t working, paste it to a new document or scrap of paper and forget about it. I’ve had scraps from one story save a scene in another after weeks of failed solutions. Those opportunities disappear when you delete bad lines. So put it away for a while and know that the answer will come, even if it doesn’t happen today.

            The toughest part of writing is figuring out the fine details of our process. There are no quick workarounds to that. To find those answers, we must become vigilant noticers, examining every aspect of our writing, and organizing strategies around what we consistently see. There will never be a perfect recipe for chicken stock or immaculate revision strategy, but by surrounding our processes with attention, we have the chance to make them wonderfully ours.

Titles: Topics and Subjects at the Top of the Page

Curtis Ehrich, Writing Consultant

If you couldn’t already tell, this blog post is all about titles. How to make ‘em, what to do with ‘em, and what they are for. Ever since high school, titles have been one of the most effective ways I get myself to care about my writing. In undergrad, I would come up with all sorts of fun titles, usually a pun or pop culture reference, just to get my creative juices going, and to get myself thinking critically about the material. It was one of the ways I made academic writing—which I hate—more interesting and (frankly) more bearable. Some of my favorite’s included references to Star Wars’ terrible dialogue writing (“Now this is podracing”) when I wrote a paper for a film study course analyzing the podracing scene from The Phantom Menace, and a reference to The Princess Bride’s RUSes in a paper for my Linguistics course all about agglutinative languages (languages that make new words by tacking on more and more suffixes and prefixes), that I cleverly titled “Words of Unusual Size.” While making fun titles is a great way to get the gears turning creatively, it doesn’t always do much to describe your paper to your reader, especially if you are like me and are in grad school and don’t get to have fun anymore.

The University of Michigan has a great resource for how to create compelling academic paper titles. The academic title consists of three parts: the hook, key terms, and a location. The hook is the part of your title that will give you the most creative freedom. It is the element of your title that draws in your reader, what makes them want to read your paper in the first place. Try to pick out the most interesting part of your paper or try to distill your paper down into one or two words to help guide your hook. I wrote a paper last semester about Moll Cutpurse, a fascinating character from Renaissance England. The paper was all about how Cutpurse represented gender presentation that was inherently transgressive in just about every way imaginable. For my hook I chose “Transgressive Sexuality.” Key terms are helpful for describing what your paper is about to your reader. They are usually terms essential to the topic of your paper, and if you are looking to publish, using key terms in your title will make your paper easier to find in a database. Think of your title as a sort of logline of your paper, the briefest of elevator pitches. They should give your reader an immediate understanding of what the purpose of your essay is, and the concepts you will be discussing in your paper. These are very rarely interesting, and typically very literal describers of the contents of your paper. For example, returning to my Moll Cutpurse example, for my key terms, I chose “Cross-dressing and Transvestitism.” The location gives context for the concepts being discussed and the scope of the paper all at once. What you use as your location will vary depending on what you are writing about, the genre you are writing in, and the discipline you are writing from. For an English paper, this might look like the time period in which a text was written, or if you’re taking a New Critical approach, it might just be a character’s name and the title of the text in which they appear. If you are writing a more scientific paper, it will probably look more like the data sample you are studying. For my Moll Cutpurse paper, my location was “Jacobean London”

As an example, a full title might look something like “The Imperialist Adventure of a Lifetime: Robinson Crusoe and Postcolonialism in the Context of Defoe’s Puritanism.” Something like that, if you were to write a paper on Robinson Crusoe. Of course, my full Moll Cutpurse title was “Transgressive Sexuality: Cross Dressing and Transvestitism in Jacobean London.” Or, if I were to draft a scientific paper, it might look something like “AI Doctors: Cancer Screening and Machine Learning in Patients 65 and Up.” In the first example, “The Imperialist Adventure of a Lifetime” acts as our hook, describing the basic premise of the paper in an interesting way. “Robinson Crusoe and Postcolonialism” are obviously our key terms, and “Defoe’s Puritanism” is the location, giving us all the context, the reader needs to understand exactly what this paper is going to be talking about. In the second example, the locations of the hook, key terms, and location are in the same place, performing all the same jobs.

This method of academic title creation is clearly a versatile and useful tool to keep in your back pocket if you ever get stuck. I’ll be using it myself on my final papers this semester. But don’t let this method stifle your creativity! This method is just one of the many ways to create a title, and it is by no means the “best” way. There’s an adage in writing pedagogy that says, “the best way to learn to write is to read.” That be made even more specific for titles: “the best way to write titles is to read titles.”  But sometimes, if you just need to get yourself interested in writing, just coming up with a creative, fun title does the trick.


Works Cited

Writing, Sweetland Center of. “How Do I Write a Great Title.” University of Michigan https://lsa.umich.edu/sweetland/undergraduates/writing-guides/how-do-i-write-a-great-title-.html. Accessed 10 March 2022.

Wrestling with the Blank Page

Zoe Donovan, Writing Consultant

One of the most daunting things to a writer or student is the blank page. While thinking on the topic of this specific blog post I found myself paralyzed by choice. “A short blog about writing” could mean anything. I started writing, erased the first line, started over. Editing as a I went, I found myself held back from what the point of this was, that I was getting caught up in the minutiae of writing instead of actually writing.

 I am, of course, being somewhat hyperbolic in the above paragraph, but it isn’t far off from my experience engaging with past and current writing projects. We tend to get caught up in the sentence we are constructing rather than the point of the piece.  

I find that taking a step back from that detail-oriented nature can do more good than letting an inner editor take over constantly. Instead, try to focus on getting something on the page. Prohibit yourself from using the backspace, repeat your points and repeat yourself in different ways. This type of repetition can be monotonous in a final draft, but a mock-up first draft can provide a writer with options when returning to the piece.

Then, once you have created something, step back, make a cup of tea, meander over your thoughts. Take the evening, day or week. Then use this piece that is what I lovingly refer to as a “word explosion” to create an outline and reorganize your thoughts. Returning to it with a fresh head can prevent you from becoming fatigued over a specific project or idea. From there, you can make edits, rewrite sections, omit unnecessary information, reorganize your thoughts, and fully flesh out points in your future drafts.

It is impossible to edit a blank document. Good writing takes multiple attempts, revisions, and proofreading. Half the battle is getting something on the page. In addition to this, it is exceptionally difficult to fully edit an unfinished piece, because you don’t know what additional context you need to provide, you can’t know how to transition into or from a paragraph or idea that you don’t yet have on the page.

Silencing my inner editor during my initial draft has become my go-to in the last few years. In the past, I have often been struck with choice paralysis or perfectionist desire. I feel that every piece I put out should be perfect as soon as it first hits the page. This is not a healthy or productive writing strategy. It creates this false narrative in early writers, (and late writers) that revision is not a key step in the process.

Instead, your first draft should be passionate. Why does this matter to you, why is it important that it is said, and what is your evidence to further support these claims? Writing is about growth, about changing the way the audience sees something or approaches a topic. Along that same vein, writing is process in which you can discover yourself and your arguments about a piece.

If you’re constantly dissecting every word or sentence you put on the page, then you can become overwhelmed and lose the motivation to continue writing. Instead, just focus on getting words on the page. They don’t need to be good. They don’t need to be ready for publication or submission–get your thoughts down without hesitation and with total freedom to put whatever you want. This early draft isn’t what you are sending in, it is for you and you alone as the writer to better understand yourself, your process, and your approach to this particular piece you are writing.

I know this strategy doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be something that works for writers who struggle with starting. I find that in my own writing, starting with a loose thesis works best. You can always come back to the thesis and make it stronger, or, if after writing you decide that the evidence you’re presenting doesn’t fit, then there’s no harm in returning to the drawing board on your thesis statement. Revisit your writing, what are you trying to accomplish in your stream of consciousness? Hone in on those points and fully articulate them. If you can argue it in a fully-fledged piece, then don’t be afraid to change it and make it your own.

Shutting off that critic side of your brain and just putting words on the page in a stream of consciousness style can help to create a framework for yourself during the writing process. You might discover that your initial thesis doesn’t quite fit, that a certain piece of evidence doesn’t hold as much weight as you originally thought or that you need additional information or research to fully set your argument. Giving yourself and piece a space to grow without an internal critic can lead you down a path that may be different from your initial intent and provide you a better understanding of your argument.

While it is important to be critical of your own work and edit that work, within the writing process that internal criticism can detrimental and create a sort of choice paralysis and inhibit us from actually engaging within the writing process. So, instead I encourage you write your first drafts like no one is watching and shut out the editor.