Category: Creative Writing

Our LGBTQ+ Writing Group: Explained and Explored

Liz Soule, Assistant Director for the University Writing Center

The first time I was introduced to a writing group was in the spring of 2016. As a way to welcome more students to the writing center, one of my friends and co-workers proposed the “Creative Writing Jam.” This was a series of creative writing groups held at the writing center, in which writers would come in, and amongst a community of like-minded individuals, get to work drafting their latest piece.

I hung posters advertising the event on the walls of my residence hall. I remember looking at the posters and feeling a mixture of confusion, anxiety and curiosity at the sight of them. Who would want to write in a big group? Wouldn’t that be distracting? Or worse, what if my writing wasn’t like theirs — and they judged me for it? Due to my trepidation, I never attended the Creative Writing Jam.

Now, as the facilitator of the LGBTQ+ writing group, I often wonder if these same questions keep folks from attending our group. This blog post is written for all those who stare at our whiteboard and wonder. In what follows, I’ll explore what our LGBTQ+ writing group is, why we offer it, and offer a window into what a typical group meeting looks like. My hope is that this begins the process of answering some burning questions and alleviating anxieties, and maybe opens our doors to more writers across campus.

What is the LGBTQ+ writing group? Why do you offer it?

The LGBTQ+ writing group is a gathering of writers that meets monthly in the University Writing Center. This group welcomes writers that self-identify as LGBTQ+ or as allies to join together to write in a communal space. Any kind of writing is welcome in this group (professional, personal, creative or course-related). During group meetings, participants have the opportunity to get to know others in the community as they actively write alongside their peers.

The LGBTQ+ writing group, like all of the University Writing Center’s writing groups, exists to promote a culture of writing across campus. An additional reason why we offer the LGBTQ+ writing group is to foster a supportive community of queer writers and their allies. This means that the identities of LGBTQ+ writers are respected (and, when appropriate, celebrated) and their writing is welcomed. By carving out a space for LGBTQ+ writers, the University Writing Center makes it clear that our growth as writers matters, and that we belong.

I would argue that we are working to effectively serve that purpose, too. At a recent meeting, I asked the attendees of the group what their reasons for attending were. One writer said they were looking for a “judgment-free,” or supportive community of writers. Another writer, who often writes queer romances, said they sought a space where the content of their writing would be welcome. For others, it came down to basic math – likeminded queer people to befriend plus writing to share and enjoy. In other words, a supportive community that fosters a culture of writing.

What happens in a typical meeting?

In this next section, I’ll try to illustrate what a typical writing group meeting looks like. While my description might not be as dynamic as the real thing, I hope that it can help reduce any anxieties that come with the unknown.

At the start of each LGBTQ+ writing group, the University Writing Center door is wide open. Everyone signs in, grabs a snack, and finds a seat amidst the circle of tables. Once we’ve all settled in, we share our names, our personal pronouns and the kinds of writing we’re working on.

Then comes the fun part: we write! For the majority of our hour-long meeting, we all actively write. And there is really no wrong way to do this. Some of us complete homework, while others write creatively. Some even complete personal writing, like daily journaling. During this time, some of us chat, others listen to music, and most of us get seconds on snacks.

To wrap our meeting up, we talk about the kind of writing we’ve completed–and what we hope to accomplish in the near future. Some writers like to share recent writing during this time, but no one is ever forced to do so. Those that do receive thoughtful, positive responses. Afterwards, we say our goodbyes and I close the doors of the University Writing Center for the night.

This sums up most of our LGBTQ+ writing group meetings. There are some variations to meetings, but they’re usually small and always optional. For example, next time we meet, I’ll be bringing some prompts for the creative writers in the room to respond to, if they so choose. Also, a couple of our writers are also thinking they might workshop as a pair.

Some final thoughts

If you’ve been on the fence about attending this–or any–writing group, I hope this guides you to our doors. In the event that you have more questions, please, feel free to e-mail us at writing@louisville.edu, and we will happily discuss our groups with you.

More importantly, I hope that you know you are always welcome in our space. I’ll be glad to have you in the LGBTQ+ writing group, and we are excited to have you in the University Writing Center.

Let It Simmer

Todd Richardson, Writing Consultant

“I have to get it done,” the student says. She sits across the long table from me in the university lounge where I hold office hours. I’m a writing professor at a small liberal arts school in Western Kentucky. Her hands hover over her laptop, shaking and white. Her mask pulses with her breath, the cloth sticking to her lips then puffing out like a balloon. Outside, the leaves are brilliant—gold, crimson, orange. The breeze is crisp, brisk, earthy. I suggest it’s time for a break, perhaps take a walk without our masks, peep some foliage.

“I have to get it done,” she says. I wait for her to ask questions, but she doesn’t speak. Instead, she stares at her screen. Her typing comes in bursts, first in words, then in rapid deletions. After a few minutes, she throws up her hands and sinks her face into her palms. “I can’t,” she says. She tells me she sleeps four hours a night. She wants to graduate in no more than four years, fewer if possible. That’s why she’s enrolled in seventeen hours for Fall of 2020. She wants to do well in college, like she did in high school. Even in the pandemic, she managed to keep her grades up through her senior year. Then, in college, where the institution decided to teach a hybrid in-person/asynchronous model to cope with covid, she floundered. “I work all the time,” she says. “I never get ahead.”

I look back out the window, watch the leaves sway in the air. They seem peaceful. They breathe and sway. I know that what I have to tell my student isn’t what she wants to hear. I know because it’s not what I wanted to hear when I lived through a similar experience in grad school. It’s the same advice I’m advocating for here, and it’s counterintuitive to everything on your syllabus, everything your guidance counselor told you, every shred of the individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture that you internalized from your parents or the news or however it made its way under your skin. Admittedly, it’s advice that I still struggle to follow to this day.

“Maybe you need a break,” I say to her. She shakes her head.

“I can’t.”

“You think you can keep writing?” She pauses, doesn’t answer. Then she shakes her head, rises, and shuffles out the door. I don’t know if my advice landed or if she’s just too tired to sit here anymore. As I watch her gather her things, a pang of empathy tightens in my stomach. I was just like her as a student. I wish I’d taken it easier on myself.

In graduate school, I worked at a similar pace to my student sitting across from me—always writing, reading, stressing, obsessing, striving for some academic, pie in the sky, attaboy. I kept articles and books stacked high on my nightstand and in piles next to my bed. I slept in fits—an hour and thirty minutes here, a toss and turn there. Eventually I gave up on the REM cycle and woke up to write the next term paper, the next prospectus, the next page or paragraph or chapter of my thesis. I managed—thrived actually—in the first year. I’m fine, I told people who commented on the dark circles under my eyes. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

Then, as time passed, a mental sluggishness set in. It started as spacing out in class discussion. You’d find my body in its seat, but my mind had left orbit some time ago. I forgot what I was saying in the middle of a sentence. Then the fog spread to reading. My eyes would scan articles but would not absorb their meaning, as if my vision would bounce off the text. I became irritable with my friends, parents, and wife. Then the haze came for my writing. I stared at the blank, white snowdrift of my word processor, the cursor blinking on and off like a flickering synapse in my skull. Words would not come. Thoughts ran together in long, incomprehensible sentences. Quotes went without citations. Phrases repeated themselves without my awareness.

Eventually, panic set in. It started with feedback on an essay that read, “Todd, not your best work. Better luck next time.” After that, I entered every class with icy fingers and a tightening chest. It was all I could do to breathe, to lift my gaze to meet my instructors’. I felt the control over my own body seeping away and I was helpless to stop it. One night I got an email from my thesis advisor. The subject heading read: Todd—Chapter 3 Draft, Revision Needed. I didn’t get a chance to open the message. The edges of my vision darkened. I inhaled sharp sips of air. My knees buckled. I thought I was dying. My wife and my brother-in-law (he happened to be spending the night at our house) carried me to the bed. I regained consciousness in time to stop my wife from dialing 911. I had experienced my first full-fledged anxiety attack.

I wonder now what would have happened had I known the importance of taking a break. Not just because it’s good for your mental health—it’s good for your brain and productivity, too.

First, in order to be efficient, your brain needs time to be inefficient. What “inefficient” looks different depending on your personality, but a good suggestion for anyone in school—especially those of us in the middle of the second year of pandemical education—is to move around. Go for a walk. Dance. Kickbox. Or get all woo-woo and meditate, get a vinyasa flow in before hitting the draft again and take ten deep breaths. When you have more time, like right after you’ve submitted your paper or are just plain ol’ done for the night, do something that refills your mental gas tank. Video games, LARP, play a board game—whatever floats your raft down the river. Don’t take a break forever; we have deadlines and GPAs and life to keep up with. Set a timer for twenty minutes to write and twenty minutes of breaktime and stick to it. There will be times when you can’t take a break (life has a way of lobbing emergencies at us in the middle of finals), but make sure that you set aside time to let your mind wander wherever it needs to go.

Second, walking away from the keyboard is actually good for writing (and let’s go ahead and extend this to proofs, algorithms, presentations, and the like). Again, don’t walk away forever—I’m not saying that your term paper will write itself while you Fortnight the afternoon away. What I’m getting at is, let your writing simmer. Even if all you have is ten minutes, it’s good to set your draft aside and let it stew. Pounding your fingers against the keyboard until they bleed leads to a law of diminishing returns; over time, you will earn fewer rewards than the amount of energy you invest. Trust your subconscious to mull over your topic for a bit. You might find that your mind approaches your draft with fresh ideas, newfound energy, and a special zazz that makes your writing come to life.

Finally, taking a break is good for you. You have experienced what no other generation in the last one hundred years underwent; a global pandemic and one of the most prolonged disruptions to everyday life in recent American history. There’s nothing wrong with deciding to take a breath, to take time to feel the grass beneath your feet, to finding the peace in the reddening of the leaves. You are worth the decision to walk away.

This fall, you might hit a wall. That moment when your vision goes bleary and your eyes scan the article, you’re supposed to read but you can’t remember for the life of you what the words mean, when you’re staring at the blinking cursor on the blank page and your thought faucet feels clogged, take a break. Get woo-woo. Go for a walk. Let whatever you’re working on simmer on the back burner for as long as you can. Your brain will thank you for it.

A Sisyphean Task

Zoë Donovan, Writing Consultant

There is a quote from the Tenth Anniversary Edition of American Gods by Neil Gaiman in the introduction that at the time I first read it in 2016 seemed trivial, unimportant and just a bit pretentious.

“I remember when it [American Gods] was all done in first draft telling Gene Wolfe, who is the wisest writer I know and has written more excellent novels than any man I’ve met, that I thought I had now learned how to write a novel. Gene looked at me, and smiled kindly. “You never learn how to write a novel,” he told me. “You only learn to write the novel you’re on.”He was right. I’d learned to write the novel I was writing, and nothing more.” – Neil Gaiman American Gods (Tenth Anniversary Edition)

Since reading those words I have written an innumerable amount of novellas, short stories, poems, audio dramas, plays, and of course essays. Looking back, I’ve found that in every piece of writing, no matter how similar the subject material it may be to other previous works, this statement stands true.

                And yet, every time I finished a project I would find myself in the same line of thinking that Gaiman had at the end of the first draft. “I’ve finally figured out how to write!” And yet, every time I’d start a new project I would crumple into an agonizing state of imposter syndrome. Suddenly, it’s hard again and the words don’t fit right, the flow is off, my characters are stock image facsimiles of how I imagined, the page is blank, erased over and over again or scratched out ,and I can’t shut off the never ending rant telling me I’ve been deluding myself the entire time. I would find myself asking, how can I even consider myself a writer if it’s always this difficult for me.

                Since then, I have come to believe that it is a myth that someone can be a good writer or a bad writer. Throughout my experience I have found that Gaiman and Wolfe, in true fashion of their profession, stated something fundamental to the writing process. I only really grasped the weight of what this meant to me as a writer upon a reread of the book in 2020. We learn to write the things that we are working on. We learn to hone it into something that the intended audience will understand. No project will ever be the same, and you don’t ever really learn how to “Write”.

 Writing is a Sisyphean task. It is a grueling process that can at times be quite enjoyable, but at other times can feel like walking across broken glass. With the start of every new project, the boulder has rolled back down the hill and you find yourself cursing the writing gods for your own hubris. I say it’s a myth to be a good writer but a caveat is needed. The only thing that I believe separates a good writer and a bad writer is perseverance. Whether that perseverance looks like 100 words a day or 5,000 words a day, putting pen to paper is what matters, whether a project takes you ten hours or ten years, when it is finished you will have learned how to write that piece. No project will ever be the same as the last. You can bring in existing knowledge and skills, but at the end of the day you won’t know how to write that paper until you’ve already written it. 

                You will never know where to begin, where to end, and what exactly happens in between until you actually the piece. There will be tears, frustration and so much revision. But these stages help you, and you take something onto the next project that you didn’t know before, though as writers we are always growing, and it will never be exactly the same process.

“Tomorrow is the day”: Thoughts on Writer’s Block and Procrastination

Derrick Neese, Writing Consultant

I am going to write tomorrow. I mean it. Tomorrow is the day I’m starting my next big story and there is nothing that can stop me. And it will be the best story I’ve written—knock your socks off good—but, you know, tomorrow. Why not today? Because I’m a little tired right now, and there is a baseball game starting in an hour, and, well, tomorrow is the day I said I’d start. Tomorrow it is.

            My personal best streak of “tomorrow is the day” was a year. A year of guilt, anxiety, and frustration renewed each afternoon, starting the moment I told myself tomorrow is the day, a cycle of hopelessness that paralyzed my fingertips. Right before my monumental run, I’d set the goal of writing 2,000 words a day—even achieving it once or twice. Then I failed a few times and moved the goal post when stress replaced joy, shifting down to 1k, then a page, and finally, after all the satisfaction was sucked out, a year of nothing. But here I am today, writing in my office on a bit of a hot streak. So what changed?

All it took was writing one minute a day. This isn’t a gotcha moment. I’ve talked to a lot of writers, from teens who write fanfic on internet forums to famous authors with seven-figure book deals. The one thing I’ve noticed that we all share is anxiety for the next draft. This feeling is insidious, stomping out creativity for sport, chasing down the characters and storylines we have imagined and hiding them from our creative selves. We stop ourselves before we even start. To be a writer, you have to write, it’s as simple as that. Each morning I make my coffee, sit down at my desk with my phone far away in a distant land, and write for one minute. What happens is this: I never write for one minute, it’s the biggest lie I’ve ever told myself. Sometimes I end up with a few pages, others, a few sentences. The real magic comes from a lack. Lack of guilt, lack of fear, lack of writer’s block. All (mostly) gone. I am free to tell my stories now, to write my research papers, and above all, to just write.

            But the war for creativity doesn’t simply stop when I sit down, because the next clash starts during the drafting process. My creative and editorial brains are mortal enemies in my head, each fighting to have the lead role in my next story until tomorrow comes. So, I make a deal with my internal editor. Let me write today until all the words are down, I beg them. And then it’s all yours. I grant my creative self the opportunity to write freely in this moment, without judgment or fear, allowing the draft to be as bad as it can be. Often, it is really, really bad. And that’s okay. When I finish, I put it away until the characters call my name again, and then I hand over control to my editorial brain. They have been patiently waiting for this moment after all. I give them permission to revise critically (as opposed to judgmentally, which lends itself to a finality that does not exist in our drafts) until each sentence, word, and comma are where they want them to be. This is where craft meets creative. In this way, I stifle the battle between creator and editor, giving each the freedom they crave.

As writers, we must fight the good fight against tomorrow. We do this in the name of creativity and craft. Without them, we are lost before we begin, and therefore defending them is our primary focus. This is an unseen battle that permeates through the deepest crevices of our writerly minds. We must protect both creator and editor at all costs. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of tomorrow.

So, write for one minute a day, today.

Helping Western Branch Library Revive the “Cotter Cup” as a Student Poetry Contest

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

One of our goals in our ongoing community partnership with the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, is to create programming and tutoring that not only engages young people in writing and reading, but also connects to and supports the distinctive and important history of this library. The Western Branch library, built in 1908, and the first library in the nation to serve and be fully operated by African Americans has a history of significant contributions to the city’s West End. One of those important contributions was the founding in 1913, by Louisville educator and poet Joseph Cotter, of an annual storytelling contest. The “Cotter Cup” was a ‘storytelling bee,’ intended to encourage children to read and learn through the art of storytelling.

A couple of years ago, Natalie Woods, branch manager of the library, raised the idea of reviving the Cotter Cup as a writing contest. Her vision was of a Cotter Cup in which Louisville K-12 students would produce creative writing and be supported in that work through consultations of University Writing Center staff. The goal of the contest would be to encourage creative writing in the community and to connect K-12 students with writing support and conversations with our university writing consultants. We were excited at the possibility and have been delighted to work with Natalie and her staff on planning and implementing the contest. On our end, Edward English, our Assistant Director for the University Writing Center, organized and facilitated scheduling and supporting the consultations.

It has been a great experience to take part in the inaugural Cotter Cup poetry contest. Although the pandemic necessitated that the contest and consultations take place online this year, we had a great time working with dedicated and imaginative students from across grade levels and across the city. All the participants in the contest received books and writing journals, funded by the UofL English Department Thomas R. Watson Endowment. The winners also received prizes and will have their names engraved on the new “Cotter Cup.” You can read the winning poems here! It was also meaningful, during the pandemic year when so many programs were cancelled and put on hold, to have the chance to create a new program with our community partner and connect to students across the city. We hope that this year’s contest is just the first of what will be a growing and important writing event in our community.

Our consultants also had a great time working with the young writers from across the city. Here is what some of them had to say about the experience:

Ayaat Ismail: I was completely taken aback by these young writers’ creativity and drive during our meetings. It was truly inspiring to watch such young students brainstorm ideas and write poems based on their interests and experiences, whether limericks, free verse, or narratives, as they immersed themselves in poetry and demonstrated their talents and capabilities. It made me appreciate writing in a whole new way, as well as the concept of progression and learning in general.

Caitlin Burns: I really enjoyed being able to tutor elementary students for the Cotter Cup. They were so creative and energetic. I loved hearing their ideas for their poems and working with them, and I learned quite a bit from them as well. It was so lovely to get out of my grad school bubble a bit and have fun playing with words with them. Thanks for all of your and the Writing Center team’s work putting it together!

Alex Way: It was a great experience tutoring students for the Cotter Cup. I worked with an elementary school student who produced an amazing poem and ended up winning first place. Not only was his work exceptional, but he had a deep knowledge of poetry forms and what makes good poetry. Even though I only tutored my student for one session (and he did all the hard work), I can’t help but feel proud of what he has accomplished

Edward English: Working as a consultant for the Cotter Cup was one of the most rewarding activities I’ve done this year.  It was so fun and encouraging to work with such promising young writers and be inspired by their creativity and intelligence.  It was also an incredible honor to be part of contest which continues the exceptional legacy of Joseph Cotter and Western Branch Libraries.

Maddy Decker: I really enjoyed expanding my tutoring horizons from working with college students to also working with high school and elementary writers. I feel like I learned more about myself as a tutor and about what creative writing looks like at different levels. As someone who started writing poetry and short stories in middle school, I’m glad to see so many young writers putting themselves out there, and I hope they continue to explore their talents!

To Senior Year: My Last Words

Demetrius Minnick-Tucker, Writing Consultant

A day most looked for —and for some —a day most prolonged: graduation is an inevitable reality of one’s academic career. And with last assignments and (more sadly) last goodbyes rushing after you as the school year comes to a close, it’s easy to forget the wonder of one’s college experience. So, in an attempt to slow you down and capture your entire academic career before it comes to a screeching end, if you would, join me for a moment of nostalgia. An ode to the graduates:

Attend to the letter forged from this pen,

The days of May-time, gone with the wind…

Seasons come, seasons go,

Experience taught us how to know:

Flower’s blossom, spring-time is here!

Leaves begin to fade, 

Met by a chilling crusade,

It’s clear, winter-time is near.

A generation comes, a generation goes,

That’s how school years often go:

The chapters begun, excited with a glow,

The chapter continues, long studying, only to expect the unknown;

The chapter slows to a close,

The chapter ends on a solemn note; alone.

So the story goes,

Freshman to Senior year. 

Then, young and uncertain, 

Now, matured and determined.

Senior year is here, and I can say I have known

The highs and the lows, 

And the paradox, that senior year

Is as the close of a remarkably happy career:

You’ve heard the applauds,

The criticisms and the assuring nods,

You’ve known what it is to hurt,

Yet, wake up tomorrow for work.

Oh Senior Year! 

What have you meant to me?

You have been like a sweet flower,

Fragrant, and beautiful to behold;

However, Time awoke: beckoning your bower

To join its withering cold.

On Words and Images

Amanda Dolan, Writing Consultant

When re-curating the bookcase visible to my webcam, I initially hid all comics and graphic narratives behind horizontal stacks of traditional novels. Considering how generally beautiful the spines of graphic novels are, I don’t think this layering was a result of an aesthetic instinct. I was almost definitely conceding to the idea that stories with images are fluffy. And though I enjoy similarly described pets appearing in other Zoom backgrounds, I didn’t feel totally comfortable featuring reads perceived that way in my own. 

Now, nearly a year later, these books can be seen bowing a middle shelf, and I can be seen, metaphorically, going to bat for them this baseball season. I have the writing center to thank for this. Both the UWC staff and writers have taught me the extent to which language transcends words, and the value of, I guess, communicative syncretism. Writers or colleagues and I will talk about things like the weather or even planetary energies not out of awkwardness or eccentricity but because such topics are strangely good starting points for thinking and communicating. Basically, it’s very natural for people to reach to make concepts work together so they can communicate a little more clearly (think emojis and storytelling). And writing center pedagogy, as a technique focused on communication, embraces that type of syncretism by defining and upholding the center as an inherently social space where writers and consultants bring their own unique knowledge and life experiences. 

Embracing this pedagogy alongside the fact that a lot of sighted people experience the world by contextualizing words and images together has me not only defending comics as literature, but also advocating for drawing as a natural extension of the writing process. It’s common, accessible, and effective to make meaning and record our worlds through visuals, and I personally started drawing pictures in my essay and class notes to combat lockdown-created memory issues. Whenever my brain has a flicker of an idea but is reluctant to fully enter analysis mode, I either make a quick semiotic square or caption a small drawing to revisit when I have the patience and mental capacity to puzzle out my thoughts. If you are interested in trying to use image as an avenue for developing scholarly written communication, consider starting with a semiotic square or a map —or even try drawing items that stand out from a text you need to analyze. I’ve also found that quickly drawing items or settings can be beneficial for immersing myself in a piece of creative writing. This method shouldn’t become fraught or have anything to do with how well you think you can or cannot draw —it is just another way to engage with complex ideas before tackling them through words. 

Writer’s Block in the Time of Covid

Spenser Secrest, Writing Consultant

            One feeling that I deal with frequently during the ongoing pandemic is one of stasis.  While there is certainly some optimism during this time, as COVID-19 vaccines continue to be distributed, there is still, for me, an overwhelming feeling of being stuck in one place, despite the fact that I am taking graduate courses and progressing through UofL’s English M.A. program.  To be clear, I understand that being on lockdown and the precautions that are in place are for everyone’s good, including my own, but this does not mean that these preventive measures make life easy.  For me, it feels as though life has been perpetually on hold.  On the worst days, this static feeling can make it hard to do anything, whether it be schoolwork or something to relax, even something as simple as streaming something online.  Needless to say, this feeling of stasis has led to writer’s block, both for my academic writing assignments, as well as for my own creative writing.  As counterintuitive as it may seem, having little to do because of the pandemic has actually led to me having a reluctance to start academic assignments and any creative projects. 

            When people discuss writing, of any kind, you often hear phrases about only writing “when inspired.”  For me, this has never been my own approach to writing.  I’ve often found that actually starting the writing process leads to inspiration.  However, with the feeling of stasis, it is easy to want to do nothing, rather than intellectually exert oneself by writing, whether that writing is for an academic assignment or for leisure.  I’ve even found getting motivated to brainstorm ideas for a paper to be difficult, despite the fact that this phase of the writing process does not involve any actual writing. 

            I often reflect on, or else in some way, incorporate past experiences in my own creative writing.  However, the pandemic has led, to me, to there being almost nothing that I would want to write about or include in my writing.  I’ve found that I write best when I have reflected on something after it has happened, as events are often too difficult to process when they are actually happening.  For me, it makes more sense to think about and analyze something thoroughly before writing before writing about it, as opposed to writing about something with your gut reaction immediately after something has happened.  However, as the pandemic is still ongoing, any insight that can be found by reflecting on it is limited. 

            In terms of my writing for classes, this is something that will, obviously, have to get done, eventually. However, due to the pandemic, I’ve found myself procrastinating more than usual and not enjoying the writing process nearly as much as I had in the past. While every semester brings papers that are not enjoyable to write and that may make one more susceptible to procrastination, it seems as if every paper, even minor papers that are not graded as rigorously, take as long to begin writing as the more difficult and less enjoyable papers. I’m inclined to attribute this to the fact that the pandemic has led to there being less sense of accomplishment after writing something. For example, whether I finish writing one of the most difficult papers of the semester or the last minor assignment for the week, there will be little that I can do in my personal life afterwards, due to the pandemic limiting all of our usual activities. 

Although the precautions that are in place, due to the pandemic, are for everyone’s health, they have not contributed to productivity, at least for me. While both academic and creative writing can be difficult to begin, it is worth noting that writing can be easy once the process has been started.  While it can especially difficult to get motivated to brainstorm ideas for a paper, as there is no visible product after doing so.  However, this part of process should not be discounted, as it may lead to enthusiasm for the writing project. Finally, if the outbreak of COVID-19 has led to other people experiencing writer’s block, perhaps there will be a plethora of written material produced once the pandemic ends, as going back to normal and the optimism that will come may inspire people to write. 

How We Talk to Write: Reflecting on the Speaking/Writing Connection

Nicole Dugan, Assistant Director

For the last several years, I’ve spent most of my days talking about writing. I’m often speaking with writers in writing center sessions or with students in my first-year composition classes, but sometimes I’m talking to myself. While working on this post, I spent the first hour or so talking through my ideas as I mapped them on paper and reading aloud sentences as I drafted them. Without all of this speaking, the writing process often feels like slogging through wet cement for me. Lately, I’ve been fixated on this connection between the written and verbal. Writing and speaking are irrevocably intertwined for me and for all of us. 

Writing cannot happen without speaking. Language is expressed through the modes of speaking and writing, and these modes “are mutually informing” (Sperling 53). This connection isn’t always underscored in the teaching of writing, and often we develop resistance towards writing because we see these two modes as disconnected from one another. Most of us do not speak in perfect Standard American English, and our dialects reflect our rich, diverse cultures and backgrounds, not the uniform language we read in scholarship. As we enter academia and professional spheres, we are often told we cannot write like we speak. This repeated maxim–which tells us we must learn to write in a way that is not of ourselves–introduces anxieties and tensions into the writing process, leaving writers of all backgrounds feeling conflicted and overwhelmed. Our languages are so closely tied to our identities that writing can sometimes feel like a challenge to our self-expressions, especially in an academic setting. 

I often turn to speaking when writing is challenging. Sometimes it’s because of a deadline or assignment or maybe writer’s block, but regardless of cause, talking helps me gain insight and inspiration. I often see writers experience this, too, as we work together in sessions. While talking about writing is a cornerstone in the writing center’s mission and work, we don’t always make this connection explicit in sessions or in our own writing processes. Traditional face-to-face sessions and live video chats rely on the verbal in order to develop the written. (Even asynchronous written feedback takes on a conversational tone.) Writers are encouraged to talk through the assignment, their progress, their concerns, and how they feel about the writing. Even though the goal is to improve writing skills and the text at hand, we leave the page behind to just talk first. We read drafts aloud during sessions to create a space of aural collaboration in discussion and revision. All of this talking helps to build, clarify, and revise ideas and communication. Deemphasizing the physical text allows us to bring attention to speaking’s role in the writing process. This invites writers to explore and discuss their writing verbally without the anxieties and tensions of writing “correctly” or even accurately. 

When we embrace the connection of writing and speaking, we begin to feel more liberated in our writing and the writing process. If we set aside the (un)spoken conventions and expectations we’ve picked up over years of writing instruction, we may find that inspiration, ideas, and understanding are not as lacking as we once believed. One way I do this in my own process is by talking out loud about my writing projects and recording these one-way conversations. There is no blank document and blinking cursor taunting me, and most importantly, this method helps me forget about the rules. I’m not slowed down by an inner critic telling me I can’t start sentences with conjunctions, cringing at misspellings or missing words, or asking me if what I’m talking about accomplishes the goal. Instead, I’m able to ramble and explore to my heart’s content. Currently, there are at least ten voice recordings on my phone pertaining to various undrafted and unfinished writing projects from the last several months. There are essay topics, outlines of research projects, and snapshots of creative writing sparked while driving home. I can listen to myself speak in colloquialisms, contractions, and fragments. Some of them are great, and some of them aren’t so great, just like with my written outlines and drafts. These recordings and their content sound like me though, unfiltered by the constraints of academic prose and audiences. Academic writing can feel defamiliarizing, as it often asks us to take on a different voice for the sake of a text and its message. Listening and talking to ourselves and others about writing helps to center our voices and can remind us that our words and ideas are always ours, no matter the context or guidelines. 

Sperling, Melanie. “Revisiting the Writing-Speaking Connection: Challenges for Research on Writing and Writing Instruction.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 66, no. 1, 1996, pp. 53-86. 

What We Can Learn from Dogs: Resource Guarding and the Writing Center

Emma Turner, Writing Consultant

For the past six months, I have been raising a puppy—my “quarantine puppy,” if you will. During this same time period, I have been doing my best to read materials on how to train said puppy. Teaching and growing with my dog has been a wonderful, terrible, stressful, informative, and rewarding experience, and, surprisingly/weirdly, I have found that some of the strategies I have learned in helping her personality develop translate to understanding processes of writers who visit the Writing Center (myself included, if not emphasized). 

One of the behaviors that can develop as a dog grows older, and that I have done my best to curb with my doggo, is resource guarding. Resource guarding is when a dog becomes particularly aggressive and protective around an object that they see as holding value. That object could be food, a toy, a sock they stole from their owner’s roommate (not that my dog has EVER done that), or a place like the dog’s bed. The dog sees value within whatever object it chooses to guard. It believes that it owns that item and will do anything to protect it even if this means hurting other animals or its human, but in order to train a dog out of such behavior, one must learn to engage in a practice of patience, understanding, and trading. To overcome such behavior is an act of collaboration between the dog and its owner. It is a give and take of allowing oneself to be vulnerable and allowing another to be near or a part of something of value. 

Working with writers is a similar process when thinking about the development of the writing consultation. In a sense, writers resource guard their work. As a writer, even if we dislike what we have written, at some level, we are proud of it. I say we because I am a writer too, and to pretend that I would not defend, protect my own work (even the worst of it) would be hypocritical. To accomplish the feat of generating a product for an assignment is impressive on its own no matter the final quality. Because we are proud of what we have written, we want to protect it. Even if the feedback we are receiving about the draft is helpful and positive, it is normal to feel conflicted about the revision of a creation that we are already content with. But, as a puppy learns as it overcomes the habit of resource guarding, sometimes sharing the things we value most can yield the biggest reward.

Collaboration in a writing consultation is key. Although the responsibilities of the consultant and the writer may differ within a session, three manners in which a mutual performance is integral are patience, understanding, and generative discussion. Through a live chat or written feedback session, these behaviors primarily take place through discussion of the draft and the writing process as a whole. Being patient with each other—the writer with the consultant and the consultant with the writer, making an honest effort to understand the point of view and the opinion the other offers on the content and form of the paper, and engaging in a conversation that aims to create a friendly, intellectual environment that fosters further development and exploration of the writer’s project are fundamental to creating a space where writers do not feel the need to actively guard their work. Instead, a collaborative effort can yield a product unshackled by the crushing weight of self-conscious and defensive writing. Collaboration and trust can set our words free.