Category: graduate student writing

Collective Motivation as an Incentive for Achieving Writing Goals: Narratives from Our Graduate Student/Faculty Writing Group

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

‘Hanging in there’ is a common expression at our weekly writing group. It is an expression that resonates with both graduate students and faculty participants as they seek to navigate the plethora of writing demands as well as other academic and life anxieties. Mostly, the expression is not out of frustration; rather it is made to describe how this group of people are progressing along in their academic activities, specifically graduate-level writing, despite its attendant challenges and struggles. Hence, they are not only ‘hanging in there,’ but also consistently taking ‘baby steps’ toward the completion of their various projects. And the weekly writing group has thus become a safe environment for writers to connect with, encourage, and motivate each other along the way.

A brief overview: the weekly writing group, which is organized by the University Writing Center, invites graduate students and faculty at the University of Louisville to come together during a dedicate time to work on any writing project at their own pace. The primary goal of our writing group is to provide support, community, and accountability for participants working on research or scholarly writing. Hence, it is not surprising that participants are open to discussing writing struggles, offering strategies working for them and sharing writing resources beneficial to everyone. Below are perspectives anonymously shared by some of the writing group participants on the importance of the weekly writing group:

“I appreciate having a space in which I can be a part of a community of writers and also can be held accountable.”

“It gave me the structured time to write with a group of people and see their progress in their writing journey and also see my own progress.”

“The writing group was a supportive group of peers steadily working on their individual writing goals.”

From participants’ reports above, we see that the writing group not only provides an influential support to the writers, but it also facilitates a sense of belonging to community working toward similar goals. To these participants, the writing group becomes a literal representation of ‘hanging in there’ because the group promotes significant actions that encourage them to forge ahead despite the difficulties. These significant actions invariably become a means for collective motivation that incentivizes participants to accomplish their writing goals as much as possible. Some of the significant actions peculiar to our writing group include:

  • Respectfully listening to writing concerns, needs, and struggles.
  • Discussing both writing related and non-writing related concerns: From work-life balance to organizing literature review, to self-care, among others
  • Celebrating milestones and success stories: Be it completing the day’s writing goals, completion/defense of dissertation, submission of articles for publication or conference abstract
  • Sharing relevant writing (and non-writing) resources such as blogposts, productivity planner, and yes, movie recommendations
  • Setting a week-long, specific writing goal to keep everyone accountable

Research has shown that writing groups help writers to improve their writing, establish a good writing habit, and be more productive in and confident about their writing. In addition to these benefits, the participants at our weekly graduate students and faculty writing group continue to affirm how the group encourages them to hang in there and take consistent baby steps toward accomplishing their writing projects.

If you are a University of Louisville graduate student or faculty member and are interested in participating in our supportive writing community, please e-mail writing@louisville.edu for more information.

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.

A Week of Community and Hospitality at the Dissertation Writing Retreat

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

This May, for the tenth time, we held our annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. Over the ten years we have held these Retreats, we have worked with doctoral student writers from every college in the University – more than 150 writers during that decade. The Retreat offers writers time and structure to focus on writing their dissertations and daily writing consultations to get feedback on their writing. In addition, each day there are morning and afternoon check-in meetings to set goals for the day and talk about accomplishments and daily small group discussions at lunchtime about writing issues such as structuring a dissertation, time management, and editing and citation issues. Again, this year, the Retreat took place online. (If you want a blast from the past, here is a blog post from that first Retreat in 2012).

The Dissertation Writing Retreat is a busy time – and a lot of work – on our end, but it is also reliably one of the highlights of our year. It’s always exciting to see the writers who attend both make progress on their writing. Yet, just as important, is the ways in which writers develop and refine their writing processes and their approaches to navigating the complexities of audience, genre, and authorial position necessary to write an effective dissertation. At the same time, our writing consultants, who are all doctoral students themselves, always talk about the things they learn during the Retreat about writing and new approaches to teaching writing. In this way, the Dissertation Writing Retreat is a vivid example of the ethic and theory of “hospitality” that we work from in the University Writing Center. Based on the work by Richard and Janis Haswell, hospitality as an approach to education draws from traditional conceptions of hospitality in which a guest and host are both understood to bring value to an encounter and in which reciprocity is a cultural norm. During the Retreat, we always hear how both the writers and consultants learn from each other and, even in just a week, for a supportive community of writers.

Here, in their own words, is a sense of how some of the writers and consultants benefited from the Retreat

First the writers:

Charlotte Asmuth, English. I got so much out of the Dissertation Writing Retreat! I was surprised at how much work I could accomplish in just one week. I came into the week with some writing anxiety and concerns about how to organize particular sections of two chapters. As I worked on my writing and talked with my consultant and other participants in small groups, I learned that I wasn’t alone and I also picked up some strategies for managing my writing time that really helped. In one week, I learned more about my writing process and what will help me write than I’ve learned in several years. For example, outlining and then writing in chunks helps me––as does closing my email, turning my phone off, and writing down concerns as they arise so that I can come back to them later (instead of trying to solve them right away). I’m leaving the week with a great set of strategies to maintain momentum on my dissertation and I’m going to stay in touch with several participants, too.

Doroty Sato, Social Work. The Dissertation Writing Retreat 2021 gave me the resources to continue improving my writing skills. Beyond that, it gave me confidence that I am on the right track. There are so many factors playing a role in this process, so struggling with academic writing is okay. It is not a shame. The Writing Center Team and my colleagues in the group did such an excellent job offering advice and listening to our concerns without judgment. I felt comfortable and included. At the end of the week, my takeaway is that academic writing could be painful sometimes (or most of the time 🙂), but it doesn’t have to be unpleasant.

Eric Shoemaker, Humanities. At the beginning stages of my dissertation writing process, it was important to me to sit down and strategize my own writing processes and procedures. The dissertation writing retreat and my consultant helped me figure out what works for me and what doesn’t and helped me to value all of the work that I do for my project, not just the page count. This was a very valuable and enjoyable experience!

And our consultants:

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing: The 2021 dissertation writing retreat was, among many things, a period of reflection, especially for the writers I had the opportunity to work with. The writers’ reflection during the week-long writing retreat encouraged them, both of whom have been stuck at some point in their writing due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, to feel more motivated to get back into their dissertation work. Through their reflective efforts as well as conversations during the retreat, these writers could identify what they have done well so far and where/what seems not to be going right. Likewise, as shared by both writers, the retreat has inculcated in them a habit of the mind necessary to create and stay committed to a consistent writing schedule as they continue to write from home

Megen Boyett: This is the third time I’ve worked the Dissertation Writing Retreat. Every year, I find it so rewarding to help a dissertation take shape even just for a week. The deep, sustained focus on the individual writer’s project and process seems to be such an effective way to start the summer writing “semester.” Just like last year, I started the week unsure whether I had useful advice for bio-engineers. Once again, I quickly found that while disciplinary differences are real, the principles for shaping long-term projects and organizing clear writing are consistent.

Nicole Dugan, Assistant Director for the Virtual Writing Center. I completed my first year at the UWC by working as a consultant during the 2018 DWR, and now I’ve come full circle, ending my time at the UWC with this year’s retreat. Working with writers is always so rewarding, and dissertation writers are no different. They bring such passion and excitement to their work, and it’s easy to quickly immerse yourself in the environment of camaraderie and growth built by the leadership and participants of this retreat. The last two years I have been focused on my work with writers in my courses and writing centers, and I haven’t found much inspiration or time for my own writing. After this week, I feel recharged and ready to revisit research projects and creative writing with new momentum and vision. I’m grateful for the community of this retreat, and I am particularly thankful to my two writers whose projects are such intriguing and necessary works that offer new insights and avenues for change in their fields. It was a privilege working with them both, and I can’t wait to see where they take their work moving forward.  

THANKS FOR ALL WHO MADE THIS POSSIBLE

It is important to acknowledge the people who did the hard work of organizing the Retreat – Cassie Book, our Associate Director, organized and oversaw the Retreat this year. Also central to carrying out the Retreat were Amber Yocum, our Administrative Associate, and Assistant Directors Edward English, Olalekan Adepoju, and Nicole Dugan. Our other consultants were Megan Boyett, Aubrie Cox, Cooper Day, and Liz Soule. And thanks to Dean Paul DeMarco, of the Graduate School, for again sponsoring and supporting the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

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. 

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. 

Self-Care Before Burning Out

Ayaat Ismail, Writing Consultant

Last semester, I struggled to set time for myself away from the world of academia. Which I’m sure isn’t a new concept for anyone. We all do this. We get invested in our education and consumed by doing and being our absolute best. The one thing that felt like a constant needle was poking me all semester and keeping me on my toes was writing, or at least the thought of writing.

Writing felt like this ever-changing entity that was somehow liberated from me, the writer. It is as if it was beyond my control. It could have been because of the various directions I was told as a writer to take, or it could have been the fact that I was writing at a level of college I had never written before, and with that came a whole new set of skills and stressors. 

And because of this, I felt like I was on the verge of insanity, barely functioning as a human being. I had put an unusual amount of anxiety and responsibility on myself because of this socially constructed notion that I should somehow reach this mold of perfection that is expected from us as students and as writers. But who really expects this from us? 

Nonetheless, we have many hindrances such as societal and familial expectations and considerably more scopes of demands that we can’t seem to shake. Yet, we never take the time to mitigate our troubles. It doesn’t have to be something huge and extravagant, just something to slow down the process of us becoming something hybrid between a zombie and a monster. I personally do not think it’s a good look on me. 

I feel like there has been a struggle to find a rhythm before this semester, yet I have pushed myself recently to give myself a little time and do this work of finding a balance. Some of the actions I have personally taken this Spring is to time manage my schedule better, so I have a day in the week where I don’t focus on any school stuff. This has usually become Saturday for me where unless I have work, I wake up whenever I please and indulge in doing nothing of importance. This break has provided me more time to focus on myself and regain some of my old self. The one where taking time away from school was acceptable. 

Here are some of the things I have done and may help you in your self-care journey:

  • Meditating or at least staring up at the ceiling until by mind goes blank
  • Reading a book for pleasure just because I want to (usually NA books…)
  • Catching up on some of my favorite TV shows
  • Learning to cook something edible (and not burning anything)
  • Spending time with family and being completely present
  • Watching White Chicks for the nth time (should I say more?)
  • Hiking/Walking with friends or family 

These are just small steps I have taken, as cheesy as they may sound, to help recenter my focus and take care of myself. Because honestly, there is only one me and one you, and we need to treat ourselves better. Not just physically, but we need to consider our mental health as we move forward and adapt to our evolving lifestyles due to this pandemic, which has a heap of issues itself and our journeys as writers and students. 

Somehow this has helped calm my nerves and even allowed me to find joy in writing again. It’s as if being detached from the concept of writing for a day somehow initiates a newfound love of writing. I found myself writing in the notes app on my phone and coming up with new ideas for stories I might pursue. I really do believe turning the off button for myself has improved my energy throughout the week and has allowed me to remove some of the walls that I have a built-in connection with being a student. 

So, whether it’s taking a day off every now or then or if you find an opportunity arise to something different, I say take the plunge and do it. Do it for yourself, for your sanity, and for your peace of mind. 

What Seems Inevitable?

 Ian Hays, Writing Consultant

   A couple months ago I was playing poker at my friend’s new apartment. He and his girlfriend met at Vanderbilt, and we were celebrating because she’d just passed the bar. As the evening grew thin and wine continued to flow, our thoughts and the topics of conversation grew broader and more existential. Eventually we found our way to higher education, with my friend ruminating “what if we’re the last generation who will have the conventional university experience?” 

His concern is fair. If COVID has done one thing, it’s shown that in the internet age, there’s no good reason why most types of work must prescriptively happen in an ordained location. If you have the connection, it really doesn’t matter where you’re doing what you’re supposed to.

On its face, this sort of development seems entirely positive. Frankly, being able to do my Writing Center work from wherever I am has allowed me much more time to attend to the things that I should, if I’m being healthy and moral, attend to; things like my family, or my mental health. 

But this development—this untethering from the workplace—has also forced a magnifying glass upon the necessity of many institutional conventions integral to the generation of wealth. Last semester, for example, my brother was forced, abruptly, to leave Cuba, where he was studying abroad. For months all he could talk about was how excited he was to go, and when he arrived messages poured in about the therapeutic nature of being in a place like that; one where (in spite of a looming material circumstance we would qualify as massively underprivileged) there is social cohesion; one where even “the enemy” doesn’t need to worry about healthcare. 

When the disease struck he was ripped home, and spent the remainder of the semester negotiating with his, admittedly reputable, university. All told, he ended up receiving a 10% refund. A 10% refund for a full semester’s tuition, one spent in a place where higher education is free. 

That 10% number carried over to this year, because, still, all of his and his peers’ classwork has been forced online. Speaking with my father, he posited: “I guess this is how much [my brother’s school] actually values getting to use its facilities, or being within handshake proximity to all the ‘experts’ they employ.”

What my father and my friend were getting at is clear: if tuition has nothing to do with the physical experience of university—if that part of the equation, for example, is valued at 10% of a figure higher than a year’s average household income—and if literally all learning can take place online, then what the hell are we paying for? 

But this reevaluation—this disturbing reification of that arbitrary nature of institutional life—doesn’t stop at university. If you really think about it, superfluous structures meant to generate wealth are everywhere, and—it seems—they’re always one crisis away from being dispensed with. 

Thus, it can seem very sensible to believe that constant dissolution is inevitable. For those of us within the humanities, this kind of thinking is par for the course. 

Almost daily I wonder about why it is I’ve decided to go down this path, to learn about expression, and the infinite variability of the human experience. What the United States values at the monetary level is clear; we want products you can hold in your hand, we want to improve material comfort, because comfort is easy to measure and because everyone wants it. We “care” about exploring the human condition, but if you can’t illustrate on a graph how it is you’ve contributed to capitalist wellbeing—or if that wellbeing, and how much you’ve contributed to it, varies from person to person—you’re not going to get paid. 

It’s been said before that the great sin of putting earring-potential first is that what motivates action is superseded. Institutions can no longer put their primary purpose first. University, for example, is about learning, it’s about helping students learn how to think about the world; but as long as students pay for college—and as long as that money is integral to administrative functioning—the real goal of the institution has to be to keep students paying. Now COVID has made this process seem all the more untenable. 

But I want to suggest something. 

Years ago I was listening to a debate between Steven Pinker and Alain De Botton on progress. As is usual, Pinker’s argument centered around the notion of material progress, and he had numerous metrics to illustrate how far we’ve come. But he made another, more philosophical point, one meant to be divorced from any such graph. He spoke about nuclear weapons, and about how, for 80 years, it has seemed we’re always one mistake away from nuclear winter. “This is true,” he said, “but yet, still, even after the cold war—even after mass nuclear proliferation—no more weapons like that have been used against people. It’s seemed inevitable, but it’s never happened.”

The other day in class my professor spoke about how, while there is upheaval within the humanities, the discipline soldiers on; that this upheaval is actually a wellspring of creativity, an  important decoupling from the rigidity seen elsewhere. My professor is right. We were discussing New Criticism, attacking the prescriptiveness of what I perceive to be call for a more methodological approach to criticism; one meant to insulate the humanities from the march of capitalist progress which would—according to their camp—inevitably render the humanities a hobby in the face of harder subjects like physics and biology. 

But that’s never happened—years ago it seemed inevitable, but it hasn’t. Even as philosophical schools written expressly in opposition to codified rule sets—in opposition to things like objectivity, and truth—have become more mainstream, the humanities have not dissolved. 

Now is a moment of immense unsureness for millions. It’s a moment where nothing is certain, where it seems every pillar we might attach ourselves to is crumbling at its base. But when we look upward from our screens, we see that many things which will inevitably fail, haven’t, and at the practical level really won’t. Last year, for example, consumption of “traditional” media was higher than its been in years; now that’s a discipline everyone has been sure will die any minute now.

In the Writing Center this fear, for me, has been pronounced. I’ve found it hard, often, to really allow myself to get “into” the work. I love what we do, but I’m afraid that if I permit my passion to swell, that if I lose my peripheral vision, the next time I look up it’ll be because the cart I’ve been riding in has lost the momentum to move. It’ll be too late when I realize what we do is fading away. 

But that’s simply paranoia speaking, and nothing more. Last semester I walked into a room, for the first time, covered with art, and a poster at the front with a picture of the whole space packed with people diligently working on their craft. I’ve never seen such a thing, and I’ve worried that’ll never take place again. But then I look at the figures—about how we’ve actually had a pretty good year in spite of everything—or at the fact that even within a capitalist machine, the confluence I spoke about earlier—between institutional purpose and practical goals—is alive and well in the Writing Center.

Permutations of Passion: How Writing Helped Me Grow

Ian Hays, Writing Consultant  

Passion is what makes an artist wake up in the morning. It’s the gas in the tank, the fuel rod in the reactor. If you’re the glass half-empty type, passion is akathisia—chronic, subjective restlessness—forcing you to attack whichever medium is gripping you by the throat, if only so you can go to sleep that night.

This is what I’ve been told, anyway.

When you enter the Writing Center you can sense the passion. The room is bookish, nestled in the library—there are computers and paintings wherever you happen to look—and in the back of the first room sit two professors, enjoying their domain. I’ve heard rumors of years past, before COVID, where you couldn’t enter the WC easily because there were so many consultants hard at work with their students.

Most of my colleagues have expressed that writing was the first thing they felt good at; that writing is the cornerstone of who they are. I find this a bit alien, since the past five years, for me, have been an exercise in re-evaluation. An exercise in re-forming my identity.

For the first twenty years of my existence Baseball was my passion. During these formative experiences I relished in mornings when I didn’t have to wake up early and hit the field. On the days when I did, I’d be cranky, and in the car I’d list every reason from soreness to apathy to quit. All that would change, though, when I pulled up to the field and smelled the dew, or looked out into the depths of whichever cornfield I was in, to see the fog floating upward as it does during cold and humid mornings of early spring.

When I’d open the passenger door of Dad’s car, and he’d turn off Neil Young—the artist of choice to soothe my nerves—and the first audible smack of ball hitting glove pierced the calm, all of the nerves and soreness and apathy melted away; I was in my domain, and my domain was poetry.

Years later, I still feel frisson when I catch a game on cable, in the same way my heart flutters when I catch a glimpse of an ex. The passion, to its fullest degree, is gone, but the grooves left on my soul remain; I am one of pavlov’s dogs; my heart conditioned to leap even though the bell has long since passed.

Much like love, one’s relationship with passion changes as he or she grows. The first time you feel passion, like the first time you feel love, is blinding; it dominates your thoughts, what you’re passionate about defines who you are.

For years, my answer to the most important question — “who are you?” — was always an immediate — “Baseball player” — because that’s who I thought I was. I’d had mentors in the past tell me I was good with words and that I should cultivate an interest in writing, but I never did. I thought about it a bit, in earnest, but back then I was blind—Baseball would be what chose where I went to school, it would fund my life, why would I consider anything else?

And then it happened; late fall, 2013; I got a call from our head-coach to come take a seat in his office. After I sat and looked back into his mechanical gaze he said what no one ever wants to hear: “you know the thing you’ve worked toward your entire life? Well that ain’t gonna pan out, sorry.”

I shuffled outside, for the first time bereft of the walls and strictures which provide the shape any functioning life needs.

For four years I walked aimlessly, doing just enough to get by. I loved my English classes, sure, but not in the blinding, awe-inspiring way I felt about ball. For years I was just fine, slinking along assuming identity after identity—fraternity member, creative writer, landscaper, print-shop employee—hoping one would stick. None did.

I love to write, but it never felt as good as executing the perfect pitch, or of squaring up the ball so nicely you don’t even feel it rattle the bat—it just flies outward, forever. Maybe my problem was that I’d forgotten how much work I’d put into Baseball; once you’ve gotten good at something it’s hard to remember approaching it with apprehension. By that point I’d transferred home, and was living with my parents again.

But then it happened. On a whim, after a semester with my favorite professor, I decided to audit another of her classes—it was on the essay as a genre. I’d been beating my head against the “creative writing” wall for a long time, and had convinced myself I wanted an MFA; completely fruitless. In the class we read essays by many important contemporary writers, one of which was Fail Better by Zadie Smith; an essay I recommend to anyone who loves to write but can’t seem to get their butt in the chair. By that time I could string sentences together, I could craft stirring imagery, but my lack of being able to coherently produce a story, or a poem, was—I thought—just another example of how this skill wasn’t for me.

In her class we always wrote with another student in mind; we’d talk before each assignment was due in order to “figure out” who exactly we were writing to. It felt like good-walls were raising around me.

One of the students I wrote with was an economics major—she was getting a minor in English, that’s why she was in the class. Our discussion was about capitalism; about how any abstract concept can become a form of currency in a capitalist system. The essay born from that conversation was titled Love, Money, and Appearance; it was about how my first relationship was defined by looking good on the internet. For the first time in years I felt energized, I felt like I wanted to push through the difficulty to get to a finished-product.

Before the class was over I’d applied to MA programs—and here I am.

When you’re young every experience assaults you, because you haven’t had many of them. Like love, fear, anger, anxiety; passion—true guttural passion—decreases over time, our threshold numbed by an endlessly expanding compendium of experiences. Everyone remembers their first love, how powerful it felt, and how difficult it was to let go. And everyone remembers the stark realization that love might never feel that good again. It’s disturbing, and sad, but important.

For years, I messed around because I expected that I’d find something so powerful, so enthralling, out there, that it would be impossible to ignore—I’d feel it like I felt for Baseball. But that hasn’t come. What has comes in flashes, brief moments of clarity, which allow me to write a paragraph or two which make sense, that feel great; cleanly expressed. I’ve decided that’s what life is, and I’m okay with it; bouncing from moment to moment, now motivated more by the heft of duty than the expectation of passion.

This is why, when I have those moments, I cherish and act on them; because it’s rare when they come. Working in the Writing Center, being asked each week to write and write—to help students with their writing—about research topics, theory; opinion; has illustrated, to me, that even if the passion isn’t always there I can keep pushing, and when I do, I always uncover enough to keep chugging along.

For the first time in awhile—thanks to the WC—I feel some security in who I am, even if that security is quieter and more mature.

The Influences Behind My Writing

Ayaat Ismail, Writing Consultant

How do you write? What’s your process? Is there something that inspires you? Has your writing changed?

I like to think that my writing process is always adapting, mainly whether I am writing something creatively or academically. When I am writing creatively, I typically listen to music that influences my mood, which in turn affects my writing. If I’m drafting a short story or a longer one, the music I choose helps set the tone for that piece of writing or that scene/chapter. When I am writing sad scenes, I listen to Daniel Caesar, Ella Mai, and H.E.R., but when I write about more uplifting parts of my story, I listen to music like BLACKPINK or Panic! At the Disco.

On the other hand, when I write academically, I typically listen to ambiance music, which helps me focus on the information that I am trying to incorporate in my writing. I have been working on a paper for my Queer Victorians class while simultaneously listening to Victorian ambiance music that has helped me set the mood for my writing process for that specific paper. My process has adapted as the semester has unfolded. 

However, before I begin the immense task of writing (which involves opening Microsoft Word and staring at its white and intimidatingly blank screen), I have to brainstorm/outline. I must scribble down my thoughts, whether they are coherent or not, because from this usually stems some of my best work. I usually jot things down on the notes section of my phone, blank pieces of paper that are shoved in a bag for me to remember to look at later, and even my hand. I find that inspiration hits me at some of the most inconceivable times, and I do not rely on my memory as a reminder. I struggle, as many do, with the task of putting all my fragmented and incomplete thoughts and ideas into actual sentences, which is why the brainstorming process for me is the best part of the writing process because it enables me to run wild and free with my pen. When I write freely in this stage, I have no audience in mind or target to reach; I am writing for myself. 

Before starting this semester, I spent the past year working on some creative writing pieces, and I found myself falling in love with writing in a way I never have before. I could not believe myself as I was writing for fun and started to carve out time for myself on a daily basis to write a new chapter or edit pages from the previous day of writing. I felt overwhelmed by this new sudden urge to express myself in a genre of writing that I had only ever read. Reading was my escape, but somehow along the way, I found myself turning to writing more and more as time flew by.

When I am writing creatively, I set a goal for the week on how much writing I seek to accomplish, which helps me stay in a creative headspace. I had never had a time of the day that works better for me but noticed when I wrote in the morning, it was more bland writing as opposed to night writing, which had me writing more profound and emotional pieces. To this, I adapted my writing to evenings while I did more of my editing in the morning. I also found myself needing fresh air after a couple of hours being cooped up in my room after staring at my inner thoughts thrown on the screen before me. 

I had to prepare myself after some time away for the mental battle ahead of me. Taking time away from the screen also helped my mental health. There were times I found myself utterly exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically after multiple days of consistent writing. Taking breaks in my writing helped me regain my energy and, in the time, away from my work, helped reveal new perspectives on areas I was stumbling with or when I had total writer’s constipation. 

Though my writing process is not new nor unique, it is my own. And through reflecting on some of the points I have written, it is understandable that many may view this as completely chaotic. And to that, I say that’s fine. Every writer has a different style of writing and has various things that influence them in their process. Remember, whether your writing has a specific process (any writing you do is a process in some way), or you have no particular routine, your writing is your own. The habits, strategies, etc. that you perform in writing are unique to you and the path you take to find one is completely your own.