Category: Process

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.

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. 

Letters to My Soulmate

Maddy Decker, Writing Consultant

Call me someone who’s watched Aquamarine 17 times too many, but I believe in soulmates. I believe that each person has multiple soulmates and that not every soulmate is meant to be a romantic match: some are just friends that you connect with on another level. 

In 2018, sick of my anxiety controlling me, I threw myself on a plane to Ireland to study abroad for the summer. I met one of my soulmates, Becky, in our hostel the day before we started our program. Despite how shy I usually am, we were discussing everything from grief to spirituality to mutually enjoyed YouTube videos within a day of knowing each other. She bunked above me in the room we shared with the other girls, and we spent nearly every moment of the next 6 weeks together laughing and continuing our deep discussions. We returned to the program the next summer to share another 4 weeks, but the pandemic prevented us from meeting up in person again. The problem: Becky lives in Minnesota, a 10-hour drive away from Louisville. We vowed to keep in touch but quickly realized that neither of us particularly enjoy holding our conversations over text or SnapChat messages.

            I don’t remember who sent the first letter or if it was a mutual decision we made; regardless, writing to each other has helped us maintain our friendship and communication at a pace and level that we both seem comfortable with. When I receive a letter from Minnesota, I know I’m in for a treat. Our letters usually end up being 5-7 handwritten pages, depending on how we feel when we write them, and we talk about whatever comes to mind. Sometimes our letters are funny, and sometimes they’re more serious in tone (they’re usually a combination of both). I tell Becky how school is going, what shows I’ve been bingeing, and that I’m not entirely sure what my future plans are after the next few years. She tells me about her family, boyfriend, and work, and she shares that she’s facing similar uncertainties. We serve as each other’s friends and confidantes through our letters.

            The pace of our exchanges contributes to the success of our letter writing, I believe. Due to the unfortunate truth that being an adult means not spending every second with or talking to your best friends, we each keep fairly busy. We write a few times a year, always making sure to send a letter near the winter holidays, sometimes with a small gift attached. Somehow, we do manage to maintain conversations even with the large gaps between our letters. We ask each other questions and answer them, knowing that each letter will continue to layer and build with our past queries and our present news. It’s like catching up over a long lunch, or even a weekend trip, depending on how long it takes me to read and respond to her, and I treasure our letters. 

            I’ve seen letter writing pop up as a fun hobby to try, and I cannot recommend it enough. Becky and I continue to write to each other, and I’ve recently started sending shorter letters to some of my other friends, including a friend I usually see at least once a month. If you don’t have the kind of relationship that enables a regular exchange, you might consider looking online to find a pen pal or writing to someone you know who isn’t expecting mail (or, at least, ‘fun’ mail). 

It’s always exciting to receive a letter, and it can be so enjoyable to write one. Try choosing some decorative stationary that calls out to you (although there’s nothing wrong with notebook paper)! Use a pen in a color you like, and cover your letter in stickers, stamps, tape, sketches, and whatever else makes you happy. Tell someone a secret, tell them something funny, or just tell them about your day (and if you’d like some more tips or inspiration, you should scroll back to an earlier post from Andrew Hutto: “You Should Send a Holiday Card This Year – and Here’s How!”). You might not be writing to your soulmate, but you could find that you enjoy picking up this new hobby!    

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. 

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. 

No Expectations: Writing for Comfort

Cat Sar, Writing Consultant

Late last night, I realized that in my cupboards, I had all the ingredients to make my mom’s pumpkin bread recipe. Naturally, today my kitchen is dusted in flour, and I may have ingested too much raw batter. But it’s not just the smell or taste of my favorite sweet treat, it’s the warm and comforting memories attached to each sensation. Verging on a year into the pandemic, most of us are still looking for comfort, and while I can’t imagine a world where I get tired of pumpkin bread, it doesn’t hurt to introduce a new coping mechanism every once in a while. 

Lately, I’ve sought comfort on the blank page. In the past, after I finished writing for others—school, work—the last thing I wanted was to find more words on my own time. I’ve also never been able to commit to writing regularly. But now there is only time and journaling’s appeal grows. 

Removing unnecessary expectations is an essential first step. You don’t have to be Carrie Bradshaw or Lady Whistledown—write anything! Sometimes you may feel particularly verbose and have the time and energy to really craft a story, while if you’re like me, lists, impressions, important words and phrases can also satisfyingly capture moments.

You are writing for yourself—there is such freedom in this! Write when you want and how you want. You might create a practice, or you might be scrawling notes at 3 am when you can’t sleep. Let this writing serve you where you are. We spend so much of our lives writing purposefully, which is necessary and helpful, but on your time, in your creative space, no such impetus need exist. There is no rubric or pressure, and best of all, no revision! 

On the other hand, this freedom allows for as much structure as you need or desire. I didn’t conjure up the pumpkin bread that’s baking in my oven without a recipe; a prompt might be the spark of inspiration you need. Here’s a few to get you started:

  • Pick a big idea: love, time travel, movies based on novels about dogs, for example. Set a timer for at least five minutes and write using the big idea as a starting point. 
  • Pick a person that you know and write about them as if they were a character in story. 
  • Find a word in the wild: the first interesting word or phrase you see (i.e. flyers, billboards, maps, signs, ads, art) is your starting point.

The Pandemic Project offers expressive writing information and exercises and Bullet Journaling is a cute and concise trend. 

Remember too, that journaling is similar to free-writing and brainstorming. You may write about one thing in order to realize or reach another, or start a thread and not complete it. The blank page belongs to you and the stakes are what you make them. 

Plus, who doesn’t love that new journal feeling? 

The 5 Love Languages as writing habits, or how to build a healthier relationship with your writing

Zoë Litzenberg, Writing Consultant

Among the many reasons to celebrate the month of February, it’s the month of love, and here at the Writing Center, we love writing! Of course, that doesn’t mean that we think writing is easy. I honestly believe that writing is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. At its worst, writing can be frustrating, emotionally taxing, and ultimately a negative, even traumatizing, experience. At its best, though, writing can be empowering, encouraging, liberating, and fun! Have you ever been frustrated with your relationship with writing? The more I thought about how much I have a love/hate relationship with my writing process, the more I realized that I talk about writing the way I talk about any person with whom I have a close relationship. I wanted to see if building out a framework of understanding my love/hate could help others love writing more and hate writing less! I’m starting with the idea that the better we know ourselves (our habits, our quirks, and the way we process the world), the more we can intentionally and kindly learn the best ways to improve our relationships with ourselves, our work, and the world. Ever the optimist, I turned to popular relationship resources to see what I could do.

A personality typing called The 5 Love Languages®, a tool created by Dr. Gary Chapman originally to help partners communicate more intentionally, breaks down the way that people experience and administer love into five main categories: quality time, physical touch, receiving gifts, words of affirmation, and acts of service. Because people are dynamic and complex, the system explains that we all, in some ways, connect to all of these categories. However, it is not uncommon to gravitate towards one category dominantly or possibly have strong aversions to a couple of others. In light of this, applying The 5 Love Languages® to writing offers some exciting categories of contemplation!

Quality Time: Quality writing time is the time that you block out or set aside for the purpose of working or writing. Please hear this: it is not time where you are only producing quality writing! It’s choosing to sit with your work, even if the whole time it’s in front of an empty screen, because you are choosing to write as a labor of love. This might mean finding a favorite spot in the library where you can focus — just you and your words. Maybe it’s at a cute coffee shop where the buzz keeps you in the zone! If the idea of carving out special time to spend writing sounds like what works best for you, quality time might be your writing-love language! Find what “quality” means to you and pursue that intentionally. 

Physical Touch: Physical touch with writing has to do with the literal interaction we have with our writing instruments when engaging in work. Writing is a tactile, material experience. For some of us, there is nothing more generative than sitting down in front of our trusty keyboard and feeling the hum of our computer. For others of us, we need to hold a pen, or maybe it’s the aesthetic of graph paper that helps you, or one mechanical pencil that has the perfect-sharpness lead. Spend some time thinking: what’s your favorite way to materially engage with the writing process? If you find yourself resolutely finding a pattern between what you write with and how you feel about writing, physical touch might be your writing-love language!

Receiving Gifts: Maybe you feel most productive and generative in your writing when you know there is something waiting for you when the task is done. What if you arranged to give yourself thoughtful rewards for completing certain writing tasks? The focus then is on a sentiment attached to a gift you might give yourself. Maybe this looks like going to a coffee shop or planning to drink your favorite tea. Maybe it’s working for that really great cookie from the bakery down the road. What precious possessions around you make you feel generative? It could be buying a special pencil so you can finally get rid of the one whose eraser has been gone for a year or building in rewards for when you reach benchmarks or complete certain tasks. If there’s that one thing you can think of that gets you excited to write, receiving gifts might be your writing love language!

Words of Affirmation: Words of affirmation in the writing process, to me, seems most fitting when applied to how we take ideas and form them into words. So it could look like verbal affirmation we receive from others regarding our writing, or maybe we find that when we speak about our own writing, our ideas seem to clarify, or we get excited and want to keep working. Therefore, maybe this writing-love language might include sharing our essay outline or research questions with a trusted friend or professor. Sometimes when you’re brainstorming for a piece of writing, you just need to talk it out! Verbal processing can be very helpful; in fact, that’s why our virtual Live Chat option at the Writing Center is so powerful and popular. Additionally, there are so many cool multimodal resources — like Word’s dictate feature — to help if you need to talk out your ideas alone and make them into writing. Do you find your best ideas come during those great conversations with your roommate at 1 AM? Or maybe when you’re on the phone with mom? This might be your writing-love language!

Acts of Service: This one was the hardest for me to make into a metaphor, but this love language is all about taking care of responsibilities in order to put the object of your affection first. In a relationship, it might be taking out the trash (before you’ve been asked!). In writing, it’s all about taking care of the urgent work to prioritize the important work! Maybe it means that you tackle your weekend chores on Friday night so that you can get to work on that paper Saturday morning without the guilt of laundry piling up in your periphery. Maybe it means spending an extra hour researching for your assignment when you have the spare time so that when your week gets busier, you’ve gotten ahead. What’s a small task that present-you can do to take some of the load off of future-you’s plate so that they can write distraction-free? If this type of strategy gets you excited, I think acts of service might be your writing love-language.

This extended application is meant in good humor and for fun, but I hope that considering the different ways you engage with the (wonderful, crazy, complex) writing process leads you to a more confident, fruitful writing experience.I hope you have a lovely month. Happy February, and Happy Writing!