Category: 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! 

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.

New Year’s Resolutions and Writing for Personal Development

Zoë Litzenberg, Writing Consultant

It’s finally December (also how is it already December?), and I’m excited for the year to end. No, it’s not just because I am ready for 2020 to be over (though I am), but also because I am a big fan of the Fresh Start Mindset. The FSM is when, because of a marked change, like the beginning of a new year, everything seems newer, more possible, and thus one finds themself more hopeful and willing to make changes. This feeling is a widespread phenomenon during the New Year’s season: the numbers vary, but a quick Google search and several polls will confirm that roughly 50% of adult Americans set New Year’s Resolutions. After the year we’ve had, I think — more than ever — I am absolutely aching for a Fresh Start. But, in my experience, it’s more often than not that an FSM doesn’t really lead to lasting change.

We all have that friend that refuses to make a New Years’ Resolution because “No one ever follows through on those things anyway”; maybe that friend is you!  I certainly felt that way for a long time, and with good reason. The same statistics that point to half of America setting goals put those goals’ success rate from only 7-10%. Maybe some of us have seen the episode of Friends “The One with All the Resolutions” (S5E11), where Ross gets stuck in leather pants, and the rest of the cast engage in similar, if slightly less embarrassing, hijinks? Or Pam, in an episode of The Office (S7E13), when she makes a poster board with everyone’s New Years’ Resolutions to help motivate them towards their goals? An avid viewer might recall that the episode culminates in Kevin shoving the butt-end of a stock of broccoli in his mouth and later threatening to “never eat a vegetable again.” At this point, broken resolutions might even be called a trope of the modern sitcom — narratives where, in 30 minutes, everyone transforms from hopeful and energized to deflated, having abandoned their goals but slightly more “realistic” as people. Isn’t it interesting that in many of these cases, their goals are set on a whim, written in pen or placed into a bet, and then treated as an all-or-nothing enterprise that, once broken, is lost forever? In short, goals are often shown to be products of a (quick) decision that either will or won’t be good, and, in turn, we goal-setters either will or won’t be a success.

Oof. Who would like that type of pressure??

I offer that hoping for personal development and having New Years’ Resolutions are not necessarily wrong, bad, or unrealistic. What can contribute to their success or failure is precisely what goes into a great piece of writing: research, planning, feedback, and revision. We might easily understand how academic writing and projects benefit from those components, so why is it difficult to treat our personal development this way? Maybe because personal development is, indeed, personal: we are so close to ourselves that we forget to take some time to evaluate who we are and make a reasonable path towards self-development. Personally, what first shifted my mentality towards goal setting was finding the resources of a popular life-coach Michael Hyatt, who taught “SMARTER” goal setting(2013). The SMARTER acronym encourages reflection and writing as a way to set and achieve challenging goals. While this is certainly not the only resource that can help articulate lasting goals, it is one of my favorite reflective matrixes. It’s in retrospect that many of the connections between this framework and healthy writing habits become clear.

What if goal setting, just like how we treat writing here at the Writing Center, is a process (an ongoing and recursive pursuit) and not a product (a one-time decision that either is or isn’t good)? What is accomplished in this reframing? I think that the answer is more than just “goals”. When we view writing as a process rather than a product, we can learn to craft a more fruitful, fulfilling, masterful practice that is kinder to ourselves and others. The same can be said about personal development, even including New Year’s Resolutions. At the writing center, our goal is not just to help you do well on writing in course assignments, though we do enjoy and train for working within and between disciplines! We want to share our knowledge of and passion for writing as an enabling, empowering experience and help you become a better writer and thinker (and now, goal setter!). Are you someone that struggles to keep your New Year’s resolution? Write it down and visit us. 

The following includes questions and prompts I made that you might think over, talk through, write about, and use to inspire goal setting for this well-earned New Year. I hope that you catch this Fresh Start mentality and ride it as far as it’ll take you, and I hope you feel welcome and encouraged to use writing and reflection as a process that will take you further than you ever thought you could go.

Research:

  • How would you describe yourself, and how might your friends and family describe you?
  • Have you taken any personality tests or diagnostics like the Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, or Strengths Finders? What have you learned about the way that you best work?
  • What makes a New Year’s Resolution stick?
  • Reflect on a time that you set a goal that you were able to accomplish. What made it happen? Now think of a time that you didn’t accomplish a goal; what do you think went wrong?

Planning:

  • What are your current priorities? What are your future goals? Are your priorities and goals in alignment?
  • How might you categorize your weekly or reoccurring work in the Eisenhower Matrix? Do you find that you often put off important work for urgent work?
  • What has worked well over the last year for you? What hasn’t? Why?
  • Where would you like to be this time next year — be that physically, mentally, spiritually, relationally, academically, professionally, or even literally?
  • If you had to choose three goals that you’d like to accomplish this next year, what might they be?
    • How might you break down your goals into sub-goals which can be tracked and accomplished quarterly? Monthly and Weekly? Daily?

Feedback:

With a trusted friend, family member, mentor, or even one of us at the Writing Center, you can ask the following:

  • Could this be considered a SMARTER goal (Hyatt, 2013)? If not, how might your goals be revised so that they meet the spirit, if not the exact specifications, of this framework?
    • Specific
    • Measurable
    • Actionable
    • Risky
    • Time-bound
    • Exciting
    • Relevant

I have one more piece of advice I’d like to offer before this blog ends: write down your plans. Look at them often as a reminder of what you are working towards. And for goodness sake, write them in pencil! If this year has taught me anything, we need flexibility in our plans and grace towards our mistakes.

Happy New Year, and Happy Writing!

References

Hyatt, Michael. (2013, June 14). The beginners guide to goal setting. Michael Hyatt & Co. https://michaelhyatt.com/goal-setting/.

Kwiatkowski, Andreas. (2011). Introducing the Eisenhower Matrix. EISENHOWER. https://www.eisenhower.me/eisenhower-matrix/.