Category: Space

Patience and Productivity: What I’ve Learned About Writing and Working During the Pandemic

Spenser Secrest, Writing Consultant

Everyone knows that writing is difficult. And writing, especially creative writing, has become quite difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. Writing during the pandemic has posed several different challenges, and this still feels unusual to me. Every aspect of our lives has seemingly been interrupted or altered due to the outbreak of COVID-19, so why should writing be any different? For me, writing during the pandemic has become more difficult because there is no end in sight and every related action becomes increasingly polarized in the news each week. Writing is the last thing I can think about right now, and access to support networks is gone. While the pandemic has posed a unique challenge, it also offers us the opportunity to help us grow, hopefully both as writers and as people.

Although the act of writing is usually thought of as being done in solitude, which can, obviously, be done during the pandemic, this still feels as though certain aspects of the writing process are being left out. I have always viewed getting feedback as a vital part of writing – from friends, colleagues, and peers,for any piece of writing that I do, whether that is a piece of academic or creative writing.  While emails, texts and other forms of long distance communication have been beneficial, this is still not a substitute for discussions of the piece as a whole in person with someone whose thoughts and opinions I value. Even this very blog post, I intend to have someone proofread.

            The COVID-19 pandemic has affected other aspects of writing as well. It is now much more difficult to write with anyone and in any public space. Although these difficulties are the result of measurements taken for our safety, knowledge of this fact does not make these challenges any less difficult to work with. In fact, knowing that some people have openly violated such measurements has, for me, at times, made focusing on the prospect of writing all the more difficult. When thinking about how the pandemic has disrupted life and how long it has lasted, to see or hear of someone openly not care about precautions for one’s own safety, as well as the safety of those around them, can add another topic of distraction from any activity, including writing of any kind.

            Creative writing can also function as a therapeutic act. However, as the pandemic has continued, with no end in sight due to the U.S. government’s current administration’s lack of leadership on this issue, this raises the question as to what writing during the pandemic can accomplish, as the pandemic is still ongoing and all of the trials and tribulations will continue, even after one has finished writing something. If writing can be seen as a potential way to come to terms with something or to make sense of something, what can be accomplished when the circumstances keep changing due to the pandemic?Ideally, any act of creative writing would provide some form of catharsis, even if the difficult circumstances under which that writing was produced continue for the foreseeable future.

            Working as a Writing Center consultant for the first time, I have found that, despite any technological issues and doubts that the writers have had with their writings, they still desire feedback from the consultants. This has shown, to me, that all writers value feedback, even if this feedback is for assignments and academic writing. Something that I had not expected was that working with other writers, from a variety of different areas, and in different stages of drafting, has improved my own academic writing skills.  I’ve found that working with other writers can be beneficial to both the writer and the consultant. As a consultant works with a writer to improve their draft, so too does the consultant’s understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of writing.

            Finally, since I have been in graduate school, I have found patience to be the greatest asset to writing during the pandemic. Whether this be patience with technology working or patience in waiting for inspiration in writing, the pandemic has shown that patience is an incredibly valuable character trait to have during this time. The pandemic has led to us all making adaptations in our work and patience is a necessary component when learning something in an environment that is new to everyone. Additionally, developing more patience is something that would seem to be only to one’s benefit. Hopefully, everyone has developed more patience since the outbreak of COVID-19.

On Distance and Embodied Writing

Amanda Dolan, Writing Consultant

Prior to the pandemic, I wasn’t very attentive to the body’s role in writing. Because of my background in both visual and performing art, I largely saw the world as impressionistic. This perspective carried over into my literature studies and ultimately led me to consider writing a predominantly mental discipline. I found myself not only fixating on ephemera and reminiscence within my research, but also only writing to articulate, recreate, and relive the past. Worst of all, I idolized and sought —always unsuccessfully— an incorrect/reductive/harmful conception of the notorious, transient “flow state”. 

I realized just how skewed my perception of the flow state was shortly after lockdown began. Time drastically slowed down, but that effortless focus never occurred and I almost entirely lost the urge to write (certainly academically). For years I had written about and through nostalgia, but strangely I could not put pen to paper during the first several weeks of lockdown even though these were so filled with nostalgic feelings. 

I now think this initial inability to write stemmed from confronting the fact that, contrary to my long-held belief, the space/time separating our memories from the events in our lives is perhaps the least tragic form of distance. Many, even those of us who previously felt loved ones were reassuringly distant, started to wish for nearness. Naturally, this physical distance and the resulting virtual interactions made embodied experiences much more important for a significant percentage of the population —myself included. Like many others, I started spending more time exercising, cooking, and residing outdoors. These healthy habits, however, were joined by the new (to me) practice of doomscrolling. Even though this latter habit is often ultra destructive and the former are generally quite beneficial, I noticed a commonality between all of them: immediacy. While doomscrolling isn’t as directly an embodied process (although the anxiety it frequently creates can definitely pull you back into your body), it is certainly similar to one as it’s also a matter of immediacy —instead of distance. 

Because the libraries were closed, I started going through my backlog of owned books. One of the books I finally (“finally” as in “the English version was published in 2009”; this was one of my first quarantine reads) got around to reading was Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The book discusses the reciprocal relationship between running and writing, and, although I am not much of a runner, it provided a lot of insight about distance versus immediacy and embodied writing. I realized after this read that because writing was, for me, so much about processing impressionistic, past information, it naturally became difficult to write during a time when (because of uncertainty) all most of us could do was preserve information in a largely unprocessed state. I think this inclination to preserve the feeling of ideas before we understand them contributed to the increased interest in Twitter (and, consequently, doomscrolling) during this time. Of course some —or even most— of this pull to social media was a result of needing incessant communication for the sake of connection, but I think the immediacy of semi-unprocessed information was oddly comforting during a period marked by physical distance. 

In closing, I just want to share what this shift away from distance and pure mental processes and towards immediacy and physicality forced me —with the help of Murakami’s book— to recognize about writing. Firstly (though these points are very much related), it relies on both the body and the mind, and it benefits from being fortified through physical activity/patterns just as much as mental. I actually achieved a proper (refer to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for this) “flow state” after developing small habits —like snacking, stretching, and playing very familiar music or white noise— that establish a physical, sensory space for writing. Secondly, the process is located in both physical and temporal spaces, whether immediate or distant. Although my interest in memory has returned since school has resumed, my academic writing/processed information can now be suddenly immediate —just as my prose/semi-unprocessed feelings can be distant. Together these two discoveries have, during a time of uncertainty and physical insulation, helped me value writing other futures —everywhere and all the time.

Writing in a Time of Uncertainty: Negotiating Anxious Thoughts Translating to Anxious Words

Emma Turner, Writing Consultant

Writing is hard. Most who write will tell you that. Those who say it is easy are either brilliant or lying. Writing is scary. Learning to write is often a series of trial and error, drafts, coffee, and tears (or that last part could just be me). Writing is vulnerable. When we write, we expose our innermost thoughts and feelings, and we reveal the inner workings of our mind. Writing is a process familiar to many of us, yet, in times of uncertainty, writing becomes uncertain too. 

Writing is even more challenging when it is done in the midst of social and cultural change. One finding their voice can be drowned out by the uncertainty faced in daily life. Learning to cope with living in a pandemic, living in the midst of necessary and justified civil unrest, and returning to a college campus where everything feels incredibly familiar yet unfamiliar is not conducive to creating one’s strongest work. Over the past several months, a feeling of increasing isolation and doubt has begun to take hold for so many. I’ve noticed even in my own writing the insecurity of current events bleeds through when pen is put to paper (or fingers put to keys, but you know what I mean). Mental health has become a feature we are acutely aware of. It is incredibly difficult to create a divergence between the anxiety of the everyday and the anxiety of writing. Despite the stress associated with the act of writing, it can serve as a practice that moves beyond the standard social construction of the act. Writing can be a tool that is incredibly reflective of the thoughts and sentiments of its author in a way that is liberating to the writer and impactful to its readers. Because of this, I choose to see writing as a positive instrument to utilize in times such as this when expression becomes a key in communication. I think, too, that this can be shown in many ways. 

Writing has many forms and functions, and there is a multiplicity of ways we can express our feelings through them. Outside of the academy, writing poetry, journaling, creating a piece of fiction you are passionate about—all of these and many more are forms of writing which can be employed. In these forms, one is able to explore their own emotional state and communicate it in a way that is legible to others whether this be through a number of poetic devices or through the experiences of a character. By participating in these artforms, one opens themselves to the possibility that others feel the same way too, and, perhaps, through expression the loneliness and fear that is ever so present can be overcome. 

Academic writing, too, is an opportunity to explore the margins modern society teeters on. Through research papers, personal narratives, and community presentations, we are able to explore the complex relationship between ourselves and the world we live in. Exploration can be demonstrated by researching important social justice issues and expounding on these through academic composition. Experiences within specific communities and as a certain person can be examined through narrative. Presenting relevant, important information through presentation is a subtle form of activism too. Each strategy one may take to address anxiety in academic writing approaches the issue from a different angle. The beauty of this is that there is no ONE way to do things. Ultimately, you must choose what is best for you. 

Although it is difficult to abandon our preconceptions of what writing is and how it traditionally functions, there is a certain power in the understanding of writing as a mode of catharsis and empowerment. In a time where things feel increasingly disconnected, writing is a mode that is universally linked. Largely, writing is an act of kindness. What you say when you write has the ability to impact how someone else views the world—or themselves. Be kind, and share your voice. 

Feel free to let those of us in the Writing Center hear your voice too. 

Writers & Consultants: Meeting in a Virtual World

By: Amber Yocum

Today marks the third week of the semester and so much of how we operate – as a university, as a writing center, as faculty, staff, students, and humans  –  has changed and continues to change as everyone adapts to different teaching and resource modalities.

This semester, along with many other university resources like REACH, the Career Center, and the Counseling Center, we decided to offer virtual appointments in order to keep you and our staff safe. Admittedly, it’s been difficult for us because seeing you as individuals and writers and getting to interact and collaborate with you in-person is one of the aspects of writing center culture we value so much.

Our goal this fall is to ensure that you, as writers and members of the university community, do not lose that connection. And to continue to assist you with your writing and writing processes in ways that reflect our consultants’ commitment to provide individualized feedback.

Whether you visit the Writing Center one time or multiple times over the course of your academic and professional careers, our consultants are here to learn about you as writers and people, as well as to help you with your writing. So much of their own academic and professional experiences, as well as interests, contribute to that process. As you navigate how to adjust to a more virtual environment, we hope that you take the time to get to know our consultants whose aims are the same as if we were meeting you in-person: to listen and to help you become a better writer.

 

 

Decker
Maddy Decker

Writing Tip: “Write with the mindset of telling a story, even if you’re working on something like a research paper. Finding the story you are telling is often an approachable way to work through your own thinking, and it can help you make sure that your reader will follow the argument and reasoning in your writing.”

Madelaine “Maddy’ Decker is interested in producing fiction as well as researching topics related to 18th century literature and African American literature. She earned her BA in English and Anthropology from the University of Kentucky. Her favorite book is The Thief Lord, and her outside interests include knitting, Irish archaeology, 2010’s pop punk, and the Muppets.

Dolan
Amanda Dolan

Writing Tip: “Try not to make unreasonable rules about what your process should look like or how long a piece of writing should take you to finish.”

Amanda Dolan is a second year MA student whose research interests include memory, literature and other art forms, and the syncretization of myth. Prior to her return to academia, she worked in education research.

Glover
Shelbi “Chuck” Glover 

Writing Tip: “Just start writing. you can always improve it later, but if you spend all of your energy worrying that it will be bad, you’re cheating yourself.”

Chuck Glover completed her BA in English at the University of Louisville. Her academic interests include creative writing, screenwriting, and the study of feminist, socialist, and LGBT literature. Her favorite TV shows are King of the Hill and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and her favorite movies are Parasite and Gone Girl.

Hays
Ian Hays 

Ian views language as the practical analogue to conceptual expression, and, while working toward his degree, hopes to expand his understanding of the relationship between rhetoric and world view. His interests include low-fiction, creative non-fiction, and identity as defined in a media saturated age. Outside of university, Ian enjoys biking, hiking, and writing essays on contemporary culture; as well conversations with everyday people throughout whichever community he finds himself in.

Hutto
Andrew Hutto

Writing Tip: ‘Write every day. Even if it is just a few lines, the practice will pay dividends.”

Andrew received his BA in English from the University of Louisville. His critical research focuses on 17th-century British literature as well as René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. Presently he serves on the Pine Row Press editorial board. His poetry appears in Thrush Poetry Journal, Cathexis Northwest Press, Math Magazine, Poet Lore, High-Shelf Press, Twyckenham Notes, and elsewhere.

Ismail
Ayaat Ismail

Writing Tip: “After getting the assignment and starting your writing process (whatever that might be) jot down all the thoughts you have forming in your head on to the paper. I say this because it is astonishing how many of those quick ideas will become improved concepts later in your paper.”

Ayaat received her BA in English from the University of Louisville. Her interests are in sociolinguistics and British Literature with a focus in feminism and social class. Her love of language was developed at a young age having been raised in a bilingual household. She is from Chicago, Illinois and loves watching baseball as an avid Cubs fan, and spends the rest of her free time reading and writing.

Litzenberg
Zoë Litzenberg

Writing Tip: “Your best friend in the writing process is time. There are a few exceptions, but in general more time you spend on a project (and the sooner you start it!), the less stressful it is to work on it and the better your work ends up. Sometimes I procrastinate because I don’t know where to start; that’s where talking with a friend or visiting the writing center to flesh out your ideas is a great use of time!”

Zoë, a San Diego native, is joining the Writing Center with a background in Humanities and Creative Writing. A true enthusiast for all facets of academia, Zoë loves how the writing process can empower and embolden any student of any discipline to be more effective in their field. Right now, her research interests include children’s literature, the pedagogy of leadership, the writing theory for the student-athlete. When not in the Writing Center, Zoë is probably working out, dancing, watching movies, laughing, or doing all of four at the same time.

Minnick-Tucker
Demetrius Minnick-Tucker

Demetrius hales from Atlanta, GA and received his undergraduate degree from Boyce College. He loves reading the literature classics and played college basketball. Friendships are really important to him. His favorite event in Louisville is attending summer-time Shakespeare in the Park plays. His favorite books are the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. His favorite line in poetry is from George Herbert: “Love Bade Me Welcome/ Yet guilty of dust and sin I drew back.”

Secrest
Spenser Secrest

Writing Tip: “Do not doubt yourself, as even the best writers need to edit and revise their works.”

 Spenser is from Lancaster, PA and received a BA in English with a history minor from McDaniel College in 2019. While at McDaniel, he served as an editor for both the college’s newspaper and literary magazine. His areas of interest include modernism, 20th Century American literature, and Marxism, with an emphasis on cultural hegemony. Outside of the classroom he enjoys reading, creative writing, hiking, and binge watching movies on Netflix.

 

Turner
Emma Turner 

Writing Tip: “Try to invest yourself in whatever you are writing about. Whether you love or hate the topic, find a way to connect to it so it’s more than just an assignment.”  

Emma received her BA in English and Women’s and Gender Studies from Lindsey Wilson College in May 2020. From 2018-2020, Emma served as a peer Writing Center Consultant in the Writing Center at her undergraduate institution and began to develop an ever-growing writing pedagogy. During this same time, Emma published several papers in undergraduate research journals on topics ranging from Greek literature, Wuthering Heights, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Dolly Parton. Her research interests have continually been a mixed bag; however, she always loves what she is studying.

 

Writing for Sanity’s Sake: A Quarantine Companion

IMG_3633Edward English, Assistant Director 

When considering strategies for staying emotionally and physically healthy during these times of closed borders, social distancing, and toilet paper depletion, for most people writing would be an unlikely choice. Writing does, after all, carry a reputation for being a solitary enterprise.  I do, however, believe that writing offers great potential to help many navigate these tough times and here’s why.

The importance of having projects. For those with an ample amount of free time, having a project, or projects, can be a fun and rewarding way to learn and stay occupied. My wife, a junior high science teacher now instructing entirely online, has a loom and is in a weaving frenzy.  I’ve started gardening a bit and trying to get better at home repairs.  It seems I’m not alone in taking on these tasks either—yesterday while driving around, I noticed what seemed to be a Louisvillian ghost town suddenly transform into a dense expanse of cars parked in front of Lowe’s.

For many attracted to writing, the biggest obstacles can be a perceived lack of time and difficulty overcoming writer’s block.  Now, however, free-time is no longer in short supply for the bulk of us.  Also, for myself, I feel that writer’s block is often a product of feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of a project.  Perhaps now is the time for you to start that novel you always wanted to write, but something of a more manageable size might be a better strategy: a short story, a screenplay, or a thoughtfully crafted letter or e-mail to connect with loved ones, offer consultation to those in a difficult place, or express appreciation to those who are working so hard and acting bravely—particularly those in the medical field.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that writing can often be an activity that requires slowing down and thoughtfully managing your time, as former writing consultant Abby Wills explains: Slow Writing: 5 Ways to Rebel against the Culture of Urgency

The importance of working through emotions—especially uncomfortable ones.  These are anxious times—especially to someone in tune with the current headlines.  As many people have little communication with others during this unprecedented time, it might be challenging to process through difficult emotions. For some in these and similar situations, writing can serve as an outlet. In my own life, I’ve found that writing, especially journaling and poetry, can be an excellent way to give definition and clarity to fears, questions, and concerns.  And while these steps don’t necessarily eliminate problems, more often than not they help foster much clearer, and more pleasant, headspace.

For fun insight into journaling, check out former writing consultant Rachel Knowles’ piece: The Writing Center Diaries: Dispelling Myths About Journaling

The importance of exercise and creativity.

If you have the ability to responsibly exercise, jog, or take walks, it’s likely a good idea. The benefits are numerous: physical health, increased serotonin levels, vitamin D to name a few.  But also consider that exercise could be a great way to improve your writing quality and overall experience.

In a recent interview, acclaimed fiction writer Chuck Palahniuk (Invisible MonstersChoke, Fight Club) detailed how much of his writing process actually revolves around lifting weights—arguing that the physical movement and circulation were conducive to helping him feel creative and organize his thoughts. While weight lifting might be a limited option for most—particularly with the closure of gyms—the sentiment is clear, and alternative ways of exercising indoors abound with a simple Google search.

Along similar lines, a few years back Psychology Today published “To Become a Better Writer, Be a Frequent Walker” exploring significant benefits walking can give to writers.  As the article explains, avid walkers abound among great literary figures like Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth and Henry David Thoreau.  Furthermore, walking can lead to increased creativity, provide inspiration, and hone one’s observational skills.

The importance of staying connected.

While a successful writer is frequently imagined as sitting hunched over a laptop typing away in a disheveled apartment, sterile office, or library, more often than not some of the most successful writers I have met put great effort into figuring out alternative and creative methods that work better for them, and this often incorporates social connection as a significant part of their writing process.

And, as many are discovering creative ways of connecting online, it might be worth considering that writing could be a useful means to get feedback or just brainstorm ideas with friends or people with similar interests online.  If you happen to be a faculty member or graduate student at the UofL and are interested, we are still our offering writing group online.  For more details, check out: Faculty and Graduate Student Writing Group

For many, these various options and suggestions might not be feasible. But either way, we at the University Writing Center hope you stay safe, healthy, and connected.  So happy writing…or whatever it is you do to help during these strange times.

Works Cited

“To Become a Better Writer, Be a Frequent Walker.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 28 Mar. 2016, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/minding-the-body/201603/become-better-writer-be-frequent-walker.

Rethinking Writing in the Digital Age: Implications for Writing Center Tutoring

Olalekan Adepoju, Writing Consultant

The boom in digital technologies continues to challenge our basic understanding of writing and literacy practices. Which, for the most part, is a good thing.  This is because these technologies provide genuine platforms for improvement to our information and literacy practices in terms of what is learned, how it is learned, where it is learned and when it is learned. In fact, these available digital devices enable students to learn at their own pace and develop skills needed in a modern society.

It is evident that, nowadays, technological tools are ubiquitous and widely accessible to all categories of people, thereby aiding teaching and learning. This has no doubt contributed to the disruption to literacy practices, especially writing, in that information  used to be conveyed mainly through two modes, namely alphabets and visual elements such as white space, margins and font size.  But this has now been extended to include multiple modes such as visual images, video, color, and sound among others. Social media has also helped a great deal to extend the impact of writing practices beyond pen/pencil and paper to creating a wide space and opportunity for writing to occur beyond the pages of a book.

These forms of writing, thus, necessitate that we, as writing center consultants, re-consider our tutoring strategies to achieve our objective of making a better writer instead of simply making a better text. One of the crucial reasons for rethinking writing in this digital age is because of its implication for knowledge transfer. The proliferation of digital technologies has accentuated the need for creative thinking in all aspects of our lives, and has also provided tools that can help us improve and transfer important skills for knowledge production.

Although writing center consultants’ familiarity with different modes of communication is generally important during tutoring sessions, it is nevertheless not necessary for the tutors to possess expertise in the use of technologies or a genre-specific knowledge of how these modes work in their entirety. However, discussing the thinking and production processes of the digital text constitutes an important aspect of the tutoring; this inevitably helps writers in transferring relevant skills and knowledge garnered through the production stages of the digital texts into other aspects of life.

In addition, since writers, wittingly or unwittingly, approach their writing practices using “all available means of communication” (Takayoshi and Selfe, 2007) at the disposal to express their intentions to the audience, tutoring sessions should also include an examination of the effectiveness of the rhetorical choices and moves made by the writer to achieve this goal.

Rethinking writing practices in this digital age also has an implication for collaboration between the writing center and the digital media centers. Such partnerships, it is believed, will foster efforts on helping students who are struggling with the production of their digital writing practices as well as open a line of communication and exchange of information on the progress and improvements of writers’ digital texts.

To conclude, I would echo Takayoshi and Selfe’s (2007) notion that, if the writing center is to foster the goal of making a better writer, who can both “create meaning in texts and interpret meaning from text within a dynamic and increasingly technological world”, we need to rethink our approaches in order to enable a tutoring session that accommodates the affordances of writing in the digital age.

Source

Takayoshi, Pamela and Cynthia L., Selfe. “Thinking about Multimodality.” Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers . Ed. Cynthia L., Selfe, Cresskill: Hampton P, 2007, pp 1-12.

How I Write: Dr. Tracy E. K’Meyer

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers.

Photo

Dr. Tracy E. K’Meyer is a Professor of History at the University of Louisville, specializing in the history of modern U.S. social movements. She earned her PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1993 and taught at New Mexico State University for two years before coming to the University of Louisville. She is the author of five books: Interracialism and Christian Community in the Postwar South: The Story of Koinonia Farm(1997); Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, KY, 1945-80 (2009); Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky (2009), with Catherine Fosl; I Saw it Coming: Worker Narratives of Plant Closings and Job Loss (2010), with Joy Hart; and From Brown to Meredith: The Long Struggle for School Desegregation in Louisville and Jefferson County, KY, 1954-2012 (2013). At the University of Louisville, she has served as Co-Director of the Oral History Center (1995-2017), Chair of the Department of History (2009-2015), and acting director of the Public History Program (2009-2010, 2019-present).

Location: Louisville, KY

Current project: I am completing two book projects in the next couple months: We the People: A Narrative History of the United States, with A. Glenn Crothers; and, To Live Peaceably Together: The American Friends Service Committee and the Open Housing Movement.

Currently reading: Wesley C. Hogan’s brand new On the Freedom Side: How Five Decades of Youth Activists Have Remixed American History from UNC Press.

1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

I like to write books. Historians still prioritize the monograph for tenure and promotion, and in the field one’s reputation rests more heavily on books than on articles. But, more than that, I just prefer the long form.

I like the deep immersion and the room to explore rich stories in a narrative as well as persuasive format. Of course, when not working on research, I write lectures, proposals, committee reports, and letters of recommendation.

2. When/where/how do you write?

My best writing is early in the day. I am pretty sure I wrote my entire dissertation before noon. I love writing at home, in my office in the attic, when my kids are at school and I have the place to myself. In a pinch, I can write in my campus office. But, I shut the door to keep distractions and interruptions down.

3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?

Quiet and a big desk. I write on the computer, but I keep a notepad and pen next to me for free writing and “scribbling” down thoughts in preparation for writing. I have my research notes in files on the computer, but I also print out the sections most relevant for what I’m writing that day so I have them for easier reference.

4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

I am a big fan of what I call “deep outlining.” I start with the big structure, then the chapter outline, then break that into ever smaller chunks. Often by the time my fingers hit the key pad, I’ve outlined even the individual paragraphs.

This helps me see where I’m going. When I start writing, I’ve already thought through most of what’s going to go on the page. Liberated from having to figure that out, I can have fun with the language and the story.

5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

As Professor William Leuchtenberg told me in graduate school, “don’t get it right, get it written.” I’ve taken that to mean many things over the years. First, get something on paper. You are going to rewrite multiple times anyway so just get moving. Don’t worry about making all the sentences pretty. They can be fixed. In fact, fixing them later is half the fun. I think it also means, don’t wait until you think your work is perfect before you show it to someone else. Get it in shape that won’t embarrass you and send it to a friend (or in my case, I’m lucky to have a historian husband who is my first reader for everything).

Finally, I’ve always taken it as an admonition to meet deadlines, even if they are self-imposed ones. When I meet a deadline I feel confident, productive, and energized, and that helps keep the mental juices flowing.

 

Writing and Riding: More Parallels Than You Might Think

Kelby Gibson, Writing Consultant

Writing can be related to more things in your daily life than you might expect. Writing looks different for everyone.  My writing process is very similar to my training process. I ride horses, barrel horses to be exact. I compete at local shows and occasionally a few rodeos. For those reading this that don’t know what barrel racing is, it’s a timed equine event in which a rider takes their horse through a clover leaf pattern around three 55-gallon barrels as fast as they can. I know what you’re thinking, there is no way this can relate to writing, but it really can.

I have learned many lessons and grown so much as a person from being in the barrel racing world. A few of the key things I’ve learned that have in turn helped me in writing are both humility and confidence.

Humility is something that can be hard for a lot of people. Admitting you are wrong is never fun, but the important thing to remember is when you can accept that you need to ask for help you are always going to come out the better person. A friend of mine has a saying, “if you’re scared say you’re scared” and I think this applies here. If you need help, ask for help! Yes, it sucks saying I’ve tried my way, now I need to hear from someone else. Opening yourself up for critique is hard, but once you learn to take the constructive criticism it will only make you better at what you are trying to accomplish, whether that is win a belt buckle or write an ‘A’ paper.

I’ve consulted many different people just in the last year on how to better myself as a rider just as I have continually asked for feedback from friends and colleagues with my writing throughout the semester. I did not become a better barrel racer by only ever riding my way, I got better by asking my friends and competitors questions. You cannot become a better writer holed up in a dark room holding onto that draft just waiting for the answers to come for you. You have to go find the answers. Writing can be social. Writing is social. So have the humility to venture away from the desk, seek feedback, and ask questions.

Kelby horse
Kelby Gibson barrel racing!

Confidence is needed when you’re on the back of a 1200-pound animal that’s running at roughly 40 miles per hour and turning on your command by a few light hand and foot movements. There are certain pressures behind writing that are similar to trying to beat a clock with money on the line. Maybe you’re applying to your dream graduate program, working on your senior thesis, or writing the final paper that determines your grade in class. Stress and pressure do funny things to us and can cause us to under-perform. When I’m at a race I like to try my best to focus on the positives.

While I don’t recall exactly who said it, there is a line from my favorite barrel racing podcast I like to keep in mind with all things in life, “You either win or you learn.” So maybe you try your hardest and your horse gives its all, but you don’t come in the pen and set the pace for the day. Similarly, you might spend hours upon hours on a paper that falls short in the eyes of its main audience. In either situation your initial reaction is to ask, what went wrong? If you pursue that question you will surely get an answer whether it be from yourself or someone else and once you have that answer you can learn how to do better next time.

Not every run is going to be your fastest and not every piece you write will be well received, but as long as you are trying your hardest and putting forth a good faith effort you will succeed or you will learn how to increase your chances of succeeding the next time. Have confidence in yourself. When you’re writing that paper don’t allow the thoughts of what might happen bog you down, clear your head and give it your best shot. As long as you’re trying, what is the worst that could happen?

These two things are just a few of the many ways barrel racing has enriched my life and my willingness to learn. My training process and writing process mirror each other in many aspects and because of that I continue to improve as both a jockey and a writer. What I admire most about this sport is that even the best of the best will tell you that you can never stop learning and finding ways to improve yourself and the same can be said for writing.

What I Learned About Writing from My Favorite Protagonist

Tristan DeWitt, Writing Consultant

I can’t say that writing is always enjoyable for me. Sometimes I even hate it.  I’ve spent countless hours sitting in front of a blank word document having no clue what to say – regretting the choices I have made that led me to writing another paper. I know it sounds dramatic (and I don’t by any means actually hate writing) but sometimes I feel so overwhelmed thinking about my audience and if they will find it good enough, that I don’t even want to complete the assignment at all.

In this situation, it helps me when I think about one of my favorite protagonist in literature, Mary Beton, from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Throughout the book, Mary finds herself denied the opportunity to partake in much of the academic culture of the university. In a search for answers to her experiences, Mary finds that little literature is written with attention to the actual experiences of women, both by male and female writers. Woolf herself concludes the novel by telling women that they need is a room of their own in which to write.

I believe that Mary’s experience highlights something about writing that many of us within the university community take for granted. When given an assignment that we don’t really want to do, we see it as something that is being forced upon us. I am guilty of this as well, but thinking of Mary makes me realize how remarkable each opportunity to write actually is. Not everywhere are we given the chance to write what we think and have an audience that will listen.

Even in our least favorite assignment we have the privilege to evaluate our thoughts and make something our own. We no longer need a room of our own to write. Within the university, we have a unique opportunity where we are expected to share our experiences and insights, be it with a text or with research.

Working in the Writing Center, people sometimes think that words or ideas just come to me naturally, since writing is what I like to do. However, the truth is that rarely do words just come to me. There is always revising, editing, and what seems to be an unending amount of time spent on rewriting just one sentence. Even when I get frustrated with an assignment, I have to remind myself that this is my work and that only I can say what I am thinking – which makes the laborious process of writing worth it to me.

Mary’s experience applies to us all. We all have had the moment when we question our thoughts or experiences. Next time you find yourself in this situation, where you feel frustrated with an assignment, I challenge you to see writing as the unique opportunity that it is. Not everywhere in life will you be asked what you think, so take this opportunity in college to own your writing.

Beholden and Held By The Power of Words

Rose Dyar, Writing Consultant

“Carry our stories carefully
Wrap them in soft red cloth
and place them against your
heart.” -Yolanda Chávez Leyva

Here at the Writing Center, we deal in the study of words and stories. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how to explain why I think that’s so special, how to explain the link I see between words and justice, and how I honored I am to work with writers as they make meaning.

So here goes a humble attempt to begin such an explanation.
I believe that the study of words (e.g. literature, poetry, rhetoric) is critical to the ongoing formation of the whole human person. A bold claim, I know, but let me elaborate. This endeavor has the potential to infuse beauty and feeling and empathy into a world that actively attempts to numb us to our own humanity. And because of that, it has the radical potential to change hearts and minds. I mean radical change in two ways.

First, the etymological term. To change something radically means to change it at its root. The study of words grants us the gift of insight, or the ability to see inside of thing, to see the systems and structures that manifest themselves into parts of our daily lives, which then make their way into the stories that we read. When we know what we’re looking at, we know how to ask questions about it. Studying words and studying writing, then, gives context to social and political conditions that engender joy and suffering in our lives.

Second, I speak of words and radical change in terms of impact. We often use the word radical in order to describe major change, of the shifting of norms. And radical change necessitates action on its behalf. Which brings me to my next point. The study of words allows us to disrupt the laws of physics, to become alchemists, to remove ourselves from the center of our own axes and ask what it might take to imagine life otherwise. Empathy and understanding are byproducts of encountering stories. Empathy and understanding create conditions for change to happen.

But here is what the study of words cannot do: move on its own or by itself. Words alone do not have the arms or legs or beating hearts to use in order to advocate for change. If it is to be involved with any sort of moving, those who study the impact of words and writing must embody its movement. If we are moved by a text, we must move to make a difference. The study of words for me, then, must be paired with the willingness to act, or write, for change.

Writing and reading allow us to cross borders. We transcend from the moved to the mover and enter into a space of our own making when we do it. We are, all of us, in the wilderness. We are, all of us, voices crying out wanting to be heard from the thickets of that wilderness. We are, all of us, beholden and held by the power of words. For me, the study of words necessarily asks of me the courage to speak and write ideas and identities into existence, into being. We carry stories with us. We carry them tenderly, we carry them fiercely, and we tell them purposefully.

I believe that we tell stories, to ourselves and to each other, in order to understand what it means to be human, and it how it is that we can come to be fully human together. I believe that each story that is told is, in some part, an act of revelation. I believe that at every turn, stories are verbalized negotiations of power. I believe that we are all of us telling stories all the time, every day. Each story uncovers, even if just a sliver more, how the human experience is lived and breathed and understood in one moment, in one context, by one storyteller.

What a gift it is to encounter these stories, to study these words, to work with writers as they make sense of the stories inside of them.