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/.

You Should Send a Holiday Card This Year – and Here’s How!

Andrew Hutto, Writing Consultant

There is no understating the difficulty this year has brought. COVID-19 has taken loved ones, disrupted plans, isolated us from each other, and is already beginning to cast a long shadow over the holiday season. If you have never sent a holiday card this is the year to do it.

With traditional family gatherings jeopardized, sending out a card may be the safest option to connect with friends and family this winter. Sure you can send a text message, an “E-card” or social media message, wishing loved ones a happy holiday, but taking the time to send a physical card may be one of the most meaningful gestures of solidarity this pandemic. 

Greeting cards are an excellent way to slow down the speed of our interactions. Since they take a few days to be delivered by mail, cards represent an antidote to the instant gratification of a quick email or instant message. It takes time to sit down and compose a few words by hand before dropping your card off at a mailbox. This might seem archaic but research has indicated that taking time to compose a written message for someone may improve the sender’s happiness. This year, who could not benefit from an extra boost of joy? By sending out a holiday card, not only are you increasing your own fulfillment, but you may also be making someone else’s day. Receiving a hand-written card in the mail indicates that the sender has spent time thinking about you. Amid a global pandemic, where we have reoriented our means of connection, it only seems fitting that we might take advantage of writing a greeting card to signal our care for one another. 

Some tips for your holiday card:

Resist the urge to simply sign your name

You’ve spent 30 minutes picking out the perfect card, the message is clever, and you are sure your recipient will get a kick out of the cover image. Now what to do inside of the card?  I would resist the urge to only sign your name. Instead, try writing a brief, personal message in your card. This might take up a minute of your time, but it is worth it. Jotting down a few greetings in your own words and with your handwriting makes the card personal to the relationship you have with the recipient. 

Get creative with the envelope 

The envelope is your canvas! As long as the address is visible you can use the rest of the space to set the tone of your card. You can try your hand at drawing a sketch on the back or using some seasonally themed stickers to seal the envelope closed. Maybe you have a certain date for the card to be opened? You can write “open me on the 24th”. Whatever the case may be, the envelope is your first chance to make the first impression on your card, take advantage of this opportunity. 

Write the date inside of your card

If the recipient of your card is like me, they may want to save your card to look back on it the following year. Adding a date to your card helps your reader organize the card and provides a helpful marker for a particular season in life. (I still have cards from my grandparents from over the years and it is a nice retrospective to go back and how things have changed.) 

Ask a question in your card

This can be as simple as, “how are you?”. Asking a question engages the reader of your card and will likely prompt a follow-up. You can ask about a specific detail like, “how was this semester?, or “how’s the puppy?”, By connecting your question to your recipient’s life, you let them know that you are thinking about them. Asking a question in your card is a simple gesture, but it may be more meaningful than you could ever imagine. Sometimes people just need to be prompted with before they can truly connect. 

Pick a personal salutation

As with emails, the salutation at the end of your card offers another moment of personalization. There is nothing wrong with the standards, “sincerely”, or “take care”, but perhaps you could use this space to offer one more intentional moment in your card. Personally, I sign off my holiday cards with, “stay warm”. This phrase accomplishes an extension of goodwill to the reader and it plays off the seasonal themes. There is a litany of other appropriate options, the key is to pick a salutation that fits your specific reader and reflects your personal rhetoric. 

Consider donating with your card

Several excellent organizations sell cards as part of their holiday donation season. You can give back along with providing a moment of joy to your loved ones. When purchasing your holiday cards, you might consider buying a card from a charity that your recipient is passionate about. This way you have connected your greeting to their cares and interests while also using your investment to help those in need.  Greet for Good is an excellent aggregate site that compiles different card offerings from a variety of charities. St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital also offers box sets of holiday cards that were designed by patients. 

If you have made it this far, excellent! I hope these tips will be helpful as you write out your holiday cards this year. I have found this practice a nice break from the semester’s grind. You might pick a day in the coming weeks to sit down and spend time with this challenge. 

Stay warm and happy holidays!

Permutations of Passion: How Writing Helped Me Grow

Ian Hays, Writing Consultant  

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

This is what I’ve been told, anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Influences Behind My Writing

Ayaat Ismail, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing for Myself: How I’m Staying Sane in COVID

Maddy Decker, Writing Consultant

I knew I wanted to be a writer by the time I was ten. Somewhere deep in my bedroom closet at home, there’s an ancient white binder that holds two embarrassing stories, the first being a romance between “Princess Maddy” and “Prince [popular boy from my class],” and the second being a similar but darker romance, foreshadowing my imminent emo phase, between the same “Princess Maddy” and “Prince [my actual crush].” I can’t retrace the steps in my logic that led me to think that my pencil-written, notebook paper stories would be in such high demand that I needed a decoy story to cover the identity of my true ‘love,’ but looking back, I love that I put such an effort into writing for myself at such a young age. 

            Somewhere along the way to where I am now, looking ahead to graduating at the end of the spring semester, I think I lost some of what pushed me to write my own stories with only myself in mind. Getting published has remained one of my main goals, and to that end, I’ve been producing most of my recent creative writing with a general audience in mind, inviting strangers to sit in my head and eat popcorn with me while my words put on a show for us. It’s an interesting exercise to work within the constraints of their potential judgment, but while I don’t exactly feel like a sell-out (if you can be one before you’ve sold anything), I do think that I’ve self-censored and produced work that doesn’t truly fit what I want to go back and reread for my own enjoyment. 

            I think that I can pinpoint where something shifted for me in this regard: in my undergraduate senior seminar, we read and heavily discussed Speak, Memory. I struggled immensely with deciphering what Nabokov could possibly wish for his audience to get out of reading this collection of essays. It was a relief when my professor told us that Nabokov was writing for himself rather than for us, but the energy I lost to his work solidified within me the idea that I would commit to not writing or distributing such work of my own, work that takes intense personal knowledge to decode. 

            I’m happy to say that I’ve started to train myself out of this two-year-old commitment, and it’s been incredibly rewarding, particularly during the relentless monotony of my more isolated COVID schedule. Sometimes I start writing something down just because I got a phrase stuck in my head. It either ends up in my graveyard Word document, or it turns into a story that I run with. If I run with it, I find it calming to remind myself that just because I write something doesn’t mean that I’m obligated to share it or to turn it into my new life’s work. Taking the pressure off of myself allows me some wiggle room, and it’s turned my pandemic experience into a surprisingly productive one. 

From an idea I mentally ‘wrote’ as I cashiered over the summer, I started a short story that I will be revising for my culminating project towards my degree. From getting the phrase “trial by earth” stuck in my head and finally typing it out, I generated an experimental piece that helped me understand how I want to approach an idea for a novel I’ve been thinking about since undergrad. From just desperately wanting to write something, anything, in a gorgeous new notebook, I started writing a horrendous fairy tale romance, one that I intend to burn before my death so that no one else can ever see it…but I like it as a story just for me.

Why write for yourself? It’s fun! It’s indulgent in a way that lets you exercise your thoughts and your writing voice. It can let you create a world you can escape to when you find yourself needing a break from the increasing everyday academic, political, and medical stress, and, like journaling, it can help you work through how you’re feeling and what you’re reacting to. You might find yourself stepping back from what you write and being surprised by how proud you are of what you wrote, and it can be so rewarding to have something that’s made by you, with yourself in mind, that only you get to read. 

Writing by Delighting

        

Demetrius Minnick-Tucker, Writing Consultant

“Gollum threw himself backwards, and grabbed as the hobbit flew over him, but too late: his hands snapped on thin air, and Bilbo falling fair on his sturdy feet, sped off down the new tunnel. He did not turn to see what Gollum was doing. There was a hissing and cursing almost at his heels at first, then it stopped. All at once there came a blood-curdling shriek, filled with hatred and despair. Gollum was defeated.” (Tolkien, 87)

         This is a scene from The Hobbit, written by J. R. R. Tolkien. In context, a Hobbit finds himself in a cave, separated from his friends, with a little, hungry creature named Gollum, ready to eat him if he didn’t solve his riddles. Thankfully, the Hobbit solved the riddles, escaped the unnerved Gollum, and eventually, found his friends. However, as a writer, reflect for a moment. What provided the scenes dramatic nature? Grammar. Tolkien includes six commas to slow down the scene.  He carefully uses the colon — a prelude to the dramatic outcome of the scene. And lastly, he uses the period to drive home the scene. These are the simple beauties of grammar within a model text. Our breath stops for a moment, like Bilbo’s, as we await his escape or demise, and in the process, we are delighted.

         This scene is useful for our main concern: As teachers, what moves can we make to unite teaching grammar and student learning? This question is scrutinized by the best in the field, yet a solution seems elusive. Often, grammar is taught in moves that simply request the  regurgitation of information. However, when our “bright” writers come to writing samples, the findings are disheartening. Students writing shows no sign of improvement and as new students come in, the cycle continues. In the article, Reconceptualizing the Teaching of Grammar, Weaver asserts that learning “seems to be most enduring when the learners perceive it as USEFUL or INTERESTING to them personally, in the here and now.” It seems that Weaver is asserting that we should teach grammar indirectly, through means of delight. Whether reading of the boy who lived or the Sonnets of Shakespeare, both are avenues of delight for a variety of students, proving useful for our ends as teachers. As I reflect, I am reminded of my freshman year in college. My English 102 Professor, Dr. Amy Crider, challenged us to find writers we admire and work on imitating their writing style. As English 101 and 102 courses have a knack for creativity, my interest was peeked. Thus, my search began. As I discovered beautiful writing, writing became more alive to me. “How did Flannery O’Connor paint a world that was darkly comical? How did J. K. Rowling create such gravity in the final scene? What would happen if I remove the commas from this paragraph? Let’s consider syntax.” All these questions bubble up, but why? Indirectly, Dr. Crider was using my delight in model texts as a means to teach grammar. I argue as instructors, we ought to take the same road. Learning the  conventions of grammar is inherently grueling and full of mystery, yet, when we provide students moments to see grammar through lenses of delight, their stance changes.

         In another article, The Case for Rhetorical Grammar, Micciche states “This intimacy with the language of others can be an enormously powerful way to impress upon students that writing is made and that grammar has a role in the production.” Micciche’s claim reiterates the usefulness of model texts. In short, when students analyze model texts they are delighted by – novel, poem, paragraph – a productive space is created for teaching grammar. Why? The student is no longer focused on distant formalities that are required of a sentence. Instead, they are delighted, entering the world of the author, and hungry to figure out how the author made that delight erupt into their reading experience. And notice the subtle change, it is intimate, no longer distant. The writing is beautiful, humorous, or full of wit, and the student is left wondering “how did they do that?” A teacher happily responds: “The writer made intentional choices with their words to bring that effect. Now class, what would we have lost if they didn’t understand the uses of grammar?” As we can see, now students disposition towards grammar changes, as they have become focused on replicating the grammatical moves of writers, because they were required? No, because they were delighted. Grammar is no longer seen as mere conventions and formalities, but the freedom to create beauty. As students push into that reality, I suspect, the teacher to beam with a quiet triumph. Why? The teacher has brought them to their goal: Learning.