Tag: Creative Writing

Cotter Cup ‘22: Beyond the Contest

By Liz Soule, Assistant Director

Last year, the University Writing Center played a central role in reviving the Cotter Cup storytelling contest. Working alongside the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library—especially branch manager, Natalie Woods—we engaged K-12 youth throughout the city of Louisville in exciting literacy experiences as we helped them craft, revise and submit poetry to the contest. Writing about his hopes for the Cotter Cup, University Writing Center director Bronwyn Williams wrote, “We hope that this year’s contest is just the first of what will be a growing and important writing event in our community.”

A year on, and a second Cotter Cup under our belt, I believe it is safe to say that this event has met both of these criteria. During the 2022 Cotter Cup, University Writing Center volunteers worked with 28 youths, over twice the amount we were able to engage with the previous year. While we’re pleased with the growth of the Cotter Cup, we’re even more delighted with the depth and variety of experiences we cultivated with young Louisville writers and their families.

The writers who attended Cotter Cup consultations arrived with a diversity of ideas and experiences. For some writers, consultations were a space in which they could share their interests, like unicorns or pokemon, and turn them into subject matter for poetry. For others, the consultations were a space in which rhymes were built and imagery was developed. No matter the approach, feedback from family members suggests that these sessions resulted in writers feeling motivated to tackle the next step of their writing process.

Family members also played an important role in this year’s Cotter Cup. Through e-mail correspondence, we found that families were excited to participate in the Cotter Cup alongside their children. Many sought out ways to get started with the writing process, or even to keep the momentum from the contest going. These interactions reveal to us that the impact of the Cotter Cup extends far beyond the contest’s start and end dates!

This year’s successes would not have been possible without the help of our volunteers. We had an absolutely all-star cast of consultants who were excited to work with these writers. The enthusiasm and knowledge they brought to each session made a huge impact. Thank you to: Eli Megibben, Maddy Decker, Aubrie Cox, Brice Montgomery, Cassie Book, Kylee Auten, Yuan Zhao, Zoë Donovan, and Ayaat Ismail.

Reflecting on their Cotter Cup interactions, one tutor wrote, “These kids are wildly talented.” I think they speak for all of us in saying this. The writers who participated in this year’s Cotter Cup are incredibly talented, but most of all, they are driven. We are so grateful that we were able to be witness to their amazing creativity this spring, and we look forward to Cotter Cup ‘23!

Positive Vibrations

Tobias Lee, PhD Candidate and Writing Consultant

One of the things I love about working in the University Writing Center is the exposure I get to so much fascinating and important work.  I’ve read about entrepreneurship among Rohingya refugees, the impact of sexual health on longevity, green building practices in sports venues, what Afrofuturism tells us about our history….  Pardon my childlike gushing, but it’s so cool!  This is why I love academia.  People are creating knowledge here!  Aaaand that leads me to what I’ve been writing about.  Yep, knowledge.

What, really, does it mean to create new knowledge?  What is knowledge?  Wait!  Don’t go away yet!  I promise, it’ll be interesting.  I won’t put you to sleep.  Well I might… but you’ve been needing to catch up on sleep, haven’t you?  Knowledge… well, let’s begin with a bromide: they say “knowledge is power.”  Get the knowledge, then you’ll have power.  Go to school, learn some stuff, and now you’re Captain America.  We all want to feel powerful.  Nobody’s angling to be powerless.  Well yes maybe but…  But let’s think this through a bit.  Power is the ability to do something, it’s potential.  You learn some stuff to empower yourself to do things.  But it won’t mean much if you don’t actually ever do.  So it’s the doing that matters.  You might “know” some things, but it’s what that does, it’s how that shapes your behavior and creates material effects in the world, that has any importance or value.  You might know what the capital of Georgia is or how to juggle five balls, but unless and until that brings you glory at your local pub quiz or impresses everybody at the party including that certain someone, it’s uh, purely academic.  It’s just information, neutral and inert, until its usage has material effects.  And the imperfect predictability of these results and the results of those results and of everything is what elevates knowledge over information.  

So maybe the phrase, “knowledge is power,” while pithy, doesn’t quite get us there.  A focus on material effects, on application, urges us toward a different understanding of knowledge.  I think Wanda Orlikowski (2002, 2006) gets it right when she talks about knowledge as practice.  Ah.  So it’s doing something.  It’s in the doing.  Knowing about car engines versus actually getting that car right there to run again.  Knowing physics versus actually getting someone to the moon.  

Orlikowski elaborates.  “Know-how” is a capability generated through action.  And this requires repeated actions.  These sustain the “know-how” while also, of course, adapting it, improving it, expanding it, in some way changing it.  So the idea that knowledge is some inert, stable thing or repository of things is an illusion.  It looks that way because we keep repeating it.  It’s a bit like how a movie looks real because our mind does that little trick of stitching all those individual images together into a fluid whole.  Except in this case the individual images are events, actions, each very similar yet slightly different from the last.  Or it’s like how an insect wing looks like it’s not moving but is actually flapping a zillion times a second.  Just remember that the wing itself is not stable either.  It’s also changing, growing, aging.  Did you know that trees vibrate?  Knowledge, then, is like a tree, always changing, or okay but really more accurately, knowledge, as practice, is change.  There is nor was there ever no stable thing that then changes slightly.  It’s always changing.  Indeed, this is how we know change, and recognizing change is how we mark time, and for that matter, space.  How you like them apples?  But let’s not bite off more than we can chew in one blog post…

What does this mean for knowing how to write?  That’s what you tuned in for, right?  I thought knowing how to write was, basically, you know, learning some vocabulary and nailing down the grammatical rules.  That would be nice.  Then it’d be a simple matter of collect all twelve!  Buy the Happy Meal, get the toy, put it on your shelf, repeat.  Trade them with your friends.  Trade them for money!  But surely thou didst know that language changeth over time and space.  Aye, ’tis ne’er so stable a thing as me lord thus willeth thou what okay nevermind.  No it doesn’t work that way.  The rules are mere conventions, and dig a little and you’ll find considerable disagreement about and variation even within those conventions.  Word meanings are always changing (read the etymology of your favorite word on the OED or spend five minutes browsing the Urban Dictionary), sustained through practice and but also thereby always changing.  This isn’t a movie, no nice tidy plots.  Knowing how to write, like all knowing, is an “ongoing social accomplishment, constituted and reconstituted in everyday practice” (Orlikowski, 2002, p252).  

So when you’re learning to write (or more accurately, when you’re writing), you’re participating in and contributing to the way things are (more accurately, appear to be) for a given context (or to be fancy, discourse community), such as your discipline.  An interesting little thought exercise, no?  It calls into question all sorts of things that we take for granted, and it’s massively inconvenient.  It gums up the works.  How do we know what’s right any more?  Goodness me.  But on the other hand and at the very least, it also means you should stop berating yourself, if indeed you were.  That whole impostor syndrome.  That anxiety.  That feeling of inferiority.  You can dial that back a bit.  You’re not “bad at writing” and they are not always and everywhere good at it.  You’re joining a community (such a nice-sounding word), and that community has a way of doing things.  They’re a bit anxious to keep it that way ’cause it seems to work, to produce some desirable results.  But it is nevertheless changing, a living thing, and it lives, in part, because of you.  


References

Orlikowski, W. (2002). Knowing in practice: Enacting a collective capability in distributed organizing. Organization Science, 13(3), 249-273.


Orlikowski, W. (2006). Material knowing: The scaffolding of human knowledgeability. European Journal of Information Systems, 15, 460-466.

Navigating Burnout

Eli Megibben, Writing Consultant

Hi, my name is Eli and I am burnt out. I hear my alarm go off in the morning and I say “no”. My loved ones ask me how much work I have to do before the end of the semester and I say, “I’m not comfortable answering that question right now”. As much as I want to lay down right this very minute and take a big fat nap for five or six or seven days, that’s not really an option right now. Instead, I have to write. I like writing. I’m good at writing. As a general rule, writing brings me joy. At this moment in my life, writing has become a chore. My joy from and talent for writing are still there, but I’m having a hard time sifting through the stress and exhaustion from a particularly rough semester (both academically and personally) to find them. As much as I don’t want to write today, but I have to. It’s nonnegotiable. In the spirit of this, I thought I’d take this blogging opportunity to share three ways I try to manage my own burn out and get writing done even when I don’t feel like it:

  1. Pace yourself with structured work time and break time.

 When I’m staring down the barrel of a very homework-y day, I organize my time in 20- or 30-minute chunks. 20-30 minutes of reading for class, 20-30 minutes of reading for fun. 20-30 minutes of writing an outline, 20-30 minutes doodling. 20-30 minutes of writing a blog post for the University Writing Center website, 20-30 minutes of taking a walk. Pacing myself and strictly limiting both my work and break time helps me keep my energy up for the day. Also notice that I didn’t say anything about “20-30 minutes on Facebook reading about that person from high school’s really messy breakup” or “20-30 minutes of looking up ‘how long until they finish cloning that Wooly Mammoth they found in Siberia last year?””. I know that once I start goofing off on the internet, then all of the nice discipline I’ve observed throughout the day will go out the window and suddenly four hours will have elapsed, and I’ll still be texting my friends screenshots of articles quoting arrogant biologists claiming that we shouldn’t try to bring back prehistoric mammals with the caption “can you believe this chump?’” And then I will wonder where my day has gone and why I haven’t gotten anything done. Maybe you’re better than me and know how to use the internet in moderation when tasked with something you don’t have the energy to do. Or maybe you and I are more alike than either of us want to admit.

2. Establish physical boundaries between you and your work

Ah, “boundaries”. My second-favorite “b-word”. I don’t know about you, but I love a good boundary. Whether its boundaries with work, friends, or even the cashier at CVS who felt compelled to tell me about what life was like leading up to her most recent colonoscopy, I use boundaries to protect my (waning) energy and (frail) emotions a lot these days. Unfortunately, this this current cultural moment doesn’t really support my affection for boundaries. And that pesky plague we’ve all been surviving for almost 25 months has made the issue worse. Possibly the most effective boundary I have with work is determining where I do my work. I let myself work on the computer or read wherever I’m comfortable –in my office, in my yard, at a coffee shop, even on the couch if that’s what I need that day— while also establishing a few spaces as “no work zones”. My bedroom is one of those places. By making my room a “rest only” area, it is easier for me to shift out of work mode and have more meaningful and effective rest. I know some folks don’t have the luxury of being able to spread out enough to make their entire bedroom a “no work zone”, and when I was in that position as an undergraduate, I made my bed the “no work zone”. Even in a cramped dorm room, I made these boundaries work by dropping $30 on trampoline chair that I could fold up and slide into a corner when not in use. Separating work spaces from break spaces is a trick I have employed since I was in high school and it has helped me to make the most out of my rest, even when I am not getting very much of it.

3. Let yourself be kind of a smart aleck

The other two tips are pretty general “navigate burnout” tips. This one is specifically for writing. Have you ever found yourself staring glassy-eyed at the blinking cursor of a blank Microsoft Word document wondering how the hell you are going to write a paper about an assigned reading that you absolutely despised? A reading that made your stomach spasm a little? A reading that made you question if learning how to read was even worth it? I know I’ve had plenty of those readings in my life as a student and they usually leave me with nothing nice to say. And in those cases, I let the bitterness out. I write the snarkiest intro paragraph I can muster. And by the time I have something vile written down, I’m not staring at a blank Word Document anymore and I’m able to proceed with the paper. Being a smart aleck during the preliminary writing stages doesn’t necessarily get you any closer to hitting your page count, but it will help you exorcise some of your frustration and can help you power through and get it done.

*Please note that your smart-aleck interludes should not be included in your final draft. Do not turn in something rude and unpleasant to your professor. It’s not cute and they are not paid enough to deal with that.


Burnout is a monster. It is also transient and won’t last forever. When I am at the very end of my rope, I like to remind myself (or, more often, let someone else remind me) that being in school is a blessing. An education is one of the few things in the world that nobody can take from you. It is an investment in yourself. This experience is stressful and overwhelming, and we are all so tired. And it’s manageable. Pace yourself, make you physical spaces work and rest-friendly, trust the process and don’t be afraid to indulge in some silliness along the way. Friendly reminder that you’re here for a reason, even if that reason isn’t clear yet. Read your readings, write your papers, and manage your burnout the best you can. I’m right there with you, and I’m rooting for you.

Taking Stock of Your Revisions

Derrick Neese, Writing Consultant

I have made chicken stock more times than I can count. Four times a week over the course of a fifteen-year culinary career really adds up. There is a large pot of stock simmering on my stove as I write this, a weekly ritual I cannot abandon despite trading my chef knife for a pen four years ago. And while I want to talk about a few generalizable revision tips today, I am reminded how all those years of cooking have informed my writing process, so let’s start by discussing the perfect batch of broth.

            I started making stock eighteen year ago. Back then, I aimed for excellence, mirroring my mentor’s movements, seeing how he chopped the culinary trinity of mirepoix—two parts onion, one part carrot, and one part celery—breathing in the aromatic cauldron of rosemary and thyme while I learned from the best. The six-hour repetition of producing liquid gold became my obsession, and by the hundredth pot I foolishly thought I had attained a mastery. After five hundred, I realized I was only scratching the surface. Like with any craft, there was a wealth of nuance and depth I’d never even considered. I began reevaluating details, trying to notice every modifiable aspect of the process. Was I roasting the bones too long or not long enough? Should I have blanched them? Why did I put the parsley in so early? I also started reading books by great chefs like Escoffier, Child, and Keller, taking in the identical elements of their methods and blending them with my own. Each subsequent attempt became a chance to learn and improve, with every minor modification written down. The herb infused pot bubbling in my kitchen is a result of those efforts. Is it the perfect batch? No. After all that effort, I learned perfection isn’t the point. Discovering my own process is what has mattered most.

            I started writing stories the week I turned thirty. While it was a tough transition at first, the more I wrote and revised, the more I realized those culinary lessons could translate to my writing. Just like with my stock, it was all about figuring out my own style. I found that I write my best stories in the morning, and that if I’m excited about an idea, the story tells itself. I trained my creativity by reading greats like Baldwin, Bradbury, and Vonnegut, taking the best ingredients from their styles and whisking them into my own. But most of all, like with the daily process of improvement I had picked up in the kitchen, I figured out how my writing ticked from the iterative act of revision.

            One of the biggest questions I get when consulting with creative writers in the UofL Writing Center is: How do I know if I’m going in the right direction? The only answer I’ve found, as simple as it sounds, is that we all learn best through thorough revision. And although every writer is different, here are some basic revision principles to help any writer find what works for them, my own culinary trinity of noticing, asking why, and putting it away.

            #1 Notice: A critical aspect of revision, from beginning to end, is noticing the choices we make and turning them into a list. I mean this in the simplest of terms: Read your draft and mark down any line and or that doesn’t feel quite right. Try rereading the piece faster and see what happens. Does the feeling go away? If it doesn’t, you have isolated a concern. The key to finding successful revision strategies comes from learning to notice the peculiar aspects of your own writing, turning those thoughts into a list, and adding to the list when you see something new. Sound simple? That’s because it is. The repetition of noticing is one of the most essential tools in a writer’s kit.

            # 2 Ask why: To make the best stock I could, I questioned every aspect of the process, from how large I cut my vegetables, down to what kind of strainer I used to obtain the final product. The same goes for my writing. Why did I start with a long sentence in the second paragraph of this blog? What’s with the whole ‘culinary trinity’ thing? Is it cheesy? Probably. With your newfound noticed list in hand, critically question your own process. Write those questions down as they appear and keep reading. Oftentimes, an answer will arrive unannounced moments later and resolve an entire paragraph of concerns. Even when you think you have found that magical solution, ask why and when and where. Never stop questioning, because the more you do, the more you will notice about your process, resulting in a deliberate approach.

            #3 Put it away. After reading a draft a dozen times, you might start feeling stuck. Put the piece away and let your thoughts simmer. I’ve struggled with individual scenes from a story for weeks, eventually tossing the draft aside in frustration, only to stew on the idea and find a fully cooked solution when I least expected it. You never know when an idea will appear, but it is vital to trust that it will. This also goes for unused scraps. If you notice a sentence or paragraph isn’t working, paste it to a new document or scrap of paper and forget about it. I’ve had scraps from one story save a scene in another after weeks of failed solutions. Those opportunities disappear when you delete bad lines. So put it away for a while and know that the answer will come, even if it doesn’t happen today.

            The toughest part of writing is figuring out the fine details of our process. There are no quick workarounds to that. To find those answers, we must become vigilant noticers, examining every aspect of our writing, and organizing strategies around what we consistently see. There will never be a perfect recipe for chicken stock or immaculate revision strategy, but by surrounding our processes with attention, we have the chance to make them wonderfully ours.

Wrestling with the Blank Page

Zoe Donovan, Writing Consultant

One of the most daunting things to a writer or student is the blank page. While thinking on the topic of this specific blog post I found myself paralyzed by choice. “A short blog about writing” could mean anything. I started writing, erased the first line, started over. Editing as a I went, I found myself held back from what the point of this was, that I was getting caught up in the minutiae of writing instead of actually writing.

 I am, of course, being somewhat hyperbolic in the above paragraph, but it isn’t far off from my experience engaging with past and current writing projects. We tend to get caught up in the sentence we are constructing rather than the point of the piece.  

I find that taking a step back from that detail-oriented nature can do more good than letting an inner editor take over constantly. Instead, try to focus on getting something on the page. Prohibit yourself from using the backspace, repeat your points and repeat yourself in different ways. This type of repetition can be monotonous in a final draft, but a mock-up first draft can provide a writer with options when returning to the piece.

Then, once you have created something, step back, make a cup of tea, meander over your thoughts. Take the evening, day or week. Then use this piece that is what I lovingly refer to as a “word explosion” to create an outline and reorganize your thoughts. Returning to it with a fresh head can prevent you from becoming fatigued over a specific project or idea. From there, you can make edits, rewrite sections, omit unnecessary information, reorganize your thoughts, and fully flesh out points in your future drafts.

It is impossible to edit a blank document. Good writing takes multiple attempts, revisions, and proofreading. Half the battle is getting something on the page. In addition to this, it is exceptionally difficult to fully edit an unfinished piece, because you don’t know what additional context you need to provide, you can’t know how to transition into or from a paragraph or idea that you don’t yet have on the page.

Silencing my inner editor during my initial draft has become my go-to in the last few years. In the past, I have often been struck with choice paralysis or perfectionist desire. I feel that every piece I put out should be perfect as soon as it first hits the page. This is not a healthy or productive writing strategy. It creates this false narrative in early writers, (and late writers) that revision is not a key step in the process.

Instead, your first draft should be passionate. Why does this matter to you, why is it important that it is said, and what is your evidence to further support these claims? Writing is about growth, about changing the way the audience sees something or approaches a topic. Along that same vein, writing is process in which you can discover yourself and your arguments about a piece.

If you’re constantly dissecting every word or sentence you put on the page, then you can become overwhelmed and lose the motivation to continue writing. Instead, just focus on getting words on the page. They don’t need to be good. They don’t need to be ready for publication or submission–get your thoughts down without hesitation and with total freedom to put whatever you want. This early draft isn’t what you are sending in, it is for you and you alone as the writer to better understand yourself, your process, and your approach to this particular piece you are writing.

I know this strategy doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be something that works for writers who struggle with starting. I find that in my own writing, starting with a loose thesis works best. You can always come back to the thesis and make it stronger, or, if after writing you decide that the evidence you’re presenting doesn’t fit, then there’s no harm in returning to the drawing board on your thesis statement. Revisit your writing, what are you trying to accomplish in your stream of consciousness? Hone in on those points and fully articulate them. If you can argue it in a fully-fledged piece, then don’t be afraid to change it and make it your own.

Shutting off that critic side of your brain and just putting words on the page in a stream of consciousness style can help to create a framework for yourself during the writing process. You might discover that your initial thesis doesn’t quite fit, that a certain piece of evidence doesn’t hold as much weight as you originally thought or that you need additional information or research to fully set your argument. Giving yourself and piece a space to grow without an internal critic can lead you down a path that may be different from your initial intent and provide you a better understanding of your argument.

While it is important to be critical of your own work and edit that work, within the writing process that internal criticism can detrimental and create a sort of choice paralysis and inhibit us from actually engaging within the writing process. So, instead I encourage you write your first drafts like no one is watching and shut out the editor.   

For The Love of Writing

Michael Benjamin, Assistant Director and Writing Consultant

It’s not lost on me that this is being posted on Valentine’s Day, 2022. So I’m going to try and stick to the day’s theme: love.

Love is hard. Complex. It’s a feeling, sure, but it’s also an action. These days I’ve been conceptualizing love within the framework of care. Caring about ourselves, our dearest ones, our community, our larger world. Care can be shooting a text to a friend you haven’t heard from in a week or two or volunteering at the local community literacy center. Care takes energy but is always worth it even though it usually comes with little to no reward. In an affective economy, care is a currency. Tying love and care together begins to make visible all of the little acts we do. It pushes us to be thoughtful and reflective and, frankly, better people.

I realize this probably feels like it’s going off of the rails, but please bear with me.

I think I can speak for everyone at the writing center. We care about writing at the here because we care about our UofL community. And we know that we have a unique opportunity to spread the joy of a love for writing.

Here’s a quick story: it was my first month of my undergraduate career and I’d gotten a lower grade than desired on an assignment. I went to the writing center, not really knowing what to expect, hoping that I’d come back with a better text to bump my grade up. What I got was an experience that has powered my academic career for the past decade. My consultant smiled at me and told me Play with your writing. Find the joy in it. Keep caring and putting love into it. That experience was so transformative for me that seven months later I was working in that writing center. I’m sure it has something to do with my pedagogical ethos, too. That consultant cared about me, showed a love for her work and writing and the writers she worked with in a way that was so infectious and powerful that I needed to take action, to pass it along.

I write this as a call for all of us to radiate that love and care throughout our worlds. I also write this as a way to urge us to use the written word as a means of care.

Next week, we are hosting an event for International Mother Language Day. I’m excited to see y’all UofL community members show a love for writing through all of these guest blog posts written in your mother tongues. I’m even more excited to fill out these notecards for recent immigrants and refugees. Handwritten letters of simple words of encouragement are an act of care. Taking the time out of your day, in the middle of what has been a brutal semester, to stop and focus writing something for someone you don’t know in your best handwriting won’t show up on your CV or transcript, but it’s a loving act that can have a world of meaning. I’m personally excited for our little writing center community to show love to all of the multilinguists and polyglots amongst us.

I know today is viewed as a day or romantic love. A day you spend with your partner, showing them how much you appreciate them. I implore you to show that care to everyone. What if you jotted a little note of appreciation for the wait staff at the restaurant? Sent a couple coworkers/colleagues/classmates a small compliment? Took 10 minutes to yourself to journal what and who you love and care for? Care for you? What if you went completely old school and snail mailed your folks? Words are powerful and cost nothing. Write them. Share them. Care for and with them.

Done is Better Than Perfect

Todd Richardson, Assistant Director and Writing Consultant

I have always expected too much of my writing. In high school, I wrote poetry that I was certain conjured magic on the page, only to find sheepish typos and garish rhyme schemes when I later reread it. I was surprised, embarrassed. After uncovering my own fallibility, I lost the confidence to show my writing to anyone save my closest confidants. The discovery that one draft of writing could come out feeling so perfect only to later realize that the same piece needed more work indicated some clear flaw in myself. How could one written thing sound so good today and then so horrid tomorrow? Clearly the issue was me. I needed some work, some practice, to push harder. Instead of fun, writing became painful, an exercise reaching for the unattainable. The pressure I placed on myself forced me to improve and justified my expectations, but it also led to bad habits: procrastination, negative self-talk, loss of perspective.

               This pattern continued in college. I required spectacular feats of my five paragraph essays. Introductions had to begin with perfect first lines, hooks that lured my professor sentence by sentence towards my thesis. Conclusions had to culminate by offering some sort of profound philosophical truth that I was certain riveted my composition instructor’s perceptions of time and space as they read through their biweekly stacks of essays. My word choices had to amount to pithy remarks and razor-sharp observations. I earned A’s, a few smiley faces, check marks. These academic at-a-boys further entrenched my devotion to the cult of perfection, and when I didn’t receive the happy face or check mark it only reinforced my insufficiency. I chased a high of perfection but mostly experienced self-doubt and disappointment. Still, I was convinced that this quest for success was the process of writing. Perfection served as my pie-in-the sky.

               Then I went to grad school. Whereas before I had the time to obsess over my writing, the demands of an advanced degree knocked me on my heels. I floundered through stacks of academic articles and whole books due in a week. Professors assigned essays double the length I was used to with only half as much time to complete them. Perfection slipped from my grasp. I turned in first drafts that I started the night before. I spent more time understanding my readings than on their corresponding assignments. I abandoned my perfect first lines for functional sentences, let my conclusions fall flat, and didn’t turn in a single essay that used the word “pithy.” I received feedback of triple red question marks next to phrases like “So what?” and “I’m lost.” When I lamented to one of my professors that I felt my writing had sunk to sub-par levels since starting the program, she cocked an eyebrow.

               “How so?” she asked.

               “I don’t spend the time I used,” I told her. “I just finish it and turn it in.”

               “Done is better than perfect.” She handed back my paper, which was covered in red pen and included the phrase “Interesting Insight.” I got a B+.

               I wish I could tell you that I followed her advice from then on. It took me several more years and another master’s degree and a baby until her advice stuck in my skull, and only then I learned it because I didn’t have another choice. Diapers and midnight feedings superseded my desire for perfection. I swapped simple, short sentences in exchange for fifteen more minutes of REM. And finally, one the day, I received praise for it. Mentors wrote me about how clean my work was, celebrated the fact that I stopped using the word “pithy.” All of my work came back with criticism. I read it while bouncing my daughter on my lap, did the best I could to internalize the advice, and moved on. Letting go of perfection provided me a new opportunity I did not anticipate: the freedom to write for myself.

               Many writers learn this lesson well before I did, but many do not. I see some of them in the Writing Center and the library, pining over sentence structure and flow and tone. Some of them are young freshman. Some of them are veteran PhD students well on their way into their doctorate. Having spent a good portion of my younger life stuck in the cult of perfection, I understand its draw, and sometimes I still get sucked in. But, if you can, remember that perfection is bupkis. Reading drafts from your younger self should give you the ick, just a smidge, not because you are a bad writer, but because you are a better writer today than you were yesterday. In writing, there is always room to grow, and that growth requires giving ourselves the grace that the pursuit of perfection denies.

Today, entering the third year of the corona-go-round, we need to remember grace now more than ever. Writing is hard, school is hard, and the pandemic makes it harder. We face pressures at work and school to meet expectations set when the world was normal. Yet, this is not normal, not yet. Write from a place of grace, not perfection. Perfection has its place, but keep in mind this piece of advice as you plug away at your assignments—done is better than perfect.

Our LGBTQ+ Writing Group: Explained and Explored

Liz Soule, Assistant Director for the University Writing Center

The first time I was introduced to a writing group was in the spring of 2016. As a way to welcome more students to the writing center, one of my friends and co-workers proposed the “Creative Writing Jam.” This was a series of creative writing groups held at the writing center, in which writers would come in, and amongst a community of like-minded individuals, get to work drafting their latest piece.

I hung posters advertising the event on the walls of my residence hall. I remember looking at the posters and feeling a mixture of confusion, anxiety and curiosity at the sight of them. Who would want to write in a big group? Wouldn’t that be distracting? Or worse, what if my writing wasn’t like theirs — and they judged me for it? Due to my trepidation, I never attended the Creative Writing Jam.

Now, as the facilitator of the LGBTQ+ writing group, I often wonder if these same questions keep folks from attending our group. This blog post is written for all those who stare at our whiteboard and wonder. In what follows, I’ll explore what our LGBTQ+ writing group is, why we offer it, and offer a window into what a typical group meeting looks like. My hope is that this begins the process of answering some burning questions and alleviating anxieties, and maybe opens our doors to more writers across campus.

What is the LGBTQ+ writing group? Why do you offer it?

The LGBTQ+ writing group is a gathering of writers that meets monthly in the University Writing Center. This group welcomes writers that self-identify as LGBTQ+ or as allies to join together to write in a communal space. Any kind of writing is welcome in this group (professional, personal, creative or course-related). During group meetings, participants have the opportunity to get to know others in the community as they actively write alongside their peers.

The LGBTQ+ writing group, like all of the University Writing Center’s writing groups, exists to promote a culture of writing across campus. An additional reason why we offer the LGBTQ+ writing group is to foster a supportive community of queer writers and their allies. This means that the identities of LGBTQ+ writers are respected (and, when appropriate, celebrated) and their writing is welcomed. By carving out a space for LGBTQ+ writers, the University Writing Center makes it clear that our growth as writers matters, and that we belong.

I would argue that we are working to effectively serve that purpose, too. At a recent meeting, I asked the attendees of the group what their reasons for attending were. One writer said they were looking for a “judgment-free,” or supportive community of writers. Another writer, who often writes queer romances, said they sought a space where the content of their writing would be welcome. For others, it came down to basic math – likeminded queer people to befriend plus writing to share and enjoy. In other words, a supportive community that fosters a culture of writing.

What happens in a typical meeting?

In this next section, I’ll try to illustrate what a typical writing group meeting looks like. While my description might not be as dynamic as the real thing, I hope that it can help reduce any anxieties that come with the unknown.

At the start of each LGBTQ+ writing group, the University Writing Center door is wide open. Everyone signs in, grabs a snack, and finds a seat amidst the circle of tables. Once we’ve all settled in, we share our names, our personal pronouns and the kinds of writing we’re working on.

Then comes the fun part: we write! For the majority of our hour-long meeting, we all actively write. And there is really no wrong way to do this. Some of us complete homework, while others write creatively. Some even complete personal writing, like daily journaling. During this time, some of us chat, others listen to music, and most of us get seconds on snacks.

To wrap our meeting up, we talk about the kind of writing we’ve completed–and what we hope to accomplish in the near future. Some writers like to share recent writing during this time, but no one is ever forced to do so. Those that do receive thoughtful, positive responses. Afterwards, we say our goodbyes and I close the doors of the University Writing Center for the night.

This sums up most of our LGBTQ+ writing group meetings. There are some variations to meetings, but they’re usually small and always optional. For example, next time we meet, I’ll be bringing some prompts for the creative writers in the room to respond to, if they so choose. Also, a couple of our writers are also thinking they might workshop as a pair.

Some final thoughts

If you’ve been on the fence about attending this–or any–writing group, I hope this guides you to our doors. In the event that you have more questions, please, feel free to e-mail us at writing@louisville.edu, and we will happily discuss our groups with you.

More importantly, I hope that you know you are always welcome in our space. I’ll be glad to have you in the LGBTQ+ writing group, and we are excited to have you in the University Writing Center.

Helping Western Branch Library Revive the “Cotter Cup” as a Student Poetry Contest

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

One of our goals in our ongoing community partnership with the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, is to create programming and tutoring that not only engages young people in writing and reading, but also connects to and supports the distinctive and important history of this library. The Western Branch library, built in 1908, and the first library in the nation to serve and be fully operated by African Americans has a history of significant contributions to the city’s West End. One of those important contributions was the founding in 1913, by Louisville educator and poet Joseph Cotter, of an annual storytelling contest. The “Cotter Cup” was a ‘storytelling bee,’ intended to encourage children to read and learn through the art of storytelling.

A couple of years ago, Natalie Woods, branch manager of the library, raised the idea of reviving the Cotter Cup as a writing contest. Her vision was of a Cotter Cup in which Louisville K-12 students would produce creative writing and be supported in that work through consultations of University Writing Center staff. The goal of the contest would be to encourage creative writing in the community and to connect K-12 students with writing support and conversations with our university writing consultants. We were excited at the possibility and have been delighted to work with Natalie and her staff on planning and implementing the contest. On our end, Edward English, our Assistant Director for the University Writing Center, organized and facilitated scheduling and supporting the consultations.

It has been a great experience to take part in the inaugural Cotter Cup poetry contest. Although the pandemic necessitated that the contest and consultations take place online this year, we had a great time working with dedicated and imaginative students from across grade levels and across the city. All the participants in the contest received books and writing journals, funded by the UofL English Department Thomas R. Watson Endowment. The winners also received prizes and will have their names engraved on the new “Cotter Cup.” You can read the winning poems here! It was also meaningful, during the pandemic year when so many programs were cancelled and put on hold, to have the chance to create a new program with our community partner and connect to students across the city. We hope that this year’s contest is just the first of what will be a growing and important writing event in our community.

Our consultants also had a great time working with the young writers from across the city. Here is what some of them had to say about the experience:

Ayaat Ismail: I was completely taken aback by these young writers’ creativity and drive during our meetings. It was truly inspiring to watch such young students brainstorm ideas and write poems based on their interests and experiences, whether limericks, free verse, or narratives, as they immersed themselves in poetry and demonstrated their talents and capabilities. It made me appreciate writing in a whole new way, as well as the concept of progression and learning in general.

Caitlin Burns: I really enjoyed being able to tutor elementary students for the Cotter Cup. They were so creative and energetic. I loved hearing their ideas for their poems and working with them, and I learned quite a bit from them as well. It was so lovely to get out of my grad school bubble a bit and have fun playing with words with them. Thanks for all of your and the Writing Center team’s work putting it together!

Alex Way: It was a great experience tutoring students for the Cotter Cup. I worked with an elementary school student who produced an amazing poem and ended up winning first place. Not only was his work exceptional, but he had a deep knowledge of poetry forms and what makes good poetry. Even though I only tutored my student for one session (and he did all the hard work), I can’t help but feel proud of what he has accomplished

Edward English: Working as a consultant for the Cotter Cup was one of the most rewarding activities I’ve done this year.  It was so fun and encouraging to work with such promising young writers and be inspired by their creativity and intelligence.  It was also an incredible honor to be part of contest which continues the exceptional legacy of Joseph Cotter and Western Branch Libraries.

Maddy Decker: I really enjoyed expanding my tutoring horizons from working with college students to also working with high school and elementary writers. I feel like I learned more about myself as a tutor and about what creative writing looks like at different levels. As someone who started writing poetry and short stories in middle school, I’m glad to see so many young writers putting themselves out there, and I hope they continue to explore their talents!

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.