Tag: writers

Multilingualism: The Importance of Terminology

Brice Montgomery, Writing Consultant

Earlier this semester, in our Writing Center Theory and Practice course, the writing consultants had a conversation about strategies for supporting multilingual writers. Surprisingly for a room full of English students, we began the discussion at a loss for words, but after a few minutes, it stumbled forward in tentative fits and starts as we attempted to talk our way around the topic.

Many of us expressed discomfort about discussing language background with writers, and the general consensus was that it felt inappropriate to ask writers about their first language. In hindsight, it was, perhaps, telling of an impulse to conflate difference with deficiency. If we ask writers about their first language, the implication seems to be that it’s obvious the writer is using a second language.

So what?

Clearly, it does matter. Throughout the discussion, we found that multilingual writers often begin sessions apologetically, dismissing any (usually imagined) language errors before we can. Simply put, they are primed to be on the back foot when they enter a consultation, and it can be difficult to move the conversation to a more productive focus.

Writing center lore suggests that the first few minutes of a session are critical—They create the tone, establish rapport, and allow the writer and consultant to set an agenda together for the remainder of the session. With multilingual writers, however, the time before the session begins is of equal importance because, in many ways, it dictates our expectations for those initial minutes.

To return to the classroom discussion for a moment, another interesting trend emerged. In writing center consultations, we often stress specificity of language to prevent misinterpretation, but it was striking how quickly our discussion on multilingualism slipped away from this practice. We spoke about “native English speakers” as a kind of monolithic group, and “everyone else” was discussed in contrast, with different interchangeable terms pulling us in several different directions.

Each of the labels we tossed around the classroom evoked a set of unstated presuppositions:

If a writer is an “ESL student,” it positions them in such a way that any English first-language speaker acts as an authority. It also invites the question of when or if they will ever “graduate” to a degree of ownership over the language. 

Similarly, if a writer is a “non-native English speaker,” it places them in a perpetually fixed status of being an outsider. Regardless of proficiency, there will always be a kind of assumed inauthenticity to how they use English.  

Finally, if a writer is an “English L2 speaker,” the convenient shorthand of the phrase often neglects how contextually specific language usage is. If someone’s primary social language is English, is it really an L2?

The varying degrees of nativism in each term we used reflected an unstated ideology of language ownership, despite the fact that the global population of English L2 speakers greatly outnumbers English L1 speakers. This lack of a language “center” should be a comfort to both multilingual writers and their consultants. We meet on equal footing linguistically, despite potentially having different strengths and relationships with the language.

I would also suggest that our use of careless labels creates a barrier to authentic language use—Writers may focus so much on emulating “native” English that they don’t develop a writing process that accommodates their own preferences and needs. Unless a writer’s first language is consciously framed as a linguistic resource to draw from, it may easily be viewed as an interference or a disadvantage.

Most importantly, the pointed discourse surrounding language and identity in general is often internalized by those who hear it. Whether multilingual writers have been explicitly corrected by instructors for vague grammatical infractions or have absorbed the quiet undercurrent of harmful language politics flowing through the broader American culture. Writing Centers have an opportunity to offer a safe haven from these trends.  

Anecdotally, in several years of tutoring, I have yet to encounter a multilingual writer that has any sort of notable language-centric disadvantage. In fact, more often than not, they bring a unique set of metalinguistic and metacognitive skills to the writing process. If we do not recognize that writing in a second language is always a constructive act, we are unlikely to help writers incorporate those transferrable skills into their writing process. Instead, we are more apt to foster the idea that a writer’s intentions are inhibited or obscured—rather than facilitated—by writing in a second language.

Ultimately, my point is this—regardless of our willingness to acknowledge it, the language used outside a consultation becomes the explanation for what happens in a consultation, which in turn becomes the justification for how we approach future consultations. Writing centers are ostensibly built on the premise of peer-readership, egalitarianism, and a kind of grassroots advocacy, but if our language choices don’t reflect those values, they will ultimately be—at best—toothless gestures, and—at worst—a reinforcement of the insecurities some multilingual writers may already feel.

You Are Not a Unique Snowflake

katie-kKatie Kohls, Consultant

If you are interested at all with musical theatre and haven’t been living under a rock for the past year, you have probably heard of a little show called Hamilton. Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the music, lyrics, and book. This musical had taken the world by storm, and if it wasn’t about the Founding Fathers, many of the songs could be in the Top 40. Just go listen to “My Shot”, “Non-Stop”, or “Burn” and hear what I mean. The entire score is amazing. And Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, played Alexander Hamilton for the first year of its run on Broadway. And no role in the musical is limited by color or race; the Founding Fathers in Hamilton are as diverse as America today. Miranda is changing how we look at musicals, actors, and history.

Miranda also wrote the musical, In the Heights, and has composed the music for Disney’s new movie, Moana, to give a few of his other works. Basically, Miranda is a phenomenal person and writer, who has literally changed the world with his work. But on September 23, he reminded his Twitter followers that even writing geniuses have their rough patches.

Miranda’s Twitter is a place of beautiful positivity and updates on what he is doing with his time. His good morning and good night tweets are motivating and touching whether you know him or not. On September 23 though, he tweeted a ‘memory’ from three years’ prior (memories on social media remind you of popular posts that you posted on that day in previous years). This memory was a conversation Miranda had with his wife, Vanessa, about writing:


Miranda’s tweet says, “This conversation happened 3 years ago. Keep Writing. Get back to your piano” with a picture of the 2013 tweet which said:

Me: Sometimes the writing doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like it to.

Vanessa: I know.

Me: I have a hard time finding the balance between not beating myself up when it doesn’t happen as fast as I’d like it to, and not wasting time while I wait for it to happen.

Vanessa: Everyone has that problem all of the time.

Me: You mean these aren’t unique snowflake problems that happen to me because I am a unique snowflake?

Vanessa: No.

Me: Oh, good.

[End of Play.]

This tweet shows Miranda’s humor, but it also reminds us as writers and creative beings that we must keep going. Like Miranda said, the balance of not beating ourselves up and not wasting time is difficult. And we can take some small comfort in arguably one of the creative geniuses of our time has trouble writing sometimes. Who knew?!

But in all seriousness, we all struggle, but we all try to mask it. We don’t want to admit our weakness, and admit we just can’t sometimes. But if one of the greatest creative geniuses of our time is admitting that he struggles, shouldn’t we, the lowly uninfluential peasants, be okay with our struggles? I’m kidding about the peasants, but I am serious about being okay when we can’t write, can’t create. Our struggles to write aren’t because we are some special unique snowflakes with unique snowflake problems. I’m sorry, but in writing, you are not a unique snowflake but neither is Miranda.

So “What Comes Next?” Just because your problems are not unique, does not mean that your writing is not unique. So next time you are stuck or “Helpless” or have no clue how to begin again, “Take A Break” and “Wait For It” because you will “Blow Us All Away”. Soon your writing will be “Non-Stop”, and you should have confidence because “History Has Its Eyes On You”. And maybe you will make it to a point where some poor grad student fixes her writer’s block by incorporating your songs into her conclusion.


Creating and Sustaining a Culture of Writing

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

Someone once told me that any time you move it takes six months to learn how to live in a new place. After we moved into our new space on the first floor of Ekstrom Library last

University Writing Center on the first floor of Ekstrom Library

October, it did taken us a while to figure out how the furniture worked best, get some art on the walls, and buy some new plants. Now, however, as we get ready to start the 2016-17 academic year, we are settled in and excited about the opportunities that our new surroundings offer us.

We plan to take advantage of our new space with a number of new and expanded programs and events in the coming year:

Creative Writing Groups: We are starting new creative writing groups for anyone in the UofL community interested in working on creative writing projects. The groups will meet once a month on a Tuesday during the fall semester allowing people to explore creative writing in a safe, open, and encouraging environment. Meetings will be times when people can will write, investigate issues of craft, read and respond to writing, and have fun. Any member of the UofL community is welcome – undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff. We welcome any genre of writing and any level of creative writing experience—all you need is an interest in creative writing. For more details and the schedule of meetings, see our website.

Graduate Student Writing Groups and Faculty Writing Groups: We are going to continue with our writing groups for graduate students and for faculty. These groups will provide time for writing followed by discussions of writing concerns and issues. More details and schedules for the graduate student group and the faculty group can be found on our website

Writing Center Events: We’re going to have a number of events in our new space this fall,

open mic
“Bad Love Poetry” Open Mic Night from Feb. 2016

from participation in the National Day of Writing on Oct. 2o, to a Finals’ Week Write-In to support getting final papers finished, to an open mic night on Halloween for scary stories and poems. See our Events page on our website for more details.

In addition to our Writing Center events, we also have some other new initiatives we are excited about.

New Undergraduate Tutoring Class : We have had approved a new course for undergraduates and MA students interested in learning more about teaching writing and then potentially doing internships in community literacy settings. The course, English 508 – Literacy Tutoring Across Contexts and Cultures will be offered in 2017-18. Students who take the course can then take part in tutoring internships in the community with organizations such as Family Scholar House and the Louisville Free Public Library. 

Community Literacy Projects: We are also going to continue, and expand, our ongoing writing workshops and writing consultations at Family Scholar House. We view this partnerships as one of the key parts of our efforts to provide more writing consultation services to the larger Louisville community.

Of course, it isn’t only what is new here that is exciting. One of the most exciting things that will happen this fall is what happens here every semester. Day after day writers from across the university will bring their drafts and their questions about their writing to the Picture1University Writing Center and engage in thoughtful conversations with our consultants about how to make that work as strong as it can be.  We have an excellent incoming staff of consultants who will be doing what we do best: helping writers improve the projects they are working on today, as well helping them become stronger writers in the future. On our exit surveys, more than 90 percent of respondents agree or strongly agree that their University Writing Center appointments both help them with their immediate writing concerns and that what they learn in appointments will help them with other writing projects.

We will also continue to offer our successful Dissertation Writing Retreat, our Graduate Student Writing Workshops, workshops on writing issues for classes and student organizations at UofL, and our consultations on the Health Sciences Campus.

The mission statement for the University Writing Center says that we believe writing is an “indispensable part of the intellectual life of the university.” We stand behind this belief and it is central to what we do. But, as the new semester begins, I think the events and programs we will offer in the year ahead will allow us to add to our mission the goal of creating and sustaining a culture of writing of all kinds, on campus and in our community.

Please see our updated website for more information and resources, as well as for information about how to make your appointment for a writing consultation.

Good luck with the new academic year and I hope to see you in the University Writing Center.


Writing Time, Feedback, and Momentum: The Dissertation Writing Retreat – 2016

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

The sound of people thinking. That’s what you would have heard had you come to the University Writing Center this past week. With fourteen UofL Ph.D. students focused on  writing their dissertations. I swear that, given the intensity with which they were working, you could hear them thinking. This year marks our fifth annual spring Dissertation Writing Retreat. During the week, the schedule was the same: Writing in the morning, a short workshop and discussion on some area of20160525_104409

Dissertation Writing Retreat writers hard at work

research writing at noon (How to Write and Effective Literature Review, How to Revise and Respond to Committee Members’ Comments, How to Turn Dissertations into Publications, How to Keep Writing) , and the individual appointments with University Writing Consultants in the afternoon (and more writing…). The writers who took part in this year’s Retreat worked with a dedication and commitment that was inspiring. They came from eight different disciplines at the University: Anatomical Sciences and Neurobiology, Education, Engineering, Rhetoric and Composition, Humanities, Psychology, Public Health, and Sociology. The best way to get a sense of the experience of the Retreat and its impact on the writers who took part, however, is to hear from the participants and consultants themselves.


Amanda Pocratsky, Anatomical Sciences and Neurobiology: It’s hard to synthesize in few words how much this retreat has transformed my dissertation writing experience. As a graduate student in the biomedical sciences, I was initially concerned about how effective this retreat would for me. These concerns proved unfounded. In the span of one short week, I’ve written my dissertation abstract and a complete first chapter. I will leave here with over half my dissertation completed, a well-defined outline of my discussion, and incredible momentum to push through the final stages. Moreover, the writing skills I’ve cultivated from this experience will effectively translate throughout my scholastic career. I strongly encourage students to apply and come prepared to succeed.

Yvette Szabo, Clinical Psychology: The Dissertation Writing Retreat has been invaluable to my dissertation progress! I am still collecting data for my dissertation, so I was able to

Meghan, Rene, and Yvette hold a group consultation

use this protected time to write and edit large parts of my Introduction, Method and then outline my results and discussion. Overall, I doubled the length of my dissertation and received feedback on all sections.  Typically, I shift between many roles as a graduate student, so having the quiet space to work (relatively unplugged) was necessary and much appreciated. And working with the same consultant all week allowed me to talk through presenting ideas for my complex study as well as receive feedback on organization and parallel structure. Thank you for a wonderful experience!

René Bayley-Veloso, Clinical Psychology: I would highly recommend that any graduate student who is working on their dissertation attend the Dissertation Writing Retreat. I have made substantial progress on my dissertation in a very short amount of time. The retreat also helped me organize my thoughts and questions, which allowed me to have a necessary and productive meeting with one of my committee members.  I have learned quite a bit about my own personal writing process through this experience, and will be utilizing this knowledge to maintain momentum moving forward.

Jamila Kareem, Rhetoric and Composition: The 2016 Dissertation Writing Retreat has not only been the most productive time I’ve spent on my dissertation, but it has been the most valuable. The structure of the Retreat worked well, because it allowed me to prioritize my writing and get the most crucial aspects finished while I had guaranteed feedback. The Retreat helped me develop a more structured process to stay on track and to feel rewarded when I do. I’ve had a process that has worked pretty well, but the staff at the Retreat gave

Dilan and Layne work together

me strategies to build upon it and work smarter. And it’s free! Just look for professional dissertation help around the Internet—prices are crazy! I would recommend the Dissertation Writing Retreat to every doctoral student whether they are having trouble getting started or almost done. The feedback, time, and structure you receive are invaluable.

Abby Burns, Epidemiology and Population Health: The Dissertation Writing Retreat provided an encouraging environment to work quietly alongside other students who all have the same ultimate goal – completing their dissertation and graduating.  It helped hold me accountable, but more importantly helped me build momentum that I hope I can run with in the following weeks/months.

Denise Watkins, Humanities: As someone who is married, a mother, and works full-time, the benefits of this retreat can’t be adequately explained. I was able to steal away from all other responsibilities and make significant progress. In one week’s time, my outlook towards my dissertation has changed from an insurmountable “where will I ever find the time?” project to a feasible, doable task.

Heidi Williams, Sociology: The Dissertation Writing Retreat provides supportive, focused writing time, as well as workshops and advice that help participants approach and manage their work. Working with a writing consultant helped me realize I was fixating on a problem, rather than making progress in an attainable way. I learned how to breakdown my writing into manageable, daily tasks that led to tangible results – an exercise that I could not put into motion myself.


Laura Tetreault, Assistant Director: In my conversations during the Dissertation Writing Retreat, either with the writers I was working with or the other consultants and writing center staff, we often circled back to one idea: writing is hard. (And interesting, and fun, and exciting, but also hard a lot of the time.) As a Rhetoric and Composition PhD candidate

Laura Tetreault leads a workshop discussion on turning dissertations into publications

and Assistant Director of the Writing Center, people sometimes I expect that I have this whole writing thing figured out, but the reality is that I became interested in writing teaching and writing center work because I also find writing to be really difficult a lot of the time. But instead of finding this discouraging, I actually find it comforting that most writers express at some point how difficult writing can be for them. The common experience of struggling with writing helps to diminish the inner critic that many grad students have in our heads. I can tell that critic: hey, it’s not me; writing is just hard sometimes. And it gets a lot easier for me when I can find a sense of community in the struggle.

Amy McCleese Nichols, Assistant Director: Watching writers work on their dissertations this week has reminded me why I love one-on-one writing conferences. It’s been great to talk through ideas and text with writers who have differing processes. For some, it seemed like the chance to talk through small sections of writing/thinking gave them better language to describe their overall argument and intervention by the end of the week. For others, designing study frameworks and making targeted edits to various sections of text

Rose and Amy discuss Rose’s dissertation

helped them accomplish larger goals. Working the retreat has also given me a better sense of what it might look like to write my own dissertation in the future; this is definitely an event I’d like to return to as a participant next year.

Layne Gordon: As a soon-to-be second year PhD student, I was so inspired this week by the progress of the writers I was working with! At the end of each meeting, we took a couple of minutes to set some writing goals for the next day. Although sometimes those goals had to shift or be adjusted (writing requires so much flexibility!), the writers always made progress and pushed themselves to get as much done as they could. While I got to learn a lot about their respective topics, I also learned a lot about the dissertation writing process itself and the importance of just not stopping.

Brittany Kelley: I learn so much when working with others on their dissertations, especially when it comes to the writing process. This year, I learned that it’s important to create a hierarchy of goals for your dissertation. The highest/most important goal is getting words on the page. The next highest/most important goal should be your well being. After you’ve got words on the page, remember to rest. See friends. Exercise. Eat well. Most importantly, be kind to yourself. You deserve it. Always.

Ashley Ludewig: I have always enjoyed working with students of all levels on their writing projects and this week’s retreat was no different.  But, even though I participated in the retreat as a tutor, this week was also really helpful for me as someone who is also writing my dissertation.  Talking with other writers as they thought through some of the most complicated parts of their projects and reflected on their writing processes reminded me to be more accepting of my own writing process and helped me see why I was feeling stuck in my own work.  Now, instead of beating myself up over a lack of progress, I feel prepared to re-think my priorities for the next few weeks and make a plan that will actually work!

Meghan Hancock: This year at the diss retreat I was reminded of the importance of setting aside concrete time to write in a space without distractions. It seemed like many students most valued the amount of quiet work time that the retreat provided them with, and in my last consultation, we talked about how to create those kinds of spaces after leaving the retreat as well as how to continue to block out time in schedules just for writing. Though I always encourage others to maximize their productivity in these ways, I don’t always practice what I preach. Being able to see the amazing work ethic that students at the diss retreat had this year has inspired me to try harder to follow my own writing advice and to set aside more routinely scheduled quiet times for me to work on my own dissertation.


It’s also important to acknowledge the people who did the hard work of organizing the Retreat – Cassie Book, our Associate Director, and Robin Blackett, our Administrative Assistant, and Assistant Directors Stephen Cohen, Amy Nichols, and Laura Tetreault. Thanks also to the fantastic consultants (themselves Ph.D. students) who do the most important work of the week in working with the writers: Layne Gordon, Meghan Hancock, Brittany Kelley, and Ashley Ludewig. And thanks to Dean Beth Boehm, of the School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies for again sponsoring and supporting the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

See you next year!!!!!!

Writing in the World – New Ways of Imagining Literacy and Language

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

People sometimes think that, on a university campus, you spend all your days with print books and paper – even more so when you work in the University Writing Center. Yet, it doesn’t take long to look around and see that the university is filled with communication happening in so many different modes and media, from words to images to video to sound. This week we had an exciting reminder of how art works as composition and communication with the opening at the Art ShowWriting Center of the student art show titled “Writing in the World.” We had a dozen works from UofL students, all on the theme of “Writing in the World” The theme asked students to represent, through their artwork, how they encountered writing and how writing worked in their daily lives, both on and off campus. The show opened Wednesday to complement the UofL Composition Program’s Symposium of Student Writing and will remain in the Writing Center through the end of the semester.

Some artists, like Peri Crush, worked with the material artifacts of literacy, as seen in her sculpture “Break Through”

“Break Through” by Peri Crush

created from the pages of a book. Other artists drew on the visual representation of words, whether in graffiti as in  Irene Tran’s untitled photograph or Gwen Snow’s dress titled “Egwengwen Ritual Costume.” Some artists made connections to works of literature, such as Katlyn Brumfield’s still life “Poe” and still others played with the slippery nature of language itself, as in the video “Have You Seen the Dog?” a collaboration by ten students.

All the works reminded me  that literacy is simultaneously material and immaterial.

“Egwengwen Ritual Costume” by Gwen Snow

Without the material artifacts of books and pens and paper and computers, we have no reading and writing. Literacy isn’t possible until we create a work that can be interpreted though the sign systems of writing or images. At the same time, literacy is an immaterial concept that requires interpretation and connection, to other life experiences and other texts. Perhaps what the artwork demonstrated most vividly is that literacy is visual. We can not only read written words, but we can also to step back from them to understand how they work aesthetically as form and design.

It was exciting to have so many visitors drawn to the Writing Center to see the artwork, and to vote for their favorite choices. Throughout the day people were talking about the art, and talking about the themes of the show. We presented three awards. The Directors’ Award went to Alexa Helton’s  untitled drawing. The Writing Center Staff Award went to Peri Crush’s “Break Out.” And the People’s Choice award – voted by the people visiting the show — went to “Have You Seen the Dog?”

Our thanks go to Gabrielle Mayer, associate professor of Fine Arts, who organized the show and collaborated with us on the theme, and to all the student artists who contributed work, and whose names are listed at the end of the post.

“Untitled” by Alexa Hilton

At the University Writing Center we are committed to engaging writing and composing in all modes and media and we hope this kind of art and writing show will become an annual event.

If you haven’t seen the art already, do come to the Writing Center, on the third floor of Ekstrom Library, and take a look.

Artists participating in “Writing in the World.”

Yeva Sshurova

Colin Beach

Katlyn Brumfield

“Have You Seen the Dog?”

Brynn Gordon

Kathryn Harrington

Alexa Helton

Beth Heutis

Robyn Kaufman

Colton Kays

Amber Kleitz

Keegan Kruse

Irene Mudd

Renae Osman

Mikayla Powell

Brittani Rosier

Gwen Snow

Irene Tran

On Early Writing Advice

Jessica Winck, Assistant Director

This week’s feature was adapted from an earlier post on Jessica’s blog Daily Inventions, which focuses on writing, teaching, and the teaching of writing.

DSCN1660As I work on finishing my M.A. project, I’ve been thinking about how my views on writing were shaped when I was younger. After studying rhetoric and writing for the past two years, I’ve become more conscious of how some of my own views, behaviors, and habits suggest something I learned early on that stayed with me. In other words, I’ll become aware of something I’m doing, and I’ll say (sometimes out loud), “Where did that come from?”

Throughout my teens I saw myself as a fiction writer, and the writing of fiction was Writing to me – so people who wrote it were Writers. I got a sense of this in so many of the books about fiction writing that I read. There was a sense in these books – this discourse – that good writers have a gift. Certainly they work hard, but they have an indefinable quality, so at best, advice about writing for people who don’t have this gift can only help them artificially replicate what gifted writers possess naturally.

Now I see this as a flawed assumption, but I bought into it when I was younger. When I was 20 or 21 I showed a short story to a guy I worked with who also wrote fiction. His initial response was, “Well, you can write!” On one hand, that’s just stating the obvious. On the other hand, that’s not what he was talking about at all. He meant I had some kind of ability beyond competence.

There were consequences for this kind of view of writing and writers. Though my undergrad curriculum consisted of several creative writing workshops, collaboration wasn’t a major priority – in fact it was discouraged because it was seen as a distraction. Someone once told me that writers who work at coffee shops or with others just want distractions because they aren’t committed to their craft. Real writers toil alone, if not for concentration’s sake, then because their gift for writing – all that genius – leads to bad social skills or neuroses. The Writer/Suffering Genius was a persona more than anything else, and my peers and I all desperately ached toward it.

peter elbowClearly I disagreed with these “truths” to some extent, otherwise I wouldn’t have been so frustrated by their limitations at the time. But they weren’t my only influences. When I was in high school, I read two important writers: Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg. Something distinguished them from the other people I read during that time and later in undergrad: they didn’t tolerate the view of “Writing” that I’ve elaborated here. For them, improving as writers is first a matter of writing more and being more methodical about how you use your writing time (ie., scheduled or timed writing). Though I read Elbow and Goldberg early on, they stayed on my shelf all through undergrad as I worked through developing an identity as a writer. I thought that improving as a writer couldn’t possibly be a matter of persistence, which is available to everyone.

As I work on my Master’s project now, I’m realizing in really profound ways that at a fundamental level, apart from other factors and forces that bear down on me in this process, that I will finish my project in a reasonable amount of time if I just persist methodically. This isn’t to say that challenges won’t come up, or that I won’t ever feel like it’s hopeless, but it’s to say that there is plenty of evidence that says I should have faith in this process.

There are also benefits for teachers and writing consultants to examine early influences on our views of writing. This is a view of writing that leads us to assume that everyone can write, as Peter Elbow suggests, and that doing well and “being successful,” however defined, is a matter of persisting, not of innate talents or gifts.

Books about Writing: Some Summer Reading Recommendations

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director (with some crowd-sourced inclusions)

Ashly_Version_3Lists of must-read books are pretty common around this time of year. Summer after all is when we—theoretically at least—get a break from school and sometimes work so that we can indulge in the more relaxing pleasures of life. Oprah has a list, the New York Time’s has a list, People’s Magazine… you get the idea. As you start collecting tomes to craft your own list, here are a few the Writing Center (and some of our closest friends) would recommend.

First, a caveat. Many other lists you may peruse will likely focus on tantalizing or even soul-searching fictions, maybe the most recent non-fiction adventure thriller, or a witty collection of essays. This list on the other hand collects five books that explore the craft and the role of writing. These books are recommendations for those who want to push their writing to the next level by engaging in some thoughtful and reflective conversation with established authors who are excited about sharing and learning techniques to improve their art. Many of these books are written by creative writers, but at least one of the following books is not. That’s important, because, as we well know, the art of writing encompasses much more than just novels, poems, and the like. So, without further ado and in no particular order…

  1. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

If I had to pick one word to describe this book, it would be “reassuring.” Much of Bird by Bird explores the painful and drawn-out process of writing. It doesn’t shy away from the hard parts and addresses them with a refreshing frankness, as demonstrated in the chapter on “shitty first drafts.” Despite embracing what seems to be the negative aspect of the craft, Lamott similarly emphasizes the great reward that comes from sharing your written work, even in its early stages. All the great advice in the book is made even more engaging by the illustrative examples Lamott includes from her own professional and personal life.

2. On Writing by Stephen King

Authored by one of the most prolific writers of our time, this short book offers not only writing advice but also insight into a mind who has left an indelible mark on our culture—if not our own minds. King’s classic thriller stories have kept many of us up at night, perhaps repeating “I don’t believe, I don’t believe” if you experienced IT too young, as I did. This book is the next best thing to learning at the feet of the masters—or your writing instructors. Plus, it could be both fun and enlightening to read in conjunction with some of King’s novels and short stories.

3. Literacy in American Lives by Deborah Brandt

This book focuses more on role of writing and reading practices in United States rather than necessarily delivering writing advice. Still, I consistently advise writers that the best way to improve your writing is to know your own habits and style so that you can make effective changes. This includes your experiences with reading and writing throughout your life, and possibly the experiences of your family members. Brandt’s book, informed by hundreds of interviews done in Wisconsin and the American Midwest, traces the histories of individuals and families to offer insights about our expectations and beliefs about writing and reading.

4. Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Regular readers of the Writing Center’s Facebook page will likely not be surprised by Bradbury’s inclusion on this list. I’m especially fond of him. This fondness stems not only from my reading of his work, but from listening to his impassioned speeches about the art of writing. In a recent commencement speech he delivered, Bradbury argued that he was so good at writing because he loved all the things he wrote about and because he loved so many things. He called himself the World’s Greatest Lover but also invited his listeners to challenge him for the title. I have not read this collection of essays yet (it’s on my own summer reading list), I expect to find these essays as filled conviction and inspiration as his speech and the beauty of experiencing his writing first hand.

5. Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams (and Gregory Colomb)

In contrast to other books on this list, this book is a more instructional, at least in terms of traditional expectations. It is in fact a short collection of lessons on crafting clear writing. This is a good book for readers who are aiming to learn tactics and apply them to their writing without as much of the inspirational recollection of personal writing experiences that can be found in the previous four. Since this is another book on my “to buy” list, I will share that this book made the list because it was recommended to me by a prolific professor who happens to edit books before they are published. It is one of the books she regularly recommends to the authors she works with on the publishing side of her career. Can’t get much higher recommendation than that, right?

These five books are just a slice of the range of smart and very useful books on this topic. What other books might you recommend? What other books would you like to read on this topic? Let’s get this summer rolling—or reading, as the case may be.

Writing, Nerves, and Gaining a Sense of Being a “Writer”

Bronwyn Williams, Director

A student in a secondary school in a small town in England tells me that it gets harder to write when he knows there is a grade hanging over the assignment.

A graduate student at an English university, at work on her Ph.D., talks about how anxious she feels while waiting for a response on a dissertation chapter she has sent to her faculty director.

A faculty member, with many published books and journal articles, asks me to read a draft of a chapter for a new book she is writing, but admits that to do so makes her nervous.

??????????This semester I have been away from the University Writing Center, though issues of writing and supporting writers have not been very far from my mind. I am writing this from England where I am currently on a Fulbright Research Fellowship at the University of Sheffield. I’ve been visiting classrooms in colleges and secondary schools here, and talking with students and teachers about the challenges – and opportunities – they find in writing and reading. The fellowship has offered me the opportunity to spend the spring conducting research in a new setting, and the chance to meet and talk with new faculty and graduate student colleagues.

In all of these settings, one of the common things I have noticed about how people talk about reading and writing, is the anxiety that often emerges when it comes time for someone else to read what a writer has written. Regardless of how experienced, or how confident, these writers may be, there are always some circumstances that make them nervous about the way others are going to respond to their writing. Maybe the piece they are writing is going to count for a large part of a course grade. Or perhaps the writing is exploring new ideas or a new genre in the piece she is working on. Or maybe the writer has been told in the past that he is not a good writer and he has come to believe that judgment. For whatever reason, when we put our writing out for others to judge we understand that we are being judged on part of ourselves – our ideas, our identities. No wonder we feel nervous.

Visitors to the University Writing Center often talk to us about feeling similar anxieties. Some people feel they have to apologize for the quality of their writing before a session begins and we’ve even had a chance to read the draft. It’s no longer a surprise to me when I read the writing of someone who has told me that her writing isn’t very good, and find strengths in the writing which the student has begun to doubt are present. Then there are the writers who feel their struggles with writing are a confirmation of the negative judgments of past teachers, when, in fact, their problems are more about having to learn to write in a new genre or about unfamiliar content. At the Writing Center we are always honest about the issues a writer has to address to produce an effective piece of writing. Yet we are also honest about recognizing writing strengths that students may not believe they possess. One of the great pleasures of working in the Writing Center, is seeing our consultants not only help writers with their immediate concerns, but also give them a new perspective on their identities as writers

One of the insights that has become clearer to me through my research this spring is how important it is to have a self-perception of competence and agency in order to be a successful writer. While a set of skills is, of course, important, students – and faculty – who doubt those skills or question their power to demonstrate their abilities, often find themselves unable to complete writing projects successfully. Unfortunately, in our system of education where short-answer, high-stakes testing has become the dominant measure of competence, there is less and less room for thoughtful, nuanced writing, even at the university level. Part of what we provide at the Writing Center is a space where writers can receive honest, constructive response without high-stakes judgment. It is, in many ways, one of the purest learning environments on campus. In this learning space, we can often help writers both with their immediate writing projects, but also help them rethink their identities as competent, confident writers.

Does this mean that that we can make all of a writer’s anxieties disappear. No, I can’t promise that. (Full disclosure: I’m nervous in writing this and sending it off to my assistant director for her feedback and then publishing it online – and I’ve been writing professionally for more than thirty years. The nerves never completely go away.) What we can do, though, is offer strategies to help an individual handle new and unfamiliar writing situations effectively. And sometimes, in the course of offering these strategies, we also help students develop a more positive, and more productive, perception of themselves as “writers.”