Tag: writing

Self-Care Before Burning Out

Ayaat Ismail, Writing Consultant

Last semester, I struggled to set time for myself away from the world of academia. Which I’m sure isn’t a new concept for anyone. We all do this. We get invested in our education and consumed by doing and being our absolute best. The one thing that felt like a constant needle was poking me all semester and keeping me on my toes was writing, or at least the thought of writing.

Writing felt like this ever-changing entity that was somehow liberated from me, the writer. It is as if it was beyond my control. It could have been because of the various directions I was told as a writer to take, or it could have been the fact that I was writing at a level of college I had never written before, and with that came a whole new set of skills and stressors. 

And because of this, I felt like I was on the verge of insanity, barely functioning as a human being. I had put an unusual amount of anxiety and responsibility on myself because of this socially constructed notion that I should somehow reach this mold of perfection that is expected from us as students and as writers. But who really expects this from us? 

Nonetheless, we have many hindrances such as societal and familial expectations and considerably more scopes of demands that we can’t seem to shake. Yet, we never take the time to mitigate our troubles. It doesn’t have to be something huge and extravagant, just something to slow down the process of us becoming something hybrid between a zombie and a monster. I personally do not think it’s a good look on me. 

I feel like there has been a struggle to find a rhythm before this semester, yet I have pushed myself recently to give myself a little time and do this work of finding a balance. Some of the actions I have personally taken this Spring is to time manage my schedule better, so I have a day in the week where I don’t focus on any school stuff. This has usually become Saturday for me where unless I have work, I wake up whenever I please and indulge in doing nothing of importance. This break has provided me more time to focus on myself and regain some of my old self. The one where taking time away from school was acceptable. 

Here are some of the things I have done and may help you in your self-care journey:

  • Meditating or at least staring up at the ceiling until by mind goes blank
  • Reading a book for pleasure just because I want to (usually NA books…)
  • Catching up on some of my favorite TV shows
  • Learning to cook something edible (and not burning anything)
  • Spending time with family and being completely present
  • Watching White Chicks for the nth time (should I say more?)
  • Hiking/Walking with friends or family 

These are just small steps I have taken, as cheesy as they may sound, to help recenter my focus and take care of myself. Because honestly, there is only one me and one you, and we need to treat ourselves better. Not just physically, but we need to consider our mental health as we move forward and adapt to our evolving lifestyles due to this pandemic, which has a heap of issues itself and our journeys as writers and students. 

Somehow this has helped calm my nerves and even allowed me to find joy in writing again. It’s as if being detached from the concept of writing for a day somehow initiates a newfound love of writing. I found myself writing in the notes app on my phone and coming up with new ideas for stories I might pursue. I really do believe turning the off button for myself has improved my energy throughout the week and has allowed me to remove some of the walls that I have a built-in connection with being a student. 

So, whether it’s taking a day off every now or then or if you find an opportunity arise to something different, I say take the plunge and do it. Do it for yourself, for your sanity, and for your peace of mind. 

The 5 Love Languages as writing habits, or how to build a healthier relationship with your writing

Zoë Litzenberg, Writing Consultant

Among the many reasons to celebrate the month of February, it’s the month of love, and here at the Writing Center, we love writing! Of course, that doesn’t mean that we think writing is easy. I honestly believe that writing is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. At its worst, writing can be frustrating, emotionally taxing, and ultimately a negative, even traumatizing, experience. At its best, though, writing can be empowering, encouraging, liberating, and fun! Have you ever been frustrated with your relationship with writing? The more I thought about how much I have a love/hate relationship with my writing process, the more I realized that I talk about writing the way I talk about any person with whom I have a close relationship. I wanted to see if building out a framework of understanding my love/hate could help others love writing more and hate writing less! I’m starting with the idea that the better we know ourselves (our habits, our quirks, and the way we process the world), the more we can intentionally and kindly learn the best ways to improve our relationships with ourselves, our work, and the world. Ever the optimist, I turned to popular relationship resources to see what I could do.

A personality typing called The 5 Love Languages®, a tool created by Dr. Gary Chapman originally to help partners communicate more intentionally, breaks down the way that people experience and administer love into five main categories: quality time, physical touch, receiving gifts, words of affirmation, and acts of service. Because people are dynamic and complex, the system explains that we all, in some ways, connect to all of these categories. However, it is not uncommon to gravitate towards one category dominantly or possibly have strong aversions to a couple of others. In light of this, applying The 5 Love Languages® to writing offers some exciting categories of contemplation!

Quality Time: Quality writing time is the time that you block out or set aside for the purpose of working or writing. Please hear this: it is not time where you are only producing quality writing! It’s choosing to sit with your work, even if the whole time it’s in front of an empty screen, because you are choosing to write as a labor of love. This might mean finding a favorite spot in the library where you can focus — just you and your words. Maybe it’s at a cute coffee shop where the buzz keeps you in the zone! If the idea of carving out special time to spend writing sounds like what works best for you, quality time might be your writing-love language! Find what “quality” means to you and pursue that intentionally. 

Physical Touch: Physical touch with writing has to do with the literal interaction we have with our writing instruments when engaging in work. Writing is a tactile, material experience. For some of us, there is nothing more generative than sitting down in front of our trusty keyboard and feeling the hum of our computer. For others of us, we need to hold a pen, or maybe it’s the aesthetic of graph paper that helps you, or one mechanical pencil that has the perfect-sharpness lead. Spend some time thinking: what’s your favorite way to materially engage with the writing process? If you find yourself resolutely finding a pattern between what you write with and how you feel about writing, physical touch might be your writing-love language!

Receiving Gifts: Maybe you feel most productive and generative in your writing when you know there is something waiting for you when the task is done. What if you arranged to give yourself thoughtful rewards for completing certain writing tasks? The focus then is on a sentiment attached to a gift you might give yourself. Maybe this looks like going to a coffee shop or planning to drink your favorite tea. Maybe it’s working for that really great cookie from the bakery down the road. What precious possessions around you make you feel generative? It could be buying a special pencil so you can finally get rid of the one whose eraser has been gone for a year or building in rewards for when you reach benchmarks or complete certain tasks. If there’s that one thing you can think of that gets you excited to write, receiving gifts might be your writing love language!

Words of Affirmation: Words of affirmation in the writing process, to me, seems most fitting when applied to how we take ideas and form them into words. So it could look like verbal affirmation we receive from others regarding our writing, or maybe we find that when we speak about our own writing, our ideas seem to clarify, or we get excited and want to keep working. Therefore, maybe this writing-love language might include sharing our essay outline or research questions with a trusted friend or professor. Sometimes when you’re brainstorming for a piece of writing, you just need to talk it out! Verbal processing can be very helpful; in fact, that’s why our virtual Live Chat option at the Writing Center is so powerful and popular. Additionally, there are so many cool multimodal resources — like Word’s dictate feature — to help if you need to talk out your ideas alone and make them into writing. Do you find your best ideas come during those great conversations with your roommate at 1 AM? Or maybe when you’re on the phone with mom? This might be your writing-love language!

Acts of Service: This one was the hardest for me to make into a metaphor, but this love language is all about taking care of responsibilities in order to put the object of your affection first. In a relationship, it might be taking out the trash (before you’ve been asked!). In writing, it’s all about taking care of the urgent work to prioritize the important work! Maybe it means that you tackle your weekend chores on Friday night so that you can get to work on that paper Saturday morning without the guilt of laundry piling up in your periphery. Maybe it means spending an extra hour researching for your assignment when you have the spare time so that when your week gets busier, you’ve gotten ahead. What’s a small task that present-you can do to take some of the load off of future-you’s plate so that they can write distraction-free? If this type of strategy gets you excited, I think acts of service might be your writing love-language.

This extended application is meant in good humor and for fun, but I hope that considering the different ways you engage with the (wonderful, crazy, complex) writing process leads you to a more confident, fruitful writing experience.I hope you have a lovely month. Happy February, and Happy Writing! 

What Seems Inevitable?

 Ian Hays, Writing Consultant

   A couple months ago I was playing poker at my friend’s new apartment. He and his girlfriend met at Vanderbilt, and we were celebrating because she’d just passed the bar. As the evening grew thin and wine continued to flow, our thoughts and the topics of conversation grew broader and more existential. Eventually we found our way to higher education, with my friend ruminating “what if we’re the last generation who will have the conventional university experience?” 

His concern is fair. If COVID has done one thing, it’s shown that in the internet age, there’s no good reason why most types of work must prescriptively happen in an ordained location. If you have the connection, it really doesn’t matter where you’re doing what you’re supposed to.

On its face, this sort of development seems entirely positive. Frankly, being able to do my Writing Center work from wherever I am has allowed me much more time to attend to the things that I should, if I’m being healthy and moral, attend to; things like my family, or my mental health. 

But this development—this untethering from the workplace—has also forced a magnifying glass upon the necessity of many institutional conventions integral to the generation of wealth. Last semester, for example, my brother was forced, abruptly, to leave Cuba, where he was studying abroad. For months all he could talk about was how excited he was to go, and when he arrived messages poured in about the therapeutic nature of being in a place like that; one where (in spite of a looming material circumstance we would qualify as massively underprivileged) there is social cohesion; one where even “the enemy” doesn’t need to worry about healthcare. 

When the disease struck he was ripped home, and spent the remainder of the semester negotiating with his, admittedly reputable, university. All told, he ended up receiving a 10% refund. A 10% refund for a full semester’s tuition, one spent in a place where higher education is free. 

That 10% number carried over to this year, because, still, all of his and his peers’ classwork has been forced online. Speaking with my father, he posited: “I guess this is how much [my brother’s school] actually values getting to use its facilities, or being within handshake proximity to all the ‘experts’ they employ.”

What my father and my friend were getting at is clear: if tuition has nothing to do with the physical experience of university—if that part of the equation, for example, is valued at 10% of a figure higher than a year’s average household income—and if literally all learning can take place online, then what the hell are we paying for? 

But this reevaluation—this disturbing reification of that arbitrary nature of institutional life—doesn’t stop at university. If you really think about it, superfluous structures meant to generate wealth are everywhere, and—it seems—they’re always one crisis away from being dispensed with. 

Thus, it can seem very sensible to believe that constant dissolution is inevitable. For those of us within the humanities, this kind of thinking is par for the course. 

Almost daily I wonder about why it is I’ve decided to go down this path, to learn about expression, and the infinite variability of the human experience. What the United States values at the monetary level is clear; we want products you can hold in your hand, we want to improve material comfort, because comfort is easy to measure and because everyone wants it. We “care” about exploring the human condition, but if you can’t illustrate on a graph how it is you’ve contributed to capitalist wellbeing—or if that wellbeing, and how much you’ve contributed to it, varies from person to person—you’re not going to get paid. 

It’s been said before that the great sin of putting earring-potential first is that what motivates action is superseded. Institutions can no longer put their primary purpose first. University, for example, is about learning, it’s about helping students learn how to think about the world; but as long as students pay for college—and as long as that money is integral to administrative functioning—the real goal of the institution has to be to keep students paying. Now COVID has made this process seem all the more untenable. 

But I want to suggest something. 

Years ago I was listening to a debate between Steven Pinker and Alain De Botton on progress. As is usual, Pinker’s argument centered around the notion of material progress, and he had numerous metrics to illustrate how far we’ve come. But he made another, more philosophical point, one meant to be divorced from any such graph. He spoke about nuclear weapons, and about how, for 80 years, it has seemed we’re always one mistake away from nuclear winter. “This is true,” he said, “but yet, still, even after the cold war—even after mass nuclear proliferation—no more weapons like that have been used against people. It’s seemed inevitable, but it’s never happened.”

The other day in class my professor spoke about how, while there is upheaval within the humanities, the discipline soldiers on; that this upheaval is actually a wellspring of creativity, an  important decoupling from the rigidity seen elsewhere. My professor is right. We were discussing New Criticism, attacking the prescriptiveness of what I perceive to be call for a more methodological approach to criticism; one meant to insulate the humanities from the march of capitalist progress which would—according to their camp—inevitably render the humanities a hobby in the face of harder subjects like physics and biology. 

But that’s never happened—years ago it seemed inevitable, but it hasn’t. Even as philosophical schools written expressly in opposition to codified rule sets—in opposition to things like objectivity, and truth—have become more mainstream, the humanities have not dissolved. 

Now is a moment of immense unsureness for millions. It’s a moment where nothing is certain, where it seems every pillar we might attach ourselves to is crumbling at its base. But when we look upward from our screens, we see that many things which will inevitably fail, haven’t, and at the practical level really won’t. Last year, for example, consumption of “traditional” media was higher than its been in years; now that’s a discipline everyone has been sure will die any minute now.

In the Writing Center this fear, for me, has been pronounced. I’ve found it hard, often, to really allow myself to get “into” the work. I love what we do, but I’m afraid that if I permit my passion to swell, that if I lose my peripheral vision, the next time I look up it’ll be because the cart I’ve been riding in has lost the momentum to move. It’ll be too late when I realize what we do is fading away. 

But that’s simply paranoia speaking, and nothing more. Last semester I walked into a room, for the first time, covered with art, and a poster at the front with a picture of the whole space packed with people diligently working on their craft. I’ve never seen such a thing, and I’ve worried that’ll never take place again. But then I look at the figures—about how we’ve actually had a pretty good year in spite of everything—or at the fact that even within a capitalist machine, the confluence I spoke about earlier—between institutional purpose and practical goals—is alive and well in the Writing Center.

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

Andrew Hutto, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

Some tips for your holiday card:

Resist the urge to simply sign your name

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

Get creative with the envelope 

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

Write the date inside of your card

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

Ask a question in your card

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

Pick a personal salutation

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

Consider donating with your card

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

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

Stay warm and happy holidays!

Permutations of Passion: How Writing Helped Me Grow

Ian Hays, Writing Consultant  

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

This is what I’ve been told, anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maddy Decker, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing by Delighting

        

Demetrius Minnick-Tucker, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

Spenser Secrest, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Distance and Embodied Writing

Amanda Dolan, Writing Consultant

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

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

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

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

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

A Penny For Your Thoughts: The Real Value of Writing in a World That Prioritizes Capital

By: Chuck Glover, Writing Consultant

There is nothing capitalistic about the process of education for an individual. Education, of course, takes time, and time is money that could be well-spent. What is capitalistic is education’s outcome: the skills to participate as a cog in the machine that is society, and therefore attribute some monetary value to yourself and the economy. What happens between birth and that participation is simply preparation, to be completed as swiftly and mess-free as possible.

            These values — whether we like them or not — are internalized by writers. We write and rewrite until we find satisfaction, and maybe even eventually pride, only to look back on our work years later and feel embarrassed by it. We frustrate ourselves for not writing enough, or for writing too much of what we perceive to be garbage; we attempt over and over to emulate writers we want to (but can never) be. The problem lies in the fact that writing never stops being an education in and of itself. Writing relies on you being the best you are in the moment; and, because we are human beings who grow and learn and change, your best will vary day to day.  There is no equation to becoming the next Shakespeare. And, because writing also functions as an ongoing education, no writer will ever wake up and suddenly be the best they will ever be. (Even if they did, it’s not like they would know it.)

            Writing is so rarely about capital gain (if it is, it almost never starts that way). Yet, we continue to maintain capitalistic values when looking at our own. How many years has that novel been a work in progress? How long have you been struggling with that essay? How many times have you rewritten that poem? When we have not moved from Point A to Point B with efficiency, when we have not produced content we deem “good enough,” it is frustrating at best; a perceived waste of time at worst. Key word: perceived

            How do we change that perception? Well, the question we should really be asking ourselves is: why do we write? I write to feel joy. I write to inhabit new worlds. I write to feel heard, even if nobody else reads it. Maybe those aren’t the reasons you write; that’s okay, too. Whatever the reason, I think the key to engaging our students and ourselves in writing is to emphasize it as a process, not a product. Writing has inherent value because of the labor that was put into it — because of the voice that lies within it — because of the skills learned in its making. How exciting it is to see each new page as an opportunity to be better, as opposed to far more daunting steps to completion.

            We put so much pressure on ourselves to participate in our writing the same way we are pressured to participate in society: with blinders to the finish line. But, outside of the deadlines we face in academia and our careers, there is no real finish line to the writing process. You will never be Shakespeare. You will never wake up and suddenly be the best writer you will ever be. (Even if you do, you won’t know it.)

            So why, pray tell, do you write?