Tag: writing

Relearning to Write

Curtis Ehrich, Writing Consultant

My experience with writing prior to entering my undergraduate degree was much like any other contemporary American student’s: learn to write in a 3.5 paragraph format (better known in pedagogical circles as the 5 paragraph format), and it’ll carry me all the way through college. Turns out, college professors are not fans of the 3.5 paragraph format. Having such a hard shift from a highly organized, structured form of writing, to whatever it is that I use now was a hard lesson to learn.

My experience with the 3.5 paragraph format begins in eighth grade, when the Language Arts teacher’s favorite student took a day off high school (don’t ask me how) to visit her old stomping ground. With her she brought the Good News of 3.5 paragraph format, and from then on, every paper had to be written with one intro paragraph, three body paragraphs, and one concluding paragraph. To be honest, finally having “instructions” to follow when writing was a huge boon for me. Now instead of waiting until the last minute to try to figure out how to write an essay, I could just wait until the last minute to actually write the essay.

I went to a “college-preparatory” high school, and that’s when 3.5 format really started to be drilled into me by the school’s curriculum. This is when I started to get frustrated with the format. As the length requirements got longer, five paragraphs were no longer enough to fill 10 pages worth of writing, at least not in any way that offered substance. I was also finding that 3.5 format didn’t always allow me to conform to the conventions of whatever genre I was trying to write in.

Once I got to college, after taking the required college composition courses, I decided to ditch 3.5 format entirely. In its place, I tried to model my writing after the kind of academic writing I was encountering in my course work. I wasn’t the most successful at it, as instead of trying to do what academics were doing in their writing, I simply stopped doing the things they weren’t, but it was as though suddenly a shackle had just been released, and suddenly I was able say the things I wanted to say, exactly the way I wanted to say them. Learning how to do this on my own was a struggle, and my grades reflected that, but once I learned how to write what I wanted to write instead of what I thought my professors wanted to see, there was an immediate boost in my grades.

In my final semester of undergrad (just before the “Dark Times”), I took a course called “Teaching of Writing,” where I learned that 3.5 Paragraph format wasn’t created to teach students to write at the collegiate level, it was intended to game the standardized testing system. My high school wasn’t so much “college preparatory” it was “SAT preparatory.” When funding for public schools became (partly) tied to standardized test scores, the schools needed a way to ensure that students’ writing could trigger all of the things that the scoring algorithm looked for in writing, regardless of how well written the content of the paper actually was. Of course, to remain competitive and maintain their reputation as “superior” alternatives to public education, private schools also started teaching 3.5 format. 

So how do we relearn to write? That answer is a little bit different for everyone. There’s an axiom among pedagogical circles that to be good writers, we have to be good readers. While this isn’t necessarily an idea that I personally subscribe to (It leads to a chicken and egg scenario if you think about it long enough), I do think that a good place to start to learn how to write is to model your writing on the things you read. The larger variety of things that you read the better, because that gives you options when you write. One of the ways that I make writing interesting for myself is to play with genre. I might write the introduction of a paper for one of my courses as a narrative, or I might reconceptualize a research project as a scientific study. Part of the benefit of understanding how a variety of writing works is you can take it apart and Frankenstein it back together.

None of this is to say that 3.5 format isn’t useful. I still use 3.5 all the time for smaller papers in the 3-5 page range. But, again, five paragraphs are not enough to fill out a full-length paper at the college level. And when you have writers who have been taught to construct a paper, rather than communicate their ideas, of course they are going to begin to flounder when they enter higher education, because most high schoolers come to college with the idea that it is simply more school where they come to be taught, rather than explore ideas on their own. Realistically, there is very little that we can do to change the way that writing is being taught in primary and secondary educations, so relearning how to write is a frustrating, but crucial, and also personal part of that transition into higher education.

Reader as a Tyrant: Co-operative Principles in Standardized Exam Writing

Yuan Zhao, Writing Consultant

Almost every Writing Center blog post begins with a story. Here is mine. As an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner, two years ago, I took TOEFL exam again. Yes, again, for a second time. At that moment, I have completed my MA degree in English Literary Studies in Hong Kong, read books written by the greatest critics in the world, wrote paper essays rewarded with and “A” from professors. I thought all of these would qualify me to shine excellently in a TOEFL exam, but unfortunately, I failed again in the writing section—only 24 out of 30. When I took TOEFL for the first time, my writing was also 24. Nothing changed. Even after the academic training in English department, nothing improved.

What ensued were a consecutive of questions and suspicions: “Can I manage writing in English? Am I a qualified English user? Please tell me what goes wrong with my writing? Is it grammar? Syntax? I have already applied complicated sentences and tried to be as critical and insightful as Foucault and Derrida. Tell me how I can improve myself! I did it tremendously well in IELTS. Why does TOEFL not work for me? What on Earth does the exam want? Why can’t the examiners see my talents? I have read the rubrics on ETS website, but ‘well-organized’, ‘unity’, ‘coherence’, ‘variety of languages’ are like vague empty outlines. They do not make any practical sense to me. How I hope I can talk to the markers in the face and throw the words on them: ‘Tell ME what YOU want!’”

The impacts on confidence were devastating. The side-effects even followed me in my daily life that I became extremely meticulously careful when I wrote, be it the meeting minutes, the emails to colleagues, or anything that would be read by readers. As an English major graduate, I could not write satisfactory English. That is the biggest irony to me and even to my life. I started to question my English learning experience, the efforts I had invested, and even my intelligence.

At the beginning of 2021, I decided to retake TOEFL. If it failed, I believed I might not take the exam again throughout my life. To take the preparation seriously, I paid tuition fees and attended an online tutorial course.

Was it effective? Yes. I got 28 out of 30 in the writing section, even though I realized immediately after having stepped out of the exam center that my writing had been a bit off the topic.

Did I improve my English ability? No!

In fact, I am a much more capable English user than the exam tutors. It seemed that everything the tutor delivered in class was a reaffirmation of what I had known: For the Introduction, use a hook to attract readers’ attention, expand the background information, bring out the topic and demonstrate the thesis statement. In a body paragraph, employ a clear topic sentence, write one or two elaborative sentences to explain the topic sentence, leave the major space to talk about examples and if necessary, write a small conclusion. As for a conclusion, don’t include any information, paraphrase the arguments mentioned in body paragraphs as succinct as possible.

They all sound like clichés. However, it was until I received my score report did I realize that I did not follow such mechanical rules in my exam writing. I used to think I need to be the owner of the writing; it should reflect my talents and styles; even though it would be an exam writing piece, it should be personal and original. Now, at least in the standardized exam writing settings, I have relocated my concepts about writing in an exam setting, and effects from the changes in my attitudes are revealed in my score report. In fact, exam is no more than a game with explicit rules. Sometimes, you need to feel detached to write better, to think more about the function of each sentence, mechanically practice the rules, write down the connectives, and when the time is up, say farewell to the work forever.  Exam is a task. Just complete it. You don’t need to show your personal talents in an exam setting, since the examiners don’t care. It is not worthwhile.

What makes standardized exam writing different? My answer is—the reader, the sharp professional yet indifferent eyes behind the screen skimming the written works, looking for something they expect they will read, making decisions whether they feel good or bad based upon the training they have innated into their mind mechanisms, marking the writing pieces, and over. How much time will they spend on reading yours? One minute, two minutes. Perhaps more, but they definitely will not read your writing closely, to appreciate the merits hidden in the textures of your lines. Nowadays, ETS even applies e-rater Scoring Engine (an AI technology) to mark writings. Machine rating says what exams expect to read in the writing section—standardized writings, expected formats, explicit signs, no surprise. The exam systems need cooperative pets to respond effectively to every signal to show their capabilities so that they can get rewards.

Exam markers are powerful readers, but they are not and should not be the authority to judge your writing in general. Exams provide a context with a set of rules to play. Honestly, all writings with expected readers do have rules, and your academic writing settings make no exception. Think about how many pieces of assignments your instructors need to mark, what they expect to encounter, and how much time they will spend on your writing. When you have your answers to these questions, you can decide whether you are going to be more orthodox or more innovative. Also, don’t forget, the academic writing setting is comparatively flexible. You know who your reader is. Talk to your instructors and ask them for clearer guidelines.

 I agree standardized exam writing has an oppressive force to discourage innovation, but this force needs its settings to perform. Outside of the exam contexts, you still have plenty of room for freedom to show your talents and styles: Write in your blogs, leave reviews on IMDb, update your social media, draft a caption for your Instagram Story. You will encounter readers who do appreciate your compositions. Show your talents to them.

To conclude, almost every writing center blog post begins with a story. Therefore, I wrote mine.

A Sisyphean Task

Zoë Donovan, Writing Consultant

There is a quote from the Tenth Anniversary Edition of American Gods by Neil Gaiman in the introduction that at the time I first read it in 2016 seemed trivial, unimportant and just a bit pretentious.

“I remember when it [American Gods] was all done in first draft telling Gene Wolfe, who is the wisest writer I know and has written more excellent novels than any man I’ve met, that I thought I had now learned how to write a novel. Gene looked at me, and smiled kindly. “You never learn how to write a novel,” he told me. “You only learn to write the novel you’re on.”He was right. I’d learned to write the novel I was writing, and nothing more.” – Neil Gaiman American Gods (Tenth Anniversary Edition)

Since reading those words I have written an innumerable amount of novellas, short stories, poems, audio dramas, plays, and of course essays. Looking back, I’ve found that in every piece of writing, no matter how similar the subject material it may be to other previous works, this statement stands true.

                And yet, every time I finished a project I would find myself in the same line of thinking that Gaiman had at the end of the first draft. “I’ve finally figured out how to write!” And yet, every time I’d start a new project I would crumple into an agonizing state of imposter syndrome. Suddenly, it’s hard again and the words don’t fit right, the flow is off, my characters are stock image facsimiles of how I imagined, the page is blank, erased over and over again or scratched out ,and I can’t shut off the never ending rant telling me I’ve been deluding myself the entire time. I would find myself asking, how can I even consider myself a writer if it’s always this difficult for me.

                Since then, I have come to believe that it is a myth that someone can be a good writer or a bad writer. Throughout my experience I have found that Gaiman and Wolfe, in true fashion of their profession, stated something fundamental to the writing process. I only really grasped the weight of what this meant to me as a writer upon a reread of the book in 2020. We learn to write the things that we are working on. We learn to hone it into something that the intended audience will understand. No project will ever be the same, and you don’t ever really learn how to “Write”.

 Writing is a Sisyphean task. It is a grueling process that can at times be quite enjoyable, but at other times can feel like walking across broken glass. With the start of every new project, the boulder has rolled back down the hill and you find yourself cursing the writing gods for your own hubris. I say it’s a myth to be a good writer but a caveat is needed. The only thing that I believe separates a good writer and a bad writer is perseverance. Whether that perseverance looks like 100 words a day or 5,000 words a day, putting pen to paper is what matters, whether a project takes you ten hours or ten years, when it is finished you will have learned how to write that piece. No project will ever be the same as the last. You can bring in existing knowledge and skills, but at the end of the day you won’t know how to write that paper until you’ve already written it. 

                You will never know where to begin, where to end, and what exactly happens in between until you actually the piece. There will be tears, frustration and so much revision. But these stages help you, and you take something onto the next project that you didn’t know before, though as writers we are always growing, and it will never be exactly the same process.

In-Person or Online, We’re Still Here And We’re Still Talking about Writing

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

For the first time in almost 18 months we have been arranging tables, stocking up on handouts, and dusting off shelves in anticipation of once again holding in-person writing consultations. On Thursday we welcomed our new group of writing consultants for orientation and once again the University Writing Center was full of conversations about how best to help writers in the UofL community learn strategies for being more effective writers as well as gain a stronger sense of confidence and agency about their writing. One thing we have missed in the last year, given the kind of collaborative dialogue that is at the foundation of teaching writing the way we do, is the kind of nuance and richness that comes from in-person conversations. Though we value the online video chat and written response appointments we held last year – and will continue to hold this year – we are also excited at the opportunity to talk to writers face to face again.

University Writing Center Staff – 2021-22

Of course, the fact that only half of each face will be visible is a reminder of the range of physical, logistical, and emotional challenges we all continue to confront. We are returning to a campus where masks are mandatory, in a city and state were delta variant cases among the unvaccinated are skyrocketing. Though all of our staff are vaccinated, we are not immune to anxiety or the distraction that comes from the ongoing uncertainty all around us. We will be adopting myriad modifications and practices to do our best to keep everyone safe. It’s certainly not a return to 2019.

Even so, our plan is to move ahead and, whether in person or online, do the best we can to use constructive dialogue to help writers address their individual concerns about their work. We will continue to listen carefully during appointments and respond with suggestions that writers can use to rethink and revise their work to make it as engaging as possible. And we will do our best to create a safe and supportive space where writers can try out new ideas – and sometimes make mistakes – and then be able to try again. There may be many uncertainties ahead in the coming year, but we will – as always – be committed to starting where writers are, with their concerns, and working toward honest, constructive conversations about writing that emphasize collaboration and creativity.

We are excited about the year ahead and the chance to help writers do the important work of communicating the ideas they are passionate about to the world around them.

Writing Groups and Events

In addition to our individual consultations, we will continue to offer other ways to support and sustain writing at UofL. Once again we will facilitate writing groups for Graduate Students and Faculty, Creative Writers, and LGBTQ+ Writers. For graduate students we will offer workshops on writing issues and our annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. We will sponsor events, from our annual Halloween Scary Stories Open Mic Night (co-sponsored with Miracle Monocle), to our celebration of International Mother Language Day. What’s more, we will continue our community partnerships with the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library and Family Scholar House.

We wish everyone a safe and fulfilling year and we look forward to working with you soon.

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.