Tag: #writingprocess

Let It Simmer

Todd Richardson, Writing Consultant

“I have to get it done,” the student says. She sits across the long table from me in the university lounge where I hold office hours. I’m a writing professor at a small liberal arts school in Western Kentucky. Her hands hover over her laptop, shaking and white. Her mask pulses with her breath, the cloth sticking to her lips then puffing out like a balloon. Outside, the leaves are brilliant—gold, crimson, orange. The breeze is crisp, brisk, earthy. I suggest it’s time for a break, perhaps take a walk without our masks, peep some foliage.

“I have to get it done,” she says. I wait for her to ask questions, but she doesn’t speak. Instead, she stares at her screen. Her typing comes in bursts, first in words, then in rapid deletions. After a few minutes, she throws up her hands and sinks her face into her palms. “I can’t,” she says. She tells me she sleeps four hours a night. She wants to graduate in no more than four years, fewer if possible. That’s why she’s enrolled in seventeen hours for Fall of 2020. She wants to do well in college, like she did in high school. Even in the pandemic, she managed to keep her grades up through her senior year. Then, in college, where the institution decided to teach a hybrid in-person/asynchronous model to cope with covid, she floundered. “I work all the time,” she says. “I never get ahead.”

I look back out the window, watch the leaves sway in the air. They seem peaceful. They breathe and sway. I know that what I have to tell my student isn’t what she wants to hear. I know because it’s not what I wanted to hear when I lived through a similar experience in grad school. It’s the same advice I’m advocating for here, and it’s counterintuitive to everything on your syllabus, everything your guidance counselor told you, every shred of the individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture that you internalized from your parents or the news or however it made its way under your skin. Admittedly, it’s advice that I still struggle to follow to this day.

“Maybe you need a break,” I say to her. She shakes her head.

“I can’t.”

“You think you can keep writing?” She pauses, doesn’t answer. Then she shakes her head, rises, and shuffles out the door. I don’t know if my advice landed or if she’s just too tired to sit here anymore. As I watch her gather her things, a pang of empathy tightens in my stomach. I was just like her as a student. I wish I’d taken it easier on myself.

In graduate school, I worked at a similar pace to my student sitting across from me—always writing, reading, stressing, obsessing, striving for some academic, pie in the sky, attaboy. I kept articles and books stacked high on my nightstand and in piles next to my bed. I slept in fits—an hour and thirty minutes here, a toss and turn there. Eventually I gave up on the REM cycle and woke up to write the next term paper, the next prospectus, the next page or paragraph or chapter of my thesis. I managed—thrived actually—in the first year. I’m fine, I told people who commented on the dark circles under my eyes. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

Then, as time passed, a mental sluggishness set in. It started as spacing out in class discussion. You’d find my body in its seat, but my mind had left orbit some time ago. I forgot what I was saying in the middle of a sentence. Then the fog spread to reading. My eyes would scan articles but would not absorb their meaning, as if my vision would bounce off the text. I became irritable with my friends, parents, and wife. Then the haze came for my writing. I stared at the blank, white snowdrift of my word processor, the cursor blinking on and off like a flickering synapse in my skull. Words would not come. Thoughts ran together in long, incomprehensible sentences. Quotes went without citations. Phrases repeated themselves without my awareness.

Eventually, panic set in. It started with feedback on an essay that read, “Todd, not your best work. Better luck next time.” After that, I entered every class with icy fingers and a tightening chest. It was all I could do to breathe, to lift my gaze to meet my instructors’. I felt the control over my own body seeping away and I was helpless to stop it. One night I got an email from my thesis advisor. The subject heading read: Todd—Chapter 3 Draft, Revision Needed. I didn’t get a chance to open the message. The edges of my vision darkened. I inhaled sharp sips of air. My knees buckled. I thought I was dying. My wife and my brother-in-law (he happened to be spending the night at our house) carried me to the bed. I regained consciousness in time to stop my wife from dialing 911. I had experienced my first full-fledged anxiety attack.

I wonder now what would have happened had I known the importance of taking a break. Not just because it’s good for your mental health—it’s good for your brain and productivity, too.

First, in order to be efficient, your brain needs time to be inefficient. What “inefficient” looks different depending on your personality, but a good suggestion for anyone in school—especially those of us in the middle of the second year of pandemical education—is to move around. Go for a walk. Dance. Kickbox. Or get all woo-woo and meditate, get a vinyasa flow in before hitting the draft again and take ten deep breaths. When you have more time, like right after you’ve submitted your paper or are just plain ol’ done for the night, do something that refills your mental gas tank. Video games, LARP, play a board game—whatever floats your raft down the river. Don’t take a break forever; we have deadlines and GPAs and life to keep up with. Set a timer for twenty minutes to write and twenty minutes of breaktime and stick to it. There will be times when you can’t take a break (life has a way of lobbing emergencies at us in the middle of finals), but make sure that you set aside time to let your mind wander wherever it needs to go.

Second, walking away from the keyboard is actually good for writing (and let’s go ahead and extend this to proofs, algorithms, presentations, and the like). Again, don’t walk away forever—I’m not saying that your term paper will write itself while you Fortnight the afternoon away. What I’m getting at is, let your writing simmer. Even if all you have is ten minutes, it’s good to set your draft aside and let it stew. Pounding your fingers against the keyboard until they bleed leads to a law of diminishing returns; over time, you will earn fewer rewards than the amount of energy you invest. Trust your subconscious to mull over your topic for a bit. You might find that your mind approaches your draft with fresh ideas, newfound energy, and a special zazz that makes your writing come to life.

Finally, taking a break is good for you. You have experienced what no other generation in the last one hundred years underwent; a global pandemic and one of the most prolonged disruptions to everyday life in recent American history. There’s nothing wrong with deciding to take a breath, to take time to feel the grass beneath your feet, to finding the peace in the reddening of the leaves. You are worth the decision to walk away.

This fall, you might hit a wall. That moment when your vision goes bleary and your eyes scan the article, you’re supposed to read but you can’t remember for the life of you what the words mean, when you’re staring at the blinking cursor on the blank page and your thought faucet feels clogged, take a break. Get woo-woo. Go for a walk. Let whatever you’re working on simmer on the back burner for as long as you can. Your brain will thank you for it.

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.

The Value of Writing Every Day

Andrew Hutto, Writing Consultant

“Writing every day is a way of keeping the engine running, and then something good may come out of it.” – T. S. Eliot

Early on in my writing practice, I would consistently seek out advice from more seasoned voices on how to improve. This is fairly common for newer writers; we get hooked on a great idea, scribble out a few lines, and then sit back to marvel at our own greatness. Then the realization starts to sink in: after looking the piece over a few times, the rotten feeling of inadequacy starts to crest. If the bug for writing isn’t crushed by these initial falters, seeking out improvement is the next logical step. This goes for most things, not just writing. If you enjoy playing pickup basketball, you start watching videos on proper shooting form, you start consulting the fellow player at your gym, and so on. With most skill-based activities, the desire to improve accompanies. You want to reexperience the rush of finishing a good poem or hitting a corner three. Ultimately, the goal for most is to develop their talents to feel comfortable and consistent in achieving these goals within their discipline.

The writers I consulted for my own improvement gave wonderful advice on several topics, but the most reliant answer I received was “write every day.”   Several blog posts across the internet have discussed the practice of writing daily; I’ve heard this advice from teachers and mentors, and even read peer-reviewed studies demonstrating its value. The recommendation seems endless, especially from the pantheon of celebrated writers we’ve come to admire. 

Now armed with this advice, I started out headstrong, trying to outwork bad habits and stumble upon something meaningful. Now, as you might imagine, this can’t last long and will only escalate the initial self-doubt and impatience that led the initial advice to be sought out. I was stumped. “Why can’t I be like them”, “when will I start writing good pieces” “is there a shortcut to circumvent all this nonsense”? 

Naturally, my writing practice started to atrophy, and the initial motivation was replaced by resentment. The joy of writing started to bitter, and I started to convince myself that a more sporadic practice would ultimately produce the best results. “Only strike while the iron is hot” became my mentality, and this seemed to work for a brief period of time, but eventually, the plateau set in, and the improvement saw little to no return. I pressed on in this haphazard fashion for some time until I resolved to try the daily writing practice again. Obviously, being in school within an English department you are almost always writing, but the kind I wanted to generate was of a different function; it was for me and directed by me, serving the purposes I’d given it. 

In my second attempt at daily writing, I started to identify the reason for my shortcomings. It all came down to value. My analogy was all wrong. Writing wasn’t like basketball or a muscle to be strained and regrown; writing was much more about feeling the words make connections, and ultimately, defamiliarizing yourself so that realization might blossom. I was treating my daily writing practice like a kind of rat race in which speed, brute force, and sheer will produce the most satisfactory results. Authentic, touching, and generative writing doesn’t operate within these parameters; instead, fruitful writing practices arise from slow, meditative, and intentional habits. The connection between mindfulness and writing daily started to crystalize, and I found that when I asked myself, reflexively, “how do feel about writing today?” “Why do you want to write today? Surely no one else is holding you to?” These types of mental check-ins held my formed practice in place and allowed me the comfort and flexibility to avoid gaging “improvement” on a critical scale, and rather accessing how I felt about the writing. It was important to not judge these thoughts or try to correct them at the moment. Rather, it seems to be more helpful to react gently to yourself. If on that particular day, you don’t know why you are writing, or are unsure of its quality, simply noting this feeling will avoid the pitfalls of crippling self-doubt or, adversely, self-importance.

When it comes to sustaining a daily writing practice, I believe finding the value of your sessions to be the key factor in staying healthy and motivated. Observing your modulating disposition without seizing on the corrective measure furthers this daily routine and makes the whole thing an exercise filled with patience, grace, and generosity. Now, your daily writing practice doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s and can truly be of any substance. If you start keeping a dream journal, or you have a penchant for sketching dialogue, or perhaps you find solace in synthesizing research: all these ventures can fall into daily practice. Depending on your comfort level, you can switch genres each day or begin a months-long project. For those who are just curious about starting a daily writing habit, I would encourage keeping a gratitude journal in which you jot down a sentence or two about what you’ve been thankful for throughout the day. The goal for this exercise is not only to check-in and keep perspective, but also to limit the scope so that you might work on composing the most attuned sentence to capture your thankfulness. Keep it up for a few months and look back to see not only all the many things you’ve appreciated, but also the gradually improved quality of your writing. 

Writer’s Block in the Time of Covid

Spenser Secrest, Writing Consultant

            One feeling that I deal with frequently during the ongoing pandemic is one of stasis.  While there is certainly some optimism during this time, as COVID-19 vaccines continue to be distributed, there is still, for me, an overwhelming feeling of being stuck in one place, despite the fact that I am taking graduate courses and progressing through UofL’s English M.A. program.  To be clear, I understand that being on lockdown and the precautions that are in place are for everyone’s good, including my own, but this does not mean that these preventive measures make life easy.  For me, it feels as though life has been perpetually on hold.  On the worst days, this static feeling can make it hard to do anything, whether it be schoolwork or something to relax, even something as simple as streaming something online.  Needless to say, this feeling of stasis has led to writer’s block, both for my academic writing assignments, as well as for my own creative writing.  As counterintuitive as it may seem, having little to do because of the pandemic has actually led to me having a reluctance to start academic assignments and any creative projects. 

            When people discuss writing, of any kind, you often hear phrases about only writing “when inspired.”  For me, this has never been my own approach to writing.  I’ve often found that actually starting the writing process leads to inspiration.  However, with the feeling of stasis, it is easy to want to do nothing, rather than intellectually exert oneself by writing, whether that writing is for an academic assignment or for leisure.  I’ve even found getting motivated to brainstorm ideas for a paper to be difficult, despite the fact that this phase of the writing process does not involve any actual writing. 

            I often reflect on, or else in some way, incorporate past experiences in my own creative writing.  However, the pandemic has led, to me, to there being almost nothing that I would want to write about or include in my writing.  I’ve found that I write best when I have reflected on something after it has happened, as events are often too difficult to process when they are actually happening.  For me, it makes more sense to think about and analyze something thoroughly before writing before writing about it, as opposed to writing about something with your gut reaction immediately after something has happened.  However, as the pandemic is still ongoing, any insight that can be found by reflecting on it is limited. 

            In terms of my writing for classes, this is something that will, obviously, have to get done, eventually. However, due to the pandemic, I’ve found myself procrastinating more than usual and not enjoying the writing process nearly as much as I had in the past. While every semester brings papers that are not enjoyable to write and that may make one more susceptible to procrastination, it seems as if every paper, even minor papers that are not graded as rigorously, take as long to begin writing as the more difficult and less enjoyable papers. I’m inclined to attribute this to the fact that the pandemic has led to there being less sense of accomplishment after writing something. For example, whether I finish writing one of the most difficult papers of the semester or the last minor assignment for the week, there will be little that I can do in my personal life afterwards, due to the pandemic limiting all of our usual activities. 

Although the precautions that are in place, due to the pandemic, are for everyone’s health, they have not contributed to productivity, at least for me. While both academic and creative writing can be difficult to begin, it is worth noting that writing can be easy once the process has been started.  While it can especially difficult to get motivated to brainstorm ideas for a paper, as there is no visible product after doing so.  However, this part of process should not be discounted, as it may lead to enthusiasm for the writing project. Finally, if the outbreak of COVID-19 has led to other people experiencing writer’s block, perhaps there will be a plethora of written material produced once the pandemic ends, as going back to normal and the optimism that will come may inspire people to write. 

How We Talk to Write: Reflecting on the Speaking/Writing Connection

Nicole Dugan, Assistant Director

For the last several years, I’ve spent most of my days talking about writing. I’m often speaking with writers in writing center sessions or with students in my first-year composition classes, but sometimes I’m talking to myself. While working on this post, I spent the first hour or so talking through my ideas as I mapped them on paper and reading aloud sentences as I drafted them. Without all of this speaking, the writing process often feels like slogging through wet cement for me. Lately, I’ve been fixated on this connection between the written and verbal. Writing and speaking are irrevocably intertwined for me and for all of us. 

Writing cannot happen without speaking. Language is expressed through the modes of speaking and writing, and these modes “are mutually informing” (Sperling 53). This connection isn’t always underscored in the teaching of writing, and often we develop resistance towards writing because we see these two modes as disconnected from one another. Most of us do not speak in perfect Standard American English, and our dialects reflect our rich, diverse cultures and backgrounds, not the uniform language we read in scholarship. As we enter academia and professional spheres, we are often told we cannot write like we speak. This repeated maxim–which tells us we must learn to write in a way that is not of ourselves–introduces anxieties and tensions into the writing process, leaving writers of all backgrounds feeling conflicted and overwhelmed. Our languages are so closely tied to our identities that writing can sometimes feel like a challenge to our self-expressions, especially in an academic setting. 

I often turn to speaking when writing is challenging. Sometimes it’s because of a deadline or assignment or maybe writer’s block, but regardless of cause, talking helps me gain insight and inspiration. I often see writers experience this, too, as we work together in sessions. While talking about writing is a cornerstone in the writing center’s mission and work, we don’t always make this connection explicit in sessions or in our own writing processes. Traditional face-to-face sessions and live video chats rely on the verbal in order to develop the written. (Even asynchronous written feedback takes on a conversational tone.) Writers are encouraged to talk through the assignment, their progress, their concerns, and how they feel about the writing. Even though the goal is to improve writing skills and the text at hand, we leave the page behind to just talk first. We read drafts aloud during sessions to create a space of aural collaboration in discussion and revision. All of this talking helps to build, clarify, and revise ideas and communication. Deemphasizing the physical text allows us to bring attention to speaking’s role in the writing process. This invites writers to explore and discuss their writing verbally without the anxieties and tensions of writing “correctly” or even accurately. 

When we embrace the connection of writing and speaking, we begin to feel more liberated in our writing and the writing process. If we set aside the (un)spoken conventions and expectations we’ve picked up over years of writing instruction, we may find that inspiration, ideas, and understanding are not as lacking as we once believed. One way I do this in my own process is by talking out loud about my writing projects and recording these one-way conversations. There is no blank document and blinking cursor taunting me, and most importantly, this method helps me forget about the rules. I’m not slowed down by an inner critic telling me I can’t start sentences with conjunctions, cringing at misspellings or missing words, or asking me if what I’m talking about accomplishes the goal. Instead, I’m able to ramble and explore to my heart’s content. Currently, there are at least ten voice recordings on my phone pertaining to various undrafted and unfinished writing projects from the last several months. There are essay topics, outlines of research projects, and snapshots of creative writing sparked while driving home. I can listen to myself speak in colloquialisms, contractions, and fragments. Some of them are great, and some of them aren’t so great, just like with my written outlines and drafts. These recordings and their content sound like me though, unfiltered by the constraints of academic prose and audiences. Academic writing can feel defamiliarizing, as it often asks us to take on a different voice for the sake of a text and its message. Listening and talking to ourselves and others about writing helps to center our voices and can remind us that our words and ideas are always ours, no matter the context or guidelines. 

Sperling, Melanie. “Revisiting the Writing-Speaking Connection: Challenges for Research on Writing and Writing Instruction.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 66, no. 1, 1996, pp. 53-86. 

What We Can Learn from Dogs: Resource Guarding and the Writing Center

Emma Turner, Writing Consultant

For the past six months, I have been raising a puppy—my “quarantine puppy,” if you will. During this same time period, I have been doing my best to read materials on how to train said puppy. Teaching and growing with my dog has been a wonderful, terrible, stressful, informative, and rewarding experience, and, surprisingly/weirdly, I have found that some of the strategies I have learned in helping her personality develop translate to understanding processes of writers who visit the Writing Center (myself included, if not emphasized). 

One of the behaviors that can develop as a dog grows older, and that I have done my best to curb with my doggo, is resource guarding. Resource guarding is when a dog becomes particularly aggressive and protective around an object that they see as holding value. That object could be food, a toy, a sock they stole from their owner’s roommate (not that my dog has EVER done that), or a place like the dog’s bed. The dog sees value within whatever object it chooses to guard. It believes that it owns that item and will do anything to protect it even if this means hurting other animals or its human, but in order to train a dog out of such behavior, one must learn to engage in a practice of patience, understanding, and trading. To overcome such behavior is an act of collaboration between the dog and its owner. It is a give and take of allowing oneself to be vulnerable and allowing another to be near or a part of something of value. 

Working with writers is a similar process when thinking about the development of the writing consultation. In a sense, writers resource guard their work. As a writer, even if we dislike what we have written, at some level, we are proud of it. I say we because I am a writer too, and to pretend that I would not defend, protect my own work (even the worst of it) would be hypocritical. To accomplish the feat of generating a product for an assignment is impressive on its own no matter the final quality. Because we are proud of what we have written, we want to protect it. Even if the feedback we are receiving about the draft is helpful and positive, it is normal to feel conflicted about the revision of a creation that we are already content with. But, as a puppy learns as it overcomes the habit of resource guarding, sometimes sharing the things we value most can yield the biggest reward.

Collaboration in a writing consultation is key. Although the responsibilities of the consultant and the writer may differ within a session, three manners in which a mutual performance is integral are patience, understanding, and generative discussion. Through a live chat or written feedback session, these behaviors primarily take place through discussion of the draft and the writing process as a whole. Being patient with each other—the writer with the consultant and the consultant with the writer, making an honest effort to understand the point of view and the opinion the other offers on the content and form of the paper, and engaging in a conversation that aims to create a friendly, intellectual environment that fosters further development and exploration of the writer’s project are fundamental to creating a space where writers do not feel the need to actively guard their work. Instead, a collaborative effort can yield a product unshackled by the crushing weight of self-conscious and defensive writing. Collaboration and trust can set our words free. 

No Expectations: Writing for Comfort

Cat Sar, Writing Consultant

Late last night, I realized that in my cupboards, I had all the ingredients to make my mom’s pumpkin bread recipe. Naturally, today my kitchen is dusted in flour, and I may have ingested too much raw batter. But it’s not just the smell or taste of my favorite sweet treat, it’s the warm and comforting memories attached to each sensation. Verging on a year into the pandemic, most of us are still looking for comfort, and while I can’t imagine a world where I get tired of pumpkin bread, it doesn’t hurt to introduce a new coping mechanism every once in a while. 

Lately, I’ve sought comfort on the blank page. In the past, after I finished writing for others—school, work—the last thing I wanted was to find more words on my own time. I’ve also never been able to commit to writing regularly. But now there is only time and journaling’s appeal grows. 

Removing unnecessary expectations is an essential first step. You don’t have to be Carrie Bradshaw or Lady Whistledown—write anything! Sometimes you may feel particularly verbose and have the time and energy to really craft a story, while if you’re like me, lists, impressions, important words and phrases can also satisfyingly capture moments.

You are writing for yourself—there is such freedom in this! Write when you want and how you want. You might create a practice, or you might be scrawling notes at 3 am when you can’t sleep. Let this writing serve you where you are. We spend so much of our lives writing purposefully, which is necessary and helpful, but on your time, in your creative space, no such impetus need exist. There is no rubric or pressure, and best of all, no revision! 

On the other hand, this freedom allows for as much structure as you need or desire. I didn’t conjure up the pumpkin bread that’s baking in my oven without a recipe; a prompt might be the spark of inspiration you need. Here’s a few to get you started:

  • Pick a big idea: love, time travel, movies based on novels about dogs, for example. Set a timer for at least five minutes and write using the big idea as a starting point. 
  • Pick a person that you know and write about them as if they were a character in story. 
  • Find a word in the wild: the first interesting word or phrase you see (i.e. flyers, billboards, maps, signs, ads, art) is your starting point.

The Pandemic Project offers expressive writing information and exercises and Bullet Journaling is a cute and concise trend. 

Remember too, that journaling is similar to free-writing and brainstorming. You may write about one thing in order to realize or reach another, or start a thread and not complete it. The blank page belongs to you and the stakes are what you make them. 

Plus, who doesn’t love that new journal feeling? 

Writing in a Time of Uncertainty: Negotiating Anxious Thoughts Translating to Anxious Words

Emma Turner, Writing Consultant

Writing is hard. Most who write will tell you that. Those who say it is easy are either brilliant or lying. Writing is scary. Learning to write is often a series of trial and error, drafts, coffee, and tears (or that last part could just be me). Writing is vulnerable. When we write, we expose our innermost thoughts and feelings, and we reveal the inner workings of our mind. Writing is a process familiar to many of us, yet, in times of uncertainty, writing becomes uncertain too. 

Writing is even more challenging when it is done in the midst of social and cultural change. One finding their voice can be drowned out by the uncertainty faced in daily life. Learning to cope with living in a pandemic, living in the midst of necessary and justified civil unrest, and returning to a college campus where everything feels incredibly familiar yet unfamiliar is not conducive to creating one’s strongest work. Over the past several months, a feeling of increasing isolation and doubt has begun to take hold for so many. I’ve noticed even in my own writing the insecurity of current events bleeds through when pen is put to paper (or fingers put to keys, but you know what I mean). Mental health has become a feature we are acutely aware of. It is incredibly difficult to create a divergence between the anxiety of the everyday and the anxiety of writing. Despite the stress associated with the act of writing, it can serve as a practice that moves beyond the standard social construction of the act. Writing can be a tool that is incredibly reflective of the thoughts and sentiments of its author in a way that is liberating to the writer and impactful to its readers. Because of this, I choose to see writing as a positive instrument to utilize in times such as this when expression becomes a key in communication. I think, too, that this can be shown in many ways. 

Writing has many forms and functions, and there is a multiplicity of ways we can express our feelings through them. Outside of the academy, writing poetry, journaling, creating a piece of fiction you are passionate about—all of these and many more are forms of writing which can be employed. In these forms, one is able to explore their own emotional state and communicate it in a way that is legible to others whether this be through a number of poetic devices or through the experiences of a character. By participating in these artforms, one opens themselves to the possibility that others feel the same way too, and, perhaps, through expression the loneliness and fear that is ever so present can be overcome. 

Academic writing, too, is an opportunity to explore the margins modern society teeters on. Through research papers, personal narratives, and community presentations, we are able to explore the complex relationship between ourselves and the world we live in. Exploration can be demonstrated by researching important social justice issues and expounding on these through academic composition. Experiences within specific communities and as a certain person can be examined through narrative. Presenting relevant, important information through presentation is a subtle form of activism too. Each strategy one may take to address anxiety in academic writing approaches the issue from a different angle. The beauty of this is that there is no ONE way to do things. Ultimately, you must choose what is best for you. 

Although it is difficult to abandon our preconceptions of what writing is and how it traditionally functions, there is a certain power in the understanding of writing as a mode of catharsis and empowerment. In a time where things feel increasingly disconnected, writing is a mode that is universally linked. Largely, writing is an act of kindness. What you say when you write has the ability to impact how someone else views the world—or themselves. Be kind, and share your voice. 

Feel free to let those of us in the Writing Center hear your voice too. 

How a Writing Center Consultant Prepares for the Next Appointment

Writing centers are one of the few places in a university setting where every single Michelle Buntainstudent can be assisted. Every student has to write, and every kind of writing is welcome at the University Writing Center. But, given all the variables that come with working at a university of over 21,000 students, how does a writing center consultant prepare for their appointments?

At the University of Louisville Writing Center, we pride ourselves on our accessibility to every writer we encounter. We have trained, studied, and practiced our skills to make sure that your experience in the writing center is the best it can be. This includes:

  1. Taking a class on Writing Center studies: Consultants take a class that teaches us about writing center theory, ethics, and strategies for the teaching of writing.
  2. Reflecting on appointments with our colleagues and our supervisors: We have formal and informal reflections on appointments with our fellow consultants as well as our supervisors, including the Director of the Writing Center.
  3. Discussing new ways to approach the teaching of writing: We are always sharing new ideas about how to approach our sessions with writers. Our best tips and strategies are often the result of what we have learned from each other.
  4. Staying up-to-date on citation methods: Citation methods can be confusing, especially since they are updated every few years. We study the new versions and update our handouts on different citation styles. Just last week our Associate Director gave a lecture on the 7th edition of APA!
  5. Mentally preparing ourselves before each appointment: Before the day begins, we open WC Online and look over the scheduled appointments. Each appointment form tells us what the writer wants to work on, so we make sure that we are comfortable with addressing the writer’s particular concerns before the appointment. If the writer is working on a kind of assignment or genre of writing that is less familiar, we will do research and ask our colleagues for advice. This preparation helps us begin a session with a good sense of what the end product should look like.

When a session is over and we return to the consultants’ office, we like to share our successful strategies and ask each other for advice. No session goes perfectly, but we take our work seriously and we constantly strive to do better. When you come to the University Writing Center, know that we are prepared and excited to help every writer achieve their goals!

Love, Generosity, and Attention: How Do You Tend to Your Writing?

Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.Rose Dyar

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson: I do?

Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson: I was just describing it.

Sister Sarah Joan: Well it comes across as love.

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson: Sure, I guess I pay attention.

Sister Sarah Joan: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thinglove and attention?

 

Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film, centers on the experiences of a young woman as she goes about her senior year of high school. It’s about growing up and coming to terms with where you are from. It is also, at its core, a film about paying attention. The quote at the top of this post comes from a scene in which the titular Lady Bird reviews her college application essay with her advisor, Sister Sarah Joan, who notices the particular care Lady Bird treats her hometown with in her writing. The devotional attention Lady Bird has paid to a place translates into her writing and helps her to recognize a love that she was not able to name before the writing. Writing, love, and attention— these things are linked. Sometimes we just need a companion to help us to see that. Once that link is made clear, though, it is hard, at least for me, to not think of that relationship each time I sit down to write.

It is no secret that writing can be hard work. Sometimes, it is taxing. Sometimes, it is a struggle. Sometimes, it is just confusing. That is why places like the Writing Center exist. But hard work can also be joyful work. A theory of attention, I believe, can help to make the hard work of writing a practice of love.

Deciding to write means to deciding to attend to a topic or an idea. It requires committing to a process of discovery and showing up for the words that come out of it. There are many ways to begin this process. Maybe for you it starts with a daily journal and a singular prompt. Maybe it looks like a free-writing session that concludes by scanning for the sentence that worked and moving forward from there. Or maybe it’s an outline that helps you to see what you are writing toward. All of these rituals help us to turn our attention to our words, and ultimately, to our ideas.

When we turn our attention to an idea, we have the opportunity to devote our entire selves to it. It’s a lot like intentional presence in sitting with another person. When we do these things, we learn and listen. These are activities that make room for the possibility of transformation.

“Attention,” French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil wrote, “is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I think of this quote often, especially when I am writing or thinking about writing or procrastinating from writing. It strikes a chord with me because of its recognition of the difficulty involved in the desire to pay attention. We try, but it doesn’t always work. So we show up again— a lot like writing. The practice of writing requires attention, so what has captured yours lately? Have you noticed anything special or mundane or strange today? What do you need to say? And, can you write it down?