Writer to Writer: Howard Markel

On Tuesday, November 21st, I attended the Writer to Writer Series featuring the accomplished medical history writer, Howard Markel. The event, moderated by the brilliant, feared Shelley Manis, began with an introduction of Howard Markel, followed by a series of questions on his current work and writing processes. The event ended with a few rapid fire questions (which writers would you like to bring to a writing retreat?, etc.) and a Q/A session with the audience.

Howard Markel is downright impressive. Next to him, calling myself a writer doesn’t feel appropriate. After majoring in English as an undergraduate, he went on to receive an M.D. from the University of Michigan Medical School and then a Ph.D. at the John Hopkins University. Beyond the 10+ years in school, his writing accomplishments include self-authoring or coauthoring ten books, 12 years of writing for the New York Times, monthly medical history writings for NPR and the American Journal of Public Health. On top of his “1000 words” he writes daily, he teaches at the University of Michigan. Fun fact, as a teenager, he was paid $5 per joke he wrote for The Detroit News.

He had much to say on the topic of today’s writers and what it means to be a flexible rhetor. Howard prefers to complete his daily writing in his pajamas whilst listening to Mozart– Beethoven is “too intellectual.” When asked what’s wrong with today’s writing, he mentioned the need writers feel to solicit themselves in their work. Respectfully, I disagree Howard, but that’s irrelevant. At the end of the session, he made a statement that made the entire event worthwhile…”Regardless of how bad the times are or how frustrated we are with something, we have the opportunity to write about it.” This statement deserves its own space on a plaque or maybe a feature on some avant garde film. Either way, I’m skeptical that he was the first one to say it.

Howard was delightful to listen to and seemed to understand his audience perfectly–a learning objective for the minor in writing students. He discussed his experiences of writing for an audience of nine people versus a million. The audience he writes for shapes the genre and style of writing he produces. Howard’s consciousness of his own writing lends itself to a variety of intended outcomes that other writers may never achieve.

Howard Markel Literati Talk

Tonight, I went to go see Howard Markel speak about his experiences as a writer and how he came to be the individual he was today. I really loved hearing him talk about his passions, he focused a lot on how he caters to his audience and how he formulates his ideas, all of which amazed me. I did not know anything about Markel going into the talk, as someone who does not study medicine, I was not familiar with his work. I thought his story about his education was interesting and something I had never thought of before. I had never heard of an english major applying to med school, to me it seemed impossible. While he was talking about how he came to become the scholar he is today, I found it interesting how much he touched on his love for writing. In a field where doctors scribble their signature and everything revolves around treating patients and prescribing medicine, I never thought about all the ways writing was involved in the process. It opened my mind to the reality that medical writing is, he writes these books to educate his audience about all the different means of being healthy and what we can learn as readers, about our own body. I really admired the work he did and was very glad I attended the talk this evening.

Resisting resistance

 <<The level and depth of motivation I needed to start

Having finally landed on a specific project idea AND beginning it was an immense relief. Since my project involves a list of 50 items, and then narrative expansions on select items, I was particularly daunted by the whole undertaking. It was like staring at the Mind-Slayer from Stranger Things right in the tentacles and saying that I wasn’t afraid of it. Minus the weird exorcist-esque possessed theme, that’s kind of how I felt before starting.

T setting a deadline for me to finish an introduction to the project really helped get the ball rolling. I don’t know why, but sometimes, unless someone lights a fire under me, I resist starting the writing. It’s awful, and I wish I didn’t need it sometimes, but a deadline generally helps me get going on a piece of writing.

In past writing classes, this hasn’t always been an issue, but I’ve noticed a pattern for when it is: it’s usually when I am personally invested in the project. I think I resist because it means so much that I don’t want to mess it up or disappoint myself if the product isn’t as good in real life as it is in my head.

I seriously need to get over this though and accept that there are shitty first, and second and third and fourth, drafts and just begin writing.

Once I got started, the ball kept rolling, and within a matter of a couple hours, I had an introduction to my capstone, but more importantly, I finally gained a clear sense of what I wanted my capstone to accomplish and why it mattered to me. Based on feedback received from the class, this introduction helped them understand the project better and gave it context. If only I had done this sooner….

Formatting a Website

In my exploration into the world of site building (in which I have minimal experience), I decided, per the suggestion of my peers, that Wix would be the best resource in terms of user-friendliness and creative flexibility. Although I am not entirely set on a specific format, one thing I really enjoyed about some of the sites we explored for a previous class was the infinite-scroll format, in which sections of text were broken up by images. I worry, however, that this format will appear daunting to other users, and that they will lose interest and stop reading. I also don’t think that I want my final project to appear on the landing page, but rather on a separate tab. Another idea I had was to make my final project appear as text bubbles, as if someone was having a conversation via iMessage, which I think would be innovative and engaging, however I’m not sure how difficult it would be to execute this. These ideas are not definitive, but give some insight as to the direction I am headed.

To see my progress, feel free to check out my site

Tracking an Author

I am overdue for an update on the work and writing of Vinson Cunningham. Since I last wrote about him, he has had several new pieces appear in the New Yorker. His most recent cultural comment focuses on the politics of “looking at Barack Obama,” discussing Obama’s unique role as a visual symbol in America. Cunningham takes a pensive approach in examining the “celebrity status” and legacy that Obama has left behind. He achieved attachment among his supporters by allowing himself to be photographed during intimate and private moments. Cunningham ends the piece with an open-ended question, stating that Trump has already received the same form of attachment without the private photos. Cunningham’s quizzical tone in this article makes it interesting to follow and reflect upon.

Formatting a Website

After looking around on several different free website creators, I have settled on Wix. It seems to be a relatively simple site creator that will allow me to exercise my creative freedom without being tech-savvy. I am still having trouble fully envisioning how I want my website to look. As my final experiment is a podcast, I am less worried about the presentation of text on my site. However, I want the overall feel of the website to be crisp and reflective of the project. Colorism is a topic that rests entirely on appearances, so I have chosen a homepage that will allow me to display several photos. This homepage will hopefully serve as a synopsis of who I am as a writer and what my topic is. The reader will then need to toggle to the next page to find my podcast and its transcript. I want to avoid keeping everything on one page to increase website interaction and clarity. I have my domain name now, so all that is left to do is design…

Website Exploration

As someone who is not so technologically savvy, playing around with the Wix website creator is pretty stressful. I am confident that I want my website to be one page with the scrolling down feature. Grief is a complicated topic not just to talk about, but to face altogether. If I were to break my website down into smaller subtopics, it would create a larger sense of distance between the topic at hand and the viewer. Having one page allows the viewer to scroll without feeling the need to take any actions or make any decisions. My only concern with this format is that I want the viewer to be able to reflect on their own thoughts as they read my content. When the website is not broken down into subtopics, the website is at risk of rushing the viewer. I need to find a way to force the reader to slow down as they view my content, while still having the website be formatted in a singular page. If anyone has any suggestions, I would love to hear them!

Website Format

For me, one of the biggest struggles I’m facing when laying out my website is how I want to display the content. Specifically, I have questions surrounding whether I should have multiple tabs to break up my content or if I should have one long scroll down. With multiple tabs, it makes the content more digestible. Additionally, since it’ll contain my own opinions along with objective facts, multiple tabs will let me separate the two and help lend me more authority. However, since I want to tell a story with this piece, that format breaks it up into hard to follow bits. On the other hand, a long continuous scroll preserves the story, except this preservation is at the cost of readers’ attention. Personally, I wouldn’t enjoy visiting a website that is one long scroll down because it makes the text seem endless and uninviting. As a result, I’m still undecided about which avenue to take. If anyone has any ideas, please leave your suggestions below!

Creating a Webpage

I found the process of reevaluating my project format and turning it into a website very interesting. I have my own personal website that I created with all of my recent work in. I knew that creating the site for my final project would be very different, my personal website serves as a compilation of my work experience and design portfolio. My personal site does not have a cohesive message or purpose much like the one I am creating for my project will have. I really enjoyed creating a written out version of my site and sharing it with a partner, I think it really helped me get all my ideas down first before seeing what the host site I choose has to offer. I am going into the tech field and having experience doing information architecture has helped me a lot with creating the site for my project. I chose to structure my personal site in a way that requires my user to click through my whole project, in order to keep them engaged. I aim to have this site function as a gallery or digital version of my life experiences so I am trying to structure the site so that they do not obviously know it was for a class project. I am intertwining my beginning and end pages so they include my personal reflection, and I think my users will be able to easily access it while also still being interested in the content.

Tone of Experiments

I attempted to make the tone of my three experiments as conversational as possible. For my first experiment I created a listicle, and knowing the type of audience that an article like that has, I recognized that the tone needed to be both lighthearted and funny. The tone for my second experiment, my Instagram page, I feel was also fairly light hearted, even just based on the color and composition of the pictures. For my final experiment, I looked away from the conversational tone more in order to write a piece that was a little more serious and informational. However, the more I wrote it, the more I realized that the topic would be much more well received and more easily read if the tone of it was a little more light hearted-so I tweaked it slightly to be less serious.

Each of my experiments had an underlying theme of debunking stereotypes. As I did each one, I wrote a lot about how many peoples beliefs are wrong or misguided. This was another reason that  I took a more lighthearted and conversational tone, because while I was telling people that they’re wrong, I needed to also not come from a position that seemed rude or uninviting.