Challenge Journal 2: Three Planets

I like to think of writing projects as tiny solar systems – all of the elements of the piece are revolving with consistent gravitational force around a central object or theme. This mostly helps to keep me from spinning off into oblivion. It allows me to look at the beginning and end of each paragraph and ask myself “How close is this to the x object?” or “How is this moving the piece closer towards that object?” The object can be a question, a quotation, a figure, or an event – anything, really – as long as it has consistent and significant “gravitational pull” for you. For instance, my Musicolinguistics term paper always remained focused on the difference between “competence” and “performance” – regardless of the musical excerpt I introduced.

This whole thought process tends to work especially well for research papers, because there is always another rabbit hole or counterargument to drift towards. It requires focus and a careful attention to the relationships you construct within a text. I like forcing myself to consider those things when I’m writing (who wouldn’t, though?).

But my capstone doesn’t precisely fit into any of the genres I’ve ever written before: it’s not quite a research paper, not quite a journalistic report, and not quite a creative nonfiction essay. I keep referring to it as a “lyrical journalistic investigation”, which doesn’t exactly roll off of the tongue. Even though I’ve been chugging along with my research, I am very anxious to start writing because my solar system construction may not actually work in this context.

I met with my mentor, Professor Castro, two days before break. She seemed skeptical when I asked her for some of her syllabi so I could explore more articles on identity theory and musical embodiment.

“What angle are you using for this?” she asked. “Are you trying to do more research on embodiment or are you trying to come at it from more of an advocacy standpoint?”

I paused. “I think I’m trying to start a conversation about how things are here and now – so more of an advocacy standpoint, I guess?”

She laughed. “Don’t worry – this is good! Because if you’re coming from an advocacy standpoint, you can use your expertise of being a vocal performance major at Michigan in the piece. No one can reasonably claim your expertise on your own life and experience as theirs – or wrong.” She also mentioned that rooting the piece in the real experiences of my classmates and myself will prevent me from biting off more than I can chew (something I’ve always been prone to doing in my writing).

SO. After that meeting, I figured I have three planets in my little solar system: my personal experience, the narrative/information I’ve unearthed in my research of the literature surrounding the issue, and the narratives I’ll collect “in the field”. At this point, I’m thinking that my personal narrative will act as my sun – if only because no one can dismantle the truth of my own experience here at Michigan as I see it. The stability will be helpful, too, especially when thinking about where to place the massive amounts of information I’m about to encounter in my interviews and videos.

What do you all think about when you’re trying to organize your writing? Do you have some oversimplified cosmic image in your head? What do you do to adapt (or not adapt) that organizational principle when you encounter a new form of writing?

Emily Cotten

Emily Cotten is a sophomore Vocal Performance major at the University of Michigan. She hails from North Carolina and enjoys reading, writing, and blasting opera hits in her car while driving down the highway.

One thought to “Challenge Journal 2: Three Planets”

  1. Hi Emily,

    I love the way you parallel your writing method to galaxy revolutions. I think it’s a great way to remain focused on a central argument and keep yourself accountable to any superfluous material. Personally, I’ll organize my writing around one central question. “What do I want my audience to take away?” If I don’t know the answer to this question before I begin, I’ll write a shitty first draft and have my professor or peer read it and tell me what they think I’m getting at. Once I have defined what I want someone to take away from my project, it’s easy to decide the content that fills the page and cut content that doesn’t.

    You mentioned three elements within your landscape for this project: personal narrative, literature surrounding the project, and field research. I’m not familiar with the specifics of your piece, so forgive me if my questions are redundant – I’m curious how the three elements will configure your piece. Right now, I’m picturing a traditional academic essay with citations. Because your personal narrative is the fulcrum, how will you transition between your inside world and the outside one you’ve discovered? What does this look like in your new genre of lyrical journalistic investigation?

    Best of luck!

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