Capstone Introduction: Broken Glass Fears

While brainstorming a list of discomforts for class at the start of the semester, I came up with one that continued to niggle at me—broken glass. It’s not a phobia or something that plagues me, but I have what might be considered an overreaction to the occasion of breaking glass. I identified it as a strange sort of fear in between discomfort and true fear. Both rational and irrational, physical and psychological. After examining it a bit more, I realized this fear was symbolic in the sense that the feared object (broken glass) represents something fundamentally disconnected from itself (my need for control). I’ve started calling these symbolic fears. After a bit of this mental gymnastics fit for a therapist’s office, I decided I wanted to explore these symbolic fears in myself and those around me. My project is going to explore my own symbolic fears, those of my friends and family, and the general science behind where our anxieties come from.

Initially, my project was meant to be a podcast. However, I quickly adjusted the form to be a series of linked essays. I wanted to try podcasting, and I felt I could get great interview clips of friends and family. But, at the end of the day, I wanted to craft a piece of written, not spoken, prose. I have been preoccupied with writing short stories in the minimal free time I have for pleasure writing. And while I don’t see a feasible way to disseminate this material into a short story, I felt a series of smaller essays would give me the freedom to use my voice in the same way. I have long enjoyed the works of essayists like David Sedaris, so I am excited to play with a new form I have largely admired but with which I haven’t had much experience.

Blogging About Blogs

I realized last week, much to my own surprise, that I actually read blogs all the time. I don’t actively follow any bloggers, so I’ve never considered myself to be a blog reader, per say. However, when I started paying attention to my online habits while doing some blogging research, I noticed that much of what I read on the internet comes from the blog section of a news outlet or website. Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, and so I don’t misrepresent myself as a savvy, in-the-know person who reads the news every day, I read a lot of clickbait (like almost exclusively). But even most clickbait is posted in blog format, too. These days, everyone from The New York Times to the Kardashians have a blog, so for my third and final experiment for the gateway course, I’ve decided to do a blog post about the ways in which the female body, and subsequently women’s healthcare, is policed by today’s society. Blogs are very much personalized to who is writing them and why. There are probably infinitely many ways to write a blog, but there are some simple conventions that can help your post stack up against all the other cool and distracting things on the internet. So, here are a few steps to making a blog post, which I’ve written in a blog post (so meta):

  • Who Do You Know Here: Much like a frat house, the internet has a constant tide of people coming and going, saying vulgar things, and leaving their messes for other people to clean up. That’s why your mom told you not to trust everything you read online. And that has never been more true than in today’s world, where literally any human can post their opinions for the whole world to see. They don’t even have to use proper grammar or spell check! The audacity. So, when you write a blog post, the most important step is to construct and retain credibility as a writer. Otherwise, everything you say holds no bearing on the reader, as they will deem you to be just another loon preaching into the empty void that we call the internet. This first step is actually twofold, as it includes where you post your blog, and how you write your blog. So, here we go…
    1. Location, Location, Location: As any real estate agent would tell you, it’s all about location. Now, I’m not a real estate agent, but I can tell you that there are some locations on the internet that you would prefer not to explore. That is why your blog post should be positioned somewhere people do want to explore! This might mean being a guest blogger on an already established blog site. Or, you might consider posting on community forums. For example, the blog Feministing has a community forum where anyone can post, and exceptional posts are often featured on the main site. Forums such as this give you a chance to connect with your intended audience, while at the same time giving your post the opportunity for more exposure if it lands a spot on the main page. Where you post is very important for credibility, as it sets the tone for how your work is perceived. If you post on more credible sites, you are seen as more credible. However, if you want to start you own blog, go for it! Just be sure to build an atmosphere of responsible and thoughtful posting, and you’ll be internet famous in no time.

      The not late, but great Jason Derulo reminding you to be mindful of watcha say on the internet (and how you say it). PS it was surprisingly difficult to find a picture of him with his shirt on.
    2. Watcha Say (mmh that you only meant well, well of course you did): As the great Jason Derulo once lyricized, we all have moments where well-meaning intentions go awry. It happens to Jason Derulo, it happens in life, and it happens in writing. The second part of staying credible revolves around how you write your post, which means making a conscious effort to write in a way that will portray your opinion in a clear and concise manner, lest it be misconstrued. Now, blog posts tend to be informal and conversational, so this doesn’t mean you have to write academically in all of your blogs from here on out to build credibility. I touched on this a bit when I mentioned “responsible and thoughtful posting.” Everyone has the urge to throw away their filter sometimes, especially over heated topics, and some of the best writing can come from that type of passion. This is even easier to do on a blog, where you can type up a post in minutes and publish with the simple click of a button. However, if you want to remain credible it is SO important to write responsibly (i.e. use real facts and research when needed), and thoughtfully (i.e. think about how your words might affect various groups, don’t be hurtful or hateful). Doing so will always make for better writing, but it’s even more important when you’re posting on the internet, which has a free, and often unmonitored, flow of thoughts and ideas. Your post could end up halfway around the world in just a few clicks.
  • So, I Heard You Read Mom Blogs: Okay, guys, the cat is out of the bag. Yes, I often find myself reading mom blogs on Facebook. Do they pertain to my life in any way? Most definitely not. Do I still find myself reading Scary Mommy posts on the reg, and laughing out loud? Yes, yes I do. And therein lies the essence of a great blog post. Scary Mommy doesn’t share content that is relevant to me. It doesn’t have writers who represent my current demographic at this point in my life. It doesn’t even have a name that might make me think “well that sounds like something I should read.” No matter, I find myself reading that blog because it entertains me even though I am not the primary audience. In the blogosphere, a post can go anywhere, so having a post that connects to not just your primary readers, but you audience invoked, as well, matters. After all, at the end of the day, I want everyone reading my blog post, not just the people who already agree with me.
  • It’s Nothing Personal: Blogs are, in essence, just a more polished, public version of their authors. Perhaps this is true to some extent with all writing, but the casual nature of a blog exacerbates this phenomenon. There are, of course, more formal blog posts out there. However, as a whole, blog posting is characterized by discussing topics in a very human way—much like the manner in which a conversation is held. Nowadays, there is an ever-expanding network of blogs covering everything under the sun. Seriously guys, there is a blog dedicated solely to avocados (it’s called The Scoop Blog, and I would check it out for some wonderful avo recipes). But they’re all strung together in the same genre by the way they are told as a personal narrative. In many lifestyle blogs, posts are often a bit like a confessional, where the writer admits their missteps, and then shares what they have learned through their imperfections. Blogs can be comedic, honest, touching, and everything in between. But the best ones have a personal touch, and make you feel like you’re right there with the writer, having a good chat. Write whatever it is you have to say, be that a blog on fashion or female healthcare, in a way that is aggressively “you.” Whatever your personal style may be, find it and hold on to it for dear life, because writing for all the internet to see might be a bumpy ride, folks.

The Art of the Podcast

Recently, in an effort to pass my time in some way other than listening to my trash music, I’ve been tuning into a lot of podcasts. Walking to and from class, eating dinner, laying in bed—it’s probable that I’m listening to a podcast. Some of them have stuck more than others. When I listened to “S-Town”, a series by Serial and This American Life, it had me hooked for a solid week as I diligently listened to the whole thing. “Radiolab” is my go-to for a seamless crossbreed of interesting topics and educational, well-researched content. “2 Dope Queens” is my guilty pleasure. And for my next experiment, I have decided to try my hand at my own podcast. I want to make one on women’s access to healthcare in today’s current political climate. I’ll touch on recent legislation, common misconceptions about things like birth control, and hopefully interview some cool people. So, what makes a podcast a podcast, and, more importantly, what makes a podcast capture the listener’s attention? After listening to so many podcasts, gaining a respect for the genre, and wanting to create one myself, here is a (messy, not by any means fully inclusive) podcast formula.

  1. A (presentation of the) Topic That Makes People Tune In: The first stop in any sort of writing is finding your topic. That part is pretty self-explanatory. So, quick, go figure out what you want to talk about. Back? Okay, good. People make podcasts on anything and everything, so this isn’t to say that you can’t make a podcast on a certain topic. In the world of podcasts, there is no topic I have yet to find untouched. It is one of the affordances of the genre—people love to talk about stuff, even taboo subjects. However, the most crucial step in making a podcast is to present a topic in a light that makes it listenable. As a genre, podcasts rely primarily on the aural mode. If you approach a podcast in the same manner as a research paper, your listeners will have your podcast paused within the first two minutes. Listeners want snappy lines and easy listening, but they also want to feel engaged and informed. Obviously, with an entertainment-oriented podcast, listeners want more of the snap and wit. And, with an educationally oriented podcast, listeners want more of the informational aspect. However, for the genre of podcasts as a whole, there seems to be a general expectation that there will be some intersection of information and entertainment. It’s no small task. So, you need to focus on how to approach your topic in a way that meets that intersection. Give the people what they want! Delve into your topic in a way that showcases both the breadth and depth of the topic at hand. Make them want to listen—whether it is about a new scientific finding or a funny life story.

  1. Are You a Dope Queen or a Mad Scientist: Alright, you have your topic and you know what you want to say, but you need to decide how you’re going to say it. Every podcast has a distinct tone, and some tones lend themselves better to certain subjects. “Radiolab,” for example, usually tackles science-based topics. While the hosts are chatty and friendly, they retain a degree of professionalism that is expected when talking about sometimes serious subject matter. On the flip side, “2 Dope Queens” is like listening to someone chatting in my living room. There is a whole spectrum from highly professional to overtly casual, and everything in between. Different podcasts curate different tones that fit their personal style and subject. Decide on the feel that you want your podcast to have, and stick to it. 

    PSA: We’ve all been there, but don’t be this guy. Not in your podcast, and not in life.
  2. Make the Big Words Count: Everything in a podcast boils down to what you say. Yes, that is true about any text, but podcasts rely so heavily on someone to simply talk you into being entertained, and into understanding a topic better. With a hard text, if you don’t understand something once you can reread it as many times as you want. With a podcast, most people won’t rewind several times if they don’t catch your drift—they will simply miss the point. Pay careful attention to the linguistic mode in your podcast. Word choice, and the delivery of your ideas in a way that is easily digestible to the average listener, can make or break your podcast.
  3. Shut Up and Listen: Let’s be honest, no matter how interesting the subject, I doubt people want to hear you yammer on alone for twenty or sixty minutes. I mean, I don’t even want to hear myself talk for that long. Take advantage of your resources or go digging for them if they aren’t readily available. Cut to sound bites of relevant information or clips of audio videos. Splice in fun sound effects or music. INTERVIEW people! The best podcasts I have listened to (possibly all of them, if I’m thinking back correctly) involve interviews with other people. These don’t have to be formal interviews, it could just be chatting with another person about your topic. Half of “S-Town” was the podcast host having phone and in-person conversations with various people connected to the story he was reporting on. And that is truly what made me connect to the podcast and keep listening. Even though we think of podcasts as aural, this is largely where the spatial mode comes into play. Organizing your music, clips, interviews and other fun stuff in a way that is seamless and cohesive will amplify the value added to your podcast.

A majestic mountain goat–I’m sure you would listen to a podcast named after him.

5. A Solid Name: Okay so you have this amazing podcast and you’ve fine-tuned it and you just know the world has to hear it. Well, with the exception of podcasts directly recommended to me by friends, guess how I pick my listening material. Yes, you got it—the title! Don’t sell your work short by titling your podcast something longwinded or unoriginal. Stick out and take a risk, because a little humor goes a long way. There are actually podcasts out there called “Pod Save America” and “I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats,” and I can guarantee you people give it a listen just because of the name. I know I did.

Key Lime Pie and Other Multimodal Communications

As I go about my day, I almost never think about the ways in which I communicate with others around me. That’s not to say I don’t think about the communications themselves; I could mull over things I say, and things that have been said to me, for days. However, I can say that, outside of class, I have almost never contemplated whether texts in my personal life use any of the five modes of communication, and why. After spending a few days doing just that, and being a lot more analytical of the things going on around me, here are some things I noticed.

The most traditional text I encountered was the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison. I had read this last year and recently decided to pick it up again. Initially, I would’ve said there isn’t much complexity here—it is just words on a page. That is true to an extent. Beloved, like many books, relies heavily on the linguistic mode. Morrison crafted every word, divided them into paragraphs, and further divided the book into three parts. She gave distinct voices to three narrators, so distinct that you can sense a narration shift simply from tone, and little else. With words Morrison made choice after linguistic choice. This all served to build and deliver the story of a former slave woman and the past that clings to her.

But as I took a closer look, those weren’t just linguistic choices like I had initially assumed. Towards the end, especially, Morrison begins playing with the spatial mode that she uses. At the beginning of one chapter she italicizes and centers a piece of the text, almost arbitrarily. The reader is left to wonder if it is an old poem or song, a memory, or simply a noteworthy paragraph. Later, Morrison again shifts the spacing and indentation style, drawing attention to a specific section. This use of spatial mode allowed Morrison to tweak which sentences readers paid attention to the most. I realized that even more traditional texts often use a variety of modes, even if you have to dig a little to find them.

During this mini experiment, I watched one of my favorite comedy specials for probably the tenth time. Hassan Minhaj: Homecoming King, which is ready to be binge-watched by all of you on Netflix, was by far the most encompassing of my texts. I found all five modes present in Minhaj’s special. By nature, a comedy special or any other performance involves the linguistic mode (he talked for an hour), the gestural mode (he has a very specific body language and expressions that shift as his story does), and the aural mode (there was entrance music, and a carefully curated tone to his show). I could speak to those three alone for days, as I find his performance so wonderful. However, the aspects of Minhaj’s show that really stood out to me, and the ones I will be diving into, were the spatial and visual mode.

Minhaj uses a really unique visual tool for his special that I hadn’t seen before, which is that he played back crucial moments that he was talking about on the screen behind him as animations. So when he talked about riding his bike to prom, dressed in a full suit peddling down the street of his quiet neighborhood, the viewers saw that animated on stage. It made me connect to his story, picture it, and feel the impact Minhaj surely wanted. He also organized his hour on stage in such a way that it gave maximum impact, which I would argue is use of the spatial mode. He worked to build a bond with the audience, got them invested in the story he was weaving, and timed the ending of his bits so that things never got too heavy. Working with the spatial mode is perhaps the foundation of any comedy show, as it is all about timing (aka good organization of your thoughts). By adjusting the modes to fit his story, Minhaj created a really unique and memorable show. It goes to show that there are boundless ways to use modes, such as Minhaj uses the visual mode.

My final, and favorite, mode of communication from this week was a key lime pie from my mom. Before this assignment I would never consider a delicious pie a text to be examined, but now I’ve reconsidered. My mom came to visit me this weekend, and, without asking me or being prompted, brought me my favorite pie from my favorite bakery back home. I would argue that this was a form of communication that made use of the gestural mode—it was an interaction between two people. If my mom had just handed me a pie, or had appeared uninterested when she handed it to me, it would’ve had a much different impact, and been less meaningful. Instead, she made the choice to keep the pie in a bag until she gave it to me so it was a total surprise. When she made it into my house and did give me the pie, she had an I-have-a-surprise-and-you couldn’t-possibly-guess-what-it-is kind of facial expression. That, coupled with her shift in body language from normal to excited, told me that what she was giving me was an expression of thoughtfulness, and I appreciated it all the more.

The world’s best key lime pie that my roommates and I have definitely ~not~ been eating right out of the container.

Looking back, it seems there is almost no end to the various texts in our lives, as defined by Writer/Designer, but it is the modes that are used for such communications that set them apart.