Challenge Journal: Keeping Up Rituals.

My capstone project is made of up three distinct parts: the “guts” (the research, observational writing, and written argumentative sections), the polished top (the website and the comments section), and the interviews (this is at least what I call them in my head). As I sat down at a library desktop to write a final draft of my “guts” the other day, I found myself completely unable to fall into a flow of writing. Everything I typed felt forced and clunky. I had allotted myself three hours that Saturday afternoon to do this, and, after thirty minutes, I had written a measly 300 words.

So, I reverted back to an old tactic that I used to do in high school and earlier in college: I turned off the computer and sat down at an empty table, promptly spread out all of my print sources, opened my “capstone” notebook, and began to write by hand. I ended up writing five pages front and back and, for the first time in a while, I felt like I was really flowing with my writing. I even drew out boxes and sketched pictures in places where I felt like I would use my multimedia elements in tandem with my writing on the website. When I was writing by hand, it felt like I had a greater degree of freedom to sketch out all of the elements of my project, which was helpful in creating a sense of unity that I had been missing.

I got a hand cramp after about two hours, so I stopped my writing. My goal is to finish up that “final” draft this Tuesday night (aka tonight!) and have it integrated to a site by Thursday evening. That way, this weekend can be spent editing the soundbites and maybe getting one last interview with a key faculty member. I might just continue writing that last bit of the draft by hand because the first attempt went so well. I also think that the process of typing up my written work, which I will also have to spend a fair amount of time doing, will act as a built in revision/proofing time (which I already usually have to force myself into doing anyway).

Thinking back on Twyla Tharp’s “Rituals”, I feel like I could have been more conscientious about maintaining some sort of steadiness in my project process. I wish I had thought to go back into my “bag of tricks” in terms of writing a little sooner, because this particular device worked so well. This semester has been very uneven in terms of time commitments (what with Porgy and Bess rehearsals and the opera and *gasp!* requirements for others classes) so going to the same place at the same time in the same way wasn’t always feasible for me in terms of when and how I was going to work on my project. That being said, I think I could have picked something a little smaller scale or portable that would help me get in the zone- and therefore prevent me from wasting time staring blankly at a new Word document page.

 

Regardless of the timing, I’m glad I had a breakthrough in terms of getting over the productivity slump that sometimes happens near the end of projects. My only question now is whether or not you all have also found some new (or old!) ways to inspire your brain to make the final push and fall back into a motivated workflow. Did any of you maintain rituals that you made at the beginning of the semester? Let me know!

Challenge Journal 3: Tactility

At a Christmas party two years ago, I sat across from one of my best guy friends from high school. We were the only people our age at this party, which had always been the case. He was recounting the stories from his second year at Williams College and, with great enthusiasm, his decision making process regarding his double major in History and Economics. He had always been a bookish type, but now he seemed shrouded an earnest professorial glow. He described forty page papers and hundreds of pages of reading – and he seemed genuinely excited. I felt a little twinge of jealousy, because my major didn’t lend itself to finding the perfect study spot or the satisfaction of finishing a complex, historically significant tome.

“Have you declared yet?” he asked good-naturedly.

“Yeah, I went in Voice Performance.”

“Oh yeah!” he said, nodding as he remembered. “That must be cool.”

“Yeah! I mean – I love it…I did add a minor, though- a Minor in Writing?”

“Oh cool! Why?” he leaned forward.

“I guess…I mean I love writing and I want to get better and it…and, I dunno, voice and music doesn’t really lend itself to tactility. Like, you don’t get the satisfaction of holding your work in your hands and feeling the weight of it- it just goes out of you and POOF!”

“‘Lend itself to tactility…’” he chucked. “That’s the most ‘Emily’ way you could’ve said that.”

*

Writing has always been a marker of effort and skill for me. In high school and college, I often enjoyed the moment when you print out an essay or research paper and feel its weight in your hands before giving it away for someone else to hold. I used to think of those stacks (big and small) of paper as a quantifiable and tactile version of my brain power.

But as I went through undergrad, even with the Minor in Writing, I found that my writing took that physical form less and less frequently. Save English 425, which effectively obliterated my print budget, most of my classes in writing have relied on digital writing and multi-modal forms. Although I was grateful for the experience in experimenting in multiple genres and forms, I missed the experience of printing stuff out and feeling my “brainpower”’s weight in my hands.

And now we’re here – at the end of undergrad and the end of Capstone. And, despite my initial intent, I don’t think I am going to get the satisfaction of holding a giant research paper in my hands on the last day of class.

But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing?

My project has, at its foundation, remained the same: exploring the relationship between classical vocal music, diversity, and our voice curriculum at Michigan. It has morphed, though, from a research paper to a journalistic article to (now) a sort of argumentative/opinion piece on why representation matters in our program and how diversity can, perhaps, be the thing that “saves” classical music as a whole. I went from trying to focus on and explain all of the theory surrounding diversity and representation in music to focusing more on how to conduct a palpable change in the program. A change people could hold in their hands – something that goes beyond scholarly articles (but still needs to the articles to substantiate the argument!).

My project always centered around interviews and the effects of our program on the people. As I conducted my interviews and learned more about the nut and bolts of our curriculum from faculty, I felt compelled to involved even more people in my project. Seeing project’s like Laney’s and Ashley’s – who directly ask on their website for users to share their stories – inspired me to include my own “comments” section on my website.

But, as I continue to wrap up the project, I want to go further. This brings me to the “question” of this very roundabout blog post: should I include a link to a petition which states that there should be at least two African American composers listed in the “American Song” section of our requirements? This request is the palpable/tactile action I landed on based on what I know about American art song, my research in identity theory and representation in classical music, and my interviews with students and some faculty. Would it be too ballsy? Would I be overstepping the boundary of a student? What do y’all think?

I may print out some version of my Capstone so I can hold it in my hands. Or, I may just throw a pizza party for all my interviewees and give them all a hug; or print out a revised version of a Michigan SMTD undergraduate voice repertoire sheet – hopefully somewhere down the line – that includes more than just the names of old, dead white guys. I have a feeling those few words and/or those embraces will feel a lot more satisfying than a stack of my own words alone.

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?

Challenge Journal 1 – Rituals

I feel relatively fortunate to have studied music throughout my college career for a variety of reasons – one of those reasons being that it is a discipline steeped in ritual. Sure, some of those rituals are antiquated (women being required to wear dresses for choir concerts), but some are practical and even aid in providing an overall pleasurable experience for the audience and performing (warming up before each performance and bowing to acknowledge and thank the audience after a each performance). It’s not looked down upon or questioned if you have a specific set of ritualistic activities as a musician; no one is going to question you if, before you begin practicing, you massage your jaw muscles while humming a single note or lean against the wall with your eyes shut forcefully exhaling for 60 seconds. As long as everyone knows that you are performing the ritual for the betterment of your music, it’s accepted and widely encouraged.

 

So for writing, which is a much more private enterprise, devising a ritual seems a little trickier. On one hand, the act of writing is much less physically demanding than the act of singing – so I feel less inclined to “warm up” my body in a ritualistic sense. That being said, the act of writing requires about the same amount of focus as music practice (for me personally). After almost four years of ungrad, I know for a fact that I am better able to focus after partaking in rigorous physical activity – like running or swimming. I also know that I cannot do work in my own home – just like I need to go to the practice hall on North Campus to get any productive singing done. In regards to my writing ritual, then, it seems that I have two “macro” guidelines: prior physical movement and travel.

 

I am thinking it might be helpful for me to find a specific spot on campus far enough away from my apartment where I have to walk at least 10 minutes – so I am getting at least a little physical movement in before sitting down to write.

Eportfolio Reflection (or: It’s the Final Countdown!)

At the close of this semester, I think I can safely say that the eportfolio was one of my favorite projects of any class I took. Part of that might be because I didn’t procrastinate on it, instead I chipped away at it for a number of weeks. I kind of used it as a “break” from other, more intense homework.

Wix was a great platform. I was very concerned with professional, no-nonsense presentation and I think I achieved that with the Wix formatting tools (with no coding involved!). There were a few aesthetic things I had some issues with, like choosing a background and whether or not I wanted everything on the website to be accessible via the main menu, but I eventually figured all of that out (and I know that I can change them with relative ease).

I think the biggest thing I want to continue working on is content. If I plan on using this website professionally, I want to showcase a larger breadth of my work. That hinges on writing more, of course. Also, and this is a smaller issue, I want to include my professional headshot in my About Me. Right now, my face is kind of obscured.

Learning how to make my own website has been a great experience! I plan on referring back to this portfolio for future projects.

Here is said portfolio:

http://14eacotten.wix.com/emilycotten

Unsolicited Advice

I love giving advice. I think I love it because it makes me feel like I’m doing something proactive in this messed up, unpredictable world. Even if the person I am advising doesn’t take the advice, I still feel like I did something that helped the situation. Of course, that may be overestimating my impact. Regardless:

I would advise anyone who is excited, confused, enticed, or remotely interested in writing to look into pursuing this minor. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about writing when I walked into class at the beginning of the semester. Boy, was I wrong! This class challenged my perspective on what it means to be a writer and what the act of writing entails. Three ideas that lead to that change are listed below:

1. No piece is ever finished: you can repurpose or remediate any piece of writing. There will always be something in a piece that may need some tweeking or restating because the context and audience will change. It might have a grade on it, but a paper can always be reworked to fit into a tighter, or larger, niche.

Something that goes along with that…

2. Do not fear revision: I used to hate revising. I figured if I wrote a piece what I had in my head was good enough at the time and would be good enough to be shown to the world. In my mind, once something came out of my mind it was fixed; there was no way to rethink it. Well, I was WRONG. REVISING IS SO IMPORTANT! I cannot stress that enough. Through this class, I learned that it’s okay if your drafts are terrible and your idea may change from beginning to end product. No one will ever write a perfect first draft (if they say so they’re liars), so don’t put pressure on yourself.

3. Writing is fun: It’s true: writing can be fun. School tends to suck the fun out of a lot of things, but Writing 220 forced us to relocate that fun. We were constantly encouraged to go outside the box, to disregard typical form, and take risks. We were also reminded, many times, not to worry so much. I think U of M kids actually have a really hard time with that last one, and it was refreshing to be reassured that, yeah, we’ve got a handle on this, so don’t freak out.

Hopefully these points can help guide you on your journey through the minor!

Goals

My goals for Thanksgiving break were as follows:

  1. Read two books
  2. Write some stuff in my journal
  3. Work on editing my podcast for the Remediation project
  4. Get 10 hours of sleep a night

What I did over break:

  1. Binge watch the new Netflix original serious Jessica Jones
  2. Eat my weight in stuffing
  3. Let my computer die and used that as an excuse not to get any work done

So, I’ll be doing a lot of writing in the coming weeks. And a lot of staring at my computer as I attempt to assemble a stylish, professional, and hip eportfolio. And editing. I have a lot to do.

The biggest and most intriguing challenge I’ve been facing in regards to my Gateway writing is how to integrate myself into my podcast. This might seem a little odd, since it’s my podcast and I facilitated all of the interviews, but I feel like anything I have to say in comparison to the wise words of my mentors would be irrelevant or redundant. I feel like I need to strike a balance between conversational and authoritative. I feel like I achieved that balance in my writing in my Repurposing project, but it’s been more difficult to find it (the balance) in speech.

I think this is because in speech I’m a lot more polarized: I’m either very formal or very informal. I feel like there’s less with me to work with, because I can’t physically manipulate words as they come out of my mouth. My goal for this aspect of the remediation project (the part where I have to speak my feelings into a microphone, without interruption, for multiple minutes) is to not think too much and not try so hard to manipulate words to do exactly what I want them to do. I can always re-record after a bad take. It’s only a rough draft, after all.

Drafting and revision have both been on my mind a lot this semester, especially in relation to this class. I feel like I could go back to anything I’ve ever written and find a new way to present the argument, or structure a sentence, or address the audience. 220 taught me that no piece of writing is ever truly complete. Writing, although very fixed in its physical form, is hardly stagnant. It swells and bends with the perspectives it encounters and hits each mind at a different angle. I think that’s why I’m so eager to revise now, more so than ever before.

Hopefully all of this waxing poetic will result in a halfway decent Remediation draft.

 

Masochistic sentimentalist?

I love Writing 220. I really do. It’s a class that I know I’ll keep in the back of my head as I continue with the minor and throughout my academic career. It has taught me to broaden my perspectives of what writing can be and let me explore a more creative, innovative style of communication.

That being said…

I miss writing big, ‘important’, tradtional papers. I know that sounds masochistic, but it’s true. Finishing a big ol’ research paper and printing it out at 2 am the night before it’s due is one of the most exhilarating feelings the in human experience (at least I think so). I kind of miss those ultra-quantifiable, cut and dry papers that are so traditional alumni from 20 years ago could show you the exact same assignment and they would look the same. Maybe I’m a stick in the mud. Maybe I’m a sentimentalist who is too attached to “old school” writing. Regardless, I wish I had to opportunity to do some good old-fashion, hardcore research and churn out some concise, clean, and effective papers. Of course, I’ll probably be ultra-stressed out and a little miserable while writing those papers, but it’s that feeling in the end that makes it worth it (right?).

Why I Write

I don’t think in words like our friend George Orwell. I am more like Miss Didion, who holds images in her mind and develops stories around them. I write to ground the images and thoughts in my head. For along time, this philosophy resulted in excessively purple prose with very little plot (the pacing was terrible). But, like Orwell says, wanting to write grandiose prose for the sake of the sound of those big words and sweeping sentences isn’t always such a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s imperative to write in a way that may not be technically the most effective, but indulges the writer.

As I’ve written more throughout my college career, particularly in this class, I’ve found that writing is not just a one-time act, but a process. I re-wrote my Repurposing project essay three separate times. The first time was, technically, terrible. But, I got all my word-vomit on the page. With each successive draft, the ideas got cleaner and more finessed. I think that’s another reason why I write: I am able to rid myself of the mess of my thoughts and physically rearrange them until they are in the most optimal, effective form (at least in my mind).

I can definitely identify with Orwell’s point about long-term writing being painful. When I attempted writing a play last year, I was, at times, so paralyzed with my inability to create anything other than complete shit that I felt like I was going to be sick.

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Me, while writing a shitty draft.

But when I do write successfully, when my thoughts translate with relative ease and clarity onto the paper, the feeling is unmatched. I think that makes it worth it.

 

This shouldn’t be so hard: my struggles with audio technology

Okay, I consider myself a relatively tech-savvy person. I know how to use garage band, have dabbled in photo shop, and use programs like Finale and Final Cut with relative ease. But, my god, it took me way too long to figure out the technology I was using for my project.

One of my friends at STAMPS let me borrow two portable microphones for my project. They’re pretty basic: about 5 inches long, 3 inches wide, they come with those squishy things you can put over the actual microphone that makes the sound better (as you can see, I know a lot about microphone terminology). They also have a lot of little buttons, which proved to be a source of trouble for me.

Turns out you have to press the little recorder button twice to actually start recording. Is this common knowledge? Did I miss something? Anyway, I lost about 10 minutes of recording because I thought I only had to press that stupid button once (I’m not bitter though).

Also, before you import the audio clips on your computer, you have to designate files on the little machine! Again, I wasted a fair amount of time frantically searching for my audio while pressing lots of buttons on both the microphone and my computer.

I eventually figured it out, thanks to trial and error and a very helpful phone call to my art school friend (use your resources, people!). If anything, this tech trial taught me that I should set aside time to really finesse my set-up process before interviewing big-wig professors, or else I might end up looking like a fool.

My Set-Up