Into the Sunset

When I was younger, I was really into old Western movies for no particular reason. From classics like A Fistful of Dollars to more recent entires like No Country for Old Men, I was always drawn to the genre. Maybe it’s the tumbleweeds, or the desolate landscape, or the eerie soundtracks, but I found Westerns simply incredibly compelling.

One of the hallmarks of many of these classic Westerns is the ending. Typically, in many of these films, the final shot features the protagonist riding off into the sunset, having successfully overcame their adversaries or or otherwise resolved their conflicts. Seeing that shot at the end of each of these movies was reassuring in a way. It felt like everything was right with the world when a gunslinger acknowledged their success, while simultaneously deciding it was time to move on to a new challenge.

That same feeling has dominated much of my thinking lately. Between finishing the Minor in Writing and graduating from Michigan, it feels as if I, too, have overcame my own obstacles. Like many of those fictional characters, I feel an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and pride in my success. Yet, I also feel a strong sense of sadness and unhappiness. Being the one actually riding into the sunset, I now realize the pain that accompanies leaving or finishing something of real value. Deep down, I ache for the story to go on, for another capstone project to come along, for another opportunity to develop more as a writer at Michigan.

It’s why these past few weeks have been so difficult. I want to keep going–to keep pushing, to take another course, to create another piece, to do anything to prevent that solitary sun from finally setting and from the screen fading to black.

At the risk of assuming another person’s emotional state, I think some of those characters felt the same way. Or, at least, I like to think they do. Really, I struggle to believe that these tough-guy gunslingers can all move on without feeling a twinge of sadness at leaving an entire place behind, regardless of how tantalizingly exciting the future may be. It’s this specific act–the moving-on–that I think reveals much about a person’s character.

For me, my difficulty in moving-on shows how much I’ve enjoyed my time at Michigan and, more broadly, how resistant to change I am. I’ve always struggled to adapt to change, and finishing the Minor and graduating represent massive changes to my life–to all of our lives. Yet, I’m still hopeful that this will ultimately be a positive change. I may be being shoved into the sunset, rather than going voluntarily, but that doesn’t mean I still can’t enjoy it.

Into the sunset we go.

The One and Only “Rabbithole”

It’s almost legendary. They say it can be perilous. Until now, I thought it was some trite saying, rather than a real problem.

I’m talking—of course—about the fabled “rabbithole” and the cliché “down the rabbithole” phrase. While I began my capstone project “The Narrows” with minor concerns about the scope of my short-story choose-your-own-adventure, I am now significantly struggling to determine when and how to conclude my dystopian story. With the sheer amount of ideas and possible twists and turns I’ve sketched out, I’ve found myself deep in the rabbithole.

In grappling with the scale of my fictional universe, I repeatedly have trouble with trying to limit the amount of possible pathways in “The Narrows.” Since I want my final product to have multiple endings, I’ve encountered issues with choosing how to structure the pathways so that decisions are impactful within the context of a short-story—I’m not writing a novel here. It’s a delicate balance, I think, and one that I’m trying to achieve by reviewing some of the dystopian short stories I read during the initial research phase of my project, including Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “2 B R 0 2 B.” So far, I’m still trapped in the rabbithole, but I’m hoping these professional examples can stimulate me to make some concrete decisions about the scope of “The Narrows.”

As I continue updating the story’s pathways and dramatic possibilities, I’m eager to hear any advice or thoughts any of you might have on my situation. If there’s some hidden formula you’ve found to solving this rabbithole dilemma, I’d love to hear it.

Imitation: Truly the sincerest form of flattery?

Recently, as I’ve worked on my capstone project “The Narrows,” I’ve found myself often thinking about imitation. Since “The Narrows” is a fictional, dystopian short-story in the vein of a choose-your-own-adventure piece, I have had to imagine fictional character and institutional names to populate my creative universe. While brainstorming many of these names and basic background elements, I have struggled to balance the fictional constraints of my piece with my overarching desire for it to function as an allegory for political polarization in modern American society.

Specifically, I’ve found it difficult to design fictional political parties for “The Narrows,” given that I am wary of appearing to make a broader progressive or conservative political argument and, in the process, driving away audience members. As much as I want to imitate or draw inspiration from certain characteristics of the Democratic and Republican parties in my project, I also want to craft a fully-fledged and independent universe that is entirely detached from America today.

So far, I have come-up with two distinct political parties with entirely fictional and purposefully verbose names (for example, one is: “The United Covenant of the Everyday Citizen”) unrelated to real political philosophies like conservatism or liberalism. I’ve also created symbols and color schemes for each party (e.g. “three silver boxes” on a gold background) that avoid using any blue or red elements. Although I think this represents a good start, I’m eager to hear any thoughts or suggestions anyone might have for maintaining an objective, impersonal perspective as I continue writing my short-story. I’d also love to hear any ideas for political issues or debates I could include in my piece that are detached from actual contemporary political issues. Ideally, in my short-story I’d like to imitate the American political system without actually appearing to do so.

My Writing Ritual: Brought to you by Spotify and Mighty Good

They say the first step to solving any problem is recognizing one exists. So, here we go. For me, that dilemma is my lack of any sort of formal, organized writing ritual. Don’t get me wrong, I, like many other writers, have a couple personal steps I like to take prior to beginning to write. Still, I’m not sure if those necessarily constitute a ritual in and of themselves, so I’m going to outline a ritual I hope to implement.

As this semester picks-up, I aim to follow a particular warm-up ritual, if you will: I’ll find a relatively quiet, cozy space, grab a steaming cup of coffee or hot chocolate, and throw on one of my Spotify playlists as I sip my beverage. The ritual is not the act of finding an appropriate location for writing nor clicking the olive “Play” button on Spotify, but, rather, the practice of finishing my beverage. In doing so, I “settle” my mind, gather a few preliminary thoughts, and prepare my brain for the perpetual push-and-pull of writing and thinking about writing.

For me, the ritual concludes once I finish my hot chocolate and my all-too brief Spotify playlist fades into the background. In that moment, I feel as if I have completed my “mental reset” and gathered sufficient thoughts to initiate my writing process. The pace at which I drink my steaming Mighty Good latte or hot chocolate is directly connected to my pre-writing thinking—if I sense that ideas are rapidly crystallizing in my brain, I find myself finishing earlier.

As a writer who often grapples with how to begin writing, this ritual will, hopefully, serve as a method for helping me to overcome “writer’s block” or a similar inability to actually start writing. I also appreciate the fact that this ritual is straightforward and doesn’t necessitate significant investment on my part since I think that having a lengthy or exhaustive ritual could discourage me from starting to write, in a way.

Ultimately, I think I’m drawn to this ritual because it builds off of one of my typical pre-writing steps: downing a coffee or hot chocolate. I’ve found it can be difficult, at times, for me to relax my brain and let my writing occur naturally, so distracting myself with a beverage is a sort-of “lifehack” I’ve come to rely upon.

At the end of the day, I’m just excited to try it.

BREAKING NEWS: Grady officially publishes ePortfolio.

Philadelphia, PA – According to recent reports, Connor Grady has officially published his ePortfolio. While earlier reports claimed that Grady was expected to make his ePortfolio live sometime during the early part of this week, the exact timing was unknown. Housed on a Wix website, Grady’s ePortfolio represents a tremendous accomplishment in his writing career thus far.

Discussing his ePortfolio in an interview, Grady explained that he feels he has grown most as a writer in terms of his knowledge of genre and his ability to analyze his own writing. “Through my process of experimentation this past semester, I think I better understand some of the subtle nuances and distinctions between different genres of writing,” Grady said. “I also have a stronger grasp of how to critically question my writing.”

Grady went on to state that he believes he has added to his revision skills during this past semester. “I was able to improve my already-solid editorial abilities through the three experimental phases. That being said, I hope to continue honing my revisionary techniques as I prepare to take the capstone next year.” Grady concluded the interview by encouraging me to visit his ePortfolio and share it with others.

An Open Letter On Open-Letters

Dear 20-year-old Connor,

I remember it vividly. I was driving home from track practice in my creaky black Ford SUV with my brother beside me in the front seat. My mind was focused solely on the stretches of double yellow lines in front of me. And then I heard it.

Confused? That’s fair—I probably could have done a better job of re-telling that anecdote. Regardless, I’m referring to the first time that I heard Jay Z’s rap anthem “Open Letter” on the airwaves. Released in 2013, the song is an “Open Letter” to Jay Z’s increasingly vocal critics, who, at the time, spoke out against his ownership stake in the Brooklyn Nets, his controversial anniversary trip to Cuba, and his new deal with Universal Music Group, among other items. In response, Jay Z unleashes a verbal barrage on his detractors, viciously attacking them for attempting “to start a revolution” with their critiques of his visit to Cuba.

While Jay Z’s “Open Letter” does not conform to the traditional conventions of the open letter genre, it maintains a direct tone similar to most open letters I have reviewed. I mention all of this—of course—because I have chosen to draft an open letter as part of my third and final experiment. As part of my open letter, I will be re-purposing a personally-relevant-style essay regarding the growing issue of academic-related stress and anxiety among high school students. I’ve chosen to experiment in this genre since it affords a significant amount of personalization and informality, yet is not overly casual or colloquial. I intend to use this increased flexibility to establish a deeper connection with my audience. While I have not decided whether I will address the open letter to a 17-year-old version of myself or to one of my high school English teachers, my addressed audience will be only a single individual in the style of other open-letters. Although my addressed audience will be somewhat limited, my invoked audience of any current or former high school student or teachers will be broader in scope.

Since I have only minor experience with this genre, I’ll need to analyze other, well-known open letters to better understand their conventions and limitations before I can begin composing my own open letter.

For the first genre model of my experiment, I reviewed an open letter from Marta, a member of the Brazilian women’s national soccer team, to her 14-year-old self. In the letter, Marta encourages her younger self to “just get on the bus” to Rio de Janeiro so she can begin her national soccer career and continue her fight “against it all – the boys, the people who say you can’t.”

Such straightforward and uplifting statements reveal that one of the conventions of the open-letter genre is its direct, personalized language, particularly if the letter is addressed to a younger version of oneself. Another convention of this genre that I observed in Marta’s letter is that open-letters begin by addressing their audience explicitly: “Dear ____.” This model also demonstrated to me that open-letters can adopt a less formal tone and involve humor—they do not have to be purely academic.

As part of my second model for this genre, I analyzed an open-letter written by a University of California student, Claudia Huynh. In her open-letter, Huynh addresses her future employer, explaining to them that she is not going to “pretend to be anything I’m not just to get a job,” and that achieving happiness—not professional success—is her ultimate goal in life. From Huynh’s frank open-letter, I noticed that the writing in this genre is often extremely candid, occasionally to a fault. I found that this genre often includes a sign-off from the writer, though this aspect is a convention, not a requirement. Additionally, through Huynh’s unique, non-traditional paragraph organization, I learned that, in this genre, the spatial mode of communication is critical and that working in this genre affords increased structural flexibility. However, reviewing Huynh’s letter also revealed to me that this genre is somewhat limited by the fact that open-letters seldom rely upon quantitative data or statistics to support their argument or overarching ideas.

My third and final model comes in the form of an open-letter penned by former Atlanta Braves player Chipper Jones to his younger self. In his letter, Jones offers advice to his teenage self and warns him of the numerous personal and professional issues he will encounter in his career, led by a mental dilemma over whether to take steroids in 1996, as several of his teammates did. From Jones’ honest open-letter, “Letter to My Younger Self,” I observed that open-letters are traditionally titled according to their audience as a “Letter to ____.” While this genre is constraining in its use of titles, it offers significant artistic freedom visually. Through Jones’ inclusion of pictures throughout his letter, I’ve noticed that this genre emphasizes the visual mode of communication. Although Jones’ letter includes graphics, it does not contain any videos or sound clips, leading me to conclude that this genre does not feature any aural modes of communication as a convention.

You can be funny, but probably not Larry David-level humor.

Now that I’ve analyzed each of these models, let’s review the open-letter genre conventions that I observed:
• Direct, personal language
• Begin by addressing audience as “Dear ____”
• Informal (even humorous at times) tone
• Writing is very candid and direct
• Includes a goodbye note from the author
• Heavily uses spatial mode of communication
• Do not (or, at least, extremely rarely) feature numerical data
• Titled according to the audience: “Letter to ____”
• Visual mode of communication emphasized
• No aural modes of communication included

There you have it—the open-letter genre. Now comes the hard part: actually writing it.


20-year-old Connor

All You Ever Needed to Know about the Policy Briefing Genre

I spent the majority of this past summer in Washington, D.C. organizing constituent mail as part of my internship for Senator Bob Casey (D-PA). Most of my days consisted of sorting emails and drafting responses to fuming constituents. While this type of more monotonous work was the norm, I was occasionally given the task of writing policy briefings, which represented a reward for me and a break from reading some of the nasty messages to Senator Casey.

Due to my experience with this genre, I have decided to do a–wait for it–policy briefing for my second experiment.

Composing these briefings gave me a lot to talk about as it relates to genre, and in this post I want to analyze how sub-genres are determined for these different memos that I drafted, similar to the format Amy uses in her blog about music sub-genres.

(Lifelike depiction of Trump’s “maximum pressure and engagement” policy at-work.)

For my first briefing, I had to outline President Trump’s “maximum pressure and engagement” policy toward North Korea. The strategy entails applying increased pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, while simultaneously keeping negotiations open with the Korean nation. Based off the fact that this policy involves another country, I initially believed this briefing falls under the foreign policy genre. But the more statements I read from Trump and Secretary Tillerson, the more I became convinced that this memo is part of the armed forces genre since the Trump administration seems almost in-favor of war with North Korea. With Trump continuing his war-mongering via Twitter recently, I’m inclined to classify this briefing under the armed forces genre.

My second briefing required me to report on Trump’s proposal to expand the size of the navy fleet to 355 ships. While this proposal involves some non-military aspects, like how to finance these ships, it seems to be a straightforward instance of the armed forces genre. A quick Google search showed me that nearly all of the Trump officials who have commented on this proposal are current or former military officers or employees, not to mention that this proposal is entirely focused on improving the military. I think it’s a pretty safe bet to call this briefing part of the armed forces genre.

(Yep. Our President actually tweeted this whole announcement.)

As part of my third briefing assignment, I had to detail Trump’s ban on transgender citizens from serving in the military. This policy is almost entirely split between the armed forces and LGBTQ genres, so I struggled with its classification. Although it is nominally an armed forces policy, this policy is rooted in LGBTQ issues. Upon reading Trump’s tweets about the ban and studying his larger perspective on social policies, it seems to be more of a reaction to transgender citizens overall than transgender soldiers specifically. The policy comes off as Trump’s way of firing back at LGBTQ activists in any way he can, which, in this case, comes in the form of barring transgender individuals from the military. It’s a close-call, but I’d argue that, given this evidence, this briefing falls under the LGBTQ genre.

To me, it’s sort-of crazy that I, then a lowly intern, was entrusted with drafting such multi-dimensional briefings. I’m no policy wonk, especially when it comes to military issues, but I like to think that I’m a decently-informed citizen who can discern some of the differences between briefings, enough to categorize their genres, at least, even if I’m not yet able to do it as cleanly as Amy.

Regardless, this exercise has helped me to hone my understanding of the whole policy memo genre. With this newfound knowledge, as well as my prior understanding of policy briefings, I’ve made a brief guide to the genre:

Policy briefings are written objectively and formally and focus on a single policy.
Above all, policy memos are not written subjectively. Rather, they are composed only according to facts, on-the-record statements, and other bits of verified information. They are drafted from a third-person perspective and describe one policy, rather than a series of policies or a broader strategy at-work. Policy memos also use formal language and do not contain colloquialisms or cliches.

Policy briefings are direct and succinct.
Policy briefings are just that–“brief”–and to the point. Policy memos are intended to be as concise as possible without missing any points or information. They strive for a balance between clarity and brevity, and they often use direct language to ensure this quality. Policy briefings are straightforward and do not mince words, even when outlining more controversial policies.

Policy briefings themselves do not have to fit neatly into a single genre, but they can.
As we saw with my first and third policy briefing examples, policy memos often involve a number of separate yet related genres. This creates a sense of overlap that can cause confusion, but I’ve found that this overlap really only makes for a deeper, more complex genre analysis. On the other end of this spectrum, some policy briefings are more straightforward and easily fall into a single genre, which is acceptable given the unique circumstances surrounding each briefing.

From Textbooks to Thank-You Notes: Describing Multimodality in Everyday Texts

After perusing the Writer/Designer guide to making multimodal projects, I began to view the world around me through a different lens. Rather than simply accept the information presented to me as I progressed through my day, I started to study the various components of these texts, analyzing them to understand the modes at work within them.

While waiting in-line at Starbucks, I observed my first multimodal text, a bag of Starbucks French Roast coffee. The text includes a few modes of communication:

  • Linguistic
  • Visual
  • Spatial

Linguistically, the text uses simple, straightforward language that emphasizes the fact that it is a Starbucks-brand of French roast instant coffee. The author chooses to include wording, “100% Arabica,” that is intended to persuade audiences of the coffee’s quality. The visual mode for this text includes the prominent Starbucks logo, as well as an image of a dark cup of coffee set against a purple background containing a fleur-de-lis symbolizing that the coffee is a French roast. I thought that this design was particularly appealing since it subtly yet effectively conveys the notion of a sophisticated European coffee. Lastly, the spatial mode accounts for the central arrangement of the coffee cup image and the placement of the text directly above and below the image to strengthen its appeal.

I recognized my second instance of multimodal text immediately upon entering the Ross School of Business to meet a friend. The text, an informational kiosk, contains several modes of communication:

  • Gestural
  • Spatial
  • Visual
  • Linguistic

The gestural mode of this text includes several different features–such as “Ross Campus Maps”–that can be accessed through physically touching one of the kiosk buttons. These buttons are used to improve navigation within the text. Spatially, the text is organized efficiently and places the most critical information in the center, with more periphery information on the top and bottom of the text. As my eye was instantly drawn to the center of the kiosk, this arrangement is effective at presenting its content. In terms of its visual mode, the text features several distinct colors and fonts that serve to organize and separate different types of information. In contrast, the linguistic mode of this text contains eloquent wording regarding a General Motors corporate presentation, yet simple phrasing of less critical information, showing that the text has multiple audiences it is attempting to reach.

The third example of multimodal text that I noticed came in the form of a chart in the textbook for one of my political science courses. The text has the following modes of communication:

  • Visual
  • Spatial
  • Linguistic

Visually, this text is defined by a bar graph emphasizing the difference in response rates for emails to state legislators. Although the graph is effective, I take some issue with it because it contains only two bars, which shows that it is not entirely necessary and that the information it is conveying may be expressed more efficiently through words. The spatial mode accounts for the prominent placement of text describing the “Difference between the Response Rates” and the arrangement of the graph’s source directly below it to illustrate its empirical support. Lastly, the linguistic mode involves direct, concise language that is a strong fit with the unadorned design of the graph itself.

While opening a gift from one of my family friends, I observed my fourth multimodal text, a thank-you note from my parent’s godson Nate. The text contains four modes of communication:

  • Spatial
  • Visual
  • Linguistic
  • Gestural

The text’s spatial mode accounts for the central placement of text within the thank-you note, and this arrangement at the top of the middle of the page makes the information easy to locate and comprehend. I had slight issue with this spatial decision since it leaves space at the bottom of the text and makes it appear unbalanced, though this is understandable given that Nate is only ten years old. Visually, the text is defined by a myriad of vibrant colors on the thank-you note that allows this text to separate itself from other, similar thank-you notes. The linguistic mode of the text includes its usage of simple, focused language to succinctly relate its message. In terms of its gestural mode, this text is defined by having its audience open-and-close it physically, a feature that enables the text to effectively blend transition between linguistic and visual modes of communication.

From these everyday examples of multimodal texts, I noticed that each text contained visual, spatial, and linguistic modes of communication. Among these modes, I observed that, spatially, most texts chose to center their most critical information to make it more readily accessible. Additionally, I observed that, linguistically, these texts largely relied on direct, concise wording to appeal to their audiences. I found these strategies to be wholly effective, and I aim to implement them in my first experiment.