Can Anyone Write?

I met with my advisor for the minor in writing a few weeks ago. When I asked him for advice on how to improve my writing skills, he gave me a simple and straight-forward directive: write more. No, I don’t think that means write 20 pages for a 5 page assignment. He suggested I write for fun–a little bit each day. I mentioned in previous blog posts how I would find excuses to not write for fun–the internet is calling! I have tried to use Twitter, Tumblr, and other new media sites as my places to do some writing for personal enjoyment. That counts, right?

As we’ve talked at length about in class, writing can be difficult for most. I’m sure, though, it comes easier to some. This got me thinking–are some people naturally better writers? What kind of conditions and environment allow for certain people to become better writers? Can anyone write? (I can’t help but think of the line from Ratatouille when the evil food critic does not believe “anyone can cook!”) Can anyone write “properly?” Properly, effectively, intelligently. Those are all up to one’s individual interpretation and the definition of each may warrant its own blog post. Or book.

Sure, anyone can cook. But can anyone write?

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Respect for Readers

I spent my “spring” break in St. Louis for a service trip with the College Democrats. Our trip focused on urban education, so we volunteered at several youth-centered organizations. The first day we helped out at an after-school tutoring center, and the following day we assisted children at a local Head Start. For the remainder of the trip we spent our time at a charter school called KIPP Inspire Academy. This school serves primarily low-income, minority students who are behind grade level in most subjects. Everyone in the building devotes their time to closing the achievement gap and go to great lengths to ensure success. The students spend long days at the school and have high expectations for themselves. As the students wait in the hallway to move to their next class, the teachers require that they read a book to make good use of their time. Here, the teachers attempt to instill the habit of reading for pleasure among the students. I love this–mostly because I wish I were one of those students.

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In-Class Essays

I took a midterm yesterday for one of my political science courses. The examination had two components: 4 short response questions and 1 essay. The short response questions proved to be quite straight-forward. The essay, however, tripped me up. It brought me back to the days of taking the ACT. The standardized test asks the student to take a clear stance on the question at hand. For example, I remember I wrote an ACT essay answering the question of whether schools should require their students to wear uniforms. (In case you’re wondering, I said yes they should. It would be so much easier–no time wasted in the morning trying to figure out what to wear!) From what I recall, the ACT looks for a certain type of paper; they want to see an interesting introduction with the thesis, 3 examples to support the argument, a counterargument, the breaking down of that counterargument, and a solid conclusion. I understand the people behind the ACT have a ton of papers to grade and need a system to objectify the grading process. This prevents the students creativity and voice from coming through. And isn’t that what writing is all about–the ability to express oneself? To engage in a discussion and attempt to reach a conclusion? I think so.

I apologize if this image brings up bad memories.

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Creative Writing

I enjoyed the conversations we had with the writers at yesterday’s “How I Write” forum. Melody, a doctoral student in the school of education, offered an animated account of the process behind writing a dissertation. This may sound weird, but it was comforting to hear her explain how painful writing can be. It’s not just me! This is someone who’s choosing to get her Ph.D. in English after all. She explained to us that she didn’t look at her dissertation for over 4 months because she was afraid to open it. Also, the story of her sobbing on the phone with her adviser upon hearing the professor’s negative feedback of the dissertation resonated with me. It’s ok to feel this way. Writing is not easy. But it’s worth it. As Melody emphasized, we have to have patience with the writing process and trust ourselves. Finally, Melody surprised me with her telling us that she didn’t learn how to properly revise until graduate school.

I bet this is how Melody feels. And how Shelley felt! (Image credit: Flickr user chnrdu)

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Another Look at Blogging

Honestly, my view of blogging hasn’t changed much from what I said in an earlier post. After reading through Sullivan’s “Why I Blog” a second time, I noticed he mentions a concept we discussed at length in this course: writing with authority. I particularly like this line from his piece: “…whatever authority a blogger has is derived not from the institution he works for but from the humanness he conveys.” My blogging group and I read a study about how one shows authority in his or her reading and writing. I think many times people mistake credentials, experience, and forcefulness for authority. As Sullivan describes, authority comes rather from the writing’s realness and conviction.

This past semester I took a course at the Washington Post. My classmates and I had the opportunity to meet with several prominent political writers and bloggers. Most of them work at the Washington Post, an institution with phenomenal brand recognition and respect. However, they don’t rely on the Washington Post’s masthead to bring them readers and loyal followers. They have built a strong blog through solid reporting and writing from unique perspectives.

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After looking through e-portfolios of the fall 2012 students, I find myself a little overwhelmed. With blog post titles such as “Done Done Done Done Done,” “dddDDDoooOOOnnnNNNeeeEEE,” and “Halleluja,” I understand putting together the portfolio at the end of the semester will be stressful. The results, though, are quite impressive. It is evident that the students who finished the portfolio completed similar assignments my cohort and I continue to work on now. Many of them show their willingness to put up very rough drafts and blog posts. The typical writer would caution against publishing such personal writings and opening themselves up to scrutiny. This course has taught shown us all–through readings and our own writing–not to be afraid of making mistakes or publishing weak first drafts.

Fine, I won't judge a book. But can I judge a blog?

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Reading and Writing *with* Authority!

For this week, I read Penrose and Geisler’s “Reading and Writing Without Authority.” Although they themselves would caution against my saying this, I agreed with the majority of their points. The two administered an interesting semester-long experiment on two individuals, Roger and Janet. At the time, Janet was a college freshman while Roger was seeking his doctoral degree in a field related to ethics. Penrose and Geisler asked each to consult eight scholarly articles to guide their thinking and development of an essay on paternalism. The two had clear differences in educational background and experience surrounding the topic. I would like to think that I would’ve succeeded in this experiment, but I will admit that I continue to make the same mistakes Janet committed.

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Why I Write Update

I think most people like choices. In the cereal aisle at any supermarket, you’ll see plenty of options ranging from Honey Nut Cheerios to Froot Loops. (I think that’s actually spelled “correctly.”) I’m not the type of person who likes choices. In fact, I like to make decisions based on as few choices as possible. When I’m at a restaurant with a lengthy menu, I tend to feel overwhelmed. I read the prompt for this essay and noticed this sentence: “The structure of this essay is up to you.” No! Now I have so many decisions to make. I have to determine the organization, tone, and delivery of this paper. So many options. But I must look at writing this essay as an opportunity to take a step back and reflect on the decisions I make in my writing. I have made clear choices in past writings, so this may also serve as a way to defend my past decisions.

The two pieces we read for today resonated with me. It took me a while to realize, but I now understand that the a key component of writing is actually writing. As Sullivan would agree, I had to let go and simply put something down on paper. Far too many times I would attempt to develop my thoughts fully in my head before even tapping away on the keyboard. This method resulted in my hyper-awareness of what I was writing and an inability to put pure thoughts down on my paper. I was trying too hard to be perfect. My high school English teacher once said “Writing is rewriting.” I took this to mean that a piece is never complete. There’s always work to be done. This frustrates me, yet I eventually came to acknowledge that the writing process never stops because nothing is perfect.

I’m still in the midst of determining where I want to take my essay. I’m still determining whether I want to revert to my go-to style of argumentative essay or embrace a narrative style. I plan to include my previous writings to best explain “Why I Write.” I hope to convey to the reader that I write because I love thoughtful discussion. Although I tend to write argumentative papers, I really love engaging in conversations and finding common ground.

I look forward to writing this essay. I believe it will give me a nice space to reflect on my prior essays and prepare for the writing ahead.

Why They Write…and Blog

At the beginning of her piece entitled “Why I Write,” Joan Didion explains her decision to name the piece after a George Orwell essay. She writes “I like the sound of the words…I, I, I. In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it in my mind, change your mind.” This may be an aggressive answer to the question of why one writes, but it does directly provide an answer: we write to express ourselves, explain why we believe that way, and possibly get others to agree with you. Sometimes a piece does one of the three and other times it does all of the above.

I like to think that a lot of writing allows a writer to share with the audience what he or she is thinking. However, Ms. Didion interestingly explains  that she writes to “find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” This is quite profound. Not only do we write to express our thoughts, but we also write to figure out what we’re thinking, find answers, and make sense of it all.

In the original “Why I Write” piece, George Orwell defines the 4 reasons for writing: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Before reading this essay, I had a good grasp on reasons number 2, 3, and 4, and I found it interesting to see the “sheer egoism” argument. This motive for writing may bring about writers simply producing outlandish content to garner attention, yet it may also give an author rationale and reward to take risks. Also in the essay, Mr. Orwell tells the reader he writes to reveal injustice and expose a lie. This is a fascinating starting point that does not always come to my mind when I write, yet rings true for many writers today. Many websites today exist entirely to debunk myths and show people’s lies–Mr. Orwell was ahead of the game.

Much of what Andrew Sullivan writes in his piece “Why I Blog” resonated with me. Mr. Sullivan effectively breaks down the goals of blogging and keys to successful online publishing. He asserts that the best blogs reveal an “unfinished tone.” This may run contrary to conventional wisdom, but some of the best blogs put out posts that may otherwise seem in the draft phase. In blogging, however, it is these types of pieces that authors don’t think too hard about that generate the best content. Mr. Sullivan sees this style as a reflection of the “imperfection of human thought” and something worth embracing. Above all, Mr. Sullivan argues that bloggers must show “a willingness to fall off the trapeze rather than fail to make the leap.” The online community rewards risks and authors who take chances. In one of his many great analogies, Mr. Sullivan compares blogging to extreme sports in the high potential for failure yet the more alive results it can produce. Writers should let go of their writing. They may find it to be a freeing experience.

This tactic comes with consequences, both positive and negative. It means that the readers can hold the authors accountable to their writing and arguments. The danger remains that the desire to be more informal may lead to unfinished, inaccurate pieces. Traditional forms of publication took a while to produce. Now, blogs are instant. Editors no longer set deadlines for the end of the week: the deadline is now. The internet rewards brevity and immediacy. Matt Drudge looks at blogging as a broadcast rather than a publication–it needs to constantly keep moving. With the shortened time frame and the new technological advancements, readers can also engage more with authors. It no longer takes days or weeks for writer to respond to a reader’s feedback. It can be done within hours or even minutes of the suggestion, critique, or challenge. This new discussion format allows for the writer and his or her readers to develop a relationship–Mr. Sullivan even went so far as to call it a friendship. He lived through 9/11, the Iraq war, and other major events of the past decade with his readers and engaged with them online–something not possible before the age of the internet.

I brought in two essays that likely fall under Mr. Orwell’s final category: political purpose. If Ms. Didion were to read them, she would likely say that I’m trying too hard to put myself at the center of the argument. This will be something worth noting during the revision cycle. I chose these pieces because they show aspects of my writing that I believe are my strengths: an authoritative tone willing to engage in discussion and acknowledging the other side. I think these essays also show my thought process. They show that I didn’t feel this way always, but rather came to these conclusions after thinking long and hard about the topic and finding answers through writing. When I’m writing essays, I at times suffer from writer’s block. I think I should better take Mr. Sullivan’s suggestion to let go of my writing–not worry so much about the aesthetics and focus on the substance. I love engaging in discussion with my classmates. I would like to see some of these pieces transform into blog posts that allow for a better forum for dialogue and interaction with the reader.

Overall, each of these three pieces opened my eyes to the many reasons people write. I hope to apply the suggestions of the authors to my own writing for future assignments.