An attempt at objectivity PART II: Reviewing (another) one of my favorite books

I am a history major studying to become a librarian. I know how to find reliable sources and I take the study of history very seriously because I believe that knowing our history is the only way we can move forward in life, as an individual, a society, a culture, and a political system. Movies and TV shows have sensationalized parts of history and, sometimes (most times), portray people of the past of groups from history woefully incorrectly (do not watch “300” with Gerard Butler with me – I will tear that thing apart).

So, it is refreshing to me to find things that try to correct the damage movies like “300” cause. One of my favorite movies growing up was the Disney animated version of “Peter Pan.” However, as I have learned, pirates weren’t really like Captain Hook and Smee. One of my favorite history books is called “Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates” by David Cordingly. Cordingly goes chronologically through one geographic region at a time, touching on the most famous pirates in historical memory and completely tearing down our modern concept of them.

Wow, my completely objective review of this book is that Cordingly is a great historian and engaging writer. Check out this book if you’re interested in pirates!

An attempt at objectivity: Reviewing one of my favorite books

I am studying to be a librarian, so it should come as no surprise that I have a personal catalog of all the books I own (in a program called Airtable, which I love, let me know if you need help with Airtable – I got you). So, when I decided to write this post, I immediately opened up my catalog to figure out which of my favorite books I was going to review. Under the “fiction” filter, I saw a top-three book with the title that I always mix up: “Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?” by Dave Eggers. You probably know Dave Eggers best for “The Circle,” a dystopian novel that was turned into a movie with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks in 2017. He is a fairly well-known author who has churned out more pages of published content than I have probably read in the past few years.

“Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?” calls out American capitalism and individualism in a purposefully, thinly-veiled attempt at more literature than essay. The novel is entirely dialogue, forcing readers to consider words only, instead of setting, prose, etc. Truthfully, it is a grown-up’s version of “Catcher in the Rye.” I first read this book when I was sixteen, right when it came out. With that age being the peak of my uninformed, anti-establishment, “f*ck the American imperialist system” feelings, it spoke to my anger in a way that other books hadn’t before. Perhaps this book is too on the nose, perhaps it should have been a blunt, in-your-face essay, but I read it exactly when I needed to and I think that is why it stays with me.

Challenge Journal #4: Starting a project over and over again

Sitting in my French history class last week, the professor opened his PowerPoint up to a white slide with black, Arial text that simply read “May 1968.” In short, we learned about the uprising by student protesters at the Sorbonne campus in Paris, who were protesting what they saw as the systematic oppression of education by the government – funneling workers into factories instead of encouraging open intellectual discussion. These protests led to strikes across the country, leading non-unionized factory workers to get involved. Riots broke out and led to fights between students armed with rocks and France’s militarized police force with tear gas and clubs. The near-war still sits heavy in national memory and it all started from students’ ideological disagreements with the government.

All this to say, I was inspired. As I sat in class, the rest of my “notes” from that lecture were details that I wanted to include in a story: the origins of the conflict, the theme of ideological disagreement against capitalism, the underdog v. government power – I went on like this for almost a half an hour.

Then, class ended. I packed up everything like normal, still so excited to sit down and write the first scene in my head. So when I sat down in my apartment, leaving my backpack on the floor, I was confused when I couldn’t seem to get myself to write anything. I had details in my head, the entire theme and message of the story planned out in my head – why wasn’t I putting it down?

As this week has passed, I still haven’t written anything, but I found the reason why: I was afraid that it was already written. This is a silly excuse because A, I had no intention of putting this story into the world anyway and B, I had my own vision and idea. However, I still found myself searching through library catalogs, trying to prove to myself that this idea wasn’t original, wasn’t mine, wasn’t important enough to write.

I’m still pushing against that fear today. I want to write this because I think I will enjoy it, it will be fun, and I’ll be able to do historical research, which I really enjoy doing. Do you ever get stuck writing something because you feel like its not an original idea?

Challenge Journal #3: PROCRASTINATION in my last weeks of undergraduate study

As college students, we are all well aware of the dreadful, ever-in-limbo balance of productivity and procrastination. Especially during my senior year, especially after I got a job lined up, I have been hit with a wave of apathy regarding university. I’m tired, I’m burned out from all of this, I will be working at the Library of Congress in a few weeks (flex), and you want me to a four pm class on a Wednesday. The really issue comes down to homework. Finishing those essays and turning in that busy work. When I get home for the night, I have a terrible habit of giving myself a huge to-do list in order to get things done without thinking about the fact that I would like to sleep and eat and hang out with friends.

I have three final essays due in the middle of April, the capstone project being one of them.  The second is a literary review and the last is a research paper. This weekend, I gave myself the task of just outlining those essays, and I have not.

Instead, I researched how I can get over this procrastination hump – just for the next few weeks.

Most people agree that we procrastinate because we’re “immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.” So, the way to beat it is by giving yourself smaller tasks that add up until you’ve completed the project.  Try to deceive yourself into doing something. Maybe even ask yourself “What’s the next action I’d take on this if I were going to do it, even though I’m not?”

What do you do to beat procrastination?

Challenge Journal #2: Branching out for a grade

Last year in the fall semester, I took a history course on Africa before 1850. The professor was great: he took the material seriously, had class outside, and did not rigidly adhere to the syllabus if there was material his students were more interested in. When finals time rolled about, he assigned us a research paper, the prompt being something along the lines of “write about what you found most interesting this semester,” however, there was a caveat: don’t write an essay.

Most of the students in the course were rather confused. No essay? How are we supposed to do research if we can’t put it into an essay format? The professor wanted us to do research and present our findings in any way other than an essay format. Now, as a person who studies best reading Times New Roman words out of a textbook and who writes to-do list in paragraph form, you could say I was a bit hesitant.

After consulting with other students, I finally decided to create a director’s script for a documentary on my topic: the oldest university in Timbuktu. As I drafted, I let myself go completely; I included pictures, handwritten notes that were written “on set,” maps of filming locations, etc.

I got a B.

Not one to really roll over with that, I emailed the professor for an explanation. Very politely, he said that, while I had the creativity nailed down, my content was lacking – there was not enough correlation between what I was doing and what was taught in class. Begrudgingly, I accepted the feedback and reviewed my work. The professor was right, though I am still reluctant to admit that. I think the reason I got so excited by the “creative” aspect of the assignment was because I had not done any kind of project like that since high school – it was fun to just let ideas come to me and incorporate them. On the other hand though, my excitement prevented me from delving far enough into the material to produce quality research.

Let me know if you have experienced something similar!

Challenge Journal 3: Home stretch to the home stretch

Something about this time of year is more painful than the actual scrambling done at the very end of the semester. You know the work will hit like a brick wall sooner than you can react to it. I even know in advance that I don’t want to stress myself out unnecessarily, that I should prepare and work methodically to get my work done quickly and with quality. But it’s the home stretch to the home stretch — there is an indescribable attribute about it that makes that kind of preparation impossible. And as I upsettingly stare at my cap and gown in my room as graduation looms, the pain of this homework/project/any responsibility purgatory is exacerbated.

Unfortunately, Writing 420 is not an exception to this feeling. I am steadily completing different aspects of my project, but I still feel as if I am running on a treadmill. There is progress in some capacity — I have been keeping up with my schedule for writing actual content — but I am not truly moving forward. Ideas pop into my head about what the site will look like, edits I will make to my current work, and the prospects of the future writing I will do. Yet, in this awkward part of the semester, those thoughts remain stagnant.

I wouldn’t characterize this time period as a rut necessarily, especially since there is some work being done. I just consider it to be a universal condition that other students are experiencing (but let me know if I am way off base with that). Anyway, I am not too sure if there is a quick fix to inspire just a bit more motivation. With what we have done in class, I feel like I have done the prep that I can. I also think that combining the short, random moments of focus I have will somehow result in the finalization of my project rather than a methodical approach.

Any and all words of encouragement are encouraged(!) here, and I hope you all can get through the home stretch to the home stretch and especially the actual home stretch without a hitch (say that 10 times fast).

Challenge Journal #2 – Who is my Audience?

As I begin to finally put pen to paper and make progress on my Capstone Project, there is one question that continues to cloud my thoughts: Who is my audience?

The more I write, the more I feel that nobody will want to read what I write. Even when I can muster up an engaging and dynamic explanation about a particular food experience I have, my excitement is diminished by this fear.

Rationally, I know that my ideal audience is anyone that is interested in cooking. Adding modern media references and food trends might help me to refine this audience even further to a younger group of home cooks. However, I fear that this population is small — too small. Do you have any ideas on how to, perhaps, appeal to a larger group? Is this needed?

How do you combat the fear of not being read?

Challenge Journal 2: I am going to try coffee

I guess I just never really cared to try it after all of these years. I made it through college without a morning cup of joe (only a non-coffee drinker would say that, right?), I won’t let a 9-to-5 change that.

I know trying it for the first time should not be a momentous occasion, but that’s exactly what it is for me. I have friends and family that predicate their entire existence off of coffee. Not having coffee goes against every cultural tenet that places coffee-drinking a rung below death and taxes. Faced with that notion, I knew trying coffee was invariably going to happen at some point in my life out of pure curiosity.

And now is that time.

Writing my project proposal is one of the most difficult writing assignments I have had in my college career. It is right there, sandwiched between 10- and 15-page essays. For the first time as a writing student, through the organized chaos and preparation that I typically approach every writing assignment with, I had no ideas of what to do. Through excruciating focus and chats with classmates and teachers, an idea met paper. But without a ritualistic upheaval, I know I will be stuck in writing purgatory for my capstone. Insert my first ever cup of hot java (I know I’m not doing this right).

What if I love it? God willing, I love that one cup of coffee and only that cup. Now, it is a risk (gastroenterologically, at least) that I am willing to take. To represent a breakthrough in my writing ritual. To maybe, in that very instance, give a caffeine boost as I write my next assignment. To transition into a writing style that dives in head first.

I have never encountered such a severe writer’s block for classwork. For better or worse, I am taking action that hopefully inspires a revitalized mindset.

Now I just need to figure out which coffee shop to go to.

Ritual : Writing :: Key : Gate

OKAY-

I was all about process oriented work in my gateway project (see “Project Process” in my ePortfolio). The mindful territory you enter when focusing less on the destination and more on the journey is incomparable and personally productive in perhaps the lease “actually” productive ways. Twyla Tharp has, of course, schooled me because I failed to consider the impact that ritual can have on process.

Rituals are something that I have absent-mindedly practiced in my acting and singing: working out before singing, steaming, nebulizing, doing certain physical and vocal warm-ups to free the body for work, taking the time to do hair and makeup (or if you’re lucky, just pop on a wig) before a show. Each of these rituals open the gates between reality and the adopted reality of a show or audition. My rituals are ever evolving from situation to situation, and I hope they continue to do so as I learn and grow as an actor and human.

I was also raised to practice ritual before bed: bath, or shower, brush teeth, pajama set, tuck in, read a book, turn off the lights, set up all of my blankets and stuffed animals just right. Only then could I drift off into optimal sleep. Sleepovers took some getting used to for me, and even now I stumble home from a party at 3:00am and put myself in the shower before even considering hopping into bed (no more stuffed animals though, I’m afraid).

But what about writing? I could sing, act, sleep without rituals; it just wouldn’t be as fruitful. I feel that ritual is perhaps where my writing process lacks, and what could really set my creativity and productivity free.

I have come up with a small grab bag of ideas that could perhaps be  a part of my ritual as I try and unlock the gates between my everyday life and my writing:

  • establishing my writing spot somewhere in public (I can get a bit unmotivated in my own space and have been known to use spare mornings, afternoons and even evenings for cat naps) and including the walk to the destination as a part of said ritual
  • establishing a specific desk set up (I’m very big on paper products, pencils, pens, you name it)
  • or listening to the same song or playlist on my walk

If I am being quite honest, this is the first time I am making it a goal to make writing something ritual worthy. That sounds quite negative… and I don’t mean it in a harsh way, as I do really enjoy writing. But I realize that I often depend on writing deadlines for motivation. I wish I didn’t. I wish that I would write on my own accord as things come to me, wish that I would listen to the little ideas that pop in my head for an essay or the lines of a poem or song or collection and roll with it for no other reason than the fact that “I am a writer; I write!”.

Hopefully ritual will help me kill the little vampires in my head that tend to suck the life out of these little muses that I hear inside me (Count Self-Doubt). As the forming of any habit, it will take practice and failure and a little more practice and perhaps a little more failure.

Let’s do it.

Challenge Journal- How do you Sort Through the Mess?

With the exception of this capstone course, every single English class I have taken at the University of Michigan has started with the same reading assignment: “Shitty First Drafts” by Anne Lamott. The first time I read it was in English 125. While I didn’t understand its purpose from the beginning, I eventually grew to see the necessity of being able to just write.

I didn’t have to have a defined beginning, middle, and end to put pen to paper. In fact, writing could begin with a mere fragment of an idea and — eventually — blossom into something much bigger. Within this context, this piece served its purpose. At the end of my first semester, I was no longer afraid to dive into this seemingly scary and undefined task.

Who’s to say if my current state of fearlessness is developed after analyzing this piece on five different occasions or not. What I do know, however, is that my newfound bravery has inflicted a different, more pertinent limitation on my writing process.

I don’t know what to write.

It’s not that my brain is sleepy or my creativity is lagging but, instead, I have too many ideas.

When I sit down to write, I can’t even decide which words to haphazardly throw into my shitty first draft because there are just too many. Do I write about the role that food and cooking have in my life? Should I delve into my relationship with my mother? Would anyone be interested in reading about my experience playing the carillon? Probably not.

I wish I could find a way to sort all of these tidbits and potential project ideas. I need a way to put it all on the page and know which ones I am interested in the most. What are some qualities of a good project? What do I avoid? How do you sort through the mess?