On Contents and Content Warnings

content warning: suicide

 

First, some background: for my capstone project, I’ve chosen to write a poetry collection about my uncle’s death by suicide. I intend to place my poems in public spaces (railroad tracks, riverbanks, parking garages, highway bridges), take photos, curate an Instagram account, and hope that people stumble upon the poems and maybe read them and maybe like them.

Cue the worries—

how do I treat the topic of mental health with the attention and sincerity it deserves; how do I avoid cliche when writing about grief; how do I avoid presuming I’m an expert; how do I bridge the chasm between private rumination and public declaration; how do I invite conversation without unintentionally harming the very population I’m seeking to help.

On this last point, I’ve been thinking about content warnings. This week was mental health week on campus, and I know numerous people—myself included—who were triggered by one of the events held on the Diag for the purpose of suicide awareness. A friend posted a Buzzfeed video titled “I Jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge” on Facebook, and it hit me like a shiver. On one level, these public conversations are important to have; on another level, they are wholly unproductive if those most invested in the conversation are blindsided, unprepared to discuss their own pain. Indeed, conversations on “awareness” and “prevention” and “healing” should be held on people’s—survivors, those with suicidal ideation, loved ones—own terms.

I mention all this because it’s important, but also because it carries serious implications for the ethos of my project. How might placing poetry about suicide in public places (even if it’s rooted in my experience as a suicide loss survivor) injure those around me, however unintentionally?

I suppose the challenge here is one of audience. It’s not as though I haven’t written about suicide before: for my final project in a course on Latinx Literature (which I took the semester after my uncle’s death), I made a poetry zine that became a simultaneous letter to my uncle and to Oscar Wao (from The Brief Wondrous Life of). And as I begin to draft my collection, there’s a lot I want to draw from this project. My zine was hybrid and disjoint in a way I want my Instagram account to be hybrid and disjoint. My zine was vulnerable in a way I hope to be vulnerable. My zine taught me to find words I didn’t think I had.

But I haven’t written anything about suicide with the intention of showing it to others—because the zine was private, the conversation existed solely on my own terms. Which begs the question: how do I conscientiously engage my audience? Visiting an Instagram account is a choice, I suppose, and I can put content warnings on each post. But leaving these poems out in public spaces becomes infinitely trickier. The safety of privacy simply isn’t an option this time around—and, quite frankly, the potential for feedback is scary.

 

Extra! Extra! Read All About It: My Capstone Project Pitch

It feels good to be back. As a Communications Major and Writing Minor, I thought about what ideas would interest me the most to spend a semester researching and developing for my capstone project. After reminiscing on the past summer I spent interning at an advertising agency where I wrote and published articles for the company website, I was initially drawn to a capstone project on advertising. In addition to the writing I was assigned this summer, I had the opportunity to engage with media industries in an elective course for my major. The class required us to study the operation of media industries and eventually write a final paper on what we had learned. I ended the semester of that class writing a paper from the perspective of a professional at an agency, which is first how I became interested in this field.

For my capstone project, I pitched four ideas that were all variations of a topic within advertising. While none directly correlate with the paper I had written for my elective class or the writing I produced this summer, this work motivated me to pitch ideas in the same vein. After hearing feedback from my professor and classmates, I think I have a solid plan moving forward in my project. Ideally, I will walk viewers through an online site where I have created my own advertisement. It will begin with a client coming to an advertising agency and explaining what they are looking for, and it will end with the finished advertisement shared either online or in print – whichever works the best for my site. As of now, the only challenge I can see is with creating the advertisement. Since I have never created my own before from start to finish, I will need to do extensive research to make my capstone project the best it can be. I am looking forward to diving in.

Interacting with Outside Literature

The final paper of my English 225 class (academic argumentation) was an investigative analysis essay, which involved creating a claim-based argument “supported by evidence from research.” I decided to write about the return of golf to the Olympics in 2016, and engaged with a myriad of websites, journal articles, and published research to familiarize myself with the topic and develop my own stance on the issue. While finding credible research was straightforward, the process of interacting with these sources while developing my own claim was very challenging.

Looking forward to the capstone project, I believe the biggest obstacle will be cohesively blending primary research into my writing while also developing my own voice. The investigative analysis paper I wrote in English 225 taught me how to utilize outside sources to advance my own claims. However, if I write a health science research paper based on the data I have collected over the past year regarding cleft lip and palate patient compliance for my capstone project, I will face the added challenge of integrating novel results with outside research. That is, I will need to frame and support my findings with relevant research performed by others.

To overcome this challenge, I plan to find a “model paper” on PubMed, and follow the general format and rhetorical strategies as I create my piece of writing. This will allow me to expand upon the skills I developed in English 225, and further prepare myself for a potential career in medicine by enhancing my ability to interact with the health science research community.