Written in Isolation

As someone who disdains all monotonous handwritten homework dealing with numbers and concepts, the assignment to read three articles about writing seemed like one to immediately embrace. So, upon the date of receiving said assignment, I ran home to pore over them. Now, six days later, after the immediate resonances I found with each, I can confidently say I have digested the readings and they have made a far more profound impact on my memory than did any other work I completed this week. Now, with a second perusal and a class discussion under my belt, I’m more convinced than ever that the deeply personal side of writing is the best motivation to create, and that the ability to get a glimpse of the personalities behind these three great writers is an absolute gift. Because of this, I cannot focus on just one aspect or author who resonated most within me, but I want to discuss how I was so inspired by the combination of the three articles.

Understanding the desire to write is one that I think can only be understood by fellow aspiring writers. I know that I haven’t quite discovered what my own motivation to write is yet, but it’s inside me somewhere, because I was captivated by Didion’s, Orwell’s, and Sullivan’s articles. I was fascinated by Didion’s need to write simply for answers, fascinated by Orwell’s commentary on the four main motives to write, and even more fascinated by the completely unique style of Sullivan’s blog-like article (which is the current motivation behind my attempt at eloquently casual writing).

Of course the three articles were vastly different, but I think I was most stricken by how each conveyed a certain sense of isolation and distant observation in writing. Right out of the gate, Didion acknowledges the concept of “I” within writing (based on the title), and how much the author imposes him or herself unto the reader. By furthering her discussion of writing as a means to gain an understanding both of herself and her surroundings, it left me with an image of a sole person sitting in a crowded area, completely absorbed in a notebook. And I don’t mean this in a sad or pathetic way, I mean it in a thoughtful and pensive manner. Didion’s use of a single image to create backstories for her actual surroundings and characters turns this isolation into a personal world.

This thorough creation of stories reminded me a lot of how Orwell claimed he made up vivid descriptions of his actions, surroundings, and loved  finding the proper wordings for both while he was growing up. Within the first few lines of his article, Orwell associates his lonely childhood with his need to make up stories and fictional conversations. Moving on to his discussion of egoism, I gained an even further sense of the individualistic nature of writing.

However, then I moved onto Sullivan’s article and I found the theme of isolation to be completely different. Sullivan focused on the need for conversational and instant feedback from his blog, and how important it was to be accessible to with his readers. Ironically, this connection allows for the blogger to be more raw and personal, creating an even bigger schism between readers and writers, despite the two sided dialogue. Furthermore, as an avid blogger, Sullivan has to defend the art of his writing style against those who believe it is less meaningful than a thoroughly researched and edited piece of work. This isolates him from much of the writing world in and of itself.

Ultimately, I sit here and could have talked about the parts of the articles I found funny or charming or sad, but what truly resonated within me was how deeply individual these articles each were and how I aspire to achieve such a level of uniqueness. After all, who wants to read something they’ve already read? I think maybe the trick to great writing is understanding how to use your isolation as a personal microscope of the world. Everyone writes for a different reason, but it seems to me that each different reason is just a variation of a desperate need to write simply to gain some kind of better connection to the world.

 

Feeling Nostalgic…

After reflecting on two memories from different periods of time in my life, I’ve realized how much I’ve changed over the past two years. For some strange reason, my initial thought when reminiscing about my semester of Writing 220 was the process of writing/revising my resume. I was so anxious about whether I had enough experience or even the right kind of experience to land my first public relations internship. At first, I had no idea why fixing my resume was my most prominent memory considering its not all that interesting or unique. But then after the second reflecting exercise, I saw a parallel between the selected memories and my personality progression throughout my time at Michigan. But I’ll get to that part in a bit.

When asked to think of a more recent memory, my brain immediately flooded with images I wanted to re-live again: my time in Las Vegas, football Saturday pregames, Christmas parties, etc. After a minute, I was able to focus my thoughts on my recent trip to Aruba, particularly a day when I unexpectedly decided to go off-roading on ATVs with my sister (you know, those really manly looking 4-wheel cars/trucks).

Normally, my sister and I are lounging on the beach type of people when we go on vacation. But we decided to switch it up this time. I specifically remember us on dry dirt roads surrounded by big ocean waves. The temperature was extremely high that day and I could feel it even more than usual because of my sunburn. There was a strong breeze due to the speed of the car that kept my hair back from my face while riding. It was one of those things where you don’t feel like you have complete control over what you’re doing but keep going anyway. I never took my eyes off of my sister in front of me who was following the tour guide to our various locations. The roads were bumpy and the machine was hot. But I felt so liberated going fast down the dirt roads. And I realized that relaxation could come in other forms than just laying on the beach tanning and listening to music.

I believe now, as I come closer to graduation, that I appreciate and value my experiences so much more. I can’t help but feel nostalgic about my time at Michigan because I’ve progressed as a person so much more than I expected. My first memory was at its core a girl intimidated by what she didn’t know (the scary professional world). The second, reflected a confident and adventurous woman ready and excited for all the amazing things life has to offer.

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My Writer’s Vice

Back in Writing 220, I described my writing style as follows:

To shed some light on why I do write, it is essential to first understand a few things regarding how I write: First, as you may have noticed, I had to bend over backwards to avoid using the second person in that last sentence. Second, I’m cringing so hard that it’s actually becoming painful at the thought of how many contractions I’ve used thus far. And finally, notwithstanding these grave violations of my writing morals, you will never see me stoop so low as to start a sentence with a conjunction or, God-forbid, use a pair of those hideous parentheses (except as a citation).

Ok, while this description was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek at the time, what I find almost as funny is how much my writer’s mind has changed since I wrote it a year and a half ago. What I then regarded–almost with pride–as my defining style, I now acknowledge–almost with regret–as my greatest writer’s vice.

What is this vice, you ask? Kind souls call it “a tendency to be overly formal.” Others, less inclined to euphamisms, call such a style what it is: “stuffy”, “impersonal”, “distant.”

To be sure, formal writing has its place. In fact, much of what I would consider my finest writing is of this style–a term paper on Michelangelo’s famed Last Judgment Sistine Chapel fresco, a literary analysis of “Special Duties” a hilarious short story by Graham Greene, and a lengthly research paper on the Catholic Latin Mass.

Yes, formal writing has its place. I just need to know when to use it. Or better yet, when not to.

Oddly enough, one of the classes that really helped me in this regard was none other than a class on professional writing. Coming into the class last semester, I thought professional writing would fit right within my writer’s comfort zone. As you might imagine, I soon became uncomfortable. More than merely resumes and cover letters, where the writer can hid behind fancy words and job titles, I found that professional writing extended to all the way to personal statements and social media, genres which expose the writer and from which there is no escape. It was then that I learned that “professional” does not mean “formal” as much as it means “appropriate”–appropriate for the given audience and rhetorical situation.

Fast forward to today, and this struggle has by no means disappeared. But one thing has changed with regard to my writer’s vice–I’m at least aware of it.

Self Published

We live in this age now where we are able to be published writers at a click of a button and this is the most freeing feeling. It allows us to be uncensored and raw. Andrew Sullivan’s “Why I Blog” resonated with me because it made me think about why I blog.

Sullivan presents blogging as an engaging and connective piece of writing between the author and the writer. Blogging allows the writer to grow and be more knowledgeable than ever because readers will critique and correct their pieces. This is in contrast to normal, pen to the paper writing since the author does not always receive feedback unless it is in the form of peer editing. Blogging allows me to connect with people who I would normally never see. It is nice to know other people are going through the similar things as me or feel the same way and I feel a connection between them. My blog allows them to get a glimpse into my mind that some of my even closest friends do not have access to.

Sullivan mentions that the subject of a blog post comes from what is familiar which often leads to ourselves: our thoughts, feelings, and reactions. I agree. People start from their own interests and these passions translate into something special that the audience sees which keeps them reading. George Orwell said that one of the reasons he writes is because of his ego; I think this point applies more to bloggers than traditional writers. There is that gratifying moment when someone likes my post, and I think about what I could possibly write about that someone else can’t. I can be honest and not feel apologetic for it because this blog is my own space. Blogging is a platform for people to feel like individuals and a platform for people to be praised.

Sullivan says that bloggers’ deadlines are now, and while that is true that does not mean that some bloggers do not spend hours a day thinking about what the best topic to write about is or what the best image to post is. Another post aching for another reader. Bloggers are always thinking about how to attract more readers, more comments, more shares; I know sometimes I am. Back to ego.

It always come back to the first person pronoun. I think that… I want… What is in it for me? I can’t believe it. If anything blogging allows people to really focus on themselves. People are raised to believe that they are individuals, but in writing they are presented with a bunch of rules about not using first person. Blogging breaks these rules and relieves this need of feeding our egos and allows us to focus on ourselves.

The question to why I blog is still not that simple to answer. Sullivan talks about this interaction between readers and writers as a friendship. I think what blogging ultimately allows us to do is be a little less lonely in the world. We are fighting for our piece of attention on the internet, social networks, life, and a blog is our chance to finally have that spotlight. The best part is that it is open to anyone and there isn’t a need for competition. Since I know there is a chance that someone will stumble upon my blog, I know that there is some sort of audience out there and there is that focus on me even if it is for only 30 seconds. As I click “publish,” I know that someone is reading this and I know that there is a possibility of a new friendship in the horizon.

New York, New Person

February 2013, MIW Gateway Course

My birthday is coming up in a few weeks. I’m at the age (I’ll be 22) where birthdays shouldn’t really be a big deal, but because nothing fun ever goes on in January paired with the devastating fact that Blue Lep is indefinitely closed, I find there’s not too much to look forward to lately. Plus, after how much fun I had on my 21st birthday, I can’t help but to get excited.

Last year, it’s 11 p.m. on a Monday night, February 4th. I’m in a group of ten people, sitting in the “VIP” (no one was in the bar) couches of Charley’s. We’re here to get my free shot, then we’ll head to Blue Lep (RIP). Normally on a 21st birthday we’d head to Ricks, but due to the snow and the fact that this is the first week where people are starting to have finals, we’re not sure anyone will be there.

I’m with a few of my roommates who are my closest friends and a few of our guy friends. We pregamed heavily and people start buying shots. I’m not sure what my current tolerance is and I know I’ll be pushed to my limits tonight, so I ask my friend, Emily, to keep track of how many drinks I’m having throughout the night.

“I don’t want to know the number, just keep track, and if it gets dangerous, stop me.” I will later find out that Emily and I have different definitions of dangerous (“You were fine!” she’ll later explain).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m encouraging these drinks. Normally we’d go out at midnight on the 3rd, but I had an interview for an internship the morning of my birthday at 8 a.m. I accept this as a present, considering I’m struggling to find somewhere to work for the summer. The final round interview was for Michigan’s DSIP program. I could live in Ann Arbor for the summer with the rest of my friends. It’d be perfect.

Someone buys me a Maize and Blue shot. Then a Papa Smurf shot. Then Ross buys me a shot of Fireball (when I think of where the night went downhill, I land here). My best friend Kamille buys me a shot and says some really nice things as a toast over the music as I lean over to listen. I look around at the people who made it out for my and I’m so grateful to have such good friends.

The next thing I remember is being in Blue Lep, someone putting a pink shot that looked like bubble gum in my face and putting out my hands in a rejection gesture. I shake my head back and forth saying “I’ve had enough.”

December 2013, MIW Capstone Course

I have a Skype interview in two minutes. I am sitting at my kitchen table in front of my computer, using Photo Booth to make sure I look professional. the computer is too low so it’s an unflattering angle. Two minutes, think. The answer lies behind my computer. I grab the box of Franzia wine on the opposite side of the table and put it underneath my laptop. Now it’s the perfect height.

And this is the best way I know how to describe my senior year of college.

Dressed in a suit, trying to look professional, using boxed wine for help. Constantly emailing recruiters from companies while sending my friends ugly Snapchats. It’s weird, but I’ve never felt old until this year.

I didn’t end up getting the DSIP job. I was very upset at the time. I had no other prospects and wanted to be able to stay in Ann Arbor for the summer. I love this city, I love this university, I love my friends, it was the perfect summer job.

Today, I’m so grateful they didn’t pick me.

Had they picked me, I wouldn’t have been forced to continue my job search. I wouldn’t have applied to AIG and accepted their summer internship in New York City. I wouldn’t have moved to Manhattan for 10 weeks and worked in the Financial District. I wouldn’t have moved to arguably the most intimidating city in the world by myself leaving my family, friends and comfort in Michigan.

As I’m about to turn 22 I feel so different than the night I was turning 21. I went to New York, mastered the Subway, made new friends, worked for a crazy boss and grew so much as a person. Now as I’m looking for full time positions, none are in Michigan. I’ll probably end up in New York or Chicago. Had you told me that a year ago I would have laughed in your face.

It’s amazing how much can change in just one year. Makes me wonder what I’ll be doing when I’m about to turn 23. Wherever I end up next year, “I’ll always love you though, New York.”

Why I Resonate

Didion writes in the last sentence of her piece, “Why I Write,” “Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never had needed to write a novel” (1). Although I am not a novelist, I do consider myself to be a writer—a very passionate writer. Writing is therapeutic to me. When I think of writing, I can imagine a key unlocking a cage of untapped ideas and realizations. Therefore, I use writing to explore these ideas, shape thoughts that I have, and vent a little. I can truly relate to this quote because I completely understand what Didion is saying. It’s almost like saying: If we knew the answer to the problem, there would be no problem. I use writing to try to understand and organize my mind, and ultimately solve problems. I find that when I keep things inside my head, I just constantly think and overanalyze. When these ideas are on a piece of paper, I free myself from the prison of my mind. Every time I write something, I feel as though I’m letting out a big sigh of relief (but that may be in part because I have a bad memory, so I’m impressed that I remembered to write the thought down).

I resonate with Didion’s piece the most because she recounts her experience becoming a writer. She explores questions she had starting out as a writer and reflects on her early stages of writing.  She uses personal examples, imagery, and details that allow the piece to come alive. For me, the piece seems honest and real. I want to be real and honest with my readers, truly allowing them to share my exploration with me. Her honesty is portrayed when she writes, “By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on a piece of a paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer?” (1). I love this line. Here you have an acclaimed and prestigious author speaking so truthfully about her life. She continues her piece by saying she uses writing to explore her thoughts and fears—something very honest and tangible.

My English teacher last semester often said, “the most personal, the more universal.” At first I always thought: What the hell does that mean? But Didion does a good job of letting the reader into her mind by writing honestly and straight to the point. It’s like I’m in her head—or better, in her personal journal.

Here I am thinking about my future as a writer. I can’t help but worry: Where will writing get me? How will I sustain a living? Is this even possible? And Didion helps to guide that answer. She maps out how she started as a writer and conveys what I think is the most important aspect of writing: gaining access to your mind—a powerful, yet incredibly difficult thing to tap into.

Although I have turned to Didion for her honesty and truthfulness to help consider reasons why I write, I also resonate with Terry Tempest Williams’ “Why I Write.” I had to read this piece in my English 125 class my Freshman year. It clearly made an impact, as I still think about it two and a half years later. Check it out!

Before and After: Doing What The Romans Do

Looking back at the past year and a half or so, it is interesting not only to see in which ways you have changed, but also in which ways you haven’t. Personally, I have changed by becoming more self-reliant yet my penchant for trying new things has stayed the same.

My first semester in the Writing minor was during my first semester of my junior year. I lived in a house with twelve other girls. One day I found myself alone, a rare occasion. The quiet made me anxious and I was looking for something to do. Out of a combination of boredom, curiosity and spontaneity, I decided to paint my room. It seemed easy enough: I had painted before, but never a room. How hard could it be? There were no patterns and I was just using one color. After emptying the walls, I opened the can of paint and started in the middle of the wall.

I was wrong: it was not easy at all.

The paint dripped, the colors were uneven and I ended up not even having enough paint. My room started to look like a bad pattern of polka dots.  After a lot of determination and learning by experience, I finally finished the room.  Although it didn’t look professional, I was happy because I had challenged myself to do try something new.

The color only stayed for a semester because I spent my second semester studying abroad in Rome. I had not realized how much I had changed until I was in the Charlotte airport in mid-May. It was my first time in the United States in four months. After experiencing travelling for an extended period of time in a new environment, I felt more confident in my own ability to be independent and try new things. At the same time, I was still surprised by what I saw: I was in culture shock because of my own culture.

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I got off the plane that had taken off from Rome and I immediately out of place. My clothes stood out, I was not used to people greeting me in English, seeing restaurants with a variety of food from all around the world and using the Internet wherever I was. When I discovered my plane back home was delayed four hours, I decided to get rid of my culture shock as best as possible and embrace my surroundings. Just like trying to paint my room for the first time, I had tried something new and was happy with my experience. Unlike earlier that year, I travelled around with more confidence and curiosity than ever before.

Unlearning Myself

Sweetland has inflicted on me the irritatingly insistent need to question and explore, to look at things from as many angles as possible. In the year-and-a-half since I started both the MIW gateway course and the peer tutoring program, I’ve started cracking myself open and trying to change and grow – and writing has played a big part in that.

I’ve always been obsessed with details, lists, and plans, but when I started freewriting, I invited messiness into my life. Before that (and sometimes even now) I couldn’t stand to write anything without a thorough outline. I’d stare at a page for hours, laboring over every word I wrote. When I started looking more closely at my writing process in 220 and 300, it occurred to me that if I didn’t change something soon, I wouldn’t be able to keep writing, at least not in any meaningful way. And when I started freewriting (to force myself to write more often, more quickly, and more creatively) I started uncovering other parts of myself and my life that were also stunted, in need of change.

‘Well, great!’ I thought, feeling oddly excited. Through my writing I identified problems and questions that I hadn’t seen before, which opened the way towards finding solutions. Right?

A few months later, I found myself clinging to a coffee cup and nervously flipping through note cards, getting ready to give a presentation about “dysfunctional writing techniques” (including procrastination and perfectionism) – all while running on an hour-and-a-half of sleep after I’d stayed up all night working on presentations and a paper.

Okay, so…fixing my problems wasn’t nearly as easy as acknowledging their existence.

Change takes time. Like, months and months and months of watching things get worse before they get better, of feeling like I haven’t moved forward at all even though I know I have.

It’s like I have a belief, a feeling of what I should do or who I could be “hovering, but not fully realized” (to borrow a phrase from a ‘Believer’ interview with Joan Didion) inside of me, but I need time to make that belief stick and to act on it. Peter Elbow talks about this concept in his book, “Writing Without Teachers,” in a way that really resonates with me, particularly when he says:

“If we get a ‘new’ idea, or perception, almost invariably it’s the third or seventeenth time we’ve encountered it. This time it took…What’s really new is the letting go of an old perception, thought, or feeling which was really preventing assimilation of the ‘new’ thing already waiting in the wings. Thus the crucial event in growing is often the beginning of a relinquishing…Only this permits the restructuring necessary for taking in the new perception, idea, or feeling.”

 

"Writing Without Teachers"

 

So as I’m in the middle of letting things go and undoing parts of myself to make room for growth, in a lot of ways, I’m less put-together and less in control of myself than I was when I started the gateway course. But (on most days) I don’t see that as a bad thing at all. I’ve opened myself up to growth in so many ways, even though I’m still in the beginning stages, and even though I experience huge setbacks: I’ve started to change the way I eat and take care of my body (and I wrote a piece about that for the Food Issue of my friend’s feminist zine, Peachy Keen), I’ve reopened the possibility of vision therapy for a complicated eye problem that I thought was impossible to improve, I’ve been writing more often and with less stress, I’ve started meditating regularly to give myself a break from to-do lists and anxiety, I’ve learned how to communicate better with my parents and my friends – and so much more.

I’ve learned (and am still learning!) to start with whatever I have, wherever I am, and move forward in any way that I can. Even if it doesn’t feel like enough.

[End self-help saga.]

I’m “trying to think”

I really enjoyed Didion’s essay. I connected with her story; as a college student with a love for writing, I could relate. However, I think there are some aspects of her essay on which we can agree to disagree.

I loved the part of the essay where Didion describes traveling during college to discuss Milton’s Paradise Lost and what she learned, not from the book, but from living in the moment: the buses, trains, travel, what she did and saw, when ironically in pursuit of this higher literary knowledge one can theoretically only get from reading. This resonated with me because my ideal learning style is learning by doing. I do not remember the specific words I read for my Memoir and Social Crisis class with Ralph Williams, but I remember his words, I remember the classroom, him shaking my hand every morning and complimenting my headband or scarf, listening to my peers cry because his mere words on the topic were so compelling and moving. It was the unique experience of the class that stuck with me, not as much the texts I read.

When I think about images that, as Didion puts it, “shimmer,” I think of writing about the things I am passionate about and how telling a story about those interests seems so much easier than anything else. This ranges from telling the story of my local city owned ski area to save it to writing essays for my education classes to writing letters to my best friends. However, I hope to get to the point where, like Didion, I can put down words when I think of images that sparkle. “The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind” (Didion 270). I want to become a better writer so the arrangement of the words I want on paper, or the words that make up the image that shimmers in my head, are the ones that come to mind. But even as I write this, I am continuously backspacing and rearranging my words because they do not come out as I picture them. I hope to get to the point of expression, through practice, where I can say what I want and revise to the point where I feel the words really showcase that image.

While there was a lot I took from Didion’s piece that I was able to apply to my writing and way of thinking, her argument about thinking and reflection on her college experience “trying to think” confused me. She writes, “…when I was an undergraduate…I tried…to buy a temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forget for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract” (Didion 270). How do I know if I am failing at trying to think? In some ways I think that trying to think is actually thinking itself and is a process in which one cannot fail, or even succeed.  I’ve taken classes at Michigan that have been so difficult for me that I spent every day “trying to think” about the material and ideas, but I would never consider it failing. Through the process of this endless effort to grasp concepts, I learned about myself. I learned about my strengths, my weaknesses, my learning style and what inspires me and bores me. Maybe that thinking led me in a different direction than actually understanding the motives of characters in Greek classics or knowing how to analyze a financial statement at first glance, but these struggles are what actually allow me experiences like Didion had on the bus to learn Milton.

Learning to Say F*ck It

In August of 2012, I entered into a period of my life which I fondly refer to as The Age of Learning to Say F*ck It.  One month prior, I had gotten braces.  That’s right—I under duress voluntary became a brace-face at age 20.  Despite the fact that I needed them and the orthodontist—a good friend of mother—gave me a very kind deal, it was the first time in my life I had ever felt truly mortified to speak or smile in public.

Me in clear brackets & my mom as a much more cooperative model
Me in clear brackets & my mom as a much more cooperative model

I was standing in the kitchen waiting for a friend to pick me up for a Childish Gambino concert in Detroit.  My mom was sympathizing with my self-consciousness about the painful protrusions glued to my teeth.  The last thing I wanted was my photo taken, but my dad told me to kindly suck it up.  Hours later, after the concert openers and the excruciating gap waiting for the main act to start, I was dancing within arm’s reach of the stage.  While the lights pulsed and the heat rose, I kept catching myself every time I started to smile, hissing inside my head, “Don’t do that, stupid; I don’t want people to notice I’m a college aged brace-face.”  And then I got pissed.  While Gambino started into “Sunrise” I berated myself for caring what anybody else thought.  This was my experience.  I was so close to the front I could reach out and touch Childish Gambino, and I was letting some ridiculous fear of what strangers thought ruin it?  That was stupid.  The lights pulsed, the bass rocked through my chest, I put my hands up, swiveled my hips, and let my lips pull back into an enormous smile.  “F*ck it,” I thought.

Me being happy
Me being happy

Now it’s January of 2014 and my face is once again braceless.  I’m sitting in the makeshift vanity I made in my closet, listening to Pretty Lights and taking pictures to remember what I and this space look like right now.  I set my camera to snap pictures in succession, and at first I just sat there and smiled.  The photos looked like me, but they told you nothing of substance.  Then “I Can See it in Your Face” stared to play, and I thought, “Ah, f*ck it,” and danced around in my seat while the camera clicked.  I figured I would look a little silly, but the result was a snapshot of myself as I honestly felt: decently unconcerned with anything besides loving that song.  The Age of Learning to Say F*ck It produced in me a new kind of honesty where I can finally say, “I am what I am, you like it or you don’t.”  And that has been such a liberating experience that I hope everybody goes through, in their own way.  Entering the Capstone course, I hope very much that I can successfully carry that honesty over to make a new portfolio that abides by no one else’s expectations and that is purely, unapologetically me.