Challenge Journal 1: Getting Jazzed Up

So this is it. The beginning of a semester long extravaganza involved around creating a capstone project, something substantial to epitomize my experience as a minor in writing.

Do I know what I want to do for this project, where I could (almost) literally do whatever I want?

Oh god no. I think I would have a better time picking a topic at random from a hat and doing whatever I draw as my project.

So before I haphazardly fling myself into this coffee filled and keyboard-breaking task, it’s probably a good idea to figure out how to jazz myself up.

I like to get jazzed up. Helps gets me motivated.

But here’s the kicker: I got to think of a way to constantly jazz myself up, figure out a practice to continue to give myself some pep well into the future. That, or I try to do the entirety of the project all in one day and REALLY jazz myself up beforehand, something which I can say from firsthand experience is not fun (I try to have fun with these things: fun and jazz are a pretty good combo). In other words, I need a jazzing ritual.

This is not my first time with a troublesome prompt like this though. English 325, sophomore year, essay 3: Write an essay on a topic of your choosing (!). Although this “essay” didn’t have to be a stereotypical essay, I still had no idea what I wanted to write about for that, let alone what form I wanted it to take.

So I played some Frisbee. I put all my concerns behind me, and ran outside tossing a plastic disc for about an hour and a half. Afterwards, while rinsing myself off from a hard-fought battle of disc chasing, I decided upon writing a poem. It was a start. I got really jazzed up over that—don’t think I wrote a poem for a college class before, so that put some pep in my step/fingers.

So the bigger question is if I am willing to go outside and play some Frisbee to figure out an idea for my capstone project, to follow through with my previous ritual.

It’ll probably be a good way to give my keyboard a break.

Challenge Journal – Rituals and the Importance of Lead and Dread

I love to write. Or, maybe what I like is actually a side effect of writing, the feeling that I am molding a tangible representation of the otherwise indecipherable thoughts whirling my head at top speeds. The strange awareness of my brain churning through different combinations of words and strands of thoughts leaving nothing but words on a page that sounding like molasses dripping from the bottle on a hot summer day. Just as the blades of a wind turbine cut through the air, extracting energy to power the world as we know it, my brain extracts an end product capable of inspiring mental images and the entire array of human emotion. In short, this feeling is the feeling that I am creating something really really good.

The key takeaway from the above paragraph is that the sensation arrives when I am creating something good. Something really really good. So, how do I get “into the zone” so that I can accomplish something sufficiently good?

The location is not important to me.

Nor is a banquet of snacks, or a specific beverage or selection of music.

I can work in the deadly silence of the Law Library, or the bustling loud of Espresso Royale.

I and my atmospheric writing needs are versatile.

What is not flexible, however, is my first step. I need to handwrite some amount of my piece.

Perhaps I am intimidated by the vast whiteness of Word’s template document, or perhaps it is the expectant pulsing cursor which becomes more and more insistent with each passing second that I do not write. Regardless, I find that I cannot find inspiration until I have physically handwritten exploratory thoughts and ideas regarding a piece.

Although I know this about myself, I still struggle at the beginning of each major writing assignment to commence my ritual of smearing pencil lead upon a blank sheet of paper. I am not sure if it is simply the dread of starting, or the concern that my ritual will fail me and that I will not create anything of worth.

This semester, I hope to take steps to overcome this struggle of mine. I love to write. And I need to remember that before spending hours dreading the start of my ritual.

Does anyone else struggle with a similar initial dread? How do you medicate this shortfall? Or do you think it is merely part of the process?

Challenge Journal 1 – Rituals

I feel relatively fortunate to have studied music throughout my college career for a variety of reasons – one of those reasons being that it is a discipline steeped in ritual. Sure, some of those rituals are antiquated (women being required to wear dresses for choir concerts), but some are practical and even aid in providing an overall pleasurable experience for the audience and performing (warming up before each performance and bowing to acknowledge and thank the audience after a each performance). It’s not looked down upon or questioned if you have a specific set of ritualistic activities as a musician; no one is going to question you if, before you begin practicing, you massage your jaw muscles while humming a single note or lean against the wall with your eyes shut forcefully exhaling for 60 seconds. As long as everyone knows that you are performing the ritual for the betterment of your music, it’s accepted and widely encouraged.


So for writing, which is a much more private enterprise, devising a ritual seems a little trickier. On one hand, the act of writing is much less physically demanding than the act of singing – so I feel less inclined to “warm up” my body in a ritualistic sense. That being said, the act of writing requires about the same amount of focus as music practice (for me personally). After almost four years of ungrad, I know for a fact that I am better able to focus after partaking in rigorous physical activity – like running or swimming. I also know that I cannot do work in my own home – just like I need to go to the practice hall on North Campus to get any productive singing done. In regards to my writing ritual, then, it seems that I have two “macro” guidelines: prior physical movement and travel.


I am thinking it might be helpful for me to find a specific spot on campus far enough away from my apartment where I have to walk at least 10 minutes – so I am getting at least a little physical movement in before sitting down to write.

Challenge Journal 1: Rituals

Writing is something that can be difficult for me to just turn on and off like a switch. As a student I am inundated with requirements of drafts and rubrics and deadlines so sometimes I don’t have a choice. This, however, leads to vicious cycles of procrastination, so much so that I now prefer to work under a very tight deadline. The pressure fuels me. But to arbitrarily sit myself down at 4pm on a Tuesday to write a paper that’s due in a week, is to write uninspired. If you want to see what inspired writing looks like, you should see the notepad app on my phone. It’s a sacred space full of essay fragments, rants, lyrics, concepts, lists, quotes, recipes. In moments where I have an idea or I feel inspired it’s as if that switch just goes on for me and I NEED to put my thoughts into words. Luckily my phone never leaves my side.   

I don’t have a ritual for writing. The most consistent thing about my writing is that it’s usually done last minute if I’m up against a deadline but this is more of a way of life than a ritual. Or, it’s a ritual I need to stop. I guess when I write in the notepad app on my phone the big difference is that I know that I’m only writing for my eyes. There’s no chance anyone is ever going to see what I write in there in its raw form. But when I’m writing for real, as soon the pen metaphorically hits the paper (I never handwrite, hence metaphorically) in my mind it’s as if its already in its final form. A ritual that I could establish for this semester could be to start any writing process with a free-write. Maybe I will feel more inspired if I can get over the mental hurdle of feeling like it has to be close to perfect and instead write down literally anything that comes to mind. I can treat each new doc that I create as a new note on my phone. 

Reimagining Reading as a Ritual (a.k.a Apparently I Like ‘R’ Words)

As we start this semester, hesitantly tip-toeing towards that elephant in the room–this giant project that looms ahead of us–my main preoccupation right now is that I have no good ideas.

Maybe it’s not that big of an elephant: it’s only one project, and it’s only one semester. I’ll most likely work on many more projects in my life, and I’ll hopefully complete at least a few more semesters in grad school. This shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Finding the perfect, all-encompassing, meaningful project topic shouldn’t be that big of a deal. And yet here I am, worried that this is my last project and my last semester and therefore my last chance. I am worried that I won’t be able to move past myself and make something that matters.

I have a questionable habit of only writing pieces about thoughts I’ve encountered in my own life, often ideas I’ve been grappling with for years. In my writing, I rarely explore the world outside of my own head. Take, for example, the basic questions behind my three favorites of the essays I’ve written recently:

1) Does being named Hannah threaten my own individuality and worth as a person?

2) Is my voice too small to make a difference in the world?

and 3) Why do I feel these things about my body, and is it possible to turn these feelings into something that is important to my identity, rather than something to be ashamed of?

Notice, here, that these are all questions about me written in the first person, and that they share an answer: to write a narrative essay about my own experiences. Yeah, I’ve tried to expand these essays to audiences beyond myself, but my output historically has come down to one M.O.: I write stories about myself in the hopes that they are relatable to people like me.

Maybe this isn’t my last semester ever, and maybe this isn’t my last project ever, but it seems naive to waste the chance this Capstone class is offering me–the chance to invest a lot of time and a lot of thought and a lot of resources into building something bigger than I ever have before–wandering in circles around my own mental preoccupations.

I want to write about something bigger than me, but I am stuck living my life in my own mind and thus don’t know how. What to do, then? Not sure, so it’s convenient that this assignment comes with it’s own proposed answer (thanks, Twyla).

I haven’t really thought much about the concept of rituals before. I’m not especially religious, and I think the two–a lack of religion and the active practicing of rituals–have always falsely seemed mutually exclusive to me. I was glad to learn yesterday that they are not: while ritualism implies a spiritual intention, it doesn’t necessitate it. And, regardless of whether turning an action into a ritual requires imbuing it with spirituality, spirituality could exist for me separately from religious practice, if I wanted it to.

While I hadn’t yet thought about ritual in solving my writing problem, I had thought about searching for a solution in the act of reading. I had my writing problem as I went in to winter break last month, and so, finally free of deadlines and expectations, I intentionally sat down to read. I thought maybe others’ thoughts would remind me there’s a world past my own. Sure, maybe it’s a little questionable to think I’d find a Capstone topic in someone else’s prose, but I think I was more looking for inspiration than for specific ideas, or for a reminder that people outside of myself care about people outside of themselves. I was looking for examples of what people do to act on this caring outside of themselves, because while I think I have the caring, I don’t have any idea what to do with it.

So, on a search for thoughts, I read the 2017 volume of The Best American Essays, a collection of  nonfiction that is published annually under Mariner Books’ The Best American Series. Maybe this wasn’t super far outside of my usual M.O.; all my above questions lead to attempts at a similar genre as was housed in this book, did they not?

I’m a little over a third of the way into this book, and so far my favorite essay has been Leslie Jamison’s introduction to the collection (each year, the series’ main editor Robert Atwan brings in a guest editor, and Jamison was the 2017 pick). In her introduction, she talks a lot about the 2017 presidential inauguration, and what place essays have in the political climate: Can they be political, or are they too literary and creative to have that certain necessary political credibility? In a world and a country that’s a little fucked right now, is there a place for creative writing, or do we need to funnel all our writing efforts towards other genres that more obviously foster change (journalism, etc)? Can essays–in this case, ruminations on outward things that have lived and developed within the author’s mind in the context of their own experiences–really be societally meaningful enough to be worth writing?

Jamison writes, “The essay has always courted a reputation as a solipsistic genre; a mind fondling itself on the page.” Yes, see: this is my worry. My writing is too self-centered, too self-indulgent, because it is inherently driven and inspired by me.

She continues, “But to me the defining trait of the essay is the situation and problem of encounter… The essay inherently stages an encounter between an ‘I’ and the world in which that ‘I’ resides; just as politics is a way of examining the relationship between an ‘I’ and whatever communities she finds herself a part of.” So, yes, essays can’t ignore the “I” perspective of their authors, but there can be an useful comparison between that “I” and the rest of the world.

Jamison goes on for another few pages, continually building my confidence that there’s something meaningful in the genre I love to write, despite “the limits of it’s own vision.” So, maybe in my reading I found not inspiration for a capstone topic, but permission to continue writing in the way that is most meaningful to me, because that I feel that importance means that I can translate that meaning to my audience. Not a complete solution, but a start.

So maybe reading should be my ritual, an attempt to finding inspiration in others’ words, minds, ideas. I think if I actively search out examples of something that  matters to someone other than me, I will be reminded of the things that I care about, too, and will find my topic that way. I’m going to try to read for 15 minutes at the beginning of sitting down to write, before I put a word on the page.

That’s it then: reading is my ritual. I’ve done it before, though, thoughtlessly–without that spiritual intention I think (thought?) rituals needed. Does something I’ve always done become an official “ritual” just because I said so? I think not.

I think it takes this: a reminder that while I’ve read casually and free of intention before, I don’t do it now. I’ll renew that intention, make reading a ritualistic requirement for inspiration rather than a superfluous past-time, and see where that gets me.

Thanks for baring with me through these many, many words. I’ve definitely fallen directly into the trap I warned myself of above, the trap of “wandering in circles around my own mental preoccupations.” But, now I have a way to try to get myself out of it, or else a voice in the form of Jamison that says it’s okay for me not to.

Challenge Journal #1: My Rituals, or Lack Thereof

When we were asked in class to think about our writing ritual(s), past and present, I was grasping for ideas. At the time, I didn’t fully understand the definition of a ritual in that context. After some class discussion, I gained some clarity. The term ritual is not just reserved for religious or spiritual experiences, as I earlier thought. A ritual is all about intentionality, purpose, and the motivation behind the act or situation. So, what is a writing ritual for me?

My first thought is that before I sit down to write a paper, I need to brainstorm ideas. I don’t want to go into writing a new piece without any idea of what’s going to come of it. But then, I remember that in certain scenarios, particularly when a deadline creeps up seemingly out of nowhere, I prefer writing without thinking about what I’m writing. This is something that was emphasized and encouraged in the Gateway course. Those are two separate ways of starting the writing process, so neither really feels like a ritual.

Uhh, do I like writing in a certain place or atmosphere? Yes! I do. I think I’ve finally found a ritual: I usually write a paper at the kitchen table with a harsh light beating down on me. No, wait, I also like writing when I’m sitting in bed, like I’m doing right now, with low lighting and a snack.

The longer I think about it, the more I believe that I don’t have any rituals when I write, and I’m okay with that. It doesn’t mean I’m writing the wrong way, or the right way. It’s just my way.

Challenge Journal 1: Do I have a ritual?

I have always been a creature of habit and routine, preferring explicit structure to freedom. Yet I do not consider myself ritualistic, a term deemed more spiritual than utilitarian. To be honest, having a ritual hasn’t been something I’ve desired or even thought about in the past. I do the things I do in the manner in which I do them because it’s what works, not for any deeper or more meaningful purpose. I often consider my actions as a concrete means to an end. I very much value the process; I just don’t put significant thought into why I personally perform each step.

When looking at writing, I never really considered having a ritual. Sure, I have tendencies like handwriting the first draft or writing a page in cursive if I find myself getting bored, but those are habits. I lack a deliberate reason as to why I do these things, while also not consistently following a set of steps to begin my writing process.

During class, Emily mentioned that she needed to change locations to be able to write. I immediately agreed, having not done any homework in my dorm, house, or apartment since starting at Michigan. I am always studying in the basement of the Ugli, or really anywhere other than my home… that is unless I have a paper to write.

It was at this point that it dawned on me that I might in fact actually perform a ritual. I love writing in silence or with white noise. I will venture to North campus and spend hours writing in GG Brown or the basement of the Dude in attempt to avoid noise pollution of people’s voices, while still being surrounded by human presence. I find I am able to best construct my thoughts in this muted environment and struggle to compose sentences with chatter around me.

For example, throughout the process of writing my term paper for my class on art and philosophy in renaissance Italy, I would unproductively stare at a blank page or screen when in the Ugli. Refusing to completely waste the evening, regardless of the time, I would drive to North campus and dedicate too many hours to figuring out what I wanted to say. Did the amount of time I spent up there always lead to great quantities of writing? I wish, but no. With that being said, I found myself able to put pen to paper more effectively, having a clearer mind in the silence and having less doubt when figuring out wording.

On the other hand, I sit writing the blog in the Winter Garden in Ross. I figured that this is a short post and it would be unnecessary to make the journey. I find myself constantly writing and erasing and rewriting, while wondering if I were in the Dude, would I already be done. Through this class, I hope to gain a greater appreciation for the word, “ritual.” I want to embrace my trek to North campus as a ritual, as well as hold myself more accountable to a timeline for writing. Each time I set out to write, I want to have a clear idea of what I want to get out of the session. Will I always achieve the goal? Not necessarily. But being more conscious of my time and actions will (hopefully) make the time I spend writing more productive and foster improvement in my writing style.

For Your Consideration

I was a very superstitious baseball player. Every time I stepped into the batter’s box I would tap both my left and right cleat three times, touch each of the five points of home plate, and then practice my swing twice. I was also arguably the worst hitter on my team^1. So, depending on your outlook, either my superstition didn’t work that well or it was the only thing keeping me from striking out every at bat. When it comes to writing, however, I don’t consider myself to be overly ritualistic. I have some habits, sure, but nothing that would qualify as a ritual, at least in my eyes. I don’t tap my left and right shoes three times, touch each of the corners of my computer, and pretend to type for two minutes before I can work. With that being said, I think that a habit that I would like to get into is the ability to actually use feedback to improve my papers.

I’m very protective over my work. George Orwell once said that writing is the ultimate form of ego fulfillment, which works really well for me because when it comes to writing I have an ego that could fill St. Peter’s Basilica. I tend to instinctively reject suggestions for improvement without really considering whether or not it would actually improve my writing. A routine I would like to start is taking each suggestion, closing my eyes for a second to fully consider it, and then deciding whether or not to implement it rather than rejecting it out of pure ego. I think this would allow me to improve my work as well as give people a little bit more freedom to critique my work.



^1 Arguably here means the same as it does in the sentence “Sam is arguably correct when he asserts that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow.” I was an abomination at the plate.

Challenge Journal 1: Starting at the End

My writing routine starts with lots of preparation. It takes me about a week to figure out what I want to write, some time to research my topic (if necessary), and a couple of days to perfect my outline. Throughout this time, I feel stressed and ineffective. As someone who works in the writing center and has taken many writing classes, I know that every part of the writing routine is important. But, mentally, when you know that you don’t have even a first draft in your back pocket, you have a sense of panic.

Because I devote so much time to preparation before putting words on paper, the actual writing doesn’t take that long. This part of the writing process, when you furiously type all of your ideas out, is my favorite. The words just flow out, like vomit.

But, my biggest writing fear is ending. I am notoriously weak at ending my writing. I think it’s a psychological thing – I also hate ending things in real life. Or, maybe I’m just exhausted by the point I get to writing the ending. Perhaps I’m so done with writing that my endings just always turn out trash. I have a tendency to write in the same room in the Michigan Union. It has decent ambiance but it’s also very chilly. Maybe I just get too cold to pay attention.

Either way, in order to devote more attention to my endings, I’ve decided that it may be a good idea to write them first. Or in the middle. Either way, I’m going to avoid writing it last.

Challenge Journal One: The ‘Getting Started’ Blues

For me, the most difficult part of writing is getting started. Whether it’s an academic research paper or a personal essay, getting those first words on the page is always the most daunting task. A few techniques I’ve found most helpful are brainstorming, making an outline and, sometimes, just spewing words onto the page in hopes that it will spark some further thought. Once the writing process has begun, I always write in single-spaced format and haphazardly adjust my computer screen brightness as I type. The latter is quite a strange ritual — sometimes the dimmest setting feels too bright and other times the brightest setting feels too dim. I am always changing the brightness of my screen while I write.

For this semester, I’d like to start a new ritual to help me combat the “getting started” blues when I have to write. In order to do so, I am going to do an unrelated mini-writing exercise before I begin a school writing assignment. I have two journal-like books that have a number or writing prompts to get thoughts flowing and I will use one of those prompts to do a quick 5-10-minute hand written exercise.

In the past, answering writing prompts and just using something to get thoughts flowing into written form has been helpful in sparking ideas for other writing assignments. I think using the writing prompts in my books to help give me “practice” writing has the potential to positively impact my writing in other areas while also generating thought-provoking topics.