The Messiness of Life…. and of Writing

For me, the writing process is messier and more disorganized than my apartment bedroom. Which is pretty bad. The bed is covered in my last laundry load; my unpaid utility bills are crumpled on the floor amidst schoolwork and socks; my attached bathroom sink is filled with dirty pots and pans, as I use it as a dishwasher as well.

But this material chaos is the epitome of order when compared to my head – and the artifacts that I produce – when I am working on a writing assignment. I do not craft essays in a linear fashion, but rather begin with a gut feeling, and then I try to make sense of this feeling through any and all processes at my disposal: hand gestures, scribbled representational drawing, free-writes, conversations with friends, etc. In order to generate, and make sense of my thoughts, I cannot start out with order. Rather, disorder and instinct are my fuels.

I have been working at Sweetland this semester and I have noticed how many rules and conventions students adhere to when it comes to their writing. They often come in with rough drafts of papers, that are traditionally set up with coherent sentences and paragraphs in standard English. While these conventions are useful in that they provide a common grounds for the consultation session, I feel that sometimes the rules and conventions of the writing process get in the way of ideas themselves. And what are papers, what are words, without ideas? My favorite sessions are the ones when a student comes in empty handed, and we just talk. We communicate through hand gestures and tones of voice, sometimes through scribbled words or diagrams on slips of paper. This is the kind of work that feeds the writing process, at least for me, and I worry that other students are not aware that such less structured styles are useful and okay.

This semester in the gateway course my writing processes have been messier than ever. But in contrast to other classes, in which the final product is the only thing that matters, in this class the process was recognized for its importance! The semester was about abstraction and reflection and meta-cognition just as much as it was about Creating Good Stuff.

While I’ve heard other students groan about the requirements of the e-portfolio and question how necessary all the reflections and drafts are to their work, I have been in my element these past few weeks, compiling my artifacts and visually depicting their relationships to each other. I love that all the little pieces of my writing processes are cherished and respected as items to be displayed and analyzed rather than as ugly waste to be cast aside and never looked at again.

The theme of my e-port is that writing is messy. Just like life, and the human mind. And that this messiness is good. 

Here is the link. I hope you enjoy!

Check out my re-purposing project!

Hey everyone!

I hope your final weeks of school are going well.

For my re-purposing project in the gateway course I created a website with the purpose of helping college students obtain some distance from their crazy, hectic lives through conversation.

If you have a few minutes to spare, I would love for you to check it out and participate! The “let’s talk” tab consists of four posts in which I pose questions that I would love for you to respond to. Feel free to respond in any length or form, and don’t hesitate to veer off topic and pose your own questions.

Here is the link. Please share it around!

Thanks so much for your help. Have a great weekend, and good luck with finals!

Best,

Annika

Writing to Build Connections

I love the “Sticky note” function of my laptop. I use stickies for everything: to-do lists, class notes, thoughts that I am trying to get organized, passages from books or articles that really strike me, etc. I love that I can pull them up and put them away whenever I want—they are easily accessible and automatically save themselves.

Anyways. Getting to my point. When I was reading Sullivan’s “Why I Blog” there was a passage that really resonated with me, to the point where I felt the need to copy and paste it onto a sticky note, so that it would be a source of inspiration and trigger of reflection whenever I pulled up my notes on my laptop.

my disastrous sticky note screen

Here is the passage: “Alone in front of a computer, at any moment, are two people: a blogger and a reader. The proximity is palpable, the moment human–whatever authority a blogger has derived not from the institution he works for but from the humanness he conveys….It renders a writer and a reader not just connected but linked in a visceral, personal way. The only term, that really describes this is friendship. And it is a relatively new thing to write for thousands and thousands of friends.”

Ugh I love these lines so much. They have been guiding my work in Writing 220 as well as my reflections on the side. And they have helped me start to articulate my thoughts on the question Why do I write?

The human connection. That’s the crux of it. As Sullivan says, “a writer and a reader” are “linked in a visceral, personal way.” And he describes this connection as friendship.

In my re-purposing project, I am striving to forge a connection with my readers. A connection that is nothing less than friendship. We are all people, with hearts and minds, anxieties and pains… why not built connections through language?

As I am working to finalize my re-purposing and re-mediation projects, and beginning to construct my e-portfolio, my desire for human connection through writing is guiding my work. I hope that my final drafts of these projects succeed at fostering conversations and personal connections with others.

Orwell and Didion articulate slightly different motivations for writing than Sullivan, but I relate to their shared use of writing as a way to derive meaning from tangible elements of the outside world. Orwell declares, “so long as I remain alive I shall continue to feel strongly about the prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.” He continues, “the job is to reconcile my engrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.”

Orwell’s fixation on tangible, solid objects mirrors Didion’s fascination with “images that shimmer.” She says, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” She writes to answer, “What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

writing to bridge gaps
writing to bridge gaps

Both Didion and Orwell say that they write to build a bridge—to connect what is tangibly out there to what is meaningful. Orwell emphasizes the role of aesthetics in conveying a political agenda. Didion emphasizes the use of writing to answer questions about people’s behavior, and about her own self. They both write to build connections, between the concrete details that make up the material world and a deeper, meaningful, purposeful message.

Though the ideas of Orwell and Didion are slightly different from those of Sullivan, who focuses on the relationship between readers and writers, all three emphasize the capacity of writing to connect and bridge gaps. Between people, experiences, ideas. Between everything. I hope to do this as much as possible through my own writing.

The Ups and Downs of Drafting

When I first entered into the world of Academic Paper Writing, I was told what to do at every step of the way. Let’s go back to my freshman year of high school. I had to write an analytical essay about Salmon Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. 

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Haroun and the Sea of Stories: the story didn’t compel me at the time, but the imagery is beautiful!

First, my English teacher instructed our class to gather quotes and write brief paragraphs about their context and significance in the book as a whole. Then we had to bring thesis statements in to class, and my teacher displayed them one at a time on an overhead projector and anonymously critiqued them, saying things like “make this more clear,” “what is your argument” etc.

The next step of the process was the outline. It was supposed to be 2-3 pages, with a clear introduction, bolded thesis statement, clear topic sentences (with 2-3 pieces of textual evidence per body paragraph), and a conclusion. The next step was a rough draft. 5-7 pages. Double spaced.

Before I started working on this component of the writing process, I felt pretty overwhelmed. It seemed like a daunting task – to convert a 2-3 page outline into a legitimate, turnin-able draft that I was willing to allow other people to read and critique.

But I fell into the habits of all students, ever, and put off this “conversion” process until the night before the draft was due. In the last minute, I deleted the spaces and bullet points in my outline, double spaced the text, and added a title and my name and date in the corner. Voilà – the birth of my rough draft.

Entering into class the next day, I was definitely worried that my rough draft was, uh, insufficient. And when I had to give it over to a classmate for peer review, I told him that: “this is really bad, sorry about that. I did it at the last minute. I have a lot of work left to do.”

But then his comments were encouraging rather than critical, and at the end of the class I felt good about my draft. It felt like an actual paper. By the time the final draft deadline rolled around, I had spent close to no time revising my draft. Rather, I had made a few sentence-level edits and then called it a day. I was satisfied.

It is experiences such as this one that have made me skeptical about the drafting process. Throughout high school, and frequently in college, instructors will provide me and my peers with very specific deadlines and guidelines regarding the various components of project creation. Then, we will put in as little time and effort as possible in order to meet the various requirements and receive decent grades on them.

Sooo how can we escape from this ugly, formulaic “drafting” process? I think the key is personalization and flexibility, and I believe that the nature of the Writing 220 class and the Writer/Designer textbook allows for these elements.

Since every Writing Minor student has such a different project and preoccupation that s/he is working on, it is impossible for the class to break down the drafting project into specific, concrete expectations. I love that the concepts “rough cuts” and “rough drafts” are so open-ended. Writer/Designer talks about the argumentative work that must, or should, be accomplished at each step of the process, but does not emphasize what these specific steps should look life. And I think this is crucial. The drafting process is very much individualized. There is no universal “appearance” of a rough draft or cut—they are very much concept, or argument based.

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The “rough draft” of my paper for English 258 last year

As I have moved forward in the academic world, and have had more experiences with the drafting and writing processes, I have come to realize that formulaic structures and deadlines do not work for me. Rather than creating rigid, polished outlines, I free-write and draw picture and have conversations that lead me to the ideas, arguments, and structures that become my texts. As I move forward in my projects for this class – my re-mediation as well as my e-portfolio – I hope to engage in drafting processes that emphasize content, rather than structure. Right now my e-portfolio is a vague, abstract concept. There are some visuals attached to this concept: colors, fonts, etc. But I still have a lot of territory to cover before it is “turnin-able.”

In the weeks to come, I hope to use the insights of others as much as possible. I think that conversation will be essential to my drafting process: I need to run my ideas by others, and ask people – not necessarily writing minors, but anyone – what they think, what that take away from my work. From there, I will gain the necessary feedback to move forward, and create something that will be relevant.

 

Venturing into New Territories

Here we go! Into new territories, onto new modes of writing. I have never made an audio project before, be that a video, or a podcast of any kind—have always stuck to the written and visual mediums. So I am a little bit apprehensive as I enter into the re-mediation project process, taking on the work of creating a high-quality podcast to incorporate into my website.

Entering into this work makes me wonder why I have never created anything using the auditory medium. I guess it is not really encouraged in my classes—for the most part, students are assigned papers and/or visual projects. But if I were to have the option to use a different medium, would I?

Actually, now that I think about it, back in sixth grade I wrote and recorded a song for my music class with my friend. We used garageband to put it to some mellow background music. I remember being

Remember garageband? Is it still a thing?
Remember garageband? Is it still a thing?

embarrassed when I had to share it with other people. I was embarrassed because all of it was my own—the lyrics, the melody, and the voice.

I guess what scares me about making a video or podcast is that it is renders me even more vulnerable, even more exposed to my audience. When I am just sharing words, or visual work, they can’t actually see my face or hear my voice. I am hiding behind the text or the pictures that I am sharing. Sure, I am exposing pieces of myself through these other mediums, but I would argue that there is even more exposure when my voice and/or face is revealed as well.

Hiding Behind My Words
Hiding Behind My Words

One thing that worries me is my voice. Personally, I think it’s a really annoying one. My sister agrees—she shares my voice, and we regularly discuss how annoying it is. I am sure many people think the same thing about their voices—whenever we listen to ourselves recorded we have that visceral ugh, do I really sound like that? reaction. I am worried that I will sound bad in my podcast. Unprofessional, unnatural. Awkward.

Moving on to another matter, I want to talk a bit about the drafting process ahead of me. Chapter 6 of Writer/Designer discusses the use of storyboards and mock-ups during the drafting process for multi-modal projects. For my project the storyboard approach would be more fitting, as I am planning on making something that is not static, but rather moves through time. This makes sense to me, but I have a hard time visualizing what my storyboard would look like. Writer/Designer emphasizes the visual aspects of the drafting process, such as the use of video clips or loose, stick-figure drawings. Since I am only working through the audio mode, and not planning on having a visual component to my re-mediation project, the process described in the book does not seem very relevant.
I guess I have to use the essence behind the storyboard idea and adapt it to the medium I am working in. I will free-write a bit now to brainstorm on how to go about this:

Drafting. What is drafting. I always think of it as a visual thing, i.e. words on a page or sketches and doodles. It is hard for me to conceive of it as something oral. But why is this? Plenty of the drafting process is oral. I have conversations with friends, or in the peer writing center, about papers and those conversations are oral methods of going about the drafting process. Heck, doesn’t every paper, every idea, start with language, and communication? Perhaps. Though that’s taking me back to the question I explored in my philosophy class last year—whether language comes before or after ideas. That question causes me to go in mental circles. 

Anyways. So conversation, and spoken word, is a form of drafting, a form of idea-refinement. But how do I document this process taking place? Maybe I can record myself talking through some of the ideas I want to discuss in my podcast. I can then listen to how these little segments sound next to each other, and assess how I can make it flow better….

I think this is a super cool visual representation about how conversation can lead to new ideas...
I think this is a super cool visual representation about how conversation can lead to new ideas…

Of course, I can always write out drafts of my podcast in transcript form, but that process doesn’t seem like storyboarding…

So I guess I will try to approach my re-mediation project in the same way I approach the traditional essay assignment. I will loosely brainstorm and organize my ideas by using ugly language and a sort of cut-and-cut-and-cut-and-paste method. The only thing that will change is the medium.

Motivation and Procrastination

I am aware of a tension as I work on my re-purposing project—a tension between the academic side of it, characterized by its requirements and my knowledge that this is for a class and will receive a grade, and the very personal and deeply urgent side of it, as it is driven by my own questions and passions and voice. I guess I am familiar with this sort of tension, as my motivations for completing many class assignments are often simultaneously internal and external, but I guess it is particularly apparent in this project because of how much freedom I have.

Why not use a rabbit diagram?
Why not use a rabbit diagram?

This freedom is awesome, it really is. I love how the nagging thoughts bouncing around in my head about life and purpose and people are thoughts that I can develop through school, through this project. I love the blurring of those lines, between the academic and the deep stuff, the real stuff.

Just today I was having a conversation with my friend about life, about everything, beginning with her telling me that she has been feeling particularly overwhelmed lately and uncomfortably grappling with instability and confusion about who she is and how she wants to live her life. We talked for hours about our aspirations and dreams, and about the essence of human nature. And the converastion led me to show her my current draft of my re-purposing project, which is currently a sort of blog post/ journal entry about the human soul and how it is often masked by superficial stuff. And it was so cool to see my motivations merge into one—the questions and issues I am exploring for school are the same as the ones I am exploring on a daily basis, through thought and conversation with friends.

Okay so the freedom for this project is pretty great. Its thrilling. But it is also a little awkward, a little unnatural. While my thoughts and conversations are ongoing, and never really reach a final stage, in this class I am trying to get to a final draft and present something to the public that is in some ways complete. (Of course, no piece of writing is ever complete, but you know what I mean.) I have to turn something in for a grade.

And the fact that there are dates outlining my work lead me to think in terms of “where does working on this project fit into my schedule?” “How can I complete my work in the most efficient way possible?” “How much can I procrastinate without it affecting my grade?” Ugh I know, these thoughts are yucky. But for some reason whenever I have a deadline to meet I think of the assignment in terms of the end product rather than the process (I guess this is only natural). I crave the moment where I can scribble it out in my mplanner or delete it from a sticky note on my laptop screen—those satisfying moments of release from obligation.

Are other people struggling with similar issues? Any advice? I guess I am trying to hit the sweet spot where I can gain from this project in terms of both its structured, academic side as well as its personally motivated aspect. I am striving to harness my internal motivation as well as the pressure that I feel as a result of the upcoming deadlines.

I see that deadlines are necessary, because without them we would never get anything done. We have to force ourselves to go through the motions sometimes. I am sure there are many bloggers out there who are blogging by choice, ultimately for themselves, but set daily or weekly goals so that they don’t lose motivation. Sure, they might experience days when they have so much to say that they feel as if they could write for hours, but there are always going to be those days when typing a word is as strenuous and uncomfortable as pulling a tooth.

The struggle of writing sometimes looks something like this...
The struggle of writing sometimes looks something like this…

Thus deadlines, as annoying as they are, are the external forces that keep writers going when their internal passion blood is not really flowing properly, if that description makes any sense.

On a separate note, I guess my other main concern about my project is its relatability. (Ugh I just realized that’s not a word because of the red squiggly…I’m using it anyways..) I worry that people will not really care about the things I want to say or want to participate in the conversations I try to facilitate. I know that I am taking on a somewhat daunting, perhaps unrealistic task in attempting to get college students to talk openly about deep, personal, philosophical stuff. How do I attract them? And if/when I attract them, how do I maintain their attention?

 

From Eighth Grade to Now: The Toils of the Researcher’s Role

I have a love/ hate relationship with the world of research.

I remember the very first research paper I ever wrote. Each student in my eighth grade Social Studies Class was randomly assigned a specific piece of music that characterized a period of time in American history. I got the catchy depression-era jingle, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” and with that point of embarkment dove into research about life in our nation during the 1930s.

Even though I worked hard on that paper and received a solid grade on it, I still feel a twinge of something uncomfortable—guilt? Regret?—when I think back on that assignment. I have this nagging feeling that I did not put my all into it, that I could have done better, that I should I done more. And this uncomfortable awareness does not just surround my memories of that one assignment, but every research paper or project that I have done in my academic career.

So what is feeling, exactly? Where is it coming from?

Usually when I get started on a major assignment for class I feel a thrill of anticipation. I am overwhelmed and excited about the possibilities, the potential. I think HUGE, and I engage with the first few stages of the writing process with an ebullient scholar’s passion.

But then…. I get stuck. I recognize the limitations that surround my work, the biggest one being time. If I truly want to go above and beyond with my project, to create something that makes some sort of impact on others, I will need so much more time than the amount allotted to a school assignment. And usually my awareness of a time frame leads me to view my assignment as Something I Need to Get Done, a square to check off on a to do list. And then I am no longer guided by rainbow passion but by gray, robotic necessity. And I procrastinate. And I know that my final result is never as good as it could be.

I guess what I am talking about refers to all creative assignments in general, ranging from analytical essays to art portfolios to these blog posts for the writing minor. But I think my experiences are of particular relevance with regards to research papers and projects. When I begin my research I am filled with curiosity, intruigue, and excitement about the unlimited potential of my research. But then the sharp contrast between these feelings and the Limitations of Reality cause me to feel overwhelmed and subsequently disinterested.

I really want to battle these feelings, and the chapters in “Craft of Research Reading” offer some pointers and insight that I think might be of help. For one thing, I like how the first chapter simplifies the role of the writer by outlining three possible frameworks for the writer/reader relationship. One of these relationships is of a writer offering interesting information to a reader looking for entertainment. The second is of a writer offering a solution to a practical problem, and the third a writer presenting an answer to a curious, scholarly reader. While I would likely usually fit into the third scenario, I appreciate the message that this chapter conveys about the fundamental purpose of research work. The researcher does not have to do everything; s/he does not have to do something big or complicated or groundbreaking. All that s/he needs to do is offer up something just a little bit new, that might slightly tweak the way a reader looks at some aspect of particular topic of interest. Furthermore, it’s totally fine if the topic is only of interest to a tiny, select population: this chapter says to the researcher, “You are concerned with your particular community of readers, with their particular interests and expectations” (25-26). Finally, the chapter ends by telling the researcher to “set realistic goals. You do something significant when you wind up your project feeling that you have changed what you think and that your reader thinks you did it soundly, even if they don’t agree” (31). Word. This may seem like a small feat, but having the ability to tweak one’s own perspective through research and writing is a big deal.

One other small point from this chapter that made me feel slightly less overwhelmed by the research process was from the bulleted list at the very end of ways to manage “the unavoidable problem of inexperience” (30). The third bullet advises to “understand the whole process by breaking it into manageable steps, but be aware that these steps are mutually supportive” (31). I like this a lot. It is really easy to become freaked out by a massive task at hand and try to break it down into pieces, and this breaking down is useful, definitely. But then when one is faced with a series of small, independent tasks, it is easy to get confused. Every aspect of a project is mutually supportive—I have come to realize this in in college. The overarching purpose must always be at the forefront of the writer’s mind.

Chocolate, Boxing and Facebook: Multi-Modality All Around Me

promises_peanutmilk
They’re like Reese’s, but sooo much better!!

After I finished the chapter “What are Multimodal Projects,” I reached for one of my favorite pieces of candy—a peanut butter-filled Dove chocolate. (I love candy, so prepare to hear a lot about it as a reader of my blog). As I unwrapped the lovely little treat, I eyed the package that it came from and found myself looking at it…. differently. It was not just a package of candy anymore, but a multimodal text that uses the linguistic, visual, and spatial modes of communication!

Linguistic: The package uses words to inform consumers about the product. The front of the package communicates the brand name (Dove), type (Silky Smooth Promises) and flavor (peanut butter & milk chocolate), as well as information about the serving size, calorie count, and net weight. The back of the package contains information about the Dove brand, nutrition facts, and ingredients.

Visual: The package uses color, style, and image to help describe the product. To reflect the flavor, the primary colors on it are brown and orange. The letters on the front are brown and glossy like chocolate, and the cursive font and background waves advertise the product as smooth and luxurious. Next to the words there is an actual-size image of one of the chocolate pieces.

Spatial: The package uses the spatial mode to organize the visual and linguistic information so that the consumer can easily make sense of it. The word “Dove” is most prominent on the front—it is in the center, and the other descriptions frame it above and below. The image of the chocolate is also central to the package’s façade. On the back, the dense nutritional information and ingredients listing are organized geometrically so that the consumer is not overwhelmed.

While savoring my little square of peanut butter luxury, I mindlessly browsed my facebook newsfeed. And alas! Just like the candy package, the page revealed itself to be a multimodal text that uses most, if not all, of the five forms of communication.

Linguistic: My facebook newsfeed is filled with linguistic information. There are the names of my “friends” who have recently been active, the names of groups that I am a part of and pages that I have “liked”, brief descriptions about people’s activities (___has had a birthday, ___has posted in ___page, etc.), newspaper headlines, and much more. Then there is information provided by other facebook users, in the form of status updates, photo captions and comments, etc.

Visual: Facebook uses small icons to describe people, groups, and functions, i.e. a speech blurb depicting “messages,” a graduation cap indicating the “Univerity of Michigan” group, and a square next to every person’s name that can be filled with a profile picture of choice. It also allows individual users to post photos that will be made public to their “friends.”

Spatial: The facebook newsfeed is split up into three columns, an arrangement that organizes the chaos of all it has to offer. The middle one is constantly changing, as it is a stream of the activities of people and groups that is updated by the minute. The left column contains several lists, including groups one is a part of, popular apps, and the locations of one’s friends, and the right column provides information about upcoming events and trending news. Next to this column on the right side of the screen there is chat bar that advertises one’s online friends.

Aural & Gestural: While the facebook newsfeed does not communicate by itself through the aural and gestural modes, it allows users to share music and videos with each other. Thus facebook arguably enables communication using all five modes.

During my lovely chocolate-eating, facebook-browsing session, the football game that was on in the background switched to a commercial break and the TV screen was smothered by a close-up image of cinnamon swirl bread. Seconds later the female boxing champion Ronda Rousey appeared on the screen, looking tough and holding a medal. The commercial l turned out to be an advertisement for the restaurant chain Hardee’s, and I counted all five modes of communication operating in it.hqdefault

Linguistic: The linguistic mode is used in this commercial both visually and orally. The commercial visually presents information to its viewers through words on the screen: it provides us with the name and title of the boxer as well as descriptions of the food and deal that it is promoting. It uses language orally as well—at the end of the commercial a male voice describes the food in more detail and then declares, “only at Hardee’s”.

Visual: The commercial uses images to persuade its viewer to buy its product. As I mentioned above, it begins with a close-up picture of cinnamon swirl bread. Later it shows the whole breakfast sandwich, up-close as well. These images are designed to make one’s mouth water and stomach rumble. The commercial also uses the image of the tough-looking yet scantily-clad and make-up wearing boxer to convey a message of strength, power, and sexiness.

Spatial: The simple layout of every scene of this commercial makes its message very clear and accessible. The images are up-close and blown-up, and the letters are similarly oversized. The commercial ends with an image of the boxer, standing still and looking fierce, while a Hardee’s coupon slides onto the screen next to her face. The spacing of these two objects is balanced, causing the viewer’s gaze to bounce back and force between both sides of the screen.

Aural: Throughout the commercial there is head-banging music going on in the background, in addition to noises of a boxing match complete with the rowdy cheering of fans. These sounds capture the attention of the viewer and create a mood of rowdiness and fun. The commercial also uses sound effects to make the food appear more desirable: when the boxer bites into the sandwich it makes a satisfying crunch.

Gestural: The gestures of the boxer communicate various things to the viewer. In one scene, she is rubbing her wrists and looking menacingly at the camera in a don’t-mess-with-me kind of fashion. Later in the commercial, after she takes a bite of the breakfast sandwich, she licks one of her fingers and smiles. These contrasting gestures communicate to the audience the “tough but sweet” message that supposedly encapsulates the nature of the sandwich.

The two texts that I have analyzed that have the primary purpose of advertising a product—the Dove package and the Hardee’s commercial—are similar to each other in that they both appeal to the consumer’s senses to make their product more desirable. They both display images of their products, and while the Dove package supplements these images with specific colors and flowy patterns the commercial uses sound to underline the sandwich’s essence. The facebook newsfeed is of a slightly different nature because it is an interactive text. It is not merely informing its audience, but also encouraging its users to participate in the site. Because of this function, the spatial mode is much more important in this text than in the other two.

 

 

 

Kerouac and Franzen, Analyzed à la Pinker

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My dad and I tried to log our trip through Instagram…here is one of the earlier photos!

Early in the summer my dad and I drove together from San Francisco to Middletown, CT for my sister’s graduation and back again. (He’s afraid of flying). I couldn’t resist bringing along Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a book I’d been meaning to read for years, and on our return trip, as we chugged along through the midwest, I began to read it out loud from the passenger’s seat while my dad drove. We were both surprised at how into the book we got–I thought I would only read a few pages and grow tired and distracted, but I ended up plowing through a couple dozen. Kerouac is fun to read aloud because his writing feels like talk, like someone telling a story to friend without planning it out beforehand. Kerouac has become a model for my writing, because I love the notion of free-form writing. Thought and memory and do not adhere to any structure, so why must stories? I chose a passage sort of at random to analyze; because every page of On the Road looks pretty much the same, with no chapters, paragraph breaks or dialogue markings, I had a hard time locating specific moments or images in the book. But I think that nearly any passage functions to embody Kerouac’s unique voice and style. So here goes:

The floors of the bus stations are the same all over the country, they’re always covered with butts and spit and a sadness that only bus stations have. For a moment it was no different than being in Newark except that I knew the great hugeness outside that I loved so much. I rued the way I had broken up the purity of my entire trip, saving every dime and not drinking and not dawdling and really making time, by fooling around with this sullen girl and spending all my money. It made me sick.

In this passage, Kerouac does a great job at capturing mood. By making the universal, but objectionable claim, the floors of the bus stations are the same all over the country, he makes the reader curious to read what comes next. Then with the details of butts and spit, he enables the reader to visualize the setting he is describing, particularly its yuckiness. He then surprises the reader with the word sadness—an emotion, rather than another substance or object, ends his list. This word, coupled with the vague description of the great hugeness outside, evokes a mood of quiet, bittersweet solitude. Then the looseness of the next sentence really brings the reader inside of the narrator’s mind by mirroring the ranting nature of thoughts. Kerouac uses verb after verb in this sentence—saving…. drinking…. dawdling…. making time….fooling….spending—and this repetitive usage conveys excess, thereby highlighting the narrator’s regret.

Switching gears a little, in my current English 362 class we are reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. It’s one of many books that I love and hate at the same time. It is crude and violent, and I have felt my cheeks redden and my stomach churn at various times while reading it as I experience humiliation and anxiety vicariously through the characters. I think that it is Franzen’s ability to affect the reader in this tangible way that makes him such a powerful story teller. While I am not sure that I would wish to emulate his writing, as his style does not really align with my desired “voice” as a writer, I think his work is intellectually engaging and artistically insightful. I think that the following passage, that describes the daily experiences of a old man named Alfred with Parkinson’s disease, captures Franzen’s piercingly colorful style.

He had good days and bad days. It was as if when he lay in bed for a night certain humors pooled in the right or wrong places, like marinade around a flank steak, and in the morning his nerve endings either had enough of what they needed or did not; as if his mental clarity might depend on something as simple as whether he’d lain on his side or on his back the night before; or as if, more disturbingly, he were a damaged transistor radio which after a vigorous shaking might function loud and clear or spew nothing but a static laced with unconnected phrases, the odd strain of music.

First of all, I absolutely love the image of humors pool[ing]….like marinade around a flank steak. This comparison creates such a vivid and specific mental picture—most readers will know exactly what Franzen is talking about. It is also comical and kind of gross, that is, to think about the human body’s innards in terms of the characteristics of raw meat… but this aspect only strengthens the image and encourages the reader to think about the object (the human body) in a different way. I am reminded of a reading from last week (was it Pinker?) which said that good writing makes one look at the world differently. Franzen has definitely led me to do so. Franzen then uses another vivid, unusual description to illustrate the goings-on in Alfred’s body when he compares him to a damaged transistor radio. The reader is once more forced to look at the human body in a different light—it is now a mechanical object that can be adjusted by brutal physical treatment. Furthermore, with the brief aside more disturbingly, Franzen seems to be saying to the reader, “yes, this comparison was meant to rattle you; the uncomfortable connotations were intentional”.

Taking Pictures of My Shadow: Timid Writing

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For a self-portrait assignment in my second-level high school photography class, I took pictures of my shadow. I distinctly remember doing so: I was on the street right in front of my house and the sun was just starting to go down. It was a Sunday evening and I had hesitated and dawdled with the assignment all weekend. I was supposed to have my negatives ready to develop the next morning in class (it was an old-fashioned photo class, complete with chemicals and a darkroom), and so far had absolutely nothing to bring in.

Later in the week I showed my reel of developed negatives to my teacher, a blunt, gray-haired woman who was known for scaring students away on the first day of class. She fingered through them and eyed them with a magnifying glass, then looked up at me with disappointment. She then began to lecture me. “Annika, you’re an attractive, smart girl. You could do a lot with this assignment. Why, why, why are you taking pictures of your shadow? Why are you hiding your face? It’s obvious you are scared of something, you lack confidence, you are unwilling to speak your mind.”

While absorbing the criticism of my photo teacher, my high school self recognized that my reluctance to take pictures of myself was not stemmed from laziness but from fear. I couldn’t quite pinpoint precisely what I feared, but I knew that it had something to do with exposure. On some level, I think I was afraid that others might see a true part of me and reject it. Or worse, laugh at it. It was easier to express myself using shadows; it felt comfortable and safe. My audience might not “get” what I was trying to say, but at least they wouldn’t be able to judge me for it.

In her article, “How Writing Leads to Thinking,” Lynn Hunt proposes that writing is so terrifying of an endeavor because it forces the writer to expose a part of him or herself to the critical eyes of everyone else. She argues that to avoid being left “naked and shivering,” writers “hide… behind jargon, opacity, circuitousness, the passive voice, and a seeming reluctance to get to the point.” When reading this passage I thought yes. That’s it, you are on point.

Exposing a raw, honest part of oneself to the world is terrifying. It is so much easier to play it safe, to mask one’s opinions with vagueness and fluff, to hide “in the foliage that blocks the reader’s comprehension.” (The picture of the cat below is supposed to represent this scared, writerly act of “hiding in foliage”). I have done this countless times in my career as a writer, artist, and speaker; dancing around my scared-kitten-hiding-20327711central idea and cluttering my expression with uninteresting, overused muck.

But Hunt points out that timid self-expression will lead nowhere, because “no one cares” about it. She also points out that there is no “firing line” of critics ready to “execute” the bold, solitary writer. Rather, critics are yearning for bold, challenging arguments with which they can engage in lively debate.

Even though this all seems blatantly obvious, it goes against my instincts (and I assume those of many other aspiring writers), which tell me to play it safe and cover up my raw opinions. I really want to get over this hump of self-consciousness, and I hope that this course, and the writing minor as a whole, will help me do so. I think that by bridging the gap between the solitary act of writing and the communal work of conversation, the writing minor will help me, and everyone else who feels similarly, see that we are not alone and that there is no line of “others” firing against us. We can screw up and say stupid things, we can publish awkward blog posts and submit awful assignments. But in reality there is nothing out there preventing us from second, third, fourth and fifth chances besides our own fear.

I could spent the rest of my life taking pictures of my shadow, but I really, really don’t want to. It’s no fun at all.