Challenge 4: How to mercifully review past writing?

There is an art to looking back on previous writing assignments. First, you have to find it one of the 62 file folders that are cluttering your computer. Then, once you find it, you take a deep breath as you open the document. The screen lights up, and your mind immediately mutters, “this is a bad idea” as you scrunch your face and begin to scroll.

Ah, yes. The horror of having to review previous writing assignments.

In my case, this specific task involves looking at essays in which sentences run-on for four lines, and the introduction contains at least one broad generalization about ‘society.’ Even more, I admit that I am still actively trying to kick these habits (more recently, the overuse of ‘society’ generalizations. I’m working on it, Ray).

BUT! That isn’t to say that looking back at previous writing pieces has to be a face-scrunching task of disgust. I do realize that looking back on anything, whether it be an old essay, or a photograph of yourself as a pre-teen wearing youth convertible cargo pants (what?), is, by its very nature, somewhat cringe-worthy. But there are some essays (and photographs) that I can look back on with fondness, or even pride.

So why is it that some essays prove less cringe-worthy than others?

I’d argue that the answer lies in expressions of both authenticity and honesty. In fact, there is one previous essay I’ve written that is, in my opinion, a helpful illustration of this phenomenon. It is my Why I Write piece, crafted for my Gateway portfolio (which we’re not going to talk about as a whole, for reasons listed above).

Before I make my argument for why this text represents my writing at its most authentic and honest, here is an excerpt:

Perhaps confidence is the beginning of the understanding as to why I write. After many years of defining myself in the eyes of others, I sacrificed a sense of my power in constructing my own identity. I reclaim the confidence to use that power through writing, obtaining a clearer picture of the aspects of my own personality—the good and the bad—as well as a means through which to negotiate that revelation. The more I write, the clearer the picture becomes, and the more confident I become in practicing self-acceptance.

I love this paragraph for two reasons. First, it claims that ‘confidence’ is merely a consideration in determining why I write, rather than the definitive reason. At that very moment in my life, specifically as a junior just beginning the MiW program, ‘confidence’ was my argued reason as to why I write. It was the first thing that came to mind in answering the prompt, and was thus my honest response. And there is truth in that claim. I don’t, however, claim to know that I am correct in making that assumption, but rather that is worthy of consideration. It represents my closest, most honest attempt to make sense of my life at that very moment.

Second, in addition to the claim that such ‘confidence’ is a consideration, rather than an absolute, it also acknowledges that such a claim is not definitive. That is, understanding is a process, and my concept of ‘why I write’ will transform as I grow as a writer and a human being. The bubble of college life is real, as I’ll truly realize upon graduation. To assume the concreteness of all decisions made in college is to ignore the inherent transience of college itself, even if said transience isn’t completely apparent at this very moment.

While my capstone site itself does not utilize the personal essay format reflected in my Why I Write piece, my project’s introductory essay does speak a bit to myself, my process, and my perception of my project’s significance as bookend of my MiW experience. As such, I want to craft an essay that I’ll be proud to look back on.

I acknowledge that this may be a hopeless effort, if it is truly impossible to craft something of which your older, more mature self won’t be embarrassed. But, to approach the essay with the knowledge that both honesty and an authentic reflection of thought may prove beneficial in the long-run, well, that is a goal I’ll happily pursue.

Revisiting Challenge Journals, Part 2/2

*See my previous post on revisiting challenge journals, published here, where I reconsidered the textual basis of my first entry*

 

Challenge 2: How do you handle missed opportunities?

In my second challenge journal entry (read here), I considered the question, “what happens when you are writing about one thing, specifically something assigned by a professor, but then suddenly want to write about another thing?” (of course, the second being related to the original topic, rather than completely out of left field). I wrote about an assignment for my Travel Writing class while enrolled at DIS Copenhagen, where I was instructed to write about setting. Really, just setting.

In fact, here is the prompt, in all of its minimalist glory.

“Paper 2, 3-6 pages from one of your travels this semester. Focal points, Scenes/descriptions.” 

As you can see, the prompt really was right to point. And it’s hard to stray away from a prompt when the prompt itself is less than 15 words. Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, I did eventually find myself wanting to leave the prompt behind and explore a more interesting topic: that of my own loneliness. As I mentioned in my original journal entry, “I couldn’t stop my thoughts from circling another part of my experience–the fact that I was completely alone.”

Below is an excerpt from my essay on “scenes/descriptions” in which I describe my experience while on a run through Holyrood park in Edinburgh, Scotland, moments before a lingering rainstorm. I write about the landscape, the fleeting hikers, and my eventual loneliness.

As I continue walking, my eyes wander from the path before me, to the increasingly grey sky, to the valley below. As I walk, I take note of fleeting hikers in the distance, appearing as colorful dots against the lush, green scenery. I see a tall, lean woman to my right, dressed in a bright, raspberry-red windbreaker, her short mob of greying hair shining bright against the haze dipping low into the valley. She wanders off the path and towards a small stream cutting through the tall, rolling grasses, out of which emerge her two dogs—one golden and one midnight black.

Somewhat stunned by the swiftness of the woman’s quick ascent, my eyes dart back to the stream where the other woman walked with her two dogs, only to find that she, too, has disappeared. Something pulses in my mind, and my thoughts quickly fade from observations of others and draw to those of my own reality. I am alone, once again, in a valley of haze and small, ghost-like figures, walking a path toward the end of a hilltop I only hope will reveal a sense of relief and clarity, and point toward a pathway home.

I would then go on to describe the ascent up the hill only to observe a clear path home, much to my relief. But it was at this point in my essay, specifically the recognition of my own loneliness, that I wanted to leave the prompt behind and explore my own sense of self in this scene. I detailed my thoughts specifically in my initial entry, noting,

I began to think about my reaction to the scenery, and the eventual rainstorm, in the context of my own solitude. Was I scared that I was all alone in the middle of the dramatic highland landscape? Did I stop to really appreciate the scenery, given that a massive rainstorm was about to hit? What would the experience have been like had I been with another person? Was I so scared that my fear somehow evaporated and left me a wandering, soaking wet tourist in the middle of sweeping hills?

The crossroads noted above, that is, the point at which you can continue the prompt or swerve to pursue more meaningful content, is a hard one to confront. It illustrates the lingering internal conflict that questions what value there is in doing something that is less than meaningful, especially when something more meaningful lays within reach. As I concluded in my journal entry, I am glad that this capstone project has allowed time for such crossroads to be considered, and, in my case, acted upon. I have found that my topic has ebbed and flowed as the semester has progressed, resulting in content that carries maximum meaning and expression of my own interests, thoughts, and skills.

Revisiting Challenge Journals, Part 1/2

I wanted to revisit two of my previous journal entries, and comment more specifically on the textual evidence on which each was based. While I referenced specific writing pieces within both journal entry, I neglected to cite specific blocks of texts. After re-visiting those specific writing pieces this week, I believe I can provide further elaboration in my entries with direct quotes of the text!

And with that, let’s go back to my first challenge journal entry…


 

Challenge Journal 1: What is the most productive way to revise?

Do you save the majority of revision for the end of the writing process? Or do you revise as you go?

These were questions I began to consider while in English 325, particularly during the course of workshops. The two weeks of workshops sessions would yield fantastic advice, and provided motivation to make changes more regularly, rather than at the end of the workshop period. As I mentioned in my journal entry (read here), “with each day of helpful workshop insight, there would be one day less to write, revise, and submit my final essay.”

The excerpt below is from my second essay of English 325, in which I wrote about a family tradition of going to my grandparents’ home for the Christmas holiday each year. In the text selections below, I describe the physical setting of my grandparents’ living room, decorated each year in the most enchanting way.

Below is the excerpt, before any revision.

The warm light peeking through the small archway at the back of the room, however, was the greeting my sister and I would anticipate . . . We’d slip by chairs and stumble around counters to sneak toward the archway, stepping through the passage and into the living room. The interior, in our eyes, was pure magic. Full, lush garland trimmed the tops of the walls, wrapping around the room and tucking into the back of the large chest that sat in the corner, adorned with twisting red ribbons and delicate red bows. Light from the television—most likely playing whatever Christmas film was showing on cable—pulsed in the opposite corner, and the small lamps scattered on either side of the couch filling the room with a soft glow. Our eyes floated around the room and finally locked on the Christmas tree in the far corner, admiring how the illuminated branches cast dancing shadows along the wall and up toward the ceiling.

And then came workshop sessions. In reviewing my classmates essays and listening to others’ feedback, I acknowledged the importance of variation of syntax, actionable language, explicit commentary on significance, and more. I decided to apply the tips given to others as I heard them in workshop, rather than waiting until the end, and hoping my memory served me well. The above excerpt went through about 3-4, short, revision “check-in” periods during the course of workshop sessions to reach is final format, which is included below.

The warm light peeking through the small archway toward the back of the kitchen, however, was the greeting Kristen and I anticipated each year . . . We slipped by the chairs and stumbled around the countertop, stepping through the passage and into the living room. Our eyes traced up toward the ceiling, along the walls, and down to the floor, attempting to take everything in.

The interior was enchanting.

Full, lush garland wrapped around the room, trimming the tops of the walls. Small lamps adorned with red bows filled the room with a soft glow. Our eyes danced with the light around the room before locking on the Christmas tree in the far corner, its brightened branches casting shadows that danced on the walls and extended to the ceiling.

It was often my grandma’s work, the interior decoration. I remember coming each Christmas season, anxious to see the house transformed into a beautiful, intimate sanctuary from the cold December air. I would never come to witness my Grandma decorating the house, though the process was never a concern until later. As a child, I was content to imagine the garland and string lights appearing by magic.

The above excerpt, in my opinion, greatly benefitted from the “check-ins,” mentioned in my original journal entry. I was able to more effectively integrate the feedback I heard in workshop, without taking up too much extra time.

 

Challenge 3: How to conclude?

What does it mean to end a piece of writing? How do you find a balance between crafting too neat of an ending and one filled with too many loose ends?

I’ve seen a handful of posts commenting on these very questions. Considering the ways in which my writing style and approach to crafting a narrative has shifted throughout the last four years, my perspective on “writing an ending” has been one of the more noticeable shifts. Specifically, my conclusions have shifted from being succinct statements no longer than a paragraph and tied up with a bow, to more open-ended considerations, putting the preceding content into perspective while still encouraging the reader to consider it further.

I don’t necessarily think one approach is better than the other. In my class, ‘Persuasion & Campaigns,’ for example, I learned that explicit conclusions are generally more persuasive than implicit conclusions. I also know that, if my social science research papers went without a clear conclusion, the world may explode. I do, however, think I have become more open to more interpretive endings with each and every writing assignment. More than just a shift in writing choices, however, this change also indicates a greater, more meaningful shift in my attitude toward writing in general.

For example, here is a look at one of the first papers I wrote for college, written in, no surprise, English 125. In this essay, I argued how my tendency to embrace the imaginative as a child sometimes made me feel out-of-place at school, yet instilled in me the values that I still hold today. Here is how I concluded my paper:

I admit I may have had a harder time grasping the concept of reality than other children at one point in my life. Yet the make-believe I once clung to has instilled in me a hope to make a positive change in the world around me. I realize it is important to be aware of the world in which one lives, but my childhood has taught me that sometimes it is more beneficial to have your head floating up in the clouds.

Comforting? Absolutely. Cliche? You know it.

Thought provoking? Not particularly.

And that brings me to my last paper crafted for English 325, written last semester. I wrote about my own perfectionist tendencies, the transient nature of college life, and the complications it has fostered. The essay was in response to a prompt grappling with the application of theoretical concepts in our daily life. These are my last few sentences:

I doubt that my perfectionist tendencies will disappear with a single revelation and the acknowledgment of transience itself. My college experience, after all, hasn’t seen its final bookend. And just as college is inherently transient, I imagine life won’t be much different. Anxieties, worries, and feelings of despair may never quite disappear completely as long as transience is present. Although these feelings may never cease, to know productivity is happening, even in the absence of perfection, is to realize the meaninglessness of defeat.

And, if fears of defeat no longer resonate, creating an absence of uncertainty and distress at the possibility of failure, then maybe perfection becomes irrelevant altogether.

With this conclusion, I hoped the reader would continue to think about the topic, even after the conclusion. I found that, while any paper can prove resonant for the reader, actively providing such an opportunity may yield a greater likelihood to leave a lasting impression.

As I near the end of my capstone project, I consider what kind of thoughts I want the reader to take with them. I want to clearly and concisely define my argument, while still encouraging the reader to consider how information overload plays a role in their own life, what they may be doing to facilitate the consequences of such overload, and how they can approach information consumption going forward. While this requires a bit of understanding of the issue itself, it also needs a certain determination to re-consider their own media and news consumption habits. Such determination only comes with a carefully-crafted conclusion, leaving the last words resonating in the reader’s mind.

Challenge 2: How do you handle missed opportunities?

A common theme running through my own “missed opportunities” is a disregarded potential that comes at the expense of the topic assigned.

In other words, once I start a piece, I stop wanting to write about the thing I’m supposed to write about. Something else suddenly becomes infinitely more fascinating, though I find myself reluctantly ignoring this potential for the purpose of the assignment.

This is definitely a feeling I recall discussing in class conversation, though it wasn’t until I addressed this prompt directly that it became clear how much it resonated with my own experience.

While enrolled in my Travel Writing course at DIS Copenhagen, I was instructed to write about a travel experience from the few weeks I had been abroad, with a focus on scene descriptions and settings. I chose a focus easily enough, highlighting my trip to Edinburgh, during which I had gone on a run through Holyrood Park, only to get stuck in the rain. The highland landscape, sudden onset of rain, and subsequent rainbow (Scotland was really doing *the most* in that moment) made it a simple choice for an assignment on scenery, and I began writing easily enough.

As I began writing, however, I found myself unable to stop thinking about another part of my experience–the fact that I was completely alone.

I began to think about my reaction to the scenery, and the eventual rainstorm, in the context of my own solitude. Was I scared that I was all alone in the middle of the dramatic highland landscape? Did I stop to really appreciate the scenery, given that a massive rainstorm was about to hit? What would the experience have been like had I been with another person? Was I so scared that my fear somehow evaporated and left me a wandering, soaking wet tourist in the middle of sweeping hills?

These were the questions that intrigued me. But, I was instructed to write about the external scenery, not the internal shitstorm of emotion that was brewing in the moment. I wasn’t able to address the complexity of my own solitude in the end, something I look back on with a bit of disappointment. I can’t deny there is mind anger as well, given my frustration that not every writing class can have flexible deadlines and (cautiously) encourage redirection of focus.

As I look back on the past few months of Capstone, and the remaining weeks to come, I feel grateful that this class has provided an environment for redirection and reinterpretations. I consider my initial proposal, in addition to where my project has landed, and feel a sense of pride and excitement that my own mind has been able to bring me this far–though not as quickly as I (or Ray) would’ve preferred, probably. And while my initial project proposal would have produced work that I would be proud of, the ability to react my topic’s differing potentials has been immensely more rewarding.

 

Considering the Consequences

Free-writing is the written equivalent of letting your mind run wild (sometimes disturbingly so).

Case in point: An excerpt from my “free-write” paragraph generated in class:

The most extreme logical consequence/implication of my issue? That we don’t care whether our information is correct, or whether we are perceive said information correctly. We tune out to information, even that which is rational, and lack the motivation to absorb information critically. What happens next? Regarding our news sources, competition ceases to exist. News information is no longer held to a collective standard, and there is no incentive to choose one over another as a result of an increasing degree of societal apathy. Information becomes solely run through the government, and society willingness concedes. the fourth estate ceases to exist. Individuals lose their sense of right and wrong, lacking the motivation or desire to distinguish between the two.

How did I get so morbid? I didn’t think I had it in me.

On the point of using this exercise as a perspective check…this exercise helped me to center on the immediacy of my topic, and to remember “why my argument is important.” The exercise was more thought-provoking than I initially expected, and I may use it again (though will hopefully dive into the complexity of first couple of thoughts, rather than the unsettling last few).

 

Challenge 1: What is the most productive way to revise?

In my English 325 course last semester, I found myself thoughtfully considering the revision process, more so than I had ever done before. What does it mean to revise? How do you know when a work of writing is good, and revised enough? When is the right time to revise? I especially grappled with the last question, given that I was blessed to be among students who had a wealth of experience in workshops, and would be an integral part of the revision process. It became clear early on in the term that a handful of my peers were equipped to give really good advice during workshops. The helpfulness of their insight wasn’t limited to the workshop writer, however–I found that I learned something new with each paper, tips and tricks that I wanted to try in my own work.

With each day of helpful workshop insight, there would be one day less to write, revise, and submit my final essay. This brings me back to the question of “when,” specifically when it would be useful to stop (or pause) the writing process, and begin to think big picture.

Do I write my paper and revise it upon completion, having the entirety of our class discussion at my disposal? Or do I revise as I go, knowing that there may be more insight to come?

I tried out both techniques across Papers 2 and 3 (Paper 1 had already come and gone, with some pretty average revision on my part, honestly). I found that my revision process for Paper 3, that is, revising throughout workshops, as I continued to writer, resulted in a piece of work in which I was most confident. Having said that, “continuous revision” didn’t turn out to be what I initially expected. Instead of looking at my piece periodically and making distinct, lasting changes, I began to read over my paper with the insight from a day’s workshop session fresh in my mind, though no absolute plans to make changes to my paper’s content or overall structure. Instead, I merely considered my paper at the point that it was at, and tried to work through whether any workshop insight may serve my writing. These check-ins didn’t take long, but it made the revision process overall more organic and meaningful.

With that anecdote, I arrive at this semester’s Capstone project, and the production plan I will be submitting on Wednesday. With the knowledge that this project will be different than other writing I have had before, I would like to consider a revision process similar to the one I used near the end of English 325. After all, it seems only fitting that my attempts to change, refresh, and adapt my revision process for each and every essay continue into my last project!

Voice in my “Why I Write” Post

Before re-reading my Why I Write post, I was convinced the words would be unrecognizable; I would review it and immediately write it off as something I had written on a whim, and, if I were to write it again, would look completely different. Having said this, I was quite surprised by the level of familiarity I had with my writing. This seems to be a common theme in my life as a writer–with each draft I write, I imagine words that are so quickly thrown together that they couldn’t possibly be my voice, when in reality, these moments are when my most prominent thoughts are best communicated. So, while I recognize my voice within the written words, I believe a key component of my own thought process when considering why I write is missing in my writing: uncertainty.

When I crafted my response, I wasn’t confident in exactly why I write.  I had a few ideas, but with every thought came ten more suspicions. Instead of honoring these questions by weaving them into my response, however, I chose to edit them out. I wrote and deleted, wrote and deleted, until a half hour had flown by and I only had a few sentences to show for it. With each sentence I wrote, I knew there was a better way to communicate my thought, and I chose to get hung up on each and every word instead of expressing my thoughts as they came to me, regardless of clarity. Uncertainty was a key component of my brainstorming process–and my resulting voice–but it wasn’t successfully translated into my writing.

This isn’t to say that this uncertainty is to be present in every single one of my writing assignments–there are some essays I spend months on and subsequently become very confident with my arguments, and therefore don’t exhibit great levels of uncertainty. In an assignment such as this one, however, where I am instructed to state my thoughts in a informal response-like format, I believe my writing could have benefitted form an expression of uncertainty. I would have been able to look back on my writing when constructing subsequent drafts and follow my thought process more clearly. Instead, I am left to review a response where much of the small but crucial components of my thought process have been omitted. Further, the lack of uncertainty present in my writing invites a false image of expertise. In this case, I think a bit of questioning and apprehension would have created words that more genuinely reflected my own thoughts and honored my voice.

Reading Recommendations (as of 11/15)

Some relevant things to read right now:

  • The Book Thief by: Marcus Zusak
  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me by: Mindy Kailing
  • Exit, Voice, and Loyalty by: Albert O. Hirschman
  • Ellen DeGeneres’s Facebook page, filled with acts of kindness
  • The Bible
  • Sing to Me: My Story of Making Music, Finding Magic, and Searching for Who’s Next by: L.A. Reid (Rachel–I think this was the right book? If not correct me in the comments)
  • @humansofny (Humans of New York) Instagram account
  • Readings on constitutional law
  • Readings on issues that the Supreme Court will be facing in the near future.
  • The Wave by: Todd Strasser (Will–I think this is the author, clarify if I got it wrong)
  • Card Stacks on Vox.com
  • Encouraging quotes and poems (Shaylyn suggests Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise)
  • Articles on The Guardian (Dennis suggests an article about the long-term strategies of Democrats and Republicans in the last few decades, and how it relates to the Midwest’s Republican vote this election)
  • Articles on Buzzfeed
  • Flipping back and forth between news sites such as BBC News/NYT and less heavy sites like Reddit.
  • “A Letter to America from Leslie Knope” on Vox.com
  • Nixonland and other writings by Rick Perlstein on Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan
  • Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric by: Claudia Rankine

Feel free to comment with clarifications or further suggestions!

Reading: Expectation vs. Reality edition

Looking back on our discussion this past Tuesday, I came to a short summary of my relationship with reading: “Ideal Lindsay” reads a lot more than “Reality Lindsay” does.

Similar to what Minji shared in class, I have attempted multiple times to label myself as a “reader” in order to hold myself accountable, with little luck. Often I find myself reading online articles and essays that I can get through in 5-10 minutes, but rarely am I successful in reading a novel in a reasonable amount of time (i.e. NOT over than a month). Short online articles and essays satisfy my need to read to stay relevant or somewhat invest my interests, but reading actual novels seems almost indulgent to me.

Having said that,  whether I am reading essays for class, articles on online blogs, or REALLY treating myself and dedicating time to an entire novel or magazine, a cozy, relaxing environment is key for me. Basically, my ideal reading environment is something right out of a holiday-edition home furnishing catalog. Think candles, a big chair, warm lighting, a hot beverage, maybe with a dog lounging by a nearby fireplace. Sadly, on a typical college-student’s budget, I have recognized that this ideal is not attainable. As a result, I can be found reading at Sweetwaters on Main St. or in the Michigan Union study lounge at night with a coffee in hand–a latte if I’m feeling crazy.