I know what you’re thinking. “But Julia, didn’t you just do an essay for your last experiment? Isn’t this kind of the same thing?” And my answer to that is yes and no.
Yes, I attempted a personal reflective essay for my second experiment. However, as I wrote my sample I was struggling with the level of background story to include. I ended up concerned that what I was creating was more of a narrative than a reflection. I feel that while I generally liked the style and freedom of the reflective essay, if I had continued in that genre for my full project I would have run into some obstacles. Namely, I would have struggled to include deeply personal reflection (something I have always had difficulty with), and more seriously, the narrative I provided would not have been relatable to a wide audience.
Science journalist, Michelle Nihuis defines an essay as something that is “written in a personal voice, involve one or more journeys, and are relevant not just to the writer but to the reader.” I feel that my previous attempt at an essay would have failed in that final and crucial category. For that reason, I am now attempting a reported essay in the hopes that relevant sources and deep research will aid in the relevance of my essay and help me dig deeper into my own reflection.
A reported essay combines the deep research and credibility of journalism with the open and honest experiences and opinions of the writer. According to Chip Scanlan, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the difference between a news article and the reported essay “lies in the quality of the reporting, the depth and value of the insight, and perhaps most of all, the power of the writer’s voice, which derives from those two characteristics.” I believe that this genre will allow me to tell the story of my own experiences on campus with the support of research and existing articles to tap in to potential universal experiences that are relevant to my reader as well.
I went with a Mad Libs style title for this post, because I’m not entirely sure what exactly to call the piece of writing I’m attempting to create. I felt restricted when writing my origin piece as a rhetorical analysis and even more so when experimenting with Blackout. Now, I want the freedom to reflect on my political engagement by exploring my personal journey through different experiences relating to protests and politics. I know that I want to write a first person, non-fiction essay in which I describe and analyze my experiences, thoughts, and feelings. But when it came time to name the genre of said essay I couldn’t pick just one of my proposed adjectives (remember when I said I’m indecisive?). While most of them could describe the genre I’m interested in, I have issues with each of them.
Reflective – Okay, if I absolutely had to pick just one adjective, I would describe what I’m doing as a reflective essay. The main point of a reflective essay is to analyze a past event from the present and reflect on how you have changed as a result. Essentially, this is what I’m doing, but I intend to reflect on a series of past events rather than just one. Furthermore, the reflective essay (like many other things) has been ruined by school assignments trying to make students “think more deeply about what they’re learning.”
Personal – A close second to “reflective,” personal essays have elements of narration and reflection that are appealing. Again though, I feel that the label of “Personal Essay” has been too marred by the CommonApp to truly encapsulate what I’m going for here.
Exploratory – I love the idea of writing an essay about something that I still haven’t quite figured out myself. I want to reflect in a way that insights come throughout the piece rather than in a clearly defined thesis. Where I got caught up on the label of “exploratory essay” is that the explanations of this genre that I found in my research were all lacking the personal aspect that I found so appealing in the first two adjectives.
Belletristic – In all honesty I’d never heard this word before my research, but it’s really cool so now it’s here. I’m too unsure of the actual implications of this adjective to use it as a label for my genre, but after googling it’s meaning I knew I had to include it. I found the Merriam-Webster definition, “literature that is an end in itself and not merely informative; specifically light, entertaining, and often sophisticated literature” to be the most intriguing and fitting.
As I move forward in trying to write an essay that is personal, reflective, exploratory, and belletristic, my clearest guide is to look at examples of those who have already accomplished such a work. Primarily I am drawn to Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams” and Scott Russel Sanders’ “Under the Influence” as models for my essay. Where I believe these essays transcend the standard academic sense of the word “essay” is in their vivid narration, references to outside sources, interwoven reflection, relatable insights, and artistic personal writing styles. These are all elements that I hope to be able to include in my own essay.
When I read Andrew Kleon’s description of blackout poetry (see above) the vague plans swirling in my head for unarticulated reasons seemed to click. I knew that I wanted to do something with President Mark Schlissel’s statement to the UM community amid the events of 2017 when known white supremacist Richard Spencer was trying to speak on campus. And I also knew that I wanted to try my hand at blackout poetry, since one of my friends had recently posted some of her gorgeously illustrated creative endeavors on her Instagram story. But only after hearing blackout poetry described as akin to CIA censorship did the connection between the themes of first amendment rights, rhetoric, and blackout poetry become clear to me. However, before I took on the grandiose visions in my head, I had to do some research to figure out just how one actually does create blackout poetry.
Blackout poetry is created when the – writer? author? creator? – artist decides to redact all but a specific selection words from a physical piece of text. That’s the most generalized description that I can provide without inadvertently excluding any subset of blackout poetry. Since so much of blackout poetry is subject to personal creativity and visual presentation, I would classify it as more of an art form than a written genre – but I guess that’s why they call writing an art too, right?
There are a number of different approaches to making blackout poetry. In my discussion of the conventions of blackout poetry I’m going to break the whole process down into two halves: Composition and Creation. I’m using “composition” to refer to the process behind the words that comprise the poem and “creation” to refer to the physical manifestation of the piece.
I’m actually gonna switch things up on you and talk about the creation side of things first. The creation of blackout poetry starts with the selection of a base piece. Some people use newspaper clippings. Other people use random old books. Authorities on blackout poetry all seem to agree that you can use pretty much any previously written piece as your base. A general theme is that the base piece was written by someone else originally, but there’s no one saying you can’t blackout something of your own. Then, there’s what you do to the piece. Another general consensus seems to be that everything done to your base should be done physically – with sharpie paint, crayon, pencil, etc. Even though the New York Times apparently made an app that allows users to electronically blackout sections of articles, it’s just not the same. From there it’s up to you. Some people, like Kleon, stick to the CIA style plain black sharpie redaction, while others (see above gallery from Intstagram) choose to whiteout or add illustrations or collages to either change the visual appeal or add meaning to their poem. The physical presentation of the poem is where the artist has the most freedom, because they must draw their words from what’s already been put on the page.
When it comes to the composition side of things, a lot of people seem to say that the best, maybe even the only, way to to start is my skimming a page for a word or phrase that stands out to you. What to do after that is somewhat ambiguous. Some sources just suggest looking for other interesting words then (magically) putting them together to form a poem. When I talked to the friend who first sparked my interest in the genre, she explained that after finding the initial word or phrase she composes based on syntax. If the phrase is a noun, she looks for a verb, or vice versa, and eventually a poem comes out. She seconded the suggestion of composing on a separate notebook before doing anything to the actual piece, only marking it up when she knows exactly which words to keep. Blackout poems are all very short, maybe a phrase or two. However, it doesn’t seem like much about the text itself matters beyond this point. Some people claim that you need to redact at least 50% of the text for it to not count as plagiarism, or that you should avoid using more than three words in a row. Some people rely only on words in their exact form on the page, others adapt them with letters from adjacent words, or even black out all but a single letter from a word in order to spell their own. Some blackout poems read disturbingly like a “live, laugh, love” sign, while others are insightful, funny, quirky, or downright confusing. You write from what the page gives you.
The author of this post who had no idea how else to start it and will now continue to struggle to define herself for your entertainment
Honestly, this is maybe the fifth (?) time in the past year that I’ve been asked to “write a brief introduction of yourself.” In theory, that would make this super easy, quick, and painless. But here’s my issue: every time I’m asked to sum up my existence in a few fun facts it sparks a minor existential crisis. I don’t like introducing myself for the same reason I don’t like picking a favorite food – it feels limiting. So instead of listing off my stats (hometown, major, job, etc), I’m going to tell y’all some of the contradictions that stop me from being able to write a traditional introduction and define myself as just one thing. Who knows, maybe this will end up telling you something about me that even I can’t articulate yet. Or, maybe it will just be confusing.
I’ve spent my entire life in the state of Michigan, and I absolutely love it here. Yet, at the same time, I’m itching to get far away for a time (aka for grad school). As far as hobbies go, the most interesting thing that I like to do is linoleum cut printmaking – but don’t worry I haven’t carved or made a print in ages. I also truly enjoy going to for runs and working out because it helps clear my head. It’s just that the whole making myself go for a run or go to the gym is usually a painful process and the most difficult part of my day. Lately I’ve taken to the habit of pulling up games of Bejeweled when I’m feeling particularly stressed out, but in general I don’t like video games – if Bejeweled even counts as a video game?
I’m in the writing minor so naturally you would assume that I like writing. I don’t hate writing per se, but let’s just say that given the option to write or not to write, I would rather not write. I do, in fact, enjoy reading, but there’s a solid nine months of the year when the only reading I do is assigned. And I don’t enjoy that type of reading at all.
Well, I think that’s all I’ll say for now. I’m sorry if I didn’t give you much of an actual explanation of who I am. But let’s be honest was I ever going to?
As a consolation prize, here’s the link to my Spotify account (one of my most prized and intimate possessions). I promise it’s more enjoyable than this post.