Breadth vs. Depth: An Undergraduate Allegory

I took a lot of Big Capstone Leaps this past week: I sent my “finished” poetry collection off to the printer; I completely overhauled the design of my project site; I finished drafting my intro essay; I received my poetry collection back from the printer; I rejoiced a little.

Now, moments away from our Capstone showcase, I pause to reflect on this whole crazy-frustrating-rewarding whirlwind of an experience. It’s remarkable how my project narrowed and deepened overtime: I decided against photography in favor of printing a book; I took out the digital “poem bank” feature to focus on my own words; I spent months wading through the murky waters of editing, and editing, and editing. And editing.

It’s funny, though—it doesn’t feel like anything was lost, per se. Perhaps I sacrificed breadth to dive into depth, but this felt more appropriate for a project about loss and mental health. These topics deserve our full, undivided attention. All my project’s original extra bells and whistles ultimately felt like distractions.

However, when I think about the totality of my undergraduate career (ha…), I think about the promises of breadth. A notoriously indecisive student, I managed to select two of the least specific majors on campus (American Culture and Women’s Studies). I joke that these majors are for students who can’t make up their minds, and I’m right, in a way: American Culture is the most frequently cross-listed department at this University. I’ve taken AMCULT courses in History, English, Political Science, Arab and Muslim American Studies, Latinx Studies, Sociology, Women’s Studies, and Psychology. And I value this interdisciplinarity, this rejection of institutionalism and “pre-requisites” and all the other expectations that make majors rigid. I know it’s just one of those linguistic coincidences, but it seems apt that “breadth” sounds so like “breath”—the breadth of my coursework has allowed me to breathe.

But, sometimes, this breadth lacks focus—I’m driven by whim and not by rigor, and I enter my last semester of college wondering if I know much about anything at all, really.

In light of this, I think my capstone project provides a refreshing degree of depth: never have I spent this much time on a single piece of writing, a single project, a single word (honestly). And so, as I add the finishing touches to my Capstone Project and assemble my annotated bibliography, I’m thinking about how much I’ve valued the time and ability to magnify, to revel in detail, to generate something so full. What a remarkable opportunity.

***

For any and all who want to see my collection in its final “book” form, I present a link.

Grasping for Stove Burners (and other thoughts on editing poetry)

Hi. Hello. Howdy. Your friendly neighborhood Imposter here. On today’s episode of An Imposter Writes Poetry: an overly ambitious prose writer seriously underestimates the sheer amount of (mental and emotional) labor required in the poetry editing process.  

 

Because, as it turns out, editing a poem is not like editing an essay. It’s not a matter of logical consistency—you can’t simply ensure that every topic sentence reflects your thesis statement, that your arguments are supported with properly cited evidence, that you avoid passive voice.

Rather, editing a poem is a relentless series of impossible, subjective, detail-oriented questions, and they all matter. Punctuation matters. Word choice matters. Tense matters. Spacing and line breaks and indentation matter. Rhythm matters. One of my mentors explained it this way: editing is like putting on a blindfold, reaching over the stove with your bare hands, and trying to figure out which burners are hot. You need to feel the heat, the pressure points. The whole process is risky, dangerous, even a little futile. And, after considering every nook and cranny of the poem, after chopping and rearranging, after locating the heat and boiling some water and making yourself a nice spaghetti meal, you have to ask: does it still flow? Maybe? Somehow? Does it still mean anything?

The last time I seriously undertook the task of editing was in Gateway, when I repurposed a couple disparate journal entries into a (relatively) cohesive 12-page theory paper. When I consider this experience in the context of poetry editing, and I’m struck by a stark difference: whereas editing prose is largely a process of filling in gaps—to flesh out my repurposing paper, I added sources, filled in logical holes, refined personal narrative, and deepened my analysis—editing poetry is largely an effort in deletion. I look at my words and ask: Where am I over-explaining? Which stanzas are too opaque? What is unnecessarily repetitive? Whereas editing prose is largely a means of polishing—tighten syntax here, refine diction there—editing poetry is an exercise in destruction. One of my mentors explicitly asked me to “fracture” my poetry, to take away the tidiness. Perhaps I’d go so far as to say: whereas editing prose requires soldering words and binding thoughts, poetry editing requires breaking language altogether.

And so, after 5 iterations of drafts and 5 mentor meetings, I now pause and consider my collection. It’s funny how 7 poems seems like such a feeble number, but the effort itself feels so significant. It’s remarkable how much time I’ve spent on each and every word. Even as someone who deeply admires and appreciates poetry, perhaps never before have I considered the true feat that is the published poem.

I look at my collection, at my mountain of discarded drafts, and realize: there’s work yet to be done.

Confessions of an Imposter: on writing poetry but not calling yourself a poet

OR, a poetic rumination on not being able to poetically ruminate on the poetry that needs rumination

 

There are few things as intimidating as the blank page.

There’s that deadline, over there, in that tidy production schedule I made myself, in the sticky notes on my desk, in the folds of my planner—but there’s also that giddy-nagging-stubborn voice that, suddenly, requires color-coding and demands needless organization and just really loves resistance.

(The perfectionist in me would rather spend twenty five hours writing a paper than fifty minutes writing a blue book exam.)

And when I put pen to paper—and pause and think about finally taking out the trash or picking up the trombone or starting a blog or doing anything, everything that’s not writing poetry—I’m overwhelmed by Imposter Syndrome.  

Maybe it’s because there’s this expectation that poems flow naturally from fountain pens, in cursive that’s equal parts cryptic and legible, in tattered black leather notebooks, at three o’clock in the morning. Maybe it’s because every word matters more than it should; I expect precision, dislocation, metaphors so deep they’ll dig rivers and solve droughts and provide clean drinking water. Maybe it’s because this kind of self-pressure only begets cliche.

Or, maybe it’s because I’ve never had the guts to call myself a “poet.”

There are few things as intimidating as the blank page that should have poetry on it.

The last time I tried to write poetry on demand, I was sitting on a patch of lichen some three thousand feet above the highways of Maine, watching the counties unfold like board games below me. It was hard, but it was easier: poetry flows more readily on mountainsides, stripped of oxygen but full of adrenaline. Profundity increases with elevation gain; jaws drop farther with gravity.

But Michigan is flat. Mount Brighton is actually just a heap of trash masquerading as a snowboarding destination. The only mountain I see is my capstone project, jagged summit and hailstorm and all.

So this Imposter needs a Muse, I suppose, a place that compels poetry—a place at the intersection of discomfort and home, like tree roots or blinding sunshine or docks just dampened by rain.

Either that, or I need to remember what it is to live without a backspace. This journal is an exercise in re-training a (stream-of-)conscience, an ode to chicken scratch, a statement of lilty imperfection.

Because there are few things as exhilarating as mountains, as disguises, as the possibility of the blank page.

On Contents and Content Warnings

content warning: suicide

 

First, some background: for my capstone project, I’ve chosen to write a poetry collection about my uncle’s death by suicide. I intend to place my poems in public spaces (railroad tracks, riverbanks, parking garages, highway bridges), take photos, curate an Instagram account, and hope that people stumble upon the poems and maybe read them and maybe like them.

Cue the worries—

how do I treat the topic of mental health with the attention and sincerity it deserves; how do I avoid cliche when writing about grief; how do I avoid presuming I’m an expert; how do I bridge the chasm between private rumination and public declaration; how do I invite conversation without unintentionally harming the very population I’m seeking to help.

On this last point, I’ve been thinking about content warnings. This week was mental health week on campus, and I know numerous people—myself included—who were triggered by one of the events held on the Diag for the purpose of suicide awareness. A friend posted a Buzzfeed video titled “I Jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge” on Facebook, and it hit me like a shiver. On one level, these public conversations are important to have; on another level, they are wholly unproductive if those most invested in the conversation are blindsided, unprepared to discuss their own pain. Indeed, conversations on “awareness” and “prevention” and “healing” should be held on people’s—survivors, those with suicidal ideation, loved ones—own terms.

I mention all this because it’s important, but also because it carries serious implications for the ethos of my project. How might placing poetry about suicide in public places (even if it’s rooted in my experience as a suicide loss survivor) injure those around me, however unintentionally?

I suppose the challenge here is one of audience. It’s not as though I haven’t written about suicide before: for my final project in a course on Latinx Literature (which I took the semester after my uncle’s death), I made a poetry zine that became a simultaneous letter to my uncle and to Oscar Wao (from The Brief Wondrous Life of). And as I begin to draft my collection, there’s a lot I want to draw from this project. My zine was hybrid and disjoint in a way I want my Instagram account to be hybrid and disjoint. My zine was vulnerable in a way I hope to be vulnerable. My zine taught me to find words I didn’t think I had.

But I haven’t written anything about suicide with the intention of showing it to others—because the zine was private, the conversation existed solely on my own terms. Which begs the question: how do I conscientiously engage my audience? Visiting an Instagram account is a choice, I suppose, and I can put content warnings on each post. But leaving these poems out in public spaces becomes infinitely trickier. The safety of privacy simply isn’t an option this time around—and, quite frankly, the potential for feedback is scary.

 

Stepping up to the (boiler)plate

Although I missed our class conversation yesterday, the topic of boilerplate language and clichés immediately piqued my interested— nothing aggravates me more than empty sentences or tired phrases (I’m talking to you, all University of Michigan promotional material that has ever existed ever).

Just like Bryan, Oliver, and Zach, I promptly thought of sports—a genre saturated with way too much clichéd commentary (whenever my mom turns on a Michigan football game a few minutes too, she rolls her eyes at ESPN’s “Talking Heads.”) It’s a shame, really: sports writing is spectacularly tangible, evocative, laden with emotions and analogies and turns of phrase. Sports interviews, regrettably, are not. At all.

Take, for example, the press conference. Regardless of team, regardless of context, regardless of the outcome, post-game press conferences manage to sound identical. In order to dodge controversy, avoid directing blame, and dodge making unfulfillable promises, coaches and players end up spewing a series of blanket responses that still, somehow, appease just about everyone.

I love Jim Harbaugh (almost) as much as the next Michigan student, but his press conferences are far from charismatic. The press conference below followed the team’s loss to MSU—decidedly the least mundane football game of the season (I’ll try not to remind everyone of the details)—yet still manages to follow the basic post-game formula:

“There’s so much good, you know, our guys that came played big in the big game and overcame so much. I mean, calls that were made and calls that weren’t made… They just kept fighting and overcame so much in the ball game and ultimately played winning football. And what do you say about the last play, you know, it was unfortunate. We didn’t get the result.”

So there you have it: some vague comment on “playing hard,” some mention of the result of the game, some statement on the referees. These responses are consensual—they don’t push any narratives or offer any new information—but we feast on this meaninglessness. The press conference is essentially a blank canvas, allowing us to project whatever feelings we have about the game onto the TV screen. They persuade us that our coach has everything under control, that we will turn ourselves around, that we will continue to win. The words are comforting in their predictability—everything a fan feels they need to hear.

Notably, Harbaugh is famous for challenging this press conference script when he was a quarterback at Michigan, single-handedly promising a victory against OSU: “We’re going to play in the Rose Bowl this year, I guarantee it. We’ll beat Ohio State and we’ll be in Pasadena on January 1st.”

Though he ultimately delivered on his promise, Harbaugh received considerable flack for making a statement this direct and tangible. Indeed, with the ease and proliferation of internet backlash, it’s really no wonder why today’s press conferences seem so substanceless. The fluff is a defense mechanism, protection against the media.

 

But I think there is a line to be drawn between the cyclical meaninglessness of press conferences and the abuse/reuse of sports clichés. Growing up a Michigan football fan and an avid cliché-hater, I felt myself cringe each time an ESPN announcer claimed that running back Mike Hart was the “heart and soul” of the Michigan offense. And I still shudder every time Rod and Mario (the commentators for Tiger’s baseball) call the high-and-inside pitch Miguel Cabrera’s “bread and butter.”

In this way, clichés are at once more specific and more ubiquitous than boilerplate language—they are, more often than not, ripped from the context of the game and applied more generally. Think how many times you’ve been told to “step up to the plate” in a group project, or that you’ve “dropped the ball” on applications, or that “in the long run,” your GPA won’t matter. In this way, tired sports phrases have seeped into the fabric of our everyday lives, infiltrating our idioms and colloquialisms.

I suppose all of this cynicism is just my attempt at illustrating the importance of looking beyond the empty post-game interview, beyond the banal sports cliché, and turning to the truly magnificent sports writing that exists in this world. (For sports fiction, I’d highly recommend Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding).

Go ahead: the ball’s in your court.

Slippery Words: The Nuance of Adjectives

Like Lainey and Amanda, I think “strong” is perhaps the strongest (oops) example of a loose and cliched descriptor. “Your writing is really strong” is essentially the editor’s cop-out—instead of offering direct feedback (“your dialogue is sharp,” “your vocabulary is precise,” “your argument is lucid”), the reader avoids the task, choosing a word so overused that it shields itself from its own meaninglessness. There are other examples, of course:

Conversational: The word “conversational” describes writing that is neither strictly “academic” nor “creative” (whatever those binary designations mean)—writing that uses the second person, asks rhetorical questions, or is written for younger audiences. However, because very little non-fiction is actually written to reflect our day-to-day conversations, this descriptor carries with it layers of judgement: tied up in “conversational” is an implied lack of sophistication, the notion that “conversational” writing communicates simple ideas with simple vocabulary.

Poetic: On one level, this descriptor suggests some sort of relationship to poetic form—it’s used to describe prose that is lyrical, rhythmic, or decorated with metaphors. There’s certainly a level of nature imagery that goes along with this. Simultaneously, however, it could be used to conceal the judgement that a piece is too abstract. In this vein, “poetic” could actually be someone’s attempt to say: “this is entirely unintelligible.”

Critical: Much like the word analytical, “critical” is often used to connote some sort of sophistication, be it the specificity of content or the (perceived) complexity of language. In this way, “critical” identifies something that is markedly UNcreative, implying that writing a thesis isn’t in fact a creative act, that descriptive writing doesn’t belong in academia. Similarly, “critical” often becomes a means of assuming negativity—to students in particular, a “critical” article will spend pages and pages identifying problems and pointing out issues while failing to offer solutions.

Writing My Corner

I am not a special snowflake. Despite what adults—parents, teachers, coaches—may have told me as I traversed the self-esteem bolstering landscape of grade school, I am not special, not one-of-a-kind, not even remotely unique. Life will not open up, effortlessly, to meet my every naive desire: I won’t be swept off my feet by Prince Charming or write the next Harry Potter series or become President of the United States. The world is not my oyster—I can’t simply pry open the shell of the Earth, steal its pearls, and call them my own.

But if I’m not special, why would anyone care what I have to say?

 

In the last few weeks of high school, the best teacher I’ve ever known gave an address to all graduating seniors at our annual recognition night. “You are not all special snowflakes,” he began, and I heard the auditorium hold its collective breath—proud parents and shimmering students, wide-eyed and stunned.

The dissonance swallowed me, there in that auditorium. I was voluntarily attending this night precisely for recognition, to glide upon that stage to the sound of my own name, to hear my accomplishments read aloud, to receive a pin and a meaningful pat on the back. I told everyone I was attending just to hear my teacher speak, but this was only a half-truth: really, I wanted people to remind me that I was special.

And here was someone I deeply admired, telling me, point-blank, that I wasn’t.

As a high-achieving student, defined most explicitly by my GPA and test scores and essays, I was raised to believe I had this quantifiable uniqueness—one that would magically open doors and split oceans and catapult me to “success.” I don’t. But, like Orwell, I do have an ego (as much as I try to suppress it)—it’s a competitive one, one that seeks awards and praise and opportunity. I feed off affirmation; I drown in perfectionism. I write from this place, sometimes. But I am not special.

Yet I am the center of my universe. Everything I do revolves around me: I’ve only ever seen through my eyes, I’ve only ever thought through my brain. Everything I know is filtered through the catacombs of myself. I contain multitudes—and contradictions and experiences, but these themselves don’t make me special. Not in relation to everything and everyone and everyplace else.

How do I bridge the unfathomable distance between the universe within me and the universe that surrounds me?

 

I had most of these thoughts, sitting there in that auditorium that held its breath, as my favorite teacher spoke. I shifted uncomfortably and sweated (probably) and felt somewhat itchy—both physically and existentially—like I do when I’m unsure of myself.

But my teacher didn’t invalidate my notion of self. Rather, he redirected it. “You can’t be special to the whole world,” he said. “Instead, you can work, tirelessly, to light up the corner of your universe.” Indeed, I am the center of my universe—not the universe. The universe is big; my corner is small (miniscule). And don’t have to be special to light it up, brilliantly.

I guess all of this is a long way of saying: I am not special, but I do matter. And so my writing matters. Not to everyone, but to someone.

I write to find and explore and light up my corner of the universe—to traverse these spaces of overlap, the centers of proverbial venn diagrams that connect people and places and thoughts. I write to bridge the chasm between the world that lives inside of me and the world that I inhabit. I write for empathy, for aesthetic, to feel special but not to be special.

 

So why would anyone care what I have to say?

Maybe because that abstract “anyone” is no more of a special snowflake than I am.

Maybe because they live in my corner of the universe—or maybe because they don’t.

Maybe because they, like me, are wandering around between notions of self, searching my writing for spaces of overlap.

***

“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” –David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Help! I’m Drowning in Hyperreality (and other thoughts on remediation)

In a nutshell, my repurposing project is a part-narrative, part-theoretical, and part-argumentative essay that explores the relationship between hyperreality and cultural appropriation; essentially, I argue that cultural appropriation is a byproduct of a society that preferences representations/images/simulations over cultures (and I explore why, exactly, I find this so objectionable). Here are my remediation ideas, each with varying degrees of plausibility:

 

  1. Photography project 1: Because my essay engages directly with the notion of a simulated reality (hyperreality), photography appears to be the perfect application. Photographs are, ultimately, simulations— representations of “truth” that are inevitably and irrevocably false (think: Ceci n’est pas une pipe). For the project, I image a photography series called something along the lines of “Out of Context.” This would work to artistically capture certain cultural texts, products, or ideas that have been purposefully divorced from their context (ie: a potted plant in a dumpster, McDonald’s french fries in a Taco Bell store, etc.). Alternatively, this photo series could depict people interacting with images and symbols as if they were in fact people as a way of commenting on our tendency to replace empathetic connection with material goods.

 

  1. Photography project 2: Alternatively, I could create a documentary photography project that purposely emphasizes contradiction in hyperreal spaces. I would do so by combining a series of portraits (of my friends, my family, strangers, classmates, professors) that represent a sort of external, public “truth” with a series of written narratives that represent an internal, personal “truth”. I would match portrait to narrative, playing with the disconnect between appearance and words by emphasizing the dissonance between our internal and projected realities. In short, I would ensure that the image of the person doesn’t “properly” mirror their narrative; rather, these representations of personhood would be disjunct, seemingly fragmented. Through these contradictions, I would push my audience to think about hyperreality: which version of this person is the “true” (read original) person— the image or the story? Can they both be the “true” person? Can neither? Can the complexity of personhood be captured with images or words alone? Although this wouldn’t necessarily touch on the claims about cultural appropriation made in my repurposing paper, it would still do important work with hyperreality (the concept borrowed from my original philosophy paper).

 

  1. A zine or series of zines: As a (relatively) crafty person who’s deeply passionate about independent publishing, I’m fascinated by zines— handmade, self-published miniature magazines typically featuring some combination of collage art, informal writing, and poetry. Here, I could see myself creating a zine explaining “How to Survive Hyperreality.” This zine would push me to represent my ideas graphically, exploring collage as a method of rhetoric and form (collage, not-so-coincidentally, is also an excellent method of simulating and fragmenting reality). Depending on how much we’re able to repurpose our writing in this project, I would want to rewrite portions of my essay to achieve a sort of artsy informality that better matches the zine vibe.

I’m Addicted to My Email, and Other Millennial Confessions

I check my email about sixty times per day. Subconsciously, I knew this—I knew my thumb has this impulse, this innate desire to click that damn email app—but it’s different now that I’ve kept track. It’s realer, more tangible: the cold, hard facts of my Email Addiction.

I honestly don’t know what I expect. I’m not waiting for anything, at least nothing life-altering, like college acceptance letters or job offers or lottery results. In fact, I’m a notoriously terrible emailer— even if I receive an email immediately, it takes me days (if not weeks) to actually conjure up the energy to respond. There’s simply no justification.

There are other habits, of course:

Friday: I spent the entire day on Google Documents. I’m honestly a little confused; I don’t remember actually accomplishing anything on Friday. It appears that’s the extent of Friday’s internet activity.

Saturday: My day was dedicated to Canvas, email (checking, not responding), and Netflix—your college student trifecta. Shocker.

Sunday: You might say I “branched out,” though even that assessment is generous. I scoured the internet for internship opportunities, downloaded applications, and jumped between REI, the Sierra Trading Post, and Bivouac websites for backpacking equipment— I’m participating in the New England Literature Program (NELP) this spring and the equipment list is a beast. There was certainly Facebook involved, for no particular reason.

 

But what concerns me most is not my limited use of the internet, or really even my email addiction. It’s when I use the internet— in the morning, late at night. Whenever I want to make my mind numb: bored enough to get out of bed in the morning or tired enough to fall asleep at night.

And I’m aware that, buried beneath mind-numbing facebook browsing and tweet reading and snapchat sending, the internet is expansive—limitless and thought provoking and content rich. I’m aware of this like I’m aware of adulthood: it’s a sort of detached awareness, a yeah but it doesn’t apply to me awareness.

Only it does apply to me. It’s out there, and it’s infinitely more compelling than my email. So why, exactly, do I now reach for my phone?

Old habits die hard.

Magnifying Glass Writing (or, a love letter for creative nonfiction)

I recently received Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me as a gift and read it, consumed it, in my room on Christmas Eve.

In the context of police brutality, the systemic destruction of black bodies, and #BlackLivesMatter activism, this book is unquestionably an important and necessary product of our cultural climate. But I bring up Coates’ memoir not to discuss the arguments he makes or the questions he poses (though these are certainly worthy points of discussion); rather, I bring up Coates’ memoir because it shifted the way I look at writing.

Between the World and Me demonstrates that good writing doesn’t act as a shield between Author and World, but rather a magnifying glass. And Coates uses this magnifying glass to lift the facade of his world and expose something raw underneath. He then consciously explores this rawness, weaving a narrative that provokes thought like a philosophical text yet turns pages like a mystery novel.

In a society riddled with conflict, we need this magnifying glass writing— code-switching nonfiction that is equal parts creative and critical, clever and insightful. We need writing that is vulnerable in its self-awareness and jolting in its honesty, that is uncomfortable and painful, careful yet unafraid. We need writing that elicits empathy and shifts public discourse.

I’m fascinated by writers who can connect the smallest, tangible details (like a birthmark or the pavement or candy corn) to larger, intangible societal implications (like genetics or industrialization or consumerism); I’m fascinated by writers who can poetically bridge the schism between micro and macro. Ultimately, creative nonfiction is the form of writing I want to challenge myself to produce, the form of writing I care most deeply about.