Becoming Presidential

My capstone project site, Becoming Presidential, is live. Here’s the link: https://willsolmss.wixsite.com/becomingpresidential

On the site, you’ll find a speech I’ve written for Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The speech, set to be delivered in Detroit, centers around some of the central themes of the Buttigieg campaign, including American values (freedom, democracy, security) and intergenerational justice. The speech is, at a macro-level, an argument for generational change, and, at a micro-level, an argument for why Mayor Pete is that change.

Also included in the site is me delivering the speech on the steps of Hatcher, wearing traditional Buttigieg garb.

I hope you enjoy!

Sarah Vowell at the Michigan Theater

One thing these labor point assignments all have in common is that they thrust me into unfamiliar spaces. I’ve been to the Michigan Theater a few times before. The most memorable — and most unfortunate — was seeing Juicy J perform my freshman year. It’s odd listening to music about sipping lean and “strippas” when confined to historic wooden seats. Today, the theater’s unfamiliarity is in its sex: the room (my section at least) seems almost entirely female. It isn’t an uncomfortable feeling, just a relatively new one.

Still, familiarities are not too hard to find: once again, I’ve infiltrated the depths of the Ann Arbor literary types. Beanies abound. Someone behind me makes Hash Bash plans with her friends. The lights dim, I settle in, and Violet Parr takes the stage.

Sarah Vowell is many things — an author, a radio host, and, as became apparent immediately, the voice of the daughter from Disney’s The Incredibles. Of all these things, the uniquely breathy and punctuated speech with which she brought Violet Parr to life is the least incredible. A practiced conversationalist, she commands the interview, and with it, the room, forcing the moderator to interject time and time again to keep the discussion on track. Vowell gives the impression that she could talk forever about anything; I would listen.

Through conversations on puritans, American history at large, and Bozeman, Montana, Vowell ekes out bits and pieces of her writing process. She’s an avowed drafter, positing that all the fun of writing takes place once the first draft has been gotten over with. “I love my delete key, sometimes to a fault,” she says. It’s a comforting reminder that innumerable unqualified pieces of writing lie behind her peppy and needling prose. Keep writing, it suggests, bad writing is just scaffolding.

Vowell doesn’t use chapters. It stems from her time as a radio host on This American Life, she says — she’s afraid of dead air. The fluidity of chapter-less prose keeps the conversation moving, and denies dead air any space in which to live. “Chapters enforce this equanimity that’s meaningless to me. Some things are worth dwelling on; others aren’t,” she says.

Much of the discussion revolves around her work with young writers, in a program called 826NYC, and the political columns she writes for the New York Times. Vowell is immaculately tangential — one thought sparks another, and then another, until she’s expressing her disbelief that the Vice President won’t share a bagel alone with the (now former) Secretary of Homeland Security. All the way in the back, I am lulled into comfort by her contradiction: a voice tailor-made for radio with a presence at its best in front of an audience. Taking notes becomes harder as I yearn to sit back and just listen.

At the end of the session, Vowell describes how her love for the past is a function of the ordinary and overlooked. “I never thought of history as something that happens to other people, or important people,” she says. With Vowell and with her subjects — First Lady Ida McKinley, John Wilkes Booth’s girlfriends, and other characters lost behind headlines — the intimate details make history.

Writer to Writer with Ellen Muehlberger

I’ve come to this Writer-to-Writer event to see Shelley Manis interview Ellen Muehlberger. Beyond that bit of exposition, I have no idea what I’m here to see. I’m comforted by the energy of the audience, and so I settle into my seat and wait.

No one minds that the session starts late; this crowd is too busy chatting. It’s a different side of the Ann Arbor social scene than the one I’ve come to know these past four years, one far soberer and with many more scarves. Everyone knows each other here, it seems, or if they don’t, they recognize one other through a familiar setting, be it the top floor of a coffee shop populated by the literate, the stress of presenting to PhD. boards, or perhaps just a shared journey through Muehlberger’s book. Alone on a bench beyond the last row of the audience, I am a foreigner.

Ellen Muehlberger is an Assistant Professor of Christianity in the late antiquity in the University of Michigan’s History and Near Eastern Studies departments. At first, it seems that we’re here to discuss her most recent book, Moment of Reckoning: Imagined Death and Its Consequences in Late Ancient Christianity — a study of Christian thought surrounding death beginning around the fourth century A.D. — but after a brief reading from the book, we move instead to discussing her writing process, her thoughts on being a writer, and even what Moment of Reckoning’s cast of arcane Christian storytellers can teach us about writing.

In many ways, Muehlberger’s process differs from those espoused by many other writers only in its intensity. Like most writers (my evidence for “most” is anecdotal at best, but at least it feels right), Muehlberger recognizes the importance of letting the brain rest by engaging in what she describes as “non-brain, non-composition, non-invention” activity, and, for her, that activity takes the form of half-day, triple-digit-mile bike rides. On these rides, she’ll have moments of understanding in which her previously unordered thoughts begin to align. But, she says, these moments are fleeting, and so she endeavors to record these brief clarities with her feet still hard at work on the pedals.

Her process, she answers in response to a question about transitioning between stages of her career and writing projects, is a bit like these bike rides: comforting on account of its familiarity. 30 miles into a bike ride, she recognizes the same ache as the last time she reached this point, and although it aches all the same, she’s carried on by that familiar feeling and the promise of satisfaction at its end.

Sometimes, however, patterns and traditions such as these can be confining. From Moment of Reckoning, Muehlberger reads a passage that explains why Christian writers of the 4th century wrote and told stories of the gruesome deaths of their audiences: in short, she theorizes, it’s what they were taught. “How a writer is taught is how she will write,” Muehlberger summarizes, transitioning to address the crowd of educators. “We have a duty as teachers of writing.” This room of teachers “mhms” its agreement.

Why I Write, vers 1

I wrote this piece in my voice.
Not in my real voice, mind you, because there’s really no use to writing if it’s going to be in the same voice you use for talking. No, this piece is written in my voice, that is to say the voice I have distilled my voice into being when writing a piece as introspective as this one: succinct enough to sound as though I am to be taken seriously, but whimsical enough as to seem quirky yet relatable, characteristics which my real voice would have a tough time portraying.
This voice, while one of many voices I use when writing, is still my voice, and still feels as authentic as one I would speak in. Just like I vary the way I speak depending on whom I am speaking to, I vary the voice I write in depending on the subject matter and the intended recipient. Even know I’m using a different voice: “intended recipient.” I don’t talk like that in real life, but for whatever reason, here it seems like the perfect way to communicate what I intended. Perhaps I don’t ever write in only one voice at all; perhaps I mix all of the voices I’ve developed over the years into one, drawing from different messages and sounds at different times in order to communicate different things to specific audiences.
All I know is that voice, these voices, are mine.

Prior to Repurposing…

Is a public figure’s rhetoric always actively chosen?
Why is this an important choice?
How does a public figure’s rhetoric define them?
How can rhetoric, both past and present, help shape a person’s image?
How much can rhetoric really affect your image?
What advantage is there to dumbing yourself down? To making yourself seem smarter?
What is the ideal image for a certain candidate and how can they go about achieving this image through what they say?
Are traditional standards of rhetoric changing?
Is this a positive or negative change?
How can you compare the rhetoric of different candidates?

Most people are flooded with political rhetoric every day. Whether it be via news sources or random internet fodder, the words and promises of politicians and soon to be lawmakers are shown to all of us at a rate faster than ever before.
People also have familiarity with language itself. As functioning social beings, not only can we understand the words we all say, but we understand how to interpret these words and the ways in which they’re said. We can tell when someone is lying, when something someone says seems out of character or forced, and we have a clear reaction to it.
What I aim to do to help the reader familiarize with my piece is to refocus the question. I don’t intend to ask, what do you think of what this person is saying? Instead I’m interested in the decisions that led them to say it the way they did. I’m interested in the active decision to portray themselves a certain way and the methods in which they go about achieving it.

Tiered News Sources

If all traditional news sources are supposed to be written at a fourth grade level then news sources that reach the majority of their readership via Facebook must highly underestimate the intelligence of the average fourth grader. It seems that any and all news sites shared online by crazy relatives and friends with little better to do are rendered practically illegible by their simplicity and almost total lack of sophistication. As harsh as this may sound, sites like Buzzfeed, Fusion, and these days even Complex, those that have descended into regularly covering internet memes and hourly celebrity gossip, have lost me, and many others, as a reader for this very reason.
Even though they are supposedly written at such a low reading level, traditional news sources still feel as though they are pitched to me. They do just as news outlets should: report news in a way that is engaging, understandable, and helps the reader to consider topics he or she may previously have no experience with. Short of the occasional highly technical article featured in an obscure section of the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, the entirety of their content feels right at my level linguistically and academically.
The only news sources that seem to divert from this general rule are those that are highly specialized. Science magazines, economic journals and the like are all pitched to those with a greater understanding of their content than the average person. A simple Google search brought up the Electronic Journal of Biology, a perfect example of a publication that flies high above my head somewhere I’ll never be able to reach.

Voice

I write like a smartass: it always seems as if I’m trying to sound smarter than I am. I hesitate to label my style of writing as pretentious, because it can’t be if I’m not actually trying to be pretend to be anything. I just happen to come across that way.
It all stems from years of writing formal essays. It’s been drilled into me that I should never write in the first person, and to get around that I use infinitive and past tense verbs more often than any normal person would in speech, giving everything I write an uppity intellectual feel, even when it’s not meant to be either of these things.
This particular disposition I have towards stilted writing makes the conveying of any sort of personality a real challenge. I aim to write in a way that shows that I’ve thought about my topic logically, meaning that the attitude I take in any given work will often reflect a small sense of cynicism or doubt concerning the subject at hand, for I believe not fully believing the argument you are trying to make is the most successful way to make it. This attitude can only be described as “relatable.” It is always my goal to sound simply like a person speaking, rather than a finely-tuned and carefully constructed statement.
My performance is the part of my writing that I, at the same time, care the most about and think the least about. I’ve long thought that good writing ought to sound in the reader’s head like the opening narration to a movie narrated by the adult version of its young protagonist. Or like a story told by a vocally flatlined author on NPR, the words themselves creating their own lyrical depth and fostering their own execution, standing on their own and speaking for themselves rather than acting as just a piece of a puzzled performance. I say that I think the least about this aspect of my writing because even though I have clearly thought about it quite a bit, it is the part of my writing that I believe to be the most genuine, the most instinctual.
In discovering the way that I write that is most instinctual, I also discover the topic of what I write that is most instinctual as well: myself. I find that introspection is incredible because it is both highly informed and grossly misinformed at the same time. Few subjects have as much digging room as the self, a fact which affords a writer endless dynamic material. It’s as if the reader and I are discovering myself at the very same time.

Form and Genre

My opinion of genre and form changed even as I wrote this post. Below is my attempt at defining the two, its conclusion differing completely from the thesis with which I began.

Genre and form are fundamentally different terms for fundamentally different things. While they may seem the same, as they both seek to classify works, written and otherwise, into smaller, easier-to-examine categories, they do not achieve their respective ends via the same means.
As a term used to describe the type of work based on the way it communicates its content to the reader or viewer, form is relatively strict. A fiction story written in prose and above a certain length is a novel. A short article detailing the facts of last night’s Black Lives Matter rally is journalism. A short film directed for and set to a specific song is called a music video. These words we use to describe form communicate the way in which their content will be delivered to us, rather than the subject of the content itself.
Genre, however, communicates the opposite. Genre classifies works by their content, whether by theme, mood, feel, plot, imagery, or the like. The point of genre is to give those who wish to experience the work in question some idea of just what they are in for. Movies are listed by genre so that viewers can tailor their choice to their mood; books are listed by their genre so that readers can decide just what they want their chosen book to be about.
The issue with these terms, ones that I described as fundamentally different, is that the more you define one, the more you find yourself also defining the other, for one cannot truly be defined without discussing the other. The more I think about it, the more I believe that while form is a function of the presentation of a work, it is also a function of genre as well.
As genre is a division between categories based upon stereotypes and expectations derived from other works in the same vein, it is not unrealistic to say that as the genre relies on the mood, theme and content of the work, it also relies on the form in which these are all presented. “Mystery” is a widely recognized genre of literature, but without its telltale form, it no longer feels familiar to readers, and no longer can be classified as “mystery.” Film Noir is a genre of film that relies heavily on its own special form as well as its easily recognizable classic plot points.
Seeking to define these two terms separately has only helped me to believe that they can’t be. They are fundamentally different things both comprised of each other- a paradox I have ability to decouple.