Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Road to Becoming a Writer

In elementary school, my brother and I were often asked by strangers whether we were twins. We would reply with silence and continue walking, our D.A.R.E. training kicking in like an autoimmune response.  Safety first, that was the motto.

It didn't help that my mother would march us to school in matching attire, khaki short-shorts that ballooned out at the bottoms, knee high socks protruding out of chunky sneakers, and backpacks large enough to hide in.  However, looking closer, as my brother and I often did, our differences revealed themselves. 

My brother had an organized array of freckles that ran under his eyes and trailed across the bridge of his nose, whereas I had a spackling of moles that would sometimes get mistaken for fallen crumbs of food.  He had a bright white smile that seemed to radiate a kind of holy energy, and I had a broken front tooth with a sharp edge.  He was in special classes and I was in the "special" class.

The "special" class was not where I wanted to be.  In the mornings, when my brother and I would be parted and shuttled away from each other, the feeling of being left behind would creep up and then hover over me for the rest of the day.

The way out was to become "normal," which I suppose really meant functional.  It was a lofty task with no clear steps, and so I decided to do the next best thing: instead of becoming functional, I would fake it.

I was placed in the special class due to my poor reading and writing skills, which at that time meant I had trouble recognizing the relationship between cause and effect.  The teacher might ask, "Why was Billy sad at the end of the book?" To which I might reply, "I get scared sometimes too. But my favorite color is green." That being said, I was certainly dabbling in the principle of cause and effect; if I could convince the teacher I was normal, then I would, in effect, be freed from the darkest corner of the school.  

For several months, I was bombarded with corrections.  My poor teacher must have done her best to avoid me and my answers, but I made sure there was very little she could do.  The only option for the both of us was to tackle the problem head on, and that's precisely what we did.  

By some kind of miracle, the corrections became fewer and farther in between.  Through experimentation I slowly learned exactly what it was the teacher expected of me.  I felt more sure of my answers and responded with more confidence.  And then, after a year in the special class, I was released back into the herd. 

By the time I reached high school, the chip in my tooth had been filled with a kind of hardened putty; it broke frequently but was, for the most part, functional. My brother and I looked less and less alike. He was in baggy jeans and I was in pants far too tight.  I bring up high school because it was the first time since elementary school that I felt undeserving of my success.  I was faking it after all.  Perhaps it was the sudden influx of hormones, or perhaps it was the confused angst of Holden Caulfield slowly seeping in, but I felt like a phony. 

I didn't get perspective on this issue until much later in life when I was a sophomore in college.  The angst was still there; I was fighting "the man" in the only way I knew how.  I took on a major my parents could be ashamed of: creative writing.  I had a great teacher who dished out lifesaving advice for writers.  "If you want to be a writer," he said, "marry rich." 

He had much more to offer too.  "Fake it till you make it," he said, one sweaty summer afternoon.  In other words, the only way to become a writer was to pretend to be a writer.  One day, it just might click.

That moment happened for me during the fall term when I had to critically analyze a short story.  I didn't particularly like the story--not yet at least--and I found myself flipping through the pages looking for patterns...but mostly I was watch the leaves fall over a footpath that cut through the center of campus.  How would a writer analyze the story?  I wasn't sure.  

I thought about my English teacher in high school and wondered how he might read the story.  He talked a lot about the metaphorical masks we wear. He was obsessed with identity and it became a kind of running joke the class had behind his back.  But on this particular fall day, looking out at the leaves, I put his mask on and examined the story again.  

It wasn't immediate, but eventually I could see what was buried behind the text.  The patterns had been right in front of me all along.  It was an awakening. Everything became clear all at once. It had finally clicked.  

All this being said, the road to becoming a successful writer is a troubled one.  More often than not, you might feel as if you're bluffing. I still do, but I urge you to welcome the opportunity.  Be a phony!  Raise your hand and be corrected!  Let your teachers loathe your presence!  Pretend to be a writer until it clicks.  Fake it till you make it! 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Survival Tips for the Creative Writing Workshop

Congratulations!  You’ve completed your first short story and isn’t it just perfect?  The characters are fully realized; the language is lyrical, but not overbearingly so; the plot is engaging and yet subtle enough to merit a second read through (who wouldn’t want to read it twice?).  You’ve created life out of nothing and now know the meaning of motherly love.  What, you might ask, could possibly ruin this fluttery feeling?
The writers workshop, that’s what. 
The life cycle of your story will be a harrowing one. The first test is the workshop, a place you take your stories to get analyzed, dissected, and misunderstood by an audience.  You sit front and center, watching as your peers pull apart everything you so carefully put together.

This process can be tough for those new to workshops, but it gets easier.  Here are just a few survival tips:  
1.      Don’t Take It Personally
When you put a lot of time and energy into creating something original and representative of your best work, it’s hard not to take things personally.  Try to remember that the criticism is meant to be constructive.  Look at the workshop as an opportunity to grow as an artist.  Most creative types have an ego.  Leave yours at the door.
2.      Keep Your Mouth Shut
This can be a difficult task.  The desire to interject will come when they interpret your story wrong, but you absolutely must keep your mouth shut.  It’s important for students to talk openly.  As soon as you interrupt the process to explain your creative choices, you put up a wall.  People will be afraid to offend you and you won’t get an honest critique.
3.      Be Selective
Everyone has something beneficial to offer, right?  Wrong.  There will always be students in your class who just do not get it.  You have to learn to filter the good advice from the bad.  We all bring our own tastes into the workshop and typically these tastes affect our choices in technique.  What works for you might not work for the next guy over.  That being said, you should listen to what everyone has to say. Sometimes it just takes a shift in perspective for everything to click.
4.      Come Prepared to Ask Questions
At the end of the critique, you might be allowed to ask a few questions.  Do not miss out on the opportunity!  This is when you get to dictate the course of the workshop.  Come with a list of questions designed to help you develop the story in a way you that works for you. 

So you’ve made it through your first workshop and the story you started out with is in tatters.  Your ego is bruised and you’re wondering why you ever decided to be a writer.  Quitting would be the easiest choice at this point, but you’re better than that, aren’t you?  You can see where the story needs to be tweaked: the weak dialogue, inappropriate setting, inconsistent voice.  Maybe it wasn’t all working before.  What was that about motherly love?  How quickly the feeling changes to disappointment. 
But it’s not over yet.  Everything can be stitched back together and better than before.  By the next workshop, your peers will finally understand what you meant to say all along.  If not, the cycle repeats.  And that’s just the way of creative writing. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

5 Steps to Help You Enjoy the Writing Process

As students, sometimes we get an assignment that looks like just another hurdle. But, we aren't doing ourselves any real favors if we don't take every opportunity to learn. One of my favorite creative writers, Neil Gaiman, once gave a commencement speech where he encouraged everyone to go out and "Make good art." You may not see your academic essays as art, but there is no reason you can't approach an assignment with the same fervor (and anxiety) of an artist approaching a blank canvas. Here are ten 5 tips to help you enjoy your writing process.

1) Pick a Topic You Enjoy

What's in it for you?--the struggle of finding a topic and laying words to paper; the struggle of gathering research and deploying it effectively. Sometimes we forget to enjoy the process.

2) Start early! Why panic if you don't have to?

If you want to find more joy in the writing process, I highly recommend starting early. And if you begin to feel burnt out, take a step back and remember what drove you to pick your topic to begin with. Starting early will allow you to take breaks when you need to, and honestly, when you have to.

3) What's your point? Keep it in mind! 
As you craft your essay, think about what your overall point is and what the current paragraph can do to support it.

4) Do your source-searching before you start

I often locate my sources before I even start writing; I find it helpful to think about my point and engage with my ideas via reading before I write them down. Check out our previous article on rotten sources to get an idea of what to avoid as you prepare to write your essay!

5) What is your end goal for this essay? Publication? Working towards a bigger project?
 An essay or paper doesn't have to be something that just sits on your desktop as a hallmark of what you completed in a course; it can be the result of a process that engages you with a topic and showcases your ability to communicate your passion.

Hopefully these help you wrap up your semester papers! Keep writing, and keep learning; enjoy the process.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Problem with Rotten Sources

I've recently made a habit out of watching poorly made horror films and figuring out how I can apply something from the subpar plots, weak dialogue, and brief moments of morality to my own writing.

Naturally, The Exorcism of Molly Hartley was a solid film to add to my toolbox.

Heralded by several reviewers as “the sequel nobody asked for,” The Exorcism of Molly Hartley is situated nearly six years in the future of its predecessor (The Haunting of Molly Hartley). As you could easily guess, both films follow the life of a young woman named Molly who, with parents involved with the occult, has faced strange, frightening, and even dangerous encounters with the supposed supernatural since her eighteenth birthday. Six or more years of that stuff and you'd be making this face, too:

I guess this is when I should tell you:
  1. The Exorcism of Molly Hartley is unrated, and for good reason. Check out the content advisory guide before watching and always make smart decisions when choosing to view a film.

  2. I might be giving away a few spoilers (okay, I’m giving away most of the plot, but the film is so poorly made that it might not affect your film experience anyway).
To make a long and unnecessary story short, Molly Hartley is dealing with some serious demons and she needs a higher authority to help her clean out that soul house. She has been checked into an asylum after some hiccups and coincidentally, a fallen priest named John Barrow has, too.

Molly’s doctor, Laurie, barters with John—if he can fix Molly up, she’ll sign his release papers. John is naturally interested, so he is given permission to meet with a chaplain and figure out what he needs to do to help Molly out.

This is where I should mention that John’s intentions are good, like most of our intentions are when we approach a piece of writing. He isn’t looking for trouble, and he certainly isn’t looking to be a hero. He just wants a slice of redemption, just like we want that beautiful “A” grade.  

John listens to the chaplain and, word-for-word, does exactly what he tells him. It’s no surprise (or maybe it is?) that he “saves” Molly, earns his freedom, and feels good about a job well-done.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end here.

Things start getting weird at the asylum, and before anyone can piece together what is happening, we find out that the chaplain isn’t necessary a chaplain—he’s a dirty member of the dark side. Everything the chaplain has been telling John hasn’t been to save Molly, but instead to prepare her for the chaplain’s creepy dark side ritual. He’s a no-good, rotten source that has now spoiled all of John’s hard work. John is devastated. Molly is devastated. I was devastated. I’m sure you’re a bit devastated, too.

But isn’t that how it is with sources?

Too often, we rely on rotten sources as the foundation of our knowledge. Weird websites without accreditation or legitimate authors, interviews with people who have nothing to do with the topic, Prezi pages where high school students have put together a list of “symbols” for the book we need to write a five-page paper on, and the list goes on.

While these sources might not seem like much of a horror story, consider this: What happens when the professor goes to sign your release papers (AKA assigns a grade to your essay) and realizes that everything you have written has been tainted by incorrect information and misguided material?

At the end of the film, everyone realized that John had been duped, but he still had to spend the rest of his energy trying to fix everything had he had done wrong.  If he would have spent a little more time researching his sources the first time around, the movie could have ended nearly forty-five minutes sooner and John, Laurie, and Molly would have all been better off.

The quality of our sources define the quality of our words. Instead of skimming through Google search and clicking on dead-end links meant to fool you, throw those rotten sources out of the window and check out some stronger, more reliable sources.

Search Booth Library’s collection of in-house and interlibrary loan sources here.

Search Booth Library’s database collections here.

Use the more academic-friendly version of Google here.

For more information of finding credible sources, check out the University of Illinois's guide here.

Check out Booth Library's user-friendly research guide here.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Trouble in Emoji Paradise

Slate recently posted an article discussing how the discrepancies of emojis amongst mobile devices might “turn disastrous.” The article, entitled Lost in Translation, is presented in a neat video-style format that you can watch here.

Although there isn’t much reporting done on the actual disasters these emojis have caused, there is quite a discussion surrounding unicode—the technology that allows an Apple user (like myself) to send out one emoji, only to have a friend on an Android device receive a completely different emoji.

While several of the instances are relatively similar, such as the relative form of these squares, others don’t necessarily come close.

For example, these ghosts are meant to be silly across Apple and Android devices, while on Samsung and Google, they’re a bit less funny.

The dancing bunny-eared girls, an Apple favorite, seems less about “twinning” and more about, well, something, across the other devices.

One of the worst examples might be the simple look of surprise, another frequently-used Apple emoji. Across the other devices, there is a variety of translations. The Android emoji is giving an angry-eyed kissy-face, the Google emoji looks like an ogre that might cry, and Samsung’s emoji, while the closest translation, looks like a small child facing embarrassment.

Last semester, writing center consultant Nathan wrote an article about how Oxford Dictionaries named the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji as the word of the year for 2015. He writes: “Part of why this Emoji was chosen is because is transcends languages. That ability makes emojis closer to art than words.”

But what happens when the transcendence of language results in a babble of emojis tossed between the various mobile devices?

While emojis do represent a part of our language that exists without words, that doesn’t mean we can rely on a single representation with the intention of understanding the various translations.

So what does this mean for our writing?

When focusing on a single idea and its incorporation into an argument, we have to remember that the entirety of the argument is made up of many different perspectives, or translations, and it is our job as good writers to make sure readers understand the bigger picture.

For example, suppose you are a guy writing an essay about gender discrimination in the workplace. Is it enough for you to write the essay entirely from your own perspective? Will your reader be able to understand the numerous translations of experience from a sole interpretation of what you think the issue might be?

Probably not.

So what can you do?

  • Be aware of the numerous translations that exist.

  • Do your research and figure out how each perspective fits into the bigger argument.

  • If your intention is to send out information that looks similar to a “goofy ghost,” make sure your reader isn’t receiving something spooky. 

An audience should be able to understand a writer's intentions and perspectives clearly. Don’t be the person who sends out a look-of-surprise, only to have your reader receive a crying ogre.

Intention matters. Perspective matters. Write on.