Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Writing Process Q & A with Dr. Melissa Ames

I cannot help but find the ways that people write fascinating. 

What is especially interesting to me is how different the writing process is for everyone. For example: a friend of mine writes his introduction last because he says that writing the introduction last is the only way that works for him.

I, on the other hand, have to write the introduction first. Actually, sometimes I cannot write anything until I think of a snazzy title (and will sit paralyzed staring at the computer until the perfect title comes to mind).

So, I'm always asking people about their writing process, mostly because I am always up for good writing tips - and partially because I'm a curious bird. This curiosity led me to interview a faculty member in the English Department at EIU, Dr. Melissa Ames. 

What follows is a brief bio of Dr. Ames and her interesting answers to my boring questions.

Melissa Ames is an Assistant Professor at Eastern Illinois University specializing in media studies, television scholarship, popular culture, and feminist theory.  She teaches courses in these fields, as well as in composition and English education.  

Her work has been published in a variety of anthologies and journals, ranging in topic from Television Study, New Media, and Fandom to American Literature and Feminist Art.  Her most recent publications include her books Time in Television Narrative:  Exploring Temporality in 21st Century Programming (2012) and Women and Language:  Essays on Gendered Communication Across Media (2001); articles in The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of Dracula Studies; and chapters in Grace Under Pressure: Grey’s Anatomy Uncovered (2008), Writing the Digital Generation (2009), and Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, and the Twilight Saga (2010).

1.  What is the first thing you do when you sit down to write? Do you use an outline?

It depends on the project really.  As a graduate student I was a bit OCD about my pre-writing process:  I used to create an outline and color code it with markers/highlighters (one color for the intro, one for the conclusion, and different colors for various body sections); I would then go through all my printed off articles or typed up notes and then either highlight accordingly or put a little colored mark at the top of the document to tell myself it was to be used in a certain section (or sections).

Since then I’ve relaxed quite a bit in this regard.  I still often craft an outline by hand (one that looks scarily like the traditional five paragraph one with an inverted triangle representing the intro and squares representing body paragraphs and a regular triangle representing the conclusion).  I now don’t always write from start to finish.  I usually start by cutting and pasting material/quotes from typed up notes into the various sections and then writing from there.  I’m not sure which way is better, but there are certainly days when I feel like I was a better writer back when I was a grad student, so maybe I should revisit my colored pens!

2.  When you are writing do you take advantage of peer review opportunities?

I do participate in informal peer review quite a bit.  I have a writing partner (a former peer at Wayne State University where I received my Ph.D.) who usually serves as my second set of eyes for solo projects (and by default she is the second set of eyes on other projects because we often publish works together).  

Another one of my regular reviewers is actually a former graduate student of mine who is working on her Ph.D. at Illinois State University.  I’ve found that it is extremely useful to have a few people who I feel comfortable exchanging work with because they can then come at my work from different directions.  (I also find it nice to have a set of friends who know my work intimately).
And, of course, I participate in peer review in more formal capacities.  Most of the work I have published goes through a peer review process, and I have worked as a manuscript reviewer for various journals and presses.

3.  What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently revising an article on contemporary dystopian young adult literature.  I have been fascinated with the popularity this genre has found throughout the last decade (more so since the release of Susan Collins’s Hunger Games series), especially because it coincides with a string of publications bemoaning the civic illiteracy of the millennial generation (publications like Mark Bauerlein’s  The Dumbest Generation).  

Being that these YA novels are packed full of socio-political commentary, it seems inaccurate to attach labels like “apathetic” and “apolitical” to teens who obviously have some investment in these topics (even if that investment is not always manifested through direct political action).

My other two projects are book-length manuscripts.  The first, Watching (and Feeling) the 00s:  Television & Affect Theory during the First Decade of the 21st Century, studies the televisual trends of the so-called 9/11 decade (2001-2011).  I read various genre developments as reactions to the cultural moment (e.g. the escapism of reality television; the anger displacement of infotainment programs like The Daily Show; the ways in which network dramas remediate the trauma of the 9/11 attacks through various fictional stories focused on salvation, rescue, revenge, and so forth).  This work is also interested in how the technological developments of this past decade changed the televisual landscape resulting in new viewing practices (e.g. how fantasy football has changed sports viewership or how interactive fan websites have begun driving the development of certain programs).

The second book project I am working on with my co-author, Sarah Burcon.  Our book is titled Mediating Female Identity through (St)ages:  Popular Culture Depictions of Mating, Marrying, Mothering, and Maturing.  In this piece we analyze how popular literature, television, and film are depicting (and influencing) various “stages” of female development in productive and problematic ways. 

We hope for this book to be a crossover item that can be read by academic and lay persons alike, and it’s been a lot of fun to write.  We have chapters on the effects of pregnancy self-help books, motherhood memoirs, Hollywood romantic comedies as instructional “how to” date films, depictions of Brides/Bridezillas, and portrayals of menopausal women.  My favorite chapter by far, however, is on the creation and use of the terms Cougar, Puma, and M.I.L.F. – how these words are used by others to label women and how women have appropriated them at times for their own means.

4.  The work that you do seems, at least to me, to be cutting edge and ground breaking...always on the pulse of what is going on right now. Would you consider that true?

I wouldn’t necessarily call my work cutting edge or ground-breaking.  Like any scholar I often am midway through a project only to find that someone else has made a similar argument before.  However, my work is usually timely. 

Being a popular culture scholar means that you have to strike while the iron is hot or else you miss the window where your work is relevant.  It also means that publication delays can be quite frustrating.  (Case in point:  I have an article coming out next year in the Journal of Popular Culture that I’m quite proud of… but it’s on ABC’s Lost – a show that went off the air in 2010).   My work on post-9/11 media also always seems to be a race against the clock because I’m constantly waiting for it to become pass√©.

As for why this all interests me, well, I find it fun to mix work with pleasure.  The joke I always make is that I get paid to watch TV.  I also find popular culture to be a great way to reach my students so from a pedagogical standpoint I think it is great that my research can inform my teaching. 

My feminist media work is important to me because I am very invested in following Susan Douglas’s call to “talk back” to media and I feel that my gender analyses of various films, books, and television shows is a way to accomplish that.  My post-9/11 work interests me because I fully believe that cultural events influence cultural production and since 9/11 has been touted as the day that “everything changed” I like using it as a watershed moment for my analyses.

5.   What is your philosophy in regards to teaching writing?

I’m not sure I have a specific philosophy any more when it comes to teaching writing but there are quite a few practices that I value. 

I believe that students need opportunities to write A LOT and that the only way one improves as a writer is with practice, practice, and more practice.  (And with that practice should come feedback, feedback, and more feedback). 

As such, I probably assign more essays than the average instructor.  In my composition classes students usually write 8-10 essays and create a writing portfolio.  I also believe in revision (hence the writing portfolio), but because of my desire to have students write so many different essays, I often only have time for them to do an intensive, directed revision of one or two essays during a term. 

I believe in peer review and conferences, but I’m always wanting both to be more productive than they are.  I also value non-traditional writing assignments, such as multigenre research essays. 

All of the above probably seems to conflict with some of my practices and overall reputation as a writing instructor.  I am not opposed to teaching students the components of the dreaded five-paragraph essay (as I feel it’s just one more tool for their toolbox and a fine starting point for writers with very little experience). 

I am known to be a very hard grader when it comes to writing (and specifically MLA documentation).  I feel that since I give so many writing assignments, I can afford to push students harder early in the semester so that they can grow. 

As for my reputation as an “MLA Nazi,” I’m not sure where that stems from, but I really believe in teaching students to attend to detail – not because MLA specifically will necessarily benefit them later in their education or careers but because the skills are transferable to some degree. 

For example, once a student understands the basics of MLA, he or she can usually transition well into other documentation styles like APA.  Also, a person used to consulting a manual and attending to the details of page layout and such will benefit when transitioning to careers where he or she might be expected to conform to company-specific communication formats.

6.  Has your writing process changed since you started teaching?

I’ve been teaching for a while now so it’s hard to say.  I wrote more for fun before I was a teacher.  (I wrote four young adult novels when I was a teenager and a lot of angst-filled poetry and journal entries as a twenty-something). 

If my writing process changed as a teacher, it wasn’t for any philosophical reason but more so because my time was so much more limited.  (Teaching is always my first priority, followed by service, so sometimes my own writing projects land on the back burner).   If teaching had any influence on my writing I’m afraid to say it was a negative one.  Because I assign so many assignments, I don’t read nearly as much as I would like to.  When I read less (academically or for pleasure), my writing (and general vocabulary) declines.  Also, I’ve often joked that after years of teaching high school my spelling has never been the same.  (I won a spelling bee in fifth grade, but after years of grading poorly proofread papers, I sometimes look up the spelling of words like “the”…  Okay, it’s not that bad but you get the idea).  Still, none of this really answers your question about “process” I suppose!

7.  What is the best advice you have ever received in regards to writing?

Well, I’m confusing the advice I received with a Nike ad but the sentiment is about the same:  “just do it.”  Studies have been done that prove that people who write daily no matter what write more than those who wait for opportunities to write in large chunks. 

My natural inclination is to do the latter – to wait for the stars and the moon to align (and for children to be silenced and/or not present) so that I can spend a large amount of time delving into a writing project – but I’ve learned that I do seem to write more when I can make sure I’m producing writing regularly. 

That’s the number one reason why I just started my own television blog – - to force myself to write something once a week for public consumption.  (This allows me to justify the hours I spend watching television, to reflect on shows that don’t fit into my current writing projects, and mostly to just experiment with tone and simply form writing habits that deviate from my natural instincts).

8.  If you could write your memoir what would you title it?

I actually want to return to my creative writing roots in the future, and I’ve often played with the idea of creating a memoir spun from the 26 diaries I have filled throughout my life.  Since the bulk of these were written during my teen and young adult years, I’ve often thought the most fitting title would be:  The Memoirs of Melodramatic Me.  (This is also because I have an embarrassing appreciation for alliteration).  

9. Where do you foresee the future of the college composition classroom heading?

Right now multimodal composition is something that just happens in some composition classrooms in small doses.  I think in the future as more and more writing is housed on the web and more communication is relayed through non-print media that multimodal composition will be increasingly important to integrate into traditional composition courses not as a simple add on but as a key component of the course.

  Special thank you to Dr. Ames for entertaining my questions and providing me with such fantastic responses.

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