Maybe it was the chaos of senior year, the insanity of coronavirus throughout the latter half of this semester, or just time passing as it does, but this experience flew by. While I don't think I'm anywhere near done exploring writing, I want to wrap up the Honors side of things with a few remarks.
First and foremost, I'm pleasantly surprised with how things have gone. In almost all of my reflective posts, I've commented on how intimately nerves have played into my writing. I've been scared of letting people read my writing, scared of talking to people about writing, scared of even taking the first steps towards putting my writing out there. Through this experience I've overcome each of those fears...I've really done it. For literal years I've sat on my writing, hiding it as if it was a weird hobby, as if anyone knowing about it would bring judgement and criticism. What I experienced through this journey was the exact opposite. My adviser, my support network, my readers, have all had nothing but positive comments. Maybe it is because I'm only starting out and I haven't put enough out there to warrant much criticism, but the endorsement I've received from everyone has switched my perspective on writing. I've realized that I was the one with the misconception and if anything, I was the only one viewing my work negatively.
Secondly, I find myself to be in the middle of a difficult, yet exciting, learning curve. When it comes to publishing my writing, I didn't accomplish as much as I had set out to do, and I think that's because embarking on this experience showed me how much scarier that is in reality; it was so simple to outline my experience with lofty goals of weekly publications and say yeah, of course I can do that. But when it came around to it, that long-ingrained fear (I've gone more in-depth on this concept in this post) was a lot more difficult to confront than I imagined.
Interestingly enough, I think Covid-19 ties into this experience. Going through the quarantine and coronavirus chaos has shown me how to be gentle with my goals and accepting of my progress. Dealing with coronavirus has been tough; heck it's been tough on everyone. Having my last semester of undergraduate school (effectively) cancelled, not getting to experience all my senior ceremonies and recognition that I had looked forward to for the past five years, potentially not being able to walk at commencement, and having to accept all those conditions without being able to do a single thing about them has been hard. Really hard. But it's also been teaching me how to find satisfaction in the victories I do have. Assuming nothing drastic happens, I will have an engineering degree in a month. (Wow, that's crazy to type out). I have accomplished a lot during undergrad. I've made a lot of great friends along the way. Especially in times of difficulty like the one we're going through, prioritizing self-acceptance and looking towards what we can do and have accomplished is so important.
I think, in a way, this (forced) lesson has bled into my view about writing. While I'm careful to avoid complacency or "acceptance" as a gateway to laziness, I do think I need to be better at seeing what I have accomplished. I've overcome fears I've had for years with this experience; in a few short months I've grown and learned more than I ever had in the past. That's pretty cool.
Surprisingly too, I've come to realize how developmental and therapeutic blog and reflection posts can be. While I've done both of those in the past for my honors experiences, I feel my past experiences have been technically oriented. This is the first time it's felt personal. Through writing these posts and thinking over what I've done, it's allowed me to process a lot about my learning and about myself. Taking the pressure off publishing these into a blog I'm trying to make "perfect" and instead taking this experience one step at a time has allowed me to take risks. It's allowed me to experiment. To quite possibly fail. And honestly, allowing myself that liberty for the first time in a long time (read: ever) has allowed me to grow more than ever. I feel excited by this experience. I feel empowered.
While I may not have as much to show for this experience as I hoped, I think this honors experience is the one that will have the longest impact on me. Even if it was the tiniest crack in the door, I'm learning how to open up and be vulnerable in my work. I'm learning how to accept my progress for what it is. I've developed lasting habits: I plan to continue to publish posts on here as a way to continue my growth and use my word count goal as a way to push my progress. And honestly, that is more than I imagined I could accomplish in this experience. So while I may not have had the successes I set out to achieve, I've found progress in other places. If the past few months have taught me, taught the world, anything, it's that we live in a world that loves to subvert expectations. While some of those subversions may not be enjoyable, I know that I'm satisfied with the ones I've found in myself. So here's to more pleasant surprises in the future- hopefully I'll be able to overturn a few more of my expectations in the time to come.
For the first time ever, I did it. I know it may not be a big deal to many, but for the first time since I can remember, I let someone read my writing.
I think the first thing I did right was use a fresh piece. It was a short story off of an idea that came to me a few days ago. Using a new idea alleviated some of the pressure that I've felt with pieces I've worked on for a long time; the pieces I've been developing over years, or even months, hold a lot more weight for me because they're ideas I really want to see work out. If someone were to tell me they weren't good I would feel highly discouraged. But with a fresh piece I was able to see it as an experiment and was more open to constructive criticism.
I also took Stephen King's advice and found an ideal reader I could trust. One of the worst things for me, in any situation, is receiving false support: I don't want anyone to tell me something I do is good just to be nice. If someone tells me something I've done is good, I want them to mean it. Having someone I'm close to, that I can trust, read my piece gave me peace of mind that I would receive honest feedback, good or bad. Mr. King uses his wife as an ideal reader for the same reasons.
I was really surprised after my reader read my piece: his review was glowing. I had only proofread it once, but decided to hand it over before I could change my mind. He laughed and smiled at all the right places and told me that he was immersed in the world I created and it left him only wanting more. This was exactly what I'd hoped to hear. In fact, he only offered one item of criticism: that I post it elsewhere for other people to read.
I have the piece still drafted out and ready to go. Maybe it's my nerves hitting me again and holding me back from actually posting it. Maybe I need to pull the trigger and just do it despite my reservations. This experience has taught me, however, that I need to appreciate the little successes, especially in a field as personal and tumultuous as writing is. So for now, while I'm still building myself up, learning about myself as a writer, learning how to navigate this craft, I'm going to be proud of my latest accomplishment. I'm going to allow myself to be proud of this step forward and continue to put one foot in front of the other. I'm excited to see where this goes.
Something I've been grateful for during this experience is the help of my mentor, Zac, and the people that have helped build me up and support me. I've touched on how personal writing can feel in previous posts, so I was nervous to let anyone into my process. Even more so, I've had professors and other people I've looked up to in the past shame me for asking questions or struggling with my work. Combine this with my initial hesitation to try writing in all legitimacy, and I was very anxious to meet someone I hadn't known before and open up to them about my goals.
However, I have to give props to Zac because he has been amazing throughout my, albeit short, journey. He's been wonderful at answering any and all of my questions. When we meet he offers down to earth encouragement and advice that has made me feel like I can actually do this; his success as an author has only added substance to his words. (He recently interviewed Erik Larson- how cool is that?!)
When talking with him about meetings and how to pitch ideas, he gave me insight into the industry that I never had before. While it may be difficult to actually put into action, he has been incredibly encouraging about submitting ideas and sending out pitches to magazines and people; he's advocated for me to face rejection and also said magazines can be unexpectedly accepting of articles if you give it a shot. I've always been worried about trying to pitch because I don't have an educational background in writing and I don't have much of a portfolio at this moment. Zac, however, has supported the idea of "shooting my shot"- simply asking people for an interview, pitching to local magazines, even if I don't feel like I have the background for it.
While I have yet to pitch an actual article to a magazine, we had a really fascinating speaker on sustainability in one of my classes the other day. I found the speaker's work intriguing and thought that members of the local community would like to hear about it. I put two and two together and decided that this might be a good first pitch for me: not only is it someone I would have met face to face before the interview, but it's a subject matter directly related to my field of study, so I'd feel knowledgeable talking and asking questions about it. Maybe it was a moment of excitement or courage, but I approached the speaker after class and asked if I could interview him for an article. To my surprise he was immediately on board with the idea and gave me his business card to set up a meeting. No, we haven't met yet. But I am excited for when we do!
While I don't think I've reached the stage of writing where I'll start seriously facing rejection (read: trying to get published), for me, even getting this far has been a huge step forward. I've gone from nobody even knowing I enjoyed writing to having contacts in the industry and even setting up an interview. This has begun to prove the truth behind Zac's advice of just "giving it a shot". Had I not given writing a shot in the first place, I wouldn't have met these people or had these opportunities. The positivity and support I've been met with have built my confidence faster than years of hiding my writing ever had. I know these reflections tend to be sprinkled with cliches (they're cliches because they're true, okay?), but I think the theme here is: you'll never know until you try. I was afraid of being met with discern and rejection, but I would have never experienced the exact opposite if I hadn't given it a shot in the first place. While I'm sure the future inevitable rejection will be difficult, I'll never know unless I try, right?
One of my goals when I embarked on this honors experience was to have a daily work count goal. I decided on this to keep me accountable and force me to continue to write; the most common piece of advice you'll read from any author is to write and write often. To keep in line with exploring genres and technique, I didn't want to restrict myself to a specific number of pieces in case some got longer than others or I had an idea for a new piece to write.
I've been experimenting with the number of words I'm capable per day- wanting to keep it realistic with my schedule while also making sure I'm accomplishing something. So far I've settled on 300 words per day- it's not as high as I wish it was but I've done a decent job of keeping up with it.
This word count, though, has been the most difficult part of this experience so far. I think it's because, like any other habit, there's going to be times when you don't want to do it. There's going to be times when you're not inspired, when you're tired, when there's other stuff you'd rather be doing. I've heard it all the time from people I know who have turned their passion into their field of study or career: sometimes when you're forced to do something you love, it takes the joy out of it. And some days, especially when I have writers block, that feels like the case.
But I think the moments when I don't want to write are the most essential- the ones that push me the hardest towards success. If you want to get fit but only go to the gym when you feel like it, you're not going to make much progress. This is a similar concept. So many motivational speeches make the distinction between motivation and discipline, and while cliche, I think that applies to my situation too. When it comes down to it, if I want to improve at a writer I'll need to write whether I want to or not. I'm hoping that my work count and daily goals can keep me on track, and while I don't have a solution for lack of motivation on occasion, I'm hoping that remembering why I'm doing this and knowing that it'll help me in the end will keep me going.
Procrastination. Along with many other students, procrastination has been one of my greatest downfalls. That sounds awful and unprofessional to state, but I think the reason it gets such a disapproving reaction is because of the misconceptions of procrastination. In my first post I mentioned that I got started on this project later than I wanted to. That combined with my self-identification as a procrastinator can easily paint an image of laziness. However, I don't think laziness is the root cause of my delay in work at all.
Many people, myself included, identify their work as a part of themselves. With writing, I find this to be especially true; it's a very raw and exposing craft because everything you make is a part of you. Like I mentioned in my post about voice, the very words people read in your work are yours. While others may be more comfortable with the concept or lack such a strong association, in my mind, putting such an intimate piece of yourself and your thoughts out there for the world to read is a very vulnerable action.
This vulnerability and association of work and self can lead to a lot of pressure to make things perfect. I want my work to be as close to perfect as possible because it is a reflection of me; my work has to meet and convey the high standards to which I hold myself. In my mind, this train of thought leads right to procrastination station. Not because I am lazy or afraid of work, but because I desire perfection. Maybe I delay starting a project because I am too burnt out from my other schoolwork to give it my full attention. Maybe I delay publishing a blog post because I can't figure out how to fix that one sentence that isn't quite right. Maybe I didn't meet my goal that day because I had writers block and I wasn't about to put something out into the world that was half-finished.
Regardless of which of those, or countless other, scenarios I ran into that day, the vast majority of the time something is procrastinated is because of that pressure and desire to do things right. This can lead to a catch-22 because the procrastination runs down the clock to the point where you don't have enough time to "do it right" anyways. And in most cases, academic, professional, or otherwise, this cycle is unaccepted and chastised. The lack of acceptance here can further lead to feelings of negativity surrounding your work because even when you try to do it right, it still ends up wrong.
Now I'm no psychologist so please accept this post as only the ramblings of my own mind and hypothesis that I've arrived at based on my own experiences. But from my shallower-than-surface-level understanding of how the mind works, habits like procrastination create pathways in our brain. The longer these pathways are dredged down, the more ingrained they become. And I think that's why I find "it doesn't have to be perfect" or "just put it out there and see what happens" to hard to believe and follow. The way I've viewed my work and myself simply won't allow it.
So what's the point of this soap box speech? It's two-fold: one to write out my thought process to hopefully make some sense of it and two to figure out where to go from here. They say the first step to fixing a problem is identifying it, right?
I want to take a quick aside here to thank the University Honors Program- this is truly one of the safest places I've found on campus to explore my passions and go through new experiences truly without pressure to be perfect. I think one of the reasons I've loved this program so much is because it's modeled in a way that promotes real, genuine learning. Whenever I've seen myself go down that path of procrastination due to the pressure to be perfect or found myself avoiding a task out of fear of failing, instead of being criticized, I'm offered support and a second chance. This attitude really does break that mental equation of imperfection = failure and turns in into failure = learning.
This is so much easier said than done, by no means am I even close to mastering it, but I think this mentality needs to be adopted in order to kick the habit of procrastination. It's hard when most of society isn't that forgiving, but low-pressure projects like this writing project, like a passion project, can be a really cool place to start trying to understand how failure can be a growth process; the risk in these scenarios really only belongs to yourself. Finding a safe place where your job/career/academic reputation isn't on the line to explore risk is an essential part of growth that I'm quickly picking up on.
To be frank, I don't know how successful I'll be embodying this mentality moving forward; these are some deep rooted concepts that I feel I've only touched the surface of. But writing out this post has been surprisingly therapeutic and clarifying; maybe it will spark some empathy in people who read it as well. Like I said, I'm not a psychologist; I don't know all the answers. However, I think taking this experience one hurdle at a time is a good place to start. Risk by risk, post by post, hopefully I'll find a way to build the confidence that I'm striving for and grow myself as a writer and person.
In my previous post I alluded to some baseline questions about my writing that I was struggling with and hadn't quite answered. My "voice" as an author was one of those. If anyone reading this knows me, you know that I am a perfectionist (some might say to a fault). I tend to overthink what I'm doing because I take pride in my work and want it to be absolutely perfect.
My voice is a factor that had held me back from truly attempting writing because I never quite felt like I nailed it down. You read books by Stephen King (he's one of my favorite authors if you couldn't tell), J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, or any other renowned author and you can just tell it's written by them. Their verbiage, syntax, grammar, and all other habits make the writing distinctively theirs and draw readers to them time and time again. This recognizable voice is something I've desired in my work for so long now, but still worry that my voice is too bland, not whimsical enough, not compelling enough, not gritty enough.
I asked my adviser, Zac Pettit, about how he found his voice and what he did to find his voice and was met with an unexpectedly candid answer: You don't have to find your voice. He explained to me that my voice is my voice. I know that seems repetitive and obvious, but he made me realize that I already had an author's voice: my own. The one I'm already writing in. The one I naturally write in.
Zac did also comment that while you don't need to change your personal voice to be a good author, make sure you're catering your voice to the right audience. A very colloquial voice would be considered unprofessional in a scientific journal just as a serious and verbose voice would be too complicated for a children's novel. This goes back to the concept of the ideal reader: you don't need to change your voice, but know who you're writing for. And if you do intend to publish, make sure the place you're pitching your idea to appreciates and supports the voice you have.
This was a confusing idea at first, but the more I thought about it the more I realized how true it is. The reason we love all those authors is because they're different. If all authors tried to mimic others we'd live in a pretty boring world. Furthermore, if any of the greats tried to imitate one another I don't think their stories would come across half as well- can you imagine Harry Potter in the style of The Shining? I doubt the fan-base would be remotely the same.
It's such a cliche, but realizing that I had already figured out my voice without knowing it, that it was "inside me all along" was a relief. I'm on the journey of simplifying my conceptualization of my voice and learning to appreciate what I already have. My confidence isn't where I want it to be; I still don't know if I'm fully ready to put my work out there. But knowing that there is something inside of me already, that I have potential, is a good enough start for me.
So...I know it's taken more than a moment for me to get started on this project. In future post(s) I'm hoping to explain my process more and get into why that is. But for now, I want to get started on my master plan for becoming something of a writer and answer some basic questions I've outlined for myself. Hopefully with these I'll have an idea of what direction I want to focus my work.
What do I want to write?
This is a question I've struggled with for a while now- mainly because I have so many interests. Fiction is by far my favorite genre to read and I think it would be enjoyable to write. I have had a few ideas for novels in the past that I would love to flush out more. The main drawback I can find with novels, however, is the length and depth is so intense that I don't know if it's the best place to first try publishing and get my work out there. I think shorter stories might be a better place to start because I could get used to others reading my work, receiving feedback, and trying out new techniques at a quicker pace than I could with a novel.
On the other hand, nonfiction could be an interesting niche to explore. I think it would be a compelling way to combine my passion for writing with other areas that I care about; I could write about environmentalism, global issues, women's rights, or anything else I see fit. With my engineering background it might be a creative way to combine my research skills while also spreading awareness for issues I value. In the past, I had always shied away from writing as a viable career because I didn't know how much of an impact I could have with it (no disrespect to any authors- I value author's work and with this experience will probably gain a new respect for the difficulties they go through). I think writing some non-fiction could help me find that satisfaction of completing my "duty" while also exploring writing.
Conclusion: This experience for me is about testing the waters of a vocation I never had the guts to do before. I think trying a variety of genres and formats will help me discover what I like and what I don't, what works for me and what doesn't.
Who do I want to write for?
A concept that Stephen King talks about in his book On Writing is the ideal reader- the perfect candidate to read your work after it's completed. This is the person that you want to watch read what you've written and see them laugh, cry, and sigh at all the right parts. He advises that you have that person in mind as you write, as it can give you direction and inspiration. Right now, I don't think I have one ideal reader. I've tried to come up with one reader to rule them all but can't seem to find someone that fits everything. But upon further thought into this question, I realized that might be okay. The person who reads an article in the local newspaper about the environmental impact of a local business might not, and probably won't, be the same person as someone who logs on to reddit to read scary stories.
Conclusion: If I want to try my hand at writing a variety of styles and a variety of pieces, I have to have a variety of idea readers. It will be important to identify who my ideal reader is before writing, but they don't have to all be the same; I'm sure this will be easier said than done, but I don't have to impress everyone.
Why do I want to write?
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a passion driven person. I've had a honors experiences in the past that I picked up and put down because it made me realize that I wasn't doing it out of passion or love for the craft. When it comes down to it, I want to do this experience because I'm passionate about it and because this might be the push I need to actually get out there and do it. I've been writing stories since I learned how to write (quite literally ask my parents- I spent a lot of my time in elementary school publishing books in my school's publishing shop). With encouragement from a lot of people I hold close to me, I've decided to make my goals public to hold myself accountable to earnestly explore my passion.
Conclusion: I'm scared. But I've always loved writing- why not give it a shot?