Tuesday, October 6, 2015

"Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery"

Do you ever find yourself losing your own voice and unintentionally imitating your favorite or omnipresent authors?  Did you ever have to read a little too much Immanuel Kant and end up writing with a tone mirroring a bad eighteenth century translation?  There is a famous quote, which you’ve probably heard, coined by English writer and cleric, Charles Caleb Colton: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”  Oscar Wilde, ever the witty wordsmith, suggested the addendum: “...that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”  And it’s true; consciously or not, we try to be as good as our role models, or those to whom we are most exposed.  It’s almost a survival instinct--copy the best, and you will not only curry favor, but also be have aspirations of being just as good.

I don’t know whose style mine resembles.  At times I can be long-winded and pedantic, resembling J.R.R. Tolkien’s unattractive pedagogical tone of The Hobbit.  Then I try to be wittier and more forward thinking, a la Margaret Atwood or Kurt Vonnegut.  And yet none of these styles really suit me, in the sense that I feel I am trying to imitate “greatness.”  At my worst failures, I feel most the constant drive to imitate, and to live through the success of other authors.  As a shameless lover of pop culture, I constantly lament the fact that I feel the need to buy a bunch of books and special edition DVDs (not to mention the secret LEGO collection); I don’t want to be a dependent on someone else’s mythos; I want to be the “creator.”  Writing, whether creative or academic, is always a risky endeavor.  It’s easy to think that I will never be as successful as J.K. Rowling or...James Patterson.  And it’s true, of course I won’t be.  Yet, as tacky as it may be, we have to work hard to “be ourselves.”

What does this have to do with the Writing Center?  Well, there’s nothing wrong with first imitating our favorites.  As I said above, it seems to be a natural instinct.  But when you bring a work of writing to the Center, whatever the genre, it’s always more interesting if the world has never seen it before.  No one in the world is exactly the same, and each set of life experiences allows us to view the world (first through the eyes, then through the written word).  I’m not talking about plagiarism, here; this is much more subtle and pervasive, not to mention frustrating.  All writers should certainly acknowledge debt to other writers, even if in the case of an in-joke or dedication.  At the same time, a good exercise might be to be aware of the debt which they acknowledge.  Janet Burroway calls it “stealing like an artist.”  But even the most skilled stealth has its basis in real skill.  Simply parroting the life’s work of an intrepid author will hardly give you their renown, especially if you don’t bring your own truth to it.  Everyone has a unique truth, as I stated above, but few (myself included) ever seem to capitalize on it by writing.  It might be time for us to change that!

--Peter the Blogcrafter

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Staving Off Laziness In Academic Writing: A Four-Part Rehab Program

Pure, plain, and inexcusable laziness is undoubtedly among the greatest challenges that I face as an academic writer. I love writing witty little poems, or profound commentary, but when it comes to writing an academic paper with research and sources and deliberation, I find an unnecessary burden. Unnecessary, because my primary obstacle is laziness. This laziness is closely linked with the intimidation that I feel when reading over an essay prompt for the first time. Of course, my perennial procrastination compounds this effect of feeling that I am not able to devote enough time and effort to an academic paper, and the rest, as they say, is history. As much as the Writing Center would like to encourage people to bring in any writing, be it fiction, nonfiction, or a scribbled itinerary for some obscure purpose, chances are that most students will be visiting for help on academic papers. This is the stuff that many don’t want to do, which of course means that it’s the stuff that makes you seem famous and intelligent. At any rate, what follows is a list of combating laziness and apathy when it comes to personal writing. Here are my personal tips, and believe me, I’m going to need to use them, myself; I have a thesis due at the end of the semester, and it’s kind of a big deal.

1.     Start writing. There’s a very good essay by Anne Lamott called “Shitty First Drafts,” which expounds upon the cathartic experience of writing, well, shitty first drafts. Say that: A.) you have a thesis, or B.) you are writing an exploratory essay and don’t need a thesis yet, or C.) you have no idea what the hell you’re writing, Just get words onto paper. It doesn’t matter how bad they are, which is a good thing, because they will be bad. Mine are bad. Everyone’s are bad. But "It’s the job that's never started as takes longest to finish, as my gaffer used to say,” said Sam Gamgee. To paraphrase another geeky pop culture character, "Do. There is no do not."

2.     Once more unto the databases, dear friends! Look for sources. Complete an extensive search of surrounding systems. Do not give up until you have found enough scholarly and popular information to fill a few tomes. You don’t have to use it all, nor read it all in full, but if you can avoid piling research near a project’s deadline, you will be doing yourself a favor. This might seem obvious: don’t procrastinate, but instead it is about having the willpower to start writing, to start searching, etc.

3.     Once more unto the beach, dear friends! Relax, everyone! Another way of saying this, other than paraphrasing Henry V for the second time in a row would be that old expression, “Work hard, play hard.” Not necessarily a chronological next step after research, devoting time to leisure is a necessary respite from the difficulties of the project. The only problem is that relaxation can be addictive, and you need to make sure that you return to the task at hand. Which brings me to my next point…

4.     Putting it all together Synthesis, which is my unofficial term for the coherent compilation and combination of research and one’s own opinion, is possibly the most difficult part of writing an essay. It’s not as though this is the absolute last stage of journey; writing is, of course, always an ongoing process. At the same time, this is the time when laziness is the most devious in its effort to infiltrate one’s consciousness. The best way to stave it off, for me, is to take pride in my work and find personal meaning and worth in each assignment. Once you actually have a connection to your writing, you will find that it isn’t just you giving up a weekend to write about something. Instead you are going to be enjoying what you are doing and making your time, and your writing, far more meaningful.

--Peter the Blogcrafter

Monday, September 28, 2015

Writing Contest!

“And the sound was coming from the basement.”

Yes!  It’s that time again!  Welcome back to Roosevelt University’s Writing Center’s semiannual writing contest.  The season: Halloweeeeeen [read in spooky voice]!  The theme: we decided (well, actually, Hillary decided, brilliantly, and then we all voted on it) that you can pick the the theme.  All you have to do is incorporate the blood-red, bolded sentence above as the closing of your story.  It can be fiction, poetry, or even--but hopefully not--a true story!  The rules are yours, as long as you pay heed to the ominous portent stated above.  Last spring we had a rather meager number of submissions.  This is supposed to be fun, people!  Write for a chance to win an amazing gift card, and if you don’t win, you will probably have just as much fun becoming a better and more creative writer (and eating pizza at our party).  In addition, for the first and last time ever, there will be free The Lord of the Rings Pez dispensers for the first eight entrants. Would you rather have Gimli than Gollum?  Then enter soon, but take heed that haste does not inhibit your storytelling craft.  This is it, people!  I, for one, am psyched!  I might even have to enter, myself!

Bloodchillingly yours,