You Never Stop Learning How To Write

If you peruse my blog, you will know that I just finished attending undergraduate school. During my final semester I took a class on writing. It was a very beneficial class and it helped me out quite a bit.

Before I attended JASS 436, Memoir and Travel Writing, I wasn’t sure what benefits it would have for me.  I was a tri-major student with a focus on Business Management.  Where would a course like that fit in? What memories do I have that I could write about?  Do I even want to write? Who would even want to hear my stories? I don’t do a whole lot of traveling.  I hardly ever write anything down. And I read even less.

Those questions and issues were all posed by me before the class opened my mind giving me ideas on how to improve myself as a writer, a thinker, and (dare I say) as a person.  This class proved to be different than other composition classes I previously attended. The class also helped my writing by teaching me how to overcome obstacles, identify areas I (still) need to work on, and it has given me the tools to do all of this with.

I am currently attempting to improve my writing technique.  I recognized several areas requiring my immediate attention though.  One being, to get to the point. I need to shorten my sentences and remove unnecessary words.  Overall, my thought process wasn’t that good. I tried to write too much, without creating some version of a timeline and before figuring out what parts of my stories to tell and when.  This tended to make my first drafts wordy. From the first day of class until now, based on knowledge obtained from activities and discussions in class, as well as instructions given in the book The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, I have been attempting to adjust my thinking regarding what I write about.  I found a need to concentrate on how it develops in my head and how I will process that on paper.

My hope is that the stories within my blog will be interesting, concise, and provide some level of entertainment or knowledge to those who read them. – The additional information below this paragraph is about the class. Feel free to continue reading if you would like to know more about writing and what I went through in the class.

A typical paper, for me, was purely academic.  Here’s what I’m going to tell you, here’s me telling you, and here’s what I told you.  I have been taught this method of essay writing in every other class I’ve ever taken. I still fight with that concept of thinking because it comes naturally.  Much of what I’ve written for this class has started out in this same fashion. Often I have written from the perspective that what’s in my head is relayed in my writing.  Unfortunately, I’ve noticed in my reviews for papers I’ve written, I interjected outside information from my mind to fill blank spots. These experiences were never written into my work.  Obviously I haven’t mastered this yet, but at least I recognize this fault and was taught something that will help me in the future.   

The tool that will help is one of the most amazing activities for writing I have ever been taught.  This activity helps me adjust how I tackle a project; although, it comes after the initial idea is on the page.  The activity is called side-shadowing and has been most useful to me. It is this method of defining, questioning, and suggesting that works really well to help further define, expand, or contract my writing.  I had never heard of this method of revision before and when I first read through the process I wasn’t on board. It appeared quite extensive and time consuming; however, after using this exercise on my first article I found it to be extremely useful.  Someday I hope to write a book, or a slew of articles or blogs, about my life experiences and side-shadowing will help. I have heard people say “you are your best critic”, so I hope there’s truth in that statement.

I enjoyed the writing exercise we performed in class on being descriptive.  Unfortunately, this exercise made me realize I need to use more of my imagination.  Not to make things up, but to describe situations, surroundings, people, places, and everything I write about much clearer than I do.  This, in and of itself, will take a lot of practice for me. In the exercise I wrote about my garage. A place I go into everyday. I gutted the building and rebuilt it inch by inch.  I know how many screws are in each shelving unit, exactly how the units are secured to the walls, where each stud is located behind the OSB and how much insulation is contained within each wall and between each stud.  The problem was, I couldn’t provide a better description than it was dark and smelled like gasoline and oil. I need to take a few lessons from Haruki Murakami and his methods of describing scenes. He described an event in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running where on a run in Greece he encountered a mass of dead animals on the road while he ran.  His descriptions of the road, the animals, and the countryside were very well done, not too graphic, and they helped to bring me into his story.

 I also believe that getting a better handle on describing my stories to people will allow for a little more interest in the story itself, which might make me seem more interesting as a person too.  Haruki Murakami’s book was well written but I feel the most helpful reading from this class was Mary Karr’s book, The Art of Memoir.  

Karr’s book reads as a story and it contains a plethora of viable information.  Her methods will help me on my path to becoming a better writer.  Murakami’s book will help with the display of my words and ideas if I review his examples and consider how he uses his words to describe events and places.  Karr’s book contains an intense amount of valuable information. Karr provides several lists to remember and think about when writing such as: expressing your voice, setting emotional stakes, not using exaggeration, express the inner enemies, verbalizing one’s outer conflict, and more.  To write well one should use her examples and incorporate them into their writing. Her book also mades me realize I have much to overcome on my path to becoming a better writer.

In reviewing other writings of mine, I noted that starting my articles and essays has been difficult for me.  I have found it hard to get the reader on board initially by giving enough cause for investment without revealing too much at the same time.  I recognize the need to write a much better opening as well as the need for bread-crumbing. My trouble is figuring out what people don’t know, and what they need to know, to keep them interested.  I also don’t want it to be too boring or the polar opposite causing an information overload. Working on these challenges has been a good place to start, pun intended.  

Another challenge I face is grammar logistics.  I need to improve this as well as sentence punctuation.  In speaking with the Professor, a good method for me to use came up.  Reading out loud. When I vocalize the article or essay it should flow based on the writing, not on the reading of it.  If I insert a comma or forget one and don’t pause at a certain point the sentence may read incorrectly. A good example of this comes from a journalism class I took in a previous semester where the professor used the sentence, “Stop clubbing, baby seals.”  He indicated that it should have read “Stop clubbing baby seals.” Overall, this class has uncovered viable areas for me to focus on and I hope future students will gain insight as I have.

Along that same line, the most important advice I can give to any future students of this class, is to not feel overwhelmed.  The syllabus indicates quite a few written assignments and a fair amount of reading but it is all manageable. Karr’s book reads like a story and the other two books are good reads as well.  Most importantly, don’t get too caught up with your own personal interests, or even the story itself, when reading the articles or books. Each lesson is just that – a lesson. There is knowledge to be acquired.  Future students should use the knowledge in Karr’s writings to be more analytical with the other assigned books.

The second bit of advice I can give about this class is to read the materials and take notes for discussions.  Simply put, do the work! While in class, I noticed if a student doesn’t do their work, and we form into groups for discussion, they have nothing to offer and are often a hindrance on the group.  Personally I want to remember what I’m being taught and take something away from this. I anticipate mental value from all of the classes I have taken at this University. If someone isn’t doing his part then he can’t expect there to be any value from these lessons for him to take away.

Will I ever be a great writer?  I don’t know. With the challenges I have discovered I realize I have much work to do.  This class is far from over – in the universal sense of that word – over. Joe Bunting, a British television presenter, producer, and writer once said: “No one is born a writer.  You must become a writer. In fact, you never cease to becoming [one], because you never stop learning how to write.” In my case, in order to truly learn, I need to continue practicing what I have been taught long after I complete this class.  But, I will continue to improve – because I won’t stop trying.  

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