On writing better & 2016 resolutions

red-hands-woman-creative

The other day I read a really interesting article on Vox about “reverse outrage.” Overall, what I’m going to write about here and what they wrote about there aren’t going to sound very similar, but the article spoke to me and led me here today.

In sum (although I truly urge you to read the article linked above): In 2015 there were numerous trending internet topics that got massively out of control. Between #BoycottStarWarsVII (a pretty racist movement born out of a total rando who thought the new Star Wars cast wasn’t whitewashed enough to his liking) and those damn Starbucks cups, the internet via social commentary has taken some super obscure social commentaries and blown them to massive proportions that they otherwise would not have reached.

This is a wee bit of an issue because it gives these really negative stories a ton of fame, fame that nobody wants them to have.

But here’s the conundrum: we media types love these inflammatory remarks. Inflammatory remarks increase clicking and sharing and commenting, and every website needs that kind of traffic to stay afloat. There is no mainstream media outlet that did not benefit from the red cup debacle, and I can tell you that with great certainty. There is no mainstream media outlet that is not benefitting from Donald Trump, none that is not benefitting from a random racist tweet against Muslims, none that is not benefitting from a scare tactic relative to immigrants.

And it’s perpetuating a nasty little cycle.

As an aspiring professional writer, I’ve been struggling with that cycle for a few months now. Maybe it’s because I got a little too into The Newsroom when I was funemployed this summer (watched the series three times in a row, Maggie and Jim #4ever), but I actually left a writing gig because I felt a little icky about the stuff I was writing, feeling like maybe exploiting some issues just to get traffic was kind of trashy.

I was writing articles with purposefully inflammatory headlines (ones that I sometimes didn’t agree with) all for the sake of getting enough shares to be picked up by the Huffington Post. I was successful numerous times, but still couldn’t shake that discomfort that came with knowing I was simply baiting people into sharing my story. I eventually stopped writing for this website because as a young writer, I don’t want to shape myself into someone who mass produces trash.

I can pat myself on the back all I want for that move, but the awkward truth is that most of the media isn’t a PBS endeavor. We get by on clicks. We discuss sharable topics. We highlight things other people want to talk about. As someone who’s quickly learning that money definitely matters (chat with your rent-collecting landlord next time you claim otherwise), I know that it is important to cover things that people want to hear about. The catch, however, is to do so with the utmost responsibility.

I’m still finding my voice as a writer. I’m 22 years old, have barely seen anything besides New England mountainscapes, and am only starting to think about scratching the surface of what it means to be a writer. But what I’m learning about, and what I hope to continue to explore, are ways to always be better. Right now, being better means being responsible. Right now, being better means knowing that creating false ire in your readers in the name of “discussion” is not journalism, even though talking about trending topics might be.

In all of this talk about being better, I want to call your attention to these closing remarks to that Vox article I talked about at the top of this piece:

We often don’t care about the fixing the wrong or adding to the conversation; all we see is an opportunity to affirm some version of ourselves by taking a side and making a scene. And in doing so, we’ve figured out a way to dismantle complex ideas into simplistic, easily digestible things that, in the end, are ultimately disposable – until the next fight comes around.

It’s New Years Eve today, and as I keep pushing to get new writing opportunities, new writing jobs, new people to read and help me with my writing, I’ve decided to start peddling a better product. In 2016…

I resolve to add more links when I write. Not links back to my own stuff, but to facts, to further reading, to people who definitely can explain a phenomenon way better than I can. Adding facts is the key to responsibility.

I resolve to be myself, because I think that’s what I’ve been looking to do all along. Being myself (as opposed to someone else) is definitely what I do best, and I know there is nobody who can do it quite like me.

I resolve to shelf long columns/personal essays for three days before publishing. I’m great with deadlines, but sometimes to a fault. I tell myself I’m going to post on a date, and I do, but that means I rarely reconsider what I’m going to say; it is one of the curses in disguise in this blogging world. I need to put my money where my mouth is and triple check I’m saying something I actually want to say.

I resolve to fix the wrong. There are two certain occasions I can specifically think of off the top of my head where I’ve started off saying, “I don’t know the answer to this problem, but I’m going to talk at you about it anyways.” I’m proud of what I said, and I do not fundamentally think it was trash, but I hate that I qualified it with “I don’t know the answer.” Clearly I thought I did. Clearly I thought I could help right the wrong, even if in a peripheral way. I resolve to write constructively about issues instead of retweeting news breaks. I resolve to do the best I can in acknowledging what people want to talk about, but to always make sure the energy I’m putting out there with my words helps fix something in some way.

Writing Love Letters, Because the World Needs More

Our mission is simple- make love famous.The More Love Letters movement, spearheaded by the talented Hannah Brencher, is something pretty close to my heart. You see, Hannah is a graduate from the same school as me (and pretty cool fact, she also held the same position as me on the school newspaper when she attended Assumption).

Hannah inspires the hell out of me because she’s managed to make a life out of something pretty important to me – writing. Her words are beautiful and careful and deliberate, and every time she posts something new to her blog I’m sucked in like a vacuum, like her words were something filling an empty space I didn’t really know I had.

She also inspires the hell out of me because she’s managed to do all of this on a purely optimistic platform. As someone so consumed by the news and the little bitty world of new media, I’m blown away by people who can write without cynicism or sarcasm and who choose to use their talent to build a positive space in this world.

I learned how to write by letting love letters spill out of my soul for a boy who I was never going to let read them. I let them stack up in notebooks next to my bed and a special Microsoft Word folder on my laptop. They kept me company when he’d be sleeping silently beside me and wrote themselves in my head when his antagonisms were the loudest words in the room. And even though I don’t write him letters anymore, I’m glad the More Love Letters movement exists so I can write some for someone.

more love letters

I wrote to Anistazia for MLL’s 12 Days of Letter Writing because she spoke to me. I felt her somewhere in my heart. There are so many deserving people on the 12 Days list, and someone will speak to anyone, but Anistazia’s story was brand new to me and felt familiar all at the same time.

Anistazia had a once in a lifetime romance. She was a slave in Germany during WWII and after immigrating to America she married her childhood sweetheart. They kept their vow of, “until death do us part” but when he died a part of her did as well. Since his passing she had to enter an assisted living home but she still, “chooses to find the beauty in everyday and shares that beauty with everyone she meets.” Let’s give Anistazia all the love she’s given to others over the years.

I think it’s easy during Christmas time to get wrapped up in so many different things. You’re trying to find the perfect present for your family members and loved ones, deciding which charity to donate to, trying to fit in every special featured on the 25 Days of Christmas. But I want to let you in on this: this letter took me 10 minutes to write. It cost me the price of a stamp. It took me the drive to the post office.

If you’re looking to do some good this holiday (and aren’t we all?) this is something to look into. This is something to consider. Drop by the More Love Letters site and try your hand at donating a smidgen of your time and stationary to make someone’s holiday.

Essays 101: 7 Steps to Getting that A

ESSAY WRITING POST

So I’m going to have to be pretty honest, seeing all of my friends who are younger than me move back into school is hardcore bumming me out. It’s not because I’m longing for the party-filled social life of college (because my social life at home is pretty dang good), but because I so badly want to be taking classes with them all. And the thing I’m really really going to miss the most? The essay writing, because essays are kinda my shit.

I haven’t taken a legitimate exam since freshman year of college because, as a history major and English minor, I was just tested via lots and lots of essays, and I couldn’t have loved that more. Throughout all of those essays, I’ve really gotten my process down to a science—the thought of a 10-page essay isn’t so daunting anymore, and I get so excited at questions I don’t really know the answer to just yet.

I’ve boiled that science down to my seven must-dos in order to seriously nail an essay so you all can, too!

  1. Actually read the books.

I mean I guess it’s kind of obvious, but there are definitely people out there who don’t read the books you have to write your essay on. I guess that reading a straight textbook might be a little bit dry, but they make up for it by being super easy reads. When you move onto upper-level classes where you’re reading more books books instead of a textbook, though, you’ve got to read them. On the bright side, these books are usually super interesting and well-written, so it’s totally worth the time it takes to read.

When you’re reading, do yourself a favor and underline/highlight, and maybe add a few sticky-notes in there, too. You’re going to need to use quotes in your essay, obviously, so marking where there are insightful comments is kind of a must-do. Another great way to collect quotes if maybe you didn’t completely read every word of the book is to use the index and refine your speed reading skills.

  1. Make a legit outline.

These bad boys are so, so important—if you make a proper outline, you’re already like 70 percent done with your essay. I like to come up with each paragraph I’m going to write, come up with the topic of each, and at least type in every quote I’m going to support each point. I don’t let this 100 percent dictate my essay-writing, though. If I’m writing and I feel like I need to split into a new paragraph, or should swap around ideas, I allow myself room to do so.

Toward the end of college I started adding in bullet points in each outline, and would allow myself to ramble on about that subtopic as much as I wanted. Then I’d go back and edit that all out to have more scholarly language and transitional phrases, eventually turning itself into an essay.

  1. Use EasyBib.

The absolutely, positively most important part of writing an essay is making sure the whole thing is sourced properly. That means making sure you have the right in-text citations, the right footnotes, and the right bibliography at the end. I love using EasyBib.com because it organizes my bibliographies perfectly. I still need to think about the rest of my sourcing, but at least I know one part of it will be flawless.

Pay attention to the citation format you use. If you’re writing something in sociology or psychology, you’re probably going to use APA format. If you’re writing English, it’ll be MLA. History is Chicago Manual of Style (AKA lots and lots of footnotes). Those tend to be how it works out, but make sure you double check with your professor to find out what he/she would like!

  1. Think about the connected ideas between all of your sources, and what those ideas are saying about the world at large.

When you start moving into upper-level classes (your 200 or 300 levels), it’s not enough to just give a report or summary of what you read. In most cases, you’re going to be balancing multiple books, or multiple thinkers, or multiple theories, and you need to make sure that you’re showing you understand all of them. The best way to do that is to show that you understand how they all connect to each other, and how they connect to the world at large.

Obviously, this advice is going to vary on a case-by-case basis. I honestly have no knowledge about psychology, so who the heck knows, maybe this is a terrible piece of advice for that subject! I do know, however, that in history, you need to demonstrate that you know how different ideas connect and that they don’t exist in a vacuum—that’s pretty much the whole point to the study of history, and English is pretty similar, too.

  1. Say something unique, or that you don’t think your peers are saying.

THIS IS HUGE. I had a professor who used to say that it would be impossible to get more than a B on an essay with him if you only went for the low-hanging fruit. That’s to say, there are a lot of obvious arguments out there—usually the ones you went over in class a lot, or the ones you would know whether you took the course or not—and those are not enough to show that you understand a concept. While you should definitely touch on those, don’t let them be your whole essay.

When I would write essays, I would try to say something that I didn’t think my peers would say. That could mean taking a qualified stance on an argument, or saying that an event occurred for reasons we hadn’t yet discussed. It didn’t matter to me if I had the best writing skills or the best research skills in the class—I wanted to say the most creative thing.

  1. Use your introduction not just to set the topic, but to capture your professor and show off your writing skills.

Sarah Vowell, one of my favorite authors, once said “the more history I learn, the more the world fills up with stories.” That’s why introductions are my favorite, favorite, favorite things to write. That’s my space to tell a story.

Of course, in my introduction I take the time to make my thesis statement and give the reader a teeny glimpse into what I’ll be talking about, but my first handful of sentences are always dedicated to storytelling, letting my reader know the context of my argument, of letting them know that I’m not just writing an essay, but actually demonstrating writing skills.

  1. Make your title last.

God, I hate titles. To be completely honest, I don’t have the best advice for them except to write them after you’ve written the whole essay. Sometimes when I’m writing, the essay I planned on doesn’t necessarily come to fruition, and it changed into something new. Maybe there’s a really interesting point I come up with, or maybe there’s one part that’s better written than another and I want to direct attention to it. Either way, I always make sure to reflect that in my title. Another way to go is super, duper general, like “Heart of Darkness as 19th Century Imperialist Commentary.” That shit’s real general to the point that it almost sounds dumb, but it’s not going to make you drop from an A to A-. I’m also a fan of the colon, like “Heart of Darkness: An Imperialist Commentary.” That makes you seem really smart, but doesn’t take a huge amount of brain power to come up with.

Sara Says: The Final Column

When I began this column back in September, I told you all this: I know that who I am is all that I have. That was all I seemed to know at the time that I started editing with the Provoc, and it was the main thing I had learned in college. But now, seven months later, I seem to know a little bit more—that words have a fickle way of sticking out of everything, of not wanting to bend to the circumstances you have, that sometimes they’re going to fail you, and others they’re going to run like a leaky faucet onto a page and you won’t be able to stop them.

I’ve come to know now, with all of the bravado and certainty in the world, that I was right when I started this whole thing. Who I am is all that I have, and all that I have and all that I am are words.

Words seem to have traced my entire trajectory throughout college. I’m a history major and (officially declared!) English minor, so pretty regularly I’ve found myself hunched in front of a computer pounding away at a keyboard. I have searched for them, and found them, when I’ve had a hot date with Microsoft Word and a Her Campus article or blog post or Provoc article. I have spent hours on end with the dance team when words have left me to go see something else. Words have been why I can fall asleep at night, and why I’m able to hold the folks around me with tight little hands.

And I blame you, Assumption College, for all of this. I blame the many people who have touched me, with positive rays of sunshine or with heartbreaking sadness. I blame the girls who have lived by my side for this little journey, the teams who have made my hands feel light and full, the lectures that have taken me to fantasy lands where I, from the comfort of a desk, have had the ability to see everything.

Shout out to the Provoc staff for being magical word fairies, for making me feel hilarious and for teaching me how to step into the large, large shoes that leaders often wear. My love for you is infinite, and if you need to hear about it again, check out issue seven.

Shout out to the dance team for being there when words weren’t. Thank you for teaching me how to dance and walk like a champion, how to ‘put my loser up’ in all sense of the words and for Sobfest 2015.

Shout out to 5J for being the most hilarious and unique women in my life. Thank you for the Wall of Shame, for the denim stains our dancing has left on walls and for the toxic group message that plagues my iPhone. Please stay weird. Always.

And shout out to my professors, for giving me books to read, and a whole world to explore. Special shout outs to Professor Wheatland, who gave me the worst grade I’ve gotten in 117, and for pulling out the best paper I’ve ever written in senior seminar; Dr. Kisatsky for letting me write an honors thesis about Disney, and for making sure it came out okay; Professor Land for reminding me that journalism, and writing in general, is all about talking to and learning from people you would never have gotten the chance to meet; and to Professor Hodgen. Thanks for telling me to “ruin my life” and become a writer; you—and writing—have saved me in more ways than you could know.

Thanks to the Andover High friends who never let me stop calling them home. You all are everything to me.

Thanks to Douglas, Colleen and Eric for being my first friends ever, for keeping me irrationally attached to Massachusetts, for teaching me to laugh deep in my gut and for teaching me that the earth is the greatest thing that we have and we should go out there and enjoy it. Thanks to Mom and Dad for making bill payments, high grades, extracurriculars and big dreams all possible.

Forever and ever I will always say that humility and gratitude will be the most important and most attractive qualities someone can have, so I try to pull them into my heart every morning and every night. Thank you Provoc, Assumption and everyone who has filled this space with love for always keeping me humble, and always keeping me grateful.

On Dancing, Love, and Other Drugs

dance blog realOn January 12, 2015, exactly eight days ago today, I published a post entitled, “5 Teams to Watch at UDA Nationals 2015.” It was literally exactly how it sounded—a list of five teams I was super amped to watch at UDA Collegiate Nationals. Now, eight days later, I’ve gotten 679 views on that post. 679. I hadn’t even gotten that many views on this entire blog until the start of 2015. Like what? Dang.

The really cool thing about it all is that I would’ve come up with my favorite teams heading into the competition whether I’d decided to post to my blog about it or not. I freaking love to dance and have obsessed over collegiate nationals for years and years and years, so doing my thang and being able to post it to the blog was rad because I didn’t need to come up with a blog post for the week.

Especially since making other blogger ‘friends’, I’ve been looking at other people’s blogs and being like, “oh, okay,I need to do this, this, and this.” By “this,” I think I’ve meant outfit reviews and DIY crap and recipes. And that’s really not who I am. You want me to post an outfit of the day? Why don’t you take a gander at my collection of plain white shirts and black leggings. You want me to post about DIY crap? I’d rather just buy a set of coasters rather than modpodge photos to some. You want me to post recipes? Well guess what—I may make a lot of baked goods from scratch, but I don’t know crap about actually making up a recipe.

Let me set the record straight: There is nothing wrong with the fact that I accept a free mascara to review, or hair conditioner, or whatever. Posts like that are fun. Posts about my day seeing the Nutcracker are fun. But this blog was supposed to be about my poetry, and although I can’t crank out a sonnet the way I used to, I feel like I’ve lost the purity of my intentions.

Which is why the “5 Teams to Watch” post came at the perfect time.

I have two great loves in this world. One of them is dancing. I love having it hurt when I inhale the day following at 7-hour practice. I love working through a dance and realizing that my mind truly will give up before my body does. I love the camaraderie and the way that this art has somehow become my space, my breathing room.

The other is writing. I love threading a sentence through the eye of a needle. I love taking a totally universal feeling or emotion and articulating it in a way that nobody would’ve thought of. I love recognizing this predictability amongst the human race, recognizing that we’re all sort of just writing the same story and that’s really beautiful.

And when I wrote “5 Teams to Watch,” I was, in the most natural and serendipitous way, just putting those two worlds together. It’s like, there are parts of dancing– the dance, the feeling, the photos of teams learning of their victories– that are in themselves poems that I am not conceited enough to think that I know how to write. But I still want to try.

I started the second semester of my senior year today, which pretty much just indicates one thing—I have to figure out what the fuck I want to do with the rest of my life. And I’m starting to kind of realize that whatever I do, I have to do it with love. Do it with love, and what will follow is the success.

I really hate when people wrap their words around old clichés, making them feel really dank and heavy. This is not Oz—not everything you write is some pulling away of the curtain which hides the universe’s secrets. Sometimes it’s just about a boy in your car or the cruelty of hearts beating or of the way two people holding hands can look like Mary Magdalene—a bunch of drugs that we get addicted to and breathe in like some intoxicating potion.

So I’m sorry that this was all incredibly heavy. I’m sorry that I’ve spent this last page just throwing my heart a cliché and hoping it will stick. But I hope you all know—I did it with love.