Learning to Write

Writing is a difficult skill that takes years to develop and perfect. The process to solve a math problem can be instructed, the dates of a political conflict can be memorized, and even chemical compounds can be derived and analyzed. Writing is difficult in other ways. It can’t be taught in a traditional sense, you cannot read how to deliver an idea, argue a point, or explore a concept beyond the pure basics of writing. Much of the journey of learning to write is a personal process of trial and error, considering input from others to make small, microscopic adjustments over time. Many times these adjustments themselves are hidden. You can’t mathematically confirm if an essay delivers what you want to say, or look up the answers online to find if what you are saying reaches the reader in any meaningful way. This is where the value of good writing and good writers come from, the difficulty in developing this skill.

Often this is frustrating. It is difficult to see progress as a writer, difficult to even feel if you are properly learning or changing. Growth in writing is not as obvious as memorizing another political process or learning a new formula. There are no stark differences from paper to paper, at least when writing within a comfortable progression. It can be a personal journey, and much like personal growth, the changes are not immediate and drastic, but of a culmination of little lessons learned.

Still, there are large gaps to cross when developing as a writer. Often times early lessons taught persist too long, and too strongly. What constitutes “academic writing” is difficult to fully explain, so it is often easier to attach this term to disjointed, detached, and formal writing. Writing strictly within categories as “argumentative” or “research” rather than applying approaching writing with the exploratory in mind. Academic writing is thought of as strictly the record and justification for the writer’s pre existing thoughts and ideas, rather than the development of them. In ways, argumentative rather than conversational. Research with the intent of proving perspectives of a subject rather than the intent of exploring and developing them. Even the simple task of utilizing words such as “I” within a paper. It is easier to think of academic writing as the end of the process, rather than an active part of it.

This is what troubled me for so much time about my writing. Staying detached and at an arm’s length, delivering my ideas with the intent of proving them rather than developing them. This proved difficult when discussing a text such as Jemisin’s, where much of the content is dedicated to contemporary problems in society which influence people. Even further, adding in personal aspects to writing is difficult. Adding personal elements to writing has always been something I avoided, it felt strange and in ways unprofessional to even address myself as a writer within the work. Of course, when discussing culturally relevant texts, writing with this limit becomes incredibly difficult.

Further, most of the writing done in general education is in a closed environment. Essays are written, delivered to the instructor, then handed back to the student. While there is the occasional peer review session, most of the process is done in a private setting. But writing outside of an educational setting is most often not within such an environment. Once posted, published, or otherwise sent out, often times things we have written are available to anyway. The public nature of the blog posts was a daunting task, sort of like public speaking. Never before had I personally put writing out with my name attached, especially in a setting like the internet. This, compounded with the content of the posts, presented new challenges for me as a writer.

The first post I did end up following through with did incorporate elements of personal connection to the writing. I wrote about my own experiences reading the books, and my thoughts on the character and representation that I felt. Further, I voiced my change in perspective, “the usage of race and gender within Jemisin’s work gave myself a window into this world, even if I was resistant at first”.  I spent a long time developing and writing this post, and the subject matter of it both interested me and was culturally relevant. Representation is a topic which is common, yet we are given few opportunities to unpack. I was able to utilize my first post as a means to explore my own thoughts on the subject. I was very happy with how my first blog post turned out, as I felt that I made meaningful connections to both the text and the content of the course.

While I was very satisfied with this post, I was not entirely sure how to follow up. In ways I felt that the subject matter was difficult to expand upon, being in part linked to my own personal growth as I read through the series. I ultimately decided to post on a subject with a lighter tone, something that I could have a bit of fun with. My second post ended up comparing elements of worldbuilding within Jemisin’s work to other similar universes, primarily the systems of orogeny/magic. I did make efforts within this post to connect more in a societal context, and I felt that I accomplished the goals of what I set out to do within the post. However, I was not nearly as happy with this follow up as my initial post, it felt flat and less relevant. It lacked a cultural connection beyond comparison, and I merely alluded to its connections to society rather than directly addressing them.

Following up upon this, my next two individually written blog posts both felt very weak. Retrospectively, a large part of this was because I was forcing myself to write, looking to fill pages to follow my schedule, rather than for the sake of intellectual curiosity. This became a pattern in my blog posting writing, although I did not always publish posts that I felt were weak. My final two posts also were written out of necessity for my schedule, and felt similar. When writing to follow up areas where I felt I succeeded, I almost always fell into old habits. Many of these posts lacked complexity and nuance. I did not simply phone in these posts, I thought about them and planned them out, yet at the same time, I was not excited for them.  

Most of these follow up posts came from areas of genuine interest. “The Second Person Perspective” was dedicated to something I had been considering at a level outside of the blog post assignment. The usage of the second person within Jemisin’s novels was one of the most interesting aspects I found about them, yet the post did not succeed in the ways I hoped. It as well felt flat and shallow, even if it came from an area of genuine interest. It lacked cultural context, and was much too general and lacked the research of my other posts. I put forth statements such as “the second person usage in the novel is experimental in many ways but has incredible benefits,” without fully unpacking what those benefits are. In the grading comments in response to the post, the phrase “repeating things with seeming circularity” well reflects the problems I had. Many of my weaker posts had little or no direction. I resorted to formulaic writing.

When learning to do anything, finding a formula is easy. Even writing has basic formulas as we are taught in school. Intro, body paragraphs, conclusion. Make sure to end the beginning paragraph with a hypothesis, prove it in smaller points in the body paragraphs, sum up all the data in the conclusion. Later on, we may be taught additional part to this formula to strengthen arguments, add a rebuttal, add synthesis. Over time, this becomes how we write, not only because we are taught this way, but because it is easy. Often times this method leaves little room for growth, it is closed and directed. Not to say this type of writing does not have a place, but this formula cannot be applied to any situation.

During this period of my blog posts, I was merely attempting to get them done. Through some periods, there simply was not a subject that had me thinking about the novel outside the context of writing these posts. The result of such is posts such as “Essun as the Hero”, where I attempted to brute force words on a page using this formula.

But after this drought of posts, I once again found one that I was both passionate about while writing, and that I still retroactively proud of, “The Aeta and Cultural Disaster”. Not only did I once again stray away from the comfort of formulaic, argument driven writing, but I also was able to write about something that I felt was relevant both at a cultural and personal level. I attempted to incorporate my own personal/familial history, “I have grown up hearing stories about the eruption… my own research into the events of the eruption so many years later has revealed some interesting results”.

In fact, my discussion of the Aeta did not start as a blog post. I did not approach my own research on the Aeta for the purposes of fulfilling my ten required posts, but rather because it was something I felt a connection to. This post was a follow up to the group project I had worked on, where we covered the Mount Pinatubo disaster. Even after I left class the day we turned in this assignment, I went on multiple internet dives to find out more of the situation. I spent an afternoon reading articles and searching journals: on the eruption, the Aeta people, my own ancestral and cultural/ethnic group within the Philippines, and the entire surrounding cultural disaster. I was not searching for a link to Jemisin’s work, but these connections worked their way into my mind anyway.

The process of writing about the Aeta was similar to my first initial post about representation, it was simply the transmission of thoughts and ideas I was naturally having. I did not force the words on the page, I just wrote down what I was thinking. It was around this time I began to understand the “conversational” aspect of the blog posts. I did perform research about Pinatubo and the Aeta, but I was not necessarily to try to argue or prove any point. The content of my writing approached the topic with a different goal. I was just unpacking my findings and trying to develop my ideas further utilizing writing as an exploratory tool. The open ended nature of the blog posts contributed to how I developed my post and allowed me to naturally come to conclusions.

Even after having written this post, I was not sure how it would be received. The public nature of the blogging had not revealed its worth to me. The open nature of the blog posts only created a sort of anxiety for myself, as I never fully know how others would perceive my writing. In a way, this aspect of writing this semester frustrated me. I am was acclimated to the closed circuit of taught writing I had grown used to.

However, I did eventually understand. As I grew more and more invested in Jemisin’s trilogy, I did spend time reading the blog posts of my fellow students. Often times I would receive new insights into the series, bettering my understanding of the content of the class.

I eventually did respond to another post with a post of my own, “Labels, Identity, and Use-Names”. The way I approached this post was unlike any other I had done, it was in part a spur of the moment type of writing. I read the original post, and responded with my own in a single sitting. In a similar aspect to my post on the Aeta, I felt compelled to write a post for myself, rather than purely for the means of the assignment. The topic I tackled in my blog post, identity and labels, had been a subject I regularly put thought into. By reading another students post, I was able to connect many of the nebulous thoughts I had together to the text. While I wrote the entire post in a single sitting, it was a compilation of many of the natural thoughts I had surrounding Jemisin’s novel.

There is often a cliche of writer’s block, where a writer simply can’t think of what to say. The opposite of this is a state of inspiration and great ideas, which is incredibly elusive when writing in a vacuum. Without any external input, ideas become stale. This is the benefit I found to writing in a public setting, where not only can others view your work, but you also have the opportunity to absorb thoughts and ideas.

Of all of my posts, the most successful were those that had time to naturally develop. In the periods in between my inspired posts, I found my weakest, forced topics. This was a symptom of my timing. I found myself near the end of the semester forcing a formulaic style of writing to meet the required number of posts. This, of course, is my own fault, having not posted early on to have a more healthy schedule. But as I reflect upon my variety of posts, the group that I did find success in I had been working on long before the crunch period. While not all of these posts I had physically written out before I published my first blog post, they had all been developing in my mind one way or another.

Good writing takes time, and rushing or procrastination both are dangers. These situations not only lose the opportunity for deeper analysis and even basic things such as detailed editing, but they also provide an avenue for the formulaic approach. They create the situation of writing out of necessity, obligation, or desperation, rather than for intellectual pursuit. Procrastination is easy to avoid when you have hard deadlines, dates on a calendar that you must plan around. However, the floating deadlines of the blog posts required more personal organization.

It is easy now to say what I would do differently, but putting my thoughts down on a page earlier in the semester could have benefited me greatly. This would have allowed more inspired posts to naturally grow with my reading of the series. I also would have made more posts in response to others, expanding upon the ideas of others with my own thoughts. This would help to create an even stronger intellectual ecosystem within the blog.

Still, as I observe my writing near the end of the semester versus my initial attempts at writing blog posts, I do see changes. I became more comfortable writing using “I”, even tackling personal aspects of writing in posts.  I expanded upon what I considered academic writing, learning that it could be more than argumentative papers, but conversational exploration. I developed a greater understanding of writing within collaborative groups. I also once again learned the age old lesson of procrastination.

The many pitfalls of learning to write are ones that I often fall into, again and again. They are difficult to avoid, and they are not always obvious. Progress is often rare and requires being pushed out of the comfort of regular writing. I certainly fell into many of the common pitfalls in my own writing throughout the semester, yet I am still satisfied with the amount of growth I also found. This growth is not purely limited to writing, but to also how I approach the topics I found within Jemisin’s trilogy. Writing is a personal journey, as writing is inherently a personal art. Words and ideas are sourced from the individual, and growth must come at the individual level.

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