Welcome to my Minor in Writing Capstone portfolio -- a compilation of six pieces chosen from the seemingly endless options over the past four years. As you can see, there are no tabs or drop down menus, but rather one vertically scrolling webpage. I invite you to walk through this evolutionary journey with me from start to finish, or rather from top to bottom. However, if you prefer to skip to one particular piece, you will find buttons with each class along the right side of the page and a corresponding button representing its stage of the journey along the left side of the page.
So where does this journey begin? Maybe it was the night I wrote my Michigan Directed Self Placement Essay? Or maybe on my first day in English 125? Or my first day in the Minor in Writing Gateway course? Well, not quite. This journey began, unknowingly at the time, in Kindergarten.
Let me explain...
So how did I come to this conclusion? Let’s take a step back and begin with a perfect example of an early, meaningless essay. In my English 125 class I wrote an eight-page paper about Guide Dogs for the Blind and the interaction between humans and animals. My overarching conclusion was that, “Guide dogs represent one of the few human-animal interactions where the human is not dominating and controlling the animal.” I finished reading this essay today feeling like 15 minutes of my life had gone to waste. Sure, the argument itself was articulated clearly. It began with a description of the guide dog process, then recognized a few unethical elements of the relationship, and finally highlighted the overpowering beneficial aspects. But that’s all. It was well written meaninglessness. As a writer I feel no connection to the topic. As a reader, nothing about the essay pushes me to think or question something I may not have questioned before. Still, at the time, I let myself get away with it accrediting good writing solely to clear writing, not meaningful writing.
As I evolved as a writer and took more advanced classes, bits and pieces of meaning begin to show through. In my Communications 102 class I wrote an essay on the representation of masculinity in The Big Bang Theory in which I argue: “The Big Bang Theory actually endorses hegemonic masculinity by portraying this group of men as socially awkward and unsuccessful with women as well as creating a comedy where the viewers are made to laugh at the men rather see them as relatable and acceptable. Why couldn’t the men on this show be skinny and lanky, intelligent, dress in bright colors and patterns and have girlfriends and be confident in social situations? In this way, the show takes on a round-a-bout approach by perpetuating the scripts necessary for men to be successful in society by focusing on the opposite scripts of nerdy men that are not acceptable.” This is one of the first essays where I can begin to see an emphasis on some sort of larger implications regarding gender roles, stereotypes, and the power of media in society.
From Kindergarten through Fifth grade I was unknowingly the subject of a longitudinal education study. Once a year a nice looking woman would pluck me from the classroom and watch as I performed all sorts of math, reading, and writing tasks. Then she would ask me a series of personality questions including, “what is your favorite subject?” Every year my answer was the same. Math.
Around 7th grade math got hard. By 8th grade it got really hard. My freshman year of high school I regrettably enrolled in honors geometry and was told after the first test that I received the lowest score in both classes. I cried and aggressively declared that I hated math and liked English better instead.
That’s it. That’s the story of how I “became a writer”. I was not shaped by imaginative children’s stories or a love for expression. I did not grow up ever writing for myself or outside of the classroom. I never had my own voice outside of my academic writing, and luckily for me the educational system I grew up in encouraged the suppression of this nonexistent voice anyways. My love for writing developed in an academic setting and I thrived while writing polished and professional research papers, argumentative essays, and critical analyses. They were impersonal, calculated, clear, concise, and I loved writing them. Maybe it was a result of my subconscious desire to rekindle with my past mathematical self.
Wherever this love stemmed from, it served me well. I breezed through academic assignments and enjoyed writing them. All throughout high school and well in to my sophomore year at Michigan I honestly did not care about what I was writing about, but focused on how it was written. I loved articulating an argument regardless of what that argument was. I loved hunting for the perfect word to complete a sentence or the perfect transition to link together two paragraphs. What these paragraphs were about? Irrelevant. I cared about how the argument fell on the page and how clearly it could be picked up, not how interesting it was to pick up, not how inspiring it was to pick up, and certainly not how meaningful it was to pick up. For far too long nobody pushed me to figure out that this was a problem, and I certainly did not push myself. I didn’t realize that although my essays were clear and precise, there is more to writing than clarity and precision. Sure, a good piece of writing needs these qualities, but these qualities alone do not make a piece of writing good. These qualities alone make for what I now look back on as well written meaninglessness.
I didn’t realize these essays were meaningless at the time, but now, as a reader, it becomes blatantly clear that my early essays are missing one part – there’s simply no “so what”. They have no personal relevance, no thought provoking questions, and no real implications. It is these qualities, when paired with an effective structure, flawless diction, and logical evidence that make writing meaningful.
Today, my definition and understanding of meaning is certainly a work in progress, but it’s also a definition that became exponentially clearer after taking English 325. Like many other students in the minor I enrolled in English 325: The Art of the Essay during spring term after my sophomore year. I enrolled thinking it was the next logical step after English 125 and English 225, assuming I’d happily continue my preferred style of writing. I was, however, horrified to find out that it was actually a course in creative nonfiction requiring a 12-15 page personal narrative. Besides college admissions essays, which I had also dreaded, I could not even recall the last time I had written anything with an “I” in.
Maybe it was the pleasant lull of Ann Arbor in the spring or the calming and supportive atmosphere in the small classroom, but something in that class just clicked. I ended up writing a narrative revolving around a walk my sister and I took which culminated in a simple moment where she gave a homeless person a dollar. Weaved in to the narrative were questions about our vastly different life paths, as I wondered if I was any better off for my “on track” decisions while my sister has struggled with a drug addiction and dropped out of school twice. It was honest and raw and unlike anything I had written before. For once I was not only focusing on how the argument fell onto the page, but what that argument meant and what the reader could take away from it.
“I can see our entire lives flash before me in that thirty-second interaction,” I wrote about the moment she gave the homeless person a dollar: “I still think back to that night and wonder if every twist and turn her life has taken, every sharp veer off the “right” path was exactly what shaped her into someone capable of that kind act I admire so much. Maybe she was able to indentify with some part of that man’s life, or maybe she understood the importance of helping others knowing what it was like to desperately need help herself. But even more often I think about my own life and I begin to question what exactly my “on track” life actually has me on track for."
This is the essay I credit most in my development toward the writer I want to be and have been striving to be ever since. It showed me that clarity and structure, when paired with a meaningful topic, creates writing that I am proud of and writing that I enjoy reading years later – not just writing that I can look back on as “well-written”. It showed me that revision is more than a sentence level fix, but rather about digging deeper into the themes and messages of the piece. In each draft of this essay I can see my ideas evolve and strengthen. Furthermore, from this essay I have pulled out themes of decision-making, journeys, understanding what constitutes success, and questioning things we accept as natural which have since been prevalent in several other pieces of writing.
Yet still, this development is a process, and my English 325 course did not just magically enable me from that point on to find meaning in a clear and articulate manner. Combining these two aspects of writing is an ongoing challenge, and my Writing 220 project is a testament to that. Furthermore, the minor in writing program pushes us to explore writing in forms other than a standard essay, adding another level of complexity and discomfort to my mission. For this project, I wrote a blog post that expanded on the ideas of decision-making and life paths explored in my English 325 essays. It focused on the decision of going to college, and the issue within my community around how we blindly accept this choice as the inherent next step and not a decision at all. I then turned this blog post into a brochure for high school students with information about different post-high school options.
While I am proud of the topic these two pieces explore, I do not think my arguments were always articulated exceptionally well. I struggled to flesh out the nuanced arguments in the piece and present them effectively in a new medium. I had this desire to write about something that bothered me, something that mattered to me, but less of a sense of how to write it. This shift to knowing what I want to say instead of how I want to say it was frustrating. As I write about questions and issues and things that I am not always 100% sure about but want to explore, it becomes harder to simultaneously incorporate the same type of clarity and precision found in my earlier essays. In a rush to incorporate what I’d gained from English 325 and explore meaning in another piece, I will be the first to admit I may have fallen a bit short. I even wonder now if my arguments would have been more effective as an op-ed piece instead of a blog post, and an assembly presentation instead of a brochure.
Despite these set backs along the way, I accredit my time in the minor towards pushing me to figure out what I actually care about and developing as a writer with my own voice. I no longer see myself as the writer who chose to write because math got too hard. My identity as a writer no longer revolves solely around impersonal academic assignments with topics I don’t actually care about. It may seem miniscule, but last semester while studying abroad I actually wrote something for myself – a non-school or internship assignment – for quite possibly the first time ever. It sounds comical, but it’s true, and it’s not something I would have ever done even a year or two ago. It concluded with: “We validate living the dream but this isn’t what makes studying abroad so special. It’s not living the dream as we simultaneously live the dream. It’s belonging while feeling out of place. It’s freedom and independence while feeling trapped and isolated. It’s being perfectly at ease while questioning everything. But unless you study abroad you don’t ever see the second half of the sentence, and it’s the full sentence that creates this intangible and elusive bond between us. It’s not because we are physically in the same place, it’s that mentally we are in the same place. We understand the full sentence and we are fortunate enough to share it with each other. Together it becomes uniquely ours and slowly we accept that we can’t explain it and maybe we don’t need to explain it. That’s what makes this experience so powerful and so special and so cliché.” This is the writer I have begun to develop in to, and this is the writer I strive to be. I want to use language to create something that matters, not just create something.
So, in an attempt to continue on this path I chose to write a short story for my capstone project. I knew this project would certainly be a challenge, as I have no experience writing fiction, but I also knew it would push me in my desired direction as a writer. It would be the perfect project to once and for all work to align sentence level clarity and style, thorough genre research, and themes that push people to think and feel and care.
Still, when I first decided on a sports fiction short story for my capstone project I had very little sense of what that even meant. I knew I loved reading about sports and I had lofty goals and inspiration from TV shows like Friday Night Lights and books such as The Art of Fielding. In my mind, I had grand visions of a dramatic piece centered around a soccer team and an injury to the goalkeeper. I wanted to build up the field as a place of perfection and comfort and then explore what would happen to the characters when the injury occurred on this same field. As the piece evolved it really became a metaphor for an obsession and an exploration of the struggle and frustration the characters experienced with this obsession. Below you will find my short story followed by a final reflection regarding influential sports fiction pieces, research around short stories and narrative writing in general, struggles I faced throughout the process, and insight I gained from the project.
When I first began thinking about fiction in general, I came across an extremely influential NPR clip in one of communications classes about the art of storytelling. In the clip, “Ira Glass on Storytelling”, Glass explains that the two most powerful tools in storytelling are the anecdote and a moment of reflection. A good story absolutely needs both, and so many stories fail because they have one or the other. The narrative can be incredibly captivating with great characters and exciting events, but without the reflection it is means nothing and doesn’t tell you anything new. Similarly, a powerful moment of reflection within in a boring and dry story is equally innefective. This was something I constantly reminded myself of as I wrote this piece. I found that it was so much easier and enjoyable to write about the sports action without the moment of reflection. Ironically, even in a new genre, I guess this was me falling back into “meaningless” writing, enjoying the "how" rather than the "what" of the piece. This was something I had to be cognizant of as I wrote.
This story really evolved when I began to read and analyze sports fiction short stories. I read pieces such as Golden Gloves by Joyce Carol Oates, Batting Against Castro by Jim Shepard, Dougie Mortimer’s Right Arm by Jeffrey Archer, and On the Antler by Annie Proulx. I knew that I didn’t want my story to be a simple sports narrative about overcoming adversity or working hard to succeed, and these narratives (along with my amazing mentor Julie!!) helped me to clarify what this meant and how it could be done. Really, all of these stories used sports as a frame to explore a larger issue. Some of them barely even felt like they were about sports, while others did have extensive sports descriptions.
These pieces were extremely helpful in developing my ending. I struggled with how to end the story for a long time. At first, I thought the ending was going to be about Nathan choosing between going to the hospital for Jackson’s surgery or the state championship game. As Julie helped me understand, this ending was way to literal. In almost all of the examples I read the endings were very open ended. They moved from a literal story to a philosophical question. Golden Gloves, for example, begins as a story of about a boy who used to have deformed feet and then becomes a star boxer, only to get knocked out in a career ending match. The story skips to him meeting his wife. He never tells her about his deformed feet before his surgery. The story ends with him explaining to his wife, who does not actually hear because she is asleep, “‘You’ll be going to a place I can’t reach, he says.’…He says softly, ‘I’m not sure I’ll be here when you come back.’” Similarly, Batting Against Castro ends with, "And there was Castro blocking the plate, dress shoes wide apart, Valentino pants crouched and ready, his face scared and full of hate like I was the entire North American continent bearing down on him". It is from these endings that I began to see how my story could develop into something larger than the sports narrative itself and find and open-ended conclusion while still feeling complete.
Is my short story on the same level as these pieces? As a first time fiction writer I will gladly say of course not! However, I hope on some small level this piece mirrors the ability to combine narrative and reflection, capture the exciting feel of sports fiction, and utlize the third person omniscient narrator to highlight a larger theme through a somewhat open-ended conclusion.