as the rest of my life went by–

I haven’t updated here in forever. It’s actually been almost exactly two years. I’m not sure what’s compelling me to write now. Maybe it’s that I have 10 work assignments staring me down and I’m looking for an excuse to not do them right now. Maybe it’s that I really want to get some things down but I don’t have the time or patience to physically put pen to paper right now.

Craig went back to work today. Funny how everything that went down exactly one month and one day ago put all the stupid worries in my life into perspective, reminding me that it’s not worth sweating the small stuff. Of course, I continue to sweat the small stuff–it’s the way my brain was wired–but I try to remind myself more often now that only a few things in life actually matter. Still, a few times over the past couple of weeks, Craig has jokingly tapped his fingers against my forehead and said, “I wonder what goes on in there.” And I just laugh, and tell him he doesn’t want to know.

The summer has flown by mercilessly, as it always seems to. Next year, we’ll have to re-think our season pass purchases because we’ve only been to Kentucky Kingdom once (for a few hours) and Cedar Point once (though that will change next weekend). Oddly enough, our Indiana Beach passes have paid off the most out of all of them. Though next summer, we also won’t have a wedding to plan, so that’ll free up a lot of time (and money).

50 days and two hours from today, I will be saying my vows to Craig, and all the stress and craziness of the past year will never matter again. In the meantime, I’ll keep myself sane with John Darnielle’s voice over my laptop speakers and a purring cat in my lap.

My Experience as a Freelance Content Writer (So Far)

The purpose of this blog post is three-fold. For starters, I get a lot of people who ask about what I do for a living. When I tell them I’m a freelance writer, they assume I’m a journalist or poet or something (not that I can get mad about that, really; the title of “writer” is enormously vague as it is). So a big part of this post is to kind of explain what I actually do. Because there’s a lot of people who do what I do and I think a lot of us share the same struggle to establish a professional identity.

Another reason I’m writing this is so I can use it as a reference down the road. Often times, when I do explain in detail what I do for a living, people seem to want to know how they, too, can become a freelance writer. “I could totally do that,” they’ll say. And then I’ll spend half my day walking them through how to get started, only to ask them how it’s going a few weeks later and find that they never followed through with any of my advice. To save time, then, I’ll probably use this post as an opportunity to explain the process that I followed to get where I am now so I have something to refer to down the road.

Finally, I hope this post will provide me with an outlet for the reflection I need on my own career. I realized today that, although I’ve been doing this for going on four years, I’ve rarely taken the time to look back on the progress I’ve made and the process I’ve followed. I think these things are worth examining as I look forward.

How I Stumbled Into Writing as a Career

Flashback to October of 2010: I was finishing up my last season working for Cedar Point and starting my junior year of college at EMU. I was working about 60 hours a week–30-ish at my retail job in Ann Arbor and another 30-ish at Cedar Point on the weekends. Both jobs paid about minimum wage (actually, Cedar Point paid less than minimum wage at the time, and my retail job paid a few cents above minimum wage, so I guess it averaged out).

As soon as the Cedar Point season ended, I found myself with more free time than I knew what to do with. My boyfriend at the time was working a lot of evening shifts at his retail job, so I got bored and started using some of my free time researching ways to make extra money online.

The first website I ever made money with online was Amazon Mechanical Turk (Mturk). I completed random and tedious (but pretty easy) tasks, such as transcribing audio and categorizing images for a few cents per job.

One day, I decided to take on some jobs for a client who wanted articles written on obscure medical conditions. These articles required a great deal of research, but I completed them and was ecstatic at the end of the day when I realized I was averaging $8 an hour completing those assignments. That was $0.35 more per hour than I was making at my retail job! I thought to myself, “how amazing would it be if I could do this kind of work full-time?” Keep in mind that $8 an hour was a lot of money to me as a college student–especially considering the possibility of making that kind of money working from home.

By the beginning of 2011, I was making the majority of my money on Mturk, but I was afraid to quit my stable job in retail because all the freelance work I was doing was for one client. If that client disappeared, I’d have no source of income. I explained the situation to my retail manager and we agreed that I’d stay on the schedule to work one day a week. This way, I could focus on my freelancing without having to give up the security of my “real” job.

By April of 2011, I gained enough confidence in my abilities as a freelancer to quit my retail job completely. By this point, I’d gone from making about $8 an hour to just over $30 an hour.

But I was still writing for just that one client. So when that client suddenly stopped posting work a year later in April of 2012, I learned what’s probably the most important lesson (actually, maybe two lessons) a freelancer can ever learn: you need to diversify. Also, you need to be able to adapt. 

Ultimately, the disappearance of that first client ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me, because I was forced to look for more work after that. And I found a lot of it. And it was even better-paying than the work I was doing before!

Working as a freelancer was a lifesaver to me throughout my undergrad. years and it was even more of a lifesaver when I started graduate school. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to start doing it full-time after I finished my Master’s degree in Professional Writing earlier this year. I don’t have any regrets yet.

The Nature of Freelance Writing

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, being a “writer” can mean so many things, so I can’t really get mad at people when they don’t automatically understand what I do based on my title alone. That’s part of why I’ve recently begun referring to myself as both a Freelance Content Author and an SEO Specialist, because I think those two titles much more accurately explain what I do. And since I’m my own boss, why shouldn’t I get to make up my own job title? ;P

While there are freelance opportunities for all different kinds of writing out there, the majority of the writing that I do is for business owners; they have their own websites and blogs that need content that’s relevant to their industries. For example, dentist office’s website needs a landing page and a blog that’s constantly updated with relevant posts (“5 Tips for a Better Dental Checkup,” “How to Choose a Whitening Toothpaste,” etc). You see, it’s this kind of content that boosts a website’s rankings on the search engines.

This is a concept known as search engine optimization (SEO), and it’s a big deal in my field. Search engines like Google have very specific (and ever-changing) algorithms that determine the ranking of websites in their search results. When I first started freelancing in 2010, the algorithms were a lot more lax than they are now. Basically, it was quantity over quality of content that got websites to the tops of the search engine results.

To put it as simply as possible, the more sites on the web that linked to your website, the higher your site would rank in the search engines. And the more relevant keywords you had in your website’s written content, the better. This led to a lot of what’s now known as black-hat SEO; businesses would hire content writers like me (or use article-spinning software) to generate low-quality content (articles and blog posts) that was stuffed with keywords–all in an effort to rank higher in the search engines. We were basically polluting the Internet.

Today, websites can’t really get away with black-hat SEO techniques because the search engine algorithms have changed–a lot. For example, Google’s most recent algorithm update (known as Panda 4.0) favors websites with quality content that’s specialized to suit a particular niche. As a result, websites that had been using tactics like keyword stuffing and article spinning suffered, whereas websites with genuine, quality written content were much better off.

It was actually a Google Panda update in April of 2012 that led to the loss of my one client on Mturk at the time; the work I did for that client was all black-hat SEO. I wrote 150-word articles stuffed with keywords that would boost the site’s SEO . My articles always got accepted, no matter the quality of the content, as long as those keywords were there. Sometimes I would purposely write ridiculously awful articles just to test the system. Nope, they’d always get accepted. All that mattered was that those SEO keywords were there. But when that Panda update rolled out, my black-hat client didn’t stand a chance. Google de-indexed (basically deleted) every article my client ever published. He was out of business.

I anticipate that search engines will only continue to move towards favoring quality over quantity with future updates, which is why I’m really picky about which clients I’ll write for anymore. Fortunately, writing quality content pays a lot more (I’m currently making about 8-10 times more per hour than I did starting out) and is also a lot more rewarding than the work I did when I first began freelancing; I know that people are actually reading and using my content, rather than it only existing for SEO purposes. On any given day, I could write a press release for an orthopedist’s office, a technical brochure for a construction company, a blog post on recognizing signs of depression in a military veteran, and a “how-to” article on brushing a cat’s teeth. No, really–these are all assignments that I took on today.

In a nutshell, the content industry is like 50% writing and 50% SEO knowledge/marketing. While not all the assignments I take on are for SEO purposes, I’d say that the majority of them are. So my challenge as a content author is to not only write something that’s engaging and different from the gazillions of other articles on the Web, but to incorporate respected and more legitimate white-hat SEO techniques into my work in the process.

What You Need to Know About Working as a Freelance Content Writer

Now that I’ve explained (or, at least attempted to explain) the type of work I do, you might be thinking you want to get into the industry, too (or maybe not). If so, there are some things I want you to know and that I’m going to be very blunt about because this kind of work isn’t right for everybody.

Advantages of Freelancing

I’ll start with all the awesome things about working as a freelancer.

For starters, you get to be your own boss. What’s better than that? You can basically set your own schedule, decide how much (or how little) you want to work each day, take time off whenever you want, and never answer to anybody (except your clients…)! This is, by far, the best part of my job. I’m extremely thankful to not be working a traditional 9-5, and not only because I’ve done that before and it bored me, but because I’d never see my partner if that were the case. My boyfriend is a police officer, so his days off fluctuate every week and he’s often working odd hours. I like being able to sync my schedule to his.

On that same note, I also love being able to work from just about anywhere. All I need is my laptop and an Internet connection and I’m good to go. While I do have my own home office now, I love the freedom to be able to work from pretty much anywhere. Earlier this summer, I spent a day working next to the beautiful fountains at Kings Island, and last summer (before I had an office set up), I spent just about every day working on the patio at a local Panera Bread and taking advantage of free coffee refills all day long. Who doesn’t need a change of scenery every once in awhile?

Another cool thing about working as a content writer is that you don’t need a degree (although it definitely pays to have one). All you really need are some decent writing skills and at least one area of expertise, because there are clients looking for written content in just about every industry you could possibly imagine. Whatever you know a lot about (whether it’s gardening or working on cars or underwater basket-weaving), you can bet there’s work out there for you. It’s just a matter of finding it. I will say that having my degree in Professional Writing has probably made it easier for me to find work (and it’s also justification for me to charge more money), but I also know that there are plenty of successful writers out there with high school diplomas.

Working as a freelancer also gives you the freedom to set your own goals. It’s something you can do part-time (as I did throughout college) or focus on as a full-time career. You can make pretty decent money as a freelancer. Like I said, I started off being thrilled to make about $8 an hour, but today I clear anywhere between $50-$110 an hour (more on that in a second).

Finally, for me, working as a freelance writer lets me make a living doing something I actually enjoy. Because the majority of my assignments require a fair amount of research, I’m a walking encyclopedia of random information. I love it. I’ve always loved learning about anything and everything. I’ve also always loved writing. This is the perfect career for me.

Potential Disadvantages of Freelancing

Now that I’ve built up my career by rambling about how amazing it is, let me get real for a second. Because there are some real drawbacks to working as a freelancer–some of which I wasn’t aware of before I started.

First and foremost, TAXES SUCK. SO BAD. When you’re self-employed, you pay more in taxes than you would if you had a “real” job. That’s because, in a traditional W-2 job, your employer would pick up half of your Social Security/Medicare taxes. Unfortunately, when you’re self-employed, you pay 100% of those taxes. It’s called self-employment tax, and it ends up totaling 15.3% of your taxable income each year. This is on top of any Federal/state/city income tax you pay based on your tax bracket as well.

It’s not just the fact that you have to pay more in taxes when you’re self-employed, though. It’s also the fact that you have to pay quarterly throughout the year rather than paying in full come tax time. Rather than setting aside the money to pay your taxes and earning interest on it throughout the year, you get to send a check in to the IRS every three months so they can earn interest on your money instead.

Oh, and even if you don’t make a steady income throughout the year, you’d better estimate your annual income and pay in equal installments each quarter. If you underpay, you get charged an underpayment penalty (on top of interest) when it comes time to file. If you overpay, you’ll get your money back, but not without the Federal government earning interest on your overpayment. Because that’s fair, right?

Okay, enough about taxes because I could go on and on. Another aspect of freelancing that sucks is not getting any benefits. No company insurance, no employer contributions to a retirement fund, no paid vacation…nothing like that. But it’s a sacrifice I’ve come to terms with because, with the decent money I make, I’ll be able to afford my own insurance when the time comes (I’m lucky enough to still be on my mom’s plan) and can also afford to take a fair amount of time off without suffering financially.

Also, there are a lot of pretty great retirement plans out there for self-employed workers. My goal is to open up a retirement account by the time I turn 25, so I have a little bit of time to figure out which one is right for me.

Another potential drawback of working as a freelance content writer is that most of your work will be ghostwritten. This means that once you sell your article to your client, he or she owns all the rights to it. Often times, it gets published under a different name, which means you don’t get to take credit for the work or add it to a portfolio.

This can make it difficult to build a solid reputation as a writer. If you’ve got nothing to show for your work, how can you find new clients? Well, you basically need to have lots of diverse writing samples on hand that you don’t sell. It’s also helpful to find writing gigs that’ll let you keep the rights to your work.

These kinds of jobs are easier to come by than you might think; I just recently landed a writing gig for a local community/news website here in southern Indianapolis. The pay isn’t amazing, but I get to write about local businesses/events (a good excuse to frequent more of the wineries and restaurants nearby) and get published under my own name. The client and I have a written agreement stating that I can use the articles I write in my portfolio/resume/website, which I imagine will only help me secure more work down the road. In this sense, the somewhat low pay is worth it to me. Speaking of websites, you should have one of those, too.

Finally, being successful as a freelance content writer means you’ve got to be extremely self-motivated (this isn’t necessarily a con, but many people will see it as that). After all, even though I’ve been referencing my earnings as hourly earnings, you typically only get paid by the word or by the article. Many clients pay a set price for each word, whereas others will offer a flat rate per article. Very few freelance content writing gigs will pay you explicitly for your time.

This means that when you take a break from writing, you’re no longer getting paid. Contrast this with an hourly or salary job (where you have a least a small amount of downtime most days) and you’ll see why self-motivation is so important. I can spend eight hours in front of my computer each day, but if I allow myself to get distracted from my work, I may as well have only put in four hours.

If you’re serious about being productive as a freelance writer, I recommend downloading the FocusBooster program for your computer; this way, you can set timed work sessions and breaks throughout the day to maintain your focus. It really works. The program is set by default to 25 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break (also known as the Podomoro Technique), but you can customize it for whatever works for you. I’ve found that 50 minutes of work followed by a 10 minute break is best for me.

cartoon

Going off the above point, being successful as a content writer means diversifying and setting yourself apart from other writers. It’s an extremely competitive field, and it’s only going to get increasingly competitive, if you ask me. Fortunately, I don’t think the need for online content is going to disappear any time soon, so as long as you can learn how to adapt to the industry and make the case for your value as a writer, you’ll probably never be out of work. Still, you should never put all your eggs in one basket. I was fortunate enough to learn from that mistake when I first started out and didn’t have a ton of financial obligations. Today, I make sure I never have fewer than four big eggs in my basket. And I’m pretty much always looking for new work.

The Bottom Line

Look, this post isn’t all-encompassing by any means. I had originally intended to include a beginner’s guide to getting started in the content-writing industry in this post, but I’m exhausted and starting to think that might be better for a separate post. Not to mention, I can’t help but feel a little hesitant to share all my secrets to success after I’ve worked at building a name for myself in the industry for four years. Still, I feel like this post has helped to shed some light on the type of work people in my field do while also providing some guidance for those considering a career as a freelancer. 🙂

 

why can’t you allow me one or two small victories every once in awhile?

“There’s a lot of talk in your life about the ‘moment of reckoning.’ People might say, ‘in two weeks, you might wanna get your ass ready.’  You won’t get any such notice. There is no such office for this delivery. Instead, you may be sitting on the sofa, three beers deep and two White Russians, staring at the television, thinking to yourself, ‘this can’t last forever.’ Hoping, praying that it will–or won’t–last for the rest of your life. Because whatever comes next–it could be worse; you have evidence in your past that it could, in fact, be worse. But at the same time, you know it won’t be that previous worse. It’ll be some new thing. We live in an age that preaches the value of new things, but I am here to tell you that there are some new things that are not so good; some new things suck gigantic asses.”

feast when you can and dream when there’s nothing to feast on

2/4/14

I hate winter. For the record, it’s my least favorite season. I can usually tolerate it to an extent, but this winter has just been awful here. As I speak, it’s snowing yet again and, as it is, I don’t think I’ve actually seen the pavement on the roads at my apartment complex since the before the new year. My friends who are grade school teachers are going on their ninth, tenth, eleventh snow days of the year and it’s only the beginning of February. I want spring and warm weather–to be able to see green grass again and go outside without a coat and gloves and hat and scarf–but lately it feels like that’ll never happen.

There’s this thing called seasonal affective disorder and I sometimes wonder if I have it. People with seasonal affective disorder experience depression at certain times during the year–usually during the gloomy months of winter. They lack energy and feel all around blah and moody.

Earlier last month, I found myself feeling especially disdainful of winter, especially when the weather kept Craig and I from spending time together. In one instance, I made the four-and-a-half hour drive out to Indy to visit, only to have to turn back around and head home days early because a sudden snow storm threatened to make getting back to Ypsi in time for school impossible otherwise.

——-

I got home just hours before the big storm hit and ended up stuck in my apartment for days. The roads around me were impassible and, wouldn’t you know it, classes were canceled anyway. I had never felt so isolated. One night, when I was feeling especially bored and going out of my mind, I decided to break out my journal. It had been awhile since I had found the time to write. I started flipping back to entries from the summer–and the fall, my favorite season.

Through re-reading some of those entries, I felt like I was re-living those experiences all over again and it was great: the first Cedar Point trip in May when the weather was so perfect that I fell asleep on a concrete bench by the beach to the sounds of the waves hitting the shoreline; the breezy day in early August I spent with my friend and boyfriend on the beautiful grounds of a winery in Indiana–polishing off a bottle of strawberry honey wine at a picnic table by the still water. Or the final night of an early-October camping trip in Pennsylvania, taking in the vibrant colors on the trees and enjoying a campfire with friends and listening to rain fall steadily on our tent as I fell asleep.

I re-read these things now, when the temperature is a whopping 19 degrees and I’m wondering how many inches of snow and ice I’ll have to scrape off my car in the morning–and I can’t help but feel extremely grateful that I took the time to write these experiences down. Not only do these memories help me to get through another blah and gloomy day, but they remind me of all that I have to look forward to.

——-

I’ve kept a journal since I was six; it’s probably the only thing I’ve kept up with consistently throughout my life. I make it a point, every so often, to break out an old journal and reflect on what was going on in my life at this time two, three, five, ten years ago. Sometimes I laugh to myself about the things that consumed my mind–the things I worried about and cared about. Like what I did at recess or ate for dinner, or whether my team won its roller hockey game, or who I was going to the homecoming dance with. But a lot of times, I find myself surprised at just how unchanging some things are: my concerns over family and friendships, my dedication to school, my paranoia about the future, my love for travel, my passion for writing.

I’ll never stop writing for reflection; even on busier days when I don’t have time blog or journal, I make an effort to jot down a bullet-point list of things I want my future self to remember. I do this because I believe in the power of reflection; of taking the time to document where I’ve been so that I can figure out where I want to go. To put things in perspective when life gets overwhelming. And to remind myself that–like the awful, shitty months of winter–even the worst things eventually get better.

“you know you’re saying that shit out loud?”

It’s been too long and there’s no real good reason for it.

Lately, I’ve been feeling like things are actually coming together. I met with my department’s graduate coordinator today and got the “okay” to graduate (once I finish next semester’s coursework), and even though I was expecting my meeting with him to go smoothly, actually hearing the words “you’re all set” made it feel real for the first time. Five months from now, I will have finished school, probably forever. Now it’s time to start thinking about next steps.

When I finished my undergrad. degree, next steps were terrifying to think about. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to stay in Ypsi but I also wasn’t quite ready to move and wouldn’t have known where to go anyway. I wasn’t happy with the person I was with but it was still like pulling teeth to finally let go of that. Basically, I panicked at the thought of making some real long term decisions, and that’s probably exactly how I ended up in grad. school.

In hindsight, it’s worked out for the best. I’ve enjoyed my program; I’ve learned a lot, and being in school for a couple more years has given me the chance to figure out what I actually want to do with these $25,000 pieces of paper. I can’t say with any certainty that it’s what I’ll want to do forever, but that’s okay. It really is.

Lately, I’ve been using pretty much all of my free time listening to live recordings of Mountain Goats stuff. Today, I was reflecting on all this stuff about graduating and moving and hopefully starting a career, and I came across this gem from JD and it gave me goosebumps:

You fall in love with the places that you’re from. But then you grow older, and maybe you spend some time in a place that you don’t like. For all I know, you’re there right now. If you were, you wouldn’t tell anybody, because that’s not hip. If you run down where you live, then you’re a dick.
But at the same time, you’re not gonna love every place you live, and you’re dishonest — which is worse than being a dick — if you say, “Oh, yeah, I love every place I’ve lived.” No, you don’t. Sometimes you go someplace, and you feel that the air and the trees and the people and the streets, they’re all coming up against you, they’re all sort of like snakes, winding themselves around your ankles, trying to keep you in a place that’s neither nourishing your spirit nor feeding your heart.
And you think to yourself, “I have to get out of here,” and every time you think that, it’s like the snakes coil themselves a little tighter around your ankle. “Jesus Christ, I need a drink. I have to have a drink. I have to get out of this marriage. I can’t stand this anymore.”
And then the other person says, “You know you’re saying that shit out loud?

This is my relationship with Ypsilanti, and maybe Michigan in general. I’m not scared or unsure anymore. I’m just ready to go. To be in motion. And this is my motivation to do what I need to do in the next few months so I can finally start my life.

early fall

I feel like I’m always in some sort of intense balancing act. Maybe I’m trying to do too much at once, but probably I just need to learn how to juggle. I thought that this semester would be a breeze with only taking two classes and all, but I guess when you combine that with working full time and traveling out-of-state just about every other weekend, two classes is kind of a lot.

This is becoming especially apparent as I try to figure out in which direction I want to take my Master’s project. I will admit that I’m getting to the point where I just want to be done with school. To this day, I don’t know that going straight into grad. school was the best idea I ever had, let alone whether grad. school at all was the right decision for me. At the same time, the topics that drew me to the Written Communication/Professional Writing program still resonate with me. That was a refreshing/confidence-boosting realization that I made tonight after I realized that I had literally just spent the past seven hours researching and reading and writing about possible project ideas. I can’t remember the last time I was so engrossed in something.

Specifically, I recalled a book I had read for a Visual Rhetoric class last year: Alberto Cairo’s The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization. Reading this book was kind of an “a-ha!” moment for me in the sense that it helped me draw a connection between my interest in rhetoric and my love of design that I never realized existed. There’s a section in the book about minimalism in the design of information graphics (specifically, charts and graphs) as championed by Edward Tufte. It has apparently long been debated whether or not a minimalist approach to these data visualizations is more effective in terms of interpretation and retention of the data.

Example:

Snap decision: Which chart is better?

So a minimalist would argue that the chart on the right is better than the one on the left. Somebody like Tufte might even go so far as to say that the chart on the left is insulting to its readers in that it insinuates that they are stupid or unable to interpret the data without having it “dressed up” for them.

While at least a couple of studies have been done on this, there’s at least one gap that I’ve found in the studies I read today. In The Functional Art, Cairo speculates that, when it comes to the minimalist debate, “It is my perception that those in the [minimalist] group typically come from technical backgrounds (statistics, cartography, computer science, and engineering), while those in the second group are graduates of graphic design, art, and journalism programs.” (Cairo 61) No study that I have been able to find compares professionals from “technical” vs. “design” fields in their interpretation of the data. Instead, they seem to use random samplings of students without taking their fields of study into consideration.

So what I’m working on, then, is an attempt not only to contribute another study to the minimalist debate, but to analyze the rhetorical component of audience that has–to my knowledge (need to look into this further)–been ignored in these studies thus far. And I’m oddly really excited about this idea. Now, as far as the specifics of how I’ll carry it out…that’s still to be determined.

I guess the bottom line is that, despite the fact that I’m really really really ready to be done with school (at least for awhile), it is super refreshing and energizing to feel this engrossed in something again. And so regardless of what I end up doing or not doing with this Master’s degree, I will be proud if I can contribute at least this one useful thing to a field that I really do care about.

On a completely unrelated note, I love this time of year. And have I mentioned lately that I’m a very lucky and super thankful girl? Because I was reminded of that about ten thousand times this past weekend.

perspective

“Things are crazy this week and I’m getting real tired of living out of a big suitcase, but at the same time I really can’t be anything but thankful for it all…for friends and family who let me crash on their futons and use their showers and offer to make me food…for good people (strangers) who give my car a jump start when I’ve killed the battery listening to Kevin Spacey in the Sonic parking lot for an hour straight…for a job that lets me work on my own schedule and afford to drive 10 hours round-trip so I can fulfill obligations at my other job that doesn’t…for the life I’ve sort of earned for myself but that lots of random strokes of luck and crazy circumstances have helped to facilitate…and of course, for an exciting change/new beginning in a new city with a man I see a pretty amazing future with.” – Monday, May 6, 2013

content

The past week or so has been all kinds of strange; the semester has somehow taken me by surprise with just how abruptly it’s decided to do exactly what I’ve been begging it to do for weeks: end. I’ve also had some weird (and I mean weird) dreams–the details of which I won’t get into here–but that have woken me up with ringing ears and a pretty genuine compulsion to start keeping a journal and pen and book light under my pillow.

Lately, I have been thinking about my field, and how I’m probably always going to have to defend the value in what it is that I do; the question of “so what?” just doesn’t answer itself in a field like professional writing or technical communication or, hell, fill-in-the-blank-English-or-writing-related-field. And sometimes, that’s really irritating because the value in writing has been so obvious to me since I was five (or however old I was when I started keeping my first journal: a playing-card-sized diary [it even came with a lock and key!] with clouds and angels on the front and thin, fragile pages that even my five [or whatever]-year-old self took special care to avoid tearing). But then things like the Boston marathon bombing happen and I’m watching video footage of the whole thing–loud booms and smoke and fire and screaming and everything–and all I’m thinking to myself is “boy, I’d be running the hell away from there real quick.”

But others apparently don’t have that same instinct; the first thing I notice when I first see the footage on the news (and then all hundred+ times after that) is the reaction of a lot of people on the scene immediately rushing towards the wreckage; what stands out most to me right now is an official in one of the grandstands nearest the first explosion doing what he can to direct a panicked crowd away from the explosion. Still, I also can’t seem to shake the images of the first responders rushing to the scene–some radioing in calls, some with guns drawn in preparation for who-knows-what-might-happen-next, some tearing down what is left of the spectator fence to get to the injured, and some wheeling (or even carrying) bloodied victims away from the carnage. And I’m watching all of this and thinking that my god, am I happy that these kinds of people exist. And I’m writing about it later on and trying to articulate it (failing miserably) and then it hits me that this is the extent of what I can do; I can write. I can write mostly about how sad and miserable and evil the world is, and how depressing it is that, hell, you can’t go anywhere without fearing for your own life these days. And that’s it. I can’t do a fraction of what any of these first responders did.

To an extent (a pretty big extent), this is true; as much as I admire and am grateful for police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and the like, I know that personally–in the exact same situation–I’d have been running away from the chaos instead of towards it. And because of this realization alone, I concede that I have no longer have any reason to get frustrated when people don’t inherently see the value in what I do. I don’t save lives. Fair enough.

But then this morning, I somehow came across a blog post from (of all people) comedian Patton Oswalt. He’d taken the time to write in response to the Boston attacks. And in reading it, I rediscovered the power of the written word.

“When you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will.’

And so I got inspired to read through all the blog posts and Facebook status updates and Tweets and whatever I could find from people who had something to contribute in writing to the conversation about whatever it was (we still don’t really know) that happened in Boston yesterday. And somehow, in doing this, my perspective on the world–on everything–changed. “The good outnumber you, and we always will” sums it up about perfectly, but also…

“The good is light and the lack of it is just darkness … There is nothing that will convince us, so many billions of people on earth, to be moved to that dark side, where there are really few obscure individuals whose actions confuse us at the moment, making us think that there are millions … But it is not like that. We will not believe it.”

“So, if you ran Boston on Monday and need a hug, I’m here. Because I need a hug, too. Let’s hug, and then let’s get out on the road and show the world what we’re made of.”

“Going to photograph this bed of tulips I had seen earlier in the day, I noticed that many of the delicate tulip blossoms had been battered by the rain — some were broken, others laid down, still others were cradled against one another. I could not help but draw an emotional correlation with some scenes from the tragic bombings in Boston just a day earlier. And yet the flowers, broken and beaten down though they were, were still imbued with beauty and dignity–infinitely more so the wounded and mourning in Boston. May God bless and keep you and all who mourn throughout the world.”

“In our extreme reaction we blame the extreme situation and forget the extreme need. These tragic events make us feel that a line is drawn in the sand and divide us. But instead of looking at one another with extreme disgust and hatred, let’s use that aching and grieving differently. Hope is found and fear is fought when our reaction is one of extreme love. Extremely supportive. Extremely together.”

I read these posts from people I don’t (and will probably never) know, yet they manage to give me hope (? probably not even the right word, but it’ll do). They manage to impact my life. And I suddenly feel more thankful than ever for the written word. For people who share their written words with me. For people who use the written word to get me to rethink everything and restore my faith in humanity despite how much I want to curl up in a ball and pretend I’m not even part of the same species as the type of people who would rig pressure cookers with nails and BBs and turn them into deadly explosives.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that–at least for me, while I don’t have the guts of a police officer or firefighter or EMT to run into the face of danger without a second thought–I am enormously proud of the role I play on this planet as a writer. And while I don’t know what I’ll be doing a month from now, much less years down the road, I will exhaustively (and from this point on: without complaint. I promise.) defend the value of this work for as long as I live.

ENGL516 and “The Turtlenecked Hairshirt”

“If there is one reason things ‘digital’ might release humanism from its turtlenecked hairshirt it is precisely because computing has revealed a world full of things: hairdressers, recipes, pornographers, typefaces, Bible studies, scandals, magnetic disks, rugby players, dereferenced pointers, cardboard void fill, pro-lifers, snowstorms.The digital world is replete. It resists any efforts to be colonized by the postcolonialists. We cannot escape it by holing up in Berkeley waiting for the taurus of time to roll around to 1968. It will find us and it will videotape our kittens.” – Ian Bogost

ENGL516: Erin Karper’s “Make it Do or Do Without” and Reflections on the Availability of Technologies on Campus

In “Make it Do or Do Without:Transition from a Tech-Heavy to a Tech-Light Institution,” Erin Karper looks at the current state of technologies available in college campuses, making the promising observation that even many “tech-light” institutions now offer reasonable access to computer labs for writing classes. Karper also offers some useful advice for instructors in terms of getting the access to technologies for teaching.

Karper offers pretty lengthy definitions for both “tech-light” and “tech-heavy” institution, and the components of each definition seem to rely heavily on the notion of having “access.” For example, she defines a “tech-heavy” institution as one where “People in English studies have access to a variety of hardware: scanners, video equipment, printers, digital cameras, sound editing equipment and related software,” and “People in English studies have access to adequate and consistent funding (either through the university or through grants) to purchase, install, maintain, and update technologies.”(17) But what constitutes access? And where does my school fall along this continuum between “tech-heavy” and “tech-light”?

I have always thought of EMU to be more of a “tech-heavy” school (though certainly not in that exact terminology until now). As a student, I’ve been here five years and never had a problem with finding or using technology on campus (aside from rare and minor problems with printing or connecting to the campus WiFi). I’ve felt privileged in knowing that I have the opportunity, as a student, to borrow a laptop from the library, print from various locations around campus, and check-out other tech. equipment that I may personally own. I’ve never felt deprived.

This article, however, got me thinking about the issue of access from an instructor’s perspective–something I hadn’t done before. But now, thinking back, I can recall at least a few instances where a lack of availability of technology affected classes I’ve been in. I remember my first college English class, ENGL121, and the frustration of our tiny classroom that barely gave us room to move around. My instructor would sometimes try to reserve a classroom with computers in it to work on certain projects but a space was not always available. In retrospect, though, I have noticed that almost all of my tech. comm, classes have been in computer labs and that’s intriguing to me.

Despite my realization that having easy access to technology as a student does not necessarily translate to easy access for instructors, I am happy to see people like Karper offer recommendations such as “adapt: use what you have on and off campus.” (23) to instructors in “tech-light” institutions. And now after having read J.S. Dunn Jr., Carrie Luke, and David Nassar’s “Valuing the Resources of Infrastructure: Beyond From-Scratch and Off-the-Shelf Technology Options for Electronic Portfolio Assessment  in First-Year Writing” it’s nice to see that, in an economy where funding for these technologies is probably not increasing any time soon, writing programs are being resourceful and coming up with ways to use technologies without necessarily existing in a “tech-heavy” institution. It’s also kind of especially nice to see this kind of work coming out of my own school’s FYWP. 🙂