Thursday, February 21, 2013

Traveler Alena Hadley '04 on writing about her passion and finding her voice

Alena Hadley
Psychology and English major, Class of 2004
Hometown: Dayton, Ohio

As a social science researcher, I use writing to produce data reports and issue briefs. Though I did a fair amount of creative writing when I was younger, I more recently pigeonholed myself as a technical writer and consequently became insecure about my abilities to express myself more artistically. So, when a friend of mine forwarded me a job announcement for freelance travel writers, I was hesitant to apply. My intense desire to be involved in the travel industry eventually compelled me to get over my anxieties. I typed up some writing samples, applied for the job, and was swiftly rejected.

I felt discouraged, but only briefly. Before I completed the application I had shown my writing samples to a small group of friends, including one who is an established travel writer. They all enjoyed my pieces and assured me that their praise was impartial and not rooted in their love for the author. My rejection letter had conveyed a generic message: “We typically reject pieces based on issues such as the quality of the writing or lack of subject matter knowledge.” I became incensed instead of discouraged. My writing is great, and I’m a travel expert. Even the travel writer said so. What did these people know? 

I decided to start a blog, which I reasoned would give me more creative freedom than I would have writing for a magazine. As I started churning out entries on my travel adventures, an incredible thing happened: I found my creative voice and began to love writing again. Writing about my passion has given me the confidence to show my pieces to the world. For the first time in a long time, I feel truly excited about what I am typing on the screen. That is not to say that I don’t see the importance of my nine-to-five work. I appreciate the place that my reports have in the world and am satisfied that they are used to inform policy. But I love my blog posts. They are my creations. They enable me to savor my experiences and, hopefully, inspire others to explore.

My blog’s reception on the web has been positive thus far, and I am exceedingly grateful for that. However, the amount of personal satisfaction I get from this pursuit greatly outweighs any outside praise I could receive. If you need a platform for voicing your passion, create it. If you’re writing about what you love, you’re certain to be a success. 

Check out Alena's blog!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Katelyn Allers on exoplanets and contributing to the encyclopedia of the universe

Katelyn Allers
Assistant Professor of Physics & Astronomy

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?
Right now I have two manuscripts in the works.  The first is the write-up of the design analysis and first results for a custom filter (similar to a camera filter) that I designed a few years ago.  The filter is designed to easily identify very low-mass stars and planets outside of our solar system (exoplanets).  The second manuscript is based largely on the work of Joe Lyons, a UMass-Amherst student who participated in Bucknell's NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in the Physics and Astronomy Department.  This paper is about determining if a planet or very low-mass star is young.  And by "young" we mean about 10 million years old!

What do you love about it?
Both of these papers are exploring directly-imaged exoplanets, which make up a new and exciting field in astronomy.  The first directly imaged exoplanets were discovered in 2008, and it seems like every new study reveals something unexpected about their nature.

What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?
As is common in the field of astronomy, our work builds on previous studies. This can be somewhat aggravating, if the previous studies have been presented at a conference, but not published in a refereed journal.  Even worse is when the refereed journal article comes out and has very different results than the conference paper we were working from.

How would you describe your writing process?
I try to write a paper in plots.  I come up with the scientific plots that will best tell the story I'm going for and then craft the written manuscript around those plots.

What kind of feedback on your writing do you find most helpful?
Feedback from people in my field who are likely to use my results is the most useful (i.e. from my audience).  For example, I will try to solicit feedback on my filter design paper from scientists who might use my analysis to design their own filters. 

What would you like students to know about you as a writer?
One thing I think students should understand about scientific writing is how an individual's work is a piece of a much bigger puzzle.  My work builds on the work of other scientists and will, in turn, be built upon by future scientists.  I like to think that I'm helping write the encyclopedia of the universe!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Jeff Plunkett ’85 on writing and connection

Jeff Plunkett ‘85
Actor and Entrepreneur
New York City 

I write because people fascinate me as much as they infuriate me.  And I need to give voice to that.  Because deep down, everybody just wants to be loved, of course, and there is too little love on the streets today.  There is far more fear.  Fearful people react disproportionately to their surroundings.  While there is inherent comedy in these situations, there is something touching, too.  You see, I see myself in the people I write about.  And when I write down their little foibles or outrageous conflagrations, I connect with their fear.  I understand their need for love.  I infiltrate.  It is unbearable at times.  But when others write back to me that they understand the tableaux I’ve described, they make me feel less alone and less afraid.  That they read me is the better part of the equation. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Fiction Writer Claire Watkins, Assistant Professor of English, on walking into the unknown and waiting for “the click”

Photo credit:  Lily Glass

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?
I'm currently at work on my first novel. I've previously only written short stories, so this is my first stab at the longer form, ever. I wish I could tell you more about it, but I am too superstitious.

What do you love about it?  
Compared to short stories, writing a novel seems very freeing. You have the room to expand and explore, though you don't have to. It feels more forgiving of whims, digressions, experiments, so composition on this project has been a more extemporaneous process. That's a real thrill.

What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?
Pretty much everything. I don't know myself as a novelist. For example, I write short stories from outlines but that practice hasn't exactly translated to novel writing, so it's really freaky not to have a plan, not to have a better sense of where the project is going (or when it will end). Of course, the same process exists when I'm writing stories--giddy inspiration, walking into the unknown, the click when everything makes sense again--but it's extended over years, rather than months. So I've been walking into the unknown for some time now, and I sure could use a click.  

What would you like students to know about you as a writer?
I'd like them to know that I fail at writing all the time, every day. I'd like to remind them that my published work--or anyone's--is elaborately constructed to hide its flaws, so those are difficult to see, especially when you've just begun. But those flaws are certainly there, and always will be. I'd also like to tell them that while I was not a huge reader for most of my young life, reading and writing have become the most important, most sustaining non-human things in my life. Whether students consider themselves "writers" or not, I hope they carry the nourishing practice of reading and writing, which are, fundamentally, acts of empathy, with them wherever they go.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Vincent Stephens, Director of Multicultural Student Services, on scholarly and personal writing about music and queer musicians

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?
I’m implementing finishing touches on my manuscript Rocking the Closet: Queer Musicians and the Limits of the Closet and preparing a book proposal to send it out to an academic publisher.

I’m also writing for an essay collection on popular music called Sound Love.

What do you love about it?
Both projects represent two key aspects of my writing style. Rocking the Closet is an academic book that grew out of my training and dissertation research, and aims for a scholarly audience. By definition its content, structure and tone are formal but hopefully interesting to a range of readers.

Sound Love is a more personal work written in a more accessible voice. The collection addresses singers as disparate as Freddy Cole and Bobbie Gentry and is laced with personal insights and some autobiographical reflections.

What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?
The editing process is always challenging because it requires writers to step out of their own voice and assess their work with some sense of distance. Depending on the duration of the project this frequently requires breaks from the project to achieve maximum clarity. Integral to editing is the ability to economize and use language precisely and efficiently.

How would you describe your writing process?
I approach academic writing, notably scholarly essays, with a strong sense of concept and organization. I thrive when I have a skeletal sense of my argument and its structure before writing. I also prefer to have evidence nearby so I can integrate components more readily. The first few drafts I write are rarely sufficient and require intricate attention to revising, editing and formatting. More recently I’ve worked on the book using a schedule and have found myself writing for longer periods than I anticipated which is a good sign usually.

For more casual writing I write when I’m inspired rather than on a schedule. I try to have an internal map and tend to be more willing to play around with structure and focus. My drafts tend to have a lot of sketching and notes. 

I like to write in a closed, relatively isolated space such as my home office and to play music for texture.

What kind of feedback on your writing do you find most helpful?
I like clear and detailed feedback about overall concepts and ideas, the quality of prose, organizational structure and overall persuasiveness. I find that typed criticism is more useful than oral comments because on paper there’s room for more detail, I can reference it and nothing gets lost or forgotten. It’s also less emotional which is essential to developing a sense of critical distance.

What would you like students to know about you as a writer?
I value writing as a professional practice and for personal expression. There are essays/chapter I have published that represent important aspects of my intellectual interests and have professional resonance. But I have also written pieces that are purely for personal expression. At its best writing feels like a personal extension rather than a task.

Reading inspires my writing immensely. I learn a lot about form, style and voice reading great writing. I enjoy reading literary fiction, non-fiction books, newspapers, magazines and occasionally journal articles. Reading puts me in conversation with an infinite array of voices and perspectives and is essential to feeling informed, connected and human.   

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Prof. Michelle Oswald writes about a constantly evolving concern: adapting infrastructure to climate change

        Michelle Oswald, Assistant Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?
I am currently writing two journal papers on the topic of climate change adaptation and transportation. One of the papers is an evaluation of current transportation planning agencies and their level of progress with adapting to climate change impacts such as sea level rise, temperature changes and extreme weather events.  The other paper focuses on how transit agencies throughout the country can start prioritizing rail and bus network projects in order to protect and prepare facilities for climate change impacts.

What do you love about it?
I love the fact that this topic is so innovative and timely to our infrastructure needs. Climate change projections are constantly improving and as a result, understanding how this effects transportation infrastructure is extremely valuable. Planners and engineers have the opportunity to design and protect existing and future transportation systems from flooding, extreme heat waves, sea level inundation, etc.  Therefore, writing about this topic just emphasizes its importance and disseminates examples and ideas for agencies to move forward and take action.

What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?
One of the challenges I have faced is that the topic of climate change is always evolving.  As a result, background literature on this topic is being updated and published everyday. I aim to have the most up-to-date information and examples incorporated into my writing, and therefore, staying in tune with the latest publications, reports, news articles, etc. is very important. 

How would you describe your writing process?
I have found the writing process to be pretty iterative as a result of the evolving literature review.  Although I have written the background section, I keep revising and adding more to in order to stay up-to-date.  I have used an outline format throughout both journals and this really keeps me on track.  I take it one section at a time and then always reread before moving on.  Taking breaks after each major section has also helped thanks to participating in the Writing Boot Camp this winter!