Right Where You Are, Write Where You Are

Somewhere near Brick Lane, London.

Somewhere near Brick Lane, London.

For the past two weeks I have been in London and the Netherlands with my husband, who is doing dissertation research. It feels like we're hopping from one cheap AirBnB to the next, from one train to the next, from one Underground line to the next.

Before I flew to London to meet up with him, friends back home asked me what I wanted to do. “Sit in a park and drink tea” and “just be and enjoy being” is what I replied. I haven’t been able to do either.

The crush of London—culture, people, history, expense, language—is overwhelming. And I’m the kind of traveler who wants to do it all, which doesn’t bode well for sitting in a park and being.

The first week we were in London, we walked over sixty miles. This in part to the expense of traveling on the Underground, but also because I wanted to see it all. So my way of being was being constantly on my feet walking everywhere. I loved it. I still love it. And I have my blisters to show my love. Really, get out and walk a city if you want to experience that city—the sights, sounds, smells, architecture, cats, dogs, bikes, babies, languages, music, menus, fashion. The hustle bustle pace of trains, tubes, buses, and cars don’t let us fully experience a place. And the walking pace slows us down: our minds, our senses, our paces, our thoughts. Walking reconnects you with the pavement and the grass, the sun and rain, the space and place.

Despite my inability to sit and drink tea or coffee in a park—I’m going to make it happen, believe me!—one of the ways to “just be” might seem a bit counterintuitive: I’ve been taking my laptop everywhere. You see, I also want to finish writing these two articles I’m working on, and if you’ve read my previous post on productivity, you know that finding the space to write and think, think and write, can also be a challenge. So what have I done? I’ve blended my “just be” intention with my “just write” intention.

Just being and just writing are a perfect match because I can’t write if I can’t be. And I can't be if I can't write. Being and writing happen in stimulating spaces: parks, museums, coffee shops. Too much silence shuts down my creativity. I need inspiration through color, texture, sight, sound, temperature.

I love writing in coffee shops or public spaces that have bumping tunes, just enough background noise, and the smell of coffee and pastries. Even better is a coffee shop with open windows and doors, where I can smell the waft of cigarette smoke or street food. Even better? Lots of natural light, so I can look outside and see the old brick buildings, the trees waving in the breeze, the hollyhocks and lavender growing in-between sidewalk cracks or in flower boxes. Spaces like these help me sit with my thoughts, sit with my being, and sit with the moment. They also inspire me to write.

Carrying my laptop everywhere means that, when the mood is right and the place is right, I can sit and be. I can think about my articles, revise paragraphs, look out the windows, people watch, and be. Ultimately, I’m a happier writer, and a happier traveler because I’ve allowed myself to be inspired by the space and place. Here's where I've been most inspired to be and write, write and be:

  •  Wellcome Collection, London
  •  British Library, London
  •  Parliament Cafe (not open to the public, unfortunately), London
  •  Cafe 1001, Brick Lane, London
  •  Anne and Max, Leiden, Netherlands
  •  A bench overlooking a canal, Leiden, Netherlands

In what ways are you right where you are where you can write where you are? Share you tips and thoughts with me on Twitter @GeneseaC. I’d love to hear about your being and writing experiences.


Finding Your Best (Productive and Motivated) Self

Monet, "Grainstack, Sun in the Midst," Minneapolis Institute of Art. 

Monet, "Grainstack, Sun in the Midst," Minneapolis Institute of Art. 

One of the things I’ve learned about being as career-driven as I am, is that I need to refine my personal productivity. Being productive, for me anyways, means either getting the time to work on articles and conference presentations or getting the time to discover who I am and who I want to be. You know—the kind of work that gives you meaning, satisfaction, and joy. My intellectual and personal happiness means having time to research, read, write, and think.

But how do I harness the best time of the day or time in my week to be productive?

When I was working on my dissertation, my university’s graduate academic support center offered dissertation and thesis boot camps. Basically, a graduate student would sign up for a 40 hour a week commitment or a 20 hour commitment on the weekends with the goal of getting as much research and writing completed. In order to keep the motivation going, the boot camp staff had short writing activities at the beginning and end of the day, and staff were always available to discuss ideas, look at drafts, or troubleshoot. I signed up for seven of these week-long boot camps—the most boot camps anyone had followed through with at the university. And I learned four important things about myself that significantly impacted my productivity, and, as a result, made me a happier writer and thinker:

1. Although I’m a night person, I did my best thinking and writing from 9:00am to noon. Regardless of how hard it was to get out of bed to be on campus by 8:00am, and regardless of how many times I silently asked myself how I was going to get through the day, I always had my best ideas and most productive writing before lunch.

2. Developing the habit of journaling my tasks before starting the morning and after finishing the day helped me process my work. In the morning, I wrote down what I wanted to accomplish that day, or at least by lunch time, and then at the end of the day, I reflected on what I accomplished as a way to celebrate what was accomplished (a sure-fire way to stay motivated) as well as note what new questions or ideas emerged.

3. I learned to multi-task between multiple projects when my brain was tired. While the boot camp organizers didn’t want us to fill up the time with checking email, grading students’ assignments (if we were teaching assistants), or doing research for professors (if we were research assistants), they encouraged us to have multiple back-up assignments in case we got stuck or bored of the dissertation or thesis work. So, I would come prepared, each day, with at least three different kinds of projects I could work on to cycle through if I felt bored or stymied in my dissertation work. Having multiple projects to work on allowed me to treat each boot camp like the 40 hour a week job that it was. I don’t think I’ve been as productive since.

4. Being in a space with people focused on the same kind of goal—a steel will to complete as much work as possible—kept me motivated. There’s something about being in a space with 10-15 other people who are all wanted the same thing: to be productive. There’s a buzzing energy that happens in this kind of space. Coffee shops and collaborative workspaces provide similar kinds of energy, which is why aside from writing my dissertation during the boot camps, I lived at one coffee shop, Satellite Coffee on Carlisle and Central, the rest of the time. That particular coffee shop was a satellite office for many professionals, and over hearing the work meetings or phone interviews or seeing the projects people were working on also kept me motivated. 

My current challenge is replicating those ways in which I’m most productive. Because I teach in the morning, and because I’m still a night person, I’ve found it impossible to wake-up at 5:00am or 6:00am to have time to write. And I also haven’t found a coffee shop that provides the motivational and productivity buzz that was at Satellite Coffee. But my goal is, each and every day, to try to make it happen. And maybe finding that productive space is a never-ending battle. But I’d really like to find that sweet spot, once again, that I had in writing boot camp and at Satellite Coffee. And every day I’ll continue to look for it. 


Let's talk! What roadblock are you dealing with right now? Or, what did it take to get to know yourself enough to know when you'd be most motivated and productive? Let's connect on Twitter @GeneseaC or on Instagram @CattingWithAlice.

Why College Grads Struggle with Workplace Writing. (Hint: it’s not because they’re lazy. Or because they text.)

Xunantunich, Belize

Xunantunich, Belize

For the last five years, I’ve been teaching various equivalents of Business Writing, typically an upper-division writing course in which students from across various disciplines learn how to write job documents, reports, memos, emails, proposals, and the like. Business Writing is quite a useful class: as the New York Times reported in 2013, job candidates’ written and oral communication skills aren’t up to snuff. And, in 2016, the issue is still the same. (But, just so you know, “college students can’t write” has been a complaint of professors and professionals since the late 1800s.) 

College graduates—plain and simple—need better workplace writing skills.  And I’d go so far as to say it’s not entirely their fault if they don’t have them.  

Would it surprise you if I said that many sophomores, juniors, and seniors don’t know what genres and styles of writing they’ll be doing in their majors and fields? Would it also surprise you if I said that many professors and professionals are uncomfortable with teaching writing to their students or talking about writing with their employees and interns? 

This is something that I always kinda knew from my years in academia. But the realization really struck me when I recently assigned a group proposal to my Business Writing classes in which fifty students investigated writing in their fields. This six-week project was deliberately assigned as the first project of the semester because I wanted to start the semester with what I consider the most important content of my class: first, students need to learn how to research the kinds of writing styles and genres that are valued in their fields. Second, students need to learn how to adapt existing communication skills to the styles and genres required of them in their fields.   

As part of the project, students individually interviewed subject matter experts, researched what kinds of writing are valued in their fields, and then developed recommendations and strategies for how to improve upon writing instruction within their programs of study.

The eye-opening bit came after students interviewed their subject matter experts (who could include program directors, professors, or internship supervisors). I provided students with a template of interview questions which ranged from “Do you teach writing in your classes? Why or why not?” to “What kinds of writing genres or writing styles do you think students should learn while in college?” This interview wasn’t meant to judge the interviewees’ experiences or teaching practices; it was meant to enlighten students about their supervisors, mentors, and professors’ experiences with writing. Students need to know where their subject matter experts are coming from to better understand how writing is valued, discussed, and taught within their programs, professions, and industries.

Interestingly, students reported to me that their subject matter experts had either not been taught how to write for the industry—you know, the nuts and bolts of the writing process—or they were unsure of how to teach or talk about writing. It didn’t matter how many conference presentations they had given or how many years they had worked in the industry; they just didn’t know what to do when faced with student writing. Many subject matter experts even said that they didn’t think they were good writers, so they were hesitant to discuss writing in the classroom or in the workplace.

Based on what my students told me, here are four general observations:

1. Professionals aren’t often trained how to talk about the ways in which written communication functions in a particular industry.

2. Professionals may believe that students/employees learn through implicit instruction: that if people read enough examples, they will learn how to write.

3. Professionals might be lacking confidence. Because they weren’t taught how to write, they might believe they don’t know how to teach writing or talk about writing. (And they also might think their own writing is terrible.) 

4. Isn’t it the English department’s job to teach writing?

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. How do my colleagues and peers go from being expert communicators in their own fields to being unsure of how to apply that knowledge to the writing of their students and entry-level employees?

Well, two points here: first, just because someone gets a degree and/or is a teacher, doesn’t mean that person knows how to teach writing. And, second, writing instruction should be explicit. This means that professors and professionals need to be able to explain writing strategies, research methods, and task expectations to their students and entry-level employees. 

Perhaps I should return to point #4: isn’t it the English department’s job to teach writing? Maybe. Maybe not. But what I can tell you is that people don’t learn how to become top-notch writers or communicators with a few freshmen English classes and one Business Writing class. Writing is a process that must be continually practiced. Without that practice, the writing process becomes increasingly difficult. 

But back to my students. Over the course of six weeks, students realized that many professors and professionals need more support when it comes to talking about or teaching disciplinary-specific writing. And proposals included recommendations that ranged from developing field-specific writing courses to providing faculty with professional development opportunities. While I was hunkered down reading students’ proposals, I realized that I missed a huge opportunity with this assignment. I should have required students to submit their proposals to their interviewees and program directors, similarly to how unsolicited proposals work in the workplace. In effect, I fell into the same trap that my students had discovered: I failed to share with my across-campus colleagues recommendations that could help their students become better writers. 

I know my colleagues and peers are talented people. They know how to communicate. And they know what kinds of writing their students, interns, and entry-level employees will be doing in their industries. We just need to team up—professionals and writing specialists—to help make sure students are ready to write when they get on the job.   

Guess what I’m doing next semester. Yep. I’m going to require my Business Writers to submit their proposals to their program directors and whomever else they interviewed. Because these conversations need to happen. And it’s my obligation to make sure that they do. 


Let’s talk! What’s been your experiencing with writing in the workplace? Or what do you wish you knew about communication as a college student and entry-level employee? Let’s connect on Twitter @GeneseaC and on Instagram @CattingWithAlice.