Looking Inward: Writing about writing

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Photo credit: Molly Putman

Emily Russell / Sun Star Columnist

I have less than 48 hours before the most important exam of my academic career. This isn’t the type of exam that you make flashcards or attend a review session for. This isn’t the type of exam that includes multiple choice questions, fill-in-the- blanks or short answers.

In fact this isn’t a typical exam at all.

I decide the exact time and date of the exam while my thesis committee decides the two- or three- sentence prompt that will be emailed to me at the start of the exam. I then have three hours to write as much as I can in response to the prompt, with no notes whatsoever

A few months prior to this, my committee and I meet to decide on a general theme or set of questions that I will address in the three hours I am allotted. In my department, graduate students are required to take two of these exams before they “advance to candidacy,” i.e. begin writing the actual thesis. All of the research and writing conducted before these exams will be tremendously helpful when it comes down to writing the thesis, but quite often it’s hard to see the end of the tunnel when you’re so immersed in one specific topic.

So why I am telling you all of this? Well, for one, it’s hard to think about anything else besides the exam when it looms so near in the future. But for another, I was originally going to write my final column on the act of writing itself and what I’ve learned throughout my years in academia and months writing this column. It was supposed to be a “how-to” sort of column.

That was until a few days ago when I had a crisis of confidence. I’ve spent months researching a single topic in preparation for my second and final written exam before I begin the real writing. I am not in any classes, Idon’thaveajobora dog or kids to take care of. Just me. The crisis was motivated by a few unrelated events that all culminated in a practice presentation on my topic. I always find it helpful to force myself to explain a topic well before I begin writing about it. But I couldn’t find the words nor the confidence to adequately explain what I had spent the last few months learning about.

But here are a few things I have learned: 1. Success is rarely achieved without some struggles along the way. Struggling makes you stronger and, in the end, it teaches you how to respond and cope with future crises (which I am sure to experience). 2. A clear mind is a creative

mind. Almost all of the columns I’ve written this semester were crafted in my mind while out on a run. The lack of distractions, the silence, and my own energy create the perfect combination for creative writing. And finally, 3. There is nothing that cannot be accomplished. This is something that I struggle to remember during a crisis of confidence, but after a long run or a good night sleep I am always able to reassure myself that whatever I’m trying to do can be done.

It’s incredibly humbling that a week before my written exam and a few days before writing this column I suffered from a crisis of confidence, because one cannot become a better writing without realizing that there is always room for improvement. My advice to myself and to those of you reading this is simply to keep reading, keep writing, and keep (or start!) running.

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