Healing Through Writing

Last week, I helped plan a slam poetry event with spoken word performer, Caroline Rothstein (carolinerothstein.com) . This is the second year in a row that I have worked with Caroline to bring programs to campus and over the year I have had the opportunity to get to know her and her experience quite well. Caroline is a survivor of sexual violence and an eating disorder and uses poetry and performance to talk about these issues.

When I learn about Caroline’s traumatic past through her speaking and performing, I can’t help but wonder how such a strong and powerful woman arose from such terrible circumstances. What is amazing about Caroline’s work is that she uses writing and performing not only to share and empower, but to heal. For me, writing has always been therapeutic. During the most difficult times in my life, I have filled journals with dark words of loss, hurt, and struggle. And then in the midst of it, I might use the paper to paint a picture of a good day; to observe the world around me, or to think out a thought. Looking back at the scribbles on the pages years later, I can see the ways in which I am continually transforming and evolving; my writing shows the ways in which I have overcome, healed, or remained in heartache.

Writing, for me, is most powerful when it is for me. Words can be inspiring and moving to others, but if you can look back at your own words and grow within them, that, I believe, is the true sign of great writing.


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Let There Be Fresh Meat

In class today, my professor quoted William Carlos Williams, who writes in Spring and All, “If I could say what is in my mind in Sanscrit or even Latin I would do so. But I cannot. I speak for the integrity of the soul and the greatness of life’s inanity; the formality of its boredom; the orthodoxy of its stupidity. Kill! kill! let there be fresh meat…”

Writing in direct critique of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Williams hits upon an oft-quoted piece of writing advice: write what you know. Fancy, misused words or half-formulated classical allusions never impress the reader. The conventions of academic writing grow stale and overwrought in the absence of fresh points of view. Although we address these ideas often in the Writing Center, Williams’s hilarious turn of phrase stayed with me. For those of us who have ever tried to write like Williams (or play guitar like Johnny Cash) it is reassuring to imagine their styles as nothing more than an absence of something else.

Let the parts of a paper a student most wishes to change represent her own contribution of “fresh meat” to discourse.

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The TED Commandments

The TED Commandments

The TED Commandments –10 great speaking tips to keep in mind before and during delivery. Practice your speech, but always make sure to be yourself—you don’t want to sound too rehearsed. Don’t read off of a Power Point slide. Create a very brief outline with your major points and elaborate from there. Keep it simple. Establish a connection with your audience; engage their interest by using the tools available to you (which are many). You have visuals, your gestures, your eye contact, your tone, your pitch, etc. 

Most importantly: BE YOU!


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Becoming a Speaking Fellow

A little less than a year ago, I applied to be a Speaking Fellow. Just over a month ago, I officially joined the program as a full-fledged fellow. The process was long and often difficult. Our required semester-long training course challenged much of what I thought I knew about rhetoric. I quickly figured out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did; but that realization came with incredible benefits. We explored all different types of speech: persuasive, debate, discussion, informative, and casual. Moreover, we talked about the theories that underlie rhetorical skills. We grappled with some really challenging questions. How does gender affect speech? To what degree does rhetoric change with time and culture? Why study rhetoric at all? The resulting discussions and debates raised questions that I continue to ask myself. As amazing as my training experience was, I had some reservations about officially becoming a Speaking Fellow. Had I learned enough? Was I actually ready? What if I wasn’t able to help people improve their speaking skills?
Now that I’m officially a Speaking Fellow, however, I couldn’t be happier. I get to teach others about one of my favorite things: public speaking. What’s more, I’m learning so much. With each session that I lead and observe, I learn something new about my own speaking style and about rhetoric in general. I’ve realized that you have to practice what you preach during sessions; you can’t discourage the use of fillers if your own speech is peppered with “um’s” and “like’s.” Coaching can be scary; sometimes peers ask questions that don’t have clear answers. At first, this was terrifying. How can I help someone if I have no idea how to answer their question? But I’m figuring out that it’s okay to not always have an answer. I’ve learned that, most of the time, being present, listening, and being honest is the best thing that you can do for your peers.
My first one-on-one session was last week. It was incredible; the student made so much progress and I could see her embracing her style of speech. After the session, she said “I feel so much more confident with my speech now.” For me, this really rung true to the mission of the Speaking Fellows program: helping students feel at ease speaking with their unique style. In that moment, I was so proud to be a part of the program. More than ever, I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year holds in store for the program.

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Fall In Love With Speaking Campaign: Tips & Tricks

This past week the Speaking Fellows hit the Diana Center for some Valentine’s Day themed tabling – to promote our initiative for Barnard Students to fall in love with speaking. We asked to students to do something very simple for the campaign:

  • Set a personal speaking goal and sign a pledge to work on it.
  • Write that goal somewhere it can be seen it every day.
  • Eat chocolate. Positive reinforcement.

Easy! We had incredible participation and the enthusiasm of the students was inspiring. We suggested a few speaking goals including eliminating fillers such as “like” from your vocabulary, participating more in class, and projecting more when speaking to a large room. But the students who signed the pledge were extremely creative and added many more positive goals to our list. To celebrate my own love of speaking, I’m going to give a few helpful tips for the most popular goals that were set this week.

  • Speak less in class

Observation: When I feel that I’m speaking too much in class the problem usually is not that I’m raising my hand too much or inserting myself too often, but rather that I’m taking up too much air-time and being long-winded when I do participate. In a session just last week I discussed this with a student who felt that she has many valid points and arguments to offer throughout any given class, but when given the opportunity to speak she tends to ramble, which makes her feel like she’s dominating discussion too much.

 Suggestion: Rather than curbing your participation overall, make sure that your participation is as succinct and salient as possible. In Session 2 “Classroom Discussions” we challenge students to first make a complex argument about a text, and then reduce the spoken content of their argument by 50%. In other words, find the most potent thesis statement of your point. Chances are that if you do this exercise before every time you contribute something in class, you’ll end up reducing your air time substantially, while preserving and even enhancing the integrity of your argument. Before you speak make sure you know what you’re going to say, and then try to say the same thing in 50% the amount of words. 

  • Speak more slowly

Observation: Students in my workshops speak quickly for any number of reasons – nerves, enthusiasm, a lot to say. I’ve noticed that speaking very quickly is usually combined with another common speaking habit: making one long sentence out of everything you have to say. When we get nervous or excited, we use fillers and conjunctions to make everything we want to say into one massive run-on sentence, and that sentence tends to come out very quickly 

Suggestion: Try to artificially punctuate the ends of your sentences with a 2-4 second pause. It will feel awkward to you at first, but it will seem completely natural to your audience and eventually the awkward feeling will go away. This will force you to be conscious about your individual sentences, it will preserve your breath and eliminate “nervous huffs” from your speech, and in my experience it will slow down your speech overall. Experiment with this exercise in class discussions for a while. Pausing deliberately after each sentence can be a very effective way of capturing your audience, preserving your breath, and pacing your speech.

  • Eliminate qualifiers

Observation: Qualifiers – which are phrases that disqualify what you’re about to say such as “I’m not an expert but,” “I think,” and “It’s just my opinion” – don’t just happen. Qualifiers happen for a reason. We use qualifiers when we doubt our own words, don’t feel that we are an authority on the subject we’re discussing, or don’t want to be perceived as argumentative or combative. For example, I regularly hear my classmates use the qualifier “I don’t disagree with you necessarily, I just have the feeling that…” right before they present an excellent counter-argument or contrasting piece of evidence in a discussion.

Suggestion: For the next few classes be aware of when you use qualifiers. If you’re really committed, write down the qualifier that you used and why you think you did it. For example: “I said ‘I feel that’ before presenting my Foucauldian analysis, because I didn’t want my classmate to think I found her analysis rudimentary.” After class remember what you said and think about ways you could have said the same thing without a qualifier. Ask yourself, “Did that qualifier actually accomplish anything? Did it contribute anything to my argument? How would I have come across differently if I had made that point without a qualifier?.”Then, when you’re ready, try to make it through a whole discussion with any qualifiers, and check in with yourself about how you feel. Always remember that qualifiers are not necessary, even if you’re worried about coming across as abrasive without them. There’s an important difference between making an argument and being argumentative. As long as your comments are contributing to the critical analysis of a topic, and are not ad hominem, there’s no reason to qualify your perfectly valid thoughts and opinions.

  • Stop saying “literally” when you don’t mean it

Observation: This one is particularly tricky for me to advise on, because it’s one of those trendy verbal habits. In many ways it’s a perfectly valid rhetorical device, a hyperbole fad (hyperbole: noun. obvious and intentional extravagant statement). It’s a way of exaggerating a statement for humor or impact. But unlike traditional hyperbole, saying “literally” when you don’t mean it, (e.g. “My heart literally stopped when I saw him with her”) puts the joke on you.

Suggestion: 1. Figure out when you say “literally” and when you note it in your vocabulary ask yourself this very annoying but useful question, “Literally? As opposed to figuratively?” 2. For a while just try to replace literally with other, more descriptive and equally compelling adverbs. Google around for synonyms, pick out a few winners, and experiment with them this week. This will direct your attention to what that specific word is contributing to your sentence, and eventually you should be able to eliminate adverbs entirely (they’re just awkward and redundant verbs!). Or just go for the classic ask your friends to flick you every time you say literally and don’t mean it. Personally, I prefer the first strategy.



Have a good weekend all – stay safe in the blizzard!

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Killer Fillers and Disqualifying Qualifiers

First, watch this video. What is your initial reaction? Thanks to the Speaking Fellows, mine was “don’t judge a book by its cover,” or in this case “don’t judge the girl by the way she speaks.” Content aside, the amount of fillers and qualifiers she uses in 49 seconds is unbelievable. What are fillers and qualifiers? Fillers are our typical “uhm,” or “like,” whereas qualifiers include phrases such as “this may be irrelevant but…” or “this may be wrong.”

My training as a Speaking Fellow taught me this. Fillers and qualifiers are extremely habitual and everyone uses them. Everyone. The next time that you catch yourself using one of these, you might become flustered because they are extremely difficult to eliminate. One golden rule that Speaking Fellows learn is that the first step in helping to reduce the amount of fillers and qualifiers we use is to become wary of them. This will help increase our awareness of how we say what we want to say.

If you forget what you want to say next, do not use “uhm,” or “like” to fill the silence. Take a deep breath. If you find yourself at a loss for words, silence is golden. You may feel awkward, but it’s okay to take a few moments to gather your thoughts (and yourself).  As for qualifiers, or as one Speaking Fellow calls them, “disqualifying qualifiers,” they only serve to reduce or eliminate a speaker’s credibility. They do not reflect confidence. These can also be decreased through practice. When speaking to others, be more assertive. Never think that what you have to say is irrelevant, or even worse, not intelligent. Everyone has a different perspective.

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When I write, I am alone with my failures. Every day I make mistakes, but writing’s solitude protects me from the shame of at least a few of these daily gaffes. I type, halt, erase, begin again. I either halt or I spill my thoughts so that I don’t have to feel them rattling in my head anymore. I don’t outline, I spew. Then I delete or rearrange. No one will see my first draft and I find freedom in that.

My students often come into the Barnard Writing Center flummoxed by the task of writing The Perfect Essay. They have a prompt, sometimes a thesis statement. But they can’t get started because they don’t know how to ensure success. They don’t have time to fail because they have exams and problem sets and parties. More importantly, they can’t afford to fail because this assignment “determines their entire future.”

Students can feel vulnerable in the Barnard Writing Center. No one need feel ashamed that she used an m-dash just to impress or that her thesis statement is too broad. We have all been there. But if failure is an inevitable part of the writing process, what should students do to cope?

Learn from these failures and move on. As I approach the last few months of my undergraduate career, I find myself cherishing my past failures. My favorite classes are the ones that almost drove me (or rather, my GPA) to the ground. My professors asked me to analyze cities and societal pressures and immoral motivations and racism and adjectives and the nature of beauty in ways I didn’t understand before I started writing. One of my professors would question my repetition of “and” in that last sentence; another might circle that semi-colon and call it pretentious.

The trick isn’t to be perfect. The trick is to stop being afraid of your errors. At the Writing Center we will help you: we will talk about focusing your thesis and integrating your quotes more smoothly into a paragraph. I might ask you why you thought to write five “and”s instead of using commas or if you found the semi-colon in the last paragraph necessary. We will talk about writing and you might credit me with the A you get on your paper.

But I cannot teach how to write right. Through the years I’ve acquired the patience for outlines, finding all my quotes before I solidify my thesis, and making lists in threes. You may have figured out different strategies (feel free to share them in the comments section). Bring your uncertainties to the Writing Center and we can design new tactics.

You will always blunder, though. May you blunder gracefully.

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