About mnolan22

I study Professional Writing and Pre-Education at Virginia Tech, and I expect to graduate this spring. I also dabble in Political Science. When I'm not busy I can be found fiddling around with a deck of playing cards, or otherwise reading a book. I'm an avid lover of good stories in any medium, and I can binge on the most enormous books in a day or two if it has me interested enough.

The Semester’s Over… So What Next?

So this is it. The end of the semester. As I said in one of my earlier posts, it went by way too fast.

And now I only have one semester left before graduation.

Well, that’s an absolutely terrifying thought. I’m going to level with you all right now… I don’t have any idea what I want to do with my life. I mean, I say that I want to be a writer, and I do. I like writing (for the most part). But I guess I just… have no idea exactly what I want to do.

Part of this probably stems from the fact that I’m incredibly indecisive. But I also think that the higher education system has its priorities mixed up, and that has somewhat worsened the problem.

By the end of my undergraduate experience, I will have spent four years in college, and not once will anybody have really sat me down and tried to work with me, help me figure out what I might want to do as a career.

Sure, we have a Career Services center. Have you ever been there? How useless was your trip? My two trips there were pretty useless. At the end of my freshman year, after I had an existential crisis (which resulted from me realizing I wanted to be an English major) I went to the career center for some much-needed guidance.

For the most part, they just walked me through their website. Sure, I talked with a lovely woman for about ten minutes. Then more website.

Then, at the beginning of my junior year, I thought that I should probably give it another go since my graduation was now only two years off. I wanted to talk to somebody, have them help me discover what my skills really were.

I got a total noob who sat down and started clicking on website links.

The career services website, by the by, is just about one of the worst, most unhelpful, sprawling, ungodly websites ever devised by supposedly-intelligent people. I think it’s meant to be a test—if you can find anything useful on this site, then you’ll be golden in finding a career.

Needless to say, I was not impressed. And I haven’t returned since, which is probably a mistake, but I can’t stand when counselors direct me to an abomination of the internet.

This is all part of a larger problem in higher education. Too much focus is put on learning the material and passing the tests (hey, just like high school!) and not enough focus is placed on really helping the students become adults. Universities care about making money and research as opposed to the student body.

Which makes sense, I guess. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

It makes me really understand why people might choose to take a year off to “discover themselves.” I used to call people who did this douchebags (pardon my language, but it’s true). Now I understand why they do it. We really don’t have a way to discover ourselves in college—at least, not unless you count partying and drinking and general stupidity as discovering oneself.

And that’s it I suppose. I don’t like to end on a downer, but that’s kind how I feel about it. We have a system of higher education that focuses too much on funding (have you seen tuition prices lately?) and students who are left high and dry after four years of very expensive education.

Students who spend four years not learning how to live on their own, without school, without professors, and without certainty.

I want to go home and pet a puppy dachshund.

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And Now for Something Completely Different

Now I’m going to talk about something completely unrelated to what I’ve been talking about. Tonight (this morning) I’m going to talk about Dungeons and Dragons. Yes. D&D. Because I decided I wanted to write about something fun that I enjoy on the last day of the semester.

(Yes, I am outing myself as a tabletop RPG-playing, fantasy-reading, sci-fi-watching nerd. My Unit 1 narrative was all about how I play these games, fer cryin’ out loud.)

Anyway. I mention D&D (and other games like it) because I think that it is much more than just a game. I’ve been playing it for a decade now, and I can tell you that it has been an educational experience.

For creative writers, tabletop games offer quite a lot. They help you gain experience with writing characters and then losing yourself in them. They help you familiarize yourself with some of the classic story telling tropes. And they let you see a story from the perspective of the character instead of the writer.

For any kind of writer, being the game master for a tabletop game is a very very very very challenging experience, but also a rewarding experience. When you run a game of D&D, you are creating a setting and writing a story. But you are also actively engaged in competition with the characters who inhabit your story. Imagine writing a book and having your characters try to punch the pen out of your hand as you write.

You also learn to improvise and think on your feet very quickly, because your players will never ever stick to the story you try to write for them. When you run a game of D&D, you realize that your players are all depraved, insane people who hate your lovingly-crafted world and interesting settings.

They will happily make decisions so out there and crazy that you’d swear they were fifth-dimensional beings. And you will want to punch them, but sadly you cannot move your fist at a right angle to reality. (Douglas Adams reference right there, in case anybody was interested.)

So you become a master of quick problem-solving. I highly recommend trying out a game of D&D at least once for anybody who wants to be any sort of writer. One, it’s fun. Two, it will teach you a lot of new things. Three, it’s fun.

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Intuitive Writing

So for Prof. Warnick’s other class, Developing Online Content, we read a book called The Elements of User Experience. It’s a book about how to write websites with the user’s experience and ease of use as the top priority.

The way this book was set up, it split the website writing process into five distinct levels of planning and strategizing and organizing and implementing and stuff like that. Each level had a bunch of its own little sub levels as well.

The thing is, despite how this book set up the web development process in such a nice, clearly separated, planned, step-by-step way, I don’t think anybody in the class followed this development plan.

I mean, I’m sure our writing processes included all of the steps that were in the book. But nobody sat down and went through every level of development one by one. It was a much more free-flowing, intuitive process.

Which is a point about composition in general. I think a lot of people try to quantify the writing/composition process by splitting it up into concrete steps that can be measured. But most people don’t actually write like that.

We jump around in the writing process. We get ideas that don’t fit into the step we’re working on, so we start working on another step before the idea goes away. It’s a chaotic process that goes all over the place until eventually the job is done. Sure, most people at least start with basic strategizing and end with whatever end steps your particular project requires, but in between it’s a whole different game.

At least, that’s how it is for me and a lot of the people I know. We are intuitive writers.

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On the Wesch Video

Since I’m working with Storify for my final project in this class, I started thinking about social media. And since my topic is on how internet use impacts learning, I also started thinking about internet in the classroom. Which got me thinking about the Wesch video we saw way back before the break.

Looking back, I think that a good alternative medium for Wesch’s video would be a social media page. Wesch could have made a Facebook or Twitter page for his students to post on. They could have put status updates or tweets about what they really do in class and what they are like as students.

Using social media to make his message would have made the medium of transmittal itself related to the topic. It also would have made the project ongoing, instead of a finished product. Even now, students could have been posting more about the nature of being a student.

On the other hand, the video has much more singular impact than a social media page would have. It’s hard to make people care about another Facebook group. But a quick video can make the rounds on the internet very quickly and incite some very strong feelings.

I suppose it all depends on the intent. The video is better for opening the eyes of educators and urging them to change their ways. But a social media page would have put more focus on the students themselves, and probably would have captured a more accurate portrayal of how they feel.

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From Closed Door to Open Door: from Q10 to Word

Way back when we were reading those articles about how horrible Microsoft Word is, I was introduced to a wonderful little word processing program called Q10. I love using Q10. It blacks my screen out so I don’t get distracted, and I can control the colors of the foreground and background. There are no “helpful” formatting tools like in Word.

All there is is a blank screen, a cursor, and a keyboard (and also a very small bottom bar with a word count if you want one). Also, Q10 has some lovely little typewriter clicky sounds that play every time I hit a key, which is why I love using it over any of the other very similar distraction-free word processors. I adore me some clicks.

But I bring Q10 up not just to praise it. Nor do I bring up Microsoft Word to decry it as the grand master of evil. I think both of them are useful for different things.

A couple of years ago my sister bought me a copy of a book called Bird by Bird, written by Anne Lamott. It’s a book on the writing process. Although it is primarily intended for creative writers, it has a lot of good general insights that apply to any kind of writing.

In Bird by Bird, Lamott recommends a writing process that has two stages. During the first stage, you write your first draft in your room with the door closed. The first draft is for you and you alone. Nobody else needs to see it, because your first draft is going to be terrible.

When you go over your first draft and refine it into a second draft, you do it with your door open. Your second draft is meant for the world. It will have an audience—your roommate, your significant other, your friends or family, anybody. It’s a way to keep you in the right frame of mind as you write the two different drafts.

I do the same thing with Q10 and Word. I write all of my first drafts in Q10 because it’s closed off. It fills my entire screen and it offers me almost nothing in terms of arranging my text. There aren’t even any spelling or grammar squiggly lines to distract me as I compose my papers. All I can do is write content.

Once I have a finished first draft, I transfer the file over to Word to write my second and final drafts. When I write this way, it’s much easier to get my initial thoughts down during my first draft (because of the lack of distraction) and much easier to refine my thoughts in the second draft (because of the formatting tools).

By the way, I do the same thing with blog posts. I write those in Q10 and then paste them into the WordPress text box.

Try it out for yourself some time. See if separating the writing tools of your first and subsequent drafts helps your writing process.

Also, read Bird by Bird. It’s freaking hilarious and heartwarming and amazing.

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Study Schedule Rotations

During this magical time of the semester known as finals week, I once again find myself forced to stay up past that special time of the night, 2:00 am (grrrrr….). But as long as I must break my own rules and continue to write papers even though I am now officially stupid, I figured I’d take a break to talk about establishing a work schedule for your studying.

Back in freshman year, I read somewhere that a good way to maximize efficiency when you’re doing any sort of mental work is to spend half an hour working and half an hour taking a break, alternating between the two. Back then I thought that this was a brilliant idea; partially because it offered me a good way to increase my efficiency, and partially because it gave me excuses all the time to goof off during study time.

But honestly, I do think that there is some wisdom here. Working at an exact rotation of half an hour never ends up working for me, but I do find that I’m most productive when I work in short bursts alternating with periods of rest. Sometimes my bursts last only ten minutes, sometimes up to an hour.

Generally, when I start to get in the zone, my brain will monitor itself and let me know when it’s time to take a break and when it’s time to get back to work.

Right now, for instance. I am taking a quick break from finishing up a final paper for Science Writing because I got to the point where I have to cite sources for my bibliography and I hate citing and bibliographies I mean I understand why we need them without them people plagiarize and steal credit but they’re so annoying to write and the formatting is so stupidly strict—

Forgive me. I’m stupid right now, after all.

Anyway, my point is, if you spend your study time plowing through textbooks and papers nonstop for hours on end, give a more light schedule like this a try. You might like it.

(And if it makes your productivity go down, well, congratulations to you. You’re a super person who can stay productive for hours on end without a break. Please don’t hurt me.)

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Where did the Semester Go?

No, seriously, where did it go? I swear to the heavens above it only feels like I’ve been in this semester for a month, maybe a month and a half. And now it’s gone! I gotta say, it doesn’t make me look forward to what’s going to happen next semester—the semester I graduate and have to get a job, by the way—because it’s probably going to go by in the space of about four days.

Meanwhile, I feel like I haven’t done nearly as much as I wanted to do this semester. I’ve worked a part time job, worked on projects, studied, had a couple of free days with my friends… that’s about it.

I wrote my Unit 2 tap essay about this phenomenon, where the college students of today are expected to do increasingly more things with their time while having less time to do it in. We’re still seen as these fun, carefree young people by the mainstream media. We’re seen as having enough free time to hang out at bars all the time, have parties, have a dozen relationships begin and fail, create a wonderful blossoming social life, yeah…

Not so much. After spending all day at classes and work and then studying, I pass out on the floor. Rich and varied social life? Gimme a break. Certainly I could have a wonderful social life filled with fun and free time if I didn’t have to try to cram too many classes and work and internships and clubs because today you need that much stuff on your resume to succeed. (Well, I suppose I might be exaggerating on all fronts, but I think I’ve made my point by now).

But I just wish my family would stop telling me I need to loosen up. Spend less time worrying about studying and get out there and meet more people. That’s not what college is like anymore. At least not for me or any students like me.

College is the best time of a person’s life?

I surely hope not. I mean yeah, VT has been great. But I would hope that after I graduate and struggle and finally land myself some sort of job where I make some form of money, that I would be able to have more of a real life. I would hope that a real professional life—which would ideally include having at least one night a week to spend with people I like without having to worry about studying for a test of finishing a paper—would be more fulfilling than scrambling around in the land of 5-page-papers.

And with that, I think I’m done being a complete downer. Sorry about the rant…

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More on Internet Addiction: Can Lurking = Studying?

While I’ve already (foolishly) admitted to being rather badly addicted to lurking on the internet when I should be doing more productive things, I also want to defend myself.

I do think that there is some benefit to be gained by constantly browsing websites. It might not be enough of a benefit to counteract the fact that you aren’t doing any work, but it’s there. For example: say you just happen to stumble upon some random factoid about meteorites while lurking online. Two months later, you find yourself in a room with somebody talking about meteorites, and BAM! Now you can bring out your obscure fact and seem like a smarty pants.

In all seriousness though, I often wonder how much of my internet browsing is useful in some way, and how much of it is just plain entertaining myself while I’m bored. The website that probably destroys more of my time than any other is TV Tropes. I have probably spent a combined total of at least a week lurking on that monstrous time-vampire of a website. I go there almost entirely to entertain myself.

But at the same time, I do think that I am getting some benefit from spending time on TV Tropes. At least in terms of writing, I can’t help but feel that it is better to know what most of the writing tropes are. I like to justify my time troping by telling myself and my friends that it is teaching me how to be a better story teller.

I think a lot of people must have at least one website that they frequent that has at least some real benefit to offer them in terms of knowledge, something to make the the tradeoff of wasting hours and hours of your life worth it.

What site is it for you?


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Why I Sometimes Hate that I’m a Writer

Going to Virginia Tech, I end up having a lot of friends that are in the Engineering department. Or the Science department. Or Math. Or geo—the point is, I feel like English is one of the smaller departments here. Most people think of Virginia Tech as an engineering college first, a science college second, and anything else seventh.

Normally this doesn’t make me feel so bad, especially when I get a look at the kind of stuff that my friends in all those sciency departments have to do. Whenever I see my engineering buddies studying or doing their homework, I thank whatever powers may be for being an English major, where I don’t have to put up with all that tedious busy work.

But every so often, I get really frustrated with how the assignments in English work. And then I start to envy my friends with the tedious busy work. At least they have set right and wrong answers to their problems.

Not for me. Nope. When you’re writing, there isn’t a right and a wrong answer. Nothing is really set in stone. You just have to write and hope that what you’re doing is good. There aren’t any answer keys to use for your essays. There are no cheat sheets on having a writerly voice. It’s a shot in the dark with no guiding light.

Well, okay. That’s not entirely true. There isn’t a whole lot of “right” when you’re writing, but there’s certainly “wrong.” Like spelling and grammar: those can be very clearly wrong. And having a terrible story, that’s wrong. Being boring or repetitive, totes wrong.

I guess what I’m getting at is, sometimes I think it’s really terrifying to be a writer. We don’t have the same kind of clear path to correctness that other people do. And when that happens, I think it’s easy to start bemoaning choosing to write when we could have been in a technical major which, while perhaps not easier, would at least have more structure.

And it’s easy to forget that writing is so wonderful precisely because of how free it is. Because if you take ten great writers and give them all the same objective, you will get ten very different results. Because the fact that there’s no set right answer means that sometimes you can get something that’s better than simply “correct”—you can get something beautiful.

Because sometimes I just… really wish that writing was that simple.

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