As an undergraduate student at the University of Missouri, one of the things I loved most about campus was that it seemed like there were endless places to write. There was the tried-and-true Bookmark Café, where you could count on the muted din of coffee cups to keep you focused. On a sunny day, you could find a spot under one of the many Bradford pear trees that studded campus. Or, if you were a little bit weird like me, you could sit on the edge of a flowerbed and write amongst the horticulture school’s newest arrangement of ornamental cabbages.
Looking back, I think I actually did my best writing in the most mundane of places: the dimly lit hallways outside humanities classrooms. It was in these halls that I found other anxious, overachieving students who also arrived half an hour early to every class. It was there that we’d confer about prompts, read each other’s drafts, and decipher professors’ comments as we worked on revisions.
Those hallways became especially sacred to me in my senior year, when I decided to write an honors thesis. For the first time in my life, writing became hard. I didn’t know what I was doing, and there was such relief in conferring with my peers. We’d look at each other, wild-eyed, and whisper about the questions we had but were too afraid to ask a professor. What exactly is a thesis? How long is it supposed to be? What do you do if you can’t find an advisor? Behind the questions that we asked lurked the questions that we avoided because they were too daunting: Do I even have what it takes to do this? Am I the only one who hasn’t started yet?
Like so many undergraduate writers tackling long-term projects or unfamiliar genres for the first time, I lingered far too long in the stage of worried-but-not-worried-enough before I truly began writing. In the end, I managed to cobble together a paper of the appropriate length, but I don’t remember much about what I wrote. I don’t even remember if I had an argument. I do, however, vividly remember the names and faces of the hallway acquaintances who wrote with me before class and helped me believe that I could see the project through to the end. (Thank you, Eric, Keeley, and Ben).
Years later, when I became a graduate tutor at the UW-Madison Writing Center, I found great satisfaction in helping others navigate the challenges associated with encountering new territory as a writer. When newly minted dissertators came in to begin a chapter, or an undergraduate brought in their first-ever college paper, I found it thrilling to puzzle through the challenges together. I especially loved working with undergraduates embarking on their first long-term projects and coaching them in the strategies that might have saved me from my own procrastination back when I was writing my senior thesis. In 2018, when I became the TA Assistant Director of our center, I had the opportunity to deepen the support we offer to such undergraduates by designing and implementing our Undergraduate Writing Groups.
When the first group started in Fall 2018, I modeled it after our Graduate Writing Groups. Relying on the principles of routine and accountability that I had internalized as the keys to consistent productivity, I worked with participants to set goals, minimize distractions, and focus on getting words on the page. However, as I met with that initial group of four students each week and listened to their feedback, I began to understand that they weren’t just looking for a place to get writing done. Instead, they were looking for an experience much like the one I had in the hallways at my undergraduate alma mater. What these students wanted—and needed—was mentorship from other writers, a place to build confidence, and the freedom to ask questions they didn’t feel comfortable asking anywhere else.
Refining the groups took time, but we worked together to build a weekly routine that would balance structure with the individual needs of writers in the groups. We now divide our 90-minute sessions into four parts:
- A Warm-Up—We begin each session with a warm-up activity that helps us get motivated to write. These brief (approximately ten-minute) activities include reflective freewrites, mini lessons on writing topics participants have requested, and guest speakers who share their favorite writing strategies. There are also times when a writer in the group asks us to workshop a difficult passage from their writing or strategize how to deal with a particular writing challenge.
- Goal Setting—Each writer in the group writes out a minimum, medium, and maximum goal for our writing session. We then share these goals in small groups and help one another reframe expectations if initial goals are unrealistic. Five minutes is usually enough time to set and share goals.
- Writing Time/Individual Consultations—We aim for a solid hour of writing time each week. When writing time starts, participants spread out across the room to work individually. Someone volunteers to bring snacks each week, so there’s plenty of munching and crunching in the background.
I remain available during writing time for individual consultations. Writers come and find me if they get stuck, have a question, or need some general encouragement. We try to limit these individual check-ins to 15 minutes so that each writer still has a solid chunk of time to write.
- Debrief—In the last 5 minutes, we come back as a group to celebrate our work and set goals we want to accomplish before meeting again the next week. Writers in the group also pick out a sticker at the end of each meeting. A little positive reinforcement goes a long way!
Over the past two years, our Undergraduate Writing Groups have expanded to support a growing network of writers on our campus. While we began with four student-writers, most of whom were working on senior theses, we have doubled or nearly doubled our numbers every semester since. As our enrollment has expanded, we have also attracted a wider variety of writers ranging from first-year students looking to keep on top of their writing for introductory courses to seniors hoping to publish some of their original research. Despite the wide experience gap between writers who join these groups, members have consistently invested in each other, mentored each other through their writing challenges, and worked together to develop their aspirations as writers. Four past participants—Ally, Farid, Gracie, and Mira—have agreed to share what their time in the groups meant to them.
For Ally, a Nursing major, transfer student, and single mom, the groups offered tailored support after a semester off from school. Splitting her time between active writing and individual consults during group meetings, Ally found that the groups helped her meet competing demands on her time:
Writing group helped ease my anxiety about the time that I needed to be spending on my writing projects…. The group was also a very welcoming and supportive environment to be in each week. I am a single mother, so studying with my son also gets hard and I tend to become easily distractable in my home environment. The writing group was much like an adventure for my son and I each week. He likes coming onto campus and was able to stay engaged in his activity without the distractions of home. It worked really well for the both of us and the group was supportive of my son being able to attend with me.
Farid, who recently graduated with a degree in English, joined the groups in January of 2020 to work on his senior honors thesis. As he worked out the argument he wanted to make about the intersections of race and medieval tropes in video games, he came to a deeper understanding of his need for structure:
Before I joined the writing group, writing papers was a messy process for me. I would have ideas on topics from notes from class, but the way I split up my writing time made writing a cohesive paper difficult. I would often start and stop writing at arbitrary times, allowing for distractions and making the time I did spend writing rather unproductive. Joining the writing group and having dedicated and focused writing time made me realize how much more productive I was in a scheduled setting.
Gracie, an English and Film major, used group meetings to work on a long-term screenplay project. As Gracie participated in our weekly meetings, she learned to relax unreasonable standards of productivity and to accept that the outcome of a writing session might be different than what she planned:
A victory for me was understanding that taking time to write actually pays off, even if I barely get anything done. It’s important for me to allow myself time to focus on my writing and my creative projects. When I focus energy on them, it’s like I’m feeding them…. they grow and change even if I am not writing pages and pages.
Mira, who recently graduated with a degree in Education Policy Studies, also found that the group helped her develop a healthier relationship to writing:
I struggled the semester prior to keep on top of the mounting writing projects that come with higher level courses. I would lock myself in a silent room and just press and press, and falter and fail. It was an unjoyful experience, so in the spring, I decided to shake things up, try an alternative format…This group built in social interaction, social accountability, reasonable writing goals and expectations into my writing process…It freed me from the direness I approached every writing assignment with—assuming that I had already failed, which reflected on my character and value as a student and as a person—and breathe some calm into my process.
As I trace these four writers’ experiences in the groups, the common thread that stands out to me is how each participant learned to adopt a more charitable disposition toward themselves as writers. Ally, for example, shed some of the anxiety she felt between competing responsibilities as a student and mother and reframed her understanding of writing as an adventure she could share with her son. Farid learned to stop thinking of his process as “messy” or disorganized, and instead came to see himself as a writer who thrives under structure. Both Gracie and Mira learned to stop shaming themselves for what they didn’t get done and give themselves credit for the time they put into their writing.
Stepping back to reflect on the groups more holistically, I’ve been consistently impressed with the patience, acceptance, and compassion with which these undergraduate writers have treated themselves in some of their most uncertain times. When COVID-19 pushed us to fully remote instruction in March of 2020, writers in the groups continued to show up for one another in a virtual format. I was moved as they shared openly their struggles to write through a pandemic and helped each other think of ways to stay the course when big motivators, like graduation ceremonies, had suddenly dissipated.
It strikes me that during the COVID-19 pandemic, those of us who consider ourselves writers are all—in one sense or another—learning to write again. Some of us are learning to write with bored and anxious children at our feet. Others are working to balance the unfamiliar demands of online teaching with the hard-won writing routines we’ve developed over a number of years. If you’re anything like me, you’re trying, and sometimes failing, to be okay with writing from home when you’ve spent years learning to compartmentalize. All of these adjustments are made more difficult by the pacing and exigencies of academic life.
As academics, writers, and teachers of writing, we put a good deal of pressure on ourselves to internalize certain “truths” about what it means to write effectively. “Write every day,” we urge each other, “even when you think you can’t.” We counsel each other against the excuses that interrupt our writing time, spread the gospel of routine, and remind each other that writing might be the hardest thing we do.
It’s true that writing is difficult. It’s also true that routine can be a powerful tool in a writer’s repertoire. However, as I’ve deepened my work with incredibly patient and compassionate undergraduate writers, I have come to see writing not as an exercise of self-discipline or willpower, but as an act of faith. It takes courage to sit down with a laptop or notebook and believe that you can get writing done, even when you’ve failed many times before. It takes an even deeper resolve to return ourselves to that place of belief time and time again.
In the past, I would have scolded myself for what feels like a lag in productivity during quarantine. I would have told myself that no, I didn’t need my customary walk along Lake Monona or my favorite coffee shop to get writing done. But I’ve begun to distance myself from the disciplinary brand of accountability that tends to dominate academic writing spaces. Instead, I’m taking my cue from undergraduate writers like Ally, Farid, Gracie, and Mira, who have modeled what it means to confront new writing territory with a spirit of compassion and acceptance toward oneself.
So, I wake up each morning, find my notebook, and brew a cup of tea. I push an armchair up to my balcony window and watch the people pass by like it’s any other day. I watch the hummingbirds feed from my nasturtiums like it’s any other day. And somehow, in the midst of this scene, I start to believe that maybe I can write again, like it’s any other day.
Mia Alafaireet is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has tutored at the UW-Madison Writing Center since 2015. Mia has also served in two leadership positions at the center: TA Assistant Director (Fall 2018-Spring 2019) and TA Co-Coordinator (Fall 2017-Spring 2018).