A Camping Weekend
Last week, I had the opportunity to join some friends for a camping retreat in central Wisconsin. We met at a place I’d never heard of before: Deeply Rooted Community in Athens, WI.
About Deeply Rooted
Deeply Rooted is an intentional community in the woods of central Wisconsin. It’s completely off-grid, by which I mean there is no running water and the only electricity is provided through the use of solar panels. They do have a gas stove for cooking in the main lodge, but otherwise the place is completely rustic.
Things To Know Before You Go
For those interested in visiting Deeply Rooted, there are a few things you should know before making plans.
- DR community hosts several private events throughout the year, so check the website calendar to see when they are open to receiving visitors. You’ll need a reservation to visit.
- DR offers two types of accommodations. Visitors can bring a tent and camp on the land, or stay in the communal sleeping area on the second floor of the lodge. Think of a camp dormitory: you’ll be sleeping in your own bed in a large room full of other people in their own beds.
- You’ll need to be comfortable with using primitive facilities. DR offers no running water, but there are jugs of fresh water available for drinking and cleaning the kitchen area. If you want to take a shower, you’ll need to invest in a solar portable. This also means no plumbing. The DR community uses a composting outhouse.
- Prepare for it to be chilly, even in the summer. DR is far enough north that it gets quite cool at night. Those staying in the lodge will be kept warm by the large wood stove. Those outside will want to bundle up.
- The closest towns with amenities are Medford (20 minutes) and Wasau (30 minutes).
During my final semester in graduate school, I took a part-time position in the Writing Center at UWM. The WC gave undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to work one-on-one with a trained writing coach.
The WC helped any student with any writing assignment. We coached freshmen with their first essays, assisted grad students with their theses and dissertations, and helped students with just about everything in-between. On occasion, students also came to us for guidance when it came to writing their resumes, cover letters, and other professional documents.
This is the story of one such student. A woman from the Middle East who was preparing to apply for medical school in the U.S.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, I should provide a little context for this story. Although I have studied and written on a range of topics related to culture and language, I am by no means an expert on Middle Eastern societies or cultures. What I relate here is based on our conversation as well as some of my own meager research. I will paint with some very broad strokes.
Because of my background in international nonprofits, I was quite comfortable when it came to navigating cultural differences and collaborating with people whose backgrounds were strikingly different from my own. So it was not a big deal when I received my schedule for the day and saw that I was to work with this particular student. Little did I know this meeting would become one of the most important moments in my life.
A Student with a Dream
This woman was brilliant. She was a graduate student who grew up in a Muslim country in the Middle East, and English was her third language. She was completing her MS in Biology, preparing to apply for medical school, and wanted help writing her application cover letter.
The instructions for the cover letter read something along the lines of “tell us why you want to be a doctor.” She had written a three-page response but felt that she was faltering in her delivery and wanted help. She knew that this might be the most important thing she would ever write in terms of her career.
I looked over her draft and noticed immediately that her narrative was focused on her family. Among the reasons she listed for wanting to be a doctor, she noted that it would make her father proud, that it would bring honor to her mother, and that her family had worked very hard for her to receive an education and to be able to study abroad. All good insights, but none of them really answered the question why do you want to be a doctor?
Culture & Language
When it comes to language, we here in the U.S. tend to value a direct approach. We prioritize clarity, efficiency, and individualism. In other words, we want it short and sweet and to the point. Even further, when it comes to professional writing, we want to see the mark of the author in what we are reading.
But this is not the case in other cultures. Elsewhere in the world, individualism is eclipsed by the family or social unit. A person defines him or herself not by what they want, feel, or think as a person, but by their relationships and family history. This is especially true for women, who in some cultures continue to be defined by their relationships to fathers, brothers, and husbands. (That’s a whole different conversation, and one I will sidestep for the time being.) Back to the story.
For this student, answering the question “why do you want to be a doctor?” was a challenge. She’d grown up in a Muslim country, where women’s roles in society were often limited and in which it was considered poor form to dwell on oneself as an individual. She simply was not used to talking about her self in this capacity.
Learning to Say What You Already Know
In the role of a writing coach, much of my time was spent challenging students not to write, but to think. I would often encourage my clients to approach questions from multiple angles, to brainstorm ideas, and to try and get outside of their comfort zone. All of these strategies were in play in this situation. To add an additional complication, we were up against a tight deadline.
We met over three 1 hour sessions, during which time I gave her the fundamentals (reduce the letter to one page, aim for clarity, and get right to the point.) Once we’d covered the basics, it was time to try and figure out why she wanted to be a doctor. The sad truth is that she knew, she just didn’t know how to say it.
My approach was to challenge her to come up with as many reasons as she could to why she wanted to be a doctor. As she volunteered each one, I critiqued it for clarity and originality. You need something that sets you apart, I told her. She struggled.
During our final session, we finally got to where we were going. We’d already spent two hours in previous sessions discarding her reasons for wanting to be a doctor. Yes, it would make her family proud. Yes, it would allow her to take care of people who need it most. Yes, she could make a good living. But these reasons were not going to get her into medical school.
We were about out of time, and I’d been pushing her pretty hard. She was clearly frustrated, and I was afraid at one point that she might even cry. So I eased up, told her to take a break, and then we’d put together our best strategy for getting this letter written.
Out of nowhere, she looked me in the eye (I think she was angry at this point) and told me something like this
I want to be a doctor because Muslim women in the U.S. deserve a female physician who is sensitive to our cultural needs for modesty and privacy.
Out of nowhere, this woman who sat across the desk from me in a headscarf had her breakthrough moment. She was finally able to articulate a career motive that originated with her and could set her apart as a candidate for medical school.
I told her that if she built her letter on this idea, she was likely on her way to becoming a doctor.
Sometimes, all it takes for any of us is a little push. Just enough to get us out of our comfort zone so that we can deal with our obstacles on their terms.
The students in my writing class are about to take their final exam.
This is a foundational class, meant to provide students with the basic tools they will need to successfully complete written assignments for the remainder of their academic careers. They are predictably anxious.
The questions I expect to hear before the exam begins will likely follow a familiar pattern. My students will want me to tell them what to write. I’ll give them a topic, but they’ll press me for specifics. One may even ask me: how should I begin?
How to begin?
After working with students as both an instructor and as a writing coach, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the most difficult part of the writing for most students is simply getting started. This shouldn’t be surprising. It aligns with my own experience, and I’ve been writing in various capacities for years. It’s also a sentiment echoed by some of the most successful writers in the world: the uncertainty, the intimidation, the risk of beginning.
So why so much fear about putting pen to paper? Or about those first few taps on the keyboard?
Fear of Failure
Based on my own experience, I think there are two answers to the question of why it can be difficult and stressful to begin writing anything. The first is quite simply a fear of failure. What if my opening line leads nowhere? Or even worse, what if it sets a trajectory for my essay that, if followed, will produce something boring, clumsy, or downright horrible?
On a personal note, this fear of failure is compounded by a fear of not investing my time wisely. I’ve been guilty of putting off an assignment because I was not confident that it would yield a perfect, effective, engaging piece of writing. Or perhaps I did not have a clear endgame in sight and so was afraid that I would just write myself in circles until the end of time.
Fear of Being Vulnerable
The second reason I think so many writers have trouble beginning the writing process is that it requires us to be vulnerable. I think this is especially true for the students in my class, who are still getting their sea legs, as it were, when it comes to showing their own personalities and staking out their claims in the world. In addition, they may not have had the time to learn how to avoid common pitfalls or had enough positive feedback to boost their confidence. No one likes to take an uncalculated risk, and that’s exactly what writing demands.
The fear of vulnerability affects me as well. This is especially true when it comes to writing fiction. I’m currently working on a novel and the fear that it will be awful is sometimes a serious obstacle to progress. It’s more than just fear that my book won’t be grand, it’s that it will be a reflection of me and my creative circuit. That’s terrifying.
But it’s good to have these problems. It means I’m still identifying with the same issues as my students.
Fear and vulnerability. Yes, writing is indeed a risky business. Let me keep that in mind as we begin this final exam.