Message in a Bottle: A Writer’s Journey

In the mid 90’s I logged onto the Internet for the first time, when it was primarily Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), the precursor to modern digital interactions. BBS’s allowed users to dial into a central server to chat, upload, and download content. I clicked on a link pertaining to my local area and was greeted by pages full of individual posts. After hours of reading various prose by anonymous users, I began to feel as though I were in a digital sea surrounded by messages in bottles from people reaching out, searching for human contact. I read several short stories and poems which resonated deeply, and an idea began to form. Perhaps I could find a way to convey how I was feeling without revealing any details about the actual experiences, but I had no idea how or even if I should. It took me months to work up the courage to send my own message out into the digital ocean.

I sat there staring at a black screen, hypnotized by the blinking green cursor, searching for the words. Turns out, trying to convey emotion by painting a picture with words takes a much different level of thinking than speaking. It took hours before I had the slightest notion of how to begin, but once I wrote the first sentence, the rest started to flow. As a picture formed in my mind, the words to illustrate it spilled out, and I had to keep up or lose the image. When I finished the poem, I read it repeatedly, trying to determine if I was satisfied.  I decided to call my roommates into the room to get their opinion. The feedback they provided was that it was good, powerful, and vivid. Knowing I am my own worst critic, I quickly hit send before I could change my mind. My virtual message in a bottle was sent out into the ether, and all I could do was wait, so I went to bed anxious, wondering how it would be received. When I woke up, I logged in to find twelve positive responses; my journey into writing had begun.

As time passed, I wrote a lot and learned how powerful a tool it could be. Writing helped me find kindred spirits, allowed me to touch the hearts of others, and helped me ease my burdens when they became too much to bear. I considered myself something of a wordsmith, until my first academic writing class, where I learned I was an organic writer who relied too heavily on pathos.

After reading my papers from class, I sit here, contemplating what I’ve learned as a writer, and marvel at how much I’ve grown in just one semester. I gained a good understanding of structure and organization, created a rudimentary system for research, finally figured out what an argument paper is, and became more confident and determined.

Our first assignment was to write a thousand-word Narrative paper. I had written a lot about my life, so I took an excerpt from my story and spent hours whittling it down to the required word count, unaware that it was a minimum requirement. Our instructions were to consider our audience when writing, which led me to remove most of the personal aspects of the story, leaving me with an action sequence, suitable for the teenagers that made up the majority of my class. The feedback I received from my peers and advisors informed me that my paper was engaging, gripping, and left them wanting more and provided me with useful suggestions.  By the time I finished making the changes my peers and advisors suggested, I felt confident that my paper, titled Gone, would get an A; it did not.

When I received an 89% on my paper, I was disappointed and talked with one of my writing advisors to get some insight as to how I could do better. She informed me that she thought it was an A paper but that my professor must expect more from me. That revelation had a powerful effect on me. I had been told throughout my life that I expected too much of myself yet here, in this academic setting, my professor expected more, and I became determined to rise to the challenge. I went home, reviewed the rubric and comments on my graded paper, and reread it with those in mind; one major flaw stood out. For an assignment meant to be revealing, I exposed very little of myself. I realized I had dropped my audience into a frightening situation with no explanation as to why or how and with no real resolution. I spent the next three hours rectifying that oversight and realized by adding the right 300 words, I changed the entire tone of the story, which brought it to life.  I submitted the revised assignment, now titled Refuge, and received a 94%. My professor’s higher expectations changed how I thought about writing because now my audience was her, and she felt I had potential. I became determined to find out if she was right. Little did I know what I was in for with the next assignment.

                                                                                                         The Bottomless Pit of Research
The professor asked us to create a list of five questions that stoked our passions. Once we finished, she instructed us to choose one of our questions for our Research Paper. As I read over my list, a sense of dread came over me; my questions were all existential and difficult to answer. Rather than find a new topic, I decided to find a way to go with the list. The question I settled on was the least difficult, “Is the world as messed up at it seems?”, which eventually became How Negative Bias Affects Perception.

After reading through the first seventy pages of research for the annotated bibliography, it dawned on me that I was spending almost as much time looking up terms and phrases as I was reading, and realized I was seriously out of my depth. Then I found an article that spelled it out in simple terms, which became my anchoring point in a bottomless pit. After days of research, I recognized that I was spending all my time reading instead of writing. I found myself following fascinating studies that were useless for my paper. Thankfully I noticed this reasonably early and started to bookmark irrelevant things of interest for later review. Eventually, I had a tentative answer, but it was a chaotic mess that needed some semblance of order. I chose seven main points and began focusing on the supporting material.

The first thing I wrote was the abstract, as it helped me formulate how I was going to answer the question. In hindsight, that was a bad idea because I treated my abstract as the thesis statement. Once I began writing the supporting structure, I found myself having to go back and reread articles to locate the appropriate material. This waste of time lead me to download all my research into a folder, which allowed me to search everything for key phrases and taught me to make a detailed note of anything I might use during my initial research.  The APA template in Word allowed me to emulate the articles I read during research and organize my report accordingly. I worked on that Research Report until twenty minutes before it was due. Annoyed at myself for choosing such a complex topic, and knowing I could have made it much better had I more time, I reluctantly turned in my assignment.

Even though I felt I could have done better, I was fairly proud of the final result. Now that I had a better understanding of what a Research Report entailed, I recognized that I should have chosen a less challenging topic, given the amount of time I had. But the 91% and video feedback I received from my professor confirmed “[I] tackled a really sophisticated subject and [I] did it well.”, bolstering my confidence, which certainly made a difference in how I approached my Argument assignment.

                                                                                                         The Trouble with Arguments
According to the textbook, Everyone’s an Author, any way people express themselves can be considered an argument; going so far as to point out our day begins with an argument we have with ourselves. Do we hit the snooze button or not, what to eat or wear. This claim exposed the pedantic facet of my brain as I tried to reconcile this new information. If every form of expression is some form of argument, then how do I know if I am creating an actual Argument Paper? The answer I finally came to is intent. An argument is written with the express intention to persuade the reader of one’s position. To demonstrate to my professor that I eventually did understand, I wrote the bulk of my Argument as a Research Report adding a hint of my intention in the first two paragraphs and placing my clear position in the conclusion; a style called the twist, which I found in the book They say, I say.

My Argument Paper was, by far, my favorite to write. Not only did it require a much deeper level of contemplation and challenged my understanding of reading rhetorically, it also demanded a more sophisticated form of thinking and writing. I even felt confident enough to stray from the formal tone, making it more conversational, and the effort paid off. I received a 94%, the highest of all my papers, but the feedback from my professor was what indeed proved I had grown as a writer. In the video, she stated, “the only place it’s really an argument genre is in the conclusion, but it works, and I don’t even know why it works.” She goes on to say that “[she] needs more time with [the paper], as [I’m] the only one that challenged [her] clear understanding of the genre.”

My professor challenged me to become a more proficient writer than I thought I could be, and because of her, I did. To challenge her in return is the highest compliment because when we are challenged to move outside our comfort zone, we grow. My experience in this class led me to register for her 213 class next semester, where I will hone my rudimentary research system, practice my organization and structure, hopefully, learn more on how to manipulate genres, and use the confidence and determination I have gained to refine the messages I still send out, albeit on different seas.


© 2019 by Tobin J. Greywolf