“Do what you are afraid to do.” — SW
In late March, 2016, I sat between layers of borrowed sheets at Stay City Apartments in Dublin, Ireland. In my hands, I held a notebook featuring a painting by Pablo Picasso that my friend, Abbie, bought me while in Spain. I was waiting for a wave of inspiration to smack me in the face, bringing with it a show-stopping idea for my senior capstone. The phrase, “the political is personal” (an off-shoot of the original phrase “the personal is political”) kept circling around in my head, but I had no idea what I was supposed to do with it or where it had come from. I opened the notebook and began writing.
So began a year-long journey into exploring all the meaning contained in those four words. No one is more surprised than I am at just how much that turned out to be. But to get from that March day in Ireland to this website with 37 finished pieces of writing surrounding the theme of power structures, I had to read and write a lot. I had to spend hundreds of showers refining my ideas and even more nights falling asleep to brilliant thoughts that disappeared by morning. I had to fill five Moleskin notebooks, each containing 240 pages with 250 words per page, totaling 60,000 words. I had to accidentally stumble on all the resources—books, conversations, websites, movies—that ended up being critical to the development of my ideas.
In other words, it was a process. This is the story of how “The Political Is Personal,” born between the pages of a Pablo Picasso notebook, grew into something more expansive than I could have imagined, making me a better writer and a better human being along the way.
Moleskin #1: 5/16/16 to 7/22/16
“I just wrote, without fear or expectation.” — SW, back cover
The first thing I wrote in my Pablo Picasso notebook was the idea for a capstone that would “relate self to bigger concepts like politics, law, economic policy, and society.” I hoped to build a portfolio of different types of writing all pertaining to the same theme. I did this in March, 2016, mapping out a few essay ideas including what would become When The Recession Comes Home. Then I set my notebook aside.
In my final weeks in Dublin, I read books to jump-start my thinking about the connection between the political and personal. I read Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, learning more about the feminist movement. I read Whispering Hope by Steven O’Riordan, which discussed the Catholic Church’s role in forcing outcasted Irish women into slave labor. I read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, getting an initial grip of the disastrous effects of our economy. These introduced me to key concepts of my project, helping me see the connection between economic, governmental, and cultural/social issues.
Back in America, a whole summer stretching out before me, I set to work. I mapped out a project plan, which included 30 ideas for different pieces ranging from essays to children’s stories to political cartoons made with potato characters. These 30 ideas don’t resemble the pieces that comprise the completed project, but they fueled my thinking, giving me the confidence to crack open my first of five Moleskins (this one black).
My first entry captures my trepidation at beginning the largest project I’d ever attempted.
5/16/16: Thanks for being here. I know it’s hard to sit down and face the fear of failure innate in creating something from nothing, but you’re here. That’s already something. That’s courage. Every time you sit down to write, you face your fears head-on. I wish you weren’t so afraid. I wish you didn’t feel obligated to sit here, the alternative being you feel like you’ve failed. I wish it were something you more often looked forward to. Maybe it will be someday. Maybe if you conquer your fear enough times, it’ll disappear. And even if you keep going and it never does, you’ve still conquered your fear a million more times than you thought you’d be able to.
I tricked myself into feeling confidence by referring to myself in the second person, as though someone else with more wisdom was giving me a pep talk. It was enough. I took off then, writing about a variety of topics, but mostly focusing on my fear of the future. I ruminated deeply on my fears of my future as a writer, wondering if the literary world was somewhere I would ever feel like I belonged. I was looking for a lot more than just direction with my capstone: I was looking for direction with my life.
I wasn’t just writing about my fear of the future, however. I was also attempting to put into words what “The Political Is Personal” meant to me. In my first entry about this, I began with the concept of the government because I knew this was where a lot of the conditions were created that impacted our lives.
5/16/16: The political sphere is involved in nearly every aspect of our lives, but it’s only when you look directly at it that you see most clearly how intertwined we are. The government sleeps in every marital bed and looks over your shoulder as you breastfeed your newborn baby. It’s not always directly the government….We believe we can control the personal, but perhaps we’re wrong. How can we when it’s so closely connected with that which we can’t control, which shapes everything about the world we live in? “Political” can also be taken to mean that which shapes the larger world and environment—social and political—that we live in. It’s not always the government who directly controls everything. Advertisers and mega-corporations control and shape the world we perceive ourselves to be in, and perception is everything.
I was, without realizing it, beginning to work toward a definition of “political,” a journey that would last many months and lead me to the idea of power. Many of my early journal entries about the project resemble this one. Saying the same things repeatedly in slightly different ways served its purpose; with every new phrasing, I got closer to understanding what I was writing toward. I ended this particular entry with the question, “Does the personal exist without the political, and has the political ever existed without the personal?” This question I couldn’t answer was the lens through which I was thinking about the connection between the political and the personal.
I spun my wheels a lot in those early months. Practically none of the subjects I wrote about in the first two months would become part of my final collection of works, but they opened doors. When the opportunity to write a weekly nonfiction article for Odyssey fell into my lap, I jumped on it. It was challenging to keep writing when I didn’t have deadlines or any real sense of where I was heading. Odyssey gave me those deadlines, and that was all I needed to produce the first pieces that would become part of my project (Here’s How We Can Pay Our Adjuncts Better, What Kesha Taught Me About Justice, The Cost Of Unpaid Internships, Where Did All The Black Men Go?, Birth Control Is Harder To Get Than Semi-Automatic Rifles).
At the core of my experience in those early months was the struggle between writing sessions where the words trickled…
6/19/16: I’ve officially come to the hard part of this project. There’s no such thing as writer’s block, but I am blocking myself and I don’t know how to get out of the way! It’s easier to just not write.
…and writing sessions where words cascaded too quickly for me to keep up with, in the best way possible.
6/27/16: The last few days have been amazing writing days. It started Friday night when I felt like I had too many things to write and not enough time to do it in…. Writing has been fun, not intimidating. I’ve wanted to do it, rather than dreaded it. My fear of it being bad or of imminent failure wasn’t as strong as my desire to write. I’ve let myself practice. I can only describe it as an opening up in my chest, of me stepping out of my own way and letting it come. I feel wild possibility and potential energy flowing through me.
Even though the fog was thick and I was struggling to find what my project was about at its core, there were moments where, as I scrawled in the back cover of my Moleskin, “I just wrote, without fear or expectation.” Those were the moments I wrote toward in the first few months, not the breakthrough that would give me the direction I sought. I needed a more manageable goal, taking the pressure off, and so I gave myself one. And it worked. In an entry about how the novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt was political, I hit on an unexpected goldmine.
7/7/16: Brunt’s book uses fiction but is also full of personal and familial politics, as well as the larger issue of AIDS and the personal and political response to that. According to Google, politics is “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.” In this definition, politics is all about power and I think every single thing I’ve written so far can be considered an issue of who has power and who doesn’t. To me that means that being political is being interested in the balance of power, of who has it and who doesn’t.
I didn’t realize how big of a discovery this was, but it was the spark that ignited a fire. I filled my first notebook cover-to-cover on the same day that I was offered an internship with Senator Bernie Sanders, kicking off what proved to be a course-altering period of my life.
Moleskin #2: 7/23/16 to 10/5/16
“My capstone seeks to examine politics as the conflicts, tensions, and contradictions between all the different elements and layers of our lives.” — SW, front cover
Early on in my collegiate career as a writing student, I learned that writer’s block is a myth. It’s a block inside yourself and the only way to beat it is to plow through it. I began my second Moleskin (this one dark blue) with a reflection about my progress in channeling my inner-plow.
7/23/16: Through this project I’m learning a lot about my process. Some days I can write for six hours and still want more time to write, and other days (like today) I feel a whole lot of nothing begging to come out. I shouldn’t wait for inspiration on these days, which is why I’m working through my thoughts here in my journal, so that hopefully I hit on the thought that opens the door for my next onslaught of writing.
Even as I refined my ideas, I never lost sight of why I began in the first place. The goal was never to study power, as I was slowly shifting toward by late July, but to undertake a massive project from start to finish and see what it taught me about myself as a person and writer. One of the first lessons was how to dig my heels in when things got hard, and I only got better at it as the months ticked past. I was writing, in waves at first as inspiration came, but soon I began to write every single day. This was key to my success.
I was writing, but I wasn’t writing what I originally planned to. After I made my initial project plan, I never returned to it. Immediately, I veered in a different direction, writing about racism, religion, and sex. Even though many of those original story ideas would fit well in my project, other ideas began to surface based on books I was reading and conversations I was having. Used to gripping the reigns and needing to know where the endpoint was before I started, I let the reigns go completely. I trusted that my project was leading somewhere, even if I couldn’t tell where. When an idea struck, or I formed a question that I couldn’t let go, I gave myself the space to pursue it. Being open to that constant directional shift was hard, but as a result, my project was able to grow and develop organically.
Something unexpected happened when the summer ended and I went back to class for my second-to-last semester as an undergrad. I’d signed up for a writing and reading history course, hoping I would be able to use writing from class for my project. This happened, but the real magic was finding a book called Telling the Truth about History. It inspired me to think about how stories get passed down and how those stories go on to shape realities through legislation, economic policy, and social traditions. In other words, I was bridging the connection between the art of writing/storytelling and power structures. Early on in the semester, I wrote a journal entry about the swirling vortex of ideas I had while reading the book.
9/15/16: From the very beginning I haven’t had a tangible idea of what exactly I was writing toward, only that it had something to do with the concept of politics and our everyday personal lives. Reading the book on the history of history has required me to take a step back and think about where we are….We look at history as a collection of lessons and guidance for how to keep developing, but we don’t always take what we learn seriously. I think the word “politics” has taken on a number of meanings in my project. BRB, I’m going to actually go and analyze what those meanings are or will be.
This entry didn’t make sense when I wrote it, but I had the feeling I was working toward a breakthrough. I just had to sort through all the muck, and that was what I set about doing over the next two weeks. I can’t say exactly what that entailed because the next entry doesn’t come until 9/24/16. I imagine I was reading widely and writing on my computer rather than in my journal. While I recorded much of the winding path this project took, looking back, there are many things I left out. I didn’t write down when I was reading what books, or during what time ranges I was working on a particular essay or story. For as many thoughts as I recorded, there are still gaps, meaning I will never be able to trace how one idea led to the next, even if my Moleskins give me a good idea.
Even so, I wrote down the thoughts I knew were critical. The entry that came on 9/25/16 was one of those critical thoughts. More than that, it was the critical thought that proved to be a turning point in my project.
9/25/16: In the beginning of this, politics meant literal political issues, things our lawmakers discussed and opposed, things the media talks about, things the masses support or protest. Abortion, gun rights, incarceration rates—these things are political issues in the typical sense that have direct effects on our personal lives, rights, freedoms, and what will happen to us. What’s been harder to categorize are the aspects of politics that aren’t direct or typical. I think the dynamic between families can be political too. In this way I think politics has come for me to also represent conflict, tension, and nuances in a relationship between people that affect how they interact, see each other, and see themselves. Political issues are struggles for power, and in our own daily lives outside of the political debates taking place afar, we have our own struggles for power.
In this excerpt, I was able to put words to why the political is personal—or, when thinking of the word “political” in terms of any struggle for power, why power is personal—and it’s because power is everywhere. Politicians struggle for power, shaping legislation that affects people as they do, but everyone struggles for power in their daily lives too. My journal entry continues:
The political conditions at every stage of our lives…have an effect on us just as the things that happen in our own lives affect (in small ways) the political conditions, or at least the way we view those political conditions. It’s like a feedback loop, and maybe I can make a graph for my project to explain how I’m not necessarily exploring the political conditions of self or of current affairs, but the way these conditions affect us and inform/shape our lives and our lives inform/shape the political conditions around us.
The language is coarse, but what this excerpt shows is the idea of reciprocal power relationships. I knew from the beginning of my project that I wanted to show not only how the political is personal, I wanted to show how the personal can shape the political. I finished this entry by drawing what I originally called my “feedback loop” (which I now think of as my power chart).
This power chart, though rudimentary, was crucial in helping me visualize and develop the connection I saw between different expressions of power. I organized power structures into the different levels they were operating on in my own life, focusing on global/national, local/state, outer-personal (outside of the body), and inner-personal (inside of the body) levels. I sketched in the arrows to reflect the reciprocal relationship between power structures. This was the first time I thought of power as being a relationship rather than a fixed point. This graphic depiction of power blew the doors to my project wide open.
Of course, it wasn’t a straight path from there. I diverged soon after I made my power chart down a path that pulled me away from thinking of power in a useful way. Instead, I focused on looking at power through the lens of concepts that govern the literary world, as captured by this quote I scrawled in the cover of my Moleskin: “My capstone seeks to examine politics as the conflicts, tensions, and contradictions between all the different elements and layers of our lives.” Thinking of power as conflicts, tensions, and contradictions wasn’t wrong, but it never led me anywhere. It was only after I dropped the concepts of tensions and contradictions and began focusing more on power as a space of conflict—or exchanges of power between people—that I found a way back to my power chart…
…which also led me, unexpectedly, to Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and the sexism of the 2016 presidential election.
Moleskin #3: 10/5/16 to 11/14/16
“I write because I care what happens to the world.” — SW, front cover
On October 8, 2016, I began planning an essay that would include examples of sexism from the presidential election. Over the course of a few days, I compiled a 20-page essay that made good use of tweets from Trump and his supporters. When I finished, I was exhausted but unhappy. I knew I had something worthwhile, but I didn’t think I’d captured it correctly. And then I hatched a brilliant, ludicrous idea: to create a collection of essays spinning off that original one and to do it before Election Day less than one month away. It wasn’t part of my original plan, but I decided to see where it would lead me.
I’m not sure how it was possible while I worked 20 hours a week and took 4 classes, but I managed to write 13 essays in that month, meaning I wrote an essay every 2.3 days. The election was a great time to study power, and there was a constant influx of new information that fueled my thinking. As it worked out, each essay I wrote contributed something important to my capstone, often providing real-life examples of the way power is used and abused, and eight of them passed the cut to make it into my final project. While I was in the middle of writing them all, I didn’t realize they would form the core of my capstone.
I also didn’t realize that Hillary Clinton would lose, as I’d written all of the essays from the perspective that she would win. That left me with a choice: I could either edit them to reflect the new reality, or I could keep them the way I wrote them and write a post-election essay gathering all my thoughts on what had happened. I settled on the latter, figuring there was an important lesson in admitting that I’d fallen for the polls that predicted Trump would lose by a landslide. After the election, however, I set all the essays aside. I needed a break from electoral politics.
Around the same time, I stumbled across Elizabeth Chin’s My Life With Things in the library and checked it out on a whim. Just in reading the introduction, I found concepts that really progressed my understanding of my capstone. I feverishly wrote them down in my third Moleskin (this one light olive green).
10/17/16: The most interesting piece of Chin’s intro came in her mention of Ann Cvetkovich’s study of how race and spirit collide. Chin writes, “Her refusal to draw a line between the personal (spiritual practices) and the scholarly (psychological theory) is as refreshing as it is political.” Huzzah! Chin used both of my project’s buzz words—personal and political—in the same sentence….I am setting out simply to show that these realms, often held separate, are not separate. Humans are not good at sectioning off parts of their lives or their thinking. These seemingly separate aspects are quite connected, and one way to interpret that connection is through my feedback loop. I’m not setting out to prove anything, but to suggest a connection and offer a selection of pieces that offer commentary on that connection.
Chin’s book was the first time I read anyone else thinking about how the political is personal, or how power structures are connected. This was reassuring because I realized that academics were thinking in similar ways about the relationships between our internal and external lives. And, best of all, I’d come to those ideas organically before I’d known what others had to say on the subject.
It wasn’t all confidence from there on out. As I came to understand what my project was about, I struggled with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.
10/25/16: One feeling I had when I was writing today was, “Does any of this even matter? Are these thoughts relevant to anyone but myself? Are these realizations even realizations at all?” And then I pushed those thoughts away because they seek to destroy and I am seeking to create.
I never stayed down for long, but my confidence came in waves. Some days I felt like I could write 10,000 words, all of them fabulous, and other days I struggled to write 200 without thinking all of them were garbage. I came to recognize the pattern of my ups and downs, which helped me beat the blues when they found me. When I was feeling inspired—whether that inspiration came from a book, conversation, or rock on the sidewalk—I could write forever. It was only when I hadn’t felt that spark in a while that I started to lose my stamina.
Anytime I began to feel the spark going out, I went in search of outside ideas that would re-energize me. I was lucky that, more often than not, inspirational ideas found me in everyday interactions, like during my bi-weekly meetings with my resident assistant (RA) supervisor. The following excerpt was written after one such meeting:
10/27/16: Through this project I am learning more about what it means to be human and through my writing I’m contributing to a narrative that has been in process for thousands of years. And really that’s the entire goal: I began this project because I wanted to understand more about the interplay between our internal and external worlds in the hopes that it would shed some light on our shared experience of being human….This is the world through my eyes and I claim no one’s experiences but my own. Still, I think there’s something valuable and, at its core, universal in my project and its honest attempt to make sense of the world.
In doing my project, it was never about the product. My goal was always to write toward an understanding of the human condition, a tradition that all writers who came before me and all who come after will also participate in. It just so happens that I explored the human condition through examining power structures. It turned out to be an excellent way to make sense of the world.
I didn’t keep my true goal at the forefront of my mind without help. I was enrolled in an intermediate fiction course during this time, and every class sparked my thinking about my capstone. I would take a seat by a huge window in the library after class and reflect on how the lesson of the day related to the ideas I was developing about power.
10/28/16: Today we talked about setting and how it creates conflict, affects character, and shapes stories. In simplified terms, that’s a description of what my project is trying to explore. Setting is any external element in my feedback loop, interacting with our internal selves to shape what we do and think, and our understanding of who we are. We’re a product of all the different settings we’ve ever lived in. It’s not a one way street. Setting doesn’t just affect us; we affect our setting too….My feedback loop is fully comprised of human-made constructs. We have literally built the world that now shapes us and who we become. Oppression didn’t just exist. Systems of governance weren’t laying like sticks on the ground. We had to make all of these things, creating over time systems and ideas that are now so deeply ingrained that they shape us.
It was invigorating to use concepts of the writing craft as a way to think about my project. Analyzing a fiction book was what first drove me to the idea of power, and in fiction class, I had opportunities to further my thinking about power through the lens of fiction writing. I began to explore different ways I could represent how the political is personal in short stories. Most of the pieces of fiction included in my project were a product of this course. The time I spent writing beside the library window after class produced some of my most valuable ideas.
In the days before I filled up Moleskin #3, I wrote a lengthy rumination about my changing understanding of what it means to be a writer…
11/12/16: Writing is a tool of resistance. It’s a way to empower and be empowered, to work toward change and start a movement. Writing for me has always been the bridge between the political and the personal, between systems of power and my conception of myself.
…and why I will spend my life writing in some capacity.
In the cover of my notebook, I wrote, “I write because I care about what happens to the world.” Whether I realized it then or not, I was putting stock into the belief that writing has the power to affect the systems that shape our lives. I write because I believe it matters, even if our economic system doesn’t value it. I write because I believe that the political is personal and that we all have the ability to positively influence the systems and the people in our lives. We aren’t powerless to affect change—change would not happen without people: people in positions of power and people who are entirely ordinary. The key is to not let the systems of power in our lives make us feel like we don’t matter. We must not forget that we can shape those systems, we can push out against them until they give under the pressure and take on a new form. Resistance is a story, and it’s one that we all can write.
The next day, I had the idea to Google “the political is personal,” in disbelief that it hadn’t dawned on me sooner. I learned that the phrase—technically “the personal is political”—was a feminist rallying cry during second-wave feminism. In seeing what the phrase was about, the discordant ideas I’d been wrestling with fell into place.
11/13/16: “The personal is political” was a slogan that encouraged people to see the connection between personal experience and larger societal and political structures. It was a way to view women’s limited freedoms as intentional oppression rather than a coincidence unrelated to the political landscape. Now, it’s less of a struggle for our oppression to be recognized (though, it’s never called oppression), and more a struggle for our oppression to be something that people in positions of power—and those who vote for them—care about.
Unconvinced by my previous attempts to prove that there was a connection between power structures and our personal lives, this was enough to make me feel like my project was exploring something that might hold the key to changing the world.
Moleskin #4: 11/15/16 to 12/27/16
“If you want to fix something, first you have to understand how it’s broken.” — SW, back cover
From the beginning, I envisioned the end product of my capstone as a scrapbook that would include all my writing as well as visuals to support each power structure I wrote about. But the more I thought about the logistics of putting multi-page essays in a scrapbook, each page kept behind a plastic cover that made page-turning impossible, I began to doubt my idea. Talking it over with friends, they recommended I make a website to display my writing and do the scrapbook as a complement. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of that myself, and I began shifting my focus away from the scrapbook (which I’d already purchased and begun compiling) toward creating a website.
Even though I was well into my project by this time, I still struggled with the occasional bout of self-doubt.
12/2/16: I have the feeling today of being slightly out of my depth with this project, which always happens when I begin talking about my ideas. My expectations for myself, I can manage. But adding other people’s expectations is too much. It makes me want to sleep. There’s so much to do! (Can I do it all?) (Can I do it all well?)
Earlier in the project, doubt of that magnitude would have derailed my writing for the whole day. But by December, I was too invested and ambitious to give my doubt much time. So, when it came, I acknowledged it, wrote about it, and moved on. On the same day I wrote the previous entry, I also wrote the following.
12/2/16: I’ve tried to isolate out systems of power to examine how they work, but how they appear in isolation is not how they work in real life. All forces act on us at once, not one at a time. You can say you’re sad because your grandmother doesn’t love you, but that’s not the only factor in your life that may be contributing to that sadness. There’s a deeper context there. It’s not A⇒B. It’s A⇒M⇒F⇒C⇒T. Even if we can’t see the complexity shaping our own lives, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
This entry reflects my attempt to develop my ideas about the interconnection between all power structures. I was learning that our tendency to simplify everything was not going to help my project. Power is not simple, I realized, and so I let it be complex even though that meant allowing my ideas to be less concrete and more abstract.
On the same day I wrote both previous entries, I also wrote a journal that signaled a change in focus. Where previously, I’d spent months thinking about power through the lens of government systems, now I was beginning to think about power in the everyday, or in the cultural/social expectations and norms that govern our lives.
12/2/16: Our bodies are political because they carry our consciousness, which we can never be separated from, and because we are born into a predetermined culture of ideals and beliefs that will shape where we can go.
This entry hit on the idea that while the consciousness is shaped strongly by outside influences and cultural norms, the body is never separate from these influences and is where we express the impact of these influences most clearly. This thought soon translated into the idea that our emotions are also expressions of power.
12/6/16: The systems of power I’ve been writing about shape not only our physical world, but our emotional one too. How we think of ourselves and others is intimately tied to our understanding of the world….We have defined for ourselves how we think about love or shame or sadness, and these feelings, when they come, are attached to a cultural significance that shapes the way we see ourselves and others….Another way to look at the political is anything we don’t necessarily have control over that has the power to shape our lives.
Beyond the way we attach meanings to emotions, I was hitting on the concept of agency. Later in my project, I would come to understand that agency, or who has control over our lives in different contexts, is a formative way of thinking about power. Simply: who has power and who doesn’t? When do we control our lives and when don’t we?
My ideas were expanding and the pieces I was writing began to reflect this expansiveness. I moved away from writing about topics I could offer a highly personal connection to, instead exploring concepts that held only an abstract relationship to my life. This was panic-inducing for me.
12/13/16: My project started out being very much rooted in my own personal connection to every topic I was thinking about. But there are a lot of topics I have no experience with myself, but affect lots of others. Which is to say that the project has expanded beyond just my point of view and that’s a good thing; necessarily, the writing style I use must also change. I’m beating myself up for not focusing on drawing connections mainly to my own personal experience when instead I’m focusing on learning about the experiences of others. My personal isn’t the only personal.
Even though I knew my project was supposed to develop and change because that was all part of the process, sometimes I got fed up with the way my ideas constantly morphed. Beating myself up for these changes was also part of that process, albeit not a fun part, and was just one way of many that I coped with having a project span over many months. I felt like a cat chasing my tail, and sometimes, my brain melted into a puddle of self-loathing because of it.
I often responded to self-loathing by surprising myself. At the semester’s end, I expanded my power chart from its original form. The result was a visual representation of how much my thinking had grown since the first chart. I could look at it anytime I felt at a loss for where I was going. If my project is a map, this updated power chart was the key: that’s how critical it was in helping me reach the finish line.
After taking a short break from my essays about the 2016 presidential election, I slowly began planning out how I would wrap up all my thoughts in a post-election essay about Donald Trump. Most of the writing I did in Moleskin #4 (which was bright yellow) was an attempt to work through my reactions to the election and make sense of something that had seemed impossible.
I continued reading during this time, though strategically. Where at the beginning I used books to think widely about my project’s potential, I began using them to narrow my focus. I read Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance and Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild as a way to help me understand what had happened during the election. While I was busy reading, I wasn’t doing much writing outside of my journal, which reflected a larger cyclical movement between periods of writing onslaught and reading recovery that helped shape my ideas.
Something else happened as winter break faded into my last semester of undergrad. At the beginning, I’d written about my fear of the future, as though I was writing toward not just direction with my capstone but also direction with my life. In those early months, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I graduated college. I’d had internships in marketing, public relations, and publishing, and while they’d been fun, they weren’t calling out to me.
But in reading deeply about the issues facing our country; in writing about my experiences with these issues as well as the experiences I could see others going through; and in my internship with Bernie Sanders, I began to find some direction. In the back cover of my notebook, I wrote, “If you want to fix something, first you have to understand how it’s broken.” It dawned on me that I wasn’t just studying power structures as a way to become a better writer. I was studying them to become a better human being. An activist. An advocate. An ally. As I felt the fire spark within me anytime I picked up my pen to write, I realized that I wanted to spend my life fixing what’s broken. And in order to do that, I needed to first figure out how it’s all broken.
And with that, both my capstone and my life had new, much-needed direction. There was a larger purpose to the work I was doing, and that motivated me to roll my sleeves up even higher.
Moleskin #5: 12/27/17 to 1/23/17
“This project is not about definitive answers or conclusions. It’s about ideas and possibilities.” — SW, front cover
As I refined my ideas for my post-election essay about Donald Trump, I moved away from thinking about cultural/social structures of power in exchange for thinking about economic ones. I nearly filled up Moleskin #5 (this one the color of grape soda) with ideas about the impact of capitalism and the role of economics in helping Trump get elected.
1/5/17: I’ve been deeply drawn to learning more about how the economy functions in our society because I had a suspicion that it was one of the biggest systems of power that operates in our lives. My suspicion was correct. The economy is where the root of so many problems live: traditional ideas of gender roles, oppression, militarization, climate change, restrictive and low-quality education, deteriorating social services, the move away from justice, the propensity to blame people and victims for their situations, and the continued inequalities that persist at every level of society.
One day, I looked up the theory of intersectionality to learn more about it. I’d heard about “intersectional feminism” but I wanted to see how it might connect to my project. The theory of intersectionality, as it turns out, has a lot in common with my own ideas about power structures being connected, since intersectionality is all about systems of oppression being connected. Oppression, after all, is a power structure. This was both reassuring and disturbing. It induced a panic attack.
1/15/17: I had to walk away last night because I was panicking that my project was not unique and as I laid down last night I realized that I was really panicking because I couldn’t adequately explain what my project was even studying beyond the general idea of systems of power.
I was so frustrated because I thought I was through the fog by this point, almost a year after I’d started the project. And yet, I was struggling to put into words what my project even was, worrying that I had spent all that time replicating the efforts of previous academics. I set out to write my way back to clarity. When I finished the entry that started with the excerpt above, I hated it. None of the words had come out right and I felt no surer of what my project sought to accomplish.
But, looking back on it, I laid out critical concepts about my project, some of which I’d never put into writing before. There were moments in the entry, which spanned many notebook pages, where I lost the thread and veered down a diversionary path, but I did a good job of laying out everything I knew up to that point. Only with distance and time could I appreciate this, however. I first needed to give myself space to work through my frustration at the endless tail-chasing.
Once I lifted back out of the fog, I used ideas in that journal entry to launch from. The excerpt below was an image that began as I sat beside the big windows in the library, watching raindrops hit a small puddle. That idea developed into a metaphor for the interconnectedness between people and the way power is exchanged between us.
1/15/17: Think of the earth as a lake. The rain drops that fall into the lake are each of us, and the ripples that are born from that moment where rain hits water is our impact, and our impacts ripple out toward one another and we are all connected by this rippling. Though we only directly impact a few, these people impact more, who impact more, and it works in reverse too. Any person can be a starting point through which to look at this web of connections. Every system of power lives here too, in the impact from the raindrops.
It wasn’t long after that when I met with Faith Yacubian, one of my professors from early in my college career. She’d planted many of the seeds that grew into my capstone project, teaching me about identities, colonialism, and other critical social justice concepts. We weren’t meeting for any other purpose but to catch up and talk about my project. She introduced some stimulating ideas about power and I went home afterward and wrote about them.
1/23/17: In any given situation, we know who around us is more powerful and who isn’t, and it’s not a conscious thought process. Power is our social currency, and it is the lens through which we look at the world. I’m not sure, even if we redesigned our entire culture and economy, that we could live beyond the contextualization of power.
It was from this conversation that I came to understand how power is exchanged between people every time they interact, which encouraged me to pay closer attention to my own interactions. Thinking of power as a social currency helped me transform an abstract concept into something that could be as concrete as averted eye contact or a bad handshake. Building that bridge between the abstract and the concrete allowed me to explain the ideas about power that had been rattling around between the pages of my Moleskins.
Faith also gave me the name of a scholar on power, Michele Foucault. I did a Google search to locate a book of his, but instead stumbled upon a website called PowerCube. It was the cumulative product of a group of academics studying power structures, and in addition to their own theory, they offered summaries on other power scholars like Foucault. While I’d known that power theory existed and people spent their lives studying it, until then I’d avoided seeking out those ideas so I could work to them myself.
When I dug deeper into the different ideas about power on PowerCube’s website, I was blown away. I found so many iterations of my own ideas and I couldn’t believe that I had gotten there largely by myself. I came to my ideas by reading widely and processing those ideas in my journals, and that had been enough to get me to the same basic concepts held by other experts.
PowerCube divides their theory about power structures into a cube, similar to my power chart. In addition to a few other ways of breaking down power structures, PowerCube utilizes the same concept of “levels” that my chart does—and I came to my idea about levels pretty early in the project. I can’t overstate how validating this was for me. In realizing I was thinking on the same level that true academics were, I realized not only that my project was a serious work of analysis, but also that I was capable of doing more than I ever gave myself credit for. That confidence alone has made the entire project worthwhile.
The last thing I wrote in Moleskin #5 was a reflection about powerlessness and how it drives people to commit crimes. I asked myself what made me feel powerful and powerless, which allowed me to express a thought I’d been having for a while: power structures are fraught with imbalances.
1/23/17: While the impact of power will always be different for each of us, we all share in common the currency of power and an interconnectedness through modes of power even as they can also be isolating, disconnecting, and oppressive. We aren’t connected by having equal amounts of power, but in having unequal amounts.
Many outside sources contributed to the development of my thinking during this time, and that was a result of seeking out perspectives I thought would be valuable, like Faith’s. As I finished my fifth journal, I was moving out of a reading phase and digging back into another period of intense writing, encouraged by the words I scrawled in the front cover of my Moleskin: “This project is not about definitive answers or conclusions. It’s about ideas and possibilities.”
Once I stopped expecting myself to know everything about power structures, I took to heart the notion of ideas and possibilities. And that guiding light led me all the way to the project’s end.
To the Finish Line: 1/24/17 to 5/4/17
“You fear writing because you fear the person you may reveal yourself to be.” — SW, front cover of Moleskin #1
After my last semester of undergrad began, the timer started running down. In prior months, I’d worked to my own loose deadlines with no set goals for how the project would progress; I simply kept writing knowing that it would. But when I entered the course for my capstone, suddenly there were bi-weekly check-ins, mid-semester progress reports, and a deadline for April 28th, by which time I was supposed to be finished. Naturally, I stopped fast-walking and began sprinting.
Around the same time I finished my final Moleskin, I stopped doing much outside reading. I had the information to finish most of my writing. I also stopped writing with pen and paper. I’d bought a sixth Moleskin (this one deep pink) for the last leg of my capstone, but all the writing I did from January 24th on was on my laptop. It was a huge shift and it happened almost without my notice. I officially moved out of the ideas phase and into the execution phase.
My focus returned to writing a post-election essay about Donald Trump. I’d been gathering my ideas and doing research for months, but I started putting words to paper in January. I’d originally planned for this post-election essay to be one work. But as always seems to happen, the idea grew into two essays, then four, finishing at six. Making the decision to keep expanding the scope of my writing was easy, but attempting to organize all the material was hard. I struggled with figuring out what information belonged to which essay, so I kept moving things around until the puzzle clicked into place. By mid-February, I was finished writing these six essays and was happy with them. Donald Trump’s election was a great disappointment, but it did inspire some of my best writing and thinking about power structures.
These essays about Donald Trump and really, the larger political structures at work in our lives, were an important addition to my project. But even before I’d written them, I’d already had enough writing to satisfy the requirements of my capstone course. I wasn’t satisfied, however, and would go on to double my collection of pieces because I felt I had more to explore about power structures. Below is a rough idea of when I did the bulk of the work on each piece that appears in this project (except “Umbrella,” which was written in 2015).
- Began “When The Recession Comes Home”
- Finished “Like A Hurricane”
- Finished “Here’s How We Can Pay Our Adjuncts Better”
- Finished “Birth Control Is Easier To Get Than Semi-Automatic Rifles”
- Finished “Here’s What Kesha Taught Me About Justice”
- Finished “Where Did All The Black Men Go?”
- Finished “Ferris Wheel”
- Finished “The Cost Of Unpaid Internships”
- Started “A Young Girl’s Sexual Education”
- Started “The Knot”
- Started “How To Grow Up Racist”
- Finished “Intersection: Values, Capitalism, & Climate Change”
- Finished “Division”
- Finished “On Hating Hillary Clinton”
- Finished “‘No One Respects Women More Than I Do.'”
- Finished “Rigged”
- Finished “The Science Of Stubborn”
- Finished “Caricature”
- Finished “To Be A Woman”
- Finished “Make America Great Again”
- Finished “Like Anne Frank”
- Finished “The Knot”
- Finished “Saved”
- Finished “The Political Is Personal”
- Started “Invisible Hands”
- Finished “The Colonial Legacy: Native American Relations From America’s Conception To The Standing Rock Protests”
- Finished “Trump Administration Puts Funding For VT-Based Rape Crisis Organization On Uncertain Ground”
- Finished “Line-Cutters: What’s Happening On The American Right”
- Finished “The Real Story Of What’s Been Rigged”
- Continued writing “When The Recession Comes Home”
- Finished “We Played Ourselves”
- Finished “America’s Literacy Problem”
- Finished “The Elephant In The Room”
- Finished “The Sky Is Blue And Other Truths”
- Continued writing “When The Recession Comes Home”
- Finished “About The Project”
- Finished “Examining Power Structures”
- Finished “The Path To ‘The Political Is Personal'”
- Finished “When The Recession Comes Home”
- Finished “A Young Girl’s Sexual Education”
- Finished “Invisible Hands”
- Finished “How To Grow Up Racist”
- Finished “Changing The Way We Think About Addiction”
- Finished all editing, layout, and illustrations
This visual layout of when I wrote what paints a picture of the different reading and writing periods I moved between, helping me trace back over the project’s creative arc. July, October, December, and April were writing periods, whereas May, June, September, and January were reading periods. The essay idea that helped birth the idea for this project—”When The Recession Comes Home”—was one of the last essays I finished. That essay grew and developed alongside me throughout the project, which ultimately made it the best piece of writing it could be.
The last few months revolved around tying up loose ends. In March, I focused on building all of the content explaining the project, detailing my ideas about power structures and my process. Additionally, I spent much of February and March writing short introductions for each of my written pieces. I included these intros because many of my pieces of writing don’t mention power even as they offer a commentary on power structures. To alleviate this disconnect, I made the connections more visible and, at the same time, highlighted many of the ideas about power that I’d learned throughout the project.
Though I’d originally planned on doing a scrapbook as the main presentation piece for my project, by the end of February, it was clear I wouldn’t have time to make one in addition to my website for the April 28th deadline. Instead, I decided to make a printed book version to satisfy my desire to hold the project in my hands. In hopes of getting the book done on time, I copyedited 320 pages in a single weekend, but as it turns out, copyediting is something you can do well, or something you can do quickly. But you can’t do both. After finding a slew of errors I’d missed, I made the decision to do another, much slower round of edits even as it required me to extend my efforts past the original deadline. After working on the project for over a year, I owed it to myself to finish what I’d started to the best of my ability. It also taught me a valuable lesson: always leave more time for editing than you think you’ll need.
I don’t think this project will ever be done. Now that I see power structures everywhere, I can’t unsee them. They have become part of the lens through which I view the world, and I think I’ll continue developing my ideas about power for many years to come.
What I’ve Learned: 3/1/16 to 5/4/17
“Writing puts me right within the pulse of the world, and its beat resounds through these pages just as it resounds through me.” — SW, 10/17/16
Through this project, I:
Found a home in the pages of my notebooks, learning that my best writing comes when I search for information, process it by way of non-judgmental pen on paper, and then let it flow out through fingers on my keyboard;
Opened up to experiences and perspectives beyond my own, reading the stories of others and empathizing with struggles that don’t look like mine. This taught me to be open-minded, to accept diverse identities, and to recognize when my own behaviors and attitudes help maintain damaging power structures;
Welcomed a sense of shared humanity that has been lost for many decades. I learned to empathize instead of judge, and to catch myself when my first reaction to someone’s struggle is to minimize it, reduce it, and to dehumanize them. Kindness is easy, but we make it hard. I’ve started the work of reprogramming myself to react to those who are different than me with kindness rather than hatred and fear;
Wrote towards a belief in the beauty of humanity and the knowledge that we can all be better than we are right now;
Accepted my fear as an invitation to learn. When we fear others, it’s because we don’t know them. When we fear a task, it’s because we don’t know how to do it. When I feared my writing, it was because I didn’t know where it was leading and I didn’t know what it would reveal about myself. I pushed forward anyway, and as a result, my world doubled in size every two weeks;
Waded through the weeds, feeling the mud suck at the boots on my feet. I was in the pit for a long while, unsure where I was going or what my project wanted to be. But I learned to squeeze my toes against my boots so the mud wouldn’t steal them, and press forward. The pit can be deep, but there is always higher ground in any direction. You just have to trust that you’ll find it so long as you keep going;
Learned how to let go of the reigns, to stop forcing my writing to go in a particular direction just because it’s safe. This project grew organically because I allowed myself to chase ideas that swept through me, to follow leads that sometimes led nowhere at all. I trusted that, by the end of it all, I would have a project to be proud of. I got out of my way, and as a writer, that’s 75 percent of any battle;
Discovered a confidence in my own ideas that I’ve never felt before, and I’ve learned to trust that I know what I’m talking about;
Fell in love with writing in a deeper way. My relationship with writing has always been complex and mostly joyous, but through this project I realized that writing sustains me in the same way I sustain it. I need it to breathe, live, feel joy, learn, grow. And my writing needs me, for without my willingness to sit at this keyboard day after day, my writing would be nothing more than a string of ideas itching at my fingertips;
Accepted that not everything I write will be a show-stopper, but even when it’s complete and utter shit, it’s better for that shit to be piled on a piece of paper than for it to be fogging my brain. Once it’s on paper, you can accept its wretchedness, scratch it, and try again. And almost always, in the second, third, or even fourth attempt, it will stop looking like a pile of shit and start looking like something you can be proud of;
Observed how the only times my project struggled was when I tried to put limits on it. When I tried to force it to be something it wasn’t. When I doubted my own ability to find answers to questions I hadn’t asked yet. It’s a lesson about writing just as it’s a lesson about life;
Learned to have faith in the process and not just the product. My finished collection of writing is nice to hold in my hands, but it was in the process of actually doing the writing that I learned the most about myself and the world;
Welcomed the knowledge that my expectations will always stand taller than my expressive ability. There will always be a lag between mind and paper. I will never be as happy as I can be with a piece of writing, but I can still be happy. I can give myself that kindness and compassion. I can honor each attempt for the courage it requires and the discipline it takes to repeatedly show up to the writing desk;
Admired that human beings and the systems we create are highly complex, even though that complexity makes solving our most urgent problems much tougher. Complexity is hard to wade through, but I much prefer the complex stories over the simple ones because they are true. Those are the stories I strive to tell;
Continued the conversation with artists and academics everywhere, from every decade that has passed. Even though this project was my own, I was never alone, wading through a world that was built by the great minds and disciplined efforts of those before me. I have contributed something I believe in to a conversation that stretches back to the beginnings of language, and will continue after I’m gone;
Learned about my own contradictions, faults, privileges, judgements, false beliefs, and I have walked more confidently to place where I can forgive and love myself for all of it;
Discovered more about what if means to be human: to struggle, to be afraid, to react, to hope, to shield oneself, to drown out the noise, to hold on, to let go, to push back, to crumble beneath the weight. Power, as inhuman a concept as it seems, is the idea that has taught me the most about why we are the way we are, connected through so many shaping forces in our desire to be loved and noticed. We all want to hold our power in our hands, feeling the way it warms our skin like we once thought only the sun could;
Realized that writing is the eyes through which I see the world and the voice through which I tell you about it. There is a great value in asking questions of ourselves, of others, and of those who hold the most power in our lives. The answers, I’ve come to understand, often matter less than the questions themselves. Questions will always be the beginning of thought and dialogue. Answers will always be the end (though they may spark an entirely new question that starts the process over again);
Came to the conclusion that I don’t want to be part of the high-brow literature community (looking at you Robert Olen Butler), the door to which I once stood at timidly, so afraid to be rejected. Writing is more for me than best-sellers and writers who tell other writers they’ll never amount to anything unless they eat nails for breakfast or write upside down. Writing is a tool for resistance, a way of starting or continuing important dialogues. I think it’s the best and only way to save humanity from self-destruction. That’s why I write;
Learned that stories are power. Story tells us who we have been, who we are, and who we will be. My project is about power, but even deeper than that, it’s about the fabric of our humanity, stretched out and connecting all of us through the web of stories we share;
Accepted that my own spirituality will never rest with a God, but with the empowering idea that every human being is connected to every other human being. Such a thought makes me want to be kind to everyone, for that is not any different than being kind to myself;
Realized I can do so many things with writing, which lends itself to a winding, exploratory look at the world. I can be social scientist, philosopher, professor, novelist, grant-writer, journalist, life-long student, community organizer, politician, lawyer, policy writer. The possibilities are endless, and I have the confidence after finishing this project to believe that I can be anything;
And learned about the joy of a passion like mine and the rewards of a constant search for knowledge.
10/17/16: This project, in writing about it right now, gives me chills and fills me with an unexpected and overwhelming warmth and gratitude. I love the writing life for all its disappointments and excuses, and the odd dance between notebook and Word doc feels like home. I love what I do, and how writing is a vehicle that leads me to the world, but also to myself.
I’m a better writer. I’m a better ally and advocate. Most importantly, I’m a better human being. And unlike so many others, I want to use my power for good.
I spent the past year living by the mantra, “In order to fix something, you have to know what’s broken.” Well, I know what’s broken, and I’m ready to spend my life trying to fix it.
Always, this is what I write toward:
11/12/16: I write because I care what happens to the world, and because I believe story is the world. It’s how we process, it’s how we create. It’s how we destroy, and ultimately, it’s how we save ourselves.