Waliga, Abby. That's a Good Question. 2011. Photograph. Private Collection.
The Start of It All
“Why?” It’s the question I have to ask my sources, my theories, even the people around me. More importantly, it’s the first question I was asked by my professor. “Why did you take this class?” Honestly, I had no idea. I love law, and I love theories, but The First Amendment was not my first choice. I ended up in that desk in January due to a scheduling conflict.
Professor Queen warned the class that it would have to climb a learning curve so steep it was nearly vertical but that eventually it would be conquered. I scoffed at this idea in my pride as a writer, yet to my dismay and slight disgust, I found it absolutely true. The first few reading assignments covered everything from an outspoken blogger named Stanley Fist and topics such as pornographic videos to the lofty wording of Cass Sunstein. All of this left me with books and papers covered in scribbles and scrambled thoughts.
My head felt like this:
Woodruff, Hale. Big Wind in Georgia. 1933. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Despite this, I fell in love with the topics, trying to engage them and discuss them in class. The idea of libel and the press caught my attention early on in the semester, so it seemed the natural choice as the topic for my first paper. The thought of government censorship of the media is scary, but the idea that the press can say whatever it wants about anyone might be equally as scary. The line between libel and political speech blurred in my mind and in my research, and I began to realize that our current political culture contributed to this. Excited, I sat down to write my first draft with this idea in mind, and by the end of the night, I came up…short. I could barely believe it. I knew that some vital piece of information was missing to complete my argument, but I could not figure out what it was.
Research Writing as a Process
This concept was absolutely foreign to me. As far as papers are concerned, research only happens at the beginning. Finding more sources after a first draft is written rarely happens; researching up until the final draft is due is sheer blasphemy. Yet, I had to admit to myself that on this first draft, I had come up short because my research was incomplete.
After a discussion with Professor Queen, a solution presented itself in the libel case Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell (1988), a case I still find infinitely interesting and read about here. This became a brand-new launch pad for another round of research, a round I had come to realize was a completely acceptable part of the writing process. I used this example to connect the rest of my sources to my opinion on current political culture. The final result generated immense satisfaction.
Do Not Underestimate the 99%
Here’s a bright idea for everyone who needs a paper topic. Choose a topic that is not only a current event but also is dominating every news channel and social media site as you are trying to write. Is more information needed? Try looking at the latest Twitter update. Is more scholarly information needed? Good luck with that.
The topic in question is the infamous Occupy Wall Street movement. I had a handful of articles and some personal pictures taken in November on a visit to Occupy Boston, and I just knew that this would equal a great paper. Looking back on this second paper, I find that choosing to focus on the constitutionality of the Occupy camp evictions was a hard lesson in argumentation and organization, but it was a lesson I needed more desperately than I realized.
During my first attempt at researching, I became overwhelmed with a deluge of information. I might as well have been writing my draft like this:
Prudence Cumming Associates. Loving Care. Perf. Janine Antoni. 1993. Performance with Loving Care hair dye in "Natural Black". The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.
Then, I was introduced to a miracle in the world of research, and my eyes were opened to all the glories of this world:
In the realm of Occupy, everybody has an opinion. It can be hard to build any sort of argument out of the information found during research. Even after discovering Google Scholar and great theory sources, I still sat down to write my first draft barely knowing what to argue. After writing a single page, I stopped. Everyone might have an opinion on this issue, but at this point in my essay, I did not.
Never before have I suffered such a severe bout of writer’s block than I did with this essay. Learning from the example of the first paper, I researched thoroughly and continued to do so even when I could not put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Still, my argument existed nowhere. Maybe changing the logic of my starting point would help. I began shifting around pieces of my first draft, a revision tool I used extensively in my third essay, but nothing happened. I even resorted to note cards in my desperation. Frustrated, I kept researching.
My breakthrough moment came with the discovery of a paper by Professor Jerome L. Rappaport discussing the American police state under which the Occupy movement evolved, the information and citation of which can be found in my final draft here. I agreed with much of his argument, and it allowed me to not only form counterarguments to my other sources but also to begin forming my own opinion. New source in hand, I scrapped most of my first draft and started over, and this second version demolished the walls of my writer’s block. It was a wonderful moment indeed. Needless to say, revising my second draft into a polished final essay seemed absurdly easy after this ordeal.
An Interest in Cyberspace
Our class was given a fairly long period of time to come up with a topic for our final essay. Many topics discussed in class interested me, and I conducted shallow research on subjects ranging from religious discrimination to wearing rebel flag apparel in public schools. Nothing I found was substantial enough to make an entire paper. However, I kept returning to issues surrounding the Internet due to all the talk on SOPA and PIPA. I have no interest in copyright laws, but I love security issues that make for good stories. Over the course of the semester, I tried to ingrain myself more into social networking, blogs, and the news in an attempt to keep up with current events, and I wanted to incorporate this in my learning. When pondering security issues and the Internet, a name appeared over and over, and I knew I had a topic.
Ehrman, Thierry. Julian Assange Wikileaks named Man of the Year by Le Monde. 2010. Portrait. Abode of Chaos Museum of Contemporary Art, Lyon.
The Secret Is Revision
My final essay stands out from the other two WR150 papers. No, it is not just because it ended up boasting seventeen pages.
I had overcome the learning curve of First Amendment issues that I grappled with during my first paper. I had learned how to research more effectively and to keep researching throughout the writing process. I came to the conclusion that argumentation is less like a two-way street and more like the many facets of a princess cut diamond. I knew I could break my argument down into pages, paragraphs, sentences, and rearrange the logic as needed. Now, I had to force myself to take the time to create the paper I knew I could write, which meant:
I must revise lovely sentences for the sake of logic so as to make points concisely and present my coherent argument to my readers. Make the sentence get to the point so the reader can follow the argument.
I am not saying that flowing, romantic language is bad. One must only read a single sentence of my portfolio to know that I adore adjectives and adverbs. However, when trying to discover an argument, writing in choppy sentences is okay. Sitting down and pouring out every idea in your head is also okay. If it is not beautiful at first, there is a charming device in the writer’s toolbox called revision. Use it whenever possible. Please note that this paragraph was physically painful for me to type, because I have fought hard to cultivate my revision skills over the years, and this course was no exception.
I go into more detail on this process of revising my final paper here. This is a small preview of the action, and I am proud of the results.
Let Us Begin
Now you have read, or at least skimmed, the story of how I have grown as a writer this semester, but there is more to come. Individual pages of this portfolio discuss in detail other challenges I conquered in WR150, such as abstracts and source categorization. Writing, like First Amendment scholarship, is a never-ending process full of learning twists and turns. In the spirit of this portfolio, go find Liberty Street! I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.