When I was a child, my dad would take me to the library and we would check out several books a week for me to read. I usually disliked them. An almost preposterously pragmatic man, he didn’t see much value in the children’s fiction section of our library — the untold place on the right side of the building, straight through the seating area — and would instead steer me toward the nonfiction area, to the left of the chairs. Having not yet grasped chapter books at this point in time, what I left the library with each week were technically picture books, but they were also accompanied by wordy explanations on every scientific topic in existence. Little me didn’t like parsing that kind of verbosity, though I still appreciated the pictures well enough.
I usually start my pieces with a story. This engages both sides of my brain, if not scientifically, at least in my perception. A personal anecdote or painted image provides something for the reader to engage with on an interpersonal level — appealing to the right side. Most likely, this story will be concluded toward the end or sprinkled throughout with a clearly defined analysis — that left brain content — that weaves an easy-to-follow narrative, sometimes switching tense as you talk with the reader or yourself. The best story to start a piece with will either be directly connected to the concept discussed or have a parallel that can be made; we foster an emotional connection to the concept using the established interpersonal connection as a magnifying lens — the essence of pathos. This aims to highlight the importance of the present topic by first presenting its importance in relation to the reader and concludes with its importance at large, in relation to a broader field, culture or the world as a whole. The story is a building block to those larger analytical parts. Try to be careful where you start in that story, as it might take some time to get to the analytical meat of the piece or it might be confusing to just switch between story and analysis with no clear organization yet. Title choice can help, though, like directly responding to it through the writing.
Going from the “I Can Read!” series to higher-grade level reading was maybe too big a jump. I eventually argued my way out of reading these specific works, citing that I shouldn’t need to consult a dictionary for every other word to efficiently read. However, I can never discount the learning I received — including saving my parents the conversation of telling me how babies are made. Granted, all I could decipher was that male sperm cells fertilized female egg cells and never questioned the actual mechanics, marveling at the possibility that the phenomenon could happen without physical contact. So in fairness, my father pulling me toward nonfiction might have been an effort to ground me from the fantastical assumptions my young brain made.
Organization is an especially crucial factor to consider. We were all raised in high school on the intro-body-conclusion method of essay writing, but a medium like The Michigan Daily allows for more innovation. While logical coherence still needs to exist as it goes from idea to idea, it also helps retention for a piece to be more memorable through creative organization. I’ve already mentioned my affinity for story placement, whether that be at the beginning and end of a piece or woven throughout. My other favorite structures are what I call a “choose-your-own-adventure essay”, which I used to discuss the multiverse in modern media and alternation between two analyses, like with Batman and bad mental health online. It helps when this organizational form is thematic to the topic at hand — branching explanations for a piece about branching universes and sharp duality in a piece about dual identities. That latter might be more of an excuse, though, as I use that sheer alternating structure for a lot of pieces. Confession time: I don’t like transition sentences.
In the end, however — after discovering “The Magic Tree House” and consuming almost every other chapter book in my first-grade classroom — the argument to my father that I shouldn’t need a dictionary beside me to learn what I was reading allowed me into that new world of fiction. I could walk straight through the seating area. Between fiction and nonfiction, I found the kind of reading and writing I preferred — storytelling over essay writing. My right brain preferred spinning and absorbing yarns more than my left brain wanted to face facts. This worked in my favor in elementary school when writing assignments were little books and stories about life, but drastically changed in secondary when assignments favored analysis over narrative. Still striving for good grades in English, I adapted. Come college, I simultaneously took classes in creative writing and information analysis and found storytelling still came much easier. Upon joining The Daily, around March of this year, I was enthused by the idea of freedom, finally getting to write story after story for publication. Twenty-three published pieces later (as of now), I count myself at around 75% “left brain” pieces: reviews, culture analyses, investigative journalism, etc. What happened, and how do I keep making myself write pieces in the style I don’t prefer?
In fact, the more I write these little bits of narrative, the more I realize that structure is vital to stories as well. Callbacks, emotional beats, strong introductions and conclusions — these are all extremely pertinent parts of narrative writing that have to be followed as well, rendering them less processes of imagination but of logical steps as well. The entertaining but empathizing anecdote to start, details sprinkled here and there to form a whole arsenal for Chekhov to fire off in the emotional but empowering ending that directly follows a drop in the piece’s positive tone, like the bridge before one last chorus of every pop song in the last couple decades. Now it’s become a formula for me. Before I realize it, the only new layer of creativity I can strive for is going completely meta, questioning if there’s still any emotional connection left when I’ve simultaneously drenched my writing in all these layers of self-awareness only to strip them away. The duality breaks down as I fend off burnout, and I’m left floundering to answer a question that seems inconsequential, a conclusion needing to come at yet another expense of my creativity.
Well, maybe I could just finish the story. Looking back, I wrote on the topics I did in the way I did because they just piqued my interest far more at the time. It was easier for me to make stories and analyses of what I saw around me than to dig for my own. Even if storytelling still came easier to me, the pitches didn’t. I went through months of work in the Arts section and then applied to The Statement for the summer — as a correspondent, not a columnist — the key difference being that the former did analytical, investigative journalism and the latter engaged in longform narrative. It wasn’t until I wrote for Michigan in Color during the summer and now this fall that I found myself in a unique position to tell any story or detail any analysis I choose. The fact is, my brain — both sides of it — isn’t the best at telling me what it wants. However, I can see now it prefers the work that it can get better at rather than what comes the easiest. That’s my answer, but maybe I don’t need to ascribe as much importance to which side my brain leads in writing as long as I am writing. As long as I’m still creating, it doesn’t matter how much creativity is imbued in it. Maybe I don’t need to plead my case to you about how my story matters in the grand, beautiful, massive scheme of our universe, but I certainly hope you still think that it does. In the meantime, I’ll just keep writing any way I can, with any side I can. I still have numerous analyses and stories to share, for everything that the young boy in the library wished he could create.
MiC Columnist Saarthak Johri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.