Reflections on My Blog and the Art of Writing

Well readers, at approximately 1:00 on the morning of Tuesday May 4, I clicked send on the final paper for my political theory class, which was also the final assignment for the first half of my college career. Monday morning, I took my last final exam in Environmental Science, so sending this paper was a sort of ribbon cutting ceremony to welcome summer vacation! And after such a crazy and challenging year, you cannot imagine how blissful these first two weeks of summer have been. My days have been filled with sleeping in, going to bible study with my mom, reading a Jodi Picoult book, listening to some awesome music from the 1960s and 1970s that my dad got from the library especially the Jersey Boys soundtrack, taking walks on park trails, socializing on facebook, and just enjoying not having to go anywhere or do anything. I apologize for the fact that writing in my journal was absent from this list of leisure activities, but as usual, I am ready with an excuse (smile). As silly as it sounds, and as excited as I have been all semester to finally have time to write in my journal, the crazy amount of school writing I had to do last semester drained me of any ambition to write. I sat down at my computer several times intending to write an entry, but then couldn’t think of anything to say, and would end up reading instead.

A couple of years ago, I started the tradition of writing my parents letters of appreciation for all they have done for me in the past year for Mothers Day and Fathers Day. My parents look forward to their letters every year now because it is a gift that is from the heart, so I did not want to break tradition this year by not having a letter for my mom because she deserved my expression of love and appreciation this year more than ever since I don’t know how I would have made it through all of the academic and medical difficulties that came my way this year without her love and support. But even writing this letter was mentally taxing because I just couldn’t find the right words to express myself since I was so accustomed to academic writing which does not encourage creativity or emotion. In the end, it was a nice letter, and Mom loved it, not that she would ever tell me if she didn’t (smile), but I haven’t felt like writing since.

And as silly as it sounds, I could not fully relax and enjoy summer until Thursday when my grades came out because while I am usually confident that I did well, for some reason, I couldn’t help worrying that I might not do as well this semester because this semester was the most demanding semester I have ever had. It turned out that I had nothing to worry about. I got an A in my American Politics class despite the fact that I never did fully read many of the federalist papers and textbook chapters that were assigned. I got an A in my Journalism class despite the fact that I had a difficult time finding people to interview for assignments, and therefore had a couple of stories that were pretty onesided and boring to read. I got an AB in Environmental Science despite the fact that I think there was a typo in the course catalog that classified it as a level 1 course because there was so much work in that class. And I got a B in my political theory class despite the fact that we had to read an article a day from theorists like John Rawls, Thomas Pogge and Charles Beitz. If you have never heard of any of these people, don’t feel bad because until this class, I had never heard of them either. But all you need to know is that they don’t know how to write clearly and concisely, and if everyone in America read their work, there would no longer be a market for sleeping pills (smile). Anyway, getting back to my grades, my career grade point average was 3.66, so I would be on the Dean’s List again, but the anxiety of possibly having to retake a course if I didn’t earn all of the required credits made me too nervous to write. Today though, perhaps due to the fact that it is finally sunny outside instead of cold and rainy like it has been all week, I feel inspired to write.

There is so much I need to update you on regarding this eventful semester, but first, I wanted to reflect on this blog itself because although it may not seem like I am passionate about this blog since I do not update it very often, the truth is that finding out about livejournal, and keeping this blog has ben such an exciting experience for me that has renewed my passion for writing. If some fortune teller had come up to me in kindergarten or first grade and told me that I would one day have an online journal about my experiences with college and a guide dog, and that I would love it, I would have told them they were crazy because back then, I actually hated writing. I don’t know if it was because when you are a child, you don’t have the vocabulary, or for that matter, the patience and discipline to think of anything worth writing in a journal, or if the dread of writing was unique to me because back then, I had to use a manual metal braille writer that required you to push hard on the keys to make the braille dots, and the fatigue in my fingers overpowered my ability to see any reward in writing. Actually, both of these factors probably played a role in my dread of writing. In any case, when the teacher told the class to write in their journals, and I just sat in front of my braille writer for what felt like hours not wanting to write, my assistant would allow me to use the journal to simply practice writing random braille words, just so that I would be writing something. Eventually, I was able to write simple entries about random things like a fun trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, but I still never really enjoyed writing these journals. Writing stories was even more difficult for me because I had enough trouble putting in to words the events of my own life that trying to create a fictional character and a fictional experience was overwhelming. Looking back on the fictional stories I did manage to write when I got older, I realized that the plots made absolutely no sense. One story for example, and to make matters worse, it was a story the teacher published by putting a fancy hard cover on it, was about a school with no kids that magically turned in to a crayon. I really ought to find that book and throw it in to the next fire my dad makes for burning leaves (smile). But despite the fact that I hated the writing process, even in first grade, the honor of being published, even if the only readers of the book were my teachers and my family, was thrilling, so maybe even then, I subconsciously knew I would get over my hatred of the writing process. By fourth grade, writing became more serious and teachers no longer put a fancy hard cover on stories, but instead just handed them back with a grade and it would sit in a folder somewhere collecting dust until it was eventually thrown away, so once again, I dreaded writing because the expectations were higher, and there was no reward for my efforts.

But then one day in fifth grade, I was lying in bed flipping through Stone Soup Magazine. This is a mainstream children’s magazine that my vision teacher subscribed me to in braille from the National Library Service. It was a bimonthly magazine filled with short stories, poems and book reviews. I loved these stories because many of them were beautifully written, and though some of them were fictional stories about other planets or the future, many of them were about real experiences in the author’s own life. What I hadn’t realized until this night however was that these stories were written by children, and on the front page of the magazine were instructions for how you could submit your own work that could be published in the magazine. How had I not noticed such an exciting opportunity? I asked myself. And in that instant, my passion for writing was renewed because if I could write a story that was accepted by the magazine, it wouldn’t just mean that one copy of the story would be made with a hard cover on it. It would be published in the true sense of the word because thousands of children, and maybe even their parents all over the world would read my work. On top of that, a lot of children write letters to the editor complementing particular stories, so I could get feedback from total strangers about my work. That would be so exciting! So immediately, I began brainstorming a story. The story idea that I was most passionate about and ended up writing was called Violet’s Woods. It was a pretty dumb story looking back on it now, but at the time, I was in love with it. It began with me reflecting back on a wonderful vacation to a cabin in the woods of Northern Wisconsin when I was in fourth grade, and how I longed to go back again and get away from the stressful city life. Then, I think I talked about how when my mom took me to an area way in the back of our yard that was known as Violet’s Woods because it used to belong to a sweet elderly neighbor named Violet, the silence and serenity that permeated this woods brought back the wonderful memories of this vacation. Then, the story looks to the future where I imagine myself with a child of my own, living in the north woods and bringing her up to appreciate the wonders of nature. I wrote the rough draft of the story in braille, which took me thirty braille pages, and almost a year to write because of the length and complexity I had in mind for the story, and the fact that since I was limited to the manual braille writer, it was hard to get inspired knowing that it was a lot harder to erase words or rewrite sentences, and the fact that I could only write on weekends and vacations because of school responsibilities. Then my mom helped me type it up and gave me suggestions for how I could revise it. Just before Christmas in sixth grade, I mailed the manuscript to Stone Soup Magazine. The instructions said to include a self-addressed stamped envelope with my submission, and they would send a letter in four to six weeks saying whether or not they would be able to use my story. The exciting realization that I had sent a story to a magazine where it could be published was all I could think about for the five weeks of waiting. My mom reminded me not to take it personally if my story did not get published because magazines often get a lot more stories than what they are able to publish, and sure enough, the letter in that envelope five weeks later was a rejection letter saying just that, and inviting me to keep writing and try again.

A few weeks earlier, I had allowed my vision teacher to read the story, and when I told her the next day about the rejection letter, she confided to me that the story wasn’t a very strong story because there was no conflict. With all of the story writing practice I have had through school, I kicked myself for forgetting the importance of conflict in a story, and when I thought about it, I have never read a published story that did not have conflict. But then there was a part of me that wondered “why can’t people just write and publish what is in their heart without having to follow some arbitrary conventional wisdom about writing?” After all, the real world is full of conflict. Why are stories only marketable if they create fictional conflict? Just as writers view writing as an escape, as a way to express themselves and temporarily forget about the problems in their real lives, shouldn’t the same be true for readers? Wouldn’t readers enjoy a simple story about what makes this world wonderful and beautiful despite its problems? Of course, when I was in sixth grade, I was too young and immature to ponder philosophical questions like these, and instead just became a little defensive toward this teacher’s criticism. But looking back, I think these were the questions I was already subconsciously thinking about even if I did not have the maturity to articulate them.

I continued to struggle with these questions through high school and college when I took creative writing classes. I had no problem when it came to writing essays or news stories for the student newspaper, but in my creative writing endeavors, I have always felt that arbitrary rules stood in my way. I was even told by the teacher of the creative writing class I took first semester of this year that a poem I had written about the peaceful lullaby of a warm breeze gently caressing wind chimes on a summer day would be better if it had some sort of conflict. This suggestion was made during a peer editing workshop, and one kid suggested that when he imagines those kinds of days, he finds them kind of boring. I politely listened to these suggestions, but my soul was screaming “there is absolutely nothing boring about those kind of days, and I do not want to make a conflict out of such a wonderful image.” In the end, I modeled my poem loosely after the song “These are A Few of my Favorite Things”, a song Julie Andrews sings in The Sound of Music, and one of my absolute favorite Christmas songs. The song, if you have never heard it, ends by saying “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.” I ended my poem by saying “And when the snow falls, and school makes life restless again, I think of this summer lullaby, and my heart is filled with a divine sense of peace and joy.” I love the fact that the song, and my poem end this way because it acknowledges that conflict is an inescapable fact of life, but keeps the main imagery of the poem beautiful and conflict free, the way I think it was meant to be. I never actually found out what my final grade was for this poem, or any of the other pieces I wrote because I turned in the final portfolio on exam day and never had a chance to pick it up from the teacher’s office last semester. But frankly, grades are so subjective when it comes to creative writing, so I am not going to worry about the grades. Creative writing should be about expressing what is in your heart, and that is what I did.

Anyway, I have struggled all my life with the question of how I could publish what was truly on my mind without having to follow some arbitrary requirements for imagery or character development or conflict. I attempted to keep a personal diary a couple of times but although it would give me complete freedom to write what I wanted, it too would eventually just sit in a box somewhere collecting dust. Heck, even if someone found it in an attic someday, I would have to read it to them since hardly anyone knows braille. If they didn’t find it until after I die, I guess they would be out of luck if they were curious as to my childhood thoughts (smile). As silly as it sounds, I have always found it hard to find the motivation and discipline to write when I knew no one would ever read it. Now let’s fastforward to April 30, 2009, the day before my last exam for my freshman year of college. On that day it hit me that the year that began with so many changes in my life, was coming to an end and had gone smoothly, and it occurred to me that I wanted to have a record of this eventful time in my life, one that people I was close to, as well as strangers could read and experience with me. That was when I remembered that a couple friends of mine had online journals reflecting on their guide dog training. The year before, I never would have dreamed of keeping a blog because I didn’t have enough confidence with computers to enjoy the experience. But last year, I had been equipped with a computer that had Jaws on it, and through some training at the Badger Association of the Blind, and the practice I got when I had to type essays and do research for school, my confidence had grown exponentially, making me realize that I could start my own blog!

After doing some google searches, I found that a lot of blind people I knew were on livejournal, so it must be somewhat easy to navigate for blind people. So the next day, May 1, I took a leap of faith and created my account. The only thing I needed help with was typing the security code because Jaws wouldn’t read it, and I couldn’t understand the audio of the website. Then I was a little overwhelmed because when I went to try and post an entry, there were links for html posts, rich text, and voice posts. All I wanted was a straight forward edit box to type my message in, hit submit and have it be posted in a readable form! I began to wonder what I had gotten myself in to, and if I should just delete this account and forget it. My computer confidence was not as improved as I thought it was after all. But that small voice inside me reminded me that this was something I could figure out, and that if I didn’t give up, I would be rewarded. So I expressed my frustration to the Wisconsin guide dog users list, and a wonderful friend who already used the site boosted my confidence again by saying that there was an edit box for just a simple post, below the subject box, and that my confusion was understandable because there was no prompt indicating that it was the box for the message. Sure enough, on May 2 when I went back to look, I found it, and my lack of confidence evaporated. I was on track again with a renewed excitement for this uncharted territory called the blogosphere. I have a policy of not mentioning names in this journal so as not to embarrass anyone, but I want to tell this friend thank you for your support! You know who you are.

Then, there was the whole issue of apprehensiveness about sharing personal information online. I had watched enough news programs about the dangers of the internet to not give out things like my address and social security number, but since my internet confidence had just come about in college, I was paranoid that I would write something that a future employer would view as immature, or worse, that some crazy stranger would send death threats if they didn’t agree with some arbitrary thing like the guide dog program I had chosen or something, which I now realize is pretty unlikely, but you can see it in some of my early entries when I am very guarded as to what I share, and in fact, a lot of the early entries about my experiences were friend protected. Actually, my original intention was to only update this blog through last summer because the sole purpose of it was going to be for mature reflection about my graduation from high school, and my transition from a cane user to a guide dog handler. But it wasn’t long, and actually I think it was while I was writing my second entry about my dream of one day having a guide dog, a dream that was inspired by bedtime stories about guide dogs, that it occurred to me that with this blog, I had found what I have always wanted: a place where I could write whatever was in my heart, unencumbered by rules, and anyone could read my thoughts. The only person who was limiting the scope of what I write about was myself! So here I am today, still blogging, and loving it as much as ever! Of course, this blog most likely will never be a bestseller, but if I was offered all of the money in the world, or so much popularity that people were camping outside bookstores to be the first to buy my book at midnight on the day of its release, I would decline the offer if it meant having to write what some editor thought was marketable instead of what was really in my heart. I read a wonderful quote somewhere a couple months ago in which someone compared their diary to a canvas that they could paint any way they wanted. I have also heard analogies comparing writing to sculpting with clay, and although I am not an artist, these are wonderful examples of imagery to describe how I feel about writing. Just like in art, true writers don’t worry about rules. I have written entries recalling obstacles I have had to overcome in guide dog training, and unexpected hardship like my surgery. But I have also written entries simply recalling why I love life, and even a couple entries like “A Tale of Flatulence”, written for the sole purpose of having fun and brightening the day for readers with a good laugh. Like an artist, I started with the intention of painting one thing on my canvas, strictly reflecting on my guide dog training, but then took a whole new direction, deciding that the canvas would be a lot more interesting and colorful if it had no restrictions as to what could be painted on it. In the same way that some painters simply paint for the love of the craft and never enters their work in to an art show, I write simply for the freedom this craft gives me to express whatever is on my mind, and I think I have joined the ranks of many writers and artists who have come to realize with maturity that publicity, fame or fortune are meaningless if they inhibit your enjoyment of the craft. I know a lot of my entries have been really long, since I don’t like having to subscribe to length requirements either (smile), so I understand if some of you no longer follow my entries because they ramble so much. But for anyone who is still reading my entries, I just want to say how much I have enjoyed the process of painting this canvas, and I hope you will continue to enjoy reading this canvas as it becomes more detailed and vibrant in the years to come.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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