Writers Event: Michael Pollan

I watched the Berkeley Writers at Work feature of American journalist and Berkeley Journalism professor Michael Pollan, who read an excerpt on national food trends and phenomena. The first thing I noticed was that Pollan’s writing was bordering on fiction, but still maintained its journalistic integrity. For example, he described a Twinky as half plant, half animal, almost a separate species of its own. Likewise, in regards to his writing process, Pollan says that he has a group of friends who act as his informal copy editors, and between the group they all exchange their writing for review. This reminded me of the set up that we had in class, where basically everyone was everyone else’s copy editor. Of his time at Harpercollins as an editor, Pollan said that he grew the most as a writer during that time, because he observed how other writers went through their writing processes. This also reminded me of our class, and often times we were able to see the final drafts of papers that we had helped edit, and see how our advice influenced the final paper. Because somebody else is writing it, the paper may still have an unexpected turn or twist, but it’s a very interactive process of learning how to write between writer and editor. Finally, the last thing that struck me very strongly as Pollan’s list of characteristics for a successful writer. Of the list, his comments about being patient and open-minded as a writer were the most interesting. Sometimes when I write, it amazes me how much more interesting it is to write about a subject than it is to purely learn about it (and never produce anything out of that). At the same time, it’s amazing how quickly time passes and how the process of writing and researching often produces new facts that change the stance that I originally approached a subject from. Especially after my first year in college, where essays were assigned for subjects like Ethnic Studies and Economics instead of just English, I think that writing is one of the best ways to learn, and at the same time, it is one of the best ways to teach, as others read your writing.

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Profile Reflection

The process of choosing someone to do my profile on was a fairly easy process. Almost immediately, the name of my best friend here at Cal came into my mind. Throughout the year, I’ve discovered that Jay and I have faced many of the same problems, but often approach them with entirely different attitudes and solutions (which is the original concept that I had when I thought about doing the profile on him). Strangely enough, after writing this paper, it feels more like we try to solve things the same way.

The interview was incredibly casual, and if anything, I feel like it contributed the most rigid parts of my profile. The dialogue about the UN and eating alone were the main things I got from our interview. I wanted the profile to sound like a conversation. First, a conversation between myself and Jay, and then a conversation as though I was telling someone about him.

Compared to other profiles that I’ve read, I feel like mine definitely incorporates a lot of myself into the profile. The concept of the profile is this dichotomy between Jay’s grand dream to help other people have control over their lives and his inability to reign in his own wild aspirations. The perspective that I tried to take with the message is that I face the same problems, and understand full heartedly. I wanted the profile to feel like an detailing of Jay’s life by itself, but also feature this friendship we have where we’re both confused and young but support each other in our mad dash to find something that fits our goals. I wanted to emphasize the exclusivity of our situation, where most people would probably not encourage their friends to try as many things as we’ve encouraged each other to try. I tried to incorporate this by adding relevant details about myself (mostly in the parts about changing names) and also by drawing on events about Jay that I’m also a part of.

Ultimately, I wanted the profile to be very organic and human. I wanted to represent Jay’s strengths and weaknesses through a blend of all of the things that I’ve learned about him in the past year, instead of focusing it on simply one interview. I tried using a nonlinear chronology to make it feel as though the profile is a combination of different memories being recalled and applied to a conversation had in the present.

Cultural Commentary Reflection

My cultural commentary piece started out as a general commentary on the different influences that affect women in the workplace. At first, it was really difficult for me to select a topic in the first place, so I chose something that I had prior knowledge on and wanted to explore further. With my first draft, I approached the topic from a really broad perspective, and I think that may have detracted from the ability of the piece to convey one solid and firm message. Trying to approach the issue from too many angles watered down the overall impact of the piece, I believe.

After some feedback from classmates, I decided to narrow down my topic to just one issue: equal advancement for women in the workforce. I decided to analyze the reasons and results of a glass ceiling against female promotion in different careers.

My first draft was not evidence heavy at all and the tone was written as though I was talking to another college student. When it came time for my second draft, I changed it so that it was very saturated with evidence and had a much more formal tone. I tried to bring in different elements of the glass ceiling that exists, like how the media portrays female advancement and how the focus is on things other than a woman’s actual work ability (such as her family life or fashion choices). I think that keeping a lot of hard facts in the piece really helped build credibility for me, since I’m still young and also a female. Saudi’s in Bikinis really influenced me in terms of how I convey credibility for myself, as Kristof slightly sabotaged his own credibility. The real challenge for me was probably building credibility in the first place.

Using Storify helped incorporate the articles I was referencing, and also the general public opinion on the issue.

If I were to continue the piece, or even just to write it from a slightly different perspective again, I think I might then focus on the media aspect of what holds back women from advancement, like that awful article from Forbes by Gene Marks.

Overall, I actually found this piece very challenging to write. I think it was difficult to find a good balance between evidence and personal opinion and intuition, and more than that, it was find a topic I could approach from the perspective of both a writer and a young college student while incorporating voices and perspectives from both.

Story Recommendations

I really enjoyed reading When My Wife Was a Shiitake and Ariel Levy and Thanksgiving in Mongolia.

I enjoyed both pieces because they both detail the effort it takes an individual to overcome or go through a difficult experience. Taihei copes with the premature death of his wife and Ariel deals with the premature birth and death of her son. The light, casual tones used by both authors is incredibly deceiving to the plight they experience, making for a jarring read that has the reader constantly reevaluating whether or not the situation is actually reality.

For Taihei, it all gets worse as he’s forced by his daughter to enroll in a cooking class, something that he has no intention or desire to do. His comical but frustrating struggle to even begin to figure out what he’s doing makes the reader exceedingly sympathetic to his situation. I thought the piece was compelling as I thought about how sad it must be for him to have to focus on such a menial and insignificant task (in his opinion), in the face of such a hugely traumatic event. The revelations that occur to him were also moving and bring deeper meaning to a story of otherwise strange juxtapositions.

Ariel’s situation is also similar in a strange way. She’s faced with the challenges of pregnancy, then goes and makes it all the more difficult by adventuring out into the Gobi Desert while five months pregnant. She and Taihei both are alone in their struggles, though Ariel’s isolation is self-imposed. She relishes the feeling of independence and risk as she takes on the desert by herself. Her miscarriage is discussed in the same, strangely accepting tone as that of Taihei’s odd cooking lessons. I thought it was interesting how retrospective Ariel’s perspective was, and how her writing truly reflected that.

Perhaps because it is personally applicable, I truly enjoyed both pieces because of how they detail the different ways individuals overcome hardship. I feel that the tone of a piece not only conveys what the author is feeling, but also what the author would like the reader to similarly experience. In pieces where the situation is traumatic but the tone is accepting and conveys the idea that ultimately things will be alright, the piece becomes inspirational.

Narrative Reflection

Before this class, I was extremely skeptical about whether or not I would be actually able to write a good narrative. Memories of writing bad stories in middle school really imparted a weariness in me when it comes to writing fiction. To find the memory to write about, I thought about a memory that had some conflict, but not necessarily a big one. I thought that the subtlety of the topic would let me do interesting things with the writing, instead of having to focus on the situation.

In terms of the style, I tried writing in a casual and somewhat playful tone until the end. Even then, when talking about the tadpoles, I wanted to keep it as though I wasn’t taking my story too seriously, thus the imagery with the totem pole. I also tried using a lot of metaphors because I felt like it made the writing more engaging.

The dialogue was a little weird to write, and I felt like it was hard to communicate both tone and intention through the speech. Likewise, I had trouble conveying the awkwardness of the situation for me without doing too much “telling” instead of “showing”. I thought it was significant to make it obvious, and I was trying to approach the narrative as though I was talking to someone, instead of narrating a story.

The idea behind the title is not only in relation to the gruesome turn at the end of the story, but also conveying how I was a clueless kid during that time.

I was really surprised by the positive responses to my narrative from my classmates. I’m glad that I was able to put this memory onto paper, because I feel like it definitely had a shaping effect on my personality.