A Failure’s Guide to Writing in University


If you have any aspirations to be a writer, or you enjoy writing, reading, or generally tossing around ideas and theories, don’t go to university.

Before I go any further, let me preface this blog by saying: lots of people enjoy university. These people, whether by amazing chance or undying optimism, continue to find motivation and purpose despite the dozens of papers they have to write during their university existence. I, on the other hand, have had a different experience. I do have to say though, I have had some classes, papers and assignments that I have enjoyed and thrived in. Unfortunately, these tend to be more like snow days — you have to go through weeks and weeks of trudging along through mounds of snow, that are just not quite enough for schools to close, before you finally reach that limit — that ever alluring snow day. The same goes for papers. It takes a lot of boring papers before you get to the occasional nice ones.

Writing papers is a slow suicide of your ability to write. By the time I left high school, I thought I knew how to write a paper. I mean, in many ways it’s pretty simple — come up with a driving statement that can be broken into three different points, and then write. It seems simple enough, but somehow, in college, I started to give up on this. The usual formula of the essay just didn’t cut it. It bored me, and likewise bored my reader — or should have. I have been a little surprised sometimes at how the most cookie-cutter essays I have written have still gotten me by in university.

Regardless, formula bored me, so I scrapped it. I had a couple good classes that were loose enough to allow me to step out of the normal “analyze rhetorical strategies in a book you don’t care about” and was able to try something different. So I went for blogging. I’ve gotten used to writing these blogs and have developed a bit of a system that feels comfortable. And knowing I have a much easier time writing blogs than I do writing papers, I decided to try it. So, rather than come prepared for rigidity and analytical arguments, I relaxed. I had fun. I let myself write in a way that felt natural. This worked really well on a couple select papers (well, I can only think of one that I used it for. I have yet to get back my grade for my second attempt at this). But I hit a wall with this too.

The problem I’m now facing is that I really don’t want to write anymore. I’m tired of reading, tired of writing, tired of blogs, tired of papers — tired of it all. Instead of feeling like I’m actually getting anywhere with my writing, I just feel that all the guidelines I used to use have just fallen apart. I’ve watched as I made terrible sentences in emails and then just left them because, frankly, I didn’t care. When you spend hours upon hours of your life fixing your writing so that you can get good grades, bad sentence construction in an email doesn’t even warrant the effort.

So, here I am. I have papers to write that I really don’t care about writing at all. The world doesn’t need one more paper on a work of eighteenth Century literature. And, to add to my lack of care, I’m not even sure I know how to write well anymore. I’m somewhere in between recklessness and hopelessness, and don’t know what to do. But, as the saying goes: “desperation breeds ingenuity.” And I am desperate. Perhaps the fact that I am boring the world with a blog about my paper-writing speaks to how dull this all really is. I mean, who writes about writing papers? But, I have to remember I’m writing a “guide”, so I’ll explain what I intend to do now, if it’s at all interesting.

Since I’m so bored of words, of which I seem to have far too many in this blog, I’ve decided to step away from the way I usually write and take a stab at trying to build a visual map of my paper instead. Having said this, I realize it really doesn’t seem that revolutionary. I mean, authors have been mapping out novels and other books for years, so why wouldn’t I? But, I suppose that’s half the point. I’ve decided being an academic is not for me. However, I’m in university and I still have two more years worth of papers to write. So, I’m going to throw the academic out the window and try my hand at being a writer — an author. I don’t mean that in a pompous or noble sense. I mean, I’d love to be an author someday, but I’m certainly not there yet and probably won’t be any time soon. But I do think there’s something valuable to stepping away from the formula of writing, and asking myself: How can I make this interesting for me? And, in answer to that question, one of the first things that comes into my head is: make it something else. Make it different.

As a result, I’ve decided to try something new. Try visual. Try pictures. Try pieces of paper spread all over a desk. Start with fragments and allow them to fail to relate to each other. Embrace the mess of writing and let the scraps fill an empty space. And then, once you have a perfect mess in front of you, try to put it together. Figure out what threads and ideas are pulling the pieces together and begin to stitch the fragments into a paper. The result will be… well, I don’t know yet. It could be failure. If so, that’s alright too. I’ve only ever failed one paper in my life, and it didn’t kill me. I just wrote a new one. People are little like teacups. It’s our failures that shape us — that push us into a form, bend out the handle, and scoop out a hole in the centre of us. All our successes do is to add the shiny glaze on the outside of the cup. Successes may look pretty, but it’s our failures that make us who we are.

So, bored reader, if you are you are still reading, and for some odd reason found my stories about writing papers remotely engaging, here are some encouragements I have for surviving papers in university:

1) A bored writer makes a bored reader. If you’re finding yourself bored writing a paper, your reader will probably find themselves bored too. And though good writing may still warrant an average grade, it’s not ideal. So, find a way to make the paper interesting for yourself. Pick a topic that you’ll enjoy. And if you hate them all, suggest one to your teacher, if they allow that. And if they don’t, take the topic you hate least and play with it until you find something interesting about it. And, if all else fails and you absolutely hate them all, at least make the process of writing an adventure.

2) Take risks. Don’t attempt stream-of-consciousness writing in a university paper — that’s not the kind of risk I’m talking about. But try something different. Don’t be afraid to experiment and break out of the box, even if it’s just your own box. University might seem like a scary place to experiment with your writing, but don’t let it scare you. What better place to practice than when you have doctors (that can’t save people’s lives) reading your work, and giving you feedback because they’re paid to? In some ways I think university is really the best place to take risks with writing. So try different things. Push your writing in ways you haven’t done before and mix up your method. Chances are you’ll come out of university with a much better handle on what works best for you.

3) Let your voice be heard. Too often I’ve put my voice on the back burner and have opted instead to let the academic in me speak. I use big words, repeat myself for emphasis, talk about things I don’t care about, and work myself into arguments that are as empty as the daunting page I’m trying to fill. Don’t do that. Be intelligent. Be analytical. But most of all, be you. People want to hear you, and you have things to say, so say them. Again, sometimes I can almost be afraid to let my voice come through, as if it doesn’t have a place in the fancy halls of university academia. But why shouldn’t my voice be heard while I’m in university? Shouldn’t I be able to let me show through? I almost fear that if I go too long without letting my voice be heard, it’ll soon learn to be silent out of habit. I don’t want to do that, especially since my voice is the only one I have.

4) Have fun. Writing a paper, fun? I know it may seem like a stretch, but it’s worth a try. I mean, look at writers like Coleridge or De Quincy — they knew the secret of being happy while you write, and decided opium was the way to do that. Please, don’t try opium to enhance your university writing. I don’t think that works well. But, do find a way to have fun and enjoy writing. Make tea, go for a walk, talk to a friend, draw. Do something that will either help you break out of the mundane task of writing (as long as you come back to it eventually, feeling happier and more motivated) or do something that will let you think about your paper and work it out in a way that makes it feel fun. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” — and we all know dull boys don’t write good papers.

And, that’s my “failure’s guide to writing in university”. I think I could basically sum this all up as attempts to try to keep myself from getting bored and from getting stuck in the dusty cobwebs of university writing. University really isn’t all that bad. In fact, I almost enjoy it. It’s that necessary adversary that encourages me to fight back and strengthens me in the process. I just need to find ways to make the journey interesting and different. So, as a final encouragement:

5) Don’t let university be something that’s done to you. Be the doer. Shape your own experience in a way that helps you learn the best and keeps you most engaged.

Fall Leaves


Fall is here. It seemed to come almost out of nowhere. One day all the leaves were green, and the next they were red and yellow, and half of them were on the ground. Now my feet kick up all those loose pieces strewn along the sidewalks.

I forget how much I love fall. I love the cool days, as the trees look emptier and emptier by the hour and sway gently in the breeze. The wind blows through the streets, scattering the leaves across the road and into little dips or corners where they lie, trapped, restless. The hedges begin to drop their leaves as well, and soon they start to look naked. The houses that were normally hidden behind them suddenly find themselves exposed for all to see. The bare skeletons of the hedges seem to fit right in with the thin bars of the gate that leads into the fading lawn around the apartment, usually open and creaking gently on it’s hinges.

Fall brings back memories of our furloughs in Canada, the few times we happened to be staying in Ontario or travelling through BC. I think the trees were prettier there — or there were more of them. Fall reminds me of what Canada was for an eight year old, walking down sidewalks of a country that wasn’t really his own, but was somehow supposed to be. It reminds me of rushing out the door with coats on to run with my brother across the road and climb on the big tanks outside the armoury. To feel the cool metal of their hard shells and trace my finger over the glass of the tiny peephole with it’s spiderweb cracks running down through all the layers of the bulletproof glass. It reminds me of those wars we fought in, hanging off those armoured sides, firing pinecones out the gun, that happened to become grenades later if they needed to be — those wars that stopped for supper, or for two little boys’ bladders when necessity and desperation called us back to the house.

Now these memories come with each leaf that skitters along the sidewalk, as the cool air gnaws at my face and I find myself in the body of this twenty-one year old. I watch and listen to the kids that climb all over the school playground by our house, squealing with delight. Their fall coats hanging off them, like half-ignored mother’s attempts to keep her children warm. Their cheeks are probably pink like mine, their hands cool from the multicoloured bars they climb on and cling to. My own cold hands grip the blue metal of my bike handle bars as I pass them by, off to university where this twenty-one year old body belongs.

Fall is full of change. There’s something almost melancholy about watching the world, filled with its rusty reds and turmeric yellows begin to unravel before your eyes. I’ve kept a few red leaves in some vain effort to freeze time. Preserve, preserve. Change is beautiful. Can’t it stay like this forever? It never does. I suppose it wouldn’t be change if it did. Instead, once the leaves are all off and the colours rust into a earthy brown, there’s nothing left holding back the next change.  And then before you know it, the leaves are covered in a blanket of white, there to stay until spring.

When the Snow Falls in September

Snow in September? Really? It’s easy to forget sometimes, during the few months of summer, that Canada is a country of weather surprises. But, when the snow is falling outside my window in early September and I’m trying to decide whether I want to ride my bike to the university or not, reality sinks in pretty fast. P.S. buses are warm lovely things that swallow you up and then spit you out comfortably in front of the university.

A few weeks ago, my sister Lizzy and I moved into a two bedroom apartment in Edmonton. Starting with mattresses on the floors of our empty rooms, we’ve slowly watched the house become more like a home. It’s been fun. Canadian dumpsters have been one of our most bountiful resources when it comes to setting up a home. From love-seats to mixing bowl sets, Canadian dumpsters have it all. Our time hasn’t come without it’s hiccups though. Lizzy and I have had our moments already — realising that living together as siblings won’t be a walk in the park. But it’s been a delightful adventure, arguments and all. And with a little grace, it’ll continue to keep being one.

I’ve tried on numerous occasions to sit down and write, but so far it just hasn’t come together. There are times when my mind is a mess of words and emotions, and yet I can’t find time to think or write. And then, when I finally have a moment of peace to gather my thoughts and try to write, the words are all gone. It’s hopeless. I guess sometimes with words, too many is just as bad as not enough, and there’s rarely an in-between.

Edmonton is different. In many ways the change seems pretty easy. More cars, more people, more noise — all things I’m quite used to. It’s a beautiful city with character — not real character like any town in Europe, but Canadian character.

It’s not until I drive past Red Deer that I realise how much I miss from the place that was home for two years. It’s hard not to when you can see the massive “RDC” on the red bricks of arts centre from the highway.

I miss the smallness. I miss that I knew all of the campus at the college, and that my room in residence was never more than five minutes from my class. I miss that in 15 minutes you could basically drive anywhere in the city. I miss the fact that the library actually had free tables by the windows sometimes, where I could camp out for a few hours to work on a paper or a blog. I miss the people. I miss my friends.

Sometimes I forget I’ve let roots grow. And it’s not until I leave that I find out how much it hurts to tear them from the tiny cracks they’ve begun to settle into and get used to. But I rip them up to start over again. New classrooms. New streets. New faces.

It’s not as bad as it feels. This seemingly constant upheaval helps me see the months and years that God has carried me through. Every few years God takes a plough through my life and breaks everything up. Old things get buried. New things appear. Some things stay, just differently, like stones turned over to reveal a side you hadn’t seen before. For a while everything looks unknown, churned up and empty. But then slowly new growth appears, and green begins to peek out from the upturned soil again. I realise one ending is just another beginning, and it comes with a whole new set of lessons and adventures. It helps me see how much I have to be thankful for and to be reminded that God has more for me ahead. It will be different, but it’ll be good.

So when the snow falls in September and I feel tempted to be a Scrooge, I’ll choose instead to raise an Ebenezer and remember, “Thus far the Lord has helped us,” and I can trust He’ll continue to do so. (1 Sam. 7:12)

Looking Back on a Less Canadian Me

My sister is finally in the same country as me again. Being with family always seems to be so normal and yet, at the same time, so strange. Though I spend months missing my family and wanting to be able to spend time with them, it routinely happens that as soon as I am together with them again, everything feels so normal that I hardly realise we were ever apart. With my sister, Liz, it’s certainly no different.

However, at the same time, I do find myself suddenly reminded of just how much we have grown and changed, and how long I’ve been in Canada. It’s been three years now since I came. It feels too long. It’s not that I don’t like Canada, it’s just that having so many years in a place other than Pakistan seems wrong somehow, for me. Seeing Liz again, I’m reminded of the time that I was in her place — new into the country, facing all these strange things that are so normal for people here. I can remember bumbling my way though “failed transactions” just trying to figure out how in the world I am supposed to pay for things with a debit card. Gas stations were strange and I had no idea what to do. I would get lost in Walmart and try to finding my way back to my parents, somehow always accidentally find myself amongst aisles of ladies underwear to my huge embarrassment. Subways were another mess of confusion. I have to choose which kind of cheese I put on these things? What kind of cheese is there? It’s written there on the glass. Everything is written on the glass. Why are there so many choices? I don’t know if everyone else in line appreciated my indecisive and uneducated sandwich confusion, which probably made my order take three times as long as everyone else’s. Oh well. I have since learned.

I’m amazed sometimes at the amount that has become normal now. I don’t realise it all the time, but there are so many aspects of living in Canada that have just become routine. I remember reflecting while driving into Edmonton a couple weeks ago, realising that here I was, on my way to a city I had almost never been to, to meet with my sister and see an apartment we were considering renting for the coming year. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that we were both in high school with homework and allowance money? Somewhere along the line, I guess we both did a little growing up. Not only that, but I realise how much I have adjusted to life here in Canada.

Almost a month ago I flew down to Colorado and, while I was there, made the mistake of saying “house”, not realising that Canadian’s have a fairly distinct way of pronouncing the “ou” sound. And, for one of the first times in my life, I found myself on the opposite end of accent teasing — the dreaded accent teasing. How did I get to the point where I’ve spent enough time in Canada for my accent to be so Canadian? A part of me hates it. I don’t want to be Canadian. I preferred the days when my accent was a mangled mix of British, American, German, Australian and New Zealand influences. I liked it when I said “football” for the game you play with your foot and “rubbish” for the thing you throw your garbage into. But, I guess adjusting is a part of life. Accents begin to sink in. Actually, I’m amazed sometimes how little it takes for my accent to start shifting and changing again. I can hear it, mid phone call with friends from the UK, slowly beginning to drop off it’s small Canadian nuances and settling into a slightly more English way of talking. Even during my short trip to the States, I found my accent becoming just that little bit more American. I guess I’m kind of like a sponge when it comes to accents. I’m just afraid that, as I get older, these shifts and changes will start to get slower and less common, and I’ll be stuck — stuck with whatever I happened to be last.

I’m so glad for times like this — to have Liz here and to be reminded of the amount of life that has happened since the last time we were together properly. It’s sad at times. Change always comes hand in hand with a feeling of loss. but I’m learning to appreciate the blessings of change as well. I don’t get lost in Walmart anymore, and I can order a sandwich at Subway without freezing up. Things have gotten easier. As Liz and I drove back from signing a lease on our apartment for the coming school year, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how far God has brought us along. So much growing already, and so much still to go.

My Porridge Purgatory

I hate porridge. Oatmeal too. Anything porridge-like, actually. All through my childhood my dad would force us to have porridge now and then, I think with the hopes that he would slowly teach us to like it. I am living proof of that failure. It didn’t hardly matter how it was made. Yes, some kinds of porridge that were less terrible than others — some with enough sugar in them to entice a younger me to almost enjoy it. But really, I would rather have just about anything else.

Today was porridge day. I do everything I can to avoid it, but since I’m working as a caretaker, I have to make whatever wants to be eaten. Every so often, after a run of waffles, and then bacon and eggs, and then a day of cereal, I can feel the porridge coming. I know it’s been too long since we had it last, so each morning I go into panic mode, knowing that it’s getting closer. A couple days ago I made a last minute change and pulled out breakfast sausage from the freezer to have eggs and sausage, even though we had bacon and eggs only a couple days ago. But this meant that it wasn’t strange to then have cereal again the next day. I’m so sneaky. But, regardless of my efforts, today was the day. “Grandpa” even poured the water into the pot himself, and a lot of it, which meant I had no say as to just how much porridge we were going to have either. Instead I got to sit there stirring this mass of porridge, knowing that I would have to eat whatever he didn’t. We have special porridge bowls here too. They’re bigger than all the other bowls — wide, beige, gaping expanses. I just don’t understand why we have to have such big bowls just for porridge day.

But, as it has been with porridge, I lived. It isn’t actually that bad, but it’s not really that good either. I don’t complain, but it isn’t without some resolve that I force myself to keep on shovelling those mushy blobs of oats into my mouth. And, since basically no chewing is needed with porridge, after a few seconds of having it in my mouth, I just swallow and repeat.

Then porridge is gone for a few days, maybe a week, if I’m lucky and can make excuses for a couple other breakfast options. But I know that before long those big beige bowls will come out again and there will be a little pot sitting on the stove with too much water in it, waiting. Waiting for me.