Art of Writing is pleased to announce this year's winner of the Art of Rewriting Essay Contest. Caitlyn Jordan, a senior English major from Granite Bay, CA, is double-minoring in human rights and creative writing. She works as a writing tutor in the Student Learning Center, contributes to the student publication Caliber, and teaches health education to local high school students through the campus organization Peer Health Exchange.

Jordan’s prize-winning essay, which draws upon her experience studying abroad, was sparked by a discussion in one of the courses she took as a visiting student at Kings College London. The essay is below.

Caitlyn Jordan, winner of the 2019 Art of Rewriting Essay Contest

Caitlyn Jordan, winner of the 2019 Art of Rewriting Essay Contest

Bridging the Gap

Caitlyn Jordan

  In 1942, despite delayed construction, uncertainty, and the largest war faced by London, a new bridge opens from the rubble of Strand Bridge. It is a precarious structure—beams have been forced into arches; the footway is supported by slabs of metal. Beneath it, the River Thames, the longest river in England, runs dangerously quickly. Yet, from the bridge, travelers can see London in all directions, can watch the way the river curves endlessly around the city. The new bridge is named after the victorious Battle of Waterloo, the battle in which the British ended the Napoleonic Wars. A few years later, it becomes the only Thames bridge to be hit by German bombers. Waterloo Bridge—fashioned from war, made into a casualty of its violence. 


            Four days of the week, I walk across Waterloo Bridge to reach the central campus of King’s College London. This is a newly familiar route. According to my passport, I am a six-month, short-term student. That is, I am a study abroad student. I am a visitor who can give directions to tourists. Every time I reenter the UK, I lug a folder to the passport control desk, checking to ensure it’s all printed inside: transcripts, letters of acceptance, bank statements, everything which proves I am only temporary.

            No one makes eye contact on the bridge, reminding me of our British study abroad advisor’s warning: “For Heaven’s sake, don’t smile at strangers!” Unable to completely relinquish my American interest in interacting with strangers, I watch them instead: new couples taking photos, businesspeople walking with earphones fastened tightly, the occasional person wrapped in blankets who asks me for money. Waterloo Bridge, rebuilt and improved, serves as one of the major bridges across the Thames. No matter the hour, there are always people on Waterloo, and every time I cross the bridge, I’m reminded of London’s size, how its traffic and people never seem to pause. 


            Waterloo Bridge gained a reputation for suicides in the 1840’s, before its demolition and reconstruction in 1942, when it was still known as Strand Bridge. Poet Thomas Hood named the bridge the “Bridge of Sighs”, and even accidental deaths happened on Waterloo—a daredevil attempting to perform a trick hung himself in front of his horrified audience. But even a few years ago, sixteen-year-old Rebekah Legg-Mead threw herself off of Waterloo Bridge after continuous bullying. A passerby jumped into the water to try to save her, but he couldn’t. I know this. Each time I cross the bridge, I’m struck by a sense of wonder, but I’m always afraid. Afraid that I’ll pass someone holding onto the edge and not be able to help, or worse, not notice at all.  

            Some days, especially cold days, I stop to look at the river. The wind is an incessant attack. Stray bits of hair catch in my mouth and the dampness seems to enter every part of my body, even the corners of my eyes. I imagine hurtling towards the grey water, not because I want to but because my mind can’t let me forget it—that people have thrown themselves off this very bridge, that people have tried to save each other and sometimes failed. 

            There are so many people in London, and I know none of them. None of my friends from Berkeley studied abroad. I know no one in this country, and no one in the countries touching this one. Living abroad, everything becomes reduced to increments: carefully plotted phone calls between classes, work shifts, and meetings; hour-long coffee chats with people seen only in passing. I wonder if this is how it will be after college, when my friends and I scatter across the world. I wonder if this is what being an adult is—loving people who are never close enough.

If I threw myself off Waterloo Bridge who would be the first to know, to recognize me? London time is eight hours before California. If it happened at noon, it would be four in the morning back home. It would be dark there; the day would not have started. I would leave unnoticed.


            One day, I walk across Waterloo, and everything has changed. There are police vehicles clustered around the barriers; there are uniformed officers in bowler hats I still find charmingly ridiculous. There are no busses, no cars. I continue, and as I reach the middle of the bridge, I see that Waterloo is blocked with people. There are trees tied to the divider. There is a parked truck, opened to reveal a band strumming on the guitar. On one side of the bridge, I see a daycare in which children paint each other’s faces and sit on bales of hay. It’s an environmental protest, the Extinction Rebellion, and soon it will dominate headlines. But in this moment, I just see a bridge transformed.

It’s warmer at this time of year, and the people are kinder. Protesters offer me pamphlets about climate change, and encourage people passing by to jump over the traffic dividers and join them. I pause, and someone shouts to me to come in. The bridge is consumed with us: people writing messages in chalk, skateboarders performing tricks, people holding hands. We listen as a person perched on a box speaks into a megaphone. She chants and we respond: “Whose streets?” “Our streets!” I am still temporary, an outsider in transit, but in this moment, it feels as if we all belong to Waterloo Bridge. It is ours, just as the planet is ours to save.  

A few days later everything is shut down. I leave my apartment to get groceries and the streets are emptied of people. Tape barricades us from crossing the bridge. Eventually, traffic resumes. On my daily route across Waterloo Bridge, I pause by the barrier. Instead of imaging myself in the water, I remember what was once there: two children, lit by sun, unfolding a banner between them, holding it proudly above their heads.

Players, Spectators & Fanatics: A Collaborative Digital Journal on the Cultures of Sports

Whether you play, watch, or try to ignore it, sport is woven into our daily lives. In this class, we read some of the very best sports journalism with a critical lens. In so doing, we examined intersections between business, race, culture, disability, gender, performance, technology, politics, social justice, and above all else attention to inquiry through thoughtful writing.

In what ways can each sport be considered its own culture, with distinct rituals, language, costumes, imagery and relationship networks?  What’s interesting about the way sports bodies are transformed under the spectator’s gaze – especially when those bodies are thought to have an advantage based on sex, race, gender or disability? What constitutes “greatness” in the context of time, aging, and the marketing of self? And how do we start to understand the political, technological, and social trap that athletes find themselves in when asked to be role models and cultural symbols -- but not to speak?

Explore and enjoy a sampling of the work created in this course! Check out the collaborative digital journal made by U.C. Berkeley students in a Fall 2018 writing seminar co-sponsored by College Writing Programs & the Art of Writing program at the Townsend Center for the Humanities.

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Soda, Sappho, and the Art of Translation: Leonid Elyon Wins 2018 Essay Contest

UC Berkeley Sophomore Leonid Elyon, winner of the 2018 Art of Rewriting Essay Contest

UC Berkeley Sophomore Leonid Elyon, winner of the 2018 Art of Rewriting Essay Contest

Art of Writing is pleased to announce this year's winner of the Art of Rewriting Essay Contest, Leonid Elyon. Leonid is currently a second year double majoring in Genetics and Plant Biology and Slavic Languages and Literature. Leonid studies Russian and Polish languages and literatures, and hopes to study more Slavic Languages in the future. He is the head designer of the Undergrad Slavic Journal Troika and a designer at Caliber magazine as well. Leonid loves plants, nature, and literature equally, but is currently unsure where his majors will ultimately take him--possibly into a career in academia, but first to Latvia, where he will be studying abroad this fall. 

Leonid's essay, "Sappho and Society" began as an assignment for a Slavic R5A course taught by 2016 Koshland Fellow Caroline Brickman. Leonid writes,

Sappho, and [Anne] Carson’s perceived manipulation of her, intrigued me, but what I wrote was merely an answer to a prompt. I had never been exposed to the essay style, but when a professor showed me recently just how broad writing styles can be, I felt inspired to rewrite this Sappho paper as an essay. [...] My first hurdle was in refining my argument. What began as a traipse into space and Sappho has become about Carson’s motivations for writing this book, [...] which led me to believe that the very physicality of the book was its most important aspect: the fact that it can be smelled and touched and rifled through. [...] I now hope this essay can stand on its own, ushered from being a simple assignment to being a real idea.

See below for the full text of Leonid's essay.

Sappho and Society

Leonid Elyon

In my freshman year of college I remembered I liked to read. Where had the time gone when I went with my mother to the library and I would check out a stack this high and actually read? It was in high school that I became a fake, someone who wanted to collect but never to consume. We’d go to Goodwill, my mother and I, and I would pick so and so from the shelf and I’m sure she’d look on with proud eyes at the tomes I picked. “That’s my son, what a reader,” she’d think. But it was a lie. Once home the books would sit and collect dust. Was I scared of something? Perhaps a laziness had set into my bones and settled like all the calcium from the milk I drank. I also found out in freshman year I was lactose intolerant, but that’s beside my point: something had happened.

I won’t claim that Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter changed me, or that it awoke in me my love for books. It did nothing of the sort, in fact it did something quite the opposite; I could suddenly argue with literature. Before If Not, Winter, books to me were these static things; they had words and meaning and images, but they were nothing special. When I read all those books from the library, they impacted me in the way a cult impacts an impressionable youth. I became obsessed with copying their form and style and tone without regard for my own deeper thought processes. It had never occured to me that literature you write can be in response to what you read.

That’s exactly what this book is. It is the response to a societal mood: let’s use and abuse Sappho (after all, who cares?). Carson wants an end to what she describes aptly as “a duller load of silence surround[ing] the bits of Sappho cited by ancient scholars, grammarians, metricians, etc., who want a dab of poetry to decorate some proposition of their own.” These people have become targets, and every bracket seems to further nail the coffin in their graves.

Brackets, yes, I seem to have gotten ahead of myself. I’ve yet to describe the illustrious If Not, Winter. Under the guise of a 400 page tome, these Sapphic translations are true to the original (perhaps too much so). The book opens with Carson’s brief introduction and begins with the only Sappho poem to survive in its entirety. The Greek on the left page faces the English on the right, all organized into clean stanzas. Now that I’ve seen frats and sororities I know some of these Greek letters: there’s a phi, and an omega, and a chi… If only I spoke ancient Greek. We have to trust that Carson’s words have remained as true to the original as the book’s design layout implies, as most people uneducated in Sappho are ushered by this design into the belief that her words unequivocally equal Sappho’s.

The question of translational quality goes out the window as we are led down the book’s meandering path of brackets and open space. Blank pages with sparse fragmentary words enclosed by brackets litter the book. These brackets “indicate destroyed papyrus or the presence of letters not quite legible somewhere in the line.” More importantly, though, “brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it.” As the book winds to a close, Carson stuffs in as many of the one-word fragments as possible. We find such favorites as “soda,” “makeup bag,” and “mythweaver.”

Is this all a joke? It would seem almost that Carson is doing Sappho a disservice in translating her so, left her open to insults by freshmen in college like me. Oh, if Carson were to see how my pencil stabbed at the pages and attacked any vulnerable word that was left with only the protection of those brackets, she would cry. I’m sure I could have finished the book in 5 minutes if I hadn’t put it down in bored disgust first. “Who does Anne Carson think she is?” I thought. I paid money for this joke of a book, for these fragments of Sappho, and all I got was “soda” and “makeup bag.” Claiming this conclusive edition of Sapphic translations was the be-all end-all, Carson thought she could single-handedly shut down those “ancient scholars, grammarians, metricians, etc.,” but she became one of them, seemingly taking advantage of the abused and discarded Sappho. I picked the book back up. Carson, what’s your game? At that point in my freshman year of college I remembered I liked to read.

I’ve come to realize that this isn’t really a book book. It’s a guidebook, a dictionary, a How to Sappho for Dummies. It was Carson putting her foot down because Sappho had been changed. Rather than take from her, poets and authors had instead begun to add to her their own styles and words and emotions. This book truly is the definitive Sappho. It’s not meant to be read, but rather referred to. These brackets lend a scientific cleanliness, organizing freeform words and stanzas into immoveable squares held far away from the vastness of the blank page. Keep this book on your shelf, Carson begs, and use it when some “ancient scholars, grammarians, metricians, etc.” attempt to quote Sappho. You can see “soda,” and know exactly where to draw the line between them and Sappho.

If Not, Winter is Sappho unadulterated. It seems that I’ve lied to myself, thinking that it hasn’t changed me. I’m somehow imprinted in these pages, as brackets and one word translations lend themselves to a certain universality: It’s true, occasionally I do sit on the sofa, sipping soda, while my mother digs into her makeup bag and wonders what happened to the days where I read and never argued.

Call for Summer Reading List

It's that time of year again:  we're coming to UCB faculty, staff, and students and asking for your suggestions of great readings for this year's Summer Reading List for New Students. Check out this year's theme below, and if you have a suggestion, please send the title, author name, and a short description of the book, including how it speaks to this year's theme, to Mike Larkin (larkinm@berkeley.eduby Friday, March 2.

Fiat Lux:  Let there be light...and inspiration, discovery, and hope

As UC Berkeley marks its sesquicentennial, we'd like you to take the university's motto, Fiat Lux ("Let there be light") as inspiration for your recommendations of great reads to share with Cal's incoming classes of freshmen and transfer students. We encourage you to interpret the theme broadly:  what are your favorite books of whatever genre detailing journeys or moments of discovery or inspiration; narratives of personal transformation and insight; or perhaps stories of dark, difficult times in personal or societal history where people found their way to the "light." 

Journalism, fiction, history, poetry, biography and memoir--whatever the genre, what are the readings that would suit the theme, that resonate most with you, and that you'd love our new incoming students to be inspired by? Please let us know, and let there be light...from you. (No pressure.) 

For samples of past years' write-ups by the UCB folks who suggested the readings, see Again, we look forward to seeing your recommendations by Friday, March 2. Many thanks.

All best and happy reading,

Mike Larkin, College Writing Programs

Tim Dilworth, UC Library

Second Annual Art of Writing Essay Contest

Art of Writing held its second annual Undergraduate Essay Contest this spring. Because it is a central principle of the program that thoughtful revision is essential to good writing, students were asked to submit an essay in both its early and final stages, along with an account of the changes they made to the piece in between.

This year’s winner was Sophia Stewart, a sophomore from Los Angeles with a major in Media Studies and a minor in Spanish. She works as an editor and staff writer for the campus publication Caliber Magazine, and serves on the board of directors for BareStage Productions, UC Berkeley’s oldest student-run theater company. She aspires to work in the television industry as a writer and critic. 

In her prizewinning essay, Stewart offers a sensitive exploration of her own experience as a person who stutters:

I’m not praying to be totally fluent tomorrow, or even mostly fluent. My request is specific and far more realistic. I want to be able to say my name fluently; not Sssssophia, not S-S-Sophia, just plain old Sophia. I gather up the courage to ask:

O Mysterious Gods of Speech, in its perpetual ebb and flow. Tomorrow, allow my speech to be sufficiently cooperative that I may introduce myself unimpeded. That’d be dope.

They listen. The next day I’m able to introduce myself to the class fluently. Of course, when I’m asked to share my major, I have to slip out the untrue but easier open vowel of ‘I’m not sure yet’ instead of the true but closelipped nasal consonant mee of ‘Media Studies.’ It’s a compromise I accept. Better to pretend I don’t know my major than my name.

Robert Reich on Writing

On February 23rd, we had the pleasure of hosting Professor Robert Reich for our second annual Art of Writing Lecture. The event began with Professor Reich filming his daily Resistance Report on Facebook live, which, in a deviation from the Report's usual monologue format, included him taking numerous questions about the current political climate from the 150 undergraduate students in the audience. After the Report, however, Professor Reich switched gears a little, chatting with Art of Writing Director Ramona Naddaff about his practices as a writer.

The former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, a prolific political commentator, and professor of over 700 students in his popular Wealth and Poverty course alone at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, Reich is also the author of fourteen books and several plays, and has been a contributing editor at periodicals such as The New RepublicThe AtlanticThe New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, The American Prospect (which he co-founded), and the Harvard Business Review. Speaking with Prof. Naddaff, he shared his reflections on everything from the importance of returning to first drafts, his reluctant embrace of social media, and the passion (and rage) that fuels his deeply felt need to write. You can watch the whole conversation here: 

‘The Annex’: Adventures in Creative Nonfiction

As part of UC Berkeley’s new Art of Writing curriculum, English professor Scott Saul and PhD candidate Ismail Muhammad  taught a creative nonfiction workshop on the theme of Covering Culture.

For every assignment, the class hosted a visitor whose work provided a source of inspiration; the visitors were Lili Loofbourow (The Week), film historian David Thomson, Hua Hsu (The New Yorker), art journalist Sarah Thornton, and Sarah Burke (then managing editor and writer for the East Bay Express).

Due to the ongoing renovation of Wheeler Hall, the English Department’s customary home, the seminar met in a room surrounded by cubicle-like offices in the somewhat faceless, low-slung Building C of Hearst Field Annex  —  thus the name of the site:

Jeff Chang & Hua Hsu in Conversation

The latest episode of the Townsend Center for the Humanities' books-and-arts podcast Chapter & Verse features critics Jeff Chang and Hua Hsu in conversation about music, race, and popular culture. The conversation was part of the Art of Cultural Criticism Lecture Series created by Art of Writing Professor Scott Saul in tandem with his Fall 2016 course Covering Culture. 

From Chapter & Verse:

Jeff Chang and Hua Hsu are among the most lucid and sane guides to the divided world we live in — the world that encompasses both Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump, Beyoncé and Steve Bannon. 

How is it that, as American culture becomes increasingly 'colorized,' to use Chang's word, its politics get increasingly polarized in terms of black and white? What are the roots of this divide? How does it tie into other patterns of inequality? Where do Asian-Americans fit in? And how might a Berkeley education — both Hsu and Chang are Cal alums — set up a writer to see the faultlines of this terrain? 

These are the questions explored in this C&V episode, which comes from a recording of an event held in October 2016 on the Berkeley campus.

Jeff Chang is the author of several acclaimed books including Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, a synthetic history of the rise of hip hop; Who We Be: A Cultural History of Post-Civil Rights America, which traces how artists of color created new stories of national belonging and new forms of cultural protest; and We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, a primer on our current political crisis. He is currently executive director of Stanford's Institute for the Diversity in the Arts.  

Hua Hsu has written, capaciously, on music, politics, sports, and books for GrantlandSlate, and most recently The New Yorker, where he serves as a contributing writer. An associate professor of English at Vassar College and a board member of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Hsu is also the author of A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacifica study of the rivalries that beset those who, during the interwar years, hoped to speak for China in the West.