The fall is always the busiest time of year for me; not only am I in the full swing of teaching, but I’m also juggling multiple plates with my writing career. This is the time that many literary magazines open their doors to submissions, so the pieces I’ve refined over the summer are heading out my door, and I’m spending free moments prepping them and sending them. At the same time, I’m writing and editing for our fledgling literary magazine, Two Cities Review, and planning some exciting new projects for the magazine, such as a new podcast (Stay tuned for more info on this exciting venture). There’s personal life and family life. Writing new things and editing old things. Sending out novel manuscripts and sending out stories. In the mess of all this, what’s a writer to do to stay sane? Read more
When you’re in high school, there’s a pretty narrow framework of coolness within which people can fall. Whatever it is at your school — whether it’s the football/cheerleader set, or the beautiful and fashionable crowd — it can be tough to be out of the limelight. Writers tend to be nerdy types, not the people who get all the attention when they’re young. We’re too busy being off by ourselves with our noses stuck in books to worry about parties and prom dates.
But the secret is, it’s actually incredibly cool to be a writer. Wanting to write makes you stand out from the crowd in a few key ways. And if you wait just a little longer, and stay true to your writerly identity, you’ll find yourself at the center of the coolest club on the planet. Here are a few reasons that writers are the coolest people around.
Writers never stop asking why.
We learn that it’s the rebels, the innovators who question authority, who ask why things are the way they are and seek to change it. But all too early in life, too many people settle down and accept the expectations society or family has for them without ever stopping to wonder why some things are seen as good and others are bad. Why is being popular a good thing? Why is owning a lot of stuff a good thing? Why is it a bad thing not to conform? Why is it okay to treat people with less power callously? Does our society encourage us to be consumers? There aren’t easy answers to these questions, but writers never stop wondering about them. It’s what makes them such curious, interesting people.
Welcome to summer, writers. You’ve slogged through the hard brutal months of winter, you’ve sneezed and sloshed through the allergies and mud puddles of spring, and you’ve been rewarded with that perennial gift, the months of summer. (For this post: sorry, Australians, you’ll get there). The sun is out ridiculously late, and I always find myself bursting with newfound energy. At long last, it’s time to do all the things you said you would do, and make sure you make summer count.
The great part about summer is that if you’re out of school, those daily mental demands of homework are gone, freeing you up to daydream, to wonder, and to imagine. This is the kind of idle, directionless thought that can turn into creative work; no matter how you try to force creative thought when you have to, it just doesn’t happen as easily as when you let thoughts percolate and creep up on you of their own accord. It’s kind of like trying to solve a crossword or a sudoku — you always get the answer the moment you’ve given up and pushed the puzzle away for a while.
So my first suggestion to you this summer is to leave plenty of room for unstructured thinking time. That is NOT to be confused to unstructured staring-at-the-tv time or unstructured partying-with-friends time. Fun as that is, those activities end up filling our brains, stimulating us in pleasant but distracting ways. To REALLY leave ourselves in an unstructured mental space, we’ve got to go for a walk. Stroll under some shady trees or follow the shoreline of a beach that is whispering secrets to itself. Ride your bike through a neighborhood you only half now. Don’t blast music in your earbuds. Don’t check your phone for messages. Give yourself the time to dream.
When you return from your walk, you’ll be amazed by how many ideas want to jump onto the page from your head. Try writing down a few of them. Keep the spell of quiet going just a little bit longer. After all, it’s the summer; there will be plenty of time for the beach, for friends, for cheesy blockbuster movies. But daydreaming time, creative time, is precious. Don’t let the summer slip through your fingers without that rare time.
No matter how old I get, I think I’ll still feel that burst of savage glee that comes with the arrival of summer. School’s out for summer! School’s out for ever! I may not be a a student anymore, but the summer is still a time of changing schedules, of greater freedom, and of nearly boundless opportunities for creativity. It’s crucial to be mindful of what you want out of your summer, and to make it happen. It’s simply too easy to let summer slip away, and wake up on August 31st wondering where it went. On the first day of fall, you want to walk back into your normal life with accomplishments under your belt, with new skills acquired, new adventures experienced, new maturity and growth achieve. So here’s your guide for how to have not only the most fun summer, but also the most creative.
I know I’m not supposed to admit this, because I’m supposed to be a Big Fancy Writer who doesn’t waste time on non-literary pursuits — but I. Love. Television. I always have. The love affair began when my mother dug a tiny black-and-white TV out of a neighbor’s trash to have something to watch while she was on her treadmill in the basement. When my older sister was hogging the regular tv I’d go down there and stand on the treadmill — literally, just stand there — in order to watch Saturday cartoons. It was cold and damp and dark in the basement, and the little half-broken TV only got three channels and had a horizontal stripe across the screen that scrolled slowly up and down the image, but I didn’t care.
My first TV love was cartoons, and I continued to love them well past the age considered appropriate. I watched Nickelodeon devotedly. When my older sister was watching MTV, I rolled my eyes. We had to have a strict turn-switching system, and when it was my turn, I went straight back to Rugrats or Hey Arnold.
Then later on, I discovered grown-up TV. When the good HBO shows started coming out, my parents rented them on DVD a year after the fact and I watched Sex and the City and The Sopranos. I saw more violence and sex than was probably usual for my age, but I was more captivated by the stories than anything else. For that reason, Sex and the City was always something of a drag to me — weak storytelling that doesn’t age well — but The Sopranos was a family event.
There was a slowing down period in college, but when I got my own place and got a tv that actually got more than five channels, it was hard to control for a while. I could watch silly reality TV or serious educational shows on PBS; I could watch old black and white episodes of The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason, with Raymond Burr’s enormous shoulders filling the screen. I loved it all. Time that I could have spent reading studiously or writing diligently has been wasted staring into the silver screen.
Why is television so powerfully attractive? It’s hard to say. But I’d argue it uses the same storytelling techniques that make for compelling fiction — just to even greater effect. Great and bad tv shows alike use suspense and drama and surprise; they let you sink into a deepening and broadening world. The really excellent shows in our day — Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Downtown Abbey, and so on — are more like novels than anything else, giving us a large and complex and deep immersion into a fictional world. They tap into the same wells of storytelling hunger that all of us feel.
Television can be delightful as well. There are teams of writers out there right now, whole mobs, sitting around tables and working out ways to make you laugh. They’re funny. Good, serious books are not as funny as often, because television shows have the advantage of the visual cue. A sideways look, a pratfall, a bit of slapstick and we can laugh.
But as I began this post, I want to point out that television also has a funny way of — well, sucking out your soul. Of draining you of creativity, of originality, of energy. Even with all the fun and suspense and surprise.
Have you ever had one of those weekend nights, where you started sitting on the couch after dinner, and hours later you find yourself sinking to the floor in a pile of chip crumbs, the last hours of your life an uncertain haze? Anyone who watches television seriously has had a night like this. The way the shows loop endlessly together, the way our favorite shows are always available in rerun, the way even the commercials know how to pull us in with a cheery jingle and funny joke — all these techniques have been precisely calculated to suck the creative life right out of you.
The problem is that bad television really is bad. It’s clichéd, lazy storytelling. It relies on absurd and offensive stereotypes or sex appeal. When you are passively consuming the same clichéd storyline over and over, you become a little deadened to the possibilities of story. You forget to imagine that other people exist beyond the bro, the shopaholic girl, the nuclear family. You forget that other races and genders and countries have perspectives. You forget what your own perspective is, and you begin to think you’re just like those two-dimensional figures you see on the screen.
I’m thinking about the new series Fresh off the Boat, which has rightly been garnering some praise and excitement for its humor, sharp writing, and bold new choices. But then I can’t help but feel stunned that it’s such a big deal. This is a fairly typical family sitcom — but everyone’s going wild over this one because it’s only the second television show to ever star an Asian-American family — and the first in nearly twenty years. How absurd is that?
Bad TV irons out any of the bumps and wrinkles of humanity; it has only about five to seven possible storylines for all characters to follow. It’s insulting to our humanity and it can really ruin a day’s worth of creativity.
So how can we resist? I know we all need our guilty pleasures. I began this piece talking about how much I love the experience of watching television. I love sinking into that spot on the couch after a long day and relaxing a bit into a familiar story, a beautiful vista, or the life of a character I know. I like being educated and informed; I like learning something about lions in Kenya or the state of Ukraine. But I also like watching voyeuristic reality tv or sitcom reruns I’ve already seen. I’ll probably always love television, and I want to say that without shame. But I know what makes me feel good beyond the time of reading or watching; it’s reading that makes me feel richer and fuller and happier long after the book has been closed. With television, the moment of pushing the power button is filled with a feeling of regret. What just happened to those two hours of my life?
I know I’m counting my chickens before they’re hatched, readers, but this weekend felt like spring was in the air in Chicago. The air had that special mild feel; the wind that blustered about me was warm, and the sun was bright enough to make me squint. More than these little rises in the thermostat, though, I just felt that extra burst of energy that spring brings with it. I walked all over town, glad to make up errands and excuses to get outside. Before the week was out, I had filled the coming months with excited plans. I’ll be fitter! I’ll eat better! I’ll write outdoors and go to cafes and and and…
I know I won’t be able to accomplish all the excited plans on my calendar, but just having the excitement of planning is enough right now. Spring always gives me a boost of hopeful energy. And before you tell me not to get my hopes up, I know; as a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I know April has a way of having late snowstorms. My heart is hard and ready for this little taste of spring to fade. But once nature gets a foothold, it never seems quite as bad to dip back into winter for a while.
This also means that I’ve almost officially survived my first Chicago winter. I thought it would take extra strength of character, but it honestly wasn’t too unbearable, except for a few extreme days. And of course, this has me thinking about what the change of season means for our creative lives. Will there be more time, somehow, for writing? Will we be able to sit out in the sun and jot things down in our notebooks, or just think and plan and work on dreamier things? It’s hard to say. But we can certainly set ourselves up for success by seizing the joy of spring.
WRITERS ARE LUCKY. We have a built-in desire to communicate; it’s a need within us. That’s true of all human beings, but we’re lucky because we, unlike many others, have the tools to do it. But all too often, we smother that impulse and those means, preferring the safety of silence.
I was a shy kid.
Shy with a capital S. So afraid of meeting with someone’s disapproval that I would keep silent in the most extreme of situations. My first day in preschool, I recall with a sting of shame, I wet my pants because I was too shy to ask where the bathroom was. Yes, it was that bad. Sometimes I look back and breathe a sigh of relief that nothing too terrible happened to me, because if it did, I’m sure I wouldn’t have spoken up about it.
Looking back on that terrified little kid, I wonder what was going on in her head.
Nothing had traumatized me into this silence; it was just part of my personality. It was extremely difficult for me to speak my point of view. When I went over to another kid’s house and the parent asked me what snack I wanted, I wouldn’t say for fear of insulting them or seeming greedy. And when friends angered me or hurt my feelings, I bore those feelings in silence, afraid of losing that precious relationship.
I suspect more kids than you think were like this.
There are the loud talkers, the needy kids, the showoffs, and way in the back are the shy ones, desperate to speak up, but scared to. As an adult, I can shake my head and see how much better life is in every way when you risk criticism, and when you speak your mind. Through experience, through growing just a bit older, I can see how speaking your mind becomes a powerful need.
Once I got through the agonies of middle school, I was surprised to discover that speaking up felt good. It still does! There’s nothing worse than quietly seething when someone has offended you, or a job isn’t being done right; and there’s nothing more satisfying than expressing your point of view. This applies to relationships, friendships, coworkers, teachers — you name it. There is always a respectful way to tell the truth; and you are always entitled to feeling a certain way. Once I realized this, I became hard to shut up. I was always the big talker in class. I went on and on. I shared. I overshared. It can be intoxicating, to find yourself listened to and understood. I probably overdid it a little, but I was making up for lost time.
THE HIGH IS THREE DEGREES IN CHICAGO TODAY, AND I’M NOT EVEN TELLING YOU WHAT THE WIND CHILL IS. I’ve arrived in this Midwestern city at the perfect time to see it at its worst; the winds are howling off the snow-covered lake, and it’s so cold that it’s dangerous to go outside. I’ve stood out on those elevated train platforms now with my nose tucked into my scarf, shivering under the measly little heat lamps while that wind howls close to my skin. It’s a creature with teeth, a mugger wielding knives. It is a physical presence with a cutting brutality on your face, your eyes, your hands.
Seriously, I grew up in New England, but this cold is a whole different level. This is the cold that people can die in. Homeless or drunk people get locked out at the wrong time and die every year.
And with all this extremity around me, my hometown has STILL managed to best Chicago this year. Again, my timing was perfect; I left about a week before the first snowstorm hit Boston, and it’s been nothing but piling snow ever since. At first, snow is beautiful and delightful. Bostonians I knew were sending gleeful messages about another day of canceled class, another snowman built. Giddy photos popped up online of people making snow angels, sledding down Beacon street, skiing down Comm Ave.
But the snow is overstayed its welcome. With no days above freezing temperatures, the snow has stayed, even as more and more has piled up. Trains are stopped. Buses are spotty. Most roads have become one-way. People with real jobs, people with kids to take care of, are desperate. Snow days and piled sidewalks have become one more thing that a few are privileged to enjoy, and most must suffer.
In the way that we all think the universe revolves around us, I can’t help wonder what Boston is trying to tell me with this howling gale mere days after my final departure from my home. It makes me feel like I was essential to the place, somehow, and now once I’ve left, there’s an icy void in my place. Maybe the city is expressing its rage that I’m gone. Or maybe I belittled Boston too often. I’ve told too many people that it’s really a small town, barely a city. You don’t think I’m a city? Boston is retorting. Well how about this?
I’m being silly, of course; nothing is more impervious to human beings than weather, and yet we insist on taking it personally. On a Chicago day when the winds are so strong that I must take shelter behind a building, in the lee of the wind, I wonder what I did wrong, what I did to deserve this. Am I up to Chicago’s mettle? Do I have what it takes? I don’t know yet, but I’m trying. I’ve leaped into the icy deep end of what Chicago has to offer. For the next few months, you can picture me feeling around in the black waters of the unknown here, struggling to survive.
Ever have one of those days? How about one of those weeks, or those semesters? Yeah, we’ve all been there. Sometimes we go through a stretch where everything seems to be piled on top of us. There’s homework and college applications and relationship troubles and fights with friends. There’s band practice and clarinet practice and oh my God, did she really say that about me online? There’s the constant buzz of tension that being alive and stressed and a bit confused brings. Sometimes we just want to throw up our hands and give up; we don’t even know what to fix first in our lives. Then our parents come into the room and ask us to take out the trash and isn’t that just the last straw? We just cannot handle it all. We CANNOT.
If you’ve ever felt this way, don’t you worry; all the rest of us have too. Sometimes life gets overwhelming, particularly in our busy modern day and age. We want to do a bit of everything, and Facebook and FOMO isn’t exactly helping. But the secret is, there IS a way to get stuff done; not everything, but enough to feel Okay about it all.
The secret begins with something my dad always says to me. He would tell me when I was a kid, “You can have anything you want; you just can’t have EVERYTHING you want.” This is simple advice, but you wouldn’t believe how helpful it is when you start applying it to your choices in your everyday routine. You want to Ace that big paper that’s due this week. But you also want to watch five hours of television while eating butterscotch cookies. It’s okay, I don’t judge. We’ve all been there. The truth is, if you pause to think about your priorities, you’ll realize that the choice is pretty simple; given that you can’t have EVERYTHING you want, it’s pretty easy to see which thing you want more. Which reward will be more lasting — TV marathon or getting a good grade on that paper?
This can apply to pretty much any situation in life. So you’re having a fight with your friend. You want to be in the right; you want the pride and superiority of saying “I told you so.” But you also want your friend. You want to maintain that friendship that has meant so much to you. When you weigh one want against the other, and understand that you can’t have both but you <i>can</i> have one, the choice becomes clear. It’s time to apologize, and let whatever that was go.
It’s all about taking a moment to assess your priorities, and be mindful about what you really want. What do you want today, and what do you want six months from now? How are you going to get closer to that six month desire?
I think the first part of my dad’s saying is equally crucial. You can have anything you want, he always assured me. That opened tremendous doors of possibility in my kiddish mind. You want to be an astronaut, an engineer, the coolest kid in school? Whatever it is, you can achieve it if you work for it. The world is your oyster, kid. But if you keep sacrificing those big wants for smaller, pettier wants along the way, you’ll never make it. You’ve got to keep your eyes on that big, real want looming on the horizon.
So what do you think? What are your little wants and what are your big wants, and how do they stack up against each other? When life is getting in the way, when you just <i>cannot handle it right now</i>, it’s time to think about <i>what you really want.</i> Do you want to succeed in that super-hard class in school? Do you want to resolve things with your friend? Do you want your family to respect you more? What’s most important to you? And what steps can you take toward that want? Take it one step at a time. Head firmly in that direction. And you’ll be able to handle it just enough to get by.
You’re on YikYak, right? It seems like everybody is on either this or Snapchat or both. On these trendy new services, people can send brief, anonymous missives to the larger world. It’s like Twitter, but safer and more fun, because it doesn’t have to be tightly associated with you, and it doesn’t last forever. We’re always warned that what goes on the internet is there forever, but that’s not always true. There are a few big reasons that services like YikYak and Snapchat are tapping into our most deeply held impulses as human beings, and these are why they will probably take over the world — if they haven’t done so already.
1. The lure of anonymity. That’s the big one, of course. Things like Facebook demand real identities. That makes it just a little bit harder to delve into our darker selves. But anonymity allows us to indulge in all sorts of secret human desires. We don’t have to be polite; we can be as rude and nasty as we want; we can snipe and backbite. We can say the things we’re afraid to say in public. That’s the beauty of anonymity; so many of us have things to say, but a major roadblock is having those words stuck to us like a nametag. We’re able to be braver, both in good and bad ways, with the help of anonymity.
2. The lure of ephemerality. The other thing that makes services like Snapchat feel safer is their promise that messages and photos won’t last. It encourages us to be bolder when we know the image or words will fade with time; it assures us that no matter what mistakes we make, time will forgive us. That, again, can push us to both the best and worst of our nature. If the consequences of our actions are only short-lived, it’s far easier to say what we really mean — or to say the ugliest thing we can think of just for the sheer excitement of it.
3. We love gossip. Let’s face it; no matter who you are, if you’re human, you like gossip at least a little bit. Did she really –? Did he really? What did they say when they were at the party? And do you know what happened next? No matter how much you scorn gossip as lesser entertainment, it is still objectively entertaining. As human beings, we are endlessly nosy and curious creatures. It’s what makes us capable of learning and insight, after all; it is the uncurious who never learn or step outside the small sphere of their own knowledge. So in a funny way, gossip can be both good and bad, just like all these other very human impulses.
4. We want a voice. As young people, it can be hard to find a space to give our opinions. We don’t control where we live or where we go to school or what we’re required to do. It can be so hard to not have a space to hear your own voice. The magic of online sharing services like Snapchat and YikYak are that they give us that experience. They let us have a voice and say whatever we want. That, again, is tapping into a very human impulse: the creative impulse. We want to speak, to communicate, and to tell a story. We want to <i>make</i> something, and we want that something to be unique. So it’s no surprise that sharing services are so wildly popular; they are giving us an opportunity to be our best selves, which are creative selves. As with all these other very human traits, it can encourage us to be our worst selves, too. It can cause us to spout cliches or trendy phrases just in the urge to find popularity. It can cause us to be the <i>opposite</i> of creative. And yet…it still taps into that creative instinct. Services like YikYak and Snapchat may have already taken over the world, because they’re allowing us to be exactly what we want to be: human, warts and all.