A Writer’s Greatest Fear

After weeks, months, maybe even years of work, you’ve finally completed a writing project that you feel deserves an award. It’s your baby—you brought an idea to life, nurtured it, and helped it grow into what it is today. Congratulations! You’re a proud parent! You want to show off your accomplishment to the world, but you can’t yet. There’s one crucial aspect of the creative process that every writer needs to go through: peer review.

Don’t panic! I know it can be scary, especially for new writers. Who really wants a group of strangers to read, edit, and criticize your baby? You may feel that your project is pure and perfect; but it’s not, trust me. When I first started my creative writing courses I was on my high horse, and so proud of the works that I’d be submitting. The day my first short story was discussed in class was one of the most embarrassing and emotionally painful moments of my college career. I questioned why I even became a creative writing major in the first place.

But why are critiques good for you as a writer? For one, you gain perspective on aspects of your writing that you might have altogether missed: character, grammar, plot progression, structure, symbolism, dialogue, and more. In my own writing, I tend to struggle with plot progression—it’s connecting those dots that can get messy, and my scenes can get stagnant or become altogether unnecessary. You also see your strong points, and for me I’ve learned that it’s grammar and dialogue. With the seemingly negative feedback, you take note not only of your weaknesses, but your strengths. As you recognize where you need to grow as a writer, and actively practice to improve your skills, you’ll develop an even greater love for your projects.

It wasn’t until I took the time to look at edits made, and I started asking my peers and professor questions, that I made the connection that these critiques were helpful, not hurtful. I took the advice of others, no matter how agonizing it was initially, and began to make changes to my draft.

So don’t be afraid of peer review—embrace it! Take notes and listen to your classmates, professors, friends, or whoever you choose to edit your works. Find where you need improvement, and take pride in your strengths! Continue to strive for a strong and confident voice.

Return to Simplicity

I often find myself craving the thought patterns and imagination of younger years—a reality unhinged, naïve, and above all else, limited. My appreciation for reading has really dulled over these past few years; I guess academic writing will do that to you, but I find myself coming to blows with it more and more often. What I can’t forgive is the same disregard from creative writing—just carelessly preparing extravagant dishes, only to try and force-feed them down my metaphorical gullet. What good is a cut of rib eye when you don’t get a chance to chew it?

 

Also, I ordered a hamburger.

 

Oops.

 

Sometimes I find myself going back to June 9th, 2018:

 

Looking for excuses to avoid doing my homework, I took the crumbly crooked stairs down to my garage and slouched into the prickly, unsupportive fabric of the lawn chairs my father refused to replace. It was night time, and night time meant that my dad had already made himself exceptionally drunk. He was watching Anthony Bourdain, and, uncharacteristically, he watched silently. My dad was crying. After a commercial break, Parts Unknown resumed and flashed an especially heartfelt Japanese quote and its English translation: “we must not forget our beginner’s spirit.” Reflecting briefly on the meaning of the expression, I realized—how beautiful language can be in its simplicity.

As if resonating with my thoughts, my dad pointed at the TV bird and softly murmured, “Look at that bird’s. . . makeup.” Look at that bird’s makeup. My dad is a native English speaker. But he was also absurdly drunk with a subsequently limited vocabulary.

As haphazardly as the expression was put together, I don’t know if he could have put it any more poetically.

It reminds that English, in all its lust for overwhelming detail, often sheds its own charm by not being as open ended anymore—it prides itself on precision and accuracy above all else. Our wealth of vocabulary and pronunciation schemes really shoots us in the foot sometimes—we have what feels like the biggest creative sandbox in the world but find ourselves often making massive oblong sand-mounds instead of narrowing in and adding stories to a smaller, more endearing castle.

Unlike however that one idiom goes, sometimes there is ambition in thinking smaller; the consistent use of bigger and more complex words and phrases can and often is an avoidance of better writing. Which is not to say that every word should be made in 4 letters or less, but to remember that our readers are human too—people who appreciate the language for what it is, and not a Scrabble™ board that’s going to reward you points for the use of “mellifluousness.”

My experience is not so much an endorsement of heavy drinking so much as it is a suggestion to other writers, to I don’t know, maybe just ease up once in a while. Make us feel like a kid again.

Some are Just Lost

I picked up the worn copy of what would become my favorite book, not knowing yet the relationship we would have. I read the first page, and by page two knew that this was love. Page seven had me in wonder, page eighty in awe, and page one twenty in tears. I closed it at midnight and marveled it until dawn. I was twelve, and the first chapter book I had ever read was J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Hobbit.

At fourteen I was required to read it for class and sat mindlessly listening to other readers pick it apart. I knew with surety that their opinions were wrong. This was my book. My world. Only known to me. The hills I had traversed with Bilbo Baggins, the grief that I had mourned, how had so few people seen the journey they traveled? Or had they traveled it? I was judgmental and afraid. I was fourteen, and the only comfort I had was J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

At eighteen I watched the old book whither on my mother’s shelf, holding a class schedule in my hand that I wasn’t sure what to do with. Literature looked fun, but I was convinced that math and science were for me. I was convinced that nursing was the only degree. Literature and Culture made nothing in a world full of engineers. I was eighteen and feeling worthless in the presence of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Sometime, after I turned twenty, I was writing with fervor. Twenty pages in. Thirty pages in. I didn’t like what I was writing. I didn’t even enjoy writing it. My joints ached, I had a forming migraine. I was hungry, I was tired. Still, I was writing. Peter Jackson’s interpretation of the Two Towers played so numbly in the background that I missed Frodo’s screams as the ring tortured him until he fell. A voice in the tips of my fingers whispered, “We must keep going.” I was twenty, and I did not yet own my own copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

When I was still a child learning how to be twenty, I broke and gave into writing. I had been chasing nursing until even my grades were bowing to my own incompetence and unwillingness to continue down the path. I wrote a long, incoherent piece of nonsense to turn in to a Creative Writing class I was taking for “fun.”

A month later, I was reading it in front of a group of people.

A day after that, I was majoring in writing.

A day after that, I was writing. Writing, and writing. Remembering stories that had gotten me through. Remembering hope that had pushed me to today. Remembering escapes and letting them become new worlds in my mind. I hadn’t realized how long I had been majoring in writing, before it took over me like a chocolate éclair consumes its creamy filling.

A year after that, I was twenty-one, finally, holding my own copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

How do you Improve at Writing?

How do you improve at writing? I have tried several methods to improve. First, I look towards great works of writing, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, and try to do as they did. Second, I free-write until I get something worthwhile on the page. My last method is to make lists of points and then elaborate. I have found the most success with the last method, but it leaves my writing somewhat dull, disconnected, and long-winded.

I have been making lists for a long time. Throughout my education, the teachers in my writing classes would comment that my first drafts always read like lists. I would meet all the requirements for an assignment, but my drafts were very clinical to read. My writing has improved with time. But I have not truly broken the habit. In order to explain why I care about something, I still default to listing its components. The ability to get to the core of what makes something interesting still eludes me. But I keep searching for it with one bullet point after another.

These are the lists I make: one list for my thoughts, two lists as reminders, three lists to increase my understanding, and four lists to try to find some emotion. Making so many lists made me feel like I was not suited for a creative job and that I would be a better fit for something involving numbers. I started out as an accounting major and made various lists of things going into a company and leaving it. I tried to find joy in making those lists. I treated those lists like puzzles, always searching for the right piece to put into the right place. However, I did not feel anything but numb making those lists.

Switching majors felt like a way I could change how I approached lists. The switch from accounting to technical writing was not as great a change as I thought it would be. Both majors value clarity and concision. In accounting, however, everything must be accounted for (haha!) and that seems to have made my bad habit even worse. Over time, I have found joy in my writing classes. They bring me a different kind of experience, one where I can get lost in making lists. I enjoy refining and tweaking those lists for flow, style, story, theme, and, most important to me, clarity. Maybe if I can make things clear enough, I can get to the core of my purpose and explain to someone else what it means to be a good writer. To get lost in a list with no absolute answer. To feel like the work of examining writing is more rewarding (though not monetarily) than dissecting an accounting ledger.

My writing is still improving and I am still trying to break a bad habit. For now, I will just keep writing and using lists to guide me. Someday I will reach a level of skill where I have the confidence to write without lists, or at least be better able to explain why I use them. Until that day, the only advice I can offer on improving at writing: read and write, write, write.

The Intimidation Game

Poetry intimidates me. I can see Charles Bukowski shaking his head, but then again, I’m intimidated by Charles Bukowski. Poetry should not be intimidating. Poets should not be intimidating. Yet surely, I cannot be the only one who finds themself shouldering the stifling mental weight of upholding the classical standards established by the canon, right? Despite popular opinion, I’m a fan of our canon. Give me Keats or give me (a painless and swift) death, but even John – considered somewhat of a failure in his lifetime – has a way of getting into my head. If I cannot write like “them,” then why write at all?

For five years, I wrote poetry in secret. Bad poetry, albeit, but poetry nonetheless. I typed in darkened bedrooms and hid drafts within inconspicuous folders on my desktop for fear of being found out. Found out as what? Well, a fraud. I was no Bukowski, and I was definitely no Keats; so, I made the cruel assumption that my way forward involved suppression by means of artistic burial. I would share my poetry with no one, therefore I could be rejected by no one. This worked well for me until my senior year, where so few creative writing courses were offered that I had no choice but to enroll in ‘Creating the Poem’ to stay on track with graduation in Spring. Before even stepping foot in the classroom, I convinced myself that what I wrote would be criticized and cast away. I had no formal training, I didn’t understand iambic pentameter, and I couldn’t tell you what distinguished poetry from fragmented prose. It mystified me, terrified me, yet attracted me with its odd set of shapes and ambiguous rules. I wanted to figure it out, I really did. But I had been telling myself for so long that I was incapable and it seemed I could do nothing but believe this until proven otherwise.  

I’m not exaggerating when I say that one week of ‘Creating the Poem’ altered my entire outlook, completely flipped my preconceived notions on their head. Just one week, and I realized how wrong I had been. Isn’t this the story for most of us? Fear has a funny way of, you know, completely lying to us. You’d think we’d be able to recognize its deception by now, but aren’t we fooled almost every day? We think to ourselves, “Maybe this time it’s telling the truth, maybe this time we should listen. Because fear keeps us safe, out of harm’s way, away from discomfort.” It’s hard to ignore something so well-versed in our vulnerabilities, and, to be honest, I listen to fear more often than I tune it out. But what I’m attempting to get at here is that we must try. Fear only thrives when we let it win, and it only wins if we allow it to. I’m not saying fear will dissipate entirely when we push past it, but I am saying that it will begin to lose its grip. Trying may produce success, trying may produce failure, but wouldn’t you rather know for certain which one?

Sometimes, I still struggle with poetry. Sometimes, I struggle with those classical standards, and the fact I will never be a Charles Bukowski or a John Keats. But sometimes, I don’t struggle; and the only way I am able to experience that period of progress is by taking a stab in the dark, in spite of the intimidation that threatens to deter me.

 

The Art of Disneyfication

I always loved Disney and their films growing up, and I still do; however, I’ve started to notice that a lot of their movies don’t seem to completely follow the various fairy tales, short stories, and other tales that they’re based on. Recently, I’ve done a little research and come across a phenomenon know as Disneyfication: this is a process of taking the original tale, story, or the likes, and telling their own “squeaky-clean” version.

When it comes to Disney, it is common knowledge that the majority of their films are based on classic fairy tales and books, such as Pinocchio, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and so on. Being a family-friendly company, there were plenty of changes from the original source materials. Below are a few examples:

In the original Pinocchio book, Pinocchio accidently kills Jiminy Cricket by smashing him with a mallet. Later, he burns his own legs by sleeping too close to a stove. These two scenes were not featured in the Disney film. Pinocchio was never meant to be a child-conscious story, considering that Pinocchio commits suicide by hanging himself by his marionette strings in the original ending.

In the Grimm’s Cinderella tale, the two evil stepsisters had their heels chopped off in order to try to fit their shoes in the glass slipper. Not very magical, huh? Also, the stepsisters had their eyes pecked out by Cinderella’s bird friends at the end of the story so that they can never see true beauty again. Of course, these scenes were omitted for being graphic.

In the original story of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, the unnamed mermaid was given feet by a benevolent witch, but it actually felt like she was stepping on glass when walking on land. At the end of the story, the mermaid doesn’t marry the prince and actually dies, falling into the sea and turning into seafoam. Of course, Ariel doesn’t die at the end of The Little Mermaid film and Ursula was a villain.

It’s fair to say that the original Hunchback of Notre Dame isn’t without it’s darker edges. I’m not only surprised that Disney wanted to make an animated film adaptation of Hunchback, but that they chose to include a song, featuring Judge Frollo, about his lust for Esmeralda–if he cannot have her, then she shall burn in the flames of hell. Family-friendly?

Lastly, for Disney’s Hercules, it seems that their retelling of the Greek myth had the wrong idea about who truly hated Hercules. Hera is the one that despised Hercules (and any children Zeus had without her consent), not Hades. In fact, Hades was a benevolent ruler of the Underworld and Hera was the one that sent snakes to kill Hercules. Clearly, Disney wanted to turn the mighty Hercules into more of a “Superman” story.

I can understand why people are upset about these changes because not only are some of these changes stepping on what the original authors intended to write, but they’re also stepping on pieces of history and mythology. On the other hand, I usually go into a Disney movie that’s an adaptation knowing that there will be creative liberties taken, like any other film adaptation would. In the end, I don’t think Disney is trying to polish up stories so that children can enjoy them, but rather trying to ensure commercial longevity while compromising the authenticity and integrity of the stories themselves.

I Have an Ear for Comedy and an Eye for Tina Fey

Remember when you were a freshman? And so unbelievably dumb?

How many times have you changed your major? How many colleges have you been to? Me, personally, I’ve changed majors once and changed colleges once. After high school graduation, I went to a private Christian university (which shall remain nameless) with my career completely planned out. Here was the plan: I was going to get my Bachelors in Communication Studies, get multiple internships with Television News Stations to get my foot in the door, then get a REAL job as a reporter to ease my way into my ‘dream career’ as a News Anchor. Why News Anchor, you ask? Because of the hard hitting docu-drama about the journalism industry—yes you guessed it—Anchorman!

During my first semester at the aforementioned Christian university, I got involved with the on-campus television news station, which had a whoppin’ three audience members (if not three, then not far from it). During the show I was Camera Number One! Woot Woot! My job behind the camera was to zoom in on the anchors and move over to weather during the commercial break. Exciting stuff! During my one semester at News30, I realized how unbelievably boring the news was. Remember, this was back in 2015, before news changed forever. I was bored and sad watching the news and writing it. So, I started to analyze my life, and like any good freshman in college, I tried to find myself.

Why did I want this career? Why did I feel so committed to the news? Why did I want to sit behind that desk? Because I had idolized the comedy stylings of Ferrell, Rudd, and Applegate. I was determined to be a great comedy reporter. But I hate the news, okay, so take away ‘reporter’ and what do you have? Comedy. In the immortal words of Bo Burnham, “Comedy, let’s do comedy.”

Time to change. By spring of my freshman year, I started dividing my time between my dark dorm room watching sitcoms alone and the theatre department. I was a Theatre minor and I loved acting and playing those weird theatre games. By hanging out in the theatre department I made new friends and I learned that the university had an IMPROV TROUPE. What? Comedy? LET’S GOOO!

Through this amazing comedy improv troupe I made friends, found a new passion, and fully realized my REAL dream career: comedy writing. I wanted to write comedy for every outlet possible. I wanted to be the next Tina Fey. I tried to transfer to a university in Chicago where I could write while absorbing the city and all its glory, but money halted me. So I came to UCO, an affordable university nearby with a great Creative Writing department. Here I was confronted with many new genres of writing. I was scared but determined, because here I could write what I wanted, and what I wanted to write was anything BUT the news. I am so glad I changed majors and transferred colleges, because here I can get a degree I am proud of—a degree that gives me the tools I need to create an amazing portfolio.

Now I’m a Senior Creative Writing major who is still trying to find her voice, but at least now I know that I’m getting close. Improv is still a passion in my life, and I learn more and more about it every day. I’m now able to realize how helpful it is in writing and everyday life. Do you need to learn how to write authentic dialogue? Improv. Do you have anxiety? Improv. Do you want to create strong character connections quickly? Improv, my dude. I find myself writing away from the genre of comedy—I don’t feel married to it, but I still have a strong connection to it. I realize now, as a senior, I can write in many different genres and not have to feel like I’m cheating on my first love.

One of These Days

Twenty-two. Twenty-two. What about you? Probably around there, too, huh? In high school, I remember glorifying the image of the old man author. This can probably be blamed on reading mostly fantasy and science fiction, but the whole idea is a weird one. Quite simply, most of my favorite writers were old white men. As a young white man who could hardly focus and finish any of the rubbish I was writing at the time, the elder sage seemed to be an upper echelon of writing serenity that only comes with time and wisdom. If you’re reading this, you might like words, or art in general, just as I do. You might be in college, as well, or just young, busy, and in debt. Finding time to hone your craft into something you feel like could or should be shared with the world may seem out of reach—a dog on a treadmill forever chasing the dangling meat on the end of a fishing line.

Well. One of the many, many life lessons I’ve had to learn in the past few years is about goals and how to reach them. There is no echelon, no serene utopia that time and age delivers to you with gentle hands. It’s a process, writing, as are most things. The pyramids weren’t built in a day and Stephen King didn’t write The Stand in a single spectacular moment of genius. Well, maybe he did, to be honest. Guy was doing A LOT of drugs. But anyhow, don’t do drugs and don’t expect to be the writer of tomorrow today before noon. I can recall one of my favorite fantasy authors, Patrick Rothfuss, recounting the evolution of his hit series, The Kingkiller Chronicles. The idea, birthed early on, developed over a course of years, muddled with years of getting that bachelors and then masters. His writing went on a journey with him. That’s real life. The process doesn’t cut through a space-time rift and come out on the other side successful and rich. If only, huh?

So, yeah, we’re young and busy. Maybe you’re middle aged and busy! Or old and busy! Whether you’re still learning how to navigate blossoming and burdensome adulthood or have come a long way already, the process is right there for you. It hasn’t moved. Start somewhere. Months ago… no, goodness, it’s almost been a year now, I jotted down some ideas for a story on my phone while I waited for my car to come out of the shop. Gotta rotate those tires, people! Anywho, that story is maybe sitting at eight or so pages now. I want it to be a novella… so, yeah, still a ways to go. Sometimes I rip on that bad boy, sometimes I forget about it for months. But it’s a good idea that I won’t let die off. And I haven’t, as of yet. If you would have told me all those months ago that I’d only be about a third or so through the tale, I’d be frustrated. I’ve rewritten and revisited. But, you know what, I kept writing it and believing in it.

You make time for what you value. I shudder to think of where I could be now if I replaced all that time scrolling through my phone with writing, planning, and learning. Sure, I might verbally blame it on a busy work or school schedule, but I know the truth. I have to value that process and believe in it more. Get down and dirty with the process. Let it make a fool of me and call me mean names. Confront the process. Write and direct an anime battle scene with the process. Keep going until the process does a heel-turn and becomes a good pal. And so should you. Crack open that six month old Word document, I triple-dog dare you. I am getting older. Don’t quite like the idea of being the “one of these days I’ll…” guy at dinner parties. If it is inside you, don’t Tetris it around anymore. Start somewhere. Good luck.

Apfelbaum by Laura J. Braverman

LAURA J. BRAVERMAN is a writer and artist. Her poetry has appeared in Levure Litteraire, Live Encounters, The BeZINE, California Quarterly, and Mediterranean Poetry. Her first collection of poetry, In the Absence of Defense Against Loss, will be published in 2019 by Cosmographia Books. She lives in Lebanon and Austria with her family.


Apfelbaum

For a long time I believed Martin Luther said these words:
Even if I knew tomorrow the world would go to pieces,
I would still plant my apple tree.
We shared a birthday, though his was 500 years before mine.

He would have spoken the words in my mother tongue. I use
them as an incantation, as defense against helplessness—

I imagine
our globe as little as twenty years from now—septic seas,
garbage dunes, drought and flood. My husband soothes me,

says creation moves in cycles regardless of the reckless
doings of our tribe. He sides with Heraclitus: World ever was,
and is,
an ever-living fire,
kindling and extinguishing according to measure.

But surely our wild hunger has sped things up.

Does the earth care for us?
We scrub pots after dinner, pick up our children’s Lego bricks.
We better Narcissus—leap headlong into the reflections
our digital screens hold up. We save manatees stranded in mud,

compose cantatas, dry rose petals in the sun;
we beg at intersections with matted hair and little siblings, knock
on closed car windows.
We fear the swollen legs of our father,
scratch butterflies with our fingernails on stonewalls,
line up for death.

Does the universe care for us?
I’ve come across a theory: the cosmos expected life,
prepared for consciousness, for us, from its very cradle—

hoped for apple trees and their tart, pesky harvest.

Writing Without Fear

Up until college I had been homeschooled my whole life. It wasn’t until I reached high school age that it became very apparent to me that I couldn’t relate to the social struggles of my peers. Whether at soccer practice or in youth group, everyone was either complaining about their teachers, gossiping about their fellow students, or making plans for prom. When I didn’t chime in on their conversation they’d turn to me, expecting me to join in. That’s when I had to explain to them, “I’m homeschooled.” Typically, they’d nod their heads and say “Oh” before continuing their conversation without me. I had always hated telling people about my education, mainly because of all the stereotypes that came with it, like: no friends, no social skills, prom at home with my brother, etc… I distinctly remember a time when I was at church, waiting in the lobby with the kids in my youth group. There was a girl going on about how homeschoolers are “so weird” and “have no social life,” that’s when my I piped up and said that I was homeschooled. The look on her face was pure shock, she even argued with me and said that “there’s no way you’re homeschooled, you’re too normal!”

I used to hate the fact that I was homeschooled, because many of my peers caused me to believe that my education was inferior to theirs. I often felt as though I wasn’t as smart as my public-school friends. Though I was never bullied for it, I noticed that people looked at me differently once they knew. Most people assumed that I couldn’t relate to their academic struggles while, in fact, I could in many ways. It was their social problems that were foreign to me. After all, I had no teachers to hate, unless you want to count the guy on the computer that taught me algebra. It took me a long time to realize that just because the location of my education was different, didn’t mean that my subject matter was any easier than theirs.

Being at home allowed me to focus on my education while avoiding all the drama and unneeded stress that my friends went through. I was also able to focus on my passion for writing. As a child, I was an avid reader. The book that got me hooked was Maximum Ride by James Patterson. After I finished that book, I began reading every type of young adult fiction I could find. Every time I came home with a new book, I would lock myself in my room and read for hours, typically finishing an average sized book in a day or two. I can’t remember when I realized it, but I knew that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. As I grew older, I carried with me the idea of wanting to be a writer, but I continued to carry with me the fear that I wasn’t smart enough thanks to being homeschooled.

After I graduated high school, I took a year off school to decide whether college was for me. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and that I wanted to go to college to improve my writing, but I still carried those childhood doubts. Though, one day, that all changed. I decided to put aside my self-doubt, get rid of my feelings of inadequacy, and prove to myself that I am smart enough. I am now the first in my family to obtain an associate degree, and it’s safe to say that my days of feeling inferior are far gone.