The Awakening

In life we often encounter defining moments of self, where the membrane of who we are and who we are meant to be is pulled so molecularly thin that we are forced to choose between the two.

Our journey begins at the mouth of a cave; clothed in multiple layers, but yet there is no snow. We stand, gazing in fear of what awaits inside. Here we make our first choice; to walk willingly into the unknown, or return back to our lives still clad in excessive layers. But for those called by the cave, there is no choice, and so we step forward.

The cave is hot, hellish even. We are forced to shed the layers we once believed fundamental to our survival. As the layers fall we begin to feel light. Lighter than we have felt since our childhood years. Now naked, the heat is no longer oppressive, but rather it teases us with a feeling previously unknown. So we continue forward, in search of something we have yet to define.

Though our layers have been shed, the anchors to them have not. The cave is dark, and our mind reminds us of this every moment. A miniscule squeak masked by the unknown will do more damage to our psyche than a ferocious roar from a creature we have come to know.

Nearing the end, our once sacred warmth is now replaced by a soul freezing frost. Though we have come a ways, it is nothing compared to what awaits us at the pinnacle of our cave. Upon reaching the end we must confront the shadow of our unconscious, but this dragon will not be slain by a blessed blade, nor by casting a powerful spell, because to slay the dragon would be to slay ourselves. In the cave we are to confront our fears, and often our greatest fear comes from within.

So we confront the dragon, or rather we confront ourselves, soon realizing that even our mightiest efforts have no effect. Most will give in at this point, allowing themselves to be devoured, or turn and run far from this confrontation of fate.

But those who determine the true nature of the beast will inevitably relinquish the sword previously thrust towards their own throats, and embrace the shadow as One.

If we are successful, we emerge at the end of the cave bare and naked to the sunlight; however our tongue is not burnt from its taste, but rather the warmth that once guided, now radiates from within, and we continue forward as One with the Sun.

No Shame in Working

When I switched my degree to Creative Writing, I was elated. For the first time in my life, I truly felt called to do something. There was no better part to my day than to have an excuse to crack open my laptop, brew some tea, and begin writing. 

When I switched my degree to Creative Writing, the first thing I was asked was, “But what will you do for money?” Apparently, the work I was majoring in was considered a hobby, not a career. If it didn’t make cash, it wasn’t a career.

Regardless, I told myself that I wasn’t going to look at the negatives, but rather, I was going to focus on why I chose my degree. The passion I had for writing, the joy I felt hosting readings as well as participating in them; these are the reasons I felt so drawn to the degree in the first place. They eventually began to drown out the noise of pestering thoughts such as: 

What if you never make money? What if you will need a second job? What if you never get the chance for your dream? 

Then, a summer later, I took a job in insurance. When I was licensed, my first thought was: 

Now I won’t starve when I graduate!

The thought hit me like a narwhal running into an ice block. Was I giving up on my dream by pursuing money in something completely out of the field I was studying? I knew right out of college I wouldn’t be able to get the best job in my career immediately, but was I giving up on my goals to make money? Was I letting myself down for cash instead of being true to myself in a typical cliché style? 

I talked to a friend about my concerns. We met for coffee, ranted, laughed, and looked at each other’s work before I asked her: “Am I giving up on my dream to make money?”

To which she replied, “There is no shame in working until you achieve your dream. Whatever that may look like.”

She’s right. You can work to build on your dream without losing it. There is no shame in taking a job so that you can really pursue your dream. As long as you keep that passion alive, it is always attainable. Just because the hopes that you have don’t immediately bring you big bucks, does not mean you can’t chase after them. 

So You Want to Be a Writer?

The hardest thing that I have found about being a writer is making the claim that I am a writer. This probably sounds a little strange, so let me elaborate.

I started writing over the winter break of my sophomore year of college, right after I changed my major from Business to English. I had always been an avid reader, and one day while I was reading one of those free books on the Kindle app and I had a thought. 

Wow. 

This is really poorly written. I can totally do better than that. 

Challenge accepted. 

I mean, I was a newly minted English major, I couldn’t possibly refuse something like that—even if I had given myself the challenge.

I opened a GoogleDoc on my laptop and started writing. First paragraph was a breeze. By the time I finished the first chapter, I knew I would be the next Tolkien, the next J.K. Rowling, the next G.R.R. Martin! I showed the chapter to a few family members and they loved it. I mean, why wouldn’t they? I know I’m a great writer. Or at least I thought I was.

Fast-forward to my first writing workshop. I submitted a chapter of the nascent novel I started during those early days as an English major. I expected the same response from my classmates that I got from my family. Now, for those of you who have taken part in a writing workshop before, and maybe even those who haven’t, I’m sure you know what actually happened during my critique. 

It was brutal. I was so mad at all my classmates. How could they not appreciate my masterpiece? They just didn’t understand me or they were just jealous. Right? From there, my thoughts began spirling:

 What if I really do suck at writing? Did I make a mistake in becoming an English major? Is my degree going to amount to nothing more than having the most grammatically correct sign on the street corner as I beg for change to survive?

My confidence was so low, I quit writing. I still submitted assignments for class, of course, but I never put my heart into any of them because I was scared it would be shattered again. I almost changed my major again after that first semester, but I figured I wouldn’t graduate on time if I did, so I stuck it out. 

Shortly after school let out for the summer I went to a bar and spotted my professor from the writing workshop. Several drinks in by that time, I was convinced that my only option was to go speak to her and air my grievances about the workshop. After my rant had concluded, she looked me in the eye and asked me if I was a writer. To which I replied, “Well, I certainly want to be a writer…”

She shook her head and said, “You either are a writer, or you aren’t. There is no trying, no wanting.”

It took me nearly five years—and a couple more painful workshops—but I think I’m starting to understand. My best creative period was that initial few months before my first fateful workshop. Sure, the work I put out may have been crap—and it totally was—but that innocent time where I was unafraid of what I wrote, where I enjoyed the simple act of storytelling, that was me at my creative best. I was a writer then. I am a writer now. 

Why? 

Because I write.That is all it takes. Sure, you have to practice your craft, be thick skinned in workshops, and take the critiques you receive in stride in order to improve how you write. But all you need is the hubris to state that you are a writer, not that you want to be a writer. Because if you can make that claim, if you can live that claim, you are a writer.

The Rhythm of Life

I love music. Now, I should clarify, I am not good at playing music. Save for the few years of piano lessons in grade school (I can still find middle C), trying to teach myself to play the guitar in high school (nothing ever stuck), to picking up a pair of drum sticks for the first time this past summer (why I waited so long to learn drums, I may never know), I have shied away from instruments. Listening to music, on the other hand, is a whole new story.

I can keep a few simple beats on a drum kit. I can pick a road trip playlist that will make you nostalgic feels ten times over. I sing in my church band. Music is a part of my life, and has been for as long as I can remember, but never more so than when I started college. I learned very early on that I cannot study in silence. It is unnerving. The typing of the keyboard or the scratching of pencil against paper is amplified in that silence and I had to find a way to break it up.

Cue music.

My first year of college, I created a playlist on Spotify. “College – Year 1,” for lack of creativity, is what helped me survive a new and challenging world I had no idea how to navigate. Since I will listen to almost anything (it’s all subjective to my current mood), I worked on building that playlist as I solved math problems and learned the basics of English composition. Coldplay and Owl City were, by far, the most popular artists I listened to that year. “College – Year 5” is much of the same, though the reunited Jonas Brothers have snuck a song or two into the mix.

Nothing against a hit song like “Yellow”, but there are times when I just need a tune or a beat to get me through reading a hundred pages of a novel and responding to my peers work in a constructive and thoughtful way over the course of a week. For moments like that, I created a separate playlist for the deep studying moments. Yes, it’s called “Studying.” Inside are the likes of composers/pianists Alberto Giurioli and Ludovico Eniaudi, along with instrumentals of a few of my favorite songs by 2CELLOS and Lindsey Stirling. Nature sounds and film scores are pretty great for those intense study sessions.

In short, there is a constant rhythm to my life. Whether I’m singing along to the latest Skillet album or drumming my fingers on my desk, practicing rudiments as I edit my novel installment, I always have a tune in my head. It helps me.

Coldplay may not be your favorite band. Maybe Mozart is more your speed. Maybe silence is best. Whatever rhythm you live your life to, live it well.

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.

So You Want to Write a Thesis

By the time you start grad school you will hear all your fellow students talking about their thesis ideas. Knowing that you have to write a thesis, a large body of work with your own research and contribution to a field of study, can feel overwhelming at times. The first suggestion I have is to think about what interests you the most. For me as a literature major, this can be anything as general as deciding between British literature, American literature, or even deciding what authors I want to focus on. It might be helpful to make a list of your top five favorite areas of study. Once you have finally decided what area you want to write about, then you can move onto the next step.

The next step to consider is doing some research in the field you’re interested in. This will give you an idea about what has already been done and what needs more commentary. For people in English, it could be that there are some authors with lesser known works that could use more exploration—or even some authors during a certain time period who don’t get much critical attention, but were really popular when they were alive. It could be a genre of literature that tends to get overlooked and could use more scholarly research. Whatever area you choose, doing some research beforehand can give you an idea of what has been done to death and what still needs further research from new scholars like you. In addition, you should also start meeting with some of your professors and talking about your ideas with them. Ideally, you want to talk to a professor that is interested in the same field you are. Talking to your professors can really help you get more ideas about the field of study you want to add to. Your professors can also give you more advice on how to find further your research. These professors will be glad to talk to you and happy to help you cultivate your ideas.

Once you finally have a great idea for your thesis, then you can get a committee. A committee usually consists of three professors who will help you while you write your thesis and will be present for your thesis defense. The head, or chair, of your committee should be, again, a professor who is interested in the same area you are interested in. As for the rest of your committee, it is best to ask professors who have gotten to know you really well and who you think would work well together as a team. Once you have your thesis committee, then you will discuss what you need to do with the chair of your committee. This usually includes writing a thesis prospectus, which will help you and your chair outline all of the aspects of your thesis. What specifics you need to write down for you thesis prospectus will be determined by your thesis chair. After you turn in your prospectus or whatever else your chair requires, you can officially begin writing your thesis!

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.

Advocating “Dissent”

I come from a rural community that has a decidedly conservative perspective on most social and political topics. I establish this not out of criticism, but for clarification of the background that first shaped me, and to contextualize my academic and publishing experiences. When I embarked on my career as a student of English, to the best of my knowledge, the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies minor was not even available yet at the University of Central Oklahoma. If it had been, I would not have been interested at the time; while I acknowledged the inherent value of all critical inquiry, I had never experienced more than glancing exposure to women’s studies and feminist criticism in survey courses. There was no room beside my modern language studies to pursue topics that I couldn’t even be sure held particular interest for me.

This was the place I found myself in when I began working here at New Plains Student Publishing last fall. Publishing and editing were things that I soundly knew I wanted to learn more about—things I have contemplated doing for the rest of my life—and I could not have asked for a better opportunity to finish out my degree. What I wasn’t expecting was the additional opportunity to engage with topics, ideas, and issues that I would not have directly encountered otherwise. Each of New Plain’s three journals—New Plains Review, 1890, and The Central Dissent—is entirely unique, with its own focus, purpose, and personality; and I have been fortunate to work directly with all of them during my time here.

Because I generally love being helpful whenever I can, and I value scholarship of all kinds, I volunteered to join the small team working on The Central Dissent: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality last semester. New to editing and largely unfamiliar with the journal’s field, I had no idea what to expect. Categorically, I knew from discussion and from the mission statement that Dissent features a combination of research, creative works, and academic writing meant to “explore gender theory [and] gender identity, as well as how race, class, and ethnicity shape society’s expectations of the individual.” Working on the selection and editing process and watching as the new issue took shape, I quickly came to understand that, in practice, this stated goal synthesizes a result that exceeds its individual parts with an ability to reach people from any background. The journal features thought-provoking and relevant pieces in an eclectic mix of genres that eloquently harmonize to voice diversity.

From a neighborhood where the validity of gender or sexuality as academic topics would never be entertained, to a workshop editing and proofing a personally relevant article about bisexuality for publication, I could have never anticipated the effect that Dissent would have on my identity as an editor, as a scholar, and as a citizen in a community of writers. As a senior editor for the journal, I find myself not just in a minor position of power, with a degree of influence over publication selections and editing choices, but also in a humbling position of advocacy. The awesome team that makes Dissent possible works to create a platform for discussion that is invaluable as the first journal in the state devoted to topics of gender and sexuality. Perhaps at a time when they have more to say than ever before, our authors and artists reach out to us and, through us, to others. This meaningful platform of outreach, and my small role in its development, will always be one of the things I take pride in as an editor at New Plains, an alumna of UCO, and a member of this community of diverse and beautifully individual people.

Finding My Voice Through Those of the Past

What have you started this year that made an unexpectedly big impact in the way you approach everyday life?

For me it was taking a course that I really did not have the time for, but I decided to try anyways. Ever since this brilliant find in the ever mundane scroll to find new classes for the semester, I have been excited to begin my “Women in Literature” course with Dr. BB. I was not sure what to expect, thoughts running through my head like, “Is this course going to only examine authors like Austen and Chopin in greater detail?” I really had no concept of what the course would be about other than the promise of looking at women authors.  Don’t get me wrong, I have always loved authors like Kate Chopin and Jane Austen, but I was ready to see some more diverse women in the mix, ones with different stories to tell. Of course, with women so often being left out of the canon, it’s hard to not be excited about getting ANY material from women authors, so I walked into the course with an open mind.

It was everything I had hoped and dreamed of. It feels like the book club I could never get the courage to join before. I can’t exactly explain the feeling I have when I am in this class, but it always feels like I am discovering something about myself I had not known before. I finally feel like I have a place where my voice and opinions could be heard and understood. Not only has the class environment helped me open up to being more comfortable with speaking my own opinions, but it has also shown me women in my school who have gone through similar experiences as me. Sometimes it is easy to feel alone and overwhelmed with everything women have to face and “accept” in their lives. Things like feeling powerless in certain situations, or constantly looking over your shoulder in fear of being followed at night, or thinking things like “Am I being crazy about this?” Since reading and discussing these things with my classmates, I have been able to address the things that I have let slide because of social norms. I now feel like my opinion is wanted and deserves to be heard in spaces outside of my classroom. Of course, the magic that binds this environment and its people together is the novels themselves. So far this semester we have only read two; however, they have completely changed the way I look at novels when choosing books. Now, I’m not saying that I will never read a male author again, but it is nice to read an author who understands all of the anxieties and situations that women face. It has shown me that even though we may not have all gone through the exact same things, there are still communities of women out there who understand and support one another. It is nice to know I have found my very own embedded in a literature-lovers’ room.