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!

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.

 

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.

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. 

Who Art Thou Mona Lisa?

I was giddy with unspent energy as I traversed the halls of the Louvre. People shedding their winter coats walked down the checkered hallway, pausing to snap pictures of the headless Nike statue before moving on. Glass skylights illuminated a grand hallway with towering ceilings embellished in ornate carvings. I followed the congested flow of people, my school friends in tow, as we rushed past life-sized battle scenes, mythological images, and picturesque landscapes rendered in remarkable detail. The crowd slowed, and the top of a dark painting rested with a glass case on the wall. I saw Da Vinci’s famous lady, surrounded by people scrambling to get near, and I laughed.

She was small, and her colors were muted, but she monopolized everyone’s attention. She sat across from a grand painting ten times her size with ten times her vibrancy of color. She was underwhelming. Or perhaps, I was just very young.

I would later learn that my approach to art, and to the world, was still developing past its shallow stage. Appreciation of the arts was more complex than its surface level, and that to access something beyond a superficial approach was key in understanding not only the world, but myself as well.

I grew up on TV, fast ads, and colorful cereal boxes. My attention span was here and then out the window watching a cat climb a tree.  But I was living in a society that fostered my behavior. There was sugar in my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Colorful signs trying to sell me something fast. Time was money, and money made the world go around. Worship it, worry over it, waste it. But do not waste time.

I didn’t have time to be staring out windows. I had to be focused on my grades, on sports, on my friends, on my social media. I had to worry about how my life appeared to colleges and how my face appeared to the world. Because those things were important, right?

It wasn’t until I got to college that I learned that I worry too much about the world’s perception of myself. I worry about the words I write on this page. That they will never be good enough. Never perfect.

But to create art in any form involves leaving yourself at the mercy of others’ scrutiny. It is my primary reason for writer’s block. Why I am constantly conflicted, because I am a writer that does not write as often as I should. Can I call myself a writer and admit that I sometimes hate writing? I tell myself to stop trying to fit into a box of what a writer should be and to just be me.

It’s a popular mantra now days. Just be yourself. And through living it, people are breaking down barriers not only in literature and writing, but in all facets of life. This freedom of expression allows for a plethora of diverse perspectives and allows us to look beyond the surface level to find greater understanding and greater human connectivity.

Four Influential 20th century Female Horror Writers

When we think about modern horror, the great and disturbing Stephen King pops into most people’s minds. While King is  wonderfully spooky and influential to one of my favorite literary genres, there are also plenty of women who wrote many creepy tales that impacted the 20th century and the horror genre as a whole.

Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier began her writing career in the early 1930s with one of her most successful works being the Gothic novel Rebecca (1938). In a similar way to traditional Gothic novels, Rebecca contains a heroine, who is never given a name, who is forced to deal with the oppressive and almost ghostly past of her new home. The real terror in this novel comes from the titular Rebecca’s grasp on the protagonist’s psyche, causing the heroine to feel a kind of inadequacy that many people experience when constantly compared to another, seemingly perfect, person. With discussions of identity, obsession, and even suicidal thoughts, Daphne du Maurier’s novel is an intricate modern Gothic novel with a dark and well-written twist ending.

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson has written many creepy novels and short stories that have become classics in the Horror genre. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is often considered one of the best haunted house stories ever written. This novel contains creepy hauntings, shocking incidents that are never truly explained, explorations of mental illness, bisexuality, and a diverse small cast discovering the ominous character of the titular mansion. The Haunting of Hill House is a suspenseful horror novel that leaves readers with chilling images and thoughtful explorations of fear, paranoia, and isolation.

Anne Rice

Anne Rice first appeared during the horror boom of the 70s and 80s with her debut novel Interview with the Vampire (1976). This vampire novel has been cited as the beginning of the “romantic vampire” trend that took off in the 20th and 21st centuries. Despite writing about vampires who are human in many ways, Rice’s characters are complex and intriguing monsters who give the reader a striking and bleak look into the life of the monster that usually is just in the story to be defeated by the good guys. Interview with the Vampire is also revered for its positive depictions of sexuality between its vampire protagonists as well as discussing morality in a philosophical way.  With deep introspection, a disturbing and well written cast of characters, and a deep look into the monster’s point of view, Interview with the Vampire is an enchanting and horrifying look into the psyches of humans turned into monsters.

Angela Carter

Angela Carter is a great British author who has written many plays, short stories, children’s stories, and some novels during her lifetime. While Carter’s work usually falls under the umbrella of Magical Realism, her body of work also contains some horror novels too.  One of her most popular short story anthologies The Bloody Chamber (1979) is one such work. The Bloody Chamber is an atmospheric and mature reworking of different fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White with a dark and distinctly feminist edge. Dealing with women’s sexual identities, luscious and graphic prose, and a chilling harken back to the more adult Grimm’s fairytales, The Bloody Chamber is a startling collection of feminist fairy tale horror that is scary as it is thought provoking.

Dyslexia: Spell Check is for the Weak

As an editor, it can be hard to admit that my greatest passion is also the source of one of my biggest inhibitions. A big part of this stems from the fact that not many people are vocal about learning disorders, and those who are aren’t always the most constructive. I’ve known from an early age that I am dyslexic. Even though this isn’t anything world-ending, or even something that’s necessarily complicated, I’ve noticed that there is still a significant amount of stigma surrounding learning disorders. Being a student of the Liberal Arts means that I am surrounded by bright and intelligent people on a daily basis, who not only analyze everything they read, but are obnoxiously good at it. Initially, this intensified a fear that I’ve harbored since the first grade, in which I feel that everyone around me understands something that I don’t, and that my cover will be blown at any moment. Of course, the only logical response to this was to double up on literature classes and enroll in a second language. Because that’s not overcompensation, right?

As unhealthy as it may sound, this has been my approach to tackling dyslexia for years. It’s almost like a vigorous hike; every time I start to get winded, I see that the peak is that much closer and I force myself to pick up the pace. When I first learned to read, this was how I kept myself going. If a book tripped me up, I would pick up another and read them back to back until they both made sense. Even today, I still read roughly five to six books at a time to keep myself engaged.

Before I go any further, I suppose I should explain what dyslexia means for me. Most people understand dyslexia as that thing where kids sometimes confuse the letter “b” with “d,” but dyslexia can go so much farther than that. In fact, once my parents had realized what was going on, mirrored consonants became the least of my concerns. My biggest challenge was, and still is, the struggle of being inconsistent. What is a reflex one day is foreign the next. Just the other day I tried spelling “optimist” as “optemest” and had to review Greek and Latin root words until I could understand where I went wrong. This word has never been a problem in the past, and I use it pretty frequently, but out the window it went.

I can see when my words come out wrong and I can recognize broken sentences and phrases, but this is because I had to develop an intuition that could save me when my brain short circuited. This is how I first developed an interest in editing. Suspicious, right? In a way, every error I catch and every student I tutor justifies the ridiculous amount of time and effort I’ve put in to learning the written English language.

Dyslexia may not be particularly interesting for those who are unfamiliar with it, but for me it’s like the ultimate challenge. It has forced me to think outside the box and learn things in unconventional ways. It’s popular advice that writers should read the works of their favorite authors so they can emulate their writing style. I took this a step further and turned to literature for lessons in grammar. Not only was I trying to capture the elegant sentences of Poe and the subtleties of Philip K. Dick, but I was also trying to figure out what the heck a dependant clause was and why my teacher kept circling mine but not my partner’s. In my case, dyslexia has driven me to better understand the written word, because I can’t handle the idea of being inherently bad at something. Of course, being dyslexic still has its issues, and it always will. The takeaway here is not that learning disabilities can be cured, but that they can be overcome, and every step I take as an editor is a massive victory.