New Years Resolutions

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post for the last couple of weeks.


Who am I kidding? I’ve been meaning to blog for the last six months, but senior year was getting underway, I was writing my thesis, generally doing fun things, and I had to have my right eye removed.  Yeah, that happened.  It basically exploded.  But that’s an entirely different story.  More on that later.  I promise.


So I finished first semester, finished a draft of my thesis (that’s the World War II Italy novella), had surgery and recovered from said surgery, and then I made a New Years resolution to resurrect this blog and try to blog on a semi-regular basis.  I maybe set an alarm to go off on my phone once a week to remind me.


The reason I’ve been struggling with this post in particular is that I keep going back and forth about what tone I want to take, and the truth is, it’s not just about this blog post.


See, blogging is only one of my New Years resolutions.  Actually going on Facebook and not just creepily lurking is another, and I’m doing pretty well with that.  But the big one is that by the end of 2014, I will have received 200 rejection letters.


Don’t get me wrong: I do not want 200 rejection letters.  If I get published before I reach 200, that’s great! Never mind! Mission accomplished!


The point is, over the past several months, I’ve been feeling pretty down about writing and submitting new stories.  I mean, there’s only so many times you can hear that it’s so close, but no thank you, before you start to wonder.  I’m watching my friends get published, and I’m glad for them—I really am. But I’m also hearing that everyone admires me so much for trying, but really, I’d rather be admired for succeeding.  So I set a goal that I will have 200 rejections by the end of the year in order to force myself to write more and submit and keep trying, because if I stop trying because I feel like I’m failing, I will definitely have failed.


So I’m sitting here, and I want to say “this is the year!” I want to say this is the year that things are going to happen.  I’m going to graduate, and I’m going to get a Fulbright and go to Italy or I’m going to get into graduate school.  I’m going to get published this year, or win a competition, or maybe even get into Clarion.  I’m going to read Lord of the Rings for the first time!


That’s what I want to say.


But at the same time, I’m sitting here, and I’m thinking about what my father has said about some of my brother’s musician friends: “You keep going up and up and up, but at some point, everybody stops.  Everybody hits a peak, and they don’t go any higher than that.”


And I can’t help wondering, what if I’ve hit my peak? All my life, I’ve succeeded at whatever I set my mind to, but what if this is it? What if I don’t get the Fulbright or get into graduate school? What if I can’t get a job? What if I don’t ever get published and can’t succeed at writing? What then?


The truth is, in a little less than four months, I’m going to graduate and leave Kenyon, and I have no idea what I’m doing after that.  I don’t even know what I want to do after that.


And that is terrifying.


And I’m not sure I know how to handle it.


All I can do is write about it, because right now, writing is just about the only thing I’m positive I can do.


Maybe I feel like this because it’s 12:30 in the morning and I just read a friend’s story about a girl who feels like a failure after graduation.  Maybe I’m feeling like this because in less than two weeks, I’m going to hear whether I’ve moved onto the next level in the Fulbright application.  Maybe it’s because I’ve never not had a plan.  Probably, it’s a little of everything.


This is one of those things that I’m not totally sure I want to put out there on the internet, but I also think it’s something that needs to be said.  Sometimes, we don’t know what we’re doing.  Sometimes, the world just seems really big, and we’re really small, and somehow, we have to move through it without getting lost, and sometimes, we have no idea how to do that.  Sometimes, optimistic gusto is just stupid, and we need to admit that we’re afraid.


And at the end of the day, even though I don’t know where I’m going, I still have to move forward.  Eventually, I know I’ll end up where I’m supposed to be.  Or at least I’ll end up somewhere.


And until then, I’m going to put one foot in front of the other, do my homework, have fun with my friends, enjoy my last semester at Kenyon.  I’m going to go to Midnight Breakfast and try a smoothy from the KAC.  I’m going to finish revising my thesis.  I’m going to read Lord of the Rings and watch the original Star Wars trilogy for the first time.  I’m going to write stories and submit them.  I’m going to go on Facebook, and I’m going to blog.  I’m going to play Pokemon on the big screen in the science quad.


I’m going to take things one day at a time, and I’m going to see what happens.  Something will, and who knows? Maybe 2014 will be the year.


It’s Getting Eerie What’s This Cheery Singing All About

The other day, I was listening to David Arkenstone’s “The Painted Seals” on my iPod, when I looked up and said to my parents, “If I ever have a book that gets made into a movie, I want this guy to do the score.” This struck my parents as an unusual thing to say, until I pointed out that many of my writer friends pick out their ideal casts for the possible movie of their books.  Having an ideal cast for your novel does a lot of things.  It gives you visuals for your characters, and it can also help you narrow down some basics about your characters’ personalities—if you pick an actor who always plays a certain type of character or a certain role in a movie, then you’re saying something about your character.  But creating an ideal cast for the hypothetical movie of my novel has never really worked for me: Besides the fact that I can never remember actors’ names, the visualization is sort of a problem, but that’s an entirely  different topic.


So I work with music.  I create soundtracks and scores for my projects, and I listen to them while I’m writing.


I’m a very musical person: I sing in my college’s community choir, I’ve played clarinet for twelve years, and before that, I played piano for ten.  I also come from a very musical family.  Everyone in my family can play an instrument and sing.  My older brother was the lead in all the musicals in high school, and don’t even get me started on my cello prodigy younger brother.


But being a musical person and coming from a musical family is only part of it.  Yes, I identify with music as a tool to help me focus my writing, but I’m certainly not the only one.  This Writer’s Digest post about writing routines that work talks about using music as inspiration and focus.  There are projects like David Arkenstone’s album Music Inspired by Middle Earth or The Hunger Games Music Project.  And most of my friends make playlists of some kind or another to listen to as they write.


What interests me is that there doesn’t seem to be one tried and true method for this.  What sort of music inspires you really depends on who you are and also on what sort of project you’re working on.  I know people who have playlists for specific characters, and I know other people who have playlists of songs that capture moods, themes, or specific moments in stories.  Some of my friends use solely instrumental music, or don’t use instrumental music at all, or use a mix.


What I do honestly depends on what I’m writing.  At first, I thought that I always did the same thing for each project, but I’m starting to realize that’s not true.  My playlist for the memory wiping academy novel is a mix of instrumental songs and songs with words, while there are no strictly instrumental songs in my playlist for the small child wizard novel.  For both playlists, I have arranged the songs in such a way that for me they tell the story.  I never shuffle these playlists and always listen to them in order.


For the World War II Italy novel, on the other hand, I have a giant collection of all the Italian music on my iPod in one playlist, including Italian pop and light rock, Italian Disney songs, the soundtrack to Life Is Beautiful, and two albums of fascist marches—oh, the glory of what you can find on iTunes! I almost always shuffle this playlist, and I listen to it more for the mood than for specific plot points.  This might be because my outline for this project is still pretty sketchy, and maybe I’ll go through and make a more coherent playlist as I flesh out my outline and start to write, but right now, this works.


There are so many good things about using music when you’re writing.  For me, songs contain little stories and moments in themselves.  Specific songs that I associate with specific points in my work can help me focus in on what I’m trying to accomplish.  What is the ultimate mood or arc of this chapter or scene or even this moment? What are the characters doing or thinking or feeling here? What part of the ultimate theme should come through?


It’s hard to describe exactly, but on a larger scale, I feel like my playlists for my two fantasy novels have a sort of continuity in the type of music and the feel of the music, and if a song jumps out as not quite fitting with that, maybe that says something about what I’m trying to do at that point in the novel.  I’ve even discovered repetition of earlier themes in my playlists that I hadn’t noticed before and decided to play up in the actual writing.  For example, in the small child wizard novel, the first song in the playlist is “One Jump Ahead” from Aladdin, and later, its reprise represents another character’s point of view.  Beyond helping me focus in on parts of the story I already know occur, I’ve sometimes even been inspired by songs.  I included “Do You Hear the People Sing” on my memory wiping academy novel’s playlist because that specific song and a joke someone made about the implications of my characters going caroling ultimately helped me figure out how my climax will play out when I get there.


I don’t want this to come across like I rely on music exclusively for these things.  I don’t.  I do visualize scenes like a movie in my head.  I’ve tried drawing my characters, which hasn’t gone very well.  I’ve considered writing a chapter in script form to see how it would be different—though I haven’t actually done this.  I did once translate the first few paragraphs of a story into Italian, which was a really interesting exploration of words and what words mean and the ultimate meaning I wanted to get out of the beginning of my story.  Most of the time, if I have a problem, I find myself talking my way through it rather than turning to my music.  On the other hand, listening to my playlists while I’m writing helps put me in the right mood and get ready to crank some words out and have fun doing it, which is ultimately the reason I write.


(Title Quote: “I’ve Got a Theory/Bunnies/If We’re Together”)

I Have Confidence in Me

It’s been one of those weeks.

I spent last weekend in Ohio with a bunch of awesome Alphans, and I came home full of determination.  This week, I would finally finish Great Expectations.  I would work on my Fulbright application.  I would sure up my outline for my World War II Italy project.  I would get back on track editing my middle grade small child wizard novel.

And for most of this week, I’ve felt like none of that was happening.  I was still flailing around hopelessly inside Great Expectations with no ending in sight.  My idea for my World War II Italy project still seemed too big.  On Wednesday someone made a pretty confidence-damaging comment about my writing to me and then apologized by saying that writing is subjective.  The middle grade small child wizard novel is still twice as big as it has any right to be.  The Fulbright application page keeps crashing my computer.  And on top of all of that, Mopsy has an ear infection and I think she’s plotting to take over my blog, and I’m having stress dreams where I’m in the middle of World War II with only my new hot pink stapler as protection.

Despite all of this, by last night, I somehow managed to complete everything on my Fulbright application except the essays, and I’ve talked through my World War II Italy problems.  Just achieving that much gave me the confidence in myself to look at the big picture again.  I am doing a zillion things this summer: working my way through two massive book lists, applying for a Fulbright to teach in Italy after I graduate, studying for the GRE and looking at graduate schools, writing one novel, editing another novel, and starting a third novel.  If I’m going to get through all this stuff this summer, I have to do a little of everything every day.  So yeah, most of the time it feels like I’m going nowhere, but it’s not true.

I can do this, and I will do this.

So I’m having trouble with Charles Dickens.  So what? It will get done.

So I’m not making any progress editing the small child wizard novel.  All right.  I’m going to do Camp NaNoWriMo and devote one hour every day to editing in the month of July.  That will get done too.

I’ll take Mopsy to the vet and get her ears fixed up, and…  I honestly don’t know what to do about the stapler dreams.

I will keep going.  And if a little voice in the back of my head is telling me that this time last year, I was already finishing my study abroad program and I’d already read fifteen books, then I’m going to tell that little voice to shut up, because those books were not Beowulf or Great Expectations.

As for the confidence damaging comment about my writing…

No, I have not published a short story.  No, I have not finished a novel that I want to get published yet.  Maybe I have 116 rejection letters and nothing to show for it.  And maybe right now the chances of me making it onto the New York Times bestseller list are next to zero.  Yes, there are writers out there who write faster than me and better than me and who are published because they deserve to be.  Heck, there are writers out there who are worse than me, and they’re published too.  And yes, that can get pretty discouraging sometimes.

But honestly, that’s not why I’m writing.  I’m writing because I can’t not write.  I’m writing because there are stories inside me that are burning to come out, and there’s nothing else I can do.

A friend wrote in this post that this is how things work:

1.  Write things.

2.  Finish things.

3.  Make each new thing better than the thing that came before it.

4.  Try to publish your work,  in one of a zillion ways that have been thoroughly covered elsewhere.

5.  As long as steps 1-3 are making you happy, or at least speaking to a part of you that can’t be fulfilled in any other way, do not under any circumstances give up.

So I will not give up.  Because I can’t live without steps one through three, and I believe that one day, it will happen, and I will be published.  And right now, that’s all I need to keep going.

(Title Quote: “I Have Confidence”)

My Shiny Teeth and Me

When I pictured myself blogging about writing, I never imagined I would write about where ideas come from.  Why should I? Everyone does, and everyone says the same thing: Ideas come from anything and everything.  They come from books and movies and things you witness on the street and scraps of information in the newspaper or a textbook and anywhere else you can think of.  Be observant, everyone says, pay attention to the world around you, even eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, and voila! You have an idea.  The point is, as 2011 Alpha guest David Levine told us, “Ideas are like neutrinos—they shoot down from space and you just have to be dense enough to stop one.”

So I never pictured myself writing about it, because I honestly don’t have anything new to add to the conversation.  I have not, much to my chagrin, found a secret well of ideas or a failsafe method to find inspiration for that novel that you just know you have inside you.  What I mostly have is a testimonial to the bizarre way our minds work and the truth to the fact that ideas are all around us and we just have to know where to look.

A week ago, if someone were to ask me where I got the idea for my current project—what I’ll call the memory wiping academy novel for simplicity’s sake—I would have listed a collection of books and TV shows that mushed together to influence the book.  The Hunger Games, Never Let Me Go, Hogwarts, and River from Firefly are just a few.  My dentist’s office would not have been on that list.

To give you some necessary information, in the novel, the students in the academy have their memories routinely wiped by an ear-piercing screeching sound produced by brightly colored rooms.  A week ago, I assumed that the idea had come from somewhere, but I didn’t know exactly where.  My fear of surgery and the Spongebob episode with the padded yellow room might be factors, as well as my desire to find something that was thematically connected to my protagonist’s affinity for music.  But then I went to the dentist.  As I was sitting in the waiting room, reading my Italian history book and waiting for my name to be called, a hygienist came out and called a little girl, and as she got up, the hygienist said, “You’ll be in the yellow room today, honey.” My immediate instinct was to jump up, grab the little girl, and protect her from the horrible fate that awaited her in the yellow room.  It’s funny now, but I was seriously freaked out then, and a few minutes later, as I was being led to the white room, I honestly felt like I was going to scream.  Right then, I was positive that this was where the idea for my colorful memory wiping rooms came from.  At some point, my subconscious stored the idea of the new colored rooms at the pediatric dentist’s office, and when I was looking for a way to wipe my characters’ memories, it presented this to me.

I’ve been thinking about it all week, and at this point, I honestly don’t know if I originally got the idea from the dentist’s office or if I’ve just recontextualized the yellow room or the white room so thoroughly that I caused myself to have that reaction.  There’s no way to prove it now, but it is a distinct possibility that the dentist’s office did give me the idea, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.  Ideas are like neutrinos.  But how do we become dense enough to stop them? If the dentist really was my inspiration, how come I didn’t realize it then? How can I become more open to the world so that I can not just absorb potential ideas to use at a later date but recognize that I am doing so? And if ideas are so prevalent, I guess the question becomes not so much how do you get one, but how do you know what’s worth using? And then how do you use it?

I’m certainly not the only one to consider this, and I don’t have any answers.  There are books upon books about the craft of writing, how to get inspiration, how to turn your idea into a story, and then how to write that story.  I’ve been writing for years, so I have plenty of experience, but I’m obviously no expert.  I didn’t even want to start blogging about writing with ideas, but then I had one, and I just had to write about it, which seems to be how it works.  But after my experience at the dentist’s, I’m interested in further exploring this path from subconscious absorption of ideas to a full story.  Right now though, all I can say for sure is that I’m switching dentists.

(Title quote: “My Shiny Teeth and Me”)

Too Dark to Read

Groucho Marx once said that “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” And that’s what I want this blog to be about: how the creation and absorption of literature impacts my life.  In other words, I’m blogging about reading, writing, and occasionally the warm fuzzies of having a dog.


I am blind, but that’s not what I’m writing about.  It’s just a fact.  I’m me.  I’m blind.  Moving on.


I’m not blogging about it in general, but the fact that I’m blind does lend itself well to the title of this post, because the fact is, for me, it’s never too dark to read.  When I was little, when my brothers and I had early bedtimes and our parents turned out the lights, my older brother always complained that I could still read in the dark.  In fact, sometimes I would read so late that I would fall asleep with the book still lying open across my chest, and I would wake up some time after my parents had put it on my night table to find my fingers still moving across the sheets, reading a story even in my dreams.


Now, I’m going into my senior year at Kenyon College, where I’m studying English, creative writing, and Italian.  I read every book I can get my hands on, and I write young adult fantasy and literary fiction.  I love language.  It never fails to fascinate me how one word plus another word plus another word and on and on for hundreds of thousands of words can create a story that can make me laugh until my ribs ache or cry until my ears pop.  I hope to write a story like that one day too, and since my career after college is going to have something to do with literature, I feel like I should get some practice talking about it in a public way.


But this isn’t about literature in the scholarly sense of the word, not really.  This is about stories, and what stories can do for all of us.  For me, my favorite books are like old friends who are always there, whatever is going on in my life, and there’s nothing like the joy of discovery that comes with a new book.  And writing a story is just the same, a journey of discovery and emotion.  Stories of all kinds have gotten me through the hardest times in my life, so I guess what I’m really blogging about is how, even if you’re inside a dog, it is never too dark to read.