Christmas in Italy

I know. I’m a month late with this post, but it’s still January, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

The city of Gubbio, Italy, lit up on its mountain like a giant Christmas tree

This year, I spent Christmas in Italy. My family came to visit me for the holidays, but they didn’t arrive until a few days after Christmas, so I got to experience a traditional Italian Christmas with my landlady and landlord.


I’m not sure what exactly I expected, but it actually wasn’t that different from Christmas in America. I’m more familiar with the Christmas traditions of southern Italy, thanks to my mother’s family, than I am with the Umbrian Christmas traditions. There were no twelve fishes on Christmas Eve in Assisi, and there was much more red meat than my family would normally eat for Christmas in America. In America, we probably wouldn’t pop champagne and eat panettone—a Christmas cake with nuts and candied fruit—on the basilica steps immediately after midnight Mass either. Here in Italy, there really are twelve days of Christmas, and America only has one Santa Clause.


After Christmas, I went to Rome to meet my family, and we traveled around Rome, Florence, and Pisa for a week. And everywhere we went, the Christmas festivities continued. We saw crèche sets not only in every church and piazza but also in many store windows. We saw one that was made entirely of pasta, and another in the basilica in Pisa that included a looping audio track of a baby crying, Mary humming, a rooster calling, and cattle lowing. Restaurants continued to serve Christmas specials, and people continued to wish each other “Buon Natale“—Merry Christmas. New Years in Florence demonstrated more of the Italians’ festive spirit, as people set off fireworks in the streets all night and well into the next day.


At the end of our trip, we returned to Assisi, where we rounded off the twelve days of Christmas with a fabulous Christmas concert and the celebration of Epiphany on January 6. Italians celebrate Epiphany like a second Christmas with a big meal and La Befana—the Epiphany witch—who comes down the chimney and fills children’s stockings with candy if they were good and coal if they were bad. La Befana is basically a second Santa Clause, because Italian children also hang stockings for Papà Natale on Christmas Eve.


We celebrated Epiphany by visiting Gubbio, a small town on the top of a mountain about an hour from Assisi. Gubbio is called the Christmas town, because it has the world’s largest Christmas tree. Actually, Gubbio is the world’s largest Christmas tree, because it’s the whole mountain that is decorated to look like a Christmas tree. We spent the day exploring the town, walking up and down the steep, narrow streets. When it began to get dark, we drove down the mountain and then stopped to watch the largest Christmas tree in the world light up in the perfect finale to a beautiful Christmas.


Here We Go Again: The Dreaded Revision

I am currently in the middle of some major revisions. In fact, I’ve been doing almost nothing but revisions for the last few months, first short stories to submit to the Dell Award and now my small-child magician novel. So I thought I’d take a moment to talk about how I revise. Over the past several years, my writing style has changed significantly, and so has my process for revising, but my goal has always been the same: to tell a good story.


For me, revising effectively has a lot to do with understanding how you write in the first place as well as how you read. Because once you’ve finished a first draft, you have to step back and look at it not as your baby that you slaved over but as an editor and as a reader. It’s an oft-repeated bit of advice, but revision does mean reseeing, looking at the work anew with time and perspective and then, of course, changing what you see to make it better.


So first, before I do anything else to a draft, I put it away. This is partly because I am a firm believer in writing shitty first drafts—it’s better to get the words down on paper and worry about making them the right words later—so I tend to hate most of my first drafts—sometimes unreasonably so—and I need time and perspective to see what is truly terrible, what needs to be fixed, what is not as bad as I thought it was, and what is actually really good.


But before I even look at the project again, I ask my writing buddies to look it over and give me some feedback. I am a very social writer. I do better writing in a group alongside others—even if that group is convening over the internet—than I do writing in a room by myself. I need the ability to ask questions and bounce ideas, and my ability to help others with their own stories can give me insight into my own work. The knowledge that I am not working alone, in short, helps me work more efficiently. And I have to revise in a similar way. I’m working on getting better, but I’m not so good at finding flaws in my own projects, especially when it comes to plot. I need feedback from other writers and readers to point out the things that need to be fixed, and once I know what needs to be fixed, I can usually come up with how best to revise on my own.


I am getting better at finding problems myself because I’ve started paying more attention to how I read. When I finish reading a book, I either loved it unconditionally, loved it with reservations, only thought it was so-so, or just didn’t like it. But I don’t just leave it at that. I try to analyze why I feel this way about the book. Why exactly do I love it unconditionally? Or what makes me have reservations about loving it? How come I thought it was only so-so? What about it was so terrible that I just didn’t like it? I examine a book from a writer’s point of view, looking at the choices the writer made and why I think they made them, contemplating what choices I would have made if I was writing it. To give an example, I recently read a book that I really loved, except after everything the characters had done to get this far, the ending fell kind of flat for me. When I thought about it, I realized that any other ending wouldn’t have been right for the characters, but it still felt wrong to me, because after so much excitement, this ending felt anticlimactic. So if I was writing this book, I wouldn’t have changed what happened in the ending between the characters, but I might have changed the setting or the events to make it fit better with the tone of the rest of the story. And by examining books and short stories that I read like this, I am practicing the skills I need to see the flaws in my own writing.


And once I see the flaws, I revise. Sometimes the revising is big. I have completely rewritten several stories several times. Sometimes the revisions are small tweaks that change the tenor of a character or a scene. Sometimes, I start at the beginning of the story and revise from there, but sometimes I jump around. There is advice all over the internet about how best to revise and rewrite. Some authors have detailed, step by step processes, complete with questionnaires or color coded outlines, that they use to revise every time. Personally, I try to listen to the needs of the story and the needs of the reader and find the place where those needs intersect and balance.


One thing I almost always do before I submit a story, however, is go through it and cut all unnecessary words, because I know that I tend to overwrite my first drafts. I set a target word count that I think the story should be based on its genre and what I accomplish in the story, then I do the math to determine how many words I should cut per page in order to reach that target. Then I use an abacus as a counter, and I start cutting words without actually changing the story. And I can almost always do it, and it almost always becomes a better story.


Revising isn’t always easy. Sometimes, it’s downright hard. Finishing a first draft of a project is not, in fact, the hardest part, and sometimes the thought of plunging back in, armed with my trusty toolbox of revising tricks, sounds like a drag: “And here we go again.” But whether I want to delete the file and burn all existing copies and pretend it never happened or else revel in the glory of finishing, there is always more work to do, and it is always worth doing. I try to view that work—revision—as a chance to get back inside my characters and my stories, to discover again why I loved this idea and why it was worth writing in the first place, and to make the changes that will turn my clumsy first draft into a story that shines, a story that others will want to read.

Welcome to Italy!

It’s difficult to believe, but two months ago, I arrived in Italy to begin my nine months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Which means, among other things, that a blog post is long overdue.


I’m not going to pretend that the last two months have been easy, and I’m certainly not going to say that it’s been what I dreamed it would be or even what I expected it would be. Honestly, these have been some of the hardest months of my life, and that includes the two months I spent in excruciating pain last year because my eye was exploding. Why has it been so hard? Well, for one thing, this is my first year living on my own as an adult, and for another thing, I’m in a foreign country, and culture shock is a very real and very upsetting thing. I have never been this homesick in my life. I’ve had days where, after school, I curled up with a sad book or movie to give myself an excuse to cry, but I’ve also had days where I’ve had a lot of fun, and as the time is passing and I’m becoming more accustomed to living here, the fun days are outnumbering the stressful days.


So far, I have seen the best and the worst of Italy. Within my first two weeks here, I was hit by a car (I was on the sidewalk), and my mother and aunt were mugged. But none of us were hurt—just scared—and we also had some wonderful experiences before they left , and I have had some wonderful experiences since then. Some of my favorite have included meals with my teachers and my landlady and my mom’s cousin in Rome (seems like the way to enjoy the real Italian cuisine is to do it in an Italian home), my trip up to the fort at the top of Assisi with one of the teachers I’m working with, playing my clarinet for my landlady’s choir, and the festival for the Virgin Mary this past weekend (which included fireworks set to music and new, interesting street food!). And of course, I am loving teaching English and speaking Italian. I can practically feel my Italian skills growing with leaps and bounds every day, and every time a student asks me a question about America or asks me to elaborate on something we discussed in class, I just get really excited.


I want to share one particular story that I think really illustrates what things have been like here:


On a Saturday night towards the end of October, I was sitting out in the courtyard in front of my apartment, desperately trying to get my internet to work so I could skype with my friends in America. It was a pretty warm evening. I didn’t even have a coat on. It was already dark, and there was no traffic on my street, so it was pretty quiet. And then, just when I was about to give up and go back inside because the stupid internet just wasn’t working anywhere, I heard singing. I stood up, listening. At first, I thought it was coming from someone’s radio or television, but it sounded too clear for that. It was many male voices—a choir complete with harmonies—but it was too far away to distinguish words or even much of a melody. I stood there with my computer and listened, and I finally decided that I was pretty sure the singing was coming from the basilica, which is about a fifteen minute walk from my apartment. The night was so clear and quiet that it carried all the way to my street. Later, when I told this story to my landlady, I learned that it was the weekly candle-lit procession of the monks, but then, standing there in the dark, feeling confused and frustrated and pretty miserable, and then suddenly hearing this singing that seemed almost other-worldly from that distance, all I could think of was the story of why the lower part of Assisi is called Santa Maria degli Angeli—Saint Mary of the Angels: Because Saint Francis heard the angels singing.


Moving here hasn’t been easy (it has certainly been a much bigger adjustment than I ever anticipated), but I think the more comfortable I get, the more fun I will have. For every time I take the wrong bus or momentarily panic at the sudden movement of a car up onto the sidewalk, I also round the corner to find two cellists playing Pachabel’s Canon, or I’m invited to Sunday lunch with someone’s family and have a great time, or one of my students tells me they really enjoyed my lesson on American geography and one day they want to visit some of the national parks I described. And I remember why I dreamed of coming here and remind myself that even if it isn’t totally great now, it will be.

Packing for a Story

In the introduction to Theodora Goss’s short story collection, In the Forest of Forgetting, Terri Windling quotes Goss’s discussion of literature as a series of countries and border crossings:


As a student studying literature, I was told there were borders indeed: national (English, American, colonial), temporal (Romantic, Victorian, Modern), generic (fantastic, realistic). Some countries (the novel) you could travel to readily. The drinking water was safe, no immunizations were required. For some countries (the gothic), there was a travel advisory. The hotels were not up to standard; the trains would not run on time. Some countries (the romance) one did not visit except as an anthropologist, to observe the strange behavior of its inhabitants. And there were border guards (although they were called professors), to examine your travel papers as carefully as a man in an olive uniform with a red star on the cap. They could not stop you from crossing the border, but they would tell you what had been left out of your luggage, what was superfluous. Why the journey was a terrible idea in the first place. (Goss XII-XIII)


BTW  I’m only partway through In the Forest of Forgetting but so far it’s shaping up to be excellent.


I was struck by this quote not only because it is beautiful, inciteful, and witty, but also because this past week I was packing my luggage for a year abroad and at the same time having some literary border-crossing troubles of my own.


I recently wrote a short story that I worked really hard on and loved to pieces. (Note: Loving your own first drafts to pieces is usually not such a good idea. I do not recommend.) So, having completed this story, I asked some friends for critiques, and I was told that this was not a short story. This story was a novel, trying—and failing—to be a short story. Now, had I listened to the people I’d originally discussed this idea with—they thought it would work better as a novel too—I wouldn’t have landed myself in this predicament. But I’ve had too many short stories turn into novels that I still haven’t written yet, and I loved this idea. I wanted to write a short story, too, so I did, and now I had feedback I didn’t want to hear.


But of course, I did hear it, and since it jived with feedback I’d already received, I thought that I better at least consider it. And the more I considered it, the happier I became with the idea of this story as a novel. I could really explore the world, the characters and their motivations, the plot. I could dive into it in a way I really couldn’t do successfully in a short story. In a novel, I could keep all the intertwined plot lines I already had, whereas if I insisted on writing a short story, in order for it to really work I would have to dissect the plot lines and only focus on one, maybe one and a half. All of this seemed like strong reasons to make this short story a novel, so I set the draft I had aside and added it to my beist of unwritten novel ideas with only a little regret. The only problem was, I also had all these ideas for related short stories, and before I knew it, they had turned into novels too, and I was out of short story ideas.


Clearly, there is a lesson here that I understand in principle but still haven’t really learned: Short stories are not simply shorter novels. Short stories and novels are very different beasts.


Which brings me back to my thoughts on literature as countries and my struggles with packing. As I was packing this weekend—deciding what to bring and what to leave behind, what was necessary, what I would like to have, and what I could do without—I realized that in a way, planning a project is similar to packing for a trip. If you’re going away for a weekend or an overnight, you’re going to pack less than if you’re going away for a week or a month or a year. Similarly, if you’re writing a piece of flash fiction or a short story, you don’t need—and shouldn’t have—as much plot, as many characters, and as much information in general as you would include if you were writing a novel. When you’re packing for a year abroad, you’re not just bringing clothes and a swim suit and a few toiletries. You’re bringing clothes, some toiletries to start you out (but you’re planning to get more when you’re over there), your electronic devices like a computer or an iPod (though maybe you’ve left your phone behind), lots of books, and anything that is personally important to you (though not necessarily of much use). When you’re planning a novel, you need characters and plot and lots of room for those characters to develop, and don’t forget all that backstory that has gotten your characters to this point. A novel can have multiple plot lines and subplots and character arcs, but a short story can really only have a few characters, one plot and one character arc, and limited backstory. You can’t pack a novel into a short story, just like you can’t pack for a year when you’re really only going away for a week.


It sounds ridiculously obvious when I say it like that, but as I said, it’s a lesson that I feel I understand in principle but am only just beginning to really learn in that way that will make my writing better. I started out writing novels (bad ones, it’s true, but novels nonetheless). So I naturally think big, and it’s an effort for me to pare something down to the size of a short story, but effort or not, I still love it. And if packing for Italy has taught me nothing else, it has taught me that some suitcases just aren’t built to hold certain things, and you can’t always fit everything you want into the bag, and you can’t force it. You can sacrifice the thing you want to bring, or you can pay the price of bringing a larger bag, but whatever choice you make, if the story is important enough for you to write it, you’ll find the bag that fits best so you can have the trip of a lifetime.


Now, back to packing! Next stop Italy!

Books for ALL the Ages

Over the last few weeks, I have found myself involved in several discussions about the differences between young adult and adult literature and the validity of both. I read both, and personally all I really care about is whether it’s a good book or not, but I also tend to write YA, and as a writer I’ve found that I sometimes get confused about where exactly that oh-so-fuzzy line dividing the age ranges is. And what about the subcategories like middle grade and new adult? So, partly because I wanted to iron out my own confusion and partly because I wanted an organized response to all these discussions I’ve been involved in, I decided to write out what I see as the differences between the two.


Character’s Age


The age of the main character is perhaps the easiest and simplest way to define young adult fiction. Generally speaking, if a character is between the ages of ten and nineteen, the book is young adult, with ten- to twelve-year-old protagonists largely falling into the middle grade subcategory. There’s also this new-ish category called New Adult, which is generally about characters from nineteen to twenty-five years old. Adult books are about, well, adults.


But the key word here is “generally.” As with every pattern, there are exceptions. With this one, there are a lot of exceptions. The main character of Janice Hardy’s series The Healing Wars, for example, is fifteen, but the books are classified as middle grade. Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a middle grade book, but it alternates between the story of twelve-year-old Henry and Keiko’s forbidden friendship during the time of Japanese Internment in World War II and the story of Henry trying to find her forty years later. And a large part of Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner is about Amir as a young boy, but The Kite Runner is an adult novel. And these are just the exceptions I came up with off the top of my head.


So while age is a good rule of thumb, it is by no means the only criteria for young adult literature.


Character’s Place in Society


Along the same lines as the main character’s age, the protagonist’s place in society is also important. Let’s say to simplify things that the main character is a teenager. What being a teenager means varies greatly depending on where and when the novel takes place. Throughout most of history, and even in some cultures today, a teenager might already be married, managing a household, and have children. This would place the teenager in the adult sphere of society and therefore make it ambiguous whether the book would be adult or young adult. Conversely, there could be a young adult novel about a twenty-something just finding their way into adult society (I’ve never read such a book myself, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one exists).


Young adult books tend to involve characters who are just moving into society. They are on the edge between childhood and adulthood, or they are forced as children to take on the responsibilities of adults, usually without the support of family members or other adults. As John Green said, teenagers in any setting are going through so many new experiences—first love, first heartbreak, first encounter with the death of someone close to them.


Content and Themes


As you can see, the dividing line between young adult and adult is already fuzzy, but this is the part where it becomes even fuzzier, because none of this is easily definable. Adult books are supposed to deal with more “adult” themes than young adult books, which seems obvious when you say it out loud, but young adult books often deal with similar themes as adult books. Young adult confronts these themes differently from adult, but young adult’s approach is typically just as complex and thoughtful as the adult approach. There isn’t a limit on topic or theme for either young adult or adult literature. Lois Lowry’s book The Giver, for example, deals with the euthanasia of those who do not fit into or function within society’s standards, and that’s a middle grade book. Jay Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons Why confronts a teenage girl’s reasons for committing suicide. And The Hunger Games is about a bunch of teenagers forced to fight to the death to preserve peace.


Guys, this is deep stuff.


There does, however, seem to be a spectrum of what content can be shown and what can’t, particularly concerning explicit sex and violence. As I understand it, middle grade books have limited explicit violence and no sex at all—kissing is the limit. Young adult books can have more explicit violence and limited explicit sex—they tend to fade to black before actual sex happens. New adult books (and I know very little about this) have more explicit sex and violence than young adult books. And I’m pretty sure almost anything goes in adult books. Personally, I’m vague about where exactly all of these dividing lines are, and there are always exceptions.


This brings me to my last, and to my mind most important, distinction between adult and young adult literature.




To me, the biggest difference between adult and young adult books is the restraint shown by young adult books. I’m using the word “restraint” loosely here, but there isn’t one all-encompassing word for what I’m talking about, and it gets the point across. In a young adult book, everything the author does has to matter to the story. The majority of young adult books are shorter than adult books (this has changed since Harry Potter but it’s still largely true), and this coupled with the limitations on content means that everything the author chooses to include in the story has to matter. If characters are going to fall in love and have sex, that’s fine, but it needs to matter to the characters’ growth and overall arc over the course of the novel, if not the plot itself. If Character X is going to beat up Character Y, it has to change things. On the other hand, the lack of limitations on adult books has resulted in far too many novels that, to my mind, are full of needlessly explicit sex and violence that has very little or nothing to do with the actual story and is only present because people believe a book needs to have these things to sell. (Note: I like adult books, and this is, of course, not true of all of them, but I’ve seen it enough that it frustrates me).


A great example of this is the difference between Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Mary Doria Russel’s A Thread of Grace. Both books are set during World War II and involve Jews fleeing the Holocaust. The Book Thief is young adult, and A Thread of Grace is adult, and in my opinion, Zusak’s restrained way of confronting the reality of death, the war, and the Holocaust is more emotionally powerful than Russel’s excessively violent and almost chaotically complicated narrative.


In general, young adult authors show more restraint than adult authors, and sometimes I feel it makes for a stronger book.


All of these distinctions, however, mainly exist so that publishers and bookstores know where to put books on the shelves, and for each difference I just listed, there are probably a dozen books or more that prove me wrong.


And as for those who think it’s immature—at best—for an adult to read young adult, all I have to say is that while there are certainly books that give young adult a bad name, there are definitely books that give adult a bad name too. It’s also important to note that many books called “serious” or “Capital L” literature that we read in high school, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird, would actually be considered young adult literature if they were published today, but they were published before young adult was created.


But what does it matter who the book was written for, anyway? I read everything I can get my hands on, and some of the best books I’ve read are middle grade and young adult. If it’s a good book, where you found it in the bookstore shouldn’t matter.

New Years Resolutions Take 2

Back in January, I wrote a post about my New Year’s resolutions, and now, at the beginning of September, I thought it might be a good idea to check in on how I’ve done, celebrate some successes, and renew the ones that could use some renewing.


1.  Post on Facebook Every Day:


To be entirely honest, I haven’t posted on Facebook every single day this year, but I do almost every day, and I have gotten myself into the habit of actually using Facebook like a normal person, which was the goal underlying the “post every day” bit. So I declare this resolution a success.


2.  Reach 200 rejection letters or get published, whichever comes first:


I’m not going to say exactly how many rejections I have because I don’t want to share and no one really wants to know that, but in all likelihood, I will reach 200 by the end of the calendar year.


On the other hand, I have made 200 a moot point. After 137 rejections, my story “The Year of Salted Skies” was named the third runner-up for the 2014 Dell Award, and after 150 rejections, my story “The Collector” was accepted for publication at Cast of Wonders! And it was published .




3.  Blog semi-regularly:




About that…


I could make all sorts of excuses for why I haven’t blogged—finishing my thesis and taking my honors exams, applying to graduate schools, waiting to hear from said graduate schools and from the Fulbright, graduating, preparing for a year in Italy, expanding the World War II Italy novella into a full length novel, all that important stuff. But I am not going to bemoan or attempt to excuse my lack of blogging activity. Instead, I am going to renew this resolution. 2014 is not over yet, and the new school year is about to begin. This year I will be teaching instead of learning, and this is strange and a little scary to me. Also Italy, which is awesome and must be blogged about. So I will make a new school year’s resolution to blog more. Please pester me if I don’t.


But, lack of blogging aside, I have to say, this has been the year! I graduated from college! I got a Fulbright scholarship to teach in Assisi, Italy! And I got published! And if I did all that—and kept my Facebook resolution—then I will get better at blogging.


And once I get better at blogging, maybe I’ll figure out this thing called Twitter.

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”)