A Lesson In Learning by Natasha Leung

Beginning my first year at SOTA, I had many expectations for what I’d be spending the next four years studying in Creative Writing. I had not imagined having an in-depth analysis about the rightful guardian of the baby in Rumpelstiltskin. I did not anticipate starting the year dissecting the different personalities of Earth’s dragons, or somehow enjoying endless amounts of fairy tale history. Yet somehow, the very unit I had dreaded as soon as I saw it on our class calendar, had in less than a full week become a highlight of the year.

As a class, we had been aware of the upcoming unit on fairy tales (taught by Fatima Kola, the first artist in residence I was to meet this year), but somehow it still snuck up on me. One moment I was commiserating about the amount of homework in math class, the next I found myself submerged in the land of fairies, magic and nearly every mythical idea in existence. I assumed a general feeling of panic would ensue due to the amount of ground we were covering, but to my surprise my thoughts seemed to calm down after the initial introduction. Like shaking out a bedsheet and ironing off the wrinkles, Fatima seemed to ease us into the lesson with comfortable discussions and an overall feel of pure fun. I had been nervous, to say the least, about learning from an instructor I wasn’t familiar with; the easy groove that our class seemed to magically fall into was a pleasant surprise. Each activity turned into something different then I expected. The outside perspective of an artist-in-residence became more and more clear as each idea was branched out. One day we re-created fairy tale plays, given the challenge to create a minimal script and ad lib most lines, leading to hilariously portrayed characters and many long laughs. Another day we held a heated mock-trial, bringing up the logistics between the rights of paternal custody in fairy tales; many of us got so engaged in our arguments that we continued to debate long after the activity ended. Each lesson seemed to me, a newly joined fresh peep who was expecting most of Creative Writing to be hours of analysis and essay writing, unorthodox and wholly original. The simple presence of someone with such a vast pool of knowledge so different than any I’ve ever encountered is mind blowing. 

I’m increasingly grateful for Fatima and the countless things I’m learning in class, and I look forward to everything we do in the future. While I may seem to favor our current fiction unit, I’m realizing how in the past how quickly I dismissed activities as not meant for me, and disengaged myself from learning as much as I could. I’ve been seeing fairy tales as trivial children’s bedtime stories that hold no deeper meanings, leading me to dismiss any lessons they could teach. This new perspective so far has taught me so much about numerous different ideas—to me, the most valuable being the enjoyment of learning, and how to have fun.

The Informalities of Fiction by Starlie Tugade

Despite popular opinion, writing fiction has always been a serious, solitary activity for me. I can come up with stories anywhere, at any time, but the actual writing part takes place on my bed, listening to instrumental music. However, we’ve recently started our fiction unit in Creative Writing, dividing up into CW 1 (primarily underclassmen), and CW 2 (upperclassmen), and a couple of the assignments have been collaborative.

Our first assignment was to expand on Richard Brautigan’s one sentence short story: “‘Have you ever lived in a one-room apartment with someone learning to play the violin?’ she asked, as she handed the police officer the smoking gun.” Before everyone separated to write our own one page versions, we performed this story for each other. Eight different pairs acted out one sentence in dramatically different ways. One of the most memorable moments was when two people had to act the scene out without any arms (pantomiming the toss of the gun was a challenge there). Another was when Heather was directing the scene that I was in. I was playing the police officer, and Heather told me that I had to act as though I stubbed my toe, had a twitch in my left arm, and had an extreme case of hiccups. Oh and I forgot to mention, the woman with the gun was trying to seduce me. But all that was for the sake of the story, so I didn’t mind. 

When we came back the next day with our expanded versions of the one sentence we were given, everyone had a completely different tone and approach. One was about improv and another was about putting someone out of their misery. The drastic acting that we had done the day before opened our mind to the many different possibilities that this story held, and as a group of writers, we took advantage of that.

The Beauty of Submissions by Raquel Silberman

The greatest part about submitting my work is the suspense and excitement that overtakes me when waiting for a response. If my teachers do not urge me to check my emails more often, submissions sure do. Every marking period, CW students must submit to three places—journals, magazines, etc.—to showcase their writing voices and possibly get published. My first submissions took a great deal of courage. Reading poems to my classmates was one thing, but sending my work into the world for everyone to see was terrifying. After a year of monthly submissions, I take pride in saying I am a published writer. Submissions have become one of my favorite CW assignments because they give me a chance to extend my voice and share my annoyingly long poems I cannot burden others to read aloud. Another joy I have encountered through submissions was my first bilingual poem. CW has been notably helpful in strengthening my poetic voice, but it is not often I get the chance to read or write my work in another language. Last year I decided to submit a poem in both English and Spanish and to my surprise, it was published. 

The first person I sent the poem to was my grandma and while it may be a stretch to say submissions brought me an inch closer to my family, I like to think she was not exaggerating when she said: “I’m your number one admirer. Besos!” Now, I submit a piece in Spanish every other marking period for good luck, I call it my besos! 

Last night I got a package from a writing magazine which happened to contain a book with my besos poem. I’m proud to say my grandma still admires it.

These moments of joy happened separately from CW but they all link back to one assignment. Without the requirement to submit, I would have never known my work was submittable. Submissions are more than just a slight ego boost, they are an empathetic sort of encouragement in the form of a text message that always seems to come at the right time.

Invoking Freedom by Gabriel Flores Bernard

I never gave much thought to fairy tales, apart from the Disney interpretations I grew up with. I thought fairy tales were no more than children’s stories. I did not think about their adaptations, histories, reflections on humanity, and freedom of expression. I would gain an appreciation for fairy tales in the first unit of the school year. Led by published poet Fatima Kola, the unit was a lesson on what constitutes a fairy tale and how writers use and develop stories to promote social awareness and change. The unit culminated in a final project, where all students wrote their fairy tale, limits are damned. I did not expect to have as much fun writing a fairy tale as I did.

As a writer who loves to world-build fantastical realms and lore, fairy tales are a drastic change from my usual writing style. Events occur because why not? Magic is all but grounded in explanation. One does not question how the magic came to be, just that the magic pushes the story along. Magical surrealism in fairy tales has more freedom compared to other story types. Magic is integral to fairy tales, whether subtle or upfront. For me, to create another reality without explanation was weirdly foreign and frightening. To write extensive reasoning for my world is essential, a way for an overthinker to organize his chaotic imagination. I was unsure how to feel or approach my final project, written in a medium that embraced chaos.

However, as I put my worries aside and allowed words to flow, the chaos I resented became freedom. As much as I enjoy writing lore for my worlds, the process can be time-consuming and tiring. Fairy tales are lighter than other stories and carry less stress. Writing is always difficult, no matter the format, but fairy tales felt casual while incorporating the magical elements that add spice to stories. At the end of the unit, I felt confident in my final project, and most importantly, I enjoyed putting the work together. Fairy tales are a spectacular medium for writers who want to escape reality without the shackles of reality.

The Expectations by Ari Nystrom Rice

As a creative writing freshpeep I had certain expectations when coming into the program. I expected us to be doing simple pieces, writing what we wanted to write and getting feedback on our work. Once creative writing began, my expectations were blown away, and replaced with community weeks and our wonderful fairy tale unit. Instead of writing whatever we wanted we wrote specific reflections on readings, and learned serious narrative grammar. The roof had been raised, and I was rushing to fill the new space created by the greater expectations. Then, the fiction unit came. In the fiction unit we started with a small project of using a one sentence short story in a one page story of our own creation. We had no restrictions in how we wanted to write our story, just that it needed to be written. Suddenly the expectations of my eighth grade self came rushing back. The unlimited creativity we were given made me appreciate the guidance we had in our other units, while also enjoying the newfound freedom. I found that when I wrote my assignment I focused more on the concept of what I was writing rather than the writing itself, it allowed me to indulge in my creativity more than other assignments did. On the other hand, when I was writing my fairy tale I focused more on how to give it the distinct fairy tale style, making me create a more professional creative piece.

When we brought our pieces into class and presented them, I saw how different our takes on the assignment were, from writing a monologue like me to playing with the perspective of the story, there were a variety of takes on the project. Although our informational pieces are held to a different standard and set of expectations there were still “No right answers.” I learned that we all had different takes on whatever readings we did, demonstrating that our individual personalities and quirks define our writing no matter the expectations.

Boba, the Cure to Writer’s Block? by Emilie Mayer

Last Sunday, I ordered a tropical green tea with boba and sat myself down in the middle of the crowded Metreon. I promised myself that I would not move until five pages had been written. Although, I did use the restroom twice. 

I am writing a novella—novel seems too vast a word—for my thesis. In order to graduate, Creative Writing seniors must produce a collection of poetry, plays, or fiction. I decided to write a novella, because I am perhaps a masochistic. College application season is upon me, and if I am being honest, the sheer amount of writing for applications and my thesis is sickening. Last year, I decided that my thesis should be a novella after realizing that twenty pages would not capture a story that I needed to tell. 

Now, four months later, I have set myself the structure of writing five pages a week. The problem is that as of late the words have not been coming to me. I will sit in front of my laptop screen for ten minutes, type nothing, then turn on the T.V. and watch Netflix. I did not write anything thesis-related during the month of September, and I loathed myself for the procrastination. Writing became a source of anxiety for me. From writing essays to writing fiction, I felt overwhelmed.

An adjustment was needed and so I forced an ultimatum upon myself: write or be forced to stay in the Metreon forever. And it worked. In an hour and a half, I not only wrote the pages but also edited several underclassmen’s essays as well. From now until my thesis is finished I will be camping out in the Metreon, Starbucks, Squat and Gobble, and any cafe that will let me. The words need to be written, and I must get over myself and do so. 

Three Years in Review by Isabella Hansen

I began my first year in Creative Writing as a timid and tiny freshman. I am writing this now as a remarkably taller senior. As I look back on the years I have spent in this department, I can only feel gratitude for the space I was given to grow, both as a human and a writer. The Creative Writing department at SOTA is one of the most close-knit departments in the school. We are a tight-knit community. This intimacy and closeness to other students are often difficult for me to find but after spending three years here, even through the pandemic, I am grateful that I have been able to explore my creative work while also furthering friendships. 

I am currently in the process of writing my senior thesis. My thesis is a compilation of my work in Creative Writing which also doubles as a graduation requirement. One day, while on a particular procrastination spiral, I looked through some of my old work from freshman year and cackled. My fish stick poem, out of all my ninth-grade creative work, was a particular piece that brought amused tears to my eyes. I felt both sentimental and amused at my growth from my first year here. There are many memories from my time in Creative Writing that make me shudder in embarrassment while also simultaneously make me laugh. 

Now, as I continue to write my thesis which revolves around the theme of family, I feel a desire to include my fish stick poem for nostalgia’s sake. In all honesty, the tools I use to write now were gifted to me throughout my years here and some of which I would never trade, even for the world.  I have learned how to analyze creative work and engage in free-flowing discussions that once intimidated me. I learned how to write authentically and to ensure I always have a genuine voice in my writing. The skills that I have gained from Creative Writing not only help me with writing my thesis now but will follow me throughout college and years after.

Message to Future Freshman by Filip Zubatov

Another one bites the dust: this is my method when it comes to work. Truthfully, I have found a select few assignments in the first weeks I’ve been in Creative Writing that I’ve relished writing. A multitude of assignments that you will be faced with when coming into this program may not be your forte, but something is bound to be. You’ll be bombarded with work such as reading responses, critiques, and poems; minutes, hours, days, and months will pass as fast as a bullet and you won’t realize where all the time went. I made an atrocious mistake when first coming into this department. Before Creative Writing, I had low self-esteem in myself and my work compared to others. On the first day, walking into the classroom, surrounded by talented writers, I was anxious my work couldn’t even remotely compare. It seemed that I gave up my ghost of pride. I learned later that comparing your work to others will only put you down, so refrain from ever doing so. 

Seven weeks have gone by and I’m starting to feel like I am a part of the Creative Writing community. I feel as though if there is one message I want to give to incoming freshmen it is to make friends within the department. I was lucky enough to have my brother at SOTA to spend time with when I was alone, but those that are coming in solo, talk with people and don’t be afraid to. Future freshmen, keep track of time and stay on top of your work, especially Creative Writing related work. Fall just ended, and Winter is coming in strong without any signs of stopping. Cherish every moment you can before they pass. Even if there are troublesome times, look for the valuable moments, because there will be plenty. Being in Creative Writing for a short time, I’ve already had an abundance of them. Be social, have pride in your work, and keep track of time in SOTA, but mainly in Creative Writing.

Learning How to Read With “Wren: Three Mirrors” by Zadie McGrath

Early in the school year, I walked into the CW classroom and was handed a printed-out copy of a poem. As the low buzz of conversation slowly faded, I skimmed through it, the seemingly incongruent words stirring my mind into panic. Before CW, the poetry I read had been simple and relaxing, easy to digest. I would read a poem or two in the evening, lulled by the fluidity of the words, comforted by them in a distant way. Poetry is abstract, I thought. When I wrote my own, I never went beyond the first draft because I liked the sound of the words. What I write, it doesn’t have to be intentional, I thought at the time. For me, poetry existed in a bubble that I was afraid to pop.

The poem we read, “Wren: Three Mirrors” by Michael Burkard, infuriated me at first—I could tell there was something I was missing as I annotated the poem, but whatever it was, it eluded me. The piece read more like a paragraph than a poem, and it switched rapidly from image to image, leaving me disoriented. “Like waking in the small room, looking out,” it began, “seeing the moon, almost down, through the pale/trees. So then the incompletion is waking…” It continued on like this, describing wings, mirrors, a woman, and finally ending with the bizarre words “I have/missed you like a donkey on fire, like a donkey.”

As we moved into a class discussion, though, I began to glean some understanding of the poet’s intentions. The poem didn’t let me walk away from it with only a distant reaction; it contradicted all the conventions I knew and soon had me scrutinizing every word. 

I came to the conclusion that the confusing imagery had all been a distraction—the speaker, trying desperately to distract themselves from the woman described at the end of the poem, focused first on the small room, then the moon, then the trees, and so on. Like waking in the small room, they said. Not Waking in the small room or I woke in the small room, but Like waking, as if the poem’s speaker was comparing waking to something else, and the act of waking was just an illusion.

After frantically scribbling my theory down, I raised my hand to participate in the class discussion. It was the first time I had spoken up without stuttering over my words or trailing off, unsure of what point I was trying to get across. Now, the urge to have a complete, resounding idea of what a poem is trying to say is the norm for me. My annotations sometimes turn into full-fledged analyses, and at break time during arts block, my friends and I trade our takes on whatever poem we’re working on with one another. Surprisingly, this doesn’t feel like doing extra homework voluntarily; it doesn’t feel like work at all. It’s just the way I interact with poetry, popping the bubble and letting all the air in.

Sharing a Part of You by Kendall Snipper

Creative Writing began the first workshopping sessions of the year this week. We were instructed to print out three of our summer work poems. Wanting something better to work with than the haiku and tanka poems I wrote, there were three longer poems left. I read each line over, making sure there was nothing to be kept away from my classmates.  Each poem was a part of myself, something I had written to express my emotions in the moment. Honestly, I thought about the different ways to avoid the assignment. Writing a newer poem, pretending to forget to print, anything so I wouldn’t have to show this part of me. My writing was never something I’d shared with others. I keep each piece to myself as if I’m rationing off parts of my brain for me alone to enjoy. 

Inevitably, the time for Creative Writing came along and we split off into workshopping groups. In a group of four, I was among a junior and two sophomores. “Freshman first” is such a common phrase at this point, so I wasn’t surprised when I was urged to go first. Each poem I printed out seemed way too cliche for me to read aloud. Reading over my summer work was just like the feeling of hearing a second grader’s joke: cringe-inducing. But I handed each group member a copy of my poem and began to read it aloud. Reading my writing to others was never such a problem to me, it was more of an issue when I knew they had a physical copy. My issue was realizing that somebody could now read over a line multiple times and see that it doesn’t make sense. Sitting at a table in silence while your older peers critique your work is probably the scariest thing I’ve done in high school so far. After each of them finished reading and annotating my poem, we discussed it. Hearing my classmate’s voices on my work was such a relief to the quiet, that I forgot about my nerves. Instead of overthinking what my peers were going to say about the poem, I sank calmly into the discussion. Each and every person was respectful with their critiques, and overall each sentence was something helpful or reassuring. I learned so much about how others can perceive your writing, and ways that I can definitely improve. Opening up the portion of my brain that once hid all my thoughts is something I find enjoyable now. I’m grateful to have a safe place to share and put my emotions down on paper.