The Four Fundamental Conditions of Theatre by Xuan Ly

Playwriting is the last of Creative Writing’s three main units (the others being poetry and fiction). This week, for this six-week unit, Creative Writing welcomed our artist-in-residence, Nicole Jost. It is Nicole’s second year teaching CW. She is a local playwright, and is finishing her doctorate at SFSU this spring!

In the week that Nicole has been us, we have read four plays, seen one play, and learned about the four fundamental conditions of theatre. The four conditions include: collaborations, group audience, suspension of disbelief, and perpetual present. These four things, among others, are what differentiates playwriting from other forms of literature. Collaborating with other actors and writers is a crucial part of playwriting. With novels, there is no need for collaborations unless the author is co-writing their novel. Collaborations allow more than one perspective on the play. While reading a novel or collection of poems, there is only one person in the audience. While viewing a play, the group audience and surroundings may reflect how a single viewer experiences the show. Suspension of disbelief implies that the audience must believe that the world that has been created onstage is real, despite any other logical reasoning. Lastly, the idea of perpetual present time urges the audience to forget any past knowledge of what the topic of the play, or what the play is about. The idea encourages the audience to experience it in the present as if they did not have any prior knowledge.

These four fundamental conditions allow audiences to more thoroughly enjoy the piece that the playwright has created. It also helps the playwright take the audience’s experience into account. During playwriting, we are taught not just as writers, but actors as well. I am excited to see what where next few weeks of playwriting with Nicole takes us.

Xuan Ly, class of 2021

Maggie Nelson at the Nourse Theater by Ren Weber

On Friday, January 19th, Creative Writing attended a conversation with Maggie Nelson presented by City Arts and Lectures at the Nourse Theater. There, Nelson talked about her books, The Argonauts and Bluets with Julia Bryan-Wilson in a onstage, recorded interview. I enjoyed hearing about how Nelson views labels and titles, particularly surrounding the idea that she is a “genius” due to the award from the MacArthur Foundation. I noticed how she seemed to slightly evade each question about labels directed at her by the interviewer (about being a queer writer, a poet vs. fiction writer, a genius, etc.) which seemed to parallel the way she dislikes the aggressive way our society attempts to classify and categorize people.

One of my favorite parts of the reading was when questions were opened up to the audience. One audience member mentioned Maggie Nelson’s background in dancing, and asked how Nelson physically feels when writing. I had never thought deeply about the connection between physicality and writing until then, because to me it had always seemed that writing must inherently be a very solitary and stagnant act. I thought it was interesting how she tied movement and writing together, creating a link between the two art forms, almost blurring the lines between the two genres. The excerpts I read before the reading from The Argonauts and Bluets eludes and bends genres as well, introducing layers of poetry, memoir, and literary analysis, which makes one question why we are so engrossed with classifying art into categories.

Maggie Nelson talked about how she can only write from experience, which means that her writing is mostly memoir. I find it interesting how writers seem to pick sides on this debate, either unable to write anything from past experiences or are mostly inspired by moments that have occurred within their own lives. However one may label their own writing, I am wholly of the opinion that art usually stems (if only minutely) from a place of personal experiences and feelings. Seeing Maggie Nelson speak through City Arts and Lectures made me question the way I view my own writing, the way we classify art, and the many boundaries we can cross when we don’t confine our work to arbitrary labels.

Ren Weber, class of 2021

Farewell Fiction by Tess Horton

Farewell, Fiction.

With the conclusion of the fiction unit in Creative Writing 1, our playwriting unit is soon to be upon us. As much as I appreciate fiction and consider myself to be a better fiction writer than anything else, I am excited to experience the legendary “playwriting unit,” of which I have heard so very much about these past few months. It almost feels as if it won’t truly happen: I have come to think of the playwriting unit as something of the future, something I won’t ever go through, and that I’ll simply wonder about for the rest of my days. Of course, the playwriting unit must go on, and go on it will, even considering my preconceived notions.

The fiction unit has been enjoyable, nonetheless. We have read short stories such as “After the Theatre” by Anton Chekhov, “Eveline” by James Joyce, and most recently, “How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien. Most of the stories we have read have focused largely on characters and sentence structure, both of which we have been discussing at length in CW 1. We focused on the aspects of a story that make a story what it is, for example: tone, style, setting, genre, diction, etc. After repeating this process (taking home a short story, reading it before I go to sleep, and deconstructing it the next day in Creative Writing 1), numerous times, I feel as if my capacity to analyze and understand a short story in a more academic, structured way has improved immensely. That, paired with writing three other short stories in response to given prompts, has definitely caused me to find more of a sense of confidence within my storytelling ability.

Although the fiction unit is over, I still have the playwriting unit to look forward to, and hopefully more to come. This unit has been a learning experience for me, and I am eager for my fiction-writing to improve as I grow as both a student and a writer.

Tess Horton, class of 2022

Velvet Jumpsuits by Sequoia Hack

I think the peak of fashion for many people is when they are toddlers or in their teens. So far, I think my peak was when I was about three years old. My parents recall me insisting on wearing an outfit resembling a Goodwill’s changing room to preschool. Many a time this wonderful outfit was composed of a (now iconic) velvet, leopard-print jumpsuit (with large holes worn in the butt, of course), purple sparkly sunglasses that barely covered the whites of my eyeballs, shimmery silver jelly high heels (always too large), and a mop of messy hair. They say I refused to take it off, and would throw a tantrum anytime they tried to get me to shower. If they succeeded, the whole outfit would get thrown back on following the shower, even if water was still dripping off of my body. I wore this outfit to school, I wore it to the park, I wore it clomping around the house. My parents were often amused by my lack of willingness to wear something relatively “normal.” I was stubborn and opinionated, and not afraid to show my feelings.

That flare exists in me today, but much less flaunted through my clothing choices. I have been kindly informed by friends on many accounts that my unhappiness with people shows too much by my scrunched eyebrows and narrowed eyes. I am working on improving my patience and have been trying to do a better job of hiding my displeasement with others, however annoyed looks are an integral part of me. My clothing choices were representative of my bold opinions, as I did not yet have the skills to tangle my face into knots of frustration. Occasionally, I still add denim jeans with orange flares at the cuffs, my father’s corduroy blazer, or Betsey Johnson flowered pants to an outfit, but for right now, my face is the most effective way of expressing myself.

Sequoia Hack, class of 2021

Maggie Nelson at City Arts & Lectures by Nina Berggren

On Friday, January 19th, the SOTA Creative Writing department attended an interview with author Maggie Nelson at the Nourse Theater. The conversation began at 7:30pm, when the interviewer, Julia Bryan Wilson, introduced herself and Nelson. The two women sat comfortably in a makeshift living room center stage, with two sofas, a carpet, and a coffee table, all of which provided a sense of intimacy in the grand theater. First, Wilson praised Nelson for her carefully crafted novels. She reflected upon Nelson’s recent literary achievements, and the success of her most recent book The Argonauts.

Wilson first mentioned the autobiographical aspects of Nelson’s writing, and how her sentences are almost poetic in their fluidity. Nelson responded by discussing labels. How she feels drawn to both “memoirist” and “poet.” How she wishes society could reject labels altogether, as her genderfluid partner already has. She shared that she had to let her guard down while writing The Argonauts. She became vulnerable as she exposed her hardships and deepest emotions. The book focuses on sexuality, violence, identity and gender. She analyzed and questioned her past in creating the text. Nelson’s relationships, both romantic and platonic, played an influential role in inspiring her words. As Wilson interrogated Nelson with questions, audience members gained insight into Nelson’s life. I learned that her partner underwent a double mastectomy as Nelson was pregnant. She learned so much from living with her partner as he changed alongside her.

Wilson then asked Nelson what her writing process looked like. This intrigued me as I enjoy discovering how successful authors manage their time, meet their deadlines, and the conditions under which they write. Nelson shared that she used different structures and schedules for each of her books. She takes more pleasure out of putting together what she has already written, than writing it. She enjoys condensing her books, laying out each chapter visually, and using index cards to organize and mix up various chapters until they work together. Nelson stressed that she dislikes when people refer to her work as collages. This dislike stems from her logic that juxtaposition is a powerful tool. By putting the pieces of her stories together, she is doing so with much thought and deliberation. To her, the word collage seems to suggest a carelessly combined collection of work.

Another point Nelson made that stuck out to me, was how she has been “dismantling the word genius for twenty-five years,” but she “also wants to accept the word” because people refer to her as a genius and she is beginning to believe them. She wants to dismantle the word for men and build it up for women, as it is uncommon, in the world’s current unequal state of affairs, for women to be called geniuses.

Nina Berggren, class of 2021

New York by Luna Alcorcha

On December 24th of 2017, I awoke to the whistling of Peter Bjorn’s “Young Folks” at four o’clock in the morning with the jitters. I picked up my best friend and her mom (well, more so my father drove the car that picked them up while I was in the backseat) who seemed to be sleepwalking and within five minutes we were at the airport. A “bon voyage” from my mother and a “stay safe” from my father and suddenly I was in the security line twirling. I was finally there for myself. Not to drop anyone off, but to get inside of an airplane and leave California, the only state I knew and loved, for the first in my life. SFO to JFK.

Once I had been settled in the window seat, I was conversing with my friend and her mother about “how could it even be possible that you have never flown in an airplane?” Once the airplane started down the runway I grabbed the hands of my compadres for comfort and then we were in the air. San Francisco became miniscule so quickly and I understood the fear of giants clearly. At most, my everyday life is confined to forty nine square miles and to be traveling two-thousand-nine-hundred miles from that borough was confirmation that it was much easier, than some would suggest, to leave. While I was on that plane, sipping my ginger ale and leveling my breathing with filtered air, I was stunned with realizing people from all over the place want to visit San Francisco because of its glamorized attractions. I, along with many others, don’t always take time to recognize the specialness in living here, but maybe San Francisco’s community is bonded tightly because we are grateful to be here.

One thing never shown in the movies is how far the JFK airport actually is from Manhattan. The subway ride there was fully inclusive of fraud homeless men with pristine white jeans, tourist, and of course, the sweet rats. My friend, her mom, and I arrived at the Brooklyn apartment we were staying at and at midnight we realized that it was still Christmas Eve and that it would not hurt to check out Time Square; Time Square in the movies is not at all close to the buzz and thud of the real life scene. Over the course of the week that we stayed, my BFF and I walked in the evening around Redhook. Now when I remember walking back to the apartment in the twelve degree weather (feels like zero) I realize that people travel for the more simplistic moments. The moments of walking to what can so easily be imagined as “home,” or talking to the subway worker that gives a warm familiar hug, and the most reassuring, being asked for directions in a foreign place.

Luna Alcorcha, class of 2021

Fiction Block by Lauren Ainslie

Fiction. An entirely new world for the freshman. Of course, we have all written it before, but it wasn’t fiction like this. Now there are workshops, revisions, and discussions. Almost every day we read and analyze short stories. I am starting to understand the complications and craft of creating a good short story, and it is extremely hard! You need to remember to have a solid plot,  to distinguish narrator and character diction, give character backstory through showing, not telling. It all leaves lots of room for mistakes, but it is incredibly worth it. All stories I encounter, through books or movies or something else, have a higher criteria to meet. Books I loved before this unit I now hate, because I can identify problems in them that I never saw before. Because of this, I am afraid to read books or watch movies from my childhood, for fear of ruining them. I nearly died watching The Princess and the Frog because there were so many plot holes. But when a story is good, I can appreciate it much more, because I know what goes into it.

It was hard to transition into fiction, because we had been doing a poetry unit just before. That poetry unit (the first unit of the year) was the only training and information I had ever had for anything to do with creative writing. My brain had taken in those lessons and stuck itself in a poetry mindset, because that was the only thing I knew. The earliest thing you learn in poetry is to identify and omit unnecessary words, and to realize the weight of your words, since there are so few of them in poetry. So when we started fiction, I was lost because there were more words and more to say; the weight of each words lessoned a little bit. And from that lessoned weight came all these unnecessary words, because I was focusing more on the story than on how you told it.

I like fiction, because it puts everything into a different light. I am excited to see the fiction writer I will become, and I am excited for the short stories waiting for me in the next Creative Writing class.

Lauren Ainslie, class of 2021

On How Much Is Out There (it’s a lot) by Stella Pfahler

It’s around that time for us at SOTA, the curious period of time after winter break when us students are caught in a dry spell as to three-day weekends. Some of us have started to lament the numerous AP classes and tutoring sessions we signed on for, and classes have really kicked in, for the juniors especially. This is the time when grades really do matter, even more than before. Along with this pressure, we’ve begun to tentatively attend college fairs, sign up for testing sessions, and taken the first steps to the college search at large. It’s equal parts daunting and exciting, the first taste of a soon-to-be-real future and a world of opportunity.

This new reality has prompted excited discussion in the junior class about our ambitions and plans for the future. We talk a lot about where in particular we’d like to pursue our higher education. Many of us feel like staying in California would be too close to home, and some say the same about neighboring states like Oregon. Similarly, some kids worry about going to school in New York or the northeastern region in general, but still feel obligated to pursue schooling there- isn’t that too far? How will I live on my own? The financial burden of going to school out-of-state- and so far away- weighs heavy.

So why not compromise, I ask? There’s a whole United States between just the coasts. Although it might not be the best idea to set your sights on Kansas State, there are plenty of reputable Southwestern and Southern schools of every variety to consider, as well as hundreds of outstanding Midwestern institutions. My peers and family members alike dismiss this. The widespread belief seems to be that you have a choice between Californian state colleges and over expensive liberal arts schools in Connecticut.

Aren’t those places you mentioned all racist and backwards? Do you really want to be somewhere where you have to drive? Why go to school outside of a city? These are some of the questions posed by my fellow students in addition to, well, every San Franciscan who knows I’ll begin the application process soon. There is a strange current of exclusionism that dominates our city. I reject the idea that the coasts are the only “worthwhile” places to pursue an education or establish oneself as an artist and community member. That’s ridiculous and robs us liberal-bubble-livers of whole worlds of opportunity- worlds that may include (gasp!) views that differ from ours.

Of course, I understand that there’s reasons for universities being where they are. Coastal cities have historically been places of exchange. Many universities are located where the colonies were first established, and so are much older, prestigious, and well-respected than those dotting the rural United States and Western regions. There are exponentially more artistic and intellectual opportunities in a city like New York City than in, say, Charleston or Santa Fe or Birmingham, that much is obvious.

In November of last year I spent several days in the great town of Nashville. Although awash with a strange capitalist music scene, and chock full of drunken bachelorette party attendees, the city has my heart in a way that few places do. I know that many creative writers, after taking a whirlwind tour of New Orleans, feel the same about that city.

The point is that there’s no reason to reject something or somewhere just because of the way you think you’re supposed to feel about it. I’m sure that many people reading this post will be nervous parents unsure of sending their child to an arts high school, and will be leaning toward more academic institutions like Lowell High School. If you remember that you have more options than you think, and are never stuck, you might just find your Nashville!

Stella Pfahler, class of 2019

Writing Notes by Lena Hartsough

When I was very young, I would occasionally lose my temper and decide to run away from home. I would grab a paper bag from the kitchen, fill it with clothes, cookies, and cereal to keep me comfortable, and write an angry note to my parents discussing the reasons for my latest escape. I would march out of the house, often begin crying on the way through the yard down to the gate, and then give up before I’d even made it to the sidewalk. The closest I ever got to actually leaving (coincidentally the incident I remember most clearly, although I haven’t the foggiest idea why I was running away from home) was putting my hand on the knob of the gate, standing there for a few moments, and then turning around and marching back up to our house, still in a foul mood.

I can’t remember why I wanted to run away, nor even what I wrote to my parents in explanation, but those notes were the beginning of my way of telling people (even if it’s just myself) things I don’t want to say out loud. Whether it was telling my dad something embarrassing that I needed help with when I was seven, or writing notes to a close friend on my computer in a file she’ll never read, communication through writing has almost always been easier for me than speaking aloud. In writing, there is no stutter. I can look over what I’ve written, see what I want to change, and change it, whereas when I speak out loud I can’t take back things I’ve said that sound ridiculous or stupid. If I’m nervous about something and I don’t think I’d be able to explain it correctly if I tried, I can write it down and awkwardly hand it to the person I’m talking to, so as to create less confusion and more finality.

Writing notes, by hand, or typing them, will always be important in my life, so I can explain the oddity that is me and so I can find the bravery to open, even if just on the page.

Lena Hartsough, class of 2019

Kar Johnson by Angelica LaMarca

Kar Johnson In Creative Writing II, the juniors and seniors have recently completed a unit with artist in residence Kar Johnson, where we studied the “personal” and “political” and how these labels may become interchangeable in the context of poetry. Over the course of about two months, we studied various poets such as Solmaz Sharif, Ocean Vuong, and Carolyn Forche, and how their work pertains to our course aim. We spent much of class time discussing “-ism”s present in our society, and how poetry may be wielded as a vehicle through which to combat said injustices in an accessible, well-articulated form.

One of the first pieces Kar brought in was an article by Audre Lorde, entitled “Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”. Here, it is emphasized the importance of speaking out against injustices, even if it makes you afraid. Lorde begins the article by citing a cancer diagnosis as the provoker of a p deeperiod of self reflection, as it forced her to recognize her own mortality. It was during this time when Lorde realized the artificiality of silence; whether or not one chooses to combat injustice, injustice will always be there. This concept really impacted me. After being introduced to this article, I found myself, in small ways, explicitly attempting to defend myself in situations both personal and political. I learned that it is always worth a try.

In our country, there is a tendency to view “ism”s as impersonal, abstract concepts. Those who are privileged may view incidences of racism/sexism/etc as simply newspaper headlines because these injustices don’t intimately affect their lives, and hence, the experiences of marginalized people are needlessly politicized. The politicization of these topics is often used to dismiss those who speak out as those who are “concerned with politics” rather than those who are simply articulating their realities. I think it is important to acknowledge that what’s “political” is often also personal, especially for those who are marginalized and do not have the privilege of having their stories be the default narrative.

Here is a poem I wrote near the conclusion of our time with Kar, entitled:
“When The Ocean Decided To Investigate”.

When the ocean decided to investigate
there were albatross babes in the schoolyard
and the farmer
was arranging to wheel his grapefruits up to the town

so when

the tapered inns on the cliff-fringe suddenly began to
uncrease themselves
as the hazy manes

of ocean waves
surged in

I watched my cushions                             simply bloat up with salt
as otters filled my slippers and my stove

I maneuvered my way up the chimney
with porphyra in my mouth

only to find two swordfish gasping on the unsoused roof
the neighbors yowling out to God

the approaching yokes of sea foam!

Sometimes I am afraid I am this obvious.

In kelped vehicles
invaded women pinch the water out of their sleeves.

Look, there: the man is sprawled across a spinning minced mattress
he purrs
as the sea lifts him closer to the chandelier

and there: submerged

delicate boys cork sea shells into their ears
in hopes
the air in their heads
will help them float back up

Angelica LaMarca, class of 2018