Ren Weber published in NY Times

Our own Ren Weber, CW class of 2019, is being published in the New York Times! Her piece “Tiny Love Story” will run in the Modern Love column  on Thursday the 30th.

Ren has also recently been published in The Rumpus, a short story called Wild Animals written when Ren was 16 and a student in CW.

Shelter In Playce

Every year the Creative Writing department of the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts puts on a show of plays written and performed by its students. Due to the COVID19 pandemic and resulting stay-at-home orders, the 2020 show was produced instead as a reading over Zoom.

Applying to College by Hannah Duane

I write this blog post from a cafe in Mammoth Lakes, CA, having just completed the final step in my applying to college, a visit to a ranch out in the White Mountains for an interview. When I embarked on this process, I had no idea how completely Creative Writing would shape my ability to apply to other schools. One of the first essays I wrote, which I will attach below, was from the prompt:

A mathematician and a poet walk into a bar, and strike up a conversation about what they do. As they leave, the poet thinks to himself, alas, I lack the creativity for mathematics. The mathematician thinks alas, I lack the rigor for great poetry. Assuming they are not confused, explain what each party means.

I was, at first, rather dumfounded by how to go about this prompt. In the creative writing department, we deal constantly with esoteric or confusing prompts, and so I did what I know best to do with such an idea: write a story.

Writing creatively is not just an art we do a few hours a day at SOTA. It’s a way to think about framing the world. To understand what one thinks and develop ideas. Writing allows me to be confident and argue with myself, finding the holes in my own arguments and strengthening my convictions.

I hope you enjoy:

Anne Sexton and Copernicus meet in a dingy pub. Say Sexton sits on an upholstered stool in a white blouse, black hair bouncy, eyes tragic and tired. Brandy in hand, she is writing “Christmas Eve.” From across the room, Copernicus notices from the lines in her face that she’s straining toward precision and clarity. Intrigued, he walks over, trying to appear casual. 

Grappa ordered from the bar, one arm casually in Sexton’s space, he asks what she is working on. Annoyed, she pushes the work towards him. He reads the first line: 

“Oh sharp diamond, my mother!”

Copernicus is taken aback. The line is strangely compelling. He feels her longing, and wonders how she manipulated his emotions with such subtlety. How did she condense so many ideas? Balance allusion and originality, denotation and connotation? He deals with absolutes and natural law; he has never had to ponder such artistic questions.

“Why do you equate your mother with a diamond?” he asks. “Why the ‘Oh’ at the beginning of the line and the exclamation point at the end?”

First of all, Sexton explains, the word “Oh” has a long history as a literary motif signifying tragedy. The comparison of her mother to a sharp diamond adds a quality of hard and cutting beauty. The word “my”  introduces a possessive: Sexton’s mother belongs to her. Yet “Mother” is formal and distancing, thus creating tension. The final exclamation point conveys passion, although it could be read as mocking. 

Copernicus immediately grasps the rigor and relentless editing required to achieve such density of meaning. 

Now Copernicus produces from his bag an early manuscript of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, his magnum opus detailing heliocentric theory. He is embarrassed to be sharing an unfinished, unproven work. Still, he shows Sexton his now famous drawing: eight concentric circles, with the sun in the middle. 

“This is lovely,” she says looking over the neat Latin script. “How did you know it’s right?”

“Parallax,” he says. “Hold your arm straight in front of you, thumb pointing up. Close one eye and block a beer bottle with your top knuckle at the end of the bar.” She does. “Now switch which eye is open and which is closed, without moving your thumb. Can you see the bottle now?” She does.

“It’s all about perspective. From Earth, yes, everything seems to move around us. But that does not make it true.” 

Then he produces his list of formulas to calculate the orbits of other planets. First is d=Dsin𝜃, where d is the orbit of an inferior planet, and D is the earth’s orbit or one AU. Sexton is out of her field of expertise. But as she listens to Copernicus, she understands this work is a thing of beauty. Solving an equation is simple. Creating one—in this case, an equation that presumes Earth as one of eight planets orbiting the sun, and asks the orbital period of each— is the real feat.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines imagination as “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” Sexton’s great subject is herself. Much of what she explores in her poetry has been “present to the senses.” Her job is to ponder, probe, and record. But Copernicus has no concrete perceptions to draw on. Standing on Earth, the ground does not seem to move. He cannot see, even through a telescope, the planets orbiting the sun. He, not Sexton, had to create and define a new perspective, one never “wholly perceived in reality.” 

And so Sexton and Copernicus part, each having realized their respective disciplines are not intellectual opposites. Instead, like the circular scale of political ideology, they meet in extremity. Both conjure new meanings by arranging letters and numerals in a precise form, respecting the laws of nature, bringing clarity to the world.

By Hannah W. Duane

Class of 2020

Ethical Theories and Fiction Writing by Jessica Schott-Rosenfield

On Saturday, I participated in my first Ethics Bowl competition. Ethics Bowl is an event in which teams from various schools discuss the moral dimensions and values of certain set situations. For instance, one of the cases tackled the question of whether it was morally praiseworthy, as a billionaire, to donate more to the rebuilding of Notre Dame than to humanitarian charities. The format is much like a classic debate, except that in this case, both teams are in essence working together to better each other’s arguments. One team presents, the opposing then asks questions about that presentation and suggests other points which may have been left out. The first team addresses those questions, and together, both groups create a strengthened stance. Since it is a competition, there is a winner, but the spirit of the event strays from a traditional competitive drive.

The process of gaining the knowledge to go to the bowl was incredibly enlightening in terms of learning about new ways to think and argue in situations where both sides have strong evidence to back up their point of view. It allowed me to think of conflict outside the bounds of law, and focus solely on what is morally permissible. In relation to my writing process, this fresh way of thinking has given me a new way to write my characters with mindsets different than those I would defer to automatically. Rather than sticking to a point of view that is similar to the way I already contemplate life’s ups and downs, and the way I form opinions on them, I can switch sides on the situation and contemplate those ups and downs from a different standpoint. After participating in ethics bowl, I can find a strong opposing argument to a position much more quickly, and argue both sides in my head before I get to the one which I think is most appropriate for my character, and their lifestyle or purpose within the story.

I could only see arguments within my short stories as based on my own experience and those I had heard about before absorbing the format and intricacies of Ethics Bowl. With moral theories like autonomy, utilitarianism, or consequentialism, I am able to frame points of view with basic groundwork and rules that we as a society have created in order to maintain order in a somewhat immoral world. This makes the verbal disputes in the fiction I write more complex and engaging. Ethics Bowl as a learning experience has impacted the detail with which I create my characters.

-Jessica Schott-Rosenfield, class of 2022

Winter Break Homework by Tess Horton

Although our sixteen-day break to split the year in two comes as a relief, we are always assigned some sort of writing practice for Creative Writing. This year, the junior class was to read ten short stories by differing authors, followed by writing a seven-page short story in the style of one of said authors. This is both to encourage reading a variety of work and to encourage us to actively think about an author’s writing style as we read. Practicing imitation also helps us develop our own voice and style; the goal is to stray from what has already been written.

Out of the ten short stories I read, I chose to respond to “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by Etgar Keret, an author I have frequently looked to for writing inspiration. Keret’s work is a mix of magical realism, humor, and surrealism, focusing more often than not on death, the afterlife, and childhood. “Kneller’s Happy Campers” falls into Keret’s typically morbid subject matter: Mordy, a self-deprecating Jew, finds himself in an afterlife reserved only for those who have committed suicide. I wanted to emulate Keret’s seamless incorporation of impossibility into a world that is entirely believable—a function of magical realism that I find appealing. Another distinguishable aspect of Keret’s work is his structure: stories written entirely within one long paragraph, short, straightforward sentences, and unembellished language (of which I struggled to do the most). Not only does Keret succeed in creating an anxious collection of stories, but in each tale the main cause of action is due to some horrible situation taken lightly and without severity. Here is an excerpt from “Kneller’s Happy Campers” that I thought about specifically while I was responding to it in my own piece of fiction:

“Two days after I killed myself I found a job here at some pizza joint. It’s called Kamikaze, and it’s part of a chain. My shift manager was cool by me, and helped me find a place to live, with this German guy who works at the same store. The job’s no big deal, but it’ll do for a while. And this place—I don’t know—whenever they used to sound off about life after death, and go through the whole is-there-isn’t-there routine, I never thought about it one way or the other.”

-Tess Horton, class of 2021

A Freshman’s Perspective On Revision by Amelia Reed

Before high school, the poetry I wrote mirrored a clothing splurge at your local thrift store; completed on a last-minute whim, and never looked at nor used again. If one were to pay close attention to my lack of prowess in the art of metaphors displayed above, they might perhaps understand why exactly my early poems fell short of the artistic mark. In all seriousness, my greatest poetry-writing flaw was apprehension at the prospect of revision. I would be afraid that, after revising, my initial intentions would be lost and the poem would lose meaning. However,  most of my amateur poems never saw the light of day but rather stayed balled up in the metaphorical dresser drawer, much like the aforementioned, also metaphorical, clothing. 

Once in the creative writing program, I was struck by the amount of revision the older students committed to; of course I had expected to have to begin drafting my pieces multiple times, but I hadn’t realized the full extent of it. After being in the program for a few weeks, I noticed that a poem, like an exotic plant, must be tended to, trimmed, and nurtured so that it can grow. Though there is no true “perfect” in terms of poetry, and a writer may never be able to be completely satisfied with their work, revision allows for a poem to bloom. 

I cannot truthfully claim to have a piece that is without blemishes or has no room for revision. I have submitted poetry to publications and almost immediately thought, “I should have added in just one more stanza to tie things up,” or “was that second line clear enough?”I have revised the same poem over and over again, finally submitted it and discovered I was still unhappy with its progress. I have completed and turned in an entire poem only to realize that I have repeated a certain phrase far too many times. But part of the writing process is regret and revision, and sometimes it is the idea behind a work which prevails even if the original draft failed to convey it. What I have discovered is that each mistake or disappointing poem I write is simply another rung on the ladder and that I must pass in order to move ahead. It is up to the writer what they create once they have reached the top of the ladder. 

Below is what I interpret to be a “middle rung” in this poem’s stretch. 


oh woman in the east woods 

shameful yarn spools betray your step. these false entrails tangle my land and-

three cows I have found entangled in your red string

three cows with taut throats, white eyes. 

I’ve decided to take up step and find you.

with me I bring:

shears for your threads, bread broken without cheer, 

a blanket. for a handkerchief’s job, if I could only afford one.

oh eastern woman now down south

do you think evasion will protect you from my snipping?

six geese belonging to a man downtown, choked

one horse strung to the newest apple sapling half its weight, tangled like your strands are fishnet. 

darling blue-cheeked woman,

your casualties: a small farm and counting.

oh now westwardbound woman,

my shears are hungry. 

I have only these two tales of your misdeeds to follow:

your threads uprooted the next town over in place of potato crop,

and sick yellow embroidery found winding about sunken cobblestone, tripping at child ankles. 

I snip as I travel.

my clippers and I have grown light, adept

when your spools and keen fingers have been apprehended,

dear wandering woodswoman

perhaps I should take up needlework. 

 oh northern daughter of the wheel

today I lifted limp string from a parched clearing.

as far as I can glimmer are your hell-ropes and

they have lost all color from days in sun.

oh sewing goddess and travelling devil

you aren’t in sight but your spoils are. all of them

dirty birds pile in heaps across the glen, dew catches each feather and

they fuse into translucent spectacles, still bodies, still each bit dead 

with finality.

strings, too, slack, complete in their run

you’re still imperceptible but this knot here, that tangle could almost be…

a forearm, the trace of a profile

this spillage shudders like a loose ribcage in and out and I

for a moment

feel sorrow. 

-Amelia Reed, Class of 2023

Poetry Revision by Gemma Collins

Recently, Creative Writing concluded its poetry unit, leaving me reflecting on my new perceptions of poetry. Throughout the unit in Creative Writing I, the many steps of poetry revision became apparent as we revised the same poems over and over. We generated poems from in-class prompts and homework assignments, and were expected to revise independently. Later, we held group workshopping sessions to gather peer opinions on our work. Workshopping in class gives the opportunity for second opinions and collaborative feedback, where each student also had the chance to ask questions about how to improve their work. After this initial group workshop, we revised our poems again. I found this lengthy process helpful because we had adequate time to realize our intentions for each piece. When we turned in the final poems, I figured that we had created our final drafts. Much to my surprise, the homework over winter break was to revise yet another time, using all of the tools we had learned throughout the unit.

Starting the final revision process was daunting because we had learned so much over the unit. I didn’t know how to demonstrate a whole unit’s worth of learning into several short poems.  I decided what I wanted most from my poems was a clear purpose. This meant rewriting my poems several times until they felt complete. I aimed to reach the point when all the elements in a poem worked together to reveal some insight into what it means to be human. After repeated revisions, achieving this balance seemed less impossible.

The most significant lesson I’ve learned was the ability to focus on creating a powerful poem rather than resisting revision. I learned that a poem can truly flourish only when I  reconsider possibilities. At the beginning of the unit I was overly-attached to my writing and wary of critics, but as my first year in Creative Writing progresses, I embrace the power of revision and I can already see the improvement I have made.

By Gemma Collins

Class of 2023

A Literary Analysis on “Make America Great Again!”

“Make America Great Again!TM” is an newer rendering of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again,” and was Donald Trump’s successful campaign slogan in 2016. Trump patented the phrase, so it technically bears a trademark. It has appeared on campaign posters, shirts, buttons, and most notably the iconic red trucker cap. The phrase has been repurposed for the sake of parody and satire, such as on political commentator John Oliver’s television show (“Make Donald Drumpf Again”). Activist movements and individuals have coined the phrases “Make America Think Again,” “Make America Gay Again,” and “America Was Never Great.” Donald Trump created a distinguished popular culture phenomenon by using hubris, nostalgia, and populist diction to raise the collective spirit of millions.

First and foremost, Trump uses hubris to create an impression of American dominance the world economy and political scene. The definition of hubris is “excessive pride or self-confidence.” Trump’s slogan contrasts that of Former President Obama’s campaign slogans “Hope,” “Yes We Can,” and “Change We Can Believe In” as well as Former President George W. Bush’s “Yes, America Can,” and “Moving America Forward.” Trump’s slogan is distinctive in that it lacks the ideas of change and forward movement, concepts that are central to most normal campaigns. Rather than suggest positive, modernist change, Trump is suggesting that America’s greatness lies in what it used to be, and that is what made him such a distinctive candidate. This idea of America having been “great” in the past reflects a certain amount of hubris on Trump’s part. Trump has pride in what his country used to be. He holds confidence in the perfection of Reagan’s trickle-down America and also believes that he is the only candidate that can achieve that sort of utopia. All candidates, regardless of ideology, have to hold themselves in some sort of high esteem in order to consider themselves worthy of office. Most, however, try to communicate a certain amount of humility in order to identify with the general public. Barack Obama, for instance, in using the slogan “Change,” bluntly admitted that America was flawed and had room to grow in many areas. He suggested himself as the best candidate to achieve that sort of growth but never acted like America had ever been perfect. George W. Bush was less humble in his use of “Moving America Forward” but still acknowledged that America could improve in a few respects. Trump, on the other hand, uses hubris by blatantly not admitting America’s problems, both past and present, instead promising to return the country to its former utopian state. The phrase also demonstrates Trump’s idealist notion that America should be the utmost dominant world power and deserves to be the ultimate decider of geopolitics, trade deals, and social change (or lack thereof).

Another vital device that Trump utilizes is populist diction. Each word in the phrase “Make America Great Again” appeals to those who feel as though America used to be great, has somehow wronged them in its lack of “greatness,” and is the only country that can and deserves to be so. The word “make” communicates assertiveness and duty. The message of the phrase is not up for debate- “make” demonstrates that Trump’s supporters are ready to change their America by any means necessary. It is a call to action, an obvious assertion that something has to be done, and now. That call to action points towards the most obvious course of action, which is electing Trump. The next two words “Great Again” especially attract working class whites who believe that their “greatness” has been stolen by immigrants and refugees. The idea of America having to be “great” entices patriots who believe in “America first” values-people who don’t believe in a global, symbiotic economy, but rather in one that involves America mostly exporting and not importing, an economy in which America reaps most of the benefits.

Lastly, Donald Trump utilizes a tone of nostalgia. He has been cited to point to the “late ’40s and ’50s,” during which “we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do,” as America’s golden age. Trump, in saying “Make America Great Again!” is both admitting that America is currently in decline and proposing that he is the only candidate who can turn things around. Trump has raised controversy in believing that the ‘40s and ‘50s were a great time-while the economy was thriving, women and people of color were still being denied their basic human needs and rights as citizens. Trump champions the working white man. He plays on working class people’s ever-present insecurities and appeals to their sense of nostalgia. Most Trump supporters are working class whites who wonder why they work so hard and never achieve the American Dream promised to them. They wish to return to the Golden Age of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives, a time when the laboring white person was applauded for just being such; when people of color and working women hadn’t yet infiltrated their predetermined social strata. Trump plays on these insecurities, these “us versus them” ideals, by using the word “again” to connote an American golden age of white male supremacy.

Donald Trump used populist diction, a nostalgic tone, and aggressive hubris to create a popular culture phenomenon while simultaneously raising the collective spirit of millions. He uses diction and nostalgia to demonstrate that America must return to its former greatness, and that he is the only candidate who can achieve that. He also uses hubris to convince supporters that America is the only nation capable and worthy of becoming an almighty, reigning world power. His campaign threw out the rulebook of traditional politics and transformed the trade into a firebrand race to victory by way of “alternative facts;” ugly, uncivilized debate, and unfounded policy making. Most impactful of all, perhaps, Donald Trump’s campaign successfully divided a country of 318.9 million people that had formerly prided itself on being “united.”

Stella Pfahler, class of 2019

Remapping to Find Enlightenment by Xuan Ly

The hippocampus, located in the temporal lobe of the brain, stores the majority of long-term memories created in a lifetime. For me, one half of my small hippocampus is filled with skills acquired from two years of formal creative writing lessons, while the other half is filled with unending embarrassment from workshopping terrible poems typical of an underclassman. The stabilization of neural connections that allow a memory to become “long-term” has helped me to build a vast literary toolbox. This has led me to believe that, as the years went by, all the lessons and writing exercises would lead to a period of literary enlightenment in which I would finally understand my own voice and along with it, the true meaning of being an artist. 

For nearly the entirety of last year, I focused on writing through sickness, which I had observed on a day-to-day basis. While this emotionally charged writing helped me process grief and connect more deeply with my culture’s complex history of colonization and war, this year, my frontal cortex, the hub of creative thinking, has rejected any beginnings of work written in the same emotional realm as last year’s. This reaction places my almond sized amygdala, which dictates emotional survival, at fault. I have cultivated an irrational fear towards the thought of overusing a common traumatic experience to the point of inauthenticity and having the repetitive topic become the cause of meticulously hidden annoyance from peers, only shown in hallway snickers after school when I have already left for home. 

Here is where I encounter the issue that withholds me from the literary enlightenment (which I thought I could find in the CW2 seminar room). It is simply this: I have not found my true voice. I spent freshman year learning mechanics, sophomore year seeing writing monochromatically, and now what? My frontal cortex is at a standstill; no longer has a go-to sob story where my emotions are still fresh enough to pull from. And instead of writing until I find a flow, or even writing at all, my amygdala has made itself comfortable in the town of Perpetual Flight Response, which is situated across the river from the village of A Healthy Balance Between Fight And Flight. Is it possible that artistic enlightenment resides across the river as well?

I have been told that my writings, once stripped down, circle most evidently around human interactions and relationships. But isn’t everything, once stripped down, about interactions? Whether with the environment, oneself, or others, isn’t writing most commonly the description of a chain of reactions? 

The orbital part of my prefrontal cortex spearheads social behavior and emotional rewards. For years, I spent life solely inside this part of the brain. In short: I was a people pleaser. And in order to pull that off, I had to remain observant. Since this part of me has not entirely fizzled, the habit of observation persists and has been deemed critical for the specificity required of writers. 

I suppose that is where I should root my road to artistic enlightenment: in observation. 

By Xuan Ly

Class of 2021

Moving Into Fiction by Zai Deriu

With the poetry unit coming to an end, I feel a reluctance to move into fiction. I didn’t quite experience this in my freshman year, where I was happy to experience more fiction writing. So while I am still happy to start the fiction unit after winter break, I’m sure it’ll be difficult to get back to a less abstract mindset. Being so focused on poetry, I haven’t written a full-length short story since the summer, almost six months ago, which is odd to say. Summer doesn’t feel that far away at all.

Last year, however, my feelings going into fiction were quite the opposite. My poems tended to start nicely but trail off towards the end, and I felt frustrated with the abstract nature of the poetry I read. I was eager to move on to fiction because I felt better versed in it than I did with poetry. I’d read many books and written in and out of school since I was a child, but not many of those experiences were with poetry. In elementary school, I had even attempted to write a book. I’d like to believe it was good for a third grader. I struggled to analyze and write poetry more than fiction, simply for lack of exposure. 

Over the past summer, however, writing poetry began coming to me more easily, and I was excited to start school and begin with poetry. I remember in the previous year struggling to write respond to homework prompts. I spent far too long searching for what I wanted to say and run out of time writing it all down. What to write about now comes to mind faster.

Through this year’s poetry unit, I have picked up so much more than I did in my freshman year. So going into this year’s fiction unit, I feel happy at all the progress I’ve made in the previous poetry unit and eager to make just as much progress in fiction.

By Zai Deriu

Class of 2022