Staying Consistent in Art by Amelia Reed

Creative Writing is, in its truest form, a consistent art; one cannot write a poem, take a break for a couple of months, and then come back with the same groove and gusto. Unfortunately, that was nearly exactly what had occurred in my case; after spring break, which began exactly when the lockdown did, I expected to return to creative writing with energy and a sense of eagerness, and, for the most part, I did. I found the poetry unit to be just as interesting and engaging as always, and was excited for the fiction unit which was soon to follow; that is, until the subject of the semesterly film response returned into my line of focus. I knew how to write a film response, of course, and the film I was writing it on had plenty of material for me to flesh out; but for some reason, it simply wasn’t the same. When I wrote, I didn’t feel like a stream of opinionated words flowing onto the page, or even the usual begrudging yet prepared student. It felt as if I had lost everything, all of my knowledge, over the break. It was true that I hadn’t been writing regularly over those few weeks, as my mind had been elsewhere, but I hadn’t expected it to be this difficult to return to my usual flow. When my score for the film response was returned, I had gotten a rather low score on it, which I had expected, and so for the next few weeks I prescribed myself one short prose piece per day in a desperate attempt to regain what talent and vigor I had preceding the lockdown. I will not pretend that I kept consistent with this, nor that I enjoyed it the entire time, but it was eventually fulfilling to be able to sit down and write a quick, sloppy piece about how my day had been and where my mind had wandered during it. Sometimes I would write poetry rather than prose, and sometimes I would simply select a few words which felt “right” and encapsulated the feeling I was going for; and after around a month of this, I could feel my writing coming along much easier and sounding more put-together than it had even before the lockdown.

While it’s difficult to be disappointed in your own work, it is important to keep in mind that growing as an artist is not always a linear path. If I had not noticed the rut I had fallen into, it is unlikely that I would’ve made a deliberate effort to become better; at risk of appearing cliché, a moth must slam itself into the lampshade a couple of times before finding its way to the light bulb. That being said, staying consistent in your writing is a keystone to becoming a better writer, and one cannot improve if they wait to practice their art until it is required. 

I have found myself, nowadays, looking forward to film and reading responses, and the fiction unit is going wonderfully. I still enjoy writing prose or poetry at the end of the day, just to cool down; it helps to remind me that writing is not restricted to schoolwork. Below is a poem I wrote a couple of weeks ago after staring out a muggy window at the cars parked outside and deciding to create something more interesting; some of the lines are reused from previous poems I had discarded, and some don’t mean anything at all, but it captured to the best of my ability how I was feeling at the time.  

Muggy Day “Sonnet”

my fingers, dented with sewing, red, cracked

yellow threads, pepperjack svelte in loose loops 

a lavender sack atop a doll’s back:

tight canvas feels like giggles of bishops 

‘cause what is life but treasuring knick-knacks,

yearning for memories our minds misshape?

and oh, you smell how men describe women

smell like cheap teas and drowsing in public

the doll, animate weight, colour of cumin

in-jokes are mere meat; I’d like a cutlet 

my friends, they oohed at the light, the lumen

the way ripe lavender gives you a lick

remembering is brief and subhuman

Oh, you taste how women describe women

Amelia Reed, Class of ’23

Hunting for Poetry by Benjamin Leuty

Hunting is the wrong word. It is only fitting that this blog post about writer’s block should begin with a contradiction. But hunting is the wrong word. Too brutish, too primitive. As if I’m leaving the house wearing nothing but fox pelts, a notebook in one hand, and a club in the other. I’m leaving with neither and I wear regular person clothes. Sometimes I’m not leaving the house at all.

That first paragraph is perhaps the most appropriate example of my dilemma. Absent-minded musings about “hunting” and “poetry” and “foxes,” disgusting. I’ve been scouring the internet for some time now and much to my chagrin, most of the articles and remedies for writer’s block are written with an aura of thin detachment like the authors, between bouts of writer’s block, have already forgotten what it was like. So I thought to myself “Hey Benny, you write. You’re a writer. You write. You should write about writer’s block but not after you’ve overcome it, while you’re still in its grip,” as a catalog of sorts for future study. Genius. What my writing has been lacking for some time now is any sense of urgency and forward motion. I might enjoy individual sentences within that first paragraph, but altogether it doesn’t really get the reader anywhere, not to me at least.

It’s easy to chalk up this lack of focus to the quarantine and not my approach to writing but that notion is the opposite of comforting. The idea that writer’s block could swing in like a train (wait a sec); the idea that writer’s block could snuggle (nope); the idea that writer’s block could suddenly creep up on me like some sort of lizard-bug (time to move on) has the power to stick with me and keep me doubting any future success I have in writing. I refuse to live the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, wondering when I’ll suddenly be unable to write again. So ok, forward motion. What have I been doing to counteract this writing lethargy?

When I have writer’s block, it does not mean I am lacking in some kind of nebulous creative energy or divine writer’s karma, just lacking the ability to string that creative energy together in the moment. So I’ve been training myself to pounce on any remotely interesting thoughts I have and let them stew for a while in my notes app instead of immediately trying to jam them into a poem and forgetting them. Perhaps this is why I used the word “hunting” in the title. One part of me has hidden the poems, and they do not want to be found, and the other part of me is seeking them out. Eventually, I discover my poems in bits and pieces. Coaxing them off the street and into my notes app. Here are my notes after a short walk through my neighborhood:

  • I want to hop that fence
  • Some days I only see the sun in windows and mirrors
  • A ball bouncing against the rim
  • Brake lights = very red
  • DUCK QUACK QUACK DUCK
  • Fireflies and embers
  • Yummy stew (I never said these were all good)

And here is the rough draft of a poem I wrote the following week:

Noriega

                       I crave a “hop the fence” kind of certainty 

I crave the truth                                 until it turns me brake light red 

And some days I only see the sun 

Through windows and mirrors.

And some days I only see the sun. 

                                                          And speaking of red, some days fireflies 

                                                                    And embers are the same     

And some days, 

across from the burger restaurant,

The old men congregate to smoke cigars beneath 

This week’s billboard for cannabis. 

      

                                                               I see them on my walk.

And speaking of the restaurant 

      See at the condo beside it 

   Standing above the houses, standing 

Or leaning   against the grey sea   

See the planter bursting with too much dirt, bursting

                                                                       And now I stroll towards the ocean.

Look, there are basketball courts 

Where the school was

                                                           The ball bouncing on the rim sounds the same

Regardless of where it falls- 

Through the hoop or not.

Regardless of where it falls

And it scares me. 

Reach the ocean.

Find the Bird scooters and Lyft bikes 

Abandoned or locked by the beach’s edge

A ball will never bounce on sand 

A condo will never be larger than the sea

Embers and fireflies both start fires 

Not all fences are chainlink 

Some have teeth 

And minds.

It is by no means polished, but this piece is the first step towards slowly lifting myself out of this writing rut I’m in. One poem at a time. 

Benjamin Leuty, Class of ‘22

Discovering Plays by Isabella Hansen

Before coming to Creative Writing, my exposure to plays were very limited. I saw “A Christmas Carol” when I was 9 and acted in a “Tale of Two Cities” at 13. I used to have a specific idea of what a play should be in my head: a perfect plot, easy to decipher characters and a message which was usually something about love or a cheating scandal. Throughout this year’s playwriting unit, I learned a very important lesson. Plays definitely do not need solid plots. Our unit’s artist in residence, Connor Bassett introduced a multitude of plays with different styles that experimented with the one question that has directed my whole entire thinking behind playwriting. How do you write a good ending?

The one play that I think really taught me that playwriting does not need to obey a strict set of parameters is “Waiting for Godot” by Samual Beckett. “Waiting for Godot” experiments with the idea that endings do not need to be concrete and solid in order for the play to be effective. Over the course of the play viewers watch as two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for a man named Godot. What really struck me was how unique it was, so unique that during a performance, over half the crowd walked out during intermission. Now it is used as an example of the most stimulating plays of all time. 

The play “Crime of the Century” utilizes other forms of performance tools such as spoken word, dancing and recordings to better emphasize the effect gang violence has on youth. As I was watching, I was drawn to how “Crime of the Century” excluded conventional tools of plays such as plot but still remained potent and influential. Now, one thing I try to think about whenever I write plays is to not stick to the common endings I find myself writing so often and to try and explore different ways of ending my plays. 

Isabella Hansen, Class of ’23

What I Love About My Class by Parker Burrows

A few weeks ago I met with the other juniors in Creative Writing for a Community Meetup. Having the exciting opportunity to spend time with them reminded me of all the great things that I appreciate about each of my friends in the junior class. Here is a short summary of each of them!

Zai is really nice and has babies (but only ones that are made out of plastic). The babies are disturbing but they make them happy so I don’t complain often. I love how much they love their rings and boba tea. 

Benny is funny, sweet, and terrifyingly good at biking. His newfound love for ducks rivals only his ancient love of cats. Sometimes we play video games, but only cooperative ones, because I’d never want to fight him.

Paloma is enchanted by Amish culture, and I like to think that she is inspired by their practices. Paloma, just like the Amish, is hard-working and knits sweaters without using electricity. She is also kind and cares for her friends, which is probably something Amish people do too.

Otto, like the most celebrated Jedi’s in the galaxy, has a pure heart and unflinching compassion. However, just like the fearsome Sith, Otto contains a ruthless, evil laugh. 

Kai has all the tools to be the next great president. Diplomatic and confident, but also personable and approachable, don’t be surprised to see “Caceres 2040” posters in the distant future.

Jessica is as smart as a dolphin, and as lovable as a… dolphin. Gifted with beauty, brains, and benevolence, Jessica has been blessed with all three of the B’s. When I hug her I have to kind of crouch but I would crouch a million times if it meant I could hug her again soon.

Parker Burrows, Class of ’22

An English Class Poem by Emilie Mayer

Three weeks into my English class’s poetry unit I had managed to produce nothing that I could be proud of —although that could in part be due to my pandemic-induced creative rut. All of my poems were shine with no depth. They contained long, elegant lines, but I for one could not tell you what they meant. It was at this moment that a chance conversation with my student teacher completely turned my mentality upside down. Another student had expressed their struggle with producing work, which had compelled my student teacher to give an off-the-cuff monologue on writing. He had said, “Poetry is all feeling. Just write down your emotions, and then add in the fancy words later.” It sounded so simple. In fact, the Creative Writing Department Head had said something similar a few weeks before: “Your work doesn’t mean anything unless you’re taking risks. You should be crying over your poetry at times.” Even Emily Dickenson said, “If I physically feel as if the top of my head were taken off, I know it is poetry.” 

And so, I did as I was prompted. Later that class period I sat down with my notepad and wrote about a moment that I had been unable to express up until that point. My inability to write stemmed from my search for the “correct” words. The moment that I just wrote whatever came to mind, my memories were finally able to exist on the page. Granted, the piece I produced was rough. After several revisions, I still believe that it needs about a hundred more drafts of work. But still, while I was writing that poem I cried. And I remembered the hidden and beautiful world of literature—the reason why I came to S.O.T.A. in the first place.

Emilie Mayer, Class of ’23

Quarantine: Take 2 by Tiarri Washington

There was a time in the pandemic, months ago, when the only way out was a comfortable ignorance of ever escaping its grasp. Conversations flew at rapid speed, morbidly predicting next week’s body count. We were confined to each our own, white walls, linen curtains, and mind exerting screens. We forced ourselves to be content with isolation, while treasuring those fleeting, wholesome moments when everything seemed alright. 

Recently, in my transition to playwriting and the emergence of a vaccine, I have begun to confront the seclusion of quarantine. I’ve become more aware of the hundred little moments that happen all day: fleeting debates with the delivery man and sitting on a park bench and basking in the lambent sunlight, as they go back and forth between themselves. 

Despite my being a novice, I have concluded that some of the most important things for a playwright is connection and observation. Inspiration can come from the flippant remarks of a cashier or mundace troubles like building a birdhouse. Thanks to our artist in residence, Conner Bassett, I’ve found that we can make an entire play, beginning to end, a comedy farce revolving around the inability to follow a simple instructions manual. Conner has built his classes on providing us time and prompts to write material every class. Taking advice from WS Merwin, this time and surplus material has been a necessity as far as turning in our credited plays at the end of the week. 

Being in quarantine it is likely that characters and conflicts emerge from our own homes, subconsciously. Yet, Conner strays us from our uncomfortable dining room chairs, the hum of our fridge, and our beckoning couches to the outside world; outside our homes, city, and sometimes even our own minds. I may not have a firm grip on the technicalities of a play script but I can appreciate its originality and its erasure of cynical quarantine thinking.

Tiarri Washington, Class of ’24

What is Personal Space Anymore? by Sequoia Hack

In writing, I often find myself probed to investigate my deepest insecurities, expose any secrets I keep silent, and dive deep into my inner psyche. I’m told that these topics—the ones that make me digress from self-discovery to self-loathing—are the topics most enthralling to readers. In the era of the pandemic too, when I’ve spent more time with myself than I ever have before, I have little inspiration from the outside world to write about anything but aspects of my life.

Frequently I write with the intention of the final piece being read by peers, and not with the idea that I’m writing for just my eyes to see. I find this ironic for one reason, primarily. Writing is one of the purest forms of self-intimacy and vulnerability but nearly all the writing I’m doing is shared with others, my inner life subject to the judgement of those who will never see how I see or think how I think.

Now I know that reading writing about the pandemic gets old quickly. Like, yeah, we’re all living through this era of pandemonium, what more do you need to say about it? But I promise you, this is relevant to my story. 

Many of us used to have a clear separation of personal life and work/school life due to a difference in location, community, and time of day occupying that given space. But as months have progressed over the past year, at least I have found it increasingly difficult to establish a distinct boundary between home life and school life. I do labs investigating the Earth’s core in the same space I used to only relax in. I’m learning about logarithms and statistical significance  with my cats in the backyard. I’m planning our graduation in student government while sitting at my kitchen counter. 

My sanctuary of a room, smelling of lavender and birch, has become a type of anechoic chamber. The voices of my teachers are all I hear, lessons loud in one ear flowing silent straight out of the other, day in and day out. The people whose presence I associate with a space opposite that of my room are suddenly being drummed into my head as I fidget out of restlessness at my desk. It feels so wrong, every day I log onto class, to have the awareness that I woke up not five feet from where I’m attending AP U.S. Government or English class. 

When I combine this invasion from online classes with also having to write every day, I’m left with the feeling that none of my being is any longer reserved for just me. My physical personal space, infiltrated by school, alongside my own headspace, repeatedly exposed to vulnerability through writing, has left me feeling more exposed than I’d ever like to be. 

Will I ever be able to sit in my room without worrying if my laptop has enough charge to get through class? Will I ever be able to write without feeling like all that there is to talk about is how my ice cubes melted too quickly in my coffee or how my laundry hasn’t been done in four days? When will I be able to abandon this invasive daily cycle?

Sequoia Hack, Class of ’21

I Am Not Afraid of Death but I Am Afraid of Playwriting by Paloma Fernandez

I absolutely despised playwriting my freshman year. I thought all plays had to be serious to be “good” and respected. Unfortunately, last year our playwriting unit got cut short due to the pandemic, and during that unit as odd as it was with distance learning, I realized I enjoyed playwriting, maybe I was even good at it.

Coming up on the one year anniversary of school closures, and our playwriting unit being cut short, I reflect on how my love for playwriting and screenwriting has grown over the past twelve months. One could view the conversations in playwriting as a substitute for all the real-world interactions we would normally be experiencing. I find that a little sad even though it’s true, at least for myself. I get to create characters and eavesdrop on their conversations. At times I even insert characters similar to myself in hopes that it will make me feel like I’m apart of the conversation. I am fully aware that sounds odd, but after a full year in quarantine, I’ve realized how much I miss interacting with strangers, all characters start out as strangers anyway. 

So, I guess that all I am attempting to say is that my freshman year hatred for playwriting has somehow turned into nothing but love and admiration. I realize now that I perhaps never actually hate playwriting, I was simply scared of it, and rightfully so. I still find playwriting terrifying, you would have to be completely fearless not to. But, let me tell you, playwriting is completely worth every moment of terror. The most accomplished I have ever felt in Creative Writing was when I shared a play I had written, completely convinced it was not going to land, and people actually ended up liking it, maybe I could even say loved it but that may be too egotistical. 

Paloma Fernandez, Class of ’22

Stretching My Fingers Between Revelations: Poetry With Tongo Eisen-Martin by Jessica Schott-Rosenfield

We had only three class periods with Tongo Eisen-Martin, current poet laureate of San Francisco, yet his effect on my zest for craft was immense. He imparted countless quotable pieces of knowledge. My hand could not write them down fast enough, and more than once I had to stretch my fingers between revelations. What were perhaps most notable were his various definitions of poetry, a bottomless well of angles:

“Poetry is a play on perception.”

“Poetry is how your mind wants to communicate when not tasked with social survival.”

“Poetry is in the intersections of a place’s backstories.”

Tongo’s preface to the unit was to assure us that if the advice he gave was not proving helpful for any reason, that did not put us in the wrong, or make us worse at our craft. This introduction paved the way for a laid back environment, and set everyone in the room equal to each other in terms of whether what we had to say was valuable. This was not a throwaway sentiment either, or a false impression of understanding. I believe his words were, 

“If you don’t vibe with what I say, don’t worry about it.” 

“I’ll be giving you potentials, not policies.”

“The speed of light in your universe can be different than it is in mine.” 

“My best line is no better than yours. It’s just that I extend them, hit them more often.”

The acknowledgement that as students we were worthy of respect, as well as not-yet-seasoned writers, was a large part of what made Tongo’s unit so beneficial to me. It did not hurt that, as many of us observed, Tongo’s intonation makes everything he says sound wise and significant.

The second day of the unit was dedicated to tips on dealing with writer’s block. I have often become frustrated in my education with the concept of manufacturing a push of creativity when writing poetry. Every one of my instructors has told me that the solution to writer’s block is to write; the act of expelling the bad poetry makes way for the good. I have ignored that lesson an egregious number of times. Writing bad lines when one could be avoiding it by not picking up the pen in the first place is horribly painful. Instead, I would wait it out, and when the next line hit me, unfortunate relief came with it. The self-righteous element of my mind said it was alright to wait for the elusive burst of inspiration, as it always yielded the best work. That is a blatant lie, but how convenient would it be if it wasn’t? I rarely pushed myself past the line where bad poetry finally turned useful again, like giving up on running water through dirty pipes until it emerges clear. 

Tongo told us that “writing is the art of beating writer’s block.” From this , I was already beginning to mentally reframe the experience. He gave us a list of tricks, simple exercises and tools. For example, line one can be bad. Then make line two a negation of line one. Then make line three something both the first and second voice can agree on. I’ll give you another: think of the poem as a living picture, and work at bringing individual craft techniques to the foreground.

“Use your internal weather to induce different voices,” or

“Don’t move the camera, move yourself,” or

“In every good line, there are implied questions.”

I could go on. Would you look at that, I said to myself, writer’s block is a persistent and constant part of writing. Here are ways to play a game with it, and cheat it out of the pleasure of clogging creativity up.

Tongo’s three days with us left me with pages of nuanced perspectives and fresh tactics. And it was not only the content of his lessons but the way they were presented which struck a particularly resonant chord. Not a lecture, not a diagram of the perfect poetic process, but an honest reflection of what he had learned in his time, and what we could learn in ours. 

Jessica Schott-Rosenfield, Class of ’22

Finding My Voice by Colette Johnson

As my senior year of high school comes to a close I’ve noticed a few changes in myself. One, I’ve been a lot more vocal in my Creative Writing department. Two, I’ve gained more confidence in myself not only as a writer, but as a Black woman navigating a predominantly White space. Three, distance learning has its challenges but it’s not impossible to navigate. Four, I am not longer afraid to reach out to my teachers and counselors when I need help, Five, My mental health is important. Six, I wish I had reached this point in my life sooner. 

I’d never had an issue with my confidence before high school. I think this had a lot to do with the environment that I was in. My middle school had been predominantly Asian and Latino, and while I was one of the only African American students I was still surrounded by other minorities. High school was a culture shock as I had never been around many White students before, and many other students with a different socio economic background than myself. When I had auditioned for the Creative Writing department I knew that I would be the only minority, however I wasn’t prepared for the micro aggressions that I’d face from both teachers and students. 

During my freshman year, I was unaware that talking down to a student was a micro aggression. I did not know that singling out a student to answer questions that you think they wouldn’t know the answer to is a micro aggression. There were many times where I was called on to answer a question that I, in fact, did not know the answer to. However, being surrounded by white students who are looking at me with blank stares as I stumble over my words to fabricate an answer to suit the instructor terrified me completely. I felt that I had something to prove because at the time I was the only Black student. Subconsciously I was putting pressure on myself that I had to be a good example of what a Black woman is to trump any of their assumptions, something I didn’t realize I was doing until my senior year. 

Freshman year was the beginning of my quietness in school. I would never volunteer to read a passage out loud, or give my opinion on a discussion topic. I was silent for the most part. Keeping to myself and only reluctantly speaking when spoken to. This led to a series of conversations had between the department head and myself. She’s been an influential part of my journey to finding my voice, always encouraging me to share my thoughts, opinions, and takeaways that may be different from my peers. I could never bring myself to do this out of fear of being judged; I didn’t want my intelligence to be questioned. I think many African American students like myself are taught with the understanding that we are going to be judged no matter what we do for simply existing. It was drilled into me at an early age that I had to show that I wasn’t incompetent, that I could keep up with the other kids. 

I didn’t start to gain the courage to speak up in class until we started distance leaning this year. Perhaps the fact that we’re virtual and not in the classroom contributes to my boost in confidence. I feel more comfortable in my own home behind a computer screen. At the beginning of January the juniors and seniors started our fiction unit working with an Artist in Residence named Danny Nuygen. Danny chose to bring in a series of short stories for us to read, many of them dealing with subject matters involving race, social class, and economic status. I related to many of the pieces in this fiction unit than I have in the past, most likely because I understand the adversity and struggles faced by the characters. I started speaking in class, sharing my own thoughts and experiences on race living as a Black woman in America, something I would have never done in the past.

Colette Johnson, Class of ’21