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
and
unfar

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

The Sophomore Poetry Lessons by Eva Whitney

For the six weeks preceding Winter Break, the Creative Writing Department focused on poetry. We split into Creative Writing One and Creative Writing Two, or, more simply, the underclassmen and upperclassmen. In Creative Writing One, we spent the majority of the six weeks reading from The Discovery of Poetry, a poetry anthology edited by Frances Mayes. All sixteen of us would sit around a big table as if we were about to have a grand feast, and, with the hum of Creative Writing Two in the adjacent room, we dove into sestinas and sonnets and villanelles from an assortment of poets, contemporary and ancient. It was truly like the poems we read fed us! I felt full of words and ideas after each class.

The poetry unit allowed me to get back into the swing of writing as we wrote a poem nearly every night. Circling around that grand table and hearing how each person interpreted the prompt the day after was always fascinating, and I found myself able to finally find the same joy in poetry that I found last year and lost over the summer.

For the first week of December, at the end of our six weeks of poetry, the sophomores of the Creative Writing Department taught poetry lessons about our cultural heritage to our fellow sophomores and the freshmen. We heard lessons about Chinese Communism, Korean Commu- nism, the Beat Generation, Russian Communism, and Immigrants. A sophomore would bring in an array of poems of their choosing and we would discuss them and pick them apart, and even write in conversation with them. It was a way to learn about each other better, as well as hear po- etry that the six of us find beautiful and fascinating.

In my lesson, I hoped to introduce Zen Buddhist poetry to my peers as an approachable section of poetry. Buddhism is often revered for its difficulty, but many do not realize how accessible the religion, or even just its core practices, can be. I brought in poetry by Gary Snyder, Ikkyu Sojun, Philip Whalen, Stonehouse, Jane Hirshfield, and Ryokan. I created pairs of poems, alternating between a contemporary Buddhist poet and an ancient one. The poems of each pair were connected somehow; I did this in hopes of showing how constant Buddhist values are and how even poets from four centuries ago could share the same experiences or have the same ideas as a living Buddhist poet.

Teaching this lesson and experiencing my peers’ lessons was entirely rewarding. Know- ing that I may have made a slight impact on one of the students fills me with a simple joy! Zen Buddhism has been such a large part of my childhood, and now young-adulthood, so to share it with my peers was a special experience. It took some strength on my part to constantly share my ideas and keep everyone engaged, which is not something that comes naturally to me, but after- ward, I was glad I persevered. Watching my classmates do the same impressed me immensely, and allowed me to see them as real, capable people with interesting backgrounds.

Eva Whitney, class of 2020

The College Application Process by Angelica LaMarca

To put it frankly, the process of applying to college is an absolutely potent pain in the ass. It can be quite awkward having write about yourself for pages, and often, one is forced to adapt a clunky, awkward syntax in order to accommodate a strict, diminutive word count. Furthermore, if you are like me and you are prone to procrastination and a fully-flexed lack of motivation, you may find yourself on the day of the application deadline sleep-deprived and hyperventilating, scrambling to varnish essays which you in fact had months to work on.

Since I am applying mostly to UC’s, I spent the bulk of my application process generating my UC personal statements. The UC website provides eight prompts from which one must choose only four to respond to. Being forced to self-advertise extensively, I found that one must straddle a fine line between being too flaccid and being too arrogant. This was probably the most challenging part.

UC prompt #2 pertained to creativity, inquiring of the applicant, “ How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?” Being an art school student, I had the most fun responding to this one. Because I feel that what I wrote was particularly authentic to my identity, here is the personal statement I wrote articulating my passion for writing.

“Writing is my greatest pursuit because there has always been a part of me who fears a wasted or forgotten thought. As someone with a poor memory, writing is a way to preserve my most unflexed fragments of ideas which I can later develop into fully thrumming pieces of art. Without the process of archive, I am simply a sanctum for a current of perpetually flowing ideas that are immediately forgotten and never fulfill a purpose.

For high school, I attended Ruth Asawa School Of The Arts, an art school located in San Francisco where I specialized in Creative Writing. In order to qualify for a place, applicants had to submit a portfolio which included three short stories, ten poems, and one play. The day I received my acceptance letter, my mother treated me to a fancy dinner to deliver the news, but I had already read the email, so I faked surprise over a bowl of hot soup.

I don’t know what I would’ve done without SOTA. Art school offered me an environment in which to groom my abilities; within my four years, I’ve earned multiple awards in poetry competitions such as the SFUSD Literary Art Festival, where, in sophomore year, I won first place. But most importantly, this artistic space is what nurtured my ability to handle criticism. In my writing class, we must participate in peer-editing workshops, and routinely putting myself in that state of vulnerability is what ultimately chiseled out my confidence. I have learned that artwork is separate from the artist; if one insists on viewing their artwork as an extension of themselves, constructive criticism becomes personal insult, and one will never improve.

My fiction pieces tend to lack plot, but I feel this more accurately reflects real life, which does not always channel the hyperbolic, frenzied momentum often depicted in literature. In the stories I write, I hold absolute control over what happens. I have learned to instill a similar control in my own life, treating my world as something malleable to be influenced rather than a body that has inflexible power over me.”

Angelica LaMarca, class of 2018

On the Senior Thesis by Anna Geiger

As I near the end of my four years in the Creative Writing department at School of the Arts, I have begun writing my senior thesis that will embody everything I have accomplished here, from the development of my writing skill to the development of my understanding of myself and the world around me. neatly bound together in print for my friends and family to enjoy, file away, and forget about, as I will most of my memories of high school. What I will take with me are recollections of my years in the Creative Writing department, the tightest-knit and most fruitful community I have ever been a part of. As small a community as the department is, I have learned the writing style and voice of every other student, and realized how much I can discover about others through understanding their perspectives. Having spent hundreds of pages pouring over the junctures of other students, I have empathy for the unique experiences of every individual, and each of their time-worthy moments that has amounted to their present experience. Never before in my life has a community made me feel so safe, confident, or excited to discover the stories of a myriad of new people upon leaving high school.

In addition to taking the time to understand the thoughts and experiences of other people, Creative Writing has led me to do the same with myself. Learning to translate into writing years of watching the sun set over the Golden Gate Bridge and dreaming of fog signals, dancing down neon Bourbon Street and swaying to the jazz of Congo Square, getting lost in the reels of the Internet Archive, has allowed me to appreciate and reflect upon my time as a teenage to an extent that I couldn’t otherwise. Taking every night to relive a new experience through writing has molded me into someone who takes no experience for granted. If I had not spent hours in a tent under lantern light scribing the sound of Aspen tree leaves in breeze or the quiet peace of my childhood home, I would never remember to appreciate them in times less tranquil.

Reading my thesis in its pristine, printed final form, there is a symbiosis between the richness of my language and the richness of my experience; each year they grow together. In studying metonymy and synecdoche, in memorizing the meter of a sestina, in reading Sappho and Hemingway, I learned the significance of every moment, and the detail that it deserves. Because of this education, I have felt the elation of hearing my words performed on a stage and reading my poems in the pages of a literary magazine. It has never ceased to awe me that the thoughtfulness which undercurrents my writing could inspire someone else to view life through the same open and optimistic lens. It is my hope that my thesis will be that catalyst. So when I am next asked “What do you even do in Creative Writing?” I will laugh and say “I have examined and interpreted a thousand moments, found the joy and lessons in each of them,” and hand them a copy of my senior thesis.

Anna Geiger, class of 2018