Are People in Control of Themselves? by Nina Berggren

I frequently consider my father’s upbringing, which was significantly different from mine. He was raised one of six kids in a Christian household, in the sad city of Racine, Wisconsin. His family was poor, rationing powdered milk and turning to church for used clothing. However, my grandmother raised her children with unconditional love and steadfast virtues, so despite having six children squeezed into a tiny bedroom, they were all relatively satisfied. Meanwhile, their friends were from poorer families, many with absent, abusive, or alcoholic fathers. The less privileged neighborhood kids would fill my grandmother’s house as though it were a haven; Sleeping over on every spare surface, like on radiators and table tops. The house perpetually overflowed with impoverished adolescents, and my grandmother never turned one away. My father felt completely overlooked, as ten dirty hands would grab at one measly piece of toast. He retreated into himself and developed a neutral persona that could conform to his surroundings. He grew accustomed to the reality that he would not know privacy until adulthood. It came as no surprise that he moved away as soon as he turned eighteen, as did his siblings. Not one remained in Racine. Today, my grandparents live alone in a house that echoes with the memories of many voices.

So did my father take initiative and choose to abandon Racine? Or was he destined to leave from the moment he was born into a community of close minded individuals, with unlimited factors that forced him to think differently and have substantial aspirations? Recently, I have been questioning whether or not the choices we make are dictated by our minds or by a lifetime of external influences and genetic predispositions. For instance, every neighborhood kid that my father grew up with stayed in Racine. They did not receive college educations, instead they took factory jobs that reduced them to repeating the same small tasks over and over mindlessly. This repetition inevitably lead to insanity and depression. So the neighborhood kids perpetuated their parent’s legacies, resorting to alcohol in order to cope with their dismal routines; Living the life they grew up believing they had no control over. They were afraid to take risks and make change, because nobody had believed in them, and moving out of Racine seemed like an impossible fever dream. Although my father grew up in a similar position, simply having parental support and a mother that raised him right, provided the basis he needed to leave home, put himself through college, study abroad, and eventually attain success by conventional standards. My grandmother could not give him money nor physical provisions, but she gave him the right mentality to succeed.

One could argue that my father and his peers pursued dissimilar futures as human beings thinking for themselves do. However, I believe that their choices were driven by their upbringing, society, the state of America, and the state of the world. Our external influences reign supreme. They motivate our thoughts, behaviors, and actions. My own upbringing was influenced by my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my great-great grandparents, and so on until the start of time. I am influenced by the people around me, who in turn are influenced by their friends, enemies, and predecessors. We are being controlled by factors we do not even consider.

If anyone was asked to choose happiness over sadness, the answer would be exclusively the former. So why did the neighborhood kids choose sadness over happiness? Stagnancy over the unexpected? Because the variables around them rationalized their decisions.

Later in life, different variables contributed to my father’s accumulation of worldly insights, all of which lead him to desire a simple life. One where his primary purpose involves providing for his family and finding contentment in minimalism, as evidenced by our sparsely furnished household. His experiences with flea ridden beds in the Middle East, are why he chooses to indulge in the luxury of lavish hotels. Despite this one indulgence, he once confessed to me that he still feels an inclination toward the poorer populace. This is not because of the adult life he built for himself, but rather the childhood he had no control over, that instilled modest tendencies within him from the start.

So are people in control of themselves? Dwell on that, the next time you “choose” to read a book, or instigate a conversation…

Nina Berggren, class of 2020

The Beginning of Playwriting by Zai Deriu

Still at the start of our playwriting unit, it easily shows how little I know about writing for the stage. Poetry and fiction I had experience reading and writing, so went into those units with some prior knowledge.

Playwriting, on the other hand, is a completely new experience. At the unit’s start, we began discussing dialogue. Even in fiction, I avoid dialogue. There’s no real reason for this, only that I’m not so comfortable with it as with other things. In more ways than one, I was (and still am, to a certain extent) out of my comfort zone.

Over the past  weeks of playwriting, I’ve learned more about playwriting (and dialogue) than I knew there was to learn. It’s been crazy to be taught an entirely new topic, especially after being so immersed in our past fiction unit.

I’ve also had to start thinking about the topic of my play. Technically speaking, it won’t be my first, as I attempted a play for my SOTA portfolio, but it will be my first with any real instruction. Looking back on that play, I now know I formatted it entirely wrong, and can see it lacks any sort of real plot. I’m here, though, so it must have been alright.

In trying to choose topics for various prompts, I found myself thinking of what makes something for the stage rather than the page, which we discussed in class. Should I throw myself into dialogue completely, and embrace my lack of knowing what to do? Should I think of past experiences in my life for inspiration before anything else? It’s difficult to think of ideas when you have to.

Perhaps it’s because of how extensively we spoke of plot during fiction, but I do think it’s getting easier for me to pull out story ideas when asked. Not to say it’s easy, however. I can confidently say that I’ve become more comfortable in my writing in my past seven months in CW. It’s because of this I’m not all that scared to be starting our playwriting unit. If I had been thrown into playwriting at the year’s start, I would have been lost and confused, but now I know I’ll be alright.

Being more confident in my own writing than I was at the beginning of the year is great, and I already know that this will help me through every english-based class I ever have, but perhaps more important than that is the friendships I’ve formed with other creative writers. From the beginning of the year, myself and the other CW freshmen have gotten along incredibly well. Without that sense of community, I don’t know how I possibly could have gotten through the first few months of school and even made it this far. Fortunately, I had their support, so now I’m here, and I’m very happy about it.

Zai Deriu, class of 2022

Five Days of Workshopping by Xuan Ly

For one week, in preparation for the playwriting show, our Creative Writing class was comprised of nothing but small group workshops. We would all come into class with four copies of our drafts we had been working with. On the board, there would be groups of four, ideally with one student from each grade, and we would break off into those groups to workshop. In the groups, each play is casted and read for the playwright to listen to, and then the playwright is given edits on parts such as the fundamental plot and diction. Even as a sophomore, with a full understanding of the workshopping process and its benefits, I am nervous going into a workshop. Of course, they never are as bad as I make them out to be. Each person just wants to help guide the piece to reach its fullest potential.

This week of workshopping was a slightly different experience than what we have done in CW1. Each day of the week, we brought four copies of our play to be read aloud and edited by our peers. Since we had back to back workshopping days, I felt I was not given ample time to deeply revise, attend routine extracurricular activities, and finish other academic homework before the next day. Typically, we are given two or three days between workshops to slowly revise and better balance with academic work. With new groups each day, I noticed more contradicting comments than usual, which widened the possibilities for m play, but also made it more difficult to revise. Ultimately, I found that the day-to-day revisions I made to my play were quite small, but workshopping is always what the writer makes of it.

Being in the department, I have learned the importance of revision, even if it is sometimes the worst. I, personally, have a difficult time with constant revision of a single piece. I find it best for me to have breaks between each revision so I can approach the piece without instantly hating it. This seemingly endless week of workshopping tested my limits of endurance for listening to my own work. Despite this, I think getting to hear the entire play read aloud was one of the most helpful parts of the workshopping process. In all the groups I was in, we read through every piece, which allowed for the playwright to see how the dialogue flowed.

Xuan Ly, class of 2021

Revising a Dead Dog by Jessica Schott-Rosenfield

CW 1 is currently in its fiction unit, and we are beginning to workshop our short stories. The first story I wrote in this unit was in response to a prompt, which called for a story about an object endowed with magical powers, and the child’s imagination. At first, I was worried, as I have not always had the best luck with writing fantasy fiction. I find that when I attempt to create a mature story including an aspect of magic, I inevitably fail. However, I chose to embrace the prompt and write the story with vigor. After writing my first draft, I was satisfied with the outcome because it was finished, and at least that was something.

I workshopped that piece with sophomores the next day, which didn’t go well at all. They brought to my attention that the plot was unclear because of my trying to shove both fantasy and pretentiously significant points into the writing. It’s safe to say I was not motivated in the least to begin revisions, since I was now convinced that the idea behind the story would never show itself in the manner I desired, because the idea was so innately awful in the first place. I tried to create something out of the piece which was more to my liking, more realistic, and more composed. This attempt, although helpful to the overall clarity, did not yield much, and the second day of workshopping was much the same as the first. Every comment I received was again about the plot, and I agreed with them wholeheartedly, but I didn’t want to face the fact that extensive revisions would need to be made that night.

As something I hadn’t liked in the beginning, the story did not age well, and at this point, I hated it. Each time I read it, I hated it more.  I was fixed on the idea that no matter what I did with this story outline, it would still be deplorable. I revised what I could, worked on the sequence of events, took the advice given to me, and turned in a final draft to Heather Woodward herself. I was sure it would come back littered with comments about the diction being entirely too simplistic, and the plot being that of a small child’s inspirational bedtime story. Much to my surprise, it did not. Instead, I was given comments about sentence structure, credibility, and easily cut dead wood. After reading through these critiques, I realized that I had been so focused on my own dislike of the core idea that I hadn’t paid attention to the actual writing of the piece in its simplest form. I had done well with the plot, and essentially completed a clear storyline. I still very much loathe this short story, but it is now a finished product. Writing is subjective, and whether you or anyone else likes the concept of the story is less important than how well you pay attention to your technique while conveying your ideas through fiction.

Jessica Schott-Rosenfield, class of 2022

Class Discussions by Otto Handler

Class discussions are a big part of Creative Writing, and we all have our own different opinions about the works that we read in class. These conversations are often hard for me because I get lost while reading very easily, and I tend to freeze up and stay quiet during class discussions.

When we entered the fiction unit after winter break, I was glad that it had arrived. I love poetry, but after six weeks of it, I was ready for something else. I also thought that with the fiction unit, I might participate more in class discussions. However, see above, regarding freezing up and staying quiet.

I thought that because I am having trouble finding my tongue in discussions, I thought I would express myself here.

We read a lot of interesting stories throughout our fiction unit but one stood out to me. “The Trojan Sofa” by Bernard Maclaverty was first published in the April 16, 2006 edition of The New Yorker. It’s a story about a boy named Niall who is literally in his family business. The business happens to be theft, and what Niall is in, is a sofa. Niall’s father sells a sofa to someone who is rich, and delivers it with his son sealed up inside, waiting for the owners of the house to go to work so that Niall can emerge from the sofa and assist his father and uncle in stealing all sorts of valuables from the house. Including the sofa. While in this sofa, Niall notices what the rich people do during the nighttime and feels a blend of nervousness and excitement to participate in his family schemes.

But that’s not all this story is about.

“The Trojan Sofa” brought up the divide in the 1980’s between the British versus the Irish. This brought on lots of conversations about the conflicts as well as a brief history lesson done by our department head, Heather Woodward. I appreciate learning more about a conflict about which I knew nothing.

But that’s not all this story is about. Niall being in the sofa reminded me of my class participation, which as I said before, is minimal. Niall obviously needs to be quiet when he’s stapled into the sofa, and I often feel mentally safer when I keep quiet too. But just because someone doesn’t talk much doesn’t always mean that they have nothing to say.  Even though I don’t say much in class, I still feel like I’m still part of my own criminal gang in Creative Writing. We make things happen and we always get the loot.

Otto Handler, Class of 2022

Thank You, Lara by by Emily Kozhina

During my past two years in the Creative Writing department, I considered myself a fiction writer, and if not that, then a novice playwright, but I never once thought of myself as a poet. I went through two poetry units with a passionate disdain for stanzas, similes, and simply anything most would associate with “poetry.” That being said, the thought of moving into Creative Writing 2 (the poetry and non/fiction unit for upperclassmen) terrified me. Not only would I have to read and write poetry, but it would be in an older group setting, with more experienced students that probably have grown to love poetry. I couldn’t imagine why.

Our poetry artist in residence for Creative Writing 2 was Lara Coley, a San Francisco poet with a niche for knives. As nice enough as she seemed the first day, I wasn’t convinced that she, of all people, could change my opinion on poetry. The unit began exactly how I imagined, reading poetry to discuss in class, writing in-class prompts, and talking about writing poetry. Maybe if I just don’t work too hard, these few weeks will fly by, I thought. So I planned to simply wait it out, reading and writing the poetry I was assigned to, and pray I would survive.

But Lara caught me on a baited hook. By the third (maybe even the second) day, I found myself excited to come to class. I wanted to write poetry. This was a shock in itself. How could two years of despising poetry suddenly disappear? I still can’t answer the question, not fully. Part of it must have been Lara herself, her daily positivity and willingness to open up to us, laugh at our jokes, see us as more than teenagers in some artsy high school. We were writers to her, poets, even.

Another part surely had to do with the prompts Lara assigned. From using lines from a self-help book to answering questions that our writing supposedly answered, they were all prompts I wanted to write to. It felt like my poems were suddenly more than just stanzas and stanzas of wondering about the vague and impersonal. Each poem I wrote in that unit meant something to me, held a piece of my truth I wanted to share, which is everything I thought writing should be. I realized poetry didn’t need rhymes, and it didn’t need to be deep. With this seemingly minuscule discovery, my entire perspective on poetry shifted.

I now like to consider myself a poet. I find myself writing more poetry than fiction, without any anxieties over if what I’m writing is “poetic enough.” I like to read poetry, and learning about different poets, both local and dead. I’ve learned the beauty in “ugly poetry” and that’s all I ever want to write. Of course, my love for fiction and playwriting hasn’t disappeared, I know now there’s no need to replace one form of writing for another. I simply learned to love poetry, and it’s all because of Lara.

Thank you, Lara. Thank you for being kind and patient with us, for believing in us and our writing. Thank you for showing me all the possibilities of poetry, and how I can obtain them. You’ve taught me so much during our unit, and I’m sure everyone would say the same. As much as I try, though, I don’t think I could ever thank you enough.

Emily Kozhina, Class of 2020

Fiction and Valentine’s Day by Colette Johnson

In Creative Writing, we spend time together at the beginning of the school year before splitting into two groups. The freshmen and sophomores (CW I) work with Heather on poetry and fiction. The juniors and seniors (CW II) work with artists and residence on units such as poetry and nonfiction. It’s now February and CW I started our fiction unit a month ago in January.

        Before we left for winter break in December, Heather told us to read six short stories from different authors and write a three to five page short story in the style of one of the writers. I used Shirley Jackson’s writing style in my short story. When we returned from break, Heather had us transfer our best paragraphs onto a shared google doc and we peet edited them. Everyone was anonymous. This exercise had its ups and downs. By keeping the authors anonymous we as writers were able to critique and look at the paragraphs as just paragraphs. There was no face behind them which made some of us feel more comfortable because we did not want to hurt anyone’s feelings. On the other hand, however, those paragraphs did have authors and their feelings should have been taken into account, which they were during a discussion later.

During the discussion, a few of us voiced that the way we went about critiquing the paragraphs was wrong, which in my opinion was. My paragraph was the first one critiqued, and while the edits were extremely helpful, I did feel vulnerable during the process. It is good to be vulnerable as a writer and open to receiving criticism, but during the critiquing session, things were not done in the most orderly fashion. There was chaos to say the least, people talking over others, shouting out although not loudly, and most importantly, I wanted to understand my mistakes through explanations but there were none. Needless to say, we came to an understanding to do things like that exercise in a more orderly fashion. Yes, we all can identify mistakes but there is a way to go about addressing them that we all needed a refresher on.

Another thing we do during the fiction unit in CW I is read short stories. February is Black History Month in case you were not aware, and because of that Heather chose short stories by African American authors. A recent one that we read was “Black Girl” by Ousmane Sembene. Sembene had the luxury of not only writing the story but directing the film based on it also. In “Black Girl” a young African woman from Senegal called Diouana works a a maid in France for a couple who treats her as a slave. Diouana is excited to move to France and thinks that she will get to explore the city and move up in class but soon finds that the color of her skin is standing in her way. I absolutely enjoyed both the film and the short story and highly recommend it.

We watched the movie in class and looked for differences in the film and short story. Afterwards we shared our observations and together had a discussion about them. There was a part in the film when Diouana is sleeping and the woman who she works for forcefully pulls her out of her slumber shouting “Get up! You’re not in Africa anymore!” I noted how that last line stuck with me because I was reminded of the stereotype the Blacks are lazy.

As a Black young woman, I felt immense compassion for Diouana. One can study slavery and discrimination and come to know every aspect of it but there is no excuse for someone to feel like they own an entire human being. Diouana kills herself at the end of the film and short story. Whole heartedly, if I was in the same situation as her, I think that I would do the same thing. I know that it is morbid and grotesque but I cannot stomach the idea of living the rest of my life as somebody’s slave. She was not free alive, she was free dead.

Colette Johnson, Class of 2021

Reflection and Advice by Solange Baker

As our nonfiction unit comes to a close, so does my time in Creative Writing II. In a week, we’ll be in our playwriting unit (this year taught by Sara Broady), which is taught to the whole of Creative Writing. I’ve had the same conversation with several of the other Creative Writing Seniors about our sudden realization that our four-year ride at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts is rapidly coming to a close.

This coming week is my last in Creative Writing II, in a month or two I’ll know where I’m going to college, in two months I’ll have my last show (April 26, our playwriting show), the day after is prom, and a month later I graduate. It’s a bittersweet feeling. I’m excited to graduate, to start a new chapter in my life in a new place with new people. But on the other hand, I’m deeply saddened by the idea of leaving San Francisco, leaving my friends and my family, my pets, all that has been my world for the past nearly eighteen years. I’m trying to live in the moment and appreciate what’s happening now, it’s hard with the chaos of financial aid, scholarships, and general life. But as I approach the great old age of eighteen, I’ve taken some time to reflect on my time in Creative Writing.

Three pieces of advice I have for current/future members of the department on your time in Creative Writing:

  1. Learn to workshop: Workshopping is the core of Creative Writing. You improve by both having your piece edited and editing the work of your peers. At first it’s a daunting concept; other people (older than me, better writers than me) are going to read and critique my work? But learning to distance yourself from your work and understanding that the edits you get are not malicious but born from passion and a genuine interest in helping your work succeed is important. Learn when to take edits and when to leave them; when to know that yes, this Junior is right this paragraph is convoluted and has way to many adjectives, versus knowing to maintain your artistic integrity.
  2. Take opportunities: Heather and other teachers will present opportunities to you both within SOTA and outside of SOTA. If they interest you, take them. No matter if they seem intimidating or if you don’t think you’ll get into the program or whatever it may be, take the opportunity. You never know where it may lead you. My Freshman year I auditioned for an original play along with three other Creative Writers. I got paid to act in the production, which was wonderful, but it was also an enriching experience. I improved my performance abilities, made connections, and could say I felt proud of what I accomplished. My Sophomore year I performed at the Nourse Theater with Youth Speaks for their 20th Annual Bring the Noise event. I don’t get terribly bad stage fright, but that was one of the scariest things I’ve done. Looking out at a sea of 1600 people made me dizzy, but performing and hearing an audience respond to my work was euphoric and beyond well worth all the hours of rehearsal and anxiety.
  3. Focus on your own work/Don’t try to emulate others: It’s hard not to compare yourself to others: how many times people have been published, how many edits they get on their papers, grades they get on their assignments. In an environment like SOTA you’re surrounded by extraordinarily talented teenagers and it’s easy to forget that a) this is not a normal school and b) you’re one of those extraordinarily talented teenagers. Comparing yourself to others does absolutely nothing but make you feel bad about yourself. Art is subjective. Getting published doesn’t automatically make someone a better writer than you and getting published doesn’t make you a better writer than anyone else. And besides, sitting around complaining that you think everyone else is better than you isn’t how you improve your craft. A mistake I made in Creative Writing was that I got caught up in what other people were doing. Consequently, I stopped writing the way I wanted to and started writing what I thought other people wanted. The results were not my best work. Once I regained my voice, realized that trying to emulate others was boring and that I have my own skill set to offer, I started producing work that I was genuinely proud of for the first time in a long time.

Although it may not feel like it in the moment, high school goes by fast. My biggest piece of advice is this: make the most of it, whatever that may mean to you.

Solange Baker, class of 2019

The “Sophomore Slump” and Slowing Down by Xuan Ly

The second semester has just begun, and with it, the “Sophomore Slump.” I have passed through the excitement of freshman year, whose energy dragged me through the first semester, but now I have arrived at what feels like an endless loop of seemingly irrelevant classes. Although, to be clear, as a student, the subjects on my schedule is important, but as of right now there is no visible finish line. Sophomore year has slowly become a nightmare in which the hole I have fallen into is endless, which is cliche but I cannot find the brainpower to come up with anything new, and this endless hole describes my slump perfectly. Nothing is within reach, unlike the upperclassmen, who may have more difficult work, but are so close to the finish line. The juniors are almost seniors and the seniors are almost graduated. I, on the other hand, am just a sophomore.

College is on my mind. I find it looming over me without any clarity. Sure, as a sophomore maybe I shouldn’t be worrying about college, at least that is what I’m told. And yes, I don’t need to take the SATs or ACTs this year, but how can I stop myself from factoring in my entire future when deciding whether I should let myself relax on a Saturday or spend the whole day studying for chemistry test? I struggle to find the balance between producing quality work for my classes and enjoying the time I have before the real stress of the college application process. I feel like my mind is always calculating the best route for future success, which leaves the present me burnt out with no immediate gratification. Overtime, I’ve realized that the way students have been wired to learn is rarely for the joy of learning something new, but for the grades, which supposedly sets us up for a future that never seems to become the present.

When Heather heard about the sophomores’ predicament, she arranged what she called a “slunch,” or sophomore lunch. We gathered in her office and let go of our worries. Heather, Kaia, and Hannah baked delicious cookies to share, Emma brought popcorn, there was fruit, and chips that we all enjoyed. What I appreciated most about sitting together in Heather’s office, besides the realization of what our class had overcome in the past year, is that I don’t remember much of our conversations, and didn’t need to. To me, this indicates how effortless the conversations had been. In that small room, squished on Heather’s leather couch, I did not have to contemplate my next thought and what responses it would receive. I knew that everyone would just understand. I felt more engaged and relaxed at school than I had been for months.

In the past weeks, I found that when I admitted to myself that I am in said “slump,” my apathy for school grew exponentially, and I was no longer able to be lifted by a passing smile. But, I have learned how to slow down and focus on the present instead of the unknown. This includes recognizing and releasing the tension, caused by increasing negative energy, that I have fostered in my body. When I have trouble remembering what it is like to live solely in the present, I think back to our sophomore lunch. I think about the joy of being rooted in natural conversation that has nothing to do with school. In that small office decorated with pictures of alumni who have gone through what I am, I was able to see a light in the endless hole, or at least see other people falling with me. Now, looking at my classmates’ faces I think two things: 1) do I look that over it? 2) I totally understand you. I am able to laugh, which provides me with strength to continue on.


Xuan Ly, class of 2021

Sophomore Slumptch by Sequioa Hack

The relationship between high school and a student attending it is parallel to the relationship that an iron has with the shirt it’s ironing. Both are situations that one usually learns or experiences at a pivotal point in their lives – high school marking the last couple of years where dependence on parents for housing and food is necessary, while also being the first few years where independence is slowly gained. By knowing how to successfully iron, one gains a sense of professionalism that marks a newfound idea of maturity.

High school and ironing both offer a support center where problems can be solved – the teachers and the ironing board. However, if one of these support systems fails to carry out their purpose effectively, the impact on the person using the iron or attending high school can be varied and unpleasant. If an ironing board broke right before a job interview, one would have a wrinkled shirt that eventually may play a part in the hiring or lack of, specifically concerning the professionalism aspect of this prospective job. Now, if the teachers in a high school (or any school for that matter) fail to connect with the students they are in charge of for an hour each day, the student’s motivation to learn and show up for class is dissolved. This is a main factor in the existence of the “sophomore slump.”

The sophomore slump is a phenomenon that occurs in many teens during their second year of high school. It is a period of time when the sophomore realizes they aren’t close enough to the beginning of high school to be coddled but also aren’t at the point in their lives where exploring colleges is a necessity. Heather has noticed this boredom and feeling of uselessness that has erupted amongst the sophomores. As a result, during a lunch period this past week, Heather organized a lunch where all she and all the sophomores came together to talk and to combat the angst we were feeling. People brought lovely homemade cookies, fruit, popcorn, chips, and some nuts. We laughed, shared stories from weekends and past camping trips, and explored our favorite movies and TV shows. We were able to bond in a lovely, unstressed setting where nothing was expected of us other than to be kind to each other. The result of this lunch was a strengthened bond, shared between the ten girls of the CW class of 2021.


Sequoia Hack, class of 2021