Poetry Negative to Poetry Positive by Emilie Mayer

Similar to the saying, “You are what you eat,” the creative writer often reflects the literature that they consume. Over the past year, I have not read an impressive or even adequate amount of poetry. As a senior in Ruth Asawa School of the Arts’ Creative Writing Department, I am tasked with creating a thesis. I decided last year, in my final months as a junior, that I wanted my thesis to be a novel. Since then, I have for the most part only read novels as a form of research. I was not actively avoiding poetry, but I was neglecting that side of my writing. 

More than six months passed without me seriously sitting down and crafting a poem. On the rare occasion where I tried to don my poet’s hat, I was too much in my head and could not translate my thoughts onto the page. I had fallen out of love with poetry, when poetry was the genre that first introduced me to the craft of creative writing. 

Going into the Creative Writing Department’s poetry unit, I was apprehensive. I feared that my poems would be too plot-based: all exposition and no imagery. My fears were confirmed. For the first week or two, my poems—in simplest terms—sucked. I wasn’t connected to anything I wrote. It was all word soup. 

As I read more poetry, I hungered after writing poetry again. And, little-by-little, the prose started flowing. Finding motivation caused the shift. For every poem, I require some sort of exigence. Recently, emotion has been my kindling. As a senior, departure is at the forefront of my mind. I use the complex feelings related to leaving as the core of my poems. When I have a focused intent, I think less about the crafting of the poem and am instead swept into greater purpose.

Poetry still scares me, but now I have rediscovered the joy of finishing a piece. There is nothing quite like the thrill of crafting a perfect reflection of my emotions and thoughts.

My Personal Muse by Leela Sriram

As I am nearing the end of senior year and finalizing my senior thesis, I have started thinking about how I find inspiration in creating a large body of creative work. While this is an awkward time to think about the muse of my thesis, I have discovered that my little interests such as birds, and knitting have allowed me to step into the minds of my characters. I think of everything I write as a reflection of me. In many ways, through my writing, I take on many different personas. I am an old woman by the seaside, and a runaway cowgirl in other moments. 

The idea of a muse is taboo, and I believe that as a writer I should not wait around for the inspiration to come to me. Rather, I think about the little moments in my life, such as rain on a sunny day or seeing the pelicans on the pier. This is what I see as the muse. Inspiration is what I think of as impressionable in my life. The little moments, while fleeting, are pivotal to creating worlds. They are what make my thesis feel like more than a collection of pages, to me. While writing a deeply personal collection of work has been difficult, I am grateful for the opportunity to share my innermost thoughts and feelings with my fellow seniors and eventually, the entire Creative Writing Department. I am eager to see my thesis come alive in the form of a physical book instead of a google doc. 

Working on my senior thesis, while also completing college applications, and now waiting anxiously for college decisions has been a difficult task. However, I have learned so much about how I can generate more fiction using my perspective on life, and how I can create a cohesive collection of fiction and poetry by myself. I am eternally grateful for this experience, and I know that I am going to cherish my thesis after I graduate from Creative Writing.

The Informalities of Fiction by Starlie Tugade

Despite popular opinion, writing fiction has always been a serious, solitary activity for me. I can come up with stories anywhere, at any time, but the actual writing part takes place on my bed, listening to instrumental music. However, we’ve recently started our fiction unit in Creative Writing, dividing up into CW 1 (primarily underclassmen), and CW 2 (upperclassmen), and a couple of the assignments have been collaborative.

Our first assignment was to expand on Richard Brautigan’s one sentence short story: “‘Have you ever lived in a one-room apartment with someone learning to play the violin?’ she asked, as she handed the police officer the smoking gun.” Before everyone separated to write our own one page versions, we performed this story for each other. Eight different pairs acted out one sentence in dramatically different ways. One of the most memorable moments was when two people had to act the scene out without any arms (pantomiming the toss of the gun was a challenge there). Another was when Heather was directing the scene that I was in. I was playing the police officer, and Heather told me that I had to act as though I stubbed my toe, had a twitch in my left arm, and had an extreme case of hiccups. Oh and I forgot to mention, the woman with the gun was trying to seduce me. But all that was for the sake of the story, so I didn’t mind. 

When we came back the next day with our expanded versions of the one sentence we were given, everyone had a completely different tone and approach. One was about improv and another was about putting someone out of their misery. The drastic acting that we had done the day before opened our mind to the many different possibilities that this story held, and as a group of writers, we took advantage of that.

Fiction with Philip Harris by Isabella Hansen

To compare my freshman year experience with my sophomore year experience would be like comparing a dinosaur to an ant. Freshman year was big and exciting with the obvious factor of the pandemic and the newness of highschool. Now, as a sophomore, I find myself focusing more on my critical writing skills and what I need to do in order to better myself in all aspects of Creative Writing. I like to think that I have made great leaps in both my writing and workshopping skills but I know there’s always room to improve with help from my fellow creative writers. 

The most consistent thing in my writing life now is the CW 1 fiction unit. Last year, our department head decided on including an artist in residence throughout our three week fiction unit. Normally it would just be CW 2 (the juniors and seniors) who would be taught by an artist in residence so it was a surprise to be taught by someone else. Phillip Harris was our fiction artist in residence then and it was an educational and lovely experience. I did not have much experience with fiction so it was pretty  new and daunting to freshmen year old me but Phillip interwove realistic and everyday life short stories with science fiction and fantasy in a way that fascinated me.  I remember thoroughly enjoying discussing the stories that he would bring to the table, even though my contribution was at a minimum due to my shyness. 

Now as a sophomore and a lot more comfortable with the daily discussions in CW, I was delighted to hear that Phillip would be coming back to teach our fiction unit again. It was almost nostalgic for the first story to be taught in our unit to be one I read and enjoyed during freshman year. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson was one of the first short stories that had me really thinking about literary crafts like tone, perspective and imagery. We read a short story everyday and discuss it. I think whole class discussions will always be an anxiety inducing subject for me but with CW, I’m able to improve and dissect literature while also hearing the interesting thoughts of my classmates. 

Isabella Hansen, Class of ’23

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

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

Discussing Hemingway by Abbegail Louie

During this years fiction unit, CW I is focusing on Hemingway. We are focusing precisely on his stripped language throughout his short stories and his use of structured absence. Today we held a discussion on Hemingway’s subtext within “The Killers.”

Our discussions are held after reading the text, and while everyone is participating I use discussions to clarify. Even when I read as carefully as possible, phrases and sentences jump up from the pages just to fly over my head. I feel like I’m always missing something while I read, but I assume that is why we hold discussions. Hearing my peer’s thoughts and interpretations of the text make me want to reread every book I ever “read” in my life.

I am usually not one to shy away from talking, but during discussions I have to really think before I try to make a point. That should go for everything, but I usually don’t mind making a fool out of myself. How else will I learn? Every time a point or realization pops into my head, I jot it down into my notebook and read it to myself. This orients my ideas in a more organized matter where I won’t trip over my words as I talk.

There are a lot of takeaways I am gaining from studying Hemingway’s short stories, like:

  • The importance of diction
  • Clarification is key
  • Less is more.
  • Detach yourself, it will be fine.
  • Discussions are like SparkNotes.

Along with the takeaways, I have one burning question that bothered me throughout our whole discussion: Is everyone’s life structured around the absence of not knowing what really happens to you after death?


Abbegail Louie, class of 2019

You Get ABS, and You Get ABS, Everybody Gets ABS!

It’s a contemplative day in life when you realize you don’t have abs to spare. Or any abs at all. When you’re just a squishy tummy that cats like to sit on.

A squishy tummy with a brain, because while I may not have abs to spare, I certainly do have ABS to spare. A.B.S., or Angsty Backstory.

Angst (n.): an intense feeling of apprehension, anxiety, or inner turmoil
Backstory (n.): a history or background created for a fictional character

Now, before you judge me for regressing into tweenage blues, let me explain. Regardless of your current-day characteristics, you have experienced emotional turmoil in the past; that is simply a fact of humanity, that we always seek the ups and downs to map out the full spectrum of living. Whether this is through direct or indirect experiences is up to the individual. That is what I mean by angsty, those factors for physical, intellectual, or moral change, not OMFG parents wont lemme stay out until 9 parents sux.

In Creative Writing II, we are working the Fiction unit from the literal beginning: Your character is a child, make it happen. How old is this child? Who does this child live with? Does this child’s surroundings affect his or her view of the world? What does this child believe in? And beyond (or beneath– depends on how you look at it) those, does this child like hot or cold weather? How does he or she turn the pages in a book? Does he or she wear socks to sleep?

As a self-identified fiction-writer, this is well within my comfort zone. I name my character (Delilah, or Lilah for short), develop her voice (she’s eight years old, and tries to act more mature like her older sister, whom she admires very much), and decide on her surroundings (parents are divorced, live with Mom, older brother, and older sister). I cocoon myself in bed and think that Lilah likes hot weather because hot days are brighter and she can see more; she separates the pages by the top right hand corner because she doesn’t want to get spit all over the book; she sometimes goes to sleep with socks on because she forgot but always wakes up with them kicked off and lost in the sheets.

Here is where I hit a rut.

from Stop MOTION Mission

There was no way I could keep on going with Lilah’s character if I didn’t know about her family, the people who have influenced her: Why did Lilah idolize her older sister instead of her brother? What are her feelings on her father? Of course, those raised further questions: What are Lilah’s siblings like? Why did her parents get divorced in the first place?

Maia introduced to us the “Why” game, where one continues asking “Why?” to every answer to every question. She intended this to be a source of inspiration, I think, fleshing out the little details so that we can sink our teeth into one and blow it up to a full story. Little did she know this was to be my Downfall.

Now, I know everything about everyone (I can feel my hair growing bigger as I write). I know the older brother’s name is Allen and he likes arts and crafts and really doesn’t care for judgment, I know the older sister’s name is Chris and she hates being called Christina and she’s the student body president of her high school, I know the mother divorced the father for making a decision she couldn’t bear to make, I know the father remained desperately in love with the mother until the day he died. I also know that want to write a short story about what Lilah thinks about her Mom’s smile. But what about everything else? Where do I include the fact that Chris’s favorite animal is the arctic fox? How about that Dad knew how to tap dance? What about when Allen sold his first commissioned painting?

And that’s what hurts the most (Cascada, hello 8th grade-dance flashback), to take this character that you’ve detailed all over, and presenting only a sliver. And it’s never the sliver you want. You move the spotlight over onto one part for an easier perspective, and one character’s arm gets lost in the shuffle. You point out everybody’s eyes, but you miss all of their mouths and ears. You want to talk about the shapes, but you have to do so at expense of the colors, the composition. Sure, you can try your darn best to show everything vital, everything that makes up the whole of your work, but it’s the fine line between fitting everything snugly into a suitcase and stuffing your shirt inside your mug which is inside your jacket pocket. It makes me infinitely sad that you can’t know the entirety of my babies’ stories within one piece of writing.

I guess, though, that’s another fine line to tread, between the raw inspiration and the refined outcome. What do I want my audience to know, the telling of my characters’ emotions, or the showing of my art, portraying a moment in their lives? The answer is, of course, clear, as it is my self-decided path of a Creative Writer. It’s a sacrifice I– and most other fiction writers, I dare to say– have to make.

Of course, I can also write the stories, then write essays about my stories under a pseudonym. What do you mean, pathetic?

Open Submissions Call

For all interested in submitting work:

The editors of Conte, an online journal of narrative writing founded in 2005, announce an open submissions call for poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction for our sixteenth issue, slated for publication in Winter 2011-2012. Recent contributors include Norman Dubie, Erika Meitner, Bruce Weigl, Robert Wrigley, Jim Daniels, E. Ethelbert Miller, William Hathaway, and Roger Weingarten, among others.

Visit www.conteonline.net for specific submission guidelines and past issues. We accept simultaneous submissions through Submishmash, and strive to respond within three months. We look forward to reading your work!