Experimental Writing with Momo Wang by Lena Hartsough

Recently, we had a mini-unit with artist-in-residence Momo Wang. Our unit with her was focused on experimental fiction, which is prose that transgresses the usual rules of fictional writing. These transgressions could be anything ranging from grammatical errors or a lack of dialogue to extraordinarily long sentences or an entire piece written without the letter “e.”

We read experimental pieces, including excerpts from The Waves by Virginia Woolf, Brasília by Clarice Lispector, and many others, and wrote our own pieces that broke the rules that we have become used to following in our time in Creative Writing. And yet several of us realized, in writing for Momo’s unit, that we have already written experimental fiction. Some of us write pieces with an excessive use of parentheses, some with run-on sentences that take up entire paragraphs, some using other transgressive elements, but we didn’t realize our work was experimental fiction, when, in fact, it was. I definitely write experimentally, most often when I write works with high emotion in them or which are about my own experiences.

Recently, I’ve taken to writing every night before I go to bed, and it is always a stream of consciousness (a style we discussed with Momo), and often contains oddly structured sentences. Even though I knew that the writing that I do at night in this way was not in the same style as my normal fiction, I didn’t have a name for what it was.  But now those of us who didn’t recognize the genre of our work for what it was will know what we are doing when we write in ways that transgress the boundaries of writing, and we can use that knowledge to continue to expand our writing and learn to expand our writing into something more.

Lena Hartsough, class of 2019

Chanukah and Kwanzaa by Lena Hartsough

My family celebrates Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa over the winter holidays.

We’ve taken to calling this mix match of holidays Christmachanukwanzakah, and I haven’t yet encountered another family who celebrates all three. In fact, many of my friends don’t know what Kwanzaa is. It is an African-American holiday not affiliated with any religion, and I’ve met people who think it’s a Muslim holiday from northern Africa.

Recently, I was able to go up to Yosemite for three days to take part in a teen winter retreat at a Jewish camp I go to. The two nights I was there were the fifth and sixth nights of Chanukah, and also coincided with Ujima and Ujamaa, two nights of Kwanzaa. I had been planning to bring some candles or electric tea lights to light, but in the rush that occurred the morning I left, I forgot. I remembered once we were already in Yosemite, and asked a few staff members if they had tea lights or black, red, and green candles. They didn’t.

So, when bedtime came around, I slipped out of the cabin to celebrate Ujima, the principle of “collective work and responsibility.” I ran into the counselor in charge of our cabin, who asked if everything was alright. I awkwardly told her I was celebrating Kwanzaa, which felt a bit odd after we had just lit the Chanukah candles. She nodded, and went back into the cabin.
My family always celebrates Kwanzaa by singing a song called “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as “The Black National Anthem.” I imagined a black candle for Umoja, the
first night, a red one for Kujichagulia, the second night, and a green candle for Ujima. Then I sang the first verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” quietly and a bit nervous that someone inside would hear. When I went back inside, the counselor asked if I could tell her about Kwanzaa the next day. I agreed.

The next night, before we went off to bed, all forty-one of us (plus some of the staff members) participated in a guided meditation that was about spirituality. I mostly thought about my Jewish identity, and realized almost for the first time that I am very proud of being a Jew. Later, just as I was getting in bed, I remembered that I had forgotten Kwanzaa, and got back out of bed. That night, Ujamaa, represents cooperative economics. As I was leaving the cabin, my friends asked where I was going. I told them I was going to celebrate Kwanzaa, and they looked a bit surprised. So when I came back in after imagining the candles from the previous nights and another red candle for Ujamaa, then singing the first and last verses of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” my friends asked me questions about Kwanzaa. I explained what I knew of the answers, and was again proud of my identity.

Celebrating an African-American holiday at a Jewish camp was interesting, to say the least. When I was considering spirituality, I left out Kwanzaa, and focused mainly on Judaism. Kwanzaa is, however, a big part of my spirituality, and my identity as an African-American is just as important as my identity as a Jew. Although I’ve been celebrating both Kwanzaa and Chanukah for as long as I can remember, and we’ve even combined the names to speak of our winter holidays, I’ve always thought of them as separate. After celebrating them both on the same night, but one with a large group of people and one alone, I have a new perspective on the two holidays.

Lena Hartsough, class of 2019

Stories Are Everywhere by Lena Hartsough

I see stories everywhere. In every face I examine, in every short phrase I overhear, and in every label or sign I read.

For instance, one day I was at my friend’s house with her and another friend. We were finishing her enormous carton of Odwalla®, and I noticed that on the back of the carton it said, “Separation is natural – shake it up!®” For some reason, I found this hilarious. I pointed it out to my friend, while our host sorted records on the floor, and she laughed too. We thought up scenarios for the phrase, including quite a few puberty classes. She thought that it would be the puberty teacher telling students that it’s natural for boys and girls to grow apart as they grow older, and I said it was a world where humans are born without a butt crack, and the separation spoken of is when the buttocks separate from one into two.

I think the reason we attributed the simple sentence to a puberty class was because it seemed a bit condescending. The exclamation point made it sound like an overexcited teacher when we read it out loud.

Although that situation was comedic, this penchant of mine for seeing stories has often helped me find inspiration for my writing. Many of my ideas for pieces to write come from songs or smaller stories that I find. In fact, as I write this post, I quickly type down another idea onto my list of story inspirations. It came from a song I just heard.

Lena Hartsough, class of 2019

Distractions by Lena Hartsough

As kids, we’re often advised to find ways to let out anger and sadness. Find a hobby, the adults say. Join a club, or a sport. Learn martial arts, or even just hit a pillow. Scream into that same pillow. Anything but hurt other people. Then later, we’re finally told what will happen if we don’t follow the rules the adults have set for us. If we hurt other people, they might hurt themselves—and we’ll get in trouble. And if we can’t find a different way to let out our anger, we might hurt ourselves.

A lot of us learn this the hard way. I went through time outs and punishments because I got angry and hurt people, and sometimes I still hurt myself a bit. But recently, when I’ve gotten sad, angry, overwhelmed, or anything like that, my first thought is to take out some paper and write. Sometimes I’m not able to put my thoughts into words, but the act of writing and searching for the right way to say things soothes me. I go into the writing pressing hard enough on the paper to break my pencil, or barely brushing the surface, but finish skimming the lines like a normal person…or as much like a normal person as my chicken-scratch-writing self is.

I put my whole self into writing, refusing to let my mind wander into whatever was making me upset. Writing about my feelings make them dull somewhat, and I can see how small my troubles are compared to those of people without food or education; it’s like I’m an outsider observing the silly problems of a teenager. I read through my work, editing it, and I can see what’s actually happening, and how I can fix it. My writing is a chance to step back and try to figure out what I need to know.

So although I do, occasionally, need to scream into a pillow, writing protects me from breaking the rules that I find are still just as relevant now as they were when I was in preschool.

Lena Hartsough, class of 2019

Fasting by Lena Hartsough

I am Jewish. My family is not orthodox, but we are part of a Reconstructionist synagogue; Or Shalom. We celebrate major holidays like Chanukah, Passover, and the High Holy Days. I’ve had my Bat Mitzvah. I’ve had the experience of fasting on Yom Kippur the past two years. Fasting is different when you’re sleeping in the same room with girls who think they know you, but truly do not.

Last year, one of my close friends invited me to come to a program for teens at her church called Youth Night. Middle and high schoolers meet every other week and play games. There’s also a bit of prayer, but I’ve gotten used to that in the year I’ve been going to Youth Night.

Once a year, Youth Night participates in the Thirty Hour Famine, a community activity designed to raise money for those who have no food and to teach kids more about Jesus Christ and empathy with the hungry. I was invited to join them, and accepted. The Jesus bit was kind of lost on me, but I was excited to spend time with the people I had come to see as friends in the months I’d gotten to know them.

The Thirty Hour Famine at my friend’s church starts in the morning. The last meal before the famine is breakfast. In the evening, the teens meet at church and have a conversation and do a few activities related to world hunger. The activity we did included paper bags of beans and various penalties each group had. Afterwards, some of us stayed up, sorting the dried beans into the various types. At first there were five or so of us, but people dropped off to sleep. By the end it was just me and one boy. When we had finished, I joined in on the YouTube karaoke session that some of the other girls were having. After trying and failing to sing Chandelier (none of us actually knew the melody, and we could just barely hit the high notes in the chorus), we finally retired. By then it was around eleven. We clambered into our makeshift beds and fell asleep.

But I couldn’t. I was in a room with three other girls, only one of which knew that I’m lesbian. She was tolerant of my sexuality, but not entirely comfortable. I couldn’t think with the hunger in my stomach and melancholy in my mind. I slithered out of my sleeping bag and grabbed my journal and a pencil. I frantically scribbled down the beginning of a poem that I was terrified I would forget. A month or so ago, I had come up with a set of lines for a poem.

A fear of my peers,
It has always been here.

Suddenly the rest of it came pouring out of me. I tried to convey the strange emptiness I felt at the moment, while at the same time capturing the pain of certain rejection.

Once I had finished my poem, other ideas seemed to come from nowhere. I don’t know if it was my exhaustion or my empty stomach that left my mind free to think of new things to write, but whatever it was, I woke up the next morning with several pages of messy words written in a sloppy, blind hand. I wrote a bit more, no longer as frantic, but still just as thoughtful.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that fasting was “enlightening,” but the lack of food combined with the late hour and the fact that I was surrounded by religious, slightly homophobic girls inspired me in a way I hope to someday experience again. Although the feeling was

uncomfortable at the time, I want to go back to that moment. See what I was thinking. I want to be able to have ideas like that out of the blue without the sadness, but I know that emotion is a big factor in my writing.

The girls in the room that night were oblivious to their contribution to my writing, but because of them I felt the tightness in my chest that comes when I have ideas I need to get down on paper. I felt the emotions because of them and the fasting, the anger at both them and myself for my discomfort, the sadness at the knowledge that they didn’t really know me, and the detachedness that came with my slight delirium.

A fear of my peers…
…It has always been here.

Lena Hartsough, class of 2019