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

My Relationship With Poetry by Nina Berggren

What is poetry? To some people it is irrelevant, impossible to comprehend. To others, it is a puzzle waiting to be solved, filled with deeper meanings and compelling language. To me, poetry has always been an enigma. In the process of applying to SOTA, I wrote several pages of ambiguous lines about nature, utilizing careless line breaks with no rationale for doing so. This writing was meaningless. How did I expect anyone to gain something from my work when it possessed absolutely no significance to me?

Since then, I have undergone two fulfilling years in Creative Writing, complete with reading and analyzing classic and contemporary poetry, yet I still struggle to understand poetry on a daily basis. Just when I feel as though I’ve grasped the extent to which poetry can evoke emotions and influence readers, something takes me by surprise. A word or image will resonate with me, and I’ll find myself dwelling on it for days. Or a poem will trigger a profound memory within me that inspires me to create more art.

I strive to write poems that resonate, but writing poetry does not come easily to me. Though I have written countless stanzas and rhymes, I can’t bring myself to call the work I generate “poetry,” because doing so, seems to invalidate what poems do stir people to make change. For instance, we recently watched Il Postino in class, a film regarding famous poet Pablo Neruda. In this film, he writes some poems that instigate critical political controversy and others that make enamored women flock to him. His words elicit such passionate reactions.

In a historical context, poems have inspired whole movements, and I feel as though my feeble attempts at writing substantial pieces, don’t deserve to be called “poetry” as Neruda’s evidently do. I’ve been told that I am hard on myself, but the reality is that my “poems” are mere skeletons. Such obstacles like excess words or questionable syntax prevent my pieces from exuding the power and closure I intend to attain. I sit and think, trying to write what comes from my mind, but the result never feels sufficient. I believe that one day I will write a real poem, one that I can be proud of. Until then, I am content with writing endless rough drafts, for Creative Writing has opened my eyes to the value of poetry. Poetry articulates the unexplainable in a combination of perfect words and I look forward to further exploring this daunting art form.

Nina Berggren, class of 2020

How Siddhartha Changed Me By Nina Berggren

As of late, I have been making an effort to reduce the amount of time I spend attached to my phone. In doing so, I am discovering how much screens prevent us from immersing ourselves in the present, and finding joy or at least contentment in doing nothing at all. Before I pursue that tangent, allow me to provide some background information leading me to my newfound perspective. I recently finished reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, and it not only transformed my perspective on life itself, but it inspired me to research Buddhism and entertain its many mentalities and zen practices. The first step to reforming my mind, was realizing that material things have never brought me a true, sustained happiness. The second, was to become aware of and acknowledge the varying states of all human beings. As a Buddhist monk once said in a lecture I attended, we must “listen to the cries of the world.” We must have nothing, but compassion for every human being. (I still struggle with this every day, but keeping it in mind is progressively reducing my negativity). Lastly, I have learned to eliminate the “wants” in my life. By relieving myself from the stress and suffering of working towards some unattainable future, I can become perfectly content with all aspects of my life. Furthermore, I can focus on breathing, meditation, and becoming one with my thoughts, actions, and reality.

Whereas I used to pull my phone out on the bus, or while standing in line, or even in my academic classes when I lost interest in the matters at hand, I now acknowledge my boredom and embrace it. I move past my restlessness and try to find peace in all moments, slow or fast. I find humor in the dull faces of my classmates, I study bus passengers, or simply watch surrounding scenery and let it influence me at its own pace. By doing “nothing,” I am really seeing, hearing, and feeling things I otherwise might not. By distancing myself from my phone, I am learning so much more and finding that my feelings have intensified. I am filled with great sadness and greater happiness at times, and I am learning to appreciate both. Once, my feelings were nearly numbed by the process of mindlessly, constantly scrolling through social media that I felt quite indifferent towards. Now, I am almost always with friends, or outside in my free time. By furthering myself from a fake reality, I feel my life is more purposeful.

Although I can not say that I have entirely given up on Instagram, I am learning to find a balance in checking it infrequently and absorbing myself in the present to the best of my abilities. I want to reflect upon my childhood later in life and have detailed, evocative memories to share, because let us be real, those countless hours spent online are not memorable in the least. With these newfound philosophies in mind, I am writing and reading more for myself. Reading books like Siddhartha, which contains so much wisdom to live by. I highly encourage everyone to read it.

Nina Berggren, class of 2021

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

Saturday at the Symphony by Nina Berggren

On Saturday evening, I slipped into classy attire and rode the train to Davies Symphony Hall, downtown. I entered the lobby early, and settled into a seat beside several sophomore peers. None of us had had the opportunity to research the performance in store for us, so we discussed our previous experiences attending the symphony. Eventually, Ronald Chase approached us. Ronald is the founder of San Francisco Art & Film for Teenagers, an organization that immerses interested teenagers in a world of art, film, and music for free! By providing free access to local cultural programs, students like myself learn to better engage with, discuss, dissect, and enjoy, art, film, and music. Saturday night was my first time taking advantage of Art & Film’s free symphony tickets.

Ronald joined us on our bench, quickly launching into an elaborate explanation of musical history relating to the following evening’s music. With our minds brimming with newfound knowledge, we clutched our tickets tightly and entered the grand symphony hall. Our tickets lead us to a collection of seats in the second row of the front orchestra. Ecstatically we sunk into yellow, cushioned chairs and endured the thirty minute lecture that came before the music. As the long rows behind us filled with elegant ladies and equally spiffy gentlemen, I admired the tall rounded ceiling and lavish nature of my surrounding environment. At long last, the conductor walked onstage, almost close enough for me to reach out and touch him. His wrinkled face revealed comfort that can only be attributed to someone that has been in a particular business for decades. A choir rose in the back and musicians took their seats, taking brief moments to tune their instruments. Then, they played and sang and my body felt full and complete as I absorbed the music with every fiber of my being. I leaned forward and allowed the sounds to run through me and take my mind from thought to image and back again. I sat so close to a violin player that I could hear the scratch of his bow on strings, which added an element of intensity and authenticity to the sound, much like a record player does. The distance I had always felt from most classical music was immediately eliminated, because I was both physically and mentally in the thick of it.

Between two hymns performed, I got to thinking that classical music and the romantic poetry we are studying in Creative Writing 1, are similar in many ways. First, one must approach both poetry and music with patience. In order to appreciate each word or note in a piece, as well as the piece as a whole, one must patiently interpret it and come to various conclusions on their own. Second, both compositions and poems are inspiring and inspired by the world around us. Romantics in the 1800s spent lifetimes writing poetry about nature and emotions. While composers often sought out urban environments to write music about. One example of this, was the final song played at the symphony called “An American in Paris,” a stunning classic that was inspired by a foreigner walking through Parisian streets.

With this knowledge, I listened to the symphony play it and could clearly visualize an American in Paris, listening to unfamiliar sounds and inhaling the culture. Which brings me to my third point, not only are poets and composers inspired by life, the works of art they create provide clear images in one’s mind, whether one has to read or listen, to see it. Fourth, both poetry and music convey emotions and make you feel emotions. All through the evening I heard sound combinations that swelled my heart and sounded so complicated and beautiful. During intermission, Ronald Chase informed us that all the history and information he had initially taught us, described different pieces that he mistakenly thought would be played that night. However the unpredictability of going into something unfamiliar forced me to run with my emotions as opposed to my mind. This strengthened my experience and made me come out of it with a newfound interest and wonder for classical music and symphonies.

I was especially fascinated by one of the main differentiating aspects of writing and music: teamwork. While poetry is personal and often written in privacy, symphonies would not thrive without countless unified musicians, working together to bring a piece to life. Their flawless ability to play in such harmony, was enough to draw me back to many more future performances. I highly encourage others to attend, and I look forward to venturing forth into more musically influenced endeavors. Thank you Art & Film!

Nina Berggren, class of 2020

What Does Creative Writing Do? by Nina Berggren

“We don’t sit in a room all day! No way! No way!” Creative Writing chanted, clad in yellow, from the school bleachers on Field Day. This chant stemmed from the question every Creative Writer at SOTA is frequently asked: “What does Creative Writing do? Write for three hours a day?” As this blog can attest to, we often escape our classroom and venture into the city. Whether it’s to attend field trips and performances, or to strengthen our community by carrying out one of many Creative Writing traditions. If it is the former, our intention is usually to draw inspiration from our surroundings, something we cannot always do from our desks.

For the most part, we do sit in a room all day. That said, we do more than write silently at our desks in the dark for three straight hours. Every class period, we answer a writing prompt written on the board, and either everyone shares their prompts or we volunteer to read them out loud. What follows, depends on what unit we are in: fiction, poetry, playwriting, or a shorter unit that falls under another category. Whoever teaches the class has created a lesson plan that incorporates more than just writing, but also discussions, games, visuals and films, peer editing, reading and analyzing thought-provoking texts–the list goes on!

In response to those who ask what Creative Writing does, we have endless fun making puns, correcting Huck’s grammar, exploring every aspect of writing and being a writer, but also exploring life and the experiences and parts of life that contribute to us as individuals and to our world.

Sophomore Appreciation Post, by Nina Berggren

As our Creative Writing 1 poetry unit comes to an end, I am beginning to feel nostalgic reflecting upon the content we have been studying, and the way it has been taught. Heather divided up the unit among the sophomores in our department. The sophomore class agreed to teach 1-2 day mini-units inspired by their diverse backgrounds and rich cultural histories. They came up with their lesson plans over the summer. Their lessons incorporated short videos, poetry, stories, songs, topics to discuss, and homework prompts.

These mini-units helped me get to know the sophomores and the cultures they come from. The sophomores impressed me with their ability to take advantage of the creative freedom they were given. They brought so many new artists to my attention. They also introduced new writing styles, political issues I was not previously aware of, and other elements of their cultures and religions. I left every class with a myriad of thoughts and ideas that inspired me to focus on the poetry I needed to write. I also came out of the unit appreciating many new styles of poetry that I had not been exposed to before.

The sophomores had no problem communicating their thoughts clearly while stimulating controversial discussions. The fact that they are only one year older than me feels intimidating because it sets a high standard for the freshman class, but it also makes me want to work harder and participate more. I am looking forward to next year when I am given the opportunity to set an admirable example for the incoming freshman, just as the current sophomores have done for us.

Nina Berggren, class of 2020

My First Kirby Cove by Nina Berggren

When I arrived at Creative Writing’s annual camping trip to Kirby Cove, I came wide-eyed and eager to experience all of its glory. The Marin sun breathed heavily on our necks, and the tall, beautiful trees, provided a welcoming shade.

Late afternoon, all the Creative Writers went down to the beach, where the seniors struggled hilariously to dunk the freshman in the frigid bay, a refreshing, but also numbing, Creative Writing tradition.

When nightfall came, we gathered around the campfire to eat sausages, while listening to a delightfully creepy story, told by Sam, Heather’s husband. Following the story, the Creative Writers retired to the bunker for Hot Seat. What transpired at that time can not be repeated, but it brought us all together as a class and made me feel much closer to my peers.

It was two in the morning when Hot Seat concluded and tired writers began to give in to their exhaustion, shrinking away from the bunker and into their sleeping bags– all but a lively eight of us, who decided to pull an all-nighter. We sat around the fire with the dark, raccoon-infested forest at our backs, and the hot, crackling flames heating up our faces. Time slipped by as we listened to Max Chu (‘20) strumming his ukulele while we talked and laughed. My peers were slowly being exposed to my wild side, a result of me being delirious.

After a competitive game of “B.S.” we walking back to the ocean at around 4:30am. We treaded carefully across the smooth, icy stones to a nearby rope swing that had been used by tourists all day.The swing was now empty, but not silent. The foghorn sounded often in the distance. Heavy fog encircled us as we took turns soaring upwards on the swing, an exhilarating feeling that belittled any stress I once had.

After returning back to the campfire to warm up, we returned to the beach to watch the glistening stars give way to the soft light of dawn. The fog was thicker than ever and the Golden Gate Bridge was entirely shrouded in the white wetness. We watched the ocean transform from deep black to a crystal blue. The water swung repeatedly over the edge of the beach like the swing over the water. That moment was serene. I was amazed when a pink and orange glow was revealed, originally hidden by the fog. We watched the fog move and listened to the foghorn wish us good morning. I could now see the Golden Gate bridge in all its entirety, as well as downtown San Francisco’s skyline, a silhouette surrounded by warm, red and yellow hues. The colors deepened slowly and finally faded when the full sun could be seen. Wind followed us back to camp for coffee, muffins, and fruit, a glorious ending to my first Kirby Cove.

Nina Berggren, class of 2020