When I first came to the Creative Writing Department, I was in awe of how Heather (our department head) was willing to listen to student input and feedback. The seniors took on leadership roles—my ninth-grade self was awed by their intelligence and maturity. I watched upper-level students playing active roles in class and marveled at how they spoke so eloquently. I saw them do presentations and wondered how they talked fearlessly in front of everyone else. I listened to their writing and wished I would one day know as much as them or be able to express myself so clearly. Now, as a senior, I view Creative Writing from the opposite perspective. A few weeks ago, the senior class (shoutout to Emilie) led units on analyzing and writing poetry while Heather was out. We instructed the rest of the group by developing games and fun activities about various literary devices. The lesson included a thirty-slide-long presentation that took racking our brains of every literary device known to humankind to create. I even decorated my slides with funny anecdotes, pictures, and examples. We sat in the room as peers, helping each other deepen the conversation around the poems we discussed. If you asked anyone in this department, I am sure they would tell you that the community is what makes us unique. The units we taught last week showed me how much the students shape creative writing. Heather and artists-in-residence may manage the class, but student participation and discussion fuel the community’s energy. We build our analysis of poetry through hearing each other’s points of view and thrive off of hearing everyone’s creative interpretations. Sitting in class that day made me realize how fast time has gone from being a freshman to being a senior and how I am now so comfortable in a once foreign and frightening place.
Creative Writing has been taking trips to the De Young since before I came to CW. After two years in person and one online, I have started to appreciate the smell of paint and hand sanitizer hung near the exit of each exhibition. I have fallen in love with wandering around each of the cream and maroon colored rooms with my heavy shoes clunking on the polished hardwood floors.
The De Young is a quintessential aspect of the Creative Writing experience because all kinds of visual and performing arts are influential to the pieces we as writers create. Without learning the technical skills of other forms of art such as film and fine arts, CW would not be as well rounded. My knowledge of different forms of painting styles throughout history has heavily influenced my writing through imagery. A painting is a story told through texture, color, and subject matter.
The last time CW went on an excursion to the De Young, we visited the Faith Ringgold exhibit titled American People. This series of interdisciplinary fine arts including textiles and abstract paintings explored the dynamics of communal relationships during the civil rights movement. Her use of color and texture in her quilts and paintings immediately made me want to sit down on one of the vinyl benches in the center of the exhibit and write a poem on my relationship with my community. While I have always had a certain sense of distaste for the Art Girl cliche, the De Young has always been an inspiration for me, artistically. When I wander around the museum, I feel like I am walking through time. Every sculpture, painting, textile, has a unique take on the world from when it was made. This will always cause me to ponder how I fit into the world, and how my art can touch on my perspective on society.
While I do sometimes hate to walk around museums with my hand pressed on my chin in a thinker position, I believe this is excusable in the De Young.
As my senior year of high school comes to a close I’ve noticed a few changes in myself. One, I’ve been a lot more vocal in my Creative Writing department. Two, I’ve gained more confidence in myself not only as a writer, but as a Black woman navigating a predominantly White space. Three, distance learning has its challenges but it’s not impossible to navigate. Four, I am not longer afraid to reach out to my teachers and counselors when I need help, Five, My mental health is important. Six, I wish I had reached this point in my life sooner.
I’d never had an issue with my confidence before high school. I think this had a lot to do with the environment that I was in. My middle school had been predominantly Asian and Latino, and while I was one of the only African American students I was still surrounded by other minorities. High school was a culture shock as I had never been around many White students before, and many other students with a different socio economic background than myself. When I had auditioned for the Creative Writing department I knew that I would be the only minority, however I wasn’t prepared for the micro aggressions that I’d face from both teachers and students.
During my freshman year, I was unaware that talking down to a student was a micro aggression. I did not know that singling out a student to answer questions that you think they wouldn’t know the answer to is a micro aggression. There were many times where I was called on to answer a question that I, in fact, did not know the answer to. However, being surrounded by white students who are looking at me with blank stares as I stumble over my words to fabricate an answer to suit the instructor terrified me completely. I felt that I had something to prove because at the time I was the only Black student. Subconsciously I was putting pressure on myself that I had to be a good example of what a Black woman is to trump any of their assumptions, something I didn’t realize I was doing until my senior year.
Freshman year was the beginning of my quietness in school. I would never volunteer to read a passage out loud, or give my opinion on a discussion topic. I was silent for the most part. Keeping to myself and only reluctantly speaking when spoken to. This led to a series of conversations had between the department head and myself. She’s been an influential part of my journey to finding my voice, always encouraging me to share my thoughts, opinions, and takeaways that may be different from my peers. I could never bring myself to do this out of fear of being judged; I didn’t want my intelligence to be questioned. I think many African American students like myself are taught with the understanding that we are going to be judged no matter what we do for simply existing. It was drilled into me at an early age that I had to show that I wasn’t incompetent, that I could keep up with the other kids.
I didn’t start to gain the courage to speak up in class until we started distance leaning this year. Perhaps the fact that we’re virtual and not in the classroom contributes to my boost in confidence. I feel more comfortable in my own home behind a computer screen. At the beginning of January the juniors and seniors started our fiction unit working with an Artist in Residence named Danny Nuygen. Danny chose to bring in a series of short stories for us to read, many of them dealing with subject matters involving race, social class, and economic status. I related to many of the pieces in this fiction unit than I have in the past, most likely because I understand the adversity and struggles faced by the characters. I started speaking in class, sharing my own thoughts and experiences on race living as a Black woman in America, something I would have never done in the past.
Colette Johnson, Class of ’21
I know every word of the Mulan soundtrack. I used to sing Disney songs with my middle school classmates during lunch hour, with “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” as our closing number. While the Donny Osmond song is undoubtedly a Disney classic, I find myself coming back to the early movie ballad, “Reflection.” As a kid, I just enjoyed the animation and the surface level confrontation with inner conflict. I sang the lyrics loud and open mouthed, using all the air in my lungs. I hear the song differently now, with a freshly familiar sense of desperation.
I lost touch with my outward reflection after working on the unending self-aware college essays. As I continued to analyze my life thus far, I became less sure of who I was at my core. For me, the question wasn’t “when will my reflection show who I am inside,” but “will who I am inside show in my reflections?” I admit that these are seemingly similar questions, but here’s my line of thinking: after my central values became hazy to myself, could I even recreate myself on paper? And in the act of writing a reflection of myself, would my truest values emerge on their own? This is adjacent to the line of thinking that Creative Writing fostered in me. In past years, I would show Heather an underdeveloped story or poem, and she would be able to identify the influence of my personal values in the piece. In a similar fashion, I hoped that the subtext in my writing style would be enough for the admissions officers to gain a better understanding of who I am, even if my own understanding of myself was slipping.
Despite my hope to free write drafts and find what emerges, I felt a pressure to display myself in the best light. It was difficult to pinpoint what to write about for the essays; when I did, I tried to explicate my own experiences to add some sense of character. Of course, the commonalities in every piece of advice in the application process is “be genuine and be yourself.” But, after picking apart every activity, every award, every struggle, and every source of happiness, I couldn’t recognize myself as a whole person anymore. How could I even begin to write? Similarly to the scene where Mulan’s reflection is multiplied around her, the copious college essays act as mirrors reflecting parts of me I no longer recognize. And sure, my rippled reflection may be compounded by the loneliness and forced self-exploration onset by the pandemic, or the nature of my thesis writing, which explores my ties to my family history, but it’s made me take a few steps back. In order to take a break from the intense self analysis, I had to get out of my own head which, in a backwards way, has been good for me.
Xuan Ly (Class of ’21)
Here I am, in a place I have never imagined actually being in. I’m about to be a senior, or more specifically, a senior in the summer after junior year. Here is when all my morals will be tested, and I will be at the mercy of faceless bureaucracies until I get into a college. My parents’ friends are descending on me like vultures, taking advantage of my vulnerable situation to talk at length about their own college experience. “It was so easy,” is a favorite line. As I stare down into the swirling whirlpool of application and rejection, I cannot imagine any easy path. Watching my senior friends, warm and content in acceptance letter light, gives me a watery sense of peace. I am happy they are happy, and I know that if they can succeed, I could too one day when it’s my turn at the chopping block. Until then, I’ll have to get my self in order, organizing my personal internal chambers so when the College Board comes a-knocking, I’ll be ready.
–Rae Dox Kim, Class of 2020
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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
Finally, after a great and laborious four years, rife with chronic sleep deprivation, emotional turmoil, and the purchase of thousands upon thousands of pens that were immediately lost—either at the bottom of my backpack, my room floor, or to the grimy hands of my classmates, I, Harmony Sweetwater Johnson-Wicker have made it to senior year.
Feel free to applaud. It’s been amazing to be able to chant “last year here!” in the halls with your friends and to terrorize freshmen, however, while I have the finish line just in sight, there is this scary thing called college applications that is casting a shadow over my joy(que ominous thunderclap).
Along with college applications comes the terrifying personal statement. The personal statement is a dangerous beast that resists all efforts to be tamed through tireless efforts. It’s an odd creature, really, consisting of the egotistical words of self praise depicting how, “last summer I saved a group of drowning children and the ruler of the universe awarded me with the honor of being the most valuable human being ever born, and therefore you should accept me, me, ME into your college for a low price of fifty-thousand dollars a year, free of shipping and handling to which I will so generously pay.” As a senior, you are expected to master the art of highlight your best qualities without making it seem blatantly obvious. In a way, one takes on the appearance of packaged meat— all organic, free range, non-GMO, and SAT scores above 1200. And honestly, this has all become increasingly terrifying.
I am constantly trying to think of what makes me such an indispensable commodity that is absolutely necessary in the greater context of the world around us. Recently, in Creative Writing, a former CW student taught a week- long unit. During her unit, she had us write artist statements. These pieces functioned as an in-depth exploration of why we write. Afterwards, we shared our responses, and I was truly impressed by how no one’s work sounded alike. Viewing the exercise through the lens of being a senior and having to produce personal statements, I realized how beautiful it was that we were able to tell such a diverse range of stories that demonstrated how we use our writing to process and understand our own beliefs, our school, and the environment we all live in. The experience simultaneously made me feel so small, because I realized that I am just a single piece of an ever- expanding puzzle and yet, at the same time, it too made me feel so large because my own puzzle piece, along with everyone else, is so uniquely shaped and colored..
And while the personal statement still remains an odd creature (and remains to be written), working on artist statements has overall helped me approach my own story in a more forgiving manner and, unexpectedly, has made me wonder about how many statements have gone unheard and are just waiting to leap into the quilt made up of our species history.
Harmony Wicker, class of 2020
Things You Can Do When You Turn Eighteen:
2. buy spray paint
3. buy a lottery ticket
4. buy things from TV infomercials
5. buy a lighter
6. buy cigarettes (and then promptly throw those away!)
7. buy your own plane ticket
8. rent a hotel room
9. get married
10. drink a beer in most countries outside of the U.S.
11. have a full time job
12. call all your underage friends “children”
13. convince your parents to buy you something big
14. get a state issued I.D.
15. get a tattoo
16. donate blood (whoop! whoop!)
17. change your name (I will henceforth be known as Queen Esmeralda Anastasia Rosebud)
18. get jury duty
Things You Cannot Do When You Turn Eighteen:
1. Say “but I’m an adult!” when you don’t want to do dishes
2. Say “but I’m an adult!” when you don’t want to go to Calculus
3. Say “but I’m an adult!” when you don’t want to write a blog post
4. Say “but I’m an adult!” when your work doesn’t get published
Noa Mendoza, class of 2016
“Senioritis. Noun. a supposed affliction of students in their final year of high school or college, characterized by a decline in motivation or performance.”
Let me begin by saying I’ve been listening to a lot of Justin Bieber lately and I totally have senioritis. I’m not sure yet if the two are related.
I have approximately three months, nine days, fourteen hours until graduation, not that I’m counting or anything. But I’m really not. I’m reveling in this feeling of apathy. It’s liberating to realize that you basically have nothing to lose. A dangerous feeling, perhaps not what I should be feeling, but freeing nonetheless. Thus far, it has translated really nicely into generating new work, and taking risks with my writing. Come second semester, I’ve found that the emphasis of my personal writing practice is not centered around revision, or writing the best thing, or spending a ton of time on a piece, but trying things I’ve never done before. Being weird with my words. Mixing it up formally. Writing from perspectives I’ve never tried to write from before. Breaking out of this mold that I’ve been stuck in for the past three years has felt so good, and I think I’ve generated some of my favorite pieces during this time of extreme motivation decline. And all that time I spend skipping class and avoiding homework, well that’s just purposeful building of experience for my writing.
So, in a lot of ways I think listening to Justin Bieber and senioritis are correlated. Freshmen, sophomore, even junior year, I would have died if someone found out I occasionally dance around to “Baby”. Yet, this year, strolling into school after a restful sleep (because senioritis is really a stress free affliction), I love blasting “What Do You Mean” and even singing along as I past the nervous packs of underclassmen, just trying to figure out what it all means.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that everyone should adapt a little form of senioritis. So you can let go of your inhabitations, and realize that you really have nothing left to lose. You can be happy, and not care what other people think, and it may actually end up benefiting you.
I’ll end with the inspiring words of JBeibs himself: “Love Yourself” and “Never Say Never”
Josie Weidner, class of 2016