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

Poetry Unit by Solange Baker

After the fall show, Creative Writing separates into CW I and CW II. Our first unit is poetry. The CW II artist in residence is a wonderful woman named Lara Coley. This unit will last until the end of the semester and to conclude it, we are having a reading in late December and are making chapbooks. We get to pick the cover color of our chapbook, the title, and design the cover if we so choose. These are small decisions, but they help make the process more personal. Being a Senior, at the end of the year I will have my thesis done and bound, so I’m thinking of this as a mini version of that. It’s exciting to have a project to be working up to, even within a unit. It encourages me to reflect on my work to help make a more cohesive chapbook.

Generally, poetry hasn’t been my genre of choice. I’m still not writing traditional poetry, it’s more of prose, but even that hasn’t been what I typically write. But that’s one of the most valuable aspects of the Creative Writing department, and SOTA as a whole: you’re constantly evolving as an artist. I don’t know a single person in Creative Writing who will say they are the same writer they entered the department as. When I started my thesis I planned on it being predominantly plays with some fiction, now I’m thinking about adding some of the work I’ve been doing this unit. It’s nice to see that even as a Senior having nearly completed the program there are still new aspects of myself as an artist I have yet to discover— it’s exciting. But maybe that’s naive to say, because I’m only in high school, and we are forever evolving, forever surprising ourselves throughout our lives. I can’t wait to see how the rest of this unit unfolds in my own writing, and that of my peers.

Solange Baker, class of 2019

Maggie Nelson at City Arts and Lectures by Solange Baker

The Nourse Theater is huge. It seats 1689 people, plus added seats in the orchestra pit. Opening in 1927, the theater began as a the in-house theater for Commerce High School, later becoming a public performing arts space. A recent addition to the theater’s shows, are the City Arts and Lectures. Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts, Bluets, and The Art of Cruelty, was this night’s lecture guest. The stage was set with a carpet, two chairs, and a small table with water glasses between Nelson and the interviewer. I had never been to a City Arts and Lecture and did not know what to expect but hoped to leave with insight into the professional world of writing.

Giving an interesting interview is a skill. Being an engaging interviewer is a skill. It became apparent that the woman interviewing Nelson, Julia Bryan-Wilson, had an agenda in mind. She continuously asked Nelson about her love live, changing the topic away from her writing to more personal subjects. “Does having an attraction to butch lesbian woman change the way you write about lust?” Wilson asked in reference to Nelson’s husband. Nelson was clearly uncomfortable. Her spouse is in fact not a “butch lesbian”, but gender fluid (going by “he/him” pronouns). Although their relationship together is central to The Argonauts, Nelson’s most recent release, Wilson seemed to have little interest in the non-romantic content of the book. Despite her visible discomfort, Nelson handled the situation with grace. She told Wilson she didn’t want to talk about the subject and segwayed into discussing the deeper messages in her autobiography. It’s a lesson to be learned for all, whether interviewer or interviewee— don’t press a topic your subject does not want to talk about, and if you are pushed to talk about a topic you don’t want to talk about, politely decline to discuss the subject and offer an alternate topic.

Nelson has identified herself as anti labels both in her love-life and work. Her writing breaks and blurs genre boundaries. It reminds me of an essay we read at the beginning of our speculative fiction unit called “Genre: A Word Only A Frenchman Could Love” by Ursula Le Guin about the boundaries genre creates. While I don’t think genre should be abolished, I do agree that it can be limiting. I’m used to working within limitations, partly because most of my writing is done for school. Something that I’ve found from being at SOTA is that it’s difficult to not slip into feeling like writing is nothing more than another homework assignment. And like Le Guin said, to write outside of genre to create new ideas, Nelson has her own strategies for authors plagued with writer’s block. Nelson talked about switching where she writes to continue the creative flow. She said she lays out her pages to organize them and takes inspiration from her own life. I tend to sit at my desk every time I write and don’t take much inspiration from my own life. If I do so, I find it difficult to remove myself from the piece and I take it more personally when I get edits. But maybe looking at my own life and taking not direct chunks, but inspiration and ideas from my experiences would benefit my writing. I am always open to trying new things to boost my creativity and get myself out of a stupor, and trying out other writer’s strategies is always a good place to start— especially when they’re as well known as Maggie Nelson.

I had not read any of Nelson’s work prior to the lecture except for select excerpts. After hearing her speak and gaining perspective into her character, I am more inclined to read her work. It is inspiring to see a successful author in a day and age in which people say the book industry is dead. Although I do not intend to pursue a career in novels, it did show me that there is still some of that “old world” left.

Solange Baker, class of 2019

Looking Forward by Solange Baker

Junior year is a strange time, I’ll put it at that. It’s the year when everything you do and every grade you get starts to truly impact your college choices. But Junior year is also a limbo year; where you’re not quite at the end yet, but you can see the light at the exit of the tunnel. In addition, having Senior friends allows me to see what’s in store for me next year. So as my elders frantically submit their UC applications, I cheer them on from the sidelines, secretly dreading when it’ll be my turn. This is something I appreciate about SOTA, though. There is a unique relationship between grades that comes from us being a small school and having different grades interact in our art. My friends at other schools don’t know everyone in their grade, much less those above and below them. But at SOTA those boundaries are broken through the inherent structure of our school.

At SOTA, we have a block schedule and three academic classes a day. Since we give up half of our day to be dedicated toward our art, we only have five academic classes total. Everything rotates around our art and as a result we have to cram in academic credit requirements. Although by the time you graduate you’ll have all the credits you need without a problem, what it means is that you generally don’t have electives until Junior year. Last year I loved signing up for my classes. I’ve tested out of language so I had a free period to fit an elective into. I also go to choose between English, science, and math classes. I’ve found that getting to chose your classes allows for much greater enjoyment of them.

So clearly, potential Creative Writing applicant, you have a lot to look forward to. High School and college seem like looming unavoidable horrors, but in reality they’re great opportunities through which you’ll evolve and create community. I look forward in nervous anticipation to my Senior year, but right now I’m focusing on getting through this year and all the growth and fantastic contingencies it brings.

Solange Baker, class of 2019

The Fall Show by Solange Baker

When applying to Creative Writing, one of the best things you can do is go to one of the shows. It gives you a fantastic idea of what we do in our department and allows you to support a community you may one day be a part of. In eighth grade, when I was putting together my portfolio, I attended the Rebel Rebel Creative Writing Fall Show. By the end of the show I was enamored with the department. Watching the performance assured me that this was something I wanted to be a part of. Flash forward three years and I’m preparing for my seventh show with the department.

This year is the first year Creative Writing has been separated into two pathways. So for the Fall Show, Metamorphosis,  the literary and spoken arts pathways are working together. For this show I am collaborating with a fellow junior, Huck Shelf, to write a short play. The play is cut into four scenes and will be dispersed throughout the show. I haven’t ever collaborated on a piece with someone, but it’s nice to be able to bounce ideas off a person who has worked with the piece as intimately as I have. While it’s still a work in progress, Huck and I are excited to see our play produced. Something I’ve discovered about myself after having my plays produced, is that I thoroughly enjoy seeing my work put into action. It’s interesting to see how other people take on my pieces artistically and make it their own. It’s hard doing this, though. When you work so closely with something, letting it go and allowing others to take it in their own direction is difficult.

Whether you’re on the fence about applying or have been fixated on joining the Creative Writing department for years, coming to the Fall Show is an entertaining and useful experience. Who knows, maybe this time next year you’ll be preparing for the show along with the rest of us—workshopping your work, memorizing your piece, and reveling in the community you worked so hard to be a part of.

Solange Baker, class of 2019

Bring The Noise For Martin Luther King Jr., by Solange Baker

Youth Speaks is an organization that works to raise the voices of young people in the form of spoken word on matters of importance to them. They put on different performances from Under 21 Open Mics to Brave New Voices. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Youth Speaks puts on a show on his birthday. This year was the twentieth anniversary of the show. It was inspired by Dr. King’s “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” speech. I had the privilege of celebrating Dr. King’s legacy by performing at the show. While I was beyond honored to be in it, I was terrified at the idea of performing in front of hundreds more people than I had in my entire life. But standing backstage listening to my fellow performers was powerful. After the show I was left feeling empowered, motivated, and awestruck by my peers talent with words. Especially with the current political climate, the world feels terrifying and unpredictable. As those who will one day inherit the world, it is important that we let our opinions be known, especially when we’re given so little voice in the outcome of political decisions.

Backstage I begun to panic. I have performed countless times, but I will never get over the stage fright that comes with putting on shows. But as soon as I stepped up to the microphone and the stage lights hit me, my instincts took over. I had poured my soul into writing this piece and spent hours at rehearsals making sure I portrayed it in the most effective way to get my message across. I forgot about all the people staring at me, and the words came naturally. I performed far better than I had expected. After exiting the stage, relief and joy that I didn’t mess up flooded my senses. The support I received from people a month ago I hadn’t known was overwhelming. And to receive that support from people my age whose work I admired and whose words will stick with me, is something I will always remember.

There has always been a lot of hate in this world. Recently people have been demonstrating that hate more. It’s terrifying, and as a person who will one day inherit this earth, it’s not what I want it to be like. That’s part of why this show was so important for people to hear. I will not sit idly by as hate consumes the world around me. I will not remain silent as people I know and love are jeered at and threatened for their gender, who they love, their skin color, or their religion. I was unjustly born with privilege due to my skin tone. Despite being part black, I will never truly understand what my father or black peers have gone through. Because of how people perceive me I will never be followed in stores by security, I will never be denied a job because of my skin. My experiences of getting treated differently after telling someone of my heritage cannot compare to the violence visibly people of color experience. But if I didn’t use my privilege to speak about racism and to raise the voices of people of color, I would be perpetuating it.

After the show I was met with praise from both my friends and strangers. Even blocks away from the venue the show was held at people stopped me to tell me how much they enjoyed my piece. Five days later at the women’s march someone would stop me and tell me they loved my poem. Knowing that my words touched and impacted so many people was an amazing feeling. It made all my nervousness and hard work worth it.

I will definitely do my best to continue working with Youth Speaks. Performing at Bring The Noise was an amazing experience and I will keep going to open mics and poetry slams. It’s an incredible and special thing to find a way to express yourself, so I’m lucky to have found how much I enjoy writing spoken word. After all, it combines two of my favorite things; performing and writing. But regardless of how many more times I’ll perform spoken word pieces, the fight for equality across race, gender, religion, and sexuality is far from over. I will continue to use my voice to fight to make the world a place I am happy to live in.

Solange Baker, class of 2019

Solange Baker at Bringing the Noise for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Sophomore Creative Writer Solange Baker was one of the students selected by Youth Speaks to read at their 20th annual Bringing the Noise for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held on January 16, 2017 at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco.

SOTA CW recently worked with Youth Speaks and poet-mentor Trey Amos for a six-week unit on Spoken Word in preparation for the opening of our new Spoken Arts pathway in Fall of 2017

Writing From Impulses by Solange Baker

Impulse writing is how I have written for most of my life. Up until freshman year I had not received many prompts. “Prompts” in Creative Writing are exactly as they sound; they are meant to elicit ideas and to get you started on your creative process. In Creative Writing one we are given a warm up every morning to help us organize our thoughts and to get ideas down onto paper. We recently had a guest speaker come in. He answered our questions on his book and on writing in general. One of the tips he gave that stood out to all of us was that he writes out of impulse. He finds the idea of not knowing how a sentence will end to be enticing, an opinion that I must agree on.

The following day the head of our department, Heather Woodward, immediately jumped onto this concept. This time we began class without a prompt. We wrote down the first thought that came to mind and did not stop writing until our ten minutes were up. Through sharing the newly produced paragraphs it quickly became evident that writing on impulse was generating some astounding imagery and ideas. While it is helpful to have a prompt given to you when you have hit a block in your writing, often your brain has the capability to spawn wild and alluring plot and character ideas on its own. It is an understatement to say that the imagination is the writer’s most used tool out of their arsenal. Although it may seem overwhelming, partnering the imagination with a little spontaneity can sometimes be the key to writing your next big piece.

Solange Baker, class of 2019

Adventures in Playwriting by Solange Baker

On Tuesday we started our playwriting unit. As a Freshman this is my first time truly delving into playwriting. The only writing of a script that I’ve done is for my portfolio and four to five times on my own. But this year the experience of the unit is new for everyone. In the past the playwriting unit has been taught by Isaiah Dufort. So this will be the first year that anyone currently in Creative Writing will have playwriting with our brand new artist-in-residence, Eugenie Chan.

Having acted in plays before, I have more experience on that side of the play-producing business. Once, when I was attending the reading of an author making her debut novel, I was told that once you publish a book or piece of writing that you get this uncomfortable feeling of having to let go. You realize that this story that you spent so much time on, that you essentially dedicated a portion of your life to producing and revising, is no longer only yours. It’s not personal anymore and that can be hard to let go of. In playwriting this takes a more physical form as your words and ideas are being portrayed by somebody else. But you can imagine that at the same time it’s probably wonderful to be able to see your work come to life. It might be worrying as the actors and director will most likely interpret your work differently than you had intended. As cheesy as it sounds, that’s part of the beauty of writing: the reader always brings their own experience to the writing and makes it—in a way—unique to them. In fact, as you are reading this you are making it your own, interpreting it differently than another person would by subconsciously bringing your own background knowledge to the writing. Of course it depends on who you talk to, but writing can be an interactive experience. Yes, us holed-up writers who are said to spend our time staring at our screens and have a permanent indent in our hands where a pen should be and who develop carpal tunnel at the age of twenty, can create an interactive experience.

Solange Baker, class of 2019

Zine, Umlaut Zine by Solange Baker

Being a freshman, this entire “Umlaut” making process is new to me. Well, this year it’s new to everyone because we’re trying something new: we’re making it a zine. For those who don’t know what Umlaut or a zine is, let me explain. Umlaut is SOTA’s literary journal. The Creative Writing department is the staff, meaning that we review submissions, edit, lay it out, etc. But the submissions come from all over the school. Normally it is professionally printed, but for this issue we’re making a zine.

A zine is a small, handmade, more free-style magazine. In fact we’re making not one, not two, not three, but FIVE mini zines that will be (literally) tied together to make a set. Each of the mini zines have a theme. They are as follows: Symbiosis, Abandoned Homes, Apocalypse WOW, Guilty Pleasures, and Complaints. The problem with the old Umlaut was that because it looked so professional, it was expensive to make and therefore expensive for people to buy. Now with us making our little heartfelt school literary journals by hand, they’re FREE!

It’s pretty interesting to watch and be a part of the Umlaut process. I remember how when I toured I bought a copy of the latest journal. I still have it, I re read it from time to time. All the work in it is very high quality and intriguing, and it’s even cooler to connect the names to the faces. When getting accepted into the department was still only a dream and not a reality I (obviously) didn’t know the writers published in the journal. I remember reading Umlaut and thinking “God, they’re really talented.” Now that I’m a part of this department, I know and work with many of those incredibly talented people. These amazing people who were once only a name on a page are now my friends, supporters, and most of all, my Creative Writing family. And I have the honor of seeing them every day.

Solange Baker, class of 2019