Introductions [in a post-ironic age]

I don’t quite know why, but I’ve apparently reached the point where I’m gaining new followers ever few days, whether or not I post. So – hi, everyone! I don’t now who you are, and you don’t know who I am, so let’s get some introductions out of the way. I’ll introduce myself, and my goals for how to keep you amused, and if you feel like saying hi and introducing yourselves in the comments, I’d be absolutely thrilled.

But instead of the usual introductions, which can be found at my About Me page, I’m going to list five things that are important to me, and why. Call it a journaling exercise. Maybe it’s just a late-night idea that feels good right now but will end up disastrous.

Important Thing number one: literacy. In the shape of books, in the shape of words on a screen, in the shape of the joy a child feels when she first realizes that the sign she’s seen across the street from her bedroom window since the morning she was brought home from the hospital reads “Abbas Hardware”. Literacy, the ability to read, the desire to read, and the access to life and knowledge that reading brings, is a relatively new priority in human history. More than any other technology, I’d argue that the printing press – invented in the 15th century – is the one that has had the longest-lasting consequences on humanity, and I am forever grateful for it. By being able to share and distribute ideas, we have developed into a people more humane in every possible way, which includes our direst deeds as well as our best.

Important Thing number 2: stories. Stories are everywhere. Did you tell your son about the coffee-machine breaking at work? Did your grandmother die yesterday, and did you run out of your town and into the forest and scream at the trees about how much you’re going to miss her? Did you see two brothers having a brawl in the street? Everything we experience, and the way we communicate it, is made up of stories. We tell stories about our lives, we tell stories about our histories, we tell stories about our opinions and why we hold them. Stories are the magical spark of life that brings two people closer together – what is pillow talk, if not mutual storytelling? – and can rip their relationship apart as well. There are two sides to every coin, but in my experience, people who are aware of the storyness of life, usually don’t exploit it. When they do, there is an element of the admirable fraud about them, a place inside them that seems to love the story for its own sake in addition to what the story can do for them.

Important Thing number 3: empathy. Since reading is my favorite thing to do in the world, and since my writing has been born of that love, I’ve found that empathy – as well as sympathy – are the most important tools for my trade. If that sounds cold… fair enough. You’ll have to trust me when I say it’s probably a defense mechanism and an attempt to not sound a) like a hippie or b) like a spiritual nutjob. Because I am neither. But empathy is important to me, and though I curse my emotionally roiling innards all too often, I wouldn’t exchange them for the world.

Important Thing number 4: comfort. A broad concept, yes, but it is important to me in the broadest sense. Comfort is something that I believe can be found and made for oneself. In a room that is messy, you can find the one spot that you can feel neat in, or, if you’re a messy person, you can find the one spot in a neat room in which you can feel sloppy and unhindered. Comfort doesn’t mean a certain kind of lifestyle; rather, it means making the life you live accommodating in the smallest, minutest of ways. Having a pair of pants that are soft and cozy and that you change into the moment you get home, for example. Or tucking the extra napkins you got at McDonald’s into your bag so that you’re never caught with a runny nose and nothing but long sleeves to handle it with. But comfort isn’t only physical. It’s also emotional, interpersonal. Comfort can be sitting with your friends, the people who you consider your alternate family, and being absolutely silent with them – without feeling awkward. Comfort is being able to tell a loved one that you’re sorry, but you have to cancel plans. Comfort is being able to be alone, with yourself, inside your head, and not want to scream and claw your way out of it.

Important Thing number 5: balance. Specifically, in this case, balancing introversion with the desire and need to lead a semi-extroverted life. Difficult, yes. Necessary, maybe. Possible, absolutely.

 

Well, there’s my ramble. New followers, if any of you are actually reading this and you aren’t spambots, either take up the challenge – what are five things that are dearly important to your life? Or, say hi in the comments, let’s be friends!

Oh, Neil, I’m getting lazy

My writing habits have become abysmal lately. I still write every day, because by this point it just feels weird not to. For a week and a half or so, when I was on holiday and barely touching my computer, I didn’t write except the odd quick email or instant message on my phone. But other than those few days, I don’t think I’ve not written for an extended period of time in about a year now – be it parts of an essay, notes, comments on other people’s posts on the web (more thought-out than they should be, maybe, but still), long emails, or fiction. There’s not a day, anymore, where I don’t think about my writing, the work-in-progress I have going on, or allow ideas and sentences to germinate in my brain for further use. I lose the latter more often than not. Another of my bad habits is my inability to commit to keeping a notebook on my ACTUAL PERSON at all times. I have more than one, as well as pens, in my backpack at all times, and that backpack is with me wherever I go. But it’s not the same. Needing to rummage in a backpack isn’t the same thing as being able to whip a notebook out of my pocket and jot something down. I need to either find jeans with bigger pockets (damn you, girl jeans!), find some way to stuff a notebook into my bra (there’s definitely a business idea waiting to happen there – easily bendable, stuffable notebooks, for any crevice of your body you may want to keep one in) or else just start walking around with a permanent marker and jot things down on my hand. But then, if they’re no good, I won’t be able to wash them off. And I’ll run out of space pretty quickly.

The real answer, of course, is to get back into a more routine writing habit. At least, that’s the answer as far as I’m concerned. Every writer has her or his own ways and means and needs. For me, writing every day for an extended period of time that is for my own purposes – not for schoolwork, in other words, and not out of a feeling of obligation to anyone but me – is the best way to make sure I use the things that float around my head all day.

Noticing New York

Some people notice the buildings. They look up, the backs of their necks wrinkling like old men’s foreheads, and they strain their eyes and get dizzy with vertigo. They notice the heads carved above the windowsills on lower Broadway. They notice the snazzy designs on the Flatiron and the dials on the elevators going from the lower tracks to the main concourse of Grand Central.

Some people notice other people. They notice the variations in skin color and, for the first time, stare at their arms encased in black coats and gloves and their chest wrapped in scarves and realize that on the crowded bus where the windows are all blocked they cannot see any reflections of themselves. They notice the possibility of their skin being any color at all; they could blend with any of the races siting around them or be a mix of any or all of them. They could be green or blue or polka-dotted and it wouldn’t matter in this moment.

Some people notice the reactions, the connections, the bizarre randomness of people finding one another in lines for coat checks, on street corners, inside corner delis, before entering a taxi, upon exiting an elevator.

Noticing everything in New York City is impossible. Noticing as much as possible is the constant, ultimate goal. It is a city evolving and living up to and through every stereotype it has ever had while building new and unique traditions for itself at the same time. Things are old and new, familiar and strange at the same time. There is a sense of having been everywhere before and seen everything, even as the unfamiliar shadows of taller buildings than those ever encountered before fill the streets and avenues. New York is a city of unnoticing lives being noticed by noticers.

Five Reasons I Love “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott

Before I start, I want to give a SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t yet read the book, then a) you should, and b) you shouldn’t read this post (yet) because it contains many details that are vital to the plot. Read the book, I urge you, and come back!

Okay, here we go, the five reasons why my love for Little Women endures, everlasting:

1. The complexity of the characters. Little Women is often assumed to be a simple book for little girls, a book you should read in middle school and then put aside with the other chapter books. It is so much more than that. I reread it once a year, and every year I discover more facets of and motives for the characters . Let’s take Jo March as a case study. Jo is a tomboy when she is young – not because she shuns her contemporaries’ femininity on the whole, but because she recognizes that men have freedom where women don’t, and it is that freedom that she yearns for. She escapes by reading, writing and playacting, finding in these activities the adventures and capacity for expression she needs. But when her favorite sister, Beth, becomes deathly ill, Jo begins to change, to mature. Though the reader rarely witnesses Jo struggling verbally with her emotions, her actions speak far louder than any words she could utter; Jo nurses Beth with obsessive dedication, but fails to bring her back to health. Some time after Beth’s death, Jo realizes that she cannot reconcile herself to fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer. She can’t make her castle in the air a reality with the guilt of Beth’s passing still weighing on her. Instead, Jo ends up devoting her life to the care of others, opening a school for boys that takes in poor and disadvantaged students as well as wealthy ones. Jo’s progression from teenager to woman is complex, and Louisa May Alcott brilliantly shows – rather than tells – Jo’s struggles.

2. The faith. Though a staunch atheist myself, the brand of religion that Alcott portrays in Little Women has always seemed particularly beautiful to me. The particular Christianity practiced by the March family is welcoming and socially-conscious, more about the doing of good deeds than the preaching of good news. There is a wonderful section in which Amy discusses her desire to have a chapel to pray in, similar to the one Esther, a Catholic servant, has. Mrs. March, though uncomfortable with the idea of a Catholic chapel in her home, is amenable to having her daughter set up a little room in which to pray, meditate and think. When religion is spoken of blatantly, it is to comfort and console one another. I’ve always been envious of the March family’s calm, matter-of-fact, approach to faith; as a reader, it is appealing, comforting, and never discomforting.

3. The realistic portrayal of marriage. Unlike many 19th-century novels Little Women doesn’t end with a marriage. Instead, the second part of the book deals with the sisters’ adult life, including the first years of a new marriage. Meg and John marry after a three-year long engagement. Even though John has spent that time earning money and Meg has tried saving the little wages she made as well, they run into financial difficulties quite soon after they marry – a reality of life that is familiar today as well. Meg and John learn to fight through and for their relationship, how to have disagreements, to argue and make up – they struggle with their pride, youth and different expectations from one another. They discover that maintaining a healthy relationship takes work.

4. The reality of parenting. Alcott  takes the reader into Meg and John’s life as new parents. Mrs. March has been, previously, a beautiful example of a loving and beloved mother, and Mr. March, though absent for the first third of the novel, is only so because he is working as a war chaplain and is clearly much loved by his family as well. However, once Meg and John grow distant from one another because of Meg’s devotion to her children, the reader gets to hear a little about the March’s difficult early years as well, a fact that humanizes their saintly dispositions. Meg and John struggle to make parenting a shared venture, and Meg, especially, learns to overcome certain instincts that are unhealthy, she realizes, for both her and her children. Once again, Alcott doesn’t pretend that parenting is an easy task, but handles the difficulties with empathy and humor simultaneously.

5. The sheer beauty of the writing. The style is simple throughout, but there is not a page that doesn’t give me that warm and comforting feeling of a truly human book. The way the characters talk to one another is always lively and lifelike – Jo and Laurie meeting behind the curtain at the party, Amy solemnly explaining why she wrote a will, Meg and John so awkwardly settling upon their engagement, and on and on and on; there are a thousand examples I’d like to give, but I fear I’d end up simply writing a synopsis of the entire story if I started.

So let me recommend again that if you haven’t read it, do so – and if you have read it, reread it. You might be surprised by what you’ll find in it now that you’ve graduated middle school.

Do You, Like, Like ‘Liking’?

Or do you, like, like like ‘liking’?

If you’re of my generation or younger, one generation above mine, have kids of either of those generations, or have ever turned on your television, you probably understand both the title and the subtitle below it – I hope the commas and quotations helped to convey the intonation and meaning of both questions.

I think that there are few English speakers of my generation who don’t use the word “like” too often. It is our verbal tick, probably more used than “um”s or “ah”s, sprinkled among our other words as liberally as seeds on Pepperidge Farm’s 15 Grain Bread. But, like this bread, which actually looks on the inside almost exactly like the company’s Whole Grain or Whole Wheat lines (the only difference being the crust, the outside), our use of the word “like” is only as annoying as we make it out to be and probably not worse than how other generations talk, on the whole.

What really bothers me is the way the word has trickled down into social media. I rather enjoy using it on Facebook – ‘liking’ someone’s status or comment means approving of it. I get to join in the communal laughter at my friends’ witty remarks or pump a virtual fist in the air at their political remarks. It gives me a case of the warm fuzzies to see that people have liked my own rarely updated statuses. So I like Facebook likes okay.

But the ‘like’ button has now become a staple of sorts, and it is maddening. People can like my comments on every website I post on, they can like my reading choices, and, worst of all, they can like my posts right here, on WordPress. Why do I dislike this so much? Because, more often than not, on blogging websites, ‘liking’ is a strategy. And that infuriates me.

I came to WordPress almost four years ago because I’d heard it was a “serious” blogging website. Less TeenOpenDiary and Xanga, less LiveJournal, but a bit more customizable than the then still dull-looking Blogspot. On the whole, I wasn’t and haven’t been let down. I haven’t achieved fame, fortune or book contracts through this blog, but that wasn’t what I was setting out to do as an eighteen year old who’d just barely realized that if she wanted to be a writer she’d better start to actually practice her writing and get over her stage fright and let people read some of her mistakes along the way.

I’ve been happy here, and incredibly lucky – I have found real friends and people who believe in me and my writing. I have found amazing writers whose work I have faith in.
But since that bedamned ‘like’ button was added to WordPress, I’ve felt that this place has turned into some stats factory. Every post I write gets ‘like’d within seconds, too short a time usually for the person to have actually read the thing – the only reason they’re clicking that button is because my post has appeared in the newly published section, where someone, this ‘like’r, is clicking on new posts and liking them, one after another, in the hopes of having on of those people come and visit their blog and read their post.

Isn’t part of the point of blogging the mutual experience? The actual, genuine, process learning to like someone else’s writing style and subjects and, being able to discard that person without them even knowing it if you don’t like what they write, by just leaving their page? This way, liking people just in order to draw some random audience to your own website, seems so… competitive. As if it’s a game that people are trying to get ahead in.

Now, I make no false claims – I check my site stats just like everybody else and get very excited and happy when my readership goes up, and when I don’t post and don’t read my friends’ blogs, I’m well aware that it will go down. But I also don’t randomly travel around WordPress simply clicking the ‘like’ button just to make people come see my own site. If I use the button now, it is only on blogs where I’ve left enough comments that make it clear that I am a regular reader – and then I usually leave a comment as well.

I don’t like liking when I don’t actually know if I like something or not.

What are your (like) thoughts?

I Lost, But –

I submitted a story to a contest. I didn’t win. I didn’t get a notable mention. For a few seconds, I felt as if I would never write again. Then I thought that I should change my aspirations for the future. A few minutes later, having climbed into bed and curled up in my black-covered duvet, I felt a little better and just decided to never share my writing with anyone ever again.
When I woke up from my nap, I stopped being ridiculous.
I may not be good enough to win a fiction contest to which only some dozens of people have entered stories. Alright. But two published authors who have taught me have told me that I will get published. That is exhibit A. Exhibit B is the fact that I’m on a forty-five day streak on the website 750words.com – meaning I haven’t missed even one day in the last month and a half of writing three-pages-worth of words. Sure, some days I had to cheat and write parts of essays or schoolwork within that blank white space, but it was still my original writing in there.
Exhibit C is the discover I made a couple months ago – my mental and emotional state deteriorate when I don’t write for a while. I doubted this at first, but it can’t be a coincedance that I started to feel more on top of things once I began to write fiction again. Exhibit D is that people have been reading my blog for months or years now and have seen my writing develop and improve. Exhibit E is the fact that sometimes, once in a while, on a rare day, even I think that I’m a decent writer.
So. Okay. I didn’t win the contest. Maybe the story wasn’t good enough. Maybe others were just much better. Maybe it wasn’t my time, as one of my friends put it. Whatever the reason, I’m not going to give up. I’m only twenty-one, for goodness’ sake. I’m only just finishing up my sophomore year of college. I’m going to freaking Oxford next year.
Anyway, haven’t I known the reality of my choices for years? When I was in second grade, I began to develop the ambition of becoming an actress. I nourished, cherished and worked at my ambition for years. When my father became ill and I retreated from the world to stay at home with him and my mother, I lost my confidence in acting and the mere idea of being in public in such a vulnerable position stopped being even remotely appealing. Instead, I developed my love of writing, a far more private endeavor that nevertheless connects me to people in its own way.
But the point is that since I was about seven years old, my parents warned me that going for a career in an art would be a long, hard slog. They told me that I may not make much or even any money and they reminded me that there are a lot of talented people out there. They didn’t say this to discourage me – they simply wanted me to be aware of the realities of the world. So my seven year old self began to be aware of the fact that I shouldn’t take my future employment for granted.
For fourteen years I’ve been aware that I may work at some sort of drudge-job that I don’t enjoy or that isn’t “ambitious” (whatever that means) in order to support myself while trying to work at what I love. I’ve decided recently that I’m going to get a bar-tending certificate after I finish college; I want to try working night shifts, and I want to be exposed to people, their stories and their lives in a way that few people get to be as fully as bartenders do.
My grandpa wanted me to be a doctor. When I took care of my father while he was sick, he reinforced the idea that I would make an amazing doctor. You know what? I would. I would make a wonderful doctor. I would be empathic and caring, personable and kind.
But I don’t want to be a doctor, and my not wanting to be one would, ultimately, make me hate my job – and that would probably affect my work eventually. I want to be an author. There. I said it. An AUTHOR. I already am a writer, and will be for the rest of my life if it depends on me. But I also want to be an author. I don’t know if I will be. But I’m going to try my damnedest.

Thoughts on an Evening

Standing in front of a room full of people who write, I felt small. Or large, as if something in me was leaving my body, expanding beyond it, but not in a transcendental way. Whatever the indescribable feeling was, it only registered after the fact, once I’d sat down again.
I’ve read my work to friends and family before. I’ve read it in a workshop setting. But for some reason tonight felt different. It wasn’t bad, per se. I just felt… judged. Maybe that’s the correct phrase. I felt watched, measured, scaled, as if I was having a suit of clothing made for me – a suit that’s only supposed to fit those people who describe themselves as “writers.”
I thought I was getting better about this. Only the other day, I told my mother, during one of our usual, daily conversations, that I wasn’t feeling very nervous. And I guess that was true – I didn’t shake, when I stood there in front of the twenty five or thirty people who showed up. My voice was clear, I think, and I didn’t stumble on or rush my words. It was simple, and it happened, and then it was over, and there was no climax, no feeling of accomplishment.
Is it the comparison? Is it that I was looking at all the other people who went before me and realizing, as each person stood at the podium, that there are so many talented people here?
I felt this way once at the beginning of this school year. There was an event during the first-year’s orientation week that allowed people to show off their talents, whatever they may be. Some people read poetry, some people sang, some danced, some got together with a bunch of others and put on a hastily-put-together piece of a musical. I sat through that evening this year without once feeling like I was a lowly creature – instead, I appreciated everyone’s strengths and felt proud to be part of a school that encourages us to be as zany and weird as we want to be.
But during my first year, when I attended the same event as a nineteen-year old who wasn’t really ready to leave home yet, I felt awful. I felt like the zit on a toad in a pond full of stagnant, poisonous water. There was nothing I was good at, nothing I would ever be good at, and nothing worth aspiring to because there was simply no chance that I would ever be as good as any of the people I was watching were.
Sure, I was clearly in need of antidepressants then. I’m quite aware of this fact now, and in retrospect, it’s easy to remind myself that not everyone was great, actually, and that many people were frankly quite awful.
When I told my mother the other day that I wasn’t nervous, I also told her that I felt like I was legitimately a writer. I told her that I felt that I had the right to read at once of these things, these showcases, and that I was confidant in my conviction that writing is what I want to do with my life.
It’s still what I want to do. I want to write more than anything in the world. And I do write. That’s one of the things that keep me going – I know that I write and that I miss it desperately when I don’t. I know that I’m committed. I know that I can receive criticism if it’s not cruelly given and that I don’t have an inflated opinion of my own writing and that I have a lot left to learn. Usually I’m secure in this knowledge these days. I feel, most of the time, as though it’s a given that I’m a writer, and I know that other people know this about me – it’s not something I keep hidden anymore, and that’s good too.
So why did tonight feel so strange? I don’t know. I was intimidated by some of the talent that I heard in that room. I was put off by some of the overconfidence that I saw, too, because it’s something that I simply can’t feel connected to. But I enjoyed the evening as a whole. I loved sitting in the midst of a roomful of people who all must think that words are beautiful and have power, or else they wouldn’t have been there, reading their writing for all to hear.
So what is it that feels so strange? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just over-thinking things.