Thursday, July 9, 2015

Write On: How Real Should Interpersonal Hardships Be?

The other day, a friend and I were talking about how to fictionalize personal struggles. I'm not shy about my preference for stories about people and their lives, so it's no surprise that a great deal of my material comes from my own struggles with growing up, family, and friends. During overly hormonal particularly difficult times, my stories ended up sounding like a 150 page whine-fest about how a boy who talked to me twice didn't like me. That's some serious literature right there.

Since then, my writing has progressed, but my basic sources of inspiration have stayed the same. I have no trouble painting the characters who I associate myself with in a negative light, but it gets tricky when you start to reveal unflattering truths about those who are closest to you. Especially when the best writing typically stems from tumultuous relationships with said close family/friends.

Having experienced this moral dilemma, I can't say there's an obvious right or wrong answer. I once wrote a piece that centered around a very dark period between me and my mother, and quality-wise, it turned out to be some of my best writing. I soon learned that my mother was not comfortable with sharing that piece of her life in the context of my piece. While I was annoyed that I would have to re-write an essay that could affect my grade, I realized that keeping a positive relationship with my mom was worth more than a shiny GPA. In that case, the answer was obvious--I was writing a non-fiction piece, and I'd gotten very explicit lack of consent. Non-fiction is a little more black and white. If you're writing entirely about a real person with real issues, they always have the right to veto that piece. That's not censorship--rather, that's protecting another person.

However, fiction is where interpersonal drama often becomes more ambiguous. My friend brought up an excellent point when he was discussing his own writing project. He mentioned the fact that while his writing is far less autobiographical than my own, he focused on troubled family dynamics (particular parental pressure) because of his own relationship with his mother. He noted that if someone ever wanted to buy his screenplay, he would jump at the chance, but there was still that nagging concern about what his family would think if they read his screenplay or watched the movie. Coming from an exceptionally supportive family, I immediately assumed that his parents would realize that his own happiness and success was the most important, and they'd be proud. However, this isn't always the case. Oftentimes this is why some of the best writers are the most isolated (also, alcoholism. But that's for another time).

I'm normally an advocate for being overly careful not to step on anyone's toes, in the case of fiction writing, I'm still a firm believer in facing hard, unflattering truths. I'm not saying you should go spouting out your best friend's deepest, darkest secrets alongside their name and address, but limiting one's creative outlet in fear of hurting someone's feelings is, in its purest form, censorship. You shouldn't walk up to your father and say "hey look, your emotional unavailability made me unable to form meaningful relationships!" (think how awkward THAT Thanksgiving would be), but on paper, that's free game. Not only is this creative freedom therapeutic, but it's real. More often than not, the reader can tell when you're trying to tip-toe around the core issue, and it makes for a very artificial, very dull story. In most cases, poignant trauma and distress seamlessly translates to poignant fiction.

It's also important to realize that fiction--at least, good fiction writing--very rarely features one-dimensional characters. Just because a certain character seems more troubled than others, that does not mean that she is the clear-cut "villain." Exhibiting flawed, complicated moments just shows that the world is full of flawed, complicated people--which family dynamics often enhance.

The moral of the story is not "I hate my mom," or "life would be so much greater if my great Aunt Tina stopped chugging bottles of wine and calling me fat." Stories that expose troubled family dynamics do more than simply point fingers. They make us realize something about human nature, about growing up, about ourselves.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

15 of my favorite feelings

In light of the recent Vlogbrother's video titled "15 of My Favorite Feelings," I thought I would follow suit with the positivity and discuss my own favorites. This won't be terribly deep, but sometimes you just need a little light-hearted optimism in your life, despite having the rest of the world throw jaded cynicism at you (bitter? Who, me?).

1) Cuddling.
Sure, this is sappy and girly, but honestly, it's trendy amongst females for a reason. And it's not romance-specific either. My friend Megan and I have perfected the art of drunk cuddling, which is not for the faint of heart. But if you want to get sappy and romantic with me, one of my all time favorite feelings is falling asleep mid-cuddle with someone you really love. Fortunately for me, my pillow pet has been a loyal cuddle buddy since day one of college. #foreveralone

2) When you finally finish a writing project.
It doesn't happen often, but that rush of euphoria after finishing a story/script/series of rants will never get old. This is especially nice when the project has nothing to do with school--although I won't argue that I don't love that sigh of relief when I crank out the final draft of a fifteen page Shakespeare essay.

3) Conversely, when you get an idea for a project.
This honestly works better when other people are involved. I get excited by solo ideas, but I'm rarely motivated to finish them. However, when 50% of the idea is someone else's, I feel obliged to finish the task. It doesn't hurt that I also get to squeal and whoop in public places with said project partner and look like complete idiots together.

4) Back scratches
This is like getting a massage, listening to Enya, and eating ice cream all at once. 

5) Dancing when nobody's watching.
 As our generation becomes more and more immersed in social media, it feels like there's no activity that's left un-documented. This is nice for the memory-loss prone such as myself, but there's also something liberating about doing something just for yourself--especially when said thing unleashes your inner goofball. 

6) Eating chocolate therapy ice cream
Ben & Jerry knows. It always knows. 

7) Drinking water after a long workout
I'm not gonna lie, I don't love the taste of water. But after I've poured out buckets of sweat on the treadmill (my nemesis), there's nothing more refreshing than a huge gulp of water--even better when it's followed by a massive cookie and/or cupcake. 

8) Being the example in class
There's no way to sound this without sounding like a giant narcissist, but I've been the "example" in more than zero college classes, and let's just say a little external validation never hurt anyone. 

9) Hip-cracking
My version of knuckle cracking. Because I'm actually eighty years old. 

10) Running around in the rain
Because I'm actually five years old. 

11) Finishing a good book

12) Having an intense (but good) conversation
Anything related to politics, philosophy, or identity, and I feel like I'm in heaven. 

13) Freshly washed hair

14) Writing on a chalkboard
This is something that literally every student in my second grade classroom fought over. We planned pretend classes during recess just so that we could write on the chalkboard. I'm not sure why it's so satisfying, but until the chalk squeaks, everything is wonderful. 

15) Sleeping in a freshly made bed
Extra points if I've been away from home for a while and feel like I'm going to fall over from sleep exhaustion. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sexual Assault: Law Versus Cultural Attitudes

In the recent Washington Post article titled "Feminists Want us to Define these Ugly Sexual Encounters as Rape. Don't Let Them,"  Cathy Young argues that feminists are trying to categorize every regretted sexual experience as an assault that should be punished by law. In this piece, she tries to inculcate the idea that "only yes means yes" is an absurd, puritanical notion that takes away the mystery and intrigue in sex. While Young makes some insightful comments about our society's tendency to demonize men in these cases, she fails to acknowledge the fact that sexual aggression can be perfectly legal, while still revealing troubling cultural attitudes about consent, power, and what constitutes a "positive" sexual experience. Not every instance of coercion is rape. But even when there are no legal repercussions, we should still question the appeal of persuading someone who's clearly reluctant into sex. What is it about somehow "winning" that's sexy? There is still the persistent implication that if you don't want sex or show any signs of hesitation, you are wrong and just don't know it yet. That attitude has to change.

Young argues, "this crusade against 'rape culture' oversimplifies the vast complexity of human sexual interaction, conflating criminal sexual acts such as coercion by physical force, threat or incapacitation — which should obviously be prosecuted and punished — with bad behavior...even in the first incident, in which the man knowingly pressured me into something I didn’t want, I could have safely said no to him." What's troubling here is that Young is blaming herself for an encounter that she was pressured into--this justification for her partner's behavior is a prime example of victim blaming. Technically, he didn't do anything wrong; technically, Young always was physically capable of saying no. But everything in this situation is justified by technicalities. I do not know the details of Young's particular relationship, but there is a multitude of similar situations in which someone is physically capable of saying no, but emotionally she is trapped. Maybe she knows that if she says no, she will be guilted or punished in some way. Maybe she feels that she is fighting a losing battle. Whatever the case is, it is deeply concerning that we are taught to brush off the idea that being pressured into sex is not just inevitable, but is also acceptable. 

Sex isn't a battle--you shouldn't conquer another human being in one of their most intimate, vulnerable moments. 

Young also makes the fallacious argument that "only yes means yes" forces us to consider every less-than-ideal sexual encounter an assault. Without getting too graphic on the Internet, I'd like to use my own personal experience to refute that argument. There have been instances where I've responded with a resounding "yes," only to regret it later because I was a young and stupid person who made young and stupid decisions. I'm not about to go and call my ex a rapist because I didn't think things through at the age of 18. The biggest difference, however, is that I did not feel pressured into doing something I would later regret, and I did not feel as though I would be punished for saying no. 

Young also seems to make the claim that because she was also sexually pushy in her lifetime, that counteracts the times that she was a victim: "besides, I know that sometimes the roles have been reversed. There was the ex-boyfriend I thought I was seducing in the hope of getting him back — only to realize, the one time he finally said no harshly enough, that it had been more pressure than seduction. If I were to claim victimhood, I would either have to admit to being a perpetrator as well or fall back on a blatantly sexist double standard." Here, Young fails to recognize that she is perfectly capable of being both the victim and the aggressor at different times in her life. While this is a seemingly gendered issue (seeing as the number of male aggressors highly outweighs female aggressors), seeing a case in which a woman is overtly sexually aggressive does not make it "right" in some way. It doesn't mean that Young should be behind bars this very instance, but perhaps she, along with everyone else who has felt the need to have full power in similar instances, should examine why the power dynamic was so skewed. 

We've gotten to a point where we can definitively say that rapists should be locked behind bars--that's not the dialogue we need to be having. The next step is to make people realize that persistent persuasion isn't sexy, and instead of relying on the reactor in the situation to say no, maybe we should teach the instigators to stop demanding a "yes." It'll be a hell of a lot more enjoyable that way.

Whew, that was a serious rant. My next post will be chock full of gifs or something to make up for it.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Year In Review, As Told By Snapchat

As junior year draws to a close, it's only natural that I would reflect on the past 9 months. Unsurprisingly, the results of this reflection are somewhat along the lines of "huh." I laughed, ate, drank, and was merry (coincidentally, the whole "being merry" bit seemed to coincide with the drinking). I could sit here and bore you all with dreadfully woeful tales of getting a B+ in English or indulge myself in an equally woeful (and cliché) tale about breakups (oh wait, already did that). But in this particular instance, I'm gonna let the Snapchats do the talking, as Snapchats are wont to do.

So how did this year pan out? Well...

I studied hard...


I made healthy choices that would benefit my mind and body...

My friends and I improved our style and made smart fashion choices...

I learned how to adult...

I partied like it was 1999...

...And I made new friends who always appreciate me

Let's just hope senior year is this impressive. Nothing says "successful junior year" like learning how to balance a water bottle on your head.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

My Feet Cause a Great Deal of Strife

So, the other day, in attempts to look cute, I bought some shoes. As someone who was too awkward and weird busy to go out during my first two years of college, I thought it was perfectly normal to only have a pair of sneakers that smelled like a wet dog (that gets all the guys, amirite?), winter boots that have absolutely no purpose in actual winter, and a pair of ratty flip-flops that I'd had since high school.

Since then, I've managed to go out like a normal(ish) person, and have found a multitude of cute, skinny girls wearing cute, skinny heels. Thus the desire to look "adorable" was born--and since I'm not about to stop eating obscene amounts of Ben & Jerry's, I decided to invest in a pair of heels. Normal, right? Something any college-aged female would do, and presumably succeed at, right?

Wrong. Oh how very, very wrong.

I'm typing this with my left leg hanging over the edge of my bed in order to avoid getting foot blood on my comforter.

It all started when I found a pair of wedges that looked (relatively) comfortable, and my roommate was all "ohmygosh! Those could be your class shoes!" This was a perfectly innocent suggestion, as my roommate is someone who can successfully wear adorable things without looking like she had a run-in with an axe murderer.

So, I bought these shoes, wore them to class with a pair of floral-print pants to top off the look, and 4 hours later, this is what happened:
My roommate had to lend me her gym shoes because my wedges ended up scraping against my feet so much, a sea of blood came gushing out. As it turns out, it continued to gush out all over my roommate's sneakers. Because, apparently, all I do is win.
The face of evil.
This would seem like a relatively insignificant problem, had I not encountered a gazillion other problems with my feet. Basically, it all started when I was eight years old and had to get warts frozen off my feet because the universe didn't hate me enough as is.

To make matters worse, in high school, it didn't even take nice shoes to make my feet bleed. All I had to do was wear something, anything at all that weren't flip-flops and my feet would come at me with a vengeance. As my friend Keri noted in 11th grade, I'd walk around school with blood in my aggressively un-cute sneakers:

Ten-odd years later, my roommate had to write an entire blog post about how problematic living with me was because, as previously stated, my shoes smelled like wet dog.

And now my left pinky toe looks like it's been flayed simply because I was trying to be like the cool kids...not only do they all seem to get it, but they seem to pull off walking on tip-toes like they've been doing it for ages.

Maybe I'd figure it out if I went out more. For now, I'll just sit in my room and bemoan my flayed feet.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Why We Tutor: Thoughts From the Writing Center

When I was introduced to the idea of becoming a writing tutor at PSU, my first instinct was to retreat to my room, binge watch Gilmore Girls, and never speak to another human again.

Okay, so that's my first instinct when I'm introduced to a lot of things that involve other people, but just go with me here.

I find it extremely unnatural to be in authoritative positions, so the very idea that I could present myself as someone who "knew more" or was better at writing than someone else wasn't something that I could easily grasp. I objected that I got a B+ on an essay once, and writing tutors just don't get B+'s. I was sure that anyone at the writing center could see through my phoniness and instantly demand a real writing tutor, a wise, learned writing tutor that says impressive things and writes groundbreaking essays about Paradise Lost.

As it turns out, none of this is true. Because, apparently, people at the writing center are not pretentious assholes who come straight out of British films. Good job, self.

 I've gotten a clearer idea on what it means to be a writing tutor, but it's not something a lot of students readily talk about--there's still a misconception that the writing center is a "fix it shop" where we'll instantly turn your commas into glittering pieces of gold and guarantee that shiny A on your paper.

While I've answered my fair share of grammar related questions, that has rarely been the most helpful part of a tutorial. I've also heard more than zero freshman composition students say that they came to the writing center because they didn't trust peer review and wanted advice from someone who wasn't in the same boat as them.

If that's the case, go to your professor's office hours. Because as an undergraduate tutor, I'm still in the exact same boat as an Engl 15 student.

There's a lot of ways I can tell you how we don't tutor. We don't tell you you're "wrong," and, as much as I love em dashes, we don't start throwing them into your essay like they're made out of gold. We don't write your essay for you. We try not to sass you back when you get annoyed that we don't write your essay for you, although this sometimes fails.

It's more difficult to explain why we do tutor, especially at a time when we want to be better writers right now, and get that instant A like it's a cup of ramen noodles.

I'm not going to fool myself into thinking that students come into the writing center to experience the joys of the collaborative process --that's a far too hippie-ish perspective, even for me--but in all honesty, it makes for a much better tutoring session when the student comes in wanting a second perspective on his paper, rather than wanting someone to fix it.

A couple weeks ago, a student came in with a rough draft of her speech outline--it turned out that we had the exact same speech professor and both felt that our speeches relied too heavily on narrative rather than informative techniques. I wasn't going to try and trick her into thinking that I was the great speech master of the 21st century; rather, I expressed my frustration that our introductions had to "state the thesis and preview the main points" like we were in 6th grade. There's no way to make this not sound cheesy, but the fact that we were able to collaborate on an assignment we were both struggling with made both our speeches stronger.

Plus, just by working with people who are applying to graduate school, I now know how to write a killer personal statement. So there's that.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Will the Real Hipster Please Stand Up?

So, my friend recently talked about how she's an accidental hipster, and at the time I was all "that's kinda weird; you're either a hipster or you're not." It seemed pretty obvious that anyone who listened to records and sported large glasses was a hipster, and that was it. End of conversation.
Sooo hipster

But then something strange happened--more and more people started defining me as hipster. I mean, I get it. I'm at Webster's pretty much every moment I have a second to breathe. I do yoga. Come at me. But I also am freakishly obsessed with glitter, pop music, and hot pink--all aggressively anti-hipster things. It wasn't until my friend explained that I was a true hipster because I was so indifferent to my "image" and just wore and listened to whatever I wanted, that I realized a great cultural shift is happening right before our very eyes.

Friends, the great hipster shift is coming. Brace yourselves.

We're now witnessing the great divide between the poser hipster and the true hipster. Those who try to be alternative are mainstream, and those who admit to being mainstream are hipster. I never thought I would see the day where I apologetically listened to Katy Perry and start getting labeled as alternative. I don't go in search of music that no one has ever heard of (unless it's Lindsey Stirling because she's amazing; don't ever fight me on that) because if I do try to bring up an obscure band in conversation, I know I'll have this give-away expression of hipster-ness. I don't know what a hipster expression looks like, but it can't be good.

While I've gotten more comfortable with this title of "accidental hipster," my friend gave me a label that better fits: I am a quagmire. I engage in hipster activities and have a hipster personality, but I almost always prefer mainstream music, books, and shows. Like, sometimes you just need some Zooey Deschanel in your life. There's no hidden deeper meaning in that. Sometimes you need some T-Swift to tell you to shake it off (and whatever Taylor says, goes). But these more mainstream forms of entertainment are so looked down on, it's almost cool and edgy to like them.

So where I'm going with this is that my 6th grade self was ahead of the times for being obsessed with The Cheetah Girls. At least that's what I tell myself at night. 

In ten years, all the new poser hipsters will probably love pop music and wear little black dresses and accidental hipsters will be ashamed of their beanies and typewriters. It's a vicious cycle.