Attendees included David Beinhart, Isabel Bleimeister, Mary Catherine (Casey) Devine, Ariel Hoffmaier, Amber James, Yong H. Kim, Kayla Lee, You Bin Maeng, Karen Nguyen, Ian Sears, Naomi Sternstein and Lauren Yan.
It’s old news that inspiration can come from anywhere. J.K. Rowling says the spark for “Harry Potter” came from a dream – boring. Mary Shelley conjured “Frankenstein” from a “ghost story” challenge among friends – less boring. Inspiration can jump from a bizarre news story, a snippet of eavesdropped conversation, or a personal tragedy. But I’ve found the most reliable source of inspiration is just… talking.
Preferably to others, rather than myself (I’m not really going for a “Jekyll and Hyde” thing). And a lot of different others, from backgrounds I’m unlikely to encounter in my workshop classes and with viewpoints outside of my own personalized echo chamber. I’ve been fortunate this summer in my “exposure” to a wide variety of interesting people (plenty of them queer, I’ll admit – after all, I do have to stay on-topic). Part of this I’ve cultivated on purpose. I started volunteering at a radical collectivist bookshop in Bloomfield where I had hours-long discussions with some of the smartest freethinkers I’ve ever met. And last week, I began my internship at a New York non-profit for LGBT rights on a global scale; the dedication and perseverance of my activist colleagues has energized me daily. Other inspiring discussions caught me by surprise (turns out first-date conversation doesn’t have to be confined to “what’s your major” and “so this was fun”.)
Of course listening is a vital part of the kind of talking that inspires me. At work this week, an awesome visiting attorney specializing in LGBT asylum cases — think “if Idina Menzel was a lawyer” — never had to give the “compassion over money” speech for me to believe it. At the bookstore a couple weeks ago, I collaborated on a Tumblr meme with an anarchist trans girl who used to shoplift and is still part of a graffiti gang. Last weekend, I saw “Ghostbusters” with my best friend and had a capital-M Moment with the probable lady-couple next to us about how thousands of little queer girls are going to watch Kate McKinnon kicking butt and think “maybe this is me and maybe that’s okay.”
Everyone has a story to tell, sure, but not everyone has the resources or ability to tell it. I can only hope my project will do justice to a few of these often unheard voices. The funny thing is I was going to work something into this post about how odd it is that the word “inspiration” has such positive connotations even though I have definitely been inspired by things like breakups and mass shootings. But as inclined as I am toward cynicism in real life, I tend to lose track of that in my writing. I write to make a little more sense of the ugliness in the world, and to feel a little better about life. In fiction, at least, I’m good at happy endings.
The last week of my life featured a series of related events ranging the gambit from soul soaring to heartbreaking. I attended Pittsburgh’s PrideFest. I went on a date with the air of potential. A tragedy shook me to the core. Yet another fictional queer woman was killed by a writer’s keyboard.
Last Sunday, I wore my striped rainbow button-down to Pride and tried to cheer loud enough to drown out the usual bigot with a bullhorn and a sandwich board reading “God hates f*gs.” I found out about Orlando at a Crazy Mocha, on my friend’s and my post-parade iced tea and wi-fi break. I’d been happy, unashamedly alive and then the news was everywhere. Fifty people were dead, gunned down at a nightclub by a man who sandwich board guy would have high-fived. These were my people, killed somewhere I would’ve felt safe.
When turned inside out by emotion, my first instinct is usually to write. So this week I tried to turn some of my helplessness into fiction, to lean in to empathy and hopefully make some sense of this grief. But in a lot of ways this story doesn’t feel like mine to tell. Pulse was a club frequented by lower-class minority and immigrant communities, and the shooting happened on “Latino Night” – the majority of victims were Latinx themselves.
As a writer who prioritizes diverse representation, I’ve designed the parameters of my fellowship project around it. I want to represent queer people from as wide a range of experiences as I can manage, with as much authenticity and respect as possible. But I will never be able to fully understand the experience of those who lost their lives that night in Orlando, so I still agonize over the question: Do I have any right to write from a perspective that’s so beyond my experience? It’s a difficult problem that I haven’t solved yet. My proposal is for a series of connected stories with switching perspectives, but that plan may change if I decide that some voices shouldn’t be mine to assume.
One thing has become very clear to me this week. No matter what stories I write for this collection, I refuse to leave any bodies. Queer characters are still so few, and three-dimensional queer characters even fewer, that every one killed off (and there have been so many) feels very personal. Every shock value death and noble self-sacrifice, whatever the writers’ “good” intentions, sends the message to LGBT viewers that they are not valued, that they are disposable, that they will never find happiness. I’m so tired of it. The “Bury Your Gays” trope is old and stale and terribly destructive. I’ll make a promise to you right now: It won’t be all sunshine and rainbows for my characters, but — in these stories — everyone lives.
Something that’s bothered me about this fellowship is the fact that it indirectly forces me to come out at every event, meeting and discussion related to it, mostly to relative strangers. It forces me to get personal, to subtly and not-so-subtly point out where I fit into all this. Being part of this community (yep, I’m bi – surprise, surprise!) has shaped my identity and enriched my life in innumerable ways. Still, it makes me uncomfortable to think that it is the first and practically the only thing many people connected with the fellowship know about me. My gut instinct is to go on the defense, to say that my orientation is a) none of your business and b) only a fraction of who I am.
But I’m fighting back against that impulse. Lately, and forever really, the LGBT community has been battered by violence from all corners. There are people in the world who legitimately want us dead. What better way is there to fight back then to live – stubbornly, loudly, joyfully. Maybe we should revitalize that classic slogan of the ’90s: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” Because living is the bravest thing we can do.
My relationship with May (the month, not the person – whoever they are) is complicated. It always starts off ugly, with final papers and revisions and projects stacked so high that a toppling would surely be catastrophic. Each time I doubt my ability to dig myself out but each time I miraculously do. I force my way into the late spring sunshine, covered in paper cuts and a little delirious and most importantly free.
That giddy freedom lasts about two seconds before the mid-May melancholy hits. I’ve often wondered how common this stage is, because it’s mandatory for me. It falls somewhere among rushed packing and waving school friends goodbye and awkwardly reinserting myself back into my hometown. This year, the summer I decided to embark on the Dietrich Honors Fellowship, the melancholy hit me especially hard for several reasons I can pinpoint. For one, I recently had to bid farewell to a few good friends. One graduated, while another handful will be living two neighborhoods away next year — crazily, our last year — instead of two doors down the hall. I also feel like I’ve had half my time stolen by boxes and storage lockers and moving trucks.
Usually, my feelings toward May brighten up toward week three. How could they not? The weather’s beautiful; I relax into my old family dynamic and into the strange new freedom; I get psyched for this internship and that vacation and the possibilities seem limitless.
But May is ending, and I’m still floating in limbo. Since I’m based in Pittsburgh for roughly the first half of the summer, I opted not to spend 10 hours on a bus for only a weekend at home. Much as I loathe those bus rides, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t spend Memorial Day with my family. It’s weird. Plus, I’m between leases right now, so I feel like a glorified squatter, exchanging groceries and gratitude for friends’ couches and spare rooms. How I’ve survived this long without A.C. or WiFi, I have no idea. Tomorrow, I move for real into my first grown-up apartment, with utilities not included and everything. It’ll be hectic, no doubt. I expect not owning a mattress is quickly going to become an issue. But it also feels like a turning point in my summer; honestly, it feels like the start.
About two weeks have passed since I turned in my last assignment and officially began the fellowship. That time has been a blur of finishing up old projects (among them a short film and a 35,000-word novella), venturing into never-before-touched corners of the city, researching potential volunteer opportunities and sitting with dear friends in the shadiest, lushest spots of grass I can find. I’ve been taking on my thesis work in bite-size pieces, gradually picking up momentum. I read two and a half adviser-recommended novels. I bought a new journal and filled a dozen pages with brainstorming. I’ve even gone on a few online dates (all for research purposes, of course) with queer people from an amazing range of backgrounds: a half-black bisexual musician; a small town non-binary programmer; and even a recent immigrant from Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death.
My mind is buzzing with stories worth telling. I feel like I could bang out a draft or two yesterday, but I’m restraining myself. I need to whittle down my ever-growing list of ideas, develop three-dimensional characters beyond the foundation of their intersectional identities (many of which have rarely seen the light of mainstream media) and find a compelling web of connections between them. It’s early days, but even the bare bones of these stories are crazy exciting to me.
As May bleeds into June, I am so ready to be consumed by this project. I’ve just got to circumvent the summer haze, exacerbated by the terrifying fact that I’m setting my own schedule here. I’ve done a lot of living these past couple weeks, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what happened last Tuesday. I know it’s going to be a challenge, but hey, if I wasn’t up for a challenge, I would never have signed on for this summer. So let me at it.
For the Thoughts:
For the Smiles:
I have spent much of my young adult life manufacturing new ways to combine my dual passions for art and social justice. In my creative writing major, I have gained extensive experience relevant to this project in fiction workshops, where I have written numerous short stories and screenplays featuring queer characters and storylines. In my Ethics, History & Public Policy major, I have similarly targeted my coursework toward LGBT rights and other social justice issues. Other interdisciplinary courses have allowed me to build my film, photography and other multimedia skills.
In my extracurricular life, I have been a proud member of ALLIES, Carnegie Mellon’s only LGBT support and activism group, since my freshman year. I recently had a blast performing in MORF’s production of “The Vagina Monologues,” which features multiple monologues from the perspectives of diverse queer women. During my two-year tenure as forum editor for The Tartan, I wrote and edited dozens of editorials on social justice issues. I also helped to build the social media presence of Carnegie Mellon’s Office of Admissions as their communications & social media ambassador, creating text, photo and video posts for their assorted channels. In my spare time, I enjoy baking anything chocolate and accompanying myself singing on the acoustic guitar.