Naomi Sternstein

Sweet New Year

The fall is upon us; this is the realization that I had as the temperature took a sudden dive and I pulled a sweater and umbrella out from my closet. This Monday and Tuesday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I celebrated with apples and honey for a “sweet new year”, and dinners filled with my grandma’s recipes (kasha varnishkas, goulash, honey cake). I’ve been thinking about and planning for the year ahead, my final year of undergraduate school, and where it might take me. October is a month filled with job interviews and job fairs. My friends are in Seattle for an interview one day, back in school the next, finishing final touches on medical school and graduate program applications. The next year seems like a distance away, and yet here we are, trying to make decisions that will prepare us for the next move, and then, hopefully, for the next. Wrapping my head around where we may all end up in a year is like writing a collection of tension-filled fiction in itself.

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Shanah Tova! Happy New Year!

I have also been thinking about my thesis, and where it may take me. I am grateful for the momentum that I was given over the summer, but now I am forced to be even more mindful of getting myself to the writing table. This past month, I gave myself the commitment to find time to sit and write every single day, weekends and weekdays alike. Amid reading assignments and engineering group projects, job applications and exams, I have been finding the space to give my writing the priority it deserves – to not just let the days slip away. (Of course, weekly meetings with my advisor, Kevin Gonzalez, have provided the necessary encouragement). Some days, this has meant finding the silence early in the morning, and others – later at night.

I have been working on a story that now might be turning into a lengthier novella. There is also the chance that, when I’m through, I will have to untangle it into two distinct stories. I’m not sure where it will end up now, or where the stories of the rest of the year will take me. In any case, I will be writing! Have a happy and healthy new year, everyone!

August Reflections

Sternstein - August Reflections
The Fourth of July is usually the day that sets me into a panic that the summer is over. In reality, though, at this point the summer is still at its early stages; New York’s beach water has yet to warm by the stored sun, my August birthdate hasn’t reached my radar and my mother has yet to plan the last hurrah family vacation. On the Fourth of July, I remind myself to focus on the present days, that August is sprawled out somewhere far ahead.

But here we are: past the midway point of August, perhaps my favorite month (I mentioned the birthday part, right?), but also a month that feels like one long Sunday. As I soak up some of the final moments, I also reflect on all that I learned while working on my honors fellowship and how I can use the momentum to carry on in the midst of my challenging fall semester course load. Here are a few things that I came up with:

  1. Schedule in daily writing time. Even when I feel bogged down by homework assignments and exams, I need to schedule in my writing time as if it were a class I wouldn’t dare miss.
  1. Tune everything out. Find a quiet space where people won’t be coming in and out, power off my cell phone and tuck it away somewhere out of sight. 
  1. Give a story a chance. I have so many ideas of what I want to write about that sometimes, in the very early stages, I have trouble sticking to a story. Write down those ideas, save them for later. But an idea is not yet a story, and I need to remember to stick it out before swapping out. Usually, once I get three to four pages in, I won’t want to switch anymore.
  1. Ask “What if?” If my characters feel stuck, asking some questions can help me figure out their next moves.
  1. Pick up a book. And if all else fails, reading a little bit of a really well-written story or novel (For example, I recently finished “Half an Inch of Water” by Percival Everett – recommended by my adviser, Kevin González) always inspires me and makes me want to sit down and write again.

Great Lakes of Corn and Wheat

Sternstein - Great Lakes of Corn & Wheat
In the center of Michigan, the lakes are not clear water, but are golden colored wheat and tall corn. The combines are friendly giants that wander outside of the wooden posts, traveling on the main roads even as far as to the McDonalds on the corner of 3 Mile Road, taking up both lanes and forcing the smaller cars to trail behind at the slowed pace. The rural roadways are long and straight and unpopulated, aside from the birds, just enough so as to give drivers the confidence to do unlawful things without thinking twice.

I learned all of this as I spent a few weeks in field research, collecting details of scenery and cultures and conversations. I also learned of the tremendous economic and social impact that a city can feel in the midst of a large acquisition and layoff by their major source of employment. In certain cities in our country, companies seem to grow along with the community, playing a central role in names of high schools and community gardens. These companies sit at the family dinner table; they create story lines from grandfather to grandchild. While I was there, though, this name was suddenly on the lips of everyone around me as a word of caution and worry – who would stay, who would have to move away, as 700 men and women were let go? From my yoga instructor, who worked as a freelance contractor for the company, to a volunteer at the community boathouse who worked as an economic planner for the city government, no one seemed to left out of the conversation. These conversations, these long, quiet roads, have been on my mind as I begin to write my next story.

Home for the Holidays

This past holiday weekend I put writing on hold to spend some time with my family back home in New York. We ate our favorite ice cream, popped in and out of art galleries; we stood alongside mourners and reporters outside the funeral of Elie Wiesel – honoring one of the most important voices of our time and one of the last surviving voices of the Holocaust that our generation will get to hear. And, importantly, I was able to spend time with my grandmother.

Sternstein - home for the holidays 2
Like many snowbirds of her kind, my grandma flies south to Florida for the fall and winter. Though we talk weekly on the phone, I don’t get to stop by and spend time with her as much as I did when I lived at home. Growing up listening to and spending time with my grandma has taught me patience, has taught me about the loneliness that comes with a sister moving away to an assisted living in another state, of the joy of helping grandchildren name children of their own. She has taught me the power of my own voice. I have the power to change the way her day opens or closes with a phone call or a text message (yes, my grandma leans on the side of technology!)

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Being with my grandma, uncle, sisters and parents this weekend made me think of a recent conversation that I had with Dr. Devine. We spoke about the similarities between engineering and writing, and about being mindful of the skills gained in one that could help the other. I brought up how both engineering and writing require a balance of social work and solitary work. In writing, socializing with and trying to understand people with different experiences and backgrounds can be as important as the time I spend at my desk with an open laptop. While working on engineering projects, we come together as groups to problem solve and jump ideas off of one another before dividing up the work to complete the calculations and research.

So, on that note, thank you to my grandma for the stories of playing bridge with “the girls” in her building, of the memories of the house she prepares to pack up and sell, and for calling me up and asking me to explain over the phone how to log on to her “Bookface” account.

Daily Rituals

Naomi_1As I begin my thesis, I also begin to think about process. I think about committing myself to sitting down to write every day, an action as essential to the day as is my morning routine of grinding the measured amount of coffee beans and brewing espresso on my stovetop moka pot, as pushing myself for that outdoor run.

There is a book titled “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” that describes the daily habits and work regiments of sculptors, composers, writers, filmmakers and other creators. The section on composer Igor Stravinsky describes how he would wake up at 8:00 a.m. to exercise, and then work on his music without a break from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. in solitude with all windows closed. These four hours were often all he could dedicate to his creations in the day, and he would sit down to work each day regardless of inspiration. In a section on Leo Tolstoy, he also describes writing every day from morning until dinner so as not to get out of the habit of daily writing.

Daily writing is essential to almost every writer. It requires diligence and focus, but also the power of schedule. During the school year, I am conscious of my wish to create a time for daily writing outside of classroom assignments. However, in midst of exams and homework and my appreciation of eight hours of sleep, I end up writing in bursts – a few consecutive days here, a few days there, and then perhaps radio silence for weeks.

This summer, I will form the habit of writing or researching for my writing every day. I look forward to acquiring a new daily ritual, and seeing what form my daily writing will take.

Collected Fiction

NaomiSternstein_201x201I’ve had to introduce myself many times over the past few years. Whether one-on-one in a meeting across a wooden table, or sitting barefoot on the floor in a circle, or before a presentation to faces in a lecture room, it often goes the same way: name, major, where you’re from and then the usual icebreaker that makes you nervous as you wait your turn, mulling over the most clever way to relay your favorite ice cream flavor. (It’s anything with rainbow sprinkles, by the way.)

So, let me introduce myself: My name is Naomi Sternstein and I am a double major in creative writing and chemical engineering from Great Neck, New York. I have two sisters, one older and one younger, and I easily call them my best friends. My sisters, my mother, my grandmother and I each wear a necklace with a charm in the shape of a slice of triple-layered frosted cake dangling from the chain. This is partly for good luck, partly so we can think of one another going about her day wearing the very same necklace and partly so we can always have a slice of cake on our necks.

When I am asked what I study at school, I switch the order of my answer around depending on my mood or the day I’m having – creative writing, chemical engineering; engineering and writing. It’s a mouthful, but it typically generates the same response. Sometimes people are almost concerned, and jokingly create a plan for my future involving ways I can combine the two, usually adulterating each major along the way. I smile, but remind myself that they already fit together in the ways I see and do. I have always been at once a writer and an engineer, both strains of creating, mixed with all of my other passions.

From before I could remember and until well into high school, one of my parents would read to me before I went to bed. I’ve always loved the way select words would fit together to form each sentence, similar to the way one molecule can react with another molecule to create something new. I would create my own sentences and miniature stories in my head. The summer after 10th grade, at the encouragement of my chemistry teacher, I participated in a program to introduce girls to engineering. In small groups, we designed, wired and built a toy and learning tool for a special needs child whom we met; that summer, I decided I was going to be an engineer.

I’ve always felt a part of many different worlds, comfortable placing myself someplace new and foreign and making it another home. I grew up learning two languages, English and Hebrew. I sang songs in both languages, listened to stories in both languages and loved two countries. Later my love for languages grew out and up like vines, grabbing at Italian and then Korean. I found that with each new dialogue I could understand a different culture, a different way of seeing the world. My dad would count the languages that we spoke on his hands: English, Hebrew, Italian, ballet, tap, math, piano, engineering. In my life now, it has been the same. I have become a part of many special communities, from creative writing to engineering, many of them with overlapping parts that have created new wholes.

These are all languages have made my world a little bigger, and brought people a littler closer to me. They’ve let me see friends to joke around with in a room saturated with Midwestern men at a chemical plant in Kansas. They’ve let me hear and tell stories that might have otherwise been buried away, left without translations. When I introduce myself to you, these words that may seem like simple nouns and adjectives begin to piece together the larger story of who I am.

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