The view outside my internship office: Home smoggy home.
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.
Learn more about my project.
I’ve been reading a lot lately. I love reading because it allows me to fall into another world where everything and everyone in it feels so real. It lets me lose track of time, so I don’t even notice when hours have passed and my mind spins, still lingering in that fictional world. I think that’s what’s so amazing about writing and storytelling: Simple words on a page can make us care for places we’ve never been to and people we’ve never met. It’s like saying goodbye to a friend when the book closes and the story ends.
With the start of my own project, what I’ve found most challenging so far is just that — trying to create characters that feel less like they’re made of adjectives and more of flesh and blood. I first wanted to explore the story of Vietnamese Americans in this project, because I think often in literature, ethnic identity can become the entire defining feature of that character’s identity, erasing any other interesting facets of who they are. I find this often sad and disappointing, as readers are robbed of the chance to gain a fuller perspective of other people and cultures that they may not know a lot about yet.
While working on ideas for these short stories, I’ve already spoken to my grandma and friends for inspiration, but the process isn’t always so easy. Sometimes, I feel ready to write with ideas and characters bouncing around in my head, but when I rush to a computer, my mind goes blank, as if those ideas had already floated away like balloons. To try to hang onto them, I’ve been carrying around a small journal with me everywhere. I seldom write about my day at length in journals, but I’ve actually scribbled and drawn in it a lot lately.
They’re never fully formed thoughts or sentences. I just want to capture moments of possible inspiration from my day: something funny a man said on the bus, an argument between a girl and her mother at Giant Eagle about squash, or a couple of Comcast guys gossiping about other Comcast guys. (I swear I’m not a creep!) And then, when I sit down to write later in the day, I can look back at these pages and find a glimpse of a seed, a character ready to burst free and be heard.
My novel, for the purposes of my thesis, will be done tomorrow. I will submit it to my advisor, who will submit it to the department head who will then send it on to the Dean’s office. I can’t believe it!
The last few months I have been working on editing, rewriting scenes and trying to fully define what I wrote so I can describe it when people ask that much-dreaded question “So what is your novel about?”
Now, I can safely answer, “I’m working on it.”
I am so thankful for the opportunity that Dietrich College gave me to write a novel. The time and the resources provided have given me the chance to prove to myself that I can do it. But more than that, it has shown me that I love long form fiction.
This time last year, I asked my friends who were finishing their theses what they had learned during the process. One friend, who had been working on a historical-fiction novel, candidly said, “That I don’t like novels.”
That response stuck with me. But for me, this experience has been the opposite. I have emerged from this year secure in my knowledge that I really enjoyed writing my novel and I can’t wait to write another one.
I am excited to share my work at Meeting of the Minds and with all of you who have supported me through this process.
Learn more about my project.
Eight exceptional juniors have been selected to be 2015-16 Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences Honors Fellows at Carnegie Mellon University.
The Honors Fellowship Program – in its second year – is part of the college’s Senior Honors Program and is designed to give students a head start on their thesis development.
The fellowship program does this by providing students with support to spend the summer before their senior year researching their thesis topics. The extra time allows them to focus on their projects while not also juggling demanding course loads, internships and other extracurricular activities.
“I’m both thrilled and humbled to have been selected as a fellow for this year’s program,” said Laurnie Wilson, a creative writing and history double major who will be working with English Professor Jane Bernstein to create a series of narratives that examine themes of growth and self-discovery from the perspective of a young woman. “I’m excited for many aspects of the approaching summer, however, I’m most looking forward to the chance I will have to fully devote myself to my art. During the semester, it can be difficult to set aside time to write, and creative inspiration can be hard to come by. The fellowship not only encourages but requires me to pursue a meaningful project, while the generous funding allows for me to completely immerse myself in this work, without any other distractions.”
Meet the 2015-2016 Fellows.
Stay tuned – each fellow will be blogging about their experiences throughout the next year!
In this video, the four students participating in the Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program’s inaugural year discuss their projects, which range from relationship research to anthropology and ethnography studies.
For more information on the program, the projects and how to get involved or provide support, visit http://hss.cmu.edu/honorsresearchfellowship/.