creative writing

Exploring Narrative Identity Through Fiction

searsI was born in Manhattan and lived in Darren, Connecticut until I was seven, when my family moved to Australia. Living in Australia while my father pursued his Ph.D. gave me a different perspective on being an American. There, the academic culture was focused on obtaining knowledge and enriching one’s life, placing less emphasis on status and material wealth.

When my family eventually moved to Palo Alto, California, I was—for better or worse—able to retain a more laid-back attitude toward life and school than many of my American peers. In Palo Alto, I attended Gunn High School. I find that the culture at Carnegie Mellon is very similar to Gunn – they’re both home to many intelligent and creative people who are passionate about what they do, but there are also many who feel a lot of pressure to succeed and prioritize academic success above everything else.

I began to pursue music and writing at Gunn, where I played guitar in a rock band and bass in a jazz quartet. During my senior year of high school, I wrote the first 126 pages of a terrible novel that spurred me to major in creative writing. My friends and I also enjoyed—and still enjoy—making short films in our free time, most of which appear on YouTube under the name “We’re Bandits Productions.” At first, engaging in these pursuits clashed with my schoolwork, but as I’ve gotten older and my classes have become more tailored to my interests, my hobbies and my work inform each other more and more.

Writing a novel for my thesis is the best and most natural possible outcome of my time at CMU, and I hope it will ultimately lead to a career as a novelist.

Learn more about my project.

An Inquiry Into the Future of Work

beinhartI have been fortunate to be a part of a wide range of projects at Carnegie Mellon that have taken me across academic disciplines and international borders, from studying the European Union in Frankfurt, Germany to interning with a startup in Haifa, Israel and shooting a documentary in Camaguey, Cuba.

Through my coursework in Pittsburgh, I have challenged myself to take on disparate ideas. From studying organizational behavior and modeling networks in Oliver Hahl’s Organizational Behavior to presenting on William H. Whyte’s “The Organization Man” and its influence on work culture in the 1960s in Kathy M. Newman’s “Mad Men, TV & Advertising,” studying business administration and creative writing has allowed me to combine the quantitative and qualitative while uncovering how interconnected the two really are. My current coursework takes me from a poetry workshop to a finance lecture and computer programming recitation, all in the same day.

Combining these different approaches to problem solving and creative inquiry led me to join the third cohort of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship Innovation Scholars. The program provides resources, mentoring and funding for students who are passionate about innovation and entrepreneurship. Through the program, I traveled to San Francisco in January 2017 to meet with startups, accelerators and venture capital firms. The similarities and differences between the entrepreneurial ecosystems I have been able to be part of, from Haifa to Silicon Valley, continue to resonate with me and have been formative to my CMU experience.

Learn more about my project.

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.

unnamed

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!

Beginning fall semester

 

My collection of fragile animals. They'll never move.

My collection of fragile animals. They’ll never move.

I’ve begun work on another story. This story is about a world with only one difference from our own: every person is part of a pair. You recognize this person immediately and get along with him or her better than you get along with anyone else. This kind of setting might sound wonderful, but there are seven billion people in the world. For all you know, you’ll never meet the other half of your pair.

My particular story about this world begins when Weston sees Felicity across a graveyard. He’s visiting his father’s grave. Her mom was just buried. He knows immediately that they’re a pair so he approaches her. Felicity talks to him, but Weston feels as if she’s very unresponsive. Here’s a short excerpt from after Weston moves in with Felicity:

There was that expectation that because we were a pair we would also be in love with each other at first sight. I liked her, but I didn’t love her and I didn’t think that I ever would. There was something too sterile and robotic about her. She cleaned other people’s houses all day then came back and cleaned her house. The vacuum was always on when she was home. Her arm was always going back and forth.

I don’t think she ate in that house. There was no food on the shelves or in the fridge besides what I put there. When I put milk and eggs in the fridge it felt as if I was violating some rule that she had never told me.

I was asked over the summer by a friend why the main characters in this story don’t immediately get together. He said, “I’d get together right quick with my soulmate if I found her.” I told him that my story isn’t about soulmates. It’s about people who have the potential to mean a lot to you. Weston and Felicity aren’t meant to become a couple. They’re just a pair of people who help each other through difficult times.

Here is what Felicity’s perspective might be like:

When both of your housemates are gone, you don’t know what to do but run a sponge over the kitchen counter. You like the way the granite gleams when there’s a residue of water on its surface. You vacuum the floors. Dust the windowsills. You scrub dirt off the molding. Pour bleach in the sinks and toilets. While you move, you feel the same size as your body. When you stop moving, you sink back. Your vision becomes small and surrounded by black.

Your body is a cocoon. It protects you from the harshness of the outside. You think of yourself as different from it. There’s you, then there’s your body. When you don’t want to feel anymore, you loosen up on the controls for your body.

Learn more about my project.

Summer Wrap-up

Time for some leisure reading!

Time for some leisure reading!

It’s the end so I thought that I’d share an excerpt from one of my essays to show that this not truly an end. Things will keep spinning and churning.

Here’s the excerpt:

In 2012 the Mayan calendar ended. Some believed that the end of this calendar meant that the world would also end. One night in 2012, an electrical powering station exploded near where I live. The whole sky lit up and started flashing. People ran through the streets screaming that the world was ending. My father and I thought that the light outside was lightning, but it wasn’t storming. We went outside. I felt as if the sky was going to turn, revealing gears. There would be a clunking noise as our reality and the truth welded themselves together. I had this feeling that our world was a small piece of what truly existed. We were ants who didn’t know what being an ant meant.

Moving forward, I’ll be writing more, more and more! More poetry, more stories, more essays. Not only will my semester include lots of writing, it will also include lots of revision. And I’ll be considering how to put what I’ve written this summer into one manuscript.

I have to say that I really enjoyed this summer and the fellowship program. It was a great opportunity that I’m really grateful to have been accepted to. I liked being in Pittsburgh for the summer and meeting my fellow fellows. I think that I was able to look at my project in a different light because I was able to consider how students from different departments look at it.

 

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.

Weeks 9 & 10

Cox - door

My original idea for my essays was to write about people who I’m close to, but who I don’t see in person. I reconsidered this idea and decided to write about a couple different topics instead. The topics include vegetarianism, inability to change/death, love, dream of change and doors. I wrote some of the essays as letters. They are addressed to you which makes it feel as if I’m addressing every person who reads them, connecting me to you. They’re also letters because they retain some of the ideas and emotions that they might have if I had remained with my original topic.

This is the essay on doors:

Dear You,

Closed doors barely stop the dogs that I know. They all kick at the doors until they pop out of their jambs. They don’t look at the doors. Their faces say: It’s only natural that the door would make way for me. Just like how closed doors don’t stop the kicking legs of dogs, they also don’t stop people from walking in on these two friends that I have.

These two friends don’t understand that a closed door is not a locked door. They see a closed door and they think they should proceed to make out. This means that people walk in all happy, see them completely involved and then back out feeling sad about their own singular natures. This same couple thinks that closed doors are soundproof doors, which means that those around this couple have invested their money in good headphones.

Some might say that doors are lies. A door that is a lie is a blank space that looks like what a person imagines a door to be. Every door is different for every person. Doors being lies would explain why the dogs get through so easily. It would also explain why people always walk in on that couple. No door exists for anyone to knock on.

Doors separate people with their false nature. But if doors are lies then dogs have more abilities than we know. It would mean that they can see what is and isn’t a lie. On the other hand, if doors aren’t lies and they’re not really doors then they could only be dirty cheats secretly cackling at our human woes. They hear a giggle and they say, “My oh my, wouldn’t it be lovely if everyone could hear this beautiful giggle?”

Then they release through the door what is an unnatural giggle. Everyone you know hears that giggle. Your life comes crashing down on you. You become known as The Giggler. People warn their children to stay away from you. Supermarkets stop selling tomatoes to you. You retreat into the woods to commune with cicadas.

As you sit on what remains of a tree that was cut down years ago, you shrink. You don’t notice at first. Leaves and bark are all that you can see. Then you notice that you’re getting smaller. The dirt is getting closer and closer to your face. When you sleep at night, you smell the dirt. You wonder if it will swallow you in a natural coffin. It eventually does, but you shrink a lot more before that happens.

While you’re shrinking you grow wings. Skin sloughs off your main body. Your new skin is shiny and tough. You’re very small now. The grass is taller than you. The noises of the night frighten you. It sounds like there are hyenas out there.

There are no hyenas. There are a couple of people telling jokes while they camp. A vague thought crosses your head about how hyenas sound like they’re crashing apart with laughter. You dig into the dirt. You want to escape those kinds of thoughts.

You dig deep enough that you can’t hear the hyena laughter anymore. Your awareness drifts until you’re no longer you. You’re the earth and the water flowing through the soil. Then you’re nothing but darkness over a never-ending night. Someone far away tells another person that it was never you who giggled. You never know. You sleep down where they will one day find dinosaur bones.

Truly,
Me

Weeks 7 & 8

Cox - sketch
During these two weeks, I outlined and wrote one of my stories. I wasn’t sure at first what kind of problem I wanted to develop between the group of girls, but I knew that there should be some kind of problem. I decided that the leader of the group (Jezebel) wants to bully one of the other girls (Yan Lin). But she never comes out and says it. She starts to leave Yan Lin out of activities. Problems develop as Allison realizes what Jezebel is doing, while the other girls don’t understand. The other girls are beginning to dislike Yan Lin. In the face of these events, Yan Lin doesn’t doubt herself as some girls would. She rightly blames Jezebel, which causes her to confront Jezebel at the end of the story. Like in the beginning, they end up falling from high up. They’re both sent to the hospital.

Here is the first page of the story:

It started small like most things. The six of us stood before a grey stone wall. The wall wasn’t that tall, but to me it felt like it could have been the outside of a fortress. Jezebel climbed up first. She was our leader. Most of these girls had followed her since they were in middle school. I had joined their group last year straight out of Korea.

Jezebel reared up at the top of the wall, arms out. She turned toward us. The little silver studs in her ears glinted with the sunlight. She smiled at us, then jumped. The ribbon of her dyed red hair flew up then disappeared behind the wall. She called from the other side, “Who’s next?” Her voice was breathless with excitement.

I grabbed the wall at the same time that Junco did. She looked at me unblinking for a second. Her blue eyes had a ring of gold around the pupil. I froze until her unnerving gaze was focused on her hands sliding into the gaps between the gray blocks. She didn’t talk a lot. When she did, she said sentences that cut me to the bone. I wasn’t sure if it was intentional or if I was translating wrong.

We went up the wall together. At the top, I didn’t look, just immediately jumped off. I wanted to beat Junco down. The moment I was in the air felt longer than it should have, but was still short. The world went up while I went down. I stumbled. Dirt dusted my cheeks. My jaw clicked. My left ankle rolled. I held back the noise of pain.

Jezebel smiled at me. “How was it?”

I forced my mouth into a smile. I wanted Jezebel to be proud of me. “Great.” But only for a second. Tomorrow it would probably hurt worse.

Jezebel called over to the next girl, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your long hair.” I didn’t understand who Rapunzel was or what hair had to do with jumping, but I smiled. Jezebel was funny. She should have smiles after her words.

Junco turned to me. She said, “You stumbled.” I flinched at the comment. Jezebel probably hadn’t stumbled. Jezebel probably landed like she was a pillow. The girl beside me probably fell like a rock, but one of the hardest rocks you’d ever find. The ground would crack before she broke.

Allison and Martha grabbed hands at the top. They laughed as they jumped. The stumbled after they hit the ground, but it was silly stumbling. They put their arms out, reeled around each other like spinning dreidels.

Yan Lin was the last one. We looked at the empty wall. Jezebel said, “You get sick and die over there?”

We saw her hands on the top then her black bobbed head rising up. “No, I’m here.” When she was at the top, she straddled the wall. She looked down at us through her blocky glasses. Her mouth opened. She sucked in air. This side was farther from the ground than the other side. She wiped sweat off her cheek. “I can’t do it.”

“Yes, you can.” Jezebel put her hands on her hips. “You’re going to do it.”

“No, I really can’t.” She wrapped her arms around her middle and grabbed fistfuls of her shirt as if that would prevent her from falling. She blinked really fast.

We expected Jezebel to make a scene. Allison and Martha stopped their silliness. Junco’s back straightened as she stared at Jezebel’s face. I was quiet, scared that I was about to see what would happen to me one day when Jezebel realized that I didn’t fit in with her little group.

But Jezebel didn’t make a scene. She just said, “That so?” Then she turned away, pulling out her phone. “Junco, help her down.” Junco went over and helped Yan Lin down. Soon after, we forgot that frozen moment. I should have known then that Jezebel would never let it go, but I was so relieved. I felt as if it had been me up on that wall, being given a pardon.

 

Honors Fellows Wrap Up Summer Research

Group photo

Eleven Dietrich College Honors Fellows are poised to begin their senior year with a head start on piloting psychological studies, conducting field research and laying the groundwork for film and writing projects.

Over the past three months, the fellows have examined citizenship and belonging in South Korea, the impact of La Loi Toubon on French nationalism and coming of age as a Vietnamese American, among other topics.

Recently, they presented their works-in-progress to each other and faculty members including their advisers and fellowship program directors Jennifer Keating-Miller, Brian Junker and Joseph E. Devine.

“This summer’s group was particularly impressive,” said Devine, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “While their topics were interestingly diverse, they displayed shared qualities of high enthusiasm, confidence and preparedness that served them well this summer and will surely continue to do so over the coming academic year.”

Read more.

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.