dietrich college of humanities and social sciences

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.
Advertisements

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.

On Change

Nguyen - On Change 1As always, summer breezed straight past me, and I can’t even believe it’s August. I’ve already switched into full denial mode where I refuse to think about how school is coming up so soon. With all the work I spent on my project over the summer, and time divided between friends and jobs, everything seemed to move by so quickly. But after each day ends, another begins. Another challenge to face along with failures and successes. As the sun sets on the summer behind me, it’s a bit sad and exciting. I have found confidence in my own writing and my own progress, no matter how fast or slow it comes. It will be exciting to see how my pieces will continue to grow and change during the fall.

Now, it’s time to switch gears and jump into Resident Assistant duties. I won’t have much time for a break with work starting for me on August 12, so I’m trying to enjoy the idle moments. With first-year students moving in soon and the whirlwind that is orientation week, time spent writing by myself will be a luxury. I’ll miss these quiet moments, living in the world of my characters with only their voices to fill my skull, but I’m ready to embrace change, and both the highs and lows that come with it.

Nguyen - On Change 2

On Creating Characters

Nguyen 1
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.

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.

Writing A Book To Which I Do Not Know The Ending

My name is Sayre and I am writing a book to which I do not know the ending. Perhaps this isn’t so unusual. I know of several real adult writers who aren’t sure of how a certain story will turn out from its beginnings. But my case is slightly different, being that this book indeed has an ending, however the only person who really knew it died of brain cancer almost seven years ago.

This single enlightened person was my grandfather, Chick McKinney, who was writing his first and only book: a novel that in many ways mirrored his own life. It was essentially a memoir, disguised as fiction. Unfortunately, what now remains of the so-called novel is a collection of handwritten fragments. It’s possible that there’s an ending written somewhere amid the approximately four thousand loose pages that I have stacked in boxes in my room, but so far, I haven’t seen it. In fact, a lot of the middle is a mystery as well—iffy at best.

I came across one page that is labeled by my grandfather as “story line.” The entire contents of the page are the following sentence: Young boy vows to pick up where his dead brother left off and live his life for him but finds that fame and glory is a tough act to follow. Unfortunately, although I’d like to think that all of the answers are still on the pages in the boxes, I know that I’m going to have to look beyond the obvious or the tangible. I hope that my grandfather’s own biography, for one thing, will provide some answers.

Adam, the book’s protagonist, has a good amount in common with my grandfather simply in the fact that they both grew up in small Appalachian towns. My grandfather’s town had a population of a few hundred. In order to go to high school, he moved away to “the big city,” Raleigh, with his older sister. His sister Wilma offered to take in one of her younger siblings after their older brother died, as a way to help their mother, and so she chose Chick.

Below are some photos to give more context to the story of my grandfather’s upbringing:

Chick’s father at work

Chick’s father at work

Chick and his older brother

Chick and his older brother

Chick and three sisters

Chick and three sisters

Chick’s parents

Chick’s parents

Although I’m very convinced that my grandfather’s relationship with his own brother played a large role in his construction of the story, I’ve sometimes doubted whether it’s appropriate or even correct to assert that his cultural upbringing also plays a role. It’s probably true that there was an unintentional influence of actual memory in my grandfather’s writing, because of his increasing confusion as to what was true and when it had happened. But a part of me likes that idea even more. Take the following passage, for example. Originally, the protagonist was just a “he,” and I changed it to “Adam” to fit with the book. But it could just as easily have been an actual memory that my grandfather had of himself and his brother. An ambiguous passage like this might not belong in the book, and perhaps I had no right to change anything about it. But at this point, and I hope I’m right, I believe that moments like this will be the best thing about the book.

It was still dark when they turned off the paved highway onto a dirt road. There were a few ramshackle houses perched on the steep banks to the right, and three junk cars sat in a patch of tall weeds in the flat next to a small branch. Further on, the road narrowed, became rocky, and laced with gullies. “You’re going to shake every bolt loose in this old track” said Adam. They crossed over the shallows of Sassafras creek to an old logging road grown up with waist high pine seedlings. The Chevy groaned in low gear up the steep grade.

“You’d better have some g-r-u-b” said Daniel, mimicking the slow drawl of a good ole’ boy he had seen in a western movie. “Yew’ve got a l-o-n-g h-a-r-d day ahead of yew.”

            Adam laughed. “I don’t want to take your lunch.”

            “Not to worry, my good buddy. We’ve got enough to feed a couple of bears for a week.”

            “Well then, I’ll take you up on your offer.”

            “There’s a bottle opener in there somewhere.”

[…]

Down there’s your birthday present, Daniel said with a chuckle. I told papa that I was going to bring you here when you were old enough, say thirteen.

            “I told you I was only eight.”

            “Yeah, I keep forgetting that.”

[…]

            Then, a sudden strike. Adam set his hook the instant he saw the flash in the water. He let the fish run, but guided him gently into his net. It was a nine-inch native brook trout.

“What a beauty,” Daniel said. The fish was a male with a dark back and colored spots on the side. The belly and fin had an orange tint.

            “The locals call that speckled trout,” said Daniel.

            “They’re really not a trout,” said Adam. “They’re actually char.”

            “Mama always said you were a prodigy.”

            “Mama also said you were an adventurer and a romantic. But I say you’re a poet.”

            “I’ll settle for any of the three.”

            What a glorious day that was.

Read more about my project.

Eight New Honors Fellows Announced

fellows_302x201Eight 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.”

Read more.

Meet the 2015-2016 Fellows.

Stay tuned – each fellow will be blogging about their experiences throughout the next year!

The Beginning: Students Discuss Their Research Projects

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/.