fiction

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.

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!

Weeks 9 & 10

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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

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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.

 

On Creating Characters

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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.

First Week

Cox hummingbird.jpegHey there,

I’m Jordan and my project is about the separation between people and the lack thereof. I’m examining separation through essays, poetry and fiction. My fabulous adviser is Gerald Costanzo.

The essays are about people who live far away from me that I’m in regular contact with. The first essay will be about a friend who lives in Malaysia. He’s planning on joining the French Foreign Legion and is leaving his home to do so. The second essay will be about a friend who lives in Sweden. He’s shy and private, yet I who live thousands of miles away know him better than many people in his life. I specifically chose people that I don’t see in person because I have a different relationship with them than I do with people I see every day. I’m not able to do activities with these people; we just talk.

The poetry will be bracketing the essays and stories within my manuscript so that the poems have more weight individually. The poetry will examine separation on a more personal scale. One of the poems will be about the differences between walls.

I’ll be writing two stories. The first story will be about a group of girls who were sent away to school. The main character’s family is back in Korea and they’re unaware when she begins to act out. She and the other girls stop going to school and exclusively try to one-up each other in a game that they’ve created. I chose this idea because it shows what can happen when young people have minimal supervision and feel the effects of peer pressure.

The second story is about how every person in the world is part of a “pair.” This person is your other half. Most people never find the other half of their or realize that this is someone close to them already. The pair in this story realize who they are to each other at first sight. The main characters of this story are generally isolated in their environments and at first feel that this bond between the two of them is unnecessary. This story will be more about a lack of separation between two people.

That sums up my thesis. I’m excited to begin work!

 

Intentions

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I’d like to preface this post with the reassurance that it will tie back to my thesis.

I’ve been thinking a lot about intentions. Those of you who know me personally will know that yoga is an important part of my life. Yoga instructors often speak of setting an intention for your practice. For me, this often means connecting with a word, phrase or thought for the duration of the class. Setting an intention can be a way to find focus, guidance, and peace. When we greet our yoga practice with intention, we are less likely to be distracted by discomfort or uncertainty. Intentions can make you fearless, confident, or, at the very least, brave.

But intentions aren’t just for the yoga mat, they’re for much more than that. And, over the past few weeks, the idea of acting with intention in my daily life is something that has really started to sink in. Recently, I started to take note of all of my daily behaviors. I was amazed to see just how few of them I did with intention.

Checking Facebook, for example, is one behavior that often is so mindless it’s scary! I can’t make assumptions about anyone else, but for me, it seemed that I was logging into my Facebook more and more frequently, with very little purpose. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for social media. I’m a HUGE lover of Instagram. You can follow me at @laurniewilson, if you’d like 🙂 But it’s almost too easy to become addicted: to scroll forever through the seemingly endless flow of updates and articles, without absorbing a single thing. I’m certainly guilty of it. But it seemed like a habit I could break, and setting intentions seemed like the way to start. I decided to ask myself, every time I logged in, why I was logging in, in the first place. If I had a good reason, I would continue. If not, I would close the tab.

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Mindfulness is another idea that goes hand-in-hand with intention. Pema Chödrön (who I mentioned in my last post), and many other teachers, write about the importance of mindfulness. The idea behind mindfulness can be summed up roughly as living in the moment. Regardless of what you’re doing, be it slicing a tomato, or taking a test, mindfulness asks us to be present in that moment. It may sound silly, but when we wander from the present, when we lose our mindfulness and become stuck in our thoughts and inhibitions, we miss out on enjoying the precious moment we are in. If we aren’t mindful, then whatever we are doing will not be as good as it could have been.

Intention and mindfulness are powerful tools when you choose to use them. They can open up so much more of life than you ever thought possible. I’ve only just begun to skim the surface of these resources and am excited about what they can bring.

With all of these thoughts simmering in my mind, I realized that my thesis needed some serious changes. I dreaded sitting down to write because I wasn’t enjoying any of the stories I was writing. I felt disconnected and uninspired. I had known for a while that I was just writing to write, regardless of how much I disliked what I was creating. I was looking for themes and squeezing them out of already parched narratives.

Then I took a step back. A huge part of my summer has been travel. Honestly, I’ve spent more time outside of Pittsburgh than I have in it. Yet, none of my travel experiences were finding their way into my work. This was clearly a problem, especially since I have felt the most inspired since I’ve been away, free to wander and roam. Why wasn’t that a part of my thesis? Why weren’t those feelings translating into what I wrote? They needed to.

And so, without any expectations or pressure, I told myself to write about sitting beside Lake Twenty-Two on that warm, Sunday afternoon in the Washington state wilderness. When I sat down to this task, determined to access that which I already possessed within, I didn’t expect myself to have a full-blown story with subplots and a sweeping arc. I didn’t ask anything more of myself than to recapture that serenity and share it in a way that others would be able to feel it, too.

And that’s exactly what I did. Then I read it to my mom. She liked it.

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It was in that moment that I realized what my thesis would really be about. As I move forward, I will select feelings, experiences, and brief moments from my journeys. I will take these selections and write about them. Some entries may be longer than others. Until I have a few more, I’m unsure as to how they will take shape. But I will write what feels right, what feels like the most important take-away from that event, that emotion, that fleeting second that is now a memory. I will follow each entry with a photo story to illustrate what I’ve narrated.

In this way, my writing and my pictures, both directly influenced by my travels, will interact with each other, creating what I hope will be an impactful collection of thoughts and images. The themes that I had tried so hard to craft before will create themselves. Since all of these reflections will come from my life, my growth, and my inspiration, they should naturally link with each other.

It’s taken me over a month to get to this point. But I’m starting to understand that the journey is the most important part.

This Week’s Inspiration:

For the Eyes: Have you taken a moment to look up, recently? The sky offers so much to see, if we only take the time to appreciate it. (Especially on the 4th of July.)

For the Ears: Sizzling sauce pans, gurgling streams, all of these repetitive sounds have been really soothing, lately.

For the Soul: My most favorite yoga teacher is leading a month-long meditation challenge via her Instagram account @meghanjcharles. If you’ve been curious about starting your own meditation routine, this might be just the inspiration you need.

Til next time, friends.

Learn more about my project.