H.A.G.S.: Have a Great Snoop-through-my-capstone

Oh wow. The last part of the last assignment of my last fall semester at the University of Michigan. Can you feel the anticipation/relief/exhaustion radiating out of your computer screen? My hands are practically shaking with this weird combination of too tired and too awake—I can’t wait to nap for a million years, but first, I’m so excited to introduce the reason I haven’t been sleeping for the past few months!

Behold: Worth, Changing: Former Teenage Girls in Conversation!

So, like, high school. What even was that, amirite, ladies? After spending this past summer reading a bunch of books about feminist theory and adolescence and the feminist theory of adolescence, I began to wonder why I entered college so incredibly determined to forget everything that had happened in high school. What was I so afraid of? Had those four years really changed me all that much?

The more I learned about adolescence within the context of gender socialization, the more I wanted to learn about my fellow former teenagers’ high school experiences. Was I the weird one for letting the societal pressures of high school “get to me?” How did my peers feel they’d changed as a result of their teenage years, for better or for worse?

I really value the time and effort my interview subjects (many of whom I didn’t have enough time to write about) put into this project, and I feel like I’ve learned so much from our conversations about their journeys. I hope you find their perspectives as interesting as I do, and I hope it inspires you to ask a friend about their adolescence or share your own story here.

(Huge thanks to T Hetzel and the rest of my Capstone cohort—you guys are truly the best bunch I’ve ever written with.)

Forgetting the Fear

Oh god. Staring at the currently unpopulated white space of this text box, I feel overwhelmed. What do I write? If I write something, will it matter to anyone? Will it matter to me?

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I find it a little hard to believe that after (nearly) completing a whole class dedicated to my writing goals, I still feel this way when starting a new project. Even if the “project” is just a blog post. Just like anything else, writing gets easier the more it’s practiced, but the beginning never ceases to feel scary, it seems.

When I begin brainstorming for my Capstone project, I thought I had it all figured out. I knew I was going to make a book, and that was the least scary thing I could imagine. And then I actually sat down to write something, and The Fear wormed its way into my brain. Why was I even doing this? Who would care?

My biggest piece of advice for my September self (besides the obvious “you don’t have time to write, design, and print a book”) is to write like no one’s reading. That might sound counterintuitive or depressing or completely wrong, I get it. But when in your college career have you been able to write whatever you want for a whole semester for credit? This time should be savored, and it shouldn’t be hijacked by a paralyzing fear of the “audience,” whoever that might be.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t listen to the feedback you receive on your work. Your Capstone cohort will likely be one of the nicest, most tightly-knit groups of writers you’ve ever encountered (I know mine has been). They really want you to succeed and they’ll give you great constructive responses that come from a place of love and genuine interest. Listen to them.

Maybe you don’t need to hear this, but I’m writing it anyway because I’m trying this new thing where I write what I want without second-guessing myself: your ideas matter. If that inkling of a project pinging around in your head excites you, if thinking about researching it for hours, spending time with it, shaping it into a thing that will live in your hands or on a screen… if all of that makes your chest glowy and warm, do that thing. Start today. As long as you’re passionate, as long as you care, someone somewhere will, too.

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It’s Crunch Time, Baby

After conducting seven interviews in three weeks and taking far more photos than I’ll need to complete my project, you’d think I’d be feeling okay, right? A little ahead? Maybe give myself some room to relax?

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I’m way in my head about things! I know exactly what I need to do next, but I’m so worried. What if I start writing up these case studies and discover that I have nothing to say? What if I accidentally mischaracterize someone’s experience? What if I spend all my time worrying and won’t have enough time to create my book by the showcase deadline?

The solution is, of course, to just do something. A big roadblock for me has been transcription: I was hoping to do all of it before beginning to write the case studies, but have since remembered that I am horrific at both listening and typing. Luckily, I recently discovered Descript, a free desktop program that transcribes and cuts audio for you! I’ve been messing around with it all weekend and should have the interviews I want to feature (including my own, which will be conducted tomorrow) transcribed very soon.

Next, I need to crank out these case studies. I want them to read like narrative articles, so I’ve got my first one outlined and have begun doing targeted research for it. I’m surprised by both how many specific resources are out there for me to explore, and how many resources I planned on using have now been rendered irrelevant. Still, I guess I’ll have the rest of my life to explore theories pertaining to adolescent female psychology, right?

For my first case study, I plan on focusing on my interview subject’s escape into the world of comics, struggles with body image both inside and outside her school’s theatre department, and how her newfound internal confidence after adolescence manifests in how she expresses herself through clothing. So far, I’ve been researching fat stigma in theatre and how graphic novels can positively affect teens. I’m nervous about not having enough to say, but I’m writing anyway. What else can I do?

H.A.G.S.: High School, Yearbooks, and Your Mind on Feminist Theory

Okay, I’m just gonna start off here by stating for the record: I didn’t like high school when I was in high school. Like, at all. I was a super messy teenager who fought with her mom all the time and had crazy intense crushes and fell asleep during study hall. Yet, somehow, it’s all I think about now. In the spring of 2018, I found some senior photos I’d buried in my old email account; maybe that planted the seed. Seeing myself all scrawny and dolled up was an intense and endlessly cringy flashback.

The author at seventeen, just doing the absolute most.

I’ve been reading a lot of feminist theory and sociology, a lot of books about fractured communication and relationships between genders, a lot about what it means to be a “woman.” (Many of these resources are from the Second Wave and are therefore pretty trans-exclusionary, so here I’m referring to cis “womanhood”, although I personally respect and celebrate all gender identities.) The one I’m currently on, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher, PhD, has forced me to think much more critically about the role of high school in teenage girls’ lives.

High school is both a passive transitionary space between childhood and adulthood and a very well-orchestrated incubator for the implementation of toxic patriarchal norms. Girls are thrust into an environment in which they must learn to perform womanhood, and upon doing so, are pigeonholed into their particular flavor of it: slut, prude, ice queen, wannabe. I remember doing my makeup in the handicap-accessible bathroom before class so no one would have to know I didn’t wake up beautiful. I remember the boys at the bus stop poking at my birthmark and demanding to know whose hickey that was.

Our society treats high school like a sexual laboratory (ever seen Riverdale?), a living meet-cute. I challenge you to name one teen movie or television show set in a high school that focuses on the students actually going to class. That’s not reality; it’s just stupid adults projecting their sexual politics onto a nostalgic, “neutral” framework. But life imitates art, and those imagined high schools we grow up seeing on the page or the screen are acted out on the stage of actual high schools in America. Enter: my interest in yearbooks, which provide an authentic (if idealized) look into the high school experience.

A spread in my sketchbook about a yearbook I found at an antique store.

The yearbooks with which I have interacted (mine, those of my relatives, those of total strangers) compile a hodge-podge of images and real-life testimonials to the realities of high school, both by co-mission (“Thanks for suffering through Spanish with me!”) and omission (everybody mentions parties but nobody talks about what goes down at them). They also create a snapshot of someone through the eyes of others. The first yearbook I bought at an antique store was full of signatures from girls who exclusively used glitter gel pens and hearted every i, so it was easy to assume that this Justin guy was quite the babe magnet.

Oddly enough, I was never actually interested in Justin himself; I found the girls with which he surrounded himself far more complex and substantiative as subjects. That might explain the hesitance I expressed when offered the idea of a research or fiction project regarding the yearbook’s owner. Plus, cornering a now-police officer with “Hey I found your yearbook from 2002 and it looks like you had some really questionable friendships with underage girls” sounds amazing and cathartic, but it doesn’t sound like a job I’d want to take on.

So where does this leave me? It’s tough to say. I have so much emotional investment in the topic of adolescent womanhood (believe it or not, I was one of those!) and how it intersects with our cultural narrative surrounding high school. But god, that’s such an expansive topic! My first step is buying more yearbooks. I’ve already bought five this week, and plan to invest in more in the near future. I’m not sure if these yearbooks with be the centerpiece of my Capstone project, or just one piece of research in a broader discussion of female identity in high school culture.

What a long, strange trip this is going to be…

How I Learned to Write Like Myself

Let me start out by stating the obvious: I had so much fun writing this semester! Although my writing was pretty personal and often serious in tone, I had a blast experimenting with genre, audience, and voice. That’s probably the biggest way I’ve grown this semester: I’ve learned to embrace my writing style. Instead of conforming to a tone I thought the audience (i.e. the professor grading the paper) would appreciate, I was able to make choices about how I wanted it to sound and what would work best for my project. I have these blog posts to thank for that, at least in part: blogging has allowed me to write in a loose, informal way, which has really helped me learn to love the sound of my own (writing) voice. This is what has made my experiments and final project so fun to create: I’m able to put so much of myself into them.

That thought connects nicely to the advice I have for new Gateway students: pick an origin piece that you love, something that means a lot to you. You might find it easier to transform that research paper on polluted waterways, but is that really where your interests lie? Picking a subject you’re passionate about is gonna make writing so much more fun and fulfilling, and it will allow you not only to grow as a writer, but as a person, too.

Without further ado, some information about my e-portfolio. My origin piece is a transcript of an interview I conducted with my grandmother about her early married life, in which she learned that my grandfather had Hodgkin’s lymphoma (practically a death sentence in 1959) and had to keep it a secret from him for many years. This semester, I have made exploring her emotional experience of this period my main objective. My final project is an artist writing that explores a fiber arts piece I created to compliment my origin piece. The writing connects “women’s work” like weaving to societal expectations for women, as well as to themes of grief, monotony, and perfection. (This all makes much more sense when you actually see the artwork, which is why I’ve included images of it in my final project.) Along with my artist writing, my e-portfolio includes all three of my experiments in their entirety, along with a comprehensive introduction of my origin piece and why the topic of my grandfather’s disease matters to me.

You can find it here: www.brookseisen.wixsite.com/gateway

Lattes and Literature: A Great End to an Exhausting Tuesday

Attending the Writer to Writer event last Tuesday was a breath of fresh air in the midst of a very busy week. As soon as I stepped into Literati, I was overwhelmed by the warm fuzzies I always get in an independent bookstore. Upstairs, I bought the best tea latte of all time and took my seat: a rickety, high-backed wooden chair near the front but not in the front (I’m pretty fearless but sitting in the front row of a writer’s talk is where I draw the line). The room soon grew crowded, but a cozy, comfortable kind of crowded. It was nice to see how many people turned out to listen to someone talking about writing!

Heather Ann Thompson’s insights about writing really encouraged, inspired, and educated me. I appreciated her perspective about writing sensitive material that was engaging and accurate without being sensationalized. That’s a difficult line to walk, and I think I’d need to revise about twenty times if I were to write a passage on prison torture, but her advice gave me the confidence to at least feel like I could attempt it. I think her most impactful comment arose when asked about confidence as a writer. Her commentary on “being your own source” and being confident enough if your research to express it freely really spoke to me. Just a day prior, I had turned in the longest research paper I’ve ever written (twenty-one pages!), and still felt a little unsure about my ability to draw original conclusions from my research. Her words echoed what I probably already knew: you know this information, now do something with it!

The interview left me wishing I had enough cash on me to buy the book! I have been interested in prison systems, mass incarceration, and the prison industrial complex for a while, and Thompson’s Blood In The Water seems like an interesting and informative read. I can’t wait to check it out from the library and see how she presents her research in an engaging narrative style. This is another thing I was left wondering: how to combine research and narrative effectively. I’d love to try my hand at it someday, and I bet I’ll gain a great genre model from Thompson’s book!

 

Moth Mania: My Favorite Stories from Three Consecutive Hours of Listening

So I think I overdid it a little. I was unable to attend the local Moth Radio Hour last Tuesday, so I started listening to the Moth Radio podcast for the first time. Before I knew it, it was three hours later and I had barrelled through five episodes. Here are some of my favorite stories and what they taught me:

“A Sign, A Satire, and a Scandal” by R. Eric Thomas
A mix of humor, seriousness, and emotion, this was a great first-ever Moth story! The storyteller takes us along for the ride as he writes a satire piece about a Black History Month sign, only for him, an African-American college student, to be called a racist. His story heavily features his own internal monologue, so the audience empathizes with him from the beginning and always knows what to feel. Thomas has an easygoing rapport with the crowd and I could practically hear him feeding off of their energy as he spoke. This story taught me that the level of detail you choose to share with the audience drastically affects their perception of the tale and of you. It also taught me that the energy you bring to the stage can make or break your story.

“Mug Shot” by Steve Osborne
The host introduced the storyteller as a retired New York City police officer, adding “…and yes, that is his real voice.” As Osborne began to speak, I understood why: he had a “feg-ed-aboud-it!” New York accent you only hear on TV. He himself was a dynamic character, making his story just as dynamic. He told a story about a criminal he was about to nab, only to discover that he had died weeks ago. The perp’s mother, who was living in the apartment the cops investigated, asked to keep a copy of her son’s mugshot, a photo Osborne described as one “only a mother could love” earlier on in the story. That subtle foreshadowing brought everything together, making the ending all the more touching and cathartic. The storyteller also achieved the amazing feat of making the audience feel for the mother of a criminal while simultaneously rooting for the cop after him. This story taught me that half the story depends on the identity and attitude of the storyteller, and that foreshadowing can turn an interesting story into an astounding one.

“C’est La Vie” by Terrance Flynn
Hoo boy, this one was a doozy! Probably my favorite one so far. The storyteller takes care to set the scene of his nights at a gay bar called C’est La Vie, complete with all the sights, sounds, and smells. He describes an attractive man, a key figure, in intricate detail, from his windswept blond hair and dirty work boots to the way he always smelled like chocolate. Only much later in the story is it revealed that this man, who Flynn pined after for years but never obtained, was freakin’ Jeffrey Dahmer. HOLY PLOT TWIST, RIGHT? When this bomb was dropped, I (and, I assume, the rest of the audience) wondered how I didn’t see it before: blond, skinny, sketchy man at a gay bar in Milwaukee in the 1980s? Crazy. Not every story can have a jaw-dropping moment like this, but it certainly helps to keep people engaged. This story taught me that if you’ve got a plot twist, build up to it! It also taught me that tiny details can make a story surprising and special.

Would I write a story for the Moth Radio Hour? I’ve certainly listened to enough of ’em to have the practice. Seriously though, while I’ve never been a New York cop or been centured by my college’s Black Student Society or almost gone home with a cannibal, I might have some stories to tell. They don’t have to be super crazy: as long as I use vivid detail, empathetic narrative, and play off my audience, I think I might be able to pull it off.

Pan-WHOM? A Poetic Novice’s Guide to the Pantoum

I’ve always had a soft spot for classical poetry. Whether it’s playing with iambic pentameter or crafting the perfect sonnet, poetic form is like a puzzle that has the potential to reveal fascinating connections in otherwise overworked or overthought stanzas. One type of classical poetry I’ve always been interested (and a little hesitant) to try is the pantoum, a form adapted from Malaysian folk poetry.

Traditionally, pantoums follow an ABAB rhyme scheme, although rhyming is no longer integral to the form and has fallen slightly out of vogue in the past half-century. The real crux of a pantoum lies in its stanza structure. Here’s a step-by-step guide to crafting a basic pantoum:

First, write a four-line stanza. It’ll be easier on you down the line if the lines in this first stanzas are all standalone sentences, but if you’re up for a challenge (or just love torturing yourself, like me), feel free to employ line breaks and sentence fragments.

Next, number the lines in your stanza (1, 2, 3, 4). In your next stanza, line 2 will become line 1, and line 4 will become line 3. Keep repeating this structure for as long as you choose (some advise 5-7 stanzas, others believe pantoums should be longer). The structure will end up looking something like this:

(1) There are those who suffer in plain sight,
(2) there are those who suffer in private.
(3) Nothing but secondhand details:
(4) a last shower, a request for a pen, a tall red oak.

(2) There are those who suffer in private.
(5) The one in Tehachapi, aged 13.
(4) A last shower, a request for a pen, a tall red oak:
(6) he had had enough torment, so he hanged himself.

Finally, when you feel like your poem has come to a close, take lines 1 and 3 from your first stanza and make them lines 2 and four of your final stanza. In the poem above, “September Elegies” by Randall Mann, it looks like this:

(15) Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.
(1) There are those who suffer in plain sight
(16) like the one in New Brunswick, aged 18.
(3) Nothing but secondhand details.

After going through this process, my biggest tip to budding pantoumers is to let the form propel you forward, not hold you back. The lines should provide the scaffolding you need to build a story, and if a line feels out of place, feel free to alter it a bit! Great examples of this can be found throughout Carolyn Kizer’s “Parent’s Pantoum.” Here’s a taste, her third and fourth stanzas:

They moan about their aging more than we do,
A somber group—why don’t they brighten up?
Though they say they admire our youthful spontaneity
They beg us to be dignified like them

As they ignore our pleas to brighten up.
Someday perhaps we’ll capture their attention
Then we won’t try to be dignified like them
Nor they to be so gently patronizing.

Kizer uses the last few words of the lines to connect the stanzas, rather than copying and pasting the whole line in place. That’s okay! The right move is whatever flows best in your pantoum. In today’s post-form poetic landscape, it’s all about what suits the poet’s narrative best. Make the form work for you, don’t just slave away to fulfill the demands of the form.

This is a fun poetic process that has the potential to surprise both poet and reader. I urge you to give it a try—happy pantouming!

Artist Statements: Who Cares, Right?

If you’ve ever been to an art gallery, you know that nobody cares about artist statements. You go there to look at some pretty art, take some pretty pictures, and buy overpriced postcards of Starry Night. If you wanted to know about a certain artwork or artist, you could just look it up online, right? Who wants to read all the drabble when you could be standing in front of the painting, stroking your chin, like a real intellectual?

(D’ya think he’s reading the artist statement?)

 

Well, surprise surprise! I care! I don’t read every placard I see when I go to galleries, but if I see a piece that really grabs me, I want to learn more about it, and who better to explain the piece than the artist themselves? Artist statements are integral to both art viewing and artmaking: artists often uncover more about their pieces by writing about them. In this experiment, I wanted to explore a concept I hope to turn into a fiber art piece by writing an artist statement describing it. A little counterintuitive, right? But doing so helped me better understand what I want the piece to convey to my audience, and how I get there through visual means.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the way things usually go in the conventions of this genre. Normally, you’d need an art piece to describe before you start describing it. But after that, it turns out you can’t just start throwing around adjectives willy-nilly. Here’s some statement-writing advice I’ve discovered through this writing process:

  1. Be concise, to a point. Some recommend statements be 100-250 words long, others write around a page, single-spaced. It’s all about how you grab the reader, and how much stamina you think they have to read about your work.
  2. No fancy language! You want these statements to be accessible to anyone reading them, and since gallerygoers come from all walks of life, the language used shouldn’t be overly flowery or complex. Say what you want to say in a simple way.
  3. Demystify the process. Gallery patrons only see the finished artwork—they have no idea how you made it, and how important that “how” is to the meaning of the piece. If it’s relevant, take them on a journey of making and point out places where the process becomes visible to the naked eye. Let the audience follow along with you!
  4. Interpret and analyze. What aesthetic aspects add to the meaning of the piece? Why’d you draw that flower, or use that shade of blue? You don’t have to put every detail under the microscope, but find a few surprising ones that speak to the piece’s concept and milk ’em.
  5. Tell a story. In the end, art is all about storytelling. What story is your piece trying to tell? This doesn’t mean that you have to start every artist statement with a narrative vignette (although did…); just make sure your words clearly reflect the message your piece attempts to send.

Although there are some “templates” for this type of writing, with each paragraph assigned to an area of explanation or analysis, there’s a fair amount of wiggle room here. Some artist statements (found here) begin with an overview of the artist’s main focuses or their whole body of work, then focus on the piece at hand. Some begin with a vignette, telling the story behind the piece, then backing it up with “evidence” from the artwork. They can be poetic and narrative or direct and analytical, in the first person or the third. The real test is this: does the statement help the audience understand the intention behind the piece? Does it help you connect to your audience? If so, you might just have an artist statement people will want to read!

Narrative Journalism: A How-To Guide

I enjoy my fair share of newspaper articles, if I’m allowed to call them that—there’s no real paper involved anymore, at least not for a broke college student who has to browse The New York Times in incognito mode to dodge the read-three-then-pay requirement. Keeping up with current events is a great “wait, I’m actually being productive!” distractions, and getting all righteous and outraged about the social and political climate is one of my favorite pastimes. But once in a while, when I’m browsing The Atlantic or The Washington Post, I’ll come across a piece that has nothing to do with politics or economics, one that’s real and raw and honest, one that tells a story I never knew I cared about. Those are the pieces that really stick with me. That’s the magic of narrative journalism: relaying the facts, sure, but also uncovering fundamental truths about what it means to be human along the way. Telling a story and telling the truth.

My nana has always told me, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Hopefully she’ll forgive me just this once.

Here’s some conventions I’ve recognized through my study of this genre (shockingly, there’s a bit of an overlap with journalism):

  1. Titles are short and sweet, but leave a little to be discovered. (“The Jabberwocky in a Cancer Lab”? What does that mean? I don’t know but I want to find out!)
  2. Header illustrations add foreshadowing, and set the tone for the piece. Muted colors? Might be a bit of a bummer. Shaky lines and unique textures? A down-to-earth read you’ll want to relate to.
  3. Paragraphs are kept short. It’s easy on the eyes and reads more like a conversation and less like a lecture.
  4. Interviews are a big part of these pieces (this is still journalism, after all). Quotes are often highlighted in big, bold letters to break up the piece, or else strategically placed at the beginning or end of a paragraph. No quote-burying here!
  5. Links! No need to distract readers with crazy long citations—just turn that clinical study blue and invite them to click at their own discretion.
  6. The author is involved in the story somehow, either as passive audience or engaged actor. First person narration is often used liberally.
  7. These pieces are here to inform, but also to entertain, to intrigue and delight and tug at the heartstrings. Topics often walk the line between personal and universal.
  8. Sometimes the story guides us to the next point, other times the research takes the lead. As long as the narrative thread stays constant throughout, it’s okay to take readers along the scenic route.

For my research, I focused exclusively on narrative journalism pieces centered around cancer. I wanted to see how other authors managed to humanize the disease while still focusing on the hard science. Here’s what I discovered:

“What Mormon Family Trees Tell Us About Cancer,” an Atlantic article by Sarah Zhang, doesn’t really sound like a thrill ride. But the direct and informative title tells readers exactly what they need to know about the factual content of the piece. Diving in, they are likely to be surprised by the amount of interesting historical context involved, and the amount of human connection: the article centers around interviews with Gregg, a Salt Lake City native whose family has been afflicted with a unique type of colon cancer for generations. Aiming to write an article that weaves together historical fact, scientific research, and true-to-life stories, this carries all three elements in abundance and was an excellent place for me to begin my understanding of the genre.

“Tracking Cancer and Ancestry, With Mysteries in Each,”New York Times piece by Susan Gubar, also starts with a straightforward title, one that leaves a bit of a question in its wake (“What ‘mysteries’? Tell me more!”). The article chronicles the experiences of Jan, a friend of the author whose quest for truths about her ancestry coincides with her recent cancer diagnosis in an unexpected way. The way Gubar handles the subject of her writing was particularly instructive for me, as my own piece centered around my grandmother, and how was I going to be all objective and impartial about her? Here, the author treats her friend like any other interviewee, while using their close friendship to inform factual aspects of her writing. She can more accurately extrapolate what Jan thinks about her situation and how she feels, because they really know each other. This was very informative: write the article like you would a story with a fully developed protagonist.

“The Jabberwocky in a Cancer Lab” was, oddly enough, also written by Susan Gubar for The New York Times (a coincidence, I swear!). In this one, Gubar explores the disconnect between researchers and cancer patients, and the way technical language plays a role in this divide. She does this by equating the aforementioned technical language with the nonsense language of Lewis Carroll’s famous poem, “Jabberwocky.” Finally, something about cancer even I can comprehend! This article uses a bunch of scientific lingo, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. It leans heavily into a narrative style that feels cozy and familiar to short story readers, while mentioning tumor-suppressing genes and microenvironment. This is the line I wanted to walk with my piece: approachable but informative.

Reporting the facts, but also wearing your heart on your sleeve? Telling the truth while also caring about things? Oof…exhausting. But I think I might be up to the challenge. To all my fellow journalists and storytellers, happy writing!