And so are you, probably. Tired of school, tired of the pandemic, tired of the chaos and stress of everything.
My capstone did not turn out as I expected. I went in thinking I was going to write a creative immersion journalism piece on the pitfalls of a modern fad, but the pandemic struck me in a very interesting way. This essay shows that very clearly.
When the pandemic struck, I thought I would never finish my capstone. So many things got upended, and I was too stressed to focus on anything. I wanted to quit. But thank you to Shelley for being the most amazing capstone instructor ever, accommodating me and guiding me through everything, and we touched on the idea of featuring the pandemic in my essay. I first brainstormed this capstone before COVID-19 was even known to the world, but now it is an integral part of my final capstone project. It just happened that way, and I think it is very reflective of this moment in life we are all enduring.
So! Welcome to my capstone! It has been quite a journey, and I am very tired but very proud. It is a piece of long-form creative non-fiction, and it touches on the fad of modern minimalism as a lifestyle and aesthetic. I question the ways in which it has grown from its countercultural art roots, explore the entanglements of class privilege, environmental impact, spirituality and most importantly (to me), reflect on how minimalism’s popularity is the reflection of something much deeper, much more raw, and common to the human experience. The pandemic showed me that.
It’s a long piece, and I hope you enjoy. I didn’t think I’d make it, but here I am. This is In Search of Shadows.
^How I feel heading into finals season as a arts/social science major with a ton of final essays to submit.
This semester in the MiW Gateway has been one heck of a ride. I came in thinking one thing about writing, and kind of had that all turned on its head, for better or for worse! I loved the Gateway process and the emphasis on learning through the lens of genres and their conventions, affordances and limitations. It makes me so conscious of how texts operate in everyday life and how we partake of that as writers.
Some major takeaways from this semester:
My belief that you could write from start to finish was crushed to pieces. I learnt many things about the implications of genre conventions, and how they both can be a cage or a scaffold/foundation on which you can build a skyscraper. Writing in confused, terrible fragments was a major challenge for me, but I learnt that it is way better to write a shitty first draft than to write nothing at all. You can edit a shitty first draft, but you can’t edit nothing.
Related to the point above, I realized that I struggle with linearizing my thoughts, and what I used to do in all my previous paper writing was that I’d stare blankly at my “New Document 1” screen for a couple of hours, agonizing over how I would put down these words. I thought of it like a sprint from the starting line to the finish line, and the few hours I spent staring was me trying to organize my thoughts in my head, until it was acceptable for me to start writing the thoughts, like laying down a neat little footpath from beginning to the end. Nah, doesn’t work like that. And I had to learn to see this not as a failure on my writing juices, but as a process I needed to learn how to embrace.
You write best when you have something to say. I got so stuck at some experiments because I was so caught up in meeting deadlines I lost sight of why I was writing in the first place! And that is such a rough spot to be!
Anyway, I’ve learned so much about writing, and myself, and myself as a writer this semester. Something I might work on for the Capstone? Spending more time reading fiction again, but also learning to harness how my brain works. I learned that I love exploring contradictions and the idea of holding two contradictory ideas at the same time (1984, anyone?), as well as embracing a non-linear train of thought. I guess I want to learn how to use/harness that in my writing, rather than forcing myself to be at odds with how I naturally think and process by creating a “I must write from start to finish!” idea.
I guess that’s all I have to say. With regards to the GIF above, that applies to all the other classes 😉 My GIF for submitting my portfolio (EYY IT LIVES HERE) looks more like this:
But anyway, here’s my Gateway ePortfolio! Lots of pain and agonizing in the process of creating this, but hey, 5 semesters of college has taught me the work you value most is the one you left a piece of your heart in, and that only happens with the pieces that were the hardest to write.
I wasn’t able to attend the event at Literati bookstore (what a shame, I heard the topic and felt SO FOMO), so I listened to one of the other episodes in the Sweetland Center’s Topics in Writing Podcast. I listened to the episode with Elizabeth Wardle, Professor of Writing at Miami University, discussing the topic “Teaching to Encourage Transfer Across Courses and Context”.
I chose this podcast because I was curious what professors of writing think about how writing classes are supposed to build “general writing skills” even though writing anything is always so specific to the rhetorical situation! I guess it is something we discussed earlier in the course but I just wanted to come back to this idea and reflect, especially in light of the fact that we are almost done with the Gateway course and I am wondering how this class has changed how I approach writing from here on out. Moreover, I have plans to be an English teacher after graduation, and I also just want to think about how I might teach my students to be effective writers beyond the classroom.
Something in particular that struck me when listening to the podcast was when she talked about how students and instructors may approach the same genre with very different ideas of what it encompasses. She mentioned that an instructor may assign the same “write a journal” assignment semester after semester, but every student comes to it with their own different idea of what it is, and that could be a huge stumbling block in the student’s ability to write what the instructor is looking for. I think it is so important then, to think about how individual experience informs their conception of particular genres, and how crucial it is to bridge any gaps in conceptualization between instructor and student, so as to prevent frustration on both ends.
Another point she brought up was about “meeting requirements”. Often, in writing assignments, it is easy to fall into the “fulfil the set requirements mindset”, which is basically follow numerical requirements set on an assignment. Easy right? 10 pages, double spaced, font size 12, 3-5 academic sources. I found it really enlightening when she talked about how she felt that requirements really depended on each student and their individual topic and admire how she could individually discuss with them what they might need, and make them aware of it themselves. As a student, it would probably be frustrating to get the answer “it depends” all the time, but it is so true! There is an ideal number of [insert item] for every writing assignment, but it is so dependent on context, topic, rhetorical situation etc., and I agree with her that it is a more valuable learning and growth experience for the student to wrestle with what their specific writing needs are.
If I had been present, I really wish I could have asked how she might encourage students to apply their writing knowledge beyond classroom settings, such as writing for non-academic purposes, and what she thinks of teaching transfer, not just across academic disciplines, but also making connections to how they and their writing might function in the world.
The night at the Moth blew me away. I have missed listening to stories, for the academic rigor of the college education often leaves little room for anything that doesn’t require an MLA/APA/Chicago citation.
I loved the entire experience of the live storyslam. There’s something so unique about having 200 people sitting in the same room, all united with the purpose of engaging with a story. It wasn’t just about the stories, every part of the Moth event contributed to the experience as a whole. There was the audience warm up by the oh-so-charismatic host with an amazing laugh, there was the excitement of drawing names from the hat, the performative aspect of the stories, the judging process, the use of mini-stories between the big stories, all of that built up to a very refreshing evening. I honestly felt like I got more in contact with my emotional/human side, which often gets slighted in favor of posh objective academic discourse (you feel me?). I think the rules of the Moth added to the overall vibe of intimacy and authenticity. 5-minute stories kept things concise and almost like a conversational story, rather than a ted talk lecture, and making it true+ YOUR story to tell made the experience of listening to them so authentic, knowing that the stories were real and from the mouth of the one who had been through it.
But why would I want to pay money to attend the live event when it is all uploaded in podcasts and story hours anyway?
There’s so much to an evening at a live story slam that just doesn’t come through if you’re listening to the stories from your own bed. Not that I wouldn’t, I feel like that is a wonderful experience in itself, but the evening at the slam itself is completely different. One thing I really loved was hearing the mini-stories in between the big stories. These were short, anonymous responses to a prompt on a slip of paper, related to the theme. Tuesday’s theme was “Distance” and the mini-stories prompt was “Tell us about a time you went all the way”. I loved hearing the quirky, different interpretations of this, and the way people condensed it into a few poignant sentences. This is especially because I just finished an experiment in writing microfiction, and these mini-stories I heard reminded me so much of microfiction, in that a lot of the good ones still had that sense of beginning, middle and end, and alluding to something larger, even in the small form of a few sentences.
I’m definitely putting the future storyslams on my calendar. I’ve already made a date with one of my friends for the 4th December one! I am so excited!
So I took my short story… and made it shorter? What on earth is microfiction anyway?
Microfiction is basically a way of telling a story in as little words as possible. Microfiction pieces are little bits of prose that tell a story in very few sentences. There isn’t a hard set limit on what defines the microfiction word count, but a common guideline is less than 300 words, less than 500 in some cases, and even less than 100 for some online litmags!
One extreme example:
“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn”
This extreme example is a 6-word story commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, though this link is not entirely established as fact. The power of this example is how it establishes a beginning, middle and end, in so few words! It tells a story much larger than the words on a page, and I personally believe the power lies in the things left unsaid.
Here is a longer example:
What is Death Like? by Xavier Barzey
A German cockroach lay stiff on its back as its mesothoracic legs flickered in slow motion on the front porch. “What is death like?” she asks intently with an innocent gleam in her little eye. I looked at her, uncertain of what to say. I reflected for a moment, “uh… well, I suppose it may hurt at first, but then you begin to transcend beyond the present and soon you’ll feel nothing.” Perplexed, she cupped her hands around the roach and stroked it softly on its back. It lay rigid. “There,” she says. “He’s okay now.”
I think what really struck me about this was the beginning and the end. The beginning is evocative and drops us right at the heart of the scene and zooms in to the important symbol. Efficient and effective. And the ending is just so… poignant. I love it because it provokes so much thought. The contrast between death and “okay” comes through so strongly which is what made this ending really stick for me.
Microfiction is a very non-codified form, and is defined only by its brevity and narrative completeness. I also found a twitter feed dedicated to such pieces, and extracted this as an example:
I thought this was a marvellous example of a super short version of microfiction. There is so much he tells in so little space. My main takeaway from this was the use of references to larger societal idioms e.g. Zeus/gods helps connect the smaller piece to lots of larger concepts. Microfiction has so little space for one to say things, so if the author can capitalize on words that have links to other narrative/societal/cultural references, the words that do make it into the piece reach far further into the realms of things left unsaid.
So what characterizes a piece of microfiction?
Then name says it all. The art of microfiction is saying so much through so little. This can be achieved by careful word choice and using references to wider socio-cultural topics.
The good piece of microfiction is more than a bunch of random words thrown together into a paragraph or couple of sentences. There still must be a beginning, a middle and an end in the mind of the author, who must somehow transmit this to the reader.
Subjectivity and ambiguity is okay
This is not an academic essay, nor a fully fleshed out novel. And it is not meant to accomplish those things. I think part of the beauty of microfiction is similar to what I like about poetry – there is room for interpretation. Saying so little means that you have to choose your words carefully, but it doesn’t mean you have to be razor sharp and lead your audience to one interpretation and one interpretation only. I think leaving some room for ambiguity is fun and mysterious!
So there’s my spiel on microfiction! We’ll see how it goes!
I have been looking forward to writing short stories since I selected my origin piece for this semester. I love short stories and admire the brevity with which master short story authors can convey deep, impactful, or memorable and quirky stories. I personally struggle with excessive verbosity in my writing, and wanted a personal challenge in the art of brevity.
Short stories – are exactly what they are in the name. It has a narrative plot and a fully developed theme, but is more compact, taking up less pages and length. Every sentence and every word matters in the construction of the plot and dramatic development. Even though they are short and meant to be read in one sitting, they are still narratively complete and satifying.
I did some research and thinking into what makes a good short story. (Read: I got to revisit my favorite anthologies for “academic purposes”, not procrastination!). Here’s a short list of what I think might make for a wonderful short story:
Less is more – Leaving certain things unsaid not only debloats the narrative, it leaves room for the reader’s imagination to add layers onto your story.
Jump straight in – Ain’t nobody got time for two chapters of backstory! Dive headfirst into the problem scenario and go from there!
Let your characters slowly reveal themselves – I think this is a powerful tool in keeping things intriguing and suspenseful.
Dialogue brings life! – Dialogue moves the plot quickly and also reveals tons about characters and their relationships. Just like 1., less is more!
Who needs happy endings? – Perhaps this is just my unpopular opinion, but I think some of the coolest short stories I have ever read had the most unsettling endings. It also takes too much space to tie everything up with a nice and neat little bow, in my probably very biased opinion.
Theme, Theme, Theme – oh, so important for keeping the story focused! A theme provides a line of underlying logic to the story that keeps everything cohesive.
Here are some texts I used to guide my explorations:
The Way Up to Heaven – Roald Dahl
This has to be one of my favorite short stories of all time. I love how Dahl is able to build such a story and character setting so nuanced and personal, it feels like you intimately know the characters and their relationship. My absolutely favorite part is the last paragraph of this piece. I really admire how Dahl, with one sentence, was able to take an entire, seemingly harmless story, and cast everything in a really dark light. This is the kind of ending I aspire towards in my story. Some classify this story as “horror fiction”, but I think it is just a very cleverly crafted short story with a dark ending. I think Dahl’s use of symbols in this text are also very interesting, and I might like to model that in how I use the shoes as symbols in my own story.
The Desire For Elsewhere – Agnes Chew
Technically, this book is not a short story piece. It is actually a piece of creative non-fiction but I thought the way the text is structured would make it a useful model for aspects of my story. Chew uses little travel artefacts such as boarding passes, Polaroid photographs and little souvenirs as launching points for recounting her travel experiences and sharing her ruminations on life. She organizes all of these artefacts in an imagined museum of the mind. I felt this was very relevant to how I want to tell my story because I also want to create a kind of mental environment that needs navigation, with the shoes as artefacts as launching points to relate to personal narratives and flashbacks of the protagonist.
The Truth Is A Cave in the Black Mountains – Neil Gaiman
This is another short story I really love. I find that it’s actually rather long for a short story, but hey, it’s Neil Gaiman’s writing so I’m not complaining. I find the use of dialogue in this short story extremely compelling. It keeps the story constantly moving, and reveals a lot about the characters in very subtle ways. I also find it fascinating how Gaiman is able to conceal so much about the narrator from the reader, and so carefully drops one clue at a time until the whole premise of the narrator’s motives are revealed. The chilling circularity of the events described in the story is so well-crafted, and I love the use of memory in this piece. I really hope to be able to model that in my own work.
Short stories are far from easy to write. You need to balance the need to describe vividly with the need for brevity. It is a tough exercise in judging artistic salience in your own work. But I also feel that the brevity forces you to make tough choices such that every single word in your narrative counts for something. Every word is a crown jewel in your narrative. And I think that is a beautiful concept.
Chat fiction is a relatively new genre of story-telling that operates via the medium of a text message inbox. Often displayed through online videos or through apps like Hooked or Yarn, we read through a text message conversation between two (sometimes more) individuals.
Where is She?
Where is She? is one of the most well-known chat fiction pieces circulating the web and features. The story starts with the sound of a mysterious crying baby and follows the text conversation between a teen girl, Tiffany, and her mother. It exhibits many features quite typical to most chat fiction pieces.
It tells stories via text messages (sometimes employing other modes like pictures)
The action is fast-paced and draws you in quickly
Like a short story, you get very little context going into the story. You are often dropped right in the middle of the action and context is built along the way, revealed through the text messages
High levels of suspense – one of the greatest draws of chat fiction is their ability to tell thrillers in short bites, and these short bites say enough to pique your interest but not enough to tell you everything. I think of each message as having a slight hook that leads to the next message, leaving readers with questions
The spatial separation characters – unlike most stories in which character interactions have to occur in the same space, chat fiction pretty much demands that the characters be in different settings. Otherwise, why would you be texting? However, there is one setting (the scary one) that will dominate the narrative.
Protagonists are often teens in a relatable setting (like at home). This is probably highly related to the target audience of chat fiction – young adults of today.
Chat fiction is a genre that rose to popularity around 2014 with the launch of the app Hooked, which is a platform that hosts these chat fiction pieces. Many chat fiction pieces are targeted at young adults and meant to be quick, easy reads. Chat fiction is highly popular among the youth because of how relatable the medium is! Think about it, most young people don’t like to call anymore and texting is such a dominant means of communication. The chat fiction genre also fascinatingly intimate and personal – it’s like overhearing a conversation between strangers, but you can follow them through the action. Chat fiction is predominantly focused on quick, thrill-inducing storytelling.
However, chat fiction is also genre which has a lot of restraints to take into consideration.
Life of the Party:
This is Life of the Party. It is a piece that actually features multiple conversations, making for an interesting intertextual-ish storytelling. We follow a conversation between a college girl and her boyfriend, and his conversation with a friend. Here is one of the longer-form pieces of chat fiction, spread over a few episodes (compiled in this video). (If you’re a fast reader, watch at 2x speed). At 22:09, we see the authenticity of the genre being compromised with narration! This is extremely unrealistic if we have been reading texts alone all the way till now. Moreover, in a later part of the chat fiction, there is a “scene-like” moment where the characters are basically face-to-face. The genre has been made irrelevant by its own setting, and to continue telling the story via text would make it so contrived.
Thus, here are two major limitations I found with chat fiction (not necessarily bad! Just challenges to consider which can shape content choices)
The need for texting must never be compromised. Compromise could happen through a few ways, e.g. the characters meeting face to face, the protagonist in danger being in an unrealistic situation to text etc.
However, there is still quite a lot of variation from piece to piece. Some stories start with a relatively calm setting:
All in Your Head:
All in Your Head follows the conversation between a teenage girl who is alone at home and her boyfriend. She’s just watched a horror film and is afraid, and the conversation follows her panicked texts to her boyfriend about strange happenings in the house.
I thought this one would be interesting inspiration for my own piece, to see how I could put my chat fiction piece related to mental health in a more ordinary setting first.
Variation also exists in the way pieces end. Many end with cliffhangers, such as All in Your Head, while Where is She? ends with an interesting resolution. Some stories take on a more “action style” resolution like Life of the Party, but it is difficult to manage such resolutions without “breaking the medium” as I like to call it.
I am personally not fond of many pieces in this genre, as I feel some of the constraints of the genre lend the storytelling towards dependence on tropes and poorly structured storytelling. In fact, I struggled with this in my own experiment (which felt like a chem lab explosion). However, I do respect some writers’ abilities to say just enough to get you in, and leave you curious to find out more. It is a genre based in the art of brevity, and I want to emulate the short-but-provocative texts they use. I also aim to stick very much within the constraints of the genre, I don’t want to “break the medium” as I feel it has a jarring effect that undermines the authenticity and relatability of chat fiction.
Chat fiction is something new and challenging to me. It sits at the intersection of thriller, horror and microfiction, employing lots of multimodal communication as well. (How do they text? Are there repeat texts? How do you break up repeat texs?) There are lots of opportunities to make interesting choices and we’ll see how my chem lab explosion turns out.
Communication goes far beyond words, cutting across how we see visuals, hear speech, interpret body language etc., via multimodal texts that use different means to send messages. And multimodal communication is everywhere.
For example, I have been watching a webseries, Frankenstein, MD, by Pemberley Digital Studios. It’s a modern retelling of Shelley’s Frankenstein in the form of a young scientist’s research vlogs. The webseries incorporates linguistic elements in its script, visual elements in the video graphics, aural elements from the dialogue and soundtrack, spatial arrangements of props and graphics and gestural elements through acting. Together, these modes convey the humorous apathy of Victoria Frankenstein and the situations and crises she faces.
Exhibit A: Shots from web video series Frankenstein, MD by Pemberley Digital Studios.
(Above) Here’s a Lärabar I found in my kitchen. Part of the Lärabar’s iconic design is its red brand label with the peach-colored block letters and border, with a colored background. I consider the range of Lärabars I’ve seen in Kroger’s. The red-and-peach brand label is constant to all Lärabars. It unites the front of a wall of assorted flavors of bars from the same company. Yet it is the color on the wrapper background, outside the branding label, that always varies. Isn’t this a visual mode of communication? The blue color syncs with the “blueberry muffin” text.
See this image above. (Credits:https://craftycoin.com/favorite-food-friday-larabar/). The brand label is kept standard, communicating consistency of the brand, while the assortment of colors visually communicates the different flavors! (Yellow for lemon, brown for chocolate, green for apple). That’s just the visual. Let’s also consider, linguistically, the way they named the bars: “Cherry pie”, “pecan pie”, “cashew cookie”. Why not just “cherry”, “pecan”, “cashew”? There is no way a Lärabar resembles a pie or muffin. Perhaps the use of those extra words like “pie”, “muffin”, “cookie” is meant to create associations with desserts. Since Lärabar is marketed as a health food, this perhaps also targets health-conscious consumers’ more indulgent dietary cravings. Those extra words make us think we are eating dessert instead of a “health food bar” (quote marks because healthy skepticism of “health branding”!).
Just another day sitting in East Quad trying to write this assignment. I’m sitting in front of the Residential College wall calendar.
I never really appreciated the importance of spatial modes in a calendar. There are so many ways a calendar can be organized. A list? A series of weeks? This calendar’s table form represents the whole month such that it’s easy to follow because of the grid week-by-day structure. Within the calendar spaces, things get organized by date. Within each date you get various ways of sending messages, be it flyers, post-it notes. These all employ various linguistic choices (Short and sweet? Dramatic? Thought-provoking? Enticing?), or visual elements (flyer designs).
These observations of multimodal text heightened my awareness of communication modes that permeate, no, barrage my senses with information daily. It also gives me ideas for my experiment cycle. The Lärabar wrapper has me thinking about the role of moving parts interacting with a constant and how that conveys both consistency and variety at the same time. I could explore this by manipulating genre conventions in my experiments, by playing on certain tropes while adding layers of variance to each trope.
I want to end off with this image beloq. This is one of the bags my roommate and I use for groceries. It says “I’m not fat, I’m fluffy” in German and shows an adorable unicorn scarfing down a cookie. How better to convey a humorous message about food and denial than via a fluffy hungry unicorn?