Friday, March 28, 2014

Future Impending

The probability waves are collapsing. Many potential realities are falling, leaving behind new kinds of uncertainty.

Middle of second semester and I, as with the other seniors, am not really here anymore. For kids who get a lot of pressure to seem or be smart, high school is one long slog toward preparing for college. And all of a sudden...all of a sudden, we're running out of familiar ground.

Naturally, I am thinking a lot about the past. Looking back and getting a weird sense of vertigo, as I realize that this is my fourth time around the block. Last year--Orsolya and calculus. Two years ago--Macbeth and European history. Three years ago--wow. Three years ago I wasn't even playing euphonium yet, and that--belonging to the lower brass--is now one of the core pieces of my identity.

Naturally, I am thinking even more about the future. I registered for Caltech's Prefrosh Weekend. I looked up faculty research pages. I read campus reviews…

This entire week I have been afraid. Tired, paranoid, on edge, stressed. Why should this be? I'm a second semester senior who has been accepted to some great schools. My grades are good. I think I know who I'm going to ask to prom. It's spring break.

But I can't stop worrying. I can't stop this feeling--I know, ugh, feelings--of a sword hanging over my head. I can't stop imagining a future in which I burn out and can't find a job...and even if I am able to succeed in college, I can't help imagining that I'm never going to be allowed to relax again. Or be happy.

(A problem with me is that I spend so much time dwelling on past mistakes or making future plans that I, quite literally, forget to be happy--or rather, I forget that I'm allowed to be happy. I'm going to have to keep working on this mental/emotional aberration. But for now, I have it, and it is seriously screwing with my mind.)

I'm not sure that it's right for me to post something this valueless. A part of me thinks I should just suck it up and stop complaining, and let myself relax for the last two months of high school. But I can't do that at this moment. I'm still figuring out how I can let myself be happy.

Because complacency is my enemy. Complacency stems from contentment, and contentment and happiness are linked. At my school, I am considered successful--and none of this success would be mine if I made it a habit of being satisfied with myself. And I'm stressing because I want to continue being successful, and all the acceptance letters I've collected from schools I won't attend will haunt me during my dark hours at the university I do choose. And I want to succeed, but I also want to be happy, and I don't know how mutually exclusive those two things are.

The future is poised above me, and I don't know if I'm going to drown or grow gills.

--

I wrote most of the above stuff on Thursday, late at night, at the hour when all seems futile and bleak. Now, on Friday, I have spoken with two current Caltech students, and my excitement at my future possibilities is starting to gain ground over my worries. But, though now laced with excitement, I still feel trepidation as I look toward two possible futures: Palo Alto or Pasadena? Both are good choices, but I always seek to optimize and I know whichever one I choose, the other will be a great what-could-have-been.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Frozen

the cold never bothered me anyway
(src)

I finally watched Frozen, the latest blockbuster Disney movie, over the weekend. People have been pressing me to watch it since Thanksgiving weekend, and I finally got around to it.

ATTN: If you haven't seen the movie yet, be warned that in the rest of the post I will discuss spoilers.

-

I was expecting good things, and I did enjoy the movie. What I wasn't expecting was 1) how serious and dramatic it was (I think the Olaf trailer made me think it would be a light and fluffy film--nope, two girls orphaned in the first ten minutes), and 2) how powerfully the film would resonate with me on an emotional level. When I say "the film," I really mean, Elsa.

A few obvious things drew me to the character of Elsa: introversion, blue color scheme, being accused of lacking emotions, disliking public events, having a much more energetic sister (though mine is my older sister, and she is far more rational about love than Anna). And the whole deal of an innocent being ostracized, hated, feared because of magic, is a theme I take up in a lot of stories (so much so that I wonder if I should do some psychological thinking about why). The sequence that really cemented my identification with her, though, was--don't snicker--"Let It Go."

Even before I'd seen the movie I watched the clip of the song "Let It Go." But somehow, in the context of the movie and in that day, it became much more powerful. Let me explain.

I watched Frozen the evening of Saturday, March 22. That entire day, I'd been at the Berkeley Math Tournament, getting my ego smashed up repeatedly and mercilessly. This was not unusual: I know when I go to math tournaments that I, and in fact everyone on my school's team, am severely outclassed because our school's STEM offerings are...slim.

What made it different on Saturday was that this time, I realized that the uncomfortable feeling of being the dumbest person in the room is going to be my constant state of being for the next four years.

I got into Caltech--the California Institute of Technology, recently named the number one university in the world, again. I haven't gotten hit too hard with impostor syndrome yet, so I'm not questioning that I got in, but I do recognize that I'm coming in from a high school that has, as I've mentioned, weak STEM offerings, and that I will have to brush up on my calc and physics for the placement exams I'll take (since Caltech doesn't take any AP credit).

Throughout high school, my identity has been "the smart girl." Even though I try not to define myself by my academics, in all other fields I base my sense of self on how I help other people: being on band staff, leading a volunteer club, tutoring people. In the context of my high school, I am the smart kid who likes helping people.

Kind of like how Elsa has to be the benevolent queen.

Looking at the next four years, I see a future in which I am at the bottom of my class, the underdog again, striving mightily to learn concepts that might be too far above me. Asking for help instead of giving it. Getting my ego ground down to nothing. Developing resilience. Working harder than I think I can. Burning out? Having breakdowns?

I see a void into which I must leap. And to do so, I can't be encumbered by my current self, the self that assumes she's going to end up at the top, who assumes that she can handle any class material with an hour of effort.

The gloves have to come off.

Elsa has powers that have hurt people she loves. She is told "conceal, don't feel, don't let them know." She is told that she is too much. Her fear controls her, forces her to repress her feelings and to draw away from the people she loves. She is afraid that she is too much.

My problem is the opposite--fear that I am not enough--but the result is the same: both of us, quotidian me and the animated snow queen, are afraid that we aren't going to be able to be what we're expected to be. And to become the person we need to be, for ourselves, and are, it's necessary to let it go.



I've read some commentary on the song that points out the irony of Elsa singing about freedom and self-realization...when she's going into the mountains to isolate herself even further. But I see no contradictions. Her powers aren't the problem, her fears about her powers are the problem.

And people are the problem, people's expectations. She needed to let go of the person other people wanted, even needed her to be; she had to go alone into the mountains to find herself, to test her powers, to find the core self that she'd bent and distorted to accommodate others. "That perfect girl is gone," and good riddance.

Of course, Let it Go isn't the end of Elsa's journey. She still has her responsibilities as monarch, she still has to deal with the eternal winter, she still has to uncover her abilities to love. And once I shed my high-school-created ego, I too will have to work very hard if I am ever to amount to anything.

As this analysis of the song states, "The story has just begun, so [Let It Go] cannot be the end of the character development for Elsa - it is actually only the end of the beginning, and the primary function of the song is to set down the conflicts that Elsa must go through - the demons that she must face - before the story is over. In fact, much of the rest of the story will be played out to specifically reverse many of the most triumphant lines of her song."

The analysis then goes on to refute that Elsa actually is okay with being isolated and ostracized--she doesn't want the storm to rage on, and the cold does bother her. Yeah, okay, fair enough. But she needs to get away; she needs to leave everyone behind in order to have a chance at finding herself.

Before you leap, you must look. Inside. And accepting who you are on your own terms, and casting aside the chains that others would put on you, the masks they would bind to your face, seems to me a prerequisite to the jump into the chasm of your new challenges.

Another objection from the NaClhv analysis above:
Personal empowerment is obviously good. If you look carefully at Elsa's expressions while she's singing, the few tens of seconds around this line is the only time she is genuinely happy. But personal empowerment, though good, is fraught with danger, as indicated by the next line: "No right, no wrong, no rules for me".

Seriously, how many characters say something like that and not become evil? These are probably the most telling lines for picking up on the narrative meaning of the song. And that is the second thing that she's letting go of: her sense of right and wrong, of the rules and restrictions that being a "good girl" imposed on her releasing her powers. Now obviously some of the rules constraining her before were restrictive and counterproductive, but they were also for the safety of others. How much of that is she letting go? Only some specific rules? All of it? The entire concept of goodness? We don't know, but her singing "No right, no wrong, no rules for me" should have set off alarm bells in the audience's heads. "Let It Go" was originally meant as a villain song, and Disney wanted the possibility of Elsa being a villain to be alive in the audience's minds. We are suppose to be worried for Elsa's soul at this point, and the rest of her character development is about how she is saved from her precarious position.

This is an interesting analysis that I didn't pick up on by myself, but I don't think the possibility of Elsa becoming a villain in any way destroys the meaning of the song. I have heard, in many forms, that the way you know you're doing something worth doing is if you might fail hard. Of course in some cases the downside and upside are not balanced, but in this case, the potential of evil suggests also the potential for overwhelming good.

One final detail that made Elsa my second favorite Disney princess (after Mulan): she didn't get a guy at the end. She retained her independence, her sovereignty. Moreover, Elsa had only just figuratively unfrozen her heart, and rushing her into a relationship would deny her the opportunity to work out her issues in her own time.

//One more: the fact that she mentioned fractals and that apparently it's official that she's into geometry. Math is beautiful even if I don't think I'm smart enough to understand it as deeply as I want.

For me, the film was not about romantic love, or even familial love. It was about loving yourself, honoring who you are independent of others' expectations, and, if shouldering duties set by others, doing so on your own terms, as yourself. I do not think this is the message that most people got from the film, and certainly it is colored by my own deep-seated selfishness.

But the slammed door at the end of "Let It Go"--that is love. Closing the door to others so you can discover who you are. Realizing you're not who they want and just letting go.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Übermädchen: Plotting

An Alchemist in his Workshop - David the Younger Teniers
(source)
...because plotting is also about synthesis and creation. Also, it is difficult, as the following sagacious quote attests:
Every time I have to plot something new I think, 'damn, I’ve forgotten how to do this.' And then I realize that I never knew…
-me
If you've been following this blog for a while, you know that I'm working on a story called Ubermadchen (UM), and that I've been plotting it for most of the year thus far. Nearing the end, and just about ready to write!

Most of the time, plotting doesn't come as easily as prose to me. Maybe my method of plotting is suboptimal: I just open up my word document and write down in general terms what I think is going to happen next, and then ask questions about why this and not that, and what needs to be in place to make certain choices plausible, doing research on the side and distracting myself with my friends' Tumblrs.

(That last part is almost certainly sub-optimal.)

Having said that, it's natural to offer plotting methods of other writers. Here you go.

A guiding philosophy from PCWrede:
"if you are going to spend time on this kind of pre-writing and planning, aim it in a direction that is likely to be useful to you. There is no other reason or purpose for doing it. No editor is going to ask to see your detailed diagrams of the furniture layout in the hero’s sitting room (and if you offer them, the editor will likely groan); no publisher is going to want a look at your character questionnaires or early scenes or plot diagrams. And nobody is going to ask whether the final manuscript follows the plot outline you started with (well, except maybe some grad student looking for something to write a thesis on, but even then it isn’t usual). And if all you need is a list of place-names that sound right, you do not have to laboriously work through a detailed plot-plan or setting list or character questionnaire. Just do the parts that you find helpful.

Because the only reason to do any of this work is if it helps you perform some aspect of the storytelling more easily and effectively. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a waste of time. If doing any of this gets in the way of your writing, if it’s counterproductive, stop immediately and throw it all away. Ultimately, you are trying to write a story, not create the most detailed database of background notes ever made."


A model of plotting that I tried and then didn't follow through on: Plot a Novel in Five Steps, by Rachel Aaron. I may complete the pieces in Step 4, they seem useful:
Step 4: Building a Firm Foundation

This was the point where I used to just go ahead and dive into the novel, but now that I'm writing faster, I've discovered that taking a day to do one extra step of refinement can save you weeks of trouble down the line. At this stage I've got my plot, I know my characters, my world has its history, rules, and feel, so now it's time to start pouring the concrete details that will support my novel through the writing and edits to come.

In this step, I always:

  • Make a timeline. I didn't have time lines for the first 4 Eli novels and OMG did it bite me in the ass. Lesson finally learned, I now make timelines not just for the events of the novel itself, but the history before it as well. I especially make sure to note relative ages and how long everyone's known everyone else. Yes, it's annoying and nitpicky, but timelines have saved my bacon many, many times over, and I very, very much recommend making one. Trust me, you are not nearly as good at keeping track of things in your head as you think you are.
  • Draw a map. Actually, I usually end up doing this back in step 2, but if I don't have a detailed map by now, I'll make one, usually several, of the world at large as well as all my important locations. I also write out short descriptions of each place. This helps me describe things consistently and removes the burden of making this shit up as I go along.
  • Write out who knows what, when. This is usually just a paragraph where I look over the plot and jot down who discovers what when. This is to make sure I don't have Protagonist A making an argument (or worse, a plot decision) using information they wouldn't actually know yet. This is less of a resource and more of a double check on my plot.
  • Make sure I memorize everyone's particulars. I need to know name spelling, physical description, motivations, and relative ages for all my major cast by heart. Can't have anyone's name dropping vowels or eyes changing color, can we?
  • Write out a scene list This is where I take that plot I wrote out at the end of step three and break it into scenes and chapters. I've talked about what makes a scene before, so, using that criteria, I slice my plot into scenes and list them in a bulleted list. Once I have a list of scenes, I group them into chapters to make a nice little list. In my experience, a chapter usually consists of three scenes, though I've done as few as two and as many as five before. Chapter breaks should also take into account dramatic tension, so I try to take that into accout as well. For example, the first chapter of The Spirit Thief would look like this:
    • Chapter 1
      • Eli charms his way out of prison
      • The king of Mellinor discovers Eli has escaped, is moved to safer quarters
      • Eli and Josef take advantage of the confusion and kidnap the king.
  • Word Count estimation: Now that I've got a rough idea of my chapters, it's time to do an even rougher estimation of how long this book is going to be. I know from personal experience that my chapters tend to run between 5000 and 6000 words long. I don't know why, that's just what feels like a chapter to me, I guess. But this regularity is very handy when it comes time to estimate! By looking at the number of chapters I've cut my scenes into and multiplying that by my average chapter length, I know that a book with 15 chapters will most likely run 75k - 90k words long, or right smack dab in the sweet spot of publishable book length. Of course, this is just an estimation, but doing a check like this is also a really good early warning signal. If, for example, I've lined up all my scenes and found that I have 30 chapters worth of plot, then I know I probably need to cut something to avoid ending up with an 180k unpublishable monster. Trust me, it is SO MUCH EASIER to cut scenes at this stage than to cut them after you've written them. Even if you don't know your average chapter length yet, chances are your chapters won't be shorter than 5k. Counting them up and multiplying to get an idea of how big your book is is a great way to avoid painful cutting later down the line.
  • Do a boredom check. Once I've broken my novel into scenes and chapters (and cut and reworked the plot if the book was too long), it's time for the final and most important plot test: the boredom check. What I do here is I think through my plot, imagining the story in my head as thought it were a movie. There's no sound, no dialogue, I just go through the story scene by scene in my head, testing the story's flow. All the while, I'm on the look out for slow spots. Does the action lag anywhere? Are there any sections I can't visualize or scenes I skip over? If so, I go back to those points and figure out why. See, when you cruise through your plot like this, you're seeing your story with your reader mind and not your writer mind. Your writer mind might consider a scene necessary for plot reasons, but if your reader mind is bored you'll skip right over it and move on to the good stuff. This is BAD. I don't want my readers to be bored by or skip over anything I write. Plus, I don't want to waste my time writing boring crap, no matter how nicely it fits into the plot. This is all part of "be excited about everything you write." If a scene is boring, I rip it out and redo it. Ripping up a finished plot can feel really scary, but just remember: there's always more than one way to solve any problem, and a boring scene can always be replaced by an interesting one, usually by raising the stakes or upping the tension. This step may seem unnecessary, especially since you've been over your plot 10000 times by now, but take thirty minutes and do it anyway. A boredom check is your final defense against having to rewrite stupid scenes later. If you take the time and make sure every scene is golden right from the start, you'll save yourself wasted work and heartache later.

Indeed, I am doing something sort of like the boredom check right now, though I'm calling it, alternately, debugging or the gut/sanity/structural check. Functionally, it's somewhat different, because this is taking a step back and looking at the entire plot schematic instead of going through it as a reader.

How I'm proceeding: first thing was a plot diagram. Since UM involves traveling through Europe, I did a modified geographic map, ish, by which I mean I laid out events in geographic space but it was definitely not to scale and the connections were arrows saying what caused the characters to have to progress from one place to another. At each bubble (location), spikes coming out of it told what happened.

On my first day of sanity check, I noticed that the first half of the story is much more modular/structured/event-heavy than the second half, which is not the goal since the second half is where the bulk of the character development takes place. Diagrams = very useful. As I continue, maps and such help. Post-its with short scene descriptions to mix around...especially useful when you have two parallel storylines and scenes that could go with either.

We'll see how the work progresses. I see a trend of greater and greater pre-writing/preparation in successive works, and I hope--though it's obviously too soon to tell--that this results in better stories, by which I mean stories with structural integrity (i.e. not idiot plots).

Last and most: Holly Lisle has tons of fantastic resources on her site for writers. How to Finish a Novel and Notecarding: Plotting Under Pressure are my favorites. I can see myself paying for her big writing courses when I have disposable income generated through my own work.

Happy plotting and have a good weekend.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Dining Room

(src)

Busy weekend. But I was able to take the time out Sunday afternoon and see the school play, A. R. Gurney's "The Dining Room." It's a series of vignettes set in a dining room, across times from the 1920s to the present.

//Note: this is one of those "stacking wood by the fire" posts, in which I discuss an input and what I've gotten out of it.

I went in thinking that the dining room was a literal dining room, one place, and that the storyline would follow one family across generations. But as the number of vignettes piled up, I realized that there were too many different people in overlapping times for the dining room to be one, specific dining room. Rather, it was literally the Dining Room, an archetypal place representative of the "WASPs of northeastern America" and the dramas and everydays of affluent suburbia.

Or at least that was how I interpreted it.

I'd like to analyze the form of the Dining Room, because I prefer classic over romantic thinking (see: Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig) so structure is inherently more interesting for me to analyze than the external details (though I appreciate both).

-

Short break for the classic v. romantic explanation, which I found in ZitAoMM.

Classical thinking is fundamental, pattern-recognition, differentiating, focusing on what things mean and not what they seem. This is Apollonian thinking, "left-brain" (though the brain is not nearly so modular), my kind of thing.

Romantic thinking is most holistic, looking at the surface of things, appearance as opposed to form. Dionysian, you could call it.

-

Now for my actual analysis.

With apologies to my lovely friends who participated in the play: I found the first act more engaging than the second. Not because of the acting, which was excellent throughout, but because the pacing in the first act felt more natural and varied.

The vignettes fell along a spectrum of comedy and drama (less or more serious), and in the first act the comedy was more integrated, with lighter scenes mixing in with the serious scenes that discussed family arguments or infidelity or senility.

The second act did have some very funny scenes, but my own tastes run counter to unrelieved family drama scenes--an adult daughter coming back to her parents' home after the dissolution of her marriage, well-acted but followed immediately by a family honor argument, and then funeral plans? It was like eating a very dense, sweet cake: good but a little overwhelming.

So vignette-based works need variation, or perhaps variegation, in order to maintain a high level of engagement and prevent audience fatigue. Another factor contributing to the homogeneity of Act II was that the vignettes all could have taken place in the same time period, essentially; that removed a layer of anticipation of "where's the next scene going to take place?"

But is there a limit to the variation you can introduce before it becomes counterproductive? I believe so. What a work of performance art tries to maximize is audience engagement (I present this as a hypothesis; we shall argue it another time), and audience engagement doesn't increase linearly with how much variation there is.

Instead, the way I experience performed art (music, drama, etc), engagement rises with variety...to a point. Then, if things become too varied, too noisy, interest drops off.

At a macro scale, randomness is not generally a benefit. People like stories more than facts, and works that have a direction, that grow, that build toward some climax, that have tension and pacing and form, are more satisfying than works with no interest in the way components are arranged.

In this, The Dining Room succeeded: the second act did seem to have a sense of greater striving toward some end, with longer scenes and more serious subject matter...notice that these are the very things that made me criticize it a few paragraphs ago. Balancing variety and direction is tricky.

-

Stepping back a moment from the system, the form, to look at the surface. This is the "romantic" viewpoint, concerned with how things appear, how they seem.

I enjoyed the play. I thought some moments were hilarious, and some scenes particularly resonant. The vignette form has potential for lots of play. Each segment was a window into someone's life, and the variety of them shone bright like a collection of jewels. A technique used more in the earlier parts of the play that I particularly liked was overlapping scenes: characters from two scenes would be on stage at the same time, acting independently, each scene layering and adding richness to the other.

(I appear to speak once again of form. Ah, can't escape it.)

As usual, I'm wondering how to apply this to writing. The overlapping scenes would be difficult to pull off without seeming gimmicky--and it definitely wasn't gimmicky in TDR, in fact it was used to splendid effect. A series of stories revolving around a central location would also be more difficult, without it in front of the readers…that was a cool double-vision effect of the play that I don't know how to reproduce in writing: the fact that there is exactly one set, physically in this location, and yet it becomes a time travel capsule as different characters interact with it and within it differently.

I'm not sure how a project based on the form of the Dining Room might pan out. But I think that by now, I can claim a good ability to recognize interesting ideas and premises and forms when I see them, and this--a series of vignettes, differing in time and subject, centering on a location that transcends reality to become archetype--has, as a real estate agent might declare, potential.

Friday, March 14, 2014

External Valuations

As this post goes live, I will be finding out whether I've gotten into or been rejected from my dream school. I have been telling myself that I won't get it, so as to prepare myself mentally for the most likely outcome (last year, admission rates were 7% and no one from the wait list got in). I have a rejection playlist queued up, with the first song Cee Lo Green's "Forget You."

Obviously, if I get rejected I will be upset. I might cry. I'd definitely sulk. If any of my friends got in, hopefully I'd be big enough to be genuinely happy for them. The image in my head of all of us getting in and partying it up at the robotics competition will probably not come true. The image of all of us weeping together and then moving on with our lives is more likely.

But my reaction, and my close friends' reactions, were not what I wanted to talk about today. Instead, I wanted to vent.

Caveat: I know that my troubles are small, that people have far bigger problems, that I'm being a sulky privileged teenager. Yeah, not denying any of that. But this is my space and I know some people who might empathize. Here's me trying to speak for us:

Being a "smart kid" at school is not as pleasant as it may seem. Oh, you can find your group of people who are also nerds, who tolerate or even enjoy your dumb physics puns, and you can pursue knowledge and get lost in the wild wanderings of the universe. But being at school, surrounded by people who see only your test scores and assume things about you, is not fun.

I'm circumlocuting. Sorry. What I mean...okay, let me illustrate.

On Wednesday I walked into my first class of the day and a girl I know, whom I generally like, said, "Hey, I heard that you missed the AIME cutoff by one point. That sucks, doesn't it? If it were me I'd be really mad."

NB: projecting someone else's failures publicly is a jerk thing to do.

"Well, I'm not," I said, because I'm not.

"Yeah, well, it was your own fault anyway," continued the girl, at which point another friend reprimanded her for being rude and I debated the pros and cons of letting someone know exactly how much my respect for them had just dropped.

"Just kidding," said my classmate. "I mean, I only answered five questions."

I'm telling this story because I'm angry about it and because I think it's representative of the kind of treatment that "smart kids"...I'm struggling to find a verb. It's not so melodramatic as to warrant an "endure" or a "go through," but it certainly is annoying.

What is that treatment? Being judged on external achievements. Nay, not simply being judged: having our worth determined by external achievements.

This is not a horrible system: after all, judgment on deeds is the basis of a meritocracy. And it isn't only "smart kids" who face judgment. But when a student who succeeds academically does poorly on something--anything--gets a B on a test, or doesn't qualify for the second level of a math competition--then others will let them know about it.

A note on my use of quotes around "smart kids": I don't think I'm much smarter than most people I know. It's just that my intelligence is channeled toward things like math and science and academics, which are socially perceived as "smart." The C-average student who can take apart an engine, or the yoga-pants-wearing B student who has worked since sophomore year as a sales rep, are just as smart as I am. I just happen to have strong academics.

And at times that doesn't feel like as much of good thing as it really is. Because when you're "smart," when your name and your friends' names were on the school website for National Merit, when you have a reputation for knowing stuff...people see you as a function of just your brain, and what shiny trophies your brain wins for you. That trophy could be an A on a test, or a certificate of merit.

Or a college acceptance letter.

I'm a little afraid that I won't be able to handle rejection, but I've had so many opportunities to deal with failure this year that I'm sure I can get through it. I'm close enough with my friends that even if some of us get in and some don't, we can stay friends.

But the other people, the ones who don't know me, who see us as a pack of robots programmed to generate status...if I get rejected, I will be transmuted into "the girl who wasn't good enough for MIT."

And that's not a statement that necessarily carries a value judgment. I knew when I shot that I was shooting high, and whether they want me or not, MIT is a great institution that has produced numerous contributions to the world. Lots of people have been rejected from it and gone on to do great things, and I will not speak ill of it even if they tell me no.

"Forget You" will not be directed at MIT. Instead, it will be directed at all the people who will think less of me, or of any of my friends, for not getting in.

We've learned, we've grown, we've become leaders in any number of fields--band and volunteering, for me, but also sports teams, MUN, robotics--we've been mentored by those above us and paid it forward to the younger set. We've set records, broken them, performed, won and lost and learned. One piece of paper more or less--what is that, set against all that we've done and become?

We will find success, no matter if the path is more or less prestigious, because we are not our trophies and we are not our failures.

To everyone who is waiting for admissions decisions: best of luck.

--

UPDATE:

Rejected from MIT. I'm all right; I expected this.

On the other hand, I got into Caltech--maybe I won't be going East Coast after all.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Beauty Protest

"In such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty." —Phil Ochs

When I first saw this quote, I balked.

Aight, I thought (channeling my inner sophomore boy). Really? Beauty? Not courage or truth or anything like that? Beauty. That's not ennobling at all. Beauty. That's just another word for conformity, for passiveness...in the face of corruption, racism, hatred, is beauty really more effective as a protest than letters to legislators or grassroots campaigns? Or does "true" != "effective"? Beauty. Beauty?

I still haven't decided whether I accept or reject Ochs's quote. But I have thought about it--well-expressed thoughts with which I disagree tend to stick in my head--and I do think that I need to revise the thinking on my end somewhat.

Namely, I need to investigate what we really mean by "beauty."

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Often, beauty is taken to mean only aesthetic pleasingness, and the word's etymology supports this connotation with visual attractiveness. Back in the dark days of freshman year, when I still read teen magazines once in a while, the "beauty" section was really about makeup and product.

What is invalid about this definition? Well, nothing inherently. I don't personally use makeup, but many of my friends do and they consider it part of their identity, something that contributes to their self-confidence, or a tool to help them express themselves.

Beauty as a way to improve upon your natural features artfully does not offend me. However, beauty is often presented with only this definition, which explains why I took offense to the Ochs quote.

Let me explain: if we apply this physical definition of beauty to Ochs's quote, then we're equating physical attractiveness with moral goodness. Not that we don't do that already, subconsciously: the link is woven into our cultural DNA. But I view it as a bug, a mutation, something to try to eradicate rather than support. Are pretty people inherently more moral? Is beauty the best way to protest against the ills of society?

As a teenage girl in America, you (I) get irked by the constant and overwhelming focus on appearance. Yes, we know that we're going to get judged on what we look like. Yes, we know that making yourself look good is a pragmatic way to improve how others view you. But it's boring. I don't want to have to consider what other people think of me, as I get dressed in the morning.

Before you go on, read or at least skim "Defining the Lady Code," Goss's most recent blog post. In it, she discusses how girls/women are supposed to dress/look in order to be considered professional and proper.

A useful article, and I appreciate that she wrote it because it does seem accurately to describe the standards by which I and other females will be judged. What particularly drew my interest was this bit:
Coco Chanel popularized long ropes of fake pearls, but she was a fashion designer, and a lady is not fashionable. She has style, which is a different thing altogether. Fashion stands out: style is discreet and understated.

But discreet and understated does not mean "easy." The cultural default of appearance for girls is a few levels of effort above my default. To look good, it's usually assumed that girls need makeup, need to do something with their hair besides comb it, wear flattering clothes (even if they are, following the Lady Code, understated) and shoes (I wore flats the other day and felt as though I was cosplaying as the pretty version of myself), etc.

And honestly? I can't be bothered, and strenuously resist attempts to make me bother. Rationally, I would not want to sneer at and belittle people who tell me I should start wearing necklaces again, but I do. Why should I need to change my appearance to please others? Will getting my ears pierced make me more effective as a student, as a thinker?

Note: Going too far in the other direction doesn't make sense either--after all, personal hygiene and appropriate clothes do make life and interaction with others easier, and those who shame girls for using makeup need to stop doing that.

I think my diatribe against forcing people to meet social standards of beauty has gone on long enough. "Beauty" when taken to mean physical attractiveness is too weak to be the "beauty" of Ochs's quote. What other kinds of beauty could justify it?

Inner beauty: what is this? When we say that someone is beautiful on the inside, what do we mean? That they're good-hearted, that they're pure, that they put others before themself, what?

Maybe I just have a flawed perception of the phrase, but even "inner beauty" seems passive. Like one of those icons of religious figures, just radiating light in a gold-flake circle around their heads. Virtue rather than virtu'. What are the nuances? Caring about others? Am I the only one who, upon hearing the words "inner beauty," thinks the term is more often applied to women than to men? Why is that?

This post is getting too long already. Some final thoughts:

Ochs could be talking about art as beauty--the creation of beauty, through art. But is this really the truest form of protest? Art is nontrivial, I agree, it serves a deep and valid purpose in keeping people sane, but I would be dubious if anyone said that art had more to do with the fall of the Berlin wall than economic pressures.

In general, is it valid to say that "the true protest against x is -x"? I would say, generally, no, with the implication that in this specific case I also end up rejecting Ochs's quote.

The true protest against violence is nonviolence. => Armed intervention to stop a genocide is a-OK with me.

The true protest against hatred is love. => I don't think I disagree with this.

The true protest against stupidity is intelligence. => Not completely--education and understanding, maybe, but sheer intellectual might isn't as effective as you (I) might hope.

The true protest against ugliness is beauty. => Now that it's phrased this way...I say no, definitively. Once again, I argue in favor of understanding. This, I think is the reason beauty loses out: because beauty is about being seen, and to solve problems, it is more important to see.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Game: Character Sketch

Been a while since we played a game.

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You will need:

  • one song from your favorite band in an earlier stage of life
  • one random art prompt (generator)*
  • one random name (generator)*

*fiddle with the settings however you want. You get three tries to get something to work with, and then you have to pick with one from the options generated.

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I got:

  • song: "Take Me Under" - Three Days Grace
  • art prompt: the moonlight
  • name: first try--Myrrine, second try--Pelagius, third try--Fulgencio.

I'm going with Fulgencio.

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What are you going to do with these elements?

Here is the game:

You are going to write an acrostic, meaning you write the letters of your name vertically down the paper and use those as the starts of each line. Note that you don't have to confine yourself to poems: if you start writing a stream-of-consciousness thing, with separate paragraphs for each letter, go for it.

What is this acrostic's content? You are going to do a character sketch, discovering all you can about the person who bears the name you chose. Include your art prompt as a motif, and use your song to set the mood. Aside from that, no rules. This is a liberal game.

My efforts follow.

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Fulgencio the Madman

Falling snow, like a father's reassuring hand on the nightmare-ridden pine-heads. The forest is silent as I pace, axe in hand, my heavy boots crunching over crusts of ice.

Under full sun, this place is my haven, my sanctuary: the bowers, the birdsong. Not now. Not now, as the moonlight slides silver as tears down the trunks, to pool in darkness as I step my way through the paths grown cold and still.

Listen! Who follows me? A villager grown curious? A hare grown monstrous large? A bear?

Guess again!

Evil spirits make no sound as they glide. Not like me, not with my heavy footsteps. The moonlight it limns the trees, turns bright the snow, but I--no, it cannot make me other than I am, it cannot make me ghostly and unreal, cannot still the beating of my mad, mad heart.

No one comes near me. Fulgencio, the strange foreigner with the tangled beard and the eyes black as a bear's. I do not speak this language well, and I know they think I am a savage. Let them! They are not wrong, they err only in seeing a difference between me and them. Let them believe what they will.

Can you hear that? That whispering? I stop in a clearing, and look up at the sky, at the stars shining clear in the deep perfect blue. I begin a prayer, and then stop. To whom would I pray? No one can save me now.

I do not, in truth, want to be saved. Why did I flee my land? To escape the gaolers? No--gladly I'd have gone to prison! I left only because here, here in the cold, is where I will finally meet them...they, the spirits...they, who can perhaps give me the answers to my questions: why can I not sleep? Why do the village dogs all bark at me? Why do I feel drawn here, night after night, as the moon grows large, as she sheds her silver tears over the silver trees and over the snow? They whisper to me, telling me what I must do, what I must see, before I can know...

One axe-blow to the neck will suffice.

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...all these games seem to end in bloodshed. I would apologize but this is all fair game.

Having written this, I see I did not follow my own prompt. What do I know about Fulgencio? That he's crazy, that he hears voices in his head...he is still an abstraction to me, a Steppenwolf or a Joseph K, an archetypal, existential, philosophical idea. Likewise, what are the evil spirits? I don't know.

The point of these games isn't so much as to produce something specific (a poem, a character sketch) as to combine things in interesting ways to break the mold, to break my/your mind out of a rut.

So. Your turn: go for it! Share your results or not, as you prefer. And have a fantastic weekend.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Evolution of Selkies

(Note: this is not a post about how seal-humans might have evolved. I'm sorry.)

(src)
(links to a post with interesting connections to Pallawah women of Tasmania)

Over the weekend, I read my first selkie story: The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan. Beautifully written book, much recommended, took the whole "selkie bride" idea to its logical conclusion. Also interesting for taking on the perspective of the witch at the beginning to show her psychology.

But you know how you can only ever seem to focus on the things that weren't awesome?...*

*I see nothing wrong with this attitude, in moderation. Improvement depends on fixing problems, after all.

...where was the seal-women's perspective?

Caveat: I greatly enjoyed the book and will seek out more of Lanagan's work in the future. However, because I try to hone my inner reader by noticing things that I don't *quite* like about awesome books, I will focus on the gaps.

Beside, my argument is not with TBoRI specifically, but rather, the entire suite of selkie/animal bride stories. Because it seems as though practically all of them are about a man somehow coercing a wild woman into becoming his wife, through stealing her skin or something, and she escapes without a backward glance once she gets it back.

Does this seem wrong to anyone else?

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Background reading:


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The versions of fairy tales that we encounter are usually deeply screwed up. Not just in terms of the violence and gore (in the original Princess and the Frog, the prince transformed when the princess threw the frog against a wall...to use the mildest example), but in terms of their gender politics and other messages.

(I'll leave the post about reclaiming the fairy tales' original messages to people like Justine Musk and Windling. My ignorance in this territory is mighty.)

Selkie stories are among the worst offenders, as Miller explains:
The old selkie story is both about the relationship between lovers, and our relationship to the wild. In the way that sometimes humans in our weakness try to control our loved ones, through manipulation, through emotional blackmail, sometimes even through abuse and coercion, because we fear that their independence means they will leave and betray us, or that their self-sovereignty implies faithlessness, in the same way we have been doing things wrong in regards to animals, and so have trapped ourselves: keeping animals in tanks, in enclosures, jars, bowls, corrals. We seldom do this out of purposeful cruelty, or even sheer profitable callousness, but so much oftener out of misguided love. So since the story is made of love, it is malleable, it can be reoriented, rewritten, redeemed.
(emphasis mine)

She also proposes a new version of the story:
But what if there were a new selkie story? One in which she chooses the man? One in which the man courts her, makes himself loveable to her, that she wants to come to him; that he loves her for being what she is, part seal, and knowing that, loves the wild part of her? And when she needs to, she runs to the ocean, pulls her skin back around her, swims with her family. She comes to back to land. Back and forth, as seals do anyway. While she is gone, he does man things.

The story has drama, just not the inevitability of failure. The crux of the new story is its inner quarrel, the bit of resistance in the man, her uncertainty with him, and the back-and-forthing within them that gives way to purer love. Such would be a new possibility, and a new way.
(emphasis mine, again)

I'm at that age (high school) when many people around me are or have been in relationships. Some couples seem more permanent than others. These pairs, which might still fall apart later, generally arise when both parties involved were friends before they got together, when they respect one another, when they don't disappear into the relationship.

It's the same with any relationship, from the little I've observed. The strongest friendships are the ones built on mutual respect, on understanding the other person--or at least trying--the ones that don't necessarily need daily checking in to maintain. By contrast, the most stressful "friendships" are the ones in which you're missing respect, or appreciation as a person, or kindness, or a willingness to give one another space.

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What is the point of reshaping stories? To retell the new myths.

(You knew this would circle back to writing eventually, didn't you?)

I read Miller's essay during a phase when work on UM was going terribly, terribly slowly, and it set off fireworks in my brain. Hey, I thought, I've never written a romance. What if I took a shot at it, and followed these lines?

Shortly thereafter, the UM ball began to roll and I let the idea fall by the wayside. But I'm thinking of ways to put together this idea, of the new selkie story, with everything that bothered me about otherwise compelling stories like TBoRI, with my observations of high school relationships, with my need to write something with dragons in it.

Because the dragon myth is something else that needs to be reshaped. While browsing Tumblr the other day, I came across this gem:


(The full post describes a story that must be written and then distributed across the land.)

I still don't know what the details are. I have exactly two characters so far (the female and male romantic leads), a punny conversation at the beginning of their acquaintance, and the vague idea that the dragon-girl in human form looks like Dovima:

Dovima in Balenciaga(src)

I can promise nothing of the story as yet. At the very least, however, its bones will not be twisted to suit obsolete social constraints.

Powerful myths, those fit to their environment, endure. The selkie story's longevity speaks to its relevance. However, everything must evolve to adapt to changing circumstances, and in an age that places value on individualism and freedom, or should, the old story falls flat. Miller's proposed revision--of a love story founded on respect, on trust, on space--resonates.