Who Likes Short Shorts?

Hey, everyone!

I recently put together and submitted these 18-word short stories to a publication. They didn’t want them, and I don’t really have a use for them outside of that particular outlet, so you get to read them here! (Some of these scream “high school,” so no, it’s not weird if almost feels like you might have been around when certain events took place.)

Freshman Year
College is full of new experiences. In the dorms, even going to the bathroom is a social ordeal.

2018
People tell me I should “shoot for the stars.” But what happens when the stars also have guns?

Cruciverbalists
They scoff when she mentions that gimmicky poster-size crossword puzzle from SkyMall. However, she’s solved it; they haven’t.

AP English
The teacher accidentally said “Yes, dear” to a girl. He then lectured the boys on respecting their wives.

Identity
Young adulthood: Always looked down upon, never sure when you’re old enough to do the looking down upon.

Hope everyone’s having a lovely weekend.

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How “Lady Bird” inspires me to keep writing “unlikable” semi-autobiographical characters

(Note: Spoiler-wise, I don’t think there’s anything here that isn’t referenced in a trailer or review of Lady Bird. Let me know if this ends up not being the case and I will happily edit the post.)

I’ve written five novels, three of which feature high school-age girls navigating life, the inevitability of change, and the tumults of coming of age. The first time I workshopped a few chapters of one of them, my peers’ main feedback was that they didn’t like my protagonist. She was realistic, they said, but also annoying, uncaring, and most of all, “unlikable.” Inevitably, I’d reveal that this character was semi-autobiographical, based on myself in high school, and half my workshop would stare blankly, and at least one person would apologize.

This comment didn’t really bother me, all things considered. I didn’t need the apology. I know that in high school, especially, I could come off as possessing any of these three characteristics. This criticism wasn’t reflective of me now, but more likely the way I wrote her. However, as I’ve recently learned, a big reason for not being able to write unlikable yet relatable characters to the standard I wanted was that I’m not Greta Gerwig, the writer-director of Lady Bird.

In trying to cram all the good things I’d like to say about this film into a spoiler-free paragraph that will provide context for what I’m about to discuss, here’s what I’ve got: It’s incredibly well-written, but not forced. There’s no “how do you do, fellow kids?” about it; the teenagers sound like teenagers. It’s fast-paced, but each scene feels entirely fleshed out and also necessary, even the ones that are only a few seconds long. The characters and settings and storylines alike are given the right amount of attention for the story that’s being told.

Music⚡️Band 4 lyfe.

My main impression, though, was something I was instantly convinced of while watching for the first time, that I ever-so-eloquently put into words upon exiting the theater: Gosh, this is so real.

And the basic “real”-ness of Lady Bird is no coincidence. Reading about Gerwig, I learned about the similarities she shares with the titular character: they both grew up in Sacramento with a nurse for a mother, they both went to all-girls Catholic high schools, they both attended college in New York City. And then I read this quote of hers in a Rolling Stone article about the film:

“Writing this character was an exploration of all these things I didn’t have access to or I couldn’t be. In that way, it almost felt like this fairy-tale invention of a deeply flawed heroine, but one who I admire. I think she shows courage and a lot of character even when she’s flailing.”

Reading this is when it clicked: Lady Bird is the young-adult novel—and more importantly, the protagonist—that I’ve always wanted to write.

Can I also say that it’s the first time EVER that a film protagonist has shared my name and I haven’t recoiled in horror by the end?

I don’t exactly have escapism fantasies of returning to my senior year of high school. But in all of my novel-length works that feature teenagers, I’ve based characters, places, and even conversations on my own experiences. For example, as a 17-year-old, I didn’t think that I could get into a college in New York City, so I sent a character to a small liberal arts college in Vermont that mirrors where I first ended up, Gonzaga University. If I write a best friend character, she’s almost certainly based on one or two of my actual closest friends from that time—that way, I can draw upon our most naïve conversations, our most trivial arguments, and our overall friendship dynamic (how often did we see each other? were we huggers? did we mostly hang out right after school or plan activities for the weekend? and so on).

And it’s not that I can’t write “original” characters or scenarios. In fact, seemingly like Gerwig, I use my own experiences to set the tone for my stories, whether it’s a small town like the one I grew up in or a “borrowed” character or two, before introducing new ideas. To me, this kind of freedom isn’t restricted by the limitations of place or people I’ve set, but is in fact made wider by my extensive knowledge of the universe I’ve established. Being able to draw from my own life in order to tweak a scene or a line of dialogue and make it more authentic is a fantastic privilege.

I can’t describe well enough how empowered I felt after each time I saw Lady Bird. Here’s a writer-director who’s come up with a character, and a mother-daughter duo, who cycle between BFF-style bonding and familial bickering in the way that only mothers and daughters can, but who, more than that, are allowed to be as “unlikable” as they want. My favorite part is that what Gerwig has accomplished with Lady Bird and her mother has spurred reactions online ranging from enthusiastic relatability to abject annoyance. Which, not to compare the execution but rather the basic content, is pretty much how my own foray into the young adult genre has gone. My main shortcoming, though, is not letting my characters know well enough that they can be wholly unapologetic about their real-life qualities. Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it has to be fake.

Worth it.

Finally, I’d like to talk about the reason I’ve seen Lady Bird five times in the theater (as evidenced by the above photo). And best way (or at least, the way I’ve chosen) to do this is to list my general thoughts going into each viewing:

  • 1: My sister said I’d like this. I’m a big fan of Saoirse Ronan. It got good reviews. Why not?
  • 2: My husband MUST see this movie, and I enjoyed it so I won’t mind seeing it a second time.
  • 3: I’ve decided I want to write something about this lovely, lovely movie. But what? (Here’s where I realize that it’s very much like a young adult novel.)
  • 4: No, seriously, what? (Worth mentioning: this is the first viewing where I cried almost all the way through. I knew all the jokes and the emotional moments and what happened and whose performances would affect me, and it all hit me at once.)
  • 5: Here’s what I want to write about. Here’s how I want to view the film this time around; what I want to get out of it. And look, it’s only $6.

A fifth viewing may have solidified the topic I’ve chosen for this particular writing, but it still only scratches the surface of my attempt to learn more about and begin to emulate everything I love about this film, this script. I want to nail Lady Bird’s voice in my own characters. I want to learn to balance the unlikability of teenage characters with their (nostalgic) relatability. I want to balance how high schoolers present themselves with how they think, how the things that they never tell anyone influence how they see the world. I want to be able to write a mother-daughter relationship that takes the inherent volatility, love, and “like” and makes it feel effortlessly real.

It’s always been somewhat therapeutic for me to almost “rewrite” my teenage years through my characters, whether it’s working out a part of my personality that I was never able to figure out then by finally putting it into words, or so pettily finally getting to say what I wanted to say in a ten-year-old argument with a friend that hasn’t left my memories. But now, thanks to Lady Bird, I have a new wish for my future as a writer: I hope that I can develop the confidence and the skill to have my own characters reach out to others in the way that Lady Bird‘s have to me. As long as they’re well-written, then the more unlikable, the better.


All Lady Bird screencaps come from the trailer, which can be found here.

The promise of blue skies

This is an account of my thoughts and experiences watching from Iowa as the recent North Bay fires descended upon my home county and hometown of Sonoma, California; it takes place between October 9 and 16, 2017. I wrote each of these sections on the days they describe and chose to edit only lightly in order to maintain the uncertainty, fear, and hope that I experienced throughout the week. (I took the above photo during my most recent visit home in December 2015.)


Monday

I can almost smell the fire as I wake up.

My husband is out of town for the three-day weekend. When I see the photos of suburban Santa Rosa, grey and charred and depressingly reminiscent of a postapocalyptic neighborhood in the Fallout game series, I don’t want to talk to anyone.

For the first time in years, my Facebook feed is organized. Updates from the North Bay on top, everything else scrunched at the bottom. Friends marking themselves “safe” from the Tubbs Fire, the Nuns Fire, the Adobe Fire. There is nothing but fire.

My eyes glaze as I read post after post about evacuations, friends who have already lost their homes, how to learn more.

I text Sonoma’s zip code to the county sheriff’s department for updates: 95476 to 888-777.

At one p.m., I finally hear from my mom.

“In case you’re wondering, we’re fine here so far. It smells smoky,” she tells my sister and me, before informing us that our family friend’s house and neighborhood were destroyed.

“They are safe, though,” she adds.

Those haunting, postapocalyptic photos are of their neighborhood. I can’t look at them again.

*

My family is scattered across the country like teardrops in the open ocean, so far away by distance but emotionally one and the same forevermore. Extended family on the east coast, me in Iowa, my sister in Southern California, my parents in Sonoma. Those of us alone and out of danger are horrified. My parents are in danger and my mom hints at nothing amiss except the bag she’s packed, and that my dad hasn’t packed enough.

The alert says they’re evacuating Pets Lifeline. Less than a mile away. Hours ago, Pets Lifeline was the evacuation center for small pets.

“I’m not worried,” the text representing my mom’s projective thoughts reads. I nod, but don’t reply.

*

The trailer for the upcoming Star Wars movie premieres that night. My sister will love the Porg, so I immediately slide a screenshot from the trailer into our group text of it and Chewbacca. Anything to break the tension, to reintroduce any kind of normalcy we can.

“Does Chewie eat the Porg?” my mom asks.

Indeed. Things are almost normal.

 

Tuesday

But even as regularity persists in our hearts, it’s unnerving how utterly routine everything is in Iowa. No mountains, no hills. What would fire be like here? Is our only exposure to fire the hazy, yellow-tinted skies as smoke billows in from the north, signaling its distress, as we idle, comment on the inconvenience, and go about our days with the promise of blue skies in the back of our minds?

*

Every break between sheriff’s department alerts is a long breath of cool ocean air before I’m dunked back down into the water once more.

*

My mom and I compare notes about all the local celebrities who’ve helped others escape their homes or lost their own: Noah Lowry (escaped), Barry Bonds (helped), Levi Leipheimer (lost). “I’ve done nothing,” she writes under a thick blanket of smoke. “Feeling guilty.”

I don’t say that she shouldn’t feel guilty. I don’t say that she has no reason to feel guilty because she could so easily be the next one in such dire need. I don’t say a lot more.

Instead, I send her a link to an article detailing which evacuation centers need supplies. If helping others helps her, then let it help us all.

 

Wednesday

In late 2008, just as I was settling into my freshman year of college, I found I was still on my high school music department’s email list when I received a message about the sweatshirts that all marching band members would have to buy as part of the uniform that year. Not fully assimilated at my new school, I replied to the email and requested one Sonoma Valley High School Dragon Band sweatshirt.

The comfort I felt wearing it then was nothing compared to the comfort it provides me now.

Whenever I run into the bathroom at work to read the latest update from the sheriff’s department, I am Sonoma. When I’m shelving books, I am Sonoma. I glance at our library’s copy of The Girls, written by a Sonoma author, Emma Cline, and feel a sudden warmth.

Teardrops in the ocean. We’re not so far apart after all.

*

I’m angry that some of my friends who marked themselves “safe” on Facebook received a text message at 12:30 in the morning to evacuate. Whether they wanted to show everyone they were a part of something big, or whether they truly thought they were safe, it doesn’t matter now. Safety comes and goes with the winds that bring the fires ever-closer to Sonoma, hopeful ebbs coupled with disastrous flows as the “safe” messages are soon replaced by photos of the myriad cars streaming out of town. The ebb of maintained community, the flow of panic. My parents are not yet among them.

*

In the group text, I bring up the message we all received from AT&T telling us they won’t be charging overages through Saturday, and we joke about the ways we could use up as much cellular data as possible. Then my mom sends a photo of her at work, out of town, wearing an N95 particulate mask to shield her from the smoke lingering outside.

The sheriff’s department interrupts our brief moment of solace. Advisory evacuations of northern Sonoma are underway.

“I’m on my way home,” my mom writes next. “I don’t want Dad to be alone.”

 

Thursday

Thursdays are my days off from work. I wake up at 7:30 a.m. Who can catch up on sleep when an alert could come in at any minute that could signal my parents’, my city’s, impending doom?

*

I want nothing more than to be at work, where cell coverage is sparse and text messages dissipate in the infuriatingly clean air, eighteen hundred miles from the havoc wrought upon Sonoma, where friends are swapping masks for inhalers in hopes that one of their chosen remedies will protect them from the smoke, while even those who evacuated long before sleep on cold wooden floors in San Francisco (or even farther south) and can barely go outside not as much for the choking air but because every time they look to the north, they remember what they left behind, and try even harder to remember what they may have lost forever.

*

My parents find a hotel room for the weekend in Carpinteria, which is where my sister lives, just south of Santa Barbara. I suggest it because, more than likely, there won’t be many vacancies near the Bay Area, but also because I think it would be nice for at least some of our family to be together during this time.

They never use the word “evacuate.” Evacuating is for victims, people in affected areas, people who’ve had sheriff’s deputies knock on their doors and don’t have time to say anything but, “Get out! Now!” because those residents have been awaiting this moment, those residents have been packed for days, those residents made arrangements out of town.

My mom uses the phrase “skip town,” as if she’s the one who’s done something wrong.

 

Friday

They say the wind was supposed to be bad the previous night, but it wasn’t, because the only alert this morning concerns Napa County. I wonder if the eerie quiet I’ve felt in Iowa is the same as what some in Sonoma must be experiencing.

I relax; I feign normalcy. I retweet some information from a Sonoma reporter I recently started following. I allow myself to feel hopeful that this might end soon. I take my planned vacation, a six-hour drive not unlike the one my parents took the day before. As my lower back twinges in the unfamiliar cloth seat of the rental car, this is the thought that keeps me from complaining, even in my head. My parents just did this drive, and they were leaving something behind, not running toward something. My parents just did this drive. My parents…

The quiet is bad.

 

Saturday

My eyes spring open before I am ready.

Mandatory evacuations.

One quarter-mile from my parents’ house.

Did they water it down before they left?

What did they take with them?

Do they know what might happen?

Are they prepared?

What are we about to lose?

*

I take back all those retweets from the previous morning, feeling like I tricked anyone who read them.

*

For the first time, the group texts abruptly end.

For the first time, the distance may as well be nothing. For the first time, I may as well be able to peer outside my friend’s open window, inhale lungfuls of smoke, and gaze upon the hellscape no longer beyond the horizon. For the first time, I can’t help feeling that I have everything to lose.

 

Sunday

I read that the high school’s evacuation center is still open, has still been open. Every few hours, I learn that another bar on the Plaza, which was under a voluntary evacuation earlier in the week, has reopened. They still don’t have electricity, but they are welcoming weary post-evacuees, entertaining, and giving away food and drink in spite of it all.

 

Monday

The late morning text alert I receive is, for once, not an alert. Press briefing. One p.m. Fairgrounds. The same as every day.

Evacuations are being lifted across the valley, but the air quality is still terrible. Roads are still blocked off, but rain may be coming soon.

Two good days in a row feels like a trick, so I stay silent on social media. One errant retweet could bring this all back. But even still, I feel the distance between myself and Sonoma growing again. The flames can’t reach me here.

I take a deep breath, waiting to be immersed in a fiery expanse of endless dread once more. I am measured, cautious, unsure. And then I exhale, purely, deeply, the start of the week’s anxieties into the fresh air, and none of it comes back to hurt me.

Modern Thanatopsis

One of my favorite longform pieces I’ve ever read is about Madison Holleran, a young woman who died by suicide about halfway through her freshman year of college. It discusses how her Instagram feed served as a façade for her true feelings and experiences, so those who viewed it could see the type of life she wanted them to see. After reading it again more recently in light of the book about her that was recently published by the same author of the article, Kate Fagan, I ventured to her Instagram account. It likely has quite a few more followers than it did before she died: more than 14,000. As a result, many of the likes and comments below each photo are from people who didn’t know Madison, though her story had touched them, like it had for me, to the point that they felt they needed their voices to be heard.

That day, I clicked on one photo, a striking yet heavily-filtered sunset. After the caption, she had posted the hashtags #finals and #someonesaveme. As if on cue, the barrage of over-thinking, over-analyzing, began:

“The hashtags in this picture speak volumes.”

“Like that last hashtag. It wasn’t about finals.”

“God I wish I could’ve saved you and I never even met you.”

“You could have been saved!”

But what are these well-meaning people envisioning exactly? That they would take every (probably) haphazardly-posted hashtag so seriously that they might stage an intervention each time the common and often colloquial “someone save me!” appeared during finals week? That this young woman’s friends weren’t the type of friends she needed to help her fight her mental illness? That if these complete strangers been friends with her, she would still be alive today?

•   •   •

For me, going to Gonzaga University meant proving to myself that I could thrive not just outside my hometown, but far away from the state in which I’d grown up. Almost by default, all the friends I’d make would probably not be from California, but from states in the Pacific Northwest. And for the first few weeks, that’s how it was: my roommate was from Washington, a few other people I met were from the Seattle area, and even the Californians I came into contact with were either from southern California or way northern California – far enough from my hometown that in almost any other part of the country, they would have been from other states. We friended each other on Facebook, tagged each other in photos, and for a while, the illusion I’d wanted so badly, that I could leave my hometown and thrive, was intact.

When my depression that had been festering in some form since the beginning of high school got a lot worse very quickly, it wasn’t like I could let anyone back home know. Admitting that maybe Gonzaga wasn’t the right fit for me, that the friends I’d made those first few weeks of classes had found new friends, that I was more excited than ever for Thanksgiving break or winter break because those vacations came with a trip home, not only meant to me that I wasn’t happy, but that I might even be homesick. And admitting that I was homesick felt like a betrayal to the person I envisioned myself becoming in college: the person that was sad to leave campus because it meant leaving friends behind, who couldn’t want to get back to see those friends, and so on.

So even though inside I knew that being at Gonzaga meant fueling my depression – which wasn’t necessarily related to being homesick, but just being there – I kept up the charade on social media. I posted Facebook status after Facebook status about how excited I was for the next basketball game, how annoying the snow was, how prestigious the theaters downtown that I performed concerts in were. Every time a friend from home posted about their California college, the comment I posted would involve something about Washington, reminding them that I had left the state for no reason other than to justify my decision, to trick myself into believing I was happy.

Of course, I was drowning. But looking at my social feeds, aside from the occasional ambiguous sad song lyrics, even my closest friends from home (or the few friends at school) wouldn’t have guessed how bad my depression had become.

At the end of the fall semester of my sophomore year, after a lengthy hospital stay a few months before had essentially forced me to open up to people on both sides of my life – home and college – I was the most candid I had ever been online in a Facebook note I wrote titled “Ten Things I Learned in 2009”:

Never go to the emergency room on a Sunday night. Ever. Even if you have to. Wait until Monday morning or call an ambulance instead, so you’ll at least bypass the waiting room.

Reach out to someone who can help, even if it’s your professor. Even if they’re not technically allowed to handle the issue themselves, they’ll do everything they can and make sure that they hand you off to someone with whom you feel equally comfortable. Then after your issue is resolved, you can go back to your professor and become best friends and they will buy you coffee.

But while the hospital stay had taught me a lot about my mental illnesses and how to better address them, I wasn’t cured – and I will never be, as the clinical term for “depression that’s a little better now,” just like for cancer, is “remission” – but I still wanted everyone to think I was. Because even though many people had heard by then that things weren’t going well, all they’d have to do is read these items on this list and be content with the fact that things were, at least, better than they were.

In reality, for every #someonesaveme, there’s an #everythingisgoinggreat, and as much as we truly care about the people in our lives, by design, one of those expressions tends to outweigh the other in life, and one tends to outweigh the other after death.

•   •   •

It feels like after someone dies by suicide, everyone who knew them – and if their story extends outside of their immediate circles, everyone who wished they knew them – begins philosophizing about what could have been. If their friends had done this differently, then this would have happened instead. If they’d known the person better, had reached out to them at the right time, they might have been able to stop them. Much of this is a natural part of the grieving process and the guilt that comes with it. But for those who simply want to insert themselves into a stranger’s experiences, it can quickly become a circlejerk of living, often able-bodied people proselytizing that they knew what was best for this person they didn’t know. It can quickly turn into a whole new list of grievances for the ones who did know the person, further compounding their guilt: if so many strangers see their dead friend as “saveable” now, how could those close to them not have seen the signs before it was too late?

The further removed you are from a person who’s died by suicide, like the strangers posting comments on Madison’s Instagram, the easier it is to wildly speculate. It is easier to assign meaning to someone’s life, to the hashtags they post with a seemingly benign photo, if the person is no longer here. It’s a morbid game played only by those who see it as such – a true-crime mystery to unravel. It’s House trying to figure out who killed Kutner, when all the signs of a suicide are right there, so simple and therefore so easily ignored.

You can be intimately familiar with the signs of suicide, from personal experience or research or both, and still not foresee this outcome. You can pore through a friend’s social media history, wondering where something shifted, if something shifted, if something could have been done, if there’s something you should have noticed. If there was a singular way to define mental illness, then perhaps fewer people would see suicide as an option, but there isn’t. Because of this, so often in the wake of a death by suicide, there’s only an endless supply of questions left that can never be answered. But equally often, the most authentic realization one can have is when to stop asking these questions and mourn in peace.

PETTY GRIEVANCES FOR LIFE

Today, Nicole Cliffe asked Twitter to talk about their “oldest, most cherished grudges.” The replies were filled with names of terrible teachers, tales of unforgivable parenting errors, and so much more beauty, sometimes twenty or more years in the making.

In the spirit of that tweet, I’m going to list a few of mine really quickly. If you see yourself in any of these, don’t worry. I’m mostly over it.

  1. I mentioned in my previous post that if my third-grade teacher noticed a group of friends was having problems, he would send them outside during class time to work them out on their own, as a way of helping us be more independent about that sort of thing. One time, the problem with my group of friends was that they were all mad at me for some reason. So we went outside to work it out, but just as we got to the door, I remembered something a little bit vital: they were all mad at me. The last thing they’d want to do is spend time with me that they didn’t have to. So it came as no surprise when one of them turned to me and practically screamed, “This isn’t about you!”, leaving me inside for them to, I don’t know, use class time to plot against me? Who knows.
  2. Sometime during my single-digit ages, my parents told me that when I turned 10, I could finally get the cat I wanted. Twentyish years later, I’ve never owned a cat because I didn’t get the experience of having one growing up (much less for my 10th birthday).
  3. In fifth grade, we held an election for class vice president (our teacher was the president, obviously) which I won by a single vote. Instead of giving to me what was RIGHTLY MINE, my teacher awarded me and the girl I beat the “co-vice presidency,” whatever that is.
  4. Also in fifth grade, I was eliminated from the school spelling bee on the word “rendezvous.” The girl who ended up winning came to the microphone right after me. Her word? “Special.”
  5. ALSO in fifth grade, I was fired from altar serving because I blew out a candle instead of using the candle snuffer (a term I had to look up just now). This one lady who had some job at the church came up to me after Mass and went off on me about it, and while I was just relieved that meant I didn’t have to do it anymore, I still dislike her very much to this day for yelling at a 10-year-old for something so silly.
  6. In high school, I had a teacher who offered us extra credit if we found copy errors in the syllabus. I found one – this teacher had used “right of passage” instead of “rite of passage” – and showed it to them. My mom even helped me find a source online to back me up. When I showed it to the teacher, they replied with, “No, I meant ‘right of passage.'” They did not.

Honorable mention because it’s very recent: A professor I had said that a hard news article I’d written for an assignment was bad and that I should consider “not centering writing” in my future career. One month later, I turned in a 3,100-word narrative article with four interviews and many more secondary sources. I’m not going to go into exactly what happened next (I mean, go ahead and ask privately, though), but let’s just say this professor ate their words in a beautiful, beautiful way.

Tell me about your very old grudges! The older and the pettier, the better (and that nearly rhymes, so it has to be true).