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.)
College is full of new experiences. In the dorms, even going to the bathroom is a social ordeal.
People tell me I should “shoot for the stars.” But what happens when the stars also have guns?
They scoff when she mentions that gimmicky poster-size crossword puzzle from SkyMall. However, she’s solved it; they haven’t.
The teacher accidentally said “Yes, dear” to a girl. He then lectured the boys on respecting their wives.
Young adulthood: Always looked down upon, never sure when you’re old enough to do the looking down upon.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
This post is a cliché, and I’m very aware. I’m pressing ahead anyway because I can’t not admit that Lisa Simpson was the character I looked up to most throughout my childhood. In a sense, I still do today, because how can a character who affected me like that not continue to influence me?
At Lisa’s age, I too was a constantly-stressed-out overachiever. In third grade, a classmate and I were engaged in a yearlong, daily race to see who could finish their in-class work first. I sacrificed the quality of my work all year long, but who cares? I finished first most of the time! It got so stressful that, the summer before fourth grade when I learned this girl and I would be in the same class once more, I spent weeks drafting a long speech I would deliver to her, explaining why it was in our best interests to lay off each other and just concentrate on our own work. But before I could give it, I learned she’d had a change of heart over the summer as well: the first day, I cautiously finished an assignment first and was already hovering above my seat to beat her to the teacher’s desk to hand it in, when I realized that not only was she not doing the same thing, but she wasn’t even halfway finished yet. That was the end of our tacit competition, and I couldn’t have been happier (or more relieved).
In this post straight out of any number of ’90s/’00s nostalgia websites – because, let’s face it, Lisa is very relatable for a lot of reasons to many different people – I’m going to post a few of my favorite screenshots of quintessential Lisa Simpson moments and discuss how exactly that young (or current) Christine is reflected in each.
Music: While sometimes I wish I’d been a one-instrument phenom like Lisa, I’m also incredibly happy I had the opportunity to play – and then teach myself – so many instruments. My more formal training in violin and flute led to personal endeavors in piano (which I played in my high school’s jazz band), alto sax (which I played in the Gonzaga pep band), guitar (thanks, School of Rock), voice (thanks again, Gonzaga), and dulcimer (a late-night eBay purchase in 2010 that I do not regret in the least).
Science: In seventh grade, I was nominated, applied, and chosen to attend Tech Trek, a STEM camp for girls, in its 2003 summer home at Stanford University. Not only was it my first time getting a college experience – no parents, unlimited food at the dining hall, Jamba Juice on campus, at one of the most prestigious universities in the world – it was also my first time being exposed to activities like using high-tech telescopes, or programming robots, or extracting DNA from wheat germ. We also had a visit from a Pixar animator who told us about their next film, which had the working title Cars (“we’ll be changing it before release,” she assured us). I still keep in contact with a few of the people I met there today, and while my career path didn’t take me into STEM, I’m still immensely grateful for the experience, as well as for the teacher who nominated me.
Justice: Really, see below, but I will say here quickly that attending protests gives me an adrenaline rush like no other, and it’s something I very much recommend. I also write a lot about issues of social justice, from abortion rights to the failures of policing. It’s a lifestyle and a passion.
Animals: See, Lisa had a cat, and I was promised a cat when I turned 10, but that never happened. I did have three hamsters growing up, though, and have fostered a cat and a dog since. I also enjoy the Bambi-like vibes of my Iowa backyard, which consistently features deer, rabbits, chipmunks, and squirrels.
Shapes: Especially when they come as Lucky Charms marshmallows.
Feelings: Depression and anxiety aside, if you’re a good friend of mine (or, I don’t know, maybe if you aren’t), you’ve probably seen the full range of how I express my feelings, from elation that results in wild gesticulation to crying that will probably never, ever stop, until it does. So first of all, thank you for staying friends with me, but also, isn’t it wonderful having such delightfully complex friends?
I have not been to Tokyo, but I have been to New Zealand, which while maybe not having the same level of difference, cultural identity-wise, as Tokyo (vs. the United States), still has plenty of restaurants that are uniquely New Zealand. So, of course, our first day in Auckland, we stopped at Starbucks while wandering around town – which did have snacks that you could only dream of finding in the U.S., let’s be real – as well as the Denny’s by our hotel for dinner that night. Then we vowed to never sink to that level again, and for the most part, we did not. (We did eat dinner at the Sky Tower’s revolving restaurant, but I’ll maintain that it is probably a completely different experience than, say, the Space Needle.)
“Sleeping with the Enemy” (S16E03)
“Sleeping with the Enemy” (S16E03)
Isn’t clothes shopping the worst?
Like Lisa, I more or less wore the same thing every day in middle school and high school (though, you know, not exactly the same thing): T-shirt with sports-related logos, sweatpants or long cargo shorts, sneakers. My identity was dictated by my passion for sports, as most of the year, I was in season for soccer, track, softball, basketball, and so on. But as I got older and started going to school with more of the people I played on teams with – the several elementary schools funneling into two middle schools funneling into a single high school – I learned that the teammates I looked up to dressed…well, like normal girls: jeans; “T-shirts” as in short-sleeved, without logos, and in colors other than black and white (as opposed to ones “for boys,” which was apparently what I was wearing); hair down, not in the ponytails they’d wear on the field. At the time, this realization absolutely shocked me.
As a result, a few times I did try to “reinvent” myself to be more like girls I went to school with, trying out decorative jeans, the correct type of T-shirt, fancy sandals, more obvious jewelry. And that’s when I realized I just couldn’t win. I was made fun of for “dressing like a boy,” then I was made fun of for “dressing like a girl.” I remember one instance in middle school of a “gender-bender” dress-up day, where a friend approached me in my cargo shorts and T-shirt (her wearing the same thing, because today it was “appropriate”) and claimed that my outfit “didn’t count” for this dress-up day because I “always dressed like a boy.”
Although I’ve come to accept that my fashion sense is best described using another Simpsons popularization, “meh,” trying to find clothing I’m comfortable in, regardless of how it’s been gendered, is difficult. From sizing being wildly inconsistent among women’s clothing (why, oh why, can’t all pants be measured in inches like men’s are?) to the brands that manage to tack on $5-10 extra for a single size up from their “normal” range (miss me with the too-common “the fabric costs more only for plus-size women” nonsense, it’s purely fatphobia), it’s no wonder I’m way more comfortable putting on those same T-shirts I relied on growing up. I don’t put myself first very often, but when it comes to attaining comfort for something everyone does every day – wearing clothes – I’ll sacrifice a “fashion sense” for that.
“Fraudcast News” (S15E22)
“Fraudcast News” (S15E22)
“Fraudcast News” (S15E22)
If you know me, you might have come to me for advice on social issues manifesting in your own life, to rant about systemic inequalities, or to share articles you’ve read that taught you a lot or provided valuable insight, a new way to look at something.
The last one is my favorite, not necessarily from a social interaction perspective (as I’m a fan of them all in that way), but because it’s the one I most like doing by myself. I enjoy having my views challenged if doing so can open my mind a bit more and provide growth. It’s for this reason that I’m immensely grateful to minoritized individuals for offering their words, their personal stories, so that others may learn from them. If you’re able to financially support a minoritized writer, or activist, or anyone else whose work consists of a lot of free labor, I highly recommend doing so. Their perspectives are valuable, influential, and vastly embarrassingly underutilized and unheeded. To give just one example (lest this post become a list of Patreons and PayPal links), I recommend reading and donating to The Establishment, an outlet started by women that amplifies marginalized voices.
To get back to the screencap at hand, this quote also speaks to my ability to apparently uncover a negative in everything (which I’m aware of because some people find it annoying about me), and yes, while it’s sometimes frustrating to be “always on,” I’d rather it be this way than the opposite.
My elementary school experience was defined by a series of triumphs, mainly along the lines of being noticed by teachers for having a head start in several academic areas. In first grade, I was writing full-length journal entries on day one and it was recommended that I read the Little House on the Prairie series while many of my classmates were still learning how to read. In third grade, my teacher suggested I read Narnia at the same time that I was consistently finishing Mad Minute exercises in less than a minute. In fifth grade, I received so many stickers for noticing proofreading errors that the paper stars that housed my stickers on our “Proofreaders Hall of Fame” spanned almost half the allotted space for the entire class.
But then, middle school hit. Letter grades arrived. I didn’t get into Algebra 1 two years early (the trajectory of which would have had me taking Geometry at the high school in eighth grade) like several of my friends, and I got my first “B” grades in English. It’s not that school was suddenly hard, but I wasn’t excelling anymore, and that really bothered me. And if you understand that two of the biggest internal freakouts I can recall from elementary school include getting a single 9/10 on a spelling test in first grade and being completely lost learning long division in third grade, this might make some sense.
By middle school, I was convinced that my smart streak had run out. And I rolled with it, but it was difficult at first seeing classmates seemingly “overtaking” me, academics-wise, as if that was my title to lose. But I think it helped in high school when for my freshman Honors English summer assignment, we had to write an essay and design a poster, and I received a “C” on the essay and a “D” on the poster. It was my first time seeing either of those grades and as I tearfully admitted this to my mom one day, she laughed. Not out of any malice, but because she finally saw how hard I was being on myself and was able to rationally explain to me that these particular grades meant nothing in the long run – most colleges wouldn’t even ask for sophomore year grades, much less freshman summer assignment grades – and that anyone who gave a new freshman a “D” on a poster that contained all the required elements was probably not a great teacher to begin with. (She was right on that: this particular teacher was fired my sophomore year.)
So while I thought I was, as Lisa puts it, “descending into mediocrity” in middle school, and then again in high school, really, those feelings were a direct result of my unrealistic expectation that everything school-related would be easy for me forever. And it wasn’t, and I wish I’d been told that – or had the capacity to have been told that – sooner.
Those two middle panels really speak to me, as it is never not amazing how productive you can be in other areas while you “should” be writing. In the past, I’ve cleaned my entire apartment to avoid a day of NaNoWriMo where I’m just not feeling it, or even done other, morepainful writing for my classes so I don’t have to face a daunting personal piece I’d thought about writing that day.
It’s the final two panels that remind me of my brief stint as an English major, though. There was a Starbucks about a block away from my freshman dorm, and I’d go there to read, write, and people-watch, all because I had concocted this image of myself as the ideal English major: coffee-drinker, all-black-wearer, eclectic-fiction-reader, deeply-personal-piece-writer. So I’d head to Starbucks wearing a black T-shirt, order a hazelnut hot chocolate, and let Fight Club inspire my hashtag-deep writing. (The point here is that I was insufferable. Let’s not further mince words.)
It’s not even that Lisa is insufferable here as much as painfully relatable. When we’re deep in the “real writer” mindset, it’s so easy to not see it until it’s been a day and we’ve produced nothing of substance. But at least the CD collection we haven’t touched in years is properly alphabetized and sorted by genre.
I had to include this scene not just because it’s an iconic Lisa moment, but because there’s one specific memory I have that parallels with this fairly well.
Third grade – which I’ve talked about a few times above – was a truly formative year for me, as it was the first year I was truly challenged academically, but also the first year my homework assignments went beyond worksheets, the first year we kept a book of quotes, the first year that our teacher would send groups of friends outside to work things out ourselves if he noticed we were having issues. I gained independence, started to break out of my constant shyness, and began to believe in myself as a person, not just as a student. Our teacher got to know us, was the perfect balance of strict and approachable, and wanted to see us succeed. Third grade was even the first time ever that I didn’t cry on the first day of school.
And then it ended. The last day of school arrived, and the entire class gathered on the rug where my teacher read us stories, he sat in his big chair, and we talked about our favorite things we’d done that year. There were students crying because even though he’d still be around next year, he wouldn’t be our teacher anymore. We all knew, even as eight- and nine-year-olds, that this year was something special that other teachers could try to replicate, but never fully achieve.
So we all cried together on the last day of third grade, knowing that even though we’d never have this teacher again, the year we’d spent together would change each of us for the better. In spite of the story I shared at the top of this post about the competition that drove my third-grade year, there was still so much good about that year that I still consider it my favorite because it outweighed and sometimes even eased much of the stress I put on myself. That, to me, is the mark of a truly stellar teacher, and I’m so grateful to had had that experience.
Iowa State’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment produces authors, poets, and playwrights well-versed in what the program refers to as “the environmental imagination.” But for two students, exploring this idea meant setting out to advance a whole new genre.
After learning about solarpunk in a Tumblr post that gained popularity last September, now second-year student Phoebe Wagner came to fellow second-year Brontë Wieland with an idea.
“Phoebe approached me and asked me if I wanted to put together an anthology of environmental science fiction,” Wieland said.
“Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation” was born out of this conversation.
Solarpunk is an emerging genre focused on working toward a better environmental future in science fiction as well as the associated positive solutions. The “-punk” suffix refers to its association with countercultural ideology.
“There’s also a lot of social justice that’s also associated with it,” Wagner added. “This idea that you can’t take environmental justice away from social justice, that they’re just sort of woven together.”
Wieland and Wagner turned to Kickstarter at the recommendation of their publisher, Upper Rubber Boot Books, and leaned on their own previous experiences with the platform to make it successful. One of their major goals was to raise enough to pay every author whose work they decided to publish in “Sunvault.”
“It also seemed right that something like solarpunk that’s so based in community is also funded by the community,” Wagner said.
In less than a month, “Sunvault” reached its initial goal of $5,000. By the end of the funding period, 236 backers had helped them exceed their goal to the tune of $6,121.
“Having the Kickstarter funds allowed us to be generous so we were able to up how much we were paying for art,” Wagner said.
With solarpunk being such an unexplored genre, Wieland and Wagner were both worried and excited about the kind of submissions they might receive, as well as how people might interpret the genre and how they as editors would select the stories that would help define and embody solarpunk for a wider audience.
“We wanted to be able to give authors the chance to expand that without necessarily breaking the genre,” Wieland said. “I think we did a pretty good job; we’ve taken it interesting directions.”
The pair promised backers and fans on their Kickstarter that submissions would open as soon as they reached their initial funding goal. But in addition to open submissions, they also solicited work from some of their favorite authors, including A.C. Wise, Nisi Shawl, and Daniel José Older.
“Probably our most exciting one was Margaret Atwood,” Wagner said. “We don’t have a Margaret Atwood story, but Atwood did email back our publisher and say that she liked the idea. So we were very thrilled about that.”
In the two months where submissions were open, “Sunvault” received more than 200 submissions, of which around 35 stories, poems, and black and white line art pieces were chosen for the final anthology.
The anthology is due to be published in May, but in the meantime, many backers of the Kickstarter have some unique rewards coming their way as a thanks for their contributions. Wagner is creating several spray art paintings, while Wieland is writing around 30 personalized limericks.
“Limerick is a fun form, and I think Kickstarters usually work better when they have something a little bit different in them,” he said. “I was excited to get a chance to exercise my limerick muscle.”
Throughout what will turn out to be an 18-month journey from conception to publication, Wieland and Wagner both learned valuable lessons about the publishing process.
“[We’ve been] writing copy for the Kickstarter and creating our website and doing social media, and we’re currently proofing the entire book at this point,” Wagner said. “That’s been a unique experience. And working with a publisher and soliciting authors is not something you generally get on your own, so that’s been a really big learning experience for me.”
“Now we’ve got a pretty good idea of all the legwork that goes into it,” Wieland added.
And as for a second volume of “Sunvault”?
“We’ll see,” Wagner said. “Probably some of it will depend on [the] response and if Upper Rubber Boot offered and said, ‘we would really like to put out another one,’ then I think we would definitely both be involved. But we’ll see.”
Did you know that your SAT essays are right there, scanned and posted on the College Board website, just waiting for people who graduated high school years ago to log in and relive the best 25 minutes of their lives?
I sure did!
In honor of the new SAT expanding the length of the now-optional essay section to 50 minutes in order to accommodate a longer prompt, I thought I’d share these excerpts from my two 2007 SAT essays. I believe they conclusively prove my demonstrated Lord of the Rings obsession trumped my GPA, letters of recommendation, and extracurriculars in helping me get into college.
Also, I don’t think context is necessary, do you?
March 2007 (with bonus Harry Potter):
“Literature has shown countless times that one should not set smaller goals if one will be displeased with the results. One should try to achieve a goal with an optimistic outlook, like Sam in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Harry Potter in the Harry Potter series. Both characters exemplified their drive to achieve their respective goals. Sam was able to think about destroying the One Ring throughout the journey, and his optimism led Frodo to ultimately destroy the Ring. Harry Potter kept the destruction of Voldemort in sight as he, almost subconsciously, achieved smaller goals while keeping the largest one in his mind. Optimism is key in achieving large goals, whether one’s imagination permits it or not.”
October 2007 (with bonus Beowulf):
“If one researches some of the most recently recognized films, one will discover that history plays a large role in crafting these epic tales. The ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy is a prime example. Not only is it based on a book, but a myriad of the costumes and battle items forged for the battle sequences were based on Anglo-Saxon and Norman mail and swords. Director Peter Jackson knew that he had the task of creating Middle-earth for the very first time, but instead of treating his viewers to novel costumes, he told the employees at Weta Workshop to research the 12th and 13th century’s clothing and mail and design the costumes for ‘Lord of the Rings’ based on those pictures and descriptions. Although perfected, Jackson’s attempt at creating an original view of Middle-earth failed as he chose to mirror the Anglo-Saxon battlewear. However, one cannot assume that Jackson duplicated every aspect of the Anglo-Saxons; J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the novels, borrowed material heavily from Beowulf. The monster Grendel, for example, is an almost exact manifestation of Tolkien’s character Gollum. Shunned by his family, Gollum delves into the mist and becomes an unfathomable representation of a human gone mad.”
Now that I think about it, these read so much like posts on Shit My Students Write and lol my thesis that I’m surprised I didn’t get zeros on each of these essays. At least it wasn’t as bad as what I wrote/pictures I drew on my AP Biology exam, I suppose (purposeful vagueness and/or harkening to inside joke lost to time entirely intended).