Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Advice for Creative Writing Majors

A long time ago, someone asked Owl what she wished she’d known when started college as a creative writing major. Owl behaved very irresponsibly. She made a crack about being an economics major instead. This is the advice she heard when she majored in creative writing.

Owl has decided it's bad advice. First, it’s untrue, because Owl as an econ major would have been Owl weeping into her pillow clutching a teddy bear. Second, all it does is tell people their dreams are stupid. Owl is deeply sorry and full of regrets. She’s spent weeks thinking, and this is actually what she’d tell a younger Owl.

Forget about grades. Good writing is not about grades. You will get B’s you don’t deserve and you’ll get A’s you don’t deserve. Pay attention to the feedback instead. Figure out what should be discarded, and what you should use to get better. Praise comes and goes; the work stays.

Say thank you. A professor will scribble “senseless emotional drivel” at the top of your first assignment. (Welcome to college.) Your classmates will cross out all the poetic twists you slaved over. (Overwrought). Your friends will circle the parts where they fell asleep. (Every other paragraph). It will hurt. Sometimes they’ll be wrong. Mostly they’ll be right. They’ll show you what you can’t see. Say thank you, so they’ll keep showing you. It’s easy to tell someone they’re great. It’s harder to tell them to grow. People who like you tell you good job. People who love you tell you how to get better. Love them back. Thank them for caring and do better.

Ignore the haters. Freshman year of college you will walk into the cafeteria and find a group of engineering and pre-med boys clustered around a table ranking the most useless college majors. Creative writing will be at the top. They will tell you, you are going nowhere. You will believe them because that’s what everyone says: you are going nowhere.

Ignore them. Seven years later you’ll run into one of them. He’ll still be in the same town. He’ll tell you he burnt out, stopped going to class, and eventually gave up all together. He’ll tell you he had dreams, but he was too scared to act on them. It’s easy to tell someone they are useless. It’s so much harder to do something. Do the hard thing: do what you love.

Befriend the people you admire. There are people who are so talented that you get nauseous: the girl in your poetry seminar who writes in two languages, the girl in your intro seminar whose stories make your heart bleed, the girl in your fiction class who can spin a plot like nobody’s business. Make friends with them. Today they’re your roommates, your friends, your competition. Tomorrow they’ll be your lifeline.

You will leave college one day. You won’t have workshop, you won’t have your professors,you won’t have anyone to edit your work. You will have your girls. The first will ask you the tough questions and sort out your crazed commas. When you are homesick halfway across the world she will write you emails telling you it’s okay to be panicked. You will travel to Myanmar together. The second will read through your drafts and mark them up for weak writing. She’ll take you out to brunch when you get burned out at grad school and remind you that writing and pancakes make life worth living. The third will stop you from publishing a god-awful essay just so you can get another byline. Somehow she'll even do it tactfully. She’ll host you at the drop of a hat whenever you come into town to say hello, and at her house you will always sleep well.

Good people, people who tell you the truth, people who spill over with talent are hard to find. If you are lucky enough to meet one, keep them close.

Trust yourself. Everyone will tell you writers don’t get paid. Because of this, you will apply for a line of sensible business jobs. You will believe that only the best and the brightest get paid to write, and that you are not, and never will be, good enough. There is no such thing as being good enough. No one is good enough and everyone is good enough. Think T.S. Elliot and think Twilight. The first step for getting what you want is being brave enough to try. You want. Now go. Go write.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Owl Explains Christmas

Last night Owl’s boyfriend, Peter, invited her to spend Christmas with his family.
Owl’s family doesn’t really do Christmas. Owl’s father is a Hindu who eats steak and her mother is a Buddhist who prays in Hindu temples. Excuse Owl the explanation. She’s giving it because mostly people dash up to her and go Merry Chr—er, Happy Holidays, er, what do you celebrate? And then, before she can reply, they say brightly, oh! You’re Indian!
Owl will explain she’s not Indian, she’s half Chinese and half Indian, and that’s the last chance she gets to speak. People will look at her blankly and ask her if she is planning a huge Bollywood wedding like the ones on TV. Then they will tell her all about the Asian Way, which involves being vegetarian and spiritual and having strict parents who make you do lots of maths. We get it, they tell her knowingly. We know all about you.
After such conversations Owl usually has to have a nice quiet lie-down.
Anyway. Owl was terribly excited about Christmas at Peter’s. As a child she would feel twinges of jealousy while other families celebrated Christmas. The twinkling trees in windows! The gingerbread scent in bakeries! Frank Sinatra singing (or well someone, Owl doesn’t know her singers so good) about holy nights and silent nights! Owl felt left out.
 “Erm, what does Christmas at yours entail?” Owl asked Peter. The asking was mostly Owl being polite and culturally sensitive. Peter’s family came over to America on the Mayflower. Owl knows how their Christmas will go down. No questions needed.
While Owl hasn’t precisely Christmased, she considers herself something of an expert. Owl’s read an inordinate amount of Victorian’s children’s literature and watched movies. She can say with full confidence Christmas is about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, chasing someone around the couch while singing seductively about the cold, and eating pink hams.
In the same way of people who major in Asian Studies and can make grand sweeping statements about Asia after reading a few books and visiting once or twice, Owl feels totally equipped to comment on Christmas.
Peter went off on a long dreamy description of toddling downstairs in pajamas, opening stockings, putting on wool socks, brining turkey, (here Owl doubted the authenticity of Peter’s Christmas experience, brining turkey was not in any of her books, it was always ham) and…presents.
“Presents,” Owl echoed.
“Yeah, you should probably bring a present for everyone,” Peter said. “Don’t sweat it.”
“I will buy everyone chocolate,” Owl declared. Everyone loves chocolate. Christmas is about love. Therefore, QED, Christmas is about chocolate. The three wise men may have been handing over myrrh, but Owl knows that’s code for chocolate.
Peter explained chocolate were not quite the done thing.  “You want to get something personal,” he said. “It’s about the thought.”
Owl was miffed. Chocolate is all about thought. Chocolate screams thought. Peter was just wrong.
“I’ll get fancy chocolate,” Owl said. “Chocolate wrapped up in golden bows.”
Peter informed Owl there would be no buying of chocolate, which Owl thought was silly. Clearly Peter needs to be better educated in the ways of Christmas. Then he added, “We also label our gifts with puns and compete to see who has the best.”
Nowhere in any of the Christmas books Owl read does it state that you have to come up with clever puns to impress your boyfriend’s family with your wit and linguistic cunning. Owl was outraged.
There was a long pause as Peter tried to figure out how to explain the difference between what is Christmas culture, what gets changed and adapted for family culture and the precise nuance of gift Owl would have to get to fit in. He ended up saying something like: Mwfrraglgeooole.
Owl is staring at the black abyss of Amazon. So far she’s looked at massage gift certificates, water coolers, inspirational jewelry, hand carved cedar boxes, and custom designed phone cases. She’s thinking about who everyone is in Peter’s family and how they think about the world.
It’s frighteningly strenuous. Having now experienced her first taste of Christmas (almost), Owl now understands why people get nutty during the holidays. Thinking about what people really want means being compassionate (blargh), open minded (ewww), and listening to other points of view (Jesus, really?).
However, Owl is fully confident she can do this. Having faced many stupid-assed cultural assumptions in her own life, she’s knows she would never make the same mistake. This confidence does not strike her as dangerous. She knows in her heart of hearts real Christmas is about ham and chocolate no matter what Peter says. Owl is a Christmas expert.  She’s got this.