The woman formerly known as the little mermaid looked back on the kingdom she had once longed for. She had gotten all she had ever wanted – convinced her prince she was his savior, got him to love her, and married him aboard a ship, the sun setting as they shared their first kiss. Now that sunset seemed less like a romantic vision but instead an omen, where her fantasies and grand love had died away.
Her realization arrived slowly, built up year by year and with each and every step she took upon her new home called land. She held no voice to speak to her prince but danced whenever asked, her pain and bleeding feet as proof of her love. She hoped her suffering would lessen with time, but it never stopped hurting, never ceased in slicing and dragging her blood across the floor in an unrelenting stain. And in return, her prince asked only for more and never gave fully in kind, never considered her agony and scarred feet.
Too many years of this brought her to the realization that her prince had never seen her as anything more than a child, a plaything, an ideal to be loved. He had never loved her but instead her dancing, her utter adoration, her mystical beauty. Even if she could speak, he wouldn’t have listened. Not if what she said didn’t fit into his narrative. After so much of her spilt blood, she had moved past her teenage notions of true love and come to see that she was not his spouse but his possession, something he loved but was not in love with.
She could no longer exist with her pain simply for his pleasure. But she also could not return to her kingdom in the sea, for she now had two legs and an immortal soul. She was unwelcome in both worlds. So she had decided her only escape was to combine the two. Years into her dead romance, she gathered her courage and slipped away into the night, leaving her marriage bed for the last time. She journeyed to the docks and left a trail in her wake, the moonlight shining on her blood like a morbid dream. And now she stood on a stolen ship, taking in the sight of her second abandoned home before sailing away.
She had no plan for what lay next. She belonged nowhere on land or sea, adrift between two worlds. She thought of her grandmother’s old tales of the sirens – those winged creatures enchanting and singing sailors to their deaths as they crashed upon the rocks. The woman formerly known as the little mermaid thought of these legends and smiled, hoping they would seduce her into a watery grave, becoming one with the sea again, or pity her as they saw her broken but living body on the rocks and raise her to their ranks among the heavens above, where her feet would never touch the earth and suffer again.
If your holidays are anything like mine, then you spend a decent amount of time traveling to visit family. Because, admit it, more family equals more presents (or in my case, more red envelopes). However, those hours upon hours of nothing to do can get boring. Here are four books from a variety of genres that are long enough to keep you entertained on your holiday travels and short enough to finish before those dizzying spells hit from endless passages on bumpy roads.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Set in New England during World War II, A Separate Peace takes a bit of a twist on coming of age stories and speaks on what friendships can really be like. Knowles’ writing easily takes you back to your own moments of your youth where sometimes even the best of friendships suffers from envy. At 208 pages, this novel is fitting for any holiday travel as Knowles also beautifully describes New England snowfall during Christmas time. Not to mention, this story is a wonderful reminder to be thankful for the friends you have around you and to take greater care in how you treat them.
The Princess Saves Herself in this One by Amanda Lovelace
A wonderful read for any lovers of Rupi Kaur’s style of poetry and can be easily finished in perhaps a short train ride. These poems hit deep and will resonate with anyone who has suffered the trials of being a woman. Yet, it also goes beyond these trials and tribulations as well; there’s a wonderful poem about the uncertainty that is often intertwined with being an English major. Perfect for anyone who needs some reassurance before settling in with family or with some hot chocolate for the holiday season.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
In my opinion, young adult fiction has a bit of a bad reputation these days, but this little novel is sure to restore some faith in the genre. Although, be warned, you might want to sit in the backseat for this one because it is almost guaranteed to put you to tears. I recommend you go into it as blind as possible, but just know that Sáenz does a beautiful job describing the effect words can have on us and why we as readers can cherish them so much. This is just such a short, sweet, and meaningful novel for any trip and especially warming for the holidays.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman
This novel was definitely one that took me by surprise. At 110 pages it was no arduous read; however, be willing to suspend your disbelief as Eagleman proposes some wild tales for the afterlife. Eagleman writes of forty mind boggling situations that is sure to not only get your mind working during any long travel, but also remind you to be grateful for the short life you are given. Boredom suddenly seems like a dangerous thing because, as Eagleman so graciously points out, you spend two years reliving it in your afterlife.
We all love a good TV show binge during winter break, but sometimes watching just isn’t enough. Here is a list of books that can help curb your super fan appetites while you wait for the new seasons of your favorite shows.
1. American Horror Story: Asylum / One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
This is one of the most popular seasons of AHS, and to any AHS fan this is the perfect book for you (we all remember Kit Walker…enough said). But if you aren’t a fan of the show and are just wanting a bit more of that Halloween spirit, I recommend Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This classic novel shares a lot in common with American Horror Story: Asylum—from it’s setting, to the creepy-psycho employees, to even it’s dashing, and somewhat questionable protagonist. If you loved season two or just want to keep some of that post-Halloween spook, this is a great book to keep you on the edge of your seat.
NBC’s This Is Us has been blowing up the charts recently, and will for the foreseeable future. If you just can’t get enough of the family love and drama that comes with it, then why not pick of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth? This #1 New York Times Bestseller poses the question, “who is family?” and fits perfectly into the drama and tears that we’ve all come to love from watching the Pearson family. Expect some heartbreak and some warm fuzzy feelings with this one, because it’s sure to take you on quite a ride.
All of us Game of Thrones fans are dying to get our hands on that final season, and, whether you are a #Jonsa fan or a #Jonerys fan, I know you are itching for some more action and romance. To try and ease your anticipation a bit, because let’s be honest, we still got six months to go, I recommend a healthy dose of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. This will be sure to curb your appetite for action, magic and political intrigue. Be prepared though, because winter is coming, and finals week is dark and full of terrors, so you may not be able to handle the pull of this addictive fantasy read.
Is you favorite part of Riverdale the addictive mystery? Well if so, you’re not alone and you’ll love Karen M. McManus’s One of Us is Lying. With teen angst and delicious scandals, this book is perfect when you just can get enough of Riverdale High’s dark secrets. Try to solve the mystery before it’s revealed and see how wrong you were all along. You won’t want to put this mind game down until you’ve read the very last word.
5. Grey’s Anatomy / The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Grey’s Anatomy fans live for the medical drama and love a good twist and Rebecca Skloot’s novel, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has the biggest twist of all. What if you saved a million lives, even after death? What if no one ever knew that it was you? Henrietta Lacks is the owner of the first “immortal” human cell grown in culture, known today as HeLa cells. The book recounts the story of her life and how she came to be the savior of millions. If you love drama (it’s okay you can admit it, we all do) and love a good medical miracle, than this book is sure to hit the spot.
Writing as an art form has transcended all types of different mediums: from the screenplay of a film, the lyrics of a song, to the writing in video games. Yes, video games. For those who play them and know them well, this isn’t news. For those who are less familiar, and only have whatever party games that came with the Wii to go off of, video games are simply games. However, I would argue that there is a bit more writing in the world that they could be missing out on. Just as literature and other pieces of art can tackle philosophy and issues of morality, video games often take the same plunge.
A good example is the game Bioshock. Here is how the setting is described in one of the most iconic introductions ever:
“I am Andrew Ryan and I’m here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? ‘No!’ says the man in Washington, ‘It belongs to the poor.’ ‘No!’ says the man in the Vatican, ‘It belongs to God.’ ‘No!’ says the man in Moscow, ‘It belongs to everyone.’ I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose…Rapture, a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.”
The underwater city of Rapture is built upon the idea of complete freedom. A utopia, free from the subjection of religious ideologies or corrupt governments. However, embedded in the language of independence are severe red flags: “petty morality” and “the great would not be constrained by the small.” These phrases foreshadow the truth behind the supposed utopia and imply that, in Rapture, there will be no moral compass guiding right from wrong. Everything will be done in the name of science, progress, or creativity. Real psychopaths emerge (was anyone surprised?) in the exciting forms of a sadistic artist, an insane plastic surgeon obsessed with beauty, and ruthless business men. While these characters wait for you to face them, you, as a player, have to face moral conundrums of your own. The game as a whole confronts morality head on, while also producing an incredibly compelling and heart-felt (depending on your game play) story.
Another classic franchise is Half-Life. Following the chaotic events of the first game, Half-Life 2 begins many years later. Aliens called the Combine have established themselves on earth and are ruling over humanity. A creepy notion, but it gets weirder. The aliens have created a suppression field that prevents humans from reproducing. Elements of dystopia and science fiction are always a good time on their own—but together? You get masterpieces. One aspect of Half-Life that I have always found interesting was the Vortigaunt species. They are an alien species that had once been slaves, before your character freed them. If you decide to talk to them, one of them tells you,
“The way ahead is dark for the moment. What seems to you a sacrifice is merely, to us, an oscillation. We do not fear the interval of darkness. We are a tapestry woven of Vortessence. It is the same for you if only you would see it. How many are there in you? Whose hopes and dreams do you encompass? Could you but see the eyes inside your own, the minds in your mind, you would see how much we share. We are you, Freeman. And you are us.”
The language of weaving reminds me of the Post-Colonial literature class I took here, at UCLA. The idea of weaving is a domestic, often feminized, action, and in many ways, the Vortigaunts embody classic notions of femininity. They often heal you or your companions when in dire need, and they are very emotionally connected with their surroundings. Their femininity is juxtaposed by the masculinity of the tyrannical Combine, who use violence in their quest for absolute power. Additionally, the Vortigaunt’s words, “We are you, Freeman. And you are us,” reach toward philosophy, in that there is an implication of infinity in the way that we think, feel, and share. I could probably write an entire paper about these wonderful aliens and how well they represent oppression and resilience, but, let’s face it, I’d be the only one to read it.
And yet, video games also don’t have to necessarily be that “deep” to be considered highly for their writing. One of my personal favorites is the Uncharted series. The games follow a treasure hunter, Nathan Drake, who encounters myths and legends that come to life in his adventures, whether that be finding El Dorado or the pirate colony, Libertalia. The writing in the series is on par with anything you see in a good adventure film like the Indiana Jones franchise or Romancing The Stone (1984). The characters are fleshed out, real people (thank you voice acting and motion capture), and there are clear arcs in character from beginning to end. Because of the absolutely likeable cast of characters, the story itself is only bolstered. Each game has a new treasure to find, a new adventure to embark on, and a new story to fall into.
I can’t truly describe the impact these games have had on me in terms of how I write or what I write, especially if you haven’t played the games, but what I mostly want to convey is that the idea of good writing can be extended to video games. It’s different and new, but so are all art forms at one point. It’s difficult to tell a strong story and have an audience emotionally invested—ask any writer. The fact that video games can have the same emotional impact on me as a film or novel, solidifies them as their own form of art.
Social media is a vast well of untapped and underappreciated talent in the world of spoken word poetry. Even as a term, “social media” harbors a negative connotation as a space reserved for vapid millennials and overly opinionated old people. Even if there is some truth to stereotypical exchanges, such as the older relative who violently comments about politics on all your pictures and the youth who immediately deletes those inappropriate rants, it doesn’t invalidate social media as a platform of expression. That messy and chaotic convergence of social media and spoken word poetry has born many aspiring spoken word poets. I echo a fellow Westwind-er Dylan Karlsson, whose article about InstaPoetry asserts that, for many young writers, social media is their only exposure to the world of poetry. For the spoken word bard, social media allows their work to be experienced anytime and anywhere. This liberty is so massive that it changes the nature of spoken word as a consumable performance.
Spoken word is a performance art–a performance poetry–where the actions on stage, the intonations of the voice, and the social surroundings play a role in the experience and interpretation of the poetry itself. Once a single performance is captured in a recording, that single act exists in a distinct realm different from the clones of its future or past selves. The act of rehearsing a poem for the stage is less about mastering the words, but about capturing the spirit of the poem in the performance. Thus, the poem and performance are synonymous to the identity of the work. And those small qualifying differences in performing the same poem then creates different versions of that poem. If I get on stage and perform a spoken word poem a hundred times, each time emphasizing different words, gesturing differently, with changing tempos and speeds, the poem, by the nature of the performance, will be different than its other ninety-nine counterparts.
That’s why social media and spoken word poetry tango so perfectly. They match each other’s steps, social media swings around the hip of spoken word poetry and spins it to new heights (Okay, I don’t really know how to tango). Social media creates opportunities for spoken word poets to be experienced beyond the stage or the open mic. Don’t get me wrong, to experience spoken word poetry live is still far more gratifying than through the screen, but it matters immensely that there is an avenue for poets to be experienced even if they can’t, or aren’t ready to, get on stage.The first performance of a budding, spoken word poet may be the recording posted to Instagram, where they perform in their room. That same poem will then be experienced on the stage once they are ready. And each recording of that poem, from bedroom to stage, will be distinct in identity. Social media allows those thirty second snippets of spoken word poetry to exist as its own form of art.
If you’re interested in checking out or supporting spoken word, I recommend a group on Instagram called Buttonpoetry. They post short clips of spoken word events, some of the poets are well versed and well known such as Rudy Francisco, and others are up and coming spoken word poets shedding themselves on the same stage as the pros.
NaNoWriMo, which stands for “National Novel Writing Month”, is a creative writing project that takes place over the course of the month of November, starting November 1st and ending at 11:59 pm on November 30th. During this month, some writers attempt to write a 50,000-word novel, while others choose to pursue other creative writing projects, like finishing a script or writing a series of short stories.
So what makes NaNoWriMo appealing?
Part of its charm is the sense of solidarity that comes with it, especially in knowing that there’s a larger writing community undergoing the exact same process you are. It also gives you a solid deadline to help hold you accountable and even if you don’t finish in time, it encourages you to write more than you normally would.
That being said, if you decide NaNoWriMo sounds fun and want to give it a try, here are a few tips I’ve learned through my own trials and tribulations, regarding how to not fail.
1. Set a realistic daily word count goal. Stick. To. It.
The standard daily goal for NaNoWriMo is 1,667 words (assuming you’ve chosen to tackle the 50,000-word novel, which for the sake of this tip, we are). If you stick to 1,667 words per day, then by the end of the thirtieth day, you’ll have a total of 50,010 words. While you can modify your goal based on your writing availability (because some days leave more room for writing than others), you need to stick to it so you can stay on track. Be honest with yourself. Are you really going to do better and write more tomorrow? Or are you just procrastinating and hoping that tomorrow will bring more inspiration on what to write?
2. Prepare ahead of time
Simply put, know what you’re writing. Thirty days is already a very limited amount of time to begin with, so taking a chunk of that time to try and hash out what your novel will be about—its plotline, conflicts, and twists—will set you back if you don’t do it quickly and efficiently. That being said, if you’re struggling to figure out what the story you want to tell is, get back to the basics and ask yourself: Who are your characters? What do they want? What is standing in their way? That should give you a foundation to start off with and just take it from there.
3. Schedule Time to Write
If possible, set aside a couple of hours every day during the month of November and dedicate that time exclusively to writing. Physically block out that time in your planner or your calendar and respect that writing time. That would be the best case scenario, but at the same time, I’m very aware of the fact that NaNoWriMo does not align itself well with the quarter system since it falls in an awkward middle ground between midterms and finals. So if you can’t afford to block out entire hours at once and you have to schedule your writing time around studying for exams, then so be it. Just be honest about when you will actually have time to write. Early morning, before you start your day? If you have the willpower to get up earlier than absolutely necessary, then why not. At the end of the day when you’re tired? Sure, so long as you aren’t too tired to form coherent sentences. Like I’ve said before, just be honest with yourself and find what times work best for you.
4. Find a support system
Writing is hard (duh), but it gets easier if you have people around you who are also taking on NaNoWriMo or who encourage you to keep writing because they want to know how the story ends. Find those people. It makes a world of a difference.
5. Use Your Available Resources
If after all of this, you still want to try NaNoWriMo, then here are a couple links to use along the way.
For more information on NaNoWriMo itself, go to their website. It answers FAQs, has a community of fellow writers, and also works as a source of inspiration to keep you going.
For a step-by-step outline to guide you during your month-long journey, check out Better Novel Project. They make writing a novel seem less intimidating.
All in all, good luck and may your inner muse be present, pleasant, and ready to work.
What does an 18th-century Irish satirist and a 21st-century high school TV mockumentary have in common? A lot of shit, apparently.
Jonathan Swift, an Anglo-Irish writer from the 18th century, is most famous for his novel Gulliver’s Travels and infamous for his satires, and in particular his scatological poems. Yes, you read that correctly: Swift’s three scatological poems dramatically describes how disgusting the body can become and usually includes the catchphrase, “Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”
American Vandal’s recently released, second season follows the investigation of a vandal known as “The Turd Burgler,” a student who poisoned the school lemonade with laxatives and watches the shitshow (labeled “The Brownout”) unfold–and after posting videos of the event, forces everyone else to watch as well.
Both of these works are satires. Swift’s poems aim to satirize men who romanticize women to the point of idiocy, with varying degrees of success; American Vandal satirizes the the recent true crime fad (with immense success). While Swift’s satire leans towards the bitter and angry, American Vandal takes the more light-hearted route. Yet, despite the three-hundred years separating them, American Vandal seems to have taken a few notes out of Swift’s works.
One of these notes is the mixture of extreme exaggeration and hyper-realism. In Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver voyages to fantastical islands with giants, miniature peoples, and enlightened, talking horses–but Gulliver and his travels are made to look as realistic as possible. Swift purposefully imitated the frontispiece of travel narratives of his time, and began the novel with a letter from Gulliver swearing the story’s truth. American Vandal not only imitates this but doubles down on its realism in its second season. Instead of naming the show’s actual creators, the show’s credits say the show is “In Association with Hanover High school” (the show’s setting), the executive producer is Mr. Baxter (a character), and that it’s “Shot and Produced by Sam Ecklund and Peter Maldonado” (two main characters). The second season opens with protagonists Peter and Sam describing how Netflix “bought” the American Vandal documentary to explain why the show is on Netflix at all. Vimeo had made the documentary a staff pick. Netflix added higher quality everything to the series. Peter and Sam even appear on The Daily Show. The show wants you to believe these are real people making a real documentary, despite its outlandish premises.
The biggest commonality between American Vandal and Jonathan Swift is their shared interest in shit. Swift’s highly descriptive language surrounding scat received disgust from his contemporaries (and future readers as well). In “The Lady’s Dressing-Room,” Strephon steals into Celia’s room, opens her chamber pot, and discovers “A sudden universal Crew / Of human evils, upward flew” (85-86) and an “excremental Smell, / To taint the Parts from whence they fell” (111-112). And despite every kids’ horror at the events of The Brownout, American Vandal barrages the viewer with video after video of kids shitting themselves, their wailing, and the excrement itself. These acts are portrayed just long enough that it’s hard to tell exactly where the creators take disgust in such acts and where they take pleasure, if at all.
Most importantly, what Swift and American Vandal understand about shit is its potential and indeed its ability to expose us as human beings, in the most base way possible. We daily romanticize our lives and people around us. Shit reminds us that we’re “human” in the sense that we’re not perfect, that our bodies betray our sensibilities and romantic idealities and firmly remind us that we can be disgusting and imperfect. This is what Swift and American Vandal recognize: there is something about our physical insides–bile, acid, vomit, and most of all shit–that exposes our moral and psychological insides.
Swift employs shit to expose men as idiots for romanticizing women. The men of his stories believe women to be purely innocent and angelic and nothing more; their discoveries that women have bodily functions (or possibly, the same necessary functions as men) shocks them deeply. While Swift’s highly descriptive language and detail of the women’s bodies mires him in controversy, the poems invite us to laugh at the idiocy of the men who cannot fathom that women are human beings. “He soon would learn to think like me,” writes the cheeky narrator of “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” “And bless his ravish’d Eyes to see / Such Order from Confusion Sprung” (141-143).
American Vandal, or more accurately the Turd Burglar, creates the Brownout (and other shit-related crimes) to expose the student body for romanticizing ourselves. The Turd Burglar couldn’t handle the disconnect between his fellow students actual selves and their ideal self presented on social media. “We’re all full of shit,” the Turd Burglar says in episode eight. “You all pretend to lead these perfect, happy lives when you know you’re just as lonely as me.” American Vandal constantly uses this language of concealment, referring to social media as a mask, pretend, and fake. The resulting exposure of the student body via the Brownout implies that this exposure was revealing the true self and, consequently, almost necessary.
Forcing your classmates to shit themselves and posting those videos online, all to show how fake they are, seems excessive. It is excessive. Yet satire revels in exaggeration, so the plot driving season two of American Vandal fits perfectly. This is also a show that other critics call one of the most realistic high school shows on television (which it is). Perhaps that is why exaggeration and hyper-realism coincide together so seamlessly. Swift’s works and American Vandal prove that because so many things in satire are hyperbolic, the rest of it must be extremely realistic. We have to believe the satire. The realism makes the exaggeration less extreme; the exaggeration makes the realism doubtful. They work together to excite, raise doubts, and yes, expose.
And satire invites shit. In every other genre, shit, the body, and all its implications, are mostly taboo. Satire’s exaggeration is the genre where shit can finally find its place. Perhaps this is why one of the greatest satirists of the English world and American Vandal were attracted to this shit in the first place. Certainly the attraction to shit is not entirely on the fault of the creator. There is entertainment value in shit, as shown by the critical response to American Vandal’s second season. There is even wary or gross interest in Swift’s scat. There is an audience to such satires. “Poop is funny,” Sam says in episode three.
Entertainment was not Swift’s desire in creating his satires. “The chief end I propose to myself in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it,” Swift wrote in a letter to Alexander Pope. Swift was successful in his vexations. Many of them came from his political pamphlets, where he was not afraid to expose others for their beliefs or deeds. American Vandal, on the other hand, is entertainment, and successfully delights and disgusts. It does not make the show without its message, though. It always has a more forgiving look on its subjects than Swift ever did.
“We’re not the worst generation,” Peter concludes in the end of the second season. “We’re just the most exposed.”
Originally from Wisconsin, Mona Simpson is a novelist and short story writer, as well as an English and creative writing professor at UCLA. As an undergraduate, she studied poetry at UC Berkeley then pursued an MFA in writing at Columbia University and served as an editor for the literary magazine The Paris Review. Her acclaimed 1987 debut novel, Anywhere But Here, follows a dissatisfied mother and reluctant daughter on their ambitious trip to California. Her most recent novel, Casebook, depicts a young boy’s tumultuous journey into the depths of the adult world as he seeks to understand his parents.
How would you describe your writing to someone who has never read it?
Hmmm. That’s a good question. It would be a useful skill for any writer on a book tour who goes onto a radio show. The first question the DJ asks is, “So you’ve written a book. What’s it about?” In a way, that’s kind of a nonfiction question. It works really well if you’ve happened to write about your year covering ISIS recruits, or the current state of forensic mental health facilities, if the excavation of the story is really the most interesting and important thing, but with novels, the story isn’t always what matters. I could be describing either a great novel, a mediocre novel or a bad novel. Job’s story in the old testament is pretty much the same as The Perils of Pauline. Many 19th century novels could be described as “an orphan grows up” or “a young woman without a dowry is wooed by a cad and then gets married.”
I ask because I see that writers often feel pressure to develop a unique writing style, so that they can stand out when pitching themselves. For example, a professor once told me that I should have a mini bio of myself and a logline of my most recent story memorized just in case I run into some publisher in the elevator.
I’ve heard people say this, but if you could compress the story into one line, you wouldn’t have needed to write the novel. Also, that’s sort of other people’s job. I’d make a poor publicist, clearly. In terms of a writing style, I think we each do have a personal style, but I don’t know if we develop it so much as get out of its way.
Since you’re a novelist and a short story writer, in your opinion, what is special about the short story form?
It’s transporting and very unforgiving. A short story really has to take your breath away. As a reader, you live with a novel because you’re together much longer. The novel is more congenial if you tend to believe in incremental change, whereas a short story really requires revelation.
In terms of writing a short story?
Well, I’ve never certainly sat down and written out a first draft of a novel in one sitting, but you can do that with a short story, and that’s thrilling.
That reminds me of a quote from T.C. Boyle where he says, “The joy of the novel is that you know what you’re going to do tomorrow.”
Exactly. [Short story writing] is a much more high-wire act. A virtuosic performance.
What do you find to be the most difficult part of the overall writing process?
Really the most difficult part of writing is the most difficult part of life—that is to remain hopeful despite innumerable obstacles, including the seeming cruelty of fate, the randomness of luck, the disappointments of beloved people. To write a book, a great amount of faith is required to sustain one through days of completely hidden work, invisible to the world and even perhaps to one’s own friends. All that keeps it together is a fragile vision only occasionally glimpsed.
Because a lot of Westwind’s readers are college-aged, do you have any advice for aspiring writers that you think they haven’t heard before?
You know, you’re coming to me, as it happens, the day after Philip Roth died, so I’ve been thinking a lot about Philip Roth and his life as a beautiful example of work. If this is what you want to do, then put it at the center of your life and just do it every day, for years and years. However, you choose to get better, if you choose to go to graduate school or if you choose not to, none of those choices really matter nearly as much as just doing it every day. There’s no such thing as a writer who’s not an autodidact. You teach yourself what you need to know ultimately, you read the books you need to read to write the books you want to write. I hope you’ll also find a way to be happy. There are different kinds of writers; some people will find success in the world and some people have fewer readers, less success, but if what you mean to do is die with a shelf of books that you’ve given your life to, then you’ll want to find a way to live among people who will understand that impulse and mission.
That’s a beautiful answer.
Aww, thank you.
If I’m correct, you have been teaching short fiction at UCLA since 2001. Because I know you’ve taught elsewhere, how has that experience been for you? Is there anything specific about UCLA students that you’ve learned?
One thing I like about teaching writing is that fiction is not a competitive sport. The best story Jessica can write is not the same story as the best story Abraham or Jodi can write. I mean I went to UC Berkeley, so I was a UC student, I’m familiar with UC students, I love teaching UC students, and that’s not to say that there aren’t talented students at other places too, but I think what distinguishes UCLA students, to me, is that we’re a very diverse group. You’re going to meet people who have very different backgrounds. There’s always been—in my classes when I was a student and in my classes as I teach—there’s always somebody who’s living at home, helping out their parents with their produce store and then commuting into UCLA, and there’s always a rich girl who drives her own convertible, and everything in between. You have a great variety of life.
You mention often in class that you hope we form bonds with the other writers. What else do you hope students get from your workshops?
I would recommend staying in touch with the teachers you love. But if there’s one thing they could take away from my class, well, I’ll say three things. You have to find the books you love to read and read them every day, you need to write every day, and you will want to keep yourself in a state to write every day—you can’t let yourself become depressed, overly critical or self-destructive. You need to have some fun with it. Make some friends, start a magazine, organize a student reading series, fall in love with a poet, make this your world.
Music, literature, and film are often heavily connected, one medium referencing the other and vice versa. As an avid pop music listener and as an English major, I enjoy these connections, especially when they come in the form of allusions in the lyrics or in music videos. While I have to dig a little deeper for the lyrical allusions, with the visual form of the music video, these connections are made all the more obvious, especially when the concept for these music videos seems to come directly from the books. Whether it is because the song references the book itself or because the song mirrors the themes contained within the book, the added narrative element that accompanies each song really adds to the whole experience of the music, video and all. In honor of the retelling prompt for Westwind’s Flash Fiction contest, here are eight pop music videos with striking literary and film connections and contain a version of retelling.
1. Taylor Swift – “Love Story”
Of course, any list of music videos and literature has to contain Swift’s “Love Story” because of how blatantly literary it is. She references Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet directly in both the lyrics and the video, rewriting the tragic love story of young teenagers where Romeo and Juliet meet, marry each other, and die in the span of less than a week. Instead, Romeo somehow convinces Juliet’s father to forget about the longstanding feud between the Montagues and the Capulets and they get a happy ending. The video interestingly has a more Pride and Prejudice feel what with the dancing and the running in fields but the video does get the looking out of windows and love at first meetings part of the play down through the reinterpretation.
Taylor is no stranger to literary allusions. In her new album, she references The Great Gatsby, Kurt Vonnegut, and Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities. Some other literary-related music Taylor Swift has done are “Blank Space” (with allusions to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Calypso from The Oddysey, and Twilight), “Ready For It” (with its sci-fi-esque imagery), and “You Belong with Me” (with the plot of what is probably a great many YA books).
2. Ariana Grande – “Right There”
Following the Romeo and Juliet train is Ariana Grande’s “Right There” which also seems to focus on the happy first meeting of the fated pair and little else. Reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s film Romeo+Juliet (and also his Gatsby coincidentally), Ariana (or Juliet, as the video prefaces with) frolics around a masquerade ball, meets Romeo, sings to him from a balcony, and ends up fully clothed in the pool with him, all while fluttering a fan. The song itself is about faithful and fated love, only one of which have been proven in the actual text, but really captures the feelings of young and impulsive love that the play portrays. Meanwhile, Big Sean (who is labeled as the Priest and not Friar Laurence) raps about the merits of his girl while chilling inside a church. Definitely a more faithful retelling of the iconic love tragedy than “Love Story.”
3. Pink – “Please Don’t Leave Me”
Moving away from the hopeful love and faithful promises that both Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande have portrayed as Juliet, Pink’s “Please Don’t Leave Me” is decidedly darker. For one, Pink moves away from the delicate and traditionally beautiful image of Juliet and Shakespeare altogether, choosing to go the Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery route instead. She locks her man in a room, inflicts various acts of violence on him, and prevents him from leaving through various tactics – just as Annie Wilkes does with Paul Sheldon. There’s also a nice nod to King’s The Shining, when Pink cuts a hole in the door with an ax and looks inside in true Jack fashion. All these horrifying actions take place while Pink apologetically croons to her lover and begs him not to leave her, adding a sinister edge to both the song and the video.
4. Twice – “What Is Love”
Twice’s infectious, bright jam about optimism and the naïve wish to experience love is crammed with all sorts of literary and film references about the different ways of finding love in books and movies. The music video shows the members enacting different parts of movies, taking inspiration from iconic scenes from The Princess Diaries, Ghost, La Boum, Pulp Fiction, Romeo and Juliet, Love Letter, La La Land, and Leon: The Professional. Through all of these references, they ask the question of “What Is Love” and all the feelings that come with it, mostly focusing on the pleasant aspects of it. Through these film references, Twice captures the wide range of what it means to be in love quite well, thus enhancing the video and the song through their reenactments of the films.
5. Iggy Azalea – “Fancy” (feat. Charli XCX)
Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” is an obvious tribute to the film Clueless, from the outfits, the setting, the actions and the people in the video reenact. Just as Clueless is a film about the wealth and status of Cher, Iggy Azalea’s song is similarly about wealth and status, more specifically Iggy’s own credibility. The music video hammers these themes home as it shows reenactments of iconic scenes such as the debate, the car ride on the freeway, the tennis courts, and the party. All that is absent is Josh and Cher’s lawyer father which only adds to the narrative of self-made success and emphasizes the 90’s icon that is Alicia Silverstone’s character. On a side note, Clueless is loosely based off of Jane Austen’s novel Emma which also contains the similar themes of wealth and societal standing.
6. BTS – “Blood Sweat & Tears”
BTS’s “Blood Sweat & Tears” is filled with art, aesthetically pleasing visuals, and bright contrasts of color. Given that Herman Hesse’s novel Demian heavily inspired the video, all of these choices come as no surprise. All of the cracks in the sculptures, the surplus of art, the organ playing, the images of wings and birds, the dialogue of “He too was a tempter,” and countless other images and scenes refer back to Demian and the characters within the novel. The song itself is about wanting and sacrificing everything for the pursuit of want regardless of whether it is wholesome or detrimental. This pursuit of want and the resulting discoveries connect back to Hesse’s novel which makes the song all the more complex and insightful on issues of love, success, and meaning.
7. Lana del Rey – “Tropico”
Lana Del Rey’s work is always brimming with literary allusions, ranging from Lolita to Carmen. In her short film “Tropico,” she performs her songs “Body Electric,” “Gods and Monsters,” and “Bel Air” to convey a Whitmanic ode. Within the short film, she uses figures like John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, and Jesus. Lana herself dresses as both Eve and Mary, using the religious figures to contrast and highlight the division between religion and the pursuit of the self while also combining the concepts of soul and body. Referencing the Bible, Whitman, and others, she creates a complex relationship with the self and spirituality while seeming to celebrate herself and her body as Whitman encourages. The contrast between bright rosy colors and the dark shadows and dimly lit rooms within the video emphasizes the various divides the videos and the songs explore.
8. Michael Jackson – “Thriller”
Easily one of the most iconic videos in music history, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is a culmination of various horror movies and tropes packed into a video that is almost fourteen minutes long. Incorporating sinister monologues, acting bits, and dance sequences, “Thriller” embodies the lyrics that emphasize fright and terror. Borrowing from films like The Wolfman, Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead for the storyline and the scenes and from Citizen Kane for elements of camera movements, staging, montages, and lighting, Michael Jackson creates a compelling video that emphasizes the frightening aspects of his song, one that adds greatly to it.
With all of these retellings, reenactments, and allusions to bolster each song, the intersection of music, film, and literature is made all too obvious. Not only do these allusions add levels of meaning and complexity to each song they are used for, they also embody the creative spirit that comes with retelling and art, thus making them more than trite songs on the radio.
Tropes can be really fun. However, tropes can often be raised to the level of cliché in our eyes. There are many tropes, especially in college student writing, that are inherently awful or sexist. Here are six you should definitely avoid.
Courtesy of Flickr
The Friend Zone
If I never read a story about a boy stuck in the friend zone again, my skin will clear and my grades will be perfect. This kind of story is just so tired. A boy likes his friend and whines about it. Sometimes we get to see her date someone else instead of the nice boy who’s been there all along #tragic. Sometimes she eventually realizes the error of her ways and they ride off into the sunset affirming said boy’s creepy obsession and his patriarchal expectations. While the friend zone can suck, it’s not a story anyone needs to hear if one or both of them are not zombies.
Too Good for the Club/Frat Party
Oh my god, the music is soooo loud, and the people are just waving their hands and hips around not even properly dancing. This must be the end of culture. If a zombie or alien attacks at this party, sign me up, but if the super cool and super smart person just stands in the corner and judges everyone else, please just take a minute and add some zombies.
The Isolated Intellectual
The plight of the man who is just too smart for everyone else around him and unfortunately cannot make any friends is not a real problem. We all know a boy who’s read one book and turned into a TED Talk. Just don’t write from that boy’s point of view. I don’t need him to explain how women work to me. Unless he’s a zombie in disguise, let’s just agree to not.
Courtesy of Pixabay
The Deep Revelation (to a privileged boy)
Not all representation is good. Having a fairly privileged boy realize that a construction worker can be smart too or that prostitutes are also people inside of their commodified bodies can come off as offensive to those groups. If you want to have more representation, try telling their story through their point of view not the perspective of an outsider. We don’t need any more stories in the world about white boys learning their privilege and thinking they’re going to change, but if you can show some real change in a non-condescending way, like being eaten by zombies in punishment for his privilege, then go for it.
The Not-Like-Other-Girls Girl
It might sound like a compliment, but it’s not. This kind of phrase or description of a girl (i.e. “unlike other girls she eats anything!”) is extremely misogynistic putting all girls into a lump group and placing this single female character on a pedestal as the only superior girl who can ultimately rise above the unfortunate fact of her gender. Maybe just try to not describe her at all if you know you end up going in that direction often or she’s not like other girls because she’s secretly a zombie.
Courtesy of Pexels
The Ugly Duckling
She takes off her glasses, and she’s beautiful! OMG. While we all love a good Freddie Prinze Jr. film, She’s All That is the worst plot hinging on beauty as women’s only value, so please don’t emulate it. Just try to write women that are real, you know like actual people and not sex objects. But if she takes off her glasses and becomes a zombie who all the boys and girls are into…
Tropes are trends for a reason. Not all of them are good reasons, but if you truly think you can bring something new to the table without reverting to sexism or racism, you should write away. Just be careful with tropes like the ones above which by nature lean towards sexism and have been used by white men for centuries. To be safe, ask yourself will your trope use really stand out of the trash heap?