“Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends”: Shakespeare’s Power To Create Equality

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The Past Catches Me

While going through my possessions and trying to decide what to take to grad school, I came across a pile of old ticket stubs and playbills. These priceless pieces of paper contain my memories from a short period of four weeks in 2009 when I was lucky enough to be studying theater in London. When I was there, everything seemed like a blur to me; taking classes, completing assignments all over the city, and going to one show after another. I lived it one moment at a time. If I understood the magnitude of my experiences then like I do now, I would have been overwhelmed.

Discoveries After Reflections

The playbills represent only one snapshot from my life, but what I realize now is that those four weeks – the productions that I saw – will always represent my piece of the London theater community. It is a piece of documented history that will always be my own. And yet it also belongs to so many other people – the other audience members, the actors, the theater spaces, the lines of dialogue, the costume designers, the set builders, and the city of London itself. I am part of their history and they are part of mine.

One of the things that I have truly come to love about theater and more specifically, Shakespeare, is that they are a powerful force for creating equality within a community. As I and many others have probably said before, Shakespeare’s plays endure because they are filled with universal human experiences. He tells stories that are beautiful in a sense that they are about what most everyone understands to be love, hurt, friendship, family, loss, vulnerability, and the joys to be had in simply living. Under the right conditions, an African woman who is a mother, and a white, male American CEO could go to see Romeo and Juliet.  They come from two very different places. However, the woman is moved because she’s a mother and the man is moved because Juliet might remind him of his wife.  For the span of 2-3 hours, the distances or breaches between both their life experiences don’t matter anymore because they are just two human beings enjoying Shakespeare. They might not have interpreted the story in the same way, but now they are equals in one respect: they have shared the experience of being moved by the same play.  Shakespeare emphasizes the fact that as humans we all have things in common and it is those universal emotions that can create equality.  Relational gaps or breaches made between us by differences in privilege, race, gender, and sexuality might be filled when suddenly we are moved at the same time by the same story.

I have found that one of Shakespeare’s plays in particular represents the idea that shared experiences can bind people together despite their differences.  The play is Henry V.  Henry has the challenge of uniting the men of England to a single cause which is winning back English lands from the French.  He must bring his men together and yet he also faces the questions: How can England be one united country when I am a privileged king standing above everyone else?  How can I be a leader amongst my men instead of a leader over them?  Henry V solves the problem as Shakespeare’s plays have done, by showing his followers that they have things in common.  First of all, that they are all human.  Second of all, that their shared experience of feeling passionate for their cause has made them all equal to the king.  Before battle Henry states, “For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother (Shakespeare, Henry V 4.3.61-2).”  Despite the differences and breaches between us we are the same in the sense that we are all human and we all bleed.  Shakespeare creates complete equality amongst every man through the the fact that the history of England rests in all their hands.

I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man […] Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are (Shakespeare, Henry V, 4.1.102-10).

A Perfect Theater Community

Perhaps the best example of how an (ideally) accessible theater community can create equality among people would be my own experiences in London. (Plus, there is a tiny bit of me that wants to brag.)  This is what I did.  I went to performances in the theater district.  I saw Judi Dench in Madame De Sade at the Donmar Warehouse – the same place where Jude Law would perform in Hamlet a day after I left, where Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Hiddleston performed Othello the year before, and where five years into the future Mark Gatiss and Tom Hiddleston would perform in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.  I saw Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in a play called Waiting for Godot and James McAvoy in Three Days of Rain.  I went to the madly popular productions of Wicked and Les Miserables.  I saw Romeo and Juliet performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. I also went to tiny community theaters on the outskirts of London where actors (possibly driven by nothing but their own passions) performed in upper levels of cafes and spaces small enough to seat less than 100 people.  The cafe had bragging rights to the fact that some of the above mentioned celebrities had eaten their food and attended their performances.  I went to shows at the National Theater on the Thames where War Horse (to become a blockbuster film 3 years later that would feature Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston) was performed.  I spent multiple evenings listening to free musical concerts in the lobby of the same theater.

In addition, there are some things that I found out (I admit to being somewhat of a stalker) that relate to my experiences.  I have talked about the documentary Muse of Fire in previous posts.  It is a film  about the universal nature of Shakespeare.  I have come to conclude that the documentary was being made at or around the same time that I spent in London.  The movie features interviews with Jude Law about his experiences in Hamlet – the production that I would miss seeing by a day or two.  In an interview, Alan Rickman talks about how wonderful the same production of Romeo and Juliet that I had seen was for him.  In other interviews not related to Muse of Fire, Tom Hiddleston has talked about seeing War Horse at the National Theater, possibly within the same time and within the same space where I experienced London theater and those fantastic free concerts in the lobby.

The point of telling you all this is to show that the London theater community is varied, concentrated within a geographic area, and incredibly accessible to everyone involved within it.  I am not a wealthy person.  I’m from small-town Indiana – farm country – and yet I was able to go to the same theaters, to the same shows to which Alan Rickman and Tom Hiddleston were going to.  Indeed, the fact that the musical performances were free (though not of the same quality of Les Miserables) meant that anyone off the street could come in and enjoy entertainment in the same space in which the rich and famous have.  At the same time, celebrity actors I was seeing on stage were going to small theater performances that would be the common fare in my tiny hometown.  It seems like a long shot even still, but in terms of the theater community, could I not say that during my four weeks in London, I was an equal to Alan Rickman, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Tom Hiddleston, Pattrick Stewart, and James McAvoy?  We have the shared human experiences of enjoying Romeo & Juliet, of sharing the same stories within the same spaces.  Are we not all humans feeling the same emotions together?  Has theater and Shakespeare been a force that has closed the breaches in gender, nationality, and social classes between us?

And its not just about me now because there were also tons of school children watching Romeo & Juliet at The Globe.  There were old people and young people.  People from different countries who knew different languages.  Now they are also all equals under the understanding that they have all experienced universal human emotions through the same Shakespearean play.

I wonder now if a community like this one exists anywhere else in the world.  Could it exist in the United States?  London seems to be a unique situation and still not completely an ideal one.  In order for a theater community to work perfectly in order to create equality, it would have to be even more accessible to everyone both financially and intellectually.  And it would have to be highly promoted to everyone.  The random person on the street would have to want to see Shakespeare just as much Kenneth Branagh would want to.

In Today’s World

In June 2015, nine African Americans died after being shot by a white male during a Bible study inside of their own church in Charleston, South Carolina.  This tragedy has led the U.S. to a current struggle over the question of whether or not the Confederate Flag should be removed from certain government facilities.  To many people the flag is a representation of racial segregation and slavery.  To many others it is a symbol of historical and cultural identity that should be valued in honor of the men who died during the Civil War.

In Shakespeare’s play Henry V, King Henry V’s goal was to bring his countrymen together as one united force.  The king had to make himself an equal to any man who stood beneath him in order to gain victory for his entire country.  His is a mission of true patriotism.  The king declared that every single one of his men where equals in all ways because they had the universal experience of fighting for their country.

The Hollow Crown: Henry V film, 2012.  Henry V by William Shakespeare (4.3.61-2)

The Hollow Crown: Henry V film, 2012. Henry V by William Shakespeare (4.3.61-2)

During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s goal was to bring his countrymen together as a single united nation.

Henry V achieved this goal through valuing universal human experiences.

Today we are still divided by different perspectives of which no one wants to let go.  It is difficult to make progress in resolving a conflict when everyone is pushed apart by their differences and refuses to see commonalities between themselves and others.

Different races, cultures, religions, and perspectives all exist together in the United States.  That is one thing that makes living here so wonderful.  I can write what I want to on a blog and people have the right to disagree with what I say.  Everyone has equal right to be different.  But sometimes it is also beneficial to remember that we are all the same in other ways – we all live in the same country, have families and friends here, know what it is to love and hate each other.  It is these human similarities which the freedom and equality in our country sought to honor.  Our shared experiences should not be forgotten because they are what have allowed us beautiful differences.

I would hope that in the end, we can say that we are all humans.  No matter what we look like, what we believe in, and where we come from, we still all feel the same emotions and have the same organs.  Because if it is true, think about how important it would be to our world.  What could we gain from Shakespeare and theater in a world where countrymen kill each other over skin color and argue about the symbolism of a flag?

Women And Fiction: A Fangirl’s Promise

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Imagination is encouraged in children and I was lucky enough to be a little girl who had a good one.  Turning my backyard into a place where horses and cats could talk to each other and treasures could be found in flowers, became a way for me explore reality while opening my mind to greater possibilities.  When I was about ten years old, I found that I could put this imagination into a page of words.  Writing solidified and extended worlds for me, taking them from fantasy and making them more real.  I knew I was different then because the other kids told me I was weird to want to spend so much of my time writing stories.  Fiction writing is something that has always made me special and I cherish it for that reason.

But as I grew older, my imagination became a concern to me.  I read too many books about sad women who would go home by themselves and alone indulge in an Austen novel, passively wishing that the fantasy they read would become real.  Being a writer with a love of the imagination, I have feared that I will become one of these sad women who only have a fantasy to hold on to.  It becomes a worry when I spend more time with the characters I create then with my real friends.  I should have a job that doesn’t involve reckless creativity.  I need to pursue a professional career that will tie down my passion for words and things that are just “stories.”  For an adult woman, imagination is dangerous when we are supposed to excel towards being a man’s equal in fields like entrepreneurship, politics, sciences, and criminal justice.  I have grown to fear my ability to imagine just as much as I have grown to love it.

latestIn the past, it seems like women have always been criticized for being fanciful, for reading too many novels, and for having dreams in their heads.  Novels and fiction make women senseless.  They allow us too much indulgence into our emotions causing us to be unruly, rebellious; or worse, hysterical.  Women today are still captivated and obsessed with stories that we like – it is only a natural, human response that comes from having a brain.  We have become what are called “fans” with lists and lists of unreal things we shower with admiration.

However, with the advent of the Internet, our interests and passions have become more obvious because we have the ability to share them instantly with the world.  So the “fangirl” has been born – a woman who indulges in her imagination.  But if only that were the sole definition for “fangirl.”  She is not just someone who embraces the things that she likes.  Look at urbandictionary.com and you will see that, for having these feelings, a fangirl is less than human.  She is a “rabid breed of female.”  Which sounds kind of like a description of a dog to me.  She’s ugly and unattractive.  We are victims of an “epidemic” like we don’t choose for ourselves what moves us.  We are obsessed stalkers – emotionally unstable – who act like idiots.  And the whole of our interests are made up of objectifying men and making our favorite characters have sex with each other.  We are stuck in the belittlement of forever remaining a “girl” when there are plenty of us who are the age of respected adults.  This is how the world see us and this is the stereotype we have been assigned.

psychopathfangirl

Despite the negativity included in the fangirl stereotype, I believe that my own fear of my imagination, my fictions, my stories, and my fantasies is not unfounded.  If one becomes too consumed with fiction, we become detached from the real world that we explored as children, which I believe is harmful to women.  We become passive, hoping that our goals and dreams will come to us, instead of us reaching out to them.  We have unreal expectations for ourselves – waiting for a man who looks like Colin Firth in Pride & Prejudice – when the man sitting next to you in class, at work, or at the cafe is more handsome due to the fact that you can actually receive love and equality from him in a relationship.  Being overwhelmed with fatasy allows us to stop thinking for ourselves.  We let the fiction start to tell us what is right and wrong about who we are instead of own heads and hearts.  There really is damage that can be done by having too active of an imagination and by spending too much time with fantasy.  An imbalance of fiction and reality exists and an imbalance is rarely good.  There is truth in every stereoptype, and this is what scares me.

As a woman who writes fiction, who writes fan fiction for fun, and who considers herself to be a fangirl, how do I find that balance?  How do I maintain a level of imagination that expands my world of reality without losing myself with the fangirl stereotype?  How do I know when escapism has taken over?

How do I be a fan and a fiction writer in a way that is responsible and respectful to my identity as a woman?

In order to answer that question and maintain that responsibility/respect for my identity, I have decided to make some promise to myself.  This promise will hopefully give me peace of mind on the matter and also help to fight the negative stereotypes/truths of being a fangirl.

1) I promise to use fiction as not only a way of escaping from reality, but as a way of reflecting on my own reality.

Fiction is based in reality even if that fiction belongs in the science fiction or fantasy genre.  When I write fiction or fan fiction, I promise to think about what I’m writing about.  I will look for the reality within the fiction.  I will apply it to my own life and ask myself why it is significant to me.  I will use my own mind and my own heart to determine why I care about the things I admire and the things I write about.  I will ask myself:  How does this story change or contribute to how I see my own experiences?  Can I apply what I have learned from it to my future life?

2)  I promise to be respectful and responsible toward the identities of the individuals I Loki-Fangirls-loki-thor-2011-27649223-900-1371choose to admire and use that admiration to create something new for myself.

I believe that part of being a fangirl who respects her own identity, is showing respect for what I choose to admire.  I promise to think about why I am a fan of someone or something.  Do I have reasons beyond superficial appearance for admiring celebrities?  If I do like someone just for their looks, what specific things do I like about them?  How does this physical admiration empower, contain, or define my own sexuality?

Another thing that personally concerns me about being a part of the fangirl stereotype are the actions/reactions fangirls supposedly exhibit when in contact with the person they admire – being a stalker or excessively emotional.  I will think about what is the correct way to express my admirations.  I will ask myself: Are my actions as a fan related to my own self-affirmation/importance or am I using the experience interacting with a celebrity to genuinely compliment them?  Is the interaction respectful or annoying and intrusive?  Is the interaction based on who they are, what they have done, or your possible common interests?  When is it the right time to go bat s**t crazy because I’ve just met him?!

I promise not to alter or portray the sexual identity of the person I admire.  How would I feel if someone took my body image and against my will, put that image into sexual situations that do not describe me?  What if someone I never met took an image of me and made that image having sexual relations with someone I’ve never wanted to have sex with?   It is an assault of an individual’s sexual identity.  It doesn’t matter to me if the celebrity sees it that way or not.  It doesn’t matter if it never hurts their feelings or if they never see it/think about it.  As a woman, I would personally like to have my own body image respected, so I promise never to be disrespectful to the body/sexual image of anyone else.

3)  I promise not to fear my passions, but to embrace them in order to see what new reality they will lead me towards.

It is never wrong to feel, no matter what the emotion is or to what it is connected.  Having fantasies, dreaming, and spending time with fiction is completely normal.  I promise to never stop imagining new things.  I promise never to turn my back on that child who wanted to explore the world.  I promise to never fear what I have freely chosen as a passion.  I promise that writing fiction will not keep me from real happiness or success.

Getting Ready For An MFA In Creative Writing: Next Steps and Advice

My Graduate Program Decision

After a lot of work narrowing down schools, filling out applications, and perfecting writing portfolios, I have made my final decision regarding which MFA in creative writing program I wanted to attend.  And…

I’ve chosen Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA.  They offer a unique program due to the fact that you can have a dual-genre focus in your studies.  This means you can choose to study a combination of two of these genres: poetry, prose, creative non-fiction, or children’s writing.  You can also choose to focus on either nature writing, travel writing, publishing, or teaching. The program can either be a full-residency or a low-residency.  My own focus will be on prose writing and publishing though I will still get a chance to take a course related to either nature writing or travel writing.  In addition, the program offers literature courses related to feminism and the environment.  Another thing that I liked about the program is that the teaching portion includes learning how to teach writing in alternative settings.  Grad students have the opportunity to teach creative writing at the county jail.  This seems to allow students to discover how writing can be used as a tool for transformation within a community rather than just an academic pursuit.

If this sounds interesting to you and you’d like to learn more, click here:

Chatham University MFA in Creative Writing

Chatham University - Shadyside Campus, Pittsburgh, PA

Chatham University – Shadyside Campus, Pittsburgh, PA

Chatham University started out as the Pennsylvania Female College in 1869.  However, the institution now has a little over 2,000 male and female students.  The university is currently home to the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship, the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics, and Chatham University’s Women’s Institute.  Not only that, but Chatham has an additional campus north of Pittsburgh called Eden Hall.  Eden Hall campus is the first of its kind in the fact that it is completely self-sustainable, emits zero carbon emissions, and produces more energy than it uses.  Students don’t just learn about environmental sustainability here, but they get to live it while they study.

If you’d like to learn more about the university and what else it has to offer, click here:

About Chatham University

What Next?

Until my classes start in August, I will be working out a number to things such as where I will live and getting a job for some extra money.  I am planning to live in an apartment on-campus.  I have to decide what items I want to bring with me from Indiana to Pennsylvania and figure out how I will be getting it there.  I think I will take my car with me.

Financially, I have obtained enough funds through applying for loans and saving money.  I will probably have to change banks when I get there as well.  I would like to have at least one job once I get there so I have enough cash for groceries, gas, entertainment and any other emergencies that come up.  Before I leave, I will need to work out a health insurance plan that is valid in the state of Pennsylvania since each student is required to have one.

On a personal level, I’m extremely excited to be embarking on this adventure!  I feel like I want to get involved in different things on-campus and in the community.  I want to take opportunities to do things that I’ve always wanted to do and have never had the chance.  One of my regrets since becoming so enthralled by Shakespeare, is that I have never been involved in a theatrical production.  I have read and studied the plays in every other way – as literature, historically, as great examples of playwriting techniques, and in terms of the art of theater in general.  The only thing I haven’t done is experienced the performance from the side of the stage.  I’m planning to either get involved with Chatham’s drama club or finding some outlet in the community which will allow me to learn about theatrical performance despite the fact that I have basically no previous experience.

For this blog, my next steps will be finishing up all the posts that I’ve started and never finished.  I’ll be much busier during school and won’t have as much time to post, so I will want to go off to school with all of my blogging enterprises completed.  In the next two months, you will be seeing more posts from me related to fan fiction, book reviews, Shakespeare, and reflections on my other writing projects.

Advice On Choosing a Program

I have found that there are so many factors that go into choosing a graduate school program.  Curriculum, finances, faculty, location, ratings, student population, culture, low-residency vs. full-residency, alumni, and more.  I am not an expert at choosing the perfect MFA program for you, but I will try and give advice based on my own experiences.  In my personal opinion, I feel like what’s most important is to first pick a program that speaks to your own passions.

What I found most helpful was figuring out what I most wanted for myself.  Perhaps ask yourself these questions in the beginning.  What subjects are you passionate about writing?  Is there a certain cause that you feel strongly about promoting through writing?  Or do you have important personal experiences that you would like to be able share with the world?  Maybe think about how you want to contribute to the world of writing and literature.  Look at what kinds of values the school in general seems to be promoting.  Is the school addressing issues in the wider world that are important to you?  Would attending courses there inspire your passions further?  What kind of future career best suits your interests?  Will the program allow you take these passions with you into a professional setting after completing your degree?  These are some ideas that you might consider first.

When you are doing research on the program, be able to look past the information that seems to be related to marketing the program to you – things like bragging about what successful writers have attended the program, awards the program has won, etc.  I found this type of information to be more annoying than helpful.  I personally avoided schools that didn’t give me much more information about their program except for things that seemed like advertising material.  This information will tell you nothing or very little about what you will actually learn while attending the school.

Instead, look for things like the structure of the program.  What genres do they offer? More than one genre focus?  Do they focus on giving the student professional experiences in teaching or publishing?  Are they more interested in teaching writing through studying literature or through workshops?  If you don’t know what you want to do in the future, does the program allow you flexibility to explore multiple areas like both teaching and publishing?  I have seen some friends go through an MFA program in hopes of being able to teach only to find out that they don’t like teaching at all.  However, they were left with no other professional experiences besides teaching from their graduate school creative writing program.  If you are unsure as to a career path, as I was, I found it helpful to keep my options as open as possible.

After I found a number of programs that seemed to suit my passions, interests, and my ability to enjoy spending time within the culture of the institute, then you might start looking at some of the smaller technical details of the program.  What kinds of financial aid do they offer?  Can you get a teaching assistantship or an internship?  How much is tuition?  What kinds of opportunities do they offer for living on-campus?

I found it also important to look at faculty at this point.  See who will be teaching you and what their personal interests are.  Will their interests help to fuel your own?  What do you think you can gain from knowing them as professors?  For example, if you are a woman interested in writing about women’s issues, you don’t want to go to a school that has a male dominated faculty.  You might want a gender balanced faculty instead.

Finally, you might want to consider the broader location of the school.  Will there be many opportunities for internships and related jobs in the surrounding area?  Does the city promote an art based culture that will support your writing interests and writing experiences outside of the classroom?

This seems like a lot to take in.  It was for me too.  But it actually gets easier to make decisions as you go along because you become more aware of what you want as you continue to compare different programs.  In my personal experience, it seemed to work well to apply to a broad selection of programs that promote your passions/interests (I chose 8 programs).  Then once I started getting accepted to them, I began comparing some of the smaller details for each program.

But most importantly when making a final decision, pick a program that feels right to you in your heart and in your gut.  If you are getting into graduate school, then you are probably smart enough to grow and gain positive learning experiences from any program you pick.  However, what was most challenging for me was having faith in that decision.  Don’t let the question of whether or not you picked the right one plague you.  You know what’s best for you.  When it gets down to the final line, follow your heart and trust in your heart because you are going to be the one who makes your graduate experience meaningful to you.

A Personal Reflection on Pusuing Graduate Studies in Creative Writing

Choosing to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing has been both an emotionally dizzying and somewhat chaotic experience.  There is no question that it has been a journey.   After graduating in 2011 with my BA in English, I decided not to apply to grad schools because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life and I was reluctant to make the mistake of spending money on more education that I didn’t need or want.  Honestly, I don’t really know now what I was thinking back then.  Upon receiving my college diploma, anything seemed possible to me.  My life seemed like it could go any direction.  The paths were wide, welcoming, and numerous.  I lived on a dream cloud kept afloat by my achievement of completing a college education. I would get some kind of professional-like job related to writing or books – at a library or an office or publisher.  I would start publishing more of my writing in magazines and other places.  At a time when jobs were in short supply and while living in rural Idaho and in rural Indiana?    It took me a year to find a job and that job ended up being at Target.  But there were still possibilities.  Target would just be a small job to make some money while I looked for something that paid better and related to my field of study.  I wouldn’t stay there long.

I worked at Target for a month and two years before I decided that things needed to change.  My job description at Target was fairly simple, but it was also safe.  Living with my parents, the job provided all the money that I needed.  I would tell myself that Target was okay.  I was just happy to have a job after spending so much time hoping and hoping for the perfect job and then not finding one at all.  At least I had a job.  Those possibilities I’d wanted earlier would come to me when it was time.  My aunt sent me a card with a quote by Gilda Radner on it: “Some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.  Delicious ambiguity.”  This quote has given me comfort on many occasions.  It’s a very good quote.  However, the problem with ambiguity is that it’s ambiguous.  How long do you make the best of it?  The possibilities of life are wonderful, but in order to enjoy one, you have to make a decision.  You have to pick one and follow it, and not wait in a world of ambiguity. At Target I became too accustomed to living in that wonderful state of ignorance to what I was doing or not doing.  The possibilities were still there, I just didn’t care anymore.  I got bogged down in the comfort of working there and suddenly the idea of pursuing dreams became all the more frightening.  What would happen if I kept looking and looking for a better job and I wasn’t good enough to get one?  It was better to stay where I was.

It was a single moment of ridiculousness that inspired me to want to change my life.  You can laugh at me if you want, but it seems to me as I get older that most major changes in life are sparked by a small piece of ridiculousness.  One day I was at home before work watching a Youtube video of a celebrity that I admired.  This celebrity was being interviewed by the school where they got their post-grad training in theater.  They said that choosing to go to this particular school was an acknowledgement to themselves of what they wanted to devote their life to.  Up to that point, they hadn’t made that realization and they had been somewhat doubtful and indecisive about the whole situation.  They also expressed the fact that being successful at this school had better work for them because it was their dream and nothing else would have made them happy.  After that, I said, “Hey, perhaps the only thing that is keeping me from doing what I really want to do, is the fact that I have to decide to do it.”  And all my attitudes toward my current life changed.

Working in a creative field like acting or writing can be difficult because a successful career isn’t necessarily based on talent or hard work, but the fact that your talent and hard work is recognized.  You have to balance reality with the dream of becoming a financially successful writer or actor.  I want to shoot high and try to achieve whatever I can, yet I need to realize that writing might also just be something that I do at home after coming back from a full-time job.  But maybe, I thought, because this celebrity made success possible for themself coming from the same situation on deciding to go to school than I could maybe make myself successful as well.  I probably won’t be a celebrity, but I was able to see again a path that might lead me closer to doing what I wanted with my life.

I started out with a list of 80 possible graduate creative writing programs.  I narrowed that down to about 30, narrowed that down to about 15, and narrowed that down the 8 schools at which I’m applying.  Even at this reduced amount, the application process seems overwhelming.  I created a binder with a divided section for every school.  Then for each school, I’ve written down deadlines and made checklists for the individual requirements for admission.  Each school requires that you fill out an online application, send in transcripts, have 2-3 letters of recommendation, and a sample of writing that is about 20-25 pages long.  Some schools ask for a resumé, and also other essays on your background on writing.  Then there are the fellowships to apply for and financial aid.  All of this didn’t seem to bad to me, even though it is a lot.  The thing that is overwhelming is that every school is a little different.  For example, I just can’t ask my old writing professors to make 8 copies of the same letter of recommendation and mail one to each place.   For some schools you have to submit the letters electronically, some you can only send by mail, others only by email, and one had a form that both myself and my recommender have to fill out.  It is the same way with the essays and writing samples.  Each school has their own specific requirements for every aspect of the application process.  So, to help I’ve made spreadsheet for each requirement – letters of recommendation has its own spreadsheet, transcripts has its own spreadsheet, and writing sample has its own spreadsheet – with a column for the school and a column for what they are asking for.  I also made a more detailed checklist for every online application telling me exactly what information I need for each section of the application.  These organization methods have been helpful, but it seems like that’s all I’ve been able to get done.  The process seems like it is going slow without very many visible results.  However, I think it will go much faster after I have finished my first application.

So far I’ve figured out how to get my transcripts sent and have finished all the basic personal information on each application.  Today I’m emailing my old professors to ask them to recommend me.  This part has made me nervous due to the fact that it has been over three years since I’ve had classes with any of them.  Will they remember me?  Will they have time to do the recommendations for someone who is no longer their student?  It also helps to just get the doubts out of my head.  I’m sure it will all be okay.  Anyway, that’s how I stand on the school situation.  We’ll see how it goes.  And I send out my best thoughts for anyone else who might be going through the same process.  Just think that it will all be over soon and we will hear acceptance from our favorite schools.

The Danger of Writing Stereotypes in a Politically Correct World

My Personal Experiences Related to Stereotypes

My own definition of a stereotype is a generalization made about a person based on their culture, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status, profession, or even their hobbies.  Stereotypes are used to categorize people into groups.  If you think about high school, some common stereotypes might be: 1.  The popular football player who has the “best” girlfriend, but who struggles with his grades.  2.  The kids who wear black, smoke in the bathroom, and skip class.  3.  The brainy kid with glasses and acne who sits by himself at lunch and who won the science olympiad.   The groups are then given certain characteristics that define the people within them.  Football players are popular, goths are druggies, and brainiacs have no friends.  Therefore; according to the stereotypes, if you are a football player you must be popular, if you wear black you must do drugs; and if you are smart, you are also friendless.  The generalizations don’t always make sense and limit individuality in our society.  There is no place for the stereotypical football player on the science olympiad team.  More importantly, stereotypes can also be used to promote racism and other forms of hate.

Throughout my life I’ve lived in communities that are highly open to diversity and in environments where stereotypes are avoided.  I’ve learned that every person is unique.  If someone is different from you, then you should try to understand them rather than shutting them out.  I  have to say that I believe that there are very few lifestyles or beliefs that are wrong.  They may be different from my own, but they are not wrong.  The only thing that I believe is wrong is closing off your mind from understanding differences between yourself and others.  The only thing that is wrong is closing the door.

This way of thinking makes me super sensitive to anything and everything that may offend someone else.  In addition, my training as an English major, has made me super observant to the world around me.  Even tiny details can bother me.  There was a TV commercial that I couldn’t stand to watch because of the way a man and a woman were standing next to each other – the man leaning toward her with his hand on the wall and she against the wall.  It was a rather subtle image of female vulnerability and male control and yet it made me cringe.  The result of this attention to detail is that I am easy offended by statements and images I see or hear everyday, even if I do not belong to the group they are directed towards.  Another good example of a stereotype that bothered me can be found in a film I watched recently called The Lorax.  The antagonist of the film wanted to produce more smog so that his company, which sold clean air, would become more profitable.   It was troublesome to me that this character’s appearance was somewhat stereotypically Asian.  Despite that fact that his voice was that of American Rob Riggle, the character was short with black hair cut in a bowl shape and had small, dark eyes.  I don’t belong to the group the stereotype represented, but still I have this fear and guilt that made me squirm when I saw something offensive towards another race.

Even though stereotypes are often negative, I think that sometimes we are too focused on sensitivity.  Political correctness has become such a big deal in our society that sometimes I feel like we have to tiptoe around everything to the point of being ridiculous.  Our society is haunted by the fear of offending.  The fact that we are over sensitive to hurting someone can be just as damaging as using too many stereotypes.  Political correctness can suck all of our enjoyment out of something like the film The Lorax which was made for children.  You might think that because the movie is for kids that makes it even worse that it contains hurtful stereotypes.  On the other hand, does a character’s haircut or height really matter to the 10 year-olds watching the film?  Should we not allow children to view the film (with an overall positive message)
because a detail makes us adults feel uncomfortable?  It’s hard to say.

Political correctness and the fear of offending someone prevents us from discussing the stereotypes at all.  Our need to avoid stereotypes in a way continues to close the door on understanding differences of culture and beliefs.  The golden rule if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, although it is a good rule, it doesn’t solve the problem of the deeper discord that caused us to have to censor ourselves.  The stereotypes don’t go away just because we don’t want to see them.  Is there a way to balance the use of stereotypes and the fear that we may offend someone or close the door on them?  How do we teach our children to be sensitive without instilling in them a fear that will prevent us from solving problems of racism, sexism, etc, later on in life?

Stereotypes Positive or Negative when Writing Fiction?

In the same way that stereotypes reduce unique qualities in individuals in the real world, they have the same effect on the quality of writing when used in fiction.  When a character becomes too stereotypical it can limit creativity.  I’m guilty of having stereotypical characters.  It’s hard to avoid because certain images/ideas have become so engrained into how we view the world.  I’ve tried my hand at writing chick lit. before, and the main temptation for me was to create a gay best friend who acts as the leading lady’s fashion/relationship consultant.  This character would have lacked originality and detail.  He would have been boring, cliché, and predictable to anyone familiar with the stereotype.  Anyone could write this character which also means that we would know every detail about him even if we saw him from two miles away.

However, like I explained above, I don’t want to be over sensitive and throw out stereotypes in writing altogether.  Categories do exist in society if we want them to or not.  Placing characters into certain stereotypes can be helpful in understanding who the character is that we are writing about.  It might be good to start out with a stereotype if you are having trouble developing a character.  There is nothing wrong with a heroine in chick lit. having a gay best friend.  But perhaps you can twist his character a bit from there.  Maybe he had no mother growing up so he doesn’t know how to dress himself well.  Perhaps he tries to become the fashionable stereotype, but fails.  Perhaps he has a fear of becoming a stereotype and avoids fashion completely.  What the character thinks about other people seeing them as a stereotype can change who the character wants to be.  By using a stereotype as a jumping point, we’ve now created a more interesting and complex person.

Stereotypes can also add more meaning to a story if you want to make a critical statement about a greater issue we face.  One of the benefits about stereotypes in writing is that they give straight forward, solid definitions of the people they represent.  They might get rid of unique details, but everyone will understand who it is that you writing about.  Your gay best friend character could be an advocate for gay rights by generally representing the legal/social challenges faced by LGBT individuals all over the world.  By categorizing the character and giving them a solid definition, we can now critique that definition and say what is good or bad about how society reacts to the definition.  By using the stereotype of the gay best friend we can show how love and acceptance towards individuals that we place within the stereotype can positively change the world.  Or perhaps if your fictional world mistreats the stereotypical character, we can better see issues of discrimination against that stereotype in the real world.

The ironic problem is that we don’t really want to offend anyone.  To go back to The Lorax, there should be a line between making a positive statement about environmental issues and attaching that issue to a certain race.  The stereotype becomes more strongly racist than it promotes awareness of the issue of air pollution.  To help find a balance, I’ve come up with some questions to ask yourself about a character that you might think is too stereotypical.

1.  Did you intentionally make the character stereotypical or did it just turn out that way?  If you did intentionally choose a stereotype then:

2.  What is the purpose of having a stereotypical character?  What statement are you trying to make about the world by using a stereotype?  What issue would you like to bring to light?  Does the rest of your writing focus on this issue or do you get caught up in trying to define the stereotype itself?  Does the stereotype exist in a world that never acknowledges it?

3.  What is positive and negative about the stereotypical character you’ve created?

4.  If you did not intend to make a character stereotypical: Are there any details about the character that are not necessary?  If you can delete any of the details about the character that seem more stereotypical without taking away from the plot or image of the character, than do it.  What makes your character unique?  Create a detail that makes them different from all your other characters and emphasize that one thing.

5.  What is the character’s background?  Do they have universal experiences?  Is their history something that could happen to anyone or a history that happens to one in a million?  How does the one-in-a-million experience in the past change who the character is in the present?   If you can create a unique past for the character, than it is easier for them to have a unique future in the story.

My Current Writing Project

I’m having doubts right now about a character that I’m working on that I feel might be too stereotypical.  She is from Mexico and her family is faced with the challenge of become financially successful in America.  She works as a maid at a hotel and ends up stealing from guests at the hotel to add to her income.  I feel that her employment is rather stereotypical and that the stereotype becomes negative when she commits a criminal act.  I’d like to address each of the questions I asked above in terms of my own writing project.

1.  I did not intend to make the character stereotypical.  I’m most familiar with Latino culture and I wanted her character to be a minority.  It just seemed natural that she should come from Mexico.

2.  I didn’t intentionally create a stereotype, but I did want to make a statement.  I wanted to bring to light that fact that America is meant to be the land of opportunity and yet there are citizens living here that can’t make enough money to live.  I wanted to write about how opportunities are limited for minorities despite the fact that America prides itself on equality.  I also wanted to create awareness about what Latinos experience when they come to the United States – that many of them are harmless people who face incredible hardships.  The problem again is that my character commits theft.  This has a reverse effect on the statements that I want to make.

3.  The positive things about the stereotype are connected to the issues that I want to highlight.  The negative aspect again is the criminality and lower level of employment of the character.

4.  Unfortunately, the fact that she is stealing is essential to the plot of my story.  It’s a detail I can’t change.  In this case, I think I need to reconsider the importance of this character being a minority.  She could be a white American from a middle-class family that comes upon hard financial times.  Perhaps the idea that she is a minority can come from her gender and not from her race.   She could have a partial education from a university and career goals.  This would take care of the negative aspects of the stereotype.

5.  I could focus on the past of her family coming to America from Europe hundreds of years ago.  This would still maintain a theme related to immigration issues in America by stating that we are all immigrants.  It would also create a unique past for the character that we don’t always hear about in regards to modern, American characters.

 

I Hope this has been helpful to you in developing your own characters.  It has been very helpful for me to think about and the process of answering these questions might later lead to new connections in the plot of my story that I hadn’t thought about before.

Power Outage (This Is Not Fiction)

I apologize for not keeping up to date on my word count goal posts.  I haven’t given up trying to write everyday, but writing 1,000 words everyday and then coming back to make a blog post has obviously been a bit too much for me to get done.  This will be my last update regarding that failed experiment of using my blog to keep me accountable for doing my work.  Some methods just don’t work for everybody’s lifestyle.

Even though I haven’t been posting on whether or not I meet my goals, I have been writing.  I’m currently at 8,107 words.  I feel like that’s a pretty big chunk of writing that I’ve gotten done.

Over the last week; however, I’ve been a slacker due to the fact that Monday night there were tornado strength winds that went through my neighborhood and cut the power.  My family, house, and cars were okay, but our town is still a disaster.  It looks like there are as many trees on the ground as there are standing upright.  Some of the telephone poles were snapped in half.  We got our power back later in the week on Wednesday night.  My laptop wasn’t charged up at the time of the blackout so I couldn’t get to any of my documents or Internet of any kind.  In addition, this week several of my good friends from college were visiting.  Every moment that I wasn’t at work or with my family for the 4th of July holiday, I was with them.  That’s why I haven’t been doing my writing this week.  This is not something I made up!  Unlike some of my other excuses, this one is all true.

Anyhow, to make up for my recent lack of posts, I’m working on getting out some of my thoughts on the use of stereotypes in writing, how to use stereotypes constructively, and the challenges stereotypes have caused for me in my current writing project.  Stay tuned to hear more about it.

I hope that everyone celebrating America’s independence had a great time this weekend!

Getting Kidnapped

I didn’t reach my word count goal yesterday and this is why.  My neighbors kidnapped me and put me in the back of their car.  They knocked me out and when I woke up, I was out in the woods somewhere.  While I was lying on my back, all these kids came down a path towards me.  They started poking me with sticks.  That’s when I found out that my kidnappers had left me at summer camp.  There was no going back now.  I walked back to the camp cafeteria with them and had sandwiches with stale cheese for lunch.  Then it was time for canoeing.  There was one girl who all the other girls loved to follow around – she was their leader.  The canoeing instructor put us in the same boat together.  We were about to push-off from the shore.  I got in the boat first, but before I could do anything else, my partner had snatched my glasses from my face.  She pushed me out alone into the middle of the river.  I couldn’t see anything without my glasses.  I didn’t even know if I had oars with me.  It was too late to think because what I did know was that I was moving quite quickly away from where I had started and from the rest of the camp.  All I could do was let the river take me where I it wanted to go.  Fortunately, it took me past a coffee shop where my mother’s friend was sitting outside having tea.  She recognized me and then forgot about it as she had an important doctor’s appointment later that afternoon.  She happened to call my mother that evening with the results from her blood tests.  When she mentioned having seen me earlier,  my mother said she knew nothing about my having planned a canoe trip and so the ladies set out to find me.  Meanwhile, I had washed ashore near a hunting cabin where a nice man fed me deer jerky by the fire until my mother arrived to pick me up.

I was unhurt and today able to complete my word count goal.  Use this link when writing about how a character is feeling.  There’s a list of emotions and a variety of words for that emotion.

http://blogsold.psychcentral.com/adhd/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Sheet-for-Emotions.jpg 

Questions in Harry Potter Fandom

So, I made my word count goal today and this is my fun literary related post.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Harry Potter and have been a loyal fan since I was in third grade.  But some of these things on this page can’t help but be funny.  It’s a list of 29 major ideas regarding Harry Potter that were raised on Tumblr.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/lukebailey/lol-wizards

Reaching My Word Count Goal

I’d like to do something fun on this blog that will help me reach my daily word count goal for the piece I’m working on.  On my days off from work, my goal is 1000 words, and on days that I have to work, 700 words.  Starting tomorrow, everyday that I meet my goal, I’ll post something fun and literature/writing related like this:

Are you working on writing a paper for school or maybe a speech? Maybe you’ve written something already and want to have a little fun.  Maybe you want to write something right now.   In any case, try putting some writing into this BlaBlaMeter and see what it has to say.

http://www.blablameter.com/

If I don’t reach my word count goal, I’ll have to make up a story about why I didn’t.  Like this:

I started working on my story when my cat threw up on my dad’s $5,000 dollar suit that he’d left out to take to the dry cleaner.  I washed it up as well as I could, but there was still a nasty stain right on the front of the jacket.  I had to do something before my dad got home from work, so I got in my car.  I drove to the store to buy stain remover.  On the way to Wal-Mart, the police were chasing down a criminal driving a Corvette.  The villain had escaped from prison and hijacked the governor’s car.  The Corvette came right at me.  I couldn’t let the convict get away.  Swerving in front of his car, I helped the cops block his route.  The thief slammed into my car and crushed the passenger side, but I was a hero.  They wanted to interview me on the local news station.  How could refuse that?  I had to stay at the scene of the car wreck until the media arrived.  Then the governor promised to get me a new car just like my old one.  For now, he gave me an entourage to escort me back to Wal-Mart in a limo.  I bought the stain remover and fixed up the suit when I got home.  In the meantime, the governor had my new car dropped off at my house.  I had just enough time to sit down and write before my parents got home.  But then somehow I found this video that I had to watch:

You get the idea.  Starting tomorrow, I’ll do one kind of post or the other.  Hope you have fun reading them!

What she’s Maid Of (sorry about the bad pun)

In my last post, I told you about my current writing project – a modern ghost story loosely based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays.  I left you with some questions I had about what to do with the second half of the story, which would regard a maid who stole guest’s belongings from the hotel she works at.  I’ve had a hard time coming up with who this character should be, but I think I’ve finally made some sense of who she is and how she will challenge James, my ghost.

Her name is Amaranta Casales.  Amaranta is a name that comes from the flower the amaranth, however my character goes simply by Amar which is the verb in Spanish meaning “to love.”  Amar’s family is from Mexico, but she was born in the United States.  Many, many years ago her family became part of a feud with the Mendoza family from the town called Tusito.  The Tusito Mendoza’s  had a son that was supposed to marry Amar’s great-great-grandmother.  At the time, the livestock of Amar’s family was falling ill and the Mendoza family was to blame.  This made the marriage impossible and the two family’s have brought their feud with them to America.  I needed some sort of blood related feud to reflect the rebellions in Henry IV.

Amar’s father is an undocumented immigrant who used a false identity to start up his own business – a restaurant.  The Mendoza family, jealous of his success, threatens to turn in Amar’s father to immigration unless Amar agrees to marry the Mendoza’s edlest son who is in love with Amar.  If they marry, the Mendoza’s will also get a business partnership in the restaurant.  Amar refuses to marry him.  She wants to be able to pursue her own life and career.  Mendoza’s son has told her that if they marry, he expects her to stop working at the restaurant.  Even though it will mean the end of her father’s business and his possible deportation, Amar runs away from home.  However, she still wants to protect her family so she gets the job at the hotel.  When she doesn’t make enough with her paycheck, she finally decides to try stealing.

Amar and James’ stories are connected to each other is several ways.  Both of them have run away from something – James from his resentment of his father and his grief at Pratchett’s death, and Amar from a being trapped in a damaging marriage.  The characters both are struggling to find their places in the world.  Amar’s family was what she used to define herself; and although she wanted more for her life in terms of a career, she feels that she can’t move forward until she has come to terms with who she is currently.

The manager of the hotel eventually catches Amar stealing.  Amar who has had a feeling of a strange presence in the hotel blames the thefts on a ghost (this idea I came from the hotel that originally inspired Stephen King to write The Shining).  James, despite having seen her taking a gold watch from a guest’s room, backs up her story by doing classic ghostly things around the hotel.  He has to learn how to interact with objects.  This allows Amar to continue with her thefts that support her family and also brings in publicity for the hotel.

Meanwhile, Mendoza’s son is coming after Amar and hunting her down.  She fears that if he finds her, he may hurt or even kill her, but if she doesn’t go with him, her family may suffer greater pains.  She grapples with what decision she must make.

Amar is not just sitting around, however.  She realizes she has an ally – whoever or whatever is assisting her crimes at the hotel.  She does her own research at the hotel and in the local papers to find out who’s spirit is helping her.  She finally comes across James’ story at the bar and approaches James in order to thank him.  At this point, James can begin to be able to accept who had been while he was alive.  He now, in a sense, becomes more “real.”  For a moment, he and Amar can make a solid connection with one another.  James tells her that he can’t help her make the decision to marry Mendoza, but he can help physically protect her by using objects in the environment.

The state he is in as a ghost reflects how James feels about his identity.  Learning how to move objects in order to help Amar is the challenge he needs for self-discovery.  This really begins when James starts to tell her his tales instead of Bernie, the man at the bar to whom he can’t relate.

I see now that there are still a few things that I need to figure out.  It seems like it will never end!  Okay…  I still need a challenge for Amar which will prepare her for making the decision she’s facing.  There’s a possibility that I can use her search for finding out who James is as a journey that enriches her identity.  I know for a fact the energy and courage it takes to discover information that isn’t readily available.  The information then takes on a greater personal weight when it is gained.

How will the story end?  I think that perhaps that is just for me to know for now.