Friday, September 26, 2014


a.k.a., Scared Stiff of Grad School

anxiety -- noun
1. distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune.

I have to tell you something.
I'm terrified.
Utterly, hopelessly terrified.

In my opinion, my life has been full of a few too many existential questions lately. I guess being a college senior who loves writing but still has no idea how she plans to feed and clothe herself will do that to you. There are a myriad of questions that are -- no, not metaphorically -- making me lose sleep at night.

I once thought that people who found their dream were lucky; that once you know what you're meant for, the toughest part is over. You basically know what you have to do to get there, the rest is just a matter of hard work and careful planning. (Okay, that's really simplifying it, I know, but bear with me . . . ) I knew there would be obstacles, but if it's your dream, it's worth it, right?

The funny thing is, no one ever told me that I would have doubts about my dream. The more writing courses I'm enrolled in, the more I discover that inspiration is not the limitless wellspring I once thought it was; it dries up pretty quickly, especially under a lot of stress. (Don't believe the rumors: working under pressure isn't actually all that productive for artists.) As someone who wants to go to grad school for creative writing next year, this is a horrifying realization. What if I go to an MFA program, and then can't write anything? What if this is all a phase, a spurt of artistic luck, and then three years down the road I discover that I don't have the stamina to be a lifetime writer? What will I do then?

There are other questions related to grad school and near-future plans, ranging from wondering if I'm applying to the right genre to wondering if I'm even applying to the right field. But a major concern, I have to admit, is the travel aspect. Yes, I'm a homesick sap -- the idea of going to school anywhere beyond a few hours drive from home puts a queasy feeling in my stomach. Facing an unknown place with unknown people all by my lonesome is not really my ideal adventure. What if I'm lonely; or don't know how to take care of myself; or can't handle sleeping in an apartment alone at night because those irrational fears of Slender Man coming after me suddenly increase by a hundredfold? At the end of the day, it seems like life is just one big fat question mark:

What if everything I'm doing is a mistake?

These were the kinds of questions infesting my thoughts one day at school. I could barely walk by my teachers in the hallway without feeling like I was going to have a meltdown. But on this particular morning, stepping into the escape of a public restroom, I had an epiphany--

--yes, in a bathroom stall, of all places.

I halted as I entered the stall and let the door clank shut behind me. Being located on the basement level, the windows in this restroom hung about five feet above the floor, extending the length of wall. For privacy purposes, this particular window was frosted, its whiteness grimy with age. I recognized the shadows of trees behind it. Cracks of sunlight flashed between branches as they shook in the wind, projecting on the glass as small, quivering circles. I found myself leaning back against the door, staring in ridiculous awe at these orbs of light as they danced madly across a sullied bathroom window.

That was when I remembered why I'm here. Why I'm a writer. Why everything is going to be okay. Because I know that, no matter where I go, or what I do, I can take my eyes, ears, hands, nose, and tongue with me. No matter what wrong turns I take, there will always be something beautiful to see.

anxiety -- noun
2. earnest but intense desire; eagerness

I have to tell you something.
I'm in love.
Utterly, hopelessly in love.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

When Truth Hurts

The Nonfictioneer's Dilemma

Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.

~ Franz Kafka

Kafka, you haunt me.

Whenever I read these words, I am divided. One half of my heart swells in awe of your insolent wisdom, at your unabashed defense of the artist's impertinence. You forbid us to whitewash, to pretty-up the ugly corners of life. Do not tread lightly on reality, you insist, but delve deep, and without apology. Show life with all of its thorns, no matter who objects. Where inspiration leads, the writer should follow with frenzied passion.

The other half of me spits at you.

I don't believe my heart was made for fiction. It goes against everything that has made me a writer -- a love for daily life, a quiet belief that every "normal" person, including myself, has a story. The little struggles we encounter each day say much more about our humanity, I think, than some grand, fictional misadventure. The truth is, I long for nonfiction. I long for its contemplative nature, its ability to find meaning in the mundane. Most of all, I long for its potential to highlight reality, and say, "There's no need for fiction. Life is dramatic enough on its own."

But I need fiction, Kafka. I need it terribly.

With nonfiction, there comes a risk. There are many things in our lives that contain all the elements of a good story -- a mother's coldness, an uncle's cancer, a best friend battling alcoholism. If we stop to look around, we realize that the people we interact with everyday have tales begging to be told. But this fascination with the trials of others is dangerous. It requires us to investigate and speculate about people's private lives. The nonfiction writer must intrude -- often without permission -- upon someone's darkest, most intimate secrets.

What is wrong with us, Kafka? Why is it the darkness in people's lives, that which makes them most vulnerable, that inspires us most? We are sadists and parasites. Our work thrives upon the draining of others for our own gain. We delight in their shame, their injury, their deformities, exposing them for general entertainment and "the sake of art." We cannot see someone's wound, and leave it be. In our sick fascination, we pick at the scar, peek beneath its stitches, until it bleeds. Because as a writer, as an artist, we must know what’s inside.

You did well to choose the word "mercilessly," my dear Kafka. To write directly from reality, we have to adopt a kind of indifference. We can't care too much about our subjects; otherwise, we'd always feel guilty, and never write anything for fear of violating their privacy and soiling their reputation.

This is why I write fiction. It was never because my life was uninteresting. My family life has been rocked by death and mental illnesses. My friends have been torn by scandal and abuse. There are always things to write about. But my conscience is my weakness. I don't have the stomach for trespassing onto others' lives, for being an invader. For you see, the greatest danger of being a writer is not the lack of things to write about. It is the risk of someone getting hurt.

Did you ever love anyone, Kafka? Or did not loving give you the freedom to write?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why Can't We Use Cool Words?

A Note on the Title and a Deep Life Question

When creating this blog, some of the most notable reactions I received from loved ones were a mix of intrigue and confusion regarding those two fancy words at the top of the page. In short, these reactions were finally summed up with my sister's raised eyebrow accompanied by her incredulous comment: "Hmm, 'Antiquarian Desiderium' . . . That's a mouthful."

Yes, yes it is.

I suppose words like "antiquarian" and "desiderium" are rarely encountered in day-to-day conversations. A quick search on the internet, too, shows some disagreement about their modern definitions. (Wikipedia, for example, tells me that "desiderium" means an internal sin within the mind. An interesting bit of trivia, but a statement on Christian morality wasn't what I was going for.) In this technological age ruled by Urban Dictionary and Twitter's 140-character limit, it's hard for me to defend my attraction toward an archaic vocabulary.

So why would I, a struggling writer who could sorely use a catchy self-marketing venue, give my blog a title that most readers can't pronounce?

Simple. Because I like cool words.

I can't help it. I've always been a sucker for those obscure, polysyllabic words that sound closer to their Greek and Latin origins than to English. I find myself getting giddy every time an unfamiliar word pops up on my Dictionary app's "Word of the Day" feature -- a textbook example of "geek behavior," I'd wager. It's not normal, I know. But it's one of my quirks.

I blame much of this strange infatuation on my childhood reading list, which consisted mainly of 19th-century British novelists like Dickens and the Bronte sisters. For years, I was positively saturated with their verbose language and outdated words. Sometimes -- okay, many times -- this proved to be a cause of social embarrassment, when I tried imitating their way of speaking in public. (Let's not even go into the time I dropped the obsolete synonym for "exclaim" . . . )

And it hurts a little, because I'd love to use cool words in public. But I'm not a fan of people staring, either.

Recently, as I've become more aware of my often grandiloquent -- sorry, I mean long-winded -- writing, I've wondered if it has anything to do with my musical background. Do my musician's instincts draw me to the rhythms created by these lengthy words? Do I hear them in my mind and imagine the tone they produce? Do I admire the unusual phrasing, the sense of legato that comes from stringing many-lettered terms together? Who knows. It's possible.

Basically, cool words just sound cool.

I wish I could honestly say that I'm naturally sesquipedalian (ooh, that's a good one) in conversation, or even in writing. But I'm not, really. I'm what G. K. Chesterton calls "a child of my age"; I've learned, for the most part, to go along with the societal demand for simple language. That's not to say there's nothing valuable in the colloquial, though. I admire the urban wit of contemporary writers, who are able to address the common man with their clever use of street jargon and pop culture lingo. Language is always developing, and so it should be.

But still, still I find myself asking, Why can't we use cool words? Our English language is amazing. Somewhere in the dusty recesses of our dictionaries, there are words you never knew you missed. Words that describe things you never knew could be described within the confines of a single word. (Like, crepuscular? C'mon, people!) It's hard to be a writer who's fascinated by the sounds and sophistication of an old-fashioned vocabulary. If you don't completely go over your readers' heads, you'll probably come across as a show-off, as someone trying sound like an elitist and claiming to have a higher intelligence than everyone else. It sucks. You have to hold back a lot.

Damnit, why can't we just use cool words?

I truly admire contemporary writers who are, somehow, able to smoothly incorporate cool words into their work (Mary Oliver I love you!). It's a delicate skill, and something I hope to acquire one day. For now, though, I can only pray that my favorite words don't become too obsolete before I find a convincing way to use them.

Oh, by the way:

antiquarian -- adjective
1. pertaining to antiquaries or to the study of antiquities.
2. of, dealing in, or interested in old or rare books.

desiderium -- noun
1. an ardent longing, as for something lost.

Grace and peace to you.