My New Writing Friends

Being abroad with twelve other people is amazing. It forces you make friends in way you usually don’t: being trapped together. This trip had an extra twist: we got to write together too. But I don’t want to waste this blogpost by congratulating myself over the new friends I’ve made. Everyone makes new friends studying abroad. Hell, that’s kind of the point.

What I will say, though, is that I’ve cultivated a far more intimate writing relationship with these new friends than I have with anyone else in my life. We interact at once on a personal and academic level. We laugh and joke together, but we also write together. I have never felt comfortable reading my pieces aloud to others or commenting on other’s works. Especially people I don’t know. Yet being abroad with other writers has made me more comfortable. I feel like I can share my pieces without being belittled, bullied, or berated. I do not dismiss their feedback. I do not fear giving feedback. Because I trust these people.

I trust these new friends of mine because they are my writing friends. Our relationships have been forged in the crucible of the workshop. The long and tedious, yet endlessly informative workshop. I’ve never had writing friends before, and it feels good. I no longer look forward to comments on my pieces as a way to validate myself, but rather to learn what my friends have to say about it. And I no longer look forward to commenting on other pieces as a way to sound smart and be pedantic, but rather to hear what they have to say.

I’ll finish up by simply saying that writing with friends and for friends has made writing way more fun. To have an audience that you want to impress, not for a grade, but because you genuinely crave their feedback and their knowledge is not a common thing in college. For once I have enjoyed the challenge of revising my pieces and the hard work it takes to come up with original material. I like my writing friends. I want to keep them. And I want to make new ones.

I like to consider myself as someone who does not have many fears. Yes there are some things I am genuinely terrified of, but other things that make me uneasy or on edge I like to try and overcome. Horses have never been s preference of mine. Something about their size and power leaves me uneasy in their presence. But if you are nervous around them, they are nervous, so I did everything that I could to stay calm in preparation to saddle up.

There was one horse that caught my eye. It was slightly larger than the rest and was a steel white. Many of the other horses stood like statues, eyes closed and ears motionless, while this one was much livelier. As we prepared to begin our experience we were split into two groups. Mustering up some of the superficial confidence I had put my mind to in order to mask the uncomfortable feelings inside, I chose to be in the first group. Not only the first group but the first to actually mount one of these horses as well. Of course the horse I had been looking at earlier was the one I was chosen to ride. Once on top of it, I was surprised at how comfortable I felt. Maneuvering left and right, starting and stopping almost seemed natural. I felt as if I could navigate the countryside by myself. The views that I saw from atop the horse seemed like they were being experienced as they should be, rather than from inside a car.

The whole day of horse riding seemed to mirror my experience in Iceland almost seamlessly. Anxious and nervous at the start but neglecting to show it. Once set in the place that I had been anticipating a surprising feeling of comfort and belonging. An abrupt start with bumps and adjustments along the way. Always alert and observing what there is to be seen close and far away. I believe that experiences like these allow you to grow as an individual. Facing your fears head on allow you to see what the other side has to offer. It brings what was once in the dark to the light, and allows you to evaluate and move forward from there. Whether it be mounting a horse or flying to another country, facing what is unknown and may bring you discomfort head on is an invaluable skill that I have still yet to master, but strive to in the years to come.

The Rock Library: Sam Schacht, Noah Coates, and Elizabeth Pellegrino

A warehouse of stone and metal houses a collection of historical value oft overlooked.  Filing cabinets extend along the length of the one-room library in fourteen rows, not counting those running along the outer walls.  Each cabinet stands approximately five feet tall and has forty thin drawers, each filled meticulously with labeled, compartmentalized samples of rock from all over the world.  I walk the rows, stopping in front of one of the cabinets to open the top drawer.  I reach in and pull out a rock labeled with tape, “Lilta-Sandfell, Iceland – Basalt.”

***

It was a short nine centuries ago that I left my home, that place which we all call home, in the thick, torrid porridge found far beneath where we am now, far beneath the clouds, far beneath the treetops and the ground and even the bedrock below. We started to grow, cozy in the magma chamber. As time passed, we fractionated. Magnesium dragged down to the bottom of our molten body by solid olivine, changing the chemical makeup for those of us still liquid.

***

Turning the rock over in my hands, I immediately notice its black color, which suggests it’s a mafic rock. This chunk in particular is chock full of magnesium and iron. The grain size is very small and filled with vesicles, meaning it cooled quickly. One side of the rock has a peculiar texture: a glassy rind. Glassy rinds form from exposure to water, so this rock must have cooled in water or ice. Since it’s from Iceland, ice is more likely.

***

I played witness to my own creation under two-thousand feet of ice, when the molten slurry of Earth’s interior broke through bedrock, reacting violently with the temperature of its new environment. For decades, it had pushed painstakingly upward, forcing against gravity, flowing through a plumbing system of nature’s design. It became sluggish. Its surface formed a glassy rind. But it kept going, driven by the determined magma below.

     The further it ventured, the cooler it became, and we were soon forging a plumbing system of our own, through ice and air, solidifying all the while. Cool liquid fizzed on our surface. Pores broke out under our glassy rind. We were lighter, and all around was glacial blue. Now more solidified than we had ever been, we began to gain familiar shape at expense of what little viscosity we had. Cast aside by the still-flowing magma on its tireless journey forth, we found little comfort in a new home ever-changing. We were constantly pushed further and further from our access point by newly solidified pillow basalts. We grew in size, piling on top of each other.

***

The overall shape and texture was pillow-like, the marker of a pillow basalt. When a subglacial eruption occurs, the magma on top is cooled instantly, but the magma below continues to push upward, swelling the top layer until it bursts, the new magma cools, and the process continues. Judging by the lack of olivine, this rock was from the top of the flow. Since olivine tends to sink into the lower levels of the magma, this rock must have been one of the first layers to reach the surface of the glacier. Yellow and tan splotches reveal palagonite on the surface, which was most likely caused by erosion from glacial meltwater.

***

Above, some still-molten material was finally meeting atmosphere, flowing laterally at gravity’s command, released from the confinement which was all it had ever known. Flattening around the epicenter of the eruption with no particular regularity, an earthen structure was crafted where only ice had once lived.

    As the centuries wore on, the atmosphere gradually warmed, and the glacier gradually melted away. We were exposed. The glacier’s meltwater had stained much of me yellow. Fierce winds scratched and scraped me, but I held firm. That is, until the quarriers came. With massive equipment they ripped us apart, and where was once a sturdy outcrop now sat a collection of loose cobbles. The miners continued to smash us, and finally, defenseless against the forces of humans, I broke from the rock that held me, tumbling down and cracking as I fell into the heap below.   

***

I turn the rock over slowly in my hand, sliding its gritty pores across my palm. Gingerly, I place the rock back in its designated bag and press my fingers on the seal until I hear it click. The drawer’s thud ricochets around the vast warehouse, the echoes settling after a few seconds. I peer down the long row of cabinets, unsure of what rock to pick next.  I hustle through the cabinets, running my fingers along their cold, metallic sides. My hand finds no handle in particular, and my thumb depresses the locking mechanism.  I reach in and pull out another rock.

Risk, Reward: Hekla By Allison Bargabos, Ryan Gulbransen, Nicole Logrieco and Rachel Renders

Rubbing tired eyes, I move though my apartment after a long night’s rest. While sunlight warms my back,  I turn to pour cereal into a bowl when I hear an announcement come over the news. “For those just tuning it, Mount Hekla has started erupting at 18:19 GMT, nine years after it last erupted.” The screen switches from the reporter to on sight footage of the erupting  volcano. My mother and I turn to the television and watch in awe what appears to be a curtain of fire blasting out of a large fissure in the volcano’s surface.  Ashy smoke pours out from its summit, filling most of the sky. That image became etched into my brain and from that day forward I was hooked. Hekla has erupted without fail every ten years since 1970. I decided to dedicate my time and studies to these volcanoes while waiting for the next forecasted eruption.

Fast forward fifteen years, I now stand at the base of Mount Hekla accompanied by three of my close friends from my undergraduate of volcanology. Ever since that infamous day my focus has turned to volcanoes, specifically the ones in Iceland, and trying to absorb all the rich pools of information they have hidden away. More than anything, I yearn to see one of these sleeping giants in action again. The relationships I have formed from studying this passion will last a lifetime, even more so if we all experience this eruption together.

We decided to travel to Iceland together, since Hekla has surpassed its ten year anniversary without an eruption.  Every year since 2010, the geologists who study this region have stated that Hekla is on the cusp of erupting. Tension builds as each year passes – both within the volcano and the public. Some papers I have studied state that the magma chamber is full and that small tremors have been detected signifying movement of the magma below the crust. We are all teeming with excitement in the months and days leading up to this trip, each passing day bringing the eruption date closer.

Hekla, unlike many other Icelandic volcanoes is classified as a stratovolcano, meaning it’s created by layers upon layers of lava, ash, and rock fragments building on top of each other. The eruptions are characterized by ash, cinders, blocks (a chunk of rock over 64mm that is blown from the top), and lava bombs (lava that is ejected, then solidifies in flight before reaching the ground). Stratovolcanoes can be easily set apart from other volcanoes by their relatively steep pointed tops, although Hekla looks more like an capsized boat than a pencil point. From the base of the giant, we all admire Heklas distinct shape. Carving up into the blue sky, I could imagine huge plumes consuming the clear air above its summit.

We all adjust the straps of our hiking packs, as the tourists surrounding us fumble with their rented, unfamiliar gear before heading to the top.  I wonder if they realize where they stand.  At any moment, Hekla could blow, and it is unknown if it would be gentle or explosive. One of my friends explains to a bystander that a gentle, or effusive eruption would produce thinner lava where gas can easily escape, leading to a relatively non explosive scenario. This would still be extremely detrimental to anyone unlucky enough to be standing on the volcano at the time of the eruption. An explosive eruption is more likely given the volcano’s current state and time frame since the last eruption. The stagnant magma crystallizes into a more silica composition, which is relatively thicker and leads to a compressed gas buildup below.  Hekla is now five years past its theoretical date of eruption and has been a ticking time bomb that struck zero years ago. This act of being tardy is creating more tension for the volcano since the internal magma is building on itself increasing the pressure. Just like bottling your feelings too long may lead someone to erupt in anger, the more the magma builds, the more explosive the eruption can be.

The tourist asks my friend what could change the type of eruption, and she gladly explains that the composition of Hekla also accounts for it’s type of explosion. She picks up one of the nearby rocks and describes that it is a  basaltic andesite. These somewhat glassy rocks, which look  as if they have been stabbed with pins, sit in large chunks described as blocky flow. This type of structure shows that the lava had a thicker consistency and flowed more like molasses down the mountainside. Compared to other volcanic rocks in this region, these basaltic rocks are abnormal in their high silica level, these high levels increases the magma’s explosive tendencies.

Years of preparation have built up to this day. Armed with all the knowledge I could muster of this geological masterpiece and close friends by my side, we are ready to begin our ascent. With fingers crossed, we wind our way up the hillside, each step bringing us closer to the summit. A few missteps guide me to bring the group to rest for a while. I catch my breath. Everything is still if only for a moment. Gradually I begin to feel the vibrations below, and see ripples in the water beside me. We all exchange uneasy but excited  looks. Could this be the moment we have been waiting for?

The Tuya: By Tim Blomquist, Mark Ling, Emily Hanss and Noah Zweifel

Maria drove the Durango across the rocky Icelandic plain toward the mountain in the distance. She inspected it through her windshield as she approached.  It wasn’t especially large, but its top was unusually flat, and it jutted out from the middle of the valley. Despite traveling all over the United States, she had never seen a formation quite like it. When she jumped down from the driver’s seat and scanned the horizon, she realized she was the only person around for miles. The feeling brought her fear and solitude, all at once.

She began walking toward the mountain. As she got closer to the base, she noticed the increasing size of the sediment under her feet. She wondered why the rocks were sorted in this way. She knew that sediment in streams would be deposited based on weight, since the water could only carry rocks of certain sizes so far, but there was no water-source anywhere in sight. She wandered a little farther towards the mountain and sat down on a large rock to take in the view.

She pulled her water bottle and her guide book from her backpack. As she turned to the page diagramming the area, she took a gulp of water, its smoothness refreshing and icy. Continue reading “The Tuya: By Tim Blomquist, Mark Ling, Emily Hanss and Noah Zweifel”

Transformation

Over the course of our three weeks in Iceland, we had countless discussions about what makes good writing as we sat in untraditional “classrooms” covered in moss and rock. One of the topics that we touched on frequently is that effective creative writing includes some sort of transformation. In order to engage a reader, there must be a change or sign of growth, whether it be major or minor. This idea resonated with me. I found myself thinking about it while we were climbing mountains, riding horses, and hiking glaciers. While I was out there pondering how to show transformation in my poems, I was too busy to notice the transformation that was occurring in myself. 

Before we embarked on this study abroad trip, I didn’t consider myself a writer. Sure, I had taken English classes for years and had written hundreds of papers, but I never sat down to write just because it was something I wanted to do. I had taken one creative writing class at Geneseo my freshman year, but I felt out of place among students who were on track to write novels and were much more eloquent than I was. My deep-seated fear of criticism and failure made me reluctant to share my work with others. When I applied for this trip, I ignored my insecurities about creative writing because Iceland was at the top of my must-see list. However, my doubts about my writing capabilities crept to the front of my mind in the days leading up to our departure. What if I wasn’t good enough? What if I couldn’t think of anything to write about? What if everyone was super smart and judged me for what I wrote? My anxiety resulted in my procrastination of the first blog post, and before I knew it, I was sitting in the terminal at JFK trying to write something coherent so I wouldn’t bomb my first impression on these new people. As I read the other posts, I couldn’t help but think that I made a big mistake by signing up for this program. These people knew how to write. I didn’t belong here. I wasn’t a real writer. 

I can’t pinpoint a single moment when the change happened. Looking back, there were little moments that added up to a major shift in the way I feel about myself as a writer. There was the first day when we sat in a circle on the black sand, and I prayed that Lytton would not call on me first to share my sentence. But of course he did, and my heart leapt around in my chest as I read it out loud to a group of strangers. To my amazement, the others seemed to actually enjoy what I had written! There was the time I surprised myself and volunteered to share my paragraph in a writing exercise on the boulder beach. There was the night I sat on my bed in Reykjavik and typed for hours just to produce an eleven line poem that I immediately emailed to my mom because I couldn’t wait for her to read it. There were the days writing in cafes, sipping coffee, and feeling like a local because I had a purpose in this foreign city. There was the time when I grabbed my notebook from my nightstand to write down a line that had come to me as I tried to fall asleep. There were the hours when I recited my poems over and over in my head to distract myself from my aching, blistered feet on long hikes. There were the workshops when I didn’t feel a sliver of anxiety about my new friends discussing my poems because I truly wanted their criticism to help me improve my writing.  And there was the time on the plane ride home when somone asked me if I had a pen they could borrow, to which I replied, “Of course I have a pen. I’m a writer!”

Sounds of Writing

New Oxford American Dictionary:
Write: (no obj.) have the ability to mark down coherent letter or words.
Writing and words have a strong association, being that writing is made up of words thrown together to create sentences. But to write a word, one needs to spell a word. To spell a word, one needs to know the sounds of the letters. And that is exactly my problem, I don’t always know the correct sounds of letters, or more specifically, the sounds letter make together.
I am a self-described dyslexic person (as in it just took me three times to even spell correctly the word dyslexic). This has only been a recent realization, but after reading the signs of dyslexia in teenage/adult years and realized they mirrored my own issues, it seemed to make sense.
I have poor sound-letter association. As in I will say a word in my head or aloud with the wrong syllable stressed or incorrect pronunciation. This will then trick my mind into thinking that the wrong letter fits with that sound. For example, I used to always think the word “supposed” was spelt “suppost” as in the ‘d’ sound turned into a ‘t’. This is common for me for multiple sounds. ‘A’ and ‘O’ are frequently switched, so is ‘I’ and ‘E’, ‘S’ and ‘C’ (as in a few lines ago I tried to spell ‘recent’ as ‘resent’) and many other switching of individual letters or even short combinations of letters.
This isn’t because I’m uneducated or don’t care how to spell things, it is because my brain legitimately doesn’t realize the switch of letters. I can say a word in my head and not realize I am pronouncing it wrong. I will then try to write out the word the way I am hearing it. But because I am pronouncing it wrong, I can only spell it wrong. It has become an issue in speaking as well. I have said words the way my mind believes it to be pronounced correctly and don’t realize that I am saying an incorrect word. This is especially an issue with words that have similar letters and sounds. Such as an issue today in trying to say “monogamy” by instead said “mahogany.” (And yes in trying to spell those words, I misspelled both, and actually needed to phone a friend in remembering how to say ‘monogamy.’)
That is the other issue, if I don’t know how to say it, I don’t know how to write it. This comes up when I am presented with new words. I have a hard time knowing the association with the letters on the page and how their sounds relate to one another. The phrase “sound it out” doesn’t work in this case because I don’t have the ability to know the sounds in the first place.

Not only do I deal with these struggles on a daily basis, but I then try to write freely. There are countless times where I will get caught up trying to spell a word. It is unbelievably frustrating to stare at that little red line under a misspelled word, so badly misspelled that even auto-correct can’t help you, and be dumbfounded that the word isn’t spelt how your phonetically hear it. It is even more frustrating when you know that you know the word but can’t manage to spell it because the sounds are off. And with that it is embarrassing when you misspell a word, but the misspelling is a real word, so you keep using the wrong spelling and never realize. For the longest time I spelt “half” as “haft” and even submitted a piece where “budge” was substituted in for “budget.”
The absolute worst, is getting so stuck on a word and try to spell it correctly, that you forget the rest of the sentence that you were trying to write. To compensate, I try to just streamline thoughts and correct the spelling mistakes after the sentence or paragraph is completed.
Unfortunately for me, there does not seem to be a solution to my sound association problem. There is nothing, that I know of, that can teach my brain to resister and remember sounds the correct way. But do I give up writing because of that? No. This just means I take it slower, memorize more spellings of words and use thesaurus to give me alternatives.

Departing Concretes for Abstract

One thing I have been grappling with here in Iceland is the appropriate use of abstract reflections.  In a landscape as dramatic and uniquely beautiful as this, I feel it is very easy to write strictly in terms of concretes.  What there is to see, what has happened, etc.  The landscape itself practically begs to be written about.

However, mixing in our reflections with these concrete elements in a manner that is understandable and concise is another thing entirely, and has become a point of interest for me.  Writing a piece that strikes the perfect balance between showing and reflecting through the use of things such as objective correlatives is quite difficult.  I feel as though I have the concrete aspect down pretty well, and constant use of a thesaurus has granted my scene writing terrific specificity, but without that extra layer of deeper thought my writing is being held back in a way that cannot be remedied by any other means than including such reflections.

I first started thinking about this aspect of my writing, the deeper thought aspect, after receiving a comment on my poem from a reader who “did not know what to think”.  After pondering the comment, I realized I didn’t know what to think myself.  It wasn’t in my writing, or even in my own mind.

Since then, I’ve been making every effort to go beyond the surface layer of my writing, to make myself reflect upon what I’ve experienced, and to share those reflections effectively with my readers.  I think it may be one of the hardest aspects of writing, and it has also led me to understand how vastly I have under-appreciated the difficulty of the craft.

An Ocean Between Us

The Republican National Convention has been underway for four days now.

I had to Google that. I set out to write a fairly BS’d post about the chaos of American politics and how it relates to the chaos of other countries’ politics and then tie it all together in some really deep and meaningful way and thought that would have been a decent opening line. But the truth is I am not a “political person” (or a very deep and meaningful thinker for that matter, especially when I’m on a deadline, but that’s beside the point). Certainly, I’ve been a bit more involved this election cycle than last, partly because this is the first election I’ll have voted in, and partly because this election, like no other election I know of (I’m not really a history person, either), has rocked our culture to its core, sucking up even the most apathetic and ignorant of us into its frenzy of slogans, sound-bites and Facebook brawls. But, despite all that, I’d still rate my interest as relatively low. I do feel guilty about that now that Donald Trump has America by the throat, and is ready to squeeze as hard as he needs to so he can achieve whatever wild goal it was he set out for when he joined the Republican ticket as nothing more than a running joke (is that a pun?). But, at the same time, I’m a white, middle-class guy who has, at this point in his insulated life, heard about quite a few political and national tragedies but felt the consequences of absolutely none of them (not directly, anyway). As much as I can say to people that it would be a nightmare if Trump were president, how hypocritical it would be of Sanders’ supporters to sell themselves out and vote for Hillary, and that we need some sort of ground-up restructuring of our political system, I can’t say that I really feel as though the quality of my life for the next 4-8 years is hinged on who gets elected and what we do about it as a nation.

Continue reading “An Ocean Between Us”

Get Out There

Sometimes you just need to get out there.

Especially when you’ve spent the last four months in a writer’s block-induced fury. You wrestle with the typical writer’s struggle–the need to constantly improve–and you over-analyze everything you’re doing wrong. Sure, you do some things right. Maybe you have strong dialogue, or your sentences flow nicely sometimes (so you’ve been told), but what about your weak characters? Or your limited vocabulary? Or your bulky paragraphs? Or your confused messages? Or your lack of focus? Or…

And then your passion starts to mess with your head and you stay in your house for weeks, relentlessly staring at a blank page. Perhaps, you think, if you stare hard enough, the ideas in your head will project themselves onto that paper, and you won’t have to sort through your thoughts. Even in your early twenties, long after you’ve dismissed notions of fantasy, you’re still disappointed when the page stays blank.

That’s when you need to get out there. You need to travel beyond the realm of you bedroom and see the rest of the world, see everything it has to offer. You need to see gargantuan mountains capped with mist, rocky titans that greet you as you pass them on an isolated road. You need to see images of the sky projected on sprawling, crystalline lakes. You need to see crimson twilight in a scar in the clouds where night should be, when night should be. You need to see landscapes of boundless white ice and perpetual black sand. You need to see moss on jagged obsidian, remnants of an old lava flow that buried a village, a remnant of when nature once reclaimed its territory in a glorious, rumbling firestorm. And when you see these things, you’ll be inspired to keep trying, to put what you see into words on paper. You’ll need to capture your thoughts, your experiences, your feelings, in print. Then, you’ll remember why you do this. You’ll remember that you can do this. At least until the writer’s block sets in again.

And when it does, get out there again.