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.

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.

From Hot to Cold and All the In-Between

In twenty-four hours I went from swimming in a pool, to walking on a glacier.  In twenty-four hours I went from wearing a tank top and thin sweater shirt to three layers and a winter-time beanie. Within two hours I went from snapping pictures of a waterfall to that of the snow covered hills.

How is any of this possible? I found myself asking in my head as I stuffed my hands deeper into my pockets not willing to admit that I should be wearing gloves.  I was just walking up hill away from a waterfall, sweating in my long sleeves, and that was even after I had removed my coat, but now?  Now we are etching GENESEO into the snow as we make our way to a glacier. 

We file back into the car and I rub the redness away from my face. It blew my mind how quickly the climate and landscape could change in just a little bit of time and some strips of pavement, or in our case- dirt roads.  The car bumps and shakes as I stare out the window.  It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  I have been to both coasts of the U.S. and I have unknowingly walked on inactive volcanos and lived on old glacier beds but that was nothing compared to what Iceland holds.  There few places in the world that have glaciers and even fewer where volcanos sit nested near them and hot springs spill out of the same mountains. It’s almost as if nature is an artist who took their best paintings and smooshed them all together into one large canvas, somehow it fitting seamlessly.

Sitting with wet socks and muddy shoes from when the glacier water had tried to suck us down, we stop and file of out the rain streaked car, pausing to take photos of the rainbow that had appeared connecting the dirt road of the glacier to the dirt road of home.  In a few moments the rainbow is gone and in awe I board back in the car imagining what the next section of nature’s masterpiece will be.

Plot, enclosure, fishpond

Five minutes into writing for this prompt, and I’m thinking about fish tanks instead of place. So let’s talk about fish tanks. Wikipedia, the origin for most of my CNF inspiration, prefers to call fish tanks aquariums. Apparently, they were developed in 1850 when a chemist figured out that, by adding plants to an underwater environment, you can produce enough oxygen to sustain a small number of fish, and the idea caught on pretty quick. By 1853 the London Zoo had an aquarium installation, and the dude who installed it was writing a book whose title was The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea. Of course, before the guy who “invented” the aquarium, other cultures existed that had ways of sustaining sea creatures in tubs or marble boxes, so the origin story of fish tanks isn’t all that clear cut. Most origin stories are not very clear cut.

Aquariums, as it turns out, are actually a specific type of vivarium. A vivarium “is an area, usually enclosed, for keeping and raising animals or plants for observation or research.” In a way, then, we can think of settings as vivaria. We create settings as a way to ground our characters, our readers, and our selves. Settings are our foundations for scene, but they are static boundary. The interest, for the reader, is never the fish tank, but the animals inside of it. Our characters, our ideas, our wordplay is what makes the glass worth staring through, and the setting serves to hold everything together.

Place, I think, is less like a fish tank and more like a lake or an ocean. It’s contained within a larger sphere, like setting; however, they are the main attraction of their own accord. I think the difference between setting and place lie within this train of thought. Place is what can grab a reader all on its own. It’s dynamic. It demands its own story, and anything else the writer throws in (quotes, plots, alliterations) is an addition to an already exciting party. Place is what encourages the story to happen instead of being a backdrop to it. In that way, I think that place functions as an amorphous combination of setting and a character. I’m not sure if that’s how it actually functions in my writing, but I think that’s how I would like it to.

Writing and Place



     When I think about writing and place, I think about a change in place. Some of the times when I have been most inspired to write were when I was experiencing a new place. Our surroundings have a significant impact on the way we think and feel. A change in place can make us see the world in a way that is completely foreign. Visiting a new place with a different culture, landscape, language, and way of life can be a bewildering experience. It allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the world we live in as well as seeing ourselves and our home from a new lens. Writing gives us an outlet to reflect and react to this new understanding. Every life experience can influence the way we write and think about the world, but a physical change in place can inspire us to write with a fresh perspective.                                                                                                                      

        As we begin our journey to Iceland, I think of Seneca’s saying, “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” A change in place can be renewing and stimulating by changing our outlook. It is easy to get caught up in daily routines and the same way of thinking when you stay in the same place for an extended period of time, but a change can provide a break from the ordinary. New experiences and places contribute to our “toolbox” and can enhance our writing in profound ways. Visiting Iceland will be unlike any experience I have had before, and as I get to know the land I am confident I will improve as a writer. 

“Why does place matter to my writing?”

montauk2                    Breckenridge

Place carries a strong influential factor with it. The context of a place can change the decisions we make about many aspects of our daily life. Consider the two images above, each place requires a different type of preparation to be comfortable. At the lighthouse, maybe you brought a beach chair and a bathing suit for the day, while in the mountains you could be wearing snow gear with a pair of skis attached to your feet. These places call for different physical items, but also can bring about a number of different thoughts and emotions. Imagine yourself at each location. How would you feel? What thoughts and emotions could you be experiencing? Some would be more comfortable on a beach relaxing, while others enjoy the rush of skiing down a mountain.

The place we are turns into the places we have been, and ultimately shapes our lives. Each experience is different that the last, while each place offers its own array of sights, smells, sounds, textures and maybe even tastes. I believe that my writing is impacted by my mindset. I also feel that my state of mind can change when subjected to different places. Since place can impact my mental state, as well as shape my experiences, it can be very important to my writing.

The Significance of Place

Place is typically defined as a point or position in space. Obviously, place is all around us. It is the backdrop of our existence. So if place expands infinitely and connects each of us, what separates this place from that place, my place from your place, a good place from a bad place? What are the components of a place? How do these affect place? How does place affect us?

The easiest pop-culture go-to for any argument regarding place is rap. I’m willing to bet money that even your grandmother sensed the rumblings of the East Coast/West Coast rivalry of the 90s, spearheaded by Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, both giants of the industry, and heroes of their hometowns. Following the untimely death of these artists, the violent tension has settled, but still there remains a divide in a genre that is typically viewed as one of unification and empowerment, and a particular emphasis on place. From Westside rapper Vince Staples’ Norf Norf: “Real Norfside nigga, never went to Poly, Wilson or Cabrillo… From the city where the skinny carry strong heat, Norfside Long Beach, Norfside Long Beach.” From the East Coast, ASAP Rocky’s Purple Swag: “I’m sitting high, I’m tipping slow, I’m Texas trill, Texas trill, but in NY we spit it slow.” From Chicago-based Chance the Rapper’s Hey Ma: “7-7-3, Oh, since Kanye was a three-old, Down the street from D. Rose, was practicing his free-throws, Shout out to that Gulf Shrimp, shout out to King Gyro, Shout out that Ms. Moody, auntie Toni them my heroes.” Place for rappers elicits pride. This is not a rap phenomenon, but a human one. Place is more than a point or position in space. It is every action and reaction in the world converging onto a single point and pressuring it into a slightly new form with each passing second. Place is the home of my culture and my beliefs, and my most important steps happen in my place. It has every right to be a point of pride. My place is MY place. It suits me, and it constructs me.

“Gaze long into the abyss, and the abyss shall also gaze unto you.” A cliched quote, but one still with impressive magnitude. Writers write what they see. What they see is dictated by their place and so they attempt to communicate place by writing, but place affects the writer as much as the writer affects place. The core difference between the West Coast and the East Coast comes from geography. Speaking very generally (perhaps even offensively so), the image of New York gleaned from rap songs is one of a shaded, foggy skyline against a gray sky. It has a rich and electric culture, but there is a cynicism and sense of impending doom. Perhaps this is why New York rap has in recent years tended away from themes of material excess and towards spiritual and personal fulfillment. From Joey Badass’ Unorthodox: “See with your eyes dilated for the sake of the Gs But keep it sacred G, fuck a rat race, we take the cheese..Cause money ain’t a thing if I got it I won’t spend All I got is my Prose, I don’t need no friends Feel like this glory road is coming to an end The only soul that won’t sin No he won’t give in.” The West Coast on the other hand has always seemed more optimistic in its prognosis, fueled by sunny weather and the dream of Hollywood and celebrity just over the hills, but still showing struggle between wealth and fulfillment, and work and entitlement. From Kendrick Lamar’s Money Trees: “A silver spoon I know you come from, ya bish, And that’s a lifestyle that we never knew, Go at a reverend for the revenue, It go Halle Berry or hallelujah.”

Place affects everything, from your appearance to your walk to your talk to your outlook. The significance of place is that it is a single immobile point or position in space, yet every place you’ve been to stays with you forever and is communicated through everything you do.

Why Place Matters to My Writing

The same walls, the same faces, the same everything, day in and day out, all equates to the same writing.  With no change in environment or with no new concepts or ideas flooding in, it is hard to create something new.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can easily lead to repetition. Sure some places, cities, for instant with their hustle and bustle can lead to an ever expanding well of creative ideas.  These ideas though, would be primarily centered on city life.  This is not to say that someone living in a city can’t write about farm life, it’s more to say that with little firsthand knowledge of an environment the accuracy of the writing is in question.  Yes, one can read book after book and soak up all written ounces of a location, but there is such a difference going that route than actually breathing in a place’s air.  There are aspects of life that are so hard to put into words and even harder to completely understand even if written with accuracy.

I’ve never lived anywhere else but my split-level house on Long Island.  I’ve never travelled abroad, or been skiing, or on a cruise.  So I can’t, in a clear mind, write about them.  I can’t tell you the troubles of culture shock, what it feels to be racing down a mountain or to sail around on a slow moving boat.  I can’t tell you, because I simply do not know.  I’d just be guessing and rambling hoping someone won’t spy a hole in my tale.

But I can tell you what it’s like to live ten minutes from the water.  I can tell you all about life in suburbia, where everyone’s grasses are green and the neighborhood adults play tennis on Fridays.  There is more that I can write besides the place I’ve grown up in, I can write about experiences and places I’ve been.  I can write pages after pages of farm life, or at least what I know of farm life from my annual visits to a bed and breakfast dairy farm.  I can write how streams of light are scattered through the corn fields and how the air has an earthier scent while Long Island air is salty.  These aspects, these tiny details, ones I wouldn’t think of, that is unless I had lived it.  I can write short stories to the mountains and valleys I’ve climbed from Yosemite and Sedona to Acadia.  I know how the serenity of Yosemite and Sedona are almost destroyed by the constant flow of tourists with hiking shoes who have learned that feeding the squirrels gets them close enough to pet.  I have rejoiced in the memory of the magic of timing when give the opportunity to board the steps of the watch tower in Acadia, a privilege only open to the public a few times a month for two hours a piece.   I can only write and imagine what I know from the places and experiences I’ve lived. 

Writing, most writing, builds on the truth adjusting only aspects to create a new story.  Maybe it’s the setting that is real, or a situation, or character, but it all comes back to where you are.  It’s where you are and where you’ve been that gives you access to new ideas and new experiences.  It’s the film in your head that records your sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that allows you take pieces of it to create something new. It is with the smidgen of reality that the inspiration for a story comes alive.