Archive | March, 2011

Just Hang in There…

24 Mar

After writing the worst paper of my life last night (a physics paper–something is inherently wrong with this concept, and I decided to ditch the project in favor of solving an actual mathematical problem, which suggests how desperate I am at this point for Spring Break).


(which means it’s still midterms, ugh).

Ok so apparently my sleep-deprived brain is incapable of constructing paragraphs longer than a single sentence, which is always a bad sign.  Although, who am I kidding–I really don’t have that much work.  Physics problem, Geology exam, 35 pages and an article due after break, no sweat.

And now I’ve forgotten the point of this post, but I think it has something to do with The Review’s Journalism Symposium scheduled for April 7th and 8th.  Pretty much everyone on the agenda (or everyone, I just am too lazy at this moment to check) is an OC Alum, so expect a lot of coverage and new content surrounding this event.  For some reason I thought the 7th and 8th were much more distant dates than they actually are, which means I ought to e-mail some of these people and try to get interviews with them.  Hmm, now that’s an idea.

Back to


Positively Ninety is a Positive Force

23 Mar

Positively Ninety

A chemistry professor, an avid traveler, a budding novelist, a family-chronicler, a devoted couple, a passionate gardener, a man who swam the Ohio River and twenty-one others: all of them vigorous, active, driven, all of them ninety years old, some of them, older.  This is the cast of very real characters that populate OC alum Connie Springer’s recent book, Positively Ninety: Interviews with Lively Nonagenarians.

The project, which was funded by a two-year City of Cincinnati Individual Artist Grant, combines journalism and photography to celebrate the wrinkles, smiles, and longevity of this exceptional group of elderly folk.  In her introduction, Springer provides a framework for the project, “My personal experience with aging had been less than positive.  Over a decade ago my mother, in her eighties and saddled with dementia, lived in a nursing home surrounded by peers with vacant stares and immobile stances…. I needed a different perspective.”  Springer began by interviewing a friend’s neighbor, ninety-one year old gardener June Edwards.  Inspired by June’s joie de vivre, Springer decided to turn the single interview into a full-fledged project.

The grant initially called for a public display, and in book form the concept retains much of the sparseness and accessibility I imagine would have inhabited the exhibit.  The photographs and the voices of the individuals are at the heart of this book, and it reads as a pure artist’s rendering.  Springer mixes mediums to offer her audience a richer story, while still allowing glimpses into the untold portions of her subjects’ pasts.  After finishing Positively Ninety, I felt a compelling desire to phone my own grandparents and to learn about their personal histories and life outlooks.  The conversation between generations is one the work freely engages in, and I find this to be one of its strongest points.

In addition to commenting on individual lives, the material also tells a story about community.  As we meet each of the nonagenarians Springer interviewed, we are also introduced to the children, spouses, neighbors, friends, places, and pastimes that have enriched and informed their ninety+ years of life.  As part of her work, Springer identified twenty common personality traits of her lively nonagenarians, many of which drew on the sense of community that both inspired and now carries the work.  Among these were being open to meeting new people, relating to younger people, being connected to friends and family, and involvement in enjoyable activities.

The combined effect is a work that is both uplifting and enlightening, a gentle reminder of the many invaluable and fascinating individuals often ignored by our society.  By allowing the voices of her subjects to render lifelike instead of probing or preaching her own agenda, Springer captures a distinct treasure-trove.  She concludes her introduction, and in many ways her quest for resolution, with this thought: “One thing is certain: from meeting these lively nonagenarians, I know now that the notion that time must inevitably inflict incapacity and despair is fundamentally wrong.”  Positively Ninety is a thoughtful book, as vital and vigorous as the generation it serves.

Bulletin: Friday Deadlines 03/25

23 Mar

This coming friday marks the deadline for submissions to the forthcoming issue of the Plum Creek Review.  They accept poetry, prose, and prose-poetry, in addition to art and drama.  From browsing their past issues they seem to lean heavily towards shorter works (i.e. poetry and prose poetry).  Those looking to publish longer fiction might submit something to the newly formed Panoply Press, which is an online literary supplement to the Oberlin Review.  This infant publication needs some help getting off the ground and is also open to submissions to community members or faculty, not just students.

Friday is also the deadline for senior creative writing majors and concentrations and minors to submit something to the senior anthology.  The information regarding submissions is listed below (copied from the creative writing department website. 

Prose Guidelines
Short fiction, creative non-fiction, novella/novel excerpt, or translation. Submit 1-20 pages. Authors of lengthy submissions may be requested to excerpt work.

Poetry Guidelines
3-5 poems or translations of poems

We will also be accepting play, screenplay, and graphic novel excerpts, following the same guidelines as prose submissions. In addition to manuscripts, please submit a brief (3-5 sentence) author bio and optional author photo. Authors should feel free to submit works from multiple categories.

Digital submissions can be sent to

I’m hoping to read some exciting student work in the coming weeks of the semester, both in the anthology and PCR.

3 days till spring break!  Woohoo!

Why Writers Should Study Abroad

21 Mar


Photo Credit

  So I did it.  I went downtown and dropped $150 to apply for a passport, I assembled and then proceeded to mail a massive packet of forms (which included a check for $300 more dollars), and now I sit at my keyboard, ultimately procrastinating on my upcoming midterms as I wait for the final confirmation that I will, in fact, be headed for Greece this summer to study abroad.

                I’m hugely excited about this opportunity, and also reasonably scared.  I’ve never left the country (no Mom, the time I went to Canada when I was a baby does not count), and before attending Oberlin I hadn’t ventured farther east than Colorado.  So when I saw the opportunity to study literature and writing through UC Davis’ Travelers in Greece program, I leaped at the chance.  On a personal level, I feel so ready for this new adventure, excited by the prospect of challenging my maturity and practical skills.  More than that, as a writer I feel the opportunity to study in another country is an invaluable one, both for the inspiration it will provide and for its impact in informing my basis in culture and literature.  Nothing highlights a writer’s origin—a writer’s understanding of the world—more than exposing that origin (and thereby its biases) to total culture shock.

                Given these things (which I took as a given, naturally), I was already preparing for that first bite of authentic Gyro.  My boyfriend, however, offered a different perspective.  He asked, why study abroad in the first place?  What does one really gain from such programs other than unquantifiable “experiences” and “personal growth”—what are the tangible payouts associated with the very real costs of such a trek across the globe?

                I began to think about this question in depth (after I got over my initial frustration at my boyfriend’s “lack of support”).  I had to concede: studying abroad will not guarantee me a publication contract.  It will not make me a national bestseller, it will not secure me admittance into that coveted spot in a MFA program next spring.  It probably will not make me read more, or make me a better reader, and I certainly doubt it will cure me of my rambling sentences. 

                The more I thought about this, however, the stronger I felt apt to stand by my initial feelings about studying abroad.  Experience and growth, though hardly measurable in a traditional cut and dry sense, seem especially salient for me as a writer.

                An old piece of advice for writers says to “write what you know.”  I bristle somewhat at the confines of this little saying—who wants to hear about my happy suburban childhood, attending private elementary and excelling at sports in high school?  (A better question: Do I want to write about this?  Answer: Not really.  I’m interested in things I don’t know, not those I already know fully.)  The simplest solution to the problem is to expand one’s set of experiences.  Even if the writing doesn’t grow to encompass those new experiences, I stand firmly by the belief that by knowing more, you are more fully able to comprehend, and therefore capture, that which is not known.  To be a quality writer, one must constantly be seeking out new experiences—whether down the street or across the ocean.

The Self Published Find their Promised Land…on The Internet

16 Mar

While browsing the archives of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine I came across an interesting article in their winter 2009 issue’s “Oberlin Writes” section.  In this article, OC class of 85 Alum Clifford Thompson discusses his self-publishing experience: “Instead of waiting for the publishing world’s elusive “Yes,” I could say “Yes” to myself; i.e., I could self-publish.”

Self-publishing, in which the writer pays to have his or her work printed, hasn’t quite ingrained itself into the mainstream writing community, probably because it doesn’t carry the sense of legitimacy that being published by an established house does.  That is to say, someone other than the author has found the work to be of quality.  In the case of the self-published author, the only meter of standards is the author himself.  If a self-published work is terrible, then it is to be expected.  And if, God-forbid, the work is a success (i.e. Eragon), a hole might very well appear in the special atmosphere breathed by the literati, exposing them all to untimely and painful deaths.  As Thomas McKenzie states on his blog,, “Some self-published authors…act like idiots and then wonder why they face such disdain.”  He goes on to argue, “When you self-publish, or go with one of the more questionable print-on-demand services, you are essentially going around [the established] system. You’re taking your ball, going home, and making up your own game in the backyard. Your game might be fun, it might be valid exercise, it might be the perfect thing for your situation, but it’s not the same way all the other kids play. And to pretend otherwise is to invite scorn and derision.”

Oberlin’s Thompson smartly addresses the stigma around self-publishing in his article.  “I find it helpful to remember that the content and value of the book do not change with each person’s reaction to hearing about it. And it is the book itself that matters.”  His concept seems to mesh perfectly with the ways in which modern modes of writing, sharing, and publishing are changing due to the Internet.  The canon of self-published authors is expanding daily as millions of loyal folks of drum happily away at their keyboards—posting to sites like wordpress, blogger, and others—because they are EAGER to share their writing with others.  Point being ultimately that publishing is in some ways entirely beside the point.  Most authors don’t introduce themselves as “published” or “self-published”; “I’m a writer” is most often sufficient and accurate.

Thompson sums it up better than anyone: “Gradually, the question becomes not ‘Why did he publish it himself?’ but ‘Is it good?’”

Framing Innocence, Writing Truth

12 Mar

When Lynn Powell was my professor a semester ago, I asked her how to get started in publishing. Her answer was not surprising, but it certainly made me think. Start in your community, build a reputation there, and move up, she advised.

At the time I hadn’t yet read her latest work, Framing Innocence. Now, with the book’s 288 pages securely under my belt, that prior conversation is ringing like a bell, because I now have a clear understanding of why community is so important to Powell.

The book, which was published in late 2010, is a detailed nonfiction account of the highly publicized and controversial prosecution of Oberlin local Cynthia Stewart, a mother and bus driver accused of creating child porn. The evidence? Several shots Stewart took of her eight-year-old daughter Nora in the bathtub. Powell follows the Stewart-family story from the shapshots through the arrest, prosecution, and eventual mixed-emotion resolution. What readers gain is a portrait of a flawed justice system, a family nearly crushed, and the vast power of a community to band together and to overcome.

Powell’s writing offers a straightforward depiction and analysis of both the legal and emotional challenges surrounding the case. Her own closeness to the family and her involvement in “The Politburo”—the name given to the community group fighting for Stewart’s acquittal—might make the reader question the objectiveness of Powell’s account, but the obvious and extensive research behind the book crushes these doubts. In fact, it is this commitment to accuracy and to the truth of writing that I found most engaging in the work.

It seems, to me at least, that Powell’s dogged determination to document the events truthfully is a means of paying homage to the ways in which writing impacted the case itself. For Powell, and for Stewart as well, writing is a means of achieving understanding (between Stewart and the prosecutors; self-understanding achieved through journaling), of pressuring for social change (newspapers and media played a strong role in the case), and of expressing an ultimate truth and goodness. I found myself dumbfounded near the end of the account when Stewart, who had been offered a diversion agreement to avoid a messy trial and potential jail time, spent weeks in negotiation with the prosecution over the exact wording of the document. “How do I explain to [my daughter] that I lied,” Stewart says at one point. “[How do I explain] that I signed my name to something that I did not believe to be true?” For these two women—Powell and Stewart—writing has tangible power and therefore comes with a strong sense of responsibility. Framing Innocence is aware of and delivers on that responsibility, restoring innocence, or at the least context, to a set of accusations that were wildly out of place. Writers, lawyers, parents, all those belonging to a community of values, ought to read and pay attention to this book.

Why Do Writers Do Just About Anything?

8 Mar

In a recent essay in the New York Times, Dan Kois tackles a somewhat unanswerable question: Why Do Writers Abandon Novels?

                I would return—Why Do Writers Do Just About Anything?  Lewis Carroll, Thomas Wolfe, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov and Ernest Hemingway reportedly all wrote standing up, while Oberlin’s own Dan Choan evidently “writes a first draft on color-coded note cards he buys at Office Max.” (Thank you, yahoo answers.)  Perhaps a still more pertinent question would be to ask, Why Do Writers Write Novels in the First Place?

                In answering Dan Kois’ original question, I can only add my personal experience.  If you looked in my computer’s documents folder, buried in a series of haphazardly organized sub-folders you would find approximately nine different novels in varying stages of incompletion.  There’s the first book I ever wrote at fourteen-years-old, the beginning of a projected seven-book fantasy series.  Add a few other ill-guided fantasy novels, two attempts at something “literary”, a hybrid historical fiction-sci fi endeavor, one very long and very boring satire, and pages of incomplete shorter fiction and non-fiction work, and I’d say I’ve easily amassed enough bad writing to stuff a lifetime of packages with shredded paper.  Why did I, as Dan Kois phrases it, abandon these novels? 

                Looking back, it’s easy to see.  By the time I finished that first fantasy novel I found that I wasn’t moved by the characters or the plot anymore—so I shifted towards something I was interested in.  In some instances, I wasn’t a good enough writer to engage with the ideas I wanted to tackle.  In other cases, the writing was on point but I wasn’t mentally or emotionally centered around the piece.  Choosing to leave a piece behind was not a mark of failure, but rather one of growth.  I had seen the piece’s shortcomings and realized that, if it still remained something I wanted to address, I would need to adjust my craft and return for another round.

                Considering how susceptible writing is to the moods and means of the writer himself, it’s a wonder anything is ever completed at all.  The writer’s compulsion for the art is perhaps the simplest answer to the second and third questions posed.  If not for the sake of compulsion, I would not have begun the second or third or fifth or ninth of those sad novels after my despair over the first.  If not for compulsion, Office Max would be fully stocked in color-coded note cards, and a whole slew of writers would have spent much more of their time sitting, probably in their time period’s equivalent of the cubicle.

Grape Sours with Latest Offering

5 Mar

I’ll admit that up until this point I had not read a single issue of Oberlin’s alternative campus paper—mostly because whenever I saw it stacked in the library my first reaction was to see who was daring enough to pose nude for the centerfold and then throw it away.  This issue features some scantily clad Emo Kids.  I should have taken it as a sign of what was to come because after reading the issue, I was left feeling very desolate and dark indeed.

                While the Review’s weekly news portions are committed by precedent to covering the top four or five campus events each week, the Grape’s looser content and space requirements ought to allow it to provide readers with longer, more-tailored,  and in-depth features.  The features section of this latest Grape falls stunningly short, however, providing only a single article, “Oberlin Then and Now”, which might actually have been noteworthy if it had been properly edited or had funneled into a novel finale.  Instead the piece meanders towards a lukewarm conclusion, and thus the section ends.

                On first glance Arts seems more promising, with a witty and effective piece on the television series Portlandia at the helm.  Delving further, Arts reveals itself to be as sloppy as the rest of the Grape—with a self-promotion article by the Sexual Information Center pasted on the second page (Is this arts?  No, this is not arts.  Buy an ad or run a small column next time.)  Concluding the section is a review of James Blake’s self-titled album, and while the writing is decent, the title prepares readers for a negative review when in fact the interpretation is quite favorable.  The Editors seem to have been asleep on this one.

                Bad Habits is perhaps the most widely read portion of the Grape, and I think they actually get something half-right here.  The snarky tone fits well with the content of public scandal, illicit drug use, and celebrity gossip, and none of the articles here were particularly jarring or painful to read; I even enjoyed several (among them, “Taco Bell: Grade D for Delicious!”)  The horoscopes which end the section are utterly pointless.  I’d rather donate that page to a new-and-improved features section in the future.

                In my opinion, the Opinion section of the Grape shouldn’t even exist.  Isn’t everything they write opinion anyway?  I can’t find a bias-free article in all 28 pages!  The majority of the works here are simply creative experiments—they don’t introduce anything to have an opinion on, or if they do, it’s something not up for much debate.  Articles falling into this category include one on the staying power of Google, another making an unclear point on internet sex predators, a brief stint that rambles off useless/commonly known information about cars, and—the worst of the bunch—an article  about minesweeper which makes a poor (and politically heinous) connection between the game and a soldier in Afghanistan being blown up by a landmine.  Correct me if I’m missing the humor.  The section’s only saving grace is Piper Stull-Lane’s piece, “I ❤ the Female Orgasm”, which points out some serious issues of gender politics surrounding the popular lecture, but his half-page isn’t enough to overshadow the other 7.5 pages of mayhem.

                I’m all for the idea of an alternative paper, because I’m all for the idea of two works of writing being in conversation with one another.  However I can’t stand by this assessment when “alternative” begins to mean sloppy, self-indulgent, and full-of-as-many-bad-words-as-possible because, oooh, we’re alternative, we can cuss and have pictures of naked people now.

Bulletin Board: Contests, Deadlines, and Reminders

5 Mar

March at Oberlin means three things. (1) Spring Break. (2) Midterms. and (3) forgetting writing deadlines because of the mad rush towards (1) and (2).

Here’s what’s coming up this month:

March 21–the creative writing department has announced this as the deadline for submissions to their annual Spring Writing Contests.  The deadline is noon at the creative writing house.  Winners to be announced in April.  Prizes range from $1,000 (one of the poetry winners) to $100 (everybody else).  I’m really kicking myself that I never took to poetry now.

March 25–the submission deadline for the Plum Creek Review.

March 31–deadline for submissions to the New York Times’ Modern Love College Essay Contest.  Winning author can receive $1,000.  If you’re doing something fun (aka expensive) for spring break, you might consider…

❤ Ariel

Where are the alumni blogs? (Don’t these people want me to follow them?)

1 Mar

If I’ve noticed anything about writers in general, it’s that they’re an awkward bunch.  This is probably the result of too much time spent in front of a computer or spiral notebook—some kind of social blindness (like snow-blindness) that comes from staring at blank pages for hours and conversing with fictional characters in one’s head.  J.D. Salinger comes to mind as the poster boy of the reclusive writer, perhaps because of recent buzz around the release of private letters that reminded us all how very little we knew about the author’s personal life.  You know a man is a hermit when the discovery of his certain penchant for BK Whoppers and Tim Henman is front-page news.  Just saying.

                The strange neuroses that plague famous writers unfortunately also afflict non-famous writers as well—unfortunately because if you’ve ever taken an undergraduate creative writing workshop you know what I mean.  [TANGENT: If you haven’t taken a workshop, or you simply aren’t convinced, imagine twelve sets of eyes pinned on you as you read aloud something you wrote last night in a sleep-deluded panic, then imagine you can’t remember what you wrote and are stumbling over your words, and after you finish reading someone asks you to pass the tin of peanuts which has unfortunately settled on your desk (whose IDEA was it to eat food during workshops anyway?  Grease all over the papers, and that one kid in the corner who talks and munches simultaneously, gross.)  Needless to say you knock the peanuts over, two people bump heads trying to clean them up, and the next one.point five hours is spent talking about someone’s fictional rendering of a sex scene when it is very obvious nobody in the room has ever had sex at all.]

                POINT BEING: Writers are a little strange and a lot terrible at small talk, with the exception of George Saunders and David Sedaris, who I imagine are actually quite funny and engaging.  I would think that the whole blogging experience would suit the other three-gajillion less-funny and far-more-awkward writers nicely.  A sort of crutch for the socially dysfunctional, if you will.  It certainly eliminates the need for face-to-face conversation.  But for some reason I can’t find a single blog maintained by an Oberlin writing alumni (except this awesome one).  Perhaps this is simply an indication of my lack of search-engine skills, but I’d rather point it at some larger failing of writer-kind…where are the blogs faithful Obies?  Don’t you want me to follow you?!

❤ Ariel