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Reading is Gilded in the Golden State

29 Apr

A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll about the reading habits of Californians found, interestingly enough, that 80% of dwellers in the Golden State read a book in the last month, and that a full quarter of the population reported reading a book a week!

If this is actually the case, then I’m a poor representative of my state.  And I love reading!

I have a strong feeling the poll numbers overrepresent the actual reading habits of Californians, for two simple reasons. 

(1) Californians are BUSY,  despite a stereotype of laid-backness.  Try to drive anywhere in So Cal (aka Southern California, aka the evil empire) and you will know what I’m talking about. 

(2) Californians are trendy people (or at least they think they are!).  In a strange way, reading is trendy.  I might actually believe the poll if it were conducted in wine country, but LA is in a weird kind of competition with New York City and the appearance of being well-read is a rich commodity in that competition.

What would be a more interesting study, I think, is to figure out what kinds of books Californians read, and compare those books to what’s being read in other states.  Do those living on the west coast read more nutrition/healthy living books than those in eastern or northern states?  Is genre romance more popular in certain regions of the country than others?  Are there certain books that are universally read?  I think the feedback from such a study would be surprising, and could make a good sociological paper!


A Quiet Voice–Reading by Layli Long Soldier

18 Apr

Layli Long Soldier captivated obies with her short reading at Slow Train this past Sunday.

          Photo Credit

  This past evening, Sunday April 17th, I had the great pleasure of listening to a poetry reading at Oberlin’s Slow Train Café by Layli Long Soldier as part of the Multicultural Resource Center’s Indigenous Women’s Series.

I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much.  As I’ve said in various other ways on this blog, listening to poetry often makes me feel incredibly stupid.  I guess I wasn’t blessed with the sort of mind that associates words and sounds and images, or that can follow a string of these images and sounds into some other transcendental space.  Then again, I have a feeling any sort of true poet would laugh at that last sentence, because I’ve always been sort of wary of poets—I get the sense that some of them get a great kick out of standing up in front of a group of raptly attentive individuals, spouting off long lists of adjectives that supposedly mean something.  It just always seems like there’s some joke I’m not getting.  Although to circle back, this mentality is probably the child of a severe insecurity my ficton-writerly self has with my failed-poet-writerly self.  And if I am going to keep rambling I might as well just condense all of that into a single sentence, which would be that my real problem with poetry is that I think too much and that I don’t just listen, don’t simply feel.

Long tangent aside—Layli’s reading.  This was both my first reading of the semester, and also my first visit to Slow Train, so I decided to commemorate the occasion by purchasing hot chocolate, an iced coffee (for the boyfriend) and one of every type of baked good Slow Train sells.  Thirteen bucks later, I nestled into the lone empty corner (hidden behind a speaker; I had to poke my head around the corner to watch Layli read, which brings up the interesting topic of why this was necessary—wasn’t I just coming to listen?  But the reading was also a visual experience, and that in itself could be a whole new post.) and allowed Layli’s poetry to carry me away.

Her poetry is striking in the way it deals with words and their meanings, both on paper and in a deeper sense, in the sense that words both define and cannot define things.  Her poetry captures the pains of the body, of motherhood and fatherhood, of a spiritual relationship between the past and present, and of memory, and of definition.  I can say that I was moved by her rhythmic reading and her quietly shaking hands—an unassuming reminder that she was in many ways like me.  Her poetry was not an exclusive joke and did not make me feel stupid, rather it was heartfelt, something she was both excited and nervous to share.


Layli Long Soldier, Oglala Lakota, is a graduate of the creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her family is from northwestern Idaho and the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. She has served as editor-in-chief of the “Native Language Network” and other publications for the Indigenous Language Institute. She is a two-time recipient of the Truman Capote Scholarship Award. She is also writer/guitarist for “M=Water” and mother of a five-year old daughter, Chance White.

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?’”

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.

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