Final Class! Writing on New York City & Last Words of Publishing Advice for Now

I have been procrastinating from updating you all on our final class last week because I can’t believe the Kaleidoscope Project is over for this season! For our final discussion, we had five readings on surviving in New York from five very diverse perspectives.

Returning from last year’s syllabus, the Kenyan poet John Mbiti and Pakistani poetess Fahmida Riaz, writing in Urdu, gave us new perspectives on familiar settings in New York: our skyscrapers and our underground trains. We talked about why it’s powerful when poetry defamiliarizes elements of our everyday lives.

Mbiti is also a Christian philosopher and retired professor at the University of Bern in Switzerland. I found his poem in an anthology on Modern Poetry from Africa (if you’d like to read more African poetry, you can check it out here and here at the Schomburg in Harlem).

Riaz has dedicated her career to progressive activism in South Asia, even though her political work has permanently exiled her from Pakistan. Although it is difficult to find her poems published in English, her nonfiction on the history of Pakistan is available at the NYPL.

JM-Servin-1One student, M.L., jumpstarted our thoughts on For Love of the Dollara brand new memoir by an undocumented Mexican immigrant, J.M. Servín, by informing us of just how effectively this new voice captured her home borough’s complexity. M.L. said it’s hard to write about the Bronx because the borough is so huge and changes so much from block to block.

In his dryly humorous, enlightened memoir, which makes a little fun of James Joyce’s Irish coming-of-age novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Servín recounts arriving in the Bronx, living undocumented, and struggling to make money in the service sector in the early 1990s.

Next to the immigrant, Argentine feminist Luisa Valenzuela‘s flash fiction, “Who, Me a Bum?” brought us into the mindset of another familiar urban stock character– the homeless person. (Much of her fiction is available in both English and Spanish.)

image439Her protagonist’s descent in social status, from a Spanish teacher to a proverbial “bum,” sparked an interesting conversation for us about the contradictions of public and private life in the city. Even though millions of people are in unimaginably close physical proximity all the time, almost everyone is visibly uncomfortable with the slightest emotional intimacy, like eye contact. In Valenzuela’s hands, homelessness becomes an ironic extended metaphor for loss of identity and privacy– everything about his life is public, yet his humanity is invisible to everyone.

We struggled a bit with another image-heavy, place-based poem, the late St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott‘s “Bleecker Street, Summer.” Together we worked through how and why poetry is an exceptional form for communicating feelings like elation, desire, and sorrow in abstract ways– language that often defies the logical conventions of narrative and storytelling. Poems can be frustrating for this reason, but as J.B., another student, mentioned, their uncertainty “multiplies their interpretations and meanings.” Thus poetry, even when aggravatingly opaque, is unique for reopening our minds to glimpse new ideas on each read.

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Considered the greatest poet laureate of the West Indies, Walcott died at the age of 87 this past March. The New York Public Library has many copies of his works for you to borrow.

Here is our final slideshow of chalkboard notes; you might also be interested to peruse last year’s class notes on New York.

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Walcott’s elusive poem allowed us to segue into the only craft talk on writing and publishing poetry this semester, which I led with my own experiences. Although I forgot to mention it in class, my poetry career officially started with winning the Kathryn Irene Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Competition. Those of you attending college in the Northeast (cough, J.N. at Smith and M.K. at Hunter next year!) should keep an eye out for it at Mount Holyoke College, the all women’s/Seven Sisters school where the competition is held every year. (Their winners’ list is the only Wikipedia page on which my name appears.)

My Mount Holyoke victory launched me into the most (to be frank, only) energetic period of publishing poetry in my short life so far. Here are the bare remnants: “Jazzmeen Autry,” a poem on Word Riot; “The Wrong Way,” creative nonfiction about my adolescence on The Cynic; and “Missing Persons,” the printed poem you read from Descant, a Canadian literary journal that, I just learned, officially shut its doors in 2015.

The fact that I have not lifted a finger to publish a poem in 5+ years is a mistake you yourself should not repeat. Here’s a recap of other advice for publishing poetry specifically:

  • Collect your poems in batches. Think in twos or threes or fives. Editors will often want to read/consider publishing multiple short poems at once, and the poems you send them should share a clear link– a theme, a stylistic device, and/or a tone.
  • Set quantitative goals to keep yourself on track. At this point, I would have been better off if I’d forced myself to sacrifice even one full day a year to formatting, printing, and mailing out poetry manuscripts to literary journals. For your stage in your careers right now, I recommended setting a goal that feels reasonable– sending out one poem (or set) every six months, for example.
  • Should I double dip? In other words, should (or can) you send the same poem to multiple editors? Technically, the answer is no, you shouldn’t. But in practice, it can take 8-12 months to hear back from a submission, and it seems insane to sit on a good piece for that long, right? So my advice is to keep track of any multiples you send out. Create a spreadsheet of dates, contacts, magazine names, and relevant details (formatting requirements, numbers of copies requested, etc.), so that you don’t forget when and where you sent work to. Then, be ready to either accept or reject a premature offer from a potentially lower-ranked publication. You should also be prepared to rescind that work from any publications that show interest in it after you’ve given the first journal the go-ahead; you are not legally allowed to publish the same work in two different magazines.
  • Reserve time for the post office. Poetry publishing is weirdly archaic; many print magazines (and even some online ones) still expect to receive hard copies of poems for review through snail mail.
  • Decide for yourself how much money you’re willing to spend on your early publishing endeavors. This is going to sound unthinkable, but some magazines not only refuse to pay contributors but also REQUIRE a “reading fee” (usually ranging from $10-20) to consider work. Yes, that means you’re not only paying them to publish your poem, but also potentially paying them to reject your poem. Why is the world like this? In short, because poetry is a poor industry, as we talked about in class. The genre literally doesn’t have the entertainment capital to generate any profit whatsoever, so publishers counterintuitively need to rely on impoverished poets, the source of all their material, for survival. It’s a vicious, cannibalistic cycle.
  • But don’t lose heart! Just don’t become a poet to make money. Thinking of poetry as your economic livelihood would be ludicrous; making money off poetry (at least, in a dignified fashion) is nearly impossible. Take, for example, this blog post on ways to make money on writing poetry, which enumerates some truly depressing suggestions, like exploiting your own talent at a greeting card company. But I think the lesson in all this is simple:
    • If you DO make some money, consider it a pleasant, humbling surprise– not a rule. I was unspeakably thrilled when I learned my publication in Descant came with $100 Canadian, and there ARE still magazines that pay poets to publish. You’ll be most eligible for publication in these titles once you reach a slightly later stage in your career (start trying in college).
    • Otherwise, think of poetry as art you must write because it nourishes your soulYes, the tendency to associate poetry with “high art” is a little elitist, but really, like I told you in class, I don’t write poetry because I want to be famous. I write poetry because I can’t not do it, and sometimes, a message that I wrote for my own consolation just happens to inspire someone else if I let it go public.
  • The best action you can take now is to start gaining publishing credits. The more publishing credits you’ve listed on your job resumé, the more likely you will be to get published more frequently. And the better known your name is in the literary public sphere– even if you made zero cash getting your name out there– the more likely you will be to land the actual book deal, which usually involves a monetary contract (here’s an exhaustive but trustworthy rundown of all that nitty gritty business stuff).

“But HOW do I get started?!” you ask. Tap into the resources at your fingertips!

  • Check out the Publishing Opportunities and Writing Awards for Teens pages on this website. The magazines listed here are purposely geared towards teen audiences (which means those of you who are under age 18 would have an easier time getting published even though you are not legally adults yet). Awards also amplify your public persona, even if they’re not tantamount to publication.
  • Email peers you know who HAVE already been published, like Rahat– your new peer mentor who just visited us a couple weeks ago! You can email her anytime for tips on how she got her writing resumé started. And if you know other published young writers at school, consider asking them to share their success stories with you over coffee. I know personally that it can be very difficult to replace jealousy (a natural feeling) with earnest curiosity, especially when you’re comparing yourself to someone high-achieving in your own peer group. But your equals know best how to help you succeed!
  • Choose ONE favorite poet, preferably one whose style reminds you of your own, and reverse-engineer his/her/their career. Where was this person born, and when? What schools did they go to? What kinds of life events did they encounter before they published their first book? How old were they when they first published their poetry, and in what magazines? Are the magazines still around today? Peering into the backstories of your favorite poet or writer might not only give you new ideas for where you want to go to college someday but also clue you in on titles of magazines and websites that might also be willing to consider your work. Less practically, gaining some perspective on how long it takes to become truly “successful” might calm your anxieties about whether it’s taking you too long.

Thank you all for such a magical summer. Here are the class pictures we took last week, and I hope to see you all at our closing open mic this Thursday, 6:30-8pm! Check your emails for details about the location.

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Special Guests: Storyteller Sahar Ullah and Kaleidoscope Alum Rahat Huda

Last Thursday’s extended class session was supposed to cover race and prejudice, with interludes from two very special guests on storytelling and success. However, our visitors, Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah, co-founder of The Hijabi Monologues, and Rahat Huda, an accomplished Kaleidoscope alum, were so generous with their time and knowledge that we put the syllabus aside for the day. So, be prepared to discuss two readings from last week on race (Morrison & Ribeyro) and two from this week on disability (to be voted on in class) in TOMORROW’S session (rescheduled from this Thursday) at our normal time, 6:30-8pm, but WEDNESDAY, July 18.

Sahar talked to us about how the Hijabi Monologues grew out of her desire for a venue where Muslim American women could tell their own stories. Playing off Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, each hijabi monologue spotlights a different character’s personal experience of religion, race, gender, sexuality, and xenophobia in the U.S. To start her talk, Sahar showed us “I’m Tired,” a monologue whose themes resonate for many young people. She wrote “I’m Tired” and other monologues while studying abroad at the American University of Cairo in Egypt.

Sahar described living in Cairo as “the first time I was seeing the U.S. from the outside, and how violent the U.S. was.” She had never lived without family before, though she acquired her bachelor’s degree at the University of Miami (with a triple major in religious studies, political science, and English literature!) and her master’s degree at the University of Chicago. Watching cheesy family dramas on TV in Cairo, she realized for the first time “how we do violence very well in the United States.” Meanwhile, she was also experiencing what it felt like to blend in for the first time; earnestly wondering about her ancestral roots, strangers would ask her, “Where are you really from?” The freedom not to perform a perfect stereotype of Muslim femininity liberated her to express negative feelings like aggression and indignation in public– another first.

Upon returning to the U.S., Sahar became frustrated with professors who were interested in studying the Middle East and yet behaved uncomfortably around her in general. “Why are you so interested in the subject of ‘Muslim,’ but you’re not interested in me?” she wanted to know. Her experiences gave her the idea to create a platform where Muslim women could give voice to the everyday, insidious psychological violence they sustain.

In the U.S., her team has overcome many hurdles both from within and outside the Muslim community during public performances. At a prominent Miami bookstore where the unapologetically outspoken Jamaican-Chinese poet Staceyann Chin (whose poem, “Homophobia,” was assigned for last week’s readings on race) had just performed the week prior, the manager cut out the microphone for the Hijabi Monologues performance when a white patron complained about Muslim women cursing on stage. In another performance in Washington, DC, Sahar had to concede to bleeping out the F-word with a bike horn to quell the public’s discomfort over Muslim women “behaving badly.”

Within the Muslim American community, the Hijabi Monologues have provoked both enmity and empathy in unexpected ways. Audiences demand to witness either the “real Islam”– i.e., terrorism, ISIS, etc.– or Muslim women as devoted saints, angels of the household. Sahar described keeping secret a monologue titled “Light on My Face,” in which a hijabi woman decides not to keep a pregnancy conceived outside of marriage, because she “didn’t want the Muslim community to feel betrayed, but also wanted to make sure women had a breathing space.” To her surprise, whereas some female viewers bristled at other women not being represented piously, many elders– notably, one older man who “was the image of the stereotypical Muslim male who would be oppressive and unsympathetic to women’s experience”– regularly thank Sahar for constructing such a complex vision of Muslim femininity.

Writing about serious, sensitive issues from a humorous perspective also carries real risks, she warned. “We know our communities best, so we know how to make fun of our communities best,” she said. But she also named numerous instances when risk incurred costs. In one, a director tried to convince Sahar to perform only “Light on My Face” for a segment in her film because, in the documentarian’s words, “it’s not every day you hear about Muslim girls getting knocked up;” Sahar was relieved when the Hijabi Monologues didn’t appear in the film at all.

Xenophobia against Muslims long presaged 9/11, Sahar explained. She remembered a hate-mongering film called Obsessionwhich attested to “how inherently violent Muslims are,” being freely distributed in her part of Florida, and then a mosque being gas-mobbed in Ohio; in the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, a boy at school named Hussein became Omar to disidentify himself from Saddam Hussein; and even with Malcolm X popularizing the Nation of Islam as early as the 1950s, non-Muslim Americans have all too easily conflated religion with fanatical terrorism, and Islam with any non-white races.

Sahar recently finished her higher education with a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia. Now she is working on a production of the Hijabi Monologues to be staged in London, England this September. If you’re curious to see more of the monologues, like “Hitting on a Hijabi” (a nice analog to Junot Díaz’s “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” from a couple weeks ago), subscribe to their YouTube stream.

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Our second but no less esteemed guest, and first “TA for the day” this semester, Rahat Huda graduated from Stuyvesant High School this spring and the Kaleidoscope Project’s inaugural cohort last summer. A new initiative for the 2017 Kaleidoscope Project, TAs for the day are alums who return to our summer workshop to pass on tried-and-true methods for achieving success in high school and college applications; in some cases, they are willing to become peer mentors for new K-scopers pursuing the college process.

Recipient of regional gold key and national gold medal awards from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which current Kaleidoscope students may want to apply to this winter, Rahat was also a mentee and intern at Girls Write Now, a nonprofit that supports aspiring teen women writers in New York City. This fall, she will be attending Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont as a Posse Scholar, a nationwide scholarship program that funds tuition in full at partner universities and provides young scholars a “posse,” a diverse group of talented peers, in which to navigate college together.

Rahat shared her insights alongside Julissa Nuñez and Milana Khaitova, two college-bound high school graduates currently in the Kaleidoscope Project who will be attending Smith College in Northampton, MA and Hunter College in New York City, respectively, this fall. Most of their takeaways are captured in the slideshow above, but here are the practical lessons that really stayed with me:

Visiting College Campuses

  • Ideally, you would visit colleges that interest you this summer and fall.
  • To find out information for applications and campus visits, type in keywords like the name of the college that interests you and “admissions” or “campus tour” into Google.
  • Campus tours are free; you could sign yourself up for one at Columbia before class, for example.
  • Colleges also often host high school students with current undergraduates for free in dorms during the school year.
  • However, colleges are hardly ever willing to pay for a student’s transportation to/from their location. If you want to visit a campus farther away but you and your family don’t have the financial means to do so, here are some alternatives to consider:
    • Ask your high school guidance counselor about whether your school has any funding for college visits, which might not be widely publicized.
    • Focus on visiting different kinds of colleges in the New York metropolitan area, which you can visit easily and which will give you a sense of how different kinds of college campuses feel. Granted, the overcrowded space of the city distorts size for everything, but take this grouping as an example:
    • Once you’ve visited different kinds of universities, you’ll have some sense of what to expect of an academic space based on its type, even if you can’t visit a school in person because it’s far away or in another state.
    • You can also look up photos of universities that interest you (especially Google Earth) and check out their social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube) to get a sense of a campus’s personality.

Letters of Recommendation

  • If you’ll be entering your final year of high school this fall and haven’t already requested letters of recommendation from teachers, you should make a plan for doing so ASAP.
  • Choose recommenders who a) know you and your most recent work best (focus on junior and maybe sophomore year) and b) can either attest to your strengths in your intended major OR comment positively on your performance across the humanities and sciences, if you’re still figuring out what you want to study.
  • If you have your teacher’s email address, you should politely request a recommendation over the summer (if you want feedback on a draft of a request, email it to me first!).
  • If you’ll need to wait until school recommences, ready your pitch and make a plan for checking off this box by the first week of school.

Other Application Requirements

  • If you struggle with standardized tests, consider prioritizing applications to schools that don’t even require test scores for admission.
  • Write a personal statement that spotlights the values, mindset, and personality you would contribute to the community– not unlike the “What makes you different?” question you answered to get into the Kaleidoscope Project! And remember, both Rahat and I are willing and eager to give feedback on personal statement drafts! Make it a personal goal to get a draft to one of us by the end of the summer.
  • If an on-campus interview is required, capitalize on it as an opportunity to explain any obvious gaps in your academic performance and/or resumé.
  • Instead of spreading your resumé thin (community service! internships! honors! clubs!), think about your interests in terms of academic engagement and leadership skills. You don’t need to have a resumé a mile long– you just need to do a few things you really care about really well, and be able to talk about your passions compellingly!
  • This summer, double-check whether your favorite colleges require any supplementary essays. You should devote nearly the same amount of care and polish to supplementary essays as you do to the personal essay you submit for your Common Application.

Financial Aid & Scholarships

  • Look into national scholarship applications early and create a spreadsheet for keeping track of deadlines, application requirements, and benefits (ex: “full scholarship” is a wishy-washy term– for some, it actually means full tuition but not room and board is covered, whereas others cover everything).
    • Some scholarships, like Posse, have prerequisites, like being nominated for consideration in the scholarship in the first place. If you’re interested in being nominated as a Posse Scholar, talk to me or Rahat, who both have connections that could benefit you.
    • Questbridge is very similar to Posse, emphasizing inclusivity and leadership as central values, and it also covers room and board; however, not all Questbridge Scholars get to attend their “first choice” of college, because awards are prioritized based on a “match system” (meaning, a student who names a less prestigious college in the Questbridge network as their first choice has a much better shot at receiving a scholarship than the student who lists only Ivy Leagues).
  • Kaleidoscope Project students are especially lucky for being New York State residents! Not only are there many kinds of need-based college aid for NY residents, but by the time some of you apply to high school (2019?), Governor Cuomo’s recently pledged Excelsior Scholarship, promising free in-state tuition for students from families making less than $125,000/year, should be in effect.
  • Private universities, especially small liberal arts colleges, can be less generous with financial aid at first because the sizes of their endowments vary (an “endowment” basically refers to the college’s investment fund– the amount of money, largely from donations, it has to devote to all necessary costs, like professors’ salaries and students’ financial aid). If a private school is your top choice, but their “financial aid packages,” the combination of scholarships, grants, loans, and work-studies they assemble for you, are less than stunning, don’t give up! Do your research:
    • Merit-based scholarships are often specific to certain institutions, so you should look up possibilities for your favorite colleges this summer– especially if their merit scholarships require different deadlines and additional essays. Google the name of the school and “merit scholarship” to locate resources. Some colleges automatically consider every applicant, with no additional effort, for merit-based scholarships based on essays, transcripts, and standardized test scores.
    • Of course, there are also athletic scholarships as well; if you’re a top-notch athlete, you should talk to your coach about how to be scouted for a scholarship.
    • Keep an eye out for colleges that identify as need-blind” or “need-sensitive.” There are catches to both identifications.
      • “Need-blind” means that your financial need won’t factor into your eligibility in the admission committee’s eyes, which is good because it means you can’t be rejected immediately for your socioeconomic background. However, “need-blind” also does not guarantee that the college can fully remit a student’s demonstrated financial need, so many students who are accepted often find themselves choosing less costly options anyway.
      • “Need-sensitive,” on the other hand, means that financial need can be reason for a school rejecting an applicant. But at the same time, acceptance of a high-need applicant means the school is more willing to remunerate the full cost of the need the student has demonstrated.
      • In short, if you apply to a need-blind school and can’t get them to give you a full ride despite having no college savings, don’t be discouraged; consider any loan (especially government loans, which are much more stable than private for-profit lenders) and work-study options the university offers you alongside grants (which you never have to pay back). On the other hand, if you don’t get into a need-sensitive school despite being a high achiever, don’t beat yourself up about it– it very well might be that the school just couldn’t provide the financial backing you needed from them.
    • Don’t be afraid to call up the Financial Aid Office at your favorite school and ask about whether there are any funding options you’re not aware of.
      • Ask your guidance counselor or parent for help if you’re nervous about making the call yourself.
      • Be prepared to make your case for why you really want to attend this school. You need to make it clear that would be an outstanding addition to their community but simply can’t afford the tuition with the financial aid package they’ve initially calculated. Be diplomatic, patient and earnest, not demanding and aggravated (even though the money situation is stressful).
      • Upon calling, if the Financial Aid Office won’t budge on reviewing the package they’ve offered you, you might learn you qualify for a first-come, first-serve funding pool, like the Higher Education Opportunity Program (specific to New York State) or another institution-based “opportunity program,” which have been devised by universities in recent years to accept more students from underrepresented backgrounds.
  • Remember, it is extremely common for colleges to refuse financial aid for room and board, which seems hypocritical. What college student goes to college without living and eating in the dorms? And why does living and eating in the dorms have to cost ~$10,000-12,000 on average? But again, don’t give up hope; student loans are becoming an increasingly common (and therefore, normal) financial burden for young adults to shoulder, and there are A LOT of bumpers built into loan repayment plans to help you manage your debt.
    • For example, a “grace period” straight after college suspends your loans for long enough for you to get a job.
    • If you continue your schooling with a master’s degree or Ph.D., your loans go into “deferral”— meaning, you have a certain time period wherein you do not have to be paying on your undergraduate loans since you’re still studying (and not making much money– this is the situation I’m currently in).
    • Income-based repayment plans” allow you to adjust your monthly loan payments to align with a reasonable amount you should be expected to pay, based on your salary.
    • Consolidating” your loans can vastly diminish the “interest” over time (racking up “interest” is the most expensive element of any kind of debt– it’s the additional monthly fee the bank charges you for not having the debt fully paid).
    • In general, $30,000 is the amount of loan debt the average American student carries right now. I just looked up my own balance, and it’s $42,181.17— 140% of the national average! On the one hand, the number terrifies me. On the other hand, you’ve seen me: I’m living my best life in New York City, far from starving or homelessness, and I’ve been privileged with an education fifteen-year-old me would never have known to even dream up.

The bottom line is this: if you really want a college– and the college really wants YOU too— you’ll figure money out. Get in first, then worry about the rest!

Besides this blog post, don’t forget the college preparation resources available in the “menu” dropdown for this blog:

Whew, that was a lot, huh? I’ll see you for our rescheduled class TOMORROW, Wednesday, July 19, 6:30-8pmremember, bring back reading packets for both race and disabilityAnd our deepest thanks go to Sahar and Rahat again for sharing so much with us.

“I always felt like a New Yorker with an asterisk” – Talking with Novelist Patricia Park, and Readings on Immigration

Patricia Park, a novelist and proud denizen of Queens, visited our class to talk about beginnings, writing, and growing up as a “New Yorker with an asterisk.” In other words, she was a Korean-American kid from one outer borough who traveled four hours across the island every day to her high-ranked high school in another borough, Bronx Science.

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“Queens pride was an oxymoron,” she joked. “It felt like Queens reluctance.” Patricia went on to explain how her childhood in Flushing has long influenced her New York imaginary and inspired her to set her debut novel, Re Jane (Penguin, 2016), in her hometown (even though F. Scott Fitzgerald, the famous author of The Great Gatsby, once called it “the valley of ashes”).

Her passion for creative writing actually started at Columbia University’s summer immersion program for high school students. (As an aside, every year, both Columbia and Barnard offer one- to four-week summer courses for high school students within and beyond New York City. Each program also awards limited need-based financial aid, with at least one full scholarship per cohort. Applications are finished for this year, but sign up on Columbia’s mailing list or Barnard’s mailing list if you want updates about deadlines for next summer.)

Psychoanalyzing her fellow New Yorkers on her arduous daily commute developed Patricia’s sense of character. Moreover, her ambition to write “the Great Queens American Novel” as the child of immigrants from Argentina and North and South Korea collided with her love for the Victorian novelist Charlotte Brontë’s titular protagonist in Jane Eyre. A self-proclaimed “eyrehead” (get the pun?), Patricia found sympathy in a heroine who described herself as “poor obscure, plain, and little.”

After treating us to an invigorating reading of Re Jane, which took about ten years to write and is now in development for a television show with Paramount and TV Land, Patricia shared survival advice for young writers and students alike. On the question of writing, here are some prompts she mentioned for livening up your creativity:

  • Show, don’t tell; it’s too obvious for a writer to say exactly what she/he/they feel. So, try describing a scene or character in a way that conveys emotion rather than making didactic statements like, “I feel that…,” “She was sad…,” etc.
  • Challenge the stereotype of the other within your community– the “minority within a minority.” Patricia explained that Jane wasn’t simply a reflection of her own coming-of-age experience, but rather a composite of herself and a mixed-race child who would have been stigmatized for having a white father.
  • For a writing exercise, draw up an inventory of everything in a fictional character’s fridge or freezer. Zooming in on small and obscure details develops character in original and interesting ways. Food reflects not only a character’s social class and age, but also his/her/their personality– organized or messy, strange or conventional, healthy or excessive.
  • For another writing exercise, pen diary entries from a fictional character’s point of view with focused prompts like, “What was this character’s eighth birthday like?” Answering seemingly random questions deepens a character’s history, personal memory, and present-day reality.

Perhaps even more valuable was the unique perspective on college that Patricia was able to offer as a fellow New Yorker. She admitted initially feeling alienated and adrift at her alma mater, Swarthmore College. Her peers were not just mostly white, but “not even New York white– instead, blond-haired, blue-eyed white.”

“At Swarthmore, I felt like I was in a foreign country without a passport,” she went onto say. She warned Kaleidoscope students to beware of “over-negating yourself” when under pressure to reconcile the intellectual insecurities that might initially accompany college. She also “tried out a lot of different states of being” to explore herself in such a foreign space, and ultimately, she came back to being a New Yorker.

Finally she affirmed the need to get your version of your story out there. She recollected feeling “otherized” by a radio show host in upstate New York who wanted to reduce her experience to stereotypes and described holding fast to her interpretation of Jane’s story in order to keep the truth visible.

Before Patricia arrived, and of the four readings on immigration assigned for this week– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck” (short story, Nigeria), M. Evelina Galang’s “Lectures on How You Never Lived Back Home” (short story, U.S./Philippines), Gary Schteyngart, “Dystopia” (personal essay, U.S./Russia), and R.M. Drake’s sidewalk poetry (Colombia)– we had time to discuss two, Adichie’s and Schteyngart’s.

For more background on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose short story appears in a collection of the same title, The Thing Around Your Neck, check out last year’s blog post on immigration.

Jewish novelist and essayist Gary Schteyngart was born in Russia and emigrated to Queens as a child. The essay we read was part of an “aftermath” collection post-Trump’s election in the New Yorker. We appreciated his essay’s rueful but honest attitude towards the ubiquity of racism among ethnic enclaves against other “tribes” across New York.

Below, check out our notes on the writing strategies that made both these pieces successful in our minds:

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This week, we tackle religion! If you missed last Thursday’s class, here are the reading packet and writing prompts, under the header for religion.

Also, begin thinking up a pseudonym if you’re under 18! Even if you are 18, you might want to use an alias anyway to maintain your privacy in class. I’ll be showing you how to post to the blog in class this week.

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s Visit & Kscope Seminar on Gender

Last week, Kaitlyn Greenidge, the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin, 2016), visited us to talk about her path to publication. Currently she is a contributing writer to Lenny Letter, Lena Dunham’s website, and a professor at Bennington College in Vermont (this fall, a professor at the New School as well!). If you want to read her novel but can’t afford to buy it, check out the copy at your local library.

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For those of you who couldn’t make the session, here’s an undoubtedly inadequate recap. Kaitlyn started her story across the street from our classroom at Barnard College, though she ultimately transferred to Wesleyan for her history major. The start of her writing career was fraught with ambivalence. On the one hand, she loved researching history, especially oral history, and considered being a Ph.D.; indeed, she applied to and rejected offers from programs more than once! But she was also stumbling upon prestigious offers in the writing world– the chance to intern at The Atlantic, and, ultimately, to enroll in the Master’s of Fine Arts program at CUNY’s Hunter College.

Kaitlyn Greenidge chatting over pizza with K-scopers:

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At Hunter, Kaitlyn got the chance to work as a writing assistant for Colson Whitehead, whose novel, The Underground Railroad, won the 2016 National Book Award. In the end, her own novel took about eight years to finish– six years of active writing, two years of waiting for printing after the contract was signed. But earlier this year, she sold the novel’s movie rights, so keep an eye out for it in theaters for the next few years!

Of all the instructive writing advice Kaitlyn gave, here are a few favorites I wrote down:

  • “Once the heat of being excited cools away, it’s time for objectivity.” Take a step back– or even better, two weeks– away from your project so that you can come back and reassess your work with a clear head.
  • “Be concrete in your criticism,” whether you’re critiquing your own work or someone else’s; in other words, identify specific moments, phrases, and ideas to rework, not big-picture generalizations about whether you think the piece is “good” or not.
  • Read widely, as much as possible, and especially from other countries (as we’ll be doing for the next six weeks! Aren’t you lucky?). Kaitlyn pointed out a statistic I didn’t know– that only 1 percent of the world’s literature is translated and available in the US, which means we have way less access to ideas from other places than they have to American literature.
  • Distinguish between realism and cliche. Just because a story’s been told before doesn’t mean your telling of it won’t be authentic. A familiar story that explores the complexity and dimension of a character, and makes the reader feel the emotional impact of a conflict on the character’s life, may be a realistic story, but it does not have to be a cliche.
  • If you are worried about cliche nevertheless, remember that cliche is a language problem– a repetitive phrase that has no original meaning, like “it’s raining cats and dogs.” If you keep your language fresh, your story will also be bereft of cliches.
  • “A novel is just a big book with a lot of mistakes in it.” So don’t get hung up on imperfections! Just keep generating the material.
  • If you’re feeling stuck for how to start, create an outline and then leave behind the introduction to tackle another scene that you do feel able to grasp right now.
  • Let your readers figure out some things on their own. Don’t feel compelled to demystify every complexity for them.
  • When you go to edit a draft, print it out in a different font so that it feels like a different story! You can also print it in landscape format with two columns so that it looks like an actual book.
  • If a character starts to feel boring, research experiences they would have had; “looking at images of a place” can also “prompt the imagination.”
  • Never worry about being offensive. Kaitlyn herself “doesn’t believe in likable characters.” The character who’s messing up is the one who most likely reflects our own complexities and imperfections!

Once Kaitlyn bid farewell, we devoted our last hour to discussing two of three readings for this week. Lysley Tenorio’s “The Brothers” follows the kind of unlikable character Kaitlyn vouched for; the protagonist, a Filipino adult, is called home to help manage his brother– now, his sister– Erica’s unexpected funeral. Erica has died from an asthma attack and had undergone gender reassignment surgery– a source of shame for his traditional family, and which they try to suppress. However, exposure to Erica’s closest friend, Raquel, prompts the transphobic surviving brother to rethink his disgust for his sister’s gender identity.

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And here are more tactics for storytelling that you might adopt from Lysley Tenorio.

Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” heralds from Antigua and is taught in high school classrooms with increasing frequency (finally!). This flash fiction tracks a young girl’s growing, internalized aggression as she withstands belittling commands from her family’s matriarchs to act, think, and be a certain way as a woman.

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Here are some strategies you can tackle in your own writing. Thanks, Jamaica Kincaid!

The text we didn’t get to discuss in person was Lee Mokobe’s untitled poem about being a transman in South Africa. View his spoken word here! Only twenty years old, he is the youngest TED Talk speaker in history and, impressively, also the founder of Vocal Revolutionaries, an organization that empowers young people to speak out against injustice in Cape Town, South Africa. He is also the newest addition to the Kaleidoscope syllabus, so don’t miss his video.

Tomorrow, we gear up to discuss language politics in three poems from Myung Mi Kim, Sandra Maria Esteves, and Carol Lee Sanchez. Here are the writing prompts and the packet of readings if you want to join in!

Sandra Maria Esteves, “Not Neither” (US/Dominican Republic/Puerto Rico) | Write a free-verse confessional poem about your relationship to your language, whether you identify primarily with English or not. Remember, in a confessional poem, the speaker exposes something deep and honest about his/her own relationship to the topic (which, in this case, is language). If you speak languages other than English, consider interjecting non-English words at key moments in the poem. You might also insert “insider” cultural references or non-standard English into your poem. Don’t worry too much about whether your transitions “make sense;” just go with the flow of your own language!

Carol Lee Sanchez, “Tribal Chant” (US/Laguna Native American Tribe) | Write your own song about who you are and where you’re from. If you speak languages other than English, feel free to mix two or more languages together. Consider incorporating a refrain to repeat the sentiments that are most important to you.

Myung Mi Kim, “Cosmography” (US/South Korea)| Write your own conceptual poem about your relationship to language and culture. Remember, conceptual poetry defies the logical, linear conventions of narrative form; you can string any words, phrases, and rhymes together to make meaning. Use blank space and order your words in unique, visual configurations to catch your reader’s attention. Consider including another alphabet if you know a language other than English.