DSL

As I enter the last week of my study abroad experience, I’ve been thinking a lot about Scotland. Things I love about it, things I may not miss, things that are simply unique to my time here.

I’m currently sitting in my hall’s study lounge: it’s completely empty, and quiet, given that 90% of the hall has already evacuated for summer break. While it’s sad to see everyone go, I can’t help but relish this last sweet taste of serenity before leaving on Sunday. I have the desk by the window, and I can see for miles—the rain from the day has cleared, and seagulls scoop over the sun-cut beach.

I love it here.

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Also, unequivocally the best sunset I have ever witnessed in my twenty-one years on this earth.

Last weekend, I had the amazing opportunity to go touring through the Scottish Highlands—my first real introduction to Scotland as a whole, as late as it was. On the tour were three Chinese students, two Australians, and three people from New Zealand. Not only was this an experiment in cultural differences, but it was an exciting way to experience the Highlands. We were all so new to the sights, we got to share in the wonder of it together.

Our guide, a roguish Scottish guy with more than a few bad jokes up his sleeve, cautioned us early on that on our trip we would inevitably fall prey to the errant beast called DSL: Deep Scottish Love. He warned us that anyone traveling through the Highlands was bound to be struck at some point, and that the best course of action was to either take a shot of whisky or snog the nearest member of the tour group.

We didn’t do any of that (or, at least, I’m not going to disclose it to you), but we all eventually slipped into that love he was describing.

I realize I’ve been slipping for a long time.

It might have been the first time I landed in Edinburgh, when I first encountered the Scottish accent I so adore. Or on the drive to my home in St. Andrews, when I looked out the window and saw an old stone ruin randomly standing in the middle of some fields.

Not an uncommon sight, I've learned.

Not an uncommon sight, I’ve learned.

Certain things like that make this place absolutely magical.

I may be over-glorifying this simply because it’s in a different country, or because I’m the only one here to witness it, or because I just needed change from my life in Iowa. But it’s not only the landscapes and seascapes that have given me the tinglings of DSL. Some tiny differences have tickled me right from the start.

For example, words and phrases. One of my favorite parts about living here has been adjusting and adapting to a new vocabulary, where “football” actually means football and “chips” are served with salt and vinegar and sometimes mayonnaise.

I was also surprised, early on, by the more noticeable differences between British and American schools. Alcohol, notably, is banned from any accommodation at the University of Iowa, even in private apartments rented through the University. My first weekend here at St. Andrews, I attended my first social: in the common room of my hall, music blasting, with as much free alcohol as you wanted and with the wardens present and chatting with residents. Now that I think about it, it was hard finding any university function where there wasn’t some form of free alcohol. There are three—count them, three—bars in the student union.

As for classes, I only took two this semester, yet that was equivalent to the six I usually take back home. I was only in class for four hours a week, but my reading load kept me busy all hours of the day. Despite this, I felt like I was working without the high pressure environment of an Iowa semester. It was refreshing, to say the least, and I found I actually had time to enjoy myself in and out of class.

But, of course, I fell most suddenly in love in the Highlands, which contrasted so much with my scenery back home that I couldn’t help but feel transported. I suppose visiting the Highlands near the end of my trip magnified the feeling, or maybe it was just because I had the word for my love. The moment of DSL that made me cry was in Glen Coe, which is iconic for its beauty. Further adding to the event, we were treated to the sounds of bagpiping as we stood in the car park overlooking the glen. It was quintessentially Scottish, and it latched onto my heart.

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#nofilter

The big DSL moment for me, however, was just before that, when we were heading out from Skye. We headed out from the main road, bouncing along a country road, and stopped at a small, windy car park. Our guide instructed us to take a walk, which we did, reluctantly. It was the windiest place I’ve ever been, and we fought even to take steps in the direction in which we were pointed.

We made it, though: the Quiraing.

Not pictured: me, trying to hold on to my phone before it blows away in the wind.

Not pictured: me, trying to hold on to my phone before it blows away in the wind.

I guess I will never be able to adequately describe what DSL feels like, because there’s only so much words can do and only so much I can write without sounding like a pretentious loser. DSL happened when I realized how perfectly beautiful this country is. How lucky I am to be here. How blessed I am to have the opportunity to see something like the Quiraing, and stand on the edge, and feel the awesomeness of creation. How heartbroken I am that I have to leave so soon.

Because I don’t know when I’ll be able to see the Quiraing again, or walk the West Sands of St. Andrews, or say “cheers” to a friendly bus driver. I just don’t know, and that’s terrifying.

Scotland has moved me in ways I never expected it to—and I’ve only been here a semester. Please forgive my lovesick soul, and do me a favor: if you ever have the chance, please go to Scotland, stand in the wind and the grasslands, and find your own Deep Scottish Love in the heart of the fells.

Pictured: I found it.

Pictured: I found it.

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A Chance Meeting on the Sidewalk

I was hustling down the street this morning, on my way to turn in an assignment for class, when I was stopped by an older couple who were looking at a map of St. Andrews. I was in no way presentable—I was clutching a bundle of 15 loose pages, I was still wearing the gray sweatshirt that I sleep in, and I hadn’t even brushed my teeth yet. But, despite being in a hurry and feeling unnaturally gross, I slowed when they hailed me.

“Are you a student here?” the man asked me.

This week has been one of the major weeks for prospective students, so I smiled, figuring they needed help finding a building. “Yes.” Come to think of it, I actually probably wouldn’t be much help at finding building here, still.

Instead of asking for directions, though, the man asked me what I was studying. I responded with “English,” to which he laughed and made the typical joke, “You seem to speak it pretty well!”

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After a few pleasantries, the couple told me that they were in town for a visit and for a few rounds on the Old Course, and that they were just curious about the university. I confessed that I’ve only been here one semester, and that I’d be heading back to the states soon.

They were actually even more interested in the fact that I was studying abroad, and they asked me where I was from.

“Well, Washington State,” I said. “But I’m studying in Iowa.”

They both reacted to this. “You’re not a Hawkeye, are you?”

“Actually, yeah, I am!”

The man let out a breath of disbelief. “Our son graduated from the University of Iowa in 2002! We’re huge Hawkeye fans!”

 

The funny thing is, this isn’t even the first time this has happened this week. In Dublin, my mom and I participated in a literary pub crawl one night and when we started walking, we noticed that one of the guys in the group was wearing a Hawkeye sweatshirt. He had recently finished grad school there, and his family lived in Iowa.

 

To be fair, our school colors aren't hard to spot in a crowd.

To be fair, our school colors aren’t hard to spot in a crowd.

It’s so interesting to me, these connections. I’ve talked before about fleeting encounters with strangers, and I love it. I love that out of anyone this couple could have picked out on the street, they picked me. Pieces of home follow me wherever I go. Rather than highlighting the smallness of our world, it gives me a sense of the enormity of it all—as we grow and travel and learn, so our bubble of existence expands. The more we take part in this world, the larger forces we become in it.

 

I think that’s beautiful, and I think it’s beautiful that somehow, miraculously, I can pluck the strings that tie me home even from across the globe.

 

And, of course, as a word of parting: Go Hawks.

 

 

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Journeys through My Journal

Real talk.

I am pretty terrible at keeping up with regular blogs and regular journaling, but I am excellent with travel journals. When I go on vacation, you can be darn sure I write down every detail of every day before I go to sleep at night, because I know I will regret not having those place names and random events later on. Now, I’m not saying that the writing in these journals is good, because they often happen in darkness, by the light of my phone screen, and scribbled with the knowledge that I get to pass out once I’m done. The entries are often illegible, hurried, and filled with prose so bad it makes Twilight look like A Tale of Two Cities—but I’m so glad I have them to look back on.

As many of you know, I just completed a two week trip through Amsterdam and parts of England, a trip that I am proud to say I planned and executed independently. There was so much I wanted to say on the trip itself, but, since I was traveling alone, I was not exactly keen to publicly share my life story. Now that I’m back, it seems like too much has happened to adequately convey in a single blog post, or even multiple. I may be periodically releasing posts about specific events or places, but for now I wanted to give a bit of an overview of my time—and what better way to do that than through snippets of my travel journal?

Through random observations, funny situations, and details that can’t be conveyed through pictures, these little pieces are here to give a taste of my weeks. I hope you enjoy this trip through instances, this collection of minutiae: unedited, unfiltered, unassuming.

Without further do, here are a few snapshots:

Sometimes literal snapshots!

Sometimes literal snapshots!

I started off with a weekend in Amsterdam, following a tour group of seven other people. The flight there was entertaining enough; in front of me on the flight were two Scottish guys who talked nonstop for the entire hour.

“Still, I am amazed at the progression of their tie together. From what I gather of their drunken conversation, one of them had perhaps slept with the other’s girlfriend. That was an interesting conversation in itself, but the added bonus came with the frequent interjections of ‘I would rather spend a lifetime being your best friend than spend another day talking to her,’ a sentiment that was repeated by both.”

I describe my hostel in Amsterdam as “hip” and “smells of weed.” In true Amsterdam form, I’m sure. Despite my strange first impressions, Amsterdam actually came to be one of my favorite cities. Between its brooding canals and its striking contradictions, it never ceased to fascinate and challenge me. Because of the language barrier and the obvious cultural differences (especially in the Red Light District), I was happy to have an Amsterdam resident as a guide to lead us around like lost children. But even in Amsterdam, thousands of miles away from home, home still found me:

“On the way out [of the Anne Frank House], in testament to the novelty of a small world, I signed the guest book just after two women also from Seattle. I noticed one of their Seahawks hats and said, ‘Go Seahawks,’ which stunned them at first. Then, one of them grinned with a ‘Heck yeah!’”

The mottos which followed us through Amsterdam are noted with particular exuberance: “Doubt and die” (in regards to crossing the street, which is particularly challenging due to the thousands of bicyclists in the area) and “Where is the Dam (damn) Square?” Our guide taught us both of these mottos, and we would mutter them under our breath multiple times a day.

On the last day,

I returned to the Fault in Our Stars bench, because I didn’t feel I’d had enough time with it before. I spent the better part of an hour sitting on the bench and writing. In a touch of cruel poetic justice, my favorite pen died just as I was beginning to write at the bench. I named the pen Augustus and clipped it on where the locks were. As the Norwegian translation of the book’s title goes: ‘Fuck Fate.’”

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And you too, Green.

After many entries of “I got lost in Amsterdam,” I finally left to head back to the UK. I spent a day in London and was blown away by the musical “Memphis.”

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“I had tears pouring down my face at the end of Act I. By the curtain call, the whole audience was on its feet, and everyone was dancing. Even the music director/conductor was lively, rocking out and jumping around the stage while everyone exited.”

The next day, I took a bus to Nottingham on the pretense that I was doing “research” for my next novel, which is about Robin Hood. Really, the “research” was just me wandering around the city inwardly screaming at every Robin Hood –themed thing I saw. I never did go inside of Nottingham Castle, but it was the first thing I saw upon entering the city, and it blew me away.

“Perched on a cliff face, the castle looks out over the town menacingly. The cliffs are scored and pock-marked, and the castle itself looks as if it might tumble over the edge. At the base, tucked in amidst the rocks, is the pub [Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem].”

It was here that I had my first true pub meal by myself, something that became one of my favorite activities in my travels.

A highlight of the two weeks was my trip to Sherwood Forest while I was in Nottingham—an entry that begins simply, “I truly am drunk on life.” I was beginning to feel the thrills of traveling alone, of taking a whole day to walk through the Greenwood, of determining my own choices. In the forest, I walked for about four hours, with various misadventures including accidentally ending up inside the fence that blocked off the Major Oak.

Down one of these totally not-sketchy paths.

Down one of these totally not-sketchy paths.

“I crossed paths with a man and his dog a few times, and we would compare notes on the trails we’d just completed. At one point, his dog actually started following me up a trail, and he called, ‘Hey! You stole my dog!’….Random stranger encounters are great.”

After Nottingham, back to London I went, to spend a bit more time exploring.

“I remember last time the defining moment of London for me was coming out of a tube station and seeing Big Ben. This time, I got out from the Westminster station and looked around, noting the nice architecture of a building across the street. A few minutes later I looked up and—surprise!—it was Big Ben!”

Then, of course, the Harry Potter studio, which was an event in itself.

”We went through and into the Great Hall. It was amazing just being in that huge room, knowing that was where the actors had spent any of their days. While in the Hall, a woman gave some commentary. She asked for a roll call of every house, and I was the only one to cheer for Hufflepuff.”

I soon got distracted by Neville's bed though.

I soon got distracted by Neville’s bed though.

“The quote displayed at the end of the tour really summed it up: ‘Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.’ I felt that today—I felt like I was there, like I’d never left. Because, really, you never do.”

The next few days were spent at Oxford, which also ranks among my top cities. Though I’d been there before, It was much different being back as a university student. It also became a pure Tolkien pilgrimage, which was wonderful; I stayed in the college where he studied, I visited his old haunts, and I took a trip to his gravesite to pay my respects. It’s the small things like that, I find, that are the most impactful, the most memorable, about a trip. The best two hours of the entire trip, I think, were my simple visit to the Eagle and Child, where the Inklings would meet for beer and literary discussions.

“In a word, it was magical, maybe—maybe—even more magical than the Harry Potter studios. I was sitting in the room where the Inklings sat and shared their work, probably sitting at the same table, even, writing my own fiction. And there, at that table, I finished my novel.”

There’s also a line in my journal,

I’m, like, really excited about those mushy peas.”

Mushy peas changed my life.

Mushy peas changed my life.

My trip concluded with the city of York, but even reading back on those two days’ entries, I can sense the overlying depression about having completed my novel, nearing the end of the trip, and finding very little to actually do in the city. I attended a few events for York’s Literary Festival, did some obligatory sight-seeing, and had a few nice discussions with a couple girls in my hostel, but, apart from that, my time in the city was underwhelming. The best part, undoubtedly, were the walks along the old medieval walls.

“What followed were some pretty intense wall walks. I finally found the entrance to the wall I’d wanted to go on, and I followed it all the way around half the city….Some spectacular views, plus very quiet and lonely. Though perhaps that’s because it started raining during that time.”

The rain was a proper send-off, a kind of tangible way to mourn about the end of my trip, a picturesque backdrop for the English landscape that zoomed past on the train out of the city back to Scotland.

Pictured: English countryside.

Pictured: English countryside.

When I arrived back home the last day, though, I felt complete.

“It still feels surreal, and I wonder how long it’ll take for the thrill of adventure to wear off. This was honestly one of the best things to ever happen to me—this trip—and I am extremely blessed to even have this opportunity. I’ve learned a lot, not only about traveling, but about myself. I love Europe, and I love the adventure. It calls me back already, and I can’t wait to answer.”

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Mishaps, Misadventures, and Madness (or: Schadenfreude)

I’ve done it. As of a few days ago, I’ve officially been abroad for one month. While in many ways this has felt like the longest month of my life, it’s also quite unsettling realizing that the one-month marker is also the ¼-done marker. How can that be right?

Anyway, after these few weeks I can safely say I’m adjusted to this new place, these new faces, this new way of life. That’s not to say that I’m not still learning, because I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning while I’m here. However, it means that many of my most glaring mishaps are over and done with. Panics and misadventures are all part of the fun of new travel (even if they don’t seem like it at the time), but it’s good to be done with them.

Not pictured: college girl looking blankly and confusedly at an empty Border Patrol card.

Not pictured: college girl looking blankly and confusedly at an empty Border Patrol card.

Whether because of high school German class or Avenue Q, you’ve likely heard of the term Schadenfreude–pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. In the spirit of the word, and because it’s always fun to hear about traveling misfortunes (when it’s not happening to us), I thought I’d share some of the embarrassing, odd, and sometimes downright painful situations I’ve found myself in while getting situated in this new country.

1. Don’t blink. And, for the love of God, don’t sleep.

Some of my most vivid memories of the first days here are, ironically, from a period of time in which I was uncertain of my own name. Arriving in my room for the first time after a full day, not having slept for 24 hours, I was soon faced with the daunting task of wrestling jet lag. I decided to take a short half-hour nap, but without sheets or blankets I was ultimately shivering too much to actually sleep. Somehow I found myself on the floor, draped over the hot radiator and dozing, until I realized that what I was doing was frankly ridiculous. I resolved to take a hot shower. After that, I returned to my room, sat down on my bed, and passed out for a good hour. I was thankfully woken up by the sounds of people outside at precisely 5:30, which was when dinner was due to begin. That was my first introduction to people. With damp hair. In a wrinkly sweatshirt. So groggy I wasn’t even sure I was awake.

I was prepared for a day or so of jet lag, but I wasn’t prepared for a whole week of residual sleep-deprivation. One night a few days later, in particular, I remember because I was sitting upright, messaging with a friend on my laptop at 8:30 at night, and I fell dead asleep. Staying awake is hard.

2. The realization that you are woefully unprepared for emergencies.

There I was, on my first day of class, ready to face the world and ready to look good doing it. I’d finally bought a cheap hair straightener, thus freeing me from the wild beast my hair had become in the past few days, and I had chosen my best outfit.

Thirty minutes before class was due to start, I was just finishing straightening up my hair, when the cord caught on the handle of my drawer. The straightener was jerked out of my hand and, on instinct, I reached down to catch it. Of course, my instinctual self is kind of dumb—I caught the straightener, but I caught it around the hot end, effectively blistering three fingers and the palm of my dominant hand. That is how my first class found me, and the handwritten notes from that day look like they were scrawled by a first-grader.

Artist's rendering of me in my first class.

Artist’s rendering of me in my first class.

Because I am cheap and because at that point I was still deathly afraid of Tesco, I didn’t buy many essentials like band-aids during my first few weeks. This, I’ve learned, is a rookie mistake, because by the time you need them, it is too late. Once, while trying to close my stubborn window, I slipped and gashed my leg on my radiator (this thing, I swear, is both my comforter and my worst enemy). You’d think I might have learned my lesson after that, but no—just yesterday, I was literally zipping up my boot on my way out the door to church when my finger got caught and was sliced open. While the cut definitely looks like a gnarly action movie scar, my improvised Kleenex bandage was less than impressive. Needless to say, after that, I broke down and went to Tesco. The moral of this story is to buy medical supplies. Just do it.

3. In fact, you are unprepared for everything.

Speaking of not having necessary items, let’s go back to my first week. We’d ordered a bedding pack before my departure, which was supposed to be in my room upon arrival and complete with bedding, towels, and hangers. When I arrived, there was nothing there. Surprise!

In what is probably one of my most shameful traveling-abroad moments, I did the only thing I could think to do—I used one of my shirts as a towel for five days.

I feel like maybe we should never speak of this again. Moving on.

4. Strangers think you’re crazy.

I talked a few weeks ago about how I’m not naturally a very outgoing person, which really sucks when you’re traveling alone into unknown territory. My parents have always drilled into me the concept of “If you’re not sure, just ask.” The problem is, I’m really bad at approaching people. And when I do ask them a question, they generally look at me like I’m some kind of alien.

In my layover in Amsterdam, I had a bit of time to kill and very little internet. Therefore, I relied on my phone for entertainment. What I didn’t realize, at that time, was that with no internet, my phone had no idea what time it was in Amsterdam. When I looked down at my phone after a while of sitting, I froze: my phone indicated that, if everything was on schedule, the plane should have been leaving at that moment. I flew into an overwhelming panic and questioned the old man across from me, who informed me in an unimpressed voice that we weren’t due to leave for another half an hour.

There have been many questions throughout this month, and many raised eyebrows. How does the dining hall work? Can I sit with you? How do you get into this building? Am I supposed to be here right now?

There have been moments where I’ve introduced myself to people I’ve already met but forgotten about; moments where I’ve sat with strangers in the dining hall, thinking I knew them and realizing halfway through the meal that I’d never met them; moments where I can’t remember the names of people I’ve known for days.

There have also been mishaps with accents. The most memorable, for me, was during one of my many auditions. Along with being fairly quiet, the director had a heavy Scottish accent. He asked me a question that I couldn’t make heads or tails of, and, after asking him to repeat it twice, I took a shot and said confidently, “I’ll be reading the first Sarah monologue.”

“No,” he said. “I was asking what year in university you were.”

5. Pants.

Everyone has to make the pants/trousers mistake once in their life.

I did.


 

We all love a bit of Schadenfreude. What’s your favorite travel misadventure? Let me know in the comments below, and thanks for stopping by!

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Singular

In my first weekend at Iowa, I had a very brief and bizarre thought about my life.

I had the room to myself for a few days, and the only times I ventured out were to go to the dining hall or to attend one of the mandatory orientation events that precede the first week of classes. One night, as I sat at my desk, organizing my new room in my new home in a state 2000 miles away from everything I knew, I wondered bemusedly: if someone snuck into my room and murdered me like in a cheap horror film, how long would it take people to realize I was missing?

Not to start this entry off on a morbid note; my friends and I have laughed about it multiple times in the following years, partly because it’s a bit of a strange curiosity, and partly because they experienced similar emotions in that first weekend alone in their own rooms. Part of the thrill of moving to a new place is the uneasiness of being a stranger to everyone, and feeling like you’re invisible in your little bubble—the thing is, everyone was a stranger concerned with their own invisibility.

I recently started a new semester in a brand-new place. Now, instead of halfway across the country, I am halfway around the world, and, without a roommate, I am more isolated than ever. Flashbacks of freshman year have come in full force these past few weeks. Meeting new people is exhausting, and everyone I’ve talked to has expressed the fear that they don’t even remember how to make friends. It’s been so long since freshman year, we can’t remember how we managed to make the friends we did. My script has been rehearsed and repeated constantly. Chelsea. Washington State. University of Iowa. JSA. Studying English. Yes, it’s beautiful here.

I won’t lie, it hasn’t always been easy, and I’m finding myself challenged every day by new things. I am generally not an outgoing person, so my full-time job has been pushing myself to be social, going to new places and events, striking up conversation with strangers. It is comforting, too, knowing that there is a group of other study abroad students who are going through similar experiences, trying to figure out this new life abroad.

And I must say, despite there being enormous amounts of uncertainty and fear in the process, there is also freedom in having no strings, the opportunity to establish a new life, and each time I leave a conversation with a new person I feel that thrill of accomplishment.

That’s the thing about exploring, is that it forces you to make these new connections. Too often we get caught in old routines, with familiar faces. Meeting new people is unrelentingly difficult, which is why once we find that new niche, we often pull away from the risk of actively engaging with as many strangers as possible. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being somewhat stranded here in this strange city in Scotland, it’s that you have to be involved in your pursuit of friendship, connections. You have to make that commitment every day, even if some days you only have the energy to lie on your bed and stare at the ceiling (an activity I will admit to engaging in once or twice here).

I dare you, as much as I dare myself, to talk to people, to go outside of your comfort zone, to put yourself in a situation where you don’t yet have a name. It’s terrifying, and it might not always work out—but you never know.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go hang out with some new friends.


 

Yes, some of that energy and focus has taken away from my motivation to blog in a timely manner. Thanks for asking.

I’ve been warned against being a pretentious study-abroad blogger, but, in addition to the normal programming, this space will be where I document some of my adventures this semester. I’ll try to keep pretention to a minimum. But, hey, St. Andrews is beautiful.

What you don't see is everyone passing out from wind exposure.

What you don’t see is everyone passing out from wind exposure.

I hope you’ll join me these short four months as I struggle to reconcile myself with haggis.

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On Rediscovering Myself as a Writer

I was in a rut for a long time. Let me explain.

“Discovering” my writer self happened when I was in elementary school, when my teacher assigned creative writing assignments and I realized that creative writing was everything I wanted to do in my life. Discovery can be a process or an instance, and in this case it was a moment in time that divided my life like a new chapter in a book. In elementary school, following one of those creative writing prompts, I started writing my first novel. It was a three-year endeavor, and those three years were beautiful. Most of the novel I wrote by hand, and the three composition books I filled up are still on my shelf at home—when I flip through them, I can often picture where I was when I wrote a particular scene. The writing process was new to me, but that made it exciting. The process of writing was as much an adventure as what I was writing about.

I think the problem with finishing that first novel was the open-endedness of the question: what now? I was in eighth grade, halfway through junior time, entering into one of the difficult periods of my life academically, socially, and creatively, and there were no signs telling me what I was supposed to do with my creativity once I had finished that first novel. That’s the thing with art—nobody can tell you what to do with it. Nobody can tell you, “Okay, now you’re supposed to write a story about x that makes you feel y.” Art is in your brain, so you’re the only one who is able to access it, to seek out those next steps and feel around for inspiration.

"I can kill you with my brain" is a fairly accurate description of the writing process.

“I can kill you with my brain” is a fairly accurate description of the writing process.

Thankfully, I discovered National Novel Writing Month, which was a lifesaver in terms of my written endeavors. I’ve written in the past about how much Nanowrimo helps me. It’s a godsend, really, because as they years progressed I found that it was the only thing that would get my butt in the chair to really write. High school sucks. It sucks away time and energy and motivation. Where is the time to write when you have six hours of classes, four hours of extracurriculars, and piles of homework on top of that? It’s suffocating, quite frankly. When I got to college and reflected on the writing I’d done since finishing that first novel, it disturbed me. I could go for weeks, maybe months, without writing anything significant. There were peaks in activity when Nanowrimo hit, which is why I’m so grateful to have had that anchor in my life, but very little creative energy elsewhere.

Let me tell you, creativity is a choice. I know, people tell you everywhere that producing art is one part inspiration and two parts showing up and doing the work, but I’m here to let you know that it’s true. It still took me two odd years of college to pick up the momentum I’d once had, but, in thinking about my future and thinking about all of the writers that I’m surrounded by here at Iowa, it was essential that I pick up the slack. What I’ve learned here is that there won’t be time to write, but you have to make time. You have to choose writing; you can’t just let it come to you.

As much as I feel like a successful AA member for saying this, I’m so proud to say that I’ve been writing something every day since July. Again, this is one of those age-old pieces of advice that wizened and successful writers toss about—make time to write every single day. And no, I still can’t dedicate three hours in the morning to writing like many professionals do, but making the pledge to get something down on the page, even if it’s only a few sentences, has helped me in so many ways.

You spend every day with your characters, for one. It helps continuity, and it helps you feel your way through the story. It forces you to stay constantly in your imagination, which is where you should be living anyway.

Since making that pledge over the summer to write every day, I’ve felt the joy of writing coming back to me, that joy I felt back in elementary school. “Choose joy” is a rubbish statement. Instead, choose to do what you love, and joy will inevitably follow.

It’s gotten easier as time passes to write every day, and by opening up that part of myself again, I feel like I’m able to play. This is also my advice: don’t hold back. Try out new things. Bend to the whims of your imagination. In the past I dismissed certain creative impulses as being invaluable without realizing that every opportunity to explore the craft is valuable—now, I allow myself to write anything. If it’s part of my current novel? Great. If it’s terrible fanfiction that will never see the light of day? Spectacular. Even if you know what you’re writing is going to be incomprehensible, write it anyway.

"Did someone say fanfiction?

“Did someone say fanfiction?”

I might return to the rut, but right now I’m loving being out of it. It’s the end of the first week of this year’s Nanowrimo, and I couldn’t be feeling any better. I guess what I’m trying to say is, do what you love. Listen to what you love. Actively seek it out, and make time for it.

I lost it for a long time, but the reunion is wonderful.

For all of you writers, best of luck with Nanowrimo. You can add me as a buddy or follow my progress by visiting http://nanowrimo.org/participants/pennstance.

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The Process

In case I haven’t pestered you enough on social media, I did some acting stuff two weekends ago. It kind of took over my life, so much that having even a few extra hours at night now seems like a terrifying abyss.

In my opinion, you can’t be an actor without liking the process of acting. Performances are only a miniscule part of this thing called theatre. In my case, we had approximately 25 hours of rehearsal every week for four weeks—100 hours of planning, staging, discovering—and a total of three hours of performance between our two performance dates. Don’t get me wrong, the adrenaline rush that an audience provides is amazing, but it would be hard to do this work without also loving the other 97%. What is the other 97%, you ask?

  1. Auditioning and swaggering forward

Some people hate auditions. I am one of them. I can’t separate myself from my anxiety, my self-consciousness, and the feeling that I am being judged against everyone else. Auditioning is followed by a sizeable round of junk food, always.

Callbacks, on the other hand, are gifts from God. There’s nothing better than staying up late to watch them flood in, marking each one on your calendar and relishing in the supreme busyness that your weekend has become. They are an event in themselves. This semester, I witnessed people building elaborate blanket forts in the theatre lobby, accepting steady deliveries of Jimmy Johns, chatting excitedly about the eccentricities of specific callbacks. These two days are somehow more lively, more happy, more energetic—everyone knows that they are wanted, and there are so many opportunities to explore, to play.

People have asked me if I knew during my callback that I would be cast. To be honest, no. I didn’t. When you’re surrounded by that much talent, it’s hard to tell where you stand in the director’s eyes. But it doesn’t matter. You play, and, if you’re very lucky, the director remembers you.

  1. “Is that my name up on that list?”

Elle Woods made it into a prestigious law group; I made it into a play. All of the anticipation, the held breath and constant refreshing of the theatre website, leads to that moment you see your name in black and white. Depending on the situation or role, I will likely start crying with disbelief. I double and triple check that yes, that is my name. No, there is not another person in the department with your first and last name. This stage is pure elation.

  1. Meet and greet

For a lot of people, the table read, and the meeting of your cast members, is one of the highlights of the whole process. It’s kind of like in Harry Potter—you’re sorted into your house, and from then on, in the words of our favorite cat professor, “your house will be like your family.” First impressions are inevitably awkward, as everyone is at varying levels of familiarity/admiration, but there’s a sense of tangy anticipation at the realization that these are the people you will be giving up a social life for.

The first stages of scriptwork are clumsy but useful. From table-reads of the script to the first days of blocking, script in hand, you start making initial discoveries, and you find even more questions. For this particular show, I made a page-long list of questions about my character that I clipped into my binder. Periodically throughout the rehearsal process, I would go back to this list and see if I could answer any of them.

Most of the hard work goes into these initial days of rehearsal, where, depending on the director, rehearsals consist of hours and hours of blocking. This is made even more challenging by the pesky scripts that you are tied to. But, for now, they are a comfort. Your script is the blanket that keeps you warm at night.

  1. Your script is taken from you, brutally, in the middle of the night

The day comes, and nobody is ready for it. “Off-book day” has been there, circled in red on your calendar, but the minute you walk into the rehearsal space without your binder, you feel so naked. There is panic, maybe. Fidgety hands. You miss lines on stage and stumble through clunky exchanges and miss cues, and it’s generally pretty sobering. But it’s a start.

Around this time, also, I find that I start the process of true discovery. Once you start becoming more comfortable without pages in your hand, you’re able to be in the scene more. Suddenly you can look your fellow actors in the eye, really look at them, and see a character instead of a person reciting words. It’s here that I find myself starting to feel. Every day is all at once a turning point. When I’m trying to memorize monologues, I will recite them every night while I’m showering. Something about being so alone, so focused, without any distractions, triggers huge realizations. I go into rehearsal the next day with fresh perspectives, and the process starts all over again.

Once you’re off book, people start coming to watch your run-throughs as well. It may be two extra people, other graduate students who come to offer their critiques on this rough play, but even having those two new sets of eyes is invigorating.

Theatre nightmares are also common for me around this point. I’ll wake up in a cold sweat, having just lived through the opening night of the play, during which I knew none of my lines. Or, in this case, the play is recorded and turned into a cult sensation on account of how terrible it was.

  1. Panic! at the theatre

Literally every show I’ve ever been in has included pure panic the week before, and the week of, hell week. With the performance date closing in, everyone gets a bit more tense. Difficult blocking is worked and re-worked for hours. Tensions are high. Personally, it’s around this time that I experience soul-crushing doubt about my own abilities. Does the director regret putting me in this role? Am I doing this character justice? Will anyone ever cast me again after seeing my work in this show?

But, like every show, things miraculously come together at the last minute. Hell week, the technical term for the week that a show opens, is the time when things start happening. You’re surrounded by lights. You shrug into costumes and practice quick-changes. Things start feeling, sounding, smelling like theatre.

Everything starts clicking. For this show, on our dress rehearsal, our run was better than we’d ever done it before. One scene, a short scene between my character and her old teacher, moved so smoothly that it evolved before our eyes. Afterward, I talked with the actress playing the teacher, and we were both shaking with excitement. “Did you feel what just happened in that scene?”

  1. Break a leg

At last, the performance hits. I’ve written about my love of theatre before, my love of the stage and all of the sensations surrounding it. The audience watches as you cry and sweat and scream, and for whatever reason that attention makes everything more real.

Still, it is a process of discovery. Opening night, I was disconnected from myself, wired completely into my character, and everything happened in the moment, as it is supposed to. It’s a feeling that’s hard to explain. But it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful emptying yourself out every night, feeling as though you’ve accomplished everything in a 90 minute time span. You go to bed smiling. Exhausted, but smiling.

  1. Grief

One of my castmates likened the ending of a show to the death of a close friend, and I completely agree. One minute you’re immersed in the exhilaration of it all, every thought consumed by the show, and the next you’re waking up and it’s Sunday and you have nothing to do. It happens so suddenly. It usually hits actors the first time they would have rehearsal, the next Monday night or so, when they’re sitting in their rooms at 7:00 with four hours of freedom ahead of them. It hit me the morning after our closing night, and I laid in bed for a long time feeling the pain of it in my gut. Suddenly there is no need to remember those lines, because you will never say them again. You don’t need to think about your character anymore, because she is not you. You are not her. The closer you get to your character, the more you see her mind and feel her actions, the harder it is. And maybe you’re scared that now that you let go of her, she won’t make it. Maybe you’re scared of someone else picking her up where you dropped her off, even though life is the best thing for her.

Maybe you’re scared that you’ll never get a chance like this again. And maybe you won’t. But it doesn’t matter.

Because you had this.

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Missed Connections: Thoughts from Airports

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been for the past four months, I guess I’ve been doing my job right. Not only have I been hardcore relaxing, but I have also picked up significant speed on my current writing project. It seemed only fair to take a break from blogging while taking a break from school. Right?

But now here we are, again facing the inevitable end of summer. Whether or not you’re still in school, the end of summer is still a transition period. For college students, it means lots of sitting and waiting in airports—which I am currently doing, perched above the crowd in my limbo of Denver. I kind of like it up here on the second floor, above all the noise and the bustle where no one really expects much of you.

I see you, random set of legs behind the pillar.

I see you, random leg behind the pillar.

Being in an airport is special in a way, because you never know how many stories you brush by. I sat next to a British gentleman on the plane who, despite the open book in my lap, insisted on conversation the entire flight. We ended up having a great discussion and occasional debate about writing, literature, and publishing. As we parted ways, he insisted on giving me $5 for something to eat. I never learned his name, but I’ll know him forever as the stranger who bought me dinner.

Even earlier in the day, on the way to the airport, I was stuck in slow, heavy traffic. I was looking out the window, as I do, and all of the sudden I saw a young man in the car next to me making the silliest, stupidest face at me. We locked eyes for one moment, then both burst into laughter. I watched him laugh in the side mirror as we drove away, and that’s likely the last I’ll ever see him.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that life is full of these missed connections and brushes with people’s stories. Many things in life are temporary, but that doesn’t mean they’re not meaningful. Don’t worry so much about whether or not you’ll manage to stay in contact with the people you meet in college—certainly don’t let the impermanence of your situation determine the strength of your relationships. Live in the moment, and find out people’s stories, and laugh. Situations are fleeting. The connections that weave life together are now.

Go get ’em.

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Arthurian Madness

I’ll admit that I knew next to nothing about King Arthur before last year’s winter break, when I randomly picked Merlin as my show to watch. As such, everything I knew about the legend for a while came from that show, which is, admittedly, not the greatest source of knowledge.

Image

Wait, really?

That’s not to say I don’t adore the show—with everything I know now, I think it’s actually a brilliant re-interpretation of the story and a nice introduction to the legend. After I finished the show, I instantly wanted more. This led me to one of my favorite classes this semester: a medieval literature course based in Arthuriana.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I always kind of expected that Arthurian literature would be grandiose, sophisticated, and solemn. He is “the once and future king,” after all. The story is so epic it shouldn’t even be contained in a single book.

What I learned in this class, friends, is that medieval literature is not all flashy and serious. As I learned more and more about the legend through countless stories and books, from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, I found myself giggling. Yes, giggling. These stories are freaking hilarious.

If you haven’t been following along on Twitter, I actually created a hashtag to document some of my exploits in these readings and through the class.

#arthurnotes 2

Now, I don’t want to discount any of these stories for their scholarly purposes. I have loads of respect for the writers and for the legends, and these texts are extremely valuable for both history and literature. It’s just that if you’re expecting a stodgy and bland narrative, you’re in for a wonderful surprise.

#arthurnotes 1

My personal favorite moment was in Chretien de Troye’s “Knight of the Cart.” In this story, Lancelot goes to a castle, where he encounters some beautiful ladies. They tell him not to sleep in a certain fancy bed, but obviously he does anyway. In the middle of the night, a flaming lance comes out of nowhere and strikes the bed. It not only grazes his side, but sets his whole bed on fire. Lancelot, being the guy that he is, tosses the lance out into the hallway and puts out the fire, all without leaving his bed. Then he goes back to sleep, as if nothing had happened.

And that, my friends, is a summary of Arthurian literature. I highly recommend it.

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Why We Love Screen Heroes

I walked into Captain America: The Winter Soldier a few days ago operating on a stratospheric level of excitement. It wasn’t because I’d loved the first Captain America movie so much; in fact, I’ve only seen it once, and I hardly remember what happened. I wasn’t excited solely because I love these Marvel movies, though that certainly played a huge role. No, what got me the most enthusiastic was the fact that Cap is my favorite superhero, and I was thrilled to have two hours of screen time just for him (and his muscles).

God bless America.

Why do I love Cap? Yes, he’s a good guy. He’s smart, he’s loyal, he’s patriotic. He has good values and an easy smile. I love him for all of these things. But do they make him better than snarky Iron Man? Doofus Thor?

The bottom line, for me, was actually a strange and seemingly-irrelevant experience in the real world. When I went to Disney World two years ago, my parents and I timed our visit to the comic book world to the slice of time when the actors were released. By actors, I mean all of the Disney World workers who dressed up and walked around as Spiderman, Wolverine, Dr. Doom, and a whole host of other heroes. People could line up to take pictures, which I did with as many heroes as I could find.

Near the end, we found Cap. He had a significant line in front of him, but I waited as he posed with a broad smile and his shield with various patrons. As I watched, a young girl (maybe six years old) approached him. She was accompanied by a few others, and as he knelt down to her level, the word spread that she was there with Make-A-Wish. He stayed with her for at least two minutes, just chatting and making her smile.

June 389

When I finally reached the front of the line, Cap gave me a huge smile. He greeted me with “Hello, sweetheart,” which instantly made me melt. We chatted for a while, and he was incredibly kind and open. When it was time to take pictures, he pulled me close and did a few poses with his shield, looking at me every once in a while to make a joke and crack a grin.

I was star-struck.

I know it’s silly that such an insignificant meeting would influence me, but it really did—from that moment on, Cap has been my favorite. The on-screen hero, for me, reflected my real life hero.

When you think about it, that’s the essence of these movies. Yes, life imitates art, but art also imitates life. What we see on the screen is a reflection of our time and our culture. It is a representation of our fears and our failures as a society, but also our hopes.

When I was in the theater to see Star Trek: Into Darkness, I enjoyed myself immensely. I loved the action sequences and the characters. Everything was going off without a hitch, in my mind, until the sequence when Khan’s hijacked ship crashes into the San Francisco skyline—a picture that was, in my mind, eerily reminiscent of the 9/11 destruction.

I was a little unsettled by the image, and for a few minutes I was taken out of the movie. I couldn’t help but ask myself: Why do we watch these movies? Why do we continue to make and enjoy action movies with such large-scale destruction?

It’s true—look at The Avengers. Even in such a light-hearted movie, New York gets beaten. Comic book movies are notorious for disaster-scale city destruction, but it shows up in other action movies as well. Surely it’s a reflection of the times and our society’s fears. But why include it?

It struck me then, in Star Trek, as I watched the sequence of Spock relentlessly chasing Khan down through the streets: we watch these movies because we like to imagine better. We like the idea that there is a singular “bad guy” that can be caught and brought to justice, like Khan. If there is one villain to be blamed, suddenly the world seems more black and white. We cling to the idea that evil can be stopped so easily.

Most of all, we like the idea that there are heroes out there who can and will restore peace. They are our hope, and they give us chances for a better world. They give us the justice that is so often absent in huge catastrophes.

We do project reality onto film. Art does imitate life, no matter how much we magnify it and tweak it.

The great thing? Those heroes do exist in the real world. They may not have the mask or the cape or the superpowers, but they’re here. And they change the world day by day, in big ways and small.

That, I think, is something worth cheering for.

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