What Post-Grad Life is Actually Like

…when you are unemployed and not going to grad school in the fall.

Sure, graduating from college is exhilirating and surreal–a dream come true. And we departing seniors go to great lengths to show everyone how exciting it is…like paying people to photograph us frolicking around campus with our Class of 2016 sashes and bursting champagne bottles.

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PC: Terri Shih // Apologies to the shrub that I ripped these flowers from.

On the other hand,  graduating from college is also terrifying. Within a two-hour commencement ceremony, I went from being a driven UCLA student and Assistant Director at a wonderful writing program, to an unemployed adult. After all of the graduation festivities and moving back home, it all sunk in: now, I must completely reconfigure my identity, my lifestyle…my entire sense of self.

Surely, this is a great opportunity to reconnect with myself. I can finally pick up the violin again and whip out the Prismacolor pastels. I can drop by the Y.A. section of Barnes & Noble and reunite with some old friends. I also look forward to generating new goals and finally pursuing my passions in the “real world.”

But then there’s that Catch-22.

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Let me be 100% honest: the job search is absolutely soul-crushing.

Now is the time to get real-world experience, but everyone expects applicants to already have a whole lifetime of experience under their belts. We recent graduates have to be Olympian professionals before we even set foot off campus, fluent in every computer program and foreign language known to man. Nevermind if I have great social media chops by 1) being a millenial and 2) cultivating an online presence of my own–skills that I can develop to a higher level. In order to secure an entry-level social media management position, I should have already worked social media for a major brand for at least three years. Oh, and I essentially need to be a graphic designer, computer programmer, and videographer.

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Every time I see “preferred” and “a plus” // via monstermoviaitalia.com

I spend most of my post-grad days writing letters to faceless individuals, demanding that they see how qualified I am, how I deserve their time and consideration. It’s an exhausting, never-ending process of trying to prove my worth.

Yet, my determination to launch my career pushes me to persevere and apply, apply, apply.

Truth be told, I am still figuring out what this ultimate career goal is, exactly. Whenever people ask me what I want to do with my B.A. in English and Creative Writing…

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There are a lot of things that I want to do (i.e., social media management, writing/editing, arts administration, filmmaking). But I can’t seem to package all of those aspirations into one short, sweet, and specific answer. I wouldn’t call this indecision, but my struggle to articulate my professional goals with precision (“therapist,” “doctor,” “lawyer,” “accountant”) makes it even more difficult to convince skeptics of the Humanities that I can transform my English degree into a fantastic career.

Throughout all of this, I must remind myself to not compare myself to others. Whenever I see a peer of mine post an update on LinkedIn or Facebook about landing their dream job or internship at Google, Adobe, or Disney, I need to take a step back and tell myself: everyone moves at their own pace. Everyone has a unique path. Everything will fall into place. 

I must deliver the same pep talk while watching my friends go off to prestigious graduate programs. I remind myself, again and again, that I decided against pursuing that path right now for a reason. Though I long for the security of knowing what to expect next, where I will be and what I’ll be doing for the next few years, I did not want to jump right into another school before understanding who I am in the working world. Who am I, apart from being a student?

But this, I’ve found, is the most important thing to remember as I navigate post-grad life:

There is not one version of success.

Sure, working for a well-known company like Disney would be amazing. But so would working for a non-profit that supports the arts. Whether I go into copyediting, screenwriting, or administration–it is ultimately more important for me to be happy, to love what I do, than to impress people. Sometimes, I forget this. I will make it a goal to remember: I decide what my version of success is, and only I can bring it into fruition.

 

Shameless plug: connect with me on LinkedIn

Finding Community: A Mosaic of My College Experience

On my last night as a UCLA student, I went for a run around campus.

A group of giddy graduates gathered around the Bruin Bear, their Class of 2016 sashes gleaming blue and gold as they climbed atop the statue’s metal back to pose for pictures. A calmness hung over Bruinwalk, the area cleared of flyer-flapping, donut-selling students–open space for me to zip through with rosy cheeks and short breaths. I passed by Kerkhoff, where I’d bought many a shitty vanilla latte, and Powell Library, where I’d written some of the most crucial pages of my honors thesis. I took a left at Schoenberg–the music school, where I had my first job ever as the Front Desk Assistant in the main office. The Humanities Building, home of the English Department. Haines, the site for Westwind meetings. I saw Bunche, aka the “waffle building,” up ahead and remembered lectures on Henry James, linguistics, Asian American history, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales…The first Writer’s Den meeting that I’d ever attended was in Bunche.

Royce glowed as majestically as ever that night, the brick golden against the night sky. I slowed to a stop and stood there, craning my neck back to take it all in. Every now and then, throughout the last four years, I’d look up at Royce in all of its collegiate glory and realize how privileged and honored I was to call myself a student at this university.

This particular moment, on my evening run–this is when it began to sink in.Wow. I traced the arches and the pillars with my eyes, drawing a picture to store in my memory. It’s over.

*   *   *

When I arrived at UCLA on move-in day, I was terrified. The campus was a foreign land, and the masses of students and parents milling up and down the hill were strangers. For the entire summer, I had been eagerly awaiting this opportunity to reinvent myself, to put the lonely and quiet years of high school behind me and reemerge a more “interesting” and “outgoing” person. But once this opportunity arose, I didn’t know what to do with it. As I trudged up to my new home, Saxon Suites, I already felt myself retreating on the inside, ready to go through the next four years with a shell over my head.

Admittedly, I spent most of my freshman year with this mentality. Despite having an amazing roommate (Danielle) with whom I bonded instantly and deeply, I spent most of my time cooped up in my room by myself, watching Dawson’s Creek and eating Rendezvous quesadillas.

Now, as a UCLA graduate, I’m happy (and relieved) to say that I found my way out of my dorm room and into a community. I began by attending meetings and socials for a creative writing club called The Writer’s Den, the island of misfit toys, where all shades of dorkiness and uniqueness were welcome. I went on to enjoy many adventures with these beautiful people, from beach days to book festivals to bonfires. I also met some of my closest friends.

Then, as a sophomore, I joined the staff of the Writing Success Program, a student-run, student-initiated project within the Community Programs Office, a department founded on the importance of community and peer support. I started as a neophyte counselor, who hopped on the team mid-year with no training and concluded three years of growth and hard work as the Assistant Director.

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WSP Staff 2013-2014
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WSP Staff 2014-2015
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WSP Staff 2015-2016

(I blogged about my incredible, life-changing experience with WSP on their blog. I’ll just leave this link here and a quote below  or else I won’t be able to stop flooding this post with love for this program and all of the people involved.)

From organizing over three workshops to curating WSP’s first literary magazine–[…] I honed and embraced my ability to gather people around a common goal. I realized that a leader is not necessarily someone who distinguishes themselves from the pack; instead, she is someone who builds community by fostering collaboration.

Confidence is no longer this omnipresent but seemingly unattainable desire; rather, it is a foundational part of my identity. No longer preoccupied with self-doubt, I can now see outside of myself and focus much more of my time and energy on the team, the program, and my students. […] I am a leader. And it wasn’t until I claimed that title and believed that I deserved it that I actually became one.

I continued to find community in my short story workshops, where I met some of the most creative, talented, and compassionate students on campus. Every time I went to class, I thought to myself: these are my people. I’d found my corner of creativity at this immense research institution. In these small classes of twelve, led by two of my favorite women, Prof. Michelle Huneven and Prof. Mona Simpson, my peers and I got to know each other through our stories, our writing. I’ve always believed that the bond between storyteller and reader/listener is special and intimate, and these workshops reinforced this belief.

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Short story workshop, led by Professor Simpson
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Prof. Huneven (left) & Prof. Simpson (middle)

My wonderful experiences in these classes inspired me to pursue a creative honors thesis, to tackle the task of writing a much longer work than the three-paged stories that I composed for the workshops. I didn’t expect my honors thesis to be a community-building experience. Aside from working with my advisor (Mona Simpson), it was to be, more or less, an independent project that I’d slave away on in the secluded corners of libraries and crowded coffee shops. Or so I thought.

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My personal, bound copy of the novella that I wrote for my creative honors thesis.
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Me & Ruth on graduation day!

Well, my guess was partially correct: I did gravitate towards libraries and coffee shops for the actual writing process. But I did not anticipate the invaluable and impactful bond that I would form with my colleagues, Ruth Livier and Vera Burrows. Since Prof. Simpson was to advise all three of us on our projects, we decided to band together as a writing group. So, every Friday, we’d meet in a study room in Young Research Library (YRL) and read aloud our pages and offer feedback. Often we’d discuss our dilemmas and our discoveries, helping one another flesh out ideas and troubleshoot obstacles. Like gym buddies, we motivated one another to keep going, to push forward. At the end of those nine months of brainstorming and writing and rewriting and revising and editing, I had a novella. I received Highest Honors, as well as the Shirley Collier Fiction Prize for this novella–empowering accomplishments that I will never forget. These ninety-plus pages would not be what they are without the guidance and support of my colleagues, whom I now consider dear friends and inspring mentors.

*   *   *

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Layhannara & me

At the end of the year, all of us at WSP gave one another an “award.” My boss, our Project Director, granted me an award that she called “JoAnna–with a capital ‘A.‘”

“I want to recognize JoAnna for being JoAnna,” she said. For the past couple of years, she’d watched me gradually embrace and love myself. I’d finally taken ownership of who I am and who I strive to be, allowing no one but me to define who I am. While I’d already sensed this change in myself, this recognition made me that much prouder of my growth.

All of the graduation ceremonies have come to a close. I am back in my family home, in the room where I’d spent much of my adolescence, surrounded by posters that I’d tacked onto the walls ten years ago.

I don’t have my future figured out just yet.

But here are some things that I do know:

I can now say, with confidence, that I am a leader; I am a writer; and I am still a passionate dreamer. I belong to many communities that uplift me. Yet, I also know that the most consistent and significant source of love in my life is myself. I just needed the support of my communities to help me realize that.

This (self) love will carry me through fear, failure, success–and yes, even through uncertainty.

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#SelfLove Series: Curly Hair, Don’t Care

I’d just gotten back from a beach day with friends. My skin radiated with sun kisses, and sand clung to my toes and my clothes–little hitchhikers, traveling with me from Malibu to the Valley. When I stepped into the foyer of my house, flip flops flapping against the hardwood, my mom gasped.

“What?” My first thought was that my skin was flaming with a sunburn that I had yet to feel. I touched my cheeks.

Mom began to laugh in shock. “Your…hair…”

I ran to the bathroom, prepared to see seagull poop crusting on my scalp, but instead, I saw–spirals. Spirals upon spirals, floating about my head like an auburn halo.

Curly hair.

Here’s the thing: aside from a brief period of toddler curls, I had spent most of my childhood with straight hair. Glossy, soft hair that I could twist into various do’s and run my fingers through as I pleased. It wasn’t until puberty commenced (circa 4th grade) that waves began to ripple through my quaff. Then those waves transformed into frizz. A lion’s mane. Little did I know that all this time, this frizz was actually a bundle of curly-q’s, just waiting to sprout.

Like your average adolescent with underdeveloped self-confidence and the weight of Unattainable Beauty Standards sitting on her shoulders, I hated it. I wanted to rip it out, chop it off. I had convinced myself that my supposedly unorthodox hair would prevent me from ever being “pretty,” because most of the beautiful girls and women that I saw on TV and in the pages of Tiger Beat that I was (allegedly) supposed to aspire to had long, straight hair. All of the girls in school used their flat irons religiously. Not to mention, according to Tumblr, “naturally curly hair” was supposed to look like this:

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Lies.

So, I hid my curls.

In sixth grade, I wore my hair in a ponytail virtually all of the time, even when I slept.  I took it to the next level in seventh grade–the age of the bun, during which my mom often joked that I looked like a granny. I managed a slightly more attractive half-up, half-down look from eighth to eleventh grade, buying bedazzled clips from Claire’s in an effort to beautify the bird’s nest. (I have not included pictures of these awkward phases in order to avoid severe embarassment.) None of these were hairstyles to me. Rather, they were my attempts to control the uncontrollable, to rebel against nature’s way.

Then, my mom took me to her hairstylist.

Apparently, all of the years of ponytails and buns had caused significant damage. My hair was breaking off. I guess nature was conducting its own rebellion, each broken strand a statement against self-hate.

“You need to let it down,” the hairstylist insisted as she snip-snipped at my dead ends. “No more hair ties.”

I stared at the mirror. My curls reemerged, expanding in volume after years of restraint. “Okay,” I mumbled. At the time, it’d felt like a defeat. Soon, however, I’d realize that it was the first step towards self-acceptance.

step. Even after I let my hair down (literally), I had to learn how to love it, even when other people didn’t. When people told me that I looked unconventional, I had learn how to take it as a compliment. When boys told me that they weren’t “into” curly hair, I had to learn how to shake it off. When people claimed that my curls concealed my Japanese identity, I had to resist the urge to think of them as a biological mistake. When family members insisted that I straighten my hair for special occassions (or even permanently–yes, I’ve been offered chemical straightening “as a gift”), I had to remind myself that curly hair is a gift.

I’ll repeat that: my curly hair is a gift.

Now, I regard my hair as  a trademark of sorts. The wild spirals enhance my personality and my distinctiveness. People tell me that they can spot me from far away because of my hair, and I love that. I am identifiable–and that’s a powerful feeling.

It may seem absurd that I’ve spent the last 600+ words talking about my hair. But it’s so much more than that. I’ve learned how to love and embrace this somewhat unique part of myself, even in the face of judgment. I’ve tested the resilience of my confidence, and I’ve realized that believing in my own beauty is more important than conforming to a media standard. I’m finally comfortable with being a little different–unconventional, even–as long as that means that I’m being myself.

For some more curly hair love, read this and watch this:

 

Frank, Funny, and Fun: Mindy Kaling’s “Why Not Me?”

If my childhood, teens, and twenties were about wanting people to like me, now I want people to know me. So, this is a start.

– Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me?

So, I lied. I originally said that this blog would be a space for me to talk about reading and writing fiction, but after binge reading the entirety of Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? yesterday, I am expanding the scope of this blog to include nonfiction as well.

Why Not Me? is Mindy Kaling’s second book of personal essays [the first being Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), which I have yet to read]. After trudging through slews of novels by Dead, Serious, and Canonical White Guys throughout my university education, it was refreshing and exhilirating to dip into the pages of Kaling’s contemporary life as a writer and actress–one that does not always align with the standards of beauty and behavior that police the existences of women in Hollywood.

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What makes WNM such a thoroughly enjoyable and valuable read is Kaling’s voice and attitude: she is simultaneously frank about her (very human) insecurities and faults and unapologetic about her confidence and overall fabulousness. Her language is colorful and sharp, colloquial but eloquent, sprinkled with perfectly selected pop culture allusions. A professional comedian, she cranks out sidesplitting jokes, while, at the same time, articulating poignant, honest musings about experiences/feelings that readers will undoubtedly relate to. There was one particular reflection in “Some Thoughts on Weddings” that resonated with me:

With my friends, the sad truth is that our best “best friend” days are behind us. […] It’s traumatizing to think that a best friend could become just a friend. That’s because there is virtually no difference between an acquaintance and a friend. But the gulf between a friend and a best friend is enormous and profound.

-Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me?

I think that it’s easy to forget that celebrities have personal lives that are structured very much like our own, with familial and platonic support systems. Kaling doesn’t upkeep that misconception by lingering too long in the seemingly glamorous aspects of her career. Instead, she breaks it down for us, as in essays like “A Day in the Life of Mindy Kaling,” detailing what kind of work went/goes into building and sustaining that kind of life. Yes, she assures us, having your own TV show actually requires a lot of hard work. Sure, there are some perks, like becoming buddies with the President of the United States and being BFFs with cool people like B.J. Novak, but underneath all of that fluff are long hours of writing and editing scripts and meeting with scarily important network executives who may or may not shut down your projects any minute.

Kaling, who is especially open about her desire to please people, focuses a great deal on her personal relationships, as well as the personal side of her professional relationships. She doesn’t hesitate to tell us about celebrity-friendships-gone-wrong and crushes that fizzled into could-have-beens. She confesses to taking immense pleasure in filming sex scenes. And she paints idiosyncratic portraits of the most influential mentors that have shaped her career. She humanizes the experience of working in a business that relies so heavily on illusion and facade.

Why Not Me? was the most fun and pleasurable reading experience that I’ve had in a long time. It was straightforward and easy to read (refreshing after taking courses on Chaucer and Shakespeare), but, at the same time, it was thought-provoking and intelligent. I didn’t have to exercise too much intellectual brainpower to feel connected to it, either; I just connected. Mindy Kaling proves with WNM the power of a book that inspires effortless emotional connection and balanced mental engagement.

If you’re looking for a book to enjoy this weekend, I’d definitely check this one out!

Till next time…

-JoAnna

How I Fell in Love with Writing: From Middle School Mania to Life-Long Passion

I think that YA books proved to me that my voice and my stories were valid and worth putting on the page.

Most English majors or writers that you meet will tell you how 1) they were avid readers in their youth, with their noses perpetually dipped in books; 2) their reading capabilities far exceeded that expected of their grade level; and 3) they identified with Harry Potter houses in the same way that some people live by their astrological signs.

Confession: as a kid, I didn’t meet that description.

When I was in elementary school, you’d be more likely to find me directing soap operas with my Barbie dolls, watching Jackie Chan Adventures, or reenacting scenes from Peter Pan by myself in the backyard than reading a book. I journaled often and enjoyed writing in school–I even asked my fifth grade teacher if she could assign more essays. I loved creating characters and stories, but with the exception of Lemony Snicket’s The Series of Unfortunate Events, I didn’t have that zealous obsession with literature that a lot of writers had as children.

That is, until middle school, when a relative gave me a Borders gift card for Christmas. (Moment of silence for Borders’s demise.)

I found the Young Adult (YA) section on the second floor. The book spines burst with color–rainbow patterns that stretched across the shelves, drawing me in. I pulled some books out to read the synopses, pleasantly surprised to find that these were stories about people my age, or just a few years older, and in the contemporary world. That warm, glowing, glittering feeling of connection sprouted within me.

Among the wide selection, I came across a familiar title: Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen by Dyan Sheldon. I’d seen the movie with Lindsay Lohan. What would that story be like on the page? I wondered. This book was my first purchase at Borders, and the first YA book that I’d ever read. Though I found the narrator of Confessions to be, well, a bratty drama queen (should’ve expected that), the book instantly hooked me to the genre.

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It wasn’t long before I discovered Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen and…well. Eventually, my bookshelf looked like this:

My relationship with books became much more crucial when I was in ninth grade, when I, like the archetypical coming-of-age novel protagonist, underwent a loner period. Books (and the characters in them) became my dearest friends, my safe haven.

Around this time, I began to really delve into creative writing  on my own, totally inspired by all of the books that I read. I think that these YA books proved to me that my voice and my stories were valid and worth putting on the page. So, when I wasn’t practicing the violin or doing homework, I’d write teen dramas inspired by television shows that I watched, like One Tree Hill. Eventually, I started to write semi-autobiographical works in which all of the things that I wished happened to me…happened.

And that’s the kind of self-indulging motivation that led me to write my first full-length YA novel.

You see, in middle school, as I developed a love for reading, I also cultivated an obsession with Fall Out Boy and their bassist/lyricist, Pete Wentz (or as I used to call him, Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz III, because I was a creepily fanatical and newly hormonal twelve-year-old with Internet access). I memorized lyrics, collected posters, learned the band member’s biographies, joined their fan club–what the Beatles were to girls in the sixties, Fall Out Boy was to me.

So, one day, when I was in seventh grade, I got out a purple spiral notebook and decided that I was going to write a story about it. I transformed myself into thirteen-year-old protagonist Grace Parker and recreated Pete Wentz as Pete Wenston (very clever, right?), the new boy in school and love interest who happens to be in a rock band. Everyone in my actual middle school manifested as background characters in my novel in one way or another. As I wrote more and more, I ditched the notebook and shifted to the computer, writing everyday until I finished at 293 single-spaced pages.

The novel, as you can imagine, was painfully cheesy and amateurishly written, exploding with clichés, mispellings, and narrative inconsistencies. I didn’t write it with the intention of showing anyone (though, some friends pried it out of my hands, so to speak) and that’s probably why it was so easy and fun to write. I wasn’t overly critical of myself as I am now, because I wrote it purely for the pleasure of writing.

And I didn’t stop there. Within the next year, I wrote a  sequel in which all of the characters are in college (talk about a time-jump) and two more lengthy novels; one was about a garage band that gets a record deal and the other was about the shenanigans that went down at a music camp. I guess you could say that by fourteen, I was already prolific. 

Once I decided that I wanted to “be a writer,” it all became significantly more difficult. I wrote less, even avoided the blank page altogether, my creative faculities shut down by self-doubt and self-inflicted pressure. It took me a long while to realize that a New York Times best-selling title didn’t make you a real writer. Writing makes you a writer. With that epiphany,  I found my voice again.

I went on to attend a creative writing program during the summer before my senior year of high school as part of the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA). This experience–four of the best weeks of my life that I will undoubtedly cover in another blog post–solidified my passion for storytelling, validated my abilities, and showed me that I existed within a community. Writing, I realized once again, connects me to people, places, and things–it is my way of making sense of the world and finding my place in it.

In college, I enrolled in short story workshops and, just last week, I completed a senior thesis. A novella, the longest work that I’ve written since middle school. I can say that I have matured dramatically as a writer over the last few years in terms of style, subject matter, and technique. I’ve somewhat departed from YA in terms of both reading and writing, but I will never lose my appreciation for the genre and its significance in my own narrative.

I’m excited to see what will come next in the saga of my writing career. Who knows? Maybe, someday, I will actually achieve that New York Times best-selling title. Regardless, one thing is certain: I’ll keep on writing.

Welcome to my blog!

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Hi friend! Thank you for stopping by my little corner of the Webverse.

You’d think that after finishing my senior thesis (lots of pages, lots of coffee, and not enough sleep), I’d take a break from writing to hibernate or binge-watch B movies on Netflix for at least a century. And yet, here I am, composing the first post for this blog, an idea that’s been marinating in my mind for at least two years. Having just completed a milestone and being very much caffeinated, I decided to leap into it, to do more…doing. Though, this blog will showcase a lot of my thinking. 

As you may or may not know, my name is JoAnna, capital “A” included. I am a soon-to-be university graduate, bookworm, fiction writer, violinist, and visual artist. I love coffee, guinea pigs, and romantic comedies. This is beginning to sound like an online dating profile, so I’ll stop the brief bio here. 

On this blog, I will transcribe my general musings on life, as well as geek out about writing and reading fiction. I like to talk about short stories and novels not only as an adoring (or critical) reader, but a student writer, evaluating the works for technique. As Austin Kleon said:

Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.

That’s why my posts about fiction would more accurately be called “studies” as opposed to “reviews.” Even if I don’t like something that I’ve read, I know that, at the very least, I learned something from the experience of reading it. I’d rather not quantify my relationship with a story using a rating scale. Though, I will certainly make reading recommendations!

I will occasionally write about other forms of storytelling like film and television–perhaps I’m saying that because I’ve been in a Gilmore Girls craze lately, and I really want to talk about it. (Ditto Jane the Virgin.)

In short, this blog is a new adventure for me. I’d love for you to join me!

Till next time…

-JoAnna