What I’ve Learned About Creativity + Fear

I am a writer.

I say this with confidence and certainty. Whether or not I am a good writer is up for debate—but I stand in my truth when I say that I am, in my mind and in my heart, a writer.

About a year has passed since I’ve completed a piece of fiction (or at least, a draft). This I say with shame and frustration. I have managed a few pages here, a sentence or two there. Just fragments.

Let me clarify. I have written: blog posts, letters, journal entries, product descriptions, marketing copy, technical documentation, and countless emails. While each style exercises my creativity and keeps me lithe, there’s something within me—a truth, a passion, an excitement— that these projects do not have access to in the same way that fiction does.

So, what’s stopping me? It’s not writer’s block, because that does not exist. I have plenty of ideas that I could run with.

Lately, I’ve been watching and listening to a lot of content by Marie Forleo (entrepreneur, writer, philanthropist, overall lady boss). On the way to work last week, I tuned into her interview with best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert. They focused on the vexed yet necessary relationship between fear and creativity.

In the midst of their discussion, Elizabeth laid out this big piece of TRUTH.

“People tell me about the projects that they want to be making and are not making […] When they come to me with their problems about creativity, […] I find that they always have some rational, reasonable, material real-world reason why they’re not doing it that they can lay out as an explanation. But when you scratch away at that, what’s there is always and only fear. […] Creativity will always provoke your fear because it asks you to enter into a realm with an uncertain outcome, and fear hates that.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

I fear rejection and criticism. I fear that my stories do not have enough value or meaning. I fear mediocrity. I fear that I will invest time and energy into a piece that will never get published.

The last one is major for me. Be it the desire for human connection or the need for validation, I get a thrill from sharing my work with others (once I gather the courage to do so). However, I’ve somehow convinced myself that sharing is equivalent to publishing, and that my platform must be public, whether that’s a blog or a paperback.

In another interview, Marie Forleo speaks with Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, who says:

“One of the early decisions I made was to not focus on getting published and to rather focus on my craft.” – Cheryl Strayed

Most of my fears hinge on what other people think of my writing, as well as what they will do with it. The pressure to publish does not help; in fact, it is paralyzing.

With the help of Elizabeth and Cheryl, I’ve realized that time spent on a story that I’ll never published is just as fruitful as time that I’d spend on a lit mag submission. Published words, though more visible, are not inherently more meaningful than the words that I scribble into my journal. Now is the time to reclaim my creativity and my passion and to redefine what gives my work value.

I’ll begin now by saying this:

My writing is important, because it is important to me.

On Being (“Too”) Sensitive

I am an emotional person.

I am romantic. I am sentimental. I am expressive.

I can cry at almost anything–from actual tragic films to sappy commercials. (Put twinkling piano music to a mother and her newborn, and I’m gone.) Though people like the lovely Mindy Kaling have made strong cases for the sci-fi quality of romantic comedies, a part of me still believes that love can be as sweet as Adam Sandler singing over an airplane loudspeaker to Drew Barrymore or as passionate as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet holding onto each other in the middle of the freezing ocean post-disaster.  

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I save remnants of the past, like ticket stubs and letters, because throwing them away feels like erasing paragraphs of a memory. And I cannot resist the incessant urge to put the melodies of my heart strings into words. Why else would I be a writer, an artist, and a musician, if not to find some way to  articulate…all of this?

Thus, it is no surprise that some people regard me as sensitive.

Upon Googling “sensitive”–and please do excuse the cliché of providing literal dictionary definitions–I found two relevant meanings. The first (and the more preferable) is as follows:

(of a person or a person’s behavior) having or displaying a quick and delicate appreciation of others’ feelings.

Nice, right? I rather like that idea. The second, however…:

…easily offended or upset.

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You see, I encounter the word “sensitive” in the form of the second definition far more often than the first. It arrives as an accusation, sour and salty.

“You’re too sensitive.”

Usually, people say this when I confess that something that they’ve said or done has hurt me. After hearing these three words again and again–you’re too sensitive–I’ve come to understand that to many people, transparent emotion equals excess. And when I think of excess, I think of overwhelming heaviness, unwanted pressure…These three words tell me that my emotions are a burden to others.

I cannot deny that there is such a thing as overreacting and that we all have to pick our battles. Sometimes, we really do express our emotions in an unhealthy way that may be harmful to others. I understand that we must build a somewhat tough skin to prevail through the rubbish that life throws our way. Regardless, I believe that it is problematic to shame someone for their emotional sensitivity.

Sociologists would probably say that I’m just a typical millennial in the age of trigger warnings and political correctness who needs to be “coddled.” But let’s take a closer look.

A: What you said really hurt me.

B: You’re just being too sensitive.

“You’re too sensitive” creates a boomerang effect. B transforms A’s feelings into a weapon, which they then shoot back: what you feel has nothing to do with me; there’s something wrong with you.

It’s a completely invalidating statement, as well as a transference of blame. I believe that people accuse others of being “too sensitive” to relinquish themselves of the immense responsibility that comes with hurting someone. We all like to think that we have good intentions, that we are doing the right thing. When we discover that we’ve taken a wrong turn at someone else’s expense…Well, that feels horrible. So we try to wipe our fingerprints off of their pain.

So, isn’t calling someone “too sensitive” also an emotional reaction?

Sensitive people are typically depicted as weaklings. The world, people say, is a cruel and scary place, and we must not take it so personally. But if we insist that insensitivity and disaffection are normal and inevitable, the world will always be a cruel and scary place, because the thought of being numb to pain, happiness, and everything in between, is indeed terrifying.

I’ve never been ashamed of being an emotional person. Yes, I feel deeply; and to me, that is a gift.  That energy rising, falling, simmering, and glowing within my chest reminds me that I am here, participating and reacting to everything around me–present. Alive.

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.

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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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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