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We’re All Closeted Unreliable Narrators

Last week, I wrote a post about the web and unreliable narrators. The web lets us be unreliable narrators for a certain amount of time, but if we are disconnected for a moment, the real world will find out our true identities. Which aspects of your personality do you like to present using social media and/or your blog?

On November 4th, I wrote a post titled “Social Media and the Unreliable Narrator“. Basically, I tried to make a case for the ways that the Internet allows us to be characters in a virtual novel; by taking on new identities, we could potentially deceive one another.

I received a lot of really great feedback on this post, and I would love to share some of it with you. Much of what I write here is a call for other people to comment and respond. Sure, I have a lot of ideas, but my ideas are pretty empty without feedback and dialogue!

My friend Dan, a law school student in Florida, wrote me a very thoughtful e-mail:

In law school, someone may be in a class unprepared (like me). Suddenly, the professor asks the poor student about a case, something like, “Well, what did Clark v. Dodge say about closely held corporations in which the directors unanimously agree to control salaries of company officers through voting trusts?”

The student pretends to scroll through a non-existent outline while really pulling up the case outline on LexisNexis. Then, the student just begins to bullshit.

I’m sure this situation happens in a variety of contexts; undergraduate and graduate students, employees, and other people try to show off knowledge that they don’t actually possess. Ultimately, the student/employee is hurting him/herself. What happens during a final exam or a crucial moment when the Internet is not available?

The web lets us be unreliable narrators for a certain amount of time, but if we are disconnected for a moment, the real world will find out our true identities and capabilities.

My friend Shanna, a blogger living in Austin, TX, wrote:

My real life is edited out and I sprinkle hyperbole where appropriate to thrust something into importance or to get a cheap punchline. By deleting my trials, backspacing my feelings, and running a search through the everyday mundane, I try to extract whatever might have a bit of entertainment value…By doing this I leave an image of myself that’s void of anything I’d rather you not be privileged to, while still making sure you think you know me like a best friend. I’ve never straight up lied on my blog, but I do “story tell”.

Personal blogs do start to read like novels, if the writer is good at sustaining a narrative. I love that Shanna admits to using hyperbole. Of course, people use hyperbole in daily conversation, but this device is much easier to use when no one can see the big smirk on your face!

On Comma ‘n Sentence, I try to blog about issues relating to new and social media, creative lifestyle, and writing. However, I leave out other things I like: fitness, music, reading, etc. When you read my blog, you only get a small slice of my life. Which aspects of your personality do you like to present using social media and/or your blog?

(Photo by Kevan)

The World Is Your Art Supply Store

During a cleaning spree this past weekend, I found all my old arts and crafts supplies. In three large boxes and some large shopping bags were all the unused arts and crafts supplies that I had collected over the past 23 and a half years. Needless to say, I found a lot of raw material for artistic inspiration.

During a cleaning spree this past weekend, I found all my old arts and crafts supplies. In three large boxes and some large shopping bags were all the unused arts and crafts supplies that I had collected over the past 24 and a half years. Needless to say, I found a lot of raw material for artistic inspiration.

Seeing these supplies in one place, the colored pencils and markers rolling off the table and spools of ribbons unraveling, I was sad and nostalgic for a time when I actually had nothing better to do than just play with these magical materials.

What happened to that part of me? When did I decide to trade oil pastels and felt for writing? I became rather sad.

However, after some thought, I learned a valuable lesson: the world should and can be your “art supply store”.

What inspired me as a child no longer does anything for me. I look at the scraps of gold fabric and fur, and I’m not really sure what I should do with them.

I worry: have I hit my creative peak? My brother jokes that most creative people hit their creative peak at 25. I’m getting close!

I try to be creative every day. I just use different raw materials now than I did when I was younger.

Look around you. Inspiration is something you don’t have to buy. Think about the people, places, and things that you love. Do they move you on a daily basis? Do they inspire action? Loving what surrounds you is a truly creative force.

Think about your feelings about politics and/or current events. Do they inspire action? Do you use tools like Facebook and Twitter as a creative outlet?

Certain raw materials are for certain people. Visual artists will always gravitate toward their medium of choice. However, anyone that wants to cultivate general creativity should accept that it’s alright and healthy to move from medium to medium.

What’s your current medium of choice and why? How do you think it reflects your current life situation and how do you think you can be even more creative using your medium of choice?

A First Person with Purpose

Can you rewrite your narrator? Not exactly sure how to present yourself? Doubting your identity, values, or beliefs? You will probably require a third person narrator. Desirous and outspoken? Diving headfirst into a goal or mission? You will have to flex your first person. Feeling like you only matter in relation to another person? In rare cases, you will want a second person narrator.

Last night, I picked up my grad school thesis for the first time since May.

I am not exaggerating. I was so sick of writing and revising it that I couldn’t even reread my work for six months.

Looking at it now, I realize how much a person can grow and change in half a year. Just think about all the things that have happened to you since May. Are you a different person now?

I am beginning to remember the ideas and emotions that consumed me while I was writing these short stories, and I am suddenly not sure if I want to continue where I stopped. I have greater insight and a better grasp on friendships/relationships.

Regardless, I feel ready to revise and add to it. But now I want to use the first-person (“I”) voice.

I wrote my original manuscript with a third person narrator, and my advisers frequently suggested that I experiment with the first person. At the time, I didn’t feel ready to explore the first person voice.

However, I think I understand my main character better. I can speak for her now. I plan to spend the next few weeks retyping the original manuscript with a first person voice.

While considering my own work, I am also starting to wonder: how I can apply shifts in narration to real-life situations?

Do you allow someone else to speak on your behalf? Could you find your own voice? Should you find your own voice?

For my fictional character, first person will mean that she will have to be more of who she is. She will be funnier, bolder, and more creative. She will make stronger decisions and assert herself in antagonistic situations.

Can you rewrite your narrator?

Not exactly sure how to present yourself? Doubting your identity, values, or beliefs? You will probably require a third person narrator. Desirous and outspoken? Diving headfirst into a goal or mission? You will have to flex your first person. Feeling like you only matter in relation to another person? In rare cases, you will want a second person narrator.

Trust that you will know which narrator to recruit. Pay attention during the quiet moments, and you will be ready to speak during the loud times.

(Photo by pedrosimoes7)

Should I Pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA)?

Think of all the students that pursue visual arts, language arts, and performing arts. No, you don’t need a degree to write, draw, paint, act, read, or communicate. You also don’t need a degree to do science experiments in your garage – but students still pursue degrees in biology and chemistry.

Dear Laryssa,

Are you glad you got your MFA in Creative Writing? The reason I ask is because I almost applied for programs last year. On one hand, it’s a passion, and I know I’d get a lot out of it. On the other, I have a couple of friends who got their MFA, and it has not helped them in the job market at all. My mentor even goes so far as to call it an “art degree.” She says, “If you want to write, just write! You don’t need to go to college for that.”

If you could do it all over again, would you still get your MFA?

Sincerely,

Andy
Campbell, CA

– – –

Dear Andy,

I get this question a lot so I figured I would share the answer with my online audience. My response is not very simple, and it probably won’t make the decision any easier for you.

First of all, your mentor is correct. The Master of Fine Arts is an arts degree, but I don’t necessarily think “arts degree” is a bad thing. A lot of people study the arts for various reasons; think of all the students that pursue visual arts, language arts, and performing arts. No, you don’t need a degree to write, draw, paint, act, read, or communicate.

You also don’t need a degree to do science experiments in your garage – but students still pursue degrees in biology and chemistry.

“If you want to write, just write!” Let’s be real here. The benefit of attending a Master of Fine Arts program is that you are forced to write. Professors hold you accountable for writing, and your first priority every day should be to write. In the real world, sometimes the desire to write and the efforts made to write have epic wars with things like daily responsibilities.

That being said, the pressure to write every day is not always a good thing. How much do you love to write? Are you prepared to write even when you don’t feel like you have anything great to say? Are you prepared for grueling workshop sessions? For your peers and professor to criticize your work?

If you’re completely in love with writing, so in love you would marry writing if it were a person, then another thing to consider is cost. If you have the money to attend the program, or the program offers you money, my advice to you is DO IT, GO!

However, you should be very realistic about the monetary value of your degree. You wrote, “I have a couple of friends how got their MFA, and it has not helped them in the job market at all.” The MFA is a terminal, non-professional degree. Unlike a law degree, which has a specific purpose, a Master of Fine Arts is a chance for the student to fully immerse herself in her craft and to practice writing.

If you’re thinking about pursuing the MFA simply because you think it will help you in the job market, DON’T DO IT! Now, many people would ask: why would you go to school if it won’t necessarily help you in the job market? Hundreds of years ago, curious and interested young people pursued an education simply for the pleasure and joy of it. Think about that.

Let me tell you a little story, Andy. In July, I went to a job interview at a well-respected publishing company. After spending about a half hour with the interviewer, the last thing she asked me was about my MFA. “Oh, you like to write?” She asked. “That’s nice, a lot of our employees have hobbies, and we encourage them.”

Be prepared to get that kind of response. Frequently.

If you want to be a writing teacher or professor, the MFA will help you in the job market. However, the degree alone will not be enough to secure you a job as a teacher. While you are in grad school, you are going to have to work hard to build your teaching experience and your relationships with your professors. Sometimes, these tasks get in the way of the WRITING, which is the main reason why you decided to go to school, right? Think about grading papers for hours when you have a short story to write.

You also have to consider the program itself. Some schools place a greater emphasis on craft, and other schools place a greater emphasis on the study of literature. At the University of Maryland, I had to take required English courses with the English M.A. and PhD students. I never took an English literature course in college; I’m a writer, not a literature scholar. If you don’t like analyzing books to death, you will have to consider this element.

Nowadays, universities have a few different program options: part-time, full-time, and low residency. These options affect more than just the time you spend on campus; they affect how much time you spend in the writing community at the school. Being involved in the writing community is one of the most potentially fulfilling aspects of a Master of Fine Arts degree. If you find yourself at a school where many of your classmates have busy lives outside of the classroom, you probably won’t see them very often.

At the University of Maryland, the writing community was not very close. Because I didn’t teach, I was on campus 2-3 days/week for class. What did I do during the rest of the week? I worked part-time jobs and internships to keep myself busy. My classmates came from Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, and many had other jobs, responsibilities, and families. At a school like Iowa, for example, the writing community is overwhelmingly vibrant.

If I could do it all over again, I would go. However, I would apply to more schools (I think I applied to 13)/research the programs/spend some time talking to the students in these programs and asking them about their experiences.

During my time in grad school, I learned a lot about myself, mostly because I felt like I had to invent a daily purpose. Writing fiction on a near-daily basis is an emotionally-trying process. All too often, I felt caught up in my imagination. But if you can handle the intensity, I think pursuing the MFA is a noble task.

Also, I now have a 200-page work-in-progress collection of short stories that I probably wouldn’t have written otherwise.

Good luck!

Laryssa

When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a Blogger?

If you ask me now what I want to be when I “grow up”, I wouldn’t have a good answer. Right now, I just want a full-time job, one that pays me enough to allow me to move out of my parents’ house. In general, what I want to be is a writer, editor, and creative go-to girl, but I probably won’t be those things at a glossy magazine. So I do those things in my spare time.

Once upon a time, when adults asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, I eagerly responded, “I want to work for a glossy magazine!”.

When I was a senior in high school, I won $100 for an essay about how, one day, I would have my own magazine and call it “Laryssa”. Heck, if Oprah and Martha could do it, why couldn’t I do it too?

If you ask me now what I want to be when I “grow up”, I wouldn’t have a good answer. Right now, I just want a full-time job, one that pays me enough to allow me to move out of my parents’ house. In general, what I want to be is a writer, editor, and creative go-to girl, but I probably won’t be those things at a glossy magazine. So I do those things in my spare time.

What I find most amazing is how quickly the publishing industry has changed over the past five years. When I graduated high school and entered college as a communications major, I could not imagine the death of print and the slow evolution of major publishing houses like Condé Nast, a company that I thought would be my ideal employer (a few days ago, they cut 180 jobs by closing several magazines).

Young professionals who pursue careers in the technology sector realize that they will constantly have to update their skill sets to remain employed. But people in media? Well, they went to school, learned how to write and communicate well, honed their creativity, and paid their dues as interns, working their way to top editorial positions.

Now, I think the publishing industry is more volatile than the tech industry. In many ways, the former depends on the latter.

Sure, I could probably find a job in interactive/digital media, which is booming. But I don’t think anyone has really found a solid business model for non-print publications. I happen to like online magazines and newspapers, and I’m glad that good writing will find a new, non-glossy, home. But I never said, “Mommy, I want to be a blogger when I grow up.”

Children Challenge Your Creativity

True creativity is born from an insatiable need for self-expression. Have you ever thought about something creative that you might like to do? That you would do if you had more time? Would you cook an improvised meal? Would you knit a warm-weather accessory? Would you draw a graphic novel?

Even the most creative people sometimes lose sight of what it means to be creative, just for the heck of it. Work and other responsibilities pull us away from our creative impulses!

Sure, creative professionals might be doing something “creative” (if they’re lucky) at their jobs: designing book jackets for a publishing house or writing copy for ad campaigns. But I believe that true creativity is born from an insatiable need for self-expression.

Have you ever thought about something creative that you might like to do? That you would do if you had more time? Would you cook an improvised meal? Would you knit a warm-weather accessory? Would you draw a graphic novel?

If I had infinite amounts of leisure time, I would learn to play the guitar (a task which I have started and stopped numerous times), make jewelry, learn to sew, and write poetry.

However, many of these tasks require more than the time it takes to actually do them. These creative pursuits demand a meditative frame of mind, which sometimes takes hours to achieve. Think about it: would you be able to shift from a high-stress work assignment to writing a poem for fun without a break in between both tasks? I would be pretty impressed if you could.

For those of you that have trouble being creative, I have the perfect solution. My four-year-old cousin taught me that all anyone needs to rekindle creative spirit is to spend time with a child. Even better? Teach them a skill that will allow them to be creative, and you will find your immediately spark your own creativity.

When I was in college, I used to make beaded jewelry for myself. I even took classes at the Gem Cutters Guild of Baltimore. Putting together different color beads was a great break from the stresses (yes, stresses!) of college life. However, I hadn’t touched my bead box for at least two years when I suggested necklace-making to distract my cousin.

Teaching her required me to be creative because I had to explain the process in such a way that she would understand it. Helping her make the necklace required me to be creative because I had to direct her without getting in the way of her own creative process. Allowing a stuffed animal audience required my creativity because I had to accept that a pink unicorn was judging our performance.

So how was this activity my insatiable need for self-expression? Well, I really wanted to bead; I saw her as the perfect opportunity to fulfill my desire to do so. Most of the time I do want to be creative but have trouble accepting my desire; shouldn’t I be doing something more productive?

(Photo by net efekt)

The Thrill of Being Able to Share

One of the most exciting things about working on Too Shy to Stop is knowing that I have a little corner of the Internet where I can gather and share stories and photographs by like-minded young people. I’m thrilled when someone wants to match the Too Shy to Stop mission and vision.

One of the most exciting things about working on Too Shy to Stop is knowing that I have a little corner of the Internet where I can gather and share stories and photographs by like-minded young people. When one of our writers pitches a story idea to me or submits photographs, I’m really thrilled that someone has creative work that will match the Too Shy to Stop mission and vision.

Last week, Too Shy to Stop contributor Erin asked me if she could submit photos that she would take at protests against the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, PA. When she pitched the idea, I really had no idea what to expect, but I agreed. I knew from experience that she is a talented photographer, and I was sure that the photos would be spectacular.

On Thursday night (the night of the protests), at around 9 PM, Erin wrote on my Facebook wall: “ohhhh do i have photos for you.”. At that point, I was so busy with other things that I forgot to expect the pictures! She e-mailed me 10 zip files filled with all the pictures she had taken that day, and I spent the next hour or two reviewing them, editing them, and posting them to Too Shy to Stop for Friday morning publication.

Her enthusiasm was completely contagious, and I was so excited that she had taken all these unique photographs. I was happy that she trusted me with them, and I did everything I could to make sure that many people saw them. Obviously, I can’t make anyone care about pictures of protesters, but I hope that a lot of people looked at and appreciated them.

The little corner of the Internet that Too Shy to Stop occupies may not be comprehensive or far-reaching, but it does have its quirks. The New York Times doesn’t have Erin Goldberger on staff, but we do, and CNN will never get the photos that we have. I think that’s pretty cool.

(Photo by Erin Goldberger)

The Great Pumpkin Is a Great Teacher

The fact that I couldn’t find canned pumpkin actually turned out to be a good thing. I would make homemade pumpkin puree instead; this would require me to purchase actual pumpkins, remove the seeds, and bake the pumpkin segments. I learned a valuable lesson: just because a shortcut exists doesn’t mean you should take it.

Last night, I cooked a giant pot of turkey-pumpkin chili for Jarad and my parents. I wanted to make it last weekend but didn’t because I couldn’t find canned pumpkin puree in any of the local supermarkets.

The fact that I couldn’t find canned pumpkin actually turned out to be a good thing. I would make homemade pumpkin puree instead; this would require me to purchase actual pumpkins, remove the seeds, and bake the pumpkin segments.

While I was cutting up the pumpkin and flinging fibrous pumpkin innards into the trash can, my parents kept asking, “Why are you wasting so much time and energy when you can buy pumpkin in a can?” Sure, making the puree myself was a more difficult and time-consuming process, but getting pumpkin all over my hands was therapeutic. It seemed an appropriate thing to do on the first day of fall.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to make my own puree if I had other things to do, but I have been spending a lot of time in front of the computer and felt like I needed to make something with my hands. Cutting up pumpkins was more a meditation than a chore.

Once my puree was complete, I roasted the pumpkin seeds, which turned out to be a healthy snack that I could eat during the actual chili-making process, which required 45 minutes of intense vegetable chopping.

Have you ever heard stories about inner city children who don’t understand that vegetables actually come from somewhere other than the supermarket? How can you blame them? They are so disconnected from the earth that they can’t imagine it. Whenever I cook something that requires extra, unnecessary effort, I feel like those children, like I’m missing some vital knowledge about life.

So, why am I spending so much time writing about pumpkins? I learned a valuable lesson: just because a shortcut exists doesn’t mean you should take it. Choose your shortcuts wisely and set aside time for doing some things “the long way”. People (ahem, my parents) might think you’re crazy, but you will learn something about yourself and appreciate technology more.

You Don’t Need Grad School for a Thesis

I’m working on a new design for this blog. The Clean Home theme for WordPress has served me well, but I’m ready to try something new. A few months ago, I purchased a license for the Thesis theme, and I never got around to implementing it. I started playing around with it on another site but ultimately didn’t feel it was the right decision.

However, now I’m ready to take the plunge.

thesisThesis is great because it provides a solid framework for anyone who is interested in using WordPress but also doesn’t want to create a website from scratch. On this page, you can see the all the ways that other bloggers have customized Thesis. On some of the sites, you can hardly tell that the designer used a base theme!

(Pictured at left: Not THAT kind of thesis, by Eusebius@Commons)

Another great thing about Thesis is the support that comes with it. The official website hosts a forum run by devoted fans and knowledgeable web developers. You can pretty much find an answer to any question you may ever have about customizing the Thesis theme. Don’t feel like searching the forums? A Google search will generate more than enough answers.

You won’t be able to see the new design until I’m finished, but I promise that the layout will be clean and user-friendly. After using Clean Home for about nine months now, I know exactly what I need and want from a website framework.

I highly recommend Thesis for fans of WordPress, bloggers, and anyone who knows basic HTML and CSS.

New Media Generates New Genres

Since “new media” is a fairly broad and nebulous term, I would like to create a point of focus for this post. I am going to discuss: NEW GENRES OF WRITING (dun dun dun).

genreSome of my favorite blogs contain never-before-defined genres. A blog is a venue for writing, but the content within the blog can take many shapes and forms. Some blogs have informative articles, others showcase creative writing, and other blogs bend and break the rules of photojournalism.

(Pictured at left: Genre bending, by kevindooley)

My current favorite blog is Reblogging NonSociety (RBNS), a site dedicated to mocking Julia Allison and NonSociety. I am fascinated by RBNS because I truly believe that it serves as an example of a new genre that has emerged from new media.

RBNS is updated by three anonymous bloggers, and the commenters are regular (and extremely loyal) site-goers with memorable screen-names.

All the content on the site depends on NonSociety’s content. If Julia doesn’t update her site, her Twitter stream, or her Facebook page, the RBNS bloggers would have nothing to post.

Julia’s content is not particularly special or mind-blowing, but she is a fascinating character. While her site is considered autobiographical in nature, the RBNS site is satirical. The RBNS content is reminiscent of a roast, during which comedians poke fun at an individual, who takes the humor in good faith and is not personally offended.

RBNS is so harsh in their criticism of Julia that she has threatened to take legal action against the bloggers. However, they are not doing anything wrong! They are simply commenting on facts and statements that Julia willingly makes public to everyone on the Internet: a blog that makes fun of a blog!

Do any other blogs like this exist? I know that some blogs are devoted to making fun of celebrities, but most celebrities still promote themselves in traditional ways. What’s unique about Julia is that she made herself “famous” using the Internet. In the future, will we witness the emergence of more Internet celebrities and, thus, more blogs that make fun of blogs?