By Cate Pitterle
My favorite word is sonder, an obscure term that I found through a TED Talk and that Microsoft Word tells me isn’t real. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows describes it as: “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”
Though the word is becoming more common, with pages on Wiktionary and even Urban Dictionary, that feeling—of realizing that others have lives “as vivid and complex as your own”—once shared a plight with dozens, hundreds of others. The English language is simply not broad enough.
Who, after all, hasn’t experienced Yaghan’s mamihlapinatapai—looking at someone, hoping they’ll offer to do what you both are unwilling to? After all, no one wants to get up from the couch, snuggled into a blanket in the dead of winter, to take the dog outside into the freezing snow; when you and your brother look at each other, both hoping the other will do it, you’re experiencing mamihlapinatapai.
And I know that I’ve personally experienced the Scottish concept of tartle—the act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name. We’ve all heard a jayus, an Indonesian concept perhaps most closely related to the dad joke, a joke so terrible that you can’t help but laugh. And even Twitter’s @SoVeryBritish has at least partially gotten in on the Inuit idea of iktsuarpok, the anticipation of waiting for someone to arrive, pushing you to sporadically go outside to see if they’re coming.
German is even famous among English-speakers for having one-word terms for obscure things. Fernweh describes longing to be somewhere else or missing somewhere you’ve never been. Kummerspeck, literally meaning “grief bacon,” means the excess weight one puts on from stress-eating during a hard time. To me, the most relatable one is perhaps fremdschämen—essentially, second-hand embarrassment, that wanting to cringe when watching someone else humiliate themselves. Honestly, it’s why I refuse to watch certain TV shows and movies, like Parks and Rec or even The Good Place.
What does all this mean, then? Is English uncreative, or are these just the cries of a writer who hates having to string together more than one word to describe “a song that’s stuck in your head” (in German, ohrwurm)?
In my mind, discovering where English comes up short—and where it specifically defines things that other languages do not—isn’t an arduous or painful task. Linguistically, it’s fascinating to see what words languages choose to define, and how. I do wish that I could use iktsuarpok in everyday conversation, but studying how it’s used in Inuit is as intellectually rewarding. Not every language can describe everything, so studying others is not only useful, but necessary. After all, we’re all human—we experience the same emotions, the same fears, the same hopes—we just have to put them into words.
By Ottavia Paluch
Kaveh Akbar is a poetic force to be reckoned with. He was one of the first contemporary poets I had constantly been reminded of when I started reading poetry—so many poets, established and emerging, were mentioning his name and saying to read his work, whether you were new to poetry or a veteran of the…sport? (Is poetry a sport?) Yet it turns out they were raving about his work for a reason, and a very good one at that. Calling a Wolf a Wolf is a heck of a poetry collection, so powerful and courageous in the way it tackles alcoholism, sobriety, addiction, language, religion, and being Iranian-American. All of this with total unbridled honesty.
The way Akbar utilizes his imagery in this collection is unmatched. It’s patient and potent and so, so his. He talks about his addiction and his alcoholism—such a harrowing period of his life—with real beauty and wisdom, and acknowledges its constant presence wherever he goes, names it, gives it a life and oxygen of its own. Consider “Desunt Nonnulla,” a poem full of creative metaphors and language, found on page 23 of the book:
I am not a slow learner I am a quick forgetter
such erasing makes one voracious if you teach me something
beautiful I will name it quickly before it floats away
True, Akbar has a lot of fascinating language in his poems, but he also writes plenty about language itself. He was born in Tehran, Iran; his native language (Persian) and the relationship he and his family members have with it after living in America for so long is complex and worth discovering in this collection. This is discussed early in the book in “Do You Speak Persian?”: “I have been so careless with the words I already have. // I don’t remember how to say home / in my first language, or lonely or light” (6). He wrestles with his lack of understanding—of his life, and also of his first language—throughout the book, but he, of course, doesn’t have any lack of language in attempting to describe it.
Akbar also uses space in unique ways. Many of the poems in this collection are spaced out somewhat unevenly and not necessarily in the usual way newcomers may expect to see lines and stanzas spread out on the page. “Drinkware Self-Report” does a lot of things with lines and words and stanzas in that regard, building what appears to be a staircase of words. Sometimes he pulls lines and stanzas apart to leave each line on its own, like in “Supplication with Rabbit Skull and Bouquet”: “there is no such thing as sorcery // the spell cast on your cup was just a heap of words” (26). He also does this in the title poem, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient),” a paragraph in which phrases are given breathing room via white space. Inside a rehab facility is our speaker, who in turn is inside of a jarring dream. This was one of my favourite poems in the book.
Sometimes, Akbar pulls certain words from lines and presses tab, which gives off an interesting aura, like in “What Seems Like Joy”: “I feel tasked only with my own soreness like a scab on the roof / of a mouth” (35). Yet he doesn’t experiment with word/line/stanza breaks and the tab key to intimidate you. He eases you in with the tenderness (the tenderness!) of his words, the fragility that gives them strength.
His titles are really cool, too. Several poems in this book are variations on ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic with…’ (in the liner notes, he states that those can be found in Portrait of the Alcoholic, his first chapbook, through Sibling Rivalry Press). But many of his titles are like Rick Riordan’s chapter titles, except without the demigod stuff. Consider “No is a Complete Sentence.” Or “Wake Me Up When It’s My Birthday.” Or “Despite Their Size Children are Easy to Remember They Watch You.” Like, come on. Who wouldn’t want to read those poems?
I want to highlight some of my favourite poems from Calling a Wolf a Wolf (and I say some because there were too many to name):
“Orchids Are Sprouting from the Floorboards” blew my mind a little when I first read it a while back. He’s taken this simple thing—an orchid—and turned it into something powerful and increasingly complex. This poem is simple in its structure and in its language, yet it’s also moving in the way it builds and builds and builds and then ends on this completely unexpected and crushing note.\
“Unburnable the Cold is Flooding Our Lives,” which, yes, is spelt correctly, is full of rich metaphors and figurative language that’s fresh and compelling and moving: “how many times are you allowed to lose the same beloveds / before you stop believing they’re gone” (53).
“So Often the Body Becomes a Distraction,” is a Very Good Poem that, like a lot of the collection, has cool turns of phrase and diction. It also doesn’t have any tab keys pressed, it fits on one page, and is rather relatable (at least to me): “I’m learning how much of myself / I don’t actually need. It exists, a world without / this dumb neck” (85).
And the way Akbar resists a real ending to his story so poignantly with the final poem in the collection, “Portrait of the Alcoholic Stranded on a Deserted Island”: “I hold my breath. // The boat I am building / will never be done.” (89). I found that poem a long time ago and marveled at the gorgeous simplicity of those lines for so long. I still marvel at them now,
Calling a Wolf a Wolf is Kaveh Akbar’s debut collection of poems, released in 2017 through Alice James Books. His next collection is called Pilgrim Bell, and will be out in 2021 through Graywolf. I will SO be buying that when it drops.
Unpopular Opinion: Standardized Tests on Literature May Actually Teach You Something About Literature
By Cate Pitterle
The timer reads 35:26. I am not quite halfway through the test. My pencil scribbles faster than my brain, annotating the poem before me--written in 1607, maybe it’s Shakespeare?—and I can barely read my handwriting. Once I struggle through the thick lengths of iambic pentameter, I’m slicing through questions that I can barely understand with answer choices that rarely make sense.
I get a question where the only answer choices are metonym, synecdoche, analogy, extended metaphor, assonance. I only know what two of those things are, and even then I’m just guessing on the “extended” part of extended metaphor.
I circle extended metaphor without hesitation. My eyes fly to the next question.
This one asks me to analyze the passage. I’ve never understood Shakespeare in my life; this is a test of my mettle. The poem addresses a mirror, so I assume it’s about vanity (oh, could I have been more wrong). Question after question fills my head until my ears are ringing. I stop noticing my surroundings. Everything is a blur except the black-inked words in front of me.
The next time I look up, the timer reads 05:56. I am ten questions from the end of the test. I circle answers as fast as my stubby pencil can manage, letting it fall with a clatter four seconds before the alarm sounds.
In short, my first interaction with the SAT Literature practice book did not go well.
What does a standardized test actually teach you, or even test you on? Does the SAT Subject Test in Literature, as well as other similar tests, accurately judge potential English majors on their fitness for the field?
Standardized tests, and literature-focused ones in particular—from SAT Subject Tests to AP Lang to whatever it is IB students take (sorry guys)—don’t measure your aptitude to be a writer. They don’t even measure your skill as a reader. They measure your ability to produce an answer that the test proctors want to hear.
Before we dive into that, let me get into some background.
The SAT Literature test in particular, as well as some other select literature tests, divide their questions into what I categorize as three basic types:
1. Literary terms. This is the extended metaphor question from before. They pick out a line of the passage, maybe a paragraph or stanza, and ask you to identify the main technique the author is using.
2. Basic or surface meaning. These are the questions that ask you to take a line, section, or even the entirety of a passage and explain what it’s saying. When Shakespeare says, “I have seen roses demasked,” what is he actually saying in modern English? I don’t know, but you’ll probably have to figure it out for a question like this.
3. Deeper meaning. These are the questions about theme. They tend to be the harder questions, and the more controversial ones. I’ll get into that more below.
To start, let’s analyze a (fake, but that’s okay) example.
A creative nonfiction piece talks about a little girl’s fear of a dark, inescapable void; she can’t sleep because of it, and spends every night sitting on her bed, staring at this darkness.
To you, an insomniac, the story is about a girl’s struggle with the disorder. The ambiguity of the void allows you to imagine this interpretation. In fact, your interpretation of the void as insomnia makes the story richer for you.
However, the test-makers disagree. Let’s say you get a question like this:
1. What is the main point of this passage?
a. The little girl can’t sleep.
b. The little girl is afraid of the dark.
c. The little girl lost her teddy bear.
d. The little girl’s favorite color is orange.
e. The little girl is hungry and really just wants a chocolate bar, and honestly, don’t we all?
It will definitely be better written than this, but the gist is this: You might have two or three throwaway answers, like C, D, and E, and two correct or semi-correct ones, like A and B. Both are at least partially correct, with A being the more basic, less thematically-based version. If you interpreted that void to be insomnia, though, you might go with answer choice A. However, the proctors wanted you to pick B, that she’s afraid of the dark—their version of the story.
You’d get the question wrong because you interpreted the passage differently.
Now, I’m not saying that every question will be this way; most passages won’t be as ambiguous as the example above. But the idea is still there, that you’re not learning to think for yourself as you interpret a work of literature—you’re learning to think for the test.
That brings us to the next question type, literary terms.
After my first encounter with the ink-printed monster that was the SAT Literature Diagnostic Test, I waded through endless pages of guidelines and test strategy and vocab words.
One part of the book encouraged me to minimize guessing to two questions if possible. Yet another page told me everything I’ll ever need to know about the sonnet. I learned the abab cdcd efef gg rhyme structure, which is forever burned into the back of my brain, and that the last gg couplet constitutes a heroic couplet if—and only if—it’s written in iambic pentameter.
I finally learned the difference between metonym and synecdoche.
I realized that I didn’t need to know what polysendeton was for this test, which made me a bit sad considering it was one of the few words I remembered from AP Lang.
Is all this useful information? I couldn’t help but think. When I’m writing my own stuff, will I ever need to know what the heck the word metonym means in order to actually use it?
I’ve ended up playing those questions in my head fairly often, considering I’m taking so many standardized tests as I head into senior year. I think I have an answer.
When you’re writing, you don’t need to know the term to use the technique, but knowing the term just might encourage you to use the technique deliberately.
Even if I’m wrong, metonym is pretty cool trivia knowledge.
How do surface analysis questions fall into the mix, then?
These, to me, are the most helpful question type. Since they don’t ask you to go deep into the text, they don’t encourage any sort of specific thinking model. You’re only asked to understand what the author is trying to say, and to put that meaning into different words. If Yoda says, “Do or do not, there is no try,” a question might want you to rephrase it as “You have to commit to something instead of approaching it halfheartedly.” Pretty straightforward.
There’s not much to these questions besides analyzing the actual meaning of the passage. Perhaps other question structures, such as ones that have you categorize a piece as satire or something like that, will pop up. Otherwise, these questions are pretty basic (not to say they’re not hard), and I’ve found that they can be pretty helpful. More on that below…
…as we come to the essential question. Can standardized tests actually do some good in the world? Or are they not only the bane of a student’s existence, but also a useless resource that encourages conformity rather than innovation and creativity?
The answer, as indicated in my analysis above, is complicated. In my view, standardized tests can be good for some things. From my first interaction with the SAT practice book to the day I took the test, for instance, my understanding of classical literature improved tenfold. By test day, I could generally understand a poem from the 1800s or even the 1600s after a close read or two (at least, understand it on a level that allowed me to answer most of the questions). I could even, to my surprise and joy, kind of get Shakespeare.
Maybe it was because I was finally learning obscure terms like heroic couplet or reviewing old ones like iambic pentameter. Maybe it was because, in my ever-raging fear of sonnets, I ended up reading and analyzing half a dozen of them before test day. Or maybe it was those practice tests—maybe they actually did something for my literary knowledge.
I’ll never really know.
Literature tests are the bad and the good, the best of times and the worst of times. (Though mainly the worst of times if I’m being honest, mostly because you have to, you know, take them.) They’re a tricky thing to analyze, and a trickier thing to judge.
As society continues to trend toward the standardization of classroom material and intellectual thought, though, I’m hoping test-makers won’t fall into the trap of forcing students to think a certain way and approach literature from a narrow lens. I hope we’ll learn that creativity is more important than the ability to fill in bubbles on an answer sheet.
By Ottavia Paluch
BWO’s contest for Issue Eight revolved around the theme of “Hips.” Now that the winning pieces have been unveiled, I want to talk about them!
For this contest, we prioritized work about sex, sexuality, gender, reproduction, reproductive illness, sexual violence, and other related or intersecting topics. We wanted the truth, the deeper analysis, the exploration of things like society and vulnerability and personhood. The pieces that have been chosen as winners did just that. I’m going to go through each of the winning pieces and tell you what stuck out to me.
(On a related note, I wrote a blog post similar to this one a few months back for the last contest BWO hosted, on the theme of Fingertips. Read it here, if you’re interested.)
Magdalena Kamphausen has two pieces in Issue Eight, one of which is an honourable mention. On first read, it reminded me of Walt Whitman (who just turned 200 years old!) because of its long lines. “moments and miles” flashes back to the speaker’s younger self, someone little and “foolish.” Her self-esteem is low. In classes at school, she compares herself constantly to other girls, which, of course, isn’t always the best idea, as she believes she sticks out “like a sore thumb next to the girls with visible ribs and pierced noses.” But, by the end of the poem, she wants her partner to stay, even though her hips have held so much in her life.
Maya Wright’s “Carnis” reads like a prose poem of sorts, and it begins with a great line that sets the scene in a unique, daring way: “i never go back to that vacant parking lot.” A moment in a recent relationship has traumatized her; she says if she were to go back, she’d find “two sets of hips / in the backseat of a car that now belongs to someone else.” It’s clear Wright knows what hips are saying. In her second stanza, she considers who is to blame for the ending of the relationship: The partner? The concrete of the parking lot? Then the speaker admits her shortcomings, saying she was too young, too easy to manipulate. I love the last line in the stanza, “it’s me, love, it’s me. / still (even after) /” because to me, it sounds like a revelation, a reclamation of herself and her hips, too. She’s the same person, but also taller, more sure of herself and of her past mistakes.
Danielle Amir-Lobel’s essay was the other piece that earned an honourable mention. “Coded Bodies and Hip Size” begins with a story about a disturbing encounter with a male administrator at Amir-Lobel’s school, who “determined that he had the power to rule what is acceptable coverage for a freshman girl’s body.” She makes a strong case for why dress codes shouldn’t exist, saying that they’re sexist, racially biased, and a form of victim-blaming. People have been for and against them for decades, but according to Amir-Lobel, one thing remains the same: “The code has become not about clothes but about girls’ and women’s anatomy: thighs, shoulders, chest, abdominals.” Her essay fits perfectly with the theme of the contest: hips exist for a reason; why should they restrain us, or hold us back?
Madison Lazenby won second place for her concise and crystal-clear poem, “I’d Like to Think I Was in Gymnastics for a Reason.” I love her audacity to begin the poem with “Keep it a secret for me.” It leaves the reader wanting to know more, a great literary device. She then compares the far-reaching ends of the Earth to how far she can stretch her limbs in gymnastics before her hips start “rolling out of place.” Though she may not be that physically flexible, her mind is doing plenty of exercises, and she wants to “feel and see / and understand it all before it dies.” What is “it”? Life? How to be flexible? Lazenby leaves us with more questions (and big ones at that), and her speaker starts thinking, almost out loud, to the reader. Had she been more flexible, would she have “covered more earth / and shielded just one continent from the flood[?]” I love the way Madison takes her original thought about the vastness of the Earth and relates it to the poem’s overall theme. And the image of that one sole continent—is that her saying her hips can only go so far, to just one continent, and not over the entire world? She isn’t ashamed of her vulnerabilities, and when it comes to the complex definitions of hips, this is especially significant.
Lastly, Miranda Sun received first place for her poem, “Bearing,” layered with sentimental similes and metaphors that elevate it to a sophisticated level. Among them: “sliced out of her stomach / like a fruit,” “death waits in the wings / of a vulture,” or “we stagger ape-like on the ground.” Come on. How could you get better than that? Sun begins by describing her birth, something a lot of poets have written about, and makes it new, describing her newborn self as ”flesh red and pulpy / and warm from the dark trunk.” From her second stanza onwards, she sounds almost conversational, and in doing this she tells us what hips are saying. She finds hips on the ground and up from it, says that “humanity is a line / of hips scrambling up and bearing / further hips.” That line can have many different interpretations. Does she mean our human struggle for survival? That we are trying to climb up the hill of life? The way I look at it, the speaker in Miranda’s poem may not have come from her mother’s hips, but as she grows and matures, her hips are the centerpiece of her soul, and as she grows stronger, her hips will be replaced with stronger versions of themselves until it comes time for her to walk through the “white gates” she writes of in her final line.
I want to congratulate all the winners of BWO’s Hips contest! You all have bright futures ahead of you. Reading these winning pieces, I was in awe of what you’ve created. Keep writing, and don’t ever let your hips lie.
By Ottavia Paluch
When news broke out about the fire that was rapidly spreading through the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, I was shocked, in disarray. A centuries-old landmark had been destroyed. A quick Google search tells you that it’s 850 years old. Construction began in 1163 and it took nearly 200 years to complete. Victor Hugo immortalized it in his novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It’s a site (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, too) that’s full of meaning to Paris locals and the people of France. It survived the French Revolution and both World Wars. It’s a place of worship for not just Catholics, but also for historians, studiers of art and admirers of architecture.
Which is why, as the cathedral burned, Twitter lit up, and tweets from all over the world, some of hope, others of sadness, flooded in. Pictures of those close to the scene, their faces lit up with horror. Videos of them singing hymns. Pictures of the inside of the cathedral, and what remained of it. Videos, and heartbreaking ones at that, of the spire falling.
I texted a friend of mine I found online, another teenage writer from France—just not from Paris. We discussed the situation, and she explained that its burning might’ve been linked to renovations that were going on. She didn’t feel as attached to it as those who lived closer to it were, but it was still a national symbol of pride for her country. The two of us decided we’d write about it. I wrote a poem that at first was RAW and full of TEENAGE EMOTIONS and went through a number of drafts before I was satisfied with it. I felt more empathetic at the end, like I felt the pain of the French.
It was evident that the event had great poetry potential, because so much symbolism was attached to it. The fire broke out during Holy Week, the most sacred time for Christians. It came as the Catholic Church has been submerged in controversy over the abuse of children, while France has dealt with a series of terror attacks that left the nation bruised, scarred, and seeking desperately for some light to brighten the sky, the Champs-Élysées, the triangles of the Eiffel Tower. But not like this. For this, il n’y avait pas des mots.
Late in the middle of the Parisian night, French firefighters held a press conference announcing that Notre-Dame’s famous spire and roof collapsed but the main structure, including the two bell towers, were saved. There was relief that the whole thing hadn’t collapsed. Plenty was lost: the roof, the steeple, the spire. Yet treasured Catholic artifacts were revealed to have been saved. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, was in charge of recognizing the emotions that the people of France were feeling. Hell, the world; even the Pope called him. On national television, Macron stated that he’d like to have the gothic building rebuilt in five years. Experts stated that to restore the cathedral both inside and out to the point where you couldn’t distinguish it from how it looked before the fire would be extremely difficult. Maybe it was an act of urgency coming from Macron, a matter of him trying to get on top of the issue, trying to keep his people at ease with what had happened.
I’d check TripAdvisor and see how many were adding to the collection of reviews. A message from the company itself had been added, and said that because of how much has been destroyed, the cathedral will be closed until further notice, which is why tours listed won’t include details about or pictures of the inside of the cathedral. Reviews were pouring in with messages from tourists detailing their experience visiting the cathedral mere days, even hours before the fire. There was also plenty from those who came after the building was closed off, mentioning how thousands of people were surrounding it, mourning its’ partial loss and hoping it’d be rebuilt. One said that even from far away, you could still see the cathedral and smell the burned wood.
At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow this?
Soon after, perhaps even immediately after it was confirmed that the fire had been completely extinguished, a whole other side to the story rose out of the ashes of Notre-Dame. There were reports surfacing of celebrities—and that’s putting it lightly, because they were billionaires—donating hundreds of millions to the rebuilding of the cathedral. It wasn’t long until the money pledged toppled one billion dollars. Billion, with a B. Take for instance, how billionaire Bernard Arnault's family said that they would donate $226 million. Or that the head of a company that owns brands like Gucci vowed to donate $113 million. It was as if the French elite had come together to save something that had meant so much to them, and their donations made sense because of this. Yet the money was raised so quickly, almost like it had appeared out of thin air.
It made you think. Essentially a billion dollars was raised in less than 24 hours for a place of worship in one of the richest areas in the world. What about Flint, Michigan, still on the edge, whose residents are reeling after five years, who are still skeptical when it comes to their town having clean water? That story has mostly fallen from the news cycle. Surely, for much less money, their problem could be fixed.
Notre-Dame was a fixture in the news for a solid week. When other places of worship that had dealt with destruction around the same time made the news, you felt as if their story would’ve been more prominent had it not been for Quasimodo. Historic black churches and Islamic mosques have been burned and destroyed. But, they may have been ignored more than they already were if it weren’t for Notre-Dame bringing their personal disaster to light, which led to a huge increase in donations from the public that will go towards refurbishing. It’s good to know that these places of worship, too, can still have a raison d’etre to call their own.
And you sit and wonder, why? Is Notre-Dame still worth visiting? The answer depends. In a sense, we teenagers are lucky, because we will be witnessing the story of its recovery. It still stands. There’s a reason why people rushed toward it before the fire, (and why they probably will for the next few years during its restoration) to leave their prayer there. They want their faith to be restored.
Events like these are what we spend what seems like forever trying to comprehend, grasp, make sense of. Events like these are drenched in real-life symbolism, have real-life implications, and give meaning, both good and bad, to real life. It’s no wonder why we find ourselves by the blank page in these times, after these events, trying to make sense of it all, knowing that we most likely never will.
Songs for driving along pine-studded country lanes, songs for open skies and pickup trucks, songs for lovers of old town roads, curated by our blog correspondent Cate. Listen on our Spotify here, or see the track listing below:
Remedy by the Zac Brown Band
Not Giving In by Tom Walker
Old Town Road - Remix by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus
Power Over Me by Dermot Kennedy
Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes
Howlin’ For You by The Black Keys
Trouble by Valerie Broussard
Life in Technicolor ii by Coldplay
I Of The Storm by Of Monsters and Men
Alright by Darius Rucker
Dig into the heart of spring with these both modern & classic songs by female solo artists and bands led by women, curated by our blog correspondent Ottavia. Listen on our Spotify here, or see the track listing below:
Green Light by Lorde
Motion Sickness by Phoebe Bridgers
Gold Guns Girls by Metric
Holy by PVRIS
Stray by Grace VanderWaal
No Below by Speedy Ortiz
The Power of Love - Radio Edit by Céline Dion
Dreams Tonite by Alvvays
Criminal by Fiona Apple
Maps by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Nobody by Mitski
The Story by Brandi Carlile
By Ottavia Paluch
Here at BWO, we talk a lot about finding time to write even when you have a lot on your plate. A few weeks ago, I decided I would challenge myself to do just that. The task at hand: to write seven sonnets in seven days.
I bet you’re already fearing for my safety. Why sonnets, you might be asking yourself. I wonder if she failed on day two. You’re going to have to read on to find out if I prevailed or not, but first, I’ll briefly answer your other looming questions.
I wanted to stick to some kind of poetic form that was short enough to write sometime during my day, but also hard enough so that finishing it would be rewarding. Haikus were too short, and villanelles? I didn’t feel like rhyming, and it seemed complicated. Sonnets were only fourteen lines long—the perfect length. I decided I would stick to ten syllables per line, as per Shakespearean rules, as I had never paid attention to them in my work.
I’m going to outline how my writing went day-by-day, and at the end of each summary, I’ll rate how difficult it was for me to write the poem and find space to write it out of ten.
The day I decide to test myself is also the day I begin writing these sonnets. It’s a Sunday. You’ll notice most were inspired by a lyric from a song, or a quote from an article/interview, or a line that (almost by magic) popped into my head—something that caught my eye and inspired me to put something down. It’s my “process” at this point in my non-existent career as a writer. In class that day we started our unit on optics and mirrors and light. I write a sonnet about mirrors and light.
Difficulty: 6/10. Setting that syllables limit made it fun! What’s more, I wrote it on a whim fifteen minutes before I left for bed, if that tells you anything about me.
It’s my first day of five where school plays a part in how much sonneting (yes, I just invented that word) I get done, and if/when I can find time to write it. Today, I get halfway through my science homework before thinking, “Why not write another sonnet?” Then I waste half an hour looking through a collection of half-finished poems and nearly-discarded couplets and other works in progress that I shoved into a folder on my Notes app. One of the older ones is from half a year ago. I remember writing it and feeling unsatisfied with it, so I put it away, believing it would never see the light of day.
Difficulty: 5/10. This is the part where I stress the importance of keeping all your old WIPs. KEEP THEM! As embarrassing as they are, you might want to take a look at them when you’re creatively blocked. It came in handy today, as I had a good chunk of the poem already finished for me, so it was just a matter of making sure I followed the syllables rule and tied it all together in the last couple lines.
It’s a Tuesday. On the bus ride to school in the morning, I type out precisely one (1) line in my Notes app on my phone.
Later in the evening, I decide to make things interesting and start and end my next sonnet with that line. But I was still missing twelve lines—85 percent—of the sonnet and find myself unable to think of anything else. I finish up my homework and on returning to the poem, I put a song on about love—or twelve, to be exact, and then BOOM! Something just happens, and words slowly trickle out, and I manage to crank something out, determined to follow through with this challenge.
Difficulty: 8.5/10. As you can tell, this one was the most difficult out of the seven to write.
An Aside from Yours Truly: Over said spring break I decided to submit a couple of these sonnets to a small sampling of literary journals and the one I wrote on this day was accepted not too long ago. Wild. It wasn’t even my favourite out of the seven. Sometimes stuff like this challenge pays off! (I sent them out on a whim, even though I was planning on shoving them in a drawer to collect dust. I would recommend you do the same if you’re planning to try this challenge yourself and look over them later.)
It’s a Wednesday. I have a hectic day in class and at home, and by the time I get a chance to rest, I have half an hour before I have to head to bed. I check my Notes app and find a lyric from a song that caught my eye. (Sadly, I don’t remember who said it. Maybe it was from a Fiona Apple song, but you’ll have to consult my not-so-helpful brain if you want confirmation.) Whatever song it was, I put it on loop and wrote till I couldn’t due to sleep.
Difficulty: 7/10. The syllables limit makes things tougher, doesn’t it?
It’s a Thursday and guess what? I HAVE TWO TESTS TOMORROW AHHH HELP.
Mind you, when I wrote these sonnets, it was the last week before spring break, so I’m sure school was as hectic for you as it was for me with all your teachers trying to squeeze things in just before the break and also in time for midterms and whatnot. Yet one thing I can’t squeeze in was a sonnet. I head to bed angry.
Difficulty: 10/10. Because I couldn’t and didn’t.
My last day of schooling before the break. The tests go well. I come home jubilant—school’s out. My stress disappears in a flash. I bash out a sonnet in fifteen minutes, one with an optimistic ending, just because.
Then it comes to my attention that I didn’t write a sonnet the night before. But it’s no big deal, because I have become more laid back than usual. I read a couple chapters of a novel and then write another one—in an old notebook I used for writing awful rhyming poems when I was twelve—that involves musical terms and lines I never knew would work together.
Difficulty: 4/10.I manage to craft two sonnets I’m proud of—one being my favourite out of the bunch.
As I reach the final day, I’m inherently proud of myself for succeeding. I came in thinking I’d give up after the second day and came out a better writer. The last sonnet I write is inspired by a poem I read at eleven A.M., a few minutes after I wake up.
Difficulty: 4/10. I had all day to write this one. Thank goodness for spring break.
By Cate Pitterle
Every profession has its resources—journalists have contacts, lawyers have case files, doctors have… WebMD?—and writers are no different. We trawl the web, getting caught up in hours and hours of winding, circular research. Wikipedia takes us to obscure websites to the search engine and back again. That’s why I’ve been compiling lists of writing resources that have been helpful to me and others I know. Though there’s no exhaustive list of resources or a completely efficient research method, these websites, books, and podcasts might help make your process a little easier. You might still find yourself trudging through search engine waves, but hopefully these places will help you push back the tide. Happy researching!
Writer’s Digest - A go-to site for any and all writing problems, tips, and questions.
Indifferent Languages - A translator site that translates English words and phrases into those of over 80 other languages. Good for historical fiction, naming characters or places, or perhaps creating a fantasy language of your own.
Office Timeline - If you’re writing a longer piece and aren’t sure what happens when, this site is a good place to start. Organize your events into graphs based on when they start and how long they last for.
Inkarnate - Writing a fantasy? You’ve come to the right place. Inkarnate is some great free software with which you can build detailed fantasy maps, no prior skill needed.
Of course, there’s also the universal writer problem of naming your characters. Here are a few websites that have helped me find names in the past:
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King is such a well-known writing book, it might as well be Jane Eyre. A great place to start for any writer.
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee talks specifically about writing creative nonfiction, but the advice is priceless for writers of any genre.
The Word-Loss Diet by Rayne Hall probably isn’t for writers tackling a first draft, but it’s certainly for any trying to edit one. A book about focusing and condensing your writing to make it as powerful as possible.
Lore explains the origins of folklores and fairy tales with a darker twist. A possibility for any writers looking for inspiration or for a fairy tale to retell.
I Should be Writing with Six Wakes author Mur Lafferty provides writer interviews and how-tos for authors everywhere.
Stuff You Should Know covers topics ranging from Elvis to desert survival, making it a great place to go for both inspiration and research.
Stuff You Missed in History Class, another source for research and inspiration, covers obscure, interesting stories that you probably didn’t read about in your textbooks.
Throughline, one of my favorite podcasts, seeks to explain current events by showing how past events have led to the current situation. If you’re a historical fiction writer, this is the place for you.
By Ottavia Paluch
(I’m going to preface this by saying that I’m a big music fan. I will also preface this by saying that I tend to lean towards the genre of old-but-not-really rock/alternative/indie music. The examples I list below are reflective of my tastes. Okay? Okay.)
I’m sure we can all agree that music can act as many things: a universal language, a connection to the rest of the world, an aide to help you focus, an aide to help you have a good time, an aide to the creative process, and that it also exists to help Ottavia Paluch make good playlists. The last one was a joke, but I think I’ve made my point clear: music is very useful.
So how do we writers utilize it to help us, well, write? I’ll tell you what I’ve done.
As I neared completion of my first almost-novel a few years back, I had a song to accompany each one of my chapters. In case it never got optioned for film, this was the closest thing to a movie soundtrack I could possibly get. Every scene had a song, and as I visualized them in my head, the songs gave the scenes more life. All the sadder scenes had Radiohead, and the ones that were infused with love got Radiohead, and so on. (A majority of it was Radiohead, really.)
But what if you’re just in the middle of your novel-in-progress and don’t know how to start your next chapter? Maybe you need to set the scene in your mind. Close your eyes and try to hear what you think you should be playing as your scene moves along. What do you hear? Cinematic swells? It could be anything. It all relies on you and your imagination. Say you’re writing an action-packed chapter with blood and guts and death. Perhaps you might want to set the mood with an almost-prog-rock song or album to put in heavy rotation. You could use a “You dumped me, and now I hate you” song for when your main character is shrugging off a breakup. During a scene where your main character gets discouraged, you can fit two songs in one scene, if that’s what works for you; one with a slower tempo, and one that’s more upbeat and happier, a sort of pick-me-up song. You’re a teen, and this is your book, hence why you should know that your choices are endless as to where you want to take your story with regards to audio, and that there are no wrong answers.
What about using music to help us focus while we’re writing? Well, I hate to disappoint you, but classical music most likely will do the trick. Many studies have shown that listening to classical music improves a lot of things. But when it comes to its effects on us writers, it proves to be a very valuable asset. We all have the days where we need to get our creative juices flowing, so it’s good to know that Bach or Beethoven or Mozart or Vivaldi or *insert any composer you can think of* will help you out. While listening to classical music won’t instantly make you creative, it might make you think outside the box, and it will help you get into a much more creative mindset than just listening to silence. Here’s a tip—does listening to classical renditions of your favourite songs strike you as intriguing? Take a look at the Vitamin String Quartet, who do lovely versions of many, many songs by many, many different artists, covering everyone from Sam Smith to The Beatles.
This applies to other types or genres of music that might help you get into the writing zone when you’re stuck, too. I’ll give a few more examples. Listening to the sounds of nature can enhance cognitive function and concentration. You might need soothing sounds—flowing water, rustling leaves, for instance—to work and write well. Babbling brooks and waves crashing are my best friend when I’m not writing, like when I’m stressed out and need a moment to relax.
Music from video games is a great choice, and a more popular one at that, thanks to the popularity of video games. This genre is specifically designed to enhance your gaming experience: to help you dodge bullets or skillfully maneuver your way through enemies.
You can also give ambient music a try. As Brian Eno, a producer on many of U2’s (a band that I love, by the way) albums and creator of Music for Airports, once said, “Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Ambient music is effective for those difficult scenes in your stories; the ones that take up more space in your Word document, the ones that require more detail than usual. Listening to ambient music helps to ensure that I can push through my work and stay (mostly) sane in the process of finishing it.
When finding your voice while writing, you have to experiment to see what works. The same goes for listening to music that pairs with your writing. Soft and mellow songs have often been the inspiration for many of my poems. Flatsound, Sufjan Stevens, and Elliot Smith are all artists that make beautiful songs in this style, and ones that I love. Your favourite playlist containing all the songs you love, full of mainly high energy songs, can keep you motivated, and it’s especially helpful to me when it's late at night and I need an energy boost to keep working on a project. However, I would use it in moderation—often, you catch yourself singing along to the words, and even writing the lyrics of the song down instead of what you were planning to write down! And there are also times when silence is golden. Whatever song you need to hear, though, blast it through your headphones until words arrive on that blank page.