Categories
By J.S. Hala Creative Work

Family Ties

Old House by Graeme Smith is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

My favorite plants are the white ones that grow on the side of our bathtub. Whenever the wood underneath gets soaked from the leaks in our old copper pipes, the tiny, umbrella-shaped plants blossom. Mama says they’re called ‘shrooms, but not like the kind in our refrigerator. We couldn’t eat the ones that grew in the bathroom. Every time they grow, Mama puts on her rubber gloves and pulls them out of the splitting wood. I ask her why can’t get the floor fixed, or the pipes replaced. She says it costs too much. We don’t have that kind of money. And this house? This house belonged to my great-grandfather. The family owns it. And they wouldn’t be happy if we changed it in any way. Even though it’s literally falling apart. Instead of gossiping, you would think they’d help us fix it up. But no. We’re the laughingstock of the family. My cousins who live up the street say we’re too poor to afford iPhones like they have. The kids on the bus say we live in a chicken shack. I don’t ever tell Mama this, though. I know she’s trying her best. So, I do my part by bringing home straight As. So, I can go to college on a scholarship and get a good job. So, we can move far away from the family.

My favorite sound is the rain when it hits our tin roof at night. It reminds me of the drumline playing at my high school. I dance for the band. Mama saw the dance tryout flyer crumpled up on my bedroom floor earlier this year and asked why I didn’t want to try out. I told her I was afraid. But the truth is it would cost $500 to join the team if I made it. And our water heater had just broken. And the septic tank was full. And we were low on propane, so the heaters were barely working, and winter was coming. I didn’t think dance was more important than those things. Mama wanted to be a dancer in school, but they were too poor. And my great-aunts said she wasn’t good enough. She forced me to go to tryouts anyway. I made it.  So now maybe I can get a dance scholarship to go to Julliard. Or I can become a professional backup dancer for Beyonce. So, we don’t have to pick between water heaters and my dance fees. So, we can move away. So, we can get away from the family.

My favorite short story is A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner. Mama reads it to me from one of her old college textbooks. I like it because it’s strange, like me. She says if I read it now, I’ll know it before the other kids at school. She tells me that I must always be two steps ahead. I tell her we’re poor with money, but rich with knowledge. She laughs. People say money doesn’t solve everything. But they must’ve never been without. Money would literally solve everything for us. We could get the heater fixed. We could stop having to boil our bathwater on the stove (when it worked). We could buy our own house. We could get away from the family.

My favorite day is today. I applied to 13 colleges. I got accepted to all of them. And I’m getting presented with a bunch of scholarships. I was up all night calculating numbers. After paying for all my tuition, books, and housing, I still had thousands of dollars left over. Thousands. I had never seen so many zeros after a dollar sign before. I also spent all night crying. But not because I was too cold to sleep. Or because I heard my aunt say I was too dark to be pretty. No. I cried because I could finally help Mama. I could finally get her old car fixed. I could help her fix her credit. So, she could get a loan. So, she could move. So, she could finally get away from the family.

Categories
Blogs

I Deleted All of My Social Media. Here Are A Few Things I Do Instead.

Photo by Laura Stanley on Pexels.com

“Are you sure you want to deactivate Instagram?” Yes.

That’s how it all started. I was a serial Instagrammer, Facebooker, and TikToker. If I wasn’t watching random calligraphy or cooking videos, I was laughing at my favorite TikTok comedian or a dank meme. And if I wasn’t doing those, I was being force-fed devastating world news, news of missing children, or learning which celebrity decided to say the N-word that today (Along with their insincere apology). According to my iPhone Screentime Analytics, these three apps took up most of my day, and I really didn’t have anything to show for it, other than the occasional laugh or the recipe I would probably never end up making.

And let’s not forget the mindless scrolling. And trust me, it was mindless. Literally, just something to do with my hands. As a solo diner, it was my favorite way to help with my social anxiety. Waiting for my car to get an oil change? Scroll. Sitting in the park? Scroll. Procrastinating on a homework assignment? Scroll. And I could do it for hours. A survey from Sprout Social concluded that “51% of [millennials] use social media to kill time,” not too far behind the social-savvy Gen Z, who uses it 66% of the time for the same reason.

Also, I’m a (very) private person. And it takes a lot for me to show someone my personality in full (#introvert). Social media started to feel like a way into Club Jayde and I didn’t want to give everyone a wristband. The people who made high school hard for me were the same ones trying to get me to accept their follow requests. Former suitors were sending me random “I’m so sorry” messages. And don’t me started on the unsolicited pictures. And the Facebook arguments — those dang Facebook arguments.

The constant flow of information, regardless of its purpose, eventually morphed from simply staying informed to sensory overload. I started having weird, sometimes violent, dreams. My eyes began to hurt. My headaches multiplied. My anxiety increased.

Until one day, I just quit. Cold turkey.

Social media started to feel like a way into Club Jayde and I didn’t want to give everyone a wristband.

Say what you want about millennials, but we know how to put our mental health first. I was born in the…late 1900s. I remember life before social media. My days were spent writing up composition notebooks, doing cartwheels outside, drawing cartoons, or teaching myself to fight from Dragonball Z video games.

So, I just quit. Cold turkey. What started out as just a break turned into a full-on exodus.

The first to go was Instagram. I left my followers goodbye messages (Some of my close friends thought I was being kidnapped, lol.)

Then it was Facebook.

I was going to keep TikTok, but I deleted that a few days later.

I had my first Instagram relapse a few weeks later, but, oddly enough, I didn’t miss it at all after that. So I hit delete and that was the end of the era.

What started out as just a break turned into a full-on exodus.

And honestly? I was kinda bored (at first). But here’s what I’ve been up to instead.

DuoLingo. A personal goal of mine is to become a polyglot. I love to travel. I love languages. So, it’s only right. I’ve been conversational in Spanish for quite some time (Quiero escribir este artículo en español, pero necesito mucho practicar más!), but I figured it was time to become fluent. I’m currently on a 30-day learning streak, and I can’t wait to see where the app takes me. I’ve also begun to learn Russian.

Reading for pleasure. Every former English major has a bookshelf full of books they haven’t even read. Though I don’t consider myself a voracious reader, I am a writer who has favorite writers. Currently, I’m reading Sonali Dev’s Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, along with Susan Cain’s iconic Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Next on my list is Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood by Melissa Hart (Fun Fact: She was my thesis professor!)

Rollerskating. A huge part of Atlanta culture is learning to move on four wheels, but I have been skating since my days in south Georgia. I recently purchased two pairs of rollerskates and made my way to the always-empty tennis court in my neighborhood, to see if I still had my skills. (I do.)

Sketching. During a day trip to Midtown Atlanta, I stumbled into Blick Art Supply to stock up on everything a former sketch artist needed. Premium colored pencils. Graphite. Tortillons. A sketch pad. Erasers. Sharpeners. And a holder to carry it all. After a quick bite, I found a spot in Piedmont Park and began to sketch the first thing that came to mind: my favorite anime.

Finishing my first novel. And now to my greatest achievement: I finished a full draft of my first novel. 54,073 words. 243 pages. And plenty of constructive criticism along the way. Finishing this completes my MFA coursework & a dream long deferred. I still have plenty of edits to make, agents to source, publishers to find, and rejection letters to receive, but after a short break, I’m looking forward to adding “Published Author” to my repertoire.

Now, for the big question: Will I make a return? Eh, probably. But they say adulthood is just returning to the things you enjoyed in your childhood and I very much enjoyed being an anti-social butterfly.

Categories
Blogs

Why All Writing Is (Essentially) The Same

Photo by Disha Sheta on Pexels.com

As I meander my way through the writing community, I have come to discover that the discourse around fiction writing mirrors that of religion vs. spirituality – “spirituality”, in this case, being the craft and storytelling elements that make up fiction, such as tone or dialogue, while religion, or interpretation of spirituality, mirrors genre (ex. most monotheistic religions believe in a God, but a Christian’s interpretation of God may be different from someone who is Muslim.) Though two works of fiction may differ in genre, fundamentally they share the same elements.

For example, take conflict. In Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End, the characters are presented with a conflict of character vs. fate. Given less than twenty-four hours to live, both find themselves trying to navigate the five stages of grief, all while trying to determine how to leave a legacy in the hours they have left. Rufus questions his fate in a phone call with Death – Cast: “How do you know? The End Days. How do you know? Some list? Crystal ball? Calendar from the future? (19)” Conflict plays out differently in Roselle Lim’s Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune. The antagonist’s battle to find herself outside Chinese cultural norms comes to pass once she required to return home after her mother’s untimely death. I argue that the title character’s conflict is character vs. society – she wants to live out her dreams but is tasked with to do this within the confines of a community she resents.

In both works, the parallelisms to reality, whether that be the looming thought of our own demise or deviating from what we are taught is “normal”,  are what make the premises not only relatable, but perfect foundations for world-building. In They Both Die, their world is centered around death. From Death Cast phone operators unsympathetically informing “deckers” they are living their final twenty-four hours. To television commercials using the dreaded ringtone in their advertisements. To social media streams of people documenting their last days. Unfortunately, this is not too far off from current events. In a time where is not uncommon to see someone’s demise on Facebook Live or YouTube, the Death Cast world is becoming less fictitious. In Luck and Fortune, Natalie escapes the grasp of her traditionalist mother, but must return to her siloed culture to truly thrive.

The environments we are born into shape us. This is ever present in the way we communicate, aka dialogue/dialect. Originally being from a small town nestled in coastal Georgia, home of the Geechee people, and being of Caribbean heritage (Barbados), I can relate. Regional shortened language, coupled with dialects spoken within a certain community (ex. African American Vernacular English) make for a plethora of “nations within nations.” I have recently started working with domestic fiction, so dialogue is an important factor. Given my cultural background, I do like to incorporate different dialects in my work. I tend to stick with dialects I am familiar with, as I do not want to stereotype or misinterpret ones that are foreign to me.  Natalie use of words like “paifang”, “calligraphy”, and “Sono andati?”, are indicative of her Chinese heritage.

Still, Natalie’s reluctance to return home did not surprise me – her tone displayed an ethos of resentment coupled with regret from the first few pages. Lim’s bird symbolism (symbolic of human life), the rain that followed its departure, and the description of the turbulent relationship between Natalie and her mother confirmed the melancholy nature. Tone, though sometimes hard to detect, I believe is important to establish. Admittedly, my works tend to be “dark”, so I use diction that is a little more formal, but I do like to incorporate voice to add variety. Silvera does a great job of mixing tone and voice in They Both Die. While both Mateo and Rufus exhibit tones of distress (ex. “I’m freaking out already, a hundred thoughts immediately drowning out everything around me. (3)”), Silvera does add some comic relief, while also giving insight into some of the flatter characters. Take the scene when Rufus learns he has less than twenty-four hours to live and his friends will not leave him:

“You two are straight up shadows,” [Rufus] says.

“That because we’re Black?” Malcolm asks.

The situation, though serious in nature, has a moment of normalcy, and reminds the reader that the characters are still young adults.

Although they have varying degrees of importance, based on genre, mastery of craft and storytelling elements prove imperative for any type of writing. This requirement supersedes type: genre, literary, creative, or professional writing alike. Just as a building requires the support of a solid structure, or doctors need fundamental knowledge of the human body, all writers would take pleasure in being privy to the elements that form the discipline that’s afforded them so much joy.

Categories
Blogs

Writers, Here’s How to Give Constructive Criticism (How Not to be A Literary A**hole)

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Writers, you know the kind of feedback you would want to receive, yeah? So, make sure you are giving it.

It is no secret that we writers tend to be sensitive about the perception of our work. Audiences only see the finished product – not the late nights, pounding of the backspace key, countless drafts, and the various experiences that influence the births of our literary brainchildren.

Since we know how it feels to be the subject of criticism, let’s practice the highest degree of professionalism and tactfulness when the shoe is on the other foot.

Here are a few best practices for giving constructive criticism:

DO: Focus on the craft elements, not the content. Every story is comprised of basic craft elements. These include character, setting, plot, point-of-view, etc. When drafting your critique, focus on the author’s use of the elements. What traits made the character stand out? Did the narrator effectively describe the work’s setting? How did the POV contribute to the tone of the work?

AVOID personal opinions! Your personal opinion does not matter here – your professional one does! You do not have to the like the character’s name. You do not have to like romance novels. You do not have to like stories set in the 1900s. Remember, you are critiquing the effectiveness of various craft and writing elements. Don’t like detective fiction? Doesn’t matter. Try this – analyze the work as if you are the intended audience – what would they look for?

DO: Include examples from the text. Use quotes from the text to support whatever observations you make. For example, if you get a sense that a character has strong, domineering personality, perhaps cite examples of dialogue or visual imagery that helped you come to that conclusion.

DO: List the things that worked well FIRST, then include improvements. People tend to want the good news first. When structuring you critique, try separating your feedback into two sections: What’s Working and What’s Not Yet Working. Under the second heading, be sure to include suggestions for improvements (remember, these are just suggestions – the author has the autonomy to use them or not.)

AVOID Overcomplimenting or Over criticizing. Constructive criticism is a balancing act. The goal is to ensure the writer produces the most effective and engaging work for their audience.  Try to find at least three elements that worked well and two areas for improvements.

Great writers need even better editors. Follow these tips to make sure you’re both!