18 and Getting Older

On the tail-end of my birthday, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk about age not only in the literary community but in all of our communities.

Often, we say things like “Wow, she published her first poem at 17” or “He published three books by 16” as if either of these things is somehow more valuable, more impressive than if the person had been 27, 37, or heck 107.

What’s more worrying is that, as people age, we begin to normalize their achievement. Milestones are no longer treated as “surprising” or “special” so much as they’re treated as “normal” and “expected.” It’s wonderful that someone else has figured out their passions young, but that doesn’t mean we all have to. Or that all of us had the social and economic means to.

The rhetoric around age needs to change, not soon, but now. Let’s celebrate everyone equally — with warmth and enthusiasm.


Ain’t It Fun?

An unwieldy secret of mine is that I don’t like writing. 

I never set out to be a writer and, certainly, no one set out to make me one. In middle school, I was placed in the “regular” English section. As a high schooler, I was cut from A.P. Literature, won no school awards, was told I wasn’t good enough time and time again. By all institutional measures, it was clear that I was not considered an ingénue — no young Pablo Neruda or Sylvia Plath. If I could learn to write a five-paragraph essay and master the comma, that’d be enough.

And so, for years I bore the tedium of learning an academic skill, the way many force their way through maths or chemistry. Writing was never presented to me as an outlet for creativity — it was a unit of expression.

But then, a death. Illness. Financial burden. It all happened so suddenly and I found myself overwhelmed by an inexplicable grief. The experiences were so new that I didn’t know how to conceive of them.

As many will agree, it’s difficult to cope when you fail to pinpoint what you must cope with. It was at this juncture in life that I first came in contact with the work of Joan Didion, namely her essay on “On Self-Respect.” Until then, I’d never witnessed someone articulate thought with such precision and took deep comfort in the knowledge that it was possible to control one’s narrative or, at the very least, understand it with so much clarity. 

Didion’s “cool girl” image aside, there was so much to admire. Her technical competence in the form of taut prose — each sentence metered with an accuracy usually reserved for anesthesiologists or vascular surgeons. No wonder Nathan Heller in a Vogue editorial heralded her work as “Mozartian.”

In “Goodbye to All That,” Didion delineated through the vague fog which often obscures everyday discomfort. Later, Haruki Murakami in his “Norwegian Woods” would follow suit.

                                                                    * * * * * * 

There’s something intoxicating about writing. To name Rumpelstiltskin is to deprive him of power. Indeed, it’s the unknown which is most frightening. Quickly, I realized the potent relief which could come from naming fear or pain — enough to induce a spiritual high. And so I wrote too. 

I want to tell you that this is where it ends, but we never talk about the conditions it takes to produce a Didion. For certain individuals, writing is less hobby, more coping mechanism. And we’re not alone. At T.C. Tolbert’s reading, Tolbert talked about how writing comes as impulse; it’s not so much an activity done for fun so much as it’s an, albeit difficult, form of self-care — necessary work. This is one of the reasons why I struggle so enormously in workshop settings: I can’t write to write — it happens as compulsion.

In one course, I was asked to write an essay and I did. The response was positive, but the process which served as precursor was one which demanded the self-infliction of trauma. Post-workshop I wouldn’t touch the piece again the following six going on seven months. When we talk about writing, we editorialize. We focus on F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, larger than life, grand, romantic figures every writer is taught to aspire to. Or it’s James Joyce and David Foster Wallace in their most tortured presentations. But, for some, writing is none of those things. Not love or lust — that most glamorous iteration of the craft. 

It’s a difficult burden to bear. Often, I feel immense guilt. I can’t shake the feeling that, in many senses, I’m the biggest imposter of them all. I’m by no means bad at writing despite what I’d been told in my earlier years. Even worse, I’ve received some attention for my work. How dare I then dislike writing? There are people who choose to do it, enjoy it, and work just as hard as I do at it. Why am I taking space from them? Could this have been different had I come to writing not because of trauma, but because a love of it that my education had fostered? 

Honestly, I’m uncertain. Sometimes, I want to give it all back — what few awards I have I’m not sure I deserve. Of course, I worked hard for them, but the newfound accolades don’t change the fact that I can’t write when asked to — it just happens. I don’t have the kind of control over my work, my productivity that I wish I had. 

I know this will come as a surprise to many. If not for love, why would anyone wake up at 4 A.M. to do anything of their own volition? Who dedicates hours to obsessive revision — weighs the difference between “a” and “the?” 

Well, me.

But is it fun? 

No, not at all. 




In Defense of Caring Less

America’s first gold in Pyeongchang wasn’t won by the Shibutani’s or Olympic veterans Lindsey Jacobellis and Lindsey Vonn. Instead, it went to someone so unexpected that even he was not expecting it: 17-year-old Red Gerard of Colorado

Said Gerard post-win, “I just didn’t really know what the Olympics is [sic]. I grew up watching the X-Games and Dew Tour so I didn’t realize how big the Olympics were.” 

All of this came in marked contrast to the experience of teammate Nathan Chen. 

                                                               • • • • • • • • • • •

Nathan Chen began his skating career at 3. By 10, he’d become the youngest skater to ever win the novice category of the U.S. Championships.

Though both Chen and Gerard have competed in their respective sports for the better part of their lives, their trajectories couldn’t have been any more different. For Chen, the stakes have always been high and higher now — raised by the ample press coverage devoted to America’s newest Olympic darling. However, the pressures extend far beyond lavish media exposure, taking root in something more permanent: history. 

                                                              • • • • • • • • • • •

The ice skater’s mentality is often described as a kind of neuroses. Legends like Kim Yuna and Yuzuru Hanyu have always been lauded for exceptional technique and a near-obsessive attention to detail.

In many ways, ice skating is like ballet in its unwavering devotion to high artistry and aesthetic. Like the ballerina, skaters are expected to maintain lithe, flexible bodies.

These pressures coupled with the intensity of athletic training require a kind of discipline which often doubles as a straightjacket — there’s an ever-present sense that this is work

“Failure is inevitable — and it’s the people that keep trying who become successful.” — Mirai Nagasu

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The understanding of sport, of skating as work often cripples athletes, including the successful ones. Following her gold medal performance in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Kim Yuna famously struggled emotionally, trying to decide whether or not she should return to skating. Eventually, she decided she would, re-framing her pursuit of the sport as a kind of happy compulsion — the act of doing something out of love. This adjustment in approach was one which propelled Kim forward to a silver at the scandal-riddled Sochi Olympics. 

Many athletes struggle like Kim, often succumbing to the pressures of performance anxiety. Indeed, the dreams of a nation are a difficult burden to bear. Even Simone Biles, undoubtedly one of the best modern-day gymnasts, worked as hard to overcome this mental obstacle as she did the physical ones.

Athletics aside, things like music are no different. Often, what separates a good musician from a great one is stage fright. Indeed, the kind of anxiety that comes from perceiving everything as high-stakes can be debilitating.

From the beginning, what all too many talented, young individuals fear isn’t failure, but rather success. They know from experience that doing well creates the risk of disappointment. They allow the institution, its metrics of medals and certificates to consume them. And when they win, they too, like Kim often can’t help but feel hollow — as if they’ve lost a kind of love. 

For anyone who is young and aspirational, this triple threat of mechanization by method, ceaseless ambition, and anxiety has the power to cripple. 

It is no wonder then that Nathan Chen was lackluster in his Olympic Debut — stumbling at times and even falling.

                                                                  • • • • • • • • • • •        

Snowboarding, a newer sport, doesn’t find its origins in the 13th, 14th or even the 19th century.

The snowboard has only been around since 1964. By 1985, only 7% of ski resorts even permitted its use. Adapted by innovative young father and avid surfer Sherman Poppen from two skis, the snowboard was, from the very beginning, a symbol of subversion and ingenuity. It was first marketed as an object of commercial pleasure and, unquestionably, the nature of the sport is closely linked to the nature of its origins. 

Eventually, the competitivity followed as young boarders attempted to one-up each other. However, unlike ice skating which valued lyricism and musicality, snowboarding has always prioritized one thing: fun.

Because of this, the field evolves at a remarkable pace, the kind that comes when athletes are both relaxed enough and encouraged to experiment. Not for an award, but for the sake of the sport — for fulfilment, for joy. 

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This is something we can all learn from boarders like Red Gerard.

Our best performances come when we don’t care too much about being the best. Instead, as athletes, as writers, we ought to reframe our work as something that isn’t work at all, rather a labor of love we take up voluntarily.  

The time and emotional energy we spend worrying about the excess — the judgement of our peers, publication histories, the length of a resume — is more than counterproductive, it’s destructive.                                            

                                                      • • • • • • • • • • •   

It is also no wonder then, that Red Gerard won the Olympics — one of the most world’s most serious sporting events — by not taking it seriously at all.

And the attitude shows. Watching Pyeongchang’s opening ceremony, it’s difficult not to draw an emotional contrast between the effusive excitement of snowboarders and the grave worry of pretty much everyone else. As one commentator put it, “They always look as if they’d already won.” 

In many ways, they have. 


Cut to the Feeling: An Argument for Honesty

Write what you know is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. 

                                                                                    — Kazuo Ishiguro, Literary Hub

In the literary world, the common consensus is this: honesty is overrated.

We’ve moved past confessionalism, outgrown recklessness — know better than to bleed out on the page. And, most importantly, we’ve swallowed whole the advice any well-intentioned mentor has fed us at some point or another and never, ever write what we know. 

But why?

I could begin with the publishers, the competitions. Or how nuance never exists in the extremes. I could begin by telling you that things like love, sorrow, joy — these common experiences are just that: common.

But instead, I’ll begin by saying why not?

Sometimes, I’ll read a poem so thick in metaphor that I can’t help, but call the technique unproductive. Sometimes, the truth is best served plain like in Czesław Miłosz’s Gift [see below].

Miłosz’s frank sincerity is so refreshing. He writes the way one would write a diary entry. He doesn’t perform — there are no acrobatics, the poem doesn’t set itself on fire.

Miłosz is honest — his poem doesn’t care for the reader’s gaze.

Who’s to say we should write for others and not ourselves. In our writing, perhaps we should prioritize the self, our own emotions.

Or, as Carly Rae Jepsen would put it: cut to the feeling.


A Few of Our Favorite Things

If poets have taught me anything, it’s the importance of generosity — to be generous to others and ourselves.

Indeed, the difficult work of creating is a labor we all share in.

As such, I firmly believe that, as writers, we have an obligation to lift up one another — to help our peers navigate this wonderfully complex craft.

What I’m trying to say is this: you’re always welcome to ask me for opinions or critique or reading suggestions or absolutely anything!

Having said this, I thought I’d share some pieces that I hold near and dear and invite you all to post your favorites as well: poems that spark joy, lines from your own work — anything and everything!

Creative Non-Fiction

• Rebecca Solnit’s “Diary” 
• Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams
• Nikolina Kulidzan’s “A Kiss Deferred by Civil War” 

• Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s “Carly Rae Jepsen and the Kingdom of Desire” 


• Christopher Soto’s “All the Dead Boys Look Like Me” 
• Tyree Daye’s “Neuse River” 
• Hieu Minh Nguyen’s “Apology, Sort Of” 
• Jane Wong’s “Twenty-Four” 
• Eloisa Amezcua’s “Long Distance” 
• Rosebud Ben-Oni’s “And All the Songs We Are Meant to Be” 
• Paige Lewis’ “I Love Those Who Can Walk Slow Over Glass and Still Hold” 
• Albert Abonado’s “The Greeting” 
• Leila Chatti’s “Reciting Poetry in the Psychiatric Ward” 
• Tiana Clark’s “Equilibrium” 

Performance Poems 

• Isla Anderson’s “The Forensics of Salt-Licking” 
• Phil Kaye’s “Repetition” 
• Rudy Francisco’s “My Honest Poem
• Athena Chu’s “Genesis Unedited” 


• Yaeji’s “Feel it Out” 
• Mura Masa’s “What If I Go” 
• Camille Saint Saëns’ “Rondo Capriccioso” 

• Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling” 


On Sound, Bodily Honesty, and Paige Lewis

We are constantly immersed in and affected by sound and vibration. In truly quiet areas you can even hear the sound of air molecules vibrating inside your ear canals or the noise of the fluid in your ears themselves. The world we live in is full of energy acting on matter — it’s as basic as life itself.           

— Seth S. Horowitz, The Universal Sense

Sound, this?

Sound has many forms — a simulacrum for intimacy, an intrusion, the byproduct of any object in motion. Despite this limitlessness, it is best to discuss sound in its simplest iteration, as a unit of expression.

Indeed, sound tells us so much. Describing a projectile test conducted at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Horowitz writes, “The ultrasonic microphone picked up a submillisecond whissssshhhh of the projectile’s flight right before impact. But rather than a thump and some gentle pattering. . . we heard an explosion of sound at the impact followed by almost a full minute of a sandstorm.”

From these sounds, Horowitz is then able to piece together an illustration of impact and aftermath — how atmospheric presence affects the trajectory and nature of collision. By extension, this information can then be applied to everything from astronomy to defense research.

This is true in everyday contexts as well. The whistle and groan of a railway tells us that the train is imminent. A blistering alarm signals that, yet another student, has overcooked their ramen. The wince in a voice, discomfort. The turn of a lock, that someone is home.

Clearly, sound has a habit of snitching on others; however, I’m more interested in what sound tells us about ourselves.

Language, of course, is a manipulation of sound. It lies on a spectrum somewhere between silence and the scream. These two extremes are blank checks — expressions of a kind of profound, absolute desperation. But language, language is the comfortable medium where we’re able to approximate meaning.

Still, if we scrutinize language itself, we see that it’s more than surface level. For instance, rising intonation indicates a question. The emphasis of words can be a determinant of meaning. In this way, the fine mechanics of language can be considered an exercise in bodily honesty.

As Paige Lewis wrote, “So often our bodies betray us, just look / at our feet, how they point to what we desire” (The American Poetry Review). Similarly, what we speak is nearly as important as the way we speak it.

All of this is to say that sound affects our lives profoundly which, of course, is a truth we’re all aware of. Unsurprisingly, few will claim that sound isn’t important — its level of importance is the actual point of contention.

If you’ve ever been 10 and played the game Would You Rather, you’ve probably been asked this: “If you could only keep one of these two senses, would you see or hear.”

This question is really what it all comes down to.

When forced to choose between sight and sound, many will choose the former; however, as both Horowitz and I will argue, the correct choice is and always has been sound.