I Don’t Make Up the Characters

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A cool bookstore at the Commons in Traverse City, Michigan (April, 2017).

There’s no rhyme or reason to how my imagination works, at least as far as I can tell. I am not in control. That’s a sure thing.

The general misconception is that a writer is the god of their own world. Perhaps that’s true for some, but that’s something I’ve never experienced. George R.R. Martin once said, there are two types of writers: The architect and the gardener. The architect has a blueprint for the whole story. The gardener plants a seed and the way the story grows will depend on the weather, the soil and the time and effort one puts into caring for it.

A couple years ago I had an epiphany and stopped writing detailed outlines, because my characters always have other plans. I prepare to an extent since I have too many ideas to remember them all. Once I sit down to write, it’s mayhem. I can try writing down the directions and the stops we might make along the road, but then again, we can run into traffic, car trouble, rain and thunder, et cetera.

When I got a story to tell, it’s like having a movie play inside my head and there’s no pause button. It’s like being possessed. While this movie is playing, my body switches to autopilot and I hardly speak a word to anyone. Some scenes run on replay and sometimes when they replay, little details change, such as a line or a character’s movement. The perspective can linger in a single moment for hours, then it jumps forward five, ten, twenty years and runs through a sequence of events within minutes.

These scenes can be intense: Mentally I’m there with my characters, it doesn’t matter if I’m at work or in my bed, starting to snooze or trying to do homework. If they’re in a cold, abandoned shack, I know that the wood smells like dirt and rot and that the walls creak when a wind runs through. I can feel that the floor is uneven from the way people are standing. I make a note of how many rooms there are, the state of the furniture, what the characters are wearing, who clearly doesn’t want to be there and who came there with a purpose… I even feel the emotions my characters are experiencing. I’ve made myself cry or laugh or brood more than a few times.

I don’t make up the characters. They come to me and introduce themselves. Sometimes they make it difficult.

There is this one character who has been with me for over three years, Francesca Ivers. I must have gone through six to seven drafts without getting anywhere with her. My mother, friends, other writers, professors, they’ve read about her. The reason I haven’t been able to finish anything is because I couldn’t figure out what her story was. It wasn’t until last weekend when she returned out of the blue. The cool thing about her is that she herself hasn’t changed much over the years: She has always been a lover of music and a singer, a daredevil, affable, and way too curious for her own good.

For a week straight, I’ve been taking notes about the people in her life and the major events that are going to take place. (In Detroit to be specific; there aren’t enough Michigan stories out there.) Today I’m actually starting the first chapter, which is really exciting.

Honestly, I am glad I’m a gardener. The architect might finish the story faster, but I get to come along for an unpredictable joyride.

“Baby Driver” Review – Behind the Music

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*Spoilers ahead (including the ending).*

Before the movie begins, the writer and director Edgar Wright himself takes a moment to thank the audience for watching Baby Driver. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a nice touch. You don’t see that much.

Another thing you don’t see much is when there’s next to no talking in the first ten minutes of a movie. Yet it’s intriguing because all the visuals and the music do the storytelling. The number one rule in writing is “show don’t tell” which Wright utilizes beautifully throughout the entire ride. Like I said in a recent post, I love it when writers use different techniques and/or take a new approach to a story that’s been told hundreds of times. For time’s sake, I’m going to focus on the music.

Usually no one gives a damn about the getaway driver, and usually the music is added during post-production. Wright wrote the script according to the list of songs he had on hand (as explained in this short video on Twitter)… kind of like a musical. Honestly it feels like one in the beginning: After the first heist, there’s a continuous shot of Baby going on a coffee run and jamming to “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob & Earl, having a jaunt in each step. The audience is completely immersed in his perspective, the music drowning out the sounds of the world to the point of them being faint background noise. The fact that he bumps into people and almost gets hit by a car doesn’t seem to faze him.

The cool thing is that not only does the music convey the mood and emotions of the scenes: You get a glimpse of Baby’s personality. He is the quiet protagonist who uses music as an escape from his tinnitus (“a hum on the drum,” according to the criminal mastermind Doc), as well as means of protection and isolation. He also uses sunglasses for that. Except for when he’s at home with his foster dad Joseph (and later with the waitress Deborah), he always wears shades and headphones as a shield against the criminal elements surrounding him.

Baby isn’t a bad person. He’s a kind, genuinely caring guy who got into trouble when he was younger. All he wants is to pay off the debt he owes Doc so that he can live an honest life. He actually seems untouched by his work in the sense that it hasn’t made him bitter, or molded him into a person like trigger-happy Bats who enjoys the thrill of robbing and killing people.

It might be on account of the bond he has with his foster dad – an elderly, deaf man in a wheelchair – who encourages Baby to do better. (Side note: It’s cool seeing that Baby learned American sign language and reading lips from Joe.) When he helps him get a job as a pizza delivery guy, Joe says to Baby, “You only have to wash your hands once after counting that money.”

Additionally, music is Baby’s direct connection with his mother who was a singer (and a waitress at the diner he frequents). Meanwhile, violence in itself is a reminder of his father who was abusive and controlling. The last memory of his parents is them arguing loudly in the car right before fatally crashing. Fortunately, Baby still has the tape with his mother singing. Until Deborah walks into his life, music is the only positive thing he has going on (their romance is really sweet BTW).

Interestingly, Baby won’t try to get Doc and the others arrested, even though he never wastes an opportunity to secretly record their conversations. Instead he uses the tapes to make remixes, like the one between Doc and Griff who thinks Baby is a weirdo: “What’s the deal with headphones over there? […] I mean, is he retarded?”

Nonetheless, that hobby mucks things up for him later…

The whole point of Griff was to work as a counterpart to Baby’s character, to show what Baby could become and to bring the warning or ‘prophetic message’ as we call it in creative writing. Griff seems to think that Baby doesn’t deserve the same cut as him since he didn’t even get out of the car. He (and later Bats too) is suspicious of his soft-looking, silent colleague and repeatedly tries to scare him. Eventually Griff tells Baby that one day he’ll get his hands bloody: “You can’t be in crime without being a little criminal.”

Personally I think it was a shame that Griff didn’t last beyond that scene in the elevator. He displayed such exaggerated machismo and that stuff just makes me laugh. Bats replaced him in way; they were very much alike. Having two of them could have given Baby even more trouble, which makes for a good story.

As said, the music serves as a barrier between Baby and his less-than-friendly partners. He stays mentally focused on whatever song is playing, bouncing in the seat as though a fight for life-or-death isn’t happening a few yards away. He looks away when Griff fires his shotgun at the ceiling. During another heist, he blocks the audience’s view when Bats and the other two gunmen go after a guard by driving the car slightly forward. He bobs his head to “Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned while the commotion happens in the background. We get to see some of Baby’s horror when he catches sight of the guard, now dead and bleeding out on the pavement. I say ‘some’ because he’s wearing his dark shades.

We’re shown again and again that Baby isn’t a heartless criminal: He prevents Bats from killing someone, he goes out of his way to get Joe out of danger and – one of the two most important turning-points, if you ask me – he saves a woman he doesn’t know. During the third job in the movie (the first one since Baby finished paying his debt), he’s waiting outside a post office and notices the teller he spoke to only a few days ago, on her way to work. She recognizes him through the windshield and waves at him. In response, he shakes his head no; don’t go inside.

True to Griff’s warning, Baby gets blood on his hands. He’s forced to “face the music” (as Buddy grimly tells him) once it becomes clear that he can’t disappear quietly from his criminal life. He has to fight his way out of it. When he doesn’t immediately drive away from the crime scene, Bats hits Baby in the face with the barrel of his shotgun and knocks out one of the lenses on his shades. Finally we get to see the fear in Baby’s eyes, most likely the fear he’s felt for years since he became a getaway driver.

Despite that fear, he makes the decision to move forward. Literally forward into a truck, killing Bats, then fleeing on foot, both from the police and his former colleagues while the chaotic song “Focus” by Hocus Pocus blasts in his ears. From then on it’s a bumpy ride for Baby, with several twists and turns I didn’t expect, and an ending that felt real.

In the second important turning point, Baby chooses to stop running. How refreshing! I’m glad that instead of having Baby running from the law with his friend Deborah, he takes the keys out of the engine and says to her, “You don’t belong in this world.” He accepts the consequences of his actions – “faces the music” so to speak. More so, thanks to his better nature, people vouch for him during his trial.

After five years in prison, Baby… well, his real name is Miles… Miles is released on parole and meets Deborah outside the gates. She’s waiting for him by a car, ready to head west with music they love and a plan they don’t have.

*

If you want to listen to the songs from Baby Driver, I made a playlist.

Letter to My College Freshman Self

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Graduation Day (May 9, 2015).

You’re nineteen.

You have moved away from home. Sure, you live in a dorm so it’s not like you have to worry about “adult things” like utility bills. You jokingly consider yourself “an adult in-training” as you attend classes and try to do everything… and I do mean everything. Why not, right? You know pretty much everything by now. You just need to find ‘your’ group. And you’re tough, too, right? You don’t need anyone’s help and you can just ignore those horrible roommates the school stuck you with. No problem.

Problem!

First of all, if your living situation is less than acceptable, talk to your RA (residential assistant). Your home is your castle. You should feel at the most ease in your dorm room and if you can’t work things out with your roommates, don’t stick it out. Talk with you RA and/or the resident hall director. They can get a new room for you. It won’t be an issue. You won’t be the first who got the roommate from hell (or Sweet Christmas, three of those).

So listen, kid… getting that high school diploma didn’t give you superpowers. You’re still the shy, eager-to-please, gullible nerd you were before. Finding yourself and your path won’t happen overnight. Most of your classmates have no clue either. Really, they got no idea what they’re doing. Why do you think they’re partying so much? It’s not just for good fun. They’re killing time and avoiding the hard decisions they have to make.

You also shouldn’t feel like you need to re-enact everything you’ve seen in the movies. Hollywood exaggerates. The idea that every college student drinks, smokes weed and gets laid on a weekly basis isn’t true for everyone, and doing all those things (or attempting to do them) won’t make you cool. Doing them doesn’t make you uncool either. That is another thing someone should have told you: In real life, there is no cool table, just tables with various people.

Find people who you can truly call friends, people who embrace you for who you are, people who love you, people you can trust, people who will have your back through the good times and the bad ones. I can’t stress enough how important that is, especially if you moved someplace new. Once you’ve found those friends, hold on with both hands. Their friendship will mean the world to you after you go your separate ways and pursue different careers.

As cheesy as it sounds, stay true to who you are. College is the time to meet people, try new things and find what you care about. Nevertheless, don’t change for anyone. Don’t change to fit in. If it doesn’t feel right, maybe it’s not meant to be. Plus, it’s okay to feel scared while you explore; that comes with leaving your comfort zone. Whatever personal growth occurs, will happen naturally. That shyness and eager-to-please notion, for instance, they will melt away. Experience will replace gullibility with skepticism. One day you will feel great standing in the spotlight and you won’t care what other people think of you.

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Don’t over-schedule. Reserve some time for yourself.

That said, don’t stress about the milestones (declaring a major, internships, et cetera), or about finding the perfect college experience. Yes, there are deadlines for some things, but don’t panic. Run things according to your own clock.

Which brings me to my next point: Stop comparing yourself to everyone else. Some people know early on who they are and what they want to be. Some people know exactly where they belong. Some people get married early. Some have a path laid out for them, by fate or other factors. Some people discovered their passions before you and use their time at college to express them.

Whatever choices you make during your time at college, take responsibility for them.

It’s perfectly normal to feel homesick. No one will blame you for calling Mom once a day. No one will blame you for talking with a success coach or counselor. It can be difficult to acclimate to a new, exciting setting and there’s no shame in asking for help. Considering a college campus is essentially a hub of all walks of life, it can feel pretty chaotic, maybe even archaic.

This ties in with the likely academic troubles you might run into as well: Never turn down help. Talk with your professor or instructor. Don’t be afraid to get a tutor. Most colleges have a math center and a writing center, so utilize them when you can.

As for money, let me tell you this: Keep an eye on your green. Or you might have less than $200 by the end your freshman year from splurging on so much nonsense. You probably won’t even know where it all went. And for the love of god, get a job, I don’t care you’re a freshman. You’ll need the cash. Writing articles for the college paper doesn’t count.

Besides, it wouldn’t kill you to help more to pay for college: There are scholarships, grants, student loans and various options for young people. (It won’t get easier in grad school.) Loans do sound scary but there are also companies that can help you figure out a payment plan, like Earnest who specializes in student loan refinancing, so it doesn’t mean your life will be put on hold until it’s all paid off.

If you want a job on campus, apply as soon as possible. They tend to be more forgiving towards your class schedule, but the positions are really competitive.

And try to have fun. Your kind of fun, not the Hollywood-type of fun if that isn’t you. You do you. Don’t make college more stressful than it needs to be.

 

Tales to Tell: We have more than one story

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Lately I have been thinking a lot about storytelling. Not just about what stories we tell, but how they’re told and to whom we’re telling it. You see, for my thesis, I’m going to study the new portrayal of male superheroes, and I would also like to do some audience research. After all, media has a great influence on people. What we see on the screen, on billboards, magazine covers and so forth, it tells us of the standards and traits that are considered valuable to society and what we “should” avoid.

I’ll give you an example: A teenage boy sees a bunch of muscular hunks on men’s magazines, men that look so differently than him and that seem to be loved and admired by everyone. These magazines talk about cars, sports and gadgets, which he may or may not be particularly interested in, but he’s shown in various ways that “a real man” should like these things. Furthermore he sees that same hunk in movies and advertisements. He sees athletes being praised more than studious people like him. When he can’t find it within himself to behave like “a real man,” he starts to wonder if there’s something wrong with him. In media studies, we call that shit “symbolic annihilation.”

I’m not saying that media controls us. The people in our lives have a greater impact on us than the media; our parents, role models, teachers, classmates, co-workers, et cetera. However, culture is something that feeds off people, media and the contagious relationship between people and media. The reason why Wonder Woman is such a big hoot isn’t just because the protagonist is a woman: It was directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins, director of Monster, 2003, and Five, 2011). In case you didn’t know, there aren’t that many women directors in Hollywood. Some of you guys might be sick of hearing that Hollywood is sexist, but it remains a fact. This movie, though, brings something new and fresh to the industry, like these things: The gaze never treats Diana as a sexual object, she’s portrayed as a person. Jenkins shows a very human yet powerful superhero who brushes off the sexism she meets in the man’s world with such class. I really love that the movie has Chris Pine serving as a side-kick character too.

I care about this stuff because I’m a writer as well as a scholar. I write mostly historical fiction and fantasy, a mix of them sometimes (which is super fun!), plus some poetry whenever inspiration strikes. I love to experiment with different writing styles and storytelling elements because that’s one thing I look for when I dive into a book, a TV show or movie: Innovation. For instance, the other day I found out that the writer and director of Baby Driver Edgar Wright wrote the script according to the music. Everything happening in the movie directly connects with the songs that Baby is listening to. Now that’s either going to be really effing cheesy… or really awesome!

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I’m writing this particular entry on storytelling today, because I just finished reading a scholarly article on the Amazon television show Transparent by Steven Funk and Jaydi Funk (“Transgender Dispossession in Transparent: Coming Out as an Euphemism for Honesty,” 2016). The show is about a divorced transgender woman who struggles with coming out to her family. It’s supposed to be good for the transgender community and an exploration of homophobia (also known as heterosexism). But since it’s aimed at a straight audience, it doesn’t fulfill this goal. The authors stated that Transparent “underscores the need for a critical reconsideration of media (mis)representation of trans individuals” (p. 188).

Here is part of my response paper to the reading:

‘Transparent isn’t unlike the movie Boys Don’t Cry in the sense that the protagonist is forced to announce their “real” gender and to conform to a gender script. When they disrupt the cultural norms, they are ostracized and punished for their actions (or inactions). Funk and Funk (2016) are right that the show brings up the need for a critical reconsideration of media (mis)representations of trans individuals. In fact, almost every “gay anthem” TV show or movie that I see in the mainstream media has one or two main plots: It’s either about coming out of the closet or it’s a movement against the system. I personally feel like there are more stories to be told about the gay community. Why can’t we just have TV shows and movies where the protagonist is part of the LGBTQIA community, but their sexuality isn’t the plot? Like I’ve said in class, in progressive countries like Sweden, there is no need to come out; people just live their lives because it’s not considered a big deal. You love who you love.

Reading this article reminded me of a Guardian piece I read right before, titled “I want to stroll Tehran’s streets at night, like men can: writer Fereshteh Ahmadi”. It talks about how the change in the Iranian regime has created more freedoms for women, specifically for writers. There’s still room for improvements, but for now, women writers can actually get their stories and books published. The major point I drew from that article is that Iran isn’t filled with terrorists, dictators and warlords—but those are the stories we’re getting in the Western world.

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Fereshteh Ahmadi (from Guardian article).

Ahmadi said, “When we want to know deeply about other people, we go and read their stories, watch their cinema but all these years, there has only been a focus on bold issues in Iran. That’s why people, their identity, their connections and their private lives that have similarities to lives in other parts of the world [are] forgotten in the middle of this.” Similarly all the stories we’re getting from the gay/trans community is about the closet and the movement. Instead of trying to appease homophobes and/or straight people, it would be better to tell stories about people who aren’t hetero-normal without solely focusing on their sexuality and gender identity. Those factors definitely influence their lives when they live in a patriarchal society, but it isn’t all about that jazz. They have dreams and aspirations like everyone else and different stories to tell. The insistence of telling certain kinds of “gay tales” emphasizes the fact the authors make, the fact that everyone is dispossessed of the right to create an authentic sense of selfhood. A gay character isn’t allowed to be more than their sexuality on screen.’

What I’m trying to say is that we have more than one story to tell and there are many that have been unheard so far.

As if I’m not busy enough, I began dabbling with a new project… A few days after Wonder Woman came out in theaters, a friend of mine said on Facebook, “Can I get a movie about a black FEMALE superhero please k thanks!?

My immediate response to that was:

On it. *puts on sunglasses and types furiously at laptop*

Two weeks later, the character came to me like a vision. I won’t tell you anything about her yet, because I’m still putting the story outline together. For now, I want you to know her name: Shine.

***

UPDATE on 7/6/17: Results are in… Baby Driver is really awesome!

My Goal as a Member of the Student Advisory Council in AAUW

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June 2 2017

Standing where Martin Luther King once stood, holding his speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (June 2, 2017).

Pretty soon I’m going to begin my term as a member of the Student Advisory Council in AAUW (American Association of University Women). I will represent the branch (along with a few others) at Oakland University in Rochester, MI from July 1 till June 30 next year. For those who don’t know, AAUW is an organization that has promoted equity and education for girls and women since 1881. It’s a nationwide group and in retrospect, I’m a small cog in the machine. Nonetheless, it’s such an honor to be part of something bigger than myself.

It’s going to be an exciting year! I have several ideas for my term, and I hope that I can make positive impact on people’s lives. I can’t share my plans yet. I’m still in the process of ironing out the details and I have to talk it over with the rest of the council, of course. One thing I can say for sure, though, is that I want to create a greater sense of unity on campus, to make both men and women feel like they have somewhere to turn.

As much as we talk about social media making it easier to maintain relationships, too many people are lonely these days. That’s something that became apparent to me after NCCWSL (National Conference of College Women Student Leaders) in Washington, D.C. earlier this month. At the opening session, I became so overwhelmed by the connection I felt with all the women in the room and the outpouring of love and support that I started crying. And I wasn’t the only person who balled during that three-day conference.

I believe that right now it’s more important than ever to focus on the things we have in common and to celebrate each other’s differences. There’s so much fighting over political views these days that people seem to forget what is important. I won’t dwell too much on our president and his administration, because this isn’t about them: It’s about the future. It’s about optimism. As bad as greed and hatred is troubling our country, we have to keep in mind that it will pass. It will pass. Things will become better. We have to remember that through love, acceptance and unity, we can mold something beautiful out of the ugliness.

One of the lessons I took from the conference is that no matter who’s on top, people only have as much power as they let themselves believe. And you have power to create change in your neighborhood. You have a lot of power and you have more flexibility than the politicians out there, who let their actions be guided by votes and money. They got nothing on you, friend.

And remember, there is strength in numbers.

*

Bellow is the letter I wrote when I applied for the job:

My name is Anna Palm and I’m excited to provide my application for the open position in the Student Advisory Counsel.

As a new member of the American Association of University Women, I believe it would be a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the community and promote a more positive environment where women can feel safe and empowered to pursue their dreams. Besides it would be a blast!

I am working on my master’s in communication with a focus on media studies at Oakland University. It was in fact Valerie Palmer-Mehta who told me about the organization, and the people were warm and welcoming when I attended a meeting for the first time. Elaine Taylor and Josetta Wood have been attentive to my ideas regarding the sexual assault awareness month.

One was to create flyers that visually talk about victim blaming. They would show a person covering their own mouth and a line such as, “I don’t want to make it worse” or “Maybe I’m overreacting.”

Additionally to the issues created by rape culture, I care about women in STEM, women friendships and reproductive rights. As for women friendships, I have noticed that too often women fight amongst themselves or put each other down over petty differences. I would like to change that, starting with fun activities like trust building exercises, team art projects, panels or even founding a book club.

Reproductive rights is an obvious matter. I was born and raised in Sweden, where sex education is taught in the fifth grade, and where abortion has been legal and free since 1974. The woman doesn’t even have to offer the doctor a reason. It’s a foreign concept to me that such fundamental health rights should be denied to American citizens in the 21st century.           

As an adviser, I hope to create events and activities not only for AAUW members but men and women on campus as well. I hope to inspire kindness, open-mindedness, team work and creativity. I hope to work with a myriad of people who care about women and equality. I hope to achieve a sense of unity among my peers.

I would achieve this using my organizational skills, my knack for writing, research and social media, not to mention my sense of humor. Before I dove into academic research, I spent over four years working as a journalist (during my undergrad and post-graduation), gathering information through bits and pieces and telling people’s stories.

I also have a blog (authorajpalm.wordpress.com), where I talk about writing, poetry and journalism as well as women’s issues, feminism and events concerning women.

During an internship project in 2013, three students and I worked on a collection of stories about organic farming in Michigan. Our mentor Tracy Anderson left us mostly to our own devices. I assumed a leadership role in our group early on, because there were many factors to consider and no one was stepping up to the plate. As a result, Midland Daily News released our articles on December 16 and 17, 2013. The main story was a collaborative effort by the four of us.

In the past year, I’ve been practicing Shotokan karate and learning the value of trust and respect. My dojo (school) has an oath, which we state in union at the end of every class: “Dojo kun [karate oath]. Seek perfection of character. Be faithful. Endeavor. Respect others. Refrain from violent behavior.” With or without a belt, I believe this is a motto to live by.

Thank you for your time. Have a lovely day!

Regards,

            Anna Palm

Grad School: Part 4 – Time Management

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“You’re in grad school now, so… you’ll figure it out.”

My professor’s words when some of us (myself included) carefully mentioned to her that there was a lot of reading. Considering that we meet twice a week and that all of us got jobs and other obligations, it’s difficult to squeeze Rosalind Gill, Amanda Lotz and a bunch of other scholars into our schedule. But alas, we’re in grad school! Just deal with it!

914ABR9wTkL I knew by reputation that our professor would load tons of work on us when I registered for this summer class. I thought to myself that no matter how hard it would get, I would suck it up and fight through it. There’s just no way I’m spending more than two years in grad school.

That said, I’m glad this wasn’t my first class in the grad program (“Gender, Sexuality and the Media” in case you’re wondering). Don’t get me wrong, our professor is a treat! And I love the material! There’s just so much of it. Tons of reading for every session and once a week we got to turn in a response paper to at least one article or chapter. Everyone has to lead the discussion once, which means reading everything, knowing it well, preparing main points and questions, and providing examples. The professor is also asking for written summaries of our reading material and a list of questions. For the end-game, she’s asking for a paper and a final in-class exam. She doesn’t mess around.

My discussion leader was surprisingly fun. We were talking about postfeminist men’s media culture, in this case specifically about male friendships on screen, the bromance and the homosocial enclave. The latter is a term for when a group of men have their own space to freely express themselves, like in Entourage, Men of a Certain Age and Rescue Me. I used the episode “Nelson v. Murdock” from Daredevil on Netflix, which is all about the friendship between Matt and Foggy. It was perfect and incited a great discussion afterwards.

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Flashback scene of Foggy and Matt at Josie’s in “Nelson v. Murdock” (1/10); Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix.

Now I can finally focus on the final project! It can be either a research paper or a research proposal. I’ve decided to do a research proposal. I’ve thought about it all semester really. It will serve well as a draft for when I propose my thesis later this year. More on that another time… It’s due in two weeks (well, 12 days), which isn’t really a lot. I’d love to have an entire month rummaging through research… but like I said earlier, I just gotta deal with it.

And this brings me to time management. I was fortunate to take a workshop on this recently at NCCWSL (National Conference of College Women Student Leaders) so despite the limitations, I don’t feel freaked out about this. Hopefully that sense of calm with stay. I will talk about what I learned in this workshop in detail next month, but for now I want to focus on time management in regards to putting a project together when you have other things on your plate.

First of all, don’t panic. Breathe. Tell yourself it will be alright (telling yourself that enough will make it a reality). If you feel yourself getting stressed or frustrated, simply step away from the project and do something to help you relax. Personally I like to meditate for five minutes or so.

Don’t confuse that with procrastination, of course. As someone who pulled four all-nighters during her undergrad, I beg you not to procrastinate. It’s pure hell trying to finish a project when you’re tired and everything hurts.

A few ways to avoid procrastination is planning, splitting the work into chunks, rewarding yourself occasionally and speaking with your professor.

Actually talk with your professor first. Write down all your ideas, prepare a few questions and then explain what you want to do. Listen to your professor and figure out how to proceed from there. I’m not saying that you have to do everything your professor tells you. It’s your judgment call on which advice to accept and which to reject.

The planning won’t be as tricky as it seems. Begin by looking at your schedule and marking sections of time where you won’t do anything but focus on your project. Set goals for yourself by either turning to your calendar or writing a timeline. I prefer the timeline because it allows more flexibility. Sometimes when we write to-do lists for ourselves and don’t finish everything at once (or “miss” that date we wrote down), we have the tendency to feel like we didn’t do anything. The timeline will give you an idea on where you are in the process. It can also tell you whether you need to move on at some point in order to make the finish line.

Try to be realistic. Think about how you work and how fast you work. (If you know that well enough, perhaps the calendar will work for you.)

If things don’t work exactly as planned, that’s okay. Don’t panic. Breathe. You’re human.

Again, do the work in chunks. You won’t finish a project in one sitting.

Please, if you feel stuck, ask for help. Turn to your professor, your classmates, your mom, I don’t care. Sometimes it may be that you’re just feeling pressured and need to talk with someone. I’ve found that talking about my work really helps the creative process and works as a stress reliever.

Do the best you can. Have fun with it. Don’t even think about the grade, just do your best. Remember that when you turn in your project, knowing you put time and effort into it, you did well. Yes, you did well! You should feel proud.

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Grad School: Part 3 – Sticking your chin out

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Meadow Brook Hall’s library, where OU’s communication and marketing shot a video of me talking about my research and of me working on the revision.

Remember what I said about putting in the extra work? It’s not just about getting a good job or furthering your career. It’s emotionally healthy to achieve a goal, to be appreciated for one’s effort or to impress yourself. As for the latter, that’s something people should keep in mind more than they currently seem to do. Of course, it sounds arrogant or can be construed to an excuse for not doing anything.

What I try to say here is that you shouldn’t try to live up to other people’s expectations. You should live up to your own. You pursue your dreams and fulfill your own wishes, because you aren’t here to impress other people or please them or blindly follow someone else’s idea of success. If that means jumping out of your comfort zone, it shouldn’t quench your desire to go after what you want (and perhaps need). Obstacles build character after all; they offer new perspective, perhaps the chance of meeting new people and they may even bring you to places you never could have imagined. I can tell you from personal experience that even when you think you know what you’re doing and/or where you’re going, you don’t always get the results you expected.

In the States, there is the expression, “Sticking your neck out,” which means doing something that’s risky yet hopefully rewarding. Swedes have a similar expression – “Sticka ut hakan” – which literally means “sticking out the chin.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds grueling; it reminds me of the times I’ve stubbed my toe and that shit hurts. One thing I can say for certain is that ever since I started grad school, I have been more of a go-getter and done things and dreamed of things I never could have imagined doing. When I walked into my first class, it didn’t occur to me that I would feel so inspired and deeply moved by the reading or my professors or the topics we discuss.

 

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Early stage of revision (beginning of the winter semester this year).

For instance, last year I wrote a research paper on women’s representation in Game of Thrones and other fantasy shows, and how it has changed for the better in some shows and how patriarchal notions persist in others. I did it because I thought it would be fun and I wanted to contribute to the discussion on whether Game of Thrones is sexist and degrading to women.

When my professor returned the paper to me, I read her comments and suggestions and truly took them to heart. Suddenly I wanted to change a bunch of different little things in the paper and make it good enough for publication. Aside from the stuff I wrote in my creative writing classes, I can’t recall a time when I wanted to even look at something I had turned in. Now, however, the thought of showing something to other professionals in the field and getting something academic in print doesn’t seem so abstract to me. In case you’re wondering, I’m currently in the process of revising the paper. I don’t know where I’m going to send it. I just know I want to finish it before July 16, which is when Game of Thrones‘ next season begins and I don’t want to be influenced by it.

Even though the revision isn’t complete, it has already been exposed to the world. On March 10, I attended a conference by the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. It’s a huge event where people from all fields from all over Michigan gather at one place to discuss their research. For the most part, you’re with people from the same field because you’re presenting your research to each other, but during lunch, you have the option of attending a luncheon and meet other scholars.

I, for one, met someone from WMU’s journalism department who also dabbles with Michigan history and one retired science librarian from Michigan State University who is working on a book about two female geologists. Once I told them that I was studying communication with a focus in media studies, we discussed the idea of teaching environmental journalism. With the climate change evolving so quickly, it’s now more important than ever to talk about the planet and the environment and the effect we have on it. Especially young people studying journalism today should learn how to handle that kind of news, how to explain scientific facts to the general public and how to catch people’s interest. The science librarian said it would also be a good idea improve scientific communication. Scientists are good at finding relevant information, but they don’t necessarily know how to spread the message. Perhaps a communication professional would be able to help.

Oh, it was a wonderful conversation! I learned so much at that table alone and that was before they announced the luncheon speaker, Ashlyn Kuersten. She is a sociology professor at WMU and the director running the Wrongful Conviction Program, which is both a class and the real deal. You can read more about it here if you’re interested.

Excerpt: While most innocence projects—whose purpose is to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice—use law students to do research, WMU’s program allows undergraduate students the opportunity to research potential cases of innocence. Kuersten’s students learn from her about the most common causes of wrongful conviction, then work on evaluating the requests from inmates who contact her claiming innocence.

She has a backlog of 5,000—from Michigan alone.

Let me tell you something about presenting your research to complete strangers: It’s only as scary as you let it be. I spent at least two weeks working on my speech. I rehearsed and rewrote it a dozen times. Hell, once I checked into my hotel room the night before, I spent at least three hours editing the speech even more and writing down keywords and 20170309_200458phrases on index cards. The chairperson of the communication and journalism department was kind enough to organize a practice session beforehand, too. By the way, this was also my professor who suggested that I should send in an abstract to the Michigan Academy. I don’t know how many universities or academic departments help their grad students prepare for a conference presentation, but I would say we were lucky to get that support. My mother also reminded me that no one knows my research better than I do. It is mine and I should be proud of it and explain it the best I could. Once I stood in front of everyone with my index cards and PowerPoint, I felt a new sense of confidence.

Another way my research has been exposed is that Oakland Univerity’s communication and marketing department got interested. They’re currently working on a series of videos promoting research and they thought what I’m researching is pretty interesting. (Their deadline for this video is also “sometime before next season begins.”) Last week, I packed all my books, notes, articles and DVDs, and hauled them to Meadow Brook Hall, a mansion and historic landmark; the founder of the university Matilda Wilson lived there.

It felt surreal walking into that place. First of all, I was walking like a pack-mule. Second of all, the mansion and its courtyard were beautiful and looked like something out of a British detective movie, like a place where something secret and scandalous once happened and it was now up to me to solve the mystery. Third, as a former journalist, I’m more used to being behind the camera. Nonetheless, it turned out to be a fun experience. In the library, Kelly, Colleen and Jason were waiting with their camera equipment and with smiles on their faces. I got to wear a tiny microphone. I maintained eye contact with Colleen while I was talking and sometimes forgot that the camera was there. I made a lot of jokes.

I wrote two of my professors the same day and told them about the video; not sure why I didn’t say anything earlier. Perhaps part of me thought it wouldn’t really happen. One of the responses I got was: “Thanks for sharing. This is so cool and a good reminder of how we can never know where our work might take us so it’s a good idea to get it out there in the world.”

Don’t be afraid to stick out your chin. Don’t be afraid to do new things. As you can see, it can bring you to all kinds of adventures.

 

 

Grad School: Part 2 – Things to Expect

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Living off-campus won’t take away from the experience of attending college. You can make new friends on the grad level, even though many of you likely commute. Of course, you shouldn’t expect the same kind of crazy scene as you probably lived through during your undergrad years. As I mentioned in the previous post, the culture itself – no matter which field you go into – is vastly different. It’s more “adult” (for lack of a better word), but certainly not boring. People are there to learn and to dive into the field. You would be surprised by the myriad of goals and ambitions of your classmates. In my case, no one has the same future in mind for their post-master years. They also find different things appealing within communication and have various things to offer to the discussion.

If you feel apprehensive about making new friends or out of your league, keep in mind that none of you is an expert. You’re in the same boat. It’s best to keep an open mind and an open heart when school starts, because you’re going to need some friends to get through all that hard work ahead of you. 

As a grad assistant, I was fortunate to meet and get to know most of the faculty in the communication department that teach the grad students. I would advise that even if you don’t land a job like that, take a moment to reach out to the professors in your department. They can help you figure out your classes, what kind of jobs there are for someone with your degree, which people to talk to, who may be studying the same/similar thing you are, which books you should read, et cetera.

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Some extra “light” reading.

The communication department at Oakland University is pretty small. It isn’t the type of situation where everyone knows everyone, but you know most people and you know of certain people. Since the classes are challenging, it’s only natural that we all turn to each other for help, emotional support and a laugh. Sometimes we wonder aloud, “What the hell did we just read for class?” I can’t speak for every grad program, but in communication you’ll read more within a four-month period than you could possibly ever imagine, anything from scholarly articles to book excerpts to long blog entries. Be willing to carve a decent portion of time just for reading if you attend grad school. Write down your thoughts about the reading, because your professor will ask about them. The answer “I liked it/didn’t like it” doesn’t cut it, just FYI. (Half the time, you won’t like it anyway.) Haha

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Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Find something that you care about after you’ve been in the program for a while, and find your “groove.” Some readings have had a great impact on me and driven me to look for more at Kresge Library. For example, Michel Foucault, who wrote extensively on post-structuralism and the effects that power relations have on our society, has helped me reconsider what I know and how I know it. Antonio Gramsci, who coined the term “hegemony,” has been fascinating as well. Hegemony is the construction of power through ideas and knowledge, which is done by the consent of the people, instead of force. Racism, for instance, is form of power and it continuously exists due to the general public and their acceptance thereof, because of a set of ideas that have been instilled in them. And by reading a vast variety of feminist scholars, I’ve come to a better understanding of feminism, which has become more complex than ever before. It means something different for everyone and is used differently by various cultural and political groups.

By groove, I mean your own way to study a phenomenon. There are several kinds of research methods and in communication alone, there are several fields, sub-fields and theories (or your viewpoint of the world). There is an on-going debate in social science whether one should let the data speak for itself or if one should analyze it and draw their own conclusions from it. That’s just one of many, many philosophical questions that never will be fully answered. Nonetheless, people will argue about them. I assure you, it doesn’t matter what you’re studying, once you climb higher on the academic ladder, people expect you to have some opinions and a willingness to participate in debates.

Truth is, even with a master’s, you won’t be an expert in whatever subject you’ve spent the past two-plus years on. You’ll have a clue at best. For real, man, the more stuff you read and the more research you perform, you’ll become increasingly aware of how little you know. Now it almost sounds like getting a master’s is a dead-end, but please hear me out.

I would say that so far this experience has expanded my views and taught me new ways to process and analyze information. I ask more questions than before and approach most topics with a degree of skepticism. I’m learning how to form a good argument and I’m growing my patience because when it comes to research and finding the good stuff, you got to dig, dig, dig, dig, dig.

Most of all, I have come to value the act of discussion or conversation. Earlier I was more concerned about being right, you know. Being in grad school has helped me realize this: Even if you’re talking with someone with completely different views, knowing you would  rather outlive god than change your mind, listening to someone else’s point of view is healthy. It offers a new light on the subject. It helps you grow as a person, you understand where people come from and you can empathize with others. In a day and age where people post their opinions on the Internet, a.k.a. shout into the void, I feel like that’s something many people forget.

Grad School: Part 1 – The Choice

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Campus in the early fall of 2016.

I consider attending grad school one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. If you’re thinking about applying to one, please think about what you want to do with your master degree. Do you even need it? How will it help you? Do you want to go on to a PhD program afterwards? Any type of degree above a high school diploma looks awesome on a resume, but keep in mind that you still need to put in a fair amount of work into landing a great job. You need to be pro-active, optimistic and willing to walk the extra mile in order to stand out.

Since it seems like so many are going for a bachelor degree these days, I find it a little surprising that not more people climb a little higher on the academic latter. Perhaps it’s the crippling debt. Perhaps they’re stuck in a three-jobs-minimum-wage hole. Perhaps they’ve started a family and it seems impossible to make the time for classes, essays and other homework assignments. Perhaps it feels daunting to return to school if completing one bachelor took more than four years. Perhaps they think they’re too old.

The fun thing about grad school is that there is a wide range of students: Young people like me who recently finished their undergrad and older folk who already have stable jobs or fully fledged careers. Some of them have children. The graduate courses tend to be a little more expensive than undergrad ones, but you don’t need to take nearly as many credits. More importantly, you don’t need to take a bunch of silly requisites that are unrelated to your major. You have more control and can tailor your master’s to your liking. If you’re busy and money is tight, you can always take your time. I plan to finish in two years (two classes each semester, plus one summer class this year), then there are others who have decided to work on their master’s over a 6-year span because of various obligations outside campus. For example, one woman I know has five children to think of and a demanding job, not to mention she also coaches a dance team (I think she said the girls are from middle school).

4Just to put it out there, a bachelor’s isn’t worthless. The problem is that there are many people who have them. When an employer is looking to hire someone, they’re going to look at dozens and dozens of people with an applicable degree, who may be equally qualified. This means that once you have your bachelor’s, you need connections, unique skills and perhaps an internship or outstanding project. If someone is looking at 50 applications and three of them say “master’s in…,” they’re most likely going to toss the other 47.

Again, a master degree doesn’t guarantee success, and it’s up to everyone to decide for themselves what they want and need in their professional life. But it makes a difference.

In my case, it was needed. I had graduated from Central Michigan University in May of 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts. My major was creative writing and I also had a minor in journalism. I wanted to be like Rory Gilmore, a journalist, perhaps even a freelancer. (Yeah, yeah, laugh it off.) Not unlike that “A Year in the Life” special they released on Netflix, it didn’t work out. I worked for a newspaper in Mount Pleasant for two and half months, then got laid off because of budget cuts and downsizing. I could have continued chasing the journalist dream, but that meant moving (which costs money… money I didn’t have), taking risks (which I had done by taking that job), and scraping together passion for it (which wasn’t there anymore). Frankly, I’m just glad it didn’t take me 10 years to say goodbye to journalism.

The one dream I’m sticking to is becoming a full-time writer, like my idols J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman and many others. In the meantime, though, I need a stable job and preferably an interesting one.

Currently I’m working on a master’s in communication with a focus on media studies at Oakland University. The past year has been incredibly exciting! I’ve read so many scholarly articles and book excerpts. Often times, as an extracurricular activity, reading folks such as Michel Foucault and various feminist scholars. This spring semester I had the wonderful opportunity to work as a graduate assistant, which allowed me to get to know the faculty better and I performed one-hundred (or at least close to that many) hours of research on their behalf.

The culture in grad school is radically different compared undergrad, which I like a lot more. My classmates are more adult. They’re truly there to learn and grow, not to get away from their parents or something to that effect. Unlike my undergrad, I’ve never found myself sitting in a classroom with 25-30 other people, thinking, “How did they get into college? My God, I’m surrounded by idiots. Please, end class early.” I don’t have to endure homesickness since I’m now living with my parents. There are no opportunities or incentives (at least for me) to stumble into a bad crowd in the desperation of “finding myself.” Partially because I commute, partially because I have found my center by now.

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Not to undermine my time at CMU. It was an amazing experience that helped shaping me into the woman I am today. During those four years, I fluctuated between being a straight-A student, a writer who neglected everything for her art and – no bullshit – just stupid, hanging out with people who had a bad influence on me.

I surely met a buffet of people: batshit crazy roommates; easy-going, tea-drinking artists; radical, left-wing potheads; smug, charming douche-bags and creeps; better roommates who loved Disney movies and invited me to parties with their theater buddies; young women who loved expressing themselves through dance; fellow journalist students who have gone on to writing really cool stories at big newspapers; a myriad of writers and poets who inspired me; professors and mentors I still look up to; awesome friends who listened, supported me and made me laugh. Let me give you some advice: Stay in touch with the friends you make in college, make an effort to meet them sometimes, because they are more valuable than that degree you bring home.

Making friends in grad school is different as well, especially if the department of your choice is small. I will elaborate on that subject another time because this post has carried on for a bit longer than planned. Hopefully you have found this helpful if you’re thinking about grad school or if you’re wondering whether it was a mistake to get a bachelor degree. (I know I did the latter for a while.)

This series will continue till I graduate next spring so keep an eye out if you want more insight on my life at grad school.

Careers one can pursue with a master’s in communication:

University instructor, Community college professor, Communication & Marketing for universities or businesses, Athletic management, Human resources, Corporate communication, Account management, Public relations, Recruitment,  Sales and Business development, Non-profit communication, Consulting, Change management, Editor/Writer

Life Lesson: Things Can Change

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The beautiful fountain in front of Kresge Library on Oakland University’s campus. Taken by Anna J. Palm on May 17, 2016.

At the risk of sounding sooo cheesy, I write this to tell you that if you’re unhappy about where you are, things can always change. As bad as things may get, you have the power to make the difference in your life.

Let me tell you a story.

Less than a year ago, I had nothing going on. I was sharing an apartment with my brother in Mount Pleasant, a farm town that’s really only awake during college season, residing on a flatland countryside literally in the middle of Michigan’s mitten. More accurately, in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t see the town that way while I was attending Central Michigan University and certainly not when I came back for a journalism job at The Morning Sun. But when the company you work for suddenly goes through budget cuts and downsizes several of its newspapers, it’s difficult seeing anything on the sunny side.

I had worked at the paper for two and half months. They called me into the conference room on a Friday afternoon (three weeks before Christmas) and told me, “Today is your last day.” No warning, no two-weeks notice to give me a chance to find a new job. It had no reflection on my work; they just couldn’t afford to keep me. From what I hear, that company is gradually going out of business at this point.

Two months later, I was making $8.5 per hour (before the state’s minimum wage went up to $8.9) as a courtesy clerk at Kroger, plus I managed to get 5-10 hours a week at Kohl’s unloading the truck. During my spare-time, I read a ton of self-help articles and (counter-actively) looked at my friends talking about their new jobs, upcoming weddings and travel plans on Facebook. I fruitlessly searched for other journalist jobs, preferably far far away from Michigan. Eventually I realized that I didn’t give a shit about journalism anymore. I applied for grad school at CMU, but changed my mind after having another epiphany: I can’t fucking stand Mount Pleasant. More importantly, you can’t start a new life at the same place.

Looking back, it feels like it took me a little too long to figure that out, but I suppose I was just stuck emotionally. Once I moved back into my parents’ house and began attending grad school at Oakland University, everything changed for the better.

Since then, I have met so many interesting, smart and funny people. I am working towards a master’s in communication and find myself setting goals for the future. I’ve read more scholarly articles and books in two semesters than I could have possibly imagined doing in two years. My professors have introduced me to Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Angela McRobbie, bell hooks and the Foss twins. I got to work as a graduate assistant for one semester, helping faculty with grading and their own research and re-designing the billboard for the graduate program in communication. Since I set foot on campus, I have performed so much research, for instance, on women in engineering, postmodernism, feminist rhetorical theory and many other topics within communication.

Not only that, people are showing interest in my research! Only last month, I presented my paper on women’s representation in Game of Thrones and other fantasy shows at a conference taking place in Western Michigan University. It was for the Michigan Academy of Science, Art and Letters, where tons of professionals and grad students gather to talk about their work. Now OU’s communication and marketing department want to include me on a series of videos promoting research. If someone would have told me a year ago, “Hey, people are gonna ask you to be in a video and talk about Game of Thrones,” I would have scoffed.

And next month I’m going to Washington, D.C. for the National Conference for College Women and Student Leaders! It’s so crazy how I turned my life around, starting with the thought, “Fuck this place! I’m outta here.”

I don’t have a recipe for success and everyone’s situation is unique, but I’d like to leave you with some words of advice for changing your life.

  • Ask yourself what you want. What are your goals? What is important to you and why?
  • Figure out a plan on how to achieve your goals. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be as simple as finding the answer to, “What now?”
  • Ask for help: In my case, I was lucky to have support from my family and friends. Whatever you need, turn to someone you trust.
  • Do your research. Be curious. Ask questions.
  • Fear is normal: Change can be spooky. It’s perfectly OK to be nervous when you try something new.
  • Write an end to your last chapter: Whatever made you angry, sad and/or frustrated before, it’s in the past. Tell it to fuck off and move on.
  • Celebrate the change: It’s brave to make a change in your life, whether it’s a decision to jog every morning or packing your things and move to another city. Pat yourself on the back!
  • Dare to dream: Once you start pursuing your goals, you’ll find yourself thinking of other adventures to embrace. I myself have become much more of a go-getter since I started grad school. I even started taking karate classes last summer!

Change can become a domino effect of happiness once you’ve turned your back on the negative things in your life. I hope you’ve found my advice helpful. Now go do stuff!