Meta-Cynicism

I was twelve years old the first time I was called a music snob. A teacher was playing a request from one of my classmates – “Harder to Breathe” by Maroon 5 – over the loudspeaker in our classroom, and I GUESS I wrinkled my nose at it. The teacher looked at me and laughed. “You’re sort of a music snob, aren’t you, Sam?” Me? A snob? I was cultured! I was knowledgeable! I was wise beyond my years! In fact, I was a little prick. I’d made a common mistake – common even for people who aren’t twelve years old. I’d confused cynicism with sophistication.

This blunder has become even more ubiquitous in college. What’s more, people apply this attitude to increasingly intellectual pursuits. People seem consistently determined to assert themselves as the utmost authority on a given craft. Art: “I’m so over Andy Warhol.” Classical music: “4’33 changed my life; if you don’t get it, you don’t get music.” Literature: “Have you even read Infinite Jest?” I can understand what’s happening, at least somewhat. Kids in college have each of their feet in two completely different worlds. One pink Converse with stars drawn all over it in silver Sharpie is still in our childhood, where we believe we’ll grow up to be all we promised ourselves we’d be. One leather wedged lady boot is in our future, where we know we’ll have to fight to set ourselves apart at a job that probably won’t be the professional baseball player (yeah, and I grew up before Monet Davis was around) or garbage truck driver we thought we’d be when we were twelve. In order to bridge the gap, we try to invoke the jaded demeanor of a much older individual. In truth, this cynicism – or any cynicism for that matter – isn’t the mark of someone who’s lived a full life as we believe it to be. It’s the mark of someone who’s lived a sad life.

There probably isn’t a whole lot that we can do to combat this discrepancy. It’s natural for someone who is young to want to act older. Honestly, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to want to be cultured, to be well-read, to listen to cool modern classical music, to like weird artists. The real issue arises when we can’t appreciate something that’s just damned pretty.

For example, do you remember The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats? It was acclaimed for breaking the color barrier in children’s literature, but when I was little, all I cared about was the pictures of the kids playing in the snow that reminded me of my Bubbi and Zayde’s house in Chicago. Kids’ brains work like poetry does – only they don’t have to sit down and analyze and find themes and rhyme schemes and think “So what?” while they’re reading. Everything is poetry to a kid.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be analytical, but it’s definitely not healthy to be analytical all the time. Cynicism is derived when a mind is unhealthily systematic, and it’ll suffocate your creativity in the end if you’re not careful. Take a second, and reread something that used to make your brain work without looking at itself in the mirror every five seconds. Sure, you could be using the time to brush up on your Joyce or Kafka, but if you’re visiting this blog, you’re probably already pretty well-read.

Samantha Horwitz

Plot vs Character: Striking a Delicate Balance

Storytelling is one of the most innate human activities: we tell stories to inform, to relate to one another, and to entertain. Even though works of fiction may not recount historical events, they resonate with us because they are based on themes that we encounter in everyday life, such as overcoming hardships, forging friendship, and discovering the strength within us. When we encounter well-written stories like these, they evoke strong emotions, make us feel more connected to our world, and stay with us for years after we read the last page.

You cannot have a story unless you have events that happen and people to which they can happen; that is what makes plot and character the two most compelling elements of all the elements in a story. Sometimes, a writer decides before the story goes beyond the planning stages whether the plot or the characters will lead the story (at the least, they have a good idea which of these elements will take the leading role). Other times, an author may begin writing and let the progression of the story determine whether the plot or the characters will be the primary cause of the action—whether it is more important that the audience knows exactly what is happening, or whether it is more important that we know exactly whom it is happening to.

All writers have their own reasons for favoring one aspect of their story over another. They might find that thinking up situations comes easier to them than curating personalities, or that they have more interesting people in their life to use as inspiration than they do outstanding memories. However, I am partial to thinking that character development should be the most important element in a story. The plot keeps the story moving, but the characters are the ones who move, and in a well-told tale, the audience moves with them through whatever city or fantasy land or predicament they may find themselves in. Also, people want to relate to each other; that’s part of the reason why stories are so popular to begin with. And when we get invested in a story, the characters feel as close to us as the real people in our lives. We advise our friends to walk away from people who cause them excessive grief and don’t contribute anything valuable to their lives; I can say that I’ve closed books before I reached the ending because I felt the same way about the characters. The author may have included some wonderful tension in his or her story, but if I don’t care how the characters escape, or whether they’re reunited with their lost friends, or who turns out to be the murderer, then what’s the point in reading on?

One of the most well-known novels which I would argue is character-driven is JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Critics will tell you that the novel’s plot is sparse, but those who understand the importance of character may tell you that plot can be immaterial; the novel persists because Holden Caulfield speaks to such a wide audience. Generations of readers have identified with his struggle of self-doubt, his hatred of “phonies,” and his fear of growing up to become someone he doesn’t like. When we read the novel, we go on his journey through New York with him. As he tries to learn about himself and understand the world, we hope to do the same. No matter what happens to him—even if it seems that nothing happens—we care, and we want to see it happen.

Nina Palattella

Remembering the Good Stuff

When I first meet someone and our conversation turns toward hobbies, reading is inevitably one of the first things I mention. This is usually followed by writing. I’ve said it so many times that it has become second nature; the words roll off my tongue as easily as my own name. There are usually follow-up questions, such as “What’s your favorite book?” and “What kind of things do you like to write?” My answer may change depending on what I’ve read recently or what mood I’m in, but the conversations are generally similar.

In one form or another, the English language has become such a large part of my life that I rarely look back on the reasons that I fell in love with reading and writing in the first place. As a senior English major, my days (and nights) are full of reading assignments and paper writing. The dusty stack of unopened books that I’ve accumulated over time sits in my bedroom, judging me silently, but I can only apologize and promise that I’ll read them eventually. Any writing ideas that pop into my brain must be tabled for the mythical free time I might discover in a dark corner somewhere.

Back when I was a carefree grade-schooler with too much free time on my hands, I discovered how much fun reading is. My first Nancy Drew book showed me what it was like to become completely immersed in a fictional world. The teenage sleuth’s strawberry-blonde hair and determined attitude were incredibly impressive to me, inspiring a slew of mystery stories both written and (poorly) illustrated by myself. As I grew up my taste in literature matured, although I was never ashamed to go back to my childhood favorites. Trips to the library with my mom and sister became a Saturday morning routine; I would emerge from the quiet building, triumphant, with arms full of books. My library card was a source of great power.

Some of the best days of my youth were passed within the confines of my bedroom. I would spend hours lost in a story, emerging only when I had to change my position on the bed or I noticed my stomach grumbling. During these marathon sessions I would laugh, I would cry, and, quite frequently, I would finish a book in the evening that I had started in the morning. Reading let me experience places and adventures that I would never have experienced otherwise. I grew to love some characters and hate others. I could escape the real world for a short while and feel emotions—happiness, anger, fear, sorrow—in ways I’d never felt them before. Eventually, I began to appreciate writing for its beauty, often pausing a moment just to enjoy the way an author strung words together to create art. In a similar way, I found a passion for writing. The more I wrote, the more I realized that nothing had ever allowed me to express myself the way that writing was, and is, able to. I learned to admire authors not just for the stories they tell, but for the massive amount of effort and creativity that goes into writing well.

Studying English is not always fun. A whole semester of 18th century English literature can be a bit of a snooze fest. Staying up late and alternating between typing and crying to get a paper finished will not be one of my fondest memories of college. Lugging around giant anthologies may have given me permanent back damage. Despite these things, though, I know that there is nowhere I’d rather be. My choices are driven by the foundation of love I have for the written word, and as long as I find joy in the letters on a page, they will continue to be.

Sarah Grages

What Being an Editor Taught Me About Myself

I have always loved reading and writing, but I fell off the literary wagon as I got older and my schedule became more demanding. Creating my own work became a daunting task to the point where I stopped trying. Everyone around me seemed more dedicated and more talented. I had even stopped allocating time to read the books I wanted to read. I came to a mundane time in my life where I focused on work and went out with friends, but spent little time reflecting on art or the written word. I felt like a failure as an artist. Then I joined the Brainchild team.

Being on a team meant I had to let go of some control. There are numerous steps to making a magazine, and the first concrete ones had almost nothing to do with me. This was a humbling experience. The design team informed the editorial staff of their decisions and they were always willing to hear our opinions, but they also had the final say of when something was logistically possible with regard to design. In three months, I learned about page layout, margins, page finish, spacing, color continuity, and so much more. The holistic magazine contained components other than what I could contribute, and I was moved by the synthesis of different voices into a single, cohesive vision. I saw art evolve within multiple minds and culminate in a final product that not I nor any one of us alone could have imagined.

When our submissions closed, the editorial team worked tirelessly. We spent hours each night commenting on one lengthy document. We met every week to argue, explain, and defend our edits and suggestions. Sometimes I did not get to read a submission before another editor rejected it, and I learned to trust that other members of the team were keeping the best interests of the magazine in the forefront of all decisions. We requested rewrites and sometimes asked for additional pieces from submitters. Workshopping someone else’s writing helped me to handle constructive criticism of my own. An outside reader experiences organization and word choice from a fresh, less attached perspective. When I write, I am convinced it is perfect because these are my beloved phrases, this is my painstaking masterpiece and no one outside of my raw emotion that produced it could possibly understand its importance. Looking back, I find it funny that I was the biggest hindrance to my work and I appreciate the guidance I have learned to accept. I know now that emotion cannot be spread from writer to reader when it is muddled, and a team can help you see yourself and your work from angles that you can’t.

In the end, we created a magazine. Works of art that I personally fought to keep were arranged on a page and bound in a book with the color scheme we chose and the organization we agonized over. We celebrated what we created. This was not my baby, but the child of team gestation. I learned to let go of my need for total artistic control and then realized that great art is accomplished through collaboration. A magazine came together through a tight team of twelve and too many submitters to count. I could not be more elated.

Ellie Marshall

Tips for Developing Inspiration

Over the years, I’ve been blessed with periods where writing came as easily as breathing. I’ve also traversed eras where putting pen to paper was pulling teeth. My road as a writer has led to a serendipitous destination: the precious flow state. When we, as creative people, enter what certain buzzword-centric psychologists call “the flow state,” intuition takes over and and our artistic output twists into a torrential outpour. Metaphors embody this state, creating notions of an idea coming from “beyond” oneself. The sense that ideas originate from metaphysical pinnacles or the subterranean consciousness symbolize the will of intuition acting independently upon artists. When our intuition uses us as a means for its own end, we’re in the flow state. This is the domain of inspiration, that elusive, intangible realm that we often reach for, but rarely grasp. I suggest some ways to reconnect with your inspiration, to reanimate it after it’s passed, and to cultivate the sense of curiosity anew.

1.) Meditate
Meditation is an incredibly simple process anyone can use to relax and get in touch with themselves. It’s easy to barricade yourself with sacred images of Tibetan monks or esteemed gurus and think meditation isn’t for you. Meditation is for everyone. Beyond the bountiful health effects it’s been proven to cause, it can be instrumental in quieting your mind so you can hear new ideas when they come. Meditation is about listening to your thoughts without judging them or reacting in an impassioned way. Meditating can be as simple as closing your eyes for fifteen minutes and listening to your surroundings without applying judgment to anything you hear. A parallel exercise would be to close your eyes and listen to your body: your heartbeat, the hum of movement beneath your skin. These exercises help meditators learn to sit with their thoughts without needing to go off on undesirable tangents. It’s about just letting things be and resetting your present awareness, which is optimal for relaxing and the inspiration that can only follow a mind at rest. Apps like Headspace or guided meditations on YouTube are great sources for those just starting their path.

2.) Movement
Writer’s block does not exist. Say it with me, “Writers block does not exist.” That noxious obstacle we’re referring to when we think of writer’s block is really just fear that’s damning up the flow of our creative thoughts. Unlike the rainforests companies pillage, creativity is not a finite resource. The only thing standing in your way is yourself. Self-doubt and ruthless self-criticism are obstructions to the liberty of free association. Our bodies and minds are intertwined at deeper levels than we often give them credit for: We are what we think just as much as we are what we eat. Getting your body moving and going for a walk in nature can be immensely helpful with eroding the blocks you’ve ingrained against yourself. Exploring rivers and woods are useful tools for getting your mind off of problems, not to mention the benefit of the beautiful scenery that can incite creative thoughts.

3.) Travel
A change in routine can be just the thing you’re looking for to uproot yourself from the mundane and tango with the sublime. Traveling is the ultimate routine-breaker. When we travel we get to delve into new places and immerse ourselves into the soul of unfamiliar cultures. Walking the streets of foreign cities and framing ourselves within unique architecture is nourishment for our minds. Traveling thrusts us into the heart of new sights and sounds that marinate in the subconscious until bubbling up to the surface, which can send you scrambling back to your hotel to jot down newfound ideas.

4.) People Watch
Of course, sauntering the back-alleys of Paris or the beaches of Brazil isn’t an economic reality for everyone. You don’t have to send your body on vacation; you can send your mind on an excursion just the same. Park yourself in a public space and watch the people pass. A key component of fledgling inspiration is curiosity. If you’re not naturally curious, exercise that mental muscle by asking yourself questions about the people you see. Where did that woman get that funny-looking hat? Why does that guy ordering his coffee look so nervous? Answer every question you generate and build fictional backstories for the people you see. Who knows, the woman that caught your eye at the park may be the hero of your next story or the subject of your new painting.

5.) Take an Interest in the World
It’s easy to get caught up in the narrow realities of our immediate routines, our circles of friends, the websites we’ve recently visited, the media we consume from our algorithmically tailored queues. Every idea is a node spread through the interconnectivity of Indra’s Net, blanketing the totality of human expression. Like beads of glass, every idea you’ll ever generate reflects the multiplicity of ideas you’ve encountered before. Make a conscious effort to break past the lines we draw for ourselves and expand our frame of understanding. Listen to voices outside of your echo chamber of familiar references. Read or watch the news. Pick an outlet you’ve never exposed yourself to before. Choose sources you don’t normally go to or may even disagree with. Challenge your expectations and your view of the world. Look at an issue from one country’s perspective, than see what the other end of the political spectrum has to say. What do the people of Spain or Greece think about this issue? How about the people of Panama or Venezuela? What does India or Iran believe? Foster a curiosity for the affairs of the globe we share and examine subjects you have no prior knowledge in. These activities unfold new networks bursting with the potential for inspiration. Every new thing you learn is a match waiting to spark a firestorm of ideas.

If you take anything away from this post, don’t be discouraged. Discouragement is the final nail in inspiration’s coffin. Everyone who is brave enough to put their work out there will compile a humble mountain of rejection letters. They are not indicative of your success. Artists who are successful keep submitting, keep conversations going, and keep putting themselves out there. The only person you should be competing with is yourself. Measure progress by examining your own history of personal improvement and never stop creating. The world doesn’t need anymore disenchanted, “tortured artists”, but the world can always use more people who persevere for what they believe in.

Joseph Langan