Another Taylor Swift Thinkpiece No One Asked For

As one of the most successful musicians ever, Taylor Swift doesn’t need this essay, but I do. Last week, she announced her re-recorded Fearless (Taylor’s Version) will be out April 9th, and offered a re-imagined version of her thirteen-year-old hit “Love Story”. This one song provides a nostalgia trip, a reclamation of her art from the people who sold her masters, and an opportunity to see the ways her singing and writing have evolved and matured beyond being a breathless teen first catapulted into the public eye in the mid-2000s.

Coupled with documentaries like the New York Times’ Framing Britney Spears, this moment, watching Swift’s well-publicized fallout with Scooter Braun over the unauthorized sale of her masters and back catalogue, and the subsequent fight to control her own recordings, implicates us all in our attitudes towards female artists and the art they make.

When the original Fearless, Swift’s most successful album to date, was first released in 2008, I was eleven–too young to see the misogyny behind the press deriding and dismissing anything teen girls enjoyed, from Taylor Swift herself to One Direction to Twilight, a trend going all the way back to the Beatles. When her surprised expression at winning another Grammy became a punchline, I concluded she was probably fake and shallow. And “Love Story”–didn’t she know Romeo and Juliet died at the end? That’s not exactly a solid model to build a life around. Tabloids speculated she cycled through real-life romantic partners for song inspiration–decoding what lyric was about who became a national pastime–as if no man had ever received high acclaim for mining his personal life for creative material. A woman singing about relationships gone wrong was whining over a broken heart, her love songs about love gone right fluff, fantasy, frivolous, unworthy of being taken seriously, unworthy of being called art.

A man doing the exact same thing was a sensitive genius–a double standard she’s detailed herself on blunt songs like “The Man”.

Swift’s “Love Story” has always been an idyllic tale, a reminder of possibility, that we are all able to rewrite the traditional endings–its characters overcome the narrator’s controlling dad and their town’s disapproval to be together. Fast forward 13 years (which I’m sure is no accident), and her decision to re-release this first, of all her songs, shows our society that still romanticizes suffering as a consequence of art–that the more tragic, self-destructive, and minor key you are, the more significant your art becomes–that love and hope are perhaps what we need most of all.

WhileSwift has been routinely criticized for exploring new sounds–whether it was her initial crossover from country’s girl next door to mainstream pop radio with 2012’s Red, or the big synth sounds of 1989, or the darker, moodier, woodsy cabin roots of her quarantine record Folklore featuring collabs with Matt Berninger of the National and Bon Iver. Nothing is true, and we are constantly changing. Her rerecording effort demonstrates what any artist already knows–they know the intentions behind their work better than anyone.

As I’ve grown into my own art over the past few years, I approach creating from a similar place: start with myself, and make it universal. My words are what they are; I don’t need the approval of a man–a partner, an agent, a publisher, an editor, a reader–to make them work. I gained this confidence from filling my musical rotation with the work of women close to my own age and the female stars before them who paved the way. I sound dismissive when I say “I don’t listen to men”, but it’s true–I can count on one hand the male musicians or male-fronted bands I enjoy.

You don’t have to enjoy her music, but if one of the most popular musicians of all time, the artist of the decade, has to fight this hard to revisit and control her own work, her own expressions of her own life, how much harder is it for female artists without her power and privilege to be heard, played, and taken seriously–particularly for female and nonbinary artists of color? What art are we missing out on when the country radio stations that made Taylor Swift can still be fined for playing two female artists back to back? When these artists don’t feel supported or safe because at any moment, a powerful man could abuse that power? When we dismiss the thoughts and feelings of young girls instead of… I don’t know, listening?

Song Premiere: Flynn Tanner, “Save Me”

After releasing the sun-kissed “Let’s Talk About” and romantic ode “Nervous” in 2020, Toronto-based solo artist Flynn Tanner offers a darker, broodier single standing in tonal contrast to his earlier output. While many artists, myself included, hesitate to tackle modern life’s ongoing, seemingly cataclysmic struggles, like the pandemic, isolation, and various social justice movements–your favorite dystopian novel isn’t so fun when it’s real life, is it?–these subjects are exactly what Tanner embraces in “Save Me”, the latest track from an upcoming EP. Drenched in moody synths, flowing lines, and lyrics turning mundane then desperate for the tensions to end, the Toronto native reflects on isolation, describing a life “stuck inside my house” as one where the narrator is “waiting to be found.”

In the spring of 2020, Tanner had been splitting his time between Canada and Boston, where he is finishing his formal music education at Berklee. But like everyone else, he found himself at the mercy of increasing travel restrictions and unexpectedly moored in one place for longer than usual. No stranger to working solo–all his singles have been self-recorded and produced–Flynn turned that extra time and perhaps (lack of?) inspiration into “Save Me”, three minutes of chill pop that’s catchy enough to inspire sing-alongs, but moody enough to hint at the bigger tensions brewing underneath our everyday struggles, and represents a move towards tackling broader subjects than his past work. Lines like “it’s the Fourth of July / but I don’t know why”, perhaps in reference to last summer’s explosion of movements like Black Lives Matter that highlighted injustice, show steps forward from an artist to watch.

A step forward from an artist to watch, “Save Me” is available now wherever you stream music.

Books, Books, and more Books (AKA, Update from Quarantine Day ???)

So, it’s been a minute. With transitioning to taking my graduate classes online, interning via Zoom, learning about the power of stories from my elementary school students (that could be a whole other post) and reflecting on my various privileges, I’ve been trying to take as much offline time as possible. That’s meant this blog has fallen by the wayside.

I’m currently reading Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water. It’s a powerful story of a Black teen siren navigating a world bent on suppressing her voice, and the parallels to our real world are striking. And of course, the push for diverse voices in books is inspiring some thoughts.

In these times, it’s been easy for some white authors to think that their voices are being silenced in favor of authors of color, that a Black person’s book is taking their spot. I quickly realized there’s no point in thinking this way, because there are many reasons why any book could get rejected at any given time, and most of them don’t have to do with merit or the actual quality of the work. Publishers consider their own tastes, the market, and current events.

But that brings me to another point that is actually problematic for many writers and allows myths like “that book is taking my chance” to proliferate: the lack of transparency in the publishing industry. No, often times authors won’t know why we get rejected. We make our own closure after vague, subjective responses from agents and editors. It’s not their fault–you can’t quantify exactly why you didn’t connect with something.

But beyond making it near impossible to know how many books authors actually sell, what actually happens when you’re on submission, what goes into a book deal, what’s a typical book deal, what a healthy author-agent relationship is supposed to look like, the culture of “I have big news and I can’t talk about it yet”, as exciting as it is, is shrouded in mystery and power dynamics that make it all too easy for predators and narcissists to take advantage of less experienced writers who don’t have a network.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen so many authors and agents come forward with stories of abuse and grooming and generally gross behavior. I want to thank them for their bravery, and I hope this does a little bit to help querying authors like me as we start our journeys.

I’ve been reviewing new music, working on my books, stressing about schools reopening, taking time to care for my garden, being absolutely befuddled at people who refuse to wear masks, and doing a lot of reflecting, both on my own and with friends and family, trying to be a better citizen and thinker. In the next few months, I’ll have a poem in I’m Not Crazy, She Will Speak’s mental health-themed anthology, and my first ever fiction publication in a real lit mag, The Blue Mountain Review. I’ll be sharing details as soon as I have them.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you’re able to take time and space for what you need to do.

New Poem at iO Literary!

It seems odd to be celebrating something as minute as a poetry publication in the middle of the largest civil rights movement in history. As a white woman, over the past few weeks, I’ve been challenging myself to do more and be better to promote justice, particularly challenging others.

But if you want to read a poem I wrote in like two minutes about a year ago, check out “All You’ll (Never) Know” in io’s Refractions here.

Poetry News & Partnerships

I’m excited to share that my haiku “woman to woman” will be featured in Dear Sister Friend, the forthcoming anthology published by the She Will Speak Series!

She Will Speak is a fabulous organization (full disclosure: I’m helping with their social media) based in New Jersey that aims to empower women, especially women of color, through helping them find their voices, practice self-care, and honor the material and emotional work they’ve accomplished. I’m honored to work with and know Cheyenne, the founder of the series, and collaborate on this important work.

This is SWS’s second anthology, scheduled for release at the end of November. Their first was centered on lifting up voices of those who have experienced gender-based violence, and is currently available on Amazon.

My poem is a love song to female friendship, especially that with friends who may be physically far from you. I wrote it at a time when I felt closer with friends who were across towns, states, and time zones than with the people with whom I lived and saw every day.

The anthology will be released on November 27th, and I’m excited to see all the other amazing poetry, prose, and artwork that will be included. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy, and you can too for a small donation of $5. When you place your order, you’ll also receive a surprise handmade gift.

And wow, I sound like an infomercial. Call now!

Anyway, more importantly, when you order, whether it’s before or after the anthology’s official publication on the 27th (that’s right before Thanksgiving too, so it’s a great way to show your gratitude to the women in your life), proceeds will support GoLiveGirl . This organization empowers young girls across Connecticut to discover their own potential and become leaders.

So what are you waiting for? Make a difference and get some quality reading material!

Why I’m Probably Cheating at NaNoWriMo This Year

It’s October, which means writers all over the world are already jumping ahead of horror movies and candy and ghosts and thinking about November.

The scariest thing about this season, for many people, starts after the Halloween decorations come down. It’s NaNoWriMo, aka National Novel Writing Month, when a bunch of overcaffeinated, overworked writers the world over attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel entirely within the thirty days of that month.

Truly, I’m horrified.

2011 was my first attempt at this endeavor. Because I was young enough then to qualify as a young writer, I could set my own goal instead of adhering to the 50k rule, and decided my cringeworthy attempt at a rom-com heavily based on my favorite Avril Lavigne music video would get me about 30,000 words. What I got was 20,000 words, half of which was lost forever due to technological difficulties. Moral of the story? SAVE EVERYTHING.

Even if it’s only to laugh at it in 8 years.

Maybe especially if it’s only to laugh at it in 8 years.

Anyway, for my second go at NaNo in 2012, as a sophomore in high school, things got a little more serious. I made an attempt at a dark story of social commentary on attitudes of entitlement, sexual violence, and the lies we’ve been fed that promote such deviant behavior. I don’t remember how long this one got, but it went through about fifteen titles and I could never settle on one ending. Fun fact: many of the characters got reworked into Woman of Words.

Wow is right.

I think I tried rewriting that hot mess in 2013, but it never got much farther than providing some source material and character names for my first completed manuscript. Some incredibly minor writer character named Brandy walked in on, like, the last third of the story, and stole the show. And that explains the past 6 years.

But then I got too crazy busy with… high school, I guess, and applying to colleges, and living my life. For a while I frowned on events like NaNo – just because people wrote 50,000 words didn’t mean they were 50,000 good words.

However, as I got more responsibilities and found my own writing time to be even more precious, I appreciated the way competitions (really, you’re only competing against yourself) structured and promoted creativity and gave you a community to whom you could be accountable. Camp NaNoWriMo happens in April and July, and I tried it out, but it never motivated me as much as knowing that everyone else was also working on a frenzied book-length project the entire month of November.

Or maybe the magic ingredient is that special fall weather.

Anyway, this brings me to the title of this post. I don’t know if I’m officially going to enter NaNo when November 1st rolls around. I have graduate school projects, exams, a job, family, and other writing commitments that all keep me stretched pretty thin. But if I do take the plunge, and writers like Angela here are making me lean towards doing it, I’ll be starting with the almost-10k of my WIP that I’ve already written.

I know, it’s technically cheating, and it takes away from the chaos of NaNo, but I think it’s actually within the spirit of the event. This month is about reaching personal goals, no matter the timeline.

Photo by Alex Knight via Unsplash.

Feeding the Soul

We all know that what we eat impacts our physical health. But the less obvious reality is that food also impacts our mental health, thoughts and feelings. With the growing movement towards healthy foods and more vegan, gluten-free, natural, or locally-grown options, as well as concerns surrounding the climate crisis and our planet’s fate, it’s become clearer that people want to feel connected to the earth as well as what we can grow from it.

I began to realize this as a student at Stonehill College on the Easton-Brockton line, where I regularly spent Friday afternoons volunteering on the campus farm. To make a pun, there’s something incredibly grounding about being in the dirt, getting your hands dirty, planting seeds and harvesting crops that will benefit others. I spoke to Celia Dolan, assistant manager of the Farm at Stonehill (and my all-around amazing best friend), about the connection between agriculture and broader community health, on both the physical and more abstract (mental/emotional/spiritual) levels, as well as what this particular farm does to alleviate agricultural and socioeconomic concerns, particularly in the low-income community in Brockton.

Stonehill’s farm was founded in 2011 under the college’s Mission Division (since dissolved) to address local food access issues. Most of the 12,000 pounds of produce they produce each season is donated to community partners such as My Brother’s Keeper, Old Colony YMCA, and Evelyn House in Stoughton. Dolan estimated that the farm’s vegetables reach about 3,000 people each year, who may not otherwise have access to fresh, healthy food.

But beyond the direct community needs the Farm at Stonehill serves, there’s a particular benefit attached to being associated with a college, especially one founded in the Catholic tradition of educating the whole person. Students regularly visit the farm as part of courses in subjects ranging from environmental science or biology to sociology, to learn about food and food justice, as well as what they can do to help others who may not be as privileged.

Dolan said part of the Farm’s mission is to educate “young people who will be the leaders of tomorrow.” Among the things they discuss are the power of buying local and transitioning to a reduced- or zero-waste lifestyles. Additionally, as a non-profit farm, the Stonehill farm doesn’t have to worry about making ends meet with their produce.

Having access to fresh produce is a direct reminder that humans are irrevocably connected to the soil, which can help with existential, personal concerns, and may also motivate us to do something about the state of our planet.

“Good food not only feeds the body, it also feeds the soul,” she said. “Food is medicine. So if we can bring delicious, fresh, organic, local produce to people, we are sharing a healthy state of mind and body with them.” And, as an added bonus, “We form friendships with our community partners!”

Clearly, it’s not just about growing and providing produce, but what that produce can produce.

Practice Makes Perfect… or Does It?

We hear all the time that the more you do something, the better you’ll become at it. As kids, it’s riding a bike. As teens, it’s driving a car. It can be learning an instrument or knitting or or cooking or drawing or just about any skill.

You’d think writing would work the same way. The more books you write, it should get easier. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to mastery should apply. Or that oft-repeated quote in writing circles about a million words.

But I’d argue the opposite. I’ve seen many writers talk about how writing never gets any easier. I’d say it even gets more difficult the more books you write.

And not because you’re running out of ideas. I have more ideas than I’ll probably be able to execute in my lifetime. The more you learn about the craft of writing–the ingredients of a story’s structure, the major points in a character’s arc, how much backstory is too much or too little, what words to murder to keep a reader’s interest–the more elements you have to balance.

If my use of the second person is irritating, please let me know. The only person I can and mean to speak for is myself.

The more attention you gain as a writer, whether that’s from an army of dedicated readers or an agent and editor pushing you towards your next deadline, the more pressure you have to deliver your next product, and even to top your last (never mind meet all their expectations).

And I think it’s because we believe creative tasks are supposed to get easier with practice that they get so much more difficult.

We believe that, much like memorizing facts for tests in school, once we learn the elements of a scene, we’ll never need to review them (maybe that’s a trait of a recovering perfectionist (who, me?)). We believe that once we’ve skimmed The Emotion Thesaurus, we should be able to recite all of the ways one can express a particular feeling. We feel like we should already know everything there is to know about character arcs because of the sheer amount of hours we spent with five tabs open to K.M. Weiland’s character arc resources at once the last time around.

Why do we feel that way, when it’s so unrealistic? If you’re anything like me, you’re not writing the same story in the same voice.

Each story requires different expressions and combinations of the same ingredients. What worked in my first book might not work for my next, and certainly won’t work for yours.

Writing is so difficult because we can’t easily transfer our practice from one project to the next with guaranteed results. The characters have different needs, the theme is deflating instead of uplifting.

So what can you do if you’re simultaneously stuck on your next project but tired of looking at the same old resources?

  1. Don’t compare your new draft to your finished project. It hasn’t been around long enough to get polished!
  2. Look at new resources to allow your brain the chance to process the same information in a new format.
  3. Don’t give up!

Readers, I hope this helps you remember that you should keep going!

Writing Through a Funk

Once again, thanks to Michelle for the idea!

I’ve gone through several short periods where I don’t feel like doing anything. What I love starts to feel like a chore. Barring any serious conditions like depression or anxiety (because I’m not a licensed mental health professional yet), I’ve found that something as simple as changing up my routine, getting out to see new places with people, and doing a bit of self-care can help refresh my feelings.

Writing is one of the ways I take care of myself. I put my thoughts in journals if I’m not ready to share them, and sometimes I put them into poems anyway. I don’t want this blog to turn into my online diary in which I vomit up all my feelings (that reminds me of this poem – go to page 40).

Sometimes writing is the cause of my frustrations – I don’t know where to turn in the story I’m currently working on, I wonder if I’ll ever be “good enough”, I can’t figure out how to balance the energy I’m spending with what I get in return.

But sometimes, it’s the only thing that gives any order to my thoughts.

It helps me remember and process my feelings. It forms the next piece of my story. I tend to reflect on most the experiences I’ve written about, no matter how major or minor they actually were.

I believe in creative expression as a therapeutic tool because it has helped me regain control and perspective over whatever is stressing me out that day or week. It helps me recognize unhealthy patterns in my thoughts and actions. When I’m feeling better, it reminds me where I’ve been as well as what I did to get out of that funk. And once I recognize it, I can try taking steps to prevent it from happening again.

Of course, it’s not simply a cure-all. If I’m writing fiction, as much as I learn about myself, it often seems like a great way to distract myself from my own, very real problems. And writing is complex work that, unlike other skills, doesn’t necessarily get any easier with practice because each piece has a different purpose and audience. It can be easy to give up altogether. But I know I have to keep going, wherever this road will take me.

Have you ever felt this way? What do you do to get out of a funk?

I’m a Writer of Tweets

Over the past year, I’ve gotten much more involved in the writing community on Twitter. My experience started with pitching in quarterly #PitMad contests, and then I naturally connected with other writers, both published and unpublished, indie and traditional, as well as professionals like agents and editors. There are fun writing-themed challenges, giveaways, contests, and fun conversations.

And GIFs. Don’t forget the GIFs and memes.

It may not seem like much, but I recently hit 500 followers. Sadly, though, when I went from 499 to 500, I found myself spending way too much time scrolling through the app, trying to stay relevant so I could get one follower closer to the next milestone, as if the number of people who followed me was a barometer for the quality or seriousness of my writing.

Checking my social media (you too, Instagram) soon began to eat up writing time. I felt like a fraud.

And I have to wonder why I fell victim to this trap. I’ve written previously about social media’s detriments to mental health and time management, so you’d think I would be able to notice when I was getting sucked into the void and keep my habits in check.

Well, I’m not perfect. But I do have a theory as to why it’s especially hard for writers to resist the allure of the little blue bird and the camera apps (insert your logo of choice here).

These days, whether self-published or have the backing of a traditional house, authors are expected to do more and more of their own marketing and promotion. And to get the most exposure, many turn to the various social channels, where they can build a community of readers and have instant connections and an audience waiting to buy their books and, perhaps more importantly, spread the word to their own friends and followers.

Agents and editors often discuss the importance of a writer’s platform, mostly in the context of nonfiction. In order to sell books, you have to prove your credibility by showing you have a willing audience. For fiction writers, you’re encouraged to have some kind of an online presence. Indie writers who do all the work themselves might rely entirely on their social media to promote their work.

Maybe the unpublished writers among us think that developing an online presence beforehand puts us a step ahead. But no follower count can substitute good writing.

It’s great to be connected, but I know I don’t want to be chained to an algorithm.