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Fearless Protagonist

Curious Incident

Hey friends, Julia here.

I recently finished a book called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, and I wanted y’all to know about it, because it was amazing.

It’s pretty much your typical bildungsroman (aka. Coming-of-age story) about a young English boy named Christopher, except for one minor detail…

He’s autistic.

He screams whenever someone touches him, panics when the furniture is rearranged, won’t eat food that is yellow or brown, takes instructions very literally, listens to the white noise from the radio to drown out the chaos of the world when he can’t process it all at once, and is brilliant at maths.

I am by no means an autism expert, and I’m pretty sure autism takes many different forms depending on the person, but, in my humble opinion, this was an excellent representation.

The basic premise is simple: Christopher likes dogs. Christopher finds a dead dog in his neighbor’s yard. Christopher decides to investigate the death of the dog and discovers a lot about himself along the way.

Yes, it is a very simple narrative, but it doesn’t need to be anything else. It’s BRILLIANT as it is.

Why?

Because Christopher is the one narrating the story.

Isn’t that fantastic? And it’s fascinating how that one little detail changes the meaning of the whole story.

Because honestly, this story is NOT about the plot.

Christopher thinks it is. That’s why he’s telling it. He thinks he’s writing a detective story, but he’s really writing a character study of himself.

For the first time ever (at least that I’m aware of), a character with a mental illness gets to advocate for himself. For the first time, someone with autism is considered a valid protagonist for a novel, and Christopher’s perspective is taken seriously as one that can be understood by us boring normal people.

He is not patronized, and he is not put down in this representation because he gets to represent himself, and it’s beautiful.

The prose is written with succinct, straightforward, Hemingway-esqe style and a very logical structure. Also the chapters are numbered with prime numbers because the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of prime numbers comforts him.

Christopher takes the time to explain his understanding of the world and why he is the way he is when he interacts with people.

And when you see the world from Christopher’s perspective, you realize that yes, he is clearly different from me in certain ways and faces different struggles. But he’s not some alien creature that people just have to deal with.

He’s a well-rounded, sympathetic protagonist that I found myself identifying with on several occasions.

So…

Was this book well-written? Yes.

Was the ending a little sloppy? Yes, unfortunately.

But overall did this book totally blow my mind about the inner life of an autistic boy?

Absolutely.

And that, my friends, is why you should read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon.

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canterbury

Some of you may be just beginning your study abroad adventure like I am (It’s my sixth day in Paris!) or some of you may be considering it while you watch your friends post beautiful photos of the Eiffel Tower, Italian castles, London buses, and amazing plates of food from all over the world.

I’d like to tell you that all six days of my adventure so far have been a Parisian paradise, but that would be a lie. I wish I could exclaim how fearless I have been the entire time, but that also would be untrue. What I can share though, are three steps I am learning to embrace to be a Fearless Protagonist abroad.

Step 1: Realize that moving to a completely new country will be difficult.

In the days and months leading up to your departure, you forget the fact that you are going to someplace completely different, where you know very few people, if any, and you may not even speak the language. Everyone has hyped up the experience, and you’re super excited. You brush aside your concerns at first, but the struggle is real once you arrive.

While I am 100% confident that study abroad is the right choice and that it will lead to so many benefits academically, professionally and personally, when reality sinks in, it is really tough.

Nothing is ever quite as you imagine it; everything is a bit less wonderful and delicious and convenient than you envisioned. In reality you have to feed yourself, find transportation, budget your money, make brand new friends, take care of your health, and, let’s not forget, study. When all of those tasks are weighing down on you, it’s going to feel pretty impossible and you’ll just want to be back at home with all the familiar things.

But…

Step 2: Know that you’re not alone.

It’s going to be hard to step out of your comfort zone, really hard. Friends and opportunities aren’t just going to appear in front of you. You’ll be meeting all new people while simultaneously adapting to an all-new environment, and nothing is familiar.

It’s absolutely terrifying, but remember – everyone feels that way.

It’s a universally hard transition to make. Seek out the people who get what you’re going through. You’re probably not the only student studying abroad in your city. And you most likely know at least one other person from home who has studied abroad in the past. Bond over language barrier goof-ups and getting lost yet again. It’s a little less daunting when you know you’re not the only one.

The hard part here, however, is jumping over that mental hurdle where you’re stuck in the homesickness and loneliness. It’s okay to be sad sometimes; cry when you need to, but then get out there and do something!

Just being around other people in your situation and leaving your pity party will make you feel accomplished and boost your mood.

Step 3: Remember that the difficulties are part of the rewards.

After you’ve gotten lost on the metro at midnight, fallen sick without your family or friends to help you, missed your flight, and walked five hundred miles (cue the song by the Proclaimers) in a different country, you will be able to take on any challenge.

There will be problems, but you will have dealt with them, in another country, in another language, in another way of life, and that is something to put on a resume. Those are the great stories that define who you are.

Remember that you’re doing something difficult, something admirable, and something that you will treasure for the rest of your life, and all the struggles along the way are going to be worth it.

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PC: thewritepractice.com/kirk-vs-spock

Let’s talk about FOILS.

Not the crinkly metal stuff that  you use to wrap food, but the literary foils that you find in your favorite stories.

So what are they?

Foils are characters existing in the same story, often (but not necessarily) within the same social sphere, that reveal or accentuate qualities in each other that might not be noticeable otherwise.

There are two ways to observe this in literature.

  1. By using the phrase “These two characters are foils of each other” to describe the relationship between two characters that are like two sides of the same coin. Examples: Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy; Prince Hal and Hotspur; Peta and Gail; etc. Typically with these relationships, the reader will make comparisons between the two characters in order to highlight their differences.
  2. By identifying an individual character as “a foil.” This is the more traditional use of the term, and it describes the function of a particular character within the story. This is the one I’ll be discussing because it has some interesting implications for our real-life relationships.

A character that exists solely as a foil means that their entire function within the story is to bring out specific (typically positive) qualities in the protagonist.

Example: “The slutty best friend.”

How many romantic comedies have you seen where the main girl’s best friend is unrepentantly sexually promiscuous? Answer: ALL OF THEM. Why? Because this makes the primary female object look like a saint in comparison. Even if she does sleep around a little bit, it’s only because “she want to find the ONE *siiigh*.”

Her best friend is a foil who exists to bring out the positive, romantic, good-girl qualities in herself.

(Yes, romantic comedies are really that shallow. But honestly, are you surprised?)

Interestingly, the term “foil” comes from those olden days when they used candles. The idea was that, if you put a sheet of metal foil behind the candle, it would reflect off of the foil and better illuminate the room.

If you think about things that way, it seems like foils are just measly, insignificant scenery that just sit around making the protagonist look more awesome. And, in bad fiction, this is more or less true.

But that’s not how the really good authors write them.

The one’s that are worth their salt know how to write a foil that is also a compelling and well-rounded character.

Example: Ron Weasley.

Let’s face it, Ron will never be as great of a wizard as Harry Potter – or as good at quidditch, or as famous, or as brave around spiders…

By nature of his lack of confidence (and competence) he serves to emphasize the heroism of Harry.

BUT Ron is still a fantastic character that has his own complex web of struggles, victories, and defeats, and he does have some really excellent qualities.

One of the key differences between the slutty best friend and Ron is that Ron recognizes his role as a foil in Harry’s life and struggles to stay loyal to him despite perpetually standing in his shadow. And his decision to continue to support Harry (most of the time), is part of what makes him so cool.

So a well-written foil tends to look more like a character who is associated with the protagonist and who emphasizes their positive qualities to the reader and to the world while also allowing their own struggles to fall into a lower priority than the needs of the protagonist.

You know what that sounds like?

A FRIEND.

Yup, your friends are all your foils, and, in your friends’ stories, you are theirs.

So what can we learn from this?

Well, you can ask yourself two questions:

  1. How are you treating your foils?Do you treat them like scenery? Do you brush them aside when your own needs as the hero are piling up? Do you bask in your own limelight without giving them the credit they deserve? Do you always put your own career ambitions before those of your friends’? Do you make sure they know they are appreciated?Our friends are the reason we survive our own stories at all. We would be useless heroes without them. It’s our job to remember to give them the credit they deserve.
  2. What kind of foil are you?Are you being the supportive foil that your friends deserve? Do you highlight their good qualities when making professional connections? Do you have their back when they have a crisis? Do you remember to bring them up whenever you can if someone of their expertise is needed? Are you willing to set aside your own story to help them write theirs?Just like we hope that our foils will support us, we need to be supportive foils ourselves. Not everything is about you. Sometimes we have to be willing to step out of the light and let our friends bask in the glory of their victories. If you’ve done your job properly, you’ll make your friends look good without anyone ever noticing you were there.

(Also, word to the wise, it’s best to have foils that will bring out your good qualities, not your bad ones. Remember, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.)

So take a look at the relationships in your life, and find your foils.

It might make you realize how much you appreciate having well-written, complex, and interesting foils for friends rather than the flat ones they put in rom-coms.

 

 

 

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“To an author, editing can be a nightmare, but also the most constructive and necessary part of the writing process.”

Wait, scratch that.

Try this out instead: “A writer’s constant friend, and sometimes worst enemy, is the process of drafting and editing.”

That, my friends, was my thought process of revising that first line. I wrote something that came to mind, but by changing a few words, I was able to say it more concisely in the edit. I’m constantly rewriting sentences where the wording is just slightly off, so thank goodness for word processing programs in the modern age that don’t waste ink for all my mistakes.

Actually, I don’t think ‘mistakes’ is quite the right word. For a writer, a ‘mistake’ is just the way you figure out what you really mean. Mistake implies some kind of accidental mishap. Whereas, in this case the word choice was intentional, but the connotation I wanted was something more like that of experience.

What does that mean?

Well, all the things that come out of my keyboard give me a different experience of the sentence. When I backspace and rewrite it, I might like it better, but only because I’ve read it both ways now. Does that make sense? It doesn’t sound like much of an edit since it’s happening during the writing stream rather than after, but it still is.

“I believe that all writing is rewriting–even when you’re writing something down for the first time, it’s still an act of translation in a way because you’re trying to use text to bring life to this thing that exists in your mind.” That’s from the mouth of John Green, who saved 192 different files of drafts for the well-loved novel, The Fault in Our Stars.

In the same vein, everything you do in life should be some kind of editing. Editing is important to writers, of course, because they’re creating something that they want to sound just as they imagine it, but you do that too in your day to day actions.

You have a vision of how you want your life to look, and you’re trying to actualize it. That’s the same goal as writing. Thus, if you want the best results, take a page from the writers’ book and practice the oft-painful art of editing.

But, I don’t praise it for nothing—it does come with some very valuable lessons.

1. You really learn to benefit from criticism.

If someone can tell you one of your weaknesses, you are luckier than you might think. It seems bad to have weakness, but it’s even worse to not know what it is that limits you.

All writers need a second opinion on their work, because we are all blind to the weaknesses in our writing. But once you’re aware of them, you’re able to make changes to improve your faults, and possibly eliminate them.

Career-wise, if you know what you’re doing wrong in interviews or in the office, you can make the adjustment for next time; you’ll find stronger answers to tough questions, the right posture or etiquette for the situation, etc.

2. You need to constantly reevaluate your direction.

When you are continually checking your progress and your happiness with it, it’s a lot easier to spot those plot holes and flaws. Don’t wait until the end of your story, or a particular subplot within your story, to make corrections. This will only lead to regret.

Doing more edits along the way is a lot easier than trying to do one massive one at the end. If you realize you don’t enjoy the major you’re in, or if the job you thought you wanted turns out to be utterly dull, better to change out of it now and not waste time complacently waiting for it to get better. Benefit from the experience you’ve had and then make the necessary adjustments to move on and find something more suited for you.

3. You’re never going to be a final draft.

That might sound dismal, but it should give you hope! While, yes, a book or an article will have a final edition that gets printed, there are probably still things that the author wanted to change but couldn’t.

But there will never be a final, set version of you that you have to be stuck with forever! You have the potential to change and be anyone you want to be, and you can always improve yourself.

Your career, your goals, your dreams can and should keep changing. Just because you wanted to be a doctor when you were ten years old, doesn’t mean you have to now. You’re a dynamic human being that is constantly being revised and rewritten.

Most authors only write a small portion of a character’s life, but you have been and will be writing yourself and your story for every moment of your life. Over the course of your lifetime, you have the potential to express every part of who you are, so don’t let the draft you produce at twenty-one be the draft you’re still working with at thirty. 

Take a moment to reevaluate which draft you’re living with at the moment, and see if you can’t revise it a bit before you move forward with the next stage of your life.

As long as you continue to revise and edit your story, both based on what you see and what people who care about you see, you can ensure that it becomes the masterpiece you want it to be.

So what are you waiting for?

The new draft of you starts today!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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TreeinBrooklynCover

“The American Dream” – perhaps an antiquated term, and perhaps not even possible any more, but still a very powerful concept that could teach us how better to live our own stories.

This week we’ll look at the example of Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

The Nolans are a poor working class family who live in Brooklyn, New York around the turn of the century. The parents, Katie and Johnny, are hardworking, but the dad is an alcoholic and the mom, consequentially, sacrifices many things to just get food on the table.

They thought the key to helping their children live a better life than theirs of industrial and manual labor was education. It may seem like a no-brainer now, but back then when children started factory work at 13 to help their parents pay the bills, school was a luxury. Most kids didn’t finish (or even start) high school, and

Francie struggles 1) because she’s a girl in a time when women aren’t respected, and 2) because she is poor; yet, in spite of those obstacles, Francie is able to overcome them and attend college at the University of Michigan.

But how?

Perseverance.

No matter what comes her way, Francie maintains her vision of the future, and continues to struggle towards it with all the strength she has (which is quite a bit, as it turns out).

Case 1: Francie’s mother Katie favors her brother Neely because he reminds her of her husband who has been ruined by drink. She imagines that she can make Neely into a better man than his father, and when she has to choose who to send to high school when they can only afford one, she chooses Neely over Francie.

Francie is the one who actually wants to go to school and excels at it. But her mom reasons that she can always go back to it, even if she skips a year right now.

Instead Francie has to work at various jobs, eventually becoming a lead typist making more than the minimum wage. (You go girl!)

Eventually, she saves money and uses some of her savings to attend college classes around her work schedule. Her mother fights her on it because they’re struggling to make money, with a new baby and Neely in school, but she makes her case and works and studies alternately. Still without a high school education, she struggles, but she keeps going anyway.

That’s the path she wanted to follow and she made it happen, even if it meant sacrifices and patience.

Right now, you might be doing something that you don’t absolutely love. And that’s okay. We can’t be where we want to be all the time; we’ve got to take the journey there.

You might be stuck working a minimum wage job that doesn’t have real career potential or very promising connections (not speaking from experience or anything), or you might be stuck taking general education classes that aren’t that fun and aren’t related to what you actually want to do.

Meaning, there are going to be things you don’t like that you have to do to get from point A to B. It might not always be fun or seem like the best path, but you’ve got to stick to it to get to your dreams.

Case 2: Francie loves to read (always an A+ character trait). Katie raised her children reading Shakespeare and the Bible every night, and books remained close to Francie’s heart. As with most girls who love reading, she wanted to become a writer and create stories of her own.

But, as always, there was a mean teacher who graded her harshly. The teacher gave her poor grades for the stories that Francie was proudest of, about her father and her life in poverty, because they weren’t “pretty.” When she wrote flowery, made-up stories that she hated, the teacher gave her good grades, but they didn’t make Francie happy.

Alongside sacrifice and patience, another facet of perseverance is having a tough skin.

The teacher’s negative response to what Francie actually enjoyed stopped her from writing for a while, but eventually she gets back to it and realizes what really matters to her. She burned her old stories in her bitterness, but wishes she hadn’t when her mother finally requests to hear them.

If there’s something that you really want to do, you’ll have to ignore the negativity.

Today, if you want to be a writer like Francie did, everyone will tell you how unfeasible it is. “English majors can’t find jobs,” “What are you going to do with that degree?” “How are you going to make money?” and so on.

But you’ve got to do it anyway. If that’s what’s going to make you happy, you will find a way to keep doing it, and that’s all.

From Francie Nolan, the archetypal rags-to-riches gal, we can kind of see the merits of the so-called “American Dream.” Even if it’s a flawed ideal to strive for, it still encourages us to seek the best (as we do in America). It might be hard to achieve your dreams, but hey, if Francie could, you can too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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macbeth

Alright everyone, it’s time for a quick refresher on Greek mythology, a literary precedent akin to the Christian Bible in its scope of influence. The great authors of (relatively) recent times, including our lovely friend William Shakespeare, used Greek mythology for genre, plot, and character types, so it is important to keep those Greeks in the back of your mind.

Remember the Fates? Collectively called the Moirai, the Fates are the three sisters that determine your fate—self-explanatory. Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures the thread out, and Atropos inevitably cuts the thread and ends the life. They’re often described as ugly, old, and disfigured, which sounds kinda like…

Witches.

You know the picture: hags with warts, hideous hair, hunched backs, and so on, as well as being endowed with a sense of the supernatural, if not the future. Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” has a set of witches that are *coincidentally* very similar to the Fates. His witches are also a trio of old, ugly, bearded women, who tell prophecies about the fate of different characters in the play.

Our title character, Macbeth, is a general driven by ambition to become the king of Scotland, mostly because he hears a prophecy from these witches that he will become a thane (a member of the Scottish nobility) and that he will become king. 

Of course, this gets to Macbeth’s head as soon as King Duncan names him a thane, proving part of the prophecy true, but then he goes on to murder Duncan in his sleep to assume the throne.

Because prophecies are so great (this is heavy sarcasm), Macbeth goes back to the witches, and they tell Macbeth to beware of Macduff, and that he can’t be harmed by any man born by woman or until the forest moves.

Macbeth takes these prophecies very seriously and it leads to his downfall.

Do you know what happens to Macbeth?

He gets killed by Duncan’s son, Malcolm, after his wife commits suicide and he murders his friends.

Cheerful, right?

Because he believes the witches 100%, Macbeth tries to fulfill their prophecy.

He lets their words get to his head.

He takes the prophecy as his destiny. Of course, it does come true, but not in the way that he wants it to. Their words ignite not only his ambition, but also his ruthlessness, paranoia, and death wish.

Although the witches tell the truth, Macbeth’s belief in their prophecies is what alters his destiny.

By his conviction in the prophecy, Macbeth guaranteed his own death and loss of power.

(If you’re interested in similarly depressing tales, check out Oedipus; you won’t be disappointed.)

The lesson of a tragedy like Macbeth or the Greeks is to teach us that we do not control the fates.

We do not control the prophecies and the way that events play out, but we do control our own actions.

Macbeth chose to kill Duncan because he believed the prophecy he would become king. If this hadn’t been a tragedy and Macbeth had dutifully served as a thane, maybe he would have assumed the throne when Duncan died of natural causes (still fulfilling the prophecy), without becoming a murderous, power-hungry man doomed to die.

So what does this have to do with us today? There aren’t really any crazy ladies that weave magical fabrics and share an eyeball (gross, right?) that we have to be scared of.

Believe it or not, we hear prophecies every day. They might not sound like the ones that a witch conjures out of her cauldron, but the words of others are just like prophecies.

Why?

Because they have no power over you until you CHOOSE to make them true. Until you succumb to their negativity, or until you follow their advice, their words are just air.

BUT if you DO act on what they tell you about yourself or your future, chances are you are going to end up fulfilling their “prophecy” about you.

When someone tells you your story is never going to get published or your business idea is definitely going to fail, don’t pay them any mind. Hear what they have to say. Acknowledge that their words don’t HAVE to come true unless you listen to them and act on them.

YOU have the power over whether or not their predictions become reality or not.

It can sometimes be good to listen to others whether they are giving you a negative or positive prophecy, and getting advice from those with more experience than you is DEFINITELY a good idea, but if you let it get to your head you’ll probably end up bringing yourself down.

Fate, destiny, other people’s prophecies, etc. may be out of your hands, but your own choices are yours. Don’t commit yourself to one predestined prophecy; instead follow through with the fate that you want to fulfill.

If a witch says, “Something wicked this way comes,” be wary, but do not feel doomed!

And let me know if you find any real witches, I’d be interested in meeting one.

 

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GreatGatsby

 “There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars,” the great F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Great Gatsby.”

I wish my summer nights were going like this; instead, it’s a lot of falling asleep to Netflix on the living room couch…

Anyway! The neighbor in question is the eccentric and mysterious Jay Gatsby. Gatsby has a slew of rumors floating from the mouths of his party guests—murderer, soldier, spy, bootlegger—but the one thing that can be held as truth is that he knows how to throw a killer party.

Our narrator, young, naïve Nick Carraway from the Midwest, knows nothing of East Egg and West Egg (stand-ins for old and new money) and the drama that lingers around them. When Gatsby decides to take him in (not without his own motives of course), Nick hears the “truth”—or at least some version of it.

Gatsby, notoriously, goes to extremes to craft his image of an elusive and intriguing millionaire to attract the crowds for his parties and hopefully lure in his old love, Daisy.

This, my friends, is the same goal as marketing: creating a particular image or idea for your product or services that appeals to a target audience.

Gatsby used his extravagant fêtes to sell himself as one of the wildly wealthy, and with 1920’s opulence he won them over.

It is from his outward appearances that everyone draws conclusions: the clothes, the cars, the liquor, the objects in his house are only there because they were expensive. The fact that the host never introduces himself only feeds to the speculation about who he is and what he does.

The story that he chooses to tell is one of valor from serving in the army, inherited money from a rich family, sophistication from his Oxford days, and other such alterations to the truth. While bits and pieces are true, as we find out later on, most of what he claims is a lie made to suit Daisy’s lifestyle—a fabrication of his fantasies that creates an alternate persona from his true past.

He realized that people will think of you what you tell them.

He could control the perception of himself by how he looked, talked, and dressed—all factors that were within his power to alter.

Now, I am not endorsing lying.

Gatsby does a lot of things wrong. I mean, if you know the ending, you realize that maybe his life wasn’t so hot, but I won’t spoil that for anyone who hasn’t read it…

BUT his ambition and image did help him reach the green light across the harbor, that metaphor for our (seemingly) unattainable goals.

So what does Gatsby do right?

They say that to become what you want to be, you have to start acting like it.

It might not feel like you’re a real writer, or scientist, or businessman yet, but acting the part is half of it. Feigning confidence leads to the real thing. Take Gatsby as proof: he pretended to be rich, and he hung out with other rich people, and BAM everyone assumed that he was truly rich. Taking on a new attitude, manner of dress, and dialect was his idea of a rich person, and once he acquired the money, he really did become that rich person.

It might not feel comfortable, but to promote the best you there must be an appealing idea of you or image of you.

This then becomes your marketed image or your personal brand: This becomes who you are to other people.

Decide what you want to be. Whether it’s your career, your personal goals, your character, you decide to be the protagonist that you want to be. Gatsby started from nothing but he built himself up to an extraordinary millionaire by his own will and determination.

I’m not saying to change who you are. I’m saying find your strengths, the things that you’re best at, the things that you would want people to know about, and use those to broadcast the message you want to send out. Gatsby did this very selectively in the way he chose exactly what details he wanted his guests to put together. Your unique skills or experiences are what distinguish you from all the rest, so play it up!

Once you realize your goals and strengths, make the impression you want to have. The ability to change others’ perception of you is within your grasp; your online presence, your connections through work, school, or friends, the way that you dress for interviews or meetings, your professional manners, and your work ethic are ALL details that you can control and put to work!

Take Gatsby as a cautionary tale and a role model; he did a lot of things for the wrong reasons but he did have the courage and ambition to follow his desires, as well as give up his past for a better future.

Proceed wisely, old sport.

 

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PutCollegetoWork

Once upon a time, as all great stories go, there was a fearless young student who wanted nothing more but to go to college and pursue her dreams. (What those specific dreams were she was still figuring out, but don’t mind that.)

YOU, of course, are already familiar with this plotline, as the protagonist of your own story.

She worked hard to get into her Dream School (that one in capital letters because it holds the key to her future), and she kept it up; she got the grades, played intramural sports, joined a club or two, made some new friends, and it was great compared to high school.

She liked her major well enough, and did all her requirements. She had some idea for what she wanted to do once she graduated, but that would fall into place after college.

Four years of studying and this degree has got to lead her to the perfect job, right?

RIGHT?!? Please tell me this will pay off.

When she faltered in her convictions—the major that she picked, the possibility of getting a long-lasting career, the chance that she might not even be happy in said career, the fact that she couldn’t even get a minimum wage job now—she felt defeated.

The early quarter-life crisis was hitting her: It was all over.

She thought she had found her fatal flaw like all the characters on the losing side of her favorite books had to have, like the weak underbelly of Smaug in The Hobbit, or Voldemort’s connection to Harry Potter through the scar.

When you start asking if you even chose the right path to begin with, it gets even harder to backtrack and find the answer to stop the despair.

But luckily she had much more resilience than those two villains because she didn’t let that one weakness stop her.

Instead… Her SECRET WEAPON was suddenly revealed!

And of course it was a book.

Books were always her source of inspiration, or her own private escape, and now this one was both.

Oh! And it was called Put College to Work by Kat Clowes.

This book held the tricks and secrets that would inspire her education and her career and lead her to her Dream Job, as she escaped from unemployment.

This book showed her how to Put College to Work, quite literally. 

That’s what it’s called, and that’s what it does. It gave her a push toward thosereal world facts that she hadn’t wanted to consider before, and it led her to think more critically and decisively about her goals, her strengths, her skills, and the resources her university had to offer her (most of which she had never even heard of).

It had answers to all of the questions that no one had known how to answer before—not her parents who went to college 30 years ago, not her counselor who didn’t really have time to help her explore all her interests, not her friends who just wanted to hang out and chill.

This was advice from a professional whose job was helping students make the most out of college and find the right direction for their career.

Someone who has realized that college doesn’t guarantee a job anymore and that everyone is fighting for the best resume.

After reading this secret-weapon-book and asking the scary questions that college kids didn’t want to consider yet, she got to thinking about what she wanted to do with her life, and she found answers that she didn’t know were in her.

She had had the answers all along! And all she needed to bring them out was this book: Put College to Work.

In the end, she learned even more about herself and what she could do to take advantage of her college’s resources to build a career that would make her happy and successful.

Instead of suffering from the struggle, she targeted her flaws, shot an arrow through Smaug’s weak spot, and eliminated Voldemort’s last horcrux!

She was the hero—not the defeated villain—who could realize her fatal flaw and change her fate!

What she thought was her downfall was really the key to her secret weapon that took her to an even better part of her story!

(If you still don’t think books are helpful or practical, I really can’t convince you, can I?)

But if you believe in the magic of books, and want to make the most out of your college experience, preorder Kat Clowes’ book, Put College to Work, for only $18.95 directly from the publisher or from Amazon.

BEFORE you’re contaminated with senioritis, and before you panic as you send out fifty job applications at a time, read a book that will change your current course of action.

Find out what you can do NOW, because there is no time quite like the present, and really, there’s not a whole lot of time at all before you find yourself on the job hunt!

Be your own hero and take charge of your future!

Just move your mouse riiiiiiiight here.

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GobletofFire

Hermione Granger, the core female protagonist of the Harry Potter series, is one of my favorites, and pretty much every girl’s favorite, because she proves that girls can be bloody brilliant and that being “nerdy” is super valuable.

We remember her for knowing how to fix Harry’s glasses on the very first day, using a Time-Turner to overbook her course schedule, mastering every charm in the book (and then some), and correcting the class on their pronunciation of spells.

Everyone can agree that Hermione has the biggest brain of the Harry-Ron-Hermione trio, but we often forget that she also has one of the biggest hearts.

Her sense of compassion overrides her fears and her caution, leading her to bend the rules and break out of her comfort zone once in a while for the sake of her friends or a righteous cause.

One of her most memorable (but largely undervalued) causes is S.P.E.W., Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare (which I still always pronounce “spew” in my head), formed during the fourth book, HP and the Goblet of Fire. When Hermione discovers that house elves are the ones who make the food magically appear in the Hogwarts dining hall and that they put themselves in perilous situations for the whims of their masters, Hermione reacts.

Her heart is pulled by the house elves’ plight (which, let’s be honest, is basically slavery), and doesn’t let it slide like everyone else does.

Ron, who grew up in the wizarding world, never blinks an eye about the treatment of house elves. Harry has some qualms, and he does set Dobby free, but he never has the time to dive back into activism with all his responsibilities as the Chosen One. But Hermione sets time aside from her strenuous studies, her worrying about Harry during the Triwizard Tournament, and her impending crush on Ron to rally for house elves. Hermione cares, and she starts acting on it immediately.

If you find your heart pulling toward an idea or a cause, react! Go towards it! And don’t just saunter casually in that general direction; RUN straight at it. Think about it: this is something you really, really care about, and it has the potential to become your life’s work. WHY would you do anything differently?

Hermione serves as a perfect reminder that we should always do things that we care about, even if others don’t approve or it might not work out.

While we don’t know if S.P.E.W. expanded and succeeded beyond the book’s mention, we do know that Hermione later worked at the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures at the Ministry of Magic to advocate for the rights of magical creatures.

In her fourth year – when she was fourteen! –  she discovered something that she was passionate about, and she turned it into a career. That’s impressive.

So now that we know what we should do, let’s look at how: How did Hermione manage to pioneer a nonprofit as a teenager?

 Well, she did her research and found that the house elf issue was had been underrepresented in the law. She looked into the historical (wizard-written) accounts of problems with the house elves, and she explored the law to see what would need to happen in order to make a difference for the little creatures. (And she did all of this using the school library!)

She made a plan. Her manifesto contained all the specific (and seemingly impossible) goals that she wants to achieve. She didn’t just sit around feeling bad for the little elves. Instead, she saw what needed to happen, and made a list of manageable steps to get there, even if the first step was just making pins.

She moved forward with persistence and patience. Even when one of her best friends ridiculed her (Ron can really be an idiot sometimes.), she continued to try to persuade everyone she could to join S.P.E.W. She even learned to knit just for the sake of the cause! That’s the kind of commitment and dedication that it takes to get something off the ground.

Most importantly, Hermione followed her interests. When she found something she cared about, she pursued it wholeheartedly, and it led her to a career supporting a cause she believed in, which really, has to be one of the most fulfilling things you can do in life. Even if it wasn’t S.P.E.W. that lasted, S.P.E.W. gave her real experience and started her on the track to a profession that could continue to make her happy and continue to serve a cause she believed in.

Hermione joins Jane Eyre on the list of protagonists who forged their own paths to stay true to themselves, and it payed off! They both have happy endings that couldn’t exist if they had just given up or done a “cubicle” job that they hated!

 Moral of the story: listen for those things that excite you and follow them relentlessly!

 (And try knitting sometime too; it’s very satisfying.)

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Art by Sarah Litwak

So what makes a good story? The characters? The plot? The eloquence of the prose?

I’m more of a character person myself, but I don’t want to start a big internet debate. We already have too many of those in the comments section on youtube.

But I do want to remind everyone that, apart from creating realistic characters and giving them an interesting plot, one component that is absolutely necessary to make a good story is tragedy.

The Greeks knew it all those thousands of years ago, and I think sometimes, in an effort to spite death and turn the world into a horde of boring, sparkly, conflict-less vampires, we like to forget about this part.

So what is tragedy exactly? 

Tragedy is the inevitable badness that will strike your life at one point or another.

Notice that I didn’t just say “bad stuff that makes you sad.” I said “inevitable.”

Why?

Because inevitability is what makes tragedy tragic.

All of those Shakespearean and Greek plays that involve oracles or witches telling the hero what horrible thing will happen and then watching the hero walk right into his fate because he tried so desperately to avoid it – those are the epitome of tragedy.

Hero sees fate; hero tries to escape fate; hero runs right into fate’s jaws.

Nothing gets more tragic than that.

But tragedy doesn’t have to be so dramatic. There are much more subtle types of tragedy that we’ve become so accustomed to living with that we don’t even notice them for what they are anymore, and they all involve one thing:

The inevitability of decay.

Isn’t that one of those laws of Thermodynamics or something – that everything tends towards chaos? I never much liked science, so who knows if that’s an accurate statement, but you get the idea.

Death is, of course, the most obvious example of this. Death is a fact of life. No matter how much we try to avoid it, eventually we all will watch people we know die and will die ourselves.

(Heavy thoughts for a Monday, I know. I swear there’s a happier point to this.)

But there are other, smaller examples of tragedy.

All of the food lovers of the world understand the tragedy of eating. We know full well that the food we eat will eventually be decomposed in our bodies, leaving its divine flavor as a mere memory on our tongues, but do we stop eating? NEVER!

No matter how wonderful the food is, by consuming it, and therefore fully appreciating its beauty and its purpose, we are creating a little tiny tragedy. And we don’t even flinch.

We are such monsters!

But hang on for a second, and think about what I just said.

In order to fully understand the beauty of good food, we have to consume it, thus creating tragedy. Then, of course, it strengthens our bodies so that we can think and live and all that.

What does this mean?

It means that the best things in life are directly intertwined with the most painful things.

When people get married, they understand that eventually one or both of them are going to die. But does that stop them from getting married? Do they think: “Well, I love you more than life, buuuut I think I’ll pass on the whole dying bit.”

NO!

Very likely we would call that person stupid and slap them upside the head.

Because marriage is such a happy thing, right? I mean, look at all of those romantic comedies about the people who bicker over something stupid and then realize their undying love for each other. They get married, have lots of children, and live happily ever after. Those are so beautiful and happy, and they’re great stories. They’re not tragic at all!

But actually they are.

In fact, marriage and death are so intertwined that death is worked into the classic wedding vows:

“‘Til Death Do Us Part.”

This is supposed to be one of the greatest moments of your life; you’re telling someone that you’ll love them forever.

But “until death” does NOT mean “forever.” It means “until we die.”

Marriage is one of the greatest tragedies ever written, and it happens every single day. We worship it, we long for it. And why wouldn’t we? It’s pretty fantastic – being loved so completely by another person for your whole life. But sometimes we forget about the sadness that comes with it.

So what am I trying to say?

Well, in order to have an amazing story, full of things that catch our breath and tug at our hearts – things that make us feel alive and courageous and adventurous and meaningful – there will also have to be some major tragedies involved.

But that’s what makes the story so good!

What would the movie Gladiator be without the death of his family? What would Harry Potter be without the death of his parents? What would all of Jane Austen’s novels be without the tragedy of class inequality? What would Twilight – oh wait, never mind…

But you get the idea.

Part of living the life of the hero is taking the tragedy that comes with it, not begrudgingly, but with acceptance, knowing that the best things in life come with the biggest sadnesses.

If you want your life to be an amazing story, then you have to see the tragedies for what they are: opportunities for character development and plot movement, but also a chance to experience something truly meaningful.

Tragedy whether small or large is inevitable, so why not make your tragedy worth it?

Create for yourself the most joyful tragedy of all time, because that’s what a hero does.

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