On Learning to Write

Clarity comes in disguise. I think.

I'd like to peel through the fog sometimes, to suck the very condensation out of the air as it creeps over Twin Peaks and into the city. I find myself in a writing program where I am reading, critiquing, editing, and editing; that is, doing everything except writing itself. I can't tell if what I'm feeling is more the mismatched alchemy of being back in school again after three years working, or maybe if I've somehow trained myself to instantly miss that which I no longer do. The comfort of routine is something so embedded in my bones that I don't know how else to shake it off. That, coupled with an inbred pressure to get a job, any job, to look ahead, to afford health insurance (that which shackles me and so many others to jobs we don't love), to be practical, pragmatic, responsible, efficient.

I want to learn how becoming a better writer will solve all that. And the thing is, that's a tall order. Expecting some mind-altering short story or career-launching novel to suddenly give birth in my brain is a little like hoping, no, demanding, our current president to solve all the world's problems. Now that he's got a Nobel Peace Prize, he can get down to the nitty-gritty and actually be that change he promised us last year. Right?

Ever since I quit my job to start grad school, I find myself waking up every weekday with a hummingbird's heartbeat. The first thought on my mind is to get shit done. This is motivating, yes, and sometimes crazy-making. My dad always jokes that if I were a dog, I'd be a sheepherder, because I always need a job to do. The irony is that good writing is the one task that is really difficult to instantly produce. Coffee--that I know how to make quickly. I can answer phones. I can improvise a short lesson. But how does one demand creativity of oneself? The demand itself can kill an idea.

One way I've tried to jumpstart my creative brain is to take on multiple side projects. Every Monday I volunteer at KALW 91.7, a radio station based out of Philip Burton High School here in San Francisco. Every week, a team of reporters and volunteers produce Crosscurrents, a half-hour segment devoted to culture, context and connection in the Bay Area. I've done a few short interviews, have learned to use the recorders and hope to learn ProTools in the coming weeks.

I've also started blogging for Eduify, a start-up company whose aim is to use social networking to help high school and college students improve their writing. Writing these posts forces me to focus in on exactly I want to know as a writer myself, and what resources out there will help me and others develop. So far I've written two Halloween-themed piece (one on zombie romantic comedies, the other on Edgar Allan Poe), and interviewed children's book author and poet April Halprin Wayland. I've since done two other interviews, and will be interviewing a few more writers in the coming weeks.

All this to say that sometimes the things we want most desperately are the things we must go out and create on our own. Which is why I've always wanted to be a writer, and why at the same time it is a very hard thing to be. I saw music critic and radio host Greg Kot speak this past Friday at the Booksmith. His new book, Ripped, covers the revolution that has occurred in the music industry in the past ten years. Kot's main message was that the best artists are the ones who love what they do so much that they see their art as something they simply must do. Music as oxygen. Words--the continuation of our fingers. That's the urgency I feel when I get up in the morning: the need to do, to be, to act, to write.

And who knows? One of these days, maybe all these actions will add up. Until then, I'll keep my eyes on the horizon.

The Oakland Fault Lines Project on KALW's Crosscurrents

Anyone who has spent any time in Northern California's Bay Area can sense the tension between its citizens and the local police forces. East Oakland is a neighborhood known for its history of gang violence and police brutality, two problems that many argue could feed off each other. I recently started an internship at KALW Radio here in San Francisco, where I first learned about a unique series of investigative reports called the Oakland Fault Lines Project. Young reporters teamed up with Mills College, the Vesper Society, a local nonprofit entitled Youth Uprising, and KALW to provide an in-depth look at how and why these cycles of violence begin in the East Bay.

The stories, which are reported by Sandhya Dirks and Sarah Gonzalez, have been divided into a series of installments that feature local youth, law enforcement officials, community leaders and nonprofit organizers who engage in an active dialogue to question just how these problems form. The featured stories include an exploration of Measure Y, a campaign that included outreach programs for local youth, as well as an inside look on the accessibility of guns on the street. There are also revealing interviews with Jakada Imani, the Executive Director for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and David Kozicki, Deputy Chief of Police. Perhaps the most moving excerpt that I've heard so far was the exchange between Youth Uprising contributor Darrel Armstead, who grew up in Oakland, and Kozicki. Armstead asked him why African Americans are so often targeted by police officers, and explained why so many young people growing up in the area adopt the attitude of "F**k the police."

These stories resonate for me because they find a way to ask the questions that so many people are afraid to broach. Issues of race and class are timeless, and although the public attitude toward both is constantly evolving, I think it is easy to forget that unless we as a society are actively listening to each other, very little will change. It is one thing to acknowledge gang violence, police brutality and institutionalized racism, but is an entirely different act of courage to question it, much less probe those who are most closely affected.

The first time I was made aware of the conflicts between East Bay residents and the police was when I was in high school. I was a senior when the planes flew into the Twin Towers in 2001, and within twenty-four hours I had witnessed the seeds of racial profiling, not just on a national level, but locally as well. I grew up in Davis, a hunky dory university town about 80 miles from the East Bay, not without its own racial mini-dramas. After watching the 9/11 news in my government class, Mr. Winters invited all of us to go to the American Civil Liberties Union conference at UC Berkeley. The conference was scheduled long before 9/11, but the themes were eerily apt: the topics at hand were largely related to racial and social profiling, and how police forces across California were required to adopt a new system of profiling after September 11th.

It shocked me to realize how many innocent people are pulled over for alleged violations (such as faulty headlights, missing registration stickers, etc.) and then treated in a manner disproportionate to their "crime." And then I realized: this is a reality for many people around the world, even within our most democratic United States.I can't claim to know or understand just what this experience is like, being profiled for something simply because I fit a certain set of physical or cultural criteria, but listening to the Fault Lines interviews has given me a greater sense of why these situations occur, and how it makes people feel.