Nightfall

Somewhere in the darkening field is a bird in the dusk. It flies up into the navy blue sky, wings whistling, and circles back in a wide loop to the dark thicket it came from. It calls from there—a short, nasal, agitated sound. It’s a woodcock, looking for company. They fly like a mad thing if you get too close.

It would be a quiet night if the peepers hadn’t begun to sing. They’re down by the old pond, and their calls pierce the twilight. The fog I meant to photograph flows down the hill in a slow-motion river. Stars are populating the sky.

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I wrap my fingers around the cool, damp legs of the tripod. It’s time to go. Yesteryear’s goldenrod stems, squashed flat by snow, blur beneath me. Thorns grab me from nowhere. Soon I’m at the top of the field, and look back.

Blinking towers. Last sunrays. First stars.

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I can’t resist. I set down the tripod, barely brush the touch-sensitive screen, and wait as the eye gathers light. Click. That one was blurry. Again.

Not a week ago I’d been in the house, windows shut, and heard noise coming from outside. I flipped off the light and opened the window. Coyote howls, clear and loud. They were close to the field I’m standing in tonight, blind except when I look at the sky.

Finally, satisfied. Up go the tripod legs. I find my way home more by memory than sight, humming “Oh Susannah” to keep the shadows away. The woods are patches of darkness and ill-defined lighter areas. Sometimes I wish I had an animal’s eyes.

The Art of Speaking

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There’s only one way to learn how to speak to an audience. Practice. And once you practice enough, you start to see what speaking actually is.

Speaking is the art of self-improvement, of believing in yourself and others. Everyone has their own style to hone into something wonderful, and no one can be exactly like anyone else. Personalities shine through in speaking styles and the way you interact with an audience. Speaking is the art of becoming who you are.

One thing I learn, over and over again (perhaps I haven’t really learned after all), is that in order to give a good speech, you have to believe in it. You have to be positive. Without a positive attitude to bring a message to life, you’re dead in the water. With a can-do attitude, you’ll have the energy to shine, and people will take notice.

It translates to every area of life. Whenever you need to take initiative and make something yourself, believe that you can. Believe you have something to share, because you do. This is what turns your spark of light into a lighthouse beam.

3 Reasons I’m Glad I Applied to Grad School

“December, the deadline is in December? Next month?” My advisor was incredulous. “You better start writing!”

He was right. I’d been putting off writing my grad Statement of Purpose for ages, and now that the deadline was a month away, I couldn’t really procrastinate any longer.

Applying to grad schools isn’t fun. It’s even less fun than applying to undergraduate college, a process I almost didn’t go through with. But I finally did write up my Personal Statements for two grad schools, and am now awaiting their decisions. Regardless of their choices, this is why I’m glad I applied.

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The six-month long process, though grueling, helped me refine and understand my goals for the future. For a while I researched PhD programs, but when I actually tried to write up my Statement of Purpose, I was forced to the conclusion that these programs didn’t really fit me. I gave up on them reluctantly, and redirected my search towards less glamorous subject material that I’m truly passionate about. (Movies!)

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Writing the Statement for my favorite MFA program was documenting my ideal professional future on paper. This gave me a lot of personal insight. Now that I’ve written down and explained my goals, I can see what I ought to do to get closer to them. I have a plan, and the plan is always changing. This “ideal career” plan represents my most up-to-date self knowledge, and by examining it, I can see just what I ought to do in order to learn more about my career goals.

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Applying motivated me to notice alternatives to grad school, especially groups that actively practice filmmaking and writing. These are legitimate alternatives to expensive graduate programs, and though they wouldn’t be the same, I believe that the most important benefit of graduate school is networking with peers. I know, regardless of the offers I receive from grad programs, that I’m fully capable of pursuing my education “on my own” by networking with fellow storytellers. (Thanks internet!)

I was unsure about graduate school for so long, even as I pursued it. I think what matters in the end isn’t necessarily the accept/denial decision, the funding package, or where you end up. The process of discovery and pursuing what you think you’ll enjoy is rewarding in itself.

Inhibited

Dim fluorescent lights flicker over our half-empty classroom with pale windowless walls on all sides. It’s creative writing class, and students scribble all around me, writing impromptu stories. After the exercise, those that dare are invited to read their mini-tales aloud. I dare, take a breath, and plow ahead.

It’s a silly, crazy type of story about someone’s lost shirt, inspired by the stories I used to amuse my family with about themselves blown all out of proportion. Like most of my goofy stories, telling it right involves a bit of yelling. My classmates don’t know what to think. When I finish, there’s dead silence. To everyone’s relief we move on, and I’m left to consider my sin of uninhibited goofiness.

Over time, I learned to hide my freshman self under a protective shell. I became a chameleon, changing colors to match my surroundings, sometimes hoping someone would come up and talk to me, sometimes hoping I’d be left alone. And though I’ve learned a lot about writing through college, becoming a chameleon hurt my writing ability. Instead of taking joy in the act of writing itself I became preoccupied with what readers will think. A writer can’t be this way.

Good writers let go. They give up fear and inhibition and throw caution to the wind. They write their heart, be it goofy or weird or sweet or aching. They keep writing and worry about the audience later, if ever. This is how something meaningful is made.

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When I wrote my first NaNoWriMo novel, I lived the story through my characters. I laughed and cried with them, spoke their words, felt everything. My heart was in that story and it’s worth reading. However, my subsequent attempts at noveling are sad imitations of good stories. I was busy with college at the time and just “made stuff up,” never really getting in touch with my characters. This just doesn’t cut it—good writing is heartfelt.

Don’t be afraid to put your heart in your writing, and shine!

Natural Treasures: A Personal Investigation

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After the storm.

Since elementary school and before, I’ve had a passion for the natural world. One of my first pet obsessions concerned lone tent caterpillars—I’d collect the creepy crawlies (whom I viewed as cute and fuzzy), feed them their favorite multiflora rose and hawthorn leaves, and carefully handle them daily until they became lethargic and started trailing tiny threads of silk. Holed away in their faux natural environment, one by one the caterpillars would find a secluded space under a pile of leaves or in the corner and go to work, spinning themselves up in silk and disappearing in a cocoon. Days would pass. Maybe a week or two. I didn’t mind—there were other caterpillars to play with. One by one, I’d find a cocoon broken open, messy like something had been born there. I’d know that somewhere in the miniature jungle I’d created, a new moth was ready and waiting to be released.

Until middle school my family lived in a small neighborhood with limited natural treasures, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Sometimes we’d go visit SUNY IT and stroll the campus, with me gawking at milkweed, monarchs, and one day a spectacular Luna Moth. (It’s amusing to me that I have memories of SUNY Poly stretching back 10+ years, though I became an official student only two years ago.) When we moved a few miles away to the “country,” I was surrounded by woodland on most sides, utterly enraptured by the acres of nature suddenly available for me to explore. By this time I was homeschooled and able to spend hours hiking, observing nature, discovering new species (new to me), and taking thousands of photographs. And though now I’m a college student, so busy that I often forgo my hikes, my passion for nature remains.

I still live at home and I’ve seen the trees go down around the neighborhood, new houses go up, elderly neighbors pass away and the next generation arrive. Part of me laments the decreasing wilderness of the area and the increase in human presence, with the occasional shouting and laughing, music and light pollution, and the general need to respect the neighbors. Part of me realizes that I was once a newcomer here—we knocked down trees to build our own house, and became a human presence where there had been none before. Some of our neighbors have been here for 50 years—Norm planted the red pine trees to our North, now towering adults 60 feet high. Everyone was a newcomer to this wilderness once.

I’ve been a junior docent at the Utica Zoo, and taken an Environmental Science class at MVCC. I’ve realized that the solution most environmentalists call for is more legislation, stricter laws to protect the environment. I don’t agree with this. Not yet. I’m a diehard Libertarian and it will take a lot to convince me that government is the answer, but I also have a deep love of wilderness and it hurts me to see wild areas disappear. What is the answer? Is there even a problem?

There are many reasons to want to conserve wild areas, but my biggest reason is that these places are valuable to me personally as places of otherness and connection to a bigger, older world. I want wild areas to exist, but I want humans to be free. My best answer to this “problem” right now is education—show the world the beauty of these places, through writing, photography, film, even through captive organisms, and hope to inspire a respect for and connection with wild places.

Not Made for a Classroom

“We’ll create this project for an imaginary client.”797266

“Here are the instructions, now get started on your film.”

“Imagine the client wants this type of design. Think about the audience, and start researching.”

As a senior Communication major, I’m starting to notice a pattern in my class projects: that is, a glaring absence of an actual client and real world experience. There are reasons for this absence, and perhaps the most significant is America’s widespread mindset that education is synonymous with a classroom setting. This is strange—and inaccurate—and tends to result in practice-based subjects getting the short end of the stick.

My major is attempting to straddle the line between practical professional development (which you learn only by doing) and academic rigor (which isn’t related to practical skill—for example, think of these master writers and filmmakers who didn’t learn their craft in college). In my opinion, a four year COM major should be made up of at least two years of legitimate real-world on-the-job high-stakes achievement—maybe like trade school—as well as the option of a media theory course. In order to add academic rigor, COM majors should pick a separate subject to specialize in (bio, psych, physics, sociology, history, tech, etc.) so that they’ll have a pool of knowledge to draw from when creating media.

We’re trying to train communicators, right? Is being able to explore within a sheltered environment for four years really a beneficial experience, disconnected from real clients and all the associated challenges of working with them? When do you learn how to deal with humanity—the demanding client, the client of prolonged silences, the client who can’t make up their mind? Many communicators are freelancers. These are legitimate concerns.

On the other hand, some subjects do seem to fit right into the classroom environment. In my personal case, I’m only motivated to learn mathematics while in a classroom setting. However, when I think about this I start to wonder . . . I know a few students who take joy in learning math on their own, and they hardly get anything valuable from these classes. Is it possible that classrooms are made specifically for those who are not already accomplished in the subject area?

A classroom is an academic arena. It’s a place for ideas and arguments to grow as they encounter one another, a place separate and distinct from the outside world. Sometimes it’s a padded starting ground for those who are beginning to learn their craft-based professions, but no matter your initial writing ability or your filmmaking ability (graphic design is a bit of another story in my opinion), the classroom will not be an ideal skill-honing environment. In fact, I don’t think people with professional communication aspirations go to college to learn their trade (at least I hope not…), but rather to get a broader base of knowledge, new experiences, a respected credential, and practice navigating the world as an adult.