So Where is Waldo, Really? #FLASHBACK2SCHOOL

Essay Prompt: “So Where is Waldo, Really?”

This is a trick question! I call shenanigans. Obviously “Waldo,” who answers to several dozen variations of his name across the globe (can we say assumed identity? On the run?), has the ability to pop in and out of random scenes amidst the strangest crowds of people with just a blink of his bespectacled eyes. He can be everywhere at once. Wining and dining on one page, while riding a mechanical bull on another. (I made those examples up—has he done these things before?) Like the Charlie Browns of the world, he also seems to possess a very limited wardrobe. Needless to say, this is the real question we need to ask: Who is Waldo? Yes, what exactly is the deal with this mysterious Waldo/Wally/Willie/Walter/Ali/Charlie/etc character? Just what is he guilty of? How many candy cane-striped shirts does he own anyway? And most importantly, does he want to be found or not?

With such an elusive character, it’s impossible to know for sure—at least until one of the members in his similarly clothed entourage decides to talk. But humor me for a minute. Allow me to speculate. I’m sure it would be fun to imagine that Waldo is wanted for a long laundry list of nefarious deeds, teasing law enforcement officials in a brilliant game of cat-and-mouse as he trots across the globe. But I don’t personally think he is guilty of any terrible crime(s).  I think he’s just a kid—just trying out different names and locales until he finds the one that fits. Like the kid who grows up in the same small town from which no one ever seems to escape, Wally wants to travel, to find his corner of the world. He wants to be noticed, but a part of him remains afraid of the attention. He’s a contradiction, like so many of us are as we are still coming of age.  We haven’t quite figured out who we are, so we experiment; we do things that don’t seem to make sense in conjunction with each other. We don a wacky trademark outfit so we’re easily recognized. But then we negate it by hiding in the company of other people, people who are even louder and wilder so that we can still remember what it’s like to get lost.

I can relate. During a recent classroom discussion, a professor of mine said that you have to watch out for a kid who decides without warning to up and change his name. I neglected to mention then that I’d done that very thing twice—once in sixth grade (Sandy) and another in ninth grade (Suzun)—so I’ll cop to it now. Here’s my full confession: I didn’t fully understand back then why I was doing it, but suddenly it makes sense. It’s probably worth noting that those were both years in which I had just started a new school (middle school and high school, respectively) and in many ways, just beginning a long journey into the unknown. The landscape had changed, and with it, a new sea of faces awaited. I wanted to be one of those new faces. Likewise, I understand what it’s like to wish to be both lost and found, all at once. I grew up dreaming of fame and fortune, aiming to shock and intimidate at every turn. But at the same time, I valued the idea of privacy and the need to blend into the crowd. There were times when all I wanted was to be ordinary and unseen. A contradiction…maybe.  But one that is both natural and understandable.

Waldo, Waldo, everywhere. Indeed.

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Note: This is the second essay in a 3-part blog challenge inspired by this NYT article about the new wave of creative college admissions essay prompts. Read more about the rules and logistics of the challenge and my reasons for taking it on in this previous post. There, you will also be able to find links to my other essays and those of my friends when they become available.

* Read what Ren and Elizabeth had to say regarding the age-old question, “Where’s Waldo?”

Robots, Dinosaurs, or Aliens…? #FLASHBACK2SCHOOL

Essay Prompt: “If you could be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, who would you pick?”

This may come as a mild shock—because it’s something I’ve never discussed openly before—but I was raised by humans. (I know, right? Humans? Like, who does that anymore?) I can’t say that I had a particularly unique childhood; in fact, aside from a few aberrational occurrences, it was downright ordinary.  I was your typical ‘90s kid in America: I grew up watching The Simpsons on T.V. and wishing I were a Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger (I had the lunchbox!) so I could communicate with a floating head and a perpetually high-strung robot by talking into my wrist. I wore troll doll barrettes in my hair and had a small collection of pogs, even though I had no idea what to do with them (they were just cardboard circles with pictures on them, right??). I thought Goosebumps and Animorphs were the “bomb diggity” as far as book series went, and yes, I even owned my share of toy dinosaurs. And yet, despite these shared experiences, I know a great number of other ‘90s children who were also raised by humans but had vastly different upbringings.

The problem with the essay prompt at hand is that it seems to assume all robots, dinosaurs, and aliens are created equal.  This is simply not true.  If pop culture has taught us anything, these three categorical groups of “species” really come in all shapes, sizes, and temperaments—more so than even humans. Can we compare the irreverent and alcoholic Bender of New New York (Futurama) with the sleek, Peter Sarsgaard-voiced robot helper in the film Robot & Frank? How about the slimy aliens in the sci-fi comedy Men in Black with those angst-ridden heartthrobs that appeared on the WB/UPN teen soap Roswell? Not to mention the dinosaurs in a horror thriller like Jurassic Park versus the anthropomorphic ones in the children’s animated feature The Land Before Time? This is, of course, just my personal speculation, but I’m guessing their respective parenting techniques just might differ.

Robots. Dinosaurs. Aliens. Oh sure, we all have our preconceived notions about what these terms might mean—a free-association snapshot that immediately comes to mind despite any differences that might exist. A robot might be nice to have as a legal guardian, for example. They might be smarter than your average human counterpart, able to compute complex and difficult calculations in a fraction of a second. They could double as appliances or electronic devices. You might even be able to program it to do exactly what you want! However, there is also a good chance that the robot will be emotionally stunted and unable to think outside the ol’ circuit board.  On the other hand, an alien might also be nice to have as a guardian. Think of the intergalactic travel and the ray guns and the alien powers! But an alien would likely have its own languages and cultural customs. It might be difficult to assimilate back on Earth someday. And I can’t honestly think of any pros when it comes to being raised by a dinosaur, but I can think of many cons: dark ages, cannibalism, sheer intimidation factor, not to mention the difficulties of communication. (Just how many things can “RAAWWWRRR” possibly mean, anyway?)

But at the end of the day, if I had to choose one, I would probably choose to be raised by aliens. I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to be abducted by a strange beam of light emanating from an unidentified aircraft. Preferably one that is commandeered by Kang and Kodos because them two aliens have got it going on. (I just hope they don’t decide to eat me.)

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Note: This is the first essay in a 3-part blog challenge inspired by this NYT article about the new wave of creative college admissions essay prompts. Read more about the rules and logistics of the challenge and my reasons for taking it on in this previous post. There, you will also be able to find links to my other essays and those of my friends when they become available.

* Whew! I just barely got this in on time! (Just like high school and college!) Read what Ren and Elizabeth had to say about the robot/dinosaur/alien debate!

This December, My Friends and I Are Going Back to School!

You heard me. My friends (Ren and Elizabeth) and I are hard at work on our college application essays—our creative college application essays.

Inspired by this New York Times piece on the increasingly whimsical and thought-provoking questions that elite colleges employ to stretch their prospective applicants’ imaginations, we (writers in our late 20s to early 30s) are challenging ourselves to take on some of the REAL essay questions being pondered by current high-school juniors and seniors.

We’ll be answering the same three questions and posting our essays here. Follow along—or better yet, join us.

Dec. 16: “If you could be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, which would you pick?” 

Dec. 18: “So where is Waldo, really?”

Dec. 20: “Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.”

Here are the rules:

  • We write as our current selves, not as 17-year-olds.
  • Work in personal elements where possible (these are personal essays), but be as creative as you like.
  • Upper word limit per essay is 750 words. No lower limit.

Logistics:

  • We post our essays to our writer blogs by 5 PM Pacific on their respective due dates.
  • Link each essay back to this challenge info.
  • Once each person has posted her essay, share the direct link to that essay with the other challengers, so that we may link to essays on the same topic.

Before the fun officially starts, I have a confession to make: despite being a college graduate, I have never written a college admissions essay!  Why? The only university I applied to when I was a senior in high school simply didn’t require it as one of the application materials. I did also apply to the Honors College within the university, but their requirement of a generic “writing sample” allowed me to submit an excerpt of a retrospective short story I had been writing about a girl who drops out of a high school. It was written in the first person like a personal essay and I made sure to include a note that made it clear the piece was a work of fiction. To this day, I have not finished that story, but it wasn’t the only piece of fiction I wrote back then with a dropout as the protagonist.  I guess you could say it was somewhat of a fantasy for me back in those days—even my contribution for the writing portion of our TAKS exam* was about someone who had dropped out of college in her freshman year but couldn’t bring herself to come clean to her parents. Once again, I had to preface it with a note stating that the best way I felt I could answer their prompt was through this imagined scenario. This pseudo-essay was ultimately deemed “highly effective” and given a 4, the highest possible score.

To add to my clearly complicated memories of high school, popular culture in America has always treated The College Admissions Essay as some sort of rite of passage for teenagers transitioning into adulthood.  There is so much focus on it—not only in the news but also in the fictionalized stories we discover in YA novels and teen soaps.  Everyone is struggling to figure out what to write, how to define him or herself, and how to stand out from the rest of the pack as they vie for acceptance into their so-called “dream school.” As school was certainly not something I dreamed about with anything resembling positivity in those days, this very notion was foreign to me. Of course, when I started applying to graduate schools six years later (this time around, I applied to 8 separate schools and got into 4), I wrote plenty of personal essays. But by that time I was no longer a teenager—I was a completely different person at a completely different stage of my life.  It was not the same.  And for personal reasons I won’t waste time delving into here, I also refused to walk at my high school graduation. So yes, despite (begrudgingly) completing all the necessary credits and passing the exit exam with flying scantrons and #2 pencils, a part of me did feel that perhaps I never really graduated from high school.

I was personally inspired by and a bit envious of the situation described in the New York Times article because some of these newer, more delightfully bizarre essay prompts are exactly the type of thing that invite and reward creativity and innovative thinking, one of the few things I excelled at in high school. While my friends and I were conceiving the idea for this blog series, we did briefly consider writing our essays as our teenage selves. The idea appealed to me; however, I was such an unbearable and obnoxious person back then (as I am constantly reminded of any time I read a blog post written back in those days—some of these things still exist online!) that I felt such an undertaking would be counterproductive. At the same time, I make the promise to approach my essays with a certain amount of innocence regarding the future and what it might mean for me as I go “back to school.”

* The TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) is the 5-part exit exam everyone had to pass in 11th grade to graduate from a public high school in Texas back when I graduated from high school in 2005.  It replaced the TAAS test that most of us had been raised with, and is currently being phased out by the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test. I believe the writing prompt for that year was about the ramifications of keeping secrets.

Deep in the Heart

Susan Lin - deep in the heart map

[ full size ]

Here’s a look at an ongoing mapping project I’m working on in conjunction with my in-progress collection of short fiction and CNF taking place in or around my hometown of Sugar Land, TX.  I created this first draft for my final project in the “Maps and the Geospatial Revolution” course (taught by Dr. Anthony Robinson at Penn State) that just concluded on Coursera.  Next month I’l be taking the “Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology” course out of the University of Alberta.  I expect I’ll have much inspiration for my novel as a result of that class.  Speaking of which, the first excerpt for Tyrannosaurus Rexia has surfaced online at Ghost Town.  Go check it out: A Lifetime Spent Documenting the World

Check out what I had to say about my map below:

As a writer whose work is heavily influenced by place and location, I set out to create a map that could act as a companion to an in-progress collection of short fiction and creative non-fiction set in and around my hometown of Sugar Land, Texas.  I moved to the west coast two years ago with the plan to attend graduate school and work on a novel set primarily in the California wilderness. And yet, when I arrived I found myself writing constantly about the very place I’d just left. During my first week, I visited the Oakland Museum of California and found Gene Autry’s “Deep in the Heart of Texas” on a jukebox in their historical exhibit and immediately set it to play. I don’t think I realized how much I loved my home state until I wasn’t there anymore.

Currently, the map contains short synopses of each work and attempts to plot out crucial points of interest throughout the region using a color-coded system.  As I mentioned briefly on the side column, my goal was to show in a dynamically visual way how all these characters from disparate circumstances and situations and time periods exist in and share the same space, their paths in life overlapping.  I’m a firm believer of the notion that while we take away a piece of a place wherever we go, we also leave a piece of ourselves there.  The Earth forgets nothing.

In print, this map will act as both a reference guide and a table of contents with page numbers at the beginning of the book.  On the web, the possibilities are endless.  Once implemented online, the map could link directly to each piece and be an interactive tool for the reader, featuring more pop-up photos and zoomed in locations. It would also have the potential to evolve over time if I decided to write more pieces about the region and plot additional points, for example.  In the future, I hope to create more detailed maps for each individual story in the collection.

The base map was created using Google Maps API Styled Maps Wizard and then laid out and designed with Adobe Photoshop.  Some of the plotted photographs are from my own collection; others have been appropriated from the web.

Also, you may have noticed I haven’t posted a new installment of “As Seen on TV” in a couple weeks.  This does not mean I won’t be writing these posts anymore, but that particular series is on hold as I explore other distribution options.  I will say that since my last blog on the subject, Dexter (particular Julie Benz, which is ironic since I’ve had an irrational aversion to her since she appeared on Roswell) has completely won me over.

[AS SEEN ON TV] Week Three: Showtime’s Dexter

As Seen on TV is a new weekly series of blog posts I’ll be doing in response to reading/dissecting the pilot scripts of various television programs, both old and new, and then watching or re-watching the pilot episodes they spawned, whenever appropriate.

Week One: The WB’s Supernatural
Week Two: AMC’s The Killing

Warning: spoilers up to episode 1×04 of Dexter are inevitable

This installment of ASoT is going to be considerably different than the last two because I just started watching Dexter last week and I’m only up to episode four. I haven’t read the Jeff Lindsay novel it’s inspired by either.  As a result, I can’t really speak in broader terms of series-long or even season-long arcs—spoiler-phobe that I am, I can only guess where the story might be going. This week will also differ due to the overall tone of the series.  I didn’t plan the line-up this way, honest, but Supernatural and The Killing share a lot of the same viewers—and their respective fandoms seem to overlap quite a bit from what I’ve observed.  Given some thought, it’s easy to see why.  Despite the differences between the two shows (many of which I outlined last week) both are heart-wrenching and at times devastating dramas with a pair of brooding leads who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.

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