Sometimes, when my to-do list grows longer and longer, I feel like I can’t possibly write until I clear all of the other tasks. I plan to allocate a few days just to focus on the chores. Then, when they’re done, my mind will be free for writing.
It never quite works out that way. As soon as one thing is completed, two more replace it. I never get as much done on chore days as I hope. The to-do list is never defeated. Instead it morphs over time, leaving me frustrated at how much of life is given over to administration–mundane tasks that keep everything running, but steal huge amounts of time in the process.
I first started writing seriously in the months after I graduated from college. At the time, I didn’t yet have a job, and that was when I started keeping track of the hours I wrote each week. At first I found it difficult to write for more than two hours per day. I figured I had time to build up my endurance. One day, however, I had a realization. If I couldn’t make myself write for more than two hours when I was as free as I’d ever be, then I wasn’t really being serious at all. I had to make better use of my time. I’d never be that free again.
This revelation was unfortunately true. I have never had enough time to write. Even during my wonderful four-week residency last year, I was filled with a sense of desperation. I wrote eight hours a day, wrote until my fingers hurt and I couldn’t think anymore. I knew that, as soon as I went back to real life, it would be so hard to find the time. There are always other, more important things to do. Always. Lately my to-do list has gotten alarmingly long, and it’s tempting to put aside writing until all everything is done. I wish I could clear the decks so I’d have the time to focus on my novel like it deserves.
Writing, especially fiction writing, takes a certain kind of irresponsibility. You have to find the will to set aside more important things. For people like me, this is difficult and anxiety-inducing. But there will never be a good time to write. You have to write when you’re uncomfortable and hurried and anxious. If you wait, you’ll never write a thing.
Calling all central NJ writers and readers! Join me for a fiction talk at Mercer Country Library (Lawrence Branch) at 10 am on April 21. I’ll be discussing description: what does it accomplish, and how can you use it to make your own writing more vivid? My focus is on fiction, but similar techniques are applicable to non-fiction as well.
A few months ago, I had the great fortune to be a Visiting Artist at New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. The center is located in New York Mills, a tiny, wonderful town in the middle of rural Minnesota. Despite its small size, New York Mills has a vibrant arts scene. The Center hosts concerts, art exhibits, classes, and a gift shop stocked with crafts by local artists. It also has a Visiting Artist program. Each artist is in residency for 2-4 weeks, living alone in a cheerful yellow house near the center of town.
My residency was scheduled for 4 weeks in November and December 2016. I flew from Boston to Minneapolis, rented a car, and drove the three hours to New York Mills. As soon as I set foot in the artist house, I felt a sense of peace and excitement. There was a scrapbook filled with journal entries from the artists who’d stayed there before. The house had a small kitchen, a bedroom, and two work spaces with large desks, perfect for writing. Once I’d stocked up on groceries, I holed up inside (frigid temperatures helped!) and wrote, drafting about 100 pages of my novel-in-progress. I met lots of interesting, friendly people around town–artists, writers, the local baker, a taxidermist. I learned about dark house spear fishing and the local boat factory. I also held a workshop, participated in a reading, and visited 3 English classes at the high school. It was a fruitful and creative month.
Finally, my talented photographer friend Kate Kearns took some lovely photos of me and my book last fall. I’m just getting around to posting them now because I’ve been preoccupied by several life changes, including a move. But, finally, here they are!
I finally had to get a smartphone last summer. I’d resisted for years. I hate the idea that gadgets are now controlling our lives, and I actively try to resist the internet’s intrusion into mine. I had a little texter phone for five or six years and it was great.
Then, the day before I left for a multi-month trip to Canada, my dad found out my phone “might not work” there. I don’t know the technical details, but the gist was I wouldn’t know if it would work until I got there. I was traveling to Newfoundland alone, so this was sort of a problem. Before I knew it, my mom was explaining phone cases to me and showing me how to use the plain black one I got. My poor texter was stuffed in the glove compartment and I was on the road with my new device.
Of course, the devices themselves aren’t all bad…for the most part. It’s true they’ll track your every move by default, unless you adjust the settings (or at least they allow you to think you’re adjusting the settings). But there are aspects of the phone that I’m really enjoying. I’ve downloaded a couple of exercise apps that are fun to use and might get me to work out more.
My favorite is the audiobooks. With Overdrive or Hoopla, you can check out audiobooks (or ebooks) from your local library. I was skeptical at first, but now I love it. There is something fundamentally satisfying about being read to. It frees you up to do other things at the same time—cook, clean, etc. all those annoying chores that would otherwise feel like time badly spent, but which now feel worthwhile because you’re reading at the same time. Also, it doesn’t strain your eyes. I am concerned about my nearsightedness getting worse as I age, mostly because I stare at computer screens so much. My job usually involves looking at a computer, and then I look at the computer even more when I write. So reading paperbacks worries me. The audiobook solves that. Another thing: I used to hate the slowness of the CD audiobooks, which I sometimes listened to on car trips, but with the smartphone audiobooks, you can increase the speed to 1.25, 1.5, or even 2 to use your time more efficiently.
Of course, the benefits are only worth it as long as you don’t get addicted to the phone. I didn’t download an email app, so I won’t be tempted to check my email all the time. For the same reason, I haven’t downloaded any social media apps. I recently read an interesting/disturbing article about how smartphones are actually designed to be addicting. It’s not that surprising, really; it makes commercial sense, and commercial activity is the highest value in American society.
It’s getting harder and harder not to have a smartphone these days, but always remember to protect your humanity and your real life. Resist tech companies’ efforts to make you into an obedient screen addict—use your smartphone as a tool, not an end in itself.
Recently I showed someone a story-in-progress of mine, and they said I had talent. Naturally it pleased me to hear this. But I was also aware of how misleading the situation was. To the reader, who’d never seen the piece before, it perhaps seemed like a fresh new story, one I might have composed quickly and with inspiration. In reality, it was the product of several labored drafts, and it will go through several more before I finish. In addition to this, I’ve made conscious effort to improve my writing craft over the last five years. This has involved classes, critique groups, and hours of reading, thinking, and practice.
Sometimes I’m in the reverse situation, in which I read a piece somebody has written and impulsively form a judgment about whether they have talent or not. This, too, can be inaccurate. A single piece of writing may be good or not, but it doesn’t give a whole picture of the writer. Writers’ stories vary in strength. In addition to this, the writer exists in time, developing their skills over an extended period.
I have no idea whether I’m a good writer or not. It’s impossible to judge one’s own abilities. And when it comes to judging others, there is a great deal of taste and subjectivity involved. Many excellent books elicit polarized reactions from readers. One example of this is Madame Bovary. Of people I know who’ve read the book, some love Emma Bovary and others hate her. This affects their enjoyment of the book as a whole.
So I can’t say whether I’m a good writer, but there are a few things I know to be true. One is that I’ve been published and paid for my work. The other is that I’ve improved significantly over time.
I took my very first writing workshop in my senior year of college. I had just started to write seriously around that time. There were two levels of the writing workshop class, and both had competitive admission. I was admitted to the beginning level—barely. It soon became clear that I was one of the worst writers in the class. In retrospect, it was one of the more difficult workshops I’ve been in (or maybe I just wasn’t used to it, since I’d never been critiqued before). I remember some particularly harsh comments about my characters and dialogue. I felt embarrassed and ashamed about my writing, especially since some people in the class had written remarkable stories. I’m sure that I seemed quite untalented. That spring, I applied to the advanced fiction workshop. Other people in my class got in, but I was rejected. The worst part was you had to go to the English department and look for your name on a list posted on the wall. When I didn’t see my name on the list, I rushed out of the building in shame.
Now, when I look at the stories I wrote back then, it surprises me how amateurish they seem. Over the years, I kept at it, and it’s unquestionable that my writing is much better for the work.
The point of all this is sometimes people appear successful, but there’s a whole story of struggle behind how they got there. If you’re just starting out as a writer, don’t be discouraged because other people seem more accomplished or talented than you. Chances are they’ve already been working at it for a few years. Also, it’s impossible for other people to judge your talent. They’re looking at you at a moment in time, when in reality your life is a trajectory. You’re the one who gets to decide that trajectory—i.e., whether to keep working or not. You’re the only one who gets to decide whether you’re a writer.
Looking for something to read? I have recommendations!
Die a Little (read twice), Dare Me (reread), Queenpin, and The Song is You by Megan Abbott—Abbott is one of my favorite suspense writers. She’s somewhat like Tana French, with plots that twist and turn right up until the end. Her gorgeous prose verges on the poetic. I’m pretty much obsessed with her novel Dare Me, a murder mystery involving high school cheerleaders.
Jurassic Park (reread), Prey (reread), and Disclosure by Michael Crichton—I can’t get enough of Crichton’s tales of sci-fi technology gone wrong.
The Privileges and A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee—Dee writes literary examinations of family life. His novels are quietly gripping, the drama unfolding in well-contained jewels of sentences. The Privileges is a rarity—an entertaining, almost voyeuristic literary novel about a wealthy family involved in various suspicious exploits.
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen—A humorous novel about a shallow, corrupt “biologist” and his failed attempt to murder his wife. This light read also has a surprising environmental component, with a plotline about an evil businessman who pollutes the Florida Everglades.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang—A Korean woman becomes a vegetarian, only to face social censure from friends and family. This short novel is at once weird, surreal, and moving. Definitely worth reading.
Euphoria by Lily King—A love triangle between anthropologists is a fascinating basis for a story, and King executes it perfectly. This book has it all: drama, sensuality, and keen observations. I also love that it features characters’ career ambitions, a topic that doesn’t occur much in fiction these days.
Pet Sematary (twice), The Shining, It, The Shawshank Redemption, Revival, and The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King – So, true confession, I’d never read Stephen King before this year. Perhaps because of my contrarian spirit, I often feel reluctant to read authors who seem universally popular. Since someone in my writing group always has one of his books in her purse, I figured I’d finally give him a try. Wow, was I missing out! He’s a fantastic storyteller. I’m particularly impressed with how easily he establishes characters. Some of the novels have lots of characters (It, especially). As a writer, I was skeptical about each new character introduction, only to find myself caring about the character and his/her world just a few pages later. He also has an uncanny knack for writing about children. His ideas for stories seem endless (obvious, but as a newcomer, I had fresh appreciation for it). The stories in Bazaar of Bad Dreams were so varied, ranging from the promised creepy stuff to morality tales to an unexpectedly hilarious story about a “Fourth of July arms race” in Maine.
Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia—As a former way-too-stressed teenage overachiever, I love reading admissions novels. Usually they feature some good-hearted brainy kid trying to make it to the Ivy League. Kanakia’s novel is a refreshing take on this genre. Reshma is a scheming anti-heroine, willing to resort to various dubious methods for getting into Stanford. Not only does the novel entertain with her twisted exploits—it also features metafictional elements and, on top of it all, surprising, touching moments of revelation. This is a memorable debut novel.
Between Us and the Moon by Rebecca Maizel—Another excellent YA novel with an intelligent female protagonist… Teenage Sarah longs to break out of her role as an astronomy nerd. During a summer vacation to Cape Cod, she tries on a new identity and finds a boyfriend. Because he’s in college, she lies about her age. Eventually her lie spins out of control. Loved it for the characters, who are all memorable and lovable—especially Sarah, even when she makes bad decisions.
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane—This fantastic debut novel follows the life of an elderly woman who lives alone. One day, a government worker unexpectedly arrives, claiming she was sent to care for her. The setting and the thin line between real/unreal make the story feel dreamlike. It’s a mesmerizing book, gorgeously written and unforgettable.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (reread)—This is one of my absolute favorite classics. Reading Melville feels like having an erudite, intelligent friend explain the world to you. This book is full of wisdom, play, and deep love for both man and nature. Do not let your life pass by without reading this.
The Love of a Good Woman and Dear Life by Alice Munro—What is there to say, really, besides that Munro is one of the great short story writers of our time.
Little Children, Nine Inches, and The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta—Perrotta writes engagingly about suburban life. The Abstinence Teacher follows a high school sex-ed teacher and a devout Christian convert—a juxtaposition that could easily become stereotyped and predictable, but which Perrotta handles with admirable care and sympathy. Little Children is a fantastic novel about an affair between parents of toddlers. Nine Inches is a story collection.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert—For those of us who tend toward literary snobbery, it might be tempting to write off the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Don’t do it! This awesome novel reminded me somewhat of Euphoria (above) in its focus on a woman’s career in science. The main character is a 19th-century botanist. Full of ambition, adventure, and historical detail, this is a novel of great warmth and intelligence.
Bennington Girls are Easy by Charlotte Silver—Despite its clickbaity title, this is a well-observed novel about urban women in the years after college graduation. Silver chronicles early-twenties life with care and humor, sadness and surprise.
How to be Both by Ali Smith—It’s sort of hard to describe this novel, which juxtaposes a teenage girl grieving her mother and a 14th-century artist. It’s weird and wonderful, experimental and moving.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (reread) and The Finishing School by Muriel Spark—Spark writes with wit, warmth, and humor. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an incredible portrayal of that nebulous but defining influence, the elementary school teacher. The Finishing School is an amusing satire about private school and writers.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt (reread)—I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reread this dark and twisted college novel. It’s an entertaining tale of intrigue and murder. Tartt is incredible at description, dialogue, and secondary characters. This book is made by all its of perfect little details–it feels like you’re reading in HD.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (reread)—Wharton chronicles an illicit romance among late 19th-century New York City elite. That makes it sound shallow, but it’s actually a novel of great subtlety, sensitivity, and beauty. Wharton is a master of social commentary, humor, and tragedy.
Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America by Richard Brewer—This book covers the history of land trusts, which allow for private land conservation in the United States. It also includes substantial chapters on current practices in land trust administration. This is an important text for anyone hoping to join or volunteer for a land trust. Of particular interest is the chapter on urban sprawl, one of the biggest threats to open space in America.
Finding Iris Chang by Paula Kamen—A memoir about the author, written by her graduate school friend. Chang is best known for her book The Rape of Nanking, which exposed this wartime atrocity to western audiences. She was an ambitious writer who’d published three acclaimed books before she committed suicide at the age of thirty-six. Kamen’s biography is a sensitive portrait of a brilliant, complex woman.
A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim—Kim writes of her harrowing escape from North Korea into China and, eventually, South Korea.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo—I came to this book expecting to hate it. I heard about it through an essay on LitHub, which described KonMari’s barbaric attitudes toward books. As a book hoarder, I felt outraged, and I decided to learn more about this horrible person. Spoiler alert: two months later, I’d gotten rid of perhaps fifty bags and boxes of stuff, and everyone remarked on how amazing my room looked without the clutter. I still marvel at KonMari’s weirdly infectious spirit. I started out reading about her with full-on enmity, only to become a real “konvert.” It’s obvious she’s not much of a reader, from the callous way she describes maiming books to her assertion that thirty (thirty!!!) books is enough. Yet her guidance on how to deal with stuff is spot-on. Reading her book was a revelation. I suddenly realized I was surrounded by tons of stuff I didn’t use or even like that much. Once I got rid of it, my space felt so much better. Highly recommended for anyone who struggles with clutter!
Journey of a Thousand Miles by Lang Lang—The autobiography of the famous pianist. The chapters about his childhood and his struggles with his father are fascinating.
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold—Essential reading for any environmentalist/conservationist…Leopold originated the idea of a “land ethic”—treating land not as property, but as something with intrinsic value. We’re far from achieving this, but it’s an important concept and an eventual goal. Leopold also writes with reverence about spending time in nature and appreciating land.
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis—I grew up in a Christian community where you were told to “just have faith.” I always hated that; it’s not an acceptable answer for “why.” Lewis’s book is one of the better intellectual arguments for Christian faith that I’ve come across. I particularly liked his discussion in the initial chapters of the origins of morality.
The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx—A cultural study of two traditional images in American writing: the machine and the garden. Marx traces these conflicting ideals from the founding of the country through the early twentieth century. There are some fascinating analyses of Hawthorne, Melville, and Fitzgerald in relation to nature/machine imagery.
God’s Harvard by Hanna Rosin—The author explores the interesting subculture of an evangelical college.
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal—This is a shocking tale about a serial imposter. A German man managed to impersonate his way into the richest circles in America, eventually taking on the identity of a supposed Rockefeller. This true story wouldn’t translate well to fiction, simply because it’s so outlandish and utterly weird.
The Radioactive Boyscout by Ken Silverstein—Last year I read The Boy Who Played with Fusion, a biography of Taylor Wilson. That book repeatedly referenced this one, so I decided to read it. Unlike Wilson’s story, this is a tale of scientific talent gone wrong. It’s at once sad and fascinating.
Once Upon a Time by J. Randy Taraborrelli—As a Hitchcock fan, I became interested in Grace Kelly and saw this book in the library. It’s about her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. While her life is portrayed as a “fairy tale”* in popular culture, things weren’t really so happily-ever-after.
Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink—This is a helpful book for those of us who feel like we could lose a few pounds. It talks about how much habit influences our eating, and offers concrete advice on how to reduce your food intake. The main (uplifting) takeaway is that even small changes can have a positive effect.
Conning Harvard by Julie Zauzmer—An expose about Adam Wheeler, the student who cheated his way into and through Harvard. He was discovered in 2010, when I was still in school, and it was a huge scandal across campus. Julie Zauzmer (formerly of The Crimson) does a great job investigated all the details of his intriguing case.
Our Town and The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder—No one seems to talk about Wilder these days. I hope that will change. He was a major literary figure during his lifetime, winning three Pulitzers, two for plays and one for fiction. Our Town is old-timey and nostalgic, and the Matchmaker is a charming comedy. I’m curious to explore his fiction.
*I find it weird and sort of amusing that we use the term “fairy tale” to connote happy endings. Actually, most real fairy tales have horrific, gruesome endings.
This semester I took a fantastic class about land trusts and land conservation in the United States. One of the final readings was especially unsettling. It’s called “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources” (1). The author, Mary Berlik, argues that the United States indirectly causes significant deforestation around the globe. The reason? Many forests in the U.S. are protected, but Americans still consume huge amounts of lumber and wood products.
Berlik takes Massachusetts as a case study. Massachusetts is one of the most densely populated states, yet it also has a large amount of forest cover (2). This forest is the product of new growth, coming after a period in the 1800s when Massachusetts was clear-cut for agriculture. Although logging continued into the 20th century, the volume of timber harvested has steadily decreased.
Twenty-first century Massachusetts residents hold strong environmental values. Anti-logging attitudes are among their cherished beliefs. Meanwhile, U.S. imports of lumber have tripled over the last several decades. Between 1965 and 1997, the average American home size increased by 44%. Approximately 15% of wood consumption in the country is used for home construction. The result is this: Massachusetts harvests much less wood per capita that Japan, Switzerland, France or Germany, yet it consumes more than all of them—not just a little more, but more than twice the per capita consumption of its closest comparison, France.
Massachusetts residents resist timber harvest in their own state, but their demand for wood means the products have to come “from somewhere.” These “somewheres” are countries around the globe. The United States imports hardwoods from tropical countries, which are often home to fragile ecosystems and great biodiversity (3). Exacerbating the problem is the fact that these countries often have fewer environmental protections. They may also have less advanced equipment, which cannot process lumber as efficiently and leads to wasted product. In short, the “not in my backyard” attitude leads to greater environmental devastation elsewhere. Berlik has some strong words on this subject:
Notably and hypocritically, the protectionist attitude often fails to address the link between high levels of domestic consumption and the unavoidable impacts this imposes on the global environment, especially beyond US borders. In addition to the tangible issue of whether humankind can live sustainably within the earth’s ecological limits, there is an environmental question of whether the burden of natural resource production should be placed on remote and oftentimes fragile landscapes, and the intriguing sociological question of whether affluent citizens might alter their patterns of resource consumption if the environmental consequences of this behaviour was apparent in their own backyards.
It’s not quite as simple as allowing sustainable harvest on Massachusetts public land. Much of the forested land is privately owned. Local regulations complicate the issue, with different towns having varied logging regulations. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, anti-logging sentiments run high.
Reading this, I wondered how many people equate “logging” with “clear-cutting.” It is possible for a forest to be sustainably managed, such that most growth is left standing and only certain trees are harvested. Education about global wood production and sustainable forestry could change this situation, since Massachusetts residents are already inclined to care about the environment.
Even if the state increases its wood production, it will not make much progress unless consumption drops. This is the fundamental problem. Getting people to consume less is very, very hard. Consumerism and overpopulation are the root causes of most environmental problems. Overpopulation can be addressed through poverty alleviation, education of women, and availability of birth control—not easy tasks by any means, but concrete objectives that have been studied and observed to work. Consumerism is trickier. How to you get people to stop buying things—without forcibly reducing wealth or abridging freedom? That will have to be a topic for a future post.
1. Berlik, Mary M., David B. Kittredge, and David R. Foster. “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources.” Journal of Biogeography, vol. 29, 1557-1568. Blackwell Science, 2002.
2. At the time of the paper, 62% of Massachusetts land was forested. I assume the percentage has gone down since then. Massachusetts is undergoing rapid development. In my once-quiet hometown, new developments are springing up all over the place. Which leads to another question. Could sustainable lumber harvesting add value to the otherwise “valueless” tracts of land that are marked for development? It would provide revenue without leading to the strain of population growth.
3. The United States imports softwoods from Canada, which presumably does not have as much environmental impact as imports from tropical countries. However, Berlik does not offer a breakdown of hardwood/softwood percentage in U.S. wood consumption, nor an analysis of how increasing sustainable timber production in various states would address this. It seems the most important question is whether the U.S. could supply its own hardwoods. Supplying its own softwoods—assuming the logging operations are well-managed—could increase sustainability, since it would decrease shipping distance.
I am thrilled to share Compulsive Reader’s review of PALE HEARTS. Reviewer Ruth Latta had many kind things to say about the book. She also took the time to write in detail about some individual stories. The stories she focused on were somewhat different than the ones that occupied the greatest part of my attention, and it was refreshing to see the book through someone else’s eyes.
I particularly appreciated the assessment that “the fifteen thought-provoking stories in Pale Hearts are both literature and entertainment.” I’m starting to realize that I sit right in the middle of the great supposed “literary” and “genre” divide. I love Melville, Flaubert, and Faulkner. I also love Stephen King and Michael Crichton. I find a lot of so-called literary fiction pretentious and boring, while many great genre fiction books are overlooked by the literary world. Some of my favorite contemporary authors, like Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, and Donna Tartt, are people who don’t fit neatly into genre/literary distinctions. I hope I can achieve that balance in my own work.
How do you center a novel around one character’s ambition? This is something I’m wrestling with in my current project. You’d think it would be easy, since most fiction is driven by characters’ desires. But, like most things in writing, it’s deceptively difficult. Ambition is not so much a desire as a character trait. It may be focused on a specific goal, but if the character existed in a different setting, her ambition would latch onto something else. Sometimes readers ask why a character wants something, but there’s no why to ambition. It’s something people are born with; they either have it or they don’t.
I’ve noticed that many fictions use some sort of proxy to show that a character is ambitious. Academic characters want to get into Harvard or Yale or Stanford. Musical or theatrical characters want to go to Juilliard. Writers either publish in The New Yorker or write an instant bestseller. There are many problems with this strategy. First, it’s lazy. It relies on general associations, taking a short cut around details and development that would actually convince us the character is ambitious. Second, it’s cliché. This makes the character seem more like a stereotype than a person. Third, it’s unrealistic. For some reason, it’s rare for characters to fail at these goals. In many fictions, the character is accepted to an Ivy League school after minimal struggle. In TV shows, it’s common for a mere hobbyist to get into Juilliard after auditioning on a whim. These one especially bothers me. It takes years of training and hours of practice every day for a dancer or musician to be good enough for Juilliard. Such breezy portrayals undermine the difficult nature of achieving these things in real life. Also, real life is unpleasant and arbitrary. There are many more deserving students/musicians than there are spots at flashy schools. Unfair as it is, politics and luck play a role.
All of this leads to another problem. If you’re writing about characters who, in real life, would actually audition for Juilliard (i.e., serious high school musicians), then you have to somehow surpass all the clichés and fabrications that have built up around this plot point.