Weaving Themes into Stories

Weaving Themes into Stories

In last week’s post, I discussed how themes, just like plot and characters, are innate parts of storytelling, and how we cannot divorce theme from the rest of our writing. The natural follow-up question, then, is how do you handle thematic elements well? Readers and writers alike are well aware that things like theme, symbolism, and motifs are delicate and difficult—give it too much space and your book becomes a sermon, and give it too little and your story suffers for lack of clarity and meaning. To quote my previous post, “poorly-handled themes are a result of their disharmony with the characters and plot of a story.” But how do you find that wonderful harmony of story elements? Realizing that theme is always there is the first step. The second step is understanding how themes operate (often uniquely) in creative storytelling; and the third step is finding techniques to question your themes in order to extract nuance. Continue reading “Weaving Themes into Stories”

The Hidden Third Element of Storytelling

The Hidden Third Element of Storytelling

What are the bare basics you need to tell a story? Characters are essential, of course—stories can’t exist without them; plot goes-hand-in-hand, whether it’s intricate or loose; and, to allow for some obviousness, you always need a medium by which to communicate the tale, whether written, oral, or visual. But that’s not everything, is it? Although we may not always realize it, there’s another element that always comes alongside characters and plot, but often remains hidden even from the author: theme. Continue reading “The Hidden Third Element of Storytelling”

3 Tips for Writing Short Stories

3 Tips for Writing Short Stories

Anyone who knows me knows that I love writing long novels, so it may be surprising that I also love writing short stories. That wasn’t always the case, however—in my earlier authorial years, I hated trying to condense my ideas into 2,000 words (the usual word limit for projects and contests). I even had a hard time when the word limit was bumped up to 3,000 or 4,000. But, slowly, my love for crafting short stories grew and helped me hone some skills that would have otherwise been forgotten in the sea of tome worldbuilding and plotting. Still, it’s tough to come up with a compelling idea that can be conveyed in only a few thousand words—how do you do it and do it well? There are three tips that have helped me over the years and that I hope will help you, too. Continue reading “3 Tips for Writing Short Stories”

How Much Should I Research for My Story?

How Much Should I Research

Every now and again, I ask my followers on Instagram for blog post ideas—not only does it help me when my inspiration is running low, but it helps me know what my fellow writers would like to see addressed. Well, today’s topic is one such suggested question: how much should you research for your story? The short answer is “I don’t know.” It’s very hard to quantify how much worldbuilding any author, much less story, needs. You’ll also get different answers depending upon who you ask; someone like me who loves worldbuilding will likely encourage you to do lots of research, while an author who focuses more on small-scale (micro-first) stories might tell you it doesn’t matter. However, that aside, I do have 2 tips that should help if you’re debating if you really need to read a book about 1500s England or spend half the day learning about space travel. Continue reading “How Much Should I Research for My Story?”

The False Dichotomy of Plot vs. Character

The False Dichotomy of Plot vs. Character

How often have you heard writers say “characters are the most important part of a story”? If you’re like me, the answer is often—and if you’re like me, you’d have had unidentifiable qualms with that piece of advice for quite some time. Perhaps it’s that I’ve long identified with being a plot-first writer, and it seems a bit unfair to focus so much on characters (and needlessly lament how hard plots are). But it’s only recently that I’ve determined what really bothers me about comments like that one: characters and plot do not exist separately from each other in actual stories. Yes, you can separate them during the brainstorming process, and there are benefits to that, especially in the case of a specific problem with one or the other. But in practice it’s harmful to view them as separate entities on opposite sides of a sliding scale, rather than two parts of the mechanics that make a story run. Continue reading “The False Dichotomy of Plot vs. Character”

How to Craft Perfectly-Paced Scenes

How to Craft Perfectly Paced Scenes

Now that I’m writing the second draft of my novel, I’ve been pondering the technical parts of story and prose—and, lately, I’ve been thinking about pacing. Generally speaking, I think I have a good grasp on how to pace my scenes, whether they’re full of action or dialogue or time jumps, but I know that’s a skill I’ve developed over a lot of time (and a lot of drafts) and still need to keep developing. And, just because I feel more comfortable with the pacing of my novel doesn’t mean there still aren’t times when I struggle to insert my protagonist’s inner dialogue into the prose in a natural way, or make tense dialogue short and snippy enough to evoke emotion. All prose-related skills take time and (lots of) editing. But I do think there are ways to help writers nail the essence of a scene on the first or second try, and that comes down to becoming aware of the passage of time and how action affects our senses. Continue reading “How to Craft Perfectly-Paced Scenes”

A Case for Adverbs

A Case for Adverbs
“Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.” (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft)

Writing advice is tricky business. Of course, a writer who is successful, especially one who has wide acclaim, will have insight into how to craft a good tale or beautiful paragraph. It’s immature—and a bit flippant—to write them off entirely (pun intended). But the longer you dip your toes into the realm of writing, the more you’ll realize that certain subjects have conflicting advice from the pros. Prose style is, perhaps, the most varied and heated of these cases, and adverbs is perhaps the most famous of them. Continue reading “A Case for Adverbs”

2 Reasons to Stop Complaining About Writing

2 Reasons to Stop Complaining About Writing

Anyone who knows me well also knows I have a long list of pet peeves—often minor issues or preferences that cause a moment of frustration before I move on to more productive things. But there are a handful of items on the list that cause a deeper sort of agitation, especially when I see them everywhere I look. In the realm of writing, self-deprecating humor and complaining are two frequent offenders. Continue reading “2 Reasons to Stop Complaining About Writing”

Writing Grief Well

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Those of you who follow me on Instagram will know that I’m close to finishing the first part of my WIP, and (no spoilers) the last chapter I wrote deals with the death of an important character—an event that catalyzes the rest of the novel. But even though I’ve planned this part of the novel for months, imagined the sequence of events down to small details, I was still at a loss for how to go about writing such a tragic and, in some ways, delicate event. I’m still working on the first page of the chapter that comes right after the character’s death, and it’s been a while since I started. Just like in real life, death is hard to process, and seems like everyone (real or fictional) deals with the grief that comes afterward in different ways. Continue reading “Writing Grief Well”

The Question I Ask to Overcome Comparison

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Comparison is a nearly ubiquitous problem for humanity, but because I’m a part of and immersed in creative spheres, the way comparison creeps into the minds of artists and writers is particularly apparent to me. It’s also apparent because I’ve fallen into the trap myself, and will likely fall into it again, or come near the edge, in the future. The line between admiration and comparison (and jealousy) is fine and easy to cross. What begins as “wow, this author does such a good job with themes! I want to write strong themes like they do” quickly degrades into “I wish I was as good of a writer as they are,” then “I’m so bad at writing, everything I create is shallow,” and then “I’ll never be as good as other writers are.” And by that point, the comparison hole is so deep that it can takes hours or days to crawl up out of it. Continue reading “The Question I Ask to Overcome Comparison”

The Importance of Reconciling Faults

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Those of you who follow me on Instagram will know that I finished my WIP’s outline last week and started my 2nd draft this weekend. To say I’m excited is an understatement—this novel has been over three years in the making, with years of formulating ideas and writing old drafts before I finally honed the specific ideas, setting, plot, and characters. Beyond the excitement, though, beginning the 2nd draft reminded me of an integral part of my writing journey: reconciling myself to my faults. Continue reading “The Importance of Reconciling Faults”

A Case for Pre-Writing

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For as often as writers discuss their favorite methods and tricks of pre-writing (that stage before a draft that’s dominated by researching, brainstorming, and outlining), a lot of writing advice stresses the importance of just writing. That’s the entire point of being a writer, after all—getting stuck in constant planning eventually becomes a procrastination tool or a safe place to hide from the reality (and fear) of what comes once writing commences. Just as often, writers are admonished to write bad first drafts—just write, and you can edit and fix the problems later. Just write. Just write. Just write. Continue reading “A Case for Pre-Writing”

Creative Prompts for Short Stories, Scenes, & More!

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Have you ever struggled to come up with inspiration for a short story, drabble, or character development scene, but, after searching on the internet or Pinterest for hours, wound up with nothing but poor dialogue excerpts and elementary school writing exercises? This is usually how the search for writing prompts goes for me. And while I can usually drum up enough inspiration on my own if I have enough time, it’s nice to have a list or stash of prompts to draw from when creative wells run dry. So, today’s post is going to be a couple of lists of creative writing prompts for short stories, character development scenes, poems, and/or whatever other project you may be making.

Continue reading “Creative Prompts for Short Stories, Scenes, & More!”

Book Review – The Bronze Horseman: Selected Poems of Alexander Pushkin

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Title: The Bronze Horseman: Selected Poems of Alexander Pushkin

Author: Alexander Pushkin, D.M. Thomas (Translator)

Genre(s): poetry

Length: 261 pages

Published: September 27th, 1982 (original poems from the 1830s)

Rating: ★★★ Continue reading “Book Review – The Bronze Horseman: Selected Poems of Alexander Pushkin”

How to Curate Story & Character Boards

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Why should you create story/character boards?

While they’re notorious as productivity black holes, storyboards and character boards a) are great ways to develop story elements and b) are great to reference as you write, revise, and edit. This is especially true for writers who struggle to develop strong descriptions or visualize the appearance of characters and settings—instead of trying to come up with sensory details on your own, you can draw upon photographs to guide your word choices and help you “see” your story more clearly in your head (which translates to a clearer story on the page). And, they can be a fun way to relax and still make progress on your WIP, as long as you don’t allow yourself to spend too much time on them. Continue reading “How to Curate Story & Character Boards”

How to Handle a Large Cast

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One of the first responses I usually get when I tell people that the cast of my WIP has over 30 characters is “wow!” quickly followed by “I don’t know how you keep track of them all.” As I’ve been outlining and, thus, juggling said characters and their roles/arcs, I’ve been thinking a lot about the best ways to handle such a large cast, especially since I haven’t seen many examples. Most stories don’t, won’t, can’t, and shouldn’t have so many characters—they aren’t meant to deal with so many people and, more importantly, would be weakened by having a larger cast. I’ve only come to have such large casts in my novels because I write family sagas, which don’t necessitate having dozens of characters but certainly lend to having a larger-than-average cast. Nevertheless, even if your cast is 10 or 15 characters, that’s still a lot of people to keep track of as the story progresses and it can be overwhelming. So how does someone go about handling a larger cast? There are 7 things that have helped me not only keep track of my multitude of characters but also make them all into compelling, important members of the story. Continue reading “How to Handle a Large Cast”

Alternative Loss + Grief: Raising Tension and Adding Interest without Raising the Body Count (Part 2)

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In my last post, I talked about how using a technique called expectations vs. reality can create intrigue and tension in a story without having to include physical threats or death. However, that’s not the only technique I use to that end—I also employ what I like to call alternative loss and grief to add depth to conflict, propel character arcs, and create challenges and setbacks in the plot. Continue reading “Alternative Loss + Grief: Raising Tension and Adding Interest without Raising the Body Count (Part 2)”

Expectations vs. Reality: Raising Tension and Adding Interest without Raising the Body Count (Part 1)

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I don’t know about you, but I love reading a good dramatic story. I also love writing a good dramatic story—sometimes to the point where I have to stop myself from adding too much tension and angst so not to obscure the themes or verge into indulgence. That was especially true earlier in my writing journey; I once remember creating a story where the entire main cast died purely because of the ~tragedy~ and the effect it would have on their children (I was in my early teens, so don’t judge). But even though I am now much more moderate when it comes to theatrics, it’s still easy to resort to similar techniques when a story is in need of a plot twist, a jolt of energy, or a more interesting relationship dynamic. The advice to “drop a body from the ceiling” when you aren’t sure what to do next can be taken too literally—most stories cannot sustain so many dead bodies or even one dead body, either because it messes with the tone and theme or the story does not have the space to delve deeply into the effects of death. And while physical difficulties like injuries, interference with travel plans, severe weather, or threats to safety can take care of a lot of the necessary external pressure that creates good drama, those options seem more limiting than helpful if a story does not include a lot of movement, action, or violence. Continue reading “Expectations vs. Reality: Raising Tension and Adding Interest without Raising the Body Count (Part 1)”

Worldbuilding Tips + Troubleshooting

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Last July, I wrote two blog posts about my approach to worldbuilding and my favorite worldbuilding methods, but lately I’ve realized there’s a lot more to successful worldbuilding than the foundations laid out in the two posts—not to mention that there are a lot of little details that are important but hard to determine. So today’s post is a preliminary attempt to cover some of those technical, baffling, or often-ignored aspects of worldbuilding, including answering some worldbuilding questions I received via Instagram! Continue reading “Worldbuilding Tips + Troubleshooting”

How to Deal with Writer’s Block

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“Writer’s block’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘I don’t feel like doing any work today.” ― Meagan Spooner

The overwhelming impression I have of advice for writer’s block, gleaned over my years of storytelling, is summed up in the above quote: writer’s block isn’t real—it’s your brain’s excuse to be lazy—so keep writing anyway. While there’s some truth in that, it’s never helped me to view my “writer’s block” moments that way because all writer’s block is not created equal. Continue reading “How to Deal with Writer’s Block”

Book Review: A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Misaji Ishikawa

A River in Darkness Review

Title: A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea

Author: Misaji Ishikawa

Genre(s): nonfiction, memoir

Length: 159 pages

Published: 2000 in Japan, translated into English in 2017

Rating: ★★★★ Continue reading “Book Review: A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Misaji Ishikawa”

Reading Recap: January 2019 – April 2019

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I don’t like to set definite reading goals for myself, but I do like keeping track of how many books I can read each month—so, I thought it’d be fun to do a little recap of my reading thus far for the first third of 2019 (can you believe it’s already May?) and also talk about what I’m currently reading and what I plan to read in the next four months! Continue reading “Reading Recap: January 2019 – April 2019”

The Core of Character Development

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Back in November, I wrote a post about my perspective on character development as a plot-first writer—in short, that the best way to improve a weak area (like characterization) is to accept that I have that weak area and then use my strengths (like plotting) to address those issues. I also mentioned a few of the techniques I used to implement that realization, like worldbuilding so my plot-first brain had enough context or creating family trees and timelines in MS Excel. However, I didn’t spend a lot of time addressing the specifics of my new (and still developing) characterization techniques. That’s what I want to tackle in today’s post. But, I want to address character development less in the context of “plot vs. character” and more as a focused look at the core of what needs to be considered when developing a character as well techniques to use. Continue reading “The Core of Character Development”

Interrogate the Story

Interrogate the Story

I’m currently redoing my WIP’s outline once again, which means that I’m also busy filling in worldbuilding holes, catching up on overdue character development, and creating timeline spreadsheets. But I’ve realized that a lot of the process is actually polishing my original ideas. For instance, one of my protagonist’s jobs is tutoring her teenage cousin. This detail plays an important part in later events, but the original reasons I had for why my protagonist tutors her cousin were not as strong as they could have been. I only recognized those weak spots when I had to rework the chapter where the tutoring is first introduced due to an unrelated characterization change. The solution was also simple: all I needed to do was do a little worldbuilding about school systems (which I had neglected before) and a better reason emerged. Continue reading “Interrogate the Story”

Interstellar and Sci-Fi’s Thematic Potential

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Last week I watched the movie Interstellar for the first time and was struck by an idea that’s crossed my mind many times before: science fiction has the potential to raise and contend with great themes. In fact, I think sci-fi is one of the best genres to question our purpose, strengths, limitations, and the nature of what makes us human. While I don’t actually agree with most of the thematic conclusions that Interstellar reached, the movie was still thematically successful in that it a) addressed large, pertinent questions about humanity, b) showed the complexity of searching for answers to those questions, and c) didn’t readily answer every question that was raised. Such thematic qualities seem so natural to me—technology of any kind, and thus science of any kind, is always begging the question “who are you really?” to humanity. Our creations both reflect and influence their creators; by writing a story that has a world steeped in technology of some kind, even when exaggerated far beyond our reality, those fictitious advancements turn into a mirror through which we can see, perhaps, who we truly are. Continue reading “Interstellar and Sci-Fi’s Thematic Potential”

Outline Troubleshooting (Outlining Series – Part 3)

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As the final part of my outlining miniseries, I want to address a few pertinent outlining questions as sort of preventative troubleshooting. They are by no means comprehensive—much of what goes wrong in writing is individual to the story, and I couldn’t begin to help you troubleshoot unless I sat down with you and talked about your story at length. However, thanks to some fellow writers from Instagram, I have a short list of broader outlining questions that I can answer and that will hopefully help you as you outline. Continue reading “Outline Troubleshooting (Outlining Series – Part 3)”

Outlining Methods for (Almost) Every Writer (Outlining Series – Part 2)

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In Part 1 of my outlining mini-series, I emphasized two points: 1) every writer I know uses different outlining methods and we all still get the job done and 2) outlining is about having a specific plan for what you want your story to be when you write it, not about using a specific method. Whether or not you’re won over to the idea of outlining your stories, though, those points don’t help you figure out how to actually outline—especially if you haven’t developed your own style yet. But fear not! This post (Part 2) is all about outlining methods. I’ve compiled a list of 7 methods that I either use or have used, along with what type of story they’re best suited for, to give you some ideas of where to begin or some new techniques to add to your current outlining method. Continue reading “Outlining Methods for (Almost) Every Writer (Outlining Series – Part 2)”

Why Outline? (Outlining Series – Part 1)

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When you hear the word “outline,” what pops into your head? Gigantic bullet point lists? A bulletin board covered in Post-It notes with scribbled notes? Stress over realizing the entire middle section of your novel has no plot? Flashbacks to high school English class? A general feeling of uneasiness because you think that you need to fit your character-driven, existential-crisis masterpiece into a typical story structure? Continue reading “Why Outline? (Outlining Series – Part 1)”

For the Love of Critiques

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Critiques are rarely welcomed with open arms. This seems especially true for writers—at least, it’s especially true for me. For many years I saw serious critiques about plot holes, characterization, and theme as signals that my stories were unlikable and uninteresting. It didn’t matter if a person told me the news in the kindest way possible or if they offered practical advice for how to solve the problem; all I heard when I came away from the conversation was “your story is broken,” which eventually devolved into “your ability to write well is broken.” Continue reading “For the Love of Critiques”

2018 Reading Recap

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I’ve mentioned this in several of my posts from this year, but 2018 has been a year of branching out reading-wise. Not one of the fourteen books I read this year has been a classic (at least, not ones from before the 19th century)! That’s a huge deviation from my usual choices. But 2018 has also been a year of discovering some great stories that I never would have found if I hadn’t decided to branch out. So, I thought it would be fun to do a recap of all my 2018 books as my last blog post of the year, complete with my Goodreads ratings and a small description of my thoughts. You might even find a book you want to read in 2019! Continue reading “2018 Reading Recap”

Retellings, Adaptations, and the Importance of Theme

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A few weeks ago, I asked the people of Instagram to send me some ideas for blog posts, as the business of the winter months had zapped me of my creative juices. One of my friends sent in a request for a post about retellings and adaptations and, at first, I didn’t think I had much to say on the subject. I’m not a huge fan of either, with the notable exception of some BBC adaptations of classics like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Jane Eyre. And the only retellings I’ve ever done were Bronte-esque versions of fairytales (Cinderella and Blue Beard, specifically). Surely, there are people more qualified to answer this question. But, I mulled it over for several weeks, and here I am; the question led me to some interesting musings about the importance of theme. Continue reading “Retellings, Adaptations, and the Importance of Theme”

Using My Strengths: A Plot-First Writer’s Perspective on Character Development

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This past spring, I conducted a survey that asked over 100 authors to answer common writing-related questions like their favorite genres to read and write, their writing process, their future goals, etc. What I secretly wanted to know most, however, was if my assumption that the world was full of character-first writers was correct. Most writers I knew considered themselves to be character-first—that is, that their stories began with their characters and everything else grew up around them (contrast with plot-first, where the concept or plot develops first and the characters come out of that). When I got the survey results, I learned that my assumption wasn’t true. Although character-first scored higher, it was only by a slight margin. The ratio of plot-first to character-first writers was nearly equal. Continue reading “Using My Strengths: A Plot-First Writer’s Perspective on Character Development”

My (Current) Top 7 Favorite Classics

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If you haven’t heard already, I love classic novels, and even though I’ve made a point of reading non-classics this year, that genre still holds a special place in my life and dominates my favorite books list. So, in lieu of my usual contemplative and thematic blog posts, I thought it’d be fun to gush a bit about my current top 7 favorite classics. Why 7? I had too many to condense into 5 but not enough for 10. Next time I update the list, I’ll aim for 10. Continue reading “My (Current) Top 7 Favorite Classics”

Branching Out: Strengthening My Creativity

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When I was in elementary school, I took several art classes at a local museum. It was a time in my life where I preferred my marks on paper to be of pictures instead of words (although a quick trip through my old collections of notebooks will show that I was still a novelist in the making), and I came home with countless finished and unfinished projects. But what I remember most about those art classes was a drawing exercise that caused me a great deal of stress. The art teacher instructed the class to draw the still-life that was sitting in the middle of the table, but we could not take the pencil off the page once we put it down. We could not erase any of the lines we drew. We had one minute to create our drawing. Continue reading “Branching Out: Strengthening My Creativity”

Proverbial Winters: When Busyness Takes Over

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As is often said, there’s a season for everything. I’ve been pondering this not simply because I feel and see the first whispers of autumn when I step outside in the morning, but because my writing life has shifted yet again. The ease and free time of summer is giving way to the busyness and change of fall—which means less time to write. Continue reading “Proverbial Winters: When Busyness Takes Over”

The Arts Aren’t Easy

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Something about the arts compels people to be a part of them, perhaps because they speak to our deep creative natures. This is something that should be fostered in each of us—it’s a beautiful thing. But there’s a danger in thinking that it’s easy for anyone to excel at creative endeavors because humans are innately creative beings—not because they aren’t open for everyone, but because the arts take as much effort as any other skill. Continue reading “The Arts Aren’t Easy”