Zoom into the writing process with Writers Week 2021
March 1, 2021
Local writers have long hailed to LAHS to share their unconventional artistic journeys with students for Writers Week. During the pandemic, journalists, screenwriters and renowned authors from around the world are Zooming into English classes to discuss their latest works! Throughout the week of Monday, March 1, to Friday, March 5, expect to hear fascinating insights into the true life of a writer and the presenters’ advice for students interested in the field. Continue reading to acquaint yourself with a handful of the presenters including Julie Lythcott-Haims, Gregory Brown, Jasmine Guillery, Vanessa Hua, Zoe Morgan and Ken Pontac.
As a high school junior embarking on her journey into adulthood, non-fiction writer Julie Lythcott-Haims was set to pursue the one career she thought would bring her success: law, to amplify the voices of underrepresented groups.
Little did she expect a future of numerous career swaps that would help redefine her narrow view of success in adulthood, let alone that she would publish best-selling books providing insight on achieving that self-realization.
Although she had an interest in social justice as a young adult, Lythcott-Haims found herself getting jolted around the competitive field of law, ending up in the position of representing large corporations and companies she dreaded.
“I was so insecure as a young woman of color that I felt like I had to work in the corporate world where I established my position successfully, even though it wasn’t why I originally wanted to practice law,” Lythcott-Haims said.
Realizing that her position didn’t resonate with her, Lythcott-Haims became a Stanford dean and university administrator. With the intention of helping others achieve their full potential, she advised college students who were navigating a key checkpoint in their own lifelong journeys.
In growing from the work she’d accomplished throughout both of these careers, Lythcott-Haims found herself turning to writing to express her personal truths and discoveries. She fell in love with writing’s ability to artistically capture her life’s experiences, struggles and lessons, so she returned to school well into adulthood to earn a Masters in Fine Arts and Writing from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
Starting the research process for her first book, Lythcott-Haims noted the common suffocating influence of parents on their college students that she had observed throughout her 14 years of deanship. Feeling a personal connection with the topic as a self-proclaimed (almost) helicopter parent herself, Lythcott-Haims wanted to expose the negative impact of overbearing parents on the youth she’d seen in her hometown of Palo Alto, on her school campuses and even within her own home.
“I was seeing helicopter parenting everywhere and railing against it, telling parents ‘Let go, please back off. They’ve got this,’” Lythcott-Haims said. “Then, as I leaned over to cut the chicken on my son’s plate when he was 10, I realized I’m one of those parents. We’re supposed to be giving them opportunity after opportunity to do more for themselves. We eventually have to set our kids down off our shoulders.”
Through her years of on-campus dean work, hundreds of conversations with swaths of adults and her own experiences as a parent, Lythcott-Haims published her first book “How To Raise an Adult.” She has since gained an expansive perspective into what the secrets of “adulting” may be.
Lythcott-Haims has followed up with a sequel titled “Your Turn,” coming out this April. She intends to share her own takeaways and memoirs meshed with the narratives of dozens of other adults ranging in age and experience to give advice to young adults looking toward an uncertain future.
“I incorporated so many other people [in the book] to show that there is no one path, that everyone lives life differently and that’s valid,” Lythcott-Haims said. “I wanted it to reach readers who are neurodivergent, gender queer, trans, black, Latino, Native, those who are immigrants or struggling with mental health, to not look over the reality of all these different communities, and be inclusive of all these ranging, real lives. I want to help young adults claim their own voice, make their own decisions and shake off the notion that it’s up to anyone else what they do with their life.”
In shining a light on the beauty of unconventional narratives, she hopes readers will begin to view life as the perfect opportunity to experiment and focus on growth, instead of fixating on a superficial end goal.
The writing process for this book was enduring, as Lythcott-Haims had failed to find her particular insight on the content for three years prior to publication. She’s come to acknowledge that she didn’t write “Your Turn” to pretend that she has the right arsenal of answers to adulthood — no one can be a true expert in the subject. Rather than trying to dictate the proper way to navigate adult life, Lythcott-Haims found her voice by simply offering observations from her explorations off the beaten path.
Lythcott-Haims is set to engage with a panel of LAHS students in a conversation about “Your Turn” on Wednesday, March 3, at 7 p.m. She’s all ears as this group will serve as the first round of feedback on her work from her target audience.
“I hope, dear reader, that you will see on these pages content that you can relate to without feeling judged, that you’ll feel seen and supported and can get some advice for how to move forward,” Lythcott-Haims said.
Raised in a small town on coastal Maine’s Penobscot Bay, fiction author Gregory Brown’s upbringing was heavily influenced by the all-too-common conundrum of environmentalism versus economic necessity.
As a 14th-generation resident of the area, Brown grew up reckoning his deep connection to the land with his town’s dependence on its natural resources through the logging and fishing industries. This conflict is the focus of his upcoming novel, “The Lowering Days,” slated for release in March.
Brown’s novel centers around the fictional story of a Maine community; it grapples with the aftermath of a teenager’s arson attack on a paper mill to prevent it from reopening and harming the land through deforestation.
“My fiction isn’t intended to be autobiographical, but I have a lot of little echoes of things that have happened to me or my family,” Brown said. “A lot of my work focuses on the idea of land as a living being and the way humans interact with it.”
After growing up with a love of reading, Brown developed an inkling that he had a calling for writing when he tried his hand at authoring a short novel in sixth grade.
“I started writing a really bad vampire novel about me and a girl I had a crush on at the time, it’s just excruciating to read,” Brown said. “But it gave me a path, a way that I could turn writing into a vocation.”
Brown found a way to progress his writing career when he got involved in the journalism program at his alma mater, Thomas College in Maine. His inspiring professors and voracious consumption of American literature had a tremendous impact on his writing skills and career aspirations.
After landing a job as a reporter at a local newspaper, Brown began to realize the artistic limitations of covering community news.
“As a journalist in Maine, the editors would say to me, ‘Oh, go cover this leaf pickup story, we don’t want you covering this story on environmental issues right now,’” Brown said. “I wasn’t able to tell my own stories at the time.”
Wanting the creative freedom of telling his own stories, Brown started to submit works of fiction to literary journals, learning from rejections and editor feedback. Eventually, in 2006, he got his first fiction story published after going through 29 drafts. Wanting an opportunity to advance his career, he applied and was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop program in order to teach English students and obtain a Masters of Fine Arts in writing.
From then on, Brown’s stories were consistently published in several magazines and journals. Eventually, he began work on his first full-length novel, “The Lowering Days,” based on an idea he’d been toying with for decades.
“Coming from a short story background, you have this really contained spot to write a story that fits certain parameters,” Brown said. “Writing a novel was just this big world that I could fill up as I pleased. When I came across an issue, I would set it in the back on my mind while working on something else, like a carpentry project or hiking, giving space for the ideas to emerge. Once I figured things out, like the flow of a particular chapter, I would write it out longhand and revise later.”
For any aspiring writers, Brown stresses the importance of feeling confident about claiming one’s identity as an author. He also warns against becoming too concerned with arbitrary goals and twisted notions of what a writer needs to accomplish.
“I used to beat myself up because of goals I set, like ‘I’m going to publish a book by 22, do this by 23, do that by 25 and yada, yada, yada,’” Brown said. “I got a ton of rejections at first when I started submitting fiction — I actually have a whole file folder full of them with a skull and crossbones drawn on it. The thing about writing is that it takes as long it takes, and that’s crucial when it comes to clear and beautiful storytelling.”
Having worked mundanely as a lawyer for over 10 years of her life, romance and non-fiction author Jasmine Guillery missed the ingenuity that only a creative industry could provide. With a passion for life-long learning and novelty, Guillery broke free from the repetitive nature of her law career to explore the boundless world of writing.
“I had some friends that were writers who were really encouraging, so I just started writing in order to give myself something fun to do after work,” Guillery said. “I immediately fell in love with it. I looked forward to coming home and writing on my couch for two hours every night, so I just kept going.”
Although Guillery initially intended to only use writing as a creative outlet, she quickly flourished in the industry. Throughout Guillery’s love story with writing young adult romance and inspirational nonfiction, she has published six New York Times best-selling novels including “The Wedding Date,” “The Proposal” and most recently, “Party of Two.” Guillery has successfully channeled her devotion to learning into the art of storytelling.
While writing is a newfound passion for Guillery, she has always loved to read — so much so that if she could give only one piece of advice to aspiring writers, it would be to read more. She finds reading pieces of varying genres and topics to be the key to developing a writer’s mentality, claiming her lifetime of reading is what allowed her to be so successful.
Guillery fell in love with the experience of jumping into the pages of a book as the story consumes its reader whole. Wanting to provide her readers with a similar captivating experience, she aims to create a personal connection between the reader and her work, primarily through the novel’s complex characters.
“Every time I think of a story, it starts with a character,” Guillery said. “I think of some trait or even a relationship, and I think, ‘Who is that person and what’s more to them?’ Then, I create a story around that. I want the characters to feel like whole people and my readers to feel like they truly know them.”
Despite only getting into the writing industry later in life, Guillery found that having previous work and communication experience, even in a completely different field, had helped her navigate the new world of publishing. Due to the years Guillery had to focus on self-discovery before becoming a professional writer, she’s found herself to be much more adaptable to the often difficult and emotionally taxing field of writing.
“I’ve understood that my job as a writer is not who I am,” Guillery said. “Especially when writing novels, authors pour so much of themselves into their books. It’s easy to take everything others say about my writing personally. But, being older now, it’s nice to have created more personal distance from my work.”
Guillery hopes to share her own winding path to self-discovery and inspire students to view themselves as multi-faceted individuals.
“I have successfully reinvented myself in my life and I know many others that have as well,” Guillery said. “It’s important to keep yourself open to new opportunities and to continue learning throughout your lifetime. It’s also okay to change your mind and to try new things and fail.”
By talking to Los Altos High School students, Guillery aspires to help them realize that they can accomplish more than one major purpose in their lifetime and that their early chosen career doesn’t have to be set in stone.
Author and journalist Vanessa Hua’s only Asian American representation growing up was a character named Long Duk Dong from the 1980s film “Sixteen Candles.” And as you may have guessed from the name, he was the caricature of harmful Asian stereotypes.
“I thought literature with a capital L meant that I had to write about lost and lonely women in New York because those were the sort of stories that I was reading,” Hua said. “It was later in college that I got exposed to more writers from different diasporas and I began to realize that I wanted to tell the stories only I could tell in a way only I could tell them.”
This discovery of diversity in literature motivated Hua to write about underrepresented communities and illuminate their stories, particularly her own. In tandem, Hua joined her college newspaper — the first step in her journey toward becoming a journalist, teaching her to always be on the lookout for a story that hadn’t been told yet.
“I am the daughter of Chinese immigrants,” Hua said. “From a very early age, the world at home, what we ate, how we lived was different from my classmates out in the suburbs or even what was portrayed on TV. I wanted to figure out why [things were different] or what other lives were like.”
Being aware of these differences shaped Hua’s worldview, especially as a writer. Although proper representation of her culture is now more common, Hua is regularly faced with uncomfortable stereotypes, like a fellow reporter assuming that she had grown up in Chinatown. An essential component of Hua’s work centers around debunking how people tend to see minorities, particularly Asians, as one big group when there are vast differences among the community.
“Part of my project as a writer is portraying the multitudes, history, cultures and experiences that are in each community,” Hua said.
Hua’s value for bringing awareness to diversity is displayed in her most recent book “River of Stars,” which follows the journey of a Chinese woman who is sent to the United States for her unborn child to have American citizenship. This phenomenon is actually fairly common, causing maternity centers to be specifically built for these women. When she first started writing the draft, Hua found reports on these centers, but never an interview with one of the women.
Despite this complication in the writing process, Hua’s own experiences with pregnancy created a connection between her and her character Scarlett. After Hua sent in her first draft to her publisher, she finally found an interview online with one of those women and discovered that she had been right, at least partially about the treatment of women within these centers.
“I don’t think the point of fiction is to prove something, but the very fact that I was able to imagine the way it turned out to be [speaks for itself],” Hua said. “It’s a question of how can we push ourselves to go beyond our own individual circumstances and imagine what it’s like for groups that are demonized or flattened or not written about at all?”
One of Hua’s biggest motivations as a writer has always been to create literary representation for her readers and help them when they need it most. She will publish another novel, “Forbidden City,” in 2022, which takes place during the Chinese Cultural Revolution through the eyes of Chairman Mao’s teenage confidante.
Local journalist Zoe Morgan has been hungry for answers ever since she could ask questions — a trait that would prepare her to conduct the in-depth journalistic investigations integral to her career.
“As a child, my favorite word was ‘why,’” Morgan said. “I was absolutely convinced I wanted to be a journalist from a weirdly young age.”
Most people struggle with finding their true calling even in adulthood, but Morgan was already dissecting the job description of her future career by fourth grade, excited to inform the public of important news and events.
Morgan rushed to actualize her goal as soon as the opportunity presented itself. As a middle school student, she rushed to join Blach Junior High School’s student newspaper, The Falcon’s Quill, anticipating the day she would be able to write for The Talon. But before she joined, she signed up as an intern for the Los Altos Town Crier the summer before 9th grade and fell in love with her position during her five years on staff.
A year later, Morgan made it into The Talon as a sophomore and continued working within the class until she graduated, becoming Editor-in-Chief her senior year. The Talon was Morgan’s first real expedition into truly local news, since she says school newspapers are about as local as you can get.
She immersed herself in niche issues, like the sex-ed curriculum, the difference between online and in-person health classes and grade alignment policy. In fact, Morgan was such an expert on alignment policy that her editor made her an “I Love Alignment” T-shirt, which she still has to this day.
The hands-on experience Morgan received as a member of The Talon was in part thanks to her teacher, Talon adviser Michael Moul.
“He encouraged us to honestly take on the task of being a student paper, and I think that’s so important,” Morgan said. “It made me [care about] local news, right? He made me take it seriously. It was a real, important thing.”
After high school, Morgan followed her passion to Washington D.C. where she pursued a dual major in public affairs and journalism with a minor in data science at American University. There, she interned at a small newspaper called The Current Newspapers, reporting on hyper-local news that many simply glance over in their Sunday paper, not the kind of large-scale political news one would expect to report on in Washington.
“D.C. is a big city, but I was reporting on neighborhood commission meetings like how big the bike lanes should be and what kind of striping is appropriate on the crosswalks,” Morgan said.
After spending a year working for a local newspaper in rural Oregon after graduation, Morgan moved back to her hometown of Los Altos — after her extensive high school reporting with the Town Crier and The Talon, she knew the town like the back of her hand.
Even though it may seem boring, covering local news is a never-ending challenge. In Morgan’s eyes, one can never know enough about a town, as there are constantly new stories waiting to be uncovered and shared.
“I love being able to get knee-deep into all the details of a town,” Morgan said. “Every day I get to learn about something different. Some people might say, ‘Well, that sounds just endless.’ But that’s kind of the enjoyment of it all.”
Screenwriter Ken Pontac’s interest in stories stems from childhood experiences of devouring comic books, bingeing Warner Brothers cartoons and bonding with another kid at school, David Bleiman, who was equally enthralled by drawing.
One of his first productions, “Bump in the Night,” which he co-created with Bleiman, kick started his career in writing and entertainment. Later in his professional journey, Pontac worked on children’s shows such as “ToddWorld” and “Lazy Town” in addition to collaborating on the adult cartoon “Happy Tree Friends.”
Starting with Dr. Suess books as a kid, Pontac is not only a self-proclaimed avid reader but also excelled in English classes and found himself constantly writing original poems and short stories. With his interest in crafting fictional worlds, it comes as no surprise that as kids, Pontac and Bleiman would race home from school eager to catch the four o’clock cartoons.
“We would just memorize [those cartoons],” Pontac said. “We’d watch them 100 times and love the simplicity, beauty and timing of these perfect little seven-minute gems. That really got the love of the medium going.”
After high school, Pontac attended the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena where he majored in advertising. During his studies, he came across the opportunity to collaborate with Art Clokey, the creator of the clay animation franchise “Gumby.” He had the choice to stay in a major he wasn’t passionate about or seize the chance to work on a show he had practically grown up watching. For Pontac, the choice was a no-brainer.
Initially, his parents were disappointed with his decision to drop out of art school, but after “Bump in the Night” was released, Pontac’s mother came around and acknowledged just how far his pure passion for the craft has taken him.
“The day that “Bump in the Night” aired, my mom called me,” Pontac said. “She said, ‘Jesus, kid, you’ve been drawing that thing since you were seven years old?’ I said, ‘Yeah, remember how you used to tell me to stop drawing monsters and draw something pretty like a horse or a flower?’ She went, ‘Yeah, I was wrong.’ And that was just glorious,” Pontac said. “Not only did I have my TV show on the air, but I got my mom admitting that she had been wrong about her lifestyle choices for me.”
Pontac continues to pursue his devotion to storytelling and has discovered just how fulfilling it is to create content that leaves a lasting impact on viewers.
“When I tell people I worked on some show that they grew up on they say, ‘Oh my God, you did that? That changed my life.’” Pontac said. “It’s gratifying beyond words to hear so many stories and have the word ‘inspire’ in them that are attached to me. That is something I can take to my grave and feel pretty good about.”
Even though Pontac has already worked on numerous projects, he sets his sights higher with each one.
“I have all sorts of plans, crazy plans, world domination level plans. I got irons in the fire that could change my life,” Pontac said. “You never know when you could create something that becomes a hit.”