“Let the right light through, the rest is pollution” — And More Novella Members on “Tradition" and "Success"
Happy back-from-the-holidays-Tuesday! We hope you all got cozy and spent time with friends, family, good books, and lots and lots of food (I’m still recovering). The holiday season has officially commenced and we’re celebrating the women of Novella with another round of Community Posts.
Every month, Novella will publish your responses to our monthly prompts, giving you a new way to share your work and connect with the entire Novella community. To our friends outside NYC, this is your chance to get in on this magic! We see you in L.A., in Chicago, in London and beyond — and we want you writing along with us.
Below, some of my favorite pieces from the “Tradition" and “Success" monthly prompts. Stay tuned for next month where we'll be publishing more of the honest storytelling the women of Novella do.
If you’d like to contribute, email your original written response to any Novella prompt to email@example.com. Please include your name, site or social handle, a pic if desired, and anything else we should know about your piece. We look forward to reading and sharing your work.
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 27
Rules for Use
by Zoë Bodzas
Rule of Interior Design
Let the right light through, all the rest is pollution.
Rule of Poetry
Life is repetition with variation.
Rule of Linguistics
Words shift allegiances over time—becoming prominent, becoming extinct, resuscitating in a pamphlet, in a musical, in a refugee community; vowels stretching, syllables eliding, and all that ancestral etymology drawling backwards in time.
Rule of Romance
“Enemies to lovers” in a book is delicious. In life, it is just the first red flag.
Also: “all the best cowboys have daddy issues.”
Rule of Suspense
It was the narrator all along.
Rule of Comic Books
Every hero has their dark night of the soul.
Rule of Health
Rule of Succulents
Not too much water.
Rule of Catholic School in the 50s
You come in left-handed and graduate ambidextrous.
Rule of Vegetarian Cooking
Substitution lends itself to some amount of innovation—automatically.
Rule of Rare Books
Has your book been in famous hands or the hands of a thief?
Where have worms tunneled? Provenance matters, so do your homework.
Rule of Middle School
Also, do your homework.
Rule of Fashion
Basics and an accent will get you far.
Rule of Self-Defense
Rule of Jazz
Take the idea and swing it, bend it, break it, blue it.
Rule of Knitting
It is so much healthier to fix the mistake now, not twenty rows from now.
Rule of Adult Language Acquisition
Immersion. Also, telenovelas, k-dramas, or Bollywood while you cook.
Rule of Astronomy
Let the right light through, all the rest is pollution.
Zoë Bodzas wrote this piece in response to our “Tradition” prompt: “This was inspired by the advice and secret truths that seem to frame every discipline and arena in life.” Zoe lives in Brooklyn and works at a literary agency. She also makes zines, newsletter, and poems. You can read more of her work on her site and follow her life on IG: @adventureberry
Annina Zheng-Hardy on “Success”
笨鸟先飞 my mother would say to me. Clumsy birds need to start flying earlier, to catch up to or arrive with more naturally skilled birds. We are unexceptional, she’d add. To be successful, to do well, we need to work harder than others. Start earlier.
But I’m a procrastinator. She amended the proverb for our family. 笨鸟总飞。Stupid birds have to always be flying. But keeping my nose constantly to the grindstone did not appeal to me. Her expectations were high because her opinion of herself was high, and her opinion of whom she had created, me, matched. But the pressure I felt, I placed on myself. To make her sacrifices worth it. To not be a burden. To make her life easier. I always felt like a disappointment. Compared to the other Chinese kids of the other Chinese immigrants in our community, my grades were lower, my piano skills lesser, my interest in both chess and Pokemon, nonexistent. And her life felt harder, because unlike those other parents, none of whom were divorced, she was raising me and my special needs brother, alone. I did well enough. I flew at my own pace. An above average but forgettable pace. Instead of graduating from college unemployed and unemployable as I, and she, had feared, I got a fellowship from Princeton. I moved abroad. I loved my job. I felt, for once, like I’d really succeeded at something. Like I was on my way slowly but surely to bigger and better success until someday I’d be a Success, and then my mother could retire to the nice little house I’d build on my property upstate.
And I did a forge a bold new path. Before any of my friends, before any of cousins, before any of the other Chinese kids of the other Chinese immigrants in our community, I got cancer. Number one. Trailblazer. And I got it good. I got it all over. I had cancer in the lymph nodes in my neck, and chest, in both my lungs, my liver, my bone marrow. I was exceptional.
I moved back home. I started chemo. My oncologist’s office had framed motivational posters on the wall. “We have cancer. Cancer does not have us.” Another one said, “Life, any life, is a series of happenings and events. Some good, some bad. Look at this way: By fighting cancer, you’re moving one of the bad ones into the past columns of your life and getting ready for some of the good ones.” Both could have used a good copywriting overhaul. My father reached out to me for the first time in years and at one appointment we sat under that sign and I thought about how, many years earlier, I’d sent him a message begging for a relationship with him again, telling him, I don’t want to wait until something happens, like a car accident or cancer, that makes us regret all the years we were estranged. Of course, the cancer I had been imagining then, was his.
My friends got jobs, started graduate school, changed jobs, decided to apply to graduate school, went on vacations to Iceland, used their signing bonuses to travel to Thailand, trained for marathons, broke up with girlfriends and boyfriends, got engaged, got promoted, paid taxes. I bought weed in my hometown for the first time. Cash or credit? he asked, pulling out a baggie and his square card reader. I stopped thinking about the future, and my mother went into early menopause, the stress of the experience abruptly ending her periods. Telling her body, nope, that’s enough, you’re done, definitely do not add any more shit-gened kids to this establishment. All anybody wanted from me was for me to “get better” which in practice looked like force feeding myself weed infused brownies and trying not to vomit them up before they could take effect and knock me the fuck out for many hours at a time. Ok fine, you can eat, but never smoke, snort or inject any drugs, period, my mother said as I replaced the ginger, garlic, Sichuan pepper, vinegar, and soy sauce smell of our kitchen with that of burning marijuana. All my chemotherapy drugs are drugs too, they’re poison, meant to kill the cancer before they kill me, I reminded her. She sighed, and months passed.
I did get better. The drugs worked, both legal and illegal. I went into remission.
Not through the sheer force of my strength of will, determination and mental fortitude, but because I was lucky. I had access to quality medicine, to health insurance, to doctors. My body tried but failed to kill me, and it wasn’t an epic battle that I emerged victorious from. It was a success brought by chance. I felt imposter syndrome in my own body, the very core of my life.
My fellowship was gracious enough to take me back to finish what I’d started. And this time when I left, it was to return home to pack up my things and move to New York City. Since then, I’ve experienced many failures. I don’t have a steady source of income, I don’t have a five year plan, my millennial ennui, millenui if you will, is strong. But, my mother no longer cares that I have no goals, skills or drive. She’s proud of me and happy for me anyway, literally just because I am not dead. And I am, most days, proud of myself too. Now I know, the pace of the others birds doesn’t matter. You can fly first, always, sometimes. Slow, fast, or barely. As long as you fly still, fly again, fly anyway.
Annina wrote this piece for our “Success” prompt. You can follow her on IG: @anneenz.
By Daria Musk
Each fat raindrop that splashed off my guitar case seemed to fall in slow motion. They collected and puddled in the cracked sidewalk, slowly seeping into my sneakers and taunting the tears threatening to spill over the bottom edge of my eyelids. I was banging on the stage-door of a tiny dive bar in upstate New York, getting soaked. I’d only just arrived for the little set I was supposed to play that night and the whole thing already felt doomed. And it was, almost.
It was a spectacular leap backward from the show I’d played only the weekend before, opening at a lovely local theater for an older rock star making quick stop on his way through to bigger markets. This routine of following a tried-and-not-so-true path to getting discovered was Sisyphean to say the least. Rolling my guitars up to empty clubs and coffee shops, winning over hearts and minds, just to start over from scratch the next time. I was a little dolphin, pinging out notes, trying to echolocate my dreams in the dark. I spent my days writing songs hoping for an echo back or an A&R guy at the next club with a record contract.
That night-in-the-rain was torn from the Murphy’s Law wikipedia page. Anything that could go wrong, did. My amp short-circuited. The sound guy didn’t bring long enough cables to reach the stage. My clothes were wet. My hair had frizzed. And there were three people in the audience.
1/3 of my crowd, a guy who’d seen me play at the theater the weekend before, had actually followed me to this very wet level of Dante’s Inferno to hear me sing again. Maybe it was the way he filmed my set, like he was capturing valuable before-they-were-famous footage, or the mounting realization that nothing was going my way, or the sense that this was a moment when anyone with the critical thinking skills society and the SATS are looking for, would’ve given up – taking each blow as a sign from the universe, that this thing that you love, is never going to work out – but something inside me clicked, and instead of tumbling into an existential crisis, I suddenly found the whole thing hilarious. I experienced what I could only call gratitude shift.
I stood inside a nightmare of my own making, painted in perfect detail with my own personal fears, and realized how happy I was to just get to sing. If this had been a play, the lighting director would’ve, at this moment, leaned into his faders and taken the scene from a cold seedy blue to a revelatory golden glow. An unfamiliar feeling flooded through my no-longer-nervous system. A fierce joy. Not a sunshine and bubblegum, rainbows kind of joy. A joy you hew out of the mettle of your soul. A joy I needed because suffering through your dream is no way to manifest it, I had shed enough tears to know. So, I belted with abandon on a six-inch-high stage that transformed into a stadium right under my feet. Each note left my lips and hung weightless in the air in front of me, like ripe fruit. I was in love with the broken amp and the surly sound guy and the crowd that doubled to at least six people dancing passionately around the awkwardly placed cabaret tables. Then it was over, fast like a like a fever dream, that left me panting, my skin dewy, my damp shirt clinging to me. The bartender shouted after me something that sounded like, “the real deal” as I left. That was when I remembered the call I’d gotten earlier in the evening.
My big brother had buzzed my cell from his sunny Silicon Valley afternoon, to tell his half-drowned, shivering sister, standing in the rain, that he had a insider invite to a new social network to pass along. He thought, with the cacophonous din of the internet being what it was, if I got to it first, maybe a new megaphone is just as good as a bigger one.
So the next night I clicked a link and tumbled head-first, Alice-style into social media’s greatest speakeasy. It was a private club in beta release and only a handful of idealists, artists and hackers had the secret handshake. We didn’t have an in because we were already insta-famous or well-connected. We each got our invites like golden tickets in Wonka bars on the street. An overheard conversation. Or some kind of early-adopter nerd-alert-system. I arrived on the site and scrolled through, the way you stroll through the aisles of a beautiful boutique, and found the priceless Chanel jacket no one noticed in the back, or in this case next to the place where you find the pop up for Gchat.
It was a ten-way-video chat built for conference calls and meetings, but I saw a holy grail and thought maybe I could sing into this thing, and play a show without having to lug my amp through the rain. This was just a few years ago, but it was before almost every app on our phones could do this kind of thing. Cut to a couple of nights later, I stood in front of my laptop, with a webcam wedged onto the top and pressed a button to start a hangout. I waited. Still a little dolphin alone in the dark. Praying this wouldn’t be another empty club. But then a face popped onto my screen. And another and another. That night I sang for people on multiple continents at once. I strummed while watching the sunrise in Norway through someone else’s screen, when it was nighttime where I was. When one lady in India left, her spot immediately filled with a guy Portugal. I couldn’t see it but a digital line around-the-block started forming as I played. The comment thread spread like wildfire; there was a girl singing in this thing. I told them I’d keep going as long as they wanted to listen. I sang for seven hours straight and couldn’t feel my feet when I’d finished. It didn’t matter. I floating.
I woke up to press in different languages. Calls from the biggest company in the world wondering how I broke their shiny new thing.
I was the voice that launched a thousand lines of code. I made friends and fans one-by-one and with their help, we streamed it all live and gave the private club windows. It was so innocent. Were we a bunch of people who were genuinely excited to discover each other and we wrote a tiny chapter of internet history together. Livestreaming everything became the thing about a year later, and that night we’d accidentally created the larva-phase, a digitally-duct-taped-together interactive, international, face-to-face concert venue. I turned my computer into a stage and toured the world in an instant. A hundred echoes back turned into thousands, then millions. And the second I stopped waiting to be discovered, I discovered an entire world of people listening.
“Sometimes success is just a little shift in thinking that makes the tear-soaked, almost-worst-night-of-your-life into a career-starting breakthrough. Or at least that's what happened to me.” Daria is multi-hyphenate millennial (musician-filmmaker-speaker) with three TED Talks and a global fan base under her belt. In 2019, she's dropping a debut album and a new docu-series celebrating women in music. Check out her own recording and production studio at https://www.unlabeled.studio/ and stay up-to-date with her music on IG: @dariamusk and YouTube: Daria Musk.