Music is my favorite way to break writer’s block, and my high school creative writing class is a testament to that with “Strangers” by Mt. Joy being the inspiration behind the protagonist of my short story.

High school represents a time when teens are trying to figure out who they are and what they want to be, and the creatures on Mt. Joy’s 2020 album “Rearrange Us” portray that through unique and strange designs. Creature designs by Steve Girard; Graphic created by Isabel Rinkenberger 


When I was a senior in high school, I decided to take a creative writing class. 

I had horrible senioritis, four difficult classes that I could not fail if I wanted to graduate that year and cross country practice right after school during the hottest part of the day.

According to my guidance counselor, I needed to add another class to my schedule. 

I liked writing, so I figured why not.  

Since I was homeschooled for most of my classes and only attended “normal” high school in the afternoon, I didn’t know very many students. Of the few people I did know, none liked writing enough to take an entire class dedicated to improving their skills. 

But I thought it would be fine. I’d make friends, surely.

I had already attended two classes at home before I made the 5-minute drive to Washington Community High School, a building that was more long than it was tall, holding over 1,500 students. 

While I had moved from my couch to my bedroom to the couch again, my peers had rotated to slightly different variations of the same room and the same hard plastic beige chairs for the past five hours’ worth of classes.

The bell rang to signal another switch to another teacher of another subject, and I swam through the halls alone as full-time students poured out of classrooms like water spewing out of a cracking dam. 

The noise level rose from apocalyptic quiet to sports stadium ecstasy, a million and one conversations trapped between the poster-plastered walls of the hallway. 

I tried not to meet anyone’s eye. I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I wasn’t talking to anyone. 

Making a wide circle around a giggling gaggle of cheerleaders and squeezing past two basketball players whose heads seemed to touch the doorframe, I entered the room that became my safe space that year. 

I could put on my headphones, select a song for the writing session, and just type.

It was an escape from my world and a chance to put myself in someone else’s shoes.

The album cover of Mt. Joy’s sophomore album contains a cacophony of creatures, each one more unique than the last. Album art by Steve Girard

I specifically remember “Strangers” by Mt. Joy playing during one session, the algorithm’s recommended song queued up after my carefully curated YouTube playlist had run its course. 

I instinctively picked up my phone to restart my own playlist, to hear the familiar tunes of previous brainstorming sessions, but the first lyric stopped me. 

The pitch of the lead singer’s voice struck me first, singing in a key that I did not hear many male singers reach. 

I let the song play through, staring at the blinking cursor on my smudged borrowed Chromebook screen. 

I was not thinking of anything besides his voice, and before I fully realized what the song was saying, it ended.

I played it again, this time listening to the words. 

Matt Quinn, lead singer for the Philadelphia-born, Los Angeles-based indie band, opens with, “I guess I’ll have to fall in love with strangers.”

Although it didn’t resonate as strongly at the time, I now realize I was doing just that: falling in love with strangers, fictional characters I had created and real-life people whom I was just meeting. 

The music video for Mt. Joy’s final song on their second album relies on bizarre visuals and different settings to convey its message of accepting the strange parts of yourself.

The song continues, with verses detailing wishful thinking, reasons to change, and emotional ache as the singer tells a visual story of how “love just rearranges us.”

An insistent piano and a soft yet exigent drum rhythm sit behind the raw, repetitive chorus, the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of the words becoming the inspiration for the biggest project in my creative writing class.

We were supposed to insert a character into a famous historical event. I had already chosen my event – the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the deadliest industrial accident of the time in 1911  – but the person through which the reader would witness the tragedy remained a mystery, unseen and shrouded in rumor like a ghost haunting a Victorian-era home. 

Through Mt. Joy’s “Strangers,” she began to come into focus. 

Her name was Cate, and she lived in the 1900s. She immigrated to America with her mother, who soon became the sole provider when Cate’s father disappeared from their lives.

Cate began work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the same factory at which her mother worked, the day of the infamous fire that would take so many lives. 

I could picture the instrumental pieces flowing through her window on the wind during her countless sleepless nights of wondering why her father left America when she had just arrived.

I can still see her scuffed black shoes marching across the cracked brick road to the beat of the chorus, determined to prove her capability to her mother in her job. 

The 21st-century band’s final entry on their second album, released in 2020, became an anthem for a person who existed over 100 years ago. 

Quinn’s voice rises and falls with passion, heartache and the almost-universal feelings of accepting yourself, mirroring Cate’s struggle with an absent father and a necessity to grow up quickly.

From the first sequence of notes delicately strung together on the piano to the last words crooned softly into the online abyss, the song carries the story, opening scene to final act.

I won’t spoil the ending of Cate’s story, but I mirrored her feelings about being new in America to my feelings about being new in school.

She was nervous on her first day of work, thrown into the deep end of a pond filled with women who had been sewing for much longer than her. 

I did make friends in that creative writing class. I learned how to express myself and my ideas more eloquently. I felt like I could tell a more engaging narrative because of the criticism I received from my teacher and my classmates.

Every once in a while, the introductory piano solo to “Strangers” will be the first thing I start humming when I wake up in the morning, transporting me back to that creative writing class. 

I’ll think of Cate and begin to add on to her story, even though I turned it in for a grade over a year ago. 

Mt. Joy became my band of choice for senior year, and I’ll never listen to one of their songs without also thinking of Cate.

The people behind Mt. Joy have been creating music since 2016, but they first started influencing my writing in 2020. They are, left to right, Sam Cooper, Matt Quinn, Jackie Miclau, Sotiris Eliopoulos and Michael Byrnes. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Isabel Rinkenberger

Isabel Rinkenberger is the digital director (2022-2023) for MBU Timeline. She is majoring in journalism and hopes to work in some form of online content creation or management after graduation. Running both cross country and track for MBU, she also enjoys baking and designing websites in her limited free time.