My short story, “Gaw Gaw, ” was recently published by Mud Season Review, a magazine run by the people behind the Burlington Writers Workshop in Vermont. I can’t thank them enough for accepting my piece and revising it with such care. Also, I love the artwork they decided to use for my story. Please read and enjoy.
A short manifesto I wrote for Causeway Lit, a literary magazine run by Fairfield University’s MFA Program.
Written by: Loan Le – Fiction Section Editor
So, here you are. You have turned down invitations to parties and happy hours, because you cannot socialize when you have a character in your mind, her voice echoing like a message over a PA system in an empty hallway. You have endured strangers’ tilted heads, the sardonic curl of their lips, the upspeak “Oh, really?” when you explain that you are a writer. Your worth has been challenged and measured against already established writers. Your work is “not the right fit” for this journal or that magazine. All of this has left you despairing, wondering why you have chosen this particular way of being, which lately brings much more pain than reward.
Credit: John Liu
Step back. Somewhere, find a pocket of peace where your thoughts are your own, where you hear only yourself. Recognize, first, that by writing, you have…
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I didn’t know how much I needed my MFA retreat until I arrived on Ender’s Island on July 15, sat down under the gazebo facing the Long Island Sound, and heard only this:
Last winter was cold on the island. We had spent most nights lounging in the common rooms, dressed in layers of sweatpants and hooded sweatshirts. Outside, the water encasing this little island crashed against the boulders and stone walls, threatening to pull down anyone who came close. I remember reading one of my stories out loud by the Seaside Chapel, letting the water’s assault drown out any quiver in my voice.
The months in-between the winter retreat and the summer retreat were challenging. I made a lateral move within my workplace, threw myself into my writing, and helped form a new writing group. So much to do, all the time. I began to feel burnt out. My vision became a little more cloudy, it was harder to get up in the morning, it was difficult to read anything for fun because I had work to do. And this all happened because of . . .
Because of what?
I’m not going to say depression because I think that word sounds far too serious for what I feel sometimes (which I think most creatives also experience). I also don’t believe there’s any need for alarm. And maybe I was feeling down because it seems like the world is crashing, burning, coming to an end—and at our own hands . . .
So I’ll settle for melancholy, because that word has always been beautiful to me, and something beautiful always pulls me out of this state.
This time, that “something beautiful” was surely the summer retreat. God, there was so much light. Birds (including an elusive red cardinal). Lapping water. Somewhere, a wind chime. Beauty is hidden in the city, but at Ender’s Island, the restorative spirit manifested everywhere.
I was glad to be around people sharing the same goal, which is to write, to externalize what’s been inside them for the longest time. We writers come from all different walks of life. I met a new student, a recently retired Wall Street guy who had always loved writing. I’m always fascinated by these people who had walked different paths, knew so much of a certain life, then turned around to make a new path. While I consider my journey as a writer a nearly straight one, others’ journeys are looped and scattered, but hey, we ended up at Ender’s Island. Imagine that.
Of course, the retreat was not completely a vacation, even though my social media posts certainly suggested it. We had workshops and seminars every day—taught by
amazing, brilliant professors/writers/spirit animals—where we closely analyzed different writers’ works. We learned to shift and reconsider some of our writing habits. Now, I love workshops. I no longer feel self-conscious about my mistakes; instead I anticipate for them to be spotted. I have blind spots and count on my fellow writers to recognize them. And they do, believe me.
I especially love when I, as the writer, cease to exist, and the writers discuss my characters like they’re real. Would she do this? No, she doesn’t seem like the type. During one of my workshops, for a flash moment, I imagined myself cloaked and invisible to my writers. I thought my character was simple, but my classmates had so many interpretations of her. At the end of a workshop, the professor asked, “What do you want from us as readers?” To which, as usual, I shrugged. It seemed less about my wants, and more about my characters’ needs. Since enrolling into this program, I’ve become more aware of that.
One of the most common things I’d heard from the newest cohort was that the environment here was not as cutthroat as expected. Once I thought about it, I had to agree. I don’t think we’re encouraged to compete against one another. I actually thought about what happened when one of our own had passed away in-between retreats. We had a formal ceremony for him during the retreat—it was a Catholic ceremony attended by not just us but his family and other friends, but some MFAers thought there was so much more to be said, more of his story to share. Later that night, the stories and tributes about him were sad, funny, beautiful, and I just thought, “I hope he knew how much people had cared for him.” So no, we’re not pitted against each other, and I like that. This particular program emphasizes the journey of learning about yourself first, which inevitably allows you to share your strength with others.
I could go on about how much this summer retreat has helped me, but I don’t want anyone to think that I’m getting paid to write this 😉
To conclude, I’ll leave this with you.
More from Me:
Realizing that I could have easily shortened the title by saying “Things I Can’t Do” instead of “Things I’m Incapable of Doing”
Remembering song lyrics and singing along to said song lyrics
Quoting lines from films–doesn’t matter if they’re mainstream or obscure
Keeping the left side of my bed free from stacks of paper and books
Carrying one book with me (I was wondering why my backpack was heavy and realized I was carrying two large books and two smaller ones)
Running more than 1.5 miles on the treadmill without having a near-death experience
Maintaining a conversation without being the first to back away
Making a joke that’s actually funny
Not loving the smell of cigarette smoke
Accepting “God has a plan” as a reason for someone’s death (natural, accidental, or purposely morbid)
Killing the cockroach that lives in my apartment (and I think, “One day . . . “)
(At the moment) Writing coherent sentences
Starting Life After Life (Not that I don’t want to, but it seems that every time I open the book, I have something more important to do)
Complimenting people when I think their tattoo is really cool
Not wishing painful deaths for all catcallers
Keeping your interest in this blog post (You can stop reading now)
Accepting country music (please keep it away from me)
Guessing other people’s age
Walking right past The Strand without going in
Knowing if this person is checking me out or if they’re trying to figure out what’s on my chin (yes, it’s chocolate)
Staying completely awake during car rides
Resisting buying coffee even when I feel fully awake
Remembering how to spell suprise
Feeling completely OK when I’m not writing
Feeling completely OK when I am writing
Other Fleeting Thoughts
Loan Le, living the Brooklyn life, Simon & Schuster editorial assistant, fiction editor at The Rag and Causeway Lit, freelance editor, MFA candidate in fiction writing
Loan Le is a freelance writer and editor specializing in nonfiction and fiction projects. Loan is a versatile writer and editor who promises to deliver quality work. She is available for both developmental and substantive editing. For nonfiction projects, her specialties include personal development essays and narrative memoirs. For fiction projects, she possesses an editorial eye for plot and structure, characterization, and dialogue, and can identify main issues to make the writer’s prose sing. View a few of her projects here.
Loan currently works as an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books and Keywords Press. She edits fiction for The Rag and Causeway Lit. She is the coordinator for Young to Publishing’s Writers group. She is also an MFA candidate in fiction writing at Fairfield University where she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English and with awards in journalism, creative nonfiction, and fiction. She has interned at Contagious Optimism, The Record-Journal, Simon & Schuster, and Folio Literary Management. Her work has been published at The Record-Journal, Wagner, and Off The Shelf.
If you’re interested in having her work on a project or would like to inquire about rates, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her LinkedIn profile can also be found at https://www.linkedin.com/in/loan-le-4409303a.
“Loan is not only an exceptional editor that I highly recommend for any project, she is a team player that goes above and beyond her role. On Contagious Optimism she led teams beyond expectation, she made suggestions that improved our publication, and she edited our manuscripts to perfection. I cannot thank her enough and I am certain that much of our success was due to Loan and our terrific teams.”
-David Mezzapelle, author of the Contagious Optimism Book Series
I just handed in my first MFA packet to my mentor, and I thought I’d feel relieved after that. After all, I’d spent many hours muttering about my characters, plot, and language. I’d pressed the BACKSPACE tab so many times that I thought it’d be broken by now. On the left side of my bed are stacks of earlier drafts that I’d edited and proofread in red, but I suppose I’ll have to recycle them soon to make room for what my bed is actually for—you know, sleeping.
GREAT. Time for a new story!
Let’s sit down, pull up Google Docs, turn on my Spotify list of d
ark trap music that makes you feel like Satan has a gun to your head Taylor Swift music, and . . .
And what? There’s an idea somewhere, but I’m not quite getting it; it runs away before I can call its name. I’m passing my time watching the text cursor blink. Nothing’s being written. Most people call this period writer’s block.
That term can be a misnomer: Block, as in a road block—cars jammed one-way, bumper to bumper, where there’s a slew of idiots who think they can honk their horns and everything will miraculously part like the fucking Red Sea. Block, as in a Facebook block— especially that annoying high school classmate who loved playing The Game. Block, as in a basketball block—good lord, I’m referencing basketball now . . . What I’m getting at is that writer’s block is too definite and too solid of a word for me.
From now on, I’d like to call writer’s block “static.” Hell, let’s make it more official by capitalizing that S and adding the just this once: THE STATIC (coming to select theaters this summer).
Static looks like the television screen after the end of a VHS movie, feels like Pop Rocks in your mouth, and sounds like that friend who talks too much. If you have static, you’re getting story ideas but they’re coming at you half-assed and nondescript. They surround you—that guy in front of you hacking out his lung, that little shit at the Times Square subway stop kicking the shins of his father who checks baseball stats on his phone; that shifty beggar in the third-to-last car whose lips move soundlessly—and you see all of this, yet you’re not getting the idea you want. Which makes you moody and depressed, and the sadistic side of you grieves for the torture of writing because at least you had the company, at least you had a goal, and at least you were doing all hell to accomplish it.
I did something bad recently, as I was experiencing this static. I went back to one of my more polished stories and edited. Frustrated that I wasn’t getting a new idea quick enough, feeling bored or anxious, I wanted to exert power, to have some semblance of control. I changed my characters and their backstories so they were completely different. I sloppily extended my original ending by three pages (without having a new ending in mind). All the while, I felt uncomfortable, but my fingers kept typing away. I thought I was improving my story, but I was only destroying it.
So, what is the point of this static? My theory for static’s existence is that it’s the brain’s way of complaining: “Slow down, you’re gonna kill me with all your imagination.” Or shaming us. “Stop thinking about murder, why don’t you? You can’t kill everyone (in your story).” Or even protecting us. Static is to writing as pickled ginger is to eating sushi. (I’m hungry as I’m writing this post, so my analogies aren’t going to be the ones you find in an SAT book.) Customary practice says to use a sliver of gari to cleanse the palate after each sushi so that the tongue is prepped for the next sushi. If you skip this step and eat one piece after another, it tastes like you’re stuffing way too many things in your mouth (you slut). And you’re unable to taste the slight sweetness of rice, the dab of wasabi, or the raw fish melting in your mouth.
Now, in writing, the static is the mind enabling a defense mechanism, clearing away all the emotional vestiges from the last story. All writers know that we carry our own burden and the imaginary ones that we put on our characters. This could interfere with the writing process of the next story, whatever it becomes.
Another theory is that static says you might not get good reception from where you are, so go somewhere else—do something else besides writing, because you’ve been kind of a shitty person lately. Maybe, you know, remind people you’re alive. I’ll be honest: when I hit a groove in writing, I tell my friends the truth and ask to reschedule this and that. I don’t do it that often because I’m not an asshole, but I want to tell the truth and my friends often understand.
Once I started seeing the positive that comes with static, I didn’t fight it as much, which helped with my mood. I started planning and re-visualizing one of my stories, and I was left feeling more reassured rather than guilty. And the fun thing is that revising can lead to another story.
If static comes, it should be comforting to know that it will pass soon. It’s knowing that there’s a story out there, and that there’s no need to rush to get it right away. It is my belief that when you find that idea, that character, that story calling for you, it’s easy to feel like you’d never experienced this static.
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The simultaneous turn of heads compels you to pause your music. You were lost in your own world before, hypnotized by chaotic rhythms that get you through the morning commute. You look left when you see synchronized movement and notice, a couple of seats away, a man on the ground. He is still. You look twice, thinking he’s homeless or mentally ill; you’ve trained yourself to spare a glance—and only that—to people like them: those whose homes are in public spaces, bodies splayed across park benches, subway seats, or outside suit-and-tie offices. But this man is slumped against the door. He wears khaki pants, a red-and-white argyle sweater, and Sperrys. A briefcase lies beside him.
Headphones are removed, murmurs bubble from the mouths of those too far away to see, and when the door finally opens at the platform, you hear one person scream for help.
The MTA employees who are under-qualified to handle medical crisis arrive surprisingly quick. One man rushes forward. You’re surprised to see that he cares—in fact you’re thrilled to hear the panic in his voice; normally these employees wear their apathy like a uniform accessory. One passenger in the car comes to help when someone shouts Is anyone here a doctor? You had sat next to this doctor, remembered how at first glance she appeared meek and compliant, hands folded on her lap. You didn’t think much of her, but now she has transformed. Still, you wonder if she is truly the only doctor or if she is the only doctor to volunteer.
They don’t know his name, so they say, Hey.
Hey, can you hear me?
Hey, can you hear me?
Hey, can you hear me?
You wait to see what happens next. A newly arrived passenger thinking he’d caught the train in time comes in unbothered by this sight. He glances down as if to check for gum under his shoes, and makes his way to the other side. You want to ask if he’s blind. This train will not be moving.
The man is still still, save for the slow rise of his chest. A squad of MTA employees tells everyone to GET OUT, so you are pushed outwards by a flood of people as if they’re running from an infectious disease. Rather than moving down the platform, as requested, this crowd stays affixed to the car.
Attention: we are being held at this station due to a sick passenger. All Manhattan-bound A and C trains are out of service . . .
A singular complaint arises from the crowd: how am I going to get to work? This is ridiculous. An employee standing guard for the EMT fixes the complainer with a look, then points to the G train across the platform.
You stand so that you’re looking at the crowd that’s peering into the car. Mouths open. Hands to their hearts. Front row seats to a spectacle of suspense. Someone in the front starts yelling Jesus. Jesus. JESUS. Standing up to see better, you spot a woman, dressed business-like regardless of her religious zeal. She throws invisible prayers with her open hands and you can’t help but think that at least she, among the rubberneckers, is trying in her own way.
You peer behind to see if the EMTs have arrived. No such luck. Next to you, in a close-knit circle, camaraderie has formed among a group of ladies. You know they had been strangers before, since they sat far away from each other, in the same car as you. Scraps of The Accident, as it’s becoming known, fall from their lips. They can’t stop talking, but you’re not sure if you want them to.
He must have been sick and didn’t stay home.
The heat on the train was too much.
And where are the damn EMTs?
You feel like you want to chime in, be a part of something for once, but their circle is too tightly closed.
You are disconcerted by some spectators joking at the unconscious man’s expense. They find something, unbelievably, funny about their current circumstances. You look away.
You then feel a tap on your shoulder—a newcomer. He takes out one of his earphones, and asks, Did someone die? in the same manner one would ask, Is this the A Train? You answer what you know and he turns, plugging his ear back up. He seems to be looking for death, and not finding it, walks away.
There they are. The EMTs have finally arrived after you-don’t-know-how-long, but they walk with a slow swagger, even as the MTA employees gesture for them to quicken their pace.
You wonder how affected can one be by a stranger’s plight and will that define one’s morality? There are some who cry at another’s misfortune. Take this woman, for example, who is led away from the crowd by someone who might be her daughter, and you strain to hear words of consolation. Why, exactly, when everyone else is captivated by near death, is this woman the only person crying?
Get this man off the damn train so we can move on, one woman behind you grumbles.
The G Train has come, and you know you must get to work. You know that this will not fly as a good excuse for your lateness. Rush hour is not the time to show compassion.
The crowd sweeps to the opening doors, and you move with them, but also dig your heels against the ground to rile the impatient.
Wow, you guys are animals. It’s the same woman complaining before. You think she’s just bitter that she must wait for the next train. No matter. You are led from one state of misery to the next. In the car is a vagrant and she has skipped the perfunctory introduction, and screams, I’m hungry, over and over again. You don’t look at her.
As the train pulls away from the platform, you wonder if that still man will die.
I honestly didn’t expect the response to my previous post about my high school reunion. People I haven’t talked to in ages had sent me messages saying they enjoyed my post and appreciated my manic candor. I’m guessing a lot of things I had said resonated with those who dreaded the idea of their past and present colliding at Aunt Chilada’s. I felt obligated to satisfy my readers (count: 2) with a follow-up post.
Before heading to the high school reunion, I had a smaller one with old friends, and we all crammed into the back of my Highlander, legs bent, knees to our chests as we faced each other (quite uncomfortable for KP who’s like 6’2″), and just talked about our lives—random things about significant others, roommate horror stories, pelvic organ prolapse, etc. People driving by, their headlights illuminating our silhouettes, might have wondered about what was going on inside the Highlander. I remember thinking that even if everything sucked that night, at least I’d remember this moment when us gals (minus one) were together again.
But it came to that time, yes that time, to make moves toward our reunion. We all knew it. Adele sang Hello on the drive there, which was so appropriate of course, but despite Adele’s well-timed accompaniment, I still felt excited after spending time with the vag squad.
So, I walked into Aunt Chilada’s feeling like this:
Only a few more steps into the restaurant moved to commence my discomfort. I had an odd flashback to one of my high school homecomings, where our adolescent, hormone-infested hormonal bodies were hypnotized by Miley Cyrus’ masterful lyrics in a song called, “Party in the USA.” Somehow kids managed to grind to it. I just remembered thinking, The fuck? Out of all my thoughts, this phrase perhaps occupied 95 percent of my thoughts throughout my high school career.
Then the flashback went away, because no one was grinding yet!
A note to readers (count: 5, now?): I was stone-cold sober the whole night because I don’t drink. If anyone ever harbored ill will towards me and wanted to render me comatose, pour me the tiniest bit of alcohol and I’d be out. (Please, don’t.)
I found myself fading out, forgetting about the music, and focusing all on sight. This tends to happen when I’m overwhelmed (and I’ve been told that my face goes slack and I go into a trance). This has also led to many awkward encounters when someone thinks I’m staring at them, when it’s most likely that I’m just thinking about what to eat next.
I spied two high school classmates dancing rather closely. I saw the same pair later on in the night, when they shared a kiss and went their separate ways. The girl was staring brokenheartedly after his retreating back. Perhaps she had fulfilled a long-time wish to make a move on the boy she liked. Good for her. But if she expected anything more from this encounter, I’d say the joke was on her.
Oh, the heartbreak in high school, those that you had witnessed—and experienced. I promised that I wouldn’t let my eyes drift too much, but they did and landed on a few boys whom I wish I had been brave enough to get to know. I was disappointed that they were for the most part still handsome and mostly definitely unaware of my existence, and will never be.
Other classmates had ballooned. Some lost weight, was going bald, or dyed their hair. Names and question marks appeared in my mind’s eye as I tried to remember who was who, ineluctably mistaking one person for another person, who was most likely their best friend. Before and after pictures floated in my mind as well, snapshots of the past overlaying what was right in front of me.
There were many who seemed to use alcohol to mask their discomfort in this situation, not totally bad . . . . well, until the alcohol led to ridiculousness, and it became obvious people were laughing at them, not with them.
I was watching all this, because I couldn’t bring myself to hold any legitimate conversation, despite what I had said in my previous post. See, I’ve always been wary of social gatherings, noisy and quiet, but I despise raucous ones even more. Usually, the music serves to mask the tremble of your voice, which reveals your nervousness, yet also drowns out the ability to hear fucking anything. I found myself shouting—more like spitting–in people’s ears most of the time, then nodding, dumbly, whenever I saw their lips moving in return.
What are you doing?
Not cool, to be honest. I genuinely did want to have longer conversations with really cool people who were slaying bitches in life, but I couldn’t muster the effort because of this noise. Again, missed opportunity.
I felt inexplicably angry at some points. Surges, I call them, in which a laugh, a glimpse of a classmate, or a small gesture brought back an unpleasant memory, and I couldn’t quite decipher it because it’d disappear too quickly.
I had hoped to see some faces and prayed to Satan that I wouldn’t see others. Not to say that I disliked the list of 28 people that I mentioned to Satan . . . it was more of me thinking and worrying about what I could possibly say to them. However, I caught eyes with these people. Quick glances: they are fucking painful. I mean the ones where you accidentally meet eyes with someone else, then you look away, knowing that this person saw you glancing away, and all you’re thinking is Shit. Shit. Shit. Your pain is only relieved when that person doesn’t approach you. But then there are certain people who think Ah, fuck, we saw each other, might as well torture her with forced conversation, and they stalk toward you, and you’re just scrambling for interesting things to say when you know you don’t have anything to say.
At one point I had retreated to a table with my friends. I put my back against the crowd, thinking, Fuck this sucks. I focused on my girlfriends sitting across from me, and I could see them staring out into the crowd, almost looking like they regretted coming here. As if, their faces were saying, why did I ever think that things would be different? It made me sad to watch, because I knew I was feeling the same thing. Then, someone made a bet, someone said, I kind of want to dance. EChow, I think it was, her shaved side hair emblematic of her rebellion, whether she intended it to be just that or not, led the line to the crowded dance floor. We danced stiffly side to side. I was thinking, Oh boy. And then, eventually, the night went away as our movements became more bold and crazy, and we focused solely on the fact that all of us were here together, again. When dancing with friends, I inexplicably end up in the circle. Perhaps because I’m shorter, perhaps because I gravitate to this area not out of ego, but out of comfort, knowing that I’d be surrounding myself with the people I love.I kind of hoped we would look like this as we were dancing:
…though, that wasn’t the case. Anyways, who cares? Let’s say it again, WHO CARES?!?
A beautiful thing happened. I’m gonna quote the greatest wordsmith of the quintessential teenage experience: Stephen Chbosky. In that moment, I swear we were infinite. I felt infinite. I felt infinite in the sense that I was there, in that moment, with the people who were and will always be dear to me. And that, I suppose, is the takeaway of a reunion:
Remember the good. Fuck the bad.
(Some might say I’m trying to make something more than it is–it’s a reunion nothing more. But I’ve always been sentimental and shit.)
Taking pleasure in just existing, I felt more and more thankful of my experiences as the night progressed. And it seemed, by the noise and the number of bodies flooding the dance floor, that this was the case for my classmates. The music, however corny, served to unite us. People belted out “Forever Young” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” An alligator hat was passed around, for some strange reason. Someone placed a wooden chair in the middle of the floor—not sure it’d survived the night.
One moment stuck out to me: I had a friend in high school and we drifted apart for no big reason. Our eyes met from across the room, my friend pointed a finger—a yes, you gesture—and then suddenly we were embracing each other. With this brief touch, I tried my best to convey how happy I hoped this person was, how awesome they were and will continue to be. After that, we parted, never exchanging a word, and I was left feeling content.
The reunion ended at around 1 a.m., and the crowd definitely shrunk seventy-five percent. The lights became brighter, and I was able to see who exactly was there—and I looked away. I didn’t want to stare any longer, so with my girls, we headed out to paint the town fucking red.
Just kidding. Nothing’s open in Cheshire after 10 p.m. NOT EVEN MCDONALD’S!
We will all move on from this high school reunion—we have already. We will continue to take on the world, continue to find ourselves, continue to forge confidence in whatever we may do. My promise is to hold on tight to what matters and let the insignificant go.
For those of you from my past who are reading this post, I wish you well, and I hope you’ve gained only positive feelings from our high school reunion! Good luck to you, Class of 2010. T-What? Okay, I’ll stop now.
Like a girl’s menstruation cycle on its second day, the remembrance of struggling with inadequacy and anonymity, of unspoken crushes, of constant preoccupation about my future came flooding back. Then, this horrible thought: shit, nothing about me had changed.
After graduating high school, I made a mental checklist of where I’d want to be when the five-year mark happened. Doesn’t everyone? I had this idea that if I completed this checklist, I’d have officially redeemed myself, shown immense improvement from what I was in the past.
What would lead to said redemption? Five star ratings in the following categories:
- Career – I’m gonna be successful
- Social life/relationships – I’m gonna have a significant other, otherwise known as bae
- Health – I’m gonna have ZERO cellulite
- Knowledge – I’m gonna be smarter than all of these motherfuckers . . . Hmm, what? No one thinks that? Just me then, I guess.
Rating myself now, I’d give myself Eh stars in each category.
Cue introspection. As I went over this checklist, and as I thought about it more (ugh, thinking is dangerous), I fell into yet another endless pit of looped 50-minute insecure thoughts that mostly revolved around what I hated about myself as a high school student. I was quiet — a specimen whose name might inspire slight recognition from my classmates. I was terrified of being forgotten and in fact, I wrote my college essay about my desire not to dissipate into a black hole, not to become a somebody in the yearbook. I was also closed off, and again, that was mostly my doing. Sure, I had a core group of friends (which sadly had grown apart over the years), but after graduation, I remembered regretting not getting to know certain people who seemed pretty damn cool from afar. Also, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do in life, and felt almost guilty that I was planning on majoring in English, the most common major for the indecisive . . .
Okay, see that? That’s all negative thinking. Now, I imagine if I had enough money for a therapist, I’d be given this advice: Stop thinking that way. If all these thoughts were yours, you should be able to stop them.
That’s what I’ve done over the years. These I-should-have, why-didn’t-I, pity-me thoughts have no place in my life. And any self-mocking on my part is just that — self-deprecation (sort of). I enjoyed college immensely, made lasting friends, and paved a way to my dream career. I mean, every day I look into my mirror and I know that I’m doing what I love as my job. I’m living in Brooklyn. I’m finally
hunting putting myself out there. I’m starting a great MFA program and look forward to being published one day. I’M A FUCKING INDEPENDENT WOMAN. (All of this, I should note, is scrawled on my mirror in blood.) Why should high school matter so much? I’m not defined by who I was, but by who I am and will be. [To be honest, my bad memories are superficial; I could have had it worse, but didn’t. Example: I was never bullied (not like in my younger years). Or, thankfully, I wasn’t aware of being bullied.]
I made great memories at CHS. I loved working on the newspaper. I loved my friends. I looked forward to orchestra class and chemistry class taught by Bertenshaw, who could have also been a philosophy teacher instead. I still remember my junior year AP Language Comp class with Ms. Yamamoto. In this class we wrote Occasional Papers, or personal narratives, that really allowed us to develop our writing voices. We were Admiral’s Soldiers. When we received our college acceptances, we made our own posters and hung it up all around Ms. Yamamoto’s office. There was magic in that class, and I will always cherish this time.
Now that I’ve typed all of this out, I’m actually excited about my high school reunion. It’s an opportunity to catch up with people (read: go into stealth mode). Some are engaged, some are married (kids?!). Others have awesome jobs. Yeah, I know this because of Facebook. I’m excited to see how people have changed. Will the bitches still be bitches? Has anyone come out? Did anyone get a sex change? These are, after all, important questions.
If everything goes to hell at this reunion, then at least I’ll be inspired to write a blog post or a dark short story in which the characters will strongly resemble my high school classmates.
If things go even more south than that, then at least I’ll have
margaritas burritos to knock back, because our classy reunion will take place at Aunt Chilada’s.
I’ve recently taken up hip hop classes in lieu of intensive workouts at my gym.
Yeah, I never thought I’d write that sentence. But it’s true. Me, who cannot follow a lick of choreography, in a hip hop class … One day, I will film the class so that you can get a sense of how inadequate I am. Another post will likely delve into this experience.
Believe it or not, Dance and I have a long history.
In my senior year of college, I wanted to take a course that would fulfill my visual and performing elective and also allow me to have fun. I realized that my course load was too focused on writing; I needed to take a break somehow. So, I enrolled in Modern and Contemporary Dance. Cue the initial stages of awkwardness, as I recalled early childhood memories of dance classes (tap, jazz, and hip hop) with Miss Beverley, courtesy of Waterbury Park and Recreation: the horror of doing solos, the feeling of utter failure as my clumsy body tried to mirror my teachers’ lithe movements, and oh god, the glittery dance costumes and corny photos . . .
How did I last ten years? (I have the trophy to prove it.) I still don’t have the answer.
I was surprised by Brad Roth’s class at the Pepsico Theater. He was always so chill that I wondered if he smoked a few before our class. He wanted us to sync our inside self with our outside self, wanted our emotions to fuel our movements. He taught us the Alexander technique to reduce the tension that comes from everyday activities like sitting in a slouched position in front of a computer. (I had to correct my posture after writing this sentence).
As much as I pretended to dislike this class—laughing and rolling my eyes at certain things that Brad did—I honestly treasured these afternoons. We once had a dancer from Stomp! guest-teach our class. We also did yoga (and I didn’t fall asleep!). My most memorable moment, however, was toward the end of semester when our class decided to do a flash mob outside. Well, not a mob, as it was a class of maybe twelve . . . and it wasn’t planned very well. I just remember us jumping and prancing around the traffic circle near the campus center. People definitely stopped to watch us, but after awhile, it didn’t seem like our class cared. We were too busy dancing 🙂
Our final project was to create a piece of work that incorporated what we had learned throughout the class. The thought of choreographing anything terrified me, so I decided to play it safe: I wrote a story. I ended up reading it in class, the first time in a long time in which I’d shared my work out loud.
I thought it’d be fun to post it here, unedited, as it’s almost two years old. I didn’t imagine it as more than what’s pasted below. Sometimes that happens with writing. Below, I also pasted my analysis of the movements that were mentioned in the piece.
by Loan Le
December 13, 2013
The pale and bare branches of dying trees swayed violently, battling each other in the winter wind. A maroon Prius, with its windows shivering, drove over crushed ice and slush and entered an asphalt yard boxed in by gray and icy chain-link fencing. Lily emerged from the front seat and gazed up at the cemented boxes and rectangles that kept her father inside. She wanted to get back in the car and turn around. She wanted go back to her house and sit near the warmth of her fireplace. But he had called her. For some reason, he decided to reach out to her—even though she never wanted to hear from him again.
Stuffing her hands into the pockets of her wool jacket and tucking her chin underneath a scarf, she battled the winds, walking to the entrance. In her nightmares—the ones that emerge even after a peaceful day—she would explore the prison’s halls, and strange men with scars, tattoos and rotten teeth would always jump out around the corners. She’d wake up screaming and her boyfriend Tom would have to hold her until she regained her breath.
Now inside, Lily said her name to the guard, who, after jerking his head to the right, buzzed her in. Large and small hands did a preliminary search of her body. She kept shifting her feet, which made the guards suspicious, but once they realized she didn’t want to be there, they let her go. She followed their directions, proceeding down a long hallway with double doors at the very end. Her feet moved automatically in a straight line. In the same nightmares she had appeared in a similarly placed corridor, only as she traveled further and further, the walls closed in on her. Trapped behind the blindingly white walls were grotesquely distorted faces and hands clawing their way out. They screamed at her.
She kept her body tight, crossing her arms to fight away a bout of claustrophobia. In the distance she heard men throw curse words at each other, chairs and tables scuffling, and keys jangling as someone presumably jogged to secure the scene.
One tall guard stood outside of the visiting room, his face stoic, and arms behind his back. His stance was fit for a soldier prepared for an attack.
“Hands out,” he said.
She glanced up at him, confused. How in the world could she sneak something in hands between the first checkpoint and this area? Yet, Lily removed them from her pockets. Satisfied, he listed out the general etiquette for visitors. Keep it to a half hour. Hands where they can be easily seen. Use the phone to talk to the prisoner.
It took her a few beats to realize the guard had stopped speaking. He had opened the door for her.
As if sensing her hesitation, he added, “We have two guards inside who will watch the door.” Lily let her eyes wander over his deep mahogany face—which aside from residual acne scars and what looked like a crooked nose—appeared kind. She wondered if he was a father. If he was, she wanted to tell him her whole story. That it was her father who wanted to see her, not the other way around. That he could never receive her forgiveness no matter how many times he tried.
She took off her jacket, feeling her body heat up. She hugged it as she stepped into the next room. The walls looked more gray than white. A row was sectioned like cubicles to allow visitors to speak with prisoners in semi-privacy. A redheaded woman joked with a scrawny, nervous looking man whose gray jumpsuit made his own red hair more pronounced. Another man sat with a little blonde girl, probably five or six, since she carried a doll with her. The female prisoner behind the glass divider, her hair cut short and uneven, gazed fondly at the girl, who was more preoccupied with her toy. These family gatherings would have looked normal—sentimental even—if only there weren’t glass dividers, jumpsuits, handcuffs, and guards.
She then look to the front and, with a slight jolt, saw her father staring straight at her; he waited for the moment she walked through that door. Her boots clicked against the linoleum tiles, echoing over the hushed conversations. Once taking a seat she didn’t tuck in her chair like she would at a dinner table. Even with the divider up, she didn’t trust herself enough to get close.
He had aged since the last time she’d seen him at his sentencing. White hair dominated light brown strands and wrinkles were carved into his skin. Black bags under his eyes resembled bruises. He sat up, loosening his right hand, which had been curled into a fist. He leaned forward, shoulders hunched, digging his elbows into the table.
Her father mouthed something at her and then pointed at the handset that was to his left—her right. She reached for hers—was her hand shaking?—and pressed the cold chromium plastic to her ear.
“Hi, Lily,” the man whispered. And in that instant, she was six years old, in bed, falling asleep to the sound of him reading Peter Pan to her.
“Hi.” The word “Dad” could no longer be used.
“How was your exam?” he asked.
“I passed.” Bradley must have told him. For some reason Lily kept in touch with her father’s lawyer. He relayed her father’s request, asking cautiously engaging her in a pretentious conversation about her life. Like others, Bradley felt sympathy for her father; they were actually good friends. During the trial people said that he had snapped—that was all. He wasn’t a bad man. She was surprised to receive more mail from sympathizers than from angry and sometimes incomprehensible people. Some said they understood why he’d kill someone. Some said they would do the same if they had experienced the same betrayal as he did.
Regardless of people’s opinions about her father’s innocence, she knew nothing could bring her mother back.
Her father smiled. “That’s great. You always wanted to be a nurse. Nursing school is the first step.”
“I remember you used to like playing with those—what were they called? Cabbage Patch Girls I think. You’d take care of them like they were your babies.” He laughed briefly, more to himself. “How’s everything else? Work treating you well? You look a bit thin since the last—”
“It’s been eight years, Dad,” Lily answered. She bit her tongue; how naturally that word could flow out of her mouth. She hated how this seemed to strengthen him, because he gazed at her, long and hard, seeing something that she could not.
“You look so much like her.”
She gripped her handset tighter.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say it like that. I didn’t think.”
Lily locked eyes with her father. She couldn’t believe him his nerve. The disgust abated, and was replaced by familiar numbness. She followed where his eyes landed and saw her sleeves had rolled up to reveal the gashes on her wrists. They still hurt. Quickly, she pulled her hands away and put them on her lap, intertwining her fingers so tightly that they turned white.
“So you called? I didn’t expect to get a call from here.” Appear interested, her psychiatrist told her a few weeks ago. Don’t let yourself feel scared; be in control.
“I have something to tell you. And I couldn’t wait for you to call me—because that would take forever.” The lightness in his voice wrung her heart, and she tried inconspicuously to breathe deeply through her nose. She sensed his father wanted to talk more about what he’d just seen, but she should never reveal anything to him. It would be futile. She watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallowed.
“What is it?”
“Oh?” was all she could say.
Lily, without knowing why, started laughing. Her mind seemed to overload then, thoughts and thoughts piled on top each other but one word that kept repeating was “Why?”
“I didn’t think you’d find it funny,” her father said, almost looking hurt.
“Oh, it’s hilarious. What—” She stopped, fighting down another laugh that bubbled in her throat. Cancer in this case must be a sympathetic disease, though her father didn’t deserve any mercy. “So what does this mean?”
He tilted his head, genuinely confused. “I’ll be moved to a hospice. I’ve chosen one near home.”
The word “home” had not registered in her mind for a long time. She wasn’t able to save hers. “How sweet,” Lily spat. “But no one lives there anymore, remember? I ended up in foster care.” The memories came back to her; her psychiatrist kept telling her to move on, but they kept her back: her “parents” who had already too many kids to care for and her “siblings” who’d goad her about her real father who was all over the news until someone else killed another person.
“I didn’t know that would happen. I didn’t want anything to happen to you,” her father kept saying.
“It’s too late to say things like that.”
“I needed to see you. Because the doctor said the cancer’s spreading fast. He doesn’t think I—”
“It’s been four years—”
“—the meds aren’t working—”
“You can go fuck yourself for all I—”
“—Damn it, Lily!” He banged a fist onto the table, the mere action sucking all other conversations out of the room. Lily instinctively pushed herself away, and had nearly pulled out the telephone’s cord. Her father forced his hand open and then dragged it through his hair. He slowed his breathing. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He was saying this to the guard who had stood a few feet away from them.
“You okay?” the guard asked gruffly, placing a hand on Lily’s shoulder. She nodded.
With the other man back in his original place, her father started speaking again. “I don’t expect you to forgive me. Not right away.”
“Not ever. I wouldn’t have cared if you died.” She instantly knew that was a lie. She did care, still, even it was just a little. Her therapist knew as well, which was why she encouraged her to come today. Lily felt the tears behind her ears.
Her father swallowed again. He pressed a hand against the glass divider. She could see the faint reflection of herself, and was surprised to find her expression emotionless—cold like the weather she would soon meet again.
As a kid Lily thought it was so fascinating how much larger his hands were. She used to rest her own hand against his, as if he was her reflection. Lily compared the difference in texture: hers baby soft, his calloused with grooves and small hills, hers clean, his stained with residual oil grease, as if he had the color black permanently tattooed on it. She remembered wanting her hands to be like that—so grown up. She wanted to be him, not her mother—the woman who keep Lysol cleaning wipes in her bag, who would cringe at her dad’s touch and never allowed him a small kiss, even when he did shower after work. One time, while her mother cooked dinner, he snuck up behind her, quickly wrapping his arms around her waist. She wriggle out of his embrace, telling him he was bothering her. Her father spoke with his arms—outstretched arms meant he couldn’t contain his words and feelings. Her mother spoke with frowns and disapproving eyes. Lily never understood her—sometimes she even hated her. She was only a little surprised when her mother had sought comfort elsewhere.
Now staring at her father, Lily felt her arm inching forward on its own accord. In her mind, she saw that hand, outstretched, waiting for hers as she balanced—left foot, right foot, left foot, right food, don’t fall—along a narrow cemented wall in a nearby park. Her father would walk steadily besides her, watching for a fall, but she never took up his offer. If she could just remember how she felt in those moments, maybe—
But she couldn’t stop her mind from going back to two years ago, when she came home late from volunteering at the hospital . . .
When the police were already there.
Blood pounding in her ears, she moved through the rooms: the living room, where she was measured every year; the kitchen, where her mother seemed to live; the stairs that Lily used to slide down as a carefree child. She thought of her father; he must be hurt. The police wouldn’t tell her anything, but she eventually found out when she saw her mother’s body in the master bedroom. She pushed past the officers with strength she didn’t know she possessed. The medical examiner didn’t have time to cover up her mother, her bruised neck, and her naked body, when Lily made it to the room.
A slash of blood coated the walls like a Pollock painting Lily once saw at the Met. Next to her mother lay the naked body of a John Doe, his chest sliced open, and on the floor a bloodied letter opener.
His hand against the glass reminded her of the same hands that prosecutors said wrung her mother’s neck until her larynx caved in.
“We’re family,” his dad said to her, bringing her back.
Finally Lily pushed her chair back, metal screeching across the floor. She nodded at the nearby security guard who stepped aside and opened the door for her. She gave her dad one last look. His hand still rested against the glass divider, but he let his phone dangle beside him. He gave her a pleading look, the kind that would have made her six-year-old self rush into his arms and bury her nose into his shirt to smell the gasoline in the summer. But she wasn’t six anymore.
“No, we’re not.”
I’ve learned that dance reflects life. Dance is the outward expression of the emotions that we hold inside; it is an attempt to make emotions tangible. When deciding on this story, I focused first on the emotions, because that is the way I write: I want to make readers feel something. I believe readers can empathize with characters who also show emotions, so when I create my characters, I create them as broken people. Then I try to repair them in my stories.
I usually find inspiration when I hear a one-liner or when my mind focuses on an imagined scene, like watching a movie. For this story specifically, I saw the father’s hand pressed against the glass divider. It is such an open expression; we use the gesture every day. With an open palm, we give friendly high-fives, we wave hello and goodbye, and we place it on our heart when we pledge to the flag or when we just want to remind ourselves that we are alive by feeling our hearts beat. The palm faced outwards says, “I am here.” In this story, I wanted the open hand to mean “I am your father.” Naturally the climax, as you might say, revolves around this one imagery.
My next step was to build a conversation that could be the crux of the story. Dialogue tends to hasten the plot while also revealing a lot about the characters. After that, I had to fill in the blanks, and I did this by using what we learned about the four efforts. When we went over the efforts in class, you provided us with examples and pictures that helped make them more visible to us. This is a bit odd, but when I thought about time and weight, I thought about feelings. What feelings can be associated with sustained time? With light weight? I started asking myself these sorts of questions. Using the open palm and other examples of what an outstretched hand could mean, I built the history of Lily and her father. I wanted the light and slower scenes in the story, mostly in flashbacks, to symbolize a happier time. But then the stronger and quicker descriptions were bad, symbolizing a broken present. I connected the flow element with the concept of freedom and the space element with the concept of relationships.
For example, the closer the space between two people, the closer they are related. Similarly in our dance class, we had a lot of exercises that required us to work close with other classmates. With our visit to the center in Trumbull, we would often strike a pose to connect everyone—people with disabilities and people without disabilities—together. It is clear that dance has the great potential to connect.
But I wanted to show that there is a downside to being so close and so connected to another person. When Lily was little, she didn’t like being away from her father. We all know just how comforting another presence can be. Yet, we must acknowledge an unfortunate reality – a close presence can be poisoning. You can become dependent on it or you can ignored all of its flaws. Lily had not seen the darker side to her father because she was young; she had only seen the product of his anger. But after his jail time, she realizes that she never wants to see his true side. As you can see, she misses the past, but she knows that nothing can make up for the present. And there is no more future with her father. At the end, she walks away, purposely widening the distance, realizing that she does not need to be close anyone, she is independent.
I learned that movement within a story must mean something. Actions are sometimes more important than dialogue. A man might confess his undying love for a woman in a speech, but if the readers reads on and finds out through the writer’s narrative that “he held a knife behind his back,” then readers can realize the truth of his intentions. I realized the power of movement by observing the exercises we have done in class. Good choreography tells a story. So many examples in our dance class have stayed with me. For the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we dedicated a piece to the people who died that cloudless day. I remembered a moment when two of my classmates standing next to each other, modeling the Twin Towers. Taken out of context, it would just mean two people standing side by side. Yet, when I saw this happening, I felt sad, angry, reflective, and comforted all at the same time. Experiencing the power of movement, I wanted my descriptions about Lily and her father’s outward movement to be clear. One main element that I kept in mind was movement that represented resistance.
In one of our partner exercises, we had to have one person lean forward as far as possible, while the other person held back the partner’s arms to balance them. This exercise was based on trust and strength. My partner needed to feel comfortable with how far she could lean forward. But I interpreted this exercise in a different way, too. I imagined my partner leaning away, trying to escape my grasp, even though her efforts were futile. In this story, I portrayed Lily as she tried to escape her father’s grip. In the end she does, but the ending can also be interpreted that her father had finally let her go, because he knew he couldn’t do anything else to win her back.
After writing this story and the end-of-the-month responses, I’ve grown used to writing dance descriptions, which made me pay more attention to writing descriptions in general. Before, when watching dance recitals and performances, I always had a passive experience; I would see so many moves that looked pretty and awe-inspiring, but now I wonder about a choreographer’s choices. I learned a good choreographer doesn’t just put moves in a dance to “wow” the audience; the moves must have weight and must affect the viewer long after the dance is done—not just in that one minuscule second. Much like choreography, descriptions in short stories and novels have to mean something in order to make stories truly come alive.