That time I took a Modern and Contemporary Dance course

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.

Trust Gone

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.”

“Yeah.”

“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?”

“I’m dying.”

“Oh?” was all she could say.

“It’s cancer.”

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.”

 Reflection

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.

“Yeah, um, I don’t like to read.”

ConversationsI’m not that good at starting them. Some people might think I’m odd, but one of the questions I might ask a stranger is what she or he is reading. I was at a writing group one time, and met a girl who was close to my age. She had just read an excerpt from her fiction short story. Asking for her reading preference didn’t seem unusual to me, especially because we were in a writing environment, but then she laughed shortly and answered:

“Yeah, um, I don’t like to read.”

giphy

I tried hiding my shock, but I’m told that my emotions show.

In general I’m not bothered by people who don’t like to read. It’s perfectly fine for people to consume information through a different medium. But it doesn’t make sense to me when I hear that a writer dislikes reading. For my entire life, reading and writing have always gone hand in hand.

Let me explain how I started writing. I read the Harry Potter series over and over again, and in between each book release I created elaborate stories involving Rowling’s characters (aka, fanfiction). Eventually, I realized that my plots involved little to no magic, and my characters were unlike the characters within Rowling’s pages, so I knew that I’d outgrown the Harry Potter world, and needed to create my own. I started writing because I liked reading so much and I wanted different things to read.

I can say that one of my main sources of inspiration stems from the books I read (Harry Potter is only one example). When I can’t think of anything to write, I find refuge in books. True, there have been times when I purposely stopped reading. I foolishly convinced myself that I should focus on my own writing, that I should create sentences and stories, not absorb them. I also worried that by reading and writing at the same time I might accidentally compose a sentence that sounds good, only to realize I had read it in someone else’s work. However, I’ve learned that inspiration doesn’t mean plagiarism (well, to Shia LaBeouf it might). It’s taking one small, compressed detail in an existing work and expanding it into a completely different piece.

Take postmodern literature for example. Wide Sargasso Sea explores the life of a character who later becomes the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre. You can also consider more irreverent titles like Jane Slayre, which re-imagines the title character as a demon-slaying heroine. While still relying on the bare bones of Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys and Sherri Browning Erwin‘s novels created something different from the original story.

Additionally, writers who read have a better sense of their place in the spectrum of existing writers, and this awareness helps when you’re trying to establish your writing career. In publishing, there’s something called a Hollywood formula. When pitching a book in a letter, sometimes it’s easiest to write, “This book is such and such meets such and such.” Inception meets 10 Things I Hate About You. Um, well, that might be a weird description. I don’t even know how to make sense of that . . . I hope you get my point. Just one sentence can help an editor understand the content of your work, but it’s near impossible to make comparisons without possessing knowledge of those who are deemed great writers in your genre.

By reading, writers also gain literary aspirations. Be jealous of great writers! I’m constantly envious of today’s writers; I’ve read works from storytellers like Kate Milliken and Denis Johnson, and I think, “Damn. These people are unbelievably good.” I endeavor to be like them one daynot for the fame, but for the ability to evoke powerful, lasting emotions in strangers. People often say that you learn a lot from life, but I’ve learned so much from writers. (I guess what I’m saying is redundant because writers essentially mold life and its peculiarities into plausible words and sentences). I learned about the economy in writing from Raymond Carver, the unnecessary existence of form and punctuation from José Saramago, and the art of writing fascinating disturbed characters from Vladimir Nabokov, Ian McEwan, and Bret Easton Ellis.

If I could meet this non-reader writer againdespite the size of New York, it’s still a possibilityI’d encourage her to read more and read well, and perhaps leave her with this quote from Stephen King regarding the synergy between reading and writing:

“The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor. . . .” (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

I’m interested to see which books have influenced writers the most. I’m starting a page called A Writer’s Toolbox, and would love to hear your suggestions. Comment or answer the poll below!

Excerpt from a short story that might never come to life

IMG_4857.JPGOn violence

Growing up, Rebecca’s family settled things court style with her mother presiding as the impartial judge. Who had whose boyfriend over for too long? Mary. Who stole Marcia’s blouse? Mary or April. Who gets the car this Friday night? Rebecca. Her father, being second in power, was required to be at these meetings, but he would sit with his hands folded on his lap, watching the women squabble like a kid stuck between two warring parents.

Only once had her father ever raised a hand to her mother. He was with his friends at Damon’s Grill, a town favorite on South Main Street where everyone celebrated graduations, birthdays, and deaths. He came home late one night inebriated, and knocked an uppity tune against their door. Her mother went to answer, and he met her severe frown with a smile that Rebecca thought was charming—but didn’t suit the man who raised her. She and her sisters, ages eight to fifteen, huddled at the top step, giggling at their father’s strange behavior.

They exchanged words: her mother tried whispering while her father blabbed loudly, and this caused the girls’ smiles to gradually fade and disappear once they heard a resounding slap. What followed was a cloak of silence. Her mother raised a shaking hand to her cheek, but did not cry. Her father collapsed slightly at the knees, his hand catching the offending one like a mother would do to a child stealing from the cookie jar.

The next thing she knew, she and her sisters were being shuffled into her parents’ bedroom. Her mother made the oldest, Mary, keep the door shut. But for what? Rebecca had wondered. Her mother brought out a large beige suitcase, which her father used for his business trips, and she started packing all the contents of his drawers. Her mother’s face was mighty fury. Back and forth she went, her hair flying back astray from its usual tight bun. Rebecca sat fascinated on her father’s side of the bed. They soon heard him banging on the door.

“Sandy! Please. I didn’t mean to do that,” he pleaded. 

It’d gotten to the point where her mother could no longer fit anything else in the suitcase, and that was when she decided to open the door. It seemed as if her father had aged years, and he had to beg for forgiveness for the rest of his life.

Obligatory New Year’s Resolutions

Yeah, I’m unique because I posted this on Jan. 2 and not Jan. 1.

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope everyone finds what they’re looking for, and I hope everyone experiences the joy of stumbling across something unexpected.

2014 was hectic. I graduated from college, got a job in Manhattan, and moved way out of my comfort zone to a place in Brooklyn. I’m ready for more surprises! Here are a few of my hopes for 2015:

Continue writing. That includes updating this blog more often. I feel as if I’ve been editing instead of writing, stripping away the emotional nuances in my stories and leaving behind coarse, but grammatically correct sentences. I also want to finish at least one story and have it proofread, before sending it off to a journal or a magazine (and accepted!).

Read more. I’ve read books, of course, but not as many as I want to read. First book for me to finish in 2015? “Why I Read?” by Wendy Lesser. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve missed my subway stop because of this book. It’s rare for a nonfiction book to have that effect on me. Reading it really strengthens my love for the written word.

Now I just have to resist Netflix, but they tease me:

Netflix

Make friends and cherish the ones I have. What I’ve realized is that you make friends without knowing it. One day, you think about someone and they think about you, and you gradually see each other more and more, and a nice friendship forms. The other day, I looked around the room, and found myself feeling grateful for each and every person surrounding me, who’ve affected me in more ways than one.

One of my worries after graduating college was losing touch with friends, but I feel even closer to them now that they are far away. Being able to keep in touch with them—via text, phone, or email—proves that our friendship goes beyond Stag Nation, and has love and respect as its foundation. #Gurls, you’re the best.

Be healthy. In my defense, I signed up for my gym membership way before New Year’s Day, so exercising is not my main resolution. I’ll try eating healthier, which means cutting down my consumption of desserts and fried food (though I started off the new year by eating fried chicken from Amy Ruth’s. Shhh!!!).

What’s your New Year’s resolution?

An editor’s perspective on writing

I went to a brown bag lunch the other day, and it was led by Colin Harrison, the Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Scribner. Before joining Scribner, he was the deputy editor for Harper’s Magazine. He’s an accomplished novelist but edits mostly nonfiction because he enjoys the challenge, the journey that he takes with the sometimes nervous and overburdened writer.

These sessions allow young editors the opportunity to interact with someone who, before, had only been known by name. Example: an auction comes up and I can tell how serious the competition is by the way the editor says the other editor’s name. Who’s bidding on this, too? Oh, it’s so and so. Gravitas: I might lose this auction. Lightly: Oh, I’m totally winning.

Harrison is a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and a well-kept winter beard, and he talks with his hands. I expected the typical spiel about the business of books, but he actually provided an intimate account of writing and editing. I felt that some of his points might help me and you (whoever “you” might be) become better writers.

“What does it mean to be a writer?” he asked us. We all worked in different departments: editorial, marketing, finance, and legal. First thing that popped into my head is that writers need to be a bit bonkers. They need a small dose of insanity to conjure wild stories. Harrison definitely agreed, saying that a writer either wears this stereotype like a badge of honor or profusely denies it.

But, “writers are [also] criminals,” he remarked. While others aren’t noticing, while they are too busy obsessing over the superficiality of the world—the Kardashians, for example—writers take what they see as authentic and appropriate it to their own use. Without others knowing, these writers commit a slight theft, storing knowledge for later use.

I’m riding the subway and I see a mother and her sleepy child wearing a puffy pink-and-violet winter coat. The girl’s braids are coming loose, and her face is pressed against her mother’s left side. We arrive at a stop, and the mother shakes her child awake, but the little girl refuses to budge. The mother hoists her by the armpits, and drags her off the car. The girl is like a rag doll, the tips of her light-up sneakers skimming the floor.

See, this is something I would use in a story.

Harrison also discussed the challenges that writers encounter: the form, the story, and the process.

The Form. This should be the easiest thing to figure out, right? Wrong. Sometimes you’ll need the reader to point out that one form would benefit the story more than another. There have been plenty of times when I critiqued a writer’s work at my writing group and saw that the story could have functioned as a poem, rather than a short story.

The Story. Ugh, the struggle. I often ask myself why I’m telling this person’s story? What is the narrative that will grab the readers’ heart, hold them hostage until they become willing visitors to another world?

The Process. Every writer has a particular way of functioning. Harrison mentioned someone he knows who writes in the morning. And every morning, his wife would pour water on his head to wake him up. Funnily enough, this practical joke has become a step that the writer takes to jump-start his writing process. I haven’t developed a process that benefits me fully, but I will.

Oftentimes, writers mistake one problem for another. Example: I can’t figure out how to write this story in first person. Someone else asks: Why? Writer: Because the coffee shop where I write gets noisy and I can’t concentrate when that happens. What they think is a form problem actually turns out to be a process problem.

Finally, Harrison also talked about the definition of a book. He dismissed the normal definition that we all use, and of course, tweaked it with a novelist’s flair. According to him, a book is a machine of language. The beginning brings readers to the middle, which leads to the end; every part of a novel benefits the next. So, in this sense, editors are the mechanics. A book comprises a narrative, an argument, or a list. If you have trouble placing your book into any of these categories, then you might not have a book.

Well, it’s obvious by now that I love talking about writing! Perhaps too much. But I hope Harrison’s tips resonate with you as much as they resonate with me. Comment below to let me know your thoughts!

Other posts on writing: 

What I learned after working at literary agency 

In search of a writing community

What I learned from reading and writing fanfiction

Letters to myself

A week before graduation (wow, six months ago?), a creative writing professor asked us to write letters to send to ourselves. I’d gotten mine in September, and it’s taped to the wall, right above my writing desk. Whenever I hit a writer’s block, I look up from my computer screen and stare at this letter.

This letter reminds me of promises that I had made. Most of the time, however, this letter funnily reminds me that inside this petite Asian body is a character I imagine to be similar to Clint Eastwood …

Dear Loan,

You’re probably still procrastinating and wondering if your novel is “worth it,” if your writing in general is “worth it.” You always doubt yourself, you always go back and forth with your ideas, and you always say, “I’ll write it soon.” I want to tell you to stop that bullshit.

Sit the fuck down and write.

And when you can’t, go outside, wherever you are, and observe the things going on around you. Create a story for the people who walk with their heads down, for the people who look angry or upset. Look for the houses that look abandoned, the cracks on the road … let yourself be inspired by the broken.

Then go back and

1. Work on your novel.

2. Say ‘hi’ to your family.

3. Work on your short stories.

Love,

Loan

Sit the fuck down and write. Maybe I should copyright that phrase. Does anyone want to buy a poster? No, no one?

Whatever. I think you might like this, too–here’s something I wrote in 2009, back when I was just getting serious with my writing (completely unedited, unfortunately). I read it the other night, and I was surprised by how fervent I sounded as a high school junior.

(By the way, does anyone use Facebook’s Notes section anymore? That’s where I had posted this letter. To save myself from embarrassment, I have since deleted all of my notes.)

My Purpose

I find myself contemplating about my purpose in life. I suppose this can relate to everyone has been lost before. It’s a narcissistic quality that is innate in all humans–the feeling that you were made to do something. Feeling, deep down, that some divine power had placed you on earth for a singular purpose. Believing that you were genetically designed to do one thing that could affect the process of our metaphysical world. Unfortunately, it just takes an insane amount of time to find a niche.

These thoughts of mine had resulted from a digression in self-esteem. It has been going for the past few days, I admit. Grades, friends, family…I took a hit one day, staggered, got hit with another, and finally, I fell. After this, the world ceased to make sense to me.

I don’t want to make a difference. That’s right. I don’t. Personally, I’m simply not capable of changing the way the world runs. Some people dream of creating inspiring and brilliant theories in science and math and stuff like that. Me? I’m not gong to invest my time to try and reach something that’s best to be left high in the sky. But I do want to be noticed. Do you have to bring a change if you want to be recognized? What reasons make people look at you with respect and awe?

I want to be a writer, plain and simple. But I can’t find the main driving force behind my desire. Perhaps I never will. Do I have to have one reason?

Do I want to write in order to be recognized? That’s one question.

Yes, I suppose I do.

Do I want to write because it makes me feel great?

Hell yes. Solved.

Writing is…indescribable. I love the smell of graphite that reaches my nose whenever my pencil caresses paper. I love hearing the words that I write echo in my head, in the way I intend them to be said, heard, and felt. I love the perplexity that I feel when I can’t find this one word…and I love trying to sift through the files of my mind to find it.

And when I do, the word fits snugly into the puzzle that is my sentence. Suddenly, it all makes sense. I love the fact that nothing is finished until a period is meticulously dotted. That a stretching sea of beautiful bountiful blue will forever go on until I write “and then it was drained of all water”. I love the pictures that are painted by my words and pencil (No paint, no mess). That when I used the world “pencil”, I only saw me and my red Coca Cola pencil against my piece of paper. I love the feeling of my pencil in my hand, because it’s like my hand has molded itself to let my pencil, my creative extension, fit. There’s a mark made by my pencil on the third finger, and it’ll remind me of my writing which will forever be etched in my soul.

No one has told me my purpose. At certain times, I feel like I have none. Like someone had just put me on earth for entertainment, to watch and laugh at whenever they feel sadistic.

Other times, like the moment that had occurred two minutes ago while I was writing this, I know what I need to do. And I will let no one tell me what I can and should do. It’s me who has to find a purpose. And my purpose is to write. Therefore, I am a writer.

 I guess I don’t want to let my 16-year-old-self down. Better keep writing.

Photographed by Alyssa Coffin in 2008?

Photographed by Alyssa Coffin in 2008?

“And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

Jesus' SonWe say we’ll do something, then we never do it.

always say that I’ll read more short stories that’s been published in journals and collections, but I haven’t picked up a full collection since reading The Paris Review‘s “Object Lessons.”

En route to my tap dance class yesterday night, I stopped by Greenlight Bookstore, a Brooklyn indie bookstore on Fulton Street to peruse their bookshelves. I was actually looking for a copy of “Style: Toward Clarity and Grace,” by Joe Williams, which I read for a grammar course (Amazon sucks, by the way, because they never gave me my order!), but the store didn’t have a copy. Naturally, I gravitated toward the fiction section, and thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if I could find a short story collection to read?”

As if on cue, a bright green and yellow book cover caught my attention. The cover belonged to “Jesus’ Son,” a short story collection by Denis Johnson, whom Newsday calls the “synthesizer of profoundly American voices.”

I love being swept away by a story. That means missing your subway stop because you entrench yourself in an imaginary world. That means being mentally gone. That all happened to me when I read the opening story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” In the middle of a rain storm, the narrator, who’s high and drunk, gets into a car that later kills a man. I got déjà vu, because I remember reading the last line of the story: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” (Turns out it was in “Object Lessons”).

Just take apart that line and see how much you can get from it. It’s in second-person, so you sense that the tone is aggressive. I imagine a man spitting out the word “ridiculous”–maybe even snarling. You can tell that the narrator (“Fuckhead”) is angry without even having to read the whole story. You might even feel pity for him, too, because you wonder why he’s saying this. What leads him to take drugs in the first place? The narrator’s bitterness urges me to turn the pages. He’s a junkie hitchhiking, and the accident changes him, but it doesn’t seem horrible to him in that moment, because he’s still high. Years later, however, he still remembers this accident.

I love writers who can put pressure behind prose, so that it becomes, as one editor once told me, “a story that sticks with you as reader – one that matters today and will matter a year from now.”

I’m hoping to hone my craft by reading many short stories. While I am at work on a novel, I have a list of short stories that need to be submitted. (That’s right, it needs to happen). I recently finished writing another short story called “Let’s Eat Heart for Dinner.” I hope someday that you’ll get to read my stories, and feel the pressure behind my words.

For now: on to the rest of “Jesus’ Son.”

Question for readers: Who are some of your favorite short fiction writers? Comment below!

In search of a writing community

photo

Oh wow! Writers in their natural habitats!

In a previous blog post, I wrote about loneliness and the transition from college life to semi-adult life. Short summary: It wasn’t going very well. My way of coping, of abating that loneliness, was to write. Interestingly enough, after I published that post, a stranger on Twitter suggested that writing could also be the cause of loneliness. I suppose this person is half-right; when you’re doing something you love, you’re in the moment, and you can forget where you are. But I don’t want writing to prevent me from meeting people; I decided that writing should help me meet people.

I immediately began my search for writing groups in NYC and Brooklyn, and let me tell you: The quest was exhausting. I left my first meeting feeling utterly disappointed. I was the youngest person in attendance, and felt as if the older members devalued my opinions. They were also creepy.

Then I attended a Gotham Writers’ Workshop course in downtown Brooklyn, which turned out to be a much better experience. I felt included—perhaps it was because the instructor sought to make all writers feel comfortable. Despite this, I’m not sure I’d want to pay $20 for another course. The instructor only allowed us to offer positive feedback. I’m all for positive energy, but I wonder how we’ll improve as writers if we receive only positive feedback. Perhaps I am used to seeing my writing be brutally torn apart, thanks to my journalism experience (starting with the time I got a 76 on my first journalism assignment in Dr. Simon’s freshman news writing class…but that doesn’t really matter…)

Anyways, guys, I’ve finally found a writers’ group. It’s been around for twelve years, with a solid core and a welcoming attitude toward newer members like moi. I’ve attended four meetings so far, recently returning from a session last night, and I feel like I can belong here eventually. I really enjoyed meeting and talking to the other writers. There’s a writer who is a financial analyst by day and a horror screenwriter by night, a former Silicon Valley techie working on a (surprise!) technology thriller, and a librarian writing the next big teen novel (sans vampires).

Here’s the drill: we chat for a few minutes and then take an hour to work on our writing. After the host says stop, we spend two and a half hours reading and critiquing each other’s works. Three types of readers usually show up to these meetings. There are the immediate volunteers. This person is confident enough to be the first to read. Or, this person is overly confident and likes the sound of his or her own voice (ew). There are the reluctant sharers. They look around and see no one volunteering. They decide, after a sigh, to read. There are the oh-god-don’t-look-at-me non-readers. They usually sit in the corner and frantically shake their heads when asked to read. They don’t share in fear that they might be horrible—but by doing this, they might be brilliant writers, but we’d never know it.

I can be any of these three types of people, but I tend to be the reluctant reader. I’ve always been a self-conscious speaker, because I stumble over my words. Good thing I can practice at these meetings! It actually helps to listen to myself. For example, if I struggle with a sentence, I make sure to mark the spot and see if I can smooth it out later.

As much as I love writing and reading my work, my favorite part is the feedback session. Over the years I’ve received countless writing advice from trustworthy writers, and I like to absorb all that I can to become a better writer. Naturally, I want other writers to feel like they’re receiving constructive feedback—something they can use and not just think about. At the last group meeting, our critique got intensely detailed. For about twenty minutes, we pondered if it was right for a particular character to drink Bass Pale Ale. Yes, I know how silly that sounds, but we were all serious! Is this character really a Bass guy? Or would he drink Guinness? Decisions, decisions (As a non-drinker, I tried to play along).

I do worry, however, that some feedback will go unheard. Writers can’t help but feel a small stab whenever they receive critiques. There are some who can swallow their pride, and there are others who feel the need to defend their every word. I’m sure people have felt the frustration of explaining a critique only to find a writer completely intolerant to the idea that maybe – just maybe – they have committed a fault in their writing. Because of this, I sometimes prefer writing feedback, rather than giving it to the person upfront (yay reader’s reports!)

I’m so excited for more writing sessions!

In effort to become more social on the web (I hear writers need to do that these days), here’s a question to end this post: writers, what do you think of writers’ groups?

 

 

 

 

Tuesday dance classes

Before graduation, my creative writing professor said that people who go into publishing rarely succeed in becoming writers. Not that they don’t have talent, but because they’re so busy nurturing someone else’s writing that they forget about their own. My professor told me I should not waste my talent. After that, he said I should take a break from my writing and do other things to distract me. Solution? Dance.

I’ve been feeling restless lately. I have a desk job, so I’m always sitting in front of the computer, surrounded by relative silence. People are reading manuscripts, writing reports, or answering emails. Sometimes I miss the absolute chaos of a newsroom, the air tense with panic and fear. Every day I leave work itching to move. I decided that I needed to find a new hobby, one that doesn’t involve a keyboard. While my mind gets quite an exercise when I write, my body undoubtedly suffers. So I started tap dancing again. Because why not? After calling my mom to dig up my tap shoes, which she swore she threw out, I went to Mark Morris Dance Center and enrolled in a tap dance class for adults. I’m on my fourth class, and I still love it.

Believe it or not, I danced for ten years, from elementary school to ninth grade. I don’t tell many people that, because I never considered it real dancing. I wasn’t learning choreography in a proper studio. Our dance classes played out in the auditorium of a run-down elementary school in Waterbury, Conn., as part of a now-defunct Parks and Recreation program. Instead of learning multiple choreographies, we learned only two in a year, and we’d perform it at John Kennedy High School in May, all decked out in our glittery costumes. (I so wish I had a picture to put on this blog).

It’s an amazing feeling to see that other adults are also enthusiastic about learning how to tap. It shows that anyone can learn, that age is not an obstacle. Our tap dance class comprises people with different backgrounds; there’s a drummer, a second-grade teacher, a software engineer, and a really cool publishing editorial assistant (wink wink).

Dancing is my distraction at the moment, but it’s made me realize a few things, too:

  • Dancing is like writing.  Just as you write your novel sentence by sentence, you learn a choreography step by step in groups of eight counts. You practice the combination over and over, just as you rewrite a sentence until it flows. Eventually you’re able to piece together combinations, like how you stitch together sentences to form a cohesive paragraph. Both dance and writing are work-in-progress past-times that require hours of practice.
  • It’s hard to find a style. When dancing, I have no style whatsoever. My moves are soft when they’re supposed to be hard; my attitude is timid and not tough like the teacher had said we should be. Even as I executed the moves on the right count, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make the dance look as good as the teacher.
  • (follow-up) Mistakes are wonderful. How else will you learn?

I have the utmost respect for dancers—for all artists who seek to share their joy. Next blog post: Finding a writer’s group! 🙂

Subway stories

Before moving to Brooklyn, I had to stay with my sister in Washington Heights because work began before I could sign my lease. I rode the 1 train downtown. Being in a new environment, I felt my senses go haywire. I felt and saw everything that I’d normally tune out if I was in a familiar setting: personal spaces being invaded; seated people staring at crotches and asses of standing people and rap music blaring from Beats—so loud that its bass causes your arm’s hairs to tingle.

I looked around and focused on the most inconspicuous people—the ones without bright red lipstick, an Armani suit, or glistening dress shoes. I searched for the faded people; they’re the ones trying to get through the day. And then I played a game: Who belongs to whom? Not in the possessive sense, like property, but rather the sense of belonging a couple acquires after twenty years together. That belonging a baby exudes when he is balanced on the hip of a doting mother. I attempt to identify pairs and groups by the way they stand and by the clothes they wear. There are no wrong guesses in this game.

I spotted a disheveled man wearing beaten sneakers, tattered blue jeans, and a gray wrinkled nightshirt. His oily auburn hair was mussed and the bags underneath his eyes were pronounced. I immediately composed a story based on this man’s appearance. Obviously he argued with his wife last night about a boys’ night out where he spent too much money at a questionable establishment occupied by skin-clad young woman. The fight that ensued landed him on the couch instead of the bed. In the morning, he had said he was going to get coffee, but instead ended up walking past the local Dunkin Donuts. He saw the subway and mindlessly went down the stairs, finding a temporary escape. I named him Barry.

Because I had my eyes solely on this man, I failed to notice a little girl standing next to him. She wore a multicolored book bag and her hair was in a loose ponytail. She tugged Barry’s shirt. The man looked down at her and she handed him her book bag. He complied. After catching that simple movement, the story changed. His name is Jackson actually. He is a father, taking his daughter to school, perhaps at the request of the mother at the last minute because she had to go to work early. That was why he didn’t have time to get ready. Well, my initial story could still apply, but what do I know? I am just a writer. New York has always inspired me to write, and I’m glad to be surrounded by inspiration every day.

The subway near my place is far less crowded. I wouldn’t call it serene though; the train’s wheels skidding against the tracks sound like screeching babies. Or banshees. Same thing. I usually tune the noise out by thinking about writing, about my story-in-progress, about the characters who need to come alive at their own pace. Ali, a wise friend who’s finding herself in Florence (not a bad place to find yourself!), recently told me that being in New York will definitely help me develop my characters. And I can already feel that happening. I see bits of Asher, my novel’s protagonist, in the teenage boys who stay hunched over as they walk—as if they’re bracing themselves against high-speed wind. I see Saffron, Asher’s kickass lesbian friend, in the girls with cropped hairs, tights, and ankle boots. I see David, another one of Asher’s pals, in the sullen boys outside of delis who light up cigarettes at night and watch the smoke fade.

More stories are coming. I can feel it.

 

Correction: Ali’s also working in Florence, not “Julia Robertsing,” like I suggested in this post 🙂