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 🙂

 

 

Am I a poet now?

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Courtesy of V.H. Hammer on Flickr. Found through Creative Commons.

I just handed in a short poetry collection that I worked on for a semester. That’s right: poetry.

This class was certainly a transformative experience. I’ve learned to appreciate the emotional stake, the inspired language, and the truth in works of several poets (Sylvia Plath, James Tate, James Wright, to name a few). I’ve also learned a great deal by reading my classmates’ poems and seeing their style. In my poems I talked about myself and my family, and it was weird, because I’ve become so used to writing fictional lives. Some elements in these poems surprised me; they came out of nowhere. Writing poetry helped me explore why I’m the person I am today.

Here’s a poem that I’m proud of, just because I’ve never written something like this before. I was inspired by my days in New York. I look forward to revising it even more.

To infinity

My eyes burn and the computer
keeps staring at me.
Sighs and clicks
accent the air. The heater
moans its frustrations,
and it’s time to go home, finally.
Thanks for everything, Loan.
No problem.

It’s the smell of piss that gets to me.
Sobbing, a dirty-face vagrant
sits with his back
glued to the wall
Hell’s Kitchen.
Please, I need help.
God will come, a woman responds,
Paper-stuffed Bible in hand.
Eyes down, emails to check,
iPhones, Blackberries—
Subway ads are far more interesting.

Footsteps of I-have-tos
edge me
down the corridor
towards the 7 train.
Wheels whine
a cautionary tale.

Ding.
I jump through
biting doors
and the man who follows—
gray-haired, Wall Street, no ring—
almost loses an arm.

Another man
sits across from me:
balding and sweat
casing his forehead.
What does he see in me?
Our eyes meet, and
his smirk bathes
my body with grease
and scum.

Doors open;
people gush out.
The old woman is always there,
her back a hill,
her arms tethered with
plastic bag weights:
her belongings.

I wonder where her children must be,
and how they could
leave her to beg.
My grandmother, if she were alive,
would never have to do this.

Today, she sits
in front of the staircase
until a cop on a Segway
tells her:
You’re bothering people.
And she will not understand.

Underneath Times Square,
a pulse emanates
from the drums beating in the back,
and pushes out into the crowd—
jolts my heart.
Forward I stride
into a dripping tunnel,
down, down, down we go.
Silence arches over
the March on Eighth Ave,
the New York Diaspora.

A family of
fanny packs and sneakers
walk ahead.
I hear my parents
and turn around
to be reminded of home.
But they’re just impostors.

I yearn for the sky again,
so I go above ground, and
elbows collide
against one another.
Breathing in cigarette air,
I tread in a pool of people
waiting
for the walk signal.
Yellow-bullet taxis roar:
Look out!

Above us gray clouds
cluster once more.
Rain drops like bombs
so we run for cover.

We pack the train.
Suits pop open their
Coors Lights, Bud Lights—
poisons to end
their Nine to Fives.
We wait for the lull.

Tickets, please.

If you’re interested in reading, here’s the original poem:

The computer screen stares
at me, and sighs and clicks
accent the air. The heater
moans its frustrations,
and it’s time to go home finally.

It’s the smell of piss that gets to me.
Sobbing, a dirty-face vagrant
shivers, his back
glued to the walls.
Please, I need help.
God will come, a woman responds,
Paper-stuffed Bible in hand.
No one sees them.

The drone and taps
of heels and I-have-tos
follow me, edging me
down the corridor
towards the train tracks.
Wheels whine
a cautionary tale.

A man sits across from me.
Our eyes meet,
his smirk bathes
my body with grease
and scum.

Under Times Square,
a pulse emanates
from the drums beating in the back
and pushes out into the crowd—
jolts my heart.
Forward I stride.

Elbows brashly push
against one another.
Breathing in cigarette air,
I tread in a pool of people
waiting
for the walk signal.
Look left and right!
One man bravely
edges out on his own
and we surge ahead.

Above us the gray clouds
cluster once more.
Rain drops like bombs
so we run for cover.

We pack the train.
Suits pop open their
Coors Lights, Bud Lights,
choosing their poisons to end
their Nine to Fives.

We do these things
for another
tomorrow—
over and over
again. Maybe
things will get better.

Time is short.
If someone offered me
Forever,
I would take it.

Learning to be a poet

We learned how to write tanka poetry a few weeks back. A tanka poem is a traditional Japanese form of poetry. It follows a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern and can go on for a long time. We only stop once we reach infinity – that is, until we feel like we can’t get anything else out of the poem. Each stanza must transition effortlessly from the previous stanza.

As an exercise, we participated in a round robin. One person had to write the 5-7-5 section, the next the 7-7 section, and so forth. The cool thing about this lesson was that the poem’s topic could change at any moment.

Here’s the final product (the title certainly gives you an idea of the poem’s tone):

DAMNED

The bus climbs uphill,

Doors exhaling a goodbye.

The child waves back.

Yellow halts a sudden stop.

It’s time for another day.

 

To wither away

On Grandpa’s dusty brown porch

My brain is emptied

I have become my grandpa

Old–losing touch with myself.

 

Same one must save me

I drown in memories of

The times we would laugh.

Your scent swirls all around me

Please just stop this misery.

 

There is no way out

This retched world you live in

Will soon out-live you

So therefore: damned if I do

And then: damned if I do not

 

I pace the world’s edge

Look down–a long way to go.

Do I leave now?

I am free-falling into sky

Never has death felt so free

 

And liberation

Is what we say to ourselves

When we have a voice

And I just don’t have a voice

And so there’s no salvation.

It’s such a happy poem, right? I intended to make the poem sound optimistic (I wrote the first three lines), because my friends usually say I’m a dark writer. It wasn’t my fault that this poem turned out differently than I expected!

Anyways, I feel like I’ve definitely grown as an amateur poet. It helps to read some fine poets from the past. I also enjoy reading my peers’ work in our workshops. My professor tells me that I need to use poetry to explore and to let go. I found that writing approach hard at first; as a fiction writer, I always sketch out the narrative arc of my stories. I want to feel like I’m in control of the plot, the characters, the setting, etc. Because my stories are fictional, I write to explore other people’s lives, and not my own. That’s not what you should do in poetry.

After taking this poetry course, I’m beginning to understand what it means to “let go.” If I write something and it doesn’t sound like it “fits” in a piece, I shouldn’t put it in the trash right away. Perhaps that word or phrase came out of my mind for a reason. Maybe it needs its own poem. Recently I’ve been writing a lot of poetry about memories of my childhood and my family. Though only a few people have seen my poetry – and I don’t intend to ever attempt publication – I still feel guilty about what I’m writing, but it’s therapeutic at the same time.

I’m revising my poems for the final portfolio, and I might post a few on this blog! So stay tuned.

Time to Wake

Poem #1

I wake at the edge of the bed, wrapped in downy-scented Mickey Mouse blankets,

Arms pinned to my side.

I know I started out at the center, squished between Mom and Sister,

Who gave me warmth that only they could provide.

Mom’s lavender perfume sticks to my pillow.

The ceiling fan wheezes as its blades turn.

Outside, cars whiz by, and light wastes away, sinking into a hill.

The lullaby of ice cream suddenly beckons me—and already I reach for my piggy bank in my

Dresser, surrounded by a mess of underwear, glittery rocks, and sea-beaten shells.

But my hope gets crushed when footsteps burden the old stairs,

And Mom’s hushed voice echoes in the hallway: Con, xuống ăn cơm.

I inhale an errant waft of fresh rice.

***

I am the youngest in my family.

Every day I waited for An and Dan to come home from elementary school. Living in a small apartment, the three of us shared a room. My mother would combine all of our beds and we’d take naps together. I remember feeling so safe during this time, surrounded by my family, and I never wanted to leave. I was always the last one to wake up, and I’d lay in my bed and listen to the whispers of activities going on around me, which soothed me like a mother’s lullaby. 

We had to write about a specific place in our first poetry assignment. I couldn’t find one that stuck out to me, so I thought of the times when I felt comforted and loved: in my bed in Apartment Four on Scott Road – back in the old days. 

A literary semester

It’s my last semester at Fairfield, so I thought I should take all the classes that I’ve been wanting to take. Why not?

Advanced Portfolio Workshop

Led by former Crazyhorse editor, Carol Ann Davis, this class is a capstone course for creative writing majors. By the end of this course we are supposed to have a publishable creative project. I’m choosing to compose a collection of short stories, all dealing with family dynamics. I supposedly volunteered to have my work examined in the first workshop. Don’t ask me how that happened; it’s all a blur. I plan to submit a very dark piece about a man who fights but eventually succumbs to his demons. Vague? Good! I can’t reveal all the good stuff here. Based on my impressions, I anticipate that this class will be beneficial to my development as a writer. Everyone seems interested in their craft, and I look forward to our sessions.

Teaching and Learning Grammar

Ah, grammar. There are so many bad, horrific, terrifying, embarrassing (OK, I’ll stop) memories of my childhood encounters with grammar. I remember getting back essays with red pen marks all over the pages. I vaguely remember being enrolled in an ESL class, because my English was so horrible. I apparently couldn’t speak English because my parents only spoke to me in Vietnamese at home. I don’t recall much of that ESL class (I did learn Spanish?). Anyways, grammar is my weak point. Yet, in my future line of work, I need to know grammar, so I thought I should finally have a whole course dedicated to grammar. So far, it is really interesting. My professor wants to teach students not only the basics to grammar, but also the history of it.

Issues in Professional Writing: Multimedia Writing

I will have a lot of trouble concentrating in this class. Why? Dogs. That’s why – my professor has DOGS. They’re Huskies, and they are so well-behaved and adorable. But, the whole class seems interesting. I’ve always wanted to build my own website, and that’s apparently one of our larger projects. I think that if I want to go into journalism (right after graduation, down the line, etc.) I would need to know basic web design skills. I like that we’re using blogs, Twitter, and computers to learn. We’re actually applying what we learn in class and what we read from our books. I always enjoy courses with hands-on tasks. As with my other classes, I can’t wait to get started.

Introduction to Poetry

Well. It’s poetry, so I am terrified. But hopefully I’ll survive?

Honors Thesis/Independent Writing Project: Novel Writing

I AM WRITING A NOVEL. That’s all I can say, because, apparently, it’s bad to talk about your writing. It’s the same novel I’ve been working on for over a year, and I am hoping to make serious progress with the help of Dr. Michael White, who is the MFA director at Fairfield.

Internship: Folio Literary Management

Folio Literary Management is a literary agency in Manhattan, so I commute Wednesdays and Fridays to work in the office. I’m an editorial intern so I read, read, read, take out the trash, read, refill the water cooler, read, read and, yes, read. I love it so far.

Work: The Mirror

What can I say? Working at The Mirror has become second-nature to me. It’s a part of my life, and I wouldn’t want to change anything. Of course I am nervous about this semester and the next, when the new staff will have to take over. I’m extremely overprotective of my baby; I think I’ve taken good care of it, so I don’t want things to change. I’m also trying to convince people that working at The Mirror is a rewarding experience. It doesn’t have to be a chore, I say.

We have a lot of competitions that are open to submissions. The first deadline is Jan. 24 for the Society of Professional Journalists’ Mark of Excellence Awards. I hope we win.

Wagner

Don’t ask me why the editor-in-brief, Leigh Tauss, had named it “Wagner.” I guess it’s random – just like the creation of this journal. Leigh has a vision for it – she’s still figuring it out – but I’m glad to be a part of it as the Spelling Witch! Boom. Greatest title ever. If you want to submit, please do.

What I learned from reading and writing fanfiction

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Screenshot of Fanfiction.net, the most popular fanfiction website to exist. Photo from Wikimedia.org.

Once upon a time, I avidly read fanfiction. To those unfamiliar with fanfiction, scholar Bronwen Thomas best describes it as “stories produced by fans based on plot lines and characters from either a single source text or else a “canon” of works; these fan-created narratives often take the pre-existing storyworld in a new, sometimes bizarre, direction.” Note the words “fan,” “canon,” and most important, “bizarre.”

Simply put, fanfiction refers to stories written by fans. According to Fanfiction.net, the most popular category of fanfiction is the “Harry Potter” series because it has 650,689 fanfics – and believe me, the number is only growing. I was once obsessed with reading HP fanfics. And I never wanted people to know about it. I never talked about my hobby because the stories I tended to read were reflective of myself, and back then, I felt a large amount of angst. I didn’t like watching soap operas (still don’t) but I loved reading a drama-packed HP story. I never wanted my parents to know. I never wanted my siblings to know about it. I never wanted anyone to know how deeply entrenched I was in an imaginary world.

I liked the anonymity that fanfiction afforded me. On the internet, I could be anything I wanted. I didn’t have to face my critics (but the downside was that I couldn’t face my fans). However, despite the anonymous nature of fanfiction writing, each time I got a “flame,” or a negative critique, I took it as a blow to my self-esteem. Sometimes I fired back at my critics by writing a long “author’s note.” Sometimes my fans were quick to defend me. (When I say fans, that means one user who religiously followed my stories). Waiting for a review became another obsession for me. All of this was negative, of course, because I became dependent on other people’s opinions and would feel like I failed whenever I didn’t meet their expectations.

But I’ve learned that as a writer and as a reader, you should never be ashamed. Because of the arduous thinking, planning, composing, editing, etc. that comes with writing, I should never doubt the seriousness of my work. I should be proud of what I read and write. Writers might be a lot of things, but cowards they are not (I feel like someone should make an epic banner out of this. Please credit me.)

Fanfiction has shown me that many fantastic writers exist and go unrecognized. I remember that there was an apparent “leak” of “Deathly Hallows” before its publication date. The story contained a scene with Hermione and Ron’s wedding and a conversation between Harry and Hermione beforehand (I wish I could find it). People thought this was really DH; they mistook the fake as the real thing because its style and its use of words closely mirrored Rowling’s. But, I’m not just talking about the imitators. There were certainly innovators out there, the ones who took Rowling’s original storyline and elevated it to fantastic and also realistic levels. I loved these stories because they focused on strong character developments and alternative theories of how Harry could have defeated Voldemort. One story explored an alliance between the magical world and the military Muggle world and how they trained for war against Voldemort.

But when you stray too far from the main storyline, you should stop writing fanfiction. For example, if you write HP fanfics but don’t mention magic in them, then what’s the point? That’s what happened to me. I never regretted my choice to leave the fanfiction world because I grew more serious about my original work. I refocused my imagination and created my own world instead of recycling someone else’s invention. Upon my departure, I believe I became a true writer.

The funny thing about fanfiction is that it rarely comes up in conversation. I mean, how would you bring it up? Do you know anyone who’s written fanfiction? Was I the only one uncomfortable with talking about my hobby? I was a sophomore in high school when I got the courage to mention that I was a fanfic writer. My social studies partner and I bonded over HP and I let my secret slip. I waited for the inevitable “Fanfiction? What is that?” reaction.

Then, without missing a beat, she said, “Me too!” I couldn’t believe it – well, maybe because I didn’t think I’d actually meet another fanfiction writer. We even traded our user names.

Now I wonder if I know any former/current fanfiction writers. I’d really like to talk to you.

Reading and writing fanfiction seemed like emotional investments. After the final book came out, I witnessed a surge of fanfiction in what was called the “Post-DH” era. Writers continued from the epilogue (or the “Crapilogue,” if you disliked it) and imagined a future for Harry. Sometimes writers made him miserable; they have him get divorced or fight a new “Dark Lord.” Others produced “fluff,” or insanely unrealistic, but entirely adorable storylines with Harry as a loving father and husband to his family. From what I could tell, fans didn’t want the series to end. I never wanted it to end, either, because the series took up a great deal of my childhood. When the final book came out, I considered it to be the end of my childhood, because it was sufficiently the end of Harry’s childhood. I connected so deeply with him, Ron, Hermione, etc. that the changes in the series mirrored changes in my life. (But thank goodness I didn’t have to fight Voldie.)

In the reverse fashion, some stories tried to retrace the past and put a different spin on Harry’s life before and during Hogwarts. Maybe some people didn’t like how Rowling developed the series and wanted to “correct mistakes.” A lot of fanfiction deals with bashing beloved characters, reassessing and redefining their motives, which originally seemed pure in the books. Dumbledore, for example, was made into a manipulative old coot who didn’t do enough to rescue Harry from the Dursleys’. Ron-haters portrayed the member of the trio as an insolent and greedy person. I never liked these types of fanfic because the writers fell into the trapped of writing one-dimensional characters. Sure, Dumbledore could have done much more for Harry, but the headmaster loved him. Sure, Ron was not always the most rational – more apt to act with his heart than his brain – but he always proved himself in the end. By reading such fanfiction, I recognized that importance of having a complex characters with good AND bad qualities.

It’s taken some time to accept this but I can now say that fanfiction has shaped the way I think, read, and write.

Has fanfiction impacted your life?

Convention Craziness Part I

I’ve been waiting months for spring break to come. But don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t anticipating a vacation in some sunny resort or a cross-country road trip. No, I was looking forward to attending conventions!

Even though I’ve been so busy, I have no regrets. In just six days, I feel like I have grown exponentially and I cannot wait to apply what I learned to both my journalistic and creative writing. For the sake of my readers (if I even have readers), I’ll split my accounts into two posts. Here’s the first.

TableFrom March 7 to 8, as one of the managing editors of Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose, I attended my first Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention (AWP). The AWP Conference and Bookfair is the largest literary conference in America with more than 10,000 attendees and 600 bookfair exhibitions. This event is so important that the next four conference dates and locations have already been decided.

So, yes, this conference is like a mecca for young and established writers. I’m extremely ashamed to admit that I had just found out about it last semester. Dogwood has been preparing for AWP since then.

I have to say, we had an awesome table. I think that we were unique in our approach of luring in interested writers. We offered a spa treatment for the creatively inclined to decorate and to ‘glitterize’ (yes, I just did that) their badges. We had cute animal erasers that a lot of moms picked up for their kids (though I worried about the choking hazards). Then we let them choose between two inspirational quotes: “You are not your author’s bio,” and “You win the awesome award for this year.” I loved hearing the delightful laughs and seeing the smiles of all of the attendees who decided to partake in the treatment. We also had cool bookmarks that we handed out to everyone; I felt proud to see the new typeface that I had helped choose for the upcoming issue, and I cannot wait until the spring issue (April!) comes out.

I also think this was a great opportunity to people-watch because writers and editors are just so interesting and eccentric (cue the jokes about writers straying from their natural habitats).

You could see the ones trying too hard with their Starbucks, Chuck Taylors, and plaid shirts.

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I got jealous of the brazen writers who went to every MFA program table and bragged about their working novels or collection. I hope to be as brave as them one day (but also wish for my ego to remain tame).

The bookfair had to be split between two floors because so many exhibitors had signed up. I learned that it was okay to get lost because you were bound to find something interesting no matter what. I walked around in awe, astonished to find mags that I absolutely love (Ploughshares, Bomb) and curious about the other mag (Mad Hatter’s Review, Guernica) that I’d never heard of. I packed my awesome AWP tote bag with notebooks, literary journals, magnets, and postcards – so much ‘swag’ that they were happy to give away. You have to know that some exhibitors had come from the West Coast and did not want to lug all of their leftovers back on the plane.

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Each table had its own personality. The people behind the table were even more fun to meet because some were students like me and others were volunteers or actual editors! I ran into one man from The Laurel Review twice and we started talking, and I found out that he was the fiction editor. He also gave me an issue for free even though I’m sure he wasn’t supposed to…

There were certain tables that looked empty just because the people running them chose to talk to one another instead of welcoming other attendees. When I approached a few, they’d turn to face me and stare me down as if I was disturbing  an important conversation about the weather. Yuck. I stayed away from those tables.

On to the nighttime activities. AWP actually sponsored a dance in the Sheraton Hotel and let me tell you: the dance was both awkward and magnificent. Writers usually don’t express themselves through dance; we mostly socialize in our heads (amIright?). I guess the free wine and beer selection encouraged people to come out of their caves. I enjoyed seeing older attendees test their dance moves by swaying their hips and laughing when they realize that they “still got it.” I liked watching the circle of young writers and editors jumping up and down (at times I thought we’d break the dance floor). The DJ played a mix of 90s and current songs, trying to appeal to both groups. I am normally shy when I start dancing but after awhile, I no longer cared. I figured no one would notice my arms failing if everyone else was doing the same thing. Anna, one of the managing editors, definitely had fun – she started the “dancing on the stage” trend and made friends with the DJ (getting his beer once in while). Thank god there was no grinding.

The conference had scheduled over 550 readings, lectures, panel discussions, and forums. One thing I wished I had done more was attend the seminars, but unfortunately (but in retrospect, fortunately) I had to leave early for another convention. One of the few sessions that I did attend was called “Crossing Boundaries: Landscapes of Childhood and Adolescence,” and the panel discussed the importance of setting in adolescent literature. The panelists argued that the setting is actually the basis for character development. Leading the panel were authors like Australian novelist Lucy Christopher (Stolen) and hilarious Midwestern writer Kerry Madden. I also got to hear them read excerpts from their published and working novels.

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Afterwards, I realize that Dogwood has a lot of competition and areas in need of improvement. I think that Dogwood needs to be more present online, because in reality that’s where a lot of magazines and journals are going. Perhaps we can update the site more regularly and interact with our readers through social media.

Right now, however, I am so proud of what we’ve done so far. We were both lucky and unlucky after the hiatus. We had clean slate and could have messed up, but we didn’t! With the help of willing writers and Dogwood‘s awesome staff from Sonya’s World of Publishing classes, we’ve grown so much.

After leaving the convention and on my way to New York, I texted my good friend Esther and said that I had finally found “my people” at this convention. That might sound weird, but honestly, I really felt like I belonged because everyone who attended frenetically pursued writing and reading. Everyone I met saw the importance of writing and the therapy that it could provide. I felt liberated – so much so that describing my feelings towards AWP goes beyond my breadth of vocabulary. In all, what a fantastic experience. I hope to attend another one in the future.

Short fiction piece: Freedom

I’m reading this short piece tomorrow at a gathering for creative writers. I’m so nervous. I don’t often read my fiction to people other than my close friends. Wish me luck!

Update: It wasn’t bad at all! Everyone seemed nervous but when they started reading from the podium, they sailed through. People read a variety of works. I read short fiction. My roommate, Ali, read a nonfiction piece about ‘catastrophic diarrhea,’ which sounds disgusting but was absolutely hilarious. One person from my fiction class read spoken word and I didn’t know that he was so good at it! A really nervous-looking girl read a poem in which she made a metaphor out of one person’s body part. Who thinks of that?

I left this event feeling extremely fulfilled. We all bared some bit of our souls, so in the end, it didn’t matter if one person messed up or not. What mattered was that we, as creative writers, took the step to read works that we usually keep to ourselves.

The event also made me think about the future. Representatives from Fairfield University’s MFA program discussed how life-changing the seminars and meetings were. They have a community of writers willing to critique and comment on each others’ work. I wish we had more of that at school.

I mean, sure, we have Inkwell, the student-run literary magazine, but at the meetings, we do prompts and read unfinished work. I know that a lot of students don’t feel comfortable reading something that’s unedited and based off a prompt. I think that people might prefer to have a set time and date to read finished masterpieces, and then accept constructive criticisms. I had time to talk to the people who’ve read at this event and they all seemed to agree that this event had somehow changed the writer in them. I can see the confidence in the way they talked about their experience. I sense some coffee shop readings in the future.

Overall, I am so glad that I went to this event and I hope that the creative writing department holds more of these in order to nurture the writing community that they talked about.

Freedom

by Loan Le

When Abby shot the security guard, she didn’t notice that her father, who was pinned underneath the other man’s knee, stopped struggling against his impending arrest. She didn’t know at the time that the gleaming golden bullet from her Glock 27 would make a nearly straight path toward the guard’s neck and lodge itself in his external jugular vein. Abby had only wanted it to go for his shoulder or arm, or anything that’d stop him from reaching for his handcuffs, which were intended for her father. The split second after she sees the guard’s blood spurt in different directions, she naively thinks that, somehow, he’d be alright. Somehow, the mahogany flesh encasing the guard’s massive neck would diminish the bullet’s impact.

The guard didn’t see her. The guard didn’t know that he’d die on a Tuesday in October at 8:14 in the morning. The 250-pound guard collapses on top of her father, who then grimaces at the added weight to his much smaller prone body. Abby doesn’t help him up, not immediately, that is, because she finds that she can’t move her legs. The Glock drops to her feet, only to skid across the sleek marble floor of the bank. Around her, people, who waited to cash in a check or pay their late mortgages, clamber over the black bars that kept them in line, and they run from her, the sixteen-year-old girl who just wanted to help her father pay the bills.

He can’t be dead, she thinks.

If her brother Hayden was with her, Abby knew he’d look at the guard and say, “Wow, good shot, Abs,” because that’s the type of sick guy he is—was … well, before he overdosed two months ago. Hayden would push the man’s body off their father’s. He’d even shoot the guy again for a good measure. He’d tell Abby to run. Abby needs someone to tell her what to do, because right now, she’s stuck. She feels a sudden, new ache in the part that burns whenever she cries alone in her bathroom, the part that perks up when she learns that they’d have enough money to last the month, the part that yearns for freedom. Abby knows the name of this intruder that’s gnawing at her insides, it’s called ‘remorse,’ and she doesn’t like how it feels, but she can’t stop herself from recognizing the calamity that she has caused. As she stares blindly at her trembling hands, she wonders if the man had a toddler waiting at home, excited to see her “Dada” after a long day of work. She imagines the wife who will never again run her hand through her husband’s mousy brown hair in a show of absent-minded affection. Abby thinks of all this because that’s the kind of girl she is – the soft-spoken girl who never, ever imagined that she could kill.

This isn’t what she imagined would happen when she first agreed to help plan robberies with her father and Hayden. If she could have predicted this, she would have said no the day her father told her: “I promise, it’ll only be this one time.” She pictures in her head that cloudy summer morning, when they had, for the third time that week, charred Spam and runny scrambled eggs. She sees her twelve and a half-year-old thin self, hunched over her chipped Ikea plate, holding her shoulders in a way so that her nipples wouldn’t brush up against her T-shirt. At the time, she was growing what all girls her age wanted, but she also knew that her family had no money, and buying training bras were not on the top of the family’s list of priorities. Her father’s plan seemed like the only option they had, so she said yes.

But now, now, as the bank is empty, as her father reaches for her, she finds herself inexplicably caught in what she wanted to escape that day she said yes. Trouble. Confusion. Desperation. She knows that this is the last time she’d steal anything.

The doors to the bank open up, the entrance bell’s chime gets Abby’s attention. She hears the quick footsteps of the officers who barrel themselves into the lobby and their shouts to “Get down!” and “Drop your weapons!” The dead man is pushed unceremoniously off her father, and before he has the time to rub the pain away from his aching chest, the SWAT officers grab hold of him and roughly slam him back onto his stomach.  Abby’s pale blue eyes connect with the officer who’s pointing the nozzle of a gun at her.

She wants to run away. But then she searches for her father. His gray hair has speckles of blood on it. Her father refuses to look at her, now that he’s being led away. She feels a light hand on her left arm; she glances down and back up to see that a redheaded cop is touching her. Her fingers are light on Abby’s pale and dry skin. Abby thinks this is the maternal instinct of the cop coming out. Maybe the cop feels sorry for her – Abby’s only sixteen and going to jail. She killed for her father. She killed because of him.

Abby’s not going anywhere for a long time.

Fiction: The Right Thing

Contrary to popular belief, the cafeteria was not a complete animal kingdom. Each table kept to itself. All conversations were focused at the tables. Girls gossiped about the latest celebrity news–something about Beyoncé and her baby. Guys talked about various sports, and arguments would erupt from opposing sides.

Ben didn’t fit into any conversation. He had little care for the celebrity world and sports world. Not to mention that he was relatively unknown to anyone. He wasn’t particularly smart–maybe average. He couldn’t play sports for his life. He dressed like any teenage boy with his t-shirt, sweater, and jeans. He would never admit that his mom still buys his clothes.

It wasn’t that he was a victim to any social injustice. He just…didn’t seem to exist. There was always someone like that. People never glanced at him. Teachers glossed over his name during attendance, without meaning to. He also tended to stumble over his words when reading out loud in literature classes. Add that to his list of problems.

Ben was used to it. In fact, he was sure he’d have to deal with the same thing all his life. His parents always discouraged his pessimistic thinking, but Ben didn’t think it would help to fool himself. A realist, he called himself.

Ben sighed as he pushed around a blob of chili with his fork. Even the food at his high school couldn’t hold his attention. He decided his appetite was done, so he gathered his tray to stand and head over to the trashcans–

–then he heard a crash, and he, startled, emerged from his self-imposed silent bubble.

At the same moment, all talk stopped. Heads turned to see what the sudden commotion was all about. Someone had tripped and her tray had toppled out of her hand and mixes of fruit juice, chili and dessert crumbs crashed to the floor. To make things worse, the girl looked like she had landed in the pile.

The girl’s name was Sara.

Sara was the girl that everyone knew. With her bright hazel eyes, easy fashion sense and involvement with various extracurricular clubs, she was well-liked. Even Ben knew her–and that’s saying something. Ben didn’t like to keep up with profiles of his classmates. Sara was in his U.S. History class and sat in the middle and occasionally answered questions the teacher would ask.

The only thing Ben puzzled over were her friends. They didn’t mesh with Sara; they always seemed to look at her for leadership, but she seemed adamant to not be anything like that. When she wasn’t around, her friends were ravenous and soul-sucking fiends. They liked to target the weak.

Ben heard the girls would steal other girls’ boyfriends without remorse. They’d shoplift for fun. They’d make a meek girl cry for entertainment. Ben hated girls like that. It made Ben feel thankful that he was invisible. Yet, Sara seemed oblivious or maybe she knew about these incidences but didn’t want to do anything.

Ben wondered why an accidental fall and the sound of a cup clattering across the floor always garnered extreme reactions.

The cafeteria roared in laughter. Some boys at the next table yelled, “Nice!” They started to clap their hands like imbeciles. Ben thought they sounded like pigs.

Sara glanced around the room and probably saw what he saw every day–the mocking, the amused and the curious–and she quickly ducked her head. She began gathering her tray together, but Ben know she was probably more worried about her dignity than the mess on the floor.  He couldn’t believe there was no one to help her–not even her friends. He didn’t think her “friends” would be so callous to leave her there, since they always were desperate for her attention.

With only a minute of hesitation, he left his seat and his sneakers squeaked as he trekked over the food pile. Ben bent down, taking the tray from a blushing and embarrassed Sara. He carried it over to his table, mindful of the stares he was receiving.

Ben unzipped his sweater, half sure he might be rejected for his next move. In a moment of silence between the two, he offered her his sweater. Sara glanced down at it, her mouth dropping open slightly.

When she didn’t move, he pressed forward again.

Sara reached over to take it. “Thanks,” she said, gazing up at him in wonder. She slid her arms through the sleeves and zipped it up. The maroon sweater fortunately covered the mess on her shirt. However, her jeans were still covered with lunch food.

With a hand behind his neck, Ben shrugged modestly. He had plenty of sweaters at home and didn’t think he’d miss that one.

Behind him, he heard the snickers of guys and girls–Ben has a crush on Sara!–but he was used to it and ignored it. At least he did something, rather than sit there while she was only a few feet from his table.

Something else–maybe a fart or an undignified burp–took the attention away from the pair, and as quickly as it started, Ben and Sara’s moment was over. The bell rung. Backpacks swung across backs, seats pushed into various directions and chatters rose to the maximum decibel.

Ben, feeling like he had to say something, turned to Sara, who still stood with her hands clasped in front of her, and said, “Well, bye.” After that eloquent response and with reasons unbeknownst to him, Ben turned once more and nearly jogged out of the lunch room.

The next day, the incident had left his mind.

It was towards the end of the day. Ben wasn’t in a good mood, because he just left his history class where they had a test. He didn’t study, obviously, and knew his parents wouldn’t like the grade that was coming. At his lockers, Ben was gathering his books into his backpack, and as he was searching for his Chemistry book, someone tapped him on his shoulder.

He turned and saw Sara there. She gave a little wave, to which he returned with his own awkward one.

“Hey, Ben.”

He tried to hide his surprise at her knowing his name and somehow, he answered, “Hey.”

Sara pushed something towards him, and with one look, Ben saw it was his maroon sweater that he gave to her yesterday.

“Thanks for this, you know.” Ben noticed she had an lilting accent, but it was quiet–like a whisper. He thought it was nice to hear it in her voice, and he missed it yesterday. “Some of the stuff on my shirt got on it…so I washed it.”

“Oh,” Ben said. He smiled slightly, noting how she had folded his sweater in the same way his mom would. “You didn’t have.”

“Yeah, well,” Sara giggled nervously. “I mean, it was the least I could do.” She glanced behind Ben, at his locker, then they locked eyes again. “You’re in my history class, right.” It wasn’t a question.

“Um, yeah,” Ben answered. He then thought it was pathetic how he could even hesitate in such answer. He closed his locker, shouldering his backpack. “So…what’d you think of that test we just had?”

Sara’s eyes widened, and suddenly, Ben realized how easy it was to talk to someone.

Before he knew it, Sara was talking about her fears of failing the class, and there he was, listening attentively, walking beside her down the hallway, the sweater tucked under his arms.