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Yeah, I take Vietnamese classes on Wednesday nights.
But . . . aren’t you Vietnamese?
At first, I thought learning Vietnamese in a class setting would only further embarrass me. It’s gonna be full of non-Vietnamese people and they’re going to look down on me. They’ll think, “Why is she in this class?” I always felt self-conscious speaking in my mother tongue. Even worse: I couldn’t read it! Me, a reader and writer who couldn’t read or write in Vietnamese?! The shame!!! Just as shameful as using three exclamation points in one sentence.
I was glad to discover that my classmates were like me: Vietnamese-American adults who spoke the language as children, then lost it along the way. After taking level one and level two, which will, sadly, conclude in two weeks, I’ve steadily grown confident. And that’s something I want to celebrate.
I appreciate the camaraderie inside the classroom—we easily trade American jokes mixed with some typical Vietnamese craziness—but most of all, I love the cultural aspects that inevitably come from our lessons. Our teacher is young and more modern, and I’m learning how some commonly used words may seem outdated to younger Vietnamese people. One example is the word for hospital, which is bệnh viện. When I told my teacher that I’ve only used nhà thương, he kind of chuckled, saying that gave away my parents’ ages (mine are older than most of my peers’ parents). Other times, the vocabulary varies based on region, and your word choice will out you immediately.
The class remains especially enlightening because it’s giving me a taste of what my parents had learned as children. In Vietnamese schools and homes, children are taught ca dao, or folk poems. These pieces teach life lessons, and some sound as rigid as one would expect, while others are quite lovely. A common subject centers on the child’s duty to his or her parents, a notion that’s entirely absent in the American school system, where students are mostly taught to obey teachers.
But for Vietnamese people, the real teaching starts at home. I want to share one ca dao just to give you a taste of my language!
Cá không ăn muối cá ươn
Con cãi cha mẹ trăm đường con hư
English (translated roughly word-for-word and disregarding syntax)
Fish that don’t eat salt goes rotten,
You (child) argue with us (parents) in a hundred ways you are bad.
Essentially, the poem says children who don’t listen to their parents or take their lessons to heart will turn out unruly. As someone who’s still navigating the language, I can’t quite confirm whether the author was trying to be playful . . . BUT I noticed the use of đường, which means sugar: muối and đường, salt and sugar. At the same time, đường also means road or path.
Next up: I’m attempting to translate a song I’ve been listening to non-stop: “Thành Phố Buồn.” Even my mom says this might be hard to translate correctly! Challenge accepted.
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In one of my groups, a nonfiction writer who was testing out a chapter of a novella lamented that fiction was more difficult to write than nonfiction*. His admission stunned me because I thought the exact opposite. He argued fiction writers had more groundwork ahead of them; he struggled the most with creating situations and characters. True, I said. But the act of purposefully summoning a memory that you’ve spent your whole life running away from or writing about people close to you terrifies me. Nonfiction writers possess the fortitude to admit their flaws, excavate truths hidden in their bodies. This isn’t easy, especially for an introvert like me.
I’m not new to nonfiction writing, but I’m still an acquaintance. I guess this website, where I publish most of my stupid thoughts, counts as nonfiction. In college, I took a creative nonfiction class—the class that launched my serious commitment to writing. We had to write a political essay and a personal essay. It was such a wonderful experience seeing my inner thoughts—mine, not another character’s—crowd the pages. One of my pieces eventually won an English Department award; I felt honored and my parents were there to hear a reading. Since the piece was about my mother’s late younger sister, I was moved when she cried and told me she was proud of me.
But as rewarding as the piece made me feel, I think revealing myself in this medium led to an invisible wound. I wanted to collect my words and thoughts before they could be put under further scrutiny. I shied away from nonfiction until a few months ago honestly. I tackled a nonfiction piece about fan fiction writing that’s been sitting in my files for ages, and I’m pleased to say that it’ll be up on Submittable in September. As the subject might suggest, it’s not exactly a “serious” creative nonfiction piece, but it’s a piece where my voice dominates the pages. And it’s honest. I’ve been lying way too much with fiction!
My next piece-in-progress deals with a childhood incident that’s bled into my writing and into my life as a young woman. The latter was a recent revelation. The writing process for this piece is similar to being in a car that’s alternatively stalling and jerking. I’m resisting my instinct to “pull away” in my writing—like if I touch it, I’ll get burned. Knowing this, I’m still clawing my way to the finish line, not for the purpose of publication or likes or follows, but for myself.
I’m writing this post at the point where I’m starting to think I should just store this piece. Then again, there’s a fifty percent chance of me abandoning it . . .
I’m quite jealous and awed by a nonfiction author my imprint had just published. Michael Arceneaux, now the New York Times bestselling author of I Can’t Date Jesus, makes a living writing things that are true, but this book of essays is all about him, his sexuality, his family. I saw him at a Strand event, where, despite being nervous before speaking to an audience (about 100 people!), he seemed incredibly at ease with the fact that his life is laid bare in this book. The aftermath of catharsis, I suppose.
What nonfiction reading material would you recommend to a short story writer experimenting with the genre?
*my initial thought: well, yeah, you’re writing a novella.
I found a spare dictionary at work last week and gleefully took it home, and now it’s displayed at the very top of my bookshelf. If I have to pick an odd hobby for when I’m old and curmudgeon, and when all I have left in life are inanimate objects, I would choose to collect dictionaries. They are totems, keepers of humankind’s kaleidoscopic logic and emotions changed by time.
When I was seven or eight years old, I copied the entire A section of Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary’s Tenth Edition. This edition is beautiful: deep red cover, silky pages with shimmering gold edges, always cool to the touch. According to the inscription inside, my father gave the dictionary to my mother as a gift. August 23, 1992. I’m tickled by the idea that this was considered a gift. Dad didn’t give her jewelry or flowers, but a dictionary . . . I sat at my parents’ desk in their bedroom, secluded from my sister and my brother who took up more space than me. This was back when my family of five lived in a two-bedroom apartment. The desk lamp cast shadows against the walls, letting out just enough light to hit the pages and illuminate new words.
I still discover words by reading. It’s always a solid experience. When someone mentions an unfamiliar word, I’m almost never able to catch it. Or I would feel awkward stopping that person mid-sentence and asking, “Sorry, what does that mean?”
But I’d forgotten the second part to committing these words to memory: repetition, the muscle memory of scrawling each letter, the right side of my palm sliding across a page in a notebook. I’m noticing how easily words slip away from me, so I’m compelled to return to the dictionary, to this childhood method of capturing words. I’m also revisiting the aid of visuals. I used to draw pictures to accompany words and their definitions. On computer paper folded into eight sections—each reserved for a word—I once sketched an image for eviscerate: entrails hanging out of an open stomach wound. (I love that word and its sound—a hiss in the middle, a bite at the end.)
The words I love are usually multisyllabic—and not often heard from people’s mouths, unless those people are pompous. I would love to include such words into my writing, but as much as I want to, that’s not my writing style. When I try, it’s a hundred-dollar-word surrounded by dollar-words, and that’s no good. I’ve learned to love my plainness.
Here are some of my favorite words. What’s yours?
Sonder *a made-up word that’s been adopted by logophiles*
As I was writing this post, I needed help from the WordPress tech support. Mahangu chatted with me and before I signed off, I was compelled to ask him for his favorite word. Obviously surprised, he took a minute to think.
“I guess one of my favourite words would be mercy. It’s a tiny word, but is a central part of what makes anyone a good person, right?”
Mahangu is a genius, obviously.
Fleeting Thoughts is a space where I can release my imperfect, unfiltered words that often occur when my body is still but my mind is racing.
Other Fleeting Thoughts
A short manifesto I wrote for Causeway Lit, a literary magazine run by Fairfield University’s MFA Program.
Written by: Loan Le – Fiction Section Editor
So, here you are. You have turned down invitations to parties and happy hours, because you cannot socialize when you have a character in your mind, her voice echoing like a message over a PA system in an empty hallway. You have endured strangers’ tilted heads, the sardonic curl of their lips, the upspeak “Oh, really?” when you explain that you are a writer. Your worth has been challenged and measured against already established writers. Your work is “not the right fit” for this journal or that magazine. All of this has left you despairing, wondering why you have chosen this particular way of being, which lately brings much more pain than reward.
Credit: John Liu
Step back. Somewhere, find a pocket of peace where your thoughts are your own, where you hear only yourself. Recognize, first, that by writing, you have…
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I didn’t know how much I needed my MFA retreat until I arrived on Ender’s Island on July 15, sat down under the gazebo facing the Long Island Sound, and heard only this:
Last winter was cold on the island. We had spent most nights lounging in the common rooms, dressed in layers of sweatpants and hooded sweatshirts. Outside, the water encasing this little island crashed against the boulders and stone walls, threatening to pull down anyone who came close. I remember reading one of my stories out loud by the Seaside Chapel, letting the water’s assault drown out any quiver in my voice.
The months in-between the winter retreat and the summer retreat were challenging. I made a lateral move within my workplace, threw myself into my writing, and helped form a new writing group. So much to do, all the time. I began to feel burnt out. My vision became a little more cloudy, it was harder to get up in the morning, it was difficult to read anything for fun because I had work to do. And this all happened because of . . .
Because of what?
I’m not going to say depression because I think that word sounds far too serious for what I feel sometimes (which I think most creatives also experience). I also don’t believe there’s any need for alarm. And maybe I was feeling down because it seems like the world is crashing, burning, coming to an end—and at our own hands . . .
So I’ll settle for melancholy, because that word has always been beautiful to me, and something beautiful always pulls me out of this state.
This time, that “something beautiful” was surely the summer retreat. God, there was so much light. Birds (including an elusive red cardinal). Lapping water. Somewhere, a wind chime. Beauty is hidden in the city, but at Ender’s Island, the restorative spirit manifested everywhere.
I was glad to be around people sharing the same goal, which is to write, to externalize what’s been inside them for the longest time. We writers come from all different walks of life. I met a new student, a recently retired Wall Street guy who had always loved writing. I’m always fascinated by these people who had walked different paths, knew so much of a certain life, then turned around to make a new path. While I consider my journey as a writer a nearly straight one, others’ journeys are looped and scattered, but hey, we ended up at Ender’s Island. Imagine that.
Of course, the retreat was not completely a vacation, even though my social media posts certainly suggested it. We had workshops and seminars every day—taught by
amazing, brilliant professors/writers/spirit animals—where we closely analyzed different writers’ works. We learned to shift and reconsider some of our writing habits. Now, I love workshops. I no longer feel self-conscious about my mistakes; instead I anticipate for them to be spotted. I have blind spots and count on my fellow writers to recognize them. And they do, believe me.
I especially love when I, as the writer, cease to exist, and the writers discuss my characters like they’re real. Would she do this? No, she doesn’t seem like the type. During one of my workshops, for a flash moment, I imagined myself cloaked and invisible to my writers. I thought my character was simple, but my classmates had so many interpretations of her. At the end of a workshop, the professor asked, “What do you want from us as readers?” To which, as usual, I shrugged. It seemed less about my wants, and more about my characters’ needs. Since enrolling into this program, I’ve become more aware of that.
One of the most common things I’d heard from the newest cohort was that the environment here was not as cutthroat as expected. Once I thought about it, I had to agree. I don’t think we’re encouraged to compete against one another. I actually thought about what happened when one of our own had passed away in-between retreats. We had a formal ceremony for him during the retreat—it was a Catholic ceremony attended by not just us but his family and other friends, but some MFAers thought there was so much more to be said, more of his story to share. Later that night, the stories and tributes about him were sad, funny, beautiful, and I just thought, “I hope he knew how much people had cared for him.” So no, we’re not pitted against each other, and I like that. This particular program emphasizes the journey of learning about yourself first, which inevitably allows you to share your strength with others.
I could go on about how much this summer retreat has helped me, but I don’t want anyone to think that I’m getting paid to write this 😉
To conclude, I’ll leave this with you.
More from Me:
Realizing that I could have easily shortened the title by saying “Things I Can’t Do” instead of “Things I’m Incapable of Doing”
Remembering song lyrics and singing along to said song lyrics
Quoting lines from films–doesn’t matter if they’re mainstream or obscure
Keeping the left side of my bed free from stacks of paper and books
Carrying one book with me (I was wondering why my backpack was heavy and realized I was carrying two large books and two smaller ones)
Running more than 1.5 miles on the treadmill without having a near-death experience
Maintaining a conversation without being the first to back away
Making a joke that’s actually funny
Not loving the smell of cigarette smoke
Accepting “God has a plan” as a reason for someone’s death (natural, accidental, or purposely morbid)
Killing the cockroach that lives in my apartment (and I think, “One day . . . “)
(At the moment) Writing coherent sentences
Starting Life After Life (Not that I don’t want to, but it seems that every time I open the book, I have something more important to do)
Complimenting people when I think their tattoo is really cool
Not wishing painful deaths for all catcallers
Keeping your interest in this blog post (You can stop reading now)
Accepting country music (please keep it away from me)
Guessing other people’s age
Walking right past The Strand without going in
Knowing if this person is checking me out or if they’re trying to figure out what’s on my chin (yes, it’s chocolate)
Staying completely awake during car rides
Resisting buying coffee even when I feel fully awake
Remembering how to spell suprise
Feeling completely OK when I’m not writing
Feeling completely OK when I am writing
Other Fleeting Thoughts
I just handed in my first MFA packet to my mentor, and I thought I’d feel relieved after that. After all, I’d spent many hours muttering about my characters, plot, and language. I’d pressed the BACKSPACE tab so many times that I thought it’d be broken by now. On the left side of my bed are stacks of earlier drafts that I’d edited and proofread in red, but I suppose I’ll have to recycle them soon to make room for what my bed is actually for—you know, sleeping.
GREAT. Time for a new story!
Let’s sit down, pull up Google Docs, turn on my Spotify list of d
ark trap music that makes you feel like Satan has a gun to your head Taylor Swift music, and . . .
And what? There’s an idea somewhere, but I’m not quite getting it; it runs away before I can call its name. I’m passing my time watching the text cursor blink. Nothing’s being written. Most people call this period writer’s block.
That term can be a misnomer: Block, as in a road block—cars jammed one-way, bumper to bumper, where there’s a slew of idiots who think they can honk their horns and everything will miraculously part like the fucking Red Sea. Block, as in a Facebook block— especially that annoying high school classmate who loved playing The Game. Block, as in a basketball block—good lord, I’m referencing basketball now . . . What I’m getting at is that writer’s block is too definite and too solid of a word for me.
From now on, I’d like to call writer’s block “static.” Hell, let’s make it more official by capitalizing that S and adding the just this once: THE STATIC (coming to select theaters this summer).
Static looks like the television screen after the end of a VHS movie, feels like Pop Rocks in your mouth, and sounds like that friend who talks too much. If you have static, you’re getting story ideas but they’re coming at you half-assed and nondescript. They surround you—that guy in front of you hacking out his lung, that little shit at the Times Square subway stop kicking the shins of his father who checks baseball stats on his phone; that shifty beggar in the third-to-last car whose lips move soundlessly—and you see all of this, yet you’re not getting the idea you want. Which makes you moody and depressed, and the sadistic side of you grieves for the torture of writing because at least you had the company, at least you had a goal, and at least you were doing all hell to accomplish it.
I did something bad recently, as I was experiencing this static. I went back to one of my more polished stories and edited. Frustrated that I wasn’t getting a new idea quick enough, feeling bored or anxious, I wanted to exert power, to have some semblance of control. I changed my characters and their backstories so they were completely different. I sloppily extended my original ending by three pages (without having a new ending in mind). All the while, I felt uncomfortable, but my fingers kept typing away. I thought I was improving my story, but I was only destroying it.
So, what is the point of this static? My theory for static’s existence is that it’s the brain’s way of complaining: “Slow down, you’re gonna kill me with all your imagination.” Or shaming us. “Stop thinking about murder, why don’t you? You can’t kill everyone (in your story).” Or even protecting us. Static is to writing as pickled ginger is to eating sushi. (I’m hungry as I’m writing this post, so my analogies aren’t going to be the ones you find in an SAT book.) Customary practice says to use a sliver of gari to cleanse the palate after each sushi so that the tongue is prepped for the next sushi. If you skip this step and eat one piece after another, it tastes like you’re stuffing way too many things in your mouth (you slut). And you’re unable to taste the slight sweetness of rice, the dab of wasabi, or the raw fish melting in your mouth.
Now, in writing, the static is the mind enabling a defense mechanism, clearing away all the emotional vestiges from the last story. All writers know that we carry our own burden and the imaginary ones that we put on our characters. This could interfere with the writing process of the next story, whatever it becomes.
Another theory is that static says you might not get good reception from where you are, so go somewhere else—do something else besides writing, because you’ve been kind of a shitty person lately. Maybe, you know, remind people you’re alive. I’ll be honest: when I hit a groove in writing, I tell my friends the truth and ask to reschedule this and that. I don’t do it that often because I’m not an asshole, but I want to tell the truth and my friends often understand.
Once I started seeing the positive that comes with static, I didn’t fight it as much, which helped with my mood. I started planning and re-visualizing one of my stories, and I was left feeling more reassured rather than guilty. And the fun thing is that revising can lead to another story.
If static comes, it should be comforting to know that it will pass soon. It’s knowing that there’s a story out there, and that there’s no need to rush to get it right away. It is my belief that when you find that idea, that character, that story calling for you, it’s easy to feel like you’d never experienced this static.
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