Why You Write

A short manifesto I wrote for Causeway Lit, a literary magazine run by Fairfield University’s MFA Program.

causewaylit

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.

5765352856_11ba0095ff_zCredit: 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 this . . .

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 thisNo, 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:

What I Do

Posts about Writing

Posts about Life

 

 

Fleeting Thoughts: Things I’m Incapable of Doing

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

Love, Hate, and the MTA

Bullies

A Spark

 

 

 

 

Fleeting thoughts: Bullies

c3422ad3-6ef0-4325-83c2-14d54f1b40fdMy mind’s a time machine at night. With only darkness as my company, I revisit moments of my past that I think about only when I don’t have anything else to think about.

Fourth grade. Waterbury, Connecticut. I’m back at my old school. Construction paper animal cutouts pinned to the hallway walls. Stinky multi-color cubbies. Cafeteria tables stained with grape juice spills. I’m in the bathroom, peeing, when I hear a door slam against a wall, the squelch of my usual tormentors’ Mary Janes as they find their way towards me.

The lights are off. Loney. Loney. Loney, they sing. I quietly rip off a tissue of toilet paper, wipe myself, and wait. They begin banging on my door, a steady rhythm that escalates to rabid chaotic beats. I know I am safe in the locked stall, but my mind sees a different scenario: the door falling down, me facing death while sitting on the toilet with my pants down. But, eventually, when they don’t hear me cry, the girls grow tired, and they file out, leaving me alone, breathing heavily, still in the dark.

I return to the class and sit down, my legs trembling. I sit across from the pack leader who often liked to kick me underneath our desks. I don’t look at her face, but I watch her hands, folded innocently on the desk. One hand goes up when the teacher calls on her.

I am fascinated by bullies. What leads them to hurt others. Even today, when I know how to stand up for myself, I tell myself to feel sorry for them, because it’s most likely that they act in such a way because they have witnessed it, or they have had it happen to them. Sometimes, bullies just want to fit in, too.

Then again, it would make them a better (stronger) person if they resisted such a temptation.

Back then, I couldn’t stop my bullies by myself. I was quiet and friendless, and often wanted to melt into the walls whenever I was around people. Depending on the company today, I still have the feeling. So I didn’t say anything back then, not until I was almost attacked at recess, not until my sister stepped in to confront my most-feared bully, whose name escapes me now. Next, it was the principal’s office. Then our mom had to come in. The next day, I talked to my teacher after that, just the two of us in the classroom. She knelt down beside me, asked why I didn’t come to her. As I stared at her lipstick-stained teeth, I lied and said I did. I did tell her. But she just shook her head, because she knew that all of this could have been prevented.

It sounds a bit odd, but I credit my love for books and writing to these days of torment. I turned to books to find refuge. In these books, I delved into the minds of characters good and bad. I tried to find reason in these imaginary characters. Most of all, from these times of being a victim, I understood, and still understand, that actions speak the loudest. Their impact can stay with you long after.

“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.”

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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!

On receiving my first short story critique

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Photo from Flickr user J. Paxon Reyes

I finally tied down my ego with double braided nylon rope (it’s still screaming, “Love me! Love me!”) and got one of my short stories edited. I used the editing services from Carve Magazine, a magazine named after the minimalist writer Raymond Carver. I love Carve because it publishes pieces that are so concise and beautiful.

I felt like it was time to have a professional glance at my work. I used to be so incredibly shy with sharing my work with anyone. I was only comfortable with anonymity. It all started with writing Harry Potter fanfiction. Boy, was that embarrassing. I’ve only realized recently that a good majority of readers venture into the realm of fanfiction writing and are proud to announce it. But I have yet to verbally admit my fanfiction days…

…and no, I will not tell you my username, because I don’t want anyone to know how angsty I was as a teenager.

Wow, I’m sidetracking. Okay, so yes, I paid a generally low price of $45 to have the editor look over my short story about a listless cab driver who encounters a passenger who then inspires him to right some wrongs done to his loved ones.

I submitted this piece in a workshop for my Fiction I writing class with Dr. Michael White. I received good comments, and he encouraged me to submit it to magazines. However, he warned me (with a pointed index finger) that I should have it edited first. This time I felt serious about having my work published. The previous works that  I’ve submitted had been silly high school pieces that I idealistically believed were good. Well, the list of red, bold “declined”s in my Submittable account had proved me wrong…

After a few days of waiting, I received a line-by-line critique of my short story. I was pleasantly surprised by how honest it was.

I’m not going to tell you all the nitty-gritty details of the editor’s comments (I’ve already talked about it with my therapist), but one thing that he did say was that I was overwriting. I let out an unlady-like snort when I read this comment, because way back when, I had the serious problem of underwriting! On almost all of my essays in middle school, the teachers would write “MORE!” One teacher even liked to underline the word with three lines!

I’m working as hard as I can, people.

Overall, did I find the editing service helpful? Most definitely. You always need someone to ‘Gordon Lish’ your work. Yes, the editor actually turned the name of a well-known editor into a verb. The editor pointed out inconsistencies that I missed, mentioned parts that didn’t make sense, and highlighted sentence structures that needed serious revision. At the end of his note, he said: “Sometimes revision is a re-‘vision’ as in reimagining the work, not just revising.” I couldn’t agree more.

I’m trying to improve my editing skills. In fact, in a few minutes, I’ll be attending my first class on editing. So excited!

If anyone else is interested in trying an editing service, I do suggest inquiring the help of Carve. I also discovered a new editing service for “independent authors and publishers” called Indie Proof. I haven’t tried it, but it has absurdly low rates for its services and seems worth the try. You won’t regret it!

Update: Indie Proof apparently closed. What a shame.