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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On Static, or Writer’s Block

Static

TV Static by Justin March (via Creative Commons)

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 dark 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.

 

 

Want More ‘Writing’ Posts? 

An Editor’s Perspective On Writing

In Search of A Writing Community

 

 

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.”

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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!

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

Machine Wash Cold [poem]

Is it just me, or do you also see a baby in the dryer on the top left?!?

Is it just me, or do you also see a baby in the top-left dryer?!?

 

I love it when inspiration hits me when I least expect it.

Machine Wash Cold

With the kchink kchink of things
that don’t belong,
the dryers mask
couples’ hissing whispers,
teeth-clenched jabs–their blackmail
tucked away in pockets,
to be used when necessary.

It is the kids who are free.
Sneakers slapping against the tile flooring,
they zoom past a do-not-run sign,
hopping on get-away scooters, escaping
The Bad Guys.
They spill  Sippy cups and
wipe Goldfish-dusted fingers
on their chairs.

Their smiles, no one cannot resist
except the Chinese owners who cast
wary eyes on customers.
And they still chase
the Dream,
folding their time into piles
of someone else’s
pants,
shirts,
and underwear.

You pour bleach
to keep away
stains,
and add extra detergent
for want of freshness
soon to fade.

You drag your cart,
useless dryer sheets
latching onto its wheels.
Socks are always lonesome,
forgotten.

You know you cannot hide
among glistening chocolate skin,
bumps, scars,
weaves, braids, and headwraps,
all standing with hands on their jutting hips,
pluck and steadfast:
do not let anyone in.

Sandals scrape the floor
sssh sssh sssh
going out the door
until it’s laundry day
again.

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?

 

 

 

 

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.

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. 

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.