Farewell to the Admiral

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When I read tragic news, I imagine the deceased’s family and friends might read the articles and find the summary so trite and generic. But I understand that news is about boiling things down so that strangers can stay informed, then move on with the the rest of their lives. I just never thought that the news would be about someone I once knew.

Let me define “knew,” because that word is nuanced, and I would never want to exaggerate a connection when there are family, colleagues, and close friends mourning someone they interacted with every day. I knew Ms. Yamamoto in the sense that I was in her classroom for nearly a year, hearing her calm, hey-life’s-going-to-work-out voice most days of the week. I knew her as the teacher who possessed both fine qualities of John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society, and Bill Anderson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower; she was the storm that lit my passion for literature and the calm that quieted my frenetic worries as a high school junior. Later, I knew her a bit more through her poetry and blog posts, which, when written by a true writer like Ms. Yamamoto, makes you feel as if your souls are connecting for an instant.

Her death makes me feel a type of regret that I’ve tried to avoid—that’s why I’m always chasing my dreams, not taking my aging parents for granted, and treasuring small wonders. It’s too late to ever connect with her again, and now I only have my memories of Ms. Yamamoto.

But they’re great and precious and I want to write about them because I think it’s a fitting way for me to grieve.

In AP Language and Composition, an environment where it was typical to measure myself against peers and feel pressured to chase perfection, Ms. Yamamoto eased my mind. I never felt like the outcast, despite feeling different from my amazing classmates—future lawyers, doctors, dentists, and scientists. The divisions that separated us—real or imagined— disappeared. I was much more of a listener, but I felt included in inside jokes like “I like to eat blood in the morning” and sentences that included the word “bosom,” which always had us breaking out in laughter. Ms. Yamamoto would indulge us, sometimes exasperated, sometimes confused.

Ms. Yamamoto assigned us the usual homework and we read Ethan Frome, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea (we were, after all, an AP class). But there was one assignment I adored: Occasional Papers, something she might have picked up from her own time as a student or from a fellow teacher. Occasional Papers were sparked by occasions or inspirations or things important to you. You. That was Ms. Yamamoto’s focus. She saw each of us as individuals. I’m not saying that other teachers didn’t acknowledge this—but perhaps she stood out the most because in a time when I was losing my Me-ness, she had offered me a way to find myself again.

In one essay, I wrote about always losing my Cheshire Public Library card. Another one was about music, I think. With each paper, I began to see my classmates and their passions.

Ms. Yamamoto might not have known this—or maybe she had; high school students can be really shitty secret-keepers—but a classmate named her Admiral, after someone from some war, and that became her nickname. So we, by association, became her Soldiers.

(Or Souljas—because we were teenagers and utterly ridiculous.)

She took pride in us. That was undeniable. Ms. Yamamoto had an office—or the English Department did—where each student was able to hang a poster listing their college acceptances. And that made us proud of ourselves. The next year, I think we tried to keep the class together, gathering occasionally in the office. And I think after college, most of us met up for hibachi. It was nice, but it wasn’t the same; we all seemed to know that shine was gone, couldn’t be replicated again. But in a way, doesn’t that show the value of our time together? How perfect it was? How perfect Ms. Yamamoto was to bring us all together?

Ms. Yamamoto and I became Facebook friends when I started college. I can’t remember who Friended whom. Maybe I did in a rare moment of bravery. She read some of my blog posts and said she loved my voice and when I wrote about our class, she wrote, “You guys were a really special class.” Wow, she got a nose ring? (Or was it always there?) In turn, I followed her blog. Based on some posts, she was writing to work through some things–like all of us. I should have messaged her more often. Liked more of her posts. Emailed her for coffee (Cheshire is not so inaccessible from Manhattan).

I still have her copy of The Elements of Style. I even named a teacher in my YA novel after her. She’s this no-bullshit art teacher and mentor–a woman small in stature but fiery and compassionate in her voice and manner. I couldn’t wait to publish the novel, then return one day to the fun house-shaped halls of Cheshire High School, place it in her hands, and say, “Don’t be freaked out, I know we haven’t been in touch much, but you inspired someone in this book.”

As news outlets report on Ms. Yamamoto’s passing, I worry that my vision of her will chip away. So, as her still adoring student, I’ll remember her here.

My mind is cluttered with the humiliation from awkward conversations with my crush, looming tests, and other responsibilities. But Ms. Yamamoto tells us that someone has an Occasional Paper. Her voice calms me immediately. We set down our pens and pencils and shift our uncomfortable metal chairs to face the front. The person with an Occasional Paper chooses to stand or remain sitting. Smooths out a wrinkled notebook page or unfolds a computer printout. I look at Ms. Yamamoto who waits patiently. Silence nets the room. I breathe at my classmate’s inhale, and before long, a singular voice takes up my mind, redefining a language I thought I knew so well—until now.

Thank you so, so much, Ms. Yamamoto.

 

back to nonfiction

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 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

 

 

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When I first started interning at Simon & Schuster, I was a bright-eyed girl roaming around in the city. My previous trips had been with family and friends; I never got a chance to be alone. I explored New York at night, sat in the Washington Square on the weekends – listening to pianists, drummers, and guitarists perform – and found the most interesting food trucks. But when I rode the subway, I looked around at the people on the N or the R in the morning and the afternoon, and I’d only see blank and tired faces.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t be that way, that I wouldn’t look away when someone smiled at me, that I wouldn’t ignore the homeless person babbling on the train, that I wouldn’t walk past musicians as they played the banjo/violin/drums. It’s been two years, and I’m working at a different place. I’ve already broken my promise. I don’t like that I am slowly feeling disillusioned.

Why am I feeling this way? It’s most likely my tendency to worry. I worry about my responsibilities as an intern and as a student and I worry about the future. I can’t help myself. To be happy, I have to stop thinking about everything all at once; I have to focus. Breathe. Be thankful for all I have – for my parents, for my family and friends. I have to remember why I am going into the city: to learn and to experience the publishing industry again. And I must remember to be happy. I’m alive.

On the train to Fairfield tonight, I decided to take out my laptop and continue working on a chapter that I’ve been procrastinating on. Without realizing it, I wrote two pages. I left the train station feeling like I’ve regained an essential thirst for life that I temporarily lost. I promise, now, that it only gets better from here.