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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Excerpt from a short story that might never come to life

IMG_4857.JPGOn violence

Growing up, Rebecca’s family settled things court style with her mother presiding as the impartial judge. Who had whose boyfriend over for too long? Mary. Who stole Marcia’s blouse? Mary or April. Who gets the car this Friday night? Rebecca. Her father, being second in power, was required to be at these meetings, but he would sit with his hands folded on his lap, watching the women squabble like a kid stuck between two warring parents.

Only once had her father ever raised a hand to her mother. He was with his friends at Damon’s Grill, a town favorite on South Main Street where everyone celebrated graduations, birthdays, and deaths. He came home late one night inebriated, and knocked an uppity tune against their door. Her mother went to answer, and he met her severe frown with a smile that Rebecca thought was charming—but didn’t suit the man who raised her. She and her sisters, ages eight to fifteen, huddled at the top step, giggling at their father’s strange behavior.

They exchanged words: her mother tried whispering while her father blabbed loudly, and this caused the girls’ smiles to gradually fade and disappear once they heard a resounding slap. What followed was a cloak of silence. Her mother raised a shaking hand to her cheek, but did not cry. Her father collapsed slightly at the knees, his hand catching the offending one like a mother would do to a child stealing from the cookie jar.

The next thing she knew, she and her sisters were being shuffled into her parents’ bedroom. Her mother made the oldest, Mary, keep the door shut. But for what? Rebecca had wondered. Her mother brought out a large beige suitcase, which her father used for his business trips, and she started packing all the contents of his drawers. Her mother’s face was mighty fury. Back and forth she went, her hair flying back astray from its usual tight bun. Rebecca sat fascinated on her father’s side of the bed. They soon heard him banging on the door.

“Sandy! Please. I didn’t mean to do that,” he pleaded. 

It’d gotten to the point where her mother could no longer fit anything else in the suitcase, and that was when she decided to open the door. It seemed as if her father had aged years, and he had to beg for forgiveness for the rest of his life.

“And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

Jesus' SonWe say we’ll do something, then we never do it.

always say that I’ll read more short stories that’s been published in journals and collections, but I haven’t picked up a full collection since reading The Paris Review‘s “Object Lessons.”

En route to my tap dance class yesterday night, I stopped by Greenlight Bookstore, a Brooklyn indie bookstore on Fulton Street to peruse their bookshelves. I was actually looking for a copy of “Style: Toward Clarity and Grace,” by Joe Williams, which I read for a grammar course (Amazon sucks, by the way, because they never gave me my order!), but the store didn’t have a copy. Naturally, I gravitated toward the fiction section, and thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if I could find a short story collection to read?”

As if on cue, a bright green and yellow book cover caught my attention. The cover belonged to “Jesus’ Son,” a short story collection by Denis Johnson, whom Newsday calls the “synthesizer of profoundly American voices.”

I love being swept away by a story. That means missing your subway stop because you entrench yourself in an imaginary world. That means being mentally gone. That all happened to me when I read the opening story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” In the middle of a rain storm, the narrator, who’s high and drunk, gets into a car that later kills a man. I got déjà vu, because I remember reading the last line of the story: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” (Turns out it was in “Object Lessons”).

Just take apart that line and see how much you can get from it. It’s in second-person, so you sense that the tone is aggressive. I imagine a man spitting out the word “ridiculous”–maybe even snarling. You can tell that the narrator (“Fuckhead”) is angry without even having to read the whole story. You might even feel pity for him, too, because you wonder why he’s saying this. What leads him to take drugs in the first place? The narrator’s bitterness urges me to turn the pages. He’s a junkie hitchhiking, and the accident changes him, but it doesn’t seem horrible to him in that moment, because he’s still high. Years later, however, he still remembers this accident.

I love writers who can put pressure behind prose, so that it becomes, as one editor once told me, “a story that sticks with you as reader – one that matters today and will matter a year from now.”

I’m hoping to hone my craft by reading many short stories. While I am at work on a novel, I have a list of short stories that need to be submitted. (That’s right, it needs to happen). I recently finished writing another short story called “Let’s Eat Heart for Dinner.” I hope someday that you’ll get to read my stories, and feel the pressure behind my words.

For now: on to the rest of “Jesus’ Son.”

Question for readers: Who are some of your favorite short fiction writers? Comment below!

In search of a writing community

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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?

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Fiction: Voice

I wrote a quick short story a couple of days ago. I followed a challenge that Figment had posted. Each week, the creative writing site hosts a young adult author who assigns prompts and fun games for online users. This week’s guest was Geoff Herbach. His presence on YouTube is well-known, and he is also the author of young adult novel “Stupid Fast” and the upcoming novel “Nothing Special.”

Herbach recently wrote about how to incorporate personal voice into short stories. I just love the way he explained voice through a video. It’s so much better than reading long blog posts. I can see why young adults would love him. His basic message for writers is that voice should reflect the writer’s personality, not the writer’s idol’s personality.

He also gave us a challenge so that we could develop our voices. The outline that Geoff Herbach had posted are as followed:

1. YOU HAVE A CHARACTER WHO DRIVES.
2. A BIRD HITS THE WINDSHIELD.
3. THE WINDSHIELD CRACKS.
4. YOUR CHARACTER PULLS OVER.
5. THE BIRD IS HOLDING A TINY SCROLL IN ITS LITTLE, DEAD BIRD CLAW.
6. YOUR CHARACTER READS THE SCROLL.
7. IT IS A MESSAGE ADDRESSED TO YOUR CHARACTER!

You’ll see the story below.  I took the plot of a WIP story and used it in this setting.

I had a lot of fun with this. I didn’t even notice that I was writing more than a thousand words!

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I could have taken one of my kitchen knives and stuck it right between Paul’s shoulder blades. I could have emptied our joint bank account and ran his precious Mercedes into a random light pole. I could have driven this crappy Nissan 1997 to the Hamptons and picked up a beach blond guy half my age on the side.

But I’m not in a Lifetime movie. I’m just another woman who has a cheating husband.

I’m nothing special. Obviously. Or else Paul wouldn’t have decided to break my trust.

When Paul came home and planted a perfunctory kiss on me tonight, I instantly knew I needed to leave. Leave before I…I don’t know lost control. ‘Cause right now, I’m past my boiling point.

“Goddamnit!” I shout in my car, assured that no one can hear me in my little bubble of woe.

I need a drink.

Give me liberty, or give my Red Death. Some vodka, peach liqueur…oh yes. Perfect. I need them to drown out the image of Paul and his thing fooling around last afternoon when I came home early for work.

As I reach the end of a scenic Brooklyn block, my eyes stray to the shadowed form of a prostitute showing off her midriff and wearing a red leather skirt as she leans against a blue brick building. She has one leg propped up against the wall and a cig dangling between her cherry lips.

She looks just like my daughter Riley who, by the way, just uploaded an interesting Facebook picture from her 21st birthday. One day I happened to ‘stumble across’ said photo. I told her to take it down.

She unfriended me.

A part of my mind tells me to jet out of the car and wrap a blanket around that girl – who is someone’s girl out there – and give her a cup of steaming milk and chocolate chip cookies. Then another part of my mind imagines the police car that’s parked around here, waiting for any commotion to barge onto the scene. I see myself being slammed against the wall, having the cuffs roughly slapped onto my wrists. As all of this goes down, I’m screaming, “I’m a mother! I’m a mother!”

I shake my head. I place two hands on the wheel. And I stomp on the gas pedal.

No red light. No red light, I repeat to myself. If I stop again, I know I won’t be able to stem the tears building behind my eyes.

I’ll just end up crying in my car, and the teenagers who stop next to me at the red light will cackle at the sight of me.

But, who cares! I am a woman! I am a feminist! I am –

“Mother of – ”

Out of God-freakin’ nowhere, some bird collides with my windshield.

I wrench my steering wheel to the right, trying to avoid the inevitable. My heart stops. I hear the tires screeching and the angry honks of some guy behind me who’s probably late for dinner and doesn’t want to be on his wife’s shit list.

My right tire hits the nearest curb, and I manage to get the rest of the car under control.

I sigh angrily and throw a good punch at the stirring wheel. Now I’ll have to call Animal Control or something to get this shit off my window. I can’t do it myself; that’s disgusting.

“Hey, you all right, lady?” An African-American guy peeks through the window on my side. Behind him, I see a small group of nosy senior citizens gathering across the street.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. Can’t say the same for this bird though.”

“You want me to call someone? The ambulance?”

I wave a hand at him. “No. Just…just call the animal guys. No ambulance, though.”

“You sure?”

I do the right thing and censor all profanity that’s flittering through my mind. “Yes. Please.” The man nods at me and assures me that I’ll be okay.

I slowly release myself from the seat belt constraints and gingerly move my legs. Good, they work.

Blowing a few blond strands from my face, I lean closer and check the damage. I spy a small crack that’ll probably take $400 to fix. Great. At least I didn’t crack my neck. Once my blood stops boiling, my shoulders begin to relax and my conscience stops its swearing.

Poor bird, some part of me thinks. It still looks peaceful in death.

Wait.

I press my nose against the window and squint my eyes. Is that…? Really?

I kick my door open and scramble to get near the bird. The guy from before is on his cell, and the crowd is slowly beginning to disperse. No one important died so this accident is nothing to look at, I guess.

Back to the bird. I see that under one of his limp claws, he’s holding some kind of scroll.

“Ew, ew,” I mutter, as I gently pry the bird’s claw open. The bird relents and the scroll rolls into my left palm. It’s small and slightly damp with avian blood, but I ignore my germophobic thoughts and curiosity takes over.

I roll out the paper. I feel like I’m Nicholas Cage.

I read: MOVE ON.

Those words are written in some kind of charcoal that’s rubbing off on my hands. I flip the piece of paper to see if there’s anything on its back, but nothing. No signature. No explanation.

I glance up, checking to see if there’s some creep peeping from his window or rooftop. My eyes catch nothing but laundry dangling from homemade lines and one wrinkly man who’s slumbering away on a cemented porch.

“Shit,” I mumble, dropping the slip onto the oil-drenched road. I glance back at the innocent bird who couldn’t have known what was coming.

Okay, I’m officially creeped out. Who cares about Animal Control? I roll up a newspaper that was lying on the sidewalk. With a few prods, the bird tumbles over and lands on top a sewage gutter. The rain will wash it away.

“Hey, miss, they’re coming soon,” the cell guy says to me.

“Oh well,” I answer, sliding back into my car.

As I drive away, I glance at my rearview mirror, as if searching for the paper. I can still see the words in my mind.

“Move on,” I whisper. If only it was that easy.

I’m still going to that damn bar.