My short story, “Gaw Gaw, ” was recently published by Mud Season Review, a magazine run by the people behind the Burlington Writers Workshop in Vermont. I can’t thank them enough for accepting my piece and revising it with such care. Also, I love the artwork they decided to use for my story. Please read and enjoy.
A short manifesto I wrote for Causeway Lit, a literary magazine run by Fairfield University’s MFA Program.
Written by: Loan Le – Fiction Section Editor
So, here you are. You have turned down invitations to parties and happy hours, because you cannot socialize when you have a character in your mind, her voice echoing like a message over a PA system in an empty hallway. You have endured strangers’ tilted heads, the sardonic curl of their lips, the upspeak “Oh, really?” when you explain that you are a writer. Your worth has been challenged and measured against already established writers. Your work is “not the right fit” for this journal or that magazine. All of this has left you despairing, wondering why you have chosen this particular way of being, which lately brings much more pain than reward.
Credit: John Liu
Step back. Somewhere, find a pocket of peace where your thoughts are your own, where you hear only yourself. Recognize, first, that by writing, you have…
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I didn’t know how much I needed my MFA retreat until I arrived on Ender’s Island on July 15, sat down under the gazebo facing the Long Island Sound, and heard only this:
Last winter was cold on the island. We had spent most nights lounging in the common rooms, dressed in layers of sweatpants and hooded sweatshirts. Outside, the water encasing this little island crashed against the boulders and stone walls, threatening to pull down anyone who came close. I remember reading one of my stories out loud by the Seaside Chapel, letting the water’s assault drown out any quiver in my voice.
The months in-between the winter retreat and the summer retreat were challenging. I made a lateral move within my workplace, threw myself into my writing, and helped form a new writing group. So much to do, all the time. I began to feel burnt out. My vision became a little more cloudy, it was harder to get up in the morning, it was difficult to read anything for fun because I had work to do. And this all happened because of . . .
Because of what?
I’m not going to say depression because I think that word sounds far too serious for what I feel sometimes (which I think most creatives also experience). I also don’t believe there’s any need for alarm. And maybe I was feeling down because it seems like the world is crashing, burning, coming to an end—and at our own hands . . .
So I’ll settle for melancholy, because that word has always been beautiful to me, and something beautiful always pulls me out of this state.
This time, that “something beautiful” was surely the summer retreat. God, there was so much light. Birds (including an elusive red cardinal). Lapping water. Somewhere, a wind chime. Beauty is hidden in the city, but at Ender’s Island, the restorative spirit manifested everywhere.
I was glad to be around people sharing the same goal, which is to write, to externalize what’s been inside them for the longest time. We writers come from all different walks of life. I met a new student, a recently retired Wall Street guy who had always loved writing. I’m always fascinated by these people who had walked different paths, knew so much of a certain life, then turned around to make a new path. While I consider my journey as a writer a nearly straight one, others’ journeys are looped and scattered, but hey, we ended up at Ender’s Island. Imagine that.
Of course, the retreat was not completely a vacation, even though my social media posts certainly suggested it. We had workshops and seminars every day—taught by
amazing, brilliant professors/writers/spirit animals—where we closely analyzed different writers’ works. We learned to shift and reconsider some of our writing habits. Now, I love workshops. I no longer feel self-conscious about my mistakes; instead I anticipate for them to be spotted. I have blind spots and count on my fellow writers to recognize them. And they do, believe me.
I especially love when I, as the writer, cease to exist, and the writers discuss my characters like they’re real. Would she do this? No, she doesn’t seem like the type. During one of my workshops, for a flash moment, I imagined myself cloaked and invisible to my writers. I thought my character was simple, but my classmates had so many interpretations of her. At the end of a workshop, the professor asked, “What do you want from us as readers?” To which, as usual, I shrugged. It seemed less about my wants, and more about my characters’ needs. Since enrolling into this program, I’ve become more aware of that.
One of the most common things I’d heard from the newest cohort was that the environment here was not as cutthroat as expected. Once I thought about it, I had to agree. I don’t think we’re encouraged to compete against one another. I actually thought about what happened when one of our own had passed away in-between retreats. We had a formal ceremony for him during the retreat—it was a Catholic ceremony attended by not just us but his family and other friends, but some MFAers thought there was so much more to be said, more of his story to share. Later that night, the stories and tributes about him were sad, funny, beautiful, and I just thought, “I hope he knew how much people had cared for him.” So no, we’re not pitted against each other, and I like that. This particular program emphasizes the journey of learning about yourself first, which inevitably allows you to share your strength with others.
I could go on about how much this summer retreat has helped me, but I don’t want anyone to think that I’m getting paid to write this 😉
To conclude, I’ll leave this with you.
More from Me:
Realizing that I could have easily shortened the title by saying “Things I Can’t Do” instead of “Things I’m Incapable of Doing”
Remembering song lyrics and singing along to said song lyrics
Quoting lines from films–doesn’t matter if they’re mainstream or obscure
Keeping the left side of my bed free from stacks of paper and books
Carrying one book with me (I was wondering why my backpack was heavy and realized I was carrying two large books and two smaller ones)
Running more than 1.5 miles on the treadmill without having a near-death experience
Maintaining a conversation without being the first to back away
Making a joke that’s actually funny
Not loving the smell of cigarette smoke
Accepting “God has a plan” as a reason for someone’s death (natural, accidental, or purposely morbid)
Killing the cockroach that lives in my apartment (and I think, “One day . . . “)
(At the moment) Writing coherent sentences
Starting Life After Life (Not that I don’t want to, but it seems that every time I open the book, I have something more important to do)
Complimenting people when I think their tattoo is really cool
Not wishing painful deaths for all catcallers
Keeping your interest in this blog post (You can stop reading now)
Accepting country music (please keep it away from me)
Guessing other people’s age
Walking right past The Strand without going in
Knowing if this person is checking me out or if they’re trying to figure out what’s on my chin (yes, it’s chocolate)
Staying completely awake during car rides
Resisting buying coffee even when I feel fully awake
Remembering how to spell suprise
Feeling completely OK when I’m not writing
Feeling completely OK when I am writing
Other Fleeting Thoughts
The simultaneous turn of heads compels you to pause your music. You were lost in your own world before, hypnotized by chaotic rhythms that get you through the morning commute. You look left when you see synchronized movement and notice, a couple of seats away, a man on the ground. He is still. You look twice, thinking he’s homeless or mentally ill; you’ve trained yourself to spare a glance—and only that—to people like them: those whose homes are in public spaces, bodies splayed across park benches, subway seats, or outside suit-and-tie offices. But this man is slumped against the door. He wears khaki pants, a red-and-white argyle sweater, and Sperrys. A briefcase lies beside him.
Headphones are removed, murmurs bubble from the mouths of those too far away to see, and when the door finally opens at the platform, you hear one person scream for help.
The MTA employees who are under-qualified to handle medical crisis arrive surprisingly quick. One man rushes forward. You’re surprised to see that he cares—in fact you’re thrilled to hear the panic in his voice; normally these employees wear their apathy like a uniform accessory. One passenger in the car comes to help when someone shouts Is anyone here a doctor? You had sat next to this doctor, remembered how at first glance she appeared meek and compliant, hands folded on her lap. You didn’t think much of her, but now she has transformed. Still, you wonder if she is truly the only doctor or if she is the only doctor to volunteer.
They don’t know his name, so they say, Hey.
Hey, can you hear me?
Hey, can you hear me?
Hey, can you hear me?
You wait to see what happens next. A newly arrived passenger thinking he’d caught the train in time comes in unbothered by this sight. He glances down as if to check for gum under his shoes, and makes his way to the other side. You want to ask if he’s blind. This train will not be moving.
The man is still still, save for the slow rise of his chest. A squad of MTA employees tells everyone to GET OUT, so you are pushed outwards by a flood of people as if they’re running from an infectious disease. Rather than moving down the platform, as requested, this crowd stays affixed to the car.
Attention: we are being held at this station due to a sick passenger. All Manhattan-bound A and C trains are out of service . . .
A singular complaint arises from the crowd: how am I going to get to work? This is ridiculous. An employee standing guard for the EMT fixes the complainer with a look, then points to the G train across the platform.
You stand so that you’re looking at the crowd that’s peering into the car. Mouths open. Hands to their hearts. Front row seats to a spectacle of suspense. Someone in the front starts yelling Jesus. Jesus. JESUS. Standing up to see better, you spot a woman, dressed business-like regardless of her religious zeal. She throws invisible prayers with her open hands and you can’t help but think that at least she, among the rubberneckers, is trying in her own way.
You peer behind to see if the EMTs have arrived. No such luck. Next to you, in a close-knit circle, camaraderie has formed among a group of ladies. You know they had been strangers before, since they sat far away from each other, in the same car as you. Scraps of The Accident, as it’s becoming known, fall from their lips. They can’t stop talking, but you’re not sure if you want them to.
He must have been sick and didn’t stay home.
The heat on the train was too much.
And where are the damn EMTs?
You feel like you want to chime in, be a part of something for once, but their circle is too tightly closed.
You are disconcerted by some spectators joking at the unconscious man’s expense. They find something, unbelievably, funny about their current circumstances. You look away.
You then feel a tap on your shoulder—a newcomer. He takes out one of his earphones, and asks, Did someone die? in the same manner one would ask, Is this the A Train? You answer what you know and he turns, plugging his ear back up. He seems to be looking for death, and not finding it, walks away.
There they are. The EMTs have finally arrived after you-don’t-know-how-long, but they walk with a slow swagger, even as the MTA employees gesture for them to quicken their pace.
You wonder how affected can one be by a stranger’s plight and will that define one’s morality? There are some who cry at another’s misfortune. Take this woman, for example, who is led away from the crowd by someone who might be her daughter, and you strain to hear words of consolation. Why, exactly, when everyone else is captivated by near death, is this woman the only person crying?
Get this man off the damn train so we can move on, one woman behind you grumbles.
The G Train has come, and you know you must get to work. You know that this will not fly as a good excuse for your lateness. Rush hour is not the time to show compassion.
The crowd sweeps to the opening doors, and you move with them, but also dig your heels against the ground to rile the impatient.
Wow, you guys are animals. It’s the same woman complaining before. You think she’s just bitter that she must wait for the next train. No matter. You are led from one state of misery to the next. In the car is a vagrant and she has skipped the perfunctory introduction, and screams, I’m hungry, over and over again. You don’t look at her.
As the train pulls away from the platform, you wonder if that still man will die.
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.
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.”
“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?”
“Oh?” was all she could say.
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.”
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.
If you’re walking home by yourself in the dark, and get cat-called by a group of men, stop. Place one hand against your ear like you’re talking into a small microphone, and say: “We got him. Send in backup.” Watch them scatter.
Do you have a problem with people crowding the poles on the subway? Whisper “gonorrhea.” Press up against them. Sneeze or cough on them. Breathe, heavily, on their necks. They’ll love that.
Always give up your subway seat to expectant mothers and mothers with small children (notice I didn’t say tall). Smile, and say, “Your kids look delicious.”
There is nothing better than leaving a psychiatric hospital, breathing in the polluted air, meeting new people to scream at, and jumping in front of cars on purpose. #namaste
Nazis matter. They’re beautiful, too. #stopNazishaming
They should have let Hussein live.
Never trust anyone named Nancy.
Your whole life is a lie. You’re Asian. That’s the only thing you can be. When people ask what language you speak, say Asian. And when they suggest that you look this rather than that, say, “No, sir, I’m Asian.” Or Alien.
Say “Shank you,” rather than “Thank you.” It’s the right way to do it.
When people tell you about their bad day, interrupt them to tell them how badly yours had gone. Override them if they try to interrupt.
If someone says, “Not to be racist,” kick them in the balls or punch them in the boobs or both, and make a run for it.
Foreclosure is good. Foreplay is bad.
Guys love it when you whisper “Schweaty balls” in their ears, then walk away backwards, making sure to maintain eye contact.
Stay close to your loved ones. They’d love to see how much of an asshole you’ve become.
Conversations—I’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.”
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 day—not 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 again—despite the size of New York, it’s still a possibility—I’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!
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.
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!
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