Why You Write

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

causewaylit

Written by: Loan Le – Fiction Section Editor

So, here you are. You have turned down invitations to parties and happy hours, because you cannot socialize when you have a character in your mind, her voice echoing like a message over a PA system in an empty hallway. You have endured strangers’ tilted heads, the sardonic curl of their lips, the upspeak “Oh, really?” when you explain that you are a writer. Your worth has been challenged and measured against already established writers. Your work is “not the right fit” for this journal or that magazine. All of this has left you despairing, wondering why you have chosen this particular way of being, which lately brings much more pain than reward.

5765352856_11ba0095ff_zCredit: John Liu

Step back. Somewhere, find a pocket of peace where your thoughts are your own, where you hear only yourself. Recognize, first, that by writing, you have…

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On Static, or Writer’s Block

Static

TV Static by Justin March (via Creative Commons)

I just handed in my first MFA packet to my mentor, and I thought I’d feel relieved after that. After all, I’d spent many hours muttering about my characters, plot, and language. I’d pressed the BACKSPACE tab so many times that I thought it’d be broken by now. On the left side of my bed are stacks of earlier drafts that I’d edited and proofread in red, but I suppose I’ll have to recycle them soon to make room for what my bed is actually for—you know, sleeping.

GREAT. Time for a new story!

Let’s sit down, pull up Google Docs, turn on my Spotify list of dark trap music that makes you feel like Satan has a gun to your head  Taylor Swift music, and . . .

And what? There’s an idea somewhere, but I’m not quite getting it; it runs away before I can call its name. I’m passing my time watching the text cursor blink. Nothing’s being written. Most people call this period writer’s block.

That term can be a misnomer: Block, as in a road block—cars jammed one-way, bumper to bumper, where there’s a slew of idiots who think they can honk their horns and everything will miraculously part like the fucking Red Sea. Block, as in a Facebook block— especially that annoying high school classmate who loved playing The Game. Block, as in a basketball block—good lord, I’m referencing basketball now . . . What I’m getting at is that writer’s block is too definite and too solid of a word for me.

From now on, I’d like to call writer’s block “static.” Hell, let’s make it more official by capitalizing that S and adding the just this once: THE STATIC (coming to select theaters this summer).

Static looks like the television screen after the end of a VHS movie, feels like Pop Rocks in your mouth, and sounds like that friend who talks too much. If you have static, you’re getting story ideas but they’re coming at you half-assed and nondescript. They surround you—that guy in front of you hacking out his lung, that little shit at the Times Square subway stop kicking the shins of his father who checks baseball stats on his phone; that shifty beggar in the third-to-last car whose lips move soundlessly—and you see all of this, yet you’re not getting the idea you want. Which makes you moody and depressed, and the sadistic side of you grieves for the torture of writing because at least you had the company, at least you had a goal, and at least you were doing all hell to accomplish it.

I did something bad recently, as I was experiencing this static. I went back to one of my more polished stories and edited. Frustrated that I wasn’t getting a new idea quick enough, feeling bored or anxious, I wanted to exert power, to have some semblance of control. I changed my characters and their backstories so they were completely different. I sloppily extended my original ending by three pages (without having a new ending in mind). All the while, I felt uncomfortable, but my fingers kept typing away. I thought I was improving my story, but I was only destroying it.

So, what is the point of this static? My theory for static’s existence is that it’s the brain’s way of complaining: “Slow down, you’re gonna kill me with all your imagination.” Or shaming us. “Stop thinking about murder, why don’t you? You can’t kill everyone (in your story).” Or even protecting us. Static is to writing as pickled ginger is to eating sushi. (I’m hungry as I’m writing this post, so my analogies aren’t going to be the ones you find in an SAT book.) Customary practice says to use a sliver of gari to cleanse the palate after each sushi so that the tongue is prepped for the next sushi. If you skip this step and eat one piece after another, it tastes like you’re stuffing way too many things in your mouth (you slut). And you’re unable to taste the slight sweetness of rice, the dab of wasabi, or the raw fish melting in your mouth.

Now, in writing, the static is the mind enabling a defense mechanism, clearing away all the emotional vestiges from the last story. All writers know that we carry our own burden and the imaginary ones that we put on our characters. This could interfere with the writing process of the next story, whatever it becomes.

Another theory is that static says you might not get good reception from where you are, so go somewhere else—do something else besides writing, because you’ve been kind of a shitty person lately. Maybe, you know, remind people you’re alive. I’ll be honest: when I hit a groove in writing, I tell my friends the truth and ask to reschedule this and that. I don’t do it that often because I’m not an asshole, but I want to tell the truth and my friends often understand.

Once I started seeing the positive that comes with static, I didn’t fight it as much, which helped with my mood. I started planning and re-visualizing one of my stories, and I was left feeling more reassured rather than guilty. And the fun thing is that revising can lead to another story.

If static comes, it should be comforting to know that it will pass soon. It’s knowing that there’s a story out there, and that there’s no need to rush to get it right away. It is my belief that when you find that idea, that character, that story calling for you, it’s easy to feel like you’d never experienced this static.

 

 

Want More ‘Writing’ Posts? 

An Editor’s Perspective On Writing

In Search of A Writing Community

 

 

HSR, High School Reunion, Holy Shit Really.

HSR

Ah, fuck.

When a Facebook invite to my five-year high school reunion popped up on my phone, my reaction was not one of excitement but one of mortification. Oh god, the memories. Oh god, TENACIOUS 10.

Like a girl’s menstruation cycle on its second day, the remembrance of struggling with inadequacy and anonymity, of unspoken crushes, of constant preoccupation about my future came flooding back. Then, this horrible thought: shit, nothing about me had changed.

After graduating high school, I made a mental checklist of where I’d want to be when the five-year mark happened. Doesn’t everyone? I had this idea that if I completed this checklist, I’d have officially redeemed myself, shown immense improvement from what I was in the past.

What would lead to said redemption? Five star ratings in the following categories:

  • Career – I’m gonna be successful 
  • Social life/relationships – I’m gonna have a significant other, otherwise known as bae
  • Health – I’m gonna have ZERO cellulite
  • Knowledge – I’m gonna be smarter than all of these motherfuckers . . . Hmm, what? No one thinks that? Just me then, I guess.

Rating myself now, I’d give myself Eh stars in each category.

Cue introspection. As I went over this checklist, and as I thought about it more (ugh, thinking is dangerous), I fell into yet another endless pit of looped 50-minute insecure thoughts that mostly revolved around what I hated about myself as a high school student. I was quiet — a specimen whose name might inspire slight recognition from my classmates. I was terrified of being forgotten and in fact, I wrote my college essay about my desire not to dissipate into a black hole, not to become a somebody in the yearbook. I was also closed off, and again, that was mostly my doing. Sure, I had a core group of friends (which sadly had grown apart over the years), but after graduation, I remembered regretting not getting to know certain people who seemed pretty damn cool from afar. Also, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do in life, and felt almost guilty that I was planning on majoring in English, the most common major for the indecisive . . .

Okay, see that? That’s all negative thinking. Now, I imagine if I had enough money for a therapist, I’d be given this advice: Stop thinking that way. If all these thoughts were yours, you should be able to stop them.

That’s what I’ve done over the years. These I-should-have, why-didn’t-I, pity-me thoughts have no place in my life. And any self-mocking on my part is just that — self-deprecation (sort of). I enjoyed college immensely, made lasting friends, and paved a way to my dream career. I mean, every day I look into my mirror and I know that I’m doing what I love as my job. I’m living in Brooklyn. I’m finally hunting putting myself out there. I’m starting a great MFA program and look forward to being published one day. I’M A FUCKING INDEPENDENT WOMAN. (All of this, I should note, is scrawled on my mirror in blood.) Why should high school matter so much? I’m not defined by who I was, but by who I am and will be. [To be honest, my bad memories are superficial; I could have had it worse, but didn’t. Example: I was never bullied (not like in my younger years). Or, thankfully, I wasn’t aware of being bullied.]

I made great memories at CHS. I loved working on the newspaper. I loved my friends. I looked forward to orchestra class and chemistry class taught by Bertenshaw, who could have also been a philosophy teacher instead. I still remember my junior year AP Language Comp class with Ms. Yamamoto. In this class we wrote Occasional Papers, or personal narratives, that really allowed us to develop our writing voices. We were Admiral’s Soldiers. When we received our college acceptances, we made our own posters and hung it up all around Ms. Yamamoto’s office. There was magic in that class, and I will always cherish this time.

Now that I’ve typed all of this out, I’m actually excited about my high school reunion. It’s an opportunity to catch up with people (read: go into stealth mode). Some are engaged, some are married (kids?!). Others have awesome jobs. Yeah, I know this because of Facebook. I’m excited to see how people have changed. Will the bitches still be bitches? Has anyone come out? Did anyone get a sex change? These are, after all, important questions.

If everything goes to hell at this reunion, then at least I’ll be inspired to write a blog post or a dark short story in which the characters will strongly resemble my high school classmates.

If things go even more south than that, then at least I’ll have margaritas burritos to knock back, because our classy reunion will take place at Aunt Chilada’s.

 

I’m glad to report that I do not wear pink anymore.

Ha, what a NERD. Who spends time in the library lik wat iz reeding?

“Yeah, um, I don’t like to read.”

ConversationsI’m not that good at starting them. Some people might think I’m odd, but one of the questions I might ask a stranger is what she or he is reading. I was at a writing group one time, and met a girl who was close to my age. She had just read an excerpt from her fiction short story. Asking for her reading preference didn’t seem unusual to me, especially because we were in a writing environment, but then she laughed shortly and answered:

“Yeah, um, I don’t like to read.”

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I tried hiding my shock, but I’m told that my emotions show.

In general I’m not bothered by people who don’t like to read. It’s perfectly fine for people to consume information through a different medium. But it doesn’t make sense to me when I hear that a writer dislikes reading. For my entire life, reading and writing have always gone hand in hand.

Let me explain how I started writing. I read the Harry Potter series over and over again, and in between each book release I created elaborate stories involving Rowling’s characters (aka, fanfiction). Eventually, I realized that my plots involved little to no magic, and my characters were unlike the characters within Rowling’s pages, so I knew that I’d outgrown the Harry Potter world, and needed to create my own. I started writing because I liked reading so much and I wanted different things to read.

I can say that one of my main sources of inspiration stems from the books I read (Harry Potter is only one example). When I can’t think of anything to write, I find refuge in books. True, there have been times when I purposely stopped reading. I foolishly convinced myself that I should focus on my own writing, that I should create sentences and stories, not absorb them. I also worried that by reading and writing at the same time I might accidentally compose a sentence that sounds good, only to realize I had read it in someone else’s work. However, I’ve learned that inspiration doesn’t mean plagiarism (well, to Shia LaBeouf it might). It’s taking one small, compressed detail in an existing work and expanding it into a completely different piece.

Take postmodern literature for example. Wide Sargasso Sea explores the life of a character who later becomes the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre. You can also consider more irreverent titles like Jane Slayre, which re-imagines the title character as a demon-slaying heroine. While still relying on the bare bones of Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys and Sherri Browning Erwin‘s novels created something different from the original story.

Additionally, writers who read have a better sense of their place in the spectrum of existing writers, and this awareness helps when you’re trying to establish your writing career. In publishing, there’s something called a Hollywood formula. When pitching a book in a letter, sometimes it’s easiest to write, “This book is such and such meets such and such.” Inception meets 10 Things I Hate About You. Um, well, that might be a weird description. I don’t even know how to make sense of that . . . I hope you get my point. Just one sentence can help an editor understand the content of your work, but it’s near impossible to make comparisons without possessing knowledge of those who are deemed great writers in your genre.

By reading, writers also gain literary aspirations. Be jealous of great writers! I’m constantly envious of today’s writers; I’ve read works from storytellers like Kate Milliken and Denis Johnson, and I think, “Damn. These people are unbelievably good.” I endeavor to be like them one daynot for the fame, but for the ability to evoke powerful, lasting emotions in strangers. People often say that you learn a lot from life, but I’ve learned so much from writers. (I guess what I’m saying is redundant because writers essentially mold life and its peculiarities into plausible words and sentences). I learned about the economy in writing from Raymond Carver, the unnecessary existence of form and punctuation from José Saramago, and the art of writing fascinating disturbed characters from Vladimir Nabokov, Ian McEwan, and Bret Easton Ellis.

If I could meet this non-reader writer againdespite the size of New York, it’s still a possibilityI’d encourage her to read more and read well, and perhaps leave her with this quote from Stephen King regarding the synergy between reading and writing:

“The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor. . . .” (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

I’m interested to see which books have influenced writers the most. I’m starting a page called A Writer’s Toolbox, and would love to hear your suggestions. Comment or answer the poll below!

What I learned from reading and writing fanfiction

Fanfictionhomepage

Screenshot of Fanfiction.net, the most popular fanfiction website to exist. Photo from Wikimedia.org.

Once upon a time, I avidly read fanfiction. To those unfamiliar with fanfiction, scholar Bronwen Thomas best describes it as “stories produced by fans based on plot lines and characters from either a single source text or else a “canon” of works; these fan-created narratives often take the pre-existing storyworld in a new, sometimes bizarre, direction.” Note the words “fan,” “canon,” and most important, “bizarre.”

Simply put, fanfiction refers to stories written by fans. According to Fanfiction.net, the most popular category of fanfiction is the “Harry Potter” series because it has 650,689 fanfics – and believe me, the number is only growing. I was once obsessed with reading HP fanfics. And I never wanted people to know about it. I never talked about my hobby because the stories I tended to read were reflective of myself, and back then, I felt a large amount of angst. I didn’t like watching soap operas (still don’t) but I loved reading a drama-packed HP story. I never wanted my parents to know. I never wanted my siblings to know about it. I never wanted anyone to know how deeply entrenched I was in an imaginary world.

I liked the anonymity that fanfiction afforded me. On the internet, I could be anything I wanted. I didn’t have to face my critics (but the downside was that I couldn’t face my fans). However, despite the anonymous nature of fanfiction writing, each time I got a “flame,” or a negative critique, I took it as a blow to my self-esteem. Sometimes I fired back at my critics by writing a long “author’s note.” Sometimes my fans were quick to defend me. (When I say fans, that means one user who religiously followed my stories). Waiting for a review became another obsession for me. All of this was negative, of course, because I became dependent on other people’s opinions and would feel like I failed whenever I didn’t meet their expectations.

But I’ve learned that as a writer and as a reader, you should never be ashamed. Because of the arduous thinking, planning, composing, editing, etc. that comes with writing, I should never doubt the seriousness of my work. I should be proud of what I read and write. Writers might be a lot of things, but cowards they are not (I feel like someone should make an epic banner out of this. Please credit me.)

Fanfiction has shown me that many fantastic writers exist and go unrecognized. I remember that there was an apparent “leak” of “Deathly Hallows” before its publication date. The story contained a scene with Hermione and Ron’s wedding and a conversation between Harry and Hermione beforehand (I wish I could find it). People thought this was really DH; they mistook the fake as the real thing because its style and its use of words closely mirrored Rowling’s. But, I’m not just talking about the imitators. There were certainly innovators out there, the ones who took Rowling’s original storyline and elevated it to fantastic and also realistic levels. I loved these stories because they focused on strong character developments and alternative theories of how Harry could have defeated Voldemort. One story explored an alliance between the magical world and the military Muggle world and how they trained for war against Voldemort.

But when you stray too far from the main storyline, you should stop writing fanfiction. For example, if you write HP fanfics but don’t mention magic in them, then what’s the point? That’s what happened to me. I never regretted my choice to leave the fanfiction world because I grew more serious about my original work. I refocused my imagination and created my own world instead of recycling someone else’s invention. Upon my departure, I believe I became a true writer.

The funny thing about fanfiction is that it rarely comes up in conversation. I mean, how would you bring it up? Do you know anyone who’s written fanfiction? Was I the only one uncomfortable with talking about my hobby? I was a sophomore in high school when I got the courage to mention that I was a fanfic writer. My social studies partner and I bonded over HP and I let my secret slip. I waited for the inevitable “Fanfiction? What is that?” reaction.

Then, without missing a beat, she said, “Me too!” I couldn’t believe it – well, maybe because I didn’t think I’d actually meet another fanfiction writer. We even traded our user names.

Now I wonder if I know any former/current fanfiction writers. I’d really like to talk to you.

Reading and writing fanfiction seemed like emotional investments. After the final book came out, I witnessed a surge of fanfiction in what was called the “Post-DH” era. Writers continued from the epilogue (or the “Crapilogue,” if you disliked it) and imagined a future for Harry. Sometimes writers made him miserable; they have him get divorced or fight a new “Dark Lord.” Others produced “fluff,” or insanely unrealistic, but entirely adorable storylines with Harry as a loving father and husband to his family. From what I could tell, fans didn’t want the series to end. I never wanted it to end, either, because the series took up a great deal of my childhood. When the final book came out, I considered it to be the end of my childhood, because it was sufficiently the end of Harry’s childhood. I connected so deeply with him, Ron, Hermione, etc. that the changes in the series mirrored changes in my life. (But thank goodness I didn’t have to fight Voldie.)

In the reverse fashion, some stories tried to retrace the past and put a different spin on Harry’s life before and during Hogwarts. Maybe some people didn’t like how Rowling developed the series and wanted to “correct mistakes.” A lot of fanfiction deals with bashing beloved characters, reassessing and redefining their motives, which originally seemed pure in the books. Dumbledore, for example, was made into a manipulative old coot who didn’t do enough to rescue Harry from the Dursleys’. Ron-haters portrayed the member of the trio as an insolent and greedy person. I never liked these types of fanfic because the writers fell into the trapped of writing one-dimensional characters. Sure, Dumbledore could have done much more for Harry, but the headmaster loved him. Sure, Ron was not always the most rational – more apt to act with his heart than his brain – but he always proved himself in the end. By reading such fanfiction, I recognized that importance of having a complex characters with good AND bad qualities.

It’s taken some time to accept this but I can now say that fanfiction has shaped the way I think, read, and write.

Has fanfiction impacted your life?