Monday, November 28, 2011

Through the Wringer, and What I Found There*

In the third semester of my MFA, we were asked to write a reflective essay about the program thus far. The following summarizes the journey up to now. And what a journey it has been.

If someone were to ask me to define “the writing process” a few years ago, at the eve of my decision to pursue writing seriously, I probably would have shrugged and said something inane like, “Um. Sit down and write, I suppose?” Now that I have embarked on this serious pursuit for almost three years now, one and a half of which have been under the auspices of a master’s course on the subject, I should have a much better answer than the above, and I do: “Sit down and write.” Full stop. No “ums” or “supposes” or question marks. I can imagine my father now, mouth agape and wondering, “You’re spending how much money to come to the same conclusion you had for free three years ago?” Well, Dad, it’s true. The biggest lesson I’ve learned in the past three semesters is that if you want to be a serious writer, the most important thing is to write.

It seems self-explanatory, but it’s not. There are so many reasons – read “excuses” – that writers – myself included – purport to explain why they aren’t the best writers that they could be, when most of the time, the key between them and their best writerly selves is just getting down to the business of writing. Of course, there are many tenets, tips and tools that a writer can learn from paying attention at an MFA course, reading other writers, and picking up a grammar class along the way, but none of that matters unless the writer is fully committed to sitting down amidst life’s chaos and writing.

But enough of the soapbox. This essay is supposed to be reflective about what I’ve learned through the past three semesters, so now that I’ve stated the obvious, let’s get on with the subtle, measure by measure.

I stepped into my first summer residency fresh off the accomplishment of completing a 130,000-word novel that had swallowed up about a year of my life. I was feeling pretty good about having finished, but not that great about the novel, and not quite sure why. It just didn’t seem “up to snuff,” though at that point I was lost as to why it wasn’t working. Through the residency, I began to understand the mechanics behind good and bad writing. Know your characters. Hook the reader with your openings. Earn your endings. Make sure your scenes involve change. Remove unnecessary words. Use specific details to bring your story to life. Avoid stereotypes. Make sure your narrative arc fits your narrative. (Ditto with narrative voice.) Treat your setting as another character that affects the story. Know your genre. Know your form.

All of these basic gears and cogs reformed the way I thought about creating fiction and telling stories. On a deeper level, I was challenged in workshop to think about the “dramatic imperative” of my stories, as in why the story needs to be told, and the “heart” of the story, as in what I am trying to say through the story. Stepping outside of the stories and words, I was also asked to think about what kind of writer I wanted to be. Did I want to get published? Appeal to the masses? Make money? Create art? Do something different? Write literature that could stand the test of time? Then career-wise, I was introduced to the practice of caring while not caring about publishing. Rejecting rejection. Abandon my babies. Take myself seriously as a writer. Create space for writing. Write what you’re passionate about. Over that week, it became glaringly obvious why my novel did not work: it was written as a series of chronological events that happened to me, rather than as a work of fiction. In order to be truly worthwhile, my novel had to be more than just an account of a personal experience.

I came out of that residency completely blown away by all that was involved in writing well. That summer’s visiting writer, Timothy Mo, gave us another aspect of writing to think about – what it’s like to be a writer. He was wonderfully generous and open about his feelings: “You have to wear your arrogance like an armor around you.” “[I have a] reputation of eccentricity. I talk to myself. You have to adjust to loneliness. Insane – that’s what you’re heading for.” “If you exorcise the demons, you may not be able to write anymore.” And quoting Graham Greene, Mo said, “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” In talking to Mo and other faculty, I felt as if I was getting a glimpse of the mad inner-workings of the minds behind novels and stories. The writing life was hard and best attempted by those who are either dead serious about pursuing it, or have no choice in the matter. I’d spent most of my life not writing, which meant that I had a choice. Was I dead serious enough about this writing business to choose it as a life?

After that first residency, my mind was overrun with all the tenets, tips and tools that I was learning and at times I found it difficult to even eke out a sentence without censoring myself. I often wondered if I had what it takes to write well. My old manuscript was pushed aside and I attempted to rewrite the novel from the beginning, re-mapping the narrative arc, re-plotting every scene, and revisiting the characters inside and out. I thought I could finish a major rewrite within the course of a semester, but I only managed to get through the first two chapters. Another lesson learned: patience. In order to write well, I had to learn to be patient with myself and with my work. There was no rushing through a manuscript if I wanted a thorough, effective edit. I wrote and rewrote the first chapter three times, questioning myself through every rewrite. Then, came my first mini-residency.

The fall mini-residency of 2010 was a revelatory experience. I realize that I am the sort of person who goes through many “revelatory experiences” and enjoys feeling “changed” (sometimes only temporarily), but a year later I still feel the same way that I did when I staggered out of that three-day generative workshop. It was a difficult residency. I cried; I lamented; I despaired. Those dramatic actions tend to happen when a person is told that her work is average and uninspired (slightly paraphrasing). I was challenged to look at my work from three angles: individual, internal, and unknown. In terms of the individual: what makes my stories and my words completely unique to me, or in other words, what can I write that no one else can? Then, the internal: have I gone deep enough in my work and self, or am I just scratching at the surface? Finally, the unknown: if you write things that are individual and internal, sometimes you touch upon the unknown, that glimmer that makes literature shine across cultures and generations. It was immediately obvious that what I’d submitted for that workshop was a lame scratching of the surface. In fact, I’d written the piece with an idea in mind of where it might be published. Massive writer’s faux pas. Perhaps for a more experienced writer, writing for a certain publication makes sense, but for one that is still learning, that intention manifests like a bad accent. I was disgusted with myself. I vowed that I would never allow that intent to drive my writing again.     

From that residency on, I looked inward and asked myself what kind of writer I wanted to be. It was a question I’d been asking since the first summer residency, but I asked it again. And again. And again, until the answers began to surface: I want to be a thoughtful writer. I want to capture my unique perspective of humanity on the page, and by “unique” I do not mean that mine’s more special than anyone else’s, just that it is particular to me. I want to describe how humans interact with each other and how emotions drive actions and choices. I want to write about things that matter, take a snapshot of life as it is right now, with all the contemporary and cultural particularities that surround me. I want someone to pick up my writing some day in the far future and be touched by a glimpse of one person’s perspective on life in this decade. I don’t want to just publish. I want what I write to matter.

My second mini-residency was less of an emotional rollercoaster, and more of a window to the many ways that a story can be told. I found that I was interested in surrealist stories and magic realism, though it was not the kind of storytelling I’d ever thought to try. I was challenged to think about what level of observation I wanted to achieve in my writing, from basic sensory details to individual identity, the perspective of one character or narrator based on his particular personality and individual history; to group identity, how characters are affected by the shared history and background of the group that they belong to, whether cultural or generational or spiritual; and finally, to world identity, how characters are affected by the world they live in and how they impact their world. I recognized that the particularities that comprise my background, especially with regard to living within multiple cultures, give me a unique perspective as a person and as a writer. It was up to me to figure out how to enrich my writing with this perspective. I began to think more about the implications of my writing, not only in terms of the types of stories and characters I wanted to create, but also the kind of social commentary that I was making in my work, consciously or unconsciously. And speaking of the unconscious, the visiting writer for that residency, Robert Olen Butler, also challenged us to think about the unconscious layers of our writing during his “From Where You Dream” lectures. He asked us to consider writing as an art form and delve into the creative process with the attitude of an artist, or in other words, to aspire to the unknown. Over the course of that semester I noticed that my writing was evolving: I was no longer content with scratching the surface. My stories and characters began to haunt me. I wanted to go deeper, to let my imagination guide me towards something more meaningful than just characters and plot.  

All this talk of artistry and imagination, however, still requires the right packaging and delivery into the world, and my second summer residency seemed to come just in time. I learned about craft and many practical aspects of revision and editing, such as charting the polarity of a story (positive and negative developments), using scene versus summary, ratcheting up the tension in a story, understanding the stakes of the characters, building scenes through bits and beats, using images to structure stories, and the art of sentence variation. In both workshop and the lectures of the visiting writer, Junot Diaz, I also recognized the significance of giving myself permission to write and letting go of the critical self standing behind me with a bat.

The Diaz lecture was by far the most impactful visiting writer lecture and I believe it had a lot to do with the compassion he showed for us beginning writers. He advised us to forgive ourselves for our failures and have compassion for our characters and ourselves. He encouraged us to have fun with our writing, to “induce play and let go of the fact that you want it to do something.” He reminded us that in order to learn, you have to be willing to be transformed, to stop confusing comfort with safety, to realize that the answer is irrelevant and the truth lies in the process. And when the going gets rough, he suggested, “Remind yourself why you love the form…It’s the only thing that adds love to the world without taking anything – putting your hand out into the darkness without knowing who will reach back, and to be comforted, changed, to feel the love that you’ve created, that’s what you’re here for. No matter how long it takes, try to write something.” He also told us, “What stands between us and what we want as artists is simply showing up and doing your work.” In other words, sit down and write.

This past semester has been quite different from the rest, given the focus on the critical thesis. I have thoroughly enjoyed the critical thesis process and am very glad that it is a part of the curriculum. Through the thesis, I was able to delve into the critical side of writing from an academic standpoint that was very different from the craft-focused essays written in previous semesters. I chose to embark upon an inter-art study of music and literature, which led me to read many critical texts on the relationship between the two art forms. Armed with a better understanding of the field, I took an in-depth look at Kazuo Ishiguro’s most recent work, Nocturnes: Five Stories on Music and Nightfall, to see how the stories compared structurally and thematically to the musical form of a nocturne. The analysis gave me a different way to think about how stories are structured, and how musical concepts, such as balance and contrast, repetition and variation, can be applied to the narrative arc. I also found it enlightening to read all of Ishiguro’s works, learn about his background through interviews and articles, and follow his development as an author leading up to his most recent book. This close analysis of one author gave me a lot of insight on how a writer can progress from the debut novel to the award-winning novel to the experimental novel and back to the award-winning novel. I am grateful to have had the chance to write an academically oriented thesis based on research and close textual analysis.

Over these past three semesters and five residencies, I have learned a lot about craft and technique, read many inspiring stories and novels, and gained some insight on the wacky publishing world. What I’ve found most useful, however, is the knowledge I have gained about myself as a writer. I recognize now how my critical self can bring creativity to a standstill. How writing is difficult for everyone, from beginning writers to award-winning authors. How looking within is the best way to find the stories that I am supposed to write. And most importantly, I recognize that this thing called writing is something that I am dead serious about. Now all I have to do (after finishing my critical thesis) is sit down and write.

*An overt reference to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (and by no means an attempt at plagiarism).

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Serious Writer, Yes I Am!

What is a serious writer? A serious writer could be a person who quits her job and naively attempts to write a novel with no training or understanding of the medium beyond, “well, I’ve read a lot of them.” A serious writer could also be that guy working in the laundromat scribbling on pieces of scrap paper on his lunch break who turns out to be Stephen King. Or the academic who ekes out a short story or two in between theses and defenses and vying for tenure against all the other smart-asses in the department. Or some dude sitting at a Starbuck’s creating a fictional world of coffee-based organisms whose raison d’etre is to find their perfect milk-based companions. In short, a serious writer is a writer who thinks he or she is a serious writer. That’s pretty much it. Power of the mind, baby.

It took me a helluva long time to be a serious writer (though not as long as Laura Ingalls Wilder, who started at 65) and despite the job-quitting and MFA-matriculating and daily minimum of three ass-flattening hours at the keyboard, I still spend a good portion of my day reaffirming my seriousness. This is largely because, 1) being a serious writer has some equally serious downsides; 2) my self-esteem tends to wander like a cloud, coming and going as it pleases, that little bastard; and 3) serious writing can be a damn lonely vocation.

1. Downsides Illustrated Through Sample Conversations (based on true stories).

A: You don’t matter unless you’re published -
“Hi, what do you do for a living?”
“Oh, I’m a writer.”
“Really?! What do you write?”
“Cool! Where can I find your stuff?”
“On my computer.”
Silence. Looks around for someone else to talk to.

B: It’s your fault you’re not published -
“Hey, how’s your book going?”
“Not bad, good days and bad days.”
“So when are you going to get it published already?”
At this point you have a few options:
1) “When I find the right (publisher/agent) to (sleep with/bribe).”
2) “Fuck you, mother fucker.”
3) “Ah, it’s not that easy, you know.” (add nervous smile)
4) “It’s not like I’m TRYING not to get published! Fuck you, mother fucker!”
No matter which you choose, invariably the response is:
Silence. Looks around for someone else to talk to.

C: Your job isn’t really a ‘job’, per se:
“I hate my job, blah blah blah.”
“Yeah, that sounds awful.”
“How do you know, you just sit around at home and write all day.”
Silence. You look around for someone else to talk to.

2. Self Esteem, You Sneaky Minx, You.
This little minx goes hand in hand with Downside Conversation Numero, Er, C: You Don’t Matter Unless You’re Published. It’s tough to take yourself seriously as a writer when you have not yet been published. If your writer friends tell you they don’t care, they’re lying. We all care. I’ve shrugged my shoulders and said, “Ah, it’s okay if I don’t get published. I want to write for myself, you know?” I was lying. So how do you manage to maintain your self-esteem as you reach for the Holy Grail?

A: Look in the mirror once a day and lie to yourself. Any lie will do, as long as it doesn’t make you cry afterwards.
“I don’t care if I get published.”
“My pores are not abnormally large.”
“My husband will still love me if I burn through our savings.”
B: Call yourself an artiste and surround yourself with fellow artistes. They’re your people. They understand why you don’t have enough cab money to get home.

C: Surround yourself with a lot of stupid friends and slip as many Latin and French phrases as you can into conversation. Ad infinitum.

D: Drink heavily.

If you do reach that Holy Grail, ride that high as long as you can because it’s only a matter of time before you’re asked for the next manuscript. And the next. And the next. Et cetera. Q.E.D.

3. Writers Are Lonely People, or, Why We Drink Heavily (cross-reference 2.D)
Eking out genius from your subconscious is a bit like waiting for God, d’oh! Okay, that was stupid. A profession that requires you to sit alone in a room with your thoughts is a lonely one (oh, I can feel that genius!). I’m sure I’m regurgitating from the gazillion self-help for writers’ books I’ve read. It’s okay if you’re the type that likes to drink alone (and before 4pm), but for us naive folk who believe that writers can lead normal lives, too, the loneliness can get overwhelming. You wonder if sitting at home in solitude is ever going to amount to anything. The sound of your own thoughts start driving you insane. You check the clock to see if it’s 4pm already.

When things get overwhelming, I overcompensate. For example, I think I wrote a hundred correspondence emails in this past week alone, and I still feel the pressing guilt of those starred messages I still have to respond to (sorry guys, I'm working on it!). I Skype, I magicjack, I webcam, I Whatsapp, and through a considerable amount of effort I am allowed the wonders of watching my godson grow up in Bangkok, seeing my nephew smile at me from Los Angeles, reading about my best friend’s swollen pregnancy feet, and keeping up with my brave penpal as she struggles with cancer, all worlds away. I wonder if my nephew imagines me as one of those preserved celebrity heads in Futurama. My head is constantly shouting at him (because of the bad connection, not because I’m Scary Aunt) framed inside the 17-inch screen of my sister-in-law’s laptop.

I spend my day alone so I reach out, like, a lot. Then I realize I’ve pissed the day away and vow to turn off my wireless tomorrow. Always tomorrow. Did I mention, I also blog? Crap.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Life...In Focus

Last Friday I got laser eye surgery. Yes, that’s right. I had some guy slice the top of my eye open and beam a laser at my corneas. I’ve been in physical and emotional recovery ever since. Today I have four hours of “eye time,” which means I can either be on the computer, read, or watch TV for four hours. Yesterday was three hours, the day before was two, and Monday was one hour of eye time. For the rest of my waking hours, I sit around trying not to stare at anything for too long. Or I pace around the house, wearing dark sunglasses and pretending I’m a movie star in rehab. It’s been a riot.

Glasses have been a part of my identity since the fourth grade. I’ve pretty much always been “that girl over there with the glasses.” So why did I decide a few months ago to join the ranks of the lasered masses? Here were my pros and cons, by order of importance (1 being most important):

  1. In case of natural or manmade disasters, running for my life after getting my glasses knocked off by either a) shrapnel, b) fellow flee-er, or c) my own frenzied self, is not a risk I want to take. Whoops! Didn’t see that big gaping hole there!
  2. If I ever bear a child, I don’t want to be rooting around during nighttime feedings and accidentally nurse Horace, my stuffed hippo, instead of my baby.
  3. I would actually be able to see when I opened my eyes in the morning, without having to peel the dried contacts I’d left in the night before off of my eyeballs. Nice.

  1. Losing my glasses as part of my overall “look” could have disastrous consequences, i.e. my eyes may be way too small in proportion to my nose and it’s been the glasses saving me this whole time.
  2. The surgery could go all wrong and I’d end up blinder than before, or just plain blind, before I’ve even had the chance to learn Braille.
Note: Yes, Con 1 is more important than Con 2, I am that superficial.

For those who are not considering LASIK or have a strong stomach for elective surgery (or both), keep reading. For those considering LASIK or are a bit weak in the knees (or both), I leave you with the following adage: the less you know, the better.

My journey to new vision began at Shanghai’s LASIK mecca, aptly named, New Vision Eye Clinic. “LASIK in China?!” was the response I’d gotten when I told my friends and family about my plan. But I figured a clinic that has done over 50,000 surgeries knows what it’s doing, right? Practice makes perfect. I made an appointment to get a pre-surgery consult.

The consult was pretty tame. They run you through all sorts of tests with fancy names, such as cornea topographical study, pupil dilation, pupil and cornea thickness - okay, maybe only the first name was fancy. That took about an hour and a half and at the end of it, me and my blurry self left with an A-okay for surgery...the very next day. Holy crap!

After a night of eye drops every hour and pre-surgery excitement - I was actually excited! - I arrived the next afternoon and was shuttled off to surgery with a fellow patient, Mary. Mary, also an American expatriate, and I were suited up into fairly comfortable long-sleeved gowns and surgical caps. We chatted to conceal our pre-surgery nerves as the nurse washed our eyes with some sort of magical solution. Then came the ocular nerve numbing eye drops. Mary continued to tell me about the births of her children as the feeling in our eyes began to fade. A nurse came over to tell us to stop talking because we were affecting the air in the operating room. Huh? Okay. We shut up and steeped in our own private anxieties. Then they called my name. “Me first?” I said. “Yes, you. Come.” Okay.

I was led into a large operating room that housed a formidable looking piece of equipment hovering above a bed, which was not really a bed, but a flat metal surface that I was instructed to lay down on. The doctor was behind the wheel already, masked and ready to laser. I said, “Dr. Lian?” and he grunted and shoved my head under the machinery. As he held my head in place on the cold headrest, I fought the urge to bolt. This was the moment that I would run for my life, blind. But it was too late. I was already staring into a big dish with a green light in the center surrounded by a field of red lights and Dr. Lian’s muffled voice was commanding, “Look at the green light.” I froze and stared at the green light.

You see, my tragic flaw (in this case) was research. Way too much research. I should have just stopped at “this clinic has done 54,000 laser eye surgeries since 1996,” booked my appointment and rode the steed of Ignorance all the way into the operating room. But alas, I decided to research every single part of the surgery so that I could be as well-prepared as possible. Idiot.

As the whirring began, a cache of images flashed through my mind. Vacuum suction of eyeball. Voomp! Holy crap, what did I get myself into? Look at the green light. Metal blade cuts a circle into the cornea, leaving a hinge. Wheeeeek. They just cut into my friggin’ eye! Look at the green light. Surgeon opens the flap, laying it to one side and exposing the cornea. There is a flap of my eye hanging in the wind. Look at the green light. Surgeon douses eye with magic solution. Slop. Oh, gross, this is just wrong, I think I can feel the flap. Look at the green light. Laser positioned. Silence. Oh shit, here it comes! Look at the RED light. Laser burns off layers of the corneal stroma. Zezezezeze. Oh my god, they’re burning a hole into my eye. What is that weird smell? Look at the RED light. Oh god, I really need to blink! Don’t mother-flippin’ blink!! Surgeon douses eye with magic solution, again. Slop. Eye juices are running all over my face. Look at the green light. Surgeon repositions corneal flap. Slop. Oh god, that stings. Look at the green light. F@$& THE GREEN LIGHT!!! Surgeon checks flap adhesion. Silence. Is it okay? Am I blind?! Close your eyes. Thank Christmas Jiminy Jesus. Another shove of the head, and I was out.

The nurse helped me stand up and led me out of the room. “Open your eyes.” Are you sure? “Open your eyes.” I can’t! They feel like they’ve been fused together! “Open your eyes.” Oh, wait, okay, they’re they go. Oww! My eyes stung and tears ran down my face. I grabbed the nurse’s arm and held on for dear life. She sat me down in a dark room and handed me a packet of tissue. I didn’t move, hoping the alien orbs where my eyeballs used to be would stop hurting me if I stayed really, really still. After a few minutes, the nurse returned and led me to a ridiculously bright room where patients, dressed just like me, lined the walls. Ah, yes. The locals. I’d heard that local patients were treated over ten at a time, unlike the foreigners, who had a nicer reception area and individual dark rooms. There must have been fifteen local patients in total, looking as miserable as I felt. The doctor checked my eyes through a scope of some sort and a few seconds later I was whisked away to change out of my surgery outfit.

My husband was waiting for me when they led me out of the surgical ward. “How was it?” he asked with concern. “Weird. It was weird,” was all I managed to say, clutching his hand so hard he had to ask me to relax my death grip. My eyes were not stinging as much and as I peeked out from behind my eye shields I realized that I could see. Somewhat. Mary, her companion, my husband and I shared the elevator down to the lobby and the only thing I could think to ask my fellow laseree was, “Did he shove your head, too?” “Yeah! He shoved my head around and told me off for wearing make-up, which I’m not!” “Weird.” “Yeah, weird.” We wished each other well as we parted ways, and as soon as Mary and her companion was out of earshot, I began to whimper. “Stupid elective surgery. Who does that to themselves,” I muttered as my husband led me to the crowded curbside to hail a cab. The entire way home I squeezed his hand and alternated between, “Is the taxi driver being safe? My cornea flap’s going to fly off if we get into an accident!” and “Trauma. Trauma.”

The next four hours were kind of an excruciating hell. The stinging worsened after the ocular nerve numbing drops wore off. It felt like my eyeballs were being massaged by a woolen blanket. After that awesomeness was over, I was finally able to sleep. The pain was gone by the morning after, only to be replaced by the aforementioned, brain-sucking boredom that lasted until...wait a minute. I only have half an hour of eye time left. Goddammit!

In conclusion, I am a total wimp. Elective surgery is not for me. My vision is currently “better than perfect” and I am glad I did it, but being cut into is not my strong suit. I am ecstatic, however, that I can see when I wake up in the morning and have one less thing to worry about when it comes to disaster scenarios and nocturnal nursing, and I am thankful that I wasn’t accidentally blinded. The jury’s still out on that eye to nose ratio.

Oh, and for those brave enough to still consider LASIK, a few tips:
  1. Get goggles. You’ll need them to shower with for about a month.
  2. Get a waterless facial cleanser such as Cetaphil. It’ll make washing your face a helluvalot easier.
  3. Get audiobooks, podcasts, an AM/FM radio, whatever type of entertainment you can find that doesn’t require sight.
  4. Get a small screwdriver so that you can pop out the lenses of your glasses and wear them lens-free. It’s what all the cool kids are doing these days.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Critical Essay: The Road

In the same MFA application aforementioned, I was also asked to write a critical essay about some aspect of craft. This rather open-ended question made me tear my hair out in tiny tufts, which I then superglued to my miniature troll, who now sports Chinese dreds. Just kidding. Or am I?

In fiction, setting and character are typically defined with specific attributes that are either fictional or real. People and places have names and readers adjust their mindset based on the data provided by the author, such as “heavyset, middle-aged Caucasian, Bob Goldfarb, living in Beijing in the year 1985.” However, when authors choose to cloak their settings and characters in anonymity, a different relationship is created between the reader and the work. In this essay, I will explore how Cormac McCarthy’s use of anonymity in setting and character has a notable impact on the reader’s experience of his 2006 novel, The Road.

In The Road, McCarthy presents a post-apocalyptic journey of a man and his son struggling to survive in a barren and unforgiving world. From the beginning of the novel, the reader enters a world where time and place are not revealed. The titular “road” and its environs are described in detail, but where the road lies is never disclosed. The two main characters are referred to only as “the man” and “the boy” or “the child” throughout the novel. Suspended in a world sans bearings, the reader is plunged into an environment similar to the man’s own as described on page 11: “Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief.” The breath that sustains the reader through the novel’s uncoupled world is the voice of the man, as the novel’s third person limited point of view is based on his perspective.

McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world is full of gruesome details, but the unidentified locations described in a matter-of-fact tone creates distance between the reader and the macabre:
The city was mostly burned. No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day. (12)
Had McCarthy identified the city as an actual city, e.g. Los Angeles, the reader’s reaction would be fraught with his own feelings and associations with Los Angeles. Imagining Los Angeles “mostly burned” evokes visceral sentiments, while the desolation of an unnamed city feels remote. The reader remains as untethered as the man and the boy as the story moves from one nameless place to the next.

The nondescript leathery corpse in the quote above also garners little sympathy from the reader. Throughout the novel, the dead are part of the setting and described as objects rather than people:
They passed a metal trashdump where someone had once tried to burn bodies. The charred meat and bones under the damp ash might have been anonymous save for the shapes of the skulls. No longer any smell. (150)
This removed approach to the dead not only provides distance for the reader, but also illustrates how de-sensitized the man has become, since he is the one relating the grisly details around him. By creating an impersonal world of devastation, McCarthy channels the reader’s sympathy away from the surroundings and towards the main characters instead.

The people are just as anonymous as the places in The Road. Not only do the man and the boy remain nameless, but their physical descriptions are vague as well. In a rare instance when the man comments on the boy’s appearance, he describes how the environment has affected his son rather than pointing out distinguishing features: “The boy was so thin. [The man] watched him as he slept. Taut face and hollow eyes. A strange beauty.” This perspective is starkly realistic, since a father would hardly describe the color of his own child’s hair and eyes to himself. Without providing defining characteristics, McCarthy lets the reader fill in the details himself. However, the anonymity of the characters does not evoke detachment, but a sense of closeness and universality. The man and the boy could be anyone, including someone the reader knows or even the reader himself.

Without set identities, the distance between the reader and the man narrows as the narrative delves deeper into the man’s perspective. McCarthy reinforces this by jumping into second person at key moments, such as when the man considers shooting the boy to save him from torture at the hands of the enemy:
Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time. Now is the time. Curse God and die. What if it doesn’t fire? It has to fire. What if it doesn’t fire? Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being within you of which you know nothing? (114)
The reader imagines himself in the same circumstances, facing the same heartbreaking decisions as this “any man”, anywhere. The universality of the man’s struggle becomes even more apparent against this backdrop of anonymity.

McCarthy’s use of anonymity in The Road has a dual effect on the reader. On the one hand, it distances the reader from the horror of a post-apocalyptic world, while on the other, it draws the reader close to the man and the boy. The macabre does not take over the story and the focus stays on the internal struggles of the characters. By means of indeterminate settings and faceless characters, The Road’s underlying humanity shines in its rawest form.

Work cited:
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage International, 2006. Print.

The Personal Essay

I was recently asked to write about my desire to be a writer and my creative philosophy in an application for a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. Here's what came out of the piehole.

Ever since I was a little kid, books have held a certain magical quality for me. I grew up in a bifurcated world under strict, over-achieving immigrant parents. Inside our modest home, we were sealed in a hermetic bubble of Hong Kong urban culture, relishing the familiarity of Cantonese. Outside, we were exposed to the sprawling plash of Los Angeles suburban life, embracing the language of strangers. But for a few hours every weekend, the two worlds would intersect like circles in a Venn diagram. My mother, who barely understood any English, would bring me and my brother to the local library and release us into the wilderness of guided imagination.

On our first visit to the Chevy Chase Branch Library, my brother, five years my senior and precocious at the age of ten, milled around in the sci-fi and fantasy stacks, muttering for me to leave him alone and shooing me towards the children’s section. My mother, settled at a round wooden table with a pile of imported Hong Kong newspapers and gossip rags, pointed at a long wall of colorful spines and whispered in Cantonese, “Start with the first book on the first shelf and make your way across that wall until you’ve read every single one.” A clever woman, she was probably banking on the obsessive compulsiveness of her youngest to give her some peace. I followed her instructions to the letter with dogged enthusiasm. Each book knocked loose a brick or two from the walls of my sheltered childhood, revealing magic portals to other places, real and phantasmic. My mind bloomed with possibilities.

The allure of books followed me from that small-scale library through primary school, secondary school, university, and my first career in finance, traversing oceans, hurdling mountains, spanning continents, and even roving the occasional desert. Lurking in the fringes of consciousness was the notion that someday I would portray realms on reams of paper, preserve moments in masterful prose, fashion unforgettable characters in indelible ink. However, mediocre performance in a creative writing course in college cudgeled the notion deep into my subconscious. It remained comatose for almost a decade.

About a year and a half ago, I gathered up every frayed tassel of courage and quit a nine year career in finance to write a novel. My closest friends rejoiced; even acquaintances were not surprised. I, however, was terrified. Writing meant exposition. Vulnerability to subjective judgment. Lack of a steady income. Most petrifying of all, writing meant an attempt to do the one thing that I was most afraid of failing at. It took me six months to extricate myself from the decrepit clutches of ancient fears and compose the first sentence of my manuscript.

I did not have much to go on when I began working on the novel. The memory of that one horrendous quarter in creative writing certainly didn’t help. But I took a deep breath, determined a purpose and an ideal audience, and plunged in. The purpose: to offer a realistic account of grief as a twenty-something. The ideal audience: those suffering from grief first-hand, or those interested in how grief affects young people. Devising the plot line was not extremely difficult since the novel is based on personal experience. Devices emerged naturally and characters blossomed beyond real-life counterparts. I immersed myself fully and loved every moment of it, even the horrible headaches when the mind clamps down like a vise, refusing to cooperate, or the sleepless nights when the mind becomes possessive, refusing to release you from your fictional world, forcing you to conjure and rewrite without respite. During those nine months, I stopped reading, self-conscious that my voice would take on the inflections of other authors. I floundered and danced, capitulated and endured, crawled and ran, until one day the manuscript felt strong enough to stand on its own two feet. That was about a week ago, at the end of March.

I read through my manuscript and love the courage and hope it represents and all that it is trying to be. But I know that it could be more. That is what leads me now to pursue a creative writing degree, especially one where I can study craft under the guidance of effective storytellers, given that an effective storyteller is what I aim to be.

The storytelling capacity of books has affected me unlike any other media. Motion pictures, music, visual and performance arts stimulate my mind through the senses, but the written word accesses another part of my brain, demanding interaction. As a reader, I actively participate to form a three-dimensional world through an author’s two dimensional clues, or four-dimensional, even, if the fourth dimension is consciousness, emotion, spirit, or in one word, humanity.

The books that have impacted me the most are the ones that give a true sense of humanity. These books last beyond a season, reaching readers across generations and past cultural or physical borders. A true sense of humanity is what I seek to convey in my work, whether it be a novel about grief, a children’s book for kids with muscular dystrophy, a phantasmic tale of magic hippos, a short story about life after divorce at sixty, or even a horror/thriller featuring expatriate psychopaths in Shanghai.

There is also a part of me that is intent on giving voice to the specific experiences that I have been through as a product of diaspora and immigrant ambition. This is not because I believe that each of my experiences is unique, in fact, quite the contrary. Each fragment that has made me who I am is a link to someone else in the world whose journey has incorporated a similar fragment. The sum of these fragments makes me unique, of course, but the fragments themselves allow me to reach across oceans and hold hands with the most unexpected of kindred spirits. I may be Cantonese-American, but I am no more an Amy Tan protagonist than a Jhumpa Lahiri character. I am as interested in reading Kingston’s The Woman Warrior as Collins’ The Woman In White.

That’s the beautiful thing about being made up of fragments. From shards of culture, language, heritage, and upbringing, there is an opportunity to fashion bridges instead of walls. The stories waiting to be told of our polychromatic humanity are infinite, from chronicling the grit of reality to spinning the cloud-stuff of imagination. I hope to become one of many storytellers creating magic portals that will line the shelves of that very library where the world first unfurled for me.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Glutton For Bad Karma

Every time I travel, I transform into this furious magnet for bad karma, and today is no different. It’s not a long flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai, and if you’re on a good airline, like Dragonair of Cathay Pacific, the two hours fly by fairly sweetly. They serve Haagen-Daaz for love of Jesus. I’m a snuggly little camper under two felt blankets, finishing Junot Diaz’s Drown and picking up Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes. It’s a short story kinda day.

Then the flight rumbles to a landing, jolting me from the slumber that knocks me out as soon as the captain announces descent. Gets me every time. The plane taxis to the gate and the sardines are restless. As soon as the lights pops on and the bell goes ‘ding!’ the madness begins. First there’s a clatter of unbuckling seatbelts and the sardines rise in messy synchronization. I expect to hear the grumblers, complaining about someone in their armpit or knocking the dust off their hats as overhead baggage is yanked from above. But this particular can seems to be stuffed with fairly polite travelers. I maneuver around to grab my tiny little roller bag and manage to return to my seat unscathed.

A bumbling old man, the bellowing upright kind, rather than the muttering stooped, begins stepping all over everyone, still stationary and awaiting release, to find his luggage in the overhead compartments. He’s so polite, however, that everyone lets him by, ignoring his elbows in their ribs and his buttocks in their hips, as he chants in a singsong voice, “Wang ji le fang na li, wang ji le,” (“Don’t remember where I put it, don’t remember.”) I love the politely rude. I find them fascinatingly slick. At this point a slow fart escapes me and I make a face, pretending I don’t know who just smelt up the aisle.

We all trundle off the plane after the doors open and I beeline for the bathroom because the life of my bladder depends on it. Then a race to the immigration line, walking fast with my heels kicked up and Nocturnes sticking out of my roller bag like a tongue. I ignore the ambulators and enjoy the scuff of the carpet. Walking feels good after sitting still for a couple hours. So far, so good. No one’s getting in my face, the sun’s shining through a hazy sky in Shanghai and I’m almost home after too much time away.

I head for the China Immigration lane. As soon as I file in behind some older dude ahead of me, his buddy cuts in front of me as if I wasn’t there. Ah, here it comes. The switch under my sternum that tells the Happy Buddha hanging from a chain around my neck to back the fuck off.

“What are you doing?” I say to him, immediately embarrassed by my stupid-sounding Mandarin.

“I’m with him,” he replies, brushing me off and stepping ahead. I’m not gonna point out that he’s Chinese here, because I’ve seen plenty a white guy do the same in crowded airports.

We’re at a bend in the snake line, a perfect place for negotiating rank and file, and I sidestep him and say, “It doesn’t work like that.”

He ignores me, steps forward.

“Did you hear me?” I say.

“I’m behind you now, okay?” he responds gruffly, flickering his disdain towards me with his beady eyes. I can say that because my eyes are beady, too.

I reclaim my position and feel ambivalent. I won my little battle, haven’t I? Somehow I feel like a douche. The grumps have been introduced, however, and when the officer at the booth asks me to take my hat off I scowl. The lights blink on the electronic comment box as she hands me back my identity, and out of the five options, I press the Greatly Dissatisfied button with the unhappiest frowny face. Oh, dear, I think to myself. I’m in that mode.

I stride on to the baggage claim but now my head is full of the kind of remorse I feel after I’ve yelled at a taxi driver who’s deriding my pinyin pronunciation. I’m a big believer of karma. If you dish it out, prepare to have the shit served right back at you. Did I just spitefully press the frowny face button because the officer made me reveal my oily hat head, or because I have a fat face on my I.D. card, or because I scuffled with my mom before she saw me disappear into the Departures area?

My mom gets grumbly whenever we’re at the airport. It makes sense. She lives alone now and my visits break up otherwise long stretches of alone time. Watching her wave as I round the partition, a big, fat lemon squeezes all over my heart and I chastise myself for being less than patient. I hate these moments. They allow the latent anger at my father to rise up, and it’s takes awhile to tamp that sucker back down again.

I’ve grabbed my luggage, clearly marked with cute little ornaments by my mother, and made it to the taxi stand, which is empty. The snake line is welded in place with metal bars, however, as unrelenting as the crowds that usually bloat against them, and it takes a minute for me to wind up and down and back up to the waiting taxi. The driver gets out and helps me with the luggage and I slide into the seat, grateful to be on the last leg home. I brace myself for attitude as the driver asks me where I’m going, but there is none. I open up my laptop, and by the time I finish chronicling my own nastiness, I am finally home.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Curse of the Overly-Enthused

During this brief sojourn, I've collected a few recurring observations of Hong Kong's 'literary world.' I apply quotations to 'literary world' since surely one cannot presume to have experienced any sort of 'world' based on a two-day symposium and a flurry of random talks, but here I go, presuming anyway.

1) Introducing yourself to others is a big and scary crapshoot. The person you just introduced yourself to could be any of the following: bored rich person, executive know-it-all, celebrated author, cultural dabbler, eager young student, crusty old creep, avid reader, or just plain asshole. There goes half an hour. Guzzle, guzzle.
2) A LOT of people like to quote Eliot's "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock." May want to reconsider the Prufrock references in my current manuscript. ... Screw it. Keeping 'em.
3) Passing out your card to everyone may elicit mockery from time to time. Get over it. There's the off chance that someone will not turn around and bin it, but cherish it for all it's worth. $0.07 and a truckload of gumption.
4) Unabashed enthusiasm tends to make others wary, especially authors and agents. It's possible they are on the look out for potential stalkers. The wide eyes of enthusiasm are too difficult to distinguish from the wide eyes of mania.

Let's focus, for a moment, on 4. I am a ridiculously enthusiastic person. Well, most of the time. I'm the one who's shaking your hand and telling you how great you were onstage. Thing is, I actually mean it. It doesn't take a whole lot to impress me, so take what you will from it, but the enthusiasm is genuine. What I've found in the past week and change is that this enthusiasm can sometimes lead others to employ the slow back away, wondering what it is you want from them, or what it is you expect to glean from their awesomeness. I get it. I was approached by an eager member of the audience when I was the featured reader at an open mic recently and I remember being a little bit afraid of his wide eyes.

The thing is, I've never been the cool, collected type, and do not wish to be. What I do wish, however, is that I was just a tad less sensitive about being a dork.

Dialing down sensitivity is not one of my strong suits. It's not even near the closet. This leads to the following scenario, which has been happening quite often:
Jenn goes up to [insert author, artist, person with the cool hat, here]. Grins. "Hi, I'm Jenn! Can I give you my card?" (Yes, Gauche is my middle name. Right after Dork.) Subject [smiles/raises eyebrows/laughs] and accepts the 300 gsm matte with spot UV card shoved towards them. A few [seconds/minutes] of chit chat before parting ways. Fast forward to next run-in with said [author, artist, hat aficionado]. Jenn waves excitedly. "Hi, how are you?" Subject smiles uncertainly, employs slow back away. Jenn's bold, over-excitable, self-conscious slug of a soul shrinks, slumps into the safety of its shell, and replays scenes of rejection, imagined or real, until the emergency generator of reason kicks into gear. The lights turn back on.

In literary festival wonderland, the one author/VIP that has made the slug in me feel most welcome has been the Pulitzer winner, the one you'd actually expect to be stand-offish. Junot Diaz was hands-down the nicest and most unassuming. He seems to have true compassion for wanna-be writers. It's encouraging in the best way: each time I've heard him speak, I run home and write.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

I Am A Writer, Goddamit

In part of my recent attempts to embrace this identity I've created for myself as a Writer/Dreamer, I am in Hong Kong attending my first writers' symposium called Writing Across Cultures at City University. Nothing more unnerving for a so-called writer to step into a room full of writers.

Identity is tricky. About two years ago I declared myself a writer. It was easier than I'd imagined in all my twenty-nine years. My wonderful friend designed me a business card and there it was: Jenn Chan Lyman, Writer. Wow. If I'd known it to be that easy, I'd have gone out and printed business cards when I was five. Owning up to myself being a writer has been much more difficult. It helps when you don't have a job and tell everyone you're writing a novel. But I wonder if I will ever truly consider myself a successful writer until something I've written (that I truly love, i.e. not random magazine articles) is published somewhere other than on A4 paper in my study. So, how to get published?

Over the past week of attending Shanghai Literary Festival events and talking to authors and writers and non-writers alike, it seems that the success of a writer in the publishing world is not solely based on writing, but the entire package of the writer herself (or himself, or itself). You want to be published? Shameless self-promotion is part of the repertoire of helpful skills. Have a business card. Have a website. Go forth and meet the world via Twitter and Facebook. Blog away like a fruitful little blogger. Then, when you have time, write. Okay, no one actually said that, but it feels like it, especially this week where I've scuttled off across the seas to attend symposiums and talks and festival opening parties. Mmm...alcohol. What about that novel of mine? Oh, right. Crap.

So far the key point I've absorbed in all these talks is that I seriously need to work harder. And harder. And harder. Wake up earlier. Develop a schedule. Finish that second draft of Frozen and start on the third. As long as my vpn continues to work, I'll be blogging more than once a week from Shanghai. I've created a public Facebook account for the writer in me. And, oh dear, Twitter. Yesterday I joined the 60 million twitterers of the world. Lord help me. Now, back to the symposium...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Glory Time - daily drivel

I've got about half an hour before I launch into glory time, just enough to throw down a few sentences. It's one of my gazillion resolutions to blog more in 2010. Not so much in the form of longwinded fragments, but a dollop here and there of the daily cream.

So what is this glory time, you may be wondering? Is it solitary pooping in the comfort of your favorite bathroom? Is it trying to balance cucumbers on your eyelids while immersing your hands into a barrel of paraffin wax? Or is it downward facing dog with a side of upward facing crow? So many glorious possibilities. But no, glory time is simply the daily three-hour (at the minimum), uninterrupted romp through the world of Frozen, the novel I've been working on for about seven months now. I am in the second major edit phase, after receiving comments from my wonderful plot readers, and now it's time to craft a novel out of a manuscript.

Writing a novel is weird. Sometimes it’s like putting your awesome pants on and going out for a stroll. Other times it’s like trying to do the running man in chainmail. Totally genius thoughts twirl like dervishes in your mind, making it impossible to fall asleep, only to disappear into the ether by morning. Totally idiotic thoughts twirl like jesters on the page, taunting your insecurities to come out and play. Those don’t disappear automatically, however. They have to be rooted out and deleted one by one.

Finding the plot and meeting the characters was the hardest part for me. There were days, weeks, months where I’d sit there and wonder why the hell I quit my day job. Then one day, my Frankenstein’s monster was suddenly whole. It got up and lumbered towards me, shocked as I was at its completion. I immediately sent my little monster off to my friends to coddle for a couple weeks, and now the monster is back in my care.

Will I be able to magically transform this little gremlin into a charming young pup to be snatched up by the thousands? Or is this little monster doomed to a life under my mattress? We’ll see. It’s glory time.