Friday, April 30, 2010

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.

1 comment:

Helen Choi said...

I enjoy reading ur short stories.