To read, to write and not to yield

In Which I Participate in Nanowrimo, and Despair of My Fate as a Writer

Posted on November 17th, 2012


The other day I was reading through my 25 Things in My 25th Year list, and wondering how I had failed so dismally to fulfill the big-ticket items I had really wanted to go after this year. Grad school? Waved those deadlines goodbye as they wooshed past me with beating wings. Spend some time in Melbourne? Not going to happen this year either. Continue working on Flyleaf? Kind of a moot point (moot goal?), since I basically did away with Flyleaf and have undergone a 180 degree change in my blogging goals, namely that I no longer have any.


And then my eye fell on the last item on the list: Participate in Nanowrimo. For those who don’t know, Nanowrimo is a challenge in which participants write a 50,000-draft of a novel in 30 days. When I read it, something inside my brain began to hum.


It’s an indication of how far off the mark my actual accomplishments for this year have been in comparison to what I intended to do, as well as a sign of my tendency to overestimate my time management skills that I actually thought that of all the items left on my list, writing a novel in one month seemed to me rather…doable.


So as late summer turned into fall and while I was sitting on a series of trains traversing the length and breadth of some of Switzerland’s most beautiful sights, I started toying with the idea of writing a story about winter. I thought it would be perfect. All the long, hot, sticky Beijing summer I had dreamed about winter. I longed for cold weather, hot tea, woolen leggings, oversized cashmere sweaters, the feeling of coziness conjured up by the sight of snow drifting outside your windows while you remain inside, safe and warm. 


I came up with a plot. I invented a character I liked. I made up a world I wanted to live in myself. I drafted out outlines of chapters, created a writing schedule. And inevitably, I have discovered, as no doubt generations of writers before me have discovered, that between ‘I think I’ll write a story about winter’ to 50,000-word first draft of a novel is a veritable sea of slogging, procrastination, obsessive snacking and tea-drinking. I’m currently at roughly 26,000 words which puts me about 4,000 words behind schedule. I haven’t even reached my first plot point. At this moment, every sentence  I write triggers an avalanche of existentialist angst and self-doubt.


How do people do this? 


The most unexpected thing that has resulted from my foray into Nanowrimo is finding that I have a renewed appreciation for good writing, especially when that good writing is sustained over the course of a sizable novel. When I read books before, it was as if all I could see was the product, as if it was all about me and my enjoyment of it. But now, I appreciate it when a novelist turns out descriptions that are spot on, when his pacing is exquisite, when his dialogue is so illuminating it makes the lightbulb in my brain go crazy. Because I now grasp more fully how goddamn difficult it is. And I’m not entirely sure I’ll ever get there.


For years and years I said I wanted to be a writer, and it’s only now that I’ve realized the arrogance of that statement. Because to paraphrase Thoreau, how vain it is to stand up and say one wants to be a writer, when one has not truly sat down to write.

What You Gonna Fight For, Who You Gonna Die For

Posted on September 7th, 2012


He said, “Now we won’t be sober any more. We’ll look beyond the years–to the time when the war will be over and Jem and Jerry and I will come marching home and we’ll all be happy again.”

“We won’t be–happy–in the same way,” said Rilla.

“No, not in the same way. Nobody whom this war has touched will ever be happy again in quite the same way. But it will be a better happiness, I think, little sister–a happiness we’ve earned. We were very happy before the war, weren’t we? With a home like Ingleside, and a father and mother like ours we couldn’t help being happy. But that happiness was a gift from life and love; it wasn’t really ours–life could take it back at any time. It can never take away the happiness we win for ourselves in the way of duty.  – L.M. Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside

Something someone said to me a while back has made me wonder a little about the choices I’ve made — the choices that we all make — that lead us to consequences and circumstances we could not have foreseen, and perhaps would have avoided if we could.


It took some of us awhile, but after high school, my friends and I scattered far and wide. One of my closest friends lives in Australia and one just moved to Holland. My best friend lives in Malaysia and I live here in Beijing, and every day I feel her absence like a phantom ache. My favorite cousin, the one I am closest to, lives in a country so far away that, as Leon Uris put it, if the earth were flat, would have fallen off it a long time ago. And it will only get worse as time passes. I look into the future and see a world map dotted all over with the blinking lights of friends and loved ones flung across the continents. I blame globalization. I blame the yearnings of adventurous hearts. I blame long distance relationships. I blame Air Asia. 


Which is all to say that when that someone suggested, casually and probably unthinkingly, that we might all have been happier if we had just stayed in Malaysia and never left, it was like a tiny mouse had crept up a tower somewhere and sounded the warning bell which began to toll deep inside me. Because it’s something which I have wondered from time to time, and which I daresay most people have as well: Would I have been happier if I had stayed where I was?


There were many reasons to stay in Malaysia, and still now, there are many reasons to return. But every time I go home and look around and ask myself if I’m ready, something whispers in me, “Not yet.”


Because here’s the thing: I don’t actually believe I would have been happier if I had stayed. Or, at least, it would not have been the kind of happy that I sought when I left, and in so many ways am still seeking, exiling myself from home to look for what I have recently come to realize is not happiness at all, but meaning.


Meaning is what Walter Blythe was talking about when he said that being happy after the war would be a better happiness, one that was fought for and hard won. No one who has been through a war — and in a way, haven’t we all been through our own personal wars? — could ever be truly, perfectly, gloriously happy again. That part of you is gone. People who have known true pain carry the shadow of it throughout their lives. It runs like a ghost thread through all the rest of their days, and even if they regain the happiness which they seek, they remember.


Happiness is all well and good, but the ability to find meaning in whatever circumstances that life sees fit to hand to you is what will sustain you through the bad times. Happiness is like that honeymoon stage of love, when everything is lightness and joy and sweet, sweet hope. Meaning is when you realize the honeymoon is over and the real work has just begun — and that the real work is where most of us will live most of our lives.


Everything in life has to be paid for. This is something that I truly believe. And while every choice has a cost, perhaps we can make it through life by ensuring as best as we can that the cost of the choices we make pay for a more meaningful happiness.

Immortality, I Make My Journey Through Eternity

Posted on August 1st, 2012

When I was younger I read Anne Rice novels and wanted, in a very real way, to be one of her immortals, a desire that stemmed from the belief that if I lived long enough, I would surely come to a point where nothing would matter. Where pain and happiness would be the same color and love could no longer hurt me.


My answer to the question of ‘Would you want to live forever?’ was always an unhesitating yes. And I meant it. I still mean it. If you live long enough, it’s only a matter of time before you come to possess perfect equanimity, something I sorely lack.


To live forever would be to achieve the ultimate perspective. Eventually to see how everything comes and goes and how small it all is, really. We, whose lives are so short and who spend it in a scurry of clouded human emotions, have absolutely no perspective at all. Everything looms large and tragic. Disappointments, illnesses, broken hearts, lost jobs, dreams given up, plans derailed — all these are like earthquakes shattering the crust of our lives, cleaving it into shards and fragments, befores and afters.


At the end of it, we wouldn’t be able to see anything whole at all.

The Question of Happiness

Posted on July 24th, 2012

Raindrops on hotel window

I arrived in Beijing early Sunday morning in what turned out to be the heaviest rainstorm the city had seen in sixty years. Thirty-seven people died, with one man being hit by lightning. As I stood at the airport, underneath the covered roof of the taxi waiting hall, a man got hit by a cab and then later, when the police had left and the pictures had been snapped, he got up off the ground and walked away. I saw the cabdrivers hopping out of their cars, greed emanating from them, negotiating with the stranded people, charging them two, three times the usual cab fare.


I was coming off a flight at the end of a week that had proved to be life-changing. On further reflection, this whole year has been life-changing in a way that makes me question what I really meant when I said I wanted to learn how to be happy. Because here’s the thing: It’s easy to be fearless and happy when everything in your life is going well, when the odds are stacked in your favor. But how do you keep your generosity of spirit in the face of anxiety and worry, pain and sadness, illness and hospitals?


Happiness lives side by side with fear and that fear is of losing it. We so often picture happiness in terms of imagery like sunshine and blue skies, but what happens to happiness when it rains?


The question then becomes not, how to be happy, but how to be happy when life circumstances dictate that you be unhappy. Is it possible to find joy despite it all? Is it possible to be happy despite being unhappy? And if it is, how do you go about doing it?


Why I Believe in Talismans

Posted on June 7th, 2012

I am a believer in talismans.

Which is surprising because I’m not generally a very superstitious person. I step on cracks and open umbrellas indoors all the time. I actually like black cats and the only reason I don’t walk under ladders is because I’m always afraid something will fall on my head.

But I do believe in talismans. I believe that if I wear the silver charm bracelet my mother bought for me, I will be protected by her love. I believe that having hung a tiny silver elephant and a miniature globe on it will remind me to be steady and solid as the beautiful animal that I have always felt an affinity with. The globe reminds me that the world is very big and that my place in it is very small and this helps me keep perspective.

On my right wrist I wear a silver bangle which I haven’t taken off since the first day I bought it in my second year at college. I remember the way it looked, glimmering slim and shiny against the black felt of the small jeweler’s display  near my student apartment. I believe that it will help me to write better, write more, above all remind me that I do believe with all my heart that I am here on earth to write, whether or not I will ever be published or do more with my writing other than accumulate words for my descendants to carry.

Do any of these actually work? Am I really protected? Does the silver bangle really help me write? Have I imbibed any of the steadfast qualities of the elephant I love, the long memory, the plodding slowness, the quick and frightening anger?

Probably not. But they are reminders, nonetheless.


I have always carried these kinds of things, most often in the form of small pieces of jewelry or the endless volumes of notebooks now piled in a dusty box buried at the back of my closet at home. But sometimes my talismans are stranger and more ordinary. The Body Shop perfume oil I have worn for years,  a favorite tube of lip balm, a paper thin cardigan that I carried from Australia to Malaysia to China. Even my own hair has sometimes taken on totemic significance.

I wonder if it is insecurity or childishness, this need of mine for things, for objects that I can hold in my hand or keep by my side to remind me that I am loved and protected, that I possess another life other than this, that I have a past that brought me here and will give me strength. This last one gives me pause. Why do I feel the need to constantly remember my past? Why do I feel as if by remembering, I can somehow bring that person back to me, the one I used to be, the one I miss every day? It’s strange to feel a sense of loss when the thing that you have lost is your own self, even if you think the present version of you is one that is better adjusted to the world.

The purpose of a talisman, in the dictionary sense of the word, is to protect. So what is it that I am seeking protection from? At the end of the day, what is this fear that grips my days, this premonition of loss, of grief, of pain, that I feel hovering just beyond the edges of my life, creeping ever closer to the center?

I don’t know. But in the final analysis, I know that there is no amount of love or small silver objects that can protect you from all the random pain and sadness of living.

Quoting: Barbara Sher

Posted on June 5th, 2012

Life isn’t supposed to be an all or nothing battle between misery and bliss. Life isn’t supposed to be a battle at all. And when it comes to happiness, well, sometimes life is just okay, sometimes it’s comfortable, sometimes wonderful, sometimes boring, sometimes unpleasant. When your day’s not perfect, it’s not a failure or a terrible loss. It’s just another day.

– Barbara Sher

Other People’s Words #21

Posted on June 3rd, 2012

Indian man reading newspaper

Reading material for the week:

Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people “who are good at math” and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.


  • Finally, I leave you with this very long article about the pretentiousness of the literary fiction genre. I don’t always agree with the writer (he seems a bit extreme) but as someone who grew up reading writers like Stephen King, Anne Rice and Terry Pratchett and happen to think they are excellent writers and storytellers, I do think that it’s not really fair that these writers are not taken more seriously.

The dualism of literary versus genre has all but routed the old trinity of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, which was always invoked tongue-in-cheek anyway. Writers who would once have been called middlebrow are now assigned, depending solely on their degree of verbal affectation, to either the literary or the genre camp. David Guterson is thus granted Serious Writer status for having buried a murder mystery under sonorous tautologies (Snow Falling on Cedars, 1994), while Stephen King, whose Bag of Bones(1998) is a more intellectual but less pretentious novel, is still considered to be just a very talented genre storyteller.

The Pain Paradox

Posted on May 30th, 2012

“We all have our sorrows, and although the exact delineaments, weight and dimensions of grief are different for everyone, the color of grief is common to us all. ”
― Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

There’s a paradox that occurs when people go through a tragedy or traumatic life experience. Surviving something horribly painful, whether it’s betrayal or a plane crash (and the one can sometimes feel like the other), compels people to seek out others who have survived similar catastrophes. It’s how we’re made.

We need to know we’re not alone in this, we need to be shown concrete proof that other people have experienced it and come out on the other side, because that way we can begin to believe that so can we. This is the basis of about ninety percent of the self-help shelf. It’s one of the foundations of support groups ranging from AA to neighborhood mommy groups. I also suspect it’s the reason why we secretly enjoy reading harrowing memoirs of disasters survived and difficulties surmounted. It makes us feel less alone, less lost in the bewildering quagmire of our own sadness and grief.

But herein lies the paradox: As much as we’re searching for proof that others have gone through similar pain, we are indignant at any implication that another person’s pain can ever be exactly the same as or amount to ours. We think, ‘Well, of course he got through it, it’s different for him, it’s not the same situation.’

Why is this? If we could admit that pain is pain and stop measuring the quantity or intensity of one’s suffering against another person’s, wouldn’t we all walk around much more comforted?

I used to have a post-it stuck on my mirror with the Plato quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”

But I’m forced to admit that in the most emotionally difficult times of my life, I’ve had a hard time believing that quote.

On Voice

Posted on May 6th, 2012

Collage of blogs

I’ve been reconsidering what I want to do with this space for the last few months, periodically checking in on it, weighing my options, like one of those women whose last child has flown the coop and who stands in the empty room, thoughtfully contemplating what to do with it.

I’ve spent some time trawling through my college blog, reading my old posts and realizing just how much of my voice I’ve lost. When I first started this new blog, it was meant to be an assortment of things. I didn’t know where it would go and vaguely thought that it might move in the direction of a lifestyle blog. I had no niche and I was fine with that. I knew that one would grow eventually and I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself. What I didn’t realize then was that lifestyle blogging is a niche. And one that I’m not really cut out for.

For a whole year I have wondered why writing here has lacked that tang and savor that my old writing possessed and now I know. It was because I was being dishonest, forcing my voice into a form that I thought it should take, rather than accepting that it was what it was as a result of years of writing practice.

I had a voice. Until I decided I needed to get one.

When I was in college, writing came so easily. It was never a chore. I didn’t try to be chirpy and cheerful. I didn’t attempt to be clear and certainly never bothered to pretend that my writing had anything to do with anyone other than me. It was the reason why I had so few readers and yet why I felt so satisfied with blogging, why I could sit down three or four times a week and just pound out the words and then hit publish and feel somehow lighter, as if the words had weighed like ballast in my heart and getting them out made me more buoyant, better able to float again in the stormy seas that were my college years.

I’m not in college anymore, but life has not gotten any less stormy.

It’s time to face the fact that sometimes in life, you don’t discover new truths, you uncover old ones. Truths that you already knew instinctively but had forgotten that you knew. This is what my younger self always knew and consequently took for granted: that my writing only works and only satisfies me when I do it for myself. And while I don’t profess to possessing any particular talent and I certainly don’t mean to elevate those over emotional college blog posts to a level of quality they don’t possess, I am also certain that back when I wrote for an audience of zero and purely for personal satisfaction, I also wrote much better.

I had a voice, and while that voice was distinctly melancholy and overwrought, it was also inarguably mine in a way that no other voices I have tried on since then have ever been mine. All other attempts have been like trying to animate a puppet, jerking the strings of a dead, wooden thing in a poor imitation of life. A denial that this is who I am, that I never needed to find myself because the foundations of who I am were laid a long time ago and the only thing left to do was to inhabit the whole structure, to become more fully me and not transform into some person I thought I should be.

So I guess what it is, is simple, a return to blogging and writing in the only meaningful way to me, which is to please myself and hopefully, coax that voice back to me.

Because I miss that voice and the person who carried it.