Monthly Archives: December 2006

brain brain

I am feeling strange. My brain is in a weird state right now–a combination of short brain games and lack of memory. While taking on the concept of a brain game earlier today, I suffered a memory overhaul. Now I can’t say what I want to say or remember what I want to remember. It’s just a weird situation.

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Book Sentence Meme

From Susan. I thought it was cool. I thought, “neat.” I thought about it. Then I did it. I’m dealing with the aftermath of a weird mini-migraine or head thing. Why not?

Here it is:

Take five books off your bookshelf.
1. Book #1 — first sentence
2. Book #2 — last sentence on page fifty
3. Book #3 — second sentence on page one hundred
4. Book #4 — next to the last sentence on page one hundred fifty
5. Book #5 — final sentence of the book
Make the five sentences into a paragraph:

Believe it or not, I had exactly 5 books with me this week.

Everyone had aways said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. He had every piece of equipment he had ever been issued, ever present he’d received from home: helmet, helmet liner, wool cap, scarf, gloves, cotton undershirt, woolen undershirt, woolen shirt, sweater, blouse, jacket, overcoat, cotton underpants, woolen underpatns, woolen trousers, cotton socks, woolen socks, combat boots, gas mask, canteen, mess kit, first-aid kit, trench knife, blanket, shelter-half, rain-coat, bulletproof Bible, a pamphlet entitled “Know your Enemy,” another pamphlet entitled, “Why we Fight,” and another pamphlet of German phrases rendered in English phonetics, which would enable Weary to ask Germans questions such as “Where is your headquarters?” and “How many howitzers have you?” or to tell them, “Surrender. Your situation is hopeless,” and so on. A compelling style itself retards the action by inviting the reader to linger over the words and sentences. How many years would it take for a dwarfed trunk to become like flexed biceps? He gave her a smile too ad he put her there, right next to him, ascendant, with all the blue sky in the universe crowding in behind her.

The books were:

1. Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
2. Slaughter-House-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
3. 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley
4. The Sound of the Mountain, by Yasunari Kawabata
5. Talk Talk by T.C. Boyle

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input week

So this is how it feels to hole up somewhere: the snow has come on and off this week, the sun has come and gone and returned, the chilly air outside has the snap of a crisp spring peapod, and all is very peaceful. There is no external stimulation; my life has turned totally inward this week. Reading books, watching DVD after DVD.

No writing (tried). No “work” of any kind.

For some reason, I cannot do this while at “home.”

I guess even writers can take a vacation.

Happy New Year.  I wish everyone many good stories this year!

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Murakami on The Great Gatsby

My favorite contemporary novelist, Haruki Murakami, talks about his favorite novel (and incidentally my favorite novel of all time since junior high), The Great Gatsby, at PopMatters.

Whenever Murakami speaks, he enlightens me on one matter or another. I was curious as to what he would say about The Great Gatsby, and here is an example of one way he describes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book:

Fitzgerald splits his own point of view into three characters in this novel: protagonist Gatsby, narrator Nick and rival Tom. The portrayal of the three characters is astonishing. This is what any novel should convey.

He ends the interview by saying he aspires to be more like Dostoevsky in his future writing. This is the 2nd time in recent months that he’s mentioned Fyodor Dostoevsky; in a previous interview, he stated that “the best is yet to come,” citing Dostoevsky’ last brilliant works.

But if you ask me about my goal, I’d have to say it’s (19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor) Dostoyevsky. This may be too ambitious, but I guess it’s better to set yourself high goals.

Nobody has gone beyond the deep and comprehensive scope of the stories he created in his later years.

Just like Jay Gatsby gazed at a green light far away on the other side of the river, I will continue to gaze at a similar universe of narratives.

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big storm brewing

literally!  not figuratively!  big storm winter snow storm approaches.  woo!  the wind is blowin’!

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the short and the long of it

I have a friend who is a great writer working on a novel that is just brilliant. I have heard her say multiple times that she cannot write a short story. Because she is not the kind to fish for compliments, I accept that she believes she cannot write a short story. Her competence in the long (novel) format coupled with her hesitance with short story writing makes me wonder about the relationship between the two formats.

Is writing a short story like running a 500 yard dash, and a novel like running a marathon? Are there any athletes that can do both? I don’t know of any, do you? Does the short story utilize different “writing muscles” than a novel? There have got to be similarities–plenty of writers write both great short stories and novels (e.g., J.D. Salinger, Isaac Babel, Haruki Murakami, and James Baldwin, for starters) …but then there are novelists like John Irving who admit to not writing short stories. (I read once, and I’m sorry I cannot remember where, that he thinks he writes much better novels than short stories. Having read a collection of his short stories as well as almost all his novels, I concur).

If there is a distinct relationship between the short and long formats, it’s interesting to note that MFA programs use short stories as a basis for teaching fiction. MFA programs breed short story writing. From personal experience, I’ll tell you that it’s much easier to workshop a short story than a novel, even if you are taking a workshop focused on novel writing. From the basis of short stories, students are supposed to pick up the principles of novel writing (if that is one’s goal). But is it the only way to teach the longer forms? Is short story writing the best way to teach a novel?

Both formats contain the basic craft elements of fiction: character, plot, language, setting, point of view, etc. It’s clear that examining these elements through short story writing is probably a lot less wieldy. Also, there seem to be a great deal of debut writers publishing short story collections first, and then a novel second–showing that this leap is often made. But I wonder where the gaps might be. For one, I know my gap is in the pure endurance level of writing a novel. I get distracted.

In interviews, Haruki Murakami often speaks of getting into physical shape to write his novels. He needs the fortification he says, to deal with much of what he confronts as he writes the long format. I wonder if he needs the same kind of conditioning and preparation to write his short stories?

Likewise, I wonder about writers who do write both formats. Murakami does not write short stories while he writes his novels. In doing so, I wonder if that’s an acknowledgement of how different short stories are from novels. But then there are writers who can do both concurrently.

While at a writer’s colony, I wanted to focus solely on my novel. I ended up writing a short story while there. I felt guilty about taking my attention away from the novel, but my friend and fellow resident commented, “Your novel will thank you for writing short stories.” She herself had written many short stories while writing her first novel and said it was a blessing.

As always, there seems to be no black and white rules to writing. This holds true for the relationship between short and long writing forms. Who can do one or the other? Who can do both? Can one focus on both at the same time? Just curious.

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Reviving an Old Fashioned Relationship

moleskine

I love technology. I love writing on a laptop. I think my typing keeps pace with my thoughts, I can barely write any other way. If my laptop were to fizz out on me, I think I’d be paralyzed as a writer for some time. It makes sense that I embrace blogging.

I started blogging nearly ten years ago, before the world called these things “blogs,” and before such things as wordpress, blogger, and movable type. I did the HTML by hand, tweaking a template with a new post each day.

I blogged to connect to the world, to share my thoughts, to get a sense of audience. That sense of connection to people and the world is intensely important to me. I want to be understood. I blogged to keep myself writing, because back then I harbored secret fiction writing dreams. The internet was so small back then, I was once only one of 500 women on the web!

But now I don’t feel so safe on the internet anymore–I take precautions, sure. But I’m talking about emotional safety. What was once a small village, and then a town has become a huge metropolis. There are vandals (the spammers) and though there have always been trolls (people who try to start flame wars, or provoke) on the internet, they have increased in number. These days, I can’t take the heat anymore. Instead of feeling connection, I feel a deep misunderstanding in the world and in one or two cases, hatred towards me. One hating reader, in particular, has escalated to threats against my wellbeing.

Hence, blogging/writing under a pseudonym. And it turns out that when anonymous, I mostly blog about writing. That’s been a surprise to me!

Yet I still have the desire to write about my personal life–but not on a blog anymore. Maybe here, in bits and pieces, but I just don’t feel safe enough to share as much on my more eponymous blog anymore.  I pick my battles, I’d rather wrap up a blog than take chances with my wellbeing.

I came to this decision a few days ago–it was a heartbreaking and bitter decision to change something I’d been doing nearly everyday for nearly ten years. I was bitter because it was not something I really wanted to do, but felt nearly forced to do (say thank you to the stalker guy, everyone). I was so angry. I was stifled. I felt like my voice had been taken away. I had no outlet for this pain. I can’t write on a blog knowing that someone who hates me and actively tries to hurt me, is reading every single post on that other blog with my real name on it.  I’m sad.  It’s not the way I wanted to close out things on that blog.  I always imagined I would slow down my blogging there because I’d had a child and got too busy or some other happy reason.

One idea that occurred to me was that maybe I could write my thoughts down in a journal. I did that at a writing colony once, it was fruitful.

However, I had forgotten to take a beloved moleskine journal up with me here on this vacation in the mountains. I hunted all over this small town for a store that sold them. I ended up going over the mountains over the stateline into a bigger city thirty miles away where I finally found one. I was obsessed–if someone has glued your mouth shut, wouldn’t you search near and far for something that would dissolve the glue? (And ah, my neuroses as a writer that I would not write in anything other than a moleskine! Preferably unlined).

Now I am writing in my journal. The minute my pen touched the paper, I felt a sense of relief. I was writing things I would not write in my blog, ever, even at my most vulnerable. I was writing JUST for ME, not with an awareness of an audience/reader, not with entertainment in mind, and I was connecting with just myself. It felt sort of bittersweet not to be able to click “save” at the end, but I did close the notebook, knowing that my thoughts had found themselves to paper, somehow. They were secret. I would not be hurt or lambasted or criticized for them. I would not be judged.

I think this will be a fruitful relationship.

The first thing I’m noticing, on a physical level, is my penmanship. I rarely write by hand anymore, except for the occasional written correspondence (and holiday cards), and classroom note-taking. My writing is jagged and hesitant. I know how to analyze handwriting–and I see things in my handwriting that surprise me.

But onward with the journey!

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A good answer

I am doing some re-reading of Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel Lecture this weekend. I am reading it slowly so that it really pierces my heart, as I allow so few things to do. (There are many other things that do pierce my heart despite my protests and those are the things I think I write about).

He has so many good answers to the questions we writers face. His answers make me feel like I’m worth something as a writer in the world. His answers articulate my own motivations (I do write because I am angry and because I want to understand why I am very angry at everyone, and because I am afraid of being forgotten and because I like to read). Oh, read on for HIS worthy answer:

The question we writers are asked most often, the favorite question, is: Why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write. I write because I can’t do normal work as other people do. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can partake of real life only by changing it. I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but—as in a dream—can’t quite get to. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.

I would like to think his speech is relevant to everyone, not just writers. Pursue your dream and don’t let it lie in secret, stuffed inside of a suitcase, even if it’s easier to just set it aside.

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byline: The Fake Korean

The protagonist of my novel is someone who was born in Korea. He is not me. First of all, I am not male. Second of all, I was born and raised in the States. I did not live through any wars. He does eventually come to live in the U.S., but his experience is distinctly different from mine. But he and I are both Korean, and I feel very close to my character through the bond of history. After all, blood is thicker than…most things, no? Roots are…the things that connect us, no?

Yes, I know I’m bringing up the tricky issue of race and cultural identity. It seems that no matter what I say about this, someone ends up being very very hurt and/or angry. But I think it’s important to talk about stuff like this on a regular basis, even if it’s painful. I don’t bring it up at the dinner table, but maybe this blog will be a good forum for it, as so many of you have been so insightful and supportive and enlightening. We are all here to learn from each other.

Today, I feel this bond of history questioned. Recently, I got an email referring to a post I made on another blog, a humorous tongue in cheek list of ways in which I don’t fit the mold of a typical Korean girl. While a few people (mostly other Korean Americans) found it funny, I faced a bunch of protests from Koreans living in Korea. The most recent comment is the most heated:

I want to say that your post is very misleading. It should be “why I am a bad
Korean-AMERICAN girl”. Obviously you have never lived in Korea before, and you have no idea what real Koreans are like. What you have seen all your life is KOREAN-AMERICANS ie Kyo-pos. I think your post gives a very misleading impression of KOREANS LIVING in KOREA, when you have no idea what Koreans are actually like. You are making generalizations about Koreans based on what you’ve seen from your parents or old Korean-AMERICANS (KYO-PO). Koreans nowadays are not like what you have described, and being a “good (real)Korean girl” in the 20th century is not like what you have described above. Given the fact that many americans who don’t have a clue about Korea, visit your website and will get this misleading image of REAL KOREANS living in KOREA, I suggest you clarify this misleading post.
After all, KOREANS are NOT KOREAN-AMERICANS(Kyo-po).
p.s.
I am quite offended by your post. What the hell do you know about MY(REAL KOREAN) CULTURE anyway?

I apologized for not specifying that this was about being Korean AMERICAN. I should have written Korean American–but I just assumed people would think I am Korean American, and I did not expect to be so disowned by Koreans living in Korea (in the U.S., saying “I’m Korean” means you’re of Korean descent most of the time). My mistake. I didn’t intend to misrepresent. I’m actually horrified. But–what concerns me most is that the writer thinks that I am not a “Real Korean” (read: “What the hell do you know about MY (REAL KOREAN) CULTURE anyway?”)

Now I have to wonder how honest my novel is–as it is written by a “fake Korean,” aka Korean American. Though really, I do not feel all that fake. What does he know about MY (REAL KOREAN) CULTURE anyway, right? His letter both pisses me off and humbles me. I can’t figure out how to navigate between the two extremes right now (it has not been too long since I received this email).

And before I get a history lesson on all this, I am not a stranger to this debate about “being Korean Korean” versus “Korean American” and the ambiguities of being a “gyopo” (a Korean living abroad, mostly referring to Korean Americans). I have gone to Korea many times, sometimes for one week, other times for months on end. My Korean (American) friends have been spat on in the streets of Seoul, I have been poked for not speaking perfect Korean, I am well aware that there is a divide. I have studied about it in my Asian American studies classes as an undergrad, I have lived it, I have witnessed it. I just thought, naively, that that divide had become less pronounced in this globalized world. (btw, I am not mentioning much of how wonderful Korea is, and how much I love my mother country, and how many ties I have to Korea. The minute I hit the tarmac at Kimpo and now Inchon airport, I feel a part of me truly home).

I have previously brought up my concerns about writers writing characters of another race, and I have now encountered the same issue in my own writing. I am Korean American–can I write about the “Korean” experience (at least the first couple of chapters is set IN Korea)? We’ll see. Will I piss off a lot of Koreans? Probably. Am I prepared for that possibility? Not really.

Now I have to practice what I preach. I feel humbled.

As an addendum, I take comfort in the fact that I am not alone in my concern about my authenticity. Daniel Alarcon, kick-ass writer and author of War by Candlelight wrote an essay in the Washington Post this past summer on the eve of his book’s debut in Peru. He is Peruvian American. And he writes:

I write about the country where I was born but not raised, using English, a language not spoken there except in classrooms and boardrooms. At times, I’ve flattered myself into thinking that I am writing from within the culture and that the language I use is a mere accident of migration, but clearly this is not true. My relationship to Peru is complicated by the fact that I am always translating. There are certain things I cannot know, and so I must invent the sense of them. This is the work of writing, I suppose, and I would be doing much the same if I were composing stories about my American childhood, though perhaps on another scale.

He continues:

In a few months, my first book of stories, War by Candlelight — published last year in the United States — will be published in Peru. I’ve been looking forward to the Spanish version anxiously. It’s not just a matter of worrying about how the translation will sound; it’s deeper than that. My incomplete knowledge of the place will be on display before critics who are least likely to be forgiving. To be panned by an American reviewer would probably have more of an impact on my career, but similar treatment at the hands of Peruvian critics might do more spiritual damage. I’ve taken what I know about a place, written it in English, and now those people depicted in the stories will have their say. Exoticism will not color their understanding of the work, and the stories will be read on their own merits. These readers will not be seduced by a pretty sentence or a well-observed detail: They will know instantly if the book is true or not, whether I have added something of substance to the discussion of Peru’s national trauma or have simply plagiarized our suffering.

He speaks the truth for sure. He ends his essay with “…how would a real Peruvian have felt?” It’s curious to note the use of “real” in his piece, and the email sent to me about my casual offhand blogpost.

Thank goodness for writers who continue to share their thoughts on what makes them quake to their very core. At least I know I’m not quaking alone, feeling like the impostor that I am!

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little earthquakes

(sorry tori amos, i stole your “little earthquakes” title)

2 earthquakes in the past 12 hours, 3 total this week. right under our house. what is the meaning of this? as for dogs being able to predict earthquakes, i’ll leave it for you to decide.

earthquake last night: dogs didn’t notice a thing.
earthquake this morning: one of my dogs jumped off the bed 5 minutes before it hit and hid under the bed. very unusual behavior. (well, unless he’s puking, bc that’s where he likes to go when he pukes). i did not hear him puking.

the other dog slept through both.

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maybe one more day

Well.  Last week I thought I had injured my boob in a kitchen accident.  I had surmised I’d gotten burned somehow.  The skin was reddened, I was experienced searing burning pain in waves with an overall sensitivity.  But over the last week, it’s become clear that the pain is not coming from burned skin but from somewhere underneath the skin, in my breast tissue.  And ugh, I feel a lump.  I don’t think it was there before last week, but who knows?  It might have been lurking for a few weeks.

I’m waiting for the pain to go away–maybe it will go away.  It’s getting uncomfortable, it’s annoying, and my body’s telling me this is a real problem that hasn’t gone away in a week’s time.  I guess I will be calling the doctor tomorrow.  I am the Queen of Denial (once, it took me 3 months to go to my doctor for colon cancer symptoms that I will not deign to list but you get the idea), and I hate having my bubble burst, but so be it.

Now I am sitting in the house alone imagining the worst and taking myself through the steps to prepare.

But of course, at the same time, I am IM’ing friends and chatting about anything else and of course, blogging.  Is it possible to be in denial and imagining the worst at the same time?  Or is this imagining stuff tied into denial?

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Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel Lecture

Reprinted at The New Yorker, Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel Lecture titled “My Father’s Suitcase” is one to definitely read.

(The title stands for the suitcase filled with his father’s writing–while Pamuk pursued a life of writing, his father chose to take a different route.  His speech makes me wonder if my own father has a suitcase (he has said to me all my life that he has a novel in his head that he’s been wanting to write–maybe he’s got it down, in pieces, in a suitcase). Of all the suitcase filled with writing in the world, and of the choices we make that lead us on different paths with our hidden stories).

Pamuk speaks of what it means to be a writer, too:

A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is. When I speak of writing, the image that comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or a literary tradition; it is the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward. Amid his shadows, he builds a new world with words. This man—or this woman—may use a typewriter, or profit from the ease of a computer, or write with a pen on paper, as I do. As he writes, he may drink tea or coffee, or smoke cigarettes. From time to time, he may rise from his table to look out the window at the children playing in the street, or, if he is lucky, at trees and a view, or even at a black wall. He may write poems, or plays, or novels, as I do. But all these differences arise only after the crucial task is complete—after he has sat down at the table and patiently turned inward. To write is to transform that inward gaze into words, to study the worlds into which we pass when we retire into ourselves, and to do so with patience, obstinacy, and joy.

He speaks of the writer’s best survival skills:

The writer’s secret is not inspiration—for it is never clear where that comes from—but stubbornness, endurance.

He so adeptly describes so much of the writing life that the loneliness of every writer is erased a bit after reading this.  I connected with this speech, and I hope you do too.  So much of his speech is filled with value that I could “excerpt” its entirety. But why don’t you go read it instead. :)

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