Tag Archives: creative writing

What I am learning

1.

TENABLE. IMMUTABLE. INDEXICAL. PHENOMENOLOGICAL.

How often I want to visit social media. And the call to be a “voice,” or something.

I see your phenomenological. I raise you EPIPHENOMENOLOGICAL.

How to decide what is worth your time, energy, and money.

How to use the phrase “ephemeral archive” as much as possible.

Trust yourself. Trust yourself. Trust yourself. There is nothing left.

How fraught these spaces—and really all spaces—are with our personal and professional expectations and desires. And the underlying social, cultural, historical, raced, classed, gendered expectations for behavior.

And the ensuing silence.

 

2.

Direct from the horse’s mouth, or bastardizations of what poetry professors have said–

-Make collages.

-Some people write with music, but I need to write with words around me. I find words.

-Then using a number system, I went through and killed poems.

-I would ask my dates, “Are you happy with your job?”

-Cut this word out.

-Image cul-de-sac.

-This voice feels authentic.

(This last one bothers me.)

 

3.

By showing up, I inherently pressure the Institution.

Better get used to it.

 

4.

I realize my life is rather “boring,” that most of the time I am looking for ways to spend time somewhere writing or with people talking about writing or listening to people read or perform writing. That when I look around Boulder, there is not much I feel drawn to do. (Mostly, one has the choice of school, the mountains, shopping. Boulder in three words.)

I think the secret now is to embrace this. How much more time can I reserve for writing– without becoming a complete recluse?

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Thank you from an almost thirty-year-old

When I was 16 going on 17, I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. When I was 16 going on 17, I tried to read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. That year in AP English, my teacher’s comment requesting that he keep my homework musings on home kept the tender embers of desire to be a writer alive. Thank goodness.

4 years later, I re-read Beloved in a Black Studies and literature course. The other young women and I marveled at our brilliant professor, especially as she was young, black, female, and did I say brilliant. That year I was applying for a teaching program and ripping down Teach 4 America posters on campus. My mentor and advisor stopped our meeting to make copies of bell hooks’ Teaching to Trangress. I didn’t know it then, but he was handing me yet another mentor. Thank goodness.

About 9 years later, I was teaching and learning about excerpts of Pedagogy of the Oppressed with middle schoolers. I had them playing with Morrison’s language to learn about poetic line breaks. These writers and thinkers paved the ground I walked on, and I kept their work alive, while stoking the fires in my young charges. They taught me how to break open my heart and let them in. They flood me to this day, and I have cried more than ever. Thank goodness.

About 13 years later, I am teaching undergraduates, and today I tacked up a collage of Kendrick Lamar reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eyes at my desk. Morrison was a poet, who became a professor, who wrote novels, who changed us. I ponder now about my work, my writing, and what’s next for me.

Age is a funny thing. While I am so ready to be 30, I am still 16 going on 17. Still eager, still social introvert, still reader, still laughter, still nervous and moving. But also, I am so not 16 going on 17. Not pining after some baseball player, not wishing to fit in with the right clothes, not wondering about college, not crying under the sheets, not anguishing about my thighs, not writing poems in a secret notebook. Nope. Now I talk too much sometimes. Now I risk not fitting in more. Now I cry in public—all the time. Now I love my body more than ever. Now I don’t wait for no man. Now I write poems in journals and journals and journals. Even read them aloud. Might even call myself an artist or something, sometimes.

***

Age in a funny thing. When my mother was 3 years older than me, she gave birth to my brother. About a year later, she gave birth to me. When I am 33, I may give birth to a book. About a year later, another. In her thirties, Toni Morrison raised two boys and wrote her first novel.

***

Age is a funny thing. Sandra Cisneros might call age an onion, layers on layers that you feel at times. I think it’s more like leaves on a tree, shimmering all at once in the wind. And as these leaves flutter and I stare—mesmerized in the sun—I am full of wonder, joy, appreciation. Disbelief.

When I was a toddler, I would cry when given gifts. I would overwhelm myself. I don’t know exactly why I cried at 3. Now at 30, I know I cry because I feel so much. I am full of all those who made me me, as I am becoming me. I am full of immense gratitude that my body cannot hold without release. So I cry. I cry because I am 3, I am 16 going on 17, I am 30. I cry because—thank you.

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Where is There freedom?

I begin this essay at the beginning of my second day of my MFA program. One orientation week and one day in, I am showered with opportunities to learn, to create, to publish. I am reminded that almost every hour I have here may be used as a choice– to study, to write, to play, to rest. Though I am a Teaching Assistant, I am utterly privileged to do essentially whatever I want with my time. While I relish in this, I also find the disparity of opportunities like these in institutions like these compared to what is available to the everyday working person, shameful. An MFA graduate once called his program’s financial support and outcomes an “embarrassment of riches,” though I think I am emphasizing a literal definition of “embarrassment” more than the writer.

Yet, in some ways, I came here for this, for learning, for tools, for writing time, for freedom. I reflect on how my applications to programs last fall discussed the value of protest poetry and literature as well as its trap. How do we speak to people? Move them? How do we maintain accessibility and become artists who break boundaries? How do we free ourselves from their and our expectations? When we write for freedom, do we find ourselves in another kind of trap?

Yesterday, I was given a sign that these are the right questions when I came across Ravi Shankar’s interview with Gregory Pardlo, where Pardlo says that Callaloo’s Creative Writing Workshops “have a more catholic conception of diversity. And in terms of the theoretical constructs of identity that you are talking about, I think we interrogate identity in a way that a simple statement ‘I am a black writer’ or ‘I am a white writer’ reduces me to a two-dimensional concept. There’s no way that term can contain the breadth of my worldview and my sense of myself. And yes, it is a kind of shorthand that we use to trade between people in order to arrive at some brief and quick understanding of one another, but if the conception of myself that I bring to the page is merely that ‘I am an X writer’ then it could be that I am limiting myself of that I am acquiescing to the bureaucratic logic of the very institutions I would oppose.”

Pardlo goes on to say, “The world on the page is not the world outside. The rules that apply in our social world, and yes, we need community, whether hyphenated or not, these shorthands are very useful out in the world, but on the page, my imagination needn’t be delimited by a particular worldview or cultural imperative.” Shankar replies, “Of course, your experience will be inflected by that perspective of being a person of color, but you’re saying that it doesn’t need to be overtly manifest. Not unless you want it to be.”

As much as our identities are important, we may be limiting ourselves when we write. Shankar and Pardlo discuss the importance of choice. What are you choosing to do? Can you weld writing intelligently– as a tool– with precision? Can you put down the tool and choose to write for some other purpose? Some other kind of freedom?

I hope so, and honestly, I write this today to reaffirm that amidst crazy-making interactions with a housemate; the very white and wealthy town I live in; and the perceptions of undergrads, peers, and professors, I can make choices. I am not only in a physical location I realize, but also in a new psychological moment (as well as a historical moment nationwide). A moment where I am checking how I present myself against how others may perceive and receive me. A moment where I remind myself I may want to hold my cards closer to the vest. A moment where my whole self may not be welcomed. A moment where my mistakes may alienate me further personally and professionally. “Further” as in beyond how my gender and race already push me aside or erase me. I have experienced these moments before, but now they come in a package called Graduate School.

But now I come with more experiences, insights, and tools to make choices.

I reaffirm to myself everyday and every night who I am. For the breaths I have the right to take. I reaffirm I can choose who will know me fully. I reaffirm my desire to approach the page for personal freedom. I reaffirm my desire to work and write for collective freedom. I know this is not some ideal of freedom, but I get to make some choices. I will not let it trap me– not protest literature, not this institution, not this place, nor this moment.

Lift up your head and keep moving, (keep moving)…

Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart

On my sleeve, let the runway start

You know the miserable do love company

What do you want from me and my scars?

Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence

How many times my potential was anonymous?

How many times the city making me promises?

So I promise this, nigga

And (I love my myself)

When you looking at me, tell me what do you see?

(I love myself)

-Kendrick Lamar

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Update: Write. Right? Right!

Hola mi gente. It’s been a minute, and I have news and reflections to share. First off, I’m going to graduate school! *Insert celebration here.* Not much to say about it except that it’s been a long time coming. As I turn 30 this year, there is nothing greater I could have done for myself except this radical act of self-acceptance.

Second piece of news– I wrote almost everyday in April for National Poetry Month. It was amazing how much came out of me. I didn’t like all of it, but much of it I did like. It even became overwhelming at some points to edit and transfer my writing onto the computer because there was so much to do. The good news is that I am writing, and it’s not stopping. The bad news is that I will probably always be playing catch-up with journals that need to be typed, poems that need to be edited, and collections of writing that want finalizing.

Third– I am committing myself to finishing a poetry collection in July before I leave the Bay Area for school. It will give me something to focus on this summer– as if preparing for an interstate move wasn’t enough to fill my time. It will also mean closing out a period of writing between my chapbook in 2012 and now. Just like graduate school, it is time, and I have more than enough material to shape.

So about this… I have at least two books worth of poems, at least. I also know that some poems are not worth publishing– whatever that means. How does one make peace with this? Decide that some part of you is worth more than another. What do you think? There is the organized and anxious part of me that wants to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and that I have consciously decided every word and not “lose” anything. Impossible. I suppose selecting poems is an exercise in humility, an acceptance that some things are not shaped in a way that is ready to share with the world. Or it’s an act of marketing, selecting the things one knows will sell or connect with readers? Or this agony is a part of art-making, the process in which one crafts a unit and deems it beautiful?

Either way, I am happy to have gleaned clarity and acceptance that I have been writing about two central subjects. I write about home, family, and being Vietnamese. I write about love and sex– think Sandra Cisneros’s Loose Woman. (I guess that’s five subject, oh well.) All of this, I imbue with ethnicity, race, gender, politics– obviously, memory, the body, place. 

It makes me envision what else I want to write. There are so many stories about Vietnamese or Vietnamese Americans connecting to a sense of two homelands and– of course– the Viet Nam War. I see this even more clearly now with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s books. I see the value in the topic, and I have read and will continue reading these writings. But where are the stories about second or even third generation Vietnamese Americans? What if the duality of two cultures no longer exists or at least isn’t felt consciously? I want to change our place in relation to immigration, not because the connection isn’t there, but because some of us are heavily “American.” And this means our language, our culture, the people are diverse. Where is the hip-hop in our stories, the activists marching with Bayan, the girls dating Mexicans? (Quick side note, I’ve been thinking too about Asian American “protest literature.” I don’t know what that looks like or if it already exists. Some may not consider it art, but it’ll be important to envision, both for writing it and escaping it.)

Okay, wrapping up. I am grateful to be where I am. I am excited. I am nervous too. At the end of the day, I am writing, and I am thinking about writing, all the time. I mark that as a win. It makes sense that entering an MFA program has allowed myself to claim my writer/creative identity even further (even if I held my breath last night when a friend introduced me as a writer). I am entering graduate school with a sense of what I write, what I want to write/read, and a deepened connection to writing. Awesome, right?

 

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