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Serving Two Masters: When a Teacher Tries to Become a Writer

I’ve been a teacher for 15 years. It wasn’t my first choice of profession, no, rather, I was somewhat pushed into it by circumstance, that circumstancing being my life in China. In 2003 a foreigner in China had few options. You could study Chinese, you could sing and dance onstage, or you could teach. Since my student days were over and I was not much of a singer, I chose teaching. Initially, like many foreigners, I was an English teacher, although after some years I carved out a niche for myself teaching AP History courses and eventually I transitioned into college application counseling.

Years later, when I returned to the USA, I had acquired my teaching license and set about finding a position teaching in public schools. My reasoning was that my career was built upon education, and people do not just up and switch career paths when they’re nearing 40. Especially not if they are trying to rebuild a life in the home country after nearly two decades abroad.

And so I became a teacher. In China, teaching was not a particularly taxing profession. For one, we were generally limited to 20 or so contact hours per week, with the rest of the time spent planning and grading. For another, teachers were well compensated, and college counselors even moreso. I left China with fifteen years in the educational sector, and that experience had granted me a comfortably lifestyle. I was able to balance teaching with my other hobbies, passions, and pursuits relatively easily. And while I never got serious about writing a novel while I was in China, I dabbled in creative writing all throughout my time there, with shorter pieces and novel fragments. I never felt like teaching impacted my ability to creative, to give my all to my craft.

Teaching in America has been something else entirely. Just at the time I was starting to get serious about finishing my novel and pursuing publication, I started working at a Texas public school district. My workload increased — I was usually teaching, or in contact with students, for at least 35 hours a week. While in China I had mostly worked with elite children who, while they had their issues, came from stable loving upper middle class homes. They were not coming to school hungry, or sore from beatings, nor were they working multiple jobs to provide for younger siblings. I never once, in China, dealt with a teen pregnancy. And while in China, the biggest behavioral issue I dealt with was perhaps an errant cell phone in class, in Texas I dealt with students snorting cocaine of the desks in the library. Teaching in the United States requires an almost unlimited capacity for empathy and creative problem solving, which, unfortunately, precisely what is required of a writer.

Are writing and teaching entirely incompatible? I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve managed to accomplish a lot on my school holidays, and I can be productive on the weekends when I’m not too burned out. Towards the end of a semester, though, writing gets hard. When I’ve already exhausted my emotional capacity during the day, I barely have enough of me left to give my actual children, much less the fictional children that inhabit my pages. Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I probably edited over 20,000 words of my first draft, but this work-week, I’ll be lucky if I can edit one fifth of that.

The parts of your brain that come into use when teaching and writing are frankly, too similar. While there are plenty of career teachers who have gone on to become successful writers, I think that most of us, at some point, are faced with a difficult choice: keep teaching, and allow our manuscripts to stagnate, taking years to finish what could be accomplished in months, or give up teaching, give up a lifelong career doing something important and meaningful, a career that is a source of stable income and personal satisfaction, in order to pursue writing more seriously.

Perhaps this is my end of semester burnout speaking, but recently I feel the pull towards my words more strongly than I feel the pull towards the classroom. Children deserve teachers whose heart is always there in that classroom, not teachers who are trying desperately to hold a tiny bit back for themselves, for their own creations. I feel immense guilt at my inability to be the kind of teacher that gives and gives and gives, but the truth is, I’ve given for a long time now. My words, perhaps, can be a gift as well, a different kind of giving.

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The Thief

The crowd at the bar had started out as a pulsating mass of  bodies, crammed onto the small dance floor, jumping up and down in time to the dance-hall reggae mixed by a skinny white boy in a backwards baseball cap. But it was well past midnight, and the crowd had now thinned to a smattering of die-hard drinkers, clustered around a few tables, talking in hushed tones occasionally punctuated by a laugh or a yell or the slam of a shot glass on the bar as a final round was ordered. The music calmed by degree, the dance hall giving way to Toots and the Maytals, giving way finally to Chinese folk rock by the Wild Children.

I sat with my boyfriend, Jun and the barkeep, Old Liu, and with another foreigner, an Australian named Blake. Jun was slumped drunkenly on the table, head resting on his forearms, while Blake and Old Liu talked quietly about what seemed to be a grave situation. I placed my hand gently on Jun’s back, and his eyes fluttered open.

“Let’s go,” I said, and he nodded.

I turned and took my bag from the back of my chair, and fumbled for my wallet so that I could settle up at the bar. I found my wallet, but noticed with a start that my cell-phone was gone. It was small Sony-Ericsson, cheap and functional, but precious nonetheless as my only means of communication in this country where cell-phones had replaced land-lines a good decade before they would do so back home. “My phone’s gone,” I said, panic entering my voice. Old Liu and Blake halted their conversation.

“When did you last see it?” Old Liu asked.

“I checked the time maybe a half an hour ago,” I said, frowning.

“The thief must still be here,” Old Liu declared. “No-one has left since then.” He looked around the room and narrowed his eyes at one table. Standing up he wasn’t much taller than me, but authority filled every inch of him as he swaggered over, pointing his finger at one man in particular. I recognized the man. He was an oddball sort who had been hanging around various tables all evening, latching on to foreigners to practice his English, but who didn’t seem to actually know anyone in the room.

“You,” he said, pointing aggressively at the man. “Empty your pockets.”

The man, intimidated, backed up, and the people at his table dispersed, disavowing him immediately, as if to say ‘we’ve nothing to do with this guy.’ “I didn’t do anything,” the man protested.

“Like hell,” Old Liu said. “I’m calling the police — you’re a thief.”

I shook Jun, who had fallen asleep again. “Jun,” I said. “Wake up. My phone is missing and Old Liu is picking a fight with that weird loner from earlier.”

Shenme shiqing? What’s going on?” He rubbed his eyes and sat up.

“Look,” I said. Old Liu now had the man in a hold and was marching him over to the bar, where the bartenders were darting their eyes back and forth at each other.

“Call the police,” Old Liu barked at them, and then to me, he added “Gen, come over here. I’ve got your phone thief.”

I pulled Jun up out of his chair and towards the bar with me. “Are you sure this is him?” I looked skeptically at Old Liu, who was holding the man’s arms behind his back. For his part, the man, a scrawny thing with thick glasses, shaggy hair, and an ill fitting blazer, looked terrified.

“I’m telling you, I didn’t take it,” he said.

“Where is the phone?” I asked, to no one in particular.

“He handed it off already,” Old Liu said, and spat on the floor. “But he’ll tell us where it is, don’t worry. The cops are on the way.”

“How do you know it is him?”

Old Liu fixed me with a frustrated look, and turned to Jun as if he could somehow explain this to me in a way I would understand. “This guy doesn’t know anyone, but he’s been hanging around all night long. If he’s not a thief, what the hell is he doing here?”

“I was just wanting to make some foreign friends,” the man’s voice rose an octave, in a panic. “I’m not a thief!”

“Shut up, thief,” said Old Liu. “Jun, want to give me a hand here?”

I don’t think Jun even heard Old Liu, as he was leaning heavily on my shoulder. “Tou hao yun,” he said. “My head is spinning. Can we get out of here?”

Old Liu sighed and rolled his eyes towards the heavens. “Unbelievable,” he said.

Luckily, or unluckily for the accused thief, the police appeared, and Old Liu explained the situation to them, while they wrote things in their little notepads. Jun slumped against me, barely awake.

“Gen, we need to go to the station and give them a statement,” Old Liu said.

“It’s fine,” I protested. “Really, I’ll get a new phone. It isn’t a big deal.”

Wrong answer. Old Liu glowered at me. “I caught your thief, now we have to make sure he is punished.”

“Look at him though,” I said, gesturing to Jun. “He’s barely conscious.”

“Put him in a taxi and send him home! He’s not your responsibility.”

“He’s my boyfriend,” I said, and Old Liu scoffed.

I narrowed my eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, nothing. Come on, we’ve got to go.”

Knowing I was beat, I shook Jun off of my shoulder once again. “We need to go to the police,” I said. “I’ll meet you back at home, ok?” I turned to Blake, who was still standing by, watching the entire scene play out, looking equal parts amused and alarmed. “Help me get him home,” I said. “You know where I live.”

“Of course Gen,” said Blake. “You go deal with this thief, your boy will be fine, I’ll tuck him in for you safe and sound.”

I frowned, not sure if Blake was mocking me or not, but too tired and annoyed with the entire situation to care. “Let’s go,” I said to Old Liu.

We followed the police around the corner, walking to the station, which was perhaps a block or two away, not far. This was one thing I loved about our city in those days. It was imminently walkable. We passed a late night barbecue stand, and my stomach grumbled at the smell of roast mutton. Maybe I’d get a few meat sticks on the way back, I thought.

When we arrived at the police station, the police had me fill out a report, which I only managed with the help of Old Liu filling in the characters I couldn’t remember. Then, one policeman, an older man, perhaps fifty, with greying hair and a potbelly, took Old Liu aside and said something to him quietly, gesturing down the hall, and then gesturing towards me. I couldn’t hear the details of their exchange, but it made me nervous nonetheless. Old Liu walked over and placed a hand on my shoulder. “We should interrogate the suspect now,” he said.

“We?” I said, confused. “You mean the police?”

“No, not the police. Me. You.”

“I don’t want to interrogate anyone,” I said, panicking now. “I don’t know how to do that.”

“We don’t interrogate with words, Gen,” he said. His manner was patient, but I felt the fool anyhow, unable to grasp this seemingly simple situation. He sighed. “I can do it, you watch.”

It dawned on me what Old Liu meant, and I shook my head. “I don’t want to watch.”

Old Liu nodded, as if my frailty in this regard was altogether expected, and he was simply waiting for the confirmation he needed. “Then you wait out here, I will do it.”

I didn’t answer him, not wanting to appear as if I condoned this turn of events. I felt, at once, deeply uncomfortably with what was likely taking place, and the gin I’d drank early churned in my stomach. I didn’t quite understand why Old Liu was so intent on punishing this maybe-thief, and I was even less clear as to why the police were allowing him to interrogate, as he put it, the man himself. I paced the hallway, wondering if perhaps I should just go home, when finally he emerged, knuckles clenched and reddened, and nodded at the police officer who stood at the doorway. “He’s yours now,” Old Liu said. “I’m done.”

“Is that it? Did he confess?” I tried to peer through the doorway, but the officer was blocking my view.

Old Liu shook his head. “Stubborn goat,” he said. “Ready?”

“Yes,” I said, eager to leave this place. The fluorescent lights were too bright, the walls too white, and I had a strong sense of wrongness, of being somewhere I was not meant to be, seeing things not meant for my eyes. With a nod to the police officers, Old Liu and I went out into the cool night air, leaving the thief behind us.

I passed by the barbecue stand again on the way back, but I turned away, now the opposite of hungry, and hurried down the street. At the corner, I bade Old Liu goodbye, and thanked him for his help.

Yinggai de,” he said, and belatedly, I understood. He’d done his duty, shown me his loyalty. I was a friend, and for me, he would do what needed to be done. The thief himself was inconsequential.

When I returned to my apartment, I found Jun sprawled facedown on my bed, still in his clothes and shoes. I quietly untied the laces and pulled them off, and then, kicking my own shoes and jeans off, I curled up next to him. He stirred slightly beside me and turned around, pulling me tight into his arms. I buried my head in Jun’s chest, breathing in the cigarette smoke and whiskey scent of him, and tried to forget the frightened eyes of the thief.

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Writing and the Sunk Costs Fallacy

Not many people know this, but my current manuscript started off as something else entirely. I was about 90k words into the novel, a character driven fantasy set in the foothills of the Himalayas, when I decided I needed to rewrite the thing entirely, reworking my point of view character, my protagonist, even my tense. My antagonist became my protagonist, my past tense narrative became present tense, my third person became first person. The end result (I am on the second draft now) is barely recognizable as the same novel, and yet it is, objectively, a much much stronger piece.

 
If you’re pondering a re-write but are reluctant to actually commit, likely you’re struggling with something known as the “sunk costs fallacy.” The sunk costs fallacy is the impulse that tells us to keep waiting for the bus because we’ve already been waiting for twenty minutes so if we give up now, that twenty minutes will have been wasted. The sunk costs fallacy tells us we need to stay at a job we hate because we’ve already been there for five years and if we switch tracks now we’ll have wasted those five years. It tells a couple who has been together for a decade that they can’t break up now because then the previous ten years will have been for nothing. For us writers, the sunk costs fallacy tells us that because they’re already 90k words into a novel they had better see it out to the end, otherwise those 90k words will have been wasted.

 
The truth is, when we invest time, resources, and emotional energy into something, we often hold onto it a lot longer than we otherwise should. We have an attachment to that thing that is no longer connected to the happiness we get from it or the utility it brings, it is purely based upon an irrational idea that giving up on this thing will signify that all previous time spend on said relationship, project, job, or book will have been a ginormous waste. Herein lies the fallacy: whether or not I decide to rewrite my novel, the time I spent on it is irrevocably lost. Continuing to write a novel that I probably should re-write is not going to make the previous time I spent on it any more valuable, any more than continuing in a dead end relationship will justify the previous time spent in the relationship. The costs — time, money, energy, emotion — are sunk already. They’ve been spent, they’re gone, and they’re not coming back. We can sink more costs into them, or we can change track, taking the lessons we’ve learned from the first go round to our new endeavor.

 
The 90k words I previously wrote were not a waste. Through them, I realized what my narrative was lacking. Namely, the plot was meandering because my main character lacked a clear purpose. You know who did have a clear, and actually rather sympathetic purpose? My antagonist did! Without those 90k words though, I would not have thought of the story in those terms. It became extremely clear to me, almost from the moment that I had the idea, that I needed to do this re-write. The story came together in a much more coherent way, and when I sat down to write it, what came out of my fingers was first person present tense. I showed the sample to a critique partner, asking if the POV and tense, which was not my usual, worked, and I got a resounding thumbs up. So I kept going, and committed to the re-write.

 
Chances are, if you’re considering a major change, whether it be in your manuscript or in life, somewhere inside you already know that a change needs to take place. When my manuscript just isn’t working on a fundamental level, I know, and while I can try to convince myself otherwise, ultimately I’m just prolonging the inevitable. The thing about sunk costs is that the longer you delay the change, the more those costs accumulate. Every day that I spend toiling over a dead-end manuscript is a day that I spend not fixing the problem, not making progress. My writerly advice to my readers is this: do it. Take the plunge. Rewrite the thing from page one. Don’t worry about wasted time or energy or emotion because it’s already wasted and you’re not getting it back. The only thing you can influence, from here on out, is the project’s future outcome. You know what’s got to be done, so give yourself permission to go ahead and do it.

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Marrow and Bone

Sometimes I miss China so much I can’t breathe. I get a panicky sort of feeling, as if my old life is drifting into the background and soon will become nothing more than an anecdote told affectionately at holiday gatherings. “When we lived in China …” “Back when we were in China…” I cling to every scrap of the country that so generously transformed me from a ridiculous adolescent child to a slightly less ridiculous adult, and I crave what I can no longer have. If my memories are air, I gulp them in deep breaths, reminding myself that this happened.

People who are of two places know well this unique and exquisite sorrow. China was my home for a decade and a half, and it created me — not the same way it created my husband. He was born in the 70s to the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, to a farming village in the southeast part of Yunnan, to the banks of the Nanpanjiang river that claimed his oldest cousin, to tanks rolling through the Yunnanese hills, off to fight the Vietnamese in a forgotten war, to a birth policy that forced family members to commit atrocities, to a new China that had no place for the likes of him. China shaped his very being. He is Chinese, of China, in a way that I will never be.

Still, China created me in a different way. People who are of two places know this dual creation. When you arrive in your new country, you are born again. You learn a new language and stumble, like an overgrown child, through basic interactions — buying apples from a seller on the street, hailing a taxi, paying your bills. Everything simple is complex anew. Slowly, you learn a new way of being, new rules of interaction. If you stay there long enough, those ways, those rules, they become your own. My husband is now reborn in America — learning anew how to be. In your new country there are small revelations almost constantly, until one day, there aren’t. Nothing surprises you, because you too, are a part of the surprise.

How can I explain this to other people, people who have only ever experienced that one life on their own shores? I moved to China before cell-phones, before Twitter, before Facebook. I moved to China during the Bush years, during the Iraq war. When Obama was elected, I was in China. When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, I was in China. When Donald Trump took office, then too, I was in China. While people back home experienced — whatever they experienced (I still cannot even properly say what the touchstone events of the Western world were, I was not there.  A decade and a half of current events, hit songs, actors, shows, fims, memes … I do not know) — I experienced SARS. The Sichuan Earthquake. The Beijing Olympics. Riots in Tibet. The terror attack on the Kunming train station. The rise of Xi Jinping. I’ve never taken a cross country trip in my own country, but I’ve traveled the length and breadth of China. I speak the language — speak a dialect even. To look at me, I am wholly American, but there is a segment of my soul, fifteen years long, that belongs to another place.

To be of two places is to forever miss one or the other. When I was in China, there were days I longed for my home soil. For the salty air of the Carolina coast. For the ambient sound of my own language, effortlessly understandable. For the tastes of home — butter and cheese and beef. For the right to vote, for the right to participate in government, for the ability to speak out. I longed for those things too. An now, in America, my longing turns the other way. The smoky smell of the village. The incessant popping of firecrackers. The taste of rice noodles and fermented tofu. The mountains. The music. The sound of the dialect that I fear I will lose. Even things I am not supposed to miss. Is it terrible to admit that sometimes I miss the order of an authoritarian state, the near surety that no gun would ever harm me? (I know, it is my privilege, my husband’s Han Chinese privilege, that we had this surety. Others do not. In America too, I am privileged with the freedom that others do not have).

Today, my children willfully forget their mother tongue. I once fretted that they would never speak English, but now, Chinese eludes them. My husband and I speak to them in the harsh fourth tones of the Kunming dialect, desperate to preserve what America would have them forget. “What’s the use?”  They say. Indeed. What’s the use of memory? When I write, my memories flow, they wreck my heart with longing, but no matter how many pages I fill, they will never be enough. China is not yours to write, still others say, and they are right. It is not my own. It is only that part of my soul that China created that I can lay claim to. And so, again and again, I return to China on the page, sucking out the marrow of my second life like it were a great soup-bone (yes, I ate those too, with straws and plastic gloves. If you know, you know). I suck and I gnaw, but the flavor of the bone never fades, the marrow still flows.

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Lessons From Film School: Dialogue

Not too many people in my current life know this about me, although in my old life it was common knowledge: I started out university as a film major. A film major at not just any film school either, at the University of Texas Radio-TV-Film school, which consistently ranked among the top five film schools in the nation. I wanted to be a director or a screenwriter — I hadn’t settled on which. Film school had not been easy to get into, and it turned out it was even harder to complete in any kind of reasonable time frame, full of upper level classes restricted to ten students out of fifty competing for slots. After I spent a semester studying abroad in China, I got bit by the expat bug and was hungry to leave the United States again, hungry and impatient. I changed my major to Asian Studies and never looked back.


Well, that’s not quite true. Sometimes I look back. I wonder what might have happened if I had stayed the course. One of my old cohort moved to L.A. after school and became a producer. Another stayed in Austin, but still in the industry. Perhaps, I too, could have made a career out of film, but I chose China instead. So, although I sometimes did look back, it was never with regret, because China changed my life and made me who I am. I probably made a good choice.


However, film school left me with some habits, and studying screenwriting taught me enough to know, as a writer, that fiction writing and screenwriting are two entirely different beasts. There is some crossover, though. Although I sometimes cringe when I read fiction writing blogs or internet posts that seem to draw their examples entirely from film, television and anime, my background in film wasn’t entirely useless to me as a writer. So, without anymore preamble, I present to you the writing lessons I learned from film school.


The most important lesson I learned from film school is probably the most obvious one — the importance of dialogue. As a former screenwriter, I learned to write lines and lines of snappy and concise dialogue, the kind of dialogue that is filled with subtext, that hardly needs any filler. In fact, I took the dialogue lesson so much to heart that there are times when I know that my dialogue more resembles the dialogue of a screenplay — spare with description, no dialogue tags — and I’ve had to go back and clean it up. Here’s the thing though — it is easier, in almost all cases, to add than to subtract. A writer who can learn to write tight, clean dialogue without all of the fussy descriptions can add in necessary descriptions and tags usually more more easily than the same the same writer can edit out or pare down descriptions.


But the lack of description isn’t what makes film dialogue unique. Good screenwriting conveys in dialogue only the necessary information, no filler, while still (and this is the important part) telling us precisely what kind of character we’re dealing with. Every line is leading us towards the inevitable conclusion. Take this exchange from Alan Sorkin’s The Social Network:

Eduardo Saverin:
They’re saying, the Winklevoss twins are saying that you stole their idea.

Mark Zuckerberg:
I find that to be a little more than mildly annoying.

Eduardo Saverin:
Oh? Well, they find it to be intellectual property theft. Why didn’t you show this to me?

Mark Zuckerberg:
[flippantly] It was addressed to me.

Eduardo Saverin:
They’re saying that we stole theFaceBook from Divya Narendera and the Winklevosses.

Mark Zuckerberg:
[trying to grab the letter out of Eduardo’s hands] I know what it says!

Eduardo Saverin:
Did we?

Mark Zuckerberg:
Did we what?

Eduardo Saverin:
Don’t screw around with me now. Look at me!

Mark Zuckerberg:
[Mark begrudgingly looks up at him]

Eduardo Saverin:
The letter says we could face legal action.

Mark Zuckerberg:
No, it says I could face legal action.

Eduardo Saverin:
This is from a lawyer Mark, they must feel they have some grounds.

Mark Zuckerberg:
The lawyer is their father’s house council!

Eduardo Saverin:
Do they have grounds?

Mark Zuckerberg:
The grounds are our thing is cool and popular and HarvardConnection is lame! Wardo, I didn’t use any of their code, I promise. I didn’t use anything! Look, a guy who builds a nice chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who ever has built a chair, okay? They came to me with an idea, I had a better one.

Eduardo Saverin:
Why didn’t you show me this letter?

Mark Zuckerberg:
I didn’t think it was a big deal.

Eduardo Saverin:
[sighs before sitting down beside Mark] Okay, if there’s something wrong. If there’s ever anything wrong, you can tell me, I’m the guy that wants to help. This is OUR thing. Now, is there ANYTHING that you need to tell me?

Mark Zuckerberg:
[very pointedly] No.

The dialogue, even without context, is packed with subtext about the relationship between Mark and Eduardo, even foreshadowing the eventual downfall of the relationship that ends with Eduardo being pushed out of a company that Zuckerberg essentially saw as his and his alone. It tells us a lot about Zuckerberg himself — his way of pushing others away, his arrogance, he refusal to take any challenge seriously. It’s a brief exchange, but every line is essential.  


Not only is screen dialogue tight, it tends to be quite voice-y, giving important hints about character that cannot be delivered through expository detail. Is the character a cynical sort, full of sarcastic quips? A worrier? A nurturing type? Personality is often conveyed through dialogue in film because dialogue is, while not the only tool the filmmaker has to convey what kind of person the character is, it is perhaps the most powerful one. One of my favorite films in my film school days was P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights. The film tells the story of a sort of found family of pornography actors and directors and has probably some of the most memorable characters to come out of the rich cinema scene of the late 90s. The loveable screw up of a main character, a bright eyed teenager whose stage name is, ridiculously, Dirk Diggler, is brought to life entirely by Anderson’s dialogue, masterfully delivered by Mark Wahlberg.

One of my favorite quotes from the movie comes from a point in the film when Dirk is near his peak as a porn star, when his dreams are coming true and his ego is growing along with his fame: “What can you expect when you’re on top? You know? It’s like Napoleon. When he was the king, you know, people were just constantly trying to conquer him, you know, in the Roman Empire. So, it’s history repeating itself all over again.” The film never lets us forget — Dirk just isn’t that bright. He has more charisma, ambition and energy, than he has sense. How does the film show us this? Through Dirk’s words. The muddled historical allusions show us Dirk’s bluster, his need to be seen as a someone, his almost desperate desire to impress, to be a somebody (several times througout the film, Dirk repeats his mantra “I’m a star, I’m a star, I’m  big bright shining star.”). At the same time, the line reinforces the idea that, although Dirk may be at the pinnacle of his career, he is, for all of his aspirations, for all his bluster, nothing more than a porn star.


While film dialogue and novel dialogue are not always the same beast, there are lessons in dialogue writing that any aspiring fiction writer can take to heart. The ability to write tight narratives and dialogue that drives the story forward, rather than meandering along aimlessly is a skill that every writer, no matter the medium, must eventually master. In film, because of built in time constraints, this becomes absolutely imperative, but the novelist will also find that these lessons are not wasted on fictional dialogue either. Ultimately, as writers, or job is to push the story forward while building characters and creating atmosphere. Our characters own words can be the best tools to do just that.

Characters, General Writing, Uncategorized

Transparency and the Writer

Recently, together with my online student, a seventeen year old boy from Guiyang, I’ve been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, Talking to Strangers. While generally audiobooks are not my thing, Gladwell’s book is a different sort of audiobook altogether. More like a podcast, Talking With Strangers explores all of the ways we perceive and misperceive people we don’t know, using interviews, stories, and research. While most of the chapters are fascinating, for this writer, chapter 3 in particular, entitled “Transparency,” was particularly enlightening.

Transparency in psychological terms, refers to how well a person’s personal mental or emotional state understood by others. The illusion of transparency is the idea that most of us tend to overestimate how well others can perceive our emotional or mental state — that is, we believe that others can tell when we are happy, sad, angry, confused, etc. We believe that our facial expressions, actions, and body language are expressive enough that our mood should be “transparent” even without us saying anything.

Talking to Strangers refers to a study done by Carlos Crivelli in which he showed pictures of various facial expressions to Spanish schoolchildren. When the schoolchildren saw a face with a downturned mouth, they were easily able to identify the face as sad. Wide open eyes and an open mouth indicated fear, knit brows indicated anger, etc. This is unsurprising, of course. These are the same expressions that writers routinely use to express emotions in our own stories. “He knit his brows in confusion.” “Her eyes widened” “Her mouth dropped open.” They’re also the expressions we see actors use when they are portraying an emotional moment.

Crivelli then showed the same photographs to Trobriand islanders, whom he’d been living with and studying for some time. Crivelli had learned their language and had been accepted in Trobriander society — the people trusted him, and what’s more, Crivelli spoke their language and was able to understand their responses without complicated secondhand interactions. However, the islanders response to the pictures was The Trobriand islanders did not identify the same emotions as the Spanish schoolchildren at all. Where the Spanish schoolchildren saw fear, the Trobriand Islanders saw aggression. The only emotion that showed any sort of consistency was happiness — it seems the Spanish schoolchildren and the Trobriand islanders both recognized a smile as a sign of happiness. In order to confirm his suspicions, Crivelli and his team traveled to Mozambique and did the same experiment with a group of fishermen known as the Mwani. The results were similar — while the Mwani recognized a smile as a sign of happiness, frowns, scowls, raised eyebrows, and open mouths were all interpreted in a variety of ways, none of which corresponded with the responses of the Spanish schoolchildren.

The obvious conclusion seems to be that facial expressions are culturally bound, but as it turns out, the obvious conclusion in this case is not necessarily the correct conclusion. While it is true that different cultures seem to have different perceptions of what a surprised face or a sad face should look like, the reality is that even within the same culture, we have trouble identify emotions through facial expressions. Talking to Strangers discusses the experiment done by two German psychologists, who put participants into a shocking situation and had them rate how surprised they were at the exact moment the shocking image appeared, and then compared the self-rating to a still photograph taken at the same moment. Very few of the participants faces showed the classic “surprised” face with an dropped jaw, wide eyes, and raised eyebrows. Instead, their faces showed a variety of different expressions. And this is where the illusion of transparency comes in. All of these people believed that their shock and surprise would be written all over their faces for everyone to see — but it wasn’t. An observer looking at the still photos of the participants, devoid of context, would not have recognized the emotion on their faces as surprise.

According to Gladwell, our facial expressions are a kind of folk psychology. Drama and fiction have reinforced the association of certain facial expressions with certain emotions and so we believe these are the actual expressions. It turns out, however, that our expressions are, if not arbitrary, than at least somewhat distinct and unpredictable. For the writer, the implications of this are clear — the facial expressions and gestures that we’ve painstakingly studied (how many of us have a copy of the Emotion Thesaurus? I know I do) in order to add realism to our characters may have nothing at all to do with actual emotions our characters are meant to be feeling.

Does this mean that we should discard these typical emotional signifiers as writers? Not necessarily. After all, regardless of whether they’re folk psychology or not, readers understand these facial expressions as universal. However, I can’t help but think of all of the possibilities this knowledge opens up. Instead of my character widening their eyes in surprise, I might give them idiosyncratic mannerisms. Although I would have to establish context, why couldn’t I write something like, “A always furrowed her brows when she was surprised, B had noticed”? And of course writers do like this, but what these studies show us is that these sentences would actually be more accurate than one depicting the typical expression of surprise.  Listening to this chapter, I felt a sense of possibilities unfolding.

Like most of us, I’d accepted the idea that emotions are universal and that facial expressions naturally reflected certain emotions. To learn that, if I was writing an ancient Roman historical fiction I would technically be inaccurate if I wrote, for instance, a Roman centurion frowning in consternation, was a bit of a surprise. However, the power of the written word is such that fictional depictions of emotional reactions have created a sort of template for an expected emotional reaction that have nothing to do with what the subject is actually feeling.

This template is what causes the “illusion of transparency” and makes us think we are so much better at discerning another person’s emotional state than we actually are. In fact, according to Gladwell, we are terrifically bad at reading each other’s faces. Many of history’s great misunderstandings have come from this sort of confidence in our own ability to read others (Gladwell gives the example of Chamberlain famously declaring that Hitler seemed like a trustworthy and honest person, and Hitler then proceeding to make a complete fool of Chamberlain). Thinking about each time that I may have written something along the lines of “I could tell by the way her face did X that she felt Y,” I couldn’t help but laugh. In fact, the idea of transparency has unlocked for me all sorts of opportunities for glorious misunderstandings and conflict. What more could a writer want?

Diversity, Uncategorized

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t?

If you’ve ever been in an online writing community discussing diversity, likely you’ve seen the phrase “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” once or twice (or twenty times) in various discussions over the past few years. The usual complaint, mostly from white writers, is something along the lines of “I’m expected to write diverse characters, but when I do, I’m accused of appropriation or tokenism! What’s a writer to do?”

If you argue with these people, they will have sad stories about how they were attacked online when they revealed their intention to write a story set in feudal Japan, or how the Black sidekick in their story was called a token character (the Black sidekick didn’t even die first, she died second, so what was the problem?!). They’ll tell you that they were directed by agents to make their stories more diverse OR ELSE but they have no idea how to do this while still avoiding criticism because, you guessed it, they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

While the “damned if they don’t” portion of the phrase is certainly debatable, there are many in the publishing industry who believe that increased diversity in fiction is a good and positive thing. The diversity reflected in the books published today reflect the diversity of the world we live in, and writing diversity opens up greater opportunities for marginalized people to see themselves represented in the books they read. So, even if writers who do not write diversity are not exactly “damned,” writing diversity is certainly encouraged. Although I certainly take issue with the idea that this diversity is somehow forced of required of writers, I do agree that publishing is better off for having (at least partially) embraced the idea of representation for all.

So what about the “damned if they do?” Are authors who, having given into the inevitability of being “forced” to write diverse books then persecuted for not doing it correctly? Perhaps, a better question is: if writers approach the very idea of writing diversity from the perspective of having been “forced” to do something they never wanted to do in the first place, what are the chances that they’ll do their diverse characters justice? In fact, if someone approaches writing diverse worlds and populating them with diverse characters with willingness and an open mind, then writing diversity well isn’t really all that difficult.

I could write entire essays on how to avoid cultural appropriation, tokenism, and bad representation, but before a writer can tackle any of these (very important) questions, the writer must first must make sure that the attempt at writing marginalized groups is made in good faith. If the writer is only grudgingly including a few marginalized characters in order to ward off the haters, then the accusation of tokenism is sure to follow because your diverse characters are by nature just that — tokens. If you want to avoid being accused of writing token characters, don’t treat your characters as items on a checklist that you tick off in order to avoid criticism.

Likewise, while avoiding cultural appropriation can be tricky, at the heart of the matter is a very simple principle: respect. The writer must show true respect for the cultures and people they choose to represent. Once more, someone who believes they have been “forced” or “damned” to write diversity is unlikely to treat their subjects with the respect they deserve. These might be the writers who believe that being anime fans gives them the freedom and expertise needed to write about Japan, or who writes about First Nations cultures with only the barest knowledge imparted by the mainstream culture, not bothering to do in-depth research. These writers might defensively say “it’s all fiction anyhow, why do I have to be accurate?” There are complicated and interesting answers to those questions that have to do with colonialism and power dynamics, but the simple answer has to do with respect. If you respect another culture, you attempt to it justice.

A big part of the problem lies in the assumption that a writer, white or otherwise, must always produce something that is above criticism, and that all criticism must be avoided. Instead seeing criticism as an opportunity for growth, a chance to do better next time, the criticism is seen as a condemnation. The recipient of this criticism becomes bitter in a way that does not seem to happen with other types of criticism. If I criticize a writer’s plot or characterization, a writer may thank me and make necessary adjustments, but if I criticize the same writer’s depiction of marginalized groups, the bad-faith writer will take this as further evidence of “damned if you do damned if you don’t.”

In defense of the criticism-wary writers, their apprehension is somewhat understandable in a world where Twitter outrage often takes on a life of it’s own and a stray insensitive or unthoughtful remark can undo years of goodwill. Whether or not this is particularly likely to happen to any given writer is a topic for another day, but many writers seem to take the mere possibility of such a thing as a good excuse not to even try. In fact, often in the face of social-media outrage, good faith acceptance of criticism can go a long way towards dousing even the hottest flames.

It seems to me that the “damned if you do,” is often a direct result of taking the “damned if you don’t” approach to writing diversity. If writers approach writing diversity as an opportunity to make their work more dynamic, realistic, and frankly, interesting, instead of approaching it as a task or a chore, they’re more likely to approach it with the sensitivity and respect necessary to write diversity well. The writer writing in good faith, who is willing to accept criticism for the mistakes they make and who vows to listen and do better next time truly has nothing to fear.

Diversity, General Writing, Marketing, Publishing, Uncategorized

Lies Writers Tell Themselves: Forced Diversity

When it comes to diversity, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around in writerly circles. Much of this misinformation takes the form of reactionary strawmen, creating scenarios that make victims out of the (usually white) writers who are resistant to recent changes in the publishing industry and thus the status quo. These writers feel threatened by an increased awareness of the need for diversity.

One of the biggest strawmen is the idea of so-called “forced diversity,” the idea that publishers now refuse to publish manuscripts that are not sufficiently diverse, that editors are asking writers to re-write manuscripts to change the race or sexuality of a character, that agents who specifically request diverse or #ownvoices stories are rejecting everything else. When this argument comes up, righteous indignation usually follows, with grumblings about the author’s artistic vision, censorship, and lots of “how dare they tell me what to write.” Hand-wringing about cancel culture and the perils of being a white writer are usually not far behind, the sense of being “damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” being a major theme.

Here is something that is a fact: for as long as the publishing industry has existed, it has been dominated by white voices. While there have been amazing books written by marginalized voices over the years, publishing itself is a an industry that is predominated by upper middle class white people. A 2015 Publishers Weekly study showed that the industry itself is 79% white, and the editorial departments were 82% white. With publishing so overwhelmingly white, it is hard to take any claims of white victimhood particularly seriously. A look at the current New York Times bestseller list reveals 9 out of 10 books on the adult fiction book list were written by white authors and feature white protagonists. Does it really look like diversity is being forced upon authors who have no interest in writing diversity? Hardly. The idea that the white author is somehow at a disadvantage seems more a case of sour grapes, a ready-made excuse for the endless stream of rejection letters, than any reflection of the actual state of the publishing industry.

That all said, it is true that there has been some effort on behalf of publishing to become more diverse. Agents frequently include diverse books and the #ownvoices hashtag in their wish-lists. Certain segments of the industry are more diverse than others — YA, for instance, on the same New York Times Bestseller list, had 7 out of 10 white authors on the list, and of those there were stories featuring other types of marginalization — namely sexuality and disability. Still though, white authors are in no danger of being pushed aside, still occupying a full 70% of the bestseller list.

The argument about non-marginalized writers being forced to alter their vision to suit the demands of diversity crazy editors and agents also fails to hold up to any close scrutiny. Although this little bit of urban myth seems to get passed around writer circles, I’ve heard no first-hand accounts of an author directly being told “we’ll publish your book if you make the main character Black” or “I’ll accept you as a client if you make the romance gay.” What seems more likely is that authors have heard, perhaps from beta-readers, perhaps from critique partners, and perhaps even from agents, that their book lacks diversity and might be improved if more diversity was added. This isn’t forced diversity, this is a suggestion for improvement.

It has always amused me that artistic integrity and the sacred vision of the author suddenly becomes so much more important when suggestions are made about diversity than anything else. If an editor suggests that a character is unrealistic as portrayed, and that perhaps the author might give that character a different job, or a different socio-economic background, most writers will not take offense. But suggest that a character should be another race or a different sexual orientation (because after all, diversity adds realism to our fictional worlds, reflecting the world in which we live), and authors suddenly are very concerned about their artistic integrity. The former, it seems, is an acceptable example of the editor giving corrections, whereas the latter is an example of an editor trying to control the author.

Authors, understand this: if someone suggests your book would be improved by the addition of diversity, they are not trying to challenge your authorial vision. They’re not trying to force diversity on you. The person who suggests this — beta reader, critique partner, editor, agent — is telling you that your work does not reflect the world we live in. In the real world, people are not all white, all heterosexual, all cis-gendered. In real life, there’s a guy with a wheelchair buying cereal at the supermarket, there’s a woman wearing a hijab working at the bank, there’s a teacher named Chang at your high school and lesbian couple dropping their son off at daycare. For too long publishing has reflected a warped vision of the real world, and if now it seeks to self-correct, this is not an attack on the non-marginalized writer, but a long overdue chance for the industry to ensure that all readers will see themselves reflected in the books they read.

Because at the heart of the matter is this — diversity and representation matters, and it matters more than the hurt feelings or the righteous indignation of non-marginalized writers, and not just for lofty reasons either. Publishing is, first and foremost, a business, and marginalized individuals are customers too. At the end of the day, the writer may indeed write according to their own “artistic vision” but the publisher too will purchase what sells. If diversity, right now, is selling, then it is a reflection of a demand on the part of a significant segment of the population to see themselves represented in what they read.

If diversity is forced, then it is forced by the readers themselves, and ultimately, publishing is an industry that serves the needs of the reader, rather than the ego of the writer.

Uncategorized

My 9 Year Old Writes Fanfic

My nine year old daughter, Annika, has sat beside me many evenings and watched me typing away at my computer. At first, she would simply watch. Later, as she became more curious about what her mother was up to, she started to ask questions — what are you writing? What are your characters’ names? What’s happening in your story now? Finally, she brought her iPad over to me and asked if I could put a “writing program” on it. I gave her Google docs and handed it back, and she announced that she was going to write with me. So now, not every day, but occasionally, when I start writing, Annika will come and sit beside me, and she’ll write as well.

What does a 9 year old write, you might ask? Well, my nine year old writes fan-fiction. In particular, she writes fan-fiction for the series Warriors, which is about sentient cats and the battles between different cat clans, and the similar series Wings of Fire, which is about sentient dragons. She has her own OCs (original characters, for the uninitiated), she’s involved in the fan group on the app Amino, where she posts her stories for likes and feedback, and she also draws fan art.

Myself, I’ve never written fanfiction, not technically. True, my first attempt at a novel was practically Star Trek fanfiction, but the universe was ultimately not the Star Trek universe. When I was nine I didn’t know anything of fandom, but I also wrote stories based upon one of my favorite topics — in my case, ancient Egypt. In fact, I wrote an entire play in five acts based upon the lives of the pharaohs and their queens.  So it didn’t surprise me that my daughter would write about her favorites — the cats and dragons that populate the novels she reads.

Some writers look down on fan-fiction, and I’m sure there are some author moms who would encourage their children to write original fiction instead of fan-fiction. However, I’m not one of them. Although I’m not a fanfic writer myself, I am an English teacher. I work every day with teenagers, many of whom are reluctant to write anything at all, and many of them are incredibly intimidated by the idea of writing creatively. “I can’t think of what to write about,” they say. My daughter, at nine years old, already has made writing a habit and a hobby. Although currently she’s writing fanfiction, I have no doubt that with age and maturity, she’ll be able to transfer the skills she picked up with her fan-fiction writing to original works.

Fan-fiction, to me, is like a pair of training wheels for a young writer. Because the intimidating business of creating a world and characters to populate that world is already taken care of, the writer is free to imagine scenarios, to work on plotting and pacing, dialogue and description, which are harder, more technical skills to master than worldbuilding or character creation. Later, once a young writer has accumulated more experience and has seen more of their own world, world creation will come easier. This young writer, who has already mastered the basics of the craft, will be in a great position to create entirely original works.

I’m proud of my daughter’s fanfiction and I brag about it often. Of course I hope that one day she will begin to write her own original fiction, but for now, it is enough for me that she treats writing as a pastime, rather than a chore to be dreaded. A child who has discovered the pleasure found in the written word will keep that pleasure in her heart for a lifetime. Whether that pleasure comes from fan-fiction, comics, or original fiction, is unimportant, what’s important is the joy itself.

Uncategorized

The Poetry of Names

Naming our characters can be one of the best parts of writing fantasy, or even contemporary fiction. Many writers choose their characters’ names with as much love and care as they would give to choosing their own children’s names. Poring over baby name sites, foreign language dictionaries, studying mythologies and genealogies, they finally arrive at the perfect name, or so they think. The reality is, there is one aspect of naming that is often forgotten by writers, particularly white English speaking writers, and that aspect is cultural naming conventions.

Recently a friend, knowing that I’m a Chinese speaker who has more or less married into the culture, asked me for some feedback about a name she’d chosen for a Beijing-based Chinese character in her upcoming urban fantasy. The name struck me as a bit odd, and I asked my friend how she’d chosen it. She went on to explain that the name was the name of a Chinese goddess, and that she’d chosen it because of the characteristics the goddess embodied. This was nice idea, but, as it turned out, an entirely inappropriate approach to Chinese names.


I explained to my friend that while in English speaking naming culture we certainly name people after gods, goddesses, mythical characters, folk heroes and the like, in China it was just not done. Whereas in the English speaking world you can name a child Diana, Athena, Barrack, or even Arya, in China it is not socially acceptable name your child Wukong after the Monkey King, Guanyin after the goddess of mercy, or Zedong after Chairman Mao. Chinese cultural naming conventions dictate parents sholudn’t even name children after family members (especially dead family members), much less easily recognizable mythical figure.

Naming conventions are deeply rooted in our cultures, and ways that sometimes it is hard even for the culture’s natives to understand or articulate. While the English-speaking world may have relatively flexible naming practices compared to some cultures, there are still rules aplenty. Many of my former students unknowingly blundered their way into unfortunate English names by through mistaken assumptions about naming conventions. My favorite example is the name Yan 燕 in Chinese. I’ve had to take several students aside and quietly tell them that “Swallow” is not really the best choice for an English name. And yet, it is a ridiculously easy mistake to make — we have perfectly acceptable bird-based names in English, names like Robin, Paloma, Wren, and Lark, so why not Swallow? Perhaps the number one naming convention of the English speaking world? Don’t set your child up for a lifetime of name-based taunts. Forever conscious of all of the terrible ways a simple name can be transformed into something filthy, Americans recognize the horrible potential of the name Swallow almost immediately.

For some cultures, however, names are more serious business. I asked my critique partner, Bruce, who is heavily involved in the promotion and growth of First Nations artists in his region, about the naming practices of the northern First Nations such as the Haida and the Tsimshian, who are native to British Colombia. He explained that for the Haida, there are different kinds of names — use names, hereditary names, and bestowed names. There are pools of names that should only be used within a family, and adoptees would be given names outside of this pool of names. Some names are only used with certain titles, and some names are titles. Use names, or the names used to refer to a person on a daily basis, are never said out loud once the owner of the name has died. Needless to say, the naming conventions of the Haida are complex, and it would be incredibly easy for someone whose research only went as far as a cursory Google search to make offensive mistakes when naming characters.
When we chose my daughter’s name, my husband lamented the fact that we could not name her Wang Cuiqiao 王翠翘. We were stuck with the character Cui 翠 because it was her generational name, and there aren’t many original options that go with Cui 翠. Wang Cuiqiao, he said, was really a very nice name, but there was just one problem — Wang Cuiqiao was the name of a famous Ming Dynasty prostitute. Now, I have more than a passing familiarity with Chinese history, but this, I would not have known. Imagine if I’d been going through characters to match Cui on my own and hand stumbled upon this character Qiao? Luckily my husband was in charge of Chinese names and he ultimately chose the very lovely character shi 诗 to go with her name, so my daughter is called Wang Cuishi 王翠诗, an unusual but not outlandish name.

And as for my friend, the one with the Chinese character in her urban fantasy? I turned to my husband as well, and told him what sort of feeling my friend wanted to evoke with the character’s name, and he came up with something pretty great — something unique, a bit unconventional, but still socially acceptable.

W.H. Auden once said, “Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.” Sometimes, it isn’t enough to be familiar with a culture or to speak a language. I lived in China for fifteen years and speak the language fluently, but when naming Chinese characters I always defer to a native speaker (usually my husband). The would-be-Swallows were competent English speakers after all, and me being a more than competent Chinese speaker is not enough for me to be able to wield the subtle cultural and historical knowledge required to choose perfect Chinese names. Writers should, equally, use caution when naming characters outside of their own culture. No matter how much of an expert you consider yourself to be, or how much research you’ve done, names are tricky. They’re tricker than the language itself, carrying with them an entire cultural history that often goes back beyond living memory. At the most basic level, names are the most visible representations of the culture itself, and as such, the writer has an absolute obligation to get them right.