Saturday, June 18, 2011

I'm Going to be a FAMOUS AUTHOR someday, and YOU'LL BE SORRY

I have always had a fascination with books. Even as a child, when I couldn't actually read, I would demand to be read to: my illustrated children's Bible (I carried that tattered thing around until one day in Sunday school the children's pastor told everyone to turn to Matthew something or other, and I realized everyone else had graduated to actual, non-story-based Bibles), the picture books in my Montessouri preschool (so much nature! so many trees! so much sharing!), my mother's handpicked collection of illustrated Korean fairy tales (they were printed in English on one side and Hangul on the other side). Anything and everything.

Reading (and, eventually) writing was shrouded in an almost occult-like mystery for me. I was the last person in my Kindergarten class to learn how to read, a fact that wracked my little 4-year-old self (5-year old self? 6-year old self?) with anxiety. So much anxiety- I would cry and wail (partly to get attention; I love attention, more on this later) because everyone else could read gooder than I could.

And then it happened (which should be written as follows: "IT happened!!!"), which is how I describe it. One day I woke up and could ready pretty much everything- jumping straight from illiteracy to being able to read books, newspapers, magazines, medicine bottle labels, etc. Phonics, diction, and grammar were all internalized. Although I couldn't understand much of the cultural context that went with "adult" fiction (I was always sneaking pages of Tom Clancy here and there), I didn't have any trouble actually reading it, and picked up vocabulary rapidly. I'm sure there was a bit of a learning curve, but all I remember is one day not being able to read and the next day reading everything in the school library.

I describe reading and writing as being innate talents for me. Paradoxically, I had a really hard time in freshman English composition in high school, because I already knew how to read and write with perfect grammar; I just didn't know what the names for any of the parts of speech, or how to diagram a sentence- tools that English teachers used to teach students for whom English construction didn't come naturally. It came with reading lots and lots and lots of books all throughout elementary school (my ability to absorb information very quickly came in handy here). I was like an incredibly sophisticated Support Vector Machine learning tool- feed me context, I'll spit out rules.

But it felt natural to me. It felt easy, unlike math, which required me to practice and practice and practice, while my friends seemed to understand and absorb new concepts instantly; or sports, where I could envision the body movements needed to do things perfectly, but never twist my body to match my mind's eye; or, heaven forbid, foreign languages, which I basically gave up on. When I was taught to diagram sentences or to write complex-deductive paragraphs or use the five-paragraph essay format, it felt clunky, like being given a bunch of mountain-climbing ropes and spikes when you've been free-climbing for years with no problems.

Meanwhile, despite the attempts of years of Asian family peer pressure and Montessouri education trying to squash my competitive, selfish, attention-hungry nature, one little element of my life managed to survive the "everyone's a winner"/"we're all special in different ways"/"the nail that stands out gets hammered down" brainwash-and-purge societal conditioning of my life. That was, of course, writing. I wanted to write when I was young, making weird retellings of the media that consumed my attention- Moby Dick, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Hardy Boys novels (and about six of the Nancy Drew ones, purchased by my loving grandmother), Star Wars, the ten minutes of Hunt for Red October my parents allowed me to watch, and others.

I kept writing, off and on, mostly attempts to quash new ideas and characters into this mega-long story about gun-totin' mercenaries and secret agents and aliens and undersea battles and space races and explosions and cyborgs and submarines and stuff that I kept adding on to. In 8th grade I came up with about five different story ideas (that have stuck with me; I'm working on turning one of them into a novel right now).

But in addition to wanting to write things, to have created things, I also wanted to be a writer. I wanted- and still want- to be the star, a little celebrity, to see interviews and QA with my responses popping up on the Internet, to see people quote chunks of my work and claim I stole this idea or inspired that one. I want to see my work on the New and Bestseller shelves at Barnes and Noble. I want to call myself an Author. I love the attention. I want it. In writing, I want to be the star.

I've seen and heard different authors talk, and been privileged to meet a number of them (briefly). The ones I can remember off the top of my head:

-My middle school brought in a lady (can't remember her name) who had written a biography of Aun Sung Suu Kyi, a lady none of us had ever heard of (the next time I heard of her, it was ten years later and she had been released from house arrest and my girlfriend's friend wanted to drink victory shots in celebration). She also had written a biography of the Dalai Lama. I remember her mostly because our principal asked us to do something called "waving wheat", which is a tradition at her home school of the University of Kansas. Also, she told us a story about how the Dalai Lama had been kind of a jerk when he was kid- he would make his bodyguards pretend to be soldiers and then "sneak up and attack them" in the nighttime, pretending to be a ninja or whatnot. This moved him slightly ahead of Pope John Paul in the heads-of-church rankings in my head.

-They also brought in Jack Gantos, who was a great speaker; he walked us through the process of creating a story based on your own life (he used an anecdote about his mother firing a gun and thinking she had killed someone which was very funny and unfortunately I cannot reconstruct). He was witty, engaging, and made the writing process very relatable. Mr. Gantos wrote a book called Joey Pizga Swallowed the Key, which unfortunately I never ended up looking up despite promising to do so.

-I also saw Clive Gifford, from whom I bought a book called Learn How to Juggle, which promised to teach even klutzes to juggle. Unfortunately, I never did.

-I had an opportunity to see Orson Scott Card, author of Ender's Game (which had recently become one of my favorite novels) speak. He didn't read anything from his novels, but he did speak for a while about a number of salient topics: censorship, book sales, how to get started as a writer, and a lot of hilarious stories about life in general. I became a fan of his off-the-wall reviews which he still writes at his website.

-In college, I missed the opportunity to see Salman Rushdie speak at an event, and William Gibson speak at another. *retroactive facepalm*

I think to be a good writer you have to have a little egotism. Let me show you a list of famously self-centered jerks, with the names removed to protect the innocent:

-Writer A had a ticket on a convoy ship to Europe during WWII. Writer A's wife had a plane ticket (significantly safer; U-boats have difficulty shooting down planes at this point in time). Writer A forces his wife to take the convoy ship while he takes the plane.

-Writer B wrote back to an 11-year-old's fanmail with a note that said, "yeah yeah, i'm the greatest, quit wasting my time with stupid questions"

-Writer C is the only person in the history of the developed world to wear an eyepatch and yet not be a cool person.

-Writer D was famous for saying, "If you don't have something nice to say about someone, come sit by me"

Guess who they are? Yep! You're right: Ernst Hemingway, Isaac Asimov, James Joyce, and Truman Capote, and they were total douchebags to everyone (this is a totally logical argument, bear with me). (No it's not).

As a writer, part of my bulging ego is that when I read stuff, I criticize. I think I can do it better. I **know** I can do it better, or so I think. Ender's Game? Too much convenient mysticism. King Lear? The characters jerk around so much that I half-expect to see "Script by George Lucas" at the end of it. All the King's Men? They misspelled the governor's name; it should be "H-U-E-Y L-O-N-G". As I Lay Dying? The ending isn't milked for full comedic potential. Dune? Egads, man, lay off the acid for a minute.

(There are a few exceptions to this: there is no way I'll ever write something as beautifully interconnected and multi-layered, and also as entertaining, as Cryptonomicon, and I have a hard time believing I could write something as grounded in emotional suffering as Toni Morrison or Wuthering Heights)

Arrogance can help drive you to create great work, but I think the thing that is currently missing from the Author's toolbelt is the grit to back it up. In fact, because I do have some natural gift, I've been able to coast and haven't worked hard enough to be able to develop certain useful skills. And more dangerously, because of my ego, I think it should be easy.

Writing is not, in any way, "easy". It is work. Hemingway didn't just spend all day being a huge jerk to everyone (he once said of Faulkner: "Does he think he can make people feel big emotions by using big words?"), he would first get naked and tie his leg to a chair until he had written a certain number words, and then he would be a huge jerk to everyone. Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes quite eloquently about it here. (not about naked Hemingway; about discipline). Even the most talentless pop star puts in thousands of hours at the gym and several hours learning about music before being able to swim in cash and reality TV show offers; why should writing be any different?

Someday, I hope I can develop the work ethic to be a "real" writer. In the meantime, I'm going to be like that pickup legend who could have made it to the big leagues if he played organized. And also on the Internet.

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