Life

On “Good Luck”: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 2 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Part 1, on networking, is here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Finally, it’s useful to remember the famous line from Seneca: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Writers tend to get increasingly lucky the more work they produce (preparation) and the more work they submit (opportunity).” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 23)

Have you ever noticed how often people sign off with the phrase, “Good luck!”? It’s meant to impart support, well wishes. It sounds nice. It rolls off the tongue easily, so tightly woven is it into our vernacular. We say it a lot, for lots of reasons: When people are about to start a race, say. When they’re about to go into interviews. When they’re going in for major surgery.

The thing is, only the last of these things can really even be remotely said to involve any element of luck. (The doctor could find something else while he’s rooting around in your leg, say.) But for the most part, when we say “Good luck,” we’re usually referring to stuff that can be prepared for, stuff that the subject of “good luck” has worked a really long time towards. Take the marathon, for instance. A runner doesn’t need good luck to cross the finish line; a runner who has signed up for a marathon has probably spent the past few months of his or her life working up to the marathon, building mileage. And the person who’s going into an interview doesn’t need luck to ace it; that person needs to have laid the groundwork to get to the interview in the first place, thereby securing the opportunity to interview; then he or she needs to have prepared for the interview.

Any other situation (going into a marathon badly trained, say, or not researching the potential job ahead of time) will warrant a “Good luck” of a different variety, the one whereby you roll your eyes and adopt sarcastic font and go, “Um, yeah. Good luck with that.”

So I decided awhile ago to stop wishing people good luck. I don’t do it anymore because I want to give people credit for the work they’ve inevitably done in getting to the start line, the interview room, the point where their novel is waiting to be submitted or is deep in progress. (Seriously, the last time someone wished me “good luck” on my novel I almost busted a gasket. I wanted to tell them it has nothing to do with luck; that it’s hard work and my own procrastination; that they could take their luck and shove it right … oh, sorry.)

Right around the time I stopped wishing people good luck, I started to notice my own response to when people would compliment me on the coolness of my job as a writer or editor. “How awesome is that?” they’d say, and I’d return, inevitably and with great enthusiasm, “Mmmhmmm! It is! I got lucky.”

But an older friend was not fooled, nor was she taken by what I now realize was a repeated lame attempt at modesty. “Nope. Nope. Not luck. Work. Dedication,” she said.

Well…yeah. And passion, maybe. A little bit of recklessness. But she was right: Not luck.

Since I’ve stopped looking at events in my life as lucky, and stopped wishing people good luck, I’ve been able to appreciate more deeply the work that goes into the various elements of our lives. I’m so grateful for this tiny shift of perspective. It changes things, when you realize how much “luck” you’ve been sowing your own life with, just by dint of good preparation and creating opportunities for yourself. I think it behooves us to recognize the same preparation in others.

You don’t have to stop wishing people good luck. But I do have a few parting thoughts for you:

  • Assess the good things currently in your life: What work went into making them happen? Jot these down somewhere.
  • When you want to wish someone “Good luck,” ask yourself what you’re really hoping will happen for them that day.
  • Consider the people in your life who have helped you to get where you are. You might consider yourself lucky to have them in your life, but I’m betting it wasn’t luck that brought you together.

Now, instead of wishing people “good luck,” I wish them all the very best. What phrases do you use besides “good luck”? Tell me in the comments below.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Networking: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

I’m a huge fan of making a living off of doing what I love. If this sounds obvious, or cliché, consider that so many writers don’t believe they can earn enough to have a career in writing: It’s a “hobby,” or a “passion” rather than a job. This makes me crazy.

I’m not the only one: writer and editor Jane Friedman also believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

…”When you see a successful writer and try to trace their path to success, keep in mind that what you see are only the visible aspects of what they have done. Behind the scenes are mentors, other relationships, and communities that contributed to their success.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 17)

I went to a college that worked really hard to help you to understand the value of networking, but I don’t think, when I graduated, that I understood exactly what that meant.

In the summer of 1996, this was underscored to great effect when I got accepted to the prestigious Radcliffe Publishing Course, now moved to Columbia University. At Radcliffe, it was easy to be dazzled: Morgan Entrekin. Steve Florio. The editor who had acquired Ethan Hawke’s first foray into fiction–these were just a few people who came to speak to us about their work. Mornings and afternoons were lectures and exercises. And every afternoon, there was sherry hour, where the guest faculty would be on hand to talk in a casual setting to us about–well, I don’t know what. I never actually spoke with any of them outside of class. But I do know that when I graduated from RPC, after six weeks of classes and getting lost on the Harvard campus, I was pretty sure that I would land a job, no problem. I had three job offers, one of which came from someone who was an RPC graduate herself, and took that one.

Later, when I was looking for another job, I turned to RPC. And nothing came of it. Years later, when I was launching my book, I turned to RPC again. And nothing came of that, either.

Wanna know why? Because I didn’t invest in any of those relationships. I learned a lot about publishing, some of which I still use today, and I met a lot of really great people, and I utterly failed to leverage any relationships with people who were in decision-making positions.

I really only made a few close friends while I was at Radcliffe. One of those girls became my first New York roommate; the other was a pretty steady friend throughout my life in New York.

Later, when I had a bona fide freelance career of my own and a lot more experience with, uh, basic people skills, I applied to be a member of a critique group. One of them I stuck with for a couple of months, the other I was part of for a whole few years, I think. And then at some point I decided to go for my master of fine arts, because, despite my relative success with marketing copy and personal essays and short stories, the big Kahuna of my writing career was still escaping me: I had drafted several novels, had them critiqued, sent them to agents, with no success: I had a plot problem. An MFA would fix it.

At the MFA, I made a lot of friends. I met a ton of guest faculty members, and I worked really hard to keep in touch with the ones whose work really resonated with me. I revised my novel (the third of three manuscripts I had knocking around in my drawer) during the MFA, drew up synopses and query letters, and finally sold the damn thing a year and a half after graduation. (I fixed my plot problem.)

But I did not do this in a vacuum, like I went through the Radcliffe course. (I have just remembered I had a boyfriend that summer, too, which is…like, dumb. I was not on campus a lot. I missed out on a lot!) Because our MFA had residencies, we were all basically breathing each other’s work and stories and stuff for ten days, twice a year. So when I went to revise the book, I leaned on members of my co-hort. When I agonized over plot issues, I turned to my co-hort. When I could not see the way out of a synopsis, I turned to my co-hort.

When I pitched the thing, I leaned on faculty members I had met, both to introduce me to their agents and to take a first look at the thing as agents. And I also kept in touch with faculty members I just liked, as people, even if their work wasn’t remotely related to the work I was pitching.

Fast forward, okay? The book sold, everyone who had had a hand in it championed it, it went into its fourth printing four months after its release date. Some college professors (one of whom I met via my MFA) taught it in classes.

At my first bookstore event, at Women and Children First, in Chicago, lots of people showed up, including some members of that long-ago critique group. And some new friends I’d met recently on the Internet. And the girl who used to live upstairs from us, ten long years before my book ever was a possibility.

While I was in Chicago, I also did a library event. It had been set up by a woman I met at my brother’s wedding. And later that month, I did a few more events in Michigan, which had been set up by a woman I met on Twitter, when we were both working on marketing projects that involved running.

I also want to point out, briefly, that I got into literary magazine editing because of an alumna of my MFA program. And I run a writer’s retreat with some members of my MFA co-hort. And that members of the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for support my writing and my on-the-side watercolor work. And that I’m part of a really supportive online group of marketing and copy experts who help each other through everything, including harrowing book launches and the day my dog was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and then cancer. That group not only supports my creative work, they also hire me.

I’m only a part of that group because one of the women in it read an essay of mine that she liked, and reached out.

Someone I published a few years ago at Tahoma Literary Review invited me to be on a panel last year, and on this panel with me was a woman who now runs a writing center. Our literary magazine will now partake in the writing conference the center sponsors. And earlier this year, when I was doing some research on a topic I was fairly new to, I reached out to a writer I had published and spoken to extensively in the editing process. And a guy I met at a conference four years ago had me on a panel two years ago with a woman I just had teach at the writer’s retreat I mentioned earlier.

I think I have finally learned what it means to network. What it really means is contributing to a community (Friedman addresses the concept of “literary citizenship” on pages 19-21).

Listen. You never know where you’ll find the supporters of your success. I like to think of them as my people, because it’s not just that they’re supporting me, is it? We all support each other’s work, eventually. So keep your eyes open, sure, but also be cognizant that not everyone you meet will be a connection, or should be leveraged. It all works best when it happens naturally.

Lessons learned, and tips:

  • Meeting someone really high up is great, but you might get more mileage out of someone you meet who’s at your same “level.” If you’re working on a novel, you’ll have more to talk about with someone who’s also working on a novel, for instance. There’s also more give-and-take in this relationship; you are more likely to be able to return the favor to someone who’s working at your level. (Steve Florio was never going to read my short fiction and pass it on to The New Yorker‘s Fiction Editor, amirite?)
  • Get to know the people who are “outside your genre.” This is in quotes, because I think maybe some folks think that only writers want to hear about writing. Or that you should only be spending time with editors and writers and agents, if you’re going to take your craft seriously. Well, that might be true for some, but it wasn’t for me. People who want to hear from you are out there, and the ripple effect is powerful. Our world is highly connected now, so don’t think you should just be talking to people who are “literary.”
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out for a deeper relationship. Some of my closest acquaintances—and friends–are people I met via Twitter first, and then in real life. (My mother still cannot get over this.) It is a remarkable time to be a writer—and a person in general. My life is richer for the people I have met via the Internet.
  • Confidence in your own work and status can help in networking. When I went to Radcliffe, I think I probably wasn’t as confident as I would have liked to be. When you’re presented with a golden networking opportunity like the six weeks of that course, you want to be ready to take advantage of it, feel like you have something to contribute to the conversation. But don’t worry—opportunities do present themselves when you’re ready to take them on.

Next time around we’ll tackle something little lighter: how much “luck” plays into publishing.

Who do you see as being supporters of your success? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The Way We Love Books

The other day, I posted a photo of me and the mister’s four sets of spectacles, with the caption “House of nerds.” A Dick Francis novel I was in the middle of re-reading sat face-down next to them, as an aside.

The nerdery got laughs; the Dick Francis unearthed a bunch of delightful commentary, and then, a well-meaning friend posted this:

Commenter writes, "May I comment on how you shouldn't put your books down like that?"

Granted, this did not sit well with me. It might be because this has been a solid week of f**kery from all sides, but I’ll temper that by saying this has never sat quite right with me. First of all, my books, my way, okay, but second of all, this rankles particularly because I used to be this kind of person, the kind of person who would gasp if someone dog-eared pages; who said she’d rather die than mark up a book, who who who who…

You know.

And then, sometime in my mid-30s, I realized this was a front, a way for me to be seen as a serious “book person.” Moreover, it was sillypants: What the frock do I care how other people treat their books?

Another friend later weighed in on that post, saying, “It’s a mass-market paperback, not a first-edition Dashiell Hammett,” and Well-Meaning Friend wrote something back about how all books should be treated with care and how they are all the same. Which is, of course, a load of horse shit, and I do mean that in a draft-horse-sized way: mass market paperbacks were made to be accessible to people who don’t want to lay out as much money for books; their dollar value is inherently different, and historically, they may not carry the same weight. (Yeah, okay, literally, too.)

My initial comment to the whole “treat your books with care” argument was gut-check: As a writer, my books are tools of my trade, and I treat them the way I’d treat any tool: I’ll use them as I see fit, even if that includes putting them down face-down, dog-earing them, or marking them up, so they can continue to be valuable to me as tools.

Deeper down, it looks like this:

Books are utilitarian, objects of commerce. Their value is not in pristine covers and unmarked pages. Their value is in the impression you glean from them, in your excitement in passing them on; in the joy–or sense of relaxation–you get from returning to a particular book time and again.

Were I to treat books with the care Well-Meaning Friend wants me to take, I wouldn’t own any books, and therefore I’d be unable to pass them on: I’d just spend all my time at the library, in temperature-controlled rooms. I’d never know the joy of reading outdoors, under a tree, or on a beach. I’d never know what it’s like to take refuge in a book on deployment, where I can crack it open and digest a few pages before finally falling asleep, unwittingly smashing mosquitos between its covers and imprinting them with sweat from my fingers.

So yes. Books are valuable. But they are also companions. They go with me wherever. They are the tools of my trade. But they are also well loved, like my favorite pair of jeans, or my beat-up notebooks. I cannot do without them, just like I cannot do without pencils or pens and paper, and so they are bound to retain some marks of their travails.

Of course there are exceptions. A compilation of art I lugged home from England that had been passed down to me from a friend who’d had it passed down from her stepfather in the 70s, for instance. That lives on a shelf and gets dusted and bemoaned whenever a new fray appears in its book binding. The ARC of Twilight, which I read once and hated. Still, it’s a keepsake, a gift from a friend who used to work in publishing. Even that has its marks, from being carried around in my work bag on my commute while I was reading it.

This, I think, might also be the reason that I can’t really sink into an e-book. Yes, yes, there is no tactile sense of page, of progress, but there is also no sense of making something truly your own, of havingness, with an e-book. There is no “Oops, dropped it into the bathtub,” there is no “I liked this section, so I’m going to mark it up for later,” there is no “I can use this in my next class, so it needs a dog-ear or a Post-It so I remember to photocopy it for my class.” There is no sense of memory. “Hey, what’s that mark from? Is that…oh, right, that’s from that day I was eating sherbet and reading on the porch.” “What’s that…is that…is that beer? Oh, right, from reading at the brewery.” Sometimes, I open books and find foliage from the day a shedding tree dropped a leaf or a flower into the book I was reading, and that never fails to make me smile.

Of course, the final word is this: What do I care how you treat your books? It’s your library. Do as you see fit.

books open to show post-it flags; highlighted sections; ink annotations

(left to right: my own novel; Tiger Reading, by Gish Jen; The Orde-Lees Diaries, Thomas Orde-Lees)

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

My reading roundup: 2017

For the better part of the last two years I’ve been trying to do better at reading diversely. I already knew I wanted to read more books by women, but I’ve been espousing this idea of reading diversely using the U.S. Census as a convenient backbone.

The most recently available figures in terms of ethnic/racial breakdwon are:

  • 5.8% Asian
  • 13.3% Black
  • 17.8% Latinx/Hispanic (The U.S. Census notes that “Hispanics may be of any race” so are also counted in those applicable categories.)
  • 1.3% Native American

I read 60 books in 2017, and here’s where I ended up:

  • Books by Asian writers: 13%
  • Books by Black writers: 10%
  • Books by Latinx/Hispanic writers: 1.6%
  • Books by Native American writers: 0%

Well. That’s not so good. On the one hand, I’m glad I managed to read widely in my own ethnic makeup, but I definitely missed the mark in terms of reading works by Hispanic writers or works by Native American writers. If I’m generous to myself, and I extend my query to the last 100 books I read, just to make it easier in terms of math, my percentage of books read by Black writers falls even further, to 8%, and even though I gain a Latinx/Hispanic writer, well, that still puts me at a miserable 2%, far, far below where I want to be.

This year I will hope to do better. This year I will read at least one book by a Native American writer. I’d been meaning to pick up the Sherman Alexie memoir, and my own publisher, who is Latina, has a book out too, so…all things I can get cracking on. You can add me as a friend to see what I’ve been reading lately.

What’s are your reading resolutions for 2018? Tell me in the comments below.

books

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Cover Letters: A brief primer

Some of you may know that I edit prose for the Tahoma Literary Review. This submission period we had a little over a thousand submissions; by the time I’m done, I will have read somewhere between 350 and 400 pieces of fiction and given feedback on a little over half of those. (We have awesome fiction readers at TLR to help with the remainder of the workload, and poetry makes up a massive chunk of those thousand submissions.)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had some commentary and questions on what makes a good cover letter for a literary submission, so I thought I’d address that.

coverletter

First, some notes:

My policy with cover letters is so: I try to only read them after I’ve done with the submission. There are a lot of reasons for this, unconscious bias being chief among them, but because our submission engine defaults to showing me the cover letter when I open the submission, I usually will get a glance at them despite my best intentions before I get to the short story or essay itself.

Literary-magazine cover letters are different from the query letters you would write to a consumer magazine in that your piece for a literary magazine is already complete. But in some ways they are the same.

This advice is unique to this editor and to prose, but I’ll wager it covers a lot of things folks like to see in cover letters in general.

The no nos are easy: Don’t “Dear editor” me. Don’t say something like “most people think I’m drunk or on cocaine when they read my work.” And for God’s sake, do not say your writing is “picaresque,” or that it “redefines literature.” (I don’t know. This last one might be  a personal thing. *twitches.*) These are all things that have appeared in this reading period, by the way.

With that said, here are the YES, DO THISes of cover letters:

Please customize your letter. The person reading your submission is a person. With a name.

Please give me something that tells me you have actually read my magazine and/or know something of what we like to publish.*

*This is a gimme. Our editors are all online, as are our readers, and the magazine’s digital footprint is considerable.

You don’t have to tell me about your story or essay, but in nonfiction it can be especially helpful. In fiction I find people have a terrible time summing up their own work.

Please tell me a little bit about yourself. This is not a bio in third person. This is one or two lines about your most recent publications, maybe.

With all of that said, here’s what my standard cover letter for a literary submission looks like:

Dear XXXXX,

Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I admire X publication’s [insert unique feature here]

OR

We met [XX HERE] and I was happy to hear that you [UNIQUE THING ABOUT THIS EDITOR YOU LIKE OR WHATEVER HERE.]

I’m a prose editor for the Tahoma Literary Review, and my fiction is most recently published [XXX here]. My nonfiction can be found [XX].

Thank you very much. I look forward to hearing back from you.

All best,

Yi Shun Lai

Generally, it follows very basic rules:

  • Be concise.
  • Be polite and human. Remember you’re writing to a person, not a ‘bot. I’m not a fan of the one-line “cover letters” for this reason: it looks like I’m screening for data points rather than reading for a good essay or story.
  • Please don’t aggrandize your own work or style. That’s what I’m here for, should you publish with me, and your work should speak for itself, anyway.
  • Remember that your job is to do honor* to the work you are presenting to me. So you shouldn’t, as a friend described it to me recently, feel icky or gross about it. Look at it as giving your work due credit. Start there and you won’t feel icky–doing honor to something is not the same as, um, pimping it.

Okay? In the end, I think it comes down to this: Where are you writing this letter from? Are you writing it from a position that says you want to put something new into this world of reading? Yes? Then put that foot forward.

Okay. Now. Go forth and write. TLR opens to submission again 1 January 2018. Until then, ask me any questions below.

*I stole this from Alex Maslansky, bookseller at Stories Books and Café in LA. I have used it a bajillion times and I’ll keep on using it. It makes sense.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

What Do Your Characters Carry Around in Their Pockets? (Or, Bite Me, #EverydayCarry)

There’s an exercise I sometimes use on both myself and with writing coaching clients: What does your character carry around, all the time, in his or her bag, or in their pockets? I am obsessed with this exercise: It allows you to get in deep while seeming frivolous; it’s about the character’s must-haves, their daily dependencies.

I like this idea for myself and my friends, too: My friend Peter and I used to talk frequently about the notebooks we carried, and the pens we liked the most.

We met as adventure racers, so we would chat about the must-have stuff in our kit–knives, compasses, rolls of duct tape, things like that. As our friendship evolved, we discovered that we were both analog people who liked letters and other ways of putting things down on paper, so we that’s how we got around to discussing notebooks. I think Peter uses a carabiner for a keyring, and I used to carry one around in my bag for absolute handiness’ sake.

There were other things I carried around with the carabiner. The aforementioned pocket knife and notebook, for instance. Eventually, the list of things I carry around grew to include a first-aid kit, some stamps, pen, obviously. It was just stuff in my bag. But I noticed something really unpleasant awhile ago:

#EverydayCarry

Yes. Yes, hashtagEverydayCarry! I am sure this is not a new thing to most of you, but for me, it is new and also highly distasteful. Everyday carry is a style thing. It has its own wikipedia page. It has its own web site. People post pictures of their “EDC”–YUCK!–and, oh, horror of horrors, the individual items seem to always match each other, like some kind of…oh oh. I don’t know…hipster fashion show, if you could have a fashion show for the crap you carry around in your pockets or in your gigantic briefcase manbag thing.

Look, just look: here is the Wikipedia definition of everyday carry, and no, you cannot get me to cap it ever again.

Everyday carry (EDC) or every day carry refers to items that are carried on a consistent basis to assist in dealing with normal everyday needs of modern society, including possible emergency situations.

Here is one from Primer magazine, which claims to be a magazine that is a “guy’s guide to growing up.” (Cue retching.)

Though no true point of origin exists for everyday carry (EDC), it might just have its roots in the old school gentlemanly approach to daily accoutrements in the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, it was not uncommon for men to carry items like pocket watches, handkerchiefs, snuff or pipe tobacco tins, wallets, and pocket knives.

Finally, here is one from Gallantry magazine. (Gallantry? Gallantry? Really?)

Boiled down to its basest* elements, EDC refers to the things that one requires to make it through any given day. So, for a caveman, that would mean something like: a bow and arrows for hunting, a small blade for skinning and field dressing meat, and an animal hide satchel in which to haul everything.

People. The preciousness. The self-importance. Say it with me. Beriberi.**

Now look. I don’t have a problem with the idea of everyday carry. I just hate the fact that it has its own name. I hate that, for the most part, the stuff listed as “everyday carry” is expensive. I hate that, on the pages that show off everyday carry from site users, it all looks new. And very, very military. Oh, excuse me. Tactical.

I have an “everyday carry.” Most of us do. You wanna see it? Here.

FullSizeRender 2

I know. it’s fugly. But it does the job. Here’s what’s in it, clockwise, from top left: First aid kit. Pouch what-stores-it-all. Pen. Knife. Tide bleach pen, because girlfriend gets messy frequently. Notebook. Calendar with odds&ends (museum cards, stamps, postcards, etc). Now, I’m not going to lie and say that some of this stuff wasn’t expensive. The pen, for instance, was $20. But that’s because I write for a living and I like to feel good when I’m doing it. But nothing matches. And I use the crap out of everything in that photo. Which is why it all looks like garbage.

I used to think I was mostly turned off by how new everything looks when people post photos of their everyday carry. Kind of the same thing that turns me off of the whole mason-jar thing now. I mean, how many people have actually used their mason jars for their intended usage? Why do they all look so shiny? Why are they décor, for poop’s sake?

But then I read this, again from Gallantry magazine:

Nowadays, EDC encompasses all those items which the modern man carries on his person day-in and day-out to ensure that he is prepared for whatever might come his way.

And I realized what it is that really cheeses me off about these sites, this definition of “everyday carry.” They are all for men. All of them. Not a single one even considers that barrage of stuff that women have to carry around. They are all tricked out in black and chrome and titanium, and oh, far be it from me to think that I can’t carry off these accessories just as well as the next guy out there, but damn. Damn. Far be it from them to admit that women probably have this EVERYDAY CARRY thing down to a rocket fucking science.

[Pushups]

“Eighteenth and nineteenth century gentlemen”? Gimme a break. Those fops–the “gentlemen”–didn’t carry anything around. You know who carried shit around, every day? Women. I mean, look at this thing:

photo: V and A Museum, London

photo: V and A Museum, London

This is a gol-darned chatelaine. Yeah, you over there, the gentleman in the powdered wig, and you too, with the gigantor multitool you claim is for “everyday use”–this is a thing women used to wear around their waists on a belt, with their household tools on it. Scissors. tiny book and pen. Keys. Letter opener. Sometimes, a thimble or a vial of scent, you know, all the better to darn your smelly socks with.

Everyday carry for women goes back years and years, you see. It goes on today. We just didn’t feel the need to pretty it up, make ourselves a hashtag for it. And we certainly don’t need to style a whole photoset of it.

Besides, you’re not fooling me, you #everydaycarry people. I know what your real everyday carry looks like, even if you are wearing a Bell diving watch on your wrist and occasionally admire your own pocket knife. If you’re anything like the men in my life, you are carrying around a too-big wallet that is going to give you sciatica, your phone, and probably a tube of lip balm.

Unless you’re Peter. Then you’re inadvertently lumped into the category of glorified packrats, but I see you. I know you use your notebook and your pen and actually have a reason for your carabiner. You’re okay, in my (note)book.

*Uh, guys? You don’t mean “basest.” That means most lacking in moral quality. So…um. Yeah.

**”Beriberi” is Sinhalese, according to some sources, for “I cannot, I cannot.” It is also a disease resulting from thiamine deficiency. Some days it is my personal mantra. I invite you to use it with me.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

When Your People Are Hurting: Part I

Part I: Near

In the summer of 1999, I was living in New York and pursuing the beginnings of a dream career. That same summer, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake jilted my home country of Taiwan. It was big enough to rattle the neighboring county to the epicenter, where both my mother and my father’s families are from.

My family and I had moved to the United States many years prior, but we still visited every one or two years; my favorite aunt lives there; I have never quite been able to extricate the image of my maternal grandparents’ house, the big house in the country, built around a lush central courtyard, from the thought of “home.” (It makes a major appearance in my novel, published 38 long years after we left.)

At my paternal grandparents’ house in the city, I learned to use chopsticks and never forgot the cool cement floor, nor the rosewood bureau at which I sat and opened every lotion bottle of my grandmother’s, smelling what it was like to be grown-up. In the front of the building, where it met the street, was my father’s surgery. Then there was a small courtyard, and then there was my grandparents’ house. We could hear murmurs of street noise, and I could go through the surgery and around the corner to the breakfast bar. When I very young, I did such things.

But when the earthquake hit, I was far away from both of those places. Later, I’d find out that the great front hall of the country house had collapsed. The house would never have the same facade, although the family salvaged as much as it could, and the local university’s architectural department came by to study the pieces and the construction of the place. The city house, farther from the epicenter, seemed to be okay.

Taiwan house, post earthquake

Taiwan house, post earthquake

All our people were safe. The dogs who live at the country house and guard its many courtyards and connecting pathways must have made horrible racket, that night.

It is genuinely awful to be so far away and not be near when these things happen.

A decade later, a typhoon struck Taiwan, and this time, I was better equipped: I’d just passed the rigorous training required to become a member of the ShelterBox Response Team, and we were deployed to help with emergency shelter. We did what we could, in as rapid fashion as we could, and I was able to come home feeling like maybe I had done something.

Two years later, tornados made their destructive ways through Missouri and Oklahoma, and we got a phone call from the leadership of a Rotary district in Arkansas. Arkansas, they said, had been completely overlooked in the national relief effort. Could we come have a look? We went, me from New York and another teammate flying the even shorter distance from his home in Austin, Texas.

yiinAR

Today is the Tuesday after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas. The same team member who went with me to Arkansas is keeping a close eye on the relief situation as it develops down there, along with another team member based out of Dallas. If all the pieces come together to spell out a story in which our aid is needed, the team will begin the task of deploying aid and helping families.

There’s something unique about responding to a disaster in which people just like you are suffering. When you land on the ground, you speak the same language; the landmarks look familiar to you; you understand the customs and the people. It is a uniquely heartbreaking experience.

And yet–and yet. We should all want for such a time, when we can do good by the people closest to us, by the people who share our cultures and our aspirations. We should all aspire to be ready to loan a hand where we can, especially in those places we frequent, among the people in our neighborhoods.

Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

A friend once wrote that she was delighted to have been able to participate fully in the jury duty process: She was selected to serve on a jury, and got to see the trial all the way through. She came away, she said, enlightened, grateful to have had the opportunity to serve.

Service can be like this. It can be leveraged on us by our state, or we can choose it for ourselves. But sometimes, it lands smack on your doorstep, and then you can’t help but answer its insistent ring. Today, I’m thinking of my teammates, and how close this disaster is to them, and how glad I am that they are there to answer the calls of the people who need them.

For more on ShelterBox’s response to #HurricaneHarvey, please click here: http://www.shelterboxusa.org/harvey

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Me and My Headshot

Three things happened in the past few weeks or so that have me noodling about the way we present ourselves to the world.

  1. A friend, upon seeing me at a panel with my accompanying headshot, said, “Well, that’s pretty glam.” I said back, “Well…it has to be. It goes on my publicity materials and on book jackets.” “I didn’t expect that,” he returned.
  2. A friend asked to adapt my book as a screenplay. I returned the request, as far as I can recall it, thus: “I’m flattered, thank you! What are your thoughts as to royalties and rights agreements?” His reply: “Whoa, tiger.”
  3. Making some calculations one day with another friend, I said, casually, “I’m absolute shit at math. I know, I’m a terrible Asian.” Some minutes later, he said, “I have a question: Aren’t you, by making that comment, just perpetrating a stereotype?” Stymied, I said, “Ummm. Yes. Of course. But it makes people laugh.” “Ahhh,” he said, and didn’t need to say any more.
  4. Years ago (okay, this is a bonus), when Jim and I were training for Ironman, we kept on meeting people who would say, “That’s AWESOME. I’m so impressed,” or some variation thereof, and I’d inevitably counter, “No. It’s stupid.” Someone challenged me once. “But it’s great,” he said. “Such a commitment.” “And idiotic,” I insisted. “But amazing,” he returned. “Really dumb endeavor,” I said. He finally capitulated. “Okay, fine, it’s dumb.”

I find myself revisiting these events. They’ve made me consider the way I present myself, and the advice we often see to be proud, to be not afraid of the greatness we can accomplish, to [insert whatever roaring Pinterest quote you want here about being your best you, or something like that].

Oh, sure, it’s easy to encourage that. The reason we must do it is much more complex.

I am surprised every time someone else is surprised by the fact that I have a professional headshot. Or that I’m asking about royalties and things like contracts for use of my work. Or that I demand to be paid for my work. The immediate internal rejoinder is this:

  • Of course I have a headshot. What’d you think, I was going to just slap some selfie on my book cover?
  • Of course I’m going to ask for a contract. Whaddya think this is, some kind of Mickey Mouse operation?

And yet, when you look at the way I’ve presented myself over the years, it looks like some variation of the Ironman conversation, or this:

[Waits for someone else to bring up my novel. Someone asks about it.] Me: It’s just a debut novel. Tiny press. Tiny but mighty. You won’t have heard of it. It’s a very slim book. Some say it’s funny. It’s taught on some college campuses. Yes, there will of course be a second. But! [weakly] It’s a semi-finalist for a major humor prize! 

It’s no wonder folks are surprised that I’m asking for a contract, or that I have a pro headshot. I have set them up to expect something less than professional.

The last two examples I give you, I think, are more complex. They’re still about the way we present ourselves, but they’re tied up in that elephant in the room, the issue of not wanting to rock the boat because immigrants already look different. If we keep our heads down, the common wisdom goes, we’ll be safer.

(Additional background: In my parents’ culture*, it’s bad luck to praise your children, ever. It’s thought that the spirits will hear you praising them, and take the lovely, over-achieving children away. So we weren’t ever in the habit of hearing praise. And getting it always made us feel pretty embarrassed, like we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.)

That third one is tied up in a sentiment I read a loooong time ago in a young adult novel (was it _The Cat Ate My Gymsuit_?) about getting in the jibe about yourself before someone else gets to it. You see, it hurts less coming from yourself.**

When you look different, you’re an automatic target. Your parents want the best for you, so they tell you to keep your head down and just quietly achieve. But quietly achieving things doesn’t make you any less of a target, when you are any kind of minority in any kind of society with any kind of pre-determined ideas about who you are and how you are supposed to behave. Heck, I’ve never been a great achiever, either in the quiet department or in the regular achievement department, and I’m still trying to keep my head down. It’s baked into my DNA.

And so, you get this: “You’re loud, for an Asian.” “Over-achiever, right? Typical.” “Lemme guess, your parents wanted you to be a doctor.” “You’re a writer? Wow, that’s…unusual, for your culture.” And, of course, “You can’t do math? I thought Asians were supposed to be good at math!” sometimes preceded by, “Your English is really, really good.”***

And, from my family: “Shhhh. Good girls don’t laugh like that.” “Don’t get into an argument with that person. They’ll make life hard for you.” “Just let it go.”

And so we come back to the advice, every piece of blithe cheer we get that’s meant to motivate and inspire:

You are enough

You are worth it

You are beautiful

Love yourself

No one is going to love you if you don’t love yourself. 

 

People, that shit is hard. You don’t just wake up one day and go, “Hey! I’m going to love myself!”**** And yet, we struggle to get there. The internet is awash on how to do so. But no one ever tells you why you should.

loveyourself

Now look, because we are logical creatures and like things to fit together, there must be a reason we are willing to do this. We don’t just up and do these things.

Here’s why it’s important to represent yourself with pride, to give your accomplishments due credit. It’s easy: It’s really very tedious to backpedal from everything you’ve ever said about yourself before. It’s also an uphill battle, and one you might not ever win.

Trust me. I know.

So here’s your friendly tip for the day: You don’t need to love yourself every day. You don’t need to go around Wonder Woman-posing every chance you get, and you don’t need to stick up those lovely inspiring quotes from Tiny Buddha or Muse or Buzzfeed or whatever at eye level all around the house.

But you need to be able to recognize your achievements for what they are. Call them as you see them. Neither aggrandizing them nor minimizing them will do any good at all.

Eventually, you’ll get used to seeing yourself with clarity.***** And that’s a very, very good thing, even if there’s no meme-quote-illustration thing out there for it.

*This is a shift. I’ve always referred to it as my culture in the past, but let’s be real. I’m very Asian-American, and my parents are very Asian.

**This makes me sound like a snowflake, but there’s nothing I can do about this.

***I confess one of the most joyous, freewheeling exchanges I’ve ever had was with a close Jewish friend. We were sat at an Ukranian restaurant having lunch. The check came and I struggled with the tip. Alan barked, “What the hell kind of Asian are you? Here, give it to the Jew!” and snatched it from me. The WASP we were with looked utterly horrified, and we laughed and laughed. It’s different if you’re saying it about yourself, do you see?

****This leads down the rabbit-warren to ever more motivational quotes. “I am a work in progress,” “One day at a time,” “Today is a new day,” yadda, yadda, yadda.

*****c.f. above motivational Work in Progress. Heh.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

An Obituary for My Aunt (Of Obituaries and Passing Regrets, Part II)

Shu Chuang Wang, my mother’s elder sister, passed away April 8, 2017. She is the first adult to have been there for so much of my own life to die. She is the person we relied on when we moved to the United States. We lived in Kansas, near her family, for our first few months here, and those first few months seemed unreasonably happy, an approximation of our life in Taiwan, where our relatives lived just one door over.

 

We were one town over, and I do not have concrete memories of those months. But I know my cousins Ken and Charles, and Ah Yi and Ah Diun, my uncle, were nearby. Later, we’d meet Edward, the youngest, and with Bor, my younger brother, our playing was nearly always a noisy mess, one or two or maybe all of us getting into trouble.

I know we visited Kansas after our move to Pennsylvania, after our move to California. I know Ah Yi brought her family to come visit us, no matter where we were. I know we took crazy American-family road trips together, all nine of us crammed into one station wagon. We kids were small enough to sit in the footwells. I remember being crammed up again Ah Yi’s leg, as she rocked it back and forth to exercise, keeping herself from getting bored on the long, long drives.

I do not remember Ah Yi in trousers, ever. Ah Yi was a perpetual lady. Long after high collars went out of style, and floral prints, she wore them, and made them look like they belonged. She was the great beauty of the family, see, and she decorated her home accordingly. Bouquets of flowers; portraits of her family everywhere.

She loved them like I’ve never seen anyone love before. Her three boys, my cousins, were–I don’t know–people to admire, people who could do whatever. Love does that to someone. Love elevates you to believe you can do, and my cousins can do. Anything. Whatever they want. Nothing is too far out of reach, or beyond you, if you’re loved.

My aunt is big on personal style. Over the years, she’d say to me, “I don’t have a little girl, so I will buy pretty things for you.” And, from Kansas, boxes sometimes arrived, always in time for Christmas, with pretty things in them, or, better yet, accompanied by Edward and Ah Yi, and sometimes Charles and Ken.

Usually, for me, they were sweaters. I have kept nearly every Ah Yi sweater that still fits. My oldest is a good decade old. I got it while I was living in Chicago, and it looks to me like a roll of Life Savers. it is cheery and fun and I love it. I love it even more because my Dad refers to it as my Lobster Sweater. He thinks its striations look like the belly bands on a lobster.

This made my aunt laugh.

The sweaters are always on-point. I picture her, holding one up to the light in a department store, turning it this way and that…”Can I see her in this? Maybe not. Maybe this one. It’s cute. It’s a little trendy. I think she would like this.” I like this imagery, so I keep the sweaters my aunt got me, and I imagine that image, that thought process, every time I wear one, every time I wrap myself in one, every time I pull some lint off one.

Of the women in my mother’s family, my aunt is the most touchable, the least prickly. I don’t know if this comes from a lifetime of living with boys or what, but she never balked at holding your hand, or patting you, or saying hello with a squeeze. I love this about her.

I went to visit her yesterday for Mother’s Day, with Jim. We sat and talked to her and put some flowers in the little vase-thing and clipped a balloon to them, and then we sat on the grass and looked over the view, and when we left, we waved and said, “Bye, Ah Yi.”

She was like that, you see. You could always go talk to her, and leave, and then come back, whenever you liked. This was the feeling she gave you.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Of Obituaries and the Passing of Regrets, Part 1

I spent a good amount of time last week editing obituaries for my day job. While such a task can feel honorary, part of the work made me sad. Not for the passing of the people, exactly–most of them were old and seemed to have lived full lives–but more for the way in which we commemorate the ones who have gone before.

Within the 21 obituaries I edited, I came across several mentions of service clubs and church activities. There was talk of having contributed to community by service on housing associations. Several had served in the military. One talked about a lifelong passion for planes (the obit itself was airplane-themed, tying the deceased’s birth to Lucky Lindy’s flight one year before across the Atlantic). Every single one of them mentioned work. Only two or three mentioned the deceased’s personality, and that, I think, is what really had me wondering: What’s our real legacy in this life? In the end, should we be aiming more for the types of notes we left in each other’s yearbooks senior year–“You were always nice to me”–than a list of accolades, which we won’t be able to enjoy in the afterlife, and which our descendants and loved ones will only be able to keep under glass and look at in the years after our passing?

hp photosmart 720

(via Kelly Davio.)

Last week, my book turned 1. Originally, this was going to be a post about the things I learned over the course of the year. I think now I’ll save that for another post–soon, I promise–and talk to you instead about a guy I knew in college, a writer named Gerald McDermott. To save you from going to Wikipedia, I’ll briefly tell you these facts: He wrote and illustrated children’s books, and he also made some short films.

He was also my first real brush with the world of publishing. He came to speak at my alma mater. I don’t remember what he talked about, exactly–I think it was about mythology, since he was an expert in that–and he also read his Caldecott-winning book _Arrow to the Sun_ to us.

Arrow-to-the-Sun

The most important fact of all is that he was generous. He was kind, and keen to help someone like me, who was interested in book publishing. We had a few e-mail exchanges after he came to talk, even after graduation, and he always was responsive. He made me feel like I could get to that world if I wanted to. In the end, I didn’t go into children’s publishing or picture books, and I think our last exchange may have been–gosh, not long after I moved to New York, I guess, so three years or so after I met him. A long time ago.

At any rate, I still remember his openness. The fact that he was so willing to help. I didn’t know or understand the Caldecott Medal when we met, but now that I know he won it years ago and was a close friend of Joseph Campbell, I am stunned that he had the time to exchange missives with a dopey college student who didn’t know any better than to not bother someone of his…time constraint.

Anyway, the day my book turned 1, I got a wild hair to write to Mr. McDermott again and tell him that I’d actually made something of myself in publishing. I think I owe some of my policy on helping new writers to him, although I didn’t really think of the connection until last Saturday.

We have the Internet now, so I didn’t have to go rooting through my desk drawers in my parents’ house looking for his business card. (I’m sure it’s still there somewhere.) I was super excited to write to him. I don’t know if I really cared whether or not he replied. I guess I just wanted him to know that he had made a difference.

And then I found out he died in 2012.

I don’t think I know how to rightly express to you what a crusher this was.

Gerald McDermott, January 31, 1941 – December 26, 2012

Gerald McDermott was a Nice Guy. He was interested in everything, and even when approached by bright-eyed, bushy-tailed college students who asked if they could be his intern right there on the spot, was unflappable. He answered all the questions and made every single one seem worth asking. He let people down gently, or maybe they were too obtuse to know otherwise, but this is about Gerald.

Gerald thought in big, bold lines and bright colors. His commitment of legends and myths to paper and film made them accessible to probably tens of thousands of people who would have never otherwise known about them. He was one of those rare storytellers who could make the most basic child’s lament come true: “I wish I could see this story in real life.” Lo, Gerald could make that happen.

Gerald had very friendly eyes. He had great laugh lines and crow’s feet, and a good beard. His e-mail style was exclamatory, happy to hear from you, even if there was never a single exclamation point.

This is what you need to know.*

Here is something else I would like you to know: If you met someone a long time ago and they made a difference, don’t wait. Send them an email, a piece of fan mail, ping them on their facebook page. Do this not because I’m sure every author/actor/whatever would love to hear from you. Do this because, if the goal of life is to make it through with no regrets (as I get older, I think this is a pretty good one), you don’t want to be stymied by something as idiotic as “Gee, I never wrote to them to tell them how great I think they are. What a wasted opportunity.”

Who would you like to write to? Why not do it, today? I don’t mean the famous types, either, guys. I mean, the people you just like, the ones who are famous to YOU. Go on. Pick up the phone. Drop a postcard. You won’t be sorry.

P.S. The guy who owns GeraldMcDermott.com now recognizes the former owner of the site by archiving McDermott’s old site on his server. I think this is such a nice gesture.

McDermott

 

*Some of you may know that the selection of McDermott’s book as a winner, and his interpretation of the tales he retold, were under scrutiny. This post isn’t about that, but you can read up on it here, if you like. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have. 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.