Why I Write

When I was in college studying literature and writing, my mom suggested I watch Dead Poets Society, the brilliant Oscar-awarded movie featuring Robin Williams as a university literature professor inspiring his students to love literature. Recently one of my Facebook friends posted the following quote:

“Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

I am in the middle of living out the first part of the quote. I’m a Communication Specialist for a natural gas company. I work among engineers and talk about gas pipes and construction routes. I know that, while I want to publish novels about fantasy, animals, finance, and government, I am living my best life by doing what I’m meant to do at the moment: staying with my parents; paying off my college debt; spending quality time with my brother, sister-in-law, and friends; and enjoying the fruits of my bountiful Minneapolis job.

But my mind lately has been nudging me toward the second part of the quote. Why did I choose a bachelor’s degree in English Literature & Writing to master my novel writing, only to choose a job in professional writing? The answer is necessity. One has to make decisions based on what they know now. That’s what my parents taught me. To back this wisdom, I remember a powerful quote from Becoming Jane, another one of my favorite movies, in which Jane Austen’s father says to Jane, “Nothing destroys family like poverty.”

Far from being poor, I took the sensible decisions. I took out student loans and procured scholarships to afford my degree. I’m living with my parents to lower my expenses and am enjoying the fruits of well-balanced decisions.

But since my mind has remained on the second part of the quote, I satiated myself by going to a Young People’s Literature conference at the University of Minnesota this past Wednesday, April 4. The authors on the Q&A panel were M. T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, David Barclay Moore, and Nicola Yoon, all of whom were either middle-grade or young adult novelists with awards or film adaptations. (Below is their picture with the authors from left to right.) They spoke on the subjects of writing for children as adults, battling writers’ block, avoiding any sugar-coating of children’s stories, portraying truth explicitly and implicitly, and writing issue vs. non-issue books.

My heart was billowing that night when I heard my favorite middle-grade novelist, Kate DiCamillo, read from her The Tiger Rising novel and spoke about the encouragement she received from her university professor, who helped inspire her full-time writing career. When the Q&A panel was finished, I raced to be the second person in line for her book signing. Although I had no book with me, I told her it was a delight to hear her speak and that I was a fan of her writing since I was nine. My heart was thumping from delight. She shook my hand, thanked me, and said it was a pleasure speaking that night. When I took my phone to text my parents, my hands were shaking.

Since then, I’ve kept my mind in a state of awe for the literary life. When I picture myself as a mature writer, I think of what rhythm I’d have. I’d be sitting in my living room with my laptop on the couch, a mug of tea on my coffee table, and a printed draft of my manuscript for reference. My goals are as follows: to revise my manuscript, compile a list of literary agents, and query my manuscript to agents, per the advice of blogger Jackie Lea Sommers, a graduate from my alma mater. In her blog, Sommers teachers her readers what to expect when publishing a novel. (If you’re interested, go read her blog here.)

The more I read about the daily lives of writers, the realistic challenges they face, and the typical results of publishing with traditional companies, the more excited I become. This is my dream laid out before me in black and white. I’m taking it one step at a time.

My advice to you, readers, is to follow your heart. I’m taking the sensible and passionate routes of keeping my dreams alive while fulfilling my basic daily needs. I believe you can do the same.

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When We Were Babies

When we were babies, we woke up to the sight of Beatrix Potter on our nursery walls. When we were in middle school, we read Shakespeare and Jane Austen, and by the time we’re grown up, we’ve read Jane Eyre, Gone with the Wind, Lord of the Rings, and classics which we’ve relished in our book clubs and coffee shops, sitting with a cup of tea in our hands and poring over each book we’ve grown to love.

This is the culture from which I’ve grown up and from which I’ve come to college, wanting to write my own stories, and daydream with imagination.

And yet, in this final semester, I’ve had to reconcile the world of fiction with the world of employment. From my culture, I grew up believing that employment would be the opposite of pleasure, that desk jobs would be like cages where I would be setting aside my writing for employment.

Which I have discovered is a very wrong aspect.

I did not anticipate the pleasure of seeking jobs where I would find the usefulness of my degree working itself out in so many different ways.

And yet, when I’ve had to ask God, “Where is the pleasure in writing?” I’ve had to reconcile the worlds of fiction and professional writing as a Literature and Writing major.

For here in our department, I have learned valuable skills in the worlds of technical writing, documents, manuscripts, and descriptions—all of which serve a purpose.

I have had to dissolve the dichotomy between literature and writing—and trust in God, which seemed like an abstract concept against the digital physicality of resumes and cover letters.

Though I have had to seek pleasure in both writing and literature, the stories with which I have grown up will always remain, and I will never lose the sight or dream of becoming an English major and writing fiction. And I hope you, too, inductees, will seek pleasure in both writing and literature as God guides you in this process. May you find pleasure in Him, and He in you. Thank you.

 

This speech was delivered to the inductees of Sigma Tau Delta, an International English Honors Society, at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul on April 21, 2015.

Why Do You Write?

In his memoir A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway wrote about Gertrude Stein’s thirst for reader approval. “Writing every day made her happy,” he wrote, “but as I got to know her better I found that for her to keep happy it was necessary that this steady daily output, which varied with her energy, be published and that she receive recognition.”

At this point in my writing journey, I’m not sure which is better for me: to be recognized for my writing or to pursue the pleasure of writing. I’ll illustrate with two narratives from my life.

My pursuit of the pleasure of writing began when I was nine, when I started writing children’s stories like those I read from Angelina Ballerina and poems like those from Dr. Seuss’s tales. Going into high school, I kept my dream of writing fiction alive. I attended a teenage writers group at the Wescott Library in Eagan, Minnesota, where I received consistently positive criticism on my short story excerpts.

Going into college, I quickly learned how to write under pressure and intense grading, from which I took some of the most invaluable courses from my bachelor’s degree at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul. For example, “Writing Theory” was a class that taught me how to affect my readers’ emotions by choosing my diction, the sounds of my letters, and the length of my sentences to match my prose or poetry. Because of my dedication to my craft and the effort I put into my Honors classes, I graduated with flying colors.

Since I’ve been living the graduated life for two years now, I’ve found that I need to balance the pleasure of my writing with the recognition I receive from writers. Some of my favorite examples have come from reading my prose to a group of writers at a coffee shop in St. Paul. (Check out my essay “Simply Bask,” which I published in my university’s literary magazine!) The thrill of reading aloud to a live audience, seeing their attentive faces, and walking off a stage to a clapping crowd is one of the reasons why I want to keep writing. To publish my fiction with a traditional company is one of my goals, when I will further experience the joy of being published and recognized like Miss Stein.

So, my readers, what are your dreams in writing or publishing fiction? What are you pursuing, and when have you had an occasion to be recognized for your work? My thoughts go out to you! Godspeed.

I’m Still a Kid at Heart: Pooh Bear

When I was on my lunch break at work, I was reading Winnie-the-Pooh, the original adventures by A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard, at my desk and a co-worker came up to me. “What’s that?” he said. “I’m a kid at heart,” I said sheepishly as I pulled out Winnie-the-Pooh.

“No way!” he said. “I love it! You never stop growing up!”

It was my biggest reading compliment of the day. I had read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Gertrude Stein’s Paris France, and now Winnie-the-Pooh after craving something more delightful than modern fiction. I was blessed by all the cute and wonderful sayings I saw in Pooh Bear’s world, and below is one of my favorite quotes which I should make into a poster and put on my bedroom wall:

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully.

“It’s the same thing,” he said.

Now that I have a Pooh Bear quote to live by, I can wake up and have something to look forward to every day, like a good hearty breakfast (preferably with sausage and a muffin) or a coffee date with my favorite person in the whole wide world. Or I could be thinking “Grand Thoughts to [myself] about Nothing,” as A. A. Milne says about Pooh Bear when Christopher Robin goes off to sleep.

Maybe I should think of Grand Thoughts about Nothing? I suppose they’ll help me get to sleep sooner than I already do. Good Night, or Good Morning readers, and have a Grand Day.

How to Introduce a Book, and Why I Like Hemingway

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish….

-Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

When you introduce a book, you can’t simply give an imagery description of the town, or a bland description of the character’s physique. Sometimes you wait to say who the character is or how the character looks until after you say what the character does.

Here in the introduction of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, I am struck by the short paragraph which tells readers why the old man is the center of this story. Look at the following passage, which is the rest of the introduction, to see what I mean:

It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

Although I omitted sections for brevity, I included the most important phrase—“the flag of permanent defeat”—which sets the story’s tone and shows the old man’s perpetual misfortune. My favorite lines in the next few pages involve dialogue between the old man and the boy, when they reminisce about the time they first met and how important the boy is to the man:

“How old was I when you first took me in a boat?” [said the boy].

“Five and you nearly were killed when I brought the fish in too green and he nearly tore the boat to pieces. Can you remember?”

“I can remember the tail slapping and banging and the thwart breaking and the noise of the clubbing. …”

“Can you really remember that or did I just tell it to you?”

“I remember everything from when we first went together.”

The old man looked at him with his sun-burned, confident loving eyes.

“If you were my boy I’d take you out and gamble,” he said. “But you are your father’s and your mother’s and you are in a lucky boat.”

When Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for this novella, he deserved it well. We now know who the old man is by seeing him with our eyes and understanding him with our minds. That is the importance of style when introducing characters.

Twelve signs you’re a true English major…

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It was the saddest day when I had to return these to the library. They were my greatest friends during my senior literature project.

It’s my senior year, and I’m finally realizing the true characteristics of an English major. We’re tough, strong, and self-conscious about our grammar. We love books, Oxford commas, and bubble gum shaped like Shakespearean books. But most of all, we love that we can geek over little things together, small things like correcting our classmates’ grammar or editing a romance novel we got for homework.

I admit it: We’re geeks to the extreme core.

If you’re anything like us—or worse, if you’re an English major at all—you’ll notice that you’ll find some predilections very common in your daily or semester routines. And if you abide by these characteristics, I’m very sorry to say that you are a true English major; there’s no going back.

  1. You memorize every famous line by Shakespeare and apply Hamlet’s soliloquy to your daily life: “To sleep or not to sleep; that is the question…” you say during finals week, for instance.
  2. You love endnotes because they look cute, and you use them just for fun.
  3. By your sophomore year, you’re writing 10 pages on two stanzas of poetry, and you actually enjoy it.
  4. You have erasers or bubble gum shaped like your favorite classical books, like Canterbury Tales or Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  5. You know Colin Firth only as Mr. Darcy.
  6. You carry three bibles with you: Associated Press (AP), Chicago Manual of Style and MLA.
  7. You don’t love your Chicago Manual until you carry it with you everywhere, even in the kitchen.
  8. You get the greatest thrill from editing commas in a proofing project, especially if it’s a romance novel.
  9. You live in the library’s basement, and you know all the librarians by name.
  10. You feel you have no purpose until your next big paper; you actually cry when your senior project is over.
  11. Fridays are the saddest days because there’s no school until Monday.
  12. You get goosebumps from reading your favorite novels, and when you return your library books, you feel like you’re parting with old friends.

Hanging out with English nerds makes me realize not only the geekiness of my life, like the way I geek over Shakespeare books in the form of bubble gum, but also the severe fact that I’ll never escape these traits in my whole life.

Let’s face it: we’re either born English majors, or we’re morphed into being English majors. We live three to four years at college, get acquainted with our professors, and sooner than we know it, we’re drawn into studying literary criticism, analyzing poems for pentameter breaks, and when we go home we’re automatically correcting our siblings’ composition papers—just because we can.

We can’t change who we are, but even if we can, we realize we find greater joy in stressing over pentameters and Milton’s Paradise Lost than we would ever have over anything else. We love what we do, and it comes from the long hours we’ve spent together, the repeated assignments we’ve shared in freshman composition or introductory courses in Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer. And finally when we get published in our university’s literary magazine, we feel the same thrill of ecstasy and relief.

Only by living out these qualities do we finally realize the true depth of being an English major. Coming all this way to a university makes me appreciate my field even more, and I relish every moment of it.

How to become an English scholar without really trying

Photo Courtesy of ToemLondres
Photo Courtesy of ToemLondres

So you think you want to be an English scholar? You love fantasy, you smell books when no one looks and you kind of like Shakespeare but don’t really know why. Join the club. We’ve got a bunch of people who’d love to assimilate—I mean, welcome you into our coterie. And if you’re not really sure it’s the right fit for you, it’s no sweat at all. Just follow this pattern, and you’ll be thinking, talking and eating like an English major.

Freshman year: It all starts at the English department barbecue. You mingle with the professors and talk about English-y stuff. Your professor happens to have a collection of Shakespearean quotes made entirely of magnets, and you geek over the Shakespeare mug your mother just bought you from Stratford-on-Avon. Next, you start to think like a poet and compose a mental poem about hot dog mustard dripping down your professor’s sleeves.

Now it’s time for the test. You’ve taken your introductory class and figure out the many ways how to not make sense when analyzing literature. You read Shakespeare’s sonnet about his wife’s bad breath and realize that there’s more than three ways to look at it. But if you have the faintest clue what psychoanalytic critics are saying, you’re onto your next step in becoming an English scholar.

Sophomore year: You’re introduced to more obscure literature. The building blocks of your freshman year are becoming cemented in your brain, and you start to read things like Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” or Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” things that don’t seem normal in daily life. But you don’t start becoming an English scholar until you learn Middle English. It’s a combination of Norse and German, spoken with a Scottish accent. It sounds brilliant, especially when your fellow English majors have no clue what you’re saying.

Junior year: You start to notice things. You prefer to watch “Dead Poets Society” over “The Hunger Games.” You quote Jane Austen’s infamous first line from “Pride & Prejudice” in daily conversation. You start to get crazy over Colin Firth as Darcy. And if someone—especially an English major—hasn’t read Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” you seriously judge them.

Senior year: Things start to get a little weird. You start to see things like “homoeroticism in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’” or the “political sexuality of Ichabod Crane.” You obsess over things like iambic pentameters and fuss over trochees or dactyls. But if you’re a true English scholar, you’ll know for certain whether Robert Frost’s poetry is actually blank verse or free verse. But when you start to see “The Psychological Ruthlessness of Peter Rabbit,” then you know you’ve gone too far. There’s no return for you now. You’ve now officially become an English scholar.

But don’t say we didn’t warn you. Sure, it seems glamorous—the books, the fame, the Shakespeare—but all in all, it’s really a bunch of people who think they’re smarter than they really are.