MFA Dispatch: My Last Writing Workshop

Usually, I was looking out the window.
Yesterday, I had my last workshop ever. It sort of just snuck up on me. On all of us, I think. I haven’t been the best student and it didn’t take me going to graduate school to realize this. I would have flunked out early and efficiently if my program was slightly more rigorous than it was, and I knew this going in. It wasn’t hard – I’m not bragging – but after twenty-five years as a student of somewhere or other, you get to know yourself as such. You learn where to invest your limited academic energy.  Continue reading “MFA Dispatch: My Last Writing Workshop”

MFA Dispatch: The Pulitzer Prizes

Last week, the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. I have never followed the prizes, though I’ve bought books because they are labeled Pulitzer Prize winners. But last week, one of my classmates, Gregory Pardlo, won the prize for Poetry and the news came to me through a department-wide email blast.

I thought, “Whoa.”

I had a workshop with him last semester and followed him on Instagram. I had almost gone to his book launch – I’d RSVP’d and told his wife via Paperless Post that I’d be bringing a plus one. Not Tom, but a friend from college who’d written tons of poetry herself and who planned to visit me in New York that weekend.

But I deferred our plans to my guest.

“We can go to this book party,” I emailed a few days before her visit, “Or we can do whatever.”

“I’m open,” she said.

I mulled it over, but also gave her time to consider the options. A few days later she wrote, “Let’s get brunch at the Spotted Pig instead.” Her boyfriend had said it was one of the best meals he’d ever had.

“Sounds good,” I wrote back, “I like books. But I like brunch too.”

It was a good brunch.

A weeks later, the Prizes were announced. The day after the announcement, I had my workshop.

“So,” my professor said, “One of your classmates just won the Pulitzer. How you guys feeling?”

“It was for poetry,” a classmate said quickly.

“Yeah, it’s awesome. I’m happy for him,” said another.

Then after a minute, “But honestly, if it had been for nonfiction, I might feel a little shitty.”

“Yeah,” we all agreed.

A few of us started to share the MFA equivalent of a celebrity sighting story. Most of us had had a class or two with him. In workshop, he wrote a lot about being black and also, being aware that he wrote a lot about being black. I thought that was alright.

“Well,” I said, “I almost went to his book party but I went to brunch instead.”

My classmates looked at me, nodding in recognition. Apparently a handful of us had been invited but few, if any of us, had gone. We all went to brunch or other places that seemed more immediately appealing than a poetry book launch. At least this is what I read on our expressions. But I could have been wrong. I might have been the only person invited that did not go and now instead of saying, “I went to Gregory Pardlo’s book party,” I can say, “Well, there is some really good french toast at the Spotted Pig.”

Why I Haven’t Been Blogging

The irony of course, is that I’ve never blogged as little as during the past year and a half, when I’ve been in a writing program. My most “bloggy” years, 2011-2013, were those during which I (mostly) worked and took the odd trip here and there.

I haven’t blogged lately for a variety of reasons: my course and thus reading load is quite heavy, and when I read a lot, all I want to do is share great passages of great books – but this doesn’t make for very interesting posts (even though a part of me is like, “F*** popular taste! I write for me!”) Also, as I’ve mentioned before, my thesis is due this year. I signed up for the March 2nd submission date but given the current state of things, that’s not going to happen and I’ll have to turn in in August. I explained this to my parents the other day, worried they would be worried that I wasn’t graduating “on time,” and that I was going to pull another Betty (complain that “it’s hard, just too hard,” and drop out). But no, my dropping out of school days are over. Technically I’m not graduating on time – I’ll be walking May 2015 (or just sitting at home waiting for my diploma in the mail because graduations are dreadfully dull) – but I (or my parents) won’t have to pay extra tuition or be unable to take on a full time job. My parents were okay with it – never mind that they sort of have to be. Or maybe they didn’t quite understand but they hoped I understood that I was now an adult who could make my own decisions but would be careful not to embarrass them. Gotcha, mom and dad.

So…working. “The real world.” Hustlin’. Making (not) bank.

Everyone’s been asking me, “So what are you thinking about doing after graduation?” I shrug and say, “Oh you know, probably marketing or event planning or…” and here my voice trails off because I’m not really sure – those people who are sure are annoying – but then I sit up straight and say, “I am however, quite certain I don’t want to do something that will involve me writing from 9-5, or from 10-6 or whatever.”

Surprised? Me too, at first. But from my short and motley work history, I’ve learned I want stuff to write about, not to write about stuff. This means I’ll be veering away from copywriting (though it depends on industry, I guess) and any situation where I’ll be asked to churn out blog posts and/or email newsletters. I’m not saying, “No way José!” But I just know I’d rather not. Those jobs usually lead to me coming home too tired to stare at my blog, never mind write in it. The fact is I like my blog. I want it to grow with me (or plateau or get content or whatever else I decide to do). I’d like to keep contributing to it in a meaningful way without feeling like I’m pulling my own creative teeth out.

My most interesting jobs have not been ones that require me to do a lot of writing or editing or copywriting. They’re always in something I never thought I’d be doing – like being an Executive Assistant or packing boxes and reorganizing the freezers as a seasonal worker at Costco – but while I was working these odd jobs (there’s that phrase you see on the back of every best-selling paperback: “So-and-So spent many years working odd jobs, all the while writing this runaway bestseller between 1-6AM every morning..” Except this is me writing it in my own blog) I met so many interesting people and did so many eyebrow-raising things, like the time I had to move my bosses; stuff from one suite at the Wynn Las Vegas to another on a higher floor with a better view. I had to repack their bags and learned what kind of underwear they wore. Yeah I complained about the work, but I had a good time living it, and would always have an even better time writing it.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about.

I’ve also been thinking of how easy it is to be crushed by ideas. Mostly ideas for stuff I want to write and feeling like the narrator in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, where she feels she has the whole world dangling above her in the form of a fruit tree but she can’t decide which fruit to pick and eat first, and eventually they all shrivel up and fall to the ground. When I read this five, ten years ago I remember thinking “Don’t let the fruit shrivel!” And now, I’m not sure I’ve picked any fruit yet, but they are looking rather overripe. A few have probably already dropped to the ground.

Yeah, don’t read that if you feel like you are young and have options but are extremely indecisive. Or maybe read it and serendipitously, walk past the Nike logo and think, “Just do it.”

Writing the City: A New York Diary

On a whim, my professor changed the final assignment.

We were reading “What I saw” by Joseph Roth and thumbing the pages during our class discussion, he revisited something valuable. 
“Why not let’s do this,” he said, waving his hands as though to stir up the proposal still taking shape in his head, “Yes, yes, this is much better than the original assignment I have planned.” 
It’s simple: keep a journal. An urban diary of life – your life – in the city. Write it longhand if you wish, and for God’s sake don’t agonize over it. That’s what workshop is for. Try to write every day and at the end of the semester, turn in your best, your favorite 1500 words. 
A few of us groaned. More writing on top of the twenty to thirty pages we were already expected to churn out each week for our thesis workshops. Also, we haven’t been asked to keep a journal since elementary school… 

“Dear Diary, 

Today at recess I kicked a girl in the stomach...” 
A girl from Egypt raised her hand. She is a journalism student with a concentration on arts reporting. What was the original assignment? 
The professor looked at her with a curious expression that said, “Does it matter?” 
He is a curious man with wild salt and pepper hair and a chin that protrudes slightly more than the rest of his face. He is well-dressed in a New York not-quite-young but not-quite-old professorial way: fitted, faded jeans, blazer, worn but probably expensive polo shirt in dark blues and greys. Sometimes he wears a narrow, striped scarf, the kind that makes me wonder: “Yes but…does it keep the neck warm?” It certainly does nothing to tamper the scratchiness of his voice. 
On his narrow nose rests narrow black framed glasses and always at his ankles sits a single, slim briefcase, probably hand-stitched, the leather on the handles worn as well as the bottom, from being placed then picked up on classroom and subway floors. He wears no wedding ring, though he is reasonably handsome and reasonably successful, and it is only after our third or fourth class that I go home and Google him – he’s written two memoirs, one about his daughter’s mental illness and another about his struggles as a writer. 
I once saw him reading on the subway, sitting between a fat black woman and a student not unlike myself, a young Asian woman with hair pulled back into a pony tail, wearing a light sweater and jeans, flats. She was reading a printout, dense with text. My professor, the briefcase now between his ankles, read a slim volume I couldn’t see the title of but was certain it wasn’t something he’d assigned for our class. 
I stood half a car away and wondered if I should walk over to say hello – there was space in front of him – but decided to stay put because I felt it would be awkward to tower over him, my belly in his face trying to make small talk. I guessed he would get off the train at 96th and transfer to an express train – the 2 or 3 to Brooklyn where I swore he lived. I wanted to know where he lived so I could pat myself on the back and say my assumptions were right. 
But he remained seated and I, disappointed, got off. I remembered what he’d said in class. 
“When you write this diary, see if you can put your assumptions away.” 
I pushed through the turnstile, momentarily jostled by a group of young musicians and their sleek instruments made unwieldy by nylon cases and hard shells, and wondered if for me, that was possible.  

Photographs of Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue

You are here.

This semester, I’m taking a seminar called “Writing the City.” Before class started the professor gave us an assignment: to take the C or A trains to Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn and walk “with maximum openness and attention, building a narrative out of what you see, overhear, actual encounters, your insights, responses… The chronicle of a writer’s walk, however you choose to craft it.”  Continue reading “Photographs of Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue”

MFA Dispatch

In a half hour I’ll meet with my workshop professor, the one who had called some of my writing a “trick,” but who, when I met with him a few weeks ago, was also curious to know where I wanted the writing to go.

It changes week by week, but last week I turned in something about high school, attempting to answer the main questions people have for me every time I write about relationships, both mine and others’.

Mostly, “Why were you single for so long?”

Not that weird. It’s a combination of things. Timing. Family background. Pop culture and media. Traveling. Being stuck up and unapproachable. Being too self-deprecating and available. Or spending too much time obsessing with people who are either a.) unavailable or b.) unavailable, though perhaps not in the conventional way.

Anyway. I wrote it not feeling completely inspired but thinking, “Okay, let’s get all this down and lift out the usable parts later,” because Monday, when my workshops are, always roll around faster than I expect. I titled it, “Why I was Single For So Long,” mostly because I couldn’t think of anything better.

The result was not really a result, but the mere first step in a long process. For as long as I’ve been writing, it amazes me how little I know about the writing process – about the energy and investment it takes to not just write something – long, short, in between – but to see it through, in all its permutations until it’s complete. And then you realize, it’s never complete. But it can be comfortable.

I submitted it and some people liked some parts, were confused by others, but in general, they wanted more, which is a good sign. I even made some of them laugh. The professor wrote very few comments on the back of the paper, which in general is a good sign coming from him.

“I’m delighted to see you diving into this material,” he said, “Proceed!”

So now I’ll meet with him and discuss coming attractions. Goal setting, all that stuff I love reading about but never implement in my life.

Photo Diary of a 2013, Part 2

At the beginning of April, I left the bustle of Asia and came home to this:

The road. 

I flew to New York to attend Columbia’s admitted student’s night and stayed with Albert, an architectural student from Taiwan whom I’d met many years ago through my cousin. He never slept and smoked like a chimney and was constantly complaining about his monumental workload, but ask him if he’d prefer to be studying anywhere else and he’d shake his head. “New York is where I want to be.” His apartment was my temporary home and despite it being dark, with critical windows facing brick walls, I could see how when life is full and you’re doing what you love (and hardly ever come home because you’re at studio), things like that matter just a little less.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” says Albert, “But I’ll sleep when I’m dead (or when I run out of cigarettes).”
I was, obviously leaning towards Columbia but two things helped seal the deal: 1. They gave me more money. 2. I found my dream studio, minus the nightmare of five flights of stairs and no elevator. Also, the passionate urging of others helped. “It’s New York! What the hell are you going to do in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere North Carolina or West Virginia! New York, Betty! New York!!! Every writer’s dream!”  
I have yet to set foot inside that building. 
With the minor detail of where I was to spend the next two years of my life out of the way, it was time to settle into a peculiar routine: three days a week I lunched with my grandfather. I would get to his house around 11AM, read for a half hour, then put together a simple meal while he watched TV or read the paper. We’d eat, chat about things – sometimes he would tell me stories, sometimes he would be quiet and shake his head, wondering what was to become of me. All the time he would think about his old half, my grandmother. Lunch was always short, a thirty minute affair at the end of which I would clear the dishes and ask him if he wanted dessert. 
“None for me,” he would say. But I would push and push and eventually he would share a pineapple cake or have a bite or two of ice cream. We would read for a half hour more and he would retire to take a nap. I would move to the couch and try to continue reading, but eventually, the whirr of the water pump in the fish tank, the breeze from outside and the warming afternoon sun would cause me to nod off and for an hour Grandpa’s house would be silent but for the slow, even breath of an old man and a young woman, an anchor and a sail. 
Because sometimes glasses just don’t cut it. 
And around these afternoons I saw friends… 
Coworkers who turned into great friends, Grace and Enny. 


Babies galore at Lucas’s (on the right!) One Month Celebration held, where else? At Sam Woo’s in Irvine. 
May rolled around and I turned twenty-seven. A damn good age, if you ask me. 

I took a trip to Charleston to see Grace, a cellist who was playing in the Spoleto Orchestra (longer post to come). I fell in love with the south and southern food, but that was expected. I went to my first southern beach and wondered what the hell southern Californians were so proud of. We wore summer dresses. I let my hair down and played bingo and drank with classical musicians who were surprisingly raunchy when they weren’t playing classical music. We walked a lot, ate a ton, and I pretended to understand the opera she got me tickets to.

Woohoo, culture! 
Grace walking at Sullivan’s Beach. 
When we weren’t stuffing our faces with fried everything we were trying to walk it off.  
Like that one ride at Disneyland. 

And immediately after that, my mother suggested an impromptu trip to Kauai. She popped into my room one evening and asked, “How much are tickets to Kauai at the end of May?”

I looked for her, then asked, “Who are you thinking about going with?”

She seemed surprised, “Oh, you! Do you want to go?”

This is what’s called a no-brainer. So we went, just the two of us.

My mother thinks about her mother. 

On our last day there, we went swimming in the hotel pool, then my mother took a nap while I wrote a letter to my brother. When she woke, I asked her how she felt about barbecue. She said fine. I ordered it by phone and drove to pick it up. My mother stayed in the kitchen, peeling papaya and when I returned, I saw that she’d been crying.

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

She started crying again.

“I was just thinking about grandma.”

“What were you thinking about that made you think of grandma?”

In hindsight, it was a stupid and insensitive question, but I think my mother understood what I meant.

“I am so lucky that my daughter can travel with me and we can spend time like this, but I can’t do that anymore with grandma.”

I hugged her, because you can’t really do anything or say anything but hug a person who misses their dead mother.

“Let’s eat outside on the balcony,” I said, and she agreed.

I poured us each half of the small bottle of wine we’d gotten from the airline and when everything was served, she raised her glass to me, something I’ve never seen her do. My mother is not a big drinker.

“I wish you a good happy life in New York,” she said. Her voice broke and her face crumpled and I choked up too, but did not cry. I said thank you. I said, “I already have a good and happy life.”

My mother thinks about me. 

At the end of June, it was time to return to Taipei. This trip was much shorter than the first, but no less fun. For starters, my cousin Karen and I returned to Hong Kong:

Traveling for business, obviously.  
Before our feet started to hurt. 
Do this panorama some justice and click on it. 
My brother got married (again, to the same Cathy), at the W Hotel in Taipei. He cried the whole time and Cathy, was like, “What is wrong with you.” It was very touching. 
Bubbles and my brother’s tears. 
Some Ho’s and then some. 
I spent some quality time with family in Taiwan, and it felt a little different this time because I wasn’t sure when I’d next be back. 
My uncle at the office. He looks at numbers, then reads Buddhist scripture, and is in bed by 9PM. Every. Single. Day. 
My cousin Melody was also home from Boston over the summer, taking a break from breaking hearts. Over Din Tai Fung, we talked about the elusive Mr. Right and the ubiquitous Mr. Wrongs.  
I ate Chinese food as though my life depended on it, unsure of what awaited me in New York. Pasta, it turns out. 
And a lot of the time, marveled at the fact that this guy was in a relationship with a girl who really really likes him. “I don’t know why either,” he says. 

I returned to California in the middle of July, hoping to return to a somewhat normal schedule, but it was crunch time. There was another trip to Vegas with the girls I go most often and have the best time with: 

Elevator selfie. 

A short trip to SF. First stop, two nights at Erica and Carson’s:

TPE – HKG – SF! Taxicab selfies are now a thing. 
I had lunch with Emily from Pearl’s wedding. She lived in SF and was trying to convince all her single girlfriends to move out there. 
“The odds are so much better for women in SF,” she said, “I heard it’s hard to meet someone in New York.” 
I nodded; I had heard the same thing. But a month later Emily would make it very easy for me to meet someone in New York. 
“What about POI? He’s offensive and so is Betty.” 

And the main event: Jaime’s Bachelorette party, which was supposed to be tame but ended up like this:

The bachelorette and a very drunk man who liked very much to “back it up.”  

My cousin Wendy’s baby shower:

Remember earlier in the year she was in Vegas! 
And a quick succession of hangouts before I had to leave town: 
I watched a lot of movies with this girl, equally as obsessed with Benedict Cumberbatch as I was until we realized he was probably gay. But we still really like him. 

With cousin Michelle in Venice, aping an ape. 
At plate by plate with Enny, whose outfit was pretty much the talk of the town. 
Billy’s dad salting seasoning their salmon during a random weekend at their mansion in Upland.  
With Angie and Lynn at a Phoenix International event. 
Getting In n’Out with Grandpa. 
With Auntie Linda, a few days before leaving. 
Pint-sized houseguests from Taipei. 
An impromptu mexican feast at Grace’s.  
Then, on August 17, 2013, I moved to New York. 
Well. Sort of. 
The early days. 
Grace and Charlene were there to help make things better. We went to HomeGoods and bought mirrors and lamps, you know, essential things. They helped me haul three giant boxes filled with Forever 21 crap up five flights, something the UPS guy failed to do. 
Best moving service ever 🙂 Way better than UPS. 
Then in my giant mess of an unfurnished room, we got ready for my first girls’ night out in New York. 
And it was never this messy again. 
Cleaned up and celebrating Charlene’s birthday belatedly, at Robert in Columbus Circle. 
And it was back to California for Jaime and Alvin’s beautiful wedding in San Clemente. I’ve known Jaime since middle school, when we met in science class and giggled together at the teacher’s giant armpit sweat stains. Four months later, she and her husband would fly through a snow storm and battle massive flight delays to visit me in New York. 
With bridesmaid Emy, also an old friend from high school and Jaime, one of the most low-maintenance brides in the history of brides. Emy and I always look like her bodyguards.  
I like to think that some of my photos were better than the wedding photographer’s. 
At the wedding, just as I was sitting down to dinner, Emily texted me. 
“Hey! I want to set you up with someone.” 
“I’m game,” I said, taking a bite of fish. 
A few minutes later POI texted, asking me to dinner sometime the following week. I’d let him know tomorrow, I said. First I had to eat cake and dance. I was at a wedding, after all. 
The next evening, I boarded a red-eye flight from Long Beach to JFK. And just like that, it was back to New York. For longer, for real.