The last year has been weird for everyone, but the weirdest thing about it for me is that it's been maybe the best year of my life in terms of good things happening to me. This has been true both at work--where I recently left the job I've had for seventeen years in order to take what seems like a dream job to me--and in writing. It's of course hard to feel like celebrating these good things when the world is falling apart, and a big part of me is waiting to see what the comeuppance of all these oddly timed nice things will be, but since it's hard to make genuine progress in life or in writing, I'll take it wherever and whenever it comes.
In writing, the three biggest breakthroughs were:
1) Getting my story "Jajangmyeon" published in The Chattahoochee Review, just before they closed for good. (We might, before it's all said and done, lose as many literary journals as restaurants to the pandemic). I'd like to post to the work, but TCR generally puts only a limited amount online, leaving the rest for the print journal. When they closed up, they seem to have done it in a hurry, not even saying goodbye on Twitter or on their website. So there is literally nothing online from their last journal. The most I can do is link to the Tweet they put out announcing the final volume.
2) Winning the Robert Day Award for fiction with New Letters for my story "Lobu Hoteru." This story was, in some ways, the culmination of my career at the job I just left, because it is a working out of my feelings about both North Korea and the paradoxes of surveillance.
3) I'll have a story published soon by The Bellevue Literary Review. This story is loosely based on one of my three brothers, who joined my family through adoption from Hong Kong when I was eleven. He came with his biological sister. They had what must have been a befuddling existence in Ohio, and this story was my attempt to get at the emotional truth of what it might have been like for them, if not the factual truth.
"Why I write" is a boring question, but here's an answer anyway
If I never publish anything else ever again, I'm satisfied with what I've done now, and least in terms of answering the "am I any good?" question. Satisfying one's own need to be validated isn't maybe the best reason to write, but I'm sure I'm not alone in that I can't deny it has been a reason for me.
It's not the only reason I write, though, nor the biggest. The strongest motivator for me to write is something like this: I feel like the universe is constantly gaslighting me, and I want to explain how it's doing this, in order to see if I'm alone, or if anyone else feels the same way. I'm hoping that I might write something that can be like the opening of the floodgates when one person says they've been abused by someone, and then another comes forward, and another, and then it's pouring in from all over.
My deepest impulse to think and write probably all stems from one small, insignificant episode when I was in first grade. I was standing in line to come back in from recess and regretting that I had to go back in. Normally, seven-year-old kids are trained by that age to accept that you can't always get what you want, and there are things you just have to do, so there's so sense complaining. Normally, that was me. I was a model student in first grade. But at that exact moment, I wondered for just a few seconds about why the world is a place where we must come in from recess, why we can't just spend our lives doing the things we enjoy. Surely, it could have been something else. It could have been anything, so why was I sheepishly trudging along in a line to go back into the building when that's not what I wanted to do? In fact, when you got down to it, why was there something rather than nothing at all?
These weren't original thoughts, of course--not that I knew that then. But with these kinds of thoughts, it's not really the novelty of the thought that gets you, it's the occasional moments when the undeniable truth of it hits you square during your unguarded moments. It's the visceral nature of the realization when it sneaks in and becomes momentarily more than just an abstract concept. It happened to me the other day, when I was worried I might not be up to the challenge of my new job, and I consoled myself by thinking, well, I'm well over halfway to death, in all likelihood, so if I screw my life up, at least I'll have done it for a short amount of time. That then led me to realizing that I really am going to die one day, a realization that hit me closer than I usually let it.
Life seems to be some kind of joke, but I can't really get the punchline, and while I'm puzzling it over, everyone wants me to go on with life paying bills and going to the dentist and folding laundry. All of which just makes me feel like everyone is messing with me. How can everyone go on with the show like there isn't a giant, burning question making everything we do seem pointless? I mean, I do go along with it, because at heart, I don't trust myself that they don't all just know something I don't know, but at the same time, a big part of me is undone by the weirdness of being here and how I can't make sense of it. Somewhere, there's a Jake Weber who never really came in from recess that day, and is still roaming the playground at Orchard Hill Elementary School, muttering to himself.
I know, I know, I KNOW! -- This kind of thinking is a privilege
Unsurprisingly, the kind of writing I tend to intuitively connect with the most is that which speaks in some way to this essential alienation of humankind from the cosmos in which we are placed. Moby Dick is my go-to answer when someone asks me about my favorite novel, an answer I haven't improved on in the twenty-five years since I first read it.
That's not to say I don't appreciate writing focused on other concerns. Modern American fiction focuses a lot these days on issues related to gender, racial, and other identity-driven equities. I don't dislike this kind of writing, and I don't want to suggest I think it's somehow less than writing concerned with the alienation of humanity or other existential dread-focused considerations.
I rather think of culture the way Tolkien described the origin of the universe in The Silmarillion: everyone only knows part of the whole melody, and we can only begin to understand the entirety of the theme if we all join our voices. I might not have heard the original voice of God when it comes to racial or gender issues, but I can still hear and appreciate when others sing from that part of the overall theme. It's just that to me, those issues are always going to be in brackets. Yes, it'd be nice to figure out how to make life better for everyone, but can we please get back to the question of what the point to all this is?
It's at this point that I preemptively state, like Kurt Vonnegut's alter-ego narrator in Slaughterhouse Five, "I know, I know, I KNOW!" I know that being able to be more concerned with what the point of life is than the struggle to merely preserve life is a function of the various types of privilege I enjoy. It's easy to whine about the absence of a clear reason to life when nobody is actively putting a boot on my neck to put an end to my life. I know. Perhaps the types of concerns I'm talking about belong only to those privileged enough to worry about them.
I don't think so, though. It's not like these worries are ever totally absent from the best writers who mainly focus on equity concerns. The irreducible, baffling, disorienting absurdity of life is there in Danielle Evans and Jamel Brinkley. One senses, reading them, that they are aware that once their characters fight through identity issues in a more specific sense, there is still the much larger identity issue to deal with--not just "Who am I?" but "Who are any of us?"
Is this what I'm really writing about?
I've gotten better. That's my whole trajectory as a writer since my early forties, when I really started to try. Getting better has meant marginally more and more success with publications, but I want to be sure that when I'm getting better--a big part of which is reading the best fiction of the day--I'm not abandoning that fist grader who still needs me to find a voice for him. Of course those identity and equity issues are important, but Jake Weber probably isn't the best guy to write about them, because that's not what got seven-year-old Jake Weber into such a tizzy he's never gotten over it. Maybe a story that's close to home about my siblings is an exception, and it's sad to me that the story is coming out at time when violence against Asian Americans is suddenly back to what it was for them sometimes when we were growing up in Ohio. Mostly, though, that's not going to be my forte.
I don't mean to say that I'm writing cynically, trying to craft stories about equity or identity I don't myself care about, imitating many of the stories that are received well in American fiction now. I mean more that being aware of what editors want might be influencing me in small ways. For example, my story "Jajangmyeon" got a lot of positive feedback from the first thirty places I sent it, but nobody was quite ready to pull the trigger on it. I made a small but significant change to one passage, one that turned the main character from sexually confused and possibly asexual to clearly homosexual. I did it, I think, because I was trying to make him a character with motivations that would be immediately intuitive to the reader. The change accomplished that, but I wonder if it might have taken away some of what made the story unique. The old passage:
He doesn’t feel sexual attraction to Doug. He is pretty sure he isn’t gay, although he wishes sometimes he could be just to traumatize his mother. If he’d been gay, he figures, he’d have known for sure when he was in the army.
He’d had more than enough chances in the army to know if he was attracted to men. There’d been hundreds of naked men and plenty of lack of supervision that presented opportunities. But it never seemed right to him.
At the same time, he couldn’t think of a girl he’d ever been that attracted to, either. He figured it had something to do with how he had never met one he couldn’t imagine eventually turning into his mother.
I felt like that was something honest, a guy who's so messed up from childhood, he can't even figure out what kind of person he's really attracted to, because his mother is so in his head in everything. Now, here's the change. I didn't change much else except to take out those passages above and substitute with this:
Before driving a moped, the last time he felt an excitement like this was when he read those sexy manhwa or went to the bath house with the soldiers in his company in the army. If it hadn’t been for church, he wouldn’t have known to feel shame about it, but because he did, Jong-min avoided scrubbing the backs of his comrades, who thought he was aloof because of it.
You could say I was just making the story more streamlined, and I'm sure that's what I thought I was doing. It's a story quality I was thinking a lot about when I made the change, and that's why I made it, not in order to give the story more appeal to an editor looking for the right diversity to fill out a volume. But I'm not sure the story didn't eventually get picked because of that. It finally got picked up soon after that change, and when I pulled it from other journals I'd sent it to, another editor said he'd been just about to pick it, too.
The long and the short of it
In any event, from now on, I'm writing only stories that would have appealed to that seven-year-old Jake. If it doesn't scream from hell's heart I stab at thee, I'm not writing it.
Resigning from my old job and starting a new one means I'm going to be busy learning new things at work and not have much time to devote to writing for a while. I knew this, and I'm okay with it. Certain sacrifices had to be made, and overall, I'm hopeful they'll be worth it. So when I do have a few minutes to devote to writing, it's going to be on what matters most to me.
I probably won't be blogging much for a while. I've already fallen off a lot in the last few months, hoping I'd get this new job. It's going to get worse before it gets better, but again, I think this is a good thing for me overall. Hopefully, I'll feel solid enough in six months to get back to blogging next year's BASS.