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It begins

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It begins.

Someone writes something. The words hurt. My sadness envelops me.

Like a warm sweater. On a warm day. And yet, I do not sweat. I become heat. And yet the heat does not burn the sweater off of me. It weighs me down.

I can usually shake off the sweater.

But at some particular moment, I am caught unaware. And then I take to bed, clouded by sweater wool and and over that, down and cotton.

I burrow deep in the hole.

It becomes unbearable.

I walk into the ocean. To put out the fire.

It is dark and scorched and wet and cold and hot and all the things. All the sensations.

And then I re-emerge. I’ve gone through the heat.

#ADayInBed

Also–(unrelated to this post, but where else do I put this)?: My memoir, TELL ME EVERYTHING YOU DON’T REMEMBER, has an official publication date! February 14, 2007.

I’m not a fan of Valentine’s Day, so I’m EXCITED February 14 is now reclaimed for me, forever and ever.

Getting In Shape To Write

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I turned my memoir manuscript in, and it’s time to move forward to my next book, before the PR demands for my memoir ramp up. So between now and January 2017, it’s novel-time. It’s due in a few months.  It’s done but not done done done.

Whereas my memoir took 12 months to write, my novel has taken 12 *years* of effort. It was born in the midst of my MFA’s novel writing workshop, ushered on by Victor LaValle. I’ve rewritten it three times. Thrown away more words than I’ve eventually kept. It waited for me to recover from my stroke. Witnessed the birth of my child, the end of my marriage, and its book contract. It waited for me to live a life, to grow up and meet it. To be able to write the damn thing.

Unlike my memoir, my novel requires so much more discipline and rigor from me. It wants a tidier home. My kitchen is tidier than it has been in a couple of years. And it requires me to get in physical shape. Literally–I can’t write my novel unless I’m running or doing yoga on a regular basis. It goes back to the discipline and rigor this novel demands from me.

I went on a run today.

Confession: I haven’t gone on a run in….years. Over two years. The last time I went for a run, I could run 30 minutes easily. This time–nope. I cut short my run by 15 minutes.

Further confession: I wasn’t running for 15 minutes straight. I was doing “intervals.”

This bout of exercise felt like running (see what I did there?) your hand in the wrong direction on velvet fabric. Not what I expected. Uncomfortable. Dissonant.

But getting back into my novel reeks of this discomfort–like wearing jeans after having worn sweatpants for two years.

Confession: I’ve been living in soft pants for 2 years.

I’ll keep running and getting back into shape. And I’ll keep working on my novel, and getting it into shape. And my novel will shape me.

In other news–there is a family of foxes in our neighborhood. They’re beautiful and delightful to spot in our urban setting. My daughter spotted a baby fox/kit, and she couldn’t stop talking about it.

Then again, we have no more chickens.

 

On Characters

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I spent the last few months as an adjunct professor in Fresno State’s MFA program–teaching a graduate fiction workshop and meeting the next generation of emerging writers. It’s been an edifying experience on many dimensions. But first, I had to go in with my own pedagogy as it pertains to successful workshop.

For the most part, my approach centered around being craft-focused.

Successful content is based on craft execution. What you want to write is up to you–whether you pick something difficult/ challenging/ seriously fucked up/ controversial (e.g., writing outside your own race) or something familiar, you better make that content sing. So we focused on craft in workshop. For instance, characters.

Let’s begin.

The character you never want in your real life is the best kind of character to have in your stories. Not everyone can be a good guy. Not everyone can be intelligent or make kind choices. Your bad neighbor is essential to your story.

Character is something strong and original and deep in a person’s nature. Generosity is revered in workshop. As is kindness. As is honesty. How do you tell someone they have a booger in their nose? Do you even tell someone? Which is the more generous, kind, and honest approach? There is a difference between pointing and laughing at a booger versus telling them hey, you have a booger versus saying man people with boogers have hygiene problems–by the way you have a booger versus not saying anything at all, thus allowing that person to continue to navigate the world with a booger hanging out of their nose.

The best of course, is to also hand the person a facial tissue. Help out.

Yes. Character is important in workshop. Characters are important in writing. Character and characters can and should be developed.

Character can be a letter or symbol. You can name them whatever you want. They can symbolize so much. We all do.

There is a cast of characters in my novel. Each has a story. Each achieves something in the narrative. Have purpose. Come to workshop with purpose.

Cast also means to throw with force. The cast of characters are cast into a traumatic world. I put them there. And then they keep themselves there, and then they each, one by one, climb out. And as writers, we must not keep them in their cast–the characters at some point come to life, and we must listen to their needs and desires. We cannot be tyrants. What is it they want? What prevents them from that desire?

When my daughter was a toddler, she did not remember the name of the movie she watched, but did remember its characters. Frozen became “Elsa,” and How To Train Your Dragon became “Hiccup and Toothless” and Finding Nemo is simply “Nemo.” And Madagascar is “Move it Move it”–that’s a craft lesson of a different kind, focused on themes. Themes are also important, but that is not what I’m addressing here.

If you want someone to read 200 pages of your writing, your characters must be memorable, must be endearing. Why else would we read all seven of the Harry Potter books? We want to know what happens to Neville and Hermione and Ron and Harry and Sirius and Luna and even Snape. Especially Snape. Remember–the character you never want in your real life, is what you want in your stories. That person is Snape.

Furthermore, your character must be strong. The voice of your story is also what keeps your reader enthralled. Listen to your characters. And so will your readers.

Downtime

Update 5/8/2017: Welp. I opened my etsy shop. Downtime Studio.

In my downtime, I write in my journal. I read. I cook. And I quilt.

I don’t like sewing machines, so I quilt entirely by hand. It’s slow going, but I like it that way. It’s kind of like writing a book-length work. There are no short cuts.

This is what I’ve quilted over the last year.

A quilt for my daughter:

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A (snail) mailing list idea

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This Summer, I wrote a letter for The Rumpus’s Letters in the Mail series. Last week (it is now Autumn), the letter went out to everyone with a subscription to LITM.

In the age of electronic media, and electronic mailing lists, writing the letter felt strange and intimate. Like being touched after a long period of no human contact. I once spent some time at a writing residency, and one of the things I missed most during that time was human touch. I had no idea how crucial touch was to me, until then. I slept alone and not with my partner and not with my dogs. I went three weeks without a hug. Without shaking hands. I swear, I think even a punch would have been welcome by that point (this may explain why some people get into fist fights).

On the second to last day, I signed up for a massage–and it was only then, when I was on the masseuse table, I literally FELT what I had been missing.

Writing a letter by hand felt just like that. My long-neglected handwriting scrawl was horrible–I had to rewrite the whole thing, because the first run-through was illegible. Still, it was needed. And it felt good.

And then? I got letters back. It felt amazing. A gift, in return.

So here’s the thing: I want to do this more often. And instead of having an electronic mailing list for my readers and leading up to the day when my memoir and novel are published…I’d like to offer up my own rendition of a “mailing list”:

Send your mailing address to me over at xtinehlee AT gmail DOT com, and every month or so, I will send you a letter in the mail. For free (for as long as I can afford this, at least).

It’s likely I won’t even write about writing. Maybe it will be about a recent recipe I sampled. Or a trip. It may or may not have doodles on the margins. But you’ll get a letter from me, in the mail. 🙂

–Christine

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This Frightens Me

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So I made it my cover photo on Facebook. And I texted it to a friend who also found it jarring.

Eyes. Staring at you. Unblinking. In All Colors.

It takes what it takes

BookDealI’ve been heads down, writing my manuscript. I’m determined to make my deadline to my editor, and even more motivated to finish before the deadline. After years of writing without a deadline, doing so is…awesome.

I live a hobbit life. I don’t much leave my house, except to take my daughter to and from preschool or buy groceries. It’s like an extended residency. It takes a lot of focus to write, and I want very much not to be distracted.

But in between, at AWP and other public space, I’m met with congratulations for having sold two books. It feels good to hear such support, even though it also feels awkward to hear and receive and intake–is that really me? That’s not me, is it?  Huh. And then I’m relieved when the conversation moves on to other topics.

I hesitated before announcing my book deal. The official announcement in Publishers Marketplace went out in early March when only four people in my life, knew. My dear agent forwarded me a copy of what went out, and well–reading it gave me immense delight.

And I still didn’t publicize my deal, because I needed time to understand what this milestone meant to me, before I absorbed the reactions of other people. So that I could hold the personal experience near and dear, even within the public realm. I wanted clarity so that my personal feelings about this writing milestone would not be affected by public reaction. And that I could in the end, be moved and unmoved, in the healthiest of ways.

What did it mean to me?

It took awhile for me to understand what my book deals meant to me. The negotiation itself was exhilarating, but made me a nervous wreck; I had vertigo and nausea and high blood pressure and insomnia. I knew what I had to do, but my body just fell apart. Wow. Who knew that that would be the way I would react to the culmination of a dream?

But when the hubbub died down, and handshakes were made and before the deal went public, I had a chance to breathe and ponder. It didn’t mean that I was “finally a writer”; I have always been a writer. This wasn’t my end goal. Instead, this was the beginning of something, not the end.

This was the beginning of my new life. I’d turned the boat around. In my darkest hour, I stood up and reached for good things and through hard work, made them real. I made healthy choices and channeled all my pain into my work, and turned shit into fertilizer into blooms. I’d shown my daughter how to stand up and make positive change. I’d doubled down when I had nothing to lose.

It is the beginning of a new life, one defined on my own terms.

And that feels amazing. And that is what I hold most dear.

 

My publishing arc was an atypical and fortunate trajectory, one I couldn’t have anticipated when I started writing fiction in earnest twelve years ago.

Twelve. Years. Ago.

When I was talking to editors, after my BuzzFeed stroke essay went viral, more than a few asked me where I had been all these years. I said, “Well, I’ve been writing my novel.”

It takes what it takes. The novel draft is done, and it won’t take twelve years to revise and finish. The memoir is chugging along. The plan is to publish the memoir in late 2016. That’s not too far away.

I write everyday. There is work ahead. I put myself on a schedule a few months ago and thank goodness, I’m on schedule.

Thank you for reading. Thank you to the readers who read my JadePark blog and then found me again. Thank you to my friends who have answered every single text and email I’ve sent. Thank you for my mentors who have cheered me on.

 

Plan A, B, C, D, and E: On Public Speaking

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I’ve been doing more public speaking in recent years. And I think I’m a decent public speaker–teaching in a classroom has certainly helped me be more at ease in front of a crowd, and it has taught me how to establish rapport with my audience.

But here’s the thing: I used to get very bad stage fright. Like, frozen up on stage in front of hundreds of people, fright.

Ground zero for this fright happened about fifteen years ago, when I went up on stage at a blogging conference, with very little preparation. “Oh, I’m just going to talk,” was my thinking. “I’ve a lot to say.” (Did I tell you I was like, twenty-five years old at the time–ah the arrogance of youth). And then I got up on stage and stared at the hundreds of people before me, and then I had that moment where things felt very strange, and I felt very teeny tiny small, and my mind went…blank.

I learned a very good lesson that day about myself: I need to always be prepared. In fact, I now over-prepare for my talks. And the more I prepare, the better my talks go. The better the feedback. And the more I enjoy my time on stage.

I still get sweaty and hot before I talk. So you’ll likely always see me in a sleeveless top whenever I have a microphone in my hand or pinned to my shirt. And I have to park myself near a restroom for the hour or two beforehand, because my body apparently just wants to dehydrate itself before I go in front of an audience.

But my heart no longer thumps. And I no longer feel a deep fear that I’ll go blank on stage.

Because I prepare.

I have a Plan A, B, C, and D when I go into my talks. I try to address all the unknowns or all the variables, and have at least a rough plan for each. I thought I’d share a little of my planning process with you.

What is the topic at hand?
Research your topic. Get an outline going for your overall narrative. Make notes. Rehearse. Rehearse. As a backup, think of anecdotes that might go well to illustrate your points. Have them in your back pocket to liven up your talk. Plan A is to have your talk in its ideal format. Plan B is to figure out supplemental information for your talk.

Who is the audience?
Novices? Experts? Peers? Figure out to whom you are speaking, so you can make sure your talk is relevant and enlightening. If you don’t know–think about ways you can broaden your talk and/or have a back up plan on different angles. If you are uncertain as to who your audience might be, think about having a mini-ice breaker at the beginning and ask the audience questions relevant to your talk and that will give you insight into their level of experience. This is where you may want to have a Plan A, B, C, and D–keep your main outline, but keep in mind where you may have to go should the audience not connect with your talk.

And if you get nervous–look up and spot someone with an encouraging look on their face. Talk to THEM. It may feel a bit creepy, but you gotta get through it!

How many people are in the audience?
Is it a crowd of 500? 100? 50? 30? 10? Your approach will differ with each. Plan A may be a talk for 500 people, but if you end up with 10 people in your audience, you will want to be prepared with a Plan B that is more interactive. Have an exercise regarding your topic. Ask for their questions upfront.

What equipment do I need?
Overhead projector? Music? Let your organizers know. And if for whatever reason the equipment falls through, you need a backup plan. One year, I wanted to do powerpoint slides for a panel talk at a large conference. I knew there would be hundreds of people in the room, and I wanted people in the back to have a visual and also for everyone to see the framework for our discussions. But oops: the projector didn’t work. So I handed the questions out to our panelists, and I made sure to be extra articulate when saying questions and facilitating.

If the room is going to be 30 people–you may want to show up with copies of your preso–and then you can hand them out.

What if your panelists go blank?
Have questions for your own panel. Little ice breakers. Sometimes a question won’t go over well, or it may have been addressed earlier in the talk. You don’t have to keep to the pre-arranged program. Figure out where you may have to offroad.

What if you go blank?
This is when you have notes or an outline up there with you. It’s okay to pause and refer to your notes. This is where your preparation comes in. If you have to, write ENCOURAGING NOTES to yourself in your notes! Tell yourself to smile! Or if you have a tendency to speak fast, write “SLOW DOWN” in your notes.

What if the audience is totally fading?
You can stick to your outline, or you can check in. I ask, “Make sense?” I check in with my audience–this may be a good time to ask if they have questions.

Also, little details mean a lot when you’re up there…so what can you do to make yourself comfortable?
If you have access to the room beforehand, get up there when it’s empty and walk the stage. Or stand behind the podium. So you get a feel beforehand. If you run hot when you’re nervous, do NOT wear a sweater–or at least wear layers so you can peel off a sweater. If you run cold, wear a sweater! Think about your footwear–this shouldn’t be the first time you wear those shoes, or a pair of heels if you never wear heels. Wear clothing that makes you feel confident. Figure out if you can, the color of the backdrop: if you have a black curtain behind you, ditch the black outfit. Or if it’s a red curtain, maybe not a green dress? If your talk will be videotaped, seriously consider NOT wearing pinstripes (they strobe on the screen). Be aware of your own comforts. Make a list of things you need, beforehand so you don’t have to think about it the morning of.

Anyway, those are my ten cents. Now I gotta go prepare for my panel at AWP.

Interview with Hyphen Magazine

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I ended up pretty happy with what I said in this interview with Hyphen Magazine about my fiction. I think much of it has to do with the fact that Karissa Chen is a good friend of mine, and she got out of me very candid truths.

Also, Margaret Cho started following me after reading this interview. If you read what I say, you’ll know why.

…My own parents transferred their wartime PTSD onto me—for better and for worse. For better, because in an Apocalypse, I will probably get a posse together in ten seconds and survive. For worse, because I keep thinking about the Apocalypse. I mean, when I see a tree and a wild turkey, I think “Wow, that’s nice. Nature.” And then immediately, I see a source for lumber and food. In that sense, my innocence is gone.

And in the case of my parents’ PTSD, I have no visual for what it is that haunts me. It’s my parents’ ghost, and it’s never been given a face.

I certainly think these ghosts are why I write—to give the ghosts and monsters faces in stories.

What If Reality Suddenly Fell Apart?

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A few months ago, right after my BuzzFeed stroke essay went live, I had the opportunity to talk about my stroke recovery and ensuing life changes, with Whit Missildine. We sat in my living room, and he asked me questions, and told me to speak freely about all the things that had happened, and what I felt, and how the stroke changed my perception. Also, I was very aware of my voice. And the many times I say “like” while speaking.

This week, the podcast went live on Whit’s AMAZING podcast series called “This is Actually Happening,” consisting of “first-person stories that explore what happens when everything changes.” Each podcast episode is entitled with a “What If…?” scenario.

The podcast episode on which my story is featured is called “What If Reality Suddenly Fell Apart?”

Take a listen.

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