I had the privilege to speak at the 21st Annual Festival of Women Authors, sponsored by the YWCA Berkeley/Oakland. It was a beautiful day at the Berkeley Marina. Several women dressed in flowing colorful outfits greeted me with warm smiles, when I carried a box of books inside.
“Are you ready?” a tall elegant lady asked.
Of course I was. I looked forward to this day and had so much to share. Jennifer had invited me for the talk back in last June. She was wonderful and encouraging. She had asked me to share my personal experiences as a writer rather than read from my novel. I was flattered that people wanted to know about my journey to become a writer.
That was a journey I mostly kept to myself. I was a shy person, but more importantly, I treated writing as a mission larger than myself. What matters are the words on the page. Talking about my journey seemed self-centric and might steal my novelist's thunder.
Now entering a room full of women, who were curious, energetic, kind, and wise, I understood what a rare opportunity this was, and how important it was to share my journey, so fellow writers and readers could see themselves in my experiences.
I was awestruck by my fellow speakers. Ann Parker was the author of Silver Rush historical mystery series: Mercury's Rise, Leaden Skies, Iron Ties, and Silver Lies. She took pride in doing careful research and delved into the show-and-tell items in her bag. I had the good fortune to sit at her table, when we autographed the books. I marveled at a black fan made of an ivory frame and silk fabric. Her husband Bill McConachie might be the only male audience, before my husband and boys walked in during my talk.
Yiyun Li was a superstar. I was a longtime admirer of her work: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, The Vagrants, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, and Kinder Than Solitude. A spellbinding storyteller, she liked to eavesdrop on people’s hearts and had the audacity to type their conversations on her computer. She was an impressive reader, too. She reread Moby Dick in the spring, War and Peace in the summer, and other classics with every season. I wished to have a private chat with her, but alas, we were kept busy.
Katie Hafner was witty, eloquent, and brutally honest in her memoir: Mother Daughter Me, her sixth book. No wonder it was a bestseller. Every woman could see herself in one of the three characters during the different stages of her life. We laughed, gasped, and pondered about our roles as women in an ever-changing society. How bittersweet it was to grow older and wiser in this tech-centric world! Katie was way cuter than her author photo, and she was a wiz at Twitter. She tweeted the other speakers’ lines.
I was the last speaker. Jennifer led a stretch exercise to refresh the audience. I was grateful for her introduction: Yang knew she wanted to be a writer since childhood but kept her passion a secret from her parents. Earlier I had been saddened to hear that Yiyun, despite her achievements, never talked about her writing career with her parents, as if it weren't important. Although my parents were proud of me, I never shared my writing experiences with them. Now I would tell my secrets to a roomful of women.
I looked at their uplifted faces—in them I saw friends, mentors, kindred spirits and fellow writers. I opened up and shared my writing experiences with all its painstaking details, not to flaunt them but affirm that we all have aspirations, setbacks, and can persevere and break through to finish a story, a book, and explore life as writers and human beings.
Afterwards I was met with applause and congratulations. I had happy photos with Sharon, Jennifer, and the wonderful staff at the Festival. I cherished the celebration. I hope you enjoyed it, too!
Here is an excerpt I shared with the YWCA audience:
I have written four novels and am at work on my fifth. My first novel My Old Faithful is a collection of short stories, all of them published in the literary journals, but the book was not published. My second novel, The Good Son, had an agent shopped around for a bit but didn’t land a publisher. My third novel, Paper Cannot Wrap Fire, depicts the rural life in the 1920s China. It became the writing exercise for my fourth novel, Living Treasures, published last year. I am writing a fifth novel, Oasis. I finished the first draft. Now I will use different books to illustrate where I am in the writing process.
So, where do I get my ideas for a story? I am a critical reader and opinionated about the style and content. Some of my favorite authors are 19th century novelists: George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Victor Hugo, to name a few. I like stories that focus on human relationships and depict the society and nature as detailed as characters with emotions. I also love biographies and non-fiction books about history and culture. I admire works by Alice Munro, Barbara Kingsolver, Ha Jin, and many others. When I pick up a book, I always want to enjoy it and look for things that I like. There are books, fiction or non-fiction, that don’t ring true with me. Instead of being disappointed, I’d like to think: I can do it differently.
I always look for the humanity in my characters, even in my villains. On the other hand, I am keenly aware that good people can do things that leave a negative impact. I’m writing a new novel: Oasis. It tells how people fight the drought and dust storms and try to strike rich, but their actions cause the desertification of their hometown, Minqin, an oasis sandwiched between two deserts in northern China. Ms. Keira falls in love with her childhood sweetheart, Mr. Lou, who once saves her from being drowned in a flash flood. She leaves her hometown to study at a medical school. Although Keira leaves her village, her village has never left her. The love story becomes an oasis in their hearts even as the dust storms ravage the homeland and turn it into a desert.
What do I do with an idea? I begin to research. I read a lot of non-fiction, books on history, agriculture, and biographies, research online and interview people about the environmental issues, food, nature, schools, anything. I once wrote a short story about a dog, and I read over twenty books about dogs: all breeds from Great Dane to Chowchow. In the end I decided on a mutt. Research is a lot of fun. I educate myself and become a subject expert. It gives me solid ground to stand on and fabricate a story.
For example, in Oasis, I wanted to write about an illness that requires a bone marrow transplant. I studied several diseases:
Leukemia is too common, not a good enough metaphor for this story. I also eliminated severe aplastic anemia, lymphomas, immune deficiency disorders, some solid-tumor cancers—for some, the bone marrow transplant doesn’t work too well.
In the end, I chose multiple myeloma. It was rare among women, especially younger women. I asked the questions: why does she get it? How does she cope with it? What could help with the diagnosis and treatments? I felt like a kid in the candy store, grabbing my plot elements.
Research not only adds color and brings authenticity but also expands the horizon of my fictional world. I want to share some quotes about writing, and here’s one that I like:
“Your experience is more than just the facts of your life. It’s everything that your life has prepared you to understand, feel, and imagine. And writing fiction is a way of discovering just how deep and broad your experience truly is.”
Next comes the writing itself. Writing is simple, basic, and austere. Don’t wait for inspirations. The writing will create the mood. And style will take care of itself. Here I want to use “you” to address a writer at work, even though I am such a writer, too. Use your writing muscle and tone it. You will need to keep a schedule. It doesn’t mean you have to write every day, if you can’t manage that. Most people have day jobs, families, health issues, and other obligations. I like to separate writing from my personal life. My writer persona is different from my real-life persona. In daily life, I am very organized, reliable, and conscientious. I multitask, set priorities, and deliver results on time. For example, I have to keep hundreds of computers running properly and cannot be one minute late to pick up my children from school.
My persona changes when I retreat into my writing life. I usually wait for my family to go to bed and then allow myself to unwind, freeing myself from the appointments, obligations and such. Sometimes I overlook the dirty dishes in the sink. I take off my jeans and change into baggy pants, comfy socks and slippers. I manage to eat healthy and exercise, but I won’t set the alarm clock or a tight deadline for my writing. Instead, I cultivate patience and a habit of pushing beyond my limit. I love to do lap swim, my exercise to stay healthy and strong. If my goal is fifty laps, I usually go to fifty one laps or fifty two. This is a reminder that whatever my goal is, I always do a little extra, not something to show off, but a habit, a promise I keep between me and my work, that I can push beyond my physical limit every time I use my body or mind.
During the work week I live a normal life, have a day job, take care of my family, and get enough exercise and sleep so I stay healthy and sane. On the weekend I close my door, if I can, stay up late and live with my fictional family. In my mind, I always put writing first. I try to read like a writer, think like a writer, and budget my time like a writer. My children hate to watch a movie with me at home, because I start to comment on the story structure. I taught them the basic story structure before they started the first grade, something I didn’t learn until I turned thirty. I think about my book all the time. Even when I cannot get to the computer to type it, I let the ideas germinate and saturate my mind.
I usually write a very rough first draft within a few months to a year, just to see what the story is. After I had children, I wrote more slowly, and the first draft was more formed. It took me several years to write the first draft of Oasis, in three parts. In the second draft, I will drop the third part and rewrite the second part, to keep the integrity of the story rather than drag on and start a new book. It was difficult to kill my darling, but there was a moral, that I didn’t write to satisfy my ego, but to perfect my craft and polish the vision of a world that I created.
Revision is a daunting task but very enjoyable, to a point. I wrote Living Treasures in a writer’s workshop. After one revision, I left my friends and showed it to the strangers. I started by querying the agents. I worked with three agents before I published Living Treasures. I worked with two professional editors. They were very helpful but also expensive. I wouldn’t advise you to go directly to an editor, unless by a referral.
You want some professional opinions about where your book should get published. A good agent could give you a vision about where your story will fit. If you agree with it, you can take those critiques to an editor and work with her. It needs to be a collaborative process, as the editor will help you achieve your goal. You need to persevere. A friend of mine revised her novella twenty-nine times, before it was published. She told me: you have to do it, or you’ll never get published. If you feel that you hit a wall, wait patiently, or work on something else for a while, take care of your daily life, before coming back to the project. You may gain a fresh perspective.
More than the flat-out rejections, years of waiting to be read, waiting in endless lines to be acknowledged is demoralizing. Even after you’re published, you’re just one of the many authors out there. How to reconcile all this hard work with little reward? Here is a quote I like:
“The years of rejections most writers experience serve a purpose, which is to temper the unbounded narcissism which drives people to write. The purpose of techniques is to free the unconscious that is true creativity.”
My second novel The Good Son generated some interest among the agents but hasn’t found a publisher. Instead of waiting for the validation, I took the knowledge and experience from this book and started all over again to write the third novel. The common wisdom is that every writer needs to write an autobiography, that is usually the first book, to get it out of your system. The first book is like a gift, you don’t know how to go about it. You dabble, try this and that, and finally it works to an extent. You write a second book, with more confidence and skill. By the third or fourth book, you know how to tell a story. You may have found your form. But are you getting better with each book?
Anton Chekov wrote about his own growth as a writer:
“One wants to be mature—that is one thing; and for another the feeling of personal freedom is essential, and that feeling has only recently begun to develop in me. I used not to have it before; its place was successfully filled by my frivolity, carelessness, and lack of respect for my work."
Listen carefully. This is an honest confession by one of the greatest short story writers in history.
"Write a story of how a young man . . . who has served in a shop, sung in a choir, been at a high school and a university, who has been brought up to respect everyone of higher rank and position, to kiss priests’ hands, to reverence other people’s ideas . . . who has liked dining with his rich relations, and been hypocritical before God and men from the mere consciousness of his own insignificance—write how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and how waking one beautiful morning he feels that he has no longer a slave’s blood in his veins but a real man’s.”
This realization gives me chills, that writing is to squeeze the slave out of my blood, drop by drop. Writing is simple, basic, and austere. Being a working mother and a woman writer, I think of writing as a fight in an otherwise calm life. It begins with the urge to express my authentic self. Through hard work and relentless introspection, I shed my polite mask, tear off the layers of complacency, prejudice, and hypocrisy, to reach deep inside and feel the beating of my own heart, discover who I am and what I believe in, and then pour my soul into the characters and their stories.
Literature is different from life. Life is one thing happening after another, endless and messy. Literature is not religion, either. Religion has a structure and gives life meanings. Literature falls somewhere between life and religion. There is no right or wrong anywhere on the spectrum. Earlier I said I began writing because other books didn’t express my worldviews, not because they aren’t good, a lot of them are amazing, but they are in different spots on the spectrum, which gives me the opportunity to express my unique perspective. And I’m not the only one—other writers have shared my views, and they may or may not be my contemporaries.
Writing is a craft, if used well, it helps me express my authenticity by spinning a web of lies, that I cannot do in life or in religion, because I cannot risk turning the world upside down. In fact I cannot be one minute late to pick up my children from school. But in writing, I’m free to tear down the world, and then use my imagination and craft to build a new world, alive and rich with meanings, insights, and hope for future.