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Month: October 2011

The Aspiring Writer

This is a response to Melissa’s post about the case of the “aspiring” writer and the interesting discussion that ensued. Let me know what you think of it.

First off, I do agree with the point made that it devalues the authority of the writer. Especially today, when writers seem to get as little credit as possible (with books being pushed aside by movies, TV, internet, etc.), I really don’t think this is a time for modesty.

I can understand the desire to set goals and establish some parameters for the future. Calling yourself “aspiring” means you have something to work towards—it’s a word that gives young people hope. But how do you gauge these things to begin with? Until your name is in print? Until you make it a profession? Until you get a Pulitzer? How do you measure this out and why would you want to? Does it end up being as productive as you originally thought it would?

Other types of artists don’t seem to have this problem nearly as much. They draw, sculpt, photograph, perform and it doesn’t change anything. Others may see something in them that they don’t at an early age, maybe not. But they are driven to create for themselves, sometimes inexplicably. And they continue to do so.

Maybe this is a huge issue for certain people because it’s personal. Some people are afraid because they’re insecure, they’re not good enough. Some people think it’s too pretentious (“I’m a poet! And you are?!”), or it’s simply too overwhelming without that one certain adjective before it. They can’t handle the authority that I think is so, so absolutely necessary in the year 2011.

I do think, however, that there is a difference between a writer and someone who simply writes. When it comes down to it, it’s all about storytelling. There’s a difference between someone who writes to tell a story (and works at it, for years and years, whether published or just in private) and someone who is merely able to form complete sentences and place them after one another. One is an identity that you define yourself through and the other isn’t.

You don’t have to be published, have a book deal, or make money for it. And you certainly don’t even have to share the words you’ve put down. Was Emily Dickinson a writer only after she died?

I don’t call myself aspiring. I used to, because I once thought it was helpful, but now I don’t.

Setting little goals for yourself is good, but don’t sell yourself short with an adjective. Don’t ironically undermine your own plans with a romanticized, dreamy-eyed promise. You’re a writer if you need to tell a story and you’re always working at it. External validation is nice every once in a while, but you’re a writer (and not “aspiring”) once you’ve realized that it’s not your primary source of motivation. It’s not where you begin. You need it because you need it.

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Growing into a Reader

This may surprise you, but I wasn’t always the most voracious reader. In fact, as a child, I didn’t really feel compelled to pick up books outside the classroom at all. I didn’t hang out at libraries, and I didn’t fall asleep late at night drooling on the pages. I read books mostly because I had to. So I can’t ultimately blame them for my current—and probably permanent—infatuation with the written word. If anything, I blame my other strange hobbies that provided the first fuel for this fire.

When I was young, I had my own vegetable garden that I tended to in the backyard. It was a small corner where I grew tomatoes, bell peppers, and string beans. My string beans were the favorite—Nana would always use them in her cooking and told everyone that they were the best. In school, when we were asked to discuss what we wanted to be when we grew up, I would tell everyone that I wanted to be a botanist. My teachers were obviously impressed that I even knew of such a word, while my classmates would raise an eyebrow. “A botanist?” they would wonder. “What on earth is that?” And then I would always have to explain to them what it was: a scientist who studied plant life.

So, you see, at that age, I never even wanted to be a writer. I didn’t see it that way at all. But, in retrospect, one thing became clear: even at that age, I was already interested in the growth and intersecting of small life in a small corner, and I always equipped with a magnifying glass to hold up to the leaves.

Although I didn’t take it very seriously back then, I sometimes liked to write stories and create my own characters. I remember how I would make books out of construction paper and give myself long, bizarre pseudonyms. The words in the books would be accompanied by my awful illustrations. The first book was made for my mom—a “get well soon” present—and it was a story about a torn-up paper bag floating to and fro around the town. It would detail this bag’s adventures on the wind and what it would see from its perspective. My mom still has it in her closet.

I grew up a little—eventually, but not that much—and, one day, I received a strange gift from one of my mom’s coworkers: a horse marionette. It had orange hair and rainbow limbs and I named him Freddy. For some reason, I was instantly fascinated by it and decided that I wanted to take up studying the very esoteric art of puppetry. I remember how my mom actually had a puppeteer perform for me at one of my birthday parties and how I absolutely loved it. Despite these weird fascinations, I’ve always had a family who consistently encouraged my creativity. I didn’t have a dad who yelled at me to be a man and play baseball—I had a dad who helped me make a stage for my plays out of a leftover refrigerator box and some window curtains. I had a mom whose other coworkers and friends managed to find me puppets from all around the world: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Spain, Slovakia, the Czech Republic. My relatives started to add new ones to my collection too, and I started to write scripts and cast the puppets as my characters. I would practice the plays and sometimes get my friends to help out too. I would put on puppet shows for my family and charge admission. And, although I was sharing my stories and using my imagination to give these dolls on strings personalities, I still wasn’t interested in books. But the spark was there and I suppose it was inevitable.

Alongside my puppet shows, I had started to play video games as well. One day, my cousins played Mortal Kombat with me and I was hooked. I asked for a Super Nintendo for my birthday and I would play games every day—but only after I finished all my homework, of course. My mom allowed me to play any game that I wanted—yes, even extremely violent games like Mortal Kombat—and I’m grateful that she did. But I grew especially obsessed with adventure games and role-playing games: the games that focused specifically on the creation of alternate worlds with memorable characters and vivid atmospheres. Eventually—and also inevitable—my puppet shows became inspired by the worlds and adventures that I saw. Reading books and writing short stories came next.

In middle school and high school, I had a few English teachers that encouraged me. It’s always nice to have the support of your family and friends, but I think this other kind of support was necessary too—coming from an educational system and a different kind of authority—in order for me to take writing more seriously. It was in high school when I started taking advanced English classes and creative writing, and when I began to read books on my own time as well. I started to love fiction itself. My teachers in high school taught more than just the fundamentals and I’m very grateful for that—they pushed me to my limit, to the point sometimes where I didn’t want to write anymore. I finally began to read much more avidly and critically. I started learning about writing as a craft, and began treating it more like an art form rather than just a hobby that would occasionally save me from boredom. It became more than just an escape. I won a few awards and prize money, and then realized that I couldn’t see myself going on to study anything other than English at a university. I got my degree and continued to write.

Although I’ve dropped all those other hobbies—my garden is gone, my puppets are gathering dust in boxes somewhere—I still love to play video games. And there is a stigma attached to gamers, you know: essentially, that we are all overgrown kids just playing with toys. And you could argue, that all these strange hobbies I grew up with—even the act of writing fiction itself—do ultimately originate from a childlike wonder about the world. But I’ve never given up on these stories since, and I don’t see why I ever have to.

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Here We Are (Again)

Hello, welcome to my little corner of the internet. I guess it’s official now, even though there have been countless other iterations. You know how it is being a twenty-something in the year 2011.

You’ll probably notice that this place is quite bare right now, but hopefully that will change in time. Hopefully, if things go right, there will be plenty of stories for you to read (some published elsewhere, some that I dig up) and little anecdotes from life to gawk at. Probably things mostly literary: writers, writing, books. Maybe some movies, songs, and video games too.

A funny thing about me to start you off: I never really envisioned myself as a writer when I was young. I saw myself as plenty of other strange things (botanist, puppet master, teacher of imaginary students and never real ones), but the thought of writing being an actual thing you work towards or any kind of discernible identity that people attached themselves to wasn’t something I considered. Probably because it was something I always did—it was a part of life like breathing and bathing, and it was never a chore. I never had those romantic notions like those little feral library children had, and I still don’t really. I just take it more seriously now.

I first started writing on the internet when I was a teenager. At the time, my high school teachers were encouraging me to write more because they clearly saw something I didn’t. My family always told me I had a vivid imagination, like any good, abnormally non-dysfunctional family would do, but it was my teachers that really gave me direction. So I kept at it and ended up winning some awards for my stories at a literary fair. I won some prize money. I starting reading a lot of books on my own, wrote in my journal, and took creative writing classes. Hopefully this blog will be much more refined and thoughtful than what I was writing online back then (just thinking of some of my entries in my old journal makes me literally nauseous from embarrassment).

Don’t ever be afraid to send me a story of your own or tell me about a book that you like. I’m a voracious listener and I’ll eat your words up. If you want to write to me, you can email me at lettersforburning@yahoo.com, or drop me a comment on here. See you all soon!

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