On Misfits & Writing
A column dedicated to art and literature and misfits and all things weird.
Hello Friends! How are you? If you are here reading this, thank you! I hope that you and all of your loved ones are safe and healthy and well. Autumn is here. The fires have been burning in California for the past two months. The power surges and high winds in fire season requires shutting down electricity in regions throughout the state which means homes are without air conditioning or fans during historic heatwaves, when daytime highs reach 110-120 degrees. My heart squeezes every time I try to imagine losing my home, my livelihood, or a loved one as a result of the fires or the pandemic or the excessive heat. If your lives have been touched by these tragedies, please know that my heart is with you, that I'm thinking of you every single day.
Most days the skies are filled with ash and smoke here in Oakland. I have lungs scarred by pneumonia and chest infections that were caused and exacerbated by the fires each year for the past several years when I've contended with months of bone-cracking coughs, asthma, sleepless nights due to a fear of laying down because I might drown in my own fluids, pinching neck pain caused by strained muscles due to the violent coughing. I cannot even imagine what a Covid patient experiences, knowing that the symptoms are even more debilitating than what I've gone through.
I feel fortunate that for the past two months the air inside my home has remained relatively clean and safe due to my use of air purifiers 24/7 and my decision to tape up every leaky window and door. But the air is also stale, stuffy, and heavy. I've been recirculating and breathing the same air for weeks. With my poor lung health and susceptibility to viruses and breathing-related ailments, I've been mostly housebound since the pandemic began, and (except for the five clear air days we miraculously had when the winds shifted) totally housebound since the fires started in August. Safe social distancing means that we need to meet outdoors, but due to the smoke and unhealthy air, this is not possible so I've been unable to visit with family. I've also lost several loved ones due to cancer and illness in recent months. And other loved ones are struggling with serious illnesses and consequently have reduced or no immune systems, so I have had to limit even my outdoor distance-socializing to just a few members of my most immediate family and my closest bud, Carson. And this has meant that even before the fires began, I had to turn down invitations to go for walks with my amazing friends who I love and miss dearly.
But there is a glimmer of hope. The fires are slowly being contained, firefighters will hopefully soon be able to return to their loved ones, and the towns and lives that were so tragically altered by the fires will begin the difficult and long process of healing. In the past three days, we've had clear air days, so I've been able to open my windows and leave the house. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have WiFi and a secure living environment and the option to work from home. I feel so grateful that I can Zoom and FaceTime and text with friends and family whenever I wish. And, while my husband is busy teaching biology courses via Zoom, I feel so fulfilled with my work as I read student papers, Zoom meet with grad students, lead weekly Zoom writing workshops with Stan State faculty and grad students, edit and read for a wonderful flash lit journal, and collaborate with my best friend/colleague, Carson Ash Beker, on projects like interviewing the acclaimed artist and writer, Faylita Hicks. And I feel so fortunate that during this time at home, my husband and I can be with our beloved elderly pup who has had a multitude of age-related health problems and requires constant, round-the-clock care.
There is a term that I've heard before, "alone together", that some define as times when a person is surrounded by many other people, but they are still alone. For quarantine, I've flipped this term on its head so that it describes how we are all living apart, in relative isolation, so we are together alone. I think that my sense of overwhelming isolation is due to the fact that I'm no longer able to hike due to the fires and poor air quality. Hiking is my favorite activity in the world, something that always brings me a sense of joy and peace and agency and strength every time I embark on a trail. Combining the loss of hiking with not being able to physically socialize with loved ones due to the pandemic and fires, or to tree bathe, or spend time in my garden, or run a simple errand due to the unhealthy air . . . I've begun to feel less capable in life. I feel like I've forgotten how to drive a car. I've forgotten how to small-talk. I am beginning to forget what "normal" air smells like. I experience more frequent bouts of severe depression and suicide ideation without access to my normal outlets. I don't remember what it feels like to wake up without a sense of dread or fear about whether I'll be able to breathe or go outside. I (as I know most everyone does) miss Life as it was before the fires and pandemic.
My sense of forgetting brings me to something that I've been wanting to share for a while, something that's been growing and shaping itself in my mind over this past year. After Spider Love Song and Other Stories first made its way into the world last September (2019), I immediately began to feel the fear that I wouldn't be able to make art again. I worried (and still worry) that whatever I created after SLS wouldn't be as compelling or meaningful. In the first months following my book launch, I struggled with performing my roles as bookseller, self-promoter, businessperson. I felt the pressure to continue creating art at the same rate and speed as I had through graduate school. And until very recently, I felt the tremendous disappointment (and even anger) with myself each time I'd tell friends and loved ones that I haven't been able to write much or finish the stories I've started since the launch of SLS.
There is a sense of grief and loss that I am experiencing that exists on its own, outside of the pandemic and fires. I've lost what motivated me to first begin writing; my courage and inspiration have been replaced with worries about things like finding a literary agent, finishing 60 pages of a new manuscript that I can use to query presses, building my portfolio or CV, pursuing fellowships or awards, or staying connected via social media solely for a "platform."
One decision that I feel so thankful to have made this year was to delete my social media account. Everyday, I feel so grateful for my editor and friends and family who did not pressure me or make me feel badly about this difficult decision. I feel so thankful to not have to experience the incessant anxiety and second-hand embarrassment that comes from reading posts by people who've stuck their feet in their mouths. I haven't wasted hours today slogging through dozens of catty comments. I no longer have to expend energy trying to ignore the unproductive infighting that happens in toxic echo chambers like Facebook. I do not have to experience that strange phenomenon known as FOMO that happens with social media, and that sense of isolation that comes after viewing hundreds of photos of other people's lives. I do not have to deal with the guilt or stress of knowing about (but not attending) the dozens of online events posted on social media every day. I no longer have to force myself to write cheerful comments while privately spiraling into another cycle of depression, and consequently dealing with the guilt and shame that accompanies my depression and introverted nature after I've convinced myself that I must be crazy because everyone else seems so comfortable sharing their lives and emotions on a daily basis. The intense introvert in me is so thankful to no longer have to share details about my life with such regularity or experience the agony of waiting to see if others approve. I'm learning how to formulate my own opinions and sense of value about my life without depending on the number of "thumbs-up" and "hearts" I receive.
Last month marked the one-year anniversary of the launch of SLS. And I wanted to write this post to share with you where I am today with regards to both my life and my artistic journey and identity. I will begin by sharing this: I want something different. I want to find my inspiration for making art. I want to write because I want to write. I want to publish because I have something to say, and not because of a publishing schedule. I want to return to that feeling of love for language, for crafting sentences, for experimenting with syntax and texture and sound.
I'm ready. That's what I want you to know. I'm ready to let go of the deficit mentality, the competition, the hierarchies, the rankings and ratings. I want my art to conjure ghosts, to make me laugh, to help others, to speak to societal issues that impact my community, to communicate with loved ones, to feel excited and uplifted and invigorated while I create art.
I am aware that I'm speaking from a place of privilege because I have other ways outside of my art in which I earn a living. And, it's a privilege for me to have had the incredible opportunity and gift to be able to experience publishing SLS, to debut, to experience the joys and wonders of collaborating with the most brilliant editor and press and pressmates that I could ever, ever, ever have hoped for. Pursuing different measures of success such as fellowships, funding, acquiring contracts or agents, and awards are all tremendous aspects of an artist's journey, and I fully support any artist who achieves their dreams. And, I truly believe it's crucial for society to begin to better support artists, to provide both the recognition and funding needed for artists to support and uplift themselves. Attaining fellowships and funding are not separate from or antithetical to the passion and inspiration and advocacy that I've described wanting for myself; these measures of success are things that I, too, would feel so proud to claim as part of my artistic journey.
I just want you, dear friends, to know that my next stories and book will come one day. I know this in my heart. I feel it in my fingertips. And I have found some glimmers of joy even in these dark days, in the writing that I have done, in the support and love that my friends and family consistently show me, and in the teaching and mentorship that I've been able to provide my students and other writers. For myself, my desire for something new simply means that I want my passion for writing to thrive without the deficit mentality, self-loathing, competitiveness, or societal pressures to view my success based off of external measures. This is what I want for myself right now, where I want to be today, and it's where you'll find me if you ask.
How are you? I hope that you and your loved ones are well and safe during this surreal time. As we near the end of our summer, our world has not yet healed. In the grip of a global coronavirus pandemic, we are simultaneously facing another far-reaching pandemic, one that has grown, mutated, and perpetuated in our nation for centuries: the continued police violence and systemic racism against immigrants, Black, Native American, and Latinx peoples. As I write this, I think about what it means for me to be a person-of-color, and how racism and xenophobia intersect within and between cultures. I think about the racism I've witnessed in Asian people against other races. I think about my privilege of being born in the United States, of being educated, of being a native English-speaker. I think about what culpability and responsibility mean, about the power of anti-racism, and about what I can do as an artist and educator to help combat racism, violence, and xenophobia. Over these past several months, I've donated to multiple community bonds that fund organizations helping to rebuild Black communities. I've donated to organizations that provide legal support for people who have been arrested by police during BLM protests. (If you, too, are interested in supporting and donating to community bond funds, BLM, and other community-centered and social justice organizations, check out this link). In the online summer course that I co-taught at CSU Stanislaus, undergrads read/wrote about and discussed the complexities of how race and inequity intersect within health care and science. There is so much more work to do, individually and as a society. I will continue to keep my heart and mind open to learning about how to do and be better, to fight for social justice and to combat racism, until my last day on Earth.
In my writing, I've been exploring themes such as race, culpability, and witness. But in recent weeks, nothing gets finished, nothing ever feels like it will get finished. I've been falling behind in attending the weekly writing workshops led by my wonderful friends. I'm not ready yet for people to see my work. But there is still a sense of deep joy and pride when I do get pen to paper, when I've sketched out an idea for a story, or pieces of dialogue. And I know that my stories are there, that they are coming. I can feel the characters I've been writing into, their stories building up in my imagination. I can hear and see them in my mind, clamoring to get out, anxious to make it onto the page. I am grateful that these characters are sticking with me as I figure things out during this surreal time.
In the hours and days and weeks and months of quarantine, I've filled my time with physical projects. I've found a sense of satisfaction in physical labor, in building and digging things in my backyard, in completing small tasks. I've pounded in concrete stakes with a mallet. I've hauled dirt and lugged bags of mulch. I've pruned everything. I painted a table bright purple. I've also begun doing things inside my home, trying to find small daily projects, like moving around ceiling light fixtures or rugs or picture frames, baking and cooking new dishes, making the densest first loaf of bread any human has probably ever made or tried to consume. I've been curriculum planning for a weekly graduate writing workshop series that I'll be co-teaching at CSU Stanislaus this Fall 2020 and Spring 2021. I've been sewing face masks. Finding and completing small tasks each day helps me to feel like time is still moving, that life is still going, that the Earth is still spinning on its axis, that we are moving forward towards a vaccine and cure for the Covid-19 pandemic, towards a more equitable world.
Autumn and winter are just around the corner. I am already nervous about how the shorter days will impact my depression. I'm concerned about how I will social distance visit with family when it's raining or too cold to be outdoors. I'm concerned when I won't have the small, daily backyard projects that I've come to love and depend on. In the meantime, I plan to just keep writing, keep teaching, keep hoping, keep building, and keep trying.
September will also mark nearly eight months since deleting my Facebook account. Without social media accounts of any kind, I've dearly missed seeing and hearing from my FB friends and acquaintances, learning about their unique lives, what they are celebrating or struggling with. But, in the past several months, I've also grown and deepened my connections with family and a handful of close friends. Throughout quarantine, I've done this through phone conversations, Zoom, FaceTime, and emails. I've found that the correspondence we have now is so much less fleeting and dilute, and so much more meaningful.
I do not miss being on Facebook or social media. I don't miss the echo chamber, the cannibalistic nature of infighting, the misinformation and trolls, the lack of a volume or on/off switch that comes with having a social media account like FB. These days, I read NYT and Mother Jones and NPR. I watch John Oliver. When I don't understand something that's happening in the world--politics, local and social issues, etc.--I take my time and read and research and learn as much as I can. I take my time to develop ideas and opinions. And, I feel grateful every single day since deleting my Facebook account for the way that my independent mind feels as if it's finally been returned to me.
I truly hope that the rest of your summer is filled with so much Love, with nourishment and kindness and hope, with learning, with projects and art that fill you with a sense of satisfaction. Thank you so much for reading. And, take good, good care during these difficult and strange times.
How are you? If you are reading this, I hope that you are safe and well. I miss you! It's been a roller coaster these past several months. The pandemic, quarantine, masks, cutting my own hair. The grief pervading every action, activity, gesture, interaction. The grief for everyone the world has lost to the Covid-19 pandemic. The grief for their families and loved ones. I'm heartbroken knowing that our world will never be the same.
I think about art and writing and its place in a world so tragically altered by the pandemic. Art brings joy. Art opens up dialogues. Art encourages questions. Art honors the unknown. There were weeks when the quarantine began when I could not make art, could not fathom writing during a time of so much suffering. Living and moving in ways that honored austerity seemed to be the only right thing to do. And maybe it was.
But recently I've begun to question the notion of austerity as we near the end of two full months in quarantine. My brain has become hungrier for stimulation. I take it wherever I can find it. I've started doing the brain-pumping New York Times crossword puzzle and their addicting Spelling Bee daily challenge. I've learned to cut my own hair. I learned how to hand-sew masks that I've given to loved ones. I've started to learn Mandarin. And, I've also had days where I can't get out of bed, days when I cannot bear the thought of reading the news, days when speaking with a loved one feels too terrifying, days when I'm so depressed that I feel like my heart has caved in.
I feel so grateful to share with you here that I've started writing again. A dear friend who's an editor of a lovely college literary journal solicited a piece from me. Without this invitation, I might never have had the motivation to begin writing again and to finish a story I'd started months ago. Two other dear friends began hosting virtual writing sessions every Monday and Thursday. I started "attending" these and have kept up my writing. I had (and still have) no idea why I'm writing, who I'm writing for. I had no idea what would come out of these sessions. But I wrote. And I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote terrible poems, ragged flash fiction, unbearably corny pseudo-memoir, wannabe speculative fiction. But I didn't care. I don't care. I'm writing, making something. And I am beyond grateful for my friends, for their friendship, their support, their generosity, their incredible capacity to help others in a time of such great need.
I'm still figuring things out. But what I want to leave you with is this: Everything that you are doing during quarantine, and everything that you are not doing during quarantine...all of it is exactly right. All that you are is exactly right. All that you want to do but aren't able to do yet, is exactly right. There is no one way to be during this unprecedented time. I hope that you will come to see that the art that you are making, the imaginations that you are inspiring with your words and images, that these are also exactly right. The joy your art brings to others is an essential thing. Your late morning sleeping in and too anxious to face your day is an essential thing. Your social distancing and mask-wearing even while others become lax in their precautions is an essential thing.
If you are still reading this, thank you. If you are staying home, thank you. If you are an essential worker, thank you. If you are wearing masks, thank you. If you are sleeping in, thank you. If you are homeschooling, thank you. If you are a parent, thank you. If you are simultaneously working and parenting from home, thank you. If you are (like me) child-free, thank you. If you (like me) have days where you can't bear to write or make art, thank you. If you are making art, thank you.
Just, thank you. Just know that you are loved, that you are seen during this surreal time. I see you. And, I thank you.
One of my favorite quotes does not come from a craft book, a novel, a short story, or poem. Rather, these words—which have helped me so much as a writer to develop character, craft scenes, dig into the deeper meanings and themes imbedded in the work that I read or produce—comes from a biography about a scientist named Barbara McClintock, who won both a Nobel Prize and MacArthur Foundation grant and numerous other awards for her work in genetics:
The word ‘understanding,’ and the particular meaning she attributed to it, is the cornerstone of Barbara McClintock’s entire approach to science. For her, the smallest details provided the keys to the larger whole. It was her conviction that the closer her focus, the greater her attention to individual detail, to the unique characteristics of a single plant, of a single kernel, of a single chromosome, the more she could learn about the general principles by which the maize plant as a whole was organized, the better her ‘feeling for the organism.’
~Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock
I love to study the ways my characters move in the world. Like McClintock, I believe that expression of the minutest details (through scents, gestures, faces, tastes, textures) can give an observer a ‘feeling for the organism.’ For an artist, I feel that exploring the minute gestures is such an effective way to express meaning and desire in intimate and non-didactic ways.
Interestingly, in contrast to McClintock’s reasons for her approach, I write into minute details without the intention of learning the Why or How. I do so because I believe that, unless a character is a trained psychologist, that they will not know why they do most of the things they do, they will not have the types of analytical, organized checklists in their head that help to explain their thoughts and feelings and decisions. Rather, my characters will Do based off of instinct, fear, hunger, thirst. They will Do because they can, because they need, want, desire. Ultimately, by allowing my characters to first Do (or react), before (or without ever) understanding or dissecting why they do what they do, I feel that this allows for a story to move forward in unexpected and surprising ways.
In early drafts, I try to generate as much work as I can before revising. I try not to spend hours analyzing the Why or How for my characters. I feel that by focusing my attention on the movements and expressions of my characters, I can more effectively disguise the story’s ‘seams’ (i.e. the places in a narrative where the author’s research/story-boarding is more evident). I love to imagine a reader sinking deeply into narrative, into the characters’ minds, into the action and texture and layers of the story.
If you are interested in experimenting with locating ‘a feeling for the organism” in your own work, for disguising the seams, or just exploring the minute details in your fictional worlds, here are a few questions to get you started: What does sadness taste like? What does morning smell like? What temperature does anger carry? What light does your character prefer to read in—do they prefer a pink evening sunset, the glare of an LED clip light, the yellow of an incandescent lamp, the glare of a streetlamp streaming in through the living room window? What is the tiniest thing in the room that your character notices just before they fall asleep?
As an artist, and as a misfit, an introvert with depression and a serious case of social awkwardness, my journey into sharing my work with the world has been an uneven and complicated one. There is this simultaneous pull to feel seen, heard, to feel connected to community, to reshape my history into tolerable memories, to create something and imagine it in the hands of my readers, touching their lives. And then there’s the linked desire to flee the moment others begin to speak, when they start to share how my work impacted them. There is the knowledge of my privilege to have a platform, a collective and supportive and loving space to share and make art with my closest friends, colleagues and peers. And there is, what my wonderful editor once described as the double-edged sword for introverts when it comes to public attention; in particular, there is the complex world of social media and digital life that intersects with life as an introvert-and-artist—which has meant that I’ve forgotten how to nurture my internal sense of self-worth without the external markers defined by thumbs-ups/hashtags/hearts/tags.
My publishing life is paired with deep dives into self-doubt, self-loathing, depression, and imposter syndrome. And, in these sinking moments, there is also community, friendships, mentorship, family (chosen and blood) who visit me in the deep. They give me breath, they give me words to describe my pain, they help carry the burden so that I/we can rise back up, together.
The pain I feel right now in my publishing life is very raw, vivid. I feel embarrassed and selfish for even feeling this way, for allowing my sense of failure to swallow my air, sink me deeper, to keep me from appreciating all that I do have. I feel especially disappointed in myself for feeling so self-conscious, for not sharing in my peers’ celebration for their wonderful work, for allowing the deficit mentality to diminish the power of community, collaboration, friendship. And for forgetting what my greatest teachers taught me: that in Art, there is no scarcity.
I will keep this post short and end by thanking my closest and greatest friends, who right here I will call Ash Better and my love-bug Batt Clover, who teach me every single day through their lionheartedness and through their brilliant Art and writing and science, that Love and Learning and Laughter can coexist with moments and feelings of failure, disappointment, self-loathing, pain, and grief. I am not my failures. My failures are not defined by what others think of me or my art.
While I’m here in the deep, I will try to remember why I started writing: I wouldn’t have survived high school or the years following my parents’ deaths without Art. I would not be alive today if it weren’t for my love-bug Batt Clover, my teachers and friends, mentors and chosen family, opening their doors, sharing their breath, nurturing healing spaces for me to make art.
If you, too, have felt lost or weighted down by depression or self-loathing or disappointment, I hope that in reading this column, you’ll feel a little less alone. I hope that, in some small way, these words will find and lift you, and remind you that your pain is real, valid, necessary—just as you and your art and your dreams are.
I hope that you—new and old Friends, will take good, gentle care of yourselves, that you will reach out to friends and family if you don’t yet have the strength or breath to, and that you keep moving forward in your own unique, weird, misfit way. And I will try to do the same.