Trying to write is harder than writing

tips for writing when stuck in a rut, whether it be an essay, the next great american novel, a poem, a letter, an email, or any form of words assembled together, really:

  • read your favorite authors and writers. circle your favorite sentences, phrases, words. write them down in your journal, copy entire passages by hand and feel someone else’s words rush through you like blood.
  • discard your bumfuck of a first draft and rewrite the goddamn thing. clean slate, no strings attached. kill your darlings, if you have nothing else to do.
  • walk outside and write outside. take a notebook and pen / pencil, and scribble away at every single thing that is happening: the sounds (or absence of sound), the sights, the smells, the sensations, even the tight grip of your fingers against the writing implement, the skin against plastic, the palm against paper.
  • sit on the grass, if you’re not allergic.
  • write about the small things, like the bugs and the breeze, or write about the grand things, like the sky and the sun.
  • listen to music. turn on the radio and listen to whatever fizzles into focus.
  • listen to your favorite album(s) of the year.
  • watch a movie. note the way the characters talk: is it formal? casual? is there a distinct accent, slang, derivative form of speech? old-timey? do people skip around their words? do they say what they mean to say? do they talk with their mouths or their bodies? too much or too little?
  • find a poem. there are mountains and cascades of them everywhere. find one single line that you would keep close to your heart.
  • read some of your old essays and writing projects. remember that you wrote these and struggled to write them, too.
  • find a photograph, portrait, or painting that you love, and write about everything that isn’t depicted.
  • make lists. grocery lists, book lists, travel lists. lists of essay topics and key words. write a list of the things you’re too afraid to experience in life but are curious about nonetheless. (great entry points into character writing).
  • write a list of the things that make you angry.
  • afterwards, pair that with a list of the things that make you happy.
  • look for patterns in the everyday. timestamp cards. traffic data. police reports. advertisement mail. sailing terminology. cooking recipes. old proverbs recited by old people. then look for the breaking of those patterns.

(these are, of course, merely notes to myself, disguised as offbeat writing advice. i can’t attest to how these tips might help anyone else, but they’ve all worked for me at some point, desperate or otherwise).

New York, New York

Hello, friends. It’s been a little while.

This final semester packed itself with memories. I went to some powerhouse concerts (never forget, Martha Argerich), and I saw lots of good films (ahem, Thelma and Call Me By Your Name). I spent more time in museums. I played more music. It was only bittersweet from time to time; otherwise, it felt very gradual and inevitable. After a few remaining finals, I’ll be saying goodbye to this place.

There is something that I always try to put into words, but even with deliberate thought and eloquence, it never seems to hold any lasting affect—easily dismissed with a smile, or a nod. It is the gratitude that I hold, the deeply infused knowledge that I could not have survived without the help of others. So many people I need to thank, forever and ever.

I think I’ve often said that New York is like a dream. It’s always been a glittering, gorgeous thing in popular imagination—steely, jewel-ridden, buildings sweeping overhead, bombastic streets brimming with life, inhabitants both new and old partaking in a flurry of flickering lights. It is ever-shifting. Here, husks of people and places never remain for long; everything is shuffled, driven forward, and the hallowed past is nothing more than some sweet reminiscence of a time long gone, like any other.

New York is a place where you can walk out at night and stand under the white luminescence of a convenience store, where you can stare at your reflection in the window and feel more alive than you’ve ever felt in your life. It is odd that way. Living here means living inside a city that breathes. However silly that sounds, I think there is something organic amidst the man-made construction, when the after-dark hours still flow with headiness, when the mornings hum in anticipation. During my time here, I have often been swept away by the relentless movement.

Though, as hard as I try to cram New York into a pile of descriptive words, I cannot take my own experiences and translate them completely. The things I felt, the friends I’ve made, the moments I’ve collected: there will always be a part of them that remain unspoken, filled with some reeling, too-bright silver glow, like a director’s cut of a makeshift film that would be incomprehensible to anyone but myself.

I will come back, someday. New York will always offer me the possibility of a home, even if I decline. For that, I will always be grateful.

Twenty

I called my mom earlier this week and she said, “Nineteen and twenty aren’t so different. Twenty just means you’re a bit more mature. You’ll always feel as if you’re behind—I still feel that way—but the important thing is to keep at it. Keep going.”

It’s a strange feeling, entering the third decade of my life. For the first time, I feel old. And I know, relative to many people, being 20 years old isn’t really old, but nonetheless. When I track these posts that I’ve been doing for the past two years, turning eighteen, and then nineteen, and now twenty, I realize that these nights are always anniversaries of reflections. 8PM, on the dot, expecting to feel renewed, yet finding myself in the same old skin, same old body. Sorting through the gatherings and residual memories of my life, calculating how far I’ve come, how far I’ve yet to explore, and how much I’ve changed. How much the world has changed.

Remembering the faintest image of a little girl, splashing around a pond with a slice of fruit, sticky in her hand, and her grandfather’s bicycle laid upon the grass. Remembering that that moment was the equivalent of a lifetime.

The best gift I received today was a birthday voicemail from Ethan and Ariel—as I was listening to it on my way back to my room, I just started crying, because I still find it difficult to believe that people care about me like this. I’ve spent so much of my life believing that I don’t deserve anything grand, and that I’m much more inclined to give than receive. To feel loved is to feel responsible for upholding that love, but it’s also an admission of need. And needing something, or someone, isn’t as terrible as I thought it would be. If anything, it’s a kind of warmth. Tenderness. Something akin to peace. Something like home.

Turn Out the Lights

Just saw Julien Baker at Town Hall. A gorgeous, moving, fulfilling experience. Petal and Half Waif opened the show—wonderful musicians and people as well. Julien seemed so vulnerable on stage, but at the same time, bare-bones honest and heartfelt to the last breath. Hearing “Rejoice” live was a gift.

Earlier, before the concert, I read this New Yorker article and held fast to the last sentence. I still don’t know what I believe about myself, about people, about what we’re doing here, but I believe something. I believe something. It’s an unsatisfactory thing to say, but maybe a simple confession is the first step toward feeling whole again.

So I’m listening to her new album, “Turn Out the Lights” (just released today), on the subway ride back. I’m broken and mended. Split open and exposed, healed and protected. Sitting in this subway car that’s whirling toward a temporary home, sitting very still, like a rock against waves, like a trunk against the breeze, feeling my chest steady and my heart fill with gratitude and life.

Schumann

Thoughts after a piano lesson on Robert Schumann.


I’ve always dreamt of classical music as water: enduring, patient, filling whatever space it’s given, a balm for the soul to slake its thirst.

Now, for Schumann, I imagine that there existed a field of emotions in his soul. A field lined with thick trees and carved by a thin stream down its center. From afar, it would have passed for the idyllic countryside.

Except that the field was irreparable. A plot of land where weeds festered and brewed in silence, where the grass, no matter how tall or lush it grew, always crumbled at the slightest hint of a breeze. From time to time, the field was met with violent weather. Flash fires from uncanny lightning strikes, clouds of dust settling over the soil, flowers and plants diseased without sunlight. Day and night, year after year, something eventually died until there was nothing left to die.

The stream, however, was crystalline. It never ceased. Even during the winters, when the field was suffocated in snow, the stream would trickle along, sheer and lucent.

There was a slight dip at one point in the stream. The ground curved slightly, just about five centimeters of a gradual, downwards slope, which quickly rose and leveled off to its original flat course. If you plunged your hand into the stream where the dip occurs, stood still, and waited, you’d feel the water rush by like a heartbeat. (Clara, of course).

I imagine that the stream carried everything that Schumann held close to his heart. That, amidst the disorienting field, there was a singular purity, be it pain or love, in which his music existed for the sake of needing, desperately, to exist.

 

Ishiguro Impressions

I apologize for not having anything original at the moment—all of my creative output has been poured into workshop assignments and short stories (current project: ten pages of a girl who finds herself trapped in a Rilke poem, and her companion is a marble bust of Beatrice). Nevertheless, I still want to write about Kazuo Ishiguro and his Nobel Prize—I couldn’t believe the news, it was too surreal. As a disclaimer, I’ve only read two of his novels, but they left such oceanic impressions that I can’t not talk about them.

(Also a disclaimer: I read these books long enough ago that I remember very little in terms of plot details and specific literary observations. For the more eloquent and cohesive book reviews, check out the New York Times, etc).


The first was Never Let Me Go—one of his dabbles in genre-writing, alongside The Buried Giant, yet it retains his haunting prose and Austen-esque pacing. (The film adaptation is just as disquieting). While Never Let Me Go upholds Ishiguro’s signature themes of memory and looking at life through various temporal lenses, it houses a plethora of its own starkly gorgeous, albeit bleak, moments.

Take this quote, for instance:

“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.”

I read that passage when I was fourteen years old. Can you imagine? It was a revelation that I never expected to understand, being naive and young and too full of dreams to know any better. Yet, I understood. I was heartbroken. The cold austerity mingled with honest affection. The awful acceptance of an end. It was the last thing I wanted to ponder in my youth: I wanted nothing to do with temporalityI had no business knowing that, one day, life would cease, and everything held dear to me would be nothing but an accumulation of things that were not enough. 

Isn’t it what that last sentence implicates? “But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.”  In my rational mind, I would say that immortality is more terrifying than death. But imagine these two kids, Kathy and Tommy, coming to the realization that love can only arrive at certain points in one’s life. For them, it was too late. Then, imagine them wanting time so desperately while knowing their inevitable fates.

God! Imagine the horror and beauty of being in love like that!

It was such a philosophical blow to my mind that, for a brief while, I feared the immense responsibility of life—that unending process of knowing that nothing gold stays, and the rivers dry up, and hands fall limp out of embraces, and night falls, yet enduring out of faith for the promise of something better.

The ethics and morals of the book were eye-opening as well. It was one of the staples that expanded my “soft sci-fi” appetite (think Ray Bradbury, Ken Liu, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, etc.). But it also probed deeper questions, such as, why do we fear and ostracize people with illness? Can it be justified to alienate others with “inferior” genetics? Is it better to grow up sheltered or exposed to truth? Why do we betray those closest to us?

Oh, and that ending. Jesus, that ending. Spoilers, of course, but Kathy standing in that field, crying, looking at that strange rubbish. The one and only moment in the entire novel where she has an inkling of the feeling that she deserves more. The one moment where she briefly understands the value of her own existence.


Several years later, the second book was An Artist of the Floating World—I read this with two friends, each of us sharing the same copy, making annotations, and mailing it to one another in succession. (The result is that I have a copy of the book filled with three distinct voices in conversation with each other and the text. It’s one of my most cherished objects).

This book was less affecting, and I can’t say that it held a great deal of emotional resonance for me. But it did prompt my interest in the concept of “the artist”—the isolation, the ephemeral “floating world” that artists inhabit as the “real” world around them changes. I remember noting that Ono was an unreliable narrator, but also feeling sympathetic to his petty struggles. There was allure to that floating world. I could see it reflected in my own experiences: staying at the music school late into the night, having dinner with my teachers, blissfully oblivious to the obligations and concerns of practical life. Continuously in search of both the “intoxicating present” and “hazy aftermath” of artistic endeavors.

The topics of the novel are broader than I let on; there are attempts to decipher cultural and familial traditions in pre/post WWII Japan, the issue of arranged marriages, and the way societal perceptions of art can shift rapidly. Ishiguro offers a great deal of attention to the renewal of generations—the shedding of the old and the change of the new. But it’s mainly the floating world concept that returns to me from time to time. Artist of the Floating World. A potent explanation and accusation if I ever heard one.


I’m thinking of The Unconsoled as my next Ishiguro book. I’ve heard polarizing reviews about it, so I’m eager to find out where I’ll fall on the spectrum. But from what I’ve read of its synopsis—world-renowned concert pianist, anxious dreams, stream-of-consciousness, the cult of art—it’ll be right up my alley.