Category: Personal (Page 1 of 46)

Notes from New York

Way back in March, I spent a weekend in New York City with a dear friend for her birthday.

Since I was in town, I also met up with my agent Tina Dubois for the first time in person. It was magical.

Her delicate beauty is almost as captivating as her passion and intellect, the force of which is tempered by kindness and humor. We talked for over an hour, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. I felt like we could have gone on for hours more.

My last Writer Unboxed post — “What Motherhood Has (and Hasn’t) Changed About My Writing” — touches on much of the same territory that Tina and I covered in our conversation that day. About my publishing journey so far, the successes and the failures. About becoming a parent, and how that impacts the creative process. About how my sense of identity has evolved. About the way forward from here.

Two other highlights, which didn’t fall under the scope of that post:

  • When thinking about which ideas to commit my time and energy to, I have typically asked myself, Do I have enough to give this story? Can I sustain it over the many months and years that I will likely be working on it? Tina flipped the script on me and said, What about asking, Can it sustain you? What does this story feed you? I had never ever thought to ask myself that, and I think it’s an amazing, possibly revolutionary mindset to apply to my work.
  • Most of all, I walked away reveling in the incredible feeling that Tina gave me — and has always given me — of being understood, of being safe, of being supported. It’s exactly what I need to feel confident and do my best work.

One evening, the birthday girl and I met up with two other friends from high school. The four of us shared bowls of ramen in an alcove at a quiet restaurant in the Flatiron District, reminiscing about the years we had spent together, and catching up on the years we had spent apart.

We talked about #metoo — the movement, and our own stories — sometimes saying the words “me too” literally.

Between the four of us, there was quite a bit to unpack, big and small. Trauma that we didn’t even realize (or want to admit) was traumatic until the stories poured out of us, hot and strong, like cups of tea that nobody wanted to drink.

It was sobering, but it was healing too.

I don’t want this to sound melodramatic, because that’s the irony. It was a big moment, and yet we were all so close, and our stories so commonplace, that there was a very casual feel about it too.

I hope someday my daughter has friends like this. I hope she and her friends have even more laugh lines, and fewer scars.

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Live with it (Fountain Square, Cincinnati, September 6, 2018)

I drove my daughter to daycare this morning, and passed the square — the heart of downtown — where three people were senselessly murdered last Thursday.

I wasn’t here that day, so in some ways I don’t feel entitled to the grief and outrage that I feel. To the tears and the trembling.

On the other hand, this is my home now, and I have stood in that square dozens of times. This place lives in my heart, and in my daughter’s bones. Is that not entitlement enough?

This was the “acceptable” kind of shooting. The gun was not an AR-15. The police responded quickly and effectively. (Thank goodness for them.) The number of dead can be counted on one hand.

I don’t know how to feel about that. As someone who advocates for “reasonable” gun regulations, I suppose this is the sort of scenario “I can live with.”

Except that I can’t.

I am. I have to.

But I can’t. I don’t want to.

The whole city is “living with it.” Surviving, moving on. Except for the ring of flowers around the fountain on the square, and the yellow caution tape around the front doors of the building where it happened, you would never even know about our little tragedy. I’m both proud of my city for this, and deeply sorry. We are #CincyStrong, but we deserve to be unmoored. We shouldn’t have to go on as normal, because this — people getting shot at work, or at an ice cream shop — shouldn’t be normal.

This should not be normal.

But it is.

This is our normal now. This is what we made.

Can we do better? I believe so. I have to.

Day by day, brick by brick, I will do my best to build something better.

I know I’m not alone, and that is how I “live with it.”

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Seen on screen

On Friday, I indulged in two movies, one on the big screen, and one on my iPad mini. Both filled my heart with joy, and made me cry several times, because of the stories themselves, and also because of what these stories mean. I haven’t stopped thinking about them all weekend, and I can’t wait to watch them again.

Based on the novel of the same name, Crazy Rich Asians is part rom-com, part fish-out-of-water story, part family drama, and part extravagant party.

It’s also the first Hollywood production to feature an all-Asian cast since 1993’s Joy Luck Club. (Which is one of my all-time favorite movies, by the way.)

When the movie started, I was overcome with emotion. Seeing all those Asian faces — faces like my aunts, my cousins, my friends, their parents — and for them to be the stars? For them to be the focus of a lighthearted contemporary story, as opposed to something historical or niche? It was just so…

It was everything.

Crazy Rich Asians is not perfect, but it’s genuinely enjoyable. Henry Golding is a gem, and Michelle Yeoh is great as ever. The last third of the movie is especially strong, which is significant, because endings are hard. (The wedding reception! The mahjong scene! The plane scene!)

The more I look back on the movie, the more I appreciate both the big things (romantic love vs. family love; mother-child relationships; self-sacrifice) and the little things (Araminta with glasses and no make-up at the night market; Rachel and Peik Lin going barefoot through the Goh family mansion; everyone making dumplings together and sharing family stories in a mix of English and Chinese).

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, now streaming on Netflix, is also based on a novel, and features a half-Korean main character. The whole cast is charming, but especially Noah Centineo (Peter, one of the love interests) and Anna Cathcart (Kitty, the younger sister). To be honest, I was just expecting this to be a bit of fluffy fun, and it was, but it was also much more.

This piece does a great job explaining how TATBILB manages to succeed within its genre, while also setting itself apart:

The story plays out with familiar beats and set pieces, bits I remembered from beloved predecessors like “A Walk to Remember,” “She’s All That” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” movies designed to make you remember, viscerally, the terrifying thrill of first love.

But damn, does “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” stick just about every landing, in part by reshaping misogynistic and shallow tropes of the genre in ways that make it feel more honest and yet also more optimistic.

Specifically: The dad is not stodgy and oblivious; When couples break up, they don’t instantly hate each other, because that’s not how first love usually works; And maybe most importantly, the heroine doesn’t require a sexy makeover in order for the hot guy to fall for her.

[It’s] a gentle, witty, nuanced movie about family, grief and growing up, wrapped around a love story that’s both believably bumbling and an irresistible fantasy.

Also: That hot tub scene.


My daughter IB is too young to watch these movies with me at the moment, but I hope when she’s old enough, she’ll want to. Because if seeing them healed pieces of my own 30-something-year-old heart, then I can only imagine what they might mean to her growing up. Maybe she’ll watch them dozens of times, like I did with Mulan and Joy Luck Club. Or maybe, if we’re lucky, she won’t have to, because there will be so many stories with good Asian representation that these won’t stand out like they do now.


I would like to be a part of that. Like many writers of color, my earliest work defaulted to whiteness, but as I’ve matured, all my best writing has reflected my mixed race identity, in one way or another.

Sometimes I wonder whether the world really needs my stories or not. I ask myself, What can I add? Why does anything I say matter?

This weekend, Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before reminded me that you don’t have to change the world, or be perfect, to make a difference.

#RepresentationMatters

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Work-life “balance” lately

WORK

“Mother Courage” by James Wood

In Offill’s original book: a young mother and ambitious writer, committed to her daughter and to her writing, tries to find energy and ambition for both; she must claim for writing the authority of necessity that usually attends parenthood. Art-making, unlike the great bourgeois panoply of family life, comes without society’s automatic sanction, and is in some ways hostile to it.

But her plan “was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead.” … The “art monster” lament is a recurring theme. In a way, it is the novel’s true subject, and a steady source of pain: thwarted aspiration, a sense of life as a slow lapse from high ambition. The narrator was twenty-nine when she finished her first book, and now the head of the department where she teaches creative writing is asking her where the second one is.

I’m lucky to have part-time childcare, and every time I get to go to a café, or close my bedroom door, and sit down at my laptop to work, I have the highest of aspirations. But all too often, when those precious hours have ticked away, I have little more than half-starts and disjointed scraps to show for it.

It is difficult, and it feels unfair, and I worry about sounding like a broken record, when I talk about not having enough space for myself and my art now that I’m mother. It is not actually my intention to complain. I fully recognize and appreciate that I am in a better position than most. But still, this is my reality. That’s all I’m saying.

I should also clarify that even before motherhood, I was not the best at managing my time. Motherhood is not to blame for my lack of discipline. But it hasn’t helped, either.

Anyway, I am currently at work on a Young Adult novel about family secrets, architecture, and falling in love. I started this story just before becoming pregnant with IB. Who knows when I will finish. Last year I had a sort of crisis of faith, and so I took a break from the book, experimenting with other ideas in my queue, giving myself permission to write “just for fun,” partly to see if I even knew how to do that anymore. I did. I do. And reminding myself of it allowed me to see that there could be fun in this story too. My faith was renewed, and I recommitted to the manuscript.

LIFE

On nice days, we take IB to the zoo. That’s our thing now. We’re definitely getting our money’s worth out of our membership.

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She walks all over the zoo grounds like she owns the place. Not bossy, but confident, curious, exploring. Tireless. It makes me so happy.

She likes to people-watch, and I wonder what she thinks about everyone.

She also waves and says hi to the animals. It’s painfully cute.

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Though the weather started trending warmer in April, we still got a few random snow days, and on one of them, I made a tiny snowman for IB. She wasn’t sure what to think of it. But she really enjoyed tromping around in her boots.

Later, Andy made her this snow bunny. She kept saying, “Hop hop,” whenever she saw it. And then, after it melted and collapsed, “Uh oh!”

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Now spring is truly here, and while I’m not looking forward to the heat, I do love spending the afternoons and evenings outdoors with IB, picking wildflowers, splashing in water, and just generally kid-ding around.

BALANCE

“How Motherhood Affects Creativity” by Erika Hayasaki

The competition between raising children and creative output is real. It may be impossible to balance in the ways society expects us to. But I don’t believe that parenting is the enemy of the work.

“The Ambition Collision” by Lisa Miller

The lesson of The Feminine Mystique was not that every woman should quit the burbs and go to work, but that no woman should be expected to find all her happiness in one place — in kitchen appliances, for example. And the lesson for my discontented friends is not that they should ditch their professional responsibilities but that they should stop looking to work, as their mothers looked to husbands, as the answer to the big questions they have about their lives. “I think possibly work has replaced ‘and they got married and lived happily ever after,’ and that is a false promise,” says Ellen Galinsky, co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. “Everyone needs to have more than one thing in their life. We find people who are dual-centric to be most satisfied. If people put an equivalent stress on their life outside of their job they get further ahead and are more satisfied at their job.”

“The Time It Costs to Write” by Natalia Sylvester

We forget that time is not just a ticking clock but a life constantly filling with experience that we bring, like gifts and offerings, to the page.

Relish the words, the story, the process. Be kind to yourself and your fellow writers. It costs so much to write, and for each of us it costs something different, but we keep doing it because we are proven, time and again, that it is worth it.

“Are Kids the Enemy of Writing?” by Michael Chabon

Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back.

Before getting pregnant, I worried that motherhood would take away from me. Take away time, take away energy, take away ambition, take away creativity. Now, eighteen months in, I know that motherhood does indeed take a lot — but it gives a lot too.

I truly believe that motherhood can make my work deeper and richer. And on top of everything else, I want to make IB proud.

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2018 so far, and 2018 to come

I had intended to post this in January, as a way of looking forward. But time sneaks by, and here we are, knocking on March’s door.

Sometimes you wonder where the days and hours have gone. But in this case, I know exactly where. They’ve gone to Elmo, and flashcards, and Old MacDonald’s farm, and bubbles, and cutting up more fruit than I fathom.

I’m happy to give that time to my daughter, but it does mean less time for myself, for my own pursuits. Since I can’t make more time, I have to make more of the time that I do have. Which has never been my strong suit, but I’m trying.


“2017 Was the Year We Fought for Democracy — Now What?” by Lauren Duca

Democracy was always intended to be a dynamic process fueled by active civic engagement. Perhaps the one optimistic take on this godforsaken year is that we’ve begun to recall that the American project is not a historical accomplishment to be celebrated but instead an ongoing process of figuring out how we ought to live together.

Politics is not something separate that only certain people do, closed off in some room somewhere. It is not miraculously vacuum-sealed off from our day-to-day routines. “Politics” impacts everything… We must come to understand participatory democracy as something that is seamlessly integrated into our daily existence, rather than distinct from it. We have to figure out how to enjoy our lives and be invested in politics.

I’m still calling, still donating. I’ve spent so much time feeling sad and angry about the latest headlines, the latest horrors — but I refuse to feel hopeless. “Politics” is a process. It’s never over. We can always nudge things in a better direction. That’s what democracy is all about.

2017 was a year of shock and coping. I think 2018 will be a year of renewed strength, and of quiet but powerful progress.


Last week, Andy treated us to a vacation in Lisbon. (Thanks to the crazy miles he accrued from work travel!) As much as we missed IB, it was nice to travel like we used to, walking everywhere endlessly, unencumbered by snacks and diapers.

Lisbon is lovely. Quieter and easier-going than some of its flashier friends (Paris, London, Barcelona) but with similar grace, intelligence, and beauty. We lucked into the most perfect weather — sunny and 60s every day — and we especially enjoyed the street art, the tiles, the pata negra, and the pastel de nata.

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As I wrote in an email to my agent, 2017 was a letdown of my own making, from a writing standpoint. Despite having part-time childcare for much of the year, I didn’t accomplish as much as I had hoped to. I’m not happy about that, but I’m not going to beat myself up about it either. Live and learn. Try and fail, and then try harder. Or smarter. Or both.

In reflecting upon last year, I’ve come to a few realizations. Much of these are not new, but I seem to need to learn them over and over again.

  • The more I write, the more I write. So it’s better to have a small momentum than none at all. And it’s better to work on something — anything — than nothing.
  • Sometimes I get this strange feeling, like if I write too fast, I won’t be in control. As if writing is a bicycle, and if I speed downhill, I’ll crash and fall off. I’ve never thought of myself as being afraid of success, but that’s sort of what this is. (“Success,” in this case, meaning to produce a lot of words.)
  • The real fear is that if I write too fast, what I’m writing won’t be any good. But objectively I know that going slow doesn’t guarantee quality anyway, especially not for something as large and unwieldy as a novel, which cannot be judged by individual lines or pages or even chapters, but rather must be evaluated as a whole. Which means that even the most beautiful day’s work might be “bad” in the context of the rest of the book.
  • That’s why my goal this year is to develop a habit of finishing. To push forward, rather than dawdling. To get to a point where I’m nurturing a whole forest, instead of obsessing over individual trees.
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