Kristan Hoffman

writing dreams into reality

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Category: Personal (Page 1 of 40)

Hilary Masters, mentor and friend

I remember being surprised that Hilary was a man.

Based on name alone, I was expecting a woman that first time I walked into Hilary Masters’s classroom. Instead, I found a grizzled old soul with sharp eyes, a gravelly voice, and sly wit. He was intimidating because he didn’t suffer fools or slackers. But he was always wise and generous in his guidance of our work. The more we gave, the more he gave.

Hilary-Masters-1

That first class took place in Baker Hall, in a plain white room with long tables arranged into a square. While other students filled in anywhere and everywhere except right next to the professor, I took to sitting just to the left of him. Later, the advanced classes grew smaller — and perhaps braver — until it was just half a dozen of us squeezed into Hilary’s office. The boys liked his lumpy green couch. The girls settled into various random and mismatched chairs.

Hilary always presided from the well-worn leather rolling chair at his desk. He listened thoughtfully to our excited chatter, indulging us for a few minutes at the beginning of every class. Then he called us to order and listened even more thoughtfully to the work we read aloud. His observations were specific and insightful, often leading us beyond the words that we had put on the page, to the deeper meaning and emotions underneath, which we hadn’t even realized we were excavating.

From Carnegie Mellon’s obituary for Hilary:

“Always encouraging, he believed in the craft of writing and he believed in his students, and he believed in me,” Barnes said.

By senior year, I considered Hilary a mentor, and I asked him to supervise my thesis project. With humility — and a hint of warning — he accepted. Then he challenged me to write 10 new pages of my novel and show it to him every week, regardless of any other club, school, or Resident Life responsibilities I had. It was hard, but I did it. I wrote half of that novel under his guidance, won an award for my thesis presentation of it, and finished the draft a few months after graduating.

Hilary didn’t make me a writer, but he did make me a better writer. More than that, he opened up his heart and his home to me and a few of my classmates. I remember the awe we felt at being invited into his charming historic house, with all its worldly knickknacks from his long and fascinating life. I remember trying triple creme cheese for the first time, and daring to have a sip of wine. I remember sitting in the tiny room by the stairwell and talking about books late into the night.

Hilary Masters was a special man, and I feel fortunate to have known him. Friends are often teachers, and in this case, my teacher became my friend. He will be missed.

For more about Hilary’s full and interesting life, please read this lovely write-up in the New York Times.

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Spirits, banquet, smoke

1.

A stout white tower rises from the mountainside. Sloping blue roof. Lotus fountains and twin temples at the base. We drive through the mist and into the heart of the mountain. Take an elevator up. We are greeted by long corridors of polished wooden cabinets, and the ocean-deep silence of the dead.

We seek my grandparents. We find them. My cousin unlocks a cabinet on the top row, and I can read my family’s name inside. Hello, A-ma. Hello, A-gong.

We speak without sound to the ashes of our loved ones. Their spirits listen. The language barrier doesn’t matter anymore, but still I wish I could offer something more than love and regrets expressed in the wrong tongue. Next time I will bring a note and leave it on the tiny golden shrine.

Next time it won’t be thirteen years since the last time.

2.

Tonight we are celebrating. Celebrating my marriage. Celebrating the long-awaited return of my mother to her homeland. Celebrating four generations and countless branches of family.

Looking around the room, I see my mother’s chin, my grandmother’s eyes, my grandfather’s nose. Pieces of myself echoed in the faces of people I hardly know but fiercely love. Their voices make a strange song, loud and lovely. Their laughter is like wine, loosening my thoughts and filling me with warmth.

The lazy susans spin with an abundance of food. Lightly fried frog legs, and fish simmered in a golden sauce. Gelatinous sea cucumber, and a steaming bowl of abalone soup. Fat pink prawns. Crisp green beans. Soft taro. Fresh-cut fruit. It’s an endless dance of dishes. I’m dizzy by the end.

3.

On Chinese New Year’s eve, we gather at my uncle’s house. My aunt has been chopping and stir-frying all day, and a savory steam fills the air. But before we sit down to eat, my mother leads me and my husband out to the living room. She hands each of us a slender stick of incense and then motions to the family altar. She wants us to bai bai.

My husband looks to me for guidance, but I’ve never done this before. I glance at the dark red lacquered wood, corners carved into dragons. The main shelf is crammed with sculpted buddhas and other deities. Red and jade and gold. There are fresh flowers, and two small urns with sticks of incense already burning. Smoke rises in thin, lazy drifts.

We step forward to light our incense, then press our palms together, trapping the incense in between. We bow our heads in prayer. I wonder what my husband is saying to my ancestors, or if he is speaking to his own.

That’s none of my business. I pull my focus back. I thank, and I ask, and I thank again. My hands rock back and forth, the glowing tip of the incense swaying with them. This is tradition. Foreign and familiar at the same time. Like my family. Like me.

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Things I am trying to be better about

Eating fruit

During my recent travels, I noticed that all of my friends eat fresh fruit every day. Apples, pears, bananas, oranges, strawberries, you name it. Honestly, I look at fresh fruit and think about all the washing and the peeling and the seeds, and I just get too lazy. Which is super, super pathetic. So I’m working on it.

Also: taking daily multi-vitamins, reducing my intake of sugary drinks, and reducing my dependency on ramen.

Not caring if things aren’t tidy

I’m not clinically OCD, but I do have… tendencies. Such as making my bed each morning, arranging our trio of remote controls at certain “random” angles, and struggling to focus when my desk is too cluttered.

Cleanliness may be a virtue, but I let it take up more mental energy than it deserves. So what if Andy’s socks are on the floor, or that stack of magazines is askew, or I haven’t vacuumed in a week? Is anyone judging me? Is this untidiness hampering my work or my life in a real way?

If the answer is no, then let it go.

Exercise

I’ve spent most of my 20s sitting at a desk, and lately, I can feel that inactivity in my bones. It’s a different kind of hunger, in all seriousness. My body craves movement.

(My daily walks with Riley help but aren’t enough.)

Luckily, my good friend John followed his passion and started his own gym, Kinitro Fitness. I can only attend his classes when I’m back in Houston visiting my parents, but he generously created a few at-home workouts for me. (They’re a lot like this one.) For now I’m doing these “boot camps” once per week, and it feels great.

(Or rather, I want to kill John for about 45 min, and then it feels great afterward.)

I also play co-ed sports with my friends — flag football, softball, and even broomball — but that’s a lot more about fun than fitness.

Meditation

I used to meditate when I was in when I was in high school. Just a simple practice of breathing, focusing on that breath, and imagining it flowing through me in different ways. I don’t know exactly when or why I fell out of the habit, but a recent post at Writer Unboxed reminded me of how much I used to appreciate it, and how easy it would be to start up again.

Now I have an alert on my phone that prompts me to meditate for just 2 min each day. Sometimes those 2 min fly by; other times it feels like forever. Either way, I think the mental exercise is good for me, and I would like to gradually work my way up to 10 min each day.

Writing every day

For some people, this is a rule. For me, it’s just an aspiration borne out of logic. I absolutely believe that writers can be successful and productive without writing every day. I am personal friends with many of those kinds of writers.

But me, I’m happier when I write, even if it’s just a few lines here and there. So why wouldn’t I strive to give myself that happiness every day?

Also, I am particularly susceptible to momentum. A body in motion stays in motion, while a body at rest stays at rest. For me, writing today makes me more likely to write tomorrow, which is always preferable to not writing tomorrow.

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“There’s no shame in being a starving artist”

From “‘Mad Men’ Creator Matthew Weiner’s Reassuring Life Advice For Struggling Artists”:

It took seven years from the time I wrote Mad Men until it finally got on the screen. I lived every day with that script as if it were going to happen tomorrow. That’s the faith you have to have.

Seven years. Somehow that sounds like both an eternity and no time at all.

I have the kind of faith that he’s talking about. I don’t think about it much, but it’s there. Automatic, like breathing. Only occasionally a struggle, like breathing.

Looking back on my posts here, a clear pattern emerges: I’m almost there. This is going to be the year, I can feel it. I’ve said that time after time after time. Is it folly to believe in something that never happens?

You’re only wrong until you’re right.

The most defeatist thing I hear is, “I’m going to give it a couple of years.” You can’t set a clock for yourself. If you do, you are not a writer. You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice. You have to commit for the long haul.

When I quit my job, I gave myself a year. I thought, If I’m not agented and/or published by then, I can still look for work without any issue. I’m young, and I’ll barely have been “out of the game” for any time at all.

But a year passed. Then another. Then another. I found ways to justify putting off the job search. Little milestones to hang my hat on, and to fuel another round of “just give me a few more months.”

Maybe I always knew I wasn’t going back. Maybe I don’t want a Plan B.

The greatest regret I have is that, early in my career, I showed myself such cruelty for not having accomplished anything significant. I spent so much time trying to write, but was paralyzed by how behind I felt.

Am I cruel to myself? Sometimes. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing, though, because I’m overly generous to myself too, haha. There has to be a balance, right?

Well, that balance would probably be healthier and more productive if it weren’t so extreme. Both ends of the spectrum lead to their own kinds of paralysis.

Also, how are we defining “significant”? A couple weeks ago, I had a sort of wake-up call. (Not for the first time, nor for the last, I’m sure.) A friend who is now interested in writing kept remarking on my achievements, saying how much he admired me. I brushed off his words — not out of modesty, but out of genuine disbelief and puzzlement. Me? Achievements? What? Where?

But after a while, I tried to let the compliments through. Tried to give them a fair chance instead of swatting them away without consideration. I’m nowhere near where I want to be, but maybe I should give myself credit for getting to where I am. Maybe I should appreciate this part of the journey.

And maybe this is the year. Breathe in, breathe out.

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Delightful imperfection, contradiction, my past, and Sailor Jupiter

I’m in the process of fixing a weird bug in my blog (where some posts show as having no comments even though the comments are right freaking there) and that requires checking over a lot of my old posts. It’s kind of fun, amusing, weird, inspiring, and embarrassing all at once.

Sometimes I wonder if I should go back and delete the more ridiculous or random posts. I know people who have done that. I even know one person (cough Sarah cough) who likes to “burn it all down.” Old journals, old blogs, old photographs, everything. She can be sentimental, but she prefers to rely on her own memory. She doesn’t like anyone being able to root through the relics of her past.

I’m the opposite. I love looking back on my history (and the histories of people I care about) in all its delightful mess and imperfection. Oh sure, it’d be nice to have a pristine version of myself presented to the public — but then again, I’m not a pristine person. I’m flawed and ever-changing. Is there a point in hiding that?

(Also, few people besides myself will ever go back into the archives anyway. Why hide what no one’s looking for?)

As with most things, it’s all up to personal preference. Me, I’m leaving my past alone. But I do understand the temptation to delete or obscure.

“How Sailor Jupiter Made Me Who I Am Today” by Amanda C. Miller

I always was drawn to Makoto for her interesting juxtaposition of the masculine and feminine. Her version of womanhood was complex, well-rounded, and unique to anything else I had seen in kids shows before. She was at the same time strong and sweet, badass and gentle. On the one hand, a tough self-sufficient independent woman who had lived on her own for years and answered to no one. On the other, a hopeless romantic who liked crushing on cute boys and secretly dreamed of becoming a beautiful bride someday.

I also remember the episode where she gets a lady crush on Haruka, which was not so much about sexual confusion, but more the fact that she deeply admires how Haruka is confidently able to reconcile the masculine and the feminine parts of herself, and doesn’t apologize for how anyone else receives her. Someone else’s confusion or inability to put her in a box is their problem, not hers.

Sailor Jupiter was my favorite too. There’s a superficial similarity — we’re both brunettes — but this essay helped me articulate the deeper parallels between me and Makoto.

I’ve always loved being “one of the boys.” I even went through a (deeply regrettable) phase of believing that “girliness” was a bad thing. But the truth is that even when I was in denial about my femininity, I had wonderful female friends, strong female role models, and a fair number of “girly” tendencies. Thank goodness for all that.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I’m able to look at my various traits without shame, and without assigning genders. I’m able to see that sensitivity and toughness can go hand-in-hand. I might not be as confident as Haruka about it, but I’m getting there.

You don’t have to sacrifice an ounce of your strength in order to maintain your femininity, and vice versa.

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