Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why Owl is Not a Writer

Whenever Owl admits that she writes in her spare time, people inevitably ask her what she writes. This is Owl’s cue to scuttle away like a cockroach. In the event that Owl is unable to scuttle, she shuffles her feet and mutters something about personal essays and memoirs.

Non-fiction, the listener will say.

Owl will back away and explain sheepishly that she adds her own twists, adds composite characters and reshuffles events, journalism no-nos. Also she writes about herself. Journalists have one word for that: narcissistic.

Creative non-fiction, Owl will amend.

Journalists inevitably get offended and tell Owl there’s no such thing and she’s going to get sued. Owl panics because she really doesn’t want to get sued, she just wants to write.

So fiction, the listener will say.

Owl will shake her head and then nod vigorously and then gnaw on her fist and then completely panic and hide behind the nearest piece of furniture. This is shorthand for Owl is a Giant Fraud, which is more or less the truth.
Genius at work
Owl is not a proper fiction writer. She’s known that ever since she was very small because she’s never read anything similar to her work. If you put Owl down in front of a computer she will write short pieces about Chinese-Indian girls who have lives that are suspiciously similar to Owl’s.

Owl knows real novels are invented. You are not supposed to write about your life. This means genre fiction is about dragons and elves, or Regency England. Literary novels are usually about Sad White Men Having Lonely Sex or Sad White Men Chasing Fish. [If you really must write about anywhere outside of America and Europe it usually involves the 1800s/malaria/and savages or heathens, sometimes both.] There are aberrations like Americanah but they are rare.

Owl can’t stand these two genres. Every two years she tries to re-read The Old Man and the Sea in hopes that she will find something to love about Hemmingway because he’s a Literary God.
Inevitably she fails. (Owl doesn’t even try with Moby Dick because she had to read it twice in college and that’s enough for four lifetimes.) In the spirit education Owl finally asked her friend Shep to explain Hemmingway. Shep is a manly man. Shep would rather be constipated for six months then talk about his emotions. [Note: Owl has not fact checked this. Sorry.] Owl demanded Shep explain The Old Man in the Sea to her.

It’s like life, he said and wanted to leave it at that. So Hemmingway. So manly.

Owl requested clarification.

Like a lot of times it feels like you are on a boat, Shep said.  Trying to catch a fish. And there’s no one there with you. But you’re still on the boat trying to catch the fish. But why are you on this boat? Why are you trying to catch it? It doesn’t matter, you still have to do it, and there is no one else with you.

Owl understood.  If life is about sitting on a boat chasing some stupid-ass fish, Owl would pack her boyfriend in her suitcase before boarding. If not her boyfriend, then a cellphone, or at least glass bottles for sending off messages: Help. Lonely. Someone talk to me. Are you there God? It’s me Owl! Owl does not believe in suffering in silence. Since then Owl has taken to referring to The Old Man and the Sea as Stupid Fish Book.

But she despairs even more. Owl’s incapable of producing stories about emotional isolation because she loves gossiping about feelings. She can’t write about Sad White Men Having Lonely Sex because she’s not one of them and her imagination just doesn’t work that way. And while Owl has tried to write about dragons and Regency England or both it reads like Owl is on a lot of crack and not the good kind.
Genius takes a moment to contemplate
When she was in college, Owl signed up for fiction class to fix this. Owl had a plan. She would pay strict attention to what the professor said, work her hardest, and then presto, when she left she would be in the know. She too would be able to write proper novels.

The professor struck Owl as a Real!Novelist. He was a jolly man who wore a tweed sports coat and silver rimmed glasses. He had published a book of short stories that Owl could not quite understand, which she made him even more of a Real!Novelist. Good fiction, like good poetry, is inscrutable. Otherwise how does Owl explain Hemmingway, Jonathan Frazen, Phillip Roth and all those other Sad White Men books she’s supposed to adore but actually just wants to burn in a woodshed?  

During the first workshop the professor spent an hour complimenting a student for being able to distill the difference between Methodists and Southern Baptists. That kind of cultural literacy is what makes real literature shine, he told the student. It’s rare to find that kind of perspective in a student. Owl quaked in her chair and prayed he wouldn’t ask her to say anything. Owl knows Methodists and Baptists are Christians and that’s about it.

Then he went off on a tangent about how people of different cultures think of plot arcs differently. Like, Bollywood, he said. Owl sat up. She could talk Bollywood.

Indians just have different needs for plot, the professor explained. Bollywood plots are long and circuitous and not very logical. Owl raised her hand and said in her experience Bollywood was viewed as entertainment where you suspend disbelief and know the plot sucks but are okay with it because it’s fun. Sort of like something called um, Hollywood.

The professor pointed out coldly that Owl’s experience was just one of many. Owl didn’t want to argue because, well yes, that’s right. Instead, Owl asked about the Ramayana, the Indian epic which you could sort of compare to the Odyssey if you really want to go there. What did that plot say about Indian tastes?

The professor did not know what the Ramayana was but it was very clear Owl needed to stop talking. Owl had a bad feeling she was in trouble and she had no idea why. She hoped it wouldn’t impact her grade on her first assignment.

She needn’t have worried. Her grade was crap anyway. Owl’s first piece was about a Chinese-Indian girl whose Indian grandfather dies. The girl administers Chinese funeral rites and feeds his spirit rice white which pisses off her teetotaler Hindu grandfather so he comes back and haunts her. As a cat.
Genius is inspired
Owl wanted to make the girl Chinese-Indonesian and Indian, because she wasn’t quite sure about the funeral rites and it would be culturally insensitive to screw up—she’d only see Chinese funeral rites performed in Indonesia—but she figured Chinese-Indian was already a mouthful. Owl was also proud of herself. Alright, Chinese-Indian girls don’t appear in fiction, Owl has never met one in the pages of a book, but she worked in a haunting which smacked of magical realism. She awarded herself a Marquez point.

The professor pulled Owl aside after class. “You’re Chinese-Indian, huh?” he said. “That must be pretty hard. They are both xenophobic races,” he said.

Owl wasn’t exactly sure what that meant since her family has the whole Chinese-German, Chinese-Japanese, Indian-Thai thing going on, but she was awed by the use of the word xenophobic. Ten dollar word! Proper writer word!

“Listen,” the professor said. “You expect too much of your audience. No one is going to be able to understand the differences between Indian and Chinese culture. Pick one.”

The thing is Owl’s version of the world is a world where your mother makes pork dumplings but doesn’t teach you to speak Chinese, and your father prays at Hindu temples but never actually explains to you who the different gods are. If she picked one group, there would be giant plot holes. Owl understood that if she were to have any success as a novelist she better pick one culture or study up on her Methodists and Baptists. Mostly she understood that the things that had isolated her as a kid, being culturally different, would doom her to failure as a writer.

Owl walked back home to her dorm in a daze bowled over by this epiphany. She collapsed in front of the refrigerator and her roommates found her there hours later.

“What’s wrong?” they asked, but Owl had no words to explain the awfulness of having your worst fears confirmed: the life that you know is one that can never be translated to the written word and understood. She leaned her head on her roommate’s shoulder and cried.

Eventually more of Owl’s friends came along bringing snacks and Owl ended the evening surrounded by a ring of friends and snacks sniveling into a bag of cookies while sobbing about Methodists and Baptists and not being a Real Writer. If she wasn’t wired for writing properly at least she had friends and food.
Genius gets stuck
Owl resolved to do better for the next assignment. Owl’s Taiwanese friend told her a story about being dropped off at a monastery when she was in elementary school and worrying that her mother would never come back. Owl was struck by the image of a little girl standing at the top of a tall mountain wondering if she would ever return home.

Owl wanted the image but had no idea how to get the girl up the mountain. So she invented an entire backdrop where the girl accidentally tells the village gossip her mother is having an affair. Enraged, the mother drives the girl to top of a mountain and leaves her at a Buddhist monastery. She speeds away in a cloud of dust, while the little girl looks on, too shocked to run after the car. Owl was proud. She had picked one country and stuck to it: Taiwan.

Look, the professor said, when he handed it back. You missed the real story here. Kids are weird. No one understands what’s going on in their heads. The story is about the adultery. What made the woman cheat on her husband? Focus on the action, Owl. Think like a story teller.
When in doubt Google
Owl was not interested in adultery. She was interested in the helplessness of children who are completely dependent on adults. This, she understood, meant that she did not have proper story telling instincts. Owl spent another afternoon sitting in front of the refrigerator sniveling and wondering what she was going to do with her life because she is simply not interested in writing about illicit affairs and real writers write about adultery.

Actually, Owl is remiss. There is one story she did well on in fiction class. For a character sketch assignment, Owl turned in a story about a boy in suburban America who is doing terribly at high school because he spends all of his time on debate team. He believes he can change the world but is simultaneously failing three classes. When his mother is blasting him for his report card, a strange man approaches the boy and pats his forehead. “You have the sacred V painted on your forehead,” the man tells the boy. “You are a visionary and you will change the world.” The boy lights up, thrilled.

Owl based the story on well—a real person, who really was told by a strange man that he had a sacred V on his forehead, and really was absolutely delighted by this.

The class shredded it. Owl’s characterization was improbable. No self-respecting person listens to a crazy man talking about visionaries and believes them. Owl’s professor, however, loved the story.
Don’t you understand he’s just an insecure kid who wants validation anyway he can get it?, he asked the class. Haven’t any of you ever felt that way?

The class shrugged. The professor cleared his throat and moved on.

After class the professor pulled Owl aside. I don’t understand the class’s reaction, he said. You wrote about something very relatable. Your characters are unique. You’ve got something; you’ve really got something.

Shortly after Owl switched to poetry classes. After she graduated, the urge to write still haunted her. She produced volumes of short mostly autobiographical pieces that were not actually real writing. Get serious, she told herself and wrote some really terrible genre fiction about dissecting birds and climbing ladders that go nowhere. Okay, get more serious, she told herself and tried to mold her writing to something that sounded like Real Literature. Whenever she tried, she ran through the list of things her professors told her: no passive voice, vary the sentence length, cut all adverbs, no seven year old girls, get critical distance & don’t write about yourself, don’t make shit up, or make all of it up, show don’t tell, omg you’re still doing it wrong.
Google has answers but they don't make sense
Frequently Owl stopped writing. During these moments she turned to books for answers. This includes J.M. Coetzee who won the 2003 Nobel Prize for literature and wrote this gem:

Because they are creators, artists possess the secret of love. The fire that burns in the artist is visible to women, by means of an instinctive faculty. Women themselves do not have the sacred fire (the are exceptions: Sappho, Emily Bronte.) It is in quest of the fire they lack, the fire of love, that women pursue artists and give themselves to them. In their lovemaking artists and their mistresses experience briefly, tantalizingly, the life of gods. Form such lovemaking the artist returns to his work enriched and strengthened, the woman to her life transfigured.

He’s full of shit, Owl thought and threw the book across the room. Then she picked it up. Coetzee won the 2003 prize. As far as Owl knows, no one is calling him out on flagrant sexism. V.S. Naipaul the 2001 winner has actually said women can’t write. Owl is hardly Emily Bronte or Sappho. If she were male would she be somewhat more successful? At least better at writing something like Stupid Fish Book?

As the number of rejections mounted up, whenever Owl woke up with insomnia she wondered if she was simply cut from the wrong cloth for producing real writing. Real writing is spare, elegant, lonely and depressing. Thinking about real writing depressed Owl. She figured when the gods were handing out talent she’d bypassed the line for literary genius and headed straight for compulsive dishwashing. Which, poor life choice.
New life calling please
As Owl grew older she realized she was never going to wake up and magically be a Real!Writer but she kept messing around with words because she couldn’t help herself. Call it a dumb compulsion. She wrote pieces like the essay she posted here last week.

Still, Owl has bad moments. Last weekend she woke up and wondered what she was doing with her life, why she insisted on writing when ultimately all she could produce were blog posts and something on her hard drive that resembles a regurgitated pancake. She wondered when she was going to do something worthwhile with her life. This was the kind of day where getting out of bed is a bad idea. She reached for her phone and checked her email instead.

She found this email—

Dear Owl:
I just wanted to say, thank you so much for sharing your stories…
Growing up as a Malaysian Chinese (technically one quarter Thai as well, but my Identification Card says that's not important) in an increasingly racially-charged society, race has had a ginormous influence in my life. I hated the Chinese vernacular schools I attended, and used to lie to taxi drivers in KL about my ethnicity, just to avoid judgment… One semester into college here at [redacted American university]… the discourse (or screaming) all over campus, especially in the wake of the Ferguson verdict last Fall, has been intense, scary and overwhelming. I am confused, but more than that, really sad that…conversations (or arguments) revolving around race are often so angry, violent and alienating…

And I don't know what to think about it all ... except that I couldn't agree more with the conclusion you wrote at the end of the piece. …So I just wanted to say, thank you so much for articulating your thoughts and feelings….In an unexpected way, your stories have shaped my perspective and altered my life a little, and I am grateful. 

Owl sat down in front of her refrigerator and in the time honored tradition, cried. Then she switched on her computer and started writing.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Oppression of Owl via Nude Band-Aids

In the spirit of the New Year, Owl sat down to write something deep and meaningful. Owl looked at the blank page and pulled out Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie instead. Days later Owl emerged bleary eyed, determined to write about the truth of her own racial experience in America. The whole truth, nothing but the truth, so raw you could see the blood and guts glisten in the sunlight.

The problem was Owl wasn’t actually sure what the truth was.

When Owl was in high school, her English class was sent out to volunteer at inner-city charter schools where mostly Hmong and Hispanic students studied. Owl went to a ritzy private school where the students were mostly rich and mostly white. (Think about ten nonwhite students in Owl’s graduating class of 130). Volunteering was supposed to take Owl and her cohort out of their classrooms which featured solid oak floors and hip chairs with purple cushions and expose them to a Different Way of Life.

Think about it, Owl’s English teacher said, after one session. These students are very different. Imagine those little Hmong and Hispanic children walking around Wayzata. They wouldn’t fit in. People would probably point and stare and say, what are those kids doing here.

Wayzata was a well-to-do suburb where Owl went to elementary school. At the time Owl was the only non-white kid in her entire grade. (One of Owl’s grade school teachers explained to Owl’s class that they were very very lucky to have Someone Different like Owl in class. Owl was mildly flattered. She liked attention.) If Owl behaved, her mother would take Owl to the bakery for sweets. Owl had no recollection of people pointing and staring as she picked out her cakes. As far as Owl knew, she belonged.

Owl loved her high school English teacher. Her English teacher put up with Owl derailing class discussions to ask meandering questions about life, and told her to come in after class if she wanted to keep talking. Owl had no idea how you tell an adult you really like, who also has wields the power of grades, that they just said something offensive. Owl wanted to scream brown kids do belong in Wayzata: I was one of them.

Owl did the mature thing. She ranted to her friends. She used the r-word (racist) a lot. This was very undiplomatic of her. Owl’s school prided itself on diversity. Every month or so everyone would sit down and discuss it’s success at creating a diverse environment. In the spirit of diversity, the school paper even ran a story discussing inter-racial dating rates among students broken down by race. Owl doesn’t precisely recall, but she thinks the general conclusion was the minorities were bustin’ the hell out of interracial dating and the white kids needed to do a better job. Since there were about three Asian people in Owl’s grade, seven black people and one Hispanic person, Owl had some questions.

But she digresses. The take home point of these discussions was racists were people who existed in the past, and racism is something that white people do to black people and maybe Hispanic people. Racism does not exist between other races and it certainly didn’t happen on school property. Especially not among teachers. This sort of didn’t jive with Owl’s experience of family reunions. 
Owl’s family comes from all over the world, which means they love each other but maybe not each other’s countries. Like China and India? Some serious shit happened between those two countries. Owl’s father grew up thinking the Chinese would slaughter him in his bed. Sometimes Owl’s parents still have World War III and dinner devolves into an argument about whether India or China is better. Owl personally votes for dinosaurs.

At first Owl’s friends were supportive of Owl’s epic rants about Wayzata and ignorant teachers. But after the second week of non-stop ranting that could not be staunched with brownies, they began to get tired. It wasn’t that big of a deal, they said. People made mistakes. Hadn’t Owl ever said anything she regretted? Since Owl does that every day, she couldn’t argue, but she was still angry, even more angry perhaps, because she was being told her anger wasn’t nice.

Finally Owl wrote a long story featuring her English teacher’s bloody death, included a reincarnation so she could add another murder, and spent extra time describing the fountains of blood and considered it a closed chapter of her life. Nothing happened because everyone said nothing happened and so if Owl was the only one who remembered, did it truly matter?

As Owl got older the narrative changed from everything-is-peachy, to you-poor-thing. When Owl walked into her college counseling appointment, her college counselor congratulated her. “You’ve got racial diversity and socio-economic diversity going for you,” he said.

Owl did not understand. “Socio-economic diversity?” she asked.

“You’re…you know…”

Now, Owl was curious.

“On financial aid? A scholarship student?”

The last time Owl had checked she did not have a scholarship. She rather liked the idea of being a scholarship student though. Scholarship student meant smart. Owl was down.

Then she realized her college counselor didn’t mean smart, he meant poor. Owl didn’t quite know what to say because finances are not polite conversation, so she just nodded along and then had a horrible panic attack when she realized he was expecting college essays about financial hardship.

It didn’t stop there. In college Owl had to write a description of her parent’s bedroom (how’s that for a creepy homework assignment?). She wasn’t sure what to make of her professor’s reaction. Her professor marveled. “You just get the sense this room is so precious to these people and they’ve never had anything nice before.” After class she asked Owl all about her family and started talking about how it must have been hard on Owl to go to a private school where everyone lived in big fancy houses while Owl lived in a one bedroom apartment.

Owl was fascinated by her professor’s level of detail. All Owl had to say was her parents were immigrants and poof—her professor knew the rest of the story: fresh off of the boat, made it past Ellis Island, living in a tenement, wasting away from tuberculosis.

“You’ve got an interesting perspective,” the professor said warmly.

Unfortunately this left Owl in a nasty dilemma all semester. Write about her actual house, which has four bedrooms and was a pain-in-the ass to vacuum or write about the one bedroom apartment? Which house was real anyway? If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? If you live in a more expensive house than people imagine, but no one believes it, do you really live in that house?

It was all terribly confusing, but Owl knew this was part of the plight of being a minority. She knew this because a college friend had told her so. This particular friend had devoted a lot of time to studying minorities even though she was white, because she felt like minorities didn’t have enough of a voice in America.

Owl was for anything that meant she got more of a voice. “Tell me all about being a minority in America,” she told her white friend.

The friend explained. “There’s a whole narrative of subtle oppression. Like nude band-aids. Imagine how it feels to walk to buy nude band-aids that don’t actually match your skin tone. It’s terrible.”

Owl’s mind was blown. She’d never thought about nude band-aids before. Perhaps because she favored Snoopy band-aids. Or because band-aids don’t match anyone’s skin tone. Owl felt vaguely guilty for not being a more sensitive minority. Band-aids! How could she have failed to pick up on their subtle oppression?
“Also, if you’re a minority in America, it really messes with your confidence. Every time you walk into a room, you know you’re the only one of your kind and feel utterly alone.”

When Owl walks into a room she’s usually busy trying to calculate what she has in common with everyone else because the list of things that make her different…well, it’s long. Owl would have no friends if she was conscious of it all the time. Instead she goes for commonalities even if it’s a stretch. You’re German? My aunt is German she makes the best cakes ever. You’re French? One of my grad school besties is half-French and I spend most of my time scheming for invites.

Owl’s never thought, God, I’m the only Chinese-Indian here. Please bring in more of my kind. There have been moments when Owl’s conscious of being the only Chindian in the room, but Owl grew up in the Midwest. If she went into shock every time she was the only person of color in a room she’d be dead by now. [Owl is full of compassion for anyone who does feel that way and supports their right to feel that way, she's just saying it's not her experience as a minority.]

Owl realized she had been doing the whole minority thing wrong, totally, totally wrong. Maybe she wasn’t a minority. Or maybe she was a minority within a minority—the person who is being oppressed by band-aids but was too dumb to get it. Shit man, shit.

Owl is still sitting here trying to write about living race in America. She understands that she was never discriminated against, but also terribly oppressed.

Owl’s truth is bland. People at heart are good but not always aware. Lots of good people have done much for Owl. Lots of people have also said some really racist things. Sometimes these are the same people. Owl knows she’s slipped up. Mostly she wishes it was possible to sidestep the terrible weight of history in favor of honest conversation. She wants a world where you can go out for ice cream and talk about what’s offensive and what isn’t without blame and then forgive and move on. It’s a truth seems small and unworthy of writing compared to all the other narratives Owl had been told about her life.

Owl feels oppressed.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Law of Bouyancy

Owl spent New Year’s Day of 2013 at a women’s shelter in Delhi. She was interning for a paper in India. Somehow she had been charged with putting together a video about how the women of Delhi celebrate New Year’s.

Had Owl ever put together a video before? No. Could Owl speak Hindi and interview these women? No. Did Owl have any idea how she was going to complete the assignment and not get turned into butchered meat? Fuck no.

Owl was depressed. While she was pretending to be a functional human, inside her head there was a mini Owl hiding behind a teddy bear bawling non-stop.

Owl and her boyfriend Peter were in the midst of a rough patch. By which Owl means Peter was going through a family slash life crisis and needed space. Owl is totally great at all types of emotional support except for giving people space. Owl is like a creeping vine who loves getting up into everyone’s business and talking it over while munching biscuits. Owl can give people space for like three minutes before she’s back offering donuts and a long chat.

Except Owl was in Delhi and Peter was in America so Owl couldn’t exactly pop around the corner with donuts. Peter wanted space, and thanks to the Atlantic Ocean and mad expensive plane tickets, Owl had to give him space.

The only thing Owl could do was pine.


Owl loves pining in movies. There’s a montage with Josh Groban crooning about a broken heart in the background. The piner goes to the gym, stays up late working, gets slender and gets promoted. All through this, the piner is very private, does not break down in public, and emerges like a blade of indomitable steel. It’s heart-wrenching and empowering and Josh Groban is mad sexy. Owl was totally pumped.

Owl was going to pine like the movies. She signed up for a gym membership and begged her boss for extra assignments. At night she wrote tortured essays while listening to Josh Groban and admired her emotional stoicism.

Things started to go off script after a couple of days. Owl went to the gym. The gym instructor told her she could stand to lose a kilo. (Bitch! Owl was on a starvation pining diet and was a twig. A twig!) Owl tried to stay up late working except it was the holiday season so the entire office was out and there was no work to be had.

After a week, Owl was totally done with the pining thing. Except, unlike the movies, where the pining is a snappy entertaining three minutes before the plot trots along, Peter was still crisising. Ergo Owl was still pining.

Owl realized she was stuck pining for the foreseeable future, and the gym instructor had taken to calling Owl before dinner to inquire about Owl’s diet. (Bitch! Owl was not fat.) Owl began to panic. And so when she got to work on New Year’s day, and her boss told her to go film a women’s shelter, Owl asked no questions, dug up a cameraman and went.

Delhi in the winter is cold and dusty. The sunlight is pale, the streets shrouded with dust, the air crisp. The buildings of Delhi are made to siphon off summer heat. The floors are stone and the windows don’t quite shut, so the cold hurts. It bites into your bones, it stings, it stays.

The shelter was little more than a room ringed in iron bunk beds covered in thin mattresses. Each woman had a bed for herself and her children. In each bed the women stored their lives: clothes, spare utensils, talismans from the past.

The cold crept in through the open doors, settling into the floors and walls. The shelter had no heat and Owl shivered in her jacket. The women themselves were bundled into sweaters and saris. At first they clustered around the camera, convinced their moment of fame had come and that they were going to be on TV. Websites meant nothing to them.

Gradually they lost interest as Owl and the cameraman circled around getting footage. The cameraman translated Owl’s questions, and in a slow grinding conversation, Owl extracted the details of their lives.

One woman had been thrown out of her house by her brother-in-law. She had nowhere else to go, so she was here at the shelter, glad she was indoors rather than outside. She had grand plans for the day, she was going to buy sweets to pass out to her friends, going to pass them out to her brother-in-law even.

Another had epilepsy. There was no medicine, so the women sat around her in a circle, while she shuddered and shook. They sang and beat drums, their voices bouncing off of the walls, as if their voices would ward off all illness.

There’s a woman here who speaks English, a shelter worker told Owl. A pale woman with a streak of white in her black hair, and heavy hooded eyes stepped forward. She was a refugee from Afghanistan, she said. Her husband had been part of the Taliban, so she had taken her son and fled. She pointed to a boy who was running with a group of children. When she called him over, he bounced up, happy, buoyant.

He was beautiful, large almond eyes, clear pale skin, pointed chin, dimples even. In another life, he’d be the sort of boy whose face was plastered in advertisements, the boy grinning around a mouthful of ice cream: isn’t life just grand?

“How do you like India?” Owl asked.

“In India I go to school, I eat, no one is knocking on the door trying to kill us,” he said. “There is no Taliban.” He paused. “India is better than Afghanistan,” he said and lifted his hand to sketch out better—the bare airy room, the singing women, the pale sunlight that fell like spilled water on the floor.

Better: no Taliban, food, a little bit of school.

Owl went home. She gave up on pining cinematically and focused on better. Owl Skyped and emailed her friends when things got rough. Sometimes they told her stories, sometimes they sent her pictures. They had no magical panacea, but they were there, and the sound of their voices took the edge off of Owl’s depression.

Owl still pined. In truth, it was a long time before things were better. Sometimes better was just getting out of bed and making it through the day without crying. Some days better was getting out of bed and crying in the grocery store. But, you know, whatever, moving target. And slowly, things got better.

This year Owl spent New Year’s at home, reading poetry and deep-fat-frying snacks. Peter had to fly back to lab on New Year’s eve, but he and Owl spent the tail end of December baking things, cleaning things, and making really atrocious jokes. There was no gym instructor insisting Owl was fat, and there was no pining.

Happy New Year. May whatever plagues you, sort itself out, and may everything good bubble up to the top of your life, in a delicious mad froth. Gravity dictates what goes up must come down, but buoyancy dictates, whatever goes down must come up.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Advice for Creative Writing Majors

A long time ago, someone asked Owl what she wished she’d known when started college as a creative writing major. Owl behaved very irresponsibly. She made a crack about being an economics major instead. This is the advice she heard when she majored in creative writing.

Owl has decided it's bad advice. First, it’s untrue, because Owl as an econ major would have been Owl weeping into her pillow clutching a teddy bear. Second, all it does is tell people their dreams are stupid. Owl is deeply sorry and full of regrets. She’s spent weeks thinking, and this is actually what she’d tell a younger Owl.

Forget about grades. Good writing is not about grades. You will get B’s you don’t deserve and you’ll get A’s you don’t deserve. Pay attention to the feedback instead. Figure out what should be discarded, and what you should use to get better. Praise comes and goes; the work stays.

Say thank you. A professor will scribble “senseless emotional drivel” at the top of your first assignment. (Welcome to college.) Your classmates will cross out all the poetic twists you slaved over. (Overwrought). Your friends will circle the parts where they fell asleep. (Every other paragraph). It will hurt. Sometimes they’ll be wrong. Mostly they’ll be right. They’ll show you what you can’t see. Say thank you, so they’ll keep showing you. It’s easy to tell someone they’re great. It’s harder to tell them to grow. People who like you tell you good job. People who love you tell you how to get better. Love them back. Thank them for caring and do better.

Ignore the haters. Freshman year of college you will walk into the cafeteria and find a group of engineering and pre-med boys clustered around a table ranking the most useless college majors. Creative writing will be at the top. They will tell you, you are going nowhere. You will believe them because that’s what everyone says: you are going nowhere.

Ignore them. Seven years later you’ll run into one of them. He’ll still be in the same town. He’ll tell you he burnt out, stopped going to class, and eventually gave up all together. He’ll tell you he had dreams, but he was too scared to act on them. It’s easy to tell someone they are useless. It’s so much harder to do something. Do the hard thing: do what you love.

Befriend the people you admire. There are people who are so talented that you get nauseous: the girl in your poetry seminar who writes in two languages, the girl in your intro seminar whose stories make your heart bleed, the girl in your fiction class who can spin a plot like nobody’s business. Make friends with them. Today they’re your roommates, your friends, your competition. Tomorrow they’ll be your lifeline.

You will leave college one day. You won’t have workshop, you won’t have your professors,you won’t have anyone to edit your work. You will have your girls. The first will ask you the tough questions and sort out your crazed commas. When you are homesick halfway across the world she will write you emails telling you it’s okay to be panicked. You will travel to Myanmar together. The second will read through your drafts and mark them up for weak writing. She’ll take you out to brunch when you get burned out at grad school and remind you that writing and pancakes make life worth living. The third will stop you from publishing a god-awful essay just so you can get another byline. Somehow she'll even do it tactfully. She’ll host you at the drop of a hat whenever you come into town to say hello, and at her house you will always sleep well.

Good people, people who tell you the truth, people who spill over with talent are hard to find. If you are lucky enough to meet one, keep them close.

Trust yourself. Everyone will tell you writers don’t get paid. Because of this, you will apply for a line of sensible business jobs. You will believe that only the best and the brightest get paid to write, and that you are not, and never will be, good enough. There is no such thing as being good enough. No one is good enough and everyone is good enough. Think T.S. Elliot and think Twilight. The first step for getting what you want is being brave enough to try. You want. Now go. Go write.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Owl Explains Christmas

Last night Owl’s boyfriend, Peter, invited her to spend Christmas with his family.
Owl’s family doesn’t really do Christmas. Owl’s father is a Hindu who eats steak and her mother is a Buddhist who prays in Hindu temples. Excuse Owl the explanation. She’s giving it because mostly people dash up to her and go Merry Chr—er, Happy Holidays, er, what do you celebrate? And then, before she can reply, they say brightly, oh! You’re Indian!
Owl will explain she’s not Indian, she’s half Chinese and half Indian, and that’s the last chance she gets to speak. People will look at her blankly and ask her if she is planning a huge Bollywood wedding like the ones on TV. Then they will tell her all about the Asian Way, which involves being vegetarian and spiritual and having strict parents who make you do lots of maths. We get it, they tell her knowingly. We know all about you.
After such conversations Owl usually has to have a nice quiet lie-down.
Anyway. Owl was terribly excited about Christmas at Peter’s. As a child she would feel twinges of jealousy while other families celebrated Christmas. The twinkling trees in windows! The gingerbread scent in bakeries! Frank Sinatra singing (or well someone, Owl doesn’t know her singers so good) about holy nights and silent nights! Owl felt left out.
 “Erm, what does Christmas at yours entail?” Owl asked Peter. The asking was mostly Owl being polite and culturally sensitive. Peter’s family came over to America on the Mayflower. Owl knows how their Christmas will go down. No questions needed.
While Owl hasn’t precisely Christmased, she considers herself something of an expert. Owl’s read an inordinate amount of Victorian’s children’s literature and watched movies. She can say with full confidence Christmas is about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, chasing someone around the couch while singing seductively about the cold, and eating pink hams.
In the same way of people who major in Asian Studies and can make grand sweeping statements about Asia after reading a few books and visiting once or twice, Owl feels totally equipped to comment on Christmas.
Peter went off on a long dreamy description of toddling downstairs in pajamas, opening stockings, putting on wool socks, brining turkey, (here Owl doubted the authenticity of Peter’s Christmas experience, brining turkey was not in any of her books, it was always ham) and…presents.
“Presents,” Owl echoed.
“Yeah, you should probably bring a present for everyone,” Peter said. “Don’t sweat it.”
“I will buy everyone chocolate,” Owl declared. Everyone loves chocolate. Christmas is about love. Therefore, QED, Christmas is about chocolate. The three wise men may have been handing over myrrh, but Owl knows that’s code for chocolate.
Peter explained chocolate were not quite the done thing.  “You want to get something personal,” he said. “It’s about the thought.”
Owl was miffed. Chocolate is all about thought. Chocolate screams thought. Peter was just wrong.
“I’ll get fancy chocolate,” Owl said. “Chocolate wrapped up in golden bows.”
Peter informed Owl there would be no buying of chocolate, which Owl thought was silly. Clearly Peter needs to be better educated in the ways of Christmas. Then he added, “We also label our gifts with puns and compete to see who has the best.”
Nowhere in any of the Christmas books Owl read does it state that you have to come up with clever puns to impress your boyfriend’s family with your wit and linguistic cunning. Owl was outraged.
There was a long pause as Peter tried to figure out how to explain the difference between what is Christmas culture, what gets changed and adapted for family culture and the precise nuance of gift Owl would have to get to fit in. He ended up saying something like: Mwfrraglgeooole.
Owl is staring at the black abyss of Amazon. So far she’s looked at massage gift certificates, water coolers, inspirational jewelry, hand carved cedar boxes, and custom designed phone cases. She’s thinking about who everyone is in Peter’s family and how they think about the world.
It’s frighteningly strenuous. Having now experienced her first taste of Christmas (almost), Owl now understands why people get nutty during the holidays. Thinking about what people really want means being compassionate (blargh), open minded (ewww), and listening to other points of view (Jesus, really?).
However, Owl is fully confident she can do this. Having faced many stupid-assed cultural assumptions in her own life, she’s knows she would never make the same mistake. This confidence does not strike her as dangerous. She knows in her heart of hearts real Christmas is about ham and chocolate no matter what Peter says. Owl is a Christmas expert.  She’s got this.