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.


  1. I was thinking, early on in reading this piece, about what bullshit it is that you shouldn't write about the complicated characters, the people in-between. I've learned so much about various aspects of life and culture through reading your writing, and I love all of it. Keep it up. I've been reading your writing for 12 years now, and it just keeps getting better, and it's *relevant* to our world. Your twists bring out truths. Just... keep going.


  2. Well maybe Owl isn't a Real Writer, but Owl is a Really Good Writer, and that's better!!!

  3. Coincidentally, not talking about one's emotions actually causes constipation [citation needed]. Great read!

    1. Having never read the Stupid Fish Book, "silent suffering" seems inevitable to me. Not that I'm into emotional isolation. It's just...well some would say that all life is suffering; sometimes great and sometimes puny. And think about it: you're the only one who stays with you for your entire life. We're all trying pathetically to express ourselves to other minds (the fish) who are also in a cell of thin bone and grey matter (the boat). But that should be taken with a mountain of salt.

  4. I was getting worried about you, Owl, because I wandered away and have not kept up with you. Today I found this and was reading this entry... I was getting more and more agitated, reading this, wanting to stand on my chair and say DAMMIT YOU HAVE A FANTASTIC VOICE and IGNORE ALL THOSE ASSHATS and then... then you got to your reader's email and you wept and kept writing. And all I could think was, yes, yes, yes, yes.

    I have a very different background -- I am a middle-aged white woman from bumpkin country who used to see you on LJ, and I love your voice and the way you view the world and the way you express yourself. And oddly enough, I can relate -- I too feel like I don't fit in and don't have a voice anyone might want to read, though for different reasons.

    I've missed your voice, missed your writing. You most definitely are a Real Writer (f*k those other definitions) and you a Good Writer as well. Keep writing, Owl. Please keep writing. And dump the Dead White Guys' definition of Fine Literature. Hell, even Hemingway would say that's crap. *grin*