When I started writing fiction I had neither a personal computer nor a cellphone, and that wasn’t yet considered “weird.” The world has changed and keeps on changing at head-spinning velocity. But one thing has been a constant: the importance of getting words down, owning them, treating them like living matter.
It’s been a winding journey with lots of detours.
In the long-ago year of 1994, I won a literary prize.
And soon after I became discouraged and quit writing for four years. During that time I did a stint in jail, got heartbroken and lost most of my money. The rooms I lived in became smaller and the city seemed to grow hands, which would wrap themselves around my neck.
I returned to writing because I had no other choice.
At the time I was a transplant living in San Diego. There happened to be a writing group that met twice a week not far from my apartment. The lady who ran it used the principles of Natalie Goldberg. Set a timer, receive a prompt, get your pen moving. I let my grudges go long enough to eke out words. I discovered I still had a hunger, possibly even a mania. That was “weird.”
Let me stop right there and take a detour to the burning of the Library of Alexandria, the crown jewel of the ancient world. Its succumbing to flames meant the loss of thousands of books and scrolls, irreplaceable Knowledge (yes, I do mean the big “K”). It is impossible to even guess the sheer volume of genius that got turned to powder. If it never happened might we now have the cure to cancer? Could we have landed on the moon 50, maybe 100 years earlier? Slavery abolished sooner? The power of the written word. It’s such that even in death, from out of oblivion, it can beguile.
Back to me. Eventually I went back to school. Grad school for creative writing. After I got out, a story of mine was nominated for a literary prize and a prominent agent from New York contacted me. Soon after, I became discouraged again and began to forget how to write.
How does this happen?
With the speed of a fire.
There is no road that goes absolutely straight. Pitfalls and the unexpected are guarantees. The fairy tale – itself an invention to deal with human folly – is that there are clear signposts and plainly seen adversaries. Kill the dragon, get the damsel, live happily ever after. Except sometimes the dragon comes as a friend, and the damsel’s beauty is just cover, and more often you’re your own worst enemy.
Permit me another detour. The fires this year in Sonoma were on a cataclysmic scale. In some areas it would be difficult to tell apart California embers from the aftermath of Hiroshima. What’s bizarre is that there is also a good kind of fire. Fires in nature, when appropriately scaled, make room for more sunlight and the growth of stronger trees. You burn away the undergrowth, where a lot of creepy things hang out.
As I forgot how to write I also forgot who I was. I couldn’t sleep; maybe because it was like going to bed with a stranger: myself. Everything was an irritant. Headaches were routine. A complete meltdown appeared to be just around the corner. Before the call from the agent, I’d already sunk low. My father had died only a few months earlier and I had lost my job. I wanted to disappear. When I finally put pen to paper again it felt like trying to make a fire using stones. Perhaps there are experts who can do this, not me.
What followed were a lot of grueling workshops. Then one day, I found myself at Green Windows. The AWA method it used felt like reacquainting with an old friend. I subsequently learned that Pat Schneider, who founded AWA, was the spiritual precursor to Natalie Goldberg. It seemed like a circle had closed. At Green Windows there is a particular energy when writing with the group – a synergy – that can’t be duplicated when ruminating alone and pushing your pen in a fearful way. You have to let go, be reckless, and you need to feel like that’s not only permitted, but radically encouraged. I’ve heard pieces written there that had more vitality than much of the “polished prose” I’ve come across. There would, of course, be more travails ahead, more testing of my faith. But what I’ve come to understand is this:
Everyone must take his own journey.
And face his own fire.
What remain, even in the ashes, are words.
So stay weird, stay weird.
These days I do professional critiquing and editing for other writers. You write a draft in a white-hot fever (ideally!) and then a cooler approach is taken to looking at craft elements: plot, action, themes, character, etc. I view my job as not about condemning weaknesses or changing a writer’s voice. It’s about bringing out the best in a writer. Sometimes a person can’t see her own potential, until she is shown what’s possible. There are no limits in this endeavor, just new and ever wider frames of reference. You can find my services here: https://www.fiverr.com/fiction_magic/critique-your-fiction-and-do-developmental-editing I’m happy to offer a discount to anyone who’s been to an AWA workshop.
Below is a short video I find great solace in. It features two poems by Charles Bukowski. The street-wise scribe had much to reveal about courage and inspiration.
And below the video is a bit of my writing done at Green Windows. It’s raw, unedited, and written as my pen managed to stay ahead of my inner critic. The only item I’ve added post-write is the title.
by Joseph Kim
Slivers of rotting dog meat covered the helmet, all the better to blend in with the carrion that infested the city ruins. Wild dogs, rats and roaches were now the chief rulers of a megalopolis that had once spanned over a hundred square miles. From horizon to horizon only twisted rebar, crumbling concrete and mangled steel could be seen.
But Cassandra had the helmet in her crosshairs. It had moved. Something or someone was under it, crouched behind the wreckage of the sixth floor of a former Stock Exchange building. In the building opposite, Cassandra held her rifle, trying not to blink and waiting to shoot between heartbeats.
It had to be him – whatever he’d become. He was the enemy now. Could never be trusted. He had flipped. His message had read:
Come to the city center.
In the center we will play.
Remember Chutes and Ladders?
It was the game they’d once played. A beaten-up board game retrieved by her on a scouting mission, to entertain him while he spent lonely hours down in the bunker surrounded by Women Folk, no other boys to play with. Boys were all raised separately. The idea was it tamed their natural aggressive tendencies by removing the “wolf pack” element. They played the game awkwardly at first, trying to understand the strange 20th century obsession, but in time they found joy in it, an escape. Such a simple world where the stakes were clean and innocent. Not life or death, like now where she was obligated to kill her own son.