Dreams

My dream is to look out my front porch and see something like this.

Today I want to write about something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently — what a career means to me. I feel super strange to say this, almost ashamed, like I’m betraying my parents, generations of feminists, and my own intellectual ability. Here is my confession: lately, I’ve been pondering if a career in the traditional sense is worth it to me. This is coming from someone who had the stereotypical Tiger Mother, was convinced that my job would mean everything to me, and did what I had to do to get accepted into Yale Law School. For many years, my ambition defined me. My self-worth was comprised of 4.0s, academic honors, and prestigious internships. When I arrived at Yale, I was such a stereotypical first-year that I look back and cringe at myself. I wanted to practice international human rights law and save the world, I wanted to clerk on the Supreme Court, I wanted to become a federal judge. Slowly, as I looked around and saw people who were further along those paths, I began to question why I wanted these things.

Someone once said in a TED talk, pretty sure it was Alain de Botton, that if two jobs are equal to you and you are having trouble deciding between them, you should choose the less prestigious option. Prestige is nothing but the opinions of other people, he says, and will not bring you happiness. When I look at things that way, the world suddenly makes a lot of sense. Yale Law School is full of people chasing prestige, because it is full of people who care very much what other people think about them. There is nothing wrong with that, and many of them will go on to do great things, but it’s just not me. While it would be a lie to say that I’ve never cared what other people think about me, I think that I simply care less than others, and I value my own happiness over prestige. Yes, it would feel great to be a world-renowned lawyer or judge. A part of me would enjoy being that, and I would probably be good at it. But at what expense? International law is a romantic concept, and you have to be passionate about international law itself to enjoy it. If you actually want to make a difference in people’s lives, being a diplomat or politician or even Peace Corps volunteer would be more effective. At one point in my life, I considered all of those options, but I know myself enough to know that I don’t want a career that will relocate me every few years or require working more than 40 hours a week.

I think millions of lawyers just collectively laughed at me. Fifty might be feasible, but 40? Forget it. And you know what? They’re probably right that I won’t find a job as an attorney working 40 hours a week and making reasonable money. The only one I know of is in Omaha, Nebraska, and I’m pretty hesitant to move my entire family there. That’s why I’m starting to accept and even embrace the possibility that I will never use my J.D. The only kind of legal job that I would want is to start my own practice, which I haven’t investigated enough to say for sure I could do it. So what could I do if I didn’t practice law? Apparently, lots of things! I just applied for a teaching position that would pay $100/hour, allow me to make my own hours, and has offices all around the world (including Ann Arbor!). I loved teaching in college, and if I get this job, it would be extremely hard to turn down. I could work part-time, take months off to travel the world, move back home to Ann Arbor, and still make a better living than I could as an attorney. And the best part? I would have enough time to write, take Juno to the dog park every day, train my horse, and create new recipes. Recently, I was looking for a horse to lease, and there are so many of them owned by people who don’t have enough time to ride them. I don’t want that to be me. What’s the point of owning an animal that costs more than $1000/month if you’re not going to ride it?

I have many dreams. I want to keep a hobby farm full of chicken and goats and rabbits. I’m not sure if I could stomach raising livestock for meat, but I like the idea of it — they can have great lives while alive and you can ensure they are treated humanely. I feel like that’s the most ethical thing I could do as a meat-eater and owner of an obligate carnivore who consumes two pounds of meat a day. (At this point, you might as well classify me as an obligate carnivore too, considering my dietary needs.) I want to have land, enough land for a farm and garden and stable. There is nothing more important to me than to give my animals the absolute best in their too-short captive lives. And, when the time comes, I want my kids to grow up next to nature, away from technology, letting their imaginations run wild. I want to teach them to ride, to ski, to track deer. I want their idea of a fun Sunday afternoon to be a competition to see who can lasso cattle on horseback. Basically, I want to raise a bunch of cowboys and cowgirls. Who also speak four languages and have lived in four different countries. Who are confident in their identity and intimately familiar with their Chinese, Taiwanese, and Jewish heritage.

I’ve never felt more at home than when I put on my cowboy hat.

My dreams are so, so much more important to me than a job. I want a job that will not only allow but support me to do all those things. I’m not picky about what the job actually entails, as long as it’s not doing evil and it challenges me and fulfills me. If that means I never use my J.D., so be it.

Teenagers

The stop sign says, "Stop telling me what to do."

Look carefully at the stop sign…that’s her slogan!

Being a parent is like having the hardest job in the world, with the most observant, demanding, and judgmental boss — your kid. Well, I should clarify…being the parent of a teenager. Sometimes, I feel like an actor on a stage and my every action, reaction, expression carries it with the implicit message: this is how you do things. The scariest part to me is not that your teenager might disagree with you, but that they might subconsciously internalize your message and carry it with them for a lifetime, withstanding even the most expensive therapy. Now that is frightening. Though less daunting, it’s not a walk in the park when they disagree with you, either. Every time Billy Bob says something, I’m always wondering what judgment underlies her comment. A few days ago, she mentioned that we eat out most nights. Immediately, I was like, “What? I cook three to four times a week. You’re delusional, child.” And then, as my mind raced, I thought, “Well, shit, maybe that’s not a lot. Is that not enough? Am I feeding her garbage?”

Teenagers resemble narcissists in a variety of ways, I’ve found. The obvious one is that they think the world revolves around them. The less obvious is that they are extremely good at drawing out your guilt. Their questions are the worst. Yesterday, after hauling my ass to and back from New Haven, cooking a four-course dinner, and clearing the table, I was on my way upstairs when Billy Bob stopped me. “Are you going to build the sofa table and bookshelf and set up the projector?” she asked. And, even though all I wanted was to retire to the study and play video games, I grabbed a hammer and headed for the basement. Yes, I felt guilty, but I didn’t do it just because I felt guilty about putting it off. I also did it because everything I do is an example to her. I did it because I have to teach her how to get things done around the house, even while working or studying full-time. I did it because setting up furniture while Billy Bob does her homework on our new couch is better family time than sitting in front of a computer screen.

The early stages of our basement project. It looks even better now!

The early stages of our basement project. It looks even better now!

Raising teenagers is a truly altruistic task. Everything you do for them is for their future benefit and for the benefit of those around them. I think it’s hilarious how teenagers think you give them chores or ask them to clean their rooms solely to antagonize them. Ha ha. It is way easier and less work for me to just clean Billy Bob’s room myself than to constantly nag her. But what happens when you clean up after your kid for 18 years? They turn into a lazy slob whose spouse divorces them for leaving dishes in the sink. What I worry about the most is making sure that Billy Bob grows up to be able to have intimate, healthy relationships with others. So many grown-ups, me included, struggle with that. And those problems stem from your relationship with your parents and their relationship with each other. Since Billy Bob joined us, I’ve felt the scrutiny on my relationship with Dan. From the simplest things like her asking why Dan drives most of the time (answer: I don’t like highways and the law school commute is enough driving for me) to more difficult things like figuring out what is the optimal amount of PDA, I’m always acutely aware that we are teaching her about romantic relationships with every interaction we have.

Recently, we’ve been watching Mad Men as a family. It’s not necessarily age-appropriate for a 14-year-old, but given that Billy Bob has already watched the whole thing and says it’s her favorite show, we wanted to take the opportunity to gauge what she thinks about the characters. She often asks me who my favorite characters are (so far: that kick-ass gay guy cut Peggy’s hair and Joan) Once, she asked if all men were bored of their wives. I chuckled at that one — I didn’t really think she believed that. We discuss themes like sex, marriage, family, and sexism, but only when it comes up naturally. Sometimes, I tell anecdotal stories from my past. I commented that Jane bothered me because she reminded me of my immature, pretentious 20-year-old self. Billy Bob asked if I slept with married men, and I laughed and said no. Thank God I never made that mistake, or else I’d have to lie to her now!

You might ask yourself why I signed up for this job, since I wasn’t the one who brought Billy Bob into this world. That’s an easy answer — parenting is hard, but it is honestly such a privilege. You get to shape and mold someone to be a happier, better person. You can make or break their future marriage. You can save or cost them years in therapy. Every time I look at the court order that grants me legal and physical custody of Billy Bob, I am struck with a sense of gravity. This is one of the most important things I will ever do. Plus, there’s the added perk of learning how to co-parent with Dan many years before we take on the ultimate taskmaster, the screaming newborn. How do I get out of that job?

I’m a Sister

My siblings are my world. When I first found out my stepmother at the time was pregnant, I was filled with a flurry of emotions. Having been my father’s only child for nine years, I didn’t know what a sibling would be like for our relationship. They told me that I would have to get rid of the family cat, since she might hurt the baby. I remember feeling sad and anxious. From the moment my brother was born, though, it was easy to love him. I adored him, I marveled at everything he did, he couldn’t possibly disappoint me. One of the proudest moments of my life is when he learned how to say jie jie, sister in Mandarin. When my sister followed a year later, I was apprehensive again. I was the only girl in the family…how would her birth change that? Things actually didn’t change much once she was born. While my brother was a goofy, outgoing toddler, she was just a blob. She was always crying, and she didn’t seem to like anyone very much. It took me much longer to bond with her than with my brother. Even as she grew older, she wasn’t fun the way my brother was. While my brother and I threw coconuts at the house, trying to dislodge the boomerang that was stuck 20 feet high, my sister was crying a dozen times a day. I didn’t really know my sister until we both grew up a bit.

Back when we all looked like dorks.

Back when we all looked like dorks. We’re 14, 4, and 5.

Let’s call my sister Billy Bob. That’s my nickname for her. She calls me Bear. Billy Bob is my best friend, and she has been for years, even though she’s only 14. We understand each other in a way that I’ve yet to find in anyone else. Somehow, despite growing up in completely different families, we have the same morals, values, likes and dislikes. We both enjoy painting, knitting, and mocking hipster trends despite secretly liking them. She is a lot like me when I was 14 — she has her own ideas about how she wants to live her life, and she doesn’t listen to anybody. In other ways, she is different. She is more stubborn than me, which I didn’t think was possible. She is so stubborn that peer pressure doesn’t seem to have any effect on her, which I find admirable. Billy Bob wears what she wants, eats what she wants, listens to what she wants. The only way to get her to do anything at all is to convince her that it’s what she wants for herself. I love that about her, her independence.

She is also different in that she’s a child. When I was 14, I had retired from a competitive individual skating career only to get into a competitive synchronized skating career. I had helped raise my siblings and served as my father’s therapist. What I wanted most was to grow up, so that nobody could tell me what to do ever again. Billy Bob, on the other hand, wants to be a kid for as long as society will let her. Just a few years ago, she was still crawling into my lap. She’s had a tough transition into puberty. She doesn’t know what to make of this world that places so much emphasis on a girl’s looks. Why do I have to cover up my shoulders in school? she says to me. There is nothing sexual about my shoulders. She is naïvely and genuinely unaware that she could become someone else’s sex object. At 14, I wanted to become someone else’s sex object. I wanted to be wanted, and I didn’t care who it was that did the wanting. It’s a miracle that I came out of my teenage years and early 20s relatively unscathed.

Happy about her Christmas present.

Happy about her Christmas present.

Since Billy Bob became a teenager, I’ve seen changes in her. Some of them have scared me. I’ve seen that innocence fall away from her, and I’ve seen anger replace some of her naïveté. I’ve seen her struggle with society’s expectations, and I want nothing more than to be a role model for her. To show her that you can be a woman who likes to be sexy for herself, and nobody else. Being a role model for my siblings is something that I’ve always taken very seriously. Until recently, though, there was only so much I could do. I flew down to Florida every Christmas, and I tried to bring Christmas with me. I flew to China every summer, and I tried to entertain my siblings while my dad was at work. As their parents went through a messy divorce, I tried to explain to them what was going on and to shield them from it. Through the years, though, I often questioned my role in their lives and whether I was making a difference. I loved that every time I asked my brother about his favorite memories, he always picked a time when I was there. I know that he did it unknowingly, because that boy is dead honest.

Last month, I had the chance to make more of a difference than I ever have before. And I took it. I fought for it with everything that I had. I’ve never wanted anything so badly. Next week, I have a court date. It’s just a formality, since both parents have already signed the consent forms. As of next Friday, I will be my sister’s legal guardian. As of today, I’m already a full-time mom to a teenager. In the past week, I’ve taken my “daughter” to the dentist, cooked a dozen pescatarian dinners, helped her with her math homework. I’m doing her summer reading for Honors English with her, so we can discuss the novels together. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. Last night, Billy Bob already had to remind me: “I’m not going to be here forever, you know?” I know. But four years is enough memories to last a lifetime.

Girls just want to have fun.

Girls just want to have fun.

When Mental Illness Is a Gift

Sometimes, it takes someone who's suffered to recognize beauty.

Happiness is fleeting, but maybe that’s okay.

People have asked why I write about my experience with BPD. My well-meaning mother has wondered aloud if, one day, an insurance company would deny me coverage or a potential Google-savvy employer would not hire me because my “illness” could be a liability. I highly doubt my job interviewers are taking the time to find my blog and read through my post history, but I acknowledge the possibility. Surely, when I applied for a U.S. Department of State security clearance years ago, they were quite thorough. Not exactly accurate though — they asked about my friend Knight from India because they saw on our website that my company was inspired by him. Struggling to keep a straight face, I explained to the officer that Knight was from Dali and I was no longer in contact with him. The officer asked about my history with alcohol, weed, and even men. I’m pretty sure he also asked about my mental health. I don’t recall how I answered him; maybe I lied. But I am sure that I don’t want to keep my mouth shut about mental illness out of fear that I might be denied a career opportunity at some point in the future. Before I am a professional, a soon-to-be lawyer, I am a writer. And before I am a writer, I am a human.

I absolutely loved Julie Holland’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. Too many self-described feminists and progressives are reluctant to admit that there are fundamental differences in the sexes. To ignore those differences is to neglect both the additional struggles that come with being a woman and the advantages of having what Holland calls an increased “emotionality”. Often, that emotionality is also the source of our struggles.

Women’s emotionality is a sign of health, not disease; it is a source of power.

She further describes the overmedication of women. Abilify, an antipsychotic, is the bestselling drug in the United States. One in four women takes a psychiatric medication. While some of these women benefit from their chemical regimen, for others it is wholly unnecessary. Holland believes that SSRIs are not necessarily the answer for many; they tend to dull positive emotions as well as negative ones. Users report feeling less in general — less empathy, creativity, sexuality. Her criticism of SSRIs hits home for me. A little over two years ago, I sat in my apartment with a bottle of Zoloft to my left and my laptop to my right. On my laptop was the very thing that was causing all of my stress. The unfinished manuscript of my first novel. I wanted desperately to have a magic pill that would make the crippling terror go away. The problem was that my novel was not only the source of my terror, it was also my purpose in life. If I took that pill, maybe I wouldn’t care if I failed anymore, but then what? If I had stopped caring, stopped berating and threatening myself daily, would I ever have written a novel?

My immediate response to Holland’s editorial was to think about mental health in that context. Those of us with “alternative” responses to emotion and stimuli are frequently considered diseased. What if mental illness was not thought of a sign of disease, but a source of power? After all, the most creative and talented people in human history have been eccentric at the very least; many were severely mentally ill. Did Vivien Leigh, Ernest Hemingway, and John Nash succeed in spite of their mental health or because of it? Could the very thing that provoked their negative emotions also have inspired their positive ones? Who gets to decide which emotions are positive and which are negative, anyway?

I am not ashamed to tell people I have BPD because it has been both the biggest struggle and the best gift of my life. On the bad days, I remind myself that sadness and loss are simply a part of the human spectrum of emotionality. Because I have such a capacity for grief, I am also able to feel the most wonderful bliss. Sometimes, I lie in bed and it’s as if I can feel every emotion I’ve ever felt in my entire life. Sometimes, I feel the weight of the world’s joy and pain on my shoulders. Sometimes, I think that my emotionality is the very thing that makes me who I am. And that, I believe, is the source of my power.

You Can Have It All

Bride at the Bean

Do you think she has it all?

Sometimes, I think that the proverbial American dream has fucked us all in the head. In every advertisement of well-dressed, attractive white people, the message is clear: if you buy our car/underwear/laundry detergent, you will be Happy. Not only Happy, but Successful. Every little girl grows up dreaming of Prince Charming, a Tiffany diamond, a destination wedding, and a white picket fence. Unless you’re me, in which case you grow up dreaming of Mr. Tortured Artistic Soul, a vintage ring, a backyard wedding, and a library full of books. In this country, every stage of life is defined for you. If you dare to step outside the box, you become the person everyone scorns, partially due to their hidden jealousy of you.

College is supposed to be the time of your life, but hey don’t forget to keep up your GPA and land a six-figure salary when you graduate. Boys, sleep with as many girls as you possibly can, or else you will regret it forever. Girls, have a little fun here and there, but don’t forget that if you don’t find a husband by the time you graduate, you never will. Everyone, develop an alcohol problem, because it won’t be socially acceptable in the future. Your 20s are all about moving to New York City, climbing the corporate ladder, and making babies. If you’re a woman and you wait until you’re 29 and 11 months to have your first child, wow you’re so progressive. Wait until you’re 30 and you’ll have people asking if you know the statistics for older mother complications. If you’re a man and you have a child at 29 11/12 years, you’ll have people giving you weird looks. What are you doing to yourselfDo you know how much you’re missing out? When will you go to Vegas and steal Mike Tyson’s tiger?!

The Hangover

Our school system operates on the assumption that each child has a stay-at-home parent mother. Daycare costs as most as an Ivy league education. Feminists are going to war with each other over whether or not a woman can chose to stay at home. It’s not a choice, say those who vehemently oppose choice feminism, if a woman quits her job out of necessity because her husband refuses to quit his. Lean in, say some. Lean out, say others. Women can have it all, say some. Women can’t have it all, say others. As the middle class continues to disappear, it seems that the only people who can have it all are the 1%.

This is what I have to say to you, and especially to my fellow second-semester seniors who are terrified to fall into the abyss of uncertainty that awaits them upon graduation:

You can have it all.

Not only that, but you do have it all. It All isn’t some intangible, distant reward that you will only receive if you do everything right. It All isn’t what your family and friends have defined for you. It All isn’t what society, religion, or evolutionary biology tells you is important. It All is whatever you make it out to be. It All is yours, and nobody can ever take it away from you. It All is right here, right now.

I know that because I have it all. I don’t mean that in a my-life-is-perfect-look-at-my-successes way. I’ve written three books, but have yet to publish anything. I was recently denied both a Fulbright and a Princeton in Asia scholarship. Every day, I’m reminded of how much of a struggle life can be. Sometimes, I think I should enter a therapist’s office and never come out. Sometimes, I think that nobody should experience the inconvenience of loving me. Every day, I fail myself and those I love. But I am not a failure. I fight so that tomorrow, and the day after that, I can say that I have it all. And I do. I have the luxury of sleeping 10 hours a night, I have a horse I can ride whenever I want, I have a roof over my head I don’t have to pay for. I have friends to eat with, skate with, laugh with. I am getting paid to do what I’d willingly do for free: teach languages. On Monday, I am interviewing for a position I never thought I’d have a chance at. I have a boyfriend who isn’t perfect, but is perfect for me.

I have this blog, and the support of my wonderful readers. I have so much, and I am thankful. I have it all; I couldn’t ask for anything more.

What is It All to you? Do you think you’ve found it?

À la prochaine,

R

Food and Body Image

Me and my beautiful friends, one of which is Jane.

Last night, I told Hans about my childhood best friend whose friendship I lost due to her eating disorder. It was the first time I’d spoken about her that way in a long time. Time had dulled the feelings of frustration, betrayal, and loss. The memories had faded — whether or not it was a subconscious decision to protect my prepubescent mind, I’m not sure. Though it was difficult to walk down that particular memory lane, I remembered things that were so deep in the cabinets of my mind, they might have been lost forever. I was thinking of one particular summer. It had to have been either early June or late August, because we were in school then. Logan Elementary had sent us to Camp Storer, a strange YMCA production that was equal parts religious cult and Civil Rights Movement reenactment theater troupe. One afternoon, Jane and I were assigned to separate activities, her to fishing and me to candle-making. As the sun was beginning to set, we left our respective groups and ran to meet each other at the top of the hill, as excited to share our forbidden moment with each other as any pair of star-crossed lovers.

She was and will always be my first love.

This morning, I saw this article by the talented writer (and fellow Wolverine!) Emily Pittinos. Though she spoke of her relationship with her body beautifully and poetically, I felt like something was missing. I wished that, instead of apologizing to her body for abusing it and neglecting it in ways to conform to societal standards, she would have explored those very standards and the motivations behind her actions. I wished that she would have explained how her relationship to her body had changed over time, how she had arrived at this celebratory moment in which she is thankful for all that she is. I wished that she had said more, because poor body image/eating disorders are not just a symptom of adolescent angst and such issues plague women of all ages and shapes.

Jane and Emily both got me thinking about my own history with food and body image. I can confidently say that I’ve never had an eating disorder and I’ve probably spent less time hating my body than the average girl. But I’ve definitely taken part in disordered eating and there are periods of my life marked by how shitty I felt about my body. Right now, I am thankful to be in a place where I do not think twice about anything that I eat and I only eat what makes me feel good. I have no idea how much I weigh, and I don’t give a fuck. For the most part, this has been my college experience, whether due to my metabolism hitting its sweet spot or the several miles of trekking around campus, I don’t know.

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing since I graduated high school — as recently as last summer, I went through a “fat phase”. I’d put on five to ten pounds, possibly a side effect of hormonal birth control. My clothes were all fitting a tad too tight and it infuriated me every time I sat down and the waistline dug into my stomach. When I visited my family in Florida, I looked at my dad and siblings and their stick-thin limbs, and I felt like my ass cheeks were orbiting moons. My 11-year-old sister, whose legs are half the size of mine, commented matter-of-factly that my thighs were fat. I don’t remember what I said back to her. I wanted to defend myself, to be a good role model to her, to prove to her that I was not overweight, but her words hurt me. The feeling that I was fat consumed me, followed me everywhere like a sticky tar that clung to my skin.

Proof that five pounds is arbitrary. Can you tell which is the “fat” one?

And then, suddenly, I wasn’t “fat” anymore. I’d started horseback riding regularly, running when I was really desperate, and working out. While the exercise was helping, what actually made me skinny was a combination of 1) going off birth control 2) breaking up with my ex and 3) being stressed as hell. For the first time in my life, I lost my appetite completely. I rummaged through my fridge, searching for food that didn’t repulse me so that I could put calories into my system. But the starvation made me nauseous, and so the cycle fed into itself. When I finally finished an entire sandwich, I was incredibly relieved. The process of regaining my appetite was not fast and easy. In the end, I learned an important lesson: to value my appetite, to be grateful every time I craved dessert, to be proud when I’d eaten until I was full. Though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy with the weight loss, I was so much more miserable during those “thin” months than the previous “fat” ones.

Sometimes, I wish I could go back and tell my 13-year-old self to eat a burger for lunch, instead of the cup of soup. I wish I could tell her that she didn’t have to fit into the size 2 jeans, that the 4s were just as good. I wish I could tell her that she was beautiful just the way she was, that everybody saw what she didn’t. But I know that it wouldn’t have made a difference, because being “thin” for her was a state of mind, not a physical trait. So instead, I pity her and empathize with her. Instead, I vow to work on my own body image. To never comment on or judge another woman’s body. To show my sister that “fat” is not the worst insult in the English vocabulary. If I have daughters, to ban the words “diet” and “calories” from the household.

What is your relationship with food and your body? How has media/societal ideals affected your view of yourself?

Ciao,

R

The Kind of Writer I Want to Be

Every artist has a niche. What’s mine?

There have been so many new followers lately, I feel bad for not having more time to post! I can’t believe we’re nearing 800 of you lovely folk. This might be a bit belated, but I welcome all of you and I hope you find something worth your time on this site. When I get a breather from my semester of brain death, I will take the time to check out your blogs as well. In the meantime, please introduce yourselves!

First of all, I have some news for y’all — like always, there’s good and bad. The bad news is that after a summer of waiting, it looks like my second novel is heading in the direction of my first: into the drawer for now. The good news is that I am beginning to feel okay (and even happy) about that, and I’ve started working on my third novel. Now that I’ve finally let go of my second novel (we’ll call it Naked), I can look at it objectively. It’s a good book and it was the best I could do then, but I’ve realized that it’s not the kind of book I want to write. So in the end, I’m kind of grateful that the publishers passed on Naked because now the door is open for me to write something better. That brings me to my current novel-in-progress (let’s call it Water). I started the first chapter weeks ago, motivated by a blogger friend’s story. But I wasn’t ready to dive headfirst into Water because I wasn’t sure I had the literary maturity to write that kind of story. It’s bigger than anything I’ve attempted before and I’m moving outside of my comfort zone, certainly, but as I make progress on the novel, I’m gaining confidence that this is possible. Moreover, I’m convinced that Water is the kind of book I want to write.

I’ve talked before on this blog about my own uncertainty as a writer. What kind of writer do I want to be? Do I want to be a literary writer, esteemed by critics, headed for Nobel/Pulitzer accolades? Do I want to entertain the masses, make tons of money, become the next J.K. Rowling? Somewhere in between? As a young and unpublished writer, it’s difficult to answer these questions. Often, authors’ first novels brand them as literary/commercial/young adult and so on and so forth. Usually, they are stuck within that genre and don’t really venture outside of it. For example, while Jodi Picoult is one of the most successful authors in her generation and her books cover a wide variety of topics, she is very much a brand. Each of her novels are structured in the same way and feature realistic, character-driven plots. I doubt she would try her hand at young adult or high fantasy. She’s found her niche, and if she’s happy with it, she should stick to it.

Jodi Picoult, courtesy of Blogs Courant.

But me? I would like the opportunity to explore many different genres. My most successful short story was written for a class assignment and it was science fiction/dystopian. In general, I prefer to write realistic adult fiction that has a multicultural aspect, but I sometimes have a lot of fun writing young adult or even new adult. With all this in mind, I’ve had trouble balancing the kind of novel I want to write with the kind of novel publishers/the market is looking for. In Naked, I thought I had found the perfect equilibrium, but something about it didn’t appeal to editors. With Water, my attitude is different. To hell with what the market wants; I’m going to write the book I want to write! Although Water is but a newborn at 6,000 or so words, I’m falling in love with it in a way I never did with Naked. I believe that by writing the way I want to, and not worrying about the potential audience, I will end up with a book that the world can fall in love with too.

Since I’ve been reading all kinds of manifestoes (Communist, surrealist, futurist, etc) for my classes, I’ve decided to write my own artistic manifesto. Voici the result:

Rebecca’s Artistic Manifesto

  1. I will write whatever the hell I want.
  2. I will not dumb myself down to please the masses.
  3. I will not insert big words I don’t even know to sound smarter than I am.
  4. I will tell stories that are rarely heard in the mainstream (i.e. children of immigrant parents/teen pregnancy/racial minorities/religious cults).
  5. I will use my fluency in six languages to add authentic multicultural dimension to novels.
  6. I will not write the parts of books that people usually skip over.
  7. I will prioritize the quality of my writing equally with the quality of my plot.
  8. I will write for people of all ages, but I will not censor myself for the young.
  9. I will write to teach people something about the human condition.
  10. I will focus on female protagonists and female relationships, because popular culture is already filled with men.
  11. I will embrace and not alienate male readership.
  12. I will bring attention to my roots — both in China/Taiwan and in Michigan.
  13. I will respect my readership and always take the time to interact with fans.
  14. I will push myself to my limits and try everything at least once.
  15. I will never stop writing.

That’s all for now. After all, I can always write a second manifesto whenever I want. For now, I’m going to work hard on my novel and enjoy the beautiful fall weather in Ann Arbor. Check out my new boots!

Rebecca's New Boots

As a reader, what kind of book do you look for? As a writer, what is your artistic manifesto like?

À la prochaine,

R

My Goals for the Summer

FlowersTo welcome the lovely new readers we’ve been getting, I decided to update y’all on my busy, busy summer. As many of you might remember, I previously complained that my life was over…twice. Of course, it wasn’t true and I got through my junior year just fine. Looking back, though, it was definitely one of the hardest years ever. I had to constantly struggle with the crushing possibility that I simply wasn’t good enough to become a writer. When I finally got The Call from my agent, it alleviated a lot of my self-doubt. Unfortunately, the subsequent rejection of my first novel by publishers didn’t help. I quickly shook off my disappointment and dove into book #2, which is currently with my agent and waiting to be submitted next week. Did you hear that, guys? Next week! I could be in negotiations for a book deal within days. Scary and exciting thought.

Anyway, I’m definitely not as busy as I was during the school year, but I have managed to take on quite a load this summer. I don’t know if I’ll manage to accomplish everything. I am, however, the type of person who likes to set goals, so I’m going to aim high. Looking back at my New Year’s Resolutions for this year (already halfway through, gasp!), I missed getting a 4.0 last semester by one A-. But I did keep up my relationship with my siblings, land an agent, blog weekly, and maintain my French. Hitting the gym weekly, though? Well…

Now, I’m going to list the goals I’ve set for this summer and you guys will have to keep me accountable!

Summer 2013 To-Do List

  1. Finish majority of Romance Languages thesis. For my honors thesis, I am doing a phonetic comparison of Spanish, French, and Catalan vowels. So far, I have been getting familiar with their vowel systems. I just finished designing the speaking task with which I will use to record subjects. After that, I will begin acoustic analysis. I would like to finish collecting all the data by fall. 
  2. Get a good start on International Studies thesis. For my other thesis, I plan to study the representation of women during the Chinese Cultural Revolution through the medium of art. This is a period of history that fascinates me, and I’m always drawn to gender studies. I will spend the summer doing preliminary research (i.e. reading tons of books). By the end of it, I hope to have a clearer grasp of my topic. 
  3. Polish and submit Fulbright Application. I am planning to take a year off from school after I graduate to do the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship program. I’m applying to Morocco because I wanted to do something different after France, continue to practice my French, and learn a new language. Morocco is perfect because its Islamic/North African culture is amazing, many Moroccans speak French, and the majority use Darija, or Moroccan Arabic.
  4. Teach myself Arabic. To make my Fulbright application more competitive and to gain some basic survival skills in preparation for Morocco, I’m teaching myself Arabic. This will certainly be no easy feat, but I have a hoard of textbooks on the way to help. Of course, I’m not expecting to become fluent in a matter of months. Ideally, I’d like to have first-year proficiency by the end of the summer. I’m super excited because I love learning new languages. Arabic will be my fifth foreign language.
  5. Prepare to take the LSAT. Oh trust me, this came as a shock to me too. I’d always loved law and wanted to go to law school in high school. Quickly though, I realized I didn’t want to work in a law firm or in criminal/civil law. In college, I mostly forgot about law. Then, I started considering it again because an international law degree could open many opportunities either in the foreign service, the UN, or the OECD. Now, I’m planning to apply to law school next year and attend as soon as I return from Morocco. 
  6. Get a book deal. Granted, this one isn’t really a to-do because there’s nothing I can do at this point. Except pray. A lot. 

Voilà

So if you run into me this summer, most likely I will look like this:

Angry RebeccaDon’t worry, though. I won’t be mad at you — I’ll just be working on my thesis in my head.

What are your plans for the summer? Are you someone who likes to makes goals?

Ciao,

R

Taking Responsibility As a Writer

My little brother reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a book about dudes written by a dude.

Recently, several things happened in my life that made me think more seriously about the purpose of writing. First, my wonderful blogger friend Dennis McHale and I got into a heated discussion about evil in this world. We concluded that there’s little we can do to stop the crisis in Syria or the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea. But, as writers, our job is to alleviate pain — even if it’s just one moment for one person out there. Then, a few nights ago, I explained to Phineas why my writing is so important to me and why I feel so much pressure. As a budding novelist, I am still trying to find my niche in the publishing world. I’m asking myself questions such as: do I want to write mainstream or literary? Young Adult or New Adult? Do I care more about entertaining readers or influencing them?

Finally, I came across this poignant article by Mary McMyne, “Kate and the Beanstalk: What We Read to Our Children”. It is written from the perspective of a mother who wonders about the books she reads to her two-year-old daughter. She writes:

Every book my daughter laid out on the living room floor that night a few weeks ago was a book I had chosen carefully for her, because I believe that the stories I read to her at this age will help to construct her understanding of the world, her taste, her foundation for a whole life of reading.

When I read the above sentence, I shouted, “Amen!”. You see, as someone with a bookworm past, I feel that I’ve learned more from books than teachers, friends, and even my parents. They taught me more about love, loss, and humanity than I could have learned from living a lifetime as Rebecca Cao. McMyne recognizes the power of literature, and that is why she is concerned that women have a lesser role than men in the publishing world.

Women are still seriously underrepresented in America’s most prestigious publications. Book reviewers are still mostly men, reading books by men, too.

She notes that the female protagonists are also underrepresented in children’s literature.

But how many parents think to read their sons books with female protagonists? Not traditional tales like Red Riding Hood or Rapunzel in which the title character is passive and/or disobedient, only to be miraculously rescued by a male hero at the end.

In conclusion, she argues that in order to change the antifeminist scene of the publishing industry, it has to start with the books we read to our children. If we read our daughters and sons books that portray empowered, fascinating female characters, they will grow up thinking of women as empowered and fascinating. Going along with that, I believe that the young adult novels preteens and teens read to themselves are just as important as children’s literature. Perhaps even New Adult and Adult can have a significant influence.

After these three events, I took a hard look at my own motivations and decided that I needed to take responsibility as a writer. To me, that means to stand up for myself and my writing even when the industry pushes me aside in favor of a man. That means to keep writing even when I am disillusioned from rejection or I doubt myself. That means to post about my personal life as a passionate, ambitious, and flawed woman, even if my posts only reach the few hundred who regularly read my blog. That means to write novels that feature strong-willed female leads who face many of the real-life struggles of women today. That means I wish to reach out to the greatest audience possible, while maintaining the integrity and depth of my writing. That means that I will be writing entertaining stories with plenty of romance, sex, and drugs (because that is reality), but that also feature deep and genuine characters.

Fortunately, my current novel is just that.

What is your responsibility as a writer? What is the purpose of your writing?

Ciao,

R