Friday, December 18, 2009

Old Age

I know I’m getting old. The other day I dropped a dirty tissue not into the toilet but the clothes hamper and my boxer not into the hamper but the toilet.

I could no longer retain ideas by just the power of my brain and had to jot them down as part of my to-do list for my writing. I forgot names of some of the authors I meant to read. Sometimes I went to a bookstore and just as I hit the shelves the names were just blanks.

I thought how awful it was to be in old age.  At this pace, I knew I could be any of these people you’re about to read  here.

You get old, first you forget names, then you forget faces, then you forget to zip your fly, then you forget to unzip your fly. –Branch Rickey

Three sisters, ages 92, 94 and 96, live in a house together. One night the 96-year-old draws a bath. She puts her foot in and pauses. She yells  to the other sisters, 'Was I getting in or out of the bath?'             
The 94-year-old yells back, 'I don't know I'll come up and see.' She starts up the stairs and pauses, 'Was I going up the stairs or down?'    

 The 92-year-old is sitting at the kitchen table having tea, listening to her sisters. She shakes her head and says, 'I sure hope I never get that forgetful, knock on wood.' She then yells, 'I'll come up and help both of you as soon as I see who's at the door.'

[Image from]

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Scenes

What makes a novel interesting?

It’s the scenes. Each scene must have drama. Or it must set up drama. But more importantly, you have to be excited about the scenes you write. If you don’t feel excited about them, do you expect your readers to get excited when they read them?

Scenes that don’t have much drama are filled with trivialities, tepid dialogue, which neither show much about characterization nor advance the plot. Consequently, they don’t sustain the story line. What is the most frequently cited reason by agents and editors for their rejection of a manuscript? The pace or intensity flags in several places. In other words, the novel fails to hold interest.

Whenever you start struggling with a scene, it’s a good indicator of a potential problem. The next thing you do is try to get through such a scene. Then, unavoidably it will be there like a blank sheet in your manuscript. Many novelists tend to write certain scenes for the sake of keeping the novel alive rather than giving the novel the vitality that sparks it. They hope readers would read everything they wrote. Many novelists spend so much time and efforts in researching the materials for their novels, and consequently they fall victim to these materials. When too much of researched information appears in a novel, it’s non-fiction taking over fiction. The novel bogs down. The readers start skipping pages. A skilled novelist, on the other hand, uses his researched materials discriminatingly. He only uses tidbits of such information in places where they belong. He uses them where they can enhance his characterization, the pacing of his story line, the mood of his chosen scenes.

Next time when you don’t feel like getting up in the morning to face a lukewarm scene, ask yourself: does it really belong?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


You finished a chapter.

Now go back and fine-tune it — add, delete — what needs to go in, be taken out. Repair the characters. Do it when your mind is still fresh with the scenes and the characters of that chapter. However, you must be unbiased (which is hard toward what you’ve just written), detached (which is harder from what you’ve just built), so you can see your own creative flaws.

Or it will be hellish after the novel has been written to go back to fix the flaws either on your own courage, or at an editor’s request.

On characterization
Unlike an actor who plays just his role, an author plays all his characters’ roles, like a man who plays chess against himself.

You can imagine characters. Yet until you write them out, you haven’t known them. Put them in motion. Let them interact with one another. Let them live in some environment. It’s then that you begin to explore your characters’ depths. If you ask me what’s the hardest part in writing a novel, I’ll tell you: characterization. That’s what separates a literary novel from a potboiler. Characters shape a story line, not the other way around. You can’t think up a plot and shoehorn your characters into it. If you do, you are writing a potboiler. In fact, well-developed characters create a more convincing story line, even shaping it or altering it against your original vision. Think about that!

On Hard Scenes
Writing is just like any normal part of our daily life. It ebbs and flows. The worst thing to a writer isn't writer's block but illness, prolonged, unbearable illness that can really affect his writing. Other than that, as Hemingway once said, there will be days when you have to drill rock and then blast it out with charges. When that happens, just take a break, do something else and let your battery be recharged.

There are no hard scenes to write. Really. Those so-called difficult scenes are what writers make them out to be with their paranoia. So before they can write such scenes, their anxiety has already killed their creativity to write them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Write What You Know

You can write 50K words a month like the NaNoWriMo challenge. Even 100K words in two weeks. Then you’re qualified as a hack writer. Potboiler writers write faster than they breathe. John Grisham finishes each of his thriller in six months. However, literary fiction writers average 2-3 years a novel. Pace of a tortoise.

As an Asian, I can identify with a protagonist who’s brown-eyed, yellow-skinned. I read A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler, one that won him the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for literary fiction. In this short-story collection, his protagonist in every story is a Vietnamese, and Robert is white. Well, despite lavish praises from his critics, I could never feel ‘the voice’ in each of his stories, presumably from an Asian.

It takes an extraordinary skill for a writer to write in a voice other than his own, considering his race, his ethnic background, his years spent in the said environment that serves as the locale of his novel.

Writers like Chang-rae Lee, Ha Jin write strictly from their upbringing background through their protagonists. So the Korean voice, the Chinese voice from their works ring true. I take my hat to Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha) who put himself (a white male) in the place of a Japanese female as a geisha and, kudos to him, succeeded where many others have failed. But it took him 12 years to write such a novel, having gone through three major rewrites to change the POV, third to first.

And don’t ask Arthur Golden to knock off 50K words in a month!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Book Acknowledgments

 “Thanks to Robert Gottlieb for the encouraging drinks and for keeping me from the razors that night at Plimpton’s.”

“. . . the nearly all-red room on Koitobos Road, the back garden on Eleventh Street, the low table in Dar-es-Salaam . . .”

If this isn’t enough to make you squirm with their private idiosyncrasy, try reading the acknowledgments by authors who thank the shack they once happened to write a chapter of their book in; they thank their hairdresser for making their life whole, which helps restore their self-esteem; they thank their editor for being a genius (God knows why); they thank somebody who’d given them the moral support during their writing, because “Without you I am a quivering bowl of Jell–O.” And if they express their gratitude to their agents, it’s because their agents’ names suggest clout and fame that they as author lack.

But every action in life has a counteraction. Not all authors write acknowledgments. Why? Ask Olin Shiver.

“Who should I thank?” he asked. “My so-called ‘colleagues,’ who laugh at me behind my back, all the while becoming famous on my work? My worthless graduate students, whose computer skills appear to be limited to downloading bitmaps off of netnews? My parents, who are still waiting for me to quit fooling around with computers, go to med school, and become a radiologist? My department chairman, a manager who gives one new insight into and sympathy for disgruntled postal workers? ”

Then something must have dawned on him.

“Oh, yes, the acknowledgments,” he said.I think not. I did it. I did it all, by myself.”

I think when my book is published, I’ll borrow a line from Dennis Loy Johnson for my acknowledgments: “But first I'd like to thank my heartthrob, Petunia, for having the wisdom to love me, my parents, for giving me birth and all the people who just exist in my world. Oh yes, and Binky Urban just for the hell of it.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Late Night People

I met a woman
during one of my book signings
She came to the table where I sat with
two stacks of hardcover copies
She picked up one copy and said,
What is it about?
I’m never good at summarizing my work
in a nutshell
for something that had taken me
two, three years to write
Well, I said, it’s on the jacket flap
where she could read what the copywriter
had done
as part of the cosmetic surgery
so the work looks more like a movie actress
than a whore
The woman nodded, but
didn’t read a word of it
where I hoped she might have caught
the advance praises
full of superlatives
that sometimes you thought they must’ve been
copied and pasted in
from another work
But she just wanted to talk
A soft-spoken woman
straw-yellow hair
no makeup
like she’d just got out of bed and
wandered into this place
full of books
like Alice in Wonderland
We talked about pets
and, in the name of God,
she owed at least a dozen cats
some of them neutered
for overpopulation purpose
and pet fish
whose names I forgot
expensive though
She said one of them cost a hundred dollars
And I learned that she worked part time
somewhere in a graphics shop
It was a quiet evening
with no more than three interested readers
who dropped by at my table
but none bought any copy
only she did
without any idea of what the book
was about
When I left she had gone to an in-store coffee shop
sitting on a high stool with a cup of coffee
reading a day-old newspaper
I had to run an errand that evening after
the book signing and when I was done
it was half past midnight
I was driving down a cross-street
two blocks from the bookstore where
earlier I had my book signing
Stopping at the intersection on a red light
I looked over at a donut shop
on a corner
well lit,  near empty
I saw the woman who bought a copy
of my book
sitting by herself
close to the glass
a Styrofoam cup of coffee
in front of her
She wasn’t reading anything
just sitting and staring ahead
I wondered
where my book was
For certain it wouldn’t have fit in her purse
unless she had returned it after I left
for a full refund.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Novelist at Work

My new novel has taken up most of my time now, and I’m called to duty.

Writing a novel, to me, is not only more time consuming than blogging, it also burns a lot more brain cells. Blogging is closer to writing a diary. You blog about your personal thoughts, feelings, experiences and observations of life. You can express them in any free form that serves you best; but once you’re done writing a post, that’s it. You are done. Not with writing a novel. You’ll never get done writing it till you write THE END. And that can be many, many moons away.

So here I am, a novelist at work, who enjoys each creative moment to the fullest, just for the sheer joy of writing. In fact, I never care much for what’s called ‘word count’ or ‘quota’ for each day’s writing progress. Many writers do that because they want to enforce a rule on themselves, which they call discipline. I for one believe in discipline only when it means a self-imposed measure to get the work done. So I’m true to that. I write every day. Yet I don’t care how much I can write. I ask myself, ‘Can you write a thousand words each day and make it your daily writing quota?” I say, yes. You can write a thousand or two thousand words a day, if you must. Only to see that you scrap two-thirds of them the next day when you reread them. No, you can’t force yourself to write when you’ve run out of juice. So, just write!

Another thing is I read a lot between writing. Reading while you’re at work on a novel recharges your battery every day. So I read voraciously while I work on a novel. This time around I will be blogging occasionally whenever my brain, between writing my novel, isn’t so depleted with ideas.

So, I’ll send up a smoke signal now and then—not a SOS, but more like a campfire smoke: Time for a campfire story.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Black Shoes

Dressed in a navy blue suit, a white shirt and a pale yellow tie, old George looked prim, immaculate. He reminded me of Ed McMahon without hair. I bet a dime that he could see himself if he looked down at his polished black shoes.

At the oak lectern at the end of a long hallway elegantly tiled in muted red, where mirror reflections of iris and carnation and gladiolus leaned out of tall vases in gilded walls, old George stood hunched, bespectacled, reading a reservation book. Five steps below was the dining hall, white with tablecloths, dotted with cherry-blossom pink napkins and bright with summer flowers in crystal urns. Flowers everywhere. Done inspecting each name for the evening reservations, old George folded his reading glasses, tucked them away in the top pocket of his jacket, where the tip of a pastel blue kerchief peeked out.

Around that time I would arrive for my evening shift.

Old George beckoned me with his forefinger to come closer to him. He dropped his gaze at my feet.

“Black shoes,” he said. “Tie and black shoes.”

I wore a tie. To keep my job. “No tie, no job,” he told me on my first day as I reported to work in this New York City restaurant’s cocktail bar. He said nothing then about black shoes.

“Okay, George,” I said.

“Okay, then,” he said.

He grinned. Unhumorous. His gaze trailed my footsteps. I felt it on the back of my neck as I skipped the stair steps three at a time up to the dressing room.

The following evening and the next, I came in when the bar was already packed with a Happy Hour crowd. Facing the opened windows for a rare summer breeze, big Lynn was swaying over the piano. You could hear the sound of the piano from across Third Avenue. Down in the dining hall, alone in a corner and away from the waiters who were folding napkins and cleaning wine glasses, old George was eating before the dining hall opened. He sat, head bent, a pink napkin tucked over his tie. You could see his shiny pate where the last glimmer of sun fell. During the evening, I slunk in and out of the bar to get supplies. I kept myself out of old George’s sight. Sometimes from nowhere the owner would walk into the bar and stand next to me, watching the boisterous crowd, enjoying himself in a piano melody. We talked. The Italian owner was a medical doctor who quit his profession for restaurant business. This upscale restaurant had a sister restaurant several blocks down Third Avenue. That one was painted all yellow like a ripe banana. Young people frequented it. But this restaurant where I worked cost a fortune for a family dinner. Across the hall from the bar and five steps up was a private dinette for special occasions. When you enter it, you’d see your reflection everywhere in wall-length mirrors. I found out that was the owner’s favorite spot where he’d sit in the dim lights observing everyone below, old George included. Then he must have seen and heard old George chastise me on the attire etiquette. But since we met, he’d never bothered with my attire, never glanced down at my brown Hush Puppies. Occasionally he’d entertain his guests in the dinette where voices were mere murmurs and the air smelled of fragrant candles. He must be a part of the Mafia family, I thought. Once in the bar he asked me a question. The music and people’s voices were so loud he leaned his head against mine and spoke into my ear. He smelled like a woman with perfumed earlobes. Usually in the late afternoon he’d come down from his upstairs office and sit in the dinette by himself and, if I came out of the bar suddenly, I could see him avert his gaze in the wall mirror, like a spy who got caught. Sitting up there he was a little God, the wall mirrors his eyes, and I was one of the mortals he kept a watch on. He had soft hands. I felt them on my shoulders many times. Lingering fingers. Reluctantly leaving.

Old George left me alone after those moments. What didn’t leave me was his gaze. Every time I came to work he’d turn from the lectern and eye my feet. He must’ve hated those brown Hush Puppies by his forced grin and a feigned unconcern. But that didn’t last long.

One afternoon, after watching me in the bar for a while, old George came in, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t you have any money to buy yourself a new pair of black shoes?”

His words dripped into my ears soft and loving. Preacher George said, “Dr. Mancini told me you’re saving money to go back to college. So, here.” He took out his wallet, lifted a 20-dollar bill and put it in my jacket’s pocket. Then he patted me on the back. “I want to see you wear black shoes tomorrow.”

I got home late. Tired, I loosened my tie and hung it on the wall. First the tie, now the shoes. “No tie, no job,” old George had said on my first day. “How about bow ties?” I said casually. “Ties,” he said, barely moving his lips, “not bow ties.” I hated wearing ties. Now I had to. But when I was going back to school after the summer, I’d never need a tie again. Why should I bother learning how to make a tie? After I said that to my sister, kindly she made me a tie. Each day after work I simply loosened the tie just enough to work it off my neck and free it from my head. The following day I reversed the procedures before leaving home for work. I didn’t need a new pair of black shoes either—not when I returned to school.

The next morning, with old George’s bribery money, I went out and bought a can of black shoe polish. Back at my sister’s place I cleaned my Hush Puppies and then put on a good coat of polish. Then with a piece of clean cloth, I wiped off any excess of black polish and let the shoes dry.

That afternoon old George saw me coming in and immediately dropped his gaze at my feet. I greeted him as he smiled.

“It wasn’t hard to do what I asked,” he said. “Was it?”

“No,” I said, “not at all.”

A few days later I was caught in a heavy rain on my way to work. I ducked in under a shop’s overhang. The rain didn’t let up. You’re gonna be late. I grabbed a newspaper from a sidewalk trash bin and covered my head and hurried up the street. I got to the restaurant wet from my legs down. I looked down, saw that all the black polish had been washed off my shoes.

Just before I disappeared through the door to the upstairs dressing room, old George called out to me, “Hey, you!”

I stopped, looked back.

From the lectern, he crooked his finger to beckon me to come nearer. Oh, if a crocodile could snap off his finger for that gesture!

“Yeah?” I said, hearing the wet sounds my shoes on the tiled floor.

“Are you going to change into black shoes when you come down?”

“Ah . . . I didn’t come from my place to work . . . And I was late. So I just came directly here.”

Old George nodded. And nodded. Like he finally understood my deep statement. Then he pushed his glasses back on his nose bridge, turned to his alter ego, the lectern, bent, and read the names in the reservation book like nothing had happened.

That night, after work, I stayed up, cleaned my shoes and then put on a thick coat of black polish. In the morning I applied a second coat and then waxed my shoes. The shoe polish hung in the air, in my nostrils. I scrubbed my stained fingers at the sink. The smell clung to my skin. Damn you, George.

But the shoe polish stayed on afterward, rain or shine. Old George still looked down at my feet occasionally. Was that the man’s habit or his eternal mistrust in human beings? Perhaps I was some kind of enigma that caused disturbances to his orderly world.

After that summer I returned to school. The following summer before going back to New York City I bought a pair of Oxford shoes in shiny black. I also bought two ties. The first day I came to work the owner greeted me with a big hug in the sunny hall. He smelled like lily of the valley. From the bar big Lynn was playing the piano and the same old lady cashier blew me a kiss.

“You look good,” the owner said. “Real good.”

“You too, Dr. Mancini,” I said.

“I’m glad you’re back. We’ve been so busy.”

“I’m glad being back. Looks like no one has ever left.”

“None. Especially if it’s a good place.”

“Let me go upstairs and say hi to the boys.”

“I want you to join my family for dinner tonight. Take a break around then.”

“My honor. Thank you, Dr. Mancini.”

I turned to the door that led to the stairs. Then I stopped and looked back at the owner.

“Where’s George?”

Dr. Mancini removed his glasses and nibbled its temple. “George isn’t here anymore.”


“He killed himself.”

“Killed . . . why?”

“I wish I knew.”

“How did he . . . well . . . oh well.”

I went up the stairs. An odor of sweat hung in the air like ammonia. Old George. Killed himself. That didn’t make any sense. Didn’t seem right. No, that did not seem right. I kept climbing up the stairs, the heels of my shoes clacking on the wooden steps. The black leather of my shoes shone under the ceiling lights.

Good old George. Oh good old George. How could that ever happen to him?

[What brought back memory for the writing of this post was a post I read in Kim Ayres’s blog. His post was more than about making a tie, something emotionally deeper.]

[Image from]

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Retinue of Demons

The pots of stew simmered
during hundreds of thousands of years,
Have brewed oceans of deep resentment
into hatred that’s hard to contain.
If you want to know the reason
for the disaster of weapons and troops,
Try listening at the door of a slaughterhouse
to the haunting midnight cries. [Shurangama Sutra, notation by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, p. 690]

As Venerable Master Hsuan Hua said, “Nowadays, slaughterhouses are usually located far away from populated areas, and so the sounds are not easy to hear.”

But besides killing living creatures, we human beings kill one another and the killing has reached the point where the killer won’t have to die to be killed in his next reincarnation, but someone alive will kill him in his present lifetime. The resentment deepens. Weapons and troops exist as the heralds of death. “If ten people do not kill,” Venerable Master Hsuan Hua said, “then there are ten spots of auspicious energy in the world. Those spots are devoid of negative influences and contain only positive ones.”

It started with a post in Kanani’s blog, a well-loved and much respected blogger among us. It’s about a young American soldier, 22, died recently in an ambush in Ganjgal, Afghanistan. She asked me if that post disturbed me with a bad memory, and I said yes. A bad memory from the Vietnam War. It’s reprinted here from my comment on her post.

The only haunting memory I have is about this woman who lived with our family since she was a child. We considered her a member of our family.

Her brother was a paratrooper of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), i.e., First Republic of South VN. One morning someone rang the doorbell. She answered the door in her usual merry manner. At the door was a soldier who wore a red beret and the familiar airborne unit's fatigues. I bet for a moment she thought it was her brother returning home on leave from the front.

The man was a friend of her just deceased brother. Killed in action. Body mangled by a mortar shell.

To date, I sometimes wonder why the government didn't send a telegram. Maybe they didn't know whom to contact, didn't know her whereabouts, though she was the dead man’s only blood relative.

But I remember the look on her face when she heard the news. Worse than reading a telegram.

[Image from]

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Light of The World

He went upstairs to Françoise’s old room. He turned on the desk lamp and sat down in the chair. On the wall above the desk was a Christmas card she drew. Yellowed along the edges, the card showed two snow figures wearing black top hats and holding hands at the foot of a hill, one taller than the other. Green pines dotted with white flakes covered the hillside. Children in bright colored scarves and mittens sledded down the hill. She colored the background pale blue, and the scene framed the greeting.

Très cher Parrain et Marraine
Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!

Other than the card, the walls were bare. The desk too was bare, except for a rectangular tin box on one corner. It could have been a box of chocolates stripped of its wrapping. He opened it. Inside were stamps of different shapes and sizes arranged neatly in layers. The stamps had come a long way and were all there, collected, safe—but she was not. He looked for one from Vietnam but found none. Then he looked up at the Christmas card, at her handwriting, neat and beautiful, just like her handwriting on the classroom blackboard. Such beautiful handwriting from a young person was surprising. Her writing hadn’t changed much since she wrote the card. What would it have looked like as she aged, as her hands grew tired and old?

The bed was cold when he slipped between the sheets. The pillowcase was cold, too, and smelled fresh. He thought of her lying alone in the coffin, scented with roses. Her brown hair was combed neatly, the part sharp. Her lips rouged, her cheeks lightly blushed. He had gazed as if from behind a one-way mirror into her absolute privacy that had no doors, no barriers, no self-consciousness. From here, no more turmoil. Only peace and eternity. He bent and kissed her forehead and found himself so shaken he had to leave the room and go outside. Perhaps they should have closed the coffin. Yet her serene expression followed him to the graveyard and now into her bed.

Dear God, chase these images away, he pled, and so he turned his mind to what was waiting for him when he returned. Her replacement for the class was a Vietnamese man in his late forties. On the day Jonathan went to give notice of his absence to attend her funeral, he saw that Françoise’s handwriting on the board had not been erased. Tôi mong gặp lại anh. I hope to see you again.

At the corner where he parked his car that day, the Chinese Tarot woman was at her usual spot and smiled at him.

“Where is your friend today?”

Jonathan hesitated. “She’s somewhere else.”

“Can I read for you today?”

Jonathan smiled, shook his head and walked to the car. He did not want to hear any more about visions. Still he felt sorry for the poor woman sitting on the windswept corner. Once, when Françoise had her fortune read on a windy afternoon, they stood between the wind and the cards so the cards wouldn’t blow away.

Now the bed was warm. The steam radiator clanged in the stillness. Rain tapped the window. Rain on the red earth in the cemetery. Would the wind blow away the flowers at the grave? He heard the wind and closed his eyes, tried not to think. She slept in this bed. Dearest Françoise. He turned on his side and pressed his cheek against the pillow. The fresh scent of linen lingered. What did you dream in this bed?

A while later the rain stopped. He got up, went to the window and sat looking out between the parted curtains. Raindrops veined the glass, clinging with a tenacious viscosity that defied wind. The street was dark. A single streetlamp cast a shining white glow in the night. As he looked at the solitary light he thought of a children’s story about the boy who lived in a house on a hilltop. One snowy night his mother became very sick, so his father had to go to town to fetch a doctor. Outside snow fell so thick it looked like white rain. The boy lit a lamp and left it at the window where he knelt and prayed. Have faith in angels and they will come to your aid. That was what the storybook said to do when a child needed help. His father returned through the storm, bringing with him the town doctor. The doctor gave the mother injections and said she was out of danger. Then he came to the boy and patted his head and thanked him. He said the road was impassable. They had to leave the car and walk. The blinding snow caused them to drift in the dark until they saw the light on the hill. Without the light, they wouldn’t have come in time to save his mother.

In the blue light of darkness, Jonathan made out the picket fence and inside the fence a white rose poised on its tall curving stem like a sleeping crane. He thought of angels and faith, and though he hadn’t said a prayer at her grave, he believed in the faith she spoke of. He thought about the angelic being who came to comfort her in unbearable moments. He looked at the white street light—a warm, bright light, steady and reassuring—until his eyes tired. He called to her in his heart and closed his eyes, holding that light in them.

[Image from]

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Old Me

[Excerpt from FLESH, forthcoming novel, 2011, Black Heron Press]

In my twilight years, my possessions are sparse.
Among a few things I keep, there are two items that have been with me for who knows how long. You see, like most Annamese I don’t keep track of my age. In fact, a French priest I knew once remarked to me that most members of my race did not even know their own birthdays. Like being born into this world was enough a burden, he said. But they are old, these articles, at least sixty years or so since I had them at sixteen.
One of them is a pocket watch. You open its cover and on the inside there’s a woman’s black-and-white picture. She has been dead for many years now, but it still stirs me to gaze at her. She looks fifteen or sixteen—I’m not good at guessing a person’s age—and her black hair, parted sharply in the middle, coils in a long braid over her shoulder. I say my father was a lucky man, and I’m his fortunate son who has survived everyone in the family, including my angelic little brother. This watch belonged to a man who betrayed my father so he could step into the woman’s life—my mother. They were part of a gang of outlaws led by my father. All of them were beheaded except the traitor, who was rewarded handsomely and disappeared thereafter.

The other article is a human skull. It sits on my window ledge looking out from its empty eye sockets at birds, trees. Sometimes moths get into the eye cavities and flutter around until they give out and die. But there it sits on my window ledge, aged in ivory yellow—the traitor’s skull—and I bear him no more hatred. I polish him now and then, for I know his occult neatness. He used to arrange his slippers outside his sleeping chamber, so precisely even you could draw two parallel lines on either side of them. Only then could he sleep. His loveless, enigmatic life happened to cross mine. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Elephant Girl

A half-Japanese woman returns to Tokyo after a twenty-year absence to face ghosts from her past, and meets odd characters who end up changing her life.

[My friend and novelist Aki Gibbons has a hidden treasure in this novel. She captivated me with the first 35 pages of her novel's first draft two months ago while it was a work in progress. Now she's taking her finished manuscript to Tokyo to baptize it. Like Hemingway said, sometimes in another place, another country you write better about a place you know very well of.]

[Image from]

Monday, September 21, 2009


How deep is your passion for writing?

How strong?

“. . . when I’m not writing I’m prone to developing certain nervous tics, and hypochondria,” William Styron said of his therapeutic writing. But, to him, writing itself as an act isn’t fun. Asked if he enjoyed writing, he said, “I certainly don’t. I get a fine, warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it, writing is hell.”

Certainly, to each his own. Is the process of writing pleasurable? Ernest Hemingway said, “Very.” And is writing a pleasure or hell to Gabriel García Márquez? To that, the Columbian novelist said writing was a jubilant act when he was young, writing almost irresponsibly, knocking off 10 pages a day for a novel. Then when he became older writing was painful, simply because his sense of responsibility increased. “Now,” he said, “I'm lucky if I write a good paragraph in a whole day.” William Faulkner said the same thing. “At first, no, I enjoyed it,” he said of the pleasure the act of writing brings. “Now I hate to sit down to write. I dislike it so much that I don’t even write letters.”

However, your passion for writing, especially during your creative period, goes through ebb and flow. Each time you sit down (or stand up like Hemingway) to write, you must fight all sorts of demons that try to lure you away from your writing. They come out during your solitary moments and break your concentration with temptations. You find yourself daydream, and hours pass before you suddenly wake up to a still empty sheet of paper. Here’s the demon that keeps Styron distracted:

“I spend about five hours at it, of which very little is spent actually writing. I try to get a feeling of what’s going on in the story before I put it down on paper, but actually most of this breaking-in period is one long, fantastic daydream, in which I think about anything but the work at hand.”

Demons of booze and cigarettes, of late night drinking bouts and bad hangovers the morning after.

But good writers guard themselves against such temptations. It’s called discipline—the guardian angel of writing passion. Without it, the passion atrophies. Though known as a heavy drinker, Hemingway was always sober at work. There was a three-story tower at a corner of his house and in the top tower was a writing room where he worked. Unless when the passion of writing urged him to climb the long stairs to that room, he preferred to write in his bedroom. Someone once asked if it was true that he wrote each morning with a pitcher of martinis by his side. “Jesus Christ!” Hemingway said. “Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked?”

To write you must keep yourself focused. You might turn your room into a smoke cave like Gabriel García Márquez, smoking 40 cigarettes a day while writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, eventually a literary classic. Those cigarettes kept him focused, didn’t they? To keep the demons away, what did Hemingway do? Sharpening 20 pencils to keep his mind focused? “I don’t think,” he said, “I ever owned twenty pencils at one time. Wearing down seven number-two pencils is a good day’s work.” Well, perhaps he did sharpen seven of them.

So you have a passion for writing. It is a volcano waiting to erupt. But when it emits only gases, you’re stuck. “It's the most distressing thing I know next to claustrophobia,” Márquez said. What’s the hardest part in writing then? Putting down words on a blank sheet of paper. Then he found help by heeding Hemingway’s advice on when to break off work, “The best way is to always stop when you are going good. If you do that you’ll never be stuck.”

Some were born with an innate knowledge of themselves being a writer. When asked “Can you recall an exact moment when you decided to become a writer?” Hemingway said, “No, I always wanted to be a writer.” Yet Márquez wasn’t so sure of himself when he was young. Then one day he read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis’s opening sentence, “As Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” He said to himself, “Holy shit! This isn’t right! . . . Nobody had told me this could be done! . . . Because it really can be done!     . . . So then I can! . . . Holy shit! . . . That’s how my grandmother told stories . . . The wildest things, in the most natural way.” What happened in the next 15 years was a concept of magical realism brewing in him until his passion for writing ripened. But it was through the serendipity of Kafka that Márquez discovered himself as a writer.

But to remain a writer, you must have persistence, discipline—both to keep alive in you the passion for writing.

*          *

The reason why I wrote this post was because of this unbelievable feeling I had after reading a recent story in The Washington Post. This featured story is about Danny Smith, the special teams coach for the Washington Redskins. It’s about Smith’s passion for football. As a writer, I thought if I could have an ounce of his passion, I’d never ride into the sunset.

As a sidebar, here’s the moment when Smith, then young and passionate, was applying for a job as an assistant defensive coach at his alma mater, Central Catholic High in Pittsburg.

Rich Erdelyi, the longtime offensive coordinator at Carnegie Mellon University, was the Central Catholic head coach at the time and invited Smith to his home one night to interview. Erdelyi asked Smith what he knew about a Cover 3 defense, and an excited Smith popped up and began rearranging the living-room furniture to illustrate football strategy.

“I told him, ‘Coach, it’s like this right here, that’s a wideout here, we’re gonna line up seven yards off, one yard out, this kind of stance, shuffle this way,’” Smith said. “I was moving all kinds of stuff around the house and I just kept going and going and going.”

At around midnight, as Smith briefly paused to catch his breath, Erdelyi jumped in. “He told me, ‘Look, I got school tomorrow. If I give you the job, will you get the hell out of my house?’” said Smith. “I said to him, ‘Coach, I’m only here to get the job. Tell me I got it and I’m out the door.’” [Source: The Washington Post, September 7, 2009, Redskins’ Smith Has Made Himself Heard]

[Image from]

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What If?

What if the Obama healthcare reform is enacted? The doctors ponder.  The  hard-pressed families wonder. The unemployed folks brood over.
Since December 2007 when recession was declared, more than 15 million people have lost their jobs. Many since then have changed careers, many taken huge pay cuts out of necessity. Many live in fear because they can no longer afford the costs of healthcare for their families.
Jobless, hopeless.
Men who used to be breadwinners have lost  three out of every four jobs cut anywhere. Women have become breadwinners while men are unemployed.
Now when you apply for a job, you face tremendous odds. Only few openings and a horde of applicants many of whom are more qualified than you. You used to make $100K a year. Now you make $50K and feel thankful for having a job just to make ends meet and, most important, restore your self-esteem.
If you don’t have a job, you’re joining 17 million people who are either unemployed like you, or have no healthcare coverage through their jobs, or are early retirees.
So everyone asks “What if?” What if the proposed reform becomes a done deal?
The reform will reportedly provide subsidy for those who cannot afford hospitalization; however, they still must buy insurance coverage. For those who buy their own insurance, in spite of the promised subsidy that will have them pay a premium of no higher than 9 percent of their income, they still must pay co-payments, deductibles. Swell. What about those who have had a history of preexisting medical conditions? These people face higher premiums and full deductibles.  Insurers sometimes reject them. Can the reform protect them? Can the government restrain the insurers from jacking up prices? If not, many of us better hope that we would live till 65 and embrace Medicare. Or work till we drop dead.
Well, doctors don’t like the proposed healthcare reform partly because they will be banned from owning stock in healthcare companies. Also, the reform will aim to stop the doctors’ overtreatment of patients, which accounts for 20 to 30 cents of every healthcare dollar.

Yet, despite several provisions deemed good in the proposed healthcare reform, many of us keep asking ‘What if?’ What if any of the following provisions become true (source:
  • A government committee will decide what treatments and benefits you get (and, unlike an insurer, there will be no appeals process).
  • The “Health Choices Commissioner” will decide health benefits for you. You will have no choice.
  • All non-US citizens, illegal or not, will be provided with free healthcare services.
  • The federal government will have direct, real-time access to all individual bank accounts for electronic funds transfer.
  • Taxpayers will subsidize all union retiree and community organizer health plans (example: SEIU, UAW and ACORN).
  • No company can sue the government for price-fixing. No “judicial review” is permitted against the government monopoly. Put simply, private insurers will be crushed.
  • The American Medical Association sold doctors out: the government will set wages.
Another ‘What if’:  Will the reform support the thrifty walk-in medical clinics? These are run by CVS, Wal-Mart, usually within a 10-minute drive from where you live. You don’t need appointments; you can walk in on weekends or evenings, and waiting time is short. You pay 30 to 40 percent lower in fees than at the doctors’ offices and 80 percent lower than at the emergency departments. So if the reform is to deliver improving value in healthcare, will these walk-in clinics fit the bill?
When is the healthcare reform to be voted on? In about a month.
Surely it will be the most ambitious healthcare reform in this century, if passed. Yet who has a handle on it? Not the doctors. Not us, the American citizens. Only the lobbyists, the special interest groups. Is it a disquieting fact to know that the most recent Gallup Poll showed that more, many more Americans still trust their doctors more than they trust the politicians?
All summer long, constituents have screamed and shouted at their congressmen, “Do you know why we aren’t  on board?”  Why? Because this impending reform will tamper with the holiest thing of our lives: our personal health. When it boils down to this, do you trust your politicians?
So, if we the Americans are kept in the dark in this healthcare reform crusade, we will keep asking ‘What if?’

Monday, September 14, 2009

Death Scenes

It happens. Somebody dies. Death can occur in the middle or the end of a novel. Someone’s death could spin the story around. It could be the protagonist’s death.

When death comes in the ending, devastation strikes the reader. Each writer writes his death scene with trepidation. How much should he write it without overwriting it?

Before FLESH (Black Heron Press, 2011), I wrote a novel whose ending witnesses the death of the main character. He is shot and dies in his lover’s arms.

He fell. The lights glared beyond. He got up, fell, and got up again. He saw lights wildly searching the darkness and heard voices descending on him.

She cradled him, weeping. He woke as if to a whitewashed memory and in that moment he knew all that he had lived through. He saw her eyes and her face as if he had never left her, as if nothing had happened or changed, like the smell of the earth.

“Jonathan! Speak to me, Jonathan!”

She turned him on his side so her warmth would keep him awake.

“Hold on, Jonathan. Just hold on.”

Red hot pain dimpled his back, so hot his breath seemed to flame. He felt her hands touching his back and saw they were red when she covered her mouth.

“Wrap him. Stop the bleeding,” someone said, hovering over him.

A monk. He knew the face, but the name didn’t come. Hands touching him. His body no longer seemed to belong to him. He felt an energy shrouding him and a deafening commotion without sound. He saw a young girl who smiled as she walked hand in hand with him through a valley yellow and red with autumn. He saw cranes sleeping in the lagoon at low tide, and among their mirrored white bodies he saw himself cloaked in white.

She pressed her cheek against his. “Jonathan.”

He closed his eyes; the scent of the earth came to him. He saw her eyes very close to his, then his head fell against her chest. The dimple of pain went away. [THE FLAME TREE]

Some death scenes are so memorable they never leave your memory as long as you read books. The first that comes to mind happens in the ending of A Farewell to Arms by Earnest Hemingway. Here is the scene that captures the moment after the death of the protagonist’s lover in a hospital. The doctor then offers to take him back to his hotel.

“Good night,” he said. “I cannot take you to your hotel?”

“No, thank you.”

“It was the only thing to do,” he said. “The operation proved—"

“I do not want to talk about it,” I said.

“I would like to take you to your hotel.”

“No, thank you.”

He went down the hall. I went to the door of the room.

“You can’t come in now,” one of the nurses said.

“Yes, I can,” I said.

“You can’t come in yet.”

“You get out,” I said. “The other one too.”

But after I got them to leave and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

To date, I have always thought that the best—very best —prose ever written in the English language is found in the opening and the ending of A Farewell to Arms. And if you are keen enough as a reader, you will notice its influence on Cormac McCarthy’s prose especially in his award-winning novel All The Pretty Horses.
That brings us to Cormac McCarthy whose hero in All The Pretty Horses meets his death in Cities of The Plain, last book of the trilogy. In this scene, John Grady Cole lies dying from a knife wound and his friend, Billy Parker, goes out to get Cole a glass of water. When he comes back, death has taken his friend away.

When he got to the packingcrate the candle was still burning and he took the glasses both in one hand and pushed back the sacking and crouched on his knees.

Here you go, bud, he said.

But he had already seen. He set the waterglasses slowly down. Bud, he said, Bud?

The boy lay with his face turned away from the light. His eyes were open. Billy called to him. As if he could not have gone far. Bud, he said, Bud? Aw goddamn. Bud?

Aint that pitiful, he said. Aint that the most goddamn pitiful thing? Aint it? Oh God. Bud. Oh goddamn.

When he had him gathered in his arms he rose and turned. Goddamn whores, he said. He was crying and his tears ran down his angry face and he called out to the broken day against them all and he called out to God to see what was before his eyes. Look at this, he called. Do you see? Do you see?

In his short story The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, William Saroyan portraits a young writer who dies from starvation. Through the protagonist’s eyes, the reader sees death.

Then swiftly, neatly, with the grace of the young man on the trapeze, he was gone from his body. For an eternal moment he was all things at once: the bird, the fish, the rodent, the reptile, and man. An ocean of print undulated endlessly and darkly before him. The city burned. The herded crowd rioted. The earth circled away, and knowing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect.

Death claims author Ian Frazier’s young brother in his non-fiction book Family. In his well concealed emotion, Frazier detaches himself from the scene as his beloved brother breathes his last breath.

We stood around the bed and told him we loved him, in raised voices, as if through the windows of a departing car. His breathing became so shallow that his chest barely moved; then it didn’t move at all; then all that was left was a muscle reflex moving in his yellowed neck; then that faded, too. The nurse came over and removed the oxygen mask and turned off the flow of oxygen from a switch on the wall. Darkness filled his open mouth.