No, I am not in contention for a citizenship-related prize. But I got my surprise of the year earlier this week when I found out that Hypertext Magazine, who published my story “In the Bag” (and which I now realize I forgot to blog about), nominated it for the Best American Short Stories anthology. Here and below is Hypertext’s Instagram post where I found out about my nomination.
I’m not sure how I missed blogging about the original acceptance and publication of my story in Hypertext, which happened in April and this summer, respectively. It was my first earnest attempt at injecting magical realism into my fiction. I also projected a bunch of personal quirks and fears into it. The story had been rejected by the handful of other literary outlets I’d submitted it to, so I was elated when Hypertext picked it up. In other words, I didn’t expect the story to get this far!
It would be insane if it got placed in the BASS anthology, since a lot of writers with bigger reputations than mine have been published in it. I’m not going to get ahead of myself. Honestly, I’m dealing with a huge creative block and period of “life questioning” right now, so more important to just live and let live I think…
Okay, I really liked the title I chose for this blog post. However, I must caveat that my microfiction piece I’m celebrating the publication of references sexually suggestive behavior around a minor.
I know, after reading that sentence even I am wondering “yay or nay?” Well, I’m the writer of this blog post and the writer of the aforementioned piece, so I’ll let you know that it’s more of the former.
With the warning presented above, here it is, entitled “Like a Brother,” recently published by The Offing online literary magazine and shared on their Twitter. A screenshot preview of the link is right below.
On a writing mechanics level, I’m proud of this piece because I’d never tried the microfiction form before, and it demanded extreme compactness of plot and foreshadowing, characterization and voice, and of course, length. This is not to say that my piece is representative of the form; there are many others on The Offing site and other literary sites that can expand one’s understanding of the form. I read many of them before attempting my own. I’d submitted three to The Offing, one of them as short as a sentence, and this one was accepted. Incidentally, it was the longest one of the bunch.
On a topic level, you might still be wondering how I could be celebrating a piece with a heavy and discomfiting “reveal” at the end. This piece was inspired by true events in my life, though writing “trauma porn,” however fictionalized, was not my intention. I acknowledge that these events had an unmistakable influence on me, but they do not have traumatic effects on me.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I transfigured these events into art. I just made art using what I have.
For most of my childhood and ten years, I was a figure skater. More than that, I proudly called myself a “rink rat.” I’m not entirely sure where the moniker comes from, but to me, I took it as someone who spent an inordinate amount of time at the ice rink, so much so that they lived there…like a rat.
Really it was because besides training for my own skating goals, I also skated on something called a theater on ice team, taught lessons to toddlers up to adults, and worked in the rink’s pro shop. The latter two activities were more out of necessity, though I did enjoy the company of my students and most of the people I got to work with. I like to think that all the social interactions I had made it easy for me to strike up a conversation with most people I meet today. And maybe even helped tip the scales during my college interview.
I am skating consistently again now, only in the San Francisco area, a much different place to where I grew up. Everything has been harder: falling on the ice is much more daunting, getting to the rink is a greater logistical challenge, making progress on what I’m training is incredibly…incremental.
The other toughie? The loneliness.
Figure skating is largely a solitary endeavor. Yes, there are figure skating clubs you join to be able to test, compete, and participate in other official activities. Yes, you may strike up a conversation with skaters your age (in my case, adults) and begin to make friends. (The difficulty of making real friendships requires an entire other post that I don’t have in me right now, and others have explained it much more eloquently than I could.) And yes, you may pay a coach for a weekly private lesson. But the actual skating and practicing is done by yourself. Unless you pursue a paired or group discipline of skating, you are out there alone. There is no ball passing, no teammates encouraging, no apparatus or item to hold onto. Just you on top of thin metal blades.
As an adult my age, it feels indulgent sometimes to spend time and money on this activity. It is so completely and utterly for me and me only. Not only that, on my worst days, an imaginary, annoying Asian auntie voice in the back of my mind nags, “Why are you spending so much time in this icebox? You won’t meet your husband here!”
And then I fall, because losing concentration means losing track of what my body needs to be doing to execute a movement correctly. And then I’m butt-first on the ice, a little dazed and wondering if I’ll be able to walk the next day.
When I taught the littlest tots group classes, the first thing we taught the kids was how to fall down and get up, and off the ice to get the hang of it first. You don’t hesitate, get onto your hands and knees, steady into a squat, and gradually pull your body upright. The basic principle doesn’t change, no matter how advanced of a skater you become.
Lately, I’ve forgotten the other most important lesson: I will fall. I have to remember this applies elsewhere in my life, too.
I’ve recently been dumped you could say, despite mixed but overall encouraging signs, and I’ve been doing my best to pull myself back up quickly. For all intents and purposes, I’m up now, but the bruising has made me cautious, defensive, even indignant. These are not a good combo for future success, on the ice or in relationships.
I remind myself that I pursue skating for a reason. When the conditions are right, I experience a sense of euphoria I can’t get from anywhere else. But while the release is effortless, getting there requires time and intentional energy. It’s unavoidable. On my darker days, I wonder if I’ll ever get there. On most days, I know that the pain in the moment will not last.
What I need to know on and off the ice: I will not be down forever.
Is the title a little clickbait-y? No! Get your head out of the gutter.
Just kidding. It is definitely meant to pique interest. (And it clearly shows where my mind can go.)
OK, let me finally get to the point.
I AM SO EXCITED THAT MY FLASH FICTION PIECE “TONY” WAS PUBLISHED ON ASIAN AMERICAN WRITERS’ WORKSHOP TODAY! I AM NOT CHILL!
Alright, back to chilled out, mature sentences. (Inside, truly, I am still excited beyond measure.)
You see, writing is something I do for myself, but let’s not kid ourselves. Having other humans recognize something valuable in your writing and ask, “hey, could we share this with more people?” is some kind of magic, let me tell you. (Having it be shared on a reputable and righteous publication is a big freakin’ bonus.)
This story is near my heart because I pulled things from the depths of my heart to give it life and fullness. Things that I did not know could ever be transformed into an artistic form. People that I knew did not become Literature-ized often enough. (There is an amazing quote by Ocean Vuong on this idea in his interview with Seth Meyers here.) It honors my parents who raised me on blue-collar jobs deserving of respect like any other job, but often lacking it in reality. It was my way of saying thank you to them for showing me that caring and nurturing are superpowers. It reminds people to hold onto their imaginations and see the value in fostering the imaginations of others, instead of closing, closing, closing, which is easy, easy, easy.
Here, I give thanks to a Stanford Continuing Studies short story course I took taught by Matt Sumell and to his and my classmates’ sincere, helpful feedback, because while I brought the story to the class, they gave me the encouragement to improve it. And of course, thank you to the gracious and insightful editors at AAWW for getting it ready!! I am now, even more than before, truly of the belief that the shorter the form, the better the workout for a writer.
I could talk on and on, but I’ll let the piece speak for itself. I did my best to pack in a lot of punch.
At the end of all this, I just want to say (okay…admit) that this is actually my first ever “accepted for publication” story, and I hope I never lose the ability to feel this elated and fulfilled by words. Thank you for reading!
[Topics explored: bilingual; languages; Chinese; intentions; curiosity; benefit of the doubt; talking with strangers on airplanes; The Atlantic magazine]
Why has it been so long since I posted to this website that I pay SiteGround to host and claim my domain name? And that is coming up for renewal next month? And therefore causing me some anxiety about my low post rate? (Yes, this is also a bald attempt to draw attention to my referral link here. A girl’s gotta get that bag, er, a few free months of hosting rather.)
Alright, I should take a deep breath. Just write and create for me, right?
This is also what I said to myself on one of the legs of my flight returning from Palm Springs. (The second part came later…that is, now, as I write.) Why?
Towards the end of the flight, an old white man in the middle seat next to me asked me, apropos of nothing, if my magazine was (in) Chinese.
It wasn’t. I had open on my lap the latest issue of The Atlantic, an American magazine that is definitely in English. I forgot which article in it I was reading at that moment, but it was definitely in English because I can’t read more intellectual, “fancy” material in Chinese. I am sad about this for reasons upon reasons, but I acknowledge while I’m fully bicultural in my social mores, language-wise I am clearly stronger in English–writing, speaking, and in this case, reading.
Of course, a few ways I could’ve reacted:
a) flipped a sh*t and asked him, “what is wrong with you? Can you not clearly see that this is in English? You think because my face is Asian that I can’t read English?”
This didn’t happen even though I am prone to sh*t-flipping because my rational brain said “he looks to be on the older side and therefore maybe has vision difficulties I mean god knows without corrective lenses I am blind as a bat.”
b) tried to smile and calmly explained that no, my magazine is in fact in English because I am not as fluent a reader of Chinese as I’d like to be
Ding ding ding. Well, maybe I spoiled and hinted at it above.
c) said nothing
This didn’t happen because I am educated and was level-headed enough to speak up for myself. This is also because this wasn’t one of those high-stakes, high-danger encounters that keep showing up in the news. Exhibit A, B, C, D – plug to the NextShark team for reporting, always. #StopAsianHateCrimes #StopHatingAsians (I know there’s a more popular hashtag out there, but I have mixed feelings about the mixed signals it can send.)
So I’ve given you the answer as to what actually transpired: b. The man responded by saying something along the lines of oh, got it! He couldn’t tell because of his age and being without glasses.
Ahh. “Haha, no worries! I do wish I could read something this dense in Chinese, but I grew up here so.” Shrug.
OK! He didn’t mean anything by it other than being curious and seeing (the wrong) things. OK!
Let it go. I’m getting off the flight soon. We were silent the whole flight. He probably just wanted to start some conversation. Not everyone is like you, you who is perfectly fine with not speaking with people for an entire day because they TIRE YOU OUT.
I am proud of the way I responded: it was factual, unbothered, and ultimately ended the interaction in a way desirable to both of us.
More importantly, I operated under the principle of staying open, open-minded, open-hearted. It is more of what we need in the world today. That’s about as much of a statement regarding world affairs that I feel qualified making.
But there is definitely a niggling thought in the back of my mind that goes, “Why the f*ck do we have to always be calm? Why can’t we lash out every once in a while because god knows we deserve to? Why do we, or rather other people, give so much benefit of the doubt to those who doubt, mock, or prod at us?”
Cue searching for my stress relief squishy toys.
So: who is the “we?” Why didn’t I say “I?” Short answer: Asian. (For the more enlightened, they’d maybe tack on American, Canadian, etc. But you and I both know that people see and think “Asian” first.) Longer answer: because my face is my face, I’ve learned that people tend to–incorrectly–not see us as individuals. This grates at me. And yet, there is a strength to being “grouped” per se. It’s how people think of voting blocs and customer groups, e.g., “XYZ-Americans will be the deciding voters in this election,” “the spending habits of ABC consumers are changing how retailers think about [RETAIL CONCEPT HERE].” In summary, thank you for trying to understand any of this.
And this is why I am back on here again. I spent a lot of time recuperating from my trip and digesting this particular interaction, trying to make sense of it. Putting fingers to the keyboard, with the ultimate intention of sharing my thoughts out into the ether of the internet, has helped me because I’m forced to put a form to the swirl in my head. Maybe it’ll help someone else think through tangles, too.
Maybe someone will say: I get you. I see you. I want to hear you.
And that is why I paid for another year of being able to say to my friends, “Sometimes I share my thoughts at iamjwang.com. No pressure though.”
Forgive me for gloating, but I want to take a moment on this blog of mine to totally geek out and celebrate the team at Main Street Theater (MST) and myself for our work in staging the first “digital premiere” of The Book of Magdalene (promo video on YouTube here)! Today is the last date of the play’s digital run, and while it’s been a strange and difficult pandemic world for live entertainment to navigate, I am truly hopeful that more plays will be recorded going forward. Is it that I don’t believe live theater and events will ever return? Absolutely not. In fact, I am kicking myself for not going to more concerts pre-pandemic (but immensely thankful that Netflix has not one but two concert films of Ariana Grande’s). It’s because when I get to be part of a purposeful, meaningful, and hopeful new work, and also get to embody more diverse representation on stage, I want to share it with as many of my family and friends as possible. Although we filmed at MST in Houston, I had friends who could watch in San Francisco, London, Atlanta, and more. Many of them shared their impressions of the show with me, as well as messages that stuck with them, things that puzzled them, and general feelings of excitement and happiness for me. I am super gratified by all of these but especially the last part, because in those periods where I was stuck in traffic going to auditions and wondering if I should give up on my love for performing, I kept going with the encouragement of many of those same cheerleaders. This lead role was of course a win for me personally, but I also see it as a win for my support network and their love. I did not let them down.
Recognition from family and friends is number one, but it certainly got easier when the play was reviewed and covered in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Houston Press, and so many more esteemed outlets! For better or worse, recognition in one of these long-running outlets is an immense mark of legitimacy. I can confidently say for everyone at MST and myself that we were beyond thrilled! I’m grateful to all those who took the time to see and think critically about our show. I’ll share a few wonderful quotes below, followed by a few more behind-the-scenes photos…including my funny mug in the NY Times!!
“The dicey thing about putting theater online is how easy it is to, accidentally, make it seem like something else: a panel discussion on Zoom, maybe, or a not-great video. But Caridad Svich’s spare and immediate new drama, ‘The Book of Magdalene,’ feels every inch a play…even before a giant cicada puppet makes a fabulous cameo.”
“Symbolism-intensive and purposefully poetic in diction, “The Book of Magdalene” is not the sort of play to which I ordinarily warm, but its stageworthiness is self-evident, and Amelia Rico, the director, and Afsaneh Aayani, the set designer, have served Ms. Svich outstandingly well. Good cast, good costumes, and a giant insect puppet whose unexpected appearance (in both senses of the word) will startle you. Even if you don’t care for magical realism on or off stage, you should consider giving this one a shot.”
“[Len] is played by Jennifer Wang, whose beautifully luminescent performance is the anchor of this dreamy, poetic play…Delicately directed by Amelia Rico, the production features design that cleverly hints at the dystopian society without going full-out Mad Max. The sets by Afsaneh Aayani are spartan and effective and the costume design by Victoria Nicolette Gist is positively ingenious, featuring garments that are both familiar and odd. Both the lighting (by Grey Starbird) and the sound (by Janel Badrina) compliment the video format and provide nuance in the moodier scenes.”
“The austere set design, by Afsaneh Aayani, lends a proper touch of surrealism to Svitch’s verselike rhythms. (Both the Times and the Journal were rightly taken by a rather large cicada puppet’s scene-stealing walk-on.) Rico’s alternating between close-ups and wider shots, coupled with Grey Starbird’s haunting lighting design, help foreground Len’s inner turmoil.”
For the photo slideshow above, I of course had to highlight our amazing cicada puppet by Afsaneh Aayani!
I hope to have more happy updates for 2021, but even if there aren’t any more mentions in the papers, I am already super grateful for these memories to carry me through the rest of the year. Thank you!
In spite of all the complaining I could’ve done about 2020 and its ills, I chose to check myself. My family is well enough, all things considered, and that matters more than anything.
Anything beyond that I’ve considered a plus. And one huge plus I got to experience, coming to a screen near you, is The Book of Magdalene, a new play by Caridad Svich. It’s a new work that was written in the summer of 2020, so it’s literally of the times. Main Street Theater in Houston, Texas put up the “workshop digital” production of the show, and I had the honor of playing the lead role of Len. I was cast in December last year, and our show streams from February 11-21, 2021. I got to explore so many feelings in the performance, and all together, I deeply enjoyed the thought-provoking but ultimately hopeful show. Caretaking, providing solace (or is it?), feuding with friends, seeking answers to the big questions in life…a true treat.
A little behind-the-scenes tidbits from me: In accordance with the new reality we’re living in, our cast rehearsed over Zoom videoconference first. (Many a “you’re muted” utterance occurred.) We then filmed in a black-box style theater with a small but passionate group consisting of cast and crew, supported by a wonderful theater staff. (I am so grateful my costume was, let’s say, forgiving, given pandemic anxiety snacking.) We upheld stringent safety and health standards in response to the pandemic, and of course, there was no audience. While the communal experience of watching stage lights go up is not available to us in the near future, the benefit is that anyone around the world (with an internet connection stable enough for streaming video) can experience this new work. It excites me and also makes me nervous: will people enjoy the performance? Will they walk away with that tingly feeling that we seek from live events?
I have to remind myself that none of that is in my control. What I can do (or could, I should say, given we’ve finished filming) is trust my director and crew, and give my 100% when performing with my castmates. I like to think I did all that, and I look forward to hearing what friends, family, and audience members say! From the entire team behind The Book of Magdalene at Main Street Theater, we’d be grateful for your support of this show and the arts.
[Topics, not necessarily in order: the nature and meaning of “work”; pens; ballet; airplanes; writing; re-learning; figuring out what I really want; how to get what I really want]
As I’ve pivoted to working from home during this pandemic, I’ve been doing less of some things and more of others. In the latter group? Finishing pens. Or using up pens. Or running out of ink. I can call it many different ways, but for some reason, “finishing pens” has stuck as my favorite. Maybe because it’s the most efficient. I finished a writing course through Stanford University’s Continuing Studies department lately, and one of the students had shared a revision guide by a famous editor (think: Farrar Straus and Giroux level): the first tip was to “omit needless words.” Or, to go the opposite and maybe more subjective route, while “finishing words” is the shortest at just two words, “finishing” is linguistically appealing to me. I’m also no poet nor musician, but the amateur in me finds some melody to the phrase, too: the musical rhythm it might correspond to could be a triplet then quarter note. Ta-ta-ta, dun. (Yep, that’s the proper notation alright.) After all, writing can be done for different purposes, and sometimes, it’s just about what sounds nice to the writer, or what gives the desired effect.
All this to say, I’ve found a lot of satisfaction in finishing pens and the rediscovering of the tactile art of writing by hand again (omit needless words!) during this otherwise shite time. I wanted to honor that feeling by going on a journey with a sentence and then a paragraph, a good sentence and a good paragraph. To me, at least. Good in that I limited the amount of parenthetical interjections (my bad habit, oof!). Good in that damn, I was able to find some art or melody in my words; there is room for neither in the emails I write for work. Finally, good in that I was able to put some of the mess of my thoughts into an organized, comprehensible form for sharing. Though if I think about it, it’s only because I know I’ll be sharing them on the interwebz that I can even make them comprehensible. If you’ll notice, I haven’t posted in a while–despite having plenty of thoughts–because I went through yet another period of asking myself, “If a writer makes a blog post and there’s no one who reads it, did the words land?” Yes, that was my rendition of the question about a tree falling in a forest.
There is another thread here, which is that I’m going through the fits and starts of learning to work for things again.
This sounds hilarious, right? We’ve all been working this year: working from home, working in tough environments (which could be home), working to retain a shred of our sanity.
I mean in terms of working towards something I really want and that fulfills me, beyond the types of things attached to being able to keep one’s job, such as a promotion or at least a good performance rating. Something like strength, meaning, integrity, community. All those “fluffy” things that I re-realize every few years are difficult as hell to maintain. They change form, I change, climate change–you get it.
I think the analogy I’ll use here is an airplane. Specifically, the conditions required for one to fly. The explanation makes you marvel at science, math, physics, all that good stuff (though apparently there are still ongoing attempts to explain…?!). Basically, there are many forces and factors that have to align for a plane to be able to fly (and carry people and luggage and and and).
To continue the analogy, I’m at a point in my life where I’ve been able to “take off” and keep myself in flight for a short while post-college. But I am now hitting that point where I don’t know whether I want to land my plane and board another one, or keep flying in my current one. In this analogy of course, my fuel supply is limitless, a very bold assumption.
To make the choice, I have to do a lot of work. Some of it mental, some of it physical–if what counts as physical is typing a gajillion Google and YouTube searches for variations of “how to figure out what you want to do with life.” Little of it is easy. Little of it is glamorous or pleasant or Instagrammable.
And this specifically is where the work has re-begun for me. Not only working on finding my next “plane,” but learning to sit with the discomfort and enjoy the small, positive breakthroughs that occur as I’m working on that. (Like my small flash fiction win! Or getting signed to a new talent agency!)
Here we go with another analogy. I promise it’s the last one for this post.
One of my hobbies is ballet, an interest I began to cultivate after serious figure skating became too hard on my body, and I’m a total nerd about it. I watch it. I read about it. I listen to its (traditional) music; the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” from the Nutcracker suite by Tchaikovsky is a bop and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. I try to dance it adequately, nothing divine like Marianela Nunez – there’s an accent on the “u” and a tilde on the n, but I clearly haven’t figured out WordPress formatting quite yet.
In ballet, before dancers can progress from soft shoes to pointe shoes, they work to strengthen what I’ve heard called the “intrinsic” muscles in their feet. Their daily dancing already provides general strengthening, but then they also must do targeted exercises that prepare their feet, ankles, and entire legs, really, for the safe and precise technique required of dancing en pointe. But this ritualistic strengthening doesn’t end when dancers go on pointe or go professional. In fact, from what I’ve observed about ballet, and really any other demanding activity–physical or non–what separates professionals from amateurs is this constant working of intrinsic muscles and basic skills. But it’s also the mindset that distinguishes: there is a deep respect for how there is really nothing “basic” about basic skills. In fact, there is a love and admiration for honing them, if my watching hours of Royal Ballet rehearsal videos (thank you YouTube) has taught me anything.
This is sadly what I realized I’ve forgotten. I’m ashamed, honestly, because “doing the work” is how I got a ticket for my plane, got my plane to lift, and so on, but I still somehow let myself get complacent and unhappy. But I hope to keep the sadness brief because it also provides clarity on what to do or how to think from now on:
Enjoy the work of finding my next work or line of work, starting from the basics (researching, meditating, thinking, making lists, tearing up lists, etc.)
Also, get comfortable with the fact that the “work” is endless, which I am earnestly trying not to see as a death sentence (I know, #dramatic much)
Actors talk about needing to enjoy the work first and foremost. (Whoops, guess I broke that “no more analogies” promise.) Pithy motivational calendars or quotes remind us to “enjoy the process,” or “the journey matters more than the goal.” But if you’re anything like me, these words never really sunk in until you’ve had to, well, find enjoyment in a process or journey. Maybe this is what acting teachers mean when they want you to personalize the text. Maybe it’s because we’re attracted to glamour and memorable milestones in life, such as graduations, weddings, and so on. There are also so many challenges still to overcome, which I acknowledge could be even harder for those not in my position. That can easily be another post.
For now, I wish you luck in your process. Tell me about it?
Last week, I had the honor of being a guest contributor writer for Visible Hands, an email newsletter and budding media platform started by a fellow college alum and her classmate at Stanford Business School. As the Substack tagline goes, they’re about “how business works, the implications of business on society, and how individuals can keep them accountable.” Super legit, I know, right?
My issue (also on Medium) focused on the very real issue of how everyone is grappling with the idea of going back to school during this pandemic time. The TL;DR is that no one has the perfect answer, and I geared my post to highlighting the potential inequities that could be exacerbated this school year (and beyond).
At first, I struggled to think of the right topic as the week I signed up for drew closer and closer. I racked my mind, thinking about my interests, the industries my career has taken me into so far, and what I could possibly know that’s worthy of highlighting to VH’s subscribers. This is partly because of the high caliber of their content thus far, especially from other guest contributors! I ended up hitting upon education after reflecting on my own lucky privilege to have attended good public schools very much pre-pandemic. There have been smaller epidemics of course, from SARS to MERS to ebola to swine flu, but nothing of the scale of the coronavirus and its impact on our former rhythms of life.
Before I end my update, I want to especially point out one of the ways people can help students and families in need right now, listed at the end of last week’s newsletter:
Roughly 30 million students in the U.S. who rely on reduced-price or free school lunch programs will still need a reliable source of nutrition. If you’re able to help, your local food bank will likely be glad for monetary or in-kind donations as they continue to serve vulnerable populations. Chegg donated $250K to Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley, which serves neighborhoods around their headquarters in Santa Clara, CA.
Visible Hands: From Classrooms to (Home)rooms? 🏠 – week of August 13, 2020
I’m cognizant that everyone is struggling with something right now, so there is no obligation to help; I donated to the same food bank a while ago because I am able to right now. It’s my hope that humanity finds a way through this difficult time, and some innovations for the future to boot.
This past Friday, I was incredibly honored to have received an Honorable Mention in the Spring 2020 Flash Fiction Contest held by WOW! Women on Writing. My story “Meeting Robert” met some success; what a way to start my weekend!
It’s even more gratifying that I had entered this contest before, back in 2018, I believe. I had received notification that I was a finalist but ended up not advancing to the contest winners. Since it wasn’t my first rejection (or silence, which is de facto rejection), I archived the contest winners announcement email and moved on with life and continuing to try. I try despite knowing I have peers who are traditionally published authors, who have sold screenplays, who have done [insert this thing I haven’t done yet but am weaponizing against myself as a time-bound measure of success because no matter how many encouraging “to each their own time” Instagram posts I’ve read I haven’t truly internalized being happy for myself and others yet la la la…]
To be truthful, I hadn’t entered another contest until later this spring, when I had nowhere to go during quarantine and therefore some time to write. It’s not that I hadn’t written in between these two WOW! contest entries, as this blog can vouch for me :). But I was simply afraid to enter another contest and face another rejection, even though realistically, I’m not alone in this fight to write and love it despite the self-doubt that comes with it. What I did in this case was to reframe the contest into an accountability mechanism for myself: I believe I had improved my craft in the interim, so I would put that to a test by finishing a piece and letting it fly.
I think another thing that worked this time was that I wasn’t afraid to let a (trusted) friend read it and really constructively critique it. When they asked me questions about what a sentence was supposed to mean, or even whether I could split a long sentence because they didn’t understand it, it opened my eyes as to the “vacuum of just me” I was writing in for a while. (That sentence just now? I probably could’ve broken it up too…!) At times I caught myself being defensive and wondering “but this is understandable to me!” But writing is meant to be read and understood by others, so I coached myself to stay open when I wanted to close myself off. It also helped to remember that it would’ve been disrespectful to my friend taking the time to give me quality feedback. (If someone makes general statements, then you probably want to look for productive critique elsewhere.)
With all that said, I’m sharing my flash piece “Meeting Robert” below. As I didn’t place in the top 10 but in the top 20, my story wasn’t published on the WOW! site. Cracking the top 10 is my next goal…!
“I feel like a kid again, but not in a good way.” Catherine closed her eyes and laid her phone back down on the coffee table. Her first instinct was to beeline for the fridge and grab the bottle of wine, received from her company’s holiday party two months ago but untouched since. Every year, she wished she could ask her dad what he thought of the brand, so they could admire it or joke about how her company was cheap. Truthfully though, alcohol wasn’t her coping mechanism of choice, but maybe taking a swig would make her feel like an adult again. She resisted only because Nick stood up with his arms outstretched, waiting for her. It reminded her that some things would not change, not yet anyway.
He enveloped her, and she wiggled her chin in her usual spot, the inviting dip between his neck and clavicle bone. “Oh, there were good things about being a kid? Of course not.” Nick’s chuckle reverberated through his body. “Joking. Did it work? Nope, sorry.”
Nick leaned away so he could read her instead of answering himself again. When they’d first met in their high school algebra II class, Catherine couldn’t stand this quirk of his: Did you get the bonus question right? I bet you did ‘cause you always do. Are you going to the pep really later? Nah, lame, right?
Eventually, she understood it wasn’t that Nick was rude or had ADHD. He liked her. She hadn’t believed it, but her dad had called it. He was right, as usual. More surprisingly, he didn’t go all tiger dad on the development.
She finally let go of Nick, and they both sat down, eyeing her phone. A preview of a follow-up message from her mom glowed. No doubt the name of Houston’s new dim sum restaurant she’d just invited all of them to eat together at, including Robert. She’d timed it well: Catherine and Nick were driving back to Houston from Austin for the long holiday weekend. Robert had said it would be his treat.
Of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of restaurant guests her mother had waited on since Catherine’s father passed unexpectedly when she was in high school, Robert had managed to become something more. An old anxiety gripped at Catherine’s chest. Who’s to say that Robert was the only one? Had her mother had dates—or god forbid—dalliances with other men who had “wavy, coffee hair” and love “all kinds of barbecue, especially Korean?” At that point in the call earlier, Catherine’s filter had broken, and she barked that Robert must’ve forgotten they were Chinese.
Catherine would ask herself these kinds of questions to get through all-nighters in college, masochistic as it was. They’d kickstart her motivation again when it’d waned. They’d be enough to get her through a paper, an internship application, another student event to organize—gold stars to bring back to stick on mom’s fridge. Would they be enough to distract her mother from needing someone else?
“Cat.” Nick’s hand on her knee finally registered. “Think of it this way. It’s just one meal. We can go on Monday, the last day we’re in town. And we can head back right after. I’ll let you sing from the bad pop song list. We’ll get the unhealthiest snacks from Buc-ee’s.”
“Do I have another choice?” Catherine locked her gaze on Nick, but found her vision clouding. She would not cry about Robert.
Nick struggled with whether to keep talking it out with her. He didn’t continue. He’d let her answer for herself. Of all the times to do so.
“Traitor!” She thought. Her dad had trusted her around Nick, a precious blessing. Now Nick forgot that this made him special and kept pushing her along to the inevitable future. Where she needed but didn’t want to be. “It’s like you don’t even consider my dad.”
Catherine thought she’d only been thinking the words. They struck Nick, and he returned with his own. “Have you considered that I was considering your mom? How long has it been, ten years?”
It would hurt less if there was malice, or even judgment, in his voice.
This time, he continued. “Meeting Robert doesn’t erase your dad. Not unless you do. That’s the real choice, right?”