It’s Monday at 10:00pm, which means I’ve SURVIVED. I’ve somehow stumbled through my graduate presentation, which included a critical introduction and a reading from my thesis, adding up to 30 minutes of talking. Let me reiterate that. THIRTY MINUTES OF TALKING. ALONE. IN FRONT OF PEOPLE.
How do real writers do this!?
Luckily, I was paired with another lovely student from my semester, who told an amazing story on how the strong women of her family inspired her to stand up and voice herself (in writing). There was a heartbreaking moment when she explained how she was kept from writing the story of her great grandmother (how could other people be so greedy??) but the piece she read was still perfect and fun.
Anyway, I rehearsed alone, I rehearsed with my friend, Jennifer, I scribbled notes on the pages, and yet, the second I stood behind the podium, everything in my head went blank. All that practice, all those ideas, POOF. But, as things always go, I think I learned more during those thirty minutes than I have in the past three days of the residency. Read slower, speak slower, look up, and yes, laugh at yourself.
And can I talk about one thing? The way that my grad school arranges the graduate presentations is that all the attendees (at least, those who follow the rules) submit their feedback, answering questions from what they learned from the introduction to anything that could have done better. Turns out that my instincts were right, as a lot of the responses encouraged me to do everything slower. And while I learned to trust my instincts this past year, I’m happy that I finally learned to trust (and take) the criticism, as well. (I mean, yeah. At first I read through the feedback while freaking out in my brain.) But I looked at the papers again carefully, and was so happy to not only see the faculty’s notes (like OMG they actually CAME?) but even understood them. And I feel even better. Honestly, six months ago, I would have crumpled up on the floor of my tiny dorm room and cried and cried and cried because I’d felt like a failure. Or more so than usual.
Now, I’m just excited that I stood up there and read my work aloud to a group of people for the first time ever, that I’m in such awe of my fellow graduating students who have come so far and have displayed such talent. Maybe an MFA program isn’t for anyone, and obviously this degree isn’t going to help me in any useful way, but being a part of this community is like, the best thing ever.
So if you weren’t able to attend, that’s totally okay. But because I want to remember this humiliating moment forever, I’ve pasted my critical introduction below (with an encouraging Ponyo gif for me cause I can’t believe I’m actually copying and pasting this).
In an essay about her own work, Flannery O’Connor wrote that the true heart of a story could be found in an action or a gesture that is “both totally right and totally unexpected.” All stories need an element of mystery, something that both surprises and comforts the reader, like Laura Hendrie’s “Jaws of Life” characters, those people who we can’t quite figure out but are so happy and relieved to see them arrive.
For me, this unexpected detail can happen at the end of a story, compelling us to think hard about what we just read, about the what-happens-next that allows the story to live beyond the last word.
I wrote my essay about these unexpected endings that incorporate a subtle element of surprise. These aren’t the O. Henry type of twist endings where chance and bad luck collide, but endings of resolution and redirection that quietly catch us off guard.
I used examples from Alice Munro to Andre Dubus. His novella, The Pretty Girl, depicts a harrowing struggle between an abusive husband and his wife, but at the end, the perspective switches from third to first with a whole new character. At first we’re confused about who is speaking, and then we slowly, quietly, piece the clues together and understand the conflicting heartbreak that the entire family faces.
My favorite is William Maxwell’s “The Pilgrimage,” about an American couple traveling through France. The story focuses on themes of reliving the past, of discontent and petty rivalry, but I love the ending the most. From their hotel room, they watch a few people trickle out of the town’s movie theater. With scorn, Ray (the husband) remarks that this place isn’t the “kind of town that would support a movie theater.” But as they turn away from the window, the story closes with the bustling image of a great crowd leaving the theater, proving the American couple wrong. And so we’re left, questioning the characters, the setting, and the accuracy of their perspective, wondering what this story was really about.
Because life works out in the most unfair ways, I found even better examples after I turned my essay in. My new favorite is Alice Elliott Dark’s “In The Gloaming,” a story about a mother contemplating her life as she nurses her dying son—yet the story ends suddenly with the father’s uncontrollable grief. Lore Segal’s “Reverse Bug” begins as a story about an ESL class but ends on a paranormal note, a reflection on the pain and suffering of genocide.
Perhaps these endings are clear to more astute readers, but I found this subtle surprise to be captivating. They raise questions that add a new dimension to any simple narrative: can a story begin after it ends? How can a story change once the ending is realized?
Writing this essay meant that I began my last semester with endings heavy on my brain. As I worked on my thesis of short stories, I kept wondering, was I successfully using unexpected endings? At what point in the writing process do you think about the end? How do you create an ending that leaves a lasting, unpredictable impression on the reader, one that leaves them reexamining what they just read?
It was hard not to think about endings and ignore the one that awaits you. Along the way, I discovered my own unexpected ending, how this journey has culminated into an experience I couldn’t have predicted two years ago.
I come from an industry that values the shallow and the pretty, on appearances and appeal, on the value of popularity and success. For the past decade, I’ve lived through the low pay and slow pace of TV production, and the endless demands of high-level executives who can’t do anything for themselves. I’ve learned that rolling means eavesdropping on your boss’ phone calls, and that sweeps aren’t for brooms but desperate attempts to woo viewers to your channel. The calendar is marked by season premieres, season finales, upfronts and Comic-Con. A page of paper equals a minute on screen, Courier is the always the font du jour, and reading? That’s what you do to find new source material or scripts for the next big show. (Please don’t ask me how many books we’ve tossed at my old job, just because they were taking too much room.)
Writing. That’s reserved for people hanging out at the local coffee shop, wrestling daily to perfect that spec script, that ticket to the elusive writer’s room of a hit TV show, that dream of winning an Emmy or a Golden Globe. The biggest buzzword you need to know is “development,” a synonym for the lengthy, painful, self-esteem shattering process of the three P’s: pitching, picking up and—about 98% of the time—passing on your project.
DISCLAIMER: I do love working in TV. It’s entertainment, it’s playtime, it’s a little stupid and it’s easily maneuverable with a TV remote. The content is fictional and if it isn’t, we can make it say exactly what we want.
But I started the MFA program because I wanted to escape, a way to distinguish myself from those people stuck in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, the cycle of show cancellations and conventions.
I wanted to explore a world where creativity and imagination come to life through a different medium, one where words amounts to everything, building dialogue, emotional depth, character development and cinematography. I wanted to write fairy tales, to write YA, to represent Asian American writers, to become the next Asian American voice of our generation (if that’s even a thing).
I was going to write the next Great American Novel that was going to become the next Great American Film and possibly (if I felt like it) the next Great American Cultural Phenomenon. “Oh, you write TV shows? That’s so cute. Well, I write books.”
And really, above the fame and glory, I wanted to remember what it was like to create something original, to scratch that itch of putting something down on paper because that was the only way it could be said.
I wanted to be a real writer.
None of that happened.
That’s not to imply I didn’t learn anything. The past couple of years have been some of the hardest: the reading, the writing, finding enough time to read and write, trying to start writing when I found the time, trying to find something to write about.
During my first semester, Laura Hendrie taught me to trust myself. “Take a piece of paper,” she said, “And write down everything that you believe in.” I did in a notebook, and it was the hardest list I’d had to write. (And how great was that? I kick off my first semester and I can’t even put a list together.) But this forced me to stop and look hard at my writing, and how to write the stories I could stand behind.
In my second semester, David Long taught me the beauty of a well-crafted sentence and a perfectly chosen word. There’s not a day that goes by without me staring hard at a sentence and wondering how I could have written it faster, smarter, voicier. Even if it’s just an email asking my coworkers about what’s for lunch.
And it was nice having a new goal in life: write a single sentence that would blow David’s mind. (This will never happen.)
Jack Driscoll was my gracious advisor for the next two semesters, a year where I wrote and rewrote, tried to push beyond the surface of a story and take that frightening plunge into the “swirling vortex of doom,” a look at how rhythm and poetry can come alive in prose. I learned that with love comes a little pain and behind any pain is a little love, and that pain is what helps us understand what it means to be human.
I’ve got miles to go, but looking back, I can see how slowly, one semester rolling into the next, I’ve rewritten and revised the path to my unexpected ending.
In place of the Great American Novel is now an addiction for the Great American Short Story.
I adored magic realism, of worlds not quite set in ours, but now I can’t get enough of our reality. The twenties, the sixties, the suburban cocktail parties, stories about the South or the Irish. Stories about people I never thought I’d care about. Stories by people I thought I’d never understand, their words as seductive and exotic to me as I’m sure others find in Japanese poetry. As much as I thought I could only relate to other Asian American writers, I found my heart stolen by Maxwell, Cheever, Updike, Fitzgerald—you could say that I’ve got a thing for old, dead white guys now.
The most surprising thing? This MFA program didn’t give me an escape, but a new perspective on the familiar. I may work in a different mode of entertainment, but even there, everyone is searching for a story to tell. We share our funny moments and memories to connect with others, to find our place in a vast, lonely universe. At work, we look for ways to turn a person or situation into a story. A cooking competition between famous chefs isn’t enough; we need to establish the stakes, their background, their story before we can care about who wins. We critique the dialogue and relationships in video games, even if all we’re really doing is shooting our way around an abandoned spaceship infested with monsters. Between the talks of target demos and Nielsen ratings, or game publishers and next gen consoles, we break down character development, how to find the right setting or tighten a scene to make the overall story stronger.
Like we do in the craft talks and workshops, we work to ensure that the right story is told in the right way to the right people.
And yeah, maybe we sell out to the masses, with stories about zombie invasions or vampire boyfriends, but our goals are the same: we are all trying to write a story.
So I’m leaving this program, not as a graduate who has earned the right to tell a story, but with eyes and ears open to the storytelling that plays a part in everything we do. Pitch meetings. New video games. Lunch conversations about why we hated a movie so much. And is it a sign that this also the year that the TV channel (where I work) will finally debut as the new Esquire Network, where for the first time during working hours, I’ll have a direct connection to the literary traditions of Ray Carver, Truman Capote, Hemingway and our own Ben Percy?
Okay. It’s a reach. But I say, YES. (Maybe.)
When I look back, what I see is far from what I felt at the time, but this is a good thing, proof that writing can change the way we think about our past. And now, all those packets exchanged, all those reading commentaries, and all those frustrating evenings trying to write well, these are the things that have guided me back home.
In his latest book, Junot Diaz wrote that, “Sometimes a start is all we ever get.” I’d like to add that sometimes, it’s the end that leads us to it.