It has been a while since I’ve been awake at this time—and even longer since I’ve written here. I forget how much I miss this hour.
November 27, 2012
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I got to thinking about writing earlier today. I think, so often when it comes to writing and crafting (any creative process I do, really), I can easily find myself upset, thinking that all the ideas loitering in my brain are no good. I can’t get the words right. I don’t know how to tell a story. I have nothing compelling to say. Even if I have all the right tools, all the right techniques, you see, all those beautiful things in the world—that’s not me. I didn’t do that. I can’t create that.
Sometimes, I feel like I try too hard to be perfect, too hard to be precise, when what I really need is to let go and see where something takes me before I clip its wings mid-flight. Instead, I write a line. I delete it. I snap a photo. I erase it. Everything I say, I frame with “kind of” and “maybe” and “I think.” Because maybe I should do this, and this might be that way, and it kind of went like this, when I really should say: I should do this. It is this way. And let me tell you, it happened like this.
The other day, I wrote a story in German—and, trust me, I only speak German when someone sneezes (“Gesundheit!”). Supposedly, though, it was “brilliant” because, as I was told, I was so disarmed, not being able to do anything, that I stopped thinking all together and just wrote.
When it comes to my conscious creative process, I have to be the two things I rarely am—confident and patient. Sometimes I have to take 400 shots to get just one I want to keep. I can stare at a photo for an hour, think it’s brilliant, and five hours later, trash it from my computer. I get that—and am okay with it—because I understand that’s how photography works, and I never try to pass myself off as anything but a hobbyist and an amateur. When it comes to writing, though, whether it’s fiction, a narrative or a song, I have attachment issues. If I follow a strand, I need to keep it. No matter how much I wrestle, no matter how terrible of an idea it is, I can’t find it in myself to give it up. And when everything I produce feels like it’s not very good at all, I immediately think I can’t do this: there’s nothing in my brain that works. To hell with aspiration. Maybe I’m just not wired this way.
Instead, I need to understand that, like with photography, I might need to invent 100 hundred stories and play out 75 scenarios in my head before there’s one I want to follow. I might have to write 1000 lines before there are even two I want to keep. That’s just the process. It’s a tedious one and it hurts so much it throbs, but if I like it enough—and I think I do—it’s one I have to bear. I don’t have to be perfect all the time because no one’s looking. It’s just me. Stop thinking. For once in your life, be fearless.
Through sweaty crowds and cheesy colored tents, the six of us dodged our way through the fairgrounds. The liquid sun was lowing now, melting into the horizon ahead. The entire place smelled like kettlecorn and a bit like corn dogs. All around, you could hear the sound of children laughing and crying for another lick of an ice cream cone, as they pushed their way past you in a game of tag, brushing against your sticky clothing and forcing you to watch them as they skitter away.
In my right ear buzzed the sound of roller coaster cars clanging against the rails, punctuated by the high-pitched screams of the people in them. “We gotta get you to ride one,” Jimmy smiled. I shook my head: “No way.” If I never ride a roller coaster in my life, I think I’ll live — in fact, I think I’ll be more likely to live if that’s the case.
When we turned the corner, we found ourselves up against a carnival tent. A man inside with deep wrinkles and dirty hands called through a microphone, “Come on, win the ladies a prize!” He let loose a toothy smile, revealing two rows of crooked, yellowy teeth. We hesitated, and he could sense our hesitation like it was animal instinct for him. “I’ll give you a free try,” he said, as he tossed up plastic balls into the air with one hand and caught them with another. “All you gotta do is knock these bottles down.” The man motioned at a line of metal bottles stacked neatly on the opposite side of the booth.
“Can you do it?” Steven asked.
“No. I mean, I don’t try.”
“Why not?” Steven eyed him now, knowing he had him cornered. I think that’s the thing about fair people you don’t realize when you’re a kid. As a kid, you see the games and the fun in winning a balloon bat or stuffed tiger, completely innocent of the way they’re being marketed. What you don’t notice are the snarky taglines (“Win your girlfriend a prize! Really? No?”), the aggressive pitches (“You’re a man, aren’t you?”), and the awkward-sized hoops and mismatched weights setting you up for failure before you even begin.
Seeing this doubt flash across our faces, an expression he must have known well, the man reached for an explanation. “Well, I used to,” he hesitated. “And then I’d waste everything, you know? Then no one else can play.”
We nodded like we knew and left, but really, I still don’t know what he was talking about.
This is where I want to be: pulling over to the shoulder of the road, running to catch the sunset with our cameras bouncing up and down against our cold bodies. I want to feel the wind against my cheeks and your arm around my waist, as we stand, breathless, in the middle of nowhere. There, I’ll see the grass teetering sideways as the cars speed by, their headlights locking onto the lonely stretch of California road ahead. You’ll grab my hand, wrapping your numb fingers around mine, and I’ll rest my head against your chest as we watch the sun dip into the mountains in the distance. Later, we’ll pull into a small city on the other side of the valley, and find a cheap, vacant Italian restaurant with a fireplace view and opera music lilting into the lamp-lit streets. It’s like we’ve done this all before. I remember now. All we need is a plan to get us out of here and a ticket to anywhere.
We sat our bags down by two empty couches nearest to the cafe wall. April then disappeared for a few minutes, and I followed after her into a narrow adjoining room with oak walls and taps of local beers up against the bar. ”A chicken pie, please,” she said. ”And a tuna panini. Could we also have a mocha coffee and regular coffee with milk?” The woman at the counter smiled and nodded, “Of course,” and with a slender hand, guided April to the other side of the room where she swiped her credit card.
Back in the next room, April and I took seats at the two couches. We chatted like old friends as we sipped our coffees and waited for our food, even though we’d only met once before—three weeks ago at the train station where she shuttled my luggage and me to the lift leading to the car park. I told her how I was getting along and confided in her all my tedious observations: how nice the fast food restaurants were, how far it seemed you had to walk just to get anywhere worth seeing, how my American accent hung in the air like vinegar. I told her about the time I stumbled, confusedly, into Argos: the store was empty, with the only things inside mothers, small children and students crowded around the sides of the room, hovering over catalogues as thick as my fist. What do you do there? (From what I gleaned by pure observation and an overhead chat with the sole cashier, you write down the items you want from the catalogues, hand them into the cashier, and red-garbed staff at the back of the store disappear in The Mysterious Stockroom and unearth electronics, textiles and toys like it was Christmas Day.) April told me about her work and home renovation, and detailed upcoming events for the local Rotary clubs.
When our meals arrived, we munched away—she on her sandwich, me on my chicken pie (excellent, by the way). She’s been to the U.S. several times before, usually spending holidays tucked away in the Colorado mountains or basking in the East Coast sun. She smiled as she related her experiences abroad to mine. I told her about the essays I’d written in coming to the U.K.: how focused some had been on the idea of minorities in America and how easily that identity slips away here. Here, I’m just American—like I’ve always wanted to be. Not Asian American, not even Asian. Just American. ”It’s funny,” she said. ”How, in some places, one layer can become dominant over the rest, and that changes depending on where you go.” I liked that. Layers of dominance and codominance and recessiveness. It felt genetic almost, even if all the rest was socially constructed. It made me feel like it was a coat I had had since birth and I could slip it on and off when I wanted. I controlled the structure, I designed the makeup, I aligned the pieces. Somewhere, the world stops deciding who and what I am, and somewhere, I’m the one doing the telling.
On the red-eye flight over, I met a woman in her 60s—dark skin with her hair pulled back tightly in a bun. She was going home, she said. Back to London. I think she could tell I was fraught with emotion, leaving home on my second international flight ever, because she looked after me in a grandmotherly sort of way, reminding me to grab my things and eat when the food carts came. “You’re very brave,” she said, “to be here alone.” I didn’t catch her name.
As the plane landed, she fumbled through her bag and pulled open her coin purse. She jostled some change in her hand and leaned in closely over the armrest dividing our seats. “Pence and pounds,” she said, combing through 1 pence, 20 pence, 50 pence in her wrinkled palm and further still began extracting notes from her wallet. “This is what the currency looks like. You’ll get the hang of it. It’s very easy.” I peered at each, trying to memorize the boxy shapes and imprinted figures and thinking that it’d be no use. I’d forget as soon as we deplaned.
When we arrived at the terminal, I lost her. She stayed behind, hanging around the cockpit, as a flight attendant wheeled a wheelchair towards the plane. I thought it must have been for her; she had mentioned a disability. Out of politeness, I didn’t ask what.
The journey over was long and tiring, and though I’d flown overseas once before, I couldn’t remember feeling so achy and drained upon arrival. After hours spent tied up in immigration, I clumsily pushed my trolley of luggage through the airport and onto the train platform at Heathrow. I boarded the train, exited prematurely, and boarded again. I remember thinking it looked something like AirBART the one time I took it after arriving in SFO.
When I reached London Paddington, I left the express train and hopped onto the station, stumbling a bit with my luggage. I felt like I’d seen this place before—in a dream or maybe a movie (Harry Potter?). Men in business suits and women with strollers hurried along the platforms, taking seats at rest areas and pausing every now and then to glance at the large, silver clock or red-lettered schedule above.
The interior of the trains themselves looked much like Amtrak—of that, I was certain, having taken Amtrak many times before. I located the standard car, just past the buffet car, and took a seat upfront, shoving my luggage in an empty compartment above my head. When the train began to move, I looked out the window a bit finding chimneys and brick housing, but eventually turned away and began writing in a small legal notebook I’d brought.
Arriving in Devon county, with all its countryside and nearby beaches, was absolutely breathtaking. I was greeted with a Rotary sign and driven up towards the hills. (Then, I made my first two American mistakes—calling the “lift” an “elevator” and starting for the wrong side of the car.) Now I’m here, and the photo above? The view I see outside my flat each morning.
She was told she walks in beauty, like the night, but the night feels cheap, not beautiful at all. At night, the wind picks up and blows the leaves outside astray. The crags of mountains look like knives protruding from the corpse of the earth. If there is beauty at night, it is kept invisible, yielding itself only when light, man-made, is cast, like the illusion of make-up over a dark blemish. Yet she is beautiful like the night, with black hair, dark, brooding eyes, and a smile she thinks wicked.
On the television, across the dim-lit hall, she watches images float across the fuzzy screen: bright red lips and shimmering dresses, girls with blonde and brown tousled tresses.
So she asks: how can even cloudless climes and starry skies expect to fare when paired with the glow and lure of much greener grasses?
Sometimes, the most difficult thing to do is to say nothing at all, write nothing at all. It’s being full of stories and withholding all of them, shoveling extraneous strands of words into an amorphous deathbed for sentences that didn’t quite fit or were too many. It’s the feeling of knowing a secret—perhaps not precisely what that secret is, but rather, that impulsive, unshakable feeling that you know something that the rest of the world doesn’t. It’s like watching shadows chase one another up the pavement, etching their freeform black shapes into your memory, then watching them turn formless as they melt into the darkness with the disappearance of the sun.
We sat in the car with the rain coming down hard and the engine off. It was late, and the sky was already black. I fumbled with the stereo, watched the soft light of the street lamp come through the fog on the windshield. We sat, silent, with only the faint sound of indie music playing in the background. Our eyes met, and I turned back towards the lonely stretch of road, hands reaching for the steering wheel, wishing we could stay there undiscovered.