“What do you want to do?”
“I want to write.”
“No idea. I just want to write.”
From as early as I can remember, the various schools I attended always asks their students on the first day of school to write down what they want to be when they grow up. I always envied people who knew exactly what they wanted to be, such as doctor, lawyer, artist, run away with the circus, actress, actor, join the military, to be rich etc. I always drew a blank.
I could never think of anything concrete or specific. The only thing remotely specific that comes to my mind is “to be totally free to do whatever I want without having to answer to anyone”, whatever that is, that’s what I want to do. When I was in elementary or middle school, I was too naive and inarticulate to put that in writing. The concept was too abstract for my young mind and I thought my lack of specificity at what I want to do when I grow up meant I was lost and directionless. In fact, I was often told that I was lost and directionless.
Whatever weaknesses I had, what I was not lacking in is self-belief and the willingness to buck the trend even at the detriment to myself. I was told that I am very “opinionated” – except it’s not a compliment, not in the context of my childhood. Many times I left the page blank when when I couldn’t think of what I wanted to be when I grow up. I know it would draw concern from teachers and they’ll tell my mom about it but I didn’t want to write anything down just to appease anyone, not even for my mother.
I was never very good at telling people what they wanted to hear even if it was to get what I wanted. It would have made my life much easier but it was something I could never get myself to do, but not for lack of trying. I hate authority and I hate following other people’s rules. This always got me into trouble and for a while, if only for just the benefit of staying out of trouble, I tried to change this trait about me, I failed miserably. I am not saying this to toot my own horn. Nor am I more honest or have more integrity over the next person. I am simply saying I am incapable of conforming when I don’t want to, even if it’s for my own benefit. If nodding politely and saying a few words of false platitudes will make life easier for me, I can only manage the nodding politely part and that’s a vast improvement. If over the years I collected a quarter every time someone told me to “just follow the rules” or “why have got to make your life so difficult for yourself, why don’t you just do x, y or z” or “I am telling you for your own good, you have got to (fill in the blank with whatever it is someone wants me to do)”, I could have funded my college tuition without student loans.
Being a natural contrarian at heart, as my grandmother would say, is totally against the grain of my upbringing and culture. After my parents divorced, I lived with my maternal grandparents and they were conservative, old-school, traditional, Confucian practicing Chinese folks. They were sweet, lovely and took great care of me. I wouldn’t be here without them. But if you know anything about Confucianism at all, it’s all about harmony, not being unnecessarily confrontational and going with the flow or in a word: conformity. Don’t kick up a shitstorm when it’s not necessary. Don’t stand out like a sore thumb, especially for a girl and don’t be unlikeable.
It is in this backdrop I decided I need to do something which allows me to be who I am, to express myself as I want without having to apologize or compromise. I found that in writing. I think…(I am not so sure anymore with today’s overly PC culture).
Over the years I grew to love literature and writing. I never really had any particular teacher inspire or recommend me to read certain books or to write, I was too contemptuous of authority to take anything they had to say seriously. But I loved reading. As that old adage goes, if you want to be a good writer: read. I read everything I could get my hands on. My interests were diverse and vast. In between the Judy Blume novels and the Ramona books, I managed to squeeze in some Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, The Bronte Sisters, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, George Byron, Alfred Tennyson, Voltaire, Gustave Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and more all interested me and I had special love and fondness for American authors Hemingway, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and other writers from the Lost and Beatnik generations. Their words inspired and moved me. Their words spoke to a generation, they spoke for a generation and they spoke to me.They spoke to the natural rebel in me.
I lived in an insular immigrant family, even though I am not an immigrant, I am an American citizen born abroad, the unbearable and suffocating immigrant attitude of conforming to herd and don’t make a fuss was thrown upon me. It’s not that I am an overly confrontational person. I am not, but I don’t like to sit idly by and be forced to accept or agree with something I do not like, even if I am just a child. Children have opinions, likes and dislikes, every bit as strongly as an adult does. And while I may not be confrontational, I like the option of getting up and walking away. If only to express my dislike and desire to not be involved with something I don’t agree with. No verbal altercation involved or necessary.
Reading was my gateway and window to the greater world which I was determined to enter the first opportunity I got. It was my way out of the small minded, narrowed viewed vista of an immigrant family, who are too paranoid, too worried about being screwed over by others, convinced that everything is dangerous and the world is out to get them and so invented all these non-existent phobias and self-imposed restrictions, instead of going out there and making most of everything. I was hated and envied in equal measure by some members of my family because I am a white-presenting biracial, a fluent bilingual speaker of Mandarin-Chinese and English and I didn’t have all these hangups about things that don’t exist. I was flexible enough to blend in and out of white American society and Chinese immigrant society. Due to my mixed heritage, I can understand both sides of the coin, find a way through conflicting viewpoints of East v. West and find my own happy medium. I was so very loathed for this trait.
And I had no problem telling my family just how ridiculous they were, which didn’t win me any favors. I get that. Nobody needs a bratty teeanger rolling her eyes at them. I deserved the scorn. Reading and writing my thoughts down was a way to escape their paranoia, insularity, the small worldview and non-existent phobias. It bided my time until I was old enough to leave. Reading was my therapy, because, well, my family didn’t believe in therapy either. Some of them could benefit from some, but I digress.
Though I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t do much to enhance my writing. The most logical thing would have been to get an English degree with a minor or emphasis in creative writing of some kind. But I didn’t, I attended college after the dot-com bust, I was worried I couldn’t find a job with an English degree and I knew I couldn’t afford to go to graduate school after I finished my undergrad degree. So, I got a minor in English along with my business management major. I worked harder in my English courses than the courses of my major. It was uninspiring to say the least. My twenties passed through in a haze of misprioritized opportunities, self-doubt, self-hatred and self-sabotage; a downright vicious cycle. I should have nurtured my interests and my soul but instead I put my energy into running away from one bad relationship and then immediately getting into another serious relationship afterwards. I should have taken time out for myself. The serious relationship is now my husband, but I still regret pouring so much of my energy, youth and a vigor which only someone in their twenties can have into a relationship. I should have worked on me and prioritized me.
I joined corporate America knowing I was never going to climb the corporate ladder. I didn’t even have aspirations for middle-management. If I couldn’t feign interest in school, I most definitely couldn’t master the fakery required to be successful in a corporate America. In spite of it all, I gave it a good shake. I went after projects and promotions I felt I deserved and could be good at. I marketed and promoted my skills as honestly as I can. I didn’t embellish my resume or invent skills I didn’t have but because of my natural interest in learning new things, I treated each opportunity and project with sincere and keen interest. Some project managers took notice and appreciated that about me, but still raised issues about my prickliness. Which to me translates to, I didn’t kiss their ass enough.
A life of artistic endeavoring is ultimately a selfish one. To create art, whether be it writing, painting, sculpting or performance art requires large swathes of time away from your nearest and dearest to create and hone it. For writing and the visual arts, you need a lot of quiet alone time to create. You need space and solitude to think and be inspired to write anything that is worthwhile. I didn’t appreciate this fact when I had plenty of time in my twenties and now I am fighting for minutes and hours to be alone with my thoughts. I am a mother of two now. My children’s plethora of needs on any given second of everyday interrupts my thought process. So, I’ve learned to carve out intervals of time for myself to think. I’ve also taken ‘multitasking’ to the next level and I think about what I wish to write or the book or article I just read while I am doing my mommy-chores.
An interview Barbara Walters did with the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi in 1977, two years before he was deposed, he had some interesting views on women and their abilities:
Walters: I’m quoting Your Majesty. ”In a man’s life, women count only if they are beautiful, graceful and know how to stay feminine. You may be equal in the eyes of the law, but not in ability. You have never produced a Michelangelo or a Bach or even a great cook. You are schemers. You are evil. All of you.” Your Majesty, you said all these things?
Shah: Not with the same words, no.
Walters: Well, the thought, ”You’ve never produced a Michelangelo, a Bach, or even a great. . . .”
Shah: This I have said.
Walters: So you don’t feel that women are in that sense equal, if they have the same intelligence or ability.
Shah: Not so far. Maybe you will become in the future. We can always have some exceptions.
Walters: Here and there? Do you feel your wife is one of these rare exceptions?
Shah: It depends in what sense.
Walters: Well, do you feel your wife can govern as well as a man?
Shah: I prefer not to answer.
So he was a corrupt CIA puppet and a real charmer for his progressive views on women and our abilities. He said all this with wife sitting next to him, her eyes downcast, too embarrassed to look straight and terrified of having to contradict her husband on national television.
The reason why there’s was no woman Michelangelo is because Michelangelo didn’t have to change diapers. He didn’t have to wipe snot from his kid’s face and he didn’t have to tend to the endless needs of small children, his wife was tasked with that very important but thankless task. Women are tasked with the unfortunate, thankless, at times soul crushing, uncompensated chore of childbearing and child rearing, usually alone and unacknowledged. This is why women don’t have the time to go and create art and masterpieces.
Mozart, by the way, had an equally talented sister, called Maria Anna ‘Nannerl’ Mozart. When she was young, she toured with her brother, the world renowned Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and played concerts for kings, princes, emperors and other glitterati throughout Europe. But as Maria Anna got older, it was deemed “inappropriate” for her to continue playing her music and she was to learn to sew and find a husband instead. So just like that, because she was a woman, her artistic career was cruelly cut off. Her music compositions are not known, her pieces are not played alongside those of her famous brother in concert halls all over the world today, all because she was born a woman. She was told go pick up a sewing needle, find a husband and have children. Most people don’t even know Mozart had a sister, never mind her name.
Conversely, the writer Mary Shelley, and perhaps because she was widowed at twenty-five by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she was able to maintain her writing career until she died. She published her world renowned novel “Frankenstein” at age twenty, at the beginning of her marriage to Shelly and while her other works which followed isn’t as well known, the point is, she was able to keep writing and producing. Because in her widowhood, she’s no longer encumbered with the task of having more children and running a house. Though she had many admirers, she was smart enough to not remarry again and thus kept her artistic autonomy for the rest of her life. Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters were able to write and publish novel after novel because they were unmarried, lived at home and had plenty of time on their hands to write. They had no outside social life besides visits with neighbors, close family friends or relatives. The only sister who married, Charlotte, died shortly after her wedding while she was pregnant with her first child, she was only thirty-eight. The Bronte brood (which included brother Branwell and another two sisters Maria and Elizabeth) were all poorly, lived under the same roof, and they suffered from one health crisis to another. All the Bronte sisters and brother Branwell perished before the age of forty. Jane Austen died at the age of forty-one, unmarried and childless.
Artists create because they have an insatiable urge to create. Writers write even if there is no one there to read it. Many writers get commissioned for their work in order to survive, but an artist will create even if they’ve no audience (VanGogh). For all the famous writers we know, what’s published is perhaps only a fraction of their total life’s work. There are perhaps hundreds of manuscripts, millions of words written which have never seen the light of day. Work they’ve dismissed as not being good enough, but if we dug it up now, they would be considered literary treasures worthy of many prizes.
To put this in perspective, if Hemingway wasn’t a famous writer, who had volumes and volumes of published work to his name, he would have just been another philanderer, drunk and an irresponsible father. Everything we loathe in a man. But because he was a great writer and produced work that influenced and inspired millions, all of his personal flaws are overlooked, excused and sometimes even glorified as the being the macho man’s man. He suffered from chronic depression, which could explain the excessive drinking. But he also couldn’t keep his pants up and treated some of his wives badly (aside from the philandering).
William Faulkner also had a drinking problem and was a less than inspired father and husband. And again, that’s been overlooked because of this literary talent. William Burroughs shot dead his second wife Joan Vollmer in Mexico by mistake because he was high on drugs. He escaped those charges, promptly went to Tangiers, Morocco and under the influence of even more drugs and alcohol produced his best work. All with the assistance of his friends. The fact that he shot dead his wife, left her child motherless didn’t register as a serious injustice to Burroughs and his friends. Burroughs felt deeply guilty of what he did and arguably that guilt fueled his best work, “Naked Lunch” but he was never held accountable for it, not by the law and not by society or his peers.
If all of these people were not writers of world renown and just ordinary men, they would be reviled and cast out of society. If these writers were women and not men, and they treated their families in this way, behaved in a booze and drug fueled and licentious manner. Their work would never be published or see the light of day. They’d have to invent male pseudonyms to get anything published and keep their real identities anonymous.
Everyone has their own demons, and everyone exorcise those demons in different ways. There’s no question Hemingway, Faulkner, William Burroughs and others were deeply troubled people, who had big demons they tried to exorcise all their lives, by drinking, drugging, writing and some ended in suicide. But because they were men, white men of literary renown, they were excused from the minutia of life, the real stuff that could have killed them sooner. These people didn’t have to go to a soul crushing 9-5 job, change diapers or look after their children or engage in something so mundane and boring as cooking or cleaning. If they did, whatever inspiration they had would have been sucked dry by the demands of family life. Their wives or their staff did such pedestrian and boring things for them, the things that makes their lives run smoothly. They had the luxury of shutting themselves in their private office or study, for hours or days at a time, without a care of what’s going on beyond those doors. When they are not at home, they did as they pleased with whomever, wherever and whatever, all in the name of pursuing their art, their writing. To tell them off would be construed as trying to hinder their art and creative process.
I squandered most of my twenties and part of my thirties in a series of uninspiring events and didn’t use the free time I had to improve my writing, I am trying to make up for that now. My children at the present are very young and require constant supervision and attention. As I am writing this, my two year old son just ate a wad of shredded paper towel, an obsession he was born with. I’ve had to stop what I am doing and attend to him. This is my reality. This is the environment in which I write and create. Even as such, I learn to how best use the few precious hours and minutes in my days to write.
I write because I want to. When I wanted to become a writer, it didn’t occur to me I could write for money. But if someone will pay me to write, to do the thing I love most, it will be a dream come true. Like most writers, I am content to be a writer whose work no one reads. A failed writer. As long as my soul is nourished, failure in the commercial sense is not a considered a failure to me.