Good morning, folks. Today, in our first-ever guest blog, I’d like to introduce Jimin Han, host of a new eChook feature, The Inside Story: Authors’ Q & A which will be launching soon. It will feature lively, revealing interviews with established and emerging authors and, to be notified when it posts, sign up for our blog HERE.
Jimin teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and her story “How to Become Friends with a Famous Writer” is included in our forthcoming app, MEMOIR, VOL. 1 (app avail April 22nd, read an EXCERPT HERE). Here are some of her thoughts on writing and writers’ workshops.
REMEMBER by Jimin Han
I’m in Alexandra’s living room in Yonkers, New York, at 8 pm on Friday night. The smell of sourdough baking in the oven pervades the entire house. The Simon & Garfunkel Concert in Central Park has just ended on the iPod sound dock, and Deb’s and Pat’s keyboards on their laptops click like the electric meter on the stone wall outside my house sixteen miles away. Alex has the tip of her pen in her mouth, reading what she’s written. Kate’s pen moves across a piece of paper, sloping upward. Gloria turns a page in her notebook. My fingers hover over my computer, flexing. There’s energy here, coursing through. Writers at work. We’re here, but elsewhere at the same time. The writing prompt thrown out by Pat five minutes earlier: “The place I remember the most from childhood is…”
I used to sit at a carrel on the second-floor balcony, at the end of a long row of bookshelves, in the Prendergast Library on Cherry Street in Jamestown, New York. With its wide turret, rounded arches, and giant slabs of red sandstone, it was like a castle. The carrel was placed against a sliver of a window so I could read in the sunlight that streamed in, rather than solely from the fluorescent tubes above my head. It was my private tower, where I read my way through the rows, from the A-B section (Austen, Jane; Bronte, Charlotte; Bronte, Emily) to the Z section (Zola, Emile.). When I think of it now, it was like meeting hundreds of people and listening to their stories. I read fiction because it was the most exciting – full of adventure, longing, and secrets. I was transported to another place, the characters in those stories always friends, safe and trusting. And it was there that I realized, at 12 years old, that stories were powerful enough to make me feel connected to someone I didn’t know and that I wanted to do the same – put my stories out there as part of an ongoing conversation.
In the company of these stories, all these books by writers around me, I would take out my notebook and write back to them: That character you wrote about? I’ve got one for you. Her name is… and she went to…
That was the beginning, and ever since, I’ve been telling my stories. Of course, it gets complicated as you grow older, and though I still write with shelves full of books around me, I have to put myself in other situations to sustain that initial spark and keep it burning. My writers group is one of the most important support systems I have. After we write, we discuss our goals and give each other strategies to obtain them. Sometimes we talk about the same things over and over again, but it feels just as important each time we say it.
Last week, at Sarah Lawrence College, I was reminded of the nature of what we as writers know deeply to be true and what we forget when doubts set in. I teach a novel-writing workshop and an introductory fiction-writing course in the Writing Institute. On Thursday, one of my students came back from a reading by Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge, beaming. “She said writing wasn’t easy for her,” he said. “She said she has to work at it.” The entire class gasped, and then smiles broke out around the table. I looked at them, ten talented men and women striving to write novels while balancing work, families, and their own demons of insecurity. I wanted to tell them this was nothing new. I’d said the same thing to them many times; they’d read essays by writers who had stated that very thing. But I stopped myself – because no matter how many times they’d heard it, they needed to hear it again. And it’s just as important every time they hear it because even though they know it’s difficult, they still imagine that writers who write such brilliant books, like Strout, have some hidden talent that makes the process easier somehow, and they don’t want to believe that it’s as hard for her as it is for each of them.
I’m the same way, and so is every writer I know. It seems an easy truth to keep in mind, but it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile what we know with what we see—like the rounded shape of the Earth challenged by the flatness of the land before us. There’s the experience of reading a book like Olive Kitteridge, and there’s the first draft of our novels on our computer screens that seems impossibly far from what we hope it will become. So, that Thursday in class, we took a minute to bask in the knowledge that we had something in common with Elizabeth Strout. And then we began to write.