Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Blog Update

I have changed the labeling on my blogs, so now it should be easier to find blogs pertaining to specific topics. Anything labeled "Literary Dreams" has to do with my growth as a writer, and anything that furthers my chances of getting published. So, anything pertaining to acceptances, rejections, how my writing is going, writing conferences, etc. will be found under this label.

The rest should be self-explanatory, though I would like to note that "poetry" refers to the topic (which I have yet to write about), while "poems" includes poetry that I have written.

I may add more labels as time goes on, and I may amend the ones currently in place, but if I make any major changes, I will let you know.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Craft of Writing

Though I've listed my favorite books in my profile, favorite books are different from important books, particularly when it comes to writing. So, here are some authors and books that should be studied for what they bring to the craft of literature:

J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter Series

While this series includes many memorable characters and is one of the most fun books (or series of books) to read in modern memory, the one thing that separates this series from other books is its intricate plot. You want a master class on foreshadowing and plotting, so that nothing sounds contrived, but flows naturally from what came before? Read this series, and stand in awe, for Rowling did this not just in one book, which is hard enough, but in seven.

Honore de Balzac, Eugenie Grandet

Eugenie Grandet (with an accent grave on the first "e") is considered one of Balzac's best novels, if not his best. Its main features are its three-dimensional characters and attention to detail. While I have not read any of Balzac's other works, he is well-known for these traits in all of his writings. Charles Dickens also is known for his memorable characters, and indeed, he was influence by this earlier French master.

Natsumi Soseki, Mon

Another character study, this time concerning the two main characters in the novel. The story itself seems to be secondary to these two characters, though there is a plot. The plot, however, springs from the characters, so much so that we feel we are watching real people reacting to the world around them, rather than reading a manufactured story. Oh, and in English, the author is known as Soseki Natsumi.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Interested in creating a manufactured world in which to place your characters, one with its own history and geneologies? Or looking for how to write a strong narrative? Look no further than this masterful work. This was the first book that I remember reading, not that I don't remember anything I read before it, but the impact of all I read before this work was so much less.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Despite an overabundance of "ly" words, this work is best-studied for the lyrical aspects of its narrative, especially the closing pages of the work. I'd give my right arm (well, maybe not--it's my writing arm, after all) to be able to write something as masterfully as Fitzgerald did in those closing pages.

Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes

Irish authors tend to have lyricism down to a science. The lyricism in this book is different from the lyricism found in The Great Gatsby, but one in which the words themselves, like in the former selection, make the story a joy to read.

Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

There may be better American writers than Mark Twain, but few match his storytelling abilities. Along with Huck Finn, be sure to read his short stories and the three other books that made his career: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I still have yet to read the last one, but of the other two, Tom Sawyer can be uneven at times, the best parts focusing on the main story of the book, dealing with Injun Joe; while the Prince and the Pauper is one of the best-plotted of Twain's novels.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The first few paragraphs of Wilde's only novel describe its setting in terms of sights, sounds, and smells so well that he is able to transport the reader there with much fewer lines than Balzac uses to describe the town of Saumur at the beginning Eugenie Grandet, but more effectively. I have only to pick up the book again to smell the flowers in Basil's garden.

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Faulkner uses techniques similar to Wilde in bringing his world to life in vivid detail. Instead of smelling flowers, I can still hear wood being sawed whenever I think of that novel. Plus, Faulkner uses multiple voices to tell a story in a way that isn't gimmicky, with each one starting where the other one left off.

I could go on with other examples, but these are the most vivid in my mind. So I'm curious: which books would you put on this list, and why? Or, feel free to comment on books that affected you greatly.

Happy reading!

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Sometimes I think too much.

Sometimes I overanalyze a problem that I don't want to solve, in an effort to make it go away or seem like it's a problem to be dealt with far in the future. Case in point: the idea of going back to school or taking courses to acquire a skill set. The endless loop that my analysis leads me on is 1.) I'll have to pay for either program with money I don't have, and 2.) I'll still have to work while getting the degree/certification, so pursuing it now doesn't help me find a job.

That's square one: finding a job. Gone are the days when I could languish on a college campus and be content to fire off poetry in my free time while attending class, taking notes, writing papers, analyzing texts, and studying the rest of the time. What I want approaches more of what I had in Japan--a job that allowed me, in my free time, to travel, to go to my favorite hot spots, and later (when I had weekends free) to meet up with my friends. Nothing is worse than having a different schedule than one's friends. Right now, I have too much free time. I need something to fill up the time when my friends aren't around, but even when they are around, I can only meet up with the few who live nearby, since Connecticut lacks the public transportation system necessary to make travel beyond Hartford enjoyable.

So, option one is to pursue some sort of degree or certification. For a master's degree, I could major in anthropology or Asian studies (concentrating in Japanese). For an associate's degree or certification, there's cooking classes or reflexology. Cooking classes make sense, since I could work in restaurants while pursuing my degree. On the other hand, the hours would be wacky, since I'd be working when other people aren't, minus a weekday evening or two. And the pace would be fast. So, the other option is to work in a shop (like a pastry shop or a butcher's shop). That way, I get regular hours, and the pace isn't as fast, since most of the food would be made ahead of time. On the other hand, cooking for me would be more of a release than a job skill, so perhaps that certification should wait until I find a job doing something else.

Anthropology and Asian studies would be great degrees to get, but again, I'd have to find work during the two or so years it would take to achieve those degrees. Some of them have work study programs, but could I get housing, as well? The less time I spend here, the better, but even better would be to come home to my own place, not the place where I grew up. See what I mean about overanalysis?

As for reflexology, pursuing that certification has more to do with my fascination of the human body than my fascination with doing it as a career. I like receiving hand and foot massages, but giving them to strangers? At least the hours would be good, since massage workers are limited in the amount of hours they can strain their hands every week (around 20 in Connecticut, I believe). And I could intern while pursuing that degree. In fact, that was my number one option when I came back from Japan, killed by my too detailed thought processes. It's a wonder that I can write anything at all with such a powerful inner critic. Perhaps I need to learn how to shut it off when job hunting the same as I do when I write.

I forgot curatorial and archival work. I'd need degrees for either position, but I have enough museum experience to pursue a career in one of those fields. The problem with a museum job is 1.) the hours can be wacky (though curators and archivists also work for businesses, and can keep regular hours), and 2.) I wonder if I'm interested in doing either job only because I've had prior museum experience. Then again, why do something similar to something I've done before? Including summer jobs, I have worked at an outdoor sports complex, done customer service in the video and book sections of a store, cashiered, given tours in a historical home, taught non-native speakers how to speak English, worked in a foreign school system, and substitute taught in an elementary school. So the real question is, what do I want to do next, and of those options, which one would best allow me to leave this house in the shortest amount of time possible?

And what about jobs I could do without furthering my education? Well, I could continue to substitute teach, though I'd have to apply to more places than the one I worked at last year, so that I'm working almost every month, instead of less than twenty days out of the year. Since my dad is planning on selling off the car which I've used previously to get around (a blue van that we've had since 1994, my sister's freshman year of college), I feel it's best to find a job in a large city, where public transportation can take the place of a vehicle. Of course, not all cities have good public transportation. I wouldn't, for example, be able to live in L.A. Then again, who'd want to drive in that traffic? I mean, unless you want to work in the movie business, in which case, I would drive, too. But writers can live anyone, can't they? The "Lost Generation" of American writers congregated in France. Pearl S. Buck was in China when The Good Earth was published. Haruki Murakami lived in Europe while he wrote Norwegian Wood.

As for me, I could've stayed in Japan, but that part of me that wanted to thrive, not just "get by," wouldn't let me. And while I have many friends still in Japan, whom I miss very much, what I once had in that country that might have kept me there was gone long before I left that island nation and headed home, to be greeted by family, friends, and disappointment. Well okay, the disappointment happened later, but it sounds better when written that way, don't you think?

Anyway, I'd love for all of you who are reading this to comment on what you think I should do, but let me add a caveat: think of what is best for ME when writing your responses, not what would benefit YOU. For example, don't say I should move to San Francisco just because you happen to live nearby, or that I should work for the federal government because you happen to. Many of you may, in reply, say, "Well, what do YOU think would be the best course of action for you?" or "What kind of job are you looking for?" or "Where would you like to live?"

My reply: I really don't know.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Japanese Writers

Before living in Japan, the only Japanese literature I had read was Masks by Fumiko Enchi (or Enchi Fumiko, as the Japanese write it) and some haiku. In Japan, I can't say that I read much Japanese literature, either, limiting myself to some of the shorter works of Mishima Yukio, his novel After the Banquet, Soseki Natsumi's I Am a Cat, and Soseki's far superior (and shorter) novel Mon (sometimes translated as The Gate). Oh, and Train Man (電車男), in a translation I wish they had changed from the British version (we don't put stuff in a boot, we put it in a trunk). And yes, I am writing the author's names as they would appear in Japanese, with the surname first. In the meantime, Murasaki Shikibu's novel The Tale of Genji sits on my shelf and waits. Oh, and the name means "Lady Murasaki," so I have to laugh when it's filed under the "last name" of "Shikibu" in bookstores.

Now, I just completed Murakami Haruki's novel Norwegian Wood. This is the book that made him a bestselling author, and apparently drove him into seclusion for a while. I guess if you're all about you, fame and fortune help feed your ego, but if you care about your art, they can destroy the creative process. Anyway, I decided to read this book first of all of Murakami's works not because I had heard it was his first bestseller, not because I heard it was the most-read (in Japan) of all of his works, but because a Japanese movie based on the book is in production, and I wanted to read the book before the movie came out. Since it stars Rinko Kikuchi, how can I miss it? And I see she is playing Naoko, which is who I thought she should play. She likes playing difficult roles, doesn't she? And for those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, check out the book at the library, or at least read the back cover.

As for my assessment of the book: the first chapter is one of the best I've ever read, even in translation. The rest of the a little strange. That's not a criticism, but be warned that it may take a while to get your head wrapped around it. And yet, one thing I must single out for praise is the characters that inhabit the book. If you want a master class in creating believable, three-dimensional characters, here it is. Notice, for example, how he takes a minor character-Hatsumi-and imbues her with possibly the most life of any of the characters in the novel--and she only appears twice! And the second time she appears, where she has the most impact, Murakami makes her unforgettable in less than fifteen pages of prose.

Since I haven't read any other books by him, I can't compare this book to his other ones. According to the translator's note at the end of the book, some of his early fans were disappointed that this novel was so "mainstream." After all, it's a love story, albeit not your normal love story. Lots of masturbating, blow jobs, hand jobs, and sex, and lots of talk about masturbating, blow jobs, hand jobs, and sex, though they fit the mold of the story, and the times in which it takes place (1969-1970). And yet, all of that is on the surface. It's the emotions and the characters' lives that Murakami cares about.

Some great novels, like To Kill a Mockingbird, you can understand and love after only one reading. Others take more than one reading before you can get at their cores. Norwegian Wood, despite sounding like a simple love story containing lots of sex, falls in the latter category. Or perhaps, I just need a few days to wrap my head around what I read the first time.

P.S. Since I read this book (and all of the books I've listed) in English, I would like to address two minor criticisms I have concerning the translation. One is that honorifics aren't included (-san, -kun,-chan, etc.). I feel that if something can't be translated from one language to another, they should either be preserved in their original forms with a note explaining them to the reader, or a note describing the translator's approximation should be included. In the case of honorifics, they go a long way toward explaining the relationships between characters without having to describe how they feel about each other. In this novel, however, I do have to say that I didn't notice their absence, mainly because most of the characters in the novel are of the same strata. Still, I feel honorifics should have been included.

I also noticed that, on occasion, the translator put the word "the" in front of locations, such as "I'm going to the Ginza." Since articles like "the" don't exist in Japanese speech, they should only be included to make the English sound more natural. Therefore, putting "the" in front of place names is bizarre, since it'd be the equivalent of an English person saying "I'm going to the Chinatown."

Overall, however, the quality of the translation seems high, and since the translation I read is the only one that Murakami, so far, has authorized (and, since he spent some time in the U.S. and Europe, he probably speaks English fairly well), I imagine the translation is close in tone and feel to the original Japanese. Certainly, the writing quality is high.

Update on the Novel

It feels like I've been working on my first novel forever, and maybe I have.

I first came up with the idea for it in sixth grade (1990) after writing a short story for class and feeling that I could expand it into a novel. I outlined it during my high school years, which is when I got most of my book ideas and began writing them down. I mention it in my London diary entries (2000), as I had a dream that influenced the direction the novel would take. I'm not sure, however, if this and other ideas really took, as the novel was completely rewritten while I was in Japan (and during the first few months after I returned home) without referencing them.

I started writing the first draft of the novel in 2002 or 2003. I had my dad print it out about a year or so before I went to Japan, though I stopped editing it several months before I left, if not earlier, unhappy with some forced episodes in the novel that, if extracted, would leave me with little story, but, if included, would not flow naturally from the story. The rewritten first draft took a little over a year to write, mainly because I only had an hour a night to work on it in Japan, if that long. I wrote most of part one over there, and the rest of the novel (including all of part two) after returning home.

I did take several months off between finishing the first/second draft (the one I started in Japan) and starting the second/third draft, which is when I began putting it on the computer. I have finished the second/third draft of part one of the novel, but have hit a snag in writing part two. I found two episodes which I need (and which the story needs) sounding forced upon the characters, so I have to figure out a way for things to happen in the story naturally, but in a way that allows for these two key episodes to take place. Right now, if everyone acts like they're supposed to, and I don't create events that force their hand, there will be no climax.

I feel that soon, I will again be putting off the novel for a time, so that I may return to it later with fresh eyes. I hope to finish the second/third draft, at least, before I do that, which is why right now, I am outlining the novel as is, up to the point that sounds forced. I also plan on making a timeline (thanks, Wesleyan Writers Conference). I might put the climax on the timeline as well and figure out how to build to it from what I have. After all, the only rule in writing that I follow is to do whatever works. By outlining the entire novel up until that point, I should be able to see where the novel is going, which will also help me in constructing my climax. Most of it is good; I just have to figure out how to get the main character to be there without having him act against his character, nor the other characters in the novel acting against theirs. Trust me, it's more difficult than it sounds.

So, I hope that I can take a break from the novel within a month or two. I have a short story idea that I'd like to work on, and I can use the break time to almost exclusively look for a job and a place to live. One of my friends wants me to live near her in the D.C. area, but unless someone's willing to put me up for a few months rent-free (I'd pay for food and utilities), I'll have to find a job first. Then again, finding a job in an area far from where one lives is more difficult than finding one near where one lives, especially concerning interviews, where transportation becomes an issue. We really need a good public transportation system in this country. Otherwise, I'm moving back to Japan.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cooking As a Pastime

Heart onigiri at Bar Eden.

Until I went to Japan, I wasn't much into cooking. The most complex dish I made was Rice-a-Roni. Not that I'm making gourmet dishes now; I'm not. But, I wonder if I should be, or at least learning how.

My cooking...

Three of the people I lived with while in Japan were excellent cooks. I know; I got to eat some of their creations. The first person was my roommate when I lived in a NOVA apartment (NOVA is the name of the first company I worked for in Japan, since gone bankrupt and bought out by another company). The other two were housemates when I lived in BB House, which, sadly, ceased to exist soon after the death of the owner, may she rest in peace.

The one thing the three of them had in common was preparing complex-looking, delicious Asian cuisine. Only one of them prepared Japanese cuisine; my roommate was originally from Indonesia (he's Australian), and one of the housemates was from Myanmar.

For the sake of not embarrassing them, let's call my roommate M, my housemate from Myanmar Y, and the housemate from Japan K. M often made more food than he could eat, so I got to try much of what he made. Of Y's food, I only got to eat an occasional soup, but they were tasty. The one who did the most cooking, however, and whose food I ate the most of, was K. In fact, K cooked for the whole house on occasion, and also spent a whole night making food for a hanami matsuri (cherry-blossom viewing). If not for her, I wouldn't have eaten my final day in Japan, since I spent most of that day making my room look immaculate.

...versus K's cooking.

I bought a Japanese cookbook while at the Tokyo Animation Exposition. Not surprisingly, it had a manga slant to it, its title being (wait for it), The Manga Cookbook. So far, the most complex recipe I have tried is a bento, but due to the amount of resources (food) required and the amount of time it takes to prepare, I have not tried many of the advanced recipes in the book--like okonomiyaki--and the ones I have tried, I haven't done often. In fact, most of my cooking in American (and in Japan, too) has been relegated to cooking spaghetti in a pot and adding spices to the sauce. I also make a mean tuna for sandwiches.

My attempt at bento.

Cooking is a lot like writing. It involves creativity, the look and taste (style and substance) must be appetizing, and the best cooks, like the best writers, aren't afraid to experiment. And ultimately, food and books are labors of love, which are then turned loose on the public in order to await judgment--though their verdict doesn't much matter, in the end. The process is what's important.

I remember watching the anime for Video Girl Ai, where Moemi cooks for Yota, who is secretly in love with her. Even though she cooks for him out of kindness, and not love, I thought (and still do) that a woman cooking for me--out of love--would be the most wonderful thing in the world. Hmm, maybe the way to a man's heart really is through his stomach. The reason I find such a declaration of love so moving is because of the work involved in making a meal for someone. You are devoting your time and energy (lots of it) to someone else's happiness. Time and energy are what we give to endeavors that we love, and to people that we love. To spend so much time making something that will disappear so quickly is, in effect, the ultimate sacrifice that one can make for another human being.

Sashimi (raw meat) in a restaurant in Sapporo.
(note: those are my friend's hands, not mine)

Getting back to my original thought, I have been thinking recently that I should learn how to cook like my friends in Japan. The timing has to do with the Korean soap opera that I've been watching, since the main character is a pastry chef, but I feel that the show is just stoking flames that have long been smoldering in my soul. Cooking and preparing food appeal to my sense of creativity, as well as my love of solitude--though cooking is never as solitary a pursuit as writing is, even when done alone. Plus, none of the jobs I have looked at since I returned from Japan have captured my imagination. Cooking would. Maybe not in a crowded restaurant where the patrons care how hot or cold their meal is over whether it's a masterpiece of cuisine, but rather in a bakery or a cake shop, or at a small restaurant with a dedicated staff. If nothing else, I can cook at home, relieving the stresses of the day with a culinary delight created with my own hands.

I don't know. All I know is that I can't keep doing what I'm doing. Writers may need rooms of their own in which to write (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf), but they need a life beyond their rooms in which to live.