We have a lot to catch up on. In the interval between my last post and this one, I completed my second semester as an MFA student, flew to Bali for my sister’s wedding, spent three weeks in Malaysia being reminded of how much I love Malaysia (and my house, and my friends, and my family), then returned to Philadelphia to pack up our apartment and move to the San Francisco Bay Area. So much happened in the last two months that though I wanted to blog a couple of times, I didn’t have time to catch my breath before I had something new to think about. All the while dealing with the major jet lag that comes from adjusting to a 12-hour time difference (Malaysia-Philly), only to immediately switch to a 15-hour time difference (Malaysia-SF.) Ouch.
We’re in the Bay Area because hubby has a summer internship here, followed by a fall semester in SF. And because our stay in each place is only for a couple of months, we’re using AirBnB rather than signing a lease, which means we’ll be moving to a new place every month until September (I know!)
I was really bummed out when I realised my kitchen activities will be limited for a while. There isn’t a grocery store nearby, the fridge is shared with three other roommates, and I don’t have a pantry, or my pots and pans. I can hear my Le Creuset calling me from my storage closet 3000 miles away. I miss you too.
This and the fact that my housemates leave their dishes in the sink all day threw me in a week-long funk.
Plus: I had long ago come to terms with the fact that I’m a city girl. I used to think that because I hate shopping, love cooking, am a bookworm, and can appreciate the occasional waterfall, I’d do okay in the suburbs. But then I spent a year working in a rural hospital in the tiny town of Kuala Kubu Bharu. It took less than a week for me to decide that it was worth the 60km commute—half of that over rough terrain— just to live in urban Petaling Jaya, where the shops stay open past 7pm.
Living in the suburbs without a car (to bring you to the nearest city, or at least the nearest Trader Joe’s) isn’t great. There isn’t much to do here. Walking around Mountain View, we saw lots of people cycling around for fun. One guy was pushing a pram while roller-skating. I saw a father kicking around a football with his son in their front yard. Here, people exercise for fun. Methinks fitting in here would need a major transformation.
What else has got me down? The cost of living here is really high. Rent is double what we pay in Philly, which, you recall, was quadruple what we would have paid in Malaysia. A ten-minute Uber ride costs 8USD. Meals cost about 12-15USD/person; cheaper meals require an Uber.
It also wasn’t fun to begin a new semester the week of a major move. I’m taking two courses for the summer semester, and the workload is much heavier than I expected. I have six assignments due within the next three weeks, on top of weekly essays and group discussions.
Plus: A husband on a show I’m watching died. The next day, I finished a book on my reading list where the wife died at the end. And the next book I opened was about two brothers who kill people for a living. None of this helped.
So I haven’t been in the greatest mood lately.
The clouds have begun to lift, though. We found a sushi place about 18 minutes’ walk away from our place. We watched Wonder Woman in the nicest cinema we’ve discovered in the U.S. so far, and the tickets were surprisingly cheap. We rented a car and took a mini road trip to San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Monterey Bay. I visited the cute androids at the Googleplex.
Now I just need to find an ice-cream place. That should cheer me up.
Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame. I’ve smashed my thrice-a-week blog post resolution to bits, but wait! Hold off on the waste-throwing, because I made progress in a few other areas. It’s an uphill climb, my friends.
New Year Resolution Scores:
To read the Bible for 10 minutes every day (3/5)
To publish a blog post of at least 300 words, 3 times a week (0/5)
To spend at least 10 minutes writing fiction every day (1/5)
To take 1 great photo a week (2/5)
To update Project Life once a week (5/5)
Out of the 8 weeks since my last post, I’ve read the Bible daily for at least 6 of them. I’m finally past the 100-day mark of my 365-day plan! I’m awarding myself a 3 out of 5.
I went off the ARFI grid completely, so that’s a big, fat zero for me. I didn’t write 10 minutes of fiction everyday, but I did write the second chapter of my thesis project (a 60,000-page novel), as well as two short stories for class. That’s got to count for something, doesn’t it? Even if they’re for school. Jenna gets a 2 out of 5.
I spent a week in Salt Lake City (ski trip) and a week in Washington D.C. (writers’ conference), and I took a couple of great shots during those trips. Back in Philly, though, I reverted to hermit mode, living off the stockpile of meat in my freezer. So the only shots I took were of my husband and my beautiful Le Creuset. I’m awarding myself a two.
Ah, resolution no. 5. My only perfect score. For the first time in my 2-year love affair with Project Life, I’m up to date. In case you haven’t heard of it, Project Life is scrapbooking made easy. It’s a photo journal that helps you, in Project Life’s own words, “Cultivate a Good Life and Record It.” I’m a huge fan.
For more information on Project Life, watch the video below. You can get them in Malaysia from this website. I use an Epson Picturemate 310 to print my photos at home. They turn out better than if you print them at a shop, and fit perfectly in Project Life’s photo slots.
In Other News
I caught a bad flu after being exposed to a freezing day in Washington D.C., which resulted in my missing most of the conference I had travelled there for, and a topsy-turvy sleep schedule (because I was in bed all day). For almost two weeks after my return to Philly, I was running on Malaysian time—falling asleep at 9am, and getting up at 5pm. While this facilitated my catching-up with friends back home, I started to miss the sun. On Sunday, I took advantage of a short story deadline to stay up for 24 hours, crashed, and was finally able to get up when the sun did. Now I get up at 5 am and crash at 6pm. Better, but not ideal. Hopefully, by the next time I post, I’ll have gotten back to my 3am-11am sleep pattern.
What else? As I mentioned two months ago (shame, shame), I recently took up photography, and I’m loving it! I bought Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Exposure”, which really helped me understand the basic ISO/aperture/shutter speed trio of previously daunting photography terms, then registered for a free online digital photography course on alison.com (the course has since been taken down). Once I understood the basics, my DSLR (a Nikon D7100) became my new best friend. I’ve always envied friends who are able to draw/paint/design (I suck at drawing. Like, really suck), and photography has opened the door for me to be an artist, too.
Writing is a form of art, but it’s much less spontaneous and much harder to do well. Plus it’s harder to get your friends to read your stories than to look at your photos. On the other hand, writing is free. The cost of new glass (that’s fancy photography-speak for lenses) is insane. INSANE.
You’re all caught up now. Two months covered in one blog post. Boy, I need to start living it up if I’m to blog three times a week.
Hello there! It’s been 2 months since my last post, and I am ashamed. But why waste time feeling guilty? It is, after all, a new year. And January is a time for forgiving yourself and making new resolutions.
I’m not one of those who say new resolutions are a waste of time because they’ll be broken by February, or that the new year is an arbitrary date and is therefore meaningless. I like the idea of a reset button, of evaluating your life and deciding what it is about yourself you want to improve, and where you want to be by this time next year.
Part of the process is telling yourself that the previous year is done, your mistakes are in the past, and you’ve got a blank page to write a new and improved story. It’s also a good time to count your blessings. Here are a few of mine:
Getting accepted into a masters program
The means to pursue my interests: writing, cooking, and most recently, photography
Great friends and family back home
A loving husband
Shout-out: A recent trip back home gave me a greater appreciation for friends who took the time to catch up with me. Childhood friends like Sasee (macha!) and Jun Wei, who so reliably say yes! whenever I propose a meet-up, and the (almost) countless Monash Christian Fellowship friends who still feel like family despite having been scattered across different jobs, states and countries in my 4 years since graduation. MCF-ers: I love how we attend each other’s weddings, keep tabs on each other, rejoice over the birth of each other’s kids (welcome to the world, Kieran!), and take the time for the occasional makan sessions. I wish I could name all of you, but our family is so big that I’d be sure to leave somebody out.
Way, way too little time spent reading the Bible & praying
Way, way too much Netflix
Poor discipline when it comes to writing, coursework and blogging
To give you a picture of how little Bible I’ve read this year: according to my YouVersion Bible app, I’m currently at day 88 of a 365-day plan, which I started in July 2015. That means I’ve missed 6 months of Bible-reading. 6 months. And my frequency of prayer is even worse.
Here’s an actual picture of how much Netflix I watched in 2016:
Yep. And we’re talking every season of each show. That’s an average of 5 seasons per show and a total of 20 shows, with maybe an average of 15 episodes per season = 1500 episodes. Holy molé!
As for writing, I basically did the bare minimum for my first semester, and it’s been 2 months since my last blog post. Ouch. Which finally brings us to…
My New Year Resolutions
I’ve tried to make these as specific and sustainable as possible.
To read the Bible for 10 minutes every day
To publish a blog post of at least 300 words, 3 times a week
To spend at least 10 minutes writing fiction every day
To take 1 great photo a week
To update Project Life once a week
No. 4 has to do with my latest hobby: photography! Hubby and I bought a DSLR on Cyber Monday, and I’ve been having fun learning about exposure and composition. I’ll write more about this new interest and Project Life in the next post.
Happy New Year! And no matter how busy your lives get, remember:
Hoping against hope that jamming devices won’t be used at the rally today, I’ll be live-blogging my experience at Bersih 5.0. Refresh the page every now and then for live updates.
Today, Malaysians take to the streets to demand:
Strengthen parliamentary democracy
Right to dissent
Empower Sabah and Sarawak
I made the snap decision to attend the rally on Thursday. Bersih wasn’t very present in my consciousness this time around, but every time I saw an article or Facebook post about the red-shirts and yellow-shirts, I’d think to myself: Should I go? I didn’t know any of my friends who were going, and the last rally was hot and exhausting.
The tipping point came when a Grab uncle told me he was going for Bersih. He didn’t say much, but sitting there, suddenly, I knew.
I’d be there.
9.30am: As we wait for the rest of my group to arrive, a friend tells me of test-driving a car with a red shirt salesman. “How much they paying you?” my friend asked. “RM50.” “Don’t you think it’s a bit small? You should think more long-term,”. His reply: “Life is hard.” My friend’s wisdom: If someone takes RM100 from you and gives you 50 cents, are you going to thank him?
9.46am: My friends and I board the LRT at Kelana Jays. As we enter, we’re greeted by cheers and applause by fellow rally-goers coming from Subang.
10.00am: Bangsar LRT (one of two meeting-points) is a sea of yellow.
10.56am: I spot a few LGBTQ rainbow flags in the crowd. It’s a group that call themselves Queers United for Equality and Electoral Reform. Above a huge Q.U.E.E.R. banner, a man holds up a sign: TANGKAP Pencuri- MO1. Kebajikan 30 juta rakyat Malaysia mesti diutamakan (ARREST Thief – MO1. The welfare of 30 million Malaysians should come first).
11.04am: The Internet’s slowed down considerably. I decide to give up trying upload photos and instead burn through my phone battery trying to upload my updates. A friend points out a banner hanging from an overhead bridge that I hadn’t noticed: A large portrait of Anwar Ibrahim bearing the words: Kehadiran Saudara-Saudari Akan Membantu Menjana Perubahan di Negara Malaysia Tercinta (Your presence will help generate change in our beloved country of Malaysia). This reminds me of a conversation I had last night with a friend over dinner, about how Bersih is becoming more and more partisan.
11.25am: We’re seated along the highway, waiting for a signal from the front that we can start our march. A guy using a megaphone talks forcefully to the crowd, but he’s too far away to hear clearly. Sporadic chants of “Bersih! Bersih!” (Clean! Clean!) break out from the crowd. Someone begins handing out salt in case of tear gas. I decline, deciding to rely on my swimming goggles and bottle of water.
11.30am: We begin the march! “BERSIH!” “Hebat!”(Clean! Power!”) A little old lady standing on a box instructs us through a microphone to remember that 1pm is prayer time. That’s so cool.
12.33pm: We’d minced forward 1 kilometre when we met a line of purple-shirted security guards, who asked us to halt. Word on the street is that the FRU is ahead of us, preventing us from converging at Dataran Merdeka. We’re told to leave a space in front of us in case those ahead are forced to retreat. It will be at least a half an hour wait under the hot sun as the organisers negotiate our passage with the authorities.
12.59pm: Ambiga is here! She takes the platform and speaks to the waiting crowd. I can only catch a few of her words. “We have given our word [to the auhorities] that we will stay here, and finish our protest here. It’s a nice place to wait…this is worth fighting for.” The crowd responds with cheers of “HidupBersih!” (Long live Bersih!)
1.21pm: Something seems to be happening. A few people run towards us from the direction of the blockade. In a Lord-of-the-Rings-type moment, we hear them say, “The FRU are coming!” An ambulance, sirens blaring, drives past. A pause. Nothing happens. We resume our wait, but are now watchful.
1.30pm: “Let’s go take a picture of the FRU,” says Danny.
2.10pm: Malaysian-style, we decide to take a break from the protest and head into Little India in search of food.
2.23pm: We wind up having lunch at Nu Sentral, a mall attached to the transportation hub. The air-conditioning is a welcome relief, but it also makes me more aware of my pounding head, flushed cheeks and sweaty clothes. The food court is full of yellow-shirts taking a break. As we eat, we receive news through the Bersih online stream that the rally’s venue has been changed to KLCC. I am relieved; KLCC is a couple of train stops away.
3.10pm: Had a scoop of Haagen Dazs while waiting for a latecomer to join us. Because, you know, there’s ARFI.
3.33pm: We board an LRT headed to KLCC.
4.08pm: We join the throng gathered in front of Public Bank. There are so many people that we can’t get close enough to the stage to hear the speeches. The crowd sounds a little ugly as those at the back holler at a line of people standing up and blocking the view.
4.30pm: The sky is overcast and the air smells like rain. The three of us (we split from the main group a while ago) decide to head back to avoid a crush. Unfortunately, so does everyone else. At the top of the escalator leading down to the station, we are hit by a heat wave from all the bodies tightly crammed together. We left the sauna and decide to try another station. So do a lot of people.
5.11pm: We get into an Uber. The driver asks permission to go and salam YB Zuraidah, who had been 5 minutes behind us the whole time we were waiting. To think! If I weren’t so tired I’d get out and salam her too.
6.00pm: Traffic was surprisingly clear. I arrived home, took a shower, and tried to sleep off my headache.
It’s 11pm, and I still have a headache. I’m tired and my eyes and throat are dry. One of my Facebook friends wondered, “Why do people go for Bersih?”
Why did I? I knew from the past experience that the rally would be uncomfortable and hot, with long periods of slow walking and sitting around. I was under no delusions that our corrupt politicians would look at our protests and say, “Alright already. We hear you. We’ll stop rigging elections and stealing your money.” I went not because I thought it would change anything, but because I wanted to let them know that I’m not okay with their crap.
I went not because I thought it would change anything, but because I wanted to let them know that I’m not okay with their crap.
The Malaysian headlines have been so painful to read that it’s been a relief to be distracted by the U.S. elections. Our politicians are constantly saying things that make my blood boil. Amidst the anger, frustration and disbelief that too frequently accompanies my perusal of Malaysian news is an overwhelming sense of helplessness. I can’t see what we could possibly do to rid our country of corruption and achieve a true democracy.
Though more than half of the American population was bitterly disappointed at the outcome of the elections, I would readily swap places with them. Their votes actually count, and their leaders respect the outcomes of their elections. Without free and fair elections, what’s a Malaysian to do? Attending the Bersih 5.0 rally was at least a step up from griping about our state of affairs to my husband. At the very least, I get to play a small part in changing our headlines for a day.
This post was brought on by a recent high school reunion of sorts. Familiar faces from a decade ago sent me spiraling into a nostalgic funk. Out came The Ataris, and with it, a tide of emo.
The Ataris has such strong nostalgic powers for me that I generally avoid listening to their music for fear of triggering a mild case of saudade*. One particular number, “San Dimas High School Football Rules” is guaranteed to make me feel fifteen again. I think it was the first song (of very few, admittedly) I ever performed in front of an audience.
The year was 2003. The venue, a prefects’ high tea at a very cheap hotel. The band, a boy a year older (remember what a big deal that was in high school?) who was slated to become my best friend for a couple of years, and his friend (I don’t remember which one). I remember singing the lyrics, which have stuck with me ever since, into the mic, and looking at a sea of faces I’m sure couldn’t catch what I was singing. I wore my sister’s long red skirt and a lycra black top decorated with rhinestones. I felt so cool.
That was the only time we performed together, but that song marked the beginning of my introduction to the world of indie music, courtesy of the older guy, and all that implies when you’re in your teens. I stopped rushing to my room at midnight on Fridays to record Rick Dees and the Weekly Top Forty, and dived into the wealth of mix cd’s my new friend made for me. The Shins, Deathcab for Cutie, Iron & Wine, Belle & Sebastian all became the music of my soul, making me feel emo like I had never felt emo before. Had HitzFM been denying me this cathartic experience? Or was this just puberty?
The Ataris, being among the first in a long line of mix cd’s, received the most airplay. They were playing as I studied for the PMR and SPM (10th grade and 12th grade exams, respectively). They were in the mp3 player I shared with a crush, one earphone each. They were the soundtrack to a surprise birthday party I threw for a friend.
Here are other memories that come to mind when The Ataris plays. Sitting in the neighbourhood basketball court at night with friends, feeling grown-up because I’m out so late. Talking on the phone for hours at the top of the stairs when my parents were out for cell group. Sharing secrets and junk food into the wee hours of the morning. Walking like I owned the school. Feeling like I could do anything.
More than any other band, The Ataris brings back my high school days. I listen to them rarely, almost against my will, because they remind me of the friends I used to be close to. We grew up, we scattered across the globe, we were content with adding each other on Facebook. Spotify mixes my playlists now, and I lost my mp3 player a long time ago.
I wish the world was flat like the old days
Then I could travel just by folding a map
No more airplanes, or speed trains, or freeways
There’d be no distance that could hold us back.
— The New Year, DCFC
I need ice cream.
*saudade: a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves
In Malaysia, no single question annoyed me more than “You don’t speak Chinese? You’re not Chinese ah?” I’ve had to deal with this sort of thing ever since I could toddle, and it infuriates me. Ironically, it was anti-bananaism that made me the banana I am. See, when I was little, my relatives used to put me down for not knowing Chinese. I remember an aunt once calling me “stupid girl” in Cantonese because I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Experiences like that combined with scary kindergarten Chinese teachers ingrained in me a deep aversion to the language.
As a result, I cried for days when I learnt that I had been enrolled into SJKC Chung Hwa at 7. My parents tell me I wouldn’t stop crying until I was pulled out and enrolled into a kebangsaan (Malay-medium) primary school instead. Much of my aversion towards the language has been done away with by non-judgemental Chinese-speaking friends, and if I could go back in time I would have stuck it out at Chung Hwa, if only to spare myself the irritation of dealing with “You’re not Chinese ah”?
While I still haven’t encountered a more annoying question than that (and I doubt I ever will, unless it’s the more racist variation: “You don’t speak Chinese? Are you Malay?”), here are a few I’ve encountered in the U.S. that, while don’t come close on the racism scale, are still pretty annoying.
You’ve only been here a month? Wow! Your English is really good.
Uh…thanks? My objection to this one isn’t just “Malaysians speak English too, you know!” because technically, a majority of us don’t. What bothers me about this question is the implication that English belongs to the Americans. English is as much my first language as it is theirs, and I love it, and I resent the implication that I’ve done really well to master it when I’m not American. You know English is spoken all over the world…don’t you?
You’re 28? Whoa you look, like, 15. Oh, stop it you. It’s an Asian thing. I guess this one isn’t really racist. But you get tired of it after a while. And anyway, isn’t it supposed to be taboo to ask women their ages? Not if you thought I was 15, I suppose. Curse you, Asian skin!
So do you plan to stay here [forever]? Some people ask this out of genuine interest; they want to know what I plan to do after hubby and I finish our studies. There’s a type of person though (mostly Uber/Lyft drivers) who, when they ask you this question, ask as if they expect the answer to be yes, of course, because who wouldn’t want to live in the U.S.? Especially if you come from [insert Asian country here]. Come to think of it, I’ve gotten that vibe from Malaysians too. With our daily headlines, I guess I can understand the sentiment. But guys: while the grass may seem greener here, they don’t have durian trees. And movie tickets cost, like, 12 USD each.
So have you been to Chinatown? Yes. Have you? Variations on this theme include: You must go to Chinatown a lot, and, do you cook Chinese food?
Do you speak Chinese? Et tu, America?
For the most part, people in Philly have been friendly and accepting. I don’t get those questions all the time. But every time I do, I’m reminded that this isn’t my home. I wonder if Asian Americans have to deal with this too. What’s their version of “You’re not Chinese ah?”
When racism/politics/life stress you out, remember,
p.s. I’ll be back in Malaysia for two weeks starting next Thursday. If you want to catch up, call me!
Every now and then, I find a recipe that’s solid gold. The hunt for good recipes is one of my favourite things about cooking; the feeling you get when you take that first bite of an untried recipe’s dish and realise you just made something absolutely scrumptious is the best feeling ever! Then comes the scary second making of that dish. Will it turn out the same? Or was that first successful time a fluke?
Linda’s Lasagna (bless you, Linda!) was one of my early finds. I’ve made it at least five times for various party occasions, and it was unfailingly a hit. Two other friends made it with the same success. The recipe worked for me time and time again, until…I accidentally grabbed a box of no-boil, “oven-ready” lasagna noodles instead of regular noodles (the ones you need to boil first).
It was a disaster. Instead of turning out al dente — perfectly cooked, not-too-soft, not-too-tough —, my lasagna was chewy, with crunchy bits. The top noodle layer was the worst, curled up and stiff as a board. I cringed with every bite, squirming with shame every time my dinner guests insisted that “it’s good!”. It’s not. I’m eating it too, you know. Stop lying to me.
Today, as my lasagna sauce was simmering on the stove, I realised with horror that I’d picked up a box of oven-ready noodles again. Panicking, I turned to Google for help. Surprisingly, there were very few articles about what to do in this situation. Few solutions, but many complaints. Quite a number of people have faced the same issue, and forsworn oven-ready noodles for regular noodles that need to be boiled.
Cooking regular lasagna noodles can be messy business. They can stick to each other while in the pot, so you need to stir them occasionally as they’re boiling. It takes about 9 minutes to cook them, depending on the brand. Once they’ve cooked, you need to drain them and immediately separate them. If you leave them in the strainer, they’ll stick together, and are guaranteed to tear when you try to separate them
You may think that “oven-ready” means you can assemble the lasagna and pop the whole thing into the oven straightaway. Not so! Unless your recipe doesn’t specify the use of oven-ready noodles (and most don’t), steps need to be taken to avoid an undercooked, dry-noodles fiasco. These steps add 30 minutes of noodle preparation, but reduce your sauce cooking time by about half. For most recipes, that means that using oven-ready noodles takes about the same time, overall, as using regular ones. As a bonus, you won’t have an extra pot to wash up
Substituting Regular with Oven-Ready
Oven-ready noodles absorb up to 50% more liquid than regular, so either increase the amount of liquid (i.e. water) in your sauce by 50%, or reduce the simmering time. For example, I reduced the simmering time for the Linda’s Lasagna sauce from 1 hour to 40 minutes
There are conflicting opinions about whether you should soak/boil your oven-ready noodles before assembling the lasagna. One Italian chef says never to do it, because your noodles will become soggy. Others advocate it. The way that makes most sense to me is to stand the lasagna for 30 minutes, because your noodles are “soaking” in the warm sauce.
Who knew there’d be so much to say about lasagna noodles? If you’ve got a different method of replacing regular with oven-ready, or have simply been lucky so far when tossing oven-ready noodles in the oven, let me know in the comments!
Most importantly, remember that even after lasagna,
As I write this, the smell of beef and tomatoes simmering in their own juices fills my apartment. For the perfect Italian ragu (bolognese meat sauce), Marcella Hazan writes in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking:
The meat should not be from too lean a cut; the more marbled it is, the sweeter the ragu will be
Add salt immediately when sautéing the meat to extract its juices for the subsequent benefit of the sauce
Cook the meat in milk before adding wine and tomatoes to protect it from the acidic bite of the latter
Use a pot that retains heat…enameled cast-iron pans (can you say Le Creuset?) or a pot whose heavy bottom is composed of layers of steel alloys are fully satisfactory
And the clincher:
5. Cook, uncovered, at the merest simmer for a long, long time; no less than 3 hours is necessary, more is better
No less than 3 hours, which is why I’m sitting here, blogging at half past midnight with a growling stomach, as my apartment smells more and more delicious.
To distract myself from the hunger pangs, let me tell you about my day. Today was an especially good day to blog about, because I didn’t waste it on (much) Netflix. I wish I could tell you that today was a typical day. Pretend with me that these sorts of days happen more often than the ones where I binge-watch TV shows, a’rite?
I woke up at 11am and shopped around for casserole dishes on Amazon. There’s a pot luck at one of hubby’s classmate’s houses this Thursday, and I’m going to bring my tried-and-tested lasagna. After I bought a set of buttercup-yellow dishes (to match my beloved KitchenAid, with whom I will be reunited in 18 months, God-willing), I actually got out of bed, and lugged my set of Long Earth books + Eragon back to the Free Library of Philadelphia.
I spent an hour browsing the books, trying to make myself borrow something that might improve my craft rather than just going for my favourite authors, and ended up with:
Ursula K. Le Guinn is a pretty renowned author of fantasy books, so there’s lots to learn from her. The thing is, I remember reading one of her books as a teen and not liking it. I also don’t like short stories. Her book’s going to be work.
The Inheritance Cycle‘s going to be work as well. Eragon fans, I’m sorry! I liked the first book so little when it came out in 2002 that I never progressed to the second, but I’m giving it another go. I’m going to persevere through the third and fourth as well, because Paolini was only 17 when Eragon was published, and Hollywood made a movie based on his book, and what author doesn’t want that kind of moolah? So I’ll persevere. (By that logic, I should really be re-reading Twilight, but I really, really don’t want to).
The Sophie Kinsella books are going to be my candy.
I lugged twelve books back home, then I did my homework while watching Sex and the City. I’m 18 years too late, but I want to see what the fuss is about.
The ragu turned out great! Can you smell that? This is now my favourite bolognese recipe.
So let’s see — I went to the library, did my homework, cooked dinner for my husband, and to cap it off,
This week’s homework which I’ve been working on instead of working on my piece for Fiction Friday, which, zomg, is tomorrow.
Describe a place where your character feels trapped. Use the details of the place to suggest your character’s discomfort, claustrophobia, and dread. (1-2 pages)
The Road Runner
The unchanging horizon of a clear blue sky encircled Joshua, a white-and-denim speck in a pale-gold sea of sand. A thousand steps brought no change in scenery; a day’s trudging made as much of a difference as standing still.
The sun stalked Joshua relentlessly, beating down on his head, his shoulders, his feet. The glare of it pierced his eyes from every direction. His tongue, swollen and numb, filled his parched mouth, making it hard to breathe. Whenever he took a swallow of water, it felt like sandpaper scraping his throat raw.
Joshua spent the days trying to outrun the sun. He spent the nights numbering the stars. The days and nights blended together, and the only real measure of time was the decreasing weight of his waterskin. Whenever Joshua measured time this way, he wished it were the day before. But the days and nights marched on.
The monotony of the desert was sometimes broken by the occasional cactus, arms raised in supplication like the cacti in a Road Runner cartoon. Whenever Joshua came across such a cactus, he would pause and mimic it. This ritual sometimes lasted for minutes at a time, Joshua upright and motionless, side by side with a cactus — two figures, arms outstretched, communing with each other and with God.
One night, he numbered the millionth star. The cool, grey sand drank up his tears, leaving no trace of them behind. He rose while it was dark, but he could not outrun the sun.
The unchanging horizon of a clear blue sky encircled Joshua, a white-and-denim speck in a pale-gold sea of sand.
“It’s been 20 days since your post ‘Sky’ was published”.
Holy moly! I feel really, really guilty about this. Since this blog is about cultivating some discipline as a writer, the fact that I haven’t written a post for nearly 3 weeks is a personal failure. My goal is to blog at least twice a week, so 20 days is bad. Real bad.
I don’t have a good reason for my neglect. One episode of Gilmore Girls led to another, one episode of Downton Abbey led to another, and before I could blink September was almost over. Curse you, yellow labrador butt!
Besides watching a ton of Netflix (New Girl, The Office — again! —, Jane the Virgin, Chef’s Table…the list, to my shame, goes on and on), I’ve also been caught up in Terry Pratchett and Steven Baxter’s The Long Earth series. I discovered the books in the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is just 700m away from home. If you’re a resident of Philly, membership is free and you get to borrow up to fifty books at a time, for 3 weeks at a time, and you can extend your loan period up to ten times. Yep. Fifty. This is fantastic!
The Long Earth was part of my haul, and I’m really happy I borrowed them. The books are about the discovery that there are an infinite set of Earths that humans can Step to. These Earths aren’t alternate realities, they’re distinct Earths that have experienced different cosmological events, which have affected the evolution of their life forms. Recently, humans have developed the technology to Step to these other Earths, and we follow a few characters as they explore these different iterations of our planet.
One of the more useful things I’ve been up to instead of blogging is working on my punctuation with Eats, Shoots & Leaves. English is my first language (no kidding, banana!), so I breezed through English at school without having to really study punctuation and grammar. I get really frustrated when I’m reviewing some one else’s work and I know the grammar is wrong but I don’t have the vocabulary chops to explain why.
It’s also pretty horrifying to discover I’ve been doing some things wrong my whole life, like using hyphens instead of em dashes and single quotation marks instead of double quotations marks. To this day, I’m still not clear on the use of “who” vs “whom”, “than me” vs “than I” (e.g. you know more than me/I). Recently, my professor pointed out that the “duchess’ daughters” in a recent story I wrote really should have been the “duchess’s daughters”. I won’t go into specifics, but an illustration of why this particular use of the apostrophe is not simple is the fact that “Jesus’ disciples”and “Achiles’s heel” are both correct, but “Jesus’s disciples” and “Achiles’ heel” are…less correct.
This kind of thing makes me wonder if I can ever purge all the errors I must have accumulated over the years from my writing.
While I’m on the subject, a friend made a comment that really stuck in my craw. When this friend heard I was going to do a masters in creative writing, he/she responded with an incredulous “Do you really need to study to become a writer? Don’t you just need a great idea?” I was speechless. So much more goes into the writing of a great book than a great idea.
In his seminal work, The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes, “No one can hope to write well if he has not mastered — absolutely mastered — the rudiments: grammar and syntax, punctuation, diction, sentence variety, paragraph structure, and so forth.” From where I’m standing, this seems a substantial task, and it’s only the first step towards becoming a good writer.
You need to build an extensive vocabulary in order to write scenes that are vivid and believable. You need to study and master the use of plot arcs and narrative voice, character development and themes, suspense and poetic rhythm.
Consider, for example, the way these sentences (from The Art of Fiction) have a different rhythm and emphasis when you read them aloud:
Tammy was a damn fool
Tammy shot a damn fool
Bill Jones shot a damn fool
Bill Jones shot two damn fools
Great writers work painstakingly not only to get the big things right (the “great idea”) but the little things right as well, working over every syllable until their masterpiece sounds just right.
My friend’s question left me speechless because it implied that writing is easy; it’s anything but! Especially if you want to write something even half-decent.
The more I learn, the more I realise how much work lies ahead of me. Maybe I’ll never write anything even remotely as good as The Wind in the Willows, but a girl’s gotta dream.
In pursuit of that dream (and a result of my blog-neglect guilt), I’m planning to kick off a project this week. I have short story due on Sunday (Oct 2), and I thought I’d work on it every day this week, on my blog. The exercise will hopefully make me a more consistent writer, since my previous three short stories were the results of last-minute all-nighters.
Once that’s done, I’m going to aim even higher and kick off Fiction Friday, which is a challenge to myself to blog a thousand words of fiction a week.