A long time ago, when I was a wee lad in high school, I attended the Creative Writing section of an afterschool program called, somewhat ostentatiously, Arts High School. I say this because it was a state-funded program which rented a marine-biology classroom in the not-so-nearby Sandy Hook Ocean Institute (read: a basement with several musty fish tanks) into a space for overeager high school girls (and two guys) to read each others’ high school romance novels.
Okay, I kid. There was high school romance poetry as well.
Anyway, the instructor of that class was a guy named Marc, whom I fondly remember as the spitting image of a retired long-haired hippie- a guy who spoke in a drawn-out way as if his words were beads on peace necklaces, occasionally took us around the institute campus to expound on the healing properties of certain weeds, and brought covered glass jars full of mysterious liquids to sip in class. One of them was made of dandelions; I forgot or repressed what the chemical composition of the rest was. (Though the year after that, we got a proper classroom, and he started bringing stainless steel water bottles instead.)
One of his requirements, no doubt trying to appeal to our tech-savvy generation, was to maintain a blog where we were to post our literary brain farts. (Mine lasted about two months, which was six weeks longer than average.) Also, we had to write a letter to him to be handed in each class, where we would just speak what was on our mind, open our problems up, that sort of thing. I wrote all my letters at the last minute on the bumpy, smelly bus ride to the marina, which tells you something about the regard in which I held these requirements at the time.
For no particular reason, I felt like writing Marc another letter, which I have posted for you below (unedited, so I apologize for typos and general incoherence), as I think it provides a nice view into the convoluted way I think, how I feel about writing, and other assorted bits of the mangled detritus known as my mind. Also, because I wanted to make up for all the shitty fortune-cookie one-liners I’ve been splattering over this blog like papier-mache on a balloon. So here goes.
So, um, it’s been a while, to say the least.
I agonized for longer than I should have over the font in this thing, which I guess in retrospect is kind of stupid because Yahoo Mail shows everything in Arial anyway, but…I don’t know. Fonts have a kind of intrinsic meaning, you know; I don’t know about you, personally, because I doubt you’re this crazy, but for a long time, I associated fonts with certain things (and still do). Verdana is my first love; it was the default setting for everything on FanFiction.Net, which for better or worse was the garden that fertilized my deviant desires that blossomed into, among other things, the circumstances that led to our meeting. Whereas Times New Roman I associate with boring papers about King Lear and the three ways in which his struggle illuminates the themes of truth, deceit, and/or justice. But I digress. The point is, I chose the font Georgia because I think it fits you; stately and well-read, with just a touch of curled serif deviance lurking in the background. Also, I remember hearing that you went to the University of Georgia a long time ago, so that too.
The truth is, uh, I don’t really know what to say here. I guess that’s par for the course when you try to reestablish contact with someone you haven’t seen for a long time, and even though the definition of “long time” varies between people and in this technology-steeped generation (for preteen girls I believe this time is about 45 minutes), social bonds are hard to break and even harder to form, you know? Not to mention that I wasn’t the most talkative guy in your class anyway, even though I showed up and brought scraps from my mind for everyone else to critique and drew inappropriate insignia on the margins of Gianna’s poetry for her and Taylor to giggle over during breaks. Oh, and that petition. You know, the one printed on notebook paper with fringes still fresh from ripping, where I suggested that you give us concrete assignments for once. That was awfully mature of me.
It’s 1 in the morning in Chicago right now, which is kind of appropriate, because that’s usually when I started writing the things I’d bring to class every week, if I deigned to bring anything at all. (Not the letters to you, though. Those, I did on the bus.) It was weird. I mean, it was the same procrastination which I usually reserved for calc problem sets and research papers, but believe me- the last thing I want you to think is that I associated writing with that- that it was some sort of a chore that had to be completed by rote, some step on the Checklist Of Academic Achievement And Job Security that the kind of second-generation Asian children I grew up with learned to affix themselves to. Though my feelings on THAT are not entirely one-dimensional either, as with everything else, though I guess that merits another letter altogether. I mean, what I want to say is, writing was fun.
You know? Just plain, good fun, in the purest sense of the word- and yes, there is such a thing, because when you take the slippery path of the writer, your brain learns to make up connotations for words, distilled essences. Like, when I think of the word “fun”, I don’t think of anything fancy or sophisticated- just down-to-earth, adventurous, mildly illegal. There was no script I had to follow when I wrote for your class as opposed to the rest, which I guess is kind of a cliché, but I’m on a roll right now. I mean, it was fun pushing the envelope, challenging my brain to come up with something that a bunch of my peers (mostly white teenage girls) would enjoy dissecting with purple and green glitter pens, something that I wouldn’t embarrass myself putting to paper as well. I enjoyed typing on the laptop computer that became increasingly slow and hot as the night wore on, leaving red exhaust marks on my thighs; wrangling with the printer and its obdurate error messages at three in the morning so I could have 14 or 15 copies of whatever glurge I’d just spit up to circle around the desks tomorrow morning in lieu of whatever education my classmates were suffering through in Holmdel (English in 11th grade, physics in 12th).
In some ways, I guess this is the final letter I should have written in my final portfolio last year, probably because I wasn’t mature enough at the time (I’m still not, but I digress). As much as I talked about procrastination, I don’t think a farewell letter is something you should do that for (which I think I did). I remember my final portfolio was a right mess crammed in a pink plastic folder lying around, because, well, fuck me if you think I was actually organized enough to keep the notebook scraps that I passed off to you as letters throughout the whole year. I used to dread “notebook checks” in middle school because I was the least organized organism this side of the Animalia phylum. (I have a bio midterm coming up as I type this, sorry.) Maybe it’s just me and my overeager 18-year-old liberal arts college self trying to tell someone over twice his age the secrets and wisdom of the world, but I don’t feel like organization, or at least neatness, meshes with being a writer. Yeah, I know there are lots of historical examples of authors with OCD, but I mean, personally? I don’t think I would be where I am right now, I mean, in Chicago, slaving over this messy computer (not the same on I did all my Arts High stuff on, sadly) with files strewn all over the desktop, itself sitting on top of a desk littered with cups and orange peel fragments and worksheets about Japanese verb infinitives, without being, you know, disorganized. You might think it’s hard to concentrate like that, in the midst of turmoil, but I love randomness; I love chaos, entropy, and the energy it spawns. That’s the cliché of creativity: nonconformism, breaking the tightly structured rules of the world with Ginsberg and Kerouac under your arm and all that, but cliches are cliches because they’re true. It’s only in the midst of disorder that my mind clears, which I guess is one reason I wrote all my Arts High shit at one in the morning with a backlog of other homework behind me, and the reason I’m writing this to you now when I should be sleeping. I mean, seriously, if you want disorganized, look at the sentence structure I just stitched the last paragraph together with. That kind of stuff belongs in a horror show.
Anyway, on to the point I originally had when I wrote this letter, even if it can’t have one anymore. To be honest, I really liked your class- and I’m not saying that just because jumping headfirst into a shredder would have been preferable to seventh-period Honors English and Physics. The truth is, Arts High only entered my life in the form of a nondescript, overweight middle-aged woman making a quick presentation during one of my classes (I think it was the aforementioned seventh-period Honors English, but I can’t be sure), and we all let out a sigh of relief because it meant that we would have five less minutes to dissect Albert Camus and his stupid Guest that day. I think I doodled a lot of violent stick-figure caricatures in the margins of the yellow flyer while she talked (and now you know where my artistic propensity for anointing Gianna’s papers comes from). I mean, it was supposed to be nothing; another one of those joke state-funded afterschool programs that I wasn’t supposed to be concentrating on because I was supposed to be getting straight A’s while gearing up for Harvard Summer School et al. I would have consigned it to the eternal hell of the bottom of my backpack amidst all the other worksheets if it hadn’t been for the titch marked “Creative Writing” in between “Poetry” and “Dance”, or something.
And I was like, Hey, I kind of like writing. Maybe I should consider this.
So, long story short, I considered it, which is why I found myself staying for the better part of a crisp Sunday morning in a Brookdale classroom with the stereotypical image of a long-haired bespectacled hippie presiding over the solemn reading of a couple dozen students’ hurried readings of their own free-spirited creations. Mine included. I don’t remember what mine was about. It might have been a recycled descriptive essay about New York from one of my old classes, feverishly edited in a sleepless daze through to the morning, but I can’t be sure. To be honest, I kind of liked Charles Johnson’s poetry thing better, though I guess that might have been because the class was a ton smaller and he kind of looked and sounded like Morgan Freeman. I don’t know. It was a long time ago. I hope you’re not offended.
I remember getting waitlisted for the program.
I remember being really pissed off.
I guess that’s natural, but in retrospect, while we’re being completely honest here, I remember the exact feeling I got when I opened the letter (or email); a kind of jealousy that curdled my gut, tinged with the terrible feeling that this shit was beneath me, that I was a good second-generation honors student who wasn’t supposed to have considered this in the first place, that this was a classic case of the same cosmic administrative callousness that had rising college students and high-powered job applicants weeping over thin envelopes alike. Because, come on, all us prospective Ivy-League hotshots knew that wait lists were tantamount to rejection, a scrap of diplomatic nicety barely concealing a stamp of inferiority. I remember feeling utterly and irrationally sorry and angry for a full five minutes or so, throwing daggers with my eyes at any piece of furniture that happened to catch my gaze, and vowing revenge on the boneheaded dingo responsible for perpetrating this crass injustice. Then I went upstairs and proceeded to write more bad fanfiction.
That made the phone call from my mom in the middle of a Pennsylvania night when I was preparing for a Model United Nations session in which I was representing a Middle Eastern country whose name I could barely pronounce even more satisfying.
Since then, I’d like to think I’ve mellowed out a bit, especially since I found out the boneheaded dingo in question was you. I hope this letter doesn’t make you wish you’d reconsidered your decision.
I wrote a lot of shit for your class, almost all of it conceived, like I said, between the hours of one and eight when I was fueling my creative drive with the nerve-wracking sensation of sleepless urgency; I wrote the short drabble Parasomnia to try to capture that feeling, a piece I remember only because it was the shit I read on a bar stool in that stupid Arts High charity event because they wouldn’t let me do that satirical thing I wrote about Arts High instead. Yeah, I know there were donors in attendance, big fucking whoop. I really didn’t like that piece and I was pretty red-faced when people came up to compliment my parents about it; my first brush with the trope of the artist “prostituting himself”, as people like to put it. I’m not even sure how I got roped into being the Creative Writing representative at that thing, anyway; my mind is dimly telling me that it was because I was nominated by my peers, but I find that hard to stomach because I don’t like believing in a world where a guy who writes last-minute stupid shit about staying awake at two in the morning can outperform a group of highly intelligent young women (and a guy) putting their heart and soul into trying to tease out true human affection through the imperfect medium of high-school language, or something close to it. I know a large part of what I wrote was satirical shit like “Why Research Papers Suck”, but I assure you I’m not trying to be snarky with the previous sentence.
Anyway, the two things I remember writing most for you are actually what I believe to be the first and last things I wrote during my time in Arts High: that “letter” (which, not incidentally, is one of the few times you actually assigned a prompt) that I wrote about an alternate-universe version of me fighting as a soldier in a fictional dystopian war, and the autobiographical Amy Tan-esque thing about me and my three sets of grandparents. Please note my usage of the phrase “for you”; it might sound cliché, like everything else I’ve poured into this swollen bag of emotion masquerading as a letter, but back then, I really did feel like I was writing “for” somebody- for you, for the rest of the members of my class. I wanted them to see what I was capable of; I truly wanted them to experience and be affected by what I had to say, nonsensical and sleep-addled as it was. I know, I know; that’s a terrible thing to say because the only person you should ultimately be writing for is yourself. Having poured out three pages of this so far on the backlit screen before me, I agree, to a point. I couldn’t have written this much if I didn’t feel like I was satisfying a part of myself in some way- but ultimately, I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t feel like you wouldn’t appreciate it- or at the very least experience it, incorporate it into a part of your life, all its experiences and memories knitting itself together with yours like two strands of a double helix. Some artists (particularly those on the higher rungs of the ladder of self-absorption) tend to view the word “audience” as a dirty epithet for commercialization, which of course they are above; I see the audience as a powerful, mutual beneficiary, a motivator and enabler. Shallow? Perhaps; maybe in forcing myself to be creative I was pandering to my basic human instinct for recognition and praise, or some sociological shit like that. (I learned a lot of sociological shit in my first year at Chicago, which should get an award for understatement of the year.) There are limits, of course; I know what it means to write for private pleasure as well as anyone else, and like all writers, I have a folder on my computer labeled “THINGS NOT TO BE READ BY ANYONE EVEN IN CASE OF DEATH”. The point is, I hold you in slightly higher regard than the boobs at the Arts High gala thing, so, uh, yeah. If that’s any consolation.
The letter, I really liked. I think I actually started it before midnight, which tells you how excited (delusional) I was. I remember you saying something about how it was the best letter you’d ever seen of this type, or something, which tickled me (and still does). Hey, like I said: I love praise as much as the next guy. There were imperfections I could have ironed out, sure, exposition and introspection I could have added, but it’s one of the few things I don’t look back on completely regretting. I’m kind of pissed I didn’t save it before I stopped using my old computer.
The autobiographical piece probably couldn’t have been more different from the letter at first glance, but looking back, I think what connected the two, what made them stand out and made me look back on them as I do now with some measure of stomach-warming pride, is that they were both honest, I guess; as honest as the art of putting words to paper can be, anyway. If I had to summarize writing in one word, it would be distillation: just the act of taking incorporeal thoughts, unquantifiable emotions and memories and hopes and fears and dreams, and melting them down, casting them into a physical form that others can somehow understand and appreciate the way you understand them yourself. You mentioned after I’d finished reading all six pages (and I hate public speaking, it dries out my throat like nothing else), that it was the first time in two years you’d ever seen me so honest, so open, so…willing to talk about these things, like a friend, or less charitably, like a psychiatric patient. There’s always this feeling of opening yourself up, of being vulnerable and unprotected, when you write stuff like this, but the rawness of it is refreshing, like a breeze on bare skin. It was cathartic, in a way: telling people these things that I would never tell my classmates at my non-Arts, “normal”, high school. There’s always been a cultural heroic fascination with costume, with dressing up, with being someone you aren’t- you know, Clark Kent and Superman, Bruce Wayne and Batman, and I learned that firsthand the minute I consciously slipped from being the quiet, unremarkably antisocial Asian overachiever I was into a person who knit letters and words into beautiful tapestry, who instead of cowering at the first sight of an essay, reveled in the deviant, inimitable joy of making letters and syllables dance amidst a roaring flame, painting worlds of shadow across the walls of a lit cavern.
I can’t say that you’ve been the only influence in my life. There have been others: my family, my friends (both real and imagined); authors, Haruki Murakami, Douglas Adams, Charles Yu (you can blame the latter for my sentences being longer than celebrity divorce statements), and yes, fanfiction, first and foremost, that creative medium which holds a special, simmering love-hate relationship in the hollows of my heart to this day. There have been others; there have been many, and two short years of sitting in classrooms with a bunch of my peers (yes, I consider all of them peers, even Gianna) and an old man I once dubbed, half-jokingly, “Killer Rabbit”, is but one entry on my list.
But I would be lying if I said it was not one of the most important.
So, thank you, I guess: thank you for making the decision to pull me off the wait list, thank you for treating my scribbled prompt-petition with more respect than it deserved, thank you for putting up with my long-winded description and my short-winded dearth of opinions in class, thank you for forcing me to climb up the innards of the most claustrophobia-inducing lighthouse I have ever seen, thank you for compelling me to stay up until 3:33 A.M. on more than one occasion, helping me extrude and shape the fragments of stray intelligence and restless chaos in my brain into something I could be proud to point to and say:
This is mine, and I created it; I am a writer, and this is my writing.
If, uh, you want to share this with your class the same way you shared all those other ex-student testimonials and Aldous Huxley passages with us, try to read it in a voice that doesn’t make me sound completely out of my mind. Because I haven’t gotten to that point yet.
Anyway, I hope this makes up for all the times I forgot to send you a weekly letter.