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March 2017

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My twelve-year-and-counting history of writing

One: How to Write about Animals

One of my first memories involved a pre-school teacher hunting down my four-year-old self all across the Hanoi City Zoo as I ran around squawking aloud every sign on the cages (South-Australian-Ostrichs and Siberian-White-Tigers). During an innocuous dinner years later, my mom tossed me a health magazine article which claimed that children literate before 6 years old were at a higher risk of near-sightedness. I pushed thick pair of glasses up my face.

"What did you expect, mom? You made me spell when I was two!”

"If only you could write as well as you read." Mom was not very subtly taking a jab about the 7/10 grade on my latest effort at school literature - the equivalent of B- in the US elementary education, or in simpler term, an embarrassment on my otherwise perfect record.

It was unfair, because writing was something I could never seem to improve. No matter how warmly purple the feathers of my rooster were in my essay, the only places such a rooster had ever existed were my city-girl mind and the model essay that our puritanical fourth grade educators expected us to cut and paste from.

Amidst the many justifications for my lack of literacy accomplishments, I never felt the need to tell mom about the twenty-page epic “The Adventures of Charles the Cat” quietly chipping away 21 kilobytes at a corner of her hard drive. She would not have been too pleased about this masterpiece being produced with the aid of a stolen computer password, even if it was the one and only journalistic account on the anthropomorphic ruler of the post-industrial Feline Kingdom.

During the rest of my elementary school career, I never earned beyond a mediocre grade for any writing assignment, and I entered sixth grade aspiring to become a world-class Mathematician. Armed with that grand ambition, I packed away short stories featuring kids’ fantasy adventures and Pokémons’ turbulent marriages which I scribbled onto the back of school notebooks, hoping to save them forever from being tied to the disastrous writing education of my childhood.

Two: Dear the Little Match Girl

When it comes to thick-skinned display of patriotism, the Vietnamese perhaps do it best in school competitions. Every year, we contribute one million out of two million entries by 60 countries to the Universal Postal Union (UPU) International Letter-writing Competition. Yet either politics or a Copperfield miracle has so far prevented us from bulldozing the award ceremony every single year.

In accordance with that ritual, I and every other sixth-grader in 2004 paid our tribute to the lost art of letter writing that we had neither experience with nor interest in. My middle school, loyal to the absolute rule of the Ministry of Education, decided that the letter would weigh a quarter of our Literature grade for the semester. The prompt – appropriately in celebration of Hans Christian Andersen’s 200 birthdays – struck me as anything but inspirational for twelve-year-olds, “Write a letter to a fairy tale character that you like.”

Within two hours, I slapped together two pages dense with hazardous sentences strung on unaligned rules. Dear the Little Match Girl – I addressed the letter to the only Andersen character taught in our sixth grade curriculum, as original a choice as half of my classmates’.
The day after submission, I found myself excused from class to revise the letter as the school representative for the city round, leaving me flabbergasted about escaping the 7/10 fate for the first time.

My Vietnamese teacher explained to me, with a great dose of encouragement and compliments, that however simple my language was, my letter was the only one in class with an attempt at narrative. Where other students filled in with emotional rhetoric’s and summaries of the original tales, my autonomous writing invented a whole backstory in which I met the Little Match Girl several times in heaven, each time convincing her of using the matches to forgive her drunken father.

I had no memory of writing this first draft. There had been no calculation behind the plot progression, no clever insertion of personal experience into the fictional author, and no sarcasm underneath the underlying grief. In his master essay collection “Zen in the Art of Writing,” Ray Bradbury (1990) argued that a true story should not be plotted out, but the characters should have lives of their own beyond the control of the writer. Though having yet read any Bradbury, my twelve-year-old self let the author of the letter, now a full-fletched character, take over and run with her story. While I would change my name and move abroad before whatever I penned in sixth grade got publicized, I would get addicted to the sensation of being an effortless observer in creative writing.

Yet it was not any forward strive as a writer that made this incident a setback in my plan to getting a Math Ph.D. That first instance of acknowledgement from someone other than my family sparked a sense of exhilaration I never quite felt previously. As undeserved as I felt, having exerted little effort on the letter, that first compliment ejected the disposition of my writing out of the realm of impossibility. Starting a clean slate out of my elementary school, I could feel the full throttle of labeling effect, my writing capacity being switched from “mediocre” to “good.”
I revised the first draft three times. In the end, the only words that would remain unchanged were Dear the Little Match Girl. In sixth grade, I was called a good writer for the first time, but more important than that, I learnt what “proofreading” means.

Three: The Source of All Fantasy

My mom was a skeptic of the World Wide Web. With her track record of raising two Internet addicts, it was hard to blame her. My brother, a serial skipper in middle school, could always be found fighting a life-and-death MMORPG battle in one of the hundred Internet cafés around the house. Having the benefit of being the second child, I avoided games like a plague, and instead wandered from forums to forums aimlessly until I discovered my raison d’être: fanfictions.

Even with a better school report card, my writing interests outgrew school assignments, which were often reduced to analyzing literature by rigid regurgitation of teachers’ notes. I still wanted to write, but writing without an audience resulted in a long list of incomplete first paragraphs, forever trapped on a piece of paper. At thirteen years of age, I was too old to write without consideration for plot, logic and character, yet too young to construct an original story within my own experience.

Anonymous fandom forums provided me with two things: a basis upon which I could draw to build a full story, and a community that vivaciously consumed anything I wrote regardless of quality, as long as it was about their favorite characters.
Online, I began writing experiments based on previous feedbacks. My first fanfic read like a script bare of description, so I wrote a one-shot about one moment in time, overloaded with rhetoric and styles. I tried slipping into different creative genres using the same set of characters – comedy, horror, drama, and angst, some more successful than others. Along the way, I concretized the characterization of my beloved characters, reducing the need for OC, or original characters, getting rid of Mary Sues, fandom term for “the perfect character.” As my writing expanded into ambitious settings in different periods and landscapes, I supplied my lack of life experience with sometimes extensive research. During the most productive time of my life, I wrote four thousand words every day, keeping thick drafts that would later be proofread as I typed them up to post on fandom forums.

At the same time, I developed my own set of critical criteria as I returned the favor to the community by proofreading for other writers, the skills of whom widely varied. Yet as I moved from stories to stories, fandoms to fandoms, I became self-aware of my own changing audience subjectivities, in which how highly I rate a piece correlated much more with my personal expectations, instead of the qualities of the piece itself with relations to anything else.

Four: Un-break My Words

Till now, I have immersed myself in an English-speaking education for seven years – five in Singapore and two in America. That was only two years shorter than my formal Vietnamese education. Not quite proudly, I could attest to having read and written much more in English than in my mother tongue – all the three-hour finals were to blame.

While I could likely write better in English than Vietnamese nowadays, in 2008 I was a far cry from being bilingual. Though I had an adequate command of English to survive day to day without a dictionary, I caught myself translating awkwardly translating Vietnamese expressions into my English essays. This led to run-on sentences with borrowed, misplaced expressions, such as this quote from my personal journal:
“She's afraid, and ever will be, that the love fostering her spirit would exhaust someday, and her soul would wither even before she acknowledges it.” (2008)

Yet, much beyond the phraseology that rendered a word-for-word translation incomprehensible, the differences between writing in English and writing in Vietnamese constituted a powerful transformation in mindset. As I gradually became at ease communicating using English through a combination of Singapore school assignments and weekly bloggings, I found it necessary to unlearn many Vietnamese writing habits, assets which I used to take for granted. I deconstructed the writing persona which I had grown organically ever since I first learnt how to write, and forced the rapid construction of an English replacement.

In many ways, learning to write in English fostered my growth as a thinker. Being forced to deliberate about what and how to write something strengthened the logic that strung my arguments together. Learning how to write in a (mostly) coherent grammar structure, in which sentences must consist of at least a subject and a verb, improved my clarity in communication. At the same time, my sense of humor developed an affinity towards irony that borders on sarcasm, a manner of communication much more favored among English speakers than Vietnamese counterparts.
Yet, perhaps above all, writing bilingually soon dissolved my attachment to words. Most of the time, I have two words in my vocabulary for the same referent, even though their cultural connotations make them imperfect translations of each other. To resolve this internal conflict and prevent the dominance of a single language, my trains of thought meandered around the signified – meanings, instead of the signifier – words. This development transformed the process of writing to me: I could no longer write run-on sentences that grew out of my organic vocabulary bank without a thorough understanding of what they entail. Writing became less of an end and more of a mean, and I eventually found myself gravitating towards concision and efficiency over bells and whistles.

Five: The Schooling of the Queen

A year ago, I would occasionally trot to my Goldsmiths class feeling more at home than I ever felt in Lafayette. It was a funny sensation, because in order of duration of stay, London was last on the list of cities I have lived in. The twelve weeks studying abroad during my sophomore fall semester could hardly merit it. Much as I liked London, the city of the Queen prompted in me more oddities than familiarities with ubiquitous Indian restaurants, red and robust buses sweeping crooked lanes, and majestic twelfth-century buildings surrounded by pubs filled with tourists and eighteen-year-olds.

Yet, the huge lecture hall that housed hundreds of students all taking the same classes drowned me in nostalgia. As my lecturer highlighted the importance of opening with a thesis, of topic sentences and well-balanced for-and-against arguments, of “signposting” subject terminology across essays, and of the optimal number of references per paper, my memory transported me back to the four years I spent in similarly brain-freezing air-conditioned lecture halls of my Singapore high school, reciting the formula to writing success.

Singapore was a former British colony and it inherits the education system, including the national standardized exam – the GCE Advanced Levels – taken by high school seniors at the end of the school year. Similar to in London, school essays in Singapore demand a level of exactness in structure, down to the number of sentences in a paragraph, and sometimes the list of key words to use. A timed ninety-minute paper consists of an opening, a conclusion, three “for” and three “against” paragraphs covering six different aspects which lead up to a “weighing” paragraph which pitches stances against one another until only the strongest argument survives.

In some way, learning to write like a robot was relaxing because the rigidity of the method relieved me of the effort in structuring the paragraphs and let me focus on the content of the paper. In comparison, writing academically at an American liberal arts college becomes almost too liberating an experience. There is no general argumentative prompt in which I could just plug my high school winning formula of “for” and “against”; each paper requires certain structures of analysis suitable for the discourse of the class. There exists no hard and fast rule to all writing assignments, even within the same discipline. Papers I wrote for my “Sociology of Knowledge” class could utilize personal arguments using life anecdotes as the course values the importance of practical experience, whereas the voice I used within my “Cognition and Society” papers was objective, empirical and data-driven due to the course’s close tie with Cognitive Studies, a natural science.

Unlike the complete overhaul of language I underwent in Singapore, however, academic writing in college seems more like a culmination rather than a reconstruction of all the habits I acquired throughout my four years of regimented discipline. Being trained in balancing multiple perspectives and limiting the scope of analysis for the central question compliments, not paralyzes my writing progress. In the process of breaking the high school boxes, I can rely upon the foundation of skills nurtured by these boxes, and build new solid grounds upon them.

Yet, as I attentively swallowed my lecturer’s every golden advice on the seven references I would have to stuff within the first two hundred words, I could never complain about being relieved of the pressure of figuring it out how to write a paper on my own once in a while. This entry was originally posted at http://invitan.dreamwidth.org/47380.html.