The hardest part of writing

I have a deal with myself that I’ll write a new post for this blog on a weekly basis. In general, I find that I have the time for it. I’ll set aside a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, which is usually the time I lounge around in my SpongeBob PJs to paint my nails while watching YouTube videos. I sit in front of my five-year-old, rapidly overheating MacBook Pro, usually to write a summary of my thoughts about whatever book I just finished reading.

Some weeks, though, I haven’t finished reading a book, which is the case with this week. I’m currently reading East of Eden, and barely a quarter of the way through. I’ve never read Steinbeck before, and although sometimes I force myself to rush through books so I can have fodder for a blog post, I’ve been taking it slow with Eden.

So today when I sat in front of my computer, I started writing a few blog posts that I’d planned for a while, on topics I have plenty of thoughts about: my experiences tutoring English to high school students, working as a technical writer at a software company, and the stigma I’ve faced as an English major. I began writing a few hundred words for each post, and then my thoughts dribbled away.

What was the problem? I’ve been writing little fictions my whole life, and I currently write as my profession (among other things). The point is that I couldn’t make things “sound good”. I lacked flow.

I’ve encountered writer’s block in many different settings: when writing an end of term paper on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, when crafting content for a company website, and even when writing simple instructions on how to create a graph. The weird thing is that often, I know what needs to be said and what points I want to make. I’d have a whole outline arranged neatly beside me, as countless English teachers had taught me. But arranging the words and sentences in a proper format that flows and makes sense is often the hardest part.

I tutored a high school student in writing essays for about six months. My student was undoubtedly a bright kid, probably a lot smarter than me when I was his age. I assigned him to read several short stories and poems for our sessions. Although he struggled with the poems a bit, especially ones with more archaic language, I found that he was usually able to extract meaning from the works assigned, but putting his thoughts down on paper was the hard part. Or, actually, making his thoughts “sound good”, as he put it himself. By the end of our six months, his writing improved greatly, with a more focused structure and improved flow, but it was still somewhat difficult.

As a tutor, I could teach grammar, definitions, brainstorming strategies, and essay structure. But flow, “making things sound good”, was almost unteachable. The closest I got was teaching how to write effective transitions in between paragraphs. But the point remains that flow is unteachable. It comes down to the old cliche: that to be a good writer, you have to read. A lot. But it goes beyond that.

Being able to write well comes from exposing yourself to all types of language, both written and spoken. I used to read novels almost exclusively, but after forcing myself to read short stories, articles, and blog posts, sometimes about topics where I’d had no prior interest, I expanded not only my vocabulary but my appreciation for language.

This extends to not just written language. I’ve gathered inspiration from overheard snippets on public transit, characters on TV shows, and music. The most memorable lines I’ve read this year are not from the classics I’ve read, but from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.

You might think it has to do with the way the words are spoken or performed, but simply reading the lyrics online led me to think about certain things in a different way. As any good words should, they inspired me with not only their content but the way they were put together – their flow. Which I guess is not a surprise for rap music.

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Book Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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Charlie, we accept the love we think we deserve. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

I wish I’d read Gone Girl before I watched the movie. Both were excellent, but while reading the book I kept anticipating the plot twists, which ruined the book for me. With The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I had a slightly different experience.

I know that people often say that “the book is always better than the movie”, but I think this is one of the cases where I would disagree. I watched the movie adaptation of this novel a few years ago, and I quite enjoyed it. The characters were likeable, with problems that any teenager could identify with. If I’d watched it while I was in high school, I probably would have loved it.

For some reason, when I read the book a few weeks ago, it fell flat. Was I too old for it? Maybe. I saw memorable scenes from the movie play out in my head as I read about them in the book. I saw the actors and the imagery. Stephen Chbosky, the author of the book, directed the movie, and I think that the casting was superb (except for Logan Lerman, who isn’t too believable as a “wallflower”). But for some reason, the characters as portrayed in the book aren’t quite as believable.

The best example of this is Sam. In the movie, she is portrayed by the delicately beautiful Emma Watson, the object of every discerning teenage boy’s desire these days. With her slightly unstable American accent, Emma Watson makes Sam more interesting than she is in the book. She is vulnerable but brave, and, like every other manic pixie dream girl, she encourages Charlie to actually live his life, instead of observing the others living theirs.

Much of the book is centered around Charlie’s obsession with Sam. Yet I couldn’t understand why. It’s repeatedly mentioned that she is beautiful. And that she is smart. And that she loves good music. And obviously she and Patrick introduce Charlie to a life of excitement, of friendship, that brings him out of his reclusive state. But other than that, I didn’t learn much about Sam. She had no other personality traits that I could discern. For me, she felt like any other insipid object of desire, and less interesting even than Mary Elizabeth.

I don’t want to discredit the book for its focus on weighty issues, especially abuse and neglect. Many of the characters suffer through abusive relationships, whether they are with family members or with a romantic partner. But the thing is, pretty much every character in Perks deals with abuse in some form. It’s so common in the book that I felt it was overdone and actually made the issue seem less serious. While I understand that the book was saying that this is a problem encountered by all sorts of people, I wish that there had been some variation in the characters’ troubles.

YES OR NO?: YES, but I’m personally ambivalent about this book. I feel like I may have appreciated it more at a younger age, although I believe books shouldn’t be bound to certain age groups. But for me, the book and its characters was lackluster compared to the movie.

Book Review: Blink

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We have, as human begins, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve always been more interested in reading fiction than non-fiction. Since I was in grade school, I’ve associated non-fiction with hardcover books with dry prose describing volcanoes and prehistoric animals. I loved volcanoes and prehistoric creatures as much as the next kid, but the dryness of these encyclopedic volumes turned me off non-fiction. Since then, I’ve tried to embrace reading more non-fiction. Last summer, I picked up Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point at my local Chapters, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The use of storytelling wasn’t something I’d encountered before in non-fiction.

That being said, I was surprised at the number of negative reviews I found of The Tipping Point, and of Gladwell’s other books, online. Most of the negative reviews maintained that Gladwell manipulated cases to support his thesis, and that his overall argument was weak.

To be honest, these weren’t things I really noticed about the book. I mainly enjoyed the book because it presented a variety of interesting studies and situations that I hadn’t otherwise heard of. I didn’t completely buy Gladwell’s argument, and the book didn’t immediately alter the way I saw the world. As with most authors, I took Gladwell’s ideas with a grain of salt.

Compared to The Tipping Point, I found Blink a weaker book overall. There were fewer examples, and the examples used seemed less interesting. They were less relatable. There were fewer connections between them. And although I know that the book revolves around the idea of first impressions, there were just a few too many examples regarding racial stereotypes, with the examples about racial stereotypes always revolving around the perceived inferiority of black people versus white people. It honestly made me uncomfortable.

What did I learn from Blink? In the end, I’m not sure. The arguments were a bit muddled. Some of the psychological studies I found fascinating. I was especially interested in the study where a researcher breaks down the facial expressions of a married couple during a semi-serious conversation and is able to accurately predict whether the couple will stay together or get divorced.

But some of the central scenarios in Blink were utterly uncompelling, at least to me. The story of Paul Van Riper and his use of intuition, as opposed to analysis, in the Millennium Challenge was especially drawn out, with an unnecessarily long description of the circumstances.

The book is comprised of scenarios where analysis is necessary, and others where intuition trumps all. The general message of the book seems to be that it’s all dependent on context. Which, to be honest, I think I could have realized without the book.

YES OR NO?: NO. I wish I read this in one sitting. I read it over several days, in spurts, and it was difficult to immerse myself in Gladwell’s argument over and over again, which led to it being less believable. The Tipping Point is full of more compelling ideas and more interesting scenarios.

Book Review: MaddAddam

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Now what have I done? she thinks. What can of worms have I opened? They’re so quick, these children: they’ll pick this up and transmit it to all the others. What comes next? Rules, dogmas, laws? The Testament of Crake? How soon before there are ancient texts they feel they have to obey but have forgotten how to interpret? Have I ruined them?

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam continues the same themes begun in Oryx and Crake and continued in The Year of the Flood. It’s both a continuation and parallel story of the previous novels. We learn about Zeb and Adam and the beginnings of the God’s Gardeners and Crake, when he used to be Glenn.

To be honest, I didn’t think MaddAddam added much to the trilogy. In comparison to the first two books, I didn’t learn much that was new, but I guess that’s to be expected. I did like that the last book focused on Zeb and Toby, since they were my favourite characters. The relationship between levelheaded, pragmatic Toby and playful, clever Zeb is kind of a cliche, but looking back, the series as a whole is stuffed with cliched romances.

If I wrote a paper about MaddAddam, it would definitely be about one of two topics: language or gender roles. The power of language, both oral and written, is not so subtly highlighted. Storytelling is a sacred act, not only for the Crakers, who avidly listen to Jimmy, then to Toby, but also for the MaddAddamites, including Toby herself. She functions as both a storyteller to the Crakers and the audience for Zeb’s retelling of his past.

And most importantly, Toby writes. She chronicles her days, counting it as the reason she maintained her sanity when alone in the AnooYoo spa, recording all of the God’s Gardeners’ holidays. She passes writing down to Blackbeard, a Craker child who is naturally curious but also clever. Once Blackbeard begins to write, Toby worries that she has led the Crakers to the downfall, that with the invention of writing they’ll succumb to the same dangers as humans before them.

The end of the story is narrated by Blackbeard, and it’s apparent that he’s realized the power of language. He proposes several endings for Toby’s story, and decides on one as being the truth because it is the least sad. Toby’s gift of language gives the Crakers originality of thought, which wasn’t bestowed on them by their creator, Crake.

The use of gender roles in the novel also got me thinking about how far gender roles are embedded into us. Even though their world has literally experienced an apocalypse, some of the surviving humans still perpetuate gender roles and even rape culture. Swift Fox complains that Amanda doesn’t pull her share of the work, even though her lack of effort is a result of depression after being raped.

Even though Crake programmed the Crakers to be unable to experience romance or jealousy, I thought that the novel hints that the Crakers will soon develop these feelings of their own, when, near the end, Blackbeard compares the Gardeners’ marriage ceremony to his own flower giving ceremony. Maybe this hints that romance, jealousy, and gender roles are all inevitable, especially after contamination from those who have already experienced them.

YES OR NO?: YES. Like many third books of trilogies, MaddAddam is simply not as strong as its predecessors. However, if you enjoyed the earlier books, and especially if you were annoyed by the incessant pining in The Year of the Flood, I’d recommend this. It could have been more concise, with less shown of the Crakers and their sometimes mind-numbing blandness, but overall, it’s a decent end to a worthwhile trilogy.

Book Review: The Year of the Flood

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Sucked into the well of knowledge, you could only plummet, learning more and more, but not getting any happier.

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

When I was in my senior year of high school, I was assigned to read Oryx and Crake. It was my first time reading something by Margaret Atwood. In fact, I’m fairly certain it was the first time I’d heard of her, even though she is a giant of Canadian literature and I attended a Canadian high school.

I loved Oryx and Crake, and being a bit naive (although that naivete was soon to dissipate as I transformed into a jaded lit major), I was disturbed by the world it portrayed, filled with giant, omnipotent corporations and genetically engineered creatures. Although, you’d think that being Korean, I’d be used to the idea of a country run by corporations and overrun by engineered people…

For some reason, it took me five years to pick up The Year of the Flood after finishing Oryx and Crake. I’m not sure why. It’s not like I didn’t have the time, the means, or the opportunity. I wanted to continue the series, but the more I put it off, the more difficult I thought it would be to reacquaint myself with the series’s world.

Thankfully, it was relatively easy for me to submerge myself again into the world of pigoons and rakunks. The Year of the Flood takes place at the same time as Oryx and Crake, and instead of the central male characters of Jimmy/Snowman and Glenn/Crake, we have two female protagonists, Toby and Ren. Jimmy and Glenn play significant roles in this novel as well, but the story revolves around the God’s Gardeners, a religious cult whose members eschew writing, meat-eating, and technology.

When I first began reading, it was difficult for me to differentiate between Toby and Ren, since they share similar backgrounds and their stories overlap at various intervals. Still, once my brain worked out that Toby’s story is told in third person and Ren’s in first person, it became a lot easier.

Toby and Ren are both likeable characters. They’re both a little lost and trying to survive in a hostile world, unable to decide much for themselves. One aspect I found irritating, though, was the unrequited romances between several characters. I hope that some of it is resolved in the third book, because in this book, the romances detracted from characters I otherwise found to be pragmatic and intelligent. Especially Ren’s romance, illustrated superficially but continuously resurfacing at important plot points, annoyed me.

Other than that, the novel presents fascinating ideas, continued from Oryx and Crake, around gender roles, religion, and science. But what particularly interested me was its interest in language and the power of words. Ren’s main weapon against Jimmy is her diary, which she begins writing after her departure from the Gardeners, where she is discouraged from writing. From the occasional hymns led by Adam One to maddAddam’s use of extinct animal names as aliases, the power of language is made clear, which I found fascinating, as both an avid reader and an occasional blogger.

YES OR NO?: YES. Although it is not necessary to read Oryx and Crake to understand most of The Year of the Flood, I would recommend reading the series in order to experience the novel’s events at their full impact. The first time I recognized Jimmy and Crake in The Year of the Flood genuinely excited me, even though it’d been years since I encountered them. If you enjoy dystopian fiction, or, as Atwood labels her own books, “speculative fiction”, this series is definitely worth a read.