A Love Note to the Library

Looking back on my childhood, I realized my dad began training me, early on, to be the type of person he wanted me to be, which was suspiciously close to the person he already was. We had weekly room inspections where I was awarded my allowance if my room was neatly organized with everything in its place, and I carefully recorded said allowance and any of my expenses in a tiny notepad he’d given me for that purpose. Although I somewhat begrudgingly accepted these rules as a child, I recognize that my dad was successful. There’s a saying in Korean that habits you form at three follow you until you’re eighty, and to this day I find comfort in spending ten minutes organizing my room before bed, and I still obsessively track my spending and find joy in my own frugality.

One of our other, less restrictive rituals was going to the public library on Saturday mornings. One of my earliest memories of the library is my mother, in her limited English, earnestly asking a librarian to find me a copy of A Christmas Carol. My mom always encouraged me to read classics.

As I grew older, I found myself seeking out the library less and less. It became a place to study with friends, to browse my laptop, or to pop in if I was in the area, but it was no longer somewhere to simply spend time. I still found time to read regularly, but I usually bought crisp new editions from the chain bookstore at the mall. And with the advent of my beloved Kindle, I stopped interacting with physical books, preferring the convenience and simplicity of my Kindle.

But recently, I’ve returned to my old friend, the library. Dishearteningly, I found that the majority of library patrons (at least at my local branch) were there to browse the Internet (endlessly scrolling Facebook from the looks of it), silently contemplate their smartphones, or browse magazines beneath protective plastic covers. While there’s nothing wrong with this, to me the library has always been a place inherently, by definition, for books, and a place I’ve recently begun to properly appreciate again.

My reading habits have changed as I’ve begun to visit the library again. For one thing, I’m more likely to pick up an unfamiliar book simply by being attracted to its cover. As convenient as it is to download e-books off Amazon, there’s a smaller likelihood of me discovering something new. The organic feeling of pulling something new off a bookshelf out of curiosity is gone. On Amazon or at the bookstore, investing in a book comes with a loss of money, and I am always acutely aware of other ways to spend my time. When I’m online, I tend to open other tabs, reply messages, and play music, and bookstores nowadays are filled with plenty of distractions: journals, candles, headphones, desk toys, and other miscellaneous crap.

But at the library, time stands still. Libraries generally look the same to me now than they did then. And, in some ways, I prefer libraries that haven’t been renovated recently and have speckled fuzzy carpets, books with yellowed pages, and uncomfortable plastic chairs. Because while the outdated decor is unattractive, it reminds me that libraries have been a constant throughout my life, and the yellowed pages show me that a book has been read and loved. And for some reason, I find it much more easier to focus on a book for long periods of time in one of those plastic chairs than somewhere else. There’s something sacred to me about a place dedicated specifically to reading.



Being an English major and learning to deflect assumptions

I am an English major. Before you laugh or crack the ever-original joke about my promising future as a barista, I’d like to cut in and let you know that I’ve been working in the software industry for more than a year now. One of my biggest frustrations in life come from slightly different variations of this conversation:

Loose acquaintance: So, you’re graduating soon. What are your plans?
Me: I’m not really sure yet. I’m still job hunting.
Loose acquaintance: Right. Well, it’s hard out there these days. What did you major in again?
Me: English with a minor in Business.
Loose acquaintance: (now with a skeptical expression) Oh, so you want to be a teacher.
Me: No, I’ve actually been working in the software industry for more than a year now. I’m a technical writer.
Loose acquaintance: (now with a slightly brightened expression) Oh, so you’re going to be a programmer.
Me: No…my job is writing user-facing documentation. You know those online help portals that tell you “Click this, click that”? I write those.
Loose acquaintance: …Oh. You like doing that stuff?
Me: …Yes.

There are several things that frustrate me about this conversation, which I’ve had with a staggering number of people in the fast few years. Mostly it’s the number of assumptions:

You have to have a job related to your major:
If you studied engineering, computer science, or a similar field, it’s likely that you’ll find a job in your field after graduation. For many college students these days, a major is something you choose out of dubious interest or rumors of high-paying jobs, and college is something you attend more out of social expectation than an actual desire to learn. I’ve had too many people ask me about my major rather than my interests or even my past work experience during conversations about my future job prospects. I love reading and analyzing literature, but I’m fully aware that no one will pay me to do it at this point in my life. That’s why I gained other skills outside of school so that I’d be more likely to find a job after graduation.

English majors all want to be teachers:
Or, that they have nothing else to do but become teachers (or baristas). I do know many English majors who are currently working or wanting to work in education. I also know English majors who are currently working in journalism, with non-profits, or in the tech industry. I’m not saying that being a teacher is not a good decision (in fact, it’s one of the most necessary jobs out there), but the assumption that being an English major = becoming a teacher just irks me.

You work in software? But you don’t know how to program!:
This is something I hear often. For people outside the industry, it seems like the only jobs that exist in software are for software developers, and that my lack of knowledge about programming is an anomaly. As with every other industry, software needs other types of workers: salespeople, project managers, support technicians, and…technical writers. In fact, one of my greatest strengths as a writer is being able to sympathize with the average, non-technical user: I translate developerspeak into regular language.

Documentation is boring:
I love my job. But as with anything, it’s not for everyone. But I wouldn’t call it boring. My job isn’t solely writing simple, one-sentence instructions. I also think about how to structure the information properly, create screenshots and diagrams to illustrate my points, and consider how to make the information accessible, helpful, and clear to each and every user. Sure, sometimes my job is not too exciting. But every job has its moments.

I hope that this post saves me some awkward, frustrating conversations in the future. What are some assumptions people hold about your major or job?

Productivity tips on Medium

By night (often late night), I’m a blogger. By day, I write content for a small software company. I take care of social media, blog posts, how-to articles, UI text, etc. If it’s written content in any form, I’m in charge of it.

When I sleepily trudge into the office at 8 AM every morning, my routine is to make myself a cup of Earl Grey; reply emails, user reviews, and support requests; and browse TechCrunch and Medium for relevant news. I have an account on Medium, which I only use for favoriting posts in case I need to find them later. I do my blogging strictly on WordPress.

The reason for that is simple, I guess. I’ve always blogged on WordPress (well, not counting my preteen Xanga days, I suppose), and it would be a hassle to switch over. Medium offers a crisp, clean reading experience, but there’s less opportunity for authors to customize layout and presentation, which has both its pros and cons.

I don’t explore a lot on Medium, but I tend to browse the top five posts for each day. The topics for these posts don’t vary much: the tech industry (usually with a focus on user-friendly design, Silicon Valley, and startups), entrepreneurialism, and productivity.

I’m always looking for ways to increase my productivity, so I tend to click on the latter. And they’re always a huge waste of time. It’s funny how something I look to as a resource to increase my productivity just ends up wasting valuable time.

The problem is this. Whenever someone writes a post about productivity on Medium, it goes the same way. It’s always the same advice:

  1. Sleep early and wake up early. Get at least 8 hours of sleep.
  2. Prioritize: do your most dreaded tasks first to make sure you get them done.
  3. Avoid checking social media and emails until the afternoon.
  4. Set daily, weekly, and yearly goals to work towards.
  5. Journal so you can reflect on yourself.

…And so on.

The problem I have with these posts isn’t that they’re not inspirational. They were inspirational to me the first few times I read them. But the more I read, the more skeptical I became, and I realized that this advice simply didn’t work for me.

I once read a post on Medium where the author said that they slept at 9:30 every night and woke up at 5 every morning, spent the first hour of their day doing all sorts of productive things (exercising, journaling, eating a healthy breakfast, meditating, etc.), before starting their work day by tackling their biggest project first, and not checking any emails until 2 PM. The post was riddled with sentences like “You think you can’t do this, right? The first few days are hard, but you’ll get used to it!”

The problem is, nothing works for everyone. Obviously you should take all advice with a grain of salt and adapt it to your own lifestyle, but I find that the advice around productivity on Medium is just so singular. It’s always wake up early, get lots of sleep, journal, meditate, eat healthy.

These things obviously work for many people. But not everyone is most productive early in the morning. I’ve certainly done lots of my best work late at night, in a quiet space in front of my laptop. And not checking my email until 2 PM would certainly get me in trouble with my boss. Not everyone is their own boss, working from home, free to structure their day as they’d like.

Trying to understand your own productivity in terms of someone else’s can be the biggest waste of time.

Getting back into writing

Since I was a little girl, I loved to write. I crafted little fictions about my stuffed animals, my classmates, and sometimes fantastical worlds that I dreamed up. And as any aspiring writer should, I loved to read.

Now, I’m lucky enough to have a job where I get paid to write. Sure, it’s not the novels I dreamed of writing as a child. I work in technical writing and marketing for a software company, so instead I write how-to articles, corporate blog posts, and website content. I spend most of my time thinking about the nature of words, how to clearly and concisely explain concepts to strangers, and I read a lot of articles on Medium about startups, Silicon Valley, and content strategy.

The trouble is that I’ve neglected this blog for over a month. I told myself that I was busy, but I wasn’t busy. I was lazy. This blog is mostly a book review blog, and I’d slogged through One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the past three weeks, not because it is a bad book by any means, but because I was being lazy. And today I actually sat down, intending to write about the book, but I found I didn’t have much to say about it, or no insights that I thought worthy enough to share.

So I’ve been in a slump, you could say. One of my own choosing. But the other day, I ran into this quote by one of my favourite authors, Haruki Murakami:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

I could say that it’s difficult to find time to write, which it is. But the truth is that I simply need to make it part of my routine, until it becomes engrained within me. Obviously I can’t follow the same routine as Murakami, but setting time aside each day to write and recognizing that writing is a time-consuming, laborious act is obviously key.

A few years ago, one of my friends told me, “You can always make time.” In other words, being busy should never be an excuse. And, to be honest, if I really scrutinize my schedule, I’ll see that I’m not very busy at all. I can always cut down on the time I spend on Facebook, or Reddit, or whatever other time waster I like to indulge in.

Even if I have to wake up an hour earlier each day (which would put me at a god-awful 5 AM), I promise to put aside time to write each day, to contribute thoughts that will eventually result in a weekly blog post. Because writing is important, and as much as I love technical writing (and I do actually love it), sometimes I need to write my own words about my own thoughts.

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.