I Failed NaNoWriMo

Every year during the month of November, a bunch of crazy people around the world take on the challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That averages to about 1,667 words per day.

On my best writing days, this was a breeze. Some days I wrote more than 3,000 words and felt like I could take over the world. But on my very worst days, the 1,667 seemed like an endless trek up Mount Everest and I had no shoes on and my backpack was getting heavier and heavier with each step and my map had fallen into a perilous, snowy abyss.

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This is me, trying to write or do anything.

I ended November at approximately 45,000 words. It’s disappointing because I did fail to meet the standard goal, and I know that if I had just pushed on 2 days or even 1 , I could have made up those last 5,000 words. But on the other hand, I have 45,000 more words than I did at the beginning of November. I’ve written the majority of my story and have overcome that crippling fear of writing badly, the fear of writing a shit story and discovering that I am in fact a mediocre writer and that I will never amount to anything and that my hopes and dreams should just be picked up along with the rest of my trash on Thursdays.

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Bold and Brash? I call it: belongs in the trash.

But NaNoWriMo is not about perfect writing. It’s not even about good writing. It’s about getting your story going and those damn words written, which I did!

I’ve always been that person who waited until the very very last minute to write essays. Like I’m talking due date procrastination, calculating how many words I can write per minute and boosting to 40 WPM so that I could bust out 1,500 word papers in 1 hour kind of procrastination. And it was never because I didn’t know the material, or that I didn’t know what to write. It’s because I had this anxiety that once I started filling that blank page, the words I saw would be the words everyone else would read. 16 or so years of this made me terrified of the blank page, terrified of writing even though it’s my favorite thing to do.

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Ok, I’ll calm down with the Spongebob gifs. It’s not my fault that this show represents me at the deepest level.

This November, I was able to accept that my first draft is for me. I’ve read somewhere that the process of writing drafts is like creating a sculpture. You can’t start chipping away at a rectangular prism of marble and expect it to instantly transform into a beautiful sculpture with luscious curls, a Roman nose, and a tiny penis!

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I swear to god I wasn’t thinking about Spongebob while writing this.

You have to excavate through the medium to find the general shape of your art, and then chip away at the definition and contours of his abs and tiny penis. In writing a story, your first draft is the blob of marble that kind of looks like a person, kind of looks like the Pokemon Muk.

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This is the shape of your story, where you can explore the rise and fall of your plot, meet your characters and sketch out their arcs, discover the general tone and pitch of your voice. And it’s gonna look like shit. The second, third, fourth, fifth, and so-on drafts are for defining and perfecting the shapes you first discovered. This is where you delete the stupid dialogue you wrote that sounded funny but actually means nothing for the plot, or the weird 2-page explanation of a character’s sleeping patterns that has nothing to do with their development.

For now, I’m allowing myself to have fun with my story. I am the artist with the rectangular prism of marble, a kindergartner who’s been given a can of paint and a blank canvas. And I’m not afraid to get messy or to see a pile of shit after this, because I know and trust that future Dina can edit and refine my gibberish into prose. After all, editing a shitty draft is always easier than editing a blank page.

If you’ve always wanted to do something but are scared of being bad at it, just do it and comfort yourself with the fact that yes, it is going to be bad. But the more you do the thing, the more material you will have to work with and the more skills and experience you will have to polish your work and make it pretty. From Muk to David, folks.

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I’m taking a break from my novel to explore some other ideas I had last month, but I’ve extended my goal to completing my first draft before the end of next February. I’m not sure if burnout is the psychological effect of completing a goal, but one of the good things about failing this NaNoWriMo is that I’m not at all sick of my story (yet). On the contrary, I’m having a lot of fun with the plot and playing around with my characters. It’s like playing D&D, but I’m by myself with no dice or friends. Writing is so fun!

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A House and Lungs

Who am I to feel like I’m breaking or broken?
When my grandfather crossed the ocean he was alone
and picked grapes in Fresno and called home
only to be told to stay here and build
a life for the future. For me to sit here unhappy
is to reach back in time and stamp on the fruits
that he had pulled and plucked
truly breaking under loneliness and hot sun.

Who am I to break when I am so lucky?
Lucky to take my time and study and play
while mom and dad worked double shifts
and swallowed tired breaths to make sure
we kids had everything and more.
And while my closet was filled with clothes and toys
I cried breathless from pressure of just being,
so fragile and easily broken and not seeing
in the mirror a person deserving of any of it.

Who am I to break when I stand on a foundation
that had been built with withered, cracked hands
built out of sleepless, lonely nights and lost time?
My only job was to be grateful and enjoy
the fruits of the labor of others who had come
before me, who had built this house. And who was I 
to cry and beat the walls because I couldn’t breathe
When they worked their lives away to give me lungs
so that I could inhale opportunity and what do I exhale
but uncertainty and fear and unknowing of who I am?

And I left the house in search of fresher air
building a separate life still on that same foundation
not ever knowing what it’s like to go hungry or feel truly alone
So who am I to feel lonely and sometimes not breathe
for fear that the walls are cracking and this house will crumble
and I with it and everyone will stand at the perimeter
asking who and why was that.

The City I Don’t See

Photo by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash

It’s funny and strange how a city changes
through someone else’s eyes.
I scroll through my phone one day
and am struck by a familiar scene
a convenience store I pass every day
to the office or home or somewhere
hurrying by and never noticing
the carved angels atop the building,
misplaced among offices and cafes.
I scroll further and see my subway stop
a crowded and sweaty hell
that I erase from my memory as soon as I escape
has become a collage of textures and colors and shapes,
a harmony of the contrasting lives.

I pass by the store the next morning
and see the owner, who promptly at 8
hoses down the sidewalk and whistles Canon in D
and I wonder which city he sees
Is it the same hazy blur
of employees and passerby’s and no ones?
Or does he wash the canvas blank every day
to make room for the next self-portrait?

~i’M nOt LiKe OtHeR gIrLs~

I just finished watching Tiffany Ferguson’s video “I’m Not Like Other Girls” and it brought such strong feelings that I have to interrupt my highly prolific Alaska series that I’m definitely still working on and write about my experiences with individualism and internalized misogyny.

Image result for i'm not like other girlsWe have all seen posts like this scattered across Facebook, Twitter, and if you’re extra not like other girls, good old Tumblr. The nerdy, quirky girl who doesn’t wear makeup or care about fashion but is still somehow flawless and beautiful without much effort. She drinks beer and jokes around with the guys and doesn’t really fit in with Sorority Sarah because other girls are so vapid and dramatic! She doesn’t need flowers or chocolate, just buy her pizza and touch her butt.

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People actually posted this. Will future archaeologists study this as a mating call of earlier primitive humans?

I was guilty of being not like other girls. I read books and carried them around in the crook of my arm so my middle school peers could see that I didn’t care about Forever 21 (not just because I didn’t fit their clothes), I wore my brothers’ band t-shirts and played video games. My interests and hobbies during my early teenage years bordered between genuine interest and a feeling that I had to enjoy things apart from what typical girls enjoyed. Because to take part in those rituals of makeup and shopping and accessories would bring the risk of subjecting myself to the typical ideas of femininity and womanhood. And who would want that? Nay, I was a quirky snowflake who rejected girly things because girly meant not what men like. And to not be what men like is bad. 

Looking back now at my thoughts and feelings as a tomboyish teenager, I wonder if my snowflake syndrome was the direct result of internalized misogyny or of a fear that trying to be attractive and pretty would simply highlight the fact that I was not either of those things. It was probably both. If you read my earlier post on my relationship with my appearance and makeup, you’ll know that I spent a good third of my teenage years looking like an actual boy. I guess I took the ~i’M nOt LiKe OtHeR gIrLs~ thing too far and teetered off the edge of looking like a girl at all.

In case you haven’t read the post and don’t care to, this is what I looked like:

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And if you had read my post and are sick of seeing this picture, too bad. It is here to haunt you forever just as it haunts me.

Whether my snowflake syndrome stemmed from either hatred or fear of my fellow women, it does boil down to the fact that it was influenced by a system we all know and love to mention in our feminist slam poetry:

~The Patriarchy~

The oldest and most generic definition of the word is:

a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is traced through the male line.

What does this have to do with my life in 2019 and why do these dang feminists always want to smash it, you say? Well, the idea of male lineage has constructed a social dynamic in which men and the typical traits that we ascribe to men are the default. Men are typically strong, aggressive, stoic, bearded and burly and eat flapjacks aside their trusty blue ox, Babe.

Wait, no, that’s Paul Bunyan.

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Because of these internalized prejudices that we have towards typically masculine behaviors like stoicism, pragmatism, and wearing flannel shirts, we almost automatically denounce the attributes that are typically feminine. Putting effort into looking pretty means that you are frivolous and don’t care about the real issues at hand, like how to out-argue someone in a debate or how to chop down trees. Wearing false eyelashes and curling your hair means you hate democracy and don’t care about the Amazon burning to the ground.

And god forbid you like to take selfies. How can someone be so vapid and self-centered that they fill precious phone space with pictures of their own faces??!

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It seems as though as soon as a personality trait or hobby or interest is connected to the female population, it is deemed stupid or unnecessary. Teenage girls get the worst of it. From the dawn of man it seems that anything that young girls or women take interest in is considered foolish. Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House was constantly ridiculed and belittled by her husband because of her spending habits and because she liked eating sweets. The entire conflict is based on her husband’s inability to fathom that his little songbird was capable of getting the family out of financial ruin. Because isn’t it automatically the devil’s work if a woman does anything worthwhile?

Young girls are constantly ridiculed and chastised for everything they do. From pumpkin spice lattes to pop music to makeup to genuine nihilistic dread about the fact that life is a meaningless void, whatever girls come up with is just stupid.

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Now we have the VSCO girl. I get it, making fun of trends is funny and not at all a cheap joke. But if reusable water bottles and comfy clothes are becoming trendy then I’m all here for it.

VSCO girls are a new internet phenomenon that I’m particularly interested in because it entails an intriguingly meta self-study of teenage girls reacting and dissecting their own trends. It seems like a self-parody of the ~i’M nOt LiKe OtHeR gIrLs~ trope and a possible light at the end of the tunnel that is internalized misogynistic hate we’ve instilled into our societies.

I’m not going to tell you to stop saying it, because you should have stopped after graduating middle school, if you did say it at all. But I will tell you, because it is still an annoying trope that persists when people want cheap laughs without taking the time to think of actual jokes, to stop relying on teenage girls for your humor. It’s old, overused, and frankly a little weird how society seems to be so obsessed with young women’s interests. Drink your Starbucks (with a reusable straw, of course) and wear that scrunchie on your wrist, or wear a flannel and frolic through the woods. Girls are awesome and strong and spunky, and I’m proud to be like other girls!

Selling Out?: Getting a “Real Job” as an English Major

“What’re you gonna do with that?” I heard this question many times throughout my educational career as an English major — eventually I would just respond with a blank smile and allowed the inquirer to speculate on their own. “Ooooh, a teacher?!?!” They would smile wide and nod: a self-congratulation as they had brilliantly rationalized why anyone would choose to gruel over the humanities as their field of study. And of all humanities studies — English! You can’t write code or do surgery or found the next brilliant tech innovation with an English degree!

“I’ll just be broke or homeless, I guess,” I would say sometimes, watching the look of inquisitiveness move into either mild shock or annoyance. After all, that’s what it seemed their question was leading into. Why put myself through 4 long years of school just to read?

No one is ever asked what they’re going to do with a Computer Science or Medical degree, because those indicate specific career fields after graduation. Even some art degrees have logical trajectories: the exploding world of technology and entertainment will always have a designated home for designers, illustrators, and musicians. But for the humanities it’s not always quite clear. I’m looking at you, students of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and of course, English. If you look so disdained and irritated at the thought of teaching, what the hell are you going to do with your life? You can’t highlight and discuss Dostoevsky for rent or bulk quinoa, you know. In this economy??

During the very last months of college I found myself wildly panicking over what was to come after graduation. I had seen the light after long, stressful nights of postcolonial essays and cursing Descarte, but what exactly was it that awaited me outside the tunnel? I had worked at Starbucks and as a math tutor for most of my time at university, but now I had to leave the lull of part-time work and join the work force as a full-fledged, blazer wearing adult. I began the arduous task of filling out applications and writing enthusiastic-but-not-desperate cover letters. The more company websites and Glassdoor reviews I read, the more I began to doubt and question myself. Just who the hell did I think I was, trying to penetrate into these money-flooded, world-changing industries with but a mere English degree?

The first thing I learned was that job applications are nothing but a numbers game. That posting on LinkedIn might have been there for weeks by the time your grubby hands clicked on it — imagine all the other souls that have already applied and posted their resumes and cover letters and hopes and dreams.

So you’re probably 189th in line to interview for a decent paying job in the Financial District with great benefits and catered lunches, and I’m sorry to say that statistically you are unlikely to even get an in-person interview. Maybe the recruiter won’t even see your profile. Don’t fret, dear friend. Remember the numbers and do not put all of your eggs (and your hopes and dreams) into one catered lunch basket. Take advantage of the “Easy Apply” button and up your game. The more applications you put out, the more likely you’re going to get a call. The more calls and interviews you’re granted, the more likely you’re gonna get a job. 

If you’re feeling as insecure as I was about your major, don’t. The education section in your resume is only what, 3-5 lines? There is an entire 8 1/2 x 11 sheet (or A4 if you’re not American) on which you can paint the intelligent, competent, and hard-working individual you are. The skills you learn as a humanities major are useful and important, but you have to know how to market them to fit corporate expectations and needs. For example, my long, grueling nights over analytical essays and presentations became:

  • Efficient and thorough analysis of written text
  • Effective written and oral communication on different scopes and levels of detail

It’s all about selling your skills and customizing your resume and cover letter to fit the job application. Technical writer? Emphasize your quick and accurate copywriting/editing skills. Project coordinator? Highlight your communication skills and the high- and low-level detail work you put into that senior thesis.

That being said, I’m going to have to get honest with you, fellow humanities major. Unless you’re intensely brilliant and prolific, Hermione Granger incarnate, or you were able to land and work unpaid internships during college, I’m sorry to say that you are probably not going to be a tenured museum curator at the Smithsonian or a publishing editor at Random House right after graduation. If you have the financial means to do so, put in that entry-level time at creative companies and work your way up. If you do need to make that cash, maybe take some time in another industry while you keep working on your creative pursuits. I say this because unfortunately, you will probably have to weigh in between having a higher, secure salary versus lower pay while working on your passion project and dream career.

I personally had to choose between taking a lower paid entry-level position at a small publishing company and a higher paid position in an industry I don’t love. Call me a sell out, but I chose the higher paid position for now because I want to build up financial security while I keep looking for better paid creative work and endeavoring on my own passion projects (like this godforsaken manuscript). At first I felt guilty because I gave up the opportunity to work in literature for a corporate job, but I can still love books and writing while paying my bills and building my savings.

So yes, I did get a real, big-girl job with my English degree! I am not finished with my education and constantly scour free classes on Udacity and Coursera to learn new skills (Mandarin and Python just because they’re interesting) but I am proud of my education and what I’ve learned. I like the work I’ve found and admit to settling, but I’m also on a constant lookout for transitioning into creative work. Do not fret, dear English major. The world is abundant and full of jobs: careers that you will either love or careers that you can take for the time being while you gain more editing experience and/or finish that manuscript (finish it, dammit!).

 

Chess, Infinity, and the Abyss

Chess was the first love of my life and my first encounter with the daunting abyss of infinite choices, infinite cause and effect. An important strategy of the game is to analyze the possible outcomes before making one’s move. Carelessness with even the simplest piece could open an advantage for the opponent and alter the course of the game. But as most matches are timed, there must be a limit to the analyzing: the predicting and planning. Every move has a number of outcomes that branch into more outcomes, so the possibilities multiply exponentially and it becomes dangerous to ponder, to let time tick by as one tries to map out the infinite intricacies of possible futures.

I learned how to play in 3rd grade and almost instantly fell in love with the methodical chaos. For most of the day I was a normal 7 year old girl, trading Hello Kitty stickers with Tracy and Sabrina and giggling over Zac Efron. But by the time Chess Club began I was completely transformed. I was Napoleon, setting traps and feeling fiery satisfaction as my victims fell into them.

One late spring afternoon towards the end of 5th grade, my teammates and I were on a bus to the state championships. My school had been reigning as the #1 elementary school for years. We rode into the venue with our black team visors and sponsorship Clif Bar t-shirts, ready to continue the reign of the Cherrywood Charger as well as setting our own rankings on the state ladder. I crushed my first two matches, fueling the fire with Hot Cheetos and Gatorade.

My third match was different. A typical strategy, a no-brainer, is to gain control of the center of the board by moving the center pawns early in the game: this allows the stronger pieces, such as the knight, queen, or bishop to come out and take positions in or around the middle. Pawn to E4 is ingrained into every chess player’s mind. But my third opponent that day, a scrawny boy with silver wiry glasses and a furrowed brow, did not follow the silent rule. Instead, he opened the game with his peripheral pawns. They stood at A4 and H4, taunting me, daring me.

At first I dismissed his choices as that of someone with no skill.  I figured it would be an easy victory. But by the time he had developed his other pieces’ positions, it was clear that he knew what he was doing. I was losing, and with a tightness in my gut I began to scrutinize every single moment, considering at least five different ways he could go for every one move I made. I could no longer map out different strategies; there were far too many, and I was running out of time. Our tournament clocks kept track of how much time we each had: he was still at 4:32 when I realized mine read 0:30. And I froze, staring at the ticking second hand, too paralyzed to even lift my my own.

“Hey, are you gonna go?” He asked, nodding at my diminishing time. I was at 0:12.

At 0:07 I realized the match was over. I let it go to 0:00 and watched him raise his hand. The volunteer judge came and wrote Forfeit on my chart, Victory on his. We shook hands, exchanging a polite “Good game” and went our separate ways.

Thought had gotten the best of me in a game that was supposed to revolve around thoughtfulness and deliberation. I had gone too far in my mind and lost myself in the labyrinth of What Could Be’s and What Could Happen’s. The maze of outcomes that had previously been my joy and solace had betrayed me.

There is a line between thoughtfulness and rationality, and instinct and spontaneity. The missing strategy of chess that I never quite grasped during my competitive days was to plan one’s course of moves, but to also embrace the infinite void as just that. We could all sit there and plan out every outcome and every outcome of that outcome; it’ll make us feel secure in our decision making but it’ll also eat away at time. It’s taken me eleven years, but I finally understand the courage and insanity of that furrow-browed kid’s opening moves. He rejected rational strategy and instead embraced the infinite future that had paralyzed me, trusting instinctual skill over careful deliberation. He stared into the abyss square in the face and laughed as it stared back. 

We can all sit here and deliberate every single move and plan out every outcome, but our clocks are ticking. Some decisions need that extra contemplation and planning out, but sometimes you just have to trust yourself and go headfirst into the darkness.