Mike Myers on Creativity & Perseverance

At the 2014 Savannah Film Festival, Mike Myers sat down with SCAD's President, Paula Wallace, for a candid conversation. After watching a two-minute clip of the interview, I found myself transcribing some of the things Myers said, particularly the portions on creativity and perseverance.

On natural talent: "As I'm getting older, I don't quite know what natural talent means except a willingness to study and persevere in the face of rejection."

On rejection: "Don't give up. NASA has a fantastic expression which is: There's no failure, only early attempts at success. You know, there's a lot of rejection. The rejection should inform you and not define you. The reward of doing this work is the creativity itself. I make something every day. I don't show it to everybody but I make something."

On the joy of creativity: "If you focus on result, you'll always be heartbroken. If you focus on product, you'll sometimes be heartbroken. If you focus on process, you'll never be heartbroken because that's the joy."

Extremely timely advice.

To me, writing can be heartbreaking work, because it's near impossible to tell if I'm improving. There are no grades, no performance reviews. My brain is wired to measure my worth in work, finances, relationships, because I feel the need to justify my existence in this world. When I was younger, having a direction (or destination) was important, but writing reminds me there is value in not having a direction at all. It's scary and hard but IMHO, more fulfilling.

Here's the original clip:

To the Owner Who Lost Her Dog Today

I'm not a doctor, but I can tell. Sometimes, the animal is already dead. Sometimes, they're dying. I rush him to the back all the same, because I'm not a doctor. Maybe I'm wrong. I wait up front with you.

You ask me: Will he be okay?

And I lie.

It feels like a lie.

I tell you I don't know. I can't tell. The doctor is working on him right now. I emphasize that last one because if the doctor is working on him, then maybe he really will be okay.

My job is to keep you calm until you fill out the required forms. My job is to listen so you can tell me all the things you think the doctor needs to know.

I help you clean the blood from your hands. Get you a cup of water.

Then the doctor buzzes up front, and you look at me when I call your name. It's too soon. You know what the doctor's going to say, but you ask me: Is he okay?

I put you in an exam room.

Then I wait.

Wait.

For the sound of your heart breaking. Sometimes, it's a barely audible gasp. Sometimes, it's a wail loud enough to shake my heart.

Because I know what it feels like to be the one to ask: Will he be okay?

When I already know.

No.

He's not okay.

Bieber in Space

The alien terrain was rocky. The air so silent that Kaidan Alenko could hear the brittle rocks beneath his feet crumble as he made his way through the unfamiliar landscape. Keeping close to the shadows, Kaidan maintained a slow but steady pace. It had been hours since he had left the safety of his own ship. He was navigating blind, the electric magnetic emissions from about half a klick ahead of him effectively nullifying any tech he could’ve brought with him.

“Damn it, Shepard,” Kaidan muttered under his breath. What was she up to now? He had received a short burst transmission from her ship days ago. Something about how Shepard was in danger. Something about how his ship was the closest one to her location. There was so much static it had been hard to understand but whatever he did manage to decrypt scared the shit out of him.

Tracing the signal back to its origin brought him more questions than answers, and now he was on a solo mission trying to save Shepard’s ass before the Reapers could retaliate.

Kaidan could feel his biotic energy humming just under his skin at the thought of her. They had a good run together. Sweaty nights on board the Normandy. Stolen kisses on every elevator of the Citadel. It may seem like light years ago, but no matter what he did, he couldn’t drive away the memories of the woman she had been before she betrayed everything they believed in. Before she had died.

He shook his head and forced himself to concentrate. Some Spectre he was turning out to be, mooning over a woman when he was on a mission to save the whole god-forsaken universe.

Going by memory, he compared the landscape around him to the terrain map in his mind’s eye. He was close. Hunkering down behind a large rock, Kaidan flexed his hands and flicked a mass effect field into existence. Glowing blue light flared outward and dimmed as the field settled tightly around his body. Textbook-perfect barrier but with one difference: The shifting mass-effect field rendered him invisible to the naked eye.

The thirty feet perimeter around the compound was brightly lit by the three moons high above the sky. There were no shadows and nowhere to hide. Despite the invisibility field, Kaidan moved in fast and low.

Reaching out with one hand, he palmed the control next to the nearest door, letting a short burst of biotic energy surge into the system. Sparks flew out of the panel, and the door hissed opened. Kaidan held his breath. When no one came rushing out, he clutched his assault rifle close to him before peering around the door frame. A hallway stretched out in front of him. Long. Empty. Grey.

The first phase of his plan was complete. Now to find Shepard and drag her sorry ass back to civilization.

He took a step into the compound. Then another. Then another. But something felt wrong. The building was much too quiet, too empty.

Then he heard something. The sound was soft. Like the way her breath had felt against his skin that morning before Ilos. It annoyed him. Grated his nerves. As he walked farther into the compound, the sound grew louder, and he realized he had been listening to an old folk song from Earth. Piped through an old internal speaker system, the melody was disjointed. The sound hollow. It crackled, then stopped, then started again.

A figure stood in front of him.

The hair on the back of his neck stood on end when he realized the figure was staring straight at him. It was a young boy with fair skin and wide eyes. Soft layers of brown hair framed his face. Tears ran down his cherubic cheeks. The boy’s mouth opened and closed as he whispered a continuous stream of nonsensical words.

…Never say never. Baby, baby, baby…

The boy pointed one finger at him. The whispering stopped as rage began to contort his beautiful face into something grotesque.

Then the boy turned around and ran.

Kaidan cursed and pursued the boy down the hall. If the Reapers hadn’t known he was coming, they did now. He shook off his invisibility field and diverted the energy to both his palms. Whatever was waiting for him at the center of the compound would get a full biotic kick to the teeth, and whatever his biotics couldn’t kill, his assault rifle would finish the job.

He burst through one final set of doors and found himself in the middle of a wide open clearing. His jaw dropped. Stunned, he could only watch as the most horrific scene played out in front of him.

Hundreds of bodies contorted simultaneously as if performing an ancient ritual. Krogan, Volus, Salarian, Turian. No one seemed immune to the power of the eerie folk song. A brown bowl-shaped fungus sat on top of every head, its soft hair-like strands waving in time to the rhythm of the music. Kaidan covered his ears with his hands as the wailing of hundreds of voices singing at the top of their lungs deafened him.

And right in the middle of it all was Shepard.

Her lifeless eyes told him everything he needed to know. She danced like all the other marionettes on the stage. Humanity’s greatest hope turned into a puppet. The fiery woman he had loved, still loved, reduced to a crude representation of her once vibrant self.

Something in him snapped. Biotic fire surge to life.

Kaidan staggered forward, making his way to Shepard. He threw both arms around her, holding her safe against his body as he allowed himself to surrender to the violence within. Dark energy rippled outward. Powered by rage, fueled by passion, his biotic fire burned everything it touched. The bodies that danced around them crumbled to the ground.

“Alenko?”

The sound of her voice broke through his seething rage. It had been too long since the last time he had heard her voice. It brought back a rush of memories. The way she had barked her commands at him, the way she had defied the Council, the way she conquered the galaxy and fought back the darkness through sheer force of her will.

His rage died, and in its place was warmth and life and laughter.

Kaidan opened his mouth, wanting to ask for her forgiveness, to beg for a second chance, when the ground began to rumble. The quaking earth heaved and shook beneath their feet. Kaidan fell. He covered Shepard with his own body as the building around them began to crumble. Large chunks of metal and stone crashed down.

And then there was silence.

Kaidan raised his head to look around. The compound was destroyed, and standing in front of them was the same boy he had seen in the hallway. The boy pointed one finger at him, and hundreds of voices surged into Kaidan’s mind, some whispering, some shouting, all saying the same thing:

…In the year 2012, we were kidnapped and cryogenically frozen by the Reapers. We were held in stasis for thousands of years while the Reapers worked hard to augment our boyish charms and angelic voices with their technology. When triggered, the sound of our voices would spread across the galaxy like cosmic radiation ultimately Bieberizing all intelligent races and making resistance futile…

The voices died once the message was given. The boy nodded at him as if in thanks. He raised his angelic eyes and the most beautiful smile Kaidan had ever seen spread across his face. The edges of his body began to blur, and with tears running down his cheeks, the boy disappeared into thin air, leaving behind the haunting refrain of his song.

...Never say never…

Cateriam: A Cat Cafe in Tokyo

Shimokitazawa is popular for its independent music scene and trendy boutiques. Delicious restaurants line the streets serving almost anything you want from actual poutine and handmade udon noodles to spaghetti and okara donuts. Most importantly, Shimokita is where you'll find Cateriam—an adorable cafe where you can sip green tea lattes like a queen while letting your freaky cat lady flag fly. About a block or two from the train station, there's a doorway with a Cateriam sign right next to a 7-Eleven. You climb up a flight of stairs and enter through another set of doors. A friendly proprietor will use an English menu to explain the rules. You basically prepay for the amount of time you plan on staying, and if you'd like, you have the option to add on food or drinks. You'll take off your shoes then place your things in a cubby hole. Once you wash your hands, you're free to commence with the all-you-can-snuggle fest.

I will admit that my animal rescue side was a little anxious before I arrived—I've heard one too many bad stories in my lifetime—but all the cats seemed happy and healthy. I surreptitiously checked the paws of a cat lounging on my lap, and he hadn't been declawed. The state of the scratching posts in the room told me the same. During meal times, the oldest cat was fed in a separate area which is what I have to do for my own animals at home too.

As for litter boxes, there was a room behind glass walls with what appeared to be its own ventilation system. Each time a cat did his business, the proprietor scooped it out right away. More than once, I got the impression that us humans were there to entertain the cats instead of the other way around.

IMHO, this is the best (and only) way to live.

LONG LIVE OUR KITTY OVERLORDS.

There's nothing quite like starting off a hectic day with thirty minutes of awwwwfully adorable cats, and Cateriam's ambiance was as peaceful as a spa. When things got a little too mellow, the proprietor would bust out cardboard boxes, crinkly toys, and strawberry hats! You don't know happiness until you've been in a room with ten cats—some dressed as strawberries—zooming, swatting, and pouncing.

Most of the chairs were too small for this American-sized ass, but the seating seemed better suited for cats than humans anyway. Cateriam was popular with both tourists and locals alike, and most people opted to sit on a pillow or the floor while flipping through pet-related manga and books. While there, I tried the hot chocolate, green tea latte, and black sesame drink. Everything was delicious. They even decorated the drinks with cocoa powdered paw prints!

Each time I went—AND YES I WENT BACK MORE THAN ONCE HOW COULD I NOT—I took plenty of pictures. Thanks to a handy dandy pocket wifi, I texted photos to our petsitter back home so I could show my cats how much fun they were missing out on. She texted back to tell me they didn't seem impressed :( which kinda goes to show you that no matter where you are in the world, cats will always be cats.

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

A New Year's Reflection on Five Years Worth of Writing

I've been writing regularly for five years. And in those five years, I have written the following:

  1. Three fanfic pieces (10K to 20K words each)
  2. Two novel-length manuscripts (150K words)
  3. Six novellas (15k to 30k words each)
  4. Hundreds of blog posts, short stories, personal essays spread throughout various websites

It might not seem like a lot, but prior to those five years, I only wrote about 100k words in the span of ten or fifteen years. Creatively, that is. I'm not including papers for school or reports for work.

I wish I hadn't stopped. If I'd been writing for all those missing years, my writing would've been on a whole other level today. But then again, I'm not sure if I really had anything meaningful to say back then.

Time goes by so fast. I was a different person five years ago. Different priorities. Different dreams. It's the end of 2014 (at least it was when I was writing this), and nostalgia has been keeping me up at night.

Also, a really bad cold. (I'm surrounded by snotty tissues right now.)

I tell everyone that Bioware changed my life. Looking back, if I hadn't been so inspired by their stories, I wouldn't have started writing again. If I hadn't been writing, I'm not sure I would still be here. At some point, showing up, typing out my words one at a time became my only way to breathe.

I talk about the girl I used to be as if she was a different person. And in a way, that's true. The cells inside me today are different from the ones that used to make up my body back then. But maybe there's a thread that connects the kid-me to the person I am today. If there is, I'd like to imagine that little girl—the one I see in my writing—giving me permission to keep breathing.

Growing up is a funny thing. When you're young, you think you're growing into the person you want to be, but I'm starting to think it's more about rediscovering who you used to be. We're made up of scattered memories—some good, some bad—but it's not until we're older that we can tell the difference between what's real and what's not.

I've always liked this particular quote by Steve Jobs:

"You can't connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path and that will make all the difference."

Which also happens to be the first part of my favorite motivational video:

I have a love-hate relationship with well-worn paths. It feels like I've been out of step with life since I was old enough to walk, yet I can't not be out of step anymore than I can stop writing. The more I talk to other writers, dreamers, artists, weirdos, the more I see this sense of unease, or dissatisfaction, in them too.

If wishes were real, then my New Year's wish for you would be to follow your heart no matter where it leads you, to fall down a lot, to dream. I hope you dance. A lot. With or without pants. Be brave, be strong. I hope you find your joy, that one thing that keeps your feet on solid ground when things turn crazy but also that one thing that will give your heart beautiful, giant, extraordinary wings with which to fly.

I'm starting to ramble. I blame the cold medicine.

Anyway, my goals for the next five years? Keep writing. Keep making meaningful art. Keep breathing.

In Which I Finally Understand Bruce Lee and Discover What “Being Like Water” Means to my Writing

My birthday is coming up. This one feels like a milestone even though it's not. I'm not turning thirty—I passed that a while ago—but I think my heart's finally catching up to my age. It's a good feeling, because I think I finally understand what Bruce Lee was talking about.

"Be like water," he said. "Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow."

When I first heard that quote, I was in my twenties.

"Ridiculous," I said. "Water's weak. It's shapeless. It dilutes."

I wanted to be like fire: vibrant, painful, all-consuming. The passion of my youth was like a roaring bonfire. I graduated from a program that I'd fought so hard to get into and got a job everyone told me would be near impossible to get. I binged on life so hard that I never had to deal with the repercussions of taking whatever I wanted whenever I needed it.

I was a winner, because I had to be.

Part of that was to make up for lost time. When I was in my teens, I felt like rock: dull, lumpy, stuck. I was forced to sit still while life roared at me like wind buffeting against cliffs. Whether I was in class or at home, I was surrounded by people who knew what was best for me. I followed someone else's dreams, believed in someone else's way of thinking. It may have taken a while, but enough of my pieces chipped away until I was ground down to sand.

And now, with another birthday on the horizon, I finally want to be like water.

It's not about being the strongest or the brightest in the room, it's about showing up and having the discipline and honor to put in 110% no matter how shitty I'm feeling. It's not about being shapeless, it's about having the quiet confidence to flow around obstacles. Not to smash or burn them away, but to accept their presence and acknowledge the resulting ripples as beautiful and necessary things. It's not about following a path—whether career or personal—it's about being true to yourself.

And the truth is: No matter how I've changed, my writing has been the only constant in my life. Maybe the style or the purpose behind it has changed, maybe I wrote on blank pages with pencils instead of on a laptop, but the act of creation makes more sense to me than anything I've ever done. I may have wanted to be like fire or forced to be like rock, but my writing has always been like water.

And it only took me a couple of decades to figure that out.

The Writer as a Modern Nomad

I sit down to write another thousand words in my work in progress, but my writing seems a bit more mehhh than usual. I'm having a hard time focusing. I think I'm getting sick or maybe my body is trying to recover from traveling so often the last six months.

It's hard to be back home, to be forced into a regular schedule. I miss being on the move, but writing while traveling is hard for me too. It takes a while for me to put an experience into words, because I don't realize how things affect me until long after I'm home. It's always the smallest things that end up sticking to my brain.

In Rambles: A Field Guide to the US, Eric Peterson writes that stories are about a man leaving home or a stranger coming into town. I think that's why I need to travel every so often, I'm happiest when I'm unsettled, because stories are about movement.

Life should be about movement.

If I stay in one place too long, I feel like a stranger in my own skin, like all the boxes we're supposed to check off in the game of Life become the only measure of a life well lived. It's a load of crap. I know this. What's on our business cards shouldn't mean more than who we are, yet I'm guilty of judging people and allowing myself to be judged. My family includes doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, lawyers, and here I am, just a vagabond writer, struggling to put experiences into words.

Traveling isn't only about seeing sights, it's about the experience of being a stranger in someone else's town. I'm a solitary traveler. Some people make friends easily, but I'm not one of them.

Being a nomad means not having a home. It means always moving and being unsettled. Hard to do because biologically and culturally, we're supposed to form attachments with people and places. I have my day job where I'm as attached as a house to its foundation, and then there is my writing where I feel the best when I'm unsettled.

There is a lot in common between traveling and writing. Our ability to create art expands our metaphorical horizon the same way our literal boundaries expand each time we travel to a new town. To be able to stand as an observer when we're strangers in someone else's town is to be able to witness what it means to be human: chaotic, unfathomable. To write someone's life, even if it's the life of a fictitious person, is to find a bit of meaning in that chaos.

On the side of Dog Bark Park Inn, a giant dog-shaped bed and breakfast in Idaho, there is a sign that reads: A Noble and Absurd Adventure. After driving a thousand miles, I stumble out of my car to stand beneath this sign. There's not much around me; I'm surrounded by fields of wheat. There's no reception, no wifi, and the nearest town has a population that's less than the number of students at my old high school.

I don't know why I drove so far out of my way or why I chose this place as my destination, but all it took were those five simple words to illuminate the thinnest thread of meaning throughout my life. Writing is like building a giant dog-shaped bed and breakfast in the middle of nowhere just because you can. It's noble and absurd, and that's why I do it.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth

All sixty-four of its pages are yellowing, and the copyright date says 1987. It must've been purchased used, because there's a stamp on the inside depicting two bears holding a "this book belongs to" sign. I never filled it in, because as a kid, I felt my garish handwriting (and name) would somehow sully the book. I can't remember when I first read The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth, but this book has traveled with me through two countries, ten different homes, five schools, six pets, and a marriage. If I had children, this would be the story I'd read to them every night.

Good Fortune is a cat who lives with a poor artist. She sits with him every day watching him work on a commissioned painting of the death of Buddha. But as he paints a procession of the courageous horse, the gentle snail, the noble elephant, and other earthly animals bidding farewell to Buddha, he knows Good Fortune wants to be in the painting too.

"But where is the cat?" thought the artist to himself, for even in his vision he remembered that in none of the paintings he had ever seen of the death of Buddha, was a cat represented among the other animals.
"Ah, the cat refused homage to Buddha," he remembered, "and so by her own independent act, only the cat has the doors of Paradise closed in her face."

The artist loves his gentle cat, but he needs the money. If he puts a cat in his painting, the temple priest will burn the sacrilegious art.

Good Fortune came out from his shadow. When she saw the tiger she trembled all over, from her thistledown whiskers to her little tail, and looked at the artist.
"If the tiger can come to bid farewell to Buddha," she seemed to say, "surely the cat, who is little and often so gentle, may come. O master? Surely, surely, you will next paint the cat among the animals who were blessed by the Holy One as he died?"

I love this story and not just because I have three cats of my own. When I read this as a kid, I loved it because it was a story about animals. When I read this as teen, I loved it because it was about an animal who changed a man's life for the better. My childhood dog changed my life, except I hadn't known just how much he'd affected me until years after he passed away. When I read this story as an adult, I love it because it reminds me that the things that move us—be it cats or art—can lead us to surprisingly beautiful places.

A Life in Pursuit of Hikaru's Go and Jiro's Sushi

A manga turned anime, HIKARU NO GO was released almost a decade ago. It's a coming-of-age story and a story about devoting one's life to a singular passion. When Hikaru discovers an old go board in his grandfather's attic, he accidentally awakens a ghost named Sai, a go player who lived during the Heian era of Japan. All Sai wants to do is study go, and Hikaru reluctantly plays a few games to appease the friendly spirit. But when the young boy's lack of interest soon turns to enthusiasm, Sai is surprised to learn that Hikaru displays an innate talent for the game.

The heart of the story lies in their master-student relationship. The most poignant scenes happen after Sai begins to see that in Hikaru lies the path to achieve the divine move—a move so perfect and inspired that it is considered the pinnacle achievement of every go master. Sai's quest for Kami no Itte, or the Hand of God, is the reason why his soul has been unable to rest.

Sai never reaches the divine move, and by the end of the anime, he quietly accepts that sometimes you are but a single step toward something greater. He sets his ego, his sense of self, aside, and the master becomes the student when Sai lifts Hikaru in his stead to reach for the stars.

Over a decade later, a popular documentary titled JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI is released. The film follows the life of a sushi master named Jiro Ono, an eighty-five year old man who has devoted his life to crafting the perfect sushi. His Michelin three-star restaurant is in the basement of an office building near a Tokyo subway station. It takes months to get a reservation, and a twenty-minute meal costs over $300.

The documentary is a study in the simple joy of devoting your life to mastering your craft, but mastery doesn't come without sacrifice. In Jiro's case, he rarely saw his family while his children were growing up, and they lived in poverty for years.

In a review of the film, Roger Ebert asks: "If you find an occupation you love and spend your entire life working at it, is that enough?"

Yes.

For me, it is.

Sometimes, the hardest part isn't about figuring out what you love to do, but in humbly accepting that even if you never reach your Kami no Itte, it is enough to dedicate your life in pursuit of its truth.

This is what writing means to me.

If You Have Writer's Block, Watch this TED Talk.

We've all been there. Your initial kernel of an idea is stuffed with endless possibilities, and you write for weeks or months with the focused intensity of a lion chasing down its prey. Your words flow faster than monkey diarrhea, and you're riding the high like a fevered junkie. Feels fucking good, amirite?

You start thinking that maybe you've got what it takes, that this writing thing is easy peasy, because you were blessed with the right idea at the right moment, and you must've done something good in your past life, because the words are clicking together inside your brain.

Gaiman and Rowling and McCarthy ain't got nutting on you, baby.

Then one day, while you're eating pancakes at two in the morning, it all goes to shit. Maybe your plot gets snarled up tighter than fishing line or maybe your characters refuse to cooperate or maybe you realize you've unintentionally copied the storyline of Marvel's latest movie.

Aaaand...cue writer's block.

I'm not talking about the ol' I don't really feel like writing today because I'd rather sleep on the couch without my pants kind of writer's block, I'm talking about ALL CAPS, DOUBLE UNDERLINED, IN BOLD, TRIPLE EXCLAMATION MARKS kind of writer's block.

You're stuck. You question yourself. You try to rewrite scenes or come up with a different ending or you introduce naked ninjas into your story. You waste time rereading King's On Writing or stalking agents on Twitter or snarking at other writers on Reddit, but nothing helps. You feel like a failure, a hack, a lumpy sack of sprouted potatoes.

Which leads me to the meat and, ahem, potatoes of this post...

Uri Alon, this science dude, is in the middle of studying for his PhD when he becomes hopelessly stuck. No matter what he tries, all his research leads to dead ends. Sounds familiar? The first minute of his TED talk really resonates for anyone suffering from creative block in any field:

"It seemed like my basic assumptions just stopped working. I felt like a pilot flying through the mists, and I lost all sense of direction. I stopped shaving. I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I felt unworthy of stepping across the gates of the university, because I wasn’t like Einstein or Newton or any other scientist I’d learned about, because in science, we just learn about the results not the process, so obviously I couldn’t be a scientist."

Science, Uri explains, is focused on the logical steps between the question and answer. If A is the question and B is the answer, science dictates that research is a direct path leading from A to B. But what if your experiments aren't working?

"The problem is, that if an experiment doesn’t work or if a student gets depressed, it’s perceived as something utterly wrong and causes tremendous stress."

As writers (or as human beings, really), we know what we want to achieve, but figuring out how to get there is when things get complicated. The cognitive dissonance between your intent and your reality is what causes stress. Uri names this murky space the cloud.

"Now you can be lost in the cloud for a day, a week, a month, a year, a whole career, but sometimes if you’re lucky enough and you have enough support, you can see in the materials at hand, or perhaps meditating on the shape of the cloud, a new answer—C—and you decide to go for it."

If you keep writing, you'll break through your block. BUT THAT'S WHAT I'VE BEEN DOING, you say. True dat. I'm not questioning your discipline. What Uri is proposing is for us to rethink the cloud.

"The cloud stands guard at the boundary between the known and the unknown, because in order to discover something truly new, at least one of your basic assumptions has to change...we do something quite heroic, every day we try to bring ourselves to the boundary between the known and unknown and face the cloud."

Writer's block is a necessary part of the creative process. It means you're close to a breakthrough. As Uri puts it, the cloud is essential.

And beautiful.

And normal.

Watch Uri's whole TED talk here:

Stories that Matter

My Facebook life has to be perfect, because if my story didn't exist online, I'd disappear. Having no likes on a post is like me standing at the edge of a cliff, shouting into an abyss but not hearing an echo. I wait and wait and then I start to wonder if maybe it's not the echo that's the problem, it's my voice. Because what if I think I hear my voice, but really the sound just never existed in the first place? Maybe my mouth is a figment of my imagination or a tumor in someone's brain. School taught me to dress for the job I want, so I dress my profile for the life I want. We're all made up of stories anyway, so somewhere along the way I decided to write my own except I somehow ended up writing shitty fanfic about people who aren't me. In anime, characters with the loudest hair matter the most. Maybe that's why I color my hair so often.

My profile is starting to remind me of this creepy photo I saw on Reddit of a decapitated woman dressed up like a doll. NSFL. Not suitable for life. Not because I post photos of dead people, but because my profile has turned into a Pinterest collage with vacations and family and friends and pets and a fulfilling career. I'm thin and beautiful not because I am in real life, but because I watched a vid on Vimeo once on how to pose in front of a camera for the most flattering photos.

I looked into deleting Facebook once and ended up deactivating my account instead. Temporary deactivation is safe, permanent deletion too scary. I ran away from my Facebook life just to prove that I could, then I physically ran away too.

I think I was hoping for something magical to happen when I ran away, like maybe I'd glomp onto that one magical turn of phrase and be instantly transformed into somebody who mattered, and then I'd drive home a brand new person brimming over with inspirational desktop quotes. The only thing I learned from that trip is that it's impossible to leave Facebook behind. When you reactivate your profile, everything is as you left it. The Internet has a longer memory than I do.

***

I once read this short story in high school about a girl who found solace in sitting fully clothed in an empty bathtub. Its cold, hard shape kept all her bits and pieces safe while the rest of her fell apart. When she climbed back out, she was fine, just great, thank you very much. I don't remember the rest of the story, but I remember wanting to try it once, except the tub was dirty, and I didn't want to clean it.

There was also this short story about a girl who drank milk before every meal. It was a certain kind of milk drank in a certain kind of way that made it easier for her to throw up her food afterwards. I remember this story was an English assignment, and my teacher talked about how eating disorders are bad, but all I got out of it was so that's how you do it. Except I hated milk, and I hated having to taste the same milk twice.

I see stories everywhere because I'm addicted to metaphors. Maybe I'm a tragic comedy in two acts or maybe a cautionary postmodern tale. Life has to impart some kind of meaning, right? There has to be some tiny thing that seems insignificant at the time but carries through to the end—an empty bathtub or a cup of milk—something that can be identified and analyzed. Like, when I sit down to write a story and end up staring at the blank page instead. I know empty spaces are supposed to be filled by things—something is better than nothing—because why am I here if not to be filled by pretty things?

At Starbucks, I write stories about characters who never achieve their goals or characters who get everything they want then find out they wanted something else all along. In college, I learned this is a postmodern thing. Something something about how the war screwed everyone in the head, and now we write these stories about people who feel increasingly disconnected.

And love stories. I love writing tragic love scenes like the ones that happen the night before you wake up in bed to find yourself alone. You don't know why he left, but when you reread those scenes you know exactly why. There are a lot of furrowed brows and trembling fingers and ellipses. Also boobs. And engorged members. Writing sex can be a lot of cock this, cock that, but it's also about one or two (or more) bodies filling empty holes. I like to think our bodies tell the kinds of stories we'd never dare to say out loud.

***

I watched a YouTube video on Bruce Lee once. The slant of his eyes and the curl of his tongue made me think of fortune cookies and gongs. He talked about being like water—formless, shapeless—but I didn't get it. I think it's because I'm not Asian enough. I'm neither wise nor mysterious, my eyes are only a little slanty, and I only have an accent when I try to speak in my native tongue. And instead of learning how to be like water, bits and parts of me end up trickling down the drain. All that's left is a cold, hard tub and an empty glass once filled with milk. All that's left is my reflection.

All that's left are these words.

I'm writing a lot more these days. A decade of work and grown-up responsibilities made me forget the person I wanted to be when I was a kid. Back when all I did was daydream about incredible, fantastical worlds, I hid books in my jacket sleeves, snuck them into class, read them when I was supposed to be learning algebra and geometry. I wrote my first short story in math class behind my teacher's back. I thought I was being so sneaky, but I only just realized that maybe my teachers let me get away with it because that quiet Asian girl with her nose stuck in a book was the kind of person who mattered.

My dad asked me recently how anyone could choose to study English all through high school and college. For once, he wasn't angry. He actually wanted to know why, and I found out that after all this time, he thought studying English was learning how to spell and how to use grammar properly. When I told him about stories and how much they mattered, he laughed. Not at me, but because he was relieved that his daughter knew how to spell.

And maybe that's where I went wrong. Maybe I shouldn't have tried to please him by tacking on a management degree and moving to the states to work in a big building behind a big desk. Maybe I shouldn't have stopped reading and writing all these years because being a writer is about having a voice, and somehow I'd lost mine along the way all because of a misunderstanding about what it means to study English.

Maybe it's not about deleting my perfect Facebook life, because even my profile is a part of me like how a lie becomes real when you tell it to yourself too often. The Internet has a longer memory than I do, and Google knows me more than I know myself. The problem is that I was born before the Internet was born, and the person I am—the one with the stories who mattered—never made it online because she used to write on paper with ink instead of on a laptop in Starbucks.

Writing is a little like standing at the edge of a cliff, but instead of shouting into the abyss, you listen to the world that's always been inside your head. It's dizzying and crazy and none of it makes any sense, but the sound you hear is so much more beautiful than the echo of a million Facebook likes.

On Ego

The more I give up my ego, the stronger writer I become. Sometimes I feel like the world and its many personalities distract me from the meaningful. When I worry I'm not good enough, I start writing for the wrong reasons. To put it another way, I shouldn't write to be heard; I should write because I have something to say. For the last two years, I've been thinking a lot about nothingness: no good or bad, no right or wrong, no incorrect or correct, no ego. This concept of void ended up being a predominant theme in my manuscript, but I still struggle to achieve this state of zero.

Strip away our cities, our walls, our rules, our senses, ourselves. Strip enough away and nothing remains. Like a post-apocalyptic world...

"Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world."—from The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I don't know why that quote has stuck with me for so long. Maybe it hits a little close to home. It brings to mind a gradual ceasing of existence like our lives only matter if we're seen. It's the proverbial tree in the woods scenario except we are the trees and I want to be a strong enough writer to write in the absence of sound.

On Faking It

Even though I've lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost a decade, I still sometimes go to Fisherman's Wharf and pretend to be a tourist. I take pictures of sea lions at Pier 39 and try on funky hats from that one crazy hat store. I'll even buy a pretzel from the hot dog stand I used to work at. When you're a tourist, it's okay to be out of place, to be lost, to be in a place that's not home. Every now and then, I need to remind myself that. I don't get to travel as much as I'd like to these days, and sometimes I worry that the older I get, the more comfortable I become. The best parts of my life happen when I'm in an uncertain place. Like I'm trying to find my balance on an edge as sharp as a knife, except it's not about balance, it's about picking which side to fall off from.

I found this tidbit on Neil Gaiman's blog this morning:

"I loved how comfortable I'm starting to feel on stages in universities and such. I no longer feel, when I'm out on the stage, like I'm faking it, or that I'm there under false pretenses."

So even someone like him feels this way every now and then.

There is an enormous amount of pressure to be successful. Some of it comes from society, some from family, mostly it's me trying to prove something to myself. Like someone with an eating disorder, I can't stop myself from thinking that happiness comes from hitting a magic number on the scale except this particular scale only measures the unmeasurable: career, family, faith.

I tell myself that with each word that I write, I feel a little less fake like I'm a real writer instead of someone pretending to be one. But then I think about this website, and how I'm only comfortable writing bits of my truth under a pseudonym, and I can't seem to tell what's real and what's fake anymore.

On Writing

I love writing. Both the good parts and bad. I love how hard it is to put down word after word and how exciting it is when words click together in my brain. I love how embarrassed I get when people ask me what I do for a living, because in my heart, I write. I'm a writer. I write for a living. Not for money but to live, to thrive, to feel, to be every kind of verb there is because I want to write them all. A day without writing is a day when I'm lost. I forget who I am and become someone else. Someone I don't like. Someone who isn't real. Someone who shines but never glows. Dull. Silent. An undead creature hungering for more money, more accolades, more likes, more comments, more views.

Write something. Write anything. Each time I write, life moves forward one thousand words at a time. Each paragraph a footprint to mark who I used to be. Each page to mark where I came from. Each chapter to mark how far I've come.

I love writing because it's easy. I love writing because it's hard. It's verbal diarrhea and constipation and binging and purging and it can't be healthy but maybe it is because if I didn't write, didn't write anything at all, I wouldn't be here anymore.

On Endings

My favorite stories end without endings. They're neither cliffhangers nor unresolved, but they're bittersweet and very real. It is in these kinds of stories that I see who I am. I've spent my life looking for distraction, for approval, for anything to chase away the apathy. A sad story is like a punch to the gut. The pain jolts me awake, and for a moment, I remember how small and fragile I really am.

I will never find this thing that everyone is supposed to have. Call it happiness or happyness, but it is in the pursuit of it that I lose sight of who I am. A life without happiness is a life without movement, and sad stories teach me how to be still. Sometimes, I need to be still.

As the new year approaches, I hope for bigger and brighter things. I always hope for bigger and brighter things, because even if I'm bad at being a human being, I've gotten quite good at pretending to be one.

2013 has been difficult, but I wouldn't want to change a thing. Sometimes, you have to fall to pieces before you can pick yourself up. Maybe this time, as I'm gluing my bits and pieces back together, I can finally see the cracks for what they are: stories without endings, stories of a life lived with enough depth to become bittersweet and real.

On Secret Worlds

I'm sitting at the airport watching people come and go. My laptop's plugged in, and I'm trying to write another hundred words before it's time to board. I'm feeling my way through a new project at the moment. Not sure what will come of it, but I'm enjoying the story and the characters. That's all I really need to keep going. There are so many different kinds of people around me. Family people. Alone people. People with pink suitcases and people with backpacks. Some are in a hurry. Others not so much. There are so many stories at an airport but not enough time to write them all.

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody—no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds...Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”—Neil Gaiman in The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You

I want to write these worlds. All of them. And maybe one day I'll be good enough at this writing thing to actually do it.