Inspiration Station: Writing While Traveling

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

IMG_20170429_174707I don’t often talk about my manuscripts and works in progress on ChiYA, but this post does need a bit of that background before I delve into my recent trip and how it’s inspired my writing. I am Korean American and I love to use my personal heritage in my writing. Just the history of Korea itself lends such a rich source of inspiration for me that I could write all day about the rise and fall of kings in the Joseon era. Speaking of, my most recent WiP is based on Joseon traditions. So when I was traveling to Korea last month I figured I’d do some (more) research.

I have to say that I’m lucky enough to go to Korea pretty regularly. I started writing my last MS there and it really did influence how I described the world in my book (since it was set in a contemporary Korea).

I try to use my own lived experiences in my writing, but I try not to fall too deeply in the trap of describing a place in detail merely because I’ve been there. I like to think that worlds created in books, even if they are real places, have a level of discovery for the reader. I love getting a sense of the scene from my favorite books, but then layering my own imagination on top of it as a reader.

That’s what I try to do when I’m writing about places I’ve been, because I do believe everyone experiences places differently. I like to think I open the door and step aside to let the reader have their own time with the places I’ve created.

Something that helped me with this a lot this trip was the fact that my younger cousin was experiencing Korea for the first time. To see how she perceived these places that I’ve been to many times, and how she experienced everything in a way I’d never imagined, helped me understand a different perspective on things that might have grown “common” to me. It gave me back a sense of wonder of the new and it inspired me in my writing.

IMG_20170427_134638My tips for using your travel and experiences in your writing are:

  1. Include the things that drew you there in the first place, but don’t be too leading. Don’t try to force your experience on others, just let it be a guide to open the door to a new place and then let the reader experience the world as they will.
  2. Use your own emotional attachments to a place as a way to explain why something ordinary could become extraordinary. I love the smell of rice cakes, it’s kind of sweet and savory at the same time. When the sauce is too spicy it stings my nostrils, but it reminds me of so many memories of my semester abroad in Seoul. Those small moments make a place richer for me and I’ve used them to enrich my stories.
  3. Let a place speak for itself. This is something I think about a lot because I’m writing in a non-western world. I don’t want to frame everything from the lens of an American POV (even though I am a Korean American). I want the world to stand on its own without preconceived notions or biases.
  4. In that same vein, don’t force it. Make sure that you’re not layering expectations on top of your world (especially if it isn’t necessary for the story). I’ve read pages and pages of exposition explaining a place and then it turns out it never had any relevance to the plot and I was…baffled.
  5. Try to imagine the same place from multiple angles. I would suggest this for new and old places you’ve been. Sometimes, the old becomes new when seen from a different POV (like how my cousin helped me see Seoul in a new light).

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This post is brought to you by Kat Cho at ChiYAwriters.com.

Inspiration Station: On Sculpture and Writing and Having Conversations

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

Some say it resembles a human skull; others say it’s a mushroom cloud. To me, Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy sculpture suggests the possible.

moore_nuclearenergyUnveiled at 3:36 p.m. on December 2, 1967, Moore’s sculpture commemorates the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear reaction initiated on Dec 2nd, 1942, at, you guessed it, 3:36 p.m. It seems strange, perhaps even beyond the pale, to mark a moment that eventually led to so much death and destruction. But I’m one for remembering. For knowing the past so that we don’t replicate it, so we can learn from it. I never saw this sculpture as a celebration—indeed it’s not a beautiful work of art in a “traditional” sense, but it is conversational—as, I believe, Moore intended it and as I take it.

Perhaps more than any other physical thing, sculpture to me is most like writing. The artist or the writer begins with an idea, an intention and molds and crafts her medium to fit that concept, tell that story. But once that piece is in the world, it’s for the observer or reader to continue that conversation.

Nuclear Energy engages the viewer. It invites you in and through. This 12 feet x 8 feet weighty chunk of bronze, is solid and yet somehow airy. There are moments when it seems it can take off, unshackle itself from gravity. Smooth, worn, rough, it both blocks the light and lets it pass. Like Enrico Fermi and the other physicists of the Manhattan Project, this sculpture has and can keep secrets.

Often I’ve seen students huddled in the sculpture’s niches, rapt in conversation. Once I saw a Nobel Prize winning physicist sitting back in one of the recesses, eyes closed, head tilted back, face utterly peaceful. I’d like to to think he was solving some of life’s great mysteries, but perhaps he was merely thinking about his lunch. I’ve sat in that sculpture myself, many times—searching for shade, a place to rest, or a moment to think in a quiet hollow. This sculpture calls to the passerby to engage; it invites you in.

At some point, Moore must have thought his sculpture was done, that it was ready to be made public, to be seen, to be known. As I come closer to my publication date, I think a lot about what it really means for a writer to be finished with a book—the time between first draft and final pass pages, where the moments to make changes in the story narrow until they are gone. But that book is just beginning to breathe and be a part of a conversation. That book is on a new journey—true, it can’t really be changed, but it can still evolve.

Moore’s sculpture changes with the viewpoint the observer brings, with the sun and shadow and clouds. What a wonderful metaphor for writing—for holding on and letting go. For moving from a writer’s soliloquy to the wide and varied chorus of readers who honor the writer by engaging with their words, who carry on the conversation.

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.

Inspiration Station: Finding the Write Light

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

We all know that having a room of one’s own in which to write is a luxury for many writers. And even if you have that sacred writing space, sometimes it’s necessary to step out of your world and find a room with a new view to find a fresh perspective. For me, this is especially important when I find myself stuck on the page. On this blog, we highlight some of our favorite Chicago spots in our Finding the Write Place series—coffee shops and other public spaces where the muse finds us.

When I need to search for that elusive muse, I go to the library. Particularly, the newest library at my alma mater, the University of Chicago. (Only accessible to those with a U of C affiliation.)

To a lot of you, Mansueto Library is going to look familiar:

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Copyright 2013 Summit Entertainment, LLC

Yup. It’s part of Erudite Headquarters in the first Divergent film.

And, nope, I’m not plotting a coup, though Mansueto might be an excellent spot for that as well.

I’ve always loved writing at the library for the lighting, the quiet, and the soft hum from the air conditioning or heating or some mysterious white noise generator. Mansueto, opened in 2011—long after I graduated, has all 3 of those writing environment qualities I need. Also, you can have coffee at your desk.

I wrote and revised and edited a huge portion of my upcoming book, LOVE, HATE & OTHER FILTERS, at Mansueto. The University of Chicago has a small cameo in the book, but that’s not why I write at Mansueto. That light I mentioned as so important to me? Mansueto has it in abundance. Even on Chicago’s dreariest winter days, if there is any light to be had, I can find it at Mansueto.  This is what it looks like when I enter the Grand Reading Room:

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Even when I’m not writing about setting or weather, the quality of light is something I think a lot about when I write. Capturing the quality of light at different times of day, in different seasons, in different places—finding the right words to describe it is something I’ve often found elusive. It’s poetry, but it eludes me. In some ways, I guess light is a kind of muse for me. It presents me with a writing challenge. I love how it’s alive and how its character changes and how it can feel beautiful and soft, but also harsh and cruel. When I get to Mansueto early enough and can snag a table at the window, I can figure out my writing conundrums usually just staring out the window, not at my computer, watching the light play games and cast shadows out and across the lawn and gothic buildings.

Working at Mansueto helped me know the type of space I covet as a writer—the kind of space that doesn’t merely optimize my writing output, but a space that feels comfortable and inspiring. And where, if necessary, I can plan a hostile takeover of the other factions because I blame ignorance for the faults of human society.

WAIT.

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.

Inspiration Station: On Casting Lines and Catching Readers

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

(Manuscript images from The University of Chicago, The Special Collections Research Center)

Time and again, when my writing feels a little stale, a little stalled, I go back to stories that moved me. For that matter, even when life feels stale and stalled. I re-read those stories, sometimes even just paragraphs, phrases.

It’s one of the true powers of literature–the ability to speak to an individual. Words that feel like an author is reaching through time and writing those thoughts, again, just for me in this time and place I occupy, though to the author it was unknowable.

The story that I’ve read, perhaps more than any other, was written forty years ago, A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT– a semi-autobiographical novella by Norman Maclean. Though, thanks to the movie adaptation by Robert Redford, Maclean is strongly associated with Missoula, Montana, he spent the majority of his life in Chicago. First attending the University of Chicago for graduate school and then becoming a professor in 1928 until his retirement at the age of seventy. It was only then, upon retirement, that he began to write down some of the stories he was renowned for telling.

He published his first work of fiction after the age of seventy. And in many ways, it has defined his legacy. That might be inspiration enough.

Then there are his words. Lyrical and truthful and raw. They speak to the poignancy of memory and the passage of time, when so many people and moments in are life have faded away yet stay with us still.

And through some kind of alchemy, he made fly fishing poetry.

A few sentences of A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT are etched in my mind, but I still pick up my old marked-up, yellowing copy of Maclean’s book to look at the words, to hear them speak to me: “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great floods and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” (The University of Chicago Press, copyright 1976)

Reading Maclean’s words on the page, it is impossible not to think of him at once, as the young man wading in Montana’s Big Blackfoot River and the retired English professor walking the pathways between ivy covered buildings in Chicago. Always a fisherman, who somehow cast his magical line and hooked the imagination of a young undergrad who had never caught a fish.

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.

Inspiration Station: Life Distilled in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

To be a writer in Chicago is to be constantly reminded that you stand on the shoulders of giants. That the same romance and dynamism and grit that moves you, also moved the many great writers who came before you. It is a humbling experience. And an inspiring one.

Sinclair and Algren, Hansberry and Norris, Bellow and Wright, Dybek and Cisneros and so many more have each painted our City with their own brushstrokes. And our poets, too, have looked to the lake, concrete, and steel and blood and smoke rising from factories, and penned the lyricism of Chicago, the contradictions. The pain and the glory. The simple quotidian existence of the multitudes who came to build this place. Indeed, Chicago may be one of the few cities that takes a traceable moniker directly from one of its poet sons. Carl Sandburg named us “The City of the Big Shoulders” and it stuck.

I want to share one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, the first poet laureate of Illinois, first African-American author to win the Pulitzer, Chicago’s beloved Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). I could spend pages talking about the rawness and power of her poetry, of its subtlety and activism. I could talk about her incredible commitment to this city where she taught classes until her death. I could talk about her love of our public schools and our people. I could talk about her most anthologized poem, We Real Cool, but listen to her instead. I had the privilege of seeing her read and she was a wonder.

“Poetry is life distilled,” Ms. Brooks said at Chicago Poetry Day talk in 1990. Perhaps the poem that best reflects this simple, beautiful idea for me is when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story.

As a writer, what inspires me about this poem is the simplicity of its language and the depth of its meaning, how the speaker is “Hugged by the plain old wrapper of no-expectation” and how those everyday words make us feel, for that brief moment in time, what she feels, a comfort of happiness even as she questions it. This poem is about love and loss and resignation and remembrance and about the cobwebs of memory that we brush away, though tiny particles of dust still linger. I have a smile in my heart and a lump in my throat every time I read this poem. Unpacking the craft makes me realize what a master Brooks was– how she takes us through the anatomy of a relationship, its tenderness and demise in a single afternoon. In 217 words, life distilled beautifully, poignantly by a poet at the height of art.

when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story
BY GWENDOLYN BROOKS

—And when you have forgotten the bright bedclothes on a Wednesday and a Saturday,
And most especially when you have forgotten Sunday—
When you have forgotten Sunday halves in bed,
Or me sitting on the front-room radiator in the limping afternoon
Looking off down the long street
To nowhere,
Hugged by my plain old wrapper of no-expectation
And nothing-I-have-to-do and I’m-happy-why?
And if-Monday-never-had-to-come—
When you have forgotten that, I say,
And how you swore, if somebody beeped the bell,
And how my heart played hopscotch if the telephone rang;
And how we finally went in to Sunday dinner,
That is to say, went across the front room floor to the ink-spotted table in the southwest corner
To Sunday dinner, which was always chicken and noodles
Or chicken and rice
And salad and rye bread and tea
And chocolate chip cookies—
I say, when you have forgotten that,
When you have forgotten my little presentiment
That the war would be over before they got to you;
And how we finally undressed and whipped out the light and flowed into bed,
And lay loose-limbed for a moment in the week-end
Bright bedclothes,
Then gently folded into each other—
When you have, I say, forgotten all that,
Then you may tell,
Then I may believe
You have forgotten me well.

Source: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997)

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.