On School & Balancing
I’ll be attending my master’s graduation in two weeks, and I must say that the year has been utterly frantic but rewarding. During the program, I split my time between badminton training, writing and readings for courses, along with writing and reading outside of the program and slush reading. I found myself often sleeping between 5-9am, sometimes waking just before class started, sometimes sleeping through the day or taking naps so I can continue working without needing too much rest. And because of the time difference, I liked to set alarms for 5am so I can submit and get into the queue for magazines first, and hopefully get a second piece in before the deadline in case of rejections.
Writing sometimes feels very much so like a numbers game—how many submissions we send, how many works we have circulating, how many votes we get during awards—and to keep up is something that’s draining, daunting, and often fruitless given the subjectivity of writing, editing, and reading fiction. But I think it’s helpful to remember that we just need to find that one person who believes in our work, and sometimes that’s enough.
There were deadlines during the program, yes, but I think what drove me, and still drives me, is the passion and love for the written word.
In high school, I was on track to get honours for graduation (though this may seem great, most of my classmates, I would even go as far to say that majority of the school, received this), until I decided suddenly that I wanted to become a neurosurgeon. It was idealistically wild, and if I recall correctly, I’d made the decision after watching a Korean drama. That is a sure sign that I should not have been trusted with this choice. I didn’t enjoy doing math and avoided most of the sciences up to this point, and it was almost two months into senior year. To switch into math and sciences from my planned year of humanity courses was, literally, asking for death.
I don’t know how, but I convinced both my mother and the school guidance counselor that this was what I really wanted, even if I would struggle. My dad was more than happy, however, because he’d wanted me to become some variation of a doctor, or lawyer, or accountant, and he saw this as my “big breakthrough”. It was definitely a big decision, and something definitely broke, and I did, in fact, have a “big breakthrough”: I returned to my original plan to study English Literature in university.
At the same time this was happening, I’d began badminton in grade eleven and quickly became obsessed with training and competing, but this meant less writing (I used to write romances in my free time on Wattpad for fun), less time for reading, and less time for figuring out what it was I truly wanted. Though, at the time, what I believed I wanted was to one day play the Olympics, even though most Olympians begin training at the age of six, and I was already a decade behind. Even so, I tried hard to keep up with everyone else and desired validation, the gold medals to hang around my neck, my name with the small “1st” next to it for tournament results—something I never could even get close to when it came to academics.
And how does this relate to writing? Well…
Truth be told, until last year, I’ve won no academic awards. I always hover at just above average, but never outstanding. The achievements and awards section of my resume had always been completely empty, and it often made me feel self-conscious about my prospects in the job market—until I realized how many jobs really don’t care about any of that, at least for the ones I applied for.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on why I set certain goals, and what I hope to gain from them, rather than blindly chasing after the prestige that being in school for so long has taught me to pursue, to desire, to feel like a failure if I didn’t receive such-and-such award, or was recognized for such-and-such things,
I’ve always thought of myself as a really hard worker with the things I love (though sometimes even my best efforts feel like they’re not enough), but I don’t think I was ever a particularly smart worker. I’d spend hours upon hours doing things in very inefficient ways, thinking that simply putting in the time will get me to where I want to go. Sometimes, it does. But more often than not, I realize I can get so much more done if I was more methodical about it, more intentional about each action, reflecting on the way I go about things first before blindly diving it. Though I have to say, sometimes the first plunge without too many hesitations might be necessary to get things going.
In high school, I wasn’t nearly good enough to compete with anyone else, and as a result, I also given up competing with myself. But I found that in recent years, after having time to really stop and think about my life during the height of the pandemic, I found peace in not having to compete with anyone other than myself. There are a lot of things you can’t control in life, but what you can control is your own actions and improvements, and that’s something I think about all the time.
It has been an absolutely wild year filled with productivity, burnout, tears of both joy and stress, and so many new friends.
I had the honour of being invited to speak about my story “Give Me English” (published in F&SF) at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and it was the first time I ever cried while speaking about my writing, and also the first time anyone in the audience has ever cried while reflecting on it. It reminds me of why I write—it’s this exact sense of shared humanity that I think makes fiction so important: the connection between humans, the resonant experiences and emotions, the empathy we develop as a result for those around us—and hopefully our planet, too. Fiction, both writing and reading it, even with the bleakest and most tragic and most heartrending of narratives, gives me hope.
On a side note, during my trip to Boston, which was only for three days, I somehow managed to “lose” my passport, had to then rush to the consulate to get a new one the next day, had it printed that same afternoon, but as I was getting ready to leave for my flight on the third day, I found my passport in the last place I had thought to check as I shoved my hand into my sweater pocket. But as much as this was both a silly and inconvenient incident, it made me realize just how much of our identities is reliant on this single piece of document, how many borders stand in our way without it, and how the world might define us by it as I stare at my Chinese passport which is no longer valid because dual citizenship is no longer allowed in China. But this is a deeper contemplation for another time.
To reflect on the things I’ve accomplished this year, which includes much of which I could never have thought of happening, I’ve somehow got my first book deal; landed an agent through #PitDark with a story collection; had ~35 stories published; wrote two novellas; wrote my first novelette; put together my first story collection; received support for my story “Give Me English” (published in F&SF) on the Nebula Recommended Reading List; was solicited for multiple anthologies; graduated from my master’s with Merit, even though I was sure I was floundering; got into Odyssey Workshop and was awarded the Fresh Voices Scholarship; spoke on panels with writers I admire and look up to; got asked about foreign language rights for my debut novella, which hasn’t come out yet, based on the writing of my published short stories.
The last item on the list reminds me of just how important short stories are. But after signing with an agent, I also realized just how important awards are, maybe not necessarily in selling a book to a mass audience, but to people in the publishing industry looking to take a chance on you, who want to see that you are someone tested and proven with a higher chance of success.
To be completely transparent, I’m okay with not being recognized through awards for my work, but to get my work into the hands of big publishers, wins and nominations gives you the extra edge. And I suppose if I wanted to make writing full time, it would be something I need to pursue, to get on lists, to receive validation, in order to spend the rest of my life reflecting and writing, and hoping that my words help bring people together as there are always individuals who thrive to drive us apart. And as much as many of us might not want to see our art as products, to have it read by many, to have it be impactful and offer food for thought during our lifetime to the public, books as art and books as products are unfortunately mutually inclusive. Maybe some might not agree, but this is just one opinion I’ve been thinking about.
For me, life has always been about balancing, or more accurately, failing to balance, and the pitfalls I experience because of it. I suppose it’s fitting that so many of my current WIPs tackle this issue, including the epic fantasy/post-apocalyptic trilogy I’m planning. But more on that soon as I try not to start new WIPs before finishing older ones.
If you’ve reached this point, thank you for taking the time to read my musings, and thank you again for your unending support!