I already hate myself for the impulse to write this post. I find few things more annoying than a short op-ed or whatever in the New York Times or whatever about the English Major or the Humanities or whatever and how they are disappearing or dwindling or whatever and how we should keep them around because they preserve our highest values and make us better people or whatever and how everyone (“everyone” here is defined as a bunch of sappy humanities people) weighs in with treacly, cliched supports or refutations or whatever.

But I’m an English professor; I just read Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker; I can hardly help myself.

Gopnik’s final sentences: “The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.” Does this make anyone else throw up a little in their mouth? And then swallow it again, which is actually the worst part throwing up in the mouth. We’re human! How very profound!

Last month I met with my Dean, who, having reviewed The Numbers, observes that students are hot on Creative Writing. Writing of all sorts – creative writing, business writing, writing for the web – is where it’s at. Duh, I think. My creative writing colleagues (none of them tenure-track, btw) and I have been making this claim for years, begging for more money, more support, more staff. Students want to create, whether it’s stories, poems, or friggin’ web content. Some of them even want to write literary analyses, which is also creation, the creation of ideas and arguments and insights.

[Side note: Eminem is playing on my Pandora. Yes.]

The Dean seems to think that, just like at Pomona (where English majors are down to 1% of the student body), the English Major is dying. That everything is trending toward Writing.

One would think that I, as a creative writing prof, would be super excited to have the Dean seeing what I have been trying to tell the Dean since it was a different Dean I was talking to. And yes I am. Except I’m not saying that the English Major is irrelevant or dying. I’m just saying we need more support for writing, which is a growing component of the discipline. The problem, at least as I see, at least in my department, is that we have a disproportionate number of faculty teaching literature to faculty teaching writing.

But that doesn’t make the Literature classes irrelevant. One of my colleagues occasionally laments that our English Department, in terms of curriculum and staff, looks exactly like his undergraduate program in the 70s. I can see his point, and I do think English Departments can be shockingly conservative in their structures, especially when people are fighting for their jobs. But I’d argue that what happens INSIDE the classroom is WAYYYY (sorry, I’m shouting) different than what happened in the 70s, especially at Regional Campuses of State Universities, like ours.

[Now it's Amy Winehouse "Back to Black."]

My literature colleagues are pretty much all from Research One graduate schools (or, you know, Yale), and they all engage in complex, 50-shades-of-gray literary analysis, and they demand rigorous thinking and writing from our students. Thinking about things they (the students from small-town, northern Indiana) have experienced but not necessarily reflected on. Or about things they’ve not experienced, but that other people have. Or about things that other people have imagined and that suggest alternative ways about thinking about what the students have experienced. Then they have to analyze those textual representations, make connections to both experiences and other texts, make arguments about their relationship, and support those arguments with evidence.

Which is why I regularly make this claim: that English Majors are the smartest kids on campus.

I know it’s not new in the realm of defenses-of-the-English-Major to cite critical thinking as an important skill and outcome. And I know that some of this happened in the 70s in the wake of the radical 60s; it wasn’t all Literary Appreciation. And I know, as the Dean suggests, that most of our students don’t want to go on to graduate school; they just want a degree. I also know that, as everyone else suggests, it is stupid to go to grad school in English in this economy. But I also know, because I teach these students, because I WAS one of these students, that they have NO IDEA what they want to do or can do or what might be available to them if they pursue what they are passionate about.

[Lana del Ray on the Pandora now. "Blue Jeans" remix.]

I remember taking my daughter, who is now 17 but who was actually, impossibly, at one time 2 years old, to the park. Mt. Storm Park at the top of a hill overlooking the west side of Cincinnati. I was pushing her on the swing and she was squealing with glee or whatever. Then she met a friend at the park and they ran off to climb the jungle gym and throw mulch at each other. So I started talking to the mother of the other kid, who turned out to be the wife of an English professor at the University of Cincinnati, where I had just been accepted to grad school.

“Don’t do it,” she told me, referring to grad school. “It’s miserable and there are no jobs.”

This was 1999. They say the same thing today.

I had just quit my job and was so excited to start grad school I could hardly stand it. Who wanted a job? I was going to get to read and write and talk about reading and writing and meet other people who loved the same thing? I remember thinking, “Whatever, lady. Nothing can stop me.”

And nothing did. Not my family, who would have preferred that I have a ‘job'; not the lack of money; not the limited job prospects. And when I finished my MA and PhD and applied for jobs, I got offered not one but two. Even my friends who didn’t get them right away, eventually got jobs. I’m not saying academia always works like this, or that I don’t know people who got exploited on the adjunct track. And I’m certainly not saying that any of my mom-friends understood what the hell I was doing in grad school when my daughter clearly needed me to get from soccer practice to violin lessons. I’m just saying it’s Life, who the hell knows what will happen?

Dammit. I’ve lost track. I was surely going to say something profound about English Majors. Something even more profound than “We’re human.” But now I’ve gone on too long for a blog post. And I don’t even have any pictures!

[And now, no joke, on Pandora is a commercial for an online degree. The University is dead. Long live the Online University.]


I was initially invited to participate in this Writing Process Blog Tour by the fabulous Rebecca Meacham, whose fiction I admired even before the publication of her debut and award-winning story collection, Let’s Do. She was ahead of me by a few years in my Ph.D. program and I always admired and looked up to her – despite the fact that I think she’s a foot shorter than I am. Check out her post from last week.

Then, when I was just about to send a message to My Go-To Guy – the dangerously charming and talented Joseph Bates, author of the story collection Tomorrowland – inviting him to participate, I received a text from him, and he was inviting me. Like at the exact same time! Since he was up first, we decided he could tag me, and I’d tag other writers. Check out his post here, and see below for the three awesome writers who agreed to do it next week.

So anyway. Here are the questions and here are my answers.

1) What are you working on?

My personal life, mostly. It’s been a year in which I’ve felt more like a character in a novel than creator of characters. And things are never easy for characters in novels. So many internal and external conflicts! So many unexpected plot twists and cliffhangers! Obstacles! Antagonists! Only now do I feel that things are settling down enough that I can be the kind of character I prefer: Mrs. Dalloway wandering the streets of London, pausing as Big Ben rings another hour (irrevocable) and pondering the messages of aeroplanes.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I am not very generically stable. Fortunately I’ve found a publisher – Rose Metal Press – whose mission is to mix-and-match genres. I sent them the manuscript for Liliane’s Balcony, calling it a “novella-in-flash.” I’d never heard of such a thing, but they were like, yeah, sure, we love novellas-in-flash. This fall they’re publishing a collection of five novellas-in-flash.

Rose Metal Press is also going to publish my next book, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, which I am calling a collage biography. It’s all found texts from books and letters and internet sites. It’s also got images – photos, collages. It may or may not also include postcards that I’ve been writing to Božena. Stuff about my aforementioned personal life.

dont feel free

3) Why do you write what you do?

I go to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house on a chance trip to Ohiopyle, PA, I take a tour, I am overcome by the place, by its natural and architectural beauty, I think OMG I have to write a story set here, I listen to the tour guide who tells of the Kaufmann family who purchased the house, I remember being a kid in Pittsburgh and going to the Kaufmann department store, I think, “Same folks?” I go home and read up on the house and the Kaufmanns and I learn that the wife Liliane was beautiful and smart and tri-lingual and an art collector that her life ended in an overdose of pills in her bedroom at Fallingwater. I start writing.

Or. I go to Prague on a chance trip, I buy a book of Czech fairy tales for my daughter, I notice that there’s a picture of a woman (a woman!) on my Czech money and that her name matches the name on the fairy tale book, I do some research to learn more about her, I find conflicting info, poor translations, and outdated material, I find that someone has translated some of her letters and they are nothing like what I expected based on the research, and I take all my notes and quotes and arrange them until they tell some combination of her life and the impossibility of telling it.

4) How does your writing process work?

My favorite part is the research. I don’t think we talk enough about the importance of research, or the fun of it. You get to work on your writing project without actually writing, and research gets you excited and loaded with ideas so that you can’t help but write.

For Liliane’s Balcony, I volunteered as an Ask-Me Guide at Fallingwater, traveling to Ohiopyle, PA once a month and volunteering all weekend, talking to visitors and employees. I traveled to Cincinnati where I uncovered an archive of letters from Edgar Kaufmann to Liliane. I took photos of each letter, transcribed them at home, and incorporated excerpts into my book. I toured Wright’s other houses in Chicago. All of this informed and inspired my writing.

For my Božena Němcová project, I took a month-long Czech language class in Prague, visited her home town of České Skalice, and toured the extensive museum dedicated to her in the town. (I also got totally lost in this unpopulated village of non-English speakers.) I went to a used bookstore in Prague and bought old copies of her books to make collages. Most recently, I bought a 1968 Czech typewriter on eBay. All part of the writing process.


A sketch I made of Bozena’s glasses, pen, notebook, and rosary displayed at her museum in Ceska Skalice.


Here are the three writers who I have tagged for next week. And when I say ‘tag,’ I picture myself holding a magic wand that sparkles as I touch it to their shoulders.

Donna Miscolta is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced. Her fiction has appeared in literary journals, and her story collection Natalie Wood’s Fake Puerto Rican Accent was selected by Peter Ho Davies as a finalist for the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. She has received over a dozen grants and fellowships and has been awarded artist residencies at Anderson Center for the Interdisciplinary Arts, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Hedgebrook, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. See her website and blog at www.donnamiscolta.com. [I also interviewed Donna for my How to Become a Writer series!]

David Dodd Lee is the author of eight full-length books of poems and a chapbook, including Downsides of Fish Culture (New Issues Press, 1997), Arrow Pointing North (Four Way Books, 2002), Abrupt Rural (New Issues Press, 2004), The Nervous Filaments (Four Way Books, 2010) Orphan, Indiana (University of Akron Press, 2010), Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, the Ashbery Erasure Poems (BlaxeVox, 2010), and The Coldest Winter On Earth (Marick Press, 2012). His newest book, Animalities, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in October, 2014. [He also makes gorgeous collages! Visit: http://seventeenfingeredpoetrybird.blogspot.com/]

Margaret Patton Chapman is the author of the novella-in-flash, Bell and Bargain, forthcoming in My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form (Rose Metal Press 2014). http://margaretpattonchapman.com/

Publishing is just like dating.
Just because one editor doesn’t like it, or even hates it,
doesn’t mean another won’t fall in love with it.


Jessica Tyner, born and raised in Oregon, is a member of the Cherokee Nation, a Pushcart Prize nominee and a graduate of the Ooligan Press program. She received her master’s degree in Writing from Portland State University, having completed the second year of the program as an intern with the Fulbright Commission in London, England. An extensive traveler, she has lived in England, South Korea and Costa Rica and has had her poetry published around the world. She’s the founder of The Jessica Tyner Scholarship Fund, an annual gift for graduate students with a Native American connection who are pursuing an advanced degree in writing or a related field.

Read more by and about Jessica:

Book of Poems: The Last Exotic Petting Zoo

Poems: “The Carving Station” and “Bronco Bustling”

Poem: “Love You More”

Poems: “Two Days Prior to the Burial” and “How to Oil an Indian Man’s Hair”

How Jessica Tyner Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jessica for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

Writing has always come naturally to me, but I grew up in the era where those with an English degree could “only” be teachers. This was right before the boom of SEO, web content writing, monetized blogging and other potentially lucrative writing careers. I pursued an undergrad degree in English followed by a master’s in writing based on pure passion. Throughout my academic career, I worked for non-profits writing grant proposals and marketing materials—always publishing my own poetry on the side. However, it took my department being shut down and a fluke of a segue into freelancing to discover that writing really can be a “real” career. The simple answer is “always,” though. I’ve always known I’m a writer, but I don’t think it’s something you become. You can definitely, constantly improve your writing skills, but I think for most writers it’s something we’re born with.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I got into the non-profit field via a work-study position. My university placed me with Oregon Literacy, a local non-profit, simply because they thought the words “English major” and “Literacy” went hand in hand. I had a knack for grant writing, and it was the first time I was paid for writing so I stuck with this industry probably longer than I should. Honestly, my first freelance gig came about when I was perusing Craigslist after my department got laid off. One ad was for a writer for a short-term project, and was rich with arrogance and elitism. I just had to write to the poster to let him know my thoughts on such a haughty ad. He ended up being my first project manager—we worked together for years.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

In terms of becoming a successful professional writer, that Craigslist poster was the biggest boost. From a poetic standpoint, my undergraduate poetry professor, Michele Glazer, was hugely inspirational. I’m sending her a copy of my book with a note of thanks. I still remember the best (I think) piece of advice she gave us: “You should memorize poems because if you’re ever put into solitary confinement, you need beautiful words besides your own in your head.” I actually wrote a poem about that advice, and still remember many of the poems I memorized for her classes, particularly Kim Addonizio’s “What Do Women Want?”.

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I’m a big fan of Li-Young Lee. He was born into a family that was literally exiled, and into a country that wasn’t his own. His history is steeped in political strife, yet his work centers on the self and love, much like my own. He also married into a different culture. I greatly admire what he’s achieved, and even after years of reading and re-reading his work, he continues to have the ability to manipulate my emotions with ease.

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Grow a tough, thick skin and don’t let anyone tell you that a creative degree is useless—but don’t be passive either. As a writer, you need to forge your own path and work much harder than many in other industries. I had an editor of a journal write a nasty personal letter to me once calling a particular poem clichéd. That same poem was nominated for a Pushcart. Publishing is just like dating. Just because one editor doesn’t like it, or even hates it, doesn’t mean another won’t fall in love with it. Believe in yourself and your work, but write every single day (even when it hurts) and look for new publishing opportunities relentlessly. Unfortunately, many writers fall into the stereotype of being flaky and missing deadlines. I know because I’ve hired quite a few. Be the exception, blend business savviness with your writing skills, and you’ll have an edge.


Frida Kahlo, of course. Taken at her studio.


Frida Kahlo visited Fallingwater in the late 1930s after Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann purchased two of her paintings at the Julian Levy Gallery. The story goes that Frida was accompanied by Julian Levy and that he and Edgar Kaufmann competed for her affections that night. (And that Levy won.)

In my book, Liliane’s Balcony (which – can I mention? – has received a couple awards since I last blogged), I invoke bits of this story and imagine that it is Liliane Kaufmann who is so drawn to Frida’s dark imagery of open wounds and painful births. These are the two Kahlo paintings the Kaufmanns purchased:

“Recuerdo de la Herida Abierta” (“Remembrance of an Open Wound”) combines Frida’s ongoing physical pain with the emotional pain of Diego’s infidelities:

“Mi Nacimiento” (“My Birth”) is a graphic image created in the wake of one of Frida’s several miscarriages as well as the death of her mother. The painting is currently owned by Madonna, who bought it from Edgar Kaufmann jr. She told Vanity Fair in 1990: “If somebody doesn’t like this painting, then I know they can’t be my friend.”

There are several works by Diego Rivera at Fallingwater, but I’m not nearly as excited about those.

Anyway, earlier this month I was in Mexico City where I was geeking out on all things Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington. I got to go to Frida’s home/studio/museum, and there on the wall was a picture of Fallingwater!


(It’s the one in the middle.)

More images from her studio to come. It was freaking amazing.



I was working in my collage journal tonight and this song came on.
I wrote down the words. So I can think about them.

ACT Banner draft 2 final

This is one stop on Zarina’s virtual book tour.
Keep up with the rest of the tour here!


I have a tattoo on my wrist: You must become who you are. It is a quote from Nietzsche.

author photo

Zarina Zabrisky is the author of two short story collections IRON and A CUTE TOMBSTONE (Epic Rites Press) and a novel WE, MONSTERS (Numina Press). Zabrisky’s work appeared in over thirty literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Hong Kong and Nepal. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of 2013 Acker Award. Read more about the author at zarinazabrisky.com. You can purchase A CUTE TOMBSTONE here.

IronRead more by and about Zarina:

Story: “The Twilight of Liberty

Video: Zarina reading “Pig Legs.”

Short Story Collection: Iron

Novel: We, Monsters

Interview:The Nervous Breakdown

How Zarina Zabrisky Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Zarina for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I wrote my first poem at six.  My first novel at eleven. There was no “why.” But if I have to rationalize, I would love to quote Josef Brodsky: “I’ll just say that I believe – not empirically, alas, but only theoretically – that, for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens.” So, I figure, if I write anything anywhere close to Dickens… at least, I can try.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

It is not becoming a writer for me. It is being a writer.
I was in Queretaro at a writing workshop last summer. I wrote a poem there:

There is a knitting shop
On the corner
And three old women are knitting,
Needles dancing.
Their faces are still, bronze,
Their eyes fixed on the wall,
Not on the knitting.
Their fingers know
How to weave.
Their hands remember everything.
Their patterns come from their hearts
Or, maybe, from the spirits that live on that big invisible mountain.

They don’t knit,
They became the knitting.
Same for me:
I don’t write–
I became the writing,
And my fingers dance blindly
Across the page.

As for becoming oneself, I am still working on it… I have a tattoo on my wrist: You must become who you are. It is a quote from Nietzsche.

We Monsters

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

My father liked my writing before he passed away. He didn’t do or say anything that stuck in my memory but I remember his face softening and the expression of pride or happiness in his usually sad or withdrawn eyes. Then I became a closet writer and no one had an opportunity to help me–they did not know I needed help.  I didn’t know that myself.

I found a whole new dimension of helping each other in the creative process through literary collaboration with my writing and life partner, Simon Rogghe.  Through listening to each other, and hearing, we write and discover. Being heard is the most important–and almost impossible–type of help that a writer can use, I think.  Together, we have gone on many adventures: performing our poetry to music and even dancing it and taking it around the country–from Pittsburgh and Cleveland to Seattle and Portland; writing poetry duets on an imaginary journey in Mexico and creating visual concepts for it.  This went so well that the book of collaborative poetry is forthcoming from amazing Numina Press, in November 2014.  The book is called Green Lions and in it I will debut with my illustrations–the visual concepts found together with Simon.

I was also very lucky to have my publishers, Epic Rites Press (Canada), Numina Press (SF) and Nostrovia Press (mobile and everywhere) work with me and support my books.  The independent publishers are passionate, powerful and insanely talented people, of a rare kind.


Vaslav Nijinsky

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

So many… From Salinger who managed to run away from it all to just write, to Vaslav Nijinsky, a legendary ballet dance, whose diary was the book that impressed me the most, perhaps. Nijinsky is the dancer who became the dance.  The diary was written in Switzerland in a short spurt, and in a matter of weeks schizophrenia won over one of the most unusual and creative minds of the last century.  But before he sank into decades of mental non-being, Nijinsky pulled up the curtain of the theater which only can be called Universe.  There is no bullshit in that book.  He even says that it should be read the way he wrote it: in his rushed cursive, in French and Russian. I did that: went to the NYC Performing Arts Library and ordered the microflims.  Read them in the dark room for hours…  Also, Jim Morrison.  William Blake.  I am inspired by people who stayed true to their core and vision despite of any circumstances.

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

“You must become who you are.” Also, write and read. In particular, read Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. The only good book on writing I have found.  The book cuts into the bone marrow of language, brain work and the intangible realm called poetry. No frills and no politically correct New Agey nonsense. He can be blunt and rude, but if you read his ABC you might end up with better writing.

In my struggle to overcome grief and confusion, I found my self. And when I spoke up for those that couldn’t, I found my tongue. And when I told stories of those oppressed and suffering in obscurity, I found my voice, and my direction in life.

Andrew Lam is the author of Birds of Paradise Lost, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, which won the 2006 PEN Open Book Award, and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. He’s an editor and cofounder of New America Media, an association of over two thousand ethnic media outlets. He’s been a regular NPR commentator, and his essays have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, and many other journals.

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing now includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is an excerpt of Andrew’s story “Grandma’s Tales,” published at Talking Writing:

The day after Mama and Papa took off to Las Vegas, Grandma died. Lea and me, we didn’t know what to do. Vietnamese traditional funerals with incense sticks and chanting Buddhist monks were not our thing.

“We have a big freezer,” Lea said. “Why don’t we freeze Grandma? Really, why bother Mama and Papa—what’s another day or two for Grandma now anyway?”

Since Lea’s older than me and since I didn’t have any better idea, we iced Grandma.

 [Read the rest here at Talking Writing.]

Read more by and about Andrew:

Story: “Grandma’s Tales” at Talking Writing

Audio of Andrew reading “Grandma’s Tales”: American Public Media

Book of Stories: Birds of Paradise Lost

Book of Essays: East Meets West

Book of Essays: Perfume Dreams

NPR Commentaries: All Things Considered

How Andrew Lam Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Talking Writing for sharing their writers, and thanks to Andrew for saying yes!


1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

In my freshman year at Berkeley I fell hopelessly in love; in the year after I graduated my heart shattered. While working at the cancer research laboratory on campus while planning to become a doctor, I took to writing, in part, in order to grieve. Daytime and I bombarded the mammary tissues of mice with various carcinogens to see how they grew; nights and I gave myself to memories, to heartbreak. I typed and typed. I got good at writing, bored with science, with studying for the MCAT, and so I dropped the test tube and kept the proverbial pen. 

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?
I took courses at UC extension. One of the teachers said, “Andrew, you are not going to medical school. You are going to creative writing school. And I already sent your stories to the San Francisco State University. They say for you to fill out the application, and you are in.” I said, “My mom is going to kill me.” I applied. Got it. And my first semester in my autobiography class I read my first essay out loud. The assignment was, “Why Did you want to become a Writer.” I talked about the Vietnam war, I talked about childhood memories, the falling bombs, the bravery of men and women. My parents’ struggles and fears. My own sadness. My longing to return to those bomb craters filled up with monsoon rain where children, who survived the battles, laughed and swam. “After all these years, I want to dive into that water,” I wrote. when I finished reading, there was this strange silence. The entire class looked at me in awe. The professor wept. The piece somehow reached the writer Richard Rodriguez and the editor Pacific News Service, Sandy Close. They took me to tea. They more or less offered me a job as an op-ed writer. I started to travel the world, started to write about my past, my history, and the Vietnamese Diaspora. And it resulted in “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” which won a Pen award. In any case, it was all unexpected. And it started from a heartbreak.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

Many people helped me. My first English teacher in 7th grade was instrumental in providing a fun and safe environment – his classroom turns into a fun lunchroom and full of books; he gave us books to read in the summer – and I fell in love with the  English language as I was going through puberty, a literal transformation along with a new literary life. Richard Rodriguez became a mentor of sort, turning my gaze toward literary non-fiction whereas before my only passion was for the short stories and the novel. He gave me Joan Didion, James Baldwin, VS Naipaul, Truman Capote and a whole lot of the literary giants to read. My boss, Sandy Close, who won a MacArthur Genius award, who gave me opportunities to travel the world the years after  the cold war ended, and professor Franz Schurmann, of UCBerkeley, who made me think deeper and more seriously than I had before. My sister, who bought me EB White and William Strunk’s classic “The Elements of Styles,” because I didn’t have any writing confidence, English being my 3rd language after Vietnamese and French.

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

James Baldwin comes to mind. His is a voice of grace. He wrote at a time when he is – a gay black man – is marginalized twice over, at a time of segregation. yet he wrote from that margin knowing full well that his voice mattered, that in time the margin reaches and changes the center, and integrates into collective consciousness of this country. He wrote with a generosity of vision and confidence that in time, his story belongs to America, to all Americans. It encouraged me, a refugee boy who comes from a defeated country that was encouraged to fight then abandoned by the United States, to write with that hope – that mine too, in time, become an American story.

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Be willing to live with disappointment,  with heartbreaks and difficult questions when you have no readily made answers. For as certain as the rain,  disappointments will come. And you will have to live with them and embrace them. And work through them. I myself lost a country. I’ve been homeless,  and stateless. I lost friends and relatives due to war and the subsequent exodus. I had my heart broken. And yet I write to you today feeling profoundly grateful and blessed. Why? In my struggle to overcome grief and confusion, I found my self. And when I spoke up for those that couldn’t, I found my tongue. And when I told stories of those oppressed and suffering in obscurity, I found my voice, and my direction in life.

You are writing today at a challenging time in which being a citizen of the world is just as important as finding voice. So you must find the balance between the I and the we, between following your own conviction and finding a way to contribute to the greater good. But move forward, always. Don’t be afraid of failure. Or rather, move forward, despite of the failures and self doubts. And keep on writing.