Is there any profession that is more mythologized than being a writer? Our culture has an endless fascination with writers, their romantic lives and morbid ends, and how to become one can seem as arduous and elusive as attaining the Holy Grail. It isn’t.
Frances Hwang teaches at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. Her short story collection, Transparency, won the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and a PEN/Beyond Margins Award. She has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the MacDowell Colony, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Colgate University. Her work has been read as part of the Selected Shorts series at Symphony Space and has appeared in Best New American Voices, Glimmer Train, Tin House, AGNI Online, Subtropics, and The New Yorker.
How Frances Hwang 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 until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Frances for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
My desire to write came from being a bookworm. When I was a kid, I loved to read novels because they transported me to other worlds, and what unfolded on the page seemed more momentous, beautiful, and true than anything in my own life. I guess if one’s happiness depends on books, it’s only natural to want to write them, too. So I was initially drawn to fiction because it offered a deeply pleasurable form of escape from the real world, and my desire to write was motivated by similarly escapist reasons. As I grew older, I became a different kind of reader, and the reasons I wanted to write changed as well. Now I read not so much to escape reality as to think more deeply about it—about the world we live in and the nature of human experience. Writing is a way for me to make sense of the experience of being alive in the world, to find beauty and meaning by giving shape to that experience. When I write, I want to express what seems impossible to express, to capture all those fleeting details, complex sensations, and contradictory emotions of living that would otherwise be lost.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
When I graduated from college, I thought that if I were a real writer I should be able to do it on my own without taking classes and getting a degree. So I moved out to San Francisco with a friend, temped for a year, and tried to turn myself into a writer. I wrote mostly in my journal, and the sad thing is that everything I wrote was god-awful, narcissistic, overwrought stuff. I didn’t finish anything. At that point in my life, I really believed that the writing should come out brilliantly or not at all. After all, when I picked up Woolf or Faulkner, it was one brilliant sentence after another. How did they do it? My conclusion was that you needed to have genius, and it was disheartening to look at my pitiful fragments and to see that I didn’t have it.
I was severely blocked as a writer. It took a few more years of fruitless writing to get me to apply to MFA programs, and I eventually enrolled at the University of Montana. Those next two years at Montana were transformative for me because I got unstuck and gained a much more sensible view of writing and writers in general. So much of my frustration and paralysis as a writer arose from a lack of understanding about the writing process. I didn’t allow myself to write because I didn’t want to fail, and so writing had become joyless, excruciating work—the opposite of how I felt when I was a child and wrote for fun and didn’t worry about whether my writing was good or not because I was just creating. At Montana, I still struggled, but taking classes and having deadlines for my work forced me to write and keep writing in spite of my blocks. I finally had to finish things, which felt like an accomplishment in and of itself. I saw the flaws in my work, but I’d begun to accept that these were part of the creative process and that I could never get anywhere if I didn’t allow myself to make mistakes. I was more hopeful now about my writing because I could see that it was possible to progress. I only had to persevere and return to my flawed stories and work on making them better.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
I’ve had many wise, generous teachers and many inspiring, supportive friends who have helped me along the way. One person who was pivotal to my becoming a writer was a close friend from high school—a gifted poet, eccentric, and rebel. I was drawn to her immediately when I saw her looking through a thick manuscript of typed poems during humanities class, and I was shocked when upon my request she very agreeably handed the stack over and let me read what she’d written. Before I met her, I’d never dared to think seriously about becoming a writer even though writing was one of the things I cared most about. But I didn’t see writing as a possible profession because it seemed too romantic and impractical. Before I met my friend, I’d always assumed that I’d become a lawyer. That seemed to be the easiest path to social respectability and my parents’ hearts, and it also seemed logical: those who enjoyed writing became lawyers, right? Having an idealistic, unconventional friend who wasn’t afraid to pursue her passion made me think that perhaps it wasn’t so crazy to want to be a writer. At least now I wouldn’t be alone if I tried.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
I’ve been on an Eileen Chang kick for several years now. She’s not well known in the U.S. but her work is wildly popular in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. (After I read Karen Kingsbury’s recent translation of her early stories, Love in a Fallen City, I asked my mother if she’d heard of Chang only to discover that I’d stumbled upon her favorite writer.) Chang led an extraordinarily eventful life, notable for its constantly changing fortunes. To start off, she had a childhood with gothic, fairytale overtones. Her beautiful mother was a charismatic modern woman with bound feet who escaped an unhappy marriage by fleeing to Europe, leaving Chang and her younger brother behind in the care of their father, an opium addict. When Chang was a teenager, her father severely beat her for arguing with her stepmother and effectively imprisoned her in their house for half a year, even denying her medical care when she fell ill with dysentery. Chang was able to escape only when her nanny took pity on her, and Chang never again returned to her father’s house. She attended the University of Hong Kong, but her studies were interrupted by World War II and Japanese occupation. She made her way back to Shanghai, published her first collection of stories at the age of 23, and promptly became one of the city’s most celebrated writers. During this time, Chang fell in love and married Hu Lancheng, who was regarded as a traitor for collaborating with the Japanese, and her own reputation as a writer suffered a sharp decline as a result. In the 1950s, the United States Information Service commissioned two anti-Communist novels from Chang and in return for her work gave her entry to the U.S. where she lived for the rest of her life.
I’m fascinated with Chang for several reasons. She was bilingual and wrote in English in an attempt to attract a Western audience, but her novels, The Fall of the Pagoda and The Book of Change, were rejected by American publishers during her lifetime and have only recently been published in 2010. Chang experienced the extremes of fame and obscurity, and I admire her resilience, resourcefulness, and versatility as a writer in the face of her changing circumstances. Her early stories are among her best, and I think readers will be surprised by her unflinching take on power relations based on race, gender, and class. Her stories can be lyrical and melancholy at one moment, devastating and brutal in another, and my favorite ones meander in surprising, beautiful ways like an Alice Munro story (though Munro was still a child when Chang’s stories were published). In a time of crisis, when Chinese writers were expected to write with nationalistic fervor, Chang eschewed politics and wrote about love and estrangement–the nuanced, charged relations between men and women, and the pathological relationships in corrupt, declining families. She rejected dogma and ideology, more interested in revealing in her dry-eyed way the truth about human nature and relationships. She had an unsentimental, maybe even pessimistic, way of looking at human beings—she thought they were very selfish—and as she grew older she withdrew from society and became a recluse, dying alone in an empty apartment in Los Angeles. In her will, she asked that her body be “cremated instantly, the ashes scattered in any desolate spot.”
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Is there any vocation that is more mythologized than that of a writer? Our culture seems to have an endless fascination with writers, their romantic lives and morbid ends, and how to become one can seem as arduous and elusive as attaining the Holy Grail. It isn’t. The truth is there are a lot of working writers out there who get meaning and fulfillment from what they do. We’re not exactly rare, and we’re not going to become extinct anytime soon. I’m not saying it’s easy and that you don’t make sacrifices when you choose to be a writer, but I wish we could somehow demystify the profession of being a writer. I think it would make writing a lot easier for all of us.
You can only progress as a writer if you write, and the more you write the more you understand and trust the process of writing. I’d urge you to get into the habit of finishing work. The temptation to abandon a piece can be great (and no doubt there are times when you do need to let something go), but you learn more and feel a real sense of accomplishment when you complete something. If you get stuck and are overwhelmed by the ambitious plans you have for your work, I suggest taking a less grandiose approach. Try to write the story in a way that comes naturally and that is most accessible to you. Otherwise, there’s a real danger of never writing the story at all. Remember that you can always go back and revise to make your work stronger.
Start a writing group with people you trust whose work you admire. It’s difficult to grow as a writer when you write in a vacuum and don’t have the opportunity to share your work with others. The writing group should be a safe space, where people are honest and supportive and are trying to help, not hurt. The group should make you excited about returning to your work. If it makes you feel the opposite, find more encouraging, supportive writers with whom you can exchange work.