Redefining north.

Writers on Writing #47: Winnie Khaw

Writers on Writing #47: Winnie Khaw


Little Literal Literary Concerns

A Fictional Psychiatrist becomes a little concerned for Winnie’s mental health after browsing through this recording from a counseling session:

(Said psychiatrist worries not only because Winnie recently wrote a piece titled, “How to Safely Commit Suicide,” but also for the reason that a fictional character such as herself exists at all.)

Dear Posterity, and at that, my Posterior—sorry, sorry. Kindly ignore that ignoble attempt at humor.

I admit, the first thoughts in the process of prose and poetic writing which spew from my imagination are spontaneous brain vomit. I can state that condition as being preferable to mental constipation, also identified as the heinous Writer’s Block. That being said, the rest of the storytelling procedure can be agonizing as well as fulfilling. My work is the child of a long pregnancy, and if others find it deformed or otherwise defective when finally birthed I have the tendency to weep in despair and hold my poor, defamed offspring even closer to my breast. Voltaire once retorted to some reprimand of Rousseau’s regarding his work with the following (paraphrased): “I fear your ‘Ode to Posterity’ will not reach its intended address.” I wince, cringe, and throw an impressive fit filled with fearful sniffles, of the sort that accidentally smashes mama’s expensive china set. For what am I to say when these great men make such dismal predictions of each other? Is there anything my little hobbit-y self can produce that would possibly compare to their longevity? Likely…not. Readers, however, will note that my sole concession to brevity is height.

I turn to creative writing not because I am capable of nothing else—though that, ahem, may perhaps play a minor role—but rather because as a closet intellectual masochist I relish the creative pain of composition in addition to the delirious joy of completion. Blatant sexual innuendos aside, writing, however insecure in finances, homely in features, and with no future prospects, is the Life Partner to whom I have pledged, well, my life, possibly to Infinity and Beyond—when I begin to quote a character from a Toy Story, it is then that I realize the true extent of my submersion into non-reality. I acknowledge that my lasting romantic choice, the person with whom I shall share stupendously large amounts of student debt alleviated only a little by pitying government grants, would not be the first prize in a contest maneuvered towards success.

How do you write? What do you write? you ask. Wrong questions, I reply, a sagely blank expression on my face that reflects nothing of my actual ignorance. You must think deeply, my child, to discover the profound mysteries of…confound it, I don’t know. I write in a horrid congealed flour-egg mess of formality and pathetic endeavors to amuse that generally people neither like nor find entertaining. I am crushed by the overly large gray behind of a rhinoceros. Demolished by a tractor as unfeeling as that meanly smashing over Arthur’s house in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Flattened to a grease spot on the sidewalk after taking a quick jump off a tower, as I have woefully neglected to bring a parachute to pad my fall. For I have no support plan. If I cannot be a successful writer, I am to be nothing. Well, I could be that horribly unappreciated and dreadfully underpaid servant of society—a teacher, I suppose. Apparently I am something of an Anglophile, according to dear enduring friends who bear with me and my oddities. I do like English people and things very much, to the extent that I use such happy slang as bollocks and bloody hell. I wonder why others either laugh at me, are extremely confused, or are much offended when I sprinkle these words frequently in my vocabulary.

Many eclectic (which, as my sister informs me, are in fact indicative of tasteless infatuation) hobbies inspire me to write. In addition to reading English literature, especially of the Elizabethan period, I enjoy watching actors who engage my interest to the extent that I faithfully follow them, even viewing their often horrifically terrible film and television show choices merely for the opportunity to see them. Take James McAvoy. He has starred beautifully in Children of Dune, Rory O’Shea was Here, X-men: First Class, etc. Now he is at the stage in his life and career in which he clearly wishes to expand his talents to more serious work and look, frankly, hideous. This gifted, normally attractive actor who has animated more than a few of my own characters, is on the rampage to appall me. I rage to an uncaring world.

Then, the incredibly gorgeous, breathtaking Matt Bomer, who plays Neal Caffrey on White Collar. I hastily scribbled down several notes on how to make characters criminally charming. This man, who is capable of exuding sophistication and ravishing good looks as to make any high-class male escort envious, decides a good role is that of a secondary stripper for Magic Mike. I expire of sheer exasperation. When friends sat me down to watch the movie with them, I screamed throughout from outraged morals I should, admittedly, have girded for the ordeal. I lusted after Jensen Ackles’ Alec on Dark Angel, in a most literary fashion, of course, admiring his amoral amiability and hoping to infuse a special character with his qualities. Then Ackles settled on Supernatural…and never left.

Matt Dallas of Kyle Xy fame, playing a scientific experiment who shows humans what humanity is. I adored him in the role, and plan on integrating the type of character somewhere in my own writing. Since then, I’m honestly not sure what he’s been doing. My indignation knows no limits, but this harangue is not so much a rant (it is, actually) on actors as an homage to certain characters played by these actors (it is not, actually, but it should be). It occurs to me that I sound as though I am “ripping off” favored fictional personalities. Absolutely. No, not really. They supply my imagination with their astounding, ah, attributes, but certainly I install my particular stamp of Winnie on the final written product.

Lately, I’ve been immersed in writing (creative) nonfiction essays such as these. How odd. I’m a poetry major in the creative writing MFA program at California College of the Arts. As an undergraduate my instructors forever lamented the randomness and spiraling gyrations of my papers. I wonder what I’m doing at the moment. Something unusual and nonsensical, I’m sure, which I hope will garner an acceptance from Passages North. Forgive my slow, shameless, lascivious wink. Readers may expect special insider information on the experience of writing. I say, stand back. I have something to show you. Now close your eyes. During this time I plan to beat a hasty tactical retreat through the nearest exit. Good Lord, what else am I to write about? I think I may very well have walked into a wall—is this Writer’s Block? I had a clever idea about this especially cruel infliction so despised by all writers—a city block around which writers walk. But I have been told that this image has nothing to do with the concept, and so is less than ingenious. I then tried to be clever once more, never a smart move on my part. I wrote a poem titled, “The Wall’s Response” in which a man tries to seduce a wall and receives the only response a wall gives—a blank look. True story.

It’s not.

The wall reacted only in a certain manner to my pleading
Which bespoke years of inculcated delicacy and breeding
Quite still she lay across the lawn in an insouciant sprawl
And without a shade of expression said nothing at all.

The reader must not judge the subject or use of rhyme as common in my writing—I was in a slightly odd mood; that is, my usual humor. I’m made nervous by the caliber and seriousness of other Writers on Writing articles. Is this piece supposed to be of good quality and sober mien? My own life is sadly of no note, so I write on improbable universes of fantasy and weird daydreams. Except for the great lion Aslan, who I will not be convinced does not exist, I trudge back to reality after a flight through a great deal of enjoyable torture. There is nothing to say about me, and so I will embark on several lines talking about this non-topic. I grew up a pleasant, chubby, reasonably intelligent girl. However, I wished to be scintillating, model-beautiful, and brilliant. It seems I asked for too much, and I fell into a deep depression because I could not be those things. The realization that I can only aspire, not achieve, has left bloody claw marks on my self-confidence, and dusky shadows on my writing.

Doctor, you should know that I’m in my middle twenties and have never been kissed or had a boyfriend. I can feel your judgmental stare behind those light-reflective spectacles. I mention this miserable state of affairs because it has affected my characters—when they talk about or have sexual relations, I must rely exclusively on readings I have done on the matter. I cannot express the full wretchedness of my virginal condition. How can I have a healthy youthful imagination that produces mature masterpieces, when I can’t even visualize what sexual intercourse looks like? I am reduced to a puddle of weeping goo. I must stop. Puddles of weeping goo do not attract significant others. I console myself that, if I am not a famous author, I am at least a good writer, not because I actually write well but rather that the publishing world is weary of my importuning and sometimes gives in and features my work.

And if I must write, then can I not cater to popular predilections? my long-suffering parents inquire. I am led to question my sanity and my taste. Am I mad? Why am I the only one who likes this sort of flamboyant, bombastic fashion? I try desperately to recall that many writers struggled with trying to please their audience before establishing their own distinctive style, but I’m quite afraid of my life grinding a dully screeching halt at the “struggling” stage before ever reaching fulfillment. I am not keen to eat the sweat of my brow; it’s hardly appetizing fare, and would most likely upset my stomach than fill it. According to familial consensus I ought to stick to practicalities—though I feel more like an afterthought post-it note. Writing, much like other creative arts, is an immensely rewarding enterprise, though filled more with peril and uncertainty perhaps than jobs involving plodding, monotonous tedium but which promise stability. As an aspiring author wheezing up the arduous hills of Unfeeling Publishers and the Ignorant Masses, I brandish the flag of perseverance: keep writing, improving, and submitting. So, dear Ms. Existential Counselor, there is absolutely nothing for which you should be concerned. Have I not proved myself a thoroughly rational being, with a guaranteed literary future based on hope, speculation, and prayer?

Also, push-up bras ought to be considered false advertising. I felt the irrational need to make this statement.

Winnie Khaw is a creative writing MFA candidate at California College of the Arts. Her work is featured in The Montreal Review, Palooka Journal, The Philadelphia Review, Eclectica, The Daily Satire, etc. She was waitlisted for the 2013 Lit Camp conference in San Francisco, and was Chapman University’s nominee for the Association of Writers award in fiction in 2011. But mostly, Winnie spends her free time being silly.

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Writers on Writing #46: Tasha Cotter