short stories

On Writing What I Feared


*Dusts off blog*

It’s been way too long since I last updated. So much has happened since, and I still can’t believe that my senior year is almost over. I’m definitely getting antsy for graduation, but at the same time, I do want these next few weeks to slow down a bit. Everyone has been asking me how I feel about graduating, and I didn’t know how to answer, but it’s finally starting to hit me that I won’t be walking this campus anymore, and I won’t be seeing all the familiar faces of classmates, professors and friends.

My thesis project has changed and grown beyond ways I could have ever foresaw. A part of me is excited to share it with others, whereas another part of me is completely terrified. It’s become something so close to me, and the thought of letting it out into the world makes me so nervous, I could throw up. I’m not scared about the judgment of others and whether they’ll think it’s good or not, but rather, I’m scared of putting these stories out there because they’re so personal to me. They’re not fiction anymore. They’re about my family.

This lack of updates from me has been because I went through period of time where I was struggling with my project. I lost faith in it. Over the summer, in the Dietrich Honors Fellowship program, I was working on a collection of fictional short stories surrounding the coming of age of a young Vietnamese-American boy. I had hoped to draw on my own experiences to craft these stories. It was exciting to see some of them come together, and I grew invested into the lives of these characters, but somehow, along the way, I lost the passion for it. Not because I didn’t believe in them anymore or that I thought what I was trying to portray wasn’t important, but because something about the project felt dishonest. And after talking about my lack of inspiration with my advisor, Jane McCafferty, we both came to realize that maybe it was because I wasn’t able to truly achieve the goal I had set out when I first wanted to pursue my honors thesis project. My goal was to portray an honest coming of age story, influenced by Vietnamese culture and values. But doing so through channeling all my emotions, experiences, and the experiences of those around me into these fictional characters felt inauthentic.

As I sat in Jane’s office, we talked about why I was inspired to pursue the theme of this project in the first place. And it was because I felt that the stories I had heard from my family and friends growing up wasn’t truly represented in literature. We talked about the experiences of my mother and my grandmother, about religion in Vietnam, about war, about violence, about daily life there, and how it was almost tragic that the amazing lives they’ve lived won’t necessarily get to be heard by others. They’re just normal people, and we tend not to focus on the stories of normal people’s lives, even though these normal people may have had extremely important experiences.

So, Jane encouraged me to tell that story. Write about my family. At first, I wasn’t excited. I was nervous. For one reason, it sounded incredibly self-indulgent, and for another reason, it felt too personal. If I wrote about my family, I would have to write about myself too, and I hated the thought of that. I definitely would consider myself more of a fiction writer, so writing about things that really happened and about real people I knew was so nerve-wracking. I felt such a weight on my shoulders to portray them in a way that was honest, and fair, but I didn’t know if I could handle that responsibility.

I started with small steps. Interview those around you, Jane had told me. Gather your inspiration, take notes and record your conversations, but don’t write anything just yet. Jane has always been great at keeping me calm throughout all my moments of anxiousness and insecurities, so I’m beyond grateful for that. I did as she had suggested and talked to those close to me. I found that it was my grandmother’s stories that truly reeled me in. I learned so many things about her life that she never told me before, that she never told anyone before. I felt inspired again. And I hadn’t felt so inspired to write in such a long time.

I had to race against the clock (and I still am! That deadline…) But I’m so happy to say that I’m actually proud of what I have accomplished. I’m proud that I wrote what I was scared to write. This collection of short stories I have put together documents my grandmother’s coming of age as a Vietnamese woman. The pieces within this collection touch upon the violence of the Vietnam War, domestic abuse, religion and discrimination against Amerasians, all through her perspective and personal experiences. The final project will hopefully take the form of a nicely bound book, so I can share it with others, but I truly hope that I can give her the first copy. The title of this collection is 9 AM, in honor of the conversations my grandmother and I had every week, at 9 AM. And when I told her that I was writing about her life, about so many intensely personal aspects of her life, I was afraid she would feel uncomfortable about it (understandably so). I was expecting a lot of questions, but the only question my grandmother asked was “Is it any good?” Haha, I sure hope so.

And even though the I’m not using any of the pieces I wrote in the summer, I don’t think of any of it as waste. I did at first. It freaked me out when I completely changed the direction of my project in the middle of my fall semester, especially when I already had completed a good chunk through the Summer Fellowship Program. But I knew that this project could have only become so important to me if I made that change. I don’t think of the time I spent over the summer was a waste. In fact, that time helped further develop my craft, read stories by other Vietnamese-American authors, and give me a space to be excited about other people’s projects and ideas. And I still am excited to see the final projects of all the other fellows. I am so incredibly grateful to the Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program because it allowed me to explore my own passions in such a safe environment. I don’t think my project could have grown into something that means so much to me if I didn’t start it as early as I did, if I didn’t have that time to be confused, to fail and to wander a bit.

As cheesy as this all sounds, it’s been a hell of a journey. So, for anyone that’s reluctant about whether they want to pursue their own honors thesis project or not, I’m a complete supporter for it. I want others to be able to have the fulfilling experience that I am lucky to have had. There’s almost no other better feeling in this world than that feeling in your gut that says “This is all actually starting to come together, and this might actually be good.” Despite all the stress, those fears and worries that come along with doing something like this, it’s worth it.




May: The Ultimate Frenemy

Hoffmaier blog post 1My relationship with May (the month, not the person – whoever they are) is complicated. It always starts off ugly, with final papers and revisions and projects stacked so high that a toppling would surely be catastrophic. Each time I doubt my ability to dig myself out but each time I miraculously do. I force my way into the late spring sunshine, covered in paper cuts and a little delirious and most importantly free.

That giddy freedom lasts about two seconds before the mid-May melancholy hits. I’ve often wondered how common this stage is, because it’s mandatory for me. It falls somewhere among rushed packing and waving school friends goodbye and awkwardly reinserting myself back into my hometown. This year, the summer I decided to embark on the Dietrich Honors Fellowship, the melancholy hit me especially hard for several reasons I can pinpoint. For one, I recently had to bid farewell to a few good friends. One graduated, while another handful will be living two neighborhoods away next year — crazily, our last year — instead of two doors down the hall. I also feel like I’ve had half my time stolen by boxes and storage lockers and moving trucks.

Usually, my feelings toward May brighten up toward week three. How could they not? The weather’s beautiful; I relax into my old family dynamic and into the strange new freedom; I get psyched for this internship and that vacation and the possibilities seem limitless.

But May is ending, and I’m still floating in limbo. Since I’m based in Pittsburgh for roughly the first half of the summer, I opted not to spend 10 hours on a bus for only a weekend at home. Much as I loathe those bus rides, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t spend Memorial Day with my family. It’s weird. Plus, I’m between leases right now, so I feel like a glorified squatter, exchanging groceries and gratitude for friends’ couches and spare rooms. How I’ve survived this long without A.C. or WiFi, I have no idea. Tomorrow, I move for real into my first grown-up apartment, with utilities not included and everything. It’ll be hectic, no doubt. I expect not owning a mattress is quickly going to become an issue. But it also feels like a turning point in my summer; honestly, it feels like the start.

About two weeks have passed since I turned in my last assignment and officially began the fellowship. That time has been a blur of finishing up old projects (among them a short film and a 35,000-word novella), venturing into never-before-touched corners of the city, researching potential volunteer opportunities and sitting with dear friends in the shadiest, lushest spots of grass I can find. I’ve been taking on my thesis work in bite-size pieces, gradually picking up momentum. I read two and a half adviser-recommended novels. I bought a new journal and filled a dozen pages with brainstorming. I’ve even gone on a few online dates (all for research purposes, of course) with queer people from an amazing range of backgrounds: a half-black bisexual musician; a small town non-binary programmer; and even a recent immigrant from Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death.

My mind is buzzing with stories worth telling. I feel like I could bang out a draft or two yesterday, but I’m restraining myself. I need to whittle down my ever-growing list of ideas, develop three-dimensional characters beyond the foundation of their intersectional identities (many of which have rarely seen the light of mainstream media) and find a compelling web of connections between them. It’s early days, but even the bare bones of these stories are crazy exciting to me.

As May bleeds into June, I am so ready to be consumed by this project. I’ve just got to circumvent the summer haze, exacerbated by the terrifying fact that I’m setting my own schedule here. I’ve done a lot of living these past couple weeks, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what happened last Tuesday. I know it’s going to be a challenge, but hey, if I wasn’t up for a challenge, I would never have signed on for this summer. So let me at it.

For the Thoughts:

Hoffmaier blog post 2

Why are the rocks imprisoned? Have they misbehaved?

For the Smiles:

Hoffmaier blog post 1


Scribbles and Snapshots

Now, where to begin?

This was the first question I asked myself as I sat down about three and a half weeks ago to begin my thesis. Having never taken on a project of this size before, I felt more than a little bit overwhelmed by what lay ahead.

For those of you just jumping on this blog’s bandwagon, welcome! Let me briefly recap what I’m doing: For my thesis, I’m planning on writing a series of short stories, along with a series of photo stories. In an effort to keep myself inspired, I’ve planned a somewhat nomadic summer, spending time in Maryland, Munich, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh, with a bonus weekend in Seattle. I will also be taking a photography class to supplement the visual side of my project. My goal is to find a way to have the text and images work together in the most effective and meaningful way possible. It’s a big task, but I’m ready for it.

So, if you’re still reading, then you’re probably wondering what I’ve been up to. Yes? Great!

This whole first segment of my project—my, shall we call it, “pre-departure” segment—I imagined would be a time of planning, researching, and gathering. But let me tell you something about all of my plans thus far: I’ve thrown all of them entirely out of the window.

It’s funny, really. I’m such a planner. But, in just these first three weeks, I’ve seen that planning my stories has been a pretty solid waste of my time. Originally, I believed that planning out my work would help in keeping me on track. And while I think it may have helped me get started, it also left me somewhat uninspired. (Think: Me realizing that I had brainstormed six identical stories. Eep!)

For the first two weeks, writing felt like ramming a cast-iron skillet against my head, every day, for 5 hours a day.

Ah, yes, the life of a writer. Romantic, no?

1 Photo 02.06.15 13 06 06

I hear brain freeze helps writer’s block.

But then on Sunday night, while corresponding with a friend, I happened upon inspiration for a story that I have fallen in love with. So I’m beginning to think that plans are overrated.

Who knew that starting my thesis would lead me to realize deep, life lessons? And I’ve only just begun!

The photography part of my thesis has been a bit more stop-and-go. The first week, when I was still in Pittsburgh, I went to two photo exhibits–One at the CMOA and one at the Silver Eye Center for Photography.

A snapshot from the Silver Eye Exhibit

A snapshot from the Silver Eye Exhibit.

I also spent time with a really lovely Eugene Richards book, Red Ball of a Sun Dipping Down. This was a gorgeous combination of text and images. If your library has a copy, I would highly recommend taking a peek.

Last week, however, the photography element took a little snooze. But this Wednesday, I revved that engine back up for my first photography class!! I’m honestly so excited, friends. My class has two people, including myself (three, if you include the teacher), so we are going to get SO MUCH personal attention! I can’t believe my good fortune.

So far we’ve only really discussed the basics. This week, we have quite a bit of homework to get us comfortable with the manual settings on our camera. (Think shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc.) Apparently we will never be using automatic again.

Since the creative process can be such an amorphous thing to document and describe, I thought I would also accompany each of my posts with little bits of inspiration. This way, you can see the external influences that are shaping my experience as a creative. (This is a term my photography teacher applies to people who practice any form of art. I love it and have decided to adopt it.)

This Week’s Inspiration:

For the Eyes: Red Ball of a Sun Dipping Down—really a must // Hand letterer Lauren Hom for a new definition of creative writing.

For the Ears: It’s gray and cold and generally miserable in Maryland right now. That means Alt J (the second Album especially) on repeat–to go with the mood–and anything by the Hot 8 Brass Band to lift your spirits.

For the Soul: Pema Chödrön’s Comfortable with Uncertainty, because uncertainty is one of the hardest qualities of life to embrace.  

I’m looking forward to bringing you along on this journey. So keep a look out for more interesting posts from my fellow fellows and me!

Til next time, friends.