writing

Starting My Novel

For my senior thesis I’m exploring the concept of narrative identity, basically the idea that we form our identities through stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the world, by writing a novel. I’m currently taking summer classes and volunteering at the Jubilee Soup Kitchen, so my allotted time this summer to work on my thesis doesn’t begin until July 1st, but that hasn’t stopped me from laying out the groundwork for my project.

I’ve decided my novel will be set at a large tech company (not exactly sure what sort yet) in Silicon Valley. Having attended Gunn High School in Palo Alto, I’m very familiar with the area and its culture, and have set a few of my short stories there in the past. The novel will center around a few intelligent slackers who manage to get by without doing much by falling through the cracks at the large company they all work at. This will of course backfire for them later on in the story, but I want to introduce my characters in a somewhat tranquil setting before I plunge them into conflict. I have a lot of ideas for where the novel will go, but some of them are mutually exclusive, so I don’t really want to put them on this blog yet. As of now, I’ve done a lot more work generating choices for where the story can go than actually deciding between these choices, so once I make more decisions, I will have more to report back on.

Outside of class, volunteering, and writing, I’ve been doing some reading and have been watching some films and television. I just finished reading The Magus by John Fowles and am about to read The Sellout by Paul Beatty and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. As far as films and television, I’ve adapted this William Faulkner quote to guide my viewing: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” Though I suppose I should read more terrible books, shoddy films are much less of an investment of my time and I often find I’m more inspired by a bad film than a good one. To this end, I’ve been making my way through the Fast and Furious series. Though most of the dialogue is terrible and much of the acting is flat or overdone, there is something really human about these sorts of mistakes that I just love. As far as more critically acclaimed films, I recently saw Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal and Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, and have been rewatching some of my favorite David Lynch films, as well as catching up on the reboot of Twin Peaks. No matter whether I love or hate something Lynch makes, I always feel challenged by it, and his work is a well of inspiration I can always draw something new from.

It’s been exciting going from nothing to the foundations of a novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in the coming weeks and months.

Learn more about my project.

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It’s a Good Summer To Be in Pittsburgh

Me (not in Pittsburgh), overlooking the Mediterranean in Haifa, Israel (Summer 2016)

I love Carnegie Mellon and I will be the first to add that I love Pittsburgh as well. Coming from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh has always felt like an improvement on home, being more walkable, having better restaurants (although nothing can compare to my mom’s cooking) and at the risk of stating the obvious, far better sports teams!

But as much as I love Pittsburgh, I have always been the first to flee it when a semester ends. After my last final exam freshman year, my parents and I were back on 376 East before the contents of my dorm room had settled within our minivan. And my sophomore spring, I left Pittsburgh before the month of May thanks to a number of classes that required I either turn in a final essay or portfolio.

It’s not that I have ever been running away from anything in Pittsburgh, but on the contrary, there just always seems to be opportunities created while on campus that quickly fling me out of the city. My freshman year that was the chance to study abroad for the first time, traveling to Frankfurt, Germany for a two-week program at the WHU Otto Beishmen School of Management and then back home for a summer internship with the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership.

Last year the journey was even more unlikely. But with the support of the Buncher Entrepreneurship Award, I soon found myself 6,000 miles away from Pittsburgh, spending the summer in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem while interning with an Israeli startup.

And so it is with excitement but some trepidation that I linger on campus to start researching my senior honors thesis. This summer, I am in a familiar location and yet still completely immersed in the unknown, and no I’m not talking about how the Exchange closes at 2:00 p.m. or the U.C. Black Chairs are somehow now nearly always empty during the summer (although both are jarring and bittersweet).

The nature of my research can partially explain these feelings. Under the advisement of Professor Jim Daniels (and with additional help from the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship) I’ll be launching into a creative Inquiry into the Future of Work.

Currently it’s a pretty broad topic filled with a lot of ambiguity and ambition. Since the initial proposal in late March, there have been changes to the way in which I plan on conducting my research and structuring my findings, as I iterate through various ideas. Reconciling my proposal to fit the requirements of both the Dietrich Honors Fellowship and the Innovation Scholars summer stipend was an exercise in itself.

Maybe it’ll help clarify things if I define what I mean by a “creative” inquiry into the future of work. Due to my lack of credibility as a “futurist” (partially explained by my poor performance in March Madness Brackets) and the short shelf life of predictions about the future that are either too far forward that no one currently alive will ever be able to prove or disprove them or not far away enough to be interesting, I intend on creating an interactive documentary that covers my own journey and the stories of my peers to explore topics within entrepreneurship and creative destruction more generally.

It may seem far-flung, but hey, I do have experience making documentaries (and in Cuba of all places!) and I have learned a lot from my experiences within the Swartz Center.

So as I start my summer, grateful to have the support of the Dietrich Honors Fellowship and the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship and unsure of where exactly my research will lead, I’m excited. It sure does seem like a great summer to be in Pittsburgh.

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.

~

 

 

Sweet New Year

The fall is upon us; this is the realization that I had as the temperature took a sudden dive and I pulled a sweater and umbrella out from my closet. This Monday and Tuesday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I celebrated with apples and honey for a “sweet new year”, and dinners filled with my grandma’s recipes (kasha varnishkas, goulash, honey cake). I’ve been thinking about and planning for the year ahead, my final year of undergraduate school, and where it might take me. October is a month filled with job interviews and job fairs. My friends are in Seattle for an interview one day, back in school the next, finishing final touches on medical school and graduate program applications. The next year seems like a distance away, and yet here we are, trying to make decisions that will prepare us for the next move, and then, hopefully, for the next. Wrapping my head around where we may all end up in a year is like writing a collection of tension-filled fiction in itself.

unnamed

Shanah Tova! Happy New Year!

I have also been thinking about my thesis, and where it may take me. I am grateful for the momentum that I was given over the summer, but now I am forced to be even more mindful of getting myself to the writing table. This past month, I gave myself the commitment to find time to sit and write every single day, weekends and weekdays alike. Amid reading assignments and engineering group projects, job applications and exams, I have been finding the space to give my writing the priority it deserves – to not just let the days slip away. (Of course, weekly meetings with my advisor, Kevin Gonzalez, have provided the necessary encouragement). Some days, this has meant finding the silence early in the morning, and others – later at night.

I have been working on a story that now might be turning into a lengthier novella. There is also the chance that, when I’m through, I will have to untangle it into two distinct stories. I’m not sure where it will end up now, or where the stories of the rest of the year will take me. In any case, I will be writing! Have a happy and healthy new year, everyone!

Honors Fellows Wrap Up Summer Research

Group photo

Eleven Dietrich College Honors Fellows are poised to begin their senior year with a head start on piloting psychological studies, conducting field research and laying the groundwork for film and writing projects.

Over the past three months, the fellows have examined citizenship and belonging in South Korea, the impact of La Loi Toubon on French nationalism and coming of age as a Vietnamese American, among other topics.

Recently, they presented their works-in-progress to each other and faculty members including their advisers and fellowship program directors Jennifer Keating-Miller, Brian Junker and Joseph E. Devine.

“This summer’s group was particularly impressive,” said Devine, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “While their topics were interestingly diverse, they displayed shared qualities of high enthusiasm, confidence and preparedness that served them well this summer and will surely continue to do so over the coming academic year.”

Read more.

On Plotting

Nguyen - On PlottingI’ve always been more of a planner than a “fly by the seat of my pants” type of writer. But what I’ve been trying to do lately is mix up my writing process a bit. Instead of meticulously plotting out the events of a story, what’s been freeing and productive is just writing without even thinking. However, for someone like me who over-analyzes things, I sometimes get stuck at a blank page without an outline to follow.

My adviser, Jane McCafferty, has been helpful in giving me simple prompts or details to include in my story, possibly sparking a creative idea. This has worked really well. It allows me enough freedom to do what I want while also giving me a place to start. She’ll just give me a simple prompt like “Write me a story where a character takes home an injured animal and the events that ensue.” And then, I’m off on my way.

It’s been a lot of fun getting to actually explore the world and characters that I’ve created without thinking about creating a neat and tidy ending or making a certain “point.” The entire story might be awful in the end, and though it will get heavily edited to the extent that maybe only a few original sentences remain, I think I’ve grown comfortable with the idea that writing is a continuous process. By allowing myself to truly explore during this process, I’ve led myself down certain paths I may have never considered, plot-wise and character-wise. My story may start out following one character when eventually, I find that the plot has led me toward his brother’s story instead. That’s a great and unexpected surprise. Hoping to strike a pot of gold, I’m trying to meander and get distracted by side-stories more often. Of course, I still love outlines and notes for organizing my plot, but sometimes, when outlines get stale and I feel stuck in a story, changing my routine can clear up new roads to take.

Listening to the Music of the Words

haglundI am more than a third of the way done with the first draft of my novel! I am so excited to be continuing to make progress.

This week, I have been experimenting with sound in my novel. Of course, including all of the senses in my work is important, so I have started trying to think of how the main character would smell, hear and feel the world around her. But specifically, I have been working on how my work sounds when read out loud. This interest was sparked when I decided to do a reading as part of my final presentation for the Dietrich College Honors Fellowship Program. I read it to myself and out loud. I wanted to make my work appealing to read silently, but also out loud.

I was also inspired by my recent attendance of the Pittsburgh Poetry Collective’s slam poetry event at Capri Pizzeria in East Liberty. Listening to the poets play with the sound and meaning of the words they employed in their poems was exhilarating. They used every word’s full potential and had them working together to create an almost musical event.

Because of how much easier it was to hear when the writing was clunky, as opposed to see it on the page, I started placing more weight on saying my work out loud. For a couple of passages, I even started speaking while I was typing to try out how a sentence would sound before I put it down. Of course, I only did this when I was writing at home. I would have received a lot of strange looks if I had done this in the silent section of the library!

I have enjoyed experimenting with sound in my writing, as it is a new tool that I had been ignoring. I look forward to utilizing it more in my future writing.

Learn more about my project.

I think it's going to eat me.

I think it’s going to eat me.

Do I look calm in this photo? Maybe I do, because I’m bad at taking pictures, and I don’t know what to do with my face, but in reality, this is cause for a little bit of freaking out.

The short stack of handwritten papers that you see on the right is all of the papers that, so far, I have read, typed, and categorized. I’ve come up with a process where I label individual sheets of paper with a number and label folders with a letter. Then I’m able to save them on my computer in the order that I read them, although they have yet to be sorted according to their order in the actual plot of the story. So far, I have over 300 full, single-spaced pages saved on my laptop. I was slightly in denial about how much this actually is before I realized that it’s basically the length of a full-sized novel already.
As you can probably guess, the stack that you see on the left is all of the pages that I haven’t read or typed yet. And good God, it’s huge.

I’m going to be honest here: at this point in the summer, I should be over a third of the way through these papers, and clearly that isn’t the case. So I’ve started looking at ways to cut back on the amount that I actually try to type. There’s a bit of a catch 22 in the fact that typing pages that are already written is almost ridiculously easy, but so much so that it’s hard to motivate myself to actually do it. I’ve told myself that even if I do manage to type every one of these sheets into my computer, it would only make my life harder, because I’ll have to wade through hundreds of files in the later stages of the process.

An additional consideration is the fact that my grandfather was always a little bit of a peculiar person, as they say, meaning that he tended to be a tad more uptight, methodical, and generally unusual than your average guy. When he developed brain cancer, a lot of these weird sorts of behaviors were intensified. This made him even more likely to, for example, write the same passage twenty or thirty times over, only changing a few words or only changing the style of handwriting. This makes it really difficult for me to figure out which drafts are the best or most important.

But as I’ve gotten more used to the process, I think it’s starting to become easier to come up with strategies for how to move through the material more effectively. My main strategy has been to tackle the longer and later drafts first. That way, if I come across earlier versions of those passages that aren’t as good, I can skip over them. It’s not completely foolproof, because originally, I convinced myself that I needed to go chronologically through the drafts in order to really understand my grandfather’s process. Unfortunately, even having the whole summer doesn’t give me enough time to do that, so I’ve had to compromise by reading the later drafts first.

To be honest, I’ve spent a little too much time with these papers, which I’m especially realizing now because of the fact that I’m pretty sure I could continue this conversation for several more pages. But that wouldn’t be enjoyable for anyone. So I believe it’s come time for me to go put all those folders back in their boxes–for now, I’ll say goodbye! Thanks for reading.

Learn more about my project.