An Editor Confronts Her Writer’s Block

From Publisher’s Weekly:

I’m an editor by trade, and that’s where my talents lie. My superpower is my ability to polish any piece of writing until it shines, and I’ve been making a living off that gift for years now. But any editor will tell you that they’re also a writer at heart—and I’m no different.

One of my brightest childhood memories is of entering a writing contest run by Bruce Coville, author of the popular My Teacher Is an Alien series. He put out a call for elementary school–age children to submit their scary short stories, promising to publish the winning entry as a part of his upcoming anthology. I spent a few hours composing a story about a haunted elevator that never lets you off and mailed it that same day in a manila envelope.

Months later, I received a letter from Coville himself, awarding me third place in his contest. He included a personal check for $50 as a prize and told me to keep writing. My story wouldn’t be published, but I was thrilled to have been acknowledged by a bona fide author whose books I loved. I never did let my mother deposit that check for me; I wanted to keep it forever.

Since that foray into fiction writing at the age of 10, I haven’t completed another story of note. It wasn’t for lack of effort. I continued to start new pieces, jot down plot points, emulate my favorite authors. In college, I took a creative writing course and produced a few short stories, but they weren’t anything I was proud of; I honestly can’t even remember what they were about. As a journalism major, I took a lot of other writing courses and wrote a weekly op-ed column for the NYU newspaper. But fiction, it turned out, wasn’t really my thing.

I never consciously questioned why this might be. I chalked it up to lack of imagination. But more recently I’ve come upon a new realization: all this time, I haven’t known whose story I should tell, because I wasn’t sure about my own place in the world of fiction as an Asian American.

In the first half of my life, the category of books written by first-generation Asian American authors was basically nonexistent. For the mainstream reader, there was Amy Tan and that was about it. It wasn’t until later that others began to appear on the scene. It was a revelation when I discovered Jhumpa Lahiri, and she remains one of my favorite authors today. Yes, I appreciated her elegant prose, but also, for the first time, I was connecting with fictional characters, like the Ganguli family in The Namesake, on a deeply intimate level. Their immigrant story mirrored my own life, resonating with me deeply.

Recently, however, I noticed a sea change occurring. The number of Asian surnames on bylines has multiplied in the past five years—I marvel each time I see one at the library. Ruth Ozeki. Celeste Ng. Ted Chiang. Min Jin Lee. Susie Yang. My middle school–age daughter is reading books by Grace Lin, Kelly Yang, and Marie Lu. No one ever said it wasn’t possible for someone like me to write fiction, but now I realize I had no models to follow while I was growing up. Nonfiction came easy for me because I got to write as myself. Fiction was much harder; I didn’t know who I should be writing as.

Each time I sat down to think through a story, I’d be stalled by the lack of a clear picture of the main character. Would my protagonist have to be of Taiwanese descent, as I am? If she weren’t, would the story be inauthentic, coming from me?

Link to the rest at Publisher’s Weekly

PG likes reading stories written by good authors. As he’s mentioned before, the author’s name usually doesn’t register with him. If the book sounds good, he’ll go for it.

Women write stories with male protagonists. Men write stories with female protagonists. Every new regency romance published today was written by someone who wasn’t alive during the Regency and who doesn’t know a single person who actually lived during that time period. People of all sorts use pen names for a wide variety of reasons. Women use male pen names, men use female pen names.

PG could write a book with an Asian female protagonist (if he had the requisite writing talents, which he thinks is not the case).

To be clear, PG is not making fun of writers block. It’s a real thing for some authors regardless of gender, race, national origin, etc.

5 thoughts on “An Editor Confronts Her Writer’s Block”

  1. I read some Jhumpa Lahiri because ‘everyone’ talks about her. I don’t know if all her books are like the two I read but to me her world view was so depressing that I had no interest in reading more. I also wonder very strongly whether the Indian immigrant and the Vietnamese immigrant and the Pakistani immigrant are really having the same experience?My (Swedish) grandparents were immigrants with a terrible story, but the way it was passed down to me was inspirational.

    I find this idea of “I don’t know whose story I’m telling” very peculiar. But I think that’s because I’m not ready to worry about authenticity, whatever that is. I feel as though it is a trap, a cheap way for people to criticize a work. And I guess that’s where this woman finally got to, in her own thinking. But what a wasteful detour!

    • Don’t need to be an immigrant to have a sad/inspirational family story, you just need a living relative from the Great Depression era. My mother’s entire family survived WWII because her uncle signed up for the 65th infantry batallion so the family would get his pay. He actually survived the entire war, which helped.

      Totally common all over.
      Today’s snowballs don’t know true poverty or how lucky we who followed them are not to.

      • Depends, Felix. Both sides of my family were mostly farming (although my maternal grandfather was in the “entertainment” business – beer hall and snooker parlor). Far enough north in Kansas that they only had a couple of bad harvests in the Dust Bowl, and didn’t get near to being foreclosed on.

        My wife’s father’s family did okay, too – pig farmers in Connecticut. The only one with a bad story was her city mother – rickets from borderline malnutrition.

        There were much worse stories from that era for other families. Like your maternal uncle’s.

  2. Each time I sat down to think through a story, I’d be stalled by the lack of a clear picture of the main character. Would my protagonist have to be of Taiwanese descent, as I am? If she weren’t, would the story be inauthentic, coming from me?

    This isn’t writer’s block. It’s Woke block. It’s self-imposed.

    • Also not followed to the logical conclusion: How can she possibly feel justified in editing the work of an author that is not also of Taiwanese descent? (With two X chromosomes, and an identical set of pronouns.)

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