If I were to describe my twenties, I would have to say that they were busy. The years before that were busy as well. I moved around a lot. I was born in China but had immigrated to Australia and Canada, before arriving in America at eleven. In America, I moved between two different states, three different cities. I transferred elementary and middle schools. For high school, I attended what was then America's number one high school, according to USA Today, a newspaper my father read religiously. Then I went to a college where I don't think I slept more than four hours a night. I was premed and went down that path so far that I had taken the MCAT, gone on the interview circuit, and was considering offers before taking a much needed year off. During that year, I slept, worked for a crazy boss, and discovered tequila. I also wrote.
I read somewhere that a writer writes even when there seems to be no hope for the writing itself. That year, I wrote some terrible stories. I sent them out and made an Excel spread sheet of all of my rejections. I had a 100% rejection rate.
This essay is supposed to be an essay on craft and I'm getting there. I thought for months about what is most important to me about the writing process and for me, that is discipline.
The older I get the more aware I have become of my race and background. So is it stereotypical of me, an immigrant Asian American scientist, to say that discipline is crucial? Now that I have typed that, I realize I am starting to sound a lot like my father.
After my year off, I went into a graduate program for biostatistics. When this essay is published, I will have (hopefully) defended my doctoral thesis [she did!] and put that degree away in a drawer. I took on the biostatistics degree because I wasn't confident enough in my abilities as a writer. I envied others who were, but years ago I could not see myself becoming a writer. I just felt that that wasn't in the cards for me. Also I was doomed by my own pragmatism. I needed to eat, pay the rent. Ironically, a doctorate in biostatistics didn't scare me as much as trying to make it as a writer.
Yet I kept coming back to writing. I kept writing. So in the middle of my doctoral program, I applied to an MFA program and, miraculously, got in. For reasons that I won't go into here, I could not leave my doctorate program and pursue the MFA. I was given an ultimatum: if I truly wanted to be a writer, if I loved it so much, then I could do it at the same time as finishing my doctorate. This ultimatum was also driven by pragmatism, but it did something interesting. It lit a fire under my butt. I wrote more terrible stories that year than any year before. But I also wrote some good ones. Because neither program paid a stipend, I was also tutoring MCAT students eighteen hours a week. I took my PhD qualifying exams and squeaked by. Then for my MFA thesis, I wrote what would become my debut novel.
I suppose my lack of self-confidence as a writer came from constantly comparing myself to the image of the free-spirited, artist type. In comparison, I was so high strung. Though what I had learned from my upbringing and educational ‘journey' is how to manage my time (now I really sound like my father).
To write, I knew I couldn't spend hours on end for each project. So I set aside 5 hours of time every other day from 9 am to 2 pm to write. I told myself that I would not stand up from my chair until I had written 1000 words. I could go to the bathroom of course, and eat, but not too much. The 1000 words didn't have to be great. Actually, they could be really, really bad. But I found that once I got something down, I had a much easier time revising it to something better. On the days I wasn't writing, I did my doctorate and teaching. I also used my time in commute to read the work of writers I admired.
What I learned quickly was that writing, like any field, like medicine or biostatistics, takes labor, planning, and continuous effort. I knew that this was something I could do even if I couldn't come up with the brilliant ideas, so I focused my efforts on doing what I knew I could and sticking to it every day. Interestingly, with time, the better ideas came. My stories weren't always terrible. My rejection rate went down to 98.9 percent.
If I could go back, I don't know if I would want to do the simultaneous graduate programs again, but I don't know how else I would have gained the confidence to write. My confidence came from realizing that I would write no matter what, and I was happy doing it.
For scientific papers, it is always encouraged to leave the reader with a take home message. These are usually in a few bullet points. Here are mine.
- Writing is no different than any other field. It's going to take hard work, good teachers, and a smidge of luck. The key to writing is to do it, as often as you can, as much as you can.
- Confidence in oneself and one's chosen path is not an on/off switch. It too takes time.
- Fathers can sometimes know what they are talking about.