Over the past few months, I have been watching current and past episodes of Shark Tank which airs on ABC. The show has been on for a few years but I’ve only been able to catch an episode here or there. I’ve had a chance to watch some more episodes of the show. The premise is simple. Aspiring or entrepreneurs who are already doing pretty good, pitch their business ideas and products to investment sharks with the hope that someone will “bite” and give them money to expand or start their business. I’m not an inventor but it’s always interesting to see what people come up with. Some people come up with some crazy stuff and I often find myself laughing at some of the ideas or some of the advice that the sharks dish out.
There’s also another reason that I watch the show though. I understand what it means to follow a dream, regardless of what others think about it. Some of the inventions and business ideas seem absolutely stupid to me but these entrepreneurs are trying to make their lives better and live that American dream and I can’t fault anyone for that. I know what it’s like to struggle and wonder if you’re doing the right thing and how everything will turn out in the end. Some of the ideas people have pitched on the show make me think how smart some people really are. Even if all of the sharks pass on the investment opportunity, the entrepreneurs still remain positive and promise that they will get their product out there.
This year has been one challenge after the other and I have spent hours questioning why I did what I did and why I chose to come here. Like those entrepreneurs, I guess I had to take a swim with the sharks.
I recently went to see Michael Ondaatje at a reading in the city. I’ve read two of his books—The English Patient and Coming Through Slaughter. After an introduction in which the presenter explained that 3 instructors all wanted the professor to visit their class at the same time, he read selections from his novel, Anil’s Ghost, “Last Ink” from Handwriting: Poems, and a selection from The Cat’s Table, his latest novel. (I have a lot of reading to do. I need to read more of his work.) Afterwards, he answered questions from the audience.
Ondaatje works in 2 genres: poetry and fiction. He has also written a memoir. When asked by an audience member how does he decide what genre to write in, he explained that at one time, he used to be able to write poetry and fiction at the same time but now, he only works with one genre at a time. He also told us about his experience as a writer-in-residence at Columbia Medical School, which is fascinating. I didn’t know the medical school had a writer-in-residence program.
He revealed is that his books usually take him 4-5 years to complete. He also writes everything by hand! The first draft is the draft in which he discovers the story. After about 4 years, he gives the manuscript to 3-4 very close friends to look over.
Someone asked him a question about the use of painting in some of his works. He mentioned that he wanted to include drawings in The Cat’s Table. There was a huge gasp from the audience when he said that he is at the point with The Cat’s Table where he is just now remembering everything that he wanted to put in!
At the end of it all, I walked away with an autographed copy of Coming Through Slaughter as my copy of The English Patient is almost 2,000 miles away. Still, it was great to see such an admired writer read and discuss his work.
One thing that inevitably slows me down in my writing is research. I work across multiple genres and I am working on a number of projects simultaneously so you would think that trying to finish those projects alone would be enough to keep me busy. But I have this fascination with the past that I can’t quite shake. It’s the reason why I read so many novels that were written before my grandparents were even born. There’s a reason why I love those books that high school teachers and college literature professors assign their students to read. Jane Eyre. The Marrow of Tradition. Native Son. The Portrait of a Lady. The House of Mirth. Invisible Man. McTeague. Dubliners. Mansfield Park. Jude the Obscure. Some of these works might be labeled “historical fiction” but many of them were just Henry James, Richard Wright, Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison, Frank Norris, James Joyce, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy simply writing about what was going on around them. When reading works by anyone, be it an author from the past or a contemporary author or playwright, I love the stories that takes place in the past. And not just America’s past, but anyone’s past. I just like reading about people and worlds that I will never be able to physically be a part of.
I recently just finished my second reading of one of my favorite books, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read the book when it first came out but decided to return to it again after a number of years because I enjoyed it so much and felt like it was time for me to read it again. This time I paid attention to how the author wrote about fictional characters during the Nigeria-Biafra War. It is a book like this, one that incorporates history and politics with fiction, that I enjoy reading so much. Not only do I think about the plot or story going on, but I think about the characters and how they respond to what is going on in their fictitious lives.
I like to consider myself a writer who works across the board—across genres, characters and settings. I have ideas for stories, plays and novels that take place within the last twenty years as there is so much going on today that I can’t ignore responding to. I also have ideas for stories that take place during times that I only know about through research. Being a “Researcher Writer” is not easy. It takes hours to read through pages of non-fiction books, taking notes along the way as many of the books are just too expensive to buy. I don’t ever go to a museum without a camera or a notebook because I never know what I may see or learn that I can bring into one of my stories. Many times that research takes up time that I could be writing and finalizing one of my projects. But I don’t look at research as a daunting hurdle. I just look at it as something else that I must do. Like editing a story after it’s finished. Besides, I enjoy researching and learning about the past. The research is just another step in trying to achieve my final goal.
I recently made my first visit to Hunter College for a reading by Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife, a book that was nominated last year for the National Book Award and a book that received the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. She is a young writer who has been on the best “20 writers under 40” list by The New Yorker and The National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” list. It’s always impressive to see young writers getting their work out there. In the music industry, there are a lot of young musicians, still in their 20s and at the pinnacle of their careers. I see the same thing happening in Hollywood and in pro-sports. However, I don’t see a lot of writers getting published so early in their careers, which is why I admire writers like Téa Obreht and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (who was at QC recently) because they had their works published while they were young. It gives me hope that I too might be able to get my work out there one day.
I went to hear Obreht is because I wanted to hear about her experiences as a writer and what it feels like to be on the path that so many young writers (myself included) wish we were on. Having a book published by the time you’re 25. Having your book nominated for well-known awards that pay well in the prize department. Seeing your title on the New York Times Bestseller’s List. Writing something that most of the critics love. Every writer dreams of this. She herself said that she is very fortunate and grateful to have received such acclaim for her first novel because there are so many writers out there who just don’t receive the attention they deserve. I noticed that Téa was all smiles as the speaker introduced her to the audience and described her novel as “extraordinary”. She started her reading by telling us a bit about herself; she was born in Yugoslavia, went to USC, and was a student in the MFA program at Cornell. She then read from a few pages of her book. The event ended with her taking questions from the audience. She seems like an incredibly nice person, and she has a sense of humor. (I definitely need to work on my public speaking!)
As I have said many times, it’s events like these that keep me inspired, especially when I start questioning why on earth I came to this city. Writing is not easy to do and it’s not easy to make a living from either. As much as I am hoping for the best, I always realize that it’s important to have backup plans and other areas of interest to devote my time to. But I will always keep writing. I don’t know where that path will take me but I’ll keep trying.
A few years ago, while helping a relative pack for a move, I came across a sheet of paper. My relative had made a list of 100 things he hoped to accomplish in life. I decided to compose my own list. So far, I only have 45 items. It’s not easy thinking up 100 things to do. Some examples from the list (some things have been crossed out because they have been accomplished!)
Publish a story
Publish a novel
Get a play on the stage
Own my own house
MFA in Creative Writing
Live in New York
See all 10 of August Wilson’s plays
Plant a tree
Start playing the clarinet again
Learn to play the piano
Learn to swim
Arctic trip (polar bears)
Visit all 50 states
Plant a tree
Start playing the clarinet again
Learn to play the piano
Learn to swim
Read 500 great pieces of literature
Learn to play poker
Learn to play blackjack
Go on a vacation with friends
See all of Shakespeare's plays
Homeless shelter/animal shelter—something to help others in this world
Own a Mastiff
Recently, I went with family to Sylvia’s on Lenox Ave. I had a cousin from out of town visiting and eating at Sylvia’s was on her NYC to do list. I know I’ve seen Sylvia’s logo on various products back home—on boxes of fish fry and hush puppy mixes, on bottles of hot sauce and seasoning and on cans of greens and black-eyed peas. However, I didn’t make the connection between the products and the restaurant until I sat down at the table and saw the logo on a menu.
We even went to the restaurant in style—via a NYC yellow cab! We didn’t have to wait for a table and that’s always a plus no matter what city you’re in. We sat down. It took me awhile to decide what I wanted but I finally made a choice. I’m not a food critic and I won’t pretend to be one. The food was good though. The top of our table was filled with plates of fried chicken, string beans, potato salad, grilled catfish, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, fried shrimp, smothered pork chops, collard greens, mashed potatoes, peach cobbler, sweet potato pie and ice cream. You just don’t find this kind of food in too many restaurants these days. This is the kind of food I’m used to seeing in the kitchen at home. The food was good and as a family, we enjoyed talking, catching up and hanging out on a Friday night. My cousin purchased an apron from the restaurant and they threw in two matching potholders for free.
I kept thinking of one person throughout the meal—my grandma who passed away some years ago. She was one of the best cooks and while growing up, I thought many times that she should have gone into the restaurant business. She loved cooking and I can still see her standing in the kitchen over the stove, cooking some of the foods that we ate at Sylvia’s that night. That’s what that meal reminded me of. My beloved grandma.
It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. ~Mark Twain
The best way to predict your future is to create it. ~Unknown
Men's best successes come after their disappointments. ~Henry Ward Beecher
Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
The secret of success in life is for a man to be ready for his opportunity when it comes. ~Earl of Beaconsfield
The surest way not to fail is to determine to succeed. ~Richard Brinsley Sheridan
It’s never too late to be who you might have been. ~George Eliot
Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Minds are like parachutes—they only function when open. ~Thomas Dewar
Life is an escalator: You can move forward or backward; you cannot remain still. ~Patricia Russell-McCloud
What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals. ~Zig Ziglar
Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out. ~John Wooden
The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. ~Franklin D. Roosevelt
Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. ~William Wordsworth
To understand the heart and mind of a person, look not at what he has already achieved, but at what he aspires to. ~Khalil Gibran
If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it. ~Johnathan Winters
Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions. ~Dalai Lama
Let go of the past and go for the future. Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you imagined. ~Henry David Thoreau
Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go. ~William Feather
Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful. ~ Mark Twain
I have met a lot of people who are New Yorkers and who have been New Yorkers for life. I’ve also met a fair amount of people who came here from someone else. Most of those people that I’ve met have been here for a number of years.
I know someone who has lived in Queens most of their life, with the exception of a year or so, when she lived in the city that I came from. She told me she was miserable when she was in Colorado. It was too quiet and she was very bored there. I will admit that a life in Colorado may be a difficult adjustment for someone who’s lived in a large, metropolitan city.
NYC is her home. She’s been here all of her life. She’s used to apartment buildings, subways and buses, corner stores. She’s used to a fast paced city where there are fashion shows, movies being filmed, Broadway and thousands of restaurants.
When she told me this, I had only been in the city for a few days and I thought I can definitely understand. Colorado is a boring place. I’m changing my mind on that one. I didn’t realize this until I came here for school, but Colorado is my home. I’m used to driving everywhere, being around a smaller number of people, and living in a house with a backyard. I’m used to seeing the mountains. I hated driving in the snow but that was part of life there. There is no Broadway. If the Lion King comes to town, it’ll be on the stage for one week only, not years. The theaters are scattered throughout the metro area. Fashion shows are held in the special events room at hotels and you won’t see very many movie crews out on the streets. (The news crew but not the movies).
I often ask myself why anyone would want to live in an apartment for their entire life. I know the answer to that. Home is what feels right and when something feels right, the logistics don’t matter. For my friend, it doesn't matter how many people are in NYC or whether she has to live in apartment building. It’s her home. To me, it doesn't matter if there aren’t as many plays to go to, or if it just seems very quiet at times. It’s my home.
I know a number of people who moved out of Colorado for one reason or another—to attend school, to work, for a change of scenery. They all came back after a few years. I never understood why any of them came back, until now. This is the first time I have ever been away from home and it just doesn’t feel right.
I miss my family and my friends. I miss my old way of life. I left because I was bored and wanted to see something new. NYC is definitely a great city to be if you’re a writer. There are so many workshops and readings. Every city is different and everyone’s idea of “home” is different. I finally figured out what it means to be in a place that feels like home.
What does it mean to accomplish something? What does it mean to achieve something? What does it mean to succeed? I’ve read somewhere (I don’t remember if it was on the internet or in a newspaper) that people define themselves by what they do. If you ask someone what they do, they will usually respond with what they do at work. They won’t respond by saying what they like to do (unless they like their work which is always a possibility).
Sometimes I wonder if we place too much emphasis on achievement and success. With so many people in our circles, I think it’s easy for us to compare ourselves to others and look at what someone else is doing in life or look at what someone else has in life. I will admit that I am guilty of this. I think of what I’ve done in my life and what others may see as an accomplishment, I see as nothing extraordinary. Success and achievement come to each of us through many avenues. I usually think of career and education in regards to these terms but I know that success is much more than that.
I am making it a goal to start viewing my accomplishments as accomplishments and to start being proud of what I have done in life. That’s not always easy to do, but I am going to try. What I have to realize is that I have done something with my life, and I have many years to work on achieving those goals that I haven’t quite reached yet.
We will all be rejected for something or from something in life.
I’m a voluntary editor for my school’s literary magazine, Ozone Park Journal (here’s the link if you want to check it out: http://www.ozoneparkjournal.org/
). The magazine accepts poetry, fiction, plays, graphic novels, non-fiction and translations. Last semester was my first semester as one of the editors and I didn’t realize how many submissions we were going to get. I think we got almost 100 submissions in the fiction category. I read pages of other people’s work. We couldn’t publish or accept every fiction submission that we got so we had to reject some very good stories.
Since 16 or so, I think I’ve gotten rejected far more times than I’ve been accepted. Why do I start with this age? Well, I was 16 when I started looking for my first job. The economy wasn’t anywhere as horrible as it is now, but I know that it wasn’t easy for me to land that first job. From then on, it’s been rejections for jobs, promotions, colleges, graduate programs, teaching opportunities, fellowships, submissions, etc.
When reading one of the many stories that we receive at Ozone Park, I never feel great when it’s time to reject something. Maybe it’s because I know how hard it is to sit down and write a 20 page story hoping that when you send it off, someone will contact you and say “We love it and we want to publish it!” That’s hard. I know what’s it like to spend hundreds of dollars in application fees (money you won’t get back) and write personal statements and compose writing samples to send off to graduate programs only to open the letter and read “I’m sorry to inform you…” . I know what it’s like to fill out hundreds of job applications and not even get an interview or to have an interview and then not get the job.
I know what rejection feels like. I don’t like being rejected for anything and I don’t like rejecting anyone for anything but as I writer, I know it happens more often than not, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. That’s just the way it is.
How do you feel when you’re rejected or when you have to reject someone for something?