We Are Human

I can't stop reading about the American election. I've likely logged ten hours watching speeches, debates, and comedy clips. That's six hundred minutes I could have devoted to my novel. The weekend before last I was in Taipei and during a huge storm I stayed in the hotel to take a bath, drink tea, and watch CNN. This feels a little like insanity.

My fixation has a lot to do with fear, anxiety, and a tendency to think of the worst possible outcomes. All I can think is what if? What if Donald Trump wins and the American dollar takes a nose dive, pulling the Hong Kong dollar down with it?  What if Trump wins and attacks on Muslims and other people of colour intensify? What if Trump wins and he triggers a nuclear holocaust? What if Trump wins and I eat all the foods I'm allergic to because I need comfort and I have a death wish? (I'd eat a bacon mushroom burger and coconut ice cream as my last meal on earth. Oh and a mushroom pizza, bacon mac and cheese, and pork soup dumplings from Din Tai Fung. Green Thai curry with prawns. Plus Milk Bar crack pie. I can feel my eyes swelling shut and a rash forming on my face just thinking about all these delightful foods.)

On Sunday I was in the middle of a negative spiral when my therapist said to me: "It's so American to label everything. This person's a narcissist, this person's a hoarder...I wanted to go into counselling because I hate that. We are human. We aren't a label. We can't reduce other people to labels." 

"We are human." I needed to hear this. If I can remember this, if I can draw on my empathy, then I can heal and be well enough to focus on the things that matter to me, like writing. Nothing grows in darkness so wallowing in negativity is not going to help. (Well, except mold, but who wants to be moldy?)

This week, if you can't move your narrative forward (whether in your writing or in your life), just think: "We are human." This is a direction. There are many places we can go from there.

A Hack to Manage Your Energy: the #raddesklunch

One of the things that depresses me most is when people say that they're "never not working". From experience, I know that a workplace is toxic when people skip lunch, stay late, and work on weekends. This round the clock productivity is a sick capitalist badge of honour, a red flag of fuck no. 

Somehow, this mentality has spread to our creative endeavours. We fall into the trap of measuring our dedication by the number of hours we sit in front of a computer and we punish ourselves if the sentences don't flow or we don't hit a high word count. This kind of behaviour doesn't get results and makes the work seem like drudgery. Let's be real: there is no reason to suffer while writing. It's not like we're on our hands and knees scrubbing floors for ten hours a day. 

The key question I've been asking myself is: how can I put in the work and get the writing done without putting in extra inefficient hours? 

A few months ago one of my awesome colleagues at my day job mentioned the concept of managing energy rather than time:

"The core problem with working longer hours is that time is a finite resource. Energy is a different story. Defined in physics as the capacity to work, energy comes from four main wellsprings in human beings: the body, emotions, mind, and spirit. In each, energy can be systematically expanded and regularly renewed by establishing specific rituals—behaviors that are intentionally practiced and precisely scheduled, with the goal of making them unconscious and automatic as quickly as possible." 

This can be accomplished without spending money--it's about establishing a system that fosters good habits. 

I came across one way of renewing my energy during the work week: I pack a #raddesklunch. (Check out my Instagram, where I document some of my more successful homemade lunches.) The #raddesklunch is different from a Sad Desk Lunch, which I imagine is eaten very quickly, alone, and out of a plastic container.

My Tips for a Successful #raddesklunch

1. Use real cutlery: I keep a fork, spoon, and a pair of chopsticks at work.

2. Invest in good dinnerware for the office (I know, this requires spending money, but you'll be using it hundreds of time over the course of a year): I have a giant porcelain bowl from Muji that works for every meal.

3. Make lunch dates: Before I discovered that I had a number of food allergies, I went out to eat with colleagues nearly every single day. When I could no longer go out, I started a Slack channel, #raddesklunch, to gather people who had brought their lunches or were getting takeout.

4. Go for variety: Don't eat the same sandwich or leftover pasta every day. This Buzzfeed post about mason jar salads is an excellent place to start. I challenge myself to come up with variations on a simple salad with brown rice. (I'm also a fan of quantity. I need to eat a large amount of food midday or I get really hungry an hour later. Your food needs might be different so take a moment to figure out what your body really wants.)

5. Cook most of your lunches over the weekend and freeze them, so you don't have to do this every morning or night.

Here's one of my lunches broken down into three phases.

This is a simple salad with arame sea vegetable, carrots, cucumbers, and romaine lettuce with a lime juice, sea salt, and sesame oil dressing. I pack nuts in a separate container to keep them crunchy until lunchtime.

This is a simple salad with arame sea vegetable, carrots, cucumbers, and romaine lettuce with a lime juice, sea salt, and sesame oil dressing. I pack nuts in a separate container to keep them crunchy until lunchtime.

When the time comes, I tip the entire container over into my bowl. The dressing gets evenly distributed.

When the time comes, I tip the entire container over into my bowl. The dressing gets evenly distributed.

Then I top with pecans, round up colleagues so I'm not eating alone, and dig in.

Then I top with pecans, round up colleagues so I'm not eating alone, and dig in.

Now after lunch I have the energy to work hard and stay focussed until it's time to go home. On the weekend, I make sure the meal I have at midday comes at a time I need a break from another activity, like writing or cleaning or errands.

Changes or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Stevia

When I was in my darkest stretch, I wanted to be well enough to write again. That goal was enough to make me quit alcohol, caffeine, dairy, sugar, and over the counter meds. My liver is likely still recovering from my Panadol Blackcurrant Hot Remedy addiction—I was up to three packets a day at work so that I wasn't sniffling like Donald Trump.

(I want to go back to watching Luke Cage, but I already punked out last week so here I am, showing up! I'm glad you're here with me. Don't worry, I wasn't able to write because I'd gotten a very painful massage to fix my wrists and not because I'd had another severe allergy attack.)

I dealt with being really ill the same way I tackle every problem: I read. During my research, I came across a lot of cancer blogs. (That's what happens when you're desperate and researching water filters and no-sugar recipes.) The one thing that echoed over and over again is that the people who live are the ones who make huge changes. One of my BFFs, J, and I used to joke all the time about an episode of Oprah with the theme "Change One Thing, Change Your Life". We were twenty-two and total dicks who thought we knew everything. Now that I'm older, I understand that Oprah was right, but it's more like "Change One Thing, Change One Hundred Things". But that just isn't as catchy.

This week, rather than writing about all the things I've been learning about trauma, I'm going to talk about food because one of my friends was ordered by her doctor to overhaul her diet. I told her I'd e-mail her, but a blog post is just as good, right?

Three Books That Helped Me Realign My Diet

I hate using the word diet, because this is not about deprivation or being thin. I've never restricted calories ever. If I need to feed, I become insane, so I drop everything and eat. (My friend A and I improved our relationship a thousandfold when we realized we both get hangry.) 

The reason why I changed how I eat was because I was having trouble walking after some meals and my skin was weeping and I just couldn't stay awake. Oh and I found out I was allergic to a huge list of foods and woke up one morning and couldn't really open one of my eyes. Anyhow, I recommend these three reads for anyone who has to cut out sugar and processed foods.

Revive: Stop Feeling Spent and Start Living Again by Dr. Frank Lipman

Clean: The Revolutionary Program to Restore the Body's Natural Ability to Heal Itself by Dr. Alejandro Junger

The Candida Diet by Ann Boroch

This weekend I stayed in and organized my kitchen. I wish I'd taken a before picture because this cupboard was a total disaster before I got real and put things in order.

This weekend I stayed in and organized my kitchen. I wish I'd taken a before picture because this cupboard was a total disaster before I got real and put things in order.

My Pantry Staples

  • chickpeas
  • lentils
  • adzuki beans
  • brown rice
  • quinoa
  • unsalted brown rice cakes
  • cashew nuts
  • cashew butter
  • raw pumpkin seeds
  • raw pecans
  • raw walnuts
  • pinenuts
  • hemp seeds
  • flax seeds
  • chia seeds
  • black sesame powder
  • tahini
  • nori sheets
  • arame sea vegetable
  • wakame sea vegetable
  • kelp
  • sprouted granola
  • gluten-free rolled oats
  • soba (buckwheat, not regular wheat)
  • frozen spinach
  • frozen blueberries
  • frozen raspberries
  • bee pollen
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • sesame oil
  • Vega protein smoothie powder
  • sardines
  • sea salt
  • black pepper
  • pure stevia in powder form
  • cardamom
  • cinnamon
  • cumin
  • paprika
  • basil
  • garlic
  • ginger
  • roasted dandelion root tea
  • ginger and lemongrass tea
  • lemon and ginger tea
  • Sleepytime tea

For fresh items, I always have lemons and limes on hand, and I rotate through various greens and root vegetables. Avocados are always perfect for salads or smoothies. (Gotta get in the good fats—this is key to not feeling insane from sugar withdrawal.) I'm allergic to eggs and coconut, or I'd have eggs and coconut milk and water on hand at all times. Sometimes I get a rash from almonds, so I avoid keeping them in my apartment, but almond butter is the best. At one point I was eating unsweetened baking chocolate slathered in almond butter, topped with cardamom and stevia powder. (I even bought a Hello Kitty chocolate mould to make my own sugar-free sweets.)

One life-changing tip I've learned is that soaking many grains and seeds makes them easier to digest. I give dry chia seeds sprinkled atop oatmeal in Instagram pics the side eye—you have to soak! For your convenience, here is a soaking chart, which I borrowed from Weed 'em & Reap.

Ever since I learned this, cooking brown rice has become so much easier: it takes twenty minutes rather than forty-five.

Another life change: I bought many freezer safe glass containers and now on Saturdays or Sundays I cook a large amount of food and freeze it for my lunches. I've been having amazing meals!

Soba, raw pumpkin seeds, cucumber, arame sea vegetable, avocado, and romaine with a lime, sesame oil, and sea salt dressing.

Soba, raw pumpkin seeds, cucumber, arame sea vegetable, avocado, and romaine with a lime, sesame oil, and sea salt dressing.

Okay, that episode of Luke Cage is calling me. I think I'll write more on food next week because there's so much to say. I leave you with a picture of the kitchen improvements I made on Friday night.

I got a new hanging dish rack, cutlery container, and shelf and now I have more counter space to prep meals!

I got a new hanging dish rack, cutlery container, and shelf and now I have more counter space to prep meals!

No Spoons Left

This week I'm depleted, so I'm directing you to a tremendous interview between Sachiko Murakami and Nikki Reimer. The first time I read it, I was so moved by their insight and bravery and generosity in having this conversation in a public forum that I immediately read it again.

Some highlights from their discussion:

SM: Yes, carving out writing time and energy when I have to day job is, for me, nearly impossible. I’m working a desk job right now, and it uses up nearly every one of my spoons. I need at least two free hours in which I am fed, well-rested, calm, and pain-free to get any kind of writing done, and I am never fed, well-rested, calm, and pain-free for two free hours on a work day. In order to get to a writing-state, I need to put in many hours of self-care. And then the acts of self-care ironically use up the last spoons that I was saving for writing.
NR:  ...I feel a sense of responsibility, particularly in grief and mourning, to be honest, because I think we have a very fucked up attitude towards death and grief in our culture, and I have seen how much it hurts people I know to have their needs in grief dismissed. The death of a central person in your life changes you radically, and you don’t stop having a relationship with them just because they are not with you physically. There is still a mainstream misconception that the healthiest thing is to “get over it,” and “move on,” to stop being, as one friend was told, “a sad widow.” That’s all bullshit. If I can help raise awareness about the realities of significant loss through my posts, than I’m happy to do it. And I will never stop missing my brother, loving my brother, feeling my brother’s presence in my life. Earlier in the process it would wound me deeply to be criticized for my openness about my journey through grief, but I don’t care, anymore, what people might think of me for being outspoken about it. I know my truth. I’m in a much more stable place now, four years and three months after, but the pain doesn’t end. You just learn to fit it into your body and your life.

I'll be back again next week with some preliminary thoughts about trauma and health.

Let's Talk About Exhaustion

A friend posted on Facebook: “Anyone else completely useless on weekends? I know I’ve never really had a proper 9–5 job before but it’s like both my body and mind go into standby mode on Fridays at midnight.”

I feel this so much. I want to write during the weekends, but instead I find myself binge watching TV shows like The Night Of and drinking tall glasses of stevia lemonade to stave off dehydration. Most of my energy goes to laundry (I pretty much have to boil my sheets weekly to lower the chances of an allergy attack) and making large meals to freeze so that I don’t have to cook if I’m ready to pass out at the end of the workday. Being an adult sometimes feels like a long trudge through a blizzard to somewhere I don’t want to be.

A few years ago, when I went to therapy for the first time, I realised that the way I talked to myself contributed to my exhaustion and my aversion to writing. No matter what I did, I never stopped to acknowledge that I was doing a good job of living life. All I saw was the pile of clean clothes I hadn’t had time to put away or the unopened mail or the books I’d bought but hadn’t yet had a chance to read. At work I’d sit at the computer until my forearms burned and my eyes were blurry. Nothing left in reserve. My sense of achievement came from feeling productive and my definition of productivity was shaped by outdated industrial revolution ideas about a set workday and output.

But like any perfectionist, I was all or nothing. Whenever I hit the wall, I had no motivation and I usually caught a cold or developed some kind of debilitating pain that hampered my ability to work until I’d have to quit and cobble together freelance projects until I’d rested long enough to give the office another shot. At most of these jobs where I burned out, if my boss had just stopped to tell me I was doing a good job or that my work was appreciated, I could have lasted longer because who doesn’t feel buoyed up by gratitude?

I was going to have to change if I wanted to be healthy and happy, but the way wellness is sometimes packaged freaked me out, like it was solely the domain of entitled lithe women with trust funds, investment banker husbands, and Instagram accounts where the natural lighting always seems to come from the north. But the thing I’ve discovered the hard way is that you have to take care of yourself before you can contribute in any meaningful way to society. Otherwise you’re just a selfless burden who doesn't understand how to set boundaries. Better to be selfish in the right ways at the right times. This Laurie Penny essay covers all these questions regarding self care: 


The ideology of wellbeing may be exploitative, and the tendency of the left to fetishize despair is understandable, but it is not acceptable—and if we waste energy hating ourselves, nothing’s ever going to change. If hope is too hard to manage, the least we can do is take basic care of ourselves. On my greyest days, I remind myself of the words of the poet and activist Audre Lorde, who knew a thing or two about survival in an inhuman world, and wrote that self care "is not self-indulgence—it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

So what’s the writing take away? In order to love the process again, I started setting a timer for thirty minutes, which I’ve since reduced to twenty-five minutes to follow the Pomodoro technique. During the session, I would do nothing but write. No e-mail, no reading, just writing. At the end of a thirty-minute block, I’d applaud. Yes, I sat in my apartment, alone, madly clapping for myself. I don’t need to do this anymore, but at the time it pulled me out of a spiral and gave me exactly what I needed to complete my short story collection. So go ahead and try it. Be the cheerleader that you need in your life.

***

The environment plays a huge role in our well being, so for readers in Canada, I urge you to consider writing a letter of protest against the Kinder Morgan pipeline and oil tanker proposal before September 30. (Click here for a simple form that will direct your letters to the right place.) Don’t let the fact that Justin Trudeau is pretty and awesome at PR lull you into complacency. Just because he surfs, attends pride parades, and is all-around dreamy doesn’t mean he’ll put our First Nations communities or concerned families first without us putting up a fight. In many ways, a politician of this calibre is much more dangerous than someone who is simply odious, so we have to make ourselves heard. We become well by advocating for ourselves and for our communities and this is an opportunity for us to author our fates together.

It Takes Two to Be Toxic

For years I had a friend who needed me so much I spent more time on her problems than I did on my own. Chatting with her was easier than working on my book because I didn't love the writing process then. My cultish devotion to her well being made me believe that I was a good friend, with the added bonus of an escape from the self doubt that suffocated me during my showdowns with blank pages. She would message me with whatever life or death situation of her own making and get angry if I didn't think someone was out to get her. (Full disclosure: I was pretty mentally ill myself at that time and would also oscillate between the belief that someone was omg the most amazing person I'd ever met or just pure movie villain evil hellbent on making me miserable. I know now that this is some seriously unhealthy bullshit.)

There were times I placated this friend by agreeing with her, even when she was being unreasonable, because she was so wounded and chronically ill I was afraid to hurt her. During the workday I'd receive an onslaught of messages from her, oftentimes talking smack about our mutual friends. Her complaints and criticisms filled my headspace. Twice, she called me right before I went to sleep in a state of agitation, demanding attention, going on about how no one was there for her, laying on the guilt. It was never an emergency, but I always felt bad telling her no, so I always let her have my time. I was a ride-or-die BFF, no matter what, especially if we were drinking together. She needed to be a victim, and I needed to play Captain Save-a-Ho.

Let's be clear: I was not a good friend. I was not offering true kindness that gave her space her to grow. Rather, I was an enabler. My blind support was allowing her self-destructive behaviour to fester. So really, I was aspartame, a slow-acting poison that seems sweet but isn't the real thing. For the longest time I didn't understand why I fell so easily into this dynamic. Why did I feel the need to be responsible for her, to help her fix her life even though I was a raging mess? When I think about it, the first time we met we got along because she seemed familiar. I was so comfortable in her presence. She felt like family, which in hindsight is a problem because my relatives are working through trauma, abuse, mental health issues, and addiction. Some family members mistake meanness for a sense of humour, and sometimes I mistake this cruelty for love.

***

I had lunch with P the other day. We hadn't seen each other in two years because a few weeks after we last met, he was struck by a mystery illness before he was to start a dream job in academia. Like me, he's managing a roster of integrated healthcare professionals, but whatever he's going through has been much more debilitating. Rather than bounding around the front of a classroom with his usual enthusiasm, he's had to deliver his lectures seated. He used to go running, but now even short walks can be taxing.

We met at a cafe where the owner gave us extra food and shared that his daughter was a singer songwriter who had left Canada for Europe because she'd had a rough childhood. We listened to one of her songsit was the only time there was music playing during the three hours we were thereand her voice was at once powerful and vulnerable.

 

While we ate, I discovered that P was also struggling with setting boundaries on helping other people.

"It's hard for me to ask for help. I have a lot of shame around it," he told me. If someone sought his support, he dropped what he was doing to be of service because he imagined it was just as difficult for that person to make the request. I told him this wasn't always the case. Some people go through their lives expecting others to take care of them, to clean up their messes, to bring order to their world.

We had so much to say because we didn't have to edit ourselves. We're aware that health stories bore the shit out of healthy people, so we don't usually detail the systems we've devised to manage each day. He shared that he was able to write for the first time in weeks. I told him what it was like to stop drinking and listed all my strange new food allergies. We're so attuned to our bodies now we didn't shy away from detailing our bowel movements. Whatever shame I had about shitting evaporated the moment I had to produce a fecal sample, collect it in a specimen container that had a tiny built-in scoop, and deliver it via a subway ride within a three-hour window for a lab test. Pretty much every topic we brought up became a source of hilarity.

"What the fuck, I've been doing affirmations," I confessed. "I am healthy! I approve of myself! I am a lottery winner!"         

"This morning, I thanked the sun for shining," he said.

We started laughing so hard. We'd gone full woo and there was nothing to do but embrace this unexpected change in our lives.

Before we left so I could go to my acupuncture appointment, the owner told us we were honourable people. "Why do I know this?" he said. "See that over there?" He pointed to the liquor store across the street and told us that he'd had an alcohol problem for more than thirty years, but that Jesus had released him from all that. He hugged us. I thought of his daughter, living in Europe, singing her songs about love while her husband sang backup.

After this, for the first time ever, I bought a lottery ticket.

***

One day three years ago I decided to do some research on codependency. I'd heard that word before, but I had no idea what it meant. This is how I discovered Melody Beattie's Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, which is the seminal book about the Captain Save-a-Ho Syndrome and how to change.

I have never cried so much while reading than I have as I worked through Codependent No More. Though I've never lived with an alcoholic, I was a textbook codependent because my family was rife with compulsive disorders. Rather than face my own problems and care for myself, I avoided conflicts and life by putting other people first. I'd been trained to believe that this made me a good person.

It became apparent to me that I was responsible for creating the conditions for my unhealthy friendships because I thrived on emergencies. I knew how to calm suicidal and depressed women, but I didn’t know how to find this peace for myself. All of this dramatic bullshit got in the way of writing. What scared me most was the realization that I serially befriended a certain type of woman who reminded me of my mother: I was trying to work out my issues with her through these friendships. This was a pure wtf lightbulb-over-my-head moment.

Last year, I received a text from my wounded friend. She said needed to talk to me very urgently because she'd had a traumatic experience with one of our mutual friends. I told her I was unable to Skype (because I didn't have the emotional energy to speak to her on a work night) but out of guilt I said she could text me.

Why didn't I trust my gut? As soon as she had my attention, she insisted on telling me something I'd specifically told her I did not want to know, a poisonous piece of information relating to the heartbreak I'd suffered a few months earlier. As the messages came through, the subtext was I wasn't so special, that I'd been used, that I should be as angry as she was at our mutual friend. Every text she sent me was designed to be as hurtful as possible under the guise of seeking my advice. All her words sounded just like the demon voices I’d worked so hard to exorcise from my head.

As I read her messages to me, I realized that it takes two to be toxic. I was choosing to engage with her, to allow her to create drama, to let her manipulation cause me to second guess myself. Why was I living like this? Listening to her was no different from cutting myself to divert attention away from my real pain. I stared at my phone, wondering what would be the kindest thing to do. There was a burning feeling in my chest. I was more sad than angry. How could I be kind to both of us? The only solution was to remove myself from the equation. I told her she needed to talk to our mutual friend directly to resolve the issue rather than chat with me about it. I was not going to fix anything for her. Then I ended our conversation. That night, as I lay in bed, I knew it was time for me to work on my relationship with my mother.

 

I've Reached Peak Earnest and I Like It

After reading my last post, a friend told me she's been going through similar stuff, minus the shitting blood. Even though we hadn't talked for more than a year, we went deep into our lives and into the political and cultural conditions that contribute to our discomfort in the world. (Even when we speak of suffering, we're nerds. We can't help it.) She also wants to get back to doing the writing that matters to her.

I asked her if she wants to do monthly check-ins where we set goals and cheer each other on like we're Simone Biles in pursuit of five gold medals at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. She's going give alcohol the kiss off. Mine is to update this blog each week. (Which is going to be harder, saying no to booze or writing on schedule?) Next Monday, inspired by our conversation, I will post an essay called "I Quit Drinking and the World Didn't End". How do I know this? I haven't had a drink since December 15, 2015 and this didn't trigger a zombie apocalypse or all the bees in the world to drop dead at once, even though there are people who act like I've killed a baby tiger when I say no to a glass of wine.

***

One of the rituals I've implemented is an adaptation of Julia Cameron's Morning Pages. I write without getting judgy until my hand gets tired, then I get grateful and make a list of awesome things in my life. I know, I've hit peak earnest. Past-me would snicker about this while having a third bourbon.

I do this as a warm up before writing, as well as if I'm feeling low and need to exorcise my pernicious thoughts. There's only one rule: I never read over what I've written. When I am done, I shred the paper and and let go. This lack of attachment is freeing, like returning home and immediately going braless before flopping face down on the couch. It just feels so good.

Writing Saved Me from Going Insane

I thought I was healthy, but my body kept telling me something was wrong. I quashed all symptoms with medication, Diet Coke, junk food, and alcohol. Soon, I was having trouble taking in deep breaths. Walking became difficult. My hair was falling out, but my family doctor said everything was fine.

Migraines struck me with increasing frequency. The big toe on my left foot ached, as did my kidneys. My body began to reject foods I had been eating for my entire life. Rashes and hives appeared all over my body when I ate coconut or cheese. No matter what I did, I felt tired, so very exhausted. I had no energy to write. Sleeping became my favourite pastime. Depression threatened to make my world small and dark.

One day, when I thought I was doing better, I shat blood. I knew then I had to make changes. If I didn’t stop to ask myself what I wanted, I was going to get sicker. When I slowed down to listen to my body and let my mind be still, I discovered that the thing I wanted most was to heal. I needed to be well so that I could write again.

I have a theory that writing is what saved me from going insane before I figured out how to best handle suffering. Without this creative outlet, I probably would have had a mental health crisis years ago. It’s kind of like how Kanye West turns to music to channel his demons. Somehow, I needed to clear the fog I felt every time I sat down at the computer. There had to be solution.

The flesh and how it can fail us — this has been my obsession since last November. I love blogs where people detail their health journeys down to facial warts and pus oozing from old wounds. Raw honesty delights me. I’d like to do the same, so I am going to document my experience here and share what I am learning.

I have another wish: I want you to be well enough to make work. What books or songs or movies or paintings or performances are missing from the world because many of us are too unwell to deliver on our fantastic ideas?

My plan is to post book reviews, resources, recipes, and wellness tips. I know that not everyone has the privilege to eat organic food and supplements or buy high power blenders for smoothies, so I will do my best to focus on change that doesn’t require a massive outlay of cash. We all deserve to be well, no matter who we are and how we experience the world.

Most of the time I don’t share that much about myself online. Being vulnerable doesn’t come easy to me. But last month, before returning to Vancouver for medical appointments, I posted on Facebook that I was having health issues and might only be up for walks and tea during my visit home. I worried that this was an overshare, a total bore, and that I should stick to posting videos of cats playing the saxophone. Instead, I received so many loving comments and personal messages from friends, some of whom I haven’t spoken to in years. People were happy to plan picnics rather than meet in bars. All I had to do was be honest.

This show of support made me understand that no one heals alone, that we need a community behind us to reach our goals. That night, with this swell of kindness enveloping me, I was sure that I would be well again.

In LA for the AWP Conference

I'm in LA at the moment for the AWP conference. My roomie, Anna Ling Kaye, and I have been hitting our supplements and herbal teas so hard in preparation for the madness. (Not a euphemism--we are the world's biggest nerds.)

I'm doing a book signing and two panels. Details below!

EVENTS

Book Signing at Room Magazine's AWP Table

  • Thursday, March 31, 2016
  • 1:30pm  2:00pm

I'll be signing books at Room Magazine's table at the AWP conference. Come by! I've got ramen buttons to give out.

Venue: LA Convention Center, West Exhibit Hall, Table 1626

AWP Panel: No Place Like Home: Setting

  • Saturday, April 2, 2016
  • 10:30am  11:45am

Venue: Gold Salon 4, JW Marriott LA, 1st Floor 

Where does one set the modern short story in this globalized age? What are the artistic and political implications of these choices? In a modern world where stories take place across and outside of national boundaries, how does setting impact subject, tone, and point of view? These writers with ties to multiple countries reflect on how they situate the transnational short story, and highlight narrative tools to bring culturally rich narratives to life.

AWP Panel: Slouching Tiger, Unsung Dragon: The Next Chapter of Asian American Writing

  • Saturday, April 2, 2016
  • 3:00pm  4:15pm

Venue: Room 406 AB, LA Convention Center, Meeting Room Level 

What does it mean to be a writer of Asian descent publishing in North America? These four writers are exploring territory beyond tiger moms and immigrant hardship, venturing into updated expressions of Asian masculinity, Confucianism, and contemporary Asian culture. The panelists will discuss traditional and experimental approaches to Asian American fiction and poetry, and explore how artistic and professional choices impact perceptions of their work and their identities.

 

An Education

I learned the art of bullshitting at university. Up until I had to write an essay about Plato for my first year Arts One class at the University of British Columbia, I'd been an honest person. I was the kind of student who would discover I'd been given credit for an incorrect answer and alert the teacher. If I found money on the ground I'd try to return it. If someone tried to cheat off me during an exam I'd give them the evil eye and cover up my test paper. When I spotted plagiarism I reported it. Yes, you would have hated me if we were classmates.

Part of the reason why I thought that lying was so terrible was that one of my elementary school friends was a compulsive liar. When we were eleven she'd say things like, "Oh, my boyfriend is fifteen and he gave me this necklace." None of us ever met this guy because he didn't exist. In high school she escalated to telling everyone she had a baby daddy who was about to get out of prison and he was so totally going to kill her boyfriend. She never had a child and I think she was a virgin. Once in biology class she showed off her scars from having an abortion--they were drawn on with a red pen. I still feel sad for her because even though the curriculum included sex ed she had no idea that an abortion and a caesarian section were completely different surgical procedures.

At university I just could not keep up with the reading for Arts One. Plato and Hobbes bored me. What did I care about these dead dudes? Just thinking about them made me feel tired. I took a lot of naps that year. The only woman on our reading list for the two semesters was Jane Austen; my seminar class was 75 percent female. Was I depressed? It didn't matter. I was fast becoming a mediocre student and there was no one to blame for it but myself and my study habits. Something had to change.

My carpool consisted of three other people who were also in Arts One so on the ride in I'd ask them about the books. I'd say, "So I didn't read the books, what should I know?" Frank, Nora, and Simon were better students, so they had a lot to tell me. I suppose this was my attempt at practising the Socratic method. When it came time for the Plato essay I skimmed through The Republic for quotes and wrote a load of garbage. I was rewarded with my first C+. When I received the grade, I was pretty sure my life was over. My scholarship was in jeopardy. I was positive that I was going to end up living on the streets because who wants to hire someone who can't write a paper about Plato? (Now that I live in the real world I know that no one cares if I know anything about philosophy.) The only thing that saved me was my creative writing workshop, where I got an astronomically high grade for making shit up. There was the answer to all my problems: fiction.

I was an amateur then. By fourth year of university I mastered the art of bullshitting by employing the close read. (Thanks, F. R. Leavis!) There was no need to read the entire book, unless I really wanted to, if I just chose a paragraph and really focussed on how those sentences functioned as literature. I didn't have to know anything about history or the author. I could blather on for paragraphs about the use of a hyphen. At this point, I also understood the magic of taking a course on poetry over one on prose. (Good luck if you've made the rookie mistake of taking a Victorian novel class at the same time as other courses with a heavy reading load.) I befriended all the students who said smart things in class and asked them questions during lunch and at beer gardens. I maintained an A average and decided to go to grad school for an MFA in writing. What did university teach me? Bullshit and best friends will get you pretty far in life.

[This essay first appeared in The Elective.] 

 

Some London Galleries

I received a lovely Facebook message asking me about the galleries I visited while in London, so I figured I should write a quick blog post. I was mostly in the Soho area, but I've added a few other spots worth checking out.

Brewer Street Car Park

Sadie Coles HQ 

Hayward Gallery

White Cube

As for museum shows, Alexander McQueen at V&A and Sonia Delauney at Tate Modern (until August 9) were both really incredible experiences.

 

Ricepaper's Flash Fiction Contest

I'm judging Ricepaper's Flash Fiction Contest! The best part? The mystery ingredient is ramen, which goes well with the cover of my book. I'm going to be super bossy right now and tell you that you must enter the contest!

Contest details: Ricepaper’s Annual Secret Ingredient Fiction Contest is a 500-words-max flash fiction contest. The piece of work must include the mystery ingredient “Ramen” selected by Ricepaper’s editorial staff.

Deadline: July 1, 2015

Entry fee: $25 and 1-year subscription. If you are already a subscriber, you can gift your contest subscription forward, or extend by a year. (+$6 for additional entry)

Submit to: Submittable.

Prize: FIRST PLACE: $250, publication in issue 20.4 winter 2015, online publication, contest winner announcement at and free registration for the 2015 literAsian Festival.*

*Travel and lodging costs not included.

The Atlantic's Best Books of the Year

I guess I can avoid having a public meltdown on Twitter now that my book is an Atlantic staff pick of 2014!

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Associate editor Bourree Lam wrote the most amazing review:

How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? by Doretta Lau
One reason I’m endeared to Canadian author Doretta Lau’s debut collection of twelve short stories is that all her cultural references are my own: touchstones of the aughts intellectual urbanite. An appreciation for the photographs of Jeff Wall. Wanting to watch Wong Kar Wai movies all night. Fugazi. The desire to date dead men (although I probably wouldn’t pick pianist Glenn Gould if I could choose from all of human history). Lau has the same uncanny talent as Banana Yoshimoto; the ability to turn a mundane day into a magical and meaningful one.
Lau’s offbeat stories document the follies and triumphs of youth via remarkably self-aware characters. Her cast includes competitive eaters struggling with romantic relationships, a sitcom actress in debt working at a funeral home, a screenwriter in mourning, and a photographer who accidentally auditions for a pornographic movie. My favorite is the young woman who starts receiving text messages from her neurotic future self, when mankind invents communicative time travel.
Stories about young, lost souls often make me cringe when they’re filled with unforgiving accuracy or indefinite nihilism. But Lau’s stories are optimistic and inventive; they feel like hindsight making sense and purpose of a confusing time. Part of the appeal is that when most of us become adults, our lives are structured around work, obligations, and sleep. There’s a lurking fantasy that living an unstructured life would make us less financially able, but free to pursue our passions—which would make everything less boring. Lau’s characters are never restrained by these daily rituals. They’re stories of people living unconventionally, but feeling the struggles of life and love nonetheless. These are stories of love almost lost, and losers almost winning. And when it's over, even if they don't get what they want, at least they leave knowing what it is.

How to Submit to Literary Magazines

I remember when I first began submitting to literary magazines in Canada I found the whole process to be a bit intimidating. I had a lot of questions. Which publications were the best fit for my stories and poems? What goes in a cover letter? What should my manuscript look like? How should I keep track of my submissions?

I answered all these questions (and more) during a workshop I gave on this topic at the literASIAN festival last weekend.

Click here to download a PDF of my presentation, Don't Let Your Stories Languish: How to Submit to Literary Magazines. I broke the process down step by step and gave examples. I even shared my own personal manuscript submission spreadsheet; you can get a glimpse of all the failure I suffered along the way before I landed my book deal. As well, I offered quick tips and direct links to publishing resources in Canada.

Go forth and submit!

 

 

Blog Hop!

Amber Dawn (How Poetry Saved My Life, Sub Rosa), whom I had the great fortune to meet over a decade ago in Kate Braid's poetry workshop at the University of British Columbia, has asked me to join in the blog hopping fun. Thanks, AD!

My answers:

1)     What am I working on?

I am conducing research for a novel called Colourfast that's about the textiles industry and its impact on the world as we know it. One of the things I've come across while doing this is Anonymous Horse Dress, which is part of the collection at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore: “Hand-crocheted by a woman who was a multi-decade patient of The Sheppard & Enoch Pratt Hospital (SEPH), little was recorded about the actual person who created the horse dress other than a diagnosis of schizophrenia and that she actually wore this dress in defiance of the generic patient uniform.” I love that this woman used crochet, a decorative and domestic skill mostly practiced by women of a certain class, to protest her confinement.

I'm also collaborating with filmmaker Nick Citton (Decoration, That Burning Feeling) to develop my short story "God Damn, How Real Is This?" into a film.
 
2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I think of writing as a conversation with other writers about what I think fiction should be. I guess my work differs from other short stories in that it's a reflection of my personal preoccupations in the realm of craft and culture; I haven't invented anything new except for my own approach to language.

3)     Why do I write what I do?

I love reading short stories and I want to be able to exact the same precision I apply to poetry to prose. Most of all, what I wish to do is build upon Canada's rich short story tradition and add my voice to the mix.

4)      How does my writing process work?

Reading plays a big part in my process. I find that if I don't read or engage with the world I have nothing to write about. As for how I go about writing, I write in 30 minute blocks and I usually put on an album that acts as a soundtrack to what I'm working on. For the story "Robot by the River" I listened to a lot of Smog.

Now it's my turn to tag two friends! I tag andrea bennett (Canoodlers) and Judy McFarlane (Writing with Grace: A Journey Beyond Down Syndrome.) Look for bennett and McFarlane's Hop Answers on October 1.

Project Bookmark Canada

What places have you visited in Canada through books? For me, Prince Edward Island was so very vivid for many years, despite my never having visited, due to the magic of L. M. Montgomery's novels and stories.

 Project Bookmark Canada commemorates settings in Canadian Literature. There's a Bookmark in Vancouver's Chinatown featuring a scene from Wayson Choy's novel The Jade Peony. (I'm such a huge fan of that book. Once, I went to a Vancouver Writers Fest event and waited in a long line to ask him to sign my copy for me.)

On April 7, 2014, if you donate to Project Bookmark Canada, you are eligible to win copies of The Journey Prize Stories 25 and my collection, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?.

Read more about my travels through books here

Donate to Project Bookmark Canada here