stuff and fluff!
All my friends thought it was hilarious when I moved to California, because its primarily known for 1. nature, and 2. being damn freaking big, both of which feel incompatible with the fact that I don’t drive in the States. Yet another thing the British left us Singaporeans with — this right hand drive — and I am so certain that getting behind the wheel on the wrong side of the road in America is a disaster we simply cannot afford to let happen. And I mean, it’s fine. After 30 years of living on this humid earth I have come to understand much about myself, the first of which is I actually don’t like nature. So the beautiful hills and rollicking fields in california are pretty much moot to me; one time we rented a car and drove an hour to a forest famous for having damn tall trees and after the third tree I was like alright lets see some variation sir.
And for the last 8 months I’ve got on fine without a car. Because I write from daybreak to 7pm, I barely leave my desk from the day to day, and when I do need to get out, like to Stanford, I either hitch a ride from the other Stegners or take a train. But the thing about being married is you keep learning new things about the other person and the latest fact that’s presented itself is that Shane??? Likes??? Nature????? Seriously, after 10 years together, this is a shock to me. I thought he liked cartoons and shopping, but the man has range.
Anyway. I finished my book in April (after almost losing my mind!!! it involved handwriting a whole draft from scratch… my right hand doesnt really work anymore, lmao, but I have a book, so you win some you lose some), and then looked up from my desk, and figured that since Shane moved across continents so I could chase my dreams, the least I could do was go look at some trees with him on the weekends. So we got a third-hand beat up car this month! Here comes nature, I guess. Will wonders never cease.
So at the end of April, after gripping on to my manuscript with, as my friends say, a death clutch, I was nudged, nay, shoved, to send out the book and finally embarked upon my querying process. A whirlwind month followed, and I couldn’t be more thrilled —
It still feels surreal. But also, after waiting for so long to take the next step, I do finally feel settled. A naive part of me thought I’d jump straight back into work (writing and revising was inevitably on pause during the querying period) but May has proven to be a nonstop party train, for reasons that have to do with the end of an academic year, and whenever theres a period where nothing is scheduled it turns out I just kind of.. fall.. into.. a.. nap…
All of this happened in May — fun & hanging out so hard:
And helping everyone move out of their places given the end of the academic year, which always means people leaving, moving, and the commencement of yet another batch of long distance friendships:
All that to say that the napping has been spontaneous and immense. I have been napping so hard.
Anyway! Given the institutional organisation of my last few years, May has always been a particularly sentimental month for me — people coming, people going, moving from one phase to another, the sense of an ending, the slow slide into springtime and allergies. Massive hugging season.
And although saying goodbye to people will always be bittersweet, I’ve become increasingly habituated to the idea that I’ll always just have parts of my heart scattered across the world, held by various people, and that it doesn’t have to be a disaster to be separated by oceans and land. This is, after all, the life i chose. And it feels so cheesy to say but I’m so, so happy. I was thinking about it the other day and getting (as usual) emotional — this year, the first year of my thirties, is also the first year of being a Stegner; of being a legitimately full time writer sans caveats, something I’ve dreamed of for years; of being married and living in a whole new coast; of building a life in our first ever marital house. What a privilege and blessing to recognize the beauty of life as it unfolds, and not simply in retrospect. After years and years of rushing and hustling it finally feels like I can slow down, and how sweet it is, to take exactly the time one needs.
double pub day!
I had two things out today!
1. The Bet, which I wrote in 2021 and which won the 2022 William van dyke story prize finally appeared in my mailbox today, in the first month of 2023. Writing is such a long journey, something I try to remind myself every time I feel lousy about the fact that I’m still plugging away at this novel. Which is… dare i say? I do not. The thing goes unsaid. Regardless, I’m very happy about The Bet, and about being able to hold it in my hands, a pleasure so visceral that it feels akin to cracking open and having that first sip of golden lager…
2. Unruly, a commentary piece for Channel News Asia, non-fiction, also came out today, and, fine, it’s called something else officially, but I’ve been referring to it in my mind as Unruly because that’s how I conceived of the piece initially, as a meditation on definitions and the differences between can and should. Writing this was interesting, because I’ve gone from being an avid traveller (averaging 2 flights a month, pre-pandemic, when I worked in media) to basically staying put for such long periods, becoming, I suppose, rooted simultaneously in two places. And despite the piece, I do enjoy travelling — the actual process of being on a plane and having that long stretch of time to just sleep or read — but its a sentiment I understand to be rarely shared by others. My partner says it’s because I’m short and so curling up into a crammed space and immediately falling asleep isn’t physically uncomfortable for me the way it is for someone with long legs (ie. him), which might be true, and might also be his way of getting another dig in at my totally normal and average height. Other things he likes to say, often, include: how’s the air down there? and *squatting* ah, so this is what you see…
In researching the piece, something interesting that came up and that make it into the piece was the learnings from this NPR piece on air rage which posited the existence of first and business class (or being forced to walk by these cabins on your way to coach) as a trigger for bad behavior. Physical design, the research posits, that flaunts inequality triggers antisocial behavior, resulting in delays the equivalent of nine hours.
Which makes sense to me, the fact that people react badly when they suspect they’re being discriminated against for their spending ability, the value of their seat, their money, essentially, which is often not morally neutral.
I think (and this is something else that didn’t make it into the piece, because 1. word count and 2. my feelings are not journalism, lmao, which is why I turn to my cute lil blog) that we often also run the risk of reducing people like gravy on a long-simmering saucepan. It’s something that came up in conversations around this piece (“but I’m paying, so don’t i deserve XXX”) and also in general whenever talking about a two-sided interaction where money is involved. The problem is that money really is rarely morally neutral, it confers power, and the spender is not incentivized to put limits on this power. And what are the boundaries around what a service worker is obliged to do for you? If we’re sticking to the aviation line of reasoning, our national airline, Singapore air, is famous for its impeccable service — but I remember this pre-pandemic vlog I saw where this guy was complaining about our SQ stewardesses not giving him special treatment on the plane, or spending time talking to him. I remember thinking, im not sure that impeccable service equates to a promise to be your best friend. I mean I think there’s a very thin line between professional warmth and demanding, basically, a kind of faux friendship that exists to make you feel good about yourself. And I say this as someone who’s presently based in America, where the tipping system means that service workers are constantly performing friendliness, and having part of their everyday reality be dedicated to walking that thin line.
I dont think its wrong to want a good experience when you pay for something, but especially in the realm of service it always feels a bit tricky. There will always be examples where there are faults on both sides — any kind of service worker is human, and prone to temper of bouts of bad behaviour — and it just feels like too easy a leap to turn it into an argument of equations, where you say, you’re being paid and it is literally your job to be nice to me. Especially if its baked into the brand promise, like with a lot of asian airlines. idk. It feels a bit ick that so many of these service workers (cabin crew or not) face very real economic repercussions for talking back to unreasonable demands and so just won’t. Esp since they’re expected to represent their whole company’s brand etc, and we all know how quickly companies can pivot to letting go of employees who might be bad for PR. But if we’re able to see the person on the other side of the interaction as human and not statistic, or referential of some bigger argument, some bigger brand, then might it not lead to a more dignified world?
Maybe this comes back to my own personal beliefs — i think offering dignity confers dignity on everyone involved. And i do think that that makes way for a more forgiving world, a less dogmatic one, where you treat others and yourself with kindness even in cases where you sorely disappoint yourself, as we are all wont to do, over and over again, because we are only human. You pick yourself up and go, well, should have behaved better there. And try to do better tomorrow and again.
Anw it’s like, 1230am lmao and I have to brave the once-in-a-lifetime bay area floods to get to Stanford tomorrow, so i guess that’s that on that.
the not-so-small things
moving is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody stressful. over the summer i had to mindmap my way through a three-way move, my life’s possessions triangulating between NYC, Singapore, and the Bay Area, living largely out of a suitcase. the number of excel sheets i had to make, seriously. and dont even get me started on visa and administrative issues! so much homework to be done, except then the stakes are that if you get it wrong you might get deported, ha ha ha.
i probably shouldn’t joke about that lmao.
I finally found a place and signed a lease, which honestly, is an amazing feeling. Despite moving around so much, I like having a place to nest in, to call home. I like putting things on the walls and having my notes be scattered haphazardly while working, and being able to go to bed and wake up and find them in exactly the same order of chaos as they were the night before. I like living with my partner, who dithers around the house in his own happy routine, the both of us mindlessly stopping for a hug as our paths cross in this mostly-square apartment before continuing on to whatever we were doing before — him, drawing, me, reading or writing, usually. And I love this apartment — it feels like the best kind of cliche; we viewed so many places, but when we walked in to this one, we just knew.
I also got to work immediately setting up my work cave. After working off a tiny desk for years… i nearly cried when I scored this baby. 30 bucks secondhand (it used to be a craft table for a woman who does a lot of work with… yarn), this baby is all fake wood and 60 inches long! Which I filled up right away of course. I’m in a fever for desk space the way some people are for romance or the smell of soft leather. When Shane and I settle into a permanent home someday I shall have a desk that stretches from wall to wall.
other things i like about my new apartment:
– the shower water comes out hot immediately. For the first time in three years I’m not doing that strange naked hoppy freezing dance while waiting for the water to heat up
– no bugs. though this might be more of a California thing.
– in-unit washer dryer! turns out i dont hate doing laundry, i just hate trudging through the filthy streets of manhattan with a sack of clothes over my shoulder while knowing that the lint in the laundromat’s washer hasn’t been cleared in probably eight and a half years
– all the furniture is exactly where i decided it would be. after living with three boys, all of whom had a vote in all things home-related, it’s really nice to just make a decision (the correct decision) on how far the dining should sit from the wall and have that be it. and i haven’t stubbed my toe on a random table or chair corner, once.
– many power outlets. like there’s one every five steps, which seems excessive even to me.
– so much natural light! part of why my rent was so low in NYC was because my room — the cheapest in the house — had zero natural light. it was like living in a little electronically lit cave. sometimes i would knock on the boys’ doors and ask to sit in their expensive sunlight for a bit and they would joke about charging me rent and i would laugh and not pay it.
– the elevator moves really fast
– there’s a roof! which I’ve been to like, all of two times.
Anyway. It’s nice to be so happy. After so much uncertainty, even my struggles on the page feel less depressing, now that I know that I’m all but guaranteed another day at the same desk, in the same chair. And another, and another, and another.
Podcasts for Writers
I was thinking, the other day, about the rise of podcast consumption during the pandemic in my own social circles — and of its parallels to the ways in which we as writers seek out community from our little corners of the world. Text-based communication is, of course, still my main jam, but sometimes it’s nice to hear another human voice. (Side note: Whatsapp voice notes, emphatic yes.)
Anyway, I collated a list of podcasts relevant to the writing life, to be listened to while driving / gymming / doing housework / whatever you please.
They are listed in this order (you can click on each one to jump to that section): Craft, Industry, Conversations About Fiction, Conversations About Poetry, Listen to Fiction, Screenwriting.
This list is obviously non-exhaustive — feel free to recommend additional podcasts using my contact form here, otherwise, click to continue reading after the jump!
The MFA Application — Resources
Every year at around this time I get a bunch of emails from writers back home looking for clarity on the MFA application, so I thought I’d collate some information I found useful from around the web and community.
The MFA is considered the terminal degree for creative writing in the United States. A ton has been written on whether MFAs are worth it, but I can only speak to my own experience in choosing to pursue an MFA, for reasons that are very specific to where I’m from. I’ll do that at the very end of this post, so if you don’t care you can just read the Resources bit and then skip the rest.
For your MFA application, you’ll usually need to submit a writing sample, a statement of plans, and some recommendation letters, from people who can speak to your work as a writer. For Columbia I had to do the extra step of analyzing a recently published work of fiction. Some MFAs require you to prove you can speak English. Since Singapore’s national language is Malay, I had to take the IELTS to prove I could speak English despite having a Masters in English Literature. In the IELTS they did things like make me listen to a recording of a train announcement then tick the correct multiple-choice answer as to what time the train was leaving. It was very expensive. 🙂
— Rachel Heng wrote this piece for Read The Workshop (formally known as The MFA Years) on applying for the MFA (Also: buy Rachel’s latest book here!)
— List of Fully Funded Programs
— List of mostly Funded Programs
— MFA Podcast — look for the schools you’re considering and listen to students speak to their experience. (I’m featured on episode 21, for Columbia.)
— An alternative to the full time MFA is a low-residency MFA, which can coexist with a full-time job. Read the Masters Review’s Guide to the low-residency MFAs here.
International-specific note: The low-res MFA, while a great option for those already based Stateside, is a little less viable if you’re based in Asia. Why? Because you are still required to get an F1 visa even if the bulk of your program is online. Putting aside the time difference in online classes, you need to pay for a new i20 every single time you come into the states for the residency portion of your MFA, and you must leave right after.
From the Vermont College of Fine Arts:
Each I-20 is valid only for the duration of the on-campus residency period. The I-20 Certificate of Eligibility does not allow international students in the low-residency programs to reside in the US for the remainder of the semester. International students must leave the US after the residency, and a new I-20 must be issued (and the fee paid) in advance of the following residency period
That means you’re paying for your visa + 4 x i20 fees for 4 semesters. The i20 is a piece of paper you need to carry with you at all times when entering and leaving the United States. It’s different from the visa. You need both and you cannot enter the country if you hold one but not the other. You would think it’d make sense that they consolidate this and issue one document that does both things. You would think this would be a lot simpler. However, I don’t run a country, so what do I know.
Other associated costs — air tickets. airbnbs. miscellaneous transportation fees to and fro airports. paid leave days if you’re keeping your full time job back home. etcetera.
If you want to keep your job and take classes on the side, I put out a call on Twitter for online classes and got a bunch of great recommendations here. I’ll compile this into a list later.
It’s also worth looking at options in the UK. The UK follows the Creative Writing MA, not MFA model, which is slightly different in terms of commitment and length. The University of East Anglia’s year-long MA, which birthed writers like Kazuo Ishiguro, Diana Evans, and Tash Aw, is a really reputable program. It can also be significantly cheaper than some tuition-based MFAs in the States. I just don’t know that much about it because I ended up going the US route.
Dates to take note of:
— Application deadline
— Funding application deadline
— Deadlines for Letters of Recommendation to be uploaded
— Deadline for uploading proof of English proficiency (Internationals)
— Availability and lead time for local test centers in your home country re: IELTS / GRE / TOEFL (Internationals)
These differ from school to school. The US deadlines tend to be end of year / early Jan, whereas the UK ones are much later, like in May.
Your writing sample is the singular most important thing in your application package. It’s the thing they’ll most likely read first, since the most compelling personal statement in the world won’t make up for bad writing. Pour your heart and soul into this… then polish the hell out of it.
I think the MFA was my first time encountering this personal statement business. It’s basically an artist manifesto, a statement of purpose representing who you are as an artist, and why you’re applying to this specific MFA.
— I found this article very useful when crafting my statement: How I wrote my Statement of Purpose
— Here’s an advice thread on Twitter from Kat Lewis, which is concise and helpful (Link to PDF in case Twitter has imploded by the time you’re reading this)
— And if you’ve ever wondered what goes on on the other side of the curtain, here’s a peek behind the scenes, from someone who reads MFA applications (Ditto. PDF.)
If you have a close friend or professor who might be willing to read a draft of your personal statement, and if you’re comfortable enough to share it with them, this would be immensely helpful — especially if they have an eye for critical essay writing language. On the other hand, I wouldn’t ask someone to share their personal statement — it’s called personal for a reason, and I feel like they’d offer if they were comfortable sharing. Besides, what each artist is working on differs so greatly that I strongly believe the best thing you can do is try to have your application package, statement included, best represent who you are as an artist. The one thing I will say is to be specific with your language… don’t make vague, abstract statements about the value of writing. Who are you, specifically? Ah, the perennial question that’s triggered many an existential crisis…
Most applications require two to three recommendation letters. More commonly three. This can be tricky if you don’t know any writers, obviously, and in recent years, the practice of requiring recommendations has come under fire as a form of gatekeeping. But until that changes… I knew two people who could speak to my writing, and for the last one, I asked my old boss to write me a recommendation testifying to my ferocious work ethic.
I initially found asking for letters of recommendation to be very awkward, because you’re essentially asking a huge favour from someone, usually without any way of reciprocating, at least not in the short term. Anyway, here are some tips for asking:
— Cathy Day’s The Letter of Recommendation
— Writing Workshop’s Getting Letters of Recommendation for your MFA
Most important takeaways:
— give your recommenders loads of lead time. Generally the more time the better. In fact, ask now. Lmao.
— please remember you’re asking for a favour, so be polite and respectful of their time
— make writing the letter as easy as possible for your recommenders by giving them all the necessary information upfront
If the program you’re applying for has a teaching component, you might want to ask someone who can speak to that. In this case, if you’ve had prior experience teaching or TA-ing, it would be good to include your student evaluations and CV in your email to your recommender, so they have all this information on hand. Basic email etiquette: don’t attach this in the initial ask — send all this information after they’ve agreed to write you a letter!
It’s important that these people actually know and can vouch for you. It is really in your best interest that your recommenders know and champion you / your work, because an unenthusiastic or impersonal letter is much worse and can really hurt your application. One of the people I initially asked for a recommendation turned me down, citing that she didn’t know my work well enough, and to this day I’m grateful she did.
These websites are great too:
— Read the Workshop
— AWP The Writer’s Notebook — linked to MFA advice, but you can search for a variety of other things related to a writer’s life.
If you have several offers and can’t decide, people will typically recommend that you visit the schools before making a decision, which again, isn’t that tenable if you’re not based Stateside and arent made of moneybags.
— Here is an article on making your MFA decision, which might be helpful.
Internationals: I recommend contacting the person who called you for your acceptance and asking if they can put you in touch with any international students who might be willing to talk to you. Or else you might just go through the good old social network. I get requests from friends or friends of friends yearly to ask if I mind talking to someone who’s thinking of applying to / accepting Columbia. The writing life is very pay-it-forward, so I’m usually happy to do it, with the understanding that they go on and extend a hand to a younger writer in the future when the time comes.
As an international, money is a bitch.
As it is, even if you’re not an international, everything costs money, and it adds up really quickly — the application fees, the cost of relocation, etc… Schools will charge you extra as an international, for, idk, processing or something. Your insurance coverage is usually mandatory to have with the school, and insurance in the USA is a NIGHTMARE. It’s extremely expensive and doesn’t cover half of what a much cheaper policy in Singapore will. I remember showing my American health plan to my insurance agent back in Singapore, and she was like… well, if you get really sick and need an operation or something, it’ll probably be cheaper for you to pay for a last minute ticket, fly back, and claim under your Singapore insurance plan, ha ha ha.
All that to say that financial stress is very real. You can request for application fee waivers from most schools if you can prove financial need, but there’s no getting around the visa fees, which consist the visa application fee, the SEVIS i901 fee, and the passport mailing fee. I think it comes up to about 500 USD. And don’t even get me started on the IELTS test, which is almost 400SGD.
The upfront move is also expensive. You’ll need to put down minimally a security deposit with your first month’s rent to secure the place — some places require first, last, and security, which is basically 3 months rent upfront. And most places will require a guarantor if you’re signing a lease, and if you’re not American and dont have someone who can financially vouch for you, you might have to pay a middleman service to be your guarantor. To avoid this, you can try just subleasing so your name isn’t on the lease, but please do your due diligence on how to protect your rights as an international subleasee. I got really lucky and signed a lease with this super lax building where the management somehow didn’t require documentation… very sus. New York, baby!
Then having to buy furniture… getting used to tipping… making mental conversations to your home currency all the time… you don’t even qualify for an American credit card, so you can’t get cash back on any of this. Very painful. No shame to anyone who has family support, financially. More power to you. But if you are paying out of pocket, like I did, please, please, budget a buffer in for unexpected costs, because it is extremely stressful to be hemorrhaging money. In USD.
Being stressed about money is also very lonely. If you can find people to talk to about it, please do. Otherwise you can feel like you’re going crazy. I definitely went a bit loopy in my first month there. I think I stopped eating completely at some point and wouldn’t pay to get on the train either. I’d basically walk 30 blocks to avoid paying $2.75 for a metro ride.
Retroactive aside — what I wouldn’t give to pay $2.75 per ride now… *laughs in Bay Area*
Don’t go into debt for your MFA. Just don’t. You aint making that tuition money back.
If you’re applying for a fully funded program, great.
If you’re not, negotiate for more money. This is bloody uncomfortable for us Asians who are taught never to ask about money, idk. I wanted to die while writing my initial email asking after funding, I found it so awkward and humiliating. But my fear of being broke is worse. So I asked, and Columbia came back to me with a scholarship. Whaddayaknow! Now I have an incredibly thick skin and ask for money all the time. If you don’t ask, you won’t know.
— An internationals specific tip: your visa status cuts you off from many funding opportunities, loans, and grants which are American specific. It also prevents you from working off campus for extra cash. Mention all this when you’re asking for additional funding. You have less opportunities to work to cover your tuition elsewhere, and are very much more dependent on what the school can offer you.
— Here are some other tips on asking for funding (grad school, not MFA specific)
— Here is an article on overcoming shame and asking for money if you’re from an underrepresented community
— And the forums like Gradcafe and MFA Draft also have plenty of discussion threads on funding negotiation tips.
— Look into scholarships from your home country. For eg. I got a National Arts Council Arts Scholarship from Singapore which covered almost half of my tuition.
Don’t stop looking for funding options when you start the MFA! A lot of the funding opportunities dont open up until you actually start the program, which unfortunately does mean that you can’t count on any of it. But you should try, nonetheless. There are also independently funded grants available to artists living in New York, and I assume it’s worth looking into independent arts grants and scholarships for the state you end up in. I got additional scholarships and was awarded a fellowship at Columbia midway through my MFA, and by the end of it, I paid nearly nothing for the MFA save for my cost of living in New York City.
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At twenty seven, I was really desperate for time and space to write. Plenty of friends back home asked why I couldn’t just write on the side, and for sure, many novelists have done it. But I was writing and writing and it was all crap. I had no idea how to get better, and I was craving mentorship and literary community.
I was also extremely, extremely burnt out. I’d been working full time since 2011, while simultaneously and consecutively pursuing my university degree, my masters degree, and TA-ing in the university. After being a salaried advertising employee for close to three years, switching to purely freelance work in 2014 was incredibly freeing — but also dangerous. Because my time literally equated to money, I was working nonstop like a woman possessed. When you go from having no money your whole life to having it just within reach, it’s really easy to justify taking on every additional job at the cost of your sleep, rest, social life, creative life, etcetera… and really hard to say no. I would be writing in the middle of the night, then realize upon re-reading it the next day that my sleep-deprived brain was basically inventing nonsense. I knew the best case scenario was if I got to take a chunk of time off to write, so I applied to a couple of residencies in the East Asia region but I was rejected from all of them because I sucked.
Enter the MFA. I had never even heard of it until 2018. At the time, I was desperately applying for all kinds of internships at publishing houses, trying to get as close as I could to the writing/publishing industry. I’d been working for awhile at that point, and sinking a lot of money into trying to make this happen. Mid-2018, I flew down to London on the throwaway promise of a PRH editorial assistant who rejected my internship application due to visa issues but was impressed by my passion and promised to show me around the office if I were ever in town. I flew down specifically for this reason a few months later… only to be completely ghosted by her. I had not yet understood how to discern between sincere and polite invitations and probably gave her a shock when I took her up on her offer. I’m better at this now but I still think people should say what they mean. Anyway.
Already in town, I met the writer Tash Aw for lunch. We’d met a couple of years prior when he was a visiting writer at NTU — I took a masterclass with him that was, for me, transformative in clarifying my artistic aims and conceptualizing the possibility of a life as a working writer — and we stayed in touch ever since. After hearing my entire sob story, he asked why I didn’t just apply for an MFA.
A degree specifically for writing?!
I wish I could say the rest was history but it really wasn’t. I already had money saved up over the years — I’d assumed I would move to do a PhD in UK or the US and try to swing it as a writer once I’d made it across the North Pacific Ocean or whatever — but it was far from enough. I took on even more work, became slightly maniac tbh, and at the end of 2018 finally did an editorial attachment with a literary agency and a publishing house in the UK while simultaneously applying to Columbia.
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So I didn’t apply for a single fully funded program. None of that hedging, 12-15 applications strategy for me. I applied for Columbia. I told myself that if I didn’t get in then I’d give up on the MFA and continue plodding along.
I suppose I’ve always been quite stupid about these things. But anyway, Columbia accepted me, and there was really no question that I wouldn’t go. Getting that acceptance phone call was an actual visceral experience, the sense of a dream coming true so overwhelming that I felt the swooning disassociation of a woman wine-drunk. It was a decision that made no financial sense whatsoever (I said yes even before getting the scholarships and fellowships that would later significantly reduce my cost of attendance), but that I felt in my heart was the right thing to do.
If I were to back this decision up with practical considerations though, here’s what they would be:
1. As an international, the MFA would give me the legal right to stay in America, visa-wise . And I was certain that I wanted to be in the States, where I would have access not only to Columbia’s classes, but literary events, communities, and opportunities that existed there.
2. And if I were going to relocate my entire life across the globe, I wanted it to be to New York. To me, these 2 years would be the singular biggest investment in myself I’d ever make, and I didn’t see the point of spending all this money on a dream and then not actually doing the thing my dream entailed.
3. I went into the MFA hungry. More than once, faculty would remark upon how hardcore I was — as did the other students. I was frequently asked why I took even the simplest class assignment so seriously. But I have been like this my whole life. I have zero chill. Even before accepting Columbia’s offer, I knew that I would make the most of it. I would never allow myself to waste a single minute, which I had calculated to the dollar. And it worked. I could feel myself improving, almost muscularly. Within the first semester I had two offers from faculty to connect me with their agents. I didn’t take them up on it because I knew I wasn’t ready, but it made a world of difference in how it encouraged me to keep working on my craft.
4. I never saw myself as a student. I approached the MFA believing that it was an implement to my writing, not its container. I viewed it as a very expensive way to help me work on my existing projects, both on the craft level, and in further clarifying my artistic vision. When I introduced myself in any kind of social setting, I called myself a writer.
Unless I was going somewhere that had. student discount. Then I was absolutely a student.
5. I had cultivated relentless optimism as a way of being, which I knew I could lean into when recalibrating to being in a foreign country alone. Until the pandemic broke me (lol), I truly lived in a state of constant euphoria and terror (for financial and safety reasons), and really fucking loved every single second I was on campus, in class, reading and talking writing with other writers. Resisting jadedness and skepticism went a long way in keeping me focused on my work, and constantly learning even from people I didn’t agree with.
Well, the pandemic hit, blah blah blah, and it took three, not two years, plus a lot more tears and pain, but this month, I finally graduated:
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And you know. It was a really difficult and often disillusioning journey, but I don’t regret it.
The MFA was both a way to buy time and to legally allow me to stay in NYC, but more than that, it was the biggest signal to myself that I believed I had a shot at being a writer.
Although I loved and benefited greatly from my time at Columbia, the truth is that lot of my writing life in NYC happened outside the program. A lot of the opportunities I had were purely based on being in the right place at the right time. It’s not like it’s impossible to do this from back home but it would be disingenuous to pretend that it wouldn’t be much harder. There are other MFA programs in the greater New York area, both within the city and state, and if you zoom out a bit and look across America, there are so many fantastic MFA programs, few of which are as ruinously expensive as Columbia is. If I could go back in time, I’d do more research, possibly cast my net wider. Been a bit more pragmatic about the financial realities around it all. But in the end, Columbia was the right decision for me, because it was the one that I made. A little bit like a chicken and egg situation. What worked for me may not have worked for someone else, and mine is just one experience. But it’s the one I have.
And I know, for a fact, that I would not have the writing life I have now if I hadn’t moved to New York. I met my current writing friends at readings and parties around the city. I started as a weekly columnist for a literary magazine that was founded by writers I met in Columbia. I learned about opportunities by listening to writers talk about them. Friendly acquaintances I made online bloomed into real life friendships when those writers passed through New York, as writers do. Writers introduced me to other writers. Those other writers commissioned work from me. I learned a lot from being in workshop with emerging writers, from being in the company of writers who had similar aspirations, dreams. I found myself improving by watching my peers revise their work. I started publishing stories. This encouraged me. I submitted stories to places aggregated in the Columbia mailing list and won prizes for them. For every acceptance I was rejected maybe 20 times. No matter. I kept going. I got personalised rejections from Granta and A Public Space and held them close to my heart. I treasured them immensely. I understood how little I knew, but I no longer felt like I was struggling to stay afloat alone. I felt comforted and inspired by seeing writers near me achieve things that I didn’t know were possibilities, it galvanized my work, gave me the confidence to take risks artistically. I wanted to cry with the sheer joy of being able to sit in a dirty bar booth and intensely discuss strategies for varying narrative distance with dialogue tags and sensory verbs. I actually did cry, a lot. Publicly. I was never embarrassed about it. I met younger asian writers passing through the city who wanted to talk about building a writing practice and was frequently moved by the passion in their voice, the hunger. I applied for the Stegner because a fellow writer mentioned it offhand and, realizing I’d never heard of writing fellowships, encouraged me to try for it. And now here I am, in the Bay Area, as a full time working writer.
Every single time I think about it I want to cry again. And, you know, it sounds so silly and childish, but I really am so happy that this is my life, and that every day, I wake up with no obligations to anything but my writing. I don’t take it for granted, I know all of this could fall apart, I could never publish a single other thing again, though not for lack of trying, I could toil and toil at my art and never be satisfied, I could have my imposter syndrome confirmed by any number of factors outside my control, I could lose my mind. But at least I had this complete and perfect fulfillment, if only for a precious moment. At least I have today.
So much has happened in the last six months — getting the stegner, finishing at Columbia, getting married, moving across the world again, attending my first literary conference in vermont while simultaneously making American national news, grieving a close friend’s untimely passing, crying so much, setting up in the West Coast, schlepping all over the Bay Area for second-hand furniture, starting the Stegner, and then, finally, turning thirty…
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interestingly in the last six months I’ve had close brushes with fire three times, which is too frequent an occurrence for my liking. the first was the day the stegner was announced. I was boiling my weekly batch of hard-boiled eggs, as one does, when I looked up and saw a snowflake drifting past the kitchen window. I’ve been obsessed with snow ever since I was a child, being from the equator and all. To me snow isn’t real, it’s from the realm of TV and fairytales, for a long time I thought I would simply never see it in my lifetime because going to seasonal countries is expensive. Which is a large part of why I’ve always loved getting older. In my mind, age = legal ability to work = monies = choices. In fact, I think I was almost twenty when I first went to a Disneyland, in Hong Kong, and that evening it started snowing. I completely lost my shit. I thought, what the fuck is this magic. So I did what the storybooks said people did, and stuck my tongue out to catch the snowflakes, and promptly realised I was eating soap foam. But anyway. That cold morning in March, I was so taken by the real, New York snow, that I followed it immediately, and went out on the street to watch it coming down. And then I thought, since I’m outdoors, might as well go to work. So I walked to Columbia to get some writing done, and an hour later, my roommate called me and told me I’d nearly burnt the house down because my eggs had exploded on the stove. I ran home and there was actual, visible smoke hanging in the air, lingering like some kind of unwanted guest, and powdery egg yolk everywhere, in all the crevices of the kitchen, the cupboards, the refrigerator, the light switches.
While I was on my hands and knees on the kitchen floor trying to clean up egg bits, shivering because all the slushy snow had melted and now I was just straight up shivering and drenched, my phone started blowing up, and that’s how I learnt that everyone else now knew what I’d been keeping secret for two weeks — that I was one of the new Stegner fellows, that I’d been given the gift of time, that my dreams, basically, were coming true.
A week after that my partner, now husband, flew down to new york for his bachelor’s trip, so we could meet up and go to Disney World with some of his groomsmen. Yet another thing I thought I’d never do in my entire life. I often wonder what it would have been like to be privvy to so much manufactured magic as a child; I think I would have peed my pants in excitement and wonder. As an adult I still love it all, the fireworks and music and obvious emotional manipulation, but I cant stop ringing up the cost of everything in my mind. The value of your dollar and all that, I suppose. Anyway. We took different flights back to New York because I had Delta miles from a previous pandemic related flight cancellation, and said seeya later at MCO airport, fully expecting to land at JFK within 30 minutes of each other. Little did I know. Little. Did I know.
For the next thirty two hours I boarded and disembarked multiple flights as I tried desperately to get out of Orlando while they were all cancelled one by one for all kinds of reasons, the most ludicrous being that a gate agent, in an attempt to get rid of me, printed me a ticket to a flight that didn’t exist. I cycled through the rounds of being drunk and sober multiple times as I participated in the time honored tradition of oral storytelling and regaled all of MCO terminal B with my sob story, getting multiple free drinks of pity, sleeping on an airport bench, showering in the public toilet.
Hour 21, I managed to wrangle my way onto a flight and promptly fall asleep in my seat while waiting for take off with the confidence of a fool. I woke an hour later to the smell of smoke and an air stewardess beside me. The plane was on fire. It’d only happened once in her seven years of flying, this was the second time. I disembarked, went straight to the bar, and got myself a beer and consolatory fried chicken. A routine, by that point.
Third time. Less than a month after I was wed. I flew back to the States for a literary conference, which included a 12 hour SG-FRA flight, a 15 hour layover, 8.5 hour FRA-NYC, crashing a night at a girlfriend’s place, then flying out the following AM to Vermont. A recipe that did not take into consideration jet lag because I am am optimist and endlessly unrealistic. Anyway. On the Uber to La Guardia, I was chatting with my driver, Fritz, when we drove past a building that was literally on fire. I have never seen anything like it — flames really do lick the air, they also shoot, and twist, and shatter windowpanes from heat. We pulled over and he ran straight into the building while I stood on the sidewalk and did what i do best, which is yell a lot. EVACUATE, EVACUATE. Like they say in those airplane safety briefings. EVACUATE EVACUATE! The fire truck came ten minutes later, Fritz ran out having saved 2 people, and asked if he smelt of smoke. His wife would kill him, he said, if she knew he’d ran into a burning building. I tweeted about it sans names in a what the heck just happened what a crazy morning kinda way, got on the flight, and when i landed it had been retweeted over fifty thousand times. I immediately emailed Fritz and said um you know what you said about not wanting your wife to know…
Anyway. It turned out he was fine with media attention, enthused by the public excitement over choosing to do good. It feels like everyone could use a bit of hope, with the way these few years have gone. We made national news. But I was in Vermont with no cell service and shitty wifi and in between readings and classes I was on the phone with journalists and dialing in to the CNN studios for a live show by hiding in a Bread Loaf closet and trying to balance my phone on a shelf. I couldn’t hear jackshit and was really hoping for the best. When we went live, apparently Fritz said how are you and I replied I know right and my sister dragged me for the next month straight.
Anyway. That’s three fires in six months. One per two months. Far, far too many close calls for my liking. A friend pointed out that this isn’t even it — a couple of years ago, I had fallen asleep on a diving boat, and woke up to the deck in flames. People were screaming and climbing over each other trying to retrieve these dusty lifejackets which clearly had never been put to use, ever. I remember, back then, being so burnt out from work, so exhausted from juggling multiple freelance jobs while teaching at the university and trying to complete my Masters and also have a life (which was why I was even on that boat, I was trying to learn to dive in a bid to enrich my life…)
I looked at the fire, looked at my friend, a severely overworked advertising suit who had also just woken up. We both closed our eyes and went back to sleep. If this is it, I remember thinking. I’m so tired. Just five minutes more.
How far things have come. Now I am hungry to stay alive, every day aflame with the joy and pain of being able to do nothing but write, read, write some more. I’m so happy. It feels so trite to say but I am. If this is thirty, I think. I’m ready for more.
I shoot on a Nikon D750 with a 35f/1.8 lens, or on my Samsung Note 20 Ultra. Pictures edited in Lighroom Mobile or VSCO