Write Like Emily

One of my all-time favorite poets since I was a child is Emily Dickinson.  Her poems were beautifully simple and readable, easy to memorize, with a haunting profoundness that grows deeper each time I revisit her poetry.

Not only was I a fan of her writing style, but I was also enamored of the mythology of her life, how she diligently wrote her poems, almost 1800 poems, most of them unpublished during her lifetime.  I imagined how she was someone who wrote tirelessly at night, savoring the poems for herself and her few chosen loved ones.  Then she carefully stored them in a large chest, and they never again saw the light of day, not while she was living.

This is something that I really admired about Emily Dickinson, her quiet, private diligence and the fact that she wrote for herself, not for anyone else.  There was a purity to this act of writing that I emulated and felt was perhaps the purest form of self-expression, especially those bold emdashes in place of commas or periods.  

Writers write for different reasons, many public, many more private.  So many of writers have that goal of being published, perhaps indulging in their dreams of what being an author entails vs the reality of writing.  Some write and it feels to the reader as if these writers are most concerned in demonstrating their extensive and polysyllabic vocabulary.  Some write and you can tell the draft just needs more work.  Also, there’s the common joke among writers that writing is cheaper than therapy.  

How to be a writer?  Write like Emily.  Spill out the strange fears of your soul onto the page and propel your syntax forward with bold emdashes.  Just write.

Write Like Emily

The Secret to Being a Writer

I stopped writing for a long time.  I was burnt out, feeling like I was barely treading water, almost drowning in overwhelm.  So I took a break to study something completely different, improve my health, and find myself again.  At the end of my grad school experience, I took a deep introspective look into myself.  Am I a writer?  What makes one a writer?

When you’re a writer, you’re always living in your imagination.  Often the imagination is a wonderful place to visit, ideas abound, grow, and multiply and anything is possible.  This can also be quite a challenge when you try to translate those amazing ideas into concrete words.  Because words are limited and often quite incapable of pinpointing precisely what you had dreamed up in your imagination.  That’s part of the thrill, transforming dreams into reality, thinking up those precise words, making them flow, making them sing.

As a writer, your powerful imagination can also get you in trouble, since often the world will fail to live up to anything you can dream up.  And if your dream is to be published, it can be a long, bumpy road to becoming an author, with many unexpected twists and turns.  

But in the end, the work is worth the twisty-bumpy journey.  When I spoke earlier this year at the Mountain View Library Local Author Fair, one of the audience members was a retired schoolteacher and said she was so glad to learn about my picture book Summoning the Phoenix and wished it had been published when she was actively teaching.  And that’s all I needed to hear, to get that little creative spark going again.

To be a writer, one must write one word after another.  It’s that simple.  But simple is not always easy.  It’s not easy because life is demanding and complex, and often we must put life on hold in order to write.  You have to find space for writing, time for writing, and energy for writing.  It’s not easy, but it’s possible.  

Are you a writer?  The secret is…Just write.  Write in the between times, in the between spaces.  Write during your lunch breaks.  Write when you’re waiting for an appointment or get there earlier.  Write during commercial breaks.  Write whenever you’re taking public transportation.  Write while your child or loved ones are taking naps.  Write while you’re waiting for your coffee or tea.  

Writers write, so just write because a little bit every day can add up to one substantial book.  This is what I tell myself as I summon my very limited energies and reclaim the role of writer with the goal to transform my imagination into books, into stories, into poetry.

Just write.  

Looking for Laura Huff

This is a personal story I’ve never told in public, mostly because it happened so many years ago, and mostly because back then I was incredibly shy and uncomfortable about tooting my own horn (who am I kidding? I’m still uncomfortable about it, but now I’ve managed to fool people into thinking I’m not so shy).  Back then, when I was an undergrad, I was an accomplished pianist, not really an experienced singer.  However, I really, really loved to sing, so much that I randomly helped start a tradition of a cappella at Rice University.

It began with a friend of mine named Laura Huff, someone whom I haven’t seen or spoken with since I graduated, someone whom I’m urgently looking for now.

Laura Huff and I met on the set of a play Les Liaisons Dangerues, produced and directed by Jesse Jou.  Laura was a freshman and had the part of the grandmother (even though she was the youngest in the cast) and I was a sophomore, completely new to working backstage in theater, yet somehow I managed to become Jesse’s AD, assistant director as well as his stage manager and his random walk-on actor.  When I commit to a project, I commit with everything I have.

Laura and I didn’t talk too much while we were on set because we were so busy in our prospective roles, she on stage and I backstage.  But after that play, we totally bonded.  I discovered that Laura had a rapid-fire sense of humor and a warmth and wit made me laugh so much, and after we discovered many common interests, we spent a lot of time chatting, especially in the library, where I worked at the circulation desk for the late night shift, when almost no one was around.  During one of our late-night chats, Laura and I conversed more about musical theater, which we discovered we both loved, to the point where we could quote songs at each other, especially Sondheim.  Then Laura mentioned how she had always wanted to sing in an a cappella group.  And I also admitted to my dream of singing in one, too, and how disappointed I was when our university didn’t have an official student group except for the Brown College Men’s Quartet, which neither Laura nor I could join, because we weren’t men.  It was a shame that Rice didn’t have a co-ed student group, we agreed.

This is when I became quite excited and inspired.  I took a 10-minute break from work, and dragged Laura outside the library.  It was a crisp fall evening, and no one was around.  Directly outside the library are stone hallway, a quad with arches and the best acoustics.  I told Laura, that we needed to sing, to test to see if we had a good blend.  She looked a little confused, but she was amenable and asked, “What should we sing?”  I returned, “Well, what do you know the harmony of?”  We agreed on “Silent Night”, with me singing soprano and Laura singing alto.  Silent Night is a perfect song to sing for blend because the notes are held for so long that if your voices didn’t work together, you could figure it out very quickly.  But it was a magical moment, singing with Laura for the first time.  Our voices meshed so well I couldn’t tell who was singing what part.  And the first time in my life, I couldn’t really hear my voice at all because our voices had joined together so well, the sound echoed with gorgeous overtones around us.  We had a perfect vocal blend, even though our speaking voices were completely different.

After we finished singing, I shared this with Laura and we agreed that we could not let our perfect and rare vocal blend go to waste.  We agreed to start a group of our so we could sing together.  Unfortunately, I literally knew no one else who loved to sing as much as I did. Or more precisely, my few Lovett friends who loved to sing where not always reliably singing on pitch, and singing on pitch is a pre-requisite for joining our a cappella group.  So I told Laura, “I’ll find the music. You find the people.”  And off we went.

I scoured the library for SATB sheet music, and mostly came up with Christmas Carols, which was perfect because it was late fall, and in a few more weeks the holiday season would begin.  Laura, whose job was much harder, in my opinion, managed to recruit 12 more people, most of them living in her residential college Brown, so of course, we also invited the Brown Men’s Quartet to sing with us.  Neither Laura nor I wanted to musically lead our group, so Laura asked music major and composer Phil Rothman to be our group’s first music director.  Eventually Laura became business manager, and me, well, I just wanted to sing.

The first generation of The Rice Philharmonics was an eclectic bunch, most of us belonged to Brown College, since that’s Laura’s residential college, and most of us had musical training but weren’t the strongest singers ever.  But what I loved was that overall the group had a quirky-fun community.  Most of our songs were very choral, less a cappella, until Laura brought “Son of Preacher Man” which challenged the basses with its difficult bass line.

We had our first gig singing Christmas carols for I think the faculty house, where we wore red and green. The next year I came up with our performing uniform of white button-down shirt, blue jeans, and brightly colored funny ties.

I co-founded The Rice Philharmonics with Laura when I was a junior, and when I became a senior, only one year later, I noticed that there was a lot of freshmen and sophomores with substantial singing talent at Lovett, my own residential college, and so I encouraged a Lovett sophomore music composition major (I think his name was Will) to form another a cappella group called Accord, which consisted mostly of Lovett students, mostly least two or three years younger than me.  Unlike Laura, who just invited people, Will held formal auditions and assigned me to sing Alto (which most conductors do because I have a nicer tone in my lower register).  So I sang Soprano in The Rice Philharmonics and Alto in Accord, and spent my senior year happily singing all the time.  Finally, in my senior year, Rice University had not one, but two student co-ed a cappella groups, and I was singing in both of them!  It helps to be a founding member.

After I graduated from Rice with my BA in English, I moved to California and lost touch with almost everyone I knew at Rice.  This was before Facebook.

I never thought that The Rice Philharmonics would last past Laura’s graduation, much less 20 years.  Accord disbanded soon after its founder Will graduated, and I thought that The Phils would also go that way.  But no, imagine my surprise many years later when my younger cousin’s girlfriend (who had gotten into Harvard) literally fangirled at me when she learned that I had sung with The Rice Philharmonics.  By then, I was semi-comfortable claiming my co-founder role, and she was further impressed.

While I am technically a co-founder of The Rice Philharmonics, it was really the hard work and dedication of my co-founder Laura Huff who nurtured and encouraged The Phils to grow until they became good enough to compete in collegiate a cappella competitions.  While Phil Rothman contributed greatly during our first year in terms of musical direction and composing songs like “Baker 13″ for, and even lending his name to our group, I’d like to acknowledge that it was Laura Huff who was the hidden heart of The Phils and the major behind-the-scenes driving force for The Phils during its nascent years.

Last year I attempted to return to Rice for reunion with The Rice Philharmonics, but there were too many issues going on in my personal life that I had to deal with at the time.  This year I’d like to try to organize a reunion of the founding & early members of The Rice Philharmonics, and I’m lucky to have reunited with most of them.  Except for Laura. It wouldn’t be the same without Laura, who sang with the group for over eight years.

So please help me find Laura Huff, my co-founder of The Rice Philharmonics and graduate of Rice University in 1998 and then again years later with a graduate degree. It’s possible her name has changed, if she got married and adopted her husband’s name, and now she could be Laura Wang or Laura Patel or Laura Smith or Laura Omolulu.  But to me she will always be Laura Huff.  I still think of her fondly, but I have no idea where she is, and I want her efforts to be recognized.  I want to have an opportunity to sing with her again under the stone arches in front of Fondren Library, where we can revel in our perfect vocal blend.

UPDATE 4/1/15:  I FOUND LAURA HUFF! Right after I posted this, the most recent Past President of The Rice Philharmonics Molly Mohr helped me search for Laura one more time, and hours later Laura and I have finally reunited via email!  Thank you, Molly!

Summoning the Phoenix Is Nominated for a Northern California Book Award!

I’m beyond delighted to share that Summoning the Phoenix was nominated for the 2015 Northern California Book Award for Children’s Literature! The award is given by the Northern California Book Reviewers, and I’m thrilled to see Summoning the Phoenix listed among books by Katherine Applegate and LeUyen Pham.

Here are the list of nominees!

The International Examiner Reviews Summoning the Phoenix!

In The International Examiner, reviewer Fei Wu Huang calls Summoning the Phoenix “unique” and states “This book is sure to entertain the most adventurous of readers and will certainly bring out the curiosity in any individual with hopes of developing a deeper appreciation and understanding for cultural music.”  She also praises April’s gorgeous artwork.  Thank you, Fei Wu, for your thoughtful review!

Read the full review at The International Examiner!

The Huffington Post Gives Summoning the Phoenix an Honorable Mention for Best Children’s Book of 2014

I’m absolutely delighted that Minh Le of The Huffington Post has given Summoning the Phoenix an Honorable Mention for Best Nonfiction Book for Children in 2014.  Minh is also an author of a children’s book forthcoming in 2015, and so he has a writer’s perspective in addition to a critic’s and parent’s perspective.  I agree with his assertion that “we are living in a new golden age of picture books” so it makes his recognition even more meaningful to me.  Read his full list!

Thank you, Minh Le and The Huffington Post!

Kirkus Reviews Lists Summoning the Phoenix in Best of 2014!

Earlier this year, Kirkus Reviews gave Summoning the Phoenix a Starred Review, and I was already so grateful for that recognition.  Now I’m absolutely overwhelmed to see Summoning the Phoenix listed on Kirkus Reviews in the Best Children’s Books of 2014.

It’s a bit surreal to see my book listed among great books by authors whose works I have long admired like Christopher Paul Curtis, Patricia MacLaughlan, Naomi Shihab Nye, Joyce Sidman, Peter Sis, Shaun Tan, Jacqueline Woodson, and my Clarion instructor Neil Gaiman.  I’m over the moon that my little book about Chinese musical instruments would be in such amazing company.

Thank you, Kirkus Reviews!

Strange Horizons Makes Its Goal and Publishes Salamander Song!

When I first started composing choral songs, Rose Lemberg asked me to write music to accompany her fiery poem “Salamander Song.”  It was my first attempt at writing a solo with piano accompaniment.  I debuted the song at my concert and made a recording, and that was the end, or so I thought.  So when “Salamander Song” was accepted to be published for the Strange Horizons Annual Fundraising Drive, it was such a delightful bonus, but only if they made their fundraising goal of $10,500.

So it’s an exciting moment to share that Strange Horizons made their fundraising goal and has published “Salamander Song”!  Thank you to everyone who contributed!!

Read and listen to “Salamander Song” right now!

Music credits:  Emily Jiang, mezzo-soprano & Mary Tusa, piano

Summoning the Phoenix Receives Eureka! Honor Award!!

Eureka!_Honor_LogoI’m absolutely delighted to share that Summoning the Phoenix won an Eureka! Honor Award!!  It’s sponsored by the California Reading Association, and here’s a little info about the Eureka! awards from their site:

“The Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Award will assist teachers, librarians, and parents in identifying outstanding nonfiction books for their students and children.

Eligible books must be nonfiction, but can be in any genre including poetry, folktale/fairy tale, informational, biography, memoir, cookbooks, joke books, self-help, reference, etc.

Concisely: Any book that is not fiction is eligible for the Eureka!”

Summoning the Phoenix: Poems and Prose about Chinese Musical instruments

How cool is this?  I’m so grateful that the committee liked Summoning the Phoenix enough to recommend it. I’d also like to congratulate my my wonderful SCBWI author friends whose books also received Eureka! Honors this year:

Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific by Mary Cronk Farrell

The Kite that Bridged Two Nations: Homan Walsh and the First Niagara Suspension Bridge by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Terry Widner


UPDATED:  The complete list of Eureka! Winners is now listed on the California Reads website.