Discover more from Every Tiny Thought
Learning how to write, all over again.
a piece of writing about writing itself.
I spent my K-12 years in China and came to the U.S. for college. In China, I spent a lot of time learning the nitty-gritty of complicated grammar rules and memorizing new vocabulary for weekly quizzes. I learned how the past perfect tense worked, but I never understood why a past tense could be perfect.
In middle school, we wrote short English essays for exams, big and small, talking about our family members, the places we wanted to travel, and our favorite food. I learned to express my feelings using words like happy, sad, satisfied, and excited, simple words that I later learned in life that contain multitudes. I wrote mechanically then to score points on English exams.
In high school, I decided to study for the SAT to apply to colleges in the U.S. I spent a lot of time memorizing words by rote like rancor, berate, and abate that make you sound sophisticated and all grown-up. I applied strategies from my SAT prep course to write argumentative essays for the SAT writing test to get all the points. I didn’t know that one day, though slowly, I’d try to find my writing voice in this language, still obscure and foreign to me then.
In college, I became a history major, against my parents’ hope that I should study something in business. Without any academic writing experience before college like my peers, I wrote awkward essays and research papers to analyze historical events. I was also slow. One paragraph would take me an hour to come up with. I scored some Cs for my papers the first semester, then mostly Bs, but eventually, I’d get As. Writing then always had an academic purpose. It was never just writing, and it was never about ourselves.
In the meantime, I was still writing personal essays in Chinese on a Chinese blog site about my life in the US. However, that slowly faded away over the years. I wrote dairies almost every day since middle school and always enjoyed writing my feelings down, big and small. Gradually, my diary entries had fewer Chinese characters and more English letters. As I slowly found my footing and created new friendships here, I talked to my friends back home less and less each year. Without me realizing it, here became home, and China faded into the background as a mere childhood home.
Over time, English became my primary language, for work, for socializing, and for my entertainment and intellectual consumption. Toward the end of college, I started blogging in English for the first time on WordPress. I posted sporadically when I had the time to write. Even though I had gotten very comfortable speaking English and writing academic papers, writing personal essays felt like a completely different game. My thoughts were usually a mixture of Mandarin and English. I was afraid of making grammar mistakes. Each piece took a long time to finish and even longer to edit. Still, I loved it. It was my first time writing essays in English that was not for an exam or a research paper. Writing in English was never for fun until that point. It was an end in itself.
This summer, when I had the chance to take an online nonfiction writing course that’d be covered by my employee benefits, I knew I had to do it. I didn’t know what to expect when I first signed up. I just wanted to learn how to write, all over again. This time, for fun.
For the five weeks during this class, I received a daily written lecture in my inbox from our wonderful instructor, Rebecca Schuman. These letters contain 1-2 writing prompts and speak on the craft of writing and the writing life. The lecture from Day One has since stuck with me more than any other day. The email is titled On 'Truth' and Voice, in which Rebecca wrote,
In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay. Philip Lopate makes a great argument for the three aspects of personal essay: Intimacy, Attention and Answerable. That last one, perhaps more than anything, defines nonfiction. By calling something nonfiction you're making a sort of pact with your reader that this happened. The events or information bear a relationship to the truth that could be verified.
Intimacy, Attention and Answerable meant looking down memory lane and reflecting on the most personal aspects of our lives. Looking back is not something I often do. After moving to the U.S., I looked ahead and looked forward to the next life milestone, the next degree, the next job, and the next immigration status. I had to, and that became the default. But nonfiction writing gives me no choice but to face my emotions and memories and things that happened in life, the good and the bad, the truths.
There were tears, smiles, and trepidation in recalling and sharing personal stories. But I’ve also felt immense joy, comfort, and love from writing childhood memories, early conversations with my grandparents, high school friendships, and how my mother’s love and nurture made me who I am today. I also found surprising solace in writing these stories in English. Writing them in Chinese would feel too intimate and raw, and telling them in English felt less judged and exposed, as if my second language protected my stories with a shield. It was foreign so there was some distance, and distance felt safer. I was glad to use that shield, for as long as it lasts.
This class never taught me how to craft good sentences or how to write with proper grammar, but I learned something else: the courage to look back, face my truths, write them honestly, and tell them as best as I can.