The Magic of Words

There were countless nights that I couldn’t sleep. I shut my eyes and attempted to relax my body, but it only grew stiffer and stiffer. For the thousandth time, I surrendered.

I quietly took out the box of flash cards and went over them. I opened the notes on my computer, culled out the words that stand out to me, and typed them in Quizlet. If I felt more old-fashioned, I copied them on a yellow notebook. I’m always hungry for more words. I want to see the familiar faces in books and newspapers (who read newspapers these days?) and capture their meanings. I infer the meanings of words based on context, but to see the definition elucidates the matter. My favorite section on Quizlet is “SPELL”. I enjoy hearing the word and feeling the whisper between my lips without even realizing I’m typing. My fingers have their own command. 

My process of learning a word is kind of complicated. First I write down its definition and practice the pronunciation, then I read a few example sentences and put it in the context. Even though I rely on Quizlet, whenever I learn a new word I always practice its spelling with my fingers on the desk. Typing a word is not the same as writing it down.

But memorization was scarcely the most important part of learning words. I use new words in daily conversations. We all know the rule: when you just learned a word, you see it everywhere. Books, articles, even the practice problems you’re doing in math. I won’t be satisfied until I use a word confidently in my creative writing. When we write, we tend to use the words that we are most comfortable with. When I start using a word in a typical English essay, I’m close to mastering it.

I don’t remember when did learning words become a hobby and a daily routine. Most of the words on my list come from the books I’m reading. The practice inspires me to read more nonfiction, especially biographies because one can find enormous adjectives in the life of historical figures. My friends were shocked when they saw me learning words during lunch break and had a hard time believing that I’m doing it purely for fun. Not trying to prepare for the SAT or write more impressive essays in English. Those are only side benefits. 

It’s only the beginning of March, but I already learned more than three hundreds and twenty words this year. Being a non-native speaker motivates me and keeps me humble. I was always envious when my peers use a word I don’t know, but now I can proudly say that my American friends sometimes ask me “what does this word mean?”

I’m looking forward to becoming a true wordsmith.

Writers, You’re Not Alone

In my New Year Resolution post, I expressed the will to be in a part of the writing community, and how the best way to achieve the goal is to attend Wordsmith meeting every month.

First, let me explain how does Wordsmith work. Basically, it’s a writer’s group at our local library that allows us to workshop each other’s work monthly. You don’t have to submit anything to attend the meeting. We have about a dozen writers at both ends of the age spectrum: from an eager middle schooler who has admirably vivacious energy to retired teachers who dedicated their whole lives to writing. Because of the diverse nature, the feedback we give and receive are usually not severe criticism but gentle, encouraging advice. Everyone is inherently talented at finding what is doing well is others’ work. 

We recently recruited some new members and their comments again reminded me of the uniqueness of this group. We hear perspectives from different generations, geographical areas, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Last night a high schooler asked an older author curiously what is a happy (cocktail) hour. We talked about the climates in Texas and Indiana. We discussed TV shows from the eighties and cartoon artists in pop culture today. We built bridges between old and young.

I am usually the quiet one. Maybe I’m still a little self-conscious about the fact that I’m an inexperienced high-schooler (who also happens to be a non-native speaker). But when I speak up, everyone listens attentively. Everyone respects my opinion and treats me as equal. The warmth, supportiveness, and vulnerability of this group are what seduced new members (like me three months ago) to stay. We feel more like friends than business partners in spite of our age and background differences.

Because of an email error, I did not receive the reading packet this month. In fact, I was so caught up in other responsibilities that I completely forgot about Wordsmith until, fortunately, one of my writer friends from school reminded me during lunch break. She sent me the reading packet right after school and I spent an hour and a half glued to the computer screen, attempting to read it all. I only took a break to microwave a bowl of noodles for early dinner and my eyes continued to burn as I stuffed the noodles in my mouth. 

I was approximately one minute late to the meeting. On the way I thought, is it really worth it? I’m going on a school trip to New Zealand next week (I will record the journey in future blog posts) and had lots of schoolwork to do. But I brushed it off. Tomorrow is a late start, I can manage it. 

And I was so grateful for my decision. We only have twelve meetings every year, and they never disappoint. We critiqued some truly intriguing stories, poems, and even a song. While I didn’t say much, I observed how others give advice humbly yet confidently and absorbed their knowledge like a sponge in the water. Furthermore, I learned about some wonderful news: our Wordsmith group is planning on publishing a short story collection with the theme “family”. It’s a perfect opportunity to explore the publishing industry without much risk. I’m thrilled to work closely with other writers in the group, and most importantly, I have a short story that seems just right for this occasion.

Afterward, I chatted with the organizer of the Wordsmith group—who happens to be my friend’s dad—about the story. 

“Does it have to be a functional family? Because I’m only good at writing dysfunctional ones.”

He laughed. “Of course not. That’s where I usually go too.”

Being Present

It was the first Sunday of 2019 and I was visiting a friend. We took a walk along the river nearby. It was a rare gorgeous sunny day and the weather was warm. 

My friend and I are almost two generations apart and our conversation has a unique atmosphere. She is a physical therapist who trains people who just had surgeries or suffer from various diseases, helping them relearn the essential life skills like climbing stairs or going to the bathroom. I asked for more details, and she delineated movingly how she guided a man to buy a Christmas present for his girlfriend and how surprised she was. Mid-conversation I caught myself thinking about a related scenario and fantasizing how would I recount the story to others.

Although she didn’t notice, I felt bad for spacing out. It would be understandable if I’m in a boring class, but not when I’m talking to someone I love and care about. It became “normal” for me to think about the next item on my to-do list before finishing the last. I blamed the internet and social media for my shorter concentration time and decided to relearn how to focus. 

The first step is becoming intentional. Whenever I catch myself either censuring myself for past mistakes or listing the best and worst scenarios of future situations, I hold up a huge stop sign in my head. 

The second step is changing the mindset. I convinced myself that planning something else mid-task will not increase my productivity. I could finish my homework without thinking too hard, but maybe I wasn’t memorizing the formulas. Of course, there are exceptions like listening to a podcast while driving or showering, but most of the time what you are doing deserves your full concentration. If it doesn’t, maybe it’s the time to rethink your priorities and reorganize your time.

Practice, practice, and practice. Making concentration a habit, and after weeks and months your brain won’t see multitasking a feasible option and you’ll appreciate life a lot more. 

Have you ever felt like you’re not really living? 

Lately, I have been practicing the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. For those who never heard of it, the technique means acknowledging five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. I prefer saying them out loud; there is a magical feeling of hearing yourself reciting things. It helped me with anxiety (I even successfully used it to prevent an anxiety attack) and refocusing on the present moment when I’m feeling grumpy.

Being present is the secret to happiness. Being happy is the secret to success. The world will be a better place if we stop worrying about the past or future and cherish the present—like a wise person said, it’s called a gift for a reason.

Outgrowing

Last weekend, I was sitting on an unmade bed in a hotel room and scrolling down my 165 pages novel draft. In our English class, all honors students are required to do an Independent Writing Project. While it might be a pain in the ass for others to write two hours per week after school, it has never inconvenienced me. I write for two hours every day if time allows.

My IWP project was the YA novel I finished during NaNoWriMo and rewrote without a revision outline. I typed the last word with a smile on my face and a feeling that I won’t come back.

When I go to college, I probably won’t read YA novels as much. Not because my taste becomes more “advanced”. My to-read list is just too long (it has 56 books already!) and there are so much in the world that I want to explore. I want to live the life of people who are so different from me that I shout with delight, “I didn’t know a person could think like that!” They might be at a drastically different age, live on the other side of the world (or a different world!), and/or come from a different culture. And I want to read more literary books and non-fiction. 

That’s how I feel about my novel. During the teenage years, a writer grows immensely, and the improvement is even more tangible for a non-native speaker. I am amazed at how much I’ve grown every time I read something that I wrote two months ago. 

Counting Clouds was a fantastic project—it was right what I needed. I started writing it when I fully accept my sexuality, when I question about religion and love, when I finally let go of the feeling of abandonment. And when I miss the elephant (whom I still couldn’t bring myself to call a stuffed animal) I lost years ago but still couldn’t get over, because the countless days and nights when my parents are “too busy”, she stayed by my side and listened and comforted me. 

Carmen Kessler was so different from me, yet we experienced growing pains and confusions together. We bonded over of our passion for writing and chatted from the warm summer liveliness to the chilly fall tranquility. I have amazing friends now and no longer seek companion from fictional characters, but Carmen and I shared a special relationship that I always hold dear to my heart. 

But now, it’s time to say goodbye.

Farewell, Carmen Kessler. May your future be clear and bright. May you get into your dream college. May your young love with Leela lasts forever. May you stay lifelong friends with Joanne and Dylan.

So, Dr. H, is it too late to change my IWP project?

Being Not Okay

I have been gratitude journaling for more than a month. Every day. It helps me to appreciate life in a whole different level. But lately, I couldn’t bring myself to it. 

Saying “it’s okay to not be okay” is unbelievably lame. In fact, I used it in my first blog. But sometimes, I couldn’t bring myself to believe it.

I know under all the gratitude, I am not okay.

My stomach feels terrible.

Activities that I always enjoyed have only bred insecurities. They bring me no joy but stress and anxiety which aggravate my performance. I wish one day I won’t feel like the most untalented person in the world. I wish one day I can be normal.

Seasonal depression—or maybe it isn’t about seasons after all—has returned. I have gotten nothing done after school (not that we got much done at school this interim). Trust me, as an overachiever in high school, this is like the end of the world. (Apparently, exaggeration does not make me feel better. I’ve tried being an edgy teenager.)

Suicidal thoughts came back, too. Though I haven’t told anyone, I’ll hand my keys to my host family and stop driving if I have them one more day. I don’t want to risk my life. I want to live. Every little thing could go wrong. If I simply close my eyes for three seconds. Please help me, dear universe. Please don’t let me hurt anybody.

I feel ugly and monstrous. Inside and out.

Is it the weather? The coldest winter was gone. We just had a gorgeous sunny day. But I guess monsters always come into sight at the least expected time. They hide in your shadows and attack when you’re laughing with your friends thinking everything will be fine. That maybe it’s different this time. 

I’d like to believe that it’s the darkest moment before dawn. Like when you write about the “Dark Night of The Soul” in a novel. It’s a mountain that I can, and will, conquer. Except that, no matter how much I love writing, real life is much more excruciating than any fiction. 

I have hope somewhere inside me, although I wish to disappear. The rock on my chest is so massive that I scarcely feel the pain in my stomach. I haven’t been studying. I haven’t been writing. I haven’t been petting my cats. I long to do the things that bring me joy, but I couldn’t bring myself to.

I hope no one who knows me is reading this. If you are, know that I’m terribly sorry for sharing and that I love you.

(This was written on February 6th, 2019. I suppose I am feeling a lot better when this is published. I’ll be okay. Maybe it will take a couple days, maybe it will take two weeks. But don’t worry, I’ll be okay.)

The Consequences of Pulling an All-nighter

Most of us have unfortunately pulled one or multiple all-nighters when we had been procrastinating on a school project, reading a fantastic book, or partying with friends on the New Year Eve. When you have a paper due tomorrow, sacrificing your sleep seemed like the only solution. There are numerous resources on pulling an all-nighter without dying from exhaustion, but I thought I would share my personal experience.

Disclaimer: I have never pulled an all-nighter working because my body literally can’t. So……

During the New Year sleepover, after playing “what do you MEMES” and “Apples to Apples”, most of my friends gradually surrendered to the Roman god of sleep, Hypnos. Only one of them and I were awake, thank our already-messed-up sleep schedule during winter break. So we decided to play cards, and hours passed by without our notice.

What kept me conscious were water and fresh green apple. I love water. I love the feeling of cleanness in my mouth and being hydrated. I love hot tea too, but it makes me sleepy. I personally never tried coffee or energy drink, but they might work for some people. During an all-nighter, it’s extremely important to eat food that make your body feel good.

When I got a little bored, we switched to doodling random things on blank papers. This was when all the tiredness summoned me. My friend said, “You have gone through hours, don’t give up in the last minute! (paraphrased)” So I didn’t. The next morning we ate donuts and leftover pizzas.

My host mom picked us up and we got home around noon. The first two hours of the afternoon I allowed myself to relax (which was pretty rare for a workaholic). I wrote in my journal, “It’s pretty amazing how my body is functioning properly despite the lack of sleep.” NO. Around three o’clock I tried to study, but my brain flatly refused. So I thought, “Okay, I’ll just take a short nap then.” 

I woke up at ninety thirty at night. I ate dinner (because I skipped lunch) and went back to bed. I woke up at noon the next day. Turned out there is no way to cheat on nature. I spent the first day of 2019 doing nothing, which was a great way to start a new year (no sarcasm here) because I’m learning to be okay with doing nothing and not measure my self-worth by productivity. 

Still, don’t pull an all-nighter unless it’s necessary……

PS: Happy Chinese New Year!

Dyeing My Hair Purple

On the last day of 2018, I bought a box of violet hair dye and a small bag containing a pair of plastic gloves and a color brush. I picked a deeper shade of purple because my natural hair color is really dark and I didn’t want to bleach it.

I sat on a tall chair in the laundry room while my host sister brushed the violet dye gently on my head, matching the beat of Hamilton. The dye felt cool on my head. It would be enjoyable in the summer, I said my thought out loud. My host sister agreed. A year younger but had watched much more Youtube tutorials, she was much more skillful on hair coloring than I would ever be. 

We didn’t record how long it took, but when my host sister used of the last spoonful of dye, the phone was playing A Winter’s Ball. My host mother combed my hair to make the dye smooth and even and wiped off the purple marks on my forehead and the back of my neck. “Does it look any different?” I asked eagerly. “Not really, maybe you need to wait a few minutes.”

So I sat next to the washer with Bridge of Clay in my hand and a bagful of fruit snacks in my mouth. My host mother and host sister were eating lunch on the kitchen table, Hamilton soundtrack still playing. After another half hour, I looked into the mirror: nothing changed. My natural hair was too dark for the hair dye to show, and there was a purple line on my face that looked like a humorous birthmark.

My host sister said she can see purple highlights under natural lighting. My best friend said the purple intensified the black. When I went to a friend’s house for New Year Eve, I accidentally dyed their pillow purple. In summary, although the result was a little disappointing, it was a fun experience. Now I know when I dye my hair, I better bleach it first, which will also give me more options. Maybe I’ll dye my hair light blue next time, who knows?

If you would dye your hair, what color would you choose?