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.”

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.)

New Year Resolutions for 2019

Happy New Year! 

I’ve always found New Year more special than Christmas; it’s a new start, a new chance to be a better self. I heard people say that they don’t do New Year Resolution because they give them up during the first one or two months. In my opinion, the secret of success is making goals SMART—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound—except that there is no expiration date because I want them to be long-term habits. Because of that, this list might sound more like a habit tracker than resolutions.

  1. Write a to-do list every day

To-do lists increase my productivity and reduce my anxiety. This will be the first thing I do in the morning during weekends or after school during weekdays since I usually don’t know my homework beforehand. Other than that, I will do a weekly reflection every Sunday, tracking every goal I set for myself. Catching up the goals I didn’t finish the previous day added lots of stress, so I add a new rule for 2019: if I don’t finish something one day, write a no on it. It doesn’t count if I do double-work the next day. Hopefully, this rule will eliminate procrastination or snowballing my workload and allow me to have a fresh start every day.

2. Volunteer once a week

Since I came to this community two and a half years ago, it has nurtured and buttressed me with kindness and care. I want to pay it forward. We didn’t get to do much in Pay It Forward club this year because of the time limit, but during a school interim my friends and I helped out at a bunny house where we did lots of much-needed work. I messaged to volunteer, and I hope to go back there.

3. Work out twice a week

I firmly believe that physical health is the foundation of mental health. But when life got in the way, I procrastinated exercise after everything else. This year I decided to treat myself better. My host family includes me in their gym family membership card, which provides a convenient route for me to work out regularly. To be honest, during the last thirty minute of my last work out I have ever felt the most positive for a long time.

4. Study for SAT half an hour every day (and get 1500 in May!)

The college I want to go is fairly selective, so I want to make myself as competitive as possible on things that I can change. Thanks to the free resources on Khan Academy, during summer I improved my score by a hundred points, so maybe another hundred won’t be that hard? Just kidding. It’s hard. I’m considering buying an online tutoring course from SupertutorTV on Youtube, so please leave a comment below if you have tried it. Some days I wonder why do I try to hard since standardized tests don’t really help me grow as a person. But we all need to sacrifice for things we want, right?

5. Do college search an hour every week

It’s almost the second semester of my junior year! College stress seems to follow me like my shadow. I already have a list of college, but I still need to narrow it down and take a closer look. I feel behind, even though I’m probably not. I also need to plan a college visit during spring break when my mother comes to the U.S. …….It will be interesting, for sure.

6. Read a book every week

Every writer is a reader. When I’m feeling down, a good book helps me to escape from reality. In 2019, I want to read 52 books. It should be totally achievable since I’m reading a book every day during winter break……I’ll write the book of the week on my weekly to-do list every Sunday, the day when I stay at the library from open to close (it’s a shame that libraries only open from noon to four o’clock on Sundays).

7. Edit my novel for two hours every week

I finished the first draft of my second YA novel (currently titled “Counting Clouds”) during National Novel Writing Month! I didn’t completely put it aside during December since I unwisely started rewriting it without a revision outline or notes, but my plan is to finish the second draft, to make a revision outline, to take notes on all the character/plot developmental problems, and to write the third draft! Meanwhile, I’ll participate in the “Now What?” months on the NaNoWriMo website, and hopefully I’ll find a couple of new critique partners.

8. Work on other writing projects for an hour every week

I have been focusing on novel writing for the past four months, but I also enjoy writing poems and short stories. I want to explore different forms of creative writing and have at least two short stories that I’m really proud of by the end of the year. The benefit of poetry and short stories is you get more chances. Even though you finish one and don’t like it, there’s always time for another.

9. Attend the local Wordsmith meeting every month

This year I really want to become more engaged in the writing community and put myself out there. Fortunately, our local library has a writer’s group that meets every month to critique each other’s work. Sharing your work is scary, but I will summon all the courage I need and submit every month, as well as reading others’ work. Although most writers in the group are much older, I hope to make some friends.

10. Blog every Tuesday

I’m so glad that I started this blog! Blogging is an amazing creative outlet and I love to write about my writing and life experience. I will post consistently just for own my sake. Having a schedule keeps my life organized and avoids last-minute cursory work.

11. Comment on two other blog posts every day

One of the main reasons that I joined the blogging community is that I want to read the others’ experience—listening to people with other perspectives is part of the education—to learn from them, maybe to even build some friendships (despite how socially awkward I am). I want to encourage those who share a passion of writing with me, those who are battling mental illnesses, and those who try to live their lives the fullest in spite of all the difficulties.

12. Spend half an hour creating the literary magazine every week and hold a meeting every month

This year I’m the editor in chief of the literary magazine in our school. Because our school is tiny, the works of putting a magazine together are pretty much on me and a few friends who volunteered to help. Again, because of the nature of our school, begging people to submit is a struggle. But since it’s something we’re passionate about, the final result will turn out to be worth it.

13. Spend an hour co-writing a play with a friend every week

Our school has a tradition: all the sixth grader will perform a play in spring. Thanks to the recommendation of my English teacher, this year my friend and I have the opportunity to co-write the play script for next year. We had struggled, but we’re getting it. I’m so grateful for her theatre experience—it makes thing so much less confusing.

14. Journal 15 minutes before bed every day

I picked up the habit of journalling during summer, and I literally spent hours on it every day. So once school started and I didn’t have the leisure time, I had to give up. This year I decided to set a limit for myself and only write about the most meaningful moments. I want to draft down three to five specific things that I’m grateful for every day, as well as a weekly book review. Maybe I’ll even post some of them here!

15. Go to bed before 10: 30 PM

My sleep schedule has been really messed up. Going to bed after midnight and wake up at ten o’clock doesn’t exactly make me feel energetic. Furthermore, I won’t be able to sleep in once break ends. So I resolved to get intentional about bedtime. There will be days when inspirations come, and as a desperate writer I couldn’t resist; days that I find a book that’s just impossible to put down. But it won’t happen more than once or twice per month.

As you see in this post, I’m a very goal-oriented person. But in the new year, I want to be more growth-oriented. I want to try the big and scary things that would help me grow. I want to show gratitude to my loved ones. I want to be kind to everyone at school even though I don’t necessarily like them. But these are unmeasurable, so I made up my mind to only keep them in my heart.

What are your new year resolutions? 

Christmas as an international student

Merry Christmas!

I did some last minute Christmas shopping on Sunday before holiday anxiety hit me. Although I’m not religious, Christmas has always been special to me as it brings back the memory of the two host families who opened the door for me and welcomed with such kindness when I was lost. But at the same time, Christmas is scary. Terrifying. The social situation, and the fact that it’s so close to the end of the year. Sure, every ending is a new beginning, but have I accomplished enough this year? 

Christmas means amazing food, family time, and hanging out with the annoying relatives that you don’t want to see. But for me, things are a little different. I will be meeting with a bunch of strangers. To be fair, I’ve seen them on Thanksgiving, but that’s it. As an anxious introvert, socializing for a few hours is already difficult enough, needless to mention there is always one fear in the back of my mind: am I talking too much? Even if I’m being the quietest person in the room? Christmas is the time for family reunites and I want to allow everyone to talk to their extended family. My host family said I am a part of their family, but missing sixteen years of their life, things aren’t the same.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking.

But I’m still so grateful for winter break! The break is late this year so we don’t go back to school until January, 8th. I have lots of time to catch up with reading and writing: between all the eating, chatting, and opening gifts, I’ll find time to work on the second draft of my YA novel which I ultimately failed to put aside during the month of December. I’ll revise the short story I wrote about Christmas and New Year. I’ll read tons of good books that I borrowed from the local library. I’ll take time to reflect, take care of myself, and welcome 2019 with my best ability.

—December 23rd, 2018

Balancing school, writing, and self-care

Whether I am watching Youtube videos, reading blog posts, or talking to writer friends, balancing writing with life is a topic that gets mentions again and again. As a high school junior, I barely have time to write with homework, studying for standardized tests and extracurricular activities. Needless to say, the anxious voice in my head consistently seeks to persuade me that I’m not good enough, therefore I’m not going to make it.

For years, I struggle to be productive without sacrificing my mental health. Everyone says balance is the key for a healthy and happy life, but a balance is always this mysterious thing that no one captures. Luckily, after devoting tons of time to reflect on past mistakes and reading other people’s advice, I figured out a few tips that are most helpful for me. Although the definition of balance is different for everyone, I hope you find this post helpful.

1.Make your goal realistic

I have seen this advice in many places and dismissed it many times. As an ambitious overachiever, I stupidly thought that maybe that the human condition won’t apply to me. I filled my to-do list with goals that I should be able to accomplish if I use every second of my life effectively. No. The truth is, I am a human. I can’t write every second that I’m alive like Hamilton did (or at least that what they say in the musical). There will be days that I space out. Days that I come home from school exhausted and dysfunctional. Or worse, days that thing didn’t go my way, and after all the unintentional overthinking and overanalyzing, I freak out and have a mental meltdown. I learned one lesson the hard way: forgive yourself for not being perfect. When you have a bad mental health day, pushing yourself to study or write for three hours straight might not be a good idea. Take a break. Add relaxation into your schedule: if you have four hours after school, plan to study and write for two and a half or three hours. Expected things are going to happen at the most inconvenient time. And we all have the experience of being so overwhelmed and end up doing nothing. Rather than failing and feeling guilty, setting realistic goals will make your life is much healthier! In the meanwhile, if you don’t have the habit to write a to-do list, start doing it! It only takes less than one minute, but it will take off tons of stress in your mind.

2. Sleep, eat healthy, and workout 

I came from a culture that has an unhealthy notion of productivity. Growing up, my parents talked about how American college students sleep three hours every day and insisted me to do the same. Okay, first, that’s definitively not true. Second, this misconception belittles the importance of self-care and encourages people to overwork themselves. Maybe that’s why my parents are workaholics. Our biological body is designed this way for a reason. I believe psychical health builds up emotional health: after eight or nine hours of sleep, the little things in life don’t irritate me as much. Similarly, sometimes I’m mad at someone for no reason, and end up figuring out that I’m just hungry. So sleep for as long as you need (but don’t overdo it), and eat nutritious food that makes your body feel good. After filling your stomach with unhealthy snacks during the National Novel Writing month, December is the time to treat yourself better. Last but not least, exercise. I haven’t been working much recently, which probably explains why I feel tired all the time. Go for walks when the weather is good, or simply follow the instructions on Youtube and do some stretches in your room. A little exercise every day can go a long way.

3. Prioritize schoolwork

Most days when I come home from school, I’m not in the mood of doing homework, even though I LOVE homework. Our teachers rarely give us busy work; the reading/worksheets/projects we’re working on are usually really interesting and I can’t be more grateful for my education. It’s just so tempting to open a new document or a blank page and write. In my monthly reflection, there is always a note “finish your homework before writing!” From time to time I become resentful. Writing is what I am passionate about, why in the world should I place it after schoolwork? Deep down, I know the answer. I need to study because my dream college requires a certain GPA and standardized test score. Even though getting a nearly-perfect score on the SAT isn’t important in term of personal growth, I choose to make the sacrifice. When I get home, I do my homework and study. If I only write 300 words, it’s okay. I’m still young. I have time. Don’t feel obligated to write every day; it’s good to have a routine, but you do not have to prove to anyone that you’re a writer.

4. Take advantage of weekends and breaks

I love weekends because I can catch up with all the reading and writing. I love to spend a whole morning or afternoon typing undisturbed by my desk or at the local library. When inspiration comes, I won’t feel guilty for staying up until one A.M. drafting a short story because there is no school tomorrow. I used to be obsessed with writing a certain amount of words every day until I learned that I work better with a more flexible schedule. A writer’s current state of mind will always reflect in their writing. If they’re stressed over a deadline, the reader can see through it. That’s why for me, the holiday season is the most productive time of the year. Winter break is approaching! I hope everyone can squeeze time to write between all the eating, drinking, chatting, and reflecting on the year.

5. Use writing as a form of self-care

Writing has always been therapeutic for me. It helps me escape from the world, the concept of reality, and myself. I also use writing to research, to reach out to others, and to question the universe. But when I get too reward-oriented, the desire to accomplish something can ruin the joy of creating it. Sure, I want to write a novel that will make people think and feel, but I also just enjoy writing. I want to stop worrying about how imperfect my manuscript is, because it’ll never be perfect. And imperfection is one of those things that make life so beautiful. Allow yourself to the taste of pride after finishing the schoolwork, to tap the keyboard like it’s once and only a lifetime. My favorite YouTuber, Shaelinwrites, talked about treating writing as a reward for studying, and I personally find extremely helpful and stress-reliving.

6. Stop hurrying

I have dreams. Big dreams. I wanted to publish a book before I turn eighteen. I wanted to build a platform before my twenties. Sixteen-year-old me got way ahead of herself. Sit down, take a deep breath, and think. Girl, you’re still in high school. Your friends just start thinking about the colleges they want to go and the careers they want to pursue. There is no hurry. Think about the beginning of everything: why do you want to write a book? I want to tell stories. Beautiful stories. I want to make others feel less alone. I want to make people laugh and cry and think hard. I believe in the beauty and power of words. Years ago, when the lonely little girl didn’t have any friend, her characters came into life and embraced her with a warm hug. She cried. I don’t want to be the person who forgets herself in the competition of others. So I wrote this down to remind myself of my purpose. Creativity is a lifelong journey and I want to take as long as I need.

Thank you guys so much for reading and I hope you to have a healthy and balanced life! Happy writing!