People have often asked me why I want to write, especially why write a novel in English, my second language. It was an uphill battle in many people’s eyes, and it’s not even very rewarding in a conventional sense.
I never thought about why I wanted to write until the question was put to me. I thought about it long and hard, and concluded that my desire to be a storyteller was so strong that it propelled me to overcome whatever was in the way. I was fulfilling a childhood dream.
My childhood was a world away both in place and time. My family and I then lived in Shanghai, China when the country was still closed to the world.
It was a hot summer night when the seed was planted. My father brought home a battered copy of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. He started reading, or rather narrating, the story to my sisters and me. At the time, the Chinese Communist government had banned the book and almost all other books, except Mao’s red-book of his official writings. It had taken my father a lot of effort to score a copy that had survived the purges and book burnings of the time. The story was so fascinating that I couldn’t wait for my father to come home from work every day to continue. I thought it’d be wonderful to write a tale like that.
But the very thought of writing receded. I moved to the United States in 1989 when I was in my early twenties. Though I still vaguely harbored the dream to be a writer, I also told myself that writing in English, the language in my adopted homeland, is like fighting someone with one hand tied behind my back. I had no formal training in the language. And English is such a difficult language. Its subtlety is hard to comprehend for an immigrant like me.
However, the dream persisted and my husband encouraged me to give it a try. Luckily I live in Bethesda, Maryland, where, after some research I found the Writer’s Center, a community based writing center that offers classes for just about anyone who wants to learn the craft or to improve their writing skills. It was a few minutes from my home. I enrolled in a basic fiction writing class. That was in 2007. I remembered how I struggled for two weeks to write a two-page scene. Those two pages later became part of the second chapter of my book. Though it was poorly written, my instructor told me that my writing had merit. Some of the classmates asked me to join their writing group. Most of them were journalists, each an excellent writer. I was intimidated, yet flattered. I thought I might make a fool of myself in front of them, but I decided I didn’t care. So I gladly accepted their invite. We met regularly, once every two weeks to critique each other’s work. It was in the basement of the Writer’s Center with my writing friends that I shaped my novel.
It took me all of 3 years to write the first draft, and again, another year for the second draft. I then tried to pitch it only to receive countless rejections from agents and publishers. I felt beaten when I received those many rejections. However, I didn’t stay down for long. I went back to re-write my novel. I repeated the same process several times, each time more determined. I believed in my story, as did my writing friends who were in the trenches with me the good part of my writing years. It took me more than ten years to bring my novel to the world.
The rest is history. My novel was finally published on August 4th, 2020. It’s now in every Barnes & Noble within 25 miles of my home. What I learned in the classroom and in the discussions in the basement of the Writer’s Center nurtured the seed buried deep inside of me. It made my dream come true.
An inspiring writer asked me for advice recently. I have trouble to come up with any. After searching my brain, I said to believe in yourself. This is what kept my dream alive after so many years. That’s what gave me courage and to made me overcome immense difficulties to fulfill my dream.