Bipolar weekend

You know how sometimes, regardless of how many things are going right in your life, all you can see are the bad things? And they just threaten to overrun your life and leave you in a permanent funk? That’s how I’ve been feeling all weekend, starting with Thursday afternoon.

For whatever reason, getting my short story critiqued in class on Thursday just really threw me off the good groove that I started the day with. I’d baked an apple cake and was all cheerful and ready to enjoy it with my class and get the course off to a good finish.

2005 March 10 - AppleCake

But when we started discussing my story, I just felt like–and this is where the bad outweighing the good starts to come in–nobody liked my story at all, or even understood it for that matter. I guess I just wasn’t expecting the kind of reaction that I got, especially because I thought there was at least a touch of truth and love and beauty in what I’d written. And see, I’m exaggerating, because nobody said there wasn’t; in fact, when I read over my classmates’ written comments, it was clear that more people liked the story than didn’t, and even those who thought it needed more work said it was a great start and they enjoyed reading it. But for some reason I left the class feeling terrible, like I’d just found out most of the world privately thinks I’m worthless and despicable.

Actually, that feeling–of having been personally attacked–isn’t too far from the truth, or some version of it anyway. One criticism people had of the main character in my first story was that she seemed “too perfect,” which I hadn’t even realized would be an issue; I certainly hadn’t set out to write a character with no flaws. This time, people said my character came across in some scenes as arrogant and condescending, and I was utterly taken aback. I hadn’t intended her to be that way, at all. These kinds of criticisms wound me in ways so deep that though I’ve been struggling since Thursday night, I still can’t completely understand what’s going on in my head when I react to them. All I can tell you is that I put a lot of myself into my characters (and that’s one of the main reasons I like them), so when people react negatively to them, I feel like their dislike is directed at me. This isn’t coming out of nowhere: the truth of the matter is that I have been told before, by multiple people, that sometimes I can come across as too perfect, or a little too conceited about my many talents. I don’t like false modesty–I would never deny that I am good at many things, and I think it’s just honesty for me to say so–but I am truly hurt to think that I might come across as arrogant to some people. I am such an insecure person at heart, and I’ve worked so hard to develop my own self-confidence, and have spent so much time and effort learning how to project a confident public persona, I’m distressed to think that I may only have been cultivating an outward image that people don’t like. I don’t know! I don’t think people hate me, but their responses to my fictional characters really made me question whether my position in others’ minds is quite as secure as I had thought. But then I want to ask people, what do you want me to do? My characters are too perfect, so you say, and maybe you think that about me, too. You want me to enlarge and develop the flaws in us both, myself and my characters? My confidence is hard-won. I’m not wanting to put cracks in it just to make you feel better. Boy, that sounds vicious. But this has really been getting me down. I really don’t know why this is bothering me so much. If my writing class has taught me anything, it’s that no two people will ever agree on any judgment of anything, so there’s nothing to worry about. But I just can’t help but feel down about the whole business. To top it all off, that was our last class meeting, so now I’m left feeling a little bit sour about the whole creative writing experience, and that’s exactly the opposite of what I should be feeling now as I sit down to write my final revision for the class.

I left class on Thursday and got on the bus and just kind of stewed all the way home, until I got into my apartment. Then I plunked myself in front of my computer and stewed there, depressed and down, unable to do anything except play Pelpet and obsessively refresh the Southwest flight status page to check on the delays in Erik’s flight. (Silver lining: I have a new high score in Pelpet. It’s either 670 or 730-something, not sure now which.) You know I’ve got something on my mind when even the prospect of seeing Erik can’t cheer me up, despite my having looked forward to his visit for the past three weeks. I got in the car and put on some Miles Davis and stewed all the way to the airport, then I sat in the waiting area and reread my classmates’ comments on my story and made little scribbles in the margins and stewed some more until Erik showed up, smiling.

At some point in my stewings I had realized that my bad mood was probably due to my not having eaten a real meal all day, so once Erik arrived I shuttled us off to Toi and got me a hot dinner and some camomile tea. Along the way, and while we were eating, I ranted and whined to Erik about everything that was bothering me. I love Erik so much because I know he would have done and said anything to make me feel better, and yet his indignation and outrage at my upset-ness was completely genuine. He was entirely and truly appalled that anyone might not like my story, or not like me (and again, no one said that, I assure you I’m overreacting), and he said so over and over again. Love may be blind, but that night I was just so, so grateful for his unconditional support and comfort. *face scrunches up* I miss Erik. Why does he always have to leave again so soon?

We managed to pack a lot into our few days together. On Friday, we explored the Mid-Wilshire Farmers’ Market and had a satisfying hot-weather lunch at Pho LA (I hope their past [link broken] problems have been taken care of!), got mistaken for Koreans while at California Market looking for instant Bi Bim Naeng Myon, had a short ramble at Runyon Canyon Park, and hung out and played computer games and had a huge dinner made out of what we got at the market. Saturday, we walked to Arclight and watched The Upside of Anger, which we loved and which I highly recommend (despite some flaws which have been pointed out in many reviews). Arclight is insane: $11 gets you a wide, cushy assigned seat with lots of legroom, great picture and sound quality, none of that ugly pre-preview in-theatre advertising, and no lines in the women’s restrooms! I’m going to go there for sure the next time I want to see a movie. Eleven dollars is pricey, but it’s still less than I’d pay for almost any concert, and the experience is definitely comparable. After the movie we came home and Erik made me a nice dinner [links broken] while I tried to get started on work.

So we had a pleasant weekend as usual, but hanging over it all were hints of the same gloom that had plagued me on Thursday night. I still wasn’t feeling entirely reassured about my story, and I was just a short step away from being depressed that Erik had to leave again on Sunday morning and flipping out because of all the work I have to finish in the next ten days. Buying Ritter Sport dark chocolate with hazelnuts and eating a quarter-loaf of that delicious soft white Asian toast bread has helped a little, as has writing this entry, but I’m still feeling far from cheerful. I know I’m PMS-ing, but I’m just not feeling my best right now.

Well, I’ve been working on this entry for an hour and a half now. Time to stop and get started on my work (and stop eating this bread!).

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]

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7 responses to “Bipolar weekend

  1. Perhaps they never met anyone quite like you…

    Hi Lisa…sorry, I didn’t login so I’m posting like this, but I am so sorry to hear that happened…it is rare to meet someone like you…which is a good thing…because it makes us appreciate who you are all the better…I do not believe there is anything wrong with being your best…and to read about someone who has no flaws appeals to many readers outside of the class you had…but honestly, I don’t see what your classmates see…I didn’t think the character was portrayed to be a perfect person at all…(maybe I’m not reading it correctly)…but I hope you are feeling better…I’ll write more in a personal email…good luck on finals! -HQC

    • Re: Perhaps they never met anyone quite like you…

      Dear Huy,

      Thank you. I’m glad to know you didn’t think the character was perfect, and also I’m glad to know someone whose opinion I respect very much thinks there’s nothing wrong with trying to be the best person possible. While I think what I’ve learned from this episode is that it’s okay to be flawed (and present that flawed self to the world) instead of trying to appear perfect, I still do believe that it’s up to us to try to live up to the very best that we can possibly be. We owe it to ourselves and to existence itself, to the short life that is granted us. Thanks to you, Erik, and my mom and sister, I am feeling much better about things; after having conversations and reading your comments and having a good long cry, I am finally starting to feel like myself again, and not like some weird creation that people don’t like.

      Like I said in my entry, I was surely overreacting to the class discussion, and I’m sure if anyone in my class read my journal they’d be surprised and perhaps dismayed to see how it affected me. We can never tell what will affect us adversely at any particular time; I think it’s always a combination of factors that leads us to feel most sad or depressed when we do, and that particular afternoon, circumstances were converging to make me react very badly to what people said. Still, the class did leave me in quite a funk for several days, and I’m glad I seem to be coming out of it now.

      I also want to thank you for your card–I was very happy to receive it yesterday. It was a very sweet letter. Thank you. Cliché as it may sound, I am glad we are friends.

  2. oh no..

    Hello Lisa,

    I found your lj through Greg (typefiend), and was very saddened to read this post. Incredibly so. So I’m just writing to hope i can clarify some things and talk things out with you.

    When I was watching you in class last Thursday during our critique, I saw your face scrunch up in reaction a particularly harsh comment from Mary-Ann, and realized something at that point. Our workshop was a pretty brutal one. I hadn’t noticed, and in fact must have added to it with my devil’s advocate/jerkish style of commentary these past nine weeks. See, this was my fourth workshop, and by now i have gotten used to the concept of personal display through written work and the strange situation of getting it criticized while you are in the room. But I still remember my first one (in poetry) – my first over-romantic, iambic pentametered work got ripped apart by my classmates, and my professor was no help either. It hurt a lot. I took every comment straight to heart, and had trouble facing my peers the next week. Professor Louie in particular enables this kind of environment. He can be compassionate in extreme situations, but rarely goes out of his way to stop you from falling down. Thus I think he allowed our free forum to grow into a brutally honest one, where other instructors might have taken a more active role in moderating.

    I myself think you’re a great gal, and I know I didn’t really show it, but I’m simply silent in that way. I liked and share your cooking obsession, and appreciate the music you mention in your journal. And as for the others in the class, I’m sure none of them were personally attacking you, but Mary-Ann in particular simply has a beef with a misperception of community colleges. She, like me, knows that not everyone who goes there is a slacker or a bum, and that people like your character are not the exception, but the norm. But on community college campuses, most students don’t truly despise all the others in a condescending I’m-smarter-than-you way. Now I think it’s within your rights as an author creating a fictional character to have her think this way, but i guess Mary-Ann was just fed up with the string of stories that treated community college as the armpit of life.

    Now her personal issues aside, I just hope i can offer some advice on this story in particular, and harsh criticism in general. Like I said on my comments, I think your prose has cleaned up a lot, and I compliment you on that. The family dynamic works, and I actually believed in the quirks of this one. But, upon re-reading it, I still have trouble with the historical integration. Even if you slide it into the narrative so that it flows cleaner, I still say that the weight of history works best as a frame that borders the narrative but doesn’t intrude on it. That way it can inform the text but not direct it. There are a lot of ways to do this. You could do it with dropped details, like the mom’s mention of the grandmother’s past, or the lil’ sis seeing a poster in the cafe that briefly describes capoeira’s history. OR you could play it like Johnny did, and have good expectations for your readers, assuming that once they pick up the details of how affected the family is about mentioning Chinese history, that they have enough interest in your story to research these things themselves. The best political-relevant stories I’ve read have been ones that barely mention actual history (e.g. wind-up bird chronicle, the brothers karamazov). Cause as it stands, the history section intrudes on the plot, and while adding some vertical, also distracts from the present with its bright red plumes.
    (to be continued)

    • Re: oh no..

      (continued)

      Now in your post you mentioned how attached you felt to the character since you were able to so fully play psychic puppet with her this time around. I think that’s fantastic! Mental acting is a tough, but worthwhile method for fleshing out your characters. But, it leads to a major pitfall – losing sight of the line between yourself and your character. What I mean by this is that you end up pouring so much of your own details into the person that the story becomes an auto-biography wrapped in setting and name changes. Now that in itself is not a bad thing; in fact that’s how some of our best novels came about. However, as a writer writing for an audience, you *have* to be able to step back and consider if the character is interesting enough to merit a story. When you let yourself fall into character, the infinite canvas of fiction can very quickly get bogged down by the anchors of your reality. Now in the case of some insane lives, this makes for great books (dostoevsky, hunter s. thompson). But for the rest of us, it leads to highly personal stories that serve little outside of ourselves and our friends.

      Now I’m not terming you or your life unremarkable by any means, but I’m trying to point out what seems to have happened in the story. The characters are fully alive and believable. Kat works as a realistic protagonist – flawed in her own self-confident way . Gwenith also works; despite her role as an archetypal wise child, I believed her because the dialogue was real enough. The parents need some fleshing out, but as it stands, they are functioning limbs in the story. BUT, though I see the love you’ve lavished on these people, I also see where you got weighed down by their reality, and lost track of the story. It’s still unclear whose story you’re telling – Kat’s, Dad’s, or Gwenith’s. I think it’d be beautiful if it was all Kat’s story and by including the other narratives, you were making a statement that she couldn’t exist without everyone in her life, from Mao Ze Dong to her little sister (ala Kingston’s Woman Warrior). But for that to happen, Kat needs clearer desires, and the structuring needs to be cleaner, to focus on the main plot above the subplots.

      Sorry if that was a rehash of Thursday, but I wanted to make sure to preface it with a personal pillow. I went to the length of commenting here because I see a LOT of potential in your stories, and relate to your pain. I just don’t want to see you stop writing because of our unfortunate situation in the workshop. But in your reaction to the criticism, you mentioned that the one thing you learned was that no two people agree on something with fiction. I just wanted to add one thing to that. While we rarely had 100% mandates on any interpretation of a story, if you noticed, there were often parts that we all agreed on. Say the structure in The Shooting, or the visceral narration of Sarah’s second story. We all interpreted and liked those pieces differently, but tended to agree on those aspects. A good piece of fiction shouldn’t inspire a single interpretation or opinion; because then it becomes a collection of facts. So when receiving criticism on your own work, I think it *is* good to take it all with a pinch of salt, but try not to dismiss it all as relativistic subjectivism. When enough people complain about the same things, they may not be right, but there is obviously some flaw in the work leading them to feel that way.

      (again continued..gah! sorry for how long this is Lisa!)

      • Re: oh no..

        (last part, i promise!)

        I think the best way to describe it is to use a drawing metaphor. In drawing the other day, I was working on a project where we had to read a story together as a class, and draw something based on it. I used an interesting lighting effect for one half, then switched it up for the other. When my professor asked me why there was such a disparity in lighting on the subjects of the left to the right, I gave an intense justification based on my interpretation of the story. He said, “That’s all well and good, but none of your intent matters if I can’t see it on the canvas.” So while your love is definitely in these characters ( I can especially see your touches in my favorite scene – the opening with the Danish on the bus), you need to make it more visible to us as readers, who might not know Lisa Hsia (ha and secretly read her lj posts).

        Thanks for your time and Best of Luck,
        David

        • Re: oh no..

          Dear David,

          Thank you so much for your post. I’m pleased to know you found my journal, since I also found yours some time ago (facebook profile–same goes for others in our class!) and I just figured it was bad diplomacy to mention it or leave comments until the class was over. It’s funny to think you found me through Greg, since I don’t know him personally and only found his journal through someone’s else’s. I guess that’s the magic of the blogosphere.

          I really, really appreciate your lengthy comment and all the insights you shared in it. But even more so, I am touched by and very grateful for the sympathy and generosity that I know led you to leave such a detailed comment. Thank you, thank you. It is kind of you.

          I knew when I was writing my entry that I wasn’t doing our class justice, nor giving an accurate portrayal of what went on in that session. I can only repeat what I told my friend Huy after his comment: sometimes things in our life just converge to leave us particularly vulnerable at some moment. I was PMS-ing, and it was the last day of class and I was so full of love for everyone, so I just wasn’t quite prepared to be shot down. (And you’re right, it was Mariann’s comment that got to me the most. And that DWL lets us fall, good as he is in other respects.) When I was accepted into this class I knew more or less what to expect, so I went into it prepared for criticism and knowing I shouldn’t take any of it personally. While I sat and listened to what people had to say on Thursday, and I could feel that I was taking it personally even though I knew I shouldn’t, I think this contributed to my sense that something in the universe had gone horribly wrong. I still can’t quite explain it, but I have realized since then that, as you say, I should take what I can out of people’s criticisms, and try to understand and let go of some of the other things (like Mariann’s beef against my community college-despising character).

          I’m going to have to do my entire revision today and tomorrow, since my crisis of self-esteem had me wanting nothing to do with my story for a while. What you said in your comments (both on the paper and in this LJ) have been very helpful, and I’m glad I have the chance to tell you. The history thing is funny, because I hadn’t expected it at all. I realized during our class discussion that my as-yet brief stint in history grad school has trained me too well, because I totally didn’t even notice that I slipped into textbook-writing mode during those sections. Here’s a prime example of not being able to see past ourselves and the people we hang out with! But also, as you said in class in a particularly enlightening remark, I didn’t integrate the historical bits well, so they stood out and distracted. As I work on my revision that is something I’m going to have to figure out.

          Again, I thank you deeply for your comment, both for the content and for the gesture of kindness. I appreciate both so much.

          Good luck on your revision, if you haven’t finished it yet. Now that we’ve both been exposed, so to speak, I look forward to leaving comments on your journal as well!

          Thank you,
          lisa 🙂

  3. Pingback: Hmm | satsumabug.com·

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