Power Up Your Passive Protagonists!
Here's the latest from my MFA Lore newsletter on Substack
I’m back in the MFA archives again, mining gems that could bring value to your writing life. Today’s diamond in the rough is a letter about passive protagonists that I wrote to one of my most talented MFA advisees. With her permission, I’m going to share pertinent sections of this letter with you because, over the years, I’ve found that many, if not most of us, unwittingly hobble our protagonists in the inception. Activating them, then, becomes a priority in revision.
This advice is geared primarily toward fiction writers, but I urge memoirists to take note, too. When we write our own stories, we need to cast ourselves as active narrators, plunging into the past to rescue buried truths. There’s nothing passive about that role, yet it can be difficult to see and write ourselves onto the page in a truly active voice.
Passive protagonists and narrators are especially common in the work of female writers born into generations that discouraged or prevented women from speaking up, acting on their desires, and fighting for their rights. Women who were raised to hold themselves back, to mind their tongue, suppress their desires, and behave like “ladies,” could be forgiven if they struggled to speak their minds and demand the attention they deserved. For more than a century, then, the muted struggle between expression and restraint supplied the dramatic tension at the heart of fiction like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Sylvia Plath’s The Belljar, and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. But interest in such straitjacketed characters has waned in the era of Olive Kitteridge, Lisbeth Salander, and Hermione Granger. And that’s a problem for writers like me.Visit MFA Lore @Substack to read the whole article
Intricacies of POV
Welcome to our second Roundup, everyone!
I appreciate this week’s terrific questions. I’m in the thick of these same issues with my own work, so it was good to give them a bigger think here.
Before we plunge in, please remember that writing is a game that requires us to break as many rules as we observe. Prescriptions are for pharmaceuticals, not literature. So, while these answers reflect my literary preferences and experience as an author and teacher, they’re only my advice. Never forget that you are the author of your work, so the ultimate decision for what goes on in your pages lies with you.
A book promotion 101 lesson from Oprah herself
You know what they say about best laid plans? Well, that goes double when Oprah calls. Even when she doesn’t call you.
Last week I was thrilled to be asked to “chat” onstage with novelist and physician extraordinaire Abraham Verghese for the series Live Talks Los Angeles. Though I’d never before met him, I’d loved Verghese’s first novel, Cutting For Stone, when it came out a decade ago. I’d traveled in Kerala, India, the location of his new novel, The Covenant of Water, and I’d written two novels of my own about India during the same turbulent colonial period when most of this story takes place. So I knew we’d find a lot to talk about.
I’ve interviewed others for Live Talks, including Aimee Tan and Pico Iyer. I prepare diligently for these events, both as a sign of respect for the authors and also as the best strategy for managing my own stage fright before large audiences. For this conversation I needed to inhale all 724 pages of The Covenant of Water inside of a week. I had to get cozy with more than 30 key characters and their masterfully interwoven plot lines. I needed to absorb the whole multi-generational saga so I could discuss its vast scope and humanity in detail. Or so I thought.
What I didn’t know was that The Covenant of Water would be selected for Oprah’s book club the week of our chat. And what I didn’t factor into my preparation was the fact that we’d be discussing the novel just one day after its publication date.
The subconscious has its own way of saying goodbye
My mother died one year ago today, yet she remains deeply present in my life — largely through our dreams together, which seem to be multiplying. Most of these nocturnal reunions skip into oblivion as soon as I wake. When a dream is particularly vivid, though, I try to scrawl its contours in my dream journal.
Still half asleep in the dark, I’ll write blind before the movie in my mind flickers out. And somehow, these half-conscious scribbles are surprisingly decipherable. Like hieroglyphics, they provide just enough imagery — stairs, foliage, faces, signs — to bring the mental story right back to me. In this way, the recent dreams involving my mother have re-emerged like prose-poems from the subconscious — or some other metaphysical zone. Consider this one:
I’m back in my childhood neighborhood with Mom as my guide, photographing all the old houses before they’re gone. She reminds me who lived in which glass house. The O’Neils. The Steinmetzes. The Bigelows and Barkentins. All now gone, though she is here. We trudge through the woods, needing to catch up, to explore, to remember where the Amusement Park is before it, too, is gone.
Yung Wing, my grandfather, and the seeds of China’s pro-democracy movement
Not many people today give much thought to the activists who first introduced the notion of democracy to China. So many political, economic, and military convulsions have since gripped the Middle Kingdom that the idealism of those early revolutionaries now seems both quaint and tragic. But they were every bit as brave, hotheaded, and patriotic in their time as the college students who dare to oppose Xi Jinping today.
For those who are following China’s pro-democracy movement, I offer this annotated extract from my grandfather’s memoirs, in which he meets an even earlier godfather of democracy in China, the 19th-century diplomat and Yale graduate known in America as Yung Wing:
My grandfather begins:
In 1901, after I was implicated in the T’ang Ts’ai-ch’ang case [the plot to blow up the armory], I fled to the safety of Shanghai. There my friend who had just returned from Japan, invited me to accompany him to Hong Kong to meet the famous Jung Ch’un-fu, who was known in America as Yung Wing.
It startled me when I first read this name in my grandfather’s book. I’ve been fascinated by Yung Wing for years. He was the first Chinese person ever to study in America; he graduated from my own alma mater, Yale, in 1854. After that he shuttled between America and China to champion better relations between the two countries, and in 1872 he launched the Chinese Educational Mission, which brought more than one hundred Chinese boys to study in New England. Yung Wing had an American wife, as did my grandfather, but this passage was my first notice that they personally knew each other.
Read original article on Medium HERE.
My Father's Secrets, Decoded at Last
My father was his family’s gatekeeper. Born in Shanghai in 1912, the eldest of his biracial siblings, he was raised to straddle East and West. He kept the peace between his Chinese father and American mother. And as the one member of his family who corresponded with those he’d left behind after moving to America in the 1930s, he alone held the secrets that could wound, shame, and inflame the relatives who’d immigrated with him.
Those secrets lay buried in the mass of junk that Dad hoarded throughout his life. After he died in 2007, I took the lead in curating this tangled mess. Both as a writer and as his daughter, I was fascinated by the mystery surrounding my remote, taciturn father. I hoped that in all his stuff, I’d discover the reasons why he claimed to remember so little about his past in China. Fifteen years later, I’m finally beginning to decode the evidence he was shielding.
This story originally posted @Medium HERE
Yellowface in the Family
I was cleaning out my father’s office after his death when I discovered the history of his movie years, stuffed into a soft red and gold Moroccan leather folio. This trove of yellowing newspaper clippings and gauzy headshots thrilled me. Here at last was the archive that would help me piece together Dad’s unlikely acting career 70 years earlier.
He’d never wanted to talk about his Hollywood days. MGM’s 1937 version of The Good Earth was the only movie he’d admit to being part of, which was odd because he hadn’t even made the final cut. His appearance as one of the uncles in the opening scene wound up on the editing room floor. He also worked as a technical consultant for the crews that shot in China. Dad had grown up in Shanghai, the son of a Chinese official who’d remained in Nanking after Dad’s American mother moved the rest of the family to California. My father doubtless was very useful to the production, given the various wars and political intrigues that were brewing in China at the time, but this role, too, was uncredited.
Not until late in his life, just a few years before he died, did I learn that both Dad and his sister Lotus performed onscreen with some of the biggest movie stars of the 1930s. On an idle whim, my brother had searched for their names on IMDb. According to his listed credits, our father, Maurice Liu, played the Hawaiian bridegroom in Waikiki Wedding, starring Bing Crosby. In Shadow of Chinatown, a Bela Lugosi vehicle, Dad appeared as a house boy. In West of Shanghai, with Boris Karloff, he was listed as a train conductor. Lotus had nine films under her name.
The Foster Sister I Never Knew
Why did my parents really let her go?
I was born three years after my parents gave my foster sister back. As far as my mother was concerned, I replaced her. My father, I’m not so sure. Josie would have been about six by then. My brother, Marc, was seven. I grew up without knowing the first thing about Josie’s existence.
Only as an adult did I trip across the one photograph that my parents seemed to possess of her. There, tucked into some ancient album, appeared a small blond stranger stepping down Fifth Avenue between my equally small older brother and our fashionable mother. Easter, 1949, the caption read. My mother wore a black veil, white gloves, and a fox stole with its jaws biting its tail to secure it around her shoulders. I recognized the fox, which still hung in the coat closet. I recognized my brother and mother, though I’d never known them so young. But who was that other toddler?
“That’s Josie,” my mother informed me. “She was our foster child.”
“We had a foster child?” Every word of that sentence sounded improbable.
Full article @ authoraimeeliu.Medium.com
Nostalgia for the East Coast Bonded Us in a West Coast ER
Hometown memories become a source of cheer during medical emergencies
What makes for a delightful conversation when you’re waiting to find out whether a loved one is closer to life, or to death? Well, if the emergency room is in Los Angeles, chats about the good old days on the East Coast seem to be just the ticket.
I’ve spent more time in ERs over the past couple of years than I want to admit to myself, let alone to you. Aged mother and older husband. Comes with the territory. I’m not writing this to let you in on our medical tsuris, though. I’m writing to tell you about an easy trick that helps lift the spirits in times like these.
And so here we are, back in the ER again tonight, waiting endlessly for a room upstairs to open so my husband can be admitted. Going on six hours of tests, drips, charts, blips, anxiety, boredom, occasional Code Blue announcements in the hallway outside. And talk about the East Coast, where it seems like half the staff here comes from.
Full article @ authoraimeeliu.Medium.com
The Dust Storm of First Memories: When you belong to a different world than the one you’re supposed to call home
My first memories take me back to the rooftop terrace in Delhi where my family slept on hot summer nights when I was three years old. Part of me will forever lie awake under that ocean of stars, the desert sky stretching wide and deep and uncannily quiet, the darkness pungent with dung smoke infused with night-blooming jasmine. Around me, my parents and older brother form a protective ring of shadows.
Then, as if by the flick of a switch, the wind erupts. Dust howls out of nowhere, whipping us into action. We move in a panic of flapping sheets and hoisted cots, making for the stairwell and down to our white, sweltering flat, where the sand beats savagely against the shutters, like a stranger demanding to be let in.
I was not born in India, but as far as memory is concerned, Delhi was my first home. There my mind and senses awoke, chasing snails into pools of shade, hiding under the garden’s frangipani, or rising on tiptoes to watch the daily parade of cows and elephants and sadhus trudging the unpaved road below our balcony. I loved the long-lashed camels dressed in tassels and bright-colored blankets. Who knew where they were going, where they’d traveled from?
Full article @ authoraimeeliu.Medium.com
For Writers Especially: How to Manage Research Rapture
I once heard the late novelist Oakley Hall describe “research rapture” as an occupational hazard of fiction writing — one that too often consumes both writers and their work. I knew precisely what he meant. It’s easy for me to get so enthralled in the hunt for details about, say, midget submarines in WWII, that I fail to notice how much of the information I’m collecting serves absolutely no purpose in my novel.
Research rapture can cost you time and send you off on complicated tangents that will muck up your story and leave you stranded in a swamp of fascinating but irrelevant details. How to negotiate that edge between enough background information… and infinity? Here are 6 tips that have helped me maintain a productive balance while writing my historical novels.Read the original article on Medium @HumanParts HERE.
"Like Singing a Song" About the Most Magical Father I Never Met
Read the original article on Medium @HumanParts HERE.
Family Photos Can Change You
Lucky for me, my father was a packrat. Dad spoke little about his childhood in China during the Warlord Era, but he kept suitcases full of artifacts, most of which only surfaced after his death in 2007. Among these mementos, I discovered photographs that swept me back in time and introduced me to relatives who belonged to a lost world.
At a glance, these fading images seem like curiosities in a museum, so antiquated that they couldn’t possibly connect to life on Earth today. But to me, their faces have the haunting power of ghosts. They beckon me closer, hold me longer, and keep drawing me back. “We are your people,” they seem to say. “We are your kin, your tribe. We belong to you and you to us.”
Read the original article with all photographs @Medium Human Parts HERE
Writing Through Emergency: Essential lessons for creative writers from Amanda Gorman and Eugene Goodman
Several weeks ago, as I began composing an MFA commencement address to deliver at my college this month, I found myself returning over and over to two particular words: emergence and emergency. The connection was hardly a mystery. The writers who were about to graduate would be emerging into a moment of historical emergency. Global pandemic. Economic crisis. Racial conflict boiling over. A serious threat of civil war shadowing America. In short, the kind of uncertainty and real-life drama that no one would wish on their least-loved characters.
What surprised me was that I’d never thought of those two words in the same breath before...
The Primal Power of Stories That Evoke Yearning and Dread
About Me-- Aimee Liu
I recently discovered the Medium publication, About Me. Its whole m.o. is introducing writers, and it occurred to me that this might be a good addition to my blog, so here goes!
Full article @ authoraimeeliu.Medium.com
P.S. If you join Medium, your $5 monthly membership fee directly supports Aimee Liu and all the other writers you read. You'll have full access to every story on Medium. Join us HERE!
Your 2020 Year-end Lockdown List for Book Groups!
I belong to a fabulous and diverse group of 2020 authors. We call ourselves Lockdown Literature, or Lockies for short, and we’ve launched a “share the wealth” campaign to introduce you to some of the many authors who would love to visit your group, either virtually or (when permissible) in person, in 2021.