My mother insisted that I have a proper education, so I grew up reading novels.
Every June, when school was out, my younger brother and I were summarily sent to our grandparents’ house to pass the days. Our summer reading syllabus was provided by the leather-bound, gilt-edged complete library ông ngo ạ i and bà ngo ạ i had bought—from a catalog? An advertisement in The New Yorker ? Who knows where they acquired it; I have no memories of the books arriving or of trips to a store, only the sight of them all at once, tightly shelved in the living room, spines gleaming, as if they’d been there forever. It was as if the books had been in the country all along, in this very house, and all my grandparents needed to do was cross the sea and move in.
In their library were all the classics: Dickens, Austen, Brontë, Melville, Dumas and Cervantes; all the Shakespeare plays, even the historical ones, which I refused to read. My mother is no slouch, and any deficits in my reading were made up from the hold list of the Multnomah County Library—I recall sticky plastic covers that grew clammy from the sweat of my palms, crumbs in the binding of the week’s copy of Robinson Crusoe . All of this meant that I emerged from the eighth grade already having worked my way through a college-level reading course in English and American literature, including Moby Dick and some Aristotle—not that I understood a word of it.
At the time, I didn’t really know what it signified, that I had read this canon, except that some of the books were boring and had long, complicated tangential sentences that made me fall asleep on the couch in my grandparents’ living room, where the afternoon sun made its way round the yard and the garden to beat down upon my shoulders.
As a child, I knew what made a thing good and whole. If you put before me a sentence that was somehow improperly formed, I would correct it. When I made pictures, I used the full sheet of paper and arranged my still lifes in ways that were pleasing and well-composed. I knew how to draw a thing and make it look like enough of a proper drawing of a thing that my classmates would ask to keep the pictures.
But maybe it’s more accurate to say I learned all these things. They weren’t there by instinct; they had to be acquired, like my grandparents’ mail-order library, which would later seem as if it had been there all along. I grew up looking at what was around me and observed what was good, and what made it good, and then I learned how to do those things and to do them well, because that was how I knew I could be good, too.
According to Lacan, the self—the I —is formed when one looks in the mirror. Personhood is created out of a collection of gestures, bound up in the singular contour that makes up your reflection. The child looks: She sees; she’s being seen. She knew the world existed outside her—now she knows the world recognizes her, too.
By looking, I knew what the rules of taste were: the rule of thirds, the Fibonacci spiral, complementing colors. That a good story necessitates crescendos and diminuendos; that one must always do things in threes; that the most stylish combination of sentences is short, short, long, short.
Life, I understood, had to have a set of rules. How else were you to win, once you knew you were being seen? As the eldest daughter of a family nervously proving its Americanhood, I wanted to do everything right. I wanted to be exceptional.
During my first year in New York City, a literary agent picked me up. I had been writing essays for money, creative nonfiction with a slightly raw, confessional bent, and they did well. That fall, I started writing the novel that, after many twists and turns, would ultimately become Fantasian . It came from a stray thought that embedded itself in my mind: the configuration of a love triangle, based on a girl and a pair of twin brothers. It seemed like a delightful, pulpy entanglement of relationships that I could make rich and dark and covetable.
I set the narrative on the campus of my alma mater and began a draft. I made myself a reading list, mostly of other campus novels: The Secret History, The Virgins , The Marriage Plot . To this I added the work of prose stylists I admired: James Salter; Michael Cunningham.
But some months in, I had a crisis about my manuscript. I wanted it to be book-shaped, but I didn’t know what made a novel. I read and reread, left my copies of Tartt and Erens splayed open to passages I found insightful or adept at channeling the mood I wanted to capture. I grew increasingly convinced that a book had to sound a certain way; that other voices, other styles, were tony and fake and unprofessional. And I wanted my book to be a Book; I wanted it to be something with credibility, something that wouldn’t seem like a child playing dress-up, as I so often felt I was.
I kept thinking of what I’d learned from observing. The taste of rightness I’d picked up by being a watchful child. I knew the kind of book I wanted to write; I just didn’t know how to, or where it lay. It was as though everything I wanted could be within my grasp if only I could figure out what the code was; if only I could reach through time and be twelve years old again, looking at paintings to figure out their rules.
My agent read the first draft of my book and said, This will need a lot of work.
There wasn’t much that was me in it. There was much that wasn’t: expository scenes and turns of phrase that in my hands felt like sloppy mimics of the real thing, poorly camouflaged butterflies that wouldn’t last a minute in the wild. The plot—something I’d always struggled with, and struggle with still—lagged sluggishly, the pace strange, the events cobbled together.
I’d written some beautiful sentences, but beautiful sentences don’t make a beautiful book, and they were written into a weak armature. I’d hardly put any thought into the construction of the book’s skeleton; only how I wanted it to feel . There was nothing at its center. To use Kundera’s metaphor for how books are composed: I was stranded in the forest, still wandering deep in the middle of it, and I had no light to see my way out.
In high school, my art teacher, Jack, pointed out a tendency of mine. He called it being cute, how my taste hewed so closely to the classical and the conventional. I was a competent artist, perfectly technical, playing it safe with my colors and compositions, unwilling to scale up to a larger, dramatic scale, or try something new. I’d learned what I was good at, and how it matched up with the rules of taste, and I found it difficult to change.
Stop being so cute, he said.
So I started using a palette knife, slashing at the oil paint, spreading out thick, buttery strokes. My first knife paintings were all choppy landscapes, done from photos I’d taken in my mother’s hometown in Vietnam: the planes of a building sketched out in a wide slab of yellow; a crumbling wall textured with sgraffito, scribbled lines using the wooden end of a paintbrush; telephone lines across a sky formed by ridges of cerulean blue paint dragged across the work surface. There was gesture and life in these pieces, and I felt it in the making—the visceral thrill of making a mark with my hands, with the tiniest movements of my wrists and fingers alone.
Later, I’d go back to painting the way I had before, with graceful, painterly strokes, but I remembered that moment: the thrill of painting with a knife alone. How I learned the rules so I could break them, but I found breaking them a very hard thing.
I shelved my manuscript for a while, which I only ever referred to by my protagonist’s first name: Dolores . I kept writing essays, and things that weren’t essays but smaller, weirder, slim and dense and bristling with theory and referents and attempts to be generous. And the not-essays came, and came, and came, and they didn’t feel like work. They felt free.
Here’s the other part, the thing that Lacan left out. The outside world is a mirror, too. The child learns by seeing; she forms in response to what is placed before her. The shiny surface of media provides a reflection: she learns how to articulate it, looking back and forth from reality to mirror, turning her head, changing her pose, stopping when she sees something that catches her eye. We create ourselves, piling on referents, signifiers and signs.
I’m not convinced that the self exists, that we aren’t just a collection of impressions loosely strung together around some meat and a jolt of electricity. But there is one, perhaps, in each of us. After a lifetime of looking around me for the rules of craft I had to go elsewhere, looking at the things already in me, every thing that’d ever happened to me, that had settled in me over two decades and begun to crystallize.
My friend Max asked me, and I thank him for it: What are you obsessed with? What are you really interested in?
We were Skyping, the video feed grainy. I think I was at home in Oregon. I was moaning about how I could never write a book, how I didn’t know how to make a thing that had all of me in it, but of course I was lying, because I’d done it before. I just hadn’t called it fiction.
Make a list, he said. Put it all in.
So I rewrote my book. From start to finish, and then again, and then again, and then again. Dolores, my lodestar, changed, multiplying from one girl to two; a side character clarified in the process, turning into a love interest and a foil, like a letter on an optometrist’s chart that resolves when the lens is changed. The twins developed personalities that rang truer to boys I’d known than boys from movies or novels. The places were the places I knew to be real; the scenes set there uncomfortably familiar, if allegorical.
I wrote and instead of trying to make a thing the way I thought a thing should look, I listened to myself. Rather than attempt a particular voice—and I’ve always been an excellent mimic—I tried to write each sentence to be the most perfect sentence I’d ever written, cleaving away extra words and expository scenes like an over-enthusiastic anatomist with a scalpel. Why not inhabit a narrator; why not let her internal monologue run long? Why not include the side thoughts, the dream sequences, the theory to which I remembered being prone? I put in every single thing on the list I’d made, and when it was all done it was a solid, real thing.
Slashes in the canvas with a palette knife. Everything articulated from a place within, from the seat of the self I’m still not certain is real, but which I must believe in. The gestures my own.
There it was and it was simply a matter of quieting down the space around me and trusting myself—the obsessions I’d written down, the sentences in the form they came—to carry the words through. It wasn’t a matter of finding my voice, but listening to it. It had been there all along, the way a stroke lives inside the pen.