First Comes Next

I dream of having a writing schedule, so getting my mentor’s regular feedback will help. I also hope to be better disciplined at self-editing, and be as ruthless with myself as I am when editing others.

Many of the stories in Next started from fragments—images or headlines. If things stayed in my mind, I’d wrestle a plot out of them. The process doesn’t always work. It’s such a relief when I’m writing and find unexpectedly that I already know what’s going to happen.

I was born in China and lived there as a kid. Going back, it feels semi-strange, semi-familiar. Back in Toronto, it feels more familiar-yet-strange, a little not-home, but not in a bad way. Wherever I am, other places float around me, and a lot of writing gets done in that state.

Morality is one theme I explore in this collection. Growing up in China, my education at school and home was very focused on being a good person, the right ways to behave. In the West, children are also taught to be good, but I’ve found that the message is more about follow your dreams, shoot for the stars, you can be anything you want. As an adult, the question becomes, what do I really want? How do I lead a fulfilling life? In China nowadays, the idea of the greater good, the responsibility of contributing toward the public good, is severely eroding. But I’d say for many people the idea of morality is still an active part of life. Here, we don’t talk about it. People write editorials about it, but it’s not a part of daily life.

I don’t follow a writing process. I write in fits and starts, often driven by panic. I have condensed periods of work and then a lot of trying to work. I enjoy editing more than writing. I’ll drag a couple of paragraphs out of myself and edit the rest of the evening.

I was a Mathlete. It’s not really zany but it’s a fact. I really miss math. If I could live forever, I would like to do every job out there. And if I ruled the world, writers would only have to write, the way doctors only have to be doctors. I think there was a time when it was so, or at least there were fewer extra demands on artists. Today, as a writer, you have to be a business person, do marketing and promotion, and take good photos of yourself so people will like you. Some people thrive on that, they’re good at it. The hustle would wear me down.

In 2024, I will be making a living as a writer of essays and feature-length reporting on news stories that deserve a deeper look. I’ll divide my time between that and fiction. If I ruled the world and discovered how to manufacture time, I’ll also work in the physical sciences or pure math, but that’s for 2034.