August sipped away like a bottle of wine

I’m taking a leave of absence this fall!

Perhaps, as early as May, part of me already sensed that I didn’t want to do another semester of remote learning—especially not during my senior fall. I got sad thinking about doing the last year of college on Zoom. It felt anti-climactic, disappointing, a poor facsimile of what it could have been.

Truth is, I’m not in a rush to graduate at all. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, through conversations with friends back home and a simmering creative malaise over my fundamental ability to write fiction.

What is it I fear? The prospect of graduation isn’t scary, what is is the official entrance ticket to the treadmill of busyness and conformity, turning on the axle of capitalist productivity. What’s scary is the 9 to 7 weekdays in office cubicles, two-week vacations per year for the next couple of decades, housing mortgages and tax bills, and coming eventually to terms with the fact that—despite every lofty ambition growing up—my life will unfold exactly the way I don’t want it to. The fear of a mediocre life, of living too cautiously. At this age, mediocrity hurts more than failure.

In some ways, taking the semester off to continue writing whole-heartedly is a gamble against those fears, to give myself a real shot at the kind of life I aspire for when there isn’t that much to lose (yet). The existential crisis has never really quite left me, as my old blog posts remind me (e.g. Sophomore me confronted my worldly fears amidst recruiting season; in Junior fall, I was grasping for ANY inkling to answer “What do I want to do with my life?”—I stopped pretending that it was anything other than writing).

I am still a work in progress. A part of me knows if I were to die next year, I would spend the next 365 days writing a novel. That’s the only thing I felt destined to do, ever. So, I am trying to understand what the writing life is like by taking this semester off and deconstructing the in-built drive to fill up the time with internships, research stints, etc. But, another part of me still doubts. A few days ago, I went to read the first 20,000 or so words in the current draft of IDOL and was gripped by an eroding sense of insecurity. I’ve been staving off the instinct to edit for as long as possible so that I can first get the words out on the page. But, over these past couple of days, I’ve been writing very few words and knee-deep in editing because my style is so flawed that I kind of want to crawl into a hole and bury myself. (John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction has been a good antidote for the onslaught of writing woes BUT it’s no panacea—HOW CAN I WRITE BETTER?!? HOW DID I NOT REALIZE MY WRITING VOICE IS SO STILTED???)

Here’s a short reading list of what I plan to read/reread/finish reading in September, to get past the rut (may a bad writing week not turn into a streak):

Dear reader, is there a novel that you loved for its voice and style, on top of its plot? I’m hungry for recommendations, feel free to send me titles ANYTIME!!! 🙏

Lastly, HAPPY BIRTHDAY DADDY!!! 亲爱的爸比,生日快乐 🎂🎉✨ The other day I was going through my childhood books. Many had been lugged back by my dad from his overseas trips—Chinese novels, math olympiad books, hardback fairytales, poetry collections, history tomes, comics… Each time I went to the bookstore with my dad, the two of us wouldn’t be able to leave without making a purchase. I owe my love for words—both English and Chinese—to my parents, who feed my imagination and indulge all of my creative urges.

Writing is a very uncertain thing, lonely, patient, chaotic, private; whoever observes the process from the outside might be mystified. Apart from word counts (which are quite helpful for establishing routine and utterly useless in relation to the actual substance of my words), my parents don’t quite know what I’m doing with my time. Occasionally, my dad asks me about how the novel is going and I don’t quite know how to tell him. Yet, still they have chosen to support any of my life decisions with trust, respect, and love. For that, I am eternally indebted to them.

谢谢爸比妈咪, 感恩有您们~ ❤️ 

Another month with G and J in IDOL begins!

Lots of love,

22

hi dear friends and readers, today i turn 22!!!!

today i feel very very loved and very very blessed. thank you to each of you — you know who you are — who have made it so special. i’ve waited seven years to play this song (so let this be the soundtrack to this blog post):

(taylor swift’s 22)

this day has turned out entirely different from what i expected. this morning, i woke up to my mom blaring a birthday song remix and dancing Zumba moves beside my bed. then, my dad sent me a video montage he made — it started with the airport farewell in August 2017 when i was hugging my best friends goodbye, as i was about to head into an entirely new chapter of my life far away from home. i remember crying when the plane soared into the darkness, a forest of lights diminishing far below, thinking anxiously about the weight of distance, the receding intimacy of everything i had grown up with, and all that the husk of ‘harvard’ promised. would i like my roommates? would i make good friends? would harvard ever match up to the years of yearning?

in the blink of an eye, i’m almost done with college. incredibly, my roommates have become my best friends, i have found friendships that are too precious not to last for life, and harvard no longer seems like an amorphous mass suffused with uncertainty, overblown with desire, and untouchable. instead, it has become the most unexpected incubator of ambitions, the wildest adventure, and the best house of minds. harvard has become a second home and, without doubt, the past three years are some of the best in my 22 years. (on a side note, thinking about this coming fall, i love my time there so much that i would hate to spend my last year far away from the people and energy that makes harvard, harvard)

and somehow, three years later, my friendships from home have stood the test of time. distance hasn’t changed anything. i am so immensely grateful to have so many constants in my life — people who i have grown alongside throughout our most awkward, idealistic, and undaunted years, whose friendships ground me as life throws us up in the air, who i will always hug close to heart. i’ve known some of you for 8, 10, 13 years. others, i’ve only known for 3 years, but i feel like i’ve known you for a lifetime. here’s to many more decades and more memories!! ✨

to my dearest Zhao, who put together a video of birthday wishes from my closest friends that made me cry, THANK YOU! I LOVE YOU. 22 is unforgettable because of what you did. words don’t suffice. thank you for for your bangin’ production skills (better than hollywood), for bringing together people i love across screens and timezones, and for loving me the way you do ❤️

back to my dad’s video montage: it ended with this family photo at the Changi airport, the blocky letters of DEPARTURE looming in the background. for the past three years, every moment spent with my parents has been transient. i was like a bird in flight, stopping to rest in a nest but leaving it behind again and again. on the heels of past birthdays came farewells at airports and in hotel lobbies, as I went off in pursuit of some semblance of adult life, eager to forge independence away from my parents.

today has none of the urgency that laced past birthdays. the past few months in a pandemic — like a clearing in the woods of days — has taught me a new relationship with time. i feel time pass gently, without burn. i feel grateful to the quarantine/circuit breaker, in a twist, for giving me treasured months with my parents. our family is finally all in one place, no goodbyes on the horizon (yet) and feeling the days wash over us with no countdowns. 谢谢最亲爱的爸比妈咪,包容我的任性,尊重我的梦想,鞭策我的成长,并给予我最可贵的陪伴。您们的爱让我勇敢地去探索世界,自由地选择想要的人生,并始终相信自己。因为您们,我看到了什么是理想与奋斗,什么是爱情最美好的样子。长大了的我只想像您们一样潇洒、善良、浪漫、热血,坚持自我。愿二十二岁的我依旧能让您们骄傲,不辜负您们的信任。您们是最伟大的父母。爱您们!!! 🐲🐯🐵

since the semester ended two weeks ago, i have been in a state of torpor, mostly indulging in leisure. i love idleness (and am a proud proponent of its value in creative realms) but i also know everything is only good in moderation. for the first time in a long while, i now have full autonomy over my time with no external structure or authority. i have no one to answer to. i have no goal that is imposed; i have to articulate it in action. the first few months of being 22 is free for me to define. i’m honestly not that great in terms of self-discipline (procrastination has been the scourge of my life), so needless to say, my biggest fear is that i will emerge at the other side of summer without having done anything. my public goal, stated here, is to draft another 60,000 words for my code-named work in progress, IDOL 2047. 🌝 this means 20,000 words per month from june to august. i will be tracking my progress on this blog. 💪 i’m thankful to have the space and time to think and write. 希望我对得起自己!

to God, thank you for always guiding me with love, for surrounding me with people who inspire me, and for teaching me how much i don’t know but giving me the pen to write an answer on life’s canvas. because of You, i’ve realized that everything in my life happens for a reason. when so many things are spinning out of control, thank You for giving me the strength, the peace, and the faith to carry on. i submit myself to Your wisdom and arrangement. in these times of trial, when i see one set of footprints in the sand, i know You are carrying me.

to each of you who read this blog, thank you for stopping by, staying, and breathing in my words, however raw or unembellished. this is my 84th post. not including this post, i have cumulatively written 88,665 words on this blog. (the length of a novel!) i can’t imagine having this much to say about anything, and yet, time works its magic. each snippet, easily forgotten in memory’s dark chambers, are preserved in this tiny corner of the internet. this blog is my time capsule. i have never persisted in writing anything for this long, neither diary nor blog (the last one lasting for 880 days). thank you for being part of my life’s stories. x

from 22-year-old me, with love,

Conversation Sparks: Life, you’re the dancing queen

We tend to romanticize the past. For a while, I complained to friends that I was feeling the belated onslaught of the Sophomore Slump — call it the Junior Jetlag. Every seven hours, I would reminisce about my idyllic, fulfilling sophomore fall. But then, I went to read what I wrote one year ago — my pillow book: the pathos of November. MAJOR THEMES (tl;dr): Bad days, paper extensions, and all-out clumsiness. Turns out, last year this time, I fell down an entire flight of stairs in Quincy. HAHA. I must have edited out the memory from my head.

Ever since the (angsty) post about October unraveling, the universe has been sending me sparks left, right, and center. Grateful to everyone who has engaged in long conversations and hearty eating with me over the past two weeks.

ME: Life, you seem meaningless. I feel hollow.

LIFE: Catch this! Try this! Hear this! WATCH ME JIVE!

ME: (speechless and incapable of mustering a further complaint)

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LIFE.

Three Life Paths Appeared Yesterday

Over Louisiana Gumbo at Legal Sea Foods, Professor Graham Allison suggested to me Singapore’s unique position as a hub for independent analysis/opinions during this chapter of U.S.-China relations when the global discourse is increasingly polarized.

In a dusky café by a church, I chatted with a Singapore writer about MFA programs, novel-writing, and how we don’t fact-check public discourse in Singapore. She writes beautifully and two years ago, her incredibly honest post on her scholarship experience— Once Bonded — inspired me not to take the PSC scholarship. If you’re at that crossroads, this is a must-read. If you want to be a full-time writer, she said, be ready to accept that you will be poor.

The day ended with an absolute intellectual blast — a three-hour conversation with an ex-TF (teaching fellow). I came away with ten book/thinker recommendations after a wide-ranging, spontaneous discussion on intellectual history, internet sub-culture, Chinese politics, post-colonialism, speculative history, family diaspora, the culture of academia, etc. You are a good fit for grad school, my TF said, but every system has its own expectations. Don’t romanticize it and think you will have a lot of free time to write creatively.  

Dining Hall Pep Talk

“Why are you so hung up over a single bad grade? You study power and politics and systems and society. Can’t you see that you care so much about a grade because of conditioning from young? Getting an A used to matter, but does it matter that much now?” Marwah drills me.

She eats a piece of bread and I eat a slice of apple pie.

“Procrastination is not a waste of time. Total energy remains constant. When your kinetic energy goes down, the energy is still there. Except that now it’s potential energy,” she continues, voice crisp like a commander.

I nod, mesmerized by her oration.

She eats another piece of bread, slathering cream cheese. This time, I choose blueberry pie instead.

She tests me between chews, “You sit in bed looking at your phone for three hours versus you meditate by the river for three hours — which one makes you feel more guilty? Exactly, when you’re using your phone. We are indoctrinated by the older generation, who are wary of technology.”

A pause.

I said, “On a side note: when I’m with you, I always feel hungry.”

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MAMMA MIA! ❤

Global Consciousness

“I like that you situate part of it in China,” Professor Maya Jasanoff tells me over Faculty Dinner.

We have stories with a global consciousness about South Asia or Africa. Think: writers like Mohsin Hamid or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But, most writers of Chinese heritage writing the anglophone novel have tended to deal with identity, traditions, and generational trauma. (A generalization, perhaps. Feel free to suggest titles that prove otherwise — would love to read!!)

“Perhaps, you could write that,” she says.

I clasp my hands and silently murmur a quick prayer there and then.

“That’s the aspiration,” I say.

Talking to someone who sees the world humanistically is powerful and inspires faith — faith in our capacity to see outside the bubbles of our identities and the limits of the present; to think intelligently and independently beyond echo chambers, demagoguery, and establishment views; to recognize inherent within our own subjectivity, our ignorance; to empathize, imagine, and understand. Professor Jasanoff makes me want to be ardently, unwaveringly a humanist.

Maya Jasanoff Faculty Dinner

A Dose of Tough Love

On our weekly Friday lunches at Leverett, I whisper furiously to Shi Le, “I need to hear harsh things. I need your tough love.”

“First,” she said, “you cannot take a second cookie.”

After I visibly wither under her gaze, she calmly continues, “Secondly, you need to stop getting out of bed at noon. Since you need to hear this, listen: THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.”

“If life unravels, ask yourself what you have control over. You can control when you go to eat and when you sleep. So do that. Structure.”

Selina Xu and Wong Shi Le

Tracing the Dots

For two nights, Xin Min sleeps in my room.

On the last day, as she zips her luggage and I shuffle songs, she tells me, “I’ll leave at 10pm.”

We talk about the five things we want in life. We talk about our threshold of fulfillment.

It’s past 10. Her luggage is ready by the door.

“Ok, I’ll leave at 11pm.”

We talk about how to hold ourselves accountable, how to test aspirations.

She sits cross-legged on the floor and throws me suggestions, “You should post more often on your blog. Put each complete scene on your blog. Build Insta.”

The room is cold and we are quiet. Our conversation is meandering, our voices soft. My hands are numb but I’m thinking, How rare it is that someone will sit down with you and interrogate your dream. Brainstorm your life like it’s theirs, just for a moment. 

“That’s what I admire about the liberal arts education, you have ideas all over the place,” Xin Min says, “like dots.”

“Like dots?”

“You have many dots. The problem then is how to trace them and draw them into a constellation.”

We leave the room at 12:24am.

Selina Xu and Lee Xin Min

On Halloween

In the airy atrium at the Harvard Art Museums, my creative writing professor Claire Messud paints for us the world of a writer over lunch — there are expectations (perhaps, gendered), reviews, time/sacrifices/choices when one has children, and how 99% of writers can’t pay the bills with writing. But, still, we write on. A girl talked about how she quit her job and started bartending so she could have more time to write.

As I poked at my salad, I wondered about this weird instinct that compels us to create and live in words. We inscribe our place in the world with a frantic pen. We anchor our life in stories and cup them in our hands, hoping that strangers will read. We surrender to one vivid and continuous dream after another.

If writing is easy, anyone can be a writer. I think it’s a holy life; a moonkissed mind, a conduit — by choice.

***

If you’ve read till here, thank you for indulging me. x

Sending you sparks! ✨✨✨

Lots of love,

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Confession: “I Was Born A Writer”

I’m not sure that Morocco or France are my countries… No, my country is language. My country is a library.

Have you ever felt utterly exhilarated just listening to someone talk?

I was in a conference room somewhere in the basement of the Center for European Studies. Leila Slimani was in conversation with my Advanced Fiction Professor Claire Messud.

Every single word that tumbled out of her mouth — matter-of-factly, resolutely, spontaneously — was setting off fireworks in my head. 

I was born a writer, she said. I always knew I was going to be a writer. 

When hard things happened in her life, even before she started writing her first novel, a part of her was always thinking, Now I’m getting closer to my destiny. Every moment, life was giving her material that could be digested and transformed into literature. So you’ve survived, now you can write. Everything is literature. 

When she said the word “destiny,” I was falling through time and space. When I was in first grade, the school project for the holidays was to fill out a 10-page activity sheet on our life ambitions. (Think: when I grow up, I want to be x.) In 2005, my dad was a computer scientist with entrepreneurial zeal and my mom was a homemaker armed with an engineering degree and childhood education diploma. I wonder how I knew even then the destiny of those letters as my seven-year-old self painstakingly penciled the word: w-r-i-t-e-r. My most primordial instinct, before socialization.

Then I lost that sense of destiny.

Sitting there, hearing Leila talk about how we reach the unreachable and the unspeakable with respect and tenderness in art, about the sheer freedom of writing (we can write about anyone from the inside with intimacy, even monsters or people we hate), about how writing is never to judge but simply to reveal how a person is like, gave me vertigo.

I don’t know if I have talent but all I know is that if I wasn’t a writer, I would have been a bitter, angry, jealous person, Leila said in response to my question. In writing, I accomplished myself.

She was the silhouette of a 37-year-old I hoped to grow into, what I had let fall in the march of years, and what I so desperately wanted to believe, believe, believe. And to remember.

I was born to be a writer. I am going to be a writer.

Even if some days I can’t write, even when I’ve never written anything close to a novel, life has an arc, a constellation of dots, a thrumming of strings ONLY IF WE CHOOSE TO SEE. This vision, undercut by my own doubts, has been postponed, danced around in conversations, swept aside and buried when it wasn’t achieved in 21 years of existence.

But these years should neither be proof of my inadequacies nor a tractor demolishing intuition. The life I’m living through and the inner life that’s ever-shifting within me are all pieces and strands that will eventually crystallize. Every moment I’m just a step closer. 

Thank you, Leila, for the sheer imprint of your burning-hot conviction. I’ve never met someone this serenely confident in the meaning of their existence. You’ve delivered my sense of destiny back to me.

Leila Slimani Harvard.jpeg

Here’s an article about Leila from The New Yorker: The Killer-Nanny Novel that Conquered France.

Here’s a short story by Leila, The Confession. Trigger warning: it’s from the perspective of a rapist.

***

Lots of love on a revelatory day,

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The Big 21

On May 31, 2019, I turned 21.

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Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner 

The big 21 is sundrenched in Californian heat, pulsing in road trip vibes, and peppered with desert sand and surrealist tree-like cacti with muscled arms (think: the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter). Outside of the window are lonely gas stations, abandoned houses, and then a humongous pink ice cream rupturing the barren, earthy landscape. Glitzy outlets in deserts. 50’s diners in ghost towns. A candy factory by the highway. Wasteland dotted in green thorns.

The big 21 is 1,500km over three days. Being on the car for hours at an end, with my legs up on the seat in front, light filtering through the windows, my fingers shuffling songs on Spotify, basking in the shadow of mountains. Highways nestled in endless expanses of land. So much land that my dad says, America must be blessed. There’s so much history — historical injustice — and circumstance wrapped up in that statement, but as the land whizzes past, it seems true.

The big 21 is perching on a hot, red rock at Grand Canyon West’s Guano Point, wind ruffling my hair, and sun in my eyes. It’s gazing into the canyon abyss on a glass skywalk. It’s the glory of nature’s hand, so close to mankind’s own feats, but those pale in comparison.

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The big 21 is returning from that display of nature to the haven of capitalist excess. It’s being surrounded by temptations in the desert oasis that’s Las Vegas. It’s weaving in and out of the glittering sprawl of casinos, amidst the intensely colored slot machines making cute sounds. It’s marveling at the incredible, gravity-defying feats of Cirque du Soleil acrobats at KÀ (which had multiple VERTICAL combat scenes?! and people strewing rose petals as they make an arc over the air). It’s learning the danger of unchecked desires. It’s beginning to make new principles.

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The big 21 is spending the day at Universal Studios Hollywood (it’s really becoming a tradition! my 20th was at Universal Studios Japan 🥳). It’s licking cotton candy (shaped like Marge’s hair from The Simpsons) off my fingertips, drinking Butterbeer at Hogsmeade, taking my favorite Revenge of The Mummy ride (which I almost know by heart now), seeing the Bates Motel set from Psycho, wearing a bright blue birthday badge and hearing birthday wishes from buoyant voices all day long. It’s feeling like a kid still, and acutely aware and grateful that I’m 21 but always my parents’ baby.  

The big 21 is feeling grateful for all the love and wishes from friends, old and new. Growing up is realizing that some people might only stay with you for a short station in life’s journey but that some people do stay, for a very long time. Time and distance can change things, and somehow I am further apart from friends geographically unlike younger days when we all lived within twenty minutes’ drive. For the friendships that last, I am immensely grateful. For the friends who I’ve met at Harvard, I’m so thankful that college life has been spent by your sides. To everyone who remembered, very blessed to have you in my lives. ❤

The big 21 is about family. Parents who will fly eighteen hours with me across the Pacific to celebrate my birthday. Parents who tolerate my childishness (even when I’m now legally an adult T_T) while treating me like an equal in many matters; who educate me when I make mistakes while always growing and reflecting alongside me; who give me the freedom to fly far away and explore to my heart’s content while opening their arms in wide, warm embrace each time I return to their harbor. 爸比妈咪,我爱您们!💕💕💕

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The big 21 is realizing God’s hand in guiding my life in the smallest, most moving details. At so many points on the West Coast, I’ve realized His wisdom only in retrospect. Thank you, God, for carrying me on Your shoulders. I hope to keep growing into a better version of myself under Your love and to do You proud.

The big 21 is also about this blog, where I pen these thoughts down. I started this in 2017. Now, this is my 57th post. Over 30,000 of you have visited, and many of you have kept reading. My last wish here is to keep growing alongside more of you, to keep writing, and to tell life’s magic in stories that can stay. Thank you for reading the story of my life. ❤

Wishing you, dear reader, all the love and happiness in the world,

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Selina Xu Birthday Cake