Finding the Story

Banh Tet

Bánh tét (The South Vietnamese traditional Lunar New Year Dish)

“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.”
― Robert McKee

Every year for the Lunar New Year (i.e. Chinese New Year) my grandmother makes bánh Tét. A New Year’s tradition, this dish is known to have originated in South Vietnam. Wrapped in banana leaves and tightly bound by plastic string are sweet rice, cooked mung bean, and pork belly. This was, and still is, my favorite dish to date.

My grandmother is 73 years old, 4’9” tall, and when she smiles a line of blackened teeth appear—the result of over 6 decades of chewing tobacco. Grandma is a badass.

In...

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Rise to the Top, then Humble Yourself

Mutual Respect

Mutual Respect

Situated on a street notorious for prostitution, crime, and drugs, is my parents’ small motel. The area is known to many as the “meth capital of the world”. Cops hardly want to enter. And most of society is simply glad it’s contained to six square miles. As you can imagine, working in an area like this has many challenges beginning with security and ending with a hardened outer appearance. To look weak in the neighborhood is to invite trouble.

When my parents first took over the business 10 years ago, I thought they were crazy. Running a motel was a 24-hour job and it was a notoriously rough neighborhood, but they were entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity and wanted to capitalize on it. I think my dad also saw it as a challenge, which he’ll deny enjoying...

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Playing Like Picasso

One of Picasso's first cubist Paintings - Les Demoiselles

One of Picasso’s first cubist Paintings – Les Demoiselles

Guest post by: Ryan Andrew

For the longest time, I used to startle awake in the middle of the night. I’d look around and not know where I was… I wouldn’t recognize the shapes of my apartment walls or furniture in the dark, and it would take me a moment to get my bearings. As I’d lay there looking up at the ceiling, suddenly my problems would flood around me like my bed had been floating in the ocean and was just now submerging and dipping under the surface. Things always seemed worse at night: if I was having problems at work, financially, or with a relationship, it was always magnified ten times at these late hours. 

When I was a kid, one of...

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Giving Characters Freedom To Be Wrong

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Aubrey Johnson, the protagonist in my manuscript Blue Sun, Yellow Sky, is a painter who discovers that in six to eight weeks she’ll be completely blind. I myself couldn’t paint a flower to save my life, but I was fascinated with the idea of someone in her late twenties losing the identity she spent her life cultivating. Ideas are fickle that way; sometimes they emerge but require a great deal of research.

To get into the mind of a painter, I spent a lot of time in art galleries and museums. Not being a painter myself, I had to read a lot about painting technique, color mixing, shadow and light composition and historical context. But I also needed my character to be relatable and feel real, so she couldn’t just spit facts out here and there about art. She needed to...

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Winter’s for Writing

           desk-rain

           When I used to work a regular nine-to-five job (two of them actually), I found it really hard to write at night. There were so many things going on after work, from happy hour to birthdays, that by the time I sat down at my computer to write, my brain was exhausted and my eyes already drooping. Summertime is by far the worst season to write—people are jovial, they want to go lay out at the pool or beach and every day seems like a party you don’t want to miss. Winter, however, is a different story.

            From the moment winter arrives we know it because it’s cloudy all day, making it feel as if the sun ceased to come up at all—the party stops. Mornings blend into afternoons as the...

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Waiting on Inspiration

Inspiration-true-writers-31646608-1280-853

A couple weeks ago, I finished the umpteenth draft of the Untitled Novel I’ve spent the last two years writing. I should’ve felt accomplished, proud, or, at the very least, relieved. I didn’t. The novel wasn’t finished.

When I started this unnumbered draft, I felt pretty confident in the viability, marketability, and overall concept of the story. I’d tested the idea on a handful of friends who fit the targeted demographic, and they all thought it was interesting to varying degrees. My friends are awesome. They’re super-supportive and wonderful liars. So I could tell when a worried furrow creased their brow at the same time they smiled with feigned interest. The fact that they had finished the book meant the idea held their interest, but I could tell I hadn’t hit a home run. The ending was unsatisfying.

To be fair, before I even sent...

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Overpasses

One minute over the 5

Photo taken by Chris Collins

I hate to run, but I love to walk. The sheer thought of walking sends calm, reassuring messages to my normally anxious body. If I’m walking, even with no particular destination in mind, I can convince myself I am accomplishing something with that time. The same cannot be said for running on a treadmill or any other likewise piece of gym equipment.

So the other day, as I was wandering toward downtown Burbank, I came across a freeway overpass. It was late, maybe 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., so the sky was a dark blue and the cars whizzing by were nothing more than streaks of light. As I stood there watching the world speed past, I felt hypnotized. The universe had somehow found a way...

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On the Subject of Writing

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“Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” — Gene Fowler

I took a photo of that quote for Instagram and blasted it out to my followers, not thinking much more about it. But, as I wake up every morning to a pile of edits for the 128th draft of my first novel, the quote nags at me. Writing is hard. No one will blame you if you just give up. The devil is always sitting on my shoulder.

Writing is an exercise, and every day I have to remind myself of that. I read books– lots of them. When I fly through them in two days, I always think, Man, will I ever be this good? But writing is like running a marathon: no one starts out running one mile...

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Travel to Bonaire and Chase the Silence

Chasing Silence (Photo taken by Marvin Lai)

Jetlagged and sweating profusely, I anxiously wait for my luggage to show up on the single snake-like conveyor belt of the Flamingo Airport. Usual hordes of smiling family members at the gate are non-existent here, yet there is a strong sense of community among those disembarking from the plane – everyone is a diver. The dry humidity makes for an uncomfortable arrival but less than an hour later, as I’m peering at a school of fish swimming along the edge of the Buddy Dive dock, I barely register the heat anymore. While being briefed on proper Nitrox tank checkout procedures, I jokingly (but seriously) turn to my dive instructor and promptly state, “We’re here for a week. If I don’t see a sea turtle by Thursday, Friday morning I’m...

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Moments that Cultivate Big Change

Be Bold, Keep Moving Up

I was doing research for a blog post I was asked to write on food when I came across a video that I couldn’t stop watching. The clip was from Michael Buble’s tour in 2010 and watching it reminded me of a time when I was young and believed in impossible dreams.

The world I grew up in wasn’t horrible but let’s just say it was more akin to The Wire than Hannah Montana. I spent most of my time outside of school, doing my homework, in the back alley of my parents billiard–there’s nothing like a desolate ally to make kids ask for more challenging math problems. Hollywood was a pipe dream, but one that I thought about incessantly. On some crazy level I was sure that one day I’d be hanging out with...

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