Chapter no 18



Writers’ Workshop in Massachusetts. It’s the only program that’s invited me back for the season, and likely only because I’m still paying for that stupid annual scholarship in Athena’s name (the workshop is funded and hosted by the Asian American Writers’ Collective, and Peggy Chan is the coordinator of both). My other regular engagements have dried up since the Adele Sparks-Sato blog hit. Last summer, I was booked week to week with keynote talks and guest lectureships; this summer, there’s nothing on my calendar between May and August.

I strongly considered canceling on the YAWW, but ultimately I couldn’t face an otherwise endless, monotonous summer. Any distraction seemed better than pacing my apartment all day, trying and failing to write a single word. Besides, I’m hoping this might be good for me. Teaching is an unassailably noble calling, and even if this doesn’t redeem me in the public eye, it might at the very least build bridges with a group of students who haven’t decided yet that I’m a public enemy. It might make writing fun again.

I’m assigned to lead a daily, four-hour critique session with the select class: all high school upperclassmen I handpicked on the strength of their writing samples. It’s fascinating to meet them in person. I spot the big personalities in the group immediately: there’s Christina Yee, a tiny goth girl with very pronounced black eyeliner whose writing sample involved lots of body horror and teeth; Johnson Chen, who sports gelled-up hair and eighties-style overcoats like some K-pop singer, and whose navel-gazing writing sample had led me to believe he was an ugly duckling but he is actually quite clearly a chick magnet; and Skylar Zhao, a tall and leggy

rising senior who, during introductions, declares her intentions to be her generation’s Athena Liu.

They slouch casually like they don’t care how they’re perceived, but I can tell how badly they want to impress me. They’ve got the classic fledgling talent mentality—they know they’re good, or could be good, but they crave acknowledgment of this fact, and they’re terrified of rejection. I remember this mix of feelings well: unbridled ambition, a growing pride that one’s own work might in fact be that remarkable, paired with staggering, incurable insecurity. The resulting personality is astoundingly annoying, but I sympathize with these kids. They’re just like myself, ten years ago. A well-phrased barb right now could irreparably destroy their confidence. But the right words of encouragement could help them fly.

This summer, I’ve decided I’ll try to be that for them. I’ll put the rest of the world aside. I’ll stop checking Twitter, stop browsing Reddit, and stop agonizing over my own writing. I’ll focus on doing this one thing that I might be good at.

The introductions go well. I use the same icebreakers I’ve picked up over years of creative writing classes: What’s your favorite book? (“Voice and Echo,” declares Skylar Zhao, citing Athena’s debut. “Lolita,” Christina responds, chin jutted out as if in challenge. “By Nabokov?”) What’s a book that would be perfect if you could rewrite the ending? (“Anna Karenina,” declares Johnson“Only Anna wouldn’t kill herself.”) We construct a short story by going around the room, each adding a sentence to the one that came before. We speed-revise that story in under five minutes. We play with different interpretations of the same line of dialogue: “I never said that we should kill him!”

By the end of the hour, we’re all laughing and making inside jokes. We are no longer quite so scared of one another. I round out the session by hosting an AMA about the publishing industry—they’re all eager to know what it’s like to query agents, to have a book go to auction, and to work with a real, actual editor. The clock strikes four. I give them some homework—rewrite a passage by Dickens using no adverbs or adjectives— and they cheerfully slide their laptops into their backpacks as they stand up to leave.

“Thanks, Junie,” they tell me on their way out the door. “You’re the best.” I smile and nod at each one of them as they depart, feeling like a wise, kind mentor.


nearest coffee shop and scribble out a half-dozen story ideas—descriptive paragraphs, experimental structures, crucial bits of dialogue, whatever comes to mind. I write so fast my hand cramps. I’m buzzing with creative energy. My students made stories seem so rich, elastic, full of infinite variations. Maybe my gears aren’t irreparably jammed. Maybe I only needed to remember how good it feels to create.

After an hour of scribbling, I sit back to survey my work, scanning the pages for anything I might expand into an outline. On second glance, though, these ideas don’t seem quite as fresh or scintillating. They are, in fact, slightly modified versions of my students’ writing samples. A girl who can’t get her mother’s approval no matter how well she does at school. A boy who hates his aloof, taciturn father, until he learns the sort of war trauma that shaped his father’s past. A pair of siblings who travel to Taiwan for the first time and reconnect with their heritage, even though they can’t pronounce anything right and they don’t like the food.

I snap my notebook shut in disgust. Is this all I can manage now?

Stealing from fucking children?

It’s fine, I tell myself. Calm down. All that matters is that I’m greasing the gears; I’m getting back into the zone. I’ve sparked a flame that I haven’t felt in a very long time. I have to be patient with myself, to give that flame time and space to grow.

On my way back to the dormitory, I glimpse my students through the window of Mimi’s, one of the many bubble tea cafés near campus. The twelve of them are crowded around a table meant for six; so many chairs pulled up that they each get only a little bit of table space. They seem totally comfortable around one another, hunched over their laptops and notebooks. They’re writing—perhaps working on my homework assignment. I watch as they show one another snippets of work, laughing at funny turns of phrase, nodding appreciatively as they take turns reading out loud.

God, I miss that.

It has been so long since I thought of writing as a communal activity. All the published writers I know are so cagey about their writing schedules, their advances, and their sales numbers. They hate divulging information about their career trajectories, just in case someone else shows them up. They hate even more to share details about their works in progress, terrified

that someone will scoop their ideas and publish before they can. It’s a world of difference from my undergraduate days, when Athena and I would crowd around a library table late at night with our classmates, talking over metaphors and character development and plot twists until I couldn’t tell anymore where my stories ended and theirs began.

Perhaps that’s the price of professional success: isolation from jealous peers. Perhaps, once writing becomes a matter of individual advancement, it’s impossible to share with anyone else.

I stand by the window of Mimi’s perhaps longer than I ought to, watching wistfully as my students joke around. One of them—Skylar— glances up and almost sees me, but I duck my head down and stride quickly off toward the dorms.


Starbucks was moving at a glacial pace, and I discovered why when I got to the counter, where a girl with pink hair and two nose piercings struggled for nearly five minutes to input my very simple order. When I finally reach the classroom, all my students are crowded around Skylar’s laptop, giggling. They don’t notice as I walk in.

“Look,” says Skylar. “There’s even a sentence-by-sentence comparison of the first few paragraphs of both stories.”

Christina leans forward. “Noooo.”

“And there’s an NLP comparison—look, here.”

I know without asking: they’ve found Adele Sparks-Sato’s blog report. “They think all of The Last Front is stolen, too,” says Johnson. “Look,

the paragraph right after. There’s a quote from a former editorial assistant at Eden; she says it always felt fishy—”

“You think she took it right out of her apartment? Like, the night she died?”

“Oh my God,” says Skylar, delighted and horrified. “That’s diabolical.”

“Do you think she killed her?” “Oh my God, don’t—”

I clear my throat. “Good morning.”

Their heads pop up. They look like startled rabbits. Skylar slams her laptop shut. I stride cheerfully to the front of the room, Starbucks in hand, trying my hardest to keep from trembling.

“How’s everyone doing?” I don’t know why I’m doing this oblivious bit. They all know I heard them. Their faces have turned a uniform scarlet; none of them will meet my eye. Skylar sits with her hand pressed against her mouth, exchanging panicked looks with a girl named Celeste.

“That bad, huh?” I nod to Johnson. “How was your evening, Johnson?

How’d the homework go?”

He stammers out something about Dickens’s verbosity, which gives me time to decide how I want to handle this. There’s the honest route, which is to explain to them the details of the controversy, tell them the same thing I told my editors, and let them make up their own minds. It’ll be an object lesson in the social economy of publishing, in how social media distorts and inflames the truth. Maybe they’ll walk away with more respect for me.

Or I could make them regret this.

“Skylar?” My voice sounds more like a bark than I intended. Skylar flinches like she’s been shot. “It’s your story we’re critiquing today, isn’t it?”

“I—uh, yeah.”

“So where are your printouts?”

Skylar blinks. “I mean, I emailed it to everyone.”

I requested in the workshop guidelines that the subject of critique bring printed copies of their story to class. We’ve been using laptops since last year, though, and I know it’s unfair to rip Skylar for it, but it’s the first knock I can think of. “I made my expectations very clear in the handouts. Perhaps you don’t think the rules apply to you, Skylar, but that attitude won’t get you very far in publishing. Keep thinking you’re the exception, and you’ll end up like one of those creeps who corner editors in bathrooms and slide manuscripts under doors into hotel rooms because they don’t think the industry guidelines apply.”

This wins me a couple of snickers. Skylar’s face goes white as paper. “Are you going to corner editors in bathrooms, Skylar?”

“No,” she drawls, rolling her eyes. She’s trying to play it cool, but I can hear her voice quiver. “Obviously not.”

“Good. So print your manuscript next time. That goes for all of you.” I take a long, satisfying sip of my Very Berry Hibiscus Refresher. My knees are still trembling, but this verbal putdown gives me a rush of hot, spiteful

confidence. “Well, let’s get to it. Rexy, what did you think of Skylar’s story?”

Rexy swallows. “I, uh, liked it.” “On what grounds?”

“Well, it’s interesting.”

“‘Interesting’ is a word people use when they can’t think of anything better to say. Be specific, Rexy.”

That sets the tone for the rest of the morning. I used to think that mean teachers were a special kind of monster, but it turns out that cruelty comes naturally. Also, it’s fun. Teenagers, after all, are unformed identities with undeveloped brains. No matter how clever they are, they still don’t know much about anything, and it’s easy to embarrass them for their ill-prepared remarks.

Skylar gets the worst of it. Technically her story—a whodunnit set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in which none of the witnesses will cooperate with the police because they have their own secrets and community codes of honor—is not bad. The writing is strong, the conceit is interesting, and there’s even a clever twist at the end that makes you reevaluate every previous word uttered by the characters. It’s very impressive for a high schooler. Still, her inexperience shows. Skylar’s exposition is clumsy in parts, she makes use of quite a few contrived coincidences to move the story along, and she hasn’t figured out how to toe the line between tense and histrionic dialogue.

I could gently correct these tendencies while encouraging Skylar to think up the solutions herself.

“And then, again, there’s a lawyer on the scene out of nowhere.” I tap the page. “Do lawyers grow on trees, Skylar? Maybe they have a spidey sense for marital discomfort?”

Then: “Do Chloe and Christopher have a weird incest thing going on, or is that just how you’ve chosen to portray all of their sibling interactions?”

Then: “Does every single Chinese person in this neighborhood know each other, or did you just find that convenient for the plot?”

Then: “I wonder if there’s any better imagery you can use for sexual tension than literally biting into a strawberry.”

Then: “‘She let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding.’


By the end of it I’ve convinced most of the class that Skylar’s story is horrible—whether they agree, or whether they’re scared of invoking my ire, I don’t care. We’ve picked her voice and style to shreds. Her metaphors are unoriginal, her dialogue is wooden (at one point I even make Johnson and Celeste act out a scene, just to highlight how cringey it sounds out loud), her plot twists are all borrowed from readily recognizable pop-culture sources, and she overuses her em dashes and semicolons to the extreme. By the end of our session, Skylar is close to tears. She has stopped nodding, frowning, or reacting to any bits of criticism whatsoever. She merely stares out the window, lower lip trembling, fingers twisting the top page of her notebook into tiny pieces.

I’ve won. It’s a pathetic victory, sure, but it’s better than sitting here and suffering their mocking glares.

That hot, vicious satisfaction stays with me through the rest of the morning. I conclude the critique circle, assign homework, and watch them flee wordlessly out the door.

I’ve only made things worse, I know. Now I’ll have to sit before their resentful, condescending faces for another week and a half. I’m sure that, behind the scenes, they’ll bitch about me endlessly until this workshop is over. I’m sure they’ll join the chorus of Juniper Song haters online. But I’ve at least made myself into a terror rather than a punch line, and for now, I’m all right with that.

Once they’ve left the classroom, I pull out my phone and Google “Candice Lee Juniper Song Athena Liu.” Johnson’s words have been stuck in my mind all morning: There’s a quote from a former editorial assistant at Eden; she says it always felt fishy.

My breath quickens with fear as the results load. What does Candice have on me?

But the relevant article—another tiresome Adele Sparks-Sato hit piece

—contains nothing new. Candice offers no damning evidence, no new shreds of proof that haven’t been overanalyzed to bits by the internet already. Just a vague quote that means nothing much at all.

I close the article and scroll through her social media accounts. Candice’s Instagram is private; her Twitter has been inactive since last March. Her LinkedIn, however, announces she’s recently taken on a new job as an editorial assistant at a small press based in Oregon.

My fear dissipates. No new developments, then. My line of careful deniability still holds, and Candice’s quote is just the vague finger-pointing of a jealous ex–publishing insider.

Also, Oregon? I can’t help but do some petty Googling. Candice’s new employer puts out maybe ten litfic titles a year, none of which I’ve ever heard of, and none of which have broken even a hundred reviews on Goodreads. Half of them aren’t even proper novels; they’re chapbooks. They can’t possibly be selling enough copies to stay afloat—she might as well be working at a vanity press. It’s a drastic step down from her former job at Eden. I doubt she’s even making a full-time salary.

Well, at least there’s some cosmic justice in the world. It’s a tiny victory, but it’s the only thing just then that helps this rage in my chest cool down.


“Several students complained about your behavior in workshop today,” she says. “And, June, based on some of the reports, I’m concerned—”

“It was a heated workshop,” I say. “Skylar Zhao is a talented writer, but she doesn’t know how to take criticism. I wonder, actually, if this is the first time she’s had to confront the fact that her writing isn’t as wonderful as she thinks it is.”

“You didn’t say anything untoward to the students?” “Not that I recall.”

“A few of the students said it seemed you were bullying Skylar. June, we have a very strict antibullying policy in this workshop. There are things you can say to adults that you can’t say to high school students. They are fragile—”

“Oh, they’re certainly fragile.”

“If you’re available, June, I’d like you to come to the office—” “Actually, Peggy . . .” I pause, then sigh. A few possible explanations

flash through my mind. Skylar is oversensitive, she’s making things up, she’s the one who provoked me in the first place, she’s turned the class against me. But then I take stock of the whole situation, and it’s astoundingly pathetic. I don’t need to engage in a she-said, she-said battle with a seventeen-year-old. I’m too big for this.

“I think I’m going to have to leave,” I blurt. “Sorry, that’s probably not the news you were expecting. But my mother—I’ve just heard that she’s not

doing so well—”

“Oh, June. I am very sorry to hear that.”

“—and she’s been asking if I can come visit, but I keep putting it off for work, and I thought, Well, she’s not always going to be around . . .” I trail off, rather astounded by my brazen lie. My mother isn’t sick at all. She’s doing fine. “So perhaps it’s the stress of that situation that is affecting my conduct, and for that I truly apologize . . .”

“I understand.” Peggy doesn’t seem the least bit suspicious. If anything, she sounds eager. Perhaps she, too, has been secretly hoping I would quit on my own.

I egg her along. “I’m sorry to leave the class . . .”

“Oh, we’ll figure it out. There are some local writers in the area. We’ll have to find a substitute for tomorrow, so I might ask Rachel from the office to step in . . .” She trails off. “Anyhow, we’ll deal with it. We’ll tell the class you had a family emergency. I’m sure they’ll be disappointed, but they’ll understand.”

“Thank you, Peggy. That means a lot. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”

“You take care, June. I’m sorry again.”

I hang up, then flop back onto my bed and groan in relief.

That was agonizing, but at least I’m free. I once read somewhere that Asian people are so polite because they have this cultural concept of letting each other save face. They might be judging the shit out of you on the inside, but on the outside, at least, they’ll let you walk away with your pride intact.

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