Writing and Wellness
When You're Grateful to Write, You Can Overcome Any Challenge
Wings of a Flying Tiger is a work of fiction. But to me, a Chinese-American, it is also personal
I was born and raised in China. My mother and grandma had lived in Nanking and escaped from the city just days before the notorious Nanking Massacre when the Japanese soldiers slaughtered 300,000 innocent Chinese and raped 20,000 women in six weeks.
Both my mother’s and father’s families fled to Chungking, where the Japanese frequently bombed the wartime capital. My father told me about the repulsive smell of burning flesh, and as a young child, he had nightmares about the raids for several years.
A good friend’s father drowned when the Japanese attacked his boat; even unable to swim, he jumped into a river to avoid being blasted. A Japanese friend sincerely apologized for the atrocities her fellow countrymen had committed. She knew a former soldier who forced naked Chinese women to march with them to bring up their morale.
Writing the Book Was My Way of Saying “Thank You”
China was an isolated country while I was growing up. We were told that the Americans were “devils” and the American soldiers were crude and cowardly. I didn’t read anything about the Flying Tigers until I came to the U.S. as a graduate student. I was touched once I learned the truth. And the more I read, the more I was touched. I wanted to thank the Flying Tigers. What better way to show my gratitude than writing a book about them?
The story of the Flying Tigers, a group of American volunteer pilots who helped China fight Japan in WWII, has been a fascinating and enduring topic for over seventy years. Most of the books, though, were nonfiction, written from the perspective of the pilots.
This novel is a rescue story from the points of view of both the airman and the Chinese who saved him.
As a Chinese person, I’m thankful for the Flying Tigers’ bravery and sacrifice; without their help, the course of the Chinese history might have been changed, my family might not have survived, and I might not have existed.
As a U.S. citizen, I’m honored to write a book about American heroes. It’s a privilege. A duty.
Writing is Hard…Writing with a Secondary Language is Even Harder
Writing is hard. Writing with a secondary language is even harder. My biggest challenge is writing itself, particularly grammar.
Born and raised in China, I learned English as a foreign language in school. The learning was limited and sometimes even wrong. I came to the U.S. in my early twenties as a graduate student for a career in science.
My first English “teacher” in the U.S. was the TV. I didn’t even have the concept of a commercial. I thought accidentally I touched the remote control or there was something wrong with the TV when a program suddenly jumped to unrelated subjects.
In China, at the time, there were two stations, broadcasting from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. There were no commercials. It took me a while to figure out what was going on.
I’ve always loved reading, but creative writing was a dangerous career in China. As famous writers, my grandmother and aunt were wrongfully accused as counter-revolutionary Rightists. I had to choose science—a safer path. Fiction writing was only a faraway dream; writing it in English was beyond my wildest dreams.
I Learned Fiction Writing by Reading Lots of Books
I learned fiction writing by reading lots of books. When I wrote my novels, I’m sure I spent more time than most people. I had to constantly check two dictionaries—Chinese to English and English to Chinese.
Even so, no matter how hard I tried, I still made grammatical mistakes. That frustrated me the most. There were plenty of times that I laughed and scolded myself for being so stubborn to embark on this journey that seemed almost impossible to succeed.
Nowadays, so many people write; everyone has an advantage over me.
I wish I’d grown up speaking English. I wish I’d had proper education or training. Since I can’t change the past, I just have to work harder.
Life is Too Short—I Wanted to Finish the Book for Myself
I rarely had writer’s blocks when I wrote this book, not because I wrote from the beginning to the end, but because I didn’t allow myself to get stuck.
I walked around the blocks and circled back to fill them in. When I was still stuck, I took a hike by myself. The ideas usually came like magic when I hiked alone. The first draft was done in three months (full-time), although it took me another two years to rewrite.
But Wings of a Flying Tiger isn’t my first novel. I wrote one before. It’s about the transformation of a shy and fearful young girl to a warm and courageous woman. This book took me over ten years from the start to the end—I only wrote about 20% before I paused. It was too hard. I was too busy. But the idea of finishing the book never left my mind.
In 2010, my dad was dying of cancer. I quit my job and went back to China to take care of him and mom, who had a stroke earlier and was half-paralyzed. Three years later I returned to the U.S. after my parents passed away. I made a decision that most of my friends didn’t agree with—I was going to do what I wanted the most—traveling, hiking, and writing.
Life is too short. I didn’t want to go back to the laboratory as a scientist, which I was trained to be, but my heart wasn’t there. I longed to see the world. I needed to finish the novel I started, not for anyone but myself. Just to see if I could accomplish a tough job. Just to fulfill a dream.
I did it—I finished the book. Even though it’s not good enough to share with anyone, the feeling of accomplishing something hard was rewarding, and the training helped me tremendously to tackle the next project.
Sometimes, All We Need is a Little Encouragement
Another block came after I finished Wings of a Flying Tiger and before it was accepted for publication. I wanted to write a sequel. I wondered what my characters would do and how they lived their lives. Certain characters died in the first book. I loved them so much that I wished to bring them back, although I wasn’t successful in this regard.
This block lasted three months. Once I forced myself to sit down. (I usually don’t force myself when I don’t want to write. To me, it should be fun.) Nothing. I didn’t put down a single word for two hours. I had no idea where to start.
The break came when I received an email from a publisher. “Congratulations!” it said, “Your novel has been accepted for publication.” Tears ran down my cheeks as I read it. “Oh, my god!” I exclaimed silently. “Danny, Jasmine, Daisy, and Birch will have a chance to live in other people’s hearts, not just mine.”
That night, I started the sequel, Will of a Tiger. Sometimes, all we need is a little encouragement.
It’s Pointless; There are Already So Many Books
My dream finally came true. Well, not really.
Ten months after the book was accepted for publication, I received an email from the publishing company. One of the two owners had a stroke; the other owner didn’t want to keep the contract and returned the book rights to me.
I cried, even during our writers’ meeting. “This is meant to be,” one friend comforted me. “You’ll find a better publisher.” I didn’t believe her at the time. But the next day I picked myself up. At least the acceptance for publication helped me to start the sequel.
I decided to work on both novels together since they are related. Chapter-by-chapter, I shared the books with three writing groups for over two years. Meanwhile, I met a retired journalist. She was so interested in my stories that she volunteered to edit them. Every week, she came to my place, and we went through the book line-by-line for a few hours.
I certainly struggled with self-doubt. It’s impossible! It’s too hard! It’s pointless; there are already so many books. Every time I went to a bookstore or a library, I wondered why the world needed another book. But my love for fiction writing was so strong that I kept going.
I struggled with the ending of the book. I had two different endings before, but I wasn’t satisfied with them. I like this ending [that I now have] much better—there is a twist; it is dramatic but logical. I was thrilled when I finally nailed it.
Dreams Do Come True When One Works Hard Enough
Writing this book made me a better person. I learned that I could do the “impossible,” and dreams do come true when one works hard enough.
Writing is only the beginning of my long journey. I struggled with words. I shared my book with three groups to get feedback. It was hard to listen to other’s comments. My face burned a few times. But I learned a lot from them.
And none of the steps toward publication is easy—getting rejection letters, picking myself up and trying again after the false “good news”…
By going through the process, I’m pretty sure I’m a stronger person.
Writing Changed My Life
I don’t think I’ll label novel writing as a spiritual practice. But I can tell you that writing changed my life.
I was a very negative person in an unhappy marriage, and I tried hard to change the situation. One book I read said that if you keep writing down five positive things a day, in twenty-one days you can change your negative thoughts. Being desperate, I was willing to try anything.
So I jotted down five positive things a day. It started with words or simple phrases. In time, words became sentences; sentences turned into paragraphs; paragraphs grew into pages. All positive.
I didn’t change in twenty-one days. It took me two years. But the end result is remarkable. I’m no longer a negative person. This happened fifteen years ago, so it is a lasting transformation.
The side effects of this practice? I started writing short stories, then novels.
So writing changed my life!
Advice for a Young Writer: If You Don’t Have a Burning Desire, Don’t Do It
Writing is hard. If you don’t have a burning desire, don’t do it.
But if you are passionate about it, don’t let anything or anyone stop you. Follow your passion.
Start today. Keep writing! Don’t give up. Persistence. Perseverance. Patience.
I’ll share several useful Chinese proverbs with you:
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
“Every step leaves its print.”
“If you work hard enough, you can grind even an iron rod down to a needle.”
Looking back, I’m amazed that I finished a novel (actually three—two have been accepted for publication; one isn’t good enough to share with anyone), by writing down one word after another. If I can do it, anyone can.