I'm posting this because any of you who have read my books Gaining or Solitaire will know Carolyn Hall Young as my friend "Carol." Since high school she has been my guiding light, my creative compass -- the living opposite of darkness. She has spent her life giving to others and bringing them together, and now all of those she's brought together are working hard to help her through the darkest passage of her life.
Carolyn is an extraordinary, luminous being. Just learning about her will lift you up.
When most artists talk about negative space, they’re referring to the ground around the figure, the air around the object, the surrounding darkness that defines light. For Carolyn, however, negative space also describes the unpredictable bounty of life.
Carolyn Hall Young is a painter and graphic designer. She’s a pioneer in the fields of mobile digital art and car audio design. She is a survivor whose secret powers consist of love, beauty, and joy. And she is the connective force linking virtual communities of friends and innovators in technology, medicine, art, and education around the globe. Some describe her as a miracle worker. Others think of her simply as a miracle of humanity.
For nearly thirty years – half her life -- Carolyn has been living with stage-four non-Hodgkin lymphoma – emphasis on living. Soon after she was first diagnosed, she and her husband, Warren, moved to a little town outside of Santa Fe, where they bought a four-acre ranch, rebuilt a dilapidated 160-year-old adobe farmhouse, planted gardens and transformed their life to include four horses, cats, dogs, and a rural community that bore no resemblance either to the urban culture they’d left behind in Phoenix or to Greenwich, Connecticut, where Carolyn grew up.
Most of this transformation they accomplished with their own hands, aided by their neighbors. And today the walls are crowded with paintings that reflect this remade life. A coffee cup beams with light in one of Carolyn’s canvasses. Her late white steed Terbay grazes in another. Three pears glow in a pottery plate, and serape-draped chairs under the New Mexican sky fill several panels. The presence of the woman who filled the cup, nurtured (and was nurtured by) the horse, grew the pears, and occupied those chairs is as palpable as the hand, eye, and heart that created these paintings. That’s another dimension of negative space.
“You never know what you’ll get to be grateful for,” Carolyn will say. This statement draws on her gift for transforming accidents on paper or canvas into elements of beauty. It also reflects her gratitude for the failure of a first marriage that left her free to find Warren, who shares her life to this day. And it has come to describe multiple rounds of high-dose chemo and any number of other treatments, experiments, and ordeals that have caused indescribable suffering and helped her stay alive.
“You never know,” Carolyn repeats. “That moment may be horrible, but you’ve got to give thanks first and ask questions later.” Not that this is easy. Negative space doesn’t stop being negative when it’s transformed; it just becomes positive in equal or greater measures.
In 2001 Carolyn told a reporter who was writing an article about her for the local paper, “I tend my garden, and it nourishes me.” When in bloom this garden is a profusion of flox, hollyhocks, campanula, iris, roses, delphinium, lilies, and lavender, plus herbs and dozens of varieties of heirloom tomatoes. It flows around boulders that Carolyn moved into place with her own under-90-pound grit. The result is planned but open to the unexpected, exuberant with a backbone of quiet gray toughness. Changing constantly from season to season, its messy and uncertain grace is a living reminder that you never know what you’ll get to be grateful for.
For almost as long as she’s lived with cancer Carolyn has peer counseled other seriously ill patients. Many of them don’t make it. “And when someone dies,” she says, “I want to throw myself on the floor and wail. I want to scream and swear.” Sometimes she does just that, but then she turns to her box of rubber blocks and starts carving four-letter words backwards and reversed, preparing to turn negative space into positive imprints of love. LOVE is one of those four-letter words, along with HOPE, GOOD, RISK, LIFE, CARE, GIVE, HOLD, and FEEL. Backwards and reversed, the process itself becomes a metaphor for her emotions in grief. But then, as she presses those carved-out ink blocks into the paper, the letters emerge as if formed by light, restored to their desired order and form. And she will send these printed messages of mercy to the families who’ve lost the person they loved. And it helps.
Love always helps. When Carolyn was still able to work, she brought this same spirit to the award-winning car audio systems she designed for Precision Power and Xtant Technologies, from the circuit boards to the painted casings, to all the marketing and advertising materials that promoted her Art Series Amplifiers. Recently she was asked to autograph one of her old car audio banners, and she added the inscription: “Listen for the LOVE of it to the Art of it for the SOUL in it and the FUN of it...Because you know when it's right.” Far from an advertising slogan, Carolyn’s words summed up her philosophy of life.
More recently she’s had to apply this philosophy to art that she can produce without leaving her bed, but – thanks to her trusty iPad Air 2 -- that hasn’t slowed her down. Using a multitude of mobile art tools and apps -- often beta testing them for their creators -- Carolyn has produced more than sixteen hundred iPad portraits as gifts for friends and acquaintances around the globe, many of whom she’s never physically met. Even though she herself can’t travel, her work has flown far, winning awards in mobile digital art competitions from Kansas City to Florence, Italy.
Each of her digital portraits begins with a photograph or two or three, which then take on the texture of collage or the subtlety of oil paint, or the feathery lightness of water color or pastels. Often they incorporate elements of the person’s life that cannot be photographed. The portrait she made for one friend, a writer, included a pigeon and lettering that spelled out the magnanimous phrase, infinite goodness has such wide arms, but also featured two black crows and a telegram from Dorothy Parker to her editor despairing about ever finding the right words. Carolyn is too keen an observer and too honest a friend to leave out the negative aspects of a person’s true nature, but in typical fashion she converts them with love into elements of grace.
A few years ago, while recuperating from one of several excruciating radiation treatments, she was visited by a telephone repairman who, after fixing her phone, revealed that he was wrestling with some difficult life questions of his own. Most people in this situation would have been too preoccupied with their own pain to worry about such questions. Not Carolyn.
“Ask yourself what you want,” she told this stranger. “Most people only want what they think they want. Don’t think. Feel. Whatever you truly feel you want, make that happen.” Feeling is the negative space that turns thinking into love.
Today the global network of love that Carolyn’s work, friendship, and words have inspired is turning to her assistance. Last month her body weakened. She lost the strength to send her usual notes, talk on the phone, or create digital artwork. She began a new round of treatment and, predictably, was soon captivating her doctors and the hospital staff. Meanwhile, her old classmates from Greenwich High School got together virtually with her 1,300 other Facebook friends and in six days raised more than $16,000 from donors all over the world to help cover her medical bills, equipment and care. This is just the beginning.
Why does this story matter? Because of the feeling. Because of the love. Because Carolyn Hall Young embodies the opposite of darkness, and because you never know what you’ll get to be grateful for.
You can join the Friends of Carolyn at:
Aimee Liu is the bestselling author of the novels Flash House; Cloud Mountain; and Face. Her books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Her short fiction has been nominated for and received special mention in the Pushcart Prize competition. Her essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Los Angeles Times, Poets & Writers, and many other periodicals and anthologies.
Aimee received her MFA in creative writing from Bennington College and currently teaches fiction and nonfiction in GODDARD COLLEGE'S low-residency MFA PROGRAM IN CREATIVE WRITING at Port Townsend, Washington. http://goddard.edu/academics/mfa-creative-writing
The focus of this website is Aimee's literary work -- her novels, essays, and anthologized work. For more in-depth information about her most recent nonfiction book, GAINING, and about her other work related to psychology and eating disorders, please visit www.gainingthetruth.com
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LA Times March 27, 2016
Political correctness may have run amok, but it's better than when casual racism ruled
Today it's popular to say that political correctness is destroying America, but a recently discovered set of century-old clippings offer a cautionary reminder of what our country was like without political correctness. From Oregon to South Carolina, journalists and their editors in 1906 felt free to trumpet racial epithets and outright lies, including those they printed about my American grandmother and my Chinese grandfather.
Beginning with their engagement, my grandparents' union was national news, simply because of their races. Front-page headlines ranged from the seemingly benign San Francisco Call's “Charming Miss Dolly Gives Her Hand to Len Shen Yu” to the Denver Post's virulent “Los Angeles Heiress Elopes with a Chink Editor of San Fran.”
Reporters couldn't be bothered to learn my grandfather's actual name, Liu Chengyu, instead concocting random approximations. And in true tabloid fashion, the Denver paper fabricated the notion that my grandmother was an heiress eloping with her Chinese lover.
In fact, until the 1906 San Francisco earthquake one month earlier, Dolly Trescott, then 29, had been struggling to support herself by tutoring students in English. One of them was my 30-year-old grandfather-to-be, then enrolled at UC Berkeley and the editor of a newspaper in San Francisco's Chinatown. When the quake struck, Liu Chengyu helped his tutor escape her boarding house on Jackson Street before the Great Fire engulfed it. He then protected her in the tent city for refugees that was erected on the Presidio. Homeless, and with no family other than her naturopath father in Los Angeles, Trescott understandably accepted when this wealthy son of a former Viceroy of Canton proposed marriage.
Liu was a protege of Sun Yatsen. In an ironic twist, his newspaper was an instrument of Sun's campaign to overthrow the imperial dynasty that had employed generations of Liu ancestors. My grandfather wanted to see China remade as a Western-style republic. It's not clear that my grandmother knew any more about these revolutionist activities than did the American reporters who dubbed her fiance an “embryo diplomat.” Regardless, she was prepared to go the distance to marry her “Celestial.” That alone made her fair game for the papers.
Saturday, APRIL 2
4:30 pm to 5:45 pm
@ AWP CONFERENCE
LA Convention Center
Meeting Room Level, Room 501
Many writers believe that the only or best literary agents are located on the East Coast, but West Coast agents beg to differ. The major publishing houses may still reside in and around New York City, but major authors live throughout the world, and Pacific Coast agents have found that literary representation outside New York may actually be to an author's advantage. Join veteran author Aimee Liu and this panel of West Coast pros:
Betsy Amster is a literary agent and president of Betsy Amster Literary Enterprises. Before opening her agency, she spent ten years as an editor at Random House. Her clients include bestselling novelists María Amparo Escandón and Joy Nicholson, MacArthur Fellow Will Allen, and psychologist Elaine Aron.
Angela Rinaldi is president of the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency which was founded in 1994. She held managerial and editorial positions at Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. She founded the book publishing program at the Los Angeles Times. She represents both fiction and nonfiction.
Elise Capron is an agent at the Dijkstra Literary Agency, which was established over thirty years ago and represents a wide range of genres. She has been with SDLA for more than a decade, and she is most interested in representing adult literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, particularly history.
Rebecca Friedman has been an agent for twelve years. A graduate of Barnard College, she is interested in commercial and literary fiction with a focus on literary suspense, women’s fiction, romance, young adult, and journalistic nonfiction and memoir. She is looking for great stories told in strong voices.
Free for AWP attendees.
Attention lovers of the hit podcast SERIAL!
I'm delighted that the Los Angeles Review of Books published my essay comparing Sarah Koenig's brainchild to Sebastian Junger's A Death in Belmont.
Here's a bit of it:
“It’s really hard to account for your time,” Koenig observed, then proceeded to ask several seemingly random teenagers to remember what they’d done on a day six weeks earlier. None of them could.
Okay, so memory is unreliable. But … three million listeners were hooked on this show. Why?
For the rest of my wrestling match with the answer, go to
I'm also delighted by LARB's publication of my essay, Toward a Messy and Uncertain Grace, inspired by Meredith Hall, author of Without a Map. This essay is based on a commencement address I gave last summer to MFA graduates at Goddard College in Port Townsend, WA, where I teach creative writing. Here is the opening:
I’VE BEEN THINKING a lot about grace lately. More precisely, I’ve been thinking about it since last February, when I first met the critically acclaimed memoirist Meredith Hall.
What initially impressed me about Hall was her unusual path to literary success. She didn’t graduate from college or even begin writing until she was 44 and spurred by a painful divorce. Since then, her essays have appeared in many of this country’s finest literary journals. She’s received a Pushcart Prize and in 2004 won a $50,000 Room of Her Own Award, which gave her the freedom to write her first book, Without a Map. That memoir landed on The New York Times Best Seller list. Oh, and when not writing or teaching or winning awards, Hall — now 65 — physically builds houses alongside her sons in their family construction business. All of which should make her a source of inspiration for any serious writer … but that’s not why I keep thinking about grace — at least not directly.
Back in February, Hall and I were on a panel discussing “The Writer as Mediator in Memoir and Personal Narrative” at the 2014 Association of Writing Programs conference in Seattle. As she spoke about finding and crafting the perspective she needed to write her memoir, it became clear that this process had been emotionally grueling. The story she had to tell began in the 1960s, when she was a pregnant teenager shunned by her formerly nurturing family and small-town community and forced to give up her baby without so much as glimpsing him. Twenty-one years later she learned that this son had grown up in poverty just a few miles away, with a physically abusive adoptive father. Pain, rage, guilt, and grief dominated much of Hall’s life.
But the question before her in our discussion was: what had been her intention as she wrote this story? To punish or shame her unrepentant parents? To paint herself as the innocent victim of small-town small-mindedness — or, perhaps, as a reborn crusader for the rights of teenage mothers? To mine her own trauma for tear-jerking effect? Or just to unburden herself of an experience that was too heavy to carry alone anymore? I will admit that some of these very possibilities — some perhaps laudable, some less so — had tempted me when I was laboring with my own memoirs.
Then, as Hall proceeded to name the intentions she did not want to shape her writing, the word forgiveness came up. As a possible goal, or ethos, or governing principle, perhaps? I asked. Did she never write to achieve, grant, or express forgiveness? Or as a prerequisite; as in, you can’t write a memoir until you’ve reached a place of forgiveness?
No. She was emphatic. Some things — many things — that human beings do to each other, to the earth, to nature, and to themselves, cannot and must not be forgiven. Moreover, even though literature may contain forgiveness, such reductive responses are never what great writing ultimately is about. No.
FOR THE REST OF THE ESSAY, PLEASE GO TO:
A Room Of Her Own is pleased to announce accomplished novelist and nonfiction writer Aimee Liu as the finalist Short Fiction judge for the Spring 2015 Orlando Prizes.
Please click through to Aimee's BLOG to read some sketch sections from her new novel in progress, set in the far reaches of British India circa World War II.
And please leave your comments, as we're eager to know what you think!
ALCHEMY OF THE WORD: Writers Talk About Writing
A collection of essays about the practice and life of writing, edited by Aimee Liu & Nicola Morris. All contributors are members of the faculty of the Goddard College MFA program in creative writing.
In this remarkable collection of essays, twenty-five acclaimed novelists, poets, playwrights, memoirists, cross-genre and nonfiction writers engage the reader in a virtual literary conversation, filled with passion, insight, wit, and warmth.
The Goddard MFA was the first low-residency program in creative writing; now there are around fifty operating in the United States. Program Director, Paul Selig says, “What greeted me at my first Goddard residency was the kind of community I had never dreamed possible… the faculty – well, they were teachers of the first order, and I found their dedication to shepherding a new generation of writers came from a place of deep generosity, wisdom and integrity.”
Alchemy of the Word introduces you to this faculty—not through their writing tips, tricks, and exercises, but through their experiences of themselves as professional writers living in the world, tackling issues they care about deeply and reporting back. To read this anthology is to travel to the wellsprings of literary inspiration, and to eavesdrop on a room full of mentors.
Flash House, 2003, Warner Books
A tale of international intrigue and the unintended consequences of love, set in India and China, 1949. FLASH HOUSE is available in the UK and Commonwealth countries through Review Books; in Holland in Dutch translation through de Boekerij; and in Italy in Italian translation through Sperling & Kupfer.
RESTORING OUR BODIES, RECLAIMING OUR LIVES
“A terrific book with a compelling interplay between the perspectives of professionals and the stories of people who have successfully recovered from eating disorders. Highly informative and a great read.”
—B. Timothy Walsh, MD, Columbia University
This book establishes new ground by walking the reader through the entire recovery process, from the initial turning points at the start of the odyssey to reclaiming one’s life after an eating disorder.
— Judith D. Banker, past president, Academy for Eating Disorders
I’ve read countless books about eating disorders, but I’ve never seen one quite like this! Combining the professional wisdom of leading experts with personal experiences from women and men all over the globe, Aimee Liu’s Restoring Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives fills what was once a gap on the recovery bookshelf. Anyone who has been touched by an eating disorder needs this book.
— Jenni Schaefer, Author of Goodbye Ed, Hello Me and Life Without Ed
Liu (Gaining: The Truth about Life After Eating Disorders) offers a compilation of letters written by an array of men and women suffering from anorexia, bulimia, binge, and other eating disorders. Liu puts each of these intimate letters into helpful contexts, so that current sufferers may learn from their peers. Contributors speak of past disorders, some lasting decades; others count an eating disorder as an ongoing struggle. With clinical notes and information on new and unique approaches, Liu's effort offers something for everyone effected by this issue, whether personally, peripherally, or professionally. About choosing a therapist, Liu urges readers to avoid adherents to current approaches that focus on diet alone, an important component to treatment, yes, but only the tip of the Eating Disorder iceberg. Liu's book isn't a guide to uncovering the psychology behind an eating disorder, but it clearly shows that relief from suffering can be found in the stories of other sufferers.
Throughout the book are informative sidebars written by leading professionals in the field, addressing essential topics such as finding the right therapist, the use of medications, exploring complementary treatments, and how family members can help.
— Publishers Weekly
The epic novel based on the marriage of Aimee's Chinese scholar-revolutionary grandfather and American grandmother, beginning with the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and concluding with the turmoil of World War II in China.
Aimee's first novel, FACE (Warner Books, 1994)
Now back in print!