One of the Andaman locations in my new novel.

Ross Island, India circa 1936, another setting in the new novel.

Reflections on a life among words

OUT TAKES ...bits and pieces of story, research, and process

Writing Like A Grown Up

September 28, 2009

Tags: personal essays


Not long ago I had coffee in NYC with two very talented writers. Chip Brown, a high school friend, has traveled around the world writing for such publications as Esquire, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, and only a few years back he told me proudly, "I think I finally write like a grown up." Christina Baker Kline, a friend through our mutual alma mater, teaches creative writing to college students and at the time of this coffee had just published her first novel to critical acclaim and, more importantly, four printings. Both of them talk like machine guns, shooting out thoughts faster than I can process them. I kept my mouth shut until the very end, when I tried to explain why I've never felt comfortable with the idea of writing articles, and essays in particular. "I don't ever quite believe people will want to read what I have to say."

Chip shot back, "Boy, are you in the wrong business!" and moved on to the hundredth new topic of the morning.

I didn't have a chance to qualify, to say that that's why I feel it necessary to fictionalize, to heighten the impact and interest of whatever it is that I do choose to write about. But it didn't matter. I believe my reticence, in the long run, helps my writing, just as for Chip, with his abundant hubris, it would be death. Our voices are entirely different, just as we are as people. We each will have our different readers, and lives. Our own levels of that curious commodity, "success."

It's true I envy Chip. I did in high school when, as editor of the literary magazine, he wrote volumes more than any other single student in the school. What, didn't matter. Letters, poems, short stories, essays, critiques. Words geysered out of him, not just into the ether as with other adolescents, but in form and onto paper. Yes, some were as disorganized as he still seems, and it was sometimes a greater ordeal to read them than it had been for him to write them. But he couldn't help himself. As a result, I can't recall a single piece he wrote but only the tumult of his verbiage, which went with the push-pull of his long thin hands in his long-thin hair and the seized quality of his breathing and intensity of his blue eyes. Of course, I was enamored of him, just as he was of the Class Beauties who never wrote a word. We were in high school, after all, and I assumed he barely noticed my existence. But today, 25 years later, he still taunts me with one of the three pieces I actually managed to produce for the Green Witch Literary Magazine. It began "I am a deer," and although I cringe each time he torments me with it, I do think it was a quintessential statement of my anorexic mindset of the moment. I would have given anything to be beautiful, graceful, quick, and especially, evanescent. The point is, he remembers it. And so do I.

I do not think people will be interested in most of the things I have to say, but this is not because my life and mind are boring. I do not read the newspaper from cover to cover, and I especially do not read most daily columns. Men talking about the observations they've made about their wives on the way to the dry cleaners, or women talking about how much they can learn about their husbands from their socks, or young women extolling on the trials and tribulations of pregnancy as if no woman in history has ever been pregnant before. Yes, these epiphanies are what keep us all alive and what make us all human, but once we have experienced them, do we really need to read them pouring from somebody else's pen?

For years I co-authored and ghost wrote how-to books that I wouldn't have chosen to read. What I want to write is what I actually want to read. And what I want to read is something other than my own life, something taken from my own life, yes, but expanded, twisted, turned into something larger and fascinating, filled with questions I can't yet answer and maybe won't be able to answer even after the writing is finished, though I'll be closer.

The articles that arise out of this larger process are the ones that interest me, including several written of late by Chip Brown as he embarks on his first book -- about alternative medicine. And I wonder if this isn't, at least in part, what Chip meant by "writing like a grown-up." It's not just a matter of style, of honing a particular grammar or facility with big words -- better yet, of rejecting all big words. It's a reflection of a grown-up way of inspecting the world.

Stories are not just what happen to us. Most really good stories belong to other people, and in order to write them honestly, we must grow up enough to step into those other people's lives. We must wonder and fantasize and search for insight not as we have done all our lives, but as They must have done. We must become Them. Chip might not realize that he's slipping out of himself as he writes in this mode, but for me the whole point of the exercise is to escape myself.

Then again, maybe it comes down to the same thing. He's more demonstrative, more energetic, more fanatical. And yes, I'll say it, more exhaustingly fun. But for both of us -- for any writer worth his or her salt -- the daily grind requires us to discover what we have to say that other people will indeed want to read.

below for more about Aimee's books & work.

Anthologies of fiction and nonfiction that Aimee has edited or contributed to.
a suspenseful novel of rescue and redemption set in Central Asia at the start of the Cold War, featuring two unforgettable heroines whose fates are irrevocably intertwined.
The unforgettable tale of star-crossed love that spans four decades and two continents.
A young photographer wrestles with her repressed past and identity as an Amerasian in New York's Chinatown. Now back in print after more than a decade, FACE is Aimee's first novel.
Work on Eating Disorders
While there are numerous memoirs available chronicling individual women’s struggles with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, this is the first book to bring together many people’s stories to create a complete and candid picture of the recovery process. Aimee Liu has skillfully brought together firsthand accounts of recovery to create a realistic roadmap for the journey. This book also includes informational sidebars, written by professionals in the field, on topics including treatment options, choosing the right therapist, the pros and cons of medication, how parents and spouses can help, and much more.
How do anorexia and bulimia impact life AFTER recovery? GAINING is one of the first books about eating disorders to connect the latest scientific insights to the personal truth of life before, during, and especially after anorexia and bulimia.
America's first memoir of anorexia, and one of the earliest books about eating disorders, originally published in 1979
Craft & Criticism
Resources and suggestions for students and fellow writers
Aimee's latest book reviews