by SUNG J. WOO
Hi there. My name is Sung, and if you’ve been a longtime KoreAm reader, you may have read some of my essays in the magazine over the years. I’m a writer, which means I actually don’t do a lot of writing. Mostly I spend my time staring out a window with a blank look on my face, or Googling something integral to the subject at hand only to find myself an hour later reading about the life cycle of mollusks. (I wish I was joking, but alas.)
Back in June, I was approached by KoreAm to see if I wanted to write a column. I was flattered, of course, and then terrified. Even though I have written two novels, each well over 300 pages, three full-length screenplays, a stage play and enough short stories that, put together, they’d make a very, very long story, I’ve never written on a regular basis. Granted, it’s only once every two months, but come on, I operate on a tight schedule of staring at things!
Breathe, Sung. In and out, nice and slow.
But the assault was already fully underway, as I now I had to come up with a title for the column. Titles have never been my strong suit. For my first novel, I just used what I named the first chapter, Everything Asian. For my second, I took one word and thought, hey, maybe I can just say it twice and that’ll be cool and vaguely related (Love Love – tennis plays a part). There are some folks out there who are naturals at this, like Raymond Carver, who came up with “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” for one of his short stories. Now there’s a title.
I asked myself, “What is it that I really wanted to write about here?” Something to do with my personal history, reflected through my current life. Present Through the Past? No, that was pretty terrible. How about True-Life Tales of Near Nostalgia? I liked the alliteration, but it sounded needlessly complicated. So then I thought, let’s go really basic: Stories by Sung. Alliterative as well, and direct, too. And lazy.
It was at this moment that I stopped and saw myself. There was no particular trigger that created this caesura, except as a writer of fiction, it’s something I’ve trained myself to do. Here I was, sitting at one of the new tables at my recently revamped neighborhood Panera, surrounded by the smell of freshly baked bread and just-brewed coffee, sipping a four- dollar cup of a creamy caffeinated concoction, ruminating on my most tragic plight.
At this very second, there were probably a thousand people who were starving, or fleeing for their lives, or perhaps just suffering as people suffer, because we live in a cruel and indifferent universe. My problem, if I could even call it that, was most definitely a first-world problem.
And there it was, my title. Everything I’ll be writing about here will be, I guarantee you, a first-world problem, because right now, the toughest choice I make each night is figuring out which DVRed television show to watch. I still haven’t seen a single episode of Hannibal! I’m sorry, Hannibal, I’ll make it up to you. Please don’t eat me.
Let me also declare that I don’t have any grand ambitions with this column, mostly because I don’t have any grand ambitions as a person. This is actually a fairly recent phenomenon; I used to suffer from delusions of grandeur with the best of them. As a child, I wanted to be a scientist, the kind that mixes chemicals in test tubes and peers through a microscope. I wanted to find a cure for every disease so nobody in my family would die. Sweet, right? Kids: so sweet, so stupid.
If I do have any designs for First-World Problems, it’ll be to entertain you, dear reader. One of the more frequent questions I’m asked as a writer is why I write. I’ve never had a very good answer for this question. At the outset, it was to imitate, which is how we human beings learn anything. I got into reading Stephen King when I was a sophomore in high school, and then there I was, sitting in front of my Commodore 64, attempting a short story. I can’t remember what my first piece of fiction was, but I can assure you it was terrible. In my senior year, I wrote my first novel, titled Between the Stitches. The only good thing I can say about that experience is that it gave me confidence that I could string together sentences into paragraphs into chapters into a book.
So I think we’ve come to the end of the first column. I hope you enjoyed your stay, and I hope you’ll be here next time, when I’ll be complaining about traveling to Europe. Like I said, first-world problems.
Sung J. Woo’s short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s and Hyphen. His debut novel, Everything Asian, won the 2010 Asian Pacific American Librarians Association Youth Literature Award. His second novel, Love Love, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press in 2015.
This article was published in the August/September 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/Sept. issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).