Author Archives: antranwritesstuff

About antranwritesstuff

I am a twenty-something writer in Northern Virginia.

SmokeLong Quarterly & Other Updates

I probably should’ve posted up last week, since I’m guest editor for SmokeLong Quarterly from August 11th through August 17th. Yes, those dates are over with now and I’ve a queue of pieces to read through and select from. I didn’t post up because I happened to fall under the weather with a pretty nasty cold and fever, and still had to take care of my day-job responsibilities. I did announce it on Facebook and Twitter though, so if you submitted during this period, thanks! I’ve already read some promising pieces and expect to find some real gems in the queue.

I’ve definitely been in a bit of a creative rut lately, second-guessing myself and feeling all-around uninspired. I suppose this happens to the best of us and I’m just going to try to exercise a lot of patience. We all fear that fire inside of us going out, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. Something will occur in life that I won’t be able to ignore, and words will aggregate again. Patience.

In the mean time, I’ve been hard at work trying to finish up this MFA business, particularly with this craft paper. I’ve been reading Kirstin Chen’s Soy Sauce for Beginners and find the novel absolutely riveting. Check it out, if you’re itching to add another book to your To-Read stack.

Two Stories!

Update: Turns out I see the release of two stories today. The e-book and Kindle version of Sententia: The Journal’s Issue 5 has been released (print version to come in July). I really love the piece included here, entitled “Conversations with the Rest of the World.” It’s an exploration of my own personal life fantasy: to communicate with a great ape through American Sign Language. I don’t know ASL, though I’m trying to learn. In this story, a young girl is born deaf, ASL being her “native language,” and she discovers during a zoo trip that she can communicate with the gorillas. I owe Paula Bomer and Adam Robinson a tremendous amount of gratitude for picking this story up and sharing it with others.

Original Post:

My friends over at Big Lucks have put up a fun little short story I wrote. I’ve just recently joined the masthead at what I think is one of the most stellar indie presses at DC, but long before that, I had this piece accepted by these lovely and amazing people. “The Phantom Harlot” is, in essence, a ghost story that stemmed from an idea I originally had for a novel: a couple moves into a haunted house and begins conducting recording sessions in a particular room, hoping to capture what’s known in ghost hunting circles as “electronic voice phenomena” (EVP). These are disembodied voices captured on recordings that were inaudible at the time of the recording itself.

It’s a really fascinating phenomena to me, this EVP business. I wondered what it’d be like to have a consistent call-and-response with a ghost in this way. You’d give a sort of monologue, leave the recorder running, and listen to the response the morning after. I thought, If people can fall in love with each other solely through emails and the written word, why not a “letter exchange” through spoken word? The novel itself didn’t quite work the way I wanted it to. The idea wasn’t large enough and I was forcing it, so I rewrote it as a short story.

Hope it’s an enjoyable read. Thanks so much to Mike and Mark for publishing this!

My Statue of Brahma Sahampati

Disclaimer: The following post is an extremely lengthy rumination on Buddhism, Brahma, and my own personal path. These thoughts and studies often inform my writing, fiction or otherwise, but is largely religious in context. It may be of interest to those who find interest in Buddhist studies, but is probably not worth the read if religious content is unappealing to you. Fair warning. 🙂

When I was in Houston, Texas back in April for my great grandmother’s funeral, after my family had eaten lunch together in one of the many Vietnamese neighbourhoods surrounding the city, my siblings and I made our way into a gift shop that sold primarily Buddhist statues. I had only a very small two inch pewter statue of a seated Shakyamuni Buddha at the moment, so I decided at that moment it was a perfect time to make a new purchase. Not a standard buddha, no, whether Shakyamuni, Amitabha, or Vairocana. Browsing shelf after shelf of gorgeous golden statues, face after face of serene smiles, I felt a strong need for my altar space to include a bodhisattva.

For those not in the know, a bodhisattva is the title given to a being on the path to supreme buddhahood. All enlightened beings are buddhas, but the supreme buddhas are the first in the cycle. They arise at times when the dharma has been completely lost and forgotten; they attain nirvana with no teacher to guide them, and subsequently go on to teach others. This is called Turning the Wheel of Dharma. In Mahayana Buddhism, the goal is not to attain enlightenment, but rather to cultivate the necessary compassion to begin the path of the bodhisattva. I think this idea best comes across in a short prayer from The Bodhicaryavatara (or, “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”) by Santideva:

As long as space remains,

As long as suffering beings remain,

May I too remain

And help to dispel the misery of the world.

My eye snagged on a very particular statue, a throned being of golden skin, eight arms and four faces. He reminded me of the depictions of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva when in thousand-armed form. I assumed it was a depiction of him, but it didn’t matter at all who this being was. I knew this was the one. I purchased him.

The Phnom Penh Brahma

The Phnom Penh Brahma

I hadn’t noticed until afterward that these being held a six-spoked wheel. The Wheel of Dharma has eight spokes, representing the Noble Eight-Fold Path. And then I later learned that this was a Cambodian depiction of Brahma. Why, I wondered, had there been a Hindu statue among all these Buddhist ones?

Brahma, of course, exists in Buddhism and is a prominent figure in the lore. It is used as a title and often specifically refers to Mahabrahma, the deva who is first in the cycle of universal expansion to be born into the Arupadhatu (Formless Realm), after having died in a higher realm. As with all rebirths, knowledge of previous lives has extinguished. Being alone, Brahma comes to believe he is the only being in the universe. He starts to feel lonely and wish for company. Eventually, other beings die and are reborn into his realm, or lower realms that he can observe. This causes him to believe that he created these beings; and these beings, having no other reference, believe his claim that he is the Creator.

But that still doesn’t explain why Brahma would be a deva of veneration in Buddhism, does it? To understand this, I had to go back and read some of the texts of Gautama’s enlightenment specifically. In all of these tellings, Gautama post-enlightenment is very hesitant to teach others the path. He doesn’t believe that he can, or if it’s worth his effort to try. According to lore, a being manifests before him, from a Formless Realm, and convinces him to teach. This being is always described as an anagami (non-returner) who trained under Gautama Buddha’s predecessor, Kasyapa Buddha. The anagami made tremendous progress under that particular buddha, yet did not attain arhantship (“arhant” is the conventional title for non-supreme buddhas). He attained the fruit of the non-returner (no more births in the Sense Domain, but one more birth overall) and resided in the Formless Realm for millenia in order to complete his training.

In some tellings of this story–and I believe this actually exists in the commentaries, not in the actual scriptures (the first few centuries of commentary are considered canonical)–the anagami in question was also the current Brahma of that time. His name is Sahampati, but is often simply referred to as Brahma in the texts.

After much of this reading, I began to pay closer attention to references to Brahma in the texts, such as in the Mahaparinibanna Sutta from the Nikayas, where Brahma grieves over the Tathagata’s passing into final extinction. Brahma routinely displays great reverence for the Tathagata throughout the texts, and the two appear very friendly in some respects.

Unfortunately, I still don’t have a bodhisattva anywhere in my home, but my practice of Mahayana Buddhism is a little unique compared to other traditions, I think. In the Thien, Zen, and Chan traditions (I will use “Zen” from now on, since it’s the most familiar), there are arguably three set of texts that are given primary emphasis: the Lankavatara Sutra, the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutras, and the various sutras on Tathagatagarbha (“Buddha-nature”). Some of the emphasized concepts in these texts are at-odds with one another.

The Lankavatara Sutra is probably dearest to me. It represents an ontological framework called yogacara, often described as “Mind-only.” I may write on that later, but this is becoming a fairly hefty post already. What is important about the Lanka text and particularly about the yogacara school of thought (which we should consider a proto-Zen sort of scholarship) is that–despite being a Mahayana text–it very closely resembles and emphasizes the gradual training system presented in the Theravadin Nikayas. Zen traditions themselves de-emphasize gradual training over sudden insight and awakening. Meditation and progressive training facilitates the sudden arising of insight–this statement is true of all schools, both Theravadin and Mahayanist–but yogacarin thought is unique in Mahayana in that it doesn’t claim that every single being will be a supreme buddha. In some ways, this idea directly contradicts the fundamental Zen concept of Buddha-nature, which infers that arhants will go on to take the bodhisattva vows.

So the path in yogacara–now a tremendously rare tradition to come across–is somewhere in-between Mahayana as we know it today and Theravada. There is a training system that very closely resembles the path outlined in the Nikayas: there is training in samatha, measured by attainments and perfections of the dhyanas, which develops the capacity for calm-abiding. In Theravadin practice, the jhanas (for those who practice them) is used in conjunction with vipassana, or mindfulness meditation (though many Theravadins, particularly in modern practice, train exclusively in mindfulness/insight).

For the yogacarin and Zen practitioners, mindfulness (training to view reality as it is) is the practice of developing prajna (wisdom) by recognizing sunyata (emptiness). Zen uses a specific technique (contemplation of non-dualistic koans) while the yogacarin contemplation is a little more general, can include koans, but can also include any other meditative techniques that bring awareness to emptiness and inter-dependence. The dhyanas are requisite here, as insight can only be attained when the mind has been trained in preparation for it. So you see that the path is not very different between these particular Mahayana and Theravada traditions.

Now, back to Brahma. As a lay-person, I have no desire to put my practice toward what might be an unrealistic goal. What I can do is undergo rigorous training and hope for an even more fortunate birth where I might be able to dedicate more of myself to the goal of enlightenment–whichever enlightenment that is reasonable to attain. I had intended to purchase a statue of a bodhisattva, but I feel I came away–quite unintentionally–with something much greater and meaningful to me. Here is Brahma, representing a being who has yet to attain enlightenment, but has undergone such rigorous training as to attain the fruit of the anagami. What better symbol to represent the practice of a lay follower than an anagami? A bodhisattva has already relinquished all attachment and conceit, particularly the conceit of “I am.” While the anagami has been released from attachment to self, there remains a residue of the “I am” conceit. I like this idea better: understanding what is the last remaining residue one needs to be liberated from and putting forth the discipline, faith and practice necessary to do it. Even if it takes millenia. Even if, residing there in the Formless Realm, you watch Tathagatas come and go.

Here is perhaps a better vow, catered to lay disciples of the Tathagatas of the Ten Directions:

May I take refuge in the Three Jewels

And draw all discipline to the Dharma

In each birth that might arise, never backsliding,

Should it take ten thousand births or more.

The Collection Moves Forward

For the past year, I’ve been making edits to, arranging, and re-arranging my short story collection into some form that I’m happy with. Every detail has been considered, stories pulled and replaced, older pieces revisited only to get slashed apart and reconstructed into new experiences, and the sequence of stories–oh, the sequence! I wrote each title on Post-It Notes and arranged a horizontal line on my wall. I flipped the first and last stories a hundred times over. I read everything I could find on arranging a collection.

And then I began to submit and to enter contests. Each response I’ve received has been utterly elating, whether just a small friendly comment like ,”We liked this. Good luck,” accompanying a rejection letter or a response to a partial asking for the full manuscript.

Press 53 announced yesterday the ten finalists for the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, and I am happy to say I’ve made the short list. I won’t find out until May 3rd, but to even be a finalist is surprising, unexpected, absolutely wonderful. Thanks so much to Kevin Morgan Watson and Christine Norris! I’ve got my fingers crossed. 🙂 I did take a peek at some of the other finalists’ work and it is all very good, so a pre-emptive congrats to whoever wins this year.

I made the Best American Essays 2013’s Notables list

The Best American Short Stories 2013 details have been posted and it looks really good. Laura van den Berg has two notable stories (as well as a notable in Non-Required Reading too!) and Lauren Groff has a story on the Notables list for each too. Karen Russell made Non-Required Reading! I’m really excited for both anthologies.

This, of course, led me to Best American Essays 2013’s details page. I did a quick scan of the authors who made it and then I immediately popped over to the Notables list. It was a long shot and I didn’t have high hopes, but I also really believe in the worth of my essay, so I clicked and scrolled. And there it was. Right at the bottom of the page. My name. My essay.

Heart-stopped, stunned, I stared at the screen for a good ten minutes. I stopped all work. I couldn’t process anything. I haven’t been writing seriously for very long, even if it’s something I always knew I had to do, so no part of me expected to make a list like that so soon in my career. I cannot thank non-fiction editor Nick Anderman and the Carolina Quarterly enough for running my essay. I’m really just in awe right now.

I guess this counts, huh? I’m on the right path in life, moving in the right direction.

Update: I’ve also placed a story in the Southern Humanities Review. Whoo!

Now I’m Just Babbling…

I suppose, from time to time, I might actually use this blog as a proper blog, though my general busy-ness is a great preventative measure there. Lately, I’ve been reviewing the manuscript I wrote, a novel on the shorter end of things about college-aged ghost hunters. There’s always been some disquiet about this piece because, thematically, I really love it. I can’t help but to, even if I’m exhausted of it at the same time (the curse of any novel-length project, I imagine). I kept thinking that there was something off on a structural level, something missing in the first part of the story (which I wrote several years ago) that lacked motivation, drive, stakes for the characters or the readers.

Still, the structure seemed okay to me. Rereads went on and I still liked what I’d produced. So what was wrong? When I decided to go ahead and write a synopsis out, I saw pretty quickly. There’s something about condensing a whole chapter into a single sentence and seeing those sentences side-by-side that make you think, Oh… well… how the crap do these two ideas follow? How did we get from there to here at all? I could see the gaps. And I could also see how I had neglected one simple thing.

When I approached this novel, I wrote an outline. This outline changed a lot and it existed as a perpetual Gmail draft so that I have no record of what the original looked like nor even what the final looked like (the outline was deleted). So I always had a relatively clear idea of where I was going, but not necessarily how I got there. I think that as things changed and shifted and moved, the original stakes were lost (in fact, the original narrative is nothing like the final) and I simply forgot about it. With the synopsis, I can see very clearly what the stakes should always have been. It’s so simple that I feel really dumb for not seeing it before. And it requires only a very minimal retouching of some lines here and there, and suddenly, everything makes sense and the narrative is cohesive (enough anyway).

I’m debating whether to continue calling this a work of literary fiction or to start marketing it as “young adult.” Maybe I’ll query it out as both and see what bites first.

Anyway, lesson learned: write your synopses.

One More Forthcoming and Another Article at the Good Men Project

My second installment of writing about vigilantism at the Good Men Project is a lot more real, taking a close examination of what it means to be an American and whether taking the law into your own hands (and sometimes defying the government itself) can be an act of patriotism. Thanks to Noah Brand for working with me on this and to my friend (who knows who she is) for being the first set of eyes on it.

In other news, I recently had a story recently accepted to the next issue of Sententia: The Journalmany thanks to editor Paula Bomer for taking the chance on this piece. And thanks to my co-worker, who is now a good friend, for not being creeped out when a relative stranger told her that he used her likeness for a character in a story. This particular piece is inspired by an item on my Bucket List (Item 56 — Have a conversation with a bonobo or gorilla in American Sign Language). This has been a story I’ve struggled with repeatedly, so I am very very grateful for this acceptance.

“Becoming Batman” on The Good Men Project

I began discussing with my friends recently about procuring the pieces to my battle suit–the one I’ve been planning for years now. Since a great deal of my friends are comic book geeks like myself, they saw pretty quickly what I was up to. After all, I’ve been in the martial arts since I was nine; after two years of powerlifting, I placed top ten nationally and took four state records and a host of titles; I spent years studying the science of training so that at every moment I could keep getting better. The idea of blogging the rest of this journey came up and I was all for it. Then I thought this might be better served if it wasn’t exactly a blog. Gender issues are very important to me. I’ve done a lot of suffering in my life for being a sensitive man and I no longer want men to be ashamed of their feelings. I wanted to use this project to also address issues of manhood and I’m incredibly lucky and grateful for the Good Men Project running my article today.

I owe a deep thanks to Matthew Salesses for putting me in touch with Good Men Project Editor-in-Chief Noah Brand; to Brand, I owe a deep thanks for working with me enthusiastically on the concept and politely turning down my first article attempt for one far better. I’m excited for this opportunity, not only to show the world this insane little hobby of mine but to also simply because I’m being given the opportunity to be much more forthright saying what I want to say, what I think is important to say.

I was a little worried about not being very productive this year, but I feel a lot better now. Thanks to everyone!

Forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine!

I’m ecstatic to announce that I’ve just had a story accepted to Gargoyle Magazine. Like my piece in Big Lucks, this will run in 2014, so it’s a ways out, but all the same I am honoured to have my work appear in such a fabulous publication with such a deep local history. The story, titled “The Message of My Skin,” is one of the more honest pieces I’ve written. It takes place in the neighbourhood that I grew up in–coincidentally the neighbourhood Gargoyle is based out of and which I more or less still live in–and discusses Vietnamese crime in the Washington, DC area. I am humbled.

So the year 2013 is somewhat lacking, though I have done much revision in the past seven months. I think this thing will go in waves of creativity and then re-working, so I’m going to not let myself become too anxious about my dried up well of creative energy right now. I’m happy to know that I’ve secured some publications in 2014 and that they are two very different stories. Compared to my earlier published work, I think that my range is growing and my voice is becoming clearer. Very happy for that.

Until next time.

A Quick Update

It’s been a long time since I’ve written an entry in this blog. I’d love to say that I’ve been a busy bee, toiling away at the arduous labour that is the writer’s life, but that’s not exactly accurate. In the past few months, I’ve only managed to produce two additional short stories and most of a third.

What I have been doing:

  • Founding and curating a new reading series in Arlington, VA … it’s coming great and we’ve got quite the season booked for this summer. More details to come.
  • Going to other readings … I’ve had the pleasure of seeing one of my new favourite writers — Marie-Helene Bertino — read from her novel-in-progress along with Elliott Holt, Scott McClanahan, Sara Rose Etter, Matthew Salesses, Laura van den Berg and so so soooo many other great writers. This is the kind of thing I live for.
  • I have a review / recommendation for Ms. Bertino’s debut collection, Safe as Houses, forthcoming at TheLitPub (it’s REAAAALLY good)
  • A short story is forthcoming in Big Lucks — huge thanks to Michael Beeman, Mark Cugini and Chris Molnar for featuring my work!
  • Reading and other schoolwork

So it has been actually fairly busy. There’ve also been this huge debates internally about whether or not to move. For now, I’m staying put.

I have a more personal anecdote to share, but I’ll reserve those thoughts for another time when I can devote more to it.

Happy writing, all.