March 19, 2021

Quarter 2: A Reflection

With a couple of days until winter quarter started, reopening plans were canceled for the second time after several reaffirmations, and adapting to that news has taken the whole ten weeks.

That’s another quarter in the books. This morning, I completed my final math exam and now have some space to consider the highs and lows of the past ten weeks, what I learned and what I did not. There are plenty of milestones to recount, so let’s get started. In January, our seven-week winter break came to an end, and I had mixed feelings about returning to virtual school. On the one hand, the break had given me the opportunity to write a 34,000-word short story and catch up on rest, but on the other hand, I knew that the planet had to keep spinning on its axis and I had to resume my responsibilities as a student. Besides, I had a bit of anticipation because I was supposed to be heading to campus for the quarter, and that was a new experience I had to look forward to. However, with a couple of days until the quarter started, reopening plans were canceled for the second time after several reaffirmations, and we students were all catapulted into the throes of winter quarter with pitifully low morale. I wasn’t sure how to react when I heard the news. I almost began to smile, not because I was happy, but because I was sad. This time, the emotional desolation of the cancelation felt like it was my fault. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Not all was bad, and it could have been worse, I always figured. But it was a struggle to get started on those January mornings. Eventually, I tried to get myself into a rhythm, but it was rather clunky. I was happy to get a seat in Integral Calculus of Several Variables, though, and tried to allow that to provide me some reward. Straight off the bat, I liked my professor’s teaching style, and the subject material, although probably not immediately useful for my computer science major (linear algebra is immediately useful, though), piqued my interest. Since I hadn’t been exposed to much integral calculus in high school, I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep up as I did in my linear algebra class from autumn. Nevertheless, I went right on with it. Admittedly, I didn’t put as much effort into that class as I should have, given the struggles that many of us are facing in this pandemic. I wasn’t in a position to apply myself as much as I wanted. Plus, I thought my previous math experience had prepared me somewhat to handle the workload of Integral Calculus of Several Variables, but unfortunately, with the extracurricular activities, an internship, the pandemic, and responsibilities at home, it was difficult to manage the coursework. I’ll shamefully concede that I should have prepared more. During autumn quarter, this wasn’t an issue, as I regularly had time to review problem sets with classmates and the exams were formatted a bit differently; I didn’t have to show my scratchwork as much. Moreover, there was still some novelty to online school then. Where am I supposed to get the bandwidth now? Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s cool to have the ability to calculate line integrals in three-dimensional spaces, “volume” in many dimensions, properties of vector fields, and so on. I can change coordinate systems when calculating such integrals, and additionally, there have been a lot of nice connections that I’ve made between my math class and Electricity and Magnetism. Regardless of the outcome, I’m proud to have taken this class during this difficult time and am satisfied with the wealth of knowledge and skills I’ve acquired.

Another course well worth mentioning is Creative Expression in Writing. In January, I was in a journalist’s mindset, for sure, which helped and hindered my perspective on more experimental forms of writing. In many ways, I stayed the same throughout the weeks, trying to adhere to a writing schedule, reading as much as possible, and finding my voice, but I also changed my outlook on the revision process quite a lot toward the end. Most commonly, I am receiving lots of line edits and other suggestions for my articles in the newspaper. That can include copy edits as well as developmental edits, which is what I think of more when I talk about the revision process. It can be kind of tricky because you have to think hard about the piece and, in some cases, tear apart what you worked on so hard, just to put in even more effort. There’s a lot of inertia, and once I finish writing something, everything aside from copy edits can feel unpleasant. Usually, I’ll try to sit down and write in a document to answer some of the questions that the editor has for me. Then I will think about the form, structure, pacing, characters, plot, and so on and try out a few ideas until I get it right. Edits and revisions are extremely important in the context of publishing long-form content, too, I’ve found.

Last month, I published my debut novel, An Invincible Summer, and I am fully aware that people have high standards and expect such a piece of writing to be polished, especially if they pay for it. I understand that and want to make sure that they are satisfied and that I don’t get embarrassed. But editing a novel is complicated and very different from, say, an article. An article you can proofread in 15 to 20 minutes tops, but for a novel, it’s, well, a whole novel. You can’t keep everything in your head and it will take days to read, so it’s easy to get lost amid everything. I still haven’t figured out how to stay organized.

In my writing, I try to drive home a sense of honesty and interiority. I try not to bury the lede, and sometimes I try to make prose conversational, and other times people say that I am too formal, and they cannot understand what I am trying to say. I don’t know what to think. What I do know is that I want the writing to be distinctly mine. People should be able to recognize the voice. Additionally, I want to articulate experiences that we all share but cannot define—being worried about admitting we don’t know something, finding that some of the things we once did for fun losing their novelty, feeling like we lose our childlike sense of wonder, for example. I also like to use my background in math and science to create new and compelling metaphors to relate disparate ideas in a way that otherwise would not have been written down.

There are some sentences that I need to write, but they might just be for myself—to help make sense of something, to help my mind develop a new connection. These thoughts don’t necessarily need to make it into the final piece. We’re usually just in the process of condensing our experiences and package them up for an audience in an efficient and engaging way. Often when I read Nabokov or someone like that, I feel worse because my writing is so pathetic in comparison, and I have absolutely no idea how he does it. I want my mind to generate thoughts like that, but I also have to acknowledge that Nabokov probably had his own sentences that wrote down to get his mind straight before the final product.

Logically, the next point to make is that my relationship with language has also changed. Creative Expression in Writing interrogated the way I view language in the context of linguistics, as well as semantics. I think that the way people subconsciously throw around certain idiomatic expressions is a fascinating way to get into the psyche. Honestly, I often see writing as an experiment. I am trying to figure out what something is as it takes form, and often there are characters in the story, and I am observing how they change over time. Metaphorically, it’s an intersection of mechanics and neuroscience. We’re trying to predict the trajectory of personalities and how the plasticity of the brain is affected by the environment throughout time and space. At least that’s the way I see it.

The most rewarding part of writing, I think, is when you create it in the beginning and get all the clay out there on the page. What a relief it is to get that off your mind. The actual sculpting in the revision process is sort equivalent to sobering up and making everything actually digestible for someone other than you, which can be difficult, frustrating, boring—not fun but necessary. See, after working on something for two years as I did with my novel, it is tricky to look at it objectively and to decide what is missing or what should be taken away. This is why now I try to write new novels in the span of one to three months instead—which is exactly what I did in March 2020. It was an intoxicating triumph that I intend to experience again. Because of how seriously I take my lifelong writing ambitions, there’s an anxiety curve each morning, and I feel that I have to write something profound before I go to bed, and I don’t know what it’s going to be. I have to come up with that perfect sentence or scene that I’ll look back on with pride someday. But instead, I go to bed with nothing, afraid of what will happen the next day, afraid that the writing will induce so much cringing. Still, I have to go on, for we all need art to recognize the pain that lives in all of us.

When March rolled around this year, I started to occasionally look through old journal entries from 12 months prior. I still remember my last day of in-person class. It was a Thursday, and people were already starting to become on edge about what the future had in store. If only we’d known the full scope then, we could have had our proper goodbyes. After baseball practice on March 12, I didn’t return to my high school except for a brief trip in June to drop off my uniform. Many months later, at this point in the pandemic, it seems pretty difficult to cultivate any sense of novelty—anyone living now knows that—and many tasks feel like a mere imposition, so I don’t really know what to do other than work on school, extracurriculars, and my internship when I have the motivation. I’ve tried to stay disciplined and go to office hours for class, but to me it seems way too uncomfortable to ask questions to the professor in front of the whole class on Zoom—especially about questions that I missed on the exams. To get a break from the hailstorm, I’ve tried to stay in contact with friends and talk to them about what’s going on in their lives, offering any consolation I can or help on math assignments, but in all honesty, I’m not sure how I can be an effective friend when I’m not a friend to myself. Oftentimes, I easily get frustrated by my current living situation, and many of my shortcomings in my productivity and well-being seem to be my fault exclusively. But when I take a step back, I see other factors, unfortunately many of which I cannot control in the present moment. I can’t wait for when I do have more control over what happens in my life, for at the present moment, I feel like I’m on an assembly line.

This past quarter I also took CS 106A, the introductory computer science course at my school. Although when I reviewed the syllabus I was familiar with all the content already, it was interesting to be exposed to the Python programming language in an academic context, I suppose, and have assignments, quizzes, and the like. For most of my life, I have learned such programming languages by building, meeting other developers, and general trial and error. Now that there was some more structure compared to my self-instruction, I got a new perspective, which is nice to have. I recently put together some tables on my computer with different courses to take next to best progress on the machine learning computer science track. It should be interesting to see how it all turns out.

Spring should be interesting to explore what’s on the horizon, but once the coming one-week “break” is over, I hope I don’t simply get a repeat of this past quarter—working at a laptop and sleeping. I hope I’m not naïve to believe that there can be little pockets of payoff somewhere in life and that there’s more than this hedonic treadmill.

So, where do these paragraphs intersect? Well, most people I know see me as a numbers person with clear-cut objectives. The truth, however, is that even numbers tell a story. I have always believed that there is a story to be told in everything, and that if you cannot articulate the story that is inside you, it is almost as if it does not exist. That’s why, regardless of where I go, I will be finding stories along the way, discovering novel ideas at the bleeding edge. It’s all the first step in a longer evolution—but for the evolution to take place, I have to take the first step. I have to put myself out there and try and try again.