from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Entry #4: Introduction

with 4 comments

Who knew it would be so hard to find an agent? If you’ll excuse the pop culture reference, I feel like Johnny Drama—old, self-conscious, and unwanted. To be honest, I’ve only sent a query to one agent—Laney Katz Becker at Markson Thoma Literary Agency—but it’s painstaking business. I feel like I’m applying to college again.

However, the process has begun. I set up this blog, and after only a mere month, I got my first visitor. Unfortunately, I have to maintain readership, which means I have to compromise my values and post somewhat regularly. Therein lies the danger and the reason why I stopped blogging. When I wrote my last blog four years ago, I felt like I was appraising my writing by how many comments I received on a particular post.

It’s the reason why a great majority of the television shows and movies these days are shitty. In a word, ratings. I mourn for the cultural icons of my youth, Star Wars and Transformers in particular. Whatever happened to artistic integrity? But don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the crap that’s on television these days.

I’ve been researching potential agents on the Internet and I’ve found that many only want the first three pages of my book in my query. Unfortunately, my introduction is the weakest part of my book.

So I’ve decided to post the first part of my introduction on this site for two reasons. The first is a request for feedback. If you read these pages, would you want to read on? Say whatever you want, I can always erase the comment.

The second reason is that, although I’m sure every person who has visited so far is some sort of acquaintance of mine, I ultimately would like to expand readership to people I don’t know. I realize that I haven’t really introduced my background, so here it is.

Introduction

“History… is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” – Ulysses, James Joyce

I still have recurring nightmares. To start a book with a dream sequence is bad form, but that is ultimately what this book is about—a nightmare.

The nightmare I dream begins in a dimly lit, decrepit concrete stairwell. It’s like a campy horror flick, the way my tunneled vision rocks slightly from side to side along with each ascending step. I’m not prone to feelings of any kind in my dreams, but there is an undeniably ominous feeling gnawing on my stomach. When I reach the top, I find the corridor blocked by a black, iron-wrought, barred door. It’s dark in the corridor, too; I can vaguely make out the movement of shadowed figures but can’t decipher what it is exactly they are doing. One of these figures approaches the door and peers out at me through the bars with a single, seemingly disembodied eye, and then a voice. “Report to the second floor.”

The next moment I am on the second floor.

The second floor is one, ostensibly endless, narrow room, tinged an orangish-yellow pallor by the incandescent lighting. The room is strangely familiar but far from welcoming. Expressionless, rigid young men in orange sweatsuits sit in neat, ordered rows at the edges of the raised platforms on either side of me. I look down at myself and see I, too, am in the same bright orange sweatsuit, but it isn’t yangho, isn’t in order. I can’t put my finger on why it’s not; it’s yet another haunting feeling. I walk to a break in one of the rows, apparently left empty for me, and am putting down my bag in front of my cubby when an elderly man with leathery, wrinkled skin and a stern countenance—an officer, his authority accentuated by the brass on his hat and lapels—storms over to me.

“What is the problem, private?”

I stutter and stumble over my words. “I… I… I’m not supposed to be here.” God, even in my dreams, I have a speech impediment.

No, not only am I not supposed to be here, what the hell am I doing here again? I wasn’t supposed to have been here the first time around.

I try to ask, I earnestly want to try, but between my linguistic incontinence and his barking and browbeating, all I can do is helplessly wonder, Why?

When I wake, the covers are a crumpled mess at my feet and my shirt is cold and damp with sweat. My heart is beating so fast I can see the palpitations in my chest and hear it ringing in my ears. Exhausted and still prostrate, I look around my bare room repeatedly to assure myself that I am indeed free and alone this side of the rabbit’s hole. It’s been almost four years to the day since it ended and six since the nightmare began, and yet here I am, haunted, unable to leave it all behind.

I entered the wilderness in the January of 2004. I did not enter it as Thoreau did, to live in deliberate and self-imposed withdrawal, but rather, to serve in desperate and forced conscription. My Sinai was the Korean peninsula, where I was ordained to spend the next two years in an exercise in banality—all work and no play—not as a punishment for my transgressions but because it was my birthright. Before my ship blew off course, Korea was only supposed to be a one year sojourn to make a decent wage teaching English so I could pay off my college loans.

On my first night and many a subsequent night for two years, I laid there in my musty, olive green sleeping bag and stared up at the little holes in the plastered tiles of the ceiling, little black stars in an off-white sky, thinking to myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”

The microcosm of my existence, my nightmare, my wilderness, my here, was my own. None of the other twenty-two men sleeping around me shared my particular situation. None of the other six hundred thousand in the service did, I doubt. For me, here was Oz, an absurd land full of tyrants and small men clad in green. Where I met the heartless, brainless, and gutless—none were decent companions—and wanted nothing save to go home. I am an American, and here was the Korean Army.

How else could I describe my experience? Imagine a deaf-mute thrown into prison for two full years. His fellow inmates pick on him, the guards pick on him, even the damn warden picks on him, and he has no idea what’s going on. They don’t get bored of it and they don’t leave him alone.

The Korean Army is nothing like the U.S. Army. North Korea has gulags, the South has the Army. Many times throughout the two years, beginning with my first journal entry, I compared my experience to an unjust imprisonment: an innocent man incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.

This story isn’t a testament of the indomitable human spirit. By nature, I am both lazy and cowardly, choosing to take the road well traveled and least resistant and to escape from reality by daydreaming. As a result, my experience on the whole was not as climactic or noteworthy as it could have been. I never locked myself in the company commander’s office to play an aria over the loudspeakers and I let the threat of military prison and an extension of the term of my service detract me from even toeing the line. A cavalier, fuck-them-all-and-pay-for-it-later attitude would make for a better read, but in the words of the immortal sailor, I am what I am and that’s all that I am.

It’s not a common occurrence. To my knowledge, I’m the only one. I’ve heard stories of others in my circumstance, but there has never been any substantiation and not for lack of trying. To me, they remain as urban legends, vague accounts of a friend of a friend as I’m sure my story has been to others. Even now, my story will be met with an occasional “Oh, you’re that guy.” Although I admit that there have been a few occasions in which I actually enjoyed recounting my experiences, more often than not I am inclined to keep this experience to myself. The decision is often based on whether I think the conversation will take a turn toward the annoying.

Why is it that people have this strange need to find meaning in tragedy? I have never really felt the need to do so, mostly because I’ve found that it’s a waste of time trying to figure it out. Sometimes there is no meaning. Among Korean men, military service is often cursed as shigan nangbi, a waste of time, or a gongbaek, a blank space, a void, a black hole. There really is not much to be learned from the army. The problem I have is when people try to find meaning in my experience for me.

“At least you learned how to speak Korean,” some weakly offer, not realizing the ignorance of their statement. As if a language ability marginally useful to me back home in Seattle could justify the degradation and servitude, could erase the madness and frustration and desperation of those two long years. That is the main reason why I chose to stay in Korea to study after my ETS; it was not an attempt to soul search and find meaning but to pick up the pieces and make meaning.

I understand they are merely making an attempt at sympathy, but I believe that certain things are better left unsaid. Statements about another door opening or divine plans for my life do nothing but irk me. Honestly, I cannot understand why someone would think such attempts qualify as comforting. I would much rather have had the speaker express themselves materially, by paying for dinner and drinks.

Nevertheless, I was raised to learn from any experience, and so this book is a feeble attempt to relate my experience in terms of the lessons, legitimate and otherwise, that I can manage to scrounge from the deepest part of my memory of that valley of my life.

Memoria praeteritorum bonorum. There has been research which has proved that this to be true, that the past is often remembered to be better than it actually was. One study proved that humans are wired to fondly reminisce about painful Disneyworld experiences despite the long lines in the hot summer sun and the constant complaining of tired and fussy children. In the army, there were some comrades who had boldly and foolishly asserted that they wouldn’t mind going through the service again if they had to. Even sabotaged by faulty neurons, I could never make the same assertions. Bonorum indeed.

It has also been proven that bad memories remain more vivid in our memory than the good. Luckily, the universe has endowed me with a horrendous memory faculty, and what a blessed endowment it is. If I had not written almost daily in my journals out of loneliness and boredom, I would not have been able to finish this book. Poring through my journals, I relive every memory. Some say that in order to rid yourself of traumatic experiences, you have to come face to face with them. It may be therapeutic, but it still gives me nightmares.

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Written by Young

April 8, 2010 at 9:07 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Unfortunately you are right about the need for being prolific. People will likely only check back frequently once they are hooked or invested in your story.

    Hole

    April 9, 2010 at 8:16 am

  2. Your friend Joel sent me over to have a look at your blog, which is, I can already see, head and shoulders above most of what’s out there in the Koreablogosphere. (You might say I’m one of those old farts who “still cling to their typewriters and lament the [degradation] of the English language.”)

    I wish you luck in securing a good agent (from what I hear, the rule of thumb is that, with any agent, the money should always flow toward you — never away from you — so you shouldn’t accept an agent who charges fees for photocopying, etc.). It’s not going to be an easy quest, and it’s likely you’ll get plenty of rejections (or will be ignored completely) before you find the right person.

    You might consider getting published in Korea, which is arguably easier given the smaller anglophone market, though I have no idea how a Korean publisher would target both the peninsular and overseas anglophone markets. There’s also vanity publishing and publish-on-demand, but only a very small fraction of people garner the money and attention they’re looking for by following those routes. The advantage of an agent is that s/he is supposed to do most of the marketing/promotion for you: potential earnings and attention are higher.

    Which brings me to your comment from entry #1: “…agents and publishers expect writers to generate their own publicity.” I guess I’m out of touch, because I was pretty sure that the agent was supposed to be the one to promote your work. Perhaps it’s gotten to a point where agents are so backlogged that they require the author’s help in promoting a given book, but… this smells suspiciously like “money flows away from the author.” In this case, it’s not so much money as other precious intangibles: the agent is asking for a crucial investment of time and effort from the author.

    Personally, I wouldn’t worry too much about the need to “maintain readership” for the blog. It may simply be a matter of finding a good, honorable agent who might not be a big name, but who might have more time and attention to spare for his/her clients.

    re: other stuff

    Loved your afterword. Keep it incomplete. Or maybe end it in mid-sentence. A friend of mine, who’s been through the publishing wringer, occasionally enjoys pulling such stunts.

    Your intro was interesting, though there were moments where it felt unclear what, exactly, you were initially doing in Korea. Metaphors and more literal language seemed to blur together at points, and it wasn’t until I read your “About” section that I realized you were indeed talking about serving in the Korean military. I had initially thought that I was reading some sort of metaphorical exposition about coming to Korea as a Mormon missionary:

    ____

    “I entered the wilderness in the January of 2004. I did not enter it as Thoreau did, to live in deliberate and self-imposed withdrawal, but rather, to serve in desperate and forced conscription. My Sinai was the Korean peninsula, where I was ordained to spend the next two years in an exercise in banality—all work and no play—not as a punishment for my transgressions but because it was my birthright.”

    ____

    The words “ordained” and “birthright” — along with the fact that you’re friends with Joel, who had come to Korea as a missionary — led me Mormon-ward in my thinking. But the notion of an Elder Holden made less and less sense as your intro mentioned English teaching, then began to focus explicitly on military service. By the time I finished the intro, I was pretty sure I had pegged you wrong: far from being a lapsed Mormon missionary, you had indeed served in the ROK Army. I was left to wonder whether “Beck” was an American surname or a Korean one: “백.” I’ve heard of gyopos getting conscripted, but was having trouble imagining a white American serving in the ROK Army.

    Having said all that, I hope you won’t take the above remarks about the intro as a serious critique. They weren’t meant in that spirit, but were, instead, an initial reaction based on an admittedly superficial perusal. Whatever vagueness I may have seen could very well have been from my own misreading of the intro. Seen purely on its own terms, your intro serves to draw the reader in, and to leave him/her wanting to find out what comes next. It’s compellingly written.

    Having just lost my mother this past January, I can relate to this part:

    “Why is it that people have this strange need to find meaning in tragedy? I have never really felt the need to do so, mostly because I’ve found that it’s a waste of time trying to figure it out. Sometimes there is no meaning…. The problem I have is when people try to find meaning in my experience for me.”

    I’ve caught the same vibe from people who felt that Mom’s brain cancer was, somehow, a blessing: it pulled the family together, brought out the best in us, etc. Yeah, sure, fine — but Mom is still gone.

    Anyway, I’m glad that Joel pointed your blog out to me. I’ll be visiting it from time to time. Again, I wouldn’t worry too much about readership. Keep the quality of your writing at this level, stay relentlessly focused on your project, and readers will come of their own accord.

    I know you’ve already written the ms for your book (tenth draft or so, yes?), but are you planning to air out more of your ms on this blog? Have you thought about publishing your novel as a “blovel,” allowing people to comment on each of its sections? I ask because there’s a (Canadian?) dude who goes by the moniker Cheeseburger Brown, and he wrote a science fiction “blovel” called Simon of Space. Excellent, compelling fiction — and the further along he got in the story, the more readers he attracted. By the time he got his novel up on Lulu.com (you probably know of Lulu, a publish-on-demand site), he already had an impressively large readership. I wouldn’t normally recommend POD as the way to go, but you seem like a bloke who could easily gain a decent-sized readership in a year’s time.

    Good luck.

    Kevin

    PS: Alas, your comments section needs a “preview” function! I think WordPress allows you to set that up.

    Kevin Kim

    April 10, 2010 at 9:11 am

    • Kevin,

      Thanks for the feedback and encouragement, both of which I am in need. While I have had several people look at my writing, they all know me and my story personally and cannot give me the impartiality and honesty of a stranger or acquaintance.

      I had a nagging feeling that I wasn’t being clear when setting the stage for the book—I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing but it does seem too heavy with metaphors—and I actually tried to fix it this past week, but I guess it’s still lacking. But a Mormon missionary? Fuck. Perhaps the references to religion are not such a great idea.

      One of the problems that I’ve had to think about is whether this book can garner the kind of audience that I want it to receive. The story is about a Korean-American and it is about Korea. While expatriates in Korea might find the story interesting, I don’t want to the book to be hidden away in the minority/ethnic writer sections of American bookstores. I do hope to have the book translated and published in Korea one day, but the Korean literary market is an unprofitable dead end.

      By the way, I did end up salvaging some of the material I posted in Entry #1 in my afterword. The more coherent parts, anyway. I was drunk when I wrote it.

      Again, thanks. Your comment was a refreshing alternative to the rejection email I got this morning.

      P.S. I edited the misspelling in Entry #3. What an ass I am, talking about the degradation of the English language while misspelling degradation…

      holdenbeck

      April 10, 2010 at 4:40 pm


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