from the Korean Army to being published

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

Entry #34: Too Busy Living or Too Busy Trying

with 2 comments

Toward the end of the first full week of basic training, they handed out journals for the recruits to write in during our “personal maintenance” periods, brief moments during the day perhaps after a meal or after nighttime cleaning that we had been using to primp the creases in our bedding. I would later find out that the purpose of the journals was monitoring; the squad leaders*, our “Big Brothers,” would come in while we were out training and go through our journals. Being unable to construct an intelligible sentence in Korean at the time, I naturally wrote in English. Unfortunately for me, one of the squad leaders studied in Australia and because I was a “person of interest,” I’m sure he was the one to read through all of my entries. He could speak English, but aside from the first day, he never spoke a word of English to me.

I’ve lost that first journal, but I remember my first entry. I drew a sketch of a paddywagon taking me away, a sad-faced Holden hanging onto the bars of the rear doors as it drove off. I wrote how I felt like I had been thrown in prison. There were bars on the windows and barred gates at each end of the hallway. The guards were sons of bitches and tormented us whenever they could. Our PT uniforms were bright orange so that we could be spotted easily if we tried to escape. They worked us all day and the food at the mess hall was barely edible and there was so little of it. That being said, I would say the worst thing about being in the Army was the deprivation of freedom. And while ass-rapes and possibility of getting shiv in your belly are residential hazards, isn’t the punishment of prison about the deprivation of freedom?

Sure, you could argue that we all are living in prisons of our own creation. Maybe you work in a company. Your suit and tie is your uniform and you’re bound by the shackles of debt or comfortable living. Your bosses and co-workers are all assholes and they make your life a living hell. The difference is you can quit whenever the fuck you want. Sure, you’ll face the scary situation of being thrown out on the street and living in a cardboard box and eating out of garbage cans but if you are physically able to work in an office, you could wash dishes or wait tables or pack shit into boxes. You have options. Being homeless is a shitty option but it’s still an option.

My favorite prison movie is The Shawshank Redemption. It’s one of the few dramatic movies I can watch over and over. I’d watch it on TNT every time I came across it while flipping through the channels, which was every couple of months. When I was nearing the end of my term of service, I printed out the movie poster, the one where Andy Dufresne has escaped and if standing with his arms outstretched in pure joy, the rain washing the shit from his body, and I taped the picture to the back of my journal (my fourth or fifth at that point). It was a picture of hope, of the day I could be a free man again and wash the experience away.

Image taken from Google search

When I looked back at my Army experience as I was formulating an idea for the book, I wished I had done a lot of things differently. I am no Andy Dufresne. I was one of those nameless, faceless supporting characters that you see in the background, quietly biding his time until his release. I never played an aria over the base PA. I never helped anyone better themselves or hatched an elaborate escape plan while giving the powers that be a hearty “Fuck you.” But I also never got fucked in the ass (at least literally) or beat up so bad I was sent to the infirmary. And two years is nothing compared to twenty-seven.

Did you know the movie was adapted from a novella by Stephen King? Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. It makes sense. Many great movies were adaptations of books (and no, I’m not talking about Twilight or Harry Potter). Two of my personal favorites, Old Boy and Fight Club, were based on a comic book by Nobuaki Minegishi and a novel by Chuck Palahnuik, respectively.**

Surfing Wikipedia being one of my distractions, Shawshank Redemption led to me to Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which led me to the page on Stephen King.

King’s formula for learning to write well is: “Read and write four to six hours a day. If you cannot find the time for that, you can’t expect to become a good write.” He sets out each day with a quota of 2000 words and will not stop writing until it is met. He also has a simple definition for talent in writing. “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”

– Wikipedia page on Stephen King

Of course, what works for one writer won’t work for everyone but my process seems like it’s on the right track. I spend around four to six hours at the coffee shop (almost) every day, reading and writing (but also playing games and surfing Wikipedia). However, the last sentence hurt. Having never been paid for anything I’ve written, I guess talent is something for me to prove.

Proving it is not going to be easy but it’s the path I’ve chosen. Once I washed myself of the Army on that day in 2006, I told myself that I wouldn’t waste any more of my life doing something that I don’t want to do. No more prisons for me. I don’t make much money doing what I do and I’ve passed on many offers to do something more respectable or lucrative with my life, I spend most of my free time (when I’m not drinking) at the coffee shop and am almost constantly penniless, but I’m doing what I want to do.

I’ll end with a quote from one of the last books I read while in the service.

“I am now face to face with my destiny,” said Philippe, with his eyes on fire, and his face lividly white. “Is it likely to be more terrifying than my captivity has been sad and gloomy?”

– The Man in the Iron Mask, Alexander Dumas

* I use the term “squad leader” for the drill sergeants during boot camp. I don’t use the term “drill sergeant” because very few of them are sergeants. They are conscripts whose MOS is to train other conscripts. We called them squad leaders because they were each charged with a squad to torment.

** While it’s usually true that the movie rarely holds up to the book, I think that these are two instances where the original works and the films are great independently.


2 Responses

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  1. Ever thought about turning your life into a movie? I don’t know how the novel’s tweaks and revisions are coming along, but I bet you could make a great screenplay out of your past and present life.

    Kevin Kim

    September 9, 2011 at 2:24 am

    • I personally think it’s the worst idea possible (and so I take it as a great compliment). I don’t know how the movie Buried was received in the States, but I thought it was boring as hell. An hour and a half of watching some guy in a box? I think my life as a movie would be far worse because the premise is pretty much the same but without the elements of drama and suspense. I’ve actually been asked the question before but I guess you guys see something that I don’t. Sometimes when I tell people I’m working on a memoir, they respond, “Really?” Not in the interested, tell-me-more kind of way but in the scoffing, what-the-fuck-do-you-have-to-talk-about kind of way.

      The book is the one exception and I would like to see it as a movie one day (not because I think it has potential as a movie but because I would like to milk it for all it’s worth), but I have a hard time imaging how they would make it work.

      The new draft is coming along but a lot slower than my previous one. The end of the year is my goal but it’s going to be tough.


      September 9, 2011 at 11:39 pm

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