Since re-discovering my voice last year, I’ve earned a number of opportunities to grow as a writer and blogger, but the Glimpse Correspondents Program has been (and still is) the best experience yet.
I find that narratives are the most challenging form of travel writing to write, but ultimately, they are the most rewarding. It’s much easier to write “The top 10 things I’ve learned about Korea” in a list defined by small, black bullets rather than reveal more profound conclusions in a story that involves emotionally-enriched personal discoveries. When narratives contain vivid descriptions and strong portrayals of character, I feel like I am experiencing these moments alongside the writer, loving or resenting the characters as much as they do.
The Glimpse Correspondents Program has ignited my passion for storytelling and enabled me to strengthen my prose with the guidance of a professional editor. Since September, via Skype appointments and email correspondence, I’ve been working with Jenny Williams, a book editor currently residing in Germany. Throughout the past year, I’ve worked with editors in Matador U’s writing labs, but working one-on-one with an editor over a long period of time has been a completely different experience.
As an emerging writer, Jenny was never condescending to my lack of experience, even when I accidentally sent her a draft of my pitches. (In my defense, I was typing it on a Korean version of Microsoft Word at work.) With every draft, she was patient and encouraging, continually offering solid, candid advice.
After three drafts and 30 emails, my first Glimpse narrative, Notes from the Covert World of Korean Shamanism, was published in early December on Matador Network. As I worked with Jenny, I learned some valuable lessons about structure, progression, character development, combining narrative writing with travel journalism, and forming solid conclusions.
As Ernest Hemingway once said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” My first draft transitioned back and forth between time, and it was jarring and confusing for the reader. Jenny advised me to maintain a straightforward, chronological structure so the narrative would unfold more naturally.
Although it sounds quite obvious, a story requires progression, building up to some type of conclusion. In my first draft, I included an anecdote that piqued my interest in Korean shamanism, placed after the beginning section where I recall learning about shamanism through a fellow exchange student at my university. I wrote:
I watched the woman dance as I momentarily rested on an uneven step overlooking the valley. Situated next to a cave, under a colorful tent, she was chanting and swaying to the beat of drums and clanging bells. I couldn’t understand what she was saying—most of the sounds were not recognizably Korean—but I was fixated on the scene before me.
It was two and half years after hearing Celine’s story. I was hiking Inwang-san, a mountain in southern Seoul deemed the center of Korean shamanistic activity in the northern region of the country, inhabited by tigers back in history. It was a crisp Sunday afternoon in April. My friend Sam and I followed an expat blogger’s directions from the subway station to the start of the trail. At the foot of the mountain, we approached a Buddhist temple, but the trails were not marked clearly. Two ajosshi, middle-aged men, trailed behind us, and I stopped to ask them for directions. Head to toe in professional hiking gear, they motioned for us to follow them.
The men acted as tour guides, pointing out Buddhist sculptures carved into rocky slopes, and sharing cups of makkoli (rice wine) and crunchy cucumbers. Then, we passed by the woman dancing in front of the cave, next to a striped tent and a recently slaughtered pig. A man drummed next to her. “What are they doing?” I asked one of the men in Korean, pointing in their direction.
“She is a shaman,” he stated, verifying what I already suspected. He mumbled a couple more sentences, and I heard him say the word “mishin,” meaning superstition, but I wasn’t exactly sure what he was telling me.
The ajosshi turned and started up the steps, not phased by the performance, and certainly not interested in watching. I wanted to ask more– Why was she dancing and chanting to the sound of drums and clanging bells? What was the purpose? But my Korean vocabulary was limited– especially in the shamanic jargon.
I lingered at each step, watching the woman grow smaller and smaller, and the modern skyscrapers becoming more visible in the scenery of the city below, realizing that my friend and the men were beginning to disappear ahead of me.
However, this anecdote wasn’t allowing my story to progress; it served the same purpose as the opening section. Jenny wrote, “While I like this anecdote quite a bit, I think what the story needs here structurally is to step back and give us an overview of what we can expect this essay to be about. In some ways, this anecdote hits the same note as the opening section—that is, the mystery/intrigue/inaccessibility of shamanism. It doesn’t really bring us anywhere new. In fact, I’m wondering now whether it makes sense to explain this evolution of your interest in shamanism at all; perhaps it’s only tangential to the story you’re trying to tell.”
Even though I felt like I was cutting off one of my limbs, I had to let this anecdote go. I’ve found that in order to allow my writing to grow, I can’t become too attached to my words.
3. CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
Similar to stagnant anecdotes, I learned that I need to carefully choose words to describe my characters. In my initial description of Celine, I wrote, “I stared at her red-painted lips and eyes, camouflaged by green colored contacts, as she reminisced about that visit to see a Korean shaman.”
Although I was fascinated by Celine’s green colored contacts, Jenny reminded me that it was not necessary to include this in the narrative. She commented, “Bizarre and interesting detail, but how does it serve the story? Every detail should add to our understanding of character or place in a specific, relevant way.” I realized that I must chose each character’s actions and dialogue to cater to the overall theme of the narrative.
4. RESEARCH AND TRAVEL JOURNALISM
I love how the Glimpse program encourages writers to combine narrative writing with travel journalism. I thoroughly enjoyed spending hours at the National Assembly Library in western Seoul scouring through books on Korean shamanism and notes from anthropologists’ fieldwork. I also found some great articles online. These resources sparked ideas, and allowed me to compare and contrast my own experiences with Korean shamanism. I was most inspired by Chongho Kim’s anthropological research. I read the investigative account of his fieldwork from cover to cover. Here are some other resources that interested and/or inspired me:
- Geoffrey Cain, Modern Shamans all the Rage in South Korea, Feb. 8, 2010.
- Sang-Hun Choe, “In the age of the Internet, Korean shamans regain popularity,” The New York Times, July 6, 2007.
- Ah-Young Chung, “Music of Shamans to be Featured,” The Korea Times, Sept. 3, 2007.
- Heinz Insu Fenkl, Dancing on Knives: An introduction to the Politics of Sexuality and Gender in Korean Shamanism, (Oct. 11, 2012).
- Laurel Kendall, Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life, (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1985), 27.
- Chongho Kim, Korean Shamanism: The Cultural Paradox, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003.)
- Ju-Min Park, “Korean shamanism finds new life in modern era,” NBC News, June 29, 2012.
- Janet Shin, “Awash with Fortune Telling,” The Korea Times, Oct. 4, 2012.
5. FORMING CONCLUSIONS:
Narrative writing often leads to new discoveries. In my initial pitch, I didn’t view shamanism as a form of therapy, but my experience and research led me to form this conclusion later. In my second draft, I introduced Korean shamanism in the second section of the narrative. I wrote, “In fact, there is a resurgence of Koreans who are seeking help from shamans and fortune tellers, due to easily accessible online information, personal economic troubles, curiosity, and a desire to solve their problems and misfortunes, much like visiting a therapist in the West.” Towards the end, I wrote, “I wondered: Does a shaman actually tell fortunes? Or merely act as a therapist, using their wisdom to advise their clients to make rational choices in life?”
Jenny noted that this idea was essential to my story, and advised me to delete the first part, in order to make this revelation stronger. She wrote, “I feel like this could be expanded just a bit— you’ve already made the comparison to Western therapy, so it doesn’t feel new here. It actually makes me think of a friend of mine who used to work as a phone psychic. She knew, of course, she didn’t have any psychic abilities. Her only goal was to keep people one the phone as long as possible, because they charged by the minute. Not that Korean shamans are quite so sleazy! But maybe another angle. Alternatively, if you remove the earlier reference to therapy, this line here might feel more like a revelation, in which case you wouldn’t necessarily need to dig further.”
Also, I realized that the fast-paced nature of Korean society may influence a person’s need to seek tranquility in the presence of a shaman. Jenny encouraged me to elude to Korea’s stressful atmosphere earlier in the narrative.
*Here’s the final paragraph from my first draft:
I can’t completely understand, but if only for an instant, if only for that one moment looking into the shaman’s plastic surgery altered eyes, laden with thick, black mascara, I felt like I was crawling through a secret passageway, exposing myself to a part of Korea that I never thought I would uncover.
*The final paragraph from my second draft:
If only for an instant, if only for that one moment looking into Choi Lee’s plastic surgery altered eyes, laden with thick, black mascara, I began to understand why Korean women secretly schedule appointments to come here. Even without the fortune telling and exorcism, the mudang offered comfort and companionship, taking a moment to listen to our problems, failures, fears, hopes, and dreams, scattered throughout our brains. Within this stressful, fast-paced environment, the curtained enclosure on the second floor offered a sense of calm, but down below, the city rushed on.
*And finally, here’s the final paragraph from the published version:
But visiting the Saju cafe and Choi Lee’s curtained enclosure was unlike the full rows of church pews and solitary Buddhist meditation that I had briefly experienced in the past. If only for an instant, if only for that one moment looking into Choi Lee’s plastic-surgery-altered eyes, laden with thick, black mascara, I began to understand why Korean women secretly schedule appointments to come here. Even without the fortunetelling and communication with spirits, the mudang offered comfort and companionship, taking a moment to listen to our problems, failures, fears, hopes, and dreams. In this stressful, fast-paced environment, the curtained enclosure on the second floor offered a sense of calm. Down below, the city rushed on.
I really admire Jenny’s style of editing. Throughout the last few months, she has raised questions and suggested many ideas to push me further and develop a smoother narrative.
I’m currently working on my second Glimpse narrative, a piece highlighting cultural differences and stereotypes that I’ve encountered in Korea. Jenny has edited two drafts, encouraging me to rethink the theme of the narrative, and develop stronger relationships between myself and the characters in order for the story to progress from “very good to great.”
Not only have I been given the opportunity to collaborate one-on-one with a professional editor, but I’ve been paid for it and given free tuition to MatadorU’s film course! My experience with Glimpse has been more rewarding than the English courses I took in college, mainly because of Jenny’s enthusiasm, encouragement, and thorough explanations. Although I won’t be working with Jenny anymore, I’m keep working on my third draft, pouring my soul into each line and hoping that it will be as successful as the first.
-Text by Sarah Shaw @ www.mappingwords.com. All rights reserved.