Tuesday, May 14, 2024
Portrait of Camellia Pham

Camellia Pham is a third-year student from Vietnam, double majoring in Comparative Literature and Chinese with a minor in Translation for Global Literacy. She tutors for the Success in Rhetoric program (SiR) and for the Honors Writing Fellow Program. She also interns for the Iowa Youth Writing Project and on the communication squad, where she enjoys writing emails to writers around the world. She is interested in reading world/international literature and is currently working on her application for graduate school.

This piece is her response to an assignment to analyze her writing process for Writing Theory and Practice, a course for new Honors Writing Fellows. Camellia writes in four languages: Vietnamese, Chinese, French, and English.

I often sit in front of my computer, on my apartment’s Chesterfield, in the common learning room of the library, in the sketchy basement of Phillips Hall, under the deep shade of the evergreen trees at the Pentacrest lawn, for hours and hours, typing, deleting, and retyping. Writing has been a pleasure for me since even before I became aware of the possibility of pursuing writing as a career. But then I found myself staring at my first writing prompt in English over Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism and classical myths, my second writing exercise in French on how to describe my coveted career, and my third writing exam in Chinese, a hypothetical scenario of studying abroad in China, getting sick, and calling the hospital to ask for treatment. It was a very exotic and arcane realm of a new language, and a new world that is not my mother tongue, throwing me off into different places, and pummeling me out of my complacency. I admitted to myself, I don’t know where to start.

But I knew I had to start at some point, so I tried rummaging through the forest of the new, collecting everything that I could scrabble to synthesize something of my own. I started with research before writing anything down. I was fascinated by how fleshing out inklings of ideas bewildered other writers and consumed them to the core. I wrote down ideas and key terms from other people, drew connections between them—which can be either a nod or a shake of the head, or can also be a nonchalant expression—and re-read the writing prompt. The process of researching usually took me more than several hours, or even days—therefore, I always tried to start as early as I could. I was baffled that sometimes I concurred with what my sources said, and sometimes I did not. But even if I didn’t agree with my sources, it was still worth the journey. Through that kind of “disagreement,” when I re-read the writing prompt, it re-appeared, fresh, new, and untainted. I discovered a different angle on the topic that I had never thought about before.

Churning out ideas then came so naturally in the most liberating ways, that sometimes, unrestrained, I had to putter about with it on a piece of paper. I became interested in mind mapping and brainstorming from then on, as the hankering to write fled into my inner self’s playground like a wild child—reckless, heedless, and daredevil. Diagramming and reconceptualizing my thoughts on paper were among the most efficient techniques I have learned in order to develop and organize ideas. I usually made my mind map extremely detailed and minute because I believe finishing off a structural outline will allow us to do up to 70% of our writing before we even begin. The writing process was very much smooth sailing with my writing layout. I usually did my whole writing in one sitting if I could. 

Then comes the rigorous revising and editing process. Whether it is in Phillips Hall, on the lawn of Pentacrest, or in my apartment, I often sit in front of my computer for a long time: typing, deleting, and retyping, trying to get my words untangled, and unraveling my own infinitely layered thoughts that I have had a hard time articulating, let alone capturing. My first language is Vietnamese, so every time I write something in my second, third, and fourth language, I require another pair of eyes to look it over in a cursory way before I feel comfortable enough to submit. Needless to say, I sometimes do not achieve the kind of writing quality that I usually aim for; oftentimes, it foolishly slips out of my reach. But, as disheartening as writing is, it has enraptured me, and I can’t seem to resist. Writing is so bizarre and vulnerable, that sometimes we just have to pour our hearts into pieces titled “draft zero,” because we know they will mutate through drastic changes into something totally different in the final round. “How Do I Write?”––that is the most inexplicable yet enthralling question in my literary world.