Writing About Special, Ordinary Lives

  • onJuly 21, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byCheon Myeong-kwan

I started writing fiction in my forties. Before then, I’d never nursed the hope or dream of becoming a writer. I had always thought literature was the realm of very special people.

For a long time, writers occupied an exalted position in Korea. They were regarded as people gifted with great knowledge, lofty consciousness, profound insight and inspiration about the world, and so there was something mysterious about them. At least that was how I felt. Not even in my wildest dreams could I imagine someone ignorant and ordinary like me becoming a writer.

Before turning to fiction, I worked in the film industry. I handled petty jobs, worked in production, and even wrote screenplays. My ultimate objective was to see my screenplay turned into a movie. At the time, I was possessed by the desire and anticipation of making my own movie. But, moviemaking involved a lot of money and arranging funds wasn’t easy. In the end, I had to leave Chungmuro, Korea’s Tinseltown, without having made even a single film. I was forty at the time.

I turned to fiction solely at the urging of my younger brother. If it weren’t for his suggestion, I’d never have dared to become a writer. I always thought the world of writers was poles apart from mine. That was how I felt as I sat irresolutely in front of the computer screen.

Okay, so fiction, you see, is… umm…. Jeez! (Scratches head)

All the same, I wasn’t scared. Because I didn’t identify as a writer. Nor did I have a reader to read my story or a critic to critique my writing. Without any literary vision or expectations, I simply started writing out stories that sprang to my mind.

A week before Chuseok, somewhere near Gwangju in Gyeonggi Province, Daeso waited to take a left turn at a three-way intersection.

This is the first line I ever wrote. It has no literary embellishment or fabulous metaphor. It simply mentions the time, place, and character. The protagonist shares my friend’s name. Anybody could’ve written this sentence. For me writing concise statements of facts, with nothing to add or subtract, was no different from writing stage directions for a screenplay. As I neared the end of that first sentence, I wondered if I’d get away with writing such lines, but, lo and behold, the next sentence was already waiting for me. As I finished writing the second sentence, the third sentence was standing by... Someone seemed to be whispering in my ear as I jotted down the lines. In less than a month, I completed two short stories and one novella. That was a time when I was waiting for my final ruin with an empty heart, so it wasn’t as if I had anything better to do.

It’s been more than a decade since I started writing fiction, and I’ve published a few volumes in that time. My conception of writers as special people has all but disappeared. But I find the label of writer as awkward as ever. I never aimed to write a certain type of fiction or become a certain kind of writer, and it’s the same even now. So, if possible, I write my story. That doesn’t mean the story is about me but rather that the story is one I like or know quite well. No matter how splendid a story might be, if there’s something awkward or uncomfortable about it then it isn’t mine. I simply write my stories and the rest is up to the readers and the critics. That’s all.

The stories I know best are those of the commoners. I’ve always enjoyed the company of the poor, the unlearned, and the marginalized. Of course, I was one of them too, never having come out of their living space. I don’t know anything about the cultured elites. I’m clueless about what they think or the lives they lead. So they don’t appear in my novels because theirs is an unfamiliar world to me.

Despite this, the consciousness that our lives are all more or less similar lies at the root of my stories. Rich or poor, Korean or Russian, in the end they all lead similar lives and, unless there’s a natural disaster, the experiences they go through are, for the most part, similar. That’s why I’m not particularly interested in the special or unusual.

But then again, our lives might be similar but each individual’s life is special in its own way. If a person’s life were to be drawn on a canvas, it’d make for a painting filled with resplendent and surprising images. I think everybody leads special and remarkable lives. It’s not writers who I find mysterious, but the lives of the people they paint. No matter what the age or place, writers have endless material to write about. How fortunate it is to be a writer who can draw on this enormous and amazing resource to his heart’s content for his entire life! 


by Cheon Myeong-kwan

Author's Profile

Cheon Myeong-kwan is a novelist and scriptwriter. He has received the Munhakdongne Novel Award and the Kusang Young Writer Award. His books have been translated into English, French, Chinese, Russian, and Vietnamese. English editions of his work include Modern Family and “Homecoming.” Modern Family was adapted into the movie Boomerang Family.