On Seeing Nothing of Worth

  • onJuly 21, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byJo Kyung Ran

I was twenty-five when I started college with the goal of studying literature. The usual age that Koreans get accepted to university is around eighteen or nineteen, after graduating high school. When I was that age, I failed my entrance exam. After that, since I didn’t have any particular skills, even finding a job was difficult. A bigger problem was that I didn’t know what I wanted, nor did I have a clue about what type of person I wanted to be. I wanted to find whatever it was that could answer these questions. So, from the age of nineteen to twenty-four, I isolated myself and sat in my room, immersed in books. After spending five years like that, I finally plucked up my courage and got accepted to a certain college’s creative writing department. Fortuitously, I made my debut as an author right as I was graduating. That was exactly twenty years ago.

Sometimes people ask me what my stories are about. Since that is a terribly difficult question, I often fall into different streams of thought. For example, thoughts about things I have that you might also have, or thoughts about things which none of us can have. Beauty and hope are not the only things which give people life.

William Faulkner said that an author must write about the eternal truths. Those truths are “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” I think there are a few more which should be added such as trepidation and communication, and imperfection and sadness.

What I feel about the world of literature is thoroughly subjective, as is what I choose to write as an author, as well as what I choose to read and whether or not I like it as a reader. As an author I don’t have an astounding number of readers, but I write what I please and of course seek out works by authors I enjoy. I isolate myself from the outside world for a great amount of time as well. Twenty-first century multimedia platforms, including the Internet, have the tendency to spew out far too much information. If you don’t seclude yourself from time to time, all of that noise, all of those awful playthings will take hold and corrode your insides. I believe that literature, novels in particular, should be an escape from the noise of the world. These thoughts have come to me now, seeing that this year marks my twentieth year of writing novels. Isn’t it much harder these days, more than writing stories, to create and maintain an environment conducive to writing?

Simply put, it seems that I need to write more gripping stories than anything that I have written up until now.

I read every single day, but I do not write daily. When I’m not writing, I usually listen to music or cook. These two things are unbelievably helpful in relieving the tension and anxiety that writing brings. For someone like me who lives in a small house and works in a small studio, music is one thing that I cannot be without. Music changes the atmosphere. When music and cooking are of no help, I go outside and start to walk aimlessly. All of the characters in my head follow along. On occasion we even talk. I do this because the characters are not only figments of my imagination, their stories are also there for one special reader. The author, the characters from a story she has yet to write, and the reader of that story all walk together. Sometimes there is a clash of opinions, and there are times when our thoughts are in tune, and some when they even make suggestions. This is because we, the characters, the reader, and I, all want one thing— the completion of a satisfactory story. It would be impossible to complete my stories without these singular occasions. Furthermore, there is a moment where the verb “walk” becomes equated with “think.” This is how my work and the way I spend most of my time relates to my writing. It is possible that this is the result of my aspirations, rather than the result of training.

Sometimes I wonder, how did I become a writer? Until I was twenty-four, no one knew my name and I had not taken a single literature class. When I start thinking like this, those five years I spent in my tiny room just reading day and night come to mind. There are times when all I can do is nod as I realize that it was then that I had my “water moment.” Everyone knows the story of how Anne Sullivan taught the deaf and blind Helen Keller about language. When Miss Sullivan was debating how she could teach Helen, she took the girl’s hand and put it under a pump to let her feel the cold stream of water. As she did this she spelled the word “water” on Helen’s other hand. They say that that moment was the first time Helen Keller discovered language. That was her “water moment.” I’d like to think that the time I spent reading good books, be it time spent reading works of world literature that everyone has read or time spent focusing on Korean literature, could be considered my “literature moment.” I had never felt anything so vivid and intense, nor been so completely captivated before then.

In this way, the stories that I write are like letters to all the imperfect others in the world. People like me, or rather, people with whom I differ. I don’t know how these letters will reach them, but the possibility that someone might be captivated by some part makes it impossible for me to give up. It is not possible to love, understand, or hate one person in each moment. However, it is possible every moment for me to be thinking about a person who is imperfect, a person who is broken, a person who is exhausted, or a person who wants to communicate with another, wherever it may be that they are in the world. In Korea we have an expression that means “nothing worth seeing.” Perhaps what I am really interested in are the people, things, memories, and moments where there is nothing worth seeing. But of course, these continue to be difficult subjects on which to write. 

by Jo Kyung Ran

Author's Profile

Jo Kyung Ran made her literary debut in 1996 when her short story “The French Optical” won the Dong-a Ilbo New Writer’s Contest. She is the author of the short story collections Looking for the Elephant (2002) and The Story of a Ladle (2004)I Bought a Balloon (2008), Philosophy of Sunday (2013), and the novels Time for Baking Bread (2001), Tongue (2007), and Blowfish (2010). She is also the recipient of the Hyundae Munhak Award and the Dongin Prize, among others.