Writers At Work 20th Anniversary — Cara Chow

Writers At Work 20th Anniversary — Cara Chow

Participating in Terry’s One Page at a Time workshop from 2000 to 2009 was the most important thing I ever did for my writing, but it also had an unexpected, life-changing side effect for me as a person.

I grew up in a homophobic home and religious environment. By the time I graduated from college, however, I believed that my education had enlightened me and cleansed me of all my prejudices.

Then I joined Terry’s workshop. During the first class, we critiqued a memoir about a lesbian feminist’s political and romantic struggles. The other story was about a man who invents a gene therapy for homosexuality and his gay brother’s fight to suppress it. Two gay stories: I thought this was a strange coincidence.

The following week, we critiqued a memoir about a lesbian feminist writer’s experiences in the lesbian feminist arts movement of the 70’s and 80’s and a thriller about a grief-stricken woman who falls for a dangerous woman.

After the third class, I confessed to my husband, “I think there’s something about me that’s different from the others.”

My husband’s reply was, “Didn’t you know that Silver Lake is the Castro of LA?”

I had no idea. I learned two things about myself that day: 1) I had no gay-dar, and 2) I harbored a guilty, nagging discomfort that belied my progressive self-image. As a Chinese-American woman, I had viewed myself as an ethnic and gender minority, but I had been blind to my privilege as a straight person until I became the straight minority in a writer’s group. Would I fit in? Would others in the class accept me as one of their own?

In the end, this group turned out to be the smartest, kindest, and most generous community of writers I have ever known. Over time, my colleagues became my friends. Some of my fondest memories of the class were from the time when I was pregnant. Everyone offered weekly doses of kindness and encouragement as I passed a 5 month bout of severe nausea. One of my classmates, who was raising two kids with her wife, passed down her beloved baby products to me. Later, my classmates pitched in to buy me a stroller, which I used everyday until my son outgrew it.

Because of my experience in Terry’s class, I’ve come to believe that one of the most powerful ways to bring about social change is to have people live and work with those we perceive as different from ourselves towards a common goal. My colleagues and I didn’t have “awareness talks” about our gay and straight experiences. We just read and wrote and persevered together. It is through experiences such as these that the “other” becomes “we.”


15th Anniversary Spotlight — Cara Chow

Each day for the 15 days leading up to the WAW Open House (October 7, 2012, 2-5 p.m.), we’re going to feature a current or former participant who’s completed a major project (book, film, album, academic credential). We’ll find out what they learned that helped them with their work.

Cara Chow, One Page At a Time
Project: Bitter Melon, a novel

I used to think that a great story had to have compelling characters, a strong voice, and deep themes. What I learned from Terry’s class is that it also needs a suspenseful plot, even if it’s literary fiction. The most important yet difficult plot element for me to learn was the central question, the burning question that motivates the reader keep reading. I struggled for years to create a good central question for Bitter Melon. As a result, one of the first things fans of the book tell me is that they finished it in two days because they couldn’t put it down.