Writers gotta write

Min Jin Lee by Tony RinaldoIf you want to write something, "reality can't stop you," says Radcliffe Fellow and bestselling author Min Jin Lee. She is the guest artist at an Office for the Arts lunch for students on Nov. 28.

By Truelian Lee ’21

Who is a writer? Acclaimed author Min Jin Lee has an answer to that question.

“I think you’re a writer if you’re writing. That’s it!” said the author of
Pachinko, a New York Times 10 Best Books of 2017. “I think that it’s the most important that you feel compelled to write.”

Pachinko coverLee will be the guest artist at an ArtsBites pizza lunch discussion at Office for the Arts on November 28.

Lee was born in the South Korean capital of Seoul and immigrated to Queens, New York, when she was 6 years old. She received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and a law degree from Georgetown Univeristy. Afterward, she worked as a lawyer for many years before becoming a full-time writer. This year, Lee has received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation as well as from the
Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard.

“A lot of times, people will say, ‘either go to law school or be a writer,’ and I think that’s silly,” Lee said. “It should be, ‘try to have a job that will keep you fed and clothed and housed and keep writing anyway.’ I think that’s a much more realistic way to approach writing.”

Lee also mentioned other common misconceptions about a writer’s life. She noted the importance of protecting one’s expectations about the field.

“I’ve noticed that people seem unhappy when they’re chasing some sort of idea they have of what a writer, and those ideas are fairly unreasonable and not true,” Lee said. “Very often younger people have this idea that you’re going to work on this project, and then someone’s going to want it, and then people will read it, and then everything will be fine – when most of the time, it doesn’t work out. Even if it is published, most of the time it isn’t read, and that’s a really hard bit of information to take.”

Min Jin Lee
National Book Award Finalist Min Jin Lee Photo courtesy minjinlee.com
With Pachinko, Lee created a novel about Asian Americans with omniscient narration so that she could incorporate multiple points of views.

“I wanted it to be a socio-realistic novel of the 19th century mode, because those are the kind of books I love to read, so I took that on as something I would like to make,” she said. “I didn’t know whether anyone would be interested in it, and if people aren’t interested in it, I understand. I’m using a very old-fashioned form of storytelling to tell a fairly modern story.”

Lee worked on the book for more than a decade, and she praised the power of fiction to answer questions for a writer.

“If you want to read a certain kind of book that doesn’t exist, or if you had a question you’d like to answer through fiction, I’d really encourage you to go ahead and do it. I think the only person who can determine the value of a project is you. It’s not a publisher or printer or teacher,” Lee said. “For me, I had a couple of questions I really wanted to answer about the Korean Japanese people and their experience, and because I wanted to answer these questions, I stayed with this project [with Pachinko].”

Looking back at her experience writing, Lee offered this piece of advice.

“It’s incredibly impossible to control the externalities of what writing looks like,” she said. “I think it’s almost impossible to be successful as a writer, and if you take that as a given, you’re going to be fine. And if you really want to write something, you will write something, and I can’t stop you, and reality can’t stop you.”

This event was made possible by generous support from the Clifton Family Fund and the Dawn Clifton Tripp Literary Artists Fund administered by the Office for the Arts.