Have you ever told a lie or have secrets no one knows about? Join Qian Julie Wang, the New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Country, as she leads us through the challenging process of writing a memoir—protecting those you love while telling your authentic story.
What’s in Store
- Discover how confession can lead to poignant narratives
- Explore how telling your truth in spite of fear can liberate you and those around you
Write along with Qian Julie’s playlist!
Prompt #1: Secrets
Write about a secret that you hold or something not many people know about you.
Prompt #2: Lies
Write about a time you told a lie and why. What was the thought or feeling behind telling that lie?
Prompt #3: Confessions
Write about a time you confessed a secret or a lie. Who did you confide in and how did the conversation unfold? How did the relationship progress?
Q&A with Qian Julie Wang
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
So memoir is very different. A reader said this at a recent event, and it’s stuck with me. She said that she had read somewhere that it’s always better to write from scars than open wounds. I think that’s so true. I decided to start my book in 2016, around the 2016 election, but whenever I sat down to write it, I realized that I couldn’t because I hadn’t processed a lot of the memories I had, not even as I let myself think about them or acknowledge them. So I went into therapy and I would say that that was probably the first step of my writing process, even though no writing was happening for about a year and a half.
When I finally felt ready to start writing, it was still incredibly difficult because I was also working a full-time job at my law firm. And I realized I had dead spaces in my day. I was working eighty hours a week, but I was taking the subway to work. And in the subway, I didn’t have cell phone reception, so I couldn’t call my clients or handle briefs or manage my associates. I started writing on my iPhone using the Notes app, and I think for this project, it was really crucial that I did that because as I was typing into the Notes app, it felt more casual. It didn’t immediately put into my mind that people outside me were going to be reading this. Instead, it felt like I was writing diary entries and kind of retracing my old steps, if not just for myself, then maybe for future kids and grandchildren, but certainly not the public. That was the way that I cracked open the door to accessing those memories and being able to share things so personal and intimate.
The very first thing I wrote was just a list of memories that I thought was important to cover in the book. I knew that this book, I wanted this book to be focused on five central years from ages seven to twelve, because there’s something so universal and powerful about childhood and early life experiences. Then I actually just picked off those memories during each commute and started with happy memories first. So my first time eating pizza for the first time, not knowing what cheese was, getting my cat, getting my Tamagotchi. And that kind of opened up the floodgates to my ability to tap into all emotions of all ranges. From there, it kind of just flowed out. But I will say that that treatment, as if no one is ever going to read your memoir, really helped me find the raw, honest, and authentic material. And I don’t think I could have had the story pour out that way without that medium.
Coming from an Asian background where we always have to be referring to filial piety and not bringing shame or dishonor to the family, how do you deal with writing about things that they don’t believe anyone should know?
That was one of the biggest hurdles to my beginning to write this book. I think it’s every parent’s worst nightmare that their child write a childhood memoir, but I think anything particularly, challenging for Chinese parents, Asian parents. My father grew up in China during a cultural revolution, and his entire childhood was filled with persecution from the government because his brother wrote something the government didn’t like.
This book is heavily steeped in our generational trauma and I knew would trigger his early-in-life trauma. I really didn’t think that I would be able to finish the book. And that’s what I just kept telling myself that, you know, I won’t be able to finish it, so no one’s going to see it anyway. I’m just doing this for myself so I can process it. I can know that I tried to write a book and failed. And each step of the way, I told myself that in the first draft, I was going to be as honest as possible, and that in any subsequent drafts and versions that would be shared with anyone outside me, that I would edit things down, I would delete scenes that I knew that my parents would be uncomfortable with. Because every time I thought about them reading the book at all, just the two of them, no one was even in the picture, I froze and I had writer’s block, because I did feel this duty. And having recounted my story and experience my story, I could see very much that my parents did the very best they could in impossible circumstances. I felt very protective of them against being judged.
But once I saw the first draft flow, how it looked together in one manuscript, I was also reminded that as a lifelong reader, I place trust in writers to tell me their truths, especially for memoir, especially for nonfiction. I had a duty not just to my family at that point. I also had a duty to readers who chose to spend time and invest in my story.
I also experienced, from having put it all down on the page, a sense of feeling empowered from telling your story, of reclaiming your truth from that shame. And I hoped that it would do that for my parents. They may not appreciate it right away. They might be angry at me, but I had to try. And beyond them, it was not really a story or book about us at all. It was about, again, being an undocumented immigrant, being an early immigrant, being a child and a parent, and what it means to be in a family. And I hoped that even if my parents never forgave me, if they remained mad, that it might be worth it because it might offer freedom and validation and safety and comfort to immigrants and families and children and parents out there.
I just hope that maybe you can think about it in that sense. When you choose to share your writing is a decision completely up to you. It’ll be a gift that you give to the world. And when you are ready, you will know. And I hope that that fear will not stop you. And that was another thing I have from living undocumented. I was so used to living in fear and I really didn’t want to do that anymore because that was a life that I knew. That was a life my parents knew. I wanted to know what it was like to act and to put myself out there while fueling fear, yes, but also despite it. So I hope that that might offer some solace to you, and that my parents did eventually say upon reading the book that they felt healed and liberated by the book.
How do you try to stay creatively inspired?
That was easier when I was working eighty hours a week, not doing creative work, because I felt like I had an overflow of creative energy that was not finding their outlet. Now that I have built in more time in my life for creative work, it’s actually, ironically, a little bit harder, because when you set aside time to write, as opposed to just jumping on the subway and just typing out whatever you have in your mind, some days it just is not there.
I have learned to not push it too much. The idea that if you’re not writing, you’re wasting time is one that I find crippling and debilitating, at least for me. So on those days when I feel like just nothing is coming to me, I try to do other things. I try to read books that inspire me. I try to watch out for movies. I even sometimes just go for a walk or run in nature, because that has been the best way to kind of refuel myself. And what I learned from working on my memoir was that the times that I didn’t spend on the book were just as important because they allowed me that time to process, that time to kind of simmer and marinate in what I wanted to write, where the story was going. Such that when I sat down to write, I was just that much more efficient and I was that much more engaged with the material.
This event was originally recorded on December 3rd, 2021.
Qian Julie Wang is a New York Times bestselling author and civil rights litigator. Her literary memoir, Beautiful Country, covers the years she and her parents spent living in undocumented status, grappling with hunger, poverty, and hope in New York City in the 1990s. Qian Julie wrote the book on her daily subway commute while making partner as a commercial litigator at a national law firm. The book debuted at number 3 on the New York Times bestsellers list and has been deemed “a new classic” by critics. A graduate of Yale Law School and Swarthmore College, Qian Julie is now managing partner of Gottlieb & Wang LLP, a firm dedicated to advancing the education, disability, and civil rights of marginalized communities. Qian Julie has appeared on the TODAY Show and NPR Weekend Edition, and her writing has been, or is forthcoming, in major publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, and The Cut. Currently at work on a novel, Qian Julie lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two rescue dogs, Salty and Peppers.
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Qian Julie Wang is a New York Times bestselling author and civil rights litigator. Her literary memoir, Beautiful Country, covers the years she and her parents spent living in undocumented status, grappling with hunger, poverty, and hope in New York City in the 1990s. Qian Julie wrote the book on her daily subway commute while making partner as a commercial litigator at a national law firm. The book debuted at number 3 on the New York Times bestsellers list and has been deemed "a new classic" by critics. A graduate of Yale Law School and Swarthmore College, Qian Julie is now managing partner of Gottlieb & Wang LLP, a firm dedicated to advancing the education, disability, and civil rights of marginalized communities. Qian Julie has appeared on the TODAY Show and NPR Weekend Edition, and her writing has been, or is forthcoming, in major publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, and The Cut. Currently at work on a novel, Qian Julie lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two rescue dogs, Salty and Peppers.
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