AN Essay Contest HOSTED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH
DOTDASH MEREDITH & REAL SIMPLE
14 Girls Write Now mentees share mini- and mega-moments of clarity in these personal essays.
Each Tremolo Reminds Me
By Chelsea Lin
Chelsea, the winner of the My Simple Realization Contest writes about her grandfather.
As a kid, I wasn’t interested in sci-fi or supernatural powers. I was a fan of “The Monkey King” and “Cavalier with White Eyebrows,” the ballads Waigong performed in his rattan chair. My waigong (“maternal grand- father” in Mandarin) was a musical storyteller who played the erhu and guzheng, Chinese instruments that supplemented his folktales about mischievous animals and noble heroes. As his assistant, I learned guzheng techniques and performed alongside him. However, when I was 12, Mama and I moved to New York City from Xiamen, China, and things changed. My interest in Chinese arts faded as my classes and extracurricular activities monopolized my time.
In 2020, Waigong passed away abruptly. I hadn’t seen him in more than five years, and Mama and I couldn’t even attend his funeral in China due to our immigration status at the time. The 7,900 miles between us numbed the realization that Waigong was gone forever, and I buried my grief under piles of homework.
When I found my guzheng gathering dust in the attic, guilt tapped me on the shoulder. Waigong loved traditional instruments and how each note communicated centuries of Chinese history. It was now up to me to continue his legacy, and so I do.
By the time I set up the guzheng at a park in Queens, a crowd had gathered, intrigued by the elegance of the hanfu, the embroidered silk garment I wore for the performance. With an awkward grin behind my mask,I wrapped the bamboo plectra, the guzheng’s picks, around my sweaty fingers. Instead of performing to the friendly faces of neighbors like I had as a child back in China, I was in front of a crowd of strangers, who might be hearing traditional Chinese music for the first time. I took a deep breath, letting my fingers run smoothly down the 21 strings. Waigong used to say music transcends time and distance. At that moment, I finally understood what he meant. With every note, I was transported to his backyard—it was as if Waigong were still sitting next to me, singing stories and occasionally giving me a smile and nod.
Applause for my performances cannot ease my regret about not spending more time with Waigong, but my audience’s respect for Chinese culture gives me hope that misconceptions toward Asians can be overcome. In light of the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, I hope my music provides some comfort to fellow Asian Americans, while creating a cozy corner for cultural appreciation on the streets and in the parks of New York City.
Though the pandemic took away my chance of seeing Waigong again, performing the guzheng lets me keep his stories alive. In a country unfamiliar with classic Chinese instruments, I own a momentous stage.
Meet the Pair
MENTEE CHELSEA LIN & MENTOR KK APPLE
“When we heard the news that her essay was selected, Chelsea and I sent a flurry of all-caps celebratory text messages to each other (I think several versions of ‘AHHHH‘ were used). I’m so so proud of her! She had worked on several versions of this piece for her college application essay last year, and it was thrilling to see such a simple distillation be recognized by the magazine. It’s like she breathed new life into the story. We’ve spent so much of the last two years meeting virtually and writing digitally, so it’s extra special that we’re going to get to hold a physical copy of Chelsea’s beautiful words in print.”—KK APPLE
Girls Write Now Mentor
Process + Q&A
Chelsea Lin is a first-year student at the University of Southern California. She is a current Girls Write Now Writing Works mentee who has worked with her mentor, KK Apple, since 2019 when they were paired in Writing 360. Chelsea is the winner of this year’s Real Simple essay contest for her piece, “Each Tremolo Reminds Me,” which is published in the March 2022 issue.
The following interview was conducted over Zoom between Chelsea and Spencer George, a Writer, Teaching Artist and Special Initiatives Assistant at Girls Write Now.
Spencer George: Hi Chelsea, and first off, congratulations. “Every Tremolo Reminds Me” is a beautiful piece and a well-deserved win. Can you tell me a bit about your process in writing it?
Chelsea Lin: I had a draft of a similar essay before I even looked at this contest, and it just came to me that this essay would be perfect for it. KK and I then worked together on editing it to make it work for the prompt and to also showcase the improvement of my writing skills over the last year.
SG: Tell me a bit about your relationship with KK and Girls Write Now. How did you first get involved with the program?
CL: I heard about Girls Write Now when I was in high school. Our career advisor sends out opportunities for students each week, and Girls Write Now was on there. I’m a business major now, but back then I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and figured writing is a great skill that would be beneficial for everything. I’d always heard about mentorship but thought it was only available for college students, so I thought this was an amazing opportunity to connect with a professional, especially in a field that I might potentially want to work in. I’ve been involved for three years now, and my mentor has always been KK.
At first, I didn’t know what our mentor-mentee relationship was supposed to look like, and we really became friends first. We still keep up now weekly about what’s going on in college or at home. Anytime I have a piece that I really need edited or to get a second opinion on—even if it’s just a networking email or an academic paper—she will help me with it. It’s amazing. KK is the best.
SG: Do you think your writing has changed through the experience of having a mentor, especially one you’ve worked with for so long? This essay in particular feels very confident—as in, even if you don’t know where you are going, you know you are going to go there. Have you always had that confidence or has mentorship helped you find it over the years?
CL: I definitely think it has come over time. I was a sophomore in high school when I first joined the program, and I didn’t know back then how to talk about myself. And now I do. And I feel like I have gained confidence in being able to express myself more clearly, and also understand that my writing is probably not perfect and that’s okay. What matters is that I feel confident about my work at the time I am writing it. If I feel good at that point, and the rest can come later.
I’m also not a native English speaker. I came to the United States when I was twelve, and I didn’t speak any English when I came. Writing has been a huge part of gaining confidence with language as well.
SG: I love that realization of, I don’t have to know what I am going to say, I just have to feel confident enough to say it anyway. It definitely comes across in this piece.
CL: It’s more just, I’ve gone through enough to be able to write about myself and my life in a way that doesn’t ask for pity. I feel like, in the beginning, when I started writing about myself, I wanted to say, all of this happened to me! Look! Through conversations with KK and my other mentor that I have through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, I learned that I’m not asking for pity but am just sharing what’s a part of me. That gave me confidence to start taking initiative in things. For example, I’m not a super outgoing or social person, so going out and performing on the streets like I talked about in the piece was a big decision for me. That took a lot of confidence.
SG: As a nonfiction writer myself, I completely understand what you’re saying. It’s always felt like if you are going to write about your life, you have to share all the bad things that happened to you. It can be a lot to have to constantly relive those stories.
CL: Yeah. Something KK kept telling me as I was working on this is, you probably haven’t come to terms with the sadness of your grandfather passing. And I hadn’t at that point. This piece came out of a draft for my college application essay, and it’s hard, because with that kind of writing you really feel like you have to pull together some sort of narrative where there is an ending. But there is no ending. I’m eighteen. There’s no ending to most of these stories I’m telling about myself. KK really helped me focus on what I was feeling in the moment and put that down instead of feeling pressured to come to a clean conclusion.
SG: I wish we encouraged more young writers not to worry about finding those conclusions yet. It’s exactly like you said. You’re eighteen. You’re still living it, and it’s okay not to know how it turns out yet. The reality is we are going to carry our experiences with us for the rest of our lives, so how can we use writing as a tool to learn to live with them.
CL: Yes. KK really helped push me to that realization too. For most of my college essays, KK looked through them and we did a lot of back and forth. My parents never went to college and they were excited but they also didn’t really know how to help me. It was really nice because KK gave me someone to reach out to for help. That’s something I’m super grateful for.
SG: Do you think you would ever want to become a mentor one day, whether with Girls Write Now or in some other capacity?
CL: I definitely want to become a mentor. I actually have been teaching a little on the side, just tutoring and college admissions work. I feel like this is something I have experience in now and it’s a way for me to give back to the community. What KK and my other mentor did for me, I want to pass it along.
SG: One thing I want to touch on is how you feel about this piece coming out. Did you think going into it that it would end up getting published?
CL: No, I didn’t expect it at all. I was really surprised, and honestly confused at the email when I got it. Like, what?! But I’m very excited to be sharing my story. And I’m also very nervous. With a magazine like Real Simple, there will be a lot of eyes on the piece.
SG: In terms of where you go from here, do you have any plans with writing? What do you see for yourself in the next few years?
CL: I really want to keep writing as something I’m always doing. I’m actually one of the only business students in USC’s honors writing program. I’m trying to keep in touch with my writing skills for sure. Sometimes I get self-conscious about opportunities or feeling like I don’t have enough qualifications, but I’m not trying to think that way. Whether or not I pursue it professionally, writing for me is just such a great way to reflect. Even if I talk about my experience or think of a certain situation, it doesn’t work in my mind the same way that it does as writing it out. So I think I will always be writing, even if just for myself.
My Simple Realization: An Essay Contest & Story Collection
14 Girls Write Now mentees share mini- and mega-moments of clarity in these personal essays. This contest was produced in partnership with Dotdash Meredith and the team at Real Simple as part of the SeeHer Initiative.
Chelsea is a freshman at USC studying Business Administration. Chelsea is an environmental activist, a social entrepreneur and a writer. She is inspired by her experiences growing up as an unwanted daughter in China and she writes about her childhood in hopes of empowering others like her. Chelsea enjoys reading many genres, especially fiction and mystery. Some of her favorites books include The Three-Body Problem and the Hercule Poirot series. In her free time, Chelsea can be found bowling with her friends or baking with her siblings.