Why We Write


Sometimes I wonder why I write when it’s such a costly endeavor for someone like myself. I do not breathe words like gifted writers. I grind them out, I chisel them from some dark granite quarry. They don’t come cheaply.

Writing is either an addiction or a curse–probably both. It’s a compulsion of some sort. Take the essay below for instance: it took several working days, nearly a week, to write; it came from experiences and observations gathered over a month; it made me sad in the writing; it earned me exactly $0 dollar.

But then my father read it, and he told me that it made him cried. He told me that it was “Great” and I had done right by our people and all that we had gone through, that I told a story that no other writer has written or will write.

That means something to me.

The story is “The Squid Sellers of Sihanoukville”.


Starving Artists

Sri Lanka Railway by the Sea (© Andrew X. Pham)

Sri Lanka Railway by the Sea (© Andrew X. Pham)

The surest way to stay poor is to publish a book.

As the years go by, more authors I know verbalize this sentiment. It certainly has been true for most of us.

And yet, knowing all that we know, we can not stop writing. We can not help ourselves. Writers write. We stop writing when we stop breathing.

But, writing by itself does not necessarily put the practitioner in the poorhouse. It’s getting a manuscript to a publishable level and dealing with the long arduous process of research, writing, rewriting, drafting, re-drafting, multiple rounds of editing, publishing, marketing, and a whole slew of other things. This could be crushingly difficult and decade consuming.

At the end of the rainbow, the monetary rewards for the vast majority of writers have been small–and growing smaller ever so quickly.

In some fields of writing such as food criticism, restaurant review, and culinary essay, the pay is approaching zero. Food writers find themselves working for free to enrich publishers or working for cash to “market” paying clients.

Jeff M., a writing professor, has commented to me that the situation has gotten so bad that he is reduced to advising his students to “write for free because that is all that’s available to them now.” This brings a whole new meaning to “a brave new world” for publishing.

We have pondered long and hard to find another way that will allow the art of writing not only survive but thrive. We believe that, at least for food media, we have found a new way with Spoonwiz.

Rice Planting

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAI’m back on the mekong farm, feeling weak with a bout of the flu. The surge of malaria/dengue in the villages had me worried. I ate some fantastic fish with fresh herbs yesterday and am regretting it today.

It’s rice planting season. The monsoon sweeping through with endless sheets of thick, pounding, drowning rain. One new development in the villages: nearly all the farmers are casting their seeds as opposed to hand-planting. Huge economic and social dynamic implications. First time in their history. I will have to get healthy and document this change.

It is so humid here my bath towel never ever dries. I’ve seen the sun once for 2 hours in 4 days. I am constantly drenched in sweat, weak with heat exhaustion. Skin rashes and bacterial infections are serious concerns. Night time, the bed is a moist pool of sweat.

Noting beats actual experience. Aspiring writers, I encourage you to get out and experience life.

Into the heart, into the bowels of darkness, I urge you.

Memoirists Have No Shame

People have asked me how can writers, especially memoirists, write about their lives, opening up closets, sharing pains, and exposing themselves to the public in such thorough and exquisite fashions.

I’ve pondered this some.

First, we don’t “think” about “exposure” when we’re busy writing.

Second, if we are the sums of love, loss, joys, and sorrows, could our stories be so different? And if our intentions are pure, wherein lies the shame?


The three personas of the memoirist:

The author is the person giving the lecture, doing the interviews, and presenting his work to the public.

The narrator is the person in the book, telling the story. He lives forever between the covers. He is the person most loved and known—by the readers.

The writer is the private person, rarely known even to his friends and family. He agonizes over sentences, makes ridiculous sacrifices for his craft, and is often his own worse critic.

On Writing

I received a request from an aspiring writer. Looking back to my humble beginnings, I can’t recall ever thinking that someday, someone would ask me for advice on writing.

Here are some points I’ve found to endure the test of time.

1. Write for yourself, edit for your audience.
2. Write as though it’s your last page and today is your last day. The mind becomes very clear at this edge where one’s fears and inhibitions fall away.
3. Enjoy the “aspiring” part of being a writer. Once you published, it feels like work.
4. It’s all about the journey. The most bittersweet moment for every voyager is when the end comes into sight.