from fiction to memoir–how and why The Peace Corpse was written

Before I left for Africa, I had already made up my mind that I would write a story about my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My writing began during the first two months of my stay in Korogwe, Tanzania. It helped me to cope with the transition and helped put things into perspective.

My original plan was to write a fictionalized version of my adventures. As my time in Africa progressed, the things that happened to me became stranger and more unbelievable. I eventually switched to nonfiction because I felt that the actual events were at risk of being perceived as poor, overdone plotting by an amateur writer.

That’s how my memoir, THE PEACE CORPSE, came to be.

Returning to America in December of 2004, I figured I’d finish writing as quickly as possible. But life got in the way. I finally completed the book in March. Of 2011. On the plus side, I finished the book on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps as an organization, and that was kind of cool. It even had exactly 50 chapters, which was…a complete coincidence.

Once my friends and relatives help me fix all the typos, I started submitting it to literary agents. The responses I got were less than inspiring. They all said that there’s just no market for a Peace Corps memoir written by someone who isn’t famous. No matter how awesome or funny it is. And who doesn’t think feeding lizards to unsuspecting houseguests is awesomely funny, right?

The failure to get agented led me to the self-publishing route. I knew a little about it, and I’d read that some self-published authors were pretty successful. After all the trouble of writing it, I figured that I might as well put it out there and give people a chance to read it.

Interestingly enough, the actual process of self-publishing was fairly simple. I basically got all the useful information from various blogs, and after a couple of weeks, I had it properly formatted and uploaded to various bookselling sites. And people did read it. About 15 people per month.

So…the literary agents were right. There’s not a big market for my book. Plus, I realized that almost every volunteer had the same idea–if the multitude of existing Peace Corps books are any indication.

But mine’s the funniest. Trust me. Well, I bet it’s in the top five, anyway.

Of course, the cover might have something to do with the sales. Mine pretty much sucks. I designed it myself, and it really shows. Now, would I do it differently if I had to do it all over again?

Yes.

For starters, I’d keep it as fiction. Still using the first-person POV and with the same humor, but I’d have more freedom to explore plots and subplots without being constrained by events that actually happened. Also, I could write about things I was afraid to write about in a nonfiction book for fear of embarrassing anyone. All I have to do is disguise the characters sufficiently.

Secondly, I’m not knocking self-publishing, but I wouldn’t do it that way again. To me, the keys to success seem to be (besides it being a great book) frequency and nature of promotion, number of books published, and reader perception. When it comes to promotion, self-promotion has its limit. And just as agents don’t want to work with a one-trick pony, readers don’t want to invest themselves in an unknown and untested author of a single book. Most importantly, a book from an established publisher shows that it does meet some minimum threshold of quality.

Plus, at least with a traditionally published book you’re guaranteed to get decent cover art and an editor.

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standard and nonstandard words

Just because a word appears in a dictionary, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should use it in your writing.

There’s a difference between “standard” and “nonstandard” words. For example, words like “alright” and “dunno” may appear in some dictionaries (on my computer “alright” appears correct, while “dunno” shows up as a mistake), but that’s simply because these are misspellings or contractions that have slipped into common usage. That does not mean they are correct.

The word “alright” is a short form of “all right”, and is so commonly misspelled it even appears in dictionaries now. But most good dictionaries will refer to it as nonstandard. What does that mean? Simply that it’s acceptable for use in informal writing or even dialogue, but not for formal professional writing.

For example, having a character say, “I dunno if she’s alright,” is fine. It’s part of dialogue, and can help the reader hear the voice of the character. But to say she was alright in the main body of the text is fundamentally incorrect.

Honestly, this is something I only learned of recently. In the past, I just assumed that any word in the dictionary was a word that I could use in my writing. But even though I use “alright”, “dunno”, and “ok” in emails to my friends or even in blog posts, I would never even consider using any of them in my scientific writing. And that’s the difference.

English is a fascinating language. And yes, new words are being added every year. The language is evolving. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t rules, and that any word can be used at any time. Context is important. Abbreviations such as “LOL” or “btw” should not appear anywhere in the book, unless it’s an excerpt from an email or message. Likewise slang should not be used unless it’s part of the dialogue.

I know that there are people out there who will disagree with me on this. That’s fine. But it’s important to mention that I’m not the one you need to worry about. If you’re a serious writer and serious about having writing as a profession, you’re going to have to deal with editors and publishers. And readers. And regardless of what you may or may not think is right or wrong, they are going to know what’s right and wrong, and they will judge you accordingly. And that’s why it’s important to know the difference between standard and nonstandard words.

the top ten mistakes of newbie writers

Writing is awesome. For some, the act of writing itself is it’s own reward. But for many, the writing becomes more than a hobby, and being published becomes the goal. The transition from a hobby to a career is not always easy, and newbie writers as a group tend to make the same mistakes. Therefore, I present to you the Critical Awesomeness Top Ten Mistakes of Newbie Writers (CATTMONW):

10. Pretentious words. Some people think it’s necessary to use obscure or overly technical words in their work in order to be “literary” or “sophisticated”. This doesn’t work if it leaves the reader confused about what you’re trying to say. Also, you must know the correct definition of every word you use. For example, I just learned that if you’re “rifling” through someone’s belongings, it means searching with intent to steal, not just “sifting” or “browsing”.

9. Reliance on comparison or clichés (rather than good description). Having characters shooting each other icy glares or running like the wind all the time may get your point across, but it doesn’t make for compelling reading. Come up with your own descriptions rather than relying so heavily on overused metaphors or phrases other writers have created.

8. Not giving up on your first book. It’s normal to have strong feelings for your first book. After all, you put a lot of time, effort, and passion into it. But sometimes, your first book is just a “practice” book. For a variety of reasons, it just might not be right. And that’s ok. The worst thing you can do is waste more time on it when you can be writing another, better book. Plus, you can always come back and rewrite it, or use elements that did work in future books.

7. Self-publishing when it’s not appropriate. Some rush to self-publish because they don’t have the patience for the traditional process of querying agents and revising for publishers. First, they might miss out on the potential for success in the traditional market offers. Second, by self-publishing an unfinished product, they will ruin their reputation in the Indie market and lose their readers. Self-publishing isn’t a fast and easy way to success. All books must go through the process of alpha/beta readers and multiple revisions. But for self-published books that won’t be edited by the publisher, a professional editing is almost always a must. And that cost, combined with the other costs of self-publishing, may be more than one expected. There’s always a trade-off.

6. Querying a book when it’s not ready. Likewise, the fact that you’ve written “The End” on the last page of your manuscript does not mean it’s ready to be submitted to agents. Regardless of how you choose to put your work out there, you should revise based on comments from alpha and beta readers. I wouldn’t say that all books should be professionally edited before they’re sent to agents. But if the feedback you receive is mainly about the grammar and style (regardless of the story), you might want to consider hiring an editor. Once your book has been turned down, you’ll have a hard time re-querying that book even if it’s been revised to perfection.

5. Responding poorly to feedback. Everyone who gives you feedback is doing you a favor, and you should thank them accordingly. Even people who hated your book and are flat-out wrong. They’re still providing insight into how a potential reader will regard your work. Friends and family don’t always make good alpha and beta readers because they’re not always objective and reluctant to give any criticism for fear of hurting your feelings. As a newbie writer, negative feedback is what you need most, because it tells you what you need to do to improve. All writers need a critique group or writing partners. And don’t worry about people stealing your idea.

4. POV problems. Many newbie writers are so in love with their characters that they want to tell the story from everyone’s point of view. Although they might think they’re doing multiple POV, what they’re doing is commonly known as head-hopping. And that can be jarring to the readers. Likewise, switching from first-person POV to third-person can take the reader right out of the story and should be avoided, unless it can be done expertly. And if you could do it expertly, you wouldn’t be a newbie writer, would you?

3. Too much focus on “building social platforms”. When you finish a book, it’s tempting to think the hard work is done, and it’s time to start promoting. In fact, it’s actually time to start the next book. If you want to be a writer, you should focus the majority of your time on writing. That’s how you’ll improve. Your social network should take up a tiny fraction of your time. And only done when it’s warranted. Building platforms and creating market presence are fine—but only when you have a finished product.

2. Following the market trend instead of writing what needs to be written. Too many writers are writing the wrong books for the wrong reasons. These days, everyone wants to write the next Twilight. Well, that’s been done, and it’s called The Hunger Games, apparently. YA books (especially paranormal) are flooding the market, and some agencies are refusing to represent them. Don’t force yourself to write something just because you think that’s what will sell. Write the story that’s in your head. And if it doesn’t sell, write another one. The literary market fluctuates, and someday your book may be the “hottest” thing.

1. Relying solely on other newbie writers for advice. If you want to be a professional at anything, you shouldn’t spend all your time looking at what other amateurs are doing. Good advice is good advice, regardless of the source, and you can learn a lot from people who are in the same field. But in the end, it’s the successful people you want to emulate. I came up with this list based on conversations I’ve had with professional writers and editors, but at the end of the day, I’m just another newbie writer myself. Still, I hope that this has been useful and instructive. Now that you’ve read it, I hope you’ll seek out professionals with far more experience than I have and learn what you can from them.

But most importantly, go and write!

writer’s anxiety

I’ve never had writer’s block. I’ve never sat in front of my computer and not known what to write. But I do experience writer’s anxiety.

Writer’s anxiety is where I get so nervous about writing something, so worried that I won’t be able to write well enough or say what I want to say in a clear and interesting way that I don’t even get started in the first place. Instead of staring at a blank document and not knowing what to write, I don’t even open the document. I procrastinate. I read books, chat with other writers on twitter, or read other people’s blogs, but I don’t do any writing of my own.

And how can I call myself a writer if I don’t even attempt to write?

I’d gotten to a point where I was quite good at making excuses for myself. I didn’t have enough time. I wasn’t in the right mood. I had more important things to do. Finally, whole months were going by where I hadn’t done any writing at all. And yet, I still wanted to write. I still had stories and ideas and misadventures that I wanted to share with other people. I just wasn’t doing it.

Fortunately, I have a girlfriend who is patient, kind, understanding…..and a professional editor. And yes, I do realize how lucky I am as a writer to be dating an editor, but it doesn’t do much good if I’m not actually doing any writing.

Finally, she suggested I try the 30-minute writing exercise. The 30-minute writing exercise is exactly what it sounds like: block off 30 minutes of time, cancel out all distractions, and just write for half an hour. Don’t overthink. Don’t try to edit as you go. Just write. Let your thoughts flow through your fingers and onto the page in front of you.

Initially, I was reluctant. It usually takes me a couple of hours to write a blog post, and I was so convinced I had to be in the right mood to be “creative” and “funny”, I didn’t think I could do it. Well, I knew I could sit there and write, but I didn’t think I could write anything that other people would want to read under those conditions.

But that’s not the point. You don’t have to get it right on the first try. The key thing is that you actually do it, instead of just sitting there thinking about it. And after the 30 minutes are up, you stop and let it sit. Take a break, then come back to revise it or edit it. And generally, even if you didn’t plan it that way, you will end up with themes, ideas, or events. Sentences will naturally group themselves into paragraphs, and you’ll be able to come up with a strong opening paragraph and a solid, definitive conclusion.

I’m actually doing the 30-minute writing exercise right now. This is the second time I’ve tried it (the first was for this post), and I’m liking the results. For one thing, I’m actually writing again, but I’m also writing more efficiently. I can get more done, and in less time.

Giving me more time to spend with my girlfriend. Which I think was her plan all along.

goat monkey

Up until recently I thought I was a monkey. As it turns out, I’m a goat.

I’m talking about the Chinese lunar calendar, of course. I was born in 1980, and that’s a Monkey year. And while I don’t necessarily believe in horoscopes or zodiacs or anything like that, it always kind of made sense to me. According to the Chinese zodiac, the monkey is inquisitive, clever, and creative. People born in a Monkey year often make good scientists and engineers. They also tend to be reluctant to settle down, as they are easily bored.

I thought that described me pretty well. After all, I’m an engineer/scientist traveling the world and trying to have different adventures on every continent. I like observing people, which is also apparently a Monkey trait, and specific to Monkeys born in 1980, I’m warm-hearted and likeable.

But then I found out recently that due to my birthday being in January, I wasn’t actually born in the Monkey year. The Chinese New Year varies a little each year, and in 1980 it didn’t come until after I was born, so technically I was born in the previous year. A Goat year.

The Goat is creative and intelligent, but also insecure and most comfortable being part of a flock. Not strongly individualistic, a Goat would never volunteer for a leadership position, and is most comfortable with a stable, secure home life.

At first, I thought this didn’t sound like me at all. After all, I’ve spent more than a year on five different continents. I volunteered in Africa, went ice climbing in Scotland, horseback riding in Inner Mongolia, scuba diving in Panama, and got attacked by a cassowary in Australia. I’m a monkey, dammit! I’m adventurous and inquisitive!

Plus, monkeys are just cool.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I really am a Goat, not a Monkey. Hell, I don’t even like bananas. And when I look back at how I’ve spent the past ten years of my life, it’s clear to me that I’m just a goat who has been pretending to be a monkey. After all, while I’ve hopped from continent to continent over the last decade, the first thing I do when I get to a new one is settle into a routine. I may make one or two big trips per year, but I actually am somewhat of an anxious traveler. I love seeing new things, but the travel itself is stressful to me. And while I have chased different girls on different continents, I think deep down I really have been looking for that special someone to settle down with.

So yeah, after denying my Goat nature for far too long, I’m finally ready to accept it. I want some stability in my life. A good, steady job, and a companion to share my experiences with. Plus, Goats can be pretty awesome. They’ll eat ANYTHING. Just like me.

Again, I’m not saying I necessarily believe in the zodiac stuff, but it does provide a good metaphor for my realization that I’m ready to settle down and be “normal”.

Well, as close to normal as I can approximate, anyway.

guest post: get an editor

After slacking off for months now, I want to get back to doing a blog post a week. But since I still don’t have internet at home, for this week’s post I’m just going to point to a guest post I wrote for the lovely Sirra Girl:

http://sirragirl.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/get-editor-by-vizprod-andy.html

Yes I’m being lazy, but hey, I still wrote it.

so far so good

I’ve been at my new job—research fellow at RMIT University—just over a month, and I have to say it’s exceeded my expectations in every possible way.

Research isn’t normally a 9 to 5 job. You’re generally expected to work over 8 hours a day, and if you don’t go to work on the weekends, at the very least you should be working from home. But my boss didn’t tell me what time to come in on my first day. So I arrived at about 8:45, eager to get started, but….no boss. She didn’t even show up until after 10:00. And when she brought me into her office to discuss my project, she also mentioned that I can come and go whenever I please, and the only important thing is that I produce results. In fact, she usually comes in around 10:00, leaves around 5:00, and doesn’t even come in at all on Fridays.

So apparently research is a 9 to 5 job. At least here, anyway. I’ve been coming in at around 9 and leaving at around 6 because I’m still trying to make a good first impression, but even those hours are less than what I did during my PhD or my first postdoc. And what I’m finding is that when I actually take breaks, it’s so much easier to come back with a fresh outlook and enthusiasm. In fact, I look forward to going to work every day.

Of course, it’s only been a month.

Despite the lack of long hours, my boss does produce results. She has multiple collaborations with other research groups in both universities and private companies, and she has multiple papers published every year. Which is the most basic, albeit sometimes inaccurate, way to judge the quality of a research group.

My project is part of a larger plan to develop a material that can be put over reservoirs to minimize evaporation. Another research group is making the materials, and my job is to run computer simulations on them and find out how they work at the molecular level. The best part about this is that there’s no wrong answer. Whatever results I get, those are the ones I share with my collaborators. And publish. And since I’m coming into this project after it’s already been underway for a while, all the hard stuff has already been done. Basically, all I need to do is modify and fine-tune some things, and everything will go forward smoothly.

Which is pretty awesome.

Another thing that I particularly like is that there are two other people working on this project with me—a PhD student and another postdoc. I felt pretty intimidated at first because they’re both thoroughly familiar with the work and I’m coming in as an outsider, so I wondered what I could possibly add. But to my surprise, being an outsider actually helps. I’m looking at the project with fresh eyes and from a different perspective, and while I may not be as familiar with the details as they are, I can suggest alternatives that might not have ever occurred to them.

Plus, it’s nice to be part of a team. My colleagues really love what they’re doing, and their enthusiasm is contagious. The other postdoc and I often spend our days separating problems into chunks, and then working individually to come to a solution. And it’s just so great to have that feeling of accomplishment when something we’ve worked hard on to put together succeeds beyond our expectations.

Honestly? I mostly took this job because I needed the money. After all, I make more now in a week than I did in a month in China. But I never could have predicted that it would end up essentially being my dream job.

taking my ball and going back to research

I moved to Australia with $13,000 in savings and the delusion that I could become a commercially successful writer within a year.

That didn’t work out.

For starters, Australia is more expensive than I anticipated. Even though I live in the cheapest place I could find and I hardly ever go out and do anything, I’m still spending well over $1,000 a month. Which means my plan to live here for a year and do nothing but write is not a feasible one. Plus, starting in February I have to make payments on the student loans I took out for graduate school.

As far as the writing itself, I admit that I got sucked in by the Indie hype. The advantage of being an Indie writer is that you can put out as many books as you want as fast as you want. I thought, with a little revision on the stuff I’ve already written, I could put out a new novel every 3-4 weeks. And within six months, I’d be making at least a few hundred dollars per month. Maybe even more.

But that only works if your books are good. Fortunately, I met a group of writers, editors, and book reviewers who were willing to take a look at my stuff. Even more fortunately, they were not afraid to tell me that my “masterpieces” are not ready to be published. Self-published or otherwise.

Writers (and their well-intentioned friends and family) are generally not great judges of when a book is ready to be published. I’m extremely grateful to the people who gave me the honest feedback I needed. Yes, it hurt to hear that my books aren’t good enough (yet), but I would never want to put a book up for sale if it’s not ready for general consumption. That just seems like it would be a huge disservice to readers. And to my career as a writer.

So much for my plan to become an awesomely famous writer in less than 12 months. And so much for my savings, which are almost gone now. And yeah, I could get a part-time job to pay the bills so I could keep my focus on writing. But to be honest, I’d rather not. I need to start paying off my student loans before the interest consumes me like a rabid wildebeest.

When I left China I swore that I was done with research for good. I love science, but I get bogged down by the day-to-day monotony of running calculations and trying to figure out why the fuck things aren’t working. On the other hand, I did spend $60,000 to get a PhD in chemistry. And it’s something I’m good at, so at least there’s that.

I knew from the start it was kind of a long shot, but I applied for a research position at RMIT University here in Melbourne. And somehow, I got the job. I start in January, and my boss seems cool. Plus, the pay is like six times more than I’ve ever made in my life. So that’s nice.

And just in the past few months, my outlook has changed. Maybe it was the Vipassana meditation, or maybe I’m just being more realistic, but the thought of going back to research doesn’t bother me as much as it did before. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

This doesn’t mean I’m giving up on writing completely though. I’ll still write in the evenings and on the weekends as much as I can, but now I’m not looking for the instant gratification. If it takes me ten years to produce a good novel, that’s fine. I’m in no hurry.

Research actually is pretty cool.

attack of the cassowary

I must admit that I expected traveling in Australia for a month with my parents to be interesting, but not necessarily exciting. Although ‘exciting’ may not be the most appropriate way to describe being attacked by a wild animal. I’ll get to that shortly.

The trip started off innocuously enough. My parents flew into Melbourne, took one look at my place that I share with three housemates, and decided to drive to Sydney—where I would meet them after my job interview.  Yes, the house is generally in a disgusting state, but it’s also one of the cheapest places in Melbourne. I can’t complain about that, but I also can’t blame my parents for not wanting to stay here.

So I met up with my parent in Sydney and we did some sightseeing. Then we hopped on an overnight train to Brisbane. Overnight trains are supposed to be like getting travel and lodging together in one convenient package, but the reality isn’t that pleasant. Especially when oblivious parents won’t control their obnoxious children. Although my mom did get me a new Amazon Kindle, so that kept me occupied for a while.

And I wasn’t being that obnoxious, really.

Brisbane was cool. Taking the ferry downtown every day wasn’t necessary, but we did it just for fun. We also went to a game reserve where they had koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, and wombats.

Koalas are pretty stupid animals. No, seriously. Most of their energy goes to detoxifying the eucalyptus leaves they eat, and not much is left over for higher mental functioning. Much like some people I know back in Montana—except with beer instead of eucalyptus.

a squinty-eyed koala bear

See those vacant eyes? Yeah.

Kangaroos are cool though. The reason they’re built the way they are—and why they hop—is that’s the most energy-efficient way to travel moderate distances. I tried it myself, but couldn’t really get the hang of it. Then again, I’m not built like a kangaroo. Still, the way they pivot their bodies forward for optimal balance just before they start hopping is pretty fun to watch.

Kangaroo

Australian animal physics should be a required science course

Next, we drove north to Cairns. This was not….the best plan we could’ve had. We thought the road would be right next to the ocean like it appeared on the map, but it actually was quite far inland. And not scenic. As my dad put it, “We could’ve just driven back and forth on the same stretch of road every day, and we would’ve seen the exact same thing.”

Dad walking back from the beach

This spot was cool though.

At Cairns, we went snorkeling over the Great Barrier Reef, which was incredible. But my most interesting animal encounter happened just after that.

The cassowary is an extremely rare bird native to the forests of northwestern Australia. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that the first time we saw one (it walked right next to our car), so we didn’t bother to take any picture. In fact, I mocked the people getting so close to a dangerous wild animal just for a picture.

Then I found out just how rare it is to see one in the wild. Needless to say, I became determined to get a good picture if we ever encountered another one.

cassowary

This is the only shot we got of the first one.

I got the chance sooner than I expected. Heading out from the parking lot after another hike, I spotted movement in the bushes. I grabbed my dad’s camera (which I’d never used before) and dashed off with some Italians who also wanted pictures of it.

The cassowary headed away from us as we crashed into the forest after it. I pointed the camera and pressed the button, but for some reason it wasn’t working. I stopped to see what was wrong with it when I heard one of the Italians shout, “It’s coming right for us!”

Sure enough, it was charging us. I read that if attacked by a cassowary you should 1) not run, 2) get behind a tree, and 3) if there are no convenient trees, pick something up and hold it between you and the cassowary. There were no convenient trees around, so while everyone else ran, I did the only thing I could. I took off my sandal and waved it threateningly at the cassowary. Apparently this worked (or it just lost interest), because it turned and walked off into the forest. Much to my relief. After all, I didn’t relish the choice between getting maimed by a freaky dinosaur-looking bird and assaulting an endangered species with my sandal.

And my dad’s camera? As it turns out, it was set on ‘video’. And I was holding it backwards.

The video is hilarious.

the ignoble jerkass and Vipassana meditation

Vipassana meditation is a type of meditation where you focus on your breathing and on various sensations throughout the body with the purpose of learning how to not react to them.

The ignoble jerkass is me.

I’m referring to myself as the ignoble jerkass in part due to my failure to observe Noble Silence during the 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat I recently went on. But I’m also calling myself that for other reasons which I will get to shortly.

Vipassana meditation, as taught by S.N. Goenka, is available at various meditation centers all over the world. There are courses of varying length for experienced practitioners, but the course for beginners is always 10 days. That’s apparently the minimum amount of time for someone to learn the basics of the technique.

Either that or it’s just a nice round number they picked at random.

A friend of mine from the Peace Corps was the one who recommended I do it. He and I went through a lot of the same things while we were in Africa; stress, fixating on things, obsessing about things, and so on. He went on a retreat in America and apparently got a lot of benefit from it, and suggested I could do the same.

Initially I was reluctant. I was afraid it would turn me into a liberal hippy douchebag with no sense of humor, or worse, that it would somehow make me lose interest in writing or take away my creativity. Of course these fears are not rational, but I’m not exactly the most rational person to begin with, so what can I do.

Fortunately for me there’s a nice big Vipassana meditation center just outside of Melbourne, and that’s where I went. Seven other guys joined me there, and around 12 or 15 girls. We were segregated pretty much the whole time, and after the first evening we were instructed to observe Noble Silence, which meant no talking whatsoever until day 10.

This was hard for me. Especially when my roommate in the dorms stepped on my glasses on day 1. My first new pair of glasses in almost 10 years, crushed and broken. I had honestly meant to observe the Noble Silence strictly, but I couldn’t help letting out an “Awww…” when that happened. Still, the worst part was that I couldn’t even tell the guy that I didn’t actually care that much, which left him wondering for the remaining 9 days whether I was pissed off at him.

Out of the 8 of us guys, 3 left within the first few days. I have to admit I briefly considered leaving, but what stopped me was the realization that no matter what, I didn’t want to go back to how I was feeling before. I needed some kind of change in my life—or at least in my outlook.

And that’s what I got. Vipassana meditation is simply about training your brain to be aware of the sensations you experience but not react to them with craving or aversion. There’s nothing magical or spiritual about it; it’s like learning a new language or a musical instrument. But like both of those things, it requires a lot of practice. The purpose of the 10-day retreat is not to cure you of all that ails you, but rather it’s simply about giving you the tools you need to cure yourself over time.

It also provides a lot of insight into what’s wrong with you. In my case it showed me just how much of a profoundly negative asshole I really am, and how destructive this is to me, to the people around me, and to my relationships with them. And it was fascinating to just sit and observe my thought patterns as I tried to focus my attention on my breathing. Goenka referred to the restless mind as a monkey jumping from branch to branch.

I think my monkey has rabies.

Another interesting aspect of this meditation is that as you stop reacting to stimuli with craving or aversion, your old reaction patterns start coming to the surface. And as long as you don’t react to them, they’ll fade away as well. I experienced a lot of really intense emotions as this happened. On day 3 it was frustration, on day 6 anger, on day 7 lust (don’t ask), and on day 9 anxiety. And no, I can’t say I’m completely free from all of these things now, but it does feel like the dial has been turned down a bit.

Another interesting aspect of the course was that starting on day 4 or 5 (I can’t remember which) we were expected to practice Determined Sitting for one hour, 3 times a day. That might not be what they called it (we weren’t allowed writing materials so I’m doing this from memory), but the point was to sit without moving anything for one hour. If this sounds easy, try it yourself. If you’re like me and have a lot of muscle tension anyway, sitting in one position becomes excruciating after about 45 minutes. The idea is that you’re supposed to train yourself to treat this discomfort as just another physical sensation and not react to it, but that’s easier said than done. The whole point of the retreat was to stop having cravings or aversions, but after about day 5 I started developing an aversion to the meditation hall itself. Because that’s where the Pain happens.

Still, it was totally worth it. I may not be enlightened now, but I feel like I have the tools I need to gradually improve myself over time. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll no longer be a negative asshole or an ignoble jerkass.

But don’t hold your breath.