Chasing the Marlin

Bunkong Tuon - Wednesday, September 10, 2014


You wake at the crack of dawn, stumble out of bed, rub sleep out of your crusty eyes, wash your tired face in the bathroom, boil water for coffee in the kitchen, and turn on the computer that hums on your desk near the office window, where you watch the sun rising, a bright orange light illuminating the Eastern horizon. Your wife is asleep. She was up late last night grading papers, something that you will have to do as soon as a line, a word, a phrase, an image . . . anything you can hold on to, Dear Muse, anything to give you hope that something good, worthwhile, comes from you, something that remains fresh next week, month, maybe even years from now. 

An hour later, your wife peeks in, mumbles “morning,” then walks to the sink for a glass of water, and returns to the bedroom. You are restless in front of the computer screen. The third cup of coffee is half empty. 

When the words don’t come easily or at all, which is most of the time, you are plagued with anxiety and doubts. You get cranky. All you want is to write that poem that speaks truthfully to others and moves them with matters of the heart and mind.

Usually, you write about a memory from childhood, like that time your aunt pinched your thigh under a tree. She was angry and scared because her older sister, your mother, had died. And it might not even be a tamarind tree we were sitting under that day, but you like the sound of that word. Tamarind is sour when it is young and sweet when ripe. It feels and sounds just right: “Under the Tamarind Tree.” Writing is molding the facts to correspond with the emotional and spiritual core of an event.


Or it’s a tune you used to sing for your grandfather when he taught you the Khmer alphabet in a refugee camp in Thailand. Man, that was a difficult poem to write.  You kept hearing this strange tune from the past. You can’t do anything else, as your mind was haunted by this tune from a world long gone. It controlled you for days until you pinned this ghostly melody down and wrestled a poem out of it.

Or you are inspired by a recent event, a talk you had with your wife about life’s unpleasant surprises while you two were walking on the bike path that overlooked the Mohawk River. Or that time in class, when you taught your students about the Cambodian Genocide, when someone asked, “How can this happen?” You couldn’t find an answer in facts, so you turned to writing. Writing fills the gaps left by the traumas of history.


Whatever the topic, it must be genuine, real, true to that experience and for others. It must not be forced. It must be honest. It must be done out of respect. That’s the only way writing translates well.

So you write, driven by a desire to tell stories, to share memories of loved ones, to speak the truth about the unbreakable bonds of love and an unshakeable faith in humanity. 

But the Muse doesn’t always come. What you must do is prepare yourself. Have a routine and write. Get the words flowing, the engine humming, and then wait. 

And when she does visit, the words start flowing. She’s like that marlin dragging the old man too far out to sea.  All you can do is hold on to dear life as long as you can.  “Pull the boat, fish . . .  .” 

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