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5 Korean American Creatives Share Their Writing Habits

Nicole Chung, Andrew Ahn, R.O. Kwon, Don Lee, and Karen Chee talk about the craft of writing.

Writers Nicole Chung, Andrew Ahn, R.O. Kwon, Don Lee, and Karen Chee reveal their creative processes.

When I go into a new bookstore or watch credits roll on the screen, I secretly look for specific names — Kim, Park, Kwon, Chung, Choi, to list a few. Korean surnames are simple, monosyllabic, yet nevertheless powerful. Every time I spot one, I am giddy with pride, excited about the growing presence of Korean American storytellers. Because of their work, I know I am not alone in my experiences, whether they are Korean, American, or of the blurred in-between.

In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I spoke with five Korean American writers about their creative processes. Writing is immensely empowering and cathartic but also gruesome and sometimes near impossible. On top of championing diversity, these writers have wrestled with the craft — ultimately emerging victorious — to produce numerous best-sellers, film festival hits, and the jokes and sketches behind some of our favorite television moments. Here is what they had to say about writing:

Nicole Chung, All You Can Ever Know

What do you begin with when writing? A character? A theme? From there, what are the next steps?

I often find myself writing about whatever I can’t stop thinking about, whether it’s something that happened to me or something I saw or heard. I recently started a new project that really surprised me — I hadn’t been looking for it — but soon I was working on it when I probably should have been doing other things, and I decided to pay attention to that instinct.

Sometimes I also land on an idea in the course of conversation with somebody I trust. (If there’s a particular thing you just can’t stop bringing up, that probably means something, you know?) Usually I begin with a short scene; even if it doesn’t stay at the top of a piece, it makes me think, right from the start, about narrative and pacing and structure. When I write, before I ask you to do anything else, I want to make you feel like you’re there with me, and a scene is often the best way to do that.

Describe your editing process. With each iteration, are you focusing on a different aspect of your work?

For the book, it was so important to get reads from people I trust — first and foremost my amazing editor, Julie Buntin, but I had some friends read it, too. Because it was a memoir, I also had various relatives read it, and then incorporated their corrections and feedback as well.

I’m an editor, and I think that helps in the sense that I really trust the revision process — but also, sometimes, I hate it? It can be hard to remember that when I’m thinking about or drafting my own stuff I should definitely not be trying to edit myself at the same time. I realized about a third of the way through the first draft of my manuscript that if I continued to edit myself as I went along, I’d never finish. I had to work to nail down the scenes first, and I knew I could beef up the story in revision.

In general, the first round of edits is mostly about big-picture stuff, reading and noting where I have pressing questions. (I really believe the most valuable tool in my editing toolbox is knowing which annoying questions to ask writers!) Once the initial questions have been answered, I’ll dig into some line edits and let my inner editor start hacking away. And from there the edits just get increasingly nitpicky, until someone (my editor) says it’s done, pries it out of my hands, and saves me from myself.

Has your work changed your relationship to your cultural identity? If so, how?

It definitely has helped me to think about it and put down in words what felt so mystifying to me for years. It’s also allowed me the space to reflect and say it’s okay that I don’t always know exactly who I am; I’m more comfortable in gray areas now, sitting with no answers or certain, limited answers, accepting I’ll never get the whole.

I think you have to think about identity in order to write at all. If you’re doing your job as a memoirist, you’re going to get to know and understand yourself better. Though I actually think nothing has changed my relationship to my identity so much as having the opportunity to read and edit other writers — to know I’m not alone in thinking about how our experiences shape us, what it means to try to connect with others through our work.

What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing a memoir? Similarly, what was the most difficult and how did you overcome it?

In terms of the writing itself, there’s nothing better than knowing you wrote something true — and I don’t mean true as in nonfiction, although that also applies in my case; I mean something that you thought about and struggled over and finally got down on the page, and then were able to feel proud of. Writing is obviously never going to be perfect, but when it does click, it’s the best feeling. And given how impossible it can feel at, well, all the other times, I think that satisfaction you get when you know it’s working is the only reason to keep putting yourself through it.

The hardest part of writing a memoir for me is just figuring out that balance between the personal and the hopefully universal — knowing when your vulnerability is necessary, and when it’s just oversharing; justifying your story’s existence in the hope that it might be of some use to someone else. When you write a memoir, you’re opening up your life to terrifying criticism from all comers. You try not to think about any of that, of course — or your mom’s reaction — when you’re writing. But at some point, the book is out there and it’s both wonderful and scary that it will have a life of its own that you cannot control.

One of the more difficult things about publication was also one of the most exciting and affirming — I got to go on tour and talk with lots of people about the book. At the same time, every event also involved a great deal of emotional vulnerability, and I was going through it all while grieving for my dad. Genuine gratitude for everyone who engaged thoughtfully with my book is what helped me overcome the physical and emotional challenges inherent to putting myself out there. Hearing from people who tell me my book helped them feel a little bit more seen has been the best part of publication by far. Those readers who understand what you’re trying to say are the people every writer writes for, or should want to write for.

Who is an Asian writer you admire?

There are so, so many I’m glad to count as role models and friends — and I’ve talked a lot about how important Celeste Ng and Alexander Chee and Min Jin Lee are to me. Right now, I’d love to shout out my friend R.O. Kwon, who in addition to being a literary rock star is such a fierce and generous voice in our community and an absolute hero of mine. I’m so thankful for Reese’s voice, and as someone who grew up just wanting to see someone who looked like me doing what I wanted to do, I am glad that so many aspiring Korean American writers now have her to look up to.

Get Chung’s memoir on Amazon for $16.93.

Andrew Ahn, Spa Night

What do you begin with when writing? A character? A theme? From there, what are the next steps?

My writing starts with a collection of observations: places I have explored, people I have met, behavior I have witnessed, and moments I have experienced. I then combine these observations together to find meaning or insight. I may have ideas, themes, or feelings that I want to write about, but without an observation, it’s difficult for me to ground my work.

In my film, Spa Night, my observation was this culture of gay cruising that takes place in Korean spas in Los Angeles. It gave me the foundation to build the narrative, find the characters, and develop the themes.

Describe your editing process. With each iteration, are you focusing on a different aspect of your work?

The editing process is brutal! It requires a strange distancing, an artificial objectivity. I have to constantly remind myself what I’m interested in and how successfully I’m articulating those interests. Of course, feedback is very helpful; I rely on friends and colleagues to serve as guides through the revision process.

As a screenwriter, I’m writing something that isn’t a finished format; I write my screenplays to make a movie. In this way, the script isn’t a precious finalized document; it’s a tool, an intermediate step. Scripts change as you go through preproduction, production, and postproduction. It is a living document, almost constantly being revised.

Has your work changed your relationship to your cultural identity? If so, how?

As a queer Korean American, I often feel like I’m not Korean enough. My Korean identity is questioned, taken away from me, or belittled. This search for myself is a cornerstone of my filmmaking; much of my artistic process has been motivated by a desire to learn more about my Korean cultural identity.

When making my short film Dol (First Birthday), I looked through photographs and video of my first birthday ceremony; I interviewed my parents, asking them questions about that day. I feel closer to my Korean identity through my artistic process, and on a more personal level, closer to my parents.

Are there possibilities unique to writing for the screen? Are there limitations?

The most difficult aspect of writing a film is that film is a totally different medium from your screenplay! You are not able to accomplish the same things through sound and image that you can accomplish through words. Cinematic language and literary language are related but have fundamental differences.

Literature is very good at jumping through time; there’s a nimbleness in describing the past, the present, and the future. However, you are always experiencing film in the present. Literature is also very good at finding interiority, since you can be inside a character’s head in the most explicit way. Film is inherently an exterior medium; you can articulate only what you see and hear. There are cinematic devices that help you overcome these challenges, such as voiceover, but I find these are difficult to use well and take away the fun and beauty of working in this medium.

Who is an Asian writer you admire?

Hannah Sanghee Park, for her collection of poems, The Same-Different, and her screenwriting work.

R.O. Kwon, The Incendiaries

What do you begin with when writing? A character? A theme? From there, what are the next steps?

I often begin with a constellation of questions. With The Incendiaries, I was fascinated by the wild varieties of central beliefs people hold about the world — religious, political, moral — and how these beliefs can determine our lives. How they can save us and wreck us. From these questions, characters started coming to life.

Describe your editing process. With each iteration, are you focusing on a different aspect of your work?

I spin through entire drafts over and over again. I have no idea how many drafts The Incendiaries went through — it could be 30, it could be 60. In a lot of ways, I don’t want to know. I want to forget how much of myself I put into that book, so that I won’t get too discouraged about what the next book will need from me.

Has your work changed your relationship to your cultural identity? If so, how?

I think a lot about something Toni Morrison said about her writing: “I stood at the border,” she says, “stood at the edge, and claimed it as central. And let the rest of the world move over to where I was.” Isn’t that powerful?

In general, I write with myself as the first reader, which means, of course, that I end up centering readers who haven’t very often been centered in American letters: Korean Americans, Asian Americans.

Your debut novel took 10 years to finish! How do you keep yourself creatively motivated and inspired?

I love sentences. I love them so much. As long as I can keep getting lost in the sentences, I can keep going — at least so far, knock on wood.

Who is an Asian writer you admire?

So many! C Pam Zhang has a first novel coming out in 2020, How Much of These Hills Is Gold — I had the luck of reading an early copy, and it’s incredible.

Get Kwon’s debut novel on Amazon for $17.68.

Don Lee, Lonesome Lies Before Us

What do you begin with when writing? A character? A theme? From there, what are the next steps?

It’s usually some sort of a question. With my last novel, Lonesome Lies Before Us, it was reading about Ryan Adams (the alt-country singer-songwriter who has recently gotten pummeled for his treatment of women) when he released his album Ashes & Fire in 2011. He’d taken a hiatus from music for several years because he’d contracted Ménière’s disease, and he had been afraid he’d have to quit music. What would it be like, I wondered, for a musician to be losing his hearing and to have to reconcile giving up his art, his entire life as he knows it?

I then write more questions and thoughts and research tidbits into a Moleskine notebook. I think a lot before I begin actually writing — usually for at least a year for a novel. When I start thinking in scenes, with characters speaking to each other, I’ll begin writing. But I’d say one of the most important decisions — other than point of view and tense — is setting. Time and place. I don’t understand writers, particularly students, who don’t care about setting.

Describe your editing process. With each iteration, are you focusing on a different aspect of your work?

With novels, usually it’s structural. I’ll outline what I have, and I’ll see if something is imbalanced, like 62-page flashbacks in a 300-page book, and realize I need to redistribute things. Or that I need some sort of subplot. After reading the first draft of The Collective, both my editor and agent said I needed to add “something.” I decided to add a love interest for the narrator. I spent several months writing 70 additional pages, and I based the love interest on a former girlfriend. I cribbed scenes from actual dialogue that I’d recorded in the daily journal I used to keep.

Early on in the production process, my editor asked if any characters were based on real people, and I said yes. She didn’t seem to have a problem with it. She asked again a few months later, and I gave her the same answer — no problem. But when the book was about to go to the printer, she said the legal department had a problem with this, and I had to rewrite everything about the former girlfriend and disguise her as much as possible. And I had 24 hours to do this. I did it, but it was a stressful 24 hours, man.

Has your work changed your relationship to your cultural identity? If so, how?

Absolutely. In grad school, I sometimes got suggestions to explore the “Asian American experience” in my writing, which I resisted mightily. I thought the suggestion itself was racist. So I often wrote stories that had white protagonists as an act of fuck-you-ness. But I was living in Boston in the late 1980s, and it was a very racist town then, and I had shit happen to me there. I finally wrote a story about that shit, and I had so much to say, it turned into a novella, called “Yellow.” As I was putting together my first book, I revised a bunch of old stories and changed the white characters to Asian characters.

Now I tend to alternate: one book will be about race, the next won’t, and so on. But my writing, if anything, has strengthened my identification with my ethnicity, and I’m particularly proud of my association with Fourth Kingdom, a Facebook group of Korean American authors that Alex Chee formed, and with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.

Your characters have ranged from a Brussels sprouts farmer to a singer-songwriter to a teenage boxer. What is your research process in developing these complex backgrounds? Is there one that was particularly difficult to construct?

I do a crazy amount of research, often to my detriment. It’s a way to get into my characters, but it’s also a way to procrastinate writing. There are certain things I know I didn’t get right in the past, like about commercial fishing in a story called “Casual Water” in Yellow, and it kind of haunts me.

The most difficult was the research I had to do for Country of Origin, my first novel, which took place in Tokyo in 1980 and involved a Foreign Service officer and a Japanese cop who are looking into the disappearance of an Amerasian woman. I’d lived in Tokyo as a kid, and my father had worked in the US Embassy, but I really knew nothing about the workings of the Foreign Service or about Japanese culture.

Who is an Asian writer you admire?

Paul Yoon, whom I liken to a younger brother. What I admire about Paul is his tenacity. His first three books failed to see the light of day. Nonetheless, he kept going, and has become very successful. He won’t compromise his vision. He knows that what he’s doing isn’t exactly commercial — quiet, understated, poetic stuff — but he is immune to external market pressures. Also, he is nearly as curmudgeonly as I am.

Get Lee’s latest novel on Amazon for $10.00.

Karen Chee, Late Night With Seth Meyers

What do you begin with when writing? A character? A theme? From there, what are the next steps?

It depends on what I’m writing. If it’s topical jokes or one-liners, then I usually read the news, gauge my emotional response to it, and use that gut reaction to form a perspective. I think of punchlines as either internal or external. An internal punchline builds on whatever the setup is and stays within that world, whereas an external punchline takes the reality of the setup and runs away to something crazier or unrelated.

If it’s a humor piece, then I usually think of a premise or a perspective first — it is easiest to write when I have a strong sense of the character who is narrating the story. Occasionally I’ll think of a joke I like and build it out from there, but then the piece usually feels wonky or flimsy, and I have to do a big overhaul or end up dropping the piece entirely. Now I mostly post single jokes to Twitter.

Describe your editing process. With each iteration, are you focusing on a different aspect of your work?

I write truly terrible first drafts with lots of run-on sentences and jokes that don’t make sense. My brain is a sloppy, bubbling mess and it’s kind of a miracle that I can get words out in an intelligible way. I’m all about editing. With each round of edits I have a better sense of the character’s voice, so I can go back and delete inconsistencies and tie sentences together to flow better or chop them up to have better rhythm. I’m not great at writing. I’m pretty good at editing.

Has your work changed your relationship to your cultural identity? If so, how?

Yes, inasmuch as everything constantly changes my relationship to my cultural identity! In terms of writing, I think I’ve gone from ignoring my cultural background to inserting it relentlessly because I was so thrilled by the novelty of declaring my full self to the world to writing without forcibly adding or removing anything. I’ve grown less insistent on it because I’ve learned to recognize that my voice is inherently Asian American, and I don’t have to act differently to prove that.

The changes definitely stemmed from how I personally grapple with my cultural identity. Growing up, I was very adamant about being American — I was so afraid and ashamed of being Asian and all I wanted was to be part of a white family.

Then I went to college and met older students of color who had matured out of feeling the way I did and inspired me to boldly embrace my own cultural heritage; I learned how to be proud of my Korean-ness. It’s a painful process because it makes you resent yourself no matter what — on the one hand, for taking so long to do this, and on the other, because the residue of the previously ingrained racism makes you embarrassed for trying to be Asian. Learning to embrace my identity rather than resent it for causing pain was crucial. It’s still an ongoing process, but now I actually feel like I am Korean American.

How has performance, in either stand-up or sketch comedy, affected your writing process?

When I’m performing I’m much more aware of why people are laughing. I make a lot of jokes about race, and I always want to be sure that people are laughing for the right reasons, and never because I’m upholding a stereotype or making Asians the punchline. It’s a tricky line to draw since the audience usually has a set of assumptions of who I am based on how different I am from what they’d expect a comic to be like (white, male, loud), but I think I’ve maneuvered it alright. I love making fun of white people. What a joy to do that directly to their faces.

Performing regularly means inevitably having bad shows here and there, and learning how to shake off a bad show has been incredibly helpful in terms of writing. I think one of the most annoying things is looking back on something I’ve written and noticing how it could have been better. Now I don’t beat myself up as much or cringe as hard when I reread my older pieces. Or more realistically, I just don’t read them again. I send my stuff in to my editor and then forget about it. Which is a relief, because my brain can’t seem to retain much information anyway.

Who is an Asian writer you admire?

Bah! So many. I love everything Alexander Chee writes. I feel privileged to have read Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, which tore my heart apart and sewed it back together. I think Broti Gupta is hilarious and I think Sabrina Imbler can make any topic compelling. Is this too many?

Responses have been lightly edited for length or clarity.