Navigating cultural differences can be hard as UTM student Christina Nguyen chronicles in her first novel, Under the Rug, set to be published next month. Currently in her sixth-year majoring in professional writing and communications, Nguyen wrote and edited the short stories in Under the Rug for the Professional Writing and Communication program’s “Making a Book” course. The Medium spoke with Nguyen about her writing process, the importance of mental health, and how she has become a more confident writer.
The Medium: Under the Rug is your debut novel! How was your experience in “Making a Book”?
Christina Nguyen: It has been a really rewarding process. I’ve learned how to conceptualize, typeset, and edit a manuscript on my own. The course has given me the skills and tools to self-publish, but also the courage to submit my work to professional editors. Professor [Guy] Allen has also been very supportive and understanding with our book making process. I still cannot believe that I will have a book that I can call my own.
TM: What is the concept and plot of Under the Rug?
CN: Under the Rug is a collection of short stories based on my personal life. The title comes from the saying, “sweeping things under the rug” and the stories reflect how we conceal and ignore things that we feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about. I wanted to highlight how the things we say or don’t say can create friction in our relationship with others and more importantly, ourselves.
TM: Mental health and relationships are prominent themes in this collection—how do they manifest over the course of the book?
CN: In my second year of university, I was diagnosed with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Major Depressive Disorder. I left school and isolated myself from peers, friends, and family. No one understood what I was going through and I didn’t have the words to explain it to them.
Stories from Under the Rug showcase how relationships are made complex through the lack of understanding and communication that exists between me and my family and friends.
There are a lot of self-help books that are catered to those directly struggling with mental health issues, but few that focus on people who are trying to support them. Under the Rug highlights how empathy and patience can help with mending broken relationships.
TM: What is your writing process like?
CN: I usually start with an unresolved feeling or memory, whether that’s something I’ve experienced or witnessed from another person. I actually have a “memory jar” where I jot down notes about certain events and reflect on them later and/or use as a writing prompt.
When I find something that I’m compelled to write about, I focus on how it made me feel and the actions and body language of the people I observed. Visualizations help me process feelings of discomfort, embarrassment, and shame with empathy.
If the situation allows for it, I’d ask friends and family about their recollection of moments I want to write about and it helps me approach the story with more nuance. Overall though, writing this book has been therapeutic for me and has helped me understand and accept my own vulnerability.
TM: Was it difficult to write a collection that was so personal?
CN: Writing it wasn’t the hardest part, sharing it is. There is always a worry about how people might interpret or judge the stories. I constantly have to remind myself that it doesn’t matter in the end. These stories, while vignettes of my life, aren’t a full reflection of me and my relationships.
TM: What was the editing process like?
CN: Prior to the start of the course, Professor Allen told us that we would need to hire a copyeditor. I prepared a budget for it, but had a hard time finding an editor that was available and who could work around the deadlines I had set.
I ended up reaching out to you, a former classmate and recent PWC graduate, who was generous to help. The editing process was similar to the editorial workshops we did in PWC courses, but more thorough and concise. You would point out strengths and weaknesses, make edits, and suggest opportunities for improvement. We would work through grammar and punctuation as well as reduce redundancies and improve readability in my stories.
TM: I know Making a Book is very hands on. Did you encounter any difficulties with designing and formatting Under the Rug?
CN: I’m a part of the CCIT program, so I’m lucky to have the advantage of having some experience with Adobe InDesign (the program that we use for typesetting a manuscript), unlike some of my peers. The first few classes involved a lot us scrambling to learn and teach each other how to navigate the program. A challenge that we all experienced was learning how digital manuscripts translated to print. I never expected, going into the course, that I would rely so much on a printer and cry about margins and gutters and font.
TM: How has making a book made you a better writer?
CN: I wouldn’t say it has made me a better writer, but I’ve become more confident. I received my proof in the mail last week and when I held it in my hands, all I thought of was, “Woah, I actually have a book.”
It feels so real because—I don’t know—I never thought this was possible. The idea of writing and publishing a book has always felt like such a huge ordeal that I would never accomplish. But here I am!
Learning how to typeset and finding an editor and illustrator on my own taught me that self-publishing isn’t as intimidating as I thought it would be. It’s given me the courage to reach out for advice and collaborate with creatives and editors. For instance, I reached out to my friends who were graphic designers to help me develop a cover for the book. I learned a whole new process of drafting and approving mock-ups, as well as negotiating a contract for distribution. The course has given me the courage to want to do it all over again and maybe even start a new collection of writing.
TM: Lastly, what advice can you give to other aspiring writers?
CN: One of the last things that Professor Allen said to us (before classes were suspended) was, “You can let others reject your writing, but please don’t reject yourself.” It left a huge impact on me, because even though I’ve written these stories and compiled them into a manuscript, I can’t help but feel anxious.
What if no one relates to my stories? What if it’s not good enough? I think a lot of writers can empathize with this feeling of crippling anxiety, because in many instances, I’ve seen myself and my peers reject their work before they put it out. There have been so many times that I’ve been shocked by my peers who say they don’t think their writing is good enough to get published when I thought otherwise.
Sure, maybe there’s some polishing up to do. Maybe there’s a comma when we really need a period or a fresh set of eyes to reframe an idea. But in the end, I think it’s important to remind ourselves, as writers, that our stories are worth sharing. We just need a little more courage.