Daniel Lang is our 2019 staff choice award winner from the University of Nevada, Reno.
The staff choice award is a reflection of our staff’s favorite piece and often reflects the theme we are looking for in the year’s edition. We were amazed at the diversity of contributors and subject matter this year. So this year we chose a nonfiction piece that comfortably fits within the genres of journalism, memoir and travel writing. We felt that Daniel treated his family history and his emotional journey with the care that a true investigative journalist would give. It’s no surprise to discover that he has studied in journalism. We are grateful that he laid his heart onto the page for us, and we hope you enjoy his piece.
His creative nonfiction piece details a trip he took when he was 20 from his home in Sparks Nevada to the Hunan Provence of China. He is determined to find his mother’s relatives and make a connection with family in light of the fact that his mother helped plan his trip, but was killed only a month before he left. His writing is also influenced by his senior thesis in Catholicism in China.
In April of 2019, Mr. Lang took the time to answer some questions about his piece and his writing process.
How did you find the balance between being a travel piece and a personal narrative?
Balancing a travel piece with a personal narrative? Serendipity, honestly. My dad says I’m a kinesthetic learner – I learn by doing and moving. Regarding narrative, I also quite enjoy the Hero’s Journey. Taken together, balancing to share my internal journey naturally fit my external one. Thankfully, through my Honors course with Dr. Erin Edgington, I also worked on a separate travel piece. That second multimedia work took the pressure off trying to detail every detail in this memoir. In the other piece I relate more of awe in megacities like 上海 Shànghǎi and 广州 Guǎngzhōu but convey less of my newly encountered identity.
There is a brief mention of your faith in the piece. How did your faith influence your writing of the piece?
Faith is the sinew that silently, ever-presently bound my piece and myself through the piece. For purposes of telling strictly my identity arc, however, I rather painfully minimized most references. I’m so glad you noticed! My inclusive faith led me to bridge my Catholic certainty in eternal life with Chinese spirituality I encountered in so many. I profoundly merged two once distinct identities in me. These encounters of faith during this first journey to China as well as during my second journey, on the U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship Program the year after, led me to Taiwan this winter to research my Honors Senior Thesis in Chinese on Catholicism. I sense that religious studies may continue throughout my life, though I wrestle with whether my audience cares to know or understand.
What advice would you give to a writer who wanted to write about their tie to a culture they are exploring more about?
Reference many sources, emulate what speaks to you, then get readers’ opinions. When I started at the Reynolds School of Journalism, our textbook on creativity taught us not to work in a vacuum but rather to realize which practices succeed and why. Culture is tricky,because ethics are essential. I wanted to write about culture truthfully and honestly to my experience, without misrepresenting. I tried to qualify my shortcomings, then, by leading my reader along my path. I realized I only came to understand through experiences.
I hoped, by detailing the experiences of my transition, readers could transform, too. With readers’ views, I identified I overwrote when they remarked certain parts felt too unclear. I feel immensely grateful to my readers, who have shared my piece’s impact and helped me know I conveyed the story well.
Have any of your family members read your piece and what did they think?
Since I had not received a copy of my piece, I dug out an earlier draft and shared it with my family. My older brother and a younger sister read it. I felt especially stressed about sharing the piece, because I remembered how my siblings blasted me for my first published writings about suffering that week before and while overseas. I fretted too how I do not paint my father in the best light – But as a budding memoirist and journalist, I must write my truth, even if it hurts me. Astonishing me, my older brother replied, “I think you should be proud of it. The style is as strong as some of the authors I’ve been studying in class.” A younger sister, who began learning Chinese this year, responded partially in our mother’s language. “我很爱！” “I love it!” She thanked me for putting to words the feeling of realizing we lost our mom before we admired her. She called it moving and beautiful. Reading my siblings’ responses, I felt touched that maybe my agonizing through the piece expressed the hope I felt within.
All of our submissions to Scribendi come from students who attend an honors program. Honors students come from many different majors, but they all commit to honing their skills further by taking advanced courses with intriguing and creative curriculum. So I asked Mr. Lang “What is the most influential Honors Program class you’ve ever taken?”
My influential Honors course was CH 201H: Ancient and Medieval Cultures with Dr. Stephen Lazer. His core humanities, my first college course, rewrote how I learned to write. My first paper? An ‘F.’ The second, a ‘C+.’ Let those sink in. Making an ‘A’ out of that course involved creating and refining an argument that Hobbits, Odysseus and God relate. Surviving gave me guts to take criticism to make masterworks. I felt reintroduced to a fascination with narratives of humankind. These led me to my second most influential Honors course, JOUR 490A: Media Scholarship with Dr. Sheila Peuchaud, which re-imagined my interests in psychology, history, religion and inclusion, leading to my Honors Senior Thesis.
What role does writing play in your life?
Writing is how I first discovered to communicate well, before the artistic era earning me my nickname, “Doodles.” More deeply, writing helps me convey my complexities without speaking what I fear could get misconstrued. In high school, writing became blog posts on Tumblr and Facebook. By college, I changed from simply from writing online to also journaling unedited to myself. I wanted to capture my development. Meanwhile, internships led me to write professionally, which taught me I write poorly. I learned to model my industry. But I felt something missing. I wanted my creative soul back. I began free-writing Heroes’ Journeys as a fictional outlet I still add to. I also picked up a memoir course hoping just to journal better. I had no idea the year after I began journaling, my mother would die, and the semester I returned from China, I would begin that memoir course. So I retreated from my need to write for pay and focused on writing to tell my truth. Through the strain, I realized beyond all my public speaking and teaching, I still have a talent to write nestled inside. I wonder what God will do with my writing when I’m gone. I wish it inspires people.
Did you face any challenges while completing this piece?
Every phrase was challenge to complete this piece. If you met my instructor Alissa Surges or my peers, you would know this piece took a literal semester of revisions. I stayed with it because I felt the only sure way I could explain what happened to me abroad in a unified would demand a full piece, with all the details I needed. I realized along the way writing this piece helped me process life at my University after my mother’s death. But I learned as a student of memoir that audience matters so much, too. I could write my rambling thoughts and expect readers to get the context. I had to introduce backstory to concepts with lifetimes of meaning. Meeting my audience at their door and guiding them through my labyrinth I too traversed required my peers’ countless readings and critiques to help me know when I led them into walls meant as halls. I prayed about getting this through and getting this right.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
When you wrote for fun, that meant something about you. When I was younger, I loved to free-write fantasy adventures and heroic tales for no particular reason. As I grew older, these became social media stories and blogs about exciting days with friends at events.
By the time I began college, however, I abandoned both pastimes, despite toying as a freshman with the idea of writing of attending graduate school to study writing. In times of trauma, then, I returned to the pen and notebook, writing again those free-writes, no longer worried over revisions and edits. I realize now the things I did when no one compelled me revealed glimpses into the soul I have longed toward for years. The talents God inscribed in me before my birth revealed themselves in my youth, if only I knew to see my signs and my mother’s.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
That’s an exceptional question. After thinking a day or two, the earliest experience may have been when my mother was killed. Through friends’ reactions to what I wrote that week, I realized my unvarnished truth had power. And if I wanted to share that truth as it was, I really affected people. When she died, I felt conviction as a journalism student trained in outreach to share candidly my feelings of being one moment a satisfied and content student away at the University, and the next, whisked through the death of my mother who texted me that morning my China visa she stressed over arrived. I realized that language had power when a friend who read my posts called me. She said she cried reading what I wrote. I made people cry? I received more calls like hers. Sincerely, I felt I wrote how I always wrote, writing my reality. I wrote about Mom to console, not pierce hearts. I described my feelings through my experiences to hope others, who never experienced these, could benefit. I felt so dazed having been indoctrinated into some societal archetype of the parentless youth. I was only 19, after all. But I trusted God had a plan. As I shared in the eulogy I spoke for Mom, she had prepared me so well to go abroad, and her funeral landed on the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Fátima.
Those events felt too convenient. Were these really mere chance? There were more. Sharing my stories, I hoped how I could translate my faith-foundation security to others. Witnessing instead my expressions bring bewilderment caused me to retreat my language from the public after my first return from China. Speaking instead in Chinese to those in China, I felt understood.
Do you plan on making any more literary pilgrimages in the future?
I love this notion of literary pilgrimage. Yet, for me, pilgrimage tends to come first and literary second. As it happens, I went on a literal pilgrimage to Panamá participating in World Youth Day 2019 with the Pope. It led to many talks and stories about faith, continuing in strange ways my transferred narrative from my mother to our Blessed Mother. Beforehand, I met Catholics across Taiwan for my Honors Senior Thesis. My thesis, too, includes narrative albeit scholarly. In terms of pilgrimage, I earnestly hope to better balance my doing and writing. I often worry the more time I spend writing, the less I spend doing! However, my next adventures, with the Peace Corps in Mongolia followed by the Maryknoll China Teachers Program, will surely fuel stories. If I have a willing audience and – God help me – an income, I would love continuing to craft. If you enjoy my work, sincerely I urge you, please write to me why and share!