Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: We love the audio format of “An Arkansas Awakening.” In what ways do you think a spoken story may differ from a written story in terms of its tendencies? Do you write differently for the voice than for the page?

Mee-ok: Well, this story was originally text not audio, and whenever I read it aloud for a workshop or an open mic I had to sing the lyrics and realized that I could just use the actual song! Though this was difficult: I had to use three different versions of “Total Eclipse” to fit the music around the prose and after tallying the time to produce it all, my calculations concluded that it took exactly forever. 

No matter what, I always write for the voice on the page. Stories were originally oral—most languages in the history of the world don’t even have a written counterpart—so I tend to think all stories are meant to be spoken, musical, percussive. From the beginning I’ve always read my work aloud during the revision process. It’s the best way to know whether the language works.

RR: The musical score feels very intrinsic to the piece, enhancing the emotions—for example during the scene in the church with the youth group, when “Total Eclipse of the Heart” begins to play. What led you to choose this specific song for this moment in the story?

M: This is an excerpt from my memoir, so I did not choose this song—Jesus did. It’s funny I got three main responses from friends after sending them the piece. One is from those who aren’t from the South: Wait. Did this really happen? And those from the South: Oh my God! You saw that too?! Also friends who were there: Jesus, how did you not block that shit out? So this is an actual thing that happened and might still be happening, I don’t know. I wish I could say that I’m brilliant enough to think up such a Drop Dead Gorgeous-tinged redneck extravaganza and surreally spoof it, but unfortunately, I’m simply the messenger here.

RR: How do you prepare yourself to write a scene? Do you take a storyboard approach, or is it an organic process?

M: I didn’t know I was going to write out what I call the “Passion Skit” when I first began. I had always wanted to write about the character Lisa because her story always stayed with me, so it started with that and then I had a WTF moment when I remembered this little off-off-off-off-off-Broadway piece that turned many of us into Bible thumpers, myself included. It was the skit that launched a thousand tugboats. 

I conferred with a few friends who were also there and then, because it’s performed in churches, malls, and parking lots throughout the South, I was able to pull up grainy videos on YouTube dramatized and shot by teenagers. They all have their variations, but it was enough to conjure the memories of how these adults—the hottest adults any of us had ever seen—put together a theatrical performance of much higher quality. At least, that’s how my 14-year-old brain remembers it.

In general though—to answer your actual question—I hear/channel the characters and watch the scene unfold in my mind while trying to capture it on the page. I don’t know how to storyboard probably because I prefer not to. I like being surprised because then I know the reader will be.

RR: We understand this piece is an excerpt from a much larger project. What can you tell us about what’s in store for the rest of the project? Will the entire story be in audio format?

M: This piece is an excerpt (plug alert!) from a full-length memoir due to be completed later this year (gods willing). It’s the first of what I hope will be a series of memoirs about my healing with the Amazonian plant medicine ayahuasca. I was bedridden for three years starting at the age of 30 with a fatal autoimmune disease called scleroderma. It rendered me totally disabled, meaning I had to be fed, bathed, and dressed, while waiting to die an excruciating death. My doctors at Harvard, where I worked at the time, had given me five years to live—so with a 2016 expiration date—and the first time I drank ayahuasca, I stood up and walked without pain. I was actually recently featured on the ayahuasca episode of Netflix’s [Un]well! (See above: plug alert.) 

So this memoir isn’t about my work with ayahuasca per se—it’s my journey to it from my deathbed: from my adoption from Korea to being featured on the cover of the California Girl Scout calendar to finding myself to be the only Korean in Arkansas (other than, apparently, the family in Minari who never came to get me!) to getting a scholarship from Boston University and then becoming deathly ill while working for a Time 100 Harvard MD. My hope is that once the book is out, it’ll do well enough to be recorded as an audiobook and that they’ll let me read it. In a sense, this recording was, in my mind, an audition. This is the only musical part of it, though. But don’t worry, I promise it gets much, much weirder.

RR: What advice would you give to writers just starting with their craft?

M: So much to say, but here’s three things:
Let yourself play and write whatever excites you. You may or may not include it in your final manuscript, but even if you don’t, it’s not time wasted because you will have developed your craft. Plus, it might turn into something else like a standalone piece that could later be published in its own right.

Don’t talk to industry people at all—ever—until you’re kind of almost done. I’ve seen a lot of people let non-creatives get into their heads and choke the artistic process. Likewise, lock the editor out of the room when writing first drafts. I always say that editing while writing is like scheduling an abortion during foreplay. Just enjoy it, girl.
Study other genres! Get down with the dramatic arts. Read books on screenwriting (dialogue!), acting (character development!), directing (mise-en-scène!), cinematography (POV!), monologues (memoir with line breaks!), etc. Check out poetry, music, other languages/cultures, the classics. Find the arcane and outré. Try doing stand-up (timing/setups/pay-offs!), which is mostly performance memoir for comedians (which is why they often write the best memoirs, see: Steve Martin, Tina Fey, Rob Delaney).

Max Müller, founder of comparative religion who oversaw the first English translations of The Sacred Texts of the East, famously wrote, “He who knows one, knows none.” Ever met anyone who never left their hometown? Travel. Backpack through other genres. Who knows? You might fall in love and never come back.

Mee-ok’s work in Issue 8.3: 

“An Arkansas Awakening”