Category Archives: Writing

On Opportunity and Unexpected Collaboration


Busy Mockingbird’s post on art collaboration with her four year old is inspiring. She is an artist. With a sketchbook. All artists know that there is sacred space–for me, that’s a Moleskine or my novel on Scrivener–for Busy Mockingbird, it’s her sketchbook. And you cannot invade sacred space. Nope.

Unless you’re a child. And you are all, “Sacred space? Huh? No. All space is shared space with me!”

And that’s what happened with Busy Mockingbird. Her daughter took over her sketchbook:

No longer had I drawn my first face (I love drawing from old black & white movie stills) had she swooped over to me with an intense look. “OOOH! Is that a NEW sketchbook? Can I draw in that too, mama?” I have to admit, the girl knows good art supplies when she sees them. I muttered something about how it was my special book, how she had her own supplies and blah blah blah, but the appeal of new art supplies was too much for her to resist. In a very serious tone, she looked at me and said, “If you can’t share, we might have to take it away if you can’t share.”

Oh no she didn’t! Girlfriend was using my own mommy-words at me! Impressed, I agreed to comply. “I was going to draw a body on this lady’s face,” I said. “Well, I will do it,” she said very focused, and grabbed the pen. I had resigned myself to let that one go. To let her have the page, and then let it go. I would just draw on my own later, I decided. I love my daughter’s artwork, truly I do! But this was MY sketchbook, my inner kid complained.

Not surprisingly, I LOVED what she drew. I had drawn a woman’s face, and she had turned her into a dinosaur-woman. It was beautiful, it was carefree, and for as much as I don’t like to share, I LOVED what she had created. Flipping through my sketchbook, I found another doodle of a face I had not yet finished. She drew a body on it, too, and I was enthralled. It was such a beautiful combination of my style and hers. And she LOVED being a part of it. She never hesitated in her intent. She wasn’t tentative. She was insistent and confident that she would of course improve any illustration I might have done. …And the thing is, she DID.

The result of the spontaneous collaboration is ASTOUNDING. Busy Mockingbird draws the human heads, and her daughter draws the bodies. This means dinosaur bodies. And slug bodies. And lobster bodies. And human bodies, too. But different. Together, they are amazing. Seriously, go take a look.

I was mesmerized. Mostly, I was hopeful.

You see, I’ve been, for the most part, miserable these days. I love my kid, but my life has been turned upside down. Inside out. Gutted. Meaningful fiction writing has been impossible. Sleep has only just recently been attained (and nowhere near pre-baby levels). I know, it’s only been 7.5 months. But still. My writing life is in shreds. I want to get back to my novel. How do other mom-writers do it? Is everyone lying?

I made a crack that said Busy Mockingbird’s post made me fantasize about my daughter finishing my novel.

Busy Mockingbird has some of the collaboration prints up for sale. I bought a print to remind me of the potential of collaboration with my daughter, if not literally, figuratively. And to tell myself that motherhood doesn’t equal loss. And to continue to give in and let go. There may be unexpected gains in doing so. This is new space. New sacred space. Scary as hell, and expansive as not-hell. There’s gotta be good stuff here. I’ll keep the faith.

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Filed under Life, Motherhood, Parenthood, The Personal, Writing

Sometimes silence isn’t a rejection

Penny legs up on the bed. Happy baby.

I wrote a story a few years ago. In fact, it was a story I began writing before my stroke. It was a story I resumed writing and editing after recovering from my stroke. It was a story that led me to Kartika Review and my current position there as Fiction Editor (thank you, Sunny). It was a story that had been good to me.

It was a story I sent out about sixty times. And it got rejected about sixty times. Maybe like, fifty-seven times. I didn’t hear back from a few places (like I said, about three places)–but after awhile (a year?) I just assumed the rejection got lost in the mail or that the more passive litmags didn’t even want to bother with sending a rejection. In one case, the litmag went under.

I stopped sending the story out. In the back of my mind, I thought I would revise it further. But really, I gave up on short stories and decided to focus on my novel. So it sat on my hard drive. The characters lingered in my memory.

It’s one of a number of short stories that I wrote and never had published. Some of the unpublished stories have placed as runner up in contests, an official way of saying they had “potential,” but like one of my mentors said, “Almost still means no in publishing.”

Short stories are heartbreaking to write, for me. So much effort, such a tidy format, so much legwork to submit, and such little chance for publishing. I mean, short story collections make literary agents break out in hives. Editors will more often than not buy story collections if the writer commits to writing a novel for their second book.

So it was with both my heart and head that I decided to focus on my novel.

It was a total surprise to me when last week, an editor emailed me about the story that had been rejected about fifty-seven times. The last time I’d sent out the story for consideration was almost three years ago. It had been almost three years since they received the story. “We’d like to consider it for our next issue,” he said.

I wasn’t sure if that meant yes–but I was still shocked that it wasn’t a no, after all this time. And it did turn out to be a yes; they’d accepted my story. At last.


Filed under literary magazines, Publishing, Writing

VONA Seed Our Success

VONA alum fiction workshop w Junot

VONA has been the best thing I’ve ever done for myself as a writer, for my writing, as a writer of color. I’ve honed my craft and my voice at VONA. I’ve met the best and most encouraging and genius mentors (Junot Díaz, Mat Johnson, Chris Abani, etc., all of whom have been formative to my work) at VONA.

I’ve found a community at VONA that stands with me everyday as a human and a writer.

If you believe in me as a writer, you believe in VONA

publishing panel

For five out of the past seven years, I have attended VONA workshops. I have attended when I felt tentative, and when I felt strong. It was the place to which I returned when 18 months after my stroke, I felt able to write fiction again, and wanted a safe place in which to revisit my writing. It is my writing touchstone, and I want it to continue to exist and grow as a touchstone for other writers of color.

I’ve finished a novel manuscript over the course of my time with VONA. I’ve published stories and essays over the course of my time with VONA. I nailed down my voice as a writer over the course of my time with VONA. I owe so much.

And this is not to say you owe; maybe you do, as a reader of works by writers of color or as a VONA alum (many of whom have moved onto great critical success and whose works have landed on such things like the NY Times Notable 100 Books lists). But even if you do not fall into these categories, I ask you to INVEST.

Workshop with Chris Abani

There is a fundraiser under way to keep the program and workshops robust–and to that end, to bring in more voices from the unknown places and diversify literature. I owe so much to VONA as a writer, and that is why I gave the healthiest donation I could muster this year. And I’m asking my friends with love for literature and the arts, writers and readers, to do the same.

We are constantly asked to give money these days, especially since funding has been cut from so many programs–but if you’re considering a monetary donation to one arts group, I ask that this be it. Your money will go directly to the program and to the writers they support.

Please give. You can either make a donation to VONA or buy tickets to the fundraiser, held at Uptown Body & Fender on Sunday June 30, 2013. The VIP reception, at which you can meet with Distinguished Writers) is from 3:00-4:30pm, and the main event (food, readings, auctions), is from 4:30-6:00pm.

VONA Main Flyer 5

Me and Junot Diaz

Our writing workshop group

VONA 2012


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Filed under Writing

Golem Update

Beautiful day to be a golem in NYC.

It’s a beautiful day to be a golem in NYC.

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Filed under Novel

A few new things out there


(Spring is making an appearance in Berkeley).

I’ve a few pieces out in the world in recent days.

Hope you like and enjoy them.


Filed under Publishing, Reading, Writing

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

scenes on post-its
My novel’s scenes on color-coded post-its, circa March 2011

My good friend Nova Ren Suma, who also happens to be an amazing writer and author of Dani Noir (aka Fade Out), Imaginary Girls, and the forthcoming 17 & Gone, recently tagged me in the “Next Big Thing Blog Hop” interview series.

The point of the series is to give you some insight into an upcoming book or in my case, a work-in-progress.

While I usually don’t like to talk about my novel, I’m looking forward to re-engaging with my writing after a pregnancy-induced months-long hiatus–and excited about participating in this blog series. It is time to germinate all these dormant thoughts about my novel, even if it means stepping away from motherhood and thrusting my newborn daughter into someone else’s arms for a few hours to do so. Also, now that I consider my novel more finished than unfinished, it’s nice to share some of my thoughts with the public.

Here goes… because the Next Big Thing in my writing life is THIS:

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

Golem of Korea. Or Golem of Seoul. I haven’t decided. (And now you know why my blog features a picture of a golem).

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My book is inspired by my parents who were immigrants to this country. I began to think, “What if they had an additional culture outside of Korean culture from which to draw for wisdom and insight? What if they embraced a hybrid identity? How would this impact their world view?”

I wondered what could save a couple of immigrants–and drawing from my own Korean Jewish life, I created a golem for my characters.

Also, I want to note that over the course of writing this novel, the golem has been the saving grace of my characters and for me as the writer. The golem has kept me adventurous as a writer–every time I’ve felt stuck, I let the golem loose, and it has led me to different spaces and story lines. So the golem has saved me, too.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction. Asian American literature. New York literature. Historical fiction. Magical Realism. Someone dared called it “fantasy” (if golem literature is a subset of “fantasy”). Golem literature. If I add a university, can it also be a campus novel?

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

This is when I wish there were more actors of Asian/Korean descent in Hollywood. Right now I can pick from John Cho, Bobby Lee, Daniel Dae Kim, and Ken Jeong…? So, John Cho and Bobby Lee. Seriously, we need more actors of Asian descent.

Also, I love B.D. Wong so much–I should write a character for B.D. Wong to inhabit. I also wonder if I can create a part for Jon Hamm, because–because I am a bit enamored with him.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Yong Kim is a war-traumatized North Korean man homesick for a time and place to which he can never return; upon immigrating to the United States in 1973, he builds a golem to help him cope–in doing so, he establishes a new relationship with his future.

(I find writing one-sentence synopses of my work so difficult).

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? (my note: in reality, these aren’t the two only outcomes for a book–you can self-publish, you can have the book represented by an agent, the book can find its way to a big publishing company, or its way to a small press, among so many other things).

Can you predict the future? I can’t. I don’t know what will happen, but I do hope that my book is represented by an agent who believes in me and my work, and finds its home at a publishing company with an editor who loves and supports my novel.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

It’s hard to say–it took years and years. I had a stroke, and recovered from the stroke, and even had a baby during the course of writing this thing. It’s taken a long time to write, so I’m going to say it took my entire life. This novel is my life to date.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

A little bit of Midnight’s Children (my book is about nations), a little bit of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle (there are underground tunnels and talking animals). And because there’s a golem, a little bit of Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

See my answer above regarding from where the idea for this novel comes. My mom and dad. My late Jewish mother-in-law as well. And the idea of monsters. The idea of being able to create companionship and resolve loneliness–it’s awful lonely to be an immigrant in America. The idea of nations. The idea of war. The idea of rescue. The idea of hybrid identity. The idea of New York City.

Mostly, I was inspired by New York City. This book is a way for me to always find my way back to New York City.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There is a character named The Frog. He is not an actual frog.

Now I’m supposed to tag five writers to take on these “Next Big Thing” questions themselves…I asked a number of writer friends who blog, but did not get to five. *shrug* In which case, I’ll list the three who were game–and urge you to do this on your end, if you wish. Or–I’m happy to tag you!

Can’t wait to hear your answers to these questions!


Filed under Memes, Novel


neck pain: acupuncture+cupping = better

Guernica, a litmag I’ve long admired, is commemorating End Times with a series of flash fiction this week. I am honored and delighted that my flash piece entitled “Maps” is up today and part of the End Times series.

“Maps” happens to be an excerpt from my novel-in-progress; I have an ongoing obsession with the Apocalypse and so I am happy that my two greatest obsessions to date (my novel and the Apocalypse) are represented. I hope you enjoy reading it.


Filed under Novel, Writing

Uh, nesting.

I can’t stop baking and cooking.

It all started at Thanksgiving dinner. Where I made the meal. Including a pumpkin mousse cheesecake.

Pumpkin mousse cheesecake cross-section.  And done. *collapse*

Then I saw this recipe for baci di dama cookies over at David Lebovitz’s blog. I mean, I had to make it. I had to! Even though I was 8 and a half months pregnant. And I’m so glad I did. They’re my favorite cookies these days.

Baci di Dama cookies

I think my mistake was buying and reading cookbooks. Because I picked up an old copy of The Silver Palate Cookbook, and started thumbing through it. And looked at the bowl of leftover cranberry-pineapple chutney from Thanksgiving. And saw the sour cream coffee cake recipe…and decided to combine the two. And then: great success! Coffee cake with sour undertones from the sour cream and from the topping. Ahyes.

Cranberry sour cream coffee cake cooling. Next time I'm making this in a bundt pan. I had to overcook the edges in order to cook the middle.

The Silver Palate cookbook’s trademark recipe is chicken marbella. How could I NOT make this? So I did. And it was totally worth it.

Though I will warn you if you are sensitive to salt like I am, you will be a little puffy the next day. Still, totally worth it. Good stuff.

Okay, more than good. It was excellent. Like, going into my main repertoire, excellent.

Chicken marbella

Then I got obsessed with soft boiled eggs. Okay, I’ve always been obsessed with them. But I got obsessed with making them at home after reading a blog post on them over at Whitney Wright’s blog. I totally bought the egg cups, too.

soft boiled egg and toast fingers

Oh, and then I ran low on kimchi. And then I ran out of kimchi. And then I decided there was no way I was going to be without kimchi in my first few postpartum weeks. And so I made some kimchi. Woo!

Kimchi done. Now fermenting.

And because I’m pregnant, of course I’m going to make myself a big pot of miyuk gook, the recipe of which I’ve posted on my food blog Muffin Top:

Miyuk gook/seaweed soup!

So you’d think I’d be set, right?


Then there’s literary rejection season. You know what I do to cope? You got it: I bake. I bake to offset my anxiety. To distract myself from staring at my words while filled with self doubt.

I bake Ottolenghi spice cookies out of his cookbook with Tamimi called Jerusalem (fabulous cookbook–with an amazing narrative–though for everyday and comprehensive Middle Eastern cooking, I am still heavily reliant on Claudia Roden’s cookbooks–I love both her Book of Jewish Food and New Book of Middle Eastern Food. Her recipes are bulletproof and authentic).

But back to those spice cookies!

Ottolenghi spice cookies

And I baked Francois Payard’s flourless chocolate cookies. Except I discovered I don’t have walnuts, but I do have hazelnuts, so I substituted hazelnuts for walnuts and it turned out just fine. It turned out more than fine.

Flour less chocolate cookie adapted from Francois Payard's recipe

Now who will eat my cookies? My friend stopped by and the first thing I asked her was, “You eat cookies, right?” And as she nodded, I walked her to the kitchen where I loaded up an airtight container full of cookies. (Yes, I’m a freak who likes to bake, but is overwhelmed and doesn’t like to eat too many cookies at once).

And have I told you? My freezer is packed with food. I’ve been squirreling away leftovers in there for the first postpartum weeks. There’s so much food in there, we have to start eating it now. Ohlawd.

And in other news…I did pretty well with following through/up on my “2012 To Do List” this year. I think 2013 will be about “survive the first few months of motherhood and get back to my writing”–should look into a list for that.

Also, yes. In between all this, I’ve been resting. Maybe a bit too much. After walking a minimum of 5 miles a day (and more like 7 miles/day) for most of gestation, I stopped moving about three weeks ago (I now walk around 3 miles/day–bleah). My last week of regular yoga was at around week 32. My last week of long walks was around week 34. I’m at 37 weeks today, and giving myself permission to poop out.


Filed under Pregnancy, Writing

Fiction: writing characters of another race

Jeebus mega storm front.

I feel a lot of pressure to do the polite thing and say fiction writers should write whatever they want. This pressure stems from the fact that I am inherently insulting writers by limiting their imaginations and telling them their imaginations *are* limited when it comes to imagining race. I’ve been told as much by writers when I broach the topic of writing characters of another race.

One specific response to my wariness about writers writing characters of another race has been, “That is such bullshit! That’s the PURPOSE of fiction—we’re supposed to make anything up, and nothing is off grounds. Why can’t I, a white woman, write from a black person’s point of view?” (This writer is married to a Famous Writer whose long awaited book includes characters of different races; said Famous Writer is white and writes from a black person’s point of view in his most recent novel).

Here’s the thing: writers often do each other a disservice by being polite instead of speaking their truth. We don’t make each other better by offering up platitudes. We make each other better by offering up our specific truths and subsequent challenges.

And well–it’s been awhile since I pissed people off, so I guess I’ll take a risk here and say that I don’t think writing characters of another race should be any sort of dalliance. If it is in any way, don’t write them. Writers should tread very carefully and thoughtfully (as they always should) when writing another race, because there is the added weight of social responsibility in that very act.

If you think social responsibility doesn’t belong in fiction, then that’s another place we might differ. Ever read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha? It’s bad. It’s so bad that the geisha upon whom he based the book sued him for misrepresentation. And speaking of geishas, ever read Breakfast at Tiffany’s by the brilliant Truman Capote? Even Capote misstepped with the Japanese American Mr. Yunioshi (and don’t even get me started on the movie’s (and Mickey Rooney’s) very shrill and racist representation of the character with coke bottle eyeglasses and buck teeth). Or the recent controversial book The Help by Kathryn Stockett–criticized for its stereotypical portrayal of its characters of color. These are only one of many books in which writers wrote outside of their race and failed, because of writerly thoughtlessness.

To be frank, failing at writing characters of another race–and by failing I mean being thoughtless and insincere and not aiming to understand or empathize–comes off like doing Blackface. The only “successful” Blackface I’ve ever witnessed is Robert Downey, Jr. in “Tropic Thunder” and that was done completely as satire.

Literature should strive to tell the truth, and by turning a blind eye to social responsibility (and I’m not talking about making heroes out of our own race or other races—but about being genuine and authentic and multi dimensional and true), writers do harm with their writing. Thoughtlessness should be the last thing writers convey about any matter, and I don’t think thoughtlessness about racial identity should be excused.

I think that it’s nearly impossible to understand another race without BEING the other race, but if you are determined to write a character of another race, at least do the research. Travel. Live abroad. Live the life of. And still, realize you don’t assume the life of.

There was one woman in my MFA program years ago who insisted she could and should and would write whatever she wanted. This, after a heated class discussion in our craft of fiction class (incidentally taught by a writer of color) about writing outside our race. In that discussion, the class was divided between writers who felt that writing outside of our race was a singular matter of imagination versus writers who pretty much felt, “Noooo waaaay.” During that discussion, another (white) writer even went as far as to say, “Writers of color are so lucky. Your stories are so much more interesting. I wish I were a person of color as a writer. You have an advantage.”

I replied politely (I regret this), and murmured “That’s not true.”

The writer who left the class saying she was determined to write a character of another race? She wrote a first person POV piece where a Chinese male protagonist spoke Ching-Chong-ese (ah-so!) and submitted it to workshop. The professor-of-color leading that workshop was not amused. Classmates were horrified. I am not sure she proved her point.

I can’t help but notice that it’s mostly white writers who get angry when I say I have deep misgivings about writers writing chars of another race. (The woman who wrote the Ching-chong-ese piece was also white). I am not sure why this is. Why this need to appropriate race?

There is also the corollary thought that since minority culture has to live within the majority culture, it might be more possible for minorities to write majority characters–i.e., white expats living abroad in for example, Asia, might have better understanding because their lives are immersed in another culture. Or people of color in the United States might have better understanding of white culture. Not necessarily so, but possibly so.

In my opinion, the majority culture has a harder time understanding the minority on a deep level required for synthesizing great fictional characters than it is for the minority to understand the majority population. I don’t think Korean people in Korea, for example, understand mainstream (white) American culture. But vice versa? Perhaps. And people of color in America? Perhaps.

Maybe for some of you, the above is a matter of fact. It is definitely a matter of fact for me. But every time I bring this point up to someone in the majority (white) culture, I am often met with indignant surprise. And that disturbs me; that someone thinks they understand but does not.

This is not to say that ex-pats living abroad don’t have a minority experience in which they can absorb a new culture. To that end, I think most women write men better than men write women. (Maybe that’s the downfall of Arthur Golden–he not only failed while writing Memoirs of a Geisha at representing and writing Asian characters–he failed at writing female characters).

So take a minute before you think you have “the right” to write characters of another race. It isn’t “a right.” But you could make it an act of privilege and do right. And good luck.

Update August 2013: My thoughts on this subject are continuing to evolve, as all things do. But I submitted a panel proposal on writing characters of another race (“How Far, Imagination: Writing Characters of Another Race in Fiction”) to AWP 14 in Seattle–and it’s been accepted. See you in Seattle, where we can discuss this topic together!


Filed under Race, Writing

Freaking out

Looking up

I’ve kept this news on the down-low. For so many reasons. Because it makes me feel vulnerable. Because I don’t want to jinx it. Because it is scary business. Because it’s been a largely private journey. Because I’m wary of everyone’s reaction to the news. Because everyone expects me to be giddy-happy, and the journey has been so complicated and heartbreaking. Because it fills everyone else with expectations.

Because it’s one of the things I’ve most desired, and I wanted to keep it to myself for awhile. Because it’s one of the things I’ve most desired, and I wanted to protect myself for awhile. And I’d like to keep protecting myself, but it’s just impossible.

But now–I feel compelled to share, because I am freaking out, partly because I’ve been shrouding myself in quiet privacy. And this fear–this fear has found its way into the crevices of my identity as a writer–because my identity itself is changing. I’m in this weird transition–from one thing to another.

Because you see, after thirteen years of trying and not-not-trying and multiple times given up and then, after wiping my tears on my sleeve, forged on ahead again…I’m pregnant. I’m over 26 weeks pregnant, in fact. About 2/3 of the way through my pregnancy.


And yes I’m happy. It took me a long time to allow myself to relax and be happy, to say it will be okay, that this is real. I shared with one friend and then another and then another, one at a time, dipping my toe into the water, revealing my secret, getting used to saying, “I’m pregnant.”

I couldn’t even say, “I’m pregnant” to the OBGYN receptionist on the phone, which prompted her to say, “Why are you making a checkup appointment with an OB? You can call your primary care physician, you know.” To which I said in garbled voice, “Because I’m prrrrrregnannnnnnt.” Oh it felt weird to say that. It felt like someone else saying so. It felt unreal. In those early weeks, I was cocooned in caution. The caution cocoon happens when you try and try and try and never get something you want.

We reached milestone after milestone. In disbelief at the good news each time. Deep down, we were thrilled. Deep down, the drumbeat picked up its pace. And yet, we measured our outward reaction, because all those years trying to get pregnant? They took away a big chunk of our innocence. And that’s okay. Sometimes things cost innocence.

I’m not freaking out about being pregnant anymore. I’m excited. I’m not freaking out about giving birth. It’s going to happen. I’m not freaking out about the changes in my body. It’s a part of the process.

There is a new freakout: I’m freaking out, as I do most changes in my life, about how it will affect my writing, which is a core part of my life, identity, and sanity.

Some of my non-mama friends have told me it’s just like anything else–that I’ll just make the time–that people have jobs and responsibilities and they manage to carve out time for writing. But I have a strong feeling that motherhood is unlike anything else–even while pregnant, this thing has taken over my psyche, my thoughts, my heart, my finances, my time, my body, and my time. It’s all-consuming.

For the record–I haven’t had that creative-burst that people say women have during pregnancy. It just hasn’t happened, thus increasing my silent freak-out. I really wanted to finish a major revision of my novel before giving birth. That isn’t going to happen, even though I’m forging onwards in my revision so that I’ll have no regrets.

The closest I’ve ever come to having something hijack my writing is my stroke, which left me completely unable to write fiction for nearly two years. And yet my stroke recovery was still a time focused utterly on myself. That ain’t motherhood, either.

I am positive that longterm, motherhood will be amazing for my writing. That it will inform me as a human and in turn my writing. That my kid is going to give me tons of ideas and windows into the rooms of life that I haven’t yet entered.

But short term? I am anxious. I know I won’t be able to revise my novel for a few months. But will it be a year away? Two years away? I don’t know how I could handle that.

How do you manage? How do you transition your identity as a writer into motherhood? What are tips for making time? How long did it take to get back to your writing? Are there things I’m overlooking?

I have so many questions. So many questions.


Filed under Life, Pregnancy, The Personal, Writing