A Bay Area Rapid Transit station, two airports, the FlyAway and a bus.
These stops are part of Fae Myenne Ng’s weekly 776-mile commute to teach a creative writing workshop at UCLA.
She embarked on this journey every Friday during the winter and spring quarters last year, while teaching two courses at her alma mater UC Berkeley.
“Three hours is a long stretch to be talking and listening (in the seminar), but it was the best part of my day ““ and then I got right back on the transportation systems,” Ng said.
The UCLA English Department asked Ng to teach the workshop, she said.
Although she already taught at UC Berkeley, Ng said she decided to make the trek down to UCLA once a week out of fascination by the course curriculum and a desire to connect with as many students as possible.
In the upcoming fall quarter, Ng will teach two courses at UCLA, including the creative writing workshop.
Ng commits to her teaching because she wants to understand and help develop the “language” of youth, she said.
“Understanding life for this generation is a passion of mine, aside from writing,” Ng said. “I just want to keep in touch with this generation and hear what they have to say.”
The English department hired her because of her achievements as a distinguished author, the department’s chair Ali Behdad said in an email.
Growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants who did not know the English language well, Ng said she recognized the blessing her parents had given her to learn and experience a new language. She spoke her native language of Cantonese until she was about 4 years old.
“I paid (my parents) back by learning (English), and it was a given that I would have the desire to use that language in some unique way,” she said.
Students in Ng’s creative writing workshop received her message about “breaking” the language barrier and creating a unique writing voice.
V. “Claire” Jadulang, an English student who graduated this year with a focus in creative writing, said she came out of Ng’s class a completely different ““ and better ““ writer.
“(Ng) had this mantra that you should write the story only you can tell, that stories are all grounded in the individual’s walk of life, and reading is about learning one another’s walks of life,” Jadulang said. “I learned that I can come to the page as me, and the best stories I write are the ones only I can tell.”
Ng tells her students to go with their gut instinct when writing a story and not to listen to their brain. This way of thinking is also what she said inspired her signature at the bottom of each email: “Not from my iBrain,” a comedic jab at the “Sent from my iPhone” line that often appears at the bottom of emails.
Honesty is a quality Ng strives for in her own writing, and admires in the younger generation.
Seeing the honesty in her students’ writing, Ng said she sees her own literary works and stories come to life.
“I feel my students’ desire and earnestness through their stories, and it’s something I still go through,” she said. “Every time you sit down (to write), it’s a new story and you have to find a new writer in you to write it.”
Although she empathizes greatly with her students, she still has high expectations for them.
Last year, Ng told her students at the beginning of each quarter exactly what she expected of them: intense and almost relentless honesty and deepness in their work, she said.
“She scared me to death, and I knew right then and there that I wanted to take her class,” Jadulang said. “I knew she would push me as a writer. And she did.”
Another of Ng’s students, Sarah Kawaguchi, a fourth-year English student with a focus in creative writing, said she had become “disillusioned” with the style of writing workshops in general before she took Ng’s workshop.
“I didn’t expect to enjoy it. … It was not an open (environment) in my other workshops,” Kawaguchi said. “But everyone got along strangely well this time. … The fact that (Ng) could do that just by reading all our work and piecing it together is amazing. She really connected people.”
Insisting her students write only about what really meant something to them, Ng said the stories made it worth the journey to class. She would read them while waiting on the bus or for the airplane, sometimes getting delayed until midnight or later along her route back up to NorCal.
Jadulang’s stories about past family events particularly struck Ng with their honesty, she said.
This year, she will once again make the weekly commute from San Francisco to L.A. This time, her class is on Wednesday.
“The students make it worth it. … I admire their drive, honesty and sincerity,” she said, taking a break from her stay on the shore of Lake Como, located in northern Italy.
As a recipient of the Rockefeller Fellowship, a prestigious program of international scholar training at the postdoctoral level, Ng is spending a month in Italy to work with fellow artists, writers and scholars. Her goal for the stay is to finish her latest collection of stories.
Her writing comes in spurts, the longest of which was 15 years ““ the amount of time it took her to complete her second book, “Steer Toward Rock.” Her first and most well-known book, “Bone,” took 10 years to complete.
In order to work at a faster pace, Ng promises herself to “go under” every once in a while and not come out until she has a completed story.
Going under means complete isolation from friends, family, sunlight and other distractions.
“I have the “˜savage’ lifestyle, as my parents would say,” she said. “I stay up until I fall down.”