What does it take to be a writer?

On a recent post, I shared the insights of Angela Ma, a student who attended what many think of as the best secondary school in the US: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJSSST). Her blog post is one of the best overviews of what it like from a student’s perspective to be in a school in which pressure is endemic and in which expectations are high from both the students themselves and from the parents too.

Angela is smart, funny, and unafraid to write what she thinks. Her prose demonstrates she will be a voice we will be hearing from for quite some time. Her recent post on traveling through Europe on $450.00 should inspire people in a different way. At the moment, Angela is doing an internship with Facebook and as of this weekend, has now skydived from 10,000. She is a risk taker and a talented wordsmith who can educate anyone of age. The interview with her that follows will demonstrate that my abstract assertions about Angela are all true — her words are beautiful proof.


Angela with her parents

First of all, could you give us a quick sketch of your family background? Where did you grow up? Is there anything you want to share about your family?

I tell people I’m from D.C. because it’s only two letters of effort. In reality, I’m from NoVa, which is the four-letters-of-effort version of Northern Virginia. My childhood consisted of much love and many books. Not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Fairfax County is home to one of the best public school systems in the US. In addition, it has what many think to be The Best public high school in the US — Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. You have written what I think I the best description of this school, and not just from a student perspective, that I have ever read. I have already posted it on this blog, but I wanted to ask a few follow-up questions.

The competition to get into TJ now begins pre-kindergarten for some. The same is also true for some of the posh private schools in NYC, in magnet schools in Beijing and other places around the globe.

Is all the pressure about education and schools more harmful than helpful? Was it that way for you?

“The competition to get into TJ now begins for some pre-kindergarten” actually triggered a spinal gag reflex. (For those of you who don’t know what that is — which would be everyone, because I just made it up — it’s a convoluted shudder.) This reflects my opinion re: the state of pre-collegiate education. Pressure is a synonym for “extrinsic motivation,” which forcefully achieves things in the short run, but is extremely unconducive to long-term growth, curiosity, and learning. That long-term stuff is what makes a successful human being.

To become a successful human being, you need INTRINSIC motivation. Pressure kills intrinsic motivation.

I owe a lot to my parents. Bad grade? “Mark your mistakes and do better next time.” Magnet school? “You can apply if you want.” Actually, though. I thought TJ was a brand of toothpaste ’til two months before the test.

TJ Cheering squad 2017

Should parents think twice about doing the prep route for their children? Would you want your own children to go to TJ?

In the comments, someone mentioned prep for medical school. They argued that you must study to get in and follow your dreams; it’s a fact of life. I was stymied until I realized they were comparing MED school to HIGH school.

That’s not right. Post-preteens are too pimply to be exposed to more stress-induced acne. And also, that’s not right.

I’d also like to address the issue of [economic] diversity. Prep classes are a barrier to entry. You’re losing out on great candidates who lack time, energy, and/or money. How can we reimagine the admissions process to solve this? No one knows. But also, no one’s trying to know. Let’s change that.

At current, TJ is a toxic environment where kids care more about transcripts than they do about themselves and each other. Unless the administration (a) acknowledges this and (b) challenges it head-on, it will NOT get better. It will get WORSE. I’d shudder to have children in the first place; I’d shudder even more to send them there.

Is the global marketplace making it more competitive for anyone hoping to make it to the top of any selective process — school, internship, job etc.?

Only statistically. Never look at application statistics, because they turn people into numbers. And — you’ll never believe what I’m about to tell you — A PERSON IS NOT A NUMBER!!!

If you’re passionate, and you act on your passions, you will get what you want. You will get where you want. Of course, this applies to people who want to make an impact, not to make a million.

Could you describe yourself as a student in high school? What kinds of classes did you take and what kinds of activities did you involve yourself in? Did you have a passion?

When I started high school, I was that kid who cried silently throughout the entirety of gym class because she’d gotten a B on a math test the period before.

This changed quickly. It was a serious wakeup call to see this behavior in my peers. Horrified, I ripped the blinders from my head and charged off in the opposite direction. I started writing more. I locked fists with mental illness. I cheered competitively. I wrote. I climbed trees. I ate food. And also, I wrote.

I wasn’t a great student. I spent most of my time with words and music; I’d do homework in the car, sometimes walk into a test without studying. Everyone knows me now as an advocate for passion, but back then, I didn’t have any of my shit figured out. I eked it out and graduated, completely in awe of the fact that I didn’t flunk out along the way.

Angela with her younger brother

TJ, like other magnet schools across the US, has a high percentage of Asian students (over 60%). To what do you attribute the over-representation of Asians at magnet schools U Cal schools, the Ivies, and schools like UChicago?

Traditionally, in Asia, success is a formula. Straight A’s. Certain academic institutions. High-paying jobs. There’s no space for thinking outside the box. What if success amounts to more than that? The answer you’ll hear from most parents is, Uh, it doesn’t.

This mindset is shallow and mechanical. It’s toxic. And it’s so deeply engrained, no one questions it. It’s brainwashception — the brainwashed parents brainwash their kids. Lots of brains. Also, lots of washing.

One moment that stands out to me: I’m at a social gathering, reading a book and eavesdropping (typical). Five Asian parents gossip aggressively in a football huddle. “I heard Bob didn’t get into MIT. Did he apply to Harvard? Or Yale? Ai ya, what a waste. He probably didn’t get in.” Someone else goes, “Rebecca got into Princeton!” And then the whole squadron erupts into a symphony of neck-twitching, nerves-giggling “oo oo oo oo oo!” I’m so disgusted I tuck my book under my arm and go pee for the next forty-five minutes.

To answer your question: the schools you listed are all Part Of The “”””Success”””” Formula. Thus, it’s a supermagnet for Tunnel Vision Parents. Other families may be intimidated. Or, even if they’re interested in TJ, they don’t think it’s worth the effort to compete again Tunnel Visioners.

I encourage kids to think for themselves and stand up to their parents. (But also, remember that they’re your parents. There’s a line, and you have to understand how to handle it before you roll up your sleeves to go move it.)

Do you feel you have suffered in any way because of your background?

You won’t get a satisfactory answer from me. I actually value suffering quite a lot. Thus, when I’m reflecting back on the past, it’s nearly impossible to differentiate positive and negative experiences, since they all mesh into one holistic stew called Experience. And I judge Experience based on impact — how much I learned, how much I grew. Suffering loses its label that way.

How many colleges did you apply to? How hard was it to fill out everything and still keep up with your schoolwork and activities? Why did you choose U. Chicago?

I applied to six, I think. I scheduled essay rounds and application cycles well in advance, so I didn’t struggle to meet deadlines.

Another unsatisfactory answer: I chose UChicago because it won out in the Excel spreadsheet.

(Said Excel spreadsheet consisted of a dozen rows like “weather” and “cool classes” and “social life,” which were weighted by importance and tallied up to calculate the final score. I suck at decision-making unless numbers are involved.)

Angela writing on the edge of Lake Michigan

You are a wonderful writer. You published a novel when you were in middle school and you have not stopped writing since. Where do you think your love of words comes from? Are writers born or made?

I don’t love words. It’s much more visceral than that. They fill the cracks between my teeth and nest in the walls of my veins. Sometimes I think I can feel them leprechaun-hopping along my brain-wrinkles. In that way, I can’t tell you where they came from. They’ve just been.

I believe all of us are born “in love” with something. We might not know it until we’re fifteen, thirty-five, fifty-five. Maybe even eighty. We might not even be good at it; you don’t have to be good at something to be passionate about it (my mantra in times of self-doubt). Still, life jostles us back and down and forth and up; ultimately, if we let ourselves go, we will fall into the right place. I hold tight to this faith.

Can you list a few writers who have influenced you and why they have?

Kurt Vonnegut’s wit. Joseph Heller’s humor. Ken Kesey’s imagery. Chuck Palahniuk’s punch. Rainbow Rowell’s voice. Aime Cesaire’s language. Ezra Pound’s mind. Andre Breton’s metaphors. The list goes on.

Can you talk a bit about UChicago? What are some of your favorite classes and why? What is a typical day like for you?

So far, my favorite class has been Fundamentals of Poetry, taught by Peter O’Leary. I learned I suck at writing poetry. But I also learned I love the taste of it. Did you know Spotify has a Modern Poetry playlist?

I adored Elements of Economic Analysis-1 (Doron Ravid), which was micro and models. Lots of graphs and algebra-crunching. You’re essentially attaching numbers to human behavior. Cool stuff.

I’m a morning person, which means I’m up at 5:30 and down at 10:30. My boyfriend hates it. So does my social life. (Actually, my social life has lost the ability to hate altogether, on account of the fact that my sleep schedule has already strangled it to death.) I do cardio kickboxing three times a week; I’m trying to meditate once a day. Last quarter, when I was on lockdown to finish a project, I was writing 3–8 hours a day. I also held a couple of on-campus jobs.

Is it as intense as some people say and is this like a tougher/bigger version to TJ? What do you see as the biggest differences between high school and college?

Intense, yeah, but how boring would things be if they weren’t intense? Also, everything boils down to time management. Everything.

The biggest difference is freedom. You can go to class, or not. You can do your homework, or not. It’s all up to you: what you take and when, what you eat, who you’re with.

Angela attending U. Chicago Snow Ball with boyfriend

How have you changed since arriving on campus? Is it safe to challenge ideas/points of view there?

In high school, I cared about my classes as much as most people care about old socks or lost ballpoint pens. In college, I suddenly became invested in the material. That was a real life-changer. When you want to learn, school levels up. And when I say “levels up,” I mean you have a pet slug, and you go to sleep, and the next morning you wake up and there’s a goddamned UNICORN in the bowl.

I’ve changed infinitely. I learned how to pin life up against the wall. I learned how to let it beat me down. I met people; I became people; I left people behind. I’m almost entirely New.

It’s safe to challenge ideas…as long as you’re challenging the right ones. UChicago’s very liberal. Sometimes I wonder, though, how many fights are first-world fights.

You back-packed through Europe this summer on an amazingly low budget. How did you decide to do this and are there things you wish you did that you didn’t or things you wish you hadn’t done?

I made the most out of my trip, so I don’t think I could’ve done it any better.

From my blog post:

I’ve always told people I want to backpack through Europe.

It hit me one day that I was becoming my greatest fear: someone who dreams, but doesn’t do. So then, instead of saying I wanted to backpack through Europe, I started saying I was going to backpack through Europe.

Still, in the back of my mind, I knew the truth. I didn’t have money. I didn’t have experience. And most importantly, I possessed the street smarts and self-defense skills of a limp spaghetti noodle.

Eventually, it hit me again. I wasn’t becoming my greatest fear — I was already living it. I was making excuses instead of taking risks. Pretty soon, I’d graduate and get a job. Marry, pop a fetus or two, invest in stocks, buy a house . . . trod along, happy and ordinary . . . eat a muffin . . . retire . . . eat a couple more muffins . . . die . . .

So I bought tickets to Rome.

Angela in Venice with Vonnegut quote too: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time

And that was that.

In addition to your trip, you are currently doing in internship at Facebook. First of all, congratulations. You have an internship that pretty much anybody in the world would love to have. What do you think were the reasons you earned this coveted internship?

I care about what I do, and I care about other people.

That’s it, my friends. The key to life.

Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? What is the passion you wish to pursue and how will you do it?


I know I’ll be backpacking through every continent but Antarctica (lacking in funds). I plan to work on an elephant farm in Thailand. I’m hoping to join some Tibetan monks for at least six months. I’d like to get my MFA in creative writing. I’d like to finish my novel, to inspire some people.

And I’m beginning to realize that you don’t have to lock yourself into a single passion. The world is full of them.

Secret #1: You have to go find what you want.

Secret #2: When you do find what you want, you have to go get it.

Life’s short; death’s fickle. Don’t give yourself any excuses.

Angela and friends on their way to skydive from 10,000 ft. ******************************************************************************

And so it goes. Or it doesn’t. Fans of Vonnegut will know that my first sentence is a refrain that occurs throughout his book Slaughterhouse Five. It is both a less potentially offensive version of “Shit Happens” and also, perhaps, a subtle hint that our Fates are not in our control, but are nevertheless structured in a linear way. But then, for me at least, there is the random too. And luck, good and bad, counts. And so it goes…Vonnegut is one of Angela’s muses and we all need muses and mentors. Despite the fact that I have several more decades of experience than Angela, I still consider a mentor. Within and between minds, time is not linear.

All of which is a rather abstract way of saying how lucky I am to have Angela take time to share her words with us. It is a matter of luck and fate that we “met”. I saw her TJ piece on line and knew she would be someone who would have additional insights about life, education, and writing that would be inspirational to anyone who took the time to read her words.

Those with a writing background will nod in agreement (or shout out loud in holy affirmation) with her definition of how writing inhabits her being. I also came away humbled that someone so early on in life’s journey has so much flat out talent.

. To me, humanity consists in an endless conversation. Some of the interactions are dreadfully dull, some are literally death sentences, but then there are the creative pices and scientific formulas that alter our way of living in the world they are the less travelled path of the artists and visionaries. Of which Angela is one.

Btu we also talked about how happiness may well be over-rad as the goal of all mortals. Those who have changed the word form Socrates to Jesus to Joan of Arc to Gandhi to Nelson Mandela and others did not believe happiness as the be all and end all. To see, to really see, is sometimes to understand the tragic or the random nature of fate.

But anyone who thinks that this dooms one to a withdrawal from living in the world in ways that embrace life have not read Angela’s words. Her words are full the energy of being that is worth striving for. University life is meant to shake us up and let us see things in new ways. She underscores this. While there is some controversy on how much this confrontational form of learning should happen on campuses the U. Chicago and some other places encourage coming to terms, so to speak, with one’s limitations and by learning of them to expand linguistic and mental boundaries. This may be the meaning that we must seek and that will lead to a path that passeth understanding. And so it goes…

Angela and feathered muse

Ode to a Nightingale

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