Q&A With Hayanna Kim a.k.a. @herpickings on Instagram

@herpickings is beloved page for book lovers on Instagram. I came across the account in the early days of “bookstagram” (a hashtag that now has over 19 million posts) and have been a fan for around three years. I was happy to meet the person behind it, Hayanna Kim, in Manhattan Beach this spring to talk books and what it means “to live deliberately.” 

Hayanna started working young. Through high school and college at Syracuse she worked with a mentor on start ups in event planning, tech, and food. Then after college, she was planning on going to law school. She was studying for the L-SATs and interning at a firm in downtown Los Angeles. However, life intervened. She got into a fatal car accident. Its trauma and repercussions revealed that she had Lupus, an autoimmune disease. After having to take a break for a couple of years, she is now looking for her next step and working on her own writing. 

 

How did @herpickings begin? What made you want to share the books you were reading and write about what you’ve read?

I’d just been running since I very young, trying to figure out what I want to do. I was working and then studying and had no time to rest.

I got really sick. I had to quit everything. My symptoms got aggravated after my car accident. My body just crashed. Even though I wanted to work, I couldn’t. If I started something, I would be sick right away. It would be unfair to the employer and to me. I’d have to quit in the middle of it. So I took two years off, maybe even three. I did side stuff, but not a full time job. I took a break. Pretty much didn’t have a choice because I really couldn’t get out of bed for a while. Just being so tired and fatigued and my body was too weak. That’s when I had a lot of time to read.

I was home by myself when I was sick. Then you feel lonely. I couldn’t go out with my friends. Because I got sick in my early 20s, everyone was doing their own thing. I felt isolated. I needed community. I was just looking and found the first book people on Instagram. I was like, ‘that’s fun,’ and we were reading the same books. People ask me, ‘how did you grow it?’ My intention was never to grow the account. It was more for me.

At first, reading would be escapism. And then after a while, reading would be a daily routine. I would have anxiety and panic attacks, and if I didn’t read even a couple of pages a day, I would feel like I couldn’t calm myself down. It was kind of a coping mechanism for me for a couple of years.

It was one thing that kept me going. Waking up every morning early, at the same time. It’s something that helped me heal. Go to a coffee shop, just sit there, read. And do what I love. And it became a routine for me. Which helped me get out of my depression. Because when you’re sick you’re always home, and you get depressed.

That’s why when I did posts, it kind of helped me work through certain things in my life– being able to share and having other people relate to it as well.

A lot of the books I read helped me face my reality.

I’m working on a book of essays now, and that’s one of the reasons I especially like your posts, because they seem to be about books of essays. Did you start reading essays when you got sick?

No I always did read essays, but think I read more. It was easier to read. If I didn’t want to or couldn’t read a whole book, I would dive in, and then I’d dive in and out.

Also, I like essay writing. It’s interesting how it can change over the years, and how personal it can be too. It was the form of writing that I did most. But also sometimes, I want to read books depending on what I’m going through at the time. People ask, how do you pick  the books you want to read? I just pick whatever I feel at that time. It’s more emotional.

What does it mean to you to live deliberately?  Can you share what you’ve found through your readings and from the perspective of your illness? 

Reading helped me heal every day. Whenever I read, there are bits and parts that speak to me. Whether it’s a sentence or a passage. It triggers something in me, and me trying to unlearn what society has taught me.

Unlearn at first and then re-learn that I don’t have to follow what society tells me. Because growing up I thought I have to go to college, get a job right away. I always thought you have to follow A-B-C, but because I got sick on the way, I had to take a break, take a step away, to see what can I do in my life. First of all, how can I stay happy, but also make a living without getting myself to this very sickest point again. Finding balance. Finding what’s my normal, not other people’s normal. Because I have to back off certain things in my live in order to do one thing just because of my energy levels, because I can’t go out every weekend like my friends would, or else I couldn’t work all week because I’d be too tired. There are things I have to sacrifice, like throughout my day, I need to pick and choose what’s important to me to go through the day, get through the day, and then wake up the next day and do that again.

 

So, I had to figure out, what is my goal? Do I want a lot of money? Is that really worth it for me. Because making money means working like a dog again. For me, it just wasn’t worth it. So I had to let go of my ideal of what I had in the past. I had to rethink everything of what I thought I knew.

So you start with your health and body, and then go from there?

Yes. Becacuse without my health, I can’t do anything else or help anyone else to begin with. Also just job wise, I don’t want to do something just for the money, like of course you need a living, but I want to do something more meaningful in the end. If I think 10 years from now, would I have helped inspire at least one person, instead of just living day-by-day. I want to do something a little more, and I think that changed from before when I was sick.

Even though I got better, there are still things I can’t do. And I’ve accepted that. I have physical limitations. There are people who stay at work until 10pm, and then do their own stuff afterwards. And I know physically I cant do that, or I’ll go back into the cycle of being sick.

Do you look at people and say, if only you know that you need to just work two hours less and take care of yourself?

Yes. And my friends, when they see me, they realize that. And right now there are so many autoimmune diseases, there are so many people I know personally that have it. It’s really interesting to see. I know older people that have been working their whole lives, and they get really sick and they don’t know why. They quit their jobs and stress less, and they’re better.

Can you recommend two books you think people should read to live deliberate lives?

I like reading journal, diary entries, like Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus.

 

Those journals I always go back to because, it’s about their struggles with writing, and they write about their struggles getting through their days. For me, I like reading journal entries that aren’t too edited. And it shows that you’re not alone. When I don’t feel like reading anything else, I go back to journal entries.

If anything I would recommend Rebecca Solnit’s, The Field Guide to Getting Lost. That’s something I feel that, everyone, no matter what they’re going through, can pick up that book when they’re feeling lost and know that being lost is OK. Because no one really knows. I talk to people older, younger, way older, and no one really figures it out. We’re just living trying to figure it out who we are. It’s really interesting to know that you don’t have to know everything now. And you might not find everything ever, either. It’s the search.

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Fulfillment Vs. Success: 5 Tips for Achieving Your Dreams From the La Jolla Writers Conference

1. You have to really want it and never give up.

That was the message of the 16th Annual La Jolla Writers Conference (LJWC), where I spent the day on Saturday. Not only am I now filled with inspiration and motivation to keep going, but I also took pages and pages of notes on practical tips to make my book better and advance my writing career.

The main lessons I learned though are applicable to and important for everyone, not just writers.

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Andrew Peterson, author of the bestselling Nathan McBride series, was one of the keynotes at the event. During his lunchtime conversation with Grace Doyle, his editor at Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer, he shared that he wrote 5 novels before writing the one that got published.

When he wrote his first Nathan McBride book, he gave it to an editor friend for advice. The editor said he loved the character but the book just didn’t work, and he asked him if he would write another one (from scratch) featuring Nathan McBride.

“How badly do I want this?”

That’s what Peterson kept asking himself, and he encouraged us all to do the same.

“You have to really, really want it.”

So he wrote a completely new book, and it sold 2 million copies (digital and print combined). Five others have followed since then.

Lissa Price shared a similar story in her query workshop later in the afternoon. She told us to just keep it at. It was the third manuscript she wrote that got her a 2-book deal from Random House, which become the bestselling YA books Starters and Enders.

2. Seek out help.

But it wasn’t just toiling away on his own, Peterson said to Doyle. “I also sought out help.” That is a consistent message from anyone who has gone after their dreams and succeeded.

For writers, he said that begins with finding other writers to get feedback from, getting advice from editors, and attending conferences like the LJWC for guidance throughout your career.

3. The First Draft Is Usually Bad. That’s OK. 

One of my favorite lectures of the day was Books Aren’t Written, They’re Rewritten by Martha Lawrence. She began with the premise of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft.” You have to assume that your first attempt won’t be great, and then you have to make it what you want it to be.

I feel like that goes for anything in life. We need to be OK with our first try at something being just that, a first try, and keep polishing and editing and trying again until we are proud of what we’ve done.

(Lawrence gave us a 6-step strategy to edit the “shitty first draft.” It was really an excellent lecture, and for the writers out there, you can buy audio recordings of all the lectures from the La Jolla Writer’s Conference).

4. Fulfillment Is Not the Same Thing As Success

The highlight of the event, which was the perfect end to an inspiring day, was Deeanne Gist’s uplifting keynote speech at dinner.

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She began with a quote from Tony Robinson:

“Success and achievement without fulfillment is failure.” 

She shared her own journey of discovering what success means to her, and what success does not mean: It doesn’t mean chasing status on lists, more social media followers, and it certainly doesn’t mean comparing herself with other authors.

“Success is subjective,” she said.

Right now, for her, success means writing the best possible book that she can write. And to do that, it’s all about working on her craft.

“Fulfillment comes from writing a complete book. Typing THE END, and knowing I did my best.”

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5. Learn Your Craft

She used the analogy of Michael Jordan. He can be the best player ever, but if he doesn’t learn the rules, he doesn’t get to play basketball.

“And the same goes for you, and for me,” she said.

When she first began her journey as a writer, it took her three years to write the first book that got published because she was so intent on perfecting her craft. (And to echo what Peterson and Price said earlier in the day about persistence, she finished that book in 1997, and it sold in 2004. Again, you have to really, really want it.)

Some of the things she did to work on her craft, and encourages writers to do, is to attend conferences like LJWC, find critique groups that work for you, listen to podcasts, read how-to books, books in your genre, join writers groups, go to talks and lectures… and, of course:

“The most important thing you can do to improve your craft is to write.”

She ended her inspiring speech with a call for us all to reflect on what success really means to us. “Tying your self-worth to achievement is risky business,” she said.