In an E&M exclusive, young Canadian writer Jeff Gu discusses his creative processes and explains how his European year abroad inspired him to develop his passion for writing.

I started dabbling in creative writing in high school. I found it therapeutic to have a creative outlet so personal that it could very well exist without anybody else ever knowing. But during my year abroad, I found myself wanting more and more to share my thoughts via a platform, so I decided to post my scribbles and musings on Instagram as mere supplements to my photos.

The idea is that they’re there if you feel like reading about what goes on inside my head, but if not, here’s a pretty picture.

In the final year of my degree, I took a creative writing class where we had the chance to explore just how powerful short fiction could be—we were introduced to the weird and whimsical world of microfiction. The literary form adopts the philosophy ‘less is more’ and rightfully so; with fewer words at your disposal, each takes on more freight of meaning. Quite like tending to a delicate bonsai tree, it’s about minutely trimming in search of true equilibrium. In discussing the merits of certain mediums and the shortcomings of others, we really dug at what literary forms worked best in materializing our ideas.

Below are some short pieces from my Instagram feed. I hope you enjoy them.

‘The Boy with the Flowers’

I spent the first half of my year abroad in Madrid feeling quite lonely as the only Canadian around. But through a friend, I met a girl also from Toronto. We all hung out a few times, made pasta together and sang onto Plaza del Dos de Mayo from her balcony another evening. But come January, I found out that she had died in a car accident while visiting family in Bulgaria.

This short piece actually falls under creative nonfiction since it recounts true events. With actual comments from a couple passing by, I wanted to lead the reader into thinking I was preparing for a romantic encounter before finishing the story with a somber twist.

Rest In Peace Kalina.

‘Nocturne, No. 2’

I wrote this poem one night after a guided meditation since for the first time in a very long time, I felt refreshed and ready to take on whatever else would come my way. My meditation guide said to visualize inhaling all the colours and exhaling stale white air, greatly influencing the imagery in this poem.

What I find so fascinating about languages is their ability to beautifully (and uniquely) transport entire cultures.

‘Punishment’

Though not consciously influenced by Dante’s idea of Inferno, I did find myself reimagining this installation in the Municipal Library of Prague as a possible version of hell. As the underworld is seen as eternal torment, I saw everybody’s punishment as a tailored experience. I envisioned the protagonist as someone who, in struggling with self-hatred, committed suicide as the culmination of his mental illness. After the ordeal, however, he finds himself in an infinity mirror, tortured for eternity with the image of what he hated the most, in life and after.

音月 or ‘Clair de lune’

This is one of my favourite poems and it tells of a romantic relationship I had years ago. Her favourite piano piece was Debussy’s Clair de lune, so I set my heart on learning it for her. But by then, we had already separated so I never had the chance to play her “moonlight / In black and white.”

The secondary layer of this poem lies in a combination of Greco-Roman and Chinese mythology. In Chinese folklore, Chang’e ascended to the moon after her husband abused his celebrity and became a tyrant. A companion jade rabbit was subsequently introduced into the myth, giving the Chinese moon goddess a magical pet. But what if this pet had fallen in love with its owner during their time on the moon? With time, Chang’e decided to take control of her destiny and became a strong female figure that didn’t passively run but instead actively chased; her hunting with the hounds represents her transformation into Artemis or Diana in the Greco-Roman tradition. In pursuing her dreams, she left her pet rabbit behind on the moon, never knowing how much she meant to him. I saw myself as that rabbit whose music couldn’t convince his lover to stay.

The Chinese words in the title ‘音月function as a pun by fusing the Chinese words for ‘music’ and ‘moon.’ As for the French alternate title, I decided to leave it in its source language to allude to Debussy’s piano piece.

There are so many stories that need to be told. However, it’s easy to forget that with everything going on in the world and on our screens.

‘Nocturne, No. 1’

I actually wrote this poem as a joke. My brother and I often listen to a classical music radio show called ‘Nocturne,’ where, deep into the night, the host plays relaxing music paired with soothing poetry. In imitation of the poems read between pieces, I quickly wrote this one night. My brother and I had a good laugh about it, but I realized that I quite liked the idea behind a nocturne. That’s when I decided that every time I had trouble coming up with a title for a piece written at night, I would name it ‘Nocturne’ with an accompanying number like classical musicians did.

‘Sin titúlo / Untitled’

This piece served purely to experiment with title form. You can’t peel many layers in dissecting this one-liner because the ‘story’ simply doesn’t offer enough narrative to work off of, but square brackets were fun to play around with.

I love experimenting with punctuation in microfiction. Like I mentioned earlier, the brevity of this literary form makes every single element count much more, punctuation included. I can’t imagine a quirkily punctuated sentence being representative of an entire novel, but in short fiction, memory is recent enough to fully achieve the intended effect. I distinctly recall a short piece by Gabriel García Márquez referred to as ‘El drama del desencantado’ for short. I highly recommend Spanish speakers read the piece as it opens doors as to how fiction’s form beyond words can exist.

The Power of European Languages

What I find so fascinating about languages is their ability to beautifully (and uniquely) transport entire cultures. Different people groups perceive the world and attempt to express themselves in vastly different manners. Paraphrasing an article I once read, the natural world and the human experience are infinite so language, a finite tool, can only try its best to convey them.

In the beginning, my writing was meant only for me. I wanted to, in a way, prove to myself that I can still create something beautiful despite my mental illness. But after posting my pieces on social media, more and more friends and followers have mentioned that they actually do enjoy reading my blurbs, so I’ll try my best to keep them coming.

There are so many stories that need to be told. However, it’s easy to forget that with everything going on in the world and on our screens.

Here’s my contributing slice.

  • mm

    Jeff is from Toronto and studied Spanish, Arabic and cultural studies at UCL. He runs an active Instagram account, pairing his writing—normally short fiction, poetry or translations—with his photos: @duckduckgu. He digs art, thrift shops and 70s funk.

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