Questions, Questions…

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What is the most annoying question you can ask a writer? It’s hard to zoom in on one because there are so many contenders for this dubious honour. As most of us know from first-hand experience, writers are often expected to answer questions that would make other professionals dial 911 for help. These questions are always lurking around the corner. They can ambush you at familiar spots – at the grocery store or the park or at the coffee shop next door. They also show up – decked out in formal, longwinded phrases – at literary festivals and book launches and readings.

I am not complaining about people taking an interest in writers and their work. Questions about a writer’s process and craft, the characters she/he has created, stories told, plots woven, metaphor and meter, are a blessing. Writers cherish them because questions like these spark exciting conversations. They raise interesting points and open up new vistas of thought, giving writers the opportunity to share their ideas and insights with readers. A writer is grateful for them because they give readers a glimpse of the creative process up close. These questions are the lifeblood of a vital relationship. They keep the dialogue between the writer and the reader going.

But there are questions and then there are questions. The distinction between the two kinds is as clear as the divide between healthy curiosity and malicious gossip. If writers around the world were to make a roster of annoying questions they have had to grapple with, the ones I’m about to list out (in no particular order) would feature on it for sure.

* “What do you do?” This one comes at you like a bullet from a gun soon as you open your mouth to say you are a writer. The timing is impeccable. The question instantaneous. The tone of voice is tinged with a mix of impatience and disapproval and the conversation always goes like this.
“I am a writer.”
“So, what do you do?”
“Write, you know…”
“Yes. But what do you do?”
This could be a philosophical observation of course. Writing being an exercise involving a great deal of mental effort may be seen by some as a state of being, a way of life rather than just an activity. Talking to a writer brings out the philosopher in all of us… Hence the question? Anyway, if you think you can fob it off by sharing your writing schedule or rattling off the number of grueling hours you spend working on your novels/stories/poems, you’re mistaken. Nothing can save you. A mention of your day job may win you a smile and a half-hearted nod of approval from your interrogator though.

* “Do people read anymore?” This one never fails to surprise me. Nobody walks up to a doctor and asks, “Do people fall ill anymore?” No one asks teachers if students need teaching or chefs if food needs cooking or bankers if banks need to be around in the 21st century. Stories have always been a part of us and they’ve been told – and written and read – since the beginning of time. Chances are this is going to continue until climate change or nuclear war annihilates the human race.

* “Why write?” This one is best answered with a question (or half-a-dozen). You may as well ask, “Why breathe?” “Why open your eyes in the morning?” “Why have a beating heart?” “Why eat three meals a day?” “Why build houses and roads and cities?” “Why carry on living?”

* “Are you going to be the new XYZ?” This question raises its hydra head when you tell someone – usually in a social setting – that you are working on a book. Instead of asking you about the story or characters or the ideas that inspired you or the time and effort you are devoting to getting the manuscript into shape, you are handed a question only a fortune teller or a fool would risk answering. The only possible way to handle it is to admit that you have no clue about (or interest in) predicting which famous author you will morph into when your book is published. Also, it helps to mention that you are killing yourself revising your manuscript, rewriting entire chapters, and agonizing over every word. As things stand, there is a high probability that lack of sleep and an overdose of caffeine will finish you off before the book is in print. So predicting the future would clearly be a waste of time at this point!




Transparent Ghosts

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I had a conversation with an old man who was a stranger a few weeks ago. He told me he had fought in the war. I asked him if the time we now live feels like a different world completely. He said yes. It is a different world – this is the world of Twitter and Facebook, iPhones and HTCs, the world of same-sex marriage and the first black President, the world of fighting for gender quality and transgender rights.

 

Jill Soloway’s acclaimed Amazon Prime series, Transparent, only a few months ago released it’s second season to a slur of acclaim. More than acclaim – wonder, intrigue and above all, respect, to its discussions of sexuality, gender, feminism, family, love, sex and so many more things. I took a lot from it. The Pfefferman family are set to examine their own lives when the father, Mort, comes out as trans and goes by Maura. In season two, they’ve come along way with their acceptance but still have questions. I walked in the Pfefferman’s footsteps during the two day binge for days, weeks, after. One thing I took from it, though, one thing, among all the other things, was the concept of ghosts.

 

Transparent’s second season did something new and strange. During the first episode, in which Sarah, the eldest daughter, marries her lover, Tammy, the family dance. We then have a flashback to Berlin, 1933 in which a party of queer folk are dancing too. The camera remains on one trans woman, dark haired, elated, wearing a slim dress, high heels and perfect make-up. The woman is Gillet, Maura’s aunt. As she dances, her sister and Maura’s mother, Rose, younger and strong, brings them shots.

 

One of the most touching episodes – talked about a lot by critics – is ‘Man On The Land’ in which Maura and her daughters, Ally and Sarah, go to Idyllwild, a festival of poetry, BDSM tents, spiritual meetings, etc. There is a rule, however, that only “womyn born womyn are allowed”. When men enter, the women band together and yell “man on the land! Man on the land!” This episodes is important for a multitude of reasons – the idea that radical feminism can create prejudices against trans people, primarily transwomen, the discussion of male privilege, of Maura’s previous sexism when a man, the pain of transphobia, among other things. It is also important because it is the time the ghosts of the season are brought right into Ally’s vision. More a hallucation.

 

Within it, Berlin, 1933 collides with Los Angeles, 2015. Gillet, once dancing, is now being dragged out of the research centre, to which she lives, by men in white and Nazis. They burn the books. They attack the queer folk, some of them resembling mythical forest folk. Rose is there too, watching, devastated. Ally, also, seeing herself in her grandmother. It inspires so many questions about family, about DNA, about blood, about the binding families have no matter their hatred or dislike for one another.

 

There are ghosts in this season. It is different, new and exciting. There is also poetry and the questioning of sexuality, the idea of gender being a term, a loose coat, easy to take off. When watching it, I was not only inspired in my own work but began questioning what the term ‘ghost story’ really means. When I think about ghost stories, the instant sight is nothing. Ghosts are invisible, rattling around, screaming, creaking doors, hiding in shadows. They come out sometimes. When I think of ghost stories I think of horror.

 

Within Transparent we have the ghosts of family, haunting pain of times past. I see the pain in my own family as one of dreary tales spread among aunts and uncles and the natural passing of certain members. David Vann’s work is full of ghosts, especially Legend of a Suicide, Vann’s autobiographical series of short stories. In the case of Sukkwan Island, the dark, dangerous, incredible middle story that my tutor once gave me the warning of: “wait until you get to the middle of the book. It will hurt you”, Vann plays around with his father’s suicide. In Vann’s life, his father killed himself. In Vann’s story, he kills himself and his father is left behind. It’s an incredibly twisted idea, beautiful almost, deranged and fascinating. His father is then haunted by his son. The ghost of his son. His corpse. His memory. He buries him and digs him up again. Haunted.

 

If we are writing about ghosts, if we are creating ghost stories, do we always have to make it horror or can we twist the meaning? Within horror the ghosts – usually – are evil with a purpose to kill and destroy. With Soloway’s Transparent and Ali Liebegett who wrote the episode in question, ghosts are harmless, ghosts are a hallucination, manifestation, intrusion.

 

*

 

Maybe, then, the idea of the ghost story is more the idea of haunting – a lurking presence. Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, starring Charlotte Rampling (as Kate) and Tom Courtenay (as Geoff), a retired married couple about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, is arguably a ghost story. Geoff receives news that his ex-girlfriend has been discovered after slipping into an Alpine crevasse fifty years prior. Immediately, the presence of the ex-girlfriend, Katya, haunts Kate. She smells her perfume and finds a projector full of photos that Geoff has clearly been looking at. Their names are similar. Kate asks Geoff if he would have married Katya if she were alive. He says yes. His heartbreak is her realisation. Katya’s ghost is causing Kate to see herself as a fraud. A ghost in herself. Katya’s replacement. Haigh doesn’t get very close very often, he holds the camera far away. We watch Kate walk along the misty Norwich fields, calling her dog. She is alone, but not alone. She is constantly being haunted by the ghostly presence of Katya.

 

*

 

Months before I watched Transparent or 45 Years, months before I had read Shirley Jackson and the fog of Dickens’ Bleak House, I continued to bump into a friend’s brother. We had seen each other around, spoke briefly, had never been the best of friends. We had gone to the same parties in later life. On the street, faced with one another, we continued walking, saying nothing, every time. It felt like being haunted. A reminder. A jolt back to another time.  It happened at night. It was raining twice. The sun was fading the third. It didn’t just start me thinking about ghosts but it made me think of the ghosts within us. The ghosts of who we once were. The friend’s brother is probably not the same person he was back then. Nor am I. We do not know each other. We only know old versions.

 

*

 

Transparent has put poetry into the ghost story. When Ally meets Leslie Mackinaw, a poet and lecturer in gender studies – a fictionalised version of Eileen Myles, more or less – she becomes transfixed. She reads Leslie’s poetry and the haunting words, the steps into trees and woods, pulls everything around to the time in the woods, again, the time Ally will soon have, watching her great-aunt, her grandmother, the pain of her families past, the ghosts standing around. Poetry streams across the screen in voiceover, haunting around the electric lights:

 

‘I always put my pussy in the middle of trees,

like a waterfall, like a doorway to God,

like a flock of birds. I always put my lover’s cunt

on the pest of a wave, like a flag I can pledge my allegiance to.

This is my country, here when we’re alone, in public.

My lover’s pussy is a badge, is a nightstick,

is a helmet, is a deer’s face, is a handful of flowers,

is a waterfall, is a river of blood, is a Bible, is a hurricane,

is a soothsayer.’

 

 




Where do you write?

Last week I came across an interesting website which invites writers from all over the world to post pictures of the places where they usually work (write). The collage of images already posted on the site under the series was an interesting one. A desk at a corner of a living room or basement, a table at a quiet café, a table at a busy café, a library, a park bench, a wooded cemetery, a moving train, a bus, a boat lapping on still waters – the range of choices was wide and fiercely individual.
Some writers had to be at their desk (or on a bus, train, or at their favorite table at the café around the corner) to get work done. Many thrived on solitude. Others had no trouble tuning out the noise of the world and hammering away at the keyboard in crowded places.

Hemingway famously said, “There is nothing to writing. You just sit at a typewriter and bleed.” Then does it matter where the typewriter – or computer or notebook – happens to be? Is there such a thing as the perfect place to write? Does the physical space writers occupy play a part in the creative process?
Many writers gravitate towards quiet places because solitude helps you focus. It is easier to incubate an idea and devote yourself to the hunt for the right words to express it when you are distanced from the distractions the world. Katherine Anne Porter did her writing in the countryside where she chose to live a hermetic life. Toni Morrison used to check into a motel to work on her books when her children were small. EB White picked a cabin by the shore, William Maxwell stuck to rooms that “don’t look out on anything interesting.”

Libraries have always provided writers refuge. They are unique – quiet yet not completely cut off from the rest of humanity – and writers rely and thrive on their hospitality. The Reading Room at the British Museum has been the workspace of greats such as Virginia Woolf, GB Shaw, and George Eliot. Willa Cather and Herman Melville sat down to work at the New York Society Library.
There may be no such thing as the “perfect” place to write but there are spaces that let a writer’s creativity flower and bring out the best in her/him. A space that sets you free, a place that lets you delve deep into your thoughts so you can string them together to create stories that move and excite readers. This could be a desk in a corner of your study or a shared space where a group of writers come together to work and to be in the company of likeminded people. Some writers produce their best work in the confines of their homes. Others may hop on a train or a plane to get the creative juices flowing.

Toni Morrison paints a vivid picture of the writer’s entry into the writing space in a 1993 interview with the Paris Review. “I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark – it must be dark – and then I drink coffee and watch the light come…Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”

In Morrison’s case, it is this connection with the light that eases her in. Andrew Motion finds sitting at a tall, glass-topped desk that gives him a “slightly vertiginous feeling” helpful when he is working on his poems. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir made a habit of settling down at their regular tables at Parisian cafes to work. Poet Catherine Barnett works from a booth at her local diner. Hemingway liked to write standing up. Balzac wrote in bed.

Every writer has a process and a place of choice. The place that lets one writer bloom may kill another’s creative impulses. Being confined to a fixed spot – a desk, a particular room, a regular table, a familiar café or a library – can work wonders for some. Being on the move constantly and rejecting the very notion of a fixed writing space is what works for others. There is no single definition that sums up the perfect place to write. It is as varied as the body of work that each writer creates.




Why having good dialogue in that story you’re writing is important!

What’s more difficult than writing a good story? Writing good dialogue. Dialogue is an essential part of every writer’s arsenal. Get it right and it can do wonders for your novel or short story. Mess it up and it ends up a deadweight dragging the narrative down and taxing the reader’s patience.

I have been agonizing over the quality of the dialogue in the novel I am working on right now. The first draft of my novel was generously peppered with dialogue. When I started work on the second draft, I realized that I had gone overboard. There was too much talk and some of it leads nowhere. So I got rid of a fair bit. Still, I am not happy with what is left on the pages. As I was burning in the seventh circle of writers’ hell, a scriptwriter friend of mine took pity on me and gave me some useful advice. “Read blind,” he said. “Blank out the names of your characters and picture a reader trying to identify them from the lines they speak.” According to my friend this is a foolproof test to find out if the characters I created had authentic, individual voices.

I put myself through the test with mixed results. To my relief, I was convinced that some of the characters in my novel do have distinct voices. Nobody else could put things the way did. Other turned out to be less satisfactory and lacked distinct voices. They sounded too much like each other when they opened their mouths.

I’ve gone back to the drawing board to rewrite their lines. I see sleepless nights ahead. There will be furious pounding of the keyboard and endless cups of coffee consumed to keep me going. I carry on knowing that in the end, nothing is more satisfying than a line that sounds right (to the ear) and feels right (in your heart).

To write convincing dialogue, a writer has to keep her/his ears open all the time. Turn yourself into an aural magnet of sorts. Listen carefully to the way people speak in real life, notice the cadences of their speech and their verbal ticks, the eccentricities of their speech patterns, and the nuances. Hone in on accents – they always come in handy when you are fleshing out fictional characters. File away every human voice you hear when you are out on the streets or riding a crowded subway or roosting in a café. I enjoy sifting through this (mental) archive of sounds when I sit down at my desk. It adds color and character to the lines I write.

Dialogue is a many splendored thing. It breaks up the monotony of long prose passages. It helps to set a scene. It is an excellent devise to build up dramatic tension. Elmore Leonard was a master of this art. The lines his characters speak take the tension up by several notches and keeps the reader hooked to the pages. No reader can walk away from a Leonard story. It you start one, “you gotta finish it.” This is the magic of dialogue at work.

To state the obvious – dialogue should never be about the obvious. To use dialogue to drone on about what is obvious is a surefire way to put the reader to sleep. A good line of dialogue is the key to a character’s inner life. It reveals a person’s motives and desires. It also conceals. Dialogue must spring from this friction between the things that are said and those left unsaid. Aaron Sorkin’s scripts for television dramas (especially the politically charged series, The West Wing) teems with dialogue that is balanced on the knife edge of what is said and left unsaid. The air crackles with tension. The lines bowl you over with their virtuosity. Conversational exchanges between the characters draw you right into the heart of the action.
Dialogue is a powerful tool but it has to be used with care. Too much of a good thing can put off the reader so it’s wise to stick in dialogue on the page only when absolutely necessary. Don’t use it to unleash a piece of longwinded exposition on the reader. Don’t go overboard with clever wordplay – everybody loves a smart one-liner but pages and pages of it is just overkill.

Getting it right is a delicate balancing act. Tread softly. Listen intently. Write with care and precision. Read out the lines you write (to yourself, to friends, to your neighborhood literary critics). If the lines you hear are easy on the ear, know that you’ve got a good thing going.




A Sense of Place

Many a creative writing professor has lectured me on the pivotal role a “sense of place” plays in fiction. Writers work hard at creating credible worlds in which to set our stories. We spend sleepless nights trying to draw the reader into these fictional universes. Craft – and every ounce of charm and wit we possess – are devoted to this task. We know that a story with an authentic sense of place will hold the reader under its spell. This truth dawned on me afresh when I took off to London last month for a short stay.

I had never set foot in the city before but I felt a pleasant sense of familiarity as I walked down the streets and stopped to catch my breath in leafy gardens. Virginia Woolf’s luminous prose echoed in my ears: “how beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree–sprinkled, grass–grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally…and far away the rattle of a train.” (Street Sauntering, A London Adventure).

When I strolled down alleys, riverside paths, and quaint, cobbled yards, they came alive with scenes from some of my favorite Dickens novels. Here was the street where Pip had come to meet his lawyer and learn a life-changing truth (Great Expectations). Here lay dark alleys where body snatchers and pickpockets once roamed free (Oliver Twist). A debtor’s prison so tellingly described in Little Dorrit. A hospital, a street corner, a flight of steps under London Bridge, a crumbling ruin of a prison – all of them immortalized in Dickens’ fiction.

Big Ben – that iconic landmark of the English landscape – loomed before me. I looked up at it. It was our first encounter but I felt like I had seen the clockface before. That I had sensed the “leaden circles dissolving” when the clock chimed. 
Mrs Dalloway had imprinted an indelible picture of it on my mind. Woolf’s fiction had made Big Ben seem so real, so immediate, that when I stood in front of the real thing, it seemed like I already knew it inside out.

London seemed so familiar because it had found a place in some of the best works of fiction I have read. The opposite of this phenomenon also works its magic on us. William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County – a fictional setting for his stories and novels – and placed it within the real Lafayette County, Mississippi in the United States. The fictional county seems every bit as “real” as the actual geographical entity. Faulkner’s readers will vouchsafe for the authenticity of his imagined universe. Faulkner himself liked to challenge his readers by referring to Yoknapatawpha as both “actual” and “apocryphal”.
Margaret Atwood paints a chilling portrait of a totalitarian republic in her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The Republic of Gilead is painted with such deft strokes that it takes only a few pages for it to acquire the legitimacy of a place on the map. Gilead exists in an apocryphal future but the echoes of contemporary reality are felt there. Using a potent mix of fact and fiction, history and prophecy, and lyrical prose, Atwood imbues Gilead with an eerily real quality.

What does it take to create an immortal fictional world? What ingredients go into its making? What holds up the world on the page when all else crumbles into dust? There is no readymade recipe, no formulaic answer at hand. All a writer can do is to try and paint a specific and detailed picture. Be true to the setting – if a novel or story is set in a certain period in history, get the details right. Do a backbreaking amount of research. Know everything there is to know about that period. If your work revolves around the lives of characters who belong to a particular profession (doctors, lawyers, conmen, poets, strippers, astronauts, journalists..) make sure you understand how things work in their world. Set down the rules of the world at the start. Be straight with your readers. They deserve to get under the skin of your characters and the universe they occupy.

Be consistent. If your novel is set in the past (“never dead,” “not even past”) then the characters must walk and talk and dress a certain way throughout. Similarly, if your story is set in a specific contemporary milieu – make sure the details of the setting are accurate and authentic. Above all remember to get the “human fact” right. This is the backbone of a fictional universe. This is what makes it come alive and keeps it safe from the ravages of time.




Cigarettes & Coffee: Our Writer Perception

I’m sitting outside Costa, where I work, drinking an espresso and smoking a cigarette. The espresso tastes like shit and I drink my Pepsi among the books and scrambles in my bag. I smoke the cigarette, like the cigarette, it’s a release, a rush, an outlet, like writing. I’m trying to be cool by drinking the coffee. I’m failing, obviously, I can’t force myself to like it. I won’t be one of those espresso-coffee-addicted writers, unfortunately. I’ve transformed, however, into a further cliché – once a broke student, studying English and living off noodles, now a graduate working in a coffee shop, playing the game, smoking cigarettes, publishing stories, writing at night.

As goes our image – or rather perception – of writers. Tortured beasts, addicted to alcohol and drugs, full of whimsy and imagination, conjuring creations with their gut, their anger, using their addiction, their coffee and cigarettes, their absinthe and hallucinogenic substances to say something. Edgar Allen Poe and Lewis Carroll were addicts, creating stories of Red Queens and Red Deaths, stories of madness and mayhem. Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King tended towards the bottle, writing about addicts and relationships, clowns and fish. Byron and Yates, Carver and Capote. Our perception, love and now cliché of the writer, inspired the TV show, Californication, its lead being a confused, alcohol and drug addicted writer who sleeps with different women and is struggling with his manuscript.

We always see the writer as stuck. Confused in some way – whether it be their manuscript or their lives. The writer, to us, as readers, is an authority figure, they command the characters, create the worlds and, by extension, they’re superior to us. They’re far away, removed, fantastical. Lewis Carroll’s image is plagued with the Caterpillar, whose body curls around his letters of smoke and mutters murmurs of mysteriousness.  We know he was a man who took a many few drugs and that inspired his works of Alice and her Wonderland. We know his history is embroiled in secrecy – his paedophilia and mathematical careers perplexing scholars to this day.

Mysterious commanders who sit outside coffee shops. Watching people walk by as they think up characters and sentences, construct, as if music, the words that drum together and dance the story. They smoke their cigarettes or pipes, sip their coffee or whiskey, an extra shot of something else. They’re removed from others, forever in their mind. A coffee shop is an opportunity, stories carved into the teacups, poems riding in fingerprints.

Theories have been developed about the idea of the Writer. As readers, should we address them, factor them into the story? Or should we simply ignore? Of course, writers use parts of themselves, they dig deep and splay it out on the page. The more honest, the rawer the writing, the more rich it becomes, we know this. And the tempestuous, longing, imaginative-riddled person sits at the typewriter slamming down on the keys, those dreams and ideas and fantasies.

I stub out the cigarette and sit in the haze of sunlight, beating the rays down on the pavement. I allow the smoke to fall out of my nostrils, down against my shirt – my name badge, my apron. And at night, as one burns in the ashtray, I slam my fingers against the keys, writing the words, as the grandfathers and mothers of literature did also, with their absinthe, maharani, cocaine, MDMA, Long Island Iced Teas, whiskey, scotch, cigarettes, white powder, meth, acid, coffee, their own personal tweak, our universal perception.




Let It Go

“Less is more” is one of those phrases I’ve always liked the sound of. The line itself is a shining example of the minimalist ethos: spare, direct, a combination of three words that contains a world of meaning. The maxim has hidden depths and its elegance is hard to miss. Unless holed up in an underground bunker, we’ve all come across it at some point in our lives. It has such a familiar ring to it partly because corporate media and the advertising industry flaunt in our face, almost always bending it out of shape as a catchword to suit their needs.

Despite its familiarity – or precisely because of it – I’ve never given the phrase the attention it deserves. But the moment is here: the full impact of the line dawned on me when I started re-working the opening chapters of my novel. I am starting to chant it like a mantra as I go through the pages, shearing scissors in hand. The phrase is fast becoming friend and philosopher, voice of reason, guiding light.

Novelists are caught in a double bind. The novel is a sprawling expanse that offers us the scope for detailed excavation and explanation. The roominess of the novelistic form is tempting. It seduces you into unlocking the floodgates and letting words pour out. But verbiage without precision is dangerous. It turns off readers faster than you can say “postmodern.” The challenge is to find the right balance – give away enough, withhold the rest. Resist the temptation to explain in excess. Strip it down. Lose the flab. Where two words will do, don’t use twenty. If the narrative is being weighed down by too much backstory, find the strength to be ruthless and weed out the excess baggage.

Not that it is easy to do. One of the dilemmas I face while working on my novel is the question of how much backstory to include. I feel a compulsion to share every detail about the cast of characters with my readers. Even the faintest ripple that crossed the characters’ lives seems relevant. If something happened to X when she was 16 and my novel is set in a timeframe when she is 50, how can I not spend two (or more) pages on painting a picture of her past? Will the reader care about X if I withhold the backstory? Is X in danger of being misunderstood for good? It is an agonizing decision to have to make.

In an earlier draft of my novel, I had managed to include the backstory of all the characters in some detail. But the draft ended up sounding like pages and pages of notes I had compiled on the characters instead of a story that lived and breathed and flowed seamlessly. The backstory dragged the narrative down. It got in the way of pacing and rhythm and generally made a nuisance of itself. Instead of making things clear, it became an unwelcome distraction. Too much information was being fed to the reader, too little was left unsaid. I decided to step back and make room for the reader’s imagination to come into play. Out came the shearing scissors and I started work on a revised draft.

Writers who trust in “less is more” have great faith in the reader’s imagination. Hemingway and Raymond Carver excelled at it. Lydia Davis does it with panache. They use simple, direct prose to grapple with complex plots. A paragraph written in Davis’s trademark style can paint a searing picture of a character’s inner life more effectively than pages of descriptive prose. Every word hits home. Every phrase cuts to the bone.

Minimalism is not limited to literature’s threshold. It has shaped music, art, and architecture in significant ways. Japanese culture has admired the tradition of minimalism from ancient times for its elegant simplicity and quiet taste. Whether painting a canvas or building a temple, stripping down a work to its fundamental features is considered an act of aesthetic innovation. Zen Buddhists have their own take on it – they advise us to live more fulfilled lives by ‘doing less’ and devoting our focus to a few chosen tasks rather than scrambling around to take on a million things at the same time.

As in life, so in writing. Keep it simple. Draw the reader into the heart of the story with spare, direct prose. Trust in the power of simplicity. It can work wonders.




Why Write?

Last month while reading with a local book club from my short story collection, “A Happy Place,” I was asked, “Why do you write fiction?” Distilled to its essence this boils down to “Why do you write?” This query follows me around from reading to reading. It also worms its way into the conversation when people hear that I am finishing work on a novel.

I hear it said in many intonations:

Why write when yet another editor’s rejection letter has damned your submission with faint praise? (censorious inner critic)

You’re writing this weekend? Again? (miffed friends whose weekend plans I end up saying no to)

Why do you have to write? Why can’t we go play in the park? You’re not my favorite aunt anymore. (miffed six-year-old niece)

Time is the biggest casualty of the writing life. Juggling a hectic day job and my writing, I am left fantasizing about days that expand on demand. In said scenario, I would have enough time to meet my daily word count, keep friends, family and colleagues happy, and also catch up on a whopping deficit of sleep. Twenty-four-hour days just don’t make the cut. I slice and dice and compartmentalize and still end up begging for more hours. Writing hijacks your time like a possessive lover. It’s all or nothing, baby. There’s no middle path here.

Heartbreak, rejection, incessant demands, odds that are stacked against you at every turn – the writing life is a tough road to take. So what keeps a writer going? Why write?

I write because I am addicted to the pleasure of language. There is nothing more thrilling than to search for the right words, to scoop up them up and string them together to tell a story. Words can unlock the whole universe. To get under a word’s skin is sheer joy. To tap into the incredible power of language to shape a story is a grand adventure. The more you keep at it the better you get at making words your own. They start to come alive at your touch and reveal hidden meanings. They sing
to you and let you soar, gifting you visions that open up infinite possibilities.

Words set me free. Words set my imagination on fire.

They are my holy grail. The rock on which I rest.

But writing isn’t just about the joy of word play. I chose to be a writer because writing offers me unconditional freedom to raise questions. I have never been the sort of person who accepts things as they are. My brain is hardwired to question. Accepted wisdom sets off alarm bells in my head. Preachers and teachers are not my best friends.

To state the obvious, there is no shortage of things to question in this world. An extensive range – whether it is the workings of organized religion or crony capitalism, arranged marriage or corporate imperialism – is on display around us. We live in a time where the divide between the powerful and the powerless has taken on grotesque dimensions. War games are in full swing. Race and religion polarize us like never before. Parochialism dressed up as patriotism is on the rise. Dictators mushroom across the globe overnight. The air is polluted with talk of stricter border controls to keep “the other” out, calls to wage war in the name of democracy, demands to execute policies that alienate disenfranchised factions in an already fragmented world. We live our lives under surveillance every day. Our fundamental freedoms are increasingly at risk. Tolerance for independent thought and opinion is at an alarming low. Freedom is a myth in our times.

Writing gives me a safe space to raise the questions that I feel compelled to ask. Despite the challenges and occasional body blows, I carry on writing because it is a perpetual search. To give up the search would be to give up on life itself. Stories help me re-imagine the world. They let me ask dangerous questions and give a voice
to the silenced.

To me, writing is a journey without a fixed destination. My readers walk with me every step of the way. When I am tired or disheartened, it is reassuring to know that I am not on my own and that the search isn’t mine alone. On a lucky day, my readers and I stumble on answers. But for the most part, it is our shared journey that counts.




Writing Through It

During my MFA, my nonfiction friends and I had a lot of conversations about the art of writing. Most of these conversations happened after class, at the end of a long day, around 10 pm at some bar near campus. We went to unwind and let loose and not think so much about the money or the time or our students or our abandoned drafts, but talk always wound back around to the work. That’s why we were there, after all.

Sometimes during a workshop, the class would read a draft and the author, sitting quietly during the initial reading or discussion, would tear up, stiffen, or just cry. Often it was just embarrassment and an acknowledgment of your words being read aloud. It’s good to read your work aloud, even better to have someone else do it. You get all the jokes, nod along to the cadence, get to hear the fluidity of your words. You also notice all the flubs, the missteps, the wooden dialogue, the typos, that thing you meant to cut but forgot.

And this work, particularly in nonfiction, hits close to home. It is home. We nonfiction writers, the essayists, the prose-ists finding art in the everyday, this is how we live our lives. And the art of writing about our situations isn’t just to tell people a story. At times, we write through our problems, our own sense of private — and then very public — therapy, putting these experiences down on paper to make heads or tails of them, once and for all.

Sometimes, it really is just about a story.

But the question we always asked ourselves is: “Is this art?” It wasn’t only the nonfiction writers, worrying about whether or not an edited narrative arc in a diary still fit the bill. The fiction writers and poets wondered this too, as they cribbed quotes and situations and barely-veiled ex-lovers into their work. How original is creativity, anyway? Is there a story that hasn’t been told before? We worried that by writing through our problems we were in some way subverting the creative process. That the ideas weren’t supposed to be in service to us, our writing was meant to be about something much bigger. I always argued that my writing could be both. That I could write about myself and make connections to the bigger picture. That was the whole point. You can write in a bubble, but all great writers read all the time. You can’t be a writer without being a reader, without seeing how everyone else places their words. It’s also another way that writers make connections to other writers. You find the work that speaks to you.

The one thing I found in common with all writers, like all people, is that we’re all a little broken in some ways. And we often use the work as an outlet to put our feelings on the page. It’s probably cheaper than actual therapy, potentially more effective. But then I wonder about my peers who cried in the beginning of our workshops, as even I (described as stoic to those who first meet me) turned red-faced and fidgety as my classmates read about how I wrote about my 10-year-old self.

I’ve gotten to the point where I can pinpoint a downturn in my mood to the last time I wrote a paragraph. This whole past week, wrapped up in other people’s work and words except my own, I fell into a type of bored sadness. Now, writing that sentence gives me pause. I want to take it back because even for all my writing about writing, and writing about myself, do I want you to know that? And now that you know, does it change anything? Are my opinions more or less valid because I express them fluidly, vividly, or cowardly? I need the story as much as it needs me.

Young writers are told that they can’t, or shouldn’t, write memoir because they’re not done yet, they haven’t processed anything, they haven’t lived enough. But no one gets to tell a writer what they can or cannot express (except an editor). The work, whether it’s scribbled in a notebook, read aloud in a workshop, or published in a widely-read novel, is still some writer coming to grips with their idea of the truth. There are so many unknowns and everyone has different ways of getting to the bottom of their story. Everyone who’s in the middle of an argument should recognize that there are three truths: what you think, what the other person thinks, and then, what actually happened.

Our truth in our history books is written by the people who had the opportunity to get it on the page. How many histories are ignored or forgotten because they weren’t maintained? It’s important for people with untold stories to have the opportunity to share them. Because although everyone is unique in their own way (I maintain I’m the shiniest of all the special snowflakes), there is always someone who will find something in common with your story. There is someone who needs your story, and there is a chance that your words can aid and help someone or something bigger than you. So to my writers out there who are dealing with getting the truth on the page: keep writing. Your words are worth it, and your stories are needed.




On Deadlines, Failure, and Getting Started

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

When I was in elementary school, we had end-of-year projects. And in the beginning, when I was little, I worked my little fingers off, coloring in my drawings, cutting out little uneven squares of colored paper, and writing papers. But by fifth grade, I decided that I was tired. The idea of coming up with something — something that no one might like — that I then had to show off for a grade, completely overwhelmed me. I was so afraid of spending time creating something mediocre that I decided not to make anything at all. It was an idiom project, one that my brothers had done before, and we still had theirs, nicely drawn and tightly bound in the closet upstairs. I think we needed fifty of them, tiny phrases that I went around the house attempting to remember. After several explanations, I still couldn’t wrap my head around “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” I tried to use “Too many cooks in the kitchen” to get out of doing the dishes. “A penny for your thoughts” was rather handy when I needed lunch money, and I usually managed to charm that penny up to 50 cents.

When my brothers did the idiom project in elementary school, I helped them color in the backgrounds of their tiny drawings. Now that it was my turn, the responsible one, I sat in the floor of my bedroom in front of their old projects, wondering if I could steal their drawings and turn them in as my own. I knelt in front of my blank sheets of paper and decided it just wasn’t going to happen. I shoved the papers, my colored pencils, and my ideas all back in my desk drawer and pretended like it never happened.

When I write and I have an idea, I scribble a phrase on a post-it note and I come back to it later. I constantly have ideas. Most of them are terrible. Some of them are amazing, but I find that the amazing almost never make it on paper. It’s such an effort. You’re taking this great, big, beautiful idea, these series of Impressionist paintings in your mind, and then you are going to slowly destroy them by putting them on paper. Nothing will ever be quite as great on the page as it is in your imagination.

I read books that take me above and beyond and away — it’s an escape, but it’s a comfort, too. Some books are made into films and those films never live up to that joy of not really knowing what’s coming next. Of how the world you envisaged is not what you see on the screen. And yet, when I get started writing, when I finally express those thoughts on a page, it makes my days better. Writing a great sentence can change the tone of any day.

Toni Morrison did an interview with NPR  to promote her new novel, God Help the Child. And she talked a lot about the moments she regrets in her life, but also, why she continues to write:

“The writing is — I’m free from pain. It’s the place where I live; it’s where I have control; it’s where nobody tells me what to do; it’s where my imagination is fecund and I am really at my best. Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing.”

Then, why is it, when I talk to my writer friends, or anyone who’s at work on anything, we all bemoan the looming deadline? It’s going to happen. The date isn’t going to change. You’re not going to suddenly have more time. Even if you do, you’ll find yourself re-watching episodes of The West Wing to help “stimulate your creativity” or “decompress” or whatever lie you’re currently trying to tell yourself.

And I need deadlines, we all do. Even if I mark a day on the calendar for myself, I still have to follow it. It’s not going to go away. The work might. The idea might vanish.

“The story will die anyway,” I tell myself. Either at my own hands as I attempt to get it on the page, or as it slowly fades away from me when I’m not looking.

“Depressing!” you say. Well, yeah. But wouldn’t you rather try?

Writers tell me they have trouble submitting work because they’re afraid of what people might think, but the worst that can happen? The editors won’t like it. They’ll send you a rejection note, or you’ll query them in six months and they’ll say, “Oh, sorry!” and you’ll get your note a couple of weeks later. I’ve been collecting them from The New Yorker like trading cards for the last several years.

I’m no better at it now, especially now that my thesis is done and the threat of failure is gone. If I don’t finish my stories now, no one will notice really, except for me. One of my friends offered to keep track of my deadlines for this novel I’m (sort of) writing. He will nudge me when I have a date looming so I can stay on track. And I’m currently procrastinating on letting him know my own deadlines. Mostly because I don’t have any for my novel. Which means it’s not going to get done until I do.

I get why my friends in engineering, pharmacy, computer science, and other “less-artsy” fields think that writers are crazy. We’re so neurotic it’s exhausting. “Just do it,” they say. “You care too much about the outcome.” “If you really want to do it,” they tell me, “it won’t be so hard.”

They’re right. Because I’m not writing for anyone else but me. I’m the one with the high standards. I’m the person I’m afraid of disappointing. So I pull out my little notebook with tiny scribbles in the margins, doodles, and fluorescent post-it notes. I go through my list of ideas until something makes me laugh or smile. Then I pull out a notebook, a full-sized one with a bunch of blank, wide-ruled lines, and I get started. Once I’m really going, I’ll pull out my computer if it’s handy. I like to draft in 750words.com because it times me, it tracks me. I get to see exactly what I’m up to before it ends up anywhere else. When I go back through the archives to see what I wrote in April 2015, at the very least, I’ll find this worry-missive about why I can never seem to work without a deadline. I’ve given in to my need for structure and boundaries. Why I’m writing now? I’m on a deadline. But also because it makes me happy.

And that idiom project in elementary school that I agonized over? I turned it in. It was late, sloppy, and I rushed through it. I got a C, something I’m embarrassed about to this day. Whenever I have some creative work looming, I picture that little girl kneeling on the floor over a bunch of blank sheets of paper, wringing her hands, wondering how she could ever manage to get started. Then, I pick up a pen.




The Letdown

I have nothing to write about. I have no idea where to start. I have nothing to say and I’m not sure it matters anyway. Any of it.

These are your thoughts when you’re in an MFA program. Almost daily. After you’ve decided to uproot your life and take the not-so-easy route in life by “chasing your dreams,” as they say. But what happens when your dreams don’t really go the way that you intended them to go? It’s not that this is just a common thread among writers, I think it exists for most people. And those that don’t experience it, well, I hate you. But for the rest of the normal world, what happens when you sacrifice money and time and oftentimes emotional wellbeing to pursue an art that essentially guarantees you nothing in return? It’s like being John Cusack in Say Anything and holding that stereo over your head and making the grand gesture, only to have the girl turn you down and then post pictures of your vulnerability on social media mocking you. It sucks. Most days it sucks.

And then there are days when it sucks less. When you talk to other like-minded people, people who care about writing and reading and helping others and growing intellectually and contributing to the social conversation, moments that make you realize it’s going to pan out. Somehow. I guess the most important thing in adulthood is learning to live with the fact that these moments can be few and far between and you have to survive on the buzz that exists from each one of them until the next happens.

Master’s programs have a strange word they use for classmates, “cohorts.”  I did not know this when I began. I heard it used a few times and just thought it was a coincidence, but it was used in a frequency that I realized must be purposeful. So we have these cohorts. It seems like a friendly term, but all it really means is a group of people with something in common. Okay, yes, we have a common plan to pursue something that we believe we are good at, yet is statistically unlikely to offer us a way of life. Perfect. But what do you do when your cohorts directly influence your craft and your growth? Because that’s what happens in a workshop setting. There is not a more popular (better) way to hone good writing than the workshop method, which means you write (on deadline) and submit it to your small group of peers (cohorts) and they respond (criticize).

This is great in theory. But as a group, just like in life, there are those that don’t see the world the same way that you do, or really see the world at all. How do you reconcile reading and responding to their work when it is clear that writing a journal (diary) would serve them (the world) just as well? And more than that, how do you take their critique seriously? Let me be clear, I am not complaining about dislike of workshop pieces or the quality of submitted work. I am sincerely questioning how a cohort that is working toward the same goal, while coming from such vastly different places of growth, can possibly work together. I want to know. I want to do this right. I don’t want to doubt every single choice that I make. I don’t want to write uninspired. I don’t want to read uninspired. I want things to mean something. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, and I think most writers do, too.

But there’s a disconnect. Somewhere. Somewhere between the excitement of taking a chance on something and the real world practice of taking a chance on something, the disdain hangs in the balance. And yet, people do it and succeed.

There has been a lot of conversation about the value and place in the literary community of MFA programs as of late. Ryan Boudinot wrote a piece that received a lot of passionate feedback about his time teaching at an MFA. While his points may be a touch reductive and harsh at times, what he says is essentially advice for society as a whole: It is what you make it. You get out what you put in. This gives the writer control that you can’t take lightly. Which is why I continue to question the experience and the best way to pursue the value of the education. You read. You write. You read more. You write more. And (hopefully) you become a better citizen of art and of life.

Chicago is a great city for writers. Maybe the best (sorry, New York). But especially for small presses and supporting new writers, this city very literally gets behind any writer that has attended an MFA in the city or publishes with our many small presses. There are readings every night, everywhere just trying to applaud as many writers as we can. But there can’t be enough. And by that I mean, I wonder every day what my voice can add when there are talented writers all around me, all around the world. What will my voice add to the conversation? What stories even matter? Even if these writers are experiencing some modicum of success, even if I get published in The New Yorker, even if Random House pays me a million dollar advance for my novel idea, does it matter? Am I to believe we’re all just producing art for art’s sake, or am I just jaded?

If this experience is truly reliant upon what I make of it, then perhaps the cohort’s responsibility is one that doesn’t involve a cohort at all, but a singular responsibility of each member. If we each continue to strive toward our own meaning, finding it in various ways, then we can each be of value in our own right. Maybe more nights of simultaneously discussing the literary meaning and merit of Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and David Markson’s Vanishing Point will push the conversation into a relevant dissection of where we each fit into the literary conversation. Maybe the buzz from those moments with the fellow readers and writers of the world is just fading. If that’s the case, I’ll have another, please, just keep them coming.




Memory Keeping

In my family, I’m the memory keeper, the ideas person, the one who remembers what colors were on my favorite Christmas sweater, the one that shrunk in the wash. I used to think that everyone had the same memory, and then I realized how wrong I was. No one quite retains our past the way I do.

When I was little, I wanted to do everything my older brothers did, and I wanted to do it better. So I tried to ride their bikes while I still had the training wheels on mine, I tried to wrap my chubby fingers along the lacing of their football, and I read their books before I knew what the words meant. So when I saw them writing, doing their homework, I had to do it, too. Chris and Brian couldn’t just read the words on the page, they could create their own and I needed to know whatever magic they had learned.

After my hovering and lip biting, my mother gave me a large sheet of lined, scratchy handwriting paper, the kind with the blue dotted lines that feels like cardboard and erases with huge smudges, right before the paper rips open. And I got to write. I had a baby blanket covered in teddy bears, with the alphabet stitched together in red and white squares. I reprinted all of those detailed letters, putting that distinct curve at the end of my ls and dotting my is and js.

One day, in the middle of my insistent practicing, I either got sick of the brown paper or maybe my mind drifted, and I was looking for a new canvas to perform on. And there, in the living room, were my parents’ nice white walls.

When my mother caught me, I had written several little es in a tiny section of the wall, by the window. A part of me must have recognized that what I was doing (in pencil), was wrong, because all of the letters were nicely written from behind the thick curtains.

Years later, I made a similar, unintentional mistake, practicing my nerdish penmanship on a clean, adult sheet of college-ruled white paper. With blue permanent marker.

The ink leaked through the thin pages and onto our wooden dining room table. All the commercials for stain cleaners promised me that my scribbling would come out. Decades later, the faded blue marks remain.

***

I get asked a lot what I would like to next, what I would want to do instead, what else I’m good at, if I weren’t writing. But even before I realized that to write could be an occupation, this is always something that I just did. I gladly took up any extra writing assignment just for the fun of it. I read my brothers’ summer reading books, before they did, and afterwards. My quite stunning fall papers surprised my teachers to the point that they were certain that someone else had written my words for me.

I wonder where the words come from. I think it usually starts with a nugget of an idea, and then it gradually develops, one idea after another in a rolling succession. It’s building a tiny house from a set of Lincoln Logs. Everything fits together, you just have to get your pieces in the right order.

I was thinking about words on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when President Obama gave yet another speech, somehow trying to commemorate the day and inspire us all to greatness. I love how language and  a turn of a phrase can beat like your favorite song. But I’m easily swayed by words. I cry at commercials, tiny kittens playing, the end of basketball games. And as the President ramped up to the end of his speech, he placed at everyone’s feet a series of ideas. Ideas that the young version of me couldn’t have imagined. Ideas that were as misshapen and unknown to my tiny mind as the end of the alphabet.

“And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day,” he said. “You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be.

For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there’s new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.”

Sometimes I wonder if what I write is enough. If my words could change the world. Thinking about what’s next, and what I want to be, and what I could do, I scribble notes into an old, worn black notebook. It’s been through several countries with me, and there are only a few pages left. Then, I sent a text to my brothers.

“Do you remember when I stained the table with that blue Sharpie?”

They both respond within minutes: “Vaguely…I have a horrible memory.” “No one remembers that stuff but you.”

What is it about memory that clings to us? My view of the past so informs my present and my future that the idea of making complex decisions, any decision, can seem insurmountable. I hope it’s easier for everyone, for the rest of the memory keepers, but I know it’s not.

“I had an idea,” I told my brothers. “I’ll work it out.”

The latent professor in me wants all of you to produce your best work, to reach for the perfect phrases, to relate a memory that contains your best and your worst.

It takes ages to craft a narrative that you can deliver in minutes. The important part, as all of these writers keep producing and exploring and finding their way, what we want to do at LitroNY, is to allow writers and readers to create and contribute to the literary landscape.

Send on your words. I want to know what you write, how you write it, and what inspires you. Let’s keep the conversation going.