Saturday, September 26, 2015

Write. Recover. Revise.

I’ve been working on the memoir manuscript for the last month despite my ardent desire to work on the lighter, breezier novel manuscript.  I am averaging 6-8 hours of writing, 4 days a week (sometimes more). 

The days when I produce new non-fiction chapters are the most draining.  This is no surprise, but the completeness with which I feel drained does surprise me.  I can sleep 10 hours after writing a new chapter, and I still feel exhausted the next morning.  It takes days for me to recover and start writing new chapters again.  I know my diet isn’t draining me because when I’m writing, I eat crazy healthy.  Ninety percent of what I’ve consumed this month has been raw/sautéed vegetables with clean protein and gluten-free whole grains (e.g., quinoa and buckwheat).

During my recovery days, I revise previously written chapters.  I may revise a chapter 20-50 times over the course of a year before I am okay with it.  Sometimes I’m still not okay with it.   Even the revision process can be taxing when I have to revise a chapter that involves trauma or a painful revelation.  Last week I revised a chapter about a deceased relative.  After I finished, I felt good about the chapter, but I also felt cranky as hell.  I kept wondering why.  I was having a good, productive day.  Then I started smelling that relative’s perfume.  That hadn’t happened in umpteen years! I was unknowingly transported back to all the pain that person caused me, and it didn’t hit until after the revision.

I completely revised the dialogue for a chapter that I wrote and revised a year ago. The chapter is not emotionally difficult, but it is technically and analogically difficult for me.  There’s quite a bit of dialogue and exposition, and I finally feel like both are equally strong.  The over-arching analogy is quotidian, but the significance for the non-fiction characters is anything but.  I want the chapter to unfold in such a way that the reader thinks, Why are they arguing about this little object? Then, much later, perhaps even after the reader is finished reading the book, I want her/him to see that the character that is introduced in the next chapter is not the impetus for change, but that little quotidian object is. 

I’m working on subtly.  Kym Ragusa, one of my professors in grad school, used to tell me not to bludgeon or overwhelm the reader.  My work, like my personality, can be so fucking intense that it overwhelms.  I don’t have a little smile; I have an electric smile.  I don’t have a quiet laugh; I have a bombastic laugh.  I’m learning to ease people into me.  Give a little intensity here and a little intensity there, so when the power needs to be unleashed, the reader can bear it because I’ve trained her/him to anticipate it in my writing style.

When I write trauma chapters, I handle each word with kid gloves.  Also, I never type trauma chapters (as opposed to writing about the events in my journal) unless:  
  1.  I have had enough distance from the events;
  2. I have reflected upon the events extensively; and
  3. I feel at peace with the situation. 

There’s a scene between my mother and 30-year-old me where my mother reveals something I always knew but never wanted to believe.  This chapter bleeds with tenderness.  When I read that chapter, I don’t even recognize myself.  It was not written by Scrapper Angèle who has busted her ass to get to this creative/emotional place but by Spiritually-Rooted Angèle who is still fairly new to me (i.e., She’s only about 9 years old. I started meditating and gradually changing my eating habits 9 years ago).  Scrapper Angèle is a relentlessly honest fucker.  She temporarily took up jogging after her mother’s revelation.  This was an alternative to cursing her mother out and punching her fists through walls.  In the years after my mother’s revelation, Scrapper Angèle wrote journal entries that were so scathing and frenzied that she occasionally tore through the page with her pen.  Scrapper Angèle vented and kicked her legs in therapy like a petulant child.  Who the fuck says that to her daughter! she once yelled to her therapist.  And thank God she did all the drudge work.

Had Scrapper Angèle not processed through that rage, she could not hand over the experience to Spiritually-Rooted Angèle to make of it a tender narrative.  Spiritually-Rooted Angèle took the experience, meditated on it and contemplated it as she drank her green juice and green smoothies.  She evaluated hundreds of sweet, little everyday experiences and choose one that she could juxtapose with the painful one, all so the reader wouldn’t feel bludgeoned or overwhelmed.  Who knew dissociation could come in so handy?

Friday, September 11, 2015

Notes on The Book of Night Women

Marlon James won the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for The Book of Night Women.  However, many of the reader reviews I read were greatly disparate.  People either loved or hated this novel—there was no in between.  Sometimes this is a good sign, so I went to the library to check out the book.

I re-read Chapter 1 three times (another good sign) because: 1) the narrative voice is written in patois, and it took effort for my American mind to adjust; 2) the content is hauntingly powerful, and it took effort for my mind to adjust; and 3) James inundates the reader with such depth of imagery, plot and character development that the reader is thrust head first into the world of Montpellier Plantation and 18th/19th Century Jamaica.

After the third read of Chapter 1, I looked up from James’s book and thought: Where am I?  What is it?  I love that feeling!  That’s how it should be when you’re reading a book—like falling in love.  I was sitting on the patio of a coffee shop on a sunny morning.  It was a Saturday.  I was not a slave girl on a Jamaican sugar plantation.  I was not longing for a mother who was not my mother, as Lilith, James’s protagonist, is.   I also remember thinking: I have to finish this book, but reading this patois is wearing me out!  Indeed, the patois narrative voice was a consistent complaint in the negative reader reviews.

Writing in a non-mainstream narrative voice is always a gamble because…well, readers seem to think it’s impolite.  It distorts the power dynamic between the reader, the author and the book.  Readers read because they want to be told a story (My use of passive voice is purposeful.).  The average reader wants to passively be taken away by the story (and, in effect, by the author) to a kinder, gentler place.  To catapult the reader into, for instance, the South and a southern drawl, as Mark Twain does in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is to infringe on the reader’s comfort level and force him/her to view the world through the narrator’s eyes.  This process, when done well, cannot display a kinder, gentler world because the narrator becomes real to the reader, and real people exist in a world that is often mean and abrasive.  A strong narrative voice is rarely a mainstream one.  Because Twain understood this, he is revered as a master of narrative voice.  With The Book of Night Women, Marlon James has also earns the reverence of narrative voice master.

I bought the audio recording of The Book of Night Women and this allowed me to experience the book with ease.  James does not over-simplify plantation life and black-white relationships the way Kathleen Grissom does in The Kitchen House.  He demonstrates the racism and dehumanization of slavery and allows readers to see how these factors were integral to white dominance and the country’s economy.  Through the experiences of his characters, readers have the chance to understand that slavery, with all its racism and dehumanization, destroys black people and white people, though in drastically different ways.  As expected, this novel changed my life.  This is another book that is so raw, so true that it gives me permission to be raw and true in my own work.

We may read books of literature, in part, because we want to escape, but we also read books of literature because we want to somehow change for having read them.  Each day that I played The Book of Night Women in my car, I experienced the full spectrum of human emotion.  Strangers in vehicles beside mine witness me yelling, crying, laughing, and covering my mouth in utter disbelief.  For the rest of my life I will remember Lilith, and the Johnny-Jumpers, and Homer, and Quinn, and the revolt, and the blood, and the sheer power of Marlon James’s writing.

My 3C’s rating is as follows:

Competent Writing: 4
James’s writing is lyrical and exceptional.  I place this book in the company of Anna Karenina, Beloved, The Famished Road, Revolutionary Road and Sula.

Character Development: 4
James’s character development is outstanding.  The female characters love, kill, seduce and fight for freedom.  The male characters are equally strong.  Even the secondary and tertiary characters are completely believable.

Content: 4
The plot is enthralling.  Gotta love a slave revolt!  James’s tone is urgent and authoritative, yet he unfolds details in such a way that you never feel that your intelligence is being insulted.  You trust that you will be surprised and frightened and overwhelmed and calmed and then the emotional roller coaster starts all over again.  There are so many themes in this book!  Familial relationships, same-sex platonic relationships, black-white dynamics (platonic and sexual), black femininity and masculinity, white femininity and masculinity, sexuality, power and dominance, slavery, race, gender, interracial relationships, economics.  I could go on all day!

Total 3C’s Score: 12/12

This is one of the most exceptional books I’ve ever read!  I recommend The Book of Night Women for writers, Intellectual Readers, Casual Literary Readers, Elitist Literary Readers.  I think it should be required reading in high schools and college African-American studies classes, Caribbean studies classes, literature classes and women studies classes.  

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Lessons from Tropic of Capricorn

Tropic of Capricorn is one of the books that changed the way I looked at literature.  I read it back in 2012.  Tropic of Capricorn is a fictionalized account of Henry Miller’s life.  Although the book was published in Paris in 1939, it was banned in the U.S. until 1961.  That’s how I came to read the book.  I was curious as to why it had been banned.  Why were the reviews I’d read so polarized?  People either adore the book or abhor it.  Well, now I understand. 

The main protagonist is, quite simply, loathsome.  He’s a white male who cheats on his wife and resents marriage, fatherhood and humanity in general.  You can’t get a more unsympathetic, unlikeable character than Henry Miller.  I hate this fucker!  The fact that Miller named the fictional character after himself only annoys me more.  He, the character and quite likely the author, is a dick wad, a ho, a racist fuck, a sexist douchbag! 

Despite this, I was (and am) riveted by this book!  I cursed myself for reading it.  I’m pretty sure my moral IQ dropped to zero just by allowing Miller’s words to enter my retinas and transmit signals to my brain, yet when I left the book to sleep or work, I could think of nothing else.  I dreamt about the Western Union shop.  I kept wondering, Why can’t I stop reading this damn book?  Even after I finished Topic of Capricorn, all I could think about was Henry Miller and the contempt he projected.  He’s such a fuckhead that I hate the secondary and tertiary characters in the book because they associate/have sex with him.  How can anyone say those things about black people?  And how can a person have sex with so many women…while he had a wife and baby at home, no less?  His poor wife!  That poor baby!  I mean, if you want to stick your dick into any remotely-moist hole you can find, why get married in the first place? 

I rolled this book over in my head for days after I had finished it, and finally, I understood why I felt consumed by and finished a book that I hate (yes, hate).  I don’t need to like a book.  I don’t need to like its plot.  I don’t even need to like its characters, but I do need to read books that stimulate my mind even if they push my buttons and piss me off, and I need to feel passionately about whatever book I read.    

I passionately hate Henry Miller.  I passionately hate damn near everything he does in the book.  I passionately hate (almost) everything he represents, except one thing—the thing that makes this book so pivotal in my reading life and my life as a writer—honesty.  This book affirmed that I have the right to be honest in my work, brutally honest if I choose.  Miller is honest as a motherfuck!  Dude don’t like black people.  He don’t like women or their tendency to love and hold those they love close.  I don’t think he likes anyone, but he loves hisself some pussy, and he loves writing, and there you have it. 

The protagonist (or antagonist depending on how you look at it) doesn’t want to lie about who he is any more (Who the hell can’t relate to that?).  The central conflict of this book is man versus society.  Henry Miller (racist, sexist, whore extraordinaire) versus a wife who wants him to be loyal and make good money so that she and the baby can have a comfortable life; versus a job that he hates; versus black people in general; versus women in general; versus an entire nation that tells him to pretend that he wants the wife (and no other women), the kid, the job, racial equality, and gender equality.  On the one hand, you could say Henry Miller’s acceptance of himself is a coup; on the other, you could say it’s a failure for social equity.  Some reviewers espouse that Miller has a spiritual awaking by book’s end.  I need y’all to stop!  Ain’t nothing spiritual about this fool!  He has a penial awakening and a literary awakening, but that’s it.  I do think this book offers a great analysis of maleness and whiteness in America.  Tropic of Capricorn is Miller’s ode to base-level, low-brow white-American masculinity.  Miller is every feminists’ worst nightmare.  He’s the Paul Gauguin of American literature.  He’s the literary white-American P.I.M.P.!   

As for the 3C’s, I rate this book as follows:

Competent Writing: 2
Miller’s writing style is clipped and utilitarian.  He creates a strong sense of urgency, but his writing style is nothing special, at least not for anyone born after the 1960’s.  I can see how this writing style may have blown people’s minds back then, though.

Character Development: 3
Miller conveys the characters’ actions, motivations and desires well.  I felt vested in the characters and, despite hating them, I believed them.

Content: 3.5
The plot is competent, and his tone is powerful.  The book is definitely multi-thematic.  It addresses: age, gender, race, economics, sense of self, sense of duty or lack thereof, and many more themes.

Total 3C’s Score: 8.5/12  
So yeah, even though I hate this book, I’m recommending it to writers (I know.  I’m somewhat ashamed as well.), but the deal is if you’re gonna write, you gotta be honest.  You gotta write fearlessly, not recklessly, but fearlessly.  You gotta say, Fuck, everybody else and be you (Naturally, this requires you to know who and what you are, which is no easy feat).  If you’re insightful enough to know this already (like know it for real, for real in your core) then there’s no need to read the book.  If you’re scared to bleed on the page like I was in 2012 and all worried that people are gonna think you’re crazy, you should check this book out.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Being Ready

Every writer has a Reader, with a capital R, someone whose literary opinion the writer trusts completely.  My Reader is also a close friend who I met some 12 years ago in a writer’s workshop.

She and I were talking the other day, and I told her that I feel like I can’t write fiction until the memoir is finished.  I told her my fiction was not ready or perhaps I said my fiction wasn’t good enough.  In any case, she said she disagreed.  She said, “You are ready.  It is good enough.  You just need to finish it.”  Sometimes you just need a champion.

I’ve been working these last few months on fiction and non-fiction.  I’ve been alternating between developing a detailed outline of a novel (I’ve devoted 72 hours to that task, and I’m still not done.) and drafting chapters for a memoir.  Lately, the memoir has been more demanding and unyielding, so I give myself to it. 

Funny, I’m reluctant about giving myself to anyone.  I kick and I scream and I push people away, but I willing give myself to creativity.  The last three chapters that I’ve written have been painful…hell every damn chapter has been painful even the light-hearted ones.  After I wrote last Thursday, I felt debilitated for two fucking days.  But I gotta get this done, and I gotta do it well.  I keep telling myself: Be raw.  Be true.  Damn, I wish I had one of those normal childhoods people keep talking about.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Blessing of Solitude

I am blessed with days of solitude.  Some days I am productive, and on ideal days I am even peaceful.  I meditate, go to work, go to the gym, bathe, brush my teeth, floss, shit, piss, cook/watch my husband cook, eat, spend time with my husband, have sex with my husband, read, write, sleep then do it all over again.

I love silence accompanied by the sound of a page being turned or the tapping of the keyboard.  I love the hunger for reading and writing and the satiation.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The 3C’s

Sometimes I read a book that I don’t particularly like.  I kept trying to figure out why this is.  Finally, I realized that I don’t have to like the narrator or even the events that transpire, but I do have to feel passionate about the book.  So what makes me feel passion for a book?  I came up with these three components, which I call the Three C’s.

Competent Writing
On the most fundamental level, a book should be competently written.  We all make grammatical errors or have our grammatical quirks (e.g., I often type you when I mean to type your, and I tend to use lots of em dashes and ellipses), but anyone who knows the basics should be able to get rid of a significant number of errors.  No document is ever perfect, but a writer should aim for perfection by revising over and over again and having other’s critique the work. Words should be spelled properly.  Sentences should make sense.  I can tolerate some awkward sentence structure in a book of published letters or a published diary.  I can even overlook awkward sentences if they rarely occur in a book or magazine, but egregious grammatical errors, comma splices, over-used fragments and runons drive me up the wall.  This is my main issue with self-published ebooks.  I’ve tried a few self-published books/ebooks and I cannot, can-FUCKING-not, get past the overwhelming grammatical errors. 

Sentences should also be diverse, i.e., there should be short sentences and longer sentences.  Occasional passive voice is fine, but most sentences should use active voice.  There should be some dialogue and some exposition (This helps the reader experience the characters, setting and scenes more fully.).  Readers don’t need a lot of bells and whistles, but they do need variety and skill in order to remain engaged.

Lyrical writing is ideal.  By this, I mean the story is so beautifully written that the reader wants to read and re-read whole sentences and paragraphs.  Rhetorical (literary) devices are a writer’s tools.  The most common rhetorical devices are, of course: alliteration, assonance, hyperbole, imagery, metaphor, onomatopoeia, oxymoron, paradox, personification, and simile.  Some exceptionally-written books that come to mind are, e.g., Anna Karenina and Sula.  Tolstoy and Morrison may miss a comma here and there (this could also be their editor’s choice) or they may use fragments to signify speech patterns and/or emotionality, but who cares?  They’re masters!  Some writers use one sentence that takes up the whole damned page, but they punctuate it properly thus avoiding a runon, e.g., “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” by Gabriel García Márquez.  Márquez loves long sentences.

I use the following scale for writing competency:
  1.  Poorly written
  2. Competently written
  3. Well written
  4. Exceptionally written

Character Development
Anybody who’s taken a workshop or a creative writing class has heard one of the following terms: three-dimensional characters, well-rounded characters, complex characters or nuanced characters.  We’ve heard them so many times that they seems cliché, but clichés exist because they’re usually true.  Good characters should feel like real people and real people, no matter how seemingly superficial, are complex and nuanced.

Readers should miss characters when we’re not reading and even after we’ve finished reading their story.  Till this day, I think of Rosie and Jacob Jankowski from Water for Elephants (do I need to qualify and state that I’m referencing the book, not the movie) every time I see a circus advertisement.  Ever since I read “Brownies” in grad school, I think of Snot when I see Girl Scouts selling cookies.  I wonder how she’s doing and if she grew into a young woman who knows how funny and insightful she is.  This doesn’t happen because I ain’t got nothing better to do with my time.  This happens because Sara Gruen and Z.Z. Packer busted their asses to write characters that are so authentic and memorable that they have become part of my consciousness.   

To make a figment of one’s imagination authentic, a writer has to know the character inside and out, know her strengths, insecurities, fears, idiosyncrasies, the best aspects of her personality and the worst aspects.  Is this character heroic or does she not have a backbone?  Is she personality-less?  If so, the plot better force her to develop a personality because no one wants to read about a person who doesn’t know who she is and doesn’t find out who she is by the last page.  Conversely, readers don’t buy it when a simplistic character magically develops a spine, especially in the face of great social opposition.

I use the following scale for character development:
  1. Mediocre
  2. Acceptable
  3. Good
  4. Exceptional

Content
The best stories have a tight plot, clear tone and voice, and they are multi-thematic. 

A tight plot should keep a reader engaged.  It doesn’t have to have explosions, murder or exotic locales.  It simply needs to make sense within the context of the story.  The reader should never think, I don’t buy that. Or That’s wouldn’t happen.  A writers must make them believers.  This requires that she get her facts straight and do research to make the story believable.  A tight plot does not mean that everything is tied up in a neat bow (in fact, some lose ends make the story more realistic); it simply means that the events make sense even if the sequence is not chronological.  In Daphne DuMaurie’s Rebecca, the book begins with the ending when the 2nd Mrs. deWinter dreams of Manderly and its aggressive vegetation (which, of course, foreshadows the tale).  She and her now fragile husband Maximilian “Maxim” deWinter are traveling away from their ruined estate.  Then the book back tracks to when the 2nd Mrs. deWinter met and married Maxim and how she came to live in the shadow of Rebecca the first Mrs. deWinter.     
  
In speculative fiction, the events are not supposed to make sense on a logical or earthly level, so the writer must create a world where implausible events are plausible.  She does this, in large part, by establishing authority in her tone (the way she writes or the writer’s attitude toward the story) and her narrative voice (1st, 2nd, 3rd person/close or distant omniscience/reliable or unreliable narrators).  In Kindred, Octavia Butler’s tone does not pull any punches.  She’s not trying to ease the reader into the story.  She opens with trauma and love.  Dana inexplicably comes through a hole in the wall with part of her arm torn off.  Dana’s husband Kevin takes her to the hospital where Dana undergoes surgery and Kevin is arrested for domestic violence.  There’s no reason readers should believe that a magical hole ripped off a woman’s arm, but we can believe that the police would immediately arrest a black man who brought his mutilated wife into the emergency room.  By creating complex, nuanced characters and incorporating historical research, Butler establishes her authority and creates a fantastical, spell-binding plot.  Kindred is written in 1st person narrative voice, so readers experience the events through Dana’s eyes as she goes back and forth through this hole from the 1970’s to the 1800’s.  We stick with Butler through the trauma of slavery and violence and through the love because we trust her.

Whether it’s a novel or a short story, the narrative should incorporate multiple themes.  Commercial writers usually approach secondary, tertiary and quaternary themes the way tweens approach kissing—surface level only and no tongue.  They may go in depth with the central theme, but that’s it.  Literary writers go deep on several themes, and they use that tongue like a damn probing device. Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” addresses otherness within the immigrant/1st generation American experience, gender communication styles, personal isolation, hope and disenchantment, graduate school, life in Boston, and I’m only scraping the surface.  A novel or short story that effectively evaluates multi-thematic content keeps sharp readers engaged and keeps them coming back for more.

I use the following scale for how an author handles content:
  1.  Mediocre
  2. Acceptable
  3. Good
  4. Exceptional

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Beautiful Ideals

Below is a quote from Toni Morrison explaining the title of her book Home:
Nobody is out to get you at home... When someone says home...it’s something very special... Everybody doesn’t like you in your home.  Some people really dislike you in your home.  But no one is gonna hurt you.  Everyone is gonna help you whether they like you or not (“Toni Morrison | ‘Home’ Authors at Google”).

Such beautiful ideals.  The concept of home has never elicited a feeling of emotional safety for me.  Perhaps that’s why I enjoy this book so much—despite the atrocities Frank Money and Cee experience, they lead each other to those beautiful ideals.



Monday, June 15, 2015

I Am Gluttonous and Obsessive About Writing

If my creativity were a real man, people would think I was in an abusive relationship.  They’d conduct an intervention and ask me why he won’t let me out more often or why I tolerate his controlling nature.  I would say the same tired shit people in abusive relationships always say, You just don’t understandI can’t live without him.  Or When things are good, they’re really good, but when things are bad, they’re miserable.  The mere fact that I personify writing/ creativity as my lover demonstrates an unhealthy attachment.

Kadampa Buddhism defines attachment as a deluded mental factor that observes a contaminated object, regards it as a cause of happiness and wishes for it.  Non-attachment is the opposite of this.  It is a clear mental factor that observes an object as a mere object and regards it as nothing more or less.  The 14th Dalai Lama states that, Attachment is the origin, the root, of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering.  Non-attachment is sort of a Buddhist take on the adage, If you love someone, let him go

I love my husband.  I love talking to him.  I love his touch, his kisses, his body, his intelligence, and his sense of humor, but I’ve learned that the sky will not fall if we are apart.  When I go away on a writing retreat or he goes away for a dudes-only vacay, I know we’ll be a’ight.  Someday (hopefully in the far, distant future) one of us will die and leave the other behind, and life for the survivor will not end.  It may be painful, but it will continue. 

I do not feel this serene non-attachment toward writing.

I am gluttonous and obsessive about writing.  I overdose on him one minute and reject him the next, but there is never moment when I am not thinking about him, not desperate for him.  I truly believe I am nothing without him.  I often tell God I’d rather die than not be the writer I want to be.  Note the conditional nature of that prayer.  All the power and potential contained within me, and I pray for death in lieu of perceived failure.  How insane is that?!

For the last few months, I’ve been pretending that I do not know something that I do know: writing is my secondary purpose.  (As I type these words, my eyes fill with water.  It hurts to write those words.  Writing makes things more real for me.  It hurts to put writing second.)  My primary purpose is not unique.  I believe it is the same primary purpose for everyone: to know God—or if you don’t like that word/concept/being—to know divinity, to know the universe, to know the connectedness of all that exists.  I believe our secondary purpose is a path that allows us to attain our primary purpose.  For some people, their children are their secondary purpose, or a significant other or their careers.  They/He/She/It have/has the power to fill us with joy and the power to break us.  In the course of these relationships, we will inevitably feel joy and be broken.  We are so attached to our secondary purpose that we feel certain we will die without them/he/she/it, but we won’t because the secondary purpose is still secondary.  It is contingent on the primary purpose.  It cannot exist without the primary purpose.

I am so immensely flawed.  I’m egotistical.  I curse too much.  I’m capricious and aloof.  There are also wonderful things about me—I’m kind, loyal, giving, sacrificial and empathetic.  My creativity doesn’t give a damn about my attributes or foibles.  It accepts me as I am.  It’s there for me on my best days and my shittiest days…then again all of this is true about my relationship with God. 

I keep notes in the QuickMemo app on my phone.  I had the following Bible verses listed together: Luke 9:23, Matthew 16:24 and Mark 8:34.  I looked these verses up, and they all stated the same quote from Jesus: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”

So this is what I must do in the next phase of my life:
  1. Deny myself.  Or as Buddhists say, burn the ego.  And, Lord knows, my creativity is so contaminated with my ego it ain’t even funny.
  2. Carry the cross of my trauma and accept that sometimes it will be a back-breaking wooden cross and other times it will be an iridescent dragonfly resting on my shoulder.  
  3. Release all attachment to creativity (i.e., the gluttony and the obsession).  Learn to love it and let it go.  It is secondary.
  4. Be clear on my primary purpose.  Put God (i.e., divinity, the universe, all that exists) first.
Just looking at that list stresses me the hell out!  How am I supposed to pull this off?  I’d rather tackle something easier, like the national debt.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

When There’s Numbness Inside, We Can’t See the Beauty Outside

I seem to write in three-month intervals.  I will have a period of high productivity followed by a period of little to no productivity.  When I am productive, the world is filled with radiance.  I feel as if my body is receiving pulse signals for everything around me.  When I am not productive, I feel indifferent and sometimes down-right numb.  This is not good for my relationships.  During these periods, I can look at my husband, hell, I can look at myself in the mirror and feel nothing.  When there’s numbness inside, we can’t see the beauty outside.  If I go too long without writing, I feel like I’m smothering. 

This is not a new revelation.  Perhaps I just like to pretend that I have amnesia…or perhaps I like pretending that I’m normal and don’t need writing to get through life.  I’d love to be one of those people who busies themselves to the point of obliviousness, those people who lack introspection but don’t know it, one of those people who don’t see their mental/emotional patterns.  If I were that kind of person, I could just pretend to be baffled by the indifference and numbness.  I could have a child I don’t want, and years from now I could wonder why my relationship with my poor, unassuming daughter/son is so strained.  I could become addicted to drugs or become an alcoholic and wonder what I’m trying to escape.  I could cheat on my husband and tell myself I don’t know how this happened.  But I cannot and will not do these things.  I don’t allow myself to reside in lies, at least not long enough to do irreparable damage.  Besides, I promised God that I would never destroy myself or others.  Those are weighty promises, but a promise is sacred. 

I cannot separate the sanctity of writing from the sanctity of God.  That’s a good thing because I sort of like destruction.  I like closing myself off sometimes.  I like wrapping my hands around the throat of my creativity and squeezing the life from him.  Who the hell is he to mean so much to me?  Who is he to make me feel like I will die without him?  But then I remember the sanctity of writing, and I don’t destroy him.  I don’t destroy myself.  I write.  I see the radiance.  I remember who I am.  I remember my husband and all the beauty. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Trends, Book Sales and Literary Aesthetics

I am re-reading Silences by Tillie Olsen.  There is a section where she describes Thomas Hardy shutting down creatively after the vitriol that followed the publications of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure.  In the 1890’s, books were often broken into sections and published in magazines or journals as serials, similar to the concept of television series today.  Readers read the book, say, three or five chapters at a time then had to wait for the next issue of the journal to continue reading the story.  If the serialized publication was well received, the story would likely be released in book form. 

Using quotes from The Life of Thomas Hardy, which includes Hardy’s writings in notebooks and letters, Olsen recounts this situation: The editor of The Graphic (the newspaper where Tess was serialized in 1891) was worried that readers would take offense to a flood scene.  In the original scene, Hardy wrote that Angel Clare (a male character) carries “Tess and her three dairymaid companions” in his arms across the flooded lane.  The editor “suggested that it would be more decorous and suitable for…a periodical intended for family reading if the damsels were wheeled across the land in a wheelbarrow.”

That is the level of censorship Hardy and other writers of the 19th century had to endure.  Men and women were not supposed to touch in the Victorian Era unless they were married or related and even then they weren’t supposed to touch in public.  Imagine the response Hardy received when Alec rapes Tess, and Tess delivers Alec’s child!  But this is what blows my mind even more: The Graphic seemed to be one of the progressive newspapers of the day.  Between 1889 and 1890, Hardy sent Tess to Murray’s Magazine, which rejected the novel “on the score of its improper explicitness.”

This helps me put present-day publication processes in perspective.  Censorship of one kind or another is inherent to publication.  In 1891, censorship took the form of strict moral, gender and racial codes in Britain and the U.S. (and any country for that fact).  Not only were there restrictions placed on male/female interactions in art, people of color had no literary voice.  By the 1890’s, U.S. slavery had ended (i.e., in the de jure sense), thus there was no longer a market for slave or free-negro narratives.  Whereas W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington were publishing much-needed texts on racial/social reform during that time, there weren’t any books of fiction (as far as I have researched) published by black people or people of color who were open about their race.  Most Harlem Renaissance luminaries were infants in the 1890’s or not yet born, e.g., Claude McKay was born in 1889, Zora Neal Hurston in 1891, Langston Hughes in 1901.  They wouldn’t have the opportunity to get their work out into the world until the 1920’s although McKay released poetry collections in 1912.

Today’s western publishing world is obstructed less by censorship and more by gatekeeping, which takes the form of trends, book sales and editor/publisher’s literary aesthetics.  Sex is and has always been trendy even if only in suggestive form.  This is in part because the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.  We’re making up for centuries of sexual repression.  Vampires, speculative fiction, female murders/heroines/submissives are also trendy in the U.S. now.  Trends translate into book sales, and for mainstream editors and publishers, it’s all about book sales. 

Literary editors and publishers are more interested in craft and narrative, but they succumb to trends as well.  White-lit is, always has been and always will be, trending; whereas, people of color who write in any genre are usually considered trendy by a small sub-group.  For example, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, racial identity/empowerment writers were trendy.  Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gabriel García Márquez, and Ntozake Shange all had books out.  Some writers who hit the scene in the 1970’s continued to produce in the 1980’s, e.g., Davis, Lorde, Sandra Cisneros, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison.  In the 1990’s, African-American writers were covering so many themes that they weren’t just a trendy sub-group—they established somewhat of a cross-over niche.  Walker and Morrison were not only literary, they were also mainstream.  Terry McMillian no longer appealed to black women alone, white women were loving her too.  Eric Jerome Dickey had straight readers and gay readers; he crossed racial lines as well.  

Today editors and publishers are looking for trendy sub-group writers who have cross-over appeal.  The sentiment seems to be: The wider the readership, the higher the book sales and profits.  Ethnic-lit (i.e., books by writers who have immigrated to the U.S. or whose parents immigrated to the U.S.) is a perfect example of this, e.g., Americanah, The Book of Unknown Americans, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, etc.  The white- and black-American experiences don’t adequately address the breadth of immigrant/first-gen experiences, yet people from different nationalities read these books.

Regardless of trends and publication gatekeeping, writers, i.e., writers who are and aspire to be artists, have an obligation.  As Junot Díaz said, “Artists are fundamentally attracted to the things that no one is trying to deal with.  That’s what art’s nature is… it immediately goes for an absence.”

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Balanced State of Mind

I ate eight full ounces of ice cream yesterday.  Ice cream is one of my toxic foods, i.e., food I eat when I am sad and doing my damnedest to repress it.  These foods include, but are not limited to: cake, cookies, donuts, pizza, milk chocolate, alcohol—anything that’s high sugar, high wheat and/or high dairy.  I know better than to consume these things.  My constitution is quite sensitive (e.g., I’m allergic to wheat, and I get drunk after two beers), and I always feel like shit afterward.  I feel constipated and congested and my mood plummets.  I also know that repressing emotions only exacerbates them, but as I’ve said before, sometimes I just like to fuck things up.

I tell myself: I’m fine with rejectionI’m used to it by nowPublication doesn’t matterThere are more important things in life than being a published writer.  But to some degree, I’m just bullshitting myself.  I’m sad and depressed, and I want a level of comfort that no outside force can give me.  Sure, I’m balanced-on-a-razor’s-edge depressed most days of my life, but after a rejection (sometimes weeks after a rejection), I enter the realm of self-acknowledged depressed.  Here’s the distinction.

Balanced-on-a-razor’s-edge depressed means I’ve been meditating four plus times weekly, taking my Ayurvedic supplements consistently to balance out my serotonin and other hormones, kinda-sorta-half-assed eating healthy, writing (even if it’s just journaling), and exercising an average of once a week.  If I meditate and exercise more and eat better, I can elevate myself to a balanced state of mind.

Self-acknowledged depressed means I just don’t give a fuck about one of the vital components mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Perhaps I only meditated twice that week or I skipped my supplements.  Perhaps I haven’t been writing or exercising.  Perhaps I ate ice cream or drank alcohol (even if it’s just eight ounces).  I end up vegging out on the couch, trying to calculate the exact moment when I failed myself and God.  Note to reader: I am the first to admit that I’m dramatic as hell.

So, I gotta pump the brakes; otherwise, I’ll eat cake or some other toxic food then I’ll skip the gym and meditation, and I’ll be in full-throttle motherfucking depression within two days.  I forced myself to make lunch this morning when I really wanted to sleep late and go out for fast food on my lunch break.  On my commute to work and throughout the day, I repeated over and over again:  I will go to the gym after workI will work out.  Yeah, I went to the fucking gym.

I want to throw a tantrum and lick my wounds for the next month, but I have to woman-up.  When I’m hurt, I have to try harder, become even more regimented.  I have to plan my meals, go grocery shopping and cook consistently.  Fuck, I hate domesticity!  But I have to do it.  My husband and I both cook about twice a week, but I have to do more.  He can eat and drink whatever he wants and is a balanced as all get out.  This is not the case for me. 

I have to exercise twice a week at a minimum, ideally more.  I have to read more.  This calms me.  I can work the shit out of a treadmill when I have a good audiobook playing.  I have to meditate and not miss my supplements.  I have to write even if I feel like a loser.  I have to fight for a balanced state of mine every day, or I won’t write.  And I have to write.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Death Plan

I am a pathological planner.  I don’t breathe without thinking about one of my goals.  I set daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, yearly goals, three-year goals, five-year goals, ten-year goals and life goals.  One of my life goals is more of a death goal.  Yes, I have planned my death.

When I die, I will be old, frail and grey-haired.  I will be in a warm, lush, humid climate.  The only sounds I will hear will be the sounds of nature all around me.  From my window, I will see massive trees with massive leaves, perhaps even some birds and snakes.  There will be an abundance of sunlight.  The room will be radiant and golden.  I will live near water.  I will have sat beside a river or an ocean that very day and felt the power of its presence.  I will be blissfully alone.  If necessary, I will demand solitude.  I’m fine with people being in the house as long as they fuck off and give me peace and quiet.  I will lie in a comfortable bed, and I will glance at a stack of books and scripts.  I will have them stacked near the window where I can see them because I will know that I am living my final days.  When I draw my final breath, I will glance over at that stack, at all the worlds I created.  I will thank God, feel the pain of my body shutting down and I will go on my way. 

More than any other plan, this plan gives me fortitude, and it always makes me smile.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Four Categories of Readers

People love to share a good book.  It’s as if a book hasn’t served its full purpose until we discuss it with someone.  But what constitutes a good book?  Is it the number of readers?  Positive reviews?  Whether or not the book has been optioned as a movie?

For many of us, a good book is not so much determined by the book itself as much as our personal opinion.  For example, I have some friends who think Fifty Shades of Grey is a good book but don’t like Beloved; other friends love Beloved and hate Fifty Shades of Grey.  From the reader’s vantage point, it’s all a matter of personal taste. 

Since readers play a huge role in the success or failure of a book, I’ve categorized readers based on my own empirical research, i.e., personal convos and eavesdropping because I’m nosy as hell.

Casual Readers
Casual readers read for escape and/or so they can keep up with the buzz.  These readers may also prefer self-help books and autobiographies written (or ghost written) by celebrities/famous people whom they are interested.  Casual readers may read rarely to regularly.  Those who read rarely do so either because they’re helluv busy or because they don’t know what to read or both. When they read, they usually read commercial books that are featured, not necessarily reviewed, on popular television shows (e.g., Good Morning America, The View, Super Soul Sunday) or in normal-people magazines (e.g., People, Essence, GQ).  These readers may or may not own a library card.  They love the convenience of Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and they often buy non-literary gifts while they shop for books.  If they have a tablet, they tend to use it more for playing games, streaming movies, typing emails or surfing the Internet than for reading ebooks although they may read quite a few ebooks.  They may read poetry when they are in the process of falling in love, drafting wedding vows or when someone has died, but even then, they read poetry that is universal and accessible, poetry that doesn’t have many quadrisyllabic words or extended, enigmatic metaphors. 

Intellectual Readers
Intellectual readers read often to regularly, and they read for the purpose of erudition.  They have a library card or a student I.D. that may functions as a library card.  They may also have a rewards card at a bookstore (local or national corporation is inconsequential to them), and/or they upload books/journals to their ebook library.  Intellectual Readers may eschew tablets as reading devices because they like to annotate what they read.  Conversely, they may keep intricate mental maps of what they read, so tablets maybe the ideal medium for them because they don’t have to carry so many books around.  These readers know the difference between a National Geographic article and an article that is published in a peer-reviewed journal (e.g., New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry).  As for poetry, they’re probably not into it unless they’re a lit/writing major or a person who always wanted to be a lit/writing major.  They may occasionally venture into the realm of fiction or read literature for escape.  If they do, they prefer fiction (commercial or literary) that relates to their intellectual interests and/or fiction that is intellectually dense.  They prefer non-fiction, either in the form of historical, political, religious, social, scientific non-fiction, etc. 

Casual Literary Readers
Casual literary readers read regularly to obsessively.  They often source new books by checking The New York Times Best Seller’s list, the Indie Bestseller’s list, as well as Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, Orange Prize shortlists and winners, etc.  These readers can name at least three plus recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature. They categorize books something like this: 1. literature (fiction and poetry); 2. popular fiction/non-fiction (including YA and memoir); 3. easy-reads.  They have little patience for any book that’s not competently-written and well-structured with decent character development.  They’ve read books from 19th, 20th and 21st century writers, but they’re not elitist.  They are open to reading commercial and self-published writer, and they are more than willing to read books that have dragons, hot vampires, espionage, and spicy love scenes.  Casual literary readers do not go to bed without reading even if they only read for 30 minutes.  They may or may not read poetry regularly, but they studied the greats (e.g., Shakespeare, Bradstreet, Hughes) and cared enough to retain some information about them.  They buy books and/or visit the library several times a month.  Although they think it’s a shame that Barnes & Noble and Amazon are taking business away from local bookstores, they love a good deal on books, so they often shop there. Casual literary readers often regard reading as a ritualistic process, e.g., they prefer to read with a cup of their favorite tea, or they may adore the smell of books.  Those who fall into the latter category often think tablets are unnatural and disruptive to the literary form.  But the average casual literary reader is just fine with tablets. 

Elitist Literary Readers
Elitist literary readers read obsessively.  If they don’t love short stories, poetry and essays, they respect the genres thus they read literary journals, i.e., high-ranking literary journals (e.g., Ploughshares, Tin House, Granta).  Elitist literary readers prefer fiction and poetry that is complex and enigmatic.  Quadrisyllabic words are child’s play for these readers.  They like the challenge of experimental writing.  They love getting into a writer’s head.  In fact, they’ve probably read the published letters, daries or biographies of their favorite 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th century authors…and they took notes.  Elitist literary readers only read literary works unless they are duped, getting paid to write a review about a commercial fiction book or pacifying their kids/grandkids or a less enlightened love interests.  They prefer newspapers/magazine that employ award-winning journalists and/or have a reputation for superior writing (e.g., The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post).  They may read normal-people magazines, but if they do, it’s on rare occasion and possibly under duress.  They likely hold a position that has something to do with books, reading and education.  They may even be editor or board members on literary committees, or they write for respected newspapers/magazines/journals.  They may even volunteer/speak at book/writer’s conference.  Elitist literary readers dig conferences or, at the very least, respect their place in the literary world. 

Elitist literary readers root for shortlisted writers like normal folks root for football teams.  They know what’s up with the major American literary awards and the Man Booker and Prix Goncourt. They can name ten plus recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature and have probably read multiple works by these authors.  The same is true for recipients of MacAuthur Fellowships.  Elitist literary readers may think tablets, computers and the Internet are levels of Hades and may not even trust electronic typewriters.  There are, however, some elitist literary readers who are techies and read on any platform that’s available.  If they are well off, they may go to the library for philanthropic functions and donate handsomely.  If they are living off a normal income or if they are poor, they go to the library regularly and utilized the inter-library system to get relevant texts, but if they really love a book, they’ll pay any price for it.  They may even volunteer at their local bookstore or take children to the children’s reading hour at their local bookstore.  Gotta start ’em early.  Elitist literary readers more than likely think Barnes & Noble and Amazon are the spawns of Satan.  They blame them for the demise of local bookstores.  For elitist literary readers, literature is not only about supporting high literature, it’s about securing a high literary community for generations to come.

Depending on when you catch me, I fit into all these reader categories.  I read broadly.  I prefer books to ebooks, I can’t imagine life without the Internet, and I shop local and corporate.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Rejection Hurts Like a Motherfuck

Last week I got yet another rejection from a literary journal.  As always, I felt sad, frustrated and disappointed.  To some degree, I thought, Ni modo!  I have so many rejections I could wallpaper my bedroom.  Whereas I know rejection is par for the course, it still hurts like a motherfuck.

I believe our emotions can be categorized under two primary emotions: fear and peace.  Love, joy, contentment, bliss and all those pleasant emotions fall within the spectrum of peace.  Sadness, frustration, disappointment, even anger, fall within the spectrum of fear.  Fear is the unshakable emotion I feel every day when I get dressed to go to work.  Of course, on the day-to-day, the feeling of fear is a whisper.  What if this really is my life? she asks. What if I never become the writer I want to become?  When I get a rejection, the fear is bold and persistent.  I stopped crying over rejections about six rejections ago, but the internal fear-speak still remains.  This is it, she asserts.  I’m going to die in this pathetic state of existence (Note to reader: She’s a bit histrionic, but she does have a point.).  I keep ripping out the pulpy flesh from my heart and my brain and pummeling it into words only to be told that my work is strong or it received high ranking but I’ve been added to… a waitlist or We just couldn’t find a place for your story at this time.

Since I can only control what I can control, I plot out how I’m going to revise the work.  What do I need to add or take away?  Do I need to scrap the piece all together?  I read different literary journals and try to find my fit, which is no easy task.  I have never fit in anywhere; perhaps my writing is no exception.  But beyond my being weirddifferent, difficult to categorize, there are two major obstacles to my finding a fit.

First, I do not have any prior publications.  Even if I submit a piece that is well-suited for a journal, well-written, well-structured, compelling, and poignant, being unpublished is a glaring strike against me.  I’m too high-risk.  It makes perfect sense when you think about the system of publication or the system of any profession for that matter.  Why hire a teacher, lawyer, janitor who’s never held a job in the field when there’s an over-abundance of experienced professionals from which to choose?  Why not publish the person who’s been published in three or 23 different literary journals when he/she probably has a tighter story and will likely be publishing a book before the unpublished writer will.  Then, when the experienced writer’s book comes out, the journal will likely be mentioned on the copyright page or in the acknowledgements, which will potentially bring more readers to the journal.  There’s also the fact that some major journals and magazine have several writers on contract (e.g., The New Yorker).  So newbie writers may be competing with award-winning and/or famous writers as well as established writers who may not be well-known to mainstream readers but have a solid publication history in the literary world.  What fool would choose the unpublished writer over these writers even if the unpublished writer’s story/essay is good?
 
Second, the themes I choose don’t make people feel warm and fuzzy inside.  My work is graphic and raw and sometimes makes people uncomfortable.  In grad school, one of my professors told me that I sometimes overwhelmed the reader. You have to give them room to recover from the pain, she said.  I always try to balance out my work when I write about abandonment, child neglect, abuse, betrayal, and loss, but perhaps I’m not doing it well enough.  Perhaps I’m too macabre and intense.  Men can be macabre and intense; women are supposed to be cute and likable.  I’m cute, but I’m not necessarily likable.  It’s so hard to tone down a story about a black boy who lives in the projects and experiences violence on a regular basis.  His fucking reality is violent.  Reading about his life is supposed to hurt!  But even when I write about a black woman trying to strengthen her connection with God, this still doesn’t fit either.  The essay I’m referencing is too secular for the spiritual journals and too religious for the literary journals.
 
Then there’s the general obstacle that all unpublished writers of color face: most literary journals are white (i.e., comprised primarily of white editors, interns and readers), so it’s no surprise that most of the writers these journals publish are also white.  White literary journals will never consider me a good fit until 1) I start writing about white people primarily or 2) I get published, and they jump on the bandwagon because I wrote good work that’s already been published.

To some degree it’s human nature to seek out what and who one knows.  The people who staff and read literary journals want to see themselves in the work they read.  People who have publishing power want to help their students, friends and the friends/students of their friends.  Sure they want good work, but there is such a thing as a cultural literary aesthetic.  This pattern of publishing what is familiar and who you know is not unique to white journals.  Black journals, a total of five that exist in the U.S., do the same thing (Note: The numbers are even sparser for Asian/Asian-American, Latino, Native-American literary journals and journals that center around the work of other marginalized populations). 

It’s nice to believe that race has nothing to do with publication, but that’s simply not true.  Even so, of the few black journals that exist, one must deal again with the matter of theme.  Some black intelligentsia abhor stories about poor, slang-talking blacks (i.e., stories that fall into the sub-genre of urban/hip-hop fiction); some black editors/staffers detest stories about bourgie blacks (i.e., They want to show the experience of everyday blacks who are not privileged).  So even though these journals exist for black literary work, one must still figure out his/her fit within the racially-specific literary journals.

Trying to get published exhausts me, but I know myself.  I won’t write for a while then I’ll pull myself up and write some more.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Sacredness of Breath

When I was little and I would get really upset, I would cry with such vehemence that I would hiccup and cough uncontrollably.  It would get so bad that I couldn’t catch my breath.  My head would throb and my body would shake.  That was my cue that I had to find a way to calm down.  I had to stop crying, or I would feel worse.  This pattern lasted into adolescence and young adulthood, although with far less frequency.  Luckily, I have never been one to get upset easily, but when I did get upset, it was miserable.

The impetus for the tears was always different: my mother letting my Labrador out on the side of the road when I was seven because we would have gotten evicted if we kept him; a nightmare about my mother being hit by a train when I was nine; a D on a high-school exam that I felt certain I had aced; a bad break up with my boyfriend when I was 20.  I never knew what I did to calm down after these painful experiences, but now, I know.

I breathed.  If my nose was stopped up, I blew it.  Then I focused all my attention on my breath.  I became aware of which nostril was more congested, and I blew my nose again.  Then I focused on my breath again and noticed that my heart rate calmed and my head ached a little less. I continued in this vein until I was calm.  Such a simple thing, but it’s the most important thing we have—breath.

It took eight years of meditative practice for me to begin to grasp the sacredness of breath.  It’s a magical function that puts everything right.  Sometimes I feel sad because my husband didn’t give me as much time as I think he should have or because a friend hurt my feelings.  Sometimes I think about the abuse I experienced when I was a little girl or my father dying when I was 10, and I feel completely alone in the world, the same way I did when I was a child.  In the midst of crying and hiccupping and coughing, I feel certain that the abysmal pain will never subside and that I will die from the weight of it.  Then I inhale.  It is an otherworldly inhale.  It feels like the abyss inside me is sucking in all the air molecules from the atmosphere, and I feel my Self separate from myself.  I feel the divine me, the Godly me, looking down on the life-fucking-sucks me.  I exhale, and there is this all-encompassing calm.  No matter how hard I try to reclaim the malaise (and I do try to reclaim it because on some level, I am loyal to it; after all, it has been with me since my first memory) I cannot.

Were it not for meditation, I could not write.  Were it not for writing, I could never have survived.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Importance of Date- and Time-Stamping Notes.doc

Every time I add information to my Notes.doc, I included the starting date and time.  When I am in an exceptionally diligent and mindful place, I also include the ending date and time of the entry.  My reason for doing this is simple: I need to track my output and set realistic expectations for myself—all artists do, especially neophyte artists.

When I was teaching, I assumed I wasn’t writing because I was lazy or not dedicated enough.  Then I went on a writing retreat and realized how wrong I was.  For clarity, I use the term writing retreat to mean 7-14 days in a secluded space where one writes about 70-80% of the time and sleeps, eats, exercises, meditates and performs the basic bodily functions the other 30-20% of the time.  On this retreat, I decided to log all creative work with dates and times.  If I did research, I date- and time-stamped it in my Notes.doc.  If I wrote or revised, I date- and time-stamped it in my Notes.doc.  At the end of my two-week retreat, I realized that I was not lazy at all.  I simply need large chunks of undisturbed time to create. 

Any significant research took me a minimum of four hours.  For instance, on that retreat, I researched how shrapnel penetration physically affects the brains of soldiers in the Iraqi War.  Since I am neither a soldier nor a doctor, it took at least an hour for me to educate myself on the proper terminology (e.g., mortars, I.E.D.s, T.B.I.’s, intracranial hemorrhage, parasympathetic nervous system, etc.).  Next, I had to find credible and reliable sources (i.e., actual war videos and peer-reviewed articles) on the topics.  Then I had to read the articles and/or watch the videos and take notes in my Notes.doc.  There was also the matter of emotional exhaustion.  After reading a shitload or articles and watching three videos of soldiers who had been hit by I.E.D.’s and rushed to the nearest I.C.U. for surgery, I was spent.  I ate lunch then shifted to writing for the next four hours just so I could have some emotional breathing room.

In my opinion, a writer needs a block of time to put anything of significance together on the page.  I should state that I usually revise as I go.  I do not move onto the next paragraph until the previous paragraph is tight.  If I come to the end of a page, I re-read and revise the entire page again before I start a new page.  All that to say, I’m slow as a motherfuck when I write.  This is not the case when I am pressed for time.  Under these circumstances, I throw the ideas in my Notes.doc (or in the QuickMemo app on my phone or on scrap paper) with little concern for spelling or outside-reader coherency.  As long as I can connect the points, that’s all I care about since I will go back and revise anyway.  But on that retreat, I was lucky if I had three typed pages of fiction after eight focused hours of writing and revising (not including food and bathroom breaks).

Thanks to date- and time-stamping, I learned that my normal writing pace is four to eight hours.  Now, I am more patient with myself.  When I was teaching and working 16-20 hour days, I learned to let go of the foolish expectation that I could get a significant or even minor amount of writing done during the semester.  It simply was not possible if I wanted to get all my grading done and challenge my students the way I believed they needed to be challenged.  So, I wrote when I could and in the summer when I could be unapologetic about securing my writing time.  Now that I have a normal work day, I write about two to four days a week during a writing stint (but this is the luxury of being a child-free aspiring writer).  Some weeks I don’t write at all.  Hell, some months I don’t write at all then there are periods when I write obsessively.

I often think of people who have children and full-time jobs…hell, even people who have children and no job.  Parenting is a like having a job and a half in and of itself.  It’s not possible for parents to carve out four undisturbed hours of their day every day for writing, not unless they have a househusband/housewife, a saint of a relative or paid help.  I also think about the many published authors who state with such authority that one must write every day.  These authors fascinate me because they seem to disregard the constraints that normal people (i.e., unpublished writers who do not have a househusband/housewife, a saint of a relative or paid help) face.  I subscribe to Alice Walker’s schedule.  She said she sometimes writes for three months then takes a month or two off then starts writing again. 

My advice to fellow-aspiring writers is this:
  1. Date- and time-stamp your research and writing time over the course of a week or two, so you can establish a realistic pace;
  2. Write when you can;
  3. When you have a chunk of writing time, make it sacrosanct and guard it unapologetically.  

Friday, April 3, 2015

Painful Truths

I wish I were writing fiction instead of non-fiction.  More specifically, I wish I were writing a novel instead of a memoir.  It’s far more pleasant to sit with make-believe plots and characters than with painful truths.

With fiction, you can show until the cows come home, provided you write competently and develop characters well.  You don’t have to tell the reader much although all the great novels do quite a bit of telling (e.g., LolitaRevolutionary Road).  The reader is smart and will follow the dramatic arch.  He/she doesn’t need extensive character reflection or internal monologue.  If you like, you can even write characters who never learn their lesson (e.g., Amy Elliot Dunne from Gone Girl).  None of this is true for present-day non-fiction.

With non-fiction, especially memoir, the writer must tell as much as he/she shows, if not more.  The writer must also provide extensive reflection, or the memoir will lack character development.  The memoir writer must also demonstrate that he/she learned something; otherwise, there is no dramatic arch and the reader is left wondering: What makes your life worth reading about?

All writers are emotional excavators to some degree, but when you’re writing a memoir, you don’t get to leave the dig until the final draft is complete.  You are bound to the dig.  You must set up camp as close to the dig as possible.  You cook meals there, eat there, shit there and sleep there.  When you’re writing fiction, you can pack up your characters and plots and walk away from the dig.  Sure you’ll obsess about them just like you would if you were writing a memoir, but, ultimately, those characters—even if they are based on someone in real life—are only as real as you choose to make them.  Fictional characters are not as intrinsically tied to the writer’s sense of self as “characters” in a memoir are.

I’ve been drafting and re-drafting my memoir manuscript for 13 years, and today I hate it.  I hate v1 (version 1).  I hate v2, and I really fucking hate v3.  I hate my laptop, and I hate writing, and I hate words.  I hate that I can only seem to write this memoir in 2- to 4-hour blocks before I am depleted, as opposed to the 8-hour marathons I run when I am writing fiction.  I hate that at this novice phase in my writing life I cannot seem to move forward until I tell this one fucking story about my childhood.  

I hate that my most painful childhood experience was not something like divorce or my parents’ being con-artists.  I hate that I was abused as a child, and that the effects of the abuse affect every facet of my fucking life.  I hate that therapy and prayer didn’t fix me.  They only confirmed what my mother and father always taught me: pain is part of life, and the only way to get through it is to know God and know yourself.  But it is no easy feat to know God or yourself, even if you spend a lifetime trying. I am 39 years old and here is a list of my attempts to understand my childhood, so maybe one fucking day I can know peace:
  • Approximately 21 years of therapy (i.e., counseling, hypnotherapy, Jungian therapy); 
  • 38 years of church-going and prayer (i.e., Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Unity, Unitarian Universalist);
  • Nine years of meditative practicing (i.e., Mahayana Buddhist meditation, Tantric meditation, Siddha Yoga meditation, primordial-sound meditation, and  Kundalini meditation);
  • 28 years of community service (i.e., volunteerism, tutoring, mentoring, outreach, program development, service, and leadership);
  • 25 years of self-reflection and healing via creativity (i.e., drawing, painting, writing, opening myself and purging the pain);
  • 6 years of study in literature and creative writing;
  • 12 years of giving and receiving love from my husband with approximately two of those years devoted to actively sabotaging my relationship with him because sometimes I just want to fuck shit up; and
  • Nine years of half-assed attempts to eat healthy and exercise.  Damn, I want a fucking cookie right now!
And all this work for what?  So, ideally, I can create something that matters to me, something that’s raw and true.  Has any of that work paid off?  Right now, I don’t fucking know.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Notes.docs and the Cosmology of a Character

I stockpile notes for the fiction pieces I will write or finish writing someday.  I settle on a working title and create an e-folder for the piece.  I draft extensive character and plot sketches and save them in a document with this title format: WT Notes (WT=Working Title).  In my Notes.doc, I also include entries on character names and name meanings as well as ideas, scenes and research I have done for the piece. 

Names are immensely important in my fiction as is true in real life.  Names do not merely signify gender; they signify gender expectations, race, class, culture, and the hopes that parents bestow upon their children.  One of my characters is named Vivian.  She possesses a stately beauty, and she is quite spoiled.  Her parents are upper-middle class although they were both born into poverty.  Vivian’s parents are both attractive.  They want the world to know that they and their daughter are special and privileged.  They do not want anyone to perceive Vivian (or them) as ordinary black people.  They raised Vivian to have high expectations for herself and others.  Vivian is expected to “marry well,” i.e., to marry an upper-middle class or upper class man who will take care of her and provide a familiar, if not better, quality of life.  A commonplace name like Stacy or Marie would not do for this character, nor would a unique name like Ta’Nnetta or Zeranipha.

All of these details reflect the ideas that I contemplate in my neophytic attempt to create a world of fiction.  In order to know who Vivian is, I must first know what and who shaped her. Who are her people?  What do they want most for their child?  Did Vivian usually conform to their wishes when she was little, or did she rebel? How did Vivian self-identify as an adolescent?  Did she self-identify, or is she still living in her parent’s shadow?  What does she want most for herself?  I draft scene after scene, so I can find answers to these questions. 

Although most of these scenes end up with strikethroughs (I rarely ever delete scenes from my Notes.doc), drafting scenes helps me make sense of my characters.  I get to play around with Vivian’s environment and learn how she reacts to it.  Is Vivian a worrier, or is she a things-will-work-themselves-out kind of person?  Probably the latter because her mother and father have always taken care of her financial needs.  If this is the case, what would make Vivian lose her shit?  A dint in her new car?  Not likely, but perhaps something that can’t be bought or repaired, something priceless and emotion-based.  This pressure point is the thing that propels her; it is integral to the plot of the story.  I also need to love her.  How else can I ensure that I am challenging her but not breaking her?  If I can’t develop a feeling of love for a character, I don’t write that character.

Once I know who a character is and one or two things that propel him/her, I do focused research.  The truth is I do research from the start, but at the conception phase, my research is somewhat random and may even occur by happenstance.  I may research cities and details that relate to the character’s history, i.e., neighborhoods where my characters are likely to live; schools and educational requirements they need for their careers, etc.  I try to ground the characters in place and time.  Sometimes I’ll be browsing the Internet, and I’ll come across an article or an advertisement that doesn’t interest me in the least, but it would be interesting to one of my characters.  For example, I recently came across an article on how to wash expensive lingerie.  This is something Vivian would know about.  Her lingerie is important to her, and anything that is important to her is going to be expensive.  Naturally, I read the article and added its key points to my Notes.doc.

Focused research is required for any aspect of the character’s life that is technical (e.g., legal, psychological, medical, etc.).  This also extends to secondary or tertiary character(s) who play a significant, even if small, role in the primary character’s life.  In Vivian’s case, I decided that she would be connected to someone who was drafted to a college that was known for sports.  This detail was pivotal in my research on cities.  I had to choose cities that have hard-core college sports teams—teams that win tournaments and produce high-ranking draft picks.  I also needed to learn how college drafts work, how players are ranked for drafts, and what limitations exist for drafting students (i.e., age, grade point average, weight for a given position, etc.).  All this detail goes into my Notes.doc.

This is how I start developing the cosmology of a character.  I’ve never actually completed a manuscript for a novel, but one day I will, and when I do, my Notes.doc will be invaluable.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

My Perfect Trail

I rarely exercise.  I’ll do a workout regimen for three to six months then I won’t do shit for another three to six months.  Interestingly, this is exactly how I approach writing: three to six months on; three to six months off.  Now, I’m in an exercise up-swing phase, and I want to do more hiking.  Since last summer, I’ve gone on about six hikes of varying difficulty.  That isn’t much, but for a sedentary person, one hike a month is a decent start.  Every time I went on a hike, I lamented the best hike I ever took.

A few years ago, my husband and I found a trail that was about 30 minutes outside the city.  It wasn’t too crowded, too easy, or too rigorous.  It had some open areas and some green, shaded areas.  It was perfect!  Somehow I neglected to save the directions, and over time, I forgot the name of the trail.

Last summer I kept trying to find my perfect trail, but I couldn’t.  I kept thinking the trail’s name was bear-something, but there are tons of trails named bear-something.  Exercise and writing are strongly correlated for me.  If I’m writing, you can guarantee I’m exercising and vice versa.  Since I was writing consistently last summer, I wanted to hike, so I could think and flesh out some character development and structural ideas.  Needless to say, I hiked but I did not re-discover my perfect trail.  

Last Saturday I was certain I had found it.  I did my research and had my directions—I was ready!  I headed toward the area at about eight in the morning.  It all looked familiar.  I got so excited, but the moment I pulled into the lot I knew it wasn’t right.  This place charged an admittance fee.  My perfect trail was free and the trailhead had little picnic tables near the parking lot across from the restrooms.  I pulled out my phone and Googled other trails in the vicinity.  I ended up driving around for three and a half damned hours!  I drove to four different trailheads and two different county parks.  I worked myself into a grown-woman pouting fit.  (I secretly love grown-woman pouting fits!)  I was so frustrated and angry with myself for letting my perfect trail slip away.  Today the weather is perfect, I told myself.  Why can’t I go on a hike? Everybody else is hiking

Despite being histrionic and bratty, I’m actually pretty self-reflective.  I know this unhealthy behavior is my M.O.  I set my mind to something, and I am completely inflexible until I get it.  The longer it takes for me to get it, the more obsessive I become.  This is precisely how I have approached publication.  I will send out a short story or essay, and I will be paralyzed until I get a response.  I will cease writing, and I will wait and obsess.  After receiving a response, which to date has always been a rejection, I am not only paralyzed, but I am an emotional fucking wreck.  I berate myself for not being good enough, for not writing enough, for not being committed enough.  Thankfully, I have learned not to remain in this state for long because I also know that I am most effective when I am calm and centered.  The problem is this: I have not been calm or centered for much of my life, so it is easy for me to think myself into a chaotic state.

That afternoon, I meditated and chilled the hell out.  I wrote out everything I could remember about my perfect trail.  I knew I was in the right area, so I wrote that down.  I remembered there were houses nearby and large red rocks, so I wrote that down then went about my day.  I hung out with my boo, got a lil nookie.  Then I remembered that there was a creek that revealed itself after a steep decline on my perfect trail.  I wrote that down and went on doing something else.  Eventually, I remembered the trail name didn’t have anything to do with bears at all.  It had “deer” in the title.  Then a few hours later it came to me: “Deer Canyon.”  I had a trail name and a general area, so I got on the Internet, looked up photos to make sure I had the right trail and sure enough, there it was—nuzzled in the calm and centered corridors of my mind.

The next day it was colder and windier, but still nice.  I drove out and found my perfect trail.  During my hike, I felt so grateful.  I reminded myself to trust myself, to trust my mind, God and my creativity.  Things do not always come to me when I want them, and I need to make peace with this fact.  Luckily, I am learning an important lesson: Everything I want and need is within me.