Calvin & Hobbes – “‘The Writer’s Block’ is one of Calvin’s inventions.”
Post-MFA thesis, I was slumped over, nursing a summer cold, and staring at bare walls when I was seized with a desperate urge to check my e-mail inbox. (Five minutes earlier – I had resisted checking my e-mail inbox.)
I discovered a request to participate in this writing process blog tour from Glendaliz Camacho, my dear VONA sister. Filled with purpose, I raced to my kitchen, nearly tripping over an old sweater. I made myself a mug of rooibos tea and tore the head off of a stale Kit-Kat bar. I mmmm’ed my praise song into the air, then neatly re-wrapped the beheaded bar.
I accept, I typed.
(What if she took it back? What if it was too good to be true?) I accept, I re-typed. Two powerful words.
I accept on behalf of thesis-completers: on the part of all deadline-driven writers who float, lost and confused, once they’ve completed their deadlines. I accept; I’m a Lazybones Maximus Superior. I accept because I’m the kind of person who drops and kisses the ground.
If you’re a writer, don’t wait, don’t hesitate – drop and kiss the ground for your ability to summon words.
Reading Glendaliz’s work tantalizes my senses. She works you in the kitchen scene, over tough conversation at the dinner table, and over smokes in the basement. Before you get the wrong impression – understand that her storytelling about her immigrant Dominican community is profound, shapely, and witty.
Read her, dear friends, read Glendaliz: http://becomenzando.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/my-writing-process-blog-tour/
1) What are you working on?
Beloved writer, John Keene referred me to a Samuel Delany statement — it could be a jinx to write about your work before you’ve completed a draft. Is this true? I don’t know. But, if I go all-in on this belief, then I will know.
First off, I’ve started a queer vampire detective series set in Los Angeles. I’m open to pen name suggestions.
Secondly, I’m polishing up my manuscript of short stories that I used for my thesis. I’d like to gather up my courage to submit to literary journals. I tried to post WANTED: COURAGE TO SUBMIT posters in Prospect Park. The drum circle distracted me. Free posters for courage are now available at Union Square.
Third, my novel…
Fourth, since this is a process-based entry, let me say that I’m working through fear. I’m scared of graduation in the next week – scared that I won’t be able to hack it as a writer without deadlines and a structure. I’m worried I won’t find a paying job. I’m terrified of submitting work. One might say that I’m risk-adverse.
But, I have potential to become the penultimate risk-taker. That’s because I’m the opposite of fearless. (Bottom-feeders – we’re about to go up!) I have many fears, and therefore, when I take a chance, I feel it. Who is a hero if she wasn’t a coward first?
Once upon a time, I chanced sitting in a front-row seat along the first baseline of a LA Dodgers game (a gift from a boss). Every time the bat cracked, I imagined a hairline fracture in my skull, or at least a baseball-sized hole. The grass smelled like summer, and the popcorn-rich heat was a mild, though ultimately ineffective, sedative.
My limbs cramped every time the visiting team’s left-handed 3rd baseman came up (their cleanup man – I can’t remember his name). His line drives angled sharply into the stands. He fouled off like ten balls. Every time it felt like it barely missed me. Be it ninety feet, or five feet. I imagined (not without shame) that Kershaw, a rookie back then, might take it upon himself to dive into the stands should I need to be saved. I didn’t tell the other bystanders anything and kept my eye on the ball.
Anyway, 3rd base guy flied a ball up, up, and it started drifting toward me, slowly, slowly. I lost it in the sun. I closed my eyes and began to pray.
Flashback: I remembered the only time that I’d ever caught a ball in a high school softball game. Coach stuck me in right field, figuring that I’d do the least damage there. A ball shot up, just like now, and it was a night game so the flood flights were full bore in my eyes. I drifted right and left across the foul line, not sure where the ball was going to land. I almost peed myself – I was so scared of the nose job I was gonna get. I put up my glove to protect my face. The ball landed in it. It was the final out. My dad was in the stands. He stood up and clapped. Everybody cheered. I’d made the final out.
When I opened my eyes, a guy right behind me had caught the ball. The Dodgers’ game ended uneventfully. I’d been anxious over nothing. I was disappointed. It felt odd, like I was upset about the wrong thing. I felt untested. I felt like I hadn’t taken a real risk. I felt foolish. And then I realized that I wasn’t a bystander anymore. That the real fear was from all the times I’d actually played and lost. That I didn’t want to wake up, be reading other people’s books, and still remember the times that I played junior varsity softball.
So I’m writing whatever I feel like, as much as possible and unabashedly so. I’m still afraid of the ball, but I’m keeping my eyes open. I’m working on living and throwing up my glove if that’s what I got to do, maybe to protect myself, maybe to grab something out of the air.
It’s summertime, and John Keene also once said that the most important thing that graduate students could do was to live their life and have fun. And I’m an expert at living my life, if nothing else. Possessing the courage to write, to play, in spite of all the unknowns is worth something.
I’m working on me. That’s how I intend to keep writing.
2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?
Somebody put the blender on puree setting and then pulsed it a few times. I’m not talking about the lentil soup I made a few weeks ago, though that was quite tasty! I mix prose and poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, and especially realism and speculative fiction. I think of myself as literary, but with less patience than most literary writers.
My friend, the playwright and VONA alum Mona Washington told me that she felt like my work belonged in its own genre. I accused her of describing magical realism. She said – no it’s more like it’s realism with occasional magic and weird endings. Or, maybe it’s that I can’t tell which parts of it are magic and which parts of it are real. I’m not sure what Mona meant, but it means the world to me that she loves my work.
I have one story, a literary fiction piece about a woman who builds a robot to replace herself when she’s diagnosed with cancer. This story, “I AM RITA,” is very realistic. After all, the technology exists for her to do exactly what I describe, but nobody wants to believe it. I’m friends with RITA, so I have this on good authority.
I have another story, “The Blue Snake,” which is high fantasy, but has a revisionist, Biblical element and an erotic moment between a woman and a snake. Have I said enough?
If you’re in the mood, leaf through my blog. Probably my favorite entries are about fasting for Ramadan and attempting to write.
3) Why do you write what you do?
Writer Chris Abani has this magical technique that he uses (or so I’ve heard) in which he delineates 7-8 different types of writing. He asks you to tell him a story, verbally. Voila! He now knows what kind of storyteller you are. I’ve been hounding him to teach me this trick. First, because I’m curious about the types of storytelling I don’t know how to master, and I want to know how to tell stories all the different ways.
Secondly, because if he tells me, it will be a neat party trick and the best pick-up line I know. Who doesn’t like hearing people give them insight into their own character? Besides, my astrology schtick is way overused. My enneagram one is only good at prompting folks on the subway to share their social anxieties.
Partially, I write what I do because I grew up with Chinese poetry. This is before I forgot how to read Chinese. One of the first poems I ever read was by Li Bai, who is one of my spiritual ancestors. The poem (which uses less words than this sentence) includes a wanderer who sees the light glinting on the floor before his bed, who wonders whether the light is frost, who, looking up and seeing the moon, remembers his old home .
I’m writing to engage with my life and the moon in the same damn line.
Also, I grew up with a bazillion (at least a dozen) Taiwanese-American kids in my circle. I was the oldest (and our parents played mahjong together every weekend), so I made stuff up, mini-plays, to entertain us and keep us busy. Most of the stories involved princesses/princes, horses (endless lists, mind you), and different kinds of torture (not G-rated). Faced with so much early destruction, as well as chivalry and a twisted hero complex, what else was I going to do when I grew up?
Maybe I want (more than anything) to be the kind of writer who writes pretty things about the moon.
4) How does your writing process work?
Yes, thank you Internet prompt for pointing out that it does work. If you want good advice, try the following: write everyday, for at least a couple hours.
Work hard and write as often as you can, writer David Mura says. That, and learn to understand the basic structure of a story so when you write what’s in your subconscious you don’t have to think about how to write a story. That’s a paraphrase.
Here’s another gem: I never know if the muse might show up, so I write on a daily basis. I want to be writing when the muse comes. – paraphrase of Alice Elliott Dark.
Other good processes I’ve heard about include: apply to residencies. You can finish a whole manuscript, or a draft of your entire novel at a residency. Or, write every morning before breakfast and before your day gets filled with crap. See Elmaz Abinader directly for sound writing advice.
D’Lo once said to me and other writers that he could help keep us accountable. You can send e-mails with your writing to my inbox, but if you don’t send them on time, then I won’t speak to you anymore. I may have misheard him. He also said (and this can be writing advice, or life advice) about how to be a writer: It’s not easy, but it’s simple. You just need to write.
My writing chronology (weeds point-of-view):
I have a long version that I’ll send to friends who are interested. The summation is that my father died, and my own life was shortened. That’s true if you understand time as perception. I do.
I was an attorney for nearly a decade, and a Public Defender to boot. (My colleague Debbie Kelly once said that there’s no job like being a Public Defender because you live every day with gravity. Truth!) After serving as a PD for about 4 years, I practiced the next five as a land use/environmental justice attorney. That was intense too, because I wasn’t driven by salary. I wanted to be a part of the revolution.
I did everything I could to write as an attorney, but when somebody’s freedom, or a community’s health, depended on me writing a motion rather than a story, a play, or a poem – I chose to help people. (As a sidebar, writer Ryka Aoki and I were sitting in a car when she pointed out that my characters depended on me to give them life. Without me, they were as good as dead. This also appealed to my ego.) Seriously, it’s a privilege to have been a Public Defender and a community lawyer. I wasn’t going to turn away from my calling.
Probably the most selfish thing I’ve ever done (in a good way) was to quit my job, move from California, and become a writer. That was all set into motion when I went to my first VONA with ZZ Packer. She believed in me, and it didn’t hurt that Junot Díaz told me the same thing too — they all believed. So now I do too. I applied to Rutgers-Newark and was accepted with a Truman Capote Fellowship, and have had the two best writing years of my life.
From 2012 – MFA
I’m about to graduate in a week or two. I made peace with my writing process this past six months. Sheesh, I’m jealous of other writers’s processes. My writing process is unenviable.
I thrive off deadlines and the creative freedom that an MFA affords. Rutgers-Newark is also where I started writing short stories. I’m going to skip over the havoc of Hurricane Sandy and losing my housing in Jersey City first semester which you can read about in past blog posts. The process during that semester was to find a safe place to sleep, shower, and live. Write while crying. (See writer Julia Brown‘s version.) The following semester was mainly about recovery and moving to New York City.
My final year in the program, I experienced something close to euphoria while I was finishing my thesis. The wild part is that I didn’t feel bad about myself even once during the last few months of writing it. That’s because (this time) when I saw the cracks and the weaknesses, I accepted that I was where I was supposed to be in the learning process, the writing curve. I’m not supposed to be an amazing genius right now — I’m supposed to aspire toward that. That’s the gorgeousness of being a student; learn, that’s your job!
I was so happy that in the last weeks I became real sad. I didn’t want this luxury of time (which is what an MFA can really give you) to be over. I wanted to hold on, for one more day (paraphrase of Wilson Phillips). If somebody said my name, it felt like they were saying it through a hole in a paper cup.
To identify my state of being — we came up with the word “dadge.” (The second “d” is silent, sounds like Daj-A). It means feeling nostalgia for something while in the present moment. A couple uses include: “I’m dadging so hard right now.” Or, “your story is totes on the dadge.” Whether as a verb or dressed as a noun, it’s a killer word. Credit to my co-inventors: Caitlin Corrigan, Dinah Fay
I highly recommend inventing words whenever you can. You’re trying to get as close as you can and throw your arms around meaning, before it turns around and waves goodbye. This is impossible, a paradoxical task. Isn’t that why you started writing?
My short(ish) story process:
I write like I’m the Ethan Hawke character from Gattaca: putting my life on the line in a race against my brother (my real-life brother Justin the Amazing is an artist — see thesis cover — but I visualize using the Gattaca scene). I don’t save anything for the return trip. When I’m in the grip of a story, I ignore the practical aspects of my life and slip into my characters’s lives. Have you ever walked around as a robot or went back into the closet after you’ve spent years trying to bury that shame? If not, I highly recommend it for creative inspiration.
I don’t sketch it all out when I first get an idea. Instead, I let it marinate in the brain for months and months. If I have to write a story for a workshop deadline, I will often opt to write a new story rather than return to an idea or character that I’ve been savoring for the long haul. That’s just butt-in-chair for one day, and it can produce a shitty first draft.
When I decide I’m going to write that story (the one that’s really caught my fancy) — I’m single-minded and focused about my goal. Mostly, it’s 48 hours of obsessive writing and 2-3 weeks of obsessive thinking prior to the writing.
While I think, I procrastinate. I watch T.V. I complain and whine on the phone to my friends about something unrelated to the fact that I feel sick inside because I’m in labor, like for the past few weeks. (Why do my characters have such big-ass heads – that shit’s gonna hurt!) I read “fun” books and magazines. I also read great writers because they write story structures or lines that I’m not even ready to attempt. I talk to my therapist. I take walks. I cook. I clean. I eat. I procrastinate. I sleep A LOT. I call a family member. I occasionally pick a fight. (The character-was-feisty forgiveness clause is as underrated as the you-wronged-me-in-a-dream clause.)
Yes I procrastinate, but I’m thinking about my story while I do it. It feels uncomfortable and thrilling — like the lining of my heart is thicker, and everything inside of me is working twice as hard. Like I look up one week, and I’m not in California anymore (Que?). I’m back at my apartment. Somebody peed in the elevator. I wrinkle my nose and wonder how I got there. I’m distracted and irritable.
What I’m really doing is trying to find the voice. I know that if I can find the voice, (or the relationships that are interesting)– that my character will take control eventually. It’s a bit like method acting, except I don’t know how to do that (the internet is awesome).
Then, I give up, because I never feel like the voice is completely down. I start to write wherever I am in the thinking process. I usually have 1-3 false starts over two weeks before I can write out one complete short story draft. Technically, I’m a
spurter gusher, in the sense that I write more than I use and it comes out in one big gush. (This somewhat gross language came from a not-gross, awesome workshop with Tayari Jones where she said to the writers – you’re probably either a spurter gusher or an eeker. True, that.)
For the first draft, I usually need a 48-hour period with no social commitments and not having to wake up early. Nothing’s worse than a party. I like people, but conversation is a leak of my creative energy as social energy. I like to be alone for 2-3 days, and I like to write from 5PM until 2 or 3 in the morning. I also like to sleep or be in bed when I’m not writing during this period.
After I get the first draft out – I set about revising. I don’t think I’ll ever be done revising. Most of my polished stories are on the 11th draft, and two of those drafts will usually be complete revision. A complete revision is when I read the story 2-3 times and then re-write the story from beginning to end with a printed draft in hand so I can cry over the sentences I’m deleting. I resist copying and pasting; I retype a passage if I really need to keep it.
Part of my process is starting over. One time, one draft: my characters were so boring and vapid that I inadvertently killed them all off at a wedding party. Vampires! That did suck. And it was a mess. I was depressed and wrote e-mails to my enemies that I didn’t send. Most of them I threatened with my future success – things like: When I get famous, I’m not going to acknowledge you exist and de-friend you on Facebook. Stupid shit. A week later, I sat down for 12 hours of writing with two hour-long breaks, and I finished a short story draft that I’ve never subjected to a complete revision. (Yay!) Now, I’ve edited that story about 8 times. I’m working up the nerve to submit it for publication.
My poetic practice:
My poetry is sacred. I don’t subject it to critique. I write it whenever I want, wherever I want. I write it on my phone, usually. I read books of poetry when I’m feeling stuck with my fiction. With poetry, I have a writing space where I don’t have to worry about being good enough. That’s gold.
Thanks for reading! Hope it’s been fun listening to my Cactus League rendition of how-to-be-a-writer. For the real show, check out these next three writers on “The Writing Process” Blog Tour. They’ll have their Writing Process blogs up and running next Monday, May 19th:
Tananarive Due – I’ve been reading this writer since I was in law school. Her wild tales would spin me round and set loose my inner vampire. Tananarive’s literary work is unafraid and unabashed. She’s a Triple Crown Champion — a tour de force in literary fiction, speculative fiction, and horror, as well as one of my VONA teachers and writing heroes. She’s putting together a new short film, Danger Word. See the magic unfold at: http://tananarivedue.wordpress.com
Tayari Jones – Silver Sparrow is one of those stories where you put it down, and you realize that somebody gave you a whole world in a book. You’ll be as sad as I was that the book had to end. One thing you should know about Tayari – she will win you over. She’s a master storyteller. I know because she’s been one of my wonderful teachers at Rutgers-Newark. She doesn’t just have a toolbox. She owns the whole darn shed. Ask to borrow a pithy character-writing tip. Check out her powerful blog: http://www.tayarijones.com/blog/
Safia Jama – This serious poet has a playful side! Safia coalesces sound, meditation, image, and popular culture in her verse. My mouth drops open when she finishes one of her readings. A Cave Canem fellow, photographer, performer, teacher, and fellow Rutgers-Newark MFA student, Safia’s visionary blog adventure is a treat for your eyeballs at: http://thesafiajamaexperience.wordpress.com/author/thesafiajamaexperience/