Category Archives: Writing

Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember

TELLMECover

Just dropping in, in case any of my readers are still checking on this space.

Happy to announce that my memoir, which details my stroke and recovery, will be out February 14, 2017 from Ecco / Harper Collins

And it’s available for pre-order!

Details can be had on my main blog.

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Filed under The Stroke, Writing

I is for I

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The last time I blogged, it was July, and I was surrounded by heat. I thought that perhaps just for balance, I might blog I for Ice, since after all, it is now wintertime, and when I open my front door, it’s like opening a refrigerator door. Except there aren’t goodies to eat on my porch.

But after some thought, I decided that I is for…I.
(And yes, like Sunny said, I is for I…need to update this site more often).

I is for first person, singular. I is for being the narrator of my own story.

I is for a brand new year ahead, wherein I will prioritize my novel (which btw, is NOT written in the first person). I will prioritize my writing. I have been given the gift of time; the last time I had time to write my novel was in 2009, when I was laid off from my job. In shock, licking my wounds and doing budget calculations in my head with numb precision, I remember limping to my novel-in-progress, determined to make lemonade.

And I did. I finished a complete draft of my novel by year’s end.

I’ve been given the gift of time again. After 2010’s intense work schedule, wherein I vacillated between being grateful for work in the midst of the Great Recession, and being forlorn about having no space to write and wishing wishing wishing for a residency or some sort of fantasy scenario in which I could write every single day…

My dream has come true. I’m moving to NYC. To write. (Well, it’s more complicated than that–but the end result is that I will be in NYC, and have more time to write).

I is for I. I will write. I will have a fantastic 2011. I will take care of my health. I will get back into shape. I will revise my novel until I am proud.

And to my NYC friends: I will see you soon.


Previous letters:

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ah, i sense a pattern

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I am miserable. I am feeling creatively blocked. I hate everything I write. I feel worthless. I feel aimless. I just want to sleep and sleep and sleep. And eat. Everytime I feel better, I veer off the elevated road into a muddy putrid foul ditch.

Out of curiosity, I looked up blog posts in March/April in previous years. Oh. I am miserable EVERY March and April. In this exact, anxious and miserable and self berating way.

I looked up previous May posts. I become happy again.

Maybe I should just take a vacation from my fiction for a month (apparently my Muse goes on vacation then, too). Staring at the screen and feeling like a failure and wanting to cry out of pure frustration is a real drag.

Update: right after I wrote this post, a friend of mine emailed me a nytimes opinion piece by David Brooks on Sandra Bullock. In his article, the writer begins with the following description and question:

Two things happened to Sandra Bullock this month. First, she won an Academy Award for best actress. Then came the news reports claiming that her husband is an adulterous jerk. So the philosophic question of the day is: Would you take that as a deal? Would you exchange a tremendous professional triumph for a severe personal blow?

My answer: no. No matter how shitty my writing goes, I wouldn’t trade my marriage in. Long long ago I asked for one thing out of life: marital happiness. Long ago, I prioritized my marriage above my writing. The happiness and support from my marriage is the platform for my life, one that if erased, would devastate me more than writing failure.

Of course, I’m still miserable about my writing.

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Hello, it’s March

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I’ve been thinking of a way to provide an update/insight into how my novel revision is going but there are no inspiring words to describe. In my head, the psychological video, if I were to play it for you on an uneven stucco wall, entails a lot of exhausted thrashing in lukewarm water. Not pretty, not productive, not comfortable. Not even organized or strategic.

A lot of panic and confusion. All the methodic/rhythmic progress I made on completing the first draft feels like a dream–was that me? Was that *this* novel? But I still love my novel and sit with that discomfort, because it’s worth it.

Some of my struggles stem from the fact that this has been a challenging teaching semester. A student who writes papers reminiscent of KKK philosophies, another student who plagiarized, and another who said made suicidal comments. An overenrolled class. TAs to train/mentor.

I like it, I even love it–but it’s as time consuming and heartbreaking and exhausting as it is inspiring. So, I haven’t had much time for this novel, either. I haven’t had much psychic space. I haven’t been very joyful in the last couple of months. In recent weeks, I have walked into my classroom with a positive attitude and outlook, and changed the dynamics within, so that we now have a strong and positive classroom community.

But I leave class exhausted this semester. Any energy I’ve mustered up is deposited into my students. I guess in life, I too, am thrashing in the water.

It’s March–springtime allergies are making me feel miserable; but my spring break is coming up, too–so I find myself preparing for a good writing week, somehow. That means doing an inventory on what I need to make psychic space and to feed my imagination for that week. Rest, exercise, good food.

I haven’t been getting enough sleep. I have slacked off on exercise this semester. And I certainly have not been eating healthy. Time to change all that.

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Filed under Life, Revising, The Novel, Writing

litmag etiquette–courtesy is a two way street

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<RANT>

I know that litmags demand a certain amount of courtesy from writers who submit work; whether this is courtesy in the form of addressing the editor by name (as opposed to the thoughtless “Dear Editor” or “To Whom It May Concern”) or in the form of standard formatting (Times New Roman, 12 pt font, inch margins, numbered pages, etc.), there is an expected etiquette in the realm of literary submissions.

THAT SAID–I have had my taste of strange (or lack thereof) etiquette in return from litmags lately. Most litmags are not guilty of this, but I still find it odd that the establishment (and yes, it’s an establishment) of litmags won’t return courtesies…

Earlier this year, during the holidays, I got quite a few letters from litmags asking me to donate. I shrugged.

There is one litmag to which I will donate, and that is ZYZZYVA and its editor, Howard Junker. He opened the door to my writing career, and for that I am always indebted, and for that ZYZZYVA will always be first in line (okay, maybe when Haiti has an apocalyptic earthquake, they get my money first). This is all to say that I’m no stranger to donations.

But when a litmag that has rejected me multiple times with curt letters (nay, I wouldn’t even call them “letters”–more like a sentence or two, which technically isn’t even a paragraph), asks me to donate, it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. And before you think I’m anti-litmag, I’ll let you know that I’m the fiction editor at a litmag that runs on a shoestring budget. I’m pro-litmag, and pro-donation-to-litmags.  Writers should read, donate, and subscribe, to literary magazines.

My friend who used to work at one of the litmags that sent out the letters protested when I said the donation queries disgusted me. She defended the litmags saying they need the money, and we should give money without thought to our personal experience with being rejected. True, I told her, true. We *should* give even if we were rejected by the litmag.

But out of *courtesy*, why can’t the litmag figure out a different form letter to send those whose work had been rejected? Just a touch of courtesy might pierce my scarred, cold heart. To that, my friend agreed. That would be a nice touch.

My other pet peeve these days have to do with litmag contests. Specifically, my pet peeve is about litmag contests that don’t bother to notify the losers entrants whose work didn’t win.

I entered two litmag contests months ago recently. I did it on whim–knowing I probably wouldn’t win. In the past, my work has been named a finalist, a couple of times in various contests. (Many, many other times, my work has lost). I’ve noticed in the past that litmag contests sometime fail to notify everyone of the winners, and to notify folks who didn’t win, that they didn’t win. I thought to myself, “Huh. Maybe the letter got lost in the mail.”

But I’m beginning to notice this as a trend. There is no such indication in the contest submission instructions that winners will be announced on a particular website (implying no notification otherwise)–so there’s no way to think you won’t be notified personally.

Zoetrope’s Fiction Contest clearly states that winners are announced on its website, and that’s fine by me. And the venerable Glimmertrain with its multiple contests, always manages to notify its writers (winners, finalists, honorable mentions, and outright rejections alike) in an organized manner.

But when litmags don’t state how entrants will be notified, I assume I’ll be notified either by email or by postal letter note. Both The Missouri Review Editors Prize and The Mississippi Review Prize posted the winning writers on their websites, but didn’t notify entrants.

I’ve gotten used to the 2 inch x 4 inch xeroxed rejection slips sent to me in the postal mail. In fact, I’m so used to it that when I see a handwritten note scrawled on a rejection slip with a six-word-long encouragement, I get quite excited. I’ve gotten used to the one sentence rejection emails. I’ve gotten so used to the rejection form letters that have been xeroxed over and over again so that my copy is barely readable, that I am not offended at all. I understand that there is a balance of power, here, and that as a writer I don’t have much power at all.

I would not be kvetching if etiquette and courtesy weren’t such a priority expectation in the litmag world, but it is something that litmags expect out of writers. Shouldn’t we writers expect the same in return? Even if one sentence long, shouldn’t writers get the courtesy of notification? Even if a different form letter, shouldn’t writers get the courtesy of an acknowledgment that their work has been rejected, but they’re still being queried for a donation?

</RANT>

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Revving up for revision

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I am not one for going into situations unprepared. I love to plan–I have backup plans, and backup-to-the-backup-plans. When I teach, I make sure to have at least two backup lesson plans, if not three backup plans, plus a sure-fire, “fun” lesson plan in my back pocket for the occasion where students might not respond to anything I throw at them. (p.s. this only extends to my “work”–when I’m on vacation, I go without nary a list of things to do or schedule!)

Still, I plan in order to gain a sense of security, despite knowing that plans do not cover all bases–because I know that once I enter my classroom, I’m walking that high wire without a net. If I don’t listen to my students, and don’t think on my feet in response, there is no way any sort of plan will save me from rebellion. Oftentimes, I deviate from plan with verve. So much of teaching is intuitive.

My friend Elizabeth tweeted the following link detailing Zadie Smith’s lesson on craft: Are you a macro planner or a micro manager in your writing? Intrigued by these two approaches to writing a novel draft, I clicked.

According to the summary of Zadie Smith’s craft lecture, I’m a macro planner, someone who organizes everything in advance–so much so, that I can start writing from anywhere in the novel (at a certain point, I started skipping around with my chapter-writing, because I had such a clear vision of my structure). At first I ventured out without a plan at all, and then swam back to shore, before I drew up a plan that finally got me across the finish line.

Micro managers do not start with a grand plan, their novels only existing “in the present moment,” written from the beginning to the last word, not knowing what the ending will be until she gets there. (Not me. Might be you?)

Still, like my teaching, so much of my novel writing is intuitive. While I have a clear idea of structure and have an outline, at a certain point in the story, my novel tells me what to do. My characters rebel against my dictatorship and go on strike resisting what I tell them to do until I let them do what they need to do; for example, if they’ve been miserable, I have to let them do something fun. There’s a lot of negotiation going on–and it is at that point of the novel, where I begin to experience a lot more joy in my writing.

This is all to say that..I’m gathering together a sort of plan before I start my revision. I’m a plan-in-advance kind of girl, one who, after a certain point, is more than willing to throw away her plans and go off intuition….but in general, I really do need a plan to start. And this is all new. So I’m feeling freaked out. One of my writing mentors told me that the “real writing” occurs in revision and that too, is freaking me out, because the first draft was hard enough to achieve.

(Also freaking me out is how a Famous-Writer-who-has-won-many-prestigious-awards told me he never revises–he just writes the novel from scratch). But I will ignore that. I will.

Here are things I know to do:

  1. I’ve printed my manuscript out, in hardcopy.
  2. I need a pen–to mark up the manuscript, and to jot down things like continuity errors in a notebook.
  3. A deadline. (I hear a novel can take 2 weeks to revise–others say a month? Spring is busy for me, so I’ll be taking longer than 2 weeks to revise).
  4. I’ll read the manuscript all the way through. I’ll indicate sections that are good, sections that need work.
  5. Definitely mark sections that seem expository and go back and provide details.
  6. I’ll examine character/s: do they each have a purpose for being in the story? Do they make their exits and entries in a sensical way? If they change, is there a sensical reason for their change?
  7. I’ll examine theme/story: I don’t have to resolve every single conflict/mystery, but are most of them resolved by the end of the novel?
  8. Does each scene matter? Are there are least three reasons for the scene to exist?
  9. Examine language closely. Do the characters speak in consistent ways throughout? Is the narration unique, free of clichés…? Are their vivid verbs and nouns?
  10. Mark BIG continuity errors in the notebook or with a different colored pen. (i.e., make sure the character lives in the same place throughout–that the building is the same)
  11. Where does the story drag? That’s where my writing’s flat.
  12. Where does the story move too quickly?
  13. To be continued….

My novel manuscript awaits my return, sitting in an envelope. Soon, soon, soon!

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Offending Family

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I was in tears over a piece of writing, and it wasn’t because of a poorly written manuscript or because it had been panned. In fact, the few people I’d sent this essay to read/preview/critique were excited and touched by the essay.

I was in tears because my family wasn’t happy with the essay, a personal piece about one particular in-law, someone who passed away in the last few years. I’d sent copies to get their blessing, assuming I’d receive the same kind of support I’d received from writer friends, but when I got the email saying, in so many words, that it was not a good idea to publish the piece, I felt destroyed. They asked for a few changes, but all I heard was “No no no no no no no….”

I hadn’t written anything derogatory–it’s just that they didn’t want family to be mentioned in my writing whatsoever. As a member of the family, I felt deeply hurt because I didn’t know what could be so wrong about a tribute to my relationship with that person; in fact, I felt that I was not being allowed to grieve, and display my grieving, in my unique way. At the same time, I understood their desire for 100% privacy, given circumstances. But as a writer, I felt censored, my creativity stifled.

A “good girl” at heart, someone rule-driven and eager for the approval and acceptance of others, I felt demonic for wanting to express myself. A writer, I hated the “good girl” for allowing myself to consider censorship for the good of the family and to the detriment of my work.

How did I deal with this internal conflict? I sat in the car in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s and cried, my sobbing breaths fogging up the car windows. Eventually the “good girl” and “the writer” working together, got me to call a friend intimately familiar with the conflict of artist/family expectations (her book pissed off her family), who texted me back with what I needed to hear: permission, for the “good girl” to allow the writer to thrive. She told me to go for it–to make some concessions, but to try to get the work out there.

So I’m putting the piece out there. (In the end, my family said it would be okay so long as I left out names). I know this will not be the last time my writing might conflict with family comfort levels, but maybe someday, I won’t have to call someone to give the writer in me, permission, to go go go.

And maybe maybe maybe, someday my in-laws will understand what it means for me to be a writer.

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