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Trading Headspaces

Recently, a writing friend and I were trading tips on juggling multiple projects, which is a tricky endeavor at the best of creative times. For the past year I’ve had two concurrent projects: a young adult manuscript, and co-writing work on a podcast drama. It’s exciting, invigorating work that nevertheless, sometimes, ends with me inspired to work on one project, feeling guilty for not working on another, and then getting no writing done at all.

But since I joined the Writers’ Room crew, I’ve had a great system going. I usually work on the podcast when I’m at home, or on my lunch break at work, and then when I go into the Room, I focus on my manuscript. Even if I do sneak some podcast work in there, I don’t leave the Room without adding at least a page to the YA.

It’s a system that’s worked wonderfully for me these past few months, and it’s a system that would not have been available to me prior to this fellowship. The quest for writing space has been an ongoing one for me, based on necessity and opportunity rather than any kind of creative fit. I live in a college neighborhood, in a second-floor apartment I’ve written tens of thousands of words in… but when our downstairs neighbors turn on their sound system, I tend to abandon all hope of productivity.

Concentration isn’t always easy for me. My startle reflex can be, in a word, enthusiastic. Since that tends to preclude coffee shops and the like as workspaces, I’ve spent a lot of time auditioning alternative places to write. Sometimes they work. And sometimes it feels like the universe is trying to ensure that I never write another word.

Here is an unranked, incomplete list of places I have written:

Various classrooms at work: As university staff, I have dozens of rooms to choose from, at least. Pros include a studious atmosphere and the occasional comfy armchair. Cons include nervous pacers, cell phone talkers, and those days when everywhere you look has a meeting or event in session and you end up wandering campus with your laptop like the ancient mariner.

The library: On its face, this looked perfect for me. The aggressive silence of libraries is a trope for a reason, right? Turns out that a room full of about twenty people trying to be quiet is not that quiet. And about halfway through a tricky chapter, a very nice woman started asking me why, exactly, young people worked so hard these days.

(She was really sweet, but eventually I had to pretend I was leaving so I could hide up in the stacks and finish.)

On planes: Once or twice a year, this will work out great. No distractions and no shortage of white noise. But these are the one or two magical times a year that there’s an empty seat next to me and I don’t have to watch my elbows quite so closely. Of course, there are always variables to watch out for. I had a row to myself on a recent flight, and just as I was ready to dive in… the entire row in front of me reclined far back enough to snap my laptop shut.

On the train platform: I’ve only tried this one twice, and not with any sort of forethought – there’s at least an hour between trains on my commute line, so if I miss it, writing is theoretically a great option. It was also, in both cases, a magical bat signal for street harassment. Not very successful, in the end, but I’m an optimist. I’d try again.

As writers, we have to work with what – and where – we have. And make no mistake, we always do. But to have a dedicated writing space is a tremendous privilege, and for me, it’s been like nothing else: I have never been that great at scheduling creativity, but when I come here, I know I’m going to leave with at least a few more words in my manuscript file. I hope to see more spaces like the Room in the broader writing community, and more fellowships like mine to make these spaces accessible to as many writers as possible.
Rebecca Mahoney, 2017 WROB Fellow

On Community

When I arrived in Boston three years ago, it was my second cross-country move as an adult. The first took me from my native Miami to Minneapolis, to enter into the University of Minnesota’s MFA program. When I left Miami, I left with conviction; I can’t say I was certain about what I would gain from my program or my new city, but I knew I was investing in my writing career, and that was more than enough reason to go.

To an extent, I left to find community, to find my tribe.

In the years prior to my departure, I had cobbled together a loose network of novice writers in Miami with whom I shared work—some of whom remain my closest friends. Despite the dozens of workshops we’d attended between us, though, information about how to get our writing out into the world seemed elusive.

We met weekly to stitch together insight we’d acquired through research and the few relationships we’d formed with more advanced writers. I recall one friend handing me a binder with details on MFA programs, while another showed me the first proper CV I’d ever seen.

I recall, too, that this information sharing seemed precious and rare, somehow unattainable even through our college tuition. One writing professor—particularly generous with his time, in most cases—responded to our request for guidance on submitting to literary magazines, “Do you really think you’re ready for that?” I recognized in that moment that I’d met my first information hoarder, my first gatekeeper. It’s also possible that this professor was simply too far removed from the practice—one argument for why writing programs need younger faculty members.

My writing group—comprised of first-generation college graduates—did the job of lifting each other up from ignorance, and into our respective graduate programs, but the battle was hard-won.

After earning my MFA, I came to Boston by accident, and with the vague idea that it was a city where writers thrive. My experience has shown this to be true. While rents and the cost of living are astronomical—a huge obstacle for most artists—Boston writers are rich with community. And what’s perhaps most astounding about Boston is how easily information is handed to me now that I’ve plugged into the writing community here. What stands out is the willingness with which established authors and literary professionals share what they know. I wouldn’t have applied for any of the four fellowships I received this year if I hadn’t learned about them from my writer friends. If my partner, Sarah, didn’t show me how to write a query, I likely wouldn’t have found my agent when I did, and without my community, I’d never have found her.

Perhaps the most valuable information I’ve learned since leaving Miami is that when it comes to getting your writing out into the world, it’s not just about who you know, but about who’s willing to share what they know with you.

-Jonathan Escoffery, 2017 Ivan Gold Fellow

What Gets Lost

Several years ago, I bought an unbelievably gorgeous ring at a department store in Toronto. I have no idea how much it cost me. I have no idea the name of the store. No idea how to describe it. At Dave & Buster’s a year or so later, the ring did a thing–slid off, it flew, it shot in the same direction of the basketball I aimed at the net. The ball came back to me. The ring didn’t.

I’ve been reading Cape Verde’s first (and only) Creole-English dictionary. It’s a very nostalgic experience. All the words I know, the words I don’t. How the definitions surprise me. Sadden me. How I’m sure, the published definitions mean something different to someone else. The power of interpretation leads me to riff off the English definitions, aware that in the process, images facts ideas values and beliefs are sliding off, flying, landing here, elsewhere, and nowhere. I cannot stop writing This Won’t Make Sense in English definition poems:

From the dictionary:

Pasada [pasu] n step; ~ di ómi, grasa-l mudjer, short visit; badja ~, dance the pasada dance

From what I’ve lost:

dancing the pasada dance is a message: consumption is not something you do with your mouth

I’m not sure I know what I’m getting at but think I’m having a moment. Appreciating the ways in which words mean things, the ways in which all words, in every language, mean, to feel. It’s fascinating, this idea of culture and how we are because of it, in spite of it.

The loss of my ring went from clumsy

to there are worse things to lose.

Went from

is this making sense in English

to how are we making sense

of the words we use

to say what it is

we cannot.

-Shauna Barbosa, 2017 Writers’ Room of Boston Fellow

What Happens on Submission Stays on Submission

When I was querying literary agents for the first (and second, and third) time, I kept a moderately active Blogspot. Nothing too formal, but enough to connect me to a community I’m still lucky enough to know today. I had their posts as a guidebook. Whenever I wasn’t sure if I’d been waiting too long, or if I said the wrong thing, I read their experiences, held them up to mine to make sure I was on the right track. Whenever there was a question I wasn’t sure if I could ask, the answer existed somewhere already.

When I signed with my then-agent at the end of 2012, I posted about how excited I was to go on submission to editors. And then, following the conventional wisdom I’d read about, I kept my mouth shut. It has, for the most part, stayed shut since.

The rationale behind the Submission Cone of Silence is as follows: it keeps you from saying anything you’ll regret, and it preserves the illusion that you’re a fresh talent rolling into an editor’s inbox just minutes after signing with your agent. And all those What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Sell a Book guides told me the same thing. That it’s hard, of course it’s hard, but you can tell everyone all about that after you sell.

And then I kept not-selling.

This is the point where I’d look for someone else’s story to reassure me that I was normal. This is also the point where it became clear that everyone else got the same advice I did. The blog posts were self-selecting. Submission was the longest month of my life, I must have read about a dozen times. And then I’d look at my submission list, time-stamped about a year prior, and wonder if one day archaeologists were going to find me half-crumbled into dust and still clutching my laptop.

(“Extraordinary,” they’d whisper. “She was refreshing her inbox all those years.”)

I asked my friends, published and almost-published, when they sold. On the second round. On my second book. On the second round of my second book. By the time my third book went out on submission, I’d stopped asking.

I did a lot of backspacing, both in writing and in tweeting. Everything I tried to say sounded ungrateful, or impatient, or dismissive of the luck and privilege that got me this far. When my agent parted ways with me, I did a lot of acknowledging it without acknowledging it. It was easy enough to figure out if you read between the lines, but if I didn’t say as much in public, maybe no one would figure out what an Undesirable I was.

And after a while, I just wanted to own it. I’m competitive. If I was going to be an Undesirable, I wanted to be the Least Desirable Person in Publishing.

I didn’t own it. I cultivated an even better poker face. I got really good at keeping my excitement in the forefront at events and book launches, and saving the bucketsful of conflicting feelings until I walked home. I gently brushed off questions about when my book was coming out, and I said a lot of No, that’s okay. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they’d asked anything wrong. It would hurt more if they stopped asking.

This is, I know, a lot of talking about not-talking. I started this post thinking I’d talk about the times spent scribbling on the margins of my day job, the manuscripts shelved, the foothold into the writing world that I worried I’d lost until the Writers’ Room and its wonderful community helped me reshape it. These are still things I want to talk about. But then I started to wonder what about these stories was so damaging that I felt the need to sit on them for over four years.

After all, writers tend to lose perspective, stuck in their own heads. When I called my grandmother the night I received the WROB fellowship, I laughed that I finally had good news for her.

She firmly informed me that I had good news for her all the time.

Rebecca Mahoney, 2017 WROB Fellow

On Summer

Lately I’ve been looking ahead, thinking a lot about summer. There’s an untitled poem about summertime I’ve been working on for four years. The last version reads:

How does the heat pluck bodies from stoops

from groups huddled under lamp light

from sidewalks that posed no threat months ago?

Why does rising mercury mean hunting season?

 

It just got warm out

It’s that shit I been warned bout

Everybody dies in the summer

So pray to god for little more spring

 

We jazz June

We die soon.

It always feels unfinished, a perma-draft rather than a poem. Maybe it’s because most of the words in the poem aren’t mine. The second and third stanzas belong to Chance the Rapper and Gwendolyn Brooks, borrowed from “Paranoia” and “We Real Cool,” respectively. I can’t seem to put our ideas in conversation with one another without the seams showing. (Then again, many of my poems are composed entirely of other people’s words, so I’m not sure that’s a valid excuse.) Maybe it’s because I haven’t clearly defined the question for myself, let alone arrived at an answer. What is it about the summer that makes black life feel more fragile?

Don’t get me wrong, I live for summer. (In New England summer feels like a reward for surviving an endless winter.) I love beach days and soul train lines at barbecues and brown skin looking crisp and sun kissed. Summer is the time I feel most alive and, somehow, most unsettled.

I’ve been rolling these thoughts over while doing admin to get my collection Testify (Octopus Books, 2017) into the world this August. Testify experiments with documentary poetics to uplift stories of black people impacted by state-sanctioned violence. To say it was emotionally challenging to write is an understatement. Though the work of creating it is complete, the challenging nature of the material persists. Even the backend tasks– picking promo images, crafting summaries, discussing broadsides & epherma – have their own eerie feel. Proof reading, double-checking death dates for departed sons & daughters. So many of them buried in summer months.

I keep wondering if we’ll make it to August without going to war. Wondering about the domestic communities already at war, living in occupied neighborhoods. Surely by the time Testify comes out there will be another police-involved murder, another homie, another hashtag. Or stories of summer violence in communities navigating failed systems and collective trauma. The question is never if. It is when and who.

I have to remember, it’s still April. There’s time to call up my lil homies, former students & younger cousins; ask if they’ve started checking for summer jobs, summer camp, summer school, summer something to make them safe. As if such a thing exists. In the meantime I keep writing poems and praying for a little more spring.

Simone John, 2017 WROB Gish Jen Fellow

 

 

In Defense of the Second Person

Lately, I’ve been questioning the use of the second person point of view in fiction. The you pronoun features prominently in my collection, but as I work on what I hope will be the manuscript’s final story, I’m finding myself overly conscious about choosing you over I or he. I keep stopping to ask, “Is this POV earned?”

I’ve long resisted the idea that using the second person requires more justification than other narrative strategies. If I interrogate my choice to use you over I, I’ll admit that on some level, it just feels more natural. When I wake for work after a late night of writing (or Netflix binging), and I glance sleepy-eyed into my bathroom mirror, I don’t say to myself, “I look like shit.” I say, “You look like shit.”

And I know exactly to whom I am speaking.

When I read novels written in the first-person—novels that haven’t troubled themselves with an invented occasion for my reading them—I sometimes wonder of the narrator, To whom is this story being told? What assumptions have the narrator made about the recipient of this story?

With third-person narrators, I might wonder, Who is telling me this? Is that you, God?

IMG_1718In second person narration, when you stands in for I—that is, when readers or secondary characters aren’t being addressed—we understand that our protagonist is both narrator and narratee; we are privy to a telling or retelling of a story handed off to, and received by, a psyche fractured by the passage of time and/ or an altered understanding of events. This fracture, I would argue, more similarly reflects how we experience the world: Subject meets stimuli and interprets then reinterprets to create narrative; we tell ourselves the story of what is happening to us as it is happening, and many times afterward. Similarly, our second person protagonist exists both within the story’s events and in the consciousness that orders and reorders the events to create meaning.

For those of us who exist outside of the dominant culture, this experience of psychic fracture is particularly salient. As a person of color and a first-generation American, I am tasked with mastering my own cultural references and white America’s. To succeed within the larger culture, to some extent, I must cultivate a dual consciousness that often sets me at odds with myself, as I view myself through the lens of the other. The second person POV uniquely allows a character reflection through the lens of a removed self, the distance created by you implying a second consciousness.

Perhaps third person feels too authoritative to me right now because my reality is constantly in flux. Perhaps first suggests singularity, and even in the plural gestures to a cohesion that I just can’t identify with. Because, even now, the voice in the back of my head is telling me, “Shut up and write your story.”

-Jonathan Escoffery, 2017 WROB Ivan Gold Fellow

On Not Writing

IMG_2874 (1)

Photo credit: Lauren Chanel Allen. Readers: Shauna Barbosa, Airea D. Matthews, Ananda Lima, Maya Doig-Acuña, Koye Oyedeji, Duarte Geraldino

Last weekend I participated in Bread Loaf’s Sunday Salon reading series. The reading took place at Jimmys 43 in New York City. A charming, intimate room under the bar. It felt incredibly good to read with such good company. Felt good to chat with the audience (I apologize for that one poem I read from my phone—thank you for sitting through that). Readings make me feel, you know, like a writer. Like things are moving, things are happening—hey look, my MFA is paying off.

Then the reading’s over. I eat plant-based pizza with friends, followed by a nap before my bus back to Boston. Heavy on my mind lately is all the writing I’ve not been doing. Writing is what makes us writers, no? Why is the admin work surrounding my forthcoming book starting to feel poetic?

Not writing brings me back to a poem I fell in love with last year: “In Tongues” by Tonya M. Foster. “Because you haven’t spoken / in so long, the tongue stumbles and stutters, / sticks to the roof and floor as if the mouth were just / a house in which it could stagger like a body unto itself.” This is what it feels like. Not writing. Not being able to speak. Not only is “In Tongues” a remembrance of music’s ability—it’s a reminder that we must be thankful for the ability to speak effortlessly. Though melancholic in its overall story on one not being able to speak, Tonya Foster’s poem gives it an exciting jazz element. The second section of the poem calls on music and continues with the alliteration of the first section. “What to say when one says, / “You’re sooo musical,” takes your stuttering for scatting, / takes your stagger for strutting, / takes your try and tried again for willful / playful deviation? / It makes you not wanna holla / silence to miss perception’s face.” The second stanza, again, encompasses a similar sound with stuttering, scatting, stagger, and strutting. Scatting gives us noise of a jazz scat. “It makes you not wanna holla” adds a dramatic lift to “takes your try and tried again,” painting a compelling image of the genuine attempts to make a sound, and the heartbreak in not wanting to try to communicate with those who make a mockery of the attempt.

“In Tongues” pushes me to pay attention to a voice outside of myself. The voice in this poem, as with the voice I am currently in search of, is working as struggle, as being taken away, being placed in and outside of the body. I am grateful for the opportunity to go back to my words at a reading. It’s an exercise in waiting.

hang on/ keep your silence/ until the words/ ripen/ in you.”                                                                                              -Pablo Neruda

-Shauna Barbosa, 2017 Writers’ Room of Boston Fellow

 

 

 

 

Chaos and Creativity

I’ve been a newspaper reporter, a public relations guy, a technology marketer, a salesman, an entrepreneur. I failed at most of that, though I wasn’t as terrible a journalist as I was at selling things, and when my cash flow tightened, I could always eke out a living behind the wheel of a Boston yellow cab (a skill I learned from a guy by the name of – no kidding! – Pizza Mike).

But until I started writing memoir, about as self-centered an endeavor one could consider, my ability to work rarely depended on my emotional state. Lately the question I keep revisiting is this: How do you write when your world is falling apart? How do we create amidst the chaos?

Steven Pressfield offers a hard-ass, football coach kind of answer: You’re a professional. Get your ass in the chair. “We show up no matter what,” he says in The War of Art. “In sickness and in health, come hell or high water, we stagger into the factory. We might do it only so as not to let down our co-workers, or for other, less noble reasons. But we do it. We show up no matter what.”

That’s all well and good. But sometimes the ‘no matter what’ is beyond overwhelming. It’s more than a presidential election that doesn’t go your way, or an attack by that newly elected president on beliefs you hold most dear. Sometimes it’s turmoil closer to home, a personal crisis that rocks your existence, shifting the very ground beneath your feet. Daily assumptions are suddenly not quite so. It’s amidst this kind of disruption that I lose my voice. Words fail me, and it’s easier to immerse myself in foolish distraction — web surfing, sports or television — than it is to focus on my keyboard.

Frankly, I always found words easy to come by when drafting ten column inches of news on the latest protest at the local nude beach, or a press release on my client’s latest product launch. Even marketing copy for the courier company I once owned would roll off my keyboard in the midst of plummeting financials. I couldn’t sell, but boy could I write a brochure. But when the words are personal and the havoc’s hitting home, writing can be the hardest thing to do.

It takes a writer like Mary Karr to pull me out of my slump. She writes, with characteristic whit in The Art of Memoir, “I once heard Don DeLillo quip that a fiction writer starts with meaning and manufactures event to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.” That I get. I’ve been mining tumultuous decades of my own for close to 300 pages now. The thing is, meaning can take time. And time can mean NOT writing, at least for a little while. And that’s okay. Sometimes we need to regroup.

The Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn, in his most famous short book, Being Peace, offers a short poem he uses help find his center at the beginning of his daily meditations:

Breathing in I calm my body.

Breathing out I smile.

Now, I’m no Buddhist monk, and I don’t meditate anywhere except perhaps the keyboard. But maybe the guy has a point. Maybe a short mantra is the way to navigate the space between life and writing:

Breathing in I consider my letters.

Breathing out I type.

Umm. Yeah. No. Better to live with the drama and anxiety. That’s where the real stories lie.

WROBOn a brief personal a note, this is my last blog post as a Fellow at the Writers’ Room. I was shocked when Debka emailed me a year ago with the news: you’ve been chosen, she wrote. The Room would like to offer you a Fellowship. It was a privilege to have been given the time to work and to think of myself solely as a ‘writer.’ I’m grateful. I offer thanks to the Board and to all the other members. I’m excited to stay on at the Room, and to continue writing and sharing my work in this vibrant community. For the foreseeable future I’ll still be writing at my favorite desk near the State Street window, and I’ll still have my hammer and nails at the ready. Please let me know what needs fixing.

-Mike Sinert, 2016 Nonfiction Fellow

Depth

Last week I read a very good article titled “When Things Go Missing,” by Kathryn Schulz, which appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker. As the title indicates, the article is about losing things. The author begins with anecdotes about losing one’s possessions, such as wallets, clothing, keys, and cars.  You know she’s going to write about losing more important things, and she does – about losing people.

At 7,000 words the article was long but very readable.  I began reading it on my phone while I was waiting to pick up my kids and kept reading it even after they got in the car and wanted me to start driving.

Later I fell to wondering how the author had written at such length on a topic you might not think anyone could write a lot about.  So I read the article again and noted all the different directions in which the author took it, each like a ray radiating out from a center to illuminate it. There was a paragraph or more on all of these strands: anecdotes about lost objects, people known to the author who lose things often, advice people like to give on how to find things, advice the internet gives on how to find things, types of things it’s possible to lose, data people have compiled on lost things, explanations for why we lose things, why we feel the need to know how something got lost, why we like to blame other people for our losses, why it’s more worrisome to lose things when we get older, and finally, the worst things we can lose – those close to us.

By the time we get to the end of the article, the strands of it have wrapped around us securely.  We get the sense that the author has considered her theme from all angles, deeply.  The resulting perception of depth provides the piece with both momentum and credibility.

If there’s one thing I miss about my former life in economics it’s the sublime feeling of having explored something in depth. There was a problem and there were the resources to study it.  As well, I suppose, there were deadlines, support, the need to reach closure – or else.

I find it so challenging to get the same sense when I’m writing fiction. The problems are hard to define. The resources, if you count all books, are infinite or, really, none.  Countless influences addle my brain.  Writing fiction imposes many constraints – you can’t just write about a theme in a story – though it provides more artistic leeway.

At the same time it’s easy to perceive when any piece of writing, like this blog post, has or lacks depth. As in people, shallowness isn’t attractive in writing.

I read this once about the philosopher Spinoza, who was deeply interested in science and mathematics, that for him the ultimate benefits of scientific study were spiritual. I like this thought so much. It seems to explain why I’m so preoccupied with depth. I could extend the thought to writing and say that the more considered the writing, the better for the soul.

Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow

Testimony for Together We Rise

Ari BelatharLast month I was invited to take part in Together We Rise, a Counter-Inaugural Celebration of Resistance. As an artist who has been subjected to persecution, illegal imprisonment, torture and exile, I was asked to talk about the role of the artist in times of oppression. Here is the testimony I gave at the Strand Theatre on the evening of January 19th, surrounded by a community of dreamers and fighters:

“Buenas noches. Good evening, ladies, gentlemen and gender dissidents!

I am here today because when I was 19 years old I was persecuted and subjected to illegal imprisonment, torture and exile, due to my work as an artist, student activist, and independent journalist.

I am also here because the first phone call I got after Trump’s victory, was my sister calling from Chicago asking if I would adopt her kids in case she is deported.

When I was invited to participate in tonight’s event, I was asked to talk about the role of the artist in times of oppression. ‘The role of the artist in times of oppression…’ The notion was utterly confusing to me. The role of the artist in times of oppression is to be an artist. Because the role of art is not to open doors that are already unlocked. The role of art is to open doors that are locked, that are sealed. The role of art is to tear down walls.

Tomorrow a man takes power, a small man whose biggest dream is to build walls…and I am not only talking about the border wall between Mexico and the United States. I am talking about invisible walls that have separated us for centuries. He and his cabinet will work tirelessly to reinforce those walls. It is our job as artists to tear them down. It is our job as members of our community to tear them down!

Art cannot exist in isolation; the artist exists so long as he or she is part of a community, and a community exists so long as it creates art.

True art should be made by all and not by one…

We have serious reasons to be concerned, afraid even, about the days to come. But we also have serious reasons to remain hopeful. So long as we tear down the walls that separate us we will be fine. This is your time Usonians– is it ok if I call you Usonians? I do not like the term Americans, because it erases the rest of the continent.  This is your time my dear Usonians to tear down the walls that you have been made to believe are the foundation of your entire existence. This is not the time to challenge white supremacy; this is the time to destroy it…to tear it down.

To be an artist is to imagine what does not exist, so that it will come into existence…but if we imagine it together everything will change.

And while we are tearing down white supremacy, let us tear down all walls, all prisons…and capitalism, which is the largest prison of all.”

The morning
is an illegal child
innocent
who runs seduced
by the cold air
that pierces
through the bones

and quietly
with the fallen night
makes a star

Trump and his henchmen are merchants of darkness, but we are the makers of the stars…artisans of light!

And if they push us to the edge of the world…we open our wings!

-Ari Belathar, 2016 Poetry Fellow 

(© Ari Belathar 2017)