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On Not Writing

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Last weekend I participated in Bread Loaf’s Sunday Salon reading series. The reading took place at Jimmy’s No. 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 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)

Writing… Or Not

Writing. It’s not something that’s been happening since November for me. First there was the election, then illness, the end of the semester, holiday rush at the bookstore, more illness (it won’t go away), followed by turning in grades and prepping new courses. Right now I’m writing this blog post, but I’m still sick and still have a mound of grading.

My default at times like this is to cut into myself. I should be able to do everything. I should be able to juggle all my jobs and my writing and my health. After all, other people do it. Hell, even I’ve done it at other points in time. The thing that has me pausing now to reconsider is the “other people.”

life-without-envy-ego-management-for-creative-people-by-camille-deangelis-1250099358This fall, WROB member Camille DeAngelis published Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People. This is not the sort of book I normally read but knowing Camille, I dove in. Camille spends most of the book focused on the dangers of comparison: because that other person published/sold/wrote/won means I should.

I saw myself in this, my sense that I wasn’t good enough not just based on the achievements of others, but also based on my past achievements. I put down the book with the begrudging feeling that I needed to be kinder to myself, but also with profound respect for Camille. Many of the examples Camille uses in the book and in discussions with bloggers are from her own life. Knowing that she struggles with the same things I do made me feel like I wasn’t alone, and that the struggle was normal.

So, if you’re currently experiencing a burst of creativity and production, I’m happy for you. But if you’re also being taken down by politics, sickness, and work, may I suggest something? Be kind to yourself and pick up Camille’s book. Get yourself a decadent drink and a cookie (and maybe some vitamins, too) and give yourself some time to check in with yourself. Maybe this takes the form of just sitting. Maybe you’re ready to pick up Camille’s book and try just one page. And maybe you find that you have the energy to write a journal entry.

As writers, we are good at empathizing with others (whether they be real people or fictional characters) but rather than giving all your energy to others, be a little selfish and give some to yourself. After all, run down, sick people can’t show up to write and, as we know, showing up to write is the hardest part.

Purchase a signed copy of Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People.

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow

WROB Fellowship Applications Due 1/15/17!

The Writers’ Room of Boston awards annual fellowships to four emerging local writers who lack sufficient funds to secure a quiet place to develop their work. Fellowship recipients receive full membership to The Writers’ Room for 12 months (March through February) at no cost. Fellows also receive a reduced rate for membership for another 12 months following the fellowship period. All fellows and members enjoy 24-hour access to a T-accessible, light-filled work space in the Financial District of downtown Boston and the opportunity to be part of a supportive community of serious writers.

boston_front copyAwards for the Emerging Writers Fellowship Program are based on the quality of a submitted writing sample, a project description, a CV or resume, and a statement of need. The Fellowships are open to writers working in any genre or form. Fellows must be committed to: using the Room on a regular basis throughout the 12-month period, writing a minimum of 6 blog posts for our website, and assisting with WROB readings and events.

For more information about the WROB Emerging Writers Fellowship Program, please visit this page on our website: http://www.writersroomofboston.org/fellowship/ 

Applications for Fellowships are due on January 15, 2017. Applications for regular membership are open all year.

All Grown Up

I often read stories that seem very grown-up.  A story may seem grown-up to me for any of a number of reasons.  (A) It sounds very authentic even if the period or location is off-track such as the North Pole or the nineteenth century. It’s clear that the author has done a good deal of research and knows his or her subject very well. This author is sensitive to dress and demeanor, climate and atmosphere, and the particular effect of sunlight on trees, and is therefore able to infuse his or her writing with authenticity.  (B) The story is structured brilliantly. For example, the author deftly weaves together episodes and bits of plot among which I would not normally see a connection. The author is clearly very intelligent, and isn’t content with making simple, childlike connections, such as character A falls down the stairs therefore character A is hurt, or with going from A to Z in a straight line. These authors take up the challenge to make their stories cast a longer shadow by being oblique.  (C) The story has a well-conceived plot, intricate or simple. The author displays a masterful grasp of human nature, of readers and characters alike, and what needs to happen to elicit emotion.  The author is able to imagine events in the extreme that are still credible and translate these into lovely language.   (D) Which brings me to a fourth reason a story may seem grown-up to me– via language that is awesome one way or another.  Some authors intuit dazzling metaphors and strings of words while others make you skip a beat with the plainest of sentences.

These are some, though by no means all, the ways in which stories seem grown-up to me.  As I have often noted in this blog, I began writing later in life.  I love my work but, like I see flaws in my kids, I see that my work could grow up a bit. For instance my characters are often born in “a town in the south of India.”  Authors of variety A above would not settle for this broad of a brushstroke.  I like to think, though, that there’s a hierarchy of writer’s needs according to which writing grows over time.  At first the writer writes to satisfy a basic need for expression.  This was true of me at least: things were obviously brewing inside me all the years I was toying with financial models. Once the basic need for expression is satisfied and the writer has cleared her system of all or most of her obsessions, cultural, childhood, or familial, the real writing can begin and her writing can grow in different directions. The writer feels able to become deeply interested in the psychology of the individual, in place, or in history. The writer does research and takes notes. The writer is less content with being direct and writes complicated, intelligent stories. Or so I like to think.

Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow

Me in My Book

A new friend recently told me that they’d started reading my book. Initially I was, of course, happy that they’d bought a copy and decided to make time to read it. Happiness was swiftly overcome with a sense of trepidation, here was this person still forming opinions of me about to delve into what was possibly my deepest emotional truths.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

In memoir, we carefully choose what to reveal, what stories to tell, and what moments to carefully edit out. But in fiction, the unreal acts as an obscuring haze over the real, meaning we’re more likely to tell emotional and psychological truths. Because every character is a magnified faucet of oneself, reading fiction is like reading the most personal there is.

I first came to this awareness when revising. As I shouted out what, exactly, my character needed to realize at the climax of the story, I was struck with the knowledge that this truth was exactly what I struggled with most as a person. I ended up laughing off the tension then, but the realization has remained.

When my first book was published, I was most worried about my friends and family reading the book. Sure, reviewers would like it or hate it, but hey, I went to art school and am so used to criticism and rejection that maybe someone should be worried. My family and friends, though, knew me as I presented myself and told my story; what would analyzing my fiction reveal? They, of course, just told me what they liked and moved on. Was I reading too much into it, a result of a sound education in critical thought?

I recently did a revision of a book that I know is very close to my life. When I began the book, I asked my mom for permission to write it, knowing it might someday alienate us from a family friend. She, of course, gave her blessing (and the book hasn’t been sold yet, so any concerns are way off in the future). The weight of needing permission opened up all sorts of questions. What had my parents thought of the book I’d published? They’d never really said. Was there something they were keeping from me? I’m not worried about it, but I still wonder, what does our fiction reveal about ourselves to those closest to us? Is this something only a writer would think about, or is it something other readers are aware of?

If you have any answers, musings, experiences, or thoughts on these questions, I’d love to hear them.

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow

Shifting Sands

Before I started writing fiction I worked as an economics consultant, and before that, I was an electronics engineer.  In none of my former occupations have I been on uncertain ground as often as I am now.  What is true is pretty much true in those fields, or at least, you can put reasonable bounds around things.  There’s a finite number of ways in which you can measure stock returns, and most people will agree on how to define these ways and what to call them.  When you learn a method of pricing an option, you can be confident that you won’t read something only weeks later that will completely overturn its authenticity.

Not so in writing.  In the last few years, I’ve had multiple blinding insights about endings, pace, and other elements of fiction – when I read an essay, for example, or study someone’s story – but my insights soon blur and disappear and are replaced by something else.  I wasn’t anticipating this. Of course I knew I was going to learn vastly different things but I was expecting to eventually nail down how to write a story: develop a theory, design a model.  I was used to pinning down concepts, harder ones, or, at least, that’s what I thought.

So how do I deal with the ambiguity in my new field? Answer: as if I’m immortal or, at least, have a hundred years to figure it out. I’m quite in awe of my own resilience, which is the word I’ll use, though I can think of more unkind ones.  At bottom is the conviction that however long it takes me to write a great story it will still be worth it.

Plot (story/structure) has always been difficult for me.  I know why.  I came to writing late, equipped with ideas for stories that I’d been carrying around, often based on my own life.  But the thing with basing stories on life, even loosely, is that one’s life is not usually inherently gripping. That’s why nice people who read my stories, including editors, often say they like this or that but it’s “slow moving.” I’m beginning to see that it’s not ignoble for a writer to structure a story to elicit certain effects.  Stories don’t have to be quite so real. I took heart from Aristotle’s opinion as stated in his “Poetics:” that “novice [writers] can master style and moral character before they can compose plot…” and, recently, began studying plot again, as if it’s an option-pricing problem.

Some writers will tell you to think of a story as a joke:  there’s got to be a punch line, they’ll say. What if you think of every story as a thriller?  You can’t miss it when the crime happens in a good thriller.  It’s dramatic.  It’s the turning point and the focus.  It’s what the story leads up to and what it jumps off from.  It’s automatic momentum.  However, someone loses something in all stories, even ones that aren’t thrillers.  Someone is acting and someone else is being acted upon.  What if I think of the loss in my stories as a “crime,” write towards it and from it?  Would that be a good way to think of structure?  I think there’s something in this – I’m only half-joking – but I’m afraid my wonderful epiphany will probably evaporate soon.

Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow

Writing Spaces and Writing Places

I’ve got this theory about writing. Like many notions about the craft it’s a little silly. But it gets me through the day, so I’ll let you be the judge. It goes something like this: Unless you’re a genius, or if you’re completely mad, the most productive way to get anything done is to find the best combination of space and place.

What do I mean? Well, I write in three spaces. First, there’s the space in my mind where memories and feelings form the stories I want to tell. It’s gorgeous — vivid and bright. Words and sentences spring to life, and I desperately want to share everything I have there. But I can’t. It’s all trapped inside. To get it out, I have to shift into my second space, the area between my thoughts and the keyboard, sometimes intersected with pen or pencil. Here it’s not pretty. This is where I struggle to capture the language I envisioned, to make the words pouring out match those in my mind. It’s a rocky and battered space. It’s where I spend most of my time, and it’s frustrating. Finally, there’s the written page, a space that can be pixelated on a screen or sometimes paper-printed, where my logical brain rearranges, revises and justifies everything I’m trying to say.

My spatial boundaries are loose, fragmented. Often I’ll occupy all three simultaneously, or jump haphazardly between them. My writing places, on the other hand, are solid. They’re the foundations for my spaces. There are also three: There’s my cluttered and wooden home office desk, the coffee-house down the block and, of course, the Writers’ Room.

Day-to-day, even moment-to-moment, my spaces and places are gushing fountains or sticky tar pits. I never know what to expect, no matter my plan. But the beauty of my theory is, if something’s not working, I can shift focus without losing a beat, and without feeling bad.

So there’s my creativity rubric — or gimmick. Call it what you like, but it’s how I inhabit my creative writing life, how I’ve learned to manage the hardest and most fickle work I’ve ever done. Jobs that actually paid me to write were easier than this. Newspaper reporting, for example — ask the questions, sort the facts, draft simple declarative sentences. Or public relations — massage away a client’s negatives and shape a compellingly manipulative story. Creative writing is so difficult that there are times I simply do not want to sit at my keyboard, even in the very same moments when I am compelled to type.

And that’s why I need to think in terms of space and place. It’s just a game I play with myself to get words onto the page, to keep me in a groove. To keep the work flowing.

Mike Sinert, 2016 WROB Nonfiction Fellow