Thoughts on the Fourth of July

Photo credit: Debka Colson

Photo credit: Debka Colson

When I think of the Fourth of July, I think of stories. Fifty-nine years ago, my grandparents took advantage of cheap reception hall prices and got married on the afternoon of July 4th. That night, when the July 4th fireworks went off, they were already on an airplane, off on their honeymoon. Decades later, at the day-long party they always held on the 4th, celebrating both their anniversary and Independence day, my grandfather had me convinced that the fireworks that went off at night were in honor of them: my grandmother and grandfather.

I was four or five at the time, and it wasn’t long before another family member set me straight. But what I remember isn’t indignation at the joke, or any kind of deeper appreciation of the Fourth. What I remember is the story. I loved my grandfather’s stretching of the truth, I loved that on the anniversary of a cheap reception, he would turn to his granddaughter and say “these are for us.”

Recently, I’ve been thinking about why I love stories. It’s very much connected to my current project: a semi-autobiographical middle grade novel about a young girl who’s convinced she’s destined for literary greatness. She loves to read, and she loves to create. But when a reader asked me, earlier this week, “why does your character want to write?”, I found myself unexpectedly stymied. Yes, she writes because she loves books, because she loves narratives. But why does she love them? And of course (as with any writing, semi-autobiographical or not) the question turned to me. Why do I want to write?

Which brings me back to stories, but really, to family. For me, I realize, these elements have always been connected. I remember other afternoons, also in the summer, when I would go to the grocery store with my other grandfather, my Ye Ye (Chinese for ‘grandfather’). Ye Ye had spoken English quite well in his younger years, but a stroke later in life had decreased his fluency substantially. He was a warm but serious man – a minister – steady, kind, and grounded.

Which made it all the more magical when he told me, when I was six or seven and couldn’t yet read, that he knew a secret to finding watermelons with no seeds. It was through sound, he explained, very seriously in somewhat halting English. You had to knock on the watermelon, and by the sound it made, you could hear if there were seeds inside.

We would spend some time by the watermelon display at the grocery store, tapping on the melons–first me, then him–discussing his Very Special hearing ability (which I could never quite get the hang of), and trying to find the best watermelons. And then, when we went home, our first task was to cut open the melon, which always, miraculously it seemed to me, had no seeds. Of course, this was then followed by eating the watermelon (a just reward for our commitment and his use of his powers).

I learned to read late, so it was a solid year or so later when I realized, finally, that Ye Ye was picking from the table labeled “seedless watermelons.” I remember so clearly, the shock of the realization, as the words came into focus and the truth became clear, and the sheer joy that came with it. My Ye Ye, my serious, thoughtful grandfather, had brought enchantment to the grocery store. To this day, I can never eat a watermelon without thinking of the wonder which his story inspired in my child self. It’s magic was twofold: first, I reveled in his seeming power, then, I reveled in his story itself. He had shown me that the most mundane, everyday thing had a story lurking within it. And, maybe most astounding of all, he had shown me how alike we really were.

It’s only recently that I’ve realized that a writer is what I truly want to be, and even more recently still that I’ve begun to articulate why. As I peel back the layers, and ask why I and my character write, it’s been a wonder all its own to find that my love of story is inherited, that my delight in fiction is something given to me by two very disparate sides of my family. I’m reminded of why I write when I walk into the grocery store, when I see fireworks in the sky, when I visit my grandfather, and when I see my Ye Ye’s picture on my bureau. It’s a heritage I see in holidays and the everyday, a passion I find embedded in my earliest memories. And it’s an answer that in its simplicity and intimacy, is a magic all its own.

-Susan Tan, 2015 Gish Jen Fellow for Emerging Writers

Writers as Readers

Photo Credit: Mary Bonina

Photo Credit: Mary Bonina

The Writers’ Room of Boston held its annual reading on June 9, featuring members and fellows reading from their works-in-progress in a variety of genres, including poetry, YA, fiction, and nonfiction.

For so many of us, writing is a solitary endeavor. Even though we may be writing in the same room, at The Writers’ Room our policy is to respect the quiet and the work being done within it. Unless we step outside the main room, we don’t have the opportunity to speak with each other. In the social space of a reading, however, we can share our work and have conversations about our poems, stories, novels, essays, and memoirs; we can ask questions and discuss the writer’s life. We can more directly connect with each other through the art of something we love.

Readings can be mutually beneficial for the writer and his or her audience. For the writer who is reading, the chance to share one’s words with others can be freeing, joyous, nerve-wracking, and invigorating. Simultaneously, an audience member can be entertained, transported, enlightened, educated, inspired, and more.

As writers, we can attend readings not only to be a part of the passionate interchange of sharing works, but to learn about effective (and ineffective) approaches to delivering a reading ourselves. Here are a few elements to think about when you attend a reading:

  1. Craft: Listen to the way a fiction writer unfurls the narrative arc of a story. Notice the moments or “dots” that connect the line of tension. At a reading, a writer cannot present an entire work; he or she creates a compressed version to share. How does the writer hold your attention (or not)?
  1. Presence: How do writers carry themselves when they read in front of an audience? Do they appear confident, hesitant, overbearing, understated or somewhere in between? Notice their style of using the microphone or standing behind a podium. Does the writer read for too long and lose your interest? Take a look around—what do you notice is the effect the writer has on other audience members? Are there any distracting habits you might have yourself that you’ll want to avoid when the time comes for your own reading (for example, some folks play with their hair or tap their feet)? Note: if you are giving a reading, you might ask a friend to videotape you so that you can learn about your own presence.
  1. Voice: Hearing a work read aloud is a different experience than reading the work silently to yourself. At a reading, can you understand everything the writer says? Does the writer mumble at all or speak too quickly, loudly or slowly? Is the writer’s voice animated, welcoming, soothing, or harsh? What is appealing about the writer’s voice? What is appealing about your own?

We can attend a reading for the sheer pleasure of it.  At the same time, if we allow what we see and hear to soak in, a reading can not only touch us but teach us something. It might even serve as a launching pad for our improvement and growth as writers.

-Tracy Strauss, Fellow in Nonfiction

Artist Self

Several years ago I wrote a few short stories, one after another, that each had some kind of artist for a protagonist. They took various guises and encountered various fates, but when I stepped back and looked at them side by side, they were all about characters who gained a sense of agency and belonging through their work. Their art was transformative to their lives. I didn’t plan this, and it took me a long time to make the connection–I don’t think it’s a stretch–that while I was writing these stories, I had been working through the question of whether or not to pursue my MFA. I also didn’t observe, until much later, that I had written each and every one of these artists as male and white.

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The New York Times recently published a recommended summer reading list, comprised solely of white authors. Some excellent thinkers and writers have already commented on this, more eloquently than I can (for example, see Roxane Gay’s article on NPR’s Code Switch: http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/05/28/410015276/the­worst­groundhog­s­daytime­to­talk­again­about­diversity­in­publishing), so allow me simply to say that it’s only the latest occurrence that necessitates the ongoing conversation about diversity on our bookshelves, in MFA programs, and in the publishing world. You’ve probably read or at least heard of Junot Diaz’s widely­ discussed “MFA vs. POC” article in the New Yorker last year (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/mfa-vs-poc). You have probably seen the yearly VIDA counts (http://www.vidaweb.org), and heard that this commendable organization is making efforts to expand the count to look specifically at women of color, at LGBTQI writers, and writers with disabilities.

Critics of this conversation often ask why it should matter. Why, if it’s the work that matters, should the writer’s race matter (or: gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, able- bodiedness, and so on). As though academia and the publishing industry that influence what we read are perfectly merit-­based, neutral systems. As though the work is somehow conjured from a neutral mind, or is about a neutral world that doesn’t exist. As though language is a neutral medium. It is not. Consider the definitions and connotations of the words fair and dark.

IMG_3344There are a couple of strands of discussion here, and while they are intimately entwined, they should be parsed out. There’s the question of representation–of who gets to publish, who is reviewed, who lands teaching positions, and whose books we read. Then there’s the question of our own identities, relative to our writing–what we’re expected to write and why, what topics and voices are “off­-limits” to us (if any), and how, when we choose to cross boundaries, do we do it effectively.

About the former: it’s not an attack on white writers to ask for more parity. No one is saying their books are undeserved accomplishments. Nor is it an attempt to shame any of us as readers and writers and teachers. Instead it’s a plea to the literary community to recognize how much more expansive their reading lives could be, if only they would pay attention. The (predominantly white and male) literary canon is canonical for a reason–it’s brilliant, beautiful work. But think how much more beauty is out there for us to find, if only we would be open to it. Why would we deny ourselves that? The great works by writers of color are out there, and being written, and will be written. You just aren’t seeing them championed in The New York Times. The exceptions to this are sadly just that: exceptions.

As for the latter: I understand, and feel, the desire to write across boundaries. Clearly I had no qualms writing one white male character after another. But the difference between my writer self from a few years ago and the writer self I am today is that I now believe I must first recognize where my own identity sits in this society, relative to my character’s identity. What baggage or preconceptions I bring to my pen. When I write a character, I am trying to bring that character to life in the reader’s mind; I am asking the reader to take a leap of faith with me and to translate a few marks of ink on paper into an understanding of an entire person. What a strange and tremendous act, and, given how powerful narratives are in how we form opinions about the world, what a tremendous responsibility.

We are none of us immune to bias–cultural or otherwise. Was it important to the stories, that all my artist characters were white males? Probably not. So then, what did it say about me, an Asian-­American woman trying to figure out how to write fiction, and what did it say about our cultural landscape, that when I imagined those who produced valuable work, I never imagined someone who looked like me? I’m not claiming that it’s wrong for me to write white male artist characters–it might be appropriate for a particular story. I’m saying that seeing this pattern within my own work made it abundantly clear to me that something was going on, and that I should sit up and pay attention. Because if I didn’t even realize what I was doing, the white bias I was replicating, what other biases am I unwittingly reinforcing on the page? It is my responsibility, as someone who wants my words to be read, to be as aware as I can possibly be of what I’m doing with those words. By the same token, we should all sit up and pay attention if we look at the writers we keep reading and teaching, and they all belong to one particular demographic. Maybe you have some good reason for it, I don’t know. But maybe you’re closing yourself off from books that will knock you over silly, they’re so good.

The Racial ImaginaryIn Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda’s excellent anthology The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, they write in their introduction that “our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are. They are not some special, uninfiltrated realm that transcends the messy realities of our lives and minds. To think of creativity in terms of transcendence is itself specific and partial–a lovely dream perhaps, but an inhuman one.” This is not a prohibition against writing “the other.” It’s a call to look at ourselves and our work and the work we value with our eyes open.

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At my MFA program we’ve been having this conversation among the students, faculty, and administration over the past few years. To the great credit of my school, Warren Wilson, and the community it fosters, I have not personally experienced what Diaz describes from his own MFA experience as “an almost lunatical belief that race [is] no longer a major social force.” Instead, I have encountered student after student, of all backgrounds, who have told me that they want to have these conversations, they want to talk about the impact that identity politics have on their work and on our education. We are a community of students trying to figure out how we can process the world through our writing in thoughtful and meaningful ways. Last January, after an overwhelmingly positive response to a student-­led discussion about the intersection of identity and craft, it took some time for me to sort out what felt like an internal ground shift. It was the first time I’d ever explicitly received the message that it can be okay, even welcome, to talk about these issues, and to think that my racialized, gendered self is also an artist self. That my artist self is also a racialized, gendered self. Even if it isn’t racialized as white, or gendered as male. It is a startling thing to understand what you have not been getting from the culture at large. Sometimes you don’t recognize it until you finally hear it.

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Oftentimes, in these conversations that present hard questions, people want answers. Tell me what to do, so that I can be responsible and respectful. Do I take an affirmative action stance towards my own work? Towards my bookshelf? Do I use certain words and not others? What am I allowed to write? How do I not offend? The maddening thing is, I don’t think there are answers, not really. No singular answers, anyway. If this was an easy thing to address, if there was some checklist we could follow, we wouldn’t keep having the same conversations year after year, reading list after reading list. But I have become increasingly convinced that it is the active asking of questions that is most important, and the willingness to persist in the uneasy and uncomfortable. I have become increasingly convinced that it is only in the belief that this conversation matters at all that we can take small steps in our own work and in ourselves.

-Cynthia Gunadi, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

WROB Annual Reading on June 9, 2015

The Writers’ Room of Boston is hosting our Annual Reading on Tuesday, June 9, 2015 at Lesley University’s Marran Gallery. The Gallery is located on the Doble Campus off Mellen Street in Cambridge. Members of the Room will read selections of poetry, fiction and nonfiction.

Photo for Reading 2

Doors open at 6 PM for light refreshments and conversation. The reading will begin at 6:30 and will last about an hour followed by another opportunity to mingle. The following members and fellows will be reading selections of their work:

  • Valerie Duff, 2015 WROB Poetry Fellow
  • Kate Gilbert
  • Cynthia Gunadi, 2015 Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow
  • Mackenzi Lee
  • Katie Li
  • Tracy Strauss, 2015 WROB Nonfiction Fellow
  • Susan Tan, 2015 Gish Jen Fellow
  • Pui Ying Wong

If you live near Boston, please join us to celebrate the Room and the wonderful work of our members!

 

Aside

Recently, I walked into a bookstore with my nine-year-old daughter and said, choose a book you wantanything under ten dollars. She surprised me by choosing Scott Westerfeld’s New York bestseller Leviathan, no doubt based on the steampunk cover and her recent interest in a movie based on books by Jules Verne. I tried vainly to shepherd her to something else—something I remembered from childhood, something classic. Then I remembered reading (though at the time I was slightly older than she is, twelve or thirteen) all the Mario Puzo novels I checked out of a beach library; I thought of all the Ian Fleming books I went through one summer. (I was also reading Jane Eyre—but still.)

Nobody ever stopped me from reading any book I picked out.

We bought it. She loves it. Ten years from now, if she’s writing anything at all, who knows what it will have taught her or how it will shape her thinking about her own work. As I now revisit the sheer number of books I read until I reached my thirties, I am intrigued.

Then I stopped and thought—well, what am I reading now? Sometimes the question for me isn’t what I’m reading, but when in this nonstop world I’ll read. So much of the time I’m reading for work (as a book reviewer) which isn’t really so bad—I think books deserve reviews and I’m glad I have a job that keeps me reading current work, but sometimes I wish I could jump into a classic book (not for a book group) or a contemporary book (not for potential review)—just for pleasure.

So what am I reading for pleasure?

1) The Sphere of Birds by Ciaran Berry, as I reconsider my thin lines, he offers examples of how lines can thicken:

Why do they bother, what is it both boys want except
          the soul sprung from the locked box of the self,
one doing his best to scale the ladder of the air,

the other rapt up in the workings of his wrist,
          and both of them reminding me of the Caladrius, that all-white bird
said to symbolize Christ, a more literal taking away

of sins, as it drew the symptoms of any non-fatal illness
          with its stare and carried them into the sun to burn.
Later in life, my brother will collect bones: skull of a curlew…

2) Dancing in Odessa by Ilya Kaminsky, to hear a young voice, a contemporary’s particularly fresh voice that seems also able to channel from centuries past:

October: grapes hung like the fists of a girl
gassed in her prayer. Memory,
I whisper, stay awake.

In my veins
long syllables tighten their ropes, rains come
right out of the eighteenth century
Yiddish or a darker language in which imagination
is the only word.

4) Stone by Osip Mandelstam, because of Ilya Kaminsky’s brilliant reminder:

I grew as a rustling reed
Where the pond is foul and muddy
And with languid and tender greed
Breathe a life forbidden to me.

No one sees me as I sink down
To a cold lair in the mud
With a rustle to bid me welcome
In autumn’s brief interlude.

I rejoice in my cruel pain
And in life, which is like a dream,
I secretly envy all men
And in secret love all of them.

5) (gentlessness) by Dan Beachy-Quick, for music that shapes into experience:

Teeth are this poor man’s plow
   cutting the music into rows,
dulled down by the dirt,
   this face is this poor man’s tool,
tilling the earth by trilling the song,
   melody mumming the blossom
back into itself, the initial seed
   broken apart by what it cannot
help, this force that confesses
   itself, that says I from the broken
mouth, that confesses this mouth
   has always been mine, this shovel,
this mouth, singing the flower….

6) Legend of the Walled-Up Wife by Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, to hear a gifted Irish poet translate a Romanian poet who has her own mythology, but blends characteristics of Romanian folklore expertly with the Western canon:

When I was travelling as an obscure
Member of Ahab’s crew
Searching for the white whale
Suddenly I felt my right leg
Shedding its flesh and becoming
A plain artificial stump
Whittled from the sacred bone
Of the Leviathan.

WROB sitting area

What do you read? And how much of your not-because-I-have-to reading secretly feeds what you write? What voices do you trap inside for those moments when you need some structure or a gentle nudge while you’re doing your own work? If I had an equal amount of time to spare, I’d spend as much time cozied up in the Writers’ Room comfy chairs reading as I do at a desk trying to write.

-Valerie Duff, 2015 Poetry Fellow

From Reading to Writing

One of my most vivid childhood memories is among my most painful. It was the first day of first grade, and our task was a handwriting assignment. We were asked to copy a paragraph written on the board, just a simple exercise, my teacher said. And I remember how the white chalk cut across the blackboard, and the sick feeling in my stomach as I forced my hand to move, to draw what seemed nothing more that shapes, to copy those squiggles and lines as I might a painting. All in order to conceal my terrible truth: that I couldn’t read.

I’m not sure why I struggled so with reading as a child. Perhaps it was because I’d switched school districts so many times in the span of a few short years – when I was in kindergarten in Michigan they learned to read in first grade, when I was in first grade in Kansas City, they had learned to read in kindergarten, and I started behind.

Yet I couldn’t wholly pin my inability to read on school. I’d grown up with parents who’d wanted to instill a love of books in me. They’d read to me every night, and worked tirelessly to teach me to sound out words and identify letters long before I began any formal education. And their overall plan had worked: I loved books, and I was desperate to be able to read them myself.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

But I still couldn’t do it, and hours of my parents’ encouragement, my teachers’ time, and my own efforts to read didn’t seem to have any impact. Words on a page held magic for me, but it was a magic that I could only access when someone else read them. On my own, I felt like an interloper, always a visitor and outsider in the fairy tale kingdoms, Narnias, and Wonderlands which I so loved, and which others seemed to access so easily. At night, I would take my books and desperately try to decipher them, to will the stories I knew existed there to show themselves to me. It wouldn’t work, and in frustration, I’d hurl my book across the room.

When I couldn’t read, the world was a web of impenetrable signs and mysterious codes and symbols. In the car, I’d watch the road signs pass, knowing that those signs held knowledge beyond stories, and knowing that if I could only decipher them, I too would have the magic of orientation- of knowing where we were, where we were going, where we stood in the world.

And when I couldn’t read, words themselves felt like a danger, too. When I sat at my desk in first grade, tracing those lines, aware that they were simple shapes to me where they should have been full of meaning, every mark on the page felt like a risk. Was I copying a line or a stray scratch? Was I correctly guessing where one word ended and another began? And even worse, was this mark going to be the one which finally gave me away- which, if a classmate looked over my shoulder, would proclaim my inability to the classroom (which at that time, of course, felt like the world)?

I’ve been thinking a lot about my reading, lately, as I think about my writing. It’s often funny to me that a child who’s relationship with writing was so charged- so full of frustration, impossibility, and sometimes anger- would have grown up to pursue writing as a career.

And yet, as I recount my early relationship with words and books in this post, I see a profound resonance between my younger and older selves. It strikes me that my early relationship with reading is, in fact, a dynamic I haven’t wholly left behind: my childhood experiences with reading aren’t all that different from my adult relationship with writing, one which volleys continually between love and frustration.

One of my college English professors and mentors once called writing a perpetual journey between elation and self loathing. In part, this has always been true for me. The words that leave me energized in the morning disappoint on a second read; the words that I extract one painful syllable at a time at night, convinced they’re awful, in the morning hit me as exactly what I’d been trying to say all along. The act of bridging the gap between what exists in my head as abstract perfection, and what has to exist in the world as concrete words, has always been messy for me, wrought with feelings of frustration, fear, and imminent failure. It’s the old feeling of being outside, barred from a certain understanding, unable to get through to that magic combination of words which I “know” exist, to express an unarticulated idea that I’m sure, somehow, is there.

And yet, I know from personal experience that this particular set of extremes isn’t where I’ll find my way forward. Ultimately, it wasn’t my punishing frustration, fear, and anger that taught me how to read. I didn’t find the secret as I wept over my books at night, and I certainly didn’t find the secret in my classroom, where shame and up humiliation seemed to lurk around every corner. In fact, I’m almost embarrassed to say that I can’t remember exactly how I learned to read. Because, one day, when I wasn’t crying, punishing, grasping, it just happened. I think perhaps it was developmental. One day, I woke up and read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Just like that. And I came down, told my stunned mother, and went right back upstairs to read some more. No tears, no fear, it just was.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

It’s this moment that I’ve been finding myself coming back to, again and again, as I think about my writing. In that moment, I was victorious- I’d mastered the thing that had eluded me. I had my magic worlds and the independence I’d made into a magic act itself- the ability to open a book, all by myself, and by myself, to make that book live. And as I did, all the noise; the frustration; the vision of reading as a zero sum game, complete with winners and loser, insiders and outsiders, fell away. I could read, and in that moment I knew the truth of what I wanted: to read, and read more.

Sometimes, my writing all seems a code, a map, a series of squiggles and lines, which are again impenetrable to me. Sometimes, I see my writing as a journey between elation and self loathing, a shift between total success and total failure – a vision which continually leaves me an outsider and an interloper, not to mention emotionally exhausted. Sometimes, I want to throw my book across the room.

So as much as I can, I try to bring myself back to the truth of the moments where I’ve found my greatest success. Not the moments where the words click into place, though those are great too, but the moments when my mind accepts the process that any sustained creative and imaginative activity demands. It’s in these moments that something clicks, that my past self leaves her frustrations and self hatreds behind, and that I remember that this is how my relationship with reading, all those years ago, has truly prepared me for my writing today. Because it’s in these moments where I don’t care about keeping any kind of score, or about tomorrow’s line edits, or about my worth as a writer, wordsmith, artist. It’s in those moments that I write. And then I go upstairs, to write some more.

-Susan Tan, 2015 Gish Jen Fellow for Emerging Writers

On Acceptance

When I enter the Writers’ Room of Boston, the successful works of writers greet me. Displayed in the foyer are the completed masterpieces of WROB members who’ve reached my goal: to publish a book.

The sight is one of accomplishment, passion, pride, hope, persistence, drive, faith, timing, and luck—we have no control over the latter two.

As writers, not one of us escapes rejection. For a long time, I received several rejections a week, sometimes every day. Yet somehow, instead of discouraging me, the rejections fueled me onward. I believed that if I worked hard enough, if I took the “right” steps, if I did the things writers were supposed to, I’d successfully put my words out into the world, connect with others, and reach my goal.

I honed my craft in writing workshops and networked with industry professionals at many writers’ conferences and retreats. I earned not one but two MFAs. Renowned authors became my mentors, encouraging me. I published in magazines and built my “platform.” I signed with a respected literary agent who was excited about my work.

But four years later, with two books unsold, my agent lost his enthusiasm. Eventually, I made the difficult decision to leave him.

I went back to the task of querying.

One by one, I received rejections. I was told that in the current nonfiction market I’d never sell a book, because I wasn’t a celebrity. I was advised to try to break into the publishing business by writing fiction, a genre for which fame wasn’t a prerequisite to becoming a debut author.

So I wrote a novel. One agent who requested the first five pages emailed me her reaction: “Writing fiction is a talent, which you obviously don’t have.”

Worn, I believed her. I put my manuscript away. I felt utter despair. I lost sight of the goals I had already accomplished. I saw only my failure. The encouraging words of my mentors rang hollow in my ears. I lost faith that I’d ever publish a book. I began to think such success simply wasn’t mine to attain.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson Print by Bread & Puppet

Photo Credit: Debka Colson
Print by Bread & Puppet

But I couldn’t stop writing. Call it masochism or tenacity – some days I really didn’t know what it was, but I was driven. I wouldn’t let the publishing business zeitgeist deter me.

When I received the Writers’ Room of Boston Nonfiction Fellowship, I made my way to the State Street office. I turned the key in the elevator panel. I pressed the button for the fifth floor: it lit. I ascended.

When the door opened, an overwhelming sense of acceptance welcomed me.

Now here I am, writing in the Room, feeling renewed purpose and solace in the sound of my fingers typing sentence after sentence, amidst the sounds of other writers doing the same.

In the words of Billy Joel, “I’m keeping the faith, yes I am.” We all are.

-Tracy Strauss, Fellow in Nonfiction

The Murky, Glorious Middle

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

I’m in the middle of an MFA thesis, in the middle of revising a story, one that I’ve been writing, on and off, for years now. Middles tend to be viewed unfavorably, I’ve noticed. Age, car seats, and those poor children. One is always stuck, when in the middle. And I’ve lamented being here, many times, to anyone who will listen–here, where the exciting spark of a story’s beginnings is long behind me, and the prospect of finishing it seems impossibly far away.

But of course in writing, we spend most of our time here, in the middle. So it would be wise for us (for me) to learn to love it. Seven years ago I took my first fiction workshop, during which we learned, week by week, various components of craft. I had always been a reader of fiction, but until then had never really considered what effect point of view had on a narrative. How setting could be as important as plot. What it meant to use exposition, versus scene. It seemed to me that I was finally being shown fiction’s inner workings, and now it should be possible to spit a story out at will! And then during the last class, my brilliant teacher told us: Of course, revision is where we do all the actual work. He went on about how he really loved revision, as the class sat silent, all of us absorbing the idea that there was no way to shortcut to a finished piece. I felt the first stirrings of an anxiety that would become very familiar over the years–I could not conceive of dismantling the two stories I’d toiled over, only to put them back together again. Why, if I was supposed to write a different version of the story, couldn’t I write it the first time?

It took me a long time to accept his statement. To accept that in revision, we have the opportunity to consider what has emerged in the work unbeknownst to us. In that first draft we are busy constructing worlds, forming people, creating tangled events and timelines, and we are so close to this newness that we sometimes can’t recognize everything we’re putting down on paper. It’s not until the murky middle–the glorious middle–of the writing process that we step back and observe what we’ve created.

The hardest part, for me, is the stepping back. The re-seeing. Re-visioning. I reread my drafts obsessively, and this sometimes gives me the illusion of the words solidifying in their arrangements before they should, calling forth that anxiety about pulling them apart again. And since I know this is a challenge for me, I now shamelessly adopt any and all methods I learn from others, to see things anew. I change my fonts. I work backwards from the end. I switch to writing by hand. I read aloud. I tape sections to walls and summarize them on post-its, which my husband and cats find endlessly amusing. I leave my desk to write at the kitchen table, or the sofa, or the amazing, blessed Writer’s Room. If you tell me what you do to see your words as fresh words, I guarantee I will try it.

Because when we re-see our words in revision, we usually find that they don’t capture the feeling that first drove us to the page. Somehow the work has become its own beast, and has taken on all sorts of qualities we hadn’t intended. This character never acts upon anything. The energy in that scene lags. Or we notice parallels and connections we never saw before, and by restructuring this or that we can make them sing. We insert an image and are startled to see that its effects now echo through the narrative arc, opening a new direction altogether. It is only recently that I’ve come to appreciate this middle as the actual work of writing, something not to fear, but to revel in. I still don’t know the answer to that question, of why we can’t write the perfect poem, story, or novel the first time around. It is still mysterious to me how the act of creation requires us first to build something on paper, and then to break that something down. To see it with new eyes. To reshape it into something we could not conceive of before it was there, outside of ourselves. Little by little we coax our words to become what we hope they could be.

Cynthia Gunadi, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

The ‘You’ in Memoir

Memoir: it’s all about me, me, me. And yet in reality the focus is not on “me” at all—it’s on “you,” the reader.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Recently, I was teaching a memoir workshop when one of my students announced her plan to “write my late son’s memoir.” She explained she wanted to take her son’s journals (800 pages) and “edit them down” into a book-length memoir about his life: she’d craft scenes to link his thoughts together into a full narrative. She’d write the memoir in first person, she said, but she wouldn’t be the narrator—her deceased son would tell his story. In fact, her voice wouldn’t be in the manuscript at all.

While this sounded like an intriguing idea for a book, I explained to my student that it wouldn’t be memoir, a genre written from the direct experience and first person perspective of the writer.

In my own memoir, I describe how, after my mother’s death, I was cleaning out her condo to prepare it for sale when I found several notebooks of poetry and prose she’d written when I was a girl. My adult relationship with my mother had been ridden with conflict and emotional estrangement; for years, she’d refused to talk about traumatic events from my childhood, incidents from our family life, devastating truths that I was only coming to terms with in my thirties. My mother told me she couldn’t speak of or hear about the past, because doing so would kill her.

It was only after she died from an aggressive form of ovarian cancer (known as the “silent killer”) that I gained access to her uncensored thoughts and feelings, her voice, through her written words. The more I read, the more I came to know my mother, and her perspective. With each page I turned, our relationship deepened.

I encouraged my student to take the opportunity of our workshop to try out the practice of writing about herself in relation to her son’s journals, but she declined. She wasn’t ready to engage in the memoirist’s inward process, a kind of internal transformation or combustion of life, to revivify her personal experience on the page. She believed the endeavor would be selfish, solipsistic.

I know many people who think of first-person writing as self-catharsis or therapy. And there’s nothing wrong with writing for that reason. But when we write for an audience, it’s not enough to simply vomit life onto the page. The writer’s job is to create art in service to others.

When I write memoir, I’m engaging in an unspoken contract with the reader to deliver the whole story, to reveal the many dimensions of humanness, especially what is difficult to articulate. Doing so is the only way to earn the trust necessary for a reader to open my book and turn the page.

It’s only when my story transcends my own wishes, fears, triumphs, and grief that it can become meaningful to the world. Then it’s no longer my story, but our story.

Tracy Strauss, Fellow in Nonfiction

(Re)Writing Routines

Settling into the Writers Room has been a process of settling into new routines. On the days I reserve for writing, it’s no longer a question of which coffee shop will have space, or if I can get work done from my bed, or if my housemates are out and I can snatch uninterrupted time at my kitchen table. Now, it’s a quiet routine of the coffee brewed and the bag packed: the computer, the charger, and of course, a snack for later.

With my new routine come new rituals too. The twenty-minute T ride from home to Park Street has become a meditative time: my phone turns off, and with quiet music or in simple silence, I angle my mind towards the work of the day. I try to take the walk from Park Street briskly, getting my thoughts flowing. From there, I’m ready to set up at a desk and settle into the bright quiet of the Room.

I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals and routines since receiving the Gish Jen Emerging Writers Fellowship, which opened this space up to me. I’d thought, when I sent my application off on a wing and a prayer, that the only routines I’d change – and indeed, could change – would be the physical: the space, the commute, the desk. I had no idea that in these first few months of 2015, I’d have to confront the fact of two, deeply rooted routines, two ritualized assumptions that, until now, I’d never realized had always surrounded my writing. The first of these is that writing, for me, is natural, necessary, and inevitable. And the second is that I am not a writer, and can never claim to be, until I’ve published a book.

This disjuncture between act and title had never occurred to me, until I – elated by the news that I had received the fellowship – told a close friend. “That’s great,” she said, sincerely. And then followed it up, equally sincerely, with “But I had no idea that you wanted to be a writer.” And so it’s gone from there. Barring family and my best of friends, the news that I’ve joined the Writers Room has to be accompanied by a long prelude, bearing the news that for years, I’ve been writing books.

Confronting this contradiction – that I’ve never allowed an entrenched part of my daily existence to become a part of my outward, projected self – has been startling. Until these last few months, it had legitimately never occurred to me that the act of writing makes a writer, or that my writing, in the action itself, was worth talking about. In the twists and turns of my head, my writing was some sort of fraudulent attempt at being a “writer” (or at least it would be, in my thinking, until the outside world affirmed my writing, retroactively granting my labor ‘legitimacy’). Needless to say, this unwillingness to define myself as a writer went hand in hand with my own devaluing of my work and efforts. And, as a result, it left a large and important part of my life unarticulated.

Photo Credit: Tara Colson Leaning

Photo Credit: Tara Colson Leaning

The gift of this fellowship and this space has been substantial. I have a beautiful place to work, I’ve met a community of inspiring people, and listening to the sound of other writers typing is the best possible thing you can do for your own productivity, I’ve learned. But I think my biggest takeaway, so far, has been this: the empowering realization that it’s okay – and in fact, important – to be an “emerging” writer. It’s a gift of affirmation, not publishing or reviews (though fingers crossed that will come, someday), but the permission to take myself and my needs, desires, and that pesky compulsion to write seriously.

I’m grateful for this disruption of my routines. It’s shown me that the hours I spend typing, deleting, and revising are productive and valuable. It’s helped me clear away old routines that paralyzed rather than produced. And it’s made space for new routines, for the things that are the most important of all: the commute, the meditation, and the slow, steady work of a writer writing.

Susan Tan, 2015 Gish Jen Fellow for Emerging Writers