Process Woes: Models

There is a certain inefficient, lengthy ritual that I perform every time I begin a new story or a major revision of one. Frustrating as it is, it will have to do until I come up with a better one or get to a point where I ditch rituals entirely. What the ritual involves is to look for a “model” in a story or other work whose voice or style or content resonates with my mood for my own story. Not that I’m trying to write like these other writers, though I do sometimes put down a sentence or two of theirs on my page – which is like trying on their clothes, I suppose – but reading them while I’m writing my story helps me write it better. This model is important. The sooner I find the right one the faster my story proceeds, sometimes with ethereal speed, to doneness which I judge for now by whether I still like it after a month. For instance there’s a story I worked on last year that I’m still happy with and I think this is in part because I found the right seed for it in the sad, mad, idiosyncratic rant, “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot” (by Robert Olen Butler – how I love this story).

More often, though, I shift frustratingly from model to model. I recently drove myself crazy with a revision I was working on, and I’m exaggerating only a little when I say this. I’d begun by looking at Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia:” what I like about this story is how much like a story it is, no tricks with form or style, proper beginning, middle, and end, lovely language and high emotion. Why don’t I just write a story? I thought. Then I looked at some Alice Munro and was struck again by the complexity of her fiction, so brilliant I don’t always get all the ins and outs of it. (I consider myself only a middling reader of other people’s stories – I know good stuff when I read it but I can’t always say precisely why it’s good.) Then I studied “The Disappearance of Luisa Porto,” a brooding story by Frances de Pontes Peebles set in Brazil. Perhaps I should emulate, I thought, how the author works in ethnic details with such ease and abundance that reading the story makes me feel as if I’m strolling down the ethnic aisle of a grocery story surrounded by exotic, beguiling words on highly colored packaging. From Luisa Porto I jumped unexpectedly to my old love, Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters. What a book, one that gives conventional narrative the royal boot. (I’ve always had a fight with conventional narrative but in the end I’ll probably succumb because I’m not Bernhard.) Along the way I looked at other favorites, Akhil Sharma (deadpan humor), Elisabeth Harrower’s story “Alice,” etc., etc.

So I went on for a month at the end of which a point came—it usually does—when I felt I could go on with my own story, having settled—tentatively—on an approach that didn’t look like any one thing I’d been reading but probably had a bit of all of them in it. My process is frustrating. But having done this a few times I see some advantages to it. It forces me to look again at the work of writers I love and think about what I love about them. It helps me get a better sense of where my approach lies in the spectra of style and content. It helps me feel less as if I’m writing in a vacuum and more as if I’m writing to fill a gap. I suspect and hope though that one day I’ll just sit down and write to my own model.

-Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow

I’ll Write You an Offer You Can’t Refuse

I just watched The Godfather. Early in the movie, Kay asks Michael about a strange man in a corner, talking to himself. That’s Luca Brasi, says Michael, the man who held a gun to the head of a famous Hollywood big shot while Don Corleone assured him that either his signature or his brains would be on an important contract.

That’s powerful motivation for getting words on the page.

As writers, we’re self-starters. We have no boss standing over our shoulder, cracking the whip, making sure the work happens. There’s no Luca Brasi.

But here’s the thing I’ve realized about writerly motivation: Sometimes you don’t have to dig deep for it. Sometimes it’s staring you in the face and you don’t even realize it.

Fifteen years ago a venture capital guy read the 60-page business plan I’d written for ZoomPak, a shipping venture, and said it was the most literary thing to ever land on his desk. He declined to fund my startup, which collapsed into bankruptcy.

In business school before that, I’d written a fairly detailed, 40-page academic research paper on competition between Boeing and Airbus in the market for super-jumbo airliners. Roget gave me a dozen synonyms for the word ‘competition’ – clash, contention, engagement, rivalry and horse-race among them — and I included a boxing match analogy in the conclusion. My statistics professor called the paper ‘well-written but frothy.’

As a public relations guy during the late 1990s dot-com boom, I wrote a speech for a Silicon Valley mogul. I was awed in the man’s presence. I tried to put beautiful words in his mouth, stunning phrases that rivaled the great orators. The guy read my draft. ‘It’s not f– -ing art,’ he said, and never talked to me again. Pretty soon I lost that job.

I never succeeded in business or PR, or the myriad other careers I attempted. I was never motivated. I was always doing the wrong thing, always trying to be like someone else — college friends who’d made big money after business school, old journalism colleagues who became ‘communications professionals.’ Nothing ever clicked.

But then a time came when I was forced to write my way out of a serious illness. For three years that was all I could do, and by the time I emerged from my hospital room I realized writing was all I wanted to do. I’ve been typing ever since. I’m not a successful writer by the measures of our craft. I haven’t published much. Last year I earned $25 from my words. But I’m driven, and good things are happening.

Photo Credit: Tara Colson Leaning

Photo Credit: Tara Colson Leaning

You might say that illness was my Luca Brasi, forcing me to put words on the page. But I think it just opened my eyes to possibilities, to the writer’s motivation I already possessed. That’s the trick it took me years, and a near-death experience, to figure out.

Open your eyes.

-Mike Sinert, 2016 Nonfiction Fellow


School Events

Though my book Baba Yaga’s Assistant has been out for almost ten months now and I’ve been working on many other projects, I find that much of my time is still spent working for this book. For me, this takes the form of school visits. While writing a book is an isolating task except for occasional critique group meetings, school visits are my chance to meet my audience directly and honestly, they can be a lot of fun.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Last week I loaded my bike panniers with books and headed over to Arlington, MA, to meet with students. In the beautiful library, I set up my powerpoint and prepared. As students waited for the other classes to arrive, we talked about what they were reading. There was a list of what you might expect: Rick Riordan, Raina Telegemeier, and Jeff Kinney, but also some titles you might not expect. I gave some recommendations, and then we got started.

I always begin with a brief background, then move into the idea and research process. I spend a bit of time talking about the importance of revising. The kids’ eyes always get big here, their mouths dropping open as I explain just how many times I revised the piece; this is every teacher’s favorite part.

I’m at the point where I can do this presentation in my sleep, but if anything, that makes it better, because it frees me up to read my audience when I speak. I ask questions as I show slides, asking students to show their knowledge and connect my process with what they’ve been learning in their English and art classes.

Once I’ve established the writing process, we talk about the phases the art went through (again, revising is important here!) and I end with a final spread. This is my favorite part: asking students to break down how the different art elements are working. The students are always able to look at color and shape and indicate how it relates to mood, tone, and setting. Meanwhile, their teachers’ mouths are dropping. Unless one of the teachers is trained in art, they generally are not aware of how much visual literacy is a part of graphic novels and how adept their students are at analyzing it.

Then, of course, there’s Q&A. Always call on the random squirming boy in the back. Generally, his question is surprisingly relevant and insightful, not the run of the mill “will it be a movie?” Which is a question every author fields at school events and most would rather not.

With groups under fifty, I tend to end my presentation with an exercise, getting the students to practice their own writing and drawing. I love to see what the students make and what questions they ask, but it’s also a point at which insecurities arise. I’ve found that fifth graders will do pretty much anything but seventh and eight graders, especially those who are in advanced classes, worry about doing something wrong. We’ve all been in this situation, had this fear, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to wonder if this is directly tied to revision.

As writers, we’re aware of how much work, how many changes, will ultimately go into our final. Whatever we do for a first draft or pass can be shitty; it’ll get better (it might get worse first, but it’ll get to a better place eventually). Focusing on endless sketches and countless revisions, something I didn’t get to do until college, makes work less precious, more malleable. If we allowed for more of this in schools, would students be more willing to take more risks? Or is the time allotted to testing and prepping an impediment to this very important skill?

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet but what I can say is that I love visiting schools. I love being able to take time out of new projects to connect directly with my audience, to learn what they’re reading, what they’re excited by, and how they engage with the concepts inherent in my work. When a student lingers after an event to tell me about what they’re working on, or that they liked my book, well, then I know it was worth it. Luckily, I have some more visits planned.

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow


Transformation: A WROB Reading at Porter Square Books

Four members of The Writers’ Room of Boston will be reading at Porter Square Books at 25 White Street in Cambridge on May 17, 2016 at 7 PM. Though they will be presenting work in a range of genres and styles, each piece relates to the theme of “Transformation.” Our readers will also recommend a favorite book written by another author (available in the bookstore) relating to the same theme.

Our readers are (in alphabetical order):

Mary Bonina, memoirist and poet.

Alexander Danner, writer of comics, fiction and audio drama

Kate Gilbert, writer of children’s fiction writer and a freelance editor

Jennifer Hollis, music-thanatologist and  memoirist.

Please join us for this special event!


Some Days the Sun Rises from My Head…

Some days the sun rises from my head and I write as if I were relearning life from the letter “a.” Other days, like today, I am a meteor disintegrating — days in which everything and everybody recognizes me as a foreigner.

Exiled from a country that only exists in the shadows that nostalgia draws up (nobody chooses borders as a postcard).

Some days I forget that the language I write in is not my language, I stole it. I stole it from a bookcase the day I took a copy of “A Fine Balance,” put it under my jacket and ran back to the refugee shelter, where a pocket dictionary was the only tool I had to decipher a story that I so desperately needed to claim as mine.

I learnt English by stealing books. I taught myself both, the art of book theft and the complexities of the English language. The greatest lesson I learnt is that when you write in a stolen language each word is an opportunity of life and death. Thus it is necessary to care for every word and for the silence from which it emerges.

But on days like today it is hard to hear the silence. Fearful fascists, entrenched in their delusion that borders must remain eternal and immutable, vehemently promote the construction of walls, segregated neighborhoods and checkpoints… ignorant that the Promised Land can only be found in the poem.

When I write in my stolen language, some days I tear down walls and with each verse I liberate entire territories. Other days each letter is an impenetrable frontier.

But there is a freedom, a literary anarchy of sorts; when you take a language without permission, you take it as a whole. With its lightning and its shadows. And when no one is watching you are free to venture past the narrow laws of syntax, to look for the exact place where magic is born.

To write in a stolen language is an act of rebellion and an act of survival. It is to carefully listen to the silence between each word to hear the poem breathing, feel its pulse. To write in a stolen language is to re-invent it every day. It is to walk past the shelf of best-sellers without looking. Without concern about purity or the seals of approval of academia.

On days like today, when the gardens of the world are filled with equestrian statues of cowards, the exiled poets, believing themselves the only “foreigners on earth,” transform their wound –their exile– into a meeting place.

According to Cecilia Vicuña: “Dante Alighieri wrote in the fourteenth century that the spirit of poetry abounds ‘in the tangled constructions and defective pronunciations’ of vernacular speech where language is renewed and transformed. His vision resonates today with the faulty speech of migrants–and refugees–creating the sounds and intonations of the future”.

My only country is my poetry and it has no anthems.

-Ari Belathar, 2016 Poetry Fellow (#RefugeesWithPencils)

Writers at Work– A WROB Event for ArtWeekBoston!

Visit writers at work in the professional work space of The Writers’ Room of Boston. Writers in various genres will answer your questions about writing craft and the writing life! Themed booths throughout the Room will allow visitors to Ask a Poet or Novelist or Memoirist, among other genres, their own questions about life in the literary arts. Members of the Writers’ Room of Boston will also display their work while visitors will be invited to craft and share their own creative responses to fun writing prompts.

Stop by the Writers’ Room between 4 and 8 PM on Thursday, March 5th. We are located on the 5th Floor of 111 State Street. Ring the call button outside the front door and a Room member will come down to get you. Or call: 617-523-0566. We’re conveniently located in the Financial District, a few blocks away from Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market.

For more information about ArtWeekBoston, visit:





Writing Blocked? Try Wearing a Hat

It was a beautiful evening last Tuesday at Fenway, clear and chilly, in the low 60s, though a bit windy. A crisp night for a ball game, our first of the season. We were having a great time, my daughter and I, cutting through teenage angst and parental anxieties with peanuts and cracker jacks, until the Red Sox gave up a few late inning runs to Tampa Bay, threatening to ruin our special night.

It was rally cap time. Annie and I considered flipping our baseball hats inside out, a good luck talisman, certain the gesture would ensure a come-from- behind victory for our beloved Sox. But it was late and we were cold. We didn’t flip our caps. Our boys lost 3-0. It was entirely our fault.

I’ve never been a superstitious guy, never believed in rabbit’s feet or the Magic 8-Ball. I’ve never feared black cats or walking under ladders. Except when it comes to baseball. Then my superstitions kick into high gear.

And, it turns out, when it comes to writing as well.

There’s this fishing hat, you see, old and ugly, hanging off the top corner of the pine bookcase behind my writing desk, the one with the sweat and ink stains, red, yellow and blue-striped, and the faint scent of my Dad’s Kools. When I’m in a writing slump, when the words won’t come and my typing fingers seem glued to the home keys, I’ll spin around in my chair, laptop in lap, and stare at that hat. I might even reach for it, slip it on. And suddenly, slowly, sometimes surprisingly, the words start to flow.

Now, there’s the logical side of my brain, the part that earned a Master’s in Business Administration, the ex-journalist, the questioner, truth-seeker. That guy who knows I’m talking complete hooey. He’s the guy who knows that old fishing hat has as much to do with the words typed on my screen as my golden retriever Scout, who’s sitting at my feet this very moment. The guy who knows the odor of Dad’s mentholated tobacco smoke faded from the fishing hat’s heavy canvas decades ago.

But there’s this other guy, my creative side, the artist in me I’ve only recently rediscovered, a writer who not only still smells that tobacco smoke but knows it’s mixed with the fragrance of Dad’s Aqua Velva aftershave, who remembers the morning when he was eight and Dad bought the hat and a bag of bait at Charlie’s Fisherman’s Haven near Port Jefferson, on Long Island, before they headed to the pier at Cedar Beach, and hauled up a huge catch. This guy insists that’s the day Dad’s new hat became a lucky hat. He’s the same guy who insists it’s the hat that makes my hands fly across the keyboard.

And what about the days when I’m separated from my fishing hat? What if I’m writing away from home and writer’s block should encroach? A takeout coffee of the right size, from the right coffeehouse, with the lid positioned just so greases things, even hours old and long-cooled. I can re-tie my shoelaces twice and take a ten minute walk–exactly ten minutes, no more, no less– around the block to get the words coming.

The point is, writing is hard, and it’s supposed to be hard. To paraphrase a favorite movie, a baseball flick, ‘the hard is what makes it great.’ And like ballplayers, we writers can be a superstitious bunch. If a major league baseball player believes his performance is improved because of his quirks — the constant tweaking of his batting glove velcro, the way he digs his heels in at home plate before every at-bat or eats chicken vindaloo before every home game — who’s to say it’s not so? And who’s to say our writing quirks don’t loosen the chutes of creativity that lead from our minds to our typing fingers?

I’ve got to get to work now. Been procrastinating too long. I sure could use a little help though. Gotta focus. There’s my fishing hat, hanging off the shelf, next to my old Norton Anthology and that memoir I’ve been meaning to read.

Let me slip it on.

There. Aah. So much better.

Here we go…

-Mike Sinert, 2016 Nonfiction Fellow

Making Use of Discomfort

Every now and then I come across a story or novel the content of which makes me uncomfortable.  For instance, recently I read some stories by Ottessa Moshfegh and immediately got a sense of danger from her writing. I got the sense that nothing was off limits for this writer.  I’m probably thinking most of her short story “Disgust” when I say this, which was published in The Paris Review.

Other writers whose work shakes me up include Akhil Sharma (especially his novel An Obedient Father), Aravind Adiga, Garth Greenwell.

It even makes me uncomfortable to say what makes me uncomfortable but let me list some things so this is not too vague:  explicit sex, extreme profanity, bestiality. Many people will agree with my (partial) list though personality and culture will clearly come into it.  For example, I grew up in India in the conservative seventies through nineties when no one talked openly about anything and this background helped determine my attitudes.

The work of the authors I mentioned above includes some or all of the things on my list.  But sometimes a piece of writing may cause discomfort for unobvious reasons because, say, it reflects sentiments different from those that are accepted, through unsociable or unlikeable or just strange characters.

If I’m reading something that disturbs me, I might put away the book or I might keep reading.  Either way the writer has managed to startle me to attention. His or her work has become hard to forget.  I wondered:  what makes/enables writers to write in a way that causes discomfort? What makes a writer tackle difficult, off-putting material? Is it a desire to shock the reader? Is it a desire to gain interest? Is it a desire to be honest?

Suddenly this feels like a huge topic.  I offer some thoughts briefly.

It depends on the work. “Disgust” and some of Sharma’s An Obedient Father may well reflect the writers’ desire to tread uncharted territory.  I sense the writers’ delight in writing provocatively.  Other such work may stem from the writer’s desire to be true to his or her self or past.  Writers are always being told to make their writing truthful and one aspect of being truthful might be to not flinch from what causes discomfort.

I thought of my own writing in this light.  Is my language made unnaturally prim because I don’t like to use bad words? Is the work made empty because I don’t venture into difficult places?  I don’t ask these questions to fake things, of course, but to know whether my attitudes affect, maybe dilute, my work.

One area in which I try to bring this thinking to bear is how I depict grief.  People cry a lot in my stories. It gets one’s attention to see someone cry, doesn’t it?  It’s the very point of crying.  I have been using my reflections on discomfort to push my “crying episodes” further perhaps to the point of causing discomfort.

Fun stuff, no?

-Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow

Dead Time

Sometimes not writing is more productive than writing. As someone who likes to accomplish things, this drives me crazy. (Case in point, I am writing this on a bus while traveling because I have not spent a weekend at home in over a month and at least on a bus you can get stuff done.) When I have a book idea, there’s that first delicious thrill over the idea, excitement for the concept and crushing on characters I’m just getting to know. I’m filled with vigor and just want to start writing. The important thing for me to remember is that this isn’t love, it’s infatuation. I don’t know these characters yet. I have no idea where the story is going, what my themes are, or what the bones are that I’m going to build on.

I was trained first as an illustrator and then as a writer and I think most of my process comes from my illustration training, in which one must research, develop a concept, and do hundreds of sketches before committing to refined sketches or a final. I’ve learned that this process is comparable to what I have to do when I write. After the initial ideas, I need to research: read, experience, create charts and doodles. With this period comes a gestation period, a time when I have to let the research and the story seeds sit in my brain. Walks, sitting on buses, listening to music….not writing becomes important. During this period I’m tempted to take a sprouting idea and run with it, but I can’t, I have to wait, to give the idea time to grow and mature a bit. If I start writing too much now, I’ll be committing to half ideas, concepts and themes that have not been pushed far enough. I respect myself and my readers too much to commit to these half ideas, ideas that are more likely to be cliched.

The image above is a sketch from the conference and the first appearance of the character currently growing in my head- she's had five names in six weeks. Image copyright 2016 Marika McCoola.

The image above is a sketch from the conference and the first appearance of the character currently growing in my head- she’s had five names in six weeks. Image copyright 2016 Marika McCoola.

I attended a conference earlier this year at which Chris Tebbetts talked about the creative process (I use this broadly, because I think there’s a lot of crossover between writing and other arts). There are two states to the process: will and grace. Will is sitting down to work and pushing through drafts. Grace is allowing ideas to come, it is  accepting change and inspiration. Each work is some combination of the two, though not always in similar proportions. Grace is the part of the process we idealize, the muse coming. Will is the part that makes this work. I see the dead time of not writing as a marriage between will and grace, a period in which I have to be mindful, in the moment, holding back my will to work and accepting the grace without acting. Yes, it’s infuriating, but it also holds so much promise. At this point, there’s so much potential in the concept and it is certain to grow and change into something I can’t yet conceive of. Yes, it’ll take so much work, much of which will be painful, but right now, I can’t quite see that yet.

by Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow  

The Path to Here

It’s hard to believe this is the end of my year as a Writers’ Room of Boston fellow. I’d like to take space in this final blog post to thank the Writers’ Room of Boston Program Director Debka Colson, the Board of Directors, and WROB members for selecting me for such a generous and rewarding opportunity, and for welcoming me into such a friendly and supportive community of writers.

Life doesn’t always go the way we plan, and neither did my fellowship. I thought my time at the Room would bring me only the most sublime fruits of productivity. While it did bring me some of that, I also faced one of the most difficult times I’ve ever had as a writer: a long dry spell.

I never believed in writer’s block: I thought there could be no writer’s block if you simply kept writing (quality of writing was a different matter). Four years ago, the week after my mother died, I found myself sitting at a table at the local café, opening my laptop, and staring at a blank screen, unable to utter a word. But that, I told myself, was understandable.

In the middle of my fellowship, I found myself inexcusably barren of words. It was a year since I’d terminated my contract with my agent over professional differences, and I’d just spent months seeking representation for a new memoir I was writing. Out of over a hundred queries, about half the agents I approached requested materials. Five of them called me on the phone after reading my proposal and sample chapters. My published author friends told me that agents don’t call unless they want to offer representation.

But things don’t always go the way we expect.

One agent called to inform me why my book would never sell. She spent a half hour enumerating the reasons, sounding angry, saying she was doing me a favor. I wondered, what was the point? Another agent asked me a question about plot: was I still dating one of the men I’d written about? No. “Then I’m going to have to pass,” the agent said and hung up the phone. My life hadn’t happened the way she wanted. A month later, she called me again, asking, “Has anything changed?” When I told her no, she told me she was declining representation, again.

The other three agents sounded enthusiastically ready, one spending forty-five minutes in conversation with me, stating we were “on the same page,” another calling me twice to discuss her interest in my work, and the third (from a top agency) talking for an hour about his excitement over my book and the reasons I should choose his agency over another to represent me. Days later, all three declined to represent me, one citing my lack of a New York Times byline (“No editor will take you on without that,” the agent said, despite my many other legitimate publications), another my lack of celebrity status, and the third, my lack of ability to sell to a publisher because, in her opinion, my story, as it read, didn’t articulate “enough exquisite takeaways.”

I took in all the things I was lacking, and lost my hold on writing.

For a few months, I went to the Writers’ Room with my laptop, sat at a desk, and stared at my blank screen, feeling ashamed and empty. I didn’t want anyone to know that my passion for writing was gone. I didn’t want anyone to think I was wasting my fellowship.

I sat in the Room, mourning my failures, taking in the sound of successful writers at work, their hearts beating on the page. I sat in the Room, looking at members’ published books on the shelves, at the Webster’s dictionary and the Roget’s thesaurus—my mother, a writer and copy editor, had monogramed copies of both, which I’d held onto as talismans after her death. I sat in the Room, bathing in the air of creativity supplied by others.

For months, I sat in the Room, engulfed by silence, listening deeply.

One day an agent contacted me. He’d read my book proposal and sample chapters. In an email, he praised my writing but declined representation. He felt there was much more of a story than what I’d put on paper. He said he wanted to read more about my struggles over a greater period of time, the full scope of how I’d gotten from way back there to here. When I saw the email in my inbox, I knew it was a rejection and I couldn’t bear to read it. I gave it to my friend to read for me. My friend, who isn’t a writer, said he thought this agent was on to something.

My struggles were key.

Over the course of a decade, I’d written four books—three memoirs and a novel—none of which had sold. I’d been writing around my story, presenting what packaged slivers of myself I thought the business, and the world, would accept.

Soon after this rejection, my self-censorship lifted and I began to write again, more than I ever had before. I wrote four to six hours a day during the week while teaching full-time, and on average eight hours a day on weekends. I wrote during the fifteen minutes I had between faculty meetings, the ten minutes I had my students doing in-class writing exercises, the half hour I commuted on the train. I was up in the middle of the night, my mind lacing together sentences and paragraphs and chapters. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t turn my writing mojo off.

Two months later, I finished a 330-paged manuscript that I felt was “the” book, the one I hadn’t been ready, until that point, to unfurl. Everything crystalized. I understood that nothing I’d done or hadn’t done had been a waste: it had all been part of my path to here.

During my fellowship, writing came alive for me in a way it never had before. Thank you, Writers’ Room, for giving me the space to transform, to access that quiet inner room where words are reborn.

by Tracy Strauss, 2015 WROB Nonfiction Fellow