What Chooses Us

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

I am discussing a trio of stories with a professor, and I express concern that, after reading and rereading them as a united body of work, I want nothing more than to stab my eye out. The mothers in my stories keep perishing. And what’s with all the dead or injured animals? I don’t think of myself as a particularly troubled person–I am grateful to live, by most standards, a pretty good and happy life–and so it is somewhat alarming, to see my predilections on the page. I am suspicious of myself. I worry to my professor that I only write in one mode: melancholy. When she asks what I think I should be writing, I tell her that I feel I should try writing something funny, or light. For balance. There is a thoughtful pause while she appraises me. She says, You sound a little bit like someone trying to be well-rounded for a college application.

 Oh. I recognize myself in that comment as soon as it leaves her lips. I wonder if that really is the root of my anxiety, and whether it’s just another version of the inner critic, who worries too much about what other people will think. That inner critic is so very good at casting doubt. My professor goes on to say, then, that we all have our obsessions. People are in the period they’re in, and they have to fully inhabit that period, and at some point they’ll feel like they can move on, but they don’t have to…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we gravitate towards our material: whether we choose it or whether it chooses us. And while I can’t really know how other writers work, I suspect that very few of us would claim that we are wholly in control. I’ve found that the muse has little regard for my intentions–I sit down to write this kind of story or that, but in the end they inevitably depart from such plans. As they should.

Sometimes I think that all we can do is pay attention, and to write where our energy lies.

It’s different for everyone–perhaps you walk through your life gathering the seeds of nascent stories. You might feel the heat coming most strongly off of your deepest fears. Or maybe your subjects simply appear to you, unbidden flashes of lightning. And who can say why these differences of approach, or why some things call to us and others don’t. Who can say why I return again and again to mothers and children, to animals, to magic. It is tempting to psychologize, or to try to apply reason, or balance, but I don’t know anymore. Maybe it is necessary for the mysteries of creation to remain beyond us. 

Tony Hoagland wrote of poets’ obsessions, though I think it an apt observation for any writer: “A mature poet may not know how to command obsession, but understands how to transfuse material into it and then to surrender. The obsessed psyche knows unerringly where to go, like a Geiger counter to uranium, or a dog to his master’s grave. Lucky dog, to have a master.” This idea of surrender–so hard, so true. Writing is a calling, and we come to answer a summons. What that summons sounds like or where it comes from is, perhaps, less the point than that we respond to it at all. 

We are lucky dogs, indeed. 

-Cynthia Gunadi, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

 

Applications for WROB Emerging Writers’ Fellowships Due January 15, 2016!

Do you need a place to write?

WROB loungeThe Writers’ Room of Boston offers a 1,600 square-foot light-filled space with ten carrels, a small lounge, a kitchenette, a bathroom, and– best of all– a supportive and engaged community of writers. Every year we offer four fellowships to emerging writers in the greater Boston area who would otherwise be unable to afford the standard cost of membership. We are located near historic Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, with easy access to public transportation. Our membership is composed of new and established writers who produce fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenplays, young adult and children’s literature, comics and graphic novels, plays and memoirs. Join us!

For more information about our Fellowship program, please visit: http://www.writersroomofboston.org/fellowship/

Fellowship applications will be accepted until midnight on Friday, January 15th.

Writer’s Resolutions

Happy New Year! The slate is clean. It’s time for some New Year’s Resolutions, for the writer:

  1. I will write.
  2. I will not procrastinate.
  3. I will write 1,500 words a day. If I cannot generate that much text, I will edit an equal number of words.
  4. I will not distract myself with Facebook or Twitter; I will write.
  5. I will not write about my dates, because that isn’t nice.
  6. I will not let rejections, from whomever or wherever, come between the page and myself.
  7. If I cannot help myself from writing about my dates, I will change names to protect the innocent. (If my date is a jerk, I will be exempt from this resolution.)
  8. I will get up every morning at 5 a.m. and write for two hours before getting showered and dressed for my day job.
  9. I will not hit the snooze button more than twice.
  10. I will make sure to feed and brush my cats, even if they can see that I have a “Do Not Disturb” sign beside my writing desk.
  11. I will write during my lunch hour, and on the train.
  12. I will not feel badly about myself as a writer, even if I hear of another writer’s jackpot success after I receive three rejections in one half hour.
  13. I will not despair; I will write.
  14. Every time I receive a rejection, I will send my work to five more publications/agents/editors.
  15. I will email my submissions; I will not pay for postage or reading fees.
  16. I will focus on the art of writing and ignore the business of writing, so as to not stymie my writing mojo.
  17. I will not allow my doubts or the doubts of others to stop me from reaching my goals.
  18. I will respect the cone of silence in the Writers’ Room, except in the kitchen, where talking is allowed.
  19. I will write.
  20. I will practice good posture while I’m writing and not hold tension in my back or neck or arms or jaw; I will not end up at the chiropractor’s office weekly.
  21. I will buy that ergonomic chair, when I have enough money.
  22. I will keep my wrists level when working on my laptop, and remember to blink often in order to prevent eye dryness and fatigue caused by staring at the screen.
  23. I will go to the gym to keep in shape (and to sit in the steam room, sauna, and/or whirlpool), not to delay writing.
  24. I will drink only green tea and ice water, and eat just one square of a 70% cacao dark chocolate bar per day.
  25. I will shut out the voices that tell me I shouldn’t write this or that.
  26. I will envelope myself in that sweet spot between my heart and mind.
  27. I will write.

Tracy Strauss, 2015 WROB Nonfiction Fellow

Community

The introvert in me recoiled from social interaction at a writer’s residency I attended a few years ago, not because I wanted a hermetic life in which I spoke to no one for weeks on end, but because I wished to emerge from those isolated writing sessions under no particular social pressure. I ate three meals a day (glorious meals that someone else cooked for me—with no need to clean dishes after) with others who (perhaps) wanted to talk more than I did about what they were working on, how it was going, or just—talk. I had to eat, so I went to a busy dining room after a day of seeing no one. As I walked there, I felt my energy buzz fizzle as I put my world-face on. There was loads of wine—I was not the only introvert. Afterwards, people disappeared quickly to their rooms, their computers, desperate to reclaim an alpha state. The pressure is on when one’s writing room must be paired with a social life.

When I enter the Writers’ Room, I have a private space, but I’m not alone. If I see a friendly face while there, I can engage—or not—but the entering, the working, the exiting the room—is a fluid, quiet transaction.boston_front copy

It is, in fact, a flourishing microcosm, and one I have come to anticipate. There I have a desk space, but also a comfortable reading space. I have, in essence, my first studio apartment where I spent my year of graduate creative writing work at Boston University—only bigger. The gym, in its way, is a microcosm, too, but it is utilitarian. When I tell people I’m going to the Writers’ Room, and they look at me as if I’ve said I’m going to the gym, I want to insist on the difference—it’s not just that I’m doing something positive for myself, it’s freedom and succor. Organization and generation. It’s the light. It’s the near perfect quiet. It’s the lack of interaction.

On one of my most productive, happiest days, I remember being there completely alone, spread out in the reading area, listening to the traffic below. Most days there are others in the room, but with no additional pressure to network or compete. Nowhere else have I ever learned so much about my community by entering the bathroom. By which I mean the active, ever-changing blackboard used for notes, information about readings, suggestions for gatherings, etc. We are here even when we are unseen.

We move together, fluidly, many of us working at a slug’s pace. Occasionally one of us squeaks a chair, or puts on a coat. Time’s up, but I hardly noticed it go by. The other day, someone was banging for someone else on the back door. We forget our keys, we stare mindlessly, we clear our throats in our common space.booth.gulls

Yesterday, helicopters were everywhere outside, the steady chopper sound impossible to ignore, even from the cocoon. The world is out there. If I could tame it, I would. When I leave, I have all the people I could possibly need—a city of people—and I transition in the crowd.

The space is one in which I would like to live. But it’s the transient life of the renter, the city life, the life of keys in my pocket and the electricity of exchange.

—Valerie Duff, 2015 WROB Poetry Fellow

 

Being with Ending

This has been a year of writing milestones for me, and I’m rapidly approaching one more. Soon, I’m going to finish a book I started more than two years ago, and that I’ve been working on steadily since.

I didn’t understand that this would actually be a milestone, or what it would feel like, until last week just before my last revisions deadline. There’s no elegant way to frame it: I was a mess. There is, of course, more time– more opportunities to edit, to polish, to rephrase. But this was the last major revision, and I realized that this was the start of a next phase, one I hadn’t anticipated. The letting go.

For almost two and a half years, this book has been a mainstay of my private, inner life. I have turned to it for solace in deeply difficult times, typing alone on my iPad in the dark, in the middle of the night, when worry and anxiety woke me.  I have written on subways, trains, and airplanes. In transit is one of my favorite ways to write, it seems (I’ve just passed South Station, incidentally, as I type a first draft of this blog post).  I can remember where I was when I wrote a pivotal scene. Trite as it may be, I wrote about the elementary school self-portrait that first made me realize that the color of my own skin didn’t match my parents’ as I was sitting on the ledge of the Lincoln memorial on a beautiful and clear D.C. day. I wrote one of my rawest scenes one day in a hotel room in South Carolina, where I was attending a conference, after an angry phone call with a family member. I can still remember the ice bucket on the table next to me, the sleek hotel desk built into the wall, the sounds of people milling outside at an outdoor market, as I banged at my keyboard, spilling my frustration into pages. I remember the warmth of my boyfriend, now ex, who slept beside me as I typed away in or dark bedroom, trying to tilt my iPad screen so I wouldn’t wake him as I wrestled with a hard-to-pin-down exchange. I remember the cold of my drafty old row house in England, as I huddled under a twin comforter for warmth, wrapped in layers of sweatshirts capped off by a fuzzy pink bathrobe, and reread what I’d written the night before, surprising myself into laughter.

All this is wrapped up in my words, enmeshed in a story that is personal and raw and very much still alive.

It will be a while before my book is a book. But someday, in the not too (too) distant future, it will be. I am beside myself with happiness. And I am learning that letting go, that surrendering these stories that are so intimate is hard, even as it’s one of the most exciting things I feel I’ll ever do.

I know that soon, I’ll have a new idea, and I’ll start the next book, and I’ll have a whole new set of challenges and fears to contend with. But for now, I realize that I’m enjoying being with my ending, with all its difficulties and unexpected emotion. I look back at the book I began two-and-a-half years ago, and I can’t believe how far it’s come. I can’t believe what has been teased out, finessed, and developed. I can’t believe the characters and relationships that have emerged.

And as I look at my chapters and remember where I was when they were first set down, I realize too that my book tells another story. I look at it and see the people who have emerged to guide me as I’ve written and revised my first-ever book. I see the writing sample I submitted to the Writers’ Room, and I remember the excitement of my first ever reading, and the encouragement that followed. I see my editor’s nuanced and prescient eye, my agent’s rigorous and right cuts, my sisters’ faces when they came across a joke that was just right, my best friends’ gestures as they helped me to storyboard a new scene and unlocked the energy within it.

In my story, I see so many others. And I realize, frankly, in writing this blog post, that as scary as it is to share them, it is a special kind of terrifying joy to do so.

-Susan Tan, 2015 Gish Jen Fellow for Emerging Writers

Fellowship Opportunity for Boston-area Writers!

WROBThe Writers’ Room of Boston, Inc. (WROB) is a nonprofit organization that has been dedicated to supporting the creation of new literature for over 25 years by providing a secure, affordable work space and an engaged community to established and emerging writers in Boston.

Every year, The Writers’ Room of Boston awards 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 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 an encouraging community of serious writers.

Awards 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, to writing a minimum of 6 blog posts for our website, and to assisting with WROB readings and events.

For more information about the WROB Emerging Writers Fellowship Program, please click on the “Fellowships” tab at the top of the page. To learn how to become a regular member, click on the tab marked “Apply.”

Applications for Fellowships are due on January 15, 2016. Applications for regular membership are open all year.

Letting the Real You In

In the fall of 1988, when I was fourteen, on the morning of Yom Kippur my parents began to argue as we were backing out of our driveway en route to the synagogue in our polished white Riviera. My father got out of the car, wrestled with our garage door, which promptly came off its hinge, and, with white-knuckled rage, threw his pressed suit jacket onto the pavement. My mother calmly slid into the driver’s seat, put the car in reverse, and drove us both away. Through the rear view window, I watched my father become smaller and smaller, until he was gone.

The incident was the tip of the iceberg of a volatile reality I experienced at home on a daily basis.

When we arrived at the synagogue, my mother told me that if people asked where my father was, I wasn’t to tell them what had happened. She said that if people knew how bad things were in our family, no one would like us anymore.

I believed her.

I covered up with a smile. When people asked questions I said, “everything’s fine.” It seemed that they believed me, too.

I grew up ashamed of the truth: I saw it as a reflection of who I was as a person. In the process, I lost sight of my real self.

As an adult, I took to the act of writing in an effort to master and transcend my past, to do what Mary Karr presents as a writer’s process in The Art of Memoir, “seeking enough quiet to let the Real You [in].”

I wanted to find my voice, to exhume the self I’d buried.

I began by writing a novel about a young woman who lived and worked in a rural college town, as I was doing in my mid-twenties. She was obsessed, as I was, with the tragic death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. Like me, she was having difficulty eating and sleeping because her father’s lung cancer had spread to his brain.

I didn’t write beyond the first chapter. I lacked the talent for constructing fiction. I was no novelist. At heart, I was a memoirist. But I was afraid of facing the hard truths of my life and revealing my story to others.

Karr states that “the writer who’s lived a fairly unexamined life…may not excel at fashioning a voice because her defensiveness stands between her and what she has to say.”

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

I didn’t find my voice until I let down my defenses and began to honestly examine my life. At twenty-nine, diagnosed with PTSD, I embarked on an inward journey, a gradual decade-long process of undoing the layers of cumulative cover-up. I grappled with my emotions first through poetry, a form in which I could closely contemplate an image, a sensation, a memory. For a while I avoided penning prose; complete sentences and paragraphs felt too declarative, overwhelming.

Then one day I turned back to my novel and began to rewrite it truthfully.

Recently, a literary agent asked what prompted me to write my current narrative nonfiction book. My response: I want to engage in a conversation with others about the difficult things ordinary people grapple with and overcome in order to live more fully.

Karr says that in memoir “truth works a trip wire that permits the book to explode into being.”

I believe it’s not just the book—it’s the writer, and if the writer is good enough, it’s the reader too.

-Tracy Strauss, 2015 Nonfiction Fellow

Open House on October 28 from 5 to 8 PM!

Come to an OPEN HOUSE at The Writers’ Room of Boston!
Wednesday, October 28th between 5 and 8 PM
Location: 111 State Street, Fifth Floor in downtown Boston
Light refreshments will be served.
WROB lounge
The Writers’ Room of Boston is a nonprofit organization committed to supporting the creation of new literary works of all genres by providing a secure work space and an engaged community for Boston-area writers. We are also proud to offer our Emerging Writer Fellowship Program that provides full membership for one year to four writers through a juried competition. The deadline for applications for our Fellowship Program is December 31.
Come visit our beautiful light-filled space during our Open House! Meet other members and learn more about how to apply for membership or our Fellowship Program.

How True to Life this Strangeness

A few weeks ago at the Harvard Bookstore, I had the pleasure of listening to Joy Williams read from her new book of collected stories, The Visiting Privilege. “Escapes” is a story I’d read before–though I couldn’t tell you when or where. In fact if you asked me just before the reading what I recalled of it, I wouldn’t be able to say much at all, except that I knew there was a moment early on that has stayed with me, somehow, for many years.

The Visiting PrivilegeI’ve reread the story a couple times over the past week, trying to suss out how Williams achieves her strange and arresting beauty. There are many things I love about this story of a daughter and her alcoholic mother: the earnest, off-kilter world view of the narrator Lizzie, the dry humor throughout. The delicate way Williams alludes to a future when Lizzie will herself have a drinking problem. How the themes of love and leaving are woven together. But what I keep coming back to is this singular paragraph, only two pages in, in which Lizzie encounters her father pretending to have a limp:

“I saw an odd thing once, there in the mountains. I saw my father pretending to be lame. This was in the midst of strangers in the gift shop of the lodge. The shop sold hand-carved canes, among many other things, and when I came in to buy bubble gum in the shape of cigarettes, to which I was devoted, I saw my father hobbling painfully down the aisle, leaning heavily on a dully gleaming yellow cane, his shoulders hunched, one leg turned out at a curious angle. My handsome, healthy father, his face drawn in dreams. He looked at me. And then he looked away as though he did not know me.”

To meet your father pretending to be someone he is not–it is a tremendously interesting detail, which seems like it should be emblematic of something. But what? Lizzie doesn’t investigate or question this, nor does she linger over the moment. The story moves on, and this becomes just one among many details about the narrator’s relationship to her parents. While it seems to carry the weight of metaphor or symbolism, it is done with such a light touch that explanation seems beside the point.

In Charles Baxter’s wise craft essay “On Defamiliarization,” he cautions against the overly direct, which has the tendency to make a story fall flat. Instead, he encourages the idea that by resisting overt meaning in our details and images, writers may arrive at greater resonance. “When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story. It is too meaningful too fast. Its meaning is overdetermined and the characters overparented. […] The writer has decided what her story is about too early and has concentrated too fixedly on that one truth.” I am certainly guilty of this, and have on more than one occasion belabored a metaphor to death. My characters tend to have far too much insight into their own lives; I have them wonder why things happen so that I, the writer, can point the reader in the direction I want them to go. I fall for the myth, again and again, that explanation and exposition are necessary for clarity.

Yes to clarity–a thousand yeses to that–but it would be good to remember that there must still be room for the unknowable. Clarity in the way that an ocean of clear water can be deep and dark and mysterious.

Baxter goes on to write, “There is always something anarchic about the imagination: it likes to find details that don’t belong, that don’t fit.” Joy Williams is a master of the detail that is just slightly off, that keeps the reader intrigued and searching. I think the power in her details lies in their hints of a reasoning denied to both the characters and the reader. They flicker in and out of making sense. They may seem wholly random in one light, but Williams allows them to hang together associatively, so that they throw each other into strange relief.

And how true to life this strangeness is. Though we may be tempted to read into the happenstance of our own lives, more often than not they resist single narratives. It is in the nature of narrative to reduce for the sake of understanding–narrative has a root in the Latin gnarus, or “knowing.” But we cannot know why everything happens, or why people do some things. In one short paragraph Williams bestows the father, a primarily absent character, with an inner world that is inaccessible to us but vividly suggested. The irrational stands on equal footing with the rational in Williams’ work–perhaps this is why I admire her so.

A friend asked me a few months ago whether it feels like work, to read. My first instinct was to say no, how silly, but after sitting with this question for a while now I think I’ve changed my mind. Except, it is pleasurable, engaging work that I feel grateful to spend time doing. If it gets me that much closer to figuring out how Joy Williams makes me remember one fleeting image for years–that much closer in my own work to an ocean of nuanced clarity–I will keep on doing this work.

Cynthia Gunadi, Ivan Gold Fellow

To Begin at the Beginning

Yesterday (September 2) was my first day back in the classroom in twelve years. I work with first-year students enrolled in EN104—these students are developing writers, and based on what I’ve seen so far, have a good deal of work ahead of them to find, focus, and improve what they want to say. We met at 8 o’clock; despite the early hour, their eagerness was palpable. Many of these kids are first generation college students who know how to work hard for what they want and who know already that giving up is not an option they want to consider. Because it’s a basic comp class, they’re working on five paragraph essays—and yet I saw something in them that’s basic to all creative writers, and to myself.

Our classroom resembles the Writers’ Room, in a way. We call the room a Writing Lab, which means (new to me, since I had stopped teaching before this was an expectation in higher ed) each person sits at a computer. We compose separately, off and on throughout class time—and then come together with the work. Each one of us has a book in front of us in order to discuss one model of writing or other before we set out our own path of words: today it’s a paragraph from Maxine Hong Kingston, David Sedaris, Barbara Ehrenreich, or someone else who spends a lifetime working and perfecting how he or she says things on paper.

What I try to teach them (teaching them from my innermost poetry writing self as well as my professional prose writing self) is that beginnings are hard. They are rocky—often literally so, the writing jagged or off balance—or floppy, with sentences like sponges that absorb meaning back into themselves without offering much to the reader. I emphasize the power of starting. Just starting, no matter what result. And then, intensive building.

Years ago, I used to give my students play-doh at the start of each class about revision. “Make your writing like this,” I would say, rolling a ball. “Then this,” changing it into a square. “You might even have to try this,” flattening it out, rolling it up, and moving into a new shape. I like to think I carry these methods into my own practice, and I can feel their terror as they imagine their rationally thought out string of words moving so drastically. Because it all might fall apart. But the play-doh is always there—and even if the words are cut away, new words can replace them. It’s easier to see in a poem how the white space works to an advantage (when new words would only be extra baggage for the writing to carry around), but it’s true in so many different forms of writing.

I see around me a group of students with so much to say, so impatient to say it, and I realize that this writing class isn’t just a requirement. They want to be writers, at least in this room, and when they say they don’t like writing, they mean they are frustrated, looking for a way in, tired of missing the mark when they are communicating something so important to them. Their dedication to the class, their looking inward and outward for a subject, their keenness to get started, to get writing, to wrestle along the way, is exactly what poets, fiction writers, playwrights, non-fiction writers, experience every time they engage with their craft. Everyone (or most everyone) feels that “new to this” or “what now?” sensation with each blank page.

So I remind them about the magic of each work-in-progress, and how, as Ted Hughes puts it in his poem “The Thought Fox,” when one is writing, writing happens: “It enters the dark hole of the head./The window is starless still; the clock ticks,/The page is printed.”

-Valerie Duff, 2015 Poetry Fellow