The Writer-Detective Team

A writing mentor once told me, “To be a writer [of memoir] is to be a very good detective.” Like a detective, the memoir writer finds the tension points, the contradictions, and the core story.

After my mother died in 2011, I began working on a memoir about overcoming family trauma. When my mother, a writer and copy editor, was alive, my inquiry into the truth conflicted with her need to protect herself from the past. Tension built between us and tore apart our relationship.

My mother’s widowed friend Karen offered to help me clean out my mother’s belongings to prepare her condo for sale. When she walked into my mother’s bedroom, her eyes landed on my mother’s desk, the top of which I’d already cleared. She bent down to the floor and pointed underneath.

“That needs to be cleaned up,” she said, the blood flowing to her head, reddening her face.

I didn’t know what Karen saw. I thought I’d already removed the important things. I leaned over. “There’s nothing valuable left,” I told her.

But Karen was reaching deep under my mother’s desk as if to begin an excavation. I got down beside her and saw, like a lost treasure, a shelf overflowing with loose folders and spiral notebooks.

Stretching my arm beneath the desk, I wrapped my fingers around a couple of notebooks and pulled them towards me, quickly flipping through pages of my mother’s writing from the 1980s, drafts of poetry and prose she crafted when she was my current age.

“Are these important?” Karen pushed a few folders at me. Before I could answer she handed me more: “What are these?” She placed folder after folder in my hands. “And these?” I saw an overstuffed folder from my college freshman orientation: labeled with the phrase “New Beginnings.” Inside were several envelopes with my younger handwriting on them.

ImageThe idea sunk in: my mother had held onto my letters.

I noticed a sliver of newsprint poking out of another thick manila folder, a headline with the word “abuse.” My body grew hot.

Inside were articles on child sexual abuse, highlighted and underlined in many places by my mother, as if she were conducting an investigation. There were loose legal pad pages full of her handwriting outlining facts from books about the mother’s role in father-daughter incest, the perpetrator’s personality, denial, family system theory, the adult child coping with PTSD, and the path to heal from trauma.

I could hardly believe it. I’d asked my mother many times to talk openly about what had happened in our family, about how it affected me, us, but she’d refused.

After her death, I rediscovered the truth: in private, my mother had gone to great lengths to grapple with the past. She was unable to speak of such darkness aloud, but she left behind her organized collection of facts and thoughts and feelings for me to find.

Across a great divide, my mother and I reconciled, working as a writer-detective team. Together, we wrapped our minds and hearts around the whole terrible story, articulating the truth, one word at a time.

-Tracy Strauss, Fellow in Nonfiction

On Floating

Here are a number of indecisions—if they can be called that—that have plagued me lately. Whether I felt like typing or writing by hand. Whether I needed noise or silence. Whether I should revise an old story or start something new. Whether I should be writing in first person or third. Whether a character, who is still a new acquaintance, used to be a dancer or a piano teacher, and whether she is in fact vegan. Or a sleepwalker. Or seeing ghosts. A week ago, greedy, I borrowed five books from the library, thinking that if I spent some time with each, the Right Next Book would reveal itself to me. I am still bouncing between them, still uncertain which to read.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

I think about this while I swim in Walden Pond, lake swimming being one of my very favorite things. I wonder, as I float, why I cannot seem to move forward with my writing or reading, when I think I can see so clearly what I’d like to do. It seems like it should be as easy as sitting down and deciding to write something new. It seems like something I should be able to do by now.

A couple of things have come to a close recently: I completed my thesis manuscript and received my MFA from Warren Wilson early last month, and an important project at work wrapped up shortly after that. I am in the wake of all that, and the normal breakneck pace of my life has slowed temporarily. At first the prospect of a leisurely weekend, something I can’t remember since last winter, was almost too wonderful to bear. I’m going grocery shopping, I found myself exulting to friends I hadn’t spoken with in months. And I’m going to walk! I looked forward to diving back into my writing and reading, at my own pace now, not according to a semester schedule.

Of course, it wasn’t long before I realized it would not be so simple. Without the pressures of school, the structured study plan and reading list that I had grown so accustomed to–without the knowledge that I might disappoint my professor in a short three weeks, if I didn’t pull something together–I was lost. Some people dislike schedules and structure, but I took comfort in the external framework of school, the concrete goals to work towards. Having these things during my time at Warren Wilson allowed me to quiet the part of my mind that clamors with anxiety over what to do next.

The water around me is clear and cold and dark, and this is the closest to meditation or prayer that I ever get. Solo swimmers make their way deliberately across the pond. We are beyond the confines of the roped-off shallow areas; it is understood that we’re all out here alone, at our own risk. I imagine the others as swimmers who have been coming here for years; perhaps they come every day, perhaps this keeps them young. One woman does an elegant breaststroke, her head and shoulders bobbing as she glides by me. At some point she stops and turns over to float, stretching her arms out to either side.

As a child my parents signed me up for swim team, which I did not like at all, despite my love of being in the water. The slow lanes and fast lanes, the endless back-and-forth, the maniacal frothing of the water as we completed our 100-meter crawls. If that is swimming, we need another word for what happens in a lake, where one can simply turn over to lie between water and sky whenever one tires of the breaststroke. I don’t know why in the water, I’m able to simply be, when in other parts of my life, I seek goals and structure.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

“There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life,” wrote Thoreau, from his one-room house at Walden. I think he would tell me to embrace this moment of change in my writing life. Perhaps I am not so much lost as I am drifting in a present moment. I was counseled recently, by a very wise mentor, to spend some time creating without the expectation of meeting a larger goal. She said, I think sometimes when we’ve been making work more and more perfect, it can be tricky to go back to just inventing loosely. I had expressed my anxiety around returning to new work, after a half year spent refining a thesis manuscript. I think about this advice now, as I write without lanes. I remind myself these days, as I float, to savor the feeling of suspension, of being, of not knowing when or where I’m going to land, but trusting all the same that I will.

-Cynthia Gunadi, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

Keeping Records

When I spent two weeks at the VCCA last year, I wrote poem after poem after poem about Virginia—growing up there, burying my father there, Virginia history, Virginia sights, sounds, smells. Until one day midway through I woke up and told myself, today you will not write about Virginia. Today you will write about something else. And quite easily, fluidly, I wrote about another continent, another self. It may not be my finest poem, but it has energy and a center and I was/am glad for it. It is not like the others. But would I have written it without all those other poems, some successful, some not, that were obsessed with the same things over and over? I’ll never know for sure, but the repetitive battering of one topic both hindered my reaching that poem unlike the others and at the same time cleared a pathway.

I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to pin down what I’m currently writing about, since I often feel myself walking back down the same path. Sometimes I let my thoughts circle back through one particular groove, and sometimes I wonder if I force myself in a different direction whether all will be lost. I’m reminded of a wonderful metaphor of an inchworm as it moves along in Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life when I think not only about the act of writing, but extends to the act of holding onto subjects, and the incremental movements through subjects and themes. They extend, they deepen, they change. And we always fear the coming to the end, the shift or return are equally terrifying:

IMG_6325“The wretched inchworm hangs from the side of a grassblade and throws its
head around from side to side, seeming to wail what, no further?…its front     three pairs of nubs rear back and flail in the air, apparently in search of a     footing. What! No further? What?…By dumb luck it touches the grass….The    blind and frantic numbskull makes it off one grassblade and onto another one, which it will climb in virtual hysteria for several hours.”

The mind is full of bits and pieces from our lives. I’m now at an age where I don’t trust my mind as much as I used to. I have forgotten many details and stories from my life, although there are still sharp memories, clear to all the senses and to the emotions. But there are also memories that I question—is that how I felt at the time or am I seeing it through another lens? These vagaries of memory are not crucial, because art doesn’t have to be true to memory; in fact it doesn’t have to be a memory at all, but because of how I write, it is my store room. I need my hands-on access.

When my family home was dismantled, I came home to gather as much as I could. I shipped boxes, I stuffed my car so full I couldn’t see properly to drive, I had plans to come back if the powers-that-be (the sibling selling the house) would give me that time. That wish wasn’t granted, the house was cleared by someone who didn’t realize the value of some of what was trashed (I don’t mean monetary value, although there was that, too—I mean personal value, irreplaceable items, lost in the great clutter of a too-enormous house that housed my lifetime). I still ache for some of those things—only things, but like the words in literature, things imbued with a power greater than anything that can been explained or touched—I long for them in writing, and I may never be satisfied until they all have a place somewhere, back again where they should be, where I will know exactly where they are, within reach. This is what causes some things to be written. It’s the pair of a little girl’s dirty underpants visible from a tree (Faulkner’s inspiration for The Sound and the Fury), the moment a world comes into being. This is what causes some things to be read.

It’s exactly what we can only have in writing—the solidification of a moment in time, permanence.

Is this why family bibles were kept, with records so meticulously written from generation to generation? Names, dates, events, deaths? Simple sayings and moments of inspiration? And what happens when those bibles fall apart, are damaged, are thrown away? Sometimes we must start all over again, from the very bottom of our memories, from those places where we almost cannot see where we go next.

-Valerie Duff, 2015 Poetry Fellow

 

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