On Acceptance

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

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

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

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

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

I went back to the task of querying.

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Debka Colson Print by Bread & Puppet

Photo Credit: Debka Colson
Print by Bread & Puppet

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

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

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

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

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

-Tracy Strauss, Fellow in Nonfiction

The Murky, Glorious Middle

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

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

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

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

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

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

Cynthia Gunadi, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

The ‘You’ in Memoir

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

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracy Strauss, Fellow in Nonfiction

(Re)Writing Routines

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Tara Colson Leaning

Photo Credit: Tara Colson Leaning

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

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

Susan Tan, 2015 Gish Jen Fellow for Emerging Writers

Open House & Celebration of our Fellows!

“The muses dwell here. The Writers’ Room, a 24/7 workspace downtown offers quiet encouragement”

From a Tuesday Stories article by Eugenia Williamson published in The Boston Globe on Tuesday, March 10, 2015. See: http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/2015/03/09/writer-sroom/7VP1g3KCZLgsYS5rjeAVtI/story.html

Join us for an Open House!

Wednesday, March 18th from 6-9 PM

Reading by our 2014 fellows from 7-7:30 PM:

Miriam Cook, Ellin Sarot, Jane Poirier Hart & Anthony D’Aries

111 State Street, 5th Floor, Boston, MA

The Writers’ Room of Boston is an urban writers’ colony providing 24-hour access to a quiet, affordable and secure work space for serious writers. Located in downtown Boston, the Room is convenient to public transportation.
Come check out our amenities and meet members of our supportive community. Learn about our fellowships. Light refreshments will be served.
Apply for membership!
Email: info@writersroomofboston.org

Building the Shell

I think about my new route to routine as I slog through snowbanks and across icy sidewalks, after the long haul made on a struggling blizzard-wracked T, heading to where my paces begin.

Why does a freelance writer need this? I work from home. So why don’t I do my own “work” from home?  Without the organization, even difficulty, of making my way to it, the routine for poetry disappears.  When I’m home, at my kitchen table, surrounded by the dishes, the laundry—or more pressing, the freelance jobs—the routine is pushed aside, made dispensable.  But when something forces me to move towards it, it suddenly becomes accessible.

Before now, my writing habit was anything goes. Emails to myself sitting in the pickup line of cars at my children’s school.  Longstanding dates with myself—an extended weekend away, the luxury of a residency, a coffeebreak tryst with the keyboard. Structures and scaffolding are put in place to allow for writing whenever possible.  Even now, with the gift of the Writers’ Room, it’s one morning a week—set in stone—to put me, Writing Me, in balance.

ImageI look out on an old rusted fire escape outside the window past my desk and
imagine myself climbing down all these flights, into myself, away from the daily heat, the feeling I’m burnt, the intensity of everyone’s needs, and my need to put out fires all day long. Foot after foot, hand on the railing, I make my way into the words and it’s work, just like the work I’d put in at the gym if I could only find the time.

The muscles of my routine have gone slack. I’ve filled my time with other things, and it’s an uphill battle to regain them.  Going through the motions are as important as having the inspiration, having anything at all to say.  Fail again, fail better as Anne Carson quotes Beckett in her epigraph to Red Doc.  Without going through the motions, there can be no sequel at all. Time blows through and leaves us wondering why we have nothing to show for it.

And time passes so quickly.  It’s no wonder so many of us can’t find time to write.  The solitude is fleeting and some of us, like me, are slow getting started. For most city dwellers, the issue is space. So where time and space come together for the writer, a world takes shape.  We find our entry, make our routine, and build that world into daily life.  Or we pull it over us, like a snail shell, carrying that home with us, even when it’s hard.  The writing life became difficult for me when I had children, for what I found was that Motherhood dispels our own routines as we help others build theirs.  The impossible problem, figuring out how to recreate space and time. But at some point as I turned that question in my mind, remembering those days when I was able to wake up at 5 a.m. to write (and still function during the day)—and those long Sunday afternoons that I gave over to working on poems, I thought, when they’re older, they’ll ask me why I didn’t keep on writing. What happened?  Why did you stop?  I don’t want them to feel guilty or think I just gave up.  I want to show them structure, and balance, but most of all, I want to show them how to wrestle with a calling—how, in this overtaxed, multi-tasked, sped up world, to put up a fight.

Valerie Duff, 2015 Poetry Fellow

WROB Feb. 9 Open House POSTPONED

The OPEN HOUSE originally scheduled at
The Writers’ Room of Boston on
Monday, February 9th has been postponed
due to weather conditions.
This event will be rescheduled in March– please check this site for more information in the coming weeks!

WROB Open House on February 9th at 6 PM

Come to an OPEN HOUSE at The Writers’ Room of Boston!
Monday, February 9th between 6 and 9 PM
Reading by 2014 WROB Fellows from 7 to 7:30 PM
Location: 111 State Street, Fifth Floor in downtown Boston
Celebrate our Fellowship Program for Emerging Writers!
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. At the February Open House, we will be saying farewell to our 2014 Fellows and welcoming our 2015 Fellows. The outgoing Fellows will read from their work between 7 and 7:30 PM.
Writers and friends of the Room are welcome to join us. Please try to arrive before the reading starts at 7 PM. To enter the Room, you will push a call box button from the street. Someone will come down to let you in.
Come visit our beautiful light-filled space! Meet our members and Fellows. Learn more about how to apply for membership.
In case of inclement weather, please visit this site. We will provide an update here if the Open House is postponed. We will also send an update via Twitter @writersofboston. 

New Year’s Writing Resolutions

At the end of 2014, I saw a lot of year-end lists in newspapers and online, including “Best of 2014” and “Year in Review” pieces. The weeks at the end of the old year and the beginning of the new are a time for reflection over the past year, regrouping so we can tackle the year ahead with renewed energy. This year I took a couple of weeks off from school and work so I could spend time with family and friends in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. In the lulls between hanging out with my loved ones and holiday celebrations, I spent some time thinking about what comes next: life after my MFA program. 

In early December, I handed in my MFA thesis. The process was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. From September through the due date, I was completing a story draft or revision every week. I wrote almost every day, spent long hours at the Writer’s Room and in coffee shops, traded Friday night plans for tackling difficult rewrites. We are apt to compare projects like this to athletic events, to sprints or marathons. To borrow from a friend’s obsession with Sisyphus, I felt more like I was pushing a boulder up a hill. Momentum was everything. When I got going, the work was tough, but good. I had to keep moving, though. If I stopped I might not be able to get started again.

The professors at my program warn us about burn-out. Trying to polish one hundred pages of fiction in eleven weeks is a difficult project, and too much stress can make writing seem like a chore rather than a vocation. At times, in the weeks leading up to my initial and final thesis due dates, I wanted to watch TV or bake or write letters or go to a museum, anything but sit down and write. Making my final edits the day my thesis was due, I could see that my collection of linked stories was far from the finished product I’d naively thought it might be. I’d left out stories still in progress, and I simply didn’t have time to make some of the bigger revisions I needed. I was tired, I was stressed, I may have shed a few tears. (I’m an incorrigible perfectionist.) But I turned in the imperfect product anyway. And I spent the next few days eating out, seeing friends, attending holiday parties. The only thing I wrote was a quick blog post.

One week later I boarded a plane home to Portland, and a magical thing occurred. Sitting there on the flight, watching TV on the overhead monitors, something clicked in my head. I opened up my notebook and started a new story. The story has nothing to do with the my thesis project, at least at the moment, and I haven’t even completed a first draft, but it feels promising. Who knows if it will go anywhere in the end? What I’m really excited about is that even after four months of hard work, I still want to write.

In the spring I’ll be finishing my last few classes and trying to figure out what to do next. My MFA program has been like a wonderful, bizarre alternate reality where I’m immersed in the writing world, constantly challenged and inspired by those around me. After I graduate in May, I’ll need to figure out a way to stay motivated to write, to keep the momentum that I got started in my thesis project going. I need to figure out how to write in the real world. So I’ll be making some writing New Year resolutions this week.

My resolutions won’t be overly ambitious or too easy. I see them not as a test of my fortitude, but as a set of goals to shoot for. I’m going to challenge myself to write every day, even if just a sentence, even if it’s only on a side project. I want to add two new stories to my linked stories collection. And I want to revise the stories still in progress. I’d like to begin seriously submitting work for publication. Finally, I aim to try to form a community of writers that will hold together even after we leave school, so we can continue to help and inspire each other to be better. A sort of Bloomsbury group, if you will.

What are your New Year’s writing resolutions?

Miriam Cook, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

Line Dancing

I have tried line dancing a few times in my life, usually at weddings or baby showers, and I find it surprisingly energizing and pleasing. Something about rows of bodies, bodies in all sizes and shapes, bobbing and turning in sloppy synchronization brings out the playful. But what I want to talk about here is lines of poetry, lineation, and the way it can bring energy or surprise or joy to the body of a poem.

James Longenbach, in his pocket-sized primer, The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf  Press, 2008), quotes the Objectivist poet, George Oppen, as saying: “The Meaning of a poem is in the cadences and shape of the lines and the pulse of the thought which is given by those lines.” Longenbach says in the preface: “The line’s function is sonic, a way of organizing the sound of language, and only by listening to the effect of a particular line in the context of a particular poem can we come to understand how line works.” So much of what is being said here has to do with music —cadence, pulse, sonic— yet how do we get sound from the silent field of the page. Longenbach —who prefers the term “line ending” over “line break”— claims that the music of a poem, whether metered or not, depends on what the syntax is doing when the line ends. I’m working on a poem I began in June, where the line endings have been shaped and reshaped in an effort to evoke music and uncover meaning.

I started the poem in a workshop, where the assignment was to write about an incident for which we had strong feelings then flip those emotions by contradicting everything we had just written. I found the assignment challenging, but soon settled on the events, two years earlier, surrounding the death of my 89-year-old mother. In June of 2012, my mother, who had been remarkably healthy, received a diagnosis of a stage-four, inoperable brain tumor. We were told she had weeks, maybe months. It turned out to be forty days.  Her decline was immediate and we five children took up the roles of care takers and personal attendants. I had strong feelings that June as I struggled to lift my mother from bed to commode, but as I began to write about them, I saw that I could transform pain into something approaching joy, and the truth was, that as my mother’s days —and mind and muscles— were shrinking, I was grateful to have time with her, any kind of time. There was joy in caring for my mother in ways that I knew she had once cared for me. My parents had been avid ballroom dancers since the ‘70s, and the instinct to use the language of dance felt right. On my first revision, I had another insight: make the lines couplets. It thought it was brilliant—two lines, two bodies. It wasn’t. The reworked paired lines, now longer than the original, were wooden. The poem wasn’t dancing. It was barely getting off the floor. So I turned my ear to the shape, sound, and intention of each phrase, to syntax, to get at a lineation that would get the lines moving. Calling the poem “Pas de Deux,” I settled on a narrow, 23-line column, with a neat left-hand margin and jagged line endings. It begins:

 Swing both legs
over the edge of the bed, legs
that danced the meringue and rumba, lift
arms to arcs, drape
them over my shoulders, me
now the waiting partner

I thought I was done (is a poem ever done?) until last fall, when a reader, new to my work, suggested that white space and an irregular left-hand margin would better get at the physical effort of lifting my mother (who weighed less than 90 pounds, but had little muscle control; it was like lifting a sack of water). I thought his suggestions were worth a try, and my next revision looked like this:

Swing both legs
             over the edge of the bed, legs
                           that danced the meringue and rumba, lift
arms to arcs, drape
            them over my shoulders, me
                         now the waiting partner

My new reader liked this effort but suggested the tercets were still too regular. He wondered if I, could push the lineation further, and offered this:

                      Swing both legs
                                                      over the edge
                                                            of the bed,
             that danced      the meringue    and rumba,

Suggestions, from any reader, are just that—suggestions. These lines felt like they were coming undone, spinning out of control, and that wasn’t my experience in caretaking my mother. The lifting was a challenge and I did have strong feelings about bearing witness to my mother’s measured death, but I didn’t feel out of control. What we were engaged in was a kind of dance, both physical and emotional, with love and endings—of life. I’m still undecided on the line endings of “Pas de Deux,” but I think the shape of them will embrace struggle and joy, movement and stillness, the dance a mother and daughter do only once. That is the meaning of the poem. I plan to turn back to it soon.

Jane Poirier Hart, WROB Poetry Fellow