Tag Archives: creative writing

Year in Review

Last December, I was pulling everything together for my application to the Writers’ Room fellowship. It would be difficult to quantify just how different my writing life is now. I have a new job that will make it financially feasible for me to stay on at the Room next year. I have a new place that’s quiet enough to work in. And the manuscript that was one-quarter drafted when I applied for my fellowship– a story I was, and still am, truly excited about– was finished about two weeks ago.

The revision process was nonstop, as it always is, because I absolutely love revising. I can and will work on revisions anywhere: on the train, in a waiting room, in front of the TV while my family watches a contentious football match. But drafting is a much more delicate process for me. It’s something that’s gotten harder, weirdly enough, since I’ve gotten better at writing.

It’s become harder to accept the gap between what I can envision, what I know it will eventually be, and what I write on my first go-around. It’s way too easy to go back and self-edit, to limit what I get done because I won’t let myself just get it down on the page. Every time I’m drafting a new manuscript, there’s at least one moment where I’m convinced that the last book I finished is going to be the last book I ever finish.

Being in the Room has been life-changing in that regard. Not only is it a different head space when I need to turn the world off for a few hours, but my being there at all feels like a vote of confidence that’s been hard to come by in my writing life for a while. It’s encouragement and a fire under me all at once. Every time I took the train into State Street after work, picked up my dinner and took the elevator to the fifth floor, it was to dive into the resources that have been given to me this year with the expectation that I’d use them well. With all that behind you, it’s easy to push past your uncertainties about that last bit of dialogue and just get to work.

To do that, I developed strategies that I’ll probably keep using. I doubled, and often tripled, my usual daily word counts. I know I would have finished this manuscript one way or the other, but being at the Room helped me finish it in a way I could be proud of.

The book is in other people’s hands now, and as I think about what’s next, it’s hard not to reflect on the fact that my fellowship will come to an end early next year. It’s a bittersweet feeling. But it’s fun to think that this time next year, a new crop of writers will be looking at their writing life and marveling at all the ways it’s changed.

Rebecca Mahoney, 2017 WROB Fellow


Not Everything Has To Be Work

As a teenager, taking writing workshops as part of my arts school concentration, I remember submitting to a contest with a group of classmates and getting the news that all of them had placed except me. Sometime later that day, in the haze of rejection-crying and ice cream, I decided that it didn’t matter if I was mediocre– I just needed to want it more than they did.

Looking back at the rejections that followed, I can trace where that became a cycle, to match disappointment with self-discipline. The first step to being taken seriously as a writer and to ensure that writing had a foothold in my limited free time had to be treating my writing like a job. I don’t think that was wrong— it got me this far, even when that ambition could be an unwieldy thing to carry.

I’m also a person with anxiety, which means being careful about what I tell myself that I ‘have’ to do. And the problem with treating ‘wanting it’ like a job is that ‘want to’ slowly becomes ‘have to.’ You end up wanting it just about as much as you want to do any job. Which is to say, not that much.

Coming to The Writers’ Room was a big part of reframing my creativity as something fun and vital again, not a benchmark I had to meet or a fight I had to win. And for the most part, it’s been really successful. My drafting sessions are the most loose and productive they’ve been in years. I’ve started more easily questioning some of the conventional wisdom I’d internalized: that I needed to write every day to be serious, or that sometimes it was going to feel like pulling teeth but I had to push through it. I decided that whether I was daydreaming up a scene or just letting my brain go offline after an exhausting day, everything was important work in the end.

Here’s the fun thing about undoing a bad habit, though: you’re never quite as done with it as you think you are.

As I write this, I’m planning the move to a new place tomorrow, so for the past few weeks, the part of my brain that would normally be dedicated to thinking through a scene has been running through where my desk is going to fit in the new room, or where my hairdryer is. There’s not a lot of space left for my work-in-progress, currently stopped just before the climax, and I find myself worrying about its lack of real estate in my brain, or putting pressure on my rest nights to be as restful as possible. In trying to be kinder to myself, I think I was a little too successful at making everything, even relaxation, into a job.

So maybe the thing to tell myself isn’t that everything is work. Maybe it’s not everything has to be work. 

Easier said than done, I know. But I like the sound of it.

-Rebecca Mahoney, 2017 WROB Fellow

On Seeing the Fruits of Your Labor

I’ve spent the last six weeks tucked away in a hamlet in the hills of Western Massachusetts, just off a highway that has hosted moose in the past, and very many black bears recently, and which boasts two bars, a library, a hardware store, and a gas station that rents DVDs. This, for a person who has only ever lived in major cities, has been an epic transition.

I came to this tiny village to slow down. The manuscript edits I needed to complete had stalled, and my agent’s check-in emails assuring me she would give me as much time and space as I needed, appeared to have tapered off. The three or so jobs I worked to afford a room in a four-bedroom Somerville apartment had ground me down to a state in which I second guessed whether I was using even the simplest words correctly. I’d burnt out. My brain felt fried.

At just the moment I needed a change, I was awarded a fellowship that provided free room at an artist retreat. In exchange, I would give part-time help running the place. When I arrived, I expected the bulk of my duties to revolve around my experience in program management and arts administration, but was surprised to learn that much of the work would take me away from a computer screen, and would involve power tools and trips to nurseries and lumber mills.

I was nervous. I’ve got a bad back and no evidence of a green thumb, and I was tasked with moving hay bales, hauling mulch, and keeping roses and rhododendrons alive. What I’ve discovered in this work is the satisfaction of interacting with the earth, with seeing the results of my labor manifest in the physical. You plant a rose-bush with ground-up compost and compacted soil, and water it consistently to either see it die in spite of your efforts, or, hopefully, open up in a gorgeous burst of color.

Working in a garden comes with obvious benefits to a writer: Not spending forty hours a week staring at a computer screen, to then have to go home and attempt to create art on that same device; being able to think through characters and themes and plot lines while doing physical labor. But the psychological benefit goes beyond that.

When your day job involves shooting off hundreds of emails per week into the void, or lecturing to blank faces in a classroom, or marking up a client’s manuscript with what you hope are helpful comments, the results of your work can at times feel nebulous.

Completing a full-length manuscript can feel similar. It’s difficult to see the whole of a novel or story collection, and copious rounds of editing can feel like endlessly pushing words around. Yes—I delight in crafting what seems to me a beautiful sentence. But a change in characterization, or setting, or plot a hundred pages earlier in the book may necessitate deleting that sentence, and a second look might illuminate that the sentence wasn’t that great to begin with. The same might go for any proportion of the project.

When your day job and your art both feel like endeavors involving long stretches with intangible results, this can lead you to believe that all of your time is spent getting not a whole lot done, which can be discouraging. With writing, you have to allow time for discovery, which might mean pushing words or ideas around with no end in sight.  Balancing your art with work that provides tangible results can help you to delight in the joys of wading through the unknown. And keep you from drowning in it.

-Jonathan Escoffery, 2017 Ivan Gold Fellow

Emerging Author Dispatches: Five Things I Wish I Knew About the Publishing Process Before Starting Out

Full disclosure: This blog post should’ve been up two three weeks ago.* Lately I’ve been negligent in my WROB fellowship duties (and many duties, if I’m being real). For the past few months my schedule has gotten more and more crazy as the pub date for my first poetry collection gets nearer. Now that some semblance of sanity is starting to appear on the horizon, I’ve identified five things I wish I’d known about the publishing process before starting out. None of these learnings are novel, but there’s nothing like being humbled by the act of doing something new to make each lesson land sharply.


The gears of publishing machinery move v e r y   s l o w l y. So much of the process boils down to an unglamorous, unending waiting. Waiting for it to be “your turn” in your publisher’s roster, waiting for your edits to come back, for galleys, for a more inspired ending of a poem to surface. I tried to create new work during that time but I quickly realized…


When TESTIFY’s pub process (re)gained traction I was six months into working on a new book-length project— this close to turning a corner in understanding the story’s structure. I was unprepared for (and, occasionally, resentful of) the onslaught of admin that landed in my lap. The e-mails alone are a part-time job: pitching tie-in essays; planning book launches and readings; being in communication with publicists, editors, and graphic designers… Week after week new work was repeatedly pushed to the bottom of my task list in favor of practical (or paying) responsibilities. When I’m not writing poems or answering e-mails, I’m juggling a full-time job and running a small business. There’s no advance to float authors between books in the poetry world, so carving out time to create new work while launching a book continues to be an ongoing challenge. (If you’ve got tips or suggestions, I’m all ears.)


When I was submitting my manuscript the pub process seemed scary and impenetrable, especially as a young poet with a newly minted MFA and no clue what to do next. As everything moves forward I’m regularly reminded that each limb of the publishing apparatus is made up of people. People who know each other and people who don’t. People who are friends in real life and people who have only met on the internet. People who have jobs and lives and responsibilities (so no, their delay in responding to my submission wasn’t personal). Case in point: a colleague I connected with through my publisher asked me to be a contributing editor at a new press he was starting. A year and a half later, I’m plugged into the “people side” of the poetry world in a whole new way. In grad school it felt like the words “publication” and “press” warranted capitalization, faceless institutions built of books and words. Now I know a press is just a group of people, and none of them bite.


If this industry is made up of people, most of those people are probably on Twitter. In my non-writing life I’m social media averse. I have a laundry list of reasons why, and I was quick to rattle them off—until a publicist told me in no uncertain words that I needed to be on Twitter. (Verbatim: “You needed to be on Twitter yesterday.”)

At first I was stressed about having to think up witty tweets, as if each post needed to be a pithy 140 character poem. Then I realized I could follow intelligent-sounding people I already like and share their tweets, adding my own comment when necessary.

Since joining I realized that literary/writing Twitter is actually a landscape where opportunities can happen. Editors tweet out topics they’re looking for pitches on, or have their contact info in their bios. Grant opportunities, submission deadlines, contests, and potential collaborators—all on Twitter. Angie Thomas, YA author whose debut novel “The Hate U Give” has been on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty weeks, is an excellent example of how Twitter can help launch a career. In June of 2015 Thomas turned to Twitter to ask literary agent Brooks Sherman if he considered a YA novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement acceptable to publishers. One year later, Sherman was representing Thomas in a thirteen house publishing auction that resulted in six figure deal. Sure, it’s a Twitter fairy tale, but it’s also a reminder that social media is more than a way to stay on top of the trends.


Writerly imposter syndrome is real. I spent so much time in the early stages of this process second-guessing myself and others who praised my work. It felt like everyone I encountered had access to some rulebook I hadn’t read, or a scorecard I couldn’t see. Even though I’d succeeded at getting picked up for publication, I spent a fair amount of time entertaining self-doubt. Should I have cc’d my publisher on that e-mail? Is that something I should do, or something my publicist should do? Should I run this idea by someone before I send this pitch?

Eventually, I found my way back to a powerful quote from my mother-poet Audre Lorde: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” Thought I might not have been in this exact situation before, I’m generally a diligent person. My instincts led me to write TESTIFY, and they got me this far so they can’t be all wrong. Now I know there’s no rulebook.

If I could go back in time I’d give myself the following advice: do the best you can now, take notes for next time, and know there will be a next time—whether it’s five years from now or fifteen years from now, there will be another book. And whenever that happens, whatever curveballs that experience throws your way, you’ll know more than you did the first time around.

*Thanks to my WROB writer colleagues for their patience and understanding.

Simone John, 2017 WROB Gish Jen Fellow



On Community

When I arrived in Boston three years ago, it was my second cross-country move as an adult. The first took me from my native Miami to Minneapolis, to enter into the University of Minnesota’s MFA program. When I left Miami, I left with conviction; I can’t say I was certain about what I would gain from my program or my new city, but I knew I was investing in my writing career, and that was more than enough reason to go.

To an extent, I left to find community, to find my tribe.

In the years prior to my departure, I had cobbled together a loose network of novice writers in Miami with whom I shared work—some of whom remain my closest friends. Despite the dozens of workshops we’d attended between us, though, information about how to get our writing out into the world seemed elusive.

We met weekly to stitch together insight we’d acquired through research and the few relationships we’d formed with more advanced writers. I recall one friend handing me a binder with details on MFA programs, while another showed me the first proper CV I’d ever seen.

I recall, too, that this information sharing seemed precious and rare, somehow unattainable even through our college tuition. One writing professor—particularly generous with his time, in most cases—responded to our request for guidance on submitting to literary magazines, “Do you really think you’re ready for that?” I recognized in that moment that I’d met my first information hoarder, my first gatekeeper. It’s also possible that this professor was simply too far removed from the practice—one argument for why writing programs need younger faculty members.

My writing group—comprised of first-generation college graduates—did the job of lifting each other up from ignorance, and into our respective graduate programs, but the battle was hard-won.

After earning my MFA, I came to Boston by accident, and with the vague idea that it was a city where writers thrive. My experience has shown this to be true. While rents and the cost of living are astronomical—a huge obstacle for most artists—Boston writers are rich with community. And what’s perhaps most astounding about Boston is how easily information is handed to me now that I’ve plugged into the writing community here. What stands out is the willingness with which established authors and literary professionals share what they know. I wouldn’t have applied for any of the four fellowships I received this year if I hadn’t learned about them from my writer friends. If my partner, Sarah, didn’t show me how to write a query, I likely wouldn’t have found my agent when I did, and without my community, I’d never have found her.

Perhaps the most valuable information I’ve learned since leaving Miami is that when it comes to getting your writing out into the world, it’s not just about who you know, but about who’s willing to share what they know with you.

-Jonathan Escoffery, 2017 Ivan Gold Fellow

What Gets Lost

Several years ago, I bought an unbelievably gorgeous ring at a department store in Toronto. I have no idea how much it cost me. I have no idea the name of the store. No idea how to describe it. At Dave & Buster’s a year or so later, the ring did a thing–slid off, it flew, it shot in the same direction of the basketball I aimed at the net. The ball came back to me. The ring didn’t.

I’ve been reading Cape Verde’s first (and only) Creole-English dictionary. It’s a very nostalgic experience. All the words I know, the words I don’t. How the definitions surprise me. Sadden me. How I’m sure, the published definitions mean something different to someone else. The power of interpretation leads me to riff off the English definitions, aware that in the process, images facts ideas values and beliefs are sliding off, flying, landing here, elsewhere, and nowhere. I cannot stop writing This Won’t Make Sense in English definition poems:

From the dictionary:

Pasada [pasu] n step; ~ di ómi, grasa-l mudjer, short visit; badja ~, dance the pasada dance

From what I’ve lost:

dancing the pasada dance is a message: consumption is not something you do with your mouth

I’m not sure I know what I’m getting at but think I’m having a moment. Appreciating the ways in which words mean things, the ways in which all words, in every language, mean, to feel. It’s fascinating, this idea of culture and how we are because of it, in spite of it.

The loss of my ring went from clumsy

to there are worse things to lose.

Went from

is this making sense in English

to how are we making sense

of the words we use

to say what it is

we cannot.

-Shauna Barbosa, 2017 Writers’ Room of Boston Fellow

What Happens on Submission Stays on Submission

When I was querying literary agents for the first (and second, and third) time, I kept a moderately active Blogspot. Nothing too formal, but enough to connect me to a community I’m still lucky enough to know today. I had their posts as a guidebook. Whenever I wasn’t sure if I’d been waiting too long, or if I said the wrong thing, I read their experiences, held them up to mine to make sure I was on the right track. Whenever there was a question I wasn’t sure if I could ask, the answer existed somewhere already.

When I signed with my then-agent at the end of 2012, I posted about how excited I was to go on submission to editors. And then, following the conventional wisdom I’d read about, I kept my mouth shut. It has, for the most part, stayed shut since.

The rationale behind the Submission Cone of Silence is as follows: it keeps you from saying anything you’ll regret, and it preserves the illusion that you’re a fresh talent rolling into an editor’s inbox just minutes after signing with your agent. And all those What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Sell a Book guides told me the same thing. That it’s hard, of course it’s hard, but you can tell everyone all about that after you sell.

And then I kept not-selling.

This is the point where I’d look for someone else’s story to reassure me that I was normal. This is also the point where it became clear that everyone else got the same advice I did. The blog posts were self-selecting. Submission was the longest month of my life, I must have read about a dozen times. And then I’d look at my submission list, time-stamped about a year prior, and wonder if one day archaeologists were going to find me half-crumbled into dust and still clutching my laptop.

(“Extraordinary,” they’d whisper. “She was refreshing her inbox all those years.”)

I asked my friends, published and almost-published, when they sold. On the second round. On my second book. On the second round of my second book. By the time my third book went out on submission, I’d stopped asking.

I did a lot of backspacing, both in writing and in tweeting. Everything I tried to say sounded ungrateful, or impatient, or dismissive of the luck and privilege that got me this far. When my agent parted ways with me, I did a lot of acknowledging it without acknowledging it. It was easy enough to figure out if you read between the lines, but if I didn’t say as much in public, maybe no one would figure out what an Undesirable I was.

And after a while, I just wanted to own it. I’m competitive. If I was going to be an Undesirable, I wanted to be the Least Desirable Person in Publishing.

I didn’t own it. I cultivated an even better poker face. I got really good at keeping my excitement in the forefront at events and book launches, and saving the bucketsful of conflicting feelings until I walked home. I gently brushed off questions about when my book was coming out, and I said a lot of No, that’s okay. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they’d asked anything wrong. It would hurt more if they stopped asking.

This is, I know, a lot of talking about not-talking. I started this post thinking I’d talk about the times spent scribbling on the margins of my day job, the manuscripts shelved, the foothold into the writing world that I worried I’d lost until the Writers’ Room and its wonderful community helped me reshape it. These are still things I want to talk about. But then I started to wonder what about these stories was so damaging that I felt the need to sit on them for over four years.

After all, writers tend to lose perspective, stuck in their own heads. When I called my grandmother the night I received the WROB fellowship, I laughed that I finally had good news for her.

She firmly informed me that I had good news for her all the time.

Rebecca Mahoney, 2017 WROB Fellow

In Defense of the Second Person

Lately, I’ve been questioning the use of the second person point of view in fiction. The you pronoun features prominently in my collection, but as I work on what I hope will be the manuscript’s final story, I’m finding myself overly conscious about choosing you over I or he. I keep stopping to ask, “Is this POV earned?”

I’ve long resisted the idea that using the second person requires more justification than other narrative strategies. If I interrogate my choice to use you over I, I’ll admit that on some level, it just feels more natural. When I wake for work after a late night of writing (or Netflix binging), and I glance sleepy-eyed into my bathroom mirror, I don’t say to myself, “I look like shit.” I say, “You look like shit.”

And I know exactly to whom I am speaking.

When I read novels written in the first-person—novels that haven’t troubled themselves with an invented occasion for my reading them—I sometimes wonder of the narrator, To whom is this story being told? What assumptions have the narrator made about the recipient of this story?

With third-person narrators, I might wonder, Who is telling me this? Is that you, God?

IMG_1718In second person narration, when you stands in for I—that is, when readers or secondary characters aren’t being addressed—we understand that our protagonist is both narrator and narratee; we are privy to a telling or retelling of a story handed off to, and received by, a psyche fractured by the passage of time and/ or an altered understanding of events. This fracture, I would argue, more similarly reflects how we experience the world: Subject meets stimuli and interprets then reinterprets to create narrative; we tell ourselves the story of what is happening to us as it is happening, and many times afterward. Similarly, our second person protagonist exists both within the story’s events and in the consciousness that orders and reorders the events to create meaning.

For those of us who exist outside of the dominant culture, this experience of psychic fracture is particularly salient. As a person of color and a first-generation American, I am tasked with mastering my own cultural references and white America’s. To succeed within the larger culture, to some extent, I must cultivate a dual consciousness that often sets me at odds with myself, as I view myself through the lens of the other. The second person POV uniquely allows a character reflection through the lens of a removed self, the distance created by you implying a second consciousness.

Perhaps third person feels too authoritative to me right now because my reality is constantly in flux. Perhaps first suggests singularity, and even in the plural gestures to a cohesion that I just can’t identify with. Because, even now, the voice in the back of my head is telling me, “Shut up and write your story.”

-Jonathan Escoffery, 2017 WROB Ivan Gold Fellow

On Not Writing

IMG_2874 (1)

Photo credit: Lauren Chanel Allen. Readers: Shauna Barbosa, Airea D. Matthews, Ananda Lima, Maya Doig-Acuña, Koye Oyedeji, Duarte Geraldino

Last weekend I participated in Bread Loaf’s Sunday Salon reading series. The reading took place at Jimmys 43 in New York City. A charming, intimate room under the bar. It felt incredibly good to read with such good company. Felt good to chat with the audience (I apologize for that one poem I read from my phone—thank you for sitting through that). Readings make me feel, you know, like a writer. Like things are moving, things are happening—hey look, my MFA is paying off.

Then the reading’s over. I eat plant-based pizza with friends, followed by a nap before my bus back to Boston. Heavy on my mind lately is all the writing I’ve not been doing. Writing is what makes us writers, no? Why is the admin work surrounding my forthcoming book starting to feel poetic?

Not writing brings me back to a poem I fell in love with last year: “In Tongues” by Tonya M. Foster. “Because you haven’t spoken / in so long, the tongue stumbles and stutters, / sticks to the roof and floor as if the mouth were just / a house in which it could stagger like a body unto itself.” This is what it feels like. Not writing. Not being able to speak. Not only is “In Tongues” a remembrance of music’s ability—it’s a reminder that we must be thankful for the ability to speak effortlessly. Though melancholic in its overall story on one not being able to speak, Tonya Foster’s poem gives it an exciting jazz element. The second section of the poem calls on music and continues with the alliteration of the first section. “What to say when one says, / “You’re sooo musical,” takes your stuttering for scatting, / takes your stagger for strutting, / takes your try and tried again for willful / playful deviation? / It makes you not wanna holla / silence to miss perception’s face.” The second stanza, again, encompasses a similar sound with stuttering, scatting, stagger, and strutting. Scatting gives us noise of a jazz scat. “It makes you not wanna holla” adds a dramatic lift to “takes your try and tried again,” painting a compelling image of the genuine attempts to make a sound, and the heartbreak in not wanting to try to communicate with those who make a mockery of the attempt.

“In Tongues” pushes me to pay attention to a voice outside of myself. The voice in this poem, as with the voice I am currently in search of, is working as struggle, as being taken away, being placed in and outside of the body. I am grateful for the opportunity to go back to my words at a reading. It’s an exercise in waiting.

hang on/ keep your silence/ until the words/ ripen/ in you.”                                                                                              -Pablo Neruda

-Shauna Barbosa, 2017 Writers’ Room of Boston Fellow






Last week I read a very good article titled “When Things Go Missing,” by Kathryn Schulz, which appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker. As the title indicates, the article is about losing things. The author begins with anecdotes about losing one’s possessions, such as wallets, clothing, keys, and cars.  You know she’s going to write about losing more important things, and she does – about losing people.

At 7,000 words the article was long but very readable.  I began reading it on my phone while I was waiting to pick up my kids and kept reading it even after they got in the car and wanted me to start driving.

Later I fell to wondering how the author had written at such length on a topic you might not think anyone could write a lot about.  So I read the article again and noted all the different directions in which the author took it, each like a ray radiating out from a center to illuminate it. There was a paragraph or more on all of these strands: anecdotes about lost objects, people known to the author who lose things often, advice people like to give on how to find things, advice the internet gives on how to find things, types of things it’s possible to lose, data people have compiled on lost things, explanations for why we lose things, why we feel the need to know how something got lost, why we like to blame other people for our losses, why it’s more worrisome to lose things when we get older, and finally, the worst things we can lose – those close to us.

By the time we get to the end of the article, the strands of it have wrapped around us securely.  We get the sense that the author has considered her theme from all angles, deeply.  The resulting perception of depth provides the piece with both momentum and credibility.

If there’s one thing I miss about my former life in economics it’s the sublime feeling of having explored something in depth. There was a problem and there were the resources to study it.  As well, I suppose, there were deadlines, support, the need to reach closure – or else.

I find it so challenging to get the same sense when I’m writing fiction. The problems are hard to define. The resources, if you count all books, are infinite or, really, none.  Countless influences addle my brain.  Writing fiction imposes many constraints – you can’t just write about a theme in a story – though it provides more artistic leeway.

At the same time it’s easy to perceive when any piece of writing, like this blog post, has or lacks depth. As in people, shallowness isn’t attractive in writing.

I read this once about the philosopher Spinoza, who was deeply interested in science and mathematics, that for him the ultimate benefits of scientific study were spiritual. I like this thought so much. It seems to explain why I’m so preoccupied with depth. I could extend the thought to writing and say that the more considered the writing, the better for the soul.

Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow