Tag Archives: creative writing

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

 

 

 

 

Depth

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

Writing… Or Not

Writing. It’s not something that’s been happening since November for me. First there was the election, then illness, the end of the semester, holiday rush at the bookstore, more illness (it won’t go away), followed by turning in grades and prepping new courses. Right now I’m writing this blog post, but I’m still sick and still have a mound of grading.

My default at times like this is to cut into myself. I should be able to do everything. I should be able to juggle all my jobs and my writing and my health. After all, other people do it. Hell, even I’ve done it at other points in time. The thing that has me pausing now to reconsider is the “other people.”

life-without-envy-ego-management-for-creative-people-by-camille-deangelis-1250099358This fall, WROB member Camille DeAngelis published Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People. This is not the sort of book I normally read but knowing Camille, I dove in. Camille spends most of the book focused on the dangers of comparison: because that other person published/sold/wrote/won means I should.

I saw myself in this, my sense that I wasn’t good enough not just based on the achievements of others, but also based on my past achievements. I put down the book with the begrudging feeling that I needed to be kinder to myself, but also with profound respect for Camille. Many of the examples Camille uses in the book and in discussions with bloggers are from her own life. Knowing that she struggles with the same things I do made me feel like I wasn’t alone, and that the struggle was normal.

So, if you’re currently experiencing a burst of creativity and production, I’m happy for you. But if you’re also being taken down by politics, sickness, and work, may I suggest something? Be kind to yourself and pick up Camille’s book. Get yourself a decadent drink and a cookie (and maybe some vitamins, too) and give yourself some time to check in with yourself. Maybe this takes the form of just sitting. Maybe you’re ready to pick up Camille’s book and try just one page. And maybe you find that you have the energy to write a journal entry.

As writers, we are good at empathizing with others (whether they be real people or fictional characters) but rather than giving all your energy to others, be a little selfish and give some to yourself. After all, run down, sick people can’t show up to write and, as we know, showing up to write is the hardest part.

Purchase a signed copy of Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People.

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow

WROB Fellowship Applications Due 1/15/17!

The Writers’ Room of Boston awards annual fellowships to four emerging local writers who lack sufficient funds to secure a quiet place to develop their work. Fellowship recipients receive full membership to The Writers’ Room for 12 months (March through February) at no cost. Fellows also receive a reduced rate for membership for another 12 months following the fellowship period. All fellows and members enjoy 24-hour access to a T-accessible, light-filled work space in the Financial District of downtown Boston and the opportunity to be part of a supportive community of serious writers.

boston_front copyAwards for the Emerging Writers Fellowship Program are based on the quality of a submitted writing sample, a project description, a CV or resume, and a statement of need. The Fellowships are open to writers working in any genre or form. Fellows must be committed to: using the Room on a regular basis throughout the 12-month period, writing a minimum of 6 blog posts for our website, and assisting with WROB readings and events.

For more information about the WROB Emerging Writers Fellowship Program, please visit this page on our website: http://www.writersroomofboston.org/fellowship/ 

Applications for Fellowships are due on January 15, 2017. Applications for regular membership are open all year.

All Grown Up

I often read stories that seem very grown-up.  A story may seem grown-up to me for any of a number of reasons.  (A) It sounds very authentic even if the period or location is off-track such as the North Pole or the nineteenth century. It’s clear that the author has done a good deal of research and knows his or her subject very well. This author is sensitive to dress and demeanor, climate and atmosphere, and the particular effect of sunlight on trees, and is therefore able to infuse his or her writing with authenticity.  (B) The story is structured brilliantly. For example, the author deftly weaves together episodes and bits of plot among which I would not normally see a connection. The author is clearly very intelligent, and isn’t content with making simple, childlike connections, such as character A falls down the stairs therefore character A is hurt, or with going from A to Z in a straight line. These authors take up the challenge to make their stories cast a longer shadow by being oblique.  (C) The story has a well-conceived plot, intricate or simple. The author displays a masterful grasp of human nature, of readers and characters alike, and what needs to happen to elicit emotion.  The author is able to imagine events in the extreme that are still credible and translate these into lovely language.   (D) Which brings me to a fourth reason a story may seem grown-up to me– via language that is awesome one way or another.  Some authors intuit dazzling metaphors and strings of words while others make you skip a beat with the plainest of sentences.

These are some, though by no means all, the ways in which stories seem grown-up to me.  As I have often noted in this blog, I began writing later in life.  I love my work but, like I see flaws in my kids, I see that my work could grow up a bit. For instance my characters are often born in “a town in the south of India.”  Authors of variety A above would not settle for this broad of a brushstroke.  I like to think, though, that there’s a hierarchy of writer’s needs according to which writing grows over time.  At first the writer writes to satisfy a basic need for expression.  This was true of me at least: things were obviously brewing inside me all the years I was toying with financial models. Once the basic need for expression is satisfied and the writer has cleared her system of all or most of her obsessions, cultural, childhood, or familial, the real writing can begin and her writing can grow in different directions. The writer feels able to become deeply interested in the psychology of the individual, in place, or in history. The writer does research and takes notes. The writer is less content with being direct and writes complicated, intelligent stories. Or so I like to think.

Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow

Me in My Book

A new friend recently told me that they’d started reading my book. Initially I was, of course, happy that they’d bought a copy and decided to make time to read it. Happiness was swiftly overcome with a sense of trepidation, here was this person still forming opinions of me about to delve into what was possibly my deepest emotional truths.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

In memoir, we carefully choose what to reveal, what stories to tell, and what moments to carefully edit out. But in fiction, the unreal acts as an obscuring haze over the real, meaning we’re more likely to tell emotional and psychological truths. Because every character is a magnified faucet of oneself, reading fiction is like reading the most personal there is.

I first came to this awareness when revising. As I shouted out what, exactly, my character needed to realize at the climax of the story, I was struck with the knowledge that this truth was exactly what I struggled with most as a person. I ended up laughing off the tension then, but the realization has remained.

When my first book was published, I was most worried about my friends and family reading the book. Sure, reviewers would like it or hate it, but hey, I went to art school and am so used to criticism and rejection that maybe someone should be worried. My family and friends, though, knew me as I presented myself and told my story; what would analyzing my fiction reveal? They, of course, just told me what they liked and moved on. Was I reading too much into it, a result of a sound education in critical thought?

I recently did a revision of a book that I know is very close to my life. When I began the book, I asked my mom for permission to write it, knowing it might someday alienate us from a family friend. She, of course, gave her blessing (and the book hasn’t been sold yet, so any concerns are way off in the future). The weight of needing permission opened up all sorts of questions. What had my parents thought of the book I’d published? They’d never really said. Was there something they were keeping from me? I’m not worried about it, but I still wonder, what does our fiction reveal about ourselves to those closest to us? Is this something only a writer would think about, or is it something other readers are aware of?

If you have any answers, musings, experiences, or thoughts on these questions, I’d love to hear them.

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow