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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

I’ve been writing about death a lot. Since my friend Jay died at the beginning of June. Then writer Graham Joyce died about a month ago, and I wrote about that.

Then writer Eugie Foster died a few weeks ago (also from cancer, all three of them from cancer), and I didn’t write about it. Because I felt like I’d been writing about death death death, and also I’d never met her. But her novelette Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast was one of the first pieces of short fiction that I completely fell in love with after starting to write short fiction myself. It was one of the stories that made me realize how powerful short fiction can be. And also, the title! (Also you can totally go read it right now because it is super good.) So I felt a real sense of loss.

And then a few days ago, Zilpha Keatley Snyder died. I was trying not to write so much about death and grief, but I mean, I have to write about this. So. I tried. And this is what you’re getting.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder was the author I wanted to be when I grew up. She was one of my first author crushes. I loved her name; I loved how dignified it sounded, how I’d never heard the name Zilpha before, how it had three parts instead of only two, and how I could never shorten it because otherwise it didn’t have the right ring. I loved that she lived in the same county that I lived in, which meant writers were real people who lived in real places and I could be one of them someday.

Below the Root, how I love you!

Below the Root, how I love you!

And most of all, I loved her work. I devoured her work. I shared her work with my mom; I’m pretty sure my mom read The Velvet Room out loud to me at some point, and maybe also The Egypt Game, but I can’t remember. I loved the Below the Root series so much, it was one of the books I tried to copy in my own young writing, along with The Wizard of Oz and Anne of Green Gables. I spent about a million hours playing the impossible adventure computer game based on Below the Root. I never beat it, but I got pretty far. Well, at least I thought I did at the time.

And then, just when I might have been getting a little too old to be completely enamored with Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s work (I was probably around 12), I found Libby on Wednesday, which I read repeatedly. Because it was about a girl like me, a girl who was too smart for her own good and didn’t really understand the social maze of middle school and, most of all, wanted to be a writer. I loved that book so hard.

My collection of Zilpha Keatley Snyder novels.

My collection of Zilpha Keatley Snyder novels.

I never met Zilpha Keatley Snyder. But her books meant, and still mean, the world to me. They are a crucial element of my personal book collection. They influenced me both as a writer and as a human being.

I will miss you, Zilpha Keatley Snyder. And I still want to be you when I grow up.

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I want to write about solitude today, and finding myself uncertain as to how to begin, I looked up some famous quotations on solitude.

From these, I ascertained that people are very divided about the idea of solitude. Some people love solitude, finding it absolutely essential to their well-being, while other people wouldn’t choose solitude if they had another choice. Solitude is simultaneously viewed as exalting and painful, beautiful and tragic.

I found a reference to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I located my copy, given to me when I was a young artist myself, and started flipping through it, and now I want to read the whole thing again. He references solitude several times in its pages. I particularly like this passage:

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you.”

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

There is this common idea that solitude is helpful and perhaps even necessary for artists to develop their own voices (and visions) and do the work required of them. Certainly writers have to sit and be focused inside their own heads while writing, even if they are physically surrounded by people. For some other types of artists, solitude is perhaps less critical.

We each have our own capacity for solitude, and that capacity can change over time and in different circumstances. It can be deliberately expanded (meditation retreats, anyone?) and it can be deliberately contracted. Within limits, of course.

I have been craving more solitude recently. I hit the point far more quickly than usual when I must take time for myself. It’s not simply laziness or fatigue, although I am tired; it’s a strong need for the space to introspect and just be. There is so much going on inside of my head right now, and it’s not that it’s so very private in nature but rather that it feels like the kind of thing I need to sort out for myself, with the occasional helping hand along the way.

Perhaps solitude is important not just for creative work but also for personal change. It’s almost as if I need some time to get to know myself again.

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I read some writing advice recently that I think is useful both for writers, and for the people who would like to understand what our lives are like a bit more clearly:

“Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first 10 years. Nobody cares whether you write or not, and it’s very hard to write when nobody cares one way or the other. You can’t get fired if you don’t write, and most of the time you don’t get rewarded if you do. But don’t quit.”

–ANDRE DUBUS

This is so very true. Nobody cares deeply about my writing except me. Which is why I can be kind of a hard-ass when it comes to my schedule. And why I care so very much about my priorities and goals. Because if I don’t care, that’s it. They will never happen. End of story.

Becoming good at things takes a long time. Even if some of it comes easy to you, it takes a long time, just less of a long time. It took me twelve years to become as good at singing as I wanted to be, and really more like fifteen to get it completely secured. I took off maybe a year during that period of my life, and the rest of the time, I sang and sang and sang some more. Even when I knew I sucked. Particularly when I knew I sucked.

This is how Nala practices getting better at writing. Or maybe how she practices becoming even cuter? Unclear.

This is how Nala practices getting better at writing. Or maybe how she practices becoming even cuter? Unclear.

When I first started writing, I wasn’t in it for the long haul. I don’t know if you can be, really, right when you’re starting out. There’s an experimental phase, when you try something out. See if you like it. See if you’re at all good at it. See if it has any meaning to you. See if this is a thing to which you can devote yourself. Because not everything will be. And if it’s not for you, then it’s not only okay to quit but a good idea. This level of commitment is not for everyone.

I noticed the shift when this changed for me. When writing became a true calling. When I realized I’d be writing anyway, even if I couldn’t turn it into a career. When writing became less about the desperation of wanting a particular project to sell and more about doing the work. When the writing became more interesting and all-consuming than what would happen afterwards. When whether this novel sells or not became less important because I’m already thinking about the next several potential novels to write.

Mind you, I’m not saying that I don’t care about my career or that I don’t care about publishing my novels. I do care, and I take the necessary steps towards that goal. But I care about the writing itself more, and knowing this makes doing the business and career stuff much easier. I want to become better not so I will then become published (although that would be great) but because I’m interested in becoming better for its own sake. I no longer have to look for external validation to reinforce my commitment. I’m committed, full stop.

The early stages of becoming a writer are so very much about not quitting. And putting in time and practice, and finishing things. And finding a way to hang in there through the rejection and the failure and the process of becoming better. And falling in love with telling stories, over and over again.

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I keep a log of all the books I read every year, and when I looked down my list at the end of last year, I noticed something. I was doing a great job reading many women writers. I was happy that I was branching out and reading a variety of books, not just YA and SF&F. But the number of POC writers on my list was low. Eight percent of my total.

I looked at past reading years (I’ve been logging since 2009), and I found that no matter how many books I read each year, the number of POC writers I was reading consistently fell between seven and ten percent. Not completely horrendous, but also not great. So I told myself, I’ll try to pay more attention in 2014 and up that number. (It would require another post to discuss why I think this is important. I’m adding it to my list.)

I did a little bit of research to find more POC writers I thought I might like, and then I did a little bit more. It was more work than I’d thought it would be, because a lot of the lists repeated the same few names over and over again, or they turned out to be about books with POC characters written by white writers, which wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.

And then yesterday I was looking over my reading list so far from the year, almost three-quarters of the way in, and I realized I’m not doing enough. POC writers only account for eleven percent of my reading this year, which is only a few percent higher than years I wasn’t paying any attention at all. I decided I’d have to be more systematic if I was actually going to improve.

So I spent more hours combing through the internet, looking for writers and specific books that I think I might enjoy (sometimes I can be a bit picky). I poured through lists of POC writers, I read some posts from the #weneeddiversebooks campaign from earlier this year, I peered at author photos and read their bios and interviews, and I combed my bookshelves. And I compiled a list.

It is a somewhat strange list. It doesn’t include any books I’ve already read (hence the glaring omission of Octavia Butler, among others). It includes certain books because I already happen to own them. It doesn’t include certain books that I’m not interested in reading right now (this is a list that is supposed to help me read more, not discourage me from doing so). It has lots of different types of books so I can find something I want to read no matter my mood. And I’m going to keep adding to it because I know there are so many more books out there by POC writers that I’d love to read and just don’t know about yet.

Here is the commitment I’m making to myself. I’ve recently joined two book clubs (yeah, I know, I don’t know what I was thinking either), so I can’t control the reading for those. And sometimes I need to read something specific for a writing project I’m working on. But aside from that, the next six books I choose to read will come from this list of works by POC writers. That should bring me to more like twenty percent for the year, given how much I expect to read. And between those six books and my book club reading, that might be about all I have time for.

I’m publishing my list because I don’t think there are enough of these lists out there, and I was surprised at the amount of time it took me to compile it. I’d also love to hear about any books by POC writers that you would like to mention or recommend in the comments.

Adult SF/F:

  1. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu
  2. Falling Sky, by Rajan Khanna (out Oct. 7)
  3. The Killing Moon, by N.K. Jemisin
  4. Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany
  5. The Deaths of Tao, by Wesley Chu
  6. The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu
  7. Mindscape, by Andrea Hairston
  8. Ascension, by Jacqueline Koyanagi
  9. The Best of all Possible Worlds, by Karen Lord
  10. Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi
  11. White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi
  12. Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson
  13. All You Need is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
  14. Harmony, by Project Itoh

Other Adult:

  1. Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  2. The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje
  4. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  5. Lullabies, by Lang Leav (poetry)
  6. Follow Her Home, by Steph Cha
  7. Beauty and Sadness, by Yasunari Kawabata
  8. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
  9. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
  10. Bitch is the New Black: a Memoir, by Helena Andrews
  11. The Awesome Girl’s Guide to Dating Extraordinary Men, by Ernessa T. Carter

YA:

  1. The Silence of Six, by E.C. Myers (out Nov. 5)
  2. Since You Asked, by Maurene Goo
  3. Pointe, by Brandy Colbert
  4. Charm & Strange, by Stephanie Kuehn
  5. The Young Elites, by Marie Lu (out Oct 7)
  6. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han
  7. Prophecy, by Ellen Oh
  8. Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake
  9. Rivals in the City, by YS Lee (out of print)
  10. The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
  11. Champion, by Marie Lu (this is the 3rd book of the trilogy)
  12. Once We Were, by Kat Zhang (this is the 2nd book of a trilogy)
  13. Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin
  14. Control, by Lydia Kang
  15. Unravel Me, by Tahereh Mafi (this is the 2nd book of a trilogy)

And here is a (very partial) list of resources I used to compile this list:

We Need Diverse Books and 27 POC Authors

We Need Diverse Books Summer Reading Series

You Want More Diversity in Your Pop Culture? Here’s How to Find It

100 Books by Black Women Everyone Must Read

Diversity and List of Books by 23 Asian American and Other POC Writers Part I and Part 2

For more information on this campaign, visit weneeddiversebooks.org.

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“Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”

Nikki Giovanni

When I was in my twenties, before I was taking writing particularly seriously (I was still solidly in the musician phase of my existence), I wanted to write a book fictionalizing my experiences during my year living abroad in London. It’s possible my experiences were interesting enough to warrant such a thing. Maybe. Or not.

But one problem that niggled at the back of mind, even then, was the pesky little question: what novel would I write next? At the time, I had no other ideas, a proposition that blows my mind since I’m now swimming with ideas. But all I had to go on was my own experience.

I feel like there’s this autobiographical stage that many writers go through around when they’re starting out. But I agree with Nikki Giovanni: there may be one novel firmly based in personal experience, possibly even a few, but ultimately that well is limited.

Empathy, on the other hand, can be an infinite resource from which to draw. Empathy allows us to see other perspectives and imagine reactions to different situations.  And when we consider those cases of outstanding writers with a very limited life experience–Emily Dickinson and the Bronte sisters spring to mind as the usual examples–we can posit that these writers possessed a very well-developed sense of empathy that allowed them both to glean as much as possible from the experiences they did have and to write so far beyond that experience.

Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

However, I do think empathy can be developed through experience. This can include experiences of the imagination, whether that be solely our own imaginations set loose or a collaboration with creators as we read novels, see plays, or watch movies and TV series. It can include our own experience navigating through the world. And it can include the information we come across that informs our understanding of how the world works.

The key, then, is to avoid writing solely through experience, but instead to use experience as a practice ground for developing the empathy that can potentially last through an entire career.

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My friend uses the phrase “having a literary life” to mean, as far as I can tell, having a traumatic childhood. You know, the kind that would feature in a literary short story or possibly even form the foundation of a brilliant autobiographical debut novel with a two-word name, like White Rain or Sublime Bodies or Orchids Burning. (Maybe I’ll call mine Broken Magnolias, after the magnolia tree branch in my backyard I accidentally broke when I was six or seven. It would feature a call-back to Duras’s famous Moderato Cantabile, although in my novel the magnolia would symbolize a loss of innocence instead of female sexuality.)

Carolyn See wrote a book for writers called Making a Literary Life. It concerns establishing a regular writing routine (I think this is the first place I read about having a daily word count), becoming okay with submission and rejection, and writing charming notes to writers you admire.

By both of these metrics I have a literary life. But I would like to offer a third metric.

When I think about leading a literary life, I think of the way writing pervades every aspect of my existence. And don’t think I’m exaggerating; it really does.

When something bad happens to me: well, at least this might come in handy for my writing someday.

When looking for a place to live: does this feel like the kind of place I could write? is this part of my story of myself as a writer?

When engaging with the world: I am curious about all the things because you never know when I might need this knowledge or experience for a project.

When being impulsive: It feeds my creative well when I’m leading an exciting, romantic life. Plus this will make a great story later.

When not being impulsive: I need to focus on my work.

When wallowing: Tragedy! I am experiencing tragedy! Now let’s pour this all out into a cool creative project.

When socializing: If I understand people and their behavior and motivations more thoroughly, then think of the interesting characters I can create.

When out and about: People watching. More people watching. More people watching.

When appreciating the small, the mundane, the ordinary: This vividness of experience will translate so much more strongly on the page. Telling details for the win!

When making decisions: I want to lead the kind of life I wouldn’t be bored to write about, and be the kind of character I wouldn’t be bored to read about.

Such is my literary life.

Books books books!

Books books books!

 

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Last week I wrote about this gem of an article on differences between amateurs and professionals. But I left my favorite item on Bob Lefsetz’s list for today. If I were compiling a list of things about life I wish I’d known as soon as freaking possible, this would go near the top.

Amateurs, he says, believe what people say. Professionals believe what people do.

Which is to say, talking about something is all fine and good, but if subsequent actions don’t line up with the words, it’s generally the actions that point to the deeper truth about what’s going on. This is true not just in professional life, but across the board.

I suffer from a vein of serious gullibility, crossed with a strong desire to believe the best of people, so I still need to remind myself of this lesson. Noble intentions are wonderful to possess, but until we follow through on them, they remain intangible. Similarly, words matter, but if they aren’t backed up with fact, action, or experience, they remain hollow. And words can create false expectations about what will happen in the future.

I do think it takes a certain self awareness and ability to adjust to line up words with actions. And words by their nature sometimes lack the required precision. Which is why the actions themselves are so important. They cut through the potential for misunderstanding. They also help us better understand ourselves and what we care about.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my priorities and then developing plans around them because I don’t want to be a person who regularly expresses desires but then does nothing to make any of them happen. And it is so easy to be that person. It’s not as interesting to be that person, but it does, in my experience, take a lot less effort.

It also takes less courage. Because acting on words makes them real, and it also makes the possibility of failure or success real. And both failure and success can be terrifying because they cause change and require adjustment. As long as we don’t act, we can hold on to our fantasies about what could be true.

In writing, this manifests as the person who professes to want to write or want to build a career as a writer, but who doesn’t write or pursue this seriously. I’m not talking about people going through rough patches–times when life ruthlessly intervenes or we have to take some time to work out how to deal with a particular demon. But ultimately a writer needs to figure out a process that works, a way to actually write and produce, and ideally a way to write that doesn’t solely depend on the occasional burst of inspiration.

Saying we want to be writers or we wish we could be writers is certainly not uncommon, but it is the actions we take in pursuit of this goal that demonstrate how committed and serious we are. And professionals can tell the difference a mile away. This is, I believe, one reason why going to Clarion and other such workshops can be such a door-opener; spending the time and resources on a residential workshop shows a certain level of commitment that professionals respect.

What we do–the actions we take-becomes a large part of who we are.

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