Hedgebrook Diary: Week 3

September 15, 2015

I am exactly at the midway point of my residency. I’m winding up work on this next chapter of the novel. It was over a week of what I felt was not much, but amounted to a whole chapter, a lot more figured out in terms of world-building, and time well spent with a character.

Some writers get here and write like 100 pages but this is not that type of project (or maybe it’s just not at that point yet) and I am certainly not that kind of writer. Years of writing in spurts—a few words in caps as placeholders, expanding on those words with a few sentences, molding a paragraph, threading it to be cohesive with another paragraph, staying with a scene, rounds of printing, rereading, tweaking, heightening—not in one sitting, mind you, but at work, on my lunch break, after work, on the way home on the train, for a few minutes in the evening, on a Saturday morning after walking Niko, a Sunday morning after breakfast. Snatches of time. It’s all I’ve ever had.

It’s trained me to keep working like that even when I have blocks of time so even here at Hedgebrook I’m compelled to work in a touch and go way. I write a blog post, make edits to a work in progress, have coffee, expand a scene, have lunch, make notes, take a shower, print, reread, mark-up, have dinner, talk to other writers, take another look at the whole thing, tweak, read, listen to the radio, read in bed. Even from week to week I feel the need to switch from one project to another.

It’s fine. It works for me. And the only right way is the way that works.

This week, I’m dedicating my attention to studying musical theater. Some things are better done when you’re too inexperienced to have the foresight to see just how impossible it is or you’d never do it. I have a collaborator. I have a fresh premise. I have a story. I have no fucking idea what I’m doing. But I once said the same thing about short stories and essays. While many days, I still don’t have a clear idea of what the fuck I’m doing with a particular short story or essay, I feel I have a better grasp. Maybe that’s all we get, more confidence in the handling.

September 16, 2015

On a walk with a few fellow writers after dinner, someone today made the most casual comment that this time, being here at Hedgebrook, is especially great for 9-to-5ers.

what-on-earth-are-you-on-about

I fucking forgot my life. That I have a life other than this one. That this one is not the real one.

I seriously had a moment of dissonance where I did not understand that I am one of the aforementioned 9-to-5ers and was like…oh shit, this isn’t my life. The way you pick up a jacket at a party and you’re like oh wait, this isn’t mine, looks just like mine but it’s not. I might have audibly gasped like someone threw a drink in my face. It was as frightening as those days you wake up suddenly and can’t determine if you’ve woken up late or early, if it’s a weekday or weekend. A moment of sheer terror.

I haven’t locked my door, used keys, a wallet, cash in weeks. We had a brief power outage the first weekend I was here. When the power returned, I didn’t even bother to set the time on the clock radios in my cabin so both clocks have different random times because who gives a damn? I haven’t even shopped for my own food. I basically ricochet between my cottage, the pumphouse, the bathhouse and the farmhouse. I pushed myself to take that quick walk off the property today because…I mean…it’s good for me, but I was glad to get back in the farmhouse when we returned.

I fucking forgot my life. How quick was that?

September 17, 2015

The writer Alexander Chee posed a simple question on his facebook status. Just asked if anyone had comments about taking a social media break, if it was helpful in their writing.

I use Facebook and twitter most frequently. I’m a jump-on, jump-off type of user rather than someone who sits and scrolls and I don’t rail about the evils of it. I’m in the “it’s all about how you use it” faction. If your timeline annoys you, curate a better timeline. There are plenty of tools available for you to do so, from herding individuals into circles to limit their view, to unfollowing for limiting yours. And once you set that up you never have to think of it again.

I long ago uninstalled Facebook and twitter from my phone and haven’t missed notification icons and dings for a moment. My linkedin account just sort of sits like a monument, although I don’t know if that’s technically social media. It’s like one serious friend in the crew. Google + is crickets, so I just share infrequent big professional news and blog posts. I use pinterest for inspiration boards for writing, recipes, saving photos of sploosh-worthy famous people. It’s my corkboard, not somewhere I engage with others. I’m a fan of instagram and use it, but oddly enough I uninstalled it upon arriving here. Partially, because my phone was pressed for storage space and partially because I wanted to encourage myself to directly experience in the present rather than capture for later. Tumblr and Medium are infrequent afterthoughts.

I don’t feel they get in the way of my writing, at home or here. Other things siphon from my writing time: work for pay; parenting and parenting-related putting out of fires; commuting places; household crap like cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking, laundry; working out, people, events. Much more so than social media, but something stuck to me from that thread. Someone said they felt a decrease in their hair trigger reaction.

Sometimes checking social media feels like a series of quick, and therefore meaningless, indignations. Everything from a news item to a status to a photo, meme, or video can spark declarations of heinousness, offense, vapidity.

There’s no time to process in depth why we feel the way we do. No time to turn it over in one’s mind, see things from different angles, practice introspection, examine ourselves, glean insight, practice empathy. There’s not even time to feel nothing because the flow of stimuli is so constant and eternal. Something that sparks outrage in the morning is forgotten by noon. And in between, there were a dozen other sparks.

What strikes me when I’m reading a piece of literature, whether essay, short fiction or novel, are the parts that refuse being shaken off so easily. The insights revealed in the sentences that feel like a wallop. And a hair trigger reaction doesn’t seem conducive to creating that experience for others. Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” Tears take time to collect and surprise actually takes time to build.

I respond to individual experiential learning so I decided to take a break from social media for the rest of my time here. I don’t expect to write more, but perhaps create the space to think and feel more.

September 18, 2015

I listened to a Thich Nhat Hahn talk this morning and cried. I mean, like an ugly sob. I’m not really a crier anymore. I have one good cry a year. Period cries don’t count.

My father once asked me if I ever saw my grandmother depressed or crying. I never did. We know she must have felt desperate or sad many times, but we never saw her cry. I believe I come from a long line of non-cryers, especially women. Breaking down, releasing, unpacking, is a luxury and a privilege—one I did not see exercised too often in my family.

I am afraid, despite all of my emotional intelligence, that while I understand when others cry and feel compassion toward them when they do, I see it as a sign of weakness in myself.

It means I have allowed something to wound me. I have given something power to do so. It is a constant struggle to remind myself no one gets through this life unscathed and that wounds remind us we are human. The power I think I retain when I don’t allow things to penetrate is a false one, an illusion, something to make me feel immortal.

He talked about the components of love in Buddhist terms. The concept of understanding did me in. How necessary understanding is to love and how much must be traversed to truly understand. How you must see it all at once, a person’s suffering, their obstacles, their life, their desires. That when you truly understand another person, you don’t do or say things to make them suffer. If you’re not bringing them joy, it’s not love. If you can’t understand, it’s not love. Perhaps there’s an intention to love, but not real love just yet. How when we love our friends we give them all the freedom they require. What changes in romantic love that this becomes no longer true? He suggested we ask our loved one, do I understand you enough?

I think I have been intending to love for the last year, but not truly done so. Fear and attachment get in the way. I can see it when I look deeply, as Thay suggests we do, at my loved one’s disappointments, loneliness, fear, his past experiences, his desires, his reaching toward happiness. I don’t think I have always said or done things to ease his suffering. I think my suffering always stepped in front of his. I don’t think my love has always been freeing in the way a friendship is, in that selfless way, where you want to see your friends happy, in whatever form that takes.

I exercised my privilege of having the time and privacy here to cry over how nearly impossible a task it is love well.

September 19, 2015

Well today sucked. I am disappointed I didn’t get something I wasn’t 100% sure I wanted. I got something else I wanted, but wasn’t sure I deserved it. Or rather the thought ate at me that I got it despite what I perceived was a conclusion that my work is mediocre at best. The few people I could divulge these happenings to were kinda remiss about it. And it’s not fair to expect people to respond the way you want them to. They can only respond the way they know how.  I couldn’t cultivate any gratitude or happiness in the present. I didn’t bathe. My confidence took a bit of a hit. So did my ego.

September 20, 2015

You have to be delusional to be a writer. Have to be. It’s the only way forward.

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The Agony of Artist Statements

I can hear the collective groan from here. It’s so much easier for artists to just do what they do as opposed to talking about what they do. I can pen a 5000 word story, but if you ask me for a paragraph to describe my practice I make faces, squirm and have to wring out a couple of tries before I get something that doesn’t make me want to flip my desk over.

Mostly I just look like this guy.

It’s not that I don’t know what I write about or some of the things that combined to manifest me, the writer. I mean, I talk about it with my friends who are writers – what things interest me as subjects, what moves me from the larger world, what I’m aiming to tackle somehow in my work, whose work is having an influence on me. Many whiskey fueled nights have heard these conversations, but having to write an artist statement is the only time I’m really forced to sift through my work, examine it and articulate something about it. Without the whiskey. And this is a good thing. Good in the way grape cough syrup tastes like shit, but might help you not sound like you’re going to keel over.

What is it and do you really need one?

An artist statement basically explains your work and puts it into some sort of context. It’s an introduction to you. It’s meant to show some sort of self-examination and self-awareness on your part about your art. Do you write fiction, non-fiction, short stories, poems? What moves you to commit such acts of lunacy? I wrote and submitted and published for years without one, but when it came time to apply for things like residencies and grants, there was no going around it.

Your first line of offense is your circle. When I had to write one, I turned to writer friends and asked them how to go about doing this. What information did they offer? Was it in a particular order? Was it personal in tone or more of a recitation of their resume or neither? How long was it? I had peers generously send me theirs so I could see in a very tangible way what an artist statement looked like. My writer friends were also the ones I asked to take a look at my attempts and offer suggestions.

My attempts looked something like this.

Look at examples. Google is your best friend. Are there writers you like? Look for examples of how they talk about their work. In examples you look at, the artist is answering questions for reader. Try and imagine what question could have been asked for each sentence in their statement and try answering them as it pertains to you.

Look at your work. Look at it like an English major. What themes keep popping up? What social issues are you addressing? What subject matter?

Don’t worry about describing it in heightened language. I swear this is what freezes us up, worrying about it sounding artsy and writerly before answering the basics. Even if you’re just spitting a list or phrases to answer it. Get the bricks before worrying about the paint. The language can be tightened later.

It’s going to take a few tries. Do it in rounds. Take a pass at it. Put it away. Take another pass at it later or the next day. Put it away. I wouldn’t recommend sitting there grinding on something even as sparks are shooting from your brain.

Not ashamed to say I was this dude while working on my artist statement.

I’ll share my artist statements with you. The first is a long version. I like to start with a fuller version because I find it easier to trim than to fluff. This was the one I included in the application for a residency I’ll be heading to at the end of this summer:

“I write stories like the ones I heard after Sunday family dinners when I was a child. When I remember those times, I see my father in the middle – a sun – and grandparents, aunts, uncles caught in the gravitational pull of his stories about women that carried pistols under their skirts and men that were thieves and adventurers. Cousins sat sprawled out on the floor around me – like stars – and everyone would be red-faced from laughing. For a few hours, the adults were free from twelve hour work shifts, bills, and the rising cost of everything in New York City. For a few hours, their lives were worthy of being talked about and we were our own universe. I write to rediscover those moments.

Through fiction, I explore why that woman might have hidden a pistol under her skirt, I watch the thief at work and imagine what made the adventurer leave his doorstep. I am intrigued by what drives any of us to overpower our fears of the unknown, of failure, ridicule or punishment long enough to change our destiny and what it means when our attempts to untie ourselves from society’s expectations are futile or only temporarily successful.”

In contrast, another application – for a residency I just completed earlier this year – asked me to describe my creative discipline in 100 words:

“I write stories like the ones I heard after family dinners when I was a child where for a few hours the adults were free from twelve hour work shifts, the rising cost of everything in New York City and worrying about us kids. For a moment, their lives were worthy of telling. Through fiction, I explore what drives any of us to overpower our fears of the unknown, of failure, ridicule or punishment long enough to change our destiny and what it means when our attempts to untie ourselves from society’s expectations are futile or only temporarily successful.”

Are these the most profound things you’ve ever read? No. (I hope.) It’s not meant to be. Is there room for tweaking? Always. But I feel you do get a sense of me as a person, why I believe storytelling is such a powerful force, what feeds me as a writer and what I’m aiming to look at closely through my stories. I take it as a sign that I’m being somewhat effective at communicating what I do, if I’m getting acceptances.

It gets easier once you do a couple of applications and get a feel for them. Residencies and grants all pretty much tend to ask for this and a few other basics even if they use different language to do it.

You can do this. You’ll look back and be relieved it’s done. You’ll get better at them and other parts of the writing life that aren’t really about working on a piece of art directly, but more about opportunities that’ll help you in that. You might even wonder what you were fretting about once it’s done, but I want to assure you the cough syrup goes down and as bad as it tastes, it won’t kill you.

Female Wrestlers and Feminism in the WWE

“To every woman who gave birth to every tax payer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” -Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech

I’m gonna set aside the problematic parts of Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech and her post-Oscar comments for the sake of getting to a point. In response to her speech, WWE’s Stephanie McMahon tweeted: “Thank You @PattyArquette for having the courage to fight for on such a grand platform. .”

To which AJ Lee tweets to Stephanie McMahon: “Your female wrestlers have record selling merchandise & have starred in the highest rated segment of the show several times, And yet they receive a fraction of the wages & screen time of the majority of the male roster.

I have been waiting for this moment of badassery from the women of WWE since I started casually watching again as a semi-conscious adult. Maybe I have been waiting for this moment subconsciously since I was a little girl watching Ultimate Warrior or Jake “the Snake” Roberts be badass. Only in hindsight have I gained a fuller appreciation for women like Luna Vachon, Sherri Martel, Chyna, Lita. So why does this make me want to invite these women to have several fucking seats? I should be Meryl Streeping out, I wanna Streep out. As a work, this gender inequality angle makes a product out of a movement, a struggle with real ramifications in the real world for real people. It’s a hashtag, a marketing ploy, something destined to be churned into merchandise or publicity. They’ve already garnered attention from the Washington Post, Fox Sports and Time. It’s a storyline sold to fans with none of the thought, consideration, and risk required for anything meaningful with lasting impact.

It makes for a strange pantomime as a storyline too. It’s like hey, we have this real issue – gender inequality – but we’re not gonna address that, let’s just put on a public show to pretend we are. And I’ve been getting beaten over the head with people saying this is real and not a work but I remain unconvinced. No one hopes I’m wrong more than me. And listen it’s a great work, it capitalizes on something from the larger world around it, but if you’re not doing the work backstage too, it’s just a mockery.

You might ask, well, isn’t more screen time for female wrestlers a direct, immediately visible way to address the problem? Imagine a choice between two movies in front of you. One movie is about these two guys competing to be the fastest swimmer in the world. The other movie is about two guys and two girls competing to be the best swimmer in the world. The women have half the screen time. So fucking what? Giving certain characters visibility doesn’t necessarily deliver a better story on its own – it just creates a clusterfuck or even worse, a bunch of lazy caricatures. It’s not enough.

More screen time for female wrestlers will only help balance gender inequality insofar as they are supported and pushed creatively. It’s not more of the same that’s necessary. It’s better and new.

The time of caricature in wrestling should have long passed. But it hasn’t. Nuanced and fully fleshed characters, especially women, remain long overdue. Booking women with the same demonstrated effort and attention as the men is what’s required. It’s applying that same effort and attention into recruitment and development. And you can argue that some of the male wrestler’s storylines or gimmicks don’t get handled properly either, but can you say that the male and female champions, or the most popular stars, get booked equally?

An imbalance is righted when the conditions are created for whatever is deficient not only to exist, but to thrive. It calls for comprehensive changes and consistent long-term work.

WWE probably employs a writing staff of mostly hetero white males unless they miraculously buck the trend that holds up almost everywhere you find a team of writers. It’s an assumption on my part that the creative department is mostly male, but it’s a safe one. And with storylines that feed off of homophobia, Islamophobia, and a shitload of other isms and phobias, I would be surprised if any of the writers or decision makers have a vested interest in social or gender issues.

How many of the refs, trainers, doctors, writers, commentators, managers, executives, production crew are women? And if you give me one name out of a hundred, I’m gonna ask you to go have a seat somewhere until you figure out 1 is not a proportionately equal number.

How many of the female wrestlers were recruited from independent wrestling promotions as opposed to being models or actresses? (Granted, acting experience would help any wrestler perform.) But how many of the men were models as opposed to athletes before signing with the WWE? That tells you what the company’s priorities are for each.

My timeline on twitter usually fills up with calls for a bathroom break when a Divas match comes on. Is it the predominantly male fans themselves who don’t want to see women wrestle? Maybe if fans lent more support, WWE would, in turn, book them better. A well-intentioned, thoughtful suggestion, no doubt, but it reminds me a little of the debate people of color have about going to see movies by/about people of color even if it’s a crap movie. Does supporting them at all costs really lead to more and better movies by/about people of color or does it convince studios to keep churning out the same crap because it’s making money? How then do we explain WWE’s developmental program, NXT, doing a better job with its female wrestlers?

Because sometimes twitter is a thermometer of the people, here is a sampling of top recent tweets about WWE Diva Nikki Bella (at the time I wrote this):

“John Cena Surprises Girlfriend Nikki Bella With Designer Bag Worth Thousands—See the Total Divas.”

“Nikki Bella Showing Off Her Cleavage.”

Nikki Bella is a heel, so of course she’s going to win by cheating sometimes.”

Only one of those tweets is related to her work as a wrestler. And she does some pretty impressive shit.

Here, in contrast, are the top recent tweets about NXT champ Sasha Banks (at the time I wrote this):

“AJ Lee. Paige. Sasha Banks. Titus O’Neill. The Bella Twins. Cameron. The real shooters. The New Bullet Club.”

Sasha Banks slays me”

“Bella’s vs. Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch!!!! Paige vs. Charlotte AJ vs. Bayley

All of these tweets, and the majority I scrolled through, were about Sasha’s wrestling or her wrestling persona. So WWE (through NXT) is capable of delivering more gender balanced programming. While WWE can be accused of not leading in that direction, some of the female roster is complicit by following. True, it’s an uneven exchange – trading the opportunity to wrestle on the largest of its platforms for control of how they’re portrayed as women and wrestlers – but it’s one they make and we can’t completely look away from that. And with WWE’s history, it’s a choice they make with some knowledge about the shit they’re gonna be asked to do. The argument could be made that change can best be affected from within. May that be what’s happening here. I’m just saying some of the women are active participants in the portrayal that wrestling is a secondary concern for them. Fame being the first.

Let’s look at why so many fans (self-included) re-up on snacks or do a chore whenever the Divas come on. I can tell you why I do. Their characters are homogenous and lack nuance. From entrance music to attire to physique to personality. The variation is only in degrees. A quick word association game when I take a cursory glance at the male roster: evil exec, vigilante, arrogant actor, cult leader, cosmic tag team, underdog, Samoan twins. The same game with the female roster gives me: punk goth girl, twins, sorta rebel.

And if you’re asking me if I, casual fan that I am, would watch more if the Divas were on more, I’ll say no. Because they’re going to give me grown women skipping, batting their eyelashes, relying on their cleavage for popularity in some infantilized version of womanhood that isn’t the reflection I know or care to see. And don’t get me wrong, sexuality/sensuality are fucking badass places in which to be totally in your power, but once you put that on a stage for the regular consumption of an audience, how much autonomy do you still have? I can watch one Diva with a sexy gimmick, (male wrestlers have always had a narcissistic pretty boy archetype) but seven or eight bitches doing the same thing? Why? Where are the other archetypes that the men have? The snob, the smart-ass, the dark one, the technician, the loose cannon, the monster heel, the comic relief even.

You might say, who watches this shit anyway? Why are you attributing so much power to this one medium of entertainment? Who is looking to professional wrestling to align their social issue compass anyway? A fuckton of people watch it. Just one of their weekly shows, RAW, drew 4.12 viewers this past Sunday. With a mix of performance art, theater, sports, soap opera, and story-telling I don’t know how more people aren’t watching this, especially artists. And approve of it or not, the masses have always had their socio-political-economic views heavily influenced by entertainment, from the first person to ever tell a myth around a fire.

Entertainment is a reflection of collective consciousness, but it can take a more active role and steer some of that collective as well. And that can be for the benefit of an encompassing, more humane world or a divisive, detached one. So why am I not totally sold on some big change in gender equality from WWE? Simply because I don’t trust the sincerity of it, and it’s a sincerity that would still make it good TV.

My Writing Process – Blog Tour

Stacie Evans. The woman has impeccable timing. She asked me to participate in a blog tour about the writing process. She knows I’m here in Banner, Wyoming on a residency, feeling especially proud of having my gmail organized into actual folders and using them appropriately (You mean “follow up” doesn’t mean “forget it?” How novel!), and from my studio window watching what my city-ass thinks is a pine tree shaking from the strong winds we’re getting today. She knows I rewarded myself last night for a final draft of a short story with a few vodka grapefruits and three hours of wrestling on TV. What was I gonna do? Tell Stacie I didn’t have time? She would’ve seen right though me. Besides being incredibly astute, Stacie is also a wonderful writer and you should check her out at if you want kin, you must plant kin. With that said, here’s a little on the method and madness that slapped together could be called my writing process.

1) What are you working on?

I’m working on a short story collection that delves into the struggle to define and pursue personal freedom through three sets of characters: one coming-of-age in the Dominican Republic; another navigating adulthood and immigration; and the last, the generation born in an adopted land. The lenses through which I examine personal freedom are immigration, family dynamics, adolescent isolation and gender. The collection is inspired by anecdotes passed down to me by my father – a natural orator and one of my earliest examples of storytelling – and my upbringing in the largest Dominican community outside of the Dominican Republic.

How good did that shit sound? Listen, I didn’t know I was working on anything at all four years ago when I started writing these stories. I just did then the same thing I do now. Try to get these little vague notions that bubble up inside of me into some sort of form that I feel proud of sculpting.

So what I work on constantly is being attentive enough to feel when an idea pokes me, desperately trying to hold onto a thread of it in between parenting, working, remembering to buy dog food and the million other things that get in the way, and then hustling the time to trap some facsimile of that little aleph of a poke onto a page. Over and over. That’s what I work on.

2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

Half the time, I don’t know what to answer when people ask me what I write about so I’m at a total loss when it comes to pinning down what genre I work in beyond short fiction. One story in my collection is paranormal or urban fantasy or horror, another is women’s fiction, others are contemporary or commercial, one is middle-grade or YA. I suppose they differ from other writers’ stories in the same way I differ from the next person. My lens is forged by my particular experiences so my stories reflect what I’ve read, the weirdos and assholes I’ve interacted with in my life, my hometown of NYC, my immigrant neighborhood, being a first-generation American, my roots through my family in the Dominican Republic.

3) Why do you write what you do?

I write stories like the ones I heard after Sunday family dinners when I was a child. When I remember those times, I see my father in the middle – a sun – and grandparents, aunts, uncles caught in the gravitational pull of his stories about women that carried pistols under their skirts and men that were thieves and adventurers. Cousins sat sprawled out on the floor around me – like stars – when we were allowed to listen and everyone would be red-faced from laughing. For a few hours, the adults were free from twelve hour work shifts, bills, the rising cost of everything in New York City and worrying about the kids. For a few hours, their lives were worthy of being talked about and we were our own universe. I write to rediscover those moments.

I write the stories I do, basically because there is something that will keep nagging me if I don’t. I am beginning to suspect that my father has developed the technology that’s allowed him to finally implant himself completely into my brain, but it’s just a hypothesis. Something tells me I can write that story despite it not being the first time someone’s written about infidelity or disappointment. Even if we’re only different from each other by degrees and therefore so are our ideas, those degrees are infinite and that is reason enough for my story to exist.

Writing-Process-Quotes-1

4) How does your writing process work?

Let’s see if I can actually pin down something as cohesive as a process. It starts with an idea. It could be something I overhear as small as a fact or a comment, or as large as an anecdote or whole story my dad tells me on a random Sunday. Sometimes, I just “see” the character – in my head or physically in the world. Other times I want to recapture a feeling – disappointment or camaraderie – and I start from there. I’ve had song lyrics or short stories I read nudge me into my own spin-off as well. Picture the idea as a screw against a wall. Getting the story out is like turning that screw until it just won’t go anymore. If the idea was a small fact, I ask well, why would people do this thing? Or what type of person would do that? If it’s an anecdote or a whole story I’ve been told, or I “see” my character, I try to get into my hero/heroine’s head and move about their world as they would. What do they want? What or who is stopping them? Who or what is important in their world and are they helping or harming? How can I make these things face-off? For some reason, I am where technology comes to die, so several laptops and PCs crapping out on me have gotten me used to outlining (sometimes), jotting notes or starting the first draft with pen and paper.

Then I keep turning that screw with all the elements of fiction. How can I solidify the setting. How does the setting impose itself on the characters or the plot? Do I know my character? Would they say or do that? Would they say it or do it that way? Are all the elements of the plot tangible? You know, rising action, climax, resolution and all that. Can I see a theme sprouting from this goop? When I can’t see the forest for the trees anymore and it’s the highest level I can get it to on my own, I workshop it with peers. By this point, I’ve moved to typing up the handwritten draft.

Armed with notes, suggestions and comments from my trusted writers/readers, I rewrite according to what I agree with and what intuitively feels like the right direction. And my colleagues are so freaking astute I usually agree with 99% of their insight. There are always several rounds of rewrites and rounds of printing, rewriting by hand, retyping and re-printing. The first draft can be a drastic change from the final. I let go a long time ago worrying about how much time it’s taking me.

It’s ready when it’s ready and all that matters is if I think I will be able to reread this story a hundred times, 5, 10, 15 years from now and love it and be proud of it. Basically, did I go in there and earn the action movie slow walk with the explosions behind me?

Then I edit. Not exactly the same as a rewrite. I’m not making these big structural changes anymore. It’s more like asking myself, is every sentence absolutely necessary to understanding the character and does that understanding forward the story? Is every word necessary? Can I stream-line this? Can I say it using less words and still get the meaning across? Can I use a better word here? Pen across printed pages – makes me feel all editorial like. Don’t let me get a read pen or I get drunk with my own power.

Then I’ll just feel it when everything has clicked into place. I hit the point where I am not capable of making this story any tauter. I don’t have the urge to tweak anything when I reread it. It makes me happy to read it actually. Then I’m ready to submit it to journals in consideration of publication.

I forgot to mention, I usually work on things simultaneously, but they’ll all be in different stages of production. Maybe I have an idea jotted, a draft of something started, something ready to workshop, something else ready for rewrites, something I’m in a round of submissions with. I can’t be in the same stage with a bunch of pieces, that’s just madness. And I can’t write while I’m on the train or on the line in the supermarket. I need larger chunks of time. A residency. A weekend where I devolve into a hermit crab. An evening where I skip making dinner, going to the gym or grooming.

Goodness. That’s the most I’ve ever talked about this crap. I’m excited and relieved to pass the torch next week to two writers I love and love to read. Serena Lin is my fellow VONA sis and just completed her thesis. Go check out what she has to say at Drunken Whispers. And my girl Abigail Ekue – native New Yorker, blogger of all things sex, body image, food and photography at Random Musings.

Gone Residency-ing

So I’m at my first writing residency. Not a moment too soon, as I found myself stressed with work, unceremoniously dumped, and overwhelmed by life all within my last week before leaving New York City for a month at a ranch in Banner, Wyoming. Not to mention the fact, I hadn’t written a word in a couple months.

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Denver to Sheridan

On the 18-seat plane (that only had about ten passengers) from Denver, Colorado to Sheridan, Wyoming, Grace the other writer also doing the residency, who I coincidentally knew from VONA and met up with in Denver, asked if I knew who was picking us up. I didn’t and we simultaneously thought, well how will they know it’s us? Would they be holding up a sign? Big city mentality was still onboard with us and we laughed when we realized that it would probably be pretty easy to pick out a Dominican and Korean woman in an airport in a town of about 17,000 in the midwest.

I suppose the first thing I noticed on the drive from when I got to Sheridan was just how much of the sky was visible. In comparison, in New York we get the slivers of sky that the buildings don’t obstruct. Here, it’s just sky from the horizon up. Everything open-faced to the sun. The landscape feels like a movie set – I keep waiting for someone to dart out and yell, cut! Enormous snow-capped mountains in the distance, trees dotting hills, earth that changes from the color of sand to brick.

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Yes, people drive slower here. People say hello, how are you. They smile. They start conversations with you at the check-out line. They ask you at the bank what you’re working on at Jentel. They ask where you’re from. And in my case, I’m pleasantly surprised to say when I tell them New York, that’s what they inquire about. I haven’t been asked where I’m really from or what I am. I get treated more like a New Yorker here than in New York.

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The Hispanic section in the supermarket. No Goya or Bustelo. No merengue or bachata blasting through the speaker. Beans were scarce. I ain’t even mad at them though. It’s not like Latinos are brimming over here like that.

The house I’m sharing with five other artists is unbelievably spacious. The price on a similarly-sized house in New York City would be astronomical and it certainly would not come with 1000 acres of land surrounding it. We all come and go from our studios to the kitchen to the bathroom to little nooks built for dozing off or reading, saying good morning or good night, having a chat, asking after each other’s day, without feeling we’re sharing a house with five other people. And the books, the books. In every room. Even the bathroom. The next book I needed to read in Carlos Castaneda’s series was waiting for me in my studio. Next to an armchair was Annie Proulx’s short story collection Close Range, which I started reading. It’s apropos I read her while in Wyoming.

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The house

It snowed yesterday morning and I took a walk on the property, along a creek. The snow crunches under your boots in the most satisfying way. It stays pretty pristine until it melts and a snowfall in the morning can be almost completely gone by mid-day. I laughed at myself for the way my heart raced every time some melted snow dropped off a branch and made a rustling noise. I was sure I’d encounter a rattlesnake and have to book it. There were areas where the trees made a canopy and I felt like I was in a German fairy tale and should’ve left a trail of bread crumbs or would not be shocked if a crone appeared out of nowhere.

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Pretending to be Sansa Stark in the godswood

Yes, it’s very quiet out here. You hear birds chirping, a breeze blowing through the trees but not too much else. You can’t see the closest neighbor’s ranch unless you walk out onto the road. It is possibly the most quiet I’ve enjoyed in my life. I am getting used to it quicker than I thought I would. My sleep is deep and undisturbed. I haven’t shut the world out with headphones. It’s the most amount of time I’ve gone without raising my voice or hearing yelling. I meditate every day, eyes open, because it would be a shame not to absorb the tranquility from the view of the hills and creek and bridge from my bedroom.

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View from my bedroom

I’m eating well, back to vegetarianism (with the exception of allowing myself some steak with a cowboy should I have the opportunity). Yesterday, I made myself an omelette with eggs straight from a farm nearby. Kale, onions, peppers, sriracha. It was the best breakfast I’d had or even had time to make in a while. I get to enjoy my first cup of coffee at breakfast and my second one in my studio.

In three days, I’ve been more productive than I’ve been in the past three months. Reading, writing a new story, working out an essay I’d started, even cleaning up my email. Every day, my job is to be a writer or do things to feed that. I haven’t felt this strong a sense of fulfilling my purpose in life in a long time. When you know what you’re supposed to be doing with your life, when you do it, it feels completely right.

This is also me we’re talking about so of course, I’m trying to have a date (or a few dates) while I’m out here. Have a drink at a local bar. Flirt with a cowboy or coal miner. You didn’t think I’d gone that soft, did you?

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