Acknowledging My Community

Last week I finished my first pass page proofs for Shadow Child, my new novel coming out in May. I started it in the year 2000.

Jacket for Shadow Child by Rahna Reiko RizzutoHolding those pages in my hands, with their elegant design and their printing marks, I was amazed at how much effort has gone into the creation of this book, effort from people at the publishing house with whom I have become deeply connected and others I have never met. After almost two decades, my book has a face – the jacket I have attached here is brand new and just posted by Grand Central – and it’s a face that, as gorgeous and perfect as it is, is also one I could never have dreamed of. The birth of this book is much like the birth of a child, in that you imagine what your child will look like, but the person who was created in some magical and mysterious way from your DNA is both instantly recognizable and utterly unfamiliar.

It is taking a publishing village to get Shadow Child out into the world. At Goddard, when we write, we might imagine that we are done once the final draft is ready to send out into the world. This is not true. The draft that will be published, which had already been read in various stages by friends, writer friends, agents and editors, was so thoroughly…engaged with…by my brilliant editor that on some pages there were so many comments I literally had to take a deep breath, close the document and come back to it a different day.

As wonderful as my pre-publishing experience has been, we hit a snafu the other day when I turned in my acknowledgements and was told that they had only saved three extra pages for them, never expecting that I might need…eight.

I couldn’t cut the names of the people I interviewed, around fifty, even if my story changed and I didn’t use the material, and even if some of them have already passed on. I couldn’t cut the people who helped. I held onto the list of books that served as resources and inspiration because my novel is partly historical and the reader might want to know what really happened. Some of the decisions I made about how to use that history, what to identify, where to let go of fact in my quest for a greater truth – I felt that context was essential to include. And more than all of that, I could not cut my community.

Over two decades, the community around this book is vast, and I know that, as much as I tried to list my many supporters, by name and affiliation, there are perhaps an equal number of people who have not been named. This is because my brain is old, but also because the people who made a difference are not always the ones who read the whole manuscript or gave me feedback. They are my friends, my colleagues, the people I spent time with. They are my students who, in asking questions about their own work, sparked an answer to a problem I was having in my book for me. They are fellow travelers, Pele’s Fire writers who create an electric buzz of brainstorming around them wherever they go; listeners who insist that the passage I read cannot be cut, even if I have to reshape the novel to keep it there, or who remember a scene from six years before; friends whose comments on a piece of art we saw together, or a movie, crystalized an idea in my brain. We don’t always know where our ideas come from, or how they shift and change. There is a time when it is just us, and our muse. But there is a far longer time when we are writers in the world, and the others around us are collaborators and inspiration whether they know it or not.

I offered to drop my bio to accommodate the acknowledgements. They refused. They offered to compromise the internal design. I refused. We were able to move a few things around, and I got ruthless with my sentence structure to gain some pages, and so far, it looks like the acknowledgements are going to fit. They won’t be as long as a book two decades in the making requires, with apologies to anyone whose name I have forgotten.

My advice to you who are still writing? Jot down those names, make a note of the passing conversations. Seek out your community and cherish it. Never forget you are a writer in the world.

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Posted: December 12th, 2017
Categories: Goddard, Hedgebrook, Shadow Child, The Writing Life
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Getting Unstuck

Sometimes I feel like my whole year has been in Mercury retrograde.  With one thing after another, there has been a lot of waiting, a lot of postponing, and a lot of loss.  I have been stuck—in situations that are not my choosing, with no path forward—and in talking with my friends and sister writers, I know I am far from the only one who would rather watch reruns of clips from The Voice (or Aquaman GIFs) than face my ever-growing list of things that just stubbornly refuse to get done.  As we enter the holiday season, which has its own joys and challenges, it can be helpful to recall that, as writers, we have complete control over our tools and our voices.  We don’t need anyone’s permission, or an infrastructure, or a legal ruling, or even an outside opportunity in order to write.

So my current burning question for the Tarot is:

How do we get unstuck?

To find my answers, I pull a single Tarot* card.  I use it for insight, as a confirmation, to get around my blocks and habits, to take some risks and find some epiphanies. Often, it gives me an energy that I need to hold onto, so I put it on my altar. Today’s card is The Knower of Rivers.

Knower of RiversThe Card: In the Shining Tribe Tarot deck, the Knower of Rivers is analogous to the Knight of Cups: a card of action, and also emotions and the subconscious. It follows the Place of Rivers: a place where we go to meditate, withdraw, and revitalize our emotions. The Knower comes out of this place renewed, ready for action, with the tools for success literally clutched in their hands.  The card suggests power, and also victory (in the “seven” of the four figures and three fiery trees on the ridge).  But this is a victory fueled by self-knowledge, and it comes from the courage to gaze deeply into oneself and “enter the deep and limitless waters” of our own mysteries.

So what does this card mean for you, as the writer?

Embrace retreat.

Of course, it is great to pull a card that promises action and transformation when your life feels like you are running in place. But this card reminds us of two things:

First, change comes from within. This is not an external card, where success comes from wielding a sword or forcing an issue.  The suit of Rivers is about intuition, and mystery, and dreams.  It is intensely creative.  It suggests that all the power you need lies within you. And forward motion comes, in part, from embracing the darkness you find there, accepting it, and transforming it into radiant light. This has been a really important reminder for me, since it is the darkness that makes me stuck: I don’t want to feel it or deal with it. But the darkness—our struggles as humans—is what gives our creative stories and images energy. Without it, there would be no plot, no vision that haunts your readers, no powerful connection to their own lives.  To be writers, we need to tap that darkness.

Second, you are doing something. Sometimes the self needs renewal. All the “doing” that our society equates with progress can get exhausting, and hollow.  “Being” is important too, especially for writers.  We need to gather—our energy, our material—and since we do work on a subconscious level, we may not be aware we are doing it. So instead of thinking of ourselves as stuck, better to think of ourselves as resting. Retreating.  Recharging. And to be open to just being very aware of what is going on around us, and the messages we find there.

How can you apply this card to your work?

Relax. Open. Don’t try to escape.

My exercise offering is designed to help you notice what you are experiencing and find a way to use it. In these times of unconscious gathering, you may be getting messages that you aren’t bringing into your conscious mind. You may even be actively blocking or resisting them.  So we will mimic the journey that the Knower of Rivers takes.

It is helpful to find a quiet place, where you can relax and release your mind. (Have something to write with handy.) If you find that your thoughts are racing and your brain is telling you that either you don’t have time for this or it’s all useless, be aware that those are defense mechanisms. As long as you don’t have a train to catch, you can give yourself ten quiet minutes.

Deep breaths help, as does closing your eyes. Your mind does not have to become a perfect vacuum.  There simply has to be enough space to allow some images or words to bubble up. Don’t chase them.  Do imagine bubbles: let them rise, with ease, then let them go.  See if something starts repeating. [For me, it’s been witches! For whatever reason, witches keep appearing in random tarot readings, in my email inbox, in conversations with friends.]

Once you notice a pattern or a repetition, or even just one single image or word that has some energy behind it (even the energy of resistance or fear), you might know exactly what to do.  If not, jot down some notes.  When does this message appear?  What emotions are associated with it?  What archetypes?  What colors? What size is this thing you are feeling?  Where is it in your body? What words are associated with the image?  What images with the words?  Most likely, once you’ve made these notes you’ll have a direction to explore, but if not, the final step is this: Pick a pronoun and write: “She is… They are… It is…” (whichever pronoun you chose) and then follow that with any associated or descriptive word from your notes above.  [Such as, “She is red.”]  Then freewrite a sentence to follow that.  And another to follow that.

I hope this exercise helps you get in sync with yourself and start feeling unstuck. Happy writing!

*In this feature, I’m working with The Shining Tribe Tarot: Awakening the Universal Spirit, created by renowned Tarot scholar Rachel Pollack, who taught me that the Tarot “is a vehicle to remind yourself of what you already know.” If you want to know more about the deck and its images, or have your own Tarot practice, here are the links.

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Posted: November 30th, 2017
Categories: Tarot for Writers, The Writing Life, Writing Advice
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When You Are Overwhelmed

This last month has left me reeling.  My father passed away suddenly, and what spins into that (as we raced across the country to say goodbye), and out of that (in the long process of settling and celebrating his life) is a lot to do and feel.  Add to that that my novel, more than a decade in the making, needs a final edit on its way into the world (it will be published next May), and I have a 17-page editorial letter, a ton of great ideas that require some finesse and feeling, and only two weeks to get them done.  The same two weeks that I have to plan my father’s memorial.  So it may not be surprising that my burning question for the Tarot has a very personal impetus:

What to do when there is too much to do?

In this Tarot feature, I pull a single card* to find my answers. I use the card for insight, as a confirmation, to get around my blocks and habits, to take some risks and find some epiphanies. Often, it gives me an energy that I need to hold onto, so I put it on my altar. Today’s card is The Seven of Birds.

The Card: In this deck, the Birds is the suit of the Air.  It signifies the mind and the spirit, as well as prophecy and information.  It is the suit of art, and also – in its correspondence to the Swords in a traditional tarot deck – it offers us ways to transcend and transform sorrow and anger. Sevens also correspond to communication, which gives us a double dose of communicating for the writer.  This is the card of boundaries, and the importance of drawing them clearly, and with song, which makes it perfect for today’s question.

So what does this card mean for you, as the writer?

Know what you want. Get what you need.

The image of this card is of two people working, individually but beside each other, according to the clear and mutual boundaries they are creating.  Above them, birds have also claimed their territory, through song. Evoking behavioral bird studies, and Aboriginal land claims, creator Rachel Pollack introduces the idea of a song as a map. And what is a song, but a celebration, an expression, a story?

From this card, the message I am getting is that you can’t do it all, you can’t have it all, but every being in the card does have what they need and what they claim.  A reminder of the common wisdom that you can only do so much, and that you have to prioritize, makes sense here. But sometimes, when there are too many balls in the air, we move instinctively to grab the ones that are dropping first.  This card reminds me that I have a particular song to sing, and it has its own tone, and emotion, and story.  What is my song and what do I want to sing? is a much more helpful, and more grounding, way to figure out how to go forward than What do I have to do and what’s about to collapse?

So how do we apply this card to our work?

Go back to the shape of your intention.

What does that mean? Well, in my case, not only do I have a lot going on in my life, I have a lot going on on the page: three narratives, three timelines, three locations. My final edit calls for moving some of these pieces around, while trying to track all the pieces to make sure they make it back in somewhere to do the work they were originally intended to do.  I’m a big fan of the outline, and going back to the beginning to remember what I put in, where and most importantly why, is a help to me. But for today’s exercise, I want to suggest a trick that can help if you have so much going on in your story and your revision that you can’t remember or recognize what you set out to do.

Think of a shape you are familiar with. Possibly a song, a poem, a three act.  Maybe, more radically, the structure of Catholic mass, or the architecture of a high-rise building, or the five stages of grief, as my colleague at Goddard College, playwright Kyle Bass, suggested at a recent residency. How does your work fit into that shape?

What is your ground floor/processional/first act?  How does it fit the requirement of the new structure (to hold everything up, to move everything into the space)? What is being “denied” in your first stage of grief?

Or, going with the idea of song, think about how the elements of your work correspond with the elements of a song (even a symphony!) to “test” them and make sure they are there and doing the necessary work.  Find your melody, your base line. Think about your verses and your chorus.  Is there a bridge?  What does the harmony sound like?

There are so many structures you can use to get fresh eyes and ears on your work, to help you when you are so close to your material that you can no longer see all of it for what it was meant to do.  Use your “song” to help you identify, pare back, rearrange, and most importantly, remember the emotional journey you are creating for your reader.

Happy writing!

 

*In this feature, I’m working with The Shining Tribe Tarot: Awakening the Universal Spirit, created by renowned Tarot scholar Rachel Pollack, who taught me that the Tarot “is a vehicle to remind yourself of what you already know.” If you want to know more about the deck and its images, or have your own Tarot practice, here are the links.

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Posted: July 28th, 2017
Categories: Tarot for Writers, The Writing Life, Writing Advice
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Loss

We are living in a time of reversals, losses.  There are political shifts, yes, but also very immediate human suffering, both on the incomprehensible level of war, aggression, terror, refugees, exclusion, and brutality, and also the personal level of the individual.  As writers, we are empaths, and speaking only for this one writer, I admit that sometimes this loss, this suffering, derails me and leaves me unable to write. But this is also our material, and our calling: to render the human condition in all its complexity.

So my burning question for today is:

How do we deal with loss?

As you may know, if you have been following this blog, to find my answers, I pull a single Tarot* card.  I use it for insight, as a confirmation, to get around my blocks and habits, to take some risks and find some epiphanies. Often, it gives me an energy that I need to hold onto, so I put it on my altar. Today’s card is The World Shining Woman.

World ShIning Woman TarotThe Card: In this deck, the World Shining Woman is the final card in the Major Arcana. She is the culmination of the journey of life: wholeness, the perfect being. Inside her body, all the pieces of creation, all the stories, the dreams, everything we imagine and call into being.  This is a card of fulfillment, but it also draws on the Kaballah story that the original cosmos was broken into pieces and now all of us bear the responsibility of restoring it to wholeness.

So what does this card mean for you, as the writer?

There is no life without loss.

There are two ways to approach this card.  One is as a writer in the world who is experiencing some kind of loss that you are finding difficult to get on the page (or perhaps you are finding it difficult to get to the page period).

For this, the card reminds us that wholeness requires it all: the light hand and the dark hand, the hermaphrodite (as the World card is often rendered), the soul of the fish, the endurance of the turtle, the tomb, and the cross. As empaths, we need our wound-raw sensitivity, and our courage in the face of it, in order to do our jobs. We need to feel, and sometimes this is hard but it is the essence of the writer’s voice and the writer’s role in society, culture and community.

The second approach is to think about the content of what you are writing.  How do you connect to the losses in your story, and render them?  How do you bring truth to deep emotions without being melodramatic or too abstract? What if you are too close (as is sometimes the case in memoir)? How do you find the balance?

For this, I look, not at the figure, but at the space around her. As Rachel Pollack, who created the image writes, “She dances in the void.” Rachel draws our attention to the “second body” of white space between the World Shining Woman’s body and the lines of energy in the corners of the card. She reminds us that everything creates an echo, a halo of “inexpressible mystery.” And sometimes the best way to describe something is to describe its halo. Or, that the body is only one aspect of the perfect being, and the spirit or soul, the intangible, is greater than what we think we know.

How can you apply this card to your work?

Loss is sacred, and essential to life.  Feel the feels.

My exercise offering is the same whether you need grounding as a writer grappling with loss, or are looking for a technique to render it. Use this as you see fit.

First, find a quiet place that feels safe and is meaningful to you. Look around you. Take your time. Select an object in your space that calls you and pick it up.

Sit with it for a second, maybe with your eyes closed.  Feel the weight of it in your hand; the temperature, the texture.  Feel whether it changes as it acclimates to your skin.  Let your mind drift and see whether, just with this connection to your body, images come. Write down a few notes if you want, then keep going.

Open your eyes if you like.  Use your other senses to connect to the object.  Give yourself space to make associations.  Is there another object in the room that wants to connect to this one?  A person? Is there a place where this object belongs? Comes from? Is there a desire associated with it? An emotion?

Let yourself make notes and associations.  Keep them as close as possible with your senses. If you find that the object, and the associations and the stories that are beginning to form around it, are connected to your feelings or your loss, that will help you explore it and experience it from a safe place.  If it takes you to a different emotion, that’s good too.  Maybe that lifts you out of your block, your overwhelm.  Maybe it reminds you that everything is a cycle, is in flow. And loss is just one awful, beautiful, human part of that cycle.  All of this is helpful to enrich your material and get you writing again.

Wishing you inspiration.

 

*In this feature, I’m working with The Shining Tribe Tarot: Awakening the Universal Spirit, created by renowned Tarot scholar Rachel Pollack, who taught me that the Tarot “is a vehicle to remind yourself of what you already know.” If you want to know more about the deck and its images, or have your own Tarot practice, here are the links.

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Posted: June 29th, 2017
Categories: Tarot for Writers, The Writing Life, Writing Advice
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Going Deeper

Every day, I work with writers. From those who are just starting out, gathering their thoughts and looking for tools, to those who have been published. Right now, I am sending off my last letters of advice to my MFA students at Goddard College, and I am also trying to work on my own final revisions of my upcoming novel. Which reminds me that this week’s question is not one that a writer ever outgrows. Nor is it limited to any particular stage of the process, or even to writing. As you will see, this is a question for all artists and creative thinkers.

Today’s tarot question:

How do we go deeper?

To find my answers, I pull a single Tarot* card.  I use it for insight, as a confirmation, to get around my blocks and habits, to take some risks and find some epiphanies. Often, it gives me an energy that I need to hold onto, so I put it on my altar. Today’s card is 7 of Rivers.

7 of rivers, Shining Tribe tarotThe Card: In this deck, the suit of Rivers is for feelings, dreams and fantasies. An emotional suit, it is rooted in love and harmony, and reminds us that the easiest way (as in “ease”!) to get where we are going is to go with the flow. The 7 in every suit stands for daring and communication.  The 7 of Rivers is the card of fantasy, and wondrous journeys.

So what does this card mean for you, as the writer?

Don’t just go deeper.  Let yourself go crazy!

This card is about the imagination, about the storyteller letting images float up from the unconscious. In that way, it’s a very direct answer. But sometimes the cards work by reminding me of a message that is already in the air. So let me tell you a story.

I am surrounded by artists.  My sons are dancers and musicians; my partner is a potter; my father is a writer; and my step-mother is a painter and textile artist. So we talk about art a lot. Recently, one of my sons was in California working with a mentor on his choreography, and they were discussing freestyling, and, in particular, what to do when you find yourself following your habits and your strengths, and therefore doing the same thing over and over again. One school of thought might be to do the opposite, or to move your feet more if you are relying too much on your hands.  This dance mentor’s advice was, if you find yourself stomping on your left foot over and over, go with it. Play with it. Make it bigger, then bigger still, then bring it back. Make it weirder.

In other words, don’t pull yourself away from your inclinations. Trust that your habit has something to offer, maybe a safe place where you know you are strong, that will give you the courage to tip over the edge and find the unknown.

Besides inspiration and wild stories, the 7 of Rivers also reminds us that too many fantasies or possibilities can be paralyzing.  How do you choose? Which are the right choices? Are there any to be feared? This aspect of the card convinces me that the advice from the freestyling dancer is the right message here, because it recommends that you build off your strengths. When you are in front of a crowd, there is no room for fear and judgment, for telling yourself you are wrong to have habits and to throw yourself into the blank unknown.  This is also true for the writer at her desk.

Be playful. Embrace your fantasies.  Flow into the unknown from your strengths.  Trust yourself.

How can you apply this card to your work?

Here’s one strategy for the writer who wants to go deeper. There are so many others, and I hope that this post has already given you some ideas of your own.  For this one, take the piece of writing that you want to go deeper with and ask it: What if?

What if the end wasn’t the end?

What if the highs were higher, the lows lower, the stakes greater?  Exaggerate them.

Look for secrets that are kept, messages that are delivered and understood, images that resolve or that we have seen before and explode them.  What if one character never got the message?  What happens then?

What if you admitted something (in personal essay or memoir) that makes you uncomfortable? Or vulnerable? (You can always delete it later.)

What if the resolutions didn’t resolve?

We tend to work within the safe spaces, where we are comfortable, and that translates to our characters: we don’t ask more of them than we would ask of ourselves. What if you asked for everything, held nothing back?  Think of this as an exercise to discover what’s on the other side of safety.  You may only use a little bit of it, but your story will be deeper than it was.

Happy writing!

 

*In this feature, I’m working with The Shining Tribe Tarot: Awakening the Universal Spirit, created by renowned Tarot scholar Rachel Pollack, who taught me that the Tarot “is a vehicle to remind yourself of what you already know.” If you want to know more about the deck and its images, or have your own Tarot practice, here are the links.

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Posted: June 17th, 2017
Categories: Tarot for Writers, The Writing Life, Writing Advice
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Tarot for Writers: Awakening!

Do you need help grounding your writing? Want to know why you can’t focus, or what you should be focusing on?  Maybe you want to know how to go forward. What’s next?  Or, if you have come to a fork in the road, how do you choose?

When I have questions like these, I pull a Tarot card. Often it’s a single card, which answers the question: What do I need to know right now? It’s been an incredibly helpful way to get around my blocks and habits, to take some risks and find some epiphanies. So in this new, biweekly feature for She Writes that I am reposting on my website here, I’ll be pulling a card for all of us in response to a question that seems timely, and then I’ll use it to offer a message for your writing life and your work. I’m working with the Shining Tribe deck, by renowned Tarot scholar Rachel Pollack* who taught me that the Tarot “is a vehicle to remind yourself of what you already know,” which seems perfect for writers.  So here goes. . .

Today, I asked this question:

What do we need to remember?

The answer was the card Awakening.

The Card: Awakening is the 20th card in the major arcana: the card of transformation, of realization, and a shift in perception. This “awakening” is to the true self, without doubt. It suggests a joining with others, and responsibility. Unlike the Judgement card in the traditional Rider-Waite Tarot deck, this spirit has come for everyone. All rise!

So what does this card mean for you, as the writer?

Remember that the role of the artist is to shine the light.

What do you see when you look around you? What needs to be addressed, revealed, celebrated or transformed? Where do you see a different, or unspoken, truth? In other words, what do you need to say?

Every person has their own unique perspective, and your writing is rooted in how you experience our shared world. Remember that the role of the artist in any society is to offer that different view, to encourage us to reconsider our commonly-held beliefs so we can grow and change together. Sometimes, our art is a direct challenge; other times, an exploration, a celebration, or a dissection. Your story may be dark or painful, it may seem apolitical and personal, but as long as it is your truth, it matters.  Sharing your artistic vision can literally shift the way the rest of us see.

It can also bring us together. All rise, remember? When readers encounter feelings and experiences they share in someone else’s stories, those strangers are no longer so strange. The more stories, the more truths, the more chance that they will find validation in your experiences or your imagination. So, whether you are still dreaming, or writing, or in your final edits, take some time to reconnect with what is universal in your story. Don’t forget: the people in Awakening are standing in the same pool of consciousness. Together, they lit the windows in their world.

Remember this: Do not doubt your voice, or the fact that we need it. Trust the light, and embrace your true self.  Only you can tell your story.

How can you apply this card to your work?

In the coming weeks, I may give you a series of questions to ask yourself in this section, or offer you a writing prompt or exercise. My focus for your work may be different than the focus for you as a writer. I encourage you, also, to find your own connections between the card and what you are working on, and I feel quite comfortable that you will find some!

This time, I want to go back to the card, and answer today’s question very simply:

Remember to transform.

Ask yourself:

Do your characters change over the course of their experiences?

Is everyone safe and the same in the end?

Do you have enough twists in the plot?

Is your reader pretty sure, right from the beginning, that she knows where she is going, and does she get there pretty much exactly as she expects? (If so, you need some surprises!)

Does an image in your poem allow your reader to experience something in a new way?

Does the reader change?  Did you make her laugh, break her heart, teach her how to dress a wound? Will she always think of herself now as your sister?

Keep it dynamic. Keep it unique. Keep it true to your felt experience. Keep it connected to the essence of our shared humanity.  I suspect that you will hear the cards repeat some of these messages in the coming weeks, just when you most need to remind yourself.

Happy writing!

 

*The Shining Tribe Tarot: Awakening the Universal Spirit, created by Rachel Pollack, comes with a detailed book that describes the nuances and the inspiration behind each card. If you want to know more, or have your own Tarot practice, I strongly recommend it.

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Posted: June 13th, 2017
Categories: Tarot for Writers, The Writing Life, Writing Advice
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How To Stop a Bullet

(reposted from The Writer in the World, the blog for the Goddard College MFA in Creative Writing Program)

On the plane headed to the Goddard residency in Port Townsend last week, I watched The Music of Strangers, a documentary about the international Silk Road Ensemble established by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1998, but more than that, about the role of art in the world. One of the musicians, Kinan Azmeh, a refugee from Syria, spoke of watching his country in crisis: “I found myself experiencing emotions far more complex than I could express in my music. The music fell short. I stopped writing music. Can a piece of music stop a bullet? Can it feed someone who is hungry? You question the role of art all together.”

Since our election, I too have stopped writing. Everything I might say about what is going on around me has felt thin, and redundant. Anything I’d begun in the past seemed irrelevant and the act of continuing to write it – which requires turning away from the horror show of the news – vaguely disloyal and privileged. I have been living in a liminal space, making phone calls and going to community meetings and protest marches, while I wait for something to break open so that I can find my voice again.

When I got to Goddard, I found, as always happens in a gathering of writers, that I was not alone. Although the theme for our residency was Risk and Revelation, it quickly became clear in the keynote presentations that our conversations would swirl instead around writing and resistance. My colleague Keenan Norris spoke of illiteracy as the “disastrous inability to describe what is before us.” Bea Gates spoke of “the need to unravel the horror before it unravels us.”

But it wasn’t until Keenan evoked Ralph Ellison’s comment that there is no peace in art but only “a fighting chance at the chaos of living” that I was reminded of the truth I already knew: the hate and violence, exclusion and separation that is currently imperiling our country is as old as recorded history, and it has always been my subject. It is the Japanese American internment my family endured; the dropping of two atomic bombs. Racism has been a part of us for centuries – in exclusion acts and Patriot Acts; redlining; prison for profit; slavery; colonization; outright theft of home and country. The difference now is not in degree but in speed. Thanks to the Internet, our world assembles itself out of a continuous pinging of tweets, posts, petitions, and action alerts that insist there may literally be no tomorrow if they are not immediately followed and shared. In her keynote, Bea talked about “Living inside a picture I could not see or read” and that was me: plucking what I could out of the torrent of scrolling insults, lies, jokes, leaks, and rumors, all conveyed in the truncated language of emoji and emotion, as if the world was at stake, and the right retweet would save it.

As Keenan reminded me by sharing the words of writers who have come before – Ellison, Hannah Arendt – the world is always at stake. And what’s more: “In art,” he said, “of course, each singular human life is the world— the world in a grain of sand.”

We writers traffic in the singular human life. My own books evoke racism, internment, bombings and trauma, through the choices, fears, actions and sacrifices of individuals. I interview people to create my worlds. I know myself well enough to know that everything I will ever write will begin with blood, breath, tears, joy, memory. Not as immediate as a tweet, in fact, just the opposite: writing from the body and visceral experience is quite a slow process, but perhaps it is no coincidence that creating a lasting society rooted in justice and humanity also takes time. So many of the readings we heard at the residency were prefaced by, “I wrote this [in some past moment in history] but it seems more important than ever now.”

With all of this so much on my mind, I facilitated a discussion for students and faculty to talk over where we, as writers, go from here. Borrowing from the post-it note explosion in the New York City subways after the election, we used a color-coded system to navigate the layers of our experience.  The shock and awe of fake news and the fight or flight cortisol spikes of the resistance came out in the first two. That cleared some room for us to explore what matters most to us second two:

1: WTF?!!? Say something. Get it out. Whatever blurt you are feeling right now, as a writer in the world, write it. (purple)

2: WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW: What’s urgent, necessary, essential? (This is global.) (blue)

3: HOW ABOUT YOU? What are your own urgent themes, your preoccupations? What themes, situations and fears have you ALWAYS explored in your work? (yellow)

4: LOVE, LOVE, LOVE: Your essential heart. What do you care about? What moves you? What do you live for? (red)

The exercise took us through the stages of anger and fear, to sorrow, and then to love: where even our heartbeats slowed as we reconnected with what we lived for. That glorious and felt experience of living is, I believe, what our current climate of fast fear is trying to replace. The project was a powerful way to remind ourselves of the role of art, and the reason we write in the first place: to locate our humanity and make meaning.

I invite you to write your own post-its and add them virtually to our wall by sharing them in the comments on the Goddard MFA in Creative Writing blog: thewriterintheworld.com.

 

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Posted: February 22nd, 2017
Categories: Goddard, The Writing Life, Writing Advice
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“Are You An Activist?” An interview with Hedgebrook

This interview was originally published on the Women Authoring Change blog for Hedgebrook, an amazing retreat for women writers. In their own words, “Our mission is to support visionary women writers whose stories shape our culture now and for generations to come. Our core purpose is equality for women’s voices to help achieve a just and peaceful world.”  I highly recommend you go to their website and find out more.


Hedgebrook: Tell us about your work as a writer—do you write in multiple genres/forms?

Reiko: Sadly, yes. I’m a self-taught writer, so every time I write a book, I have to teach myself to write all over again, and it’s not a quick process. For my first novel, Why She Left Us, I read like crazy and mapped out the books I liked to figure out what a novel was. I dissected them, teaching myself everything from how to end a chapter to how to format dialogue.

When I started my next book, Hiroshima in the Morning, which was a memoir, I didn’t realize there were new rules, new expectations, until the first draft was done and it was terrible. And then I had to look at the central question of the memoir, the reason why I was telling the story so that I could use it to create the skeleton… I’ve just finished my next novel, and now I am working on my fourth: a fantasy, possibly for young adults, though that’s not even clear. With, you guessed it, yet another set of rules and assumptions that I need to learn, to play with, and possibly to break.

Complaining aside, perhaps it is truer to say that I will always have to teach myself to write this new book that’s in front of me no matter the genre, because this new book has the potential to be anything and how else could I find out what it needs to be? And as hard as it is to keep shifting (and failing, over and over), I also expect I would be bored if I was repeating myself.

 

Hedgebrook: Do you consider yourself an activist?

Reiko: Yes, though it’s taken me a while to realize it. When my memoir was still a manuscript, and Amy Scholder at the Feminist Press asked to see it, I did think to myself, “Why would she want my book? I’m just a mom.” Of course, if you are a woman who believes that fathers can take care of children as well as mothers, that mothers should be allowed to travel for work without being vilified, that you are equal and your voice is important too, then you are a feminist. But at the time, I didn’t consider those views as political statements. They were my experience, my reality. I thought it was just common sense.

 

Hedgebrook: Would you characterize your writing as activist? Why or why not?

Reiko: I think all writing is activist when you speak from your heart and from your truth. When what you have to say is urgent to you, and when your exploration of an idea or a form or a vision is consuming. I write about motherhood, gender roles, racism, discrimination, historical trauma and war. These topics emerge, regardless of what I think I am writing; I don’t plan them, and especially, I don’t start with them. I start with people, relationships, situations, inheritance. I often find myself circling around identity, with my characters trying to figure out who they are, what they want for themselves, what they refuse to be, and how their sense of themselves is different than the stereotypes and misperceptions others hold.

Again and again, in my books, you’ll find women stuck in roles that suffocate them. You’ll find lots of racism, individual and global. The internment of Japanese American citizens by their own country is just one example from my own family’s history, which is still relevant today. More relevant than ever in the aftermath of this presidential election. Our history is full of times when we created the label “other” for people who were not like us. Full of times when we changed laws and twisted all logic and reality in order to enforce that separation and to justify our acts of racism and hatred. We assassinate, enslave, perpetrate genocide, imprison, drop bombs on entire cities. This history infuses my books, but I keep my focus on people, and on the human consequences of hating, judging and limiting each other.

 

Hedgebrook: What impact do you hope your writing will have in the world?

Reiko: I hope my readers will experience a new way of seeing the world. Art should be surprising, challenging, exhilarating, and tenderizing. Of all of these, this last is most important to me. Despite my earlier answers, I’m not trying to hit anyone over the head with my “message.” The point is not that war, racism, oppression and misogyny are bad – we know that. To me, the point of reading is to be able to leave your daily life. The world of the book may be wonderful or ridiculous or terribly sad, but that’s how we practice our empathy and stretch our own boundaries. We need empathy now more than ever. And we get it by immersing ourselves inside the character who is suffering, striving, facing down oppression. The character who is just like us after all.

And in a society without enough empathy, a society of fear and separation like the one we live in now, I want to help to give voice to the stories, experiences and people who are not often heard. As a writer, in my subject matter, but also as a teacher, mentor and activist. This is where it begins. We need to hear ourselves, validate our experiences, find allies and community, claim our space. This is the Hedgebrook mission, of course, and I guess my own point here is that society cannot and will not change until the silence is broken. So that’s my mission: to speak the truth I see and help others speak their own.

 

Hedgebrook: What’s the best feedback you’ve received from a reader/audience member?

Reiko: Some form of, “Thank you for sharing this story that does not get told.” “Thank you for seeing me, and for reflecting my struggles and my experience.” “Thank you for showing me that I too will survive.” I’ve heard from many women struggling to define their own motherhood who were grateful that they were not alone. From children of internees whose parents would not share their own stories. But also from people whose lives are very different from my characters’ on the surface, but who see themselves in a broken family, an adopted child, a family secret. We are, at heart, the same. That connection is everything.

 

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Posted: December 11th, 2016
Categories: Hedgebrook, The Writing Life, Writing Advice
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On the Art of Waiting for Writing

Recently, Beth Kephart asked me to talk about my writing process and rituals, and writer’s block. She shared my answers in her Junctures newsletter.  For those of you who don’t get her newsletter, here are my answers:

I don’t write every day. I don’t write every week even. I wish I did. I write long books with worlds to build, that take time to feel my way into and more time to climb my way out of, and I often wish that I was the kind of writer who had lots of ideas, short stories, essays, poems popcorning around in my brain and that I could sit down every morning and one of them would come and keep me company for a while. I’m not talking about ease – that I wish writing was easy – but availability. I’m not talking about validation either. I know I am a writer even when I am not writing because I have written, because I think in terms of story, because I am an annoying person to watch a movie with since I am constantly pointing out the clues that have been dropped to create that satisfying ending that seems surprising but suddenly inevitable (just ask my children), and because when I haven’t been writing for a while I am restless and nitpicky and vaguely unhappy. You’d think, as a writer, I’d be sensitive enough to notice that for myself and correct it, but it’s usually someone else who points it out.

For me, entering a novel or memoir is like entering another country. Just as large, as far away, as difficult to navigate, as exhilarating. Something new around every corner; an unfamiliar map that I have to work to keep in my brain. Which is to say, it takes a while to get there, and once there, I don’t want to be pulled out. If I had my choice, I would keep writing, every day, for six hour chunks (that’s the point when I start getting sloppy and cutting corners), without noticing whether it happens to be dinner time or two in the morning. Indeed, when I am in that space, sometimes I wake up at in the middle of the night and grab the pen by my bed to write down what is coming through in the dark. As a result, I can give you great tips on how to get ink out of your duvet cover.

But having become conversant with that new world, I also have to leave it for long periods of time so I can edit. I have to put my work away for months at a time until I have forgotten enough of it that I can judge it. I need to be able to see past what exists on the page to why it is there in the first place and I need to be able to break myself out of the rhythm and sound of the words so I can cut them if necessary. So, for me, writing comes in waves – in and out.

When I am writing, I often start with a moment to clear my mind and pick a direction. Some people meditate. I tend to pull a tarot card. I ask a question – what do I need to know right now? Maybe the meaning of the card itself is helpful… It’s about refuge, say. Or maybe the image reminds me to pull out the conflict more, or sometimes it’s a message for me as the writer – to let go, or turn something upside down. But really, pulling a card is a way to get out of my way, and also to declare that this time is mine, and this headspace is ready for writing.

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Posted: December 1st, 2016
Categories: The Writing Life, Writing Advice
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So. Prince, and…

I am not an expert on Prince. I do not own the purple disk of Purple Rain; I cannot sing every word of every B side. I have not analyzed the Purple One’s sexuality (except to rejoice that there was clearly enough of it for everyone) and have no insight into how or why he died. But last night at 4 a.m. in a club in Brooklyn, swaying to the final track in a five hour tribute set played by a D.J. who sang and cried and played air guitar the whole time, I was one of the grateful ones. Grateful for a man who stood in his truth and gave us permission to see our own.

I am not the first (not even in the top hundred) to observe that the power of Prince is that he showed us we could be and feel and want and do things that we didn’t know were possible, and that we could be bigger and more beautiful, more entirely ourselves, while doing it. It is a profound gift, but isn’t that what art is all about? The artist offers a vision of the world that comes from deep within, and the audience experiences themselves anew through that vision.

So what do Prince and my atypical clubbing have to do with writing? Nothing, really. But as a faculty member of the MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College, my colleagues and I have been thinking about art, impact and transcendence, and so we have introduced a new slogan to try to capture who we are: Right for you. Write for the World. And in a moment when so many of us are re-experiencing the power of artistic connection in its sudden absence, it strikes me that it’s a lot like the way Prince chose to create.

Right for you. You decide why you come to Goddard, what you want to study, what you want to achieve, how you want to grow, and what you will walk away with. You know what you need (surely Prince said that), and Goddard is all about helping you get it. It’s more than creating your own study plan, picking your own books to read; it’s about letting the voice and stylistic choices of your project be your own. Goddard writers don’t graduate with a certain signature sound because we would rather play our own (thousands of) instruments. It worked for Prince, who said he refused his first record deal at age 15 because he could not produce himself. His highest trending quote on the Internet at the moment? A reminder that no one else can dictate who you are.

As writers, your uniqueness is also your power. Your experiences, your vision, your urgency, your empathy all combine to create a story that only you can bring to life. And that’s a very good thing when you consider that about one million books are published in the US alone every year. The story of you (which is, beneath all the layers, what even our most commercial or seemingly objective stories are) will attract others who didn’t know there was anyone else out there who shared their thoughts, imagination and experiences. Being true to yourself means resonating more precisely and deeply with your audience. Right for you translates into right for them.

Write for the World. We can spend years on our books, plays, movies, poetry collections. Whether a passionate essay on climate change or a young adult sci-fi thriller, we want to excite, entertain, motivate, and break as many hearts as possible. So writing for the world means finding your audience, and having the craft and skill to reach out and touch them in precisely the way you imagine, even if no one has ever done it that way, or some people aren’t into trench coats and underwear (though really, who wouldn’t be?).

Write for the World also suggests social consciousness: a responsibility to freedom, culture, equality, environment… Goddard’s mission is a radical one: one of human-centered, creative growth that comes out of, reflects, and responds to culture. Many students come to Goddard because of their interest in social justice and their personal politics, and for them, “write for the world’’ is a clarion call. “I am your conscious. I am love,” Prince sang. Shouldn’t the word be conscience, some might ask, defaulting to that moral assumption of right and wrong? But writing to protect and preserve and celebrate the world requires conscious awareness; as my son would say, “being woke.” Which is something else you can get at Goddard, but only if it’s right for you.

Let me know what you think of our slogan.

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Posted: April 25th, 2016
Categories: Goddard, Random Thoughts, The Writing Life
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