Tag Archives: NANOWRIMO

AWP, activism, loss, and ugly monsters.

This year’s AWP conference was in WDC and what with the current political climate & the crowds of deep-thinking humans attending, I had high hopes for “activist moments.” Perhaps there were some in the keynote(s) that I was too exhausted to attend or during something of the panels – too numerous to choose from. The single event advertised as specifically activist was on Saturday. After a tour of the very poorly designed DC Metro system trying to get from the Convention Center to the White House, I witnessed the end of a short “vigil.” A vigil where poets spoke and no one could hear. A vigil where there was insufficient light and no one could see. A vigil where the messages were so muddy as to fizzle out as soon as they were voiced. After taking part in countless post-election protests in NYC, I felt let down. This isn’t a time for holding candles politely and speaking softly. We’ve done too much of that.

AWP is always a bit of a mess – too many panels, too many people crammed into the book fair, not enough drinking water or edible food, terrible coffee (except the year AWP was in Seattle).  But AWP is also a yearly affirmation that words matter; that people still read and write books; that there is more to American life than Reality TV, the LCD, fake news, and sound bites. At AWP17, I had countless enthusiastic conversations with writers, poets, editors, and even a few who self-identified simply as “readers.” There were also a number of MFA students who weren’t quite sure they could identify as “writers.” Note: If you commit to an MFA program – you’re a writer.

Working for a small press is a bit like working for an indie label (something I did a lot of in decades past). It doesn’t pay, it’s a lot of work, and you have to care about what you do. Many people who stopped by the BLP booth at the book fair asked, “What kind of fiction do you like/publish/read?” and “What do you look for in a book?” The best answer I can give to any of these questions is, “something good.” By which I mean a manuscript that shows not only a knowledge of plot and character but language, how to craft a sentence, how to edit. So many manuscripts I read have unnecessary prefaces, prologues, endless paragraphs telling me what the book is about. I want to read the book, not words telling me about the book. Certainly there are publishers, editors, agents who require query letters, a synopsis, etc. but not BLP. That first sentence is crucial. The first chapter in a novel, the first story in a collection has to be strong. Often when I read a manuscript that saves the best for the middle, I’m reminded of listening to band demos where the “best” song is third or fourth. This makes the assumption that the listener/reader/editor is going to listen or read more than the first song, the first few pages. We’re not, we don’t, we can’t.

I’m a writer myself and I know how frustrating the publishing world can be. In the past couple of years, my own non-academic writing has suffered from a surfeit of neglect. Sure I do poem-a-day & NaNoWriMo but I rarely send anything out into the world that’s not a book review, an academic essay, or a blog post. After each AWP, I feel inspired (at least a little) to send stories, poems, manuscripts out to any of the hundreds of journals and/or small presses that publish work I like. But it’s rare that I follow up on that feeling.

When my father died earlier this year I thought a lot about what I would say at his memorial. I ended up writing something the day prior and tossing everything else I’d drafted. When I thought about our relationship over the years and what it means to me to lose him, a lot of that loss is the silencing of his stories. He was a wonderful story teller. He told stories about his life, his ancestors, his childhood home, and the many and vastly varied places he saw in his long life and travels. There is some part of me now that wonders just what it matters whether or not my own stories ever get out into the world now that he’s gone. But there’s also a part of me that knows that when I say women’s voices matter, I also mean my voice, my stories and so I know I have to face down the ugly dual monsters of discouragement and fear of rejection and send my stories out into the world. Because I’m a writer and because my dad would want me to.

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Of writing, trauma and photography

While I’m still slogging away at NaNoWriMo (and about now it DOES feel like a “slog”)…I’m also trying to get through the last of this semester’s course work and final papers, etc. As a Ph.D. student with more than one Master’s Degree behind me (I have 4 if you’re counting), I’ve learned to separate “emotional” responses from “critical” responses. Despite this ability, since 2012 when I was first diagnosed with PTSD,  one of the struggles I’ve had is responding “appropriately” to images, sounds, and texts. In other words, when I see violence, I “over” react. But what does this actually mean? This week’s reading for a course I’m taking on the history of documentary photography – Susie Linfield’s “Cruel Radiance” – focuses on images of “political violence” and responses – critical and personal – to these images.  It’s rare that my academic reading aligns with specific “real life” events but reading critical discussion of how “we” should respond to images of human suffering while the events in Paris unfolded was both apt and also, incredibly difficult.  To be clear – my suffering is not as “personal” as that experienced by those who lost loved ones or were direct witnesses to the Paris attacks (or those in Lebanon) – I’m not claiming that. One of the worst symptoms of PTSD is the way it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to view violence and achieve that distance necessary to “process” it. But is this really what we should be doing? I don’t want to feel the debilitating pain that I feel when I view new footage, photographs or read about human suffering (torture, war, famine, etc.) but I also agree with Linfield that we have an ethical obligation NOT to turn away. But how do I get past the feeling of shock and helplessness such viewing causes? How do I process these images (or in the case of my class assignment – write an “appropriate” response paper to an academic text) without internalizing the fear and despair I feel at witnessing the suffering of others. Linfield suggests that it is through the viewing of images of suffering that we become inspired to be active in human rights efforts. But for those of us who suffer from PTSD and who don’t have the “proper” filters for viewing such images, is it ethically wrong to turn away? How can we learn to empathize without descending into the deadly cycle of flashback-anxiety-hopelessness that PTSD can cause? No answers here, just questions.


NaNoWrimo – or writing a novel in a month

So every year I participate in NaNoWrimo (National Novel Writing Month) and every year I finish the 50,000 words required. Most years, I wait until Thanksgiving Week and then I pound through the word count, breathlessly finishing by 11.59 on 11.30. In the past, I’ve usually just sat done and written whatever story was in my head at the time and it all seemed to connect eventually. Often, it’s a character’s voice demanding to be heard. Sometimes, it’s a place or a moment or a line of dialogue but I’ve never written with a plan or a central conflict or a list of pre-created characters.

This year, I decided to be a sane human about things. In the few days prior to Nov. 1st, I wrote an outline. I thought about characters. I thought about place and conflict and all the other things that go into writing. And yesterday, once I’d finished my reading for class tomorrow night, and making a pot of soup, and feeding the cat, and cleaning the apartment and putting the clean laundry away and checking my email…I turned off my phone, sat down and started to write. At some point, I realized it was time to stand up and stretch and go to bed. It wasn’t that much writing – only about 2,000 words – but it was a start. And it was NOTHING like my outline, nothing like the rough plot or characters I’d thought about. Currently, I’ve left one character downstairs fetching luggage while another character sits in a bedroom in an old house she hasn’t seen since childhood. Outside a storm is raging and, of course, the power’s just gone out. No idea what happens next. I guess I’ll have to wait until tonight to find out. And for me, that’s half the joy of writing – letting the story tell itself without being forced to follow an outline, without putting limitations on characters, and without knowing what’s going to happen next.


summer descends

I recently saw a brief news story on “Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder.” The suggestion being that some people suffer on sunny days the way other suffer in the darker months. Although I love the sun and the warmth and long days at the beach, this summer is full of humid long afternoons and for anyone who is crowd-shy and not a fan of stench, Manhattan is no place to be in the summer. Yesterday I shut the windows, drew the drapes and spent the day reading (Eavan Boland’s essays) and writing. Writing about rain and wind and the darker days of fall and winter.  Recently while working my way through a massive stack of manuscripts to be read for one of my “extra” jobs, I began to feel: disheartened, disgusted, disenchanted with the whole process of writing and reading until I came across a manuscript that drew me in, kept me reading, editing as I went and – some two hours later – I looked up at the clock. And then I realized: it was my own work. It sounds weird I know but it’s a manuscript I’d written for NANOWriMO some years back and then just abandoned. Some important lessons I took away from this experience: I do like my own writing, editing is MUCH easier when time passes between the writing and the reading of work, no manuscript should ever truly be abandoned. Now that I have distance from this work, I can see the flaws: in plot construction, consistency of dialogue, logic of events, but I can also see the work that went into creating language that works and the important work yet to be done.  At the end of that day spent reading, I confessed to a writer friend that I felt I had “done nothing all day.”  She corrected me: “You HAVE been working all day. Doing what it is you are SUPPOSED to be doing.”  And that was: writing.  Writing is not just the creative act but the whole process: reading, editing, and taking stock of the work that’s been done.  While summer is marketed as a time to “get outdoors!” to “have fun!” it can also be a time for reflection, for reading, for writing, for editing and to remind ourselves that as writers, we must take the time to do the hard work of reading and editing in order to do that thing we are SUPPOSED to be doing: writing. Everything else is just what we’re doing to fill the hours when we’re not writing.


5000 words in…

So I’m doing NanoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and I’m about 5000 words in. This time out, I’m writing without a plan & actually chafing at the way the NanoWriMo site demands a title, a cover photo, a synopsis, and an excerpt of the novel-in-progress…I mean, how do I know what it’s called until I know what it is? Anyway, if you want to check out my progress, you can find me under “the_PRB” and the title right now is “I am the shape of the hole inside your heart.” Here’s an excerpt (note: this is a FIRST, unedited draft – with all that entails):

The phone was out and the closest phone box was at the end of the block, she had no change to call anyone and anyway who would she call? She stood in the hallway wanting to scream the names of anyone who might be in the squat and knowing that the silence meant that no one alive was in the house. It was then she saw the handprints all along the wall near the front door and leading up the stairs. She bit her lip, did not scream and left by the front door. She walked out into the bright, cold London morning and did not come back. 


almost time for National Novel Writing Month

In the midst of mid-terms in my PhD program, I’ve decided what with all that spare time I have, to sign up for another year’s National Novel Writing Month. I’ve done this process four times with varying results. 3 out of four, I’ve completed a “novel” or at least the required word count. One of those novels went around to agents a bit and now sits sadly on my hard drive waiting to be revisited.  A friend asked if I thought “that whole writing a novel in a month” was a waste of time. I’d argue that no writing is a waste of time (aside from some “academic” writing or that FB posting I do when I should be doing other things). That said, whether or not I’ll “do” anything with the novel I plan to write this November isn’t really the point. It’s the writing itself that’s important. One year, I wrote the first half on a very long flight, wrote a few pages over Thanksgiving and finished it up on the flight back to NYC. This year I’ll try to find time by getting up earlier, going to bed later, and cutting back on my already limited social life. Final papers for the fall grad school semester will be looming and likely, too many manuscripts to read for Black Lawrence Press but all the same, I will get a first draft of a new novel done. And maybe I’ll even post part of it here if & when I remember that I have a blog.