Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Popular assumption is that most first novels are autobiographical so I find there is a double-take when I tell people I’ve written a novel, The Lotus Eaters, about a female photojournalist during the Vietnam war, and no, I’m not an ex-photojournalist, and I was only a small girl during the war. So I’ve been talking and writing a lot during the weeks leading up to publication about what my reasons were for writing the book. I will talk about my personal reasons later, but right now I’d like to ask, “Why that expectation?”
Years ago I was at a writers’ function, which I’ll not name, and a person, who I’ll also not name, told a group of aspiring writers that a writer can’t possibly write about someone of another race. I found this statement stunning, and it provided long hours of alcohol-infused discussions among our group. Race is always a loaded issue, so let’s change it to sex, at least as great a leap, I’d say. Should Flaubert not have written Madame Bovary? Should Tolstoy have shied away from telling the story of the adulterous Anna Karenina? In most novels there is a huge cast of characters and very few novels are about a group of identical characters, who are clones of the author. But I’d go farther and say that this kind of thinking really obliterates fiction, reducing it to autobiography, because isn’t it an act of equal hubris that I can know the interior life of another middle-class, American woman just because I am one. In fact, isn’t self-knowledge one of the most elusive things of all?
I’ve always disliked that old writing chestnut handed out to beginning writers: write what you know. Instead, I tell my students that they should write what they’d like to know. Write what they want to spend years discovering. Maybe that happens to be material close to home, close to one’s own experience. But maybe they have a burning desire to write about Marco Polo’s voyages. The only criteria is excellence — if you can pull it off, you own it.
So what were the reasons that led me to write my book? I’ll assure you it wasn’t the idea of appealing to an easy demographic. I was told repeatedly that this was men’s territory, and that men wanted to read about combat. But I had already read excellent books that covered that subject matter. I believed in Toni Morrison’s advice: “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” When I discovered that a few women photojournalists had covered the war, I wanted to tell the story of a woman who finds her destiny, her freedom, ironically, within the terrors of war. What does it mean to lay one’s life down in order to bear witness? And what are the repercussions? And by not being a soldier, this woman has a chance to discover who the Vietnamese were. What did they think of this war?
Mentally I had prepared myself for the possibility that this might be one of those first novels destined for an eternity in the desk drawer. After many years of struggle, it seems like the book was “suddenly” picked up and published. For all the difficulty and struggle, I’m proud that this particular story is my first novel, and my case proves that if you work really hard, someone might take a chance on you. If you are deciding on what to write for a first novel, my advice is to write what you would be sorry not to have written. Risk it, because there is no guarantee of success in this business, but there is satisfaction in being true to your own vision, autobiographical or not. And if you decide to write that book on Marco Polo, drop me a copy — that’s a book I’d love to read.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
First, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m TatjanaSoli, and my debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, is coming out on March 30. It still feels kind of unreal, as well as nerve-wracking, going through the publication process, and I’ve found myself going back to fundamentals in my writing these last months to ground myself. I’d like to share some of these ideas with you this week. I’d also like to thank Aggie, who was so kind to invite me to post here.
A few weeks ago I had the strange, out-of-body experience of attending the performances of a number of my own short stories read by a group of professional actors. Being shy, I assumed this was going to be a tough week of self-consciousness, but once the actors began reading I felt transported from creator to spectator. I was totally caught up in the stories, and I didn’t feel responsible for them. I was listening for the “What comes next?” along with the audience. And I noticed things in my work that I had never been aware of before, such as that there is lots of food in my work. We got so hungry during rehearsal we ran out for a big dinner afterwards. My characters are looking for love and finding it in odd places. They mostly have a black sense of humor and worry inordinately about paying the bills.
Thing is, one of these stories was written over ten years ago. Others were newer, but none were within the last year. But they seemed eerily current with the me of today — oddly prophetic of my life, or at least my interior life now. They were like palm readings that I could compare to the future they described, while at the time of writing them, I felt I was totally using my imagination, writing nothing in the least autobiographical.
I have spoken to other writers who also recognize this sense of déjà vu with their earlier work, a clear pattern of themes and obsessions where none was intended. It is almost as though we were fated to write these stories, or similar ones, no matter what our outward intentions. When my writing students ask me about style — should they consciously pattern themselves on someone they admire? — I say yes, but only if they want their goal is to be a watered down, derivative version of someone else. If the admired work is good, it’s alive with a sense of that author; copied work, impersonated work, is by nature dead. I assure students that if they keep writing, with a sincere effort to tell their story — or stories, because this is a process that lasts over years — their own style, voice, will emerge as surely as a unique fingerprint.
Writers will recognize that this is very like the process of writing a story. One has a character perform actions, which move the story ahead. If one picks random actions, ones not rooted in who that character is, the story will start to move in a false direction. Sometimes this is a hundred page wrong way. This is one of the most frequent reasons a story runs into a dead end. Rewriting is largely a process of recalibrating two things: (1) Knowing your characters more and more thoroughly, and (2) having their actions be the only possible ones they could perform. In other words, you are creating that same sense of inevitability I felt when I saw that a random group of my stories were actually unified because they came from a single vision. Be true to your storytelling self, and ten years from now, you, too, might find out you are a kind of fortuneteller.
Friday, March 19, 2010
Kepler's Guest Blogger Tiphanie Yanique: Questions I hope I Get Asked While On Book Tour For How to Escape from a Leper (and my potential answers)
What kind of toothpaste do you use?
I use Sensodyne. My gums are sensitive. This is a metaphor for my soul…which is both sensitive and toothy.
Are you really Roman Catholic?
a. Yes. I go to Mass every Sunday. Theresa, the writer who found herself in physical ecstasy for Jesus, is my favorite saint.
b. No. I’m Baha’i. The Bahai faith asserts that all major religions have been sent by God to guide us as humanity became progressively more ready for the full insight of truth. Hence, humans believed in sun Gods when we before we developed a sophisticated understanding of nature and science.
c. Yes and no. I find the Catholic faith beautiful. And it has actually saved me many times. But some of it…I mean, really. No condoms? Get out…
d. I believe in myself.
Are you really Caribbean? You don’t have an accent. You don’t seem as authentic as, say, Jamaicans.
a. I’m from the Virgin Islands. We’re an American territory, so most Virgin Islanders are able to code-switch…the Caribbean accent and the American accent are like two languages we live in.
b. Clapse yuh rass clot mout. Wha you deh know ‘bout deh eart my nave string bury?
What are you reading now?
Next to my bed is the official biography of Nelson Mandela. I’m at the part where he has just started serving his life sentence. This section is so hard to read…I keep starting and re-staring. It’s too painful to think that for the next 100 pages he’ll be in jail.
I’m reading lots and lots of stories by my students.
I’m reading email. I really hate email. Dear friends have thought I turned on them because I didn’t respond to an email. I just can’t get my head around email. I have 400 unread messages in my account from the past month. I miss the time when social networking was stopping by for tea or a small glass of rum. Though, it turns out I kinda love Twitter.
I’m reading The New York Times, which I archaically get delivered on the weekend. It’s my most trusty procrastination tool.
I’ve just finished Paul Yoon’s collection, Once the Shore. I’ve read it twice and I’m now teaching it. It’s really good.
I’ve just started Wench, by Dolen Perkins and Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa. I bought Dein Cai Dau for a friend but then I couldn’t give it up. Next on my list are Monica Youn’s Barter, and Lawnboy by Paul Lisicky.
I really should be checking email…
What is your recommendation for new writers?
Read. Read stories, and poems and novels and memoir. Waste your time reading literature. Then go live. Live a lot.
I’ll be visiting Kepler’s on May 19th as part of my book tour for How to Escape from a Leper Colony. I would love to answer any and all questions! Please do visit me on book tour.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
In her The End of the Novel of Love, Vivian Gornick suggests that the novel of romantic love is dead. Well, she doesn’t suggest it. She tells it to us as a fact. Her reasoning is that we all know now that love fails us. That people get divorced, that husbands cheat, that wives run off. Her book, a tracing of many great love novels and the ending thesis that they can no longer exist, is smart and so so so sad. And true. I agree with her. But I don’t completely agree.
I’ve had readers note that many of the stories in my debut collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, tend toward the tragic. This is true. But they’re also about love. Something I still stupidly believe in, despite being a divorcée myself and despite witnessing horrendous marriages among my family and friends that just won’t die. The stories in my collection have characters who believe in their love. One characters ask that his love be chiseled into his gravestones. But the collection also has characters so unsure about the hard love of their marriages that they boldface lie—claiming love is easy. I have a character who ends up in jail for love. Another who carries an actual cross on his back for love. Another stuffs a crucifix down his pants, as a replacement for the hard-on he wished he could get for his girlfriend. Some of these characters are white. Most are not. In Gornick’s book, most of the great love novels or novels about the end of love, are by white writers with white characters. I’m simplifying Gornick’s excellent book, but I’m left wondering if Gornick’s thesis might be true in some cases, but not in others.
When my fiancé and I went for pre-marital counseling the therapist, a black woman, seemed to be discouraging us from marriage all together. Privately I told her that I really wanted her help us start in a healthy way, not discourage us. I was already divorced once and didn’t want to be divorced again. The therapist looked at me like I was a crazy woman. Really crazy for wanting to rope myself to…of all things…a man. “Why do people want to get married?” She said. “I’m single and I love it!” We never went back to her.
I went to literature instead. I read novels and poetry collections about love (oh, thank you, Pablo Neruda; oh, thank you, Charlie Baxter). I even proposed teaching a class called “Love Books” with hopes that teaching the class would teach me something about love. But when I suggested it, the powers that be didn’t think it seemed that interesting for the curriculum. Maybe they were over the whole love novel thing.
As I thought about how I still want to read love novels and learn from them, I wondered why I still wanted this when Gornick had shown that smart people have moved on. Maybe I wasn’t so smart. It did seem that any search for life affirming romantic love in a novel brought a find of mostly archaic Brontë narratives. I kept thinking, trying to be smart about it, and then it dawned on me that there just aren’t that many love stories with…well…with people that seem to look like me. I mean real love stories where love saves the day. Maybe black readers or Caribbean readers or Latino or Asian readers can’t be “over” the novel of love because…well, they didn’t have many to be over.
What do we have? Whitney Houston saying “now, that’s black love!” about her really fucked up relationship with Bobby Brown. We’ve got the street/urban fiction where the love looks more like a rap video than anything a sane smart person would want to be involved in. On the more literary side, we almost had Toni Morrison’s brilliant novel, Love—but that didn’t turn out to be about romantic love at all.
Essence Magazine has been chronicling, debating and at times defying, the seeming “crisis of black marriage” in America. The crisis being that black people don’t get married (marriage, in this case, being the official and public announcement that you’ve chosen romantic love); or that black coupling, marriage or not, is dysfunctional, and particularly destructive for individuals involved. An Essence blog, written by a married couple, invites happy black couples to write in and testify love’s transformative power in their lives. We’re not over it, they seem to be saying. We’re fighting to get to the top of it.
So, I’m doing something that my old therapist would definitely see as a form of public self-denial. With How to Escape from a Leper Colony out doing its tragic thing, I’m now writing a new novel where two people of African descent use romantic love as the transformative power in their lives. My literary agent, who will be charged with selling the novel, might also say that this is crazy. The publishing industry is, alas, very white. Many of my potential editors and publishers might be “over” the whole love thing in literature. I’ll probably have a hell of a time trying to get the thing published. Or maybe not. Maybe enough people, like me, are still hopeful. Maybe some of us still need and want literature about love.
Any hopeful editors or publishers out there? Anybody? Anybody?
Monday, March 15, 2010
I won’t talk about the teacher who was up with me for the same writing…and when I tried to contact said professor s/he replied with….well, never replied. When I won the prize s/he seemed to hate me. I won’t talk about that. That would be petty of me…and insecure.
I’ll talk instead about Mark Doty, who last year won a Lambda Award in an unusual joint win between him and his former student, James Hall. James actually skipped across the stage. James is a big guy, but the skipping seemed a completely correct response not only for winning the award amongst a field of incredibly talented poets but also joining his mentor on stage to accept their award. Mark spent most of his podium time praising James. And James spent his thanking Mark. If you weren’t paying attention you would think they were accepting a collaboration award.
But how many teachers would be cool with their students co-winning an award with them? Killing them off—as Whitman said students should do? Why be a teacher if the ungrateful brats will rise up and maybe get as good, or, have mercy, better, than you? I’ve only written one full length book, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, which was published by Graywolf Press just two weeks ago. But I’ve been teaching for years. Years! Have I just been giving away the goods?
Let’s consider the student perspective. Feeling you’ve been stiffed by your teachers is nothing new. Every smart kid has wondered if she wasn’t smarter than her teacher. Even stupid kids have wondered this. As teachers, we can see how this might have been true. I’ve had students love writers I’ve never heard of….sure some of the books are werewolf romances, but others are major canonical novels I’ve just missed. I’m coming to get you, the student seems to say. I won’t let you kill me, the teacher rails.
So let me be honest. I’ve been anxious and insecure as a teacher. I’ve been teaching in a formal classroom since I was 15. I’ve been a big sister (read as: mentor for life) since I was 11. I remember once telling my brother that he couldn’t be a writer. I told him, honestly, that I didn’t think I’d be able to handle us competing against each other. I could see myself fretting about whether to help him revise a poem or keep my brilliance to myself. So used to giving and giving to him, I was sure I would chose to help him revise but then seethe with resentment. My brother and I have never been sibling rivals but I saw nastiness unfolding before my eyes.
The fiction writer, Jean Rhys figured out how to handle the anxiety of mentorship by noting that ‘we are each adding to the ocean of literature. Some of us are rivers pouring in and changing the movement of the water. Some of us are just droplets. But the point is to add to the ocean.’ Rhys didn’t think of herself as a river. She figured she was only a little teardrop. But she loved the ocean more than her little drop. Who the hell is Jean Rhys, you might ask? Honestly, I couldn’t even find the direct quote on line (hence the paraphrasing). So maybe she really was nothing more than a drop. Maybe she thought of herself as a drop and so she was. Maybe if she only envisioned herself as a gushing river she would’ve been greater than Hemingway. But I don’t think so. Many readers love Rhys more than the rivers of Hemingway (this reader, for one). Her Wide Sargasso Sea is still in print long after she’s been well dead. The point, I think, is to love the ocean first, to love literature first. If that means you guide a student or mentee to create a waterfall, so be it. Much better to have done that then create a gush of sewage (werewolf romances!) or mentor someone who does. The lesson is don’t write literature unless your love is for the literature. Then mentorship is an act of love—corny as that may sound. And then it might be a little easier to keep insecurity about your own drop or river in check.
Because of course, James Hall and Mark Dot had collaborated. James had written many of those poems in classes with Mark. Mark, who has been teaching for years, always expresses excitement about his students influencing him. Come kill me, he seems to be saying. That’s how I get reborn.
Because none of us is self-taught. Not really. That’s some American individualistic bullshit. None of is made without influence. “No one helped me!” is just a lie. Someone hired you to work on a journal. Someone gave you a book. Someone wrote the book that got you loving books. Some middle school teacher gave you a damn smiley face on an essay. When I was 17 Maya Angelou actually read one of my poems during her own reading. She congratulated me for writing it and then read it aloud. She’s never said a word to me in person…but that was one of the most vital acts of mentorship I’ve received. She made room for my poem among her poems. Was she threatened by me? Probably not. But it seems entirely possible that she thought….this might be a future writer. This might be someone who gets read. This might be someone who gets read after I’m dead. But she was more than confident enough, it seems, to be okay with the possibility of this. She seemed to be embracing the possibility, calling the possibility into being.
And if we’ve been a little anxious as mentors we’re downright scared of our peers.
“That bitch is coming to get me,” a friend said when judging a literary prize….a prize he might have entered if he wasn’t the judge. “She’s so good she’s scaring me.”
“So will you pick her?” I asked.
“Of course! She has me wanting to write.” Meaning, of course, that other people’s good writing is great for you.
I have a vignette: When I was in high school I competed in a beauty pageant. I grew up in the Virgin Islands were beauty pageants are pretty common. I was probably the poorest girl running. I didn’t have a coach or a formal beauty pageant mentor. I had aunts and my grandmother and my friends. I couldn’t afford a dress, but a woman who owned a boutique just gave me my evening gown and my talent-wear. A friend’s mother made my martial arts sports segment outfit. My cousin held the board on stage when I broke it with a karate chop. A friend taught me how to play “wind beneath my wings” on the steel pan. My fellow contestants were my friends, but they all had the formal chaperones and coaches and modeling lessons. Me, nada. But I won. No one in my family had even taken pictures or filmed the pageant. We didn’t have a camera, much less a video camera. It was very cool to walk down the catwalk with the crown on my head. But that’s not the end of the story.
Within two days it sucked. One of my best friends had been in the pageant and had expected to win. After the pageant she spoke to me in monosyllables and our friendship never recovered. Her mother was worse—she downright hated me—which was made heinous because the mother was a teacher in the school. On the day I was “presented” before students and teachers during a special assembly I rushed through my speech and encouraged everyone to get back to class. I burst into tears during homeroom and stuffed the crown in my locker. Instead of my queen commitments I concentrated on my year of service…a requirement of the crown I would later learn no one ever bothered with. I chose to host a reading hour for the kindergarten and first grade classes. I read to them every Tuesday and Thursday morning.
Later, I would find out that another contestant actually went to the formal queen functions without me knowing; parading as the winner of the pageant. I wouldn’t even be mad at her—perhaps because I found out years enough afterwards. I’d just feel bad for her.
Instead of crowning glory, what I got was one of those first graders eventually becoming a high school student and stopping me in the street…”Do you remember when you used to come read to us? You made me love reading.” That girl had started writing poems. You guessed it. She’s coming to get me. Well, good. That will only make me write more and better. Maybe I’ll get reborn.
And thanks to Aggie, for helping fill the ocean with this blog!
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
In gearing up to do a post this month - with many thanks as ever to Aggie! - I read the recent ones by Dani Shapiro, a friend and a wonderful writer. I was struck by her excellent explanation of why memoir, for her, isn't exposing in anything like the way that say having someone read a journal would be. She writes that memoirs are not "raw or confessional" but the result of years of "building and polishing," that there is a strong element of intentionality and there are conscious, skilled artistic decisions made about what to share and how to share it.
Reading Dani's words reminded me of something I have often thought. I write both fiction and personal essays, and while my fiction is not at all autobiographical, I find having stories out in the world infinitely more exposing than I do having strangers read essays which are about my actual life. Memoir may convey facts, some of which might be deemed "personal," but stories, no matter how polished and intentionally crafted, still have the dream-like quality of revealing our obsessions, while also exposing biases we don't even know we have, our notions of love, our moral landscape, values, sexual attitudes and so on. This isn't because we write about ourselves and it isn't about confusing the author with the character. It happens because we create universes in which all of these elements come into play, and because when you write a story that has that all-important quality of mattering, you inevitably share with the world what matters to you.
What interests me about this right now, beyond obsessively wondering how to keep my nerves calm as my first story collection hits the stores three weeks from today revealing who-knows-what about me, is the impact of that exposing aspect on people who are early on in their writing lives and whose hold on the pursuit may still be tentative.
So often, the dreaded Writer's Block is discussed as either a mechanical function, a view that generally spawns the advice write every day no matter what; or as a problem of quality often summed up: I can't write anything good. Increasingly, though, I wonder how much these stuck periods are less about forming good habits or about changes in the quality of our work and more about worries of exposure, anxieties related to making one's own sense of the world all too clear.
A few years back, I started to realize that every writer I knew had in common the experience of feeling silenced early on in life. It might have been politically based in some way or the result of a family dynamic in which speaking up about one's perceptions of reality seemed taboo or simply a feeling of difference that needed to be camouflaged; but soon enough, I found, some such story would emerge. This is also true of a lot of people who aren't writers, but in my experience this sensation of being silenced is strikingly prominent in the narratives my writer friends tell about themselves. And it's certainly an important part of my own story about myself.
As I realized this, I began to wonder about the role of those early inhibiting forces in a writer's on-going life. It seemed implausible to me that the silencing voices, once so forceful, are themselves ever wholly silenced; and at a certain very frustrating point in my own writing life it became helpful for me to envision an argument inside myself, at all times, between those internalized inhibitors and the part of me that feels urgency about speaking out, that feels at times as though my life depends on expressing myself. As a result, instead of viewing my own blocked periods as failures of discipline or of confidence in my work, I began to see them as periods in which the silencing voices were winning that argument.
The impact of this was first to make me angry - how dare they try to shut me up and shut me down again?! - giving me a certain emotional oomph as I tried to put those voices back in their place, which was the distant past. And then this concept also led me to remind myself that I needn't ever share anything I write with anyone. If the impulse to write had somehow gotten mixed up with old taboos on speaking out, then the road back into writing might be to allow myself room to do it without the assumption that anyone else would ever see it. In other words, I lowered the stakes, and tried to envision writing more like an extension of thinking than like a communication to anybody else. Just for a while, just until my resolve toward expression was strengthened again.
Now, I'm very disapproving of writers who claim that an approach that worked for them is the one other people must follow. (A subject for another post: Advice about Advice.) So I'm not suggesting that viewing a blocked period as the reassertion of old taboos against expression will resonate for everyone else or even anyone else. But it's been tremendously helpful to me so I thought it worth sharing here.
Also helpful to me, during these months and weeks of waiting for my book to emerge, has been the chance to have this conversation here. Again, many thanks to Aggie! I'm looking forward to meeting all the Well-Read Donkey readers and writers when I read at Kepler's next month!
(The picture is of me reading the only copy of my book that I have ever seen - a huge thrill for this first time author!)