Fiction, Personal, Writing

For Future Reference

Keisha-

Again: gorgeous. I hope you take yourself seriously as a writer because your work this semester has been stellar…I think I may have already told you that.

 

I swear I did not mean to abandon this blog for over two months. I have been really, really busy. I just finished up my writing class at the New School. Last night was our final class, and this was a part of the comment my professor wrote on my submission.  The last time she gave me such effusive praise, I posted a picture of it to my Instagram account. I’ve been thinking about her words all day: I hope you take yourself seriously as a writer because your work this semester has been stellar. I hope you take yourself seriously as a writer. Take yourself seriously. As a writer. Because your work this semester has been stellar. Your work this semester has been stellar. Stellar.

Pretty sure I’m going to enroll in the Advanced Fiction Workshop at the New School this summer.

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Personal, travel, Writing

Now

I am listening to this freezing rain as it falls. Chunks of snow are crashing from the roof. The squirrels in the crawl space above my head are playing soccer. The radiator hisses.  The new mayor says he went to the gym before he shoveled the heavy, wet snow from the sidewalk in front of his Park Slope home; he advises City residents not to do this. His Spanish is better than the old mayor’s, but not much. I am wondering whether I will hold my community class tonight. It doesn’t look very bad from my window, and there are cars whizzing past the house every few minutes. I can hear the tires slice through the water and connect to the asphalt below.  I have just finished reading “The Girl Who Flew,” by Camellia Phillips. I told myself I should read more literary journals, so I subscribed to Calyx. I’ll treat myself to Callaloo when I come back from Costa Rica. Maybe I should read The House on Mango Street again.  I bought it on Friday and read it on Saturday; it’s the first assignment on the syllabus of the experimental fiction class I’m taking at The New School, taught by Sharon Mesmer. Last week was our first session. She asked what I was reading, so I told her. I told her that I sleep with books in my bed. How I can’t stop thinking about words. She told me that just means I’m a writer. I have to pack, but I don’t want to stop reading. Maybe I will just pack my books for now. I bought a bright orange backpack for this trip; it matches my cashmere travel scarf. I am going to fill it with books and snacks. And panties, just in case our luggage gets lost. I am still listening to this freezing rain as it falls. It sounds like sweet music. It sounds like a promise. It sounds like now.

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Poetry, Writing

When All Else Fails

I don’t have the words today.

What I mean is, I have nothing illuminating or interesting or amusing of my own to share.  I’m just not in the mood.

So I’m going to leave you with some more bits on Warsan Shire.

I’ve made no secret of my fascination with her. And through the clouds that continue to linger over me, I’m starting to realize why.  I don’t have the words today, so I can’t tell you exactly what it is. Maybe later. But not right now.

Anyway, enjoy these interview excerpts I rounded up:

List 3 things that have made you a better poet?

1. Not competing,

2. not comparing,

3. being honest (even if the truth is perhaps a little shameful, a little painful)

from “Ask a Poet” by Indigo Williams. Read the rest here.

Any writing rituals? What is your writing process like? Do you keep a journal, write before dawn…?

I write when everyone is asleep. I write with music. I never plan it. But it is a very constant. It feels organic. My poems come to me in images, like film. I can see it very clearly and then this overwhelming urge to write out best what I just saw comes over me. I write best with free writes, where I refuse to edit what is leaving me, where I write within a specific time frame. I refuse to obsess over it, and if it doesn’t come out easily, then I leave it. I don’t write for an audience. I don’t write under pressure. I’m thankful to take my time. The poems happen to me. Sometimes I have no actual idea where they have come from.

from “To Be Vulnerable and Fearless” by Kameelah Janan Rasheed. Read the rest here.

How did you develop such an acute sense of observation (about human nature in particular)? Is it something that came naturally to you or was it something that developed over time? Is that sense of observation perhaps what drew you to write in the first place?

I’ve always been very observant; I’d rather listen than speak. It’s overwhelming, the amount of detail I see in really mundane scenarios: strangers touching one another; someone arguing on the phone; a man falling asleep on the train. I’ll fill in the gaps of the story myself. In my mind I’ll follow them home, I’ll imagine their childhood, what their bedroom looks like, if they are in love with someone who does not love them. The downfall is that I give everything (and everyone) too much meaning. Sometimes a thing is vacant and I’ll create depth for it; that’s not always fair.

From “Warsan Shire’s Raw & Vulnerable Poetry” by Anya Wassenberg for OkayAfrica. Read the rest here.

And finally, listen to Warsan herself read her poem “What We Have” here (fast forward to the 23:30 mark, though the rest of the discussion is fairly interesting if you like poetry). I’m thinking of getting the last line of this poem tattooed on the inside of my left arm:

The only darkness we should allow into our lives is the night, and even then, we have the moon.

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Fiction, Writing

Excerpts (+ Housekeeping)

I love when I find these random, abandoned scraps of stories or failed writing exercises and I actually like them:

My first boyfriend had skin the color of parchment paper, with large reddish freckles painted across his nose and cheeks. His eyes were round and grey, his eyelashes brown and short and stubby.  He blinked slowly when he lied. My friends did not understand what I saw in him. We were sophomores in college, and he had already been arrested twice that year, once for drugs possession and the other, for public intoxication.  He’d left a party in Norfolk high on ecstasy and with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit.  He took off his shirt and pissed on the sidewalk before he ever made it to his car.

He had another girlfriend at the university across the bay.  I saw her car parked across the street from my apartment complex for five nights in a row before she finally knocked on my door.  I knew it was her because the green and yellow plates were her school colors. When I opened the door, I expected her to throw acid on my face.  I shut my eyes and awaited the pain.  Instead, I heard her sob.  “You’re so pretty,” she said.

When I opened my eyes, she was just standing there, crying. She wore several heavy layers of mascara and the tears dripping over her nose led trails of soot down her face.  She wasn’t ugly.  We were about the same height, just over five feet.  Orville was only five six; he liked smaller girls.  She had rough coppery skin and wore a waist-length weave the same red-brown color as our boyfriend’s freckles.  Weaves weren’t as popular or as realistic back then, and I could see the lump of tracks around her crown. Her hands were tiny.  There was a slim gold band on her left ring finger.  She saw me look at it, and twisted it around and around.  Her hot pink nail polish was chipped.

“He promised,” she said.  “He promised we would get married after graduation.”

I said nothing.  She stopped crying at my silence.  It seemed to make her angry, that I had not reacted to this news.

“You’re wasting your time,” she said.

“Maybe,” I replied.  “Maybe we both are.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“You think just because you live in this fancy apartment and go to this bougie school and your dad is a judge and your mom is an AKA—you think he’ll choose you?”

The fact that she knew these things about my parents made me flinch.  I knew nothing about her, except that my boyfriend was her boyfriend, too, and that she was standing outside my apartment yelling at me, with her makeup smeared all over her face and a fistful of tissues that she hadn’t used.

I held the door between us.  Maybe the acid was in her purse and she just hadn’t reached for it yet.

Continue reading

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Fiction, Trinidad, Writing

Ode to Homemade Sorrel

You are sweeter than you know.  Special occasions and holidays only, so I waited for you all year.  Christmas was my favorite; Easter, a close second.

I clapped when your daughter tossed plastic packets of the dried crimson flowers into her basket at the West Indian food market.  It was always cold there, big drafty windows overlooking rows and rows of alien fruits: soursop, guava, chinet, pomerac. I played with the heart-shaped pomerac, felt its thin maroon skin give away under my probing fingers.  My mother yelled, but you laughed, like chimes in the wind.

The house was warm, though, as I watched you work.  Water, cinnamon, cloves. The only sound in the kitchen was the sound of bubbling liquid, pockets of air slipping and swirling in swift circles under the closed lid of the sauce pan.  I sat on my hands in anticipation.

“You must wait,” you told me.  I did not understand waiting. I wanted its spicy sweetness now.

“The flowers must steep overnight,” you said.  I sighed.

In the morning you were waiting for me, straining soggy bits of petals from the plum-colored liquid.  You made four bottles.  One for me, one for you, one for my mother, one for my sister.  A cup of sugar went into each bottle.  A dash of rum in yours and mine.  “Don’t tell your mother,” you whispered.  I crossed my heart and smiled.

I did not tell for years.  Easter came the week after your funeral.  I could not drink my mother’s sorrel because it didn’t taste the same.  I told her, “Grams put rum in hers.”  She replied, “You don’t need any rum!”  I only drink her sorrel now after I cut the sugar with an ounce of Old Oak.  She scowls when she sees me pouring rum into my cup, but she always asks for a splash of her own.  She knows it tastes better that way.

 

p.s.  I scheduled this post before I left for Spain. Today makes it eight years since my Grams passed.  I wrote this piece when I studied at the Writers Studio back in 2009. It’s one of my favorites.

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Fiction, Writing

Notes on Writing

 

“I knew I was in trouble when I began dreaming of roses.

I’d see myself walking down Merrick Boulevard, past the Korean beauty supply, and the ninety-nine cent store,  the used bookstore, and the Chinese takeout joint, my arms full of sunset-colored roses. I smiled as people stared at the mound of vivid flowers I carried. A little boy with curly burnished brown hair scampered to me and threw his chubby arms around my knees. I leaned over to kiss his forehead, and the pile of roses tumbled from my arms. I saw all the roses fall, one by one, in a cascade of peach and pink and sweet yellow.  The boy helped me gather them again, and as he handed me the last one, I would awake, troubled and restless and unable to go back to sleep.”

 

Every once in a while, I find bits and scraps of old stories in my notebooks and journals, stashed away carelessly. I wrote the excerpt above on February 26, 2004 for my undergraduate creative writing workshop.  It was part of an assignment to write a story that began with the prompt:  “I knew I was in trouble when….”

I wrote a dozen pages about this girl, Grace, who has just graduated from college, and realizes that her high school boyfriend, with whom she had a powerful connection, is still in love with her.  Before she sees him for the first time, she gets all these signs from the Universe that she tries to dismiss– beginning with her dreams of roses. There’s some eye-twitching, his look-alike appears at her job, then his father calls to ask if she’s heard from him, when she hasn’t spoken to his parents or him in years.  It’s cute and silly and sad and I had a lot of fun writing it. Writing used to be what I did when I just wanted to have some fun.

For a while, writing became labor for me.  Getting just two pages was like carrying a 20-lb bag of charcoal two miles in dense July humidity.  (I have actually done this, and I thought I was going to die.  Or at least, I felt like my arms would be useless for a few weeks.)  I deleted more drafts and crumpled up more awkward paragraphs than I care to admit.

The words have been coming a bit more easily lately. I am not sure why this is, but I am grateful.  I started another section of the book I’ve been working on for years.  I like it. It’s different from what I’d written before, probably because am different.  I have more faith in myself as a writer.  Because of this, writing  is starting to become fun again!

I wish I had the vast blocks of free time that I had in college, when I could sit uninterrupted for twelve hours and do nothing at all except write. I would churn out a short story every week. Now I’m happy if I can write three pages during my lunch break at work.  These pages are small victories.

This book will be written through small victories.  Word by word.

It’s time.

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Career, Goals, Personal, Writing, Yoga

This Can’t Be Life

I had a really difficult time dragging myself out of bed today.

It’s been like this for weeks now. It’s not that I wake up late, because I don’t. I’m awake at 6 am every day,  before my second alarm goes off at 6:15.  I stare into the dark and listen to the muffled sound of my television. I sleep with it on because I am afraid of the dark; I am not ashamed to admit this.  The noise of it disturbs my sleep, however, so I lower the volume to just a hair above a whisper.  Then in the morning, I strain to hear the news from underneath my comforter.  I do some pranayama.  If I fall asleep with the phone next to me, I check my e-mail.  I think about what I’ll wear.  I stay in bed until 6:30, when I have to leave at 7, and it takes me at least 45 minutes to shower and get dressed.  Then I rush to get out of the house by 7:05 so I won’t be late to work. Some days, I don’t care if I’m late, and I take my time. Other days, I don’t even want to imagine staying in that building a minute past the end of my shift, so I haul ass to get ready in 25 minutes.  Those are the days like today, when I walk out of my house with my sweater on inside out, or an earring missing, with no snacks and no water.

I’m tired.

A little while ago, I  came across this letter that author Charles Bukowksi wrote to his publisher, John Martin, in which he discusses the idea of a “9 to 5”:

You know the places where I came from. Even the people who try to write about that or make films about it, they don’t get it right. They call it “9 to 5.” It’s never 9 to 5, there’s no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don’t take lunch. Then there’s OVERTIME and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.

You know my old saying, “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.

He goes on:

I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: “I’ll never be free!”

One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie) and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life.

I recently shared this letter with a co-worker (who has become a good friend).  She believes that she is trapped. She has a 3-year-old daughter to support on her own after the untimely death of her partner.  She has a small business selling homemade baked goods with her two best friends, but it doesn’t net her enough money to leave this job. And she’s been here forever; she has a fully vested pension and a 401k.  “Where am I going?” she asked.  The answer was clear: nowhere.

I said: “When you were 11 and you came here for the first time, is this what you imagined your life as an adult would be?  Because I can tell you for sure, this was a life I never wanted.”

We went to dinner and discussed the possibilities.  Her business will take off and she’ll open a bakery.  I’ll move somewhere warm, finally get my MFA and my book will be published.  I’ll travel around writing and teaching writing and yoga and I’ll be able to speak Spanish instead of just understand it sometimes and I’ll be able to do a perfect Scorpion handstand.

Sounds good, right?

I just know that something has to change.  This can’t be life.  I don’t want to be ugly. I want to be free.

P.S. Since today is Jay-Z’s 43rd birthday, I find it wholly appropriate that the title of this post bears the same name as a song from his fifth album, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, released in 2000. You can listen to a snippet of it here.

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Writing

Notes on What Makes a Writer

I have this thing.  I don’t like to call myself a writer. My rationale is, writers write. And since I don’t write [fiction] very often, I have a difficult time referring to myself as a writer.  I think about the stories I’d like to write every day; I write outlines for them. I keep a personal journal.  I scribble lines down everywhere–recently, I scrawled “thepointiswearedonehere” on a co-worker/friend’s dry erase board because the words had been tumbling around in my head all morning. I write here. But I don’t think of myself as a writer.

Last week, I read “So You Want to be a Writer: Bukowski Debunks the Tortured Genius Myth of Creativity” on my favorite site ever, Brain Pickings (I know I talk about this site quite often, but that’s only because it’s AMAZING).  The celebrated poet/novelist/short story writer says, in part:

 

if it doesn’t  come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.

 

And I cried. Because I remember what it was like to have that insatiable urge to write.

In seventh grade, I wrote my first novel. It was called “A Passport to Danger.” I pretty much lifted the plot straight out of a Nancy Drew Files novel, but threw in a murderous high school teacher and some step-sibling romance for a little extra flavor. It earned me an A+ in English that year, and from that time all the way throughout high school, I would come home every single day,  get on my mother’s computer and write write write. I have binders full of stories that I wrote during those years. I couldn’t stop writing. I wrote in all of my classes, especially in Geometry, which I hated.  I wrote on the bus in the morning though it made me carsick.  I wrote every day.  And while the speed with which I wrote slowed somewhat in college, I still wrote enough to have a few of my pieces published in the university’s literary journal, the Saracen.

Once I got to law school, that all changed.  I wrote one really good story during the entire three years. I blogged. I wrote flash fiction pieces and weird prose poems, but nothing substantial.  And I’ve struggled to write ever since. If you have to sit for hours staring at your computer screen…don’t do it.

When I went to VONA, I felt like an impostor. What am I doing here with all these lovely, talented writers?  I asked myself.  Then Diem reminded us that we all deserved to be there. We were all writers. We all had important things to say.

Reading Bukowski’s poem made me doubt myself. What if I’ve been waiting patiently for nothing? What if I’m not a writer going through a rough patch? What if I’m really not a writer at all?

This morning, a VONA instructor with whom I am facebook friends shared a quote from Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz. I did some digging and found the source here.  In a stark contrast to Bukowski’s somewhat harsh edict, Diaz counters:

You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.

And I realized: I have hope.

It’s part of the reason why I started this blog.

I may not write every day. I may not like everything that I write– in fact, I definitely don’t like everything that I write.  But I write, and that’s what matters.

That’s what makes me a writer.

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