Some thoughts on rounding off the workshop

Saturday marked the true final day of our group workshop sessions. I still have a number of individual consultations to do–not that it was part of the package, but that’s just how I roll and I think it can help young writers to figure out exactly what they want to write about when they are able to talk it through with someone.

I’ve learned through observation and experience that the subject or the story a writer feels most passionately about is the one where their eyes light up when they talk about it. And so, the face to face is helpful to me being helpful to them.

Conversing with my students reminds me of lines I told myself–lines that are probably familiar to many a young writer.

“I’m not sure I can do it.”

“Maybe I should write something else, what do you think?”

“But it’s not ambitious enough.”

“No one will want to read my work.”

“I haven’t written science fiction before.”

“I’ve never written fiction before.”

“Does my voice really matter?”

One of the things I tell my students is this: if you feel passionate about this subject, then you must write that story. You may not feel up to it right now, but put down a first draft. It’s okay if it’s spaghetti. It’s fine if it doesn’t make sense. If you think it’s not perfect enough or rightly told, that’s not important right now. Get it down. Just write.

Some first drafts surprise me. Some first drafts are messy ( first drafts often are) but I can clearly see the promise of a story waiting for the rough edges to be peeled away. Some stories show me exactly how much the writer has struggled with the work and some tell me this story has lived so long in the writer’s head, that except for a few minor tweaks, that story is already there.

I believe that it often helps to talk things through in person or face to face rather than on text or on message because even though the world is in constant communication through text or tweet or app, a lot of nuance is lost when we don’t do face to face.

Where written words may sometimes come across as: I think you did this wrong, when we talk face to face, you’ll hear me saying: I see you did this and I want to understand why. I will ask you to stretch your imagination and challenge yourself harder and my tone of voice, my facial expression and my body language will tell you it’s meant as an encouragement.

Most of my students are first time writers of science fiction and I know it’s not easy for all of them. I also know that while some of my students will continue to write science fiction, some of them might not. Some will probably incorporate techniques they’ve learned into their existing art practices and some will probably go on to create works that are a blend of everything.

Still, it has been a joyful and interesting journey and it’s made me quite enthusiastic and hopeful for the future of Dutch science fiction.

Personal post: my son’s investment

After Jan’s passing, eldest son gifted me with a set of weights and an exercise mat. I’d been contemplating a gym subscription but I just couldn’t seem to take that first step. So, when eldest son asked me what was on my birthday wishlist, I thought I’d ask for stuff for exercising at home. I thought: a mat would do or a pair of dumbbells. I remember expressly pointing out some things that I thought were student-level price. (He was also saving up for his own computer, so I didn’t want him to spend a lot.)

I was rather flabbergasted when the packages arrived. Apparently, he’d done some research and opted for his own (more expensive) choices instead of what I had pointed out to him.

In the first year, I shed a couple of pounds and started to feel stronger. When I flexed my arm, I could feel something that felt like muscle. So I took the plunge and signed up at our local gym. My goal: more muscle definition please and make me stronger.

In times when I’ve wrestled with anxiety, I’ve found that a good workout tends to keep the worst of it bay. I’m able to clear my mind for a while as I focus on just making it through a set number of reps and sets.

Today, I thought back to that time after he got his first job at a local supermarket. I think of the late nights and long hours that he pulled and how that was the year he told me that he didn’t need pocket money anymore. I remember how flabbergasted I was when I realised just how much he’d spent on my birthday present and I remember him saying that I should think of it as him investing in me.

The returns on Joel’s investment have come in as we now use that set each time we workout during the week. It’s fun, it gives some sort of structure to days where hours seem to blend into each other, and I guess I’m vain enough to be pleased that the muscle I’ve gained won’t fade during the lockdown.

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( The 3 kilo dumbbells are a recent addition, and these shoes have been with me since I started working out 5 years ago. I have a 5 kilo disk on my birthday wishlist. I’ve read that weight training is important for women as we grow older as it helps maintain bone density and keeps our joints supple. What I can say is this: five years ago, I couldn’t run up and down the stairs, these days I can.)

writing progress

Funny how the brain works. Maybe it’s because I put away the first draft of Waypoints during a dark period–maybe it’s because I decided that writing wasn’t working at all, but I had this idea that I had never gotten around to finishing first draft on it. So, I was quite surprised when I opened scrivener to find that I had indeed managed to finish first draft on that novel. True, it wasn’t a clean first draft; true, it was filled with open and close parenthesis that looked like this: (fill this information in later on) and (what does this person want anyway and why is this character here? Justify that.); but, it was a first draft.

I know it needs quite a bit of work before I can even show it to anyone else, so I’ve decided to discipline myself and focus on working on this story for at least a couple of hours each day for the duration of the stay at home rule.

When I started working on Waypoints, I had no clear plan of where I wanted this story to go. What I had was an image and an idea and a very strong feeling. I followed those things and just put words on the page without stopping to consider whether each event was helping the story or moving the story forward or doing anything useful in the story.

At one of the first workshop meetings, I told my students that when we write, what we put on the page must serve the purpose of the story we want to tell.  I find it amusing to discover that these were the exact words I needed to hear as well because I quite forgot about that point while writing the first draft for Waypoints. I was just indulging myself and having fun.

I do remember going back to visit this first draft sometime ago and feeling a sense of overwhelm. It felt like this incredible mess and I had no idea how to make sense of the mess. So I shut the file up again and shelved it.

The interesting thing about some stories is how they will nag at you and refuse to let you go. You put them away determined to forget about them, but they keep coming back to haunt you. They nag and nag and remind you that you haven’t really given them their due. I have two stories on file that keep doing that to me and Waypoints is one of them.

Today, I’ve identified my main problem with this novel and why I’ve found it more challenging to organise as compared to when I make sense out of the chaos of a first draft short story. 

First of all, I have lots of characters on the page who want all kinds of different things. Second, my viewpoint keeps shifting and right now it feels like I have more than three threads vying for dominance. 

It also suffers from a thing one of my instructors pointed out to me when I was at Clarion West–I’ve tried to stuff so many things into this draft that it’s hard for the reader to identify what’s most important. (Considering how I am reading this draft after a year and having trouble identifying what’s what already says a lot.)

So today, I’m asking myself questions as I look at my draft. What do my characters want? Where do their wants coincide? Where do their wants diverge? Who has got the most lose? Who gets hurt the most? How much are they prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve their wants?

It’s small progress but I am working at this one step at a time.

In which we are inspired by Ann VanderMeer’s “The Bestiary”

In 2015, Centipede Press released Ann VanderMeer’s “The Bestiary”, for which I wrote an entry. One of the things I enjoyed about this project was creating a small biography of myself as a strange creature. Today, I thought I would ask the kids to write their own strange biography. It was a fun exercise and the kids have given me their permission to post their work here. I hope those who read it will enjoy it too.

The Loenen

The Loenen is a creature that likes to sit behind people’s computers and play videogames. It is very nerdy and ita lso likes model building.

The Loenen is very kind and isn’t aggresive at all; it is naieve which makes it an easy target for hunters. Because of that, it is an endangered species.

It believes that no one would ever do anything bad and always sees the good in people.

The Loenen is very lazy; but it can also be very hyperactive.

Most of the time this creature just stays in other people’s homes and eats their food. It uses technology to do fun things like gaming.

During childhood and adolescence, the Loenen latches onto the back of it’s parents.

However, the Loenen is known to leave the family group earlier than other creatures. Because of it’s adventurous behaviour, it doesn’t like to  stay in the same space for long unless if it has a child or something else.

At death it likes to return to it’s home to die there and to become one with the earth from which he came.

-by Samuel Hendrik Loenen, youngest son-

 

Segnis Joellum

An uncommon, and rarely seen inhabitant of the sprawling suburban ecosystem of Gouda. Segnis Joellum mainly subsists on a diet of information. Segnis Joellum specimen are frequently observed near a computer. This is so that it may access the World Wide Web in search of what it considers “interesting information.” This information usually falls in the categories of aerospace, history and random trivia.

Segnis Joellum usually stores this information, so that it may use this in the defense of its territory. This is done by starting conversations with invading creatures. These conversations will usually start out normal, but when the Segnis Joellum sees its chance. It will try to shift the conversation to one of the many pieces of random information which it may have accrued that day. This will usually result in the opposing creature dying of boredom.

-by Joel Jan Loenen, eldest son-

 

(The Loenen and Segnis Joellum at work.)

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Lockdown and writing with the boys

We were celebrating one of the younger cousin’s birthday, when the announcement went live.

We had been expecting it, of course.

“Well,” said the only other aunt who had showed up. “I suppose this will go down in family history as the Corona birthday party.”

We sat there, sipping our tea and coffee, while Ministers Slob and Bruins made the announcement. The room grew dark as twilight fell.

“A shame,” the other aunt said. “There was sun this morning.”

We made the appropriate sounds of assent and laughed at the sign language for hamsteren (hoarding).

Youngest son showed off a picture he’d made earlier in the day of empty supermarket shelves.

On tv the Minister says all pubs and cafes will be shutdown for at least three weeks; classes are suspended, and any gathering that includes more than your own immediate family is discouraged. And in particular, no visits to the elderly because they are the most vulnerable.

“That’s it then,” sister-in-law said. “So, I guess you should all go home.”

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I found myself thinking of absurdist movies and it may sound strange, but for a moment I couldn’t help but wonder if a director would jump out of somewhere shouting, “Cut”.

Of course, this didn’t happen.

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In the morning, my sons and I walk to the nearest supermarket. We’re out of bread and cheese, and we haven’t got a gigantic freezer or any kind of stockpile.

So, we walk because classes are suspended and I think children (regardless of age) need some sort of physical movement. I also believe that fresh air is good for you.

Already, the youngest son wants to know what’s on the programme for today.

I propose a short piano lesson.

“Not too long,” youngest son says. “Or else I won’t have time for anything else.”

Eldest son scoffs at youngest son’s declaration, but I promise that all we’ll do is learn the second phrase of Fur Elise.

“What about a short writing session in the afternoon?” I ask.

Both boys perk up and look interested.

“Is this going to be like the workshop you’re giving?” eldest son asks.

“Uh,” I look at youngest son. “I’ll have to adjust it a bit, but it might be fun.”

“Why not?” Eldest son says.

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Today we did two small writing exercises. Afterwards, I asked them if they would like to do this again tomorrow.

It looks like we will.

things I have been thinking about

I find myself thinking about spaces and the creation of spaces. I also find myself thinking about what it means to create space and to fill up a space.

I know there are lots of people who have thought about this before, and this is probably a thought that I keep returning to and which I will inevitably return to time and again. But still, I wanted to put my thoughts on the page, because I don’t want to forget them. Someday, I may return to this page and say to myself: look, you said that and so you must not forget about it.

Anyway, today’s train of thought was prompted by a question one of my students raised about the anxiety they feel when they start to write. I took some time before replying because I was very much reminded of the anxiety that paralysed me and kept me from writing or putting out any words for a very long time.

So today, I revisited Gloria Anzualda’s essay “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers”, and then I went and re-read Marjorie Evasco’s “The Other Voice: Reply to Anzualda”.  Reading these two letters helped me to think about what to say to my student.

I had to think about my own struggle with different kinds of anxiety. In the beginning, writing and setting my stories in the setting of mountain culture, felt uncomfortable. I worried about whether I would be seen as commodifying culture and history. What if the stories I wrote strengthened a stereotype? What if people got angry at me for writing in this way? What if I failed to live up to expectations? What if I made a mistake?

There also was a time when I was angry at my failure to be content to just be someone who took care of the kids, cooked the food, cleaned house, washed and ironed clothes, and tended to the needs of a husband. There was always this struggle to find time, to find enough energy, to carve out space, to make my voice heard, and at the same time raise my kids, help provide for familial needs, and be the ideal partner/wife/daughter-in-law. Let me tell you already that I often felt like I was failing in spades.

In the period after my husband died, after my sister died, after my father died,  I remember feeling stranded and bound by anxiety and fear. I was hobbled by trauma and grief and loss, and I thought that maybe I should just forget about writing.

But I think that writing, once it has taken hold of you, will not easily let you go.

I didn’t say all of these things to my student. (The above is about me and my student needs to know what will be helpful to them in their journey.)

Instead, I asked what it was that made them anxious about the writing. What is stopping you? and most importantly, what do you want to write about (not just aliens or other worlds, but the issues you want to tackle in your stories)?

Then, I told them about what it is that I do when I feel blocked.

These days, I find myself reading and rereading essays, books, fiction, nonfiction. I walk a lot and talk to myself out loud. I drink lots of tea. Eat chocolate on a regular basis, and I write as much as I can whenever I can in any form that feels right for the words that come to me.

I attached Gloria Anzualda’s essay and sent it off in the hope that Gloria’s words will inspire and encourage another young writer to keep on writing and making space.

(Saw this mushroom on one of the walks we talk sometime last year. Mushrooms are marvellous beings.)

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what it’s like to be working like this again

I thought I would write an entry about what it’s like to be working in this way again. To be engaged in science fiction work and to be leading an intensive 7 day science fiction writing workshop spread out during the course of one month and one week.

This blog feels like a natural place to dream out loud about the future I would like to see happen. ( It helps that I know this blog isn’t widely read. Also sometime ago I switched off comments due to anxiety issues).

I do want to maintain some sort of public record of my thoughts and process and also because there are so many people who have inspired me (and who continue to inspire me) and who have so generously shared their light with me on the journey.

I am grateful to Other Futures organizer, Brigitte van der Sande who triggered this reawakening and made me move out of the safety of hibernation into embracing a dream that I let fall from my hands when keeping things together took up all the strength I had.

I think back to things I’ve heard said and things I’ve learned in the past. How there is nothing to fear but fear itself and how sometimes we get paralysed because we don’t know how to go from where we are to where we want to go next because we get afraid.

I will admit that going through loss and heartache made me feel as if there was no way forward because each time I took a step forward something would happen to pull me backward; and then, I would find myself drowning again and walking through what felt like an endless tunnel.

There have been points of light that helped remind me to keep going.  There was the surprise of the Milford writer’s workshop bursary (someday I would love to go again), the first Other Futures Festival (where I was still somewhat in a daze). Small meetings with dear friends like Dean Alfar and Victor Ocampo. Emails from friends and fellow writers–the memory of a rainbow while going out on a walk with Liz and Kari when I was in Wales. Time spent with Nisi. Nalo’s hug. Surprise packages from friends and loved ones–all the small reminders that made me remember that time would come when I would have space, time and energy to dream of things other than the day to day.

I am still in the process of discovering what I want to do next  but I am glad for the pushing and the prompting that has shaken me out of hibernation. And extremely grateful for Brigitte’s counsel because she made me realise that I can do more than sell clothing in a clothing shop. (I will note here that while I mostly enjoy that, in the back of my mind I am aware that it is me running away from trying something more challenging.)

In conversation with a friend I love, I talked about a dream that I thought I had to let go of. Back then, I had been wanting to do more than just a one day workshop but couldn’t quite figure out how that would work.

As I said to my friend, what I would love to find out is if such a workshop can grow writers who represent the multi-cultural nature of current Dutch society and if such a workshop could raise up writers who are willing to tackle social issues and raise questions that lead to social change.

I am hoping that Envisioning Other Futures will lead to other such workshops because I believe it’s important to create spaces where writers and artists feel safe when talking about the issues they want to write about. I think it is in creating such spaces that we will see work being born that challenges existing systems; work that will lead to the kinds of change that we want to see. And to make this happen, we need to build relationships of trust and we need to work together. Stay in conversation. Listen. Think. Talk things through.

(Came across this while on a long walkabout with friends. And then I had to think of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s “The Mushroom at the End of the World”. A fascinating read.)

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an inspiring visit and our exquisite corpses

Yesterday was the fourth meeting of Envisioning Other Futures. A good part of our group caught some form of the flu and so attendance was down. Perhaps it was by chance but those present were the workshop participants who were born/raised in The Netherlands and who therefore speak/write/perform mostly in Dutch.

Roziena Salihu was with us yesterday evening as visiting lecturer and it was a real treat to have this wonderful and multi-talented artist in our midst. Roziena shared a film with us which was made for the VPRO programme Dorst. Fufu met Appelmoes which is also available on the VPRO’s YouTube channel, gives the viewer an intimate peek into what it’s like being mixed-race in The Netherlands.  The film is in Dutch, but it’s one that I would recommend as a must watch film not just because it connects on a lot of personal points with regards to the search for identity and belonging, but also because of the social issues and questions that arise from watching the film.

Roziena’s approach to her work and to the challenges that she encounters and faces provided us with lots of food for thought.  I am certain that a lot of what was spoken about around the table yesterday will find a place in the future work of these young writers.

To close the evening, we had a fun little game called “the exquisite corpse”. The resulting work evoked laughter and that sense of wonder which I believe is essential to writing science fiction.

(photo of collective work produced by Marielle, Storm, Anna, Germaine, Jasper and Yannick)

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Workshop update

Yesterday was the third day of the Envisioning Other Futures Writer’s Workshop. After an intense first two meetings with lots of in-class exercises, we had our first critique circle. For their first writing assignment, we created a shared world setting and I asked the writers to create stories/work in that setting. For me, it was important to see how far these writers are in their writing journey and also I wanted to know what else I could share with them. Given that they had less than a week to complete the first writing assignment, I found myself happily surprised by how many of the class made the effort and succeeded in completing a first draft. I am encouraged and delighted by the work the class is producing. In between, we talked briefly about the Dutch mindset and how this can stand in the way of allowing the self to come out and play and be imaginative and have fun.

In the afternoon, our first guest lecturer, Müge Yilmaz spoke to us about her work and process. It was such a joy to listen and to be inspired by her approach and her vision. Müge’s work is thought-provoking and inspiring and her talk reminded me of how artists and visionaries tap into streams of awareness that resonate with each other.

There’s a lot to think about and mull over.

I’m sharing a link to Müge’s website in the hopes that those who read this post will also be inspired by her work.

I want to write more about the workshop, the process and things I am discovering not just about my students, but about myself as well. The great thing about the workshop process is that as we share knowledge, we also grow in understanding. It isn’t a one-way street, it’s a process. I believe that to be an artist is to be constantly challenging oneself and to be constantly open to learning and to be constantly growing.

Envisioning Other Futures 2020

Tomorrow marks the start of Envisioning Other Futures, the Other Futures science fiction workshop.

Out of the applicants, we’ve selected 12 participants to take part in this first edition. It feels like a beginning, like a promise of things to come. I look forward to the workshop, to working together with, and to seeing what our participants will bring into the world.

The announcement with the names of the participants is here.

In preparation for this workshop, I’ve been digging back through my notes. Rereading Octavia Butler’s works–Furor Scribendi, Earthseed, Speech Sounds, Bloodchild.

Reading Octavia’s Earthseed, I find myself going back to that refrain:

All that you touch

You change.

All that you change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.

God

Is Change.

 

I’m holding onto these words and I am remembering.