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.

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.

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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Work in progress

I look back and realise it’s been about a year since I last wrote an entry here. It’s been a tumultuous couple of years and there are places in my memory that feel like black holes. I know I read books in the past couple of years, I just have a very vague recollection of them. I know I wrote some things, but I also don’t remember what. What I do know is that it’s taken time for us to reach stable ground as a family and it’s taken me time to reach a place where I can sit down  and find joy in the act of writing. It’s also taken me this long to be able to focus properly.

I know many people sent me emails and I know many emails went unanswered. It’s not because I didn’t read the emails, but more because I would start to answer and would run out of gas halfway. A lot of things happened like that not just to emails but to stories or essays I started work on.

Sometime last year, I got a message from the Milford writing workshop saying that I was being offered a bursary. After struggling with a number of things, I decided to accept the bursary and go to Milford. I wrote about the value of Milford and what receiving the bursary meant for me in a blogpost that’s now up at the Milford site. You can read the post here.

It’s pretty amazing to be writing everyday again. To be in the flow of a story that started with me pouring out my longing for my sister onto the page. I miss my sister every day. I miss the conversations and the arguments that we had. I even miss getting irritated and complaining about her being so set in her ways. Most of all, I miss knowing that no matter what, there was this one person in the world who knew me in and out and who would unrelentingly be always on my side.

The trigger scene for the opening of the current work in progress is one where my main character is crossing a bridge as part of a test. Her sister has vanished into a waypoint, but my main character refuses to believe her sister is no longer in this life. She believes she can still reach her sister. I’m sharing this snippet here.

Funny to think that I’m standing on this bridge when I was never the brave one. 

But I won’t give up. Not when I’d worked so hard. In my dreams, I speak to my sister. Spirit to spirit, heart to heart, just as we used to do when we were children lying next to each other in our room. I made her a promise and she made me one. 

When you’re ready, Apuyo, the commander says. 

Hold my hand, I whisper. 

Command has said that even though the pod emits a signal there is no proof of life.  Everyone’s given her up for dead; but I have seen no body, and no matter what command says, her spirit leads me on.  Strong and sure as when we were children in the mountains of Bughaw. 

I take a deep breath and put one foot in front of the other, my arms stretched out wide. My sister’s voice is in my ear telling me to take one step at a time. I keep my eyes fixed on the end goal and I walk forward believing she will catch me if I fall.

Process: approaching the work

Am I still a writer?

In the time that has passed, I’ve asked this question on and off. I’ve wondered why I can’t just sit down and make myself write.

Sometimes, just the thought of writing is enough to make me anxious. I sit down and look at the page and wonder if what I write will be good enough. Will I be able to say what I want to say? How did I write before the world changed? And why must the world start up and go at full speed while I am still dragging my heels and waiting?

The work summons me. It calls to me. My gut churns. I want to throw up.

I know the work is waiting and even if I try to cover it up, inside my head, the work is already taking shape. It is simply waiting for me to sit down and write.

But when I sit down, my attention is led away by other things.

My eldest son must be reminded of projects he must finish if he is to graduate this year. Youngest son must focus and finish his homework. Paperwork beckons. We must make a decision on our house. We must speak to the insurance people. We must speak with the builders about the damage the last storm inflicted on our roof. We must. . . .

There is no end to the list of tasks.

But the work beckons and cannot be ignored and so, I sit and look at what I have written and think of how I will go on from here.

I think of loneliness, of displacement, of the world becoming empty and bare and of how the landscape changes and how we change.

When does the stranger’s touch become the touch of a friend? When does a lover’s embrace become a shelter? When does the foreigner become part of the landscape? When does the stranger start to call the foreign country, home?

How do we get there?

How?

I think of the world in its sad state and of how easy it would be to give in to despair.

I think of life and of being in a state of change. I think of the gaps between the spaces.

I think of what it means to go out on a journey, of what it means to leave everything behind.

I sit down.

The writing isn’t perfect. As always, it is flawed.

When the world opens up

A remarkable thing happened to me this past weekend.

We spent the weekend with a group of Dutchy friends in an area close to where we had had our last family vacation together with Jan.

There is a process to grief and grieving and I suppose that I had become quite an adept in avoiding certain places or things that would remind me of the past and of loss. It may sound strange, but I think a lot of my coping process lay in avoiding the painful parts and focusing on the present.

So there we were, out on a walk in the countryside, and my eldest son suddenly says: Mom, isn’t this the place where we spent our last holiday?

That last holiday was memorable, not only because it was the last one, but also because we were staying at a really nice place with a lovely view of mountains and with a road going down to the river where the kids spent a number of afternoons wading or trying to make pebbles skip on the surface of the water.

That’s not possible, I said to my eldest son.

But even as I said the words, we rounded the bend and there was a familiar sight. The same road, we had argued over taking, the same road going up to the apartments where we had rented a room.

And just like that, I was in tears.

The great thing about Dutch people is how discrete they can be and how they will let you be alone with whatever it is you need to be alone with unless you ask for company to share that moment with you.

Later that day, in a conversation with another mother, the subject of my writing came up. It is very strange to talk about your work as a writer when you feel like you aren’t one anymore. But we talked about it and about her seven year old daughter who writes small interesting stories. She asked me how long I had been writing and I told her that I had dictated my first story to my mother when I was three or four years old. She told me about her daughter doing the same thing with her. And as we talked, I realised how good it felt to be able to encourage someone–to be able to encourage a possible young writer in the art of storytelling. (It was also very lovely to meet a Mom who was keen on encouraging their child’s creativity in this way.)

In that moment, I felt a shift in myself. I don’t know how to describe it, but on the trip back, I kept thinking of the word Alive.

I also thought of the conversation I had with one of Jan’s closest friends and of how he told me about the world narrowing down when his father died and how at a certain point, the world opened up again. Different, changed, but no longer a tunnel.

I am still quite astounded by it and so I had to write it here. To mark it in some way.

Pain and loss have marked us, but we are alive and the world has opened up. We are no longer in the tunnel. I am finally allowing myself to look forward with something more than just the will to survive and to make a life.

I started writing again over the weekend. It is still raw and unfinished, but it is honest and truthful and it is science fiction.

Where I am at and dear God, but living is painful

Liz Williams sent me a note asking me how I was doing. It came at a time when I was in the absolute pits, thinking there was really no point anymore and I just can’t do anything right, can I? That short note was like a jolt of lightning.

How can I think of giving up on life when I have been constantly lifted up these past two years?

There is a point—I don’t know what it is. Is it grief? Is it mourning? Is it guilt? I don’t know what it is, but there is a point when giving up seems like the only thing left to do.

Just let me lie down and wallow in my grief. Just go away and leave me to be miserable and lost and chaotic and forgotten. Don’t look at me because what has overcome me feels so terrible that it might touch you too.

I was like that.

For a while, I decided I wasn’t good for anyone…even for my children. I thought, if I can just make sure that my kids are in a stable and safe place, then it will be all right.

This moment of despair came in part because no matter how I tried, I just couldn’t write properly anymore. (Still can’t, btw.)

When I write, it seems my words keep turning back to sorrow. I cry. My body aches. I read the words and the words turn into tears.

That is what writing has been like for a good long while.

There is this thing about grief and loss. It’s okay to talk about it for a while, but as time passes, we start to tell ourselves this story—

“You’re grown up. You’re an adult. You’re a strong person. You can do this.”

I also started to tell myself this story:

“Your grief is so heavy and burdensome. You shouldn’t be a burden to others. You mustn’t burden those around you with your grief.“

And so, it goes like that. That story I kept telling myself.

I guess, we all need just that one person to make us face the truth of how much bullshit that story is.

Grief strikes anywhere at anytime. Sorrow has no respect for passing time.

So what if a year has passed or two years or five or even ten?

It doesn’t make loss insignificant.

Just because I still feel the pain of loss doesn’t mean I am no longer intent on living and just because I am intent on living doesn’t mean I no longer feel the pain.

*with apologies to Liz for mentioning her note without permission and for my failure to reply in any way at all.

Updatery and such

It still continues to be busy. In some ways, it’s busier than it was. In other ways, it’s a bit more quiet. I like that I get to have alone time when I can do whatever I like but the house has its demands and there are things that need to be done.

This past month, I finished working on an essay I’d promised Maurice Broaddus. I think of the encouragement that comes to me in emails, in publications (Magnifica Angelica Superable was published on Lightspeed this month), and in conversations had with beloved ones. It may sound strange but I feel like I am coming back from a long way away.

I think of Laura telling me how deaths of those close to us change us. I think of one of our friends telling me that when his father died, the world narrowed down and became somehow sharper. Different.

I think of what it’s like to fall in-between cracks and how there is that moment between losing someone and being alive when it feels like the left behind are hovering somewhere in a place like indefinite limbo while the world goes on.

It feels just right that I am reading a Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Intelligent Rodents with my youngest son. Youngest son can read the book all by himself, but we borrowed this book expressly to read together. A bedtime ritual where he listens and imagines while I try to make the story feel as real as possible with the reading of it.

There is death in this book. In the past two nights, two of the intelligent rodents have died. Pratchett doesn’t turn away from those deaths. Rather he lays it on the page, factual and clear. It happened. A rat died. We stand still for a moment, thinking on that death and then Pratchett moves us onward–the story continues. It’s not that the death doesn’t matter. It does, but life goes on and characters move forward and think about what happens next.

On some days, it’s a dilemma. How to make it so that a child doesn’t sink into the quagmire of sorrow and despair.

Tearing a book out of Pratchett’s page, I acknowledge my child’s sorrow. It’s sad and it’s a terrible thing, but tomorrow is a promise. Let’s think about what we want to do tomorrow. Where do you want to go? What do you want to see? What about next week? What about next month? What about next year?

I understand very well that grief doesn’t ever go away. That grief is not a neat and orderly process but it comes in waves and flags and sometimes at the most inconvenient and untidy of moments. It is as it is. There is no changing the reality. But we go on. We hang together. And then, I find myself thankful and glad that I can still be here for my children.

Process: Fire and Life and Story

Wrote 1647 words to the wip yesterday.

Worked on that story that I let lie for a long long time.

I am sitting at my writing desk–butt in chair, eyes to the screen. I plan to write and I plan to keep on writing.

I think of conversations had with friends about the writer’s life and the act of writing. I think of stories and I think of fire and I think of how what is twisted and cold and hateful will always try to kill what is warm and passionate and alive.

Fire and life.

I think of how we come to story from many different backgrounds. Half-scared out of our skins because to write story is to bare yourself to the world. It is to make yourself vulnerable and open to possible derision, to possible shaming, to possible rejection, to possible pain. And yet, we keep doing it. Again and again and again.

While sorting through the business of paperwork and thinking through how I should go on, I told the accountant who was helping me to deal with the finance side of stuff that I was working on my first novel. She smiled and told me that it’s a rare writer who is able to make a living off of their writing. I know this. I know this very well.

Still, I write.

I write because stories are life. They remind me of hope and joy and of the passion that is so vital to life. I know what it’s like to walk in this world carrying worlds inside my body–to have that feeling of knowing a place that is beyond the space my physical self occupies.

 

Story is a fire. It is my job to open the door, to make the fire so inviting that the reader can’t help but come in. It is my job to make the world I carry inside me become just as real to the reader as it is to me.

There is enough killing hatred in the world. There are enough people who populate the world with killing words and killing deeds.

Words have power. (Fantasy reminds us of this.)

I write to remember that the world is filled with infinite possibilities, that there is still hope, that we have the power to change, that we can change ourselves and the world around us.

Blow fire into your story.  Keep hold of your hope. Be contagious.