Schatzberg

Summer break is over and we are getting back into the daily rhythm of things. During the break, we went hiking in Austria and regardless of my fear of heights, I managed to make the hike up to the peak of the mountain we were staying at. The hike goes up to 1900 meters above sea level and while there is a gravel road that winds around, we opted to take the paths that climb up through bush and forest growth. They might be a bit steeper when it comes to incline, but I’ve found that hiking through forest and bush is less energy consuming than taking the gravel roads. 1900 meters is a milestone for me as I only made it to 1200 meters when we attempted the climb last year. To be able to reach the top felt like such an accomplishment. I will admit that I had moments where looking down made me feel like I was about to leave my body.

It’s so weird to be having this fear when I grew up in the mountains. To be clear, climbing up mountains has never been the problem–it’s the getting down that has always been. I remember my elder sister getting quite exasperated because I would just sit at the top of the mountain trail leading down to school and crying until she came back up to hold my hand on the way down. Eventually, of course, one sort of decides to bury that fear and just make the journey downwards, but the fear never goes away. It lurks right there.

There was a brief moment during the downward climb when I did have a panic attack and just had to stop and breathe and allow the wave to wash over me. But it was okay. The world didn’t end. I could get up again after that and continue on the journey.

I think about the hike as I write this post and I think about art-making and storytelling and how when we are called to create, it sometimes feels like this giant mountain that we have to climb. Sometimes, the vision or the dream can feel huge and overwhelming if we think of word counts or scope or project descriptions.

There was this moment in the hike upward when the top felt unreachable–we were at that point where the top is just beyond your sight, but you’re almost there. I remember thinking: Okay, let’s just do this. Count ten steps. Just keep counting ten steps until you get there.

To you who are on the journey, don’t give up. Just keep counting steps until you get there.

The cross at the top of Schatzberg.

Starfish, trees and time

A lot of recent conversations have had me thinking a lot about time and about how the way we experience time is not the same for everyone. For instance, time for trees move quite slowly whereas time for humans moves very quickly.

I thought of sharing a gif of this time lapse clip of a starfish with fish as it expresses my thoughts on the difference in the how we experience time.

The starfish doesn’t seem to move when viewed in real time, but on the time lapse clip, the slow and small movements come into view while all around, fish dart about in quick motion.

I was talking about this today with my eldest son. About how time moves differently for everyone and how while we might like to think of time as moving at the same speed for everyone, it’s not like that for all beings. Perhaps, just as with the starfish gif, some of us may already be in the future while some of us are still sitting in the past or deliberating in the present. (This is of course very science fiction but I still want to hold that thought as I figure out stuff for the piece I’m working on.)

Basically, what I wanted to say was how while we are in the moment of living our lives, comparing ourselves to others is useless. Comparing our trajectory to another person’s trajectory isn’t productive or fruitful because time moves differently for everyone. As I said to my son, what’s important is to think about what you’re doing in this moment. Are you taking care of yourself? Are you nurturing your connections? Are you creating space for others? Are you thinking of what you are doing now in this moment?

Ultimately, our lives are our most important work of art. Whatever speed we move at is not as important as how we move in it.

Here’s an excerpt from the current work in progress:

“You’ll see,” Una said when Mahari had drawn closer. “Time unfolds differently for everyone, Mahari. You should understand this by now. After all, Iranira’s work called to you. You’re not here by accident but by design.”

“I don’t know about that,” Mahari said. “I’m not as gifted as you are.”

Una made a clacking sound and Mahari realised that the other cepha was laughing.

“What?” Mahari said. “You’ve got this amazing ability that no one else has. How am I supposed to compete?”

Una emitted more bubbles, the pattern on their skin shifting and changing as they gave themself over to amusement.

Mahari stopped and stared at the unusual sight. Like this Una was attractive. They were no longer plain skinned. Whorls of light seemed to ebb and flow all over their body.

“You children,” Una said when their composure was restored. “Oh, you children. It’s always the same with you youngsters. When will you understand that it’s not a competition?”

To you who are on the journey, never be afraid to dream.

( edited to add credits for the gif which was created by and belongs to Peter van der Post. Used with permission. )

Planet City

I’ve been dipping into the Fiber Reassemble Festival talks whenever I have had the chance. I’ve not always been able to attend as my working schedule and the schedule for the talks don’t always coincide, but I’ve been able to attend a few and the ones I’ve attended have given me lots of food for thought even as I think about the way I approach my own work.

Yesterday, Liam Young was one of the speakers and he shared with us this magnificent and inspiring project called Planet City. My mind was really and truly blown and I found myself chasing down the anthology/book that bears name of the Planet City project. I am looking forward to reading it.

The Planet City film is magnificent. I’m linking to an article about the project as the article includes a lot of the things Liam Young shared with the Fiber audience last night.

I thought of the approach to a project with this scope and how it requires collaboration between artists, makers, thinkers, scientists, all kind of people from different disciplines and how all of that collaboration manifests in a project that is visually enchanting as well as challenging and compelling in its narrative.

There’s a line from Liam’s talk that stays with me as it’s something I have been thinking about a lot lately. Liam talked about ‘Dismantling what we once knew to recast it in a new vision’. I’m thinking of this as I continue to work through the details of my next project.

Jeremy Kamal was the second speaker last night. I was lucky enough to attend his first talk during the FIBER festival when he shared MOJO with us. I was quite blown away by that work and so when the invite came for this talk, I was happy that I could attend once more.

One of the things Jeremy shared with us was the process he goes through when he works on a new project. I think of how we often forget about process and the journey an artist takes in order to present the recipient with a particular work.

I think process is important because many times we don’t know what we are moving towards, but we feel this compelling force pushing us towards something. What we discover as move towards that something becomes part of our vision or opens up our vision so we realise and recognise what we are moving toward.

I am learning all of these things and reminding myself to be patient even as I continue working on my strange novel. It’s evolved quite a bit, but I find myself returning to the work that still needs to be done with this feeling of anticipation. How will all these new learnings affect my own work? How is the process of creating new work changing me and the way I look at the world? What can I bring to the work that will make it richer and more rewarding not just for me but for the recipient? Most importantly, I want to bring that sense of wonder and anticipation into the work. These are the things I think about as I prepare to write.

To you who are engaged in the act of creation, may you be accompanied by joy as you continue on your journey.

rounding off the sessions and looking to the future

Summer break is upon us and so I rounded off the writing sessions with a promise that we would return to them once the summer holidays are over and the new school year begins.

Right before the break, I invited a group of kids (the youngest was 8, the oldest was 14) for a short writing session. I had initially done this to accommodate a request to include an 11 year old in the writing sessions but considering the age gap, I thought it would be better to try and see if we could gather together a group of younger kids and see what happens.

We did a one hour orientation session on zoom and I found myself quite inspired and mind-blown by the work the kids did in that short hour. For this session, I decided to conduct the class in Dutch. My reasoning being this: while the children are all bilingual, English is not an automatic second language for everyone. Also, as I said to the kids: we live in The Netherlands, you go to school in The Netherlands, and so everyone in the session understands Dutch.

I did provide the children with the option of writing either in Dutch or in English (whichever feels most comfortable). It surprised me to observe how kids switched between both languages, although there were at least two who opted to go for Dutch. After the class, I asked the kids if this was something they’d like to do again and to my surprise, they all said yes. (A part of me wishes I could read one or two more languages, so this might be my next personal project.)

I’m taking time to think and reflect through the lessons learned during the period when we were having the sessions. I’ve also purchased a number of books which I hope will help me as I move forward. One of the books I’ve recommended to my older youngsters is Kiini Ibura Salaam’s “Finding your Voice”. It’s a collection of essays that I recommend no matter where you are on the journey.

As the busy season is coming to a close (I’m rounding up sessions with another student tomorrow), I find myself reaching for works I’ve had on my reading list. I’m reading Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation and find myself in wonder. I have been nudging a very dear friend with text messages of: you should read this because this is just wonderful. I’m grateful to people who’ve pointed me in the direction of work done by thinkers I otherwise would not have known of. I’m eyeing another Glissant book on amazon, but will finish this one first or I might find myself switching from one to another without ever finishing anything.

Another book I recently purchased is The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Writing Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez. This book was recommended by Vida Cruz and so I look forward to reading it and absorbing it in preparation for the next season.

Reflecting on the past few months, I’ve been thinking of how developing a workshop is also part of process. I’ve been richly rewarded by the interactions had with the youngsters and as we continued along on the journey, I thought of this as us developing a practice together. We move from one stage to the next, learning more and more about our own process of creativity.

For the last session with the youngsters, I asked them to create visual images depicting their process. I asked them to use pen and paper instead of the computer. The resulting sharing was really fun.

We recognise each other in our process, how we become enthusiastic about an idea, proceed to work it out, think we suck, go back to working on the idea, procrastinate, work on it some more, and then at the end wonder if we made the right choices. It’s a recognisable cycle and we had a good laugh about that.

After the summer, I am planning a longer and more outlined trajectory of how to proceed from the point where we stopped. I know the kids enjoy the meetings. They tell me that they enjoy the writing too. But for the next trajectory, I want to incorporate a number of practices–to encourage the kids to embrace and try other disciplines as well. I believe that being multidisciplinary enriches the work.

I also think that something has changed in my perception of myself and my work. I’ve stopped thinking of myself as just a writer. I can’t explain it. Somehow, it feels like stepping outside a box into an unknown space where anything and everything is possible and while there is this sense of ‘I don’t know yet’, it also makes me feel lighter and joyful. Less burdened with a certain expectation.

To those who journey into the world, exploring what is new and unknown, embracing the act of creation, may you always see beyond the leaf.

(image copyright by PvanderP, used with permission. Purple flowers with sun and shadow and a butterfly perched on the bloom.)

what we need to stop doing to our stories

I was in conversation with one of my students yesterday when a realisation struck me.

I had just proposed that the two of us write down the things that we said to ourselves when we sat down to write, the negative thoughts that made us doubt our voices, those stanzas we say to ourselves when we have finished a work and are looking at it.

I said to my student: let me go ahead and read my list first, then you read yours.

As I read out my list, I could see my student smiling and nodding her head along. It turns out that our lists mirrored each other.

Our conversation then turned to the experience of not fitting in and how we sometimes feel compelled to adjust ourselves so we don’t stick out or are not too different. I found myself talking about how I’ve had to perform painful surgery on pieces I’ve written in order to make those pieces fit into the idea of what story should look like.

It was quite a stimulating conversation and I think it’s conversations like these that bring us to the point where we are no longer student and teacher or student and coach, but we are fellow writers and creative comrades standing on the same ground.

Anyway, one of the pieces I’ve been hesitant to send anywhere is a piece that I’ve considered tearing apart and ruthlessly dissecting so it will fit as a story except I somehow couldn’t bring myself to do that. It felt too painful. So, after sending it out once, I shelved it. In the back of my mind, I had this idea that maybe I would include it in a collection someday.

Then, yesterday’s conversation with my student happened and I realised why I was reluctant to tear this piece apart. I realised that it was because that was exactly what the piece was all about. It was about the pain of having to commit a sort of plastic surgery in order for it to be seen as beautiful.

My student and I came to this conclusion, that while we may have our ideas of how stories should work, it’s important to listen first and to understand where the artist or writer is coming from. What’s your vision for your work? Are you asking me to read because you want to change something? Is there something in this piece you’re not satisfied with? Or are you asking me to read because you’re uncertain and need to hear that your vision is beautiful and you need to trust your voice more?

These are questions that I’ve asked of my students. Listening to them express what they want to say and how they struggle to say it has often been more than enough to make them realise that they can actually do this. They can write what they want to say. Sometimes, all they need is someone who will listen.

At the close of our meeting, I asked my student to join me in adding a line to the list of negative things we say to ourselves. Together we wrote: Even so, still I will write.

Trust your voice. Keep writing.

some ambitious dreaming

I’ve been working on our project proposal for the dreaming sessions which would lead to more writing sessions. This is a project that’s flowed forth from a dream I shared with one of my friends sometime before Covid sent us all into lockdown. At that time, I didn’t see how to make that dream become something real. I just didn’t know how to at that time because I was emerging from having retreated away from the world and was just moving tentatively towards engaging with the world again.

So I told this friend who is also a dreamer like me, about my desire to create something inviting for BIPOC writers, thinkers and creatives. I didn’t know what form it would take, but during the pandemic period, when I realised how dreaming was essential to youngsters, I started the writing sessions. When my fellow visionary got back in touch with me, I had already worked out some of the things I wanted to do with a face to face version of the writing sessions.

As I work on the draft for this project, I think about my own history with dreaming and the written word.

My love for writing started long ago, when I was little girl in the mountains who had run out of books to read. Before I thought of writing stories for myself, I remember lying in bed next to my sister long after lights out. I remember the stories we spun for each other in the dark. I remember holding hands when our stories got scary, and falling asleep when they got a bit boring, and dreaming on inside my mind long after my sister had fallen asleep.

Books were magical things created by people far far beyond my line of sight. When I was a child, I didn’t know it was possible for someone like me to one day have stories included in books.

I think of those whose names I don’t yet know–those who I will meet on this journey. I think of those who dream and who are scared to reach out for the pen, I think of the numerous stories, the numerous words, the recollections and the dreaming that are waiting to be brought into the world. I want to say: I can’t wait to meet you. I can’t wait to read your work.

Preparing for the next session

I’m doing very small forays onto twitter these days. Just very brief jumps in and out to see if there are interesting articles or links being shared. If friends have sent messages, I also want to at least send a quick reply.

This morning, I checked in and saw this link shared by Anna Sulan Masing. (Click on her name to visit her website) As I read the linked article, I realised that I’ve missed out on a lot of conversations in the years that I was off the internets. (It was needful for me and my boys and I didn’t have the spoons or the headspace for anything else other than survival for a while.) I found myself clicking and following some threads and so I now have lots to think about as I reflect on my workshop/dreaming practice.

The thing is, I’m less and less inclined to think of what we’re doing as workshopping. As I said to the kids, we are fellow travellers on a journey where I am simply an older person who might have more experience in a certain craft but it doesn’t mean I’m the authority. Because, as I tell the kids in the writing sessions, we are learning together. So, I hope I can inspire and encourage them to continue to dream on the page just as they inspire me to keep on doing the work that I do.

I like calling our meetings writing sessions instead of writing workshops because sessions reminds me of jam sessions where musicians meet and jam together. Maybe we riff off of each other’s work, maybe we borrow a note and improvise from there, but it’s still jamming.

Moving forward on that energy, I thought of how the language and the landscape around the writing sessions would ideally be shaped by the youngsters and the writers who create and share their art in those spaces. This is still a work in progress and so I am also eager to learn from others who are farther along and who have engaged different ways of doing or sharing craft with fellow artists.

There was a funny moment when my high school son (who refuses to leave the sessions even if he claims he can’t write) asked if it would be okay to use swear words in a story. This resulted in a lively discussion in which we agreed that profanity is allowed, but not if it offends or hurts anyone in the group. I love these kids. They’re kind and open with each other and they have clear sight. I’m honoured to be included and to accompany them on a part of their journey.

I’m thinking of what to do next as we move forward. Do we stay with the seeing practice for a while? What step do we take next? I’m still undecided, but I feel certain that further reflection on process will reveal that step to me. More importantly, I want to make sure that I don’t impose a voice on these young people. It’s important to me that they discover their own sound, that they learn to trust in that sound and be true to their selves when they are writing.

Working on the writing sessions

Life is moving swiftly these days and it’s good to be working again and to be writing at a steady pace as well. I’ve decided to start a new trajectory for the kids who are joining in on the discord writing sessions, moving towards helping the kids think about projects they want to work on or stories they might want to write and how best to help them achieve that.

The project that a friend and I have pitched has been approved and we hope to start working on promoting and inviting participants soon. I think that one of the things we’ll have to do is specifically go and invite potential participants actively. My hope is that in actively inviting, we create a sense of welcome. Bringing potential participants across the threshold to where they say: Okay, I’ll give this a try, is a first step.

My primary focus in the upcoming sessions is the participant. What do participants want to achieve? What stories do they want to tell? To me, it’s important to meet participants where they are in their journey. To give them freedom to connect with the sound of their own voice and the strength of their own stories. In this, I feel it’s important to share the works of writers of colour, to reconnect with musical forms that come from personal history or culture, to think about the forms we use in our own settings and to make those the building blocks on which we tell our stories. To invite participants to play and just have fun in whatever language feels most connected to their inner self. I feel this is where I would like to start as I’ve discovered that often that reconnection with the inner voice brings about a sense of wonder, the realisation that a certain power and magic exists in letting that inner voice come out. To my mind, the technical details of craft, while being necessary are of lesser importance than that discovery.

More and more, I find that colouring inside the lines–adhering to imposed structure and imposed ways of telling story ‘correctly’ (what does that even mean?) limits imagination and sense of joy and wonder. When we move outside of those lines, when we explore and have fun, then magic unfolds.

I think it’s important to emphasise that BIPOC writers write and create because we enjoy it and because we are curious and playful. Imagining and creating our own worlds and spaces bring us joy and hope and helps us work through things we wrestle with. I translate this as freedom to explore structures and other forms of tellings that live outside of the west or the establishment’s experience. It’s also a journey of exploration for me and as with all journeys, there is an element of trepidation. More than that though, there’s excitement and joy.

Looking at where I started with this post, I find myself thinking about jam sessions and improvisation and how it’s when we aren’t worried about ‘what if I play the wrong note’ that the most wonderful things come into being. One of them being: the joy of shared laughter and then the excitement of seeing what we can do with unintended disharmony.

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.