Friday, January 29, 2016

My Thoughts About Writing, Revising, and Finding Your Genre

One of my guided writing mentees recently sent me a list of terrific interview questions, and she gave me permission to share them, and my answers, with you! I hope these thoughts might be useful or motivating. I would love to hear your comments and answers to these questions below! 

You can also read my thoughts on teaching creative writing here.

My writing desk

When you are writing, do you think about the age differences of your readers? If so, do you have to change anything to make it more age appropriate? 

Usually, I do not think about the age differences of my readers when I am writing the first draft of my story. I prefer to let the story flow out of me as it feels most natural, and not to think too much about ANYBODY reading it -- that sometimes causes me to worry and freeze up and get writers' block. Revising is when I think about my intended audience and the possible ages of my readers. Since I do not write horror or crime novels, I have never really had to worry about inappropriate violence or anything like that. In my latest novel, I did go back through and scale back some of the adult language and sexuality, since the book is intended for a teenage audience.

Was there a teacher in the past that inspired/pushed you to write, or did writing just come naturally? 

I have been fortunate to have many wonderful teachers who have been SO supportive of my writing over the years! I would say my answer to your question is both -- I was inspired by teachers, AND writing came naturally to me. It’s funny, but looking back it’s difficult for me to remember a time before I loved to write! I learned to read when I was four years old, and I gobbled up books. Like many kids, I made up stories; I was compelled to write my stories down. I think this was largely due to my dad being a writer. Every night, my parents would read me bedtime stories, and every morning I would come downstairs and see my dad writing. As a result, I was very aware that someone had written the books I so loved to read. And I decided that I wanted to be someone who writes books for other people to enjoy.

My dad remains the first person who reads my work. His feedback and encouragement are invaluable. I remember when I was little, he would let me type out stories on his computer once he had filed his column for the day -- how special that was! Also, when I was in the first and second grade I was lucky to have an amazing teacher, Diane Sather, who encouraged my love for writing. I remember she had me read one of my stories to the class. I got such a burst of joy from sharing what I had written with others. It never crossed my mind to just write for myself.

How long does it usually take for you to revise your writing or do you just write it and send it off? 

I ALWAYS revise my writing! I think writing without revising would be like trying to play a sport with your shoes untied. You should use every tool in your writers toolbox to make your writing the best it can be! I like to set aside my rough drafts for a few weeks or even a month, so then I can come back and read it with "fresh eyes" and an open perspective. Often I immediately find changes I wish to make, on the word level and on the bigger plot level -- phrasing that sounds awkward, scenes that need to be further developed, actions that don't make much sense. And just one round of revision is never enough. For example, with my most recent novel, I revised it at least seven or eight times -- all 300 pages! -- and it morphed into a whole new book compared to the rough draft. I spent about one year writing the first draft and two years revising it. Sometimes writers start off not liking the revision process very much, but revising has become something I truly enjoy! It is your chance to make your work better and better, to see the world and characters really come alive. I think rough drafts are when you (or, I should say, when I, because all writers are different and I am just drawing from my own experience) sketch out my ideas with rough lines, and the revising process is when everything gets filled in and becomes real.

Do you write in more than one genre? 

Yes, I write both fiction and nonfiction. I would say my "home genre" (where I feel most comfortable and gravitate to most often) is realistic fiction, and more specifically YA realistic fiction. I write short stories for adults as well, and sometimes my fiction crosses over into the magical/fantastical realm. For nonfiction, I most often write short essays about personal experiences I have had, and I also write journalistic articles for magazines and websites. This might entail interviewing people and doing research, which can be a fun break from exploring my own mind and thoughts. When I was younger, I used to write poetry, but I do not write in that genre much anymore.

How did you discover what genre you are best at writing? 

Hmmm... good question! I'm not exactly sure how I knew what I was "best" at writing; I think I simply focused on what genre I enjoyed the most and felt most natural to me. I wrote in that genre the most, and the more you write, the better you become! I also think each idea you have or project you embark on has its own form and genre that feels most natural to the idea itself. For example, sometimes I do not realize I am writing a fantasy story until something magical enters the page -- and it feels like a surprise to me as much as to the reader, but it also feels RIGHT, like it just fits, and I realize that story wants to be magical/fantasy. I just need to listen to the genre of each project instead of trying to force it into a box of my own design. One final thing I would say about this is not to worry about forcing YOURSELF into a "genre box" either -- you are free to write in all different genres and all varieties of projects! Write what you feel excited and passionate about. That is the most important thing.

Do you enjoy teaching other people how to write? 

Oh, yes! It is one of my favorite things. I especially enjoy teaching writing camp and working with talented young writers like you who have a passion for writing and really love writing to begin with. That is my favorite environment to teach in. I have also taught writing to students (for example, as a guest speaker/teacher, a private tutor, and a college writing instructor at Purdue University) who don't really care about writing or want to write. In that arena, my goal as a teacher is to help them see the profound importance of writing and how becoming a better communicator will help them in any field they choose to go into. With all my students, my ultimate aim is to increase their confidence and joy as writers. Teaching writing helps me remember the magic and wonder of the creative process, and my students often inspire me with their enthusiasm and hard work! Also, teaching keeps me honest with my own writing practices. If I am telling students to find at least fifteen minutes to write every day, then I had better be practicing the same advice myself and writing every day, too! :)

Monday, January 11, 2016

Opening Your Eyes to the Newness in the Familiar

"Hey, can we go for a walk now? I'm ready!"

One thing I love about going home for the holidays to visit my parents is that it feels, in a way, like I get to briefly remove myself from time. Many things about my usual routine are shaken up in the best way possible. Instead of feeling pressured by my typical to-do list and errands, I woke up in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by cozy and comforting knick-knacks. Instead of driving around town to tutor students in the afternoons, I lounged on the couch with a thick novel, chatted with my parents, and visited my grandfather who lives down the street. I helped my mother cook dinner, played board games with my brother, went out to the downtown Irish pub with my dad, and met up with old friends at the local coffee shop we used to frequent in high school. I spent time reflecting on the year that had passed, and dreaming about the year to come.

Perhaps my favorite “vacation routine” when I am home visiting my parents is taking our boxer dog Murray for his morning and evening walks around the neighborhood. Every day we would walk the same loop, yet every day I would notice new, startling details:
  • A small bird strutting jauntily across the street, like a band leader in a parade.
  • Sprinklers watering a front yard of dead grass.
  • A toddler shrieking with glee, running in circles in a driveway as her mother watched with a tired smile, raising a hand to us in greeting as we walked by.
  • Bushes laden with bright red berries.
  • A father and son playing catch in the park.

So many rich and beautiful details that it would be so easy to miss, if you were not paying attention and looking for them. And indeed, we would pass many other morning walkers on their phones or listening to music, rushing ahead with a glazed look in their eyes.

Meanwhile, every single day, Murray exuberantly sniffed at plants and lampposts and studied the sidewalk like it was a brand-new territory to explore -- even though it was the exact same path he had taken the day before, and the month before that, and the year before that. Perhaps he is on to what it means to be a writer: mining the same inner territory, day after day after day, for new sparks of joy and wonder.

Now, when I feel creatively blocked or when I am out of ideas or when the writing just doesn't seem to be going anywhere fruitful, I think of Murray's excited daily exploration. He is a reminder for me that being a writer is not so much about coming up with some totally new, never-before-seen-or-done IDEA. Rather, I like to follow acclaimed author Pam Houston's advice (from a wonderful talk I was fortunate to attend at a writers conference) and think of myself more as an observer, seeking out the extraordinary in the ordinary.


As Lera Auerbach writes in her wise, magical book of aphorisms and musings Excess of Being: "These thoughts have occurred to many people and for a very long time. I just happened to write them down."

Here's to a sparkling new year filled with open eyes, even -- perhaps most importantly -- in our familiar, everyday surroundings and routines. Here's to being world-class observers. Here's to writing it down.

And, Murray would like to add: here's to lots and lots and walks.

All tuckered out after a long walk.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Unlock Creative Potential by Asking, "What If...?"

Last month, the new Broadway musical If/Then came to San Francisco, and one Sunday afternoon my boyfriend and I took the BART train into the city to see it. Legendary vocal powerhouse Idina Menzel is the star of the show, which in itself was enough to convince us to buy tickets—but I was also intrigued by the premise of the story.

The central question that winds its way throughout the entirety of If/Then is “What if…?” The musical explores the two divergent paths a woman’s life might take based on a single decision made at the show’s beginning: whether she goes to a concert with one friend, or to a political demonstration with a different friend. It might seem like a small decision, and yet the two paths veering off from this one everyday, spur-of-the-moment choice lead her in altogether different life directions.

In real life, of course, we have of way of knowing “what if…?” We make our choices, and life takes us where it will. We deal with the consequences of our actions, large and small, the good and the bad.

However, this question of “what if…?” is something that drives me as a writer. Numerous story ideas have been sparked to life when I observe something in the world around me and ask myself, “What if..?” Another version of this question is, “What would it be like to be that person, to go through that experience, to feel those emotions, to live that life?” Asking the question, “What if…?” unlocks our imaginations, and thus also fuels our empathy and understanding for others. And that, I believe, is the central purpose of reading, writing, and creating art: fostering empathy and connection among human beings past, present and future.

By asking, “What if…?” you can also spur your creativity by challenging yourself to stretch as a writer and try something new. For example, asking myself, “What if I tried telling a story in reverse chronology, from the end to the beginning?” sparked an idea for the unique braided-narrative structure of my latest novel.

In the beautiful and thought-provoking book a picture is worth... (Arch Street Press) young people tell their own stories in their own words. Woven into their narratives is the implicit question, "What if...?" Their futures are wide-open roads brimming with possibility. You can feel the energy behind this "What if?" question when reading this book. As the young writers reflect insightfully and powerfully on their past experiences, we can't help but wonder -- with hope and excitement -- what is next for each of these brave, strong young people.

I loved this chapter epigraph midway through the book, a quote by Paulo Freire:

"For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other." 
In other words: "What if...?" Let us all continue to ask and dream and create with this question guiding us through our imaginative lives.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What a Hay-Bale Labyrinth Taught Me About Writing

Shortly before Halloween, my boyfriend and I went to Arata Pumpkin Farm in Half Moon Bay, California, to pick out our pumpkins. Arata’s is a famous autumn spot in the Bay Area, and not just for pumpkin selection -- every year, they build a maze attraction out of hay bales. This year, the design was a labyrinth. Believe me, folks, this was not a kiddie maze. This thing was enormous!

Still, before we ventured inside, I was not too concerned. “I bet this will take us half an hour, tops,” I remember thinking as I watched an exuberant group of pre-teen girls run out of the maze’s exit, cheering their success for all to hear.

Not only did the hay-bale labyrinth take us much longer to complete than I expected (and there were moments of despair when I thought we might never make it out!) the experience also illuminated a great deal of truth about being a writer.

Here are the lessons I learned:

1. Often, the best way to start is simply to plunge in. The entrance to the labyrinth is intimidating: a huge minotaur greets you with his battle ax at the ready. Starting a writing project can be similarly daunting. Whether you are preparing to write a short story, essay or poem, or preparing to tackle a longer work like a novel, play or memoir, the blank page can be frightening.

The best strategy I have found is to simply begin. Push past the self-doubt and let your fingers scurry across your computer keys; pick an opening in the maze, scurry past the imposing minotaur, and off you go!

2. There is no map. Before entering the maze, we climbed a staircase outside the entrance to look out over the entire labyrinth, hoping to get an advantage -- to plan our route. But the vantage point was not much help. We could not memorize the proper route to take, and although we could make a general plan, we had to dive in and discover through trial-and-error how to make it through to the end of the labyrinth.

The same is true for writing, or any creative pursuit. You can plan up to a point, but then you must dive in and try it out for yourself. There is no map you are given; you must create the map yourself.

3. Discouragement is not only normal, it is inevitable. There were times when it seemed like we were just wandering in fruitless loops through the maze, retracing our steps over and over again, and discovering a new path through the intricate labyrinth felt impossibly out of reach. I wondered if we would ever find our way out!

In her luminous book of aphorisms Excess of Being from Arch Street Press, artist Lera Auerbach muses:
"An artist's
to eternity
requires a fee
in disappointment."

Yes, we all inevitably face disappointment, rejection, confusion, and discouragement. That is a part of life. But only by persevering through the maze can we attain new successes and joyful discoveries!

4. Feeling challenged is a good sign because it means you are pushing yourself to grow. I had never attempted to make my way through a labyrinth before, so the whole experience was new to me. This made it more difficult, because not only did I not know what to expect, I did not know what to look for. Nor did I have the experience to trust in myself and my knowledge. All the same, undertaking this new challenge pushed me to go with my instincts. It made me grow.

The same is true for writing. It would be easy to write the same stories over and over again. Growing as an artist means trying new things and risking failure. As Lera Auerbach writes:
"I love
what I do
but it's not mutual."

It might not always feel like our art "loves us back" but often that feeling is simply growing pains!

5. Struggle makes the elation of success that much sweeter. When we finally made it out of the hay-bale maze, I felt full-to-bursting with pride. Because the challenge was so difficult, when we finally succeeded, it meant so much. If we had flown through the maze without a hitch in ten minutes, the thrill of success would have been minimal.

The same is true for writing. This is something I must remind myself over and over again, every time I face discouragement or rejection. For example, there is a wonderful literary magazine I have admired and submitted my work to for years. Years! And I received nothing but rejection letters. Still, I kept submitting. Last week, I received an acceptance letter from them! I started crying, I was so overjoyed. The success was made sweeter because of the years of struggle.

"Being passionate about your work is 80% of success, but that passion must be sustained over a lifetime. Otherwise it's just an infatuation." - Lera Auerbach, Excess of Being

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Our Collective Humanity in the Individual Details of Our Lives

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a friend. We email back and forth frequently, to stay in touch and up-to-date on each other’s lives. This friend was trekking through a problem at work, and wrote a very insightful explanation of the issue: what he was struggling with, why this was difficult for him, and the potential solutions he planned to employ.

In my email response, I mentioned how impressed I was with the way he put his feelings and motives into words. I think many people would be able to relate to this, I wrote.

I was surprised when he dismissed my compliment. Oh, he replied, it wasn’t meant for other people. I was just writing about myself. He seemed to think that, because he was telling a story about his own life, his thoughts, feelings, ideas and insights would not be resonant or relatable for other people.

To me, this could not be further from the truth! Details from our own individual lives are, I believe, where we find our collective humanity. However, I think many, many of us fall into the same trap of self-dismissal as my friend did, at one time or another.

As a fiction writer, I have learned a counterintuitive principle: if you want readers to care about your characters, you might think to make your characters “everyone”—more vague, and less clearly defined, so that everyone can relate to them. But instead, the exact opposite holds true. The more detailed you are about specific, unique experiences, the more readers see themselves reflected in your characters. It is the stories that connect us; stories that make us care. As Joseph Campbell writes in his book The Power of Myth, stories have the unique purpose of passing down myths through the generations. There are common themes found in stories, from all societies, races, religions, time periods—threads that link us together as human beings.
In Lera Auerbach’s luminous book Excess of Being, published by Arch Street Press, this idea of details connecting us and getting to the heart of our common humanity is illuminated beautifully through her finely wrought prose. A Russian-American artist, this is Auerbach's first book in English, and she uses aphorisms to tell her story and examine her life. I found myself wanting to underline nearly every line on each page; this is a book bursting at the seams with honest beauty and wisdom. I found hope even in Auerbach's moments of darkness and irony, because I saw myself and my own experiences--my doubts, my fears, my frustrations--reflected in hers.

Not a single word is wasted. This is a book that begs to be read slowly, savored, and read again.

Here are some of my favorite aphorisms from Excess of Being:

"If you have a flaw -- make it part of your legacy."

"Music happens within. A performer allows others to hear what is already sounding."

I listen to the other silence--
the one that wells up
from within.
Finally, I'm listening."

Back to my friend. Oh, he had written, it wasn’t meant for other people. I was just writing about myself.

I replied to him that writing about yourself, and for yourself, is the best kind of writing. Writing about something that matters to you or helps you in some way ensures that it will matter to someone else and help someone else.

Monday, October 5, 2015

5 Steps to Organize Your Workplace

Guest Post by Emily Johnson 

The writing process needs both research and creativity. While finding a good idea for your masterpiece takes a considerable amount of time, you may notice that writing, editing, and proofreading can also be labor-intensive. It means a good writer needs to stay focused.

Answer these three questions:
• Do you want to stay productive?
• Do you need inspiration?
• Do you have a back pain?

If the answer to one of these questions is yes, you need to pay attention to your workplace. 

Workplace organization is more than just cleaning up your writing place. It is the art of proper decoration and renovation. As soon as your workplace is well-organized, you'll see your productivity growth.

When it comes to workplace organization, people crave for actionable examples. Being inspired by this infographic about writing cabinet organization, we've prepared a list of steps every person should take to organize a perfect workplace.

1. Get rid of extra stuff. If your table is clean, nothing distracts you.

2. Upgrade your gadgets. Optimize your working process with the help of up-to-date gadgets.

3. Demarcate two zones. Your workplace should have two zones: computer and non-computer ones.

4. Hang a picture. Find something that can inspire you: paintings, quotes, or books.

5. Buy a comfortable chair. Your office chair should support the lower back as well as promote a good posture.

One way to stay productive at home is to organize your workplace. These steps are easy to take, so don't hesitate to create a perfect writing environment around you.

ways to organize your writing cabinet

Bio: Emily Johnson is a blogger behind OmniPapers, a website about writing life of students and everyone who creates content for the Web.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Playful Imagining: My First Time Doing Improv Comedy

“You’re second cousins,” the instructor said, pointing definitively at me and at Kelsey, a young woman I had just met twenty minutes earlier. The rest of the class backed away into an audience, leaving Kelsey and I alone together on our makeshift stage. “And you’re waiting in a loooong line for a roller coaster. Go!”

Kelsey sighed and began tapping her foot, glancing at her imaginary watch. “How much longer is this line?” she whined.

I took her lead and impatiently crossed my arms—and my legs. “I have no idea,” I said. “All I know is, I reaaaaally have to pee.” The rest of the class laughed, and I felt encouraged. I had acted out a character, in a spur-of-the-moment situation, and made them laugh!

I never would have thought I would take part in an Improv Comedy class. I love watching comedy and live theater, and in college my roommates and I would go to Improv shows nearly every Friday night at a coffee-shop on campus. But getting up onstage myself? No, thanks! My stomach knotted up just thinking about it.

Then one day, my boyfriend asked if I would like to attend a beginner’s Improv class with him. I was scared, but it seemed like the kind of scared that begs to be challenged. Plus, with my boyfriend by my side, I feel like Superwoman. I could do anything! Even Improv! I told him it sounded like a fun date night idea and to sign me up.

As the date of the class approached, I grew more and more apprehensive. While I enjoy public speaking, I do not consider myself to be an actress. And while I love writing about characters outside myself, actually personifying other people and characters does not come easily to me. I also like a sense of control. I was especially intimidated by the "not-knowing" aspect of Improv. What if I can't think of any good ideas? What if I have a mind-freeze? What if I ruin the scene and let down my partner?

When we arrived at the studio where the class would be held, I made an intentional decision. You might call it a promise to myself. I consciously pushed these worries aside and focused my energies on having fun and soaking up a new adventure.

In the book Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul (Arch Street Press), David Castro writes: “In normal usage the word playful signifies frolic and humor, and suggests a context of recreation. Genership, however, focuses on a particular definition of the verb to play: to move or function freely within prescribed limits. Within genership and CoVisioning, the word playful conveys commitment to free experimentation and movement, in the sense that someone might play with a control panel or software package to learn how it works and discover its full potential.”

This is Improv at its essence: moving and functioning freely within the prescribed limits of the scene. Only when you allow yourself to be free within the parameters of the situation you have been given, do the ideas begin to flow into your mind.

Castro continues: “To play and be playful in this sense means to explore and exploit a situation’s full potential. … Genership promotes enthusiastic playfulness, whereas the leadership paradigm tends to restrict it. … To play a game is to enter into it and explore everything that can happen within its environment as we move and manipulate its features. The opposite of a playful orientation is one that sees the world as given and something with which we should not interfere. When someone tells us, 'Don't play with that!' what he admonishes is Don’t touch it, don’t manipulate it, let it be only as you find it. A critical part of the creative orientation required for genership is to explore the environment together, testing the application of the will to all parts of it in a playful way—manipulating, risking and examining what happens when we attempt to make changes.”

In class, we learned that the first rule of Improv is never to say, “No.” Instead, when discovering a scene with your partner, you always say, “Yes, and…” This is what allows the scene to grow and expand and gain life, rather than stagnate and die on the vine. Yes, and. Exploring, manipulating, creating. Why is this group co-creation so important?

In Genership, Castro explains, “Playing together in groups expands our ability to explore the potential environment for change. One person playing alone can only apply his personal thinking and activities. A team of people creates the opportunity to apply a spectrum of ideas and abilities to the world, yielding infinitely greater potential for change.”

Improv class ended up being one of the best date nights my boyfriend and I have ever shared. I loved seeing him jump into a new endeavor, just as I could tell he was delighted each time I raised my hand to volunteer and bounded onstage. The wonderful instructor created an environment of energy and creativity in the class, and people were very supportive of each other.

To be sure, I was definitely a little nervous and uncomfortable the entire time… but, you know what? It was exhilarating to get up in front of people and act out a zany scene on the fly. It made me feel proud of myself. Indeed, I ripped off the label I had always put on myself as "someone who could never do Improv." Now that label is gone. In fact, my sweetie and I are already talking about going back to Improv class again soon!