To VONA and all the writers, poets, artists that I can now call family – THANK YOU! Thank you for an amazing, insightful, life-changing week.
A very special thanks to:
- Evelina, for giving me the new tools in my arsenal.
- Junot, for showing me it’s okay to use ‘fuck’ as a comma.
- Staceyann, for telling me that it’s not my fault.
And to the heart of the week – to my fellow Team Galang divas! Thank you for the double-axels, 3rd violins, cold-cutty car rides, fellow fly girls, jam cookies, hella’s, and for coming from so far away to share your stories. Thank you for the laughs, the tears, the ‘drama’ and for making this experience one of the most illuminating of my life. Thank you for being the new “Voices” in my world and for putting on the best fucking performance in VONA history!
I just got back from the most powerful evening I think I’ll have at VONA. Tonight, the faculty had their readings at the Berkeley City College. A packed auditorium came out to listen to some very moving, funny, and uplifting work from the brilliant people we have guiding us this week.
The one standout for me was Staceyann Chin. I don’t know what words could possibly describe the sheer power and raw energy she brings to the stage, to the room, to your very core. Her line, “what happened to me was not my fault,” repeated over and over felt like a call to arms. It brought everyone to their feet. She’s fucking amazing and if you can see her perform live YOU. MUST. GO.
Our reading today was Jhumpa Lahiri‘s “Once in a Lifetime,” the first in her short story collection, “Unaccustomed Earth.” VONA likes to make people cry, and this reading was the first time I’ve actually bawled here (Staceyann’s reading was the second).
Once in a Lifetime
What Stood Out for Me
- The level of detail, from the sensory (the smell of lamb curry and pullao) to the mundane (bottles of Avon perfume in the bedroom).
- The story’s gradual building of tension and the one-two punch I didn’t see coming, but should have.
- Use of the 1st person 2nd address.
- Lahiri shows us the importance of knowing when to reveal information. Just because you know it doesn’t mean your reader has to yet.
- The story is a retrospective narrative. The choice of exposition is stronger because the narrator is looking back at past events and trying to understand them. If she wasn’t, the use of scene would be more effective.
- Is each sentence, detail, etc. I’m writing touching on my character’s want, need, or desire?
- For 1st drafts: Have I let myself go? It’s important to let go at this stage. Put everything down so you don’t have to relive these moments later.
- Subsequent drafts: Think of craft as you go through your drafts. Revise using the tools in your arsenal – look at POV, story arc, tension, exposition, scene, etc. Remember that at some point you have to detach yourself from your work.
I’m going to try to keep today’s post short because I gots homework due mañana!! Okay, honestly, I’m probably not going to work on it anymore tonight (def tomorrow AM), but I want to veg out to Otaku ASSEMBLE‘s Game of Thrones finale review.
Today’s highlights were a discussion of Bienvenido Santos’s “The Day the Dancer’s Came,” a publishing seminar by the faculty, and Team Galang bonding over pitchers of mango margaritas. I really need to get a camera ASAP so I can capture these fun and amazing moments!
The Day the Dancer’s Came
What Stood Out for Me
- Beautiful language – some of the paragraphs melted like butter.
- Unfulfilled character in search of some sort of connection or link back to who he was or wanted to be.
- Tension is what the character thinks vs. what the character is – reality vs. fantasy.
- No need to translate language – you can (and should) create it in context.
- Think outside of the traditional story structure when shaping your story.
- Do I need this scene? If I lay out my index cards and pull out a scene, does it change anything? If yes -> I need it. If no -> take it out.
- Pick a book and consider what is the “shape” of the story in that book.
- Who is my protagonist? What does she want? How/what am I going to throw at her to keep her from getting what she wants?
I’m ending tonight with just a sample of the memorable quotes from the publishing seminar. VONA is full of quotable quotes, and if I could record everything that comes out of these people’s mouths I would!
- What is “platform”? – on building one.
- You know, um, what’s her name, Tila Tequila? We have the same publisher. – on their varied tastes.
- The thing about art is that it can be a fucking movie and a dishwasher. – I think it was in response to poets trying to write sci-fi novels, or something like that…
Today was good. Real good. I had a few memorable moments courtesy of Team Galang, other VONA writers and the children sharing our Berkeley space.
It was humbling to hear that a fellow VONA writer with a publishing deal flew all the way from India to be here. It’s her first time in the U.S. and she is one of the most insightful readers I’ve ever met. It was equally humbling to read the first two pages of another VONA writer’s book this morning. Although it began with a strong image and some strong words, I felt he could be even more raw – he could up the ante (today’s lesson), even at the risk of offending or turning others off (creating dangerously).
It was also nice to have a real meal. I had an early Creole dinner with one of these writers, along with a much needed glass of wine – made coming back to middle and high school kids a lot easier. I can always count on the kids for a funny/cute/maybe-I-need-a-grown-up-makeover story. Tonight, a twelve year old shouted “What’s up?” to me in front of a posse of Bieber look-a-likes. When I ignored him, he followed up with, “Wow, damn, you won’t even look at me?” His teacher then told him to “Hey, pay attention!” I kinda wanted to laugh and disappear at the same time.
Anyhow, today’s discussion was amazing – we had tears, cameras, and promises of death. Maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as that sounds, but it was very enlightening. The assignment was Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s “At the Cafe Lovely,” which is available for free online and a great example of answering the question: What does the character want?
At the CafeLovely
What Stood Out for Me
- Narrator’s use of flash forwards to both push away and pull back the reader.
- Significance of death in triggering family decomposition and individual reclamation.
- Our answer to what the narrator wants is acceptance.
- Smaller teams discussed how each section in the story highlighted or “up-ed the ante” for the narrator’s desire to attain acceptance.
- There’s an emotional arch in the story. The writer nudges the reader towards the climax and there is a clear moment in the story in which we see the acceptance (the denouement).
- How can I use the literal for the metaphoric?
- What does my character want, and is this the same as what they think they want?
- How do I up the ante for my character? Am I addressing his or her need, want, or desire by progressing up and up?
- Is there an emotional arch? I am not beholden to a linear story.
- What is going to happen next?
As part of the residency with Evelina, we received reading assignments that we discuss as a group during lunch. Unlike the workshops, the residents do not critique each other’s work. Instead, we read the assignments and discuss relevant craft elements during our meetings. We meet with our instructor (in my case, Evelina) twice during the week to discuss our submission and receive an assignment to address specific issues in our work. We’re expected to write the rest of the time.
Today’s assignment was the first chapter in Edwidge Danticat’s “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.” I also had my first one-on-one with Evelina to discuss the chapters I submitted from the WIP. Below are highlights from Danticat’s moving essay and my one-on-one.
What Stood Out for Me
- Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously.
- Become a citizen of the country of your readers.
- A person’s creative work is a slow trek to rediscover the 2-3 images in whose presence our hearts first opened (Albert Camus).
- The immigrant artist wonders if life would have been simpler had we chosen passive careers (doctors, lawyers, engineers or whatever our parents wanted us to be). In other words, if we had been mere witnesses to life and death. Instead, we think we are people who risked not existing at all.
- Create the universal through the particular.
- Dare to offend.
- Bring your blood and guts to the table.
- It’s in the details. The details in your life create the character.
- You have a responsibility to your characters – give them the space to fuck up.
- Mythic Element: What is the story that haunts you as a writer?
- Creation Myth: Clash of life and death, homeland and exile. What is your creation myth?
- What is the conflict, and what does your character do to resolve it?
- Apparently I am non-committal. Whose story am I telling? Commit to your character(s).
- The reader craves tension. Staying close to real life limits your ability to explore the character and create the tension. Change up the facts to remove the restraints.
- Unlike law school, if a teacher asks a question here, it is not rhetorical – there is an answer and only I know what that answer is because I am the writer.
On a lighter note, I’m supposed to teach a belly dance class to the other writers on Wednesday from 7-8pm. At least that gives me something else to work on when I’m not writing.