Tag: Writing

It’s Okay if You Missed the Beginning of NaNoWriMo

giphyIt’s that time of year again, folks — National Novel Writing Month! Of course, I didn’t remember this fact until today with a third of November already underway. Pretty standard for me though if I’m being honest.

For those who are unfamiliar with National Novel Writing Month, more commonly referred to as NaNoWriMo, this is an annual event held during the month of November that encourages creative writers to complete a 50,000-word manuscript in exactly 30 days, the equivalent of 1,667 words per day.

Now is when I confess to you that I have never participated in NaNoWriMo in any official capacity. The organization website has determined rules, deadlines, achievement badges, and so on. I merely adopted the concept some years ago and have since adapted it for my own creative purposes. However, if you struggle to write everyday and need that extra level of accountability, it may be useful to register with the site.

I tend to personalize my restrictions for the month of November around my desired goals with realistic expectations. As a full-time editor and part-time poet, it is not always feasible for me to write an extra 1,667 words per day. Sometimes I come home late too mentally exhausted to do anything other than stare into the abyss that is Netflix. Sometimes my partner wants to spend quality time with me and talk about the day. Sometimes I have to make dinner or go to roller derby practice or run out to the store or walk my dogs, etc. I think most of us lead incredibly busy lives, which is why many of us don’t write regularly or as often as we would like to in the first place.

giphy2To make matters worse, I am the type of person who will stop trying altogether if my goals are ridiculously unobtainable. It’s just who I am as a woman living with diagnosed ADHD and almost no free time. Sometimes I expect too much of myself. I am also in the habit of pushing the limits of my physical and mental capabilities. At my core though, I am my writing therefore this is one area of my life I refuse to ruin through exhaustion.

Being a poet is a factor in my self-imposed month of writing as well. For instance, 1,667 words per day is doable for most fiction writers, novelists, essayists, and those who write long-form pieces, but for poets — who tend to focus almost exclusively on the quality of words versus quantity and who spend hours agonizing over every single word choice/pairing — this can be excruciatingly difficult or even impossible to achieve.

Still, cultivating the impetus to write every day for an entire month, come hell or high water, is useful in creating new habits and making the follow through on deadlines less intimidating. “One day, I’ll finish that novel,” transforms into, “Today, I will finish that novel,” and this monumental shift in thinking is crucial to manifesting your dreams no matter who you are or what you write.

For poets, this may become an exercise in letting go. It is easier to edit/whittle down pages and pages of lines than it is to pull the perfect sequential line out of thin air while writing a poem.

A few years ago, after a particularly bad case of writer’s block, I decided to try writing from stream of consciousness during the month of November. The goal was to write as quickly as possible without pausing — the opposite of my writing practice at the time. The biggest problem I had then was my inability to forget the reader/audience while writing, which led to the belief that everything I put down on paper was garbage; if it wasn’t ready to be published the moment I wrote it down, I tossed it. This is why I decided to try something new, something that would help me bypass the part of my brain intent on shouting, “This sucks!”

I got the idea from Gertrude Stein who, early in her career, performed experiments on “normal motor automatism” — the practice of simultaneously dividing one’s attention between two intelligent activities, such as writing and speaking — which was theorized to reveal one’s subconscious in a literal “stream of consciousness.”

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In the end, Stein didn’t believe “automatic writing” was possible, but her work often reflects a sort of primitivism in the repetition of phrases, unique linguistic patterns and experimental forms she chose that feels reminiscent of a stream of consciousness.

I thought about how Stein might have come up with “Tender Buttons” (one of my favorite works) and concluded that I couldn’t allow myself to stop and analyze what I wrote down under any circumstances. The result was a 70-page collection of poems that became key to my final thesis. In this way, NaNoWriMo can be utilized as more than just a way to create consistent writing habits or to finish that long-put-off novel; it can also be used as a period of exploration and evolution. I encourage anyone who missed the beginning of November to participate anyway. It’s never too late to begin a new writing practice.

Why Out-of-Town Workshops are Valuable

Did I ever tell you about the time I did a writing workshop in Oaxaca? It was the week of Halloween, roughly two weeks after the students missing and the atmosphere was wild.

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Oaxaca is a big destination for Dia de los Muertos to begin with. On top of that, the political unrest grew each day I was there. Near the end of the trip, I received an email from the US embassy saying Americans were being evacuated 7-8 hours away in Acapulco. When I woke up the next day, the building across the street was covered ingraffiti about the students. As the Day of the Dead drew closer, there seemed to be more and more police presence, and, consequently, more and more human-sized guns.

But before that, Oaxaca took my breath away. There were old churches, colorful buildings, and mountains everywhere. The food tasted like nothing I’ve ever had. Not once did I come across anything with preservatives. Juice was nourishing and fresh squeezed. Raw tomato was practically orgasmic. Yes, I did get a touch of Montezuma’s revenge, but it wasn’t anything a few shots of Mezcal couldn’t fix. Best of all, it wasn’t overpopulated with Westerners, and I ended up gaining some Spanish by the end of it.

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The workshop (U.S. Poets in Mexico) itself was extremely valuable. I enjoyed working with Anselm Berrigan and Catherine Wagner the most. Wagner, in particular, had completely unconventional writing practices that shook the foundation of how I conceptualized craft at the time. This experience begged many questions I still ask myself today.

1) How many of us actually use our environment to write?

I’d say that most people write inside with their heads down. We cram our bodies into uncomfortable positions and rigidly pull on the depths of our imagination. Even if you sit outside to write or go to a different location, this stiffness is often still with us.

2) Now out of those of us that deviate from standard writing practices, how many of us use, really use, our bodies or movement to write?

It might sound counterintuitive, but that was the entire focus of Wagner’s workshop. Although it made me uncomfortable initially, this redirection opened up something in my writing I had never experienced before.

This came at a point in grad school when I felt myself repeating the same things over and over again in my work. I was at a standstill, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to write for another year.

A lot of grad-level worshiping involves crafting in private until you’re ready to show it to your peers who then evicerate it, which is valuable in many ways. But after a while, can make it impossible to forget about the audience during the writing process and make you lose touch with your love for it altogether. That changed for me after the workshop.

The first thing we did was engage each other by siting in a circle and playing word games. Someone would say a word and the next person would have to pick out the middle sound to begin anew. This is where I got my thesis title, “Louisiana Alchemy.” Later, we walked around the courtyard describing what we saw in our perspective notebooks.

My favorite exercise though went a little further when Wagner asked each of us to write a sonnet (14 lines). However, we had to incorporate a number, a color, a piece of architecture, and we could only write one line for every block we walked, and we were all sent in different directions.

Something about the timing of the block and being in this foreign landscape brought forth a well of inspiration. I stopped caring about the reader and felt that spark I used to get when I first started writing poetry in college. Some of my favorite poems (see 2 at the end of this post) came out of this experience.

Being a big fan of Wagner, it was also interesting to glean up-close insight into her writing practices. I had always wondered how she came up with such unique, phonetic verse. Everything for her was about movement.

This is also why I recommend finding a workshop where one of your favorite writers will be teaching or one that is put on by a press you love. Not only is it a great way to network, but it’s also a great way to learn exactly what you want to learn from the people you admire most.

Make it a goal to go somewhere you’ve never been before for this as well. As a writer, life experience is necessary for you to do what you do.

Although I went on this trip with a classmate and met up with an old friend who lived nearby, plenty of people go it alone and are ready to meet new writers. A friend may not have the same interests and may want to go to different workshops during this as well. You will also have the advantage of dedicating your time to the writers you came to see.

 

Where are your favorite writing workshops and what techniques do you still practice from them?

 


2 poems from the workshop:

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Prompt of the Day: Poetry

You may or may not be familiar with erasure poetry, but it’s essentially exactly what it sounds like. Taking pre-existing work, you mark out chunks of text to create a new poem. This process can be especially helpful if you’re experiencing writer’s block.

Ruefle-Mary-page1Mary Ruefle has a famous 42-page-erasure poem called A Little White Shadow that she created from Emily Malone Morgan’s Brown & Gross (1889). I believe I read an interview somewhere in which Ruefle claimed one of the main reasons she chose this text is because there are no copyright issues from a text this ancient. So bear that in mind before you spend too much time on this.

A former professor of mine, Ruth Ellen Kocher, took a different approach to erasure in her book domina Un/blued. While in Rome, she wrote tons of poems and later went back and erasured her own work. The results are absolutely breathtaking.

Many poets erasure their own work in the editing process without thinking of it as such. And many poets have difficulty letting words go. But this process is all about whittling down to the most precise language. You’d be surprised what can come out of that.

Rules:

  • take a text you’ve either written or a text that you love and mark out chunks to create your own poem

Here’s my attempt:

Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
So:

Taken By Frost

a yellow traveller
bent in the undergrowth
and wanted
that morning
I kept knowing
I should never come back

 

Prompt of the Day: Flash Fiction/Poetry

Laura Theobald is one of the many writers incorporating modern technology into their work. Using iOS predictive text, Theobald wrote an entire collection of poems titled THE BEST THING EVER. You too can create an interesting story or prose poem through predictive text. You’ll also get a glimpse into your psyche when you see which words you use most frequently.

Rules:

  • 20-25 words minimum
  • start with “I died”
  • if predictive text repeats the same word(s) too often, hit a random letter for more vocabulary options

 

Here’s my attempt (I can’t stop laughing):

 

BYE Y’ALL

I died in the past, and it is literally just one of my favorite places. Yeah, that’s what I’m going through. Right after lunch, I’ll be a feeling. Like this, but so far away. I’m going home now. I’ll let y’all be good. I’ll talk tomorrow night. And love with him has no chance. I died in a good mood I guess. I died in the way you told me. I died in the world. Just let me remember that.

 

Why New Orleans Still Makes the Perfect Dystopian Setting

Plenty of people have written about the use of New Orleans as a dystopian setting over the last decade, which hits a little too close to home—literally. Yet, I cannot deny that my city does in fact make the perfect backdrop for political commentary. In the context of Hurricane Katrina, this statement makes sense, but does it still hold up?

From a local perspective, I would argue that it does for the following reasons:

1. Unwavering Weather Deathtraps

It’s hard to believe that a little over 12 years ago, Hurricane Katrina left 80% of the city flooded, at least 1,833 dead, and hundreds of thousands homeless—myself included.

While this event destroyed my 15-year-old world, it captivated the rest of the country through the national news circuit as the ultimate disaster porn for months, maybe even years.

The question on everyone’s mind—How could this level of devastation occur in 2005 in one of the most powerful countries in the world?

The images, more reminiscent of a third world country than that of a modern US city, forever shook the country’s self-view. People waiting on their roofs for days with rescue signs, houses upon houses filled with water, stragglers swimming in what was once a street, security footage of looters, the cajun navy out in their personal boats, the 27-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Bridge in ruins, my childhood theme park (Six Flags New Orleans, formerly named Jazzland) becoming a lake instead of just having one.

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Photo Credit: PBS.org

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to dissociate myself from these images the way the rest of the country did. I distinctly remember the people around me as well as the anchors on TV referring to us IDP’s (Internally Displaced People) as “refugees”—people who by definition have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

This semantic discrepancy spoke volumes and reflected the cognitive dissonance between what people were witnessing on television and what they believed possible in their own country.

The use of “refugee” framed the black bodies appearing on millions of white American screens as foreign. The media also fanned fears of looting and crime through exaggeration, bias, and racial stereotypes: Whites borrowed for survival, while blacks doing the same thing stole. But I digress.

Between August 29 and September 17, directly after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, “dystopia” spiked worldwide on Google trends. If you look at this search trend between January 2004 all the way through September 2017, there is no other spike of this magnitude. In fact, when you look at this graph, dystopian YA is just beginning to surpass that spike in terms of popularity. That almost feels wrong, given the wave of Hunger Games, Maze Runners, and Divergents dominating publishing and film.

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But if a world-ending event were to occur in America, people already picture it in our backyard thanks to Katrina, the Louisiana Floods of 2016, and even the occasional two-hour thunderstorms.

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What in the actual F???

In 2017, we’ve had the strongest recorded tornado in LA since the 1950s, a biblical thunderstorm (that consequently trapped me in my car for five hours), and, at one point, there were three active hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico simultaneously, which, scared the absolute crap out of me. I’ve never witnessed such a thing in my lifetime, and, frankly, my list of close encounters with supposedly once-in-a-lifetime weather events is much too long for my liking.

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After a 2-hour thunderstorm. I was stranded in my SUV down the street.

To my surprise, New Orleans has resembled Seattle more than a Gulf Coast city this year. With newly formed tropical storms and hurricane upgrades every day, I finally muted my weather alerts before hurricane season ended. I won’t even get into to the daily tornado/waterspout watches I recieved while driving across the longest bridge in the world (not hyperbole) to get to and from work.

All of this is to say, we’re never far off from apocalyptic weather or an ecodisaster down here.

2. Refusal to Put the Past to Rest

Another reason New Orleans serves as a popular dystopian backdrop is because our residents don’t just live in the past, they also glorify it.

Until I left the south, I never realized just how bizarre, let alone common, it is for a classmate to receive a scholarship from the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). My mind is still boggled by the self-proclaimed American patriots around me who tote the flag of the losing side.

The confederate flag is so prevalent here, you would think it’s the state flag. I may be desensitized to this symbol now, but, as a child, I knew exactly what it meant without any verbal explanation and felt anxious every time I saw it. Children are perceptive enough to notice the commonality between flag-wielders, some of whom’s ancestors never fought in the Civil War.

While the confederate monuments have come down, this continues to be a hot-button issue among residents. The statues are permanently gone and never coming back, but people here refuse to move on, blaming any and every issue from flooding to poor fund management on metal and stone.

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Photo Credit: The Daily Signal

Class and racial tensions aren’t going anywhere, which provides a great backdrop for political unrest, injustice, war, primitivism, violence, corruption, and all the things that makeup dystopian works.

Baton Rouge, the state capital located less than an hour way, has the highest wage gap between men and women in the entire country. Baton Rouge and New Orleans also have the highest rates of HIV in the country. With one out of every 55 people in Louisiana is behind bars, we are the prison capital of the world. Oh and don’t forget that we dance in and out of the top 10 murder capitals on a regular basis.

Throw in the fact that the majority of these prisoners are black men performing prison labor, and you can see a new form of slavery that isn’t far off from plantation days. Actually, some of this labor is performed in plantations.

3. Decrepitude and Corruption

A lot of people (aka tourists) find New Orleans’ infrastructure to be “charming.” However, I’m well aware that the abandoned hospital around corner still has flood water from Katrina filling the bottom floor and parking garage. The roads and foundations are sinking faster than we can fix them. Black mold and asbestus run rampant in schools, homes, and public spaces.

Because we rely almost exclusively on tourism, the French Quarter is the only area that keeps up with preservation and maintenance, while the areas populated by local residents continue to show scars from Hurricane Katrina. The job market is almost exclusively service industry for the same reason.

Corruption is also notorious in New Orleans. Show me a politician that hasn’t blatantly embezzled money from taxpayers, and I’ll show you a unicorn. The worst part it though, is that the entire country knows this about us.

img_0079-1Yes, parts of this city are lovely and interesting because of their history, but tourists shouldn’t be the only people in the city who experience upkeep. But, all of this just makes Nola a better candidate for said dystopia.

Conclusion

Bottom line: There are a million reasons to love New Orleans, but this city still reflects past atrocities and what is still broken in modern society. Hurricane Katrina was the catalyst for this view on a national scale. However, the ingredients were there well before the storm and remain here today.

These are things we accept in New Orleans, and maybe that is in fact part of our charm. This is a city full of history, heartache, violence, ghosts, and tragedy. But it is also a place of love and magic, a place where people can express themselves without judgement.

There are things I would like to change, but the reality is that this colonial city is set in her ways. So, for now, you can either take it or leave it or just accept that nothing, including this crime-riddled city, is solely good or bad. Either way, no one in the US knows dystopia better than New Orleanians.

 

Prompt of the Day: Poetry

In five lines (no more, no less) incorporate:

  • the word “sliced”
  • the color “chartreuse”
  • something only you know about your mother
  • your favorite author

Here’s my attempt:

A Chain of Fish Hooks 

Chartreuse is just another way of saying yellow. Tawny and lime.

The way my mother likes to turn inside out quietly in the kitchen.

Neruda said, Eating alone is a disappointment. But not eating is

hollow and green. And that is how family feels. Like a verdant hole

or an animal’s sliced heart.  Careless breaking of something wild.

How to Write When You Have Nothing to Say

The Big Bad Block

Writer’s block, listless lingua, poetic impotence—whatever you want to call it—I’ve been forcing myself to write through it for years now. After all, one of Hemingway’s most famous works, The Old Man and the Sea, came directly out of writer’s block.

But after years of writing through it, the results—a ton of first chapters, hundreds of unfinished poems, and a slew of half-hearted essays—are less than desirable.

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Actual photo of me in undergrad.

Never in my life have I experienced writer’s block. I was always that ambitious student in the front row who could spin a tale from any assigned prompt, always volunteering to read it out loud at the end of class. So how did I get to this place?

  1. Exhaustion from professional reading, editing, and writing
  2. Writing endlessly through past trauma for creative purposes
  3. Pushing emotions down instead of using them as creative fuel
  4. Only looking at work through the lens of the reader
  5. Writing extensively sans passion/inspiration to beat the block

Hemingway may have been able to write through his soul-numbing creative drought, but I simply couldn’t do it anymore. Somewhere in the middle of grad school, the blank page became my enemy, reading felt like a burden, and I hated everything I managed to put into words.

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Actual footage of Hemingway writing drunk & editing sober

The Solution

What I’m talking about here is not your run-of-the-mill writer’s block. If it were, writing prompts, coffee shops, family squabbles, people watching, and a number of other random things would pull you out of it quickly.

I’m talking about something much more sinister. It is recurring exhaustion, disillusionment, existing in a mechanical or automatic state. It is going full-speed into Self-Deprecationlandia without any hope of resurfacing. It is the inability to find inspiration over prolonged periods of time, despite your dedication to “write through it.” It is losing touch with why you became a writer in the first place. No, what I’m talking about is longer and darker than standard writer’s block.

So how do you write through numb periods like this when the act feels on par with vacuuming a staircase or cleaning the toilet?

The simple answer is—you don’t!

When one of my undergraduate professors gave me this advice seven years ago, she changed my whole perception of writing and how it should be done. She said she went through periods of consumption and regurgitation. In other words, she took time to ingest lots and lots of media and mull over her thoughts before entering a long writing phase or working on a book project. This method is both obvious and sacrilegious at the same time.

So often as writers we are told to carve out a practice and stick to that schedule every single day, to write through writer’s block, and to, above all, never stop. In reality, I think this can be damaging to some of us.

At the upper echelons of academia, passion is inadvertently stamped out, while the pressure to publish, contextualize, and evolve reign. Production is never-ending. Some find this challenging and fun; others feel drained. Either way, you keep moving.

This professor’s advice permitted me to take a break from writing. And this professor is the only person ever to do so.

Rethinking Writing Practices

After so many years in this discipline, I no longer see the practice of writing in terms of black and white. Instead, I see it as a natural cycle or fluctuation. There are times when forcing yourself to write is helpful, even healing, and should be done. But that force can also reach a point of killing your passion for the craft altogether.

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The most chill I can muster rn

There is a timing and balance to writing that cannot be forced, which is why we find ourselves writing about childhood trauma decades later. You need enough emotion to power you through the act itself and enough distance to craft that feeling into something worth sharing with the world. You need time to analyze your emotions and the events in your life to fashion art from that.

Some write solely from raw emotion and experience, which many describe as reopening an old wound and letting it bleed. This type of writer also needs time to heal or practice self-care from time to time.

Even creative writing/lit professors take sabbaticals every few years to nourish their minds and spirits. While this suggestion goes against everything we’re taught as writers, I think it is necessary to say aloud. It’s okay if you have nothing to say right now. It will come to you later, and when it does, it will flow out in bursts. It will feel natural. It will not feel like a chore.

Most creatives have multiple interests, skills, and hobbies. Every time I put a pin in writing, I find it helpful to play piano, paint, crochet, draw, record songs using old poems as song lyrics, make gifts for upcoming holidays, take my pooches to the dog park, go hiking or to somewhere I’ve never been, research something I’ve always wanted to know more about, or take up a new hobby altogether. This provides a respite from the blank page while channelling other parts of your creativity, building your confidence back up, and giving you ample inspiration for your current or future projects.

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Actual clip of me conquering 3 years of writer’s block

 

Conclusion

It took three weeks of vacation for me to finally shake the last three years of writer’s block.

Spending time with my family, sleeping in my teenage bedroom, not pounding out copy/edits eight plus hours a day, watching my favorite sci-fi/fantasy films, and reading captivating books for the first time in ages all reminded me of why I do what I do and inspired a novel I truly care about finishing.

Forcing myself to write isn’t so bad—when I have something to say. Ultimately, inspiration and restfulness are paramount to my creativity and maybe to other’s creativity as well. Like medical treatments, writing practices aren’t one-size-fits-all. The most important thing is to listen to yourself and protect that well of creativity with everything you have. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find what’s best for you.