VONA Reportback and the Real Work

28 06 2010

I was offline much of last week because I was at VONA, short for the Voices of our Nations writing workshop, at the University of San Francisco. I had the privilege and pleasure of being in an advanced fiction workshop with author and all-around-cool dude Mat Johnson, who wrote Hunting in Harlem and the graphic novel Incognegro, among several other books.

Despite the tough-looking photo on the home page of his web site, Mat was a generous and encouraging teacher. He gave lots of critical feedback too, don’t get me wrong, but what’s a writing workshop if someone doesn’t slice and dice your work? His case-study lectures on structure were especially helpful to me, and I made a note to myself that when I get stuck on a story, when it’s basically at the stage where I feel like I can’t do anything with it anymore, I should do what Mat did with our stories / novels-in-progress in class and figure out two things: 1) What’s this story about? and 2) What’s actually happening? We made scene ‘maps’ to identify what’s actually on the page (versus what we are ‘trying’ to write), which was extremely useful to all of us. It was also good to work with a writer (and especially a father) who has children and realize that it is possible to have a career and a family at the same time.

And Mat left me with a healthy dose of much-needed inspiration when he said to me a few times, “I can’t wait to see your short story collection. That’s a book I want to read.” (I recently found out that I didn’t make the cut for the Hyphen short story contest, although a friend and fellow VONA alum won the grand prize, Sunil Yapa. So while I’m happy for Sunil, I was a bit bummed.) But there’s no better anecdote for rejection blues than having an accomplished writer I admire telling me they expect more from me. Makes me want to get my butt in the chair and start writing! The same thing happened when I met Bino Realuyo for breakfast a few years ago in New York City and he told me, somewhat gravely, at the end of our conversation, “The next time I see you, I want to see your book.”

The Student and the Teacher: Me and Mat Johnson at VONA

And of course, the other magic at VONA is being around 60+ other writers of color from all over the country who are all dedicated to crafting their work and making it as good as it can be. I made new friends, as always, and got to reconnect with old writing buddies, and got terrific feedback on the short story I’m working on.

Me and Emily Yamauchi, a super-talented writer and new buddy

The view from the campus is pretty gorgeous, too.

View from Lone Mountain Campus, where VONA workshops take place

Been feeling a bit of post-VONA withdrawal these last couple days, which since this is my fourth time doing the workshop, I know is normal. And now the real work begins. I’ve set aside most of this week to write, and to hopefully put into practice all the brilliant advice Mat and my fellow writers gave me this week. Butt in chair. Write. Read. Write. Read. Write. Avoid Facebook and Twitter as much as possible. That’s my goal for this week. Wish me luck.


I Miss Writing

23 05 2010

It’s true, I’ve been spending a lot of time writing—but for work, not my own creative writing. I have to admit that I am one of the lucky writers who’s not completely broke all the time, or who can actually still work on my grammatical and technical writing ‘chops’ and get paid to do so (I do fundraising consulting which entails a fair amount of writing), but I really miss spending more time on my creative writing. Fiction, non-fiction, even poetry (which I rarely try my hand at, but when I do, it’s pretty fun).

This blog helps fulfill my craving a little, and I have been working on a new short story for a friend’s online publication, but I miss the days when I had more time to sit and write, or think about writing, or read whatever I felt like reading. Ironically, I don’t think I really valued those days when I did have them—of course, when I had days in a row with little paid consulting work I mostly goofed off or cleaned my house rather than write—so now the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak. I am planning to go on a short writing retreat soon—not sure where, but I just know I have to get out of Dodge and away from the distractions of the city, my apartment and everyday life and get some solid hours of writing in.

But even this craving is a sign of progress to me, because when I was working full-time 9-to-5 I could go for months without writing and it didn’t really bother me all too much. Now, writing has become more of a habit, a good habit that I don’t want to break. I started this blog and my other blog to help keep me writing, to keep me accountable to my own writing goals, and I’m glad I did. I still don’t blog as much as I’d like to at times, but it’s nice to know that these blogs are here for me to just scribble (or type, I guess!) a few words and thoughts and send them out to the world with a click of my trackpad.

Still, though, I miss my fiction writing, and when I’ve sat down lately (like I did the other day with my friend A. at a cafe) and work on a story, I feel a different part of my brain, my consciousness come alive. And I like that feeling. A lot.

Are Writers Narcissists?

10 04 2010

Note: I’m feeling lazy today (also been doing a lot of other writing for several deadlines so feeling like I need a break), but I wanted to post something that I wrote on my old blog almost five years ago. I read it the other night as I was looking for another old post on my blog, and was struck by its maturity and artistic generosity—especially given that at the time I was a fairly green writer (and still think of myself as one, probably will until I publish my fifth book), with not many literary accomplishments under my belt. At the same time, I was writing for at least an hour a day and was churning out an incredible number of pages, so I guess I was ‘unblocked’, as it were. There’s also a lot to be said about ‘beginner’s mind’, which Natalie Goldberg writes a lot about in her books—that most of the time it’s best to come to your writing practice as a ‘beginner’ in spirit and attitude, so that you don’t get caught up in your beliefs about yourself, in petty jealousies, in the political and often nastier side of the creative life that so often blocks writers and keeps them from the work they need to do.

So I hope you enjoy this blast from the past. I know I did.

Writing = Narcissism?

I know a lot of people–some artists, some avowed non-artists–who think that writing (or any other artistic endeavor) is narcissitic. After all, we writers have to hole ourselves up in rooms or at cafe tables or prison cells to write, cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world and spending time honing our craft. I myself have struggled with this question: Does being an artist automatically means that one is self-centered, overly egotistical and, yes, narcisstic? Having had the unpleasant experience of working with many, many egotistical–and often abusive–artists, I know that this suffering-artist ‘stereotype’ is not entirely untrue.

But as I continue to explore and expand my resume of creative experience, I am glad to report that my answer to that question is a resounding NO. Artists do not have to be completely narcisstic and ego-driven to produce good art. Of course, there are plenty of examples of great artists who are not very kind or compassionate people. Chitra talked about this in our novel workshop at VONA, and about her own belief that one can be a good writer and a good person; she seems to be a fine example of this herself: best-selling novelist, creative writing professor, married and the mother of two sons (we got to meet her family at VONA, they all seem very happy). It’s good to have a role model like her to emulate.

For myself, as I move into my own light as a writer, I find myself more generous with my encouragement and support of other artists’ creative efforts. I seek out opportunities to tell my fellow artists that they’re not crazy, that they’re not alone, that they need to trust their visions of their art. For example, L., a co-worker, who is entering an undergrad creative writing program in a few weeks after several years of tireless movement/activist work, talked to me recently about feeling like writing is such a ‘luxury’. The ‘L’ word reminds me, of course, of Audre Lorde’s essay, ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’, which can also apply to fiction-writing or any other creative endeavor. For me, writing is not a luxury, it is a necessity. I need to write in order to feel fulfilled, and even further, the stories I dream up as a Filipina-American writer living and struggling in the early 21st century need to be told.

To quote from Lorde’s essay: “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

That is what writing feels like to me. So I don’t feel guilty anymore for taking time off from checking off my workaday ‘to-do list’ so that I can write for an hour a day. I don’t feel selfish. At the same time, I know I need to help make space for others to create and manifest their dreams so that I am not just promoting myself, for my creative fulfillment and success are tied to the fulfillment and success of my fellow artists. Not all writers or artists feel this way, I’m sure, and perhaps the competitiveness that comes with material success will someday hit me as well.

But for now, I’m writing, and developing, and feeling an expansive hope through this process that makes me believe that a better world is not only possible, but is being crafted word by word, line by line, in my work and the works of my writerly comrades.


31 03 2010

Almost There

The struggle I have with my fiction writing is not finishing things. I think I’ve said this before. I have been working on two stories in particular for many years now. Yes, you read correctly: YEARS. They’ve morphed and changed and become nearly unrecognizable from their original state. And while that’s all okay, I’ve realized that I actually need to FINISH things in order to send them out for publication (not that my husband, bless him, or even my writer friends aren’t a perfectly good audience, but I’d really like more than ten people to read my work!). It was a peculiarly frustrating experience, not being able to finish my stories—I’m a very Type-A person who takes great pleasure in checking off things on my to-do list. But fiction writing, alas, isn’t as easy or linear as drafting an Excel spreadsheet of donor prospects or making five phone calls to clients.

So I was supremely grateful and pleased the other day when I finally felt a sense of completion on one of my stories. I won’t say which one it is since I am going to be sending it in as my entry for the Hyphen/AAWW short story contest, the deadline for which was extended to April 12.

I feel like I’ve really made progress, and I now have hope that not only is this particular story going to be read by the fabulous contest judges and other cool folks at Hyphen, but that I can and will finish other stories too. And it’s these small but significant accomplishments that make me feel like I’m moving forward, improving my work and becoming a better writer.

This is My Job

27 03 2010

It’s taken me a long, long, long time—did I say it took me a long time?—to claim that writing is one of my ‘jobs’. Yes, I spend more of my time doing fundraising consulting for social justice nonprofits. Yes, that’s how I make almost all of my money (like 99.5% of it). Yes, I enjoy my ‘day job’, but I’m also committed to nurturing my writing and spending the time I need to spend on it to make it the best it can be.

I’ve made an explicit choice NOT to attend a Creative Writing MFA program. Not because I don’t think they’re good or important—I think they are great resources for writers’ artistic and professional development, and most of the writers I tend to spend time around are in or have graduated from MFA programs. My choice was more practical, the reasons being: 1) After having been in the work-world for nearly two decades now, I’m really not fond of the idea of being broke and / or crushed under loads of debt again; and 2) I am prioritizing starting a family with my husband right now, and for this process I would like to be in a relatively healthy, low-stress mode, and being in school AND working AND writing AND trying to be a mother does not sound like a low-stress life to me!

So, one could argue that I am prioritizing my personal life, my mental sanity, and my financial security over my artistic development and my career as a writer. Will I regret it later? Maybe. But I will know that that was the choice I made, and I also know that if and when I have a child, I don’t think that anything else will really matter to me. Not to mention that being a mother will bring a million more stories and perspectives into my consciousness that I don’t have access to right now.

All that said, I have just this week realized what I need to do to really push my writing forward, to be able to prioritize my time and energy for writing, and to push back the other things (mostly my ‘day job’ as a fundraising consultant, which I love, by the way) that get in the way: I have to think of writing as my job. One of two jobs, yes, but a job nonetheless.

When I think about my writing as a job—one that doesn’t yet pay me much money, granted, or win me much fame or publicity, yet—my whole attitude and energy towards it shifts. For example, I reserve Fridays for writing. I’ve learned in the past year since I left my full-time day job that if I don’t set aside AT LEAST one day to write, I won’t write. I need that at least a full day to let go of all the consulting stuff and just focus on my writing. I may check my work email on that day, but I will NOT schedule appointments or meetings. It’s been tough to do, but I’m really starting to maintain my boundaries on this one.

Because if my writing was a ‘job’ the way my consulting work is a paid job—for which I am accountable to other people to get things done, produce documents, send emails, make phone calls, etc.—then I would spend the hours needed to do that job well. I used to resist this idea of writing as one of my jobs. I wanted it to feel creative, fulfilling, joyful and somewhat spontaneous—in other words, like a hobby. I was in a bit of denial about how hard it would be, how much I would need to struggle with my own internal barriers to writing, let alone the difficulties in finding time to write or finding places to get my work published. I didn’t want to make it feel like ‘work’.

But somehow, in a very organic and natural way, over the course of the last year, writing has become one of my jobs. My work gets published (not my fiction, granted, but my non-fiction has). I have two pieces coming out in two separate publications over the next several months (see my About page for more details). I maintain two blogs and a Twitter feed to promote them and my writing, through which I virtually ‘met’ a fellow writer who recently asked me to write a review of her book when it’s released this summer. My last published article (for which I did get paid, thank you) came out just last month.

And there are the unanticipated appreciations from others that keep me going and inspire me to continue on this sometimes frustrating writing path. Like the email I got the other day from a fellow fundraiser whom I recently told about my writing. He wrote, “I have been telling alot of people about the consultant from the Bay area who said, ‘I would take the job, but want to devote time to my creative writing’. Your words are ringing in my head as an important lesson about prioritizing creativity. Thank you so much for reminding me, by example, that creativity takes time.”

So yes, I am a working writer. I’m learning how to claim that ‘title’ and know that it’s true. And, I must say, I think I’m a pretty damn good writer, too.

Digging Deep

25 03 2010

Not much to say today except that I am going to attempt to go deeper in these next two days—only six days left ’til the Hyphen/Asian American Writers Workshop short fiction contest deadline, and I’m getting nervous. I’ve cleared a bunch of time today and tomorrow to work on this, and also some time next week—not easy to do, as work has been picking up a lot and it’s hard to proritize my non-paid writing work when it does—but that’s still not a lot of time to make some magic happen.

I have one piece that’s done that I could submit, but while I like it it’s not super-interesting (about a young Pinay living in San Francisco in the ’80’ who meets a young Euro tourist and crushes out on him). It’s more of a cute, nostalgic story—nothing I would personally give an award to, so why should I expect anyone else to?

And then there’s an edgier piece that I’m leaning towards—an excerpt of which I read at a reading a few months ago at Modern Times Bookstore. This second piece is about two straight male best friends (one of whom is Filipino, the other Chicano) who end up having a sexual encounter, and the emotional fallout from that. The only thing about this one is that it’s not quite done yet, and I’d prefer to send something super-polished and vetted in for this contest.

But in the end, I’ll end up sending something in, even if I don’t think it’s absolutely ‘perfect’. I’m a bit of a fanatic about details and such and while that’s generally a good quality, it often keeps me from sending perfectly decent work out into the world—and thus keeps me from getting published. So I gotta dig deep in these last few days and pull out all the stops to make this piece as great as it can be. There isn’t really any alternative at this point.

And besides, I already paid my $20. The scrooge in me can’t let that go to waste!

Day Seven (sort of): Don’t Stop

17 03 2010

(Okay, so I know I technically skipped the last two days, but I am finishing up this challenge anyway. Better late than never, right? I’m quite proud of myself for having gotten this far, and hope you’ve enjoyed reading these short vignettes as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. For this last story, I’ve chosen to try and tie together two characters from different stories I wrote this past week: Rebecca from ‘Lazy Sunday’ and Trina from ‘The New Girl’.)

Don’t Stop (‘Til You Get Enough)
Copyright 2010 by Rona Fernandez, all rights reserved

Rebecca was in her living room, doing a runners’ stretch—her heel stuck out in front of her as she leaned over her left leg, stretching out her hamstring and calf. She was going to go for a jog for the first time in months. since before her best friend and exercise buddy, Trina, had died in a car accident on a rainy winter night, at the age of thirty-two.

“You can do it, you can do it,” she chanted to herself under her breath. She could already feel her heart beating a little bit faster—not because of the stretching, but just by the idea of jogging without Trina. She had avoided it for this long, and she was paying for it with her health. Eating donuts had replaced her morning jog—she craved the sugar rush and the mild sense of euphoria all the fat gave her—but overall, Rebecca had felt more sluggish than ever and she’d gained almost least ten pounds in less than two months.

“You can do it, you can do it,” she continued to mutter to herself. She decided she needed some extra motivation, so she turned on her stereo, put on some Michael Jackson, which never failed to make her feel better.

“Lovely is the feelin’ now…”

Rebecca swung her right leg in front of her now, leaned over and felt her muscles stretch.

A picture flashed in her mind, of her and Trina dancing to this exact same song during a junior high school dance. Trina had MJ’s hip-thrust down pat, but Rebecca could moonwalk better. Now, Rebecca giggled a little, but felt the familiar swell of heat in her face that signaled impending tears. She stood up, putting her hands in front of her face.

“Fever, temperatures rising now….”

Not again, she thought. It’s been almost two months. Why can’t I get over this? She squatted down low to the ground, trying to stifle the tears, trying to stuff down the wave-like feeling of grief that threatened to overwhelm her once again. She’d missed two weeks of work after the accident, and been a wreck when she went back. She couldn’t even bear to go see Trina’s parents in Daly City, despite the fact that they called her incessantly, asking how she was.

“Rebecca,” Trina’s mom would say on her voicemail messages, stretching out the ‘a’ in her name as if she were singing a song, “are you all right?” Mrs. Garcia rolled most of her ‘r’s, even when she was speaking English and not Tagalog. For some reason, it made Rebecca smile. “Come and visit us sometime, okay, hija? Okay, bye-bye.”

Keep on, with the Force don’t stop…

Thank God, Trina thought now as she squatted, for Mauricio. He’d fielded the calls when he was home, updating the Garcias on her status, letting her know that she was okay, that he was taking care of her. Rebecca felt a sudden pang of guilt now that she’d avoided her friend’s parents for so long, but she couldn’t bring herself to see them. Not yet.

Just then, as Rebecca stood up from her squat and walked slowly towards the front door of the apartment, Mauricio walked into the living room, freshly showered and changed and ready to leave for work.

“Gonna try again today, eh?” he said, looking at her with what she perceived as a sympathetic frown. Rebecca nodded.

“I figure it can’t hurt to lace up and warm-up at least,” she said, not sure if she was talking to Mauricio or to herself. “Once I get out there we’ll see what happens.”

Mauricio put a warm hand on her arm.

Touch me, and I feel on fire…

“Do you want me to stay home for awhile, make sure you’re okay?” His voice was comforting, deep. Rebecca resisted the urge to hurl herself into his arms and bury her body in the safety and security she could always find there.

I have to buck up and move on, she told herself. She thanked Mauricio and told him she’d be okay. He looked at her quizzically, as if trying to decipher her words and get to their real meaning, but he nodded and unlocked the front door instead.

“Okay,” he said, stepping into the hallway in front of their hallway. “You know you can always call—”

“Wait,” Rebecca said, feeling her heartbeat shoot up as she realized he was about to leave her alone—alone with her feelings, her grief, her memories of Trina, who died too soon, much too soon.

Mauricio paused, moved a few inches closer to her, waited for her to tell him what she needed.

Keep on, with the Force don’t stop…

“I love you,” she said, surprised by the words coming out of her mouth. She’d meant to say, Wait, let me walk with you down to the car, or Wait, give me a ride down to the Lake and I’ll jog back from there. Make some request to extend her time with him, to delay the inevitable—that she would sooner or later have to run without Trina, because Trina was dead.

Mauricio seemed as surprised by her words as she was, but he responded in kind.

“I love you, too.” He stepped forward and embraced her, enfolding her in the quiet, warm strength of his body. Rebecca exhaled loudly, felt the tension she’d been holding inside of her release.

“You can do it,” Mauricio said, and pulled away from her. He squeezed her shoulder and looked intently into her eyes. “I know you can.”

Rebecca nodded, smiling a little. She made a shoo-ing motion, telling him that he’d better get going or he’d be late for work. Mauricio kissed her briefly on the lips and left. Rebecca stood there for a long, lingering moment, a strange energy coursing up through the veins in her legs. It was that slightly uncomfortable, restless feeling—and there was only one way to get rid of it.

Don’t stop ’til you get enough…

She grabbed her keys and left the apartment, didn’t stop and turn back to turn the stereo off or grab a bottle of water, knowing that if she paused now, even for a moment, she would never go on. Instead she ran down the stairs, seeing the morning sunlight stream in through the glass doors on the floor below.

You can do it, she told herself silently. I know you can.