My Writing in 2010: A Review

2 01 2011

OK, I’m back. I always faintly regret telling my readers that I’m taking a break from blogging because, inevitably, saying so just makes me want to blog again! In any case, I though it would be a good time to do a quick review of my writerly accomplishments this year, just so that I don’t feel like a total failure. Seriously though, this taking stock at the end/beginning of a year has been very helpful for me in keeping my writing progress in perspective over the long haul, and 2010 was no exception.

This past year, to help keep myself motivated to do my writing, meet some deadlines and just stay on track, I bought myself a wall calendar upon which I wrote major due dates and such. Since 2010 is now officially over, I finally took down the calendar (which, quite honestly, I eventally started using to track pregnancy-related stuff!) the other day, and decided to take a look through it to remind myself of what I’d actually accomplished. So here are the highlights:

– Applied to and got into the Macondo Workshop, Sandra Cisneros’ program to nurture writers who also identify as social change advocates. I learned a lot, mostly about the writing ‘biz’ at this one-week workshop in San Antonio, Texas in July, and met some cool folks.

– Applied for and got rejected by Blue Mountain Center’s residency program (which ended up being a good thing because it would’ve ended up being when I was in my first trimester of pregnancy which probably wouldn’t have been too much fun!), as well as from the Hyphen Magazine and Asian American Writers Workshop short story contest. I was happy, though, for my former workshop-mate, Sunil Yapa, who won first place! And I got good feedback on the story I submitted from AAWW founder Bino Realuyo, although I didn’t show it to him until after I submitted it to the contest, which in hindsight wasn’t very smart. I should’ve gotten more feedback on the story before I sent it in. Lesson learned.

– I spent a lot more time writing this year than I have in a long time. Writing dates were a crucial part of this. I would show up to them even if I didn’t know whether my writing buddy would, which as Natalie Goldberg points out works well. I had fairly regular writing dates with a few folks—notably Claire Light, whom I met several times at Farley’s East in Oakland, and Melanie Hilario and her husband, Sam Sattin, whom I met fairly often in the latter part of 2010 to write, chat, eat scrumptious gourmet donuts and drink Blue Bottle coffee with at the fabulous Pizzaiolo in Oakland.

– I completed a self-imposed seven-day short-story challenge on this blog, in hopes of teaching myself more about the art and craft of writing short pieces, which I’ve always had a hard time doing in the past. This exercise really helped me get through the beginning, middle and end of stories and narrative arcs much more quickly, and also helped me write some pieces that I think I’ll actually send out for publication soon. I also got some good feedback on a couple of the pieces I wrote for the challenge when I submitted them as a part of my package for the Macondo workshop.

– I completed a week-long Advanced Fiction Workshop with the amazing, funny, prolific and generous Mat Johnson at VONA in June. I learned a lot about structure and story from Mat and from my workshop-mates, and had a great time as always at VONA, catching up with old friends and making new ones. Mat gave me some much-needed encouragement to work on what is now shaping up to be my first book—a collection of character-driven short stories set in a post-apocalyptic California, where technology has all but disappeared and human relationships and Mother Nature become the cornerstones of a new rural ‘civilization’. I made tons of progress on three of the twelve stories for this collection in 2010, and a lot of that progress can be credited to Mat and my VONA 2010 workshop experience.

– I had two public readings this year, neither of which I tried very hard to secure, but they were lots of fun and a good chance to share some of my work with an audience. The first one was at my neighborhood cafe, Woody’s, in Oakland, with some of my workshop-mates from my fiction workshop with Junot Diaz at VONA in 2009. The other was my second reading at San Francisco’s annual LitCrawl. This year I got to read with a group of writers of color for the Carl Brandon Society, which is all about promoting sci-fi/speculative fiction writers and fans of color. I got some great feedback on my story from new acquaintance Naamen Gobert Tilahun, who said my work reminded him of Ursula Le Guin’s! Super-cool.

– As far as publications, I did get several non-fiction pieces placed this year. One was a piece on living in a multi-cultural world in a cool new anthology from Beacon Press called Are We Born Racist?, edited by my old work buddy Jeremy Adam Smith along with Jason Marsh and Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton. Other writers who were included in the collection were Rebecca Walker and Bishop Desmond Tutu, so that was cool! Another piece I had published in 2010 was a nostalgic memoir-type short about my first ‘gay uncle’, which was printed in local literary mag Instant City. This story was as much an ode to the San Francisco of my childhood as it was a story about true family, deception, loss and memory. I am particularly proud of an essay called My New Sisters which was published in the online version of Yes! Magazine And of course I had a couple pieces published in the ever-useful Grassroots Fundraising Journal, the Editorial Board of which I joined in 2010 as well.

It was a busy year, and although I didn’t reach all of my writing goals in 2010, I did make a lot of headway and am proud of my writerly accomplishments. Of course, my writing has now taken a back seat to my pregnancy and impending mommyhood, but I have been doing a fair amount of journalling and will continue to push forward with my creative work in 2011. My next post will be on 2011 new year’s resolutions, but in the meantime, here are my writing buddy

Gearing up

13 06 2010

Sorry I’ve been so absent, but work has been super-busy lately, and I anticipated that my writing life on all levels would fall off during this hectic time. But I was okay with that because I have two writing workshops coming up: next week at VONA in San Francisco, and next month in San Antonio when I head to Sandra Cisneros’ Macondo Workshop to study with one of my old professors from Cal, Carla Trujillo. I’m really excited about both workshops and looking forward to talking about writing, being around my writing buddies and meeting new ones, and just immersing myself in my literary world and leaving my everyday work-world behind for a few weeks.

Of course, my ultimate goal is to merge these two worlds more fully, and I’ve taken a few steps in that direction, but still have a ways to go. I did get one of my short stories placed in a publication recently—and, even more exciting, will be getting paid for it too!—but I’m hesitant to say where just yet since things in the literary world can be a bit unsure at times. Like the fact that I never got any copies of one of the anthologies in which one of my non-fiction pieces was recently published.

In any case, I’ve got a lot of reading to do in the coming few weeks, and will be doing a fair amount of writing too, I’m sure. Will try to blog during the workshops and fill you in on what’s going on.

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.

Favorite Writers: James Baldwin

28 02 2010

This is the first in a series of posts that I will write occasionally—when I can’t think of writing anything else—about some of my favorite writers, my literary influences I guess you could say. The first on this list—though by no means my ultimate favorite writer, as it seems impossible to me to have only one favorite writer—is James Baldwin, since I will be leading an online discussion of his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, as part of a Goodreads group I started called Literary Fiction by People of Color.

Strangely enough, considering how many Ethnic Studies classes I took in college, I have just recently discovered James Baldwin as a writer. The first time I read his work was when I bought a copy of Notes from a Native Son many years ago. It’s Baldwin’s first collection of non-fiction essays, titled in response to Richard Wright’s novel, ‘Native Son’, one of the seminal texts of the Harlem Renaissance and of African-American literature overall. I have to say, I didn’t take to Baldwin’s non-fiction very readily. Perhaps it seemed too dated to me at the time, although now when I go back and read it I can see how we can still draw lessons from it even today.

So I left Baldwin alone for a long time after that, convinced that he was one of those ‘great writers’ that I just didn’t like. It wasn’t until Chris Abani recommended I read ‘Giovanni’s Room’, Baldwin’s second novel, while I was in workshop with him at VONA a few years ago that I gave Baldwin another try. I loved Giovanni’s Room, and learned a lot from it about writing. It’s a perfect gem of a book, and Baldwin was only 32 when it was published, and already a literary sensation.

I’ve always identified with writers who pushed the envelope of what was socially acceptable to write about at the time, and Baldwin is a shining example of a writer who challenged conventional values by writing gay or sexually ambivalent characters long before this was seen as socially acceptable, even in literary circles. (Some might say it’s still not very socially acceptable to do so, but all things are relative).

He also wrote about race and gender relations, with a stylistic subtlety and precision that I’d venture is yet to be matched. And not only did he write about controversial topics, but he did so with such elegance and technical control, with such compelling emotional weight that the controversial aspects of his work would, over time, seem to me almost background notes to his literary mastery. To narrowly categorize any writer as merely ‘Black’ or ‘Gay’ or ‘Female’ is often an act of ignorance, but to do so to a writer like Baldwin is almost a literary crime.

Feel free to join the Goodreads discussion if you’ve read the book before, or if you’re interested in reading more literary fiction by people of color. The group is 300+ members strong now, and reads a different book every month. Hope to see you there.

Shoulder to the Wheel

22 02 2010

The health problems I mentioned earlier included anemia/low-iron, which made me unable to focus long enough to write more than a couple pages. It was super-frustrating, but now I’m back in the saddle and just in time, as I have two deadlines I need to write stuff for—actually make that three: my next SundayStories writing group submission in a few weeks, my application to VONA by the end of March, and a reading that I’m coordinating with folks from last year’s VONA fiction workshop with Junot Diaz, also in March.

I’ve learned that it always takes more time than I think it will to finish up anything, especially if it’s my fiction writing, so I’m giving myself plenty of lead-time to work on all three deadlines. I can’t crank out fiction the way I can memoir/creative non-fiction or the grant proposals that I’ve written so many of over the past fourteen years, at least not now, so I gotta give myself plenty of time. Not easy for someone who’s so used to multi-tasking, being efficient, and getting things done quickly. But then again, many worthwhile goals are not easy to achieve, right? Half the satisfaction is in the process, the other half in reaching your goal, knowing how hard you worked and how you overcame obstacles along the way.

So, my shoulder’s to the wheel now, and while I metaphorically begin to sweat and push and labor over my writing, I also feel very satisfied knowing that my muscles still work.

Upcoming publication in “Are We Born Racist?”

18 01 2010

It seems appropriate to announce today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, that one of my essays will appear in the book, Are We Born Racist?, forthcoming in August 2010 from Beacon Press. My fellow writer and friend Jeremy Adam Smith was the lead editor (working with co-editors Jason Marsh and Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton) who approached me to write the piece. The book is a project of Greater Good Magazine, a cool publication that looks at the science behind positive human attitudes like compassion and altruism.

My essay (not sure what the final title that will appear in the book is) is about the complexities of being a person of color in a multi-racial world. Sign up for email updates (see the button to the right) and I’ll let you know about any book release parties or readings that may be happening later this year.