Category Archives: Revision

Finding the door

Junot Diaz

When I get stuck on my novel revision, it’s like sitting in a room with furniture covering every wall, including possible doorways out. There is something going on with my novel that is not right/should not be there/needs to be moved so that I can get unstuck.

Oftentimes, it’s my tyranny as a writer in a previous draft that causes a block in a subsequent revision–usually it is because I’ve forced the characters to do something that is unnatural and against their will. Or I’ve just cluttered the draft with unnecessary, incongruous details. Either way, I and my novel end up with roadblocks.

So it is with this point in my revision. There are more than a couple instances of roadblock going on in my novel. Because I’ll look at a chapter and just SIT there, wondering where to go from there. And I’ll see no openings, no windows, no doors, not even a trapdoor (okay, I haven’t yet looked for a trapdoor, and maybe I should). It feels like a dead-end, in which case I have no choice but to take the whole damn room apart, or demolish it altogether.

It’s scary to delete entire chapters. Sometimes it has to be done.

In the interim, I’m working on strengthening chapters and scenes that do work. I wrote five sentences of my novel revision the other day. This, my friends, is a miracle. Because that’s the most I’ve written in my novel in weeks. Weeks. Weeeeeeks. Some people say you get a burst of creativity when you’re in my specific physical condition–but I’ve just gotten massive creativity constipation.

It just so happens that another dam is breaking, too. I built up an emotional wall to brace myself for a personal event–and it isn’t the healthiest of things to do, and certainly not healthy for writing. It’s more honest to fall and cry and stand back up than it is for me to stand rigid and quivering. And I’m stronger when I stand after falling. And a good cry is even better for my writing.

Sorry for being so vague. Personal stuff.

And then there’s more personal stuff that is challenging me to open up, that makes me less alone on this earth, and yet makes me feel more alone than ever. It’s good stuff but again, sorry for being so vague. Personal stuff yet again.

I’ve also stepped back in as Fiction Editor over at Kartika Review. If you’re Asian American and/or write about Asian American related writing (whether theme or character), please send your fiction in.

And being as I’m in NYC for a few weeks, I’m surrounded by readings. The big reading event of Fall 2012 was the Junot Díaz reading at Barnes & Noble on Union Square. There were hundreds of people at that reading. I showed up over an hour in advance of start time, and got myself a seat (my friend had gotten there about ten minutes earlier and saved me a seat). There were hundreds of people behind me standing. There were people downstairs trying to get up to the reading. NYPD was there for crowd control. It was awesome to see literature need rock-star-crowd-control measure.

I live-tweeted the reading (Junot makes his readings less about reading and more about a dialogue with his audience, so there are good tidbits all around). Here are a few excerpts from my live-tweets:

“ppl in the back we love u. It’s one thing 2 hv a fucking seat. It’s another 2 hv 2 stand the fuck up.” –Junot Diaz (2 the capacity crowd)

“when ur rendering chars on paper, u’ve gotta be strategic. Chars hv no weight until u attach them to relationships.” — Junot Díaz

“male representation is so absurd, trivial. Despite the over abundance of men the internal lives of boys are overlooked.”-Junot Diaz

“what’s intriguing w most of us is it’s so much easier to live w the safety of work unrealized. It’s safe.” –Junot Diaz

“Truth is Tht safety of work unrealized does not in any way compare to flawed beauty of work realized.” –Junot Diaz

“first you have to suck for a long time. The only thing Tht separates a published writer is a tolerance for imperfection.” –Junot Diaz

“this is a wired generation. My MIT students ask me where my reading is. Lookitupmotherfucker dot com!”–Junot Diaz

“get to fucking work, yo.” -Junot Diaz

If ur an immigrant what the fuck haven’t u survived? –Junot Diaz

It is u & ur story, fuck everybody else. The best part is when it’s done every1 will get their say so why give them say before? -Junot Diaz

I don’t know about you, but listening to Junot always flips a light switch on in my head.

I hope you’re finding the doors in your work. I’m trying to find the doors in mine. I’m so determined to get some work done.

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Stuck

Virgin bloody mary for me!

These days, I’m blogging here and I’m writing in my Moleskine journal–but I’m not writing my novel. I want to write my novel, but it’s just not happening; I’m either forcing something that doesn’t belong in the novel and/or I am on the brink of a breakthrough. Or I have to just admit that I don’t write well at all in the Summer.

There is a small part of me that says “That’s okay, you’re still writing,” but the rest of me is completely discouraged and self-condemning.

I have friends who write everyday–they write through the blocks and they turn in complete novel manuscripts within a year’s time. That is so not me. There are writers who take ten years to write a novel–that’s more like me. Writers-who-take-years-to-write-a-novel are traumatized by that creative timespan. We are asked “How’s your novel coming along?” way more often for starters.

I think part of the pressure comes from the fact that most writers don’t talk publicly about the dark parts of writing–the blocks, and the days you sit in front of your computer and all you do is revise one damn paragraph. And the days you sit in front of your computer and you can’t think of a single idea. Or the day you sit in front of your computer and you delete every single word you wrote in the last four weeks.

We writers like to, in the public eye, present writing as “magical.” We like to prolong the myth of genius. That the words come out of thin air and shine with brilliance on the page. There are movies that show writers in action–like Katherine Turner in “Romancing the Stone” tearing her hair out while writing (but that typing never stops, does it?) or Nicholas Cage in “Adaptation” (okay at least there, writing block is accurately depicted–for like Charlie, I often negotiate brownies as reward for words written). And I love the depiction of a writer-gone-astray by Michael Douglas in “Wonderboys” (but even then, he’s written an over-long novel, and again, the typing doesn’t stop). But those are stories–stories don’t happen without Something Awful happening–and the Something Awful for a writer equals struggling with a long project. But even in movies, the writing happens, and no one in real life likes to talk about those horrible days and horrible weeks and horrible months where the writing doesn’t happen. Because it makes us seem less than perfect. Because it makes us look stupid. Because it’s tragic.

So in sum, I feel imperfect. I feel stupid. I feel tragic.

So there’s that.

And then I think in my case, my novel is waiting for me to grow up. This novel and its story is bigger than I am. And I wonder if I fail it, every day. Even on my best days, I fear to fail my novel.

In my worse moments, I think that even if I don’t finish this thing a lot of good has come out of it–my novel has made me a better person. It has stretched me. It has been the thing that drove me to recover from my stroke. It has been the thing of so many lessons learned–lessons that I could not have learned any other way than facing a blank page and exploring worlds with the goal of seeking understanding and communicating understanding. It has made me grow up. It has given me comfort. And it has kicked my ass. Everyone needs a good ass-kicking now and then.

But on the worst days, I look at my novel and wonder if I should walk away from it. The only things that keep me from walking away is the incredible encouragement I’ve received from my writing mentors–and my amazing writer mentors are not men or women who give out encouragement lightly. So I keep at it. On my very worst days, my mentors save my novel’s ass.

So for now, I am gestating, in more ways than one. The words and ideas will come. It’s just summertime, I guess, when writing traditionally doesn’t happen for me.

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On Revision

THINK

I had the opportunity to share some thoughts on novel revision over at Necessary Fiction where my good friend and excellent writer Matthew Salesses has launched a month-long series on revision as their July 2012 writer in residence.

I talk a little about my process, and my approach to revision–here’s a little bit of an excerpt to get you started:

“Starting over and rewriting is revision, at least for me. Saying I am rewriting gives me more creative freedom, less of an obligation to retain old words, much of which while beautiful, did not work inside the whole. The word revision, for some reason, made me more unwilling to recreate worlds.”

Hope my experience and perspective on rewriting/revision helps you out.

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(hits head on table)

One of 2 writing spots in my house: I live writing at the dining room table

<hits head on table>Looked at my novel-in-progress; it is such a mess and I HATE it today. I know I must soldier on, because I am probably near a breakthrough moment if I hate it this much, but it is agonizing and awful and I feel hopeless. </hits head on table>*

*table on which I am slamming my head is pictured above.

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Marching orders

backlit daisies

There are a lot of new directives in my life these days, all to a good and healthy end. And so I thought to myself, if everything is on a timeline and I’m to be so disciplined, I’ve got to do the same with my novel manuscript.

Truth be told, I’ve been revising rewriting my novel-in-progress like it’s a day at the spa–with languid leisure. A page here, a page there. An occasional chapter. When I’ve come across a bump in plot or character, I let the mystery wash over me and then when the uncertainty became too uncomfortable, I’d go do something other than write, something other than stick to my chair and computer screen.

Writing has been a daily part of my life, but the great urgency I felt after my stroke (as only a brush with death can achieve) to finish a draft of my novel-in-progress, the very thing that got me to finish a draft, has been languishing for some time.

But I am now once again writing with exigency. Because I have to finish a major rewrite of this novel by the end of 2012. Because if I don’t finish a major rewrite, I’ll have deep regrets, and any discomfort I feel now as I navigate the interstitial spaces of my novel is going to be nowhere near the pain I’ll feel next year when I look at a half-finished novel revision.

I am the slowest writer I know. Writing with urgency for me means muscling through the pain and making a deep commitment to stick with my manuscript even if tomorrow is another day. It means I am still a slow writer. It does not mean writing two thousand words a day, because for me, five hundred words a day is a good writing day. But I know I can and will do it.

So I’m making it public: I’m finishing a major rewrite of this novel by year-end. That gives me about seven months, which I think is completely doable, even at my elephantine writing pace.

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Perseveration and Perseverance and the Novel

Treasure Hunt: morning coffee + milk

I am drowning today. I woke up feeling awful about my novel. Like wondering-why-I’m-even-doing-this awful. And I felt even more hideous knowing that I’d continue to re-write despite my despondence. And yet even more horrific because then of course all this self-doubt was a massive waste of time, keeping me from said novel-rewrite.

On these self-doubting occasions, I feel like my novel is an act of perseveration–of crazy unfulfilling repetition that speaks to the adage, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

That line speaks not to perseverance but to perseveration, which is an actual psychological term describing unhealthy behavior repetition.

There’s a difference between perseveration and perseverance. Perseverance, which is steady persistence (and a novel-writing virtue) towards a goal despite obstacles and discouragement has value in the effort whereas perseveration recreates old, unresolved issues (i.e., like how someone who felt left out in junior high then ends up, in her adult life, trying to connect with people who reject her–or at its simplest, repetition of spoken phrases).

It’s when I fail to see value in the process and effort, that I feel like writing this novel is an act of insanity.

One of the most hurtful things someone has ever said to me (other than the time someone told me, “My husband will not be happy if I get fat–but your husband doesn’t seem to care!”) is “Are you still working on that novel? Finish it already.” That a novel is solely about a finished product is false–that a novel’s value is positioned solely in its finished product is daunting and stomach-turning, at least for someone in the thicket of revision.

And yet, because of this end goal, I push. I push.

And sometimes, it’s the pushing that is the wrong thing to do with my novel-in-progress.

I’ve taken up yoga in the past year or so. After living in yoga-infused-Berkeley for decades and scoffing at the practice, I found a yoga instructor and studio in Tara Stiles and Strala Yoga in NYC that did not make me feel alienated or like I landed on Mars or had me speaking a foreign language in class.

I learned that yoga isn’t about pushing. It’s about being in the moment, and connecting with your breath and going with the ease. That anything is possible. That I can do crow and when I did crow, the moment felt utterly effortless and beautiful and marvelous. That it happened like magic one day. That getting to crow and holding crow meant staying very much in the present moment. That pushing to do crow was the very thing that made me topple.

It is hard to fight self doubt. Maybe it might be better to cave into it and process the feelings that self doubt brings. Either way, I thought that by writing about my self doubt and defining the creature that embodies it in my life today, I’ll know better how to manage it.

That I am pushing to “finish” my novel is what stalls me–that I fail to see value in the process and the present moment of revision is what pushes me to doubt myself.

So I downloaded my yoga class playlist and I’m writing to it this morning, so that what I learn in yoga can infuse me as a writer today. No pushing. Just be. Write the words. Breathe. Listen to my novel. Listen to me. Allow myself to cry. So that I can amaze myself.

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Writing is Hard Work and Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Different

new camera + new lens

Writers (and I’m talking about creative writing) who in the debate about whether or not writing can be taught say that “writing cannot be taught,” or writers who say they “don’t revise” are engaging in a game of intimidation.

Whether they are accurate or not in their assessment (if you are 140% talentless, I guess writing cannot be taught…and perhaps some brilliant writer out there really doesn’t revise their work), I hate it when writers try to make writing “magical” and solely about “talent.” It’s such an arrogant thread of thought to imply that you either have it or you don’t. Certainly, talent is a crucial part of the pie–but people with talent still need coaching, mentoring, and practice. Tons of practice and hard work.

This bucket of sick giraffe bull reminds me of my high school. I have a lot of wrath toward my high school years, so be forewarned. I went to a super cut-throat competitive high school that happened to be a public high school. The counseling office would actually publish the top 100 GPAs of students in descending order every semester. They didn’t list names, but they did list student ID numbers. Who were they kidding? You think we ultra-competitive students hadn’t memorized each others’ SIDs? We knew exactly where we all stood.

But I guess the counseling office was bored, and needed to generate work. Because I’m sure after those rankings, they’d have to do a lot of counseling. And I’m not talking about the academic kind.

Anyway–I’m talking about people who front about how easy shit is, just to intimidate other people in a competitive atmosphere. And I was talking about my high school, which was full of students with gray bags under their bloodshot eyes saying they had a full night’s sleep, didn’t study for the test at all, and the test was a cinch. For awhile I believed them. Until my father said, “Are you an idiot? Of course they’re studying. They’re just psyching you out! Now go to your room and study all night until dawn breaks.” My dad is such an Asian Dad. Literally. And figuratively. Okay. I just wrote notes to my friends all night long. Like, twelve page handwritten notes. I was destined to be a writer. But I did study, just not as hard as my father wished I would.

The claim to a well of genius/brilliance without the investment of hard work stems from deep arrogance and/or fear.

You mean to say that Jackson Pollock just threw some paint up on a canvas and that was it? That dude worked long and hard to attain those splashes. There is an entire history of Pollock paintings preceding his “drip canvases” that attest to that. You mean to say that Itzhak Perlman fell out of the womb playing a violin? That Lance Armstrong just rode his bike and rode it to victory from the start? No shit. They all worked hard. There’s the equivalent of about 100,000 bottles (probably more, but I don’t feel like researching the amount of sweat a bicyclist would exude in his/her training) of Gatorade that Armstrong had to suck down to replace the sweat from training exertion. They played until their fingers bled. Or at the least, had whopping callouses.

I know someone who was a concert violinist earlier in his life and even if he did not make it his lifelong career, he has a little hollow in his jawbone; he practiced so often and for so long, the bone grew as if his face were attached to his chinrest. Which it was. Because he practiced for hours and hours as a small child.

At AWP this week (and I’ll be quoting from AWP for awhile to come), Nami Mun at her Works in Progress panel said you can’t succeed solely on talent–that there is the concept of practice, citing Yo-Yo Ma. That the only difference between an average person and a successful person is focused practice; a “willingness to practice, develop your craft, and understand the difference.”

And Margaret Atwood, in her keynote said, “I’m startled by people who say they want to write but don’t like reading. Those people want an audience for them to listen to their sad story and that’s the end of it. They’d be happier on reality TV, because that’s less work. And yes, I said the ‘w’ word: WORK.”

PREACH.

I know that my novel certainly has waited for me to grow and develop as a writer. And that it’s guided me through my own maturity as a human being. I molded the novel into shape, and in recent times, my novel has been the thing to mold and shape me in return, and it has led me into amazing life adventures, calling to me with its needs such as much time spent on wikipedia and google and sometimes twitter for novel research. That I couldn’t write this novel eight years ago didn’t mean I could never write the thing.

It takes practice. It takes hard work. It’s pain. And it’s joy. Sometimes I suck. Sometimes my novel sucks. Whatever. Work more.

I am one of the legions of writers who has been married to a novel-in-progress for more than five long years (and I am not close to being finished). We, the slowest of writers, salute those who write a novel a year (I’m looking at you, Joyce Carol Oates). At AWP, Don Lee said he takes two years to write one novel: the first six months spent on generating ideas, another year to write the draft, and then another six months of revision. I salute you too, Don Lee.

But over cocktails, my tongue freed up by a gin and tonic at the AWP conference headquarters bar (by golly, all ten thousand writers BROKE that bar–it was four people deep, and it took 20 minutes to get a drink order in–it’s a wonder that ANYONE even got tipsy)…I announced that my novel dictates the speed at which it is written. I think at least one person said “Amen” to that. Who knows. I get drunk off half a cocktail. Some stories demand a long time. And some stories demand to be told immediately.

My novel is better than the person I am. And it’s being patient. And asking me to be patient, in turn. And to work my ass off so I can deserve the novel I end up showing the world.

And yes. I revise. Everyday I’m a better writer than the day before. I’m learning to write everyday damn day. I also had eyelid surgery so I could have double eyelids. And I hate bell peppers.

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