Monthly Archives: February 2011

Talisman, Transformed

whoa: my writing talisman

Only last week, I blogged about my writing talisman, otherwise known as my Zabar’s mug.

And just yesterday, while rinsing out my mug before preparing my Mariage Freres tea at my writing spot…the handle BROKE, clean off.


I didn’t scream. There are rules of strict silence where I write. But I did stand there, in shock, staring at the handle in my right hand, the cup in my left.

But I’m also really stubborn. So I continued to dry the cup, and made my tea as usual. And drank from the mug as I wrote….and had a good writing day to boot.

I don’t know what this means–I refuse to believe that my revision is at all cursed. My friends have mentioned that this means my creativity is explosive! Or that it cannot be contained. Regardless, it’s my mug, and it still works, and so far, my writing hasn’t been cursed. Also, the pragmatist in me knows that this is the reason the mugs cost all of $2.

And anyway, Randa and I can buy another pair of matching “writing/revising good luck” mugs when she visits NYC. This time, for our revisions.

If I were to continue my superstition: perhaps the Zabar’s mugs were not meant to be used for revision, perhaps they are only for first draft luck. Because hers broke as well, in the same way, as she revised her book.


Filed under Revision, Writing

Intimacy at the center of the world

This is my brother

NYC is crawling with people doing all kinds of things–couples are breaking up on the street, smokers are huddling in doorways catching one last drag on a cigarette, UPS and FedEx dudes are pushing wheely dollies piled precariously sky-high with boxes, models are teetering on toothpick legs on stiletto heels, businessmen are in camel hair topcoats headed downtown, tourists are in ski jackets ambling down the avenues, restaurant delivery men are balancing meals in plastic bags on handlebars, their own hands wrapped in plastic bags against the cold, people are walking their dogs…the list goes on.

Meanwhile, the high rises create wind tunnels down the street–the wind gets stronger as you get closer to the Hudson on the east-west streets. The buildings are so high, you snap your head all the way back, and you still can’t see where they end from down below. I live in a high floor of my (current) apartment building, high enough to see most downtown rooftops. Just the other day, I spotted a hawk on a neighboring rooftop, hanging out, as I was, enjoying the view, as I was.

Leave it to me to spot some nature in downtown Manhattan. I like the nature. (p.s. we spotted our 4th rat the other day–in the East Village, on 2nd avenue. It was dead, but still, it was rat #4).

It’s a city that can make you feel real small, though I’ve been feeling pretty amazing since I’ve arrived, even when I had to pick up my car from the tow yard, where in the intake window, the meanest people in the world work. But no harm no foul, I just sat down and smiled, because I was in freaking New York City! One dude looked at me, and said, “Glad you have something to smile about.”

And I looked back at him, and said, “Might as well smile. It already sucks that my car got towed! Why make it suckier?”

He looked at me as if I was insane. Because as you know, New Yorkers don’t really laugh. Bwahahahaha.

I guess there’s more than a little bit of California in me–while in California, I’m a tense, impatient person with more than a touch of New Yorker….in New York City, I’m laid back. Who knew?

Also, I got my car back faster than anyone else. Because the Mean People purposely made the angry people wait longer.

9 million people in NYC. I’m one.

I’m one person coming home from the Junot Díaz reading the other night on a downtown train…and then I look up from my crackberry: and there’s my brother, right in front of me. In an H&R Block advertisement.

I got up, and asked people’s pardon–could I take a picture of that ad? It’s my brother! (He didn’t know he was appearing in this advert, and thus I was completely astonished, as was he). They obliged with visible amusement. He’d been anonymous to them before, anonymous to millions of New Yorkers. Now there was connection.

I wouldn’t have run into that advertisement anywhere else. It took a place filled with people to see this ad. And that’s a lot of why I’m here.

there's my bro AGAIN


Filed under New York City

writing talisman

comfy at the WR
(Zabar’s mug, circa January 2011, at the Writers Room)

The creative process is perceived as mystical, and we writers often sustain that perception. Many writers I know refuse to share details about their writing process, and several claim they “never revise,” which I think is an elusive sidestep to the real answer (they probably do), thereby perpetuating the myth that writing is a form of magic, that ideas come out of nowhere, and when they do appear, they do so in fully mature form, requiring no improvement.

In reality, art involves a lot of anguish and sweat…alongside a bit of magic that even the artist cannot explain. I do quite a bit of banging my head against the wall thinking about my characters and story and plot, and a large part of my writing comes from my conscious.

But then there are magical writing days. For me, magical writing involves the transformation of some twisted psychic pain inside my soul into a sincere assembly of words that communicate this darkness. I can’t say I compose those words consciously–I know a good writing day when my emotional psyche drives my writing, and the words start tumbling forth.

Along with that magic comes the talisman; because magic is so inexplicable, superstition naturally enters the realm. Writers are particular about the direction their desks face (some want a window, others want complete darkness, for instance), about what they eat or do not eat as they write (I cannot write on a full stomach; I will write until I am lightheaded but I will not write if I’ve just had a mongo burger), and about a myriad variables in the universe, including figurines that sit on desks as they write (and while we’re on the topic, some prefer to not write at a desk at all, but rather on the subway, or in bed, etc.).

I? I have my Zabar’s mug.

I bought a Zabar’s mug when I was in NYC last with my friend Randa. It was in between giggling fits scaling the entirety of Manhattan that we found ourselves brunching downtown, browsing scotch at a liquor store, at the Yaddo exhibit at the NY Public Library, eating Dominican Food in Washington Heights, and finally, at Zabar’s. There, we saw them: a display of mugs, priced at $2/each. We would write the first drafts of our novels while drinking out of a Zabar mug! (We were both in NYC to do novel research).

I took the talisman to heart. My Zabar’s mug was the materialization of my vow to write and finish the first complete draft of my novel. I took that mug home with me and set it down before me each morning as I wrote, remembering that day in New York, and the vows made. And knowing that Randa would be doing the same, with her mug.

And it happened. With that mug. I completed a draft of my novel within the year. The mug sat with me, and sustained me through the entire draft, filled with decaf Blue Bottle coffee, Mariage Freres tea, juice, or just plain water.

When I got to NYC this year, with the intent of revising said novel, one of the first things I did for my writing was buy another Zabar’s mug (I left the original back in California). All across the entire country, I bought mugs as we drove to NYC, thinking I would find another to accompany my revision; I bought a mug from the awesome Waffle House, among others. But in the end, I wanted another Zabar’s mug to keep me company through revision.

The first thing I did for my writing was to secure a spot at a writing space–after scouting out the Writer’s Studio at the Center for Fiction and Paragraph, I decided upon The Writers Room. These days, I sit at the Writers Room with my Zabar’s mug, as I revise. That mug is my constant, my talisman, what I’ve designated as materialization of writing magic. Most of writing is sweat working and wailing tears and begging waiting…but I don’t think a bit of magic hurts at all.

What is your talisman?

Zabar's mugs

(Our mugs, circa January 2009)


Filed under Revision, Writing

We Count

sidewalk graffiti, Greenwich Village

VIDA* recently released its statistics on published work along gender lines in major literary magazines. If you haven’t heard by now, the results revealed that men dominate. By a mile. Consistently. Across all magazines. What ensued is a wave of dialogue about the disparities, one that VIDA* begins by saying:

“But as these facts come to light–no longer imagined or guessed at–so does the truth of publishing disparities, the unfortunate footing from which we can begin to change the face of publishing. We are no longer guessing if the world is flat or round; we are wondering how to get from point A to B now that the rules of navigation are public and much clearer. Questions long denied will lead us to new awareness, to challenge current publishing practices, and to query the merits of selection on the level of individual publications and review journals alike.”

The Southern Review’s Jeanne Leiby did a count of the litmag’s past publications (as well as its submissions). The count revealed a slight favor towards male writers…and the submissions reveal the same. The result? More questions than answers from Leiby:

“I’m pleased with these numbers, but I still have more questions than I have answers. I want to know why there isn’t parity in the slush pile. Are there simply more men writing? Or are there more men submitting? I’m seeking a way to see the larger landscape, the whole industry, the biggest picture possible to give context to what we’ve discovered. What are the percentages of women and men in undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs? Is there a break occurring someplace in the chain? What is the ratio of male to female literary agents? What is the ratio of female to male editors? Publishers? Does the gender of the editor or publisher have a direct correlation to the work she publishes? Some of these statistics shouldn’t be too hard to come by, and gathering the numbers is an important first step. VIDA has shown us that there is a problem. Now what can we do to fix it?”

Brevity also jumped into the discussion, with a concerned, but brief post about their most recent issue, raising again, more questions than answers to the issue of gender disparity.

And Kartika Review, the litmag for which I was Fiction Editor, did a quick count of all of our past issues: 49% of the published literary work was by male writers, and 51% of the work by female writers. We didn’t do a count of the submissions–we haven’t been tracking gender. Did we favor women? Or is this a reflection of our slushpile? Do Asian Pacific American women (for our litmag is an APA-focused litmag) submit more often? But then again, the slush pile isn’t all writing from Asian Pacific Americans–we’ve published a number of works written by non-Asian Americans, Kelly Luce and Jill Widner included.

As a litmag editor, I didn’t let gender or ethnicity sway my decisions–but I was still very conscious of each issue’s selections. Was there a balance between gender? I tried very hard to achieve that–sometimes going so far as to reach back into the slushpile to select an additional piece (but not replacing pieces) to do so. Was there equal representation between all the regions of the Asian diaspora? Though impossible to represent every region of Asia (Southeast Asian, South Asia, West Asia, East Asia….), I was conscious of representation throughout my tenure as Fiction Editor.

As Fiction Editor, I was also conscious of my position as a gatekeeper–a bouncer, if you may. We at Kartika Review are humble enough to fully admit that we’re not the “hot club” on the street–we’re the small, neighborhood dance club off the beaten path. The line outside our door may not be as long as those of other litmags. But–I was still a doorman/bouncer.

And I felt, many times, like the bouncer in “Knocked Up,” played with apologetic brillance by Craig Robinson, admitting the entrance system is unfair, “It’s not cause you’re not hot, I would love to tap that ass. I would tear that ass up. I can’t let you in cause you’re old as fuck. For this club, you know, not for the earth.”

Sometimes, I swear, I wish I could include that quote in my rejection letters from Kartika, which I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaated dreaded sending out. As a fellow writer, I felt like each rejection letter was a sucker punch sent out into the universe.

Editors and agents are gatekeepers. We have responsibilities to art (we have to pick the very best), and we also have social responsibilities (we have to be conscious of what our selections represent).

What few people, if any, are bringing up around the VIDA* count is that publishing does not only have gender disparity issues–I feel there are issues around race, too. (Yes, I’m going there). The awesome, always-keeping-it-real-who-can-now-add-Pulitzer-Prize-Winning-to-his-descriptors Junot Díaz, alluded to this issue of representation at AWP. In my friend Elizabeth Browne‘s AWP summary she admitted, “I giggled uncomfortably when Junot Diaz told us how white we were (‘there’s Boston white, and then there’s AWP white’).”

I love that VIDA* has opened the door to a dialogue that needs to begin in earnest. I love that VIDA* has opened the door wider to consciousness about gender disparity in publishing. That we have questions to answer. Important questions to answer. Because these questions might, and hopefully, lead to self-examination and revision of our processes. Because these questions will wake a publishing conscience.

But I think we must also apply these questions about equality to categories beyond gender. I am going to take the liberty of taking Jeanne Leiby’s thoughtful questions and add color:

“Are there people of color writing? Are writers of white European descent submitting more than people of color? What are the percentages of people of color and whites in undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs? Is there a break occurring someplace in the chain? What is the ratio of literary agents who are white to literary agents who are of color? What is the ratio of editors who are of color to editors who are white? Publishers? Does the ethnicity of the editor or publisher have a direct correlation to the work she publishes? If there is a problem…what can we do to fix it?”

I quailed before posting this–because I’m no activist in the realm of activists. But this is also an excellent opportunity to broaden the discussion. This is an excellent opportunity to DO something, even as my friend Margaret La Fleur uses these numbers to address HR3 (the “no taxpayer funding for abortion act,” not even for rape victims, not even when the mother’s life is at stake).

We all count.

*Vida is also the name of my friend Patricia Engel’s awesome, unblinking, critically acclaimed (by the NY Times, even) story collection, one you should buy and read.


Filed under Fiction Editor, literary magazines, Literary Rejections, Publishing, Writing

Stylish Blogger Award

Sunny from Taryn’s Design Diary has granted me…a…(wait for it —!)

Stylish Blogger Award.

Bwahahahahahahaaaaa!! I am so honored, as I dwell these days in uber-stylish downtown Manhattan, where I often feel like the frumpiest thing around.

I admit–and as a writer (aren’t we supposed to be starving artists?), it’s hard to admit…that I have my favorite designers. That shopping is my guilty pleasure. That when bored, you can find me browsing Bluefly, or Gilt. That I’ve visited the Woodbury Commons Premium Outlets TWICE inside of a month here in NYC. That I have a closet of fancy clothing….but even so, I prefer spending the majority of my days in a vintage tshirt and pajama bottoms. And since I packed mostly jeans and tshirts, with a few errant blouses for my move here, I walk down the streets of NYC, adjacent to beautiful models, in said tshirt and jeans. (At least I’m rocking a nice new haircut).

Now that I have revealed my insecurity by rambling on about my “style”…here come the obligatory 7 Facts About Me:

  1. I’m marking my days in NYC by counting my rat sightings. Rat #1 was dead on Varick Street. Rat #2 was scurrying into a brick building on Canal. Tonight, Rat #3 was on a languid stroll on Greenwich Street, sniffing someone’s parked bicycle, before ambling back into the sewer. Bold rat.
  2. I’m sorry about starting off with rats. But they’re on my mind here. I’m also obsessed these days with moisturizers, because of the dry winter air (my bloody noses have stopped, thank goodness). La Mer is not even enough. I tried Yu-be cream on my face but it just clogged up my pores, even though it’s a damn good moisturizer. On my hands, I’ve tried Yu-be cream, Aquaphor, L’Occitane, and good old Vaseline super intensive care lotion. I honestly think the Yu-be cream is the best of the lot for hands. Now I’m on to figuring out moisturizer for my feet…
  3. Ohdear. This is turning into a list of my obsessions, rather than simple facts about me. Um. I have 2 wiener dogs. They’re so old, they mostly sleep all day long. And occasionally lick my feet. I am not sure why they lick my feet, but they do. And I’ve gotten used to it over the years so I just let them lick my feet. If I don’t let them lick my feet, I have to PET THEM. Which is kind of way more effort on my part.
  4. I really, really like cold weather. Not sub-arctic cold. But you know, below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. And I prefer 20F to 90F.
  5. I do a horrible English British accent. Horrible.
  6. I write on my hands. This activity has significantly decreased since the advent of the smartphone, because I email myself reminders via smartphone more often than I write on my hand. But when I have something I really, really need to remember that day, I’ll write it on the back of my hand. (And I write rather messy, so that no one else will know what it is I wrote) If I die a premature death, blame it on all the ink I’ve absorbed through my skin.
  7. I really need 2011 to be a good writing year. I spent all of 2007 recovering from my stroke, which affected my short term memory and ability to write/construct a narrative or story. I dropped out of my MFA program for a little while. During recovery, I received a couple of writing awards from stories written pre-stroke. I was completely tripped out–I was unable to write, and didn’t know if I would ever write again. I spent 2008 gathering my wits, and still unable to write, but finished my MFA by stumbling across the line, turning in a thesis that was a hodge podge of stories written before my stroke. In 2009, I started writing again, and finished the first draft of my novel. 2010 was consumed by teaching and non-writing obligations/responsibilities. And 2011? 2011 is going to be my year as a writer.

And I pass the award on to others (and I’m going to fail at listing 7 other bloggers, because I don’t know any style bloggers, just writers and good friends who vehemently don’t consider themselves stylish, so…my list will be short):

  • w m c i s n o w h e r e–a stylish New Yorker AND world traveller AND writer AND wonderful friend
  • Randa Jarrar ROCKS her style as a writer. Everything she picks out for me to wear? Super cool and super flattering and super playful.
  • Meghan Ward at Writerland spent her formative years as a high fashion model. Stylin’. And now? She’s a writer, writing her modeling memoir.
  • Margaret La Fleur has flair–I mean, check out her awesome name!
  • Elena Mauli Shapiro, who once wrote a story for workshop about being a model. Everyone believed she had actually BEEN a model.

Instructions in a nutshell. Link back to the blogger who awarded you. Set forth seven (7) facts about yourself. Nominate up to seven (7) other bloggers deserving of the award. Be sure to include the Stylish Blogger Award logo somewhere in the post.


Filed under Memes