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Writing Process Blog Tour

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Margaret LaFleur and Vanessa Martir tagged me to be a part of the Writing Process Tour.

I’m supposed to answer four questions about my writing process and then nominate other authors to tag and post to their blogs.

Happy to participate, especially since I’ve not blogged in awhile, and need to pop my head back in here.

So…

1) What are you working on?
My novel. (I’m always working on my novel). And because it’s Summer, the time of year when I always run into writer’s block, I’m giving myself permission to work on short stories. And essays. The essays are the beginning of a memoir, which I have begun writing.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I hope it differs in many ways–with regard to structure, idea, diction, etc. But mostly, I hope I tell stories that haven’t yet been told before.

3) Why do you write what you do?
I didn’t grow up with anyone writing what I needed.

4) How does your writing process work?
With stories and essays–I come up with an idea or image that gives me some passion. Immediately thereafter, I think about how I will structure my essay or story. Once I’ve got the structure down, I am able to complete a draft. Subsequent revisions include investigating craft–like language and also theme and making sure there are several layers to the piece.

With the novel–it’s just write, write, write. And rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. I have thrown away two times as many words as I’ve decided to keep.

I nominate all of you to do this!

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Alphabet a History: L is for Loveliness

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(An excerpt from diary, July 1989)

Loveliness is one letter away from loneliness.

There is something about writing for me that is lovely and lonely all at once. There are so many more things I am able to express and say through writing that I can’t say in real life. Mostly, because I write what I am unable to feel in physical reality.

Maybe it is because while growing up, I did not have a safe space in which to cry and experience sadness. I had loving parents whose definition of love involved teaching me how to survive war-scale tragedy. To that end, crying and sadness were not tolerated.

I needed somewhere for my intense sadness to go, and so I would stay up all night and write letters to my friends. And write in my diary. And because cutting too is a version of writing, I would carve morse code into my wrists. Because emotions. Because writing was my safety. Because writing became my language for desolation. For pain. For sadness. Because I could write all night and drop tears on paper and the paper and the ink never told me to stop weeping and the paper and ink never judged me for what I felt. Because I could cut into myself and release pain. Because all of this could be done in silence. In private.

And because all of this could be done in loneliness–because I could rip up the paper when I was done. I could roll down my sleeves. But the words were out there. I was creating loveliness out of loneliness.

As I write this, I cry. I weep for that girl. If I could go back in time, I would tell her to cry her eyes out for as long as she wanted, that it was okay. To beat against the walls. To scream. I would hold her. And if she wasn’t ready to be held, I would tell her I would be there when she was ready. I would stay through her rage and sadness and I would tell her she didn’t need to be funny or strong or charming all the fucking time. And when she felt elation, I’d tell her to let loose with abandon.

I am still that girl.

When I see my young daughter, reaching her tantrum-tinged toddler years, I hold her. I tell her she can’t always be cheerful, but that I will wait until she calms. And we will figure out what it is she wants, together. I am determined to be her safety in all dimensions.

I have people in my life who do that for me, now. Who hold me. Who show me there is another way to be. For that I am eternally grateful.

Given the above, I smile when people ask me why I write.

I write, I say, because writing saves my life.

Most people don’t realize that I mean that on literal terms.

When I had my stroke, I wrote my way out of it. I have written my way through love. I have written my way out of heartbreak. I have written my way into exploring ambiguity. I have written my way out of censorship. My writing has made me grow up. My writing has given me a bar for which I should reach. My writing has kept my heart open, even if times a crack.

Writing has saved my life, and it continues to save me. It transforms my loneliness into a loveliness. And I hope in turn, it transforms the loneliness of my readers into loveliness, an exquisite beauty.

And in that way, I hope my writing saves your life, too.

Loneliness is one letter away from loveliness.

***

Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers like Susan Ito in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

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Terrifying Things

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I started a post last year called “Terrifying Things.” I decided to finish it this morning, because my baby decided to sleep in and because I was up early (my toddler has kicked my butt into submission).

It was an exercise in unearthing my subconscious and kickstarting new writing, because when I write, I face what terrifies me.

Writing is the space in which I explore the dark and dusty corners and undersides that I bypass in my non-writing life. It is when I pause to investigate and feel and ask the difficult questions and really stop and let the sensations of living pass over me. Writing is when I examine my fears, pick them up, and explore the shape and texture and alchemy of my terror. Writing is when I feel most brave. Writing is from where my bravery stems. Writing is how I take care of myself. Writing is what saves my life. Writing is how I am okay, no matter what.

These days, I have to pause to process great upheaval and transition. These days, I have to write.

I am writing my terror, which inspires me. Terror is the terroir of my stories. When I unlock my fears, I also unlock all love and courage.

So what are the terrifying things?

  • My first night in the dorms, someone offered me a joint for the first time. I had never before been offered drugs, let alone a drink. I stammered out, “I have to get back to my room,” and then proceeded to cry. It was a stark indicator that I was in a new place where I had to set my own rules.
  • Being raped.
  • My first HIV test. I made everyone take an HIV test. Those things are made to freak people out. I could have been a virgin and still had doubts.
  • My first kiss. Anyone’s first kiss really, no? The unknown, the exhilaration. In my case, my first kiss was not a sweet moment. A brute pushed me on my bed and then pushed himself on me.
  • Being bullied.
  • Watching my friend Tammy give herself an insulin shot through her dirty denim jeans in the back of the bus on the way to school.
  • The first day of junior high.
  • Having an eating disorder and being in a pink and white striped bathing suit. While being critiqued by middle aged Korean moms and dads at a church party.
  • When our pastor came to live with us, and threw my tadpoles down the garbage disposal.
  • When the neighbor’s cat ate my pet hamsters. I know this because the neighbor showed me the carcasses and bones in the cat’s food dish. I went hysterical. I was seven.
  • I kept a small spider in a jar, one I fed flies (I was a weird child and am a weirder adult, sue me). My grandmother found a cooler insect, she thought–a praying mantis. She put the praying mantis in the jar with my spider. She showed me the praying mantis–all I saw was a little puddle of goo in the hands of the mantis.
  • Wishing I were Wonder Woman, but having to wear Wonder Woman’s costume.

The last item on my list was “being alone.” But I needn’t have feared being alone. I was already alone. I was surviving. And learning new lessons. I faced so many of my greatest life fears last year–the most terrifying things of all, the ones I could not and would not list because I feared they would come true.

And yet they came true, anyway.

It was awful but also incredibly rewarding.

Facing fears, I’ve learned, is the way to safety.

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MINT

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My essay entitled “MINT” is up at The Rumpus. This essay was hard-earned, one I started writing a couple years ago. I got stuck in the middle and set it aside, but in the darkest month of my adult life (November 2013, to be exact), I figured out its ending and I sat down and finished writing it in one afternoon.

This is an essay that took everything out of me to write, and I am proud to have written it, and prouder still that I’m able to share it with my readers

There is also a recording of my reading the essay on the site. Some trivia: there is the sound of dog lapping water at the very end–that sound got caught on the recording, and I decided not to re-record. That’s Ziggy the Wiener Dog, about two weeks before he died.

And the above picture is the actual black and white dog in the actual mint patch referenced in MINT.

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After a Hiatus

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After a lengthy and complicated hiatus, I’m back to revising my novel, writing stories, and writing essays. Writing makes me feel like I’m okay again. Really okay. Even thriving. I’ve a number of pieces due out in publications over the next few months, and I’m very excited that they will be out in the world. All of them were accepted for publication in the past year, but some of the pieces were written years ago, while others were written a few weeks ago. I’m always baffled and delighted at the unique journey my work takes to find literary homes.

I’m particularly nervous about a Creative Nonfiction piece to be published within the next 8 weeks. (I will not name the publication for now, as I’m afraid of jinxing things). The essay is about my complicated relationship with the herb mint–as it pertains to trauma in my life, including intimate partner rape, of which I’m a survivor. So there’s that–the nature of the essay itself is very personal and makes me feel vulnerable. But that’s par for the course as a writer.

But then there’s the matter of permission when it comes to memoir.

There is a lot of negotiation in the realm of CNF/memoir. Your art. Their lives. Their wellbeing. Your wellbeing.

There are those of the camp that say if people inflicted crap upon you, that them’s the breaks. And there are those of the camp that say not to hurt anyone further. There are people in my life who refuse to let me write about them. And then there are people in my life who know that experiences with them will find their way into my art.

The boyfriend in the essay and I have kept in touch over the years–it’s been important to him that I remain his friend, and he recently reached out to me to share a fact that enlightened me on the matter of what happened the night he raped me.

This is a boyfriend who supported my writing more than any other. He urged me to write. We were not a compatible couple, and as a result, there were many sparks and disconnects. He is possibly the boyfriend with whom I felt the most alienated. But he loved that I wrote, before I even became a writer. He gave me a subscription to ZYZZYVA, which ended up being the only litmag about which I knew, which was therefore the only litmag to which I sent my first short story, which was where my first story was published.

But this is a boyfriend who had his demons. I had my own personal demons, too. And the two of us didn’t mesh well.

I wrote an essay about what he did. I’ve written about him before. I don’t use his name, but in many ways, I sold him out, particularly in this upcoming essay. And it weighed on me heavily. I didn’t let it weigh on me while I wrote it–in fact, I censored myself zero, but when my essay was done, I wondered about the ramifications of such a piece. I knew I loved the essay–because when i finished writing it, I was practically panting with exertion.

There was no way I was going to let this essay sit and gather dust.

It took me awhile after finishing the essay and having it accepted for publication to write him. I wasn’t even sure I would tell him about the piece, but I ultimately decided to give him a heads up. I didn’t need or want his permission, but I did want to give him the courtesy of letting him know I’d written something very dark about his behavior. I wrote:

“So. I wrote an essay. And it’s going to be published. I am not sure you will be happy about it, but I did not name names and no one will know it’s about you I wrote. I am pretty sure it will make you angry, though.

But it came out the way it came out. And I can give you a sneak preview as a courtesy. Should be published within the next 8 weeks. Under my new pen name.”

I waited for a response.

And I’m a lucky writer–because he said he fully supports me and including my life experiences in my art. I was spared grappling with his resentment.

There’s the thing he did to me.
And then there’s the thing he did for me.

Now on to other facets of my life that have lived long under the covers and must come out for air. I doubt I’ll have everyone’s blessing, but this is a start. And yes, I’m thinking my next project (after this novel) is a memoir.

UPDATE: The aforementioned essay, is up on The Rumpus. “MINT” is about my complicated relationship with mint and its relevance to traumas.

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Turning Point as a Writer

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This is a reprint from my post up at Nova Ren Suma’s blog from last December. I answered the question, “What was your turning point as a writer?” Thought I’d reshare here, especially as I return to my novel from a year away from writing due to pregnancy, childbirth, mothering, and postpartum depression.

I have had many turning points as a writer, some more dramatic than others, each bringing a unique encouraging message.

I remember my first litmag acceptance from ZYZZYVA for the first piece of fiction I’d ever written; it was a sign for me to pursue this long-subjugated dream.

I remember my first novel workshop with VL, the one in which I began writing my novel. I wasn’t sure I had a novel in me, but by the end of the semester, I had 100 fresh pages. I’ve thrown out all 100 pages since, but the core of the idea remains and flourishes years later.

I remember JD who doesn’t pull punches telling me, “You should be proud. You’re almost there” after reading the opening chapters of my novel-in-progress this past summer. The ensuing discussion made it so I could see the light at the end of the novel-in-progress tunnel. I was so inspired. I got my second wind.

But no turning point has been so life-changing and incredible as the time during which I had zero writing achievements, when I was unable to write fiction, let alone read a novel for two years. It was then that I knew I would do everything in my being to be able to write again, and that I would never give up on my novel.

I had a stroke on December 31, 2006, at the age of 33. Amidst the festivities of New Year’s Eve, no one thought much of the fact that I appeared quiet and spacey. I’d had the weirdest migraine of my life earlier that day in the parking lot of a South Lake Tahoe shopping center; the world tilted 90 degrees and every object doubled. If I were to write an imagist poem about that moment, I’d write about the twinned red snow blowers lined up in the snow outside a hardware store.

My husband says I complained of an enormous migraine-level headache, but I don’t remember pain. I remember disorientation and wonder and sudden exhaustion. What was happening? I should say something, but what is it I could say? What were words? What was language? I felt like my Self was buried under a thousand layers of cotton blankets.

It wasn’t until we got back down from the mountains a day later that we realized that something was seriously wrong. I couldn’t remember my way home from the neighborhood grocery store and I couldn’t process the labels on the shelves of the store and I couldn’t remember my husband’s phone number when I decided that perhaps I needed to go to the hospital. I wondered what the phone number for 911 might be.

At the hospital lying in bed my neurologist told me that I had had a stroke.

My stroke didn’t affect my body—I didn’t limp and my face didn’t slide like melted wax. I looked completely normal. My stroke had occurred in the left thalamus, the mysterious “hub” of the brain, and it among other things, the stroke affected my short-term memory, my coping mechanisms, and it affected my ability to retrieve memories, spin language, and weave stories.

In short, I was Dory the Fish in Finding Nemo.

My doctors told me to keep a journal as my memory bank—to write every happening inside the journal and to timestamp each entry. It was my physical short-term memory repository (and it worked a lot better than tattooing things on my body a la “Memento Mori”).

That Moleskine journal saved my life.

I was determined to “come back like Lance (Armstrong)” and I wrote my feelings and happenings in my Moleskine every single day. I often slept 20 hours a day. My waking hours felt like what healthy people feel like in the first few minutes after waking up in the morning; hazy and not quite present. In the first months, it took me two of my four waking hours to compose three paragraphs. But I wrote them.

I was convinced that if I kept writing, my brain would heal and make me a stronger writer. That I’d come out of this better than before. That somehow the synapses in my brain would synthesize a new and better writer. (Cue Six Million Dollar Man theme music).

Several months into my recovery, I was well enough to comprehend my situation. And yes, I cried. Yes, I got depressed. I would pick up books, and find myself reading the same paragraph over and over and over because by the end of the paragraph, I’d forgotten what had happened, so I’d keep reading and forgetting.

At around the year mark, my doctors told me “I was cured.” I was not cured, I told them. I couldn’t write fiction. How was this cured? Most of my doctors and therapists shrugged with a shadow of pity behind their eyes. My neurologist said I would keep improving, but this was, he said, as far as most doctors would go.

I was functional. I could hold a conversation. I couldn’t balance a checkbook, but I could get money out of the ATM and I could pay for my purchases. I could read People magazine, and I could even read a short story by then. I could go on drives and remember where I’d parked my car and find my way back home, but I couldn’t yet read a novel.

My stroke helped me to realize that the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else, was to write. My marker for “being cured,” was not what the doctors designated. It was not being able to function in life. It was not what my friends designated, which was to appear normal and be able to participate in discussions. My marker for being alive was to be able to write fiction again. To write my novel.

It took two years before I could look at my novel, and imagine worlds again. Two years before I stopped flipping homonyms in my writing. Two years before my prose became more than pedestrian.

I’m not sure if my brain, as I’d hoped, formed new synapses such that they made me a better writer—but I’m most certainly a more determined writer. And that has made all the difference. There is a black spot in my brain now, and it will always be there, near the center of my brain. And I consider that my writing birthmark.

It took years before I could remember this experience as a cohesive narrative. And while most writers don’t have strokes at the age of 33, I don’t think my experience is all too unique, because many of us have been kept from our writing in one way or another in our crazy writing lives. It could be a year away from writing as you raise a new baby, or a year away from writing as you immerse yourself in financially-necessary work, or a year away from writing because your writing just breaks your heart and you just can’t look at it anymore. Maybe you were really sick and couldn’t write. But sometimes, it is that very time away that forms the negative space around your identity and determination and your writing. When you come back, you know who you are, more than ever. And who you are is a writer to the core.

—Christine Lee Zilka

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Writing Characters of Another Race As It Pertains to Southern Cross the Dog

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Writing characters of another race is an ongoing craft/political interest obsession of mine. I’d say my thoughts on the subject are evolving, but at this point, they are deepening as well.

More and more, I do not think “freedom of the imagination” reigns supreme. More and more, I do not think one should consider writing another race and/or culture with any lightheartedness. In an ideal world, art and freedom would reign supreme, but because we don’t all enjoy the same freedoms and privilege, the act of writing another race is not that simple. And to think it’s that simple is to discount and dismiss the complications out there–complexities that include race and racism, no small things in the cultural landscape.

Then there’s the idea of “pulling it off,” or “getting away with it,” as Gracie Jin’s astute little post on polymic points out. Mainly, she asks the question, “Who gets away with writing another race/culture?”:

How many celebrated white writers have written characters who were not exactly like them? William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Pearl S. Buck, Colum McCann, Yann Martel, and Arthur Golden immediately come to mind. In a society masquerading as post-racial, it is still only the white man who can speak authoritatively for every man. People of color, on the other hand, are expected to speak only for themselves.

So there’s what. And she makes a good point.

Then there are the words, “getting away with it,” which in and of itself sounds shady (this, brought up by Tayari Jones on twitter). Is it a shady thing? And what’s so shady? Does the writer think that all writers should be able to write outside their race, or does she think no one should?

I have so many questions.

To that end, Matthew Salesses and I sat down with Bill Cheng, author of SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG to discuss the very subject of writing and race. In particular, we wanted to talk about writing characters of another race. The interview is published at ALIST Magazine.

It was a conversation that had its dose of friction and honesty and exhilaration. Friction, because Cheng and I don’t agree on most facets of writing characters of another race. Honesty, because Cheng and I were able to speak frankly about race with Salesses’ moderation capabilities. Exhilarating, because this is the kind of conversation that usually happens behind closed doors, and here we were discussing in a format intended for public consumption.

The interview is long. Salesses chose to run it unabridged; we touched on many things that would have suffered had they been put out of context.

Bill Cheng wrote a very good book set in the Jim Crow South, with nary an Asian American character. Cheng is Asian American, has never lived in the South (nor has he visited), and of course, was not alive in the Jim Crow historical timeline. Provocative. Risk taking. Daring. I find that pretty awesome.

But I also wanted to know what was going on in his head and heart when he wrote this book, for my edification as well as yours. Was he aware of the political nature of his doing so? How did he approach writing another race?

So does Bill Cheng “get away with it?” I’m not sure. The reactions to his interview with us at ALIST are spurring all kinds of reactions. And it’s interesting to note his observations and thoughts alongside the points made in Gracie Jin’s polymic post.

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