Write Against Yourself
Photo by Sarah Grant
I’m attracted to routine — the daily act of sitting down with my cup of tea and my attempt at cultivating a daily writing practice. But I easily revert back to writing poems that feel like a familiar place where I might be turning around in a circle over and over again without much new to say. Sometimes I only notice this when I pay attention to the patterns in my work — to the words, images and phrasing I return to again and again.
Find a writing buddy. Take ten minutes to describe your writing to your buddy – characteristic trademark moves, what defines your writing — and share a few pieces of your work (enough so your buddy can form an independent opinion). Have your buddy create a writing prompt that goes against the grain of what is comfortable for you (the prompt should include at least three suggestions). For instance, if you normally write very long, flowing sentences that comprise a narrative, your buddy could give you the directive to write in short, compressed imagistic fragments (or try your hand at the haiku form, for instance). You’ll be surprised at what may emerge!
Biography of Ching-In Chen: Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press). The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she is a Kundiman, Macondo and Lambda Fellow. A community organizer, she has worked in the Asian American communities of San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside and Boston.
That throbbing cursor at the top of an empty computer screen at the beginning of a new tale is the Medusa that can often turn imagination into stone. To get past not getting started I still use that old trick of writing the last sentence first, regardless of whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.
If I’m already working on something and the words aren’t coming that particular day, I will kick-start the keyboard by writing a letter from one of my subjects (either a character or actual person) to myself, using his/her voice, concerns, humor, life. I find they often confide in me this way. “Their” letters usually yield some new dimension or information and spark a detail or reference point I hadn’t previously known or considered. The subjects’ interior lives get richer and I get that cursor moving across the screen.
Biography of Eric Gutierrez: Eric Gutierrez is a writer, essayist and cultural commentator. His fiction has appeared in several anthologies, including Indivisible and the Lambda Award-winning The Man I Might Become. His essays and non-fiction have appeared in Harvard Divinity Today, huffingtonpost.com, NuestraVoice.com and the anthology Gay Widowers: Life After the Death of a Partner. He is the author of Disciples of the Street: God & Rap in the Holy Land of Hip Hop, profiled on The Tavis Smiley Show, and co-editor of Suave: The Latin Male. His scripts for stage and television include the Imagen Award-nominated theaterwork “By the Hand of the Father” (co-writer), and “Los Beltran,” nominated for an American Latino Media Arts (ALMA) Award for Best Television Comedy. He is the recipient of a Brody Fellowship from the California Community Foundation and a Burton Fellowship from Harvard and lives once again in Los Angeles.
Saman by Ayu Utami
translated by Pamela Allen
recommended by Bronwyn Mauldin
Saman is the story of how a Catholic priest in the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, becomes a human rights activist called “Saman.” Author, journalist Ayu Utami, turns the familiar tale of the crusader for justice on its head by folding Saman’s story into that of a group of young women who knew him when they were school girls and he a newly-ordained priest.
Laila is the good girl who always falls for men she cannot have. Shakuntala the dancer who breaks her name in two for an American grant. Cok the bad girl exiled by her family. Yasmin the serious attorney trapped in a dull marriage. As these girls grow up and explore their sexual identities, the priest comes into his own, and with their help, is reborn.
The story unfolds in layers, spanning the globe from one former Dutch colony (Indonesia) to another (New York), in only 180 pages. We read the story through several points of view, and through narrative, letters and emails. Watch for small details casually dropped along the way, as they add up to a powerful tale that is as much about the diversity of modern Indonesia as it is about any one person’s search for justice and freedom.
You can buy Saman at Skylight Books.
The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr
Recommended by Cheryl Klein
Over the course of three novels, Nina Revoyr has chronicled girl basketball players, civil unrest in Watts, and now the silent film era: The Age of Dreaming is the story of Jun Nakayama, a Japanese American star of the silents who—when a new part comes his way for the first time in decades—is forced to reflect on the abrupt end of his career. The reasons are as scandalous as an unsolved murder and as subtle as the growing anti-Japanese sentiments he tried to brush off.
The through-line that draws me to Revoyr’s work again and again—besides her insider’s renderings of Los Angeles—is her depiction of characters who are reluctantly shaken out of their passivity. It’s easy enough to write about characters who are brave or even tragic, but it takes serious skill to write about polite, reserved people whose very nature defies the nature of plot.
Over the course of the novel, which flashes between the ’20s and the ’60s, Jun realizes that society doesn’t reward patience and compliance the way he’d hoped, but that he has more control of his own fate than he once thought.
Revoyr’s prose in this novel are like Jun himself: simple but elegant, contemplative and—at first glance—almost dry. But this is all part of a carefully layered character portrait, and the thoroughly juicy mystery at the novel’s center, coupled with descriptions of Hollywood in its giddy adolescence, keep the pages turning.
You can buy The Age of Dreaming of Skylight Books