Guest Post: Yes, Even You Can Write a Book Review!

One of the great joys of my life in the last year has been teaching a year-long advanced creative nonfiction workshop. This guest post is from my student, Nadia Ghent, a talented writer and former professional violinist. Nadia’s writes about reviewing Geeta Kothari’s short story collection, I Brake for Moose. My first (and only) book review took months to write (really, it was kind of torturous—I didn’t know what I was doing and where to start, and how to be critical and also empathetic, thoughtful, intellectual, and creative–and I thought I had to sound smart, speak the jargon like my PhD friends).  Still, I’m glad I wrote that review, and I learned so much. There’s much to learn, also, in Nadia’s behind-the-scenes look at her process and the work that goes deep reading and writing and reviewing.

Yes, even you can review a book!

Nadia Ghent

IMG_1342I think it was somewhere around the fifth or sixth layer of scribbled Post-it notes on top of each already note-strewn page in the composition book I’d bought especially for writing down every single impression I had while preparing to review Geeta Kothari’s short story collection, I Brake for Moose and Other Stories, that I started to doubt my ability to write even one coherent sentence about this book.  Not that there wasn’t anything to write about—Kothari’s eleven stories are so rich with characters and the evocative details of their lives that I found myself writing down not just sentences, but also whole paragraphs of the text in my notebook.

I was struck with the immediacy of her writing, and the way each story takes the reader directly into the world of the characters in language that is clear and evocative. And also with the way every single one of these eleven short stories relates to our own world—Kothari’s characters transcend their fictional enclosure between the covers of the book, as if they were people in real life, people we would know.

Somehow I had agreed to write a review of I Brake for Moose and Other Stories for the online journal Necessary Fiction, and the enormity of the task—to do Kothari’s collection justice in even the most modest way—seemed beyond me. I also have to confess that this would be my first “real” review, since up to now my entire experience with being a reviewer of any sort had been limited to a collaborative book-reading blog that I’d participated in for the past two years. This blog was very informal, totally subjective, and the posts were mostly fun and easy to write.  The review for Necessary Fiction was going to be a completely different experience: objectivity would be paramount, and I would need to develop some kind of a critical stance.  I was going to have to write a lot more than, “What a great book. I really liked it,” and I had one thousand words in which to find something to say.

And so I began the only way I knew how—I read the book.  I read it as I would any other book, sprawled on the sofa, or in bed, or while eating lunch, and I read completely for pleasure, without the notion that I was going to have to say something that made sense or make some kind pronouncement of my fledgling critical opinion.  I am not an academic, and I’ve only recently returned to writing.  I used to be a violinist. The last paper I wrote in graduate school was on Beethoven’s string quartets, and that was in the previous century. But I have always been a reader, and I knew that if I could find the way Kothari’s book spoke to me as a reader, I would be able to find a way to write about it.

IMG_1343After the first reading, I got to work. I wrote down the basics of each story in my notebook: characters, setting, conflict, first impressions. But what really drew me in was Kothari’s language.  This is when I started writing down chunks of the text that resonated with me. I read each story a second, third, fourth, and even fifth time, becoming slightly obsessed with how much more each re-reading brought into focus– hence, the multiple layers of Post-it notes—while also beginning to understand the themes and subtle points of connection between each story.  I began to develop enough ideas about the book to write 10,000 words, not 1,000. The problem was that there was so much to write about in each story.  And the directions for reviewing from Necessary Fiction were clear—1,000 words was a strict limit. No indulgence in writing about every emotionally resonant detail.

I started reading previous reviews in Necessary Fiction, paying special attention to reviews of short story collections. I wanted to figure out how to handle multiple story lines and characters in one review, and how much detail a reviewer would go into in discussing each individual story. And I had stumbled into the first rule of reviewing: read the reviews already published in the journal you want to submit to. Suddenly I became aware of how many opinions about things—books, movies, restaurants, music, clothing, shoes, dog kennels, grass seed—that came pouring out of the media I engaged in every day. And that I mostly ignored. I began to feel totally overwhelmed. How was I going to figure out what was important enough to write?

The only solution was to start writing. But because I actually didn’t know what to start with, I made a list of verbs as a warm-up exercise: craft, follow, fracture, mirror, reflect, create, temper, contend, and as many others as I could think of.  My first day of actual writing consisted of listing verbs. I thought that if I could think of what the writing was doing—as if the writing were a person engaged in some kind of action—I would be able to convey how this action reveals the ideas Geeta Kothari engages with in the stories, and how successful she had been. This also began to fix in my mind a specific place to start: verbs as the motor in constructing sentences and creating structure. Instead of an amorphous sense of what I wanted to write about (everything!), I had a way to bring motion to my own ideas. Next, I grouped the stories into those that shared themes, and I decided to focus on three of them in greater depth, while saving room to mention all the others at least in passing.  And then I re-read all my notes, added yet another layer of Post-its, and finally sat before the blinking cursor and the blank screen. I dug in.

Of course the first draft was terrible. Most of this awful initial attempt consisted of long quotes with just a few of my own sentences woven in to hold it all together, which they barely did. I thought that the language of these stories was so incredible that the review should consist mainly of the text, while what I had to say needed to retreat into the background. It was like baking chocolate chip cookies but leaving out all the flour because you just wanted to eat the chocolate.

This was not the best approach.  Sejal read this draft and made some gentle but firm suggestions that helped me think more deeply so that I could really begin to write and not just reproduce the text. Or actually hide behind the text—it was going to take some courage and resolution to put my words first. I took out most of the quotes, and found that this opened up space for what I needed to write. And that I actually had something to say.

IMG_1344After a few more drafts, I put the review down for several weeks and worked on other projects. I felt as if there was still more I needed to do, but that time and distance were needed even more. And I continued to think about the stories as I walked the dog, went for a run, read other books.  Points of connection between the stories and larger themes that I had missed started to become clear. It was as if the stories were talking to each other in my imagination even while I was doing other things.

As the deadline approached, I returned to what I had, re-wrote it again with these new thoughts, changed the middle and the end, sent it to another friend to read, wrote some more, ever mindful of the fluctuating word count. And then finally, two days before it was due, when there wasn’t anything else that still bothered me, I decided that the review was ready. I sent it to the editor early mostly because I was worried that a monumental snowstorm predicted for the day of the deadline would affect my Internet service (it did not). But also because two more days would not have made it any more finished.  And amazingly, it really was ready: when the editor sent the review back with her comments a few weeks later, she had made only minor punctuation edits—her precise and consistent red marks throughout the review might finally cure me of my terrible habit of using two spaces between sentences. The review itself didn’t need any revision, and after I fixed the spacing issue, the editor scheduled it for publication

What I learned from this effort is how important it is not to think that we can’t write something worthwhile about a work of art, that somehow only super- qualified people get to have a voice, to put forth an opinion, or to write about literary and real-life themes that affect all of us in different ways.  I learned that it is incredibly important to advocate for writing that speaks to us, even if we are not academics or book critics or even published authors, and that writing about compelling fiction like Kothari’s is part of what we need to do as literary citizens in this world. It’s difficult, though, and reviewing takes many, many times longer than reading.

But how incredible it is to get into the inner workings of these stories, to enter the world, if only through the imagination, that Geeta Kothari has created.  And then to have a chance to think even more deeply about these stories through the process of writing about them. I hope that more people will read I Brake for Moose and Other Stories, and that the review I spent many weeks struggling over will contribute to others feeling drawn to Geeta Kothari’s stunning collection of stories.  Then my effort will have been entirely worth it.

None of this would have happened without Sejal and her incredibly generous and transcendent teaching. Thank you, Sejal, for suggesting I just give it a try, and for always asking for something better (and not giving up on me after that terrible first draft!) I don’t think I would have thought of writing a review on my own, and I certainly didn’t believe that I could actually do it. But I made it through, thanks to Sejal’s encouragement and an entire pack of Post-it notes, and now I feel as if I might just have enough confidence to write another review sometime soon.

 

 

 

I Had a Moment: A Few Thoughts on Denis Johnson, Readings, & Endings

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Poster from Denis Johnson’s reading at the University of Rochester. October 9, 2015.

I learned last week from a friend’s Facebook post that Denis Johnson had died. I don’t know Johnson’s writing well, but I am thankful to have heard him read a couple of years ago at the University of Rochester. I know he read at UMass Amherst while I was in graduate school there, but it was during a time when I didn’t make it out to a lot of events.

The more readings I attend, the more I appreciate the good ones. His was a good one, a terrific one—memorable—in a sea of not-great ones where I’ve fallen asleep (really). Johnson was well-prepared, funny, read short pieces, talked in between. I went with my friend Angus (originally from Rochester), who was visiting from out of town over fall break. He’s a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was a good Q&A and I wrote down several phrases from Johnson’s reading. I recently found the notebook where I jotted these notes down.

IMG_2972And I forgot for a while (about a  year and a half) about the Denis Johnson quotes, because most of the middle of the notebook is grocery lists, and even those languished in a corner for a while, while we looked for other notebooks in which to write lists. I just started using the notebook again for grocery lists and so had seen my notes from the reading—mostly lines from stories. Individual sentences of his stay in your head.

Denis Johnson       10.9.15   UR

“I decide to call ____. They’re in my phone. Odd expression.”

From “Silences,” a story:

“He said the worst silent thing he’d ever heard was the land mine that took off his leg in Afghanistan.”

“How often can you witness a woman kissing a prosthesis?”

“Yes, they’re husband and wife. You and I know what goes on.”

From “Accomplices”:

“People in our neighborhood stroll around in bathrobes, but not usually without a pet.”

@end of story, looking at reflection in glass, sky and celery, ski and cycling [?]. “I headed home.”

First sentence of a different story:

“I was having lunch with my friend Tom Ellis one day, just catching up.”

Other sentences:

“His opinion about the afterlife. Mason was for it.”

“Then, more often than you might think in a San Diego café, we were interrupted by a woman selling roses.”

“New York and I didn’t quite fit. I knew it all the time.”

“I presided over all the litter, the people in restaurants in small tables.”

“Our public toilets are just that—too public. We can see each other—black shoes and cuffs. The walls don’t go down all the way to the ground.”

“By staring down at my feet and hunching over I attempted to disappear (to make myself disappear).”

“I had a moment. I have them sometimes…bereft…and not even a physical gesture seemed possible painless.”

***

He signed my copy of Jesus’ Son. I bought another book of Johnson’s (Train Dreams, on a friend’s recommendation) that I still haven’t read. I will now. I want to read so much, so many things, before I die. And my shelves are full of books I’ve bought in the last two years and haven’t finished reading. That’s a goal for this summer. To read more.

Johnson was funny. He read well. He’d timed himself. The short pieces worked. I just remember, as others said about him on Facebook and Instagram, he was present. Even in that reading. I felt present, and I felt him as being present.

I’m sure I got some of the sentences wrong, they’re partial, they’re misquoted. I don’t want to go back and correct them. I don’t want to look them up. I will read his work. I wanted to write this down. That’s all. I was inspired enough, I remember his cadences—and how stories started and how they ended. That I wrote notes. And that in itself signals something to me. I felt alive as a writer, reader, listener.

Last week, I was talking to my friend Ravi about the reading. (He had been there, too.) Ravi said, “And you asked that question about his endings.” I was glad he remembered, because that was the kind of thing I would ask about, but I didn’t remember that I had asked it. I had however written something in the notebook, and I didn’t know what it meant, but it must have been his response (or my interpretation or thoughts on his response). I think I asked how he knew or decided where to end a story.

Usually, when I get that ending feeling / feel

Endings are end—ending—complete or [something] about to be said or about to be said

I remember thinking it was a good answer; it was a satisfying exchange.

***

That day was good…it was one of those good days. After Johnson’s reading, Angus and I went to the Owl House for dinner and I had tea with Irene earlier in the day. And then we also stopped by The Bug Jar. Angus was at his best—someone you could take anywhere. He talked about his mom, whom I’d never met, and the school she’d helped found, which had recently closed. I’m not sure he’d been back to Rochester since she died.

But there we were, across from the park, and we walked through Highland Park, where we had met 20 years earlier, through mutual friends. And who were we then? Twenty years ago, Angus was just leaving his PhD program in creative writing and moving to Brooklyn. Later, I moved to Brooklyn, and even later, I became a professor, too. And  then I left that profession, and became who I am now. A writer.

That October, we were just two people, old friends and writers, listening to Denis Johnson. Then we walked out into the rest of the day, still thinking about his sentences.

2017 Winter-Spring Roundup

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Reading at Rochester Spoken Word’s Inaugural Speak Easy Salon, Cheshire Cocktail Bar. January 8, 2017. Photo by Jamie McFarlan.

After I reached my 2016 goal of blogging twice a month (twelve columns for The Kenyon Review Blog) plus other posts on my website—I took a break. My last post of 2016 turned into an essay, an article, a repository of links, lists and quotes—not so simple after all. Writing and revising took many, many hours. I wrote about assembling and creating a manuscript, and then two manuscripts, from individual essays and stories—what I spent the better part of my year doing. I worked hard to compile some resources I had found helpful. Many people read “On Ordering Essay (& Story) Collections: To Try & Try Again,” and let me know that. Erika Dreifus also linked to my column in her terrific Friday Finds for Writers. Thank you, Erika! You set the bar high for literary citizenship.

Still, I’m thinking about whether or not it’s actually worth the time it takes to blog. Then I read a post by Ravi Mangla called 2016 Link Roundup, and it’s brilliant—simple links to writing he’s published in the last year—easy access to his work for those who are interested. I wanted to do something similar in this post—an update of sorts—since 2017 has been eventful so far (and otherwise I forget things, my own publications, and what I’ve been reading—time seems to only speed up as I get older).

The year began for me with a reading in January:

  • Rochester Spoken Word’s Inaugural Speak Easy Salon This was a terrific start to a beautifully organized reading series. Invitation only and RSVP required. It really had the feel of intimate salon away from the social media trumpeting before or after. Music, craft cocktails, popcorn, a program, a Q&A. A relaxed Sunday afternoon, time to talk and mingle afterward, receptive audience.
  • My Advanced Creative Nonfiction class and I will be reading at Cheshire (the cocktail bar) at the July edition of the Speak Easy Salon on Sunday, July 9th. More info here.

Publications Thus Far in 2017:

Mad Heart Be Brave: Essays on the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali (University of Michigan Press, 2017/ Ed. Kazim Ali). I wrote the lead essay in this just-released anthology about the lasting influence of my former MFA professor, the poet Agha Shahid Ali. You can order Mad Heart Be Brave here. Read an earlier version of my essay, “The World Is Full of Paper. Write to Me.,” online here.

Rochester Magazine (scroll to second essay, “From a Distance”). This was my 1st publication in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester’s daily newspaper—Rochester Magazine is a monthly supplement to the paper) in over 20 years (I had another publication when I was in college). The 2017 essay is about my wedding, and the ambivalence I felt about so many traditions associated with getting married.

The Asian American Literary Review‘s special issue on mental health: Open in Emergency. I contributed a short story, “Watch Over Me; Turn a Blind Me,” and a creative annotation of the pieces that made up the “Hacked DMV: Asian American Edition.”  The title link has more information on how to order Open in Emergency, and about the project more generally—it can be used as a tool in classrooms and community settings—a kind of social justice and educational intervention.

Redux: My short story, “Dicot, Monocot,” about friendship in middle school, originally published in the print literary journal Pleiades in 2002, is now available online. “Dicot” is one of my first fiction publications. Thanks to the wonderful editor, Leslie Pietrzyk— for creating a venue for work published in print journals to have a second life online. Leslie is another true literary citizen. On Redux, you can also read a brief, reflective piece I wrote as a companion to “Dicot”—the story behind my story.

Other:

My friend and former student Katie Duane published a lovely Literary Guide to Rochester. I’m thrilled she chose to feature an excerpt of my story, “The Half King.” This story is one of my favorites as well as a valentine of sorts to my hometown.

Most Anticipated Small Press Books of 2017!: I admire John Madera, the editor of the website, Big Other. He’s an example of an excellent writer who is also a real literary citizen, contributing to the larger community of writers and readers. It’s refreshing to see writers championing other writers after the sometimes relentless self-promotion that authors need to do. John sent out a request to writers in 2016 to contribute to his list of new books to look forward to in 2017: my contributions include new books by writers Geeta Kothari and Nate Pritts.

Speaking of other people’s writing, here are some essays and articles I recommend—terrific resources and thoughts by smart, committed writers I know. By posting links here, I hope I can refer back to the essays and that others might read these essays, too. Please let me know if you do—and let the writers themselves know, also. It’s sometimes lonely writing into the void.

Links to essays I recommend:

Karen Craigo’s brilliant and necessary essay, “May I Have Several Hours of Your Time?”  (Thank you, Karen, for writing this. Everyone—at least every woman and every writer and every woman writer—should read this. Let me know what you think. Or better yet, let her know.)

On a similar note, thank God for Melissa Febos’ essay in Catapult: “Do You Want to Be Known for Your Writing Or For Your Swift Email Responses” (relevant especially to women—or maybe relevant especially to me).

Heidi Czerwiec‘s essay, “Anatomy of an Outrage,” in ROAR: Literature and Revolution by Feminist People. You have to read the essay—I can’t summarize it. Heidi and I met at the NonfictioNOW conference in 2015 in Flagstaff, Arizona. In her essay, she references a 2016 column I wrote for The Kenyon Review Blog on trauma and privilege.

Claudia Rankine’s “I Think We Need to Be Frightened” (highlights from a talk she gave at BAM, published in LitHub). On her thoughts on the current political climate and reality in the US. A must-read.

Ravi Mangla‘s creative nonfiction essay, “Seven Months,” made me cry. In front of him. Just after reading this piece, I burst into tears. It was embarrassing (crying in public), but you should read it. His essay appears in the beautiful, newly-launched magazine, LitMag.

Thank you, Neil Aitken, for this blog post in de-canon: “Writers of Color Discussing Craft—An Invisible Archive.” There are links to SO many important resources and articles here. Please take a look and bookmark it. I was glad to see a link to The Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, which hosted a forum about Yi-Fen Chou and appropriation—one of my essays is included here.

On Ordering Essay (& Story) Collections: To Try & Try Again

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Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage—one of the essay collections I read in 2016.

Earlier this year, I assembled a hybrid manuscript (short stories and creative nonfiction essays) and an essays-only version and sent both out to several places. My manuscript was a finalist at three presses this spring and summer, which was encouraging. A few of the editors, writers, and friends who read my manuscript generously provided some useful feedback. Then I took some time to consider next steps.

In September, I had lunch with Sabina Murray, a fiction writer who teaches in the MFA program at UMass Amherst. We were talking about the challenges of selling a hybrid manuscript and she said, “Think about when you go to a bookstore and pick up a memoir or a novel. You are looking for a different experience in reading one over the other, right? We have different expectations for nonfiction versus fiction.”

That made sense to me, even though, given the interest in books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen or Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, it is also a good time to be publishing “hybrid” work. For what it’s worth, Edie Meidav, another fiction writer at UMass thought it absolutely possible to shop and successfully publish a hybrid manuscript.

My takeaway: there’s no one or right answer. These are just decisions we make and go from there. The word “essay” comes from the French verb essay—to try. So much of writing is to try. And to try again.

After putting my manuscript aside for a few months, I decided to try separating the stories and essays, which meant shorter collections of each—but I could also see how they read differently.

In December, I picked up Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. As in any collection, I found some essays more compelling than others. Many of Patchett’s essays had been published elsewhere first (and some were the text of speeches), and while there were certainly themes, Patchett has a strong following as an established writer. Readers would (and did) buy the book whether or not the essays all worked together to create a unified whole. Beyond that, of course it’s meaningful and valuable to hold a book in your hand, all the writing there at once, instead of clicking to this link and that link online.

I read Patchett’s book from beginning to end, and did not skip around. I usually skip around. I realized that’s in part why I had a hard time thinking about chronology and ordering my essays or stories—the order of stories or poems or essays in a book usually does not have much bearing on the order in which I actually read them.

On the other hand, seeing the structure, reading an introduction or forward, seeing subtitles (as in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land) did help me to see in part how the writers themselves (and / or their publishers and editors) intended for the book to read. And I appreciated that, could see the value in that.

With a little help from (as Roxane Gay might say) Dr. Google, I found some useful resources:

Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies also has two excellent posts covering recent conference panels on the subject. One is Vivian Wagner’s blog post, “Narrative, Lyric, Hybrid: Crafting Essay Collections into Books.” This post covered the AWP 2015 conference panel of the same title with Renee D’Aoust (moderator), and Rebecca McClanahan, Patrick Madden, Peter Grandbois, and Philip Lopate as panelists.

From Assay:

Rebecca McClanahan began the discussion by addressing the different ways that essay collections can come together. Some books of essays, she said, cohere organically because of subject matter, style, narrative movement, or repeating images. For essays that don’t automatically hang together, however, she said writers have to grapple with a variety of questions. What should one do, for instance, with events that repeat themselves over and over in various essays? Should the writer edit the essays and place a key event once in the collection? What if some of the essays are in present tense and some in past? What about the fact that people in our essays grow up, marriages end, and we ourselves change over time? As McClanahan said, “our reflections may change drastically from essay to essay. There can be several selves on the page colliding with each other.”

Wagner ended her coverage of the panel with this commentary:

I can’t say I came away from this panel with all the answers. I’m still mulling over my yet-to-be-assembled essays. What I did learn, however, is that putting together a book of essays involves more – much more – than just creating a single Word file and piling essays in it until it reaches 300 pages. And that lesson, at least, is a good place to start.

So true. It’s much more than creating a single Word file!

Next, Heidi Czerwiec’s write-up in Assay covered a panel at the 2015 NonfictioNow Conference (I was lucky enough to attend this panel, too): From the post, “Assay@NFN15: ‘Beyond Scaffolding: Constructing an Essay Collection,’”

Audience comment from Heidi Czerwiec: Susan Grimm’s Ordering the Storm contains several theories of how to order poetry books, and Katrina Vandenberg had a great essay in Poets & Writers on how to order a poetry book based on how to make a mixtape, a la High Fidelity. Jericho Parms [panelist] responded that she often looked to poetry books for ideas on ordering.

Audience comment from Robin Hemley: there’s greater importance on the organizing principle, especially on the title of the collection, and how it works as a rubric for how to read the essays together.

I scoured my bookshelves and gathered up books of essays and short story collections and studied them—the titles, where the books opened, the tone of the first line of the first essay or story; how each story or essay closed; where the book ended; narrative arc; whether or not they were divided into sections or parts and whether or not those parts had subtitles. I think it’s worth doing this with any of your favorite books of short stories or essays.

Here are some of the books I looked at (some in great detail and others, just skimming or scanning) listed here in no particular order:

  • Joy Castro’s Island of Bones (Essays)
  • Adrienne Rich’s Blood, Bread, and Poetry (Essays)
  • Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Essays)
  • James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (Essays)
  • Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays and The Balloonists (Hybrid/Nonfiction)
  • Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays
  • Douglas Watson’s The Era of Not Quite (Stories)
  • Lia Purpura’s On Looking (Essays)
  • Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Essays)
  • Sonja Livingston’s Ladies Night at the Dreamland and Queen of the Fall (Essays)
  • Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth (Essays)
  • Rachel Hall’s Heirlooms (Stories)
  • Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams (Essays)
  • Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider (Essays & Speeches)
  • Rick Moody’s Demonology (Stories)
  • Junot Diaz’ This Is How You Lose Her and Drown (Stories)
  • Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth (Essays)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies (Stories)
  • Laurie Colwin’s The Lone Pilgrim (Stories)
  • Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever (Stories)
  • Susan Steinberg’s three books: Spectacle; The End of Free Love; Hydroplane (Stories)

Ones I intend to look at:

  • Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now (Essays)
  • Julie Marie Wade’s Small Fires (Essays)

I found the process of ordering my stories and essays and thinking about how the individual stories or essays speak to one other, themes, etc., to be more challenging than I imagined it would be—even though I had done another version of this process in 2013. Or perhaps I knew it—and this is why it took me many years to do it again.

Finally, I had a really thoughtful conversation over email with my friend Nate Pritts, author of several poetry collections. From his email:

These questions, about ordering, are really so crucial. I think about them a lot. I have much I could say. But maybe first I’d say you should trust yourself – reading those first and last paragraphs to see what resonance there is makes a lot of sense. Also, if your instincts suggest coming up with a structure for sections, I’d say go for it, explore it. For me, sections have always been obvious (ie, series of poems, or seasonal) or mysterious (which is to say, I roughly feel like there is a first and second section and organize poems according to those currents).

Maybe just think about the pieces overall. What shapes or recurrences or narratives define what you’re writing about: interior / exterior, journeying and returning, etc. The question then is, for example, if you can ascertain a rough interior / exterior divide, do you separate them or intersperse them for strengthening?

For poems, I tend to print out ALL the poems and spread them on the floor (or desks, whatever, all over the house) and then just walk around reading them and picking them up as I go as it makes sense, if I’m finding those riffs and connections. If these are shorter pieces, maybe you could do that too? Or maybe you could just start with one piece – is there one that seems like a center or kernel? Then what piece of the other 21 pieces goes before it? Or after it? And start working out organically in waves.

Nate’s advice resonated with me. Before this year, I had no idea how other writers came to this process. Like Nate, I had printed out copies of all the essays and stories and spread them across my office. I could see all of the pieces and move them around as actual physical objects—well before any cutting and pasting on the computer.

Many years ago I ordered the stories in my MFA thesis in the final days and weeks before handing it in and the whole process felt rushed and somewhat random—just putting things together in a word document. In the end, it was a thesis, but not a book.

Maybe assembling a book is a little like taking stock of the year—here we are on New Year’s Eve. What’s your story about 2016? Themes, highlights, recurring images? It’s stepping back and seeing the forest, as McClanahan said— (after, for me, counting up, classifying, and mulling over the variety of trees and various vegetation).

Our country’s story in 2016: The rise of Trump. A loss of heart. The loss of so many gifted musicians and writers.

The to-do list: I still have to research long-term care insurance.

Writing: I bought a new desk and two new file cabinets. I assembled manuscripts and mulled over titles and subtitles and epigraphs.

Obviously, there’s much more to the lists than this, but it’s getting late in the day and this blog post is already long. (And I need to take a shower.)

What’s on your list? What are the important pieces and parts and stories of your year?

I wish you and yours health, happiness, wild creativity, and meaningful order in 2017. And to trust your instincts. And lots of reading and writing.

List Essays, 25 Things, Writing Prompts

In my last blog post, I mentioned a list essay, “25 things, post-election version,” by my friend and MFA classmate, writer Noria Jablonski, originally published as a note on Facebook the day after the election. I deactivated my Facebook account over the weekend (enough with all the cacophony!) so I can’t link to her note, but with her permission, I have shared it with both of my classes and also used it as the basis of a writing prompt (explained after Noria’s words). Here’s her list:

25 things, post-election version   //   Noria Jablonski· Wednesday, November 9, 2016

  1. Normally I shy away from posting anything too personal, but this time isn’t normal.
  2. A year and a half ago I was diagnosed with MS.
  3. My professional life came to an abrupt end.
  4. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I currently have access to health insurance.
  5. The medication I take to slow the progression of my disease costs $65,000/year.
  6. A drug that has been used for years to treat cancer and rheumatoid arthritis recently showed promise for treating MS. That drug was not brought to market because the patent was about to expire.
  7. I have profound hearing loss.
  8. Hearing aids are not covered by most insurance companies (hearing aids are considered elective).
  9. Healthcare should not be driven by profit motive.
  10. Neither should education.
  11. I became a teacher to help young people find their voices.
  12. I became a writer to find mine.
  13. “…it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature…literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear.” – Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill”
  14. On a Saturday night the spring before last, I suddenly lost vision in my left eye. Everything went dim, grainy, colorless, as if the brightness, contrast, and color knobs had been turned all the way down.
  15. A few days later my right leg went numb.
  16. Before MRI machines, a hot bath test was used to diagnose MS (heat worsens neurological symptoms).
  17. On a trip to Paris several years ago, I visited the library of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, who is most famous for his study of hysteria.
  18. Charcot was the first to give a name to multiple sclerosis: “la sclérose en plaques.”
  19. Sclerosis means hardening. It refers to scar tissue formed by lesions of the brain and spinal cord.
  20. Nothing is in my control.
  21. My body feels unsafe. I have been hurt physically and sexually.
  22. “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.” – Cersei Lannister
  23. My parents were Sufi. Sufism is a branch of Islam.
  24. My given name is Arabic. It means light of womanhood.
  25. I am not a terrorist.

Writing Prompt: inspired by two list essays: Noria Jablonski’s “25 things, post-election version” and my essay, “Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps”:

What are some of your acts of resisting invisibility? Write a list of 25. Include specific numbers when possible. Here are some phrases and ideas to get started. Remember this is just an option and you are welcome to freewrite in response to the Adrienne Rich quote (which I included in the previous blog post) or either of the list essays.

—Something someone said to you

—A year and a half ago,

—I have

—I became

—Normally,

—Before

—On a trip to…

—a quote from a writer, a song, a person

—I am

—I am not

—My parents

—A few days later

—On a Saturday night

The Personal Is Political

“The moment when a feeling enters the body / is political.” —Adrienne Rich, “The Ghazals”

“How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?” —Claudia Rankine, from Citizen

11/22/16: SOTA teacher Bradley Craddock with SOTA students and Willa and me after our workshop.

11/22/16: Teacher Bradley Craddock with SOTA students, Willa, and me after our workshop (Photo by SOTA Teacher Marcy Gamzon)

This morning, poet Willa Carroll and I co-taught a creative writing master class to high school students at the Rochester City School District’s School of the Arts. Willa is a proud alumna of the school and I often wished, while growing up, I had also been a student there. Happily, I’ve been able to be a part of the larger SOTA community through the many alums I have as friends and acquaintances—and these master classes.

Willa Carroll, 11/22/16

Poet Willa Carroll, 11/22/16

Willa and I last visited SOTA as guest writers in June of 2014 (here’s my blog post about that visit). She and I have known each other since high school and it’s been rewarding to continue our friendship through writing and our various moves for school and work.

We focused today’s reading and workshop on “political writing”—writing the political, and thinking about the relationship between what is personal and what is seen as political. Willa and I both chose to frame our readings and writing exercises with words by, among others, Adrienne Rich, a groundbreaking poet, public intellectual, and second-wave feminist. The phrase, “the personal is political,” was important to me as a writer, particularly in college, when I came further into a feminist consciousness I had only begun to articulate in high school. I just googled “the personal is political,” and Wikipedia offered this handy history and context for the phrase:

The personal is political, also termed The private is political, is a political argument used as a rallying slogan of student movement and second-wave feminism from the late 1960s. It underscored the connections between personal experience and larger social and political structures. In the context of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, it was a challenge to the nuclear family and family values.[1] The phrase has been repeatedly described as a defining characterization of second-wave feminism, radical feminism, Women’s Studies, or feminism in general.[2][3] It differentiated the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s from the early feminism of the 1920s, which was concerned with achieving the right to vote for women.

The phrase was popularized by the publication of a 1969 essay by feminist Carol Hanisch under the title “The Personal is Political” in 1970,[4] but she disavows authorship of the phrase. According to Kerry Burch, Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan, and other feminists given credit for originating the phrase have also declined authorship. “Instead,” Burch writes, “they cite millions of women in public and private conversations as the phrase’s collective authors.”[5]Gloria Steinem has likened claiming authorship of the phrase to claiming authorship of “World War II,”[5] although the invention of the phrase “World War II” can in fact be traced to a Time editorial published in September 1939.[6]

The phrase figured in women-of-color feminism, such as “A Black Feminist Statement” by the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde‘s essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, and the anthology This Bridge Called Home. More broadly, as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw observes, “This process of recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual has also characterized the identity politics of African Americans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians, among others.”[7]

Before beginning my reading, I mentioned that there have been a handful of events in the last fifteen years, which have shaped the direction and ideology of our country. In my opinion, these events include 9/11, the rise of ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis, and our most recent presidential election. The election showed me that the most misogynistic, racist, and incendiary speech and behavior by a presidential candidate not only did not take him out of the running—it likely helped elect him. This shocked me. And also that some Americans were likely not OK with a female president. Much more to say about that, but back to our workshop, which we began to plan before the election (and its results).

Willa read the two quotes at the beginning of this blog post. Before getting into my lesson on “making the invisible visible” and using forms such as lists as a writing prompt, I read a short excerpt from Rich’s essay, “Invisibility in Academe”:

When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard…to make yourself visible, to claim that your experience is just as real and normative as any other.

I think this is an incredibly powerful passage and one I’ve come back to again and again over the last 20 years.

2016-sejal-reading-sota

Sejal Shah (photo by Willa Carroll).

We then looked at “25 things, post-election version,” a sort of  list “essay,” which my former MFA classmate, Noria Jablonski wrote and posted on Facebook the day after the election. I also read my lyric / list essay, “Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps,” which was published in September in Brevity’s special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization.

Student Writers Hard at Work

SOTA Students writing hard, heads bent, pens moving.

A couple of the students shared their list exercises, and they were wonderful. The SOTA students were lively, focused, and wrote terrific responses to the four writing exercises we brought to them—even on the day before Thanksgiving Break! Speaking of thanks, we are thankful to have been able to return to work with these talented writers. Thank you also to teachers Marcy Gamzon and Bradley Craddock for hosting us, and to Friends of School of the Arts for sponsoring our visit.

Commonplace Books & Other People’s Words, Post Election

fullsizerender-6On the recommendation of two of my students in the advanced memoir / creative nonfiction class I’m currently teaching, I recently went back and finished Mary Karr‘s excellent The Art of MemoirIn Chapter 19, “Old-School Technologies for the Stalled Novice,” Karr suggests keeping a commonplace book: “a notebook where you copy beloved poems or hunks of prose out. Nothing will teach you a great writer’s choices better. Plus you can carry your inspiration around with you in compact form.” She includes other great exercises—memorizing poems, writing reviews, and augmenting a daily journal with a reading journal.

I first came across the term “commonplace book” on a former colleague’s syllabus. Martha and I taught at Marymount Manhattan College, and she showed me her syllabus for Narrative Fiction (English 180?), the introductory literature class I would also be teaching. I loved the idea of this—a reading journal.

Both Karr and poet & editor Mark Pawlak, with whom I read last week, mentioned the practice of keeping a commonplace book, and I feel inspired to keep such a book apart from my regular journal—right now they are combined in one notebook so unless I go back to my journals to flag and cull excerpts from what I’m reading, I sometimes lose those copied out passages. In fact, I wrote out the following quotes from Karr’s book in my journal last week. This post will be a kind of online supplement to my commonplace book—I’d like to try doing that and see if it feeds my writing and teaching at all—making some of this commonplace book visible and available. Ideally, it would also be a potential resource for other writers or my students, but also a resource for me to look back at what I found interesting or inspiring. Here are some of her words that struck me.

From The Art of Memoir:

No matter how much you’re gunning for the truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle. Start trying to bring yourself to the page and fear of how you’ll come off besets even the most forthright. The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision. (153)

In her chapter on revision (Chapter 24: “Against Vanity: In Praise of Revision”): “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” —quoting Mark Twain

She also quotes from G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology (on 217):

I have never done anything ‘useful.’ No discovery of mine has made or is likely to make directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world….Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil, and outside mathematics it is trial anyhow…I have added something to knowledge and helped others to add more; and these somethings have a value that differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them.

I’ll add one more quote, not from Karr, but rather from Rebecca Solnit. My friend Gail Hosking showed this to me (pasted into her journal), when I mentioned I’d been crying earlier in the day—still stunned over the results of the election.

The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning rather than a consumer of meanings that may be at odds with your soul, your destiny, your humanity, so there’s another kind of success in becoming conscious that matters and that is up to you and nobody else and within your reach.

This helped, to see what Gail had copied and pasted into her journal. I shared Solnit’s words with my students last night too, all such devoted and inspiring writers themselves. I felt better after reading and discussing their thoughtful work.

I’m sharing a couple of blog posts by writer friends, which also helped to deal with the helplessness, despair, and mourning that engulfed me and so many of us this week.