Writer Tag and Blog Hop

The last time one of these went around (that I knew about, anyway) I didn’t quite think I was writer enough to participate. So I avoided the whole thing and eventually it went away. I regretted not participating, and letting fear get in the way.

Anyway, I was tagged by Brent van Staalduinen, a writer who has been writing and publishing and shortlisting so much that it would re-ignite my writerly self-doubt again, except for the fact that I’m over that. Today.

Brent also tagged Steph VanderMuelen, writer, creative writing mentor, copy editor, and one of my fellow Story Intensive TAs. Check out her site, because it’s fantabulous and Steph has great things to say about writing and process.

So. The Questions.

1) What am I working on?

Many things, but the big projects are a novel about a marriage (that’s about as specific as I’m willing to get right now, it’s very early) and an autobiographical play about my experiences as a landlord. But I also have some short fiction and a personal essay churning in my brain.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The short answer is that it doesn’t.

The longer answer is that I’m not convinced that being different is necessarily a virtue in writing so I don’t pay attention to being different. Sure, the truly Great Works are both original and good. But what’s wrong with just being good? Why does work always have to be different?

That said, I’ve been writing cross-cultural stories more and more, and one of the things I’ve playing with is to go against the grain in what people expect in these stories, even though I love those stories. No going back to the motherland (so to speak) and learning all the horrible secrets your mother never told you about why she really left and then coming to a new understanding of her and your culture and yourself. (The file name for my novel in progress is Amy-Tan-but-not, though it’s taken a number of twist and turns so who knows what it will be about when it’s done?)

In any case, very little of what I’m currently working on is at a stage where I can analyze it in comparison to other work, which is to say, nothing I’m working on is finished. I’m very wary of comparing my work to other things while I’m still writing it. And stuff I’ve already written that’s out there, well, I’m the last person to be able to look at it critically. I know its secrets too well.

3) Why do I write what I do?

This question implies that I have a choice in this.

This isn’t to say that I’m a helpless slave to a fickle muse. But my writing is very much a reflection of where my head is at, and my head is at its best when I give it free reign. That doesn’t mean that my writing is necessarily a reflection of what is going on in my life right now, though, since sometimes my head gets stuck on something from the past or even something very random like the fate of the Donner Party.

4) How does my writing process work?

I write.

I have never in my life been able to consistently form a good habit.  A bad habit, sure.  Good ones, no.  The moment I’m supposed to do something, I rebel against it.

So my writing process has turned into, write when and how I can.  Sometimes, that’s in the morning, sometimes at night, sometimes in the afternoon. Sometimes by hand, sometimes on my laptop. Sometimes, that’s in a coffee shop, sometimes in my office, sometimes in silence, sometimes with the television on.

There’s a lot of value in consistency in terms of creative practice, but rather than beat myself up for not being consistent, I’d rather just make do. Contrary to typical wisdom, I don’t think you have to write every day–you just need to write enough to make yourself happy.

All that said, when I have a deadline, there is no tool I like better than Write or Die.

And the nominees are…. 

Chris Tarry is a Canadian writer and musician, and it’s totally not fair that he’s amazing in two creative fields while some of us are eking out an existence in just one. Chris’ short story, Here Be Dragons, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and his debut short fiction collection, How To Carry Bigfoot Home is forthcoming in March 2015 from Redhen Press.

Sierra Skye Gemma is an award-winning writer and journalist from Vancouver who writing is emotionally honest, funny, powerful, and basically everything great creative non-fiction should be. I’m not the only one who thinks so, since she won the Edna Staebler personal essay competition and a National Magazine Award for best new writer for her essay, The Wrong Way.

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The Culture and Race Question

When you’re a writer of colour, or one who otherwise comes out of a non-normative culture, you have a special set of doubts when it comes to your work. Even right now, writing this blog entry, I wonder to myself, “Am I the right person to write about this? Do I really know the best way to talk about it?” (That word, non-normative, troubles me a lot.)

And the truth is, I probably don’t. There are people who have experienced far more, and who have thought about this more deeply and with greater intellectual rigour than I can apply here.

But it’s a thought I’ve been chewing over in my mind with increasing frequency. And then I read this, which is more about publishing than writing, but is still kind of horrifying that Pat Smith can publish work that Preeti Singh cannot.

A few months ago, Junot Diaz wrote a scathing assessment of his MFA experience. My experience in the workshop has never been quite like he describes. Maybe that’s because this is Canada, and issues of race and culture are different here–not necessarily better, but different. Maybe because as a person of colour goes, I’m a privileged one–being stereotyped for being nerdy and good at math isn’t a remotely equivalent experience to being stereotyped as a drug-dealing criminal.

At the same time, the Diaz essay rang a few bells for me.

Like the time when I’d made my main character non-white (in a story set in Toronto; a highly diverse city) but never made that a plot point… and the feedback was “Isn’t this like Chekov’s gun?”

Why?  Because being something other than white is so unusual? In Toronto?

Like the number of times I’ve written pieces featuring Indian characters or cultural events, and been given feedback of “Can you put more Indian stuff in it?  I want to really see the colours and taste the spice.” And it makes me wonder, is my writing too spare, or are my (almost always) white readers looking for some sort of exotic cultural voyeurism that is pretty much never the point in my work?

And yet, I generally don’t get told to ground my characters more in culture and colour and spice when there are no Indian elements. I understand that there’s a degree of unfamiliarity here. But I wonder, if I wrote science fiction or fantasy with the same degree of detail, would the feedback still be to see more of the exoticism of the world?  And what if those details are not relevant to the story?

Then there’s the number of times I’ve been given suggestions which make zero sense. Another story, set in Toronto, and the suggestion was to make the family live in the Little India area of Toronto. Except, virtually no Indian people live in that area. (It’s named for the South Asian-focused businesses in the area.) Or to change the story so that parents hated the daughter’s boyfriend for being white and to use cultural insults for him (like mangiacake, except Indian) because of the dishonour he caused… except there was no boyfriend in the story, a white guy is not such a big deal, honour isn’t really a thing in that culture, and I’m not even sure I know what the insult word for white person is.

These were suggestions borne out of stereotypes for what we expect to see from writers of colour. When I was younger, I never wanted to include Indian people in my work, because I didn’t want to write those same stories. I didn’t want to write about interracial relationships where ultimately everyone realized that we’re all human and alike in some way. I didn’t want to write about the plucky immigrant longing for home but still making a life in a new country. I didn’t want to write cultural tourism about India and trot out a horror show of bride burnings and untouchability. And yet, that is so often the feedback.

It’s not that I don’t like those stories, because I do, but am I writing the wrong things? Is my work, when it doesn’t conform to those types of stories, uninteresting?

I don’t believe that. I believe as writers, we have the right to write about anything as long as we do it well. (I haven’t even mentioned the number of times I’ve read bad cultural stereotypes from white writers.)

And then, there’s the Preeti Singh/Pat Smith debacle. There are the stories that Junot Diaz relates. There are stories I hear from other writers of colour. There’s the awkward moment in the workshop when someone randomly says “What if you made this character Indian?”

This isn’t a coherent blog post, largely because these are thoughts I merely chew over without any resolution.

I don’t know the answer.

I only know the doubts.