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Constantine Say Relax

I’m gonna make a “Constantine Say Relax” shirt, and it will fit EVERYONE approximately 8 sizes too small

I’m not gonna lie; shit’s getting real. The funds in my bank account are dwindling, the thought of writing YET ANOTHER cover letter makes me dry heave, and I’m not inspired enough my any of my ideas to bring myself to write them down. Between worrying about having enough money to buy food and pay my rent, the possibilities that my health will fail at some point and I’ll end up in the ER with a big fat bill, and the confusion about which way to turn next to get some desperately needed funds, I’m having a hard time remembering why I wanted to be a writer in the first place, let alone mustering up the courage to put words on paper.

The funny thing is, when I’m distracted by other pressing matters, the writing I want to do doesn’t just go away; it finds a way to squeeze its way out  into the world when I let my guard down a little. You know how when you’re a kid and getting one of many immunizations and you’re all scared because they’re going to poke with that big fat needle? And so you tense up your teeny little bicep and it hurts like hell. And then afterwards you emerge from the examination room, your face red and splotchy and your breathing just a string of ragged sobs, and your big brother tells you, “You know, if you relax your arm, it hurts less.”

It’s so counter-intuitive to relax in the face of stress and uncertainty and a lack of inspiration. But I find that my words often tend to eek out of my pen and onto a spare receipt or envelope late at night, when I’m winding down and getting ready for bed, or in other words when I am able relax a little and let my guard down.

The other thing that helps me relax are encouraging, snark-free words from other, more established wordsmiths. I really appreciated Brendan Constantine’s post on Poet’s & Writer’s today, which speaks to the importance of getting it out:

“…it will always be true that our poorest work lies ahead of us. We’re going to write something truly awful in the future. We have to. Why do we have to? It’s often the only way to uncover the good writing. Like going through a kitchen drawer, sometimes we have to take out things we don’t need in order to get at the things we do.”

Constantine goes on to pinpoint what holds me, and a lot of other people, back,: the fear of writing crap, or even worse, crap that someone else has already written less crappily.

“Where I see many of us get stuck, again and again, is in forgetting the role of “chance.” No sooner are we enjoying a sense of success (even if it’s just saying “Well, that didn’t TOTALLY suck.”) than we are forgetting the experience of discovering our art as we went. Chances are (sorry), we’ll attempt to create something else, but this time out of sheer will. Under these conditions, we’re totally screwed…The best we can hope for is something almost as good as we used to be.”

Thank you, Mr. Constantine, for reminding me to stop gritting my teeth and letting me know its ok to sift through the kitchen drawer a bit until I find what I’m looking for.

You be rockin’ my world, Mr. Constantine. Click here for the artist’s website.

Cover Your Eyes and Press ‘Submit’

Regretsy: I turned five marked-up drafts into a fun photo shoot! How's that for DIY?

Submitting your writing is kind of like applying to all the best colleges and then waiting on pins and needles for six or more weeks til a fat envelope lands in your mailbox. Except this time there is no such thing as a “safety” but there is a good chance you’re not going to get accepted anywhere and wind up working at Dunkin’ Donuts. Not that there’s anything wrong with Dunkin’ Donuts…

There is a small corner in hell reserved for the living. It is populated only by the tortured souls of people trying to become writers, plummeting down to the depths of the underworld by the grief that comes with the editing, submitting, and ultimately, the rejection process.

The floor is lined with clumps of torn-out hair, crumpled pages, and the stains of tears. The room remains dirty until the housekeeper imps pass through and clean it all up, feeding on the mess and living off the self-scorn and debris.

If you hadn’t guessed, I’m in the middle of submitting, once again. This experience is nerve-wracking and gut-wrenching, especially if you’re not 100% confident that your stories are kick-ass and definitely going to be published or gain you entrance into the workshop you’re dying to be accepted to. I am happy with what I’ve written, but finding a home for it, or trusting it to be my entry-ticket into events is a lot harder.

Do you remember what it was like applying to college? Me neither; it’s all a stress-filled blur I’ve mostly blocked out. But I have a feeling that submitting your writing is kind of like applying to all the best schools and waiting on pins and needles for six or more weeks til a fat envelope lands in your mailbox. Except this time there is no such thing as a “safety,” but there is a good chance you’re not going to get accepted anywhere and wind up working at Dunkin’ Donuts. Not that there’s anything wrong with Dunkin’ Donuts…

The Editor-At-Large: Indiana playing the part of the draft-eating imp!

I think I’ve been avoiding my writing career for about a year now.  About this time last year I was submitting a second short story for publication numerous times and had received no good news about it being accepted. I was already discouraged, then an untimely visit to a well-known MFA program landed me in the office of a grade-A Debbie Downer. Her advice was not so much advice as it was encouragement to give up all together.

The professional writers aren’t much help in times like these, either. I can’t tell you how sick I am of reading self-help books for writers. They either give you hollowed-out pep-talks that they’ve plagiarized from weight-loss manuals, or they say something incredibly discouraging that makes you not even want to bother.

The one thing I really don’t like about writers is that their ability to pick-up on nuances coupled wit their endless desire to be thought of as witty and smarter than the average bear can make them extremely discouraging. We are the critics of the world, the cobras waiting to strike; quick to notice mistakes and point out the likelihood that someone who thinks they’re hot shit is mistaken. You have to be careful who you listen to, otherwise you can get really off-track.

Now that I’ve worked up the courage to submit again, what has been buoying my heavy hopes are the few stories from brave writers who are willing to share their swings-and-misses. It’s hard to find other writers who are willing to talk about the deep pits of despair they wallowed in after receiving rejection letter number umpteen thousand. And who can blame them? Nobody wants to remember the times they doubted, they feared, they almost derailed and hopped on the next train to a career as a tax auditor. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being an auditor, but it is the exact opposite of what I would be most happy doing).

When I’m feeling blue about how long this process is taking, I think of someone named Sarah who responded in the comments to one of my favorite online advice columns, Dear Sugar. The article was advising someone who had yet to be published, and this anonymous Sarah shared one of the most humbly amusing and heartening anecdotes from a professional writer that she met that I often think of when I’m straining at any point in the writing/editing/submitting process:

“I had the privilege of talking to an award winning southern author at a conference and I asked him about his “first” novel. “What did you do with it?” I asked. “I shot it,” he said. He literally took a double barrel shotgun and blew the stuffing out of his first novel’s only manuscript. And the second one. Because they were so bad and so unsellable and they had cost him so much effort and pain. But if he hadn’t gotten through those (and a lot of short story writing) he wouldn’t have become the writer who wrote a book that actually deserved an award. (Note that getting an award and deserving it aren’t always the same.)” – Sarah

I love this anecdote. It makes me laugh long enough to pick myself off the floor, where I threw down in a temper tantrum and took the photos that are peppering this blog post, and drag my ass back to my rolling chair.

It’s a wake up call not only to other aspiring writers, but to those would-be critics, suggesting that they should be a little more sensitive when they bash other people’s art. Look, if you have an opinion, you shouldn’t feel the need to censor it. This is something I struggle with a lot as a writer, because I have something to say but often don’t feel I have the right to say it (I know, I know, don’t go there: can of worms).

But you should think twice before you shit on someone else’s art. You know why? Because there’s a 99% chance someone put a lot of hard work into that art, even if they didn’t execute it so well. And they’re trying to express themselves, or something true to the universal nature of life, which is a lot more than can be said for most schleps [sp?], who just hit the snooze, go to work, watch tv and go back into a deeper state of coma they are living in, then repeat. It’s way harder to try and make your own job than it is just to show up at it.

That’s why I really don’t blame the front mant for Bon Iver for losing his shit when that dude from Hipster Runoff called his music “dying indie rock.” Homeboy has a hit record, a grammy nomination, and he still can’t get no love; he’s got this half-rate hack over here shitting on the [seven] years of hard work he did just to get to this point of national acclaim. And for what? So Hipster Runoff can look smart to his friends? Foul on the play!

Anyway, my point is that writing or making any kind of art is hard. Becoming known for writing is even harder. Not just because it’s hard to get a friggin break, but because it’s a process. But all jokes aside, my good friend Somerville reminded me of a universal truth not too long ago when I was moaning about not having achieved one of the milestones I had assumed I would have blown past by now. “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”

And with trying to become a writer, you have to hit all those speed bumps of rejection while you’re on that journey, learning all the way or you might never get better or hone your craft. You can’t just get acclaim and praise nonstop from the get-go, or you might never actually have the chance to develop and mature as an artist. At least this is what I tell myself.

Breaking Your Own Heart: Writing Everyday and Being a Woman

I just wrote 765 words, and I’m now breathing a sigh of relief. It’s not because I’m 765 words closer to finishing my first novel, it’s because of the release that’s inherent in writing, unleashing the words my muse whispers in my ear while I sleep, or when I’m off doing other things I like to pretend are just as important as obtaining my dream. The truth is nothing is as important to me as writing. So why is it so hard to get done?

Lately I’m beginning to wonder if it has something to do with being a woman. Before you draft a letter of hate mail, let me just say that I have been learning so much about the strength of women as of late. I’ve been working with a woman named Amber Chand, who is nothing short of inspiring. Amber is a refugee from Uganda, a true citizen of the world, and an entrepreneur who is inspired by the strength and resilience of women, and as part of my work with her, I’ve been learning about my own feminine strength.

Women are amazing. Resourceful, determined, practical, and altruistic by nature, we can rely on our feminine wiles to keep us afloat when setbacks threaten to sink us. But If I had to name one major pitfall in being a woman, it would be the hesitance to realize our own dreams. It seems to come easy to women to put others before ourselves, as every mother knows. As a woman, it takes a lot of determination to sit down at my computer every day and write just for myself, inching my way closer to my dream, one word at a time.

If you’re a writer, or have dreams of becoming one, there is absolutely no chance you haven’t heard the mantra, “you HAVE to write EVERYDAY!” Any writer, editor, or other literature aficionado will take every opportunity to beat you over the head with that age-old saying, like a nun with a ruler. But that’s not really the truth. You don’t have to write every day, it’s just easier on you if you do.

Sitting down at my computer to write, for me, is like sitting down and breaking my heart open.  All my dreams and every bit of pain I’ve accumulated in my rather short life rushes out of me all at once, through my fingers and onto the keys. Why would I want to do that? It’s much easier to help someone else, to work for someone else, than to sit down, break your heart, and achieve your own dream. Writing is sort of like going to therapy, except that instead of spewing out neuroses and getting an analysis by a seasoned professional, you get to relive all your pain and heartache and joy and make it into something beautiful and horrid, something that you hope someone else will one day read and then sit back in their chair and say, “that’s exactly it. I’ve been there, and I know what she means. She’s captured it just right.” So if you write everyday, you get in the habit of breaking your heart open, and you don’t have to cut through a thick seal of scar tissue to get at the good, juicy stuff.

I had my heart broken recently; not by a man or at my computer, but from attending  a marvelous conference in Berkshire County, called “Women Write the World.” The conference was held at Simon’s Rock, and was part of an annual celebration dedicated to International Women’s Month. I have to credit Amber for dragging me out of my pajamas and making me go, but I am so glad she did. I was absolutely floored by the collective voices of women writers who were proving the pen is mightier than the sword by writing about the resilience of women around the world. From a panel of women writing on the resilience of African women, to a journalist who walked out of New York bar in her 20s, flew to Iraq and stayed for two years, there was no way not to be moved by the collective power of women authors. (You can get a more detailed write-up of the event here.

But the one who really blew me away was Sandra Steingraber. Sandra is many things: an ecologist, an environmental advocate, and a poet, but it was her personal take on giving voice to the wounds of the world that really did me in. Tall and rather unassuming, she walked on stage with the air of a learned professor. She started speaking with rather large words about the dangers of climate change and environmental collapse. Just when I started to wonder if I would be able to relate to her cause, she literally broke my heart; blindsiding me by reading a poem she wrote which walked us through the experience of the tasks she had to complete after a loved-one died.

The poem described the experience of reading the obituary she had written for the paper, and being completely surprised to see it there next to a picture she had picked out, even though she was the one to have sent them both in to newspaper. I can’t remember the title or any of the words, I can only remember the feeling as my veneer of strength crumbled around me, right there in the middle of the auditorium. I remembered writing my own father’s obituary as my family searched for the perfect photograph of him, and the regret that comes with having to complete the tasks that remind you that you’re living and someone you love is dead. I bent my head and broke down in a silent sob.

Sandra went on to describe the work she had done to promote environmental activism, and how she tries to use writing to frame the dangers of pollution to an audience of loving parents who only want what’s best for their child. I deeply connected with her love of nature, and realized that my book is an ode to nature and environmental conservationism, and will serve as a cautionary tale of what could happen if we do not take care of our planet for future generations.

After the event ended, I went to the table where she was signing copies of her book. I wanted to say to her, “thank you, thank you so much for breaking my heart. My purpose is clear now. I know I can write my book and unite my desire for a clean and safe world with my love of writing.” But I just mumbled something, too shy to try and bother this magnificent woman with my own humble strivings. Just another example of a woman believing in others more than herself. I hoped, at least, she was grateful I wanted to have her sign a copy of her book. When I got home, I glanced at the inscription, expecting to see only her signature. Instead she wrote:

“Dear Kerina,

Never give up!”

She may not have known I was a writer, struggling on whether or not to give up, but regardless, now I know I can’t.

Bright Lights, Small Town

I went to a reading by Jay McInerney at Williams College on Thursday. He is a Williams Grad, class of ’76, best know for his debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City, The book started out as a short story called “It’s 6AM, Do You Know Where You Are?” which he read from at the event. It was great to hear him read from his acclaimed work of fiction about the New York experience, and I realized that his experience in the 80s wasn’t so different from my own period of youthful bliss in New York as a twenty-something.

When I think of New York in the 80s, I picture a civilization at its hedonistic peak; money flowing uptown from Wall Street, coke flowing downtown into the clubs of the Lower East Side. It sounds like back then it still had that touch of grime, a real grit that got in your teeth, and a sense of legitimacy that might have slightly faded in the last twenty years. But the ethos is still the same: have fun, make money, spend it all, get rich on the experience. Consider yourself lucky; appreciate that you live in the ultimate pressure cooker of every culture and class known to man. I’ve got to get my hands on that book. Has anyone seen the movie adaptation starring Michael J. Fox? Is it any good?

I was too shy to go up and say something to the literary legend after the session ended. If I weren’t too chicken shit to come up with something clever to say, I would have probably said something to him about how New York hasn’t really changed since he first wrote about it. I might have gotten nervous as I fumbled around for something else to say and made the blunder of mentioning that he “writes women” very well.

He read a section from one of his other books that featured the character Corrine. The highlight of the reading, for me, was when Corrine was thinking about her husband during a taxi ride home after a disastrous encounter with a Hollywood big shot who wanted to have meaningless sex in exchange for reading her screenplay. Through the lens of Corrine, McInerney depicted a woman who was detached from her own sexuality, someone who had forgotten how to be an object of desire. He went into depth about the state of her marriage and its lack of sex, highlighting that she was turned off by her husband’s gestures of affection, because to him they were only a means to an end. So instead of making any attempt to reignite their sex life, and risk eliciting these false acts of tenderness, she stayed on her side of the bed, and he stayed on his. This struck me as very poignant, and touched on a fear that all marriages end up as friendships with irreconcilable differences.

After the reading, there was a panel discussion featuring McInerney, his long-time editor Gary Fisketjon, and Carrie Ryan, who are also Williams Grads. They talked about procrastination, how they got their starts, MFAs, and the luck of publishing, all the usual stuff you’d expect from a writer’s panel. But the thing that really blew me away was when McInerney admitted one of his fears as a writer there is that no one wants to hear what he has to say. It was reassuring to hear it from an Emerged Author, but I also wonder how many people feel that way. I know I certainly do. Sometimes I can’t even stand the thought of opening my laptop and spurting out what might be just be viewed by others as worthless dribble. I wonder how truly widespread this fear is in this day and age, when everyone has a blog and is constantly updating their facebook and twitter statuses with statements that usually aren’t so earth-shattering. How did we get to this place in time, when the fear that no one wants to hear what you have to say is always trumped by the desire to be heard and to have a voice?

Writing About Race: J.C. Davies is a Writer with Jungle Fever

The latest New York Magazine featured an Intelligencer column called “151 minutes with J.C. Davies.” Maybe I’ve been a little tuned out from the race dialogue because I’ve been plowing full speed ahead into my novel and the startup I’ve been helping to launch, because I’ve never heard of her. But I simply had to take five minutes out of my morning to read this article on the author of a new interracial dating book called “I Got the Fever.” The spread featured a centered photo of a classy looking white lady, who is apparently an ex-Wall Street analyst. I was too curious as to what this woman had to say not to delve into the article.

For those of you who may not know, the issue of interracial dating is an on-point topic for me, and one that can sometimes be sensitive. As a mixed race person, it is virtually impossible for me to date within my “race,” unless of course I happen to stumble on another half Puerto Rican, half African American guy. I grew up in a very white town in New England, to boot, and much to my mother’s confusion, I have a tendency to date white middle-class males. Dating is hard enough, but when you add in the elements of racial identities and the potential for your attractiveness to a potential mate to be hindered by how “ethnic” you look, it boosts the difficulty level up a notch.

For me, dating really puts a spotlight on my feelings of not belonging to any one race or ethnic group and the pain that has cause me in my life. A huge part of becoming comfortable with my own “in-between”-type ethnicity can be attributed to realizing that while negative racial stereotypes exist, they are born more from a place of ignorance than maliciousness. The gift that comes with being multi-racial is being able to have insight into so many different mindsets and ways of thinking when it comes to race in America. So when I opened up this magazine and saw a white woman wrote a book about interracial dating, I wanted to hear what she had to say.

By the time I got a paragraph into the article, I was done wanting to hear what she had to say. My first impression of her was off putting. I felt as though I happened to cross paths at a writer’s networking event with a benign looking but well-dressed white lady at the hors d’oeuvres table with a well-dressed white lady, complimenting her on her expensive looking scarf, and then feeling my face melt into a puddle of horror as I try to digest her racist and classist reply. She might say something like “I wanted to wear my Hermés for this event, but my house keeper ironed the wrong one. I really have to consider hiring someone else who can habla ingles!” And then I would  try for a smile and nod and slowly slink away before I could slap her in the face.

“I love pork,” Davies says at the beginning of the article. “Every time I’m not eating with a Jew I try to get some pork in.” The author of the article, Jessica Pressler, goes on to describe Davies and her new book “Most highly educated Americans of indeterminate European origin would avoid dropping terms like ‘the Koreans’ and ‘Jew’ into a first-time conversation, never mind delineating what people of these ethnic groups do or do not do. Not Davies, a 42-year-old former Goldman Sachs analyst, whose new book on interracial dating, I Got the Fever, is a treasure trove of sweeping generalizations and alleged cultural truisms. Among them: ‘Most Latinos are undeniably great dancers’ and ‘overall, sex is one thing—apart from accounting—at which Jewish men really excel.’”

If you’re like me, you sat back in your chair and sighed along with the collective “Woah,” of everyone else reading those lines. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and read on, albeit, gritting my teeth. “Stereotypes, racist – all those words do is shut down the conversation…They make people afraid. We can never talk about race because anything to do with race is wrong.”

Ok, this is a little bit more digestible. I can see where she’s coming from. With my Bachelor’s degree in American Studies, I feel like I can say to you with a semi-professional degree of authority that race is a highly inflammatory topic in the U.S., perhaps more so than in any other country. It makes sense when you consider how many ethnic groups have had to try and coexist over a relatively short span of time in this nation of immigrants. Every time a new immigrant group has migrated to our shores, some of the people who are already living here always have something not so nice to say about the new outsiders, who they react to instinctively as a threat. Over time, when everyone has cooled their jets and realizes they have to peacefully coexist, Americans have learned that it’s just safer to avoid talking about race, ethnicity or country of origin, lest you offend someone unintentionally.

It would be really great if we could one day, as a country, all be so comfortable with our national multiracial identity that we could playfully joke around the way we do with other, less taboo, identification points. It would be nice if mentioning someone’s race could be playfully brought into the conversation, just as we might tease each other about the state we come from. “Hey, you’re from Massachusetts, you must be an awful driver,” someone might say to me in jest. “Hey, you’re one to talk, JERSEY,” I respond. Maybe one day, race won’t be such a hot button issue, and we’ll all feel comfortable joking about who we are and where we come from.

I’ve had conversations with some of my white friends about how hard it is to even bring up the issue of race when you’re white. White males have told me that they hate feeling like they are always in the wrong when they bring any kind of racial commentary to the table. I understand where Davies is coming from, and I do agree that the conversation about race in America could benefit if we all took a step back from the seriously sharp knife edge it balances on.  But I think that has to be done with a fair amount of finesse, to say the least.

It’s unwise to barrel into the racial discourse with no regard for the pain and suffering that lies on the other side of those stereotypes, erected like walls to protect one ethnic group from another and keep intact a sense of self and identity. I really have no interest in buying a book written by a person who wants to make brash accusations about the behavior of other races without first wanting to listen and observe with an open-minded curiosity, and learn something about the cultural values and nuances that lie behind actions and ways of being that may seem different or strange to you based on where, and who, you come from.

As a writer, I often consider how much I need to insert my racial identity into my art and my work. I have to be extra careful when I create a character who identifies as one or more races, aware of how that is going to change the scope of the story and the perception of my message to my reader. It’s frustrating to me that I can’t just write, “See Jane, see Jane run, oh and by the way Jane is African American, but that’s just a detail I’m including to give you a visual and it really doesn’t have a lot to do with the story I’m trying to tell so please don’t assume you can or can’t relate to my main character based on your own race.” It’s a delicate line to navigate, but I’d rather navigate it delicately, and thoughtfully. I really have a hard time sympathizing with anyone who wants to write about interracial relationships just as a means to siphon the attention of the public towards them, whether they turn your way in sympathy or disgust. I would much rather read a  heartfelt narrative about the adventures of interracial dating by someone who I trust is open to empathizing with people who have suffered from the racial attitudes that continue to permeate through and pollute our culture.

Click here to read: “151 Minutes with J.C. Davies