Archive for the ‘Book in Progress 2016’ Category

  •  OBSESSIVE BEHAVIORS: writing the same story over and over again

    Date: 2016.01.21 | Category: Book in Progress 2016 | Response: 1

    OBSESSIVE BEHAVIORS:  writing the same story over and over again

     

    I started writing in second grade, a jingle.  I was paraded from room to room in Standish Elementary School to persuade my peers to give money to public television, or some such cause.  In fifth grade, some of us were cool enough to be poets and produced a mimeographed collection of our rhymes.  Seventh grade was more serious.  Our journal contained stories and poems.  In high School, for me, it was cool to be in the Creative Writing Club and hang out with intellectuals, not that I was one (but there was that one boy I had a crush on).  However, skipping past more solitary and juvenile attempts at writing, my epiphany came when I was in my thirties.

    I980s: I attended community college, enrolled in my first Women’s Studies Class (Women in Literature) and my first academic class in the writing of poetry.  The Women in Literature class required us to go to a bookstore.  I went to Amazon Bookstore, Minneapolis’ independent bookstore, the first lesbian/feminist bookstore in the U.S. according to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazon_Bookstore_Cooperative).  With curiosity, I examined categories of books, naïve, but on a mission, it dawned on me— I was missing. 1980’s and a mixed-race-passing-for white-woman was not on the shelf.  I went home and wrote, basically a chap book of poems, about me.

    My self-interest  peaked as I continued my college education , a stop and go experience that began when I was eighteen and ended, at least formally, at 48, to learn all I could about race, gender, sexuality—and oppression.  The more I learned the more I wrote.  But for the most part, I wrote the same story over and over again.  But my undergraduate advisor said that it’s okay.  That most of us have one story we’re obsessed with, one that we can’t stop writing.

    Don’t stop writing yours.  Because you will not be writing it to death; you will be writing it to life.  The more you write the story you’re obsessed with, the more it will evolve. Eventually your story will answer questions you didn’t know you were asking; eventually your story will connect, once it’s out in the world, with other people’s stories and an even larger realm of understanding can take place.

    Also, the more you write that story you’re obsessed with, the better your writing will become.  Better because you will know your story so well that images and words will return time after time, but each time, perhaps in a different context, perhaps surrounded by fresh words that sing or singe.  Richard Hugo acknowledges he uses numerous words repeatedly, so do I.  Mine are:  Chinese, Black, mixed race, passing, Mother, mahjong, white rice, South Scandinavian Minneapolis, virgin birth, conjure, and love.

    I do get tired of writing my story over and over again, the story of a Chinese Black girl passing for white, but after forty some years of repeating it, in poetry and in prose, I may have discovered who I am, and I may have finally relinquished the need to know more.  But, maybe not.  Maybe I’ve just found a couple of new obsessions to sidetrack me for awhile: aging and autism.  But they, too, are stories within my story.

    I keep telling myself I’m not a narcissist.  Just because I’ve written about myself for forty some years, doesn’t make me a narcissist-it makes me an activist, according to my friend, Anya. My story, like your story are stories that will help us identify with each other, even if your story is about aliens or robots I think we can find familiarity and hope-as we also acknowledge difference.  As always, I return to Nikki Giovanni:

    “and if ever i touched a life i hope that life knows / that I know that touching was and still is and will always / be the true / revolution”–Nikki Giovanni, “When I Die”

     

    Exercise:  What story are you obsessed with?  What words are you obsessed with?  Keep writing the story; keeping using the words and images that might be haunting you.

     

    ©Sherry Quan Lee, January 21, 2016

  • Not Good or Bad, better

    Date: 2016.01.11 | Category: Book in Progress 2016 | Response: 0

    Not Good or Bad, better

    Some of us, particularly American Blacks, grew up with the saying, you’ve got to work twice as hard.  Perhaps that was the only way those of us who have been invisible (looked away from) could be seen.  (I worked twice as hard in graduate school, I earned a 4.0 grade point average, but it didn’t earn me visibility; not even as I pointed fingers and called out.) If I don’t work twice as hard, am I twice as bad?  Writers, who have been taught as people we aren’t good, work twice as hard to prove to ourselves we are, so we can prove to others that our writing is good.  I tell my students not to think good or bad, just better.

    A friend said, “We have to work twice as hard to be equal.”  And, yes, that’s been part of my life’s journey, my writing journey-working twice as hard.  But it’s time to dispel the myth.  Time to ease up on ourselves.  Stop letting this age-old adage convince us that we’re not equal. Time to let our self-esteem soar.  It’s time we are confident in ourselves and our writing ability.  It’s time for us to work less hard (don’t get me wrong, writing is hard work, but it shouldn’t be heart breaking), and to believe we are equal, even in a society that continues to treat us like we’re not, even as we continue to prove that we are.

    Our responsibility as writers, James Baldwin wrote (“The Creative Process, 1962):

    “Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone. That all men are, when the chips are down, alone, is a banality — a banality because it is very frequently stated, but very rarely, on the evidence, believed. Most of us are not compelled to linger with the knowledge of our aloneness, for it is a knowledge that can paralyze all action in this world. There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

    When we write we exist in our own small world, even as we contemplate the world at large.  We can shut out the naysayers and just write.  We can shut out the rule makers, and just write.  I tell my students there are no rules; there is craft, but it’s up to you to be creative. 

    Carole Maso wrote Break Every Rule (Counterpoint 2000):

    “If the creation of literary texts affords a kind of license, is a kind of freedom, dizzying, giddy—then why do we more often than not fall back on the old orthodoxy, the old ways of seeing and perceiving and recording that perception?”…

    “If we joyfully violate the language contract, might that not make us braver, stronger, more capable of breaking other oppressive contracts?”…

    “Might writing by women, by people of color, by gay men and lesbians be an active refusal of the dominant code, a subversion of meaning as it has been traditionally constructed…”

    I don’t write every morning before the sun rises. Not going to happen. I also don’t write every night before I go to bed.  Not going to happen.  But I am going to write, it is my responsibility, not my “luxury.”  Audrey Lorde wrote (“Sister Outsider: essays and speeches,” Crossing Press, 1985:

    “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”

    “We can train ourselves to respect our feelings, and to discipline (transpose) them into a language that matches those feelings so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.”

    For many of us we get up early because we have to-to get ready for work or get kids off to school.  For many of us, at night we’re too tired to write.  And for some of us, who have fewer obligations, morning or night we choose not to write.  Brushing my, teeth morning and night, is a struggle, but (usually) I do brush; routine, for me, is a challenge.  The healthier writing choice for me is to write when I write, not burden myself with expectations. (However, I am goal oriented; if I have a writing deadline, I kick butt.)

    Also, I don’t write in coffee shops.  Who started that movement, that trend? I’m not sure, and I don’t care.  For the amount of coffee I drink when writing, I’d be a fool to pay what I’d have to pay at a coffee shop to drink coffee shop coffee, and anyways, I don’t drink fancy coffee-cappuccinos, lattes (I’ll admit, an Americano once-in-awhile). I take it straight, like my whiskey.  Mostly, though, I can’t write in a coffee shop because the noise, the people, (the conversations), and the smell of coffee are distracting.  And then there’s the fact that I prefer my own bathroom; a nearby bathroom always a necessity for a serial coffee drinker.

    I prefer my own space, my own home where I can write in my jammies, if I want; where I can listen to my favorite music in the background as I write, if I want; where I can eat chocolate or drink red wine, if I want (actually, I don’t drink and write, but it’s a possibility).  I have a lap top computer because I thought I might write in the world of coffee shops; for the most part, however, my laptop only moves from my office desk to my dining room table and back again.  Occasionally it’s travelled with me to free rooms at Casinos, where, when my money ran out, I wrote in the privacy of what no longer could be considered a free room.

    I did earn an MFA in Creative Writing, but not to be a writer, not because I thought the only path to publication was to earn an MFA degree.  No, I went because I wanted to prove to myself, and my children, that I could.  I wanted to work twice as hard so I could feel equal, so I could feel smart. (Yet, I chose the MFA program above other graduate programs because I didn’t think I was smart enough-for math, for science; not that I thought a MFA degree would be less than, but I thought my experience as a writer would see me through).  I don’t regret my choice; if only because I learned that what didn’t work for me challenged me to learn and use what does.

    Writing Exercise:  answer the following questions: 

    1.      do you lack confidence in yourself as a writer? in your writing?  why?

    2.      what have you learned about being a writer, about writing that you need to set aside to move forward with what works for you?

    3.      what works for you?   

    ©Sherry Quan Lee, January 11, 2016

  • Poetry or Prose, intersections

    Date: 2016.01.11 | Category: Book in Progress 2016 | Response: 1

    Poetry or Prose, intersections

     

    House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is my go to text for teaching Intro to Creative Writing.  I require a literature book in each genre:  poetry, nonfiction, and fiction.  But, House on Mango Street is my intro to the course.  I believe there are more exceptions to rules than there are rules.  Cisneros’ book is magical as it crosses boundaries.  Not only do we wonder: fiction or nonfiction (another discussion), but House on Mango Street, which consists of interrelated yet stand alone vignettes, is prose heavily laden with a poet’s pen of figurative language:  metaphors, similes, personification, alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia.  A mix of poetry and prose.  We recognize prose by sentences and paragraphs.  We recognize poetry by rhythm and sound.  We experience both as we read House on Mango Street.  Teaching House on Mango Street is an easy segue into teaching the craft of poetry.

    figurative language:  essence of meaning beyond literal

    metaphor: comparison of two unlike things (more impactful than a simile)

    simile: comparison of two unlike things using “like” or “as”

    personification: when an inanimate object takes on a human persona

    alliteration: repetition of consonant sounds

    assonance: repetition of vowel sounds

    onomatopoeia: a word that sounds like the sound of the word (snap, crackle, pop of Rice Krispies’ fame)

    I start each class with a timed writing.  This gives students time to unwind and let go of: a bad day at work, rush hour traffic, fast food, boyfriends/girlfriends, husbands/wives, kids, assignments for other classes, credit card bills, and the list goes on.  Usually I give them a writing prompt. Timed writings, which ignore spelling and punctuation and grammar, allow for momentum and conscious free writing.  Timed writings can also be re-versioned into prose, prose poetry, or free verse poetry.

    prose poetry: paragraph(s) form; uses sentences and punctuation

    free verse poetry: the poet determines what rules to follow in formatting a poem; not formal poetry like sonnets or villanelles

    Similarly, I will choose a paragraph or several from House on Mango Street and ask students to rewrite the prose into poetry.  This becomes a good exercise in line breaks:  end stop lines and enjambment.  Students are asked one by one to write a line from the prose on the white board so together they create a poem and discuss various options for the format.  Later, I provide a handout with a variety of ways I have re-versioned the excerpt from House on Mango Street.

    end stopped lines: a complete thought, sometimes indicated with a period

    enjambment:  when a poetic thought flows from one line to another

    Poetry and prose can intersect in multiple ways.  Prose might incorporate figurative language (we use metaphors and similes in every day conversations, whether talking or texting).  Poetry can take the form of prose.  As a writer, creativity is your art.  It is imaginative as well as resourceful.  As you create, let imagination take free rein, as you re-version let your knowledge of craft lead.

    Reading Exercise:  as you read House on Mango Street, search for figurative language.  Write examples of found metaphor, simile, personification, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia.

    Writing Exercise:  randomly choose a few paragraphs in a book.  Rewrite the paragraphs transforming them into poetry.  Pay attention to line breaks.  Where do you want the reader to pause; where do you want the poem to read full steam ahead?  Read the poem aloud; do you pause in sync with the punctuation?  Do you read on with less, or without, pause where there are enjambments?

     

    ©Sherry Quan Lee, January 10, 2016

  • Publication: let it go, let it go

    Date: 2016.01.09 | Category: Book in Progress 2016 | Response: 2

    Publication:  let it go, let it go

    One of the first things I learned as a beginner creative writer was that it’s not just about writing the poem or the story or the book, but letting go of it.  Unless, of course, you don’t really have anything to say that anyone else would want to hear-but, you don’t believe that any more than I do and I don’t even know you.  All of our stories are important.  All of our stories need to be told.

    I believe everyone is, or can be, and should be a writer because we all have stories to tell.  And I bet your story in some way connects to my story and my story connects to someone else’s story (the butterfly effect of stories).  I have used a conversational exercise in writing workshops where I start a story; can be any story-for example, the cowgirl boots I might be wearing.  These particular cowgirl boots, white plastic with purple and red design, were worn one night to a talent show at a cowboy bar.  Those boots and I got booted off the stage, as did the dancing chicken before me! (Perhaps poetry wasn’t the talent the emcee was hoping for, but surely the audience wouldn’t have wanted to hear me sing.)

    Interesting how, however, as I told my story to a group of writers, someone in the room was quick to pick up on it.  Perhaps he or she owned a particular pair of boots.  Perhaps they were brand name leather boots purchased out West.  Or, perhaps, his or her story connected to my story because they were at cowboy bar and met the cowboy or cowgirl love of their life.  Or, perhaps, she or he was at a talent contest at a more reputable venue and won that contest by, perhaps, beat boxing.

    The particular exercise that started with cowboy boots ended with stories about mixed-race families. Go figure.  Kind of like a poem that starts with Richard Hugo’s popular “triggering subject” that really isn’t the true subject but leads to the true subject-to a deeper understanding, or at least a quirky twist of events.

    In understanding our experiences and sharing them, we often discover, though our stories are unique, that there are intersections where they meet.

    But stories shared in a classroom of, perhaps, eighteen students, based on an exercise, limit our potential audience.  What about the story or poem you’ve been carrying in your back pocket since, perhaps, your mother or father or grandparents passed?   Have you let it go-shared it? There are internet sites where you can share that story or poem, even specific sites dedicated to grieving, to honoring those who have past; there are workshops; there are readings.

    Or, perhaps that one story or poem you are carrying so close to your heart, is just the “triggering subject” for a collection of poems.  When my mother passed from a leukemia blast, the black and blue bruises that got larger and darker the closer she was to death, haunted me.  Black and blue bruises became the triggering subject for daily timed writings and eventually ended in a 28 verse poem, “Mother’s and Mine, which became the central poem for my book of verse, Chinese Blackbird.

    Chinese Blackbird was in limbo for several years until a friend chided me into stop dawdling and let it go.  But we know, fashionable publishers don’t just come knocking on our door (yes, one or two of you I’ve heard say they came knocking on yours- there are exceptions) and we could wait until we’re in our own grave before someone notices our creative work, or not, so how do we get published?  It may be cliché, but I believe, as with many aspects of visibility, it’s about who we know.  Here’s the conundrum:  in order to know people, we have to let ourselves be known (have to know ourselves), even though we may be vulnerable and afraid. However, letting ourselves be known we, unless we’re narcissistic, have the opportunity to know diverse communities of people, one or two who may show us a path to publication.  The Twin Cities of Minnesota is a hubbub of literary talents and events-classes and readings-where writers gather.  If you don’t like one writer, group, or event- find another. Attend readings; support your local writers as well as national writers-the one may very well become the other.  Sign up for an open-mic.

    Chinese Blackbird was first published by Asian American Renaissance (AAR), a now defunct, but memorable non-profit.  It was the first and last book to be published by the group that published a yearly journal, but decided to, instead, publish a book-a-year by a local Asian American author.

    I worked part-time at AAR.  When I quit, I remained with the non-profit as a volunteer.  I edited many of the AAR journals.  I got to know, oh so many, wonderful creative Asian American artists such as Marlina Gonzalez, Elsa Batica, David Mura, Bao Phi, Charissa Uemura, Rose Chu, Sandy Agustin, Sun Yung Shin, Vidhya Shanker, and Hei Kyong Kim. Because I got to know so many artists and writers and movers and shakers at AAR, and they also got to know me, Chinese Blackbird was published in 2002.  Did I mention it was the first and last book to be published by AAR?  However, a second edition was published by Modern History Press in 2008.  Did Modern History Press come calling?  No.

    A friend and writer, Anya Achtenberg (http://anyaachtenberg.com/), who I had met and gotten to know in the early 80s, moved from here to there pursuing her writing, landed back in Minnesota during the New Millennium.  We reconnected, even lived across the hall from each other for two years in an apartment building where we readily shared meals, chocolate, ginger candies, books, and writing ideas (and stories of relationships gone awry).  One day Anya asked my opinion about whether she should accept an opportunity to have her book, Devil Girl, be published by a small independent press.  We decided yes.  Since the publication of Devil Girl, the publisher has also published Anya’s latest novel, Blue Earth. Anya, early on, mentioned to her publisher, Victor Volkman, Loving Healing Press, who had yet to publish poetry, that her friend, that would be me, had a manuscript of poems lying idle.  The press, which focused mainly on Trauma Incident Reduction (TIR) texts, as well as  self-help books had never published literature, but created a new division, Modern History Press, to accommodate the two Minnesota authors searching for home.  Modern History Press has since published How to Write a Suicide Note: serial essays that saved a woman’s life, and Love Imagined:  a mixed race memoir (Minnesota Book Award Finalist 2015), and has challenged me to write this book about writing.

    I graduated from a MFA in Creative Writing Program, 1996, without a thought of having my stories published, without a thought, actually, of what now?  Eventually, because of whom I knew in the writing community, Carolyn, amazing, Holbrook, founder of SASE:  the write place, I had the opportunity to teach poetry in a neighborhood coffee shop, and because of her influence I landed a job with the Split Rocks Art Program, University of Minnesota 2001-2011. And because of another writer who I met at a poetry reading, Roseann Lloyd, I was given the opportunity to teach creative writing at Metro State University.  My journey as a writer, educator, and mentor has continued to move forward as I allow myself to be vulnerable and take risks.

    Writing Exercise:  what is it you are obsessed about writing, but perhaps are afraid of writing, such as “black and blue bruises”?  Write about your topic for ten or fifteen minutes.  Take a short break, or wait a day or two.  Focus on the topic again, writing for ten or fifteen minutes.  Repeat this process until you’ve exhausted most, if not all possibilities.  Then, re-vision and edit your numerous timed writings based on your original topic.  What have you discovered?  What is the poem really about? Experiment with format.  A prose poem. Free verse.  A poem divided into sections (for example,” Mothers and Mine”, Chinese Blackbird, 2008, Modern History Press). You, most likely, have written an insightful poem; but, you also might have discovered the theme for the book you’ve been procrastinating writing, the one that needs a home in the world.

    ©Sherry Quan Lee, January 9, 2016

Artist Statement

Sherry Quan Lee approaches writing as a community resource and as culturally based art of an ordinary everyday practical aesthetic. Lee is a Community Instructor at Metropolitan State University (Intro to Creative Writing, Advanced Creative Writing), and has taught at Intermedia Arts, and the Loft Literary Center. She is the author of A Little Mixed Up, Guild Press, 1982 (second printing), Chinese Blackbird, a memoir in verse, published 2002 by the Asian American Renaissance, republished 2008 by Loving Healing Press, and How to Write a Suicide Note: serial essays that saved a woman’s life, Loving Healing Press, 2008.

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