Blog Hop: On Writing

My friend Ben Black invited me to participate in a blog hop--a series of writers answering questions about their writing. Ben writes really fast and furious, compressed and delicious short fiction. Ben’s work has appeared in Harpur Palate, New American Writing, The Los Angeles Review, and Smokelong Quarterly. He recently completed his MFA at San Francisco State University, where he also teaches. His stories have been finalists for the Omnidawn Fabulist Fiction Chapbook Contest and the Calvino Award.

I met Ben in a graduate creative writing course at SF State in 2009--and then again in 2012 when I moved to San Jose, walked into my first-ever Trials Trivia night, and there Ben was, sitting at the back of the bar. What follows are my answers to his questions, and the bios for 3 more writers whose work and aesthetics I admire. Thanks, Ben, for passing the blog-hop baton.

What am I working on?

I’m currently at work on my first novel, which I’m writing as a series of linked stories set in southern Spain. Technically this project started in my second year of grad school at UC Davis, but in truth these stories started in 2006, when I moved to the Costa del Sol to work as an Auxiliar de Conversacion at a Spanish elementary school. A few of these stories have been published--most recently, “The Africans” was published by West Branch Wired in January 2014. The remaining four or five are still lying dormant in my brain. I have yet to crack them open.

I also write very very short fiction in the form of 100-word stories. A number of these I have illustrated as postcards.

I also co-founded and co-curate a collaborative literary arts series in San Jose called Play On Words. This volunteer effort, which I run with Nicole Hughes and Melinda Marks, has really fed my literary brain while working in the corporate world. As a professional marketer I feel it my duty to mention that our next show is this Thursday, May 22, at the Blackbird Tavern. I’m a strong believer in group creativity and fostering a real sense of artistic community. It’s hydrating for your brain.

How is my work different than others in its genre?

I don't really ascribe to a genre. I suppose I aspire to be read as contemporary realistic fiction, whatever that means on a given day, though I don’t care that much about genre. I’m much more obsessed with language, character, place, and action. I’m fascinated by fictional topography. What characters look like when they’re fully realized and put in opposition to one another. I’m very interested in language on a literal and spatial level. I like learning how we acquire vocabulary, and how we keep it authentic. The stories I’m currently writing grapple with that weird gap in language acquisition--how sometimes we just don’t have the words for something, on a very basic level, and so we have no choice but to make decisions with our bodies.

My favorite writers make this look effortless, and they do it in their own unique and distinctive voice. I discovered Lydia Davis’ collected stories in grad school and they cracked me right open. Aimee Hempel, Danzy Senna, Jennifer Egan, Junot Diaz, Horacio Quiroga, Toni Morrison, Charles Baxter. These writers don’t ease you in; they sit you down and say, where on earth have you been?

How does my writing process work?

It changes, but typically I am the kind of writer who writes several drafts. Writing is such a series of contradictions for me. I love writing exposition but I hate reading it--so often I’ll write a very long first draft, wait a few weeks, then return to it and cut it in half. I once saw Dorothy Allison speak about character, and she said that when she is writing a new character, she writes a five-page monologue in that person’s voice, most of which she never keeps. The exercise is about knowing who this person is, and the kinds of words she uses. That piece of advice has stayed with me.

I also rely on critical feedback. I have a few friends from grad school whose opinion I hold very dear, and who are familiar with my goals and questions, and we try to swap work when we can. I also love generative writing workshops. I took a few taught by my friend Matthew Clark Davison (shoutout Matthew) that were such a breath of fresh air. It is a real treat to be in a room full of writers and to get their feedback.

Revision is key. If you give a draft long enough to breathe, and then return to it, revision can be a truly rewarding, fun exercise.

Why do I write what I do?

Because I have to. It’s an impulse that is never quenched, which makes it both unbearable and ecstatic.

Next week three writers I love will be carrying the Blog Hop torch:

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Rachel Van Blankenship is a poet/photographer/designer raised in Northern California. She studied Photojournalism and Creative Writing at The University of Montana, Missoula and has recently relocated to Phoenix, Arizona to daylight as a Features Designer. Her nomadic tendencies have taken her to Oklahoma, Texas and Pennsylvania. "Menacing Hedge," "Gather Kindling," "Cease, Cows" and "JMWW" have published her poems and she placed 4th in the international "Flash Mob 2013" competition. She is still working on her first poetry chapbook and manuscript. (She knows she's slow). Visit her website and blog at www.rachelvb.com.

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Marta Moreno and her partner, photographer Lorenzo Hernandez, have been editing COLLAGE magazine, an independent multilingual online publication, since 2008. She has also been the editor and coordinator of “Through the Eyes of Love”, a collaborative project that aimed to bring to the ESL classroom engaging literacy activities for the students. The result of this project was a workbook containing activities that serve as a supplement for a book of short stories written by Irish writer Siobhan Galvin. After spending several years teaching EFL in different Official Schools of Languages in Spain, Marta decided to move to London to work for the European Reminiscence Network, an organization that aims to promote best practice in reminiscence work, especially with people with dementia and their carers, and to share experience across national frontiers. She is also digitising the contents of Pam Schweitzer’s Reminiscence Theatre Archive at the University of Greenwich. Marta’s blog, “Remembering in London” reflects this experience together with her very personal view of a city that constantly stimulates creativity. A key element in this blog is Lorenzo’s exceptional photography.

Writer, performer, Zen-ster, Gray Performs is on a mission to love Who We Are (in all of its incarnations) with such wild abandon that she inspires in you the courage and enthusiasm to do the same. She was once described by a producer as, "not an ordinary human being… She has the spunk of Punky Brewster, the mind of General Patton, and the awkward neuroticism of Woody Allen. She is lively, honest–full of piss and vinegar." Read Gray’s blog at www.notkeepingscore.com.

First Day

I think I know what the word "bucolic" means now.  Bucolic means Vermont. Three shades of green woven together across rolling hills. Clouds furrowed deep and white, lilac startling against yellow farmhouses.

I arrived in this morning, after an overnight journey from Northern California to Chicago to Burlington, Vermont, where a friendly taxi driver picked me and another writer up for the hour-long drive to Middlebury College. I'm attending the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference on a work-study scholarship, which means I'm attending Charles Baxter's fiction workshop and meeting writers at all stages of their careers while serving food in the dining hall. And I am here a day early, when the campus is eerily quiet and calm, a summer camp spell waiting to happen. 

I had enough time, between my two layovers and long flights, to steam through Kristiana Kahakauwila's debut collection, This is Paradise. The stories are all set in Hawai'i, very beautifully rendered, featuring a wide range of characters whose relationship with the islands are complicated, emotional and honest. My brother recently moved to Honolulu, with his wife soon to follow, and as someone who likes her stories very firmly steeped in place, the book kept me going from San Jose to LAX to Chicago, even on the tiny express plane that took me here. Word has it the writer herself might be here.

I am already awkward in my fandom, and only a small group of us are here yet. I walked out down a long, pebbly lane, stopping to take pictures of the light on the hills, still not quite awake. When I arrived this morning it was lightly raining, and though raindrops have let up, the air still hangs with heavy anticipation. There are words in the air, waiting for us. Bucolic, they whisper. Pastoral.

We're here, we whisper back. We're ready.


The art of teatro

When I lived in southern Spain, I had the good fortune to meet Marta Moreno, an English teacher at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas in Fuengirola. I spent my days trying to teach Spanish to British elementary students in the neighboring town of La Cala, and my nights learning Spanish proverbs via Marta's engaging (and free) teatro classes. About half of the group were Spanish speakers enrolled in her English classes, and the other half were Americans and native English speakers who were there to practice Spanish. Marta encouraged us to bring in photos from our high school proms, to share American slang, to bring in recipes and cultural anecdotes that would provoke discussion. One week she gave us a Xeroxed handout with a number of different cartoon expressions with adjectives written under their faces (agobiado, liado, encantado) --a resource that I still have six years later, pinned to the pliable walls of my cubicle at work, though its edges are frayed and curled.

I'll never forget those final weeks in Málaga, when she invited a group of teatro regulars over to the condo she shared with her husband and daughter, just blocks from the city's central square. I remember how groovy it all was; they were intellectuals, artists, educators, speakers of multiple languages, and they lived in the most beautiful space. It was a warm night in late May when they led us up a narrow staircase to their balcony. We had to walk through a curtain of gauze to get to it. I remember the way the fabric felt against my face, the way my Belgian friend Geoff sat in the sun with his guitar.

Geoff on the patio

For my first several months in Spain, I was obsessed with the French film L'Auberge Espangole, which followed a group of young ERASMUS students from half a dozen countries. How badly I wanted that feeling--the exposure to other cultures, other languages, other everythings. It wasn't until that evening on Marta's balcony that I realized that that's exactly what teatro was: a group of people bound together by language and location. A group of people gathered on a sunny balcony not far from the sea, the throng of cathedral bells echoing off cobblestone.

Marta and I have stayed in touch. A few years ago, she established a multilingual publication called Collage Magazine that her English classes have been producing every spring. The magazine showcases writing both from her students and with her friends from around the world, and also features the glorious photographs of her husband, Lorenzo Hernandez, whose skill and talent have taken him around the world. (This is the same Lorenzo Hernandez who took the picture on my About page--taken that very day on their famous balcony.)

In 2010 she asked me to contribute a piece about San Francisco. This winter, she contacted me because they were working on a jazz issue. I submitted a piece about New Orleans, and encouraged my mother, longtime journalist and nonfiction writer Lyra Halprin, to submit as well. The issue is gorgeous--there are essays, interviews and stories written in Spanish, English and French, as well as Lorenzo's stunning images of musicians and artists from around the world. It is a true work of art--and you can view all 62 pages of it here.

I feel like it is especially important to share this right now, after the tragedy of the Boston Marathon, and the explosions in West Texas, and Congress' failure to pass crucial legislation. All week I have meditated on this violence, this tragedy, this surprising and ferocious turn of events, but it is projects like Collage Magazine that surface true beauty in the world, in multiple languages, in multiple countries. It is a humble effort, but an important one, a good reminder that regardless of what's happening in the world we can still write, we can still sing, we can still take photos, we can still revel in it, all of it, together.

Ode to an anonymous dancer

Every week, Kurt Andersen asks the question "What work of art changed your life?" Andersen is the host of PRI's Studio 360, a weekly radio show and podcast that focuses on art, architecture, literature, design and culture. He is one of my many heroes.

This is a question I've been contemplating lately. Since settling into my job and new lifestyle post-grad school, I find myself missing what it means to be inspired. Productive, yes, and efficient, maybe, but inspired? I miss that.

There are those moments of awe that one expects when encountering a famous work of art. I remember the hour I spent at the Prado in Madrid, standing opposite the gorgeous, caterwauling Guernica. How I'd never survived anything so harrowing and yet was struck by an insane sense of familiarity, staring at all those mournful open mouths, those absurd horses. I still think of wandering into Neue Wache in Berlin, where Kathe Kollwitz's iconic sculpture Mother with Dead Son filled the entire room with an emptiness that only solid rock can create. I remember hearing Amy Goodman speak one winter at UCSB, in the depths of Bush's second administration, when all things independent and all things progressive seemed somehow at risk, and here she was, this small woman with the loudest, smartest, clearest voice.

These were all grand, immense moments of feeling; experiences that made me want to go home and write like mad, find the truth of it, whatever it was, and make it real. Make it raw.

And yet one moment somehow stands out, perhaps because of its irreverence. It was the summer of 2007 and I had just moved back to the States after a year abroad. I was working as a teaching assistant and camp counselor, the kind of job that requires you to be awake and on for 12-15 hours a day, seven days a week. I was a year out of college, lost in that schizophrenic gap between being a student and being a professional. My students were loud and outgoing and demanding of attention and time. I was worn out.

One of our last responsibilities during the three-week session was to host a camp talent show. There were skits and inside jokes, magic tricks and songs. I kept my eyes on my watch. And then a young woman came to the stage. She couldn't have been more than 15. She was wearing dance clothes but she didn't look like a ballerina, at least not the Balanchine kind. She danced to a long, slow song, a breathy song, a mournful song, a song that cast a pall over our teenage audience. The room grew quiet. I couldn't tell you what it was exactly that she was doing--they weren't pirouettes, but rather something more modern, more messy, yet controlled. It was a quiet, intense fury. It was adolescence; underrated, difficult, surprisingly articulate. She never broke a sweat. She had a self-possession that I, years older, had yet to learn. I had no idea what I was doing with my life but she expressed it all for me, without the crutch of words.

I never found out her name. As talented as she was, I almost didn't want to know. I've been lucky to witness a number of amazing performances since, but I've never forgotten the way she danced. The abandon, the forgiveness, the grace.

There's no comparing her performance to any other work of art that has left its impression. What makes art impressive to me is the narrative it creates for us--whether it's a story we all know, or a story we believe is being told to us, and us alone. And those are the stories I want to write.


Night at the Oakland Museum

This time last night I was just walking up the steps to the Oakland Museum of California, which was hosting a spectacular 30-hours re-opening celebration in honor of its recent renovation. There were deejays, documentaries, palm readers, and lots of vibrant, diverse, amazing exhibitions. It was "From the Mixed-Up-Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" meets "Night at the Museum," except in Oakland, on a beautiful spring night.



The only other time I'd ever been to the Oakland Museum was as a fourth-grader. We had driven all the way to the Bay Area to get a hands-on look at California history, and yet all I seem to remember about it was that there were koi in the pond, and that the adult chaperone in our group got lost on the 880 and we ended up in San Francisco. But last night--last night art was seeping in our pores. There are three main exhibits that are currently open to the public: "Art", "Nature," and "History." I don't think I've ever been to a museum that examined California identity so carefully, and displayed such an honest depiction of what it means to be multicultural. I was especially moved by the exhibit of art made in Japanese internment camps, many of them in the Bay Area.

There's something magical about being in a public place with lots of people late at night. It's almost as if the truly fascinating, exotic or curious parts of ourselves emerge when no one else is looking, and these are the parts most worth documenting.