Do you struggle with writer’s block?

I believe that writer’s block is a normal, human condition where we are not really struggling with writing, but with a part of ourselves. This part is our Inner Critic. Want to learn some strategies to deal this? Click here for an article I wrote for the Australian Society of Authors.

Leaving Del Rio

It’s been dry for seven months. On the way in from Del Rio International Airport, my father told us that the local church congregations have been saying rain prayers all spring.

Dad, my step-mother and younger siblings moved here almost ten years ago. Del Rio is his long-awaited escape from Southern Ontario winters, a Texas border town just 3 miles from Mexico. I’ve visited a number of times over the years; its low-key charm and arid climate make it a good vacation spot and writing retreat for me.

I toured Stealing Nasreen through here three years ago and am back with Six Metres of Pavement for a couple of readings, a book signing and a creative writing workshop. Each event has been attended by welcoming, interested readers, people who asked lots of questions about writing process, and the characters and setting in Six Metres of Pavement. They wanted to know about Toronto, Ismail’s mistake, Celia’s agonias. Del Rio is a frontier town with an artist’s heart.

It’s now a week later, and my partner and I wait at the airport. There are only two outbound flights a day, and ours has been grounded due to a thunderstorm with hail the “size of golf balls”. The airport staff have made us coffee, and changed the channel in the waiting room to Disney to entertain the children. They got the rain they prayed for after all.

Dad at Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Del Rio

Location, location

Writers are often asked where we write. It is a question as much about writing process as it is about location. What spaces provide inspiration, focus, or unblocks a writer?

When I’m in the process of writing a novel, it’s usually at home in front of my computer, or in a cafe. I write in long blocks or short breaks between appointments. My most productive writing has happened “on vacation” in a busy library in Del Rio Texas, just a block away from my father’s house.

First drafts of poetry nearly always happen in the moments in between stuff, when I’m alone and waiting for the next thing to happen. Buses are good, so are trains. Restaurants, too, when I arrive too early for my date.

I asked the November 2nd Brockton Writers Series writers to answer the question, to share something of their own writing process with the audience. Here are their answers:

Nehal El-Hadi writes “absolutely everywhere”. She often begins a piece on her cell-phone, texting herself bits and pieces of prose to work on later.

Carole Giangrande carries around a “crummy, old , battered notebook” to record her ideas.

Jules Lewis likes to write at the University of Toronto Libraries, “because it’s free”.

May Lui writes anywhere except in her apartment, where she gets easily distracted. She carries a tiny notebook to “scribble down brilliant sentences”.

So, where do you write?

Revisions, revisions

I’ve just come through the first stage of revisions and edits with Six Metres of Pavement and I’m pleased with the recent changes. Mostly, it’s small stylistic stuff and catching the strange little time/date/progression inconsistencies. The latter drives my author’s perfectionistic mind a little batty. I’ve been dreaming new scenes that in the middle of the night seem terribly important to add and in the morning are just terribly weird.

It’s been good working with a skilled editor, and I lucked out when I was assigned Dundurn’s Shannon Whibbs, who has been helpful with the story-telling and the tiny details. I’m sure she’d find a grammar issue in that last sentence.

And now I’m working on a glossary. When I went out to do Stealing Nasreen readings, I learned not to assume that people know about pakoras and mamajis. Not every town has a large enough South Asian community to help people learn about such things. And this time around, with a character like Celia, a Portuguese-Canadian widow, I’ve also needed to define terms like frango and bom dia.

The book won’t be available until Feb/March 2011, but you can get a sneak peak of it’s cover here.

Crafting an Income

First published Mar 30, 2010 by The Mark

Today’s best Facebook status update was from a friend who is an author: “Royalty cheque finally arrived. Time to get that root canal!” The post received a dozen commiserating comments from other writers – and not about the pain of dental work.

Most writers I know aren’t rich. They cobble together incomes from paid writing and speaking gigs, meagre royalties, and grants from insufficiently funded arts programs. Many add on part-time or full-time employment and raise children too. They scrape together enough (or not enough) time and money to continue working on their craft.

I’m talking about established writers here – people who are published, who have an audience, whose Google hits number in the thousands. Yes, it’s old news, but times have changed. Huge advances are a thing of the past. Independent bookstores are closing their doors. Writers have to use their creativity to pay the bills.

Years ago, I quit a full-time job as a social worker to start a part-time private psychotherapy practice in order to gain more writing time. Most weeks, my writing/psychotherapy is a near equal balance, with the exception of winter when new clients arrive in droves, and summertime, when people leave for vacations. In other words, my writing waxes and wanes with the whims of my higher-paid work schedule. Sometimes, I feel jealous of full-time writers.

Still, I manage to write almost daily, and sometimes I have the luxury of an uninterrupted eight-hour stretch. In many ways, this is the ideal way to write novels; I can be inside the minds of my characters all day long, thinking, planning, dreaming.

I’ve often pondered what it would be like to not have a “day job,” to earn enough income through royalties or arts grants. When that seems too far-fetched, I fantasize about month-long writing retreats in the middle of a forest.

Would I be as productive if I had this luxury? I’m not sure. There is something to be said for the structure a second job creates. Yes, it breaks up the writing, but it also trains me to use the remaining time well. I edit previously drafted passages in the gaps between clients, I reserve mornings in my agenda in pink highlighter, and I set goals to increase page counts. I treat my writing time as something precious.
I’ve heard other writers with day jobs express similar sentiments. There’s the parent who wakes at 5 a.m. every day, the consultant who accepts three-month contracts to earn just enough to get back to his writing, the teacher who spends weekends and vacations finishing her second novel.

I keep my day job for a number of reasons besides the obvious financial one. My clients are interesting people. The emotionally focused experience of psychotherapy complements the imaginative process needed for fiction. Plus, I’m good at the work, and it’s helpful to have a consistent feeling of competence and purpose (especially on days when a rejection letter or the results of an unsuccessful grant application arrive in my mailbox).

For now, my two jobs, writing and psychotherapy, suit me. But I have a feeling that the work of keeping them in balance will be something I’ll continue to question and grapple with for a long while yet. Today, my Facebook status update will read: “Three new pages in the morning, three ongoing clients in the afternoon. A good day.”

New York

I’m excited to be heading to New York City this Saturday March 7th for the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective’s 6th Annual Literary Festival. The theme is “Stranger Love” and I will be participating on a panel of writers, talking about sexuality, race and gender in South Asian writing. 

strangerlove

Here are the details:

4:15–5:30pm
Passing Strange: Race, Gender and Sexuality

Panelists consider how their writing reimagines raced, gendered, and sexual identity in unconventional ways.

Abha Dawesar (Family Values, Penguin India 2009)
Farzana Doctor (Stealing Nasreen, Inanna 2007)
Chandra Prasad (On Borrowed Wings: A Novel, Atria 2007)
Moderated by Svati Shah (Postdoctoral Fellow, Duke University)

at The New School
6 East 16th Street (at 5th Ave), 9th Floor
New York, NY
FREE

Later the same evening, I’ll be reading from Stealing Nasreen at:

Closing Night Reading
From dating on Craigslist to undiscovered family histories, South Asian women share their own writing on the theme of “stranger love.” Featuring Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Meena Alexander, Abha Dawesar, Farzana Doctor, Minal Hajratwala, S. Mitra Kalita, Yesha Naik, Amy Paul, Bushra Rehman, Zohra Saed, and Purvi Shah.

at Bar 13
35 East 13th Street
New York, NY
$5 at the door

Hope to see you there!

For full schedule, go to www.sawcc.org/events

on keeping the faith…

This week, a friend passed on a link for TED.com, the place where you can find videos of 18 minute talks on a variety of subjects. I watched Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, speak about “A different way to think about creative genius” and was entralled, inspired, excited.  

I’m currently working away on my third novel. I’m figuring out the characters, sorting out some possible plots, wondering where (and if) it’s  going. This work, whatever or wherever it is, is undeniably in a very embryonic state. It’s easy to feel mounds of self-doubt, to hit the delete key too often and to question whether I have another novel in me.

So Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk came just in the nick of time. I won’t summary it–it’s best you listen to it yourself.  But I will say that I’ve had some of the experiences she describes. Creativity and inspiration come in fits and starts, and can feel otherworldly, and I like it that way. The rest of the time, like Elizabeth, I sit at my computer, show up for my job, and wait patiently to hear voices that will guide me through the story. And usually, if I remain open to it, and perhaps even ask nicely, it does.

Starting again…

I was shopping at Multiple Organics today, my favourite local grocery store. I saw a couple of friends and we chatted about writing. One asked me how Novel #2 is going, and I replied, “Still tinkering”.

This past week, I completed revision #10, fixing typos, adding description, cleaning up prose. I told her this and she ordered me to stop. Put it aside. Leave it alone for now. Start something new. “There will be time for more revisions when you work with an editor,” she persisted.

I remember when I was in this place with Stealing Nasreen, back in 2006. I had sent out multiple submissions, created a new ending, and continued with edits. Then one day, it was time to move on. I don’t why it happened that day, and can’t recall how I started, but I did start  New Skin (which at the time, I was calling “Mistake”). It was strange starting fresh, getting to know my characters, finding out who there were and what they’d do. I watched the page count grow.

Half-way into New Skin’s first draft, a book deal for Stealing Nasreen arrived and I put New Skin aside, at the publisher’s recommendation–I had revisions for the first novel to focus on and needed not to be distracted by the second. Somewhat sadly, I said farewell to Ismail and Celia of New Skin and got reacquainted with Nasreen, Salma and Shaffiq. 

Then, a few weeks after Stealing Nasreen‘s release, I turned back to New Skin. At this point I felt polyamourous; I was talking about Nasreen at book launches, while further developing Celia. I was answering questions about Shaffiq, and writing dialogue for Ismail. This busy ‘intimate life’ has continued for the last year and a half. Add to this the further complexity of a brand new relationship with four strangers who have been visiting my imagination over the last couple of months–characters from novel #3. I’m still not sure who they are, but they won’t be ignored. 

Today, after listening to my friend’s wise words, I am putting aside New Skin. I’ve just sent the manuscript to an agent, and will wait. I know I’ll return to it again, when the time for edits comes.

Meanwhile, I have a date with four new friends…

Writing Time and Ottawa Reading

So far, November has provided me with lots of writing time. I’m esconced in the second novel, still untitled (although in a couple of grant applications, I’m calling it Mistake, which doesn’t really bode well).

The great thing about having plenty of writing time is that it’s possible to really delve into the characters’ moods and quirks. The story begins to have more continuity, and a little detail mentioned on page 9 is able to return on page 99. On some days, my head remains inside the novel, which feels like a decadent and fortunate place to be because ideas come much easier than if I’m less involved. It also means that I’ve got to work harder to pull myself out of it when I have to switch gears and work on other things or with other people (or risk exposing poor social etiquette). These things might be consulting work, psychotherapy or promoting Stealing Nasreen.

Speaking of which…

I’ll be reading in Ottawa at the Collected Works Bookstore next Friday, November 30th, at 7:30pm. I love going to Ottawa; I went to school there and still have some friends living there. If you are in the area, please come and say hello.