Write, Decide, Finish

I have boxes of journals and index cards, folders of handwritten notes, and a section of my hard drive full of starter poems and essays.  Some pieces are further along than others, but they all have one thing in common, they are incomplete.

I look at some of these folders and say these ideas are “in work.”  And this is sometimes true.  I often write about my life and being in the middle of an event is a great time to take detailed notes because either I haven’t finished living that entire experience or gained the perspective needed to tell a complete story.

But the reality is that the majority of this is creative indecision.

Fortunately, my office can accommodate these boxes and full shelves but earlier this year, I decided that I couldn’t anymore.  I could no longer ignore that I start way more than I finish.  I began to face my procrastination, my fear, my piles of research — all that holds my writing back.

I still write new things.  I can’t help it.  The world is interesting — things are happening.  But I’m also dedicating time to old projects.  When I read an old fragment, sink into my old notes and feelings, I tell myself that I have to finish it in this sitting with what I know right now while so many other shiny things beg for my attention.  It’s not a fast process, so I usually do this with a snack and a cool drink.  On those days, on those pages, I tell myself I’m not writing, I’m finishing.

Writers as Albatross

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Kaloakulua the Laysan Albatross
Photo credit: @AlbatrossCam, http://bit.ly/KauaiAlbatrossCam

I have been watching Kaloakulua since February.  Back then, she was a newly hatched chick.  Her parents would alternate sitting on her, protecting her and keeping her warm until she was big enough to be left alone, then both parents would continue the immense task of feeding her.  I remember her first night alone.  I watched her sitting in her nest near the base of the hedge until after the sunset.  A parent had left her a couple of hours before, Kaloakulua wasn’t going to go hungry.  This is it, they aren’t coming back tonight.  Then the video image turned to black.  I am not a bird person, I mean, I like animals, but never felt so deeply about a bird.  I worried about predators.  And the next morning, she was awake in her nest, safe and sound.  I was relieved.

While her parents are away for days or weeks foraging for her food, Kaloakulua meets the neighbors (cardinals, chickens, nene, other Kauai birds), explores the knoll, and even a few junior albatross stop by.  They’re between three and five years old.  They dance, moo, clap their beaks, and show her what they have figured out so far about being an albatross.  Sometimes Kaloakulua is interested, sometimes, she preens.  She spent a lot of time alone until she built a new nest closer to another chick, Mango.

Kaloakulua has been growing so quickly, her feathers are coming in, and her wing span is getting large.  In the next six weeks, she will stretch her wings, as she’s been practicing for awhile now and fly away.  My boyfriend says that will break my heart.  And he’s right.

So here’s the scary part.  Kaloakulua won’t return to her home on Kauai for at least three years.  Scientists are learning that albatross travel far, sometimes flying 500 miles a day, not touching ground for months.  Albatross face dangers such as fishing boats and especially plastic.  When they are juniors, albatross return to their nesting grounds to practice more social rituals, and return again when they are ready to court and mate at around eight or nine years old.  Albatross typically mate for life and can only raise one chick a year.

And, to me, this is like being a writer.

When we figure out that we want to write, we emulate others or study their works closely, learning what we can from morsels of knowledge.  Maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll get some guidance from mentors or peers.  We spend time alone studying.  We’re discovering our own way into the craft.  And when we fledge, we also travel far.  And that is the scary part.  Will feedback in a workshop or from an editor derail us?  Sometimes life happens.  We get tired.  The chances of being a writer for the long haul are slim.  Will we quit?  Sometimes we cringe at our pages we’ve spent months writing and revising.  Sometimes we can’t wait to write.  But know then, that’s when we are in it, we are learning how to be writers.  Not when others are watching us, but in the days, weeks, and years where we are practicing maybe even adrift.  And if our commitment to writing survives, yes, even a decade or two later, we might be ready to do our life’s work.  Nurture it, feed it, and be in service to it.  Producing such work is a driving force of nature.

The world’s oldest known bird is a female Laysan albatross, just like Kaloakulua.  Her name is Wisdom and she is 63 years old.  She and her mate are raising a chick this season.  Scientists estimate that this is her 35th chick.

I wish you and your writing all the perseverance, longevity and survival of Wisdom.

#IAmBeyond

The White House announced this week, “This May, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center theme for AAPI Heritage Month is “I Am Beyond.” The phrase captures the aspirations of the American spirit, how Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent have always sought to excel beyond the challenges that have limited equal opportunity in America.”

#IAmBeyond because my ancestors believed in their causes, took risks, and worked for a better life for their families and communities.

Naukana Hikiau, my four times great grandmother, left her home in Maui on May 25, 1870 aboard the Sumatra and lived in China as a missionary for nine years.  To me, she represents that being Hawaiian isn’t just about being in the islands with our beautiful scenery, delicious food, and great music — it’s also important to be a Hawaiian out in the world to be a cultural ambassador and affect change.

On January 13, 1903 when the SS Gaelic arrived in Honolulu, my great-grandmother was one of the 102 on-board — the first Korean immigrants to arrive in the United States.

My great-grandfather was born at Mana sugar plantation camp on Kauai in 1897 and grew up to be the Japanese foreman.  Although he died in 1964, to this day, people still remember his generosity and kindness as a community leader.

These are just three of the many people who give my Asian American and Pacific Islander ohana the values of courage, strength, and hard work — powerful forces to help us face the new worlds we live in.  #IAmBeyond because of their spirit.

Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin recently published the findings from their annual gathering in their report, “Children’s Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States.”

In response, there has been a lot of finger pointing from writers to publishers then publishers to “The Market”, then back to writers and then about how writers of color are educated in MFA programs.  If you’re a writer of color, this makes a bleak market seem even bleaker.  I don’t know how to affect these systemic problems except to buy books written by writers of color, write well, submit my best work, be a professional, and never ever quit.

The CCBC’s findings also noted that while they track writers and protagonists who are African Americans, American Indians, Asian/Pacifics and Asian/Pacific Americans, and Latinos and they do not track the works of white writers or protagonists because “they are not notably, or even noticeably, lacking.”  This year’s numbers are at their lowest since 1994 when they began collecting this data. The narrative of the human experience is still incomplete.  #WeNeedDiverseBooks because the entire story hasn’t been told.  #WeNeedDiverseBooks because what we know without them isn’t enough.

How to Read “Being a Writer is Hard” Essays

This week, Brevity published Ms. Finnerty’s essay about her post-MFA life. Her experience has taught her specific things about love, trust, and finding what works for her. But some of the “advice,” like buying flip flops, is a wink to herself and falls to the wayside for the rest of us. When I read essays about how difficult it is to be a writer often I am not sure what the piece is trying to accomplish.

Is this glimpse into another writer’s world trying to make me feel less isolated or odd? Is this a chance for the writer to give a personal guided tour of each of their writing scars? If I didn’t already have an MFA, I might read an essay like this and wonder if I should even bother. Is the writer throwing down the gauntlet to the writing community, saying “put up or shut up”? (I guess that would be “publish or shut up.”) It’s often unclear who the essay is intended for and sometimes I feel like I’m reading code. Some I can translate, some, I can’t. Many of these essays are couched as advice, kitchen table wisdom shared over a cup of coffee, and I have an expectation of intimacy. Is this a response a writer would truly give while looking me in the eye?

The fundamental problem with these essays is that they usually do not distinguish between writing and publishing. Writing is an art, a craft, and a way to sort out one’s thoughts. Publishing is a business. They’re completely different from each other. And getting those two to correlate and coincide in the real world is quite separate from an MFA, which is a whole other thing. But in an essay, writing, publishing, and an MFA can seem intertwined, then if the writer throws in some angst, financial distress, health problems, and despair, then the essay gets blurry. When I read these pieces, I want to know if if the writer has made it clear that they understand the difference between writing, publishing, and studying in an MFA program, as well as the causes, effects, and interplay between the three. And I also pay careful attention to the ending. How does the piece end compare to where it started? Am I still hung up on the really negative moment part in the middle of the piece or has the writer carried me through to the end? And what happens at the end? The ending of these essays is where the writer establishes their credibility with me. Or not.

It’s not entirely gloom and doom. These essays can be activist platforms. Many magazines now accept simultaneous submissions as a result of the many essays that exposed how long it takes to publish when submitting work in serial rather than in parallel. These changes are why I keep reading them and hoping for them. “Being a Writer is Hard” essays are important part of the conversation among writers. They force us to look at our fears, shortcomings, and failures in our practice. They are often sad, difficult, sometimes angry. And believe me, I don’t need to read another writer’s essay to feel bad about my work, so I am very careful about how I read them and I choose to take with me.

A Poem a Day, Everyday, or Any Day

Every April and November, Robert Lee Brewer from Writer’s Digest posts daily prompts. April’s prompts are in celebration of National Poetry Month and November’s prompts are an alternative for poets to participate to National Novel Writing Month. And after writing 30 poems, you’ve definitely written a chapbook — a significant amount of work.

These prompts are a fun way to learn new poetic forms and it’s a challenge to produce something when then topic is assigned, rather than selected by you. I choose not to participate publicly (by submitting my poems in the comments of his blog), but I do like the idea of writing with lots of people around the world, all of us noodling on different interpretations of the same topic. I’ve written poems from the prompts during these challenges that have been published. This year, he’s included daily interviews with many poets who are new to me. Right now, he keeps the prompts from previous years archived on the site, so you can go back and do previous challenges at your convenience.

He also features weekly prompts during the rest of the year on his blog, Poetic Asides. If you can’t write for awhile, it’s nice to know that you can always start again on any week with fresh prompts waiting for you. Join in the fun! Check it out: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/poetic-asides

Developing Your Writing Practice

When a polite stranger learns that I’m a writer, their next question is often a thinly veiled attempt to figure out if I’m famous.  I smile and tell them I’m a poet.  And usually, even if they aren’t a writer, they ask questions about writing and my process.  I believe that people want to connect.

Aside from attending school and working at a day job, writing is my longest held practice.  Strangers ask how I’ve done this, but my friends ask how I’ve done this despite the demands on my time and energy.

I came to writing later than most and felt like I had a lot of catching up to do.  But how?  I was working at my day job and without a homework assignment, I wasn’t sure what to do.  It couldn’t be as simple as sitting down and writing, could it?

Well, yes, it is…but…how we get to the page, what happens there, and how we stay there varies widely.

A writing practice that works for one writer may not work for another.  And, hopefully, we grow and change as writers.  And change that matters isn’t easy.  Even when change is wanted.  The practices that work today may not tomorrow.

If my blog is truly of service, it’s a place to learn new techniques, get re-energized, then you return to the long haul.  This posts are for the woman on the cross country flight who told me that she’s always wanted to write but didn’t know how to get started, for the colleague who wanted my list of recommended reading, and for you — welcome to the conversation.

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