Thursday Writing: How VONA stopped me in my tracks

Hello, Thursday, the writing day of the week! (Here’s the whole-week agenda.) Today is all about the writing I’ve been doing lately… which is not the writing I thought I’d be doing post-VONA. Allow me to explain…

If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.
–Marc Chagall

Right before I went to the VONA writing residency, I made a to-do list for the summer.ย  This included work on a novel, 22 pages of which I brought to the residency as my manuscript. Although I’d been brainstorming the novel for months, my VONA acceptance in April forced me to start writing it at last. It was pretty exciting. I figured I’d discuss it at VONA and get advice on how to continue, then come home and write it till it was done.

Well, it didn’t happen that way. At VONA I did discuss the novel, and my mentor Evelina did give me some very good advice on it, but I’m no longer working on it actively. What happened, essentially, is I left VONA not with a new plan for that piece, but with a goal to become a better writer in general. Which isn’t quite the same thing.

If I wanted to, I could certainly keep going with the novel, full-speed-ahead now with everyone’s tips under my belt. This is what some of my VONA friends are doing with the work they brought to the residency. But their work means more to them than my novel does to me. Of course I do find it meaningful, otherwise I wouldn’t have begun it in the first place, but it doesn’t burn through me with urgent fire, the way my classmates’ works do them. And if there’s anything I learned at VONA, it’s that that urgent fire is everything in writing: the purpose, the goal, the raison d’รชtre of a serious writer.

About our first or second full day at VONA, the story went around that the-voice-of-God Chris Abani had made his entire class cry by asking them, “Why do you write?” and then bluntly breaking down all their answers as false constructions of their ego (or something like that). I know my response to Chris’s question in the abstract: I write because I think I have something to say, and I want to know what it is. But when it comes to my individual projects… there’s nothing that screams desperately to be written. It worries me a little, as if that lack of urgency means I’m not meant to be a writer at all (but I’ve decided to stop worrying about that question). I may not be fired up about my big projects, but I know there are things I do get excited to write. Small things, throwaway things maybe: little descriptions, short vignettes, blog posts about “deep thoughts.”

When I was a writing TA (UCLA, 2005), I told my students that the point of the first draft is to figure out what you’re saying — which is why I’m always telling them that their conclusion needs to be their introduction. It took me all my undergrad years to figure that one out, and I hoped it would help my students to hear it before they graduated. (But it probably didn’t. What undergrad is sufficiently organized to write second drafts of anything unless forced to?) In writing, most of the time we just don’t know what we’re talking about until the end, and that’s why first drafts are both important and expendable. The process is important; the product is mostly not very good.

It occurs to me after VONA that maybe my little bits of “unimportant” writing, the blog entries and morning pages and all that, are that first draft for me — the one that helps me figure out what I want to say. Maybe by doing my little bit of daily writing about things that matter to me (race, my relationship with my mother, Tisha’s illness, my childhood piano teacher’s house) I’ll be able to put together a form or a direction for something bigger: an essay, a short story, a prose novel, a graphic novel, a memoir.

Before VONA I had plenty of ideas that I thought were significant projects, but now I realize that ideas are just ideas. They are like clothing to be put on, but not bodies to be inhabited; I had the trappings but not the heart, outlines but not story. And so, what I’m doing now, before I start on these bigger projects, is figuring out the stories in my life and world that interest me: the ones that will nag and claw and tear at me if I don’t write them. It may look like I’m temporarily abandoning my big projects, but actually I’m readying myself to breathe life into them. I’ll keep writing my “little things” until I know what matters to me as a writer, and once I do, I can put those garments on properly — with a soul to live inside.

Tomorrow’s a special day: the very first weekly Virtual Open Mic on this blog! I’ll share one of the “little things” I’ve been writing lately, and fellow writers and artists are invited to reciprocate in the comments. Tell all your friends — let’s get a vibrant creative space going! Look for the post sometime in the afternoon (CA time). See you then!