In 2004 I was planning to head back to VONA like some obsessed follower of an annual rock festival (Deadheads have nothing on VONA fans). But a good friend of mine passed away suddenly that spring and I was too grief-stricken to apply by the deadline so I had to skip that year.
My second year ended up being in 2005. I applied for Junot Diaz’s class but didn’t get in and was assigned to David Mura’s residency class instead. My first thought was, “Why didn’t I get into Junot’s?”, my second was, “Who is David Mura?” and lastly, “what the hell is a residency class?”
By the end of that week I learned:
A) I didn’t get into Junot’s fiction class because it’s one of the most popular classes at VONA (and this was before he won the Pulitzer and was named to the P-Board), and he tends to take people on a first-come-first-served basis, which means my lazy, file-on-the-day-of-the-deadline-ass probably impressed just about no one and left me out of the running (not to mention I submitted a piece of memoir—I was back to writing “Beijing Blues” as a memoir);
B) David Mura is a genius, a gentle warrior, a kind counselor, a true writer whisperer, a mensch;
C) A residency class at VONA is one in which students of different genres spend lunch every day with the teacher, who basically lectures on art, process and craft, (when I say lecture, I mean it in a good way) and spends most of the week in long (three hours!) one-on-one sessions helping each student become a better writer. Unlike in other VONA classes, students do not critique one another’s work. They’re expected to spend plenty of time that week improving existing work, re-writing, and producing new work.
Praise for David Mura
As I type this I am in the middle of packing to move from Vancouver to Berkeley. I just got a new job with the National Writing Project! I’m both thrilled and panicked about moving an entire house within two weeks. (So you see, the reason I haven’t blogged every day is only partially due to sloth.)
If I wasn’t so busy right now I could write volumes about David. It’s been a real blessing to all of us that he’s continued to return to VONA year after year. He is a true sansei sensai. Over the years, I’ve had the honor of “sitting in David’s therapist’s chair,” learning so much from David—about myself and of course about writing—but most importantly about what it means to be a writer, to be an artist, the kind of patience and self-love and compassion it takes, the kind of person it can transform you into if you commit to it, if you work from a place of truth and humility.
I want to thank David for being the first teacher to say to me: “I give you permission to call yourself a writer.” Ever since, when people ask me what I do, I say, “I’m a writer.”
In so many ways, David was the perfect teacher for me that year. His memoir Turning Japanese inspired me beyond words. His was the first memoir by a Japanese American about living and working in Japan. With a poet’s grace, David grappled with issues of family, culture, history, identity, honor, shame and places called home. He encouraged me to keep working on Beijing Blues, made me believe that what I had to say, about being a Chinese American journalist in China, about being an ABC from Jersey, was important, for myself, for the world.
Like I said, I could write volumes, but for now I’ll just share some top tips and tidbits from my notes from David’s class:
On writing and the subconscious
- “Writing should be like chess: you make a move, the unconscious mind makes a move. Otherwise it sounds like the conscious mind wrote it.”
- “To an ordinary person all these things are separate; to the poet, it all goes together.”
- “Everything connects. Everything is relevant.”
On “writing badly”
- “You have to be willing to write badly for a while.”
- The key to solving writer’s block is “lower your standards” ~ William Stafford
- “It seems like failure, but it’s not. It’s part of the process.”
On learning from other writers
- Do imitations of other stuff.
- Why read similar books to your project? We learn by reading what other people do.
- Look at technique, how other writers set the piece.
- Work really hard to understand how things—works of literary writing—are put together.
- In reading other works of writing, look at ideas for structure.
On overcoming writer’s block
- “Trip off words: Use sounds of words to get you started” (especially if you have writer’s block). Sometimes you can jump off an image.
- Walk and work through fear
- “If the belief doesn’t work, change the belief.”
- “Don’t shake hands with the tar babies” (Tar babies are the nattering critics in our head.)
On making time for writing
- Set up a writing schedule and treat as sacred.
- Set a timeline for completing your work; set goals.
- “A memoir is a dialectic between the older self and the younger self”
On the Hero’s Journey
- The hero’s journey is a metaphor for being a writer: It’s always going to require more than you thought.
- A way to think of story: mythology
- “The self that begins the task is not the self that ends the task.”
- The project is a journey.
- In stories, we (narrator/main character) make an action, and then the world makes an action back that is not what we expected.
- The smaller and more concrete, the easier it is to tell the story.
- What does the character want? What does she do to get what she wants? At the end does she get what she wants?
- Achieve this in two to three major actions.
- Each action should be more crucial, important, intense, difficult.
- Your character should struggle with irreconcilable differences: either external or internal.
- “It’s not what happens that reveals character, but how you (character) reacts”
- The interesting things that happen to us is not the story. It’s what we do with the interesting things that happen that make the story.
- In each chapter a new complication is introduced: complication, solution, complication.
- Figure out where it’s crucial for (your main character) to act.
Other writing tips
- In scenes, the camera/mind’s eye is moving: close up, and then pulling out looking from a distance.
- Learn to “leap in time.”
- “Always find ways to say things in as little way as possible.”
- Find where you are being repetitive and make a choice.
- The language you use has to be top notch. If it’s not, then cut it.
- Write something from exactly the opposite point of view of what you’ve written.
- Write from your shadow side.
- Establish a level of writing in one scene.
On being writers of color
- “For writers of color, the language of who we are…we are not given this language.”
- “I was looking for myself in books on the shelf and I didn’t find any.”
“The mainstream underestimates the complexity of ourselves. We ourselves underestimate the complexity of ourselves.”