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by Sharline Chiang

 

David Mura

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.

On memoir

–         “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.”

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by Sharline Chiang

 

Gail Tsukiyama

I took Gail Tsukiyama’s class in 2003. It was my first year at VONA. I had heard about VONA from my good friend Deidre who was applying and called me for a place to stay (she lived in L.A., I lived in Berkeley). Turns out Deidre didn’t end up going that year. I applied just before the deadline and got in.

Looking back I was like a kid who had wandered into a forest, nervous, not knowing what to expect, only to find her lost tribe waiting for her in the clearing. In many ways, VONA is the tribe I had waited to find my entire life. It’s hard to explain how amazing it felt to be surrounded by writers of color from across the country—of all backgrounds and ages—for an entire week. Let’s just say, I grew up in Jersey in the seventies, back when my family was one of the only Asian families for miles. I could probably count on one hand the number of kids of color I can remember. None of us were friends.

That year, the mother of that tribe, or at least of our sub-tribe—the Novel class—was Gail. She was so gentle with us, always encouraging. She made us all feel like we could do anything: that we could write, call ourselves writers, reach our goals, be heard. With her nurturing ways, she was just what I needed at the time.

That year I workshopped a fictionalized version of my memoir, “Beijing Blues,” about my year as a journalist in Beijing and my life-long love-hate relationship with myself, my identity, my journey as a Chinese American woman. I was working on turning it into a novel. That year, like every year since, I met incredible people who helped me in so many ways. To Gail, and any other VON-ites reading this: thank you, thank you, thank you.

Here are just a few notes from my workshop in Gail’s class:

 

On her first book: Women of the Silk

– “It was one year after Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, first time they (publishers) looked at minority writers, first time (they saw us as) economically feasible.”

– On why Asian American writers write so often about the past: “The past has been so long neglected…we had to go back, to our mothers, our grandmothers…”

– “It was as simple as wanting to write a story.”

– “You have to fall in love with the subject.”

– “I’ve written (my stories) for myself.”

– Gail doesn’t use outlines; she starts with an idea or first line or image—one thing leads to another.

 

On writing as a practice:

– Discipline yourself; do it every day.

– “To write is to learn” – research facts, history, discovering psyches.

– “You have to take risks to get to the core.”

– “Less is more, don’t take six pages to say” what you can say in one.

– “Let the characters maneuver you.”

 

Other writing tips

– Story is a series of events that happen but it is not the plot.

– The plot is dramatic and thematic, has emotional significance.

– Use significant details: gestures, what someone is wearing, how they look, how they talk.

– Make the plot start moving faster. “We want to know things. When we don’t find out that’s when we say we don’t need to read the rest, or ‘I can put it down.’”

– The most important pages of a novel are the first page and the last page.

– The first page needs to be very tight, where we need to know what’s happening: the circumstances that led to where the characters are right now.

– You make a choice between first person or third person. “I use first person when I want more intimacy.”

– First person should feel less formal. What is the narrator’s speech pattern? Establish a voice for each person speaking in first person.

– Ask yourself, how does [the narration] come across best? (Halfway through Women of the Silk, Gail turned the narration from first person to third.)

­- Learn to read for technique

– Learn to read for style vs. story

– Remember: 90 percent of book buying is by women

– Get inside your characters’ heads so we understand them.

 

Suggested current authors to read (from Gail’s handout)

Cristina Garcia

Ha Jin

Sandra Cisneros

Haruki Murakami

Louise Erdich

Richard Rodrigues

Zadie Smith

ZZ Packer

Rohinton Mistry

Monique Troung

 

About Gail Tsukiyama: A novelist from San Francisco, Gail was one of nine fiction authors to appear during the first Library of Congress National Book Festival. Her works include The Samurai’s Garden, Women of the Silk, Night of Many Dreams, The Language of Threads, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, and Dreaming Water.

Tsukiyama was born in San Francisco to a Japanese father from Hawaii and a Chinese mother from Hong Kong. She attended San Francisco State University where she received both her Bachelor of Arts Degree and a Master of Arts Degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing. She lives in El Cerrito, California, and works as a part-time creative writing lecturer for San Francisco State University and a freelance book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. She is a past recipient of the Academy of American Poets Award.

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 by Sharline Chiang

   

Good times with poet Ruth Forman at VONA (2009), a writing workshop for writers of color. Photo Credit: Diem Jones

First of all I want to thank Melanie for inviting me to blog this month. I’ve never blogged before, so bear with me!

I met Melanie a few years ago at VONA, an incredible, summer writing workshop for writers of color. The workshops have been offered by Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation for the past ten years in San Francisco on the USF campus. Classes, held over two weeks in two separate sessions, are taught by the nation’s top writers, all of them writers of color.

VONA faculty have included Junot Diaz, Chris Abani, David Mura, Elmaz Abinader, Colson Whitehead, Mat Johnson, Cristina Garcia, Thomas Glave, Chitra Divakaruni, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Victor LaValle, Saul Williams, Ana Castillo, Martin Espada, ZZ Packer, Walter Mosely, Ruth Forman, Suheir Hammad, Willie Perdomo, Andrew X. Pham, Jessica Hagedorn, Terry McMillan, Gail Tsukiyama and many more.

Like I said: star studded!

At VONA, I’m a bit of an O.G. I took my first class in 2003 and have been back every summer except ’04 and this year. Six times over eight years!

What keeps me coming back? The top-notch, uber-caring faculty who manage to cram in so many amazing lessons on craft and process in one short week; the community; the intoxicating buzz of meeting and being surrounded by brilliant, humble, soulful writers of color (I call it my week of “people of color therapy”), and the nurturing, safe space VONA provides for each of us to continue to grow as artists and individuals over the course of our lives.

I’ve learned so much from the teachers at VONA and try to share what I’ve gained over time whenever I’m with other writers. So when Melanie asked me to blog, I thought, why not share my notes?

So that’s what I’m going to do, blog from my notebooks. I’ll be sharing bits of wisdom culled from classes with Gail Tsukiyama (fiction ‘03), David Mura (master’s class ‘05), Junot Diaz (fiction ‘06), Chris Abani (fiction ‘07), Elmaz Abinader (memoir ‘08) and Ruth Forman (poetry ‘09).

Now keep in mind, these are my notes and not intended to represent verbatim quotes or exact instructions from these brilliant masters. Sometimes I was tired (a few times I was hungover), which is to say, I’m not claiming to be a stenographer. A lot of these tidbits will be slightly out of context, and though I’ll try my best to recall the context to be true to the messages the teacher intended to impart, ultimately these are my translations of their words. So any mistakes or errors are mine, and I simply hope that by reading my notes, you can find some pearls that resonate with you to help you with your own writing.

Enjoy!

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