Claudia Rankine (or, what is poetry?)

I had the fortune of seeing Claudia Rankine read at my university early last month, and it was easily the most captivating poetry reading I’ve ever attended. This is likely because I went to the reading having just finished Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In the 2004 collection, Rankine touched on topics such as loneliness, mental illness, and brutality against black bodies. The book was a whirlwind of vulnerability and I can’t possibly recommend it highly enough.

I went into the reading wondering how an artist who writes so openly about pain and hardship can be so brave, and how she protects her own sanity. I’ve noticed that I avoid looking at race, gender, and queerness directly in my own work for two reasons: I don’t want readers to hold me accountable for any controversial opinions, and I’m afraid of what feelings it might raise to write about such difficult things. While I’ll admit that the first of those reasons comes down to cowardice, Rankine addressed the second beautifully. She explained that she doesn’t find writing to be emotional, but instead views it as a puzzle or a math problem; the task isn’t to process her feelings, but to make all the pieces fit. I am a mathematician, and I felt my perception of writing change in response to to her words — I don’t worry about interiority or vulnerability when plotting a complicated graph, so why should writing necessitate a visceral emotional response? I can focus on how best to tell a story, rather than worrying about dredging up trauma whenever I sit down to write.

Rankine also reshaped my idea of what poetry can be. I do not consider myself a poet, but that is likely because of where I draw the arbitrary distinction between prose and poetry. I see poetry as lineated, formal, and stiff. I see prose as fluid, more casual, and less concerned with devices such as assonance or alliteration. Rankine blurs the lines between forms, writing poetic prose and prosaic poetry. Her work forces me to question: if Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is poetry, then what’s stopping me from writing poetry? The most valuable lesson I learned at Claudia Rankine’s reading is that the limitations of genre and form are meaningless, and that I must push past them in order to create bold and worthwhile art.

I’m excited to experiment with prose poetry! Who are your favorite form-defying writers?

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Revision Hurdles

I have a confession to make: I have drafted (at least) five novels, and I’ve yet to revise a single one. Novellas? Sure! Short stories? No problem! But for some reason, I can’t make myself do any structural revisions on something longer than maybe 45k words.

I always understood that I would have to revise a novel … eventually. The number of hurdles I’d have to overcome to get to that point made it feel like the most distant possibility. First, I’d have to have an idea that was worth writing. I’d have to research and plot and plan, look at the idea from all directions without falling out of love with it. Then I’d have to draft it, which is tricky. I work best in a format like NaNoWriMo, dashing out a draft in a month. As a student, I rarely find four consecutive weeks without major exams or projects. If I take breaks from drafting, such as spending a few days studying instead of writing, I tend to second guess myself and overthink, which pulls the joy out of the project. This can be enough to stop me altogether.

Assuming I made it past all of those barriers and actually put the idea to paper, there was one more thing stopping me from revising: I’d have to feel proud enough of what I’d made to want to return to it. I’d have to balance my disdain and my hope — to know that the first draft was terrible, but to also know that I could make it better, and that the work I’d put into making it better would be worthwhile.

Last summer, the variables lined up perfectly. I fell in love with an idea, and that love survived my pre-writing process. I wrote 62000 words in 40 days, the perfect pace to keep me from losing momentum. I reopened that Scrivener file for the first time in December, and I knew that the draft, while awful, would be worth fixing.

Fixing this abysmal first draft feels like an impossible challenge, but I’m hopeful! Doing something for the first time means finding a routine and rhythm. I know how I outline. I know how I draft. Revising is something that I’m figuring out as I go. Maybe I’ll work best in sprints, or in long slow stretches. Maybe I’ll go through the draft chronologically, or maybe I’ll skip around and work on my favorite scenes first. Maybe my word count will swell, or maybe it’ll shrink. I am the only person who can seek those answers. My true goal is to learn how I revise; a new and improved draft will be the result of that knowledge. This is a process of discovery, and it’s been marvelously fun so far.

Writers, what strategies do you use to revise?

Happiness Isn’t the Goal

The most important lesson I learned in 2018 is that happiness is not a tenable goal.

I’m sure that sounds dramatic, but here’s the thing: goals are meant to have fixed endpoints. The entire reason why I set goals is so that I get the thrill of accomplishing them, which means that they have specific and measurable deliverables. It’s the difference between “read more” and “read three books a month” — one is a goal, and one is not.

When a goal isn’t measurable, or when it’s measured against moving goalposts, you never really get to feel like you’ve “made it.” For someone as goal oriented as myself, this also leads me to discount the progress I’ve made towards that moving goalpost. All that matters is that I’ve failed to reach it.

Happiness is a moving goalpost. No matter how happy you are, you could always be happier. And, because joy isn’t quantifiable, it’s not truly possible for me to know if I’m happier now than I was at any other point in time. If I go into 2019 with the goal of being happier, I’ll never really get to feel like I’ve achieved it.

As I set goals for next year, happiness isn’t one of those goals. I can’t aim for happiness, for an intangible and immeasurable thing. What I can do, however, is take on incremental goals that I know will bring me momentary happiness. I love the rush of finishing a good book, so my goal is to read fifty books in 2019. I love the catharsis of journaling, so I plan to journal every day.

Happiness may be a moving target, but there are several concrete steps I can take towards it. The progress that I’m making is what truly matters.

What are your 2019 goals?

On doing the damn thing yourself

What’s a young writer to do when both platforms they write for are no longer options, either having dissolved altogether or simply become unfeasible? Once upon a time, I was a regular contributor at two popular blogs, one of which focused on queerness and science fiction, and one of which focused on student life at my university. Now I only write for myself. Now I’m working on building my own platform, on learning how to decide which stories I want to tell, and learning to promote my own work. And let me say, I knew it would be difficult, but it’s a thousand times harder than I ever imagined.

While I’ve always been pretty independent, I find external structures highly motivating. Writing for established sites came with accountability: I had co-writers and editors waiting to hear back from me, and I would not let them down. Comparatively, running my own blog has been a nightmare. I’ve been sitting on this half-finished blog post since September — September! — because, without an enforced deadline, it kept falling to the bottom of my to-do list. I started the semester aiming to upload weekly, but as I got busier and busier it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen. As the weeks passed and I failed to pile up content, I felt disappointed and disappointing — if only I could try a little bit harder, or care a little bit more, I’d be running an internet empire! Still, it was a busy semester, and I had to put down my guilt so that I was free to pick up all of my other responsibilities.

Now I’ve got some free time, and I’m able to return to this deferred dream. In hindsight I can see that aiming to post once a week led to action paralysis — instead of posting biweekly, or just whenever I could find the time, I gave up entirely. I’m changing my goal in order to reflect why I created this space: so that I could post the content that makes me happy, on a schedule that doesn’t stress me out too much. For the foreseeable future, I’ll be posting whenever I can. I think that beats not posting at all.

The Value of Sensitivity Reads

To start with, let’s talk about beta reads. A beta read is sharing your work with anyone between writing it and submitting it for publication. Literally anyone. This sounds necessary, right? After finishing a manuscript, the first step isn’t to ship it off to your dream literary agent. You revise, and you solicit opinions from trusted friends. Those friends, whether or not you label them as such, are your beta readers.

If you’ve embraced beta reads as part of your process, there’s no reason to shy away from sensitivity reads — a sensitivity read is just a targeted beta read! While beta readers will evaluate the strengths of your story as a whole, sensitivity readers work with manuscripts that are near completion in order to evaluate how certain identities are represented on the page. My main objective as a sensitivity reader is to help you avoid stereotyping, tokenizing, or excluding people on the basis of their marginalized identities.

I don’t claim to be perfect, and I don’t claim to speak for the entirety of any of the communities I represent. But here’s what I can do: I can offer my perspective, as a queer, black, mentally ill, female-presenting person. I can spot some of the ways your work could harm me or people like me. I can educate you, as much as you are willing to learn. I can help elevate your story and clarify your ideas before you seek publication. I can also offer a young person’s point of view; given the rates at which trends, language, and culture change, I can help make sure that your work is relevant and that it will resonate with today’s youth.

Here are my qualifications: I have a background in academic writing, so I’m experienced with conveying complex ideas clearly. I’m studying creative writing in an accredited program, and therefore have access to all of the informational resources of a major university. Due to my studies, I’m familiar with workshop environments and writing critique letters — I know how to give constructive feedback and help improve a story without changing its basic plot or premise.

As a final reminder, sensitivity is attention to detail and dedication to getting something right. I can help you use your imagination compassionately, by approaching identities other than your own from a place of love, empathy, and understanding.

Welcome!

Thanks for stopping by my corner of the internet. Here’s a bit of info on what you’ve gotten yourself into:

 

Who am I?

  • A student, completing degrees in creative writing and mathematics
  • A writer and reader, focusing on stories with speculative elements
  • A freelance editor and consultant, aiming to help others to tell inclusive and uplifting stories
  • A researcher, completing a thesis on the imaginative limits of science fiction

 

What am I blogging about?

  • My journey as a writer
  • My thoughts on the books and short stories that I read, including recommendations and reviews
  • My experiences in academia as a queer, black, female-presenting person

 

Who am I writing for?

  • Students and academics
  • Writers
  • Readers and fans of speculative fiction
  • Anyone else who wants to follow along!

 

Why do I blog?

  • To share the things I love
  • To gain more nonfiction writing experience
  • To create a space where I can authentically share my lived experiences

 

Now that that’s out of the way, I’d love to know who you are! Feel free to leave a comment, or to reach out here to say hello!