To Write, to Do, to Be

This year was an external year. I was more public than ever before. I did so many things in front of people. I talked about my book in front of strangers more times than I can count. I spoke on stages, from podiums, in front of classrooms and bookstores and libraries, in circles of chairs. I met many readers, many librarians, many teachers, many bloggers, many people who were kind and welcoming to me. I met many fellow writers. I worked with dozens of writers on their novels. I taught three writing workshops and two writing classes at universities. I mentored multiple talented novelists. I spent most of my time reading other people’s books, to the detriment of my own. I kept thinking about my career as a whole, my path, my plan and how to be a teacher and a writer, but teaching took precedence. I worked on ways to build my c.v. and gain experience and I learned so much and I’m surprised, even still, at all I was able to do. Most of all, I published a book I’m immensely proud of, a book wholly and deeply me, and I survived it.

Now I’m hoping for something different for next year, for 2016.

This year was all about the external. I want 2016 to be more internal.

My schedule may be packed the first few months of this year, but I also don’t want to forget that other significant part of my life, the whole point of all of this, the reason I am here at all:

the writing.

Tomorrow I’ll be coming up with my goals and writing wishes for 2016 and I’m thinking about the novel I’m writing now, and the novel I put aside, and the novels I haven’t yet written, and all the short stories I wish I could just write…

…and I want to find a no-pressure, positive way of shining a light on those things, too.

What if it’s a simple, small thing?

In 2016, I want to write something that feels true.

In 2016, I want to write a short story again.

In 2016, I want to try writing in third-person.

In 2016, I want to take on something surprising.

In 2016, I want to write about the deep past.

In 2016, I want to start something new.

ifyoucouldwrite

I’m trying to think of what mine might be—perhaps one of those possibilities above.

All we can control for the year ahead is what we can do with our own two hands, and it doesn’t have to be outlandish, it doesn’t have to be everything. It can be one small thing… for you.

What might you write in 2016?

Djerassi Deadline One Week Away!

Fellow writers… This is your reminder that the deadline to apply for my 2016 YA Novel Workshop-Retreat at the gorgeous Djerassi Resident Artists Program in the mountains of Northern California is December 17, exactly one week away!

[APPLY RIGHT HERE]

Yield to Whim

Here are some things that past workshop attendees have said:

“Nova Ren Suma often focuses on turning points in one’s writing career. The five days spent at her Djerassi YA novel workshop was mine. Insightful, kind, and inspiring, Nova sets the tone for an incredible retreat—and Djerassi provides the space and muse that every artist craves.”
—Anna Waggener

“Nova is the kind of workshop leader who sees straight to the heart of your novel. Whatever you’ve envisioned, she’s there with you. She puts so much of herself into helping you move closer to the truth of your story.”
—Courtney Leigh

“Nova is an absolute gem! She was wise, generous, and perceptive—in workshops, in one-on-one sessions—and set up a safe, inspiring space for us to share and grow our stories. I traveled many miles and crossed a time zone to work at Djerassi and it exceeded my expectations—it’s heaven on earth for artists and dreamers.”
—Pip Harry

“So many writers, especially women or older people with families or jobs or both, cannot get away for a month. This doesn’t make us less dedicated to our craft, our art, our passions; it’s just a reality. These week-long workshops also give us the ‘gift of time’ and community that some of us may not have access to. This period of quiet has been nothing short of bliss.”
—Asale Angel-Ajani

~

I’m not sure if there will be a workshop in 2017, so I hope you’ll consider joining me this coming March!

 

When to Resurrect the Dead Manuscript Under Your Bed?

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I’m struggling with something, an ongoing thing I’ve been struggling with for years. It’s about the novels that live under my bed. The two unpublished novels I wrote before I almost gave up writing, and then discovered ghostwriting, and, soon after, YA.

Two novels totaling eight and a half years of my life.

Two novels encompassing almost the entirety of the writing work done in my twenties.

Two novels that, in their own distinct and specific ways, broke my heart.

Every once in a while, I think of them, the way you’d think of an old love, someone who disappointed you deeply, but someone who meant a lot to you way back when. Someone who could’ve been a real and solid someone… if only things had gone another way.

I’ve only ever been in love once—with a human—but with books? I fall in love with each one I’m writing, over and over, again and again.

Lately I’ve been thinking back to my first novel.

I think that’s because an important yet tiny little piece of The Walls Around Us was taken from this novel, and snatching that piece and heading off into the sunset with it got me thinking about it again.

Today, the day after spending Thanksgiving at my mother’s house, I found myself drawn for no conscious reason to the cobwebbed recesses of my hard-drive, where some old drafts of the very first novel I ever wrote can be found. This book was my heart in a shameless, undeniable, mortifying way. It was more autobiographical than a novel should be, and it’s not something I could publish as is now, even if I had the opportunity, because many of the people in this story are still out there, living. It would have to be rewritten if I wanted to do something with it. I know this… and the weight of that has stopped me every time.

Even so, every once in a while, every few years, I take this manuscript out of its dark place, and I consider it.

I think of what could be done and redone.

I think of the possibility.

(I think, too, of the five years I spent writing and rewriting it—who wouldn’t—and I think, I do admit, of how incredibly amazing it would feel if one day, years into the future, I was able to publish a shiny, new version of it and how much I’d celebrate and probably cry.)

I look at this manuscript every so often, with curiosity.

Could I do it?

Would someone publish it?

Is it worthy, after all these years?

I’ve often heard—and I tell this to writers I teach as well—that for many writers, you need to write some practice novels before you reach the one you are meant to publish. The first novel you write may not be the first novel you publish… and maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe you are better than that.

In my heart, Imaginary Girls was that novel I was meant to publish first (complicated by Dani Noir, I know, but publishing is nothing if not complicated). So much of what I wrote before Imaginary Girls was what led me to be able to write it. See? See how it was meant to be? If I had to have all that practice time, all those pages, all those years, it’s worth it to me, to have Imaginary Girls.

2015-09-14 16.21.27

I regret nothing. Well, I don’t regret putting it aside then.

But hey, what about now? When I’m a better writer and could make something of this story in a way I couldn’t before?

When I have the distance?

Maybe there is a reason I keep opening this old file and peeking at the scenes I wrote so long ago that there are actually two spaces between sentences… (Aaargh! I was young! I didn’t know!)

My heart hurts today because I read some of it. I didn’t let myself read the whole thing—it’s a tome, overwritten and meandering and clocking in at an even 500 pages. But I read the opening pages, and I went through each of the seven sections, reading the last pages of each. By the end of the sections, by the last scene of the book, where my character finds a kind of closure with the person who’d terrorized her throughout her life, I felt a hard, heavy lump in my throat.

But I also had some ideas.

This novel was written before I knew what YA was. Now that I do, now that I have a career here, might that change some things?

I would have to rewrite so much of it.

I would have to reimagine, rethink, re-plot.

I would have to disguise a great many things.

Barely anyone has read this—the manuscript was only ever read by a single (adult-fiction) agent. I put the manuscript aside mainly because it was too close to me, it was too true, it was too painful, and I was unable to separate myself. I wonder now… has enough time passed? Can I be honest, can I be serious, can I be ruthless?

It could be a YA novel, or a middle-grade novel, if I cut out some things—I’m not yet sure.

It could be something.

And yet, do I want to go back there?

• • •

I wonder, fellow writers: Have you ever returned to a long-buried novel that you relegated to live in your closet, or desk drawer, or deep under your bed?

Have you performed a resurrection?

And if you have, did it fail and did you have to shove the corpse back under your bed, or were you able to breathe new life into something that, it turned out, did ultimately deserve to have a day in the sun?

Two Fall Workshops… Two Upcoming Deadlines…

Would you like to take a writing workshop with me this fall? I have two workshops coming up with a few spaces left in each… and the deadlines are quickly approaching…


HIGHLIGHTS BOOKS WITH BITE WORKSHOP

In September, I’m co-leading a workshop at the Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, with Micol Ostow. For the Books with Bite Workshop and Retreat: Writing Horror and Haunted Novels, we will be focusing on dark & twisty YA or middle-grade fiction, from thrillers to ghost stories to horror to dark magical realism and beyond. If your novel has some unsettling twists or explores some creepy subject matter, this may be the workshop for you!

WORKSHOP DATES: September 16–20

APPLICATION DEADLINE: Monday, August 24

[apply here] 


WRITING BARN WORKSHOP

In November, I’m teaching an intensive workshop at the Writing Barn in Austin, Texas. A Week in Residency with Nova Ren Suma (ahem, that’s me!) is for writers of YA or middle-grade fiction working in any genre who want a focused week for workshopping and writing. Guest authors Lynne Kelly and Nikki Loftin will also be visiting to give craft talks.

WORKSHOP DATES: November 8–14

APPLICATION DEADLINE: Tuesday, September 15 (late deadline October 5)

[apply here]


There are a few spaces open in each of these workshops, and admissions are rolling… so apply as soon as you can to guarantee your spot!

Please tell any writers you think might be interested. And of course, if you have any questions about either workshop, you are welcome to email me or leave a comment here.

A Story a Day for Short Story Month

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I’m in need of some untainted* inspiration… maybe you are, too?

(*Untainted by industry noise and book worries and life stresses. Just something simple, and sweet, and able to get the blood pumping and the fingers moving on the keys.)

One thing that does this for me is reading a good short story. I love short stories, as I’ve confessed before here.

So I was delighted to discover that apparently May is National Short Story Month, and one of my favorite authors, Sara Zarr, is taking on a beautiful project: reading a short story a day for a month, and tweeting about it. If I can get it together, I am going to join her, starting tomorrow. You can, too—just comment on her post, or let her know on Twitter at @sarazarr. There’s also a project in which you can write a short story every day, but that, my friends, is way too ambitious for me, when I’m working on a reinvention of a novel.

My intention is this: To read a short story every day* for the month of May (*Um, every day I am able to. I’m bad at every-day promises, so I can promise there will be at least a few days when I break it.) And I’ll talk about the stories on Twitter, to share what I’ve read.

I’ve decided to use the month to reread some of my most favorite short stories—many of which I have collected in a series of binders I call my “anthologies.” I used to photocopy stories I loved and admired from collections, magazines, literary journals, and anywhere I could find them and collect them in these personal anthologies. I stopped doing this years ago, but I still have about eight or nine volumes of my anthologies that I can dip into this month, not to mention some new books I have on my shelves and links I’ve collected online and a Best American or two I haven’t finished reading yet. So there will be some brand-new-to-me short stories to read, too.

If you have a favorite short story you’d like to suggest, please leave it in the comments below or tell me on Twitter at @novaren.

Tomorrow is May 1, the start of this fun project. I already know what tomorrow’s story will be… but I’ll wait to tell you until the morning. It’s a long-time favorite, and one I haven’t read in more than ten years. I can’t wait to rediscover it.


Keeping track of the stories I read here:

May 1, Story 1: “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter. Favorite moment: a mother’s intuition. Also this moment: “I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.”

May 2, Story 2: “Lucho” by Patricia Engel. Favorite moment: the idea of love. “…I didn’t even know I loved Lucho till that second. But I did. Because so what if he was a little smelly and weird. He came looking for me back when I was invisible. And when he was with me, he acted like I was the only thing he could see.”

May 3, Story 3: “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler. Favorite moment: the idea of humanity, and, well, basically everything. This story is new to me, and I loved it. “There were tourists everywhere on the beach, swimming, lying in the sun with daiquiris and ice-cream sandwiches and salted oranges. She wanted to tell them that, not four miles away, children were being starved and terrified. She couldn’t remember enough about people to know if they’d care.”

May 4, Story 4: “Fear Itself” by Katie Coyle. Favorite moment: all the waxy weirdness. And the truth in this statement: “‘…He needs to know what he’s dealing with—otherwise he’ll do whatever he wants to her. That’s how older guys are,’ Ruthie explains with a sigh. ‘They underestimate you. They assume you’ve got no one looking out for you. They assume you’re nothing.'”

May 5, Story 5: “Miss Lora” by Junot Díaz. Favorite moment: voice and all voice. “Sometimes after you leave her apartment you walk out to the landfill where you and your brother played as children and sit on the swings. This is also the spot where Mr. del Orbe threatened to shoot your brother in the nuts. Go ahead, Rafa said, and then my brother here will shoot you in the pussy. Behind you in the distance hums New York City. The world, you tell yourself, will never end.”

May 6—I messed up and didn’t read a story today. Does it help to tell you I had a book event that day and was distracted? 

May 7, Story 7: “The Fisher Queen” by Alyssa Wong. Favorite moment: a whole new view of mermaids. “Mermaids, like my father’s favorite storytale version of my mother, are fish. They aren’t people. They are stupid like fish, they eat your garbage like fish, they sell on the open market like fish. Keep your kids out of the water, keep your trash locked up, and if they come close to land, scream a lot and bang pots together until they startle away. They’re pretty basic.”

May 8, Story 8: “The Saint of the Sidewalks” by Kat Howard. Favorite moment: the concept and every word. “That was how saints were made. Some piece of strangeness happened, and it hooked itself in the heart of someone who saw it, and called it a miracle. Once they decided that’s what it was, people tried to reenact the miracle’s circumstances. They ritualized its pieces. They named the person at the center of it, gave them an epithet, something memorable.”

May 9, Story 9: “Kindness” by Yiyun Li. Favorite moment: The loneliness and isolation of this narrator. The strength of memory… This story is just extraordinary. You can find it in the O.Henry anthology from 2012. “I never showed up in her dreams, I am certain, as people we keep in our memories rarely have a place for us in theirs. You may say that we too evict people from our hearts while we continue living in theirs, and that may very well be true for some people, but I wonder if I am an anomaly in that respect. I have never forgotten a person who has come into my life, and perhaps it is for that reason I cannot have much of a life myself.”

May 10, Story 10: “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell. Favorite moment: the mood, so melancholy and peculiar in all the best ways. “Most people mistake me for a small, kindly Italian grandfather, a nonno. I have an old nonno‘s coloring, the dark walnut stain peculiar to southern Italians, a tan that won’t fade until I die (which I never will). I wear a neat periwinkle shirt, a canvas sunhat, black suspenders that sag at my chest. My loafers are battered but always polished. The few visitors to the lemon grove who notice me smile blankly into my raisin face and catch the whiff of some sort of tragedy; they whisper that I am a widower, or an old man who has survived his children. They never guess that I am a vampire.”

Bonus weekend story, which catches me up to Day 6: “The Map” by William Ritter, a Jackaby (Doctor Who meets Sherlock in YA form) short story that is coming out online this summer, before book #2. I don’t think I should quote from it since it’s not available yet, but expect all the sense of classic mystery and excitement you’ll remember from the first book in this little teasing taste… (Full disclosure: We share a publisher, Algonquin Young Readers!)

May 11, Story 11: “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham. Favorite moment: This story was a time machine—I remember reading it many years ago, and a distinct and emotional memory of reading it followed me over the years. Returning to it made me cry, at its end, again. Helps that I actually did live during my formative years in Woodstock, New York—it’s not what they hoped it was. “‘You and I are going to fly, man,’ Carlton whispers, close to my ear. He opens the window. Snow blows in, sparking on the carpet. ‘Fly,’ he says, and we do. For a moment we strain up and out, the black night wind blowing in our faces—we raise ourselves up off the cocoa-colored deep-pile wool-and-polyester carpet by a sliver of an inch. Sweet glory. The secret of flight is this—you have to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying the laws. I swear it to this day.”

May 12, Story 12: “The Girl on the Plane” by Mary Gaitskill. Favorite moment: This story is profoundly disturbing. Upsetting. Gutting. Complicated. It was very difficult to read the first time, years ago. I think I  had to close the book before finishing and come back to it later. This time, I knew what was coming. It hurt to read. I needed to read it. I think everyone should read this story. “A stewardess with a small pink face asked if they’d like anything to drink, and he ordered two little bottles of Jack Daniel’s. Patty’s shadow had a compressed can of orange juice and an unsavory packet of nuts; their silent companion by the window had vodka straight. He thought of asking her if she was married, but he bet the answer was no, and he didn’t want to make her admit her loneliness. Of course, not every single person was lonely, but he guessed that she was. She seemed in need of comfort and care, like a stray animal that gets fed by various kindly people but never held.”

May 13, Story 13: “It’s Just a Jump to the Left” by Libba Bray. Favorite moment: Memories of Rocky Horror, but beyond that the sex and longing and rebellion and confusion, the heart. “She couldn’t say why it felt so very necessary to be angry with her mother all the time, but it did. She would walk into a room where her mother sat reading or grading papers and be consumed with a sudden need to wound that would be followed moments later by a terrible guilt and an equally ferocious longing to be forgiven and comforted.”

May 14, Story 14: “Ramadan” by Mona Simpson. I am not actually sure if this is a short story (it later became a part of a novel?) or an essay (it seemed at first to be published in Granta and then Salon.com as an essay?) or that amalgam of both that turns into semi-autobiographical fiction (?), which I find so fascinating, the way fact and imagination combine to form a whole new truth that distorts the memory forever after. Favorite moments: Truth is, this story upset me far more on second read than it did years ago. I am thinking about why that could be. “His skin stretched and spread taut wings from his neck to his top chest bones. I remembered that he was young, probably younger than twenty. I wanted to hear his name. I didn’t want it to be Atassi. He could have been. My father might have come back. Then I remembered my father telling me around the old kitchen table, ‘If I went back, I’d be running the country. I was the John F. Kennedy of Egypt.’ Well, he wasn’t running the country. I read the newspapers. I knew those people’s names. He said so little to us that I saved every sentence. I could lift one up like a bracelet or strand of pearls from a box.”

May 15, Story 15: “Call My Name” by Aimee Bender. Favorite moment: the sadness and entitlement to happiness that never comes. I don’t have to “like” this character to feel and appreciate her sadness. “The men are pleased when I come on the subway because I am the type who usually drives her own car. I am not your average subway girl, wearing black pants and reading a novel the whole time so you can’t even get eye contact. Me, I look at them and smile at them and they love it. I bet they talk about me at the dinner table—I give boring people something to discuss over corn.”

May 16, Story 16: “So You’re Just What, Gone?” by Justin Taylor. Favorite moment: when I realized this was going where I thought it was… the perv was a perv. “The Mark thing will make so much less sense out loud than it did when she did it, or even than it does now as she goes over it in her head. That’s the most unfair part. Everyone will have their own version of ‘What were you thinking?’ and ‘Why did you do that?’ Like her life is some book she needs to write a report about, identifying key themes and meaning, when, really, texting Mark was like peeking in the doorway of a bar or the teachers’ lounge—someplace you could get in trouble for going into but were curious to glimpse the inside of, just to be able to say that you knew what was in there. And maybe someone had dared you to do it and maybe you had had to dare yourself.”

…a gap of space and lost days in which I get very busy, do a little traveling, have a book event and a school visit, get home, meet two deadlines, and feel guilty about all the stories I missed, so I start again…

May 22, Story 17: “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Favorite moment: a memory that transports us back in time. This story was filled with regret. Moving, perfect. This connection over Bruce Lee movies: “I stared at Raphael with the pure thrill of unexpected pleasure. ‘I watched the film in the other house where I worked,’ he said. ‘Look at this.’ He pivoted slightly, leaped up, and kicked, his leg straight and high, his body all taut grace. I was twelve years old and had, until then, never felt that I recognized myself in another person.”

May 22, Story 18: “The Snow Queen” by Karen Brennan. Favorite moment: the sadness and the disconnect. “In those days I would have done anything to protect my son. If I were to encounter him now—in an alley, say, covered with snow—I would not be able to melt his heart.”

May 23, Story 19: “Distant View of a Minaret” by Alifa Rifaat. Favorite moment: The calm at the end and everything that says and contains. (Reading the Wikipedia page about how this author’s husband would “allow” her to write and publish, and then take that away, gives me a complicated feelings; I need to read more from this Egyptian writer.) “As often happened at this moment she heard the call to afternoon prayers filtering through the shutters of the closed window and bringing her back to reality. With a groan he let go of her thigh and immediately withdrew. He took a small towel from under the pillow, wrapped it round himself, turned his back to her and went to sleep.”

May 24, Story 20: “Use Me” by Elissa Schappell. Favorite moment: going back in time—this was a story from a book I loved as a young writer in grad school, and I haven’t read it since. I’m such a fan of this writer, even still, years and years after. This paragraph shows some of her power… “I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t fantasized about appearing in one of his books. I imagined how he would see me. I would be young, my blonde bob would be long and red with a shine like patent leather. He’d mention my breasts, which were really nothing special, comparing them to dollops of fresh white cream. My legs, elongated, would cut through space like scissors. I would be smart, but not too smart. I would be naive. Maybe he’d widen the gap in my front teeth. He would rewrite all his parts so he was obviously the one with the upper hand, and invent poetic dialogue fraught with tense and subtle metaphor. In that way I was sure he wasn’t honest. But I would be different. Like a man. I’d have him, and I would leave him. He would put me on the page, but I’d live outside it. I’d live longer than he.”

May 25, Story 21: “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado. Favorite moment: This story was incredible. Just incredible. Read it right now and you’ll see what I mean. “I once heard a story about a girl who requested something so vile from her paramour that he told her family and they had her hauled her off to a sanitarium. I don’t know what deviant pleasure she asked for, though I desperately wish I did. What magical thing could you want so badly that they take you away from the known world for wanting it?”

May 26, Story 22: “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying” by Alice Sola Kim. Hot damn! THIS STORY. The past two days of stories rocked my world. Favorite moment: Just look at how this story begins with this gem of a first sentence… “At midnight we parked by a Staples and tried some seriously dark fucking magic.” p.s. You can find this story in the anthology Monstrous Affections.

May 27, Story 23: “What the Dead Know” by Manuel Martinez. Favorite moment: Whenever the dead come back to life, you know I am there. “But they didn’t die. They walked out of the hospitals with their families and went to dinner. They went home and coaxed their spouses and lovers to bed. They told everyone that they had died and come back, that they had been given a second chance. They tried to explain that this was different from the type of near-death experience we hear so much about, when the heart stops beating and valiant surgeons are able to start it up again. They told us that this was true resurrection, but we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand.”

May 28, Story 24: “Nobody’s Business” by Jhumpa Lahiri. Favorite moment: Returning to this story after many years (this is another one from my anthology). “Sang had been laughing at him, but now she stopped, her expression pensive. She looked up at the house, a balled-up comforter in her arms. ‘I don’t know, Charles. I don’t know how long I’ll be here.'”

…a lost weekend…

May 31, Story 25: “Light” by Lesley Nneka Arimah. Favorite moment: I was taken in by the first lines, straight off… “When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts.”


There. I write this on June 1. The month has reached its end, and I somehow forgot to read some Alice Munro, which I shall rectify very soon. There were 31 days in May, and I only reached 25 stories, but just imagine a month full of 25 stories… it was 25 times richer than it would have been without.

The Two-Month Countdown and the One-Track Mind

legs in san franToday is November 15. That means I have two months to finish* this Thing* and turn it in.

*Just finish the first draft—there will be revisions!

*See my previous post for why I feel safer calling it a Thing. For the TLDR lazypants who don’t feel like clicking: By Thing I mean my novel.

So I have two months to go. Two months. Much to do. Only two months. I’m keeping up the momentum as best I can, with other deadlines and work-ish commitments getting in the way, but I keep telling myself: This is only the exploratory draft. Doesn’t need to be right yet. Doesn’t need to make full sense yet. Doesn’t need to have everything you want in it yet, because you can’t know everything yet!

I am making choices and decisions in this draft simply to try them out—they don’t have to stick next draft. I’m not drawing my novel in a patch of wet concrete, so when it dries it will be stuck that way forever.

I am discovering my characters as I go. I am not sure what they’ll do next, or how they’ll react to certain things. But after this draft is done, I will know them far better than I did before.

And while, yes, I do revise as I go—chapter by chapter, going back to the beginning when I’ve come upon a significant change that then needs to be seeded in—because this is how my brain works and how my hands like to work, I am making progress. Every day I sit down at my desk, I’ve moved forward in some way even if the word count doesn’t show it.

Maybe I should be panicked at this point, but I’m not. I’m deep in it, enjoying the process. Because why write otherwise?

The only problem right now is the rest of life. When I have a good writing day (yay!), everything else is unequivocally a mess. And when I get on top of everything else (sort of), then my writing suffers. For someone as easily distractible as I am (hence the name of this blog and my way of using parentheses in the middle of sentences because I keep having more than one thought I want to get down) I have such a one-track mind.

I’ve been like this for a long time. I wanted to be a writer, and once I gave up photography to start my MFA in fiction I didn’t want to be anything else. No other creative pursuits or hobbies or real passion in my day jobs or really any side avenue to run along on when the writing’s not going well. And there are many days in life when the writing is just not going well. In my personal life, I don’t want a family, don’t want to be a mother, barely contribute to society, despise going to the gym though I’m trying to anyway, am a horrible burn-the-good-pan can’t-get-the-black-spots-out-with-scrubbing cook.

Being a writer is my one thing, and everything else suffers.

I can see the red warnings flashing.

I don’t want a hobby, though. I really do like being consumed like this. I like thinking about writing and talking to other writers and teaching writing classes and reading books written by other writers and yes, also sitting against the wall at this café knowing today’s Saturday and I have hours ahead to do my own writing.

I like it like this, but it’s also a very small world. I’m inside a tiny bubble. Very few people on the outside understand the panicked excited doomsday delirium that comes by saying a book deadline is fast approaching and I have to be creative-on-command, and why would they? I feel alone in this very often. I feel frustrated with myself on a regular basis. If this is all I’m doing, shouldn’t I be doing way better at it? That kind of thing.

Sometimes I think about taking a break for a short while. I went to a small, interesting college—Antioch College, very different from the entity that exists under its name now—where we had what was called the co-op program. Basically, three- or six-month periods spent working off-campus for course credit, and then you’d write a co-op paper at the end about what you learned. I co-oped for a symphony, an early attempt at an online newspaper, a literary journal, an activist organization in the basement of a church, a public-relations office, and as editor of the campus newspaper. Sometimes I think I need a co-op from my real life. I’d write a really great paper about it after.

But if I look back, I know I tried out a bunch of things to discover, deep into my thirties, that this is really all I wanted. I am content with doing only this. Being a writer.

So in the difficult moments, in the tear-out-your-hair and scratch-out-your-eyes moments, in the pits of despair and in the frenzied clouds of delirium, I guess I just want to remember that.

You like this. You chose this. You’re the one who feeds off deadlines, REMEMBER?

Some days I want a little cardboard sign around my neck, colorful and tied with yarn, the way my mother made me when I was in Kindergarten in Saugerties, New York, taking the school bus for the first time, so I wouldn’t get lost. Maybe all children in my Kindergarten class had these signs for them made by their parents. I think the signs had our names and our classrooms on them. I remember wearing my sign strung around my neck with yarn and knowing I was meant to be somewhere. I had a destination. The sign wouldn’t let me forget it.

Trying not to forget where I’m headed today. In two months, to the day, I have a new novel due. I’m on the bus now, but I’ll get there eventually.


Do you want to join me at my YA novel workshop-retreat at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Northern California this coming June? The first two workshops were a glorious success, so I’m thrilled to do it again in 2015. Now accepting applications!

And oh hey… Do you want a signed and personalized copy of The Walls Around Us? Well, unless you go to one of my book events this spring, there is only one way to get one: By pre-ordering through my favorite local bookstore, McNally Jackson. Preorder with a note for how you’d like me to personalize the book here!

The Book of Your Heart Series: Ryan Graudin

thebookofyourheart-FEATUREDWhen an author says a book she’s written is the Book of Her Heart, what does that mean? In this completely irregular ongoing blog series, I’ve invited guest authors to reveal what they consider the Book of Their Heart—and share why this book holds a distinct and special place apart from all others they’ve written.

Here, to celebrate her book birthday tomorrow, I have Ryan Graudin sharing why The Walled City is the Book of Her Heart…


Guest post by Ryan Graudin

Headshot-1Whenever I try to describe what writing is like to my non-writer friends, I usually resort to Harry Potter references. “My books,” I tell them, “are like Horcruxes. All of them have little pieces of me inside.”

But some books/Horcruxes have a little more of me inside than other books/Horcruxes. Something about The Walled City was different from every other project I’d ever written. It felt… truer, deeper, rawer than anything I’d ever put to paper before. It was a book I wrote solely for me. I honestly thought, during those early months, that no one would want to read, much less buy a YA novel where the plot revolved largely around Asian street children and human trafficking. I’d never read anything quite like what I was creating, and the usual fears of No one will buy this. This is all for nothing. set in.

I wrote anyway. Because I had to.

People always ask me where my inspiration comes from. I tell them travel, which is almost always true. The heart of The Walled City was inspired by two very distinct trips I took in my college years.

walledcity_final coverWhen I was twenty-years old I went to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for a summer. The purpose of the trip was to experience (and therefore understand) third-world poverty. I lived with a family in the slums, eating only what they ate, sleeping on the floor. I met children who lived in tarps. Children who had nothing to eat but what they could scrounge from trash heaps. Children who seemed to have no guardians to speak of. Children who deserved so much more.

When I was twenty-one years old I traveled to Bolivia, where my future sister-in-law worked (and still does) educating sex workers, providing them with health awareness, child care and (if they desire it) the means to learn the life-skills needed to support themselves if they wanted to leave the industry. Meeting these women, listening to their stories, eating a meal with them, was such a humbling experience. One that forced me to strip away all of my judgments and look at them in a new light.

Through both of these trips I came to realize that people are so much more than their circumstances. So much more than the passing labels or judgments I was so quick to give them. I wanted to help, and not just to help, but to understand. I wrestled and mulled and held these experiences inside. I tried to answer so many questions that seemed unanswerable.

People have many, many different ways of processing. The largest and most obvious of mine is writing.

So I wrote.

I wrote about street kids and trafficked girls. I wrote to try and understand their view, their world. I wrote to try—in some small way—to make sense of the pain and poverty I’d seen. I wrote to try and make sense of my own personal demons. I took all of the questions of my heart and crammed them into the form of a story.

Perhaps one of the reasons this novel has earned its place as my “heart book” is because it’s the most honest I’ve been with myself on the page. The Walled City is a book about trust, and how difficult it is to open yourself up to people after you’ve been hurt. It is a book about pain and isolation. But more than anything I think, it is a book about hope.

There are no simple answers when it comes to issues like poverty and trafficking. But it is my hope that by writing this book and inviting readers into my own search for answers, that I can help others see a world that is usually far in the shadows. A world my twenty-one-ish self only just brushed upon. A world that wrenches your heart, but deserves to be known about.


Ryan Graudin was born in Charleston, SC, with a severe case of wanderlust. When she’s not traveling, she’s busy photographing weddings, writing, and spending time with her husband and wolf-dog. She is also the author of All That GlowsThe Walled City is her second novel. You can visit her online at ryangraudin.com.

Order a copy of The Walled City!


Thank you, Ryan, for sharing your Heart Book with my readers. Happy Book Birthday!

The posts in the Book of Your Heart series: