Don't Leave Yourself Behind

Saturday, October 31, 2015

I have a piece out in The Atlantic today! For me, this is a huge milestone and also a very important piece, so give it a read.

A chocolate cake with red jello balls on top.

It’s the day before NaNo and all through the house… I’m throwing around drafts and outlines trying to get settled in.

As usual, my writing mind is exhilarated by the constraint and the mad fury that is writing 50,000 words in a single month. I’ve been working on a lot of shorter projects and have tried to build my discipline with research, writing, pitching, etc. But I am drawn to staying in a character’s head for a longer period of time, testing worldview and characteristics for pages and pages rather than paragraphs – even if much of it gets chopped later on.

Armed with a few earlier draft pages, I’ll be growing my story during quick timed exercises. I tend to work better with an overly formulaic structure that pushes me to think creatively within it. I also tend to work better under the cover of night with a bright screen in my face. We’ll see how annoyed my family members become with the cranky, somewhat sleep-deprived version of me that will undoubtedly show up by the end of the month.

I turned 24 this past week. It was a silly sort of day. Here in Dhaka, my family doesn’t really do birthdays. A cake was delivered; a biryani was cooked; several truly terrible jokes about age were told. In the evening, I started a new small notebook and wrote down a birthday intention for the upcoming year. This year: don’t leave yourself behind.

I spent a lot of age 23 in boom-bust cycles. I moved three and a half times – across NYC, across the country, across the ocean. I changed jobs four to five times. I attended births, organized events, grew a magazine, survived yet another long winter… And although I did a lot of great healing work for myself during that time, I also felt like a large part of it was spent worrying.

The challenges of living abroad are simply different challenges. I still worry, of course. But I am blessed to have more time and energy to invest in myself and my own work. Though I don’t have the expectation of returning to the US an entirely changed woman (I will certainly still be a workaholic and a chronic list-maker), I hope that I can return with the skills to hold space for myself no matter how intense the world around me.

With that in mind, let's take a deep breath and start novel-ing!

Hesitation, Authority, and Building the World As You See It

Monday, October 19, 2015

Graffiti of a wooden rowboat in black on a wall.

This week I learned about Bengali magicians working to preserve their mentor’s home. I’ve been reading folktales about jealous queens and urban studies papers about the development of Dhaka high rises. Photographs, art pieces, old magazine ads -- I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of research.

Research is actually a very exciting part (says the eternal nerd). Like research for an academic paper, I am starting wide and then narrowing my focus based on what calls to me. Unlike research for an academic paper, I don’t actually know what I’m looking for or how much any one thing will influence the end result. Tabla music could teach me how to set the tone and pace of the novel. I could write my characters into the black and white photographs I’ve been looking at. Or both, or neither.

You can probably already see how easy it is to get overwhelmed.

I have a huge set of possibilities – and responsibilities. I agree with Wonderbook author Jeff Vandermeer: sometimes fantasy worlds are easier to construct than real ones. In the real world, I feel clogged with my assumptions and reactions. I’ve read empathetic and complex depictions of Bangladesh and the United States by now, but I’ve also read a lot of generic national histories, a lot of savior narratives, and a lot of just factually inaccurate pieces (several travel guides come to mind). And sometimes instead of absorbing the research, I get seduced by the image that I have for my characters, based on whatever approximation that I’ve read in other novels. There’s a difference between a pastiche of techniques and Frankenstein’s monster.

I needed a way to systematically think about the way I was creating worlds and the characters that inhabit them. Someone online suggested a series of essays called Writing the Other, and I inhaled them. They gave me the much-needed structure for how to go about research; they offered ways to re-evaluate and interrogate myself as I am drafting. Most importantly, they gave me back some confidence in my process.

One can never absorb all aspects of a society. Our social position – class, gender, race/ethnicity, to name a few – changes our access to materials and experiences. There’s no such thing as an impartial observer. I hold that tension in my head all the time as I write, hoping of course that it pushes me as I write my wriggling first draft.

Got Ourselves a Bleeder

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Street art on a closed sliding door; a painting of a monocle-wearing man's face whose beard is made of letters.

And now, a personal anecdote from my travel in Spain.

In Madrid, the streets are narrow and sidewalks accommodate one person, maybe two, at a time. It’s hot and you’re ill and wandering around. The perfect way to spend a vacation. For a moment, you stop to consult your GPS and that’s when it comes on. The nosebleed actually announces itself.

You can feel the blood sluice down your nasal passage, thick and warm. You turn your head skyward but it’s a little too late – several drops of blood escape onto your arm and the pavement. It’s fortunate that you’re wearing a rust-colored dress. You close your eyes and with one hand pinch your nose. With the other, you fumble for your bag. No tissues. Not even a crappy napkin from the coffee shop you’d just left. You don’t know any Spanish and can barely walk two steps without shooting blood out of your face. You resolve to pace back and forth ineffectually.

Someone taps your shoulder. “I saw you!” Suddenly there are a stack of paper towels in your hand. The shop across the street has a glass storefront window and the very kind woman inside has run across the street to help you. You can’t thank her enough, smiling through a mound of reddening paper.

You soak through all the towels in minutes.

Hurrying along the curling streets, you pass an older couple who tells you (in Spanish, with gestures) to go to a church nearby. She adds a lot of explanation that you can’t understand. You wander off in the direction of the church, but when you get there it is closed. A couple is standing in the doorway, looking a bit concerned as you approach. They point towards a bar across the square, but it also looks closed. Then you see the water spigot at the edge of a nearby playground.

The little kid who holds the lever for you is your new best friend. He gives you enough time to wash the blood off your arms and face before bounding away. You thank him with a thumbs up sign. You’ve never used the thumbs up as often as you have off of US soil. It’s not a universal symbol – not by a long shot – but people can deduce a lot from it. That you’re American, that you’re content with something, that you probably don’t speak their language… You have to throw away the towels you’ve been holding, but that means you’re back to square one. As you calculate the distance between your location and the metro, you’re worried the blood will come back.

Someone makes a noise and you turn around. The bearded man from the couple has come up to you with a half empty packet of tissues. You give another thumbs up sign.

“Broken?” he asks.

You smile, wondering if you should make up a story. “No, just dry.”

I’ve been processing some of the images and experiences I’ve had while traveling, and I’ve come to realize that I’m most inspired by the small moments. I’ve been dying to tell this story of my Epic Nosebleed, otherwise known as the day I made many temporary friends. I’ve been struggling with a less image-based piece of writing for a few days now and so it’s nice to return to something that’s a little more concrete.

The Car Window

Thursday, September 24, 2015

In the backseat of Aj’s mother’s green truck, we looped our way back around California hills in the pitch dark, studded only with the stray lights of houses in the distance. This was before her mom’s hips and knees started aching too bad, before the injury and the swelling stopped her from getting out entirely. I was a little kid by anyone else’s standards – but Aj and I held on to the word ‘preteen.’

“What if there was a guy on the road?”

“What if there was someone tailing us?”

“What if a hand came out of nowhere and pressed up against the window?”

I grabbed Aj’s shoulder hard and we both turned to look. I could see the paper-white hand reaching out of the darkness. It was worse than the horror movies that I couldn’t bear to watch because my imagination didn’t know when to stop embellishing.

“What if—”

My shoulder collided with the hard front seat. I heard Aj squeal and her mother let out a breath like a pressure cooker. Then the slow crunch of gravel as the truck rolled gently forward again.

“Did you see it?” Aj’s mother asked.

“What?” Aj said, her voice hushed.

"That little raccoon! Damn near sent us over the side.”

She whistled and snorted with laughter and we couldn’t help but join her. I glanced out the back window, but by then the dark was complete.

In the past few months, I’ve been writing a lot of creative non-fiction. It’s been refreshing to return to fiction as a different type of storytelling, but it requires so much more follow-through. Generating material is always the exciting part, but then I have to add in transitions. By the time the rewrites and edits roll around, I’ve already bitten my nails down as far as they’ll go.

With my novel project, I’ve become more and more interested in the effect that place/space has on social practices, and on the way that’s changed over time. Specifically here in Dhaka, things like transport and access to public facilities (restrooms being a big one, but also parks and places to sit for extended periods of time) really change the way that people interact with the city. Though that’s only from my limited observation, I’m excited to start investigating what other folks have to say on the matter. Research can sometimes overshadow my drafting process, but right now it's leading me down corridors that I haven't yet explored -- I'm enjoying the thrill of it.

So, You're Not a Superhero

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

So you’re not a superhero. You get frustrated when you mix up verb tenses. You can’t cross the street without saying a small prayer. You’re not conventionally attractive, by American or Bengali standards. You stall in your writing – and your reading and your half-made plans. You take off your kameez one shoulder at a time, hopping on one foot as you tug on the sweaty fabric. You jump at the tiniest tik tiki movement on the wall across from you. You burst out of your new shoes. None of this is possible without you.

I moved to Dhaka a little over 2 weeks ago with the intention to write. I was here 2 years ago on a research project about perceptions of mental health and mental illness, but felt like all of the stories I was collecting deserved a better home than just an academic paper that would be read by only a few people. It was then that the idea for my novel manifested – and now I finally get to pursue it.

I also moved here as a challenge. I needed to shake myself out of my skin, my NYC hustle, and the perfectionism that keeps me from doing the work that I really want to do. It’s an amazing opportunity, but I’m also struggling with it. In my head, I wanted to pick up where I left off in my Bangla study, meet with new friends, and build a community around things that I care about – particularly social justice work. But all of these things take time.

The greatest work is to adjust my expectations as a person with a Western sense of timeline and a tendency towards impatience. It’s hard for me – when sitting down to verb charts or a blank page – to remember that learning isn’t often linear. It’s equally hard to admit feeling lonely and frustrated. I feel sometimes that I have to front like I’m superhuman and don’t have off days. It feels very much like my traveling has come to an end, and I have to learn to be settled.

Recently I’ve turned to this well-worn advice for writers: Revel in the questions. Be less concerned with the answers. Answers are, after all, a matter of growth rather than destination. And even though the results are TBA, I’m cultivating some gratitude for these hard moments as a way to connect more deeply with myself and with others.

Have you ever hit this point? Had these kinds of experiences adjusting to a new lifestyle? I’d love to hear from you – Tweet me @thecowation.