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Still Alive

Wow, so first of all I can’t believe I haven’t posted here in six whole years! A lot has happened since then, as you can probably tell by the name and pronoun change. I think most of the people who follow this blog know me IRL, but just in case, surprise! I’m one of those terrifying transgenders taking over the country. I’m not really sure how much I want to talk about gender stuff here (mostly because my feelings about gender are complicated and confusing even to myself), but suffice to say I’m cool with he or they pronouns and my name is Jonathan now. Thanks for your support and understanding.

I’m hoping to post here a little more regularly now that I’m stuck at home (I lost my job in April), but I am also trying to make time for writing more poetry and fiction so, as always, I need to figure out how to balance those two things without hurting my hands (I have chronic pain so can’t do a lot of typing and sitting at the computer without flareups). I’ve been wanting to do a blog series on the dreaded Writer’s Block for awhile because I have a lot of thoughts about that, and I think it would be fun to do some short reviews of books that I’m reading to recommend to others, even though I’m a little terrified of my ability to write reviews.

If there’s anything in particular you want me to write about let me know in a comment. And I hope this blog post finds you all safe.

Writing

My Writing Process Blog Tour

My friend and fellow VCFAer (is that even a word?) Megan Hoak invited me to participate in the My Writing Process blog tour so here I am. You can read her post about her own writing process here. Whew! It’s been a long time. So without further ado…

What am I working on?

I’ve been working on a Secret Project for some time now. It took me awhile to realize that I wanted to write something weird and self indulgent and in order to do that I needed to keep it secret, even promise myself I wouldn’t publish it. Once I did that I found it was so much easier to just write without worrying what people would think of it, or if what I was writing was publishable, or even if it made any sense/worked as a story. I could just write for the pleasure of it, so that’s been wonderful. As for the story itself, I’ve been describing it to people as a bit like Alice and Wonderland if Alice was a teenager and Wonderland was an Underworld. It is creepy and weird and magical and probably the most “me” thing I have ever written. Which is also why it is terrifying and secret. For now.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, it’s a portal fantasy and as far as I can tell not a lot of portal fantasies are being written for YA audiences. That seems to mostly happen in middle grade books. Why is that? Also, the magic/fantasy elements are less straightforward. I see a lot of fantasy books with vampires or werewolves or ghosts or witches or insert magical creature here________. I wanted to be more subtle about defining the magical creatures. Although, really, there’s nothing subtle about them or the magic.

Why do I write what I do?

You might as well ask someone why they breathe the way they do. I always loved stories with magic best. Fairy tales, ghost stories, fantasy. And especially portal fantasies. I was in love with the Wizard of Oz as a kid even though I wanted the complete opposite of what Dorothy wanted. She wanted to go home. I wanted to go to Oz. But aside from love, my brain thrives on metaphor and symbolism and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything more metaphorical or symbolic than fantasy literature. As for why I write for younger audiences (mostly) I guess it’s because I grew up reading kids books and never stopped. Also, my protagonists always seemed to be teenagers. Go figure.

How does your writing process work?

That’s a bit hard to define because I’ve experimented with so many writing processes over the years, especially in my MFA program. But the process for writing this book has basically been to write about 250 words a day (sometimes more) and try not to fiddle too much. It’s helped to write a lot of the scenes out of order, more or less as the ideas strike me and to occasionally dip into backstory. It also helps to write in small chunks because when I get stuck and don’t know where I’m going I can just spend 250 words describing the scenery 😉 I’m trying to get as much written as I can before I go back and start changing things and filling in gaps. The result is an incomprehensible mess, but I think it’s made writing more fun for me because I can just skip to the parts I’m excited or curious about.

Next week

Next week two more fabulous writers will be posting about their writing process on their own blogs. Go check them out on April 21st!

Laura is a writer, artist, photographer, and world traveler who passionately pursues the full expression and experience of life. She recently received her MA in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University, where she focused on the intersections of tourism and community development.

Helen Kemp Zax. In July 2013 Helen received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she won the Critical Thesis prize for “Learning to Feel: Practicing Empathy in Coming-of-Age Novels.” Several of her haiku and poems have been published, and a number of her poems have won awards. She has taught writing at all levels, from elementary to post-graduate. She lives with her husband Leonard and their crazy Australian shepherd, Huckleberry Finn, in Washington, DC, where she spends her days walking Huck in the woods, writing poetry, and working on hernovel—a mystery narrative/verse mash-up called MISSING.

Writing

All Hallows Write Poems

Okay, so I meant to write more than three poems, but after the third my brain turned to mush! What can I say? Anyway, here they are! These were all written last night, in candlelight, while listening to eerie music. I hope you enjoy them and that they are creepy enough for you 🙂 (Note: I tried to get these poems single spaced, but WordPress is defying me for some reason. Maybe it does not appreciate poetry? If you have any formatting advice please let me know.)

 

1. Widdershins

Turn counterclock and bury the mushrooms

under your heel. They laced the milkmaid’s

hair with thistle thorns, just for mistaking

an elf for a sparrow. They will break your bones

for whistling twice and if you dance with them

you’ll never grow old, but die

centipede by centipede, until merriment

becomes a foul jaunt and the amanita

begins to speak of deadlier things

than colored lights and fiddles that play themselves.

So walk wisely, friend, and careful

your direction. One misstep, there will be

a cold corpse planted in the fields come sunrise.

 

2. I couldn’t think of a title for this one (help!)

She knows the language of the knucklebone,

the willow switch, the vocabulary

of swampweed and the mud that swallows.

She can bind you with a single black thread,

see the shrouded faces that peer out of mirrors

when your eyes are half shut.

She has pricked her finger for every absent

moon, tasted nightshade and hemlock

and found them wanting.

When she dreams the clouds tremble

and cover the stars.

Give her bread and she’ll boil you

in a stew of your own making.

Spit on her and she’ll cut your shadow

from your skin until you’re stretched

thin as space. Best to leave her to her candied

houses and stay away from crossroads

in the dead of night. Best to let

witches be witches, and think

no more of poisonous delights.

 

3. The Dead

I have seen the faces of the dead in their glass cases,

mouths like tunnels and eyes that could eat planets.

I have heard them begging in the twilit hours,

murmurs like moth wings in the dark,

felt their cold fingers, wet and wandering.

They hollow me out.

If I follow them down to the cellar

will they leave me sleeping with the cobwebs

and the silt? Will they shut my eyes with heavy

coins and cradle me in their muddy beds?

That’s all I have, folks! I hope you were sufficiently creeped out 😉 And be sure to check out the other All Hallows Write stories. Happy Day of the Dead!

 

Writing

All Hallows Write

I realize that I have not posted here in a million years, but my life has been pretty chaotic lately and I’ve been trying to save my writing time for more creative pursuits. That said, I wanted to pop back over here to announce that I will be participating in All Hallows Write this year on October 31!

You can find out all the details on the website, but the short version is that I will be staying up all night on Halloween (well, probably not all night. I have a doctor’s appointment the next day) writing terrifying poetry, which I will then post on this, my blog, on November 1st! So stay tuned for witches, ghouls and other startling creatures. And if you wish to participate, as well, be sure to email Jeff at AllHallowsWrite [at] jeff-seymour.com

Writing

In Which I Run Into A Wall And Rethink Some Things

Since I started my experiment I’ve managed to get about 50 pages written (remember these are 50 hand-written pages), but I also ran into some trouble. One of my workshop leaders at Vermont College of Fine Arts, A. M. Jenkins, said that a novel is like a picture frame, but you as the author have to know everything that’s going on outside of the frame. Well, after 50 pages I discovered I have no idea what’s going on inside or outside of the frame.

One difficulty is that I have no idea what timeperiod I’m in. Parts of it seem to be in the 16th century, other parts are in the 18th century, and there may even be some earlier time periods stuck in there somewhere. I’m realizing I have a very tenuous grasp of history. I also decided to include some characters of various ethnicities around the Mediterranean, which just made me realize how little I know about the Mediterranean and its various cultures and history in general.

I’ve been reading an enormous tome of Mediterranean history, which is nothing if not daunting, and trying to decide how much research is necessary, whether I should start with research or start with writing and research later, etc. etc. Thankfully, I had a very helpful conversation with fellow Secret Gardener, L. Marie, in which she reminded me that I’m writing fantasy and can make things up.

So this brought about an interesting internal debate. Am I writing historical fantasy? Am I writing about an alternate universe Mediterranean? Or am I writing a Mediterranean-inspired fantasy? After some angsting, I’m leaning towards a Mediterranean-inspired fantasy. I think I will still have to read about the history and culture for inspiration, but I’m going to make things up because that’s what I’m best at.

I wonder if some of my fear and anxiety about this is an unconscious belief that making things up isn’t as legitimate. History seems so much more, well, serious and intellectual. Not like making things up for fun! Of course, I also don’t want to fall into the trap of perpetuating cultural stereotypes and hurting people. I still haven’t decided whether choosing the route of a Mediterranean-inspired fantasy isn’t at its heart an act of cowardice on my part. But it does feel safer.

What about you, readers? Do you write historical fantasy, alternate universes, or culturally-inspired fantasy? Do you do research and how much? And do you start with research or wait till after you’ve written the first draft or write and research in tandem?

Writing

In Which I Reveal My Plans For The Summer

I disappeared again! I apologize. I’ve been dealing with some ongoing health issues and I’m still getting used to the logistics of living in a new place. Anyway, I’ve decided to buckle down this summer and write through an entire draft of my new WIP, The Island of the Moon. BUT this is also going to be an experiment for me because I’m going to try to free write the entire draft by hand. I have a binder and a bunch of looseleaf papers so I can move things around. And I’m going to make a collage for the cover because that’s how writers procrastinate.

Why do I want to free write the draft by hand? Partly because typing hurts my hands and arms and partly because I want to stop myself from fussing with language, which usually happens when I type. I want to use the binder instead of a notebook because then I can move scenes around, draft out of order, throw things out if I want to, rewrite scenes. Basically I want to give myself as much flexibility and freedom as I can. Why free writing? Because drafts intimidate me. A draft is serious business. Free writing is exploration. Once I finish the draft I have some voice recognition software I can use to type it out without hurting my hands.

I’ve never tried this before so I have no idea if it will work, but I’m excited about it. I’m also going to focus on research as much as I can. So I’ll be reading books about Spain, the Mediterranean Sea and its history and culture, myths and legends of the ocean, and whatever else comes up. One resource I’m really excited about is the website rvte.es. It’s the website for radio and television in Spain and they have a lot of documentaries and shows you can watch for free. I’m definitely going to take advantage of that.

I’ll try to keep checking in to give you an update on my progress and I might also post any interesting historical or mythological tidbits I come across. My deadline is October 1 so I have about five months. Please feel free to nag me incessantly.

Darrell Kastin

The Conjurer & Other Azorean Tales

My dad (Darrell Kastin) has a new short story collection that came out this past December and lots of exciting things have been in the works so I thought I would share them with you 🙂

The collection is called The Conjurer & Other Azorean Tales (you can order it here) and it is filled with magic, poetry, humor and saudade. Here’s the official description:

Etched from the fertile volcanic soil and the sea and mists surrounding the Azorean islands, the characters who inhabit these stories merge realism with magic. Like the nine Muses, each island has its own special attributes. Whether searching for love, power or meaning, these characters are subject to the whims of Fate and Fortune. Here the commonplace present confronts forces both natural and supernatural. Taking place in the Azorean microcosm, they come to represent a far larger and wider sphere, depicting the foibles and idiosyncrasies of humanity the world over.

If you’re curious to know more about the Azores and my dad’s relationship with the islands you can read this article he wrote on the RTP blog, “The Other Realm, Writing about the Azores“. Here’s a little snippet:

We no longer think of mysteries pervading the landscape. They’ve all been chased away by skyscrapers and television, by computers, automobiles, and cell phones. For example, people no longer go off in search of mysterious islands of Gold or Women, remote havens that went by many names, but which can be summed up by The Fortunate Islands. Islands that rose and sank, elusive, just out of reach, fading into the mists from which they appeared.

We think the only mysteries left are in space, or perhaps in the deepest trenches of the oceans, not in our own backyards. But there are other places, realms in which things can’t be readily explained away as fancy or delusions. And the Azores is a place that lends itself to mystery.

You can also check out these two interviews: “Beauty of the Azores inspires collection of short stories” and “Darrell Kastin: His allure of the Azores and his work in progress– Interview“.

If you’re curious to read one of the short stories check out “Constança’s War with the Elements“.

Also, my dad’s going to be at a couple of events in the next few months. He’ll be at the LAEF XXXVII Annual Conference, March 22-23, CA State University Stanislaus (in Turlock). He’ll be participating in the workshop led by Frank Sousa to discuss Portuguese-American authors writing in English.

And July 25-27 he’ll be at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, to attend the international conference Exploring the Portuguese Diaspora in InterDisciplinary and Comparative Perspectives.

And finally, if you want to keep up with events and updates and that sort of thing, “like” his new facebook author page!

Uncategorized, Writing

The Next Big Thing

First of all, a thank you to Lyn Miller-Lachmann for tagging me in The Next Big Thing Blog Hop. You can read all about her awesome new book, Rogue, here.

I was originally going to write about my thesis, Triptych, but then this shiny new idea took over my brain so I’m going to write about that instead. You’ll just have to forgive me 🙂

What is the working title of your book?

La isla de la luna or The Island of the Moon.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

This actually started as a story that the protagonist in Triptych was writing. So it was originally a story within a story. Then it kept getting longer and more complicated and eventually became more interesting than the original novel and seduced me away from it, lol.

What genre does your book fall under?

Spanish-flavored fantasy?

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I have no idea how to answer this. Most of the Spanish actors I know are older than my protagonists. Clearly I need to watch more Spanish films.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A young girl washes up on one of the last floating islands with the power to control the sea and meets the dangerous Crooked Man, a magician who makes her question everything she’s taken for granted: her courtiers and friends, her magic and her past.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Hopefully when I finish this it will be represented by an agent!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’ve only written bits and pieces so far. I’m nowhere near done yet.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This is another hard question. I haven’t seen a whole lot of Spanish-themed fantasy books. I’d say “Pan’s Labyrinth” (even though it’s obviously not a book), but the time period is all wrong.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve been seriously needing to write some self-indulgent fantasy and this story has given me permission to do that. I’ve always been in love with the sea and dreamed of having my own island and being able to do magic. I’m also very fond of tricksy magicians. So this story rose up out of my desire to write about many of the things that excite me as a writer/reader. I actually sat down recently and brainstormed all the exciting things I could put in this book. It made me deliriously happy.

What else about your book might pique the readers interest?

I’m just going to write you a list of awesomeness to entice you. This story contains: the daughter of the sea, a shape shifting magician who collects hearts, a floating island, an Iberian lynx named Fuego, a red fox named Lucifer, a ship wreck, a curse, a troupe of traveling players, masquerade balls, and ships with black sails. Hey, there may even be pirates. We’ll see 😉

And now to tag other writers to share their Next Big Thing…

L. Marie

Sharon Van Zandt

Val Howlett

Uncategorized

In Which I Contemplate The Post-MFA Writing Life And The Difficulties Of Getting Stuck

When I was at VCFA, Tom Green gave a speech at one of the commencements that addressed the problem of MFA students graduating and then not writing again, sometimes for years. He even admitted (bravely!) that this had happened to him after he graduated. I remember, at the time, dismissing the whole thing, thinking, “Come on, that’ll never happen to me. I’m too determined. I’ve got so many ideas. I’m a real writer!” LOL, in other words, I was totally asking for it.

I graduated this summer and it was scary and wonderful and bittersweet. And then I got home and I didn’t feel like writing. But more than that, I suddenly hated writing. The whole process felt like trying to cram my head through the eye of a needle. So I stopped for a month. But I was terrified I would never start again so I forced myself back to work. And writing felt like work. Boring, miserable, “Why am I doing this to myself?” work. And why was I doing this to myself? Why not just quit and join the circus or find myself an actual pirate ship or *gasp* get a normal job like a sensible person? That would be so much easier than writing.

But then I’d come up with a wonderful idea for my WIP and be filled with enough elation to continue writing for a few days, even weeks sometimes. I’d think, “Yes! I’ve figured everything out now. It’ll be fine.” Unfortunately, the doors of apathy would inevitably slam closed again and writing would slip back into feeling like work. So I’d stop writing and start coming up with inane plans. “I need to fill the well,” I would say to myself. So I’d read stacks of books. Or “Short stories, Ray Bradbury says we should all start with short stories, not novels.” So I’d try writing short stories, instead. On and on endlessly, stopping, starting, standing on my head…

And then in December my existential crisis seemed to settle down. I thought about how if I stopped working on this novel and started something else I would probably never finish anything. I began having morbid and dramatic dialogues with myself, such as: “Shawna, if you suddenly get cancer what are you going to regret not having done before you died?” And the answer was always: “Not having finished this %$@%** novel!” I sat down and tried to make reasonable goals for myself and I wrote and I wrote and writing wasn’t hateful. I kept waiting for the crisis to hit again, but it didn’t. It slunk away. And I’m still writing now, albeit very slowly. I haven’t run off to join the nearest circus or commandeer any pirate ships or become a librarian (although it’s very tempting). I’m not writing in a constant state of ecstasy, but that’s to be expected, and writing no longer feels like trying to fit my head through an infinitesimally small space.

What happened? I’m not entirely sure. I suppose maybe I just needed a break or needed to find my way out of the labyrinth. And, of course, I might wake up tomorrow and change my mind about everything all over again. But I do have a few theories as to why these past few months have been such a struggle and I want to take a moment to explore each of them.

I moved to a new state. This is probably the most obvious obstacle. Graduation is always a time of liminality, but add to that moving to a new place and having to start so much of life from scratch is enough to make anyone want to curl up into a tiny mewling ball of despair. When I actually think about everything I’ve done in the past six months, I’m amazed I managed to write anything at all. That said, I honestly think even if I hadn’t moved to a new place after graduation I still would’ve struggled with writing.

Lack of a schedule and deadlines. Okay, so this is the second most obvious issue. I actually wasn’t too worried about having to create my own schedule/deadlines because I’ve always been pretty disciplined. But I suspect there’s always going to be a period of adjustment and one thing I definitely realized is that the MFA level of discipline is not necessarily sustainable. It is a lot of work, and, once again, with moving and job hunting and dealing with so much upheaval it is practically impossible to come up with a schedule and stick to it. I’m still working on figuring that out.

I got burnt out. Did I mention that getting an MFA is a lot of work? Two years of doing little else but writing and reading will burn anyone out. And while I’m grateful that I got to do this program without having to juggle a full-time job, the unfortunate result was that I spent the last two years living like a hermit. Seriously, days would go by without me even leaving the house once. So when I graduated and there were no longer packet deadlines and schedules to follow I wanted nothing more than to let down my hair, kick off my shoes, run wild through the streets and never be disciplined again.

Boredom. I have now been working on this same novel for two years and I have yet to even make it through the middle of a draft. I am so sick of this story! And, oh, the shiny, much more exciting brand new ideas that plague me! This has been really hard for me, trying to reignite my passion for a project that feels interminable while simultaneously resisting the siren-call of fresh story ideas. But reminding myself of all the exciting bits helps, as has remembering that part of the reason this book has taken so long to finish is because I was working on it in school, which meant going through many revisions instead of writing straight through a draft. Right now I’m clinging to the hope that writing through a full draft will be much faster for me in the future. Also, bribery is motivating.

The sudden, dramatic lack of a safety net. There is something odd about getting nearly constant feedback on your writing for two years only to suddenly graduate and be on your own. Don’t get me wrong, I think being on our own as writers is absolutely essential. We have to learn to trust ourselves, not rely entirely on other people, but it is disorienting. Thankfully, graduation does not mean floating off into the ether. I do have a wonderful community of writers now to share feedback with…if I ever manage to finish this novel…

Performance anxiety and the fear of failure.* Hands down, this has been the obstacle that’s startled and dismayed me the most because I never expected it. But first, some explanation. I did a lot of theatre in high school and the thing about acting (and singing!) that always terrified me the most was auditioning. In my mind nothing was scarier than that. Then, while practicing for an audition, my voice teacher at the time revealed to me that her greatest fear was actually getting the role because then you had to worry about going through with the whole thing and not letting everyone down. This was news to me. I understood the terror of auditioning. To me failure was not getting the role. But as soon as she introduced this newer and more terrifying idea I started to feel that sense of performance anxiety. What if I got the role and then messed it up? What if I really wasn’t good enough and everyone regretted casting me?

I never expected to feel this way about writing, but it has been a struggle. Having an MFA degree is like having an enormously high standard to live up to. I feel I should know more, be a better writer, and there is a fear of letting everyone down. What if my advisors hate all the changes I’ve made to my book? What if my beloved Secret Gardeners hate it? The doubts and insecurities can take over my mind. But at the end of the day, I’ve had to learn to just breathe and trust the process and realize I cannot possibly satisfy everyone, even the people I love and admire most. And perhaps most importantly I’ve tried to remind myself of a line from a beautiful drawing of a corvid by Charles van Sandwyk that hangs over my desk: “A word, lovingly written, lives for ever.” If I cannot love what I write then I might as well quit now and do something else, and while I do think it’s important to think about your audience, I really do believe it’s most important to write for oneself, otherwise why go through all that struggle and heartache?

Anyway, this has been my experience of post-MFA life so far. I’m sure it’s been different for all of us. I just wanted to share my own perspective in case anyone else has had similar experiences and also so that you know that getting stuck isn’t permanent or a symptom of some terrible failing. In the end, you might decide you would much rather be a pirate than a person who writes about pirates, but if you find yourself in any of the above states please know it will get better. You will learn things about yourself and possibly forget them again. But if you put one foot in front of the other eventually you will get where you’re going. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself…

* I’m actually glad I went through this particular anxiety because I suspect this is what newly published authors feel in spades. And if I ever do publish a novel at least I’ll know to expect that and recognize it for what it is, which is just fear, plain and simple.

Uncategorized

In Which I Return (But Hopefully Not From The Dead)

Whew! I can’t believe it’s been nearly a year since I last posted here. 2012 was a crazy year. I gave a lecture on characterization. I wrote a 75 page creative thesis. I went to Germany for a month. I graduated from my MFA program and I moved to a new city. I think I’m just now starting to get my feet back under me again.

Anyway, I have lots of things I want to talk about like post-MFA life, and what’s going on with my work in progress a.k.a. my thesis, and my dad’s new book that came out in December. So I’m going to try to post something at least once a week. I can do that, right?

Here’s to more regular posting!