Writer, Editor, Parent...

Workshops… or Killing the Babies

Posted: March 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

http://www.flickr.com/photos/wikidave/

Yesterday I was privileged to be in a writing workshop led by Monique Roffey, the UK-Trini writer author of Sun Dog and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. There were six writers in attendance, almost all published and some of them award winners. We each had submitted stories for the workshop. A writing workshop involves reading and constructive criticism, so one has to walk with metaphorical tissues and/or very thick skin–many of us writers get attached to every single word we have written and hearing those words described in anything but glowing terms is like having a burning stick shoved into our guts.

My story was first at bat. Ignoring the suspicion that it was chosen to go first because it was the worst of the six stories to be workshopped, I read it and sat back biting my tongue waiting for the critique. My story was called “The Magical Negro Speaks”. It came out of my reading this essay by Nnedi Okrafor examining the trope of the magical negro, a black character who comes into a story just to enable some magical change in a white character. I wanted to write a story from the magical negro’s perspective, because the trope usually comes from the white character’s perspective.

My opening paragraph was one of my favourite parts of the story:

“He used to say I came into his life like a force of nature: I was the tsunami to his Indonesia, Hurricane Katrina to his levees. Of course, by the time the earthquake was over and Port Royal was under the Caribbean Sea a legend was born. But you can’t live in a legend. You might look back on it with awe at the destruction and maybe regret for what once had been; you might moralise about why so much had to be lost. But you can’t hold it and marry it and make babies with it. That’s not what happens after a force of nature hits you. Basically, you sweep up the water when the floods subside, bury your dead and move the hell on.”

But the verdict of the workshop was that my beloved paragraph was unsuccessful. It set up an expectation that wasn’t fulfilled and basically seemed like a part of another story. Hearing this sorta broke my heart. I knew the story had problems, and I knew it was unfinished, but I loved that first paragraph and the way it set up the story’s resolution. To realise that, of six sophisticated readers, not one of them got that… it was painful. But such exercises—which a journalist I met a long time ago, Jonathan Friendly, called “killing the babies”—are like a purifying fire. You burn off the trash and what is left is pure, unalloyed. Even if the trash is your favourite paragraph.

I still have to finish the story. By “finish”, I mean rewrite. The workshop was really helpful and I’ll take on board the tips I got and questions the critics posed in reworking it. And who knows? Maybe I can use my baby, that paragraph I love so, in some other story… reincarnation?


Eyes on the Prize

Posted: February 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Bocas Lit Fest has announced its longlist for its inaugural prize. Walcott’s White Egrets and Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa are both in the running, alongside works by Kei Miller and Tiphanie Yanique, two up-and-coming writers from the region.

I’m glad that Kei and Tiphanie are on that list alongside such as Walcott and Naipaul. It shows that those writers, both of whom are members of my generation, are capable of taking on giants with their work. Neither is a “new” writer, each having been published before (although this is Yanique’s first novel she has published her short stories and won prizes and acclaim for them); but neither has yet achieved the renown of Walcott and Naipaul.

I’ve heard commentators say the Bocas Prize should have been more open to unknown writers; I’ve also heard them say Walcott and Naipaul don’t need the money, so why should they be given the chance to compete for the prize? I beg to differ on both points.

There are developmental prizes for unknown writers but from the way Bocas has set up its prize I don’t think this is one of them. The criteria for judging a prize is necessarily an internal matter–it is up to those who give it to decide what criteria they are going to use to judge, and who is eligible. I see nothing wrong in seeking work by all regional writers, regardless of their status, and judging them by the standard of excellence. It is the right of the Bocas organisers to open their prize to previously published writers, even if such works submitted might be perceived to have an “unfair” advantage because their writers have more experience. As to the need of the writers, anybody who has had to live by his pen would tell you it’s a hard row to hoe at any stage in one’s career, the JK Rowlings and Arundhati Roys being in the minority and small, irregular paychecks being by far the norm for professional writers. I would not begrudge anyone that prize money. They have worked hard at their craft and I am glad for them. May the best writer win.


Looking at 40

Posted: November 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

I”ll be 37 in a few days. Because I still feel as though I’m somewhere in my mid-twenties it always comes as a surprise when I realise that, yes, it’s 2010 and that means I’m definitely not in my twenties anymore. I mean, wasn’t it just yesterday I was ringing in my 26th birthday in the Queen’s Park Savannah with the Vox Crew, led by my brother Taye and Remy “Rembunction” Yearwood, as they sang happy birthday, drowning out Wyclef’s performance?

But it’s a decade later. No concerts in the Savannah this year, I think. No throngs of well-wishers. Instead, wrinkles on my neck, two or three unfinished projects (a couple more unstarted, even), a pitiful bank balance, a beat-up car, long-dead parents, a semi-abandoned career as a journalist, and worse hearing with every day (possibly from too many concerts, in the Savannah and elsewhere, when I was young). Counting my blessings: great friends I don’t see enough, great friends who have seen me through decades of years and gallons of tears; two daughters who delight and amaze me daily; a kitten who pees all over the house but whom I love like I’ve never loved an animal before; an NGO and a great team to help build it; one short novel and a book I’ve edited.

My wrinkly neck. By age 40 I'll look like I'm ready for a Thanksgiving pardon.

Peering down the road at 40, I can see more wrinkles, perhaps less cat pee, if I’m lucky and Fennec gets some behaviour. Maybe I’ll go back into journalism, and that would help the bank balance, even, possibly, the beat-up car. Maybe not; I’m too accustomed now to doing what I like, mostly when I like it, to go back to the rigor and inconvenience of being on someone else’s time clock. When the NGO grows up, as it must, maybe I will earn an actual salary and be able to support myself from it. Or maybe I’ll just hold out until the children are grown and they can support me for a change. (Ha. Miss Thing just announced she wants to be an anthropologist. Damn, must she get the “earn no money” gene from her father and me? On the upside, The Lady says she wants to be rich and famous. There is hope yet.)

At least reaching this age I can dismiss or refine some aspirations. I definitely won’t have the BMW I wished I’d had by age 30. I might have to push the Nobel Prize back to age 70. Bummer. My Great West Indian Novel is yet to be finished; maybe it will be “published to unanimous acclaim in over 22 countries” (to steal Miss Thing’s pet phrase) by the time I’m 45? That’s only eight years away. One thing about growing older: you definitely learn that time flies–the Concorde.


A thought on book reviewing

Posted: November 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Editorial | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

I finally finished writing a book review that I had started cogitating on back in August. Sad, but true.

The main problem I had was how to write about the story without writing a spoiler. That’s usually one of the main concerns with writing reviews of any kind: how do you say what a great/awful story it was if you can’t actually say what the story was?

It took me this long to figure out how to write this one, possibly because the story affected me so much. The book is really moving and relevant to the Caribbean, but the conclusion is so harsh that you can’t help but give a *gulp* of terror when you read it. In sitting to write the review this morning, I decided to take a look at some statistics related to the plot and see if I couldn’t use them as a way into the analysis. Anyway, a few hours later… I finished. Three months to write 800 words. Sad, but true.


fff#29 As much as I had loved him

Posted: October 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: FFF | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

For the background, see the posting before this one.

fff#29as much/little as… (starter)

As much as I had loved him, I hate him now. I see his car–an unmistakable maroon Toyota with a silly, excessive spoiler at the back–and my stomach churns with disgust. I’m not stupid. (Well, maybe I am stupid. I was with him for five years, after all.) I know the disgust is as much for me as for him. I can’t believe all the things I put myself through to be with him. All the blatant rubbish I endured to call him mine. Mine? Never was. His lies and my complicity leave me bruised and tired now just thinking about him.

Inevitably, every time I think about him I think about how it ended: hearing from a third party that there was this other woman, incontrovertable evidence shoved in my face and hurriedly digested before a nasty confrontation between him, her and me. And even then, even then, as much as I hated him, I loved him still.


fff#28–The strange tale of the pants cat

Posted: October 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: FFF | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

I too-rarely participate in my friend elisha’s flash fiction fridays, a kind of writing exercise where you have to write a short piece of fiction using a trigger that she provides. The trigger can be an opening sentence, a closing sentence or a list of words you have to include in the piece. This week she posted an inclusion trigger. Here’s my attempt. It’s not actually fiction, but fmf (flash memoir fridays) doesn’t have the same ring, somehow.

fff#28 (inclusion) trigger:rebellion, fox, strange, mirror, pleasure.

True story: Fennec came to us in pants.

He wasn’t wearing pants. He was in the pants. Brian walked up to me while I was sitting on a wooden bench in the waiting room of the free dental clinic with Najja sitting next to me waiting to take out a baby tooth that was making a rider. Brian had a strange look on his face. “Look at this,” he said, holding open the pocket of his baggy jeans. Two sleepy kitten eyes stared out from the pocket and the barely furry face opened its mouth in a noiseless mew. I jumped off the bench, yelling, “What the hell?!?” A good moment for an interrobang right there.

We called him Fennec after the fox with the huge ears. His ears were ginormous, bigger than his head, nearly bigger than his body, truth be told. He was frail and dirty with scant hair covering his pink skin. His mother had had a litter of 16 kittens but most cats have between six and eight nipples. Not very strange that he was in bad shape.

Brian took the pants off and went home in his boxers with the sleepy kitten still in the pocket of his jeans. Regular feedings of milk-soaked bread gave him fortitude and within a couple of days the creature was toddling around like an actual kitten, peering into the mirror at himself with puzzlement and interest, batting at his reflection and running away with an awkward, teetering gait. Soon he didn’t want bread and milk anymore and was screaming in hunger at the merest whiff of meat.

Countless fleas lurked under Fennec’s dingy white fur, especially in its archipelago of brownish-gray spots running up his back to his tail. After Googling kittens and fleas we learned that although he was probably a little too young for a proper flea treatment we could wage a war of attrition against them with twice-weekly baths in mild soap followed by blow-drying him on low heat. It’s strange to suggest bathing a cat–it never sounded like a good idea–and Fennec, unsurprisingly, wasn’t a fan. A warm bath and chocolate-scented body wash, which was the mildest thing we had around the house, was punishment to him. His rebellion against this inhumane treatment took the form of vicious slashes with his razor-sharp claws and the occasional bite. He really didn’t want to be bathed. Ever. Again. But we did it religiously twice a week for about a month. He still has fleas but far fewer; a side effect of the regular baths was that his fur grew in properly and he was no longer hairless, even if his mammoth ears are still too big for his increasingly rotund body.

The nicest part about bathing Fennec was that afterwards someone would have to put him under their shirt to get him warm because he was shivering so much. He’d curl up around your tummy and subside into sleep, purring in pleasure. Maybe he was remembering how he came to us, snug in the pocket of a pair of pants.


Dear MATT,

Posted: September 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The first time I heard about you was from Nazma Muller, an unlikely mentor but one of my first in the practice of journalism. There was a controversy–might have been the jailing of journalists after they defied a court’s gag order, but I’m not entirely certain–and a march in Port-of-Spain organised to raise awareness of the rights of the media. I didn’t know about the march or the Media Association of Trinidad & Tobago and Nazma well bouf me. “Girl, you’re a journalist now!” she said in her inimitable way. Message was that MATT was for people like me and I should get acquainted with them for my own good.

I did, in time, and eventually stood for election as a floor member of the executive. We had our moments but I eventually stepped down in frustration from the post. I stayed a MATT member, though, because whatever the problems that might plague one executive or ten, we as an industry need MATT.

I was proud on Saturday gone, as I am every two years, to vote in the new executive of MATT. I think the people on the new executive are bright, enterprising and energetic. I will give them my full support.

But that’s not why I’m writing this letter. You see, it has been burning me for the past few weeks the things people have been saying about you. They say MATT is useless, powerless and maybe even corrupt. They say Trinidad & Tobago has no “real journalists”. I don’t know why they’re saying those things, and I certainly don’t agree. Yes, MATT needs restructuring to better meet the needs of journalists and people working in media. But it can’t live up to its potential when only about 20 people are ever active in it. I’ve been to too many MATT meetings that had to be abandoned because of poor turnout, or training sessions with only about five or six people present–many of them seasoned professionals with little need of training (although everybody could use a refresher from time to time).

It frustrates me to hear the things people say about you, MATT. I hear these things and say to myself, “Why don’t they help build instead of tearing MATT down all the time?” We need MATT, or its equivalent. Who but a MATT is going to speak against muzzling journalists? Who but a MATT is going to keep an eye on the government and stop it from doing things like registering journalists, or putting prohibitive measures in place to keep public information private? Who but a MATT will provide affordable training for us?

People talk about MATT instituting a code of ethics. I used to be ambivalent about this, but I’m not any longer. I firmly believe now we need individual media houses to take responsibility for this, as there is room for all kinds of interpretations of the laws of publishing and broadcasting and to ask a whole industry to subscribe to one standard is undemocratic. The courts are there to protect citizens; the media ought not to stop itself from breaking the news if there is news to be broken. There will always be media houses that walk a thin line between libel and journalism, and I know from personal experience what a nasty, personal media attack can feel like. But do I want those papers to go away? No, because they sometimes in their temerity and audacity publish the things the “legitimate” media won’t. But it’s not for me to say. I think MATT should debate this, properly, openly, and let people be satisfied that they have had their say.

I know in a democracy it is only right for everyone to have their say. Even in criticising you, MATT. But when the criticism becomes mere target practice, it’s time for us to grow up and look at MATT not as the enemy but as a vessel for all of us in media to get on board. Nobody can fix MATT from the outside.

Sincerely

Lisa


Connecting the dots

Posted: September 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Steve Jobs, the guy who gave Apple its shine, gave this amazing speech that I happened upon some time ago.

The whole speech is really moving and inspiring, but this is the part that hits me every time:

“[M]uch of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Although in my life I have never wanted to be anything but a writer (well, there was that time I wanted to be a nurse, but… does five minutes count?) I have somehow ended up doing a lot of different things. I’ve been an administrative assistant, sending faxes and doing filing. I’ve been an actor. I’ve been an administrator, co-ordinating an NGO and an educational tour at two different points in my life. I’ve  produced shows and done stage management. I tried catering. I’ve been a housewife and full-time mom. Now I’m teaching part time.

All of these things gave me different skills and ways of thinking about the world. I wonder about people who have only ever done one job, and what it’s like to know what you’re going to do every single day. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the life I’ve chosen, but you can’t ever say it’s boring or predictable. And all the skills I learned along the way somehow come in very handy in my new incarnation as the administrator of The Allen Prize, and even in my teaching. Yesterday I shocked my students by doing a very convincing portrayal of “anger” in a lesson on nonverbal communication. It was fun, taking me right back to the days of working under Charles Applewhite at Trinidad Theatre Workshop.

No matter how far I go, my past comes with me, for good or bad. What do you take with you on your journey?


Writers are still readers

Posted: September 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Books, Column, Editorial | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Maybe it’s the weather or the time of year, but I’ve had two requests for writing advice in the past two days. Here, once again, is my best advice.

 

When asked what advice I would give to writers, I usually say these two things:

1. WRITE

2. READ.

The first bit of advice sounds so simple but is so hard to do. WRITE. It means making a conscious effort to write, if not every day, on some regular schedule. Turn off the TV, close the MSN chat window, get off Facebook and write. Life is so full of distractions and responsibilities that it’s not uncommon to hear writers complain that they can’t find time to write. I, too, am guilty of doing it. Even though one of the things you’ll find when you Google my name is this post on discipline in writing, lately I’ve been making plenty excuses for not buckling down to the half-finished manuscript I began last year. Granted, the book is depressing as hell and drags me back into a personal memory I’d rather ignore–it’s a novel about possible consequences of child sexual abuse–but I have made a committment and I need to attend to it. Plus, it’s a really good story. 🙂 I think the world, especially Trinidad & Tobago, needs this story so people stop ignoring a problem that is right under their noses.

But writing is hard work in some ways, especially writing fiction. I have no publisher yet so there’s no deadline to whip me, and it’s my own project so there’s no editor to nag me. I started the book with Wayne Brown as my writing coach and he would give me weekly deadlines to meet, but he has since passed away and my subsequent attempt to work with the brilliant writer Monique Roffey flopped because I just couldn’t write at the time.

When I’m writing it’s great. There are times when the words fly onto the computer screen all by themselves, the characters sing and dance and take lovers and licks as if they were real people and I were just a cameraman recording the action. There are other times when each word is a struggle. Because it’s set in multiple times, I have to keep other windows open with calendars and research about clothes, food, news events and other stuff that fill out the story. And you can imagine that I sometimes get distracted by children, housekeeping (VERY RARELY! Ha!), hustling and the rest of my life. Sleep is the biggest culprit, though. Why write when you can sleep? Sleep usually wins, even though I know those last eight chapters won’t write themselves.

Maybe I should do like Mystie Thongs and blog on the struggle to get back on my (literary) feet. If I had written a page a day over the last year when I didn’t write anything at all, the book would be done and in third revision by now!

My only consolation is that at least I’m taking my own advice on the other thing writers should do: READ.

I am, as my Facebook friend Adrian Charles called it, an obligate bibliovore. I have to read, and I’m usually reading at least one book. In the last couple months I’ve read Sun Dog, by Monique Roffey, Falling Angels, by Tracy Chevalier, and Dog-Heart, by Diana McCaulay, among others.

Reading increases your vocabulary, improves your technique and widens your repertoir. I have read hundreds of romance novels and–as much as literary types would turn up their noses at the genre–I owe my relatively good grammar to them, and my vocabulary in part to them, too.

Those long-time Mills & Boon books were great for words like “maelstrom” and “ingenue” and so on, and they were written in the strictest Standard English. I read other things, too… sci-fi, poetry, plays, murder mysteries, text books… and everything I read somehow creeps out into my writing, not in direct ways but you can see threads of them if you know what you’re looking for. Plus, reading is fun!

What do you writers do to keep writing?


The Allen Prize opens!

Posted: September 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Editorial | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

So after years of planning, praying, hoping and organising, The Allen Prize for Young Writers is finally open!

You can read about it and get submissions forms here.

It has been a long haul and we still have far to go. We are still waiting for funding, and still in the process of planning our inaugural seminar. Two very impressive regional writers have already signed up to talk at the seminar–but you’ll have to wait for the official release to get more info on that.

We have lined up a great head judge of The Allen Prize competition in Judy Raymond. Judy was my editor for many years, at the Trinidad Express and the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian. In a way she has always been my role model, because I remember reading her hysterically funny column with my brother when I was a teenager and she always epitomised for me the best combination of witty, erudite and accessible writing. As an editor she was exacting, sometimes scarily so, and pushed me to being the best journalist I could be. In short, I am well chuffed that she has agreed to head the judges for the prize competition.

This whole experience has been very humbling and I’m grateful to Judy and all the other people who have contributed so far, and those who will contribute in the future. And as Judy said in the press release about the opening of the competition, I can’t wait to read the results!