Writing Communities

Writers need people. We need community. Or as they say, “It takes a village.”

Truly.

In this Thanksgiving Season, as publication date of my book gets closer, I reflect on my journey as a writer and the many people who have contributed to my development as a reader and a writer. Many have inspired me, nurtured me, taught me, challenged me. They may be family, friends, readers, other writers. Writers must carve out time to write in solitude, but we cannot thrive without community.

My mother was a reader and took her children to the Honolulu Public Library. I fell in love with words and stories. Reading was addictive and I borrowed as many books as I could. The freedom to explore all the books in the library fed my curiosity. As a result, I love libraries and librarians are my heroes.

Raising a child is one thing. Raising a reader who chooses to be a creative writer is quite another. 

I am grateful to the many writers I’ve met and the writing events I’ve participated in over the past  twenty years. These are only a few. However, every event has contributed to my growth as a writer. And has led me to publishing my first book The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir.

With many thanks to Willow Books and Aquarius Press, publication date is March 1, 2019!!

Meeting other writers and learning from each other can be exciting. It can bring unexpected rewards.

Writing groups have been essential to my growth. I am not the most disciplined writer, so our meetings have served as catalysts for writing, compelling me to produce something to share in our meetings. I learn so much from the other writers as we read and discuss their writing, as well as when they provide feedback on my pieces. 

One important lesson I learned is that while I hold the story I’m writing in my head, all the details in my head may not always get transmitted to the page; I need to read and reread my work carefully to ensure that the reader has what’s necessary to follow what’s happening. Writing groups have given me valuable feedback on what’s working and not working.

Someone in a writing group told me about the Port Townsend Writers Conference and I decided to apply. I dived in and took my first creative nonfiction workshop from Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern in 1997. This was my first foray into writing workshops and a very positive one. I felt validated to be accepted into this group of writers.

A decade later, Cristina Garcia took over as artistic director for this conference, and diversity flowered, both in faculty and students. Instead of being the only writer of color, I witnessed a conference peopled by many cultures, many colors and did workshops with Chris Abani and Denise Chavez. Too many conferences are too white. For any writer, especially an emerging writer of color, having other writers of color in the room, not only validates their voices, but also their dreams as writers. Garcia later moved on to organize Las Dos Brujas Writers Conference in New Mexico, then in San Francisco. 

Another writer informed me about  Hedgebrook, a writing retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island. In 2000, I was very much a beginner, but decided to complete the application even though I expected to be rejected. I thought it would be good practice, that I could apply again. I really had not intended to write a book, but during the application process, I began to envision the possibility of a book. I was surprised and thrilled to be given a residency in 2001. During my three weeks at Hedgebrook, I began to organize my writing into a manuscript with the title Once Upon An Island. 

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Hedgebrook took me seriously as a writer. Even though I had no publishing credits and had no completed pieces, they treated me with extraordinary respect and appreciation. This was life-changing for someone full of self-doubt. I began to feel like an authentic writer.

Hedgebrook opened up a whole universe for me. I did my first public reading of my writing at a Hedgebrook-sponsored event. On my list of writing workshops and conferences, I can draw a straight line from Hedgebrook or Hedgebrook alumnae to half of these events. I also found alumna Priscilla Long to edit my memoir, and she encouraged me to submit it to university and independent presses. The alumnae network has been a surprise bonus, an active force and a gift that keeps on giving.

One example is the VONA Writers Conference (Voices of our Nation Arts Foundation), which HB alumna/author Donna Miscolta recommended. I took a Creative Nonfiction and Memoir Workshop in 2007 from Elmaz Abinader and Faith Adiele; all the writers and instructors were people of color, the first conference where I experienced this kind of support and where I didn’t have to explain myself.

In 2008 I decided to set aside my original manuscript because it wasn’t working, and I wasn’t sure how to fix it. I began a new memoir from scratch. When Hedgebrook began offering master classes, I heard about a Master Memoir Class with Faith Adiele, and I knew I had to go. This was in 2010. IMG_3647

Faith asked me an important question. I workshopped a piece about sexual abuse and used only the initial of my abuser: “Mr. K.” Faith asked me an important question: “Are you still being silenced by not naming him?” I realized I had a choice and decided to provide his full last name in the manuscript.

I also met Janice and Connie here. We decided we wanted to continue to meet and support each other’s writing. We lived in three different cities–me in Seattle, Connie in Atlanta, and Janice in Santa Barbara. We met virtually on Skype once a month for 2-3 years. In addition, my Seattle writing group was meeting every other week. 

Two years later in 2012, I completed a first draft of my memoir The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir.

In 2013 I attended a CNF Writing Conference in Oxford, MS. I attended a workshop led by Dinty Moore. HB alumna/author Allison Green had recommended it. Lee Gutkind was the  keynote speaker. Vanity Fair acknowledges Gutkind as “the Godfather behind CNF.” Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild had been published to wide acclaim in 2012, and Gutkind discussed the opening first page of her book, how it hooked the reader. I had completed my first draft at this point and decided to draft a similar first page.

I am fortunate to live in Seattle where there are so many literary events and opportunities to grow as a writer. Another writing community I want to mention is the Jack Straw Writers Program, which focuses on getting work out in the world through a series of readings, assisting writers in using their voices and a microphone, preparing for public readings. Thanks to another HB alumna Felicia Gonzalez, who invited me to apply for the 2014 program, I was able to participate in an amazing experiential learning opportunity and be part of another enriching writing community.

From writing bits of vignettes to completing a full-length book, I know I could not have progressed as a writer without my various writing communities, including It’s About Time, the monthly reading series at the Ballard Library founded by Esther Altshul Helfgott and currently directed by Peggy Sturdivant. We learn just by hearing the words of other writers. We learn as we present our own words. I often revise when I have to read my writing out loud.

My current writing group is Cake Quartet, a mixed genre group that includes Esther Altshul Helfgott, Ann B. Hursey, and Trish Honig. I have dabbled in poetry in the past, but consider myself to be a prose writer. My writing group has provided essential support in my creative life. And poets Esther and Ann have introduced me to more poetry like the Haibun, which combines prose and haiku and opens me up to new creative possibilities. 

This is what I love about creative communities, you never know where they will lead. It can lead to honing craft, to breakthroughs in writing, to publication or reading opportunities, to new forms of writing….  To a writer with the expertise to create a chapbook (Ann) or to bake a cake from scratch (Trish)!

I give thanks for my writing life and my writing communities!

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Celebration

In 2017 I didn’t feel like having a birthday. I just wanted to ignore it. I was feeling downhearted about getting my memoir published after submitting my manuscript to book contests and sending query letters to various indie presses and university presses for a few years.

Being a semi-finalist and finalist for a few contests was encouraging. I also received a lovely rejection letter from an editor who explained their process for selecting books, indicating the enthusiasm of those who advocated for my book. However, these were still rejections.

This year, I decided to attend a few writing conferences that featured literary agents while continuing my previous strategy. I was willing to keep going and try some new tactics. I also decided that no matter what, Celebration would be my theme for 2018. And birthday celebrations were in order for March! That’s what I did with a lot of help from my friends.

On the last Friday in March, I was on my laptop at home when I received a message from Willow Books Literary Awards. I felt faint and quickly forwarded it to my writing group: Trish, Ann, and Esther. “Omigod! Tell me if I’m dreaming or hallucinating!”

I needed confirmation because, even though I consider myself a careful reader, I have read and misinterpreted messages in the past. They emailed me back quickly: “BIG congratulations on winning the Grand Prize in prose!”

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I had won their book contest in prose, including works of fiction and nonfiction!! The prize included publication by Aquarius Press!! Then I started crying. It had been such a long road since I started submitting my manuscript in 2014. There were times when I felt hopeless and wanted to give up. Most writers have experienced similar dark moments. My writing group can attest to my moments of despair. They would boost my spirits and urge me to continue. Other writers would remind me that rejection was normal for writers; this was part of the job and I just had to keep going.

In fact, I had pinned Jesmyn Ward‘s PBS interview on the wall above my desk earlier in the year. I highlighted her words: “Persist. Read, write, and improve.” This is what her teachers and mentors had told her, so she was passing on their wisdom. This award-winning author also advised:

“Accept rejection until you find acceptance, but don’t become disheartened, stop writing, and remove yourself from the conversation.”

No, I hadn’t stopped. My voice is important and I want to be part of the conversation. And now my book The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir will be on bookshelves in Spring 2019. Yes, all my years of work have not been for nothing. My words will be out  there in the world–it’s beyond exciting!

I was still pinching myself even after the official announcement was posted on the Willow Books Literary Awards web site. I still feel a bit like I’m “The Twilight Zone,” but in a positive way. As we enter the fifth month of 2018, I am full of gratitude and anticipate more celebrations still to come!

 

 

 

March!

March is a special month for me. It’s my birthday month and it marks the coming of Spring. The promise of Spring brings hope to a wintry world that warm days, new growth, and blooming flowers are ahead.

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It’s also the only month that can also be a verb, a call to action: March!

On March 3, girls are celebrated in Japan. Hinamatsuri is dedicated to the happiness and health of girls.

On March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day.

This combination of action and women seems no accident. Women are marching! We are marching for equality. We want personal safety. We want to stop sexual harassment, domestic violence, an end to the rape culture. We want a lot and we are speaking truth to power. Women are rising and standing up!

In my writing group of four women, I mentioned how girls are not taught to say NO! STOP THAT! GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME! HOW DARE YOU TALK TO ME LIKE THAT! We need to rethink how we can raise girls to be both nice and tough, to be fierce and loud when necessary.

Author Barbara Kingsolver writes about empowering girls in The Guardian. In “#MeToo Isn’t Strong Enough: Now Women Need to Get Ugly,” she says:

Let’s be clear: no woman asks to live in a rape culture: we all want it over, yesterday. Mixed signals about female autonomy won’t help bring it down, and neither will asking nicely. Nothing changes until truly powerful offenders start to fall. Feminine instincts for sweetness and apology have no skin in this game. It’s really not possible to overreact to uncountable, consecutive days of being humiliated by men who say our experience isn’t real, or that we like it actually, or are cute when we’re mad. Anger has to go somewhere – if not out then inward, in a psychic thermodynamics that can turn a nation of women into pressure cookers. Watching the election of a predator-in-chief seems to have popped the lid off the can. We’ve found a voice, and now is a good time to use it, in a tone that will not be mistaken for flirtation.

March is also Women’s History Month and I can’t help but think of all the strong, loving, and supportive women in my life. Because of them, I completed my B.A. at the University of Washington and I’m a writer with a completed memoir manuscript and continuing to explore my creativity; these are goals that seemed unreal when I first arrived in Seattle in 1986 and was scrambling for a job and living space and new friends.

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So many people come and go in the course of a lifetime, but each person can touch another life in profound ways. This has been especially true for me in regard to my community of women friends and colleagues, past and present. I have been able to grow and blossom as a strong and creative woman because of them. YAY, WOMEN!

Cake Quartet

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Over cupcakes at a March meeting in 2017, our writing group of four decided to call ourselves the Cake Quartet.
 
We rotate hosting our meetings and feed the group. Not only desserts and snacks, but thoughtful and respectful feedback on writing, whether prose or poetry. The meetings are times of nurturing our art.
 
We value one another as women, writers, and friends: Ann Hursey, Esther Helfgott, Trish McKenny Honig.
 
We are the Cake Quartet because cakes invoke celebrations. And we celebrate each other!
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Here’s another lovely thing about cake. It’s easier than writing!
I could not remember if I had ever baked a cake from scratch, but Trish is an experienced baker for her lucky family. We arranged a baking day for a recipe she found: Southern Coconut Cake. She had all the basic ingredients, pans, and other equipment while I brought the specialized ingredients like shredded coconut, coconut flavoring, whipped cream, and so on.
In a few hours, we were done. I felt I had accomplished something. It was fun and I had a finished product that I knew my friends and I would enjoy! Too bad if they don’t like coconut.
It was a divine 2-layer cake with 2 kinds of frosting. Voilà!
YUM!
Coconut cake
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Writing is definitely not a piece of cake. It’s a much, much longer process. Often a learn-as-you-go endeavor.
Frustration and disappointment can be constant companions along the road. Getting my book published has certainly had its ups and downs. Not sure what to do next, but I will keep doing the next thing, then the next thing and keep going. Pick up my heavy heart and keep going, while self-publishing lurks in the back of my mind.
I can commiserate with my writing group. Borrow their wisdom and strength.
And when necessary, I can bake a cake and celebrate my foolish dreams or my persistence. Maybe both.
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Please note: The Cake Quartet will be reading at “It’s About Time” at the Ballard Library on Thursday, October 12 at 6 pm. Come and join us! Who knows? We might even serve cake!

Performance!

I am a writer, not a performer. However, I have done public readings, which is a form of performance when done well. Recently, I read with eleven other Seattle writers in a program called “Listen To Your Mother” (LYTM). Feeling the energy in the room from the audience and from each other, we were all transformed. We had rehearsed before the event, but everyone stepped up and gave more of themselves during the program, a performance anthology of stories about mothers and motherhood.

It was magical! See for yourself. Here’s the link to my performance. You can also watch the other fabulous writers; I still laugh and cry when I see/hear them.

 

After this performance, I began thinking about what happens during a live performance. What makes live performances so exciting? When I go to a theater or concert hall, why do I feel a little nervous, this low hum of electricity in my body that makes me breathless?

From a performer’s perspective, I want to do my best. I want to convey my story, let the words flow through my body in an expressive way that the audience can relate to. I had practiced how to use my voice for emphasis, dramatic pauses, and to include a variety of intonations. I had practiced using my body to communicate a shift in the story, to look and connect with the audience.

On the day of the performance, we lined up to get ready to go on stage. We all felt some combination of excitement and butterflies. We got the signal and began walking to our chairs. When the audience started clapping during our entry, I teared up. I thought, “They want to be here! They want to hear us!!”

We sat on the stage and gave our attention to each writer as she took the podium. We all loved each other’s stories and had quickly bonded during our few meetings. We gave each other our attention, love, and support, and we could also feel this from the audience, mostly family and friends of the writers. But they were sending positive energy to everyone, not just the one writer they knew.

When I took the podium, I was still teary from the initial welcoming and the wave of support I felt from the audience.

It’s not easy to take the stage. When artists, whether musicians, singers, dancers, actors, or writers, perform live, we are communicating our art to connect with an audience. We strive for perfection, but mistakes can happen. But so can brilliance. Anything can happen when art is being created. In the moment. Right here.

Honestly, I am more comfortable being in the audience rather than on the stage. I find it magical to watch another human making art, to let the words or the music wash over me, to feel the rhythms and sounds, to experience the story come alive with the staging, lights, sets, and costumes all working together with the performers—the various elements coming together and coalescing into something whole and unique and hitting all my sensory receptors. Even in a public setting, this experience can feel intimate, like sharing a secret.

Any time people are performing, the audience becomes an integral part of that performance. The audience is not passive. There’s social interaction with those who accompany you and perhaps with other audience members. The fact is, when someone chooses to leave the comfort of their homes to be present in a particular location, they are making a decision to interact. With other people and with the performers. It’s an unconscious contract. It’s an energy exchange, this flow from the stage to the seats in the auditorium, concert hall, or even the park; whether it’s laughing or crying, holding our breath, feeling shock, applauding or booing, the performers can feel the audience and its moods, and they respond accordingly. The audience offers both silent collaboration and dynamic, spontaneous responses.

I am so, so grateful for having had such a wonderful, supportive audience at the LTYM event. Their energy contributed to our success. They were moved. We were too. Dare I say, together we were brilliant!

Hitting the Refresh Button for May

LTYM Seattle2016 flyer

One of the big events for May is Mother’s Day. This year I was thrilled to be selected one of twelve writers for the Seattle production of “Listen To Your Mother.” We presented personal stories about our mothers or being a mother. The words originated in each writer’s heart and rang true for an appreciative crowd at Town Hall on Sat., May 7.

LTYM programs were presented in 41 cities in North America this year. That’s nearly 500 stories! Many thanks to Seattle coordinators Jill Ginsberg and Jennifer Scharf for making this amazing event happen!

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The fabulous women of “Listen To Your Mother” 2016.

I want to acknowledge the range of emotions that Mother’s Day generates for people. Not all mothers are loving. Not all mothers will inspire their children to think about them with gratitude, about buying cards and gifts, flowers and candy. People are complex, and it’s not unusual for love/hate relationships to develop between parents and children. Or it could even be worse. Like other people, mothers are capable of extreme cruelty, awful decisions, even life-threatening ones, and harmful, irrational behavior that can traumatize their children. For the children of such mothers, Mother’s Day might conjure up anything but celebration. Survival might be a more appropriate word.

Still, Mother’s Day is only one category of women.  Motherhood is a huge commitment and an enormous job. No question. Even though I have no children, I’ve observed my friends who are mothers, sometimes up close and personal. The challenges are many. This is a job that’s never done. This is a job that’s not for everyone. And many women are choosing to be childless.

Not only is Mother’s Day only for mothers and grandmothers, it is only one day out of  the year when we think about honoring women and the importance of their role in society.

Generally speaking, women should be respected and honored every day. Instead, what I’m seeing is evidence of misogyny at all levels. This concerns me. For example, on May 24, 2016, The Seattle Times featured three disturbing stories about women.

One featured Bill Cosby. Eleven years after a woman reported that Cosby sexually assaulted her, the case if finally headed to trial in Pennsylvania. For years we have been hearing about dozens of women coming forward with their allegations about Cosby’s misconduct: drugging and raping them.

Why has it taken the authorities so long? Are these women’s stories discounted because of Cosby’s celebrity status or simply because of male privilege?

The second story described the “Highway of Tears” in British Columbia where up to 50 indigenous women have disappeared or become unsolved homicides. These crimes are happening in all parts of Canada, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada estimates the number of disappearances and homicides could be closer to 4,000 instead of the official count of 1,200 cases.

If these were white women, there would be a public outcry. If these were men disappearing, resources would have been found to solve these crimes for a manhunt to  find and prosecute the perpetrators.

The third story reported about the working conditions for women employed on Wall Street. Twenty years ago, 23 women working at Smith Barney filed a class-action suit against their employer for sexual harassment and unequal pay. If you saw the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, you have a good idea about the outrageous behavior and sexism that this male-dominated culture encouraged. Almost 2,000 women eventually joined the case.

Even though Smith Barney paid out $150 million in settlements and awards, women still are frustrated today about disparities in income and promotions. In other words, conditions have not changed much. In addition, women’s hands are being tied in bringing legal action because they are required to sign away these legal rights if they want a job on Wall Street. Instead, they have to submit to mandatory arbitration.

Violence against women takes so many forms: economic, physical, emotional, cultural, medical, even judicial. It’s happening with such frequency everywhere.

In our rape culture, the latest outrage was the rape of an unconscious young woman behind a frat house at Stanford University in January 2015. Good people actually caught the rapist and he was charged. There was no question of Brock Turner’s guilt. He committed a violent crime. The prosecutor expected a sentence of six years for three felony counts. But he was a white male athlete attending a prestigious university, and the judge sentenced him to six months in prison and three months probation. Judge Aaron Persky of Santa Clara County thought this was fair. Instead, he was violating the victim once again.

White male privilege? You bet! The old boys’ network is alive and well, and violence against women will continue because apparently there are no consequences.  When will women’s lives matter in our society??

Mother’s Day. Women, let’s not be lulled into accepting this one day out of 365 when the reality is persistent and pernicious misogyny.

 

Short-listed!

Thank you to the Santa Fe Writers Project 2015 Literary Awards Program for selecting my manuscript out of nearly 500 entries for their short list!

Of course, I was hoping to win. Nevertheless, I am very thrilled with this honor. Especially since I never intended to write a book.

This is part of the magic and mystery of writing. A writer does not necessarily know where the writing will go. I started writing vignettes and personal essays about my life in Honolulu because, while many people have written about these islands, most have been white visitors, not local residents immersed in the culture. Hawai’i-born writers have been published for sure, but they are as scarce as outrigger canoes in the Pacific Northwest.

Authors Kiana Davenport, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Garrett Hongo, Sharon Hashimoto and Nora Okja Keller have represented Hawaii’s voices that are authentic. Prominent authors like James Jones, James Michener, Joan Didion, and Mark Twain have voiced their perspectives as outsiders about the islands. When I read their essays and books, I didn’t see myself or the local community in their words. I feel that no one can understand and appreciate my homeland without understanding the people who live there.

As an island girl born and raised there, I wanted to share what it was like to grow up in three cultures: Chinese, American, and Hawaiian. And so, The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir About Being Lost and Found evolved and came into being.

Comments from other book contests:

Clear, compelling, and original. I loved this story of East meets west in Hawai ‘i. The writing was compelling and easy to follow. (2015 Pacific Northwest Writers Assn. Literary Contest)

With a lovingly evocative setting, this manuscript is a delight to read. Characterization is strong, as as the atmosphere created. The author has a rare voice… (2014 Memoir Discovery Contest)

I am encouraged by these words and will continue to seek a publishing home for my manuscript. Book contests offer one avenue; I am exploring other opportunities as well. It’s all part of a writer’s journey.