Yesterday I wrote a post about novels by people of color I read in 2014, most of which I haven’t seen in any end of the year list circulating on my Facebook feed. It was lovely to end the year with that post, which was appreciated by my small, but growing community of readers, and brought these books to the attention of many who don’t really read this blog of scattered thoughts. So, I thought I’d start 2015 with a list of first lines from 9 short story collections written by people of color I read last year. I started this list with a collection of Octavia Butler’s stories because. That’s the end of that sentence.
Amtrak just announced they are offering free writing residencies! It’s totally brilliant. It’s a train, but it’s quiet, with tables, plugs, and best of all, most of them are long distance ones, so you have hours upon hours of uninterrupted writing time.
The story of how Amtrak decided to make this happen is equally as fantastic as the idea itself. And just one more reason I love twitter. In an interview for PEN America, author Alexander Chee made what was probably an offhand comment: “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” in the midst of talking about his favorite places to write, which also included public libraries.
One NYC based writer, Jessica Gross, also read the interview, but unlike my reaction, which was to do nothing, she decided to tweet at Amtrak to make this writing residency thing happen. My tweet from the same day was me moaning about how Sona says I can’t wear brown trousers with a black cardigan or the universe will be destroyed. Amazingly, Amtrak responded to her tweet (nobody responded to mine. Not even Sona) and asked if she was down for a trial run. She took Amtrak on a long distance trip to Chicago and back. She wrote about the experience for the Paris Review in a post named after the journey, Writing the Lakeshore Limited.
What I really like about Amtrak’s approach to the writing residencies is that they’re not being all hoighty-toighty about what constitutes a writer, and for now at least are considering unpublished authors, journalists, bloggers, and published authors. There doesn’t seem to be much of a system in place for how writers are chosen, but it’s a nice start. This is what it says about the residency:
Amtrak Residency was designed to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment. Round-trip train travel will be provided on an Amtrak long-distance route. Each resident will have use of a private sleeping roomette, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration. Onboard meals will also be offered to all residents in the dining car aboard the train.
Here’s the link to the actual residency application for the #AmtrakResidency: http://blog.amtrak.com/amtrakresidency/
What do you think of the Amtrak Residency? Would you commute for 39 hours just to write?
It’s been firmly established that I suck at self imposed deadlines. I graduated from the CUNY Writers’ Institute in May, and since then, I have done absolutely nothing relating to my writing. And I’m not exaggerating, even if you count the time I went to a coffee shop, with the intention of revising my chapter. But as soon as I ordered a chocolate croissant warmed up, it all went to hell. To hell, I say. I’d like to think that the Writers’ Institute has instilled me with some sort of work ethic, but unfortunately it has not. If there is no threat of humiliation from other students and fancy pant editors, nothing gets done. Some of my classmates from the Writers’ Institute, who are also feeling this same way have formed a writing group fittingly called The Stockholm Syndrome Writer’s Collective (#SSWC), but have yet to meet, so I’ll let you know how that goes.
It’s a repeat performance of years past. From moments, days, months, and unfortunately years, after my MFA, writing conferences, panels, or writing workshops I’ve been a part of. Fortunately, my wife, Sona, shares my madness, and sometimes we go to creative writing panels and conferences together. There is a momentary high where we are invigorated and excited about getting to our writing, but after a promising start, it dies out to things like the art of the hustle a.k.a. freelance writing, adjuncting, paying bills, consuming mass media and generally spending way too much time waffling about in front of the telly or the computer. We have pangs of guilt, but it’s become a part of the cycle.
This current cycle was particularly painful because it happened through muffled screams, in slow motion, where the writing, routine, deadlines came to a screeching halt, and I predicted it would happen the second my last workshop at the CUNY Writers’ Institute ended. This is not to say I just let it happen. In a frenzy, the week before my reading, I stayed up six nights in a row like a crackhead to revise two short stories and two novel chapters that had gone through some pretty intense workshops. But after my reading, despite plans to make a routine and get shit done, everything came to an abrupt halt. That state of restlessness, guilt, the stress of inertia, it all returned.
I wish I was one of those people who could plan out their day and just pencil in 2 hours of writing time, or spend an entire day just writing. But I’m not that bloke. I’m the other bloke, who says, “but first, let me check my email.”
Me and Sona are currently participating in Michelle Rafter’s Wordcount Blogathon (Day 3 yo!) and even involved my dad, Pashaura Singh Dhillon, a 74 year old Punjabi poet. It’s an exciting process to be forced to write everyday. And my blog posts are long, in case you couldn’t tell, so for the past few days I’ve logged in about 1500- 2000 words a day on narrative blog posts on this site and over at ishqinabackpack.com. As much as it’s kicking my ass, it’s a lot of fun just sitting the fuck down and writing. It’s also been fun connecting with other bloggers and readers online.
I’m stretched thin already with completing the blogathon with this site and our travel site (ishqinabackpack.com), starting a summer teaching blogging and fiction gig, and in the midst of selling our place and buying a new one. So being the practical parents that we are, we thought what better time to add a Novel Writing Chapter Challenge to the mix in 30 day cycles? Also read Sona’s blog post on the chapter challenge).
30 Day WordCount Chapter Challenge
The challenge is open to novel writers of any genre. The purpose is to devise a plan that works for you. A chapter a week. If you’re a maniac, a chapter a day. 1000 words a day. 2000 a day. x amount per week. A 30 minute writing sprint. five sessions of 500 words per session. Whatever works for you. The official hashtag on twitter is #chapterchallenge, but we’ll also be using existing ones like #amwriting and #writingsprint. If there are others you’re using, just make sure you use it in conjunction with #chapterchallenge.
1) Follow us on twitter @navdeep_dhillon and @Sona_C
2) Like us on our Fan Pages: Navdeep | Sona
3) During the 30 day cycle, every Monday, I will post a weekly Chapter Challenge Reflection post, where I will write about my writing week. You will do the same on your website or blog. Link back to me. Easy Peasy.
4) Connect with me and Sona via twitter using the official hashtag #chapterchallenge.
5) There will also be scheduled twitter gangsta parties before each cycle and after. If you’ve never participated in a twitter chat, sign in to this website with your twitter ID on the day of the chat: www.tweetchat.com.
Cycle #1: The very first 3o Day Novel Writing Chapter Challenge starts on Monday, June 10th and ends on Wednesday, July 10th, because we couldn’t get our shit together before June 1st.
What Won’t Happen
- – We can’t connect you to agents, editors, or anyone in a position of power. We can’t even claim to know a guy who knows a guy . . .
- – We’re not in any position to help you get published, but know a guy, who has read a book. We can tell you about the book.
- – Don’t send us anything. Unless it’s money. Or British chocolate. Or whisky. Those things we will never ever say no to, especially the last two.
- Badges – You want badges, we got badges. Just not yet. Okay, probably not for a while. But once we do, you can be sure they will look spectacular. Like fireworks. They’ll explode on the screen and things will catch on fire, a bunch of shit will be destroyed. Great for parties.
- June 8th ChapterChallenge Twitter chat – Most likely, it’ll just be me and Sona hanging out in the twitter chat. But hopefully some more folks will join in. It will take place Thursday, June 6, at 6 p.m. Pacific time/9 p.m Eastern time. What, you got better things to do on a Thursday evening? The chat will last about half an hour. Unless shit gets crazy. Then who knows? We’ll be using the hashtag #chapterchallenge. If you’ve never participated in a twitter chat, check out this website: www.tweetchat.com.
- July 11 Gangsta Party and Twitter chat – Once the challenge is over, we’ll give everyone who participated a link to an image they can use on their sites (if you have them) based The blogathon ends on Sunday, June 30. All June 30 posts must be published by 8 p.m. Pacific time in order to give the blogathon crew time to verify the results. The wrap party will take place on Monday, July 1, at 10 a.m. Pacific time/1 p.m. Eastern. We’ll share what we liked and learned, then announce raffle prize winners.
Design your own prizes. I’m getting taken out to a speakeasy in NYC and barbeque by Sona for each cycle. Right, Sona? Good. Glad that’s sorted. The real prize is a sense of accomplishment, as small as it may seem at first, that you completed 30 days of noveling and made some fucking progress instead of moping around, bitching to yourself or on facebook and twitter about how you should be writing more (or at all!), #sadface.
Write a response to the chapter challenge every Monday during the cycle in progress on your own online spaces. Link back here. That’s it. It’ll be more fun if you have twitter and facebook, but if you’re a person that hates fun, then that’s all you have to do. If you’re a person who likes fun, on the other hand, then pop back up to “Basics” and do everything there. Remember, the very first session starts June 10th.
As the curtain draws on 2010, I thought I’d give you a list of my favourite books of the year . The way I chose these books is a very scientific methodology; sometimes I pick up a book because I like the font, other times because I’ve heard something about the author or the subject, but most of the time I’ve chosen books at random from one of many bookstore dates me, Sona, and our now ten month old daughter –Kavya – routinely go to in New York, New Jersey, or California. In no particular order:
1. Serious Men by Manu Joseph
This highly underrated story explores caste issues using humor. Think of him as a funny Rohinton Mistry. The main character, Ayyan Mani, is a middle-aged member of the “untouchable” Dalit Community, working as an assistant to a brilliant Brahmin astronomer in Bombay. Discouraged by his position in society and in his career, he concocts a small lie at first – that his ten-year-old son is a genius. The lies start piling up and reach epic, but utterly hilarious, proportions.
2. The Sea by John Banville
The writing in any of John Banville’s books is just breathtaking, but “the sea” is my all time favourite that I just picked up a week ago in Fresno, California. It feels almost like poetry, rather than fiction. Here are two examples taken from the first paragraph: “The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed, by the spectcle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam.” And “Someone has just walked over my grave. Someone.”
3. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
I picked this book up on a complete whim, in a mad dash at Borders Bookstore near Penn Station in New York City, enticed by the pretty picture on the cover. I absolutely loved it. Couldn’t put it down. It is a straightforward story with no fancy sleight of hand in the narrative, but with great depth in the characters and the story. The story is, fittingly, about Major Pettigrew, a refined widowed Englishman with a yuppie son who has no interest in his father’s traditional values. Major Pettigrew befriends Jasmina Ali, the local Pakistani shopkeeper, who he seems to have nothing in common with at first. A brilliant read, which just so happens to be a debut novel.
4. The Way Things Look to Me by Roopa Farooki
I’ve read all of Roopa Farooki’s novels, and while I wasn’t particularly fond of her debut novel, “bitter sweets,” I did appreciate the writing and the effort she put in avoiding clichés that are rampant in many stories involving stories with Asian characters. The Way Things Look to Me is a very ambitious novel that I was initially wary of as soon as I saw hints of the main character, Yasmin, having autism with “high performing Aspergers Syndrome.” She turns out to be an autistic savant who can calculate complicated mathematical equations in her head and picks up languages very quickly. There wasn’t a hint of cliché in the storyline, or with any of the characters, which I was pleasantly surprised by. Roopa had done her research in effectively creating a character who did two very bold things: 1) she happened to be brown and 2) she happened to be autistic. This is an incredible feat to have accomplished.
5. The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
To call this a “holocaust” story is like calling Hamlet a murder-mystery. Not only is this well-written, but it rips straight to the heart of the holocaust. That these horrific things happened to people of varying moral character; some were busy thinking deep thoughts and being serious, running businesses, and others were busy falling in love. I don’t want to give away the plot on this one, but read this. It will be well worth the time. And you’ll learn something (but don’t let that discourage you!)
6. Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
This is so far off base from the kinds of books I read, that I am surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Even books I randomly pull of shelves don’t cover subjects I have zero interest in. This book is about horses. Don’t run away, yet. There is more. And yes, this was randomly pulled off the shelf. It is a novel with the backdrop of a racetrack with amazingly, no horseracing clichés. There’s even a brief moment of the horse voted most likely to fail having a chance at clichéd redemption, only to fail big time. The story delves into the relationship between horse and handler and is set at an incredibly dodgy (in the worst sense of the word) racetrack in West Virginia during the 1970s.
7. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
With very few exceptions (Doctor Zhivago is at the top of this short list), I am not a fan of war novels, particularly those about the Vietnam War. They always seem to get sucked into sentimentality and a sense of hope, when there really is none on the battlefield. Matterhorn captures the trauma of war like a raw nerve. The writing is beautiful and poetic at time, and blood curdling at others; there are heroic incidents that miraculously don’t delve into sentimentality.
by Jonathan Franzen
Despite the “controversy” surrounding Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel, Freedom, via twitter by Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The voice is crisp and the use of various narrative strategies to tell the seemingly simple story of a couple whose marriage is disintegrating, is pure genius. And the icing on the cake: One of the characters (yes, it’s the womanizer) lives in Jersey City and takes the PATH train. Reprezentin.
Those of you who have read even some of what I’ve written on this blog can assess that I am an avid fan of existentialism and love stories that dissect and question our entire existence based on impulsive acts. And who doesn’t enjoy completely unnecessary violence. This story has absolutely stunning imagery, from the descriptions of animals, woodworking, even observations of life take on a scenic texture. The story is about a good Christian man who is faced with a moral dilemma and impulsively resorts to acting violent. This act of violence is witnessed only by a dog. The rest of the novel follows Paul as he questions his entire existence and his moral compass because of this one act. It is very remniscent of his other novel, “A Ship Made of Paper.”
10. World Without End by Ken Follett
Ten years ago, I read Ken Follett’s groundbreaking novel, “Pillars of the Earth,” and remember how vividly I remembered every single character and voraciously read through the entire 1000 page novel in two sleepless nights. My mother probably thought I was on drugs when she saw the redness of my eyes! World Without End written twenty years after Pillars of the Earth is not really a sequel, but takes place in the same town and after all of the original characters are dead. Some of the main characters are heavily referenced, such as Jack Builder, and there is evidence of very similar characters in this book. And of course, the mandatory rape scene committed by a character who will not get punished for his deeds, but will end up being sad and lonely as a punishment.