It was a really humbling experience to moderate last week's panel of writers at The Book Swap Party. We had an awesome lineup of panelists, who all gave thoughtful and intelligent answers. I wish I could've gotten to some of the other questions I'd hoped to cover before the evening came to a close! On my way home, I found myself reflecting on given answers, pondering unasked questions, and coming up with extra responses to some of the subjects we did discuss that night. I wanted to share those thoughts here, in a mini post reflection, for the benefit of extending what is really an ongoing dialogue between ourselves, our art, and our respective audiences.
Challenging Myself in My Writing
I think it's important to take risks in your work and to challenge yourself to be better or to exceed your own standards. For some of the writers on the panel, their challenge was in content (being vulnerable) or in output (actually finishing things). I, on the other hand, challenge myself with form. I push myself to find new and strange ways to tell my stories, a philosophy which has effectively become the backbone of so many of my events and writing projects. Hosting galleries, making zines, experimenting with poetry - these are all the ways I challenge myself to be a better storyteller. Through pushing the boundaries of what a story can be or look like. By playing with the shape of the words, so to speak.
And, as I do so, I challenge myself to be honest. To be vulnerable and bold. To tell the stories that I need, or might have needed at some point but didn't have. On paper I am always so much more coherent and eloquent than in person, which can be a flaw at times. But it means that I owe it to myself to make sure that on the page my truest self is represented. I write for myself, but I also write for Women. When I think of who my audience is - a question I meant to pose to the panel - I think of myself and girls like and unlike me. When I was younger, I used to write letters to my future self and wait a year or two to open it. Now, when I write a memoir or an essay, it feels a lot like me as that "future self" finally writing back.
Recurring Themes & Motifs
Many of the panelists admitted that their primary focus is themselves, or that they give special attention in their work to the subject of relationships. I write about these things as well, but I feel like there's an underlying theme of detachment always present too.
I talk a lot about displacement. I write a lot about an ominous sense of limbo. I think I discuss these things at large because I always feel this existential angst, I guess? A sense of restlessness or uncertainty. It's reflected back to me in tiny, discreet ways: the way I go by two different names in my personal life and the split identity effect it creates, the anxiety of being bisexual but "asexual" too, the specific displacement of being a first-generation American. I write a lot about disassociating, about the phenomenon of feeling "more" or "less" like yourself, trying to get at the root of this feeling that you can be separate at times from even the physical or physiological nature of your own body.
It is my suspicion that on some level these are common or potentially even universal fears (yikes) of women - a sense of displacement, a grand disconnect. Between who we are and how we are regarded and perceived.
I have to reflect a lot on the subject of "who I am" so that I can translate it to my writing. A few months back, I was interviewed for the West Indian Critic blog and asked to describe the influence of my culture on my work. The question really stumped me at the time, and it's something I've tried to be more mindful of since. I think, what's been more of an influence to my work isn't my culture itself but rather, my relationship with my culture. And that relationship is a fragile and watery one. When I wrote fiction as a teenager, I was always centering my stories on Lost Girls. Girls who didn't fit in, girls made from scratch, girls who were stolen away from comfort and familiarity. In Wet Sand in An Hourglass, I focused on a series of pivotal moments that encompassed a similar theme of not belonging at home or in your own body or anywhere.
Creative & Cultural Intersections
During the panel, I also raised the question of how one's outside hobbies overlap with our stylistic approaches to storytelling. My background in DIY & Crafts, for example, lends to a very linear thinking and creative process. Then there's my interest in linguistics, which makes me comfortable experimenting with things like word order, sentence fragments and punctuation. I like thinking in straight lines, and my interests reflect that and seep into my style...so lately I've been playing with anachronism and fragmented storytelling: trying to dismantle my approach and get at the root of something different and new by "subverting form".
These struggles and challenges are present for most creatives. There's this constant need to push ourselves in our narratives, to hold ourselves accountable to higher standards of quantity, quality, or style. In my opinion, it's valuable to hold up a lens to what shapes us and the work we produce, and that can be in the form of looking for the markers of culture or the intersections of our various passions.
For 2017, I want to get more ambitious and produce double or triple what I did in 2016. I want to continue Bedtime Stories, write new zines, and acquire funding to aid me in hosting more events. I'm excited for what my own drive can achieve and excited for new opportunities and connections the future may bring.
Self Publishing & Validation
Last week's panel included scientists, musicians, photographers, bloggers and poets and novelists. But the common denominator was that everyone was an individual who had taken themselves seriously enough to take matters into their own hands when it was time to publish their stories. Unfortunately, we didn't get to cover all the logistics of producing a book, but we spoke briefly about formatting (tricky for some but not all; personally I paid for a template to save myself the headache) and using CreateSpace for paperback distribution through Amazon. A while back, I spoke to Published Magazine about my journey with self-publishing:
Being able to have final say on the layout, the release date, the cover art and detailing was important to me. It made what was already a labor of vulnerability even more candid. Self-publishing, despite the 'self' in the name, can (and often is) a group effort as you find beta readers, cover designers, and as you consult with others for feedback along the way.
But what happens
if no one reads it?"
Back in December, this guy I know asked me to speak to a friend of his who was writing a book but had suddenly found herself discouraged. I happily obliged because I love networking and supporting women! The guy put us in a group chat together and I introduced myself and asked her what issues she was having. I expected to talk about plot or writer's block or something about the actual work of producing a book. It's certainly not an easy thing to undertake.
To my surprise, she said to me, "I want my book to reach 800,000 women but I'm worried it won't go anywhere."
Naturally I was taken aback. "You can't base whether or not to write something on how many people might read it."
"Yes, but I want my book to change lives. Do you think it's worth writing?"
During the panel, we had briefly raised the same question: if no one reads it, was it worth writing?
And you know, it's a lot like the question about the tree that falls in the forest. And the answer is yes. Of course it makes a sound; of course it's worth writing. You can't control who will or won't buy your book or read it from start to finish. That's certainly not something to preoccupy yourself with in the writing stage, before there's even a book to read. You develop an idea, you see it through, and you release it. And then you do your best to see to it that it reaches who it's meant for aka marketing.
Marketing is a huge part of self-publishing and can be a struggle. It helps a lot to have a fan base before your book is even out, just to generate buzz and excitement. Having a website or blog, being active on social media, being a Real Live Person people can follow, connect with, and interact with--it makes a difference. It gets people engaged in the You part, it makes them invested in listening to what you have to say, and it means they'll care that you wrote a book. Marketing is an uphill battle and not necessarily an easy thing. I don't exactly anticipate ever being #Famous on Twitter / IG / Tumblr, but I recognize they're important platforms to be active on, and I appreciate the community and network they can offer.
But my validation doesn't come in the form of sales and profits, though it's nice to get emails about a new purchase. I get gratification from the feedback people give me, from the words of gratitude they share. "Thank you for writing this," people say to me. "Thank you for putting this into words for me." I can't think of a compliment more humbling than that. It makes me feel like I'm saying something that matters, and that's probably the reassurance we're all seeking at the end of the day.
As I move forward in my writing journey,
I want to take with me the inspiration of being surrounded by so many like-minded, creative and vibrant spirits. To me, the great thing about coming forward to speak and present and moderate is that it helps to realign you with your message, and I felt like I needed that. It's a new year, a "new beginning" in some sense at least, and I want to continue down this path. So I am SUPER thankful to everyone who came out and excited to see what I surprise myself with next to top what is now my latest milestone.