Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Why I Do What I Do

Writing can be a lonely business. We writers spend a lot of time alone, thinking, dreaming, percolating ideas, taking walks to get inspired... We sit at our desk, alone, or at the kitchen counter by ourselves with our coffee, or at least I do. And we write and write when the ideas begin to flow. Sometimes we don't know who our audience will be, or even if our book will be read by anyone. Or if it will even become a book. But we write anyway, because we have to.We often will never know how our work affects people. In my case, I always hope to inspire and educate through my writing. And sometimes we get to see how the fruits of our labor pays off.

And sometimes, we reach just the right person. The one we may have written the book for.

That's what happened to me on a recent author visit to a school in Maryland. An entire high school read my novel Weeping Under This Same Moon. 400 kids and teachers and even parents! That in itself was incredible. Even better, I was invited to spend two full days talking to students and writing with them, answering their questions about the writing process and the story itself. I met with all four grades, spending most of my time with the senior class. At night, I gave a talk to an auditorium full of students, administrators, teachers and parents. I spoke about what it was like to be a teenage volunteer working with Vietnamese refugees, and how it changed my life, informed my life, perhaps even
saved it. Then I invited a very special guest to Skype in. The cover girl from my book, now a beautiful young woman, a doctor. She told her story. How she escaped with her older sister, my main character, Mei. How she was cold and frightened and how that experience informed her life. And how my friendship with her and her family changed everything for them.

We invited the audience to talk, or ask questions, and they did. Toward the end of the evening, a woman came up to the mic. She was the mother of one of the students. She was in tears. She took a deep breath and shakily told her story. She, too, had been a "Boat person" - a Vietnamese refugee. She had never shared her story in public, but hearing "Linh" speak about her experience, gave her the courage. By the end of her story, we were all in tears. She had been through much trauma which she relived on a daily basis. She thanked me for my book and we hugged. She thanked "Linh" in Vietnamese and went back to her seat.

The next day, I received a beautiful card from her telling me that being there and being able to feel safe enough to share her story was the most healing experience of her life.

Experiences like this one affirm why I do what I do. Writing is my passion, and if my writing can touch someone this deeply, I know my purpose.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dreamers Needed

I'm just coming off two weeks of INTENSE writing. First, a week-long writer's retreat in the heart of the Catskills, where I wrote uninterrupted for HOURS a day, taking breaks for meals, sumptuous meals, fed to us by cooks who understand the hunger of writers. And the aversion to cooking when you are in a flow. 

Five of us, including two poets, a screenwriter and a two novelists, wrote our collective butts off.

Then plunging right into facilitating a week long writing workshop called Write The Change, with Jennifer Browdy.
 Jennifer and I worked with five amazing writers, delving deep into our individual and collective psyches to become writers for change. Topics ranged from depression to the joy of reawakening the creative self, from global climate change to immigrant reform and refugee issues. Mostly allowing our voices to be heard and our words to be read. 
Here's an example of my own work from an exercise I learned from Renaissance House founder, Abigail McGrath. 
Write a letter to your younger self. Choose a time in your life, young child or teen when you could have used some advice. What would you tell your younger self. Look into her eyes and talk to her. 
Letter to my younger self: 17 and angry
Oh Jana, Jana. Look at you, with that furrowed brow. It’s going to cause you wrinkles if you keep scrunching your face like that. Come, sit beside me and I’ll tell you a secret. There’s more good in people than you can imagine. You think no one understands you, and maybe you’re right. But they will. Believe me, one day they will. Because as much as you might not believe it, everyone is going through something. They may just hide it well. 
Here’s what I want you to know. The world needs people like you in it. Dreamers. You belong with the Eagle spirits, the dreamers, the artists and visionaries, the music makers, the writers and poets. Your dreams soar far and wide. Let them fly. Don’t try to ground them. Sit by the window, and stare out into the sky, forming stories. It’s OK. Wander into the woods and watch a spider build its web. It’s OK. Walk the rocky shore, dive into the salty waves, imagining you are the dolphin. It’s OK. The world needs people like you in it. 
There will be those who don’t understand your dreaming nature, try to put you in a box and make you conform, but you can’t change your nature, and you don’t have to. So relax that furrowed brow, and when you look at the people around you who try to put you in their box, just say, thank you, no. I’m OK. The world needs people like me in it.
Our next task was to write a bit about the process of writing these letters to self. And as I wrote about my process, I really took those thoughts and feelings deep into my being and owned them. It really is OK to be a dreamer. There is a place in the world for dreamers. That's when the tears began to flow.  
Our "students" told us how much they loved the fact that we were writing alongside them. I can't imagine any instructor not doing that. I'm sure I got as much out of the workshop as they did, and I'm ready to do it all over again. I am inspired!
Here are a few words from Write The Change participants that just came into our inbox:
"WOW! Thank you! I can't thank you enough, Jennifer and Jana for all your support, but mostly for the feeling of warmth and love from the group. To be able to share my story was huge for me. I feel for the first time that I can share my story to help others..."

"Jennifer and Jana, I really appreciated how you framed the classes with prompts, writing, sharing, quotes and feedback. It feels like you had a strong intention of helping each of us reach a point of clarity towards our own personal next steps towards writing the change we want to see. I know it happened for me..."

So gratifying. 
The tagline of my email is Gandhi's quote, "Be the change you want to see in the world." I look at that quote everyday as I send out emails, and I wonder if I can actually be that change. 
Maybe I can.