Why self-care matters for writers

Tree with sky

Sometimes people tell me it must have taken “a lot of discipline” to spend seven years writing a book.

Nah.  I hate the word “discipline.” It sounds like torture to me:  the helpless writer handcuffed to the keyboard! eschewing all forms of pleasure! in the service of the Great Puritan God of Literature!

Ick, ick!  I don’t want to live in a nunnery, subsisting on dry breadcrusts and water which I have to share with the skinny white mice who are my only companions behind iron bars of penitence.

I prefer my writing hours to be fueled by enthusiasm, desire, excitement, joy, great food, treats, an inspiring environment, and/or an urgent need to figure everything out.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way.  My seven years were a kind of self-torture: I got stuck and blocked, I tried to handcuff myself to the desk, I cursed and got up and did loads of laundry instead — and I filled my cup with self-loathing as I wished that I had what real writers must have, that golden halo called “discipline.”

Through all that, I learned some things — about writing, and mostly about myself.

I learned that yes, writing is tough.  There is a reason that more people “want to write” than actually do write. But that reason isn’t what I’d thought.

Many of my coaching clients come in saying something like, “I’m just lazy, I have the time and I have the space, I don’t know why I don’t write…”

I know why.

It’s not the straw man we call “laziness,” nor its cousin, “lack of discipline.”

What’s causing them, or me, to freeze up before we even begin is fear.

For this ailment, I don’t prescribe discipline.  I urge extreme self-care.

Clients often don’t want to hear this. They fear that if they go too soft on themselves, they’ll never get anything done. What they need, they think, is discipline.

This might be true for something like, say, a cardio workout. (I wouldn’t know — heh.)

For writing, I learned the hard way that the opposite is true.  The idea of Discipline, far from helping me make progress, trapped and stunted me.

The more we push, the less chance we have to flower.

If a seed is given good soil and plenty of water and sun, it doesn’t have to try to unfold, it doesn’t need self-confidence or self-discipline or perseverance. It just unfolds. It can’t help unfolding.

If a seed has to grow with a rock on top of it, or in deep shade or without enough water, it won’t unfold into a healthy sized plant. It will try — hard — because the drive to become what you are meant to be is incredibly powerful. But at its best it will become a sort of ghost of what it could be. In a way, that’s what most of us are.

—Barbara Sher, *Wishcraft*

Now I don’t strive for “discipline.” When I’m terrified, I work on the fear. I try to write into it — toward, not away from, what’s scariest. I trust that as I begin to move through fear, I’ll have no trouble putting in the hours. When I am juiced, it’s hard to tear myself away for things like, you know, meals. Or people. Or even laundry.

Now I believe in nurturing not only the writing, but also the writer.

Learning to be gentle with myself was the best gift of my seven years of “discipline.”

Reading for Memoirists — updated!

I’m a HUGE believer in learning from other writers. When I wrote Leaving India, which is only partly a memoir, I read a LOT in order to understand how other writers managed and structured their gut-spilling so that it didn’t look as horribly messy as it all felt. In Blueprint Your Book, I love witnessing the memoir writers go through the biggest breakthroughs — it’s so amazing when they finally know how to shape their own stories.

Below is a list of memoirs that I recommend for writers approaching their own memoirs — sorted into various headings based on what you might be able to learn from them. (Many could go under multiple headings, though!)

(Sparked by request from my fantastic memoir students of VONA 2012 and updated erratically every since…)

Memoir about or including other people

Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro; essays by 25 writers, including several listed below, on navigating the fraught emotional and literary territory of family history, including ethical dilemmas and practical strategies 

Black Is the Body: Stories From My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard, winner of the Christopher Isherwood prize; multigenerational memoir in the form of linked essays

Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid
My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid

Does Your House Have Lions by Sonia Sanchez — a book of linked poems centering around her brother’s death of complications of AIDS; weaves different family/ancestral voices

The Bishop’s Daughter by Honor Moore — a woman writes about being the bisexual daughter of a closeted gay bishop; silences in the family

Who She Was: My Search for My Mother’s Life by Sam Freedman — totally research-based with personal reflection only at the beginning and end; great model for the kinds of research you can do for memoir

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel — graphic novel format, memoir about her father; now a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical!

Memoir with landscape/location as a character

Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai’i by Garrett Hongo

Epitaph for a Peach by David Mas Masumoto

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

Talking to High Monks in the Snow: An Asian American Odyssey by Lydia Minatoya

Memoir with relevant content for some folks

Books of the other VONA teachers, obviously — especially Elmaz Abinader and Faith Adiele for political/international content

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion — on death and grief

The Long Journey by Natalie Goldberg — on grief, multiple losses of marriage/father/zen teacher

Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog — this is more in the older genre of autobiography rather than what we think of as a modern literary memoir — on surviving battle/genocide

Night by Elie Wiesel — sparse and fragmented narrative of a teenage boy caring for his father in Nazi concentration camps 1944-45

One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry — graphic  memoir; monsters from childhood trauma

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil — not a memoir, actually, but read for the mesmerizing passages of drug use/hallucination/disassociation

Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life  by Samhita Mukhopadhyay — feminist deconstruction of dating, with some memoiristic content

Nonfiction with experimental/interesting structure

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch — gorgeous book that the author calls an “anti-memoir”; as the title indicates, it has a nontraditional shape and moves across many time periods fluidly; notable for its depiction of the lifelong aftermath of trauma, without revealing or uncovering the original trauma itself

A Cup Full of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez — a memoir in the form of linked essays spanning the author’s entire lifetime; topics include family members, religion, ethnicity, queerness, and her stint at the New York Times

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald —  on the line between fiction and nonfiction, structured as 4 biographies but they add up to something amazing; impact of a historical trauma many decades afterward

A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War by Susan Griffin — stunning poetic political memoir/feminist meditation that weaves in meticulous research and moves across many locations and timeframes

“Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide by Sven Lindqvist — gorgeous first-person fragmented memoir/travel narrative/political critique/meditation on history

Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas by Lawrence Weschler — biographies of refugee-artists

Memoirs by poets

Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood by June Jordan

The Winged Seed: A Remembrance by Li-Young Lee

Bhanu Kapil — all of her books (prose/poetry) are beautiful models with interesting structures; she teaches at Naropa; her blog (also, for those interested in experimental and cross-genre writing, Naropa in Colorado is a good place to check out for summer workshops and MFA)

Old-school powerful biomythographies from women of color

Everyone, but especially any woman of color in America writing a memoir, should read these — they are our canon:

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston

Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldua

Other resources

Kristina Wong, one-woman show “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — comedic show about being Chinese-American and mental illness

Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk — on working through & with trauma, one’s own or other people’s

Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg — books by on freewriting and writing as a practice

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron — a great practical guide for writers and artists


Want more memoir help? Book your free mini-consultation today, and let’s chat about what you need.

Wondering how to structure your own memoir or book?  Check out these five great story structures.

A book is not a tweet (or: Rewriting)

I have been following my friend Mary Anne’s excellent blog which, amazingly, she is keeping up while on an artists’ residency.  Today she posted about realizing that she might need to totally rewrite many passages in her work-in-progress:  “The somewhat mindless drudgery and exactitude that is also part of making art.”

I wrote this comment on her blog (and then realized I have even more to say about this):

I went through 20-30 drafts of every chapter of my book.  It seems incredible to me now, and somewhat insane, but really I couldn’t have let it go any other way.  And it got way better every single time.  I’m judging a literary prize now, reading back-to-back fiction, and I *really* wish some of these authors had gone through their book at the finetuning-the-language level a couple more times.  The comparison with visual artists (& musicians, etc) is a good one. It can be exciting to get fast about writing, especially when kicking out those early drafts (yay word count! thousands! tens of thousands!). And all of us do so much casual writing, blogging, emails, whatever, that it’s easy to get a bit casual about it, I think. But a  book is not a tweet 🙂 … I’m so happy you have the time to sink into your writing right now.  It’s making me remember what is so fantastic about a residency, and long for some residency time myself!

When I’m teaching, I try to get students to freewrite, nice and fast and easy — letting go of inhibitions.  I do most of my first drafting longhand, freewriting, just like that.  For beginning writers, and for any writers beginning something, it feels like a fantastic way to work. I loved the experience of drafting 50,000 words of my novel in a single November — what a rush!

But later everything slows down.  When I’m lucky it’s not stuck, mucky, yucky, muddy, confused slow — but sweet, afternoon light, chocolate sauce, lazyday, lovemaking slow.  That’s the juicy part of my process: rewriting, writing over the old scripts, finding connections, making new leaps.  Getting my fingers into the text.  Moving a section, a paragraph, a sentence.  Moving it again.  Finding a better word.  Finding the best word.

Because I do this work so slowly, I sometimes have to wrestle my inner Productivity Monster, who — shaped by Capitalism — has a definite preference for the ever-climbing word count.  (“WHAT? We’re taking OUT words now? But that’s a minus … a deficit … oh no the word count is going in the RED! Just like the stock market!  What if we lose the house??”)

So I love the (possibly apocryphal) story about Flaubert who, when asked how his work was going, is said to have replied, “Wonderful.  I spent the morning putting in a comma — and then I spent the afternoon removing it.”

To me that doesn’t feel like drudgery.  It’s the definition of luxury.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), post-Madame Bovary

Update on Werewolves

Today I was very happy that the internets gave me a new, hip poem with the above title by one of my favorite authors: here.

This is awesome because:

(1) It’s an update on werewolves, ok?  Yeah.  By definition: awesome.

(2) The author, Margaret Atwood, is 72 years old, has 332,495 Twitter followers right this minute, and has published 13 novels + 15 poetry collections + a bunch of other books — and she is Trying New Technologies that I have never heard of.  (Meanwhile, I may still be too tech-skeered to get an iPhone.) This poem, for example, is on a new self-publishing platform/community called WattPad.

Most people know Margaret Atwood as the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, which became a film starring Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall.

She  is an awesome writerly role model for me because she writes fantastic, super-popular, feminist, subversive novels, many of which are set in alternate realities.  I was talking about Atwood earlier today to a client who is writing an awesome speculative fiction novel. (Beloved client: the books I was telling you about are Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake, and I was thinking of the storyline involving the God’s Gardeners, a small community of survivors of a planetary biological catastrophe.)

That is all for now, except:

Yes, I am aware that I say “awesome” more than the average citizen of the planet.  This is because I am an American, unlike Margaret Atwood who is Canadian.  Canadians, by the way, are awesome, eh?

Hope you, dear reader, have an awesome day, and do watch this if you have a couple of minutes to get pleasantly spooked:

Book trailer for Wolf Girls: Dark Tales of Teeth, Claws, and Lycogyny (2012)

Summertime Sale: Perfecting Your Proposal

Are you sweating over a grant proposal, project description, business document, or artist statement?  I can help!  I’m running a special offer that includes both strategic advice and detailed line editing of your important document, up to six pages (perfect for Fulbright applicants). You can use my services at any time — no expiration date — as long as you book and pay before July 15, 2012.

The awesome deal:

For just $310, you can get a jump on those fall deadlines AND make your summer more relaxing with:

  • a content edit of your first draft, including comprehensive written feedback that you can refer to later as you revise (normally $150 for 6 pages);
  • two half-hour coaching calls with me (normally $120 per hour); and
  • a content edit of your second draft, OR a triple-read line edit to polish your final draft (normally $180 for 6 pages).

That’s $310 for a $450 value — a savings of 31%.


As a professional editor with two decades of experiences, I’ll listen to your ideas, help you identify the best way to present them, and then make your prose perfect. I’ve successfully created grant proposals for multimillion dollar projects for various agencies. My proposals for my own projects have earned me a six-figure book deal, career promotions, artist residencies, and multiple fellowships including a Fulbright. Most importantly, I love uncovering the gems in your ideas so that your proposal is not only compelling and correct, but also irresistible.

You’ll end up with a polished document that reflects your fantastic idea, and that you can use again and again.

Ready to save time, money, and effort?

Fantastic! Just send $310 via Paypal to hajratwala [at] gmail [dot] com, and then email me with your project details and deadlines.  I’m excited to work with you.  Don’t forget to lock in this special discount rate before July 15!

Questions? Not sure?

Ask me whether working with me would be right for your proposal.  Just tell me a little about your idea and yourself, and we can go from there.

Thinking global?

If your project involves international travel, why not consider a Fulbright? It’s not just for academics, so check out Everything I know about YOUR Fulbright chances and see if you could qualify! Deadlines are in August and October.

Wishing you a wonderful summer,



Project creep — or, the saga of the ever-expanding fruit salad

As a consultant, I’m always hypervigilant about “project creep.”

I try to gain a clear idea of the client’s needs, write my scope of work accurately, and get everyone to agree up front that apples, oranges, and cherries are part of the project — while mangos, guavas, and dragonfruit most definitely are not.

But sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, a project just grows. And expands. There are kumquats, after all; those are just weird little oranges, right? What about pluots?  We forgot to account for pluots.  And before you know it, you’re putting in double the hours for the same amount of money.

Recently, I turned in what I thought was a near-final product, about 40 pages of material, with just some fine-tuning left to work out.  The client disagreed, and shared with me a sample of the document they’d wanted — twice as long, and nothing like the model documents I’d been given at the beginning.

Well.  I confess, I definitely had my moment of Grrr.

But because it was an honest misunderstanding, and because I’d already put in too much work to pull out, and because I trusted their intentions, and because I believed in the work they were doing and was hoping for a longterm relationship, I agreed to complete the extra work at the same fee.  Even though I knew it would take many, many more pages and hours than we’d estimated.

I delivered their material last week:  150 pages of writing, mostly original, including various worksheets, case studies, and so on.

It was, if I say so myself, a fantastic fruit salad.  I believe there were even pomegranate seeds.

We scheduled a final project meeting.

Then I waited.

Now, any writer who’s turned in something — whether it’s a manuscript, a hack job, or even just what you hope is your cleverest Facebook status update ever — knows the feeling of waiting for feedback.  I’ve gotten used to it over the years, and it’s no longer that nail-biting, bed-of-nails feeling.  But there’s always some trepidation.  A writer never really knows, after all, until a reader clicks “Like.”

At the meeting, the firm’s founder told me how delighted she was with the work.  It was fantastic, she said.  She couldn’t wait to start using the documents for the business.  She definitely wanted to work with me on other projects, and we talked about the exciting things coming up on her plate.

Then she asked me how much time I’d put in to create her gorgeous fruit salad.  I told her honestly.

And right there, she decided to pay me a third more than our agreed-upon fee.

I must have been grinning like a fool.  Because when does that ever happen to a consultant?  Umm, pretty much — never?  In nearly 12 years of various kinds of freelance and consulting work, it’s never happened to me before.  More often (thankfully, not too often for me — I’ve had it happen to consultant friends frequently, though) a client will receive an invoice and start nitpicking:  Did we really need that mint leaf garnish?  I’m not sure I meant to pay for both strawberries and raspberries…

What it means for our relationship is that this client now at the top of my priority list.  I’ll think of freebies to send her when I can.  And even when I’m juggling jackfruit, I’ll try to say yes to her need for a handcrafted organic plum ceviche.

OK, that fruit metaphor is getting … overripe.  (Bwahahahah!  Sorry!)

But anyway, my point is:

1.  I’m happy and grateful to have such clients to work with.  It makes up for the ones who haven’t paid their invoices for … um … so long that I’d have to go look it up.

2. I’m left thinking, When was the last time I treated a collaborator so well?  Who’s gone overboard, put in overtime, and worked her a** off just to help me?  Have I said thanks — or a little more than thanks?

Fruit for thought.

My parents posing with the fruit salad that my father carved when my first book came out in 2009. Thanks, Pappa!

Our own writing time-zones

My writer friend Mary Anne posted on her blog about waking up at 4am from bad dreams and then … writing!

I am inspired at how often she does this. She wakes up with way too little sleep — crying babies, nightmares, whatever. She stresses about it for maybe a paragraph.

And then? She gets right to work.

By contrast, here’s what I do: Whinge that since I didn’t get enough sleep, my brain is so tired that I *can’t possibly* do anything on my to-do list, let alone accomplish something so strenuous as to *write*!

But wait… now that I think about it, that’s a little too self-deprecating. Hey, little inner critic, shaddup! Actually, that’s not fair at all!

I do write instead of sleep. I just do it on the late end. Quite often, I either work into the wee hours, or I sleep a few hours and then am awake from, say, 2am-5am. (The BBC says being awake in the middle of the night was totally normal, pre-electric-lights, and could actually be good for you.)

There is something precious and magical to me about those quiet hours when no one else is awake. It’s the feeling of being a kid, staying up way past bedtime. It reminds me that writing is nothing like a “day job”; it’s a party. Hey, look, everyone, I’m getting away with something!

I admit, though, I do envy the cred of morning people. It seems so much more virtuous to wake up before dawn and start milking the cows, doesn’t it?

Sleep in till noon, and it’s hard to convince anyone — let alone my smartass little inner critic — that I’m working my a** off.

But I am. I’m just on another time zone. Maybe Moscow, or Argentina?

How do you balance sleeping vs. creating?

What’s your writing time zone?

We work hard around here!

Unicorn news

In my continued quest to assuage my guilt about not blogging more (while not actually writing real blog posts), I am posting a link to a lovely article that captures what I’m doing in India and working on these days. Thanks to reporter Sravasti Datta for getting it right … and putting my queer unicorny interests in a mainstream newspaper!

Gratuitous unicorn picture (not sure of original source):

A quickie update

Too busy to blog lately!

I’ve been in Bangalore since December, writing and enjoying the city; did a fantastic reading here last weekend with visiting poet Kazim Ali; and am off to the Jaipur Literary Festival, where I’ll be moderating a conversation with gay writers Hoshang Merchant and R Raj Rao. (If you’re at the festival, join us: 2:30pm Friday!)

I am super lazy about blogging these days so here are some other blogs to entertain you, at the website blogadda.com, which has a zillion Indian blogs linked into it (including me):
Visit blogadda.com to discover Indian blogs

Happy new year! (Yea, I know, it’s not that new anymore.)

Some Thoughts on Decolonizing

photo from my friend Prajna Paramita Choudhury’s Facebook page. she captioned it:
“the fifth sacred thing” at decolonize oakland – spirit, love for all beings past, present, future. may all beings be safe, happy, healthy, and free.
live news feed on Decolonize Oakland general strike today:
I decided not to go to the protests today. I had wanted to go and meditate in the interfaith tent with the teachers from East Bay Meditation Center who are leading sits at 11am and 4pm today. I would have liked to wear my unicorn hat and sit peacefully amid the energies of the crowd.

But I am having menstrual cramps and didn’t sleep enough and have a lot of work these days, with not a lot of time. I can’t believe it’s only 24 days till I go back to India.

All day I was debating. I sent out my last Writing from the Chakras lesson to my students which was due at noon, and then I finished my client’s coaching call at 2pm. Then I sat for a minute to decide whether to go or not, and I realized I hadn’t eaten lunch and I was feeling I *should* go, not that I wanted to go.

My bodyworker told me last week, “Anytime we are saying ‘should,’ it’s an unrealistic expectation.”

My body is telling me to be still and take care of it today. OK. I’m going to go have lunch, get my flu shot, rest.

I wonder if my so-called radical days are over. I feel a little sad about that, too.

I am happy the protesters are safe so far, the police seem to be restrained so far today, and the banks closed down one by one. The longshore workers’ union shut down the Port of Oakland first thing in the morning. These are symbols but as a writer I know symbols are powerful.

Oakland is beautiful and sunny and proud today. My heart is there, as well as with everyone I know who is out of work or without enough work, submerged under student debt, struggling for an education or for an honest living, coping without health care or inadequate care, and all the other problems that our late-stage capitalism has saddled us with.

There is a myth that corporations are the only source of wealth. It isn’t so. Communities thrived long before the advent of massive multinational corporations that go where the cheapest labor is, create artificial needs through advertising and desperation, drive small businesses into the ground, and then milk the most they can out of the consumer once they have a monopoly. There are ethical businesses, sustainable collective enterprises, ways to make a living that are good for everyone and that do not require exploitation or the creation/maintenance of a massive underclass of cheap, uneducated, desperate workers.

Capitalism is the dominant narrative, the air we breathe, so it’s difficult for us to even see another way. But I think as writers and artists it is our responsibility to see, to be part of creating that alternate vision and telling the stories of people and cultures who know a way out of the mess we’re in.

Capitalism with the proper checks and balances might — might — be ok. Capitalism the way we have it now is clearly wrong, not only for the United States but, as we export it, for the rest of the world too. I think of the Chinese sweatshop workers who made the Macbook on which I type this, and I know it is my responsibility to, somehow, symbolically or not, in some small way as much as possible, speak up for or be part of undoing that harm. It is my job, as a writer, as a conscious American now.

I am proud that the movement in Oakland is, from everything that I can see, diverse and representative of the America in which I live. It’s a testament to the antiracist work that has been done by and with white folks in the Bay Area, that when the language issue was raised by Native folks about the “Occupy” terminology, Oakland revised its movement to “Decolonize Oakland.”

Colonialism –> Post-colonialism — > De-colonization.

That’s a narrative I can get behind.

So much of the work I do as a writer and writing coach is about decolonizing. Allowing ourselves to tell the stories that go against the dominant narrative, what has been handed down. Pushing upstream to tell the truth as we see it, despite what we have been told we are / are not allowed to say. Undoing the internalized oppression that keeps us silent. Letting go of those ‘shoulds.’

A book of poems I’m loving: “Inside the Money Machine” by Minnie Bruce Pratt