I’m working on a new website (unicorns! services for writers! hoorah!). Amid all the chores, there is one delightful task: to solicit testimonials from happy clients. Here are a few … couldn’t wait for the new site in order to start sharing! Thank you SO much for to these lovely beings who’ve written such kind words about me.

(And, erm… she said shyly … if you’ve worked with me and you feel like adding your own testimonial in the comments or by emailing me … I would be MOST HAPPY and grateful!)

If you want your book to sizzle, you want Minal Hajratwala to touch your project. In Minal, you get a whip smart, inventive and big picture editor, an insightful reader, a dedicated partner, and most importantly a gentle and sensitive friend that sees you from early draft to published prose. (T.L. Coulter, memoir writer)

My sessions with writing coach Minal Hajratwala were chock full of helpful information that addressed my creative impulse at large, my specific novel-in-progress, and provided invaluable encouragement and advice to me as a writer. Here’s an example: In April on 2011, I wrote to Minal to see if we could schedule a coaching session. I wanted help preparing my application for a writer’s retreat. Not only did we schedule a session, but Minal’s experience and tips made my application so successful that I was added to a select group of 30 writers who would become Lambda Literary Foundation Fellows! By the way, Minal was in India at the time, and I was in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil! Nothing daunted, we made excellent use of Skype and email. Thanks, Minal! (Dawn Robinson, novelist)

Minal is a writer’s editor. She provided the perfect mix of encouragement and helpful suggestions that made my manuscript sing. She has the rare ability to see the macro and micro and give specific instructions on how to make your text clearer, more pointed and more poignant. I was thrilled with her coaching. (Sarah Richards, journalist, Author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: Life Off the Biological Clock — Simon & Schuster 2013)

Minal Hajratwala was an immense help in the development of my writing project. She gave me many suggestions that contributed to greater focus and direction. She helped me build more creative tension in the manuscript. And she passed on many practical tips that made for a smoother, yet more dynamic reading experience. Minal saw the potential in the project, understood the writing process, and remained supportive throughout. (Paul Joseph, Professor of Sociology, Tufts University, Fulbright-Nehru Distinguished Chair 2011)

I took a first draft of my essay book to Minal Hajratwala for two reasons: she’s smart on politics, race, gender, and all that good stuff AND I love the way her prose leaves me feeling like I’ve just read a book of poetry. Working with Minal, I found a third reason to sing her praises: she’s gentle on the soul and sharp on the writing. She read my manuscript with a fine eye and gave me guidance on where to go next, but she did it all with a great generosity of spirit and respect for me as a writer and for my book-in-progress. I left our coaching session renewed! (Daisy Hernandez, essayista)

The writer’s coach’s writing coach, Minal Hajratwala, opens my head up, unscrambles the stories in my brain, and sets me on a course for completion. She is my writing compass and my personal crazybrain surgeon. From Minal, I have learned how to coax my most complex and deep ideas out of the darkest corners of my mind and out into the light, onto the page. I would never be able to finish my novel without her.

In 2010, I wrote this about my first round of work with Minal as a writing coach:
“Working with Minal set my process free. She helped me to digest the fantastic feedback I’d gotten and then empowered me to pick and choose from that feedback. With Minal’s support, I developed a third draft and then set it aside again, to participate in NaNoWriMo 2010.”

Now that she’s reviewed a manuscript for me, I’ll add that she is a most loving and careful reader. Her feedback after reading the fifth draft of my novel has propelled me forward. She delved even deeper than I’d hoped in terms of attention and devotion to my manuscript, really partnering with me in the challenge of cracking open my big ideas and smoothing out my jagged parts. (Kristy Lin Billuni, The Sexy Grammarian, novelist)

First, do no harm

How not to build your platform

Doctor and aspiring author Jan O’Hara wrote this interesting post over at Writer Unboxed about how writers should follow the medical maxim, “First, do no harm.”

Her point: Too much focus on blogging and tweeting can get in the way of writing a book.

So true! But then there’s a bunch of stuff about how, instead, a writer should buckle down and never miss a deadline and so on.  This way of thinking can knock down a bunch of “shoulds” … only to replace them with a whole ‘nother pile of “shoulds.”

This made me think about how the greatest harm is in compromising what you really want to say.

My feeling: Social media ‘rules’ aren’t sacred, even deadlines aren’t sacred, but the work is.

Sometimes you have to blow deadlines to get to a deeper level of your work.

Be open to that possibility. If your deadline doesn’t let you produce the book you really need to write, let the deadline go — but do your real writing.

But don’t I need to work on “building my platform” at the same time?


For first-time authors, the number one thing is to crank out the first draft of the first book.

Later, in your period of revision, getting feedback, etc., you’ll have time to build your platform. Everyone’s attention span is like a guppy’s these days, so I can’t see any point to fretting about this years in advance.

Plus, technology best practices are guppyish too. Three years ago it was “you MUST blog”; now it’s “no one reads blogs, be on Tumblr.”

So your knitting book released this very minute would certainly benefit from a Pinterest following, but if you haven’t even started the book?  Write, knit, purl, edit—and three years from now, when you’re done, you’ll still have time to set up your Pintwitterbook account.  By that time, you’ll be able to upload holographic pictures of your scarves, like the ones that people wore in Star Wars.

What was I saying? Oh yeah, writers should focus.  Ahem.  Right.

My point: Don’t worry about your platform until you can see the precise date when you’ll need to climb up onto it.

Then, after you publish, something magical happens.  Your first book (plus the website, email list, etc. that you build to promote it) becomes your base. Hey, look, you made a platform! Out of, like, sentences and paragraphs and stuff. Instead of tweets.

There are, of course, tons (tonnes!) of other reasons to blog and tweet. If it feeds your soul, gives you a healthy rant outlet, or nurtures your work in progress by giving you real-time feedback and/or research directions and/or friendly cheerleaders … by all means, blog your little heart out.

But if you’re just doing it because you’re “supposed to,” please stop. Really think about what you’re getting in return.

For me, at this point, I try to ration my blog/tweet/etc time. I try to invest time in it only when:

1) It’s not interfering with my writing goals, but helping me to clarify my thinking (like this) or part of my down time (like Facebook).
2) It’s fun.
3) It’s not taking up huge amounts of time.

4) All of the above may be untrue, BUT It’s going to result in immediate gain (turnout at an event, income from an upcoming workshop, etc) that is worth the temporary loss of writing time.

In that last sentence, note the connection between “immediate” and “temporary.” (I put those words in bold to help you. Because I’m snazzy like that.)

“Vague general gain to be harvested at some point in the future” tends to lead me into “the great sinkhole into which writing time is sucked up by the evil forces of gravity created by the sucky demons who live below the earth.”

Finding myself in the sinkhole of sucky demons tends to make me very cranky.

Now, as the original poster wrote: “I’d love feedback. … Did reading this article give you a net benefit, or should you have written instead?”


The platform of the future.

Writing the Sixth Sense

My great-grandfather Motiram Narsey, who was the first in our family to travel from India to Fiji in 1909


Someone on a Facebook thread today asked about how to cultivate her psychic powers, as a way of connecting to her ethnic heritage.

I felt compelled to pipe in since, as readers of Leaving India know, my great-great-grandfather Motiram (at left) was reputed to be psychic.

At the risk of sounding woo-woo to some people, I’ll say that in writing intimately about my long-gone ancestors, I found it extremely helpful to develop my own spiritual relationships and connections.  So I said:

For me, writing really helps the most. Keeping a dream journal. Writing questions just before sleep, then being ready to write answers if they are present when I wake up. Nurturing my imaginative space with images, metaphors, beauty, experiences in nature, art. Developing a personal metaphorical language so that I know what stuff “means” to me. Like, if you know a certain color resonates — or images, or gems, or a tarot image — try carrying it around or wearing it or looking at it every day for a week/month — inviting it in and getting to know it. What happens if I wear red every day for a month, what energies shift around me? Or blue?  Taking notes/noticing that sixth-sense level of reality as much of the time as I can. Squinting, peeking, peering, opening my eyes (+ 3rd eye) to see what others don’t see/say.

Writing is a psychic power, after all. So is art-making. Care-taking. Loving.

Activism, too.  Later this week, I’m teaching a writing workshop as part of a five-day camp for young South Asian American activists.  We’ll work on cultivating the sixth sense: Seeing what others can’t or won’t see.  Developing the resilience to keep on looking, witnessing, speaking out.  Learning to articulate a new vision.  Scrying into the future, toward a better world that we believe can exist, with our own earnest vision.

I think that’s better than all of Bruce Wayne’s paramilitary-industrial-complex “superpowers.”

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

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!