Desire + Need + Unpacking Power = #MyWritingProcess

This Monday’s post is part of a blog tour called My Writing Process. Please feel free to copy the questions and join the fun!

My Writing Process – Blog Tour: INSTRUCTIONS

Step 1: Acknowledge the person (& site) who involved you in the blog tour.

I met Joshunda Victoria Sanders when she was in my memoir class at VONA, writing this incredible, brave, powerful prose. I love getting her emails (you can, too, right here) because they’re always wise and generous. Her answers to the #MyWritingProcess questions are right here.

Step 2: Answer 4 questions about your writing process…

1) What are you working on?

• Finishing up a poetry collection that will come out this year from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective. The title will be … (uh oh! coming soon … titles are hard!).

• Working on a top-secret novel. I could tell you more, but then I’d have to kill you. No, seriously. All I can say is that the novel is gory and politically scathing, and the plot offers me plenty of opportunities to kill off people who irritate me, which is super satisfying.

• Occasional freelance articles like this and this, including several pieces on craft for The Writer magazine.  I keep wondering if I should go back to a more regular journalism gig. Not like a j-o-b, but maybe a column? Should I? And if so, on what?

• My Ask the Unicorns advice column on living the creative life.

• Writing curricula and prompts and critiques and love notes for the writers in my courses. I love teaching and coaching because it keeps me in this ongoing, amazing conversation about process, which only other writers can truly understand.

2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

I work in a lot of genres, and all of my writing is deeply informed by a social justice ethic plus a quest to understand the power dynamics of societies as well as individuals. I’m always trying to understand and un-cohere the power structures that create suffering.

When I write a lesson for my students about overcoming writing blocks, for example, I’m really talking about how to undo internalized oppression.

In my poetry I’m deeply interested in the power of language. I don’t think it’s so important to self-consciously be different from others’ work; I’m happy to have influences and be part of the long stream of literary conversation, while also exploring whatever lights a spark in me.

Also I write about unicorns.

3) Why do you write what you do?

I’m driven by both desire and need.

Desire: Writing can be a deep pleasure. Poems are so fun, so satisfying. Fiction: You can make anything happen! How wild is that? Nonfiction: Nothing is more mysterious than reality.

Need: Writing is how I figure things out. Honestly, if I didn’t write, I wouldn’t understand people at all, not even myself.

4) How does your writing process work?

Layers. I start with research. All those links below to other people’s answers to these questions? Research. I don’t know why I thought their answers would help me, but I needed to read them before I started writing this.

When I’m ready to write, I draft almost everything longhand (except blog posts). Then I go back through my notebooks and type in the things worth typing.

Then I “edit” forever.

By “edit,” I mean that this is actually the real writing, but I fool myself that it’s going to be easier than writing because it’s “just editing.” In this phase I re-write, merge fragments from various notebooks, separate sections, mix in new bits of research, cut out old bits, and freewrite entire new sections that I then integrate into the whole.

By “forever,” I mean until everything finally gels. Usually I don’t know this until the second it happens. Until then, I oscillate between hope that it’s almost done, and despair that it will never be done.

That’s the “first draft,” although in reality, almost everything in it has been drafted and re-drafted at least 20-30 times. At this point, I turn it over to my editor and/or beta readers for feedback, have a mimosa, go to a movie like a normal person, and wait to begin the next round.

The “second draft” goes fairly quickly, but often involves some large structural or organizational shift, resulting in the “final draft,” when I feel a final “a-ha.”

Another week of small tweaks, fact-checking, parting twangs, and waves of fear about finally letting go of the work, and then it’s off to the editor on the way to publication.

So basically, sometimes I’m all glamorous like this:

Joan Crawford, with glam typewriter.

Joan Crawford + fountain pen + typewriter

But mostly I’m like these guys:


I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I have more to say about my writing process and writing-as-activism over on the Hedgebrook website, right here.

Step 3: Say who is on the week after you are (your chosen two writers). Give a one-sentence bio of each and link to their websites. There’s a #mywritingprocess Twitter tag you can use, as well as linking to your blog post from your Facebook page.

#1) Kristy Lin Billuni, the Sexy Grammarian, is going to have something hot to say about this next week! #2) Oops! I failed to recruit a second blogger. So if you’re a writer and have a blog, please consider yourself tagged!  Post your answers on your own blog next Monday and spread the fun.

L-bracket-greenR-bracket-greenNeed a fairy godmother for your own writing process? Check out what I can do for you, and then schedule a free 30-minute consultation. Email me with a bit about your needs, and some good times/dates to talk.


A sampling of other posts in the #MyWritingProcess tour:

Tayari Jones. “I like to whip out my typewriter and bang away for a couple of hours. I have written each book differently, but here are some things that are consistent: I don’t outline and I write the first chapter last.”

Tananarive Due. “Sometimes it’s less horrifying to imagine a supernatural entity at work than it is to reflect on our casual human monstrosity.  Demons make more sense of the nightly news.”

Serena Lin: Drunken Whispers. “I’d like to gather up my courage to submit to literary journals. I tried to post WANTED: COURAGE TO SUBMIT posters in Prospect Park. The drum circle distracted me…”

Safia Jama: A Poet’s Notebook in Progress. “Clearly, the ladybug and I were both working within the same genre—that of sitting on a bench near the Hudson River—yet our work differed vastly.”

Lindsey Mead: A Design So Vast. “The reason I write: so I don’t miss my life…”

Stacie Evans: Process of Elimination. “I like writing challenges. Each year, starting in 2009, I’ve chosen one form and written that each day for the whole [National Poetry] month: tanka, rhyme royal, nove otto, zeno, arun…”

Alejna: Collecting Tokens. “I will assemble previously constructed chunks of my research and stitch them together … then infuse this mass with my sweat, tears and lifeblood. Finally, I will run large currents of electricity through the resulting body of work in hopes that it will take on life…”

Sarah Piazza: Splitting Infinitives. “It is an itch I have to scratch; it is a young child tugging ever more frantically on my sleeve…”

Pamela Hunt Cloyd: Walking on My Hands. “I write about military life from a slightly different vantage point, as I am much older than the typical military wife and I married my husband despite the fact that I used to believe that most people in the military were violent, right-wing, rednecks.”

Dana Talusani: The Kitchen Witch. “Freelancing requires a bravery that I’m not sure I have…”

Shannon Duffy: Deepest Worth. “My best writing comes quickly and leaves me drained and a little high…”

Elizabeth Marro. “I have found that the finish line is where I must be my most patient, my most humble. I’m never done when I think I am.”

Lisa Hsia: Satsuma Bug. “I create to capture a particular something that will no longer be available later in time: a flower, a human (or feline, or canine) individual at a given moment, an emotion, a frustration, a conversation…”

Celestine Nudana: Reading Pleasure/My Journey with Words. “In my country incest is a taboo subject … I’ve always stood up for the downtrodden and marginalized.”

Tish Farrell: Taking the Slow Road/Tarrying Not Typing. “As you talk, the remedies to stuckness will likely pop out of your mouth. Listen out for them. A passive listening post is thus an essential aid. Your dog, cat or canary would be a good choice.”

Vashti Quiroz-Vega. “I’m a pantster when it comes to short stories. I get an idea in my head, and I run with it until it arrives at whatever end.”

Cynthia Manick: Poetry Is What Makes the Invisible Appear. “I write like a convict. I’m scurrying with torn pieces of paper, words are scribbled in horrible handwriting, and I’m trying to capture something?”

Daniel José Older. “Urban Fantasy has, in its mass-market published form anyway, been a very white genre, and I write work that actively degentrifies it. Of course, people of color have always told amazing, fantastical stories about The City…”

Rebekkah Ford: The Musing Writer. “Vampires and werewolves are cool but what about a new mythology?”

Bianca Sloane. “I needed her to tell me how off base it was before I put on my surgical scrubs and took a scalpel to it. I’m finally falling in love with it, which is a wonderful feeling.”

M.L. LeGette: By Candlelight. “My eight year old heart would sing when it saw a bookmark or poster with a dragon or unicorn on it.”

Kuukua Yomekpe: Being a Writer with a Bipolar Brain. “There’s nothing like the feel of paper gently rubbing the first third of my pinkie as it does a waltz across the page…”

Loads more links via Twitter: #MyWritingProcess.

State of the blog

Finally got around to looking at the JetPack report on my blog stats from 2012. It’s a nice presentation format and the numbers are interesting, in an entirely narcissistic way.  There’s a nifty map showing the 98 countries where yall came from.  I hope that you, dear solo reader from Belarus, got what you needed.

An excerpt:

“600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 11,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 18 years to get that many views.”

Um, yeah.  Plus, no risk of hypothermia.

The full report, in case you’re really feeling idle:



The Eye of the Beholder

I got really excited when I saw the new Darksiders II character sculptures, because:
OMG! A Unicorn of Despair! How awesome and original.


I adore nonconventional unicorns. In a world of this:

it’s refreshing to see this:


Lady Gaga as unicorn

so I was all, Go DARKSIDERS!  (Whatever the heck that is.)


But then, Twitter buddy and former colleague @ohmgee pointed out to me that, hey, that thing sticking up out of the Darksiders creature’s head? It’s probably just an ear.

As a different view makes clear —

oh yeah. It really is.
(I still like my reading better, though.)

A long digression, with no unicorns

One of my early jobs was as a kind of ombudsperson for the Newspaper Of Silicon Valley. I was called the reader representative, and one of my fun-filled tasks was to handle our paper’s responses to every reader complaint.

People felt the ink rubbed off on their fingers too much, or smelled bad. They complained that the news coverage was biased, and the weather forecasts always wrong. (When I organized a public forum with the meteorologists who provided our weather report, hundreds of readers showed up — way more than the two PR chicks who came in to meet our then-new Washington D.C. reporter.)

A number of readers also felt that, since I was supposed to connect with readers, my name should be easier to pronounce.

Yeah, sorry ’bout that. (Not.)

The thing I learned in the two years that I did that noble job was that at the end of the day, what people say about your work usually says more about them than about you.

That’s not to say people’s complaints were unfounded. They were often spot on.

The diehards who don’t believe in adding fluoride to the U.S. drinking water, for example, are correct: Yes, journalists are not on your side and think you’re kind of crazy.

The Sri Lankan community representatives, too, were correct: The newspaper did not provide enough coverage of the war. We had a great brown-bag meeting with them on terminology and background and the various factions; the foreign desk wire editor told me he learned from it. And we continued to cover it the same way: one paragraph every four days or so.

Our political coverage was often less than objective, but rarely in the ways or for the reasons that people suspected. Despite a regular stream of reader accusations, no one, to my knowledge, deliberately chose photos of either Bush or Clinton in order to overemphasize, respectively, a dumb dazed what-the-hay-is-goin-on expression or a possibly drunken bulbous reddish nose. That was just, well, how those guys’ faces looked.

We also, for the record, did not on purpose choose pictures to make Hilary’s hair look bad, nor to make Laura Bush look so much older than her husband, implying some kind of Harold and Maude thing.

And yes, newspaper ink does rub off on your fingers.

Back to the unicorns, or:

What to do about ‘What will people think?’

Conclusion of the long-winded nostalgia trip above, in case you skimmed it: People will experience your work according to their own biases and inclinations.

So yeah, my pro-unicorn prejudice has absolutely nothing to do with what artist Brian King created for Darksiders II — which, by the way, is apparently some kind of video game. In case you were wondering.

Arguably, my bias totally interfered with me experiencing his art in the way he meant it.

It also got me to spend a lot more time with his image than I would have otherwise, and to share it with you, so, you know, I’m sure his panties aren’t all in a bunch about it. It’s not like I’m some big God in the Darksiders world. (Oh hey, SEO algorithm: Darksiders, Darksiders, Darksiders. Sorry, my marketing people keep telling me I’m supposed to do that.)

OK, I’m getting to a point here.

The thing I try to tell my students, especially the ones who are writing about their own lives in memoir or autobiographical fiction, is that you just can’t worry too much about how other people are going to read your work.

No — that’s not right — you can worry about it!  A lot.

In fact, you can worry about it so much that you don’t write for years and years . Or ever.

What you can’t do is control other people’s reactions.

To a small degree you might try to manage the reactions of the people closest to you; you can share drafts, or mentally prep them, or explain your motivations. You can try your best to be ethical in your process.

But as my book seminar professor at Columbia, Sam Freedman, used to say, “You can’t stand next to the book in the bookstore and say, ‘What I meant to say on Page 11 was…'”

The work stands on its own and it goes out into the world and then, somehow, miraculously, you’re actually free of it. I get beautiful emails from strangers about Leaving India. I get, much less frequently, criticisms and jabs.

Obviously I like one kind of feedback much more than the other — but it’s not as big a deal as my early-stage writing self would have thought.

The book carries its own burdens now.

Those 140,000 words?

They’re not mine anymore.

They’re all yours.

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!

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, which has a zillion Indian blogs linked into it (including me):
Visit 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

Writing Into the Dark

This was the title of a writing workshop at Esalen that I took last week from poet Patrice Vecchione. Esalen is an interesting place — all about hippie capitalism. It was started by two Stanford grads in the ’60s and now it has 10,000 paying visitors a year. A long time before that it was Esselen Native land. There are natural sulphur springs on a cliff above the Pacific that are amazing. I was the darkest person around for all three days I was there.

Patrice was a great teacher, and I was glad to have time to soak and write poems, and I learned a lot from her about creating a safe environment while teaching. One evening we walked out into the night. Afterward we came back to the Little House (really it was called that!), and I wrote this poem.

Writing Into the Dark

The search party goes out at night
with headlamps & eyes in their toes
climbing the cloud-stroked hill,
fanning out around the stones.

One carries a Smith & Wesson.
One has the map of the territory
inscribed inside the brain. Everyone here
has had sex, love, maybe more than once

on the way to this destined task.
Passing the licorice fields,
the drunkards’ ball,
they persist to the edge of the land.

The one who knows the mission best
reads out the master’s orders. When
the wild loon calls, they begin
the hunt for song, for words

to meet that cry.

—Minal Hajratwala


OK, the Smith & Wesson was a flashlight.

Here is a picture of me in the Esalen garden, pulling cabbages out of their cozy bed at the end of the growing season. This photo was taken by another student in my class who asked permission because she was documenting the whole class. That was cool with me. Other people I didn’t know walked by and took my picture because they were excited by “all the color.” Really they did.

Gay, Indian, etc.

Had a really lovely event at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco last night. They’re doing a whole month on India so I’m hoping to go see my friend Vini speak on August 23 (she’s awesome, who wants to go with me?). And then I have my own talk on Thursday, August 25 (I’m awesome, click here to buy your tickets now! heh!). Here’s the description of my talk:

India and Her Fragments:
Migrations from Old to New Worlds

The story of India’s 30-million-and-growing worldwide diaspora is reshaping trade, identity and culture all around the globe. Fresh from a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship in India, Hajratwala will speak on what Americans need to know today about the rapidly changing country to which nearly 2 million Americans trace their roots. Hajratwala will draw from the seven years of research that led to her nonfiction book, Leaving India, winner of a California Book Award (Silver) and three other literary awards.

I always love speaking at the Commonwealth Club because, having listened to their public radio broadcasts for years, I love watching someone (in this case the charming Julian Chang) pound the gavel that begins and ends each session. Yes, my name is Minal and I am a public radio geek.

Last night’s event was cool. I’d just flown into SFO the day before so it was great to jump right in — a panel discussion on being gay & Indian. The Sexy Grammarian showed up with her sexy wife, the panel was packed with longtime friends from my old Trikone organizing days, and the audience of about 50 was enthusiastic and articulate.

I got a chance to talk about some trends in the LGBT movement as I’ve observed it in India and to plug the upcoming anthology I’m editing for Queer Ink. Apparently the discussion will be broadcast on Diya TV and KQED radio sometime soon, so I’ll post the links when they go up.

There were some really nice, enthusiastic folks in the audience who were totally sweet to me. I sold a couple of books. One young man had driven up all the way from LA to see me speak and get a signed book! Totally made my night.

All in all, a lovely re-entry to my favorite city in the world.

Rakesh Modi, Devesh Khatu, Julian Chang, Dipti Ghosh, and me ...
photo by Helen Lin Billuni

San Francisco!

Dear hometown,

I missed you. What wonderful adventures I’ve had in our time apart. I’m so happy to be coming back. I don’t know yet if it’s a visit or more; what I know is that I’ll be with you from August 16 to November 26, and then we’ll just have to see.

Meanwhile, we have some fabulous dates planned. And I have so many stories to tell you. I’m sure you do, too. I can’t wait, baby!


Upcoming San Francisco events

Weds 8/17 Panel discussion on Being LGBT & Indian
(San Francisco, Commonwealth Club forum)

Thur 8/25 Lecture on India and Her Fragments: Migrations from Old to New Worlds
(San Francisco, Commonwealth Club main speakers series)

Sun 8/28 The Unicorn & The Seeker: readings from my new work created in India
(San Francisco Women’s Building, as part of the 3rd i Queer Eye film & performance festival)

Please come; I’d love to see you. For all the details, please check out my Events page.

Happy Birthday to Me!

I remember when 40 seemed so far off, as if everything I ever wanted to do in my life would have to be done by then. I still meet people (young people, I could say now in a granny voice!) for whom 40 is the goalpost, not the center line.

I love my life. I am more free than I have ever been, more sure of myself and my work, more honest every day. My body is stronger and I am more in it, less prone to disassociation and overt or covert methods of self-harm. My mind is clearer and the tools I have to work with it — writing, yoga, meditation, intimacy — feel more and more potent. I am more grateful for the world every day, despite its problems and injustices. I am in awe of the brave, powerful work of the people I meet, whose commitment to learning and creating change might waver but, collectively, gives me great faith. I am bowled over, humbled, by the creativity with which we respond to the conditions of our time.

I have been thinking that the opposite of black-and-white thinking is not shades of grey, but the whole rainbow. I don’t feel jaded or cynical, most of the time. I feel new, and in love with the magic, the full spectrum, the unnameable things that make up our glittering, daring world.

If all goes well I have maybe another 40 years ahead of me, in this precious life. I have no fear for the future, nor do I have regret. I’m excited. As far as I can tell, I have not wasted a minute of the past four decades. Although I have been confused, fatigued, lost, cruel, and full of rage or sorrow, I have also been loving and beloved, ecstatic, brave, triumphant, generous, and occasionally wise. I have found life wildly satisfying, well beyond any plans or goals I might have set for myself early in life. I could not, at 15 or 20 or 25, have imagined these blessings.

I have ideas for the years ahead, but I want to hold them lightly. Projects, metaphors, directions to lean into — one step at a time, one doorway at a time — yes. But as for serious life goals, a big plan, a bucket list? Whoever has planned my life so far has done an awesome job. I’ll leave it to Her.

Me, I’m making no plans.

Thanks to Gina LaRoche for sending me this photo of a sculptural creature designed for the 2011 Philadelphia International Flower Show.