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Ask Vivek: Recap

November 21, 2016 | E Writer in Residence 2016 — Vivek Shraya | Comments (0)

Ask Vivek - Recap

This, sadly, is my last post as E-Writer in Residence. It’s been such a gift to connect with you in person at various libraries and events, and online through your writing. I feel fortunate to have been given this opportunity to read (and listen) to your words. I am immensely grateful for your trust in me. That said, my last day isn’t until Friday, November 25, so please keep sending me your writing!

When I began this position, my inspiration for the “Ask Vivek” posts was centered around you—I wanted to ensure that my posts spoke to questions you had about writing and art. I also think there can be so much mystery and solitude around writing. My hope was these posts would provide information to help making writing feel more accessible to you. I also hoped these posts would provide you a sense of support. 

For this final post, I have compiled a list of tips and highlights from my previous posts.

  1. On art making: Art is a powerful means to connect with others who have had similar, and different, experiences—others who want to share their stories.
  2. On writing prompts: Having a central question as a prompt can be challenging but can also give your writing or project a direction, as your goal then becomes answering this question.
  3. On songwriting: Spend the time in developing your own sound by writing constantly. The more songs you write, the better your songs will get.
  4. On novel writing: There might be days when you write only one sentence. This is okay. More than okay! This is part of the process. The most important thing is that you are committed to the writing and will show up again tomorrow.
  5. On comic making: “Make something that excites you—something that you would want to read! It can be good to start small. Make a one- or two-page story, where you can play around with your style and storytelling, and see if it's an idea you like enough to spend more time on.”
  6. On writing poetry: Reading works by other poets was useful as it allowed me to see how other writers were using the form and breaking “the rules.”
  7. On dealing with rejection: I remind myself that rejection isn’t personal. There are many factors as to why certain things get chosen over others and many of these factors I have no control over.
  8. On writing about the personal: When possible, I try to write ethically. I change the names of individuals and settings. I change the description of individuals’ appearances.

This past week has been a hard week. But I feel especially inspired by writers like Lawrence Hill who are speaking out about the various injustices that are taking place in the world. Please let me know what is inspiring you this week in the comments!

Ask Vivek: How do you write about the personal?

November 14, 2016 | E Writer in Residence 2016 — Vivek Shraya | Comments (0)

How do you write about the personal?

This week’s question is about how to write about the personal—specifically, how to write personal narratives based on or including friends and family.

Different writers approach this in different ways, but it is something many of us struggle with. In my case, I am often inspired by family and the people around me. But instead of worrying about asking for permission or how others will react, I focus on the writing. For me, it the story that I want to tell that is most important. 

When possible, I try to write ethically. I change the names of individuals and settings. I change the description of individuals’ appearances. 

When writing about my family, I try to write about them with respect and compassion, even when the story I want to tell is hard or unflattering. Sometimes I share these stories with my family but only after it’s been completed or published. This is so that I am not swayed by their opinion or emotions during the writing process. Other times, I have asked my parents to just not read certain books. 

I am less concerned when writing about violence that has happened to me. In these instances, I prioritize my right to speak about my experience over trying to “protect” the person who has hurt me.

One thing I am cautious about is writing about the experiences of others. Of course, I am inspired by events around me. But some stories aren’t mine to tell or take. 

So in short, I would say when writing about the personal, centre around the story you want to tell. Ultimately, when a story lands on the page, it becomes a form of fiction anyway. 

Thank you again for your question. Please keep sending me questions and I will keep answering them here!

Lastly, this week I feel inspired by Vancouver-based poet Amber Dawn. She is someone who writes about the personal in various genres including memoir and poetry. What personal writing inspires you? Let me know in the comments!

Ask Vivek: How do you deal with rejection?

November 7, 2016 | E Writer in Residence 2016 — Vivek Shraya | Comments (0)

Ask Vivek - How do you deal with rejection?

This week’s question is about dealing with rejection as a writer and artist.

When I first started singing Western music, I began signing up for talent contents at shopping malls in Edmonton. Every talent show had multiple rounds (i.e. semi-finals, finals, etc.) with a giant prize.

I never made it to the final round. Sometimes I wouldn’t make it even to the semi-finals. It was always embarrassing to lose in front of my friends and family in a food court. I would feel sad, wondering what was wrong with me or my voice.

But I still would nervously approach the judges and ask for feedback for improvement. And the next year, I would sign up again. When preparing my selection for a new contest, I always tried to do something different than the previous year. One year I sang acapella, one year I sang Waterfalls by TLC, and another year I sang a song by Annie Lennox.

As an adult, I realize I learned a lot from these talent contests. Being an artist involves constantly putting myself out there and often having my work ignored or rejected. And the truth is, it doesn’t get easier to get rejected. I spend hours writing a poem or grant application, click ‘send’ and always hope for the best (I even have a Google notifier for when I should hear back). And when I do hear back, it never gets easier to read “This year we had a number of great entries including yours” and “Unfortunately yours wasn’t selected.” I complain to friends, I eat a lot of junk food, I complain more, I cry, I question the point of making art or writing.

But then, like my younger self, I slowly make my way back to the stage. I ask for feedback on my entry from judges. I ask for feedback from peers on my new entry. I try a new approach. I remind myself that rejection isn’t personal. There are many factors to why certain things get chosen over others and many of these factors I have no control over.

In recent years, I find myself applying for more opportunities because when I am rejected from one, it helps to know that I have other seeds planted. Maybe a different seed will bloom.

On that note, I highly encourage you to consider submitting to next year’s Young Voices Magazine. It’s a wonderful way to get published and the deadline is not until April 2017. This gives you a lot of time to work on your submission. I am also here to help you, so please feel free to email me your work for any support.

Thank you again for your question. Please keep sending me questions and I will keep answering them here!

Lastly, this week I feel inspired by the performance by Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Awards. Lemonade is a fantastic album and it’s great to see new sides to the songs with every live performance. What is inspiring you? Let me know in the comments!

Ask Vivek: How do I write poetry?

October 31, 2016 | E Writer in Residence 2016 — Vivek Shraya | Comments (0)

How Do I Write Poetry

This week’s question was about how to write poetry. This is a question that I resonated with a lot. Working on my recent book of poetry, even this page is white, I often felt lost and unsure about what I was writing, and if it qualified as poetry.

Given what I learned, my two big tips on writing poetry are as follows:

  1. Experiment!

I had been originally working on a novel but the writing didn’t feel right. Something felt missing or off. I wondered if perhaps the writing would be richer in the format of poetry. It’s important to listen to these inner nudges as often your intuition knows what is best for your work.

I dusted off the ol’ highlighter tool in my Google Doc and began highlighting any word or phrase that I felt stood out. Then I moved these words and phrases into a new document and started playing around with non-paragraph formats. In this new context, the writing felt stronger. The words clicked. Poetry was indeed the answer!

From here, I continued to play with words and structures. Play is important here and with any writing. As much as writing is hard work, it’s useful to remember that writing should also be fun! So, I got rid of unnecessary punctuation and conjunctions (ie and, but, so, etc). I experimented with different line breaks.

  1. Read!

Reading works by other poets was useful as it allowed me to see how other writers were using the form and breaking “the rules.” I was especially inspired by Audre Lorde’s The Black Unicorn.

There was a world of poetry beyond the couplets I had been taught in school. I learned about concrete poetry and list poems. By discovering so many different kinds of poetry, it gave me the confidence to keep experimenting.

Writing poetry often felt like making a painting but with words. The medium is flexible and open for you to make it your own.

Lastly, Gwen Benaway’s Passage is the best book of poetry I have read this year. Who are your favourite poets? Let me know in the comments!

Thank you again for your question. Please keep sending me questions and I will keep answering them here!

Ask Vivek: How do I make comics?

October 24, 2016 | E Writer in Residence 2016 — Vivek Shraya | Comments (0)

How do I make comics

This week’s question was about comics. I don’t have any experience making comics, so I thought I would interview two comic artists that I really admire: Michael DeForge and Eric Kostiuk Williams. Michael has created several comic books and zines and recently worked on Adventure Time. Eric has created a fantastic comic series called Hungry Bottom Comics and his debut book, Condo Heartbreak Disco, is out next year!

When did you make your first comic? What drew you to the medium of comic making?

Michael: I've wanted to draw comics for as long as I can remember. I learned to read and draw with the comic strip collections my family had. I made my first physical, finished comic when I was around 11 or 12. It was a 12-page horror anthology and the stories were all sports-themed. I wasn't a sporty kid, so all the comics were about, like, soccer teams kicking around severed heads, ghosts haunting the deep end of swimming pools, stuff like that.

Eric: In Grade 5, we had an assignment that involved creating a superhero character whose story related to saving the environment. This was probably one of the coolest and most random things I got to do in school! I called my superhero T.O.L.G. ("The Ozone Layer Guardian"). Once the assignment was over, I was still really attached to the character and ended up creating more comics on my own time, featuring him, and a cast of other characters.

I've always seen comics as such a powerful medium, because you're creating a fully realized world from scratch. If you think of a comic as a movie, you're actually the writer, director, set designer, casting director, costume designer, cinematographer, etc. This can feel very intimidating sometimes, but if it's an idea you're passionate about, it feels exciting to be so involved in its creation. The combination of words and images is a direct way to get your ideas across. Although the process of making a comic is pretty solitary, being able to then share your story with folks, and have them respond to it, is a feeling unlike anything else.

I also love making comics because they can be about anything! My early comics were focussed on superheroes, but since then, I've made science fiction comics, autobiographical comics, abstract comics... the sky's the limit.

Can you describe your process? Do you start with an idea or story first, or an illustration?

Michael: It changes a lot from story to story. Sometimes it starts as a loose idea or a character I want to run with, but other times a story will spring out of an image from my sketchbook. I work in my sketchbook a lot.

Once the ball starts rolling, I tend to improvise my stories as I go. I try to be very open to little accidents, or veering off course when I need to. I'm usually not writing very far ahead of what I'm drawing. I'll rough out a page in the morning with some noodley drawings and dialogue, then chip away at the finished version until the day is over.

Eric: Hmm, a bit of both, I'd say! Sometimes I'll draw characters in my sketchbook, and then I'll try to find a story for them to live in. Other times a story or theme will take shape in my head, and the drawings are a way of fleshing out those first ideas.

What advice would you give to someone starting to explore making comics?

Eric: If you're thinking of making a comic, make something that excites you—something that you would want to read! It can be good to start small. Make a one or two-page story, where you can play around with your style and storytelling, and see if it's an idea you like enough to spend more time on. You wouldn't want to find yourself in the middle of making a 30-page comic when you realize you're not into your story anymore! That's happened to me, and it's terrible! I would also say to do it in whatever way feels most comfortable. Some comics are mostly text, with less emphasis on the drawings, some comics are all illustrations, with no text! Sometimes a writer will team up with an illustrator and make a comic together, which can take a bit of the pressure off being responsible for the whole thing. There's no one right way, and that's my favourite thing about comics.

Michael: Self-publish, either online or in print. Make a cruddy zine, throw some strips up on Tumblr, whatever. I learned a lot from self-publishing, and comics have a particularly low barrier to entry. It's can be challenging to make the time to actually draw them, but once you do, they're dirt cheap. I can print the entire run of a mini-comic for the same price I pay to rent three hours of practice space for my band, for instance.

***

Thank you again for your question. Please keep sending me questions and I will keep answering them here!

Lastly, Michael DeForge’s Big Kids is one of the best comic book I have read and is definitely worth checking out! What are your favourite comics? Let me know in the comments!

Ask Vivek: How To Write A Novel

October 17, 2016 | E Writer in Residence 2016 — Vivek Shraya | Comments (0)

How To Write A Novel

Last week, I received a question (thank you!) about how write a novel—where to begin and how to finish.

This is a question I asked myself a lot when trying to map out my first novel, She of the Mountains. I think part of my draw to other literary forms like short stories and poems has to do with how daunting writing a novel feels. The process is so intimidating that even though I have done it once, I worry I will never do it again.

But it most certainly can be done! Here are some thoughts and ideas to help support you in your process.

  1.     I am not someone who outlines because part of the magic of writing for me is the discovery that happens when I am writing. That said, it is worth think about details like: Where does your novel take place? Who are the main characters? What is the intention behind your novel or the central theme or conflict? Spending some time mapping out these ideas before writing, even if you change your mind along the way (which most likely you will), will be useful.
  2.     I also approached my novel a bit like a puzzle. I made a list of all the pieces I needed. This can be a form of outlining. For example, I knew there had to be a section where the characters meet and another a section where the characters fight. Then I wrote about these sections separately. When all the sections were done, I began to organize them in my preferred order. The work then became about writing the sentences or paragraphs required to “glue” these sections together. This method was effective because it made the process less overwhelming. I didn’t start on the dreaded Page One and then have to build from there. Instead, I focused on breaking the novel into smaller parts, wrote each part, and then brought it all together.
  3.     While I think outlining can be helpful, I am hesitant to over recommend it. This is because staying in the outline mode can be seductive. You could plan forever. But at some point you have to take a leap and write your story!
  4.     Think about what you need to write. Do you prefer to write at night? In a cafe? In a notebook? I learned that I wrote better in the morning and at home. This meant blocking off mornings in my Google Calendar to write instead of going to the mall with friends. Writing and finishing a novel required making these kinds of sacrifices.
  5.     Time can feel limited, especially with other commitments like homework. But try to avoid putting off working on your novel until the right moment comes along. Don’t wait to write during Christmas or summer holidays, or after you graduate. I kept putting off my novel like this with the confidence that I would write it when the time was right. But eventually I discovered that there is no such thing as the right time to write a novel. My waiting for the right time was a bit of a procrastination strategy. It sounds silly but it was quite surprising to realize that my novel wouldn’t write itself. I had to carve out time to write!
  6.     There might be days when you write only one sentence. This is okay. More than okay! This is part of the process. The most important thing is that you committed to the writing and will show up again tomorrow.
  7.     For more inspiration, next month is National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo)! I haven’t tried it so I asked writer and actor Nathan Carroll to share his experience with it:

“Doing nanowrimo was one of the best things I've done because it allowed me to accomplish my lifelong dream of completing a novel. I think it's a smart strategy in how it removes self-editing and self-doubt or criticism from the creative process. It focuses on quantity over quality for a first draft, with the idea being that both increase when you focus on quantity. I found this to be true because there was no room to constantly evaluate. My biggest piece of advice would be to pick up No Plot, No Problem. It is written by the person who came up with the idea. It lays out the process wonderfully. Try to get ahead on the word count. Don't be afraid of writing more than the quota, especially in the first week.”

Thank you again for your question. Please keep sending me questions and I will keep answering them here!

Lastly, one of the best novels I have read recently is The God of Small Things. What are your favourite novels? Let me know in the comments!

Ask Vivek: What is your advice for a beginning songwriter?

October 10, 2016 | E Writer in Residence 2016 — Vivek Shraya | Comments (1)

Ask Vivek - What Is Your Advice For A Beginner Songwriter

I recently received a question regarding songwriting (thank you!) and decided to put together a short list of tips that have worked for me over the years as a songwriter.

  1. An important part of being a good writer is reading. Similarly, an important part of being a good songwriter is listening to music. This sounds a bit obvious, I know. But what I mean by listening isn’t just having music playing in the background. Make a list of your top ten favourite songs. Write down what makes each song so special to you. Is it the lyrics? Is it the chorus? If so, what about the chorus do you like? Try to be as specific as you can be in your observations while you are listening. It is equally important to pay attention to the songs you don’t like. What don’t you like about these songs? Learning what you don’t like in a song can be useful in helping you define what you do like and to create this.
  2. Similar to the above point, listen to a wide range of music. Admittedly, I listen to a lot of Beyoncé. But it’s been very useful for me to listen to music outside of my preferences, outside of what is being played on the radio, and outside of what my friends are listening to. The more different kinds of songwriting you are exposed to, the better and more creative your songwriting will be.
  3. The acoustic guitar / campfire test is a useful one: If you can play a song on just an acoustic guitar (or even just sing it acapella) and it’s strong, then it’s a good song. A good song is not one that should rely on the production or accompaniment. Instead, a good song is one that you could produce in a number of different ways and would still shine. A great example of this is “Show Me Love” by Robyn. The album version is stellar, but the acoustic version is also captivating.
  4. That said, playing around with production and recording can be fun and enhance your songwriting. Garageband is an pretty easy software that I recommend exploring. Even though I didn’t study music formally, there was a lot I could do in Garageband because of how intuitive it is. It is available on all Mac computers (and if you don’t have access to a Mac, check out the Digital Innovation Hubs at the Toronto Public Library). Recording my songs in Garageband is a useful way for me to go back and listen to a song. I can hear what is working or not working such as which lyrics I want to change. Recording your song will make it easier to add additional parts, like harmonies. Garageband comes with all kinds of cool, built-in sounds, so you can also add drum loops or sound effects to give your song a fuller sound. Don’t be afraid to try things out and have fun. Maybe your song needs a horn sound and the only way you will know is if you try it out.
  5. Look for opportunities to play your songs live, even for your friends at a house party. Or look for open mic nights in your area, like Queercab at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. This is a great way for you to hear your song in a different context. A song will sound different in a live atmosphere and hearing it in this context will give you a new perspective on the song itself and songwriting. This will also allow you to get feedback from your friends or audience members, build your performance skills and fans! You might also meet other musicians who want to collaborate with you, which will enhance your songwriting.
  6. While there is so much you can learn from listening to music by other artists, avoid falling into the trap of wanting to write someone else. The world doesn’t need another Rihanna, as spectacular as she is. The world needs YOUR unique perspective and voice! Spend the time in developing your own sound by writing constantly. The more songs you write, the better your songs will get. I wrote my first songs when I was thirteen and while I cherish those songs, my songwriting has only gotten richer the more I have done it.

Thank you again for your question. Please keep sending me questions and I will keep answering them here!

Lastly, some of my favourite songwriting this year is on the Case/Lang/Veirs album. What songwriters inspire you? Let me know in the comments!

Ask Vivek: What is your favourite writing prompt?

October 3, 2016 | E Writer in Residence 2016 — Vivek Shraya | Comments (2)

Ask Vivek: What Is Your Favourite Writing Prompt

Over the years, I have turned to writing prompts especially when I have felt stuck (a.k.a. “writer's block”). Writing prompts are a useful way to ignite the writing muscle, not unlike the ten minutes of stretching you do before hopping on the treadmill or begin lifting weights. I also use writing prompts as icebreakers in workshops.

My favorite writing prompt is this:

Write about YELLOW

Write about the colour yellow, without using the word. What comes to mind? What does the color yellow make you feel, what might it smell like, what associations do have with the colour?

What I like about this prompt is that it forces me to be imaginative. It is also challenging because colours are generally descriptive words. This prompt forces me to be descriptive of a description. Whew! I also like the versatility of this prompt—if I am not feeling inspired by yellow, I can write about turquoise or fuschia.

Writing prompts can be useful beyond warming up. During the writing process of many of my books, I have usually used a prompt in the form of a question. In writing my collection of short stories, God Loves Hair, my prompt was this: What incidents do you recall in your past that might have helped socially construct your gender (and/or sexuality)? Many of the stories I wrote were born from this prompt. While writing my book of poetry, even this page is white, one of my prompts was: “How would you describe racism in words?” Having a central question as a prompt can be challenging but can also give your writing or project a direction, as your goal then becomes answering this question.

Let me know in comments what are some of your favourite writing prompts. Or send me any writing that was inspired by my favourite prompt. Also, please keep sending me questions you would like to see answered here. Next week, we will delve into songwriting!

This week, I feel inspired by the new Solange album, A Seat at the Table. If you haven’t checked out Solange’s music, I highly recommend her last EP, True.

Meet Vivek -- New E-Writer in Residence for Teens

September 26, 2016 | E Writer in Residence 2016 — Vivek Shraya | Comments (2)

Vs-meetV-yellow

As far back as I can remember, I have always been creative. I remember making imaginary (and delicious) foods next to my mom while she cooked, and performing puppet shows with my younger brother. The art form I was most drawn to was singing. I sang in the shower, in the classroom, and at my religious organization. Singing was how I made friends, annoyed my teachers and pleased my mom. Most importantly, singing allowed me to express my feelings. For every emotion I felt — alienation from my classmates, desperation for popularity, rage at my brother — I could release it through melody.

In Grade 7, I learned about poetry and this is when I began to write feverishly. It eventually occurred to me that I could sing these poems, make songs out of my words. I wrote my first “official” song when I was 13. From then on, I wrote songs all the time. But when I needed to take a break from songwriting in my late twenties, I returned to creative writing. I also began to explore other art mediums like photography and short film. I learned that art was not just a powerful means of release. Making art about my various identities — trans, queer, person of colour — and their intersections, has been healing. Art has also been a means to connect with others who have had similar, and different, experiences — others who want to share their stories.

Once again, art has brought me to this job, the new E-Writer in Residence at Toronto Public Library, where I hope to connect with YOU. One of my first jobs as a teenager was working at the Edmonton Public Library as a student page, so this feels a bit like a homecoming of sorts. I am very much looking forward to reading your writing, and providing feedback and support. As I have a multi-disciplinary background, I also invite you to ask for supports with other art forms you are exploring, outside of creative writing, including songwriting. I will be running a regular “Ask Vivek” column here, so please do send me any questions you might have that you would like answered. Please email your writing or art, and column suggestions to vshraya@torontopubliclibrary.ca.

Lastly, I will be facilitating a couple of in-library writing workshops, including at the upcoming Young Voices Conference. This will offer me another opportunity to connect with you.

Sincerely,

Vivek Shraya

P.S. I will be ending all my posts with a link, thought or book that has inspired me. Feel free to share what is inspiring you in the comments below! My favorite summer read was Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng). This is a beautifully written exploration of family and otherness from many perspectives. Check it out!

Vivek Shraya - E-Writer in Residence for Teens

September 18, 2016 | Susan | Comments (0)

VivekshrayaWe are so lucky that the multi-talented Vivek Shraya is the E-Writer in Residence for 2016. She is a writer, musician and filmmaker and will share advice and ideas for young artists on this blog during October and November. 

And if you've ever wished for someone smart, kind and encouraging to give you feedback on your writing, here's your chance. Send Vivek an email now at vshraya@torontopubliclibrary.ca with your stories or poems or songs, and she'll get back to you with insight and suggestions.

You can also attend a writing workshop led by Vivek Shraya at the Young Voices Writers' Conference on October 22. (Get a free ticket to the Conference here.)

If you haven't heard of Vivek, here's a bit about her:

Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based artist whose body of work includes several albums, films, and books. Her first novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2014. Her debut collection of poetry, even this page is white, was released inn 2016. Vivek has read and performed inter­nationally, including sharing the stage with Tegan & Sara. She is one half of the music duo Too Attached.

Continue reading "Vivek Shraya - E-Writer in Residence for Teens" »

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