Monday, September 10, 2012

Catching Up With Minal Hajratwala

Minal Hajratwala's Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents is a book with vast vision and a sharp eye, combining historical sweep with deep personal meaning. I read it in one big gulp, unable to put it down. It's not marketed as YA but to my mind it holds interesting potential for YA readers as well as adults, raising questions of why we are who we are, and what we can become from the hand we're dealt.

Here's what Publishers Weekly had to say in a starred review of Leaving India:

Told with the probing detail of a reporter, the fluid voice of a poet and the inspired vision of a young woman who walks in many worlds, Hajratwala's story offers an engaging account of what may be one of the fastest-growing diasporas in the world. 
In addition to her own work Minal also teaches writing. Here on WWBT, I'm happy to announce a new online class she's offering: Blueprint Your Book, "a 6-Week Course for Crafting Your Manuscript," runs from September 15 to October 22, 2012.

[Uma] Your Blueprint course sounds fantastic. What sets it apart, in your envisioning of it, from other online writing classes?

[Minal] Thanks!  I am a huge fan of freewriting as a way of generating material and working through blocks.  So a lot of the teaching that I do for beginner and all-levels classes is about freewrite, freewrite, freewrite. Find the gorgeous, the deep, the resonant and meaningful voices within you and give them the freedom to come out.

But of course, you can't build a house just by finding beautiful pieces of wood and hoping they'll fit together.  You need a blueprint— either ahead of time, or after you have some clarity about your core elements.  Working out structure is essential.

And for a writer, structure is very difficult to figure out.  Your fantastic writing group that meets once a month might not have the time to track the ins and outs of your whole novel, for example. You're holding it all in your head, and in order to move it around, it needs to get out of your head.  There's a lot of information out there that can feel random if you don't have a guide to how *your project* can work with it: "Write on index cards! Use the Hero's Journey! Have a climax by Page 123!"  These formulas don't work for everyone, or they work a little bit but then have to be used in conjunction with other elements.

[Uma] So how does all that work? By which I mean, how can it come together organically, so you're not totally lost in the maze?

[Minal] If you're building a house, you can't just draw a floor plan, right? You have a whole team of people figuring out where to put the pipes, electric wires, supporting beams inside the walls, whatever.

That's why just an "outline" doesn't work for a book.  You have to figure out not only the plot, but also the emotional currents, the themes, the character arcs, the transitions, the geographical movements, how the metaphors are working together, what your story is really trying to say.  It's really natural to get lost and bewildered in all of the complexities of any story.  Working on structure with tools for every one of these elements is a way to step back, get un-lost, and be strategic about harnessing all of your powerful material.

I realized there was a gap in what's available for writers when I would talk about the many different structural tools that I used in the seven-year process of writing Leaving India. Writer friends and clients would get super-excited about a self/world narrative timeline, or an emotional map —  and there was often a "Wow" moment of breakthrough. I felt it would be great fun to share all the tools together in a workshop and let everyone try them out together.

[Uma] I love that you're using the same tools to prepare yourself for NanoWriMo. Talk a little bit about the value of practicing what you teach.

[Minal] Yes, I’m excited to create my workplan for writing 50,000 words of my novel in November. The first time I did it, I just freewrote like mad, which was fantastic AND had the result that lots of things didn’t end up connecting. I realized that I’ll get even more out of it this time if I do some good planning ahead of time.  I’m going to make specific plans for what I’ll be writing.  It’ll probably change along the way, which is perfect — I just want to have a working structure (not a straitjacket) in place so that I can keep going instead of wasting time wondering what to write about.  I figured some people might like to join me in that process, so I’m excited to share my toolbox/toybox.

I've used every structural tool and exercise I'll share in the workshop.  The great Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi said, "The reason I talk is to encourage you to practice."  Likewise, I feel that a big part of a writing coach's role is simply to encourage a writer's continued practice and effort.  I love to help open up fresh directions and possibilities when the writer gets bogged down or confused or lost in the complexities of the work.  Writing a book can be such a difficult journey and a good teacher/coach has to be able to share enthusiasm and a sense of the rewards — so working with the tools myself gets me excited about them all over again.  As a teacher, it's so important to
be able to transmit a genuine sense of pleasure and possibility.

The times I've been most enthusiastic to enter into a new way of working, or to try something totally strange, are when a teacher or another writer has been able to say, "This is what I did AND IT WORKED."

[Uma] What you say about the organic form of story really resonates for me. How do you achieve a balance between self-discovery and the practical elements of instruction? Can you talk about the concept of balance in general? Does it help, or does it fail us as writers?

[Minal] Oh, balance!  You know, Uma, for me balance is not the most helpful priority.  I think about Michelangelo saying, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  He didn't say, "I wanted to balance how much I use the big chisel and how much I use the little chisel, in order to be fair to both, so I used one and then the other for a long time until the angel somehow happened."  He knew and wholly believed in what he was seeing: that's the organic form.  He was intimate with his tools: that's the craft.  And he put them together obsessively to make his vision come true.

So I say, get intimate with your tools.  Allow yourself to be passionate about daydreaming and envisioning what you want to create. Sometimes this concept of balance makes us hold back a little on everything, in order to have energy for it all.  Why not dive deeply into the organic discovery of your own work and voice, with everything you have? Then dive deeply into the practical elements of plot and character development and narrative design, too; don't hold back. (And take time to rejuvenate when you can: do that wholeheartedly, too.)

Instead of balance, making writers feel like we have to do it all, I try to encourage a mindful, strategic approach.  If freewriting stops being productive, maybe it's time to step back and do some structure work and figure some things out.  If you're making endless outlines and haven't written a new word in a long time, see if there's a whiff of procrastination or fear about you, and get support for that.

Go back and forth, get obsessed, use every Post-It note in the house if you have to, but keep going forward.

One of my favorite quotes is from an interview with a Cirque du Soleil choreographer who was asked how he finds the right compromise between his artistic vision and the safety of the performers.  And he looks shocked and says something like, Oh no! There is never any compromise. It has to be 100% safe AND 100% gorgeous.

[Uma] Oh, I love that! Makes me think of the wild magic of a Cirque performance, with much the kind of energy you'd want swirling through a piece of writing. Oh, you're making me want to drop everything and go write!

[Minal] Writing has to be 100% everything. So, personally, I'm not after balance at all.  I'm looking to create pockets of time and space when I can be completely obsessed and immersed with my project, whether I'm in a structural mode or a freewriting mode or a revision mode.  That doesn't always mean a writer's residency, although that's precisely why residencies are amazing and hyper-productive.  It can also mean that sacred hour from 2am-3am when everyone else is asleep and nothing intervenes.

At that moment I'm not balancing a plate on my lap and a cat on my laptop and incoming phone calls: I'm totally unbalanced, in the world of my book. That's a moment of grace for me as a writer.

[Uma] So when is the right time in a project to focus on structure?  And is any of this specific to genre and form?

[Minal] I would say it's never too early, and it's not really too late until your book is finished.  Most writers are naturally moving between the structural level and the word-by-word level throughout the process. Getting conscious about what you're doing structurally can save you a lot of time.

Genre writers have certain structure elements in place, and because of this, I think sometimes plot development, for example, gets a "non-literary" rap.  But actually every book has its own internal structure.  Every manuscript needs the writer to, at some point, emerge into awareness of what is holding the work together in terms of theme, arcs, etc., and make those connections solid.  Even if you're working in a stream-of-consciousness, anti-structure form,
there is still an underlying logic to the manuscript.

[Uma] True. But what's the emotional cue you need to pay attention to,  then?

[Minal] At any point where you feel lost, confused, stuck, or ready to enter a major overhaul, structural tools can help you find a clear way forward.  When used at the beginning, making a blueprint can save you a lot of time. Some attention to design, and the various layers on which your book is moving, can help you find the form in which you have total freedom to tell the story you want to tell.

Thank you Minal Hajratwala, colleague and Hedgebrook alum, lover of unicorns, mentor of young writers, and more! Come back anytime to WWBT.

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