Another writing adventure!

09-writing-adventure-blog-postJust a quick update, i’ll be heading to the winter residency for Pacific University’s MFA in Writing!! While i’ll be an absorbing sponge for the next ten days, I will be checking in.


In the meantime follow me on twitter as I’ll be posting the awesome things I’m learning!

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08-we-need-diverse-books-blog-postThere’s something magical happening on Twitter!

The “We Need Diverse Books” campaign is fundraising! I donated what I could (tahirra.blogs), and I hope you will too.

I’ll post a larger article on this topic soon, but for now, follow @diversebooks, @wordsxborders, and #SupportWNDB to see all the amazing stuff people are saying.


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“Slam Knuckles on Keyboard” or Why Noveling Hurts Some(Most)times

07-noveling-hurts-blog-postSo. Novels. They kind of suck.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m very happy to attempt to write another, and grateful I finished one. (A very, very, very, awful draft of one, but hey there was an ending, right?)

So way back in ancient internet times (October) I wrote a post on strategies to keep moving on a novel focusing on plot. It came out of my own problems with a novel I was working on, and I thought it’d be fun to use a post and just explicate that problem.

As I wracked my brain for words to fill pages, my roommate Sara was an awesome influence. She encouraged me daily to write, often just asking, “did you write today?” Most days the answer would be a simple yes/no followed by either her praise or chastisement. One day, I answered:

“Yeah. I’m up to 50K words. And I just realized I have to trash it all.” *Bang head here*

Good people, I give you: The Process.

So it’s been a good six months since then, and I’ve finally pieced together the problems with that first incomplete draft. There was a lot, but they generally fell into two categories:

1) What I didn’t know:

  • I didn’t know my 1st main character, her motivations, her inner dialogue, how she percieves herself and her world, etc. I didn’t even know her favorite color… Well, I knew her name 🙂
  • I didn’t know the world the story took place in, it’s political and social structure(s), it’s history, the race/gender/class ratios, the geography, or its current politcal/social issues.
  • I didn’t know the motivations of my 2nd main character (I knew more about her personally at least), she’s an old woman who has been dormant for years, so why now does she get active and seek out Main Character 1?
  • I didn’t know the motivation of the antagonists (this has a lot to do with not knowing the world and it’s status quo) like, why the hell are they so mean and angry? And how the hell do they even know about MC1? And what information do they have to even give a crap about her?

To basically summarize issue group #1:

Sidenote: OMG! Game of Thrones Season 4!

Side note: OMG! Game of Thrones Season 4!


Well, now that #1 has been explicated, let me illustrate issue group #2: Imagine chugging away on a keyboard (or in my case, writing by hand in a notebook) and deciding one day arbitrarily, “hey I should read this through just to get a feel of the pacing” (or in other words, “how shall I procrastinate now?”).

2) The fact that in 50K words, nothing was happening:

Seriously. There’s about 30,000 words of a group of characters camping. And nothing happens (beside some stupid drama that has little to do with the overall plot). Part of this is my problem with outlining. I am an “outliner”, and a “re-outliner”, usually though this means that I have certain moments in mind, and I keep writing bleckh till I get there. My brain goes: Ok this character needs to die, but that one already fell off a cliff, is it too soon? I guess so. Well, I’ll just fill a few more pages and make time pass for this person to die.

Not a good strategy. It’s one thing to keep writing, it’s another thing to keep writing nothing. Outlining can be a crutch, and its good to recognize when you need to leave the plodding and free write for a while. It’s harder than it seems, trust me. More so if you were invested in the ideas before you started writing them (in the editing process, we call removing those parts “killing the baby”).

But for about 30-40K words, I would not, could not, kill the baby, and so I ended up writing a bunch of stuff I couldn’t save. And killing 50K words was so much harder than it would have been to just leave the outline and the preconceived ideas I had.

Sum up issue 2:

Come on, we all know why you read it.

Come on, let’s just be honest about our expectations here…

So, that’s my story. After working my butt off, I’m back to no words.

Now you are reading this and thinking, “Ok, what the hell was the point in all that?”

What I’m trying to say is, for any novelists out there, you are not alone. For any new ones, this is not a bad thing (it sucks, but it’s not bad). Be flexible. Let the process take you where it needs to.


Well, I have a happy ending to give you!

Realizing what my issues really were, I decided to analyze the characters I had. One character stuck out. She was so interesting, and I knew her so well. Yes I had an outline on her too, but it was very vague, which gave me room to explore. (Also, she lives in a BAMF world that I get to travel around with her!)


Now I’ve put that 50k mess on hold and started a different novel with a character I know very well, and a real plot with both outer and inner conflict! Hooray!

And writing a novel has gone back to being fun again. Faith restored.

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#CancelColbert and the “White Conservative Caricature” Dilemma

On Thursday the Twittersphere blew up over the “Cancel Colbert” hashtag started by “hashtag activist” Suey Park. The campaign was in response to a Colbert Report joke that was tweeted out of context from the Comedy Central promotional account (not affiliated with Stephen Colbert).

Original Tweet from Comedy Central Account

Original Tweet from Comedy Central Account

The offensive tweet (now deleted) was the punch-line Colbert used to demonstrate the ridiculousness of Daniel Snyder’s real-life “The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation.” For any who don’t know, “redskins” is a slur for Native Americans.

The joke aired on the Wednesday night show, but the outrage did not surface till the offending tweet was published the following day. The hashtag sought to promote conversation of “safe racism” (would this be debatable if he had used the N-word?), and the tendency of white comedians and white activists to hide their racist remarks/tendencies under the Progressive label.

Response Tweets from Suey Park

Response Tweets from Suey Park

Long story short, as the hashtag gained popularity, the conversation derailed into: “Don’t you understand satire?” “Yes, I know satire!” “Stop being sensitive!” “Stop defending racists!” And the always expected death/rape/go-kill-yourself threats otherwise known as the “dark matter” of the internet. (Ok, so I made that up… still fits.)

Amongst the back-and-forth tweets between the pro-hashtag and anti-hashtag camps very few gems of criticism were available.

Dan Snyder gets a break

Daniel Snyder gets a break

When this ends, there really won’t be much of a concrete pay-off in terms of this battle, so everyone seems to be scrambling to find a “take-away”. (If you think smart, successful, and riskier activists such as MLK didn’t pick and plan their battles you need to watch the documentary “Eyes on the Prize.”)

Some look at the practicality of “hashtag activism” (and yes, I personally do separate hashtag and “click” activism from activism), some comment on how to conduct yourself in a twitter debate, some comment on the effect of in-fighting for larger movements, and some wonder whether all voices should be equally heard in a debate (I don’t take kindly to white tears either), or what it means to have Michelle “pro-Asian internment camps” Malkin as an ally, etc.

One problem that was overlooked was Stephen Colbert.

I’m saying this as a fan, who does not–as a woman of color, Muslim, non-American–get offended by his show. And for future reference, of course I mean the character not the man.

Colbert is a caricature of neo-con, conservative media. His show is a mirror to that of Bill O’Reilly’s on Fox News. He extends the assumptions, beliefs, actions, and talking points of conservatives to their logical extremes. When I laugh at his jokes, I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, they [conservatives] would totally say that! How stupid! How outdated!” etc. I’m exercising my sense of superiority.

For argument sake I’ll call this “White Conservative Caricature,” WCC for short (not to be confused with the White Citizens Council).

In demonstrating WCC there is inherently a problem: how do you approach the caricature of white conservative beliefs without drawing upon the ideas (or -isms) that have historically made up that identity?

In plain English, how can one play a racist without saying something racist? How can one play a sexist without saying something sexist? How can one pretend to be homophobic without saying something homophobic?

The history of conservative White America is not a pretty one. When taking on WCC you’re incorporating a history of colonialism and chattel-slavery, and more domestically: “Black Face,” “Yellow Face,” Cold War hysteria, McCarthyism, etc., frankly a lot of bad crap. (Please spare me the white tears, I know not all white history is bad.)

In Colbert’s case, it’s true that some instances have been more successful than others. For instance, when “defending” Bill O’Reilly’s racist remarks (about Asians), Colbert used “technical difficulties” and his lawyers as a moment to highlight key problems with stereotyping (even as a compliment), and Twitter did not explode.

Bill O’Reilly’s Racial Insensitivity

Many have criticized that Colbert doesn’t walk the line between satire and oppression, he “tramples it” when it comes to topics such as transphobia.

The topic of “safe racism” fits well in this observation. It is safe to say that Colbert will probably never come out on set with black paint all over his face. Certain acts of racism will never be deemed acceptable in any context (though it doesn’t stop some from trying). This then begs the question for some groups who don’t have that level of “protection” why some acts of racism are always unacceptable and not all.

Ultimately one wonders if a character such as a WCC is always inherently harmful because of the history, privilege, and oppression it must draw upon.

I still enjoy the show, but #CancelColbert did succeed in making me think more about the toll a caricature like this may have on the oppressed peoples it tries to lift up through satire.

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At the Gala!: The Wonderful World of the Residency

06-at-the-gala-blog-postHappy New Year! And with the New Year comes a new experience for me: my first Winter MFA Residency with Pacific University.

This residency takes place at Seaside, OR rather than on campus. Students and faculty are put up in hotels, and spend ten glorious days in workshops, craft talks, classes, faculty readings, graduate presentations, and student readings. It’s non-stop, action-packed, awesomeness starting at 9:00 am and ending at (if you attend everything in a single day) 10:00pm.

It’s tiring, but I crawl gleefully to bed every night. This being my second residency (the start to my second semester), I feel like I know the terrain better. It’s also nice to feel like I can do my part to welcome new students, just as others welcomed me when I first arrived in June.

I thought it’d be interesting to post an example of the schedule, so here is the itinerary from Jan 12, 2014:

7:00am-8:30am            Breakfast

9:00am-10:00am          Craft Talk: “The Art of the Interview” with Judy Blunt

10:15am-Noon                Workshop
(During this time, graduate students typically have their Thesis reviews.)

Noon-1:30                         Lunch

1:30pm-2:30pm              Craft Talk: “Earn the Vomit: How Poets Write the Grotesque”
with Anna Journey

2:45pm-3:45pm              Craft Talk: “Fiction Faculty Passages” with Bonnie Jo

4:00pm-5:30pm             Graduate Student Readings

6:00pm-7:00pm             Dinner

7:30pm-8:30pm             Faculty Reading and Book Signing

9:00pm-10:00pm          Student Reading (Sign-up to share your work)

That, my friends, is just one day! And yes, after just two days it felt like I was here for at least a couple weeks (in a good way). Its nice, like it was at the National Book Festival, to re-immerse myself into the larger conversations we as writers (and artists in general) have about art and the world. I even start referring to myself as a writer (weird!).

How do I feel, you may ask? Well, a lot like this:


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At the 2013 National Book Festival



Meeting Arthur for the first time!

This weekend was the 2013 National Book Festival in D.C. For those of you who don’t know, the NBF is a yearly gathering of book lovers hosted by the president and first lady. I’m pretty sure it was started by Laura Bush as part of her literacy cause. Anyways, its two days of readings, book signings and special events in all genres.

Of course the first thing I did was get in line to meet Arthur!

Walking around and taking in the atmosphere on the National Mall was wonderful. The crowd was different than those small groups standing outside Capitol Hill on the mornings I go to work. It was jovial, and a sense of comradery filled me as I listened, read, and explored with my (later aching) feet, the journeys I’ve taken with my mind.

Because that is what this was about, a physical celebration of books, and reading, and what that means.

Immediately, I hung around the Children’s literature with my friend Sara who had the right idea of making me attend even though I was feeling sick. Children’s literature, you see, is the area I would like to one day work in as an editor.

Author Richard Peck read from his book “The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail,” combining his reading with commentary and his insights on writing.

(Cool thing he mentioned: his current book, and last book end on the same day in the same building, two doors apart. You don’t have to read in a particular order!)

It was wonderful for many reasons. But the part that lifted me most was at the end when a woman asked: how can I encourage kids to read?

Capitol Hill

Capitol Hill

He answered,

“They must be read to before they can read themselves. It’s not a school problem; it’s a home problem.”

Both my parents are readers, but I didn’t know that till I was in my teens. Before then, I rarely saw my parents with a book. I, being the kid who didn’t move an inch for hours to finish a book,  mistook their concern for a dislike of reading. I guess it is reasonable to want your child to eat healthy and take proper bathroom breaks…

But I compare my reading habits to say, my boyfriend, who grew up with parents who not only read in front of him on a regular basis, but recommended books. And, of course,  before he could read he was read to.

And gosh darn-it, today he’s much more well-read than I am! Can I add two points to my score since his mom is a librarian?

But I think parental involvement is important for any subject. I write better because when I was younger, my mother would correct my work with me. And over the summer she would buy math workbooks for my siblings and I to give us an hour or two of summer school every day. Today, I’m probably a better mathematician, than I am a reader. At least according to my GRE scores…

What I loved about the NBF was that there were so many parents with young children carrying new books to read later. They were all blossoming book lovers!

So this is really a blog to say: Thank you to the organizers, donors, participants and volunteers for making this happen every year.

And, thank you especially, to those parents who are instilling a love of books in their children. Makes my heart soar!

On the Merry-Go-Round

With my orange NBF bag!

I ended the day with a ride on the first Merry-Go-Round to desegregate in 1963. I believe I read about that somewhere… 😉

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The Life of a Writer: Reasons to Consider a Low-Residency Program


For many people, this summer will either consist of actively looking for grad programs, or putting off the inevitable.  Hello undergraduate classes of 2014!

I’ll be posting a general article on searching and applying to grad schools, but for now I’d like to focus on why I ultimately chose a low-residency program.

Let me start off by indulging in my own story.

When I got to the end of my junior year of undergrad at Knox College (where President Obama spoke recently), I had decided to go the route of the MFA instead of continuing with political science or law.

Now, where to apply?

Of course, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was one school I was going to apply to.  It was one of those decisions that went, “I’d rather not look back and think, ‘what if’.”  It’s the creative writer’s pipe dream, and those who get in are extremely happy when they do.

So, aside from that? Now what?  I’ll detail that process in a later post.  Eventually, I went through and picked six programs I’d apply to, four full-residency programs, one low-residency program, and one summer program.

Months later, and I got back a wait-list, two rejections, and three acceptances.  Pretty good stats, considering that one of the rejections was the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (which I expected).

The program was the Denver Publishing Institute, so I accepted that, since it wouldn’t have interfered with any other program I chose.  (More on Denver later.)

Well, in regards to those other two programs, one was a full-residency (which shall remain anonymous) and the other was a low-residency at Pacific University.

Both programs were extremely good.  The differences came down to the lifestyle situation (and in my case, visa options).

Just a note to international students: I’ll have another post soon on the visa hoops that I’m going through now. Oh yes, the OPT.

Alright, back to the choice OF ALL CHOICES!!!

As many people know, a traditional program would in some cases be a repeat of an undergraduate degree: you go to class, you have homework, you may in fact live in a dorm.

The work will be harder, for sure, but the lifestyle would be the same as a student.

The pros: often these programs have literary publications you can get involved in; you have an in-person community of peers who could be potential life-long friends and readers; you don’t have to think about housing and food options if you live on-campus (of course you’ll still have to figure out paying the room & board fees).  These are all things to seriously consider.

While my undergraduate experience was good, I didn’t want the lifestyle.  I had already moved out of the dorms by my junior year, and didn’t want to go back.

In hindsight, it’d be nice to have a more consistent mailing address instead of hopping around like I’ve been doing since I graduated (what my advisor calls “Suitcase Rana”).

But, I’m a writer. And like any other writer, I’ll create no matter what.  That was the most important thing to me: what is life like as an actual author?

Well, a traditional program (for all the perks) leaves you in an ivory tower.  You get all the time you want to focus solely on your writing, which is why you’re there in the first place.  Real writers aren’t all in academia.

Well, with a low-residency program: you’ve got a job.  Maybe you have a mortgage, maybe you have really noisy kids, maybe your car broke down and the engineer is making you pay through the nose to fix it, but you still have to set aside time to write.

That was what I wanted: a stepping stone into the actual life of a writer.  Real writers may not have deadlines being monitored by a professor, or detailed feedback, so a low-res has a little more guidance than a full-blown, on-your-own writing life.

I’ve been to one residency (a ten day writing retreat with craft lectures, faculty readings, student readings, and workshops) where I met great people of different backgrounds.  I loved being there, I learned a lot, and met people who weren’t just continuing on from the class of 2013.  Everyone was supportive and gave care to other people’s work.

It trains you, for two years to get into the habit.  That was ultimately why I chose it (also, most of my favorite poets happen to teach here).

Now, excuse me, I’ve got to get to writing!

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Truth: A Responsibility of Art


[A/N: Here it is, I promised an article about poetry… so this one has poetry in it, and is about art in general.  Close enough.]

I remember sitting in bed in August, back home in Kuwait.  Everyone was sleeping, and I was prowling the internet out of boredom and insomnia.

Funny enough, it wasn’t until my mother called me that I realized it was past midnight: officially August, 2nd 2012.  And it wasn’t until she mentioned it that I realized 22 years ago on that day, Kuwait was invaded by Iraq, despite the fact that I had been working all summer on a project about the occupation.

After that realization all of a sudden the interviews I conducted earlier, which I had ignored revisiting, sprang into my head and I wondered: can art heal?

The project I am working on involves getting the personal stories of people in Kuwait or fleeing during the occupation and trying to translate that to different artistic mediums.  So far, translating those experiences to my own head has been a problem, its a difficult position artists find themselves in often: truthfully putting yourself in the position of someone else.

Its been months of mental blockage for me, because there is no way I know exactly, without a doubt, what it’s like to be ten years old and see two teenage boys get shot in the head in front of their own mother.  Nor do I know what its like to be molested by a soldier in front of my husband.  Or to try to sleep after seeing soldiers walk around wearing gas masks like something’s coming.  None of that.  My life has been (thankfully) relatively peaceful.

Let’s assume, art is responsible for being truthful.  Since the “A Million Little Pieces” debacle with James Frey, writers specifically, but artists generally, have been trying to define what truth is in art more vehemently than before.  Is it an issue of labeling fiction vs non-fiction? Is it creating art from your own experience solely? What about memory- two people can remember the same event differently for many reasons…

There is also factual truth versus the emotional truth of a moment.  We like to think truth can be objective, and in some cases it is: who, what, when, where.  These can be verified easily like following someone around with a camera.  Why is always a big issue: why did someone act this way, why didn’t they make this choice etc.

The “why” of it all is a big part of my project.  Not only do I have to consider why I am taking this on, but through the poems, which I wrote in the voices of other people, I have to answer why (and how) they felt one way or the other.  That means knowing them, that means gleaning some form of truth from the interviews I conducted, the verbal and non-verbal communication.

So far, I’d like to think I am being truthful; that in some way I am honoring their experiences.  However, I don’t have a way of verifying that at this point (when the work is done, I’ll try to contact people to read through it).

There are poems from the 1400s and 1600s we still try to find motives for, and overtime people come to accept them as truths: Yeats wrote this poem for his daughter, Bronte for her mystery lover, etc.

Let’s look at a contemporary example: John Berryman.

In his “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” Berryman writes of about 17th century poet Anne Bradstreet’s life, while putting himself in the poem.  Coupled with some truths about Bradstreet’s life, Berryman adds his own made-up “history” within the poem.  When the poem was praised no one raised the issue of truth, even when it was first published without any notations.  A novice to Ms. Bradstreet would not have been able to glean the real from the make-believe.

Similarly, Jim Harrison took some liberties with another dead poet.  His book “Letters to Yesenin” are filled with what I like to call “psyche assumptions”.  He assumes things of Yesenin a dead Russian poet, but because of his voice, and his willingness to place himself in the poems (since the poems are mostly about his own issues) creates a bubble of trust in each poem.  Not once do I not believe him, and I’ve read those poems over and over trying to dissect them.  (Also, he’s my favorite poet to return to for various reasons.)

In both these cases, there wasn’t an uproar the likes that James Frey could attract.  Is it that readers do not expect truth in poetry? Or is it that the emotional truth is enough? Or is it (again) just an issue of labels?

Should we start categorizing poetry like we do prose?

In a journalism class I took, a student said, “if art isn’t factual, then art is a fallacy.”  Or something to that effect.  But are facts the only kind of truth?

Does Berryman’s fictional unrequited love of Bradstreet detract from the reality that humans sometimes “linger, diminished, in our lovers’ air?”  Does Harrison’s descriptions of Yesenin’s suicide take away from that moment he “looked at a photo of my sister.  Ten years dead.” and says “show me a single wound on earth that love has healed.”

Aren’t these moments we find true universally? So is truth, factual truth, the end goal, or are we looking (as readers and writers) for more?

Let me know what you think in the comments section!

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