Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Artsy-Crafty Dilettante

I've been a writer since I was twenty, when I started writing little erotica stories and putting them on the internet.  I had found rec.arts.erotica in college in 1992, and was just stunned by how bad the stories were -- bad grammar, bad spelling, etc. and so on.  I thought as an English major, I could do better.  So I wrote short pieces -- usually about a thousand words -- and put them online.  This was in the early days of the internet; I was the only English major I knew who actually used her e-mail account.  I didn't expect that anyone I knew would actually read these stories.  Writing erotica back then and posting it online felt like tossing love letters out into a deep, dark sea.  And when I'd get an occasional note from someone who liked one of my stories, it felt like getting a love letter back.  I was quickly addicted to both the writing, and the response from readers.  Even the critical words (although they did sting) were welcome, because they were evidence that my writing had touched someone, that they cared enough to not just read, but to write back.  I was hooked.

When my parents heard that their nice Sri Lankan-American daughter was writing smut and putting it out there for all the world to see, all hell broke loose.  But by that point I was also living with my white boyfriend (Kevin), and we were in the midst of a series of family battles that would last a decade, so I pretty much just dug my heels in for the long haul.  I was a writer, dammit, and I was going to write whatever I wanted, and publish wherever I wanted, and there was nothing my parents could do about it.

Now that I have a daughter of my own (almost eighteen months old), I do sometimes wonder whether I could have at least been a bit more considerate of my parents' position.  They'd been raised in a Sri Lankan village, after all, a place with only one telephone for the whole village (in the house of the rich man).  My dad was a doctor, my mom a housewife, and they'd had an arranged marriage in the traditional manner.  Finding out that their oldest daughter (my two younger sisters became doctors in fully respectable fashion) was not only having sex before marriage, but with a) multiple people, b) sometimes with girls, and c) writing about it publically, must have been insanely hard for them.  Now I can look back and wish I'd been a little kinder to them about it; eased them into it all, at least.  At twenty, I didn't have that level of grace in me.

So I wrote.  I wrote for free and put it online; I wrote for little magazines that paid in copies.  I started with poetry, actually, but quickly discovered that poetry pays nothing, so I put the poetry up on a web page and tried to publish the stories.  Eventually, I published a book with a small press (Torn Shapes of Desire), then edited a book for a big press (Aqua Erotica).  Then some more, nine in all, including a Sri Lankan cookbook I wrote for my mother as a (conciliatory) Christmas present (A Taste of Serendib).  She told me I'd gotten several of the recipes wrong.  But I think she liked it anyway.

After a while, I realized that I really did want to be a writer full-time, and so I did what all young South Asians do when training for a career -- went to grad school.  I eventually figured out that you didn't actually have to have a degree in order to be a writer, and that in fact, for a lot of people a degree just gets in the way.  Plus, MFA's can be outrageously expensive (mine put me in debt for $40K!).  But I didn't know any better, and as it turned out, I loved grad school -- the dedicated workshops and time to write, the company of other writers, the help of teachers, the chance to study Sri Lankan history when I needed it for a book (I'm a lazy researcher, and will avoid it if at all possible, so signing up for a class and then being forced to do the work helped me a lot) -- all of it was exactly suited to my writing needs.  I did an MFA, and then a few years later a Ph.D. in creative writing, which also helped with the whole day job issue, because as it turned out, I loved to teach.  So teacher by day, writer by night (okay, usually writer more by early morning, but you get the idea), and I had found what I wanted to do.  All I needed to do now was actually start making some money with it.

Bodies in Motion was my thesis project, a sprawling set of linked Sri Lankan-American immigrant stories, covering two families and four generations.  I worked on it intensely for four years, getting deeper and deeper into it, and also more and more stressed.  I wanted it to be everything -- the great American novel, the book that would make me rich, justification to my parents for the decade I'd spent writing instead of getting a real job, proof that I wasn't just writing smut to make money but was a 'serious' writer, whatever that meant.  I was making myself crazy with anxiety and stress.  Plus, I was living in Utah at the time, which is enough to try anyone's nerves.  I was staring at the blank screen one morning when I finally snapped.

I went blindly to the art store; I fled there, in fact.  Loaded up my cart with at least a hundred dollars of art supplies (that I could ill afford as a starving grad student).  Came home and made art.  I made collages.  I made books.  I made candles.  I made afghans.  All technically unskilled, total beginner work, but I didn't care -- I'd spent a decade trying to make my writing brilliant -- always failing, never living up to that perfect story in my head.  All I wanted from art was that it give me someplace to pour a little creativity, someplace that didn't have to be perfect.  I loved it, and my family got a lot of handmade gifts for the next few Christmases.

The book did get written, and published by HarperCollins, to glowing critical reviews and mediocre sales.  My parents forgave me a little bit when they saw the real check from the real publisher, although my mom still called me up and asked me about alternate career paths.  (Am I sure I don't want to be an x-ray technician, like so-and-so's daughter?  They make good money!  How about a florist?  It would be so nice to work with flowers all day...)  Briefly, I was walking on air; I felt like a Real Writer (TM).

Then I had a novel with HarperCollins crash and burn, which sent me into a depression for a solid year.  A bad time, with no writing in it.  I even stopped writing poetry.  But Kevin and I finally had a child last year, which helped a lot in pulling me out of the writing slump -- as soon as the baby was born, I was full of ideas for the next book (the next five books, actually).  None of which I could actually write then, of course, since I was about to throw myself out a window from all the not sleeping, breastfeeding difficulties, etc. and so on.  But eventually (at nine months), Kavya started sleeping through the night.  I went back to teaching.  And I started writing again.  I even wrote and self published a little illustrated book for her, with the help of a talented artist friend, The Poet's Journey.

I teach at the University of Illinois right now, fiction writing and Asian American lit, which is perfect for me, although I struggle daily with balancing teaching and mothering and finding time to write.  We use a lot of childcare, and still, it's hard.  Some weeks are better than others.  There are days when I feel I'm short-changing our daughter, and lots more days when I know I'm short-changing the writing.  But slowly, over time, they both keep surviving and growing, so I'm cautiously optimistic.

The art mostly stayed on the sidelines through all this.  Little projects here and there -- a bit of painting, some more collage.  In the textiles world, I made two afghans (one for my mother, one a baby blanket for a friend), both of which took  me FOREVER.  I started a scarf in 2003, but then got distracted and forgot about it.  But this week, even though my life is already way too busy and I don't have time for another hobby, I picked my yarn up again.  Partly it's election stress -- I'm feeling helpless about this election; frustrated that as a permanent resident I can't even vote, worried that despite all the positive indicators, my guy might not make it.  Partly it's book stress -- I'm not under contract, but I'm writing a nonfiction book, a memoir/travelogue thing, and it's getting close to done and I am once again starting to panic that it's not as good as the perfect book in my head.  (It's not even close.  Sigh.)  All the stress is driving me a little crazy yet again, and working with yarn actually seems to help.

The pretty colors soothe my eyes -- so much better than staring at a screen!  The counting and the checking and even the undoing and redoing calm me down.  I'm such a novice -- I still have to look up half the basic stitches, and every time I consider a new pattern, the instructions fill me briefly with anxiety.  When I visit the knitting and crocheting sites, I don't understand half of what they're saying, and I doubt that I'll ever be able to do a hundredth of what the serious artists do.  But that's okay.  Writing is my profession; yarn can just be a passion.  I don't have to be perfect at it, or even try.  Yarn can just be pure joy, and if I start to get too perfectionist about it, hopefully someone will tell me, and I can put it down and walk away.  In the meantime, though, I'm having fun.

In the last week I've finished that scarf from 2003, and I love it.  I've started crocheting a little amigurumi elephant for my daughter, and woolly socks for Kevin.  And I can't say for certain that I won't just put the yarn down again, like I did with the candle-making, and the collages, and the painting.  But somehow, I don't think I will.  There's too much I'm starting to love about it -- most especially the feel of the yarn in my fingers, the beauty of so quickly making something out of just knots and thread.  If I get too crazy watching the election tonight I'm going to Jo-Ann Fabrics for a basic knitting class.  In a few weeks some friends are coming by for a craft afternoon, and one has promised to teach me embroidery.  I have plans for gifts this holiday, and they're all yarn-based.  I may not be an art dilettante for much longer, my friends; the yarn has seduced me.

And when I finish making this little elephant, maybe I'll actually finish that next book.


Blogger Caroline said...

I love, love, love your post and am so glad you are here. I also had a novel crash and burn--the publishing company died two weeks before my book came out, and all the sales force left. I got one rave reviews in the Washington post and then nothing at all. Even worse, my next book was picked up by PUtnam's, (they bought my contract) and my editor was fired, and guess what happened to the book? These things happen, but you can't let them stop you. I am now happily with a great publisher, and I have my fingers crossed so tightly, I have cut off circulation.

Your writing sounds wonderful, your daughter is absolutely gorgeous (when I had my so, I used to write in two hour intervals with him in the bassinet beside my desk.)

Welcome, welcome, welcome

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Cathy said...

Welcome to the blog! I don't write on it, but am a loyal reader, and I'm looking forward to seeing how far down the fiber arts hole you fall. Considering I can do just about anything except tatting and bobbin lace, although there are some things I know how to do that I just don't favor. Quilting is one of them--I don't have the patience for it (says the woman who is knitting her umpteenth pair of socks). I've fallen down so hard, I spin and weave, too.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Nancy Herkness said...

A very warm welcome to RTY, Mary Anne! How wonderful to have you here!

Your daughter is GORGEOUS! Hard to believe my children were once that small and adorable. Now one's in college and the other is a towering-over-me varsity soccer player. Enjoy the cute, cuddly moments--they go by so fast!

Since most of us on this blog write romance, we totally sympathize with the "when are you going to write a real book and not this trash" issue. You've shown the courage to stick to your guns and we admire you for it.

I am fascinated by the trajectory of your writing career. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. I'm looking forward to reading several of your books.

Beware the knitting addiction: it sucks you in and never lets you go!

Glad you're here!

8:15 AM  
Blogger Mary Anne Mohanraj said...

Thanks for the welcome, everyone! I'm feeling cautiously optimistic about this next book -- if I ever finish it, that is.

I'd love to hear romance recommendations if you have them. When I was a teen, I had a Barbara Cartland summer -- I think I read close to a hundred of her slim novels; totally addicted. But recently, I haven't read much romance; some Amanda Quick, but that's about it.

(Kevin did forbid me from reading romance one year, because he said everytime I finished a novel, I picked a major fight with him soon thereafter. I guess he wasn't living up to the heroes in the books, and it was pissing me off? But our relationship is much solider now. :-)

My favorite recent discovery is Jennifer Cruisie -- I love her unconventional heroines (in a variety of sizes) and the humor and smartness of her books. But now I've read all of hers! Anyone else good working along those lines?

9:27 AM  
Blogger Barbara Bretton said...

Book recommendations: anything by Marian Keyes (an Irish writer) and Jane Green (an ex-pat Brit living on our east coast; she was early chick-lit now less definable). Keyes is especially wonderful. Sometimes brilliant. And sneaky. You probably know that Amanda Quick is also Jayne Ann Krentz (contemporary suspense) and Jayne Castle (futuristics). Highly recommend Eloisa James's historical romances - in real life she's Mary Bly, professor of Shakespeare (I think it's Shakespeare) at Fordham University. (Also niece of Robert Bly.)

2:50 PM  
Blogger Nancy Herkness said...

All the ones Barbara said, plus:

For light romance, I love Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

J.D. Robb's (aka Nora Roberts) police thrillers set in a slightly futuristic NYC, the "XXX in Death" series, are brilliant and intense but it's a series with recurring characters so it works better to start at the beginning at least for the first four or five books. Then you can jump around a bit more.

For Regency historicals, I adore Loretta Chase, esp. LORD PERFECT. For straight regencies, Georgette Heyer is the pinnacle, IMO. Her books probably planted the seeds of my ambition to be a romance novelist.

Not to mention everyone on this blog. ;-)

I'll think of more as soon as I post this, of course.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Mary Anne Mohanraj said...

I've had Heyer recommended to me many times, and never managed to get around to it -- but now I've picked up her ARABELLA, and am thoroughly enjoying it. :-)

1:06 PM  
Blogger Nancy Herkness said...

I'm so glad you're enjoying ARABELLA! It's one of my favorites. Track down VENETIA and FREDERICA next. I consider those her absolute best. Well, unless I'm in the mood for THESE OLD SHADES followed by DEVIL'S CUB. Okay, so it's hard to choose but those are in the top 10.

I SO envy you just discovering the joys of Heyer's novels!

4:01 PM  
Blogger Mary Anne Mohanraj said...

I whipped through Arabella in an afternoon; couldn't put it down. So funny! I'm very tempted to just go on a massive Heyer kick and read them all through the next week, but I think I better ration them. If I only read one a week, that should get me through to Christmas at least, right?

8:58 PM  

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