Inspiration Station: Building Character, Minute-By-Minute

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

I’ve been grappling with a character in my current work in progress. How to describe this character. Trying to figure out its backstory, its impact on the plot, when it needs to be present—actively or passively. How does this character relate to the other characters—in harmony, in melody, or in cacophony. Perhaps in all those ways, all at the same time.

It’s Time.

Literally, Time, because since I had the great privilege of hearing Nobel Laureate Maria Vargas Llosa speak in a series of lectures, I’ve been viewing time through the lens of active character not merely passive setting. Got Llosa, Time is a character that he creates as surely and deliberately as he creates the people that inhabit his books.

Llosa says that writing is “a protest against the insufficiencies of life.” And Time, arguably, is our greatest insufficiency. It marches ever forward, without mercy or thought, with no care for our pleas and bargaining that we may be granted just a little more time. So now I find myself struggling with this character that exerts such control over life, but which I control on the page, if nowhere else. On the page, I can mold it, master it, but I must also create it and it is too easy, especially when writing contemporary fiction, to take Time for granted in the story. Yes, we our stories take place in a time, over time, and even within fictions, we need to adhere to some consistencies. But when the place in our story looks and feels so much like the world we live in, Time often gets relegated to an element, not elevated to character. And these are the questions I ask myself as my story that takes place over distinct historical periods, what does Time feel like to my characters? How does it impact them? Each necessarily must have a unique relationship to Time and how can I make that visceral and known? How can I give Time flesh—not personify it or anthropomorphism it necessarily—but how to let it live and breathe on the page.

Listening to Llosa and reading his words, I am reminded how much I can learn from interacting with these masters of craft. Llosa says, “You cannot teach creativity—how to become a good writer. But you can help a young writer discover within himself what kind of writer he would like to be.” And that’s what I’m realizing as I explore Time, as I write, more consciously, I find myself, more and more, figuring out the writer I want to be.

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.

Chicago Reads: Party Like a Librarian at ALA 2017

“When you absolutely positively have to know, ask a librarian.”                                                               – American Library Association

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We couldn’t agree more. And that’s why all of us at ChiYA are thrilled that the American Library Association’s Annual Conference will be coming to our fair city this week, June 22-27.

This year’s conference theme,  “Transforming our libraries, ourselves,” will highlight the tools librarians and libraries need to adapt and flourish in our changing times and with shrinking budgets. The annual conference allows attendees to network, problem solve, meet authors, and get an early look at books that might soon be on library shelves.

Highlighted speakers include Gene Luen Yang, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, focusing on his Reading Without Walls program, which encourages kids and adults to read a “book about a character who doesn’t look like them or live like them… a book about a topic they don’t know much about…or a book in a format they don’t usually choose.” Reading is a vital part of our lives and reading diversely and widely enriches us. Mr. Yang will speak on Saturday, June 24th at 8:30a.m.

Another speaker getting a lot of buzz, and understandably so, is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will close out the conference on June 27th at 10a.m. Secretary Clinton has spoken often about her lifelong love of reading and is the author of multiple bestselling books. An all-new, full-color picture book of her bestseller It Takes a Village, illustrated by two-time Caldecott Honor recipient Marla Frazee, will be published in September.

And in a shameless self-plug, I will be signing Advance Reader Copies of my debut, LOVE, HATE & OTHER FILTERS, on Sunday at 11:00 a.m. in the SoHo Press Booth #3729.

Want to learn why Sarah Jessica Parker never leaves home without a book or hobnob with Carnegie and Pulitzer Prize winners? You can still attend, even if you’re not a librarian. While the conference is geared toward ALA members, the general public can purchase floor passes onsite for the Exhibit Hall, where you can meet authors, take in cooking demonstrations, and hear poetry readings, live podcasts, and musical acts.

ChiYA will be out in force on the floor and at the parties, and we’ll be tweeting via the official conference tag #alaac17. Hope to see some of you at the conference or on Twitter!

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.

Inspiration Station: On Sculpture and Writing and Having Conversations

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

Some say it resembles a human skull; others say it’s a mushroom cloud. To me, Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy sculpture suggests the possible.

moore_nuclearenergyUnveiled at 3:36 p.m. on December 2, 1967, Moore’s sculpture commemorates the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear reaction initiated on Dec 2nd, 1942, at, you guessed it, 3:36 p.m. It seems strange, perhaps even beyond the pale, to mark a moment that eventually led to so much death and destruction. But I’m one for remembering. For knowing the past so that we don’t replicate it, so we can learn from it. I never saw this sculpture as a celebration—indeed it’s not a beautiful work of art in a “traditional” sense, but it is conversational—as, I believe, Moore intended it and as I take it.

Perhaps more than any other physical thing, sculpture to me is most like writing. The artist or the writer begins with an idea, an intention and molds and crafts her medium to fit that concept, tell that story. But once that piece is in the world, it’s for the observer or reader to continue that conversation.

Nuclear Energy engages the viewer. It invites you in and through. This 12 feet x 8 feet weighty chunk of bronze, is solid and yet somehow airy. There are moments when it seems it can take off, unshackle itself from gravity. Smooth, worn, rough, it both blocks the light and lets it pass. Like Enrico Fermi and the other physicists of the Manhattan Project, this sculpture has and can keep secrets.

Often I’ve seen students huddled in the sculpture’s niches, rapt in conversation. Once I saw a Nobel Prize winning physicist sitting back in one of the recesses, eyes closed, head tilted back, face utterly peaceful. I’d like to to think he was solving some of life’s great mysteries, but perhaps he was merely thinking about his lunch. I’ve sat in that sculpture myself, many times—searching for shade, a place to rest, or a moment to think in a quiet hollow. This sculpture calls to the passerby to engage; it invites you in.

At some point, Moore must have thought his sculpture was done, that it was ready to be made public, to be seen, to be known. As I come closer to my publication date, I think a lot about what it really means for a writer to be finished with a book—the time between first draft and final pass pages, where the moments to make changes in the story narrow until they are gone. But that book is just beginning to breathe and be a part of a conversation. That book is on a new journey—true, it can’t really be changed, but it can still evolve.

Moore’s sculpture changes with the viewpoint the observer brings, with the sun and shadow and clouds. What a wonderful metaphor for writing—for holding on and letting go. For moving from a writer’s soliloquy to the wide and varied chorus of readers who honor the writer by engaging with their words, who carry on the conversation.

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.

Inspiration Station: Finding the Write Light

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

We all know that having a room of one’s own in which to write is a luxury for many writers. And even if you have that sacred writing space, sometimes it’s necessary to step out of your world and find a room with a new view to find a fresh perspective. For me, this is especially important when I find myself stuck on the page. On this blog, we highlight some of our favorite Chicago spots in our Finding the Write Place series—coffee shops and other public spaces where the muse finds us.

When I need to search for that elusive muse, I go to the library. Particularly, the newest library at my alma mater, the University of Chicago. (Only accessible to those with a U of C affiliation.)

To a lot of you, Mansueto Library is going to look familiar:

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Copyright 2013 Summit Entertainment, LLC

Yup. It’s part of Erudite Headquarters in the first Divergent film.

And, nope, I’m not plotting a coup, though Mansueto might be an excellent spot for that as well.

I’ve always loved writing at the library for the lighting, the quiet, and the soft hum from the air conditioning or heating or some mysterious white noise generator. Mansueto, opened in 2011—long after I graduated, has all 3 of those writing environment qualities I need. Also, you can have coffee at your desk.

I wrote and revised and edited a huge portion of my upcoming book, LOVE, HATE & OTHER FILTERS, at Mansueto. The University of Chicago has a small cameo in the book, but that’s not why I write at Mansueto. That light I mentioned as so important to me? Mansueto has it in abundance. Even on Chicago’s dreariest winter days, if there is any light to be had, I can find it at Mansueto.  This is what it looks like when I enter the Grand Reading Room:

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Even when I’m not writing about setting or weather, the quality of light is something I think a lot about when I write. Capturing the quality of light at different times of day, in different seasons, in different places—finding the right words to describe it is something I’ve often found elusive. It’s poetry, but it eludes me. In some ways, I guess light is a kind of muse for me. It presents me with a writing challenge. I love how it’s alive and how its character changes and how it can feel beautiful and soft, but also harsh and cruel. When I get to Mansueto early enough and can snag a table at the window, I can figure out my writing conundrums usually just staring out the window, not at my computer, watching the light play games and cast shadows out and across the lawn and gothic buildings.

Working at Mansueto helped me know the type of space I covet as a writer—the kind of space that doesn’t merely optimize my writing output, but a space that feels comfortable and inspiring. And where, if necessary, I can plan a hostile takeover of the other factions because I blame ignorance for the faults of human society.

WAIT.

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.

Inspiration Station: On Casting Lines and Catching Readers

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

(Manuscript images from The University of Chicago, The Special Collections Research Center)

Time and again, when my writing feels a little stale, a little stalled, I go back to stories that moved me. For that matter, even when life feels stale and stalled. I re-read those stories, sometimes even just paragraphs, phrases.

It’s one of the true powers of literature–the ability to speak to an individual. Words that feel like an author is reaching through time and writing those thoughts, again, just for me in this time and place I occupy, though to the author it was unknowable.

The story that I’ve read, perhaps more than any other, was written forty years ago, A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT– a semi-autobiographical novella by Norman Maclean. Though, thanks to the movie adaptation by Robert Redford, Maclean is strongly associated with Missoula, Montana, he spent the majority of his life in Chicago. First attending the University of Chicago for graduate school and then becoming a professor in 1928 until his retirement at the age of seventy. It was only then, upon retirement, that he began to write down some of the stories he was renowned for telling.

He published his first work of fiction after the age of seventy. And in many ways, it has defined his legacy. That might be inspiration enough.

Then there are his words. Lyrical and truthful and raw. They speak to the poignancy of memory and the passage of time, when so many people and moments in are life have faded away yet stay with us still.

And through some kind of alchemy, he made fly fishing poetry.

A few sentences of A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT are etched in my mind, but I still pick up my old marked-up, yellowing copy of Maclean’s book to look at the words, to hear them speak to me: “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great floods and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” (The University of Chicago Press, copyright 1976)

Reading Maclean’s words on the page, it is impossible not to think of him at once, as the young man wading in Montana’s Big Blackfoot River and the retired English professor walking the pathways between ivy covered buildings in Chicago. Always a fisherman, who somehow cast his magical line and hooked the imagination of a young undergrad who had never caught a fish.

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.

Inspiration Station: Life Distilled in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on ChiYAwriters.com highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

To be a writer in Chicago is to be constantly reminded that you stand on the shoulders of giants. That the same romance and dynamism and grit that moves you, also moved the many great writers who came before you. It is a humbling experience. And an inspiring one.

Sinclair and Algren, Hansberry and Norris, Bellow and Wright, Dybek and Cisneros and so many more have each painted our City with their own brushstrokes. And our poets, too, have looked to the lake, concrete, and steel and blood and smoke rising from factories, and penned the lyricism of Chicago, the contradictions. The pain and the glory. The simple quotidian existence of the multitudes who came to build this place. Indeed, Chicago may be one of the few cities that takes a traceable moniker directly from one of its poet sons. Carl Sandburg named us “The City of the Big Shoulders” and it stuck.

I want to share one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, the first poet laureate of Illinois, first African-American author to win the Pulitzer, Chicago’s beloved Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). I could spend pages talking about the rawness and power of her poetry, of its subtlety and activism. I could talk about her incredible commitment to this city where she taught classes until her death. I could talk about her love of our public schools and our people. I could talk about her most anthologized poem, We Real Cool, but listen to her instead. I had the privilege of seeing her read and she was a wonder.

“Poetry is life distilled,” Ms. Brooks said at Chicago Poetry Day talk in 1990. Perhaps the poem that best reflects this simple, beautiful idea for me is when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story.

As a writer, what inspires me about this poem is the simplicity of its language and the depth of its meaning, how the speaker is “Hugged by the plain old wrapper of no-expectation” and how those everyday words make us feel, for that brief moment in time, what she feels, a comfort of happiness even as she questions it. This poem is about love and loss and resignation and remembrance and about the cobwebs of memory that we brush away, though tiny particles of dust still linger. I have a smile in my heart and a lump in my throat every time I read this poem. Unpacking the craft makes me realize what a master Brooks was– how she takes us through the anatomy of a relationship, its tenderness and demise in a single afternoon. In 217 words, life distilled beautifully, poignantly by a poet at the height of art.

when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story
BY GWENDOLYN BROOKS

—And when you have forgotten the bright bedclothes on a Wednesday and a Saturday,
And most especially when you have forgotten Sunday—
When you have forgotten Sunday halves in bed,
Or me sitting on the front-room radiator in the limping afternoon
Looking off down the long street
To nowhere,
Hugged by my plain old wrapper of no-expectation
And nothing-I-have-to-do and I’m-happy-why?
And if-Monday-never-had-to-come—
When you have forgotten that, I say,
And how you swore, if somebody beeped the bell,
And how my heart played hopscotch if the telephone rang;
And how we finally went in to Sunday dinner,
That is to say, went across the front room floor to the ink-spotted table in the southwest corner
To Sunday dinner, which was always chicken and noodles
Or chicken and rice
And salad and rye bread and tea
And chocolate chip cookies—
I say, when you have forgotten that,
When you have forgotten my little presentiment
That the war would be over before they got to you;
And how we finally undressed and whipped out the light and flowed into bed,
And lay loose-limbed for a moment in the week-end
Bright bedclothes,
Then gently folded into each other—
When you have, I say, forgotten all that,
Then you may tell,
Then I may believe
You have forgotten me well.

Source: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997)

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.

Author Questionnaire Extraordinaire: Samira Ahmed

This post is one in a series introducing the ChiYAwriters.com contributors. We hope you’ll stick around to learn more about us and to follow our writing adventures in and around Chicago!

*waves* I’m Samira. I write YA. And poetry. And short stories. Also, essays. But mostly YA these days. I’ve lived in the City of Chicago (with a 13 year break) for 13+years.

So here’s some questions. I have some answers. Some of them are totally made up. Because the first rule of answering questionnaires:

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Who is your fictional hero?

To me, heroes loom largest in childhood when you can literally look up to someone. And when I was a kid, I often imagined life in the little log cabin of Laura Ingalls. Never mind the atrocious indoor plumbing situation. I wanted to run wild in the prairie and make molasses candy in the snow and have calico dresses and survive a frontier childhood.

Who is your real-life hero?

I’m not gonna lie on this one. There are a lot of people in real life and through history that I look up to, but I’ve never really thought of anyone as my personal hero. And those people I admire, probably change to suit my life at that moment. Right now, it’s these guys. Because, CHICAGO.

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If you were a fictional character, who would you be?

Growing up, I couldn’t really imagine myself as any character because no character really looked like me, felt like me. That’s starting to change, but even with that, I still have a hard time really seeing myself as any character.

But if there could be an Indian Nancy Drew…Yeah, I’d be her. Because of my (solely aspirational) sleuthing abilities and gumption. Also, because the TV show Nancy Drew got to kiss Parker Stevenson (Frank Hardy) in the late 70s. 4th grade Life Goals. That is all.

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What is happiness to you?

Sun.Sky.Beach.My little family.

The startling good fortune of these moments of life’s perfection.

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What inspires you to write?

Turns of phrase in my favorite poems and short stories that I read over and over.

The extraordinary moments in quotidian life.

My strong desire to have my children, and all children, walk into a bookstore or a library and see themselves on a shelf.

If you could give three books to every young adult, what would they be?

Okay, I’m gonna straight up skirt around this question and give you 2 short stories and a book (of connected short stories). In each of these selections, young people face stark choices that pit them against others and themselves. Every human should read these.

1) Everyday Use by Alice Walker
2) Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been by Joyce Carol Oates
3) The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

What’s your favorite work of art (book/movie/song/sculpture/etc.) with a Chicago connection?

One. Single. Favorite? Now, that’s just cruel. I can’t choose. The choices are endless and all important.

Don’t believe me? Here’s John Cusack in the greatest Chicago-showcasing movie, ever, High Fidelity. Telling it like it is:

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And here’s my favorite Chicago Art Institute montage. Go. See. All of them.

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Also, this skyline. Architecture is Art. Fight me.

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What’s your favorite hidden gem in Chicago?

Gwendolyn Brooks. Yeah, I’m cheating again. But she is one of our greatest poets. And she lived here and I heard her read here and  you must read When You Have Forgotten Sunday.

And here’s what she thought of our fair city: “(L)iving in the city, I wrote differently than I would have if I had been raised in Topeka, KS…I am an organic Chicagoan. Living there has given me a multiplicity of characters to aspire for. I hope to live there the rest of my days. That’s my headquarters.”

The Fountain of Time. Lorado Taft, 1920. An overlooked but brilliant sculpture on Chicago’s South Side.

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But pictures don’t do this work justice, so here’s a video (dramatic music=bonus).

HOLD UP. That’s all? I didn’t even get a chance to add my favorite Chicago parade scene from a movie. Here it is. You’re welcome.

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This post is brought to you by Samira Ahmed at ChiYAwriters.com.