From green tea to viral playlists, the Lumina supporting staff share some ideas about what works when it’s time to write. Most of us agree that writing can be simultaneously daunting and rewarding, but the specifics on how each writer stays motivated tell their own collective story of adversity and victory checkered with plenty of interim failure.
The Lumina Vol. XVII staff presents this year’s resistance themed issue as a collection of pieces that drives into the heart of the intimate personal insights of why fighting back is more necessary now than ever before. This year’s supporting staff includes assistant editors, art directors, translators, and readers from all parts of the Sarah Lawrence MFA Program who have made a choice. We know that our readers face choices too and are pleased to create space for voices that remind us that there are always alternatives to complicity.
Your Assistant Blog Editor,
There is no difference between passive resistance and passive collaboration, it’s the same thing.
Caitlin Alario, General Reader
When I first started writing around the age of seven, my process was more like a formula: don’t tell anyone about the things that make you upset. Instead, let those “bad feelings” build up inside you until you feel like you’re going to explode. Just when you’ve reached the brink of explosion, lock yourself in your room and write all those feelings down on a random page in the middle of your journal so that even the sneakiest of snoopers won’t be able to find what you’ve written. Repeat ad nauseum. This formula worked for me until I was seventeen. I had a lot of feelings, and my secret writing—especially in the form of poems—felt like the only way to adequately get them out. It wasn’t until I started submitting those poems to my high school’s literary magazine that I found out other people felt the same way I did, and that maybe my writing didn’t have to be so secretive.
This revelation not only changed my perspective as a writer, but also challenged me to develop a more purposeful writing process. With age (and a little therapy), I developed a healthier relationship with my emotions, and at first, my writing suffered for it. No longer was I driven to write a scathing, frenzied poem at the end of every week, when the feelings I’d internalized wouldn’t be silenced for another day. Instead, I learned to start setting time aside for writing more frequently throughout the week, even if it felt like I didn’t have anything to write about. As writers, we’re often told to just “show up,” and for as much joy and freedom as that concept brings me, it’s still something I struggle with, even as I pursue an MFA. Fears of not articulating myself clearly and of my writing coming off as derivative and stale often keep me from wanting to put a single word on the page. But on the days that I do that work, when I show up and allow myself to exist as a writer, I find a greater sense of clarity about the writing I want to do and a more focused feeling of calm as I give myself the space to do it.
Caitlyn Alario is a first-year poetry student from Orange, CA. She graduated from Valparaiso University with a BA in Classics and Humanities, where she focused mainly on Latin translation and religion and literature. While her chosen genre at Sarah Lawrence is poetry, Caitlyn also writes personal essays and fiction. She is incredibly excited and honored to be serving as a reader for Lumina.
Brian Andrade, Senior Poetry Reader
My writing process is that of a chain smoker fighting for moments in the day to light a cigarette. I write poetry sporadically, often between waves of commitment and profound laziness. To combat my lack of a steady routine, I carry a small journal with me everywhere. I often find myself scribbling notes at work, on the train, and between conversations. At parties, I sometimes rush out of the crowd to jot down an interesting idea or image on my phone.
I write because poems teach me things about my own existence that I would otherwise not know. Poetry is an act of discovery and when I get lucky, writing leads me to profound insights that my limited rational consciousness could never decipher. Poetry is transcended past preconceptions. It challenges its readers to see the world differently. To write poetry is to manifest hidden thoughts and ideas into our external reality.
Brian Joseph Andrade is a poet, city rat, and terrible decision-maker. The only good decision he made was dedicating his life to writing. He is originally from Los Angeles, California and cries whenever the weather dips below 55 degrees. Brian earned the George Dillon Memorial Award sponsored by the Academy of American Poets through a contest that was judged by Ocean Vuong. He is also an expert tarot card reader.
Jonathan Burkhalter, Editorial Assistant
My creative practice can, at best, be summed up as the spacecraft, Galileo. At worst, a tree named after a street.
Born, jonathan burkhalter was raised. He creates. His work has appeared. He lives.
Natalie Gerich Brabson, General Reader
I try to write each day, though that doesn't always happen. When I do sit down to write, I need a lot of time (hours, ideally) to try to get ideas to flow, and then to actually write and revise whatever I come up with. When I do make the time, this works well, and it feels great to get in the head space in which the world I'm writing about is as real as the one I'm sitting in. However, sometimes (often) I feel I won't have enough time, and I get stuck; instead of writing just a little, I write absolutely nothing. So, that is something I'm working on right now. I'm trying to get up before class or work to write at least a page. Some days it works. I just adopted a cat who likes to eat her breakfast quite early, so perhaps she will help me get and stay up.
Natalie Gerich Brabson has been writing stories and creating art in various forms for years. She realized midway through her studies at Vassar College that writing was what she most wanted to do with her life. She's currently a Fiction MFA student at Sarah Lawrence, and plans to work on both long and short forms.
Shaina Clingempeel, General Reader
Speech often feels limited, but poetry provides me with a novel aesthetic toolbox for experimentation. Through poetry, I can explore important topics such as mental health, memories, social constructs, near future-worlds, feminism, gender roles, and performance. Sound, imagery, white space, etc., enable me to represent something in its truest form.
In terms of my process, I prefer to write with background noise, such as at a cafe, a park, etc. My best ideas arrive in transit. During a long walk or run, I develop lines in an organic manner, that I later refine in a focused setting. Also, I love to write in the morning, while the world sleeps, or in the early afternoon. In general, I find myself drawn to individual words, concepts, or the sound of a phrase. Sometimes, I struggle with organization because my thoughts occur in tangents, and I tend to explore various projects at a time. However, this does provide more time for my ideas to brew, and it means I always possess new projects in the works. Thus, poetry liberates me from the limits of language.
I am a first-year Poetry MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College, where I serve as Social Media Coordinator for the Sarah Lawrence Poetry Festival. In my spare time, I love to discuss feminism, write and perform poems, explore the city, read science fiction and existential philosophy, and watch mind-bender type movies.
Katelyn Devine, Senior Nonfiction Reader
It begins in the middle of a conversation. On the 4 train above ground in the Bronx, texting a friend who is mending a broken heart, or strolling down a grocery store isle, absentmindedly eyeing cereal boxes, talking to my dad on the phone. Sometimes one little sentence can unintentionally illuminate one hundred human truths. There's a spark of an idea just waiting to be teased out. I recently read in Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, that the writer is like a translator, "one who renders the abstract into the concrete."
Now the process becomes less ephemeral, and writing becomes similar to doing leg lifts. If I don't do the physical act every morning, I'll never get stronger, and it takes a lot more practice than you'd think to notice any progress. So I sit at my desk, where I keep two photos, one of my mother, one of my grandmother, both when they were my age, and type words. Maybe it's the rhythmic sound of computer keys, the tap-tap-tapping that propels the connections in my mind, or muscle memory from a childhood spent playing piano and writing melodies. Eventually, the essay or poem reveals itself after enough time spent moving my fingers.
Rhea Dhanbhoora, Editorial Assistant
Do I have a writing process? Maybe not. Talking about what I write, why I write and how I write is often difficult. My elevator pitch would probably be a low, inaudible mumble before I look for the quickest escape route. I write when I feel the pull, about whatever has decided to hold me captive. There’s not much thinking, just a flurry of sentences and words and phrases and characters, swimming around untended. It’s undisciplined, wild, and crazy. Lettings the words flow is like some sort of sweet release. I’ve stopped my car to write, disappeared into my notebook at parties, scribbled paragraphs on math worksheets. However, I need everything around me to be organised. Aesthetically designed. Symmetry in my surroundings. The pens have to be a certain colour, the notes filled in a certain way, placed on the table just so… If there are dishes in the sink or a spot of water on my tap, I can’t sit still. It doesn’t stop me from writing if things aren’t well-placed, but it helps if they are.
Carving out a ‘writing hour’ has always been hard. I am most alive when I’m neck-deep in something I’m writing, but it’s an exhausting process, especially emotionally. So, waking up early to write throws my entire day off track, since I have to lie under the blankets for a while before I’m ready to be a semi-functional human being again. Daylight also means people will begin to mill about, interaction becomes necessary, the sanctity of my space seems under siege. It’s not always that dramatic, but it does hinder my process. I have phases where I absolutely must write every night, but it’s usually snippets through the week and a sudden burst over the weekend, never as well-planned as it should be. I’ve been trying to dedicate time to revising, because little bits and bobs lie all over the place, most often, eventually abandoned. It sounds haphazard and messy, but there’s order in the chaos. Enough that I usually know what I’m stringing together once I get started on the dozens of ‘projects’ I always have in the works.
Rhea Dhanbhoora is a first-year Fiction candidate going back to full-time study after a seven-year stint at a media company. Back home in Bombay, her full-time job included editing and handling Features supplements for a daily newspaper, but her heart lies in creating and appreciating Fiction, with a little poetry on the side. Not counting a very brief spell selling homemade cakes, cookies, and sugarcraft models, she's worked for health portals, travel websites, a short film company, literary reviews, hotel and brand content, the blog section of a podcast and as a teenager had a collection of some people may call poetry published. She enjoys cooking as well as eating good food, loves way too much music to pick a genre or a generation and sometimes writes as Nicole Reed.
Colleen Ennen, Editorial Assistant/Fiction Reader
Women do a lot of purse switching over the course of any given year; and for many moons now, the one item I am always certain to transfer from bag-to-bag is this battered little notebook, roughly the size of my palm, with a pen worked into the spine and a rubber band wrapped around the middle. This is the notebook into which I scrawl all of my – usually at least partly incoherent – story ideas. That bundle of hundreds of unwritten stories is honestly what drives me; I itch to get them out. My emotional investment in this tiny brick of paper borders on the pathological, but I carry it with me more or less at all times as a kind of talisman, as if to reassure myself: “I am a writer and I have ideas and I have things to say and I am good at this.” Because I do doubt myself, and my writing, and my value. I do worry that I’ll never produce so much as a single really good piece. I do read the works of those Giants who loom large in my narrative imagination and feel tiny and insignificant. When that happens – when I feel panic or numbness approach – I’ll flip through the notebook, pick one of the ideas, and just start. It’s all I can do.
Beginning my MFA – just weeks ago, as of writing – has catalyzed my scribblings. I’ve been out of the game for four or five years, writing bits and pieces here or there around my Life, without allowing writing to be a central part of that Life. Now, like a vampire, I soak up all the energy of sitting around feverishly discussing books with other people who love books as much as I do, and am revitalized. My practice still isn’t perfect - I’m working against built up inertia and the still-there demands of life - but I’m improving. I am trying to do my “Daily Words.” This means sitting down to write (at least) 400 words, five or six days a week. That number, by the way, was arrived at by roughly eyeballing the length of my 15-minute prompt writing exercises, going “eh,” and deciding that sounded good – very scientific. My batting average is about 500, which is good for baseball, but not where I’d like to be; I’m working on finding a way to be alright with that while also improving, which is a tricky needle to thread. Fortunately, I find that, more days than not, I end up producing more like 700 or 800 words. And then of course there are the odd – frenzied, joyful, exhilarating – days when it is really flowing and I manifest 5000 words in one go. Those are the best.
Colleen Ennen is a native Minnesotan in the first year of her MFA (Fiction) at Sarah Lawrence College. She writes short stories, is at work on her first novel, and tends - broadly - to produce work that fits under the umbrella of speculative fiction (or maybe slipstream-y fiction, or maybe just weird stuff). She is working for LUMINA as an Editorial Assistant and Fiction Reader this year.
She is also the kind of person who - for a few, fleeting, beautiful seconds - considered procuring some flowy garment and venturing out to find a bucolic nature scene to backdrop her staff photo, which would, magically, be perfectly lit, and she wouldn’t be squinting into the sun in it at all, and it would make her look like some kind of ethereal, wise, fey being… of course. Then she blinked - or woke up - recalled the extent to which she is a Human Disaster and also Does Not Have Time For That, took a selfie in the office at 2am with crazy hair and hands shaking from too much caffeine, and sent it off. Fortunately, Apple has a filter for that.
Jane Gordon, Assistant Nonfiction Editor
If I had a writing process, I wouldn’t be in school trying to figure out how to get a writing process. I don’t have one. I have a journalistic writing process, which entails looking up my subject or subjects up on the internet, interviewing them by phone, meeting up with them in person to get to know them further, interviewing other people who know them to get to know them even further than the further, then driving around until I get an idea on how to start the thing. If I don’t get any ideas, I make myself sit down and start to write, my internal voice assuring me that getting anything down on paper is an achievement. I also read the classics. If I’m reading Dickens or Dostoyevsky I find the words more easily than if I’m reading a book about how to be braver in the boardroom or how to sit powerfully in an interview. I don’t know that this qualifies as a writing process. Still, I guess it’s mine.
Land-use battles, love, probate court irregularities, marriage, governmental snafus, divorce, SARS, death: Jane Gordon has written about all of them at newspapers throughout the United States, including for 17 years as a freelancer for The New York Times. She also has worked as an editor, in senior positions in college communications, and as a media consultant. When her fourth child left for college she decided to leave for college herself, to finally figure out that book she's been promising for 35 years she'll complete.
Joey Heiland, Assistant Digital Editor
Routine is one of the biggest factors in determining how well I write. If I sit down early in the morning with a cup of tea and set to work, the results will generally be positive. If I open my laptop at 6:00 PM, after having lived and worked and socialized for an entire day, it will be significantly more difficult to tap into the energy which sustains my writing. In the morning, my mind is relatively clear, and I've yet to be fully consumed by whichever stressors will lay the groundwork for that day. It's when I'm calmest, it's when I'm the most thoughtful, and it's when my craft is best able to shine through.
The physiological reaction to writing—as an active verb, not a finished product—is mostly what keeps me coming back, and what prompts me to continue working, even on those days when the whole ordeal seems fruitless. Most of the time, writing is hard. It drains you, and it requires an openness that renders you vulnerable to the outside world, which generally has no patience for such things. You can pour yourself into a piece, or into a tiny sliver of a larger project, and step away feeling as though it will never work out, that all of this immense effort has been for nothing. But there are moments which counteract any stored negativity, and which reaffirm a writer's sense that their work—however piecemeal—is an exercise in soul building. These are the moments we rely on for nourishment, and they are always worth the struggle.
Joseph Heiland is a writer from Endicott, New York. He received his BA in English from Ithaca College, and he is a member of the MFA Writing (Fiction) program at Sarah Lawrence College.
Apoorva Mittal, Assistant Translations Editor
A writer's writing process mirrors their general chaos in life. If they tend to be erratic in carrying out routine tasks, their writing routine tends to be erratic and if they have a systematic manner of dealing with their day-to-day tasks, it reflects in their writing style. I am an erratic person, who makes To-Do lists and schedules but is always unable to stick to them. But this also gives me time to mulch over my stories. If a simple idea of story exists in my head, it sets camp for months. The stories I currently am working on have been there in my head at least for the past couple of years. If I get inspired by some bursts of color on a subway ride, that will find its way into the current story I am working on but the actual stories have been in my head for days.
Being admitted into an MFA program was important to find some order even in the chaos of writing, to have some deadlines to meet which would enable me to let those chewed thoughts in my head show on the paper, because this kind of contemplation can go on for months, with you just on the edge of about to start. And I have never written as much as I have during the past month.
Apoorva is a software developer by profession but after giving seven years to learning the world of computers, she has decided to explore her first love - the world of words. She is from India, here in New York for her MFA in fiction writing. She loves dogs, though the closest she has been to ever having one as her own was her friend's dog whom she had to leave behind in India. She loves to listen to Indie Rock and maybe a bit of neo-psychedelia (reading while listening to Cigarettes After Sex all the time). She has not been published yet but hopes to be one day and with that hope, is working on a collection of short stories.
Abigail Oswald, Senior Fiction Reader
Due to the impending inevitability of Life After Graduation, I’ve recently taken it upon myself to become a writing ritual evangelist. Every morning I wake up an hour early, open all the blinds in the apartment, fill a mug with milkless coffee, and sit down at my kitchen table to write. Different strokes for different folks, of course: Ernest Hemingway wrote while standing, James Joyce used crayons, and Victor Hugo wrote naked. (Maybe you’ll opt for a combination of the three.) No matter what you choose, the goal is to instill a sense of familiarity in your daily writing practice. That’s the endgame, after all: the transformation of that blank page into something much less daunting. After a while it’ll be just another thing you see each morning, like breakfast or a sunrise.
Abigail Oswald split her adolescence between Texas and New Jersey, so she never quite knows how to answer when asked where she's from. In any case, she currently resides in Connecticut and studies fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Her stories have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Harpoon Review, and Short Fiction Break. She still knows the lyrics to a multitude of country and Springsteen songs.
Orli Robin, Editorial Assistant
I basically MUST have music playing while I write. I created a Spotify playlist a few years ago called "THESIS GET THAT SHIT DONE" when I was writing my thesis and I needed a little extra dose of inspiration. I made it at like 2 AM on the 3rd floor of my college's most depressing library. The playlist went kind of viral and it now has about 440 followers from around the world. It's kind of wild to think that I've curated the soundtracks to 440 others' writing experiences.
Here's a link:
And in case you were wondering, I have completely separate editing music.
Orli Robin is a first year candidate in Sarah Lawrence’s MFA program in Nonfiction Writing. In May 2017, she graduated with a Masters from Harvard University (HDS) in Religious Studies, where she edited for Harvard Theological Review (Cambridge University Press). Prior to Harvard, she worked at the USC Shoah Foundation, earning her a university appointment at Rutgers University (coadjutant). While finishing her degree at the University of Southern California in English, Judaic Studies, and Genocide Studies, she was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Genocide Research and the USC Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics. She also cofounded the Social Justice Review.
Orli’s memoir-essay, “Twirl” (Exposition Review, 2016) was nominated for Sundress Press’ “Best of Net Anthology” (2017). Her work is also featured in The Altar Collective Poetry Anthology, Adsum, and in Laboratories Theories du Politique at the University of Paris 8.
Vanessa Stone, Assistant Digital Editor
7:00 AM Alarm goes off
7:30 Backup alarm goes off...rise
8:00 Walk the dog
8:30 Orange juice with two drops of adrenal support concoction from a wild-eyed herbalist I know in Seattle
9:00 AM - 1:10 PM breathe, open laptop, write, is this writing?, can I really write? oh good, this is a good plot, yaas! I am a genius! no, no, no I'm not, f***cckk why did I ever think I can be a writer? this metaphor is so stupid aarggh! oh okay, that can work, I'm okay. write, close laptop, breathe.
1:10 PM Walk the dog, kiss the dog, love the dog, train the dog, etc.
2:00 PM Mellow Yellow Cafe for lunch - green omelette, pita bread, hummus, olives, tomatoes, first pastry, mint tea, more drops of adrenal support concoction, and for the walk home, a second pastry
3:00 PM Read
4:00 PM Make money moves (walk dogs, edit papers, beg, etc.)
5:00 PM Yoga
6:00 PM Have dinner with the dog and walk the dog while I talk about my novel to her.
7:00 PM Shower. Maybe a joint.
8:00 PM Read
10:20 PM Sleep
Vanessa Muana Stone was born in Olongapo, Philippines and raised in Seattle, Washington. She is pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and working on her forthcoming novel, When the Smoke Rises.
Joe Stanek, Assistant Blog Editor
There was a time not so long ago I could let writing fall to the wayside amidst competing priorities. At some point, I realized nothing would ever happen unless I made writing the top priority above all else. I can’t allow myself the option not to. I don’t know anyone that works a job where showing up is optional. Why treat writing any differently?
I’ve had to work mostly unrelated day jobs since I started writing seriously and have had to get comfortable with making time out of the 24 hours available every day. Thinking about what I’m going to write while walking down the street or riding trains can be helpful for preparing my psychic spaces. By the time I actually sit down with a laptop, there’s enough I’ve been turning over in my head to kickstart a drafting session. I still catch myself fantasizing about writing from a quiet room with good natural light removed from all distractions and stress where I can spend the best hours of my day in healthy isolation with my characters. That room does not exist. The room I write from every day is the next best thing.
Upon graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, Joe Stanek served in Afghanistan as an officer with the United States Army's First Infantry Division. His fiction draws from the spectrum of pluralist identities within the military to antidote lionized monolithic stereotypes. His short stories have appeared in New York University's Nine Lines anthology of military writing and his plays have been performed at Brooklyn's Littlefield performance art space. He lives and works in Manhattan where he is writing his first novel.