As writers, the curiosity around the process of writing is a part of our makeup. When we see the success of others we wonder: what worked for them? We visit the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling wrote her earlier work overlooking Edinburgh Castle. We bring our dry martinis to the desk hoping to access our inner Hemingway. We join MFA programs, travel the world, isolate ourselves, research our favorite authors' favorite authors, all to better understand: what works for us?
It’s an obsession that there is no right answer to. From the writer who lives in structure to the one whose craft thrives in chaos, we all have a love/hate relationship with our art. As much as we want one, there simply isn't a "perfect process." While we often think about the process as the actual act of writing, it is often weighted in the guilt of not writing. It is equal parts dreadful and extraordinary.
Lumina Vol. XVII Blog will be showcasing all sides of the writing process, not only the successes, but also the struggles we face against a blank page. This year, the Lumina Journal’s theme is resistance. The Blog, working to maintain the image and morals of the Journal throughout the year, will echo this theme under the umbrella of craft. We will feature stories from writers, artist, teachers, and students who experience an opposition as a writer in both the world around them and within their process. Below are the bios of some of our new staff members defining their own beautifully ugly processes, contemplating the consistent an embracing the unknown.
As George Orwell put it, "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand." I believe this undeniable and undefinable "demon" lives within all writers. Here, we will continue to ponder about the mysterious beast that is our craft, personal yet oddly foreign. Everything that challenges us, drives us, and confuses us, we have a duty to put into words.
Your Blog Editor,
Joanna Bettelheim, Marketing Director
One of the most helpful additions I’ve made to my writing process is being more proactive about capturing the random thoughts I have throughout the day. If I make a joke that elicits a chuckle, I write it down so I can give it back to myself in an essay later. Just because it isn’t a light bulb idea for an entire piece doesn’t mean it isn’t worth saving. And as a bonus, that habit makes me more aware of myself as a writer in daily life no matter what I’m doing.
Joanna Bettelheim earned her BA from Sarah Lawrence College in 2009. She now works for the College in the Office of Alumni Relations while pursuing her MFA in Nonfiction Writing. She served as Marketing Assistant for LUMINA Volume XVI. Her work has previously appeared in Exposition Review's Flash 405.
Jane Glucksman, Nonfiction Editor
I’m inspired to write in the morning. I’m inspired to write when I walk, run, or swim. I’m less afraid of the blank page. It’s just a blank page. What inspires me: friendship, my kids, coffee, piles of books, cheese plates, and maps. The beach! The time capsule effect of an airplane. Writing is hard. Writing is failure. Graduate school is sometimes thrilling and sometimes enervating. There are days I feel like giving up, but there is nothing like the thrill of getting a sentence right.
Jane Glucksman is a second year MFA writing student at Sarah Lawrence College. An avid reader, writer, and photographer, she lives in New York City with her imaginary goldfish.
Qassye Hall, Poetry Contest Editor
Qassye M. Hall is a Graduate Student in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence. She is serving as the Poetry Contest Editor and as Editorial Assistant for Lumina. With one publication in the Scarletleaf Review and the creation of two journals as Nebo: a Literary Journal Managing Editor, Qassye is looking for ways to achieve dreams, to make a difference in the world, and to search for new creative works that deserve limelight.
Leah Johnson, Multimedia Editor
When I was younger, much younger than I am now, I was a liar. I mean it. I would lie about anything. I would lie about everything. A lot of writers would tell you that’s because they had an overactive imagination or that they’ve always been consumed with the desire to tell stories. Both of those things are true for me as well, I guess, but neither of them serve to justify my unreasonable need for deception. This is what I can tell you about Little Leah though: She knew that there was a big, scary world outside of her family’s front door that she didn’t understand, felt as though she had no agency in it, and already knew didn’t value her life.
So I learned early on that I needed to have full control of my own narrative. If I could bend it to my will, it belonged to me and me alone. That was my power. Was that misguided? Sure. But has that need, that pressure, sustained and informed my work to this day? Absolutely. It took writing myself into existence and pouring the things I know to be most true about navigating the world inside of this body onto the page for years until I understood that completely. The difference now is that I’m honest. The difference now is that I’m unapologetic in that honesty. That is my process. No matter where I write or think about writing or cry or laugh or get angry about my writing, it has to be honest. And I have to do it with the same sense of urgency as that little girl. Everything else can wait.
Leah Johnson is a multimedia storyteller and Midwestern expat currently residing in suburban New York. She received her BA in Journalism and African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University and is currently a second year MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing focuses primarily on issues of race, class and identity. You can find her on Twitter ranting about pop culture, politics and the greatest show of all time: The West Wing @byleahjohnson.
Victoria Johnson, Editor-in-Chief
My writing process is... messy. Sometimes I feel like that should have changed by now – I’ve been studying creative writing for five years (four in undergrad, and one at Sarah Lawrence). I only write when I really want to, or when I absolutely have to. Maybe I work better under the pressure of a deadline, or maybe that’s an excuse I tell myself to excuse my sloppy writing habits. When I was younger, I used to write every single day (that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?). I had a very strict daily schedule for myself, and writing was one piece of it. It was almost compulsive, and it was stifling. So I stopped, and let things happen in a more natural, unstructured way. I guess I’m still searching for a balance between suffocating rigidity and disorganized outpourings of creativity.
One thing that really puts a plug in my creativity is fear – fear of writing anything subpar. I hate sharing something that I think is unworthy of being read. But I’m starting to practice self-forgiveness, because the only way to get better is write badly and then learn from your mistakes. And I owe it to myself to improve my craft. I am where I am today because I love writing, and it’s something I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.
Victoria Johnson is a second-year graduate fiction student at Sarah Lawrence. For her thesis, she is working on a novel. Aside from writing, she likes to sing, play guitar, read, and sleep. She is originally from Arizona, but currently lives north of NYC with her girlfriend and their tiny succulent plant.
Christian Opperman, Translations Editor
Writing is hard. We all know that. But something keeps all of us coming back to the blank page, to wrestle words into some semblance of coherence. When you hit that perfect combination of words, the consonants clicking together and the imagery combining to make something magical, all the frustration and guilt at not being a better writer is worth it. For me, that means endless hours sitting in front of my computer, begging my brain to get the words right. It’s a solitary process, a turbulent one, but eventually the time spent producing trash results in something transcendent. Or, at the very least, something passable.
There is, in my opinion, no substitute for sheer hours on the grind when it comes to wordsmithery. Which is vexing; how many among us have longed for a shortcut to that special place we go where the words flow and every sentence sizzles? But every time I look for that shortcut, my writing implodes, so lately I’ve been focusing on providing myself with a steady supply of tea and music to help me along the way. Most importantly, I’m on a quest to provide myself the permission to produce bad writing, in endless quantities, so I can produce the good stuff of which I know I am capable.
Christian Opperman is a first-year MFA student in speculative fiction, originally hailing from South Africa and California. Before making his way to Sarah Lawrence, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for a number of years in a constant state of wonderment. Other than writing, he enjoys listening to music, rock climbing, and dreaming up fresh horrors to distract himself from what’s happening in the world around him.
Patrick Lofgren, Fiction Editor
My writing process has undergone a lot of change in the past year. That’s mostly because I was very much in the dark about what a story was a year ago. For the past few years I’d been working on a book, and just stumbling around in the dark teaching myself to write by being persistent even though I didn’t really understand what I was doing.
The best advice I’ve received on writing came in the form of a list of questions to ask before I start writing, and it’s a battery of advice that I cobbled together from Kij Johnson, Connie Willis, and Daniel Jose Older, who were all instructors of mine at Clarion West.
The questions are:
- Why is the protagonist already at the end of her rope when the story begins?
- Why does she have everything to lose?
- Why doesn’t she stand a chance?
- How is the world in flux?
These questions clarified notions like desire and conflict in a way that I understood. Now, when I begin a new story, I take the concept that inspired the story, and I answer those questions. By the time I’m finished answering, I usually know what I need to do.
Patrick Lofgren is a writer living in Yonkers, New York. He is a graduate of Clarion West 2017, and is pursuing an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College.
Ashley Lopez, Digital Editor
Ashley Lopez is a second year Fiction MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. She has worked in publishing for the past four years and is an editor for Pigeon Pages, a new literary journal based in NYC. Ashley lives in Brooklyn with her dog, Aldous Huxley.
Sarah Monahan, Blog Editor
I spend a lot of time daydreaming about where my story will go, a nostalgic habit of my youth. Sometimes however, my anxiety becomes consuming during my process. I’ll replay a scene over and over again for days, even months, before I am ever able to start my first sentence. At times, my process is debilitating. This state of overthinking often results in what I call “manic purge writing,” where I spend hours expelling the words I’ve been holding on to. When this happens, sometimes I don’t sleep, seduced by the stillness of the momentary silence. It’s hard for me to find solitude amongst an already isolating craft. But, as a dyslexic writer, I tend to find comfort in my endless contradictions. My process demands my undivided attention. Sentences possess a musical rhythm and sound; they need to be heard in order to find the perfect pitch. I rehearse them obsessively until I have a song. Sometimes I can write consistently, unattached and in the moment. It always catches me by surprise, rarely being something that I planned for. It halts everything else around me. Some days I am too distracted to give a piece the time it deserves. The days, and admittedly sometimes weeks, of not writing are weighted by a guilt that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to shake.
Writing is vulnerable and riddled with doubt. After double-checking one sentence for the tenth time, I am still self-conscious that my flaws will bleed through the page. This fixation though, is my fire. I love being told that I can’t and proving that I can. My process starts at my roots. My background in theatre and playwriting always influences my work. It starts with a role I forced my brother to play in our backyard when we were younger. It starts with overhearing a woman yelling to herself across the street every morning. It starts with a misunderstood girl who was told by a teacher that she was too lazy and wasn’t going to go anywhere in life. That disbelief is my fuel. My process always tends to start with the inspiration of a character. I study them until their story is unbearable to hold onto any longer. My process is messy, exhausting, and constantly changing. It’s dysfunctional and it’s human. I am never going to be a writer constricted by one structure; amongst the chaos that is my constant. As much as I aspire to be the person who wakes up every morning with a cup of coffee and the discipline of a schedule, I accept that the struggle of creativity is taking it as it comes.
Sarah Monahan is a Bay Area, California native who is residing in New York while getting her MFA in Creative Writing Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. This is her second year in the program and she is currently working on her thesis. Her passions include horror/crime novels and “slice of life” entertainment, potatoes in any form, color coordinating her closet, amateur calligraphy, one day owning a dog, and pairing avocado with as many foods as possible. She is currently a contributing writer for WhereNYC, and also taught Creative Writing through Right-to-Write and at the Baccalaureate School of Global Education in Queens.
Davian Roberts, Art Director
There is nothing like the moment when everything comes together in a sentence, a chapter, or a story and starts to approach the perfect version that exists in my head. Like any pure creative act, it touches the divine. It is euphoric, orgasmic, absolute happiness. Getting there, however, is not so beautiful. I am a procrastinator by nature (maybe most humans are), and while I have overcome this tendency in many aspects of my life, it is glaringly present when I know I should be writing. It’s funny, I used to procrastinate things that I hated, but writing is something that I LOVE. Therefore, the impetus for my procrastination as a writer must be rooted in something else. Fear is my guess. Insecurity. When I am away from the page, I am certain that I can’t write at all. If I can make myself sit down for half an hour, I remember that I can.
So, I develop strategies. I have read a lot about how we make and break habits, and one tool is to tie a desired habit to a habit already formed or to a time of day. On days when I write successfully (or at all), it is because I go to my desk immediately after I have sent my kids off to school. I am usually still in my pajamas; even getting ready for the day would distract me enough for procrastination to set in. I also keep a notebook of observations I might want to use in a story. Often just looking through this is enough to make me hungry for the page. I made the screensaver on my smartphone a picture of Georgia O’Keefe on a motorcycle, with a quote from O’Keefe, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I’ve never let it stop me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” Seeing this reminds me that fear is not an excuse for inaction. In moments of paralysis at the imperfections in my writing, I look at my bookshelves and remind myself that even the books I adore are flawed, that I don’t love every sentence or plot choice. Maybe that’s why we like books, because they are like people: imperfect, but full of thought and emotion and voice. And finally, sleep, exercise, sex, and green tea. They are as good for writing as they are for everything else.
Formerly an art advisor in New York City, Davian is now a writer, editor and interiors stylist. She has a Bachelor's Degree in Humanities and is currently an MFA Candidate in Writing at Sarah Lawrence. Davian lives with her sardonic husband and two remarkable children in Connecticut.
Tsahai Wright, Managing Editor
My writing process is constant and consistent. My wheels are always turning and ideas for stories are always surfacing in my mind. Life, daily life, and the world in general is extremely vibrant and full of material, not specifically nonfiction, everything. I’m always examining my experiences to see what I can pull from them, what I can use in my writing. And I’m a huge observer so I pay keen attention to what’s going on around me, but not necessarily to me. This, for me, is a great resource for material.
On the flip side, I have three projects that I am currently focused on, and when my attention is geared toward something specific, that’s what’s on my mind constantly. So for now, I’ve got three storylines I’m nursing and about eight characters that I’m grooming. And I love it. There is a wholesomeness and a satisfaction that I get from knowing that I am creating a work that is wholly born from my imagination and the ability that I have to use words. Writing is sustenance. It is food for my heart that comes from my mind.
Tsahai Makeda has been capturing her thoughts and putting them to paper since childhood. She writes about the human expeTsahai Makeda has been capturing her thoughts and putting them to paper since childhood. She writes about the human experiences as it relates to how people treat one another, and how that affects us individually. When not writing, she is reading or knitting. She is a candidate for her MFA in Fiction Writing at Sarah Lawrence College and will likely pursue her Ph.D in English Literature post-graduation. Tsahai lives at the gateway to the Catskills in Upstate NY with her husband and three children.