Understanding the Violin

I have recently returned to playing the violin after a long hiatus (in which, among other things, I have focused on opera singing and did an MFA). It is something as vital and fundamental to me as breathing, as I began when I was 4 ½. To those who don’t play, the violin can be a mysterious, seemingly inaccessible phenomenon, bizarre with its strings and bow and movements that look unnatural. There are those who may be off put by the sound of beginners, comparing it to a screeching cat or any other pejorative. And there are others who simply do not care for the sound, even when played by an Itzhak Perlman or Sarah Chang. Many parents hope to instill a love of music in their children through enrolling them in violin lessons and are often met with great resistance. But to those of us who played, the violin is neither mysterious nor resistible. Here are some points to help dispel any myths.

-The violin is indeed a difficult instrument to play. Let’s be honest. It involves setting the pitches oneself with the left hand on the strings, developing a keen sense of intonation. There are no buttons or valves or frets or keys. Everybody knows when a violin is played out of tune, and perhaps that is why people often express a dislike of the instrument. To get a sound out of the violin, the bow must be drawn in line across the strings, which is easier said than done. It takes a great deal of time to learn how to do this in the beginning, with just the right amount of pressure so that it doesn’t sound airy or–even worse–scratchy (this is probably another reason why people dislike the violin.)

-However, once this is accomplished, once there is a basic level of technique and the ability to play produce a decent sound, one can play nice songs. The violin is the instrument most frequently compared to the voice because there is a fluidity of sound much like in singing. Add vibrato, which is a vibrating movement of the left hand on the strings, and this becomes even more beautiful. Vibrato is not an easy thing to do for a violinist, because it requires the right amount of movement–it can’t be too fast, or else it sounds frenetic, but it can’t be too slow because that sounds more like wobbling between two pitches.

–The violin is very versatile once a certain level of mastery is attained. One can play in an orchestra, in a quartet or chamber music ensemble, in a string/chamber orchestra, as a soloist with an orchestra, and if one wants to branch out into other genres of music, there are jazz, tango, Romani music, rock, bluegrass, folk, etc. etc. (not to mention in South Indian classical violin and other non-western music.) 

-Each genre of violin playing requires different skills. In an orchestra, one must subsume one’s ego to the conductor’s musical vision. In a quartet or chamber music ensemble, each musician holds equal weight and can help lead the ensemble. As a soloist–like the artists who are highlighted on a symphony’s performance calendar–a violinist must have a clear vision of the concerto or piece, be able to perform the “pyrotechnics” written by the composer and indicate to- and communicate with the conductor nonverbally, so that the conductor can guide the orchestra appropriately.

-The violin demands practice. There are two hands that must work together, and yet will often be worked separately, or focused on one at a time during practice. There might be certain exercises that are meant for the left hand, and others for the bow hand. This is not unlike the piano. However, unlike the piano, one hand cannot play alone (except in the rare occasions of passages with left-hand pizzicato where the left hand plays the strings).

-The violin really is fun! There is nothing quite like drawing the rosin-coated bow hairs across the strings, hearing the sound right next to your head, seeing the motion and feeling it in your hands, moving your fingers percussively, doing various “tricks” with the bow to produce different sounds. It is an instrument that demands patience, but the results are worth it. Playing the violin ranks among the highest of cognitive tasks, so it will keep your brain active and engaged for a lifetime. It’s never too late to start. Though you may not end up a professional, you can enjoy the challenges of this unique, demanding, and ultimately stunning instrument.

The Traits of a Good Conductor

I recently had a chance (but was not able) to go see Edo de Waart conduct John Adams’s “The Chairman Dances,” which is one of my desert island pieces. De Waart conducted the original recording that Adams himself uploaded to YouTube. However, I did get to see a live performance of the piece last weekend, as luck would have it, along with my beloved Sibelius No. 2 in D which I played in All-State Orchestra. It got me thinking about a childhood spent playing in orchestras, something I absolutely adored and was thrilled to get out of school for. What makes for a good conductor? What were some of the memorable experiences I remember? As an adult, I have sung in a few choruses and ensembles. I have also studied and done a bit of conducting, so this contributes to my understanding of the field.

A conductor is not supposed to be “nice.” Granted, s/he must not be abusive or inappropriate, and thank goodness for the changes that are being made to create safer musical environments. We do not need Levine’s behavior again or a fictitious Lydia Tár. But some musicians complain about conductors who are tough and not friendly while conducting, to which my answer is, they are not there to be your friend. A conductor should be demanding. His/her number one priority is to get the best sound possible out of the orchestra or chorus. Did the second violins not get that passage right? Well then, let’s do it again with that section until we get it right. Are the altos coming in too early? Then let’s try the entrance with all four voices. The conductor’s priority is the sound, and the various instruments/voices are the components that comprise that sound.

The popular opinion is that a conductor is simply beating time, but there is so much more to the art. How well does a conductor cue the instruments’ entrances? Indicate dynamics? How does the conductor beat time–with a baton or with hands, slightly ahead of- or right on the beat? Not even top-tier orchestra conductors do this well– there is one who comes to mind whom I dare not mention, but his conducting style was with his hands cupped and rather odd. Does the conductor emote in an over-the-top way, like a Bernstein, or is s/he more subdued, indicating only the minimum, trusting that the musicians are reading the score and having an internal sense of how to express the composer’s intentions? And on that last point, the style of conducting will vary based on the composer. A concerto grosso or Handel opera will require different demands than a Mahler symphony or a 20th century work by William Grant Still.

A good conductor knows what to highlight in the music. If conducting Dvořák, the strings are especially lyrical. Sibelius often features majestic, powerful brass, but it must not overpower the lighter instruments. The aforementioned “The Chairman Dances” requires razor-sharp, precision timing with absolutely no room for error. The conductor knows how to get the best tone color from each instrument, and what the musicians in each section are able to do. The woodwinds might be very strong in an orchestra, but the basses weak, for example, or there might be the proverbial problem of not enough tenors in a chorus, so the repertoire chosen must be suited to that issue.

Certain exercises can be very helpful even if the ensemble members find them unorthodox. When I was a senior in high school, during All-State Orchestra the conductor had each pair of stand partners sit in a different place in an orchestra, i.e., a pair of tubas might sit next to a pair of violins, etc. This was a wonderful and challenging exercise because it forced each instrument to be very aware of their part, their entrances, and to be able to maintain their own musical line while sitting next to a completely different instrument that was doing something else. When in junior high, I had a great privilege of attending a string orchestra camp where the gifted Robert Spano was conducting us (even at my young age, I knew he would be going places.) He made us play a line of Corelli over and over, looking to see that we were within 2 inches of the other violinists’ bows to maintain a consistency of sound. While some might call this exigent, fussy, or demanding, to me, it was a sign of a brilliant conductor who respected the music. The exercise has stuck with me all these years, and I suppose subconsciously I still observe how closely the violinists’ bow strokes are to each other in an orchestra.

Opera is a whole different beast which merits its own blog post, but an opera conductor must lead the orchestra as well as the singers on stage (who are at a whole different eye level). What makes this especially challenging is that the conductor must lead the orchestra according to the singers. Granted, singers must not take excessive liberties with the music, but the orchestra is there to serve the singer, not the other way around. If the singer is taking rubato, for example, the conductor must be aware of this and make sure that the orchestra is observing exactly what the singer is doing, even if they think the piece needs to resume a tempo. This sounds like an obvious thing to do, and yet I have observed countless professional performances where this does not happen.

Finally, there is the point of women conductors. Women make for excellent conductors, as we are often multitaskers. Often, we have to juggle many things at once–career, children, spouse–and these skills are a big asset to conducting. One could argue that women by nature are expressive and have a biology that allows us to be very much in touch with our emotions. We have strongly developed right and left brains. I was fortunate to be conducted by a Bowling Green State University named Emily Freeman Brown professor as a child, and a couple others along the way. However, it is quite disheartening to see the dearth of women conductors in the top tiers, though that is slowly changing, thanks to Marin Alsop and those who have come before and after her. And it is disheartening to think that there are fewer minority professional women conductors–I can’t think of one. This is something that must change, and women have to be encouraged and give us the opportunities to rise in the field of major professional conducting. There is no good reason why a woman isn’t as good of a conductor as a man, and precedent is no excuse.

Across the Divide: Intergenerational Friendships

I am on a zoom writing session right now with two friends from my MFA program: one is a stylish, active grandmother who is decades older than me, the other is several years older than me with two grown children. Shortly before, a friend who is in her mid 20s texted me with career woes. And last night, I had dinner with friends who are the same age. Later today, I will drop off some food for a friend who is in her 80s. What does this tell me? That it is important to have friends across all age groups.

Our modern society is very compartmentalized and very individualistic. It can be very isolating, and utterly ignorant of those with different views, especially based on their age. We also have a lack of historicity in American society: people only know what people of their age group and generation believe in. I believe cancel culture relates to this, as well as the right-wing ideologies against teaching race, gender, etc. that are so pervasive now. When we don’t understand how ideas and values change over time, we are in danger. If a well-meaning older man in a shop says to a woman “Good morning, miss,” it might be because his mother told him never to address a woman directly by first name, and to be a gentleman. If a young person says that their ethnic group is targeted by the police at statistically proven rates, it is necessary to take them seriously, even if you are not personally racist. We really need to understand where people are coming from, and what the morés of the time in which they grew up were. If they are outdated and discriminatory, we need to question that and not continue the pattern. Both the right and left have a responsibility to understand history.

When it comes to books, as a writer I am naturally in support of reading everything. If there are racist or colonial themes, then read books and discuss them, understanding the context in which the book was written–the history, the culture, the economics, the views on race, religion, etc. etc. Don’t ban a work of literature that is otherwise magnificent just because there are painful things. We can learn from pain; in fact, we MUST learn from pain, because that is the only way not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Put those books from the past in dialogue with modern works. Ask questions about the author and try to understand if that author was perhaps progressive for their time, even though those views may not be acceptable now. Don’t cancel a writer event just because they said one thing that you disagree with, or that you in particular happen to find offensive, assuming that the author had malicious intent. Ask yourself what your own biases are, too. Alice Walker herself said (at a talk I attended) to read books from opposing points of view, books written by the enemy.

All cultural politics aside, there is something beautiful about cross-generational friendships and what we can learn about history and life from them. The octogenarian friend mentioned above grew up in the golden age of Hollywood, and I revel in hearing her stories about various cultural figures in classical music as well as in film. I seek life and home advice from a friend close in age who happened to become a mother and married very young. I talk about men and relationships and recipes with a friend who is a decade older than me. And the millennial mentioned above has much in common with me when I was the same age, trying to figure out what I wanted to do after college while working at a job I didn’t love, discovering opera, facing the challenges of learning how to sing, and marveling in the appeal of New York City. I love answering her questions, from the profound to mundane (dishwasher woes!), as she feels comfortable turning to me for guidance. We are all part of a chain as humans, with one hand reaching up for wisdom from others, and one hand reaching down to impart wisdom to others. In sum, we need each other, and the more we cross age divides, the richer our lives will be.

How to Become Global as a Writer

One of the criticisms hurled at American writers is that they are too narrow-minded and know very little about writers elsewhere, past and present. I have written about this in other posts (https://thewomenofletters.com/2013/05/24/the-need-for-a-national-writer/), but it is a topic worth revisiting. In listening to “The World” on NPR a couple days ago, it struck me about the importance of being well-informed about world affairs in politics as a writer. I recently Zoomed with friends from the international polyglot conference, and it was fascinating as always to talk about different languages, sounds, and cultures. I have a background in international education, so the intersection of culture and literature is always of interest to me. So here are some thoughts and suggestions for writers to expand their horizons to become more global in their sensibility.

-Read Nobel laureates. Over the past decade plus, I have chosen to educate myself about literary figures who are titans overseas but often unknown here. I have gotten to know the work of Orhan Pamuk, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Shaw (who is known but considered old-fashioned), and others. A friend from my MFA program recently started a book group to women Nobel laureates in literature, and last month we read Grazia Deledda’s Reeds in the Wind. The excitement for the group was indeed palpable, and I am certainly looking forward to the next meeting. Why not create a book group of your own to read Nobel laureates, women only or both genders? 

-Inform yourself about world affairs. Don’t just rely on American news sources but read international newspapers/news sites such as the BBC or international newspapers’ English editions. Take an interest in what is going on in the world politically, socially, culturally, etc. You might find inspiration for your own work. Susan Minot, who is educated in that most American of institutions, a prep school, and whose great story “Lust” is quintessentially American, wrote Thirty Girls, which was based on her reporting for McSweeney’s on the kidnapping of girls by the Lord’s Resistance Army in sub-Saharan Africa.

-Learn other languages. Author Lydia Davis translates French literature, and Jhumpa Lahiri has studied and written in Italian. Read literature in other languages if you can, even if it is short stories, or even websites. As a polyglot, I can say that it will enrich your mind to understand how to speakers of other languages think and use language.

-Read literature in translation. There’s no question that something does indeed get “lost in translation” as the saying goes, but still, we get a different literary sensibility with literature in translation, and it transports us to different places. The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic’ incorporates not only culture and history, but metafiction a work of literature that is mind-blowing.

-Read other genres. Popular literature has a global appeal (think Harry Potter) as does fantasy (think Tolkien). There are certain universals that readers everywhere like. Myths abound all over the world, and in non-“People of the Book” religions.

-Read myths and creation stories and tales from other religions. Hinduism is based on two great epics, the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana which are quite spectacular and Tolstoyan in their scope and number of characters.

-Tie in history, culture, politics, or a larger social context to your work. This is self-explanatory. It makes your story or novel larger than what it is.

And there are many other ways that you can get to know the stories of others around the world. What will you discover? What is your advice?

A Tribute to Gurinder Chadha, British-Indian Director and Pioneer

The film “Bend It Like Beckham” just turned 20 this year. It is my movie equivalent of mac and cheese, a movie I turn to when I want something warm and comforting and familiar. I can probably even recite most of the lines by heart! The near-perfect script is written by Gurinder Chadha, her husband Paul Mayeda Berges, and Guljit Bindra, and is directed by Chadha herself. The film set all kinds of box office records in the UK and was a hit around the world. Though my Indian background is quite different than Chadha’s, I have great admiration for her body of work and what she has done to pave the way for South Asian women in film.

Of Sikh descent but born in Nairobi, Chadha is British-Indian and quite an excellent representative of the community. A filmmaker beginning at a time when there were very few women filmmakers, let alone minority women filmmakers, she has addressed a variety of themes and subject matter that speak to the Indian community in Britain and in the diaspora as well as in India. But she takes things a step further, showing how these Indian communities relate to- and interact with the larger world.

Chadha usually puts women at the front of her films, and they hold key roles. Consider “Bhaji on the Beach,” which was Chadha’s breakout film as a feature film director. The ensemble cast features a group of women on a day trip to the beach–and not just women, but South Asian British women of all ages. This was a big deal in 1993, when it was released. “Bride and Prejudice,” a brilliantly fun and true-to-the original musical retelling of Austen’s classic novel, deals with marriage in a family of four daughters in the Punjab, with Bollywood megastar Aishwarya Rai as the Elizabeth Bennett character. Chadha shows an outspoken Indian character confronting a wealthy American man and his formidable mother; if we examine this more deeply, it is not just a tale of romance, but also a critique of colonialism and imperialism. And yet it is woven into an enjoyable story, complete with catchy songs to dance to. Chadha never loses her sense of fun as she gets a message across. 

Chadha is equally at ease with Indian characters as she is with non-Indian characters, making them all seem authentic. The Los Angeles families of different ethnicities in “What’s Cooking?” (a flawed but enjoyable Thanksgiving movie) are all different yet so similar in their humanity. They aren’t stereotypes created by a white director, but real families who are Latino, Vietnamese, Jewish, and Black. It doesn’t hurt that her husband Paul Mayeda Berges was a co-writer, and he is from California and of Basque and Japanese heritage. The Paxton family in “Bend It Like Beckham” come across like a typical lower-middle-class English family, with the mother’s highly conventional attitudes about gender roles and Indians. In “Quais de Seine,” Chadha’s contribution to the marvelous “Paris, je t’aime,” the lead character is a Muslim young woman (not even British Indian and Sikh or Hindu) who is befriended/romanced by a young Frenchman who resents her being bullied. It is two characters of completely different backgrounds to Chadha’s, in a different country, and of a different religion, and yet it is one of the strongest shorts in the film compilation. I believe this is because Chadha has a way of getting to the emotional heart of the situation and characters, in the way only a master director can. “Blinded by the Light” juxtaposes two seemingly unlikely things–a British Pakistani teenager and the music of Bruce Springsteen–that over the course of the film come together beautifully in a way that intertwines culture, racism, politics, economics, religion, and the power of music.

“Viceroy’s House” is her most serious film and one that has deep personal meaning to her. It addresses The Partition and Mountbatten’s departure from India. Naturally, the British characters are some of the lead roles; however, Nehru and Jinnah are equally important and there is a subplot that features Indian characters and deals with religion. There are some, especially historians, who criticized its lack of gravity and accuracy, and these criticisms maybe true. However, it is rare to find a film beautifully dramatizes and makes accessible a significant event in history that too few in the West know about.

Some might find Chadha’s films to be a little melodramatic or not serious enough. These criticisms are also valid, as tastes differ. Some also find her characters or even her film “Bend It Like Beckham” to be too predictable. This is also a valid criticism. Chadha’s primary goal is to entertain, and no one could ever accuse her films of not being entertaining. But she entertains in a way that is South Asian-focused, intelligent, multicultural, and socially relevant. One could also apply these adjectives to the filmmaker herself, who always comes across as jolly and friendly in interviews. There is no one really quite like Gurinder Chadha, who has an impressive body of work, and is truly a groundbreaker in the world of film.

Film Review: Tár [some spoilers]

Being a classical musician, of course I was intrigued about the film “Tár” about a leading orchestral conductor who gets “canceled” after several inappropriate incidents. I am a Cate Blanchett fan, as she is an incredible, versatile actress who has the physicality to embody any character she plays (her Bob Dylan portrayal was the best in “I’m Not There,” better than any of the men!) Normally, I avoid films with a much higher critics’ rating than audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as this usually means the films are frankly quite boring, “critics’ darlings” that are pretentious and hard to watch. Unfortunately, this was the case with “Tár.” It raises more questions than it has time to answer and doesn’t live up to its potential.

The film is too long. At nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes, the pace drags, and the film would have gained urgency had it been cut down by 45 minutes to an hour. Director Todd Field spends too much time exalting and glorifying the character of Lydia Tár at the beginning. Yes, we get it–she is one of the top conductors in the world, on par with Nézet-Séguin or MTT or Salonen. Yes, she is a woman conductor of top-tier orchestras, still a rarity these days, in the vein of Marin Alsop (whom the character seems to resemble in some ways) or JoAnn Falletta. Yes, the film needs to set her up at someone great so we can see her downfall and her abuse of power. But it all gets to be too much. As any writer knows, overdoing things and a lack of subtlety is a sign of a sophomoric work. It doesn’t trust the reader or viewer to grasp that Tár is great, and instead hits them over the head with the point. This is just one example of Field’s heavy-handed directing.

What is unique is the character herself, and a film that puts a strong woman at the center and shows that women can abuse power too, not just men: successful people of all orientations are guilty of sexual harassment and can have partners/spouses who enable their bad behavior, as is implied in this film with her wife Sharon, who never really speaks up till the end. Tár prefers young women whom she can mentor and then get involved with, as we can see with her sycophant assistant, Francesca and then the Russian cellist Olga. This is her pattern, and it keeps playing out through the film as we see from incidents both past and present. But some viewers might ask why feminism and power must be conflated with lesbianism. Does a woman have to go to a man’s tailor and wear suits to be taken seriously in a man’s world? Can she not be feminine and charismatic? Blanchett’s portrayal at times feels two-dimensional and a bit stereotyped, Murphy Brown 2.0.

The whole point is to set Tár up to be canceled for her misdeeds. But the director piles on too many themes that do not get to be explored in detail and ultimately get the short shrift. Each one is worthy of a whole film in and of itself. Tár makes insensitive remarks to a BIPOC, pangender conducting student in a masterclass and steamrollers over him when he protests what she has said. But the consequences are only returned to much later in the film. This is a very rich incident that raises so many complex questions. But perhaps the most interesting yet minimally-addressed incident in her past is the suicide of her former mentee, Krista Taylor, whom Tár was romantically involved with. She dumped Krista and viciously sabotaged her career. And she hires a new cellist in unprofessional ways and grants her opportunities that are clearly due to favoritism and romantic interest. Again, as above, this feels sophomoric because it is overdone and doesn’t trust the viewer to “get it.”

Blanchett is indeed a wonderful actress, with the dependable Nina Hoss as her long-suffering/enabling wife, as she has the charisma and gravitas to pull off the formidable lead role. The problems come when she is involved with music. Consider her interminable monologue with Adam Gopnik–it sounds rehearsed, orated, and not something introspective or spontaneous. A musician would likely go into an introverted place when talking about composers, but Blanchett makes the choice to give a speech that sounds formal. When conducting, her movements are almost comical, more like a caricature of how a conductor moves than how a conductor really moves (having played in orchestras and under conductors since childhood, this is something I’m familiar with). That a director would have not gotten a more accurate performance out of Blanchett, especially a director who has musical training, is surprising. 

I do give Field credit for the alternate reality world he has created in the film, and I’m willing to suspend disbelief for his having shown a conductor having more decision-making power than a conductor would in real life. But the execution is so poor in this film. It wasted a fantastic, formidable premise, featured a script that was all over the place, and kept a grim, distant tone that felt alienating and odd (especially when a film is about music and relationships, two of the most intimate, personal things in life). In all, a disappointment.

Thinking Critically

It is alarming to read in major, vetted news publications about the influence of social media on extremism. One can feel vindicated that the monstrous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is being forced to pay nearly $1 billion to atone for his sins. But he is only one individual among millions in the US and perhaps even billions plural in the world who have fallen prey to going to extremes. It is not just conservatives–liberals and leftists can also be equally as unreasonable (think the communist bombers in Italy in the 70s, cancel culture, holistic-types who are antivaxxers.) The underlying common denominator is a lack of being able to think critically. To question one’s logic, way of thinking, organizations one belongs to, and regulating one’s emotions are paramount during this era.

We see the prominence of the right wing globally, from the US to Hungary to Brazil to Korea and everywhere in between. We see an unwillingness for people to talk to each other, but instead comment–and troll others–online. It’s easier to retweet or repost than to come up with original content, because the former only requires clicking a button. More than ever, our minds are at stake and up for grabs by algorithms, bots, and data miners. We are a culture that makes decisions based on emotion rather than careful thinking. And yet, we are a very emotionally repressed culture where people deal with difficulties through various addictions, denial, and negative behaviors.

Education can play a big role in helping kids to think for themselves when it comes to receiving information. It is also very crucial to teach them empathy. Unfortunately, these skills often get lost upon entering adulthood where one must navigate business culture, organizations, personal slights, and those who are lacking in emotional intelligence as well as plain old intelligence. It is up to us, then, as adults to remind ourselves to work on self-awareness, call out extremism in any form, and not get swayed by false rhetoric. Many people have a deep mistrust of institutions, which is quite often unjustified and fueled by our American mentality of individualism above all. In this country, we see the two poles of being brainwashed by groupthink, and the anti-establishment, anti-everything, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do anarchy.

None of this is meant to be dystopian or “us against them,” which is precisely the mentality extremists use. Rather, this is to draw attention to these sociological processes that are having very negative consequences on our world now in politics, media, freedom of speech, hatred, violence, etc. I have lost a friend to this; she has become very irrational and has taken positions on things that are frankly frightening. Consider this quote: “the mind acts like an enemy for those who do not control it.” Chomsky? A 30something ex-Silicon Valley social media strategist? A 20th century psychologist? No–it is the millennia-old wisdom of the Buddha that is still applicable today.


I am currently revising a very long novel. I briefly discussed this as part of a post back in March (https://thewomenofletters.com/2022/03/11/%EF%BF%BCrandom-thoughts-reflections-and-musings/) but would like to take a little more time to discuss it.

The process of revision in fiction is endlessly complex and surprising, whether it be a story or a novel. Stories have to be more tightly written: things must fit together with fewer loose ends. In the novel, the challenge is that there is so much going on that the writer needs to remember everything, maintain the narrative tension, ensure that the protagonists have a narrative arc, etc. Both forms of fiction have their challenges. But mine right now is the novel, which I think is a harder undertaking when it comes to revision.

In revising my novel, I expected to have to cut a lot of material. The proverbial “kill your darlings” adage is imperative when working with a long text. I do believe we need to put down on the page whatever is our first impulse in our first draft; not doing so will shut us down, leave us subject to the crippling demon of perfectionism. The task of revision after this is to indeed kill our darlings. Why did we repeat something over and over? Why did we describe something in detail that is really a minor point? Why is there a scene that describes something not crucial to the thrust of the narrative? And do we really need that character? We ask ourselves if there is a briefer way to explain something that can be told within a shorter space. Why go on and on when something can be shown very easily in a few words? These are extremely difficult questions to implement when revising. It is very hard to kill our darlings sometimes, not only because we have a personal emotional attachment to it, but because we want the reader to feel as deeply as we do about a certain idea, scene, or character.

However, sometimes revising a long work such as a novel (or even a novella or long story) requires adding new material. Ironically, this can make the piece more “efficient”: putting in some key scenes early on can help cut material later. This really took me by surprise, especially since my manuscript is very long and my goal was to cut it down by a couple hundred pages. But just as we have cut a lot of unnecessary detail or scenes, we can add things that serve the purpose of the narrative and make for a richer or tighter or more engaging read. For example, what was a character’s backstory? Maybe a character’s narrative arc feels thin, but when we add the backstory, we understand his motivations even more. Maybe we want to understand a married couple’s dynamics through more than hearsay, not just what the wife is telling her sister, and so we need to insert a scene to see the couple interacting. Sometimes we need to create a new character, or give a character more time on the page, because that character is an agent in driving the narrative forward and increasing the stakes. These are all things I have had to do in my revision, because I felt a lack in certain areas.

The hardest thing about writing a novel is understanding the “architecture” as I call it. What is the underlying structure? What are the girders and beams and walls supporting it? Where is it weak? Do we need another beam in the opening chapters? What about that saggy middle where things seem to droop like the cables between the towers on a suspension bridge like the Golden Gate Bridge? Can we strengthen the foundation at the beginning of part three? It is a lot to keep in mind, and even for those who meticulously map out everything on paper or make drawings, creating the structure of a novel is not easy. One can find “lesser” works from the most decorated writers and Nobel laureates that lag, sag, and droop because there is no exact science to writing a literary fiction novel. As a side note, I think there is a lot literary fiction writers can learn from what are condescendingly called “potboiler” or “airport novel” (really, plot-driven) writers, because they know how to tell a damn good story and keep a reader’s attention for hundreds of pages with a juicy plot.

Countless books and theories and suggestions exist for revising, and it is up the writer to take what she needs from this plethora of information. At the end of the day, though, it is just you with the page on a laptop, trying to work everything out for yourself, a unique task which is both exasperating and marvelous.

Celebrating 10 years!!!!!!

Dear Readers,

I began this blog exactly 10 years ago to the day, September 30, 2012. When I started it, I had no idea what to expect. I had set up this website as a way for me and a friend (who had recently left an unhappy graduate school program) to continue our wonderful discussions that we always had on the phone, but online for people to read them. As she decided not to participate, the blog became entirely mine. I saw it as an outlet for all my various intellectual musings, artistic opinions, cultural criticism, and more, a place to put down words on paper that were not my long, formal fiction projects. Over the years, it has taught me so much more than I could’ve ever imagined. I got to interview interesting people. I analyzed books in detail. I offered my thoughts on politics and the situation in the world. And most of all, I got to share with others the things I love most: the arts. I had no readers in the beginning; I was just simply thrilled to write and have a place to do it.

            And the rewards have been incredible. An editor at The Guardian had praise for my work. People started following it. It gave me clout because it showed to agents that I have a platform as a writer. And, on a whim, when I saw a call for non-fiction essay collections in winter 2021, I put together a manuscript of my favorite pieces from this blog and began querying agents. While I have had no takers yet, I have had positive feedback, and that has been so surprising and wonderful, how something that I just started for an internal need has become something concrete.

            But most of all, what is the most gratifying and humbling thing is the fact that you, my readers, have cared enough to follow and read my blog. What I want to say to you is a heartfelt thank you, and also to encourage you to go for it: start your own blog! What are you waiting for? If I can do it, you can too. It’s really not hard and you just never know the places it might take you.

Creating Your Own Personal Canon

We often hear about The Canon, a presumed-monolithic entity of classics from Western literature and art that is in opposition to literatures from outside the west, different art forms, and different ways of conceiving classical works. There is also much good debate about the canon as we know it, what should be included in it and what should be discarded so that we can make way for works that are more relevant and reflective of our modern society and perceptions. However, we can also ask ourselves about our own tastes and preferences, and create our own personal canon. What are the books, paintings, pieces of music, works of art that inspire us personally?

As I wrote in an earlier post, many years ago I saw a photo exhibit by Patti Smith at the Detroit Institute of Arts. What was most striking was not the photographs themselves, but the canon she had put together through photography. She has a sensitive, aesthetic eye and is moved by great art of any kind; she also knows which body of work inspires her. Inspiration is a word that is thrown around loosely, in clever memes on Instagram, on wooden cubes for home decor. On a deeper level, it is something that we cannot live without. Different artists speak to us in different ways–some appeal to our “shadow” or dark side, some uplift us, others challenge us, motivate us, see things in a different way than we do, etc. etc.

When we create our own personal canon, it does not necessarily mean we have to make a list or a Pinterest board to define it in a formal way. Naturally, we will gravitate to certain types of works or artists and over time, we get a sense of what we like. Emulation is part of the process: maybe we paint like X, write like Y, or dress like Z. And then we start developing our own voice, using elements of X, Y, or Z, and eventually our voice becomes our own. For those who aren’t artists, a personal canon will simply be a body of work and artists whom one always want to see more of. A person working in finance who has no aptitude for music may always want to follow the latest from Björk, or a scientist may have regular tickets to the symphony. What matters, in any case, is that we know who or what inspires us and ignites our soul. I argue in favor of following the artists we love best, the trajectory of their creativity, knowing the body of their work. Don’t we love talking with people who have a passion for a particular artist in depth?

We can choose whatever elements we want for our own personal canon. Who’s to say that someone can’t mix Rihanna with Balkan folk dancing with Latin American magical realist authors? Think of your canon as a special box in which you put your favorite, most precious objects. Each of these objects is like a different stone: one might be precious, one might be common but look nice, another one might be unusual. There is no right or wrong here; all that matters is that you choose what you love, knowing that it reflects a part of you that is your deepest soul.