Writing as Renovation: An Evening With Celeste Ng
In late August, members and friends of the GrubStreet Writers of Color Group met with award-winning author Celeste Ng to talk craft, process, and publishing. Celeste's debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, has won multiple awards and was a New York Times bestseller, Amazon's #1 Best Book of 2014, and on the Best Book of the Year lists of over a dozen outlets. Her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, was released on Tuesday. Writers of Color Group members Kayti Lahsaiezadeh and Shirley Jones Luke reflect on the experience.
Members of GrubStreet's Writers of Color Group, including Kayti Lahsaiezadeh (front, first from left) and Shirley Jones-Luke (back, fifth from left) with Sonya Larson, GrubStreet's Director of the Muse Conference & Advocacy (front, fifth from left), and author Celeste Ng (back, sixth from right).
For group member Kayti Lahsaiezadeh, meeting Celeste led to the revelation that writing is not unlike renovating an old house.
I read Celeste Ng’s piece about renovating her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts after I come home from her recent visit with GrubStreet’s Writers of Color group. I’m buzzing with the particular high of a night spent talking about craft, plot, and revision (and Twitter trolls, and book tours, and so much more than one blog post can summarize). Celeste describes how she and her husband, Matt, fell in love with the century-old house, how they decided to buy it and make it their home, how they quickly realized that some of the features they loved most about the house would later become the most frustrating—the ipe wood shower prone to mildew, the claw-foot tub that wouldn’t drain properly, the cast-iron radiators that somehow failed to radiate heat.
It’s impossible not to think about writing when you read about a house being gutted and rebuilt. Especially when Celeste Ng writes about it. Especially after you’ve just listened to Celeste Ng describe how she goes about writing. For example, when Celeste speaks about plot, she says things like, “I’m walking around a walled city, and I know the story is in there… But I have to find the door.”
And my first thought as a poet is: Why did you stop writing poetry?
And my second thought is: I’m so glad, so grateful that you’re writing. And I am.
Celeste Ng is an award-winning writer. She wears a Wonder Woman T-shirt and a nametag, even though we all know who she is and are trying our best to be chill and not fangirl too hard. She jumps right into the questions we’ve prepared for her with excitement and candor, reaching a hand into an oversize tote bag for slips of paper.
Did she enjoy her MFA? Yes, resoundingly: “An MFA can give you a writing community, people you go to for pep talks, can give you mentors and connections, can help you meet agents and editors, and it can give you a core writing curriculum,” but “ultimately what matters most is your writing,” and an MFA experience can certainly be replicated outside of the classroom setting—it just might take more time and effort.
The hardest part of writing, for her? Plot, surprisingly: “It’s something I’ve had to really work hard at.” The most exciting aspect of writing a novel? Playing with language and lyricism. Her best advice? “Allow yourself to write things that will never go into the book… the concern of writing the project has to be separate from the project itself… Imagine no one is going to read this: what would I want to write about?”
When it comes to finding editors and agents, Celeste stresses the importance of the right fit. When trying to find someone to represent you, it can be tempting to become a supplicant in order to get people to like you, but “probably the most important thing you can do is to find people that will represent your book the way that you want it to be represented.”
Celeste’s description of renovating her house felt somehow akin to what I’ve experienced with writing over the last few years. The things that once brought me the most joy, things that captivated me on first sight, have become the things I agonize over. When I first started writing, all I could see were the possibilities—and that was exciting, almost romantic. I’ve never bought a home (and with the way things are going, I doubt that I ever will), but I imagine that the excitement and sense of possibility are not dissimilar.
What I’m saying is, the longer we write, the more aware we become of the work that needs to be done. But maybe it isn’t just a matter of repairing holes or reinforcing the walls. Maybe what we actually need to do is start from scratch: to tear down the house and rebuild it. Maybe it’s about finding the writing practice that works for us, rather than the kind we’ve been trying to mold ourselves to fit.
It does bear mentioning that even after finishing their renovation, Celeste and her husband still keep little mementos of the house’s history and former tenants. Likewise, I’m not trying to say that everything we’ve been taught about writing needs to be stripped away. But as a writer, and especially a writer of color, I think it’s okay to own the fact that perhaps the structures of writing that I’ve been trying to find a home in for the past few years weren’t built with me in mind. And as a young female writer, I think it’s important to acknowledge that these structures are also old, and definitely in need of some serious repair.
Having just finished Celeste Ng’s new novel, Little Fires Everywhere, I’m really having trouble letting go of this image of a house being reduced to its foundations. Little Fires begins with a house burning to the ground (it’s in the first sentence, so I’m hardly spoiling anything). At the beginning of the book, the charred remains of the Richardson home feel tragic. But by the novel’s end, the image blooms with new vitality, becoming a beginning. “After the burning the new soil is richer, and new things can grow.”
For Group member Shirley Jones-Luke, the evening with Celeste was about reconnecting with community and gaining insight and inspiration for her own work.
On a warm, late summer evening, I re-connected with my GrubStreet tribe. There we were, writers of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds, gathered together to network, engage, celebrate our writing achievements, and to better understand what it takes to be a successful writer. A shining example of success, author Celeste Ng met with us to tell her story and her truth as a writer of color.
Celeste said that she was thrilled to be at a Writers of Color event. She had listened as we shared information, asked questions, and cheered each other’s successes. Some at the gathering had attended conferences such as Bread Loaf and signed with agents. Others were just beginning their writing journeys and taking classes at GrubStreet. I was interested in learning from Celeste’s drive, to push my writing further on the path towards success.
Celeste encouraged us to “give yourself permission and be free to write your story.” Writing can “get complicated” she suggested, but explained that complications may lead us to “find the true idea behind what we want to write.” She added that “people will always read themselves in your work. Write the story for yourself, from your experiences.”
Celeste explained the importance of asking questions throughout the publishing process. You want all those involved to be on the same page about your book. You want your book to be represented the way you want it to be represented.
When writing, Celeste advised, trust your “gut instinct.” “Fine-tune your own ideas when it comes to trusting others’ feedback.” In a workshop environment, Celeste said that “not every opinion you receive about your work will be golden” and you should “take what people say with a grain of salt and listen closely to the feedback to discern what is good and what to put aside.”
Overall, I found the event to be very fruitful. I listened and learn a lot from Celeste. In addition, I enjoyed the questions and comments from my fellow writers. I made a contact at the event and have been speaking with the person to establish a writing group. I’m happy for Celeste’s success and wish her many more in the future. As for me, my writing journey is a rollercoaster and I need to hold on and see where it will take me.
Kayti Lahsaiezadeh is a current volunteer at Black Ocean Press, where she manages social media and outreach. Her work has appeared in Post Road, Pea River Journal, Kweli, The Blueshift Journal, FreezeRay Poetry, and Maudlin House. Born and raised in San Diego, she currently lives and works in Boston. You can find her on Twitter (@brodobraggins) and read more of her writing at k-lahsaiezadeh.com.
Shirley Jones-Luke is a poet and a writer. Shirley lives in Dorchester, MA. She is an English teacher for the Boston Public Schools. Ms. Luke has an MFA from Emerson College and an MA from UMass Boston. She is a freelance writer focusing on personal essays and memoir. Her poetry has been published in several journals and magazines such as, Adelaide, BlazeVOX, and Deluge.
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