Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

VCFA Discoveries: Know Yourself! (and More)

Okay, time to reveal the latest from the January 2014 Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults residency. Yes, it’s time. I know. Don’t look at me like that. I’ve been busy. 😉 I still am, so let me jump right in!

These are the lessons and discoveries that stuck with me, synthesized from faculty and graduate lectures, conversations with fellow students, workshops, my experience from the previous semester…just everything!

1. Reach for the metaphor   My Book of Life by Angel

A metaphor can be your magic wand. But not just in your sentences. Think: might your entire story stand for something (but not in a preachy way)? Might there be a metaphor — an object, a place, an animal, an idea — to perfectly symbolize your main character’s yearning? For a great example of this, read Martine Leavitt’s My Book of Life by Angel, where Angel, a teenaged prostitute, dreams and obsesses about angels throughout the book, in a way that beautifully lifts her spirit and contrasts with the dark street life in which she is caught. If you would like to try this metaphorical approach in plotting your own story, try this: take an abstract emotion and find a concrete manifestation for it. For example, Angel wants to get away from street life. What does that look like? Angels, of course! 🙂

2. Keep ’em vulnerable

Where are your characters vulnerable? Look through the cracks in their facades. Put them in tough situations. Destabilize them.  Then watch what they will do. And this doesn’t just apply to your protagonists. Does your antagonist have any fears? What about the best friend? Bring them out. After all, it’s through our stories that readers will learn to face their own vulnerabilities. And they can only learn it by watching our characters squirm. On that note, we must face our own vulnerabilities as well. In writing, both in the content and in the habits, look for the cracks. Know your weaknesses. Meet your demons. One of my classmates gave me this advice: get in touch with your dark side and watch your writing soar. I am trying! It’s harder than you’d think. When it works, it can be pretty liberating, actually. The craziest thing? Sometimes, facing your dark side turns you into a nicer person.

3. Know your own inner landscape and how it informs your writing

This was pretty much the theme of the residency. In between celebrating writing and honing our craft, we pondered where each one of us came from, physically and emotionally, in hopes that the understanding we gain would ultimately help us become better writers. We each have a rich landscape we draw from, resplendent with fresh, unique details, a place with which we are familiar in the most intimate way. What is the “setting” of your formative years? Can you spend some time there, in your memories, in your imagination? Might it contain a dusty jewel or two that you could polish up and develop into a story? Of course, I knew this before. I have already been mining the past, and it’s amazing how much more there is left to explore. Sometimes, I almost don’t want to — I’d rather escape, go ride on the dragons, frolic with aliens. But it’s like a compulsion to me. In poetry and in longer fiction, I keep coming back to my childhood and adolescent landscapes.

Of course, you may feel differently. But this advice goes beyond the simple “write what you know.” You can write about aliens, princesses and terrorists, even if you’ve never been one, or met one. But on the emotional level, facing our buried pain and our deepest obsessions could help bring out the best in our stories — yes, even in the stories about aliens — when we channel ourselves onto the page.

4. Remember to play  

Play with your children, play in life — and play on the page. Play with sound, use more verbs, go crazy places on a treasure hunt. Once in a while, lower the stakes. Explore the inner lives of your characters through writing exercises without aiming to add to your story’s word count. Or train your writing muscles with a short story, maybe a humorous piece that explores a dark subject, a poem, a God-knows-what. See what happens, but don’t expect anything.  Hooray for play!

For my poetry workshop during residency, I came up with a nonsense love poem, titled, A Peasly Huley Doo (inspired by Lewis Carrol’s famous Jabberwocky). It’s not all that amazing, honestly, it really isn’t. But some people liked it. And best of all, I had a blast writing it. I got to stretch and play. In the end, I was just kind of impressed by my own craziness.

The more you play, the looser you will be when you approach the work in which you might be more invested. Writing risks won’t feel as foreign or scary, after a good healthy romp with words. Whether you’re working on your novel, or just messing around with words for no reason, make play a part of all you do.

5. Tune your ear

What about the times when writing is not fun? Pay attention to those. They may signal something important. When you are feeling stiff and resistant as you write, when you yearn to return to Facebook and check up on what your friends have been up to in the last ten minutes, stop. Take it as a sign — nothing ominous, mind you, just a yellow traffic signal — or better yet, a “slow down, construction ahead” sign. Are you forcing your character into a wrong situation, only having her do something because “you need her to?” Is the logic off somehow?  Are you avoiding writing an important moment? Protecting your character — or your reader? Is your perspective authentic, or are you writing from a point of view of a condescending, removed, if well-meaning adult? The answers could be many; the important thing is to learn to ask the questions.  Tune your ear.

If you play music, you can hear it when your fingers hit a false note, or a singer is off-key. If you are aware of that kind of thing, you can feel it in a very visceral way, in fact, kind of like reading a badly crafted book, it makes you cringe.  It actually hurts a little. It’s good to cultivate that kind of awareness for our own work, as well. When your writing isn’t going well, how and where do you feel it, physically? If you pay attention, soon you will know, and your body will become in a way, your writing instrument, giving you important clues.

Important note: only do this when writing is going slowly. If you are in the zone, if you are flying, if your words feel like liquid fire, then please forget about all the rules, tell your inner editor you’ll see her later, and bon voyage! (You can always go back and look at it again, that’s what revisions are for).

But here is what’s been true for me when things start to slow down: every time I ignore my own little signs of trouble and just plow ahead, I end up tangled in a mess of problems that sooner or later bring me to a halt. When I rush, I always end up slowing myself down. But when I slow down, paradoxically, I surge ahead. I am learning to make my peace with that at last, and hope that eventually, I will build up the muscle necessary to handle higher word counts and faster progress. Of course, it may be different for everyone. Some people might prefer to plow through the draft NaNoWriMo-style, 3,000 words a day, a relentless marathon. And that leads me to the last and most important point that kind of sums it all up:

6. Know yourself

Not just your landscape and the place you came from. Know yourself as a writer, as an artist. Know your working rhythms. Know what sets you back, what helps you do better. Own the kind of writer you are.

(Next time, I will post about Lucy Christopher’s fascinating talk on landscape, her entry points into her own stories, and her process in general. By the way, she definitely knows herself — and owns it!)


February 7, 2014 - Posted by | VCFA Adventures, What I've Learned Series, Writing Mirror | ,


  1. Katia, even though I just write poetry, your messages are very helpful to my writing. Thank you for sharing what you are learning.

    Comment by maggymoogie | February 7, 2014 | Reply

    • I am so, so glad! Much of this applies to poetry, (except for the characters stuff, I guess). Keep writing!

      Comment by Katia Raina | February 7, 2014 | Reply

  2. I loved all this. I want to read the angel book.

    You’ve really made me think about why I start and stop in my writing. I’m in the middle of a novel that’s really tough to write, despite my outline. I think I know why I’m having difficulty finishing it. It’s more than just being busy and having other projects on the side.

    Comment by Medeia Sharif | February 7, 2014 | Reply

    • Medeia, yes, chances are, something is off somewhere, and it seems like you know it! Sometimes we kind of delay having to face the difficulty, right? Even though it ends up costing us more time and effort in the end. So glad you found this helpful.

      Comment by Katia Raina | February 7, 2014 | Reply

  3. Thanks for sharing all of this. It’s great stuff, very helpful.

    Comment by Rosi | February 7, 2014 | Reply

  4. You are very welcome, Rosi!

    Comment by Katia Raina | February 7, 2014 | Reply

  5. thanks so much inspirational

    Comment by ktz5@comcast.net | February 7, 2014 | Reply

  6. Destabilize your character. Okay.I can do that!

    Comment by joycemoyerhostetter | March 29, 2014 | Reply

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