In the Spotlight: Sonal Champsee

Sonal Champsee has always impressed me with her creative practicality. From the moment I met her, I knew that she’d made a choice – she’d chosen writing – and that there was a great deal of power in her choice. You could just feel it when she sat down at the table: she was going to do this. She was joyful, but she was also serious.

In our class, I would offer writers a variety of prompts, trying to help them provoke something out of nothing. And Sonal’s writing responded especially to prompts that required attention to form or structure. Of course now I know she has a background in Computer Science and Rhetoric, so this makes sense. The restrictions in those exercises may have given the logical, sensible side of her brain something to accomplish while the rest of her creative mind could work freely.

Her writing shows careful interest in emotional truth, love, communication, and honest human interaction. I’m very happy to introduce you to Sonal and her writing process.

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Sonal Champsee is a Toronto-based writer who is currently working towards an MFA in Creative Writing through the UBC optional residency program. Sonal has undergraduate degrees in Rhetoric and in Computer Science, and has worked as a programmer, marketing manager, marketing communications writer and as a landlord and real estate investor. She has not yet been published, but her work has garnered some very impressive rejections. Learn more about Sonal. 

Meet Sonal

Handwriting or computer? First draft computer. Difficult parts re-written by hand.

Page count or time count? Neither. Word count.

First drafts or revision? First drafts until I get over my revise-o-phobia.

Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group? Solo and group.

Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music? Both. Depends what I’m writing.

How long have you been writing? How long have you known you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve been a reader since I was four.  But it never occurred to me that I could also be a writer until I was fourteen, and my English teacher apologized to me because she thought my short story was really good so she read it out loud to the earlier class without getting my permission first.  (Not that I’d have said no.)  That’s when I first thought, maybe I can do this.  I never got very far with it though, and then when I entered university I decided to take an employable degree.  This was a huge mistake.  I believed I would be able to graduate, get a good job and still write after work, but I was only partially right; I graduated, went on to a number of well-paying and soul-sucking jobs, and whatever haphazard attempts I made at writing evaporated.  This was my life for years.  I was miserable and tried to convince myself that I was merely being practical.

About seven years ago, amid some personal crisis, I rediscovered art-making and writing.  I remember taking my first creative writing class at Humber College, and feeling this awed clarity, this sense that everything fit.  I had lunch with friends the next day and asked “Do you know that feeling you get, when you know absolutely that you are doing the thing you are meant to do?”  They looked at each other and then and me and said “No, I have no idea what you are talking about, but it sounds pretty awesome.”

For me, it’s not so much about wanting to be a writer as it is that writing is the thing that feeds my soul and grounds me the most in myself.  Practical and sensible are bad habits I am trying to break.  It sounds arrogant and pretentious to say that I have to write, or that I’m meant to write, but I believe this is true.  My world is all wonky when I don’t.  So I write.  None of this means that I’m meant to be a good writer or a successful writer, but I keep working on those things.

How do you make time for your writing practice? How do you handle resistance?

I am terrible at making time for my writing practice, even though writing makes me happy.  Conventional writerly wisdom says I need to set aside time to write daily; this does not seem to work for me.  I struggle with routine.  I have never been able to successfully get into the habit of doing anything deliberately.  (Accidentally, however, I have formed many bad habits.)  I have proven that whole “It takes 21 days to form a habit” thing wrong over and over.

I used to think this meant I was not serious enough about writing, but I now suspect that I am simply not built for even, placid, routine.  This means I don’t have to be hard on myself for not meeting some standard about what ‘real’ writers do.  I have to find another way, to keep going in fits and starts, to keep inventing new tricks to make myself write, and hope will coalesce into something that happens more often.  Some people have structured plans to run marathons; others are just active in a dozen different ways.

It’s hard to sit and write.  I sit down, and suddenly I am starving and cannot concentrate so I have to go cook and eat something.  Then I sit back down, but a few moments later I am hungry again.  Or I notice that I’ve been living in furry squalor for a while now, and it’s suddenly intolerable.  (Clearly, writing is good for my housekeeping habits.)  I write a few words, but decide to fact-check something on the internet and lose hours.  It gets late, I get tired, I get five hundred words down and then I don’t know what comes next.  I could push myself a little farther and write further into the unknown.  If I just sit and type a little longer, the story will reveal something new.  Magic will happen if I just keep going.  I regret all the times I walk away.

Yet, twice I completed the Nanowrimo challenge, writing at least 2,000 words a day, every day, for a month.  They were mostly awful terrible words, but magic did happen now and then.  And I worked and saw friends and went to the theatre and fed myself and even managed to clean once in a while.

So I know I can make the time.  I know what can happen when I make time.  But still I do not make the time.

The MFA is my latest trick.  I had originally planned to do this part-time, but then realized that part-time would keep writing as something I did on the side.  So I signed up for a full-time course load, and hope that the sheer volume of work will push me to find a way to make writing the centre of my life and work something I (mentally) do on the side.  I have changed nothing so far about my crazy stress-laden life to accommodate this.  I’m diving in deep water and will just have to figure out how to swim later.

Tell us about the excerpt you’re sharing today. 

This is a very early draft of a story I’ve been working on. I actually wrote this piece from one of Sarah’s prompts, although the prompt-part was not working and so I cut that. The entire story takes place at a speed-dating event.

For me, the most interesting part of this story is that this is one of the biggest revisions I have ever done. I took Kevin’s actions and gave them to Avani, which meant I had to re-write nearly everything. I’ve always been terrified of having to re-write everything; it took so much work just to get that first draft, and I thought re-writing meant twice the work. In fact, it’s less work, and certainly a lot easier revising draft after frustrated draft until I hate the story because it just won’t work.

I’m still playing with whose point of view to write this from, still thinking of giving Avani’s actions back to Kevin and writing from his point of view, still thinking of writing this in multiple views. For a revise-o-phobic, thoughts like these are practically heresy, but only when I kick fear out of the way will I be able to see where this story will take me.

No Harm

Excerpt by Sonal Champsee

A man was settling himself in front of Avani, blue sheet in hand.  He had the red-undertoned skin of someone who sweated easily. “Hi,” he said.  “I’m Dave.  And you are?”

She glanced over at Kevin, but he was talking to the red-haired girl again.  Avani leaned forward a little to stick out the nametag on her chest.  “Avani,” she said.  “A-V-A-N-I.”  She wrote his name on her green sheet.

He wrote busily, repeating each letter under his breath.  “That’s a really pretty name.  Is it Ind— I mean, are you— uh, is it from your heritage?”

“Yes,” she said.  “I’m Indian.”

“When did you come to Canada?”

“I was born here.”

“Oh.”  The chatter in the room swelled as other people’s conversations began to flow. “You know, I think Indian women are really beautiful. I’ve always wanted to date one.  They just look so exotic.”

Avani looked over at the girl in front of Kevin, with her ivory skin and jewel-toned clothes, and persimmon hair.  She looked down her crisp floral blouse and white pants. She looked like clean, fresh laundry.  There was nothing exotic about laundry.

“And I love curry.”

“I don’t really eat much curry.”  She hadn’t since her parents went back to India.

They sat without speaking in the chatter-filled room.  Avani tried to count the tables around the room, to calculate how long it would be until she could talk to Kevin.  He wasn’t looking her way at all.  But the red-haired girl was twisting a lock of hair around her finger.

“What do you do for a living?” asked Dave.

“I’m a pharmacist.”

Dave waited a moment and then said: “I work for a bank.”  Avani said nothing, so Dave continued.  “Yeah, most people usually ask me if that means I know a lot about money, but all I know is how fast it runs out every month.  Ha ha.”  He tapped his fingers against his blue sheet on the fake wood table.  “So pharmacy, eh?  Do you get lots of junkies and stuff coming in and trying to get drugs?”

“Not really.”

“What about hobbies?  What do you do on the weekends and stuff?”

“I don’t know,” Avani thought about her recent weekends.  She hadn’t felt up to much more than watching re-runs of Millionaire Matchmaker.  “Um, we used to go hiking a lot.”

“We?”

“My ex.  And me.  He used to take me hiking.  And stuff like that.”

“Do you still hike?”

“No.”  Avani wondered if the red-haired girl was a hiker.  Or would she introduce Kevin to something new, instead of following him around like his loyal puppy?

Dave checked his watch.  “Was this a recent break up?”

“Yeah.  Well, maybe not, but it feels recent.  Three months.  Is that still recent?”

“I guess so,” said Dave.  “So what are you doing here?”

“He’s here.”

“What?”

“I Facebook-stalked.  I saw he was coming, and I really needed to talk to him.  So I’m here.”

Discussion:

What remains with you after reading Sonal’s work?

Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt – and more importantly, why it’s working?

How is your own writing practice like Sonal’s? How is it different?

Please leave a comment below.

And thank you, Sonal!



Read the comments or add yours.

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Peggi says:

I keep wondering what Kevin thinks. Can he see Avani and if so, is he dying to get out of there or is he determined to show her he’s moving on and hoping she doesn’t make a scene?

What I really enjoy is the picture this excerpt gives me at the end when I find out she’s a stalker. From the beginning I could tell she was totally not interested in the date (who would be, considering his horrid lack of conversational skill?) but it surprised me and that’s the biggest reason it worked for me.

Well done Sonal!

Hi Peggi, glad you enjoyed the excerpt. How Kevin and Avani are aware of each other has changed from draft to draft and I’m not sure yet what it will be–there’s some logistical issues that are at play here, along with narrative issues. It’s one of these things where sure, in real life, maybe you’ve experienced going through a whole night without noticing someone (“Oh you were there too? OMG, I never noticed.”) but in fiction, it doesn’t read as plausible and it breaks the reader out of the story. I’m still playing with that balance between the needs of the narrative (there’s no story if Kevin sees her immediately; he could just leave) and the reader.

I think of Avani’s conversation with Dave as the worst speed date ever. Well maybe not ever, but it’s not much fun for either of them.

Stephen D. Forman says:

Great interview, one of my favorites– I loved meeting Sonal as both a writer and relatable person.

For me, the highlight of this piece is when Avani begins counting the tables: that’s a “show me, don’t tell me” moment. She’s mentally checked-out of the date…

…but then the sentence continues, and it turns out she’s counting the tables to find out when she can talk to Kevin. Ah, even better!

On the other hand, what falls a bit flat for me is the reveal at the end, if only because it seems out-of-character for the Avani who’s been so reticent to interact or share anything with her date until now.

Perhaps a “show me, don’t tell me” way of getting this information out would be Avani thinking something like, “Kevin was an avid Facebooker– it made following him a fulltime job.” I don’t know– just spitballing here : )

Otherwise, very enjoyable piece, thanks!

Hi Stephen, and thank you! Glad you enjoyed meeting me and my work.

This is definitely still a draft (Sarah asked for ‘middle draft’ excerpts) and I think you’re right, Avani’s revelation does come out of no where… she’s been sitting and staring at Kevin all this time, so it’s odd for her to reveal so much so quickly.

One of the things that has been tricky in this piece is to keep the pace of the dialogue and narrative moving, but still keep the dialogue sounding natural and in-character… real-life people can chitchat and talk about nothing for a long time, but it bogs down the story. At the same time, as you pointed out, it’s rather convenient for Avani to come out and do a big reveal when she’s been virtually silent so far. Still trying to find that balance.

Stephen D. Forman says:

Coming from someone who’s attended his fair share of Speed Dates, I’d say you otherwise nailed it : )

I’m certainly no expert; in fact, I’ve only just finished Sarah’s SSM chapter on Dialogue, and it kicked my a$$. Having said that, the exercise we ran (in which you write a scene entirely composed OF dialogue, then entirely WITHOUT) seems to me a good way to solve for such a static tableau. It might force your attention on much finer details you’d previously overlooked.

/ my humble $0.02 : )

Dialogue is probably my favourite thing to write. (So conveniently, this story ends up being almost all dialogue.)

But some of the fine-tuning will have to come after I sort out some plot issues in the larger piece.

Margaret says:

Wow! Sonal, thank you. I really enjoyed reading your responses in the interview because you are so open about how you’ve struggled with finding your time to write. How incredible to hear ways to reframe positively. I am excited about finding a new way to breathe life into my practice by getting off my back and finding what works best for me instead of feeling like a failure because I keep not doing “the normal way.” I’m pumped!

Hi Margaret, glad you enjoyed this.

To be completely honest and fair, I do think it’s “the normal way” for good reasons: it works very well. Showing up to do the work every day is a good way to keep resistance in check, because every day you find a way to get past it.

But I also think that it’s not the only way that works. (Writers who admit they don’t write every day make me very happy; they’re such rebels.) Being hard on yourself for ‘failing to be normal’ is another, very sneaky, form of resistance, one that harms your practice.

There is nothing wrong with taking the gentle approach by making the most of where you are right now, and not worrying about why you aren’t somewhere else. There’s also nothing wrong with realizing that getting ‘there’ is journey, and you may have some travelling to do first.

You’re here. Make here work for you as best you can. Worry about there when you get there.

Sarah Selecky says:

I am loving this discussion so much. I had to jump in to add that I agree with Sonal on this: “Writers who admit they don’t write every day make me very happy; they’re such rebels!” The truth is, writing every day is ideal, for all the reasons you think. But sometimes writers must write in conditions that are not ideal for writing. You do what you can.

Mary Nicholson says:

YAY! Sonia- before I even get to your draft- I LOVED your candid answers about the writing process. I usually write by hand- but I am going to ponder the “computer than writing by hand” thing!
The food/comfort thing resonated with me too…lol! I recently gave up milk and white sugar for a spell, and couldn’t sit and write until I invented a cocoa/almond milk/maple syrup concoction.
Okay- ready to read your draft- feedback to come!

Cocoa/almond milk/maple syrup concoction? That sounds delicious. (Can you tell I have writing to do?)

Don’t ponder the computer vs. handwriting thing. Try it. Write a few paragraphs on the computer and see how it feels. Then write some by hand and see how it feels. Decide what you like. Every writer has their own way of working, and I think it’s worthwhile to experiment.

For me, I do find that writing by hand allows the writing to get to a more emotional place, sometimes surprisingly so. There’s more distance in writing on the computer. But for me, laying out the first draft is where I start to figure out structure and the computer works well for doing that; later, I can layer in emotional depth as I revise by writing certain parts by hand.

For other writers, they may need to take a journey into the emotional heart of the story before they can consider anything else, and handwriting might be a better way to access that.

So experiment and see what works for you.

Incidentally, there arr some great alternative word-processing programs out there. Sarah turned me on to OmmWriter a while ago; it’s a very pared down interface (no distracting yourself by fiddling with formatting), it takes up the full screen (no checking your email), and it plays some soothing creative-inducing background music (no looking for the perfect writing song!). I find that it lets me writing in a place somewhere between handwriting and computer-writing.

There’s also Scrivener, which I have begun playing with. It’s very complicated (there’s a steep learning curve and I am still climbing) but I can see how it would be great for looking at a draft structurally; it’s designed for writing things in pieces and then moving them around. It’s useful for writing things that are large or structurally complex.

I end up using Word most of the time, but sometimes it helps to switch to another program. (Sometimes I write in my email program too.)

Now, I have given you plenty of things to distract yourself from your own writing practice. :)

Margaret says:

Excellent. Thank you both for the good insight and I see healthy reminders too. Btw, I laughed when I read “Being hard on yourself for ‘failing to be normal’ is another, very sneaky, form of resistance.” What a great truth! And I realized how ironic that I’m very creative in how I’m resisting being creative! haha!

This is my first time seeing this site – passed on by a friend-colleague-fellow writer. I will be returning. Thanks.

Margaret, you’re a writing. That ‘normal’ ship sailed a long time ago.

Thanks again.

Mary Nicholson says:

Okay- what I liked about this piece:
I feel like the ending of the story (I FB stalked him) is really just the beginning, and it was a slight twist on what I was expecting- wasn’t sure until this if Kevin was a speed date she really liked, or if they were really amiable exes.

In terms of strong dialogue- I felt that the awkwardness of Dave’s questions and comments to Avani- made me cringe with recognition.
Hmm…for moving forward…I would make Avani’s inner thoughts/dialogue- more subtle.
Great piece! Can’t wait to see where it goes!
Thanks for sharing.

(Clearly, my fingers are all about typos today.)

Glad you like this piece. This excerpt currently sits very early in the story, so you are right in that it is more of a beginning. We see a lot more of Kevin later.

Popping by in the “better late than never” category. First, the ‘what remains’, since I read the article when it first came out, but haven’t had time to get back to it; glancing again at the first sentence, what leapt to mind was Avani who’d been stalking Kevin, and Dave who’d been maybe trying too hard at the speed date thing. Actually rereading filled in the other back details like race and timelines.

I think something key about what works there is the reader has questions they want answered almost immediately, related to the backstory. Even the ‘FB-stalk’ revelation at the end just brings up more questions (is Kevin the ex, or friend of ex, and why did she have to meet him here of all places). By the way, I interpreted the sudden revelation as a last ditch attempt to shut Dave up, rather than necessarily confiding in him.

With regard to MY writing practice – it’s complicated. I don’t have time to write or revise full length stories except in summer. Partly job, and partly because twice a week I DO publish a few paragraphs (and draw) for my web series about mathematics personified. It’s got a story line and everything, so – sort of writing? Keeps me in the game anyway, even if I only add to the buffer a couple times a month. Since I enjoy my job (most aspects) and other things feed my soul (like math), we’re going with it for the moment. :)

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