Living As An Artist and Pursuing Your Passion - with Award Winning Laotion Writer, Bryan Thao Worra
I was thinking about a way to reach out and make an impact in my own community. My eyes stared down at a blank sheet of paper and I realized I was going about it all wrong. I wasn't going to make an impact by hiding away in my studio or piling up my manuscripts to collect dust. Hours spent pouring your soul onto the page should be shouldn't go into hiding. So, how do you take the first step in sharing your work? I immediately though of a writing I heard speak a few years ago at Minnesota Transracial Film Festival. His name was Bryan Thao Worra. He was an award winning Laotion writer who traveled to Minneapolis to share selections of his poetry. At the front of the stage, armed with a microphone his words strung together in my ears like a mosaic. They created images of nature, emotion, and pictures strung together line by line. I remembered touching the cover of his pile of books at the end of the film festival. It was one of envy and one of gratitude. One of us took action on their calling. It took me a few years later to do the very same.
My only complaint of the event was that he had to leave early, and I missed my chance to speak with him. I wanted to know what inspired him, why he was a writer, and how he was able to get by without the "day job". Well, I finally took my own advice and asked him directly. I reached out to him and he answered. Yes, my geek self does stand on the other side of the table hoping for an signed copy when I admire someone's work. I saved him that awkward moment by writing this part after I had his interview. Let's find out the answers to all those unanswered questions and thank time for second chances.
1. Please state your name, title, and tell us a little about yourself.
As a writer, I don't usually use titles except for my books. But I'm
Bryan Thao Worra, and I'm a Lao American writer currently splitting my
time between Minnesota and California. I was born in Laos in 1973,
adopted in the same year and have lived across the US, but primarily
grew up in Michigan, Montana and Alaska. I'm the author of several
books and am the first Lao American to hold an NEA Fellowship in
Literature. I have over 20 awards for my writing and community service
and my work appears in over 100 publications in Australia, Canada,
England, Scotland, Germany, France, Singapore, China, Korea, Chile,
Pakistan, as well as across the United States. My poems have been
translated into Spanish, French, German, Korean, Thai, Tagalog,
Bengali, and Lao. And I raise dachshunds and sea monkeys.
2. Tell us more about what you do and how it benefits the art community.
In addition to my personal creative work, I serve as a mentor, a grant
writer and community organizer for historically underserved
communities. I'm a proponent for plurality empowering democracy. We
cannot effectively be part of a democracy without an empowered
minority voice. This doesn't mean that the society will always go with
the minority voice, but it's important that those perspectives have at
least received consideration. For many communities, such as the
refugees I particularly work with, it is through the arts that we find
the most effective advocates. For those whom English is not their
first language, the power to express is more than a question of
3. When did you decide to become a writer & spoken word artist?
It's not necessarily one single moment, but an aggregation of many
discrete moments. You sometimes look down on a sheet of paper and feel
really satisfied with it. Or you look at something someone else has
written and say: That's nice, but it could have been said better. It
could have been more inclusive. Or, my perspective isn't really
captured in this. I began writing really actively in high school, but
m poetry really began in earnest in 1991. As I usually tell the story,
my first poems were for a girl, but looking back at it, the poems
weren't really about the girl, and I didn't get the girl, but I did
get some nice poems. So there we were.
4. How did you go about pursuing your passion? (Schools, events, or other things you became involved in).
Being in the arts is about being a part of a community. You go to
other people's readings. See what's being written and what is not.
What are people looking at, and what aren't they looking at. Then,
signing up, and coming back, when a chance to perform and present
itself arises. You should seek to be in a constant state of practice.
Granted in writing, it's good to remember that 90% of your process is
just the thinking, and the remainder goes into the physical execution
of it all. But you find that opens a lot of doors. Be giving. Be open
to opportunity, and be proactive in seeking that out.
5. What did it take to get to the point you’re at now?
Oh, the joke is always, it takes 30 years to become an overnight
success. But it's true. You have to be find the balance between
hanging on to some things, and letting go of others, which can be a
challenge for many transcultural adoptees. There's often an urge to
collect things obsessively, pore over them for every nuance and
detail. And its good to take those things seriously. But you also have
to give yourself the freedom to make mistakes, to be wrong, and then
do what it takes to try and do it correctly. Sometimes, this means
making a completely different set of mistakes for a while. But a good
many people hold themselves back because they're afraid to be wrong.
But that's not how you participate in art, or society. So take risks.
I'm not talking about bungee jumping from skyscrapers, but you should
always challenge yourself and your limits.
6. Looking back, is there advice for someone interested in pursuing writing?
You really have to commit to trying to write something every day. To
read interesting things every day. To experience life interestingly,
no matter where you're from or what you might feel like you're stuck
doing at the moment. Every true artist has to constantly be
challenging themselves and their assumptions. It's good to find a
mentor and a support network, not just of the people at the same place
you're at, but who are at different stages. It keeps things fresh and
teaches your the ropes.
7. What were some of the ups and downs of being an independent artist? How did you get past the tough times?
Without an institution constantly backing you, finances will always
keep you on a roller-coaster, even at the top of your art. The freedom
to express yourself is a double-edged sword. You have to push yourself
constantly to remain relevant without compromising yourself just to
make rent. You get through tough times by letting people in, letting
people help you, but also by taking the initiative to plant most of
the seeds for your later success yourself. You have to apply for
things that are long-shots, you have to take risks.
8. Are there any resources you would like to recommend to our readers when it comes to focusing your creativity?
It really depends on your personal motivation and what you feel your
needs are. Some people don't need much more motivation than
NaNoWriMo.org to take up the daunting challenge of writing a novel.
For writers in general I'd recommend going to New Pages at
www.newpages.com and taking a look at the resources there. They tend
to have particularly excellent lists of places to submit work to,
classes and program deadlines coming up, and so on. The Loft Literary
Center in Minneapolis and Intermedia Arts are also spaces where I
think many artists will be able to focus their creativity. They're
both really dynamic spaces.
9. Do you have any new work coming out? Can you tell us about it?
My new book, DEMONSTRA will be coming out from Innsmouth Free Press in
December, 2013. It's a collection of speculative poetry examining the
diaspora from a Lao transcultural adoptee perspective. That will be
particularly obvious in some poems, less so in others. Examining
notions of TRAmbiguity, as I've referred to it in the past. It goes
back to some of the things I've said in the past. That a transcultural
adoptee's life can never be written in ink, only pencil, because
everything you know about yourself could change in an instant. But we
still move forward. Occasionally sideways, sometimes backwards. Fluid
10. Any closing comments you would like to share with our readers? Anything else that would help inspire them?
Strive for balance. Be patient with yourself. Write, but don't
overwrite a thing. Everyone says you should read widely, and it's
true. But your task is also not to sound like other writers. We have
those writers. Your goal as an artist is to find your voice, that
unique way of putting things, and sharing it with the world. I always
tell my students that we can't guarantee you'll be read a thousand
years from now, or even a hundred, or even ten days from now. But if
you don't try and write, there will be nothing to be found. But the
right words in the right place at the right time, that can move
11. Is there a way for our readers to contact you or stay updated with your new work? (Please include any links or contact information you would like posted)
You can follow me on twitter @thaoworra or on my blog at
http://thaoworra.blogspot.com, but you may also find my regular
columns at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and Little Laos on the Prairie
After listening to writers and artists like Bryan, I realized how important it was to share your work, beliefs, and values with those around you. It doesn't matter if they agree. What matters is reaching out and sharing all you are, all you have to offer, and all of us have so much more to give. That is the reason I started writing for this blog.
-Interview by Mahieu Spaid at MahieuStudios.com