When I meet with teachers or other grown-up readers, I often get the question, “So, how do you do it?” Many of these folks have stories in mind that they’d like to get down on paper. They’re curious about everything ranging from the anthropological research I had to do for A Girl Called Problem to the self discipline it takes to write a book. Perhaps because writing is such a solitary endeavor, I am equally fascinated by fellow writers’ processes and the real-life experiences that inspire their stories. So when I got an invitation to address some of these questions as part of a blog tour, I jumped on it.
The “My Writing Process” Blog Tour has been whistle-stopping its way around the web for a number of months now. The idea is that each writer is invited by another writer to answer a few questions about her writing process, and then she passes the torch to other writer friends to keep the tour moving along.
I was invited by my wonderful friend, Anna Vodicka. Anna is a talented writer, as well as a true adventurer (and, lucky me, she is also my sister in law). At the moment, she and my brother, Brian, are living in the island nation of Palau. Here’s one of Anna’s recent photos from her blog:
Not bad, eh? In addition to swimming with sting-free jellyfish and kayaking around amazing tree islands like the one pictured above, Anna is spending her year in the Pacific working on essays, a memoir, and her blog, The Coconut Wireless. Anna recently crafted a beautiful post in response to the “Writing Process” questions below.
And, now, here are a few thoughts in answer to the blog tour’s questions about my writing process:
1) What am I working on?
My current project, Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate, is a memoir about motherhood and adventure set in the mountains of southern India. Yes, as you can see, I made the inadvisable decision to genre hop from kid lit to memoir for adults. But after spending two years with my new baby in India, I felt like I had a book handed to me, so I took the plunge.
Here’s a quick synopsis of Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate:
Friends in California thought we were crazy, toting our infant son halfway around the globe, but I was a “have-it-all” sort of gal, certain that with a little gumption I could marry motherhood and international adventure, while still keeping my foot in the professional door. Besides—and this was perhaps a greater motivating factor than I was willing to admit—nannies are considerably cheaper in India. So, as our firstborn neared three-months of age, the three of us boarded an international flight, dreaming of succulent curries, resplendent Hindu weddings, breathtaking hikes to remote mountaintop villages, and the opportunity to define parenting on our own terms, free of the rat race that is America. India’s curries didn’t disappoint, but also on the menu was ubiquitous corruption, a head wound in a remote mountain stream, and the widely-held belief in the evil eye, which casts a death sentence on a baby should he or his mother leave the house during the first year.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
One of the primary challenges for my character in the memoir was coming to terms with being a mom. My struggles related to a larger discussion being had right now about how we define motherhood and womanhood in American culture. In the popular media, you might have heard of books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness, and Debora Spar’s Wonder Women. Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate shares a good deal of content with these other books, but as a memoir I believe it will be approachable for a much broader audience. Set in a cloud-scraped town in the mountains of South India, Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate will entertain readers with a cast of delightful characters, including a raving, holy-man sadhu; a slew of alcohol-abusing boatmen/babysitters; and a sage in the form of our beloved Tamil housekeeper and nanny.
3) Why do I write what I do?
I’ve been fortunate to live abroad for a number of years. Living in the midst of other cultures can be wonderfully stimulating, but also challenging. These experiences have allowed me to see nuance and complexity not only in others, but also in myself, which has inspired me to write and share stories. This fascination with people, places, and cultures other than my own is also something I look for as a reader. For example, I recently finished Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Lowland, and I greatly admired it as an example of cross-cultural writing that taught me something profound about what it is to be human. I was drawn in by what to me was exotic and novel–the Naxalbari movement in Calcutta in the 1960s–but I was moved by the many universals I found in the characters’ lives, including their struggles to understand what it means to loyal and to be good family members, while also making space to be autonomous and to self define.
4) How does your writing process work?
Ever since I started writing books, my writing time has been limited either because I was teaching or I was raising kids. At the moment, I work on a set schedule of between 0 and 3 hours a day. In many ways these limits have sharpened my focus and lead me to treat writing time as sacrosanct.
My writing process tends to be recursive. When I sit down at the computer, I generally revise what I wrote the day before and then move on. I’m the sort of writer who spends a good deal of time in the pre-writing stage, hashing out detailed outlines, studying similar books in the genre, sketching out characters, shaping scenes, and thinking about how different themes will weave in and out of the narrative. This process easily occupied six months for Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate. Once I start my first draft, I allow myself simply to write, not worrying too much about quality, because I trust that the book will go through several subsequent major rounds of revision. I enjoy rewriting. It often feels like I’m working on a complex logic problem, because a simple tweak–let’s say changing a character’s tone in a particular scene–can lead to adjustments all throughout the book, such as how that character evolves in future scenes, my portrayal of other characters, or even what themes I choose to include in the story. Throughout the entire writing process, I am always reading others’ work, drawing inspiration in terms of voice, subject matter, structure, or whatever craft issue I’m grappling with at that moment.
Those are my thoughts on my writing process. I’ve invited three other Maine-based authors, all of whom write wonderful books for young people, to follow me next week on the blog tour. Please look out for their posts on May 29th, when we’ll all get to learn about their writing processes. They are (drum roll, please): Megan Frazer Blakemore, Ellen Booraem, and Maria Padian, two of whom I am honored to be joining this year as finalists for the Maine Literary Award in Young Adult Literature.
Megan Frazer Blakemore is the author of three wonderful books for children and young adults: Secrets of Truth and Beauty, The Water Castle, and The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, which was released earlier this month. In addition to having over ten years of experience as a children’s and school librarian, Megan has taught writing to high school students and through the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing. Megan lives with her husband and two children as well as a cat and, as of this month, a hive of honey bees.
Young adult novelist Maria Padian worked as a broadcast news reporter, congressional aide, National Public Radio tape cutter and freelance journalist before settling down as a full-time fiction writer. Her books for young readers include: Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress; Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best; and Out of Nowhere. She lives in Brunswick, Maine with her family, where she is at work on a new novel.
Ellen Booraem’s Texting the Underworld, a middle-grade fantasy about a scaredy-cat South Boston boy and a determined young banshee, is a Kirkus Reviews “best book of the year,” as were her earlier books, Small Persons with Wings and The Unnameables. A former weekly newspaper editor, she lives in coastal Maine with an artist, a dog, and a cat, one of whom is a practicing curmudgeon.
Thanks to Megan, Ellen, and Maria for graciously agreeing to keep the tour moving along! I can’t wait to learn from their insights into the writing process.