My fascinating friend Mimi Vance invited me to be part of the My Writing Process blog tour. Mimi is the author of the Words by the Handful series of children’s picture books, a former diplomat, chimpanzee whisperer, and modest curator of a love-filled life. I’m grateful to have her as a friend, and honored to participate in the tour, in which writers answer the same four questions before passing the mic to two others. So here goes:
What am I working on?
My fourth novel, The Weight of a Piano. It’s the story of a mechanic named Clara, the piano she receives as a pre-birthday gift from her father who dies a week later, and Greg, the Russian-born photographer whose own connection to the piano forces Clara to reevaluate her entire past.
I’m fascinated by cherished items, those physical tokens and trinkets that we hold onto as symbols of something: our childhoods, our parents’ love, current or bygone affairs of the heart, whatever. They can become like amulets with the power to protect us from the danger of losing our pasts or our loved ones or even ourselves. And yet we can also be weighed down by all this churinga. It can become just more stuff for which we have to assume responsibility. I have an abiding appreciation for simplicity—actually more of a need for it—and I sometimes feel overwhelmed by too many material possessions. So when I’m handed down a treasured object with familial provenance, sometimes I’m conflicted. I want to keep these curated things, but what am I going to do with another porcelain vase that my step-grandmother bought on her honeymoon? It’s this kind of burden that I’m exploring through Clara, who carries this piano through her teens and into adulthood even though she can’t play it, because it’s the last thing her father gave her before he died.
Why do I write?
I don’t have any pithy, intelligent or quotable answers for this question. In fact, I don’t know why it is so often asked. When I was a firefighter, nobody asked why I wanted to fight fires. It was sort of implied that I felt drawn to the profession in some meaningful way that could only be satisfied by doing it. The same is true for writing. I’m drawn to writing, so I write. But I suppose it’s not so simplistic as that. Writing is difficult, and while a writer works to distinguish her work from others (see below) she must also confront a fickle reading public, whose whims threaten to inform her working decisions. I like the precariousness of that balance, the tiptoeing across the razor’s edge–the telling of a story that will please the reader and also myself. Also, I love the head-in-the-clouds feeling of absenting myself from routine while I’m writing, and the mystifying satisfaction of having written.
How does my writing differ from others of its genre?
As a reader, I know that we all have certain expectations from a story. We want to be moved or improved, educated or entertained. We want to see our small, unique selves in a universal way, and vice versa. We want to experience different lives and emotions from a safe and immaculate distance. We want to imagine what we would do in those infinite situations, in case they ever really happened. So as a writer, I try to provide those circumstances and settings, those strange and familiar characters, those beginnings and middles and endings that take my readers to places they don’t know so they can discover something new.
What makes my writing different is simply that I am different from other writers. My accumulated vocabulary, my taste in syntax, my particular history and concerns and areas of interest all converge on the page in a way that means while I’ll never write like my heroes, I’ll always write like myself.
How does my writing process work?
I can’t speak to the mysterious aspects—they elude me. Ideas are dropped into my head like unexpected deliveries from unicorn storks. Some mythical force matches me, a willing vessel, with a whispered line of dialogue, a title, a character. I have no idea how or why. What I can tell you is what I do with them.
First, I commit. The novel that became Whisper Hollow began with a voice that I swear I actually heard: “It serves me no purpose to speak for the dead.” I remember being in the car, alone, and whipping around to see the woman who was speaking from the backseat. Finding no one, my skin prickled with goosebumps. In that moment, I knew I would write a novel about the owner of that voice, so that I could find out what she meant.
Next, I begin the actual writing, always on page one, never with an outline. New, complementary ideas magnetize to the original, adding substance and inviting more questions. Which beget more ideas and even more questions. I sit at my desk with these assembly-required ideas, and words come, but rarely easily. I would guess I spend equal amounts of time with my fingers mostly hovering over the home row, maybe massaging the bumps on F and J, as I do actually creating sentences. I don’t have a particular time of day or ritual that I follow, but I sit there until I’ve written at least .87 pages (about 300 words). I do that most days.
Then I keep going, even when it’s hard, even when there’s more determination than inspiration to guide me. There’s a lot of magic, input from experts, encouragement from friends, more magic, and plenty of tears. Eventually, pushing the pen becomes being dragged by the pen, and the story finally emerges. It usually takes about 1-1/2 to 2 years from the moment an idea first arrives to completing the book, plus many more months to edit and polish it.
Even when I’m miserable about a book, crippled by fear and insecurity, doubtful of its worth and mine, I always return to it. I love my characters as though they are real, and I ache for and cheer for them. They were given to me by the unicorns, after all.
Now I pass along these same four questions to three wonderful writers whose answers I can’t wait to read.
Emma Kate Tsai is a writer and editor who uses her red pen to help storytellers find the narratives that lie within them. That often means guiding them to their individual voices and perspectives. She is the author of “Chinese-American Girl: Drinking from East to West,” in Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up, “Spell of Starvation,” in Loving for Crumbs: An Anthology of Moving On, and the upcoming “Half-American to Half-Chinese: Translation through Marriage,” in Blended. Emma’s heartbreaking story of losing touch with her identical twin is currently in progress. Learn more about her and read some of her work at emmakatetsai.com.
Katie Clark and Sarah Wynne. After graduating from The University of Mississippi with a degree in Journalism and Minor in English, Katie enjoyed a career in pharmaceutical sales. She now uses her energy and passion for writing as a children’s book author. Her desire to celebrate America from “rivers to shining seas” combined with her family’s history of military service inspire her love of this country as reflected in the series. Katie, her husband and three daughters live in Houston.
Upon graduating from The University of Texas at Austin and earning her JD from The University of Texas School of Law and University College London, Sarah practiced as a litigation associate at an international law firm in Houston, Texas. Trading the excitement of the courtroom for the enjoyment of writing the River Royals children’s book series, she lives in Houston with her husband and two young patriots, their son and daughter. Learn more about the River Royals series at www.riverroyals.com.