“If you don’t love to write, do something else. There are so many things far less painful.” Short story writer and teacher Grace Paley said this at a lecture I attended during my first year in graduate school.
Two of my favorite books in the world are A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Both Márquez and Hosseini are writers who tear out our hearts and blow our minds, and in the process of piecing ourselves back together we know we will never look at the world the same way again. I love these writers, but I also resent them. It’s not enough that they are phenomenal talents, but they are also doctors! It doesn’t seem fair that any one person should have so much talent and skill in his or her two hands. Not fair at all. Yes, I wanted to be a doctor for a brief time back in my early college years, but that was only because I was afraid to do what I really wanted to do, write. So after one semester of flunking biology and barely passing kinesiology (the limbs we got to examine did inspire several short stories), I realized that medical school was not in my future. Besides, it’s so much easier to look things up on the Internet and offer my opinion on medical diagnoses than it is to actually be a doctor, or play one on TV.
Another person added to my “I resent” list is Dr. Maria Maldonado. There are few whom I admire more. She is a phenomenal doctor and teacher, and she believes that doctors should use their hearts as well as their heads when dealing with patients. She’s also a fabulous writer. She approaches her writing as she approaches her patients, with an open heart and mind. She is also fearless. This is what every writer needs to be if she or he hopes to write an essay, a story, a book, a poem, or even a sentence that will change the world, or at the very least, impact a life.
If I didn’t admire and benefit so much from reading Dr. Maldonado’s words, she would really piss me off.
But I do, so I thank you Maria for inviting me to take part in this inspiring blog tour. I’m honored to be in the company of so many brilliant writers including you.
If you really want to have both your head and heart stimulated, read Maria Maldonado’s work.
She is a clinical associate professor of medicine in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and the program director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at Stamford Hospital. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, the “Narrative Matters” section of Health Affairs, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. She blogs on medical education, health equity, and other matters pertaining to medicine at http://mmaldonadomd.tumblr.com/
Here are my answers to the following four questions about my writing process:
1.) What are you working on?
I’m working on keeping nerves calm and the obnoxious voice in my head silent. I just finished my second young adult novel. My agent has it now and I’m waiting for her feedback. It’s always a challenge for me to stay positive when I’ve just handed my work to someone to read and I’m waiting for a response. This novel is a little different from my last novel. My last novel takes place during the Arab Spring in Egypt. This novel takes place in an undefined time and space. It’s a dystopian fantasy. It’s the first in a series. Yes, there will be a revolution of sorts in book two. In book one, The Other Side of What, the events are set up for the revolution in book two. Besides my working with the theme of struggle and change, as I did in Rebels By Accident, this new book also has a strong female protagonist, a grandmother, who is a central character and role model of sorts.
2.) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
Well, Rebels by Accident, is a book about an American teenager who is sent to Egypt after she gets arrested at her first high school party. Her parents think she will be better off spending the next semester in Cairo and living with her grandmother. Just days into her time there, the revolution starts. I wanted to write the journey of an Egyptian-Muslim-American teen who, in our post 9-11 world, is very disconnected from her culture, and how she finally figures out what it means to be Egyptian and American. I wanted to write a book about self-discovery and change. In a sense, a book about revolution, and not just the ones that happen on the outside, but the ones that happen on the inside. I’ve been told what makes this book different from many of the books that have been written about Muslim youth is that Mariam is an American born Muslim and she’s not saved by the “West.” She saves herself with the help of her Egyptian grandmother and her best friend.
It’s much easier for me to discuss how my current work is similar rather than dissimilar to others of its genre. Like most dystopian literature I read, it is a commentary of sorts about the society we live in and how humans, because of their own flaws and unwillingness, or let’s call it hubris, are destroying the world we live in.
I think what makes this book a little different from a lot of dystopian lit is that it’s not about the future, but it’s an unnamed world with no ups or downs, but rather just many sides. The fantasy aspect allows me to really let my imagine run, sometimes that means running from evil Attack Cats who are cloned to maim and kill, a door with a million knobs, with each turn bringing you deeper into the darker sides of your psyche. My main characters, B and Begonia, are Readers who can look into a person’s eyes and read her/his story, see her/his truth.
The book is about many things but mostly it’s about how we face or run from our fears while we try and decipher between reality and illusion. I guess this book is like my other work where there is hope in the end for the characters and the world. Figuring out who we can trust and how to believe in ourselves is what gives my characters hope.
I also write nonfiction essays about a lot of different things but mostly, not unlike my fiction, they are stories that reflect my version of the world—how I see the people around me and how I think they see me. Yes, delusional at times, heartfelt at other times, ramblings at best. Yes, it’s all about me. I’m grateful for the short form when it comes to writing personal essays. Limiting myself to a maximum of a thousand words forces me to get to the point and spare the reader from getting lost in the land of the Tangential Queen.
3.) Why do you write what you do?
Rebels by Accident wasn’t a choice. Not at first anyway. I was taking a writers class and this voice just came out. I was told that it sounded like I was channeling the character of Mariam. I must have been because I would never have chosen to write from the POV of a teenager. They’re too tough an audience. But every time I tried to write from the adult’s point of view, Mariam kept sticking her ten cents in. She wouldn’t shut up. Much like my teenage son can do, she wore me down. So, I wrote her story.
I joke around and say that this current book, The Other Side of What, is my sell-out novel. Yes, I wanted to write something that I could make the big bucks with. Dystopian-fantasy, at the time, seemed the way to go. Then, about two or three sentences into the book, the story started to matter. I immediately cared about my protagonists and their stories. Damn it! I just wanted to get in and out fast, write the book and be done with it. Three years compared to the seven it took to finish Rebels By Accident, I suppose is somewhat fast, but it’s still not over. I probably have more revisions on the horizon. I just hope not four more years worth.
Again, there wasn’t a choice about who would tell the story. The voices of the protagonists came through and I had to follow their leads. There is more than one narrator; the story is told from three points of view.
4.) How does your writing process work?
It depends on the month, the year, the time of day. I used to wish that I were the type of writer who got up every morning at 5 am and wrote for hours before breakfast, but I’m not. The only writer I know personally who is able to do that grew up on a farm. So depending on what I’m writing and what stage of the project I’m in, my process changes all the time. Also, if I have a deadline, I work very differently than when I don’t. I need deadlines to get things done, even if they are self-imposed.
When I’m generating new work, what works for me is to take one day a week when I have nothing else planned, no obligations, and I just stay in bed and write. When I’m revising I need to get out of the house. I go to my Starbucks or Cosi, somewhere where there are no home distractions and the management doesn’t care if I work for hours after I’ve finished my coffee or eaten my lunch. If I stay at home, I start cleaning behind the refrigerator.
Another big part of my process is managing to understand who I am, and recognizing when that ugly and vulnerable insecure writer pops into my head, and I’m second and third guessing everything and I have written, I need to help to shut her up. This is when I turn to my support group of writers and listen when they say, “Pat you don’t suck!” Then I move on and push through.
And finally, an important part of my process, is doing everything I can to not think when I’m working on first drafts. Prompts and time writing exercises help me with this. I know if I can get through a rough first draft, or as Anne Lamont would say, “A shitty first draft,” all the answers to my questions about character, plot, the whole story, I’ll also realize that most of the answers, if not all, to my story, are right there in the work. If I really shut off my conscious brain and let my subconscious take over and I write through the end of a first draft, all of the answers to what my revision needs is already in the book. Sometimes it’s a line or an image but usually the answer as to where to go next or what has to change in the plot or character development is already there. It just needs to have the spotlight shined it.
In short, my writing process is a bit like it was to ride a camel for two and half hours in the Sahara. I had to trust my Bedouin guide to take me where I needed to go. Without the trust in the process, instead of feeling safe, I could feel freaked out and not have any fun at all. Yes, my writing process, when it’s working, is about having faith and letting go so that my characters can guide me from one sand dune to the next.
Maria, thank you again for inviting me to be part of this wonderful blog tour.
I am thrilled to be able to introduce our next three writers. Check out their posts next Thursday, August 21, 2014, and find out who grew up on a farm and gets up every morning at 5 AM to write.
Alexandra Soiseth will be posting next week, on August 21, 2014, at: http://alexandrasoiseth.com.
Alexandra is the Associate Director of the MFA Writing Program at Sarah Lawrence College where she also teaches. She has her BA from the University of Saskatchewan, her BAA from Ryerson University and her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught writing to a variety of students including undergraduate and graduate students, as well as high school students, seniors, and men and women in prison. She is the recipient of a Canada Arts Council grant, an Ontario Arts Council grant, and is the former managing editor of and communications director for Global City Review, a New York City based literary magazine. Her work has appeared on babycenter.com, literarymama.com, and in McGill Street Magazine, CrossBRONX: A Showcase and Resource for Bronx Writers, and on the radio program LifeRattle, among others. Her memoir, Choosing You, was published in 2008 by Seal Press.
Alia Yunis will be posting, on August 21, 2014, at www.aliayunis.com.
Born in Chicago, Alia Yunis is an award winning journalist, author and filmmaker who grew up in the Midwest, Lebanon and Greece but spent the longest time calling Los Angeles home. A Pen Emerging Voices fellow, her debut novel, The Night Counter (Crown/Random House 2010) has been critically acclaimed by the Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and several other publications.
It was also chosen as a top summer read by the Chicago Tribune and Boston Phoenix. In 2012, she produced Dreams in the Eyes, a short documentary filmed in Lebanon that won several awards at international film festivals. She is in post-production on a half hour documentary, The Return, and in production on a feature length documentary, The Golden Harvest, about how olive oil changed the Mediterranean. Her writing has appeared in several journals and anthologies. Her journalism includes articles for The Los Angeles Times, Saveur, SportsTravel Magazine, and Aramco World. Alia currently teaches film at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, and has just completed a middle grade novel, Making Miracles in Minnesota.
Gregory A. McVey-Russell, or less ostentatiously gar, will be posting, on August 21, 2014 at http://www.thegarspot.com/about/.
Gar was born in 1965 in White Memorial Hospital, meaning he truly was born in East LA. He was then raised in South Central LA. And yes, he continues to call it South Central. He bumbled around at UCLA for a few years then ended up in the Oakland where he’s lived since 1989. He is married and he plays tabla.