Wednesday, May 28, 2014

My Writing Process and Writers Who Inspire Me

Xin, the character for heart-mind in Chinese (also, the heart radical)

Many of us writers love to talk and think about our writing process. I am happy to take part in the “Writing Process Blog Tour," which I first saw circulating several months ago. Friend and fellow Seattle writer, Kelly Martineau, invited me to participate, and I encourage you to read her post about her how she approaches crafting her lyrical creative nonfiction pieces, many of which deal with the shadow side of motherhood. Here’s my contribution to the conversation, and at the end I’ll introduce the three writers whom I’ve invited to carry it forward.

1) What am I working on?

Too much. Not enough. Mostly, over the last couple years I’ve been editing and writing a few crucial “bookend” pieces for my manuscript, SEARCHING FOR THE HEART RADICAL: A MEMOIR, which follows my search for language, love, and belonging as I migrate between China and America in my twenties. I’ve been working on this memoir for something like ten years, or maybe my whole life. Now, I’ve been searching for an agent since this winter, and am determined to get this book out into the world “soon,” whether that means I get an agent and book deal, or self-publish, an option I still haven’t ruled out.

            In the meantime, I’ve got this other manuscript on hold, working title: ARTIFACTS OF LONGING, which explores my relationship to my present-day home, a wooded cabin in Seattle, which I inherited from my old neighbor friend, Frank, in 2006. Frank was a merchant marine, a collector of old things, and an avid reader. His wife, Els, was a poet, a frustrated wife, a feminist and philosopher. Both were dear friends to my family, to children (thought they had none of their own), and to nature. After moving into their home in 2008, I discovered thousands of letters written between them during the thirty-some years that Frank was at sea for over half the year, along with journals, slides, and other artifacts.

            As I continue to learn more about their lives, I am simultaneously sinking deeper into my own role as a mother, a wife, an artist, and a feminist. As such, this book will weave together my evolving relationship to my own longing, creativity, marriage, familial relationships, and understanding of home, alongside my inquiry into the private lives of Els and Frank that I’ve been privileged to witness, posthumously, and interpret anew.

            With all that said, you’d think I’d be madly scribbling away each day, yet the real bulk of my “work” still rests in the care of my son. I have about ten hours a week to myself, maybe half of which goes towards my own writing on a good week, even if that writing is just a few scribbled lines in my journal. Chores, bills, teaching writing, and editing others’ work takes up the rest. I’m not complaining though. I’m really happy to feel this full with meaningful work, and the older my son gets, the more time I keep stealing back to feed my creative passions.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I write a combination of memoir and personal essays that lean towards the lyrical side. Love, longing, home, connection, and compassion are big reoccuring themes of mine. While I don’t feel that I am a particularly bold groundbreaker or risk taker when it comes to my subject matter or style of creative nonfiction, I suppose others might call my voice earnest, open, and intimate. I strive for honesty, for transparency and vulnerability in my writing; I seek to keep coming out of hiding, to push myself to say the things that I am afraid to say or to reveal, however bold or safe these confessions may appear to others. Increasingly, I am drawn towards lyricism and brevity, even though my essays and blog posts are more often long than not (case in point, this post). On that contradictory note, I feel like a lot of my work involves some layer of paradox. I’m often noticing the in-between spaces, the lack of one clear right or wrong, the way we are all products of our own environments, histories, and prejudices.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Growing up bilingual and biracial (half Chinese and half Caucasian), I am keenly attuned to issues of identity and perspective; I frequently feel like a shapeshifter, negotiating a territory in between hiding and coming out, aware of all the things that I’m not saying or exposing as I listen to the world around me. This might be related to conversations on race, or conversations about God and spirituality, both of which are topics for me that I am simultaneously eager and hesitant to engage in. But definitely, always, listening for and to.

            The more simple answer would be to say that I write what I do because I have to. I’ve kept a journal for most of my life, and called myself a writer for nearly 20 years. I am married to the process of recording my thoughts and emotions, of charting the opening and constricting tides of my heart. I am also, undoubtedly, a nonfiction writer and reader, drawn to the intimacy, insight, and connection that happens through storytelling with the least amount of distance between the reader and writer. I enjoy writing that invites you in, exposes our own collective vulnerability, fear, and beauty on the page. I’m thinking of recent memoirs by Lidia Yuknavitch and Cheryl Strayed; or the lyrical, activist-fueled work of Terry Tempest Williams and Rebecca Solnit. These are my current writer-heros, and it’s an amazing gift of our mixed blessing of technology that as their “friend” on Facebook, I am now actively engaged with their thoughts and their voices almost every day. The bravery of other writers and activists fuels me, teaches me, reminds me that I still have so much potential to grow and to evolve into a kinder, more compassionate and courageous human being.

4) How does my writing process work?

Free-writing is my friend. Natalie Goldberg was my earliest and most influential writing mentor. My advice to myself and to others: Write regularly, as much as you can. Write openly and stream of consciously; banish the editor from early drafts. Write a lot, then cut away. Put it all out there, interrogate yourself, follow tangents, be open to the process, to the places where a piece might surprise you. Be open to finding the new beginning in your ending. Be open to cutting two-thirds of a piece, or maybe even everything but one paragraph. Trust, be patient, love the process. Edit, edit, and edit some more. Be patient. Let go of the ego’s striving for more praise and acclaim. Life and writing are not a race. Your time will come. Trust the process. Trust whatever it is you need to do or to write, right now. The goal is authenticity; to find the work, the stories, and the form through which you can express your core in the most real way.

            For many years, I used to free-write every morning religiously, with tea or coffee at my side. Now, it happens in spurts, once or twice a week if I’m lucky, whether in my journal or sometimes, when I’m feeling a little more focused or starved for communication (i.e. for an audience), then as a blog post. Becoming a mother-writer (vs. just a writer) has taught me a LOT about priorities, letting go, and pushing onward. Having conviction in your vision and goals, but also allowing for surprise and for what needs to be-- for the fact that you are not, and will never be, in complete control of your life or your creative work. There’s that paradox again.

            Through my free-writing, I search for those images, memories, questions, or lines that call to me intuitively, that ask me to take pause and to probe, interrogate, and write more. When I find that central imagery, or scene, line, or detail, I hone in there; I start over; I re-focus. I ask: what am I really writing about here, beneath the surface story? Intuition plays a big role, but so does lots and lots of drafts and editing. Letting go of “your babies,” letting go of anything that gives off the slightest hint of falseness. When I get to those more developed stages, reading my work out loud is the ultimate litmus test for me. Or imagining reading it to an audience. If I grow bored or if I don’t feel the words in my gut, more than likely they are ones I can do without. 
          Ultimately, I’m writing to understand, to uncover, to praise, and to mourn. Speaking from the heart, however cliché that may sound, matters more to me than anything in writing. Because we all are starved for real connection.

Now, I am delighted to introduce the following three writers:

First off, Khadijah Queen is a poet whom I first met while getting my MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles. Khadijah curates the Courting Risk reading series which I’ve been honored to participate in, and continues to amaze and inspire me with all she accomplishes. Her essay, "Mothering Solo," is one example of her brilliant mind and voice. 

Khadijah Queen is the author of two books of poetry: Conduit (Black Goat/Akashic 2008) and Black Peculiar, which won the 2010 Noemi Press book award. Individual poems appear widely, and her latest chapbook is I'm So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On, available for download from Sibling Rivalry Press. Read more at

Second, I have the pleasure to introduce Seattle-based writer and performance artist, Natasha Marin, who awes and inspires me with her continual passion for art-making, whether through collaborative, multimedia projects, or for her continual willingness to initiate provocative and honest dialogues around race, community, creativity, and vulnerability.

Natasha Marin is a poet, a mother, a black woman in America just trying to keep on keeping on. More than a decade beyond graduate school, she still finds people and ideas fascinating. She hosts Miko Kuro's Midnight Tea ( and is the co-founder of SPoCS (Seattle People of Color Salon). She has received grants and awards for her efforts in making poetry more accessible through interactive art events that engage the community. Her first full-length collection, MILK, an exploration of breastfeeding in the Digital Age, and is available at

Last but not least, Olympia writer,Patty Kinney, inspires me with her candid, vulnerable, often funny, sometimes heartbreaking, and always compassionate writing about subjects such as her family, mental illness, and so much more. 


Patty Kinney is the recipient of Crab Creek Review’s 2013 “Editors’ Choice Award” for her poem, “How To Talk To Your Schizophrenic Child” which is also currently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Patty has no idea how or when one finds out if they have won this prize? She believes her full-length poetry manuscript, Fertility Is A Found Object may have been “finished” last week. She continues to poem full-time while working on one of many memoirs - Don’t Encourage Her. Kinney, a Seattle-born, native-Olympian adoptee and US Army veteran, embraces mothering six sons, bipolarness, a good Russian Tea Cake and the yellow ranunculus. She also holds an MFA, meets the gaze of most panhandlers she comes across - desiring to one day tell their stories.


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