Writing at a writing residency

So one of the biggest fears I’ve had about entering the writing residency last week was actually getting any writing done. A gift of two weeks comes with a lot of expectations. If I’m going to leave my adorable husband and daughter for fourteen days, I better bring back a sizable chunk of material to prove it was worth the family’s collective sacrifice. My last writing residency was ridiculously productive (before marriage and motherhood) and instead of a point of pride, had become an unrealistic standard by which to measure this writing residency. Unfair, I realize.

It has been eight years since I attempted a first draft of a large fiction project. And the blank document page is scarily bright and intimidating. All kinds of paranoid thoughts clutter my head: What if I have nothing to say? What if I’ve forgotten how to write? What if all that comes out is terrible drivel?

So I created this little index card to get me through my daily word count:

So far, it has been very helpful. This is how I approach most of my other writing (nonfiction, oped articles, emails, blog posts, etc.) so why shouldn’t I apply it to my favorite genre? I will never oblige myself to finishing a scene or a paragraph or anything from start to finish again. My writing has always been a pastiche, patchwork-like. Instead of resisting this strategy, I must learn to embrace it.

The adjustment to long writing days and nights has taken some getting used to. The first day, I started at seven in the morning, coffee in hand, notes all over my desk. After some time typing, I felt exhausted. I looked at the clock, wondering if enough time had passed and I could raid my lunch. It was only 9:40am. Since then, I’ve become much better at pacing myself, appreciating my side trips of getting more firewood, preparing a snack or tea, or even taking a bath. The writing is still floating in my head, and I don’t have any cats or dirty laundry to trip over to get to my computer that patiently sits on the spacious, wooden desk in my cottage.

Oh, and the other fears?

That the other women writers would hate me: I’ve heard from several alumnae who admit being shunned by the potential clique-ness of the writing residency, especially when it is only comprised of six-seven strong, independent women. But since most of us arrived at the start of the residency season, we were all fresh and new. And they are all incredibly nice and supportive, and after yesterday’s brunch reading revealed, immensely talented and bad-ass. I’ll probably write a longer blog post about this later, how both refreshing and unsettling it is to be immersed in such a supportive environment of women. It is very hard to be cynical about it.

That the isolation would drive me batty: Honestly, there have been a few moments during my first week where I suddenly craved conversation, any conversation, and I knew that I had many hours until the next communal dinner. I’ve obsessively tended my wood-burning stove and even looked for wildlife outside my windows to keep me company. Apparently there used to be an owl that sat in a tree outside my cottage’s window and whose stares would freak out the previous residents. Alas, he or she is not here. The best I have is a mundane gray squirrel, and I see plenty of those in Berkeley. This morning, I ventured on my first mini-walk (I can’t walk far this deep into the pregnancy—for fear of Braxton Hicks attack), and feeling the cold air in my lungs was revitalizing.

That I wouldn’t like the food: Hedgebrook is famous for their organic, vegetarian-friendly fare, and my pregnancy has been craving carbs, carbs, carbs. My belly laughs at rabbit food. But so far, most of the food has been delicious and filling. And I have created a dynamite breakfast combination of French press coffee, hard boiled eggs and cream-cheese smeared toast. Also, I believe the chef knew I was coming and what I was craving because we’ve had two Vietnamese dishes here already!

Packing for a writing residency

In less than two weeks, I will be spending 14 days in writing isolation/bliss at Hedgebrook, a writing residency on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound, Washington. It will probably be my last opportunity to get a good chunk of writing done before the baby and book launch, so I am anticipating taking full advantage or worrying myself into a stupor that I didn’t write enough. My only previous writing residency experience was at MacDowell in 2004 and it was amazingly, astoundingly productive. I’d never written so much in my life. And those chapters, ironically, remained the most in tact of any in the novel. That’s what happens when internet and phone service are taken away from you. It’s just that simple.

Now before I became a mother, I would have obsessed over what to pack. But the primary thing I’ve done in preparation for this writing residency is try to get childcare lined up for Amelie. Matt teaches an afternoon class in SF two times a week, so we have this odd window of three hours where we need someone to watch Amelie, who has loudly insisted every time the subject comes up that she doesn’t want a babysitter–only mommy or daddy. That is an entirely different post about the enormous weight of mommy guilt I am feeling about leaving for two weeks. So the babysitter search continues, but in the meantime, I also need to compile a list of things to pack.

Luckily, google directed me to some great blogs that have already covered packing tips for writing residencies, most notably Nova Ren Suma’s, Christine Lee Zilka’s and and Christy Strick’s posts.

I am especially looking forward to packing primarily pajamas and loungewear since I will be alone most of the time in my own cabin. I made the mistake at my last residency of packing too many other clothes, when really I wore the same pair of sweats the entire time. Also, it’s not like I have much wardrobe to bring since I’m almost seven months pregnant. I currently rotate between five long sleeve shirts and three pairs of maternity pants.

So what’s coming with me? Space is at a premium, and since I have to carry it on the plane and a ferry all by my lonesome, I need to be smart and choosy.

  1. Laptop, obviously, though I need to empty out the last five years of pictures from my hard drive, which is slowing down my creaky 2007 Macbook.
  2. A few, select print books, specifically love stories and the history of Vietnamese rubber plantations.
  3. Ipad: for under the cover snuggling with some e-books.
  4. Index cards and thumbtacks for character bibles and plot points in the novel.
  5. The two notebooks I found in Paris over the summer that have become my visual  inspirations on who my two main characters should be.
  6. My five long-sleeve shirts and three pairs of maternity pants.
  7. Three pairs of soft, comfortable pajamas, slippers, luxe socks.
  8. Puffy jacket, rainboots and umbrella—this is the Pacific Northwest.
  9. Towel and toiletries for showering.
  10. Postcard stamps, for those evenings I miss my family and friends.
  11. Room in my suitcase for Pacific Northwest goodies that we miss.
  12. External hard drive? Still debating.

So is this about you?

With any novel, a writer must answer the question of how true it is: if the characters are based on real people and whether the plots are inspired by actual events. Especially if said novel has a main character who appears eerily similar in age, gender and circumstances to the author. So I imagine I will get asked if this novel is based on my real family and actual events. And I will say no because that is the truth. This novel is fiction.

But look at the family tree, imaginary reader will say! You have a dad, a mom, a brother, and tons of aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides living in America and France. True, I will reply. But that is also the case for many Vietnamese immigrants. And that was why I was drawn to writing a Vietnamese family saga, because of the size of the extended cast of characters, and the opportunity to create and develop rich, complex, overlapping stories for every one of them.

I was also asked this question for my first book, though it comprised of characters related to Operation Babylift, and I pointed out back then as well, that I felt much more comfortable creating my own characters because they had to have the freedom to commit sins and mistakes without the burden of real-life counterparts shadowing me. The same goes for this novel. I knew of the betrayals and choices these characters would have to make, and to do that, I had to fully imagine their histories and motivations as wholly their own.

For me, as a fiction writer, I have a lot more fun making things up. It satisfies my need for control, something I have precious little of in my real life. Tweaking a character’s backstory for the sake of the plot, changing a setting because it is not working, or determining who will get the girl in the end are just a few of the godly powers I lord over my characters. And even better than that? The moment two hundred pages in where I finally connect a character’s secret to another’s, and realizing that had been lurking, developing, since page 67. That doesn’t happen in my nonfiction.

So while these novel’s characters are not my biological family, I still feel they are family, nonetheless. They are my babies. I ache and feel for them as much, perhaps even more, than I do for my real-life relatives, which perhaps sounds strange. But I do know them, much better, much more intimately than anyone else. And I’m okay with this. While I can invade the privacies of my own characters, I am not prepared to infringe on the histories of my real-life extended relatives.

To be honest, the secrets and tragedies that encompass my family history are too hard for me to write. They are stories that don’t belong to me. I do not know them clearly enough, and if my family ever chooses to share them with me, that is their choice, and the stories will stay theirs.

In this way, I’m actually very different from my main character, Cherry, who is hell-bent on learning the truth about her family’s skeletons. I realize that some pain and trauma from the previous generations must stay in the past for a reason. There are certain stories and experiences that should not be passed down and I respect their decision to remain silent about them.

That is not to say these stories do not feel emotionally autobiographical. I don’t think a writer can concoct emotion out of nowhere, even in fiction. So those pangs of bitterness and regret or moments of love and forgiveness within these pages are certainly inspired by my own feelings, or memories of my family’s experiences, but they’ve been gifted to my characters. In this way, my family is an emotional muse to my writing.

So family, feel safe. These are not your stories. You know that. But I hope you’ll read anyway.

The book cover

Book covers are a big deal. It’s one of the most exciting milestones an author experiences after the book is accepted for publication. I remember reading an author’s roundtable and one author, Mark Jude Poirier, described the book cover as an author’s wedding dress: you want it to make you look prettier and better than you are in real life. And I thought, Exactly.

When my first book, We Should Never Meet, was still in pre-production, my editor asked me at the time to send my ideas in for the cover now, while they were still generating the concept. But with little experience–and zero design aesthetic–I hadn’t a clue what to say. I very much regret not giving any kind of inspiration or direction, because when the first draft came, it wasn’t what I imagined at all. After some negotiation with my agent and a few changes, I felt more at peace with their final version. But I never loved it. Eight years later, I look at the cover with much more perspective. Both the hardback and paperback covers accurately reflect the gritty, blunt stories inside. But as an author, one’s vanity always gets in the way. I wanted to be pretty too.

With the second book, my feelings for the cover are completely different. It was immediate love. When my editor first sent it to me, I couldn’t stop staring at it on my computer, the intricate detailing and lush colors, the romantic pictures of Cherry, France and Vietnam. I wanted to call the designer and thank him or her for honoring my book with such a gorgeous composite image. There was some back and forth on the original model for “Cherry” at the top: the first model was beautiful–actually too beautiful for our bumbling, naive protagonist. The agent and editor also debated how much of Cherry’s face we should see: the back of the head had been done so much in recent book covers, but did we really want to see her full-on face? The final model is appropriately Cherry–sweet, but not a temptress. She actually reminds me of a friend of mine from graduate school, who is now a published, esteemed author herself.

What have I learned with these two covers? Even though my feelings for both were so different, I also understand why these design choices were made–even if I didn’t like some of them. I feel fortunate that with this book, which I’ve spent so many years on, has a cover that I’m excited to show to my friends, family and colleagues.