Don’t Malign Yourself or Your Writing Gift

I’m close to the finish line on my historical standalone. Through this whole process of writing it, I’ve come to appreciate the mystery genre even more. That plot is not anything to be ashamed of. That movement through a narrative can be beautiful. Embrace your strengths, whatever they are. Writers can get so self-critical and yet I don’t see that kind of self-denegration helpful, at least for me.

Self-love is a term that used so often and sometimes carelessly that I think that it has lost all meaning. Instead, I’ll say don’t malign yourself or your writing ability. Be realistic and clear-headed about your weaknesses, always open to improvement, but on the other side, don’t malign yourself or your writing gift. Because creativity is indeed a gift, and many times we don’t like the wrapping that the gift comes in. We want someone else’s gift that seems grander and more sophisticated. Accept what has been given and roll with it. I’m now traveling downhill with my narrative and I have to say that I’m enjoying the ride.

Topsy-Turvy World

  

I was a bit depressed this afternoon because it’s finally starting to sink in that this new way of life is not just a two-week or a month-long situation but something long-term. Everything we’ve experienced or known so far is now topsy-turvy. I’m a person who likes to plan, knowing full well that plans do change. Now I’m realizing I can’t even attempt to plan because this is such unchartered territory. I mean, we can look at the 1918 influenza or what my parents went through–the bombing of Hiroshima, but this is a very specific time with new global connections, high-technology and economies.

On a very micro, personal level, Tulo is old, estimated age of 14 years, who probably has Cushing’s disease but I don’t want to put him on strong (and expensive) medication. He has to pee all the time, especially at night, so even though I took him on two walks today, I go out at sunset for his third. And lo and behold, the sky is gorgeous, streaks of pink against the blue, and I find myself angry. Like why is the sky so beautiful? Does the Heavens know how we are suffering right now? Nonetheless, I chase the skyline–not only because I want to take pictures to put it on social media (!) but also because I want to capture its fleeting beauty. As my dog and I walk home, I tell myself that I need to savor these small, good moments even though in some ways, it’s weirdly painful. And walking underneath some trees, I smell jasmine (a good sign because I heard you lose your sense of smell when you have COVID-19). It is strong and fragrant. I don’t know if I can be as fragrant during this time of unknowing. But the fact that I saw and smelled must mean something.

The Great Pause and Writers of Color

I’ll be honest with you all. I’m decimated by this Great Pause and how it will affect writers and specifically writers of color. Just when it seemed like we were gaining traction in certain circles–the publishing world seemed to finally be listening to Latinx writers and their criticisms of AMERICAN DIRT and #ownvoices contracts seemed to be flourishing. Young friends were getting streaming deals for their diverse content. The African American mystery writer, Barbara Neely, whose novels made me feel less alone, was chosen to be feted at the Edgar Awards.

Now we have to take some steps back. Okay, Naomi, don’t be so dark. I know my family are fighters–damn, we survived a nuclear holocaust, so we got this, right?

A part of me just wants to be more passive and “realistic” and continue to look at my projected income and expenses in the next few years and cross out some numbers. I still am going to do that in anticipation of a worst-case scenario but it occurred to me this morning that I have also consider a best-case scenario. A scenario in which we fight this force with ingenuity and optimism.

This is going to require all the smarts, skills, creativity and camaraderie we can muster. If we are complacent and think that life will be restored exactly how we left it pre-coronavirus, we will most likely be battered by the killer wave that’s coming for us. There’s no doubt that we need to do something different.

On Sunday I participated in a virtual Potluck and Poetry reading on the video conference platform Zoom, organized by Scott Oshima, Sustainable Little Tokyo Program director. In this session in which we were eating our individual meals in different locations, I was exposed to the literature and concerns of Tongvans who are native to Southern California. For a couple of hours, I was transported to a world that I didn’t know but should know.

Frankly I was skeptical of what an online exchange could do for me, but you know what, it was actually sustaining. Nothing will beat a face-to-face meeting, but the use of this technology is an alternative that has possibilities.

Come back here and look for new ideas that we need to employ. If you want to contribute a blog post, let me know at bachi@naomihirahara.com.

Here a debut writer shares what she’s doing to launch her book “in the middle of a global pandemic”:

Launching a Debut Novel in Middle of a Global Pandemic

Coronavirus Dilemma: Cancel or Not to Cancel?

It’s so stressful to figure out whether to cancel out-of-town book appearances during this time when we don’t know enough about the coronavirus.

This is my writing year, so I don’t have much lined up but I do have two events (more than a hundred people) for this month. I will be attending Left Coast Crime San Diego, but always planned a low-key presence. I have one panel, an improv performance, a small celebratory dinner for one of the honorees, and a few small get-togethers. I’ll be driving and I’m not staying the conference hotel (more because of financial reasons plus I was considering bringing Tulo–I’m not going to).

The following week, I was planning to travel to Chicago participate in Murder and Mayhem writers conference at Roosevelt University and Noir at the Bar at one of the Chicago’s new bookstores. I also intended to do more research on my manuscript-in-progress, which is set in Chicago. As I’m a working novelist, I usually travel bare bones–like Spirit Airlines with one bag without my laptop and staying in my own room in a hostel-like hotel. Thinking of about this kind of solo discount travel through LAX with also the looming cloud of the coronavirus did me in. I’m healthy, but I do have regular contact with my 83-year-old mother. And my old neurotic dog will probably have a nervous breakdown if I’m away for a length of time.

So it’s yes to the drive to San Diego with proper precaution (bringing Lysol and sanitizing wipes) and limited activity and no to Chicago. I’m sad about the decision about Chicago, but it feels right to me.

No Writer’s Block Here

I recently heard that writing leads to more writing, which I’ve found that is true. While being immersed in my novel-in-progress, I’ve been called to contribute some unrelated essays, short stories as well as new installments to my serial, Silk, on Discover Nikkei. What I’ve found is that the words and ideas have come easier than usual. A relief, because as I age, I seem to be checking the thesaurus more for synonyms because a word seems out of reach.

This weekend I met a high school student who asked me what I do about writer’s block. “Are you a perfectionist?” I asked her. She reluctantly admitted that she was and I told her that perfectionism holds creativity back. How can you be creative if you are afraid to make mistakes? I told her about Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, which is my go-to resource for writing. As I’ve referred to here, she writes about shitty first drafts. Know that the first words you type in your computer may be terrible. Awful. But when you move from that and dig deeper, you may uncover the glimmer of a beautiful mineral hidden beneath the surface. Keep digging and keep polishing. If you don’t break ground, you won’t discover anything underneath. I told this young woman to just start typing, “I have writer’s block. I don’t know what to write. BLAH BLAH BLAH.” Inevitably when you start doing that, truth emerges. A story appears. A characters speaks.

I’m a strange one because some people have been very hard on me, but I give myself a lot of grace (maybe too much!). Grace perhaps comes from my faith or my late father. I love giving grace and mercy to people around me, so I figure I need to sprinkle some on myself. It’s not that I don’t have high expectations for myself, but I know that I will be missing the mark as I go through life as a writer and person. The worst is not to try when you’re capable.

 

What to Do in a Pandemic?

People–well, to be specific, members of the CDC (Center for Disease Control)–have said that it’s only a matter of time before the COVID-19 novel coronavirus comes to the U.S. in full force.

I’m the type that doesn’t get overly fearful about such pronouncements, but I also have a neurotic side that Googles “how to prevent coronavirus infection.” Fear itself will not solve the problem; in fact, it may fan the flames of xenophobia, producing physical, emotional and financial harm. (Chinese restaurants throughout the nation are definitely adversely affected right now.) Your everyday mask will not protect you from contracting the virus but may mitigate others from getting your germs if you happen to have it or any kind of viral infection.

Full-time novelists who are mostly writing rather than promoting are in a more protected position. I fall into this category.

I’m mostly living in my head and doing research online or in libraries this year. My final Mas Arai mystery, HIROSHIMA BOY, will be coming out next year in 2021 and I’m saving my pennies to go out to Japan for the book launch that summer. As it stands now, the Tokyo Olympics is still on for this year, but that may change in a few months. (How horrible for the athletes and organizing committees–but shikataganai, it cannot be helped.)

There’s no sense in isolating ourselves from other people; that’s no way to live. But I think 2020, the year of our national elections, may call for me to work more on internal matters, such as these:

  • As mentioned before, write like a madwoman!
  • Make a real dent in the TBR (to be read) pile of books and catch up on books that I’ve wanted to read.
  • Continue with the weight loss effort. Ten pounds lost so far, but I’ve plateaued for a month. I’ve downloaded the app, loseit, and I’m loving it so far. I’m not into tracking calories, but I think I have to do it to break through. Also, during this summer, start running at least three times a week. (Right now I’m just doing it once, in addition to strength training and zumba.)
  • Become more political active, whether it be in donating to campaigns or doing local outreach.
  • Clean the house. I’m not a Marie Kondo advocate, but I’ve needed to make things more orderly for years.
  • Keep cooking. I’ve really embraced the joy of cooking these past few years. And with the weight loss program, it’s been nice to keep the frig stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Integrate prayer and meditation in my morning routine. I always feel more centered when I do that.
  • And while I see the dangers and downsides of social media, keep looking for ways to connect with people through the Internet and digital newsletters.

This year is going to be a roller-coaster ride, no doubt about that. When I concentrate on what I can do rather than what is happening to us, I can have more agency. We certainly cannot control much in the world but we have a responsibility to ourselves and people around us to do as much as we can. I do have to do a shoutout to my old friend, Carolyn Iga, and her faith-based organization, Assignment International, which has been working in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus first originated. Godspeed.

 

 

Inspiration from Book Events

 

When you become a published writer, the bookstore or event venue becomes your networking station. That’s where you meet other fellow writers, exchange gossip and sometimes share challenges in the publishing world. On occasion–and perhaps it should be every occasion, you learn craft.

I went to two book events last week, a lot for me these days. It was worth it because in both instances, authors were coming from out of town. I attended to celebrate their achievements and contributions, but as it turned out, I also was surprisingly inspired and educated. It was encouraging to hear their readings, how they craft and arrange their words in different ways. Each story was powerful and entertaining in its own way.

Lately, as I work on my novel-in-progress, I judge my pages very harshly. I wonder if I’m losing it as I age. I can’t remember words as easily as I used to. But listening to the prose of my colleagues, I was both inspired and strengthened. They reminded me that I don’t need to use verbal gymnastics–I can use simple words to evoke very complex emotions. When I got home and I read what I had written that day, I was pleasantly surprised. There was something meaningful on those pages. More work needs to be done, of course. But I know that I have what it takes to make it better.

 

Kindle as Manuscript Reader

However you may feel about Amazon and the Kindle, I have to say that it’s a good device. Jeff Bezos wanted an electronic reader that a grandmother could easily use and he achieved his goals. Now that more people are reading off of their phones and iPad, I wonder if sales of the Kindle are going down.

I mostly use my Kindle to read ebooks I’ve checked out at the library as well as to check on different drafts of my manuscript-in-progress. Some may not know that your Kindle has an assigned e-mail address. (Just go to your account on Amazon and click on the Device tab.) I e-mail documents, both Microsoft Word and even pdfs, to my Kindle all the time. I like the fact that I’m not using up printer toner and paper to produce the latest copies of my work. And with the highlighted and tab feature of the Kindle, I keep track of the changes that I need to make.

And since my Kindle is synched to my Kindle app on my phone, I can also read my manuscript when in line at the post office, etc. With this feature and my synched Evernote app, I’m never that far away from what I am writing.

 

 

Truth or Fiction

The current controversy over the Oprah Book Club pick, AMERICAN DIRT, has made me think about truth or fiction. Specifically, how do we as writers approach material that is either historical or societal based?

We need to do our due diligence and do research. Novelists dig into oral histories and non-fiction books, but do we need to do more? We will need to look at newspaper articles and government records in the archives? Do we need to do our own original interviews?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I have read novels about the Japanese American World War II incarceration experience. Some, I feel, hold so close to nonfiction accounts that the narrative is stunted. I’m not saying that these writers should entirely fabricate watershed events, but the novelist’s work lies in the gaps between history and real accounts. We need to find the places and emotions not explored in nonfiction.

In my own practice, I try to do original research and interviews for nonfiction projects first. It’s important for me to have real people’s names and stories in print. It’s their stories, after all. After I do this work, I feel more freedom to fictionalize a certain community’s situation. I will know the holes, what hasn’t been explored and may not ever be unearthed in nonfiction.

 

 

 

Breathing Life into a Character

(This is a continuation of handouts that I recently distributed at a writing seminar.)

–a part of us is in every character

–who are we called to write about?

(Could be someone in our life, could be someone we see in a news report, someone in a dream/imagination)

QUESTIONS TO ASK

Who do you personally root for?

What kind of people do you root for?

How do you or people around you feel misunderstood?

Elements of Voice:

POV and tone
Dialogue
Metaphors

Revealing Relationships:

Intimate
Family
Co-workers, Team Members
Nemesis
Strangers

Naming your character:

Something unique and personal
Something meaningful
Something cultural appropriate
Something with a good rhythm
Google to check