by Annie Scholl
This is the last installment in a four-part series of Q&As with authors who explore whether writing daily is essential to success. Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and her debut novel, Why She Left Us, won an American Book Award. Her most recent book, Shadow Child, was published in May by Grand Central Publishing. The first woman to graduate from Columbia College with a bachelor’s degree in Astrophysics, she grew up in Hawaii and now lives in Brooklyn. She has taught at Hedgebrook and is on the faculty of the Goddard MFA in Creative Writing program. She founded the Pele’s Fire writing retreat.
Do you write daily?
I don’t write every day. I don’t write every week even. I wish I did. I write long books with worlds to build; they take time to feel my way into and more time to climb my way out of.
I often wish that I was the kind of writer who had lots of ideas, short stories, essays, poems popcorning around in my brain, and that I could sit down every morning and one of them would come and keep me company for a while. I’m not talking about ease—that I wish writing was easy—but availability. I’m not talking about validation either. I know I am a writer even when I am not writing because I have written, because I think in terms of story, because I am an annoying person to watch a movie with because I am constantly pointing out the clues that have been dropped to create that ending that seems surprising but is clearly suddenly inevitable (just ask my children). When I haven’t been writing for a while I am restless and nitpicky and vaguely unhappy.
For me, entering a novel or memoir is like entering another country: just as large, as far away, as difficult to navigate, as exhilarating. There is something new around every corner, an unfamiliar map that I have to work to keep in my brain. Which is to say, it takes a while to get there, and once there, I don’t want to be pulled out. If I had my choice, I would keep writing, every day, for six-hour chunks, without noticing whether it happens to be dinnertime or two in the morning. Indeed, when I am in that space, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and grab the pen by my bed to write down what is coming through in the dark. As a result, I can give you great tips on how to get ink out of your duvet cover.
But having become conversant with that new world, I also have to leave it for long periods so I can edit. I have to put my work away for months at a time until I have forgotten enough of it that I can revise it. So, for me, writing comes in waves—in and out.
When you say long periods, how long are we talking?
Months for sure. Sometimes years! For example, I started my new novel, Shadow Child, 18 years before it was published. It’s a complex “country”: it has three threads, three main characters. It goes back and forth in time, and it braids two different stories. One is historical, during World War II, and one goes back and forth between Hawaii and New York in a more contemporary setting. It’s part family saga, part historical fiction, with some suspense – in other words, literary fiction with a bit of an edge. With so much going on, not writing was the key to finishing the book.
When I started writing Shadow Child, it was two completely different books. I had written about 100 pages of the first book – the contemporary story of sisters – when I stopped to do some research for the second. That took me to Hiroshima, which turned into a different project, my memoir. I put Shadow Child aside, and then after several years’ pause, I returned to it and decided to put the two stories together, which wasn’t easy. I finished that and got some feedback that my literary historical novel should be rewritten as a thriller. So, I had to put it back into the drawer to get the distance to rewrite the whole thing. I started and stopped, started and stopped, and finally abandoned it, half-finished.
I gave it another probably two years, during which I wrote nothing, then dabbled with the first draft of a fantasy novel. When I was ready again to tackle Shadow Child, I looked at the old draft, and all the new pieces, and I began re-puzzling them together with the heart and intentions of the older draft and the energy and buzz of the new draft. In the process of doing that, I had to keep putting it away in order to see it clearly.
When I think of it now, I liken it to a body. When I built it first, I had the “arm” chapters that do a certain thing, and the “leg” chapters, and the “heart” chapters…but in all the editing and rearranging, those chapters had lost their purpose. They still had the same content and stories, but the body wasn’t moving. I had forgotten their meaning, why I wrote them in the first place. The only way I could remember was to take writing breaks, sometimes for months.
Something else that writing breaks help me with? Killing my darlings. When I am too close to my writing, I hear it in my head, even after I try to cut or revise it. In that case, a daily writing practice would never allow for the space I need to break myself out of the rhythm and sound of my own words to create something new.
Describe your writing routine.
When I am working on a novel or memoir, I often start with a moment to clear my mind and pick a direction. Some people meditate. I tend to pull a tarot card. I ask a question—what do I need to know right now? Maybe the meaning of the card itself is helpful…that it reminds me that my story is about refuge, say, or sorrow, or some other subject of the card. Or maybe the image reminds me to pull out the conflict more or introduce joy. Or sometimes it’s a message for me as the writer—to let go or turn something upside down. But really, pulling a card is a way for me as a writer to get out of my way, and also to declare that this time is mine, and this head space is ready for writing.
After that, I start with pen and paper. Even if I have a complete manuscript on the computer, I like to start somewhere else to see what I can develop or deepen or what else is out there. I find that if I know I have to transfer it to the computer later, I put less pressure on myself for my sentences to be perfect, or even to be good. It frees me up.
What are your thoughts about a daily writing routine for writers in general?
It’s a method that I recommend to my students, and definitely to anyone on a deadline. When you get into a habit, you get out of your way. You don’t get so paralyzed by the need for perfection. You are more willing to try things out, make a mess. When you write every day, you do capture more of those stray ideas that are waiting to be used, and you avoid the fear—writer’s block is fear after all—that you can’t write, that you won’t be able to write ever again or at least not anything as good as what you have written.
But if you are not writing, you can still have a daily practice of being a writer. Of jotting down notes, of seeing the world around you in stories. Sometimes your ideas need time to collect and gain weight – you can’t push them.
What tips can you share for creating a non-daily writing practice?
Don’t judge yourself, first of all. Everyone has a different process; worrying that yours should look like someone else’s will usually stop you right there.
Carry a notebook. You might get hit with an idea or a voice on the subway and you don’t want to spend the rest of your ride repeating it over and over in your head so you don’t lose it. For me, those stray thoughts are sometimes doors that will open a whole world.
Choose a talisman or a ritual. Something to remind you that you are a writer, ready now to write, or perhaps even returning to the writing space after a long time. A dear friend always writes in fingerless gloves, a ritual I adopted, and it’s like magic. I put them on and I am suddenly there, available. It could be a writing space, or a hat, or a candle, or a river stone. Whatever helps you declare yourself for yourself.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr. Photo of Rahna Reiko Rizzuto by Jim Rizzuto.