Tag Archives: writing

My Writing Process

Hi friends,

Thanks for reading. This post is part of “My Writing Process Blog Tour.” I was beautifully coerced into doing this by Simon Phillips, who didn’t accept my digital luddite-isms and convinced me to resurrect this site.

Thank you Simon. You are seriously flattering in your determination.

I’m working on essays. I recently finished my MFA in Fiction at VCFA and am still riding the long tail of story burn out. It’s time for me to resurrect my thesis manuscript, a story collection that needs to be brushed off just a bit before I can send parts of it into the world. Maybe I am reluctant to sail ships likely to capsize. Maybe they won’t capsize.

Either way, I’m working on essays. I recently spent a few days at the San Francisco Hall of Justice, taking place in jury selection. It was the first time I had participated in this democratic judging process, and it sparked thoughts on the radical nature of a jury of peers. I hold dual citizenships, Thai and US, and (leading into the next question) I think my work may differ from others because of this split lens. I’d prefer to think of it as a wider scope and not some bifurcation of being, but multicultural, international… if I put those conceptual boxes out, I can say that’s what my work deals with, too.

It’s a fair bit of hubris, I think, to declare how your work differs from others of its genre. “My stories are like Grace Paley’s but…” is no sentence that I will complete. There is so much to learn from master writers. But my work, fiction or otherwise, deals with the intricacies of a culture that is wildly different from a Western one, seen (and felt and tasted and heard) from the inside in a dimensional way.

Why do I write what I do? Writing, first of all, keeps me sane. For me it is an immersive meditative creative process that best activates the state the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow. Okay, I don’t mean that it actually keeps me sane. Perpetuating the writer-as-necessarily-crazy is not something I agree with. I mean that writing keeps me wide open, and it keeps me opening further.

I write the Thailand stuff because it isn’t done enough. I’m tired of encountering the stereotype of sexually acquiescent Thai women. It keeps my life in the US creepy. I’m amused by how tourists mistake Thais for simple-minded and imbecilic when they have the inevitably amazing trip to the “land of smiles.” Thailand, like most places, has a complex, rich and challenging culture and history. Please don’t flatten us to suit your fantasy. Please don’t try to rescue us either.

My writing process so far has been intuitive. I don’t do morning pages, banging out 2,000 words or whatever limit I sent myself. I work well from cafes. It can take me awhile to get into a story or essay, but when I am there I tend to go pretty continuously. Robert Olen Butler talks about the dream state best suited to the creative process in his book From Where You Dream. I’m not dreaming exactly, but I’m living in another reality and when I get in there it works best if I’m not pulled out.

From my perch in San Francisco (specifically, from the Mission, where cafe land is often tech land) I see that people increasingly live in what I call “short loops.” Things are buzzing and pinging and beeping at us. We wake up and check Facebook. We sit down to catch up with a friend and text converse with two other people as well. Life as regulated by robots (alarms, maps, recommended feeds) keeps our days steady as a metronome, but I try to swim in “long loops”, with less set schedule, more ability to go when the going is good, and more gentleness toward myself when the writing is tough. I’ve found that writing for a goal (for glory—is there anything else!) leads to mediocre work. That is a statement that comes glibly, but feeling it, knowing it intuitively, abiding by it, has taken years and is a work in progress.

It all sounds pretty indulgent doesn’t it? Long loops? I also code switch between my digital day jobs where I am in analytical operational mode, and my meandering writing time. The texture of time changes depending on what I’m doing.

Next up please read Elizabeth Schmuhl and Kelsy Yates. I’ll post the links here September 11.

Onwards, writing process tour!

Sunisa

Empathy

I spent two and some years as a speechwriter. To do so I had to put my lyrical pirouettes away. The timing was good because it was my first job out of college; right when I was most convinced of my intellectual prowess, I was forced to set aside the sense of my own supreme point of view and run with someone else’s.

My boss that I wrote speeches for recently came through Washington DC. At dinner with him and my old team at a Brazilian BBQ restaurant, I sat beside him, guessing what would come out of his mouth next. It isn’t that he has a limited repertoire of things he can say. It’s that he has a very distinct stomping ground of things he loves to say and a tenor that he likes to maintain. Even his son has taken to using his father’s phrases to persuade him of the merit of certain things. Maybe the measure of a visionary is how often he has to repeat himself over the years, such that his team can chant his truisms – it must be done!—and practical advice.

Back to speechwriting: it’s an extended exercise in empathy. How does this person think, speak, present and punctuate? Answer those questions in 40 minutes of writing and you have my old job.

Now I’m fiction writing. Instead of trying to sound like one person, I try to sound like many, throwing my ventriloquy successfully or not to many characters in a scene.

Did you know that writing fiction is a heart-opening exercise? Yes. It’s like yoga, in the sense that there are twisty poses that feel torturous until you let go and breathe your way through it. Then, if you’re having a good day, the writing will flow like water down a mountainside.

My writing teacher encourages me to be more empathetic towards my characters. I have to love them more. Empathy isn’t love but it is damn near close. I tend to write about morally muddy situations and culturally difficult admissions. Working with my old boss, the one visiting DC, was when I got to go into the rural Thai, Burmese, Laotian, Vietnamese and Acehnese countrysides. That is my stock of material.

Lately I’ve tried to call up what it felt like to sleep in rural Aceh in a room with my two female colleagues, sweating in the tropical heat under a pink mosquito net, with peeling, patterned orange wallpaper indicating the relative wealth of the person we stayed with. We slept in the bedroom of the village leader and his wife. They slept on the floor in their living room. I stayed up late reading Dreams From My Father by the light of my headlamp. My colleagues didn’t complain, understanding that I had to read to relax. The village leader’s house, a simple concrete hut, was newly painted orange and purple on the outside with intricate wooden filigree running across the roof awning.

I could keep on describing and embellishing the details of the trip for you, but what I need to capture is how the village leader’s wife stood on the porch of her house in the morning, watching us wade through the mud to work. A swirl of children ran around her legs. There was a baby on her hip swaddled in a dirty blue cloth. She raised a hand goodbye. We wore headscarves she gifted us. We waved back. What did she do that day? What did she say? How did she talk about our visit to her husband and the other women in the village?

Empathy is useful for you too. Try it. Imagining the responsibilities your boss balances will make you a more valuable team member. Imagining what your “adversary” is going through at work will help you work together. Empathy helps you listen. It tones down your ego so you can manage your anxiety. And there’s something freeing about realizing that it isn’t about you. Whatever you do, wherever you live, when you realize your problems aren’t yours alone and people have lived and triumphed through worse, you are free to know that the problems will move and really, this can be a good day.

Thanks for reading,

Sunisa

Freedom

When I was 16 I attended the Global Young Leader’s program, which took me to New York City and Washington DC for the first time. It was an eye-opening trip, but the one thing that they said to delegates assembled from all over the world that I have never forgotten was: You find your culture when you are outside it.

What a startling truth. I feel most Thai when I am outside Thailand, when my Asian obsessive neatness and tendency to be cutesy shows. Back in Bangkok I feel like a brash American: aggressive, opinionated, fast-paced. As a child of both cultures I have found my other half by going between the countries.

But there’s something to be said to living in a place that is neither culture. When my fiance and I were deciding to move to Australia we had a grand theory of justification for the move. It’s a theory we recently revisited, almost two years after leaving Melbourne. We thought that it was important for me to live outside Thailand, away from the place that knows my family before they can recognise the person I’m trying to be.

We also wanted to be outside of the US, where to a certain extent both him and I lived with the ambitious expectations that happen when you go to an elite university.

That is so privileged, I know. But I do think that the US is a competitive culture, that in its upper echelons practices a validation that puts enormous pressure to succeed by a narrow definition of career-driven, “powerful” success. That success is narrowly defined; we are expected to be the Secretary of State, not Second Assistant Secretary to the Undersecretary of Far Eastern Affairs. (Caveat: I am exaggerating.)

In a way the US is a self-perpetuating success machine: you succeed until you succeed again, at the next elite institution (bank, graduate school, law firm) and then again, when you make partner and director and, inevitably of course, become President. Those who jump off the train become part of the silent majority of former elites.

Of course by those lights deciding to move to Australia to escape the opportunity afforded by an elite education is like winning the lottery and not cashing in the ticket. Then again, it may be more like winning the lottery, cashing the ticket, and then putting in place a long-term plan about how you want to spend the money. That is why we moved to Australia. We wanted to be in a place that hadn’t heard of the university we went to, couldn’t perpetuate any sort of measuring and reckoning about us, and in fact didn’t value the American propensity to show off.

In Aus I seemed so Type A and driven, and was teased for being in a horrid rush to “get through it all.” A colleague explained what Aussies were getting at by that teasing. She said that not only do Australians consider it a rite of passage that a person go travelling for at least a year around the world; they also don’t think anything “counts” until you turn 30. My career anxiety at age 25 must have seemed funny to them.

Now we could respond with accusations about a prolonged adolescence here. I think there’s something else at work though. Aussies understand that it takes awhile to find out who you are and what you believe in. In America we think that 18 and 21 years old marks the transition to adulthood; I think those ages actually mark the beginning of a transition out of adolescence. We don’t coalesce into independent, fully-formed beings until the end of our 20s, and that is only if we have been experimenting wildly to see what career suits us, where we want to live, and how we want to live life.

Living in Australia afforded me the freedom to find that out. I was outside all of my cultures. This allowed me to realize the weight of the expectations I carried for myself. I can blame family or social circumstance for those expectations, but really at the end of the day I believe that it is the individual who chooses to bear a weight. If the expectation isn’t earned, then toss a load off and walk forward lighter.

In Australia I discovered that I value kindness. That is something from Thai culture, and it’s a value I honor. It’s also no coincidence that in Melbourne I discovered that I want to write fiction. It didn’t happen linearly. I had no superstar mentor writer-person leaning into me, telling me that this was my calling. It was a gradual realisation, a combination of hanging out with artists, and having lots of time and space away from work (hello four-week vacation policy).

The danger with a period of exploration is that if you don’t come out of it, you live in hedonism, shirking responsibility and the desire to put hard work into a great pursuit. That is not what I mean. I am advocating instead for a deliberate choice about how you live.

If you are reading this and you’re in your twenties: I believe that you owe it to yourself to have a period of freedom where you can grow and chose and pursue your passions. It should happen after university so that you can process your intellectual training against life where not everyone is hyper-bookish, hyper-ambitious. Have your time of becoming. Do it before you settle into greater responsibility and find, with a mortgage to pay and family to support, that you aren’t sure why you are doing what you do.

If you are older than 30, do you wish that you’d taken the time to startle yourself out of the life and culture you grew up with? Or did you take that time, in which case—how’d it go?

Life is long and complicated, rich and wonderful. Give a period of exploration a try.

-Sunisa