As I sit in my new office working with my advisees at Goddard, revision is on everyone’s mind. My colleague, Elena Georgiou, says revision is what separates the women from the girls, and years into my third and fourth books, I can claim my full womanhood. Revision is writing, and at its best, it should be fun. After all, our pages are not a clay pot or an oil painting. We can revise to our heart’s content, throw out, get messy, and return to the original if we have proven to ourselves that we really did have it right the first time. There is no harm in revision for writers, only the chance for surprise.
Recently, Ruth Ozeki shared with me her story of the revision, and re-envisioning (not to mention the massive throwing out of pieces), of her new novel A Tale for the Time Being. Her words, which follow, are part of a larger interview I did with Ruth that is published on SheWrites. You can find the full “Five Questions” here.
“I can date Nao’s voice back to the fall of 2006. That’s when I first heard her, and that’s when I wrote down those first lines. But I can also trace a lot of what wound up in the book to earlier times. I’d been haunted by the diaries of the Japanese kamikaze pilots ever since I first started reading them in 2001. And, too, my interest in human-computer interface design started back in 2005, when I was the Katzenstein Artist-in-Residence at MIT.
“This novel emerged very slowly. I knew from the first that one of the protagonists was a young girl, Nao, who is writing a diary. I knew that Nao was speaking across time and that she needed a reader. My first impulse was to put myself in the novel, but then I rejected this idea because it felt too self-conscious, metafictional and annoyingly PoMo, so I set about auditioning other readers for Nao. I went through four or five Readers, each one worse than the next. Some were female, most were male, one was some kind of amorphous, ageless, unformed smear of a character, neither male nor female, who lived in a library.
“By end of 2010, I finished a draft I was reasonably happy with, or if not happy, at least I felt I’d gone as far as I could go by myself. I submitted it to my agent and we were getting ready to submit it to my editor when, in March of 2011, the earthquake hit Japan, followed by the tsunami and the meltdown at Fukushima. Day after day I watched this disaster unfold. It was absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking. Over night, everything had changed. Japan had changed. The world was no longer the same, and a byproduct of this seismic upheaval was that the novel I’d written was now utterly irrelevant. So I withdrew it.
“That May, I went back to work. The novel is told as a kind of dialogue, with two interleaved voices, Nao and the Reader. I realized that Nao’s voice was still fine. The problem was the Reader I’d written. So I unzipped the manuscript, threw away that Reader and stepped into the role myself, as the character of Ruth. What had felt gratuitous and self-conscious five years earlier, now felt necessary. Stepping into the role myself and responding to it seemed to be the only way of acknowledging the magnitude of the disaster, and once I did this, the writing came very very quickly. I started in May and finished in November.”
The Salon: Literary Women
Guest Curated by She Writes & Hedgebrook Writers Retreat
163 Court Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Tel: (718) 875-3677
Tue Dec 4, 7:00PM
Talking women writers with some wonderful women writers with Hedgebrook, She Writes and Goddard connections. Come join us!
Moderated by Holly Morris
Rahna Reiko Rizzuto
Lisa Dierbeck is the author of the novels The Autobiography of Jenny X and One Pill Makes You Smaller, a New York Times Notable Book. In 2010, she co-founded Mischief+Mayhem, an independent publisher run by established authors in association with OR Books. The New York Observer has dubbed it “the book industry’s new danger brigade.” Frequently anthologized and twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and in such publications as The Boston Globe, O, the Oprah Magazine, The New York Times Book Review and Time Out New York.
Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, is a National Book Critics Circle Finalist, among other honors. She is the author of Why She Left Us, an American Book Award Winner, a U.S./Japan Creative Artist Fellow, Hedgebrook alumna, and a faculty member at Goddard College. Rizzuto has appeared widely in the media, including The Today Show, The View, 20/20, The Joy Behar Show, MSNBC-TV and PBS-TV. Her articles have been published internationally.
Martha Southgate is the author of four novels. Her newest, The Taste of Salt, was published in September 2011 and was named one of the best novels of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her essay “Writers Like Me,” published in the New York Times Book Review, appears in the anthology Best African-American Essays 2009. Previous non-fiction articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O, Entertainment Weekly, and Essence.
Amy Wheeler is a playwright and the Executive Director of Hedgebrook, a retreat and residency for women writers on Whidbey Island that supports women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. Amy holds an MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and her work has been seen in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Atlanta.
Holly Morris, co-founder of PowderKeg, is a writer and editor, and a television documentary producer and correspondent. The former Editorial Director of the book publishing company Seal Press, Morris edited an eclectic list of titles on topics ranging from domestic violence and geo-politics, to award-winning poetry and international fiction and nonfiction. She also edited the Adventura imprint, which features outdoor, travel, and environmental literature. She is a longtime board member of Hedgebrook, a writer’s residency in Washington State. Her essays are widely anthologized, and she writes for numerous publications including The New York Times. Her book, Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for a New Kind of Heroine, based on her experiences as an international correspondent, was named an “Editors’ Choice” and a ‘Notable Book of the Year’ about exploration by the New York Times. Morris is the executive producer/writer/director of the award-winning prime-time PBS documentary series, “Adventure Divas”
This week, I have the privilege to be the Guest Editor for She Writes, a virtual community, workplace, and emerging marketplace for women who write, with over 15,000 active members from all 50 states and more than 30 countries. It gives me a chance to bring together two writing communities I love: She Writes and Goddard College, where I teach in the MFA in Creative Writing. All this week, I will be hosting a feature called the Daily Mentor, with excerpts from essays about the writing life from my Goddard colleagues. You can find the Daily Mentor on the main page at She Writes all this week, and you can start here for the series.
Here is a taste:
Years ago, someone asked me who my writing mentor was. When I said I didn’t have one, she exclaimed, “Poor Bubbeleh!” I had never studied writing, and was just beginning to teach in the Goddard Masters in Creative Writing program. I had published a novel, was rewriting a memoir, and could not imagine what a mentor could offer me.
I know better now.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.”
― Muriel Rukeyser
Twenty years ago, Anita Hill sat in front of a Senate hearing and told her truth at the intersection of race and gender. She was publically pilloried by a panel of white men. This weekend, at Hunter College, Anita Hill was celebrated by a sold-out, star-studded conference, whose participants had a chance to thank her for enduring what she has so that women today could stand on her shoulders.
After a full conference day, the evening was filled with stories, in a hot ticket night of performances curated by Eve Ensler. But throughout the day, there was a clear refrain that will resonate with all women writers. What Anita did, and what we all must continue to do for each other, is to tell our stories. Gloria Steinem quoted an Indian saying: “The loss of memory is a source of oppression.” When we forget, or hide in silence and allow others to forget, we literally lose our ability to speak up for who we are. “We are restoring, supplementing, and extending each others’ memories,” Steinem declared about the conference. For me, a writer who has dedicated herself to unearthing other people’s stories, this was the most powerful reminder in an electrifying day.
At lunch, Hedgebrook, the retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island in Washington state, hosted a conversation about storytelling. “When one woman tells her truth,” Executive Director Amy Wheeler said, “sometimes everyone beside her takes a step back to get out of the way.” When my memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, came out last year and I tried to tell the truth about my motherhood and open a discussion about different forms of happy families and the importance of love, I got my own small taste of the white male panel, which was only interested in shutting me down. Everything I had to say was misrepresented, and at times it seemed like my only options were to accept an invitation from a hostile television show and shout over their slurs (which I decided not to do), or to retreat and be silent.
Hedgebrook was there for me, with their radical hospitality for women writers. The Feminist Press, my publisher, also stood with me. Someone recently asked me, “Was it worth it? What did you gain?” and I have to say that it was worth it to me to get so many emails from women who shared their own stories. From them, I was reminded that we all have similar struggles, though we make different decisions. And if more of us begin to speak up, none of us will have to go it alone.
Twenty years after Anita Hill’s testimony, the immigrant service worker who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault in New York had her case dismissed as her imperfect past was tried in the court of public opinion. It seems that we have not come as far as we want. But as Steinem also pointed out, her courage to tell her story inspired others to tell theirs, and charges of inappropriate sexual behavior and predation continue to haunt the man who now will not be President of France because one story unlocks the next, and the next. Storytelling is a radical act – I know it, and you know it because you are a writer – but I did not expect to hear that truth reflected back to me so often by so many of the conference panelists, whether they were domestic worker organizers, academics, lawyers or performers.
We women writers need to tell the truth about our lives. It’s not a hobby or an indulgent luxury that we sit down to our desks and write. It is a service, a path-showing, a community we create for others. We also need to support each others’ truth by short circuiting the media and structures that would keep us silent and by sharing each other’s work. As Amy Wheeler said, “It’s not about my voice. It’s about my voice, and your voice, and your voice. We are in it together.”
That’s when the world will truly split open. Keep writing!
This post originally appeared on She Writes.
A note from the Goddard residency about a new article on Women Doing Literary Things:
“As a writer, I have always been attracted to what is hidden. I write to understand what is not understandable, what is not even acceptable, and to find a deeper truth in what has not been spoken.
“I write war, trauma, history.
“I also write family, without planning to do so. And motherhood. This is the natural consequence of writing who I am. In our culture and our stories, gender is everything. I have learned – not always in the nicest ways – that even when I am sure that my own preoccupations have nothing to do with gender, my readers will still bring their own, gender-based expectations to my work.”
To read the whole article, you can link to this blog, to She Writes, or to Gender Without Borders.