“The Writer You Are is Enough.” Ruth Ozeki on Process and Acceptance
The Author of The Book of Form and Emptiness Takes the Lit Hub Questionnaire
Ruth Ozeki’s A Book of Form and Emptiness is out today, so we spoke to her about professors she fell in love with, accessing the liminal fictional space in the early hours of the morning, and the best advice she’s ever received.
Literary Hub: Who do you most wish would read your book?
Ruth Ozeki: In my junior year in college, I had a professor named L. She was a visiting scholar, rumored to be brilliant, hired to fill in for some lesser professor who was on sabbatical. She was teaching Old English, and I signed up.
When L walked into the classroom on the first day, we were curious. We studied her. She was a tall, slim woman, with dark, deep set eyes, an aquiline nose, and straight black hair that fell like wings, framing her jaw. She asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves. When my turn came, I said my name and she repeated it. “Ruth.” Her voice was deep and husky, like gravel and honey. She turned to the blackboard and wrote my name in chalk. “Ruth,” she said again and then she wrote, sorrow, repentance, regret. “As in rue,” she said. “From the Old Norse hryggr, meaning grieved.” She held her left elbow when she talked, tapped her chin with a long forefinger.
I fell madly in love.
Over the course of the semester, L and I became friends. She taught me about poetry, and German film, and how to use the tines of a fork to extract juice from a lemon. We took long walks in the snow, ducking into the greenhouse to warm up. In the Jungle Room, under the dripping fronds of the palms, she would recite Beowulf out loud to me in Old English. Rapt, I would listen to the guttural syllables rise from her throat and trill past her tongue.
Hwæt we gardena ingear dagum,
þeod cyninga þrym ge frunon
huða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Lo! We Spear-Danes in days gone
have heard the power of the hero-kings,
And how princes did great deeds of valour…
Spring came, and with it, the end of the semester. As L prepared to leave, I was full of sorrow, full of grief, knowing how much I would miss her. During our last meeting in her office, she gave me two things. The first was a letterpress copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art,” printed on thick, creamy paper. The art of losing isn’t hard to master…
The second was a prophecy. “You will be fine,” she said, handing me her handkerchief to wipe away my tears. “You are going to be a writer. You are going to write novels about Japan and America, about your experiences growing up in between two cultures. You mustn’t grieve. Just live your life and write your novels.”
Twenty years passed before I wrote my first novel. I became a filmmaker, I married, divorced, and then married again. I knew the name of the town where she was living but I never tried to contact her. When My Year of Meats was published under my pen name, I wondered if she would ever hear of it or realize it was mine. I wrote a second novel, All Over Creation, and wondered again, and thought about writing to her, but I didn’t. Finally, when my third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, was being published, I googled her to look for her address. This time, I would write to her, I thought, even though I had promised not to. Thirty-five years had passed, and I wanted her to know that her prophecy had come true. I would send her the book. I wanted her to read it. Instead of her address, I found her obituary. She had died a few weeks earlier.
The person I most wanted to read my books is dead. I don’t know if she ever read any of them. I don’t know if she even knew I wrote them. Now, I have a new novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness. It’s a story about grief, remorse, love, and death. It’s about the power of books to heal. I think—I hope—she would have liked it.
LH: What time of day do you write?
RO: Mornings are for writing. I like to get up, make myself a pot of black coffee, and go straight to my computer while I’m still half asleep. In that liminal space, when my writing mind is still dreaming and my critical mind hasn’t yet woken up, it’s easier to slip into a fictional world. I work for a while, have a second cup of coffee, and after an hour or two, when I’m awake, I take a break and sit zazen. This isn’t entirely orthodox. The traditional Zen way is to sit right after you wake up, and sometimes I do that, too, but when I’m in the middle of a novel, the dream-state is precious, and I’m not willing to give it up. Maybe this is a problem. Maybe this is why there aren’t more Zen novelists.
Meditation helps me settle, and after I sit, I often find that my mind is more open and relaxed, and so I go back to work and write some more.
I used to write at night. I liked the stillness, and the feeling of being all alone in a sleeping world. Writing feels dark and secret then. I think it’s nice when writing feels clandestine. I don’t like it when it feels like a job.
LH: How do you tackle writer’s block?
RO: I keep a process journal. It’s a Word document on my computer that I’ve been adding to since 1996, when I wrote my first novel. My process journal is a place where I can hang out, experiment, and write informally about writing. It’s like a friend, someone I can talk to about any aspect of my writing, who shares my interests and tastes in fiction, who is unfailingly supportive, who never gets bored listening to me talk about my writing obsession, and who is committed to standing by me for the rest of my writing life.
I talk to my process journal and ask it questions. Somehow, the act of formulating and asking questions seems to generate answers, and when they come, I write them down. I give myself assignments and deadlines. I make lists and analyze narrative problems I’m trying to solve. I make To Do lists of things I need to research. I make notes about whatever I’m reading or watching and jot down things I want to use or steal. I track my progress, log the number of hours or words or pages I’ve written. I brag, complain, whine, worry, catalogue my biggest fears and smallest triumphs.
I find it very useful to write in my process journal when I first sit down at my computer. Then, when I finish writing for the day, I’ll often make notes about what I’ve written, with questions that I want to continue to think about, and a To Do list for the next day. When I sit down to write the next morning, I open my journal and see where I’ve left off and where I need to start. This way I rarely get stuck facing a blank page with no idea where to go. (Well, actually that’s not entirely true. Sometimes I do get stuck, but when I do, I tell my journal about my stuckness, and that usually helps me get past it.) It often surprises me how wise my journal is—so much smarter than I am.
LH: What was the first book you fell in love with?
RO: I think it was probably Charlotte’s Web, which is a story about a pig and a spider and a rat and a little girl named Fern, but it’s really about writing and the salvific power of the written word, even if the words are made of gossamer and spun in a web.
All of my favorite early childhood books were about small writers (girls, boys, spiders) who use writing to resist hegemonic power, question authority, interrogate “reality,” and disrupt the status quo. Needless to say, all the small writers get in trouble for this, but in the end, they prevail. Harriet the Spy was another one of my favorites. Suzuki Beane, about a little beatnik girl who lives on Bleeker Street, was a third. Harold and the Purple Crayon was more about drawing than writing, but Harold was only four, after all, and all he had was a crayon.
LH: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
RO: Karen Joy Fowler told me “You can only be the writer you are.” I found this very helpful because it took away some of my anxiety at not being a better writer, or a different writer, or any writer other than me. It reassured me that the writer I am is enough, at least for now, because this is what’s possible for me now.
The problem with being a fiction writer is that it’s always easy to imagine being someone other than who you are. Maybe that’s why I write fiction, because I want to be someone else. It’s hard to feel like I’m enough. I want to be more. I want to be better.
To some extent, the tension between the writer I am, and the writer I aspire to be, is useful. Tension can be motivating. Tension can be generative, and in fact, maybe creative acts require it. I feel this when I’m writing, the tension between patience and impatience, between knowing and not-knowing. My impatience to know is what spurs me on. If I were totally patient and happy not knowing, I’d never write anything. Why bother?
But too much of this aspirational tension can be distracting. You have to find a way of relaxing in that tension, and that’s what Karen’s advice reminds me to do.
The Book of Form and Emptiness is available now from Viking.