“How’s the writing going?”

IMG_1214 On the one hand, I’m excited that people are asking me this question. Really. Most people who ask me this question are well-intentioned and sincere. They want to know how this new writing life is working out for me. It’s the polite thing to do. You would ask someone in a different profession, “How’s work?” So, “how’s the writing going?” Why not? Really, what else are you supposed to ask a writer?

So, small confetti toss and break out the margaritas: hey, I’m a writer! People ask me this question now!

On the other hand, to ask a writer how the writing is going…..let’s say that it’s, um, anxiety-provoking. I asked my Facebook friends (yes, not-writing again) how they answer that question. Their responses ranged from anxiety to terror to deflection (“I turn the question around and ask them how they are doing”) to deception (“I just LIE”). My friend Christine’s written a wonderful blog post about how she responds when people ask her how her novel is going. Her description is true and raw and honest, almost a mini-lyric essay where she compares her novel-in-progress to a gestating fetus. It’s better than I am making it sound, I promise. And there’s a link to a great Family Guy video about writing.

See, there are problems with asking the writer-me a question like “How’s the writing going?”

There’s the hyperoverachiever me, who would like to tell you that I wrote a thousand words today, and that I only erased 5% of those words.

There’s the listmaker me, who would like to tell you that I’ve given myself a ton of short assignments, and I’m just going down the list now, making a nice check mark after each one.

There’s the linear thinker me, who would like to tell you that I wrote a chapter a week, one after another, merrily rolling along, words pouring out of me faster than the water over Snoqualmie Falls. And I started with Chapter One, and I’ll finish with Chapter Ten, the last chapter! Honestly, I had to cut myself off at ten chapters. (TOTAL lie.)

There’s the ambitious me, the attached to attention and achievement me, who would LOVE to tell you that you’re going to see the finished product sometime somewhere very soon, coming to your bookstore or computer screen or mobile device or movie theater (or all four!) sometime soon.

Each of these me’s has some serious issues, as you can see. They would be lying if I let them answer your question. All of them struggle mightily to answer this question. I wouldn’t expect everyone to know why it feels this way, or to remember I have all of these issues.

But that’s why I’ve learned to pause before I answer.

As the Supremes put it, you can’t hurry love—no, you just have to wait.


Longer projects like this book are hard on a writer like me: I want to show you pieces along the way, I want to have someone to cheer me on at pit stops. Here’s where something like a blog comes in handy for us writer types; there’s a reason why there are so many of us, writers who blog. A blog lets us churn out some kind of achievement, even as small as it might seem in some places. It lets us talk about the process. It lets us try out pieces along the way, and (if we’re lucky) we get some feedback from the ether. It’s our personal training plan, our dress rehearsal, our soft opening.

I want to tell you that my book is almost done. But there are at least two more big sections to write. And then I have to look at it all over again, to make sure that there’s a heart, a core, that will take the reader by the hand (or gut) and not let go for a few hundred pages. It will need to explode, or transform, by the end of the book. And eventually I will have to pull out the stitches that show you where I’ve done that work, so that it all feels like magic.

All of that, that’s work. It is process, and because it is messy and nonlinear, it is not something I can sound-byte for a small-talk conversation very well. I don’t think I’m supposed to, actually. I am supposed to keep my head down, and work: as Cheryl Strayed says, “to lean hard buy ventolin australia into the work and not the anxiety.” People probably don’t want to hear that much about process, about how it is at times bliss and at times ridiculously hell, and most of the time even worse because it is flat and mediocre. That is, unless, they are also writers.

The truth is that for me the artistic process is, the best creative processes are, exhausting. They involve the tiniest synapses of the brain, the rawest chambers of the heart, the feathery cilia of the lungs. (Not all of my writing is for the book: there are essays, and book reviews, all the way down to Facebook status updates and tweets. But I want my best writing, my A-game, for the book.) I can’t write my best without access to all of that, sometimes all at once. I think that’s why my best writing started as a present for someone else: there’s heart behind what I want to say, and there’s commitment, and there’s devotion to the craft. Usually when I do that kind of work, though, I’ve been building up to it through smaller things and pieces most of the way: a kind of personal training. I’ve taken notes, yes. I may have read something that makes me cry or brings me close to tears. I have spent hours rearranging mental Polaroids on the cork board in my head—this scene first, or this one? I have thought and pictured and remembered hard with all of my senses, trying to take you wherever I’m going.

There are the seemingly idle times, too. I have taken long walks. I have pondered in the shower. I have made jars of jam, not because I need to but because I want to. I have taken pictures with my camera phone: another way to find images and feed them to my subconscious. I have waken up from dreams with just that image that I need to save, right now, before I forget. I have stared out of numerous cafe windows. I have read books and books and books for months before bedtime, and I have browsed in snatched minutes at the library or bookstore. It does not look like work, or what our culture is used to recognizing as work. (Make no mistake, behind the “how’s the writing going?” question can also lurk the surprisingly powerful and devastating question, “what do you do all day?”)

So I have been afraid, and I have been terribly sad, and cranky. Sometimes there are doubts and questions raining on my psyche. Something like the passive-aggressive Seattle mist crap™ that falls nine months out of our year. Not enough to stop me from going out altogether, but enough to make me crave anywhere but here in February. I have also been terrified, fingers growing colder as I type, heart pounding faster, fear of typing, of hitting save, of being read. Very few people want to hear about that part of the work.

There are the times when I have no idea where I’m going, or what I’m doing. Those times are more frequent than I’d like to admit. I’m a bit of a control freak at times, and that uncertainty petrifies me. Usually—coincidence?— that is when someone asks me how the writing is going, and it is awful to say that I have no idea, so I’ll typically respond with a simple “It’s going.”

Every once in a while there’s the umami bit of it all, the mystery that happens when I’m able to get out of the way. It’s the flash of insight (large or small) that I could never discover any other way, the image that crystallizes everything I’ve been hoping to say, the question that surprises me as I ask it. It’s when I say what I really want to say–sometimes, the disconnect between an artist’s vision  and their execution of that vision is enough to drive them crazy. Those voices, those me’s that long to tell you about the product, not the process?—those voices sometimes shut the hell up while I’m working.

And then, only then, I can say that I’ve written something good, and it’s close to finished.

Then all of it is my work, the process and the product, and I love it. Then the skies are clear, and blue. Then I’m slogging through murky but receding floodwaters, a storm survivor finally making her grateful way back home.

#amwriting: Of No-No Boy and No-No Boys

No-No Boy, John Okada

I’ve been working on a personal essay for a few weeks now, trying to process the Japanese American National Museum conference that I attended a few weeks ago. I’m starting to see how to write longer and longer pieces, warming up again for the book project.

Here it is, all grown up, at The Seattle Star. I’d love for you to take a look.

First day back


First day back after a long hiatus is usually the worst.

It is cranky and sleepless as a new parent.

It is as uncomfortable as struggling back into a wet bathing suit.

It is the old chestnut writing prompt: to write about not writing.

It is acknowledging that yes, the flat of raspberries from the farmer’s market is partly a jam-making meditation, partly a form of procrastination.

It is hmmmm, forgot my cell phone at home. Maybe I need to go back home.

It is oh shoot I have a deadline to meet.

It is “you are SO unmotivated and if you were a writer, you would have written every day like Annie Lamott and Stephen King BOTH say you should.”

It is wondering about all that social media time and energy. Crafting status updates and Tweets? Micro-blogging? Or another form of not-writing?

It is maybe I should clean out my email inbox.

It is walking back into the indie cafe where the indifferent baristas will make my drink beautifully, even if it’s got chocolate syrup in it, to be back where there are windows and just the right amount of steam hissing and conversation and music for me to focus.

It is the ideas in my head that have yet to meet the page: the essay about No-No boys and No-No Boy, the essay about growing up multifaith (Buddhist and Catholic), the essay about yoga and water slides, the blog post about finding the end to my book (finally! finally! finally!), the book chapter about butterflies and auspicious coincidences.

It is scattered as a box of crayons, and just as full of possibility.

It is to keep my head down and do the work.

It is I’ve missed you, writing life.

For a sister getting married: senbazuru (1000 cranes)

1000 Cranes-Triangle

“What are those?”

I’m staying overnight with my daughter and her friends on a field trip. My daughter’s best friend is looking at the ziploc bag of paper, sitting on the hotel bedside table.

“They’re origami cranes. You remember the story of Sadako that you read in your class this year? If you fold a thousand, you get a wish?”

“Yeah. Can I look at one?” When I nod she takes one out of the bag, carefully. “They’re cool.”

“I’m trying to fold a thousand for my sister’s wedding. It’s a Japanese American tradition. Cranes are supposed to live a thousand years, and so you fold one for each year.”

She’s still holding one of them in the palm of her hand. “So do you believe in all the legends and myths about the cranes?”

I think hard for a second, feeling my way towards the answer. I’ve never quite thought about it before. “For me, folding cranes is not really about the belief that the wish will come true. But it takes a lot of time and commitment to fold a thousand. If you’re using small pieces of paper, you have to be really patient and careful. I don’t think that if I make a thousand, my sister’s automatically going to have a long and happy marriage. But it’s kind of like prayer, right? It’s a way of showing how much you hope the wish will come true.”

I’m folding a paper square in half diagonally, and half again (triangle, triangle), and then half and half again across the width (rectangle, rectangle). I think about what it means to make a thousand.

I learned how to make a crane in Japan when I was seven, from one of our cousins there. I spoke almost no Japanese; she spoke almost no English. But then she brought out squares of colored paper, and sat at a low table, and we were able to talk somehow. Years later I made hundreds of cranes in college. By the end of my junior year I was able to fold them in the dark, watching a movie during class. The muscle memory stuck. I made a thousand for my own wedding. I start with some of the leftover gold paper that I used for our wedding.

1000 Cranes canoe

As I’m folding the cranes, I’m thinking about my sister Teruko. My sister cares about handmade objects in her artwork. She’s made hundreds of origami cranes and lilies, ceramic statues, mandalas, prayer flags, and maneki nekos (good luck cats). She believes in handmade objects: ceramics, origami, paintings, sculpture. She believes in touch, in sculpture, in the everyday magic and care that go into creation. Her interest in communication through touch carries over to the rest of her life, where you’ll often find her hugging people to meet them, petting her cats, or touching a stranger lightly on the arm to establish a connection.

While I’m folding, I start to see why Teruko believes in the handmade. To make a crane asks you to work with the paper, patiently and intimately. You have to crease the paper firmly. If you don’t crease firmly, the paper won’t do what you need. What you do to one side, you usually do to the other: there’s a wonderful symmetry in each buy ventolin online australia act. Mistakes can be made easily. If you fold one piece over too far, the wings get stuck and the crane will never emerge. You’re folding the paper so many times that it becomes thick, to become the body of the crane. You make triangles, rectangles, squares, diamonds, even canoes—all in a series of complex steps that’s eventually meant to make the paper fly.

1000 cranes crane

I’m folding yet another set of cranes, waiting to pick up my oldest daughter from school (triangle, triangle). Folding more at night for months before bedtime, while I’m reading a book (rectangle, rectangle). Folding a hundred on the road trip from Seattle to California and back again. Folding another fifty on the family vacation road trip to Cannon Beach. Folding a handful while I’m checking my e-mail, while I’m watching a movie with my daughters. Over months I’m folding, like a pastry chef with cake batter, gently mixing in some of my life, and light, and air.

Handmade is a kind of magic: it carries a person’s touch to another person.

As I’m folding I’m thinking about yellow, one of the colors that my sister’s chosen for her wedding. Yellow is the color of our childhood home. It’s the color of summer sunlight in Northern California. It’s the color that the sunlight made when it came through the shoji screens in our childhood house. Her other color is gray. Yellow and gray, and also gold and silver: colors of things that are meant to last.

I think about our mother and the gift she gave us, the gift of each other (triangle, triangle). I don’t know how she gave us each a sister, when she struggled with her own for so long. But I do know that she gave us each other. She wanted us to be together, to help each other, to talk to each other, to be kind to each other. That’s why I wanted to have two children, not just one. It has been one of the richest relationships of my life.

I think of my sister’s belief in collective efforts: the beauty and power that happens when people come together to work. And so there are cranes in this thousand from our mother, from our auntie (one of our dad’s sisters), and from my oldest daughter: three generations of women coming together to show our hope for my sister’s marriage.

But most of all I think of my sister, and her art. What do you give the beloved little sister who’s getting married, the one who’s been with her love for so long? What do you give the sister whose art is so gorgeous and so brave that you can’t believe she’s your sister? You give her a thousand cranes, senbazuru, and you hope that they give her the energy and inspiration, maybe even the materials, for her next installation.

And so the wedding gift is not just a wish, or a belief; it’s the celebration of a knowing. She and her love know what it is to fold a thousand cranes. They know the repeated, intricate work of turning something that seems ordinary, even flat, into something that can fly.

1000 cranes 1

(For Teruko and Garrett, our love and support always. Love, Sis)

On writing and braising

One of my happy places: Elliott Bay Books in Seattle

“If I were reading you like a novel, it makes perfect sense.”

My friend Megan was trying to comfort me; I’d been lamenting about not-writing, again.

“You reached a solid point with your book, and right now you’re taking a break. Things need to percolate. Or maybe think of it like this: it’s like braising. You’ve seared the meat, and sealed in the juices, and now it’s time for the long, slow braise.”

She was speaking in terms of books and food, which helped.
Over the last couple of months I’ve stepped away from the book, and I’ll probably be away from it for a little longer. I took a day job, a short-term contract gig for a few months. It’s a big project, but it’s interesting, and it uses my skills and background from higher education. I’ve been lucky enough to only take freelance gigs for organizations and causes that I support, and this is no exception. The job is flexible and remote—meaning, I get to work from home, or a cafe, which is where I am now. It works particularly well with our family life now, where Josh is working in Seattle, the girls are at various schools, and I’m at home keeping domestic and culinary wheels running. I get to work with the college staff, who are clearly dedicated to the college’s mission. As I think many community colleges do, this college walks the talk of accessibility and diversity. Though I’ve had to step away from my own book, I’m also comforted a bit by the prospect of bringing in a paycheck, as small as it might be. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to contribute to our household income, and how that contribution satisfies part of me.

And yet. I haven’t been working on my book. I’ve been collecting links for the book again, about how we read on the page versus how we read on the screen; about how the jail at Tule Lake (where I think my grandfather may have been held for a time) is being renovated and restored. I’ve added a few book-related books that I want to read, especially Deborah Miranda’s memoir, Bad Indians, which works with some of the issues in my book: intergenerational trauma and revising history. (I recently got to meet Deborah and it was wonderful.) Not much writing, though.

The good news? My dreams have been working hard in the emotional territory of the book.
When I say “my dreams,” I mean the kind that happen when you sleep, not the fluffy pink and gold dreams that appear on inspirational posters. I’ve been dreaming again. I’ve been sleeping the kind of sleep that’s less interrupted. I’d always been a pretty good sleeper until things started to fall apart a couple of years ago. Then I began to expect my 3AM wakeups, lasting for at least half an hour or more. Eventually, I’ve started sleeping better, and I’ll tell you this: better sleep has meant better dreams.

When I say “better dreams,” I don’t mean happier dreams, necessarily. But they’ve been vivid dreams, realistic dreams with a dash of fantasy, where I can see and hear, and where I’ve told people—within the dreams!—that I’ve had dreams about them. I’ve woken up trying to remember enough to write them down.

Each time I wake up from these dreams, I am scared or surprised or shaken, and sometimes all three. Each time I wake up from these dreams, I find the same message blinking in my mental inbox: my subconscious creating dreams is a path to writing fiction. Dreams contain elements of what might and what might not happen, based on familiar characters and unfamiliar settings. (Exhibit A: a dirigible appeared in one of these dreams, followed by a record store. Nope, ventolin tablets I’ve never been in a dirigible. Unfamiliar. But I haunted Tower record stores for almost 10 years while Josh worked there. Very familiar.)

The subconscious piece explains, at least in part, why I’ve been terrified of writing fiction, even though writing novels represent my ultimate fluffy pink-and-gold dream. To write fiction I will need to venture into territory that’s even more frightening than memoir. This vivid place, this subconscious place of the visceral, the physical, based on a combination of real-life scenarios (scenes, details, conversations) and what may never be…that is where I am already writing fiction. If I am stuck thinking about stories as moments, just moments, rather than the series of moments which lead up to moments…well, maybe that’s the trick to rethinking my approach to writing fiction.

If my subconscious is already writing fiction, surely my conscious mind can write it too. I am terrified of writing it—I’ve never taken a class in writing fiction, although my friend Ann insists that my reading novels has been my class in writing fiction. I am terrified of the necessary, repeated failure that is bound to come with creating something new. I am terrified of the inevitable gap (as Ira Glass puts it) between the quality of what I want to write and the flabby, shitty first drafts that will emerge as I write fiction.

I am going to disappoint myself, over and over. I just need to keep my head down and commit to the work. Fiction is writing based on endless possibilities—which terrifies me the most—and it’s writing with the most freedom.

If I had a new career goal, that might be it: to write, and embrace that kind of freedom.


Latest Writing News and My First Giveaway!

Since I last wrote a post, one of my essays was translated and reprinted in a few countries—an unexpected and lovely gift, thanks to the Discover Nikkei Project of the Japanese American National Museum. I’ve also been reprinted over at Avidly’s series about the writing life, a wonderful online magazine about loving things “with intense eagerness.”

Last but not least, I was happy to write a blurb for the latest edition of New California Writing 2013, where the nice folks at Heyday Books called me (squeal) an “author and food writer.” As a thank you for the blurb, Heyday sent me two copies of the book, one to keep and one to share. So, I can give one away. It’s a wonderful collection of some of the best recently published writing about California. Here’s what I said about it:

This edition of New California Writing has so many things that I miss the most about my home state: a vision of beauty from the redwoods and Point Reyes to the desert; an awareness of the abundance and the human costs of agriculture, through winter deserts and peach orchards; a wicked delight in probing the geographies (and faultlines) of diversity, from Mojave Indian Barbies to sushi and black-eyed peas. Established writers like Joan Didion, Robert Hass, and Julie Otsuka inhabit the same space alongside emerging voices. Each page-turn gives us another rotation of the maddening and breathtaking kaleidoscope that is California.

Giveaway rules: Leave a comment below if you’d like the “to share” copy and I’ll draw a name via the Random Number Generator on May 15th. Fill out your e-mail address in the form–you do not need to include it in the comment box, though. For now, I need to limit the giveaway to the US. If you are under 13 years old, please ask your parents to fill out the comment form. One entry per person. The deadline for entries is May 15th, 2013, 12:00AM PST. I will post the winner (and contact them for a mailing address) on May 16, 2013. I was not compensated to give the book away.

One year later: the beauty of visible grief, revisited

Mr Dahl Day streamersToday was Mr. Dahl Day; it’s been a year since his death, since I wrote this post. Today the entire school wore blue, ate cookies and milk (a favorite snack of his), tied streamers back on the fence, and remembered a beloved principal.

Near the crosswalk where he used to stand every day, the cherry tree planted in his honor should be blooming soon.

The Next Big Thing: Blog Hop, 2013

First draft small

Hans Ostrom has kindly tagged me in this year’s blog meme, a series of writers talking about their works in progress. (Thanks, Hans!)

What is the working title of the book?
I’m still playing with the title—but for now? Life After History: Talking to the Archives of My Dad’s Life.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
It started when my young daughters started to ask about my father. They knew he was dead, but they wanted to know more about him. My daughters will be children of the digital age, and I wanted to think about concrete ways to give them a sense of his presence. In trying to “restore” him for my daughters, I was struck by how much technology and communication has changed from the time of my father’s death (in the early 1980s) and our Facebooking, online lives now. So I started looking at the hard copy archives of my dad’s life: his unpublished book, manuscript his military records, his recipes. My sister’s a visual artist, and we also thought it would be wonderful if she could create a series of works that visually responds to the artifacts and his life (and death). She does some amazing work and I can’t wait to share it.

What genre does your book fall under?
It’s a memoir, although it will also include excerpts from my dad’s unpublished memoir and pictures of my sister’s artwork. Three voices for the price of one!

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
That’s a tough one, especially for a memoir; who do you cast as yourself? Lea Salonga, Tamlyn Tomita, and Suzy Nakamura are talented and beautiful Asian American actresses, and approximately the right age, but I am not sure I’d ask to cast them as me, precisely for those reasons!

For my dad? One of my grad professors, Steve Sumida, is an amateur actor, and looks a lot like my dad. I’ve gotten to know Ken Narasaki a bit, and he’d also be wonderful to play my dad at a few different ages. But actors like Sab Shimono are probably closer to the right age.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
It’s the story of two writers ventolin inhaler buy online uk meeting on the page, and the results of that meeting: how I tried to restore my dad for my daughters by talking to the archives of his life, how technology helped that quest, and how I became a writer again through that process.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Still writing that first draft, going on two years now.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
There are so many sources, though of course there’s my dad’s book. He died when I was ten years old, and left (among his many other papers) an unpublished memoir about his family’s incarceration at Tule Lake during World War II. I’m also inspired by other Asian American writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Eugenia Kim, who have written works based on the lives of their families.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I’d love to see the book spark different conversations about the legacies of memory and history. So many of us have experienced sweeping technological changes in our lives, but we’re also anxious about the costs and benefits of these changes. What gets lost between page and screen? What gets restored from screen back to page?

If the thousands of registered users on Ancestry.com are any indicator, many people are interested in genealogy and their family histories. People who are interested in family history might also wonder about the archives of their own families, both digital and in print.

Some of the book is about grief; I had not really processed some of my grief about my dad’s death for over twenty-five years. I’d like to think about this book as a step in helping to move grief conversations from the self-help aisle and into other areas of the bookstore.

And of course I hope that people (both within and without the Japanese American community) who are interested in the World War II incarceration experience will find a great deal that resonates.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’d love to find representation with an agent who believes in me and my work, and an editor (and publishing house) who feel the same way.

This year’s word

Trees and sidewalk

Though I still jog occasionally, I’m sold on the urban hike. A walk, rather than a run.

Mornings are best. A few weeks ago I read a helpful rule to fight procrastination—“do the hardest thing first.” Apparently, exercising is that for me, and so to help maintain my exercise habit, I often walk down the same street. It’s one of the loveliest streets in my city, and it leads to a lovely old (and recently renovated) park. The setting, the routine, and the time of day all tell me physiologically that it’s time to exercise. I’m off before I quite know it.

Now, this street really is something special. There are decorative guard lions, statues of angels and dancing ladies, waterfalls and fountains.There are tall horse chestnut trees with huge leaves; the leaves can grow as big as my head. There are stunning views of the water. There are fantastic carpets of fungus and trees with petticoats of moss.

Tree moss

There’s one house with Miss Havisham (or, Miss Piggy) scalloped lavender stage curtains. Another house has a converted real estate flyer box outside, urging passersby to “take a poem or leave a poem.” Sometimes I’ll notice the patterns that  different leaves have left on the sidewalks, other times I’ll look at paint colors, and still other times I’ll look at  patterns of tree bark.

One morning last month I am on my walk, somewhat grudgingly. A grumpy gray cloud voice says, Oh, well, here I am again. The weather’s dismal, the fall leaves are gone, and there’s not very much to see. Then another relentlessly chirpy voice kicks in: You go down this street all the time, but I bet you can see something new. You just have to look hard enough. You just have to reach.

(I know both voices are mine, the grumpy one and the annoyingly chirpy one: they’re the two sides of my self-discipline. Self-discipline’s never really been a problem for me. What has been a problem for me is the high level of self-flagellation that can go along with a high level of self-discipline. Relentlessly ventolin oral Chirpy Voice is a great cheerleader, but also a surprisingly hard taskmaster.)

There are the same trees, the same pretty houses, the same real estate signs, the same leaf blowers near the bed-and-breakfast. The grumpy voice is ready to take a nap. Yet the chirpy voice keeps going: “I bet you can see something new! You just have to look!”

About a quarter of the way through the walk, there is this two-story brick house with a sign outside.


Oh, wait, no: real estate office. There’s a sign hanging on a pole outside the building. So I had always thought it was a real estate office. The curlicue writing on the sign says something about realtors…must take a look…

Oh, wait, no: apartment building. The sign tells you to contact a realtor office if you’re interested living there. The building is dark, with white columns by the front door, rose bushes, statues.  A fountain in front. More bricks on a path that sets the building pretty far back from the street. The sound of the fountain actually distracts me—it makes me think there’s nothing else to see. But wait, there’s an ironwork fence curves around a mess of greenery next to the building…

Oh, the fence. I hadn’t really looked at the fence before. I look harder at the ironwork fence: the ornamental scrolls and flowers. I look harder at the plants just behind the fence…and then, I see it.

A swimming pool.

As if I am behind a movie camera, the landscape behind the fence zooms away from me. Shiny silver handrail, shimmering green water.  The horizon, my very field of vision, expands—and there is, improbably, a pool.

Pool(Who has an outdoor swimming pool in the Pacific Northwest? No one I know. Surely, there’s a story there.)

I’m telling you about this swimming pool because I want to remember it as a metaphor for the writing life and its rewards. To look harder, to keep reaching, until the horizon expands and something gorgeously unexpected appears.

That’s how I found this year’s word for myself: reach.

Pinterest for writers

(Or, one writer on Pinterest. You decide.)

Hi there, and happy new year. My name is Tamiko, and I just used Pinterest as a writing tool. Still with me? There is, as always, a back story.

My sister asked me to join Pinterest so I could look at some images that she’s got there. So I rejoined, having lost my original account when the whole deal was still in beta. Friends from Facebook started finding me on Pinterest, and my e-mail started pinging with notifications. I asked my Facebook friends to be patient with me, since I really had no idea about what I was doing there. I asked them for tips on how to work with Pinterest, or if they enjoyed it, or how they liked to use it best.

Some of my Facebook friends described Pinterest as “more addictive than Facebook.” I have also heard some describe it as the least stressful, lowest-maintenance form of social media, because you don’t have to interact with anyone (necessarily) or gain followers or start conversations. The most appealing descriptions made it sound like a place to arrange your own bookmarks, save recipes, or daydream visually. One friend said that she had a vision board there. Those descriptions sounded fun.

I started “pinning,” or (for the unPinitiated) adding images from sites that I liked, to different “boards,” or subject areas that I created. And oh, it was “luscious,” as another friend put it to shop through different lamps at Cost Plus, and think about the things that I would like to buy for our living room. So pretty! So sparkly! And I liked looking at all the colors together on my boards. I keep wanting to integrate more color into my everyday life and surroundings, and looking at my Pinterest boards does make me happy.


There are aspects of Pinterest that concern me, for my own personality and habits. It can be addictive, another form of fracturing my attention. Already I can feel myself thinking, “Oooooh, I can pin this on my ___ board”—after I update my blog (so 2000s), check my Twitter feed, add books to my Goodreads account and update my Facebook status. I’m not sure I need another thing online to monitor and update. And as a book writer, I need longform attention to read, to write, to think beyond 140 characters or 320 pixels. When you get to the Pinterest home page, you are greeted with more images to click, and when you get to your own home page, there are even more of the same from the people and boards that you are following. It can be overwhelming, unless there is another way to monitor and organize the “boards” that you follow from different people. (There could be. I don’t know yet.)

And so much about Pinterest that I’ve seen (thus far) is about desire: things you’d like to buy, projects you’d like to make, recipes you’d like to test, places you’d like to travel, wall decor for your bathrooms… I should mention that I do have a friend who has created a board of “pins completed,” which sounds like a useful way to keep yourself a bit more accountable instead of adding to an ever-increasing to-do list of pins. I could see myself creating a big list of recipes to cook that I hadn’t cooked yet, and a list of house projects that I hadn’t started (or finished) yet, and feeling pretty terrible.

What worries me the most about Pinterest—again, for myself—is that there is very little space for appreciating what I have. As far as I can tell, the Pinterest gaze looks outward and forward, rather than inward or backward. After a while it felt like looking for my own reflection and having to search for it, over and over again, in the mirrors of other people’s houses. Something like the rabbit hole or funhouse of the Internet search itself. (Alexander Chee, who writes some of the finest online essays I know, has a short one about distractions, writing, and the Internet.  One of the best passages:

“The next time you find yourself helplessly in the grip of some internet rabbit hole, take a slight step back, and don’t stop yourself, but ask yourself what it is you are really after. What are the feelings you feel?…[and] whatever it is that is so distracting, would you write more if you wrote about it? Does it want, in other words, to be your subject?”

But one of the Pinterest things I decided to try, on a whim, was to create a “board,” a collection of links and images, for the book I am writing. And, wow. I actually want to keep this board around, and I hope I’ll be able to save it elsewhere somehow, with the other book-related materials. The part of me that keeps jumping ahead to publication says that this Pinterest board could even be part of a marketing tool for the book. Readers might want to know more about certain pieces of the book, and they could look at the board for more information. You can see the entire board here. (I don’t know if you have to be a Pinterest user to see it, so let me know if you can’t see it and you really want to. [Not that any of you need more things to see. I know.])

I started with an image of the place in Northern California where my dad and his family ventolin were incarcerated, Tule Lake. I made that the cover image.

Source: nps.gov via Tamiko on Pinterest


Other images followed from sites that I’ve discovered while I’ve been writing and researching the book. An interview with the current poet laureate, Natasha Tretheway, about history’s erasures and memories. A Rumpus article about grief memoirs, another about the genre of memoirs. An Atlantic article about photographers using technology to bring together separated families on the same page, in the same picture. An article on Yoga Journal about a woman who created a yoga workshop specifically for those who are grieving. A national resource center for children and teens who are grieving. A post from my own blog (ooh, I can pin my own content?) to remind me of things that I discovered while writing about grief.

The library where my dad worked for so many years, at Cal State Sacramento.

Source: csus.edu via Tamiko on Pinterest


And an image of my sister’s incredible artwork (which I  want to include in the book) of my grandfather’s funeral and the mandala she created over it.


The work of putting the images together was partly frustrating, partly satisfying. Frustrating because as much as I loved working with these images (I usually work in text), there were sites that are important to me and my project. And because there was no image to be “pinned,” I couldn’t add them to my board. There are sites with important paragraphs that I want to read over and over again, and the images were not usable or interesting. I went back through my book journal and tried to find pinnable sites for the board; some worked, others didn’t. It would be nice to have a place for all of them, on a virtual visual cork board like this one.

The satisfaction, though, was the surprise. For example, I don’t know if I ever would have searched for an image of the library where my dad worked. But now, every time I see it, I think about all times I went there, visiting him at work. He used to take me and my sister to every single floor of the library, showing us around, and (yes) showing us off to his co-workers. Just seeing the image made me remember all of that. So it was a good reminder of what the image can do, and how the image lets us viscerally access what text does not.

Captioning each image helped me to do some unexpected short writing assignments for the book. Sometimes I wrote important quotes from the interviews. Sometimes I wrote notes about what the images meant to me. Sometimes I wrote and actually discovered something new about the image for myself. I grabbed an image from the book I’ve been meaning to get, Colors of Confinement, an extraordinary collection of color (color!) photos from camp. As I wrote the caption, I thought about what it means to see camp in full color, when we’re so used to seeing and thinking about camp (at least in the present) in black-and-white, the somewhat distant historical past.


I thought about how seeing camp in color brings camp dramatically into the present, even if only for a while—and that move is something like the move I want people to experience when they read my book.

And perhaps most importantly, my Pinterest board for the book got me out of my writing rut. It inspired me to go back to the book again. Looking at the images together made me click into a looser, freer, right-brain mode of creating. It was a way of playing with the material that I’d like to keep, if I can.

One final surprise, though: it was shocking to see how much that Pinterest book board contrasted with the others. This board has so many black and white images, so many photos of people and paintings. The other boards contain a lot of landscapes and still lifes and objects. To see the book in terms of representative images showed me another way to see its prominent threads. I got to see my book again: it is about loss, and history. It’s about how we use technology and memory in order to recover. And retrieve. And renew. And heal.

A Few Writer Takeaways for Pinterest:

  • Use Pinterest as a way to play with the material from your book-in-progress. Create a “board,” or collection of links and images, just for your project. Think about it as a vision board or cork board for the book. Move the images around. See what the collective images on a board tell you about your project. Seeing your text-based book in terms of representative images can unlock some of the material or emotions that “just” writing might not.
  • Unless all of your links have interesting, relevant, and usable (“pinnable”) images, Pinterest does not work as well as a place to save all of the links for your book.
  • Use the 500-character caption function as a way to do some short writing assignments about each image for your book. (It’s another way to approach Anne Lamott’s famous “one-inch picture frame” assignment in Bird by Bird.)

Have you used online images as a way to spark your writing process? Have you used Pinterest for your own artmaking or writing? Do you have any Pinterest tips? Please leave them in the comments below.

Update, 1/17/13: Laura Harrington has written a similar post about using Pinterest for novelists, here. More useful tips!

It’s all about the reach

When I moved to Seattle in 1998, it wasn’t the rain that bothered me. It was the light, or the lack of light, especially in midwinter. (It was a particularly bad winter, the natives told me: an El Niño winter with hard rains. But the winters after that never felt very different, to be honest.) See, all those years in California, I used to time my dinner prep by the setting sun. Then I found myself finishing my Seattle dinners in November by 4:30PM. And oh, I missed the sunlight. There’s a reason Josh calls me a kitty—when the sun’s out I will close my eyes, stretch, turn my face towards the warm light, and all but start grooming myself, it makes me so happy.

It’s taken years for me to adjust to the Northwest light, but I think I got closer to fine this year. We bought full-spectrum light bulbs, and I started using them to help me wake up at my bedside table in the mornings. We painted our living areas sky blue and cheery yellow.

More importantly, the grayer the skies became, the harder I looked for color in my everyday life. Looking back at my photos from this year’s autumn,  I can see the patterns that a windstorm will create in the fallen leaves on the ground. I can see how luminous the dahlias are in September, how the pumpkins in October just glow in my daughters’ arms, how the filtered sunlight enlivens the red and yellow maples, just so.

This year’s photos showed me color, light, life. You couldn’t really see how gray and dark the skies had become.

Or, since color is relative, the colors were that much brighter because the skies were so gray and dark.

This year I finally learned the lesson of the solstice: it’s not about raging against the dying of the light. It’s about reaching for as much light as you can, every single day. When mid-December arrives, It’s about welcoming the return of the light, each minute by sunlit minute.

I’ll be back next year. I hope you will too.

(P.S. My essay about my family’s sukiyaki recipe was chosen “a very close second” in Discover Nikkei’s Itadakimasu series. You can read the essay and the generous comments from the Editorial Committee here. Happy New Year, everyone!)