A Peek at the Creative Space of Uma Krishnaswami
Today we step inside the writing space of Uma Krishnaswami. Uma is the author of Out of the Way, Out of the Way (illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy–same name, different person); Remembering Grandpa (illustrated by Layne Johnson); The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story (illustrated by Ruth Jeyaveeran); and many other titles. Her latest novel, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, was published this month and has received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Here’s a bit about The Grand Plan:
Eleven-year-old Dini loves movies–watching them, reading about them, trying to write her own–especially Bollywood movies. But when her mother tells her some big news, it does not at all jive with the script of her life she has in mind. Her family is moving to India . . . and, not even to Bombay, which is the center of the Bollywood universe and home to Dini’s all-time most favorite star, Dolly. No, Dini is moving to a teeny, tiny village she can’t even find on a map. Swapnagiri. But Swapnagiri is full of surprises like mischievous monkeys and a girl who chirps like a bird—and the biggest surprise of all: Dolly.
So now, Dini is hard at work on a new life’s script, the script in which she gets to meet the amazing Dolly Singh. But, life is often more unpredictable than the movies and when Dini starts plotting her story things get a little out of control.
My office is a large room that is quite central to the house, with the walls lined with books. It often turns into a cluttered space, as I’m constantly battling piles of books that mysteriously pop up around me. But I know where everything is and it’s a comfortable space for me.
There isn’t one, although I begin every day with a cup of tea. While the kettle boils I do a qigong set, a Chinese therapeutic exercise set I learned in my tai chi class. Three of the four cats usually sit and watch me. Only this one set draws their attention in this way, and I have no idea why. The rest of the day–that depends on whether I’m writing or revising or teaching.
On writing days I potter in the morning and write in the afternoon. This pottering phase (going out for a walk, or cleaning up or washing dishes, whatever) is crucial. When I get stuck writing, I stop and read. When I’m in draft mode I shut my e-mail down so it doesn’t get in the way, or I’d never get anything written.
Nothing. I can’t abide any sounds when I write, other than the birds outside. No radio, no music, no anything. I’m very easily distractible. I’m one of those people who needs silence in a room if she’s talking on the phone.
I alternate between black tea (I try to limit that on account of the caffeine) and a variety of herbal teas. It has to be hot, whatever it is, never mind the time of year. Snack of choice? That changes, but currently it’s sesame sticks, and dried unsweetened mango, or dates.
I sometimes start in longhand, and then go to the computer when my mind is working faster than my handwriting can keep up with. I have a really spidery, illegible hand, so it usually doesn’t take long.
I don’t outline to begin with. I leap in anywhere and write whatever I know, which in the beginning isn’t much at all. As the characters emerge I let them develop. I do write notes off the page, in a notebook, and sometimes I write questions. When I get to the middle of a work, I’ll sometimes work up a rough outline just to see what I have so far and where it seems to be heading.
It was something that was never intended as writing advice. Rather it’s something my tai chi teacher’s teacher told me. He’s Sigong Dug Corpolongo of Lotus Dragon studios in Albuquerque NM, and this is what he said: “Complete every movement. An incomplete action lacks power.” Isn’t that wonderful? Can’t you just see that playing out in writing? I can’t tell you how many times I find myself placing a character in a scene, beginning an emotional reaction and then leaving it hanging. James Baldwin talks about protecting ourselves and I’m always doing that in writing. But the notion of the complete action is a really important one and it’s as true in tai chi and writing as it is in life.