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.

Uma also teaches for the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. To learn more about her visit her website and follow her blog.

Describe your workspace.

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.

I have another workspace, however. It’s a place I go to when I need it for reasons of both practicality and solace. I’m referring to the landscaped grounds of my local public library. Here’s a video that will show you what I mean.

Describe a typical workday.

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. 

Yoda the cat.

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. 

On revising days, I wake up earlier than usual and hit the computer for a couple of mulling hours, reading what I have and thinking about it. I may go for a walk after that. Then I start digging into the work and throwing large chunks away, rewriting to fill the spaces. I’m usually exhausted by 5 or so and not much good for anything the rest of the day. Revision is the most exciting part for me, but it also exhausts me the most and I can really lose track of the real world while I’m in that zone. We have one of those exercise gliders. I moved it to my office and I’ve set up so that I can walk on it and type at the same time. When I get stiff from sitting at my desk I can just move my laptop over to the table near the glider, and keep on going.
Then there are the teaching days. I teach in the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. On about ten days of each month, I begin by clearing my desk of my own work so I can focus only on my students’ stories. I start working at 9 am, stop for lunch, and start again, with a few e-mail checks as needed in between. 
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
1. I have a small figure of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, on my desk. She was a bit wobbly and kept falling over until we mounted her on one of those squashed pennies you can get at gift shops. Now she’s stable, and can keep an eye on me to make sure I don’t slack off.

2. A Louisa May Alcott ornament sent by a friend, with this quote on it: “She is too fond of books and it has addled her brain.” Yes, that would be me. 

3. A small carved elephant that has been a favorite of mine from my childhood.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
I make myself a cup of tea. I log out of e-mail. If she’ll cooperate, I pick up one of our cats, Mu, who likes to be walked around. Once she’s had a good purr, I feel ready for work.
What do you listen to while you work?

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. 

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

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.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?
It depends on what I’m doing. When I’m preparing to work on a project, that is often best done by not focusing on it at all. I’ll do a dozen other things but the work is simmering in my mind all that time. When I’m working on a new draft, it’s often word count, pure and simple. If I want to write 500-800 good words a day I probably need to write 1500 bad ones, so word count matters. In revision, it’s more the big story picture that keeps me grounded. As for picture books, I’m not even sure what keeps me focused or if I even am. I use them as relief from novels, so to me they feel more like therapy when I wear out over a longer work.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

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. 

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

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. 

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
Jane Austen, although heaven knows it’s not Chawton and she may be quite shocked at its state of disarray. I’d hope she’d find the hummer feeders diverting, and the view of the oddly shaped rocks on the bluff.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

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.

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5 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Uma Krishnaswami”

  1. Joy Chu

    Uma, you amaze me. I learn something new about you, on every new day of your blog stops. There's always a gem to uncover. Love that quote from your tai chi instructor. And starting the day by caressing your cat until you are into the rhythm of its purr — like warming up your mutual inner engines in synchronicity! Cheers!

  2. Uma Krishnaswami

    Thanks Joy. I may never be more than a tourist in that tai chi class, but I learn all kinds of writing approaches from it.

  3. Uma Krishnaswami

    You're welcome, Angelina. Thanks for the virtual visit to my workspace. And thank you to Jennifer for hosting this stop on the blog tour for The Grand Plan to Fix Everything.