Several years ago, I stood up here at this podium and read a scene that I was saying goodbye to. It was a scene from my novel, Shadow Child, set in the aftermath of a tsunami; it was a good scene and I was sad to lose it. I just wanted someone to hear it before I cut it out of my book.
“Kill your darlings.” If you have been a writer for any length of time, you’ve heard that. You may even have done it. But “darlings” connotes something small – a flowery phrase, maybe a meandering paragraph. I was killing off not just a scene, not just a chapter, not just the entire historical thread of a braided structure, but a whole third of my book.
That’s a lot, you might think. But the first time I got that advice I was told to throw out…my whole book. It was my first novel, Why She Left Us, about a Japanese American family during WWII. It was something of a mystery; a reveal of family secrets. I was exploring the actions of a character, Emi, who gives up her son and never explained herself. Instead, the readers, much like the author, had to piece together what may have happened from the voices of others around her. It took me five years to write, and when it was finished, the first editor I sent it to, a woman who was my friend and an editor at Knopf, told me it was too complicated. Emi’s missing story was the interesting one; I should start over, dump the other voices and let her speak for herself.
I got the same advice with my second book. It was a memoir, and a different editor, whom I trusted, who had loved my first novel and almost bought it. She did not love Hiroshima in the Morning, which was about living in Japan, and September 11th, and the bombing of Hiroshima, and motherhood, racism and trauma… She told me that my memoir was about too many things, and that I should rewrite it as a confessional about how I decided to leave my children. Advice that I rejected, though it turned out to be prophetic nonetheless.
You might think, hearing this, that I suck as a writer. But I didn’t take the advice, and these books won awards. I knew what I wanted them to be and had worked them hard. Shifting points of view, an unreliable narrator, structural metaphors, dramatic clocks, foreshadowing, subtext, juxtaposition, letters, diaries, historical research, an epigraph that I fragmented and that became the titles of different sections. Talk about craft, my books were full of it.
Then came my third novel, Shadow Child.
I had started the novel in the year 2000, took a break, went to Japan, wrote my memoir, and picked it up again. I decided to take what I thought was two books and combine them. I was a different person with different preoccupations, and better skills. I had a new draft – this was back in 2012, but I was stuck.
There were three stories and three characters – because, hey, I wrote it. My agent liked two of the three; the reader she hired to look at it only liked one. Half the editors she sent it to liked the way the novel opened, while the other half thought it gained momentum only later on. An editor at Crown suggested I rewrite it as a thriller.
There was a problem, clearly, and this time, I decided to take the advice.
I restructured. I restructured again. And a third time. I worked on the arc, the clock, the point of view, the transitions; I moved the scenes and beats and parts of my story around like I was shuffling a deck – reassigning and relocating flashbacks, trying to make it flow. Making the chapters short and the interweaving fast. Chunking the story so we stayed for a long time with one character. I was using the tools I knew, and I was getting closer. Now my former editor was saying, “I really loved so much of it…”
But there were those ellipses. Maybe there was too much in it? Maybe I needed to think about allegory? The editor at Crown had given me two mysteries to read because she couldn’t tell the difference between them and a thriller. And though a thriller was NOT where I was going, I tried my hand at a mystery. But to make it work – to deliver on a secret and to decide who cared enough to kill for it – I realized I had to throw out one of the three stories. The whole historical thread had to go in order to make room for a new setting and a new villain with his motivations and his backstory. Goodbye to the tsunami, then. Goodbye to most of the story set in Japan.
I was three quarters of the way through a new draft, and I was stuck again. I couldn’t finish it. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write a thriller or a mystery – it was this: Shadow Child was born in Japan. It had motivated my journey there, it was created from my questions of nationality, identity and trauma, and my fears and guilt around the bombing of Hiroshima and the silence and erasure of that decision. How had I traveled so far away from my purpose?
Because I could? Someone had told me to, and I knew how to take those steps? I had the skill, the ability to craft it. I knew how to render all the bones, tissue, ligaments, muscles of the monster that was my book.
I knew how to write, but I had lost sight of what I was writing.
In a decade and a half of shuffling, I had severed all the connections between what happened and why it mattered. The action was there, the scenes, and they were logical and followable and even well developed, but I had slowly organized the entire book for the benefit of the editors’ desire and reader’s understanding, and not out of the needs and fears and hopes and realizations that my characters were experiencing as they grew and changed and came to terms with themselves. In other words, the content was all still there, but that question in the margins “So what?” that many of my students may remember me scrawling in purple ink – that same question could have been written all over my own manuscript because this writer was writing to inform the reader, she was no longer inhabiting the character, reflecting her inner self, there on the page.
You can imagine how incredibly uncomfortable that was, and also how exciting. Because the moment I saw that, I knew how to fix it.
In writing, there are essentially three focuses: What our story is – that’s the content. How we tell our story – that’s the craft. Craft is essential, it is our tool set, but it is the third aspect, the why we tell our story…that’s the life. The urgency that compels the writer – the truth we need to speak, the warning we need to impart, the redemption we need to share, the beauty we see in the world, the thrill of being alive, the promise that our lives have meaning – must infuse the book. This is what dictates our structure, and our content. This is what drives our narratives and keeps our readers up in the middle of the night.
It was only after I remembered why I would not let this story go that it finally fell into place.
When Shadow Child was published this year, none of that nearly two decades of crafting was wasted. The ending shifted. The characters became more of themselves by taking on a bit of their thriller doppelgangers. The story in Japan, and the legacy of racism and trauma fits perfectly. And the tsunami scene is back. I’ll read it to you Thursday night.
This essay is a keynote address given at the MFAW Vermont residency last week by faculty member Rahna Reiko Rizzuto.