From Book Concept to Bookshelf

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Left to right: Sara Fan, Rachel Richardson, Kirstin Chen, Laleh Khadivi. WILLIAM WIN / FOGHORN

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article described the novels in this article as “fiction novels.” The mistake has been corrected and the article has been updated. 

There are few experiences in life that are as grueling as writing a book manuscript and as rewarding as finishing it. Your book is your baby — there are countless hours spent tending to its needs and setting it up for success. Novelists Kirstin Chen and Laleh Khadivi and poet Rachel Richardson joined together in Xavier Auditorium on Sept. 27th for a panel presented by the Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program (MFA) to discuss their writing processes and how they went from book concept to bookshelves.

For those who are unfamiliar with the authors, Chen, a Singapore native, is the author of “Soy Sauce For Beginners” and “Bury What We Cannot Take” — novels that have received coverage in Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour and InStyle. Poet Richardson, also an MFA professor, has had her two poetry books, “Copperhead” and “Hundred Year Wave,” reviewed by The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle. USF MFA professor, author and filmmaker Laleh Khadivi is responsible for “The Kurdish Trilogy,” a series of novels that have graced the pages of The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian and San Francisco Chronicle.

All three women have achieved ample success with their writing projects — but not without their fair share of artist’s block and overthinking during the process. Chen referenced her continuous struggle with fact-checking every last detail in her latest work, “Bury What We Cannot Take,” a novel about a Chinese family who attempt to flee their home country during Chairman Mao’s reign. She found herself constantly “writing a sentence… then Googling it,” she said. As a result of this tedious task, Chen took inspiration from Edward P. Jones and his novel, “The Known World.” Jones references many censuses and data in his own work — all which was completely made up.

“There was something incredibly freeing that something like that had been done and could be done,” Chen said. She went on to write the rest of her work without fact-checking as she went. Instead, she would highlight sentences to refer back to when her novel was finished.

A crucial piece of advice to keep in mind when it comes to praise — “be wary of it,” Richardson said. She mentioned that your goal is to reach readers, and along the way, you will most likely receive praise for what you have created. But it shouldn’t deter you from creating substantial work. If you were praised from the get-go, “we would all stop writing within three years,” Richardson joked.

Now, the million dollar question that every writer faces: what do you do when you’re stuck?

Khadivi was quick to address this. “If you are having writer’s block, you are thinking about the wrong things and working on the wrong book.” To help her own lulls in inspiration, Richardson mentioned the game that she and her husband play — they give each other poem topics that are random and foreign to  themes they usually write about. “You don’t want to know your work too well,” she said. Being too comfortable with your stylistic choices can prohibit you from growing both as a person and a writer.

Chen’s approach to being stuck in a writing rut was simpler and more militant. She writes 1,000 words a day to create momentum and sends it to her college best friend, who responds with a simple thumbs up to symbolize “keep going” or a thumbs down for “go back and revise.”

On occasion, a manuscript isn’t thrown out until it is completely finished, cover to cover. Khadivi mentioned that she has thrown away an entire book herself, saying, “Burn it… only if you’re confident about it.” Chen agreed to having the same thoughts. “Sometimes you feel like you want to burn it… but it might also mean you are close to finishing,” Chen said.

The overarching idea reiterated throughout the panel wasn’t how you should outline your book or where to seek inspiration, but to keep writing. “Keep writing forward,” Chen said.

“Write, even when you think you aren’t producing good poems,” Richardson said.

“There is something about the body of work that is within you that will keep you writing,” Khadivi said.

Undoubtedly, you will find the silver lining. The book will see itself through, so long as you want it to.

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