Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Melissa, thanks so much for speaking to us all at TSS. It’s a pleasure to have this chance to ask about your writing and general involvement in the literary scene. I’d like to begin by asking how you got into writing and at what point you realised it was something you wanted to approach professionally?
I suppose I’m one of those people who has always written in journals, probably from about high school forward. I had a wonderful English teacher who gave us an assignment as high seniors to keep a personal journal. She emphasised that it wasn’t something she was going to mark for literary astuteness, she just wanted us to show up and write often about whatever we wanted without thinking about grades. She didn’t read the journals, which built a great amount of trust, but she did give us time and space to write. This was a gift of permission and acceptance. In a highly academic and competitive school, she offered us a way to be ourselves in spite of the noise (both inner and outer) that comes with adolescence. After that, I kept on writing. I’ve boxes and boxes of journals. I guess I see them as a place to write down whatever is on my mind. Occasionally I’ll go back and look for some idea that I drafted, but it’s mostly the process of free-writing in them that I value. The journals are kind of like a musician’s scales and etudes for warm-up. Now it’s such a habit that if I don’t write often – longhand, in a blank book, preferably in a nice café – I become twitchy and miserable.
My approach to writing professionally – which I’ll interpret to mean writing seriously – came later and more gradually. I’ve always loved reading and have found so much comfort and inspiration in books. A big impetus for wanting to teach was wanting to share these marvellous worlds with others. When I did my teacher training, we had to take a few creative writing classes. Daft as it sounds, it had never occurred to me that teachers of writing should be writers themselves. I loved the chance to write creatively. It felt exhilarating and risky in a way that writing critical essays and scientific papers never did. Although I was encouraged by my fellow classmates and teachers, I didn’t quite believe then that I could write something people would want to read. I needed to live more, write more, and read more. I’d say it took a series of disappointing jobs and the realisation that we get just one chance at this ‘wild and precious life’ as Mary Oliver puts it, to give me the courage to go for it. There’s no time to waste. If I say I’m a writer, I mean that there are things that I have to write and if I don’t, I’ll regret it.
Do you have a routine when it comes to writing and are there any tips you can give our readers on eliminating distractions and ensuring the most is made of their time?
For me, the main thing is showing up at the blank page and writing about things I can’t stop thinking about. I really do try to write a bit every day – even if it’s only ten minutes. And when I’m writing by hand, I’m allowed to be boring and repetitive and random. The only guideline is to keep the pen moving for whatever amount of time I’ve set. I’ve learned that I don’t really need to know why I’m writing about something or what it’s going to be when I start. That beginning (which might consist of several entries over several years in several notebooks) is a matter of creating the raw material. Eventually, I’ll find myself circling around a memory or a person and something will emerge that makes it from the notebook onto the computer. Then the writing becomes a practice in craft. This quote by Dylan Thomas is my guide: What I like to do is to treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone or what-have-you, to hew, carve, mould, coil, polish and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, fugues of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly-realised truth I must try to reach and realise.
When I get to a draft that I think might be finished, I aim to cut the word count by 20%.
You were one of the 2017 Word Factory Apprentices and I’m interested to know how this has helped shape you and your writing?
Being a Word Factory Apprentice was incredible. I could go on and on about how much it meant to me and still feel I haven’t sufficiently sung its praises. The entire apprenticeship was a huge confidence booster. Writing is such a vulnerable act. Having someone say ‘Yes, we believe in you and your words. Yes, we want to help you grow,’ is one of the most nurturing and generous things established writers can do for emerging voices. I treasured the opportunity to work closely with my lovely mentor, Zoe Gilbert, who found ways to encourage and challenge me that I’ll continue to draw on for a long time. The Word Factory community is wide and welcoming. I loved how it brings together so many writers working in different ways. People say there is no one way to write, and this is an easy sentiment to agree with. But the Word Factory masterclasses and salons actually showcase this diversity of approaches and styles. As an apprentice, I felt I learned something valuable from each of the events I attended and from each of the individuals I met. It’s an organisation that not only celebrates short story excellence but also deeply values the relationships that develop when writers come together. I hope to continue my involvement with Word Factory as previous apprentices have done.
You run the wonderful Spilling the Ink, a writing organisation helping writers find their voices. What more can you tell us?
I believe we create the communities we long for. As much as I am a writer, I am a teacher. Years in the classroom taught me that everyone has interesting things to say and valuable perspectives to offer. I wanted to create a writing community where those words and perspectives would be witnessed and honoured. Spilling the Ink courses start with and maintain a steadfast belief in each participant’s writing and intentions. We play with words, experiment with form, and generate a lot of raw material. Throughout, I carefully consider what kinds of responses will be useful and appropriate to the writing.
For the purposes of my courses, I’m wary of running a traditional workshop and critique group. Not because I don’t value this kind of feedback, but because I find more joy in focusing on celebration and acknowledgment. I truly believe that with enough writing and practice, people find their ways to their unique voices. The best way of getting there is by encouraging more and more writing. The last thing I want to do is to shut someone’s writing down with a careless comment.
I learn so much from the participants in the groups. It’s deeply rewarding to run the courses.
I loved the piece you wrote last year called Mixed Blessings (readers can check it out here) – could you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind it and whether any of your thoughts surrounding the piece have changed since its inception?
I wrote Mixed Blessings in response to Word Factory’s 2017 theme of Citizen, the New Story – considering what nationality, identity and belonging mean to each of us. I found it really challenging to write something so personal. My Spilling the Ink cohort last spring heard a lot of complaining about how difficult it was to write about identity. What an interesting question you ask about whether my thoughts surrounding the piece have changed! Perhaps I’m rethinking the part about speaking Chinese. My brother gave my daughter a book of Chinese words a few years ago. I recently had a look at it. I’ve decided to learn the 54 Chinese words the book introduces.
Do you see writing as a political act and do you think in these current unstable times that writers should be doing more or less politically motivated work?
Oh, this is a hard question! Here’s the thing. I’ve never really understood politics as a combat sport. The problems and challenges we face are too big and complex to be boiled down to a handful of opposing statements. What I’ve come to realise over the past few years is that there are many ways of being political. Without shouting slogans or spouting political philosophy, you can believe in something and act on that belief. That’s what political work means to me.
I believe that people are worth listening to. Writing is about listening. And I think it’s important to listen to someone beyond the point of disagreement. It’s easy to listen when you’re in agreement, but once you reach an impasse, it’s tempting to end the conversation or at least stop engaging. But I try to challenge myself to keep listening until I find, again, a common value or at least a bigger understanding of why someone believes something so different to what I think. It has something to do with empathy. I think that’s where the writing comes in. If writing doesn’t explore the nuance of the why behind particular actions and beliefs of characters, then it can come off as preaching or flat. For me, writing that is politically astute is also politically complex. I become frustrated and bored with writing that takes a stance and either glorifies or vilifies it. It’s too easy to be one-sided. The best writing is challenging because it it multi-dimensional. People are multi-dimensional.
So, yes, I think writing is a political act. And I think one of the writer’s responsibilities is to create work that recognises the complexity of human situations so that we don’t end up using language as reductive soundbites that oversimplify. Argh – now I’ll be thinking about this for the next few months. Maybe I’ll start by rereading Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language.’
Okay, three quick-fire questions to end on…
Favourite book of 2017?
DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING by Madeleine Thien. Even though it was published in 2016, I read it (twice) in 2017. It is one of those books that when I picked it up and started reading, I felt my world shift. I’ll probably be reading it again soon.
Best advice you’ve ever received?
If it matters to you, then write about it.
Umm…fiction with my left hand, nonfiction with my right.
Melissa, it’s been a pleasure, thank you!
Thanks Rupert, always a delight to chat with you.
Melissa Fu is from Los Alamos, New Mexico and lives in Cambridgeshire, UK. Fascinated by literature and science, she majored in English and Physics at Rice University. She then completed a MS in Physics at the University of Colorado. After earning a MA in Education from Columbia, Melissa taught secondary and university-level physics and English in the US and the UK. She has also worked in science outreach and curriculum development. In 2014, she started a small business, Spilling the Ink, that offers courses and coaching in creative writing. Her writing appears in many publications including The Lonely Crowd, International Literature Showcase, Bare Fiction, and The Nottingham Review. In 2017, she was the regional winner of Words and Women’s Prose Competition and one of four Apprentices with the London-based Word Factory. Other honors include a Pushcart Prize nomination and shortlistings for the International Wasafiri New Writing Prize and the Hourglass Literary Magazine Best Essay.
Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and founding director of TSS Publishing. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and is Associate Editor at The Word Factory, a leading short story organisation based in London. He’s also Events Coordinator for the Society of Young Publishers (London) and Curator for WritingCompetitions.org. His own work has appeared in a number of places online and in print and he is currently working on his first novel.
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