For me, the creative process—the act of writing—begins before I’m ever in front of a computer screen. I was on Big Island once, up in paniolo country, and I noticed how the grass, windswept, grew in arches. I knew as soon as I saw that grass that I was going to have to write it one day. The experience, the act of observation, is the first moment of writing for me.
Research is another part of the process. Research offers so much depth and context, not just for the work but for my own self, my own development. When I first set out on my novel project I visited a number of archives and museums—the Mission Houses Museum on Oahu, the Japanese Cultural Center in Honolulu, and more recently the Bancroft Library at University of California at Berkeley, to name a few. But then, there’s also the experience of just listening, of paying attention as my aunties and uncles talk story, or my parents recall when they were kids or first married. I love listening while my elders talk because then I’m the recipient of their creative process, of their storytelling.
One of the things I struggle with sometimes is turning the more archival research into fiction. I want to adhere to these details of history, but a novel needs to take its own leaps, craft its own worlds. When I moved to Bellingham my colleague and friend, creative nonfiction writer Brenda Miller, invited me to join her writing group. That group writes in timed intervals with some sort of “boundary” or rule set up—shortest sentences possible, a single long sentence. I found that these boundaries allowed my brain to work in different ways, to access different images or voices. My research, which I had conducted a year or two or three before, would return, unbidden, and an odd fact I had read—say, schoolgirls in 1899 rescuing their books from one side of their dormitory as the other half went up in flames—would suddenly become an image so clear it was as if I was recalling having been there myself. That was really freeing for me, and it helped me remember that the knowledge I have is integrated into me, waiting to come forth as needed.
Finally, I always remember how fortunate I am to be able to sit down and write. To come to the page to play with language, imagine, remember. I’ve been surrounded by stories (and great storytellers) since I was a kid, and now I get to join their ranks. I get to tell stories of my own. The creative process doesn’t begin and end with me or my experiences. Rather, I’m a part of a larger storytelling process that has shaped and inspired, and now leans its ear in to listen to me.