How I Write: Brian Leung — Novelist
Welcome back for the Spring 2014 semester! Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers. The series will be featured every other Wednesday.
To kick off the new semester, local novelist Brian Leung offers us a little bit of insight into his writing process. Brian Leung is the author of the short story collection, World Famous Love Acts (Sarabande), winner of the Mary McCarthy Award for short fiction and The Asian American Literary Award for Fiction. His novels are Lost Men (Random House) and Take Me Home (Harper/Collins) which won the 2011 Willa Award for Historical Fiction. You can read more about each of these here. His fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction appear in numerous magazines and journals. Leung is currently the Director of Creative Writing at UofL and is a board member of the nonprofit organization, Louisville Literary Arts.
How I Write: Brian Leung
Location: outdoors or next to a window (shame on me)
Current project: Novel and a short story collection
Currently reading: Zealot by Reza Aslan
- What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?
I confess to having a bias in responding to this question because, as a personal definition, I think of writing as the activity I engage in when I’m working on fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and the various small creative projects I’m invited to contribute to. These categories get my attention on a daily basis, though it varies by deadline which I’ll be working on in a given moment. For example, earlier this year I was asked write a brief review/essay, so I set aside my novel project to work on that. In the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on poetry and hand editing my novel manuscript. These activities generally take place in the morning.
Now, back to the confession. On any given day I probably write more words on emails, social media and on text messaging than I do in my creative work. I call this part of my typing life, communicating, but not writing. I don’t mean to disparage these activities, but they rarely capture my sustained attention in a way that makes me reflect deeply on the language being employed. This may be a casualty of thinking of electronic communication as being fleeting and not permanent. We’ll find out if that’s true when the lights go out.
- When/where/how do you write?
I recall Annie Dillard writing that she had to close the blinds and tape up a drawing of the view from her window just so she could concentrate on writing. I require the distraction of the occasional cardinal, of a rocking, late blooming yellow iris. It’s a refreshing tableau to watch a squirrel hop through snow and pause when she spies me spying her. Because of this, most of my writing in the last seven or eight years has taken place outdoors or next to a window.
I write in the mornings three to five times a week, and I write slowly. I read every sentence aloud. Because of this, I get to keep a healthy percentage of my sentences.
- What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces*?
Poetry I compose on paper, and I confess now to being entirely laptop dependent for prose. I rarely listen to music, and I certainly can’t listen to music with lyrics while I’m writing. So, when I say that I have to write with nobody but myself and my cat in the house, I mean both without my boyfriend and without Lady Gaga or One Direction.
- What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?
Getting started when? There’s the getting started after you’ve started, and there’s starting with a blank page. In the case of the former, I think it’s wise to leave off at an incomplete thought or image so that when you return you have a definite piece of the puzzle to begin with. “Cornfelder stopped at the door, then turned because he forgot. . . .” I don’t have a character named Cornfelder, but I’d have fun tomorrow morning figuring out what he forgot and then I’d be off to the races. It’s the same for essay writing, I think. In an essay about James Baldwin, one might come to a point where Mr. Baldwin might weigh in. But wait until tomorrow and pick that up. This process only works if you’re not a procrastinator, and if you are, G(g)od(s) help you.
Starting with a blank page? See the writing advice I got below. Why bother writing at all unless. . . .
- What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
The best writing advice I ever received was unspoken. A creative writing teacher had cut me off at the knees in one of my first undergraduate workshops when my fiction came up. I was so livid, I went home and spent the week reading her work and producing an angry imitation. The next class I stomped into class and read it aloud uninvited, asking at the end, and angrily, “Is that what you want?” She looked at me calmly and said, “Yes.” I understood instantly. Her expression and tone told me not that she wanted me to imitate her writing, but that she wanted me to be passionate about my own.