Friday, September 27, 2013

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Writer Katrina Otuonye

writer Katrina Otuonye
Katrina Otuonye is a Yooper, transplanted Tennessean, China explorer, and teacher. She recently published nonfiction in The Feminist Wire, Crab Orchard Review and Litro Magazine, among others. Otuonye teaches at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville and serves as a Poet Mentor for Southern Word, a nonprofit based in Nashville.

Laura Davis: How do you begin writing? Do you just dive in? Warm-up exercise? Daydreaming? Any strange rituals involving smelling a drawer of fruit?

Katrina Otuonye: I dive in. I have a journal where I keep my notes, post-its and scribbles, but once I open a new Word document, or flip to a blank page, I’ll pick one that conjures an image and start writing. I close my eyes and take a second to see it in front of me. People in cafes probably think I’m sleeping. I’m processing. I write in bursts, as if I need to get everything that’s in my head down on paper before it flows away. I like to show my students this clip from Finding Forrester, where an aging writer admonishes a younger student on how to write: “You write your first draft from your heart, and you rewrite with your head. The first key of writing is to write. Not to think.” He doesn't even look at the typewriter as he’s talking, and composing, at once. I try not to put too much pressure on myself, but that’s how I start. I remind myself I could write something brilliant. I have a vague idea of what I want to say and my first description might be weak—it might be awful—but it could be absolutely brilliant.

LD: How often do you write and for how long? What time of day?

KO: I aim for 500 words every day. That could take 10 minutes, or 3 hours, depending on what I’m working on, how the words are flowing that day. If it’s a good day and I have time, I keep going, humming along like a machine. I might only write 50 words for me today, but they’ll be mine and I will love and cherish those words. Or I could get an idea for an entirely new story and write 5000 words.

Once I get into a groove on a project, I could write all day. But I have to get started. If I get up early to write, I end up on Vulture to see what people are saying about Breaking Bad. I work best during the late afternoon, or at night. I think that’s a procrastination-based habit I developed in college, where I would put off whatever it was that I needed or wanted to do until the last minute. My main motivation is, well, “Katrina, you have to finish this draft so you can eat dinner.” or “You have to get this on the page so you can sleep.” And then I think, "Ok, let’s do this."

LD: What writing implement do you wield?

KO: The initial ideas typically arrive on paper and then I develop [them] on my computer because I type faster than I can write by hand. I love the Notes app on my phone. My friends may think I’m texting someone when we’re out, but I’m usually pecking in something funny they said. I also have a bunch of journals and little notepads for scribbling. My old phone died on me a few weeks ago when I was trapped at a rest stop, waiting on AAA. So I pulled out a notepad and started writing about my current predicament. Technology won’t always save you. I teach some writing workshops in Nashville and when the students have a long prompt, or I’m observing, sometimes I’ll write with them for a few minutes. I pulled out a journal the other day and one of my students nudged another one and announced, “She has a journal!” They were in awe; as if teachers can’t have journals. I think they only see other students using them, or believe those tightly bound pages are only for compositions.

LD: How do you decide that you are finished working on a story, essay, or poem? 

KO: Hah, when there’s a deadline. No story is ever finished. Usually when I’m exhausted and just sick of the draft, I’ll walk away. I’ll love it, but it’s as if one of my favorite songs comes on the radio and I turn the station because I need to be on a different wavelength. Once I get everything down on the page, maybe read it over once, I take a break. I work on something else and revisit it in a few days or a week, just to let everything settle. And then I can start the 4th or 5th or 11th draft. I’ll read it and love it, or I’ll know I can fix things, but usually when I’m happy with it, I’m done. I’ll go back and make sure I've accomplished telling the story and making a point about myself or the event and then I just…this is a non-answer, but I just know. Poems are different. Poems and I are still growing on each other. I never know. I’ll show a poem to someone and they’ll make a suggestion and I’ll rewrite the whole thing. It’ll be as if the 1st one never existed. But that’s the point of drafts.

LD: Let’s talk about your writing soundscape. Do you listen to music? Cafe rumblings? White noise? Utter silence? 

KO: I write well in cafes where there’s music that I’m not in charge of, or when it’s silent. If I hear a familiar song, I’ll sing along and get distracted. I’ll think, “I wonder what The Barenaked Ladies are up to?” and start Googling. But so many of my memories are punctuated by songs. I heard Celine Dion the other day. When I was younger, her music, and other light rock and R&B played on the radio on late weeknights in the car with my parents, driving back from my brothers’ basketball games. Suddenly, I’m 11, listening to Boyz II Men in the back of our minivan on a freezing Michigan February night wrapped up in an afghan my mom’s friend sewed for me before I was born. Then, I’m furiously typing, getting that scene on the page before I forget. That’s how it goes.
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