Sunday, February 20, 2011

One Writer’s Process: Sarah Jamila Stevenson

In high school Sarah Jamila Stevenson wrote lots of poetry but never planned on becoming a writer.

“I was pretty sure I'd be an illustrator,” she says, “or maybe an art therapist.”

Her premonition about her future turned out to be true in ways that she never expected. She did become an artist and graphic designer, but she also continued writing, attempting her first novel at seventeen (“a cyberpunk retelling of the story of the Nutcracker...not exactly a winner”).

It took years before the manuscript that she’d been sending out to agents and editors was accepted by her editor at Flux. Since the publication of The Latte Rebellion, she’s received praise from reviewers at publications like Kirkus Reviews describing her YA novel as “a realistic mess of vague hopes, serendipitous events, serious missteps and gutsy choices—compellingly original."

About those years, Stevenson says, “I sent my work out. I got rejected. Again. And again. And again. I revised my work some more. I wrote new things and sent them out. I got rejected some more. Until one day . . . somebody said yes. The whole ‘breaking in’ thing is still kind of mystifying to me.”

For each story or novel that she embarks on, Stevenson says, “the creative process has been a little different, and so have the demands of each project—whether that’s full-steam-ahead scribbling or recurring periods of down time. (I really should have known this. It's certainly been true for my visual artwork.) I've learned I have to pay close attention to what each project needs.”

Even though she’s published a well-received first novel, she’s discovered that success hasn’t made it any easier to understand the writing process or, for that matter, the book-making process. “Somehow I thought that publishing a book would mean I'd henceforth ‘know how it's all done,’" she says. “But guess what? I'm still the same person, and there's still a ton of stuff I don't know. Go figure.”

Stevenson lives in Northern California with her husband, who is also an artist, and two cats. She was kind enough to take some time from her many projects to share thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like do you get into the water each day?

Stevenson: Writing is a lot like swimming. The only way to get better at doing it—the only real way to get going—is to just do it. Sometimes it's tough to get started—my own mind wants to sabotage me in a variety of ways. I'm too tired. The water's too cold. I can't think of any good ideas. My mind's not warmed up. I should be doing something else pressing from my to-do list.

I'm able to get started when I can remind myself that those mental complaints are usually either illusory or ultimately unimportant compared to what I want to do, which is write. I start writing when I put my Butt In Chair (B.I.C.!) and put some words on the page. Once I've started, it may be easy, or it may be a tough slog, but I'm always glad I've done it. (Not unlike swimming, or any other exercise...)

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

Stevenson: Short work is a challenge for me. I have to almost completely isolate myself mentally from anything anybody else may be writing or may have ever written in the history of literature in order to feel comfortable writing a short piece. I think I'm very insecure when it comes to my short fiction, and I don't know if it's because that's what I did a lot of in graduate school, or if it's because I feel inadequate in the face of the short fiction literary canon, or because I'm insecure about my writing in general. It always makes me feel like I'm drowning...until that moment in which, for some reason, I get an amazing idea for a short story and it just flows.

I think I'm a little more comfortable nestling myself into a longer work. Though I've certainly had a few novel-length pieces I've had to abandon, temporarily or permanently, my completion rate for novel drafts is pretty high. The challenge lies in remaining engaged, staying in love with the piece through thick and thin—or at least, if not staying in love, remaining open to reconciliation later if things aren't working out right now. Sometimes staying afloat means taking a break for a while. Other times...there's just a special something that keeps me going on a piece for a very long time. I can't put my finger on what it is, though...maybe I'll figure it out someday.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Stevenson: There are times when I feel like it's important to force myself to work through a dry spell. I'll try different sneak attacks to break through the barrier: brainstorming, working on a different project or starting a new one. But usually, I turn to another creative outlet. Working on my visual art is sometimes just the break I need, allowing me to regenerate and revitalize my creativity in a different way and giving me a new perspective on whatever challenge I'm facing.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Stevenson: Like exercise, with writing, there are times when I just don't want to do it. I'm not mentally engaged, I'm tired, and I don't foresee a productive or positive outcome. I doubt my reasons for even doing it in the first place and wonder if I should be doing something else with my time. When it comes to exercise, my husband always tells me those are some of the most important times to get moving—and not only that, exercising despite those feelings are what makes a person truly athletic. I like to think that that translates to writing—that I write even when I don't necessarily feel like it because it's my vocation, it's what I do.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Stevenson: Writing, like swimming, is one of those endeavors that is, at heart, solitary. Nevertheless, I take a lot of comfort in the fact that I'm not alone in pursuing this solitary endeavor! Knowing that I have company in my writing friends, both in person and online, and knowing that I'm not alone in facing the types of problems that a writer faces, helps me along during difficult times. It really means the world to me to have a wonderful and supportive writing group to come to with my questions and doubts. So does reading about how others have overcome their own obstacles, either on blog posts or in one-on-one conversation. It reminds me that problems don't last forever and will eventually come to an end.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Stevenson: When I hit that rhythm, the one where everything seems effortlessly coordinated and free of resistance, where my mind is able to focus at the task at hand and I can see what's coming ahead and know what's already behind me...then I know that this is what I'm meant to be doing.

For more about The Latte Rebellion, check out:

For more info about Stevenson, visit her website:

If you’d like to read her blog posts, check out:

And for more interviews with her, take a look at:


aquafortis said...

Thanks so much, Bruce, for inviting me to do this post and for posing such thoughtful questions about the writing process! This has been one of my favorite interviews.

Bruce Black said...

My pleasure, Sarah. Your insights into the writing process offer inspiration to us all. Many thanks.