Ruth Ozeki is a writer who cares deeply about her craft. Part of that sense of care relates to how her novels are strongly and sensitively informed by her concerns—the health of our food supply, the effect of digital technologies on our lives, the quality of our love for other human beings. To give all these concerns a life in her novels, Ozeki applies different writing strategies.
As part of the Word Works: Writers on Writing series on February 23rd, Ozeki will be giving the audience insight into some of her strategies, with a specific focus on how she uses process journals to both organize and experiment with her work as well as provide comfort and inspiration.
In anticipation of her talk, Ozeki gave us some insight by email into how she thinks as a writer, and how she shapes herself and the world into her craft.
Q: Your essays in The Face: A Time Code muse on meditation. How has your work as a Zen Buddhist priest informed your writing?
This question requires either a long complicated answer, or a short one. The short answer is that my Zen practice and my writing practice are the same. They seem to have blended, and I don’t think I could disentangle them, nor would I want to (and I could say that Zen practice has this effect on all aspects of my life, not just writing). The long answer is one that I’d need more space for, and in fact I’m planning to write a work of nonfiction to do just that, as soon as I finish the novel I’m working on now.
Q: In reference to the character Nao in A Tale for the Time Being, you’ve talked about “the character creating the novelist.” Can you explain how a character can help a writer to evolve?
As you can tell, I have a ridiculously codependent relationship with my characters. My existence as a writer is contingent upon their existence as characters, and vice versa. With A Tale for the Time Being, it’s both more complicated and more straightforward. Nao materialized sometime back in 2006, I think it was, when the first line of the book came to me: “Hi, my name is Nao, and I’m a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a minute, I will tell you.” I wrote down the line, and that was the beginning. Nao was addressing me. The character created the novelist, and the novelist went to work. The reason these relationships are more complex in A Tale for the Time Being is that the novelist is also a character in the book.
Character Ruth both is, and is not, me. Character Ruth certainly helped Writer Ruth evolve, and indeed, it took a lot of evolution for Writer Ruth to allow Character Ruth onto the page. For a long time, Writer Ruth resisted the idea of an autobiographical character. The idea felt too self-referential, postmodern, meta-fictional and gimmicky. But in the end, after the  earthquake [in Japan], there were solid reasons why it was important for Character Ruth to step forward, break the seamless world of fiction and participate in the story.
Q: Discussing your novel, All Over Creation you said, “the use of these pronominal shifts and multiple POVs destabilizes the sense of there being a singular ‘author’ running the show, in charge of the fictional world, and I like that ambiguity.” It could be said that the ambiguity could be disorienting for the reader. Is that part of the intended effect?
That comment reflects a power struggle that I had with a character in that particular book. All Over Creation is about the way we humans view our relationship with plants, animals, and offspring, with “nature” if you will, and the power and control we try to assert over nature’s processes, through technologies surrounding birth and death and agriculture. A dominant theme of the book is power, and I thought it would be appropriate for the novel to have an omniscient narrator (a.k.a. “me”). The problem was that one of my characters, Yumi Fuller, had other ideas.
The rest of the characters consented to being written in the third person, as “he” or “she”. Yumi entered the book in the second person, “you”, and before long it became clear that “I” was her preferred pronoun. It was so annoying, because how could she be an “I” and everyone else be a “he” or “she”? And then, to make matters worse, she started edging the omniscient narrator (“me”) out of the book, and before long, she was quite unambiguously running the show. (I don’t think it’s unusual for writers to have power struggles with their characters, especially the characters who most resemble them).
Is this disorienting for the reader? I have no idea. But it was very disorienting for me, as the writer, to be written out of my own book. The truth is, I don’t really worry about the readers’ experience too much, nor do I write with the intention of creating certain effects. The writing process seems more intuitive and less analytical—although afterwards I’m not averse to taking credit for any good effects that might creep in, however unintended.
Q: Parts of your novel A Tale for the Time Being were written while you were on a writer’s retreat on Whidbey Island. What are your most effective methods for your writing process?
Yes! I’d hit a complete impasse with this book in 2009 and was going to give up, when I was invited to do a residency at Hedgebrook, and that’s what jump-started the process again. And then, in 2011, after the earthquake, I went there again and took a workshop with Karen Joy Fowler, and somehow that gave me the courage to dismantle my manuscript, throw about 300 pages away, and start again. Being at Hedgebrook, where the cottages do not have Wifi access, really made me aware of how addicted I was to being online, and how that was interfering with my ability to settle down and go deeply into my writing.>
So now, when I’m writing, I make rules for myself. For example, no checking email or going online before noon. I like to write in the mornings, and I find that a regular routine and a slightly boring lifestyle is best. I keep a process journal, which is a technique I hope to talk about and share at Hugo House, and which helps track my ideas and thoughts about whatever project I’m working on. And of course my meditation practice is invaluable, too. It helps me settle in, drop back down into my body, and relax into a more expansive mind, which is a good place to be for writing.