Writer’s Toolbox

Author Q&A

Here we present our exclusive collection of Q&As with a long list of illustrious authors.

Brian Leung

Brian LeungBrian Leung is the author of the novels Take Me Home and Lost Men.

What is your method for overcoming writer’s block?

First, I don't believe in it. Writer's block falls under the category of unicorns, leprechauns, and Ke$ha's talent. What we mean when we claim writers block is that we've reached a point where we can't write the thing we want to write, that poetry and prose the world must have. What we don't admit is that while the momentum for our great "Project X" has stalled and seems impossible to restart, we can, at any moment write something. Here's a thirty second exercise to complete before reading the rest of my answer to the question.

Respond to the prompt with a complete sentence or sentences. Remember, just 30 seconds: Why does the blue cat prefer rubies to diamonds and where does she get them?

Finished? You have never, in your writing life, thought about blue cats and rubies and how said cat acquires them. Now you have, and even if it's gibberish, you wrote. You have proven to yourself that at any given moment, you can write something. Trust me, I'm getting around to writing the thing you want, that "Project X" that some mysterious force has blocked you from completing. The point is that writer's block is something the writer manufactures, it is a false reality, because there is no reason one can't write. This is often generated for a number of reasons, including fear of completing a project only discover the entire enterprise was a waste of time, not wanting to admit the project isn't worth pursuing, and perhaps most importantly, insisting on "productivity." Most of the writers I know need time for their ideas to percolate. The reader of your work will experience instant gratification (hopefully!) but for you to create experience may reasonably require you to walk away from the work to let your mind problem solve. You call it writer's block. I call it a chance to work on something else, or just to play with language. Pick up the work of a current favorite author, find a cherished paragraph or stanza or scene in an act, and write between the lines. In stretches of dialog make the characters say what you wish had been written. Change the line breaks and/or images. Write brief imitations. If the project you claim you are blocked from writing is worth returning to, you will. Your writer's mind will tell you when it's time. It will thank you for these excursions outside its boundaries. Remember how easy it is for relationships to sour when the pair of you spend 24 hours a day together, seven days a week. I'm suggesting here it's healthy to cheat on your own writing, though I caution it's probably not a good idea to transfer that philosophy to your sweetie.

I'm sympathetic to wanting to get "done" but forced work shows itself, and anyway, ninety-nine percent of the time nobody is waiting for our work, which is why the Chupacabra, Bigfoot, and Writer's Block have so much time to play cards. If it's any comfort, all writers stall. I'm stalled on my current novel even as I write this. But that's the point. I'm writing this!

What are your favorite or most helpful writing prompts?

I'm one of those writers whose writing prompts come from the world unbidden--more on that in a minute.  What I'm about to first write is going to be shocking: a writer's most essential prompts should be the work of other contemporary writers. We writers want readers. Readers support our further work. Conversely, we must be readers supporting other writers. In doing that, of course, we experience poetry and prose in conversation with our own work. These are prompts. So, how many literary magazines do you subscribe to? How many books did you check out from the library in the past year? How many books of quality writing did you purchase and read in the past year? As mentioned above, these all might be diversions during your "writer's block."

To return to that first thought; I'm less interested in formal writing prompts than I am in what flies at me from the world around me, and so I'm in a paradox in responding to this question. The minute I respond to this I'm turning what I do organically into something I'm suggesting to you formally. For me there's nothing better than just randomly finding something like a notice in a Laundromat advertising "Dog Portraiture." That became a major character detail in a fiction project I completed. Who does that, I asked myself? Who responds to such an notice? I enjoy listening to the world as much as to people. You know, there are exactly fifty-one ways to describe the sound of wind rushing through a full grown maple. Nearly half of those are in winter when the tree is leafless. I'm sorry, there are fifty-two, but you haven't written that one yet. I once watched a yellow iris in my back yard for fifteen minutes on a semi-cloudy day. As the sun blinked in and out of the clouds, and the iris swayed, the quality of the iris changed every few seconds. I thought, how can I possibly get "yellow iris" correct in anything I write?! So I tried. Now, of course, I'm waiting for that piece of writing that requires a yellow iris. Challenges from friends who think I'm not writing "Chinese" enough or "Gay" enough are always fun. "All the Presidents, Men" was a short short that came out of such a challenge. So, cherish friends skeptical of your themes and of your being.

Here's the catch. The above seems easy. Just listen and look around, right? It's more than that, however. The writer has to allow oneself to be vulnerable to such pleasant intrusions/challenges. Most of us aren't. I wrote a story in my first collection called "Six Ways to Jump Off a Bridge," because I "heard" myself absently wonder about the subject as I was walking across a bridge in China. And one more shocking thing, none of this is possible if you insist on keeping earbuds in your ears and your eyes on screen of your phone. If you are supplying a soundtrack to your life via an Ipod, you are missing the soundtrack the world supplies naturally. Your work will reflect that loss. If you are more concerned with the Angry Birds on your phone than the angry sparrows in the shrubbery. . . .

What is the most valuable advice you received as a young writer?

Care about the content and form of the work. Care.

In my younger writing life, say from eighteen to twenty-two, I wanted only to entertain, which isn't a terrible ambition, but I observed what pleased people, which like much popular humor, was derivative and overly-designed, and I wrote for that undemanding audience. Then I was in an undergraduate workshop with the wonderful California writer, Kate Braverman, who ran a very cut-to-the-chase, take-no-prisoners class. I wrote some clearly "successful" piece for workshop, one that had my peers laughing out loud, and earned their praise. Kate leveled it, dismissed it. I was so angry that I went home that night, opened one of her books, and wrote an imitation of her style using my own fictional idea. The next class, just as workshop was about to start, I interrupted with a complaint that after my workshop I wasn't sure what she wanted. I said I wanted her to hear something, and I read my imitation. I was clearly angry as I read what was unmistakably a take on her literary voice. "Is that what you want?" I shot at her when I was done. The entire class was dead silent as Kate paused and looked at me calmly. "Yes," she said, and then class moved on. She didn't have to explain. It was a rare moment of absolute clarity for me. That "yes" didn't mean she wanted me to write like her. She wanted me to be angry, to have some attitude, to care. Of course, the work itself didn't have to express anger and attitude, but to this day I do my best work when I feel like I'm fighting for something, which usually means, as much as the content, the quality of the sentences. If I'm working on something, and I find I don't truly care about any part of it, I move on to something else. Maybe that brings us back to question 1.