I thank fellow Northwest Institute of Literary Arts alumna, friend, and talented writer Janet Buttenwieser for inviting me to participate in The Writing Process Blog Tour. You can read her responses to the same questions I answer below at http://janetbuttenwieser.com/2014/03/25/the-writing-process-blog-tour/
Janet Buttenwieser’s nonfiction work has appeared several places, including Potomac Review, Literary Mama, Bellevue Literary Review, and won honorable mention in The Atlantic 2010 Student Writing contest. She has an MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Find excerpts from her memoir-in-progress, GUTS, and her thoughts on the writing life at janetbuttenwieser.com
What am I working on?
I am revising my first novel, THE ROAD TO INDIGO, a cross between The Secret Life of Bees and To Kill a Mockingbird. It is the story of Maybelle Dupree, a Southern Louisiana traiteur, or healer, and Perry Rebecca Landry, an endangered teen-aged outsider, who discover that they are bonded by blood, secrets, and their innate ability to heal maladies. At Maybelle’s Indigo Plantation, they join forces to preserve the disappearing healing traditions of Cajun-Creoles, and they defy the social order of the Civil Rights-era Deep South at their own peril.
I completed the novel in 2013. Recently, I mustered the courage to read it straight through for the first time and made notes in the margins. Working in the solitude and natural beauty of a friend’s house on Lake Quinault, I opened my laptop and the document holding my manuscript. I could see what I needed to do to improve the way the novel unfolds and I set about revising. I’m energized by the momentum building as I find the form that best serves the story.
I also write feature stories and people profiles for the University of Puget Sound magazine, Arches. Occasionally, I’ll write a poem, which I love doing because it’s something I can start and finish in a matter of hours, not years.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
For starters, the novel is very place-specific. It’s set in the Cajun-Creole region of Southern Louisiana, west of New Orleans. Before I determined my setting, I’d already created and come to know my characters. One is Maybelle, a 70-year-old black woman who heals people using spiritual techniques and remedies derived from plants. I wanted an ethnically diverse setting for my 1960s-era story. Sitting in my living room in Tacoma, Washington, one evening looking at maps online I said, “Avery Island, Louisiana.” I’d never been to Louisiana and knew nothing about Avery Island.
Through an ongoing string of providential connections, I learned about traditional healers of the region. They’re called traiteurs, a French word meaning treaters. I decided I had to go to Louisiana to try to talk with a traiteur, that is, if they’d be willing to talk with a stranger about their practices. All I knew is that traiteurs did exactly what my character Maybelle did to heal people. She lived in that region. She had to be a traiteur. So, I travelled to Louisiana for the first time ever in 2011 to learn first hand about the healing practices of Acadiana. Although THE ROAD TO INDIGO is a work of fiction, it’s important to me to represent cultural traditions portrayed through my characters as authentically as possible. I did talk with several traiteurs and natives of the region who enriched the story tremendously. In fact, I threw out several chapters I’d written and started fresh. I’ve also amassed a collection of regional literature and reference materials, including the Dictionary of Louisiana French and Secret Doctors: Ethnomedicine of African Americans by Wonda L. Fontenot.
There are plenty of novels set in Acadiana and even a few novels with characters who are traiteurs, though those are rare and are, to my knowledge, written for young adult audiences. My novel also deals with healing from the standpoint of social justice.
Why do I write what I do?
I love the question even though I wrestle with the answer. I suppose I’ve always been a bit of an outsider with a curiosity about what it means to belong, like my young character Perry. I come from a racially diverse family and have lived in communities where I didn’t speak the language I heard spoken.
I struggled with whether or not THE ROAD TO INDIGO was my story to tell since I’m not of the culture or geographic region. Yet, it is a story that came to me as I sat down to write. With each step I took toward the story, doors opened and so did the story. In speaking with one traiteur who avoided me at first and who most resembles my character Maybelle, she said to me, “You were born with this story in you. Now you just need to sit down and write it.” As life as I knew it crumbled all around me, I sat down and wrote THE ROAD TO INDIGO. I’ll keep writing it until I’m satisfied it is ready to send out into the world.
I write life, including parts of it that can only be intuited and that are often more real than what can be perceived by the five senses. During my lifetime, I’ve been diagnosed with two life-threatening illnesses. I’ve been healthy for seventeen years and counting. I believe that healing takes place in a multitude of ways, including through story itself. That belief has contributed to why I write what I write. I believe that there are stories that want to be told and that they choose the teller.
How does my writing process work?
Process? That’s not a word that flows through my fingers naturally. I’d say “organic” best describes my novel-writing process. I was forced by an adviser to write a chapter-by-chapter outline and synopsis of my novel. Mostly, I let the story itself inform me what’s next. Now that I know the whole shape of it, I have identified certain objectives I want to accomplish. My writing feels more strategic now that I’m revising, making structural shifts, and layering in details. Three novelists have given me feedback on my first draft, which I’m considering as I revise.
If I’m on deadline I go to my upstairs writing room, sit at the fold-down desk, and write on my computer. I wrote early chapters in pencil on large, lined tablets. Somehow using the pencil seemed less serious and let me sneak up on the scenes playing in my head and get them on paper. I wrote this way sitting by a pool in California. I wrote major passages during writing fellowships at the Whiteley Center on San Juan Island. For many months I met a writing partner at my dining room table and wrote Thursday mornings for two hours. I’m reading about three novels at any given time and studying how they’re made. I participate in writers’ conferences and classes. Serving as assistant fiction editor of Soundings literary journal helps me discern what works and why in a story.
How do I get the writing done? It gets done when I sit down and write. I don’t talk about it a lot because it dissipates the energy I could use for writing.
The Writing Process Blog Tour continues next week with the wonderful author and teacher MARGARET GIBSON SIMON. She lives on the Bayou Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana. She’s the author of two books, BLESSEN, a young readers novel, and ILLUMINATE, a book of poetry inspired by drawings by her father, John Gibson. Margaret is passionate about teaching, poetry, family, and dancing with her husband of nearly 30 years. Margaret blogs about life on the bayou at http://reflectionsontheteche.wordpress.com In fact, she wrote a poem in May 2013 titled The Road to Indigo, for Sandra Sarr, which you can hear her read on her blog.
Also blog touring this week is the deeply talented and insightful writer and spiritual teacher TRIA REED. In order to create original written materials for spiritual performances and workshops, Tria left behind her academically trained writing voice. She’s offered one-woman shows (“My Name is Love” and “In the Beginning God Danced”) throughout Western Washington and in Northern and Southern California. Her website (www.spontaneousmeditation.org) showcases her non-fiction writing and several short poems. After years of preparatory research, Tria’s novel, THE WAY OF THE RIVER: A SPIRITUAL ALLEGORY, is well underway.