Vanessa R. Sasson: “The second thing you need to know is that you are not writing for yourself”

The first thing you need to know to become a writer is this: a writer must write. — Whether you have a mental block or not, whether you know where the story is going or you are completely lost with your character in the woods, writers must write. Sometimes writing is spontaneous and inspired, pouring out of […]

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The first thing you need to know to become a writer is this: a writer must write. — Whether you have a mental block or not, whether you know where the story is going or you are completely lost with your character in the woods, writers must write. Sometimes writing is spontaneous and inspired, pouring out of our fingers without a hint of resistance. But most of the time, writing is a painstaking process. It is about writing, editing, deleting, and then writing again. Day after day. It is work and it requires discipline. Good writing is learned and practiced.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vanessa R. Sasson.

Vanessa R. Sasson is a professor of Religious Studies at Marianopolis College. She is a Research Fellow at the University of the Free State in South Africa and a Research Member of CERIAS at UQAM. Sasson is the author and editor of several academic books, most notably a collection entitled Little Buddhas: Children and Childhood in Buddhist Texts and Traditions (Oxford University Press, 2013). Her most recent academic book, scheduled to appear in the Fall of 2021, is an edited volume entitled Jewels, Jewelry, and Other Shiny Things in the Buddhist Imaginary (University of Hawaii Press). Yasodhara and the Buddha is her first novel. The sequel is underway.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I have been a scholar for a long time. Sometimes it feels like I have been doing scholarship forever. But a few years ago, after completing a major academic project, I remember wondering to myself, “is this all I know how to do?”

The question did not arise out of a place of disappointment. It is a great privilege to live the academic life (and even more so, to thrive in it). But academic writing can become a bit predictable. There is a process that is instilled in you from the very first day of graduate school, and you spend the rest of your career trying to master it. It is an elegant, time-honored practice of inquiry. But after twenty years, I wondered if the process had not become stale. I was following the same rules I had been following for decades. Looking at material from the same vantage point. I had grown too accustomed to my craft.

And then one morning, as I was researching stories about Yasodhara, the wife of the one who became the Buddha, the question came right out and challenged me: “are you really going to write the same way again? Is this all you know how to do?”

The story of the Buddha’s wife is a devastating, beautiful, romantic story. And yet few people seem to even know that she was there. The most common reaction I’ve received about this book is, “the Buddha had a wife?!” But he did, and he left her the day she gave birth to go on his quest to become the Buddha.

Her story has haunted me for years. But that morning, as I poured over ancient texts that told her story, and I heard the challenge taunting me at the same time, I suddenly knew what I had to do: it was time to write my research in a new way. I decided to tell the story of Yasodhara as a novel, and not as an academic study. I wanted to get to know Yasodhara, feel her loss, experience her story fully. I began writing Yasodhara and the Buddha, and nothing has been the same since.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I was in Sri Lanka doing field work.

I was walking down the street in a small town. An elephant was blocking my path. So I had to decide if I was going to go around him on the side of the traffic (where death seemed an inevitable outcome given a complete lack of traffic regulations) or pass him on the sidewalk, with buildings on the other side.

I decided to go for the sidewalk. It would be a bit tight, but elephants seemed so tame in Sri Lanka. They were everywhere. What could possibly go wrong?

I picked up the pace and was about to pass him, but when I was just by his head, I could not help myself. Curiosity begged me to slow down and take a closer look. After all, how often does one come face to face (or profile to profile?) with an elephant? So I slowed and I stared.

The elephant was unpleased. His big eye turned around and looked straight at me. And then he flicked his head and tossed me like an unwanted insect. I went flying through the air and landed flat against the building on the other side. With a splat. My knee went in first and swelled up like a melon.

The worst of it was that I had swatted a wasp the night before. Slapped it to its death with the bottom of my shoe. Instant karma apparently. I swatted an insect and the elephant swatted me.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

Self-doubt was the single most important challenge I wrestled with as I began the process of creative writing. As I mentioned above, I have been writing as a scholar for a long time — more than twenty years. It was not easy to lift myself out of such a comfortable seat after such a long time. I wanted to write fiction desperately, but to actually do it was a different reality altogether.

Self-doubt does not barrel at us from just one direction. It can attack from many sides all at once. There are doubts about skills. Doubt about worth. And doubt about what will happen to us, to our careers, our friendships, our interests if we actually pull the experiment off. No matter where I looked, I found myself assaulted by doubt. I wish I could claim I was more self-assured, but I wasn’t.

But I eventually realized that, no matter how strong self-doubt might be, no matter how loud those panicked voices get, they can not be permitted to take over. Eventually, we must cast the doubt aside, silence the voices, and move on. Otherwise, we risk never moving at all.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One day, I visited my parents and proudly announced that I had started writing a novel. My mother was surprised. Fiction was not something I had ever expressed interest in. She then asked me a question.

“You mean, you’re writing dialogue?”

I blanched. Dialogue?! I slapped my forehead. I had completely forgotten that in a novel, characters actually speak!

I went home, deleted everything, and started again.

The goal of scholarship is try to understand a particular phenomenon. We stand outside, jot down notes, assess, and analyze. But with fiction, one must climb inside. We must become the characters, the voices, the story we are trying to tell. We place ourselves inside and try to look out. This was the biggest shift I realized I had to make if I was ever going to succeed in writing creatively. It is a shift I find myself contemplating still.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am currently working on the sequel to Yasodhara and the Buddha, and I must admit that I am very excited about it. Yasodhara is abandoned by the one who will eventually become the Buddha. They had been married for lifetimes, but in their final story together, he leaves her the day she gives birth. She is left behind, while he moves on and becomes the spectacular hero of the tradition.

But years later (spoiler alert), after her son has left her too, she finally decides to make the same journey and leaves the palace in the hopes of finding her own answers to suffering. Joined by a community of other women, Yasodhara follows the Buddha (her once husband) into the forest to ask him for permission to ordain. She is like so many women before her, and so many women still today, who find themselves having to ask the patriarchal gate-keepers to be let in. And as with so many stories about such requests, the response she receives is… well it is not quite as welcoming or inclusive as she might have hoped. This is the story I am writing now and it is not easy. But I love that I am writing it.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Buddhist storytelling is not one-dimensional. A Buddha’s actions affect every corner of the imagined ten-thousand worlds. Gods and serpent deities abound, flowers fall from the sky, the earth trembles in anticipation of the Buddha’s every move. But all too often, the Buddhist story is simplified and secularized, and all of this marvelous magic is scrubbed away.

So in this book, Yasodhara and the Buddha, I tried to bring back some of the magic the early storytellers invoked. I included the familiar gods and I welcomed celestial flowers, but I also created an image of my own: a tree that holds the future Buddha in her arms, and cries with tears of falling leaves when he decides it is time to go.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Yasodhara and the Buddha is a story about love and loss. The Buddha is hailed by the tradition as a great man who walked away from a palace filled with gold to become a monk in the forest. But what we forget is that he walked away from so much more than that. He also walked away from his wife and newborn son. He walked away from relationships, responsibilities, royal commitments. And he broke everyone’s heart in the process.

Yasodhara was devastated by his departure. One classical text after another relays the heartbreak she felt when she discovered that he was gone. Her story is familiar to all of us when we find ourselves forced to contend with conditions we do not want. When life takes us elsewhere and we are dragged kicking and screaming. Yasodhara does not accept his departure with dignified calm. She wails with grief. She throws her dishes against the wall. She is devastated by her new reality.

But she survives. Because most of the time, we do. She is resilient and she is strong, and she finds her way through. We all get our hearts broken, but most of the time, we do not remain broken. We stitch ourselves back up, a new set of scars glinting against the light, and move on.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

  • The first thing you need to know to become a writer is this: a writer must write. Whether you have a mental block or not, whether you know where the story is going or you are completely lost with your character in the woods, writers must write. Sometimes writing is spontaneous and inspired, pouring out of our fingers without a hint of resistance. But most of the time, writing is a painstaking process. It is about writing, editing, deleting, and then writing again. Day after day. It is work and it requires discipline. Good writing is learned and practiced.
  • The second thing you need to know is that you are not writing for yourself. You are writing because you need to write (that part is for you), because you have something inside you that must come out. But you are writing for an audience. And that makes all the difference. When I completed my first draft of Yasodhara and the Buddha, I sent it off to the editor expecting magnanimous praise. She read it carefully and then suggested we book a time to talk. I had a sinking feeling that the praise would not be forthcoming. When we met, she told me something that I will never forget: she told me that I wrote the book because for myself. But what was required now was that I rewrite it for an audience. Writing, I learned, is not about venting. It is a craft and it is carefully constructed. We write because we have to, but the final product is not for us. It is much more other-centered than that.
  • One of the hardest things to accept about writing (and this is the third thing you need to know) is that you can’t keep all of it. You must practice non-attachment (to use Buddhist language). Just as we cannot voice every thought we think (nor indeed should we), we cannot also keep every sentence we write. Some of it works, but most of it doesn’t, and we have to prepared to let those pieces go.
  • The fourth thing you need to know if you want to become a writer is that, once you’ve written your book — once you’ve edited, deleted, constructed, and restructured it — you are only half-way done. The next part of the project is to sell it. And that is a whole other conversation, for another time.
  • The last thing you need to know if you want to become a writer is this: your life when you are not writing also matters. As writers, we all enjoy the quiet of intellectual retreat. We like to burrow into our own worlds and create new worlds from there. But a quiet life is not the same thing as isolation. To be isolated is to become lonely and lost. A writer’s life, by contrast, is one that is steeped in connection. It is a life that pays attention to the lived experience, to its loves and losses, its aspirations and its tragedies, and appreciates the rich detail of it all. The writer’s life may be quiet at times, but it is also vibrantly alive. As writers, we must remember to smell the flowers. Because no matter how good we get at our craft, the imagined flower will never be as sweet.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

A writer has to write, because writing is a craft that is practiced. It is one of the few crafts that is served well by age — and not diminished by it. Writing only gets better with time.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

Truth to be told, I draw inspiration from everything. I read academic material, journalist reports, scientific studies. I read fantasy, historical fiction, murder mysteries, romance. The back of ketchup bottles. Basically, I read everything I can read, when I can read, and I learn from all of it (ketchup has a lot of sugar).

I am an education enthusiast. Learning can happen anywhere and at any time. I think of every experience, every interaction and conversation as rife with possibility. My son tells me that this sounds cheesy, and I am certain he is right, but it remains my answer all the same.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would want people to stop and smell the flowers. To take a day off for the cherry blossoms in spring. To visit the botanical gardens when the butterflies have hatched and spend a day marvelling at their ephemeral beauty.

Pandemic has been traumatic. Devastating, unrelenting, sad. We have been hurt in so many ways. Some of us will not recover. But for those of us who might, I am sure of one thing: that we will have learned that it is important to take a moment to breathe.

We were moving so fast before this happened. On a high speed chase every second of our lives. It was insane. Productivity to an impossible degree. And none of it meant anything. We were just running, because we figured that if we were busy, we mattered.

But with pandemic, many of us received a bit of much needed time. Front line workers have not, parents of small children either, but for many of us… we were forced to slow down. We remembered (or perhaps we learned for the very first time) how important it is to take time, to enjoy it, to marvel at the natural world. To marvel at each other.

So if I were to start a movement, it would be to continue what so many of us have already begun: I would urge everyone to stop and marvel. To remember that the little things matter. To love fiercely and forgive quickly, because in the end, nothing else counts.

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