Long gone are the days when artists were supported by wealthy patrons. Today, anyone involved in the creative arts must find a way to follow their bliss somewhere in between the constraints of a full-time job. Add the extra spice of family responsibilities into the mix and very quickly the artist finds herself wishing for a few extra hours in her day or at the very least a time machine. The theme of balance surfaces often in conversations with writers and this month’s interview is no exception. Recently I had the honor to chat with the talented Sandra Guy. She is a full-time writer, acupuncturist and parent. How she manages to juggle all of her jobs demonstrates not only her commitment, but also the fact that living a creative life is a work of art all by itself.
Where did you grow-up and where do you live now?
I was born and grew up in Hong Kong. At the moment I live in Amsterdam. In between I lived in London, Paris and Rome.
You’ve written for all types of audiences. How does your writing process differ as your audience changes?
I’m not sure it’s the audience that dictates the changes in my writing process so much as the type of project I’m working on. My process is generally to find the voice of the project (the narration style or the voice of the main character) and keep that in my head until I feel I can slip into that character’s skin. It’s only then that I start writing. Sometimes I get these moments of lucidity when I’m sitting in front of my computer, which is very convenient. At other times it’s happened on the metro or walking to work – and I’ve had to rummage in my bag and find a piece of paper to scribble the voice down fast because I’ve learned that once a character starts talking, you’ve got to catch it quick, otherwise you lose it. This is as true for my fiction, as it is for my poetry, and non-fiction. I wait to hear the voice first, and once I have that, work out how to use it to tell the story. If the project is fiction, then I spend more time working on plot and character and setting. If it’s non-fiction, then the process is more about finding a way to keep the voice engaging while conveying information in a way that is easy to understand.
In addition to being a successful author, you also work as a licensed acupuncturist. How does your “day job” influence your writing?
I think I mostly use acupuncture as a balance to my writing life as it is a great way to take me out of my head and into the real world. Acupuncture is social because you are working with other people and other people’s problems, it’s intense because you are working one on one and in some ways very precise because the acupuncture points are located in exact places, the needles are small and there are specific techniques to use to achieve certain effects. But it’s also a little like being in a parallel universe where the body’s organs have slightly different functions, the internal weather of a body (we talk about heat, wind and damp) affects health and we work on issues of “qi” which people can’t see or image or even properly define. And I love that quasi-magical side of acupuncture too.
Some of the texts I’ve read concerning the theory of traditional Chinese Medicine are almost 3,000 years old. It’s very interesting to see how similarly and how differently we see the world now. And, of course, the cultural perspective is very different too and that’s always fascinating to think on.
But my study has been packed with stories – case histories, the names of strange herbs, curious political decisions, famous and inspirational doctors. The number of books I’d like to work on whose inspiration has come straight out of my study is huge! I’m currently working on a series of self help books using the secrets of traditional Chinese medicine, and I’m researching a biography I’d like to do about a doctor from the late nineteenth century and a historical piece set during the Chinese cultural revolution.
What are your secrets in balancing your full-time work, family and writing?
Hmm, I’m still trying to work how to balance them! I’ve been told there are ways to find the Flow in time and from there to somehow transcend the limits of it. I haven’t discovered how to do that yet, but I’ll let you know when I do!
I recently abandoned any attempt at timetabling and I’m happy that I did. I’m generally quite structured in my approach to what I have to do, so I thought timetabling would work – you know three hours of acupuncture in the morning, followed by three hours of writing and then going to pick up my son from school etc. But what inevitably happened was that my clients weren’t able to come for their morning appointment the day I’d planned to write in the afternoon, or there was an urgent call out in the middle of my writing time so I’d spend most of it somewhere else.
I think the best trick to time management is to be totally involved with things that you love doing, so you don’t mind what order you do them in. Then it’s a matter of juggling what happens that day which is outside your control with what you’d most like to do as opposed to trying to squeeze something you like doing into a day crammed with things you would rather not have to do at all.
Who are your favorite writers and why?
One of my favorite writers is Jeanette Winterson. She can make language jump off the page at you and she has a wry sense of humor. I also like the storytelling of Susan Price, Melissa Marr, Garth Nix and Cressida Cowell, the sensuality of Francesca Lia Block, and the otherworldliness of Alan Gardner and Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea Quartet.”
My favorite poets are T S Eliot, e e cummings and William Carlos Williams. I also love Japanese haikus and zen koans just for the way they can open your mind to the unexpected with so few words.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Get naked. Open your senses to the world around you. Really learn to see what is in front of you without thinking you already know what you are looking at. Find the new – again and again – in the everyday things of your life. Feel the quality of the breeze that rushes over your face when you step out of your front door, the texture of your t shirt on your skin. Identify the notes of the smells that make up your hall way or the school car park. Hear that “roar on the other side of silence” that George Eliot wrote of and feel the wonder of life pressing forward in an exuberant wish to manifest. One you are connected to that, nothing can stop you writing and the formalities of structure and technique will be easy enough to learn.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a collection of quirky contemporary love stories for teenagers where each story is based on a popular film. The stories are poignant and romantic, but also gritty and self referential, pondering the nature of love alongside the structure of story and the development of character. I think it’s a pretty good device and I’m having fun writing them.
As I mentioned earlier I’m also working on a series of self-help books using the secrets of traditional Chinese medicine for a number of our common complaints in the West.