Feature Writer Interview: Journeying with Madhu Bazaz Wangu
For 20 years Madhu taught Hindu and Buddhist art history at the University of Pittsburgh, Rhode Island College and Wheaton College, Massachusetts. Today she teaches writers from novice to professional to meditate, collaborate, and improve their work.
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JLB – Greetings Madhu, and thank you for joining us at Brainripples for an interview. I’ve been interested in your work since we first met through Pennwriters, and I’m thrilled for the chance learn more about you now that I’ve read The Immigrant Wife: Her Spiritual Journey. Your credentials are vast—artist, author, scholar, teacher, traveler—tell me a bit about your creative origins. What were your first media as a child? What attracted you to spiritual and historical investigation?
MBW – Thank you for inviting me!
From my early teenage years my father, a humanist, encouraged me in my attempts to paint and write. My mother, a compassionate and generous woman, enjoyed art and was not particularly religious. A voracious reader, my father took me to library every month to borrow eight books, maximum allowed. We regularly went to art exhibitions, watched theatre and attended musical recitals.
I graduated in Painting and for my Masters studied Art History and Criticism. I was more interested in why and what than how of art. Whereas the academic requirements emphasized cultural context and formal analysis of art, I was interested in its content. Both Indian as well as European art history were replete with religious subject matters. I had not read scriptures so did not know much about religions except by cultural osmosis. Before I could fully appreciate historical works of art I needed to know Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Christian myths, symbols and rituals. Thus began my quest for knowledge of the world religions. I had no concept of spirituality at this stage.
JLB – Tell me a bit about your Mindful Writers Groups. How do these groups work? What kinds of writers typically participate?
MBW – Fast forward to 2010. I had been meditating for twenty years. The practice of mindful meditation honed my focus and motivated me as a writer. After a meditation session my writing flow was always smooth, my concentration sharp, intuitive ideas and insights related to my work floated up into my mind more often. This was magical! The days I did not meditate I found my creative flow blocked and my focus diminished. I wanted to share this experience with as many fellow writers as I could.
So I wrote four meditations and recorded them in a CD, Meditations for Mindful Writers: Body, Heart, Mind. Master meditators consider body as the basic portal that yokes us to the creative and spiritual source within. Listening to the CD as you sit still and breathe connects you to the body and eventually your creative self, normally dormant within each one of us.
For the first meeting of the Mindful Writers Group I booked a room at Eat’n Park in Wexford, (North of Pittsburgh, PA) and posted an invitation in Pennwriters newsletter. Five writers showed interest. I recited the body meditation for fifteen minutes (the CD had not been made yet), wrote in our journals for fifteen minutes and wrote for two hours. Now the writing time has been extended to four hours but we use different meditations from the same CD. The writers’ experience ranged from being a novice to professional.
The Wexford group is thriving under Lori Jones‘ leadership. Now we have twenty members and a waiting list. Last year I started another Mindful Writers Group at Waterworks Mall, (East of Pittsburgh, PA). Currently the group has thirteen members.
My second CD, Meditations for Mindful Writers II: Sensations, Feelings, Thoughts is forthcoming.
I am also planning a Mindful Writers Group via Skype for January 2018. To get on the waiting list simply email me at: madhu.wangu [at] me.com
Each year, the Mindful Writers Group meets at two retreats organized by Kathleen Shoop and Larry Schardt. Productive, serene and filled with warmth of fellowship of creative minds, they are the most magical retreats I’ve ever attended.
JLB – What have you learned from holding these workshops? Want to share any tips for success for workshop organizers?
MBW – I learnt when writers meditate and write together the atmosphere turns ethereal. Everyone is so focused within, pouring out feelings and thoughts in words that the creative energy emanates from their presence. The energy fills the room.
I learnt that there is dearth of opportunities for writers to write together. Writers spend most of their lives in isolation. They crave for such opportunities. Meditating together not only sharpens focus but also enhances camaraderie.
To start a similar workshop. You need a group of writers who are genuinely interested in improving their writing skills and enriching their lives. Once or twice a week meditate, journal and write together. You’ll get addicted to this meditation practice.
JLB – I’ve wanted to read your books for years, but it was finally The Immigrant Wife—your most recent work—that I picked up first. I enjoyed how your book covers the evolutions of womanhood, artisthood, marriage and parenthood, affirms the experiences of family, world travel and immigration, all while educating readers in history, culture, spirituality, and religion. Can you tell me about some of the inspirational roots of this story? How much of Shanti’s travels are based on places you’ve visited?
MBW – Thank you for reading, The Immigrant Wife! It is my debut novel and rooted in my life as an artist, art history professor, my travels around the world and my love of nature and cooking. Shanti’s world voyage is based on my travels to Bahamas, Venezuela, South Africa, Kenya, India, China, Japan and Philippines.
JLB – Your main character Shanti explores her artistic craft and instinct with a variety of media throughout her life, especially painting. I like how your prose paints scenes and moods with careful brush strokes, as portraits crafted to evoke each of the reader’s senses. Can you talk a bit about your methods as a wordsmith and visual artist?
MBW – Before I learned to write professionally I was an artist. Most of my oil paintings were landscapes and portraits. I used models for portraits and sketched outdoors when a landscape touched my heart/mind. Then I painted the landscape at home. In either case each painting told a story. I have had several one-person shows. As a professional writer I craved something deeper. I did not know why. In 1981 when I got an opportunity to study I decided to do my doctorate in Phenomenology of Religion. I immersed myself in the study of world religions with emphasis on the why of the field. For writing books about history of religions my emphasis was on thorough research and methodology.
For fiction, I don’t start writing until a topic hits me hard. When it does I absorb it and mull over it for months if not years. When I feel an inner urge to write it down I pour out my heart in words, spontaneously and uncensored. One of the best ways to do this is to join NaNoWriMo. At this website I wrote the first drafts of three novels during three different years.
I read and revise the first draft until it feels ready for a concept editor. I rewrite parts of the draft and revise based on her recommendations. Then is the time to give the draft to read to a trusted writer friend or someone who reads a lot. In my case that person is my husband, a voracious reader. I incorporate his suggestions and mail copies of the next draft to my first circle of readers. They are my writer friends whom I trust. Their suggestions incite new ideas and help me dig deeper to improve narration, characters, settings and dialogue. After yet another revision (fourth or fifth by now), I ready the draft for the line editor. Based on line editor’s comments I read and revise my novel as if it was someone else’s work. The final draft is ready. It goes to a proof-reader. And the writing stage of the book is done.
JLB – I understand you wrote and edited this book over several years. How did you approach the initial drafts – on a steady schedule, or in chunks as your time allowed? Did you map out the whole story first, or did you let Shanti take you where she wanted to go?
MBW –The Immigrant Wife started as a novella and remained in my desk drawer for years. During one hundred days of my travel around the world I kept a journal. The journal started as the record of my thoughts, feelings and observations about the countries and their people. Slowly my written observations turned deeper. I was enticed, forced to look deep inside myself. I was not aware of this at that time and only realized it when I reread the journal.
My husband suggested that I combine the novella and the journal and turn it into a novel. And voilà the first draft of The Immigrant Wife was born! Some parts were deliberately written but many others parts wrote themselves, surprising even me.
MBW – Word of mouth is the best way to learn about agents and editors in your genre. Of course, editor/agent guides are good too. I tried out several editors before building up relationships with the ones that I felt comfortable with. Some of my editors are the ones who I started working with Chance Meetings, my first collection of stories.
JLB – Shanti’s husband Satyavan is both a tormented and tormenting character. What were your greatest challenges in writing this character?
MBW – In my novella Satyavan was an average male chauvinist. He behaved with Shanti the way I have observed many men behave with their wives without even realizing it. But I had to give him a nerve-racking reason to be the way he was. So I gave him a cause to torment about. With his pain-body he was bound to torment his wife as well. A news item about an infant abandoned at a junk-pile in Chennai, India gave me the idea of the cause.
JLB – Shanti’s strength and intuition often waiver in very human ways. What were your challenges in bringing Shanti’s noble spirit down to earth, to make her relatable and flawed like the rest of us?
MBW – Great question! In several earlier drafts Shanti was too good to be true. She seemed flawless and thus irritating. While revising several drafts I either rewrote some of the parts about her know-all attitude, universalized some others making her wise instead, and deleted a few parts. That added to be about thirty pages. And it worked.
JLB – Would you tell us about your experiences in publishing? What were some of your top challenges? Top successes? What are your preferences today when it comes to self-publishing or indie publishing?
MBW – My non-fiction books were traditionally published. Having finalized the manuscript of The Immigrant Wife: Her Spiritual Journey I mailed sixty plus queries. I received forty form rejections, some gentle rejections and five replies with suggestions that I actually used. Yet, the rejections had dispirited me. I kept the manuscript in my desk drawer and decided to write my next book.
A good friend, Kathleen Shoop, an award winning best-selling author, had read my fiction. Even before I had sent out query letters to agents she had asked me to self-publish. After hearing about the rejection letters she coaxed me to self-publish. She said it was my responsibility as a writer to reach my readers. I was persuaded. And here it is!
JLB – I understand you recently visited China and Tibet. Would you tell us about your trip? What was the most delicious part of this trip? What was your favorite new learning?
MBW – Like all the previous trips our recent trip to China and Tibet taught me that when you leave home and travel mindfully in an unknown land it is also a journey within. More I expand my outer experiences more I seem to broaden and nourish my Self.
In China and Tibet the first thing that struck us was the juxtaposition of modernity with tradition. High rise buildings contrasted with historic sites. We visited Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Chengdu Panda Park and Warrior Tomb Museum and met people on the way. We realized how much better world would be if it was possible for all of us to personally be in a country and meet its people.
In Tibet, we saw Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace and Buddhist monasteries on Lhasa’s high mountain peaks. We marveled at their architecture and beauty and we shopped at old Lhasa market. A feeling of warmth still envelops me as I write this.
JLB – What are some of your favorite places that you’ve visited around the world? What places are on your wish list for future travels?
MBW – Within US, Alaska—paradise on earth; outside US the choice is difficult. Each country has its unique beauty; if seen from the heart’s eye every culture is a fantastic adventure. My favorite tends to be the most recent country I have visited. This year we plan to go to the Caribbean islands in Spring and Japan in Fall.
JLB – Can you tell us about any of your upcoming work? What themes and questions most attract you at the moment?
MBW – The manuscript of my second novel, The Last Suttee is currently with my writer friends. Suttee is an ancient Indian ritual in which a widow self-immolates on her dead husband’s burning pyre. The ritual was banned a century ego and declared criminal act since 1987 but in some remote villages it is still glorified.
One such suttee ritual took place in 1987 that unsettled my mind and heart. That year I decided to write a book about the unfortunate event. Only recently was I able to actualize that event in the novel. Kumud, the protagonist of the novel witnesses a suttee as a nine-year old. It’s memory torments and haunts her until she gets an opportunity to save a sixteen-year-old, whose husband is on his death bed. She wants to commit suttee. But it becomes Kumud’s quest to save the girl from herself.
JLB – Before I let you go, my favorite last question: what words of wisdom can you share for authors and artists who want to create polished, passionate work?
MBW – What topic do you feel passionate about? How do you feel in your body when you think about the topic? Spontaneously and freely write about it. Don’t worry about grammar, sentence structure or words. Just pour your heart out. Then read it. You’ll find many burning coals under the heap of your words. They will keep your passion warm, help you keep going. Make an outline of a story or an essay using those pieces. Reread it. Revise it. Rewrite a sentence, choose a better word, revise dialogue if these do not feel right. Story characters will begin speaking to you.
If you get stuck go for a walk in nature, meditate or do a repetitive task such as knitting, gardening, cooking. Individualized tools that help you hone your craft will surface. They are dormant inside you.
Think with your whole self, body, heart and mind, not just with your head. Your whole self thinks better than your brain alone.
Madhu, thank you again for kicking off our New Year at Brainripples and telling us about yourself, your journeys, and your methods.
Images appearing in this article are used by permission of Madhu Bazaz Wangu. Do not reproduce without permission of the artist.