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.
It is with tremendous pleasure that I bring you the latest in our Brainripples interview series, where we glimpse the work, wisdom, and process of poets and writers, artists and designers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and other amazing people I’ve had the pleasure to meet.
JB – Greetings Jacob, and thank you for joining us at Brainripples for an interview. I’ve enjoyed watching your work grow since our introduction through The Evergreen State College alumni association. First things first: when did you begin writing? Did you start with poetry?
JS – Like many people, I started writing in elementary school. I have memories of writing essays throughout public education. In high school, I took a creative writing class where I wrote my first real poem, in memory of Dr. Seuss. I used his rhyme technique to write my first poem titled “Green Paper with Black Ink on Top.” It is a poem about greed, and how money is important, but reminds us that there are some things that money can’t buy. The last part of the poem is:
Money is fine and needed today. Green paper with black ink on top is ok. But to see it take over the people of Shoombay tells me that greed is in the way. In the way of an embracing gathering of life. Don’t let money get in the way, or you might pay a price.
JB – How about Evergreen? What made you decide to be a Geoduck? How did your Evergreen experience enhance your writing?
JS – I went to Evergreen because of 3 things: (1) Location (it was close enough to my hometown, where I worked during the summers), (2) Price (it was less expensive than a big university), and (3) their unique, interdisciplinary philosophy. I liked how Evergreen often combined different disciplines into a single program.
Like many people, I honestly felt pressured to go to college. After I graduated from high school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to study. Thus, Evergreen provided a well-rounded liberal arts education, where I focused my studies on neurobiology, creative writing, and health-related classes.
I was actually introduced to haiku at Evergreen in a course titled The Way of Haiku and Haibun, taught by Kate Crow (a great, down-to-earth teacher). Thus, Evergreen provided an introduction to haiku poetry, and (as is expected) I also wrote a lot of essays on a wide variety of subjects.
JB – How long have you been writing haiku specifically? What attracts you to haiku and other traditional forms of Asian poetry?
JS – I’ve been writing haiku since the haiku class I took at Evergreen in 2007. So, I’ve been writing haiku for 9 years now.
Haiku is the world’s smallest form of poetry. It is such a mysterious, beautiful, and challenging form to work with. I love haiku for its ability to quiet the mind. Like a sharp, digital camera, haiku can be a focused lens that captures the indefinable beauty of a single moment; beauty that may otherwise go un-noticed through the noisy chatter of the limited, conditioned mind. Haiku reminds us to “Be, here-and-now”. In that way, haiku helps us realize the importance of ordinary things that often go un-noticed.
Haiku also helps bring greater awareness to issues, challenges, strange moments, etc. I must admit, the technique of juxtaposition and the variety of haiku forms (one-line haiku, two-line haiku, etc.) allows for more creative expression than I had anticipated.
Haiku also reminds us to be careful with what we say, and how we say it. Because haiku uses very few words, it simultaneously provides a break from the thick textbooks that I’m reading in college.
Perhaps most importantly, haiku can bring people together from around the world. As private and personal as writing poetry can be, I feel that sharing haiku is an essential part of this challenging art form.
Here are a few of my haiku:
touched by so many hands
I eat with gratitude
The Heron’s Nest XVII.3 (9-15)
forgetting my name
the hook disappears
beneath the water
A Hundred Gourds 9/20/15
Now, I must say a few words about tanka and haibun. : )
I see tanka as mini-lyrics of a song. They are 5-line poems, often driven by strong emotions, and vivid imagery, and they have an inherent twist or turn in the narrative. They are a wonderful creative outlet, but I find they are often challenging to write.
Haibun (prose + haiku) has been a wonderful creative outlet too. They are like mini-stories, or short-movies. Haiku between paragraphs in haibun often parallel with the prose, offering more reverberations and echoes, while the ending haiku is often more powerful when it’s connected to the prose, but in an indirect way.
Alan Summers has said in the preface of my first book of haibun, Origins: “The key to haibun are the minute details – those diegetic sounds – arising from normal life throughout our lifespan, captured as a Super-8 movie, with haiku as a point-and-shoot camera.”
JB – Besides Frogpond Journal and the Haiku Nook on Google+, where are your favorite places to find good haiku poetry to read and emulate?
JS – The Haiku Nook is an abundant source of haiku and related forms such as haibun, tanka, etc. Haiku Nook is my main source of inspiration. In addition to Frogpond, there are a wide variety of haiku journals where I’ve found remarkable haiku, such as: Modern Haiku, Bones, The Heron’s Nest, Chrysanthemum, etc.
JB – Your poems often capture familiar, mundane moments; many are sprinkled with Pacific Northwest imagery. Besides these, what are your favorite sources of inspiration? Who are some of your favorite poets of all time?
JS – For longer poems, I’ve really enjoyed reading poems on VerseWrights.
My favorite poet of all time is W.S. Merwin. His book The Shadow of Sirius is my favorite book of longer poems. Throughout the years, I’ve come back to that book again, and again, and again. In fact, reading his work was the main source of inspiration as I wrote my first book of poetry: The Last Days of Winter.
Writing happens spontaneously, and how it happens (or where it comes from) is often a mystery, even to myself. It can happen at any time, so I’ve learned to keep a pen and notebook handy wherever I go. : )
On Haiku Nook, just reading a single haiku can inspire several haiku.
A lot of my longer poems are introspective, or perhaps could be called “meditations.” My primary goal is honestly not to provoke thought. I don’t want most of my poems to be thought-provoking. I want my poems to be so engaging, so utterly unbelievable, that they completely silence the mind, even for a moment. That silent space that is beyond thought, but always inherent and present within us, is both the source and primary goal of my poetry.
JB – In your essay, “Out of Many, One: Haiku Poetry,” you remind us that “haiku is meant to be shared.” What are some of your favorite (or most memorable) ways that you and fellow poets share haiku with others?
JS – The Haiku Nook is a primary way to share haiku, in a private G+ community (not public), where we can share and improve our work.
Getting haiku published in journals is another great way to share haiku.
Creating Haiku Nook anthologies is yet another way to share haiku. These anthologies are driven and empowered by the dynamic human spirit and the small difference we make by sharing haiku in this way.
The most memorable project I’ve been a part of is our Haiku Nook Anthology: Yanty’s Butterfly, dedicated to a poet named Yanty Tjiam, who passed away at the young age of 34 years old. (More info about this project provided further in this interview).
We are currently working on another haiku anthology dedicated to the 600+ million people who don’t have access to clean water. Our work for this anthology revolves around the theme of water. Proceeds for the book will be donated to organizations who help people in need.
I share many of my poems on my blog, Advaya.
Lastly, I’ve also given poetry books to friends and family, and that has been a memorable way to share haiku too.
JB – Where do your poems usually begin – spoken or written? Both? Somewhere else? Can you give us a peek at your inner poetic workings?
JS – Each poem is different, and each poem has a mysterious life of its own, even when they are interwoven with personal experiences, memories, and/or dreams. The inspiration to write can come from anywhere or anything, and at any time. As was mentioned previously, I find it’s good to have a pen and notebook always on hand. : )
My poems actually never start out as spoken. I like to keep the words on paper, to allow the reader to participate in the poem vs. having it be driven by my own voice, so to speak. ; )
Interestingly, my Uncle reads poems out-loud to my Aunt. He expresses the beauty of reading poems out-loud, and the inherent dimensions of the spoken word. I can understand where he’s coming from. In fact, we recorded my first haiku book together: The Sound of Rain, and my second haiku book: Birds With No Names, at his house at the beach.
JB – Besides creative writing, what other arts do you practice?
JS – I’ve been practicing meditation for over 10 years. I meditate every day; once in the morning, and once at night. But I do breathing meditation throughout the day. Specifically, I do pranayama (breathing meditation), tratak (third eye meditation), and mantra meditation (for the heart).
All this being said, I see living life is an art in and of itself. I’m always practicing the art of living, (and the art of balance). : )
JB – You’ve published a few books now. Can you tell us a little about the publishing experience? What were your biggest challenges? Biggest Successes?
JS – When I wrote my first book of poetry: The Last Days of Winter, it took 8 years to write that book. When I was done, I started exploring avenues for publication. I read an article online about lulu and self-publishing. Since that time, lulu has been the main source for publishing books. In addition to poetry, I might use lulu to publish a book of anatomy drawings as well.
The process of publishing through lulu is not too complex, and it’s free (with the exception of the requirement to purchase proof copies). You can create Ebook, paperback, and hardback books on lulu. When a purchase is made, some money goes to lulu, and some money goes to you (the author).
My biggest challenge was formatting the interior pages of the ebook. But, with some practice, I learned the details of how to make it work and embed fonts, etc.
JB – What was it like to collaborate with your uncle to produce the audio version of your books The Sound of Rain and Birds With No Names? Is there anything you will do differently with your next audio book?
JS – Recording the haiku books with my uncle was a blast. I got to be the audio engineer for both audiobooks, and used Audacity (free software) to record and edit the recordings. I asked my uncle to record my haiku audiobooks because he has a good speaking voice, and he used to work for a radio station.
There is one thing I would do differently: provide more space between each haiku. My uncle did a great job reading my haiku, but next time, I would provide about 7-10 seconds between each haiku, to let each haiku resonate more within the reader.
JS – Yanty’s Butterfly was the most memorable writing project that I’ve been a part of. It is an international anthology, dedicated to a haiku poet on Haiku Nook Google+ named Yanty Tjiam, who passed away at the young age of 34 years old. In her honor, 20 poets from around the world came together to create this anthology. It is a celebration of her life and her haiku. It is also a celebration of our work in this genre, and the power of haiku to connect people, across boundaries, across countries, around the world.
I got to serve as the managing editor for Yanty’s Butterfly, but we all co-edited as we progressed. We used a separate, private Google+ site to post all our haiku that we wanted in the anthology. The founder of Haiku Nook, Willie Bongcaron, created this Google+ site for us, and in turn, he created categories that provided organization and guidance. In fact, Willie was a key moderator throughout the project, and he does a great job moderating Haiku Nook as well. With each post, comments were made, and respectful suggestions were provided. There were a lot of discussions as we created the book, and all of them were beneficial in the final outcome. We worked together in a mutual, respectful atmosphere that ultimately lead to improved haiku, and new growth for all of us.
Yanty’s Butterfly book sales are donated to Yanty’s family and to ActionAid, and The Hunger Project.
Yanty’s Butterfly is now available as an ebook, paperback, and hardback on amazon, barnes & noble, lulu, kobo, and the iBookstore.
Check out our Yanty’s Butterfly website to learn more about this one-of-a-kind international haiku anthology.
JB – In addition to creative writing, I know you do technical writing and are studying medical coding. What do you like about these kinds of writing and data? What opportunities do you foresee for writers in technical or medical fields?
JS – My personality type is technical-supporter. I’m very detail-oriented, but also like to support people, and am empowered to make a difference.
The core value of a technical writer is the ability to translate complex material into a language that is more simple and easy to understand. This is a key reason why I’m drawn towards technical writing. The heart and mind of a technical writer is about the people they are serving, so it also requires a great deal of empathy and compassion.
At my previous employer, I used my technical writing abilities to write IT test reports, updated job descriptions, revised and improved company forms, and wrote FAQ’s for the company website. In the medical field, technical writers can write (and/or revise) company policies, educational materials, job descriptions, company forms, marketing materials, IT test reports, and legal documents. Technical writers can also be a key part of website development, due to their attention to detail, their communication skills, and their ability to step into someone else’s shoes.
JB – What places or times (real or imagined) are on your writing wish list?
JS – I honestly don’t have a wish list, but now that you mention it, I’d like to write more about health-related topics, as I’m very involved in the medical field and would also like to create a book of anatomy drawings.
JB – What’s next for you? Would you tell us about your upcoming projects?
JS – I’m excited to publish my first book of haibun this August 2016 called Origins. It includes a foreword by the well-known haiku poet Alan Summers, and is edited by my two remarkable haiku poets: Nicholas Klascanzky and Brendon Kent. A new haiku book is also in the works, but the major writing project in-progress is our Haiku Nook H2O Anthology. It is an anthology dedicated to the 600+ million people who don’t have access to clean water. We have fine haiku in this anthology so far. I’m impressed by the sheer quality of our work. We expect to publish our H2O Haiku Anthology sometime in early 2017.
JB – Before we let you go, are there any pearls of wisdom you’d like to share with writers today?
JS – Have the courage to be yourself – always. Nobody on this earth can be you and nobody can tell you what is truly best for you. Trust your heart and your gut, at all times and circumstances. I find if you live from within, you will be centered and more successful in everything you do, and you also won’t be bothered as much by other people.
Jacob, thank you again for taking the time to share a little about yourself and your work at Brainripples.
Images and poetry appearing in this article are used by permission of Jacob Salzer. Do not reproduce without permission of the artist.