Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter


Have you heard about Tomo? It’s one of my most anticipated Spring reads. Tomo is an anthology of Young Adult short fiction, verse, and graphic art, all set in or related to Japan. It releases 3/11/12, the anniversary of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami disaster. Proceeds from the book sales support long-term relief efforts for Japanese teens, in the regions most affected by these events.

The word tomo means “friendship,” and I love editor Holly Thompson’s concept of “sharing friendship through fiction.” The thirty-six authors and artists come from all over the world, united by their connection to Japan. Ten of the works are in translation.

You can learn more about the book, including its contributors and the organizations it supports, on the Tomo blog.

Also, the online literary journal YARN (Young Adult Review Network) is offering an exclusive sneak peak at one of the stories! Stop by and check out this wonderful story, “Love Right on the Yesterday,” by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga.

Do you have a favorite Japanese author, or a favorite novel, story, or movie that’s set in Japan?

For many years, I had no hobbies. Not a one. I pursued work, grad school, and, above all, writing, with gritty determination, leaving little time for anything else. I lived on little sleep, piled on the freelance work, and was generally unpleasant to be around. Around 30, I realized my life was way out of balance. I started carving out time for hobbies and recreation. Took up yoga. Tried knitting. (Which was hopeless — sorry, Mom). Went back to ballet for a bit. Took up long distance bicycling with my husband and even did a couple of 200-mile charity fundraiser rides.

I’ve always been so stingy with my writing time, but I’ve come to find that devoting even two hours a week to something else, something that does not involve staring at a computer screen, is a wise investment. It gives me more stamina for sitting at a desk. I also encounter people who are not in my usual orbit. And when I leave my daily routine to become totally immersed in something else, my brain shakes loose new ideas.

A year ago, I found a new activity that made my heart soar: taiko drumming. A combination of martial arts, dance, voice, and percussion — with a little Japanese language thrown in — taiko is like taking five classes in one. It’s also strangely addictive.

I attend the class at great inconvenience. The class meets on my husband’s one late night at work. I have to arrange a complex trapeze act with a babysitter to cover the lag time, which also means added expense. I am frequently late or must miss classes due to competing demands on the home front. Yet I’ve kept at it, with the following thought process: “I just want to be strong enough to drum for twenty minutes straight. Then I’ll be happy.” Then it was: “I just want to learn the song Kokyo. Then I’ll be happy.” Then: “I just want to play in the winter concert. Then I’ll bow out.” Then: “I just want to learn this really cool, complex song, Hiryu Sandan Geishi. THEN, I swear, I’ll hang up my bachi — my drumsticks — and retire, because this Tuesday night thing is a HUGE PAIN.”

No can do. I just performed Hiryu Sandan Geishi with my class, in my second show, “Spring Thunder,” and I’m still giddy over the fact that I successfully did this, despite missing some classes this winter and catching endless illnesses from my preschooler. And good news: the instructor said I can move up to a more advanced class this summer. This new schedule will solve my babysitting problems. But I’m also thrilled to move up because I watch the Styles class with awe, marveling at all they can do: the tricks and tosses with their bachi, their stamina, their energy. That little voice in me is still whispering. “I just want to take one session of the Styles class. Then I’ll be happy!” Yeah, right.

Here are a few pictures from the Spring Thunder performance. (I’m on the right, front row).

I think one big reason taiko works for me is that it’s an area of my life where I can see progress. If I show up, if I practice, if I commit to it, I get better. I’m sure this mentality translates to my writing too, but with drumming it’s so tangible. If you miss a note, it’s obvious. When you hit the drum right, it sings.

Also, I get to pretend I’m a real musician. Even better, I get to hang out with some truly amazing musicians, like the members of Odaiko New England, pictured below as they break in a brand new odaiko (drum):

If you’re in the Boston area, Odaiko New England can be seen performing next at a benefit concert with two other local taiko groups on Saturday, June 4. The event, Artists for Japan, will support the Japanese Disaster Relief Fund and Japan Animal Rescue and Support. I’ll be out of town, but drumming along with them in spirit! (Saturday, June 4, 2:30-5:30, Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church, 1555 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge).

A week ago I was hanging out in NYC, visiting my favorite Japanese haunts, nibbling Japanese pastries with my editors at Viking. Inspired by my trip and my editorial meeting, eager to travel to Japan through my novel, I plunged into my revisions. And then Japan plunged into disaster.

For awhile I toggled back and forth between two screens: my Word doc and online news reports. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing on the news. The fictional dream began to recede. My novel began to feel silly. Teen girls chasing gangsters and drawing manga? Good grief. Who cares? In the real Japan, families were being rent apart. Lives were being lost. Nuclear power plants were exploding and leaking.

I took some action. I donated some money. I checked in with friends who have family in Japan; thankfully all are fine. I watched a lot of news. And then I had to take a break from news.

It’s easy for all of us, but particularly for writers and artists, to start feeling helpless or insignificant in the face of disaster, of suffering or loss of life on a large scale. I know I wish I could take stronger action and do more. If I were a medical professional, I might board the next plane. If I were a nuclear physicist I’d lend my brain cells to solving the problem of fending off a meltdown.

But then I started getting tweets about YA author Maureen Johnson’s innovative Shelterbox fundraiser. Shelterbox is an international disaster relief charity that provides disaster victims with boxes containing shelter-building materials and other survival gear. In the wake of the New Zealand earthquake, Johnson held a Twitter drive. Authors donated prizes, fans bid on them and donated, and $15,000 was raised for Shelterbox. With almost no planning, her initiative was repeated for Japan relief efforts, and she raised almost that same amount for Shelterboxes in just a few days.

I’m inspired by how high-profile authors can use their visibility to raise this kind of money in such a short amount of time, and how everyone can participate in such an initiative, at any level – by donating money, donating prizes, or just spreading the word. And that is why wordsmiths should not be humbled by large-scale relief efforts out in the Real World. Wordsmiths should use the power of the word to help out in times of need.

Here are some other writers and people in the book business — as well as artists in other media — who are helping to raise money or raise awareness. They are contributing their time, talent and energy to help Japan. I’d love to learn of other individuals or organizations who are involved in creative fundraising initiatives. Please add them as comments and help spread the word!

Amazon.com — Provides an easy way to make Red Cross Donations on their site 

Authors for Japan (UK; online auction – authors and publishing professionals donating prizes — closes 3/20) 

Art for Japan Auctions (various artists donating works; many links here)

Japan L.A. / #prayforjapan Art Show (fundraiser, Los Angeles, 3/19-4/4)

New York – Asia Week – many galleries / art shows are turning into fundraising events

Write Hope (a group of Kidlit writers auctioning kidlit books, critiques, and other prizes for donation to Save the Children’s emergency relief fund)

(As always, please do your research on any charitable donation before sending money!)

NYC always dazzles me. I’ve been there numerous times — Boston isn’t so far away, and I used to travel there regularly for business. But I always feel a bit like Country Mouse, showing up with a battered suitcase and stars in my eyes, gaping at the towering buildings and at the rush of life all around me. Inevitably I trip over the sidewalk at some point, or walk into a wall, or narrowly miss getting hit by a cab, because I am so in awe.

Last week’s whirlwind visit was a particularly glamorous trip for me because I was a) traveling solo, for the first time in a long time, and b) meeting with my publisher to discuss revisions, and c) celebrating my City Mouse friend’s birthday and getting to see her adorable baby girl. The perfect mix of business and pleasure. Oh, and I was flying down for the first time, on the Jet Blue shuttle, rather than creeping down on the train or the bus. What a difference! What efficiency! What civilized comfort! Country Mouse may never travel to New York any other way from now on.

I started my adventure at Rockefeller Center, where I popped into Minamoto Kitchoan, my favorite Japanese pastry shop in New York. Actually it’s now the only Japanese pastry shop in New York, as the other one recently closed. It is a wonderful little slice of Japan, with an array of seasonal confections (wagashi) that instantly transports me back to Kyoto.

I bought a box of some goodies as a gift for my editors, and bought two other wagashi just for myself, for breakfast. (Signs posted around the store assure you that their wagashi, made with legumes and glutinous rice, are healthier than Western sweets; they contain fewer calories and many vitamins. I chose to believe this. I also chose to believe that Spring is here, as I purchased an assortment of Spring wagashi wrapped in crisp green paper. Basically whatever the lovely people at Minamoto Kitchoan tell me, I will believe! It is a place of great optimism).

I sat in a pool of sunlight at Rockefeller Center, watched skaters, and ate about 600 calories worth of healthy and vitamin-filled wagashi. Which I did not have to share with a toddler. I’m sure any mother can appreciate how rare and lovely it is to just sit in the sun and eat something entirely by yourself. Slowly.

I then ambled over to Kinokuniya Books, where I browsed to my heart’s content. Another luxury, as no small person was exhorting me to buy everything in sight. I found two manga titles that directly relate to something in my novel. I made a list of fifteen books I’m now dying to read. I browsed through the craft section and drooled over Japanese paper, and briefly contemplated learning a craft — until I remembered that if I got sucked into something like origami or sumi brush painting, I’d probably never write another word.

The highlight of the bookstore visit was an impressive exhibit of book art, featuring the Japanese Young Artists’ Books Fair. (Yes, I keep wanting to rewrite that as “Young Japanese Artists’ Book Fair.” But this is how it appears in the promotional materials).

This artist collective is a group of young, emerging artists who live or work in Japan. They are exhibiting works related to book art: comics, graphic novels, art objects related to books, art books, etc. Works from the Tokyo exhibit are currently on display at Kinokuniya in NY and at several other bookstores in the city. (Click on the link above for more info). The most astounding work I saw was that of an artist who knit with books. She cut Japanese books into vertical strips (following the characters, which appear vertically on the page) and then knit them — really — into sweaters, blankets, mittens, hats, scarves. WOW. It was also fun to watch an artist work on an elaborately detailed mural painting on the wall of the store, by the stairwell. And it was fun to see the creative interpretations of book art all around the exhibit. One artist showed blank white books, and his explanatory note said that images would appear in them over time, as a result of temperature or humidity. “If you can’t wait to appear,” it went on, “you lightly toast with dryer or fire. But take care when using fire!” Another work by the same artist played with images of hands on books, reminding us of the tactile sensation of reading and how the outside world disappears except for the book and our hands. This series also involved some optical illusions with black and white vertical stripes, which were a bit painful to look at after awhile. I was grateful for the artist’s warning to “keep your eyes apart” to protect them!

In the afternoon, I went to the Penguin Offices to meet with my editorial team. I had to pause before the building and just marvel for a moment at how far I’ve come with my novel. Years ago, toiling in solitude, on the verge of giving up, I never would have imagined I would someday stand before the Penguin offices on Hudson Street. It is really beyond my wildest dreams. I was alone, but not alone, because I don’t feel I got there alone. I was pushed along to that destination, to that moment, by a great number of people, including my agent, my critique group, my writer friends, my supportive family. I don’t think any writer or artist gets very far alone.

At that rather emotional moment, Country Mouse took over my body and made me take a picture of the address on the building to memorialize the day:

After passing a wonderful afternoon talking about my book, and books in general, with my amazing editorial team (oh, and eating some more of that vitamin-filled wagashi with them), I went on to the West Village to meet my dear friend, City Mouse. She’s from my hometown of Seattle, but has been living in NYC for almost a decade, and now navigates the Big Apple with ease and grace. It’s good when she’s around because then I’m less likely to trip over the sidewalk or bang into buildings; she’s got my back.

And she’s got a great eye for art, which is why she’s terrific in her job as a corporate art curator. Immediately after we met up in her neighborhood, she directed my attention to an arresting framed picture set out with some trash. It may have been a graphic for magazine, or an advertisement for an art show; the writing on it was all in Japanese. But the model’s expression — sort of inviting and defiant — grabbed my attention. And I was struck by the way the art seemed “set out,” even displayed, rather than thrown out, even though it was next to the trash.

It was a powerful image for me, on many levels. It reminded me of my earlier destinations in the day, and how you can still find Japan in NYC, despite so many recent closings of Japanese businesses there. And the picture made me think about perseverance, and hope . . . how even when you’re hitting a wall with your work, or feeling like your art is worthless or destined for the trash, if you keep at it, it will improve, and eventually someone will notice. When it’s time, the right people will lift you up and help you get to where you need to go.

I love art. But I can barely etch a stick figure. I have to translate what I see into words. Sometimes the tension between my deep appreciation for visual art and my inability to produce it feels like a strange illness. So I compensate in other ways. I write about art. I gorge myself on gallery shows, museum exhibits, web sites and magazines about art, coffee table books, art-related films, and graphic novels. Recently, I’ve been seeking out documentaries about the creative lives of artists, finding inspiration in their processes.

My latest discovery is the New People Artist Series, produced by Viz Pictures. The first video came out in 2007, and there are now six in the series. Each DVD profiles a Japanese artist, providing a close-up view of his or her inspirations and creative process. And by close up, I mean close. Much of the footage comes directly from the art studio, where we peer over the artist’s shoulder, watching them paint or draw or sculpt in preparation for a major exhibition. Now I’m someone who can actually watch paint dry, and find that fascinating, so I’m probably an ideal audience member for this series, in which sometimes viewers are, literally, watching paint dry. Or we are watching an artist microwave a meal, or smoke a cigarette, while he waits for the paint to dry.

I love the focus on process and inspiration in this series. We learn little about these artist’ childhoods or personal lives, and there is not a lot of glamour. We don’t gawk at the public persona of the artist. Instead we glimpse the sacrifices they’ve made for their art, living in modest quarters and nondescript neighborhoods. The focus is on the art and how it’s made. In the three DVDs I have viewed so far, we are invited to observe relatively quiet artists who are developing their works brush by brush, line by line. They are filled with inspiration for anyone who works in a creative field.

In Hitashi Tenmyouya: Samurai Nouvau, we watch the artist painstakingly apply layers of gold foil, reviving some traditional techniques in Japanese art, which he then mixes with more modern techniques. We watch him make tiny pencil marks on transparent paper to create scrolls with elaborate details. He is a model of patience and perseverance, crouched over his canvases, blowing away graphite dust. Somehow, all these scratch marks combine to make jaw-droppingly detailed scrolls, drawings and paintings that are exhibited and receive international acclaim. His process reminds me that even on writing days that feel unproductive, all those words, my own little scratch marks, really can add up to something in the end.

In Yayoi Kusama: I Love Me, the avant-garde, pink-haired artist, who is known for her fascination with polka dots, races the clock to create 50 massive drawings with black markers. The camera lingers on her as she outlines, then colors in, dot after dot after dot, between strangely beautiful squiggle and lines and wide staring eyes. There is an element of suspense here, considering the artist’s advanced age, her growing fatigue, her own sense of mortality. Will she complete the series in time for the exhibition? And there are lessons for writers and artists in other media to take away, too. Her bursts of energy and her loyal assistants carry her along on her project, reminding us of the power of artistic vision — and the power of having a supportive team on your side, to help your work see the light of day. Kusama is also a poet. One of my favorite moments in the film is when she reads through a poem she published years ago. She blinks in astonishment when she is done and exclaims, “This is very good!” It’s so easy for us to criticize our own work, especially once it’s been published or produced, yet Kusama unabashedly delights in her finished products.

Traveling with Yoshimtomo Nara also has a quiet element of suspense as we follow an introverted artist around the world, watching him set up exhibits in various cities and ultimately stage a massive multimedia installation piece in collaboration with others. The suspense arises in the tension between the artist’s self-processed introverted tendencies and his desire to connect with his audience (particularly with children, who are captivated by his whimsical drawings and seem to revere him like a rock star). He also searches for ways to come out of his shell and connect with other artists. In the end, we see how his encounters with others greatly impact his work. This documentary teaches artists in any medium about the power of collaboration, and about how we find satisfaction in reaching an audience — sometimes in surprising ways.

In a quiet, working-class town outside of Boston, behind a bowling alley and an electricians’ school, next to a Brazilian church, inside a nondescript building housing a Chinese cultural center, I’ve discovered a wonderful little slice of Japan. It’s a dojo, a practice space for a taiko drumming group, and it’s my escape hatch on Tuesdays.

This week I started my third semester of classes  with Odaiko New England. I figure I must be hooked, as I drove out to this place in the sleet, over icy roads, with a head cold and a pounding headache. Nothing like the sound of 25 drummers to ease a pounding headache, right? And yet as I got out of my car, joining fellow drummers wielding bachi (long wooden sticks), my symptoms miraculously dissipated. Taiko on Tuesdays always hits my reset button.

Here’s a quick overview, since most people, when I talk taiko, stare at me blankly. In Japanese, taiko means “drum.” Most of the drums we use are tall and wide, but there actually several different types of drums, drum stands, and drumming positions. The type of drumming I’m learning with Odaiko New England is called kumi-daiko, or ensemble drumming. It is at once musical, artistic, and athletic, combining fluid movements with vigorous rhythms. Borrowing from martial arts as well, drummers cultivate a community spirit and give each other energy (ki) through the practice of kiai (vocal energy, or shouting, while playing). They also try to give energy by making eye contact. And, on occasion, smiling at each other. Which is actually really hard to do if you’re trying to remember the phrase of a song, or learn a complicated rhythm, and not take off anyone’s head with a drumstick.

The noise and the interaction with others couldn’t be more different from the writing life. I think that’s largely why I’ve come to love it. The contrast feels necessary. I’m not alone in this, I suspect, since I’ve met other fiction writers through drumming. (And quite a lot of computer programmers. I think this is an intriguing topic for another post someday!)

But I also find discipline and routine in taiko. Predictability mixed with bursts of improvisation. In this sense, it couldn’t be more similar to the writing life. At the beginning of taiko, we bow before entering the dojo. We sit in a circle and greet one another in Japanese. We bow again. We warm up in a predictable manner, gradually building our energy and focus. I don’t do the same rituals when I enter my home office and sit at my computer, but taiko has helped me cultivate a sense of discipline and focus that I try to apply to my days at the desk. I view my office as a dojo, a practice space. I work to clear my head before entering, to warm up before hitting the novel-in-progress, and to minimize visual distractions. I’m not always successful, but taiko prompts me to try.

As I left my car the other night and hurried across the ice to the dojo, already drawn to the vibrations of early drummers warming up, I realized one more thing I love about taiko — especially doing taiko in the suburbs. It cultivates my inner rebel. I love that on a cold winter night, when a lot of us should be home with our families, or watching TV or tidying up the kitchen, we’re in a dojo drumming our hearts out. I love that in this quirky location, people might pass us as they head out to restaurants or bars, or to the bowling alley or the electricians’ school, and wonder what the hell is going on in there. As a YA writer, it’s important to get in touch with that inner rebel now and then, to relight that fire, even for two hours. It can’t be a coincidence that Wednesday mornings are my most productive writing times. The thunder is still in my ears.

Here are some pictures of my class performing at the 2010 Odaiko New England Winter Extravaganza. I’m in the front row, just to the right of the dark drum in the center. (Faces are blurry — you’ll have to take my word for it!)

And if you’ve followed me this far, here are videos for two pieces from the 2010 Winter Extravaganza. My beginner class is the first video; a more advanced class can be seen in the second.

What physical activities or hobbies fuel your writing life?