Interview with Expert Sierra Prasada, author of The Creative Compass: Writing Your Way from Inspiration to Publication
Name: Sierra Prasada
Book Titles: The Creative Compass: Writing Your Way from Inspiration to Publication
Creative Lives: Portraits of Lebanese Artists
How has your experience as a nonfiction book writer influenced your current project, a screenplay adaptation?
Nonfiction writers typically have to go into the world to find the stories they tell. In my case, that’s also the way I learn how to tell them. While I set about adapting The Journeys of Socrates for film, I spent a lot of time taking various kinds of theater classes, assistant-directing plays, reading books, and chatting with professionals. Authors produce the best nonfiction writing when we investigate a subject, as opposed to merely researching it, a contrast that first became apparent to me in high school when I split my time between writing articles for the student
newspaper and essays for class.
Both kinds of writing turned out to be good preparation for my professional work: like nonfiction books, especially memoir or reportage, adaptations are interpretive as well as creative. When working on the screenplay, I’ve drawn on the same techniques I used in my two books, in service of the same aim: to convey experience, sensation, emotion. What does it feel like..? Whether I’m writing nonfiction or fiction, that’s the question I must answer if I hope to connect readers with otherwise distant people and events.
I seek to entertain more than inform with the screenplay, and the scenes are wholly fictional. But there’s a certain standard of authenticity I want to meet because the story take place in Russia in the late 19th century, an alternate world of sorts. The screenplay has reaffirmed for me that imagination serves all storytellers, whether we work with nonfiction or fiction.
You’ve worked overseas as a journalist, interviewing subjects in both Arabic and English in Beirut. How did you become proficient in spoken and written Arabic? What are some special challenges and opportunities you’ve experienced working in the bilingual and international writing sphere?
I studied Arabic most seriously over a five-year period, but I began using it in my reporting soon after I began with Pimsleur’s Egyptian Arabic program, which I highly recommend.
While in Cairo, interning with the Associated Press, I studied at a small private academy; most of the teachers didn’t speak any English, so the lessons themselves turned out to be a great way to learn about the culture. Except that what I was really learning about is that space in which travelers and natives negotiate cultural differences, the kind of expectations I might encounter, the ones I myself held, right or wrong.
I read a lot of Arabic literature, more of it in Arabic, while attending Middlebury’s summer intensive program on scholarship. During the three years that I spent in Beirut, I wrote my first book, reported for radio, and contributed articles to magazines. Since I was writing and broadcasting in English, I preferred to interview in English, but my Arabic helped to calibrate my attention in all kinds of small ways. It gave me important glimpses of that so-called “man behind the curtain.”
Since I returned to the United States about four years ago, I have far fewer opportunities to speak in Arabic. As they say in Beirut, ma’alish (rough translation: “What can you do?”).
One of your nonfiction projects was The Creative Compass, the writing guide you coauthored with your father, Dan Millman, author of Way of the Peaceful Warrior. What was the inspiration behind the project? How did the creative process work between you two?
As I relate in The Creative Compass, I had a love-hate relationship with writing while growing up. I pursued a career as a journalist because I wanted to know the world. I moved to Beirut because I’d fallen in love with Arabic and journalism offered a way to fund further study. Somewhere along the way, I also discovered a deep enjoyment of writing. Perhaps, I can even pinpoint when: something about writing my first book, for a Lebanese publisher, felt natural, more so than any article I’d written.
My father and I had long been early readers of each other’s work, so it also felt natural when he asked me to work on a writing guide with him. (Speaking candidly, I doubt he would have done so had I not already successfully collaborated with a writer on another project.) I took the lead on the proposal, which sold on election day, 2012. Then we split up the chapters, writing on separate coasts, emailing each other drafts. It’s never easy when two people with strong personalities have to steer one ship, but we found our way to a constructive dialogue and a book
that speaks truthfully for us both. Even as I have moved on to work on my own projects, I know I want that deep collaborative element in the editing stage.
Can you describe a “typical” day in your life?
I never know whether to lament or rejoice that I have no typical day. I spend most of a good day writing. If I get up early, I begin with a little exercise (dance-based strength, stretching, and coordination exercises). If I stayed up late reading the night before, I generally just plunge into work, sometimes in my pajamas. I tell myself to get up and move every now and then, but I often find myself in tableau before my laptop for hours at a time. If I haven’t yet reached the last immersive stretch, then I wrap up around 3 or 4 and practice singing or piano, or read something
nonfiction. A great day might end with an improv class, my latest preoccupation.
What’s your writing process?
Can you believe I wrote an entire book about this? The Creative Compass is an unusual writing book in that it focuses on process as much as craft—not what writers should do but the landmarks they’re likely to encounter on a universal path and how they can make that path their own.
In the years I’ve spent writing, I’ve discovered that process may be the most creative act. I can’t imagine how I would have developed as a writer if I hadn’t learned how to develop my drafts, how to come back to the same page, the same scene, again and again and again, seeing what I’ve written from new angles and transforming it, sometimes radically. My screenplay alone has gone through countless incarnations and I can no longer imagine a process that doesn’t allow for wholesale metamorphosis.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a novel and keeping my ears pricked for a good nonfiction project.