Ilyon Woo on Not Trying to Force It

First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.

In this episode, Mitzi talks to Ilyon Woo about her latest book, Master Slave Husband Wife.

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From the episode:

Mitzi Rapkin: So, a work like this that you’ve been thinking about for 20 years before you start writing it– and I don’t know how long it took you to actually write it – and now it’s out in the world and outside of you. Is there one thing that you’ll take away from this?

Ilyon Woo: A takeaway? That’s a really good question. You know, the one thing I keep thinking about is just in terms of the creative process – have you seen Sesame Street where there’s a character named Don Music?  He plays these songs on the piano and Kermit the Frog introduces him and he says, you know, here we are in the studio of Don Music and he’s in the process of writing this incredible song, it is going to be hit.  And Don Music is starting to write a song, which is obviously Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, but he gets stuck, because he can’t rhyme something or it loses a word, and he’s like, I’ll never get it. I’ll never get it. And he bangs his whole head and his hands and his face on the piano. For me being a pianist’s daughter, this seemed like the ultimate, you know, I mean, you just don’t bang a piano, right? So, there was that. But there was also that frustration that I could empathize with when you’re trying to do something, and it just doesn’t work. You just want to throw everything down. Maybe my takeaway as an artist is how even if you keep banging your head on the piano that eventually, I can find my way writing my way out of this. And usually, I found that when I got to that wanting to bang my head on the piano phase, it was because I didn’t know enough. It was because I was trying to force something when I wasn’t ready to get there. And if I could pull back for a moment and do a little more research around it, then something would pop open. And luckily, I have my own real life Kermit, my writing partner, Rachel Kousser, who would, you know, pat me on the back and also say, Isn’t it time to like peel your face and fingers on that keyboard?


Ilyon Woo is the is the New York Times best-selling author of Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom, one of the New York Times’s “10 Best Books of 2023” and People Magazine’s “Top Ten Books of 2023. Woo is also the author of The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times.  Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, and The New York Times.  She has a PhD in English from Columbia University.

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