Finding the words: Wave author Sonali Deraniyagala talks about her writing process for Art of Writing lecture

two seated women talking at the front of an auditorium

Photo credit: Emily Thompson

woman in blue shirt smiles while looking off camera

Photo credit: Eric Kotila

May 15, 2024

How often do undergraduates get a chance — in person — to ask a best-selling writer about their creative process?

Sonali Deringayala came to Berkeley on April 10 to give the Art of Writing annual lecture to students, the campus community, and members of the general public. Deraniyagala is best known for her 2013 memoir Wave, the account of her experiences during and after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in which she lost her husband, her two sons, her parents, her best friend, and her best friend's mother. She herself was carried two miles inland by the water; by clinging to a tree limb, she was the only member of the group to survive.

She had never heard the word tsunami prior to 2004 and stressed the incomprehensible, otherwordly nature of her experience. "I had a life. I didn't have a life. It took 10 minutes."

An economist by training, Dr. Deraniyagala described herself as "an accidental writer" whose initial goal — at the advice of her therapist — was simply to write for herself in an attempt to make sense of horrific events. "A loss of this scale one can't find words for."

Wave became a New York Times bestseller and won the PEN Ackerley Prize in 2013. Hailed for its "scrupulous honesty and unsentimentality," it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography/memoir.

In her conversation with Ramona Naddaff, a professor in the Department of Rhetoric who leads Berkeley's Art of Writing program, Dr. Deringayala stressed that memoir transcends the events that gave rise to it. "It's not what happens to the writer, it's what they make of it," she said, adding that writers can draw inspiration from anywhere.

She was powerfully candid in her description of her writing process. Referring to a passage in Wave — a description of her first return to the London house where she had lived with her family — that neither she nor her editor revised before publication, she explained, "I change and edit a lot as I go along. It took me two or three weeks to write those four pages. I chiseled it. I write very slowly, I kind of get it right."

"I'm a terrible writer," she joked. "It takes me a long time to write anything down."

As with so many conversations about writing these days, the topic of AI came up. Naddaff asked Deringalaya about Vauhini Vara's essay "Ghosts," where the writer uses AI to explore grief in the wake of her sister's death. Deraniyagala replied "If you're writing anything creative, I'd hate the thought of going to AI. What do we do when we want to figure out an emotion? We can read Joan Didion. We can read poetry. We can read Shakespeare. AI is almost dishonest if you're writing about yourself."

Prior to the lecture, students in Dr. Naddaff's Rhetoric 121 class — part of Art of Writing — had read Wave and workshopped questions to ask Dr. Deraniyagala.

"With Dr. Alex Creighton, we asked students to draft questions after reading Wave," explained Dr. Naddaff. "The students had already read other grief memoirs and were thinking about the difficult process of writing about unbearable loss. The students were so moved by Deraniyagala's memoir, we had no trouble working with them to revise the fantastic questions they ended up asking in the lecture."

"Students were overjoyed to meet the author whom they had carefully read and studied."

One student, Demetrios Leones, asked about the decision process behind Wave's shift between past and present tenses. Deraniyagala replied "Our minds always shift between past and present. I was trying to figure out when my present became my past."

When asked by student Brian Basurto-Vargas whether writing made her disconnect or detach, she replied, "Writing makes you attach more. To write about anything closely you have to descend and descend and descend. It makes you understand in a different way. It makes you cohere. I had to cohere with the worst reality on the planet to stand up again."

Her lecture — like Wave — was a testament to the power of writing to create meaning even in the hardest part of the human experience.

The annual Art of Writing Lecture brings well-known writers to campus to talk about their craft and their writing process. Past Art of Writing speakers have included Michael Lewis and Robert Reich.

The lectures are integrated with the Townsend Center's Art of Writing program. Dedicated to cultivating and supporting the craft of writing at Berkeley, Art of Writing helps undergraduates develop and hone their writing skills through specialized upper-division courses in a wide variety of disciplines ranging from rhetoric and journalism to data science and engineering. Art of Writing has offered 63 classes and served over 1,000 students since its founding by Dr. Naddaff in 2015. Art of Writing also organizes a peer writing tutor and writing fellows program, writing internships, as well as the Summer Writing Pedagogy Institute, which has provided training to 150 graduate students who have in turn taught composition to 7,000 undergraduates. It is supported entirely by grant and philanthropic funding.

Matt Jacobson, who created the Michael Rogin Endowment that funds the lecture, commented "The Townsend Center and the Art of Writing are gems in the UC Berkeley community and we are blessed to have them here."
Support for Art of Writing comes from the Mellon Foundation and generous UC Berkeley donors.  To support Art of Writing, contact Director of Development Rose Hsu or make a gift online

Author Sonali Deraniyagala speaks with student

Photo credit: Emily Thompson