Hey, Baby, What’s Your Writing Process?

Yes, yes, I know I said I would write every Wednesday—and here it is Thursday, the very first week, and I have failed.  In my defense, yesterday was a long day made longer because it was a freshmyn orientation day, and I was so exhausted that I came home and went almost straight to bed, good intentions be damned.  Alright, I’ll try harder next week to maintain the schedule.

Moving on.

The last few days, I’ve had a character floating in my head—or I should say, the mother of a minor character (Rodessa) I already wrote about in another piece.  I had intended to write about Rodessa’s early life, because in the other work, she was mostly a wizened old crone, but somehow, her mother’s story suddenly seemed compelling to me.  Perhaps I will get around to writing about Rodessa, but right now, Azucena wants to speak—through, ironically, it is Rodessa telling her mother’s story.

I’m not really sure what is happening yet.  I feel like I’m writing a lot of exposition. I tell my students that sometimes you have to “write for discovery.”  In other words—you’re writing, perhaps not with a very clear plan, but just to see what might happen.  Right now, I’m writing to find out about Azucena as a character—and since I’m doing character building, it makes sense that there is a lot of exposition—which I will probably trim later on—because exposition tells us who characters are and what the situation is in which they find themselves.  That is the purpose of discovery.  Using Rodessa as the narrator helps focus the discovery though, because, being her daughter, Rodessa should have a good sense of what her mother is like.  In other words, I’m trusting the narrator to reveal to me what needs to be revealed.  The plot can be worked out later.

What is surprising to me about the story is its form.  It seems to be emerging as something halfway between a memoir and an oral history or testimony one might find in a historical society journal.  I don’t know if the form is part of the discovery phase, or if, like a lot of the writing I do lately, it’s experimenting with form—or, more likely, it’s defying form altogether.  (Like poems I write are actually memoirs or stories that haven’t found their right form yet.)  I do know that if I complete this project, it will be yet another piece I don’t know what to do with in terms of submission—publishers don’t generally like writing that flounces conventional forms (or genres).  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I need to write the thing first!

What I really want to talk about today is process.  Read any book on creative writing, and it will probably tell you a version of the following.  But this is my approach—these are my writing process phases, if you will (and I use them when I teach):

  • Unintentional writing:  This is an assignment I often give to my students.  I tell them, “Write for 15 minutes without stopping and see if anything emerges.”  Journaling, blogging, freewriting, brainstorming, all of that falls under this category.  I personally should do more unintentional writing.  I have found that when I practice it more frequently, interesting images and bits of ideas appear like mushrooms—and there’s so much you can do with mushrooms!  Once, an “unintentional writing” wound up being a prose poem (with revision, of course).  But if I hadn’t let my mind just wander where it will, that poem would never have appeared.
  • Invention exercises:  This is generative material, for when I know I want to flex my brain muscles—I’ll come up with some parameter that I have to meet in 10 unique ways.  Ideas come with a little more rapidity than they can do when I’m not writing with a purpose.  So, I might say, “Write 10 reasons someone might find a stray dog  in their  kitchen” or “List 10 things you might do in a bathtub besides bathe.”  Give yourself a weird little list, and be amazed with how quickly you can come up with the ideas.  I usually have my students choose one or more items from the list and then have them do some “guided” unintentional writing… that is, they freewrite with a topic.
  • Writing for Discovery:  Here, the writing is much more intentional in its direction (as I was mentioning previously)—there may be characters, image patterns, story ideas, metaphors, etc., etc., that are swarming around in my head and I have a direction in mind with a way to use them—it’s just not fully formed yet.  (To be fair, I think most writing falls into this category—I mean, who really plots in minute detail what is going to happen in a piece of writing?  Talk about zapping the creativity to slag when you overthink things, right?)
  • Writing with Purpose:  You’ve figured everything out more or less, and are cracking the whip on yourself and writing it all down, come hell or high water.  I think at some point I may choose to revisit the definition of this phase, to make it more elegant.  I will say that sometimes in tandem with Writing with a Purpose is its near and dear relation, Slogging Through the Muck (also known as Powering Through).  Writing with a Purpose is all about getting that shit done—even if it makes you so annoyed you’d rather clean your house than write, even if you’re so bored with every single word you’re writing, you’re only writing to meet a word count or a line count or a page number–some arbitrary stopping point that you’re not sure you’ll reach, but you’re going to die trying.  You’re doing it, and that’s what matters. Because after all, after you get it of your brain and onto your computer or paper, then you can work on the best part of all, which is Revision.
  • Revision, as anyone will tell you, is where the magic happens. There are a number of steps I could illuminate—and maybe I’ll save that for a future post.  But right now I’m just going to list the quick and dirty version. Revision is certainly often the most difficult part of the writing process, but it’s the most rewarding because here’s where you can do all the fancy work—where you look at all your verbs, and notice how you rely too frequently on “to be” (I notice I do this and I hate that about myself), and you get the chance to replace it with a more precise action verb instead.  Here is where you merciless attack all flabby nouns and replace them with more robust ones.  Here is where you can strengthen your image patterns, where you can work on the music and lyricism of your poetry, whether it’s increasing all the o-vowel sounds or repeating certain words to add resonance.  Revision is all about finding a piece’s most perfect form, most perfect voice.  All the “heavy lifting” is done—it’s just a matter of approaching perfection.  (Not attaining it of course, because perfection is a myth, but you get my drift.)
  • Editing:  This is the cosmetic job after the fact–last minute once-overs for spelling and grammar and any other little formatting things that somehow got overlooked before.  I’m not even sure it is its own category.  But it is an important part of the writing process, so I don’t want to leave it out, even if the topic bores me because I generally have perfect grammar. 😉

Anyway, I’m sure I haven’t written anything you haven’t thought about your own process.  But on that rare case I have, you’re welcome.  Use it for good or ill, but write something awesome tonight.  Or save the awesome for tomorrow, and just write anything at all tonight.

5 thoughts on “Hey, Baby, What’s Your Writing Process?

  1. I’m thinking about bathtubs. 1) The tub can be an emergency bed in case of a storm. 2) Fill it with Kool-Aid and liquor to make “hunch punch.”

    Those are two realistic uses of a bathtub. I would have to get crazy with my other uses, such as converting the tub into a go cart…

    • Those are both good ideas, Christine. Here’s my quickie list of 10 things you can do in the bathtub:

      1. Write your novel
      2. Set up a grill and make hamburgers
      3. Fill with soil and plants and grow an indoor herb garden
      4. Hide your children’s Christmas presents
      5. Conduct a business meeting
      6. Serve high tea to your grandmother
      7. Make 1000 origami cranes
      8. Hold a book signing for your latest release
      9. Experiment with alchemy
      10. Practice ballet

      They may not be practical things, but of course, the point is to generate a list that might spark creativity. Wouldn’t serving high tea to your grandmother be a funny (and wildly inappropriate) scene in a short story somewhere?

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