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.

The Dilemma of a Personalized Rejection

Recently, I got a rejection on a flash story I had written, but it was personalized.  In fact, the editors explained that the reason they rejected it was that they thought the story missed a comic opportunity to explore the absurdity of the situation as presented in the story—that one of the main characters had much more life in her than just 500 words could show.

I really appreciate that they offered this bit of critique, because I wouldn’t have considered that maybe her life does need to be a short story.  In my mind, I was mainly thinking that the story was about her mother, and how she had to deal with a magical pregnancy.  But I could see that maybe the story is about the daughter—or maybe it should be.

I haven’t written a revision of the story yet.  I don’t know many fiction writers, and so I find I’m not sure what would be a good way to expand.   When I teach creative writing (like I am right now), it’s so easy to see the directions and possibilities that my student’s stories offer.  Easy? It’s generally obvious.

But of course we’re all blind when it comes to our own writing.  I find that, thinking about the daughter, I’m not sure what she should do.  Does she have dialogue?  What is her life like, when she’s abandoned her mother practically right after her birth, and she becomes a reality TV star?  What happens to her mother, who has to join a support group for mothers whose children have abandoned them?

There’s one person on campus whom I can ask what he thinks—he’s a fiction writer, and once, when I brought him a creative nonfiction story I had written, he gave it the most amazing reading and response I’ve ever received—like he lived with the story, and saw so many places for revision and connection that frankly I was embarrassed by the riches of his generosity and spirit and writerly insight.

I don’t know that anyone has looked at my writing the way he did.  I had the thought, that he must be an unbelievably fantastic teacher.  If he gives all student work the same attention that he gave my story, students must just be in awe of him.  Like I am.  (I would give a shout out to him here, but I don’t want him to be inundated with requests by hungry writers looking for critique gold.)

I am thinking of asking him for some suggestions on my flash piece… though I can’t help feeling a little greedy doing it… like I am taking something precious from him.  Which he freely offered, I know.  But still.  Perhaps, I can repay him in coffee and muffins…

Revision? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Revision!

Actually, that’s not true.

I’ve been writing a bit lately, doing my usual 10 or so drafts before I show the DYPS (our writing group), and then when I show it to them, they offer about 4000 changes I need to make–actually, I think it’s become a kind of game to them–and so I abandon the poem altogether.  Which, it must be said, smacks of “crabby little baby who doesn’t get what she wants.”

I have several that are in this pile, which I haven’t gone back to look at since the sharing of them, and they’re starting to stink, the way all those Thanksgiving leftovers that are still in our fridge are starting to stink.  (I know, TMI–and yes, in case you’re worried, the cleaning the fridge is on my list of things to do ASAP.)

There is one exception–“December in Atlanta.”  This was a poem I wrote a week or so ago that I really liked the way it was.  On Revision 7 I thought, “Hey, that’s a pretty good poem.”  So I showed it to Bob who did not like it.  (You know you didn’t.)  His point, I admit grudgingly, was that the snow fantasy didn’t last the whole poem–and that was true, although that wasn’t exactly the point I was going for.  He suggested that I stick Atlanta landmarks beyond Midtown and Spaghetti Junction in it (which were already in there)–the Fox theater, Grant Field, the zoo, etc.

So I did it to please him–how’s that for being true to one’s art?

What was a short poem morphed into this whole-page-long poem, with lines 3/4 of the way across the page.  It’s really this giant, gangly poem that offends my sense of page aesthetics.  The poem doesn’t seem me-ish at all, and I think that must be why I don’t feel loving toward it.  I liked the compactness of the original, the tercets, and the four main images it contained.  I feel like this poem’s stepmother, as opposed to author–and we all know, if my past experience is anything to go by–that stepmothers hate what they are stepmothers to.

… Except, the revision is not without its charms, which I also grudgingly admit.  It is very Atlanta-y, and there are some fun images in it.  And Bob liked it, and that’s important.  I think I’m just having a hard time letting go of a poem that I really liked, but that maybe didn’t work as well as I wanted it to.   I’m not abandoning the  new version–just  setting it aside, to “age,” and to grow on me.

As for the other poems-in-process (a.k.a. currently abandoned), I’m hoping that I can come back to them over the break, when I’m fresher, and unimpeded by piddly things like work.  At least, that’s the plan.  It’s always astonishing to me how days will go by over winter break, and I’ll have accomplished nothing…