My best friend suggested that I call this post “The Process: A Retrospective, Which Is Itself a Sort of Process, Making This a Tautological Title in Addition to Being Extremely Long.” Obviously, this is why he’s my best friend.
I’ve been asked more than once to talk about my creative process as a writer, most recently over at me + richard armitage as part of an ongoing discussion on the subject. My response has always been to recoil from the question because I’ve never really felt I have a process. I do have a probably unhealthy fear of being a phony, which I would obviously be if I didn’t have a process.
But I mean, that’s ridiculous, right? Obviously I’m a writer; here I am, right now, writing a thing. So just as obviously, there must also be some kind of process to what’s happening right this minute.
Part of the problem in talking about this, I think, stems from the fact that I’ve spent so much of the last several years wrestling with severe creative blockage. Which means that whatever process I’ve been trying to use, or was using before, is not exactly cutting it. Another significant piece of the problem, dark-side-of-the-mirror reflection to that one, is that there was once a time in my life when I wrote so prolifically that it was impossible to make me stop for any reason. The process there was, Sit down, open notebook, uncap pen, and wordvomit until paper/ink runs out. Repeat with new notebook/pen ad infinitum.
I’d write during classes, during church, off to the side at mealtimes, in the car (as a passenger), in a corner at parties, on vacation, while waiting for appointments, as a sidekick on other people’s errands, instead of doing homework, instead of sleeping, instead of chores, instead of human interaction. That’s not to say that any of what I was writing was quality, but with quantity comes a.) practice, b.) ease, and c.) the statistical probability of some of it being worthwhile.
Between not having to try at all, and having no luck no matter what I tried, you can see where I might get a little lost on the question of process.
It’s not as though I haven’t been aware that having a process would help during the lean times. I’ve been actively trying to impose various rituals and patterns and disciplines around my writing in the hope of finding the one magic key. When I acquired a tablet device while contemplating the fact that my relationship with my writing tool is too complicated, that was this very issue actively underway. Same thing when I bought a writing desk that was not a computer desk; when I cleaned out the guest room so I could use it as an office; when I tried the whole bohemian writing-in-a-café thing; when I had cooperative writing time with a friend; when I attempted NaNoWriMo; when I scheduled my writing time; when I set myself the goal of 10K words a month come Hell or high water. You name the trick, and if it was within my means, I probably tried it. (I would really, really like to have a writing shed.) Unfortunately, there’s only so far you can get in addressing the symptoms of a problem. But that’s really another conversation.
Whatever it was I needed to find, I found it in the latter half of last year and I was able to push myself to complete the zero draft of the novel before my (third) self-imposed goal of the end of 2014. I didn’t do it by being in the right part of the house, or starting to work at the right time of day, or working with the right tools. Although it may have had something to do with the discovery of the right tea. And I did have to trick myself around several small snags. On the whole, I worked in a way I’ve never worked before.
I woke up every day telling myself that the next scene had to be written before I got to return to bed at the end of the day, no excuses. It wasn’t exactly the same kind of fear-adrenaline I used to have to motivate myself with in college, and which eventually stopped being effective, but it was in the same family. The threat wasn’t quite or bad things will happen – it was more or the good things can’t happen. There was some amount of after x time of day, nothing but writing is permitted, and pattern-setting – once I sit down with this tea in this mug, it’s time to write – but on the whole, it was a brute force affair. I was, unquestionably, sprinting for the finish line.
Sometimes when I finished writing the next scene, I would discover it was trash and I would delete the entire thing. But I still had written it. No excuses. Sometimes I would discover I had been wrong about what I thought the next scene was, but I couldn’t have known it until I’d tried the wrong thing. Sometimes I meticulously mapped out the sequence of events, only to discover that the characters had other plans. I’m not an architect, so this approach invariably leads to me finding out that all of my plans are terrible and are to be ignored, but it still proved a useful tool for forging ahead.
I’m firmly into editing territory now, which means I’ve hung up my writing hat for the time being, and I don’t know how or if the writing patterns I was able to keep last year will integrate into my new process. What I can say is that I knew I had to write on this topic when the idea of it wouldn’t stop bothering me, and that’s a pretty typical start to most of the things I end up writing. It’s how I knew I had to write sixteen thousand words about my reaction to a t.v. character.
Whatever process I do or do not have, it starts with an idea, always. Something I read, or see, or hear, gets into my head in a way that I have to keep thinking about. Sometimes it’s a new character I realize I’m slowly meeting, whose story I am supposed to tell. Sometimes I see something out in the world that makes me ask questions, and the questions start to breed small mental stories.
Once the seed is planted, I mull. I’m a muller. I can’t even begin to write about something unless I’ve been rolling it around in my brainpan for some time – which is handy in that I’m a Noticer and I’m always mulling over something. The way I know it’s time to write about it, I suppose, is when I catch myself trying to put the something into words, because language is not my brain’s native language. Occasionally it will be nothing more than a turn of phrase I’m attempting to perfect for reasons I don’t yet know. I write those down in a notebook that I carry with me at all times, if I’m away from home. If I’m near my computer, I’ll log them in one of the many “trash bin” files I keep on my hard drive.
Every major project I work on has an associated “trash bin” document, where I keep the finished or semi-finished thoughts that don’t yet fit into the piece at its current stage. This particular blog entry began as a line that now finds its home in the previous paragraph. Sometimes a piece will grow entirely out of the bits and pieces all hanging out in the bin, once enough of them are sitting there, next to each other, for me to be able to see a larger shape. That’s atypical, though.
After I’ve mulled for a while, and assuming the idea doesn’t turn out to be a dead end – I have a lot of one-to-five-paragraph-long documents on my hard drive – the first thing I have to do for a work of fiction is figure out who the people are. I can’t tell a story if I don’t know the people. Some people work the other way, I guess. The story presents itself, and the writer’s job is to populate it with characters. But I can’t do that. For me, there is no story without the people in it. Once I know who they are, it’s all just a matter of forcing my kiester into the writing chair and doing the work. And that, of course, is where my process falls apart.
I do definitely have some specific needs when I write, these days, and that could be considered part of my creative process. I used to be able to write anywhere, as described above, but that stopped being true a long time ago. These days I need a quiet, dark-ish, uncluttered environment. I need to be physically comfortable. I need a beverage of some kind (like magic writing tea) on hand. I need to not have the weight of unfinished responsibilities weighing on me. Sometimes I need music – only ever non-vocal (or else part of me is listening to and processing the words, no matter how many times I’ve heard it before), non-aggressive (I need to write from a place of calm), and the same track on repeat so I can start to ignore it as background noise. Richard Armitage’s suggestion of David Darling’s Morning saw me through a lot of writing days last autumn. I mostly need to be alone. A closed door between me and other people seems to help. I need to know I can get to the internet if I need it, to look something up, but I also need to work with the browser closed.
Some people swear by outlining. I’m a total failpot at it. Every time I have outlined a story, I’ve gotten hung up on trying to make the story fit the outline even when it wasn’t working. I’ve had to embrace the fact that I am a seat-of-her-pants kind of writer. Exciting things happen that way sometimes, so I’m not knocking being a pantser by any means. I can do small-scale outlining sometimes – the next handful of scenes or notable events, at most – with moderate success, but beyond that, I’m just getting in my own way. I even failed at outlining when it was required for scholarly essays. When we had to turn in an outline before the final paper, I earned a 0 on that portion of the assignment one hundred percent of the time. I could only ever bullshit one after the paper was done through reverse engineering. I don’t like to think of it as not being able to stick to the plan. More like, the plan is never what the real thing needs to be. I need the freedom to discover the finished product on its own terms.
I think that principle translates to every other kind of art I practice as well, and has to do with my reasons for being very bad at portrait photography. The end goal there is too clear before the camera even comes out; worse, it’s someone else’s goal that I am being tasked with realizing. When I Art, it’s a process of discovery, not of fabrication.
And that, frankly, is probably the most definitive thing I can say about my creative process in the end.