Friday, November 04, 2005

The writing process

For a long time I dreamed about writing but was too afraid to put pen to paper (so to speak). There was also the not-so-minor issue of having young children and a full time job which left me with little time and energy for writing. But now that the kids are more independent and thanks to encouragement from Big D, I've started writing more or less regularly.

Recently, I've learned some interesting things about the writing process. Or, at least MY writing process.

I used to feel like I needed a fully realized plot or story line before I sat down to write. That was part of my fear of writing - I could never come up with a perfect story so I'd never actually write anything. I also don't particularly like revising - I'm lazy and I like to get it right the first time (or, more accurately, get it good enough the first time). But that doesn't work very well because the first draft is never very good. It's actually inaccurate to call anything I did before as first drafts because I never really did a full draft of anything. I would start writing a story and never finish it because the beginning wasn't good. I would start and stop different stories and never even try to realize whatever potential they might have had.

Now I realize that writing a story is an iterative process. And, for me, the story doesn't come out until I start writing. I start with a small idea - a first line, a character, an idea - and then start writing. The story opens up and the character takes on a life of her own, doing things that I couldn't have imagined before I started writing. It's like that game show where the goal was to remove tiles on a board in order to reveal a puzzle underneath. The first contestant to correctly solve the puzzle would win. As I start writing, the story and characters underneath the idea materialize.

I also learned that what materializes first is not necessarily what the story or characters must end up being. I tend to get stuck on an idea and keep trying to make it work even when it obviously doesn't work. I recently learned to let go and change things - even if it meant changing the story's direction and tone. Sometimes the characters themselves have to lead the story and sometimes the story defines the characters. I can't allow myself to get too attached to anything in something I'm writing. If I get invested in it, the revision process is that much harder because I'm less willing to change something.

Big D will agree (heartily, I imagine!) that I have a hard time admitting when I'm wrong. That's probably one of my issues with revising. If something needs to change, doesn't that mean it was "wrong" to begin with? When my ego gets involved, big problems ensue. Between my ego and my constantly critical internal editor, it's a wonder I ever get anything written. I'm working on getting my internal editor to shut up during the initial writing process and hopefully learning to enjoy (or at least tolerate) the editing process.

There's an irony to my recent realizations. When I was in college, I took a Shakespeare class. The professor was right out of central casting - tweed jackets with suede elbow patches, zip-up leather ankle boots, twinkling eyes with slight crows feet and just the right amount of gray hair. He even smoked a pipe. His assignments drove me batty. "Pick a phrase, a word or a concept from the play and let it open up for you and give me a four page paper." He'd say in his scholarly manner. I'd think, what the hell does that mean "let it open up?" How the hell am I going to get a four page paper out of a word or a phrase in the play? I even went to his office to ask him and all I remember is him saying "Think about the phrase you've chosen and what it means to you. Then start writing." I don't remember anything I wrote about in that class but I know I struggled.

Twenty years later and I think I get it now. You can't wait until you have everything figured out before you start writing. You have pick something that has meaning for you and let it happen, let the writing flow. If you try to control everything, it'll be like pulling teeth. I always thought writing was about imparting wisdom that you already have. And sometimes it is. But now I know that the writing process itself teaches me.

Now that I've edited at least one piece and made it better, I should have more confidence in my ability to do it. The piece that was published in Mosaic Minds started out in a totally different direction. But after getting great comments from Big D and my writers' group, I understood that the ending didn't work at all. So I sat down and started to rework it. Suddenly I came up with a different ending that worked much better. That's when I remembered my college crush and was able to reflect on the lessons I learned from that situation.

I'm currently working on something that is making me think about the things that influence who we are and who we become. I don't learn much from simply pondering an issue. But if I write about characters that are dealing with or impacted by the issue, that's when I learn. I have no idea what I think about this topic right now but ask me once I've finished writing something. Then I'll have an opinion!


landismom said...

This post is very insightful. I think that I have the same problem a lot of the time, and my best writing is done when I forget about the preconceptions that I had when I started something and just see where it goes.

catherine said...

This is awesome. I'm going to print it out and read it to my high school seniors. I make them do "vomit drafts" and a lot of them can't "open up and let it come."
Also, working on Nanowrimo this month, I have to keep reminding myself to stop editing and just let it come.

Jessica said...

Catherine - You flatter me! I'm glad you liked it.

Although I'm not working on Nanowrimo, I am working on a story that I think has the potential to be novel length. But I realize (after working on it a little for a couple of days) that 1600+ words a day is HARD!

Waterfall said...

Nice post. I'm not sure how I found your blog, but I'm glad I found it!

MIM said...

You said it, woman. That's actually why I like blogging. I start with a line and the post just takes on a life of its own. By writing crappy drafts, I see what I'm really trying to say. If we want to write, we've got to embrace the crap that comes with the process! You go!