Tagwriting

How I write (part one)

As a follow-up to my pizza-induced insistence that everyone must find their own way to write, I thought I’d share my process. This is how writing a novel goes for me (I’ll talk about short stories in a different post).

I start with a character. Sometimes more than one, but at least one who’s been on my mind for a while. I generally have an end. Hopefully, a few ideas about things that happen on the way to the end.

I take what I have, I open a fresh document on the computer, and I begin to write. The first five to ten pages, those are just warmup material. I’ve yet to start any story, of any length, exactly where it needs to start.

Once I get past the warmup, then I begin to have a sense of where things are going. It’s a bit like slowly being drawn into a river’s current. I’m swirling in the eddies, my destination is impossibly far away, but I can feel the pull of the water starting to give me direction.

I write. I write and write, and when things go well, I think about what I’ll be working on the next day as I fall asleep at night, and I wake up excited to start. It helps if I write consistently. Too much time off and I drift back to the shore, and it’s hard to get moving again.

I write too much. Technically it’s too much. In truth, it all feels necessary at the time. I write scenes about hanging out by the river, about sitting inside on rainy days and reading books in bed. I write long sections about sitting by the ocean as the waves pound. These scenes do nothing for the plot, but they’re my way of connecting with the characters.

Those characters… sometimes they start out clear, but usually they start out like the stones you find on a dirt trail–rough, dull, nondescript. By the end, if I’ve done my job right, if all those extra scenes have helped, then they feel like river rocks to me, those stones washed so smooth that your hand just aches to hold them.

It’s not the most expedient way to write, and if I were trying to write something with a specific (and close) deadline, I’d be more likely to outline and keep everything neat and tidy. For where I am now as a writer, it works just fine. Eventually I reach the end, and I celebrate with something big, like taking a shower, or going for a walk.

Then…well, I’ll save that for the next post.

Brief thoughts on pizza and writing

Friday nights we have pizza for dinner. In our house, pizza night means making a yeast dough from scratch, and either using sauce I made with fresh tomatoes over the summer, or starting with a can of crushed tomatoes. Either way, it’s a process. It works well for us. I’ve done it for enough years that it takes little thought on my part, and everyone enjoys the end product.

But it’s not the right approach for lots of people looking for pizza on a Friday night. That’s totally fine with me. I don’t judge people who don’t make their pizzas from scratch. I don’t think my homemade pizza is inherently superior to any other pizza out there. In the end, I do it because I take pleasure in the experience, and my family does as well.

My philosophy about writing is more or less the same. Learn what works for you and do it. It doesn’t make it the right way for everyone. It also doesn’t make it wrong if other writers don’t work the same way. Our minds are weird creations. They are full of trapdoors, and secret passages, and staircases leading nowhere. The trick is not to learn to rebuild your mind to look like someone else’s, but to learn to navigate yours in all its chaotic glory.

Assertiveness

A quote, from Jhumpa Lahiri:

“And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, “Listen to me.””

It’s a curiosity to me how I stopped writing for so many years, and started again writing something very different from I once had. I think both stopping and starting stemmed completely from willfulness, from my need to find it.

The quote comes from her wonderful personal essay in the New Yorker about becoming a writer, “Trading Stories.” You can read the whole thing here. I thoroughly recommend it. (And yes, it is from last June’s issue, but when you read your New Yorkers as hand-me-downs, your reading schedule is a little slower than most.)

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