Settle in. This is a long one. I’m going to try to answer the question: How do you write? It’s a question about process, about routine, and one I want to quiz other writers on too — how the heck do you do it? What does your day look like? How do you organize yourself to conceive, research, and complete large projects?
Is there a secret set of rituals? And if so, can I access that, please?
I always forget, by the time a book is published, how it was written. I retain a vague memory of the timeline, but the days and weeks and months and years muddle together, and so I create a new narrative: the how I wrote this book narrative. It’s highly romanticized in retrospect.
The bad news: there is no magic formula, or if there is, I’ve never figured it out.
This past year, from January till December of 2017, I’ve been writing a new novel. I just finished what I’m calling Draft Three. Let this post be a record of how I wrote it, while the memory remains fresh in my mind. (To be fair and frank, this novel’s conception includes two failed novels written between 2014-2106, both weird cousins to this one, but that’s another story.)
Here’s how I wrote this book, Drafts One through Three.
Step one: I didn’t stop writing it, even after the lousy first draft. (My first drafts are always lousy; 100% guaranteed; but if I’m bored with a novel after the first draft I take it as a sign to move on to something new.) I finished a sort-of version of a first draft in April. How lousy was it? It didn’t even have an ending. But it existed, and its characters existed. So that was an accomplishment. In case there are clues that I can follow later, here’s how I wrote this early draft: Due to my concussion, I couldn’t work on a screen for any length of time, nor was I exercising early in the morning. From January – March, I set my alarm and rose at 6am, three or four mornings a week, and wrote until 7:30am, when it was time to help get the kids to school. I wrote in my office, in pajamas, wrapped in a blanket, sitting in my great-aunt Alice’s rocking chair by the window. I wrote by hand, in pen or pencil, in a notebook. That’s all the time I put into it. Sometimes I was so tired, I would close my eyes and drift back to sleep. The light on those mornings was inky black changing to blue black and indigo as the sun rose. There were a lot of crows in the trees. Often, I wouldn’t know what storyline or scene might arise when I sat down. It felt dreamlike. In April, when my head was better, I arranged for a full writing week. I transferred the pencil scratches to my laptop, adding material, trying to complete the book. But no.
Step two: Keep writing, even when hopelessly pressed for time. The book wasn’t done. I started teaching in May. I carted my notebook and pencil to campus and spent an hour before class, writing in my office. That hour, twice weekly, was the sum total of my time (mental and actual) available for writing. Life imposes its own demands at times, unavoidable and all-consuming. At the end of June, I arranged another writing week and attempted to finish the novel, using the new notebook material. Still no ending, but complete enough to warrant printing it out: I called this Draft One. In July, the English department assigned two more instructors to my shared office, and they overlapped with my office hours, so I stopped writing on campus. I felt deeply discouraged. I’d lost my writing space, couldn’t solve the problems in draft two, kids were out of school, soccer season in full swing, I was marking and reading student stories, etc. I satisfied my need to write (which is constant and near-daily) by writing along with my students inside and outside of class.
Step three: Embrace inspiration when it arrives. In August, on our family holiday to Quebec, I brought along some books to read. One was Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett, a favourite writer of mine. While reading it, I had a brainwave: a different approach to my novel. I remember exactly where I was: in a leather chair overlooking the indoor pool surrounded by fake tropicals and rococo plaster statuary. It would mean rewriting my novel from scratch. You might think this sounds exhausting. I felt exhilarated. Marking completed, August offered many opportunities for writing time. The week after returning from Quebec, I wrote every day. Again, I wrote in my notebook by hand. This time, I transferred the text immediately to my laptop, rewriting and revising as I went. But a major plot problem loomed, confirmed by research.
Step four: Don’t be afraid to play! In the middle of August, I spent a week in New York State at a writing workshop with Lynda Barry and Dan Chaon. The exercises were unrelated to my novel, and I didn’t try to link them up, but in that open playful environment, ideas flowed freely, my mind was uncluttered. On a walk on the second evening, a solution to the major plot problem floated in. Every evening, I went to our classroom space and worked on the novel, with freedom and joy. When I sat down to write, I followed Lynda Barry’s ritual: I listened to a song and drew an attendance cartoon; then I wrote for 3 minutes to dump out whatever was on my mind (this may be my own addition to the ritual); and then I got to work. Back home, I wrote as often as possible on weekdays. At the end of August, at my dad and stepmother’s cottage, I wrote every day, in 2-3 hour stretches morning and afternoon, kayaked before dinner, and spent the rest of the time with my family. Home again, I continued to write, whenever I could squeeze it in, even after school started and I was back to teaching. By the end of September, I was done. This time, my novel had an ending. I printed it and called it Draft Two.
Step five: Don’t stop now. Kevin read Draft Two. I was hoping he would say: this is brilliant, send it to your agent! He did not. Re-reading it, I agreed. I got back to work. This required identifying potential writing days each week, keeping these days clear, guarding them jealously, jamming errands and volunteer work and teaching and marking and answering email into the other days. I aimed for two or three writing days each week; not always possible. Again, I wrote by hand in my notebook, then transferred to screen. I started my writing time with a song and a cartoon. The momentum at this point became relentless. I could not turn myself off.
I finished. Draft Three.
As I reflect on these stages, I notice that the early gathering stage requires some small amount of regular time, the creation of a routine that allowed me to sit down and gather scraps, though I couldn’t quite see what I was making. But the later work required great swathes of time and focus. Just ask my family. For example, last Saturday, I decided to go through Draft Three line by line, and without considering the consequences sat down in my office around 10am. I proceeded to sit for hours and hours without eating or drinking or moving. Kevin dragged me out to a carol sing with friends around 2:30pm. Socially, I was almost useless. Home again, I drifted instantly back to my office, forgetting to eat or drink. Supper came and went. I did not move. I broke away, but returned around midnight, overtaken by another idea. This week, I was supposed to be marking my students’ final stories. But I had to finish the book. Do you see. I had to finish. It’s almost an addiction, I would have to say. The switch gets flipped and I can’t turn it off.
This is why I resist, sometimes, sitting down to write. Yet it’s the only way to finish a major project.
Here is one last thought. I work like this, this obsessively, on projects that fail, too. There is no guarantee that obsessive attention will result in success. However, the desire to continue pouring energy into a project, obsessively, has, in the past, allowed me to write books I’m truly proud of. Sometimes a project is dead, and I know it and accept it. But a project that lives tells me too. A living yet unresolved project feels like an itch deep inside my brain, almost painful; I know something is missing and I’m not sure how to fix it, but if I allow myself to sit with dissatisfaction, to hold cognitive discomfort, if I trust myself and trust the process, a new idea inevitably comes, a new thread to play with. The experiment begins again, afresh. I work and work and work until I run out of time or I finish what I’ve started.
It is painful to run out of time, but life needs time, too. I’ve sacrificed a lot of family time in order to write. I have and I do. I must, if I’m to write. Writing is my life’s work. I’m beginning to accept what that means. Sometimes there is no balance in the balancing act.
This is how I write.
P.S. Kevin is reading Draft Three now. I’ll keep you posted. Back to marking …
I am standing in a stream of sunlight that warms me to my bones, despite the cold air. The sun is low in the sky during this season, this month, my least favourite. I’m walking the dogs, both of whom have cancer, both of whom still seem to enjoy being alive. My youngest and I are waiting at the corner where he meets a friend for the walk to school. We are early. He says, Let’s talk about something!
The wish to be writing is deeply on my mind. The messages I send to myself through my cartoons give me a hit of confidence I can’t access otherwise. How much I want to finish writing this book, but more, how much I long for it to be a beautiful creation, beautifully written. Do I still know how? The fear of my own brain and its lack is profound.
I am in the kitchen, making a salad for supper. No one else is home; they’ve all gone to a soccer game. I am leading a workshop in less than hour and I’ve turned on the radio in a form of panic that is slowing my every move to a crawl. I could hardly turn off the computer and stop writing—editing—the scene I worked on earlier today. Already, it is very dark outside. I pick away at the plastic box of greens, bought on special, most of the leaves covered in slime, viscous and clingy, while the news tells me about Justin Trudeau’s exchange with President Duterte of the Philippines. Trudeau’s version is rosy, while in his Duterte swears and says Bullshit! Trudeau seems quintessentially Canadian in the way that I suspect I can be—Pollyanna-ish. Chirping about the possibility: not about what is, but what might be, what we wish it to be. Like this salad. I wash the grossest leaves and put them into the bowl. I chop an avocado. Do you have time for this? Yet I am calm and deliberate. Add the word meditation after any activity and you will find your approach changes. You sink into the greens, their individual peculiarities invite you to notice—red veins, stems, the smallest leaves are toughest and least affected by the slime.
I bike past two men walking in the park. As I pass, I hear one say to the other: “So this woman is really into baking cakes …” Whatever I was expecting to hear, it was not this.
I am standing in a stream of sunlight, wishing every hour of every day were spent standing in a stream of sunlight. I crave warmth. I crave comfort in all forms. I am writing a scene in which my character, an older woman, cannot look at the world without seeing its potential for danger, risk, misery, grief. Everywhere she looks. I think the woman is me, today. It is not that I am sad, exactly, only that I see how limited we are in the span of our lifetimes to alter the direction toward which human experience leans. I admire the human spirit. We make beauty out of grief, song from sorrow, we find ways to cope, to share our joys; but we seem also to be wired to damage and destroy so much of what we create, either by accident or design. I seem to walk around in a constant state of grief and outrage. I yell at the Style section of the Globe: you shouldn’t be allowed to sell pants for $3000! It’s immoral, it should be illegal! Why do the rich seek to enrich themselves further? Why is greed a fundamental operating principle? Why are those with the least blamed and shamed for what they do not have? Why do I have so much when so many have so little, not even security, not even a home?
I am standing in the sunlight. Let’s talk about something, my youngest says. Okay, I say, what do you want to talk about? I hope it is about moose or elk or eagles. I hope it is about the way bears and frogs hibernate. I hope it is about how high he can climb the dead apple tree in our backyard and what he sees when he’s at the top.
It’s a gorgeous fall day. I’m getting ready to go for a bike ride, followed by some writing time. Yet it feels like my inward landscape, my interior weather is at odds with the beauty of the day. My inward landscape and weather is affected by who knows how many forces, some obvious, some unwanted, some self-imposed, some hormonal, some downright mysterious and I’m thinking that right now I can’t sort out what, exactly, is making me unhappy. Because that is what I am. I am eaten with anxiety, abuzz with nervous energy, my mind whirling, distracted, bewildered, impatient, upset. On my brief run this morning, I attempted to be mindful: pay attention to the sounds around me, pay attention to what I was seeing, pay attention to smells (not good — it was garbage day). Within seconds, my mind was already flitting down dark alleyways of repetitive negative thought. I would bring it back to the streetlight shining on a pile of wet leaves, but a few steps later, my mind was gone again, chasing thoughts that feed on misery.
Why would my mind want to feed on misery? Why wouldn’t it, instead, be drawn to the sound of my feet making a rhythmic beat on the pavement? Why not sink into the sound of breath, patterning with the beat of my feet?
I have upon my back a straw. I either have to figure out how to contain it, how to compartmentalize my responsibilities so as to contain it and carry it, or the straw is going to break me.
That is what I’m thinking about today, as I prepare to climb onto my bike and pedal across town, with the hopes of finding a new scene for my book. My books needs many new scenes. That is the other news of the day, but that does not discourage me. I love these characters — why would I not want to spend more time with them?
Wish me luck, friends. So much depends upon it.
A person wonders whether she can carry home the things she learned, whether transformation in a radically different setting from home is sustainable. A person yearns to be the self she was while she was away. But a person knows, coming home is coming back to a crowd of needs waiting to be met. Even the house needs her. A person has so many loves. Loves are obligations but loves are also earned and cherished and what would a person write about were she to have no loves to tend to?
I can hold two oppositional thoughts in my head at the same time. I want to go home. I miss my family. I want to stay forever in this ridiculously rich creative space.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m home from Omega, in upstate New York, home from the Lynda Barry + Dan Chaon workshop, a 5-day intensive experience in a summer-camp-like setting, with an amazing yoga class every morning, ultra-healthy vegetarian/vegan food served three times daily, virtually no responsibilities, no chores, and perhaps most critically, almost no emotional labour except for the work that poured onto the page. My mind was uncluttered and immediately more open to images and connections. Will I be able to be joyful, I wondered on the evening we arrived, will my spirit find lightness? Is it still possible? I had my answer in less than a day: yes. It was so easy, under the circumstances, to be playful, attuned to what’s under the surface, easy to meet any challenge.
Writing isn’t easy, but it’s enjoyable, said Lynda Barry. She likened it to seeing runners go by in the middle of the day, and you can tell they’re enjoying it, but you never once think, hey, that looks easy. Writing — it’s the same. What this week kindled in me is a fire for the writing. For the possibility in writing, which is seductive to someone who entertains as rich a fantasy life as I do.
After Lynda Barry said goodbye, on the last morning, Dan Chaon, with whom she co-taught this workshop, helped us debrief our experience. Someone asked him about writing to an audience, and his answer had me in tears. It must have answered something very deep inside me, something neglected, lost, forgotten. I’m writing to my peers, he said. I’m writing to the writers I love, my kindred spirits.
I’m writing to my peers.
Am I capable of thinking of the writers I admire as peers? How does it change my mind and body to think: I am writing to Helen Oyeyemi. I am writing to Rumi. I am writing to Eden Robinson. I am writing to Ann Patchett, to Rilke, to Mavis Gallant, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to Mary Oliver. Feelings of love and awe and excitement come over me. I am writing so my work will speak to their work. In Lynda Barry’s classroom, we show our drawings to each other, but we also show our drawing to each other’s drawings. It sounds flaky, but it’s a reminder: this work, once created, lives a life separate from our own.
On Wednesday, I walked the labyrinth on campus, and spent a lot of time writing — my own writing, not guided writing. It was late in the evening. I decided to do one last project before snack and bed, something I’d been wanting to do for awhile: make the Rilke poem I’ve memorized and repeat often into a little cartoon. For the pictures, I looked at my peers’ attendance cards, hanging from the walls, and I chose images that seemed to speak to the words in the panel, and I copied them as best I could. All the drawings are drawings I admired, made by hands and minds I did not know. Then I taped the cartoon to the classroom wall and left it there for the rest of the week.
It was the kind of space that makes a person want to leave behind gifts. But on the last day, I untaped the cartoon from the wall and brought it home. It was the kind of space that makes a person want to believe she can bring what she found there home.
I know we were in another world, a bubble of creative vibes and chickpea scramble, but what was happening in the world was with us too, if at a remove. I mean, there we were in the United States of America during the week when the president spoke out in support of Nazis. There was pain and confusion in that classroom too. This feels like a crisis, said Lynda Barry, doesn’t it feel like a crisis? And everyone said yes. We are facing a crisis. What are we going to do about it? What are we going to do?
She didn’t have an answer. She just had us knuckle down and draw ourselves as a dejected Batman, draw the statue of Liberty with our eyes closed, make a map of a familiar walking path. And then she made us show our neighbour.
xo, Carrie aka Treetop Annie
1. I am eleven years old and the stadium is enormous. The track is long and hard and black and very hot. I am wearing beat-up runners, the laces dirty, and I am sure that I am amazing. The sky opens around me. I could throw up. The white lines are chalked in. After the gun goes off, we stay in our lanes until we reach a certain mark, and then we funnel in together. The stands hum with kids, teachers, some parents (not mine), and underneath the stands the light filters in stripes and the ground is wet with spilled drinks. When I run I am not afraid, only that I won’t win; I must win. Afterward, under the stands, a teacher congratulates me in a teasing way, and I am offended by his tone. Why should he act surprised? Did he not see my brilliance? The way I ran down the tall girl in grade seven, the way I opened up a lead with 300 metres to go? The way I could not, thereafter, be caught.
2. It is going to rain. I park my bike and lock it. The underside of the stands is a sticky zone of concrete splashed with soda and dripping popsicles, spilled popcorn, children in pinnies darting, and I am too late. Rushing up from underneath and out into the seats, I see her bright yellow shirt at the finish line. The race just over. I did not see her run! I can’t stop telling people, even though it disappoints them unnecessarily, how I missed the moment. The moment was there and is gone.
3. She is sturdy and wonderful and fleet and strong. She runs so hard she will throw up, crawling off to the edge of the track, afterward. She has run faster than the girls a year old, faster than every girl on the track, and with an ease and power that I am certain I could never match, nor never did match. When she stops running, two years from now, what will I do? She waits in full sunlight beside the stands while I take her picture, her eyes squinting. “Wait,” I say. “Let me take another!” But she is impatient. She doesn’t care about pictures. She is unpinned in time.
4. Last year, in grade six, I was the fastest girl in the school. I won two red ribbons racing the 800 metres (harder for me) and the 1500 metres (I could have run forever, it felt like). What has changed? The stadium is the same, the same spilled drinks under the stands, the same open sky as I step out from under the stands and into the heart of this place–grass field and oval track, little black stones, white chalk lines. I will lose the pace in the 800 metres; I won’t even attempt the 1500 metres; and in my new speciality, the hurdles, I will hit several. I won’t fall, but I won’t win. Everything is the same except for me. I shouldn’t have cut my long, long hair. I shouldn’t have gotten older. I don’t know myself at all. My capacity for suffering is diminished and I will never again win a red ribbon at a track meet.
5. There is no last track meet. There will always be more. The light will always slant through the stadium seating, the canteen will always serve popcorn and icy sugar drinks, the teachers will always tell you where to stand and remain surprised at who you are and what you can do; or surprisingly disinterested, just as irritating. There will always be safety pins to attach the coloured ribbons to your shirt, fluttering, proof of your achievements. You will always feel sick before your race. You will fight the feeling that you can’t bear to lose. You will have to live with it, live with the possibility of losing. You will sublimate your competitiveness, you will try to bury it. You will become a nice person. You will miss the uncomplicated, greedy, gritty child whose cells you have shed, entirely.
Something rather odd about my life right now is how much time and energy I devote to doing things that are outside the realm of my natural inclinations (and, I might add, training and talents). As someone who could happily hole up for hours and days, reading, researching, thinking, writing, completely in my own head, alone, I find myself surrounded by people almost constantly, and often in a position of leadership, influence, or decision-making. Writing is almost about absence, about sublimating the self to the work, but teaching, coaching and parenting require presence — and not only that, they require a presence. I can’t merely observe and reflect, I have to express my observations verbally, often immediately, without time to weigh my words, in response to whatever is happening in the moment. It’s like doing improv. Some people are born to express themselves in this way. I’ve had to learn it. I’m still learning it. I will never stop learning it. I was a shy child, a tongue-tied adolescent, happy in the company of a best friend rather than a crowd, and I’ve always preferred the scripted scene to the unscripted one. I wish I were a bigger personality, sometimes. I wish I liked tap-dancing in the spotlight.
But what can I say? I’ll just have to go on being myself.
One of my favourite professors in undergrad was so painfully shy that you almost had to strain to hear him. He lectured to a spot on the floor, or gazing out the window over our heads, caught up in his train of thought. Yet I remember him well, his gentleness and humanity. So maybe being a presence is inconsequential in comparison to simply showing up, simply being present, being yourself. Why yearn endlessly to be who we are not? Why not, instead, accept, embrace, trust and marvel at who we are, and how even with our limited capacities we are able, nevertheless, to do and be more than we could have imagined?
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing that is more than your own.