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 sitting near the window in my dining room. The kettle is rattling on the stove. So far, I’ve scarcely glanced out the window, except to acknowledge that I am sitting near enough to it to see out. But it occurs to me that it’s the window over the kitchen sink where I should write this, and the kettle is now nearly at the boil, so I will be going there — now.
I choose a tea made for relaxation and stand at the window looking out over the sink. My timing is poor — the subjects I’d intended to observe are coming inside. Why? Because they are done — the older child beat the younger one at a game of soccer, played with a mini ball and nets. The older one tells me the score but I do not remember it long enough to write it down. I see now that the yard is growing dark and it will be difficult to observe much of anything. A neighbour’s porch light glows bright yellow from beyond the back fence — far away, but the brightest thing there this is. Green leaves still hang on the branches of the big maple, moving fitfully in the breeze. The leaves on the black walnut are of a lighter green, almost yellow, pointier, and hang like drips, trembling. The sky has gone the colour of bath water, clouds pale like veins or striations of veins.
I have the sensation of already having written all of this, of having stood here writing these words, already, before, as if there were nothing new in them. And yet. And yet the very sureness of their existence is the surprise — that they are known or flow from me as if already known. I hear the youngest begin to sing in the shower; the bathroom’s just off the kitchen. He is singing his own version of the Spanish words to Despacito.
I see plane lights blink red and white across the darkening sky. By the time I write down the words that prove they exist, they are gone. I glance back up to confirm it — gone. The leaves now look like hair overhanging swampland. I see in the window my own face, reflected against the blackening surface. This is not what I came here to see. Tired and ghostly. The youngest emerges in a towel, leaving sopping wet footprints across the tiles.
“I’m cold, Mama.”
All the writers I read about, the ones I long to emulate, write in longhand on lined yellow notepads. Well, I think, this will have to do.
I am writing this in block letters into a notebook, standing up, staring out of a dark window at my own face whose reflection can’t escape being sectioned by the shining porch light, while the youngest, now in pajamas, returns to guzzle water. He stands far too near to me. The sound of the water being gulped and gasped down his wide open throat — “Dogs can’t drink water like people, Mom!” — disgusts me irrationally. He belches. His chest is bare. He is gone.
I’ve now written long past the clock. Will my students do the same? Will they get lost in their own windows?
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.
The space across the street from our house is being turned into a park. Many of my front yard photos from the past 14 years have featured this little white house, above. That’s a demolition sign tacked onto its front porch, and a metal fence erected around it. Work began last week.
As you can see, the little white house is no more. I was out of the house on the day it came down. The children had a PD day, so I left them to their own devices and exited the scene. I biked to campus and worked like a student in a library carrel, which was blissful. I do have an office, but it’s cramped, weirdly hot, and shared with four other people. The library is infinitely preferable. Anyway, when I got home, the little white house was gone. It had been standing that morning and by late afternoon was nothing but a pile of rubble with a large machine sitting atop. I must confess I was sad to have missed the excitement. I’m the classic nosy neighbour character, observing the proceedings (any proceedings, really) out of various windows and from behind the screen of lilac bushes. In my absence, none of the children watched, apparently. They just complained about the noise. Can you imagine complaining about the noise — the noise of a house getting knocked down! — and not going out to watch? Whose children are these?
Here is the lot after it got cleaned up. A dump truck was kept very busy. A few more buildings are slated to fall before the park space is completely opened up, so I will keep you posted. Our view is changing.
To get slightly philosophical, before I go pick up my eldest from his part-time job (he bikes to get there, but I don’t like him biking home after dark), I’ve been reflecting on how much dedicated effort and organization it took to clean up the rubble across the street. From one house. With at least three expert-looking people on the site and a dump truck, a large digger machine, a porta-potty and safety fencing at their disposal. And then I think about places devastated by this season’s storms, like Puerto Rico or Houston, and I can’t wrap my head around the effort it will take to clean up and rebuild.
In other news, I’m back to coaching soccer again. Tryouts for next season are already underway (believe it or not). And I’m teaching. So writing time is precious and fleeting and jammed in, but I have to tell you, it’s happening. I’m making it happen! Last night I wrote The End on a first draft — a complete first draft! I have no perspective on its objective merits at this particular moment in time, but I feel ELATED. I truly do. All day, I felt like running around yelling and screaming the news. (But I didn’t.) (I’m so low-key. I’m only telling you guys).
Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, fires.
But ordinary life goes on, and outside my window is a cool Friday evening, with sunlight splashing shadows through the still-green leaves of early September. I wrote today. After a week of disappointing attempts to write, this was truly a gift. I wrote with a friend, and when we were done, we read to each other what we’d just written, and that was the most magical part of all — that joy of sharing what did not exist only an hour before. I may have to add this point to my manifesto (see below): read what you’ve written to an appreciative audience immediately upon writing it!
re the manifest0: On one of the last days at the cottage, I wrote out a set of reminders for myself, in an attempt not to lose what I’d gained. But then I got home, and it was all too much — the hours of each day consumed themselves, often quite wonderfully, but with only a few words set to page, and the words seemed weak, the magic drained from them by the heaviness of early mornings, forms to be filled, course prep, answering emails I’d abandoned, meals, scheduling, driving children, walking dogs, and on and on. That is why this afternoon’s blissful writing time was such a gift.
For the record, here’s my message to myself, from the office overlooking the lake.
Something I am learning is that writing by hand is actually the very quickest way to access a character or a scene. Something has changed for me over the past year, and at an accelerated pace this past month (the beautiful amazing writing and resting month of August, 2017, as I shall hereafter recall it). In my hand and on the page, I find access to fiction. This book has been a long time coming to fruition, and perhaps that is due in part to my needing to learn a new way to write and think — the Lynda Barry way (but also the post-concussion way). When this book is done, I will dedicate it to my friend Lisa, who introduced me to Lynda Barry. The detail and complexity of thought that arises now that I’ve trained my hand to listen, to be a force in motion, to be the leader, not the follower, of my thoughts — it astonishes me daily.
The other key to freedom, which I must share with my students, is the lack of a delete button when writing by hand. It sounds so obvious, but if I were writing this on-screen, I would have just gone back and deleted a whole line — probably not an important thought, but nevertheless it would have vanished forever. Here on the page, even a crossed-out line still exists. And there is an impetus to push forward, not to recreate and reattempt what one has already written, but to find out where the somewhat misshapen present is taking one.
I am not permitting myself to delete when I’m writing on the laptop, when I transcribe material — this is the first draft, I’m telling myself, and it can be refined later. I allow myself to add more words, but not to delete. The draft needs to exist as it stands, for now, until it is complete.
I will also print my drafts when they are done.
I’m writing this like a manifesto for my future self, as a reminder!
Something else to remember, for later: the back of the mind needs to know it has time and space to come forward — permission to come forward. That is why ritual is so important, and timed writing is so important, because it is training the back of the mind to trust, and the front of the mind to trust, too. Give it time! I must commit to 2.5 hours every day, if possible, and sacrifice all else. [Future self says: bloody hell, are you ever optimistic, cottage self!] What will this look like in practical terms? I hardly dare ask. I think the habit is imperative, no matter what project I’m working on, now and in the future.
Priorities. I need to stop taking on responsibilities I haven’t got time to learn how to do, or to do well. Instead, I want and intend to focus on what I already do well. Writing. Writing writing writing! I am a writer unleashed! The only person who is messing with my priorities is me. I can see that clearly now. I have put all kinds of blocks and obstacles into my own path as a writer. This may be out of fear. Fear that I will run out of things to say, fear that I’m really not that talented. Fear I’m delusional.
But right now, at the peak of this surge back into writing, I want to laugh at myself, gently mock myself, and say, hey, not everything you write needs to be published. That doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. You’re the one who is going to determine your own writing future, not anyone else. It’s weirdly true, I can see. I can’t determine prizes and publishing deals and grants and recognition and audience, but that is immaterial — material and immaterial. It’s the identity that makes all the difference. It’s being a writer, inhabiting the body of a writer, loving the mind of a writer, making space for this writer, time for writing, challenging myself to difficult tasks, challenging projects, pushing myself to do this thing I believe I was born to do.
And stop undoing all that I’ve done to get here. Stop ignoring where I am and how I’ve gotten here. Stop undermining myself.
I don’t mean to become arrogant. I mean to become fully myself. Sorry, fourteen-year-old daughter of mine, I do believe a person can grow and change. I do. I’ve seen myself at so many different stages, witnessed real change, seen my body change and my mind too. I know this is possible, it is possible to be a writer and be comfortable being a writer. It is possible to nourish and feed myself as a writer, and damn well to do the writing. Damn well do it.
Oh Lord, I want to keep doing it. I don’t want this holiday at the cottage to end. I want every morning to sit at my desk and write. So do it [says cottage self to cowering future self]. Do it, and sacrifice in other areas instead. Experience the discomfort of that. The discomfort of honouring your work and your vocation above your other responsibilities.
End of manifesto.
Note to self: read this post whenever you’re feeling lost, confused, down, uncertain, anxious, whenever you’ve lost faith. Read this post!
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