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 …
In the past couple of creative writing courses I’ve taught, I’ve devoted an entire class to listening to and writing fairy tales. Why? Sometimes I introduce an exercise without fully understanding its necessity, until I’ve been through it several times. After my fairy tale class yesterday, my brain was spinning, like I’d learned how to spin flax into gold. I may not entirely understand why the fairy tale is so valuable to listen to and enter into, but I’m getting closer.
Fairy tales are full of archetypal imagery: images that are powerful and timeless, even if they may be interpreted differently by different cultures and in different eras. Brothers and sisters; transformations; talking beasts; wise women and witches; kings and queens; red shoes; axes; forests; water. As we wrote our own fairy tales, some of these images no doubt found their way into our stories, and we knew they had meaning beyond themselves, we understood it at gut level. A dark forest conjures a meaning different from a river; the moon means something different from the sun; the power of a witch is different from the power of a king or a queen. Maybe we also understood that the meaning of these images was somehow malleable, too, and that we could work with it, we could subvert it, we could make it our own—we understood that meaning shifts. Sometimes it’s even our duty to shift meaning or fight against it.
Fairy tales are by their nature grim, even gruesome; the characters suffer horrors and sorrow that is difficult to comprehend. And yet the stories are told in a way that makes them enjoyable to listen to—not frightening, but compelling. One of the hardest tasks as a writer is to write about trauma without traumatizing the reader: fairy tales do exactly that. How do fairy tales protect us, even as they reveal traumatic narratives? Perhaps it is in part our detachment from their one-dimensional characters. But I think protection also relies on the use of archetypes to contain and control horror, and shape meaning.
What is the difference between meaning that is political or ideological and meaning that is literary? The world is not magical. In other words, what happens to us is not meaningful, in and of itself. We make it magical: we create the meaning. We impose shape onto the events we witness, onto our own experiences, onto the random gathering of routines, activities, sights and sounds, interactions and reactions that make up our lives—much of what falls through and into our lives is like the weather, out of our control. This could be terrifying, paralyzing. It is not a truth our brains accept easily; in fact, our brains are built to create narrative to explain the randomness, to comfort ourselves, in order to survive and to thrive. The same source of comfort drives our impulse toward religion, politics, and poetry: narrative. We need narrative because we need meaning. Meaning comes from shape, pattern, images that carry thematic weight, from threads being pulled together to weave a tapestry that is so satisfying to our brains that we don’t care that it’s not real because it feels real—it feels as it should.
Why do we seek to understand the motive of a man wielding an AR-15 in a church? (I’ve been wondering and wondering about this, because in my opinion, trying to pin down a motive in cases like this is a waste of our collective energy; but most news media would disagree.) There may be a fundamentally human reason driving this search: because without motive there’s no sense of cause and effect, there is only shapeless unformed chaos resulting in death and grief. Audiences want their stories to make sense, and the news media are storytellers and we are their audience. Think of all the different ways we impose narrative on the world around us—my interest is largely literary, but political narratives are inevitable and create competing storylines that truly fail to intersect. Some narratives exclude, lock out, imprison rather than connect.
How can literary narratives help us? By creating empathy—through windows and doors, through the lens of another’s eyes. By refusing to be ideological. By appealing to our human frailty and flaws—by showing us our possibilities and our hopes, and our failures. By releasing us from our humanness, too, sometimes, the way that fairy tales do. Fiction is inherently unrealistic (even so-called realism). Fiction will always be much more and much less than reality is—it contains both too much or too little of reality to be real. Fiction is interpretation. Fiction pushes the writer to identify what matters in whatever moment is being described. It creates magic inside of us all of a sudden! We become magical when we write and also when we read, because we are transforming what is into what could be—a recreation that has substance, shape, and meaning.
Something from something, as Etger Keret writes.
I wrote this in a white heat of emotionless thought after yesterday’s class, as if it were tearing from me whole: the reason I write, the power of writing, the value of it.
“The world is not magical. We make it magical all of a sudden inside of us.” – Silvana Ocampo
Write these words on my heart.
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).
I cannot honestly believe that I am writing a book by hand.
In August, I started this manuscript over from scratch, writing each new chapter by hand. Many of the chapters were originally written by hand, so for many of these pieces, I am writing them by hand more than once. That’s a lot of pages in a lot of notebooks. It is excruciatingly slow, in terms of how many words I can produce in one sitting.
And yet, I trust the process. It is like cooking from scratch. Takes a lot longer, worth the wait.
What I say to myself, when approaching a new character, a new scene, or when reworking material in a new way, is this: you have to translate it. Most of the scenes already exist in some form—I’m solidifying a plot-line that already exists. But each scene feels new, in this new iteration, and so it must, in order to be exciting. It feels like a process of translation, like I’m taking dead scenes and bringing them to life with the power of my hand, which seems to know more about life and aliveness than my brain does.
But it is so much work. It requires a patience and degree of determination that feels almost herculean, almost too much for my mind to bear. Yet I want so badly to finish this project. At this point, that is what is driving my ability to continue—the desire to finish. The desire to see this story through to its end. The desire to let these characters live, not just inside my head, but for real, on the page, accessible by the minds and imaginations of anyone else who can read.
It is such an intense struggle, it is difficult to put it into words. It is also so extremely satisfying, I would almost call it excruciatingly satisfying when I’m finished a scene and can read it, shocked and surprised by what’s been discovered. It feels like I am a conduit. It’s not that I relinquish responsibility for these characters, only that I am as surprised by their aliveness as if I were reading someone else’s work. Maybe it’s that I am transported by these characters, maybe it’s that I’m alive somewhere else and inside of someone else while I am writing these scenes—maybe that is why I feel like a conduit rather than an author. I feel like an observer. That’s what I mean when I describe my writing as translating, when I pick up the pen, open the notebook, and write a new scene—I’m translating from the back of my mind into words. The front of my mind doesn’t know what the back of my mind already knows, and so it is a surprise, even if I am making it, creating it, all of it. I am surprised by myself, by my capacity to plot, to pull together images, to thread connections like beads on a string.
I feel the same way when I am drawing, now—whenever I am lost, I tell myself to let my hand lead me, to discover what my hand wants to show me. My hand always knows. My hand always knows more than my thinking brain.
I look with surprise, admiration, even awe, and say, oh, that’s what this means, oh, that’s where I am, oh, that’s who I am right now, oh, that’s what I’m feeling, oh, that’s what I want, oh, that’s what’s hurting me, oh, that’s where the pain is, oh, that’s what’s on my mind. Oh, that’s how it all fits together.
Like Lynda Barry said, writing isn’t easy, but it can be pleasurable. Just like those runners jogging by in the middle of the day. You’d never look at them and say, oh, that looks easy. But you understand that they are getting something from their efforts, something like pleasure, or a feeling of accomplishment, or surprise, or enjoyment, or transcendence. Transcendence is both why I write and why I run. For that lovely floating feeling of being apart from it all.
And also of it all.
And also free.