Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Writing Process

I love to write. When I'm writing, I'm carried off to a world in my own imagination, where I can make anything happen. I picture a scene taking place, and I put myself there. I'm a fly on the wall that can follow any character around at will when I'm in third person omniscient POV (point of view). I'm a camera zooming in, noticing every little movement, muscle twitch, and heartbeat in third person close. Or, I can be that character in first person. I can put on their clothes, dream their dreams, and feel their pain. But the problem is, it takes time to put on someone else's clothes.

There are some writers who can sit and write in short snippets--meaningful work, for their current work-in-progress, or short stories, anything. Last summer, during my last residency at Vermont College, the wonderful, sweet Martine Leavitt gave a lecture that started with a five minute writing exercise. I listened to the lecture as I drove to Vermont this week to watch friends graduate. The five minutes of the writing exercise weren't exactly exciting to listen to, but I remember the exercise well. Try it! Sit at your computer or get out paper and a pen, and write for five minutes. Don't stop. If you can't think of something to write, write "I don't know" over and over. At the end of five minutes, stop. Count your words. Did you get a hundred? Many people at that lecture did. Martine's point was to show us just how little time it actually takes to write.

I didn't write one hundred words. I don't think I even wrote fifty words. I was too busy changing my character's clothes. It was then that I realized I can't slip in and out of writing as easily as a lot of writers do. I can't sit and write and bang out ten glorious pages in the space of waiting for Susannah's dance class. I can't write that way at all.

I'm a marathon writer. I take my time getting into my writer's mindset. I read what I've written last in the story, and sometimes the eight chapters preceding it. I make myself a pot of tea to sip while I'm writing. (Sometimes I need it to warm my hands more than anything else.) I sometimes listen to music on my ipod--especially if Andy or Laura are right on the other side of the room listening to their music. It's more to drown out distractions than to create mood or anything writing related. The cat usually hops on my lap and takes what feels like an enternity to situate my lap to his liking. But once he's settled and I'm settled, I sit back and think.

The prep period--these little rituals and habits--are all absolutely necessary for me to coax my muse out of hiding. Believe me, after a day with me at work, my muse has left for an extended vacation in some tropical locale. When my character is a thirteen-year-old girl with cancer (as in the story I'm currently revising), it can be hard to jump into her shoes. It can be hard to step out of her shoes to see which reactions don't work and which dialogue sounds forced. It takes focus, concentration, and time.

And when do I have the time? Not very often. My dear husband graciously gives up weekends and evenings with me so that I can change my 'clothes' and woo my muse out of hiding. Sometimes, just sometimes, I manage to steal a day for writing. Nothing else: not housecleaning or kid-tending, no phone calls or laundry. They are few and far between, but these days are exactly what I need for my writing process.

Oh, what a luxury! What a treat to spend all day elsewhere without actually leaving my house. (Getting dress is an annoyance that's part of that thing called a "job.") Ah, slippers and sweats. Ah, a quiet house. Ah, time to escape. Vanilla rooibus tea, Mozart softly in the background, and the dog sleeping at my feet. A day like this is a gift from heaven.

Stretches of writing time are rarity, and I often have to work around that. Thankfully, I have occasional motivating forces that make me skip the tea and shoo the cat. When I was in school, I had monthly motivating factors called "packets"--writing that was due in to my advisors on a schedule. Since graduation, I've had to self-impose deadlines and jump back into my writing group to get myseld going. It's working. My muse isn't that thrilled with the whole arrangement, but she'll get used to it.

She has to. She has to suck it up, just like I do, and pump out some stories, no matter what our preferred process its. Now there's another motivating factor, another monthly deadline to deal with: student loans!


No comments: