The always-shifting process

One of my glaring flaws, I've noticed in recent years, is that I'm a very declarative person. A labeler, if you will. When I discover something about myself, it becomes a piece of the suit I wear outdoors each day. Someone brings up a movie they saw this weekend? Here's my official statement on the filmic arts. Someone loved a Stephen King novel that I wasn't as captivated by? Here's my formal position on King's ouevre, and which works represent my own personal Stephen King canon. (And my strong opinion about those which don't make the cut.) I think for a long time I probably mistook this for enlightenment. Look, world, how well I know myself, these tidbits of irrelevant information seemed to declare. Look how self-reflective I am

Pretty sure now, looking back on all of that, that I was just a deeply annoying person. 

Anyway, one of the things that becomes apparent as you grow up is that these sorts of truths are ever-changing. Sure, I gorged on Aaron Sorkin's television projects in my twenties; I found a way to relate Sports Night or The West Wing to almost any everyday situation. (I'll cut myself a minor break here: I still do this, with all sorts of movies or television. I just like movies and television. And a lot of other people seem to as well, which sometimes makes for a nice icebreaker—like at Powell's the other night, I compared the Witt family, from Eleanor, to Quint's boat from Jaws. And it worked.) Back to Sorkin, though: when I met and began dating Felicia (nearly ten years ago, holy crap) I shared Sports Night with her, and she fidgeted. I thought she didn't get the show, but in truth, she was just deeply uncomfortable with the way Sorkin wrote women. And the second she pointed it out, I saw it, too. And there went my Sorkin fixation. 

You change. You learn a bit more about the world, about yourself, and things become less—not more—certain. 

I'm going somewhere with this, I swear. 

Last September I flew to New York to meet my agent and editor in person. During the trip they asked what I was working on. I described Limbs. At the time, I was some 80,000+ words into a draft. It wasn't a perfect draft, but then, it didn't have to be. My goal was to propel myself to the end, then step back, consider the whole, and begin tinkering. When I returned from New York, however, something about the novel began rubbing me the wrong way. It's possible, even, that my intention of writing to the end, despite any problems I was aware of within the story's structure, distracted me from a glaring issue. (Again: I've got to stop declaring things. I wrote a whole blog post about the "imperfect first draft." The gist: write your way to the end, then step back and survey the landscape of your book. It felt like a major revelation at the time, and it was. I'd spent lots of years on Eleanor, many of which consisted of me writing and rewriting the same scenes because I didn't know how to write the next scene.)

After New York, about six weeks passed, during which time I didn't touch Limbs at all. I knew something was off about the novel, but I wasn't sure what. So I turned my attention elsewhere. I worked on essays and other things that would appear around Eleanor's launch; I tinkered with a short story or two. And one day, after those six weeks had passed, I realized what the problem was. I won't go into a huge amount of detail, but: Limbs's story is both very grounded in the real world (with its examination of a wounded family and a strained marriage and a dying matriarch) and quite fantastical (with its flung-back curtain, revealing a complex mythology of immortals and the life-giving trees that they tend to). The story, though, was so grounded in reality that the fantasy aspects just weren't coming together. It felt like two incredibly different novels: one explicit fantasy, the other a sensitive family drama. 

One thing I have learned is that I can do this. By that I mean: when I get stuck, I can fix it. Years ago, a problem like this would have sent me spinning. Now, it's kind of an exciting challenge. And it always seems to lead to a stronger, better story. I don't regard it as a detour or a dead end; it's just part of the journey, and like a hairpin curve, it's not always a part you see coming. 

But that's not the process part I want to share. 

While chatting with a fellow local writer, she shared that she'd been stuck in her work, and had for a time switched from typing her stories to writing them longhand. If I recall correctly, she hoped it would shake up her process a bit, and it did. For a month, she wrote longhand, then returned to typing. I'd tried writing longhand before, and it never quite spoke to me; the romance of it, the magic of it, wasn't there. It was just tedious, and slower than my brain moved, and within a few minutes, my hand just ached.

I even give each new notebook a little cover doodle. (See, I still have to label shit.)

I even give each new notebook a little cover doodle. (See, I still have to label shit.)

This time, though, something about the idea seemed to click. Here I was, stuck at this critical juncture. Slowing down, and writing longhand, seemed to be something worth investigating. So I grabbed a little notebook and a pen, and I started writing. To my surprise, it worked. It slowed me down, gave me more time to think about my characters, to develop them. I set smaller writing goals. On the corkboard above my writing desk is a Post-It that reads: 300 WORDS. That's it. That's my daily goal. Two pages in these little notebooks works out to around 300 words. But written by hand, I find that those words are perhaps a little more considered than they are when I type. I'm a fairly quick typist; I keep up with my brain most days. But that can also lead to settling for an uninspiring sentence while I leap ahead to the next. I usually write many more than 300 words in a session; that's just my baseline. If I can write those two small pages, I've moved the needle just enough that day. I don't beat myself up about short sessions, even if it takes a few hours to get the right 300 words. 

Writing longhand has also—at least for the moment, while this experiment works—given me something of a writing regimen. Monday I'll write my 300+ words by hand, then stop for the day. Tuesday I'll transcribe Monday's words into Scrivener—my writing software—and as I do so, I'll edit while I go. Some bits get cut, some threads get plucked at. Then, once I've transcribed the previous day's work, I find I'm in the perfect mindset to begin writing the next scene by hand. And on Wednesday, I'll repeat: transcribe/edit Tuesday's work, then write the next scene. I've been at this for a month or two now, and it's such a natural process that I wonder why I never did it before. It isn't anything new; I've read other writers describe similar processes for years. But this time it clicked with me. 

Up close and personal with my garbled handwriting.

Up close and personal with my garbled handwriting.

One other major change: getting 80,000 words into Limbs before realizing I had a major problem was a bit frustrating. Not necessarily from a writing standpoint; that shit happens, and you roll with it. But I'd spent weeks outlining the novel, from the first page to the last. When I got stuck on the book, two things occurred to me: outlining that far ahead means I can't zig or zag as deftly when the story wants to go somewhere unexpected; and outlining that far ahead means that when something's not working, I feel as if I've got to ignore it, and keep charging towards the ending I'd planned for. 

So this time around I'm limiting myself to outlining only the section of the book I'm currently writing. I outlined the prologue before I wrote it. When I finished, I outlined Part 1, and wrote that. I'm at my writing office today—the still nameless writing space, I might add—to begin outlining Part 2. 

Where I write, including the corkboard w/ current outline, the "300 words" Post-It, a rough sketch of the family portrait Sarah Mensinga painted for us, a bunch of story notes and reminders, a sheaf of research on brain injuries, some notes about the similarities between the root structure of trees and brain anatomy... Okay, starting to feel like I'm giving away a bit too much here.

Where I write, including the corkboard w/ current outline, the "300 words" Post-It, a rough sketch of the family portrait Sarah Mensinga painted for us, a bunch of story notes and reminders, a sheaf of research on brain injuries, some notes about the similarities between the root structure of trees and brain anatomy... Okay, starting to feel like I'm giving away a bit too much here.

I suppose if this has taught me anything, it's not that my current process is a revelation, the truth I've been seeking all along; it's that the creative process is always unpredictable, and shaking it up now and then is a good way to keep yourself from stagnating. For the moment, it seems to be working for me. But who knows what'll happen with the next draft? Or even tomorrow? 

Because maybe by talking about this shift in my process, I've just jinxed it, and it'll stop working for me. And then, boom, fifteen years later, I finally finish the damn book. <sigh> I haven't learned anything!