To my elementary school students, the writing process meant brainstorming ideas, mapping them out on a graphic worksheet, drafting (in pencil), sitting with me to revise and edit (add and erase), copying to nice paper (in pencil, then over again in “teacher pen”), drawing illustrations, and publishing (posting to a bulletin board).
To my college students, it’s not that different. There are more steps, like developing a thesis statement whether it will be implicit or explicit and using it as a guiding principle. And each step is more complex, requiring a high level of both critical thinking and intuition.
But at heart it’s the same. We progress from spark (and/or assignment) to completion (deadline, due date, submission). We process. In that is the work and the joy.
Laurie Cannady—a brilliant, fearless, dedicated writer and fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts grad whose memoir, Have a Little Piece of Me, will be published by Etruscan Press in 2015—described her writing process last week as part of the “My Writing Process Blog Tour” that’s making the rounds. From the moment Laurie read an excerpt at Vermont, we all knew her work would be welcomed into the perfect publishing home. One moment from her reading still lives me with on a near-daily basis. Hers is one of those stories that goes beyond the must-tell. It’s must-listen. Must-witness.
Laurie honored me by sending the tour my way, and said some very kind things about my dancing as she did. A first for me! Here she is, all gorgeous as usual, at our MFA graduation party:
I love the tour. We writers share these things, but informally during workshops and at conferences (and, for a handful of established writers, in printed interviews), but not so much through our open-forum blogs. With the hashtag #MyWritingProcess, you can learn how writers all over the world answer the same four questions. How long it takes one to write a novel, why romance is a fitting genre for another, how one’s playlist grows as the draft grows, why one’s poems are often sparked by distress over news headlines or oddball facts learned on Facebook… From Laurie I learned, among other things, that Scrivener, a fish tank, and a hug make a winning formula.
The four tour questions and my responses:
1. What are you working on?
I’m putting the final touches on my first book-length manuscript. I started writing short pieces about the topic years ago. During my first grad school program, at the New School for Social Research, I collected those pieces into a whole. At VCFA I made it more purposeful and cohesive. During a post-grad year, I revised with the help of the incomparable Sue William Silverman. Then, with a new baby and a new job, I let it lie for a while.
When I reopened the manuscript a year later, I knew I had one more significant revision in me. I wanted a thoroughly new perspective and asked my good friend Claire Guyton to read it. I threaded her thoughts with feedback from my husband, J., and from my previous advisors (Sascha Feinstein, Diane Lefer, Robert Vivian, Laurie Alberts, Randy Fertel, Melissa Monroe), all of whom still teach me every single time I sit down to write. I mean this literally: I superimposed all the feedback in one document. Let me say, that was terrifying.
With my gut shaken loose, I finally shaped the manuscript into what I want it to be. I’m playing now. Last week I added a sketch of flamingos. It took me a while to get the flamingos just the way I wanted them.
2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
Long a lover of childhood memoirs, I’m envious of the memoirists. Without childhood memory I couldn’t write my own. But oh, I could. I can. I did! My book may be classified as memoir, but I often dub it an unmemoir, since it creates a childhood through the hunt for memory rather than recalling one.
3. Why do you write what you do?
My memory problem kept popping up. It was a little ghost mouse, running across my pages, leaving messes in my work. I saw its traces in lesson plans for my elementary school students and, later, my graduate papers. I finally realized I needed to hunt the mouse down and talk to it. This book is our conversation. And it’s tamed now. Clean and a little more obedient. I can live with it now because I wrote the book and did the everything that went into the writing.
4. How does your writing process work?
Starting: It changes. All the time. While an MA student, my process was based on professor assignments and deadlines. While an MFA student, it was scripted by packets and feedback letters. Now, as a mother of a charismatic 20-month-old soul, my process begins in one of two ways:
(a) when some conversation or dream or experience strikes me at an inconvenient moment (most recently, while suffering the extraordinary pain of a shot in the elbow to treat tendonitis)
(b) when I make room for it by participating in Daily Shorty weeks. Inspired and guided by the aforementioned Claire, for one week, I wake each morning at 5:30 (and again at 5:45 and once again at 5:55) and begin a draft. If I can find time during the day, I punch a few more lines into it, or make a note on whatever is handy. I text myself a lot. I return to the draft after my son goes to bed at 8, and finish it before I go to bed, only to start again with something totally new the next morning. Seven days, seven complete drafts. I do this twice a year, meaning, I create at least 14 new drafts a year. The self-imposed minimum is a security blanket.
Drafting: I do not write at a desk. I write on the brown couch (soft), the blue couch (firm), the bed, or the nursery chair. I used to have a writing desk, before the nursery was a nursery, but in a three-room apartment, a writing desk is a luxury. (As is air conditioning. And laundry. And an oven door that opens all the way.) Wherever and whenever I write, our cats, Tiko and Sala, join me.
During Daily Shorty weeks, I start on paper. Actually, I start in a journal and write with a smooth fountain pen my brother-in-law gave me. I free write or list associated words until something seems to invite more. Then I move to the computer. Sometimes I research first, since a lot of what I write is based in the natural sciences. I sketch. Then I look for abstract ideas and make them concrete. I try to figure out the point of view that will crack it open. Lately I’ve been writing a thesis statement at the top as a sort of beacon. Sometimes I copy a favorite line of literature that keeps me inspired and intimidated. My anchor pieces often give me these lines.
I’m a draft keeper. Each time I work significantly on a piece, I save a new draft, which is how I ended up with well over one hundred drafts of my manuscript. Maybe two hundred.
Revising: When I read through a piece, I highlight spots that need attention. This is the only way to get myself to focus the next time. Otherwise, I would read from the beginning each time and never, ever work on the rough spots. I’ve learned that jumping into a rough spot in the middle can be liberating.
If a highlight sticks around for too long, I ask J. for help. And I’m a print, cut, and rearrange on the floor person.
When I’m really stuck, I need to move. I’ll email myself the file and open it on the bus on the way to the doctor or between classes at work. The physical change usually ignites a mental change. I just saw the Amtrak writing residency news. I think I would like the quiet stillness inside set against the linear movement outside while the words progress across the page.
Completing: I’ve rarely, if ever, submitted anything to a professor, literary magazine, academic journal, fellowship, etc, without J. reading it first. He’s a critical and fair reader who, thanks to his job in long-form journalism, has a particularly strong handle on storytelling. While he’s reading, I pace through my nerves and bug him.
I keep each finished piece in a manila folder, neatly filed in bins in the main room. The bins sit next to the shredder, which I only now see is funny. I keep notes, brainstorms, maps, drawings, research, feedback from critical readers, all of it, all part of the story behind the story. If it’s been accepted, I keep the acceptance on top. It’s really nice.
I consider a piece finished when I’m ready to kick it out. My dear friend Jenni Eaton and I talk about pieces like they’re children. They’ll never really be fully grown. But there just comes a time when they should move out.
~ ~ ~
I asked three writer-blogger-sinners to continue the tour next week:
Cheryl Wilder is a poet and writer living in Raleigh, NC. Her work has appeared in Cream City Review, Hunger Mountian, Connotation Press, Numero Cinq, Architects + Artisans, and elsewhere. She studied writing at UNC Wilmington and Vermont College of Fine Arts. In her spare time, she is becoming quite adept at juggling babies. You can find her at bornwilder.com.
Cheryl and I met at VCFA, though our friendship really developed after, when she and others welcomed me into a workshop group for women writers. Cheryl and I devised the series The 7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life over email while preparing a discussion for a retreat. Something in our writing lives was ticking us off, and from there grew Wrath and the rest. Cheryl scatters bright bits of grace and gratitude all around her. I recently had the chance to read a number of her poems together and they shocked me. I told her this. They’re so beautiful.
Claire Guyton, the Maine Arts Commission’s 2012 Literary Fellow, is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach in Lewiston. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse; Hunger Mountain; The Journal for the Compressed Creative Arts; River Styx; Sliver of Stone Magazine; Summer Stories: Paintings by Leslie Anderson, Stories by Ten Maine Writers (Shanti Arts Publishing, 2013); and elsewhere. Beginning May 2012, Claire challenged herself to write a short story every day for a year, and blogged about her progress at dailyshorty.com. She’s working on a book about the experience. She holds an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Claire, who was editing for Hunger Mountain at the time, took one look at our proposal for 7 Sins and leapt. Without Claire the catalyst, I don’t know if we would have pursued it much further, especially since I was many months pregnant when we pitched. She edited the series, which is to say, coached, heightened, framed, and released it. Her Daily Shorty year is a phenomenon, and her Daily Shorty premise is one every writer could adopt. Claire is a linguist and a luminous intellectual whose ability to understand the minds of writers she’s editing and characters she’s creating is awe-inspiring. And a little scary.
Elizabeth Gaucher lives in Vermont and grew up in West Virginia. It’s a mountain thing. She is working on her MFA in creative nonfiction, blogs at www.essediemblog.com, and can be followed on Twitter: @ElizGaucher. She has some published work, plenty of not published work, and adores collaborative projects like the blog tour. She plans to be published in the NY Times . . . some day.
When we first started publishing our sinful essays, Elizabeth kindly promoted the series on her social media sites. She’s a dear friend of a dear friend, whose recent move to Vermont makes our connection all the sweeter. And her Esse Diem blog is an inspiration. I love that Elizabeth also seized the term “Esse”—the share-only writers’ group I started in NYC seven years ago is called Salon Esse. Elizabeth and I have never met in person, but I believe we would recognize each other’s wandering writer-spirits.