My Writing Process on Display

Now that I’ve just completed (yes, completed!, for now…) the revision to my short story and sent it in to the editor—two days ahead of deadline—I’ve come to recognize the patterns in my writing process. Each time it seems new, the struggle. But I need to get myself used to it because it always will be a struggle, no matter what I’m writing.

I had this idealistic view of writing as involving many lovely moments of inspiration, and we all know inspiration can never ever be planned, with happy bursts of lines and a high better than any drug ever and when the finished work is produced, it is a feat in itself and many exclamation marks follow: Writing! Is! Always! Gorgeous! And! Fun!

Not so.

This theory also came about during my naive decade, when I was determined to never ever write on assignment and to always always write for my own self. The rules imposed were made hard to break because I was especially good at giving myself guilt trips.

Now that my naive decade is over, and I am writing on assignment sometimes, and off-assignment other times, and now actually in fits and starts getting published, I’ve come to see this pattern:

  1. The idea comes. So private, personal, it can’t even be spoken aloud or it will be ruined. This is okay. I don’t need to tell people what I’m writing about. They can ask “What is your new novel about?” all they want, but I am under no obligation to tell them until I’m ready.
  2. Then I’m ready. I like to get the words down on the page first before talking, and the process of getting the words down on the page would be a whole other post itself. Step 2 could take years. But once done, I have a:
  3. First draft. Always my first draft feels SPECTACULAR. It’s the prettiest thing in the room and I just can’t look away from it.
  4. That’s why it’s very, very important for me to look away from it. Drop it on the floor and leave the room, actually.
  5. I need perspective. And feedback, of course. Although I’m less inclined to rely on a workshop of twelve talking heads than send it to a couple of well-trusted people.
  6. Then I take the feedback in and do a second draft, even a third. In my other life, I’d call the thing done and throw it out into the world and, honestly, not even be able to read it again.
  7. But lately I’ve had to deal with editors. And, get this, editors have edits. Sometimes those edits are not easy to make.
  8. So I am back again to a revision, a revision Not of My Choice, a forced occupation: me and my story locked up in a hot little attic room.
  9. First I feel overwhelmed. I like to use metaphors that involve being buried. I look at days on a calendar and whimper to myself about how I have too few days and I’ll never (never!) finish in time and how in the world will I be able to do this! The overwhelming stage reaches its manic climax until…
  10. I can’t think about it anymore. If even the word revision is mentioned I will hide under the couch. My silence could last an entire night. It has lasted days.
  11. Then I force myself to do it. Complaining a lot all the while. It’s like when I was 13 and my stepfather forced me to do the dishes. Oh, the horror of the dishes, like that was the worst he ever did to me. I am very dramatic, flouncing around and letting out loud sighs.
  12. So I set to work on the revision. Because it feels forced I become very very angry. I want to scream! If I didn’t write in a public place among other writers I just might scream!
  13. I hate the story. I hate every word I am typing. I hate typing. I hate my own hands. You get the idea. (I’ve written here about my “I HATE THIS” stage before.)
  14. Somewhere amid all the hate I type a decent line. I think: Maybe this isn’t so bad after all. Maybe I can do this.
  15. Oh, but don’t be fooled. Because that one moment of confidence is always followed by double the moments of major doubt. The “I suck” “Everyone knows I suck” “Why do I even call myself a writer? I’m a no-talent hack” and et cetera and beyond.
  16. (I might cry in frustration around here.)
  17. But I have to face the doubts. I have to move through the Suck Stage into the beyond, whatever comes after sucking. The doubts can’t last forever. Dig deep down and if you really and truly want to be a writer you have to have one small ounce of confidence that allows you to keep trying. Each time I think I’ve lost it, but each time I am somehow able to find it.
  18. It could be the tiniest thing—a compliment heard in the fifth grade; a kind letter from the editor; the words of your other half—and then, snap, I’m back in.
  19. I’m typing.
  20. Then, and the moment it happens can never be planned for, I am suddenly well into it. I don’t really hate the words anymore. They’re okay. They’re not so bad. I build from there and soon I am finished and I feel like collapsing under my desk due to the emotional roller coaster I just put myself on, but it can’t be denied: the work is done.
  21. A moment is taken here, a breath.
  22. Then I send it in. And I forget the overwhelming depression that came before, the anxiety, the utter hate. It’s easy to forget when the thing’s done. It feels sort of nice now.
  23. I like it now, I really do.
  24. I hold my breath here, waiting for the response.
  25. I get ready to do it all again…

So you see I should be used to all this by now. I’m in the forgetful stage. The beating of my heart has slowed. Sure, I’m only on Step 2 with the YA novel due early October, but I’m hoping this time I remember the pattern. When I start to hate it, I just need to remind myself that it will pass. It always does. Hate can’t last forever.

I would hope.

Revision Nightmare

I woke but did not want to be awake. Then asleep again I was dreaming of the revision to the story—what changes have been asked for, what is wanted—and the words were moving blobs coming from my fingers; they did not want to set down on the page because I didn’t want them to be there. The scene I worked on this week will have to be cut, I knew it, in sleep and then again when awake. Why? Because I hate it. Because I don’t want it there. This was in my dream just as it’s here now. Probably I wasn’t really asleep because I was constantly aware of my surroundings, aware of time leaking away, aware of 8:02 am and then 8:11 am and then 8:30. I forced myself up. I had an unnameable sense of dread. I might not be able to do it, I thought in the shower, do the revision the way the editor wants it. Then again I might. The dream sure wasn’t giving me any answers.

I wish I didn’t have to do this. But I have cut the scene and am now, in another window, starting over.

Chop-Chop-Chop

This weekend was spent racing toward two deadlines. They were both met by Sunday afternoon, and by then I was spent. I didn’t get a chance to work on the revision to my story, due now in about a week. I couldn’t face it just yet, if you want the truth—I’ve gotten used to being edited on these other assignments, but I’ve felt separated from the writing I’ve been doing these past months. A phantom has been writing it for me (hence it being called ghostwriting). It doesn’t matter what the editors want me to do or stop doing or do differently. I’ll do whatever changes are asked. But here I am up against edits to my own work, written by my own self and not a ghost, and I just didn’t have the energy to face up to it this weekend. Tonight I will start on it. It will take me a while. When I’m doing the ghostwriting, the paragraphs flow out fast. But when I am doing my own story, one single paragraph could be worked on for an entire eight-hour stint. I read it, add something, read it again, change something, read it, rework the opening, read it, add a new word, read it, change the last line, read it, look for a new adjective, read it, change commas, read it, write three new sentences in the middle, read it… Oh, you get the point. I made a sculpture in high school art class that was a lot like my writing process: we were given a chunk of white plaster and asked to make something with it. Some people made plans, took measurements, were very exacting in their chops. Others drew pencil lines on the plaster chunk to have a sense of where to start. I remember taking off a big hunk at first—I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to make—then in the tiniest of increments I chopped my way in. I would do a tiny little chop, step back and look at it, do another tiny chop, step back and look at it… It took forever. I was never satisfied with it. There always seemed to be something down in there, under whatever layer of plaster I was on, the real shape that I was looking for. Every time I stepped back to take a look I thought I would see it. Then the project ended and I had to turn it in and it’s still not finished, if you ask me. I still don’t know what it was supposed to be. My short stories are like that: I can see them in the distance, down under the words on the surface. I just need to get to them… And every word or comma I carve into it is getting closer. So, really, I doubt a week is enough time for me to do this revision. Yet at the same time, the revision isn’t of my choosing, so I’m hoping I can use my experience from learning how to take direction this past year and just do it as if it’s anything else. I just need to get started.

Today

Today, August 19, is a very important day. It is the day my little sister was born. I saw her come out—literally; I was there in the room during her home birth—and I have loved her even before she opened her eyes. She’s incredible: smart, wise, creative, talented, sweet, of course I’ll say she’s beautiful, and I’m thrilled that she’s my sister.

Today she turns 22.

Glug-Glug (That’s the Sound of Me Drowning)

This morning I successfully awoke when the alarm went off, and I successfully stayed awake in the crucial minutes immediately after when I am tempted, oh so tempted, to stumble into the living room and collapse for a quickie morning nap on the couch. I stayed awake, I think because reality was pulling on my toe in my dreams, still lingering with me as I climbed down the ladder and out of the loft.

Last night after the post below, I reached home and learned that I need to do revisions to a short story of mine that is expected to be published. Is it still expected to be published? I am afraid that it may depend on these revisions. And they are due in a week-and-a-half, and when I learned this, and realized the extent of the changes, I wanted to cry. I was about to, when E swooped in and helped me through it. He read the suggested revisions. He asked me what was making me so upset, and I explained it was really the time, or lack thereof, the fact that I want the story to be good, I want it published, and yet how will I find the time to do that in the face of everything else? I am already drowning and now this is pushing me even deeper under. I believe this fully: a short story published under my own name in a literary journal I admire is so much more important than all the other ghostwriting I am doing now. It is. Even if only twenty people see it, it is. Even though I’m not getting paid for it, it is. I wish I had more time. Really, I wish it could have happened a couple of months ago, or in October, just sometime when I’d be better able to cope. This weekend is the worst, since I have those two deadlines on Monday and yesterday didn’t go so well… This post is much more coherent than I was last night (and I’m not even doing so well at that). But E proved himself once again—I don’t know how he does it. He calmly took out the calendar and put all my deadlines up, and we agreed that revising the story by the due date is possible, and even if I have to put the YA novel aside for a few days it would be worth it, and with the days all outlined up there in their little white squares I felt somehow calmed and pleasantly distanced from all the pressure.

This is me: a ball of catastrophic stress in the face of no real problems (unless you’d call a mountain of debt a problem) able to shatter at a moment’s notice. One moment I’m a puddle of angst. The next I’m a giddy fool, talking too quickly and too loudly like my motor’s about to burn. “Calm down,” I hear just as often as “Cheer up.”

This is E: Nothing reaches him, nothing hurts him, nothing is ever as bad as you think it is. His armor is invincible, his voice soothing, his ideas make complete and total sense. When we’re on the seesaw, he’ll balance me—whether I’m up, or down.

I am so glad I moved to that tiny little town for college so long ago. I really needed to meet him.

This morning, once I was dressed and all packed to go to my writing spot, I went into the bedroom to say goodbye to him. I climbed the loft. It was so early—he was still sleeping. I said: “I’m going to go write.”

Groggily, still asleep, he said: “Stick to the plan.”

“Gotcha,” I said.

I did one of those online waste-your-time tests: “What Sesame Street character are you?” Apparently—and I suppose no one will be surprised—I am Oscar the Grouch. But right now I feel all hopeful like, I don’t know, Big Bird. I might be able to make it through. I’ve just got to stick to the plan.

Furusturation

I made up that word.

Oh, the life of a freelance writer who’s fitting in these hacked-out words on the exhausted outskirts of her day job. Oh, I wish she was more prolific and had finished at least one of the projects due Monday, but no. It is 6:15 pm Friday as I write this. The morning began by my confusion over the alarm clock (I often think I set the alarm only to find that I have somehow messed up the setting—time off, volume down). Today I apparently thought a.m. was p.m. and in the process set the time a half hour fast. Don’t ask me how. Anyway, I was up. I left the apartment as early as I could manage to write out in public those few hours before work. Got a good desk (it’s a table, a table! I cannot seem to fathom that Starbucks does not provide desks for my own personal usage) after asking a man to please remove his feet from it. Plugged in, man left, open up a window to get started… to find that I don’t have my outline with all the notes on it. You may say: be creative, just go! write! create! And to that I say: the only way I will finish this novel by the October 2 deadline is to follow the outline to a big fat T. Because I’m already five pages over and I’m only doing the scenes I’m supposed to be doing. If I had free rein to go wild and be creative and see where the characters took me I’d be on page 200 and it would only be halfway through the whole book. So. I have no outline. Outline is missing. Where is my outline with all the editors’ notes on it and my own scribbled ideas to fix? What did I do with it? I calmly go through my backpack. No outline. I calmly go through my backpack again. Still no outline. Okay—there is nothing to be done about it now, I told myself. I sure as hell wasn’t walking all the way home with my backpack the size of a small child to see where I left it in the apartment. So I worked on one of the freelance projects due Monday. Then I went to work (taking some moments to search the office for the outline, contemplated asking the editors if they had an extra copy; asked E if he saw it at home, he did not) and proceeded to be swallowed up by work. Hours into the day I learned—haphazardly, off-handedly—that the editorial director had a major edit to my outline. (Yes, the lost outline.) But no one has thought to tell me. Thankfully, the editorial assistant is a good one (I *heart* her) and she gave me heads up so I would know for over the weekend. I agree with the edit anyway (it’s something I queried more than once and was told was fine) so no worries, but listen: I secretly have lost my outline. All the editors’ comments are on there—I don’t even know what they all are yet! (Confession: I only sort of skimmed through their comments.) So I walked around with that panic like when you’ve lost a mitten—but a very, very important mitten—until I decided I had to go back home and find the outline immediately. E didn’t know what it looked like and, besides, he was zombified from a job the night before and an early-morning refrigerator delivery that morning, so I couldn’t call to wake him. (Yes, if I was a more domestic person I would tell you that our fridge broke and now we have a nice new pretty one. It will probably end up only holding water, rice milk, half-used jars of pasta sauce, and old takeout, but it’s a new fridge nonetheless.) Where was I? Okay, I was at work, and in mere minutes I had to leave for a work-lunch with work-people and yet… I would not be able to sit still for those few hours during the lunch if I didn’t know where my outline was! The day could not go on until I found said outline! I told work-people I would meet them for work-lunch at the chosen establishment and booked it home. Walked in, noted how pretty and clean the new fridge was (and what a mega-huge freezer it has) and proceeded to immediately find the outline. It was shoved into a stack of pages it shouldn’t have been among, an action screenplay. So you have this intense fighting scene with guns I wouldn’t know how to describe and—page turn—you learn all about so-and-so’s pretty shoes. It shouldn’t have been there, but there it was. Joy!

I left the work-lunch an hour later than I meant to. I am here at my writing spot now, but I am too tired to make a dent in anything worth denting. I lost the morning. I lost the afternoon. And soon I will lose tonight.

There is always tomorrow. Wish me luck on setting that alarm clock. Please let me remember if the dot means a.m. or p.m.

It’s a.m.

No it’s p.m.

God, I have no idea.

Days Lost, But I Don’t (Really) Miss Them

I lost a few days there—not a peep of a post—and really not too many things of interest happened. I was busy and don’t remember much. Now here I am, Thursday night, with two deadlines on Monday, plus thinking long-term about everything else, and I’m tired. I went out to lunch with someone I really like from work (whenever we start talking, it’s like we can’t stop, there being so much to say) and then when I returned to my desk and the work at hand, I just couldn’t keep focus. Maybe our conversation reminded me of all the things I want to do and am not doing, or maybe of the places I want to go and haven’t yet gone. You know those ideas you get and if you made a list it would be a wacky catalog of things more outrageous than cliff-diving into a volcano while wearing a clown costume, or whatever those brave outrageous people do who don’t get trapped in these stodgy day jobs. You’re all cliff-divers, aren’t you? Yeah, that’s how I imagine it.