When I lived in Iowa, my boyfriend Wes and I would visit The Cheese Shop in Des Moines for our (well, really, my) cheese fix. The cheesemonger would give us menus, but we ignored them and scanned the blackboard above the cheese counter. Scrawled lists of charcuterie and pate covered the blackboard, but I looked for only one thing: the cheese board.
“I need something soft, something funky,” Wes said during one of our visits, scooping up the last piece of Bloomsdale, a soft goat cheese from Missouri, from the wooden board. He cut into the rind, pine ash turned navy blue and fuzzed white, aromatic as dirty socks. With a grin, he chewed the rind and walked to the cheesemonger sorting cheeses in the glass display case.
After bringing me thin slices of camembert and washed rind cheeses from Ireland that tested my patience for funkiness, he handed me a soft, pale orange square, “She said this cheese was even funkier than the last.”
“Really?” I asked, the thin slice of cheese warming on my open palm.
“She said it was some French cheese, episee—”
“Époisses,” the cheesemonger said from behind the case, accenting the last beat of the word as if puffing a dandelion from her mouth: ay-pwhass.
I nodded; I knew Époisses, looked for it in the local groceries in Ames. I never saw this quintessential French cheese in small town stores. I was embarrassed I hadn’t tried it before now, after years of professing my love of cheese to everyone I knew. In Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best, Époisses is the so-called “King of Cheeses” and “pungent” is a “gross understatement of the aroma of a ripe Époisses.” I smelled what the author meant—waves of spoiled milk wafted up from the delicate, innocent-looking cheese.
Wes plucked the cheese in his mouth, and grimaced.
Curious, I placed the thin slice of cheese on my tongue.
“Pungent” definitely was an understatement. A humid funk suffused my mouth, erupted up my nose. Instead of swallowing the cheese quickly and chugging beer to cover the stink, I let it rest, blend. Époisses softened my tongue, like velvet against skin. I tasted straw, old hay, butter. I smelled manure on the barnyard after a steady rain, cows pissing on wet concrete.
And holding that moment, the harsh silk of cheese in my mouth, the uncomfortable, strange encounter coalesced in my mind. Years later, I still remember when something as small as a paper-thin piece of cheese connected me to the world and language.
Because it is not the moments of ease, the moments of familiarity, that we remember and feel the urge to grab our pens and write. It is in the uncomfortable moments, the strange encounters, when an unexpected object or animal or person disrupts the haze of our days, that we write into and out of.
Right now, you may think, “Well, duh. Every good story has conflict.” But who wants every moment of their day as a series of jagged peaks to climb? Who wants to live in the frantic mess of conflict every waking moment, even those who relish it?
But who also wants the monotone drag of every day as the same pattern, driving the same roads, seeing the same people, sitting in the dark after work to watch the same TV shows you watched the night before?
Lately, my life is more routine, the same schedule of teaching and tutoring, which I know many writers who also teach or work multiple jobs feel the same sense of redundancy and financial anxiety (not an uncomfortable situation I want to promote here). Which is why I thought back to that moment in the tiny cheese shop in Des Moines, remember forcing myself to explore strangeness. Between the uncomfortable and comfortable, a balance formed, like curds bouncing and melding in a pot of golden whey. Or like straight lines of verse and the frenetic energy of vowels and consonants fizzling along the lines.
So, this is a reminder, for those who need it: be uncomfortable. Find an uncomfortable moment each day, and linger. The moment can be small, like sticking a piece of stinky cheese in your mouth. The moment also needs physicality: dogs barking, baby poop, sore feet after a hike on an ice-covered trail you were ridiculously underprepared for and resulted in a teary and snotty tantrum in front of strangers and your boyfriend…but that’s not an uncomfortable moment I’ll dive into just yet.
Most importantly, the moment needs a record, a written reminder to return to. Even years later, they’ll spring into lines, dialogue, character, story.
Of course, practice this without endangering your life too much. A twinge of embarrassment in front of strangers, however, is expected.
In the spring of 2015, I was beginning to emerge from the midst of a post-publication funk. Since the release of my debut novel the year before, I’d been swept up in the thrills and disappointments of book marketing, and after several abandoned projects I spent a long quiet winter simply reading.
Giving myself permission not to write had the desired effect; come spring I felt ready to dust the cobwebs from my creative brain and begin again. But the ideas wouldn’t come. Staring at the blank page day after day, I began to fear they never would.
My breakthrough came in the form of a prompt provided by my son, then seven years old. We were taking our evening walk around the neighborhood, hand in hand, and I confided to him that I’d been struggling with ideas for my writing and did he have any good ones? “Just give me a title,” I said, “and I’ll write you a story.”
It was a bold promise in the face of my persistent writer’s block, but that’s what I needed—accountability and conviction. I also hoped to tap into the unselfconscious well of creativity that all children possess and that makes writing fiction so much fun. I knew that my seven-year-old wouldn’t say “I don’t know,” or “I just can’t think of anything,” because kids can always think of something. And mine did: when I asked him for the title to my next story, he said, without hesitation, “The Shell of Light.”
“Okay,” I said. “’The Shell of Light’ it is.”
The title sounded ominous and ghostly, and its weirdness intrigued me. I imagined something dark—a tale meant for Halloween. I pictured a boy my son’s age, and a night out trick-or-treating that goes horribly wrong. I pictured a conch shell that emitted not the sound of the ocean but the sound of screams. I pictured a haunted house, girls who disappeared in the night, another girl with a black heart who gets what’s coming to her in the end.
Not exactly a kid’s story, but at least, finally, I had something. Soon I was writing again, not only “The Shell of Light,” but other stories; in fact, in six weeks’ time I wrote more than 30,000 words of new fiction. I wrote about a woman who finds her childhood diary and decides to rewrite her past, about a boy with a terrible secret who steals away at night to meet a girl beneath a willow tree—only to discover she has a secret of her own, about a father going through a divorce who witnesses a seemingly impossible motorcycle accident and is forced to question everything he thought was real.
One idea led to another that led to another. Of course, not all of them turned out the way I’d originally envisioned. Ideas often come in black and white, but the writing always finds shades of gray. In “The Shell of Light,” for example, my black-hearted antagonist wasn’t quite so simple, and neither was her fate. Characterization superseded plot, forcing me to change the title that had kickstarted my inspiration. Now that story is called “The Lost Girls.” It won runner-up in a contest last year and was published this Halloween in YA Review Net (YARN). My son, now eleven, is still not allowed to read it, but maybe in a few more years. He doesn’t mind waiting, or the fact that his title changed.
The important thing is that his odd little string of random words unlocked my imagination. Prompts do that, and it’s because they’re restrictive—they give a writer something to visualize and work with. In his book of essays Zen in the Art of Writing Ray Bradbury discusses how, when he was a fledgling writer in his early twenties, he began making lists of titles: The Lake, The Crown, The Fog Horn, The Carnival. He would then choose one of these titles, free-write for a page or two until he discovered the story, and then he would write the story. Sometimes, as in the case of The Carnival, he wrote a book.
Another beloved author, R.L. Stine (creator of the children’s horror series Goosebumps), has written over 300 books in his 30-year career. When asked where he gets his seemingly never-ending wealth of ideas, he reveals that he always starts with a title—just a title—and from there he builds the story.
Essentially, he gives himself a prompt.
It’s been four years since my post-publication dry spell and I’m happy to say that I’ve never suffered from writer’s block like that again. Never sat before a computer screen day after day and agonized over the blinking cursor on a blank page. Never sat at the coffee shop for an hour with a pencil poised over an unmarked notebook, convinced I had nothing to say. I’ve gone through periods where I didn’t feel like writing and allowed myself time off—weeks, months even. But it was intentional, something that felt healthy and needed at the time. If I’m ever at a loss for ideas, I simply pick a word, a phrase, or even an image, and begin to free-write. Knowing the prompt will lead me to the story and trusting the story enough to follow.
On Mondays, after our graduate Shakespeare seminar, we would get lunch at The Malt Shop on Main Street. Four tiny tables huddled in the rear of the store; a counter stretched across the front. Behind the counter was the chalkboard full of the day’s salads, soups, sandwiches, and also behind the counter, three or four of the most attractive young women at the University of Delaware. It was a very popular lunch spot.
Our Shakespeare seminar ended about fifteen minutes before the graduate acting seminars did, so when the actors came in, we had already snagged at least two of the four tables for their show. That’s what we used to whisper to each other as they entered to the jingling of the bell on the door, “Here comes the floor show.” It wasn’t just their clothes – the long, brightly colored scarves, the patchwork pants and Birkenstocks, the hats. It was everything. How they ordered a sandwich – “I would ADORE a tuna MELT” – that final “T” clear and ringing, bouncing off the chalkboards. How they stood in line – taking up space, gesturing to the ceiling and floor. How they each picked up their order and swept out the door, calling back to those waiting, the exit line hanging in the air. We writers and literary types found them amusing and a little absurd. I discovered later that the actors found us, when they found us, arrogant, and frankly, a little dull.
Ironically, of course, we had all spent our mornings falling in love with exactly the same plays, exactly the same characters. With Shakespeare. And we’d all been trying to discover the same things: character motivation, dramatic arcs, the symbols in the world of the play. As a young writer and a new teacher, all these things fascinated me, but especially Shakespeare’s genius at creating characters I felt I knew, even hundreds of years away, characters I believed. Falstaff deciding that “discretion is the better part of valor” and pretending to die. Ophelia, bereft and mad, passing out imaginary flowers and singing bawdy songs. But even though the acting students and I shared this fascination, we lived in different worlds. When the actors came in to The Malt Shop for lunch, they may as well have been speaking another language.
Fast forward a dozen years.
My husband, James Keegan, who’d attended that Shakespeare seminar with me and gotten a literary Ph. D, realized that the dream he’d put off when he was eighteen, the dream of going to Cal Arts and becoming an actor, could not be deferred any longer. Even in graduate school, he’d come as close as he could to uniting the two worlds, the world of the writer and the actor. He’d done his Ph. D. specialty exam in “Shakespeare in Performance,” a study of different stagings of Shakespeare’s plays. In 2003, he bridged the gap between the two worlds. He auditioned for the American Shakespeare Center (the ASC) in Staunton, Virginia and became a professional Shakespearean actor, all the while retaining his roles as a college teacher and a writer. He taught his literature and writing classes at the Georgetown Campus of the University of Delaware on Monday and Tuesday, and then drove five hours to be on the stage Wednesday through Sunday. He worked with some of the same people we used to gawk at in The Malt Shop. He spent his days rehearsing and performing, not reading and talking about the plays, but embodying the characters. That’s the crucial word, and the one I want to talk about here – embodying.
Because he became an actor, I had the tremendous opportunity of seeing the plays he was cast in, not just once, but sometimes over a dozen times during the ASC’s long summer/fall season. Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Henry IV and many, many more. I may be one of the few people in the world who has seen plays so often as a true audience member and not someone connected professionally to the production. I also had the opportunity to go to rehearsals and to live with the actors and listen to and watch them prepare to do their work. All of this has profoundly changed how I feel about myself as a writer and about the creation of character. Don’t get me wrong, the actors were often every bit as absurd and amusing as they had been when they came into The Malt Shop. But now I understood in a much more profound way how closely our worlds were related. Suddenly, I found critical lessons for my own writing in the actors’ craft and in their preparation.
One of the amazing things about watching an actor become a character is that they have to do it first in the flesh; they can’t think themselves into the character, they have to find the character in their bodies. Although actors might begin the process intellectually, memorizing text, talking about themes, when it comes to the stage and the performance, the actor must be in the body. In the house my husband shared with other actors, right across the street from the theater, everyone would come into the kitchen to make lunch or dinner before rehearsals or the evening show. They warmed up their voices as they microwaved leftovers or made sandwiches, and the kitchen and house filled with sound. They sang snatches of songs softly and then loudly, hummed strange high notes, yawned to warm up their facial muscles. In the hallway sometimes, you’d find an actor with a leg thrown over the bannister, talking to himself, or someone holding the bannister and leaning forward like the figure on the prow of a ship.
In just a little while, someone else would inhabit their bodies, and they to prepare their bodies to let them in. King Lear’s voice would be my husband’s voice. James, only forty-seven when he played Lear, an eighty-year-old king, would, as he and his director agreed, “not put on age, but remove youth.” He found the movements and the posture that made him young and set them aside. His shoulders and hips stiffened. He shortened his stride. When James played Macbeth, he had been certified in stage combat, and he planned the way Macbeth would hold himself in a fight –erect and forward, the way he would command space on the stage — central and large. All the actors did similar work for their roles.
So, if you are a playwright, you can count on trained actors to do this for you in every performance. The beautiful thing about writing for the stage is that your work will be literally embodied. I remember my friend and teacher, Jeanne Murray Walker, telling me that one of the most surprising things to her when she transitioned from being a poet to being a playwright was that the words that she wrote on the page became real in the world. When she said that a character wore pink Mickey Mouse sunglasses, someone went out and found pink Mickey Mouse sunglasses.
Ironically, then, it’s playwrights who have the least to do to bring their fictional worlds and their characters to life.
However, as a fiction writer, and even as a poet, I began to realize the extent to which I need and want to do the actor’s work on the page, to imagine myself into the body of the character that I am creating – or better said, the character that I am discovering as I write — and to ask myself a new set of questions. How does it feel to be in the body of this character at this moment? What is he doing with his hands? What aches or pains does she have? Do these pains change the way she walks? How long has she lived with them? Are his feet cold? What happens in her body when she gets angry?
What are you doing with your body right now? What are you aware of in your body?
These are questions that I think it’s easy to forget when we are writing. Sometimes even the best writers get so deeply consumed by the thoughts and emotions of a character that they all but forget the character’s physical existence. Not long ago, for example, James and I listened to Amor Towles’ novel Rules of Civility. It’s an excellent novel, and I appreciated his intelligent structure, his vivid description, and his strong sense of the voice of particular characters. However, one of the things that was missing for me was this sense of the embodiment of the character. In this paragraph from the novel, you can see Towle’s great clarity in his description of the Hotspot Nightclub in Greenwich Village, but you can also feel the absence of the body of the narrator, Katey Kontent:
“From a look around the club, you couldn’t tell that it was New Year’s Eve. There were no hats or streamers; no paper trumpets. At the back of the club, looming over a small empty dance floor, a jazz quartet was playing loved-me-and-left-me standards without a vocalist. The saxophonist, a mournful giant with skin as black as motor oil, had apparently lost his way in the labyrinth of one of his long, lonely solos. While the bass player, a coffee-and-cream mulatto with a small deferential mustache, was being careful not to hurry him. Boom, boom, boom, he went, at half the pace of a heartbeat.”
To be fair, a couple of paragraphs later, Katey does mention that she wears comfortable, flat shoes, but that’s it, and that’s it for pages and pages. It isn’t that the writing is bad – it’s detailed, careful, vivid – it’s that I am missing the sense of the body that an actor will give Katey when the book gets made into a movie.
Why is that important? As a writer, when I think deeply about the physical body of a fictional character, I have a chance to enter the world that character inhabits in a specific and unique human body, that is, in an imagined human form. And, as a reader, if I feel within a character’s body, I move through that specific and unique world with a depth of compassion that isn’t possible in any other way. It is our bodies that separate us, but it is also bodies and inhabiting a body that connects us.
I yawn when I see someone yawn. I have been cold, so when I write about a character trudging through snow who struggles to breathe the freezing air and can no longer feel her numb feet, I am connected to her humanity in a deeper way, and my connection becomes the reader’s connection.
A passage from Amy Tan’s book The Bonesetter’s Daughter comes to mind. This moment is from Part I, and here the main character, Ruth, a preteen, wrongly believes that she is pregnant:
“Now whenever Ruth saw Lance, she breathed so hard and fast her lungs seized up and she nearly fainted from lack of air. She had a constant stomachache. Sometimes her stomach went into spasm and she stood over the toilet heaving, but nothing came out. When she ate, she imagined the food falling into the baby frog’s mouth, and then her stomach felt like a gunky swamp and she had to run to the bathroom and make herself retch, hoping the frog would leap down the toilet and her troubles could be flushed away. . . . First she cried a lot in the bathroom, then sliced her wrist with a dinner knife. It left a row of plowed-up skin, no blood, and it hurt too much to cut any deeper.”
The beauty of this passage comes from how deeply we as readers are allowed into Ruth’s physical reality, and I think that the connection to her body, particularly to her body in this tense, human moment, allows us to feel her panic and have a kind of compassion for her that isn’t possible without imagining ourselves all the way into her situation. I’m also arguing that Amy Tan, as the writer, had to inhabit Ruth’s body first, to imagine what it might physically feel like to be an uninformed, terrified young girl staring down at the toilet and trying to throw up. We make the connection as readers because Tan made the connection as a writer. Through the character, we all overcome the loneliness of the individual body and imagine ourselves, writer and reader, into a shared humanity. Actors teach us that characters begin in bodies and move out into the world.
Today we are pleased to feature Jen Knox as our Authors Talk series contributor. Jen talks about her contributions to Superstition Review and what she, as a reader, looks for in a strong short story. Jen also says that the why and how she writes ultimately boils down to character and her desire to understand the human condition from different purviews. She ends her talk by offering advice to burgeoning fiction writers.
My writing is better than it once was. I could be so bold as to say my writing is much better than it once was. When I examine old work from an emotional standpoint, I sometimes feel the urge to burn all those old tester stories, sentimental poems and heavy-handed essays. When I examine older work logically, however, I am proud of sticking with it for so long. I have put in my 10,000 hours and then some, after all, so why not hold my head high? Here’s the thing about writing, or at least my personal relationship with writing: logic is easy to forget.
I have drawers full of old notebooks, mostly pocket-sized deals that I used to carry everywhere, in case I had a story idea or came up with the perfect way to describe a character. I figured it was part of being a writer to pluck quirky quips, fancy words and epiphanies from the air as they floated by, and I was so incredibly afraid of missing one. I felt lost if my notebook was not nearby. When I first started writing creatively in college, I wrote constantly. I was late to the game, I thought, but I had arrived ready to make up for lost time.
It was all so romantic. I imagined a life of breezy insights piling up and turning into great works people would devour; readers would offer massive amounts of, if not money, praise in response to my insight, and all the support would keep me well-equipped to continue doing what I loved. I envisioned myself reading work in front of crowded rooms. Perhaps the notebook I was carrying would be auctioned off for great sums in the future; I thought these things, but wouldn’t dare say them for fear of sounding full of my future self.
When reading my work from five years ago, I often wonder if I should own my mistakes or scribble over them, bury them beneath other words, better words. It is tempting to hide one’s flaws and move forward—nowhere but forward.
Recently, I have been thinking about this duality a lot. I have work that I wrote some years ago, such as my short story, “Disengaged,” which appears in v4 of s[r], that still feels right to me, but I also have work I want to burn, throw into a fire ceremoniously, watching as amber sparks turn to ashes and misplaced words disappear.
If you can, imagine yourself with me, toasting to the cremation of your well-intended misses. What are we be burning, failures? Incomplete thoughts? Under-developed plots? Unlikable characters? Clichés? And what happens after these words are burned? Will we have successfully fooled everyone, even ourselves, to think writing is easy and success feels as natural as the pen does in our hands? Perhaps. More likely, though, we’ll have to arrange another burning of our current work some time from now. Then, all will be clean, pristine and unblemished. Then again, maybe there will be another burning and another.
My relationship with writing seems one in which I am never wholly satisfied, but here’s my point in this blog: This is good! I have come to the conclusion that owning my flaws and misses and failures is what truly makes me a writer. A writer’s dues are high and increasing year by year. There seem more writers and fewer readers every passing day, yet we endure because we must do what we do. We must write.
When I meet with the energy and hope of a new writer, I encourage him or her wholeheartedly. I nurture the talents I see buried when I teach creative writing, and I watch, happily, as the buried voice begins to surface. If a writer has a smaller vocabulary than her peers or a tendency to over-write, I tell that writer to keep at it. Every word matters, I say. There are no wasted words. I give this advice over and over. I say you never know what gems are in your writing, so never, never throw anything away. Never, never be embarrassed of your journey. It is a journey.
I say this to those emerging writers, to myself, to anyone who writes. Let’s own those early words. Let’s share them and show the journey. Because much like in any good story, there must be change. The story of a writer is no different.
I was flattered and excited when Superstition Review asked me to write a blog post about the craft of poetry writing. I’d just started an MFA in poetry, so I felt particularly attuned to this question of methodology, though I was also more than a little aware of my own subjectivity as a writer who is continually learning.
It’s with that spirit that I’m writing now to SR’s student-poet readers: less as an authority than as a fellow practitioner with a few best practices, ones that work for me and might also work for you.
The first thing that I have to say is this: If you’re like me, you’ll want to interrogate the aims of your poetry, especially as they relate to your reader.
I think it would be false to suggest that every poet faces the beginning of the writing process with a pre-determined notion of what he or she wants to write or hopes to accomplish by writing. In fact, poets debate about this: some suggest that if you don’t know from the beginning what you want to say, you won’t write anything very convincing, while others, especially those who advocate writing as a form of learning in itself, tend to suggest that you need to begin to write before you can really know what you want to express. Likewise, the question of audience is itself a dicey one; not every poet feels the need to imagine (or even feels comfortable imagining, or believes it is right or productive to imagine) the eventual possible interaction between the poem and its reader.
Still, I do feel that there’s something rewarding in the experience of considering, as you write, what you feel is at stake in what you are creating. What are you trying to communicate, not just literally but at all the levels of meaning that your poem might contain? Do you envision the person who reads your poem being different in some sense for having read it? Where might that difference lie – in emotion, in contemplation, in imagination? Do you want your reader to recognize himself or herself in your poem, or do you want to confront this as-yet imaginary person with the strange and unexpected – or maybe both?
Recently I had a dream in which people and events from my own life were rather surreally interwoven with the plot of a TV show I’d been watching late at night. It occurred to me that this subconscious fusion was a testament to the evocative quality of the show, which had so captured my emotional attention that in my dream, the boundary between my life and the fiction had become indiscernible. What if this type of interaction between text and reader were a goal of our poetry? How might that change the way we approach the writing process?
Of course, the relationship between writer and audience isn’t the only important one in poetry-writing. The experience of belonging to a community of writers – some of whom, we hope, will also be our readers – is for many people fundamental to writing poetry. And this brings me to the second thing I’d like to say: If you’re like me, you’ll feel better equipped to write when you learn from and participate in the work of invention.
What I mean by this is perhaps simpler than it might seem. Despite all the recent noise (much of it coming from outside the community of contemporary poets) about how today’s poetry is unmusical or prosaic or unoriginal, the stunning uses of words that I see every day in new poems have been enough to convince me that exciting things are happening and, critically, that there is a wealth of knowledge in those words – not just about poetry as an art in some larger, more monolithic sense, but about the poetry that I myself want to write.
That’s why I think it’s worth reminding yourself, as you read and write and change, not to be afraid to take lessons (figuratively speaking) from other poets who are writing today and whose work stirs you intellectually and emotionally. Don’t be afraid to admire, learn from, and even appropriate structures, syntax, and diction – new ways of choosing words and ideas and stringing them together. Think about how the formal inventions that you see in contemporary poetry might enhance the stories you want to tell in your own work.
At the same time, being part of a community of writers means being willing to experiment yourself, to add your own vision to the body of ideas about how we might express what we want to say. So don’t be afraid to invent. Instead, use the structures and strategies that excite you as a springboard for developing your own approach to the organization and language of poetry. Allow other voices to learn from yours, too. Be willing to imagine yourself as an equal participant in this world, someone whose perspective cannot be replicated.
And finally, as much as poetry is about these smaller communities of readers and writers, it’s also very much about the world at large. That’s why I’d like to end by saying this: if you’re like me, you’ll find it helps to keep your eyes and ears open.
Plenty of writers have waxed eloquent and effective about the virtues of looking around you: of eavesdropping, of people-watching, and ultimately of getting glimpses of your environment that you’ll find can inform your writing in surprising and satisfying ways. I’ve discovered that this is particularly true for me as a poet. I’ve found that when you write poetry, it helps to look for images in your world that interrupt or influence the direction or the rhythm of your thoughts. It helps to watch how other people live and how they shape the individuals and environments that surround them. You don’t have to assume that your poetry must necessarily be confessional or non-fictional or that you are obliged to be the “I” of your poem when you write in the first person. Although some people talk about poetry as an inherently non-fictional medium, you can in fact use the world around you to create beguiling fictions in your poems: fictions that are informed by lives and places that your work manipulates and reinvents in imagination.
I’ve prefaced each of these sections with the phrase “if you’re like me” because you might not be. One very happy thing about the community of contemporary poets is our diversity – not just the diversity of our experiences or our perspectives, but the diversity of our methodologies and our ideals. So maybe the best advice I can give is that you pay attention to yourself – to what works for you as a writer, to the best ways for you personally to approach language and ideas and the peculiar project of writing in verse. But you might at least find in these suggestions a place to start: techniques to explore, to resist, or to use as a platform for developing your own convictions about how we write.
Taken from Anne Lamott’s essay in her book Bird by Bird, the “shitty first draft,” or SFD, tries to make the most difficult step in writing easier. The concept is simple: write everything you can all at once and get it on the page. In her words, “almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper” (25). Don’t filter yourself, or you will never get past the first paragraph. I have always hated writing my first draft out of fear of that it will be worse than a 5-year-old’s first book report. Even Lamott recognizes her fear that if something were to happen to her, she would never have the chance to go back and fix her SFD.
The SFD is important to me because it transformed the way I write. My first draft is supposed to be bad, so it’s perfectly OK if it is. The worse the draft is, the better actually because it means I have more to work with to make it perfect. After chucking everything onto the page, the ideas are there, and only need tweaking (or maybe entire paragraph upheaval) to get it where I want the work to be. The point is the SFD provides a starting place when you didn’t have one before.
After the SFD, I spend the rest of my writing time editing it, stripping the work to its barest bones, and building it back up again. I have a tendency to overwrite (and by tendency I mean 1000 words over the limit on a paper). My SFD usually contains at least double the words allowed and is plagued by repetition. My writing process consists of paring that overwriting down day after day to get it under the limit—condensing sentences, and clarifying ideas.
The same thing goes for my fiction pieces and this post. I can write pages of text, giving me paragraphs to work with. Because of all the prose I have, I can cut down the bad, horrible, and not-so-good stuff and allow the best float to the top. I can take out an entire scene to a story, or rework a character’s personality when I realize I want her to be angry with the world instead of happy to be alive. The SFD provides a canvas and base to build upon and create a better piece.
Have you ever used an SFD before? What other significant tools have you used to make your writing process easier?
I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork. ~ Peter De Vries
If we all felt the way De Vries purports, the world would sorely lack reading material. I believe the great Mark Twain offers a solution to the daunting task we often ascribe to writing and the reason we procrastinate, telling ourselves we’ll do it as soon as we’ve finished X, Y or Z. According to Twain, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
While Twain’s quote easily applies to myriad goals or projects, I firmly believe his advice also works well when it comes to the writing process as a whole.
I’ve found that for me, it helps to take a good look at the big picture and then put into practice what Twain suggests: break down the seemingly insurmountable goal into doable steps. But even more importantly, each stage must be easily attainable, or I will hesitate to begin the first one.
The following is a model for accomplishing Twain’s solution.
Step #1: Planning
Make time to come up with the gist of your story. This may occur through daydreaming, brainstorming or writing organically for a pre-determined length of time, and can take place anywhere you do your best thinking: working out, meditating, hiking or lounging on your chaise.
Step #2: Writing
Commit to write a minimum number of words a week. This requires you to put pen (or pencil) to paper, fingers to keyboard, voice to recorder — anything to get a word count somewhere other than the gray matter inside your right brain.
Set aside the required number of hours per day, preferably uninterrupted. Accomplish this by removing distractions; i.e., log out of Facebook, instant messaging, Google, Dr. Phil — whatever keeps you from the first part of this step. If you’re the type who’s inspired by a little Beethoven or Pit Bull, by all means turn up the volume on your iPod. Along these lines, don’t underestimate the power of your muse; keep it forefront in your mind (stay tuned for a future post on this concept). The short of it: if an ocean view is what you need to write, then plaster your surroundings with the sights, sounds and smells of a tropical paradise. And if you can bring the real thing to life, all the better.
Step #3: Editing/rewriting
Read drafts one at a time, making notes/edits as you go. Try to read your words with new, fresh eyes. Pretend you’re picking the piece up for the first time and gauge your reaction as if you’ve never seen it before. Be critical.
Schedule a day or a week to rewrite. This is where a lot of us lose steam. But it’s important to consider this just another part of your “job” as a writer. Take what you’ve edited in the first part of this step and get it done. If you don’t, someone else will.
These manageable steps can be adapted to any writing assignment, such as articles, short stories and blogs. It simply takes an idea and a commitment to see it through.
Britney Gulbrandsen is an Interview Editor at Superstition Review. When not interviewing authors she spends her time reading, writing, crafting and spending time with her family.
I’ve recently been asked the question, “How do you write?” The question has been posed several different ways, the language varied depending upon the person asking, but the message remains the same: what is my process for writing?
Well, my first reaction to this question was, “I just put my pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard, depending upon my mood—and write.” But I wasn’t going to get out of the question that easily. So I examined my process more closely to think of what my method actually was.
Here is what I came up with:
Sit down with a blank page looming in front of me.
Turn on some light music (my writing playlist on iTunes).
Stare into oblivion.
Check my email.
Update my Facebook status.
Turn to my list of ideas or my list of things that inspire me.
Check my email again.
Finally begin to write.
Now I know that sounds like a joke, but ninety percent of the time, that is actually what I do when I sit down to write. But the real depth of my process comes from the tips I’ve gained and learned from experience.
Read as much as I possibly can. I’m a firm believer that the more you read, the better you will write.
Read the genres that I want to write, as well as many others. I read everything: novels, short stories, poetry, essays, memoirs, magazines, newspapers, articles, blogs, etc.
Keep pieces that inspire me near my writing desk. When I’m feeling a lack of creativity, I turn to one of them.
When an idea comes to me, I write it down immediately. I’ve learned through experience that I won’t stop and write things down in a notebook I carry with me. It just won’t happen. But I do have an app on my phone that allows me to write notes to myself as well as to make checklists. So when I think of something intriguing that might work itself into a story, I quickly type it into my phone. Then I transfer it to paper later on when I have more time.
Develop my characters. This is crucial. Characters will transform the story. When writing a longer work, such as a novel, I get to know my main character(s) before I begin to write. I go through every detail until I feel that, in a way, I have become my character. This means that I work through the character’s hobbies, fears, dreams, motivation, favorites (movie, book, food, song, store, activity, etc.) most tender memory, what he/she would grab in a fire, every aspect of what that character looks like, each personality trait, and much more. I want to get to know my characters from the inside out. Generally, most of this information won’t make it into the actual story itself, but it will help me understand my character so I will know what he/she would do or say in a certain situation.
If I need to stop writing before I finish the story, I go back and reread the past few sentences or so before I sit down to write the next time. This helps get me back in the mindset of my story and characters.
rite down everything that comes to my mind. Lots of things won’t make it into my final draft, but none of that matters now. Something raw—even a list of sorts—can help lead me to some revelation later on. The first write-through is for ideas. It’s all about getting the story out.
Let go of whatever ending I have in mind if it just doesn’t work. I once had this “grand” idea for a short story that I had created from beginning to end in my mind. When I finished actually writing it, I realized the ending didn’t work. My character would never do what he did in my story. So I erased that portion and let my character guide me based on what he would actually do. The ending is so much crisper and realistic now.
Revise, revise, revise and then be done with it. I’ve learned that I can always make changes to my work. In my mind, it will never be good enough to get published. I may think it’s ready, but if I put it away for a week, take it out, read it again, I will inevitably find something to change. But at some point, enough is enough. It’s time to try to get it published.
I’m learning more and more every day. Each time I sit down to write, I learn something new. But the biggest thing I’ve learned is to just write.