Discovering My Writing Process

Okay, so I’ve had the kind of crazy weekend that makes me want to lie down for a few days just to absorb it all.  Major shifting of patterns and stuff.  Some good, some bad, but all for the greater good, I think. 

So it started last Thursday when I had my session with Joely Black, The Most Excellent Writing Coach, who is not only the most generously supportive coach on the planet, but who can also do a kick-ass Cartman impression. 

Anyway, we’re having the session, and she asks me if I want to talk about my characters, which is pretty great, really, because she lets me lead the sessions.  If I want to talk about characters, that’s what we talk about, but I can also choose to talk about plot, or writing, or other blocks I have.  She’s flexible, and that makes me think I can be, too. 

But, my intention was to talk about the idea of identity and how I think I need to change–or maybe reframe–how I approach my writing and how I think of myself as a writer. 

Instead, I heard myself say, “Yeah.  I want to talk about my characters, but I want to say something that’s really hard, so give me a minute.” 

There was a soft and supportive “Okay” on the other end of the line. 

I took a deep breath and I began to tell her what I’ve been thinking lately regarding my characters and my process, mostly that I just need to write the scenes that I’m interested in first, and trust that the rest of the story will unfold from there.

For several months now–I know.  I’m slow.  It’s all good–I’ve been thinking that I need to sit down and write the really important scenes, the scenes that gave me the idea for this book in the first place, the scenes where my characters come up against their greatest fears, or find out some awful secret or whatever.  There’s really only a half dozen or so of them, but they’re the scenes that really pull me to the story. 

And I’ve been thinking that maybe I should just trust that if those are the scenes that gave me this story idea in the first place, that they’ll take me where I need to go to tell it. 

But I haven’t allowed myself to write them.  I mean, I won’t know the details!  I won’t know what to write!  I’ll have to change stuff later!  I’ll get it wrong

And so we get to the heart of the matter–I can’t get it wrong.  I can’t make a mistake.  Ever. 

And because the stakes are so high, and because my childhood bar for excellence is so ridiculously unattainable, “getting it wrong” means “getting it anything less than perfect.” 

I can’t delete stuff.  I can’t do it the Wrong Way.  I need to do it right the first time. 

Part of the reason that I’ve been ignoring this niggling thought at the back of my head is because I really think that this is my process, not just for these few scenes, but for the whole book.  Dive into the scenes I care about and before long, the other scenes will crop up.  I’ll write those, and before I know it, I’ll have pieced together the entire story, the whole book, just from those first few scenes. 

So why am I not doing that? 

Because if I jump in and it doesn’t work, I’ve got nothing left.  I’ve got nothing left to fall back on. 

I’ve tried every other process on the planet.  I’ve read a hundred books on how to write, which is both enormously helpful and incredibly damaging.  I’ve learned a lot, including lots of ways to avoid listening to myself.  If I do whatever someone else tells me to do and it doesn’t work, then I have someone to blame.  Then it’s not me who’s completely fucked it all up. 

And I’m in the middle of telling Joely all of this when I realize something else:  the reason I’m telling her this now is because I want her to tell me that this way is The Right Way.  I’m telling her that I think I need to start with these scenes that I love and somehow trust that the rest of the book will follow because I want her to validate it for me. 

Then I realize that Joely might not know what’s right for me.  Even with all her experience and brilliance, even with seventeen books and all her self-awareness and writing talent, and the fact that she knows more about Buddhism than anyone else I’ve ever met outside another religion major, she still doesn’t know what my process should be. 

And that’s when things finally clicked into place. 

And I said, “You know, I think I told you all of this because I wanted you to tell me that it was Okay for me to do this, but you know what, Joely?  (clears throat and coughs) I…I don’t care what you think.” 

There was silence for about half a second. 

And then wild cheering and applause from Manchester.  “Yaaaay!  You’re there!  You’re getting it!”  And then we laughed together and she cheered for me some more and I rested my head on my desk because slaying dragons is exhausting. 

And I’m just trying to settle into this idea.  I know I should probably just start writing, but it’s hard.  I’m taking it slow.  And really, I don’t have a lot of time right now.  I’m slammed with website work.  It’s funny, I start opening myself to my writing and my process and all of a sudden, my website business is taking off. 

It’s good.  I’m beginning to believe that things are going to be Okay, even if I don’t yet know what Okay is going to look like. 

I’m excited about this week.  I don’t have a lot of time, but I’m going to treat myself to writing those favorite scenes.  Did you hear that?  “Treat myself.”  That’s what it is.  I might not write the whole book this way.  This might not lead to more scenes.  I may write these few and the rest will just fizzle out, or I might write myself into a big, black hole, but that’s okay.  I’m just not going to worry about that right now. 

Right now, I’m just going to write what I want to, what I care about.  And I’m going to do it as well as I can.  And next week?  Well, I’ll worry about that next week.

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23 Responses to “Discovering My Writing Process”

  1. Hurray! (wild cheering) this sounds like a really important thing.

    I have a couple of thoughts. And since I’m not really a writer, you can just ignore them and tell your rock and your inner critic about what a crazy woman I am but I’m going to say them anyway.

    1) If the web design business is taking off, limit your time for it. Make it a 4 day a week business. When you estimate how long a job will take, use your 4 day week as a guide. because the 5th day is for writing or wrestling with writing or whatever.

    2) If you write scenes and they don’t become books, you might have short stories. That could be published as short stories. It seems to me that sometimes I read books and there is stuff on the page with the copyright info (doesn’t everyone read that page?) about chapter x being previously published in y magazine with this slightly different title. Or a version of chapter x. So who cares if the scenes become books. They’re scenes. Write ‘em. Then figure out what the “are”.

    So this is why you don’t pay me as a writing coach :-)

    JoVE’s last blog post..The politics of research funding

  2. what a cool idea! I’ve written character sketches of who I want in the story and I have some funny and glorious stories but not in any particular order. I’ve been stymied by doing it in the right sequence. I’m going to try this and see what happens. Thanks for sharing this

  3. All I can do really is smile.

    Joely Black’s last blog post..The wall, and being a divided self

  4. WHOOOOO HOOOOOO!!! Do you hear me, missy?? WHOOOO HOOOO, FRICKIN’ A, ROCK ON! Ok, I’m done. For now.

    So anyway, I felt an energy go through my body as I read this:

    “And I’ve been thinking that maybe I should just trust that if those are the scenes that gave me this story idea in the first place, that they’ll take me where I need to go to tell it.”

    It was as if I was actually feeling your excitement about these scenes — and your desire to get into them, explore, and just start writing! And I thought to myself, “Of course this will work for you!! How could it not??”

    But then I read about your fear, and I recognized exactly why you haven’t let yourself go this route. It’s so incredibly familiar to me. Seems pretty clear that we’re both card-carrying members of Club Perfectionista. Membership in that club pretty much ensures that anything truly meaningful is also terrifying. Because–gasp!–what if we mess it up? So, I get it. Scary. Yikes. Run, run away! Let’s run together!

    Except (and this is why the cheering had to happen), with this post of yours, I’m thinking that you might be on your way to dumping your Club Perfectionista membership. WHOOP WHOOP! Sure, I’ll miss you at our daily (hourly, minutely – wait, how the heck would you say that?) meetings where we beat ourselves up and worry about what it means if we make a mistake, but I can’t help but be so totally happy that one of us seems to be starting to break free!

    Now, get on with the treating yourself to what you love (and are meant to do)!! I’ll be happy to remind you that you no longer need to pay any Perfectionista dues…

  5. P.S. – and a big “Yay!” to Joely for being such an awesome coach and for recognizing that hearing “I don’t care what you think” in this situation was about the best thing a coach could ask for…

    (I know, it should be “for which a coach could ask”…but I’m in Grammar Mafia territory here, right?)

  6. logo icon
    My lovely friends! Big hugs and kisses to all of you. You guys rock.

    JoVE - That’s good advice, all of it. I’d thought of setting aside sacred writing time specifically for working on my book. And the other suggestion is good, too. I think I’ve been stuck because I feel like I’m writing The Book, and pulling back enough to think of the scenes as just scenes and then figuring out what they “are” later is brilliant. Thanks.

    Maureen - I know! The “right” sequence. It’s such a stumper, right? Keep me posted on how this works for you.

    Joely - Big hugs and much love, my friend.

    Stacie - It is so awesome to have a friend who will jump up and down and cheer for you when you accomplish the little things. You rock.

    And yes! The Club Perfectionista! I’m a card-carrying member and I keep trying not to renew, and every year, they just up my membership again! Bastards! :)

    Love you guys.

  7. Hey there you wonderful, courageous, dragon slaying writer girl,

    Oh I just love your process! And your honesty! And how you are so willing to just listen to yourself…. and you are very, very wise. And smart! So smart and genius and …. and…..and…..just so fucking cool!!!

    I love how you got clear on what it was that YOU really needed and that you were able to step away from that false need for approval…. heck even to NOTICE that need for approval is such an amazing thing…. and then to tell Joely ” i don’t really care what you think???”" Whoo-Hoo it is! No wonder you needed to lay down. I think that you did all the work that you need to do for this lifetime in that one little statement and now you can spend the REST OF YOUR DAYS giving yourself treats and just playing.

    And i love that idea of simply writing what you want to write. I always encourage students in my painting classes to “follow the energy” in a painting and to do what they are excited by and what gives them pleasure. And trust that the rest will fall into place. Cause it always does.

    Big hugs and bigger love,

    Chris

    chris zydel’s last blog post..THE WISDOM OF NO MISTAKES: DRIPS CAN BE FUN ( or at least not total torture)

  8. Hmmm…JoVe has a good point, setting aside the time to write. You will never write anything, whether it be the scenes you are excited about or otherwise, if you don’t take the time to do it. Unless of course it is the day I have updates to my website! :) lol

    Yeah, the short story idea is good also. And short fiction can always be fleshed out later into a novel, like I did with JEWEL, like Brian Keene did with CASTAWAYS. That way you can capture your most prized plot and story-line ideas. Publish those, and later you can add the details needed for a good novel–then, publish that too :)

    Anyway, good for you doing it your own way. Now step up and do it with confidence! :) :)

  9. I am so glad to see that my knowledge of academic writing processes helps you, too.

    Also, for those that are interested in setting aside time, check out Charlie Gilkey’s post about heat mapping productivity. Figure out your best writing time and guard that. If you write well first thing in the morning, then don’t start working on websites (or whatever) until noon. That kind of thing.

    My partner does this for his academic writing. He writes for about an hour most days. When he has to go into the office (to teach, for meetings, etc), he writes for an hour and then goes in.

    He also has about 6 things on the go at once. I wrote about the value of that on my own blog

    JoVE’s last blog post..The politics of research funding

  10. I LOVE THIS POST!!!

    I so know what you are talking about – the fear of actually writing precious ideas down.

    At least, as ideas, they are beautiful. you never know what will happen to them as text.

    Thank you for writing!

    Hannah’s last blog post..In the absence of new posts…

  11. logo icon
    Seriously, I don’t know how I got lucky enough to be surrounded by such lovely, smart people.

    Chris - How much do you rock my world? It’s amazing to have someone cheer for me and remind me that the things I’m doing aren’t so small and insignificant after all. “Give myself treats and just play.” You’re absolutely right. :)

    Justin - “You will never write anything … if you don’t take the time to do it.” This is perhaps the wisest and most profound thing I’ve read all week. Seriously. It’s the simplest things that knock me over with a feather these days. Beautiful.

    JoVE - That post of yours rocked. I especially loved the idea that not all time is the same. I can write for fifteen minutes if I can pick what to write. If I’m pressured to work on The Book, forget it. But something smaller? Something that doesn’t take up so much of my mental bandwidth? That’s perfect!

    Hannah - Welcome! You’re so right! In my head, they’re flawless. Part of the struggle of writing is transferring what’s up there down to the page. I never seem to be able to get it all just right. But that’s all part of the perfectionism that I’m really hoping I can let go of, or perhaps at least learn to live with. :) Thanks for being here.

  12. That post made a shivering, tingling delight play over my skin. Hoorah! Hoorah, and dare I say thrice hoorah! Oh it’s such a privilege to be with you on this journey – and hey, your writing here is just perfect already.

    Emma Newman’s last blog post..The tiny glass boats are setting sail

  13. logo icon
    Emma – You’re such a sweetie. Thanks. For being here and for cheering. :)

  14. I am an artist, a fickle one, who cannot follow a predetermined (stultifying) course of action. Well, I did it at work for 20 years but I won’t do it now.

    So getting right to the juicy stuff is the only way to do it as far as I’m concerned. Eat dessert first!

    Diana’s last blog post..This Old Man came rolling home

  15. Wow, Diane. Some good dragon slaying there. Seriously.

    This is inspiring. And you’ve pegged exactly the reason why may never write anything more than the occasional blog post and comments on other people’s posts.

    The fear of one: too many possibilities for ‘scenes’. And two: once they’re out there, that’s it. What if that’s the best I got?

    Incidentally, these two things also hold my back from moving forward in life as well. Perfectionism and fear of commitment.

    I am inspired. :)

    Gina’s last blog post..Daily Om

  16. “I can’t get it wrong. I can’t make a mistake. Ever.” And then the explanation for reading every self-help/how-to book ever to blame somebody else… This really hit home for me. I have been struggling with a spreadsheet and executive summary for a business proposal and am hitting the same roadblocks.

    Thank you for writing this post because it has really helped me understand my own process and why I get stuck sometimes. Good luck with finishing your process.

    P.S. I got to your blog through Havi Brooks mentioning Amy Mommaerts and Amy had a link to you.

  17. logo icon
    Byron - Thank you! I’m so glad this led you to some clarity about your process. Just taking the time and effort to try to understand our blocks is a huge step forward, in my opinion. Good luck on your proposal, too. I bet you’ll rock it. :)

  18. logo icon
    Diana - Yay! I totally agree. And that’s awesome that you’re following your own muse now.

    Gina - Thank you, sweet friend. I’m currently reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and she said something there that just floored me. She had an epiphany about how people received her work. Basically, she just realized that it wasn’t her problem. She said something like, “I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly, only that I would write.” I love her. I’m going to have that tattooed on my forehead.

  19. Being a master of something needs time and dedication. Always believe in your abilities even when your mind does not. Never give up even if your having a hard time. And never stop learning from your mistakes. I know you will succeed, just do your part. :-)
    Walter´s last blog ..Why are we having problems with problem? My ComLuv Profile

  20. So, I’m kind of hoping that you, unlike me, have been hiding out and, you know, DOING YOUR THING all this time… ?

    I’m not sure what happened to me for many, many, MANY months, but it was nothing good. I’m trying to reemerge. And as part of that reemergence, I wanted to reach out and see how YOU are doing…. So, how you doing?? :)

  21. logo icon
    Stacie! My long, lost friend! You too?! You mean I’m not the only one who’s had the summer and fall from hell? I’m only now just feeling like I’m ready to re-join the world that has kept on spinning by, and I wasn’t quite sure how to do it. I’ve actually been thinking about a new blog post for the last couple of days, and now I get this note from you … it’s like it’s kismet. :) I may have to just dive back in. Hmmm, may have to post something new tomorrow … So, how have YOU been? :)

  22. Oh my gosh – just reading this makes me tear up! Kismet. Yes.

    And to know that I was not the only the one who seemed to get a little lost there for a while is a relief. But it’s even better to see you jumping back in!

    I’ve been, well, in hiding, apparently. ? I think that I’ve been hiding from the fact that I really need to take a leap sometime here and make a BIG change. It’s really scary – and then I of course have all of the great excuses that come with work that I never seem to get on top of – so avoidance seemed to be the way I dealt. Oh yeah, awesome, I know! But, we’ll see, I’m thinking that this is my year to jump!

  23. logo icon
    Stacie - I totally understand. Avoidance and denial are powerful tools. I used them for quite a while. But big changes are scary and hard. Sometimes you just need some time or space to gear up. And it sounds like you’ve done that! It sounds like big changes are afoot! Can’t wait to hear about them. Please keep me posted!

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