The Writing Process: Finding What Works

When I sit down to work on a story I think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just write a draft from beginning to end and be done for a day, then return to the thing, plow through another draft like a farmer tilling a field?” A field would be good. A field has finite boundaries that are usually pre-established by zoning laws or property lines. A lawn would be even better. More manageable. A story knows no bounds. I like to imagine a day when I can plan the time I will invest into a story, from the idea’s inception to the final polish.

Ask different writers about process, and you’ll receive almost completely different answers. Here are some of the most memorable:

Stephen King works on two stories at once, usually a novel and a short story, or else two novels. He writes in the morning, then goes about the rest of his day in what I imagine to be a blissful state of fulfillment and productive thought before returning to edit something he worked on the day before. He takes an idea and runs with it, never knowing the ending in advance.

Margaret Atwood compares her compositions to a running “barrage” at the edge of a battlefront: sentences she’s already typed springboard her forward and then she must continue to write to catch up to the place a particular idea has landed. Not ideal, but somewhat linear. There is at least some semblance of forward motion.

Bonnie Jo Campbell looks to the news—usually stories from her native Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is as unpredictable as its name—for inspiration. She writes for three hours each morning until she completes a full draft and then revises, revises, revises.

Katherine Karlin envisions an occupation, or a lifestyle, for her characters and works towards an ending of which she knows only the emotional timbre or else an image freighted with deeper meaning.

Haruki Murakami writes for three to five hours in the morning before he runs six miles and swims a mile, claiming that the physical strain accompanying exercise builds the relentless work ethic necessary for writing novels. I wonder if the endorphins are at the root of his motivation.0TW4AS1G7D

I’m not necessarily wishing for my writing to come easily, just to find some way to work in a predictable manner. I’ve heard establishing a routine helps. Everybody who’s anybody has a routine that usually involves writing in the morning. The only routine I am familiar with is procrastinating. I’ve never been one for routines. “I’ll write every morning for two hours,” I tell myself day after day, week after week. And I might do so for three or so days on end. Then I
won’t be able to sleep the night before a day when I have to teach or do something else that requires me to function as a semi-coherent human being, and I talk myself out of rising and into sleeping or at least laying and resting. Because dragging myself out of bed would be hard, and laying here is so much easier. Instant gratification.

When I’m tired or feeling uncreative, I do easy things, like brainstorming. I love bulleting. Procrastinators love to make lists (see above). I’ll complete other less important but required tasks in order to procrastinate the real writing—the hard writing (as I write this blog post, I’m procrastinating work on a story that is due on Tuesday and wonder how my writing would survive without due dates). For example: sending an email is a concrete accomplishment whereas spending the same amount of time writing may just result in something you’ll throw out at the end of the day. Then I’ll write three to five sentences and decide I need to do some “research” in order to continue—I’m writing about lilacs, so what does the flower mean, symbolically? Or, what’s that word I’m forgetting? Search: synonyms for “unsure.” Maybe I can’t focus because I’m hungry. I eat a cucumber. Or a doughnut. Look up “calories in a cucumber” and “calories in a frosted doughnut” and decide based not on my research but on how quickly my blood sugar will spike and how the frosting will taste.

I have realized I need to establish a routine during my second semester working towards a graduate degree in creative writing. I haven’t yet been able to count on a time of day, but I’ve taken to writing on paper, where crossing out too much is unsightly and writing too fast is illegible and too many arrows and circles make things confusing. No quick trip to the internet to confirm a fact or a definition is available. The ink of a pen cannot be quickly backspaced on a whim. Unnecessary words are left out because to write them all would cause one’s hand to cramp up. Just write a page. Then turn the page. You’ll probably keep going.

Carly Plank
Creative Writing MA student