Join us for a 90-minute stretch of focused writing in the company of familiar faces and a mid-morning nosh or beverage.
We’ll keep the first hour dedicated to pens on paper, so bring your notebook and whatever writing project is on your front burner. Not working on anything specific right now? No problem. We’ll even bring a few prompts and writing ideas to get you rolling on something new.
For those who wish to share your work or your writing process, let’s discuss! We’ll lift the silence for the last half hour.
Where: FoxHound Espresso 317 Spring Street, Nevada City, Calif. When: Saturday, February 23, 2019 10:00 – 11:30 a.m.
So begins the short essay “Writing” (a.k.a. “A Way of Writing”) by William Stafford, which for years was my first reading assignment to my creative writing students. It’s a gem. In fact, I felt that if any of my students took the four minutes necessary to read those few pages, actually began to apply the method Stafford speaks of there, and never again set foot in my classroom, for them the course still would have been a huge success.
To the dismay of some readers, Stafford rejects the romantic myth of the creative writer as a special creature, as necessarily a sort of genius who is magically touched by a singular Muse, bestowing inspiration for great literature which is unavailable to the rest of us. That’s one way to look at a brilliant finished project, but it ignores the long, dusty, rut-filled road that the “genius” had to take to get there. It’s a cart-before-the-horse perspective.
Stafford’s insight is that writing is a process through which a writer discovers the attendant inspiration. In other words, you must be knocking at the Muse’s door before she’ll let you in – sometimes knocking and knocking and knocking. Sure, ideas come to us seemingly unbidden in the shower, while driving, or whenever – Aha! Inspiration! – but turning that insight or vision into a piece of writing that captures its essence in a publicly communicable way is inevitably the result of writing and writing and writing until you get it right, or at least as right as you can get it (see my previous post, Right Imperfection).
And what turns out to be right for the finished product may not be at all what seemed right at the start. You see, the Muse is not out there somewhere – she’s in your hands as you push the pen across the page or tap your fingers upon the laptop keys.
Years ago I heard Arlo Guthrie tell a story about songwriting in which he described that craft as similar to fishing. “If you want to catch a fish,” he said, “you gotta have your hook in the water. Now, some of us are lazy or distracted, watching TV or whatever, or we’ve got kids or jobs that keep us from fishing too much, but my friend Bob [Dylan], y’know, he fishes upstream, and he’s always got his hook in the water. And that’s why he gets all the best fish!”
Speaking of Dylan, his most famous song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” was first written, by his own description, as “this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long,” out of which he fashioned four verses and a repeating chorus. “I’d never written anything like that before.” Thus, this already well-seasoned and quite successful songwriter – this genius, if you will – with his hook perpetually in the water, surprised even himself and caught a really Big Fish that transformed popular songcraft.
Mess. Madness. Disorder. Where do I begin? How do I start? What do I prioritize? Help!
Sometimes the question is not How do I start? it’s How do I finish what I’ve started?
Writing is that magical moment of lovemaking with the muse. Sure! But I can’t just lie around waiting to be seduced. I have to show up for the muse in order for the muse to show up for me. The moment a wonderful burst of creativity transforms from an idea into a project, I’m committing to more than just some good times with the muse. I’m committing to a relationship beyond the honeymoon.
So, when it’s time to get serious, get organized. The more you can get to know your own writing process, the more you get to know yourself as a writer and what you are capable of, not just in terms of output, but in terms of productivity and of setting realistic goals.
Show up. As with all actions in life, it begins with intention. Start by committing to paper what you want to do. Octavia Butler’s personal list is one of my all time favorites.
Break it down. The journey begins with the first step. Start with a map! Specifically, create a writing schedule.
I took an intensive screenwriting course in which we committed to writing five screenplays in three years. With a 10-hour week writing commitment, I found it possible to write the first draft of a 90-125 page script in six weeks’ time.
No, you don’t have to quit your day job to write your novel or memoir or essay collection. You just need a schedule. Look at the calendar. Be honest. Ask, How much time can I commit to every day? 30 minutes? 2 hours? Every week 10 hours?
Commit to a weekly schedule on paper. “I will write 8 hours a week, Mon-Thurs 7-8:30am, Sunday 10-12pm.”
Define it. Rather than say, “I’m going to write a novel,” get granular and be specific. Identify which elements of your idea you can start to shape over the next several weeks. Perhaps it’s about identifying the big picture ideas, like story outline, themes, or cast of characters. Or perhaps it’s looking at an individual chapter in which you’re establishing the narrative voice.
Commit your writing goal on paper. “I will develop my idea into a new story; including an outline, characters, theme, plot, main problem/resolution.”
Log it. Put the commitment to practice and monitor your progress. “Week 1: I wrote 8 hours, sketched general outline, sketched three scenes with main character.”
Repeat for 6 weeks. At the end of six weeks, re-evaluate. Ask, How well am I sticking to my time commitment? More?
Less? Am I being realistic?
List your achievements. Review what you accomplished in this time, on paper: “I wrote X number of pages/scenes/chapters. I developed X elements of my story.”
Reset, start again. Re-commit to a new 6-week writing plan on paper. Create goals to make them reachable. Small successes add up psychologically as well as materially.
Write away. So, how do we keep allowing ourselves to get messy in the midst of all this organization? I like to encourage the Path of Least Resistance: That which gets the ink flowing. Whatever comes to mind in a given day that I already know about my story and my characters. It’s not only OK to write out of order, it’s necessary. Does a scene toward the end pop out clearly in the mind? Write it! It’s OK if you change it later. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that I can count on just about everything changing after the first draft.