On the Writing Process
I’m always fascinated by what people go through when cranking out a creative work—from conception of the idea all the way through the final edits. So I thought I’d touch on my own writing process.
Though my writing process isn’t so much a process, actually, as it is something like a very drunk and very out-of-shape person attempting to do parkour–kind of all over the place, full of flailing, and almost always very painful.
The way it usually starts is I end up coming up with little snippets of poems–lines, titles, or just vague ideas. And then saving them as Notepad files with incredibly helpful names such as, “Thing,” “Poem,” “Possible Title,” “Thing 2,” etc., so that I can ensure that next time I feel like editing an established project or developing an older idea I will have to flip through at least a couple dozen text files before figuring out which one is the one I wanted to work on.
When I come up with these ideas, sometimes it’s a very detailed idea and/or a rough stanza or two. When that happens, I pursue the idea as far as I can—though usually at that stage it’s not going to get farther than a couple (what I hope to be) well-thought-out lines and some filler. Sometimes it’s just a prompt or a title that I want to work with. Sometimes it’s literally just an idea–no actual lines or detailed concepts, nothing to work with other than something along the lines of “Poem about ketchup as a metaphor for death. Line about rotting tomatoes?”
I guess what I’m trying to say is that my writing non-process is basically a giant disorganized mess and I’d like to say no one understands it but me but more often than not I don’t understand it either.
The process does start to move forward eventually though. At some point, the actual writing happens. This usually starts with me closing my eyes, mumbling words and phrases that I think might sound good, taking a few deep breaths, and just letting myself feel the poem in my body. Which sounds like a bunch of hippie dippy nonsense, but that’s kind of what it’s like. If I can feel the poem, there’s a much better chance I can write it.
Sometimes this happens with a whole new piece, but more often than not I dig through one or twelve of those files titled “Poem” or “Thing” and find one that doesn’t repulse me in that moment.
And then, when I feel like I understand the poem, I write it. With actual words. I write the words, and I delete them and write different ones. Sometimes I write words and I don’t delete them but I still write different ones. Sometimes I’ll write two or three versions of the same stanza and keep them all so that when I go back to it later I won’t remember what the hell I was trying to do.
Sometimes I structure a poem as I write it, and then completely change the structure later. Or keep I keep the structure the same. Sometimes I write it all in block form and fight with structure in an entirely different writing session. I write until it feels complete.
Not finished, mind you. Complete. It feels like it begins, continues, and ends in a way that makes sense. It might have as much poetic value as a smashed dung beetle, and I might think it doesn’t deserve to ever see the light of day, but it feels like it’s a full piece.
And then I don’t touch it for at least a week. I have to give myself enough distance that I’m not constantly reciting my favorite lines in my head to see how soon I can make myself hate them.
When I’m ready, I go back to it. Sometimes I like it as is and only make minor changes. More often I hate it and stuff it away again for a few more weeks (months, years, millennia…). Ideally, I find something worthwhile in it, so I make the necessary major edits and call it finished. Then again sometimes during the editing process the entire poem gets rewritten into something so different that it’s unrecognizable from its previous version and I have to give it a few more weeks (months, years, you get the idea) before I decide if I like it at all.
But I always try to start with finding that something worthwhile. It might be an idea that’s horribly written but could be made into something good, and that idea might become the basis for what is essentially a new poem. Sometimes it’s a couple lines with a really interesting voice and tone, and I reshape the rest of that poem to fit that voice.
What all of this means is that sometimes I end up finishing a poem in about an hour, sitting down at that first writing session with a fresh idea in mind and write it to completion and end up liking it as is, and other times it takes me an absurd amount of time, to the point where even I don’t have patience for my own abysmal failure to meet any kind of deadline.
But if, after all of that, I feel proud of what I’ve written, I post it. At that point THIS process starts:
Except that I’m finally getting better about the part where I don’t write anything for a long time in between those beautiful moments when I discover I hate everything I’ve ever written. I’m getting better at just sitting my sorry self down and writing anyway. I think that’s the best way I can measure my progress as a writer right now.
And I just hope that someone somewhere feels that what I’ve managed to struggle to write is meaningful.
And that’s it. That’s my mess of a sorry excuse for a disaster of a not really writing process.
Moral of the story: I’m starting to believe 80-90% of writers don’t actually know what the heck we’re doing. Most writers I know don’t have a plan. We just wing it. Sometimes it turns into something and sometimes it doesn’t, and when we’re very lucky, it turns into something that connects with other people. I think I’m learning to be okay with that.
If anyone has a writing process they’d like to talk about, I’d love to hear it. Especially if it’s for poetry, but I’m fascinated by the writing and editing process of all kinds of work. Feel free to share!