process

process. n. 1. a systematic series of actions directed to some end: to devise a process for homogenizing milk. 2. a continuous action, operation, or series of changes taking place in a definite manner: the process of decay. 3. Law. a. the summons, mandate, or writ by which a defendant or thing is brought before court for litigation. b. the whole course of the proceedings in an action at law. 4. Photography. photomechanical or photoengraving methods collectively. 5. Biology, Anatomy. a natural outgrowth, projection, or appendage: a process of a bone.

Disclaimer: I sometimes adulterate these definitions. I use a free online dictionary for these posts, because I believe in meaning-in-context, and I want these particular definitions (denotations, if we’re being picky) to reflect popular meaning. (And because I’m too lazy to hit the Oxford English Dictionary every goddamn time I want to define a word. And because I’m pretty sure that would get really old for my readers, really fast.) I included—or at least didn’t delete—to devise a process for homogenizing milk up there because I think it’s funny. (Sometimes, when people start to take themselves too seriously, I imagine that they’re secretly doing something like curing a pernicious disease or, you know, devising a process for homogenizing milk.)

Anyway, I left the online dictionary’s definition intact for “process,” even though I don’t plan to talk about the law or photography or, alas, milk homogenization. Or even anything especially systematic, unless you count getting up at a semi-regular time and planting one’s ass in the chair and oscillating wildly between feelings of omnipotence (“look at what I made!”) and soul-crushing insecurity (“every word sucks!”) as a system. In the context of this post, in which I will ostensibly divulge secrets about my writing process, I’m especially enamored by the idea of process-as-outgrowth, projection, or appendage.

Appendage. n. a subordinate part attached to something; an auxiliary part; addition. 2. Anatomy, Zoology. any member of the body diverging from the axial trunk. 3. Botany, Mycology. any subsidiary part superadded to another part.

Sometimes writing feels like an appendage makes me feel like an appendage. I diverge from its axial trunk; I exist as a subordinate part attached to it. I type its words onto the page, sometimes making minor stylistic changes when its voice diverges from the one it really wants or when it uses too many adverbs.

I am its typist, its editor, its bitch.

I’m not going to write something clever, such as I feel the writing coming through me and not from me, because that’s only happened a handful of times, on days I wish I could recreate at least once a week. It happened for a couple of weeks straight once, and I think that then I was both the happiest and the craziest I’ve ever been, even though I existed in an alternate universe and I lost a bunch of friends when I (their word) “disappeared.”

Okay, I admit it: I wish it were like that all of the time. I want more of those days when tapping the keyboard feels like playing some complicated, both-technically-dazzling-and-heartbreaking concerto on the piano. When writing and music and art and the beautiful and the sublime converge and it feels like synesthesia as it comes together into pages, paragraphs, sentences, words, syllables, letters, ideas and thoughts that, I swear, came through and not from.

It hasn’t been like that in a couple of months, not since I finished the novel. I guess I’d hoped that I’d be able to keep up the furious pace forever, that page after page would flow through me, over me, under me, as if I were a broken levee.

But no. Most of the time, it’s hard work. Even the “fun” writing, the fiction and the blog posts and the occasional academic article that somehow makes me feel like I’m on hallucinogens, it’s all hard fucking work. Sometimes, when it starts to feel like I’ve been doing manual labor all day instead of just sitting in a chair and I consciously try to stop the despair from creeping, sneaking into my chest, I’ll do something crazy like–<gasp>–make an outline. Outlines have never worked for me; the road to writing hell is paved with outlines that I’ve abandoned. But I make them anyway; they’re part of the process, even though I ultimately abandon them.

I used to think about writing in gestational terms, but then I realized that it’s not growing inside of me.  I’m not going to squeeze it out of an orifice, and I’m probably not going to have to nurture it for, I don’t know, eighteen years. So that metaphor isn’t going to work.

Then I started pretending that I was a coffee pot. I still use the word “percolation” when I describe certain kinds of writing. But that’s not exactly right, either; I mean, I might be “percolating,” but thinking is not the same as writing, and I’m not exactly making coffee up in here; my coffee pot is. Grind coffee, dump in basket. Add water. Hit button. It’s not that simple.

I once (okay, maybe twice) made a joke that I’d be willing to experiment with having a probe inserted into my brain, so that I could bypass the whole act of writing. But that will not do. Because the act of writing, that rhythmic, physical act itself? That’s part of the process.

One of my favorite memoirists, in one of my favorite books—which, incidentally, used to be one of my least favorite books—wrote that, when she started seriously writing, she . . . Aw, hell, I’ll just quote her:

 “One day, when I was typing a story for an English class, I had an aura that ended in an orgasm. I pressed the Q key, and heat went through me; I pressed the U key, and the heat turned into a sweaty shiver, and I came to the sound of I-E-T, quiet, clack, quiet, and each pulse of pleasure was a word, and the words were turquoise.”**

Anyway, I can’t  say with any degree of honesty that such a thing has ever happened to me but, you know, it’s a metaphor.

A good metaphor.

There’s a writing exercise that I do with my students. At some point in every class, regardless of what the syllabus says we’re supposed to be doing, I’ll throw out the lesson plan and have my students draw pictures; part of taking teaching an English class is learning how to do this kind of thing. Anyway, they often look at me like I’m from outer space when I ask them to do it (then again, they look at me like that with some regularity. I mean this in the best possible way). Every time I make this small demand, I draw my own picture, too, just to see if anything has changed since the last time I did it, maybe a semester before. (And to create the illusion of a democratic classroom, but that’s for another post, too.)

“Take out a piece of paper,” I’ll say.

They groan. This might mean there’s a quiz or some such vile thing.

“Draw a picture your writing process,” I’ll say.

Stares.

“I’m serious,” I’ll say. “Draw a picture. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to exist.”

One or two students will dive, often with gusto, into their maps. Someone else asks what I mean. “What do you mean, ‘process’?”

In an “academic writing” context, I’ll watch this question flash across several faces as someone verbalizes it. Someone will say, “My ‘process’ is to write my paper and then turn it in,” which is usually followed by laughter, from either the someone or another. And those folks will get honesty points, but they will still have to draw what that looks like. And this will lead us into discussing process, which is always—and I’m not being hyperbolic—a good thing.

(This definitional challenge happens mostly in a quote-unquote academic writing context and less often in a creative one; in a creative context, by the time we get to this, we’ve already talked about process. This does not mean that “draw your process” makes any more sense. In a “creative” context, the question will be “what should it look like?” or “what do you mean?”

What do you mean is the common thread. Here’s what I mean: draw me a picture that looks like your writing process. Whatever that means. However you define it. Show yourself what happens when you need/want to write something.)

“What do you mean by ‘picture’?” someone else will ask. “Do you mean like a list?”

“A list is fine. Sure, you can make a list,” I’ll reply. Then I’ll show them a couple of examples of how other people have drawn a writing process. I might even show them my own most recent example. I’ll probably draw something weird on the chalkboard that looks vaguely like a tree, or a venn diagram, or a football field, or whatever moves me on that particular day.

process

I drew this one when asked about my own “academic writing” process a couple of months ago. There’s not much difference between this and my “creative process,” minus “theoretical apparatus/lit review.” And, in all honesty, that applies to my creative work, too, because “lit review” means “read lots of books.” My favorite part of the map is the word “EXPLOSION,” followed by three exclamation points. EXPLOSION!!! is my favorite feeling, that thing I was trying to describe before.

(Side Note: I’m sick of this divide between academic and creative writing, the one that I’m perpetuating in this post. I think the two illuminate each other. But that’s a topic for another day. Please forgive me.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve got a few different pieces of writing going right now, and we’re at various stages. One of them is full-on “freak out,” plus a little bit of “percolate” (the second novel). The second comfortably resides in the world of outside feedback (FORMS IN THE SHADOWS). A third is there, too (an article). The fourth is this blog. I’m not entirely sure where it falls on the map. Maybe I need a new map for this kind of writing.

Now, take out a piece of paper. Map your writing process. I’ll do it, too. But, this time, I’m going to depict my ideal process, just to remind myself why I’m doing any of this and not trying to make a living wage by doing something practical, like editing or devising a process for homogenizing milk.

What do you mean?

I mean show me what it looks like. It doesn’t have to be pretty; it just has to exist.

Here’s my ideal:

explosion

** You should immediately run out and buy Lauren Slater’s Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. This quotation is from page 119.

disclaimer

disclaimern. 1. the act of disclaiming; the renouncing, repudiating, or denying of a claim; disavowal. 2. a person who disclaims. 3. a statement document, or assertion that disclaims responsibility, affiliation, etc.; disavowal; denial.

Some of the events that I include (and plan to include) in this blog actually took place. Some of the people are real people with real lives and jobs and things at stake. Some of the themes are actual themes, things that I consider from time to time and that manage to make their way into other people’s writing, too.

So, I’ll encourage you to do with this blog what Dave Eggers suggests, at the beginning of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that his readers do: PRETEND IT’S FICTION. Another disclaimer: I’m not comparing my blog to AHWOSG. My nonfiction writing is far less heartbreaking.

The disclaimer I give at the beginning of the novel looks a little different. It reads like this:

“This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any situation or person, living or dead, is pure coincidence. In other words, please don’t sue me if you think you recognize someone here. . . .

I’ve done my best with the geography of Cleveland, though I admit to inventing quite a few locations and willfully bending some details about the Cleveland police, in favor of characterization and plot niceties.

Please forgive me for the liberties I’ve taken.”

There exists a third kind of disclaimer, too. It looks like this, and should be applied to the “Paddy Wagon” series of posts that are on their way: “An early version of this circulated a couple of years ago. Sorry for repeating myself. Please forgive me.”

What we see, then, are three different kinds of disclaimers. One says that this stuff probably happened somewhere at some point in time (or that I have an over-active imagination, which is possible). The other says hey, there’s no way in hell that any of this happened anywhere, and all these people are figments of my over-active imagination. The third is an acknowledgment of repetition and a thanks-for-reading-this-again kind of thing.

At the end of the day, though, almost every kind of disclaimer, at least when applied to creative work, asks the reader to forgive the writer for liberties that she may or may not have taken. Memory is flawed. Narrative is flawed. We’re all deeply flawed individuals who string words together on a page and hope that someone, somewhere will read them and care about them and want to read more.

Please forgive me.

synopsis

Synopsis. n. 1. a brief or condensed statement giving a general view of some subject. 2. a compendium of heads or short paragraphs giving a view of the whole. 3. a brief summary of the plot of a novel, motion picture, play, etc.

What they don’t include in the definition is that it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever write in your entire fucking life, but you have to write one if you ever want your book to see the light of day and not remain some sad file on your computer that you gaze at, by yourself in your home office or maybe on your couch, from time to time. (Please forgive my profanity—I promise a forthcoming post on profanity, if that makes anyone feel better.) Dissertation? Compared to synopsis, dissertation was cake.

Everything I’ve ever written, from the beginning of my writing life forward, was easier than the damned synopsis. It was easier to generate seventy pages in a weekend, which I had to do to fulfill the requirements of an academic exam. Easier to struggle along through the third-grade penmanship workbook, trying to make the letters look like the model letters, and then getting a D+ for effort. Easier to write a letter of recommendation for someone I may or may not actually want to recommend. You get my drift.

Writing a synopsis sucks. I’d rather do math problems. Hard ones. Trigonometry, with no calculator.

You have to put yourself at such a distance from the thing you love most when you’re writing it: in my case, my mystery novel.

At first, I wrote a thing that I’m embarrassed to have shared with smart, kind people, who gently pointed out, not in so many words, that I was an idiot. Then, guided by their intelligent kindness, I wrote a new version. This one, I feel good about. But it took distance. I know someone who would call it “critical distance.” In the interest of maintaining my use of profanity, I’ll call that what it is: bullshit. Anyone who says that a writer can even dream of “critical distance” between herself and her words is lying. It’s actually pretty simple. Actual distance, as in, a temporal condition meaning that I haven’t read the book in a while or just completed a revision or gone back into it to look for threads to pull into the sequel? Okay, that part is legit. But critical distance? That’s insane. That’s why we pay people to write book reviews. Those people? They have critical distance.

I worked in movie theaters for a good long time; I was even a well-paid member of middle management for a while before I realized that continuing to do so would eventually render me unable to look at myself in the mirror. One of the things I remember about the first movie theater job was the manager asking me to “copy the synopsis” for each of the  films we had going at any given time onto a piece of paper, so that we could answer questions if a customer called. I was sixteen; I copied the synopsis for each of seven movies (I’m dating myself here–now, no self-respecting movie theater has fewer than a million screens). People actually did that; they dialed the number, which began in 666, and asked what every single movie was about. We’d read the synopses, and then go on our merry way. Sounds easy. It’s not easy.

Seriously: trig problems. Send ’em my way.

Anyway, in case you’re interested, here’s my (successful? you tell me) much-revised synopsis. It’s longer than the ones I copied onto a piece of paper when I was sixteen. Because I want you to read the book, I’ve cut the parts that give away the ending. You’re welcome.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Want to read the book? I hope the answer is yes.

FORMS IN THE SHADOWS: Synopsis

Cleveland Special Homicide detective ELIZABETH BOYLE, 35, is awakened from the first hours of sleep she’s had in three days by the buzzing of her phone; she answers and is called to the scene of a crime. Another nightmare interrupted by another murder. She charges to the scene, down in the gritty-industrial Cleveland Flats, reflecting on the fact that the visits to a shrink, mandated after she shot and killed a perpetrator a few weeks before, have left her feeling more vulnerable and exposed than she would like. The shrink keeps talking about the “support system” that she’d like Boyle to develop, but Boyle, at least on the surface, prefers her solitary existence. Besides, she knows she’s a cliché: she’s married to the job.

She receives the phone call following the discovery of a young boy’s mutilated, exsanguinated body. Boyle and her partner TOM GORAN are the team of detectives that CPD calls when such a homicide occurs. They’re about to undertake the most mind-bending case of their careers, in which their personal and professional allegiances—and maybe their sanity—will be tested. Does Boyle’s brother’s DNA at the scene of the crime mean that he’s guilty? Will the criminal ruin Boyle’s career, and maybe the detective herself, with the squeeze of a trigger? Will the media, who seems to know more than it should, derail the investigation?

The mystery plot itself hints at questions of family, of what it means to question blood bonds, and of the thrill of the chase—Boyle’s thrill, that is. But Boyle’s own life is in disarray. She’s only recently stopped drinking herself to sleep every night and having the mindless one-night stands that have always left her feeling empty. She’s only begun to change because her shrink pushes her into unfamiliar personal territory, something that Boyle initially rails against. Ultimately, however, she reveals that she might be more willing to accept the shrink’s help than either of them thought she would—could—be; the questions that remain surround her willingness, or not, to listen to her partner, her one real friend, her shrink, and her boss. Can she obey the bureaucratic rules of the police department? Can she see any gray areas between the black-and-white that has been such a significant part of her life for so long?

Throughout, we both love and hate Detective Boyle. Her conflicts with her drug-addicted mother and brother, her partner, and her friend, her uncanny ability to solve complicated murder cases, and our own sense of a complex kindness (and maybe even a sense of humor) beneath her hard surface leave us wanting more. But maybe we want more than she can give. All of her intriguing supporting characters provide solid points against her, and yet we find ourselves sucked into her life, her case, her narrative, and even into the bizarre retelling of it by an unstable person. The complicated web of deceit that surrounds the case mirrors Boyle’s own, and her personal and family secrets come dangerously close to being revealed as she uncovers the perp’s true motive.

Elizabeth Boyle is a deeply flawed individual. In the end, Boyle contemplates the fine line between hero and villain, and we’re left to wonder what possibilities exist in the midst of chaos. Is love possible? Is family feasible? Even friendship—can it survive in the difficult world of a stubborn, driven, damaged homicide detective?

scarf

Scarfn. a long, broad strip of wool, silk, lace, or other material worn about the neck, shoulders, or head, for ornament or protection against cold, drafts, etc.

It’s funny. The ways in which we define ourselves. The list of words we generate when someone asks us who we are. Who are you? someone asks, probably in not-as-many words, and we scroll through a list of possibilities before answering. “I’m a [noun], who [verb] and [verb]. I enjoy [noun or verb]. People say I’m [adjective].” This is how it goes. It’s the elevator speech of identity. What we leave out is, maybe, as important as what we say.

A year ago, I thought I had forgotten how to be creative, so I left that adjective off of my list. I’d given up playing music, which I’d been passionate about before–hell, I pretty much stopped listening to music, too, at least in any kind of serious way; I’d discovered internet radio, and that was okay for a couple of years. It got me through a comprehensive exam and the draft of a dissertation. I wrote a lot of words. But I hadn’t written anything creative, other than a couple of meager short stories and some nonfiction for a class, in nearly six years. Seventy-two months. Two thousand, one hundred ninety days. Whatever, I’m not a mathematician; that’s not one of my nouns. But you get where I’m going.

I had, or so I thought, completely and thoroughly devoted myself to the narrow world of the academy, where I began to forge a career. And I’m still forging that career. Don’t get me wrong. I’m forging that career, and “teacher-scholar” is one of my favorite compound nouns. Add the adjective “creative” in front of it, and I think it’s a winning combination for me.

I digress.

I’m also a novelist now. I was once before, too, back all those years ago when I was fourteen and wrote, with a blue ballpoint pen in a series of college-ruled notebooks with teal covers, what I now call “the bad YA book.” I was on vacation with my parents. At fourteen, a vacation with parents is a nightmare; it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing; you’d rather be anywhere else and doing anything else. So I stuck my Walkman headphones on my head and wrote, wildly, in the backseat of the car, on the couch in the cottage, on the train, in bed. I wrote with fury and single-minded aggression. The story asserted itself in my head and demanded that I write it. I think the bad YA book is in a box in my parents’ basement.

The same sort of thing happened when I took fiction writing classes as an undergraduate, when I took the graduate-level essay-writing class. The story has a way of taking over.

Anyway. I like to think that my most recent incarnation as a mystery novelist grew out of the university asking me to teach a few creative writing classes and the fact that I finally allowed myself to (read: could) read for pleasure again at about the same time. But it didn’t; that’s not where it originated. If I’m honest about my creative process, it’s a lot like it was (ahem, cough) years ago. My protagonist had to have been brewing for a good long time, and yet she’s not me; her list of words is different from mine, when someone asks her who she is. One day, she decided that I needed to let her out, to tell her story. And she emerged in a frenzy. I wrote with fury and single-minded aggression. I forgot to do things like eat and return phone calls. Social media became a distant memory. I dreamed of my characters at night, and I grieved for them when they were gone, when the novel was drafted. So I went back and visited them–I mean revised.

I’m on book two now.

The moral of this little story, I suppose, is that I’m a writer, as well as a list of other things. I think of my many noun-identities–teacher, scholar, partner, maternal figure to dogs-and-cats, musician, foodie, critic, powerlifter, feminist, person, and, as of today, blogger (of all things, and the list could go on forever but I believe in being kind to my audience)–as a collection of scarves. I like scarves; I own a few scarves. They’re one of few items of clothing I own that aren’t black or gray or jeans (though I do own a black and gray scarf, and I often wear it with a black or a gray shirt and jeans). I have a friend whose exact words, the first time she saw me in my muted-green scarf, were “you’re wearing a color!” She’d reached out and touched the scarf. Said she liked it, and that I should consider wearing more colors.

And you know what? Now I have scarves in a few colors. One is red and has skulls on it. I like that one a lot.

Sometimes I want to wear the same scarf two days in a row. Sometimes I want to change scarves in the middle of the day, after the one I’ve been wearing gets itchy or starts to smell funky or I spill my coffee on it.

Sometimes I wear the same scarf for days on end, even if it’s itchy and stinks and is riddled with spills. Usually that’s my “writer” scarf. It’s gray, and I like to wear it with jeans. I ornamentally wrap it around my neck, shoulders, or head, and it protects me from the cold.