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