Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Process

Because I am a writer, people ask me a lot of questions. 

You know?  About writing.

The exchange generally goes something like this:

Person:  “You’re such a great writer!”

Me (nonplussed):  “Thank you.”

Person:  “I wish I could write like you.  Do you mind if I ask you some questions?”

Me (even more nonplussed and generally thinking about some sort of sandwich): “No, not at all.”

Person:  “Why are you a writer?”

Let’s stop here for a moment.

The first thing you should know about writers is that we are liars. 

We’re so good at it that we dream up characters and situations that are boldface lies – and then we call those lies ‘stories’.  People love stories, but they hate liars. 

A good liar learns to write early.

What I want to say is: “I am a boldfaced liar who needed a profession that might never involve prison.”

Back to the scene.

Me: “I enjoy telling stories, and I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember.”

(Nice save, Redwine.)

Person (beaming):  “Oh, great!  Well, what I was wondering is do you collaborate with other writers, or do you come up with ideas…I mean, how do you come up with ideas exactly?  How is it that you actually write?”

Me (squirming and staring at my shoes, trying my best to be altruistic and not hungry): “Um…well, sometimes I collaborate, yes…”

Person:  “But what I really mean is how EXACTLY do you do it?  Do you have some sort of ritual that you do to make the words flow?  What is your process?”

Let’s stop again, remembering that I am a boldfaced liar. 

Truthfully, I have a collection of papers, notebooks, texts, mini yellow legal pads, Facebook statuses (my own), and memories that I sift through from time to time to see if there’s anything worth sharing with a larger audience.

This sifting happens best when I am trying not to do housework, balance a checkbook, or some other evil that life requires for food, clothing, shelter, and marital bliss. 

Or at 3 AM when a child has decided to invade my bed by shoving me out of it, claiming the spoils by lying perpendicular to my body, and implanting their wee little feet into my kidneys. 

Then I sit down with a pen and a legal pad and start writing things down.  A series of phrases that will generally jog my memory.   This is best done with some sort of snack.

Also – a moment of truth – I bore myself a lot. 

So after two or three minutes, I go digging around social media to think about what other people are thinking.  

Or I read a book or an article, generally completely unrelated to any of the phrases that I scribbled down.

And then I forget all about what I’ve scribbled down and shame myself into some housework.

I have this strange problem in that I hate to clean things, but I also hate clutter.

So I tackle some domestic project, seeing it through to completion.  For a few minutes, I entertain the thought of never writing another word.  I am just going to fritter away my time in domestic tranquility.  Simplicity shall be my motto.  I shall master my domicile with love, genius, and ninja-like stain fighting skills.

Almost immediately, I find myself weeping at a boring life of housewifery and plunge into a “is this all I’m really worth?” kind of self-pity.  “For this, my feminist forebearers burned their bras.  I’m a disgrace to their cause.”

At this point, I generally make the mistake of looking in the mirror.  I have pores on my nose the size of half-dollars.  I have split ends.  My eyebrows need landscaping.  My skin is both dry and oily and pasty white.  I glow, but for the wrong reasons. 

I am so old.

If you’re following this flowchart of the writing process, this can go one of three ways. Either a) decide that exercise will solve everything and lace up my running shoes,

Or b) I say ‘who the hell cares anymore?’, pour myself a nice glass of wine or (out of desperation) swig a shot of peppermint extract, and sob into a pile of baby clothes,

Or c) I happen to glance at the legal pad and remember that I am more than a mere domestic goddess.  I.  Am.  A. Writer.

As an aside, a and b often are a precursor to c. 

Now, I have gone through periods when I actually got up at 5 AM with an explosion of story in my brain.  And I have written late, late into the night.  But this isn’t my usual process.  That kind of muse entertaining is hard to sustain with four children.

So back to our wide-eyed person and their questions about the process.
Person:  “But what I really mean is how EXACTLY do you do it?  Do you have some sort of ritual that you do to make the words flow?  What is your process?”

Me (still staring at my shoes):  “Well, I prewrite, using an outline of sorts, and…”

Did I mention that this person is generally a teacher that wants to replicate this experience in her (it’s always a ‘her’) classroom? 

Those poor children.  May they do anything else but write for a living.
Do you get why I lie?


  1. This is possibly the most hilarious thing I've read in seven weeks.