When we writers aren’t writing, you can often find us thinking (and reading, and … okay, writing) about the writing process. The craft of writing is one that, at least for me, inspires endless and usually pleasurable study. We are, after all, self-reflective creatures; it makes sense that we think about how and why we do what we do—as long as it’s not at the expense of actually working on whatever writing project has embraced us. So when Stephanie Friedman, program director of the Writer’s Studio program at the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Chicago, invited me to hitch my car onto the “My Writing Process” whistle-stop blog tour train, I couldn’t say no. Stephanie and I were English majors together at Oberlin, and I’ve long admired her thinking and her writing. Besides, the exercise gives me a chance to further develop my thoughts about the creative process, and how it intertwines with my own work. If you aren’t familiar with Stephanie’s blog, “The Winding Stitch,” it’s well worth a visit. I encourage you to stop over there when you have a chance.
In addition to asking me questions about my writing process, Stephanie asked me to select three writers to carry on this blog tour’s tradition. At the end of my post, I’ll introduce you to the astonishingly gifted young adult novelist—and my good friend— A.B. Westrick; the diversely talented novelist and book critic Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski; and the intrepid and sage blogger and writing coach Jane Gassner.
These are the aspects of writing Stephanie has asked me to explore:
1. What am I working on?
I tend to plead the Margaret Atwood Fifth Amendment on this question, believing, as Atwood does (and here I paraphrase), that to talk too much about one’s writing while in the midst of it is bad luck—like naming your gods. But I don’t think it gives too much away to tell you that since starting The Midlife Second Wife (after spending two decades at a career that had me writing all day, although not for my own purposes) I’ve rediscovered my love for story telling and for creative expression. Besides which, the older I get the more I’m aware that my time here is finite. I have stories to tell, and I feel an urgency to tell them before it’s too late. So in addition to writing this blog, I’ve begun working on a memoir. There. I’ve said it. No mirrors cracked, so I think I’m okay.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I love that Stephanie answered this question by bringing George Saunders into the conversation: “Originality in art means settling into who you actually are.”
Think about that for a moment: settling into who you actually are. Think about the demands of that statement. Here are just a few of them:
- to acknowledge painful truths;
- to reflect back what the mirror sees, faithfully;
- to accept that you are who you are—as a person, as a wife, as a mother, as a daughter, as a friend, as a writer, and to accept that you have unique limitations, gifts, and dreams;
- to respect those gifts and dreams, and to strive, in the most honest way possible, to dig with your bare hands against the rough surface of those limitations until—scratched and raw and possibly bleeding—you discover something that looks like a vein of gold; and
- to do this repeatedly every time you sit down to write.
So, applying Saunders’ dictum to the memoir genre, the answer is pretty straightforward: my work differs from the work of other memoirists because each life is unique. My work is exactly that: my work. There are as many different memoirs out there as there are coffee blends—the aroma and flavor of each is like no other. In the case of fiction, which I expect to be writing at some point, I have to turn again to Atwood. Asked how autobiographical her novels and stories were, she gave what I thought at the time was the most wonderfully cagey answer, and this, too, is a paraphrase: Everything a writer writes is autobiographical in the sense that it has gone through her own head.
So take that, biographical critics!
3. Why do I write what I do?
The short answer: because I can’t help it. I began my writing life as a poet. That’s how I trained at Oberlin. And while I will always love poetry, and still write it from time to time, it’s become clear to me that I need a bigger canvas for my stories. I should add that studying the craft of poetry has influenced my prose tremendously. (My professor, Stuart Friebert, used to quote Grace Paley to our poetry workshop: “A poem a day keeps the prose doctor away.”)
I’m not sure I do this consciously, but I seem to seek music in a certain combination of words … to find rhythm in a certain sentence. I can’t play an instrument to save my life, but I’ve always had an ear for the English language. It’s a good thing, too, because my math skills are horrible. What I’m learning now, as I write longform narrative, is that although I might have the nouns right, and the flow of a sentence, and the visual image, the proof will be in the pudding’s structure. How do I stitch paragraph to paragraph, section to section, chapter to chapter, to form an artful, pleasing whole?
As for subject matter, nearly all of the early poems I wrote at Oberlin dealt with loss in some way or other; I need to write the book I’m working on now because I clearly have not found resolution for the losses in my life. A host of questions prick at me, sticking like burrs to a sweater. I have to pick them off, one by one, and try to answer them.
I mentioned Grace Paley. In August 2014, I’ll be taking Dani Shapiro’s “Transforming Chaos Into Art: A Workshop in Fiction and Memoir” at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Shapiro studied with Paley at Sarah Lawrence, so there’s a bit of nice, footnoted symmetry in my desire to study with her. In Shapiro’s own beautiful memoir, Slow Motion, she offers the best definition of why we write that I’ve come across in a long while:
I see that there might be some way I can take the raw material of my life and transform it into something that transcends my own experience. I can organize the noise in my head into something that has order and structure. I can make sense of what, until now, has been senseless.
There’s a lot of chaos from my childhood that I need to make sense of. In telling part of my story (and it is only a part) I’m also trying to reconstruct a life that’s not my own. As I work and research (I’m reading my father’s World War II letters to his parents), I’m finding that the story I’m striving to tell could be, possibly, more his than mine. I think that’s why some memoirists tend to write more than one memoir in a lifetime. As Shapiro has noted:
The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we? We choose a view. We pick a story to tell.
4. How does my writing process work?
Soon after waking in the morning, I’ll have a mug of hot lemon water and my first cup of coffee, thanks to my endlessly supportive husband. Sitting up in bed, still in a hazy sort of dream state, I’ll begin reading something inspirational to my writing. For example, I’ve just finished Shapiro’s exquisite Still Writing, in which she quotes from the late poet Jane Kenyon’s advice for writers. I think this is important, because a writer who isn’t reading is like a person who isn’t breathing:
Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. [emphasis added].
So I’ll read a bit of something for which I have a strong affinity. I think we all need literary mentors, and right now, Dani Shapiro is mine. It’s not long before what I’ve read will snag a loose thread of something in my memory, or inspire an idea that I feel compelled to pursue.
I’ll put the book aside, pull out my iPad, and begin following my idea, pulling at the thread, writing while it unravels into something that ends up, newly-fashioned, in my Evernote app. I keep at this as long as I can … as long as I feel I’ve pulled and stitched as much as I can … as long as my energy lasts. I then email the note to myself so it’s on my computer, waiting for me when I settle at my desk, with my third cup of coffee, to begin work.
This is how I’m working these days, and it seems to be a good method for me.
I don’t want to say much more than this right now…time to invoke the Atwood Fifth Amendment, because once started, I could truly go on and on. And that’s not good for the work.
It’s time for the train to pull out of the station, so I’ll announce, in my best conductor’s voice, the three writers you’ll want to look for at the next stop:
A.B. Westrick is the author of Brotherhood (Viking/Penguin 2013), an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and winner of the National Council for the Social Studies Notable Trade Book Award. She has been a teacher, paralegal, literacy volunteer, administrator, and coach for teams from Odyssey of the Mind to the Reading Olympics. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Divinity School, Westrick earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She and her family live near Richmond, Virginia.
Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski
Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski has completed a novel, Still Life with Aftershocks, which was one of 50 semi-finalists (out of 5,000 entrants) in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. She writes book reviews for The Washington Independent Review of Books and belongs to James River Writers, Backspace, the Virginia Writers Club, and the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She was a judge in the 2012 Maryland Writers’ Association “Great Beginnings” novel contest.
Ellen loves to tell stories that communicate the deepest human emotions while never drowning the reader in them. What interests her most is the tension between the uncertainty and pain of life and its everyday pleasures, triumphs, and absurdity. She enjoys exploring the intersection of the visual arts and literature, often drawing inspiration from Washington’s trove of museums, galleries, and gardens. She blogs about art, design, natural wonders, and dance.
The founder and editor of MidLifeBloggers, one of the first sites to focus on the midlife/boomer cohort, Jane Gassner has plied her craft as a writer in just about every situation that calls for putting words on paper or screen. She has earned her living as a magazine feature writer, a documentary producer, a scholarly writer, a business writer, a print editor, a radio reporter, and a non-fiction book writer. She has not earned a penny for it, but she is also experienced at film and television scriptwriting. (She lives in Los Angeles, and that’s what you do when you’re a writer in LA).
Jane has taught writing in both college classrooms and independent writing groups to writers of every level, from beginning to published. That experience, along with her graduate-level education in English literature and psychology, provide the basis for the client-oriented coaching and editing service she offers as part of the MidLifeBloggers Writers’ Workshop. She is currently at work on a book focusing on that service, entitled Writing As Process & The Process of Writing: The Psychodynamics of Writing for Writers.
Look for their thoughts on the writing process on Monday, March 31st.
Now go and write something.