“I don’t ask writers about their work habits. I really don’t care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out, “Is he as crazy as I am?” I don’t need that question answered.
— Philip Roth
The most common question I’m asked as a writer: “What’s your process?”
The most common question I’m asked as a teacher: “Am I doing this right?”
Am I being asked the same thing both times, just using different words? You bet. Writers work in all sorts of ways. I know morning writers, afternoon writers, night writers (I’m an afternoon writer). I know writers that work standing up, I know writers that work sitting down, I know writers that work at desks, in recliners, on their beds, even in the bathroom. Some like to work outside, others like to be inside, some go to cafes or coffee shops, others work in total isolation, all the way down to silence. Some writers have talismans that they have to touch before they start to work. Others have to play a certain number of games of Solitaire first. Some have to win; they don’t get much done.
I even know a writer who has to write naked. He doesn’t use a leather chair, let me tell you.
But overall, the one common thing about all of these writers: They get the work done. In the end, there is a story or a novel or a poem or a memoir. They WRITE. The most important part of the process: the outcome. You can’t have a process without a result.
My process? First, my creative environment. My dedicated writing space is in my home, and those particular walls are all mine. I am surrounded by bright colors and artwork that says something to me. My desk is a British teacher’s table from the 1800’s, and I always have a betta fish swimming in his bowl to my left. There is a comfy chair within sight, supposedly for when I read, but it usually supports a sleeping dog or cat.
When I’m working on a novel or a collection, I always assign a song to it which I listen to every day as I sit down to write (I’m a sitting writer, not a standing one – however, I’m dressed and my chair is leather). “The Home For Wayward Clocks” was written to “Clocks” by Cold Play. “Enlarged Hearts” was written to “Robot Boy” by Linkin Park (figure that connection out!). “Learning To Tell (A Life)Time” was written to “But Sweetness Follows” by REM.
In an unusual shift, my novel-in-progress, “Rise From The River,” has been written to three songs (so far). “Night-Swimming” and “Find The River” by REM, and the latest drafts to “The Scientist” by Cold Play. I don’t know why this change occurred, and I don’t question it. What works, works. This particular novel has shifted under me several times during the writing, and it could shift again when I start Draft 5 (and 6 and 7 and 8…), and that might be what sparked the change. All I know is one day, when “The Scientist” suddenly came out of my car’s speakers, I nearly drove off the road because I was thrown so deeply into the book.
Characters and storylines kidnap you. One minute, you’re knee-deep in your own life, and the next, you’re neck-deep in someone else’s.
It’s what I love most about writing fiction.
Back to the process. As my chosen music plays, I use my right index finger to “walk” a finger labyrinth. This is a large wooden labyrinth, laptop-sized, based on the Chartres Labyrinth, with a groove just wide enough to slide my finger along. The finger labyrinth is fairly new to my process, employed for the first time while I was writing Lifetime. I am a skitter-thinker, my thoughts bound all over the place, and it’s very hard (impossible) for me to meditate. The only way I’ve ever found to calm my thoughts is by physically walking a real labyrinth. The finger labyrinth, a gift from my husband, the writer Michael Giorgio, a few years ago, has been a great tool to help me shove away all the detritus of day to day life and focus down on the story at hand. Even when I’m working on a single story, with no music attached, I “walk” the labyrinth every day before writing.
As I mentioned in my post last time, I finished Draft 4 on the novel-in-progress a few weeks ago. I always take a break in between drafts, to allow me some distance and a fresh eye when I return. During that break, I typically write a new short story, which is the case this time. I’m considering, when I start Draft 5, which will be as soon as I get this new short story done, trying to walk the finger labyrinth with my left hand, instead of my dominant right.
I wonder where that will take me. Will the novel shift again? Will I get kidnapped and end up neck-deep? Will another song be required? I won’t know, will I, until I start digging into it.
And there’s the joy.
When I teach and I am asked that inevitable, “Am I doing this right?”, I guide the writer through several questions. When do you most find your mind drifting to your story? Where do you feel the most comfortable in your home, where is there a place that you can breathe deep, hunker down, and stay awhile? Do you feel most accomplished when you write for a long period of time, or are you okay with several shorter bursts, as long as the outcome is the same (a piece of work)? Do you like to write a first draft in longhand, or do you compose directly on the computer? Do you pray? Do you meditate? Do you exercise? Do you play? Do you breathe?
The most important thing to take away from this post is what’s not important: what other writers do. What’s important is what YOU do, what makes you comfortable, what gets you in the groove. Writers often have routines or rituals that we follow as we get ready to write. Because we’re crazy? Because we’re obsessed? Could be. But also because we know what works. We’re right down there with Pavlov’s dogs. The bell rang, they drooled. In our case, we do certain things in a certain way and our imaginations drool…the words come forth.
So am I crazy for assigning music, for finger-walking a labyrinth, for surrounding myself with things I love, for taking a break between drafts by not taking a break at all, but writing something else, am I crazy as brought up in the Roth quote? Maybe. Am I doing it right? For me, I am. Do I get the job done? You bet. Stories and poems in over 100 literary magazines, three books out, fourth on the way (release date February 2015!), yes, I think that all counts toward a job well done.
Trust me. Sanity, or being normal, is overrated. We have so much more fun this way. And we get the job, the job we most love and we most want to do in this world, done.