The Process

“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.

The Definition of Break

Ocean View

“Maybe I have Attention Surplus Disorder. The easiest thing in the world for me is to pay attention.”

–          Susan Sontag

 

From March 28th until April 6th, I was on a break.  My publisher, God love’im, flew me to Charlotte, NC to be a featured reader in his Final Friday Reading Series, and the next day, I taught a workshop on point of view. Then on Sunday, oh, Sunday, I drove to Myrtle Beach, SC.

I drove to Paradise, actually.

Every year, I try to take myself on a two-week retreat.  The purpose of the retreat is to back away from my teaching responsibilities, and from all the other willy nilly responsibilities that come with running a small business.  I also back away from being a wife and a mother. For those two weeks, I am just me, and the purest form of me is being a writer.  It’s what I’ve always wanted to be; it’s what I’ve always been.  I took my retreat a few months ago, in October, in South Thomaston, Maine. In that two weeks, I made it through an entire draft of my new novel (at that point, about 350 pages), and wrote a short story and seven poems.

Good grief. Even on retreat, I’m a workaholic.

So this trip, to the Atlantic Ocean and Myrtle Beach, wasn’t supposed to be a retreat.  I challenged myself, the most addicted workaholic I know, to take a vacation.  I was going to sleep.  I was going to sit in the sun and read.  I was going to walk the ocean.  I was going to visit a garden that housed a labyrinth.  I was going to eat well and have a nice cocktail every night.

My typical work week?  Busy.  Not Monday through Friday, but Sunday to Sunday.  I teach about 85 hours.  I read 150 – 200 manuscript pages a day.  I maintain the studio’s ledger and correspondence and general upkeep.  I make appearances at readings and book clubs.  I have a thirteen-year old daughter, and I take her to and from school and interact with her whenever she emerges from her bedroom.  I try to be a good wife.  I deal with two dogs and two cats.  There are three adult kids and a grandchild.  Oh, and of course, I write.  Monday, Tuesday and Friday, I write from 1:00 to 5:00 or 6:00, depending on when the evening clients and classes start.  Wednesdays, I teach in the afternoon, so I don’t write.  Thursdays, I market anything that has been rejected during the week. If nothing has been rejected, hallelujah!  Then I write some more.

So this week in Myrtle Beach?  A break.  I coached myself on what that meant.  Sleep, read, rest, walk, eat.  Sleep, read, rest, walk, eat.  And drink. Mustn’t forget drink.

The Tuesday before I left, I finished the fourth draft of my new novel. This was perfect – I always take a couple weeks off in between drafts, in order to gain some distance and a clear-eyed perspective.  Typically, I fill those two weeks with writing a story or poetry or both. But this time, a break was in order.  A real honest-to-goodness vacation.  Whatever that was.

I took a peek on dictionary.com to find the actual definition of “break.”  There were a number of them, because break is a noun as well as a verb.  But I think the definition I was trying to apply was:

 

Break (n): a brief respite or interval between two actions: a break from one’s toil

a sudden rush, esp to escape: to make a break for freedom

 

Yes, I was taking a break from my toil, though I was certainly leaving behind more than two actions.  And was I making a break for freedom?  In a sense.  For one week, I wasn’t going to do anything for anyone but myself.  I guess that’s freedom.

Though please understand…I like my busy life.  I choose to be a workaholic.  But in general, yes, a week where I was only responsible for myself would be considered by most to be freedom.

And toil…well, part of my “toil” is writing.  Would I really not write for an entire week?

Hm.

When I arrived at Myrtle Beach, I was given a room on the ocean side of the hotel, way up high on the fourteenth floor.  As I walked down the hallway, I could hear the ocean, but not yet see it.  But then I opened the door.  Ohmygosh.  I dropped my suitcase and ran to the balcony.  I threw open the slider, and oh, there it was.  Ocean, ocean, everywhere. The sound, the smell, the color, the LIFE!  I typically don’t like heights, but right then, I didn’t care.  I grabbed the railing, leaned over as far as I could, and promptly burst into tears. Salty tears for the sight of salt water.

I guess you could say I connect with the ocean.  I have no idea why I was born in the midwest.  When I’m by the Pacific or the Atlantic, I am at peace.  But that day, seeing the Atlantic right there, in Myrtle Beach, I’ve never felt so completely at home.  As big as the ocean was, she settled around me like a massive mama-blanket and gave me comfort.  I was exactly where I needed to be.

And so the break began.

I slept in. When I finally got up, I made my breakfast in the teeny kitchenette and I carried it to the balcony.  I read while I ate, and the ocean kept me company.  And the sun. Oh, the sun.  After a long hard winter in Wisconsin, the sun just brought every sense out of hibernation. My skin inhaled heat.  I was infused with it. Lit up from the outside in.

After breakfast came a shower, then I tugged on my swimsuit and I went down to the beach and a lounge chair. Where I read and read some more.  I took a break to walk in the ocean and down the long stretch of sand.  I walked next door to Starbucks, a Starbucks you could go in barefoot (!), got my grande cinnamon dolce latte, sat back in the lounge chair…and read.

Another shower (had to get the sun screen off – ick), and then out to dinner to a different place every night. But a place that was oceanfront.  And where I could either eat outside – in the sun before it disappeared – or had large open windows.

But see, things happen, even when I’m reading and lounging and walking.  I couldn’t shut down my hearing or my vision or my sense of smell.  And there were sensory conversations everywhere. Dialogues.  Accents.  People wearing next to nothing – those of us who understood that the 70’s were really warm temperatures – and some wearing sweatshirts and even one parka – maybe visiting from the equator?  Children shrieked, college boys and girls swore and drank and played volleyball and frisbee, dogs trotted by, seagulls begged, and a busybody pigeon kept landing on my balcony and mooing at me. Yes, mooing, that is not a typo. There just wasn’t any way to keep from paying attention, from taking it all in, and from hearing sentences and syllables and consonants and vowels…Everything in this world is a word.  And words just…well, words just make me  jive.

I lasted until the end of day 2.  At midnight, I threw a poem onto my screen.  Day 3, I worked on that poem, and at midnight, I threw down another one.  Days 4, 5, 6, I abandoned the first poem, but not for good, it’s still there, safe in a file, and I hunkered down over poem 2 and then lit on fire with a short story.  A short story set in South Carolina. In Myrtle Beach. On the fourteenth floor of a hotel, in a room where a belligerent pigeon mooed on a balcony.  And the opening line?

 

Cheryl wondered about the different definitions of the word “break.” 

 

And I was off.  Into another life. Is Cheryl me?  Of course not.  Yes, it’s Myrtle Beach, it’s the fourteenth floor, there’s a stupid pigeon, but everything else is the sheer CHARACTER, the sheer FEEL of that place.  The college boys.  The drinks. The ocean, the ocean, the ocean. The sun.  And Cheryl is a fifty-something woman who has never been married, never been caught up in the fight between passion and responsibility, duty and dreams…But she still needs to find her own respite.  When she checks into that hotel room on the fourteenth floor, she too runs and flings open the balcony door and bursts into tears.  But in my mind, she was in the room next door, separated from me by a concrete wall, and her life was not my own.  I dove into her like I dove into the ocean.  And like the ocean, she talked to me and I paid attention and I drew in all my senses and that place came home with me, alive and well in my computer.

The story is still underway.  My last two days in Myrtle Beach, I didn’t write.  I let myself settle back down into my break. Because I knew I’d work on this at home.

So did I truly have a vacation?  Did I truly take a break and leave my workaholic ways behind me?

Well, another definition of break is this:

 

Break (n): a fortunate opportunity, esp to prove oneself

 

Oh, yes.  I took a break.