Friday, May 20, 2011

Two cents on writing process

It's SWF time, so of course the city is in a literary flutter with everyone entertaining writerly aspirations, attending talks and taking hints on how to make it in a rather ruthless (and mostly depressing) industry. The thing is, I rather think it's all a bit pointless. Sure, it's fascinating to hear writers talk about their process, and it can be really useful too, but if you're going in there with the hope of finding some sort of template on how to write, you're setting yourself up for failure. At the end of the day no one can tell you how to write. No one can sit you down and give you a foolproof way to get there. There is no map to being a successful writer.

Last night, we had a guest lecture on manuscript assessment and something I think we all know came up - majority of manuscripts presented for assessment come from people with no prior writing experience or training. And I know what the thought process is there - you can't teach someone to be a writer. This is the mentality I started studying with, that either you could write or you couldn't, and no amount of technical knowledge could change that. To some extent, I still believe that. Some people can have all the training but they don't have that something extra that makes the writing feel alive. But it's also an entirely naive point of view because it is the technical knowledge, learning and understanding the craft, that gives good writers the opportunity to be great.

So really, studying writing gives you the tools to help you write, but if you aren't capable of using those tools, they're not going to be much use. And some people don't even need the tools. It's a very wishy-washy thing, this writing business. Studying also gives some people a lot of funny ideas.

Which brings me to my main reason for writing this blog - routine. One thing people always seem to ask writers is how they go about writing, what their routine is. As a result of such questions, I now sadly have Cory Doctorow mentally yelling at me every time I sit down to have one of my epic television watching sessions, saying I should rather be writing every day because I won't be wishing I'd watched more TV when I'm on my deathbed. Thanks for that, Cory! The thing is though, that whole 'you must write every day' thing some people perpetuate? For some, it's just too much pressure.

I can understand the logic behind it, of course. It means you're actually turning something out, being productive, practicing. All good things. Personally, my situation and my mental make-up make it unfeasible and, when I attempt it, it never ends well. Simple reasons for this:

a) I am naturally inclined to being a night owl, my best work gets done between the hours of 10pm and 3am. With work, it's physically impossible for me to get to that point and remain a functioning human being.

b) I'm stretched too thin. Full-time work plus full-time uni = Zombie!Jen. Not to mention the wealth of other commitments I've got on my plate. Any weekday, I'm out the door at 7am and back at 10.30pm. There is no time for me to write every day.

c) My job destroys my creativity. There's no way around this. I write 50+ pages worth of editorial content a month and it's all so similar, and all so banal, that it entirely drains my will to live. Why don't I make it more interesting? Well, I can't. It's client based material and clients have the final say. I do what I can, but at the end of the day there's a set format that needs to be adhered to and I can't really do much about that. Plus I'm super busy so I cut corners. It's exhausting and, in the end, I don't want to come home and force myself to sit and write when I've done that for the past eight hours anyway. It's utterly depressing.

d) I am my own worst enemy. If I set myself the task of writing every day and I miss a day, that's it. I'm done. I will immediately consider myself a failure and it'll be impossible for me to get back into it and maintain the routine. This is a major flaw in my personality, I am well aware of that fact.

Some may say that these are weak excuses, that I should force myself to write anyway. You know what happens when I force myself to write? It comes out sounding forced. Fancy that, hey? I have gone through three drafts for my writing project this semester, with my supervisor knocking back the first two precisely because they lacked that something that used to be in my work (the third I got sorted after taking two weeks off, and she was much happier with that.) So yes, some people might say all writing is good practice, but to me it begs the question whether its worth mediocrity simply to justify routine.

My point is, we are all different people and we all have different writing styles. Naturally, we have different approaches to writing. We can't make these general statements and say that's what you need to do to be a writer, it just doesn't work that way. I think because writing is such a personal thing, something that you create from within yourself, there can't really be a tried and true method everyone can subscribe to.

Now, I'm not pretending to be an expert on writing, but I have spent the last six years at university studying it and I'd like to think that I've picked up a thing or two. One of the main things I've gotten from my tutors is this - find something that works for you, and stick with it. That's all. If you spend all week pottering about and then sit down and write 10,000 words in one day, do it. Just stick with it. Make it a ritual. Just keep going, until you've finished that first draft. And then start again.

I find it counter-productive when people tell me to write every day, even if it's just a sentence. I've tried it and it doesn't work, I can't make my brain work that way. And I'm tired of feeling bad about that, tired of beating myself up over it. I've been struggling to write the last couple of months, and as I put more pressure on myself, as I worry about it, it just becomes worse. So, if you can't write every day, don't beat yourself up over it. Write when and how you can, just do it consistently. Set yourself goals and meet them, however you can, even if that means pulling an all-nighter the day before your self-imposed deadline to get it done - hey, some of us only work well with a deadline looming over our heads, I know. I'm not knocking people who do write every day - if you do, that's great. It obviously works for you and that's fantastic. Keep going.

At the end of the day, what matters is the final product - whether it's a short story, a novel, whatever. Words on paper. Finished. Done. How it gets there is arbitrary. So just keep writing, and don't get discouraged by the myths of what being a writer is. All it is, really, is hard fucking work for very little reward. But you don't do it for the reward, you do it because you just can't help yourself.

-- Edit: Ooooh man, I used the term 'some people' way too much in this. My critical writing lecturer would have a field day with this. So to clarify that is in reference to members of the general writing community who may hold the view I mentioned. Err. It's not very clear. Sorry, lunch hour blog.

Music: Red Right Ankle - The Decemberists


  1. I've found you have to be aware of the difference between putting words down and creating the ideas behind the words. Both are "writing", but the latter you can do whilst out for a walk, or having a shower or brushing the cat. So I can and do consider that I "write" nearly every day. It's just that only some of days does that mean the word count increases!

  2. That's a good point really. Thinking about where your story is going, characters etc is still productive and definitely something you can do every day.