Writing is largely an individual process—a process we personalize, make intimate to ourselves, by becoming aware of and respecting our tics and superstitions, our preferences and our schedules. We are either morning people who rise early with the energy to think and generate words, or night owls who, in the aftermath of a long day spent doing other things, feel inspired to catch and pin the ideas and memories of the earlier hours onto paper. We can be afternoon writers, too, and we can be on-call writers with children or odd hours who squeeze out a few paragraphs or pages when we can.
Some writers, like Toni Morrison, only write with Dixon Ticonderoga number two soft pencils. Others, like George R. R. Martin, clack away on typewriters, desktops, the technology of their younger days. Don DeLillo writes one paragraph and then starts the next one on a fresh page. Joan Didion counts the syllables of each sentence. Many writers do a combination of these things.
This is all to say that an important rite of passage in serious writing is to ponder—and sometimes to agonize over—one’s own process. (Does this all sound overdramatic yet? Don’t worry, I don’t think—nor am I really trying to suggest— that writing is a kind of shamanistic act.) Part of discovering and developing one’s own process, however, is not individualistic and involves studying the processes of the writers one admires. With that said, here are some interesting writing processes—along with exercises and tips—from a few of the writers I look up to most.
- David Foster Wallace
“[Pay] attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentence go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.”
Many other great writers have discussed in interviews a similar practice of attempting to recreate sentences and paragraphs. One of the best English teachers I’ve had in college told me in a conversation that a surefire way to challenge myself as a writer—to grow both technically and in consciousness of what makes fiction work—was to read the summary of a short story—say, reading the SparkNotes of James Joyce’s “Araby”—try to write it myself, and then read Joyce’s original. It’s an incredible, revelatory experience to compare the moments of convergence and divergence in our distinct ways of telling the same story. You can read the full article for more David Foster Wallace tips here.
- Lorrie Moore
“If you’re going to be a contemporary storyteller, you’re going to want to sort of pay attention to how these things intersect and what were on particular people’s minds or on fictional characters’ minds. Or what is on your own mind. It’s one of the big mistakes I see my undergraduates doing: They will write about things that are not on their mind. It’s like, they’re off-center, they don’t really care about them, it’s just some vague idea of it. You really have to write from the center. When you write from the center you’ll find a lot of things you care about that may not superficially have things in common. But you put them down there in the story and they will talk to each other.”
I’ve had on-and-off conversations with a friend and fellow writer about writing and specifically the progenitor(s) of ideas that appear in writing. In one of our conversations, he said that he could really only write about himself, or rather, write well about himself. And the way he said it suggested that he considered it an insecurity, an embarrassing admission of narcissism. On the one hand, yes, self-indulgent writing—writing without periphery, writing that doesn’t contextualize itself—often makes for a petty, petulant read, but on the other hand it can go beyond itself—beyond what Lorrie Moore calls the “center.” This is also a reason why keeping a journal is such a powerful tool for creative writing—not only as verbalized memories preserved for all time, but also as a source of stories. You can read the original article from which I got this quote here.
- Toni Morrison
“Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was—there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard—but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular…Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.
I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?”
Find your rituals and preferences. I, for example, have a hard time focusing at home, so I often rove to coffeeshops or libraries—depending on what I’m working on and how restless I am, my preference for noise changes. Sometimes I need the utter silence of an English Reading Room to be still, breath, calm down; at other times I need the melded chatter of a café—not one sound distracting me from what I’m working on—to ease my anxieties. Read the full Paris Review interview with Toni Morrison here.
**Image courtesy of www.damianjmcdonald.com.**