Talking (and Writing) about Writing Processes

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Recently, I was talking to someone about writing, and noticed that their questions about my process were divided into a chronology of steps: What happens before you write? What about while you’re writing? And then after you’ve finished a writing session, a poem, or a series of poems? You could say that writers are always immersed in something related to their art, whether they are sitting in a doctor’s waiting room observing and interacting with other waiting patients, or watching corridors of light tunnel through the windows of that waiting room.

I’ve also noticed that when I talk with other writers about writing, our discussions tend toward two themes: preparing to write (step one in the above chronology) and revising the work we’ve written (the most obvious way of “doing” something with whatever has been written, usually with the goal of “improving” it: one possible version of step three in the above chronology). There seems to be an endless fascination with preparing oneself to write. The preparations involve being simultaneously apart from, and intimately yoked to, daily concerns. Writing is solitary work, which is at times thrilling and at times unnerving. A friend once told me that her house is never cleaner than before she sits down with her laptop and a head full of words for a writing session. Others brew teas, rub amulets, tap light bulbs, run laps, kiss pictures of the dead, and breathe deeply. If these acts are rituals, moments of constancy and preparation, then they are rituals that bind us together in solitude. But what happens when we pay so much attention to the rituals that talking about (pre-)writing processes displaces the rituals and writing sessions themselves?

Revision is necessary at some point in the writing process. After all, writers generally submit to, or even embrace, the idea that the writing process, though valuable itself, should result in something that makes its way out into the world. It’s the expansive, contracted middle step, the actual writing step, which we often don’t talk about. Being inside of a poem is rarely discussed. We figure that disrupting these subterranean inner workings would be bad practice, bad for our work, and so we waltz around the more abstract language of feeling and thought that can be used to evoke what it’s like to be inside of the work. On the other hand, to be engaged in the writing process means to be simultaneously surveying and engaging with interconnected ecosystems of language. The rush one feels inside this matrix can be overwhelming (and thus difficult to reproduce on the page), but worth paying attention to.

My own writing process is something that I’ve come to accept and enjoy. There are as many writing practices as there are writers, and each works, or is necessarily modified or discarded. I have found that sitting down to write every day at the same time does not work for me, at least not right now. I tend to write groups of poems in long, intense bursts. Then I will step back, let them settle, and later dive in to revise. I tend to write in a way that feels both slow and fast. Slow because it’ll often take me months to move from a vague idea about a poem I might want to write to actually writing it, and fast because once I’m writing, the poem usually takes flight in about twenty minutes or so (or collapses and is filed away). It’s thrilling and strange to be inside a poem, following its twists and turns, listening to the language of your own mind, which is you. It is difficult explain the quiet intensity of this time. I have felt both vulnerable and powerful, ready to be wounded and to wound, and yet attuned to nuances of perception and meaning that take those feelings and refract them, complicate them, and give them space to be explored. Perhaps the clearest way to convey what it’s like to be inside a poem is to eventually offer up the poem itself.  And for all of us who spend time in so many writing worlds, thinking and talking about writing processes can be an enriching activity in itself.

Image: “The Waiting Room” by George Tooker, 1959.

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