This episode is brought to you from the air-conditioned cave of my bedroom in Chiang Mai. Today’s weather heading is Death, and even my hyper cat won’t move longer than it takes for her to find an easier spot to breathe in.
It’s days like this that I have to reconsider why I write.
My book is finished. My new idea is a stinker. It’s hot. A ticker tape of quotes runs through my head: Hemingway, “blasting charges through rock”; Joyce, “mistakes…the portals of discovery”; Gilbert, “woo the muse,” and still this nagging feeling persists:
Is it worth it?
I once read a story of a man who went to a Q&A session with a famous writer. When it was his turn at the microphone, he said, “For years I’ve struggled with writing. I’ve fought and clawed, and it’s never gotten easier. People tell me to keep at it, keep trying, but I just never break through. It’s agony, and I want to quit.”
The writer stared at him over the podium. “Then quit.”
After the dumbfounded man blustered through a justification or two, the writer said, “Look. Why would you keep at something that’s agony? Everyone’s allowed their opinion, but you don’t owe anyone anything. If you hate it, quit.”
There was a small silence as the audience sucked in its breath. It’s always a queasy feeling seeing someone get hit below the belt.
The man looked up.
“But if in the time you give yourself to clear your head, you keep coming back to writing…because it is what you must do…then write.”
And perhaps this is my only reason for returning: it must be love. Yet it cannot be that I am the only one who struggles with the process.
The Mighty 10
Since I began to take writing seriously in early college, I have discovered that there are ten stages to my personal writing process:
- the idea
- the brainstorm
- the Define the Relationship (DTR)
- the first page
- the 100
- the “200″
- the Pit of Despair
- the afterglow
- the baby blues
- the empty nester
…and I want to open up discussion about the varying emotional climates associated with each.
Not all writers are “feelers,” and not all “feelers” are melancholic basket cases. However, all writers at some point experience the psychological equivalent of middle school: the hopelessness, the endlessness, the feeling that you’re the only one looking this weird and everyone’s looking. It is a small one, but a trauma nonetheless, to judge your art. So be you a sensitive soul or no, these stages may still apply.
1. The Idea
I get ideas by accident and never when I’m upset. The mere act of thriving in life provides inspiration–biking, going to get groceries, surviving a cockroach invasion–and being surrounded by other art helps too. With these seeds of thought come that first spark: maybe… I store them in a travel-size notebook and laugh at them when I’m feeling cynical. But usually, it’s fun.
*sometimes, your brain thinks it’s hilarious to inspire you in the middle of a later stage (usually the 100). That’s what the notebook is for. Jot it down and ignore it ’til later. In time, like any child, it’ll learn to sleep through the night.
2. The Brainstorm
This is the notebook, tea, and relevant music stage. The purpose is to generate ideas. Being trapped places for long periods of time, a death knell for active folks, can actually be crucial: long car rides, waiting rooms, insomnia.
Block entire outlines, make characters dialogue in “empty rooms” (not thinking about settings), and plan the metaphysical functions of the universe. I find generating quickly in bulk helps me keep things uniform.
This phase has no boundaries. No commitments. It can be enjoyable as long as it is pursued with purpose. Otherwise, it starts to feel like you’re locked in the Dali clock painting, time endlessly melting away from you and no structure to prop anything up. Bolt through and later on, return when you’re stuck.
3. The Define the Relationship (DTR)
Okay, commitment-phobes, this is the sit-down-with-coffee-and-assess-“where-this-is-heading” stage, when you decide: I’m going to write this. To be honest, most of my ideas never make it here. Thanks, crushing creative self-doubt.
I imagine, though, if I was half as disciplined as I am imaginative, I could have several more drafts to “blast out with charges” than I do currently. Revision is its own monster. But at least there would be something growing to cultivate instead of a thousand dead seeds. So my advice? Commit and keep committing.
4. The First Page
“This is the part where you run away.”
Some people hate middles, some people hate endings. I hate beginnings. My own. Anyone else’s. I’m most likely to turn off a movie within the first twenty minutes. Unless you’re just blessed with knockout opening lines, everything on the first page sounds like it was written by a blithering idiot.
My recommendation is to turn off the critical voices (there are many) and keep writing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up rewriting the beginning later on anyway.
5. The 100
The first 100 pages fall into the “beginning” category for me. If this is where you start to “get into the run,” good for you. As for me, I don’t fall into sureness until the second wind.
6. the “200”
I hit my stride around page 200 (or about halfway).
Now this is what I’m talking about. The frenzied typing, the smooth-flowing action, the realistic characterization, the light at the end of the tunnel, and the enjoyment of every second until you get there. That is, until…
7. the Pit of Despair
During the final scene of my last project, a jungly fairy tale I ended up titling Faeble, my Inner Editor sprang up from the darkness and started strangling my Creative Spirit, all the while screaming death threats and halting the overall flow of productivity: It must be perfect! I hear the shrill tones even now. How dare you end your manifesto with this piddling exchange?! Kingsolver would quit the profession if she knew she had to share it with imbeciles like you!
Of all moments in your process, this final stage may be the most miserable. It will all feel for nothing because everything is The Worst. Again, fear not.
8. The Afterglow
You know that pink-orangey look of the sky after an all-nighter of rain? Or the high-arm V that runners make on the other side of the marathon? Or even just that first sip of coffee?
That’s you finishing your work. Though I claim to be a writer, there aren’t proper words for the sensation, and you won’t know it yourself until you buckle down and get there.
9. The Baby Blues
The other day, one of my best friends, a young wife and mother of two, was describing in grand detail the ordeal known as labor (also, how she stood up on the delivery table mid-contraction and told the nurses she was having a time out). She said perhaps the best feeling in the world is the bonding time with the infant after the adrenaline rush.
Perhaps we should all have babies and not books because I would say there’s probably no such thing for us writers. Almost immediately, the low hits: the show’s over, the thing to get up for and eat for. Oh, don’t worry, there’s revision. And sequels. But you don’t have the emotional energy for those just yet. Only the ponderous revisitation to life watching television and, if you’re wise about it, doing your actual job.
10. The Empty Nester
Never fear. If it’s meant to be, your brain will have you in fits over a new story soon enough. And the process begins all over again. That’s, I suppose, true love.
Friends, I’d love to hear about your own creative process — in any medium! Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy writing 🙂