A Few Thoughts on the Writing Process

If you’re a writer and have been writing for a while, you know the experience of pouring yourself into something and coming to a point, eventually, of feeling like it’s ready. Then you come back to it a few months later and revision is much easier. Things you thought were perfect now seem a little clanky, and something (time, distance, rest, other pursuits, other work, good reading) has given you the ability to make them right. You tighten things up, make hard (even emotional) cuts, and now you know it’s ready. This happens two or three more times. That’s the process, isn’t it? It seems to be for me.

The only way I know to become a better writer is to keep writing, keep reading, and keep building in some opportunities for distance. Stay intellectually curious. Study the mechanics of your art. Listen to great lectures. Get feedback. Keep going.

I come back to these words often:

“In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you’ll dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it to the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.” (Ernest Hemingway)

Or, as Ann Hood says, “blow it up.” I come back to those words, too.

What I’m Reading, What I’m Writing

Reading:

Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, Charles Baxter

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Blanco, Allen Wier

I’ve written a short (1200 words) essay about one of the pieces in the Baxter collection and sent it to a few places. I may run it here soon. One of the interesting things about Burning Down the House is that it was written 20 years ago the first essay, “Mistakes Were Made,” anticipates the narrative dysfunction gripping what’s left of the national discourse.

Hemingway is a re-read. I’m enjoying most of it. There are some things I cringe at, which forces me to ask question I probably wasn’t asking as a younger reader (and as a hunger human being).

I recently watched a talk by Allen Wier on YouTube and really liked it. I just started reading his first novel, Blanco. It was published in 1978. I’m only two chapters in, but the writing is tight and I’m excited to see where it goes.

Writing:

I have a second, very brief essay (650 words) out to a few markets. It’s about relationships, which, really, all fiction is.

I have a new short story (5000 words) out for editing, and a second new story sitting at about that length with probably 2000 words to go. It hasn’t stalled, but I have had to put it aside because the final piece of it is, for me, too emotional at the moment.

I’m revising a novel manuscript that I worked on during my MFA. Doing that brings lots of highs and a few lows. There are bursts of new creativity, and characters are doing things that surprise me. My subconscious is planting symbols and loose ends that are being addressed later, the narrative is coming together. I suppose the only thing I’m really afraid of in life (apart, of course, from things involving relationships) is that I won’t finish this project. Not because it’s hard (it is, and should be), but because of the chance that something stupid will stop me in the middle. So, I need to keep that crucible, imposed only by my own anxiety, in check.

I visited with a friend in the hospital this past week and we talked about the things we need to do be in good head space. When I find anxiety medicine working, I eventually forget to take it. He had a good solution: “set an alarm on your phone.” What I’m trying to say is that anxiety is not a great muse. The things I’m reading are helping with the way I’m thinking about narrative structure, and that, in itself, brings some anxiety. But on we go.

On we go.


Bill Gorton on Being Daunted: A Twitter Bio for the Lost Generation

 I’m rereading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for the first time in many, many years.  There are problems with it.  The brief observation below about one of Bill Gorton’s better lines is in no way meant to mitigate other issues with the text. 

“Ought not to daunt you.  Never be daunted. Secret of my success.  Never been daunted.  Never been daunted in public.”

If that’s not a twitter bio for the Lost Generation, I don’t know what is.

100 Words at a Time

I have always loved to write.  I first started writing creatively as an adult sometime during Divinity School, in my early 20s.  I wrote stories and poems in high school of course, but most of what I wrote in college was more academic. 

Between finishing my Master of Divinity and starting my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, I wrote many small pieces of fiction and prose poems.  I grew fond of writing things that were exactly 100 words.  It was a good practice in rhythm, word choice, and brevity.

This piece, which I rewrote yesterday from an older draft that didn’t go where I had hoped, is 98 words:

There’s nothing to say now to Eugene Victor Debs or William Jennings Bryan.  No spring under iron wheels and no thaw in the concrete borders of compassion.  No dispersing from the lock-step forms of ill-formed fear, fear of self, of other, fear of washing rain, revealing living oneness, fear of drowning in it.  There’s no green in our window-boxes, no stray cats in alleys and nothing left to feed them. Only fat birds always eating and the statues of our past, the ideal likeness of forgotten shapes and forms, fat birds always eating, bleaching white our skin-toned stories.

I have also found that I inevitably tend to write paragraphs of about 100 words in my fiction, especially why I’m attempting a birds-eye view seeking to balance external and internal settings, or when I’m doing an extremely close third-person read. 

After quite of bit of struggle with one story yesterday, I read and took a break.  Later, I revised the poem above.  Then I went about the other things I had to do. Later still, I wrote a post about DH Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson (both very good at the external/internal balance and the shift from mundane to sublime) and Ernest Hemingway (ever a muse for brevity).  Then I returned to another story, one I had been avoiding for personal reasons, and wrote this, which is, not surprisingly, about a hundred words:

On his ten-speed, the new present from his father, Riley arced and waved, his course unfettered and unhinged, free from the attraction of large bodies, the fundamental laws of physics. The nurses crossed the Fairgrounds. Birds roosted in the trees. The Sisters of St. Catherine were called to daily office, everywhere the brides of Christ were moving to the music of the set-in-motion world. In the Market lot, where the families sold their wares, where the men had trained to serve in war, where the Milltown Fair lit August sky with fireworks and neon, on that swath of pavement bordered by the hospital and graveyard, a boy, still small, still boyish, rode his brand-new bike.

I’m sure I’ll revise and refine that, but for now I rather like it.  In the context of the story, it’s a sort of capstone.

For whatever reason, I tend to write more or less 100 words at a time.  There are days when these bursts add up, 1000 or 2000 words.  There are days like yesterday, where I revised 98 and wrote 120 more.

Dialogue is like the 12-point Courier New of daily word goals.  Even in the piece I struggled with yesterday, I managed 300 words of decent dialogue in service of the story. 

Some days net a ton of words you cut down later.  Some days net a ton of words you keep.  Some days are more about the planting, some days about the harvest.

If you’re writing and/or reading today (and I hope you are), happy sewing, watering, reaping.







Horses In Midstream: DH Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and Sherwood Anderson

I’m reading a three-story collection of DH Lawrence that anthologizes “The Woman Who Rode Away,” St. Mawr (really a novella), and “The Princess.”

I’ve finished “The Woman Who Rode Away” and am a third through St. Mawr.  All three tales involve horses.  The first and last are about women who leave their normal lives on horseback, and St. Mawr is, himself, a horse.

Given where I am in the collection, this is something of a review in midstream.

“The Woman Who Rode Away” has many admirable qualities.  James Lasdun, who wrote the collection’s introduction, does a very good job discussing them. He also notes Lawrence’s interest in pulp fiction, and for me, that’s what the narrative arc finally becomes, with all of that genre’s attendant problems of sexism, racism, colonialism. There is more to like about much of the writing than about the balance of the story. 

St. Mawr is likewise full of brilliant moments, but so far seems to drag on.  How many times must Lawrence tell us about the other planes of existence the horse seems to occupy?  How many times must he tell us about the darkness in the stallion’s eyes, and in that darkness, fire?  How many times must he remind us of Phoenix’s high cheek-bones and other “Indian” features?  How long must poor Rico suffer?  I am midstream in this story, but feel like changing horses. 

Don’t get me wrong. Lawrence was supremely gifted.  I should say that I’m concurrently reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, published two years after these Lawrence stories were written.  Though the two writers shared many things in common (Hemingway does go on about the streets and restaurants of Paris,  both men name-check the Rotonde, both deal in their ways with the aftermath of World War I), their styles are like the glyphs of different planets.  Reading them together helps modern readers, almost a century on, understand why The Sun Also Rises was considered such a departure and, for that reason, such a landmark. 

That’s not to diminish Lawrence, nor to compare this collection (not a masterpiece) to Hemingway’s best-known and most critically acclaimed work.  But since I happen to be reading these pieces in tandem, I can’t help seeing them in light of each other, to an extent.

Lawrence’s prose is rich and layered and often very beautiful.  He was, as Lasdun points out, a master at transmuting setting into psychological revelation.  All of that is here.  Hemingway can seem too stark by comparison.  Sherwood Anderson, who Hemingway parodied in The Torrents of Spring (also published in 1926) is stylistically somewhere in between.  Winesburg, Ohio is a current happy place of mine.


Last Night’s Reading, Yesterday’s Writing

Last night, I read:

“The Woman Who Rode Away” by DH Lawrence

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, Chapters 1 – 3.

If anyone would like to talk about either of those selections, please do comment below. 

Yesterday, I revised (tried to re-see) a poem I’ve been working on and got to what I think is a good place with it.  The middle section still needs attention, but I did what I could with the energy I had.  

It was one of those days where I knew in my head (I don’t mean my mind…I mean I had one of those headaches where you just feel tired all day) I wasn’t going to get much new writing done, but I’m happy with what I was able to do in revision.  That’s not to say that revision isn’t new writing, but it’s not from scratch or the ether or wherever else these things in their mirror images form before you make them stick.

If you’re writing today, good writing!