I finished reading Still Writing by Dani Shapiro a little while back. I learned a lot from that book and, as I was reading it, I got the impression that Dani and I are very different types of writer (and, for that matter, different types of people). Here’s something Dani had to say about writing that just did not click with me:
Let’s face it: most of us are perfectionists. We spend our days searching for the perfect turn of phrase. And we consider this a good time.
Personally, I don’t care so much about finding the perfect turn of phrase as I do about getting the meaning right and capturing my words exactly as they come to me. I don’t want to lose my train of thought hunting for the perfect word. That’s for the editing phase, s’far as I’m concerned.
I don’t choose my words particularly carefully. Maybe I should. Maybe that would make me a better writer. A writer who turns out beautiful prose, instead of here’s-what-I-think-and-if-you-don’t-like-it-you-can-suck-it thoughts.
However, Dani is aware of another type of writer, too. She calls them vomiters:
There are those writers who need to lay it all out, as fast as they possibly can, very possibly not in order, very often by hand, scribbling, scribbling, gaining as much access to their unconscious mind as they can by letting it loose on the page without self-editing. Some of my friends who work like this refer to it as vomiting. I’d prefer to find a more elegant term for it, but I’m not sure I can. Maybe I’m envious. This is not the kind of writer I am. I’m guessing the vomiters are also people who can wake up in the mornings and leave home with their beds unmade and dishes piled in the sink. Me, I’m not built that way. I make my bed first thing. Pillows fluffed. Hospital corners. And if I were to try to leave the house with a sinkful of dishes, I’d probably spend the day twitching. Which is to say, I am a compulsive, orderly person and my working method reflects this. I inch forward, a sentence at a time. I read a few paragraphs back, then move forward only when I’m satisfied.
When I read that, I was like, ‘Holy shit. Dani’s way of writing sounds awful.’ But that vomiting method? Yes. That is me. (Although for what it’s worth, I pile my dishes next to the sink, not in it.)
I also read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert recently. Liz said something about the creative process that resonated with me:
The great American novelist Robert Stone once joked that he possessed the two worst qualities imaginable in a writer: He was lazy, and he was a perfectionist. Indeed, these are the essential ingredients for torpor and misery, right there. If you want to live a contented creative life, you do not want to cultivate either one of those traits, trust me. What you want to cultivate is quite the opposite: You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass.
Another thing Dani talks about is how difficult it is to read your own work: ‘It is a powerful conundrum because without the ability to see our writing afresh we cannot do the necessary work.’ She says she’s tried everything in an attempt to teach herself to approach her own work. I would argue – everything except one thing: vomiting your words onto the page. Obviously Dani’s not suddenly going to change her entire writing process – she probably couldn’t even if she wanted to – but if she could, I’m certain she’d find revisiting her work and perfecting it a much easier experience.
When you don’t agonise over every single word – when you instead vomit your words onto the page – you don’t remember what you wrote in the first place, which makes editing and proofreading a much easier job.
So yeah: when I’m writing, I need to get everything out as fast as I can, because I’m scared I’ll forget it otherwise. That’s why I make notes on old envelopes or the palm of my hand when I’m out and about, and why, when I’m reading, I’ll sometimes crack my laptop open just so I can capture these thoughts before they flitter away again. Sometimes my thoughts can disappear in five seconds flat. I swear to god. As I was close to finishing Still Writing, a brilliant idea for a blog post popped into my head. It was BRILLIANT. But I figured it could wait until I’d at least finished the paragraph I was reading.
Nope. Too late. The brilliant idea was gone, possibly forever, and now you will never get to hear of it. Sorry guys.
My Writing Process
I need to know roughly what I’m doing before I start. What is the point of this piece? I can easily do stream-of-consciousness writing when it’s not for publication. But when I’m writing for an audience? I need to know why I’m writing. I don’t need to have all the answers. I just need to have some vague structure in mind. Take this blog post, for instance. I put off starting it for days, because I couldn’t quite figure out my angle. Was I writing specifically about this part of the book? How was it relevant to my readers? Surely I can’t just be writing to tell my readers how fabulous my writing process is, can I? This has to be helpful somehow. (And hopefully, if you struggle with perfectionism in your writing, it is.)
Capturing and Writing
Once I know what I’m here for, I’ll begin. Writing and writing and writing. Everything (almost everything) will come out. There will be pauses while I catch up to myself. I’ll insert headers sometimes, then go back and fill the rest out. Sometimes I’ll fire out row after row of things I’d like to talk about, without going into any great depth, because I have to capture those ideas before they can escape. Later I can restructure them. Rewrite them. Remove them.
It’s a frantic sort of writing, thanks to my fear of losing bits. That’s why I ‘leapfrog’ (as Dani puts it) – skipping around and slotting things in where they belong. If you try to talk to me while I’m mid-sentence I will tell you to shut up and wait (and yes, I will be rude about it because I don’t have any time to waste here), or maybe I’ll just hold my hand up to you briefly before carrying on. I can’t let anything get away. I can decide whether it was worth capturing after I’ve caught it. Often it wasn’t. But I need to catch it in the first place and put it in its right place so that my mind can rest easy, knowing it’s done its job.
If I want to reference something, or include a link to another blog post or website, I’ll just make a note of it as I go, so I can insert it later. Sometimes I do this with phrases too, or words. There must be no stopping once I am rolling. If the word I want doesn’t come to me as I’m writing – I know what it is, I can feel it in the periphery of my mind but I can’t yet unearth it – I just describe the word inside square brackets and come back to it later. This is because I am terrified of losing where I’m going with my words. It’s never just a case off heading down a very similar, parallel track to the one I was intending to walk down. No. No such luck. I end up stuck, sat on a rock in the rain, hoping the thought will come back to me. Which it never bloody does – or at least not when it’s convenient.
Restructuring and Editing
Once I’ve got everything out, I can relax. Time to start organising. Here comes the cutting and pasting. Inserting headers if I haven’t already. Rearranging. I will add more as it comes to me, and I will remove a lot. A hell of a lot – words, sentences, entire paragraphs get the chop. If I’m writing a blog post, I usually do this part in my WordPress editor. (Initial drafts get thrown together in Scrivener, so I can work offline if I choose.) I like to edit posts directly in WordPress because then I can see exactly how they’re going to look when they’re live with the Preview function, and I can easily do things like add links. Basically, I can complete the piece in WordPress. I can’t complete the piece in Scrivener.
Once I’ve attained the almost-finished draft – the thoroughly edited, everything-in-the-right-place draft – I get really attentive. Like, seriously anal. I go through the piece line by line in Preview mode. Every time I see something I want to change, I flick back to my WordPress editor, make the change, and refresh the Preview page. Back on the Preview, I make sure the new edit reads how I want it to. Then I move on until I find the next thing I want to change and I repeat the process. For every. single. tiny. edit. That way, once I reach the end of my final edit – the polish, as I think of it, although I guess the proper term is proofread – I know I’m good to go.
Formatting and Publishing
Finally, all I’ll need to do is add any images and links (although I may already have done this, depending on my mood) and then hit publish. Sometimes I’ll give it a little breathing space, but usually there’s a breather between the initial draft in Scrivener and the final draft in WordPress, which is enough. I’m impatient when I’m ready to go. Which is why I sometimes hit publish at 1am, despite 1am being a shit time to publish a new post.
So that’s me. That’s how I write. If I’m writing something that’s not a blog post, such as a page of copy for a client, the process is very similar, it’s just that the final editing and polishing happens within the same document as the first draft, and there’s much less (i.e. zero) pissing about with the ‘Preview’ option.
Does Your Own Writing Process Hold You Back?
When I work with my students, I see them tend towards Dani’s writing process. The perfectionism. The agonising. Being unable to move forward until they’ve nailed the current sentence. It’s more like petrification than perfectionism. So here’s what I tell them:
Don’t worry about writing the perfect thing in the beginning. Fuck the perfect thing – for now. The easiest way to obtain the perfect thing is to capture everything and hone from there. What do you need to say? What might you need to include? Collate it all. You can take your pickaxe to it later, when you know you’ve secured the whole rock – nothing left behind, not glimmer of a sentence or an idea buried deep within the adjoining stone. With the whole rock in place, you can dig out the final piece, chipping away, crafting and refining until you’ve got the thing, the very thing, almost just as you want it.
And then, finally, you can take your rag to it, and you can polish it to perfection. Perfection happens at the end. Not at the beginning. And even then, it’s only perfect if the right person’s reading it.