“I never plan ahead. Everything is always spontaneous and passionate.” —Ray Bradbury
There was a time in my life when I got my jollies from academic writing. I wanted nothing more than to write a paper called something like “The (re)/(de) Construction of (post)Modern(istic) Identity,” which is, as we all know, mostly bullshit. Not that there isn’t something to say about the reconstruction or deconstruction or first time original construction of identity in a modern or postmodern or postmoderinistic world, but what is the point?
Even so, I learned a lot about my writing process back then. And when I teach, I teach process. But I don’t just teach “planning, composition, and revision.” Sure, those things are really important—there is no writing without them. But when we write, it is a soul-cleansing that demands more than textbook terminology.
Here is a picture of me holding one of the very first significant cocktail napkins of my life. It was the final semester of my graduate school career, and I had been working on this stupid-ambitious thesis about the creation of nomadic identity in Salman Rushdie’s fiction (see?). I had most of the paper done, but I still didn’t have the single-statement articulation of my argument. I didn’t let that get me down, though. I snagged my last $20 from my teaching assistantship, my best English-major friend Nikki, and took off for Boozetown.
My thesis chair (shout-out to Doc Thompson) was a real stickler for thesis statements being unified and concise. Getting that to happen was tough, but one night while I was fairly hammered, I sat down and put the pieces together…on a napkin. This is me explaining it to whoever would listen. I appreciate the guy in the green shirt for pretending to give a shit because that girl in the black jacket couldn’t give one if she tried.
Even though that was a very different type of writing from what I do now, I still learned something. Writing is not a linear process. One does not simply start at the beginning and write to the end and stop.
In school, I often didn’t know what my point was until I wrote the last sentence of the first draft. Another professor once told me that my last paragraph felt like a Hail Mary pass on the last play of the game that was caught on the one yard line. Close, but I still lost the game. Sure, that means I had to rewrite (a lot), but revision is a very important life skill.
If you want to write, there are a handful of things to remember:
- Writing at any level and in any discipline isn’t for the weak. It will be hard, and it will take a long time. And sometimes, you’ll be revising for longer than it took you to write first drafts.
- You do not have to know where you’re going to end up. We’ve all heard that cliché about the journey being the real prize. That applies to writing. Just sit down and start. If you’re writing fiction, let your characters surprise you. If you’re writing copy, let your own genius sneak up on you.
- Your first draft will be downright terrible. It’s just the nature of the craft. Read Anne Lamott.
- Don’t be afraid to live. Writing is time consuming, but it shouldn’t consume your life. If you budget your time, even in school, you should be able to go out and meet people (hopefully people in your plight). Have a drink or two, climb on buildings, or make-out with someone you just met. Just always take your pen (for inspiration and phone numbers).
- The stories that you have inside of you that want out will never ever get out if you don’t just sit down and write them.
This is not an exhaustive list at all. These are the things that have helped me, though. That, and really paying attention to the things that helped me create my ideal writing situation. Starting in grad school, my writing process began to involve coffee/ bourbon, candles (sometimes), and music at a low volume. For a while it was Marvin Gaye and Etta James and B.B. King. I used to make jokes about how I made love to the paper, but that’s really not as far off as it could be.
Go forth and make love to your stories—sloppy, sexy, stupid, spontaneous love.