On the Art of Waiting for Writing

Recently, Beth Kephart asked me to talk about my writing process and rituals, and writer’s block. She shared my answers in her Junctures newsletter.  For those of you who don’t get her newsletter, here are my answers:

I don’t write every day. I don’t write every week even. I wish I did. I write long books with worlds to build, that take time to feel my way into and more time to climb my way out of, and I often wish that I was the kind of writer who had lots of ideas, short stories, essays, poems popcorning around in my brain and that I could sit down every morning and one of them would come and keep me company for a while. I’m not talking about ease – that I wish writing was easy – but availability. I’m not talking about validation either. I know I am a writer even when I am not writing because I have written, because I think in terms of story, because I am an annoying person to watch a movie with since I am constantly pointing out the clues that have been dropped to create that satisfying ending that seems surprising but suddenly inevitable (just ask my children), and because when I haven’t been writing for a while I am restless and nitpicky and vaguely unhappy. You’d think, as a writer, I’d be sensitive enough to notice that for myself and correct it, but it’s usually someone else who points it out.

For me, entering a novel or memoir is like entering another country. Just as large, as far away, as difficult to navigate, as exhilarating. Something new around every corner; an unfamiliar map that I have to work to keep in my brain. Which is to say, it takes a while to get there, and once there, I don’t want to be pulled out. If I had my choice, I would keep writing, every day, for six hour chunks (that’s the point when I start getting sloppy and cutting corners), without noticing whether it happens to be dinner time or two in the morning. Indeed, when I am in that space, sometimes I wake up at in the middle of the night and grab the pen by my bed to write down what is coming through in the dark. As a result, I can give you great tips on how to get ink out of your duvet cover.

But having become conversant with that new world, I also have to leave it for long periods of time so I can edit. I have to put my work away for months at a time until I have forgotten enough of it that I can judge it. I need to be able to see past what exists on the page to why it is there in the first place and I need to be able to break myself out of the rhythm and sound of the words so I can cut them if necessary. So, for me, writing comes in waves – in and out.

When I am writing, I often start with a moment to clear my mind and pick a direction. Some people meditate. I tend to pull a tarot card. I ask a question – what do I need to know right now? Maybe the meaning of the card itself is helpful… It’s about refuge, say. Or maybe the image reminds me to pull out the conflict more, or sometimes it’s a message for me as the writer – to let go, or turn something upside down. But really, pulling a card is a way to get out of my way, and also to declare that this time is mine, and this headspace is ready for writing.

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Posted: December 1st, 2016
Categories: The Writing Life, Writing Advice
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