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Monday, March 19, 2012

Late Night Post: Coffee + Writing Group

We had a mini-writers group tonight as this is Spring Break week and several of our members were out of town. I enjoyed a custom made coffee drink of almond and mint flavors made by a very friendly and entertaining barista. Mostly, I enjoyed the conversation. Talking about writing with other writers is almost always a pleasant experience. I especially like that our group is so diverse and we each bring different perspectives and experiences to the table. These people are very accessible and non-judgmental. In past writing groups I've sometimes had problems feeling intimidated by the other members or like I am somehow less of a writer because my work is different or not as worthy. With these folks--and we are still a relatively new group, getting to know each other and each other's work--you can talk about the writing you've been doing, or admit to the fact that you've not been writing much at all, and there are nods of understanding all the way around.

Tonight, we talked a little about process. I don't tend to categorize or even know the terminology for what I write or how I get from start to finish, though I'm sure I've developed a process over the years that could be described if I took the time to examine it. When I have been at my most prolific--cranking out essays or articles on a regular basis--there is certainly a pattern or a form that I tend to follow; at least, as far as the way a piece is constructed. I think of this pattern as circular. Whatever the introduction, the piece has to work itself around and somehow end by coming back to the initial thoughts or experiences that started the piece. Those are my favorites, anyway. Sometimes writing like that just flows and the circle is apparent as I am working. Sometimes these pieces take several drafts and revisions; I can't even see the circle until I put the piece away a while and review it later with a brain that does not necessarily remember the specific details that got me started.

There are two distinct modes of writing for me. I am either generating new material, or revising and making tidy packages of past material. These modes sometimes alternate in short bursts of days or weeks, but the larger, more honest pattern tends to be that I spend many months (years?) generating material and then I will slide into months of editing and reworking that material.

When I am most published, in fact, I often find myself feeling least like a writer. I will actually start to fret because I am producing no new material. How will I keep publishing, I wonder? What will I do when my personal slush pile is cleaned up? And that's usually a sign that a cycle of generating is about to begin again.

I have been in generating mode for quite some time now. If you don't count the freelance work I have done the past several years (I am not counting that for the moment) it has, in fact, been years since I've published any new, internally driven material. I've come to the conclusion that it is simply part of my rhythm or years-long routine. Most advice on writing will tell you to write, write, write everyday, but I'm less convinced now that I was a dozen years ago that this is the way to go. (I do tend to write everyday, but not necessarily to sit down and write in lengthy prose or on anything that might eventually turn into a story, an essay or an article. Often my writing more amounts to note taking. Copying words I find inspirational. Jotting lines or thoughts or ideas. Occasionally recording all I can remember of a dream or a conversation. Sometimes just putting some inner dialogue on paper in hopes of getting it out of my head.)

Occasionally I will take a few days to review the bits and pieces of writing I have done and it is very satisfying to see how much material I have generated. I may put on an editing hat long enough to enter a contest or two here and there, but the rest of it is left to simmer and wait for the moment when I'm ready to move forward and complete the work-in-progress.

All the above, however, is assuming that I am choosing to exist for the moment without outside deadlines. Until I stopped (unofficially) freelancing sometime last year, I was most often doing writing work on a deadline. This is a very different kind of writing, and I entirely understand why some who consider themselves to be writers of the more creative variety might avoid this kind of work. While at first it can be exciting to earn a paycheck for your words, this work can quickly become mechanical and I, at least, found myself sometimes lacking passion for the words I was writing.

At the same time, writing like this has greatly improved my confidence. I learned that I could, indeed, master just about any subject, and since I tend to be easily drawn to an eclectic variety of topics anyway, I was perfectly content becoming expert on educational loans for the time being or brushing up on the language of dentistry. Immersing myself in the philosophies of hospital management and healthcare was thrilling, for a while, and a stint generating romantic proposal ideas for less creative thinkers was a hoot in more ways than one. In many ways freelance writing feels a bit like a dream where you get paid for just learning new stuff.

I was content, but I grew tired of it (the isolation was depressing me) and so my writing turned in another direction, once again. Honestly, I don't know that I've completely settled on a direction for my writing for the moment. I have a completed draft (1.5 draft?) of a novel that I honestly believe I will eventually publish. (Of course, I've said that before.) I have drafts of three other novel type entities that I sometimes believe might yet hold promise. I have short stories galore in all stages of composition. I have that beast that I knocked my head against for years that I finally put down, declaring it my "under the bed" manuscript. But that silly thing still creeps into my consciousness at odd moments and I find myself wondering if there might still be a way to fix it. In fact, I thought of it this evening at writing group and experienced a wave of excitement, just for a moment, about its potential.

I used to worry that all my efforts, my trying out of different kinds of writing in various times and places was a sign of distractability, proof that I would never succeed. Somewhere along the way my mind has turned a corner and I believe now that all these efforts have just been part of the process, part of my process. I've written all these ways and forms, with and without deadlines, with and without heart, because there was something I needed to learn along the way. I'm still learning it. Hopefully, I always will be on that path of improving and learning to finish better.

Years and years ago, I put away an attempt at novel writing because it just felt too big. I couldn't imagine how to process an entire story, how to get it from start to finish. I wrote columns. I wrote blogs. I wrote highly personal pieces on having babies and raising toddlers and living while my mother was passing away. I took classes and workshops and was published and rejected. Rejected and published. I entered contests. I avoided contests. I peddled my words for dollars. I created content. I edited work for other writers.

I'm still not entirely sure that I'm there yet, but most days I can now imagine myself writing even something big like a novel. Or maybe just a series of something-smalls.

Our barista on Monday made me a custom drink because I wanted the flavor from a cold menu item, but suggested, when I was ordering, that the rainy evening made it feel more like I should be drinking something warm. Later in the evening he performed like an airline stewardess, announcing the minutes till closing and directing us to the exits at the front and the back of the store. We applauded him. He bowed. And I envied him, for a moment. How does a person gain enough confidence to just make up a recipe for a stranger, or to clown in public without fear?

How does a person gain the confidence to put their words out there for just anyone to read?

Others do it differently. I am finding my way.


bs said...

Dance like nobodies watching...cause they are not watching.

Nancy said...

What a great post, Tracy. You voiced what a lot of writers feel. Also, some very nice writing.