Being :: The Writing Process

January 25, 2013

Being: Conscious, mortal existence; life.

Every month we welcome two families, two people, two voices to share their stories in whatever way they choose. We hope that you find joy in their daily lives, and their simple habit of just being.

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I didn’t make any new year’s resolutions this year. Partly because I had to get my first post for this Rhythm of the Home gig to Annie, the editor, on January 3, so that’s where my mind was. And somehow I simply didn’t feel in a resolving mood.

I just dug in and started writing that first post.

I suppose you could call it writing. When I start a new piece, I sometimes write notes by hand in a journal; more often I sit at my computer and type as fast as my fingers can go, getting down whatever wanders to mind on the topic at hand. I don’t analyze or think much; I just ramble and riff. I let myself sound stupid and trite and inelegant and boring. I write ridiculous lines that make no sense like, What if I had to submit to you readers an outline of what I’d write the next week before I wrote it? I wind up with a blathering mess of words, like something typed by a lonely drunk at 2:00 a.m.

I’ve learned that when I write fast and careless, I compose mostly awful lines, but I also wander into territory I hadn’t anticipated. I make analogies; I find unexpected connections; I recall reading The Runaway Bunny to my oldest and know the story is just what the piece needs. When I let my subconscious straddle my logical mind for a while, pinning it down without mercy, the subconscious finds the poetry that logic overlooked.

Next I reread what I’ve written, my draft that looks like a wino’s memoir, and search for glimmers of fool’s gold in the muck. There are usually a few good bits—little flickers—but mostly what I have is a steaming hot mess that wafts panic up into my nostrils. The draft is heinous. It’s dire. I calculate how many kid-free chunks of writing time I have before it’s time to submit the thing and despair. The gig is over, Annie! I can’t pull it off this time!

I count on pulling it off on Wednesday night, a few hours before the piece is due, when I typically eat dinner alone at a divey Indian restaurant and then write in a café—the sort of café where the mint tea is mediocre, but you can nurse a glass for hours. Even as I walk in the dark from restaurant to café, I start toying with one of those flickers, start understanding what I need to do. I sit with my tea and work with that flicker, finding stronger words, honing its meaning. I boil down that flicker, making it concrete and specific, as if reducing wine for mushroom gravy. Sometimes I sense that something is needed: a detail, a fact, an analogy. If one doesn’t show up, I type a line like this: ___________.  My drafts have lots of lines like this: ___________. I type them with faith that what needs to fill them will come, and it usually does, by the time the piece is finished.

I hack out what isn’t working and paste it at the end of the piece, because you never know what treasures might be lurking in the trash. Eventually a single paragraph starts looking respectable, and I’ll reread that one again and again as I work on the next, a nervous sort of buoying-up: I can do this thing! I flit off to another flicker, fixing one at a time, in no particular order. There’s nothing linear or logical in the process; I just keeping flitting and fussing and fixing and eventually things start looking up.

The endings are the hardest. Back in the blathering draft stage, I’m already looking for some special pebble to tuck in my pocket, to save for the ending. My favorite writers don’t treat endings as tacked-on reflections or summaries; there’s magic in their final paragraphs. I once wrote this about Anne Lamott: “The woman knows how to end an essay. Reading her final paragraphs, I often think of what it must be like to parachute from a plane. I see the white space approaching, and I know I’m almost to the end, about to hit the ground. But then in the last few lines, she’ll throw in something unexpected—an image from earlier in the essay, maybe—and the words will come together in such astounding beauty that I’ll hit the last word feeling sucker-punched and stunned and utterly exhilarated.”

Ah, to achieve the sucker punch. I don’t typically pull it off, but I try. What amazes me, still, is that if I keep showing up to the work, keep futzing and polishing, something comes together. It often contains a few lines of which I’m proud.

The process always surprises. When I agreed to take on these four short posts here, I didn’t expect them to change me. I didn’t expect them to show me how much I’ve missed writing essays. I didn’t expect them to shift my plans.

It makes sense, though. You learn as you do the work. You let the process of writing teach you. Lamott writes, “Very few writers really know what they’re doing until they’ve done it.” Every writer has her own process, but most involve lousy rough drafts and circuitous routes to something better. It’s true of even the best. It’s hard to imagine why most of us were taught to begin school papers by submitting outlines. We were forced to decide what we’d say before the writing could show us what we really wanted to say. Advice-givers will tell you that to achieve anything, you need goals and resolutions. I’m not convinced. Maybe it’s better to simply start with the work, whether that work be writing, or painting, or planting gardens, or parenting. We learn to write by writing; we learn to live by living. Maybe it’s best to skip making plans and simply dig in, do the work, make a hot mess that scares us and see what we can do with it. Let the process tell us how to proceed. My drafts have taught me this: you never find that sucker-punch ending working from an outline.

This month we happily welcome Patricia Zaballos to the Being series.  Patricia is a writer, homeschooling parent, knitter and urban bee keeper.  Patricia writes about kid-centered learning and raising children to be writers on her blog, Wonder Farm, and recently published her first book, Workshops Work! A Parent’s Guide to Facilitating Writer’s Workshops for Kids.

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Rhythm of the Home is an online magazine for families that focuses on creating with children, nature explorations, seasonal celebrations, conscious parenting, and mindfulness in all that we do.   To learn more about us, please visit us on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

We welcome new submissions for our upcoming seasons. To learn more about submitting, please visit our magazine.

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{ 10 comments }

Sylvia@MaMammalia January 25, 2013 at 3:30 pm

This caught my eye today. Thank you, I really enjoyed reading it! I think I have at least 2 different writing processes: one in which I start with an outline and the other in which I do something similar to what you’ve described here. The planned outlined pieces are sooo much harder to write!

patricia January 25, 2013 at 3:54 pm

That’s interesting, Sylvia. I have to wonder, why do you continue to write with an outline if they’re so much harder? I’m curious.

Olivia January 25, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Patricia,
I recently discovered ROTH and then discovered your writing from here! I just want you to know that you have truly inspired me in so many ways. Over the last year I have transitioned with one of my boys from public school, to an alternative program (3 days home, 3 in a classroom) to finally just beginning to homeschool on our own! The writing has always been a challenge for my son but thanks to some new insight from your blog (and some mommas instincts) we are changing the tides! Plus, I also just learned that I love to write. After years of journaling and being an avid reader I finally figured out how much I love story!!!! So thank you for sharing so much goodness here and at your blog!
Blessings,
Olivia

Olivia January 25, 2013 at 8:50 pm

oops, i meant 2 in a classroom!

Cindy January 26, 2013 at 10:08 am

It was fun to see some of my process in yours, Patricia. For instance, when I slash a paragraph or sentence or whatever that had some decent meaning, I also tack it on the end…just in case. For my book, I even made an “extra stuff” document to put all my hacked paragraphs or even entire removed sections there. It helped me be willing to slash if I could still save it…just in case. It’s a lot of work to write, and even if it didn’t make the grade, I didn’t want to simply hit delete as if all that work meant nothing. By saving it somewhere…anywhere…it means all the extra work that goes into writing means something. At least that’s what my logical mind needs to believe in order to move on.

Being a left-brained person, outlines worked for me in school. However, all that said, even when I got As on papers, I never viewed myself as a writer. Subconsciously, I knew logical writing wasn’t impactual, but factual. Only when I accidentally wrote from the gut a letter that was published in Growing Without Schooling did I realize from where good writing stemmed. The right side of the brain must come first, and then the left side of the brain cleans up the mess :-) See, just writing this comment created the foundation for a great post!

Kristin January 26, 2013 at 10:53 am

Some of what you’ve described is similar to my process as well: brainstorming; pasting musings at the end of the work I can’t bear to delete hoping I’ll incorporate them; and I use _____ spaces too when I can’t remember the word I need. Oddly, my writing process is similar to how I paint; only after there are many layers do I see how to incorporate (structure) all of it clearly. I’ve noticed a pattern of moving the things I’ve written last to the beginning, and that I have a problem with endings.

That’s probably why I enjoyed your analogy: “I’m already looking for some special pebble to tuck in my pocket, to save for the ending.” That’s a nice way to put it. While I aim for my endings to not be trite mushy recaps, sometimes that’s exactly what they are. I’d enjoy your insight about writing endings as a topic for a post.

patricia January 26, 2013 at 11:02 am

Olivia, I’m so glad to hear that my blog has been helpful to you! And glad, too, that you recognize your “momma instincts” and are letting them guide you. That’s so important in the transition to homeschooling. The fact that you’ve become a lover of writing yourself will be a huge help in your ability to guide your sons in their writing. You can’t underestimate the importance of that. Thank you for reading my blog!

Cindy, I agree with you: writers have to be able to edit and scale back, but it’s so much easier to do if you just put the cut portions aside, rather than deleting. I think that makes you a better editor of your own work. (Of course, I had to figure this out on my own. Nobody taught me to do it in school.) And outlines work great for dull, formulaic writing–the type too many schools teach. Outlines can also be helpful later in the writing process, once you’ve let your right brain tell you what really matters to you. Love this: “The right side of the brain must come first, and then the left side of the brain cleans up the mess.” Yep! That’s exactly what I do when I write. Hope you do write a post about this!

patricia January 26, 2013 at 11:28 am

Kristin, isn’t it interesting that many of us come up with similar methods on our own? We stop approaching writing as people have instructed us to do, and do what works best for us. I’ll bet you tend to move what you’ve written last to the front, because the stuff you’ve written last turns out to be the heart of what you’re trying to say, don’t you think?

I’ve learned a lot about endings by studying, very carefully, how my favorite writers craft them. Not that I can pull off what they do, but I try. I’ve always tried to impress that on my kids when they write work that they plan to share in some way. Endings matter. It would be a fun study for a blog post, yes!

Ali January 27, 2013 at 9:43 am

I really love the way you talk about the writing process. I love the jumpin and see where it takes you method. I think that’s part of why I always struggled in class as a kid forced to plan everything out. I forwarded this to my colleague who teaches writing to sixth graders to share with them as I don’t think my Kindergarteners are ready for it yet. Ha!

patricia January 27, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Ali, I know there are progressive writing programs in place in many schools. I used to facilitate a writer’s workshop in my classroom, and we talked a lot about each other’s writing processes. It’s so great if kids can get a variety of ideas from others, and come up with a process that works for them. Thanks for sharing my work!

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