Writers love to talk about the writing process. As far as I can tell, we’re the only professionals—with the noted exception of actors and artists—who feel the need to analyze our work as we do it, and what’s more, consider this self-indulgence to be vital. I don’t notice plumbers sitting around coffee house tables discussing the headspace they need to be in before tackling a clogged drain, nor have I known firefighters to debate the merits of various ‘approaches’ to a difficult day at work. Metaphysical ponderings seem to be a luxury only a community of navel-gazers and over-thinkers can afford.
I try not to take the writing subculture as a whole too seriously—we do that just fine individually—but all eye-rolling aside, this type of analysis is helpful. I’ve been doing my fair share of self-reflection this week, as I prepare a piece I’ve been asked to submit on the writing process for a favorite literary journal. I’ve been stuck in the mud (and rapidly running out of energy) in the process of my own draft lately, and trying to figure out why.
For me, writing always starts with a sense of place…a pin on a map, a Google street view, a memory stirred by a photograph or scent. I lay the landscape, and then…then…I tend to wallow until my characters take form. They solidify on the page like silhouettes turned solid in a Polaroid photo, and only then am I off and running. It can take months. Years.
I wrote once about the moment my first novel gelled for me. They say you don’t really know a language until you dream in it, and the night I dreamt of my main character, my novel became whole. It wasn’t an exciting dream, just fuzzy and abstract as dreams tend to be: in my dream, I woke, walked downstairs, and found my character asleep on my couch.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” she said back, eyes half-open. Mouth in a yawn.
I got her a blanket from the end of the couch, lay it over her, and went back to bed. When I opened Scrivener the next day, I knew her. And I knew where she was going on the terrain I’d already mapped out.
Mid-way through the first draft of my new novel, I’m still waiting to make that acquaintance.