Friday, May 12, 2017

"JED's Question Concerning My Writing Process"

I am answering a reader’s question on a Friday.  I feel positively Ken Levine.

Subsequent to a post on the bogus depiction of the writing process in movies, commenter JED inquires as to my own personal writing process.  Thank you, JED.  That’s one less post topic I have to come up with myself.

Let me first dispense with the overarching cliché, which does not mean it’s factually inaccurate, only, “I heard that already.  A lot.”

Every writer is different, their approaches to writing thus concomitantly diverse.  If they’re pacers, they pace; if they are dreamers, they dream.  And if their inspiration comes to them standing on their heads – and why wouldn’t it with the blood coursing regeneratingly through their brains – they stand on their heads until usable material arrives and then get up and transcribe it, though if it were me, I would be utterly useless, discombobulated and nauseous from hours of standing on my head.  (Not to mention the additional liability of irreparably flat hair.)

A Sidetracking Interlude (hopefully brief but you never know.)

It’s funny.  When I watch “Non-Fiction Weekends” on C-SPAN, where they interview authors of newly published histories and biographies, the interviewer rarely fails to query the author about their process.

“Do you write in longhand?  Do you write on a computer?  Do you write with a feather?”  (If they are writing about the Revolutionary War era and want to get into the spirit.)  I have no idea why they insistently ask that question, which is another way of saying I am not primarily concerned about the matter.  And I wonder similarly about the author.

“My dear boy.  I have just devoted eleven years of my life assembling the definitive volume on Charlemagne and you want to know if I wrote it with a pencil?”


Okay, JED.  You asked for it you got it Toyota.

Actually, mentioning writing with a feather raised an idea I had never considered before.  So thanks JED for the question for another reason – triggering an illuminating insight.

I have always believed that I wrote lying down because that’s how I used to study for exams.  I would recline in bed, surrounded by scattered notes and high-lighted – or it is high-lighten – text books, absorbing the requisite material, the Toronto radio station CHUM “plattering” the hits simultaneously in the background.  So it was,

“Amo, amas, amat….Splish splash I was takin’ a bath…”

all mooshed together.

It seemed then only normal and natural that when I began writing professionally, I would preserve the time-honored “horizontal tradition.”

Which I did.  (And, by the way, still do.  When revising drafts previously composed on the computer, I repair to the daybed in my office, the “heavy lifting” done sitting in front of the screen, the delicate refinements performed lying flat on my back.)

However, brought to mind by “writing with a feather” – which was at the time the only method of writing available to them short of carving words into your hand and pressing down hard on the paper, a messy business without question – I believe I originally toiled in a supine position for technological reasons as well.

Before computers, before even the “IBM Selectric-2 with Correct-Tape”, I wrote on a typewriter, knowing, because it was a typewriter and could do only what typewriters can do, that every mistake, word replacement or structural adjustment would require me to type the entire page of material over again.  The whole thing.  Even the good stuff.

To avoid a massive amount of retyping – and expending shameful quantities of paper – I had to be unequivocally certain of what I wanted to put down, before consigning it to the typewriter.  In preparation for that near indelible undertaking, I would work things out first, noodling creatively on a yellow legal pad.  And why not lie down while I doing so, as is my historical M.O.? 

I now realize it was not primarily personal habit that led me to write lying down, it was the structural deficiencies of the typewriter. 

Okay, so much for “the physical act of writing.”  As far as inspirational aspect is concerned…

When I’m on trips, I carry a small notebook, to capture not just what’s happening on the trip but any glimmer of an idea I don’t want to forget because otherwise, “Poof!”  As in (learned from agonizing experience), “What was that wonderful idea again?  Shit!

There is also a notebook and pen in my car, where I jot down inspirations at red lights and also at green lights until I’m honked, and another on my bedside night-table, on hand for late night bursts of creativity, although writing in the dark without glasses has proved problematic from a legibility standpoint.  

“What was that?  I bet it was genius!”

But here’s the headline in this regard. 

My best ideas or ways of communicating those ideas verbally rarely come to mind sitting in front of the computer.  Say hello to Mr. “Performance Anxiety.”  But I take a walk, I read the paper, I watch a program… and, with the immobilizing heat turned off, creative visitors turn up at my cerebral doorstep.  And then I race excitedly away somewhere to write them down. 

On my walks, lacking writing apparatus, I drum the useful idea or imaginative turn of phrase into my memory, like Ellen DeGeneres trying to remind herself she has left money in her pants pocket before falling sleep, repeating,

“Money in the pants.  Money in the pants.  ‘M’ in the ‘P’.  ‘M’ in the ‘P’.”

Here’s a semi-embarrassing revelation.

Sometimes I get stuck on a word or on how to articulate a concept, I get up and go to the bathroom, my mind relaxes…

And there it is. 

It invariably turns the trick, this “Commodial Respite.”  I’ve thought about writing in there, but I’m sure the relocation would inevitably “poison the well”, thus requiring me to find a new place to go when I am now stymied in the bathroom.

Well, that’s about it.  I hope it was interesting.  Of course, I left one thing conspicuously uncovered.  Where do the ideas and phrasings, et cetera come from?  How exactly do you go from “blank page” to “Finished – time for lunch”?

As to that, dear readers, I remain cluelessly in the dark.  This is not a magician refusing to reveal how he pulls off his tricks.  I just have no idea how it happens.

I shall now print up this original draft – which you will be spared the onerous burden of experiencing – and go lie down, to make it better.

1 comment:

JED said...

Thank you, Earl. I did find this interesting. Surely writers could be shown on TV and in movies in more varied situations than at a keyboard. I like how you explain it and I think it fits in with what we've learned about you from your other posts and stories.

I'm always glad when you answer one of my questions because of the worry that I've asked a dumb question. And there are dumb questions - like, "Did you write your definitive volume on Charlemagne with a pencil?" So, when you answer my question, not only do I get an interesting answer but I also find out that this time, at least, I didn't make a fool of myself.

And - I will no longer beep at people who do not go when the light turns green. I'll imagine that perhaps they are writing an interesting blog post about how they go about writing.