Just a little over a week ago, my friend and I were standing in front of a painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The painting looked more or less like a bunch of random, schizophrenic scribbles–babbling, rambling artistic squiggles that were akin to a magic eye drawing. I have no strong aversion or love toward modern art, so this interpretation is up for debate. My friend and I had been discussing writing, as we are wont to do. She’s a fiction writer, focusing in the short story and young adult fiction. We spend a lot of time discussing our writing, focusing on the similarities and differences in crafting our respective genres.
I pointed to the painting, my finger following the curve of the wiggling lines, and said, “That’s pretty much how my notebook looks before I write something.”
She looked surprised. “Really? But your writing is so straightforward and structured.”
“Yep, pretty much. Once all the crazy is out on paper, it all comes together when I start typing up the final product. The structure comes from a lot of mulling and pondering and jumbled up thinking in my head, and then once the ideas come out in the end, it’s all neat and pretty.”
This conversation, of course, wasn’t the first discussion I’d had on the writing process. As a peer consultant (read: tutor) at the Center for Writing at TCU, I spend a good deal of my time discussing how to brainstorm, how to write a first draft, how to revise and edit, how to include sources, how to use run-in versus block quotes, and on and on and on. I try to avoid the formulaic, five-step process when talking to other students. They’ve heard it before, and they’ll hear it again. Repeating that step-by-step process is nothing more than white noise, so introducing new approaches to the same old, same old helps keep attention. But this writing process is for formal, academic prose and is intended to create genre- and area-specific discourse for the sake of passing a class.
In contrast to straightforward academic writing, my discussion of my creative writing process is vastly different. My boyfriend, who has a BFA in film, writes screenplays and once asked me about my writing process, whether it came in bursts of inspiration or from studied, drawn-out linear thought or through just sitting down and hitting the keys until something worthwhile appears on the page.
For the purpose of this post, I’m going to discuss my creative process in regards to the essay. I write poetry and prose poetry, but since those aren’t my focus in creative writing, I’ll let you use your imagination for how I write in those conventions. In short, the main difference is that poetry and prose poetry are for cathartic, emotional purposes, and the final product rarely, if ever, makes it outside of my file folders on my laptop. And usually, almost always, I get my ideas from sudden inspiration that just hits me. I have to write down whatever I’m thinking at that very second; otherwise, I’ll lose it. This necessity has led me to write the first few lines of a series of prose poems on my phone while walking over narrow stone streets in New Orleans. I almost broke an ankle and got hit by a car, but I had to write down the lines in my head that instant. Damn broken bones and human-versus-car accidents, I had ideas.
But back to creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction for me is an intellectual exercise, a playing with ideas and thoughts I’ve had churning and burning in my mind for weeks, months, even years. It feels like the back of my head is kind of like a cement mixer–always turning, always mixing, always folding ingredients together until a final product comes out. Oftentimes I don’t even realize the idea is in there and has been all along until I sit down at the computer and just try to get it out there. For example, the majority of these blog posts are from things I’ve been musing on a little bit at a time until the half-baked thoughts come out in a semi-coherent, semi-comprehensible process that I record on the page.
My admissions essay to TCU is a good consideration of this principle. I chose a prompt that read, “Go forward or backward 100 years and tell us about your day.” I later found out that most of the students who choose this prompt end up talking about 100 years in the future and their robotic cat. At 17, I had no interest whatsoever in discussing the massive advances in technology or the equivalent of dystopian flash fiction. Instead, I chose to go backwards 100 years to 1908. I looked through the list of major historical events that occurred that year and chose Gandhi doing his first demonstration against the registration of Indians in South Africa. I chose this topic back in early September but didn’t actually begin writing the essay for another month. Without fully realizing it, I was deciding how to structure the essay, figuring out how to tie the topic back into me, and doing research on the topic. My parents thought I was procrastinating, but when I finally stared at that blank screen in front of me, I wrote 500 words in about 15-20 minutes without breaking a sweat. The result of that essay as part of my application was a four-year full scholarship.
Other times, this semi-subconscious thought process takes months, even years to complete. I’m currently working on four or five forty-page essays for a senior thesis to graduate from the honors college at TCU. I began thinking about what I wanted to do for this project during the second semester of my freshman year, two years ago. I knew I wanted to write CNF, and I knew I wanted to focus on the essay, but other than that, I had no idea what I was going to do. During the fall of that year (2010), I stumbled across an idea while writing a short essay for class about feeling like an outsider when I’d grown up so much in the majority of my hometown. I was trying to examine feelings of alterity and otherness that I’d so rarely felt during my somewhat sheltered upbringing. This idea led to a thirty-page essay that meandered through topics that had already been discussed and explicated ad nauseum. After about three or four months of banging my head against a wall, I met with my advising professor to talk about the direction of my thesis. Forty-five minutes later, after having sifted through the hot mess of my essay, we came up with the project I have now–essays on the places I’ve traveled, my experiences in those places, and the history of those locales. I got to combine my ability to write sensory detail, my love of history, and my strength at explicating without having to rehash tired ideas already explored. Once I had the idea, the rest was easy. I wrote about 40 pages in less than a couple months.
But if the idea isn’t fully formed and no divine inspiration comes, you’re forced to sit and keep on typing until you write something even slightly useful. Taking that scrap of useful writing and expanding on it until it becomes a full-fledged essay takes a little time, but to make it a product you’re happy with? Well, let’s just say lots of writers have the philosophy that pieces are never finished, only abandoned. And if you’re stuck with twenty pages of okay writing that you want to transform into something else, to twist and meld and mold an un-malleable piece and bend it to your will? That kind of falls into the whole idea that you should wait a year between writing something and editing/revising it. Stay away from it for a good, long while, then come back when you’re fresh and have a clearer sense of your objective, once you’re not so entrenched in just typing it all out.
When I’m traveling, I try to keep a travel journal and take lots of photos of what I’m seeing so that when I go back to write, I have a clear memory of what I did and saw and thought to translate into an essay. These lead to the schizophrenic notebooks full of little drawings, hastily-written anecdotes, messy notes from museums and exhibits, and little thoughts I jotted down in the margin while I was out. This notebook is the physical manifestation of the mental process that seems to be going on all the time without my even realizing it, the crazy recording of the meandering, wandering lines that my brain follows when classifying and reorganizing cluttered thoughts. Out of the coffee-stained, water-logged pages comes something almost worth writing, something I can push and knead and flatten into the written word.