Easy Does It
August 30, 2010
I remember a meltdown I had when I was in college. Back then (in the 1960s), you were expected to know how to write. No one talked about process. No one talked about revision. You were given an assignment, a due date. And you were supposed to hand in a finished paper, perfect in every respect. No second chances. No comments from the professor to help you make the work better. And you wouldn’t dream of showing your work to a peer to get their input so you could make it better – that was cheating.
So there I was with my Smith Corona portable typewriter. I’d reel a sheet into the typewriter, and begin. And expect myself to do everything all in one go – present my argument, write supple prose, have verbs and subjects in agreement, and all the punctuation in the right place. On this particular day I was writing a paper on Dostoyevsky, a favorite at the time. I knew what I wanted to say, or so I thought. Every time I got off to a false start, I’d tear the page out of the typewriter, ball it up, toss it on the floor and begin again. I had an outline – I’d learned about those in grammar school. But I started to think it was a strait jacket because my work kept veering in a different direction. Instead of tossing out my outline and following my train of thought as it emerged, I tossed away my pages.
Like most college students, I was binge writing, expecting myself to write the paper all in one go, and, of course, at the very last minute – the night before the paper was due. Despite the meltdowns, the strum und drang, I’d gotten very good at this. But I wouldn’t get where I wanted until, say, four in the morning. I suspect you’ve been there; I suspect you’ve done the same thing.
I wanted to be a writer. Kind of. But I thought that, if this was writing, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. This kind of writing could kill you. And I wasn’t wrong. What with the anxiety, the chugged coffee, the sleeplessness, this kind of writing could harm you. Yet, it was the only way I knew how to write.
I didn’t know it was all right to start anywhere. I didn’t know that most writers wrote more than one draft (much less eleven or twelve). I didn’t know that it was crazy making to try to do all the work at once in one go. But that’s how we thought writers wrote, and no one – not our professors, not the books we read about literature – we were steered away from biography and there was no talk of process at all – told us anything different. There were writers on our faculty, but they shared nothing about their process. It was as if you had to discover how to write (or rather, how to work at writing) on your own; it was as if writing was this secret that you groped your way towards without anyone to help you. Years later, I always thought that this kind of attitude silenced those of us who came up poor and hard, who’d never known anyone who earned their living by their pens, who’d never had an uncle, and aunt, a mother, a father who wrote. I thought – many of us thought – we could never be members of that particular clan much as we wanted to. Indeed, the only working class writer I read in college was D. H. Lawrence. And he wasn’t identified as working class. As far as I knew, he was a privileged man who just happened to write about colliery life.
The closest I came to seeing a writer at work was when I had a job typing the work of a poet who taught basic writing at my college. I saw that he often changed the work, that a later version of a poem was different from an earlier one. Hmmm, I thought. This is interesting.
In graduate school, I learned about how real writers write – Virginia Woolf was my major subject. And I wanted to apply what I learned to my own writing. There were a few principles I learned about how Woolf worked that I thought were essential.
First. You dream the work, imagine it, think about it, take notes about it, long before you actually begin.
Second. Once you actually start work, you let yourself be very provisional; in fact, the longer you’re provisional with the work, the more likely it will be that your work will break the mold of your own previous work, and, quite likely, other writers.
Third. You work in stages, letting yourself write and rewrite, letting yourself learn what your subject is really about as you work, as it emerges under your pen. You learn about what you’re working on by writing a journal or a diary.
Fourth. You revise, and revise, and revise.
Fifth. You think about order late in the game, though you may be thinking about it throughout, and trying one scheme or another.
Sixth. You don’t worry about spelling, grammar, until the very, very end.
Stages of the process. That’s become my mantra. Working with the stages of the writing process, rather than against it. I’ll speak, more, of those stages in time. But once I learned to take it easy, to do a little at a time, I realized that I could do this. I could write. And that it wouldn’t kill me.