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.


12 Responses to “Easy Does It”

  1. Nancy Caronia Says:

    I think what you say here about working/poor class is important. If there are no role models, then there can be no process. It is as though one is inventing out of thin air. It’s not only the writing process–it’s also the thinking process. I grew up with people who did not like to think about larger concerns than what was going to be on the dinner table that evening or what worries they had at the job the next day. To think about literature or film or philosophy was foolish and dangerous. The most intellectually stimulated I ever saw my father was when he was watching a football game and double guessing the coaches. The process of writing is an intellectual process that must be connected to the body. In many ways, I think those who do not grow up with those models can only imitate the outside–act as if–once they begin to understand there is a process. It takes time–and if one is not patient, it can mean stopping and starting many times before one truly begins. Thanks Louise for another provocative topic.

  2. msrigo Says:

    I honestly cannot think of one other college student who hasn’t pulled an “all-nighter” finishing a up paper, and that’s now! In 2010! I would love to see what a modern college student would do in the setting you pose, just you and your Smith Corona portable typewriter (I don’t even know what that looks like). Your blog really opened my eyes to how much more difficult you had it in the 1960’s -no computer, no internet, and God-forbid, no Microsoft Word! It really takes my level of appreciation to the works of earlier writers. I mean, not only did you not have all the modern-day technology but you didn’t even have a helping professor! Had that been me, my paper would probably sound like it was written by wolves! Well, maybe not to that extent but I guess I’ve been taking all the “writing process” assignments for granted.
    Your writing process sounds a lot like mine. I cannot begin a paper without first thinking and imagining where it is going to take me. However, one thing I definitely have to take into consideration is thinking about order “late in the game”. That really shines some light on my thoughts regarding my first memoir. Thanks!

  3. Erika Bermudez Says:

    I must say I, too, am guilty of waiting the last minute to start a writing paper. Very rarely do I revise let alone revise several times. I read my work and edit (spell/grammar check). Not sure if the default spell/grammar checker on my word processor qualifies as proper editing. I never thought about the process and how important it is to use the process in all writing not just a research paper or collegiate essays , even though I am lucky enough to have education on the process. I need to work on working in stages. I believe myself to be a pretty decent writer but I know I can become a great writer if i allow myself to have the discipline it takes to follow the steps which you have provided.

    I do not think I ever thought of “binge writing” (as you have referred to it) to be unhealthy, but now that I think back I can clearly remember becoming literally sick to my stomach after knocking back many cups of a Pepsi, Red Bull, and No Doze cocktails just so I could stay up all night to finish a paper. I thought it to be my best work. I felt that, like most people, I worked best under pressure. I realize now that that was just an excuse I would use because the all-nighters didn’t make my paper any better, no, that was the good student that was deep within me somewhere. If i had done the process and started my assignment when it was given and wrote in stages and revised and revised and revised then it would have been that much easier to produce a paper without forcing my body to undergo the torture it did.

    This semester will be a challenging one and being an English major means writing will be my life for this last year of college and beyond if I can allow myself the time necessary to use what I will learn and really apply it to my writing now and after graduation.

  4. Bianca Cartagena Says:

    Although my primary education days were in the ‘90’s, I can relate to your education days in the ‘60s. The only tip my teachers would put an emphasis on was to formulate an outline before we began to write. Personally, this technique always failed for me. I would begin to follow the outline (like you), but I would always trail off into something, well… different. Different wasn’t always necessarily a bad thing because the more time I spent writing, the more I realized what I really wanted to say and how to say it. Till this day, I feel like outlines can be helpful to some writers, but it’s a technique that wasn’t meant for everyone (definitely, not me) and that’s why I don’t use it. As I became more experienced, I discovered different ways to tackle on the writing process. Now, I feel most at ease when I write freely and continuously—I don’t stop to perfect spelling and grammar. Something as simple as leaving something until the end (spelling and grammar), has made my writing process so much easier. As one of the tips you suggested, I would also encourage anyone to do the same.

    As a college student, I feel that receiving peer’s input is essential to the writer’s process. I can’t imagine that being considered cheating! No comments from the processor to help the student’s work become better either—what? How on earth were students supposed to become better writers as students and as members of society? This is probably why many people of older generations limited themselves to reading and don’t write. For example, I recall my mother always reading novels and she still does. My father reads the newspaper every single day for as long as I can remember and most likely will continue to do so for the rest of his life. But now that I think about it, I can’t remember either of them write anything other than shopping list and balancing their checkbooks. I wonder if their education system is to blame. I wonder if they don’t practice writing because they weren’t given second chances or weren’t given tips on the writing process to become better writers. I wonder if they don’t practice writing because they were limited to reading because they could read “better” than they could write. Ultimately, I wonder if they were discouraged as writers. I think I will ask them “why” because I need to know why. I thank you for helping me realize this is a question I would like the answer to. I’m grateful that I’ve realized it while I still have enough time to ask it.
    Thank you.

  5. Chloe DeFilippis Says:

    In 2005 and 2006, during the 7th and 8th grade, I had the very fortunate experience of having a teacher who encouraged me to toy with ideas, write multiple drafts, cross sentences out, and, basically, make a total mess of the page. This same teacher also told me, very seriously, to pursue writing. Barely a teenager, I knew I loved writing, so I listened to her advice about furthering my passion. But everything else, the tiny valuable truths about creative process, quickly left my young, naïve brain.
    Throughout high school and during my early college years, I struggled with “binge” writing. Coming from a working class family, where writing wasn’t for people “like us,” I, too, felt I wasn’t allowed the privilege of having or knowing the writer’s life. I imagined that my need for drafts, my habit for mistakes, meant I lacked talent and literary genius. I figured that like parent’s life, my writer’s life had to a grueling struggle.
    Over the past year, I have learned that this doesn’t have to be, shouldn’t have to be the case. With the help of another teacher, Professor Edvige Giunta, I am reminded of the importance of knowing the creative process and establishing a healthy writing practice. I now understand that this process is not perfect and that it also takes time. Although de-programming myself of that “one-shot” mentality hasn’t always been easy, I feel much better about my writing and my writing life. Before I begin a day’s work, I first sit down with a creative process book, read a chapter or two, and ease myself into the stages of the process.

  6. Hazel Santana Says:

    Dear Louise,

    It must have been really hard for you growing up with a flawed English education. I had no idea this was true. I’m sorry it was like that for you. I’m glad that this experience didn’t stop you from becoming a writer.

    I am very thankful that I didn’t have to go through the same thing. I can’t imagine writing a paper without the “writing process”. Like you, I believe that the writing process is the most fundamental thing. One should never sit at writing a piece without brainstorming, taking notes, revising, and editing first.

    Thank you for sharing these writing tips with us. They are certainly helpful and true.

    Hazel Santana

  7. Melissa Sutaris Says:

    Most of us can relate to the English education as a hoax while we’re in high school and also even in college. Only us who major in English know the real purpose of writing. Whenever I tell someone I am a writing major, their immediate reaction goes something like this: “Writing? I hate writing. Write my papers for me!” It is true that most college students in fact, do ‘hate’ writing. Personally, I am astonished by this because how could someone hate something that is so good for them, so enriching for their soul? It’s because they don’t know that it’s good for them because they were never taught.

    In your post you say that you weren’t taught that you could start anywhere, or that most writers wrote more than one draft. I’m happy to know that education is evolving, and we are taught about certain elements in writing earlier on now. The most important thing for me to remember is, you can try and try again.

    Binge writing happens to be my specialty. Getting everything all out at once seems to be my most common effort in order to produce a piece of work. However, my experience through writing classes focus on the importance of the writing stages, the creative process. I have found that it takes much more than just pouring words out on the page.

    Reading your “stages of the process” really helps someone like me because in writing, I am all over the place and messy. I like to have some sort of formation, a rule guide if you will. Things like this will keep a writer like me in place. Think, write, revisit, revise, not worrying about spelling or grammar: just getting the words out on the page.

    It’s not about how other writer’s write, it’s about how we write. Following the stages of writing and being able to write won’t kill any of us. In time I will realize that these stages will only make my work more dignified.

  8. Veronica Says:

    These ‘stages of the process’ that you talk about are some of the things I do when I write. I used to be a procrastinator at writing as well as other subjects but my big wake up call came when I had just too much work to leave for the night before. I became very aware that I needed to leave ample time for myself to do my work and I am usually the kind of writer who tries to get the paper done in one or two attempts.
    When I first started I was very unsure how to go about writing a paper let alone an essay. I thought it was an impossible thing to do, especially in grade school where I felt that there were some teachers who didn’t explain the concept clearly to me. When I finally hit high school my teachers were able to explain in detail the process of writing and some methods in achieving that desired state of a paper. I realize that I am very lucky to have been taught a writing process and am grateful to have had the tools.

  9. In college it is hard for me to write a thought out paper . For one I am a English major. I am taking 5 English courses and I am writing 5 papers a week on top of having to read 600 pages between handouts and books. I also work a 40 hour work week. There are only certain hours that I have where I can write.

    I find that writing is only fun when you are writing about a personal interest of topic that one wants to talk about. The writing process you recommend is great if you have the time. I find myself at night falling asleep in a book or typing a paper. It is great that you now are allowed to rewrite papers and learn from your mistakes. One day i hope to be a successful writer and your tips are a great start.

  10. Da'Von C. Says:

    Your experiences in college are all to familiar to me. Growing up in a household where the art of writing was non existent, I leaned toward criticism from educators for improvement. That, however, would only come after I had to dig deep within myself for writings that I believed were worthy of revealing to the world. I too would cram everything into one sitting and often finish feeling less than confident about my work. Writing is something that cannot be choked down in one bite, It should be digested gradually in in small parts for a smoother flow. It has taken me many years to figure this out and at times I still struggle to not finish it in one sitting, but I enjoy the work and have enjoyed reading this.

  11. nattie101 Says:

    I can relate to this very much. There are so many things that I personally felt that I missed or was not openly spoken about. I am the only woman in my family to have ever attend college. I did not have guidance from my parents and was too awkward and shy as a child. This resulted in missing out on lots of things. I once believed that works that I am so in love with was written within the spur of a moment. I thought that rewriting would ruin the originality and the message of what I was trying to get across. I have come to realize that greatness is achieved through hours and hours of editing. The natural fluidity that I am so envious of, takes hours of methodical thinking and restructuring.

    I think it is the nature of college student to cram and procrastinate. It is also very difficult to pick up new behaviors once the old ones have set in. It is also difficult to will your mind to stay on topic. I often drift. I think I am going to try your process on writing and see if it will ground my writing and my mind. I really enjoyed reading this.

  12. Mahneerah G Says:

    I really like how you breakdown the steps that you use to start a memoir. I really fret over editing because part of me wants my work to be perfect but I know it won’t ever be. I’m slowly starting to learn to get the words on the page first then worry about editing.

    I will follow these principles in my current memoir class and in my life as a writer period.

    Thanks so much!

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