The gap: what about the process
Gross ications on the Writing Process
I took creative writing courses at Stanford University. Many were taught by Stegner Fellows, who were individuals that had received a grant, considerable prestige, and time to work on writing projects while teaching students. The first teacher was the one I felt closest to because I got the impression she also viewed writing as magic. She said that everyone has something to write. Even adolescence alone, she said, provided a lifetime of writing material. Still, despite the homework, in class exercises, and readings I didn’t learn the fundamental thing: how to fucking write.
At the core of that frustration is my realization that teachers have an unbelievably difficult job: getting different people to complete a task. Everyone has idiosyncratic ways of learning, producing, and may be at different stages of understanding. It is like packing up a house to move, everyone knows the general idea, has a general sense of the goal, but one person thinks it is okay to push everything into plastic garbage bags, another meticulously wraps each cup in purchased wraps, and another uses the event to throw everything out. Meanwhile, another person decides to pay someone and goes to watch a movie instead. Somewhere here, to be supremely effective, a teacher understands each student, his or her needs, process, and goals, and creates individual guidance through assignments, conversations, and advice, to bring about a desirous result. If a student doesn’t meet a teacher 90% of the way, everyone can be royally fucked.
So here, I’m writing a letter to myself that aims to reflect (in broad strokes) my personal method of writing.
HERE’S THE GOAL.
Produce effect. Entertainment, emotion, and knowledge with bonus points awarded for elegant execution. As an aside, the pursuit of elegant execution may produce the meat of the whole endeavor. Anyway, that’s my take on things. There are typical formats of stories, poems, even sentences. And they do different things. Like decorating a house, the process is particular to the problem. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the narrator describes how the instruction manual outlines one method of assembling items, but that may not be the fastest, efficient, nor most robust. It is simply the decision of the person who wrote the instructions. It may not even be the most reliable, the most straightforward, or elegant. So like there are plot driven stories, character driven stories, relationships, changes in relationships, flowerly language, or even just juxtaposition that drive writing, the method is up to writer. Satisfy yourself, satisfy the reader. Here’s the first oversimplification of teaching writing: purpose. Writing is taught without defining purpose, or possibly just by defining the key elements of purpose that matter to the teacher, without revealing the substantial driving truth that purpose depends on the producer. And to complicate matters, readers read for different reasons (ex. entertainment, to forget, to understand, to learn). It is the balance, you have to do something for the reader. You have to solve a problem. At the same time, and this is part of the very end, you have to do the writing for yourself, otherwise you will not sustain it.
WHAT ARE SOME FORMATS?
Look them up. The five paragraph essay. The inverted check mark. The seven basic plots. Magazines articles are like a strip show, slowly revealing, at portion, the story. Fiction can be more like getting flashed on the subway. Knowing different formats, can give your brain different options for structuring your own stories. Jaws, some people think, is a story about a shark, when really it is a story about a father and a son. And a shark.
SERIOUSLY WHAT ARE SOME FORMATS?
Go paragraph by paragraph. Jason Heaton, a Minneapolis based adventurer, has some great writing. I took notes on one of his articles and in the first sentence he writes something catching, then zooms out and mentions the location and zooms sideways and mentions the characters, then the reason for why he is there. Then he provides some historical information for context. Then back to the narrative, using showing words, action verbs, and allowing the reader to experience then savor particular moments, reaching a crescendo of action (THE GOAL), quick denouement, return, and then a short sentence before it ends. Oftentimes here is where you will read a pithy statement that zooms the whole thing way out into the human condition, by zooming entirely, selfishly, into one individual. Take notes and you’ll start seeing what tools are available.
IT DOESN’T LOOK THE SAME COMING OUT AS IT DOES GOING IN.
You have to do it for yourself. You just want to produce something? Fine. But that is at least a clear choice and will provide the constraints within which you can construct. When you have structure, well that’s where writing class starts. Here’s the second oversimplification, that you start with the formats. Perhaps the very accomplished writers I was taking courses from did start with structure. Perhaps BECAUSE they started with structure, that’s the approach that leads to accomplished writers. Meanwhile, the writers with character and language oriented approaches are languishing. Who knows. I just know that for me, at this moment in time, I don’t start with structure. Or format. Maybe format. Format is how it is going to look at the end (magazine, short fiction, poem, stand up). Structure is how the story evolves itself.
START WITH IMPULSE.
I freewrite. I start I guess, now I understand, that I write with impulse. Oh here’s a third oversimplification, that the approach is the same every time. So I use a generic word like impulse. You would benefit from having multiple tools because your conditions will change. You may have long uninterrupted blocks of time and need to write like that, or small snippets of time on the light rail train, or instead a surreptitious notepad document at work. Different styles of writing could benefit from different tools. You learn to write in different scenarios by writing –actually writing– in different scenarios. But you start with is impulse and one of those for me is constraint. There needs to be a seed of small energy and if you don’t have it, you write until you find it. Free write until something bothers you, or you love something, or you are intrigued by something. Today I started by knowing I wanted to write a How To article for my blog. My blog has zero posts right now. So I started with format at the end. That was the impulse. Then I freewrote. The point is that when I close my eyes and can imagine everything there, well I start with output. What do I output? Vignettes. Moments. Ideas. Details. Characters. Mistakes. Structure. In a terrible disorganized and incongruously beautiful melange of shit. Shit melange. I also put in references of stuff I might like, like the word melange.
WRITING IS IN THE EDITING.
When it comes to photography, one strategy of being perceived as a great photographer is to only show your great photographers.
The simplicity of the statement beguiles the difficult of its execution. Like the aphorism that the height of design is “not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Only showing your best stuff is hard. Because you first have to produce good stuff, then figure out what is the best, and why, and then have the discipline to only have those three or four pictures. And to go out and get more. High quality wins, though. And in writing, you then MAY take the approach to sift through the shit melange that you’ve created and extract good nuggets. Maybe not polished gold, but the good stuff.
WHAT IS TASTE?
You develop taste as Ira Glass (NPR creative success) talks about: the most important possible thing you can do is a lot of work. http://jamesclear.com/getting-simple http://jamesclear.com/ira-glass-failure You get into it because you have good taste and then there is gap between what you can produce and what you know is good. And you keep on working at it until you realize your vision. If you have no vision? You do. Because there is some shit you read and some shit you don’t. So you produce work and read and produce until you figure out what that is. And there again will be two things: what you like doing and what you do for your readers. And at first it will seem like they are different, but then they come together when you truly enjoy and engage yourself. Serve people. Here is another oversimplification: people say to work, but no one explains how to work.
Here’s where the good stuff pays off. It is the knowledge gained from structure that you can apply to the problem you’ve started to define for yourself. Example, I want to tell a hiking story, for a magazine, and the main thing that happened is that my friend freaked out. How do you tell that story in a way that is engaging to you and to the audience? By developing taste and ability. It is like moving into a house. There’s a stage where you have moved in, but only in the sense that the terrible detritus that you’ve chosen to collect as a representation of yourself is now inside the four walls of the perimeter. But your kitchen plates are still in a box with the bathroom soap, and that box is sitting on the bed in the middle of your living room, the bed which will, in turn, eventually make its way into the bedroom. To the bedroom, that is, once you get the mountain bikes, sleeping bags, and tents out of the hallway. Editing is where you start to make the damn thing livable. And that applies to this particular style of writing that I’m describing here. I’m hedging because I want to be accurate. This isn’t the only style of writing, nor is it true that one person may only use one style. Who knows? I don’t. You just need to make the damn thing liveable. Presentable for company. You wouldn’t want to go out and invite all these people, tell the people at work to come over for dinner, and the friends you’ve had for years, and have the house be a disordered slop bucket.
You revise, multiple ways, multiple times maybe. Take naps. Take a moment away. There are tricks and ways you get more efficient at, say, writing clear sentences. Here’s where skill comes in, like having the right words, the skill of description, the sense of pacing. Eventually you learn that the studs in homes are standardized in distance, and you can hang pictures faster. It is satisfying.
EVERYTHING IS OUT THERE, BUT THERE IS NO GUIDE.
Tricks alone, though, aren’t going to get you to properly arrange a house. But it is helpful information. No one can tell you how to do everything, but everything that you need is out there and explained. Writers and craftsmen have discussed their craft. It is up to you to find the specific tools and solutions that you need. Or invent them yourself.
Well roughly, that there are basic methods, but the particular method for you is defined by your taste. Taste is developed through work and consumption and reflection. Understanding the desired end result is not the same as the practice of producing that result. Everything is out there, but there is no guide. First though, you may produce, you may arrange, you may refine, and through reflection, you may refine further.
BE GOOD AT FINDING STUFF.
WHY DID I DO THIS? HOW IS THIS GUIDE DIFFERENT THAN OTHERS?
Well, I think it’s a more honest description of the entire process. Writing is not the 20 minute free writes, or story structure, or analyzing short stories. But it also is. I hope that through this article, you get an understanding of what I’m talking about.
Fuck no. This applies to everything. Everything is everything. It is the process for everything. That’s why sometimes being good at some things helps you be good at other things. Like take a hockey player and put her on skis for the first time. Be astonished.
THERE ARE STILL BIG GAPS.
This guide would be disingenuous and hypocritical if I didn’t include a statement indicating that I’m missing so much in it. I wanted to give a very, very broad, super high level structure because oftentimes no one talks about it. Forget about the forest and the trees, I’m trying to give you the google maps satellite view. Because, again, that’s what I never got from writing seminars at Stanford and I don’t commonly see written.
We could zoom even further out and ask questions like, if you’re writing in a journal and never show anyone, is it still worth writing? Yes.
How do you become successful? Through mentors.
How do you get your material good? Experience life and read.
A PARTING TIP
Take naps, exercise daily, eat well, and while writing, listen to energetic, lyrically bereft trap music.
What is a better title for this article? What is one question you have regarding adventure or writing?
Subscribe to my list by emailing flanneldinosaur [at] g mail well you know the way an email address is formatted. I run it myself. I’ll send backpacking narratives or thought sustenance once a week.
How to decorate a house? Structure and format.
How to build a house? Living a good life.
How to get people to visit your house? Marketing.